Thursday, September 11, 2014

Books Read: June 2014

June 2nd: They Came to Baghdad, Agatha Christie. Spy thriller from the "queen of mysteries", set among archaeologists in Iraq (where her archaeologist husband worked). Enjoyable. Grade: B.
June 3rd: Gigi and The Cat, Colette. Gigi is about a girl being raised by ex-courtesans, presumably for the same future career; The Cat is about a newlywed's deadly jealousy of her husband's pet cat. Both are excellent. Grade: A.
June 4th: The Reverse of the Medal, Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian's sea officers encounter severe misfortunes of both the professional and personal kind: but it all works out in the end, more or less. Excellent as always. Grade: A.
June 4th: This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Historical fiction about early twentieth century colonial Indonesia; fascinating for being by an Indonesian writer, which gives a very different perspective. The setting is great, as are the details, the characters are interesting but the writing/story aren't that compelling (maybe a problem with translation?). Grade: B.
June 7th: Don't Tell Alfred, Nancy Mitford. Fluff about upper class Britons in late fifties Paris. Not as good as her other books but still funny and occasionally pointed. Grade: B-
June 9th: Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier. Not for book club, but could have been as it is such a "book club" type (which is not a good thing). Moderately interesting for its setting of seventeenth century Holland (a time/place I haven't read much about in fiction) but the tone and interior world of the characters is off, much too modern (for instance, religion is barely mentioned). Grade: C.
June 11th: The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy. Best selling thriller from Victorian times, about a foppish playboy who's really a heroic spy saving aristocrats from the guillotine in Revolutionary France. Great plot is marred by the author's excessively pro-aristocrat bias, which is so pronounced as to be embarrassing. Characters are also cliched and cheesy in a romance novel kind of way. Grade: C-.
June 12th: The Letter of Marque, Patrick O'Brian. The misfortunes of O'Brian's two heroes come to an end after a number of dramatic vicissitudes. Another excellent entry. Grade: A.
June 14th: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe this book is too well known? Because reading it was like having extended deja vu, where I kept thinking "I have read this before" (but I hadn't). Not sure if this reflects a lack of originality on the part of the author, or his immense success in communicating his ideas. In any case, it made for a uninspiring reading experience. Grade: C-.
June 15th: The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin. Really strange book about the horrible slave-trading kingdom of Dahomey, and the Brazilian slave trader who becomes an intimate of their mad king. Fascinating and haunting, if also a bit rococo and over the top. I still think about this book. Grade: A-.
June 22nd: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson. Early and great example of travel writing, in this case about donkey camping in the French mountains. Funny, touching and informative. He is too mean to the donkey for my taste, though. Grade: B+.
June 23rd: The Pale Horse, Agatha Christie. Mystery with supernatural elements this time, a good entry by Christie, even if it's almost exactly like all her other books in terms of characters and tone. Grade: B+.
June 25th: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, C. S. Forester. Since I have enjoyed O'Brian's books so much, I thought I should try the other well known historical fiction series about a naval officer in Nelson's navy. Not as good as O'Brian IMO, but still highly enjoyable and worth a read. Grade: A-
June 27th: Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler. A novel about how "ordinary" people living "ordinary" lives are really anything but (a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with philosophically). It's also a great portrayal of marriage and aging (Tyler is a very skilled writer). Unfortunately, the characters all annoyed me extremely with their banality, lack of intellectual curiosity and general stupidity. They just weren't people I would ever want to spend time with (which makes me feel guilty due to point 1). Grade: B-.
June 28th: Revenge, Yoko Ogawa. Creepy short stories (somewhat interconnected) all start out relatively benignly and then take a dark turn. Enjoyable and a quick read. Grade: B.
June 29th: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. Memoir about the death of the author's husband, with whom she enjoyed a very close relationship. I did not like it because despite all the author's apparent honesty in describing her feelings, reactions and thoughts it struck a false note, as if she was lying to the reader or perhaps herself in some way and leaving important things out. (Like did her husband have a drinking problem? It wasn't clear). Since it's a memoir, this was a big problem. Grade: D+.

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