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Restless Empire


This will be one of my summer readings, which will gravitate toward non-fiction. I realize a chronological history of China doesn’t sustain my interest. In the same way, I abandon a general history of Paris for a book on how landscape and urban design transformed the City of Lights. Restless Empire is a welcoming alternative. It tells the story of the foreigners who helped China become what it is today, from China’s first interactions with the West to the current era. In doing so, Odd Arne Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia. The Washington Post comments, “Westad’s book goes them one further, showing that the foreigners’ story in China is not the monochromatic account of malevolent imperialism that has dominated the discourse in U.S. universities but a much richer and more important tale. The brilliance of Restless Empire is that while acknowledging the threat to China inherent in its contacts with the West and Japan, Westad also shows that they inspired and amazed the Chinese and played the critical role in the opening of the Chinese mind.”

China shows pleasure in being treated as a global player, but shows little sign of knowing what to do with that power other than criticizing the United States. “China has to learn,” Wastad says drily, “that sticking it in the eye of the world’s hyperpower may bring short-term gratification, but it does not amount to a grand strategy in international politics.”

Growth of Paris


This is a gem of a book. A history of Paris through the development of its streets, urban space, and infrastructure. Construction of Pont Nouf, for example, became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in the public again after decades of religious violence in 1734. The Pont Nouf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city. This book demonstrates that the Parisien model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier than the times when most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris.

[733] The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris – John Baxter


” Well, this is [Parisians’] habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. ” (Ch.1, p.4)

This whole book itself is an irony—Baxter advocates following a guide while he himself is one. The book is a mash-up of a memoir, history, and armchair travel guide. Baxter, having lived in Paris over two decades and married to a French woman, found his witting entry into the very profitable business of tour guide when a friend running week-long literary seminars persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with some academic. Baxter finds this academic personality very dry, dessicated and painfully pretentious. That’s what inspires him to not become a tour guide stereotype.

He urges visitors to embrace the art of a flâneur, someone who passionately walks for pleasure of it and allows the whims to guide him, with no set itinerary. Paris, after all, is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the peace of strolling can take in all the rich, if muted, detail.

Whereas most Americans associate Paris with the lost generation of 1920s epitomized by famous expats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Baxter does not limit to presenting Paris in the eyes of these celebrities. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Hemingway, but equally making lively cameo are Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau, and the entourage of French painters who made Paris the legendary art capital.

But the best part of the book is when Baxter steers away from mainstream attractions—the quintessential cafes and bistros, and delves into the off-the-beaten-path, seedy Paris. The alleys, he notes, do not connote squalor and danger, but are respectively rich in history. Who would have imagined the wide, beautiful expanse of Luxembourg Garden was the roaming ground of a social killer who murdered women for their money? And there’s the uninviting building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. The catacombs underlay large areas Paris with expansive rabbit warrens of skulls, femurs, and tibias.

With a casual familiarity, Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. It’s a gem of a book that reminds me of A Moveable Feast, with small chapters exploring some engaging facets of Parisian culture and history.

298 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Lady in Gold”


The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer tells the remarkable true story behind Helen Mirren’s new film The Woman in Gold. The book, written by Anne-Marie O’Connor, is not so much about the history of the Klimt’s painting as the dispute revolving the ownership of this painting.

It jumps off points to tell the story of Vienna and the Jewish aristocracy which was so prominent and influential in Viennese culture at the turn of the 20th century. It begins with the plight and fate of these Viennese Jews after World War I and before, during and after World War II and how WWI created a culture ripe for increased antisemitism and the acceptance of promise Hitler made to create a stable, prosperous, united Germany. The bulk of this book is devoted to telling these stories with the Bloch-Bauer family at the center.

Then reader is taken on a journey with the painting and the Bloch-Bauer family through World War I (and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and World War II (and the end, or the travails, of many of the Jews of Europe, including members of the Bloch-Bauer family and their friends–also the theft by the Nazis of many of the great works of art in private and public hands, including much of Klimt’s work–and Lady in Gold, too). Then reader learns how the family tried to get the painting back from the government of Austria, which claimed it was given to that country’s state art museum rather than “Aryanized” by the Nazis. This legal battle started in the late 90’s and culminated successfully in the early 2000’s.

In Woman in Gold, Helen Mirren plays the part of US citizen Maria Altmann, niece of the muse of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. Her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, had been the striking model for the artist’s celebrated 1907 painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a work that once hung in her childhood home. Seized by a Nazi collector just before the outbreak of the second world war, the painting was for many years the proud possession of the national Belvedere gallery in Vienna. But in 2006, after Altmann won her long case by demonstrating her right to her dead family’s art collection, the Klimt was sold for £73m, making headlines around the world.

“A Pedestrian in Paris”


Doing a little homework for Paris, that is, readying my mind for the City of Light. John Baxter is right: Paris is meant to be seen on foot and sans itinerary. That is exactly what a flaneur does, who walks for the pleasure for it, without a sense of time or an aim. Parisians have long regarded the city as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist there. People don’t step out of their front door into their cars, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall. Parisians bike, take the metro or bus, and walk. Like philosopher Charles Gros says, “Nobody has yet found a better way to travel slowly than to walk. It requires two legs; nothing move. Want to go faster? Don’t bother walking—roll, slide or fly: don’t walk.” Walk to the one’s whim and feelings, follow no guide, and do not rush.

Alongside Edmund White’s The Flâneur and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is as close as a reader can get to the feel of a languid spring walk along Baron Haussmann’s boulevards without actually being there. Baxter understands that the beauty of that great city is the generosity, the bounty that allows all of her admirers to, as Colette once said, create their own little province — connecting a bakery to a park to a favorite shop to a literary anecdote.

[731] The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman


” One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties. ” (Ch.18, p.166)

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a true story of human resiliency and empathy during World War Two in Poland. It begins in mid 1930s, when Poland was the heartbeat of eastern European Jewish culture. Jon and Antonina, then a young couple, were directors of the Warsaw Zoo, which housed animals only only in cages but in their living space such that there was no conventional boundary between humans and animals. The Zabinskis also host artists and intellectuals who congregate the villa like a bohemian cafe.

But as zookeepers, the Zabinskis understood both vigilance and predators; in a swamp of vipers, one planned every footstep. Shaped by the gravity of wartime, it wasn’t always clear who or what could be considered outside or inside, loyal or turncoat, predator or prey. (Ch.28, p.242)

When Nazi bombarded Warsaw in 1939 and ruined the zoo, the Zabinskis joined resistance effort. They smuggled food into the Warsaw Ghetto of Jews, which was later ravaged by tuberculosis, dysentery and famine in such a way to give the Nazi an excuse to annihilate it altogether. They also used the zoo as an arm cache. Although the zoo was by no means ideal for hiding refugees, consider the setting being so heavy tread and exposed to public view, the Zabinskis managed to capitalize on the Nazis’ obsession with rare animals in order to save over 300 doomed people. Antonina was sensitive and high-strung, but very good with animals. She wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never complained about the danger.

The best camouflage for people is more people, so the Zebinskis invited a stream of legal visitors . . . and established a regular unpredictability, a routine of changing faces, physiques, and accents, with Jan’s mother a frequent guest. (Ch.14, p.115)

Ackerman’s descriptive prose evinces not only the horror of Jewish Holocaust but also the profound connection between humankind and nature. Her attentiveness to details of nature and animal could be a bane or a boon. She tends to elaborate on the natural habitat in which the fateful humans and animals co-exist. The expectation that the book is an intriguing melodrama of how Jews hid in the cages and escaped the Nazi horror might have brought the slew of negative reviews. Even the publisher markets this book with heroism being the gimmick. But if one looks beyond this shallow expectation, there’s beauty to be found.

The focus of The Zookeeper’s Wife is not so much the survival by deceptive tricks as life’s beauty, mystery, and tenacity. Ackerman after all is a naturalist and poet, who can tell the Zabinski story with a fresh perspective. It tells the frightening tale of how the Nazis’ obsession with dominating nations and purifying breed go so far as to alter world’s ecosystems and nature.

368 pp. W.W. Norton. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Zookeeper’s Wife

“The zoo wasn’t always a first stop for Guests, especially ones escaping the Ghetto, who might spend a night or two downtown with Ewa Brzuska, a short, ruddy, squarish woman in her sixties whom people called ‘Babcia’ (Granny). She owned a tiny grocery on Sedziowske Street, which extended out onto the sidewalk where Ewa arranged barrels of sauerkraut and pickles beside baskets of tomatoes and greens. Neighbors crowded into shop and socialize, despite the German military’s car repair depot right across the road. Every day, a group of Jewish men would be escorted from the Ghetto to work on the cars, and Granny would secretly post their letters or keep watch while they spoke with family members. Tall sacks of potatoes stood around for young smugglers from the Ghetto to hide behind. In 1942, her back rooms became a branch office of an Underground cell, and she stored ID cards, spare birth certificates, money, and bread coupons under barrels of pickled cucumbers and sauerkraut, stashed subversive publications in the stockroom, and often hid escaping Jews for a night, some surely bound for the zoo.” (ch.14, p.117)

I know Diane Ackerman tends to stray and crams too many unnecessary facts in the book. Some readers find the over-descriptive details of nature cloying and terribly annoying. The book, The Zookeeper’s Wife is historical, based on a true story, and is worth a read. My advice is not to rush through it, and allow yourself to sop up the details.

Memorable Reads of 2014


Not necessarily books published in 2014, just the books I read this year.

Defending Jacob by William Landay
An exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing story of a 14-year-old boy who is accused of murder. The is rooted in the very sense of ambiguity—it’s possible to get almost all the way through the book without knowing where it heads and how it will end. Expect huge twists at the end.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
The slow, murderous disintegration of a marriage is all too believable in this painfully suspenseful book set in Chicago that switches between Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. The murder is announced right off the bat, but Harrison takes her time, building the small details and emotional nuances which make the killer’s move to commit the unspeakable believable.

Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony & Maureen Wheeler
This is a vast armchair travel around the world, but is also a chronicle of how the staff would go to make the tedious run to update the information. There’s a personal touch to the book as Wheeler reflects not juggling between work, family, and travel. The book is a remarkable testimony to how a love and passion of travel has led to a life of fulfillment.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, published a year after his suicide in Brazil in 1942, is not a conventional one, for it is a mirror of an age rather than of a life. Beautifully written but utterly poignant, it is through this book that we appreciate the full measure of a man in the lost era before the First World War.

The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
Is it possible to open a bookstore that strictly carries high-brow literature? Who is to judge what good literature? What happens if people go to the extreme to dictate what good literature the public is to read? It’s a very creative and provocative story.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
This is part biography and part history. Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression.

Ficciones I & II by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges is a brilliant mind. This collection of stories, through Borges’s best-known motifs like mirror, labyrinth, library, and chance, explores the ideas of parallel times in a multiverse in which, we, human beings, are part of the mystery that it’s impossible for us to attain full knowledge of such infinite domain. Borges uses the reader’s collective memory—preconceived images, ideas, experiences, and knowledge as the foundation of his stories, only to subvert them and replace with a new, unfamiliar context.

The First Three William Monk Mysteries by Anne Perry
The first three mysteries in one volume. All there concerned hidden family secrets that constitute murders. All three keep me guessing to the very end, pulsating as the truth is slowly revealed. Perry’s characters are complex, flawed, and authentic. She doesn’t spare the squalor of the Victorian age, nor waste any opportunity to lambaste on the hypocrites who claim to be of genteel rearing but whose endeavors are as pathetic and treacherous as those in the underworld league of fraud and vices.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Anne Boleyn is beheaded. While it is in the nature of historical fiction that one knows what happens next, the genius of Bring Up the Bodies is that Thomas Cromwell, opaque, labyrinthine and vengeful, despite controlling the fates of so many, doesn’t know the outcome of these events that are narrated through his consciousness. On top of his acumen and perspicacity, Mantel suggests that it’s Cromwell’s origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family that allows him to play the role he does.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham
This is a riveting story of retribution and justice set in the South. It is a provocative read that grabs you from the start. Grisham raises very thought-provoking questions on races and justice. It’s more than just a page-turning legal thriller. The book is an intense social commentary that begs the question: can justice be truly color-blind?

[711] The Lost City of Z – David Grann


” Despite the vastness of the Amazon, it seemed unable to accommodate all of these explorers’ egos and ambitions. The men tended to eye one another hawkishly, jealously guarding their routes for fear of being beaten to a discovery. They even conducted reconnaissance on each other’s activities. (Ch.14: The Case for Z, p.165)

The Lost City of Z concerns one of the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century, the disappearance of British explorer Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 ventured into the Amazon jungle in search of a fabled civilization he believed located deep in the deadly wilderness. Expeditions like Fawcett’s were not fueled by the simple need to get as far away as possible, but more by an inner thirst, an obsession for uncharted realms.

Percy Fawce3tt certainly got the jones for hunting. He’s by no means a treasure hunter, but was hooked by the notion of treasure hunting in general. He was a man of science whose interest lied in civilization. He began with the Royal Geographic Society, which was in the process of mapping the globe. The society, which taught him cartography, surveying, mounting, and executing expedition, was responsible for turning him into an explorer. On his first trip to the Amazon in 1906, Fawcett was charged with fixing the border between Brazil and Bolivia. He made repeated trips to the region to fulfill obligation to the RGS.

Financial ruin, destitution, starvation, cannibalism, murder, death: these seemed to be the only real manifestations of El Dorado. A a chronicler said of several seekers. ‘They marched like madmen from place to place, until overcome by exhaustion and lack of strength they could no longer move from one side to the other, and they remained there, wherever this sad siren voice had summoned them, self-important, and dead. (Ch.15: El Dorado, p.174)

In the course of his cartography travels, Fawcett heard whispers of a kingdom, a civilization overgrown and forgotten. He began spotting clues everywhere, in the customs of the Indians, in oral histories and legends, Intertwined with the story of Fawcett’s chasing his mirage is Grann’s own pursuit, 80 years later, to the explorer’s chasing after a ruined empire, but with a more practical look at the Amazon that complies with science. Grann offers a valid but grim view of why Fawcett’s pursuit might not have been a feasible one. The jungle itself, so inimical and inhospitable, not only imposes on explorers severe survival challenges, but also refutes Fawcett’s theory that primitive Indian tribes could have constructed any sort of sophisticated society.

Grann examines numerous subjects, revolving around the Amazon jungle, that seem more and more mythical. The jungle itself might have resisted human’s effort to tame it, but the jungle’s wilderness is also a metaphor that can be glimpsed but never charted. In other word, Fawcett’s story is about how an ordinary person with boundless imagination can become tedious. He remains a legend also because an estimated 100 would-be-rescuers perished in more than 13 expeditions sent to to uncover his fate. The book follows a predictable pattern and paces evenly. Grann follows Fawcett’s twists and turns admirable in this thoroughly researched book of part memoir, part history and part cultural studies.

400 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

History Books

Why can’t schools teach history with these wonderful books in lieu of those dry textbooks?

Why the West Rules—for Now by Ian Morris
This book really puts the world and its main constituent conflict into perspective, by going to the root. It describes the patterns of human history in a mixed angle of archaeology and history. Why has the West dominated the world for the past 200 years, and will its power last? Is power just money alone?

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Bryson is no scientist, but rather a curious and observant writer who would dissect thing like proton and protein for you.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power by Daniel Yergin
This book traces the history of oil from its humble, entrepreneurial beginnings in the hillsides of western Pennsylvania, to the shrewd domination of the industry by John D. Rockfeller, to the breakup of Standard Oil, and through the discovery of oil in the farthest flung corners of the globe.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
It tackles the question why Europeans come to dominate the New World. Jared Diamond argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann
This book tells the epic story of Percy Fawcett’s quest for a fabled civilization located deep in the deadly Amazonian wilderness.