Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Books Read: August, September

August 8th: My Life in France, Julia Child. Really enjoyed this! Julia Child has a charmingly sunny personality and a great enthusiasm for life (and food!) which is very taking. I also liked it as she didn't find her real passion in life until her mid-thirties. Since I haven't found mine yet either, this was encouraging and inspiring. It does jump all over the place in terms of time, which gets a bit confusing towards the end. Grade: A-.

August 10th: A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley. An updated version of King Lear, set in the American Midwest and told from the perspective of the "evil" sisters. I enjoyed it (though the incest subplot seemed a bit cliched). It also portrays family farming and small town life as hell on earth, making me very very glad of my born-and-raised urbanite status. Grade: B.

August 20th: Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher. Semi-autobiographical novel about the dysfuctional people of Hollywood. Mildly amusing but I never really connected with/cared about any of the characters: their superficiality and cultivated artificiality was just too off-putting. Grade: C.

August 27th: Casino Royale, Ian Fleming. First book in the James Bond series. Entertaining but ridiculous, for the rather unlikely plot, the unrealistic characters (who are archetypes not people), and the over-the-top period feel. There is no question about when it was written (1953)! It is also an odd book, because while Bond is supposedly an "ideal" hero, he actually comes off as a fundamentally broken, damaged and desperately weak man, too terrified of intimacy and vulnerability to ever make a real emotional connection. Not sure if this was intended or accidental, but in any case it makes the book much better. Grade: B+.

August 28th: Neuromancer, William Gibson. The original "cyber punk" novel, set in a future dominated by computers, artificial intelligences and cyberspace (actually the author invented this term). It's basically noir fiction, with a different setting, and shares all its strengths and weaknesses. I really like noir, so I liked this too. The plot is almost incomprehensible, but since that's not the point it didn't bother me (The Big Sleep has the same problem and is still a great movie). Grade: A-.

August 30th: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead: Brene Brown. I thought I would hate this ("inspirational" anything usually makes me feel ill) and only read it at the recommendation of a friend. Actually it was totally awesome and just what I needed to hear/remember: there is no success/triumph without great risk, and bravery in all its forms (especially in the willingness to be vulnerable) is perhaps the cardinal virtue, without which one will never grow as a person or reach one's potential. Everyone should read this! Grade: A.

September 5th: Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: The Firsthand Experiences of a British Woman in Outback Japan in 1878, Isabella L. Bird. Isabella Bird is the OG: a Victorian middle class spinster who, discontented with the limited opportunities available to women of her status, tossed fear to the winds and traveled all over the world, supporting herself through her travel writing. In this book she treks through the wilds of northern Japan (being probably the first Westerner to do so) all the way to Hokkaido, where she lives with the Ainu. She is fearless, indomitable and an inspiration! Grade: A.

September 12th: Curtain, Agatha Christie. Last book in Christie's Poirot series, and a pretty weak entry. I felt like I'd read it before (maybe I had? her books are all so similar it's hard to keep track). Ho hum. Grade: D+.

September 17th: Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, Peter Hessler. I have really enjoyed all Hessler's books about China: he is one of the few writers on China who seems to have a good understanding of the country and its people in all their complexity. It helps a lot that he is obviously fluent in Mandarin. This one is about rural village life and small-scale factories run by bootstrapping entrepreneurs, among other things, and is a must-read for anyone interested in modern China. Grade: A.

September 19th: Pure, Andrew Miller. A lovingly researched novel set in just-before-the-Revolution France, featuring a young engineer taxed with excavating and removing a disgusting Medieval cemetery (all based on fact BTW). The setting is really interesting and authentic, the characters are neither. Overall it was OK: I only finished it because it was for book club though. Grade: C-.

September 19th: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer. I always felt like I missed the cultural touchstone that was 9-11: I was in Italy when it happened, and didn't get home for two more months (when it felt like old news to me, if not to everyone else). So I wanted to read this as a kind of exposure. It was enjoyable and frequently very funny. I didn't find the nine-year-old boy genius protagonist completely convincing as a real child: the portrayal wasn't bad, but sometimes slipped to show a greater resemblance to a hip NYC adult. Also the "literary devices" (like pages of blank paper) were stupid. Grade: B.

September 25th: The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway. I, surprisingly (because I hate macho people and drunks IRL), really enjoyed this. Great settings (Paris in the 1920s, Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls), complex and morally ambiguous characters, and an understated, terse writing style I appreciated. Very sad in tone, though: everyone has been fundamentally broken by life (whether due to domestic violence, war, or racism) and they live in a fallen world where innocence and hopefulness are unattainable.

September 28th: The Red Thread: A Chinese Tale of Love and Fate in 1830s Singapore, Dawn Farnham. Read it for the setting (Singapore back when it was full of gangsters, smugglers, and adventurers of all stripes). Carefully researched, but in a strictly superficial way (the details are right, but the tone and worldview are completely wrong). It is poorly written and deeply, fundamentally stupid. Grade: D-.

September 28th: Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet, Xinran. In 1950s China, a newlywed's husband mysteriously disappears while working as an army doctor in just-conquered Tibet. She goes to find him in this wild and at-the-time exceedingly remote region, and ends up living with a family of nomads for years on end, becoming semi-Tibetan in the process. It's an incredible (true) story and a vivid portrayal of an almost unfathomably different way of life. Lots of unanswered questions though. Grade: B+.

September 29th: Foundation, Isaac Asimov. First in the famous sci-fi series. This was B's favorite author/series as a young adult so I wanted to read it. Pretty good but not really my style: too detached and concerned with boring (to me) scientific details. I prefer more character-driven and emotionally engaging stuff. Grade: B. 

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