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Penguin 16-20

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Penguin Books launches their Christmas Book-a-Day challenge, Season’s Readings. A prompt for everyday up to Christmas Day. Are you getting into the holidays spirit?

16. For someone I love
Love: Poems by Pablo Neruda

17. Funny read
Without Feathers by Woody Allen

18. Massive Tome
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

19. Traveling home—reading this
I’m actually going home *after* Christmas and New Year, in mid-January. I have been fussing with my reading list for this trip to Asia and two of them are The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

20. Set where I live
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a tribute to books in print and type set in my very own San Francisco

Hercule Poirot

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The Guardian UK sifted out the top 10 Agatha Christie novels back in 2009, in chronological order:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) H
Peril at End House (1932) H
Murder on the Orient Express (1934) H
The ABC Murders (1935) H
And Then There Were None (1939)
Five Little Pigs (1943) H
Crooked House (1949)
A Murder is Announced (1950) M
Endless Night (1967)
Curtain: Poirot’s Last case (1975) H

Six of these are Hercule Poirot mysteries. Christie brought Hercule Poirot to life in 1916, when she was inspired to write her first crime novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. She was unable to account for the creation of this extraordinary little being, with his fanatical love of order, his delicious conceit, his sexless cosmopolitan charm. In her autobiography she referred, almost cursorily, to how Poirot was inspired by the wartime Belgian refugees who had lived in her home town of Torquay; but this was no explanation of the mystery of creativity, the instinct that had guided her so surely.

Poirot’s intelligence and quirkiness are what appeal to me.He is incomparably fussy about his appearance; and he is extremely confident and competent in his deductions. On occasions he has warned someone ahead of time not to follow through a plan or scheme or relationship. Although one might have seen all that he has seen up to that moment, what is obvious to him becomes merely foreshadowing for the reader.

[708] Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

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” The days of pioneering, of lassies in sunbonnets, and bears killed with axes in piney clearings, are deader now than Camelot, and a rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest. ” (Ch.1, p.3)

Main Street is a satirical novel depicting the claustrophobic life in a small rural town during the 1910s. The female protagonist, Carol Milford, is a liberal, well-educated woman from St. Paul, Minnesota. She marries the town doctor Will Kennicott, who takes her to his home in Gopher Prairie. The novel is about Carol’s perception of the town’s lack of culture and her attempts at reform. In her house-warming party, she defies common decency by sitting with the men after dinner and frees the town elites from their years of decorum.

I wonder if you can understand the ‘fun’ of making a beautful thing, the pride and satisfaction of it, and the holiness. (Ch.19, p.230)

Carol dabbles in numerous town affairs: the planning of a new council building, better selection in the library, the women’s literary club, and charity support for the poor. She was disconcerted that she was left out of the planning of the new school building. Every step of the way she meets with opposition, as the small town, inveterate in its old ways, operates to counteract the romantic and artistic idea as per the doctor’s wife. She becomes dissatisfied with the town and her life, and chooses to cope with the hidden derision by withdrawal. Her husband defends the town and his friends against her denigrating comments; but he softens in his insistence on having their marriage conform to a traditional model.

When I die the world will be annihilated, as far as I’m concerned. (Ch.22, p.281)

Carol’s fecklessness is believable and sometimes irritating, but the town-people’s general resistence to every form of non-conformity is also believable. Lewis deftly renders the frequently nice and friendly narrow-minded prejudice of small-town America that is all the most difficult to combat because it is well-meaning and patriotic. Carol is also not the most lovable person to reason with. She is overbearing and egotistic.

All that said, I have mixed feelings about Main Street, which is a satire without being overtly funny or comic. Lewis writes with intelligence, but also from an attitude of supposed worldliness that I find very pretentious. His plots meander and his tone is unclear. The story unfolds at an interminable pace, and the episodes have a repetitive flavor that quickly becomes trying.

466 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Holiday Book Meme

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You are all buying books for gifts, right? Good. Well, here’s a book meme that will give you some shopping ideas.

1. Name five books that you read this year that would make excellent gifts.
a) The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison. It’s so well-paced and unpredictable. It’s a prickly story of a marriage gone awry—and dangerous. Insidious.
b) Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony and Maureen Wheeler. Perfect gift for someone whose passion is travel. It’s a memoir but also a vast armchair travel book of the world.
c) The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. For lover of European literature. A man’s heartfelt memoir to a bygone era that had shaped him as a person. It’s poignant to read about how Hitler’s seizure of power represents the absolute, nightmarish opposite of every value Zweig believed in.
d) The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse. A creative novel about a bookstore that would only sell “good literature.” Members of an elite bookstore’s clandestine selection committee are assaulted. It invokes the debate of what superlative work in the literary sphere constitutes.
e) Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. Just read it, he will blow your mind.

2. What’s your favorite holiday book?
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In recent years I have taken up with mysteries. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie is also a favorite.

3. Tell us about your fabulous local book store.
San Francisco is blessed to have many local bookstores. One is Aarvark Books, an older joint with great selection of used books, especially fiction. They have a beautiful residence orange tabby, Owen, who always comes sit on my lap while I browse.

4. What book would you like to see made into a movie?
It’s already happening, and I’m very excited: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison.

5. When you go book shopping for other people, do you buy yourself a book too?
I never walk out of the bookstore empty-handed. There’s this running list of books to be acquired in head.

6. Which author do you wish would write faster because you can hardly wait to read more from them?
Gillian Flynn. I absolutely love the way she builds up suspense and tension in her books.

7. What author did you discover in 2014 that you think everyone should read?
Mark Pryor is a relatively new comer in mystery/thriller genre. I discovered his book just cold turkey. The books are all set in Paris (how can you resist?) with the chief of security at the US Embassy as the lead.

8. What book did you read as teen that you hated, but then loved when you reread it as an adult?
It’s a tie between Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Penguin 11-15

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Penguin Books launches their Christmas Book-a-Day challenge, Season’s Readings. A prompt for everyday up to Christmas Day. Are you getting into the holidays spirit?

11. Christmas Classic
I always used to pick A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; but The Christmas Train by David Baldacci is not a bad choice. I like story set in a train.

12. Book of poems
Love: Poems by Pablo Neruda

13. Stocking filler
What I call “loo literature” books! Books on etiquette, about dogs and cats, and little travel tips kind of books.

14. Read at school
A Separate Peace by John Knowles has stayed with me all these years. The loss of innocence and peer betrayal first shocked me in my formative years and continues to remind me of our regard of morality.

15. Favorite colour cover
I like very plain cover without a lot of design. I opt for black and grey.

Stephen Hawking

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This could have been one of the most informative and engaging books. It is, however, not to be rushed, but savored, and pondered upon. I take one chapter at a time and I will be reading this throughout the holidays.

Stephen Hawking has tried to explain the nature of our universe, from the smallest particles which cannot be seen to the biggest entities, the black holes, which (ironically) also cannot be seen, in a simpleton’s language. Barring one mathematical equation, the famous mass energy equivalence relation by Einstein, Hawking has done away with all mathematics and made accessible to a layman the treasures of science and the knowledge of the universe that we have acquired so far (more correctly till the time the book was written) while conjecturing what might be the ingredients of that unified theory.

“Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

“Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity’s deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete description of the universe we live in.”

[707] The Firm – John Grisham

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” Tired? I’m dead. In the past three weeks I’ve been a janitor, a secretary, a lawyer, a banker, a whore, a courier and a private investigator. I’ve flown to Grand Cayman nine times, bought nine sets of new luggage and hauled back a ton of stolen documents. I’ve driven to Nashville four times and flown ten. I’ve read so many bank records and legal crap I’m half blind. And when it’s bedtime, I put on my little Dustbusters shirt and play maid for six hours. I’ve got so many names, I’ve written them on my hand so I won’t get confused. ” (Ch.33, p.427)

The Firm is not a courtroom thriller like A Time to Kill, but more a tale of conspiracy full of paranoia-driven events. Mitchell McDeere graduates from Harvard Law and is about to begin his career as a lawyer. Lured by money and associated perks, he finds himself as a tax lawyer in the Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, one that has carefully vetted him and made an offer too good to refuse.

At first it’s all legitimate work. But quickly the firm controls Mitch’s life and encroaches on every aspect. Mitch manages to work 16 hours a day, and as soon as he starts he is up to his ears in deadlines. The firm is demanding and exclusive. Social life revolves around lawyers and partners in the firm—almost like a cult. Before the McDeeres even suspect any sinister undertakings under the cover of a legitimate law firm business, a senior partner invites them out to dinner while his crew wire the house and tap the phone. This slow build of the story really builds the suspense and creepiness.

They lure you with the money. They smother you with work that looks legitimate. Then, after a few years, you’ve unwittingly become a part of the conspiracy. You’re nailed, and there’s no getting out. (Ch.2, p.321)

When approached by the FBI, Mitch realizes he is edged between a rock and a hard place. The FBI is determined to infiltrate the firm, owned and run by some crime powerhouse, with Mitch’s help, in hopes of collecting information on certain shady clients. Mitch himself become suspicious of the morbidly high mortality rate of the firm. Three lawyers died in dubious circumstances, and two just perished in a diving accident in the Grand Cayman. Together with the secretary of a private investigator, who also died at the hand of the mafia that run the firm, Mitch is on a roll to secure incriminating evidence of the firm, constantly dodging, outsmarting, and getting ahead of his enemy.

This place is eerie. I can’t put my finger on it, but those people make my skin crawl. (Ch.15, p.192)

The Firm is a page-turner, with all the decoys and talking in codes, dodging, and espionage. But the story-line doesn’t launch itself into the epic thriller that the plot threatens to become. It starts very promising, with the sleep-building suspense and claustrophobic atmosphere of the firm, but crumples into a muted, ambivalent ending that doesn’t do justice to all the clandestine meetings, prowlings, and dangerous pursuit. There’s a lack of detail regarding the crucial money laundering activities, almost non-existent legal talk and proceedings. Good read, and not as good as A Time to Kill.

527 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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