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Summer Reading Poll

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It’s summer and many people are taking summer vacation. I usually take my big annual vacation in winter but since I work in an academic institution, the administrative holidays in summer make it possible to sneak away from about a week. Goodreads recently releases a summer reading poll:

1. How many books do you typically bring on vacation?
I bring 3-4 to last me through an one-week vacation. I make sure I have a good read to see me through the flight if I’m going overseas. Next month I’ll be traveling to Europe for two weeks so I’ve already had a good book lined up for the flight. Of course, I can always buy more along the way!

2. What type of books do you read on vacation?
Vacation or not, I usually stick with paperbacks. I’m not ready to make the complete transition to e-books yet—I like to mark my books.

3. How long is your ideal vacation read?
I try to keep it under 400 pages. Wen I’m on vacation I tend to be more outdoor doing things, sightseeing, and hiking. My reading time is inevitably compromised and I need a book with a tight plot that holds my attention.

4. What genres do you read on vacation?
I read about the same thing I read at home: literary fiction, mystery, and history. I’m not a huge fan of fluffy beachy reads but I do prefer book with good plots.

5. Where do you usually read during summer?
Usually by the pool or at the beach. But it looks like I’ll do lots of reading in the garden or on the sidewalk in France.

Happy Fourth!

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—that Taggart boom and Rearden Metal and the gold rush to Colorado and the drunken spree out there, with Wyatt and his bunch expanding their production like kettles boiling over! Everybody thinks it’s great—that’s all you hear anywhere you go—people are slap-happy, making plans like six-year-olds on a vacation—you’d think it was a national honeymoon of some kind or a permanent Fourth of July!” (Atlas Shrugged, Part I, Chapter IX)

Happy Fourth of July from Phoenix.

[743] Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik

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“What truly makes Paris beautiful is the intermingling of the monumental and the personal, the abstract and the footsore particular, it and you. A city of vast and impersonal set piece architecture, it is also a city of small and intricate, improvised experience.”(8)

Although the book is somewhat dated (it was written during his stay between 1995-2000), I totally agree with Gopnik on the interaction of the architectural with he personal. This book is actually a collection of essays from the New Yorker, and some of the them are very insightful. I am interested in the subject matter: living in Paris, the expat life, culture clashes, etc. But the author’s style is rather long-winded and unnecessarily dense; some passages reminded me of esoteric literary criticism I used to have to read in college, not particularly suited to light observational journalism. At the first glimpse the book is sophisticated, but later uneven: some essays are excellent, heartfelt, incisive, clever while others are smug, condescending, boring. The book does not ultimately come together as a unified whole. Other than the pieces on food and fashion and the architecture, Gopnik’s prose was dead set on describing the political events of the time, and the events leading up to them. Gopnik told me about worker’s strikes, government nonsense, and current affairs (which, considering his soirée lasted from 1995 until 2000, is now ancient history) and barely anything of his Paris, which is really what I was looking for. I regret this book is an utterly boring scope of minute differences between New York and Paris life. There are many better books on Paris than this one.

338 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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

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” 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]

Baldwin’s Paris

Most literature of Paris delivers a nostalgia of the lost generation of which Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were a part. Writers (more like writer-wannabes) think there’s something in Paris that confers on writing a special gleam. One literary figure often overlooked is James Baldwin.

Baldwin was only 24 when he arrived in Paris, with just $40 in his pocket. Virtually unpublished, he had left New York to escape American racism—an escape that be believed literally saved his life and made it possible for him to write.

Baldwin was introduced to me in college American literature class. Since then he has maintained a grip on my imagination. Set in 1950s Paris, Giovanni’s Room (one of my all-time favorite novels) the novel tells the story of an ill-fated love affair between the narrator, David, a young American ex-soldier, and a darkly handsome Italian barman named Giovanni. I was inspired in equal parts by the depth and style of Baldwin’s prose, and the fact that he, a gay black man had written so boldly and lived so openly at a time when there was such deep social hatred and opposition aimed at those of us who shared either Baldwin’s race or sexual identity, let alone both. What’s more, the fact that he had found a way to live and write freely in Paris made the city feel like an essential destination for me.

I usually have no agenda going in Paris, rather want to allow the city to appeal to my whim. Why not go on a little Baldwin trail this time, starting at the famous Café de Flore, the place where Baldwin had spent endless hours on the second floor, drinking coffee and Cognac to keep warm while working on his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain?

“A Pedestrian in Paris”

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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.

Unusual Reading Habit

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A bit of an off-topic. This question came up at work: What is an unusual reading habit of yours? For me it’s armchair travel books, specifically travel guides. I peruse travel guides to my favorite places like I read a novel. Rick Steves’ series in Europe is one of my favorites. I enjoy the candid and humorous voice in his writing. Reading the book is like having a tour guide speaking to me. Travel is freedom, but sometimes in order to get the best out of what a place offers, I have to do my homework and research before going. Money and budget issues aside, when you lay the chips down, it comes down to what is open on what day. This is what I appreciate about Rick Steves’ guide. He lists weekly closure of all museums and sights of interests in any given city. He tells you when and how to go to popular sites without breaking a sweat. This is all important information that would make a trip so much smoother. I remember waiting in line for almost an hour to get into The Louvre on the day after it’s weekly closure. That’s something to keep in mind when planning an itinerary. The book reminds me to give a culture the benefit of my open mind. See things as different, but not better or worse.

[711] The Lost City of Z – David Grann

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” 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]

The Last Bookstore

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The Last Bookstore in downtown LA is more than a bookstore. In the former bank location is a high-ceiling space that allows for gargantuan book-inspired art work and installations.  It took me about an hour to walk through this “museum” before getting my hands on the books. They have used and new books. The main floor is home to fiction and all the social sciences. Mystery is up in the mezzanine with a slightly creepy setting apropos of the genre. Through the book tunnel you will find yourself in the $1 room where, needless to say, all books are $1 each. They have plenty of chairs and leather couches to sit on. Allow for a day of browsing, for just the art work and the store alone took about an hour to walk through.

Last Bookstore

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I was on my homeward bound flight from Los Angeles when the magazine informed me about the wonderful Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Then Tina from Book Chatter mentioned it again when i posted my book adventure in West Hollywood. I think I need to make a trip back just to visit this one. I heard you can make a day trip of Last Bookstore and still not check out the entire collection. I texted my friend and he was very kind to go and take some snapshots for me. All books on the upstairs “labyrinth” are $1 each. New books and myriad of arts made with books will greet you in the main level. Formerly a bank building, the high ceiling gives the bookstore a very welcoming, open atmosphere.