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“Summer Reading”

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). What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it! Also tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

On social media people share their first swim of the season and barbeque grill fired up for the first time. Summer is here. The bookstores are rolling out their summer reading titles. These summer books, to my amusement, are quite diverse in their target audience and intensity of the subject matter. My reading for once is not influenced by change of season, weather, or travel plan. That said, I tend to pick lighter books that don’t require much brain juice to comprehend so I can bring with me to the pool. Summer reading always has an academic connotation: students are loaded with a pile of books to be completed over summer holiday. I think students should be given wide latitude in deciding what they want to read, instead of the Moby Dick-model. At Barnes & Noble and some local bookstores, I was a little taken aback by some of the titles: Columbine? Lolita? My school made me read Lolita in 10th grade but I don’t think some parts of this country would even allow that book to be shelved in public libraries! Interesting is that many of these summer reading books were once banned books: Leaves of Grass, Madame Bovary, Jungle, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Bell Jar. I read most of these in school, except Bell Jar, which was required reading for a literature course in Freshman year of college. Bell Jar is too depressing as a summer book. 

As much as I don’t make a list for summer, I have inclined toward including travel books—memoirs and narratives. Dreaming in French captures the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. People Who Eats Darkness is a true crime story of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman who went missing in Tokyo. The city had simply swallowed her up. The Geography of Bliss is a grump’s journey to look for the “unheralded happy places.” These are great books to sizzle in imagination and far places. They are easy readings that you can pick up without having to back-track between pool times and cocktail hours.

(A Bit of) Book Rant

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). What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it! Also tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

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(Picture: Leigh’s Favorite Bookstore in historic downtown Sunnyvale, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. Fabulous indie bookstore but no Bowen mystery series.)

It all started with Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, the story of Her Majesty taking a trip to Scotland on a whim without royal escort or equerry. After that I’ve been searching for books set against England and the royalty. I stumbled upon Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, a typist who discovers and breaks the Nazi code that points to specific attacks, including the assassination of the prime minister. Now I’m burying my nose in the sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, in which this typist-turned-agent, Maggie Hope, disguised as the princess’s governess, is to investigate any espionage activity in Windsor Castle. Over the weekend I got behind the wheels looking for a similar series by Rhys Bowen but with no success at first. What do you do when your local indie doesn’t have books in stock? I drive around and check inventory. I don’t mind purchasing online but I don’t want to give my business to Amazon, which was under fire for perceived anti-gay policy. I think Amazon can totally decide what they want to sell and not to sell, but if you want to sell a LGBT book, you need to allow reviews. It’s like a business that wants the money from gays but is ashamed of its gay customers. To make a long story short, many of the indies don’t have Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness Mysteries series in stock (not even used copies) and I ended up buying the entire series at Barnes & Noble. This is how far I would go to find my books, because I don’t like waiting for packages that always come when I’m not home. It’s frustrating that you have to buy everything online and not be able to look at the item. Many stores offer free return but truth be told, I rather just get the book and be over with the hassle.

I’m Still Here

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I’m still here! I have been gone for a month to Thailand and Hong Kong. During a month’s period I finished reading 8 books but I suspended blogging. I have posted some of the book reviews have have yet to attend to your comments. Now is the time to catch up with Booking Through Thursday.
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INFLUENCE. Do other people influence what you choose to read? When a family member recommends something, or a friend says they hated a book you were planning to read … does it affect your reading choices?

A few people influence what I read and none of them is a family member. I’m usually nonplussed when friends say they hate a book. A reader with a somewhat eclectic and fastidious taste, I usually have good intuition on the books that are up my alley. One of my closest friends who is well-informed of my taste just recommends Snark by David Denby and Love in A Dark Time by Colm Toibin. One rages against mean-spirited humor but misses the point, the other explores how changing times affect homosexuals and their identities. I don’t have to question his recommendation, nor do I even look at the books before I put them on my list. Bookstore staff, whose written recommendations I enjoy reading, also influence my book choices.

ON LOAN. Do you lend your books? Are any out on loan right now? Do you have any that have been loaned to you? Do you put a time limit on these? Do you think people should make an effort to read the loaned book quickly?

Very rarely. I am extremely protective of my books so I loan out book only to a few people who happen to influence my reading choices. That sounds fair right? I would make recommendations instead. Books get stained, damaged, dog-eared, and on rare occasion, lost. It boils down to the trust issue, knowing that your friends will take care of the books and return them before they out-welcome the grace period.

SOUNDTRACK. Do you ever try to pair music with the book you’re reading? Play the movie soundtrack while reading the original book? Find mood music that fits with your story?

I turn on classical music: looping Haydn and Mozart, something light and instrumental. I do not like loud music, regardless of the genre, and I find instrumental music less intruding to my mind when I try to concentrate on the pages. Every once in a while I find myself in need of absolute silence to focus on a literary fiction.

WINTER. It’s the depth of winter here where I live right now … what books do you like to read when it’s snowy and white? What books do you read to evoke a real feeling of winter (good or bad)?

I don’t want to evoke the feeling of winter, in fact, I escape from it, even though I live in California with relatively mild winter! Having spent a month in Asia is difficult to get back to the cold. Season change has no influence on my reading. I read what I like to read and whatever that interests me at the moment.

Resolution?

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The host of Booking Through Thursday reflects:

Any reading resolutions for the new year? Reading more? (Reading less?) Reading better books? Bigger books? More series? More relaxing books?
And hey, feel free to talk about any other resolutions you might have, too … or why you choose NOT to have any.

Last year I accomplished the goal of reading 100 books (107 to be exact). Truth be told, I feel invincible right now. So many possibilities and so many books. I never have a specific plan of what to read since I always read out of my whims. I do have an idea of what kind of authors I like to read. For the new year I would like to maintain at least 2 books a week and that would put me well over a 100 for the year.

A Habit and a Book

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This week’s question:

(a) Describe one of your reading habits.
(b) Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

I have an interesting habit of saving books for later. Certain books that I heard are great I always save indefinitely until I have a moment to devote my wholesome attention. The Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is such a book and I’m making it my first read of 2013. It remains not merely one of the greatest novels ever written about the West, but one of the finest American novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Stegner remains a staggeringly under-appreciated as a writer. He wrote in a beautiful, distinctive, gorgeous prose that not many writers have been able to match. Angle of Repose is not to be rushed: It’s a big, long, lush, slowly progressing story that weaves the distant past with the near past with the present beautifully and seamlessly.

The Year in Reading: Best Literature in 2012

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The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
Easily the top read of the year, this is a truly American novel. It is so powerful in scope and audacious in revealing the truth about social and racial divide. That someone like Maureen, 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.

Stoner by John Williams
This is the classic novel about one man’s thrive in silence, in dignity, and in solemnity. Though sold out on his passion for literature and teaching, Stoner never rises above the rank of assistant professor. Few students remember him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. His marriage turns out to be a failure just after honeymoon. His wife shuts him off emotionally and physically, leaving him the only option to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live. As his wife manipulatively turns his daughter away from him, he takes on extra workload with an intensity and ferocity that awes his colleagues. But his career is stymied as his mentor Archer Sloane, is replaced by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes Stoner’s implacable enemy. Why isn’t this book adopted into a film?

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
In this debut novel, Stedman creates strong argument on both sides, delving into the blurring of lines between right and wrong. The book takes its predictable course toward a neutral compromise where justice for one is another’s tragic loss. Moving but also contrived at times, the novel explores the snarl of human emotion, and how far-gone even the best of intentions can go awry. This story about a good man who cannot keep a secret and who sacrifices himself for his wife’s choices will leave you emotionally invested.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
A close look at how a man copes with life as his wife is about to be cut off life support. But there’s more to be known about her. King’s narrative voice is plausible and persuasive, in his pared-down lyricism as much as his comic bemusement, which derives from his desperate attempts to rein in his daughters and their disdainful responses to his careful ministrations. The Descendants 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.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Note: Last name Eng)
Probably the most complicated in terms of time and narrative layers. Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists follows young law graduate, Yun Ling Teoh, as she seeks solace among the plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Here she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the secretive Aritomo. Aritomo agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon” so that she can design a garden in memorial to her sister.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
This is a very engrossing read with sustaining revelations about a heroine—the chaperone—who discovers herself as she ages. The book gets better as Cora grows some backbone, talks straight, and truly seeks what she desires. As the novel returns to Wichita after a summer in New York City, 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.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
The characters in this book are all gritty and crisp, so emotionally realized as they walk right out of the pages. Sebastian is naive but not stupid, with a working vocabulary of a well-educated adult; Jared is sarcastic but aware of his lack of gratitude for a second chance in life. Nana and Janice both want to protect the boys from hurtful memories that they fear will impede their growth. Their flaws actually render them vulnerable but beautiful. The story is well-written, filled with flawless dialogue. Whether they’re realizing outrageous goals or just surviving another day, the book is a celebration of hope and the importance of love and family.

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan
This book follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around Fourth of July. The summer has also marked a year since the death of Emily’s husband, Henry. She gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be their last vacation at the the summer cottage, which Emily plans to sell because she can no longer take it of it by herself. She also harbors a plan to help out her grownup children, who seem to be worse than she has suspected, with the money from the sale. In this beautiful novel O’Nan doesn’t devise much of a plot but he has painted a very vivid tableau of daily life. As he draws us into the tangle of jealousies, pent-up emotions, deep wounds and hurt feelings of the family, we read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become acquainted with the characters, whose life we can resonate with.

The Book of Job by Jonathan Tropper
The Book of Joe, beneath its burst of humor and sharp one-liners, carries an emotional heft. The return home presents Joe a second chance to grow up—to grow out of his immaturity, to cope with the hurt feelings, and to take responsibility for the people he left behind. Tropper does a beautiful job interweaving all the issues revolving around family, relationships, friendship and missed opportunity into a book that flows seamlessly.

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mars. Hawkins’ career as an editor. Balancing her profession is her investigation on the perpetrator who contrives to force out a tenant in her rooming house. Not only does Spark’s writing hums with creations, she also brings alive the life of London and its skein of diverse residents. Nancy Hawkins will be memorable for her integrity (and her maxim “No life can be carried on unless people are honest.”) and, no offense, her fatness, which she anatomizes convincingly, with a tingle of self-depracating humor. It’s her physical attribute that breaks ice and invites confidence. In a way, her fatness camouflages her spikiness.

The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen
A takeoff from the 400-year-old classics by Cao Xueqin, Chen’s perspective 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. This book is not a re-telling of the classic, but it would be a suitable introduction of the original text. The Red Chamber has a more feminist poise, delving into the tough decisions that confront the women in a time when to choose love is to risk stability in life.

Gold Chris Cleave
Unlike his previous novels, Incendiary and Little Bee (which I enjoyed profusely), Gold does not have any political components, but it does not lack in human dynamics. As much as these women are thriving for gold and getting caught up in their dream, each has more than a medal to lose. Each has to overcome more than the demand of physical capacity—their own ghosts. Gold is a morality tale that examines the values that lie at the heart of our most intimate relationships. In a time where obsession with winning takes precedence over ethics, Gold is an antithema that cajoles us back to the reality of our heart.

Time Was Soft There: A Memoir. A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer. Mercer’s stay at the bookstore epitomizes the bohemian lifestyle—roaming Paris, bumming food, writing and reading. On top of the strange but warm camaraderie with the other residents, Mercer describes his developing relationship with owner George Whitman in details. As much as I live vicariously through Mercer’s adventure, I come to learn about George Whitman and his amazing life devoted to books. Time Was Soft There evokes that lost generation of writers and artists that find haven in Paris. Reading the book offers a glimpse of the magic this literary establishment has brought to those who have been part of it.

Postscript. Three of my most anticipated reads for the year didn’t live up to my expectations: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, and Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. All three are revered authors whom I highly regard. Regrettably, none of their books is memorial and mindful of ther usual literary merit.

Nemesis

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This week’s question:

Is there a particular book that is your nemesis—the book you’re determined to one day finish?

The Civil Disobedience portion of Walden. The God of Small Things. The Tale of Genji. The (unabridged) Moby Dick. But it won’t happen ay time soon.

Contemplation

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The host of Booking Through Thursday reflects:

So … you’ve just finished reading a book. For the sake of the discussion, we’ll say it was everything a book should be—engaging, entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking. The kind you want to gush over. The question is—do you immediately move on to your next book? Or do you take time to contemplate this writerly masterpiece and all its associated thoughts/emotions/ideas for a while first?

This question is somewhat related to my answer from last week. I always have a few books lined up and I do read back to back. I take notes and write down my thoughts as I read along so by the time I’m through with a book, I have a sheet full of notes with which to write a full review. I don’t immediately move on to another book right after I turn the last page, but I have a contemplating period in which I make my journal entry that is polished to a full book review. This is why I only breakfast at restaurants that would provide me with reasonable privacy. I need my reading and writing space. A book usually takes me 3-4 days to finish, then I have a journal entry day (in the morning), before starting a new book.

Stretching Patience

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This week’s question:

What was the last book you could not finish and why?

I know life is too short for underwhelming book but I usually finish what I started. The one book that came so close to not being finished this year is London Fields by Martin Amis. I lost interest about two-thirds of the way and I just skimmed through it so that I didn’t miss anything important. 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. It’s just another meditation for the way the world ends wrapped in a quasi-love story that turns out to be an unresolved mess.

My Reading History

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The host of Booking Through Thursday reflects:

Do you keep a list of the books you’ve read? How? In a journal? Through one of the online services? If so, WHY? To keep good records for future reference? To make sure you don’t accidentally reread? If not, why not? Too eager to move on to the next book? Too lazy? Never thought to bother?

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The book reviews on this blog are straight from my reading journals. I have adopted the same format since my first reading journal: the review should be no more than two pages, with at least two quotations/passages, with a brief plot summary and a note on the author’s language, style, and moral theme. I have recently started my fifth Moleskine® notebook on October 25, with my review on The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. The header of each entry will contain the title, the author, the dates read, and page number. Since I started school, reading and journaling had been hand-in-hand. While a reading journal can be helpful for recording observations and questions. I find mine to be more structured than mere “first impressions” or “personal reactions.” The two pages devoted to each book contain my overall impressions of the reading, particular passages or details stand out to me, and personal experiences or background relate to the reading. As you see, reading and reflection are like both sides of a coin. It doesn’t take too much time out of my reading—usually an entry over coffee during breakfast. If reading is the absorbing of author’s words, then reflection is the interaction. The journal is a transcription of my conversation with the book.