The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 18th, 2014

#7 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China, #19 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #19
Published by Hetzel in 1879
Pages: 340
Location: China
Mode of travel: Ship, Walking
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Kin Fo is the man who has everything, youth, health, riches and a beautiful fiancee. Despite all this, life barely seems worth living. When Kin Fo discovers he's lost all his money he's convinced things can only get worse so he decides to commit suicide. He sets up a desperate pact with his friend, the philosopher Wang, to kill him in such a way that he will at last feel a thrill of emotion before he dies. But will he change his mind?

Verdict: OK.

NB: It seems this book was only recently translated into English, the only free copies I could find were in French. I read the book in French, so I can’t comment on the quality of the translation.

Tribulations is not too bad. Actually, it’s better than I thought it would be. The plot idea of an over-pampered rich man who has everything except an idea of what to do with his life still resonates today. Kin Fo’s friend, the philosopher and reformed assassin Wang, is sure a bit of serious hardship will bring Kin Fo to his senses so he sets about providing it. It works, although I couldn’t help noticing that Kin Fo, upper class gent that he is, took care to bestow much of the physical hardship on his manservant and his American bodyguards – but that’s all part of the comedy.

Remembering that Voyages Extraordinaires had a didactic mission, I think Verne gave a fair representation of Chinese history and geography within the limits of his understanding. He displays some unfortunate ideas about racial purity (his hero is pure Han and all but white, none of that Manchurian interbreeding – sigh!), and western superiority (Kin Fo is entirely respectable and sympathetic, because he’s a fan of western technology in all its forms). Verne manages to convince himself that the exotic Chinese diet might not be so bad if you’re used to it but he can’t handle the music at any price…

On the other hand, his descriptions of poverty in China leading to mass emigration, the negative effects of imperialism, especially regarding the importation of opium and the political unrest within China probably do reflect major issues of his day quite accurately. His geographical knowledge of China is a bit limited  – I assume he relied on reports coming in mostly from the westernized trading posts. Consequently, his ‘tour of China’ when Kin Fo takes to the roads and rivers is only worth just so much.

Veronika decides to dieVeronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho: a modern version of the same plot – I think Tribulations of a Chinaman is a worthy book because of its plot, rather than because of the Chinese backdrop so no wonder it reminded me of this more modern version. Veronika has everything but life feels empty so she decides to take a lethal  overdose. When she comes round, she’s informed that while she didn’t kill herself instantly, she caused enough damage that, just like Kin Fo, she has only a few days in which to savor life. (Amazon USA, Amazon UK)

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

Posted on February 13th, 2014
 Explorers of the New Century by Magnus MillsExplorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills
Published by Bloomsbury in 2005
Pages: 184
Location: Fictional
Mode of travel: Ship, Trek
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It is the beginning of the century and two teams of explorers are racing across a cold, windswept, deserted land to reach the furthest point from civilization. It is, they find, 'an awfully long way'. Johns and his men take the western route, along a rocky scree, gossiping, bickering and grumbling as they go. Meanwhile, Tostig's men make their way along the dry riverbed in the east - they are fewer, with just five men and ten mules, and better organised than their rivals. But with Johns team keeping pace in the distance, the race is on to reach the Agreed Furthest Point.

Verdict: I really enjoyed it!

I thought Explorers of the New Century was just going to be a satire on the subject of scientific expeditions. You know, the styles and levels of organization, the clash of personalities, the competitive machismo and posturing (or wholesome, manly attitudes, depending on your point of view), the arbitrary goal, with the elusive Agreed Furthest Point (from civilization) and the unspecified date and location underscoring the abstract nature of the story. All that is there… except the goal… the goal really took me by surprise once I found out what it was. But then, everything that happened next, terrible and astonishing as it was, made sense in context.

Is Explorers of the New Century more than just a short little book which stuns the reader with an astonishing twist? It doesn’t waste words on unnecessary descriptions and analyses, but I think I would have enjoyed it if had been only the book I was expecting. The individual expedition members are all well differentiated and their interactions and contributions to their expeditions would still have made it an interesting and funny short read. The landscape is chilling in its otherworldly bleakness but the stark contrast between the routes taken by the competing expeditions heightens the difference between their methods, successes and failures.

Round the World in 80 Days, #11 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Journeys

Posted on February 9th, 2014

#6 of 54 in the Jules Verne Reading Challenge

Round the World in 80 Days, #11 of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary JourneysAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
Series: The Extraordinary Journeys #11
Published by Hetzel in 1873
Pages: 240
Location: International
Mode of travel: Elephant, Ship, Sledge, Train
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One ill-fated evening at the Reform Club, Phileas Fogg rashly bets his companions £20,000 that he can travel around the entire globe in just eighty days - and he is determined not to lose. Breaking the well-establised routine of his daily life, the reserved Englishman immediately sets off for Dover, accompanied by his hot-blooded French manservant Passepartout. Travelling by train, steamship, sailing boat, sledge and even elephant, they must overcome storms, kidnappings, natural disasters, Sioux attacks and the dogged Inspector Fix of Scotland Yard - who believes that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England - to win the extraordinary wager.

Verdict: more twists and turns in the plot than expected.

Around the World in 80 Days must be one of Verne’s most famous stories but since I never read it before, it actually managed to surprise me. That was quite exciting. Unlike several of the other Verne books I’ve read so far, this one has character arcs. Although Verne relies on stereotypes as usual, both Passepartout and Fogg evolve a lot during the book, especially Passepartout. He didn’t start off a very keen traveler but by the time he got back, it was possible to wonder if he’d really settle back into his old peaceful habits again.

Verne provides a lot of information about the possibilities for international travel in the 1870s. As the chronology just below shows, it was the development of trans-continental railways (and the Suez Canal) which made Fogg’s journey possible. It was dependent of four very recently opened routes. Nevertheless, it was the steamship which seemed most likely to prove the weak link, even though it had been around for some time. This was still the era of steam-sail hybrid shipping in which crossings were a lot faster with a favorable wind, and slower in rough seas.

1825 – First public transport railway opened in Britain
1838 – Regular Transatlantic crossings by steamship begin (previously passengers crossed the Atlantic in sailships).
1869 – The American Transcontinental Railroad connecting San Francisco with the eastern networks was completed
1869 – Opening of the Suez Canal
1870 – The Indian Peninsular Railway connecting Mumbai to Calcutta was inaugurated (earlier than announced in the story)
c.1870 – a Transalpine rail connection had been opened within the last couple of years.
1872 – Fogg’s journey

One of the things which fascinated me most about Around the World in 80 Days is the globalization Verne refers to already at this stage. His protagonist, Passepartout frequently notes the buildings and streets in Asia might easily be in Europe and that the populations in each of the cities he visits is strikingly multiracial and multicultural. The reason is that a large part of the tour travels through the outposts of the British Empire, or its cultural descendant, the United States. Only in Yokohama or, arguably, in the depths of the Indian and American continents, does Fogg stray off this westernised territory. I remember from my history studies that there was a lot about this situation which wasn’t ideal and if it could fairly be said that 19th century Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.. resembled Victorian London in terms of living conditions, it wouldn’t be a compliment.

Fogg himself wants nothing to do with sight-seeing anyway,and only participates in the adventures the author arranges for him out of sense of duty. Although the author makes fun of him for it, the main point of the book is to explore the possibilities of the new means of transport themselves.

I put together an itinerary of Fogg’s tour round the world below in several sections. It contains dates, times, mode of transport, starting point and end point, but if you feel some of it may constitute minor spoilers, don’t click on the arrows!

London to Bombay (Mumbai) in India – days 1-18, Ch3-Ch9

RTW-Steamer point

Verne doesn’t dwell on the crossing of the European and Mediterranean, possibly considering it too well-known to his readers.
Wednesday 2nd October 1872
20:45 – Departure of train from London to Paris
Thursday 3rd October 1872
07:20 – Arrival in Paris by train. Fogg certainly took the London-Dover train and boarded a cross-channel steamer around 23:00. He would then have taken a train Paris by around 05:00, probably from Calais.
8:40 – Departure from Paris on train bound for Turin.
Friday 4th October 1872
06:35 – Arrival in Turin
07:20 – Departure from Turin on train bound for Brindisi
Saturday 6th October 1872
16:00 – Arrival by train in Brindisi
17:00 – Departure of the Mongolia steamship bound for Bombay via the Suez Canal. Fogg and Passepartout spent a total of 14 days on the Mongolia.
Wednesday 9th October 1872
10:30 – The steamship Mongolia arrives in Suez.
Sunday 13th October 1872
The passengers can see Mecca from the ship.
Monday 14th October 1872
14:00 – The Mongolia stops at Aden to take on fuel
18:00 – The Mongolia leaves Aden
Sunday 20th October 1872
16:30 – arrival of the Mongolia in Bombay (Mumbai)

Crossing of India by the Great Indian Peninsular Railway – days 18-23, Ch9-Ch15


Sunday 20th October 1872
16:30 – arrival of the Mongolia in Bombay (Mumbai)
20:00 – departure of the train from Bombay to Calcutta
Monday 21st October 1872
12:30 – brief stop at Burhampour for lunch
Tuesday 22nd October 1872
8:00 – the line is unfinished, 15 miles before Rothal. Despite the announcement of the line’s completion in the newspapers, passengers are obliged to make their own way over the 50 miles between Kholby and Allahabad.
c.9:30 – departure towards Allahabad by elephant.
Wednesday 24th October 1872
10:00 – arrival at Allahabad after numerous adventures
10:30 – departure of train from Allahabad to Calcutta
12:30 – brief stop at Benares (Varanasi)
Thursday 25th October 1872
5:00 – arrival of the train in Calcutta
12:00 – departure of the ship Rangoon from Calcutta to Hong Kong

Crossing  of the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea – days 23-35, Ch15-Ch20


Thursday 25th October 1872
12:00 – departure of the ship Rangoon from Calcutta to Hong Kong
The Rangoon passes within sight of Great Andaman
Wednesday 30th October 1872
The Rangoon enters the straits between Malacca and Sumatra
Thursday 31st October 1872
04:00 The Rangoon arrives in Singapore
11:00 The Rangoon leaves Singapore, having loaded fuel
Sun 3-Mon 4 November 1872
Storm at sea, making the Rangoon late.
Wednesday 6 November 1872
c.6:30 – Arrival of the Rangoon in Hong Kong, having missed the expected connection to Yokohama
20:00 – Departure of the Carnatic for Yokohama, ten hours early, inadvertently carrying Passepartout.
Thursday 7 November 1872
15:00 – Fogg and the rest of his party embark on the small schooner Tankadere, bound for Nagasaki.

From Hong Kong to San Francisco – days 35-62, Ch20-Ch25


Wednesday 6 November 1872
20:00 – Departure of the Carnatic for Yokohama, ten hours early, inadvertently carrying Passepartout.
Thursday 7 November 1872
15:00 – Fogg and the rest of his party embark on the small schooner Tankadere, bound for Nagasaki.
Monday 11 November 1872
19:00 – Fogg’s party board the steamship for Yokohama, directly from the Tankadere.
Wednesday 13 November 1872
Passepartout arrives in Yokohama, Japan on the Carnatic
Thursday 14 November 1872
Fogg arrives in Yokohama, Japan on the
18:30 – Departure of the General Grant steamship for the United States, carrying the reunited group.
Monday 2 December 1872
07:00 – The General Grant arrives in San Francisco

From San Francisco to  London – days 62-80, Ch25-Ch34


Monday 2 December 1872
07:00 – The General Grant arrives in San Francisco
18:00 – Departure of the train from San Francisco (Oakland) towards New York
Thursday 5 December 1872
14:00 – The train calls at Ogden for Salt Lake City
16:00 – The train leaves Salt Lake City
c.11.30 – The train is stopped at Kearney and the passengers are delayed
Sunday 8 December 1872
08:00 – Sail sledge from Kearney to Omaha
c13:00 – Departure of the train from Omaha to Chicago
Monday 9 December 1872
16:00 – Arrival of the train in Chicago
c.1630 – Departure of the train from Chicago to New York
Tuesday 10 December 1872
22:30 – Departure of the steamship China for Liverpool
23:15 – Arrival of the train in New York
Wednesday 11 December 1872
09:00 – Fogg ships on the Henrietta, across the Atlantic
Friday 20 December 1872
01:00 – The Henrietta enters the port of Queenstown in Ireland
01:30 – Departure of the train from Queenstown to Dublin
The times of the connections in Dublin are unspecified
11:40 – Arrival by steamship in Liverpool
15:00 – Departure of the train from Liverpool to London
20:50 – Arrival in London
Saturday 21 December 1872
20:45 – Deadline of the bet


Invisble Cities by Italo Calvino

Posted on January 20th, 2014
Invisble Cities by Italo CalvinoInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Published by Vintage in 1997
Pages: 160
Location: Mongol Empire
Mode of travel: Camel, Ship
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Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger of explorer of his...

Marco Polo talks about city after city, adapting his descriptions to the emperor's mood and his own possibilities for communication.

On the back of this edition of Invisible Cities there is a quote by Gore Vidal: ‘Of all, tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.’

I’m going to beg to differ – people like to know what they’re investing time in. One way of describing this book is as prose poetry: a sequence of 55 prose poems, framed by conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. It’s plotless, tightly structured, not very long, and filled with beautiful words. It’s the sort of book that takes far longer to read than the time required to pass one’s eyes over the words.

   a Kublai Khan  Venice,_by_Bolognino_Zaltieri,_1565

Or one could describe it by subject: I would almost call it a bestiary of cities and I can easily imagine fantasy writers using it as a sourcebook. Or by the feelings it evokes: my sensitivity to the city around me and others I had known was heightened and as a writer I wanted to rush home and review all the passages on cities I had ever written. Or by meaning: the blurb on my copy also says ‘it gradually becomes clear that he (Polo) is actually describing one city: Venice‘. I thought that was only clearly true of one section, but also that for the reader, all the cities in the book will be in relation to their own city – for me that would be London, for someone else, it might be Santa Fe.

The last, and perhaps the best way to describe the content of a book like this is to show, not tell, so here are two snippets from the description of Despina. I think you’ll understand why it’s a favorite of mine:

A Polo‘When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into view, the radar antennae, the white and red wind-socks flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a a vessel that will take him away from the desert, …’

‘In the coastline’s haze, the sailor discerns the form of a camel’s withers, an embroidered saddle with glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea…’

Pleasure Cruise

Posted on January 19th, 2014
Pleasure CruisePleasure Cruise by Mandy Roth, Michelle Pillow
Series: Pleasure Cruise #1
Published by Raven Books in 2005
Genres: Paranormal Erotic Romance
Pages: 144
Mode of travel: Ship
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*** This book is in the erotic romance genre and is intended for adults only, This review is also explicit ***

Clare needs to loosen up and have some fun--not to mention some hot sex with someone other than herself. Her best friend, Kira, knows exactly what she needs--a vacation full of hunky single men who'll knock her panties off. When she booked the cruise for Clare's birthday, the travel agent left out one tiny detail. It's a supernatural cruise, and they aren't getting off until they're married.

The powers that be are tired of waiting for the supernatural to find their own mates and reproduce. In a desperate act to get the dwindling population back up, they've decided to take matters into their own hands. Dominik, a lycan, and Braden, a vampire, are just the two perfect candidates to start this experiment. They're sexy, in the prime of their reproductive immortal lives and ready to mate--just as soon as they can seduce their unsuspecting brides, or at the very least, keep them from swimming back to shore.

I honestly didn’t have high literary expectations of this book. The most I asked of it was that it should gratify the erotic tastes of heterosexual women. If it had done so, I would have given it five stars or at least four. It didn’t and to be honest I had to force myself to finish it, in the hope of writing a rant piece of enlightened criticism through which we might aspire to better porn erotic romances.

This is for heterosexual women??!!! – It reads like a GUY’S wet dream of hot and horny women. My mistake maybe, but something about book’s presentation had signaled to me it was meant for women. So just look at what it offers us by way of foreplay: the details of a bikini waxing session, followed by a display of the heroines’ respective taste in lingerie. Then, about 10 pages of a woman masturbating. What part of that is supposed to turn straight women on? How about some focus on the guys? I mean if you want to be really cliched about it, you could even show them sweating it out in the gym. Though I’d prefer something a bit less cliched, to be honest. This book continues in the same vein throughout except it gets worse.

It’s rapey – Two women get on a ship planning to get laid which is fine, and end up having sex with guys who were not specifically of their choosing, getting into forced marriages, and pregnant against their wills and despite their precautions. I truly don’t understand the purpose of an unwanted pregnancy in an ‘erotic romance’ meant for my gratification, even if it was an accident on both sides. But it isn’t. The whole thing is really, really rapey, and rape turns me off. It doesn’t stop there.

Many times, it’s really obvious that the women, while turned on, wouldn’t choose to have sex at the moment, in this way with that person. Rape is still rape if a woman is turned on when she says no for whatever reasons she pleases. Ugh, total turn off. I think I’m put off sex for a week.

The most paranormal thing about the guys is their ability to use mental powers to stop the women from thinking. That’s about the same as slipping drugs into a girl’s drink so that she isn’t able to think about whether she wants sex or not. That’s rape and rape turns me off. Did I mention that?

A post about something that didn't float my boat.This So Doesn’t Float My Boat!

Minor stupidity which turns me off – The guys do that horrible possessive sexual jealousy thing. It turns me off. They do the dominant male thing. It turns me off. The women do that falling in luuuurve after spending 30 minutes in the company of a guy with muscles. It turns me off. Being dominated makes them feel empowered!!!!! I don’t know what to say. Hey, at the end they even get their clothes chosen for them based on what species their guys are….

‘Kay, I’m done now… Want to tell me what I should read instead, next time I find myself all alone for a week?