Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Books Read: May, June, July

Yikes, I am really behind on these: I haven't done one for three months! I am recommitting to a book roundup monthly, as I find it helps me focus more on reading actual books (as opposed to Internet content, interesting but hardly substantive). (Sorry to any readers: I know these are probably boring, but you can always skip it!)

May 7th: The Black Tower, P. D. James. One of the well-known British mystery writer's Adam Dalgliesh series. I've enjoyed several others, and I enjoyed this one too. James is a very unemotional, logical writer, so if you prefer sentiment or emotional involvement with your characters, this is not for you. It reminds me of chess games: lots of keen observation and strategy, not much passion or instinct. Grade: B.

May 12th: The Piano Teacher, Janice Y.K. Lee. I read this for book club, and it reads as if that's what it was created for. Very much a "woman's" novel, with swelling emotional drama, a young woman trying to 'find herself' via with an extramarital fling with an unsuitable bad boy, and a colorful historical setting for those who like a little intellectualism with their soap opera. Quite enjoyable though, especially because it's set in 1940s and 1950s Hong Kong (a time/place of great interest to me). Grade: B-.

May 30th: The Road to Samarcand, Patrick O'Brian. Fiction for men, by a very popular historical fiction writer. He is best known for the Aubrey/Maturin naval series set during the Napoleonic Wars, which was made into a movie fairly recently. I really enjoyed the naval series (which is great for anyone who loves history; O'Brian definitely did his research). This book is similar in that it's a swashbuckling tale of male comrades, set in an interesting historical era. It's not as good though, because 1. it's less emotionally/psychologically complex (perhaps aimed at a younger audience? the hero is a teenager) and 2. O'Brian's knowledge of China's Far West is not that good, and nowhere near his impressive command of the Napoleonic-era British Navy. A fun, quick read though. Good for vacation reading. Grade: B+.

June 6th: Confessions of a Yakuza, Junichi Saga. The real story of a mid-ranking Japanese yakuza (or gangster, it's like the Japanese mafia), told by the dying man to his doctor over several months. I loved this book. It gives an awesome picture of Japanese life, both in the underworld and out (the narrator worked as a lumberer, smuggler, army soldier in Manchuria, and gambler). He is frank and completely unsentimental. Really amazing. Be warned, though, it's also startlingly strange (he cuts off his own finger in a sushi shop at some point). Grade: A.

June 10th: The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean. This is one of those 'literary' books that come out to glowing reviews, but that I never like. Apparently my tastes are too low-brow. I wanted to like this book (the life of a museum employee at the Hermitage, one of my favorite places in the world! during the siege of Leningrad, so exciting! and about the toll of Alzheimer's, which my grandmother died from, so relevant), but actually I was kind of bored. Problems: despite being set in Russia, no one seemed Russian; the author seemed so concerned with writing beautiful prose that she neglected being interesting; the modern day sections were dull, with uncompelling characters. I liked the eloquent descriptions of the power of art though. Grade: C.

June 23rd: The 39 Steps, John Buchan. A classic thriller (it was later made into a wonderful Hitchcock movie). Somewhat dated (the anti-German sentiment is so silly), but still a fun read. The film is much better though; I would give the book a miss and just watch the movie instead: it's not at all faithful, but in my opinion the changes are all for the better. Grade: C-.

June 27th: Boomerang: Travels Inside the New Third World, Michael Lewis. I read this because I wanted to learn more about the recent credit crisis, but with a book meant for non-experts. Sadly, this book is not any good. It's pitched very low indeed (for busy business people reading the book on the plane, basically), and the author, while he writes in a fun and readable style, is glib, a poor researcher, and ultimately a very shallow thinker. Disappointing. Grade: D. (I enjoyed reading about Iceland, even if the author is an unreliable observer.)

July 1st: The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, C. L. R. James. Not an easy read by any means: it's one of those books where you feel you deserve a medal upon finishing. It's a classic on the topic (the Haitian Revolution, the world's first successful slave revolt) though, and for good reason: it's carefully researched, detailed, and provides great insight on a neglected but important area of history. I have always been fascinated by Toussaint and therefore was very glad to learn more. Grade: B+. (it's quite hard to read; also, the author was a Marxist. While this doesn't affect his accuracy or scholarship, it does result in occasional tiresome sidenotes.)

July 3rd: Raising a Happy, Unspoiled Child: How Parents Can Help Their Baby Develop Into a Secure and Well-Adjusted Child, Burton White. I wrote about this book here. Short version: I loved it, it's awesome, buy it if you have children under three. Grade: A- (occasionally repetitive).

July 14th: Nightmare Town, Dashiell Hammett. Hammett is the master of noir fiction: the first, the best and in my opinion uniquely good. I love everything he's written and this was no exception. It's a collection of short stories, somewhat uneven in quality, but the best were so perfect that it still gets a perfect score. Grade: A+.

July 22nd: The Biographer's Tale, A. S. Byatt. I enjoy Byatt's scholarly approach to fiction, and her fondness for human quirkiness. This book has both in spades, so I enjoyed it. Not for all tastes though, what with the pages-long digressions on Linnaeus's travels in Lapland (don't know who Linnaeus is? then you will probably not like this book). Grade: B-.

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