January is a month of great indecision. I can’t decide if I want to say more…
If there is one thing I can say for the January books, it is that most all of the fiction made mention of great music. Some musicians I knew, some I didn’t. Some songs I knew, some I didn’t. I had fun looking it all up though.
- Sanctuary by Ken Bruen (EB & print). Music: Philip Fogarty, Anne Lardi, Rolling Stones, Snow Patrol, Johnny Duhan.
- The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat (EB & print).
- Moonlight Downs by Adrian Hyland (EB & print). Music: Lucinda Williams, Slim Dusty, Nick Cave, The Warumpi Band, Ry Cooder.
- The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (EB & print). Music: Charles Tenet.
- Graced Land by Laura Kalpakian (EB & print). Music: Elvis, Elvis, and more Elvis.
- The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel (print). Music: Leonard Cohen, Beethoven, and the fictional heavy metal band, Panda Bear Soup.
- The Passage to India by E.M. Forster (EB & print).
- Barcardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten (EB & print).
- Master of Hestviken: the Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset (EB & print).
- The Persuader by Lee Child (EB & AB).
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- Fine, Thanks by Mary Dunnewold (EB). Music: Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Mose Allison, Talking Heads, Aaron Copeland (can you tell, Dunnewold really likes music!).
Te, Jonathan. The Beijing of Possibilities: Stories. New York: Other Press, 2009.
Reason read: Okay, so I have a confession. I wanted to read this in honor of January being the month for the Chinese New Year (on the 25th), but as the loan was coming from the east coast, it took an inordinate amount of time to arrive. I didn’t think I would have time to read it before January 31st, so I changed the reason to China’s Lantern Festival, which is in February. Well, to make a long story short, I finished Beijing before January 31st, so I’m back to the original reason, the new year.
Beijing of Possibilities is comprised of twelve witty, sharp, and compelling stories all taking place in contradictory Beijing. Many of the stories address the conflict between old and new. Ancient tradition clashing with modern ambition. Beijing is a hotbed of contradictions. Each character exemplifies and amplifies what happens when cultural norm meets current forward trajectory of capitalism.
The brilliant thread running through most all stories: the ancient Monkey King and the modern Olympic pride of the city.
Author fact: Tel has written other collections of short stories, none of which are on my Challenge list.
Book trivia: Quite unexpectedly I found black and white photographs in each story. What a nice surprise!
Nancy said: Pearl described the stories in Beijing of Possibilities as surreal with “Italo Calvinoist tendencies” (Book Lust To Go p 62).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “China: the Middle Kingdom” (p 60).
Believe it or not, I’m kind of happy with the way January is shaping up already, five days in. After the disappointments of December I am definitely ready for change. I’m running more these days. I convinced a friend to see sirsy with me. I’m not sure what she thought, but I am still in love with the lyrics. Anyway, enough of that. Here are the books:
- The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett – in honor of Bennett’s birthday being on the 14th of January. (EB)
- Sanctuary by Ken Bruen – in honor of Bruen’s birthday also being in January. Confessional: I read this book in one day. (EB)
- The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat – in honor of Danticat’s birthday also being in January. (EB)
- Graced Land by Laura Kalapakian – in honor of Elvis’s birth month also being in January.
- Passage to India by E.M. Forster – in honor of Forster’s birth month also being in January. Yes, celebrating a lot of birthdays this month!
- Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten – in honor of a Cuban Read Day held in January.
- Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel – in honor of China’s spring festival.
- Persuader by Lee Child – the last one in the series, read in honor of New York becoming a state in July (and where Child lived at the time I made this whole thing up). (AB)
- The Master of Hestviken: the Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset – this is another series I am wrapping up. I started it in October in honor of a pen pal I used to know in Norway.
- I am supposed to receive an Early Review from November’s list, but it hasn’t arrived so I can’t mention it. For the first time in a long, long time (perhaps ever, I’ll have to look), I did not request a book for the month of December.
So. I’ve done a few short runs here and there. Nothing crazy, but at least I’m back in it somewhat. Spent more time with the books. Speaking of which, here they are:
- Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman (EB/print)
- The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
- The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall (AB)
- Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli (EB)
- Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (EB)
- Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett (EB/print)
- Daring to Dream by Nora Roberts (EB)
- A Season in Red: My Great Leap Forward into the New China by Kirsty Needham
- A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird
- Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff
- Arctic Chill by Arnuldur Indridason (EB/print) – which I forgot to mention when I was plotting the month. It’s the last book of the series -that I’m reading. (There are others.)
- Big Bad City by Ed McBain
LibraryThing Early Review:
- Where Eagles Dare Not Perch by Peter Bridgford (EB) – which came after I plotted the month of reading so it wasn’t mentioned before.
Needham, Kirsty. A Season in Red: My Great Leap Forward into the New China. NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2006.
Reason read: the Double 7 Festival takes place in August.
Kirsty Needham traveled to Beijing, China in 2004 to immerse herself in the the culture. She wanted to see how China was modernizing at that time. As a journalist she arrived with a suitcase full of preconceived notions of how her time will be spent. She soon learns nothing is as it seems in a world full of constantly changing communist propaganda and government bureaucracy. As she says, “But there is a difference between knowing what you are letting yourself in for, and how you actually react when you find yourself there” (p 94). SARS, Saint Bernard dogs, controversial bicycles, progressive fashion and techno-night clubs are all the rage.
While I didn’t find any lines I wanted to quote, I did find some pop culture I wanted to look up after reading A Season in Red: the Taiwanese mandopop all girl-band, SHE and the kind-of-sexy singer, Jay Chou.
Author fact: Needham was able to work in Beijing thanks to an Australia-China Council exchange program.
Book trivia: there are no maps, photographs or significant illustrations in A Season in Red.
Nancy said: Nancy said she needed to be “very picky” about the books she included about the Middle Kingdom. A Season in Red made the cut. (Book Lust To Go p 60).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “China: the Middle Kingdom” (p 60).
Since the Run for Nancy was only a few days ago I am still on a high from not only running four miles, but running four miles without pain. No pain whatsoever. The pain is so gone it’s as if I imagined the whole thing. Weird. Weird. Weird. As for books, since I don’t have any other running plans in the near future:
- The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe – in honor of August being Chick Lit month.
- The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay – in honor of Courtenay’s birth month being in August.
- Daring to Dream by Nora Roberts – in honor of August being Dream Month (hey, I read it somewhere).
- Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett – in honor of Dunnett’s birth month being in August.
- The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall – in honor of Rajir Ratna Gandhi’s birth in August.
- A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird – in honor of Colorado becoming a state in August.
- Eurydice Street: a Place in Athens by Sofka Zinovieff – in honor of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin.
- A Season in Red by Kirsty Needham – in honor of the Double Seven festival in China.
- The Big Bad City by Ed McBain – to continue the series started in July.
If there is time:
- Under the Snow by Kerstin Ekman – in honor of Ekman’s birth month.
- Crazy Jack by Donna Jo Napoli – in honor of Fairy Tale Month.
I opted out of the cutesy title for this blog because…well…I simply wasn’t in the mood to come up with anything clever. What was December all about? For the run it was a 5k that I finished in “about 30 minutes” as my running partner put it. I also ran a mile every day (from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day). I think I’m satisfied with that accomplishment the most because I ran even when we were traveling, even when we were completely swamped with other things going on, even when I didn’t feel like lifting a finger. Despite it all, I still ran at least one mile.
Enough of that. In addition to running I read. Here are the books finished in the month of December. For some reason I surrounded myself with some of the most depressing books imaginable:
- Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild – read in two lazy afternoons
- Fay by Larry Brown – devoured in a week (super sad).
- Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (AB/print) – confessional: I started this the last week of November fearing I wouldn’t conquer all 600 pages before 12/31/17 but I did. (again, super sad book).
- Wanting by Richard Flanagan (really, really sad when you consider Mathinna’s fate).
- Between the Assassinations by Avarind Adiga (sad).
- The Beach by Alex Garland (again, sad in a weird way).
- God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories by Tom Bissell (the last of the sad books).
- Nero Wolf of West Thirty-fifth Street: the Life and Times of America’s Largest Detective by William Stuart Baring-Gould.
- Iron & Silk by Mark Salzman – read in three days. The only real funny book read this month.
- Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha by Dorothy Gilman – read in the same weekend as Ballet Shoes.
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- Brain Food: the Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power by Lisa Mosconi (started).
- Hit Reset: Revolutionary Yoga for Athletes by Erin Taylor.
Gilman, Dorothy. Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1985.
Reason read: to continue the series started in September in honor of Grandparents’ Day.
When we left Mrs. Pollifax after her African safari she and Cyrus Reed had just started a new romance. Now ten months later they are newlyweds living in a house they bought together. He’s off in upstate Vermont somewhere on a bird-counting expedition and Emily is overseeing renovations on their house when who should stop by for a visit, but old friend (and CIA man), Bishop. Of course, he needs Mrs. Pollifax for a delicate assignment and, but of course, there is no time to waste. If she agrees to take the case she doesn’t even have time to contact the hubby or pack properly (although she does remember to grab a snazzy hat). In an era when you could leave strangers in your house, Emily pops off a note to Cyrus and leaves the handymen to work unsupervised. Mrs. Pollifax’s new mission is a trip to Hong Kong to find missing agent Sheng Ti (a character from a previous story I didn’t read). Here’s the thing about Mrs. Pollifax – she will talk to just about anyone so the characters she meets run the gamut. She blithely shares information with double agents, gangsters and psychics alike. You could call this an adventure with just the right amount of silliness boiled in. There is death and violence and the threat of terrorism but take, for examples, the agents’s “secret” language, “…should be arriving you-know-where in fifteen minutes…” (p 128). I’m surprised the statement wasn’t followed by a wink-wink.
Mrs. Pollifax gets herself in a pickle but now she has a secret weapon to help save the day, her lovable husband, Cyrus!
Author fact: According to the back flap of Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha, Dorothy Gilman lived in New Mexico and Nova Scotia. That sounds like the best of both worlds.
Book trivia: My copy of Mrs. Pollifax was peppered with highlighting. It was if someone had been using it as a vocabulary primer for words like shrubbery and ensconced were marked.
Nancy said: Nancy called Emily Pollifax a “dithery elderly woman with a penchant for unusual hats” (p 98). I would agree with that.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the simple and to the point chapter, “Hong Kong” (p 97).
Salzman, Mark. Iron & Silk. New York: Vintage Departures, 1990.
Reason read: Mark Salzman was born in December. Read in his honor.
Funny. You would not expect a memoir about a cello playing martial arts master in China for the purpose of teaching English to medical students a funny book and yet it is. It is very funny and eye opening. Salzman’s adventures are, truth be told, a string of essays laced with tongue-in-cheek wit and culture. You cannot help but laugh out loud at some of his exploits as he tries to make his way through Chinese bureaucracy and customs. Take for example, his attempt to receive a package containing medication for athlete’s foot. It’s so maddening you almost think he’s making the whole thing up. But then you remember, in South Central China, there is a regulation for everything real or otherwise.
Author fact: Salzman wrote The Soloist which I have already read. There are three other Salzman books on my list which I cannot wait to read.
As an aside, look Salzman up on YouTube. You won’t be disappointed. His interview in a phone booth is great.
Book trivia: I wish Salzman had included photographs…or is that asking too much considering it was made into a movie in 1990 starring Mark Salzman as himself?
Nancy said: In both chapters Iron & Silk is mentioned Pearl just describes the book.
BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in two chapters. First in the chapter called “Dewey Deconstructed: 900s” (p 77) and again in the chapter called “Mark Salzman: Too Good To Miss” (p 194). As an aside, the first chapter shouldn’t include Iron & Silk. Nancy was mentioning Salzman was a companion of Stuart Stevens when Stevens traveled to China.
Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai. New York: Grove Press, 1986
Reason read: Best time to visit China is in September or so I have heard.
At one time Cheng’s husband used to be a diplomatic officer for the Kuomintang government. Due to the entrance of the Communist army, his appointment soon led him to a career with the British Shell International Petroleum Company. Upon his death, his widow, Nien Cheng, became the assistant to the new general manager. Cheng’s bilingual skills were invaluable to the organization and she soon filled in for the general manager. In addition, she had many international friendships and relationships. All these facts were seen as disloyal during the Cultural Revolution. Ultimately, she was accused of being a spy and imprisoned for six and a half years where she was treated to inhumane conditions and sometimes tortured. Despite everything, Cheng was able to use her fast thinking wit to turn Mao teachings against her captures as they tried time and time again to get her to confess to being a spy.
Quotes to quote, “The cacophony told me that the time of waiting was over and that I must face the threat of the Red Guards and the destruction of my home” (p 70). Can you imagine? You are powerless to stop what violence is yet to come.
Another quote, “When one tries to show emotion one does not genuinely feel, one tends to exaggerate” (p 275). True.
Last one, “Back doors in America only lead into people’s kitchens” (p 538).
Author fact: Cheng died of renal failure.
Book trivia: Life and Death in Shanghai does not contain any photographs which is sad, because I think a picture of her daughter would have been a nice tribute.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “China Voices” (p 55).
Jin, Ha. Ocean of Words. New York: Vintage International, 1996.
Ocean of Words is made up of twelve short stories, all centered around Chinese soldiers on the brink of war with Russia in the early 1970s. In every story there is a Chinese soldier wrestling with suspicion, loyalty, individualism and power. They all wave weaknesses or flaws that render them human above all else. Each character possesses a depth of personality that leaves the reader thinking about him long after the story has ended. I particularly liked the title story in which the “ocean of words” is a dictionary indexed in Chinese, Latin and English.
In order, the short stories are:
- “A Report”
- “Too Late”
- “Uncle Piao’s Birthday Dinners”
- “Love in the Air”
- “Dragon Head”
- A Contract”
- “Miss Jee”
- “A Lecture”
- “The Russian Prisoner”
- The Fellow Townsmen”
- “My Best Soldier”
- “Ocean of Words”
My favorite quotes, “Once you’re conquered by foreigners, you’ve lost everything” (p 27), “History is a mess of chances and accidents” (p 77), and “Mind modeling is more important” (p 174).
My favorite stories: “A Contract” and “Ocean of Words.”
Reason read: Celebrating Ha Jin’s birth month.
Author fact: Ocean of Words is Ha Jin’s first fiction.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called, “China:the Middle Kingdom” (p 61).
Sijie, Dai. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. New York: Random House, 2002.
This is the story of two Chinese teenage boys exiled to a remote mountain village for “re-education” during the 1970s; during the Cultural Revolution. In Part I in between bouts of grueling hard labor in the mines they meet the beautiful daughter of the local tailor. She is “the little Chinese seamstress” of the title. In Part II Luo and the unnamed narrator have a friend they call Four-Eyes. A myopic boy who has a mysteriously suitcase full of banned books. When Four-Eyes begrudgingly gives them a decrepit copy of Balzac the boys are hooked. Luo takes the forbidden story to the Little Chinese Seamstress and woos her with words. In Part III the boys grow careless with their knowledge of the forbidden books, the little Chinese seamstress becomes pregnant and life for all three changes.
Quotes that grabbed me, “The flirtation turned into a grand passion” (p 110), “After all, how could I die now, without having known love or sex, without having taken free individual action against the whole world…?” (p 114) and “The medical intervention was a success” (p 173).
Reason read: According to a bunch of travel sites September in China is beautiful. In honor of beautiful China in September…
Author fact: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is Dai Sijie’s first book.
Book trivia: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress became a national bestseller and in 2002 it was adapted into a movie.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “China Voices” (p 54).
Jin, Ha. The Bridegroom: stories. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.
“A Tiger-Fighter is Hard To Find”
It all starts with a letter from the governor’s office, praising a television series about a tiger killer. The show is a good example of a hero but there is one tiny flaw – the tiger doesn’t look realistic enough. If they can solve that dilemma their series might be chosen to compete for a national prize. The solution? The hero should battle a real tiger, a real Siberian caught in the mountains. Told from the point of the lowly set clerk who has the responsibility of making each take look like the last, he is witness to the obsession which dominates cast and crew behavior once the idea of competing for a national prize sets in. They go to great lengths to secure the tiger and even greater lengths to find someone to “kill” the tiger. It is a devastating story.
“After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town”
A sad story about an American chain restaurant in China – a culinary culture clash. Five restaurant employees are confused by their Americanized friend. He used to be one of them until he went to America and came back with a changed name and a new attitude. As their resentment towards him grows the five friends set up to sabotage the restaurant only to have their plan backfire horribly.
In both stories the major theme is a loss of control and the lengths people will go to to get it back.
Reason read: June is National Short Story month….have I said that before?
Author fact: Ha Jin is probably better known for his novel Waiting.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “China Voices” (p 110).
Is it okay for me to say I am glad May is over? May was the search for a new boss (we found one), a 60 mile walk for breast cancer awareness ($180,000 raised) a funeral/memorial/burial – whatever, and just a little time for books. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Carry on, Mr Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham ~ kind of reminded me of other historical biographies for kids. Read in one week.
- Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan ~ in honor of Asian American heritage month.
- Of Men and Mountains by William O. Douglas ~ in honor of deadly Mount Everest. I read this in one weekend (up to Maine and back)
- Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl ~ (probably my favorite book of the bunch. I now want to see the documentary).
- Death of Ivan Ilich by Leo Tolstoy ~ in honor of May being a good time to go to Russia (I’ll take their word for it).
Here are two I didn’t finish:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott ~ this was a reread so I don’t feel bad I didn’t get through it again this time, and
- China To Me by Emily Hahn ~ I got the point after 120 pages. Since Pearl mentioned this in three different Lust books I feel as though I have to give it another chance…maybe another time.
For LibraryThing and the Early Review Program:
- Letters to Kurt by Eric Erlandson ~ read in one weekend, and
- The United States Coast Guard and National Defense: a History from World War I to the Present by Thomas P. Ostrom ~ I didn’t get through this one either which is really sad since I wanted to enjoy it.
So, there it is in a nutshell. Not a ton of good reading. More unfinished stuff than I’m used to. Oh well.
Hahn, Emily. China to Me: a Partial Autobiography. Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company, 1946.
I always love it when my own library has something from my Challenge list. I have to be honest. I didn’t think I would see China to Me on our shelves and I’m not sure why.
People pick up China to Me for different reasons. Some look for a travelog, something to give an accurate picture of the politics and society of mid-war China (it was published in 1944). Some look for a personal account of an outspoken feminist American living in Shanghai and Hong Kong and beyond. I picked it up because I heard Hahn was like Isabella Bird, a gutsy traveler who was not afraid to live outside the conformity of her time. After reading most of Hahn’s partial autobiography I have to disagree somewhat. Hahn’s autobiography has been criticized as being a little self-indulgent. I agree. She frequently drops the names of then-prominent Chinese society (most who mean nothing to us in the 21st century). Whereas Bird lingers over flower and fauna, Hahn belabors relationships she had. I was distracted by all the name references. I am sure in the 1940s the individuals were impressive to know but that society has long since lost its luster in the 60+ years since. Another complaint about Hahn is her apparent little regard for the welfare of her born-out-of-wedlock child. While in the Japanese prison camps she seemed more concerned with herself than the individuals around her. Despite Hahn’s apparent selfishness she writes with clever humor and keen insight. In addition her life as a concubine and mistress to a spy was interesting enough to write about!
Favorite quotes: “As long as I had a column that wasn’t news, so that our readers wouldn’t be distressed by having to think, it was all right” (p 11).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called ” Lady Travelers” (p 143). Also, from More Book Lust in the chapter called ” “Living Through War” (p 155). Mentioned a third time in Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “China: The Middle Kingdom” (p 60).