Last Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. I visited my local indie and got some goodies. The bookstore is on College Avenue in Berkeley, nested in a colony of shops and restaurants. They’ve got snacks and lemonade and coffee to greet book lovers. I was quick to snatch the very last zip pouch with famous literary cats painted on it. I brought home also a stash of books, including The Luminaries, which, hopefully I’ll muster courage to read soon.
I chose to read the annotated Chinese translation of Twilight in the Forbidden City, originally written by Reginald Johnston, Puyi’s English Teacher from 1919 to 1923, because the translator does a great job to correct and clarify some of Johnston’s observations in hindsight. Johnston is privy to the inside workings of the corrupted imperial household that lived off extravagant allowance from the Republic of China under the privilege treaty after the Qing monarchy was overthrown. A keen observer and a close confidante of the young former emperor, Johnston depicts in vivid details the final years of monarchy before Puyi was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924. I have a habit of mentally translating Chinese text in English as I read, grappling with the many Chinese terms that are not existent in English. It’s a rewarding brain exercise that shows me the versatility of both languages.
Sycamore Row by John Grisham.
The bigger picture is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end.
Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
This one keeps me on the edge of the seat and makes me a fan of Elizabeth George. George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation.
A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines
When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death. A white teacher Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
In this melodrama of a book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative.
The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s gargantuan enterprise of a novel advocates selfishness. Selfishness in terms of safeguarding and preserving an individual’s thinking, achievement and reason from the hijacking of the government. Groundbreaking and outlandish. In the context of the novel, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.
Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
This is my Paris primer when I made the trip to the French capital. Paris is riddled with history and Horne dissects into seven periods. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.
A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells
First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readable prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose. The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A mixed drama-romance-thriller. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
This is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. The book gives insight into the mental faculty of the mind’s working of those who are prosecuted for the murders. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts.
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As titled. It’s two days before new year but I’m not finished with the year’s readings. I don’t ring in the new year or do countdown party but I would spend all day on New Year’s Eve reading. From this list from Huffington Post I happen to have a few books that I’d like to read before 2016.
I never miss a book by Michael Cunningham. A Wild Swan is like a sequel to fairy tale–what happens after “happily ever after.” Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness explores her daily petty forgetfulness, something that affects pretty much every one of us. The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is about a neighbor’s playful cat is full of whimsy. A couple without pets of their own grows attached to a cat that visits their garden each day, and reflects on the time spent with their joyful companion. The cover gets me right away before I even read the blurb.
There are more great books on this list, including Milan Kundera and William Gass, if you are into shorter fiction and stories. I plan to check them all out in due course.
The day after Christmas saw the continual closure of my indie bookstore for the holidays (good for them but not so good for me). The Barnes & Noble that I walked by while getting lunch advertises some partial sale. Not so much a liquidation but more than post-Christmas clearance. A little prying affords the news of the store’s imminent closure because they couldn’t reach a new agreement on a lease. My guess is another greedy landlord who won’t budge at a reasonable increase of rent. A scheduled closure in January means the B&N will not replenish their inventory. So I drive another 10 miles to Half Price Books, which is having a store-wide 20% off sale. They’ve got new and used books for a pretty good discount. I stocked up on mysteries, mostly Minette Walters and Elizabeth George, for my travel reading. I also decided on Henry Miller’s Tropics of Cancer, a brand new trade paperback for over half the cover price. I think every book has its time and as intimidating as Tropics of Cancer might be, it’s time has come. Sometimes you just to own up to your fear and bite the bullet. I’m taking it with me to Asia so I can (kinda) have Paris with me.
My newest favorite author of English mystery/crime fiction is Minette Walters. She writes psychological suspense stories that keep reader guessing until the last page. But I realize she is not as prolific as the others in this genre, where writers are encouraged to published once or even twice a year. Her work reminds me of Ruth Rendell, and indeed, upon a glance of the oeuvre, reveals the concern of wiring and misfiring of psyche. Crime novels cal also provoke repulsion, especially in the depiction of violence against women, like in The Scold’s Bridle. A scold’s bridle in the middle ages was a metal muzzle straddled in woman’s head in order curb her nagging tongue. The opening scene finds the victim murdered in the bathtub wearing a scold’s bridle.
Her insight into psyches is aided by having been a weekly prison visitor for a long period. She became fascinated by judicial punishment after researching her great-great-great grandfather, Joshua Jebb, who was Britain’s surveyor general of prisons in the mid-19th century. Walters never used her visits as research, but the encounters clearly provided a remarkable insight into criminals’ thinking and speech. That said, her books are dark and female-oriented. A writer who continues the line of Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, Walters thinks that most women are amateur psychiatrists, and thus the phenomenon that English crime fiction is mostly female-led.
As of today I have read 65 books this year, the least in 5 years, but I have read extensively and out of my comfort zone. Nonfiction has made up 25% of my readings.
1. The entire month of January, my usual vacation month, was devoted to thrillers. Read John le Carre and John Grisham for the first time.
2. Most-read author of the year: Elizabeth George. Love how she doesn’t write cookie-cutter whodunit. By the end of her books I appreciate how people act they did more than the solution to mystery.
3. Still Alice is actually a more-than-passable movie tie-in.
4. The best translated novel: Half of a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang. The unfulfilled tale of a hapless couple in 1940s Shanghai has long made an impression in me.
5. Most bizarre (but beautifully written) novel: Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. Revenge through seduction and sex of a student for her teacher by seducing a father and son.
6. Most disappointing book by an author I long to read: The Accidental by Ali Smith.
7. One of the best books: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. Thomas creates an intimacy with the protagonist’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving. This book will for a long time remain with me. The account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life is minutely examined in a ponderous pace.
8. The longest book read: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Thanks to blogger Tina who musters up the courage for me. It’s a provocative read about how we shall never surrender our will and our own thinking.
9. Most read-about city: Paris. I read up on the city, its people, and history before my trip to the French capital in summer. The readings enhanced my understanding of Paris in historical context.
10. The book with the longest time span: A Short History of the World covers from the beginning of time to mid-20th century. Informative, interesting, and factual.
11. Most impressive true crime: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. The landmark Manson cult murders captured in this book with surgical details of the evidence and court proceedings.
12. Best cross-genre: The Paying Guests by Sarach Waters. A genteel English mansion has to accept paid tenants to make ends meet. The book reflects the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. But the most unexpected evolves—a lesbian relationship, a death, and the drama to evade the law. The women’s invisibility is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing drama. Riddled in this novel is the unbearable pressure of remorse and moral responsibility.