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April Rebounce

April has seen a combination of old favorite authors and authors I have never read before, thanks to the many fun book lists like this and this from The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake.

9 books, 2802 pages (up 487 pages from March), 93 pages a day

Emily, Alone Stewart O’Nan
Underlying the humor and her disdain for common idiocy, O’Nan gives us a portraiture that is an incisive investigation of the ways cultural forces shape private lives. The constant clash, though rather subdued and not pronounced, between Emily and her children has as much to do with generational differences as with issues of temperament and personal inclination. This is a quiet book, but full of life. One of the best reads of the month.

The Rain Before It Falls Jonathan Coe
Coe’s writing is thoughtful and contemplative, but the story itself mediocre at best. It’s forgettable. It leaves me with a feeling that the book is under-written. The story that runs through my mind is the same mistake perpetrated by generations of women, who compound their ill fate by making poor choices, neglecting and mistreating their children. I’m underwhelmed by this one but will explore Coe’s other works.

The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood
retains its sense of mystery to the end, when the interplay of secrets in the sister’ tangled lives are revealed. Iris is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature. As she reflects upon the path she has taken to old age, she is oblivious to her own hand in the downward turn. Victim to whom fate has not been kind, but whose ills (like those of many victims of circumstance) are largely of her own making, even if her contribution was often one of complacency. So glad I have finally read this paramount classic.

The Book of Joe Jonathan Tropper
Tropper continues to amaze and satisfy. Self-deprecatingly funny about provocatively insightful, it is the story of a writer who was once an alienated youth but achieves literary success with a novel that salvages his hometown and its people. Beneath all the humor is an emotional heft of a late coming of age story. Tropper rocks.

A Year in Provence Peter Mayle
What a whet to my taste buds! This book chronicles Mayle’s first year living in France. Although the transition to living in Provence is not the smoothest for the Mayles, and that everybody in the region has strong opinion about everything, the Provençales all agree on the importance of food. What is better than learning a culture through its culinary art and gastronomic particulars?

The Help Kathryn Stockett
I’m resistant to bestsellers but this one does live up to its hype. Despite some stylistic flaws, he Help succeeds in what literature ought to achieve—appraising and exposing human condition. However exaggerated the story might be in spurts, it demonstrates the indomitable will of human beings to survive against all odds.

The Transit of Venus Shirley Hazzard
I have mixed feelings about this book. Hazzard is no doubt a wordsmith who knows her language. But throughout the entire story Hazzard does not cling on to any notion of hope: Her characters are not worthy of empathy, some are plain nasty and pretentious, others are miserable before rescue. While the novel lives up to what befits a literary fiction in the value and power of language, the story needs desperately to be trimmed to its honest bones.

The Spectator Bird Wallace Stegner
Stegner has become another signature author for me. The book is about a man’s soul searching and aging with dignity. The 20/20 hindsight on a past event makes an old couple realize that true marital communion does not allow room for dishonesty. Stegner’s style is at once brilliant, contemplative, and effortless. So often that you have to read between the lines to appreciate the intimacy of the marriage.

Young Hearts Crying Richard Yates
This book is a long manifestation of what it means to be a loser. In a pervasive tone of sadness, with prose so unadorned and unsentimental, Yates creates a vision, a relentless and unflinching scrutiny of a wasted life. This novel is about the desires and disasters of a tragic, hopeful couple, whose once bright future gives way to life of adultery and isolation. They are adrift in their miseries. It’s ultimately tiresome to read about the circular ruts of these people and I want to shake them and rage at them.

A Busy March

March had been a month of travel. I spent a week in Hong Kong and another in Texas/Oklahoma. Thanks to planning in advance and my very fastidious nature (almost to a fault) I was rewarded with some very good reading on the go. A few books I had picked up in Hong Kong and Dallas. Between leisure and work travel I am happy to finish with 8 books this month. A highlight is that I played safe reading authors I have read before and enjoyed this month.

8 books, 2318 pages, 75 pages a day

Disturbing the Peace Richard Yates

The weakest Yates for me although writing is contemplative as usual. This is a perfect example that I appreciate the writing much more than the story. That said, Yates is keen on the irony of life. John Wilder wants to to find himself and creates some order in his life in the chaos. The orderly life that he risks of ruining does not give him satisfaction but pain. A long story short, it’s a man going crazy.

The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes
My first Julian Barnes book makes me an instant fan. I picked this one up in Hong Kong because I was thrilled that the UK edition—a trade paperback—was available. Short but definitely not slight, this novel is a poignant portrait of the costs and benefits of time passing, of friendship and love, in particular love, how it validates and vindicates life. The unreliable narrator, safe in his comfort and guard, is a mystery to himself. It fondly reminds me of The Remains of the Day.

The Longest Journey E.M. Forster
In this novel, Forster, most stylistically daring ever, wields together words with such eloquence and wit. But the clarity of the story is never compromised. The narrative voice and Rickie’s voice are almost interchangeable, except that Rickie can only reflect and acquiesce on how he was better off to be left alone in his idealism. I acknowledge its importance because it sets all the key themes that prevailed in his future works.

The Easter Parade Richard Yates
This book rescued many a gloomy and misty days in Hong Kong; it also rescues Yates’ credential after the somewhat stagnant, underwhelming Disturbing the Peace. is quiet novel. Like almost every Yates story, this is on one level a tragedy, but the journey of his characters is illuminating. The quality and exquisiteness of his writing is noteworthy, owing to the fact that he keeps a distance from his characters. Yates has a knack for the effortlessness with which he encapsulates life, an he allows life to unravel at its own course. This quietness of style best illuminates time’s difference, since over half the sisters’ lives are packed into the thin volume.

Flappers and Philosophers F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gifted to me by a friend in Hong Kong, this stellar collection of short stories that form the backbone of Fitzgerald’s novels has fit into my busy social agenda in Hong Kong. I often read a story or two between engagements, and read some more just before bedtime. The stories often amplify the novels and playing out variations of characteristic motifs. Permeated in these tales is a sense of loss and regret.

Wish You Were Here Stewart O’Nan
I am totally in love with O’Nan. He has a keen eye for humanity and family dynamics. As the family comes to grapple with their loss, they also come to terms with a gamut of emotions and tension. Wish You Were Here is a close portraiture of a family told through an elergy of a lost father, a lost past and lost dreams. It’s a testimony of motherly love, how inevitably parents is given to the worries of their children.

The History of Love Nicole Krauss
This book is a saving grace for Nicole Krauss, at least to me. I didn’t enjoy her latest, The Great House. It takes a while to get a footing on the multiple back stories of The History of Love that would weave so seamlessly at the end. Alma’s research on the book that her mother so passionately translates, the mystery of the book’s authorship, Leopold’s effort to recover the manuscript so his son could read it—how the stories unfold is like digging from two ends of a tunnel, not knowing where and how they would intersect.

Emily, Alone Stewart O’Nan
This is supposed to be the sequel to Wish You Were Here. I just finished the book and have yet to write the review. Another winner from O’Nan—a majestically quiet, contemplative book about getting on life that offers hidden strength and possibilities.

Despite the low page read/day average, this month offers some of the best reading. The quality certainly surpasses quantity.

Not-So-Bad February

Between work and travel, February is a very busy month. I managed eight books in the shortest month of 2012, not too bad. For over half the month I was gone so the blog hasn’t been updated. I tried to maintain normal reading habit. Here’s the round-up:

8 books, 2752 pages, 95 pages a day

A Meaningful Life L.J. Davis
Got this book cold turkey. Never heard of L.J. Davis let alone to read him. The book is about a man who wills himself a meaningful life by restoring a collapsing house to its glory. But unknowingly to him, he’s the house himself—standing a slim chance of revival. Davis doesn’t give the cause of effect of Lowell, who is merely gliding through somnolence, making poor decisions without his knowing, and thus bringing about unexpected consequences.

The Falls Joyce Carol Oates
My first Oates and am quite impressed, although I have no idea what to read next by her. It’s the story of a man’s unselfish humanism and idealism against his his spouse’s inward-looking isolationism. While there are compelling shorter fictions embedded in this book, Oates’s handling of transitions is uneasy in this book.

One Day David Nicholls
Never say never. This book has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise for the month of February. I was at pause to read it owing to the breakneck speed with which Hollywood embraced it. It is a great read. The device of tackling the same day in subsequent years encapsulates the ideal solution to the novel’s greatest challenge of knowing what to leave out and to include. For readers the focus on just one day a year is a constant allure and tease to read on, leaving room for imagination as to what happens during the rest of the year.

Netherland Joseph O’Neill
This book uses American cricket to explore the larger theme of immigration: what compromises and sacrifices are made on the part of immigrants. Unfortunately, the book is too small-boned, despite a big ambition, lacking a central magnet that holds the disjointed, incohesive story intact. How can anyone in the right mind compare this to Gatsby, huh, New York Times?

Freedom Jonathan Franzen
I’m a fan and will always be. Whether Oprah disowns him or people slam him with negative comments, I always get his books. obviously bears the mission to demonstrate, to expose, and to mock the illusory nature of our freedom. Freedom abused and misconstrued. Through the Berglunds and their six degrees of separation, Franzen shows, with such disdainful imperviousness of a voice, people who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident. Despite the incessant cycles and tedium, this book is actually very witty.

The House Behind the Cedars Charles W. Chesnutt
Another cold turkey. It is about a young woman who fights for love and opportunity against the ranked forces of a pernicious society poised on racism, against immemorial tradition, and against family pride. However sentimental it might read, it is a beautiful novel about someone, deep in the misery that her own race subjects her, fully realizes her racial consciousness. It can read a bit outdated because it was published over a century ago.

How to Travel with a Salmon Umberto Eco
This collection is not to be missed if you are keen on light and diverting read but that which sheds light on what it means to be human in the age of technological and informational boom.

The Lost Language of Cranes David Leavitt
Leavitt’s debut is a perceptive novel about sexual identity and family. It poses the question about the relationship between who one is and whom one loves. Does a love object, particularly an unconventional one, confer identity upon the person who loves it (or him, or her?) Sensitively nuanced novel about how father and son deal with their sexuality, respectively.

On the strength of emotional depth and beautiful writing, my picks for the month are The Lost Language of Cranes and One Day.

Fruitful January

At the beginning of January I set the goal to read 100 books this year. As someone who is determined to accomplish what he sets his heart on, I am doing pretty awesome for the first month—with 11 books read. To keep my progress in check, I’ll post a monthly summary of the books read. As I’m writing this post, I’m also reflecting on what I have remembered and what impression the books have made on me. It’s good exercise for the brain and a testimony of the strength of these books.

11 books, 3434 pages, 110 pages a day

For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
Glad I have read the book, which has some great thoughtful writing on how war destroyed lives and changes the way we think about human interaction, but it’s not my favorite book.

The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon
The book is ingenious in being a social satire filled with black humor. It’s a puzzle, an intrigue, and a downward spiral to absurdity. Yet it’s so hit home about our need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum of uncertainty.

Union Atlantic Adam Haslett
Is there a book more relevant to our time than this one? Dispute over land that has been donated for preservation, fraudulent activities involved a conglomerate financial institution.

Shopgirl Steve Martin
What a pleasant surprise. I never knew Steve Martin is a writer, let alone a capable one. This is a jewel of a novella that speaks to the heart of what we desire in relationships.

Latecomers Anita Brookner
Brookner always has a keen eye on people. This book is a character study of two friends who were both German transplant in England, grew up together, and have gone into business together. A bit dry but still worth the read.

Put out More Flags Evelyn Waugh
So typically Waugh: he has developed a wickedly hilarious and yet spot-on assault (if you’re familiar with British history) on traditional values. The main character is so bad you want to punch him in the face.

This is Where I Leave You Jonathan Tropper
This is wickedly and riotously funny, barely leaving me room to breathe. Beneath all the humor is emotion so raw despite being repressed for so long. Whether these siblings like it or not, the blood relation binds them all through thick and thin.

All the Little Live Things Wallace Stegner
My strongest book of the month. The vividness of the language—embracing regret, fear, death, and love—is what gives the book its nauseously poignant edge. A deep reflection of what it means to be alive, and to be fully in terms with one’s lifetime.

The God of Luck Ruthanne Lum McCunn
The weakest book of the month. It is a very simple story but with complex historical elements. It reveals the little-known coolie trade to Peru. The main hero endures back-breaking labor in a foreign land with the sadness and determination of a wife and family back home.

Stoner John Williams
Another favorite of the month, and a great introduction to John Williams. A beautifully written and contemplative novel about a man who has triumphed over the inimical world by being indifferent to disappointments and joy, and by focusing on the work for which he has a passion. He is defined by his formidable determination.

My first book of February is by yet another new author, L.J. Davis; A Meaningful Life is about a man’s determination to restore to its past glory a rooming mansion in Brooklyn that he sinks his last penny on. Halfway through the book, Davis’s lyrical style and hilarious observations tell me that this book is way under-appreciated. It’s a NYRB title.