Up until Thanksgiving week work I had been slammed at work which took a tool on my reading time. Despite the 6 books read in November, the month had seen the exciting fulfillment of reading 100 books for the year 2012. Doubly noteworthy is that the 100th book was being read during the weekend I celebrated my 38th birthday in Palm Springs. I was happy that the book that marked my reading milestone is nothing but a re-imagining of a timeless Chinese classic written some 400 years ago. I had my eye on Pauline Chen’s The Red Chamber when it first hit the store. This book really boils down into a picture of women’s constricted lives and how they are deprived of any choices in life—not even on when they will marry. Marriage is taken into consideration on how it will further a family’s wealth and prestige. From mistress of the house to the lowliest servant, each woman holds a place in the hierarchy, and with that comes rigid expectations and inescapable duties. Pleasant surprises did not stop with the 100th book. I now coin The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar the new American novel. It is so powerful in scope and audacious in revealing the truth about social and racial divide. That someone like Maureen (who lied about leaving her two sons alone with the Mexican maid for 4 days), well-educated and articulate, automatically tilts the scale of believability in favor of her because she is the responsible mother who has been violated. The novel renounces how we as a country are so disgustingly obsessed with jumping into the first opportunity at politicizing racial issues and justifying our distorted view that people who are not like us lack basic human morality and intelligence. The strength of this book is to be found in its sympathetic portrayals of people who struggle to find a common language yet persist in misunderstanding one another–marriage-wise and race-wise.
All books except for one from this month could become the most memorable, if not the best books I have read this year. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged man, a father’s awakening to responsibility and to love, because, as he ruefully notes, he is not comfortable to showing affection. As King gathers his wife’s friends and family to say their final goodbyes, he has to grapple with the revelation—to confront Joanie’s lover, a married man who plays a role in lobbying offer for land owned by King’s aristocratic mixed-race (haole) Hawaiian family. The book is so great that it makes me want to watch the film. Native San Francisco writer Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage is not a noteworthy read. Upon finishing it, I was both in awe of the sheer power of the story and ashamed that I haven’t picked it up sooner. Between divided loyalties and dangerous affections, a woman, one who always feels like she needs an extra armor to protect herself, perseveres in her duty as a wife and a mother. Heightened the predicament are complication of races and all the contemporary goings-on: Second World War, Korea, rationing, McCarthyism, homophobia, racial discrimination, war objectors—with which Greer sketches the background of the story. London Fields Martin Amis is an utter disappointment. I have the sense that Amis may have been too clever in outwitting himself. It opens brilliantly with this pre-announced whodunnit without a motive. But from there, despite his lyricality and ingenious monologue, the entire book is a con-trick that leads you to expect one thing, and offers you another. At times the authorial voice is too intrusive, screaming pretentiousness and undermining the characters. I admire his wit, the prodigious span of diction, but he needs more substance and less of this intrusive style. I’m disappointed at this tome of a book that is entirely an elaborate tease.