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Literary Biography

Reading The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig really unlocked the treasure of literary biographies that not only celebrates the lives of authors but helps me understand the world and time that made them.

The New York Times has a list literary biographies that have been reviewed by the The New York Times Book Review since 2000.

The first very ones I read were about W. Somerset Maugham and actor Sal Mineo. Both were supposedly gay. Maugham never acknowledged his homosexuality but was known to carry on affairs with a male sculptor. Mineo’s breakthrough as an actor came in Rebel Without a Cause, in which he played John “Plato” Crawford, the sensitive teenager smitten with Jim Stark (played by James Dean). In short, I read to get the dirt.

Literary Biographies offer more than just gossips. They help rediscover people we think we know well. They also help reassess infamous characters and get the story behind legendary characters. In my reading experience, I learn some first-hand insight into history—for the glimpse at humanity through a story you know is true and real. History books might give the hardcore facts, a literary biography can give the best insider’s view on a specific time.



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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:

Does the price of a book affect your decision about buying it? Do you wait for cheaper editions of books you want?

I have to stay on budget for the huge number of books I buy. So quick answer is yes. I don’t buy hardbacks unless it’s a book that I desperately want to read hot off the press. Trade paperback is my preferred edition, which is usually not available until at least 9 months after the hardback release. Publishers usually cut the price of remaining hardback stock when trade paperback is released. That’s a good time to buy discounted hardbacks. That said, I still prefer paperback. Prices of older editions also plunge when new editions become available. The truth is—who doesn’t like deal, even if it’s a slight mark-off? My local bookstores have a discount section where you can find great bargains for books that publishers would buy back. Some books are heavily discounted. It’s not uncommon that hardcovers originally priced at $20+ would be marked down to $5-$6 within a few months. The bottom line is what you pay is what you get. Heavily discounted books could be a tell-tale sign of poor writing or dreadful story. Classics—the very timelessness that makes them so—seem to do better in fighting depreciation. Except for the titles that publishers repeatedly, regularly, roll out with new rubs and editions (and therefore the older editions are marked down), classics usually don’t have discount. Paper copy of Ulysses is now $18, the annotated edition $21, Magic Mountain $17—and I almost have never seen any mark-down for new copies.

Points of View

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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:

Which is better (or preferred) … stories with multiple character points of view? Or stories that stick to just one or two at most? And, why?

I don’t have a preference as long as the story is coherent. I do understand why authors choose to write a mystery or historical fiction in multiple points of view for the suspense factor. When I begin a book, I want to know the relation of the narrator to the action of the story—whether the narrator is, for instance, a character in the story, or a voice outside of the story.

Personal stories often require a tight POV to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle. Epic tales tell a bigger picture story and often require multiple people to show all sides. If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single POVs (third or first) can be a great choice, because they allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it. A good example from recent reading is After Her by Joyce Maynard.

Multiple POVs can be tricky because when a novel has a lot of them, it can be a red flag of a premise novel. So unless every person who is telling the story has a solid reason for being there, it’s best o be without that narrator. If the only reason is because “you can’t show that part of the story any other way” then you might want to reconsider. If there’s no goal driving that character, or nothing in particular happens to him/her, then the story will fall flat. Multiple POVs work best when each POV brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story. The reader cares about that POV, even if all they care about is to see them get what they deserve. A recent example that exemplifies multiple POV is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.

Quality vs. Quantity

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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:

Which is more important? Quality for your reading? Or quantity?

Hands down quality. Quantity, unless it’s variety of books read, doesn’t mean anything. By the end of the end, I would reflect and look in retrospect of what I have read. Some books are so intense, memorable, and relentlessly provocative that I still felt like I just put them down. In short, those are quality books that stay with me. Gone Girl, The Expats, Life and Death in Shanghai, American Tragedy, The House of Mirth, The Secret History, The Dinner, and Mr Churchill’s Secretary—these are some of the fiction titles that have stayed with me this year. They belong to a wide spectrum of genres. Sometimes I feel that reading is like food: do you prefer a filet mignon, cooked to a perfect medium pink inside, and really savor that experience with a glass of pinot noir, or some massively prepared mound of meat at the buffet steam table?


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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:

We all know the beauty of reading a really wonderful book for the first time—when everything about the story and the writing and the timing click to make a reader’s perfect storm … but it’s fleeting, because you can never read that book for the first time again.

So … if you could magically reset things so that you had the chance to read a favorite book/series again for the first time … which would you choose? And why?

And then, since tastes change … Do you think it would have the same affect on you, reading it now, as it did when you read it the first time? Would you love it just as much? Would you risk it?

Books with many twists and turns often demand another chance. Sometimes the books are so intriguing and convoluted that by the time you reach down to the finale the many minute details have been forgotten. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s tale about Satan disguised as a black magic practitioner arriving in Stalin-era Moscow, never exhausts its possibilities in terms of both interpretation and entertainment. Another one that lives up to the say “reading a book really is better the second time round” is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which tells the tale of a dutiful butler whose submission to his master defies him of reason and deprives him of a romantic connection. The second time around really established an emotional benefit because the first time I was focused on the events. The series that I would most likely re-read is the Maggie Hope Series by Susan Elia MacNeal. I am about the start the third volume, His Majesty’s Hope. But before doing so, I’ll have to go back to my notes and refresh the events from the last two books. The heroine is an intrepid spy and expert code breaker who has not only become a protector of the royal family but has also discovered shocking secrets of her family. This is something that warrants rereading because every turn of the page is a twist and I would most likely forget about some of the details by the time I’m through the roller coaster ride of a read.

New Books

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

Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).

After the satisfying Under the Dome, I was back at the bookstore looking for The Stand. When I was seen reading Under the Dome, people asked if I have read The Stand. I was piqued to include it on my list. It’s another science fiction/horror hefty 1400-pager. In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it. That probably furthered the book’s popularity. The first edition released in 1978 was 823 pages long. Recently, King and Doubleday are republishing The Stand in the gigantic version in which, according to King, it was originally written. It is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

The other book is lesser known to me—Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. It’s a crime thriller set in medieval England. It introduces the compelling Adelia—abandoned as a child, adopted by doctors, trained in Salerno (a center of learning), and now a woman of modern sensibilities. She is summoned by King Henry II to investigate a series of gruesome murders that has wrongly implicated the Jewish population, yielding even more tragic results. As Adelia’s investigation takes her behind the closed doors of the country’s churches, the killer prepares to strike again. I picked this one up because I like the historical setting and that it reminds me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.


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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:

My best friend is moving across country, heading back to the East Coast for the first time after years of living in California, and one of the things she’s lamented was the whole packing-the-books thing. Having moved a few years ago myself (whittling down my 3000-volume library to 2000-volumes and still ending up with something like 50 boxes of books), I sympathize.

So … the question is––what kind of moving experiences have you had with your books? (Or, just in general if you’ve got good Moving Day stories–and who doesn’t?) Did having to pack and move your books cause any changes in your book-collecting habits? Make you wish you had everything on an e-reader? Feel free to discuss!

I’ve had only one moving experience, that is, moving back to the city from college. It’s only a short 12-mile drive over the bay on the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco. After 4 years, I accumulated about 1,000 volumes, mostly fiction, and were packed into 40 banker boxes grouped by alphabetical order. Spines up and stacked. Before packing, I held a joint garage sale with my house mates to weed some of the books and I ended up hauling 40 boxes up two flights of steps to my apartment. The moving by no means dampened my spirit in collecting books. Now I amount to about 2,000 volumes and I won’t dread about my next move which hopefully would be my own property. As for e-reader, I won’t dispute the sheer convenience and portability of the device. But I still prefer holding a book in my hands and turning the pages. I defer some of my readings to the e-reader when I travel. Gone are the days of schlepping a luggage full of books since airlines are scaling down weights allowance. I’ll have a few paperbacks in my personal belonging and a few more in my checked bag. No more than 6 or 7 books. All the rest I read from e-reader.


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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:

Do your reading habits change in the summer? Do you take your books outside more? Do you curl up in the air conditioning? Do you read fluff instead of serious books? Are you too busy playing in the sun or gardening or whatever to read much at all?

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It’s summer time although it doesn’t feel like it here. Summer is cold in heavily fogged in San Francisco. We have to wait until Indian summer to descend on us in the fall. But nonetheless the cold doesn’t stop the deluge of summer reads featured in the bookstores. My reading taste usually doesn’t change for the season, but I would read more non-fiction, mysteries and thrillers. This is especially the case when I’m on the run. Imagine trying to read Toni Morrison and William Gaddis between pool, hikes, and the slot machines. I would not admit to myself that I should have been reading a lower grade of fiction, like a mass-market romance. But a book with less nuance would be more appropriate for trips because it doesn’t require much effort to ease back into the story after you leave it for some time. Some of the great summer reads would be Argo, In the Garden of Beasts, and Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir, books that I have read and enjoyed this year. San Francisco is rarely hot so most buildings (even restaurants) are not equipped with air condition. I don’t like eating out on the usually rare, hot days in town because even a fine-dining restaurant has no a/c. In Palm Springs, I split my reading time between the pool and the sitting room. Dry heat is more bearable and with the mist I find reading outside very pleasant.

Dogs and Pets

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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:

My dog just had his birthday (12 years old, thanks), so … how do you feel about books about dogs or pets? Fluffy stories of fluffy family members? Solid books on training them or taking care of them? Touching reminiscences of trouble and the way a person’s dog (or pet) has helped get them through?


I love books on dogs but I get sad and become a wet rag sometimes. It’s like seeing all the dogs and cats waiting to be adopted at the park or at the pet stores. Marley and Me by John Grogan, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron—these are all my favorite dog books. There is Show Dog, the chronicle of how an Australian Shepherd became the Westminster show winner. The famous library cat Dewey from Iowa also made a deep impression in me. I’ve got the John Steinbeck’s classic Travel With Charley and Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz waiting this summer.

Perfect Experience

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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:

I want you to think about your ideal reading experience. Think about the location. (Your bed? Favorite chair? The beach? Indoors or outdoors?). Think about the sounds. (Is there music playing? Happy children playing in the background? Utter silence?) Is there a snack or beverage nearby? Are you alone or with friends/family (presumably being quiet enough for you to read in peace)? What kind of lighting is there? Are you dressed in something ultra-comfy? What’s your position? Curled up? Stretched out?

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My perfect experience is one in which I can completely concentrate on the words, free of any noise, distraction, and interruptions. No music, unless it’s light instrumental such as jazz or classical. Absolutely no children around—this is why I have limited to browsing at the library, where playgroup and nursery rhyme time are now hosted. A nosh would be wonderful but I have to watch the carbohydrate abound in most munchies. Usually I read alone but friends know not to be intrusive when I have company. I prefer to read in plenty of lights—at home or away. At the coffee shop I occupy the alcove basked in light. At home I sit by the window, usually upright by a table with access to stationery. The picture, taken recently, sums up the perfect reading experience. My semi-retired friend’s hilltop condo in Pattaya, Thailand is the reading haven for me. Up I wake early in the morning before dawn and workout. Then I would sit on his wrap-around balcony every morning and read, with a bowl of tropical fruits and coffee handy. For hours on end I devour the pages until they have breakfast ready and we set up the table to eat on the balcony!