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For a Friend

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

If someone you know has just published a book, do you feel obliged to buy a copy? Even if it’s not the kind of book you’d normally read?

It really depends on the depth of the relationship. If I just “know” the person but hardly keep in touch, I would browse for it at the bookstore and see what it’s about. If it’s someone who keeps regular contact, most definitely I would purchase a copy to show my support, even if the book is out of my range of preference. But there’s always exception. I have met self-published authors on this blog for whom I meet and arrange reading event.

[693] The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers

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” I ought to have guessed. I believe it is at St. Paul’s Cathedral that it is said to be death to enter the bell chamber when a peal is being rung. ” (396)

In The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey gets stranded in a little fenland village and helps the village to ring in an all-night peal of bells on New Year’s Eve. In was 1918, the fateful year in which people were struck down by the wretched scourage of influenza. Months later, a body, badly mutilated, is discovered in a grave and not the body that is supposed to be there. Lord Peter is called back to investigate. Although Sayers writes beautifully of the fens, the tiny villages, the convolutions of life around the church, and the bells, I quickly stop reading the book as a mystery and recalibrate to appreciate The Nine Tailors as a novel of place. It represents a concerted effort on Sayers as a writer of craft and style to raise the quality of the mystery to that of literary fiction.

A dreadful event in the past has dictated the course of actions in this book. Lord Peter Wimsey hears about how the Thorpe family has been blighted for twenty years by the unsolved theft of emeralds from a house guest by the butler, Geoffrey Deacon, and his accomplice, a crook from London named Cranton. Deacon dies so mysteriously, found tied and dead to a beam in the bell chamber of the belfry; but he is only heard about, since we have never encountered him. Obviously he broke prison, bagged a Tommy, took his clothes and ended up at war on the French Front. He manages to make a comeback to retrieve his loot. He is a total corrupt person, representing the core of evil, in a stark setting of virtue, of simple rural people. His wife remarries Will Thoday and they both suffer greatly during the course of the novel largely because of memory and conscience.

Even though the novel is, in the broad sense, a murder mystery, it transpires that no willful murder has been committed. And to my initial chagrin, fully about a quarter of the book goes by without a hint of mystery. In the meantime there are bigamy, double-crossing, a cipher, and mounting suspicion, as some villagers try to cover the crime by making themselves seem more suspicious. The issue of who is guilty and who is innocent becomes very complex by the end of the book. I’m both chilled and surprised by the resolution, but at the same time am relieved that the long trudging has come to an end.

395 pp. Harvest. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Sun Tzu

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I really have to read up on the Chinese classics—the the ancient classics. In light of the recent pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, The Art of War seems a relevant book to begin the journey. Sun-Tzu (ca. 450-380 B.C.E.) had a successful career as a general and military planner in one or more of the kingdoms of the Warring States Period into which China dissolved in the waning centuries of the Chou Dynasty.

The Art of War is a collection of his teachings, put together by his disciples after his death. The book has been so highly esteemed, and so much imitated, as it has been throughout the history of traditional China. Under the inveterate influence of Confucius, Chinese social philosophy has downplayed the political role of warfare, and has insisted that military matters had to be kept firmly under control of a civil bureaucracy.

On reading this book, I see that the apparent paradox resolves itself; it becomes clear that Sun Tzu was more a philosopher than a strategist, one who taught that the best victory is attained without a battle. (Is this the direction Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung is pursuing?) Sun Tzu was a realist who recognized that warfare sometimes could not be avoided, and then must be pursued with the utmost vigor to a successful conclusion. While his talent lay in teaching rulers how to deploy their forces to maximum advantage, he never glories warfare. His willingness to engage in no-holds-barred combat, his consistent and close attention to detail, and the clarity of his style, has led in modern times to a new vogue as a handbook for business management .

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If Walls Could Talk is exactly what I need in between serious literature novels. It’s a social chatty type of book that fuses a large set of anecdotes with easily digested history, mostly British history. It’s charming if flighty—the perfect coffee table book that is not all pictures. A British curator of historic places, Worsley discusses mostly about Britain and the Royal families from Tudor to present. Instead of going into lots of details about minutia, she focuses on four specific areas of the home—the bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen—and the things that people really want to know but never would learn in history class. After about a chapter or two I decide to save this book for my long-haul flight (14 hours) to Asia this winter. The interesting perspective, and that she doesn’t dig too deeply into the muck and mire would see me through the long flight.

New Acquisitions

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Fervently and earnestly amassing books for the upcoming holiday seasons. Now the question is: where do I begin?

[692] State of Wonder – Ann Patchett

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” ” It doesn’t matter how long we’re here or how often we come, we never fully acclimate. The foreignness of the place is always going to be a distraction for us. ” (Ch.8, p.223)

State of Wonder begins with an ambiguous letter bearing bad news. Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year-old research scientist, is in her office at a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota when Mr. Fox, the company’s CEO, with whom she has an unremarkable affair, arrives to tell her that her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died of a fever in a remote part of Amazon. The letter comes from Dr. Annick Swenson, a fierce if not irreproachable figure who has spent most of her life studying fertility in older tribal women. Now the 73-year-old Swenson holes up in a remote outpost in the Amazonian jungle, in seclusion and total discretion, where she is supposedly creating a new fertility drug that will be worth a fortune, one that will allow women to bear children at an old age.

Dr. Swenson would never see herself as accountable to Vogel, any more than she would think of herself as working for them. She might develop a drug for the purposes of her own curiosity or the interest of science, but it would never occur to her that her work is at the expense of the company. (Ch.1, p.23)

Eckman had been sent out to determine the status of Swenson’s research on this long-overdue drug. But he was far from inured for the topical, insect-infested Amazon, being a native of Minnesota. His demise demands an answer. So Marina is dispatched to look for the reclusive Dr. Swenson and most importantly, to resolve the questions about Eckman’s death. Marin’a journey to Brazil is also one with personal repercussion. The anti-malarial medication mandated for the trip induces in her bad dreams that transport her back to childhood visit to Calcutta, where she was separated from her father. But the challenge brought forth by the jungle—the deceptively calm surface, the insidious, unseen danger behind thick green foliage of trees—confronts her fear.

It’s easy to become hypochondriacal out here but the more dangerous state is hypochondria’s opposite: the insistent voice that says you must be overreacting to things, and so in turn you begin to ignore real symptoms. (Ch.5, p.139)

Although State of Wonder is meanderous, taking a long time to get where it’s going, it has no shortage of emotional complexity that frames Marina’s journey. The jungle is more than a primordial landscape that bears possible medicinal power, but a space in which time, medical ethics, and capitalist economics are suspended and then sliced open for further consideration. The septuagenarian is a dragon of a lady who is both fierce and determined. She lies and deceives the better to protect her work, and to defend the Lakashi tribe’s indigenous way. The whole premise might seem far-fetched, but Patchett, in keeping her characters well-drawn, renders the story very credible. After all, it’s the mystery of creation of life that underpins it all. Patchett’s creation of this foreign, primitive culture and its symbiosis with the fauna of a lost world is one of the novel’s most captivating elements.

353 pp. Harper Collins. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Vocabulary

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The Southwest in-flight magazine has a vocabulary test that transports me back to my college-bound, pre-SAT days in high school. Some of the words in the word bank—fatuous, quotidian, bowdlerize, and hubris—were words I that came across from reading novels and news magazines. True we might still be able to communicate efficiently without these big, obscure words, but a mastery of vocabulary does help understand the varying tones in different forms of writing. My love for reading is rooted in a love of language itself; and loving language means a command of its vocabulary beyond the level of the everyday. The only way to build vocabulary (is not to study the dictionary as some of my high school peers did in preparation for the SAT) is to read—to read as much as I can—and in doing so I gain an understanding of what good writing is as well as building up my vocabulary.

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