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A Full Circle in September

August: 8 books, 2633 pages, 88 pages a day; 85 books in 2012

September was a month of travel—both for work and for pleasure. I have visited many bookish places like Book Soup in Los Angeles, Logos Books and Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz. The playful Auntie Mame, recommended by Danielle when she was here for a visit, kicked off the month. The funny and entertaining book is about a boy’s adventures growing up with his aunt, an outrageously eccentric New York socialite. I can see that Mame is an icon, even today. She is our Alice in Wonderland all grown up, smarter, wittier and more interesting than Mary Poppins, and I wish that she had been sent to Oz instead of that Dorothy girl or allowed to poke around the back of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe. Also set in New York, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin is an U-turn in terms of the subject matter. It is a moving, painful story of love in the face of injustice. It stresses the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority, especially between members of a family, which would probably not be experienced in happier times.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst has been the most anticipated read for me this year. It’s the first novel by the Booker Prize-winning author in 7 years since my beloved The Line of Beauty. The novel is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. It deals with the nebulous visit of a Cambridge student/poet’s visit to his friend’s house over the weekend some 80 years ago. As the poet’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—–how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. It doesn’t follow a straight-forward plot so readers can be divided about this one for sure.

Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea was a mistake—not because I did not enjoy the novel, but because I had in mind a different book and I got confused over the title. I was planning to read Wide Sargasso Sea but ended up acquiring Murdoch’s novel instead by fluke. I have over heard of Laura Moriarty, but The Chaperone is surprisingly engrossing, with sustaining revelations about a heroine who discovers herself as she ages. This heroine is Cora Carlisle, who jumps on the opportunity to be the chaperone of Laura Brooks on her trip from Wichita to New York for a summer of dancing. The book gets better as Cora grows some backbone, talks straight, and truly seeks what she desires. As the novel returns to Wichita, where Cora reemerges with a potentially shocking (socially unforgiving) living arrangement that is way ahead of its time. This book is filled with insight about what constitutes family and rooted very firmly in love. Cora’s story obviously outshines that of Louse, whose Hollywood career flames out quickly and spirals into alcoholism and eventually poverty.

Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor has been sitting on my shelf for as long as the paperback was released. The bond between the Professor, the housekeeper, and her son grows strong and defies the conventions that define a family. Here Ogawa truly shines by showing how families are composed, and how it doesn’t matter whom it’s made of. Japanese literature is abound with characters that are either social outcasts or loners. Ogawa creates a heart-warming story out of the unusual connection of them. Another Asian writer who I have meant to read for a long time is Tan Twan Eng from Malaysia. The Garden of Evening Mists, short-listed for Booker Prize 2012, is woven together with history of the Pacific War and personal flashbacks. Yun Ling Teoh is the austere supreme court judge who retires two years early from the courtroom in Kuala Lumpur. Before approaching obliteration of her mind due to a medical condition, she returns to the tea bush-clad Cameron Highlands to attend to some unfinished business from 40 some years ago. The book concerns with a Japanese man who was once the emperor’s gardener but ended up in the Malaysian highland, tending to a garden. His garden cultivates formal harmony; it unmasks sophisticated artistry. In very elegant and contemplative prose, Tan Twan Eng shows how the Japanese garden reveals itself as a capacious symbol of the human soul, replete with exactly the kinds of “borrowed landscapes” we live with. This book is about fleeting beauty and impermanence, how our immediate experiences rather than painful memories may change our lives for good.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower helps bring my reading to complete a full circle. The book is about a kid, about the same age as Auntie Mame’s nephew, and he ran away from home and from his overbearing parents, who sent him to anti-gay rehab class.

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