Category Archives: Books

The books I have read.

Classic Book a Month — One Month Behind

Do you keep your New Year’s resolutions?  Clearly I don’t.  I was planning to read Emma in January but work and sleep got the best of me.  New goal: double-down on Emma and Oliver Twist in February, which unfortunately is the shortest month of the year.  I’ll consider it a victory if I can read one and start the other by the time the 28th rolls around.

American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

Michelle Obama is a very public first lady.  We follow her fashion choices, hairstyles, arm workouts.  She flaunts her organic vegetable garden, recently featured on a special episode of Iron Chef America.  Her predecessor, Laura Bush?  Not so much.   What do we know about her pet projects?  Literacy, for one — she was a librarian, after all.  But the American public, while it approved of Laura Bush at rates much higher than those of her husband’s, didn’t know how she stayed in shape, what designers she wore, or what she ate.  Laura Bush was a fairly enigmatic, “traditional” First Lady.  At least, she seemed that way until I read American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

When I was in Washington, DC, last July, I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which features the perennially popular First Ladies exhibit.  One of Laura Bush’s inaugural gowns, a long-sleeved sequined number, was on display.  I remember marveling at her tiny shoulders and narrow waist.  Obviously I’ve never seen the woman in person, nor been close enough to see the size of her figure.  But seeing her red gown hugging the mannequin made her seem a bit more approachable, though of course far removed from the actual museum display.

Reading American Wife is a bit like this — you catch a glimpse of what the woman is really like, as the novel is clearly modeled on Laura Bush, but so much of it is imagined that you can only confirm the outlines of the story.  The true woman is more mysterious and unknown.

In short, I loved American Wife. [Spoiler alert — plot points after the jump.] Continue reading

Classic Book of the Month

I’ve written before about my attempts to make up for a lack of “classic” education in my literature background.  Last year I tackled Catch-22 (ugh) and a pair of Ernest Hemingway titles (A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises), and a couple years ago I read Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby, East of Eden, and Slaughterhouse-5.  Let 2010 be the year in which I read at least one classic per month.  By classic, I suppose I mean books that are traditionally taught in literature classes or those that are legendarily classic in the sense that people name-check them and they are still in print.  I won’t include those I’ve already read (although I could be persuaded to re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen).  So far I have a couple of books weighing down my shelves that are promising for this venture: Emma by Jane Austen and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

So help me out, now that I’m covered through February.  What else should be on my must-read list for 2010?  I’m thinking about The Grapes of Wrath and perhaps more Hemingway.  I haven’t read any of the big Russian books (Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov), so those are definite possibilities.  And as I go along, of course I welcome comments and guest posts on said classics.  Sometimes it helps to have a friend or two along on what might otherwise be a bit of a slog.

Guest Post from Flora: A Pole in Africa

Writing from the relative warmth of Boston (I’m in the Twin Cities, land of snow-crete), Flora returns with a blog post about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.  I have allowed her to keep her weirdo British spelling, even though she is technically American. Stay warm, blog friends!

So many dichotomies in the world. Type A’s and Type B’s.  Optimists and pessimists. Doers and dreamers. Those who fly into war zones, arc over burning roadblocks, slip through the jungle towards Stanleyville post-independence pre-Mobutu, stare into gun barrels; those whose days are spent in the swirl of “people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.” And those whose days simply- aren’t.  Or such is the ineluctable conclusion drawn after reading three of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński‘s books.

Just under a year ago I read the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus. I was new to Kapuściński‘s work, and his measured grace struck me. In truth, his world is not one that encourages dichotomies but instead subverts them, one in which a roaming journalist from a beleaguered nation-state, spectre of German and Soviet subjugation at his back, tries to wend his way through the polarizations – black and white, democracy and totalitarianism – that threaten to coopt day to day life. If only more people alighted on a Calcutta train station platform or waited days for transport in a Sudanese waypost, cross-fertilizing revelation if not understanding; then, he seems to promise, the madnesses of the world might settle into sense if not resolution. I used a passage from Travels for a volunteer orientation session on culture shock for (shameless promo) WorldTeach. I then rather foolishly traded my copy of Travels with Herodotus for an Indian buffet lunch. End Act One of my encounters with Kapuściński. Continue reading

Christmas Books!

For Christmas when I was 7 or 8, I received all six American Girls books featuring Samantha, the Victorian-era girl with a poor friend who worked in a factory and who lived with her grandmother in a grand house.  Samantha ate petit-fours and created decoupage gifts.  I loved these books and read them over and over, along with my eventual complete set of Molly, the World War II girl whose father was a military physician overseas and who once made the mistake of trying a home permanent.

I frustrated my aunts at Christmastime, when they would ask me what I wanted, and I always just wanted a gift certificate to Borders or Barnes and Noble.  One of my aunts wanted me to get my ears pierced just so that she could get me something else!  But I love new books, and I’m sure you do, too.

Along with a smorgasbord of board games (a cribbage board carved from sustainable Massachusetts wood, a Mensa-approved match of wits, Life!, a backgammon/chess/checkers board from the MoMA), I received a handful of books, which you are sure to see popping up on your computer screen in the near future.  Here’s what you (and I) have to look forward to:

  • Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (I might have the spellings of their first names reversed)
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

With few exceptions, if you received Christmas presents from me, you also got books.  Here are some that landed under other people’s trees: Continue reading

The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee

Head’s up: I am going to throw down some spoilers.  So if you haven’t read this book and intend to, maybe skip until you read it.

We’re shifting from post-colonial narratives to colonial era narratives, from Zadie Smith’s multicultural London to Janice Y.K. Lee’s Hong Kong in the 1940s and ’50s.  I sat in my pink Snuggie this afternoon and immersed myself in Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, which was very much a voyage into a darkly sophisticated past.  It’s concerned with English Will Truesdale, who arrived in Hong Kong just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an act which precipitated the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, then a British colony.  Will falls in with the lovely, vivacious Eurasian Trudy Liang (product of Portuguese and Shanghainese parents) in 1941; she haunts him still in the early 1950s, when he is romancing Claire Pendleton, a married Englishwoman out of her depth in Hong Kong.  Given the book’s title, Claire is ostensibly the protagonist, as she teaches piano lessons to the daughter of a couple with whom Trudy and Will are connected; however, the more interesting storyline concerns Trudy and Will and how they each react to the Japanese occupation.

The book reminded me of the movie “The White Countess,” which concerns an outcast Russian countess and a blind American in Shanghai, but in the pre-war era.  I suppose it’s the international mix of characters, the focus on expatriates who seem bewildered by Chinese customs and impose their own practices on the setting.  The colonial mentality of ownership permeates both works, and in The Piano Teacher there are no prominent Chinese characters who have not been steeped in either American or British education systems and culture.

The book also raises the interesting question of what kind of person one truly is, under duress.  Continue reading

Guest Post from Flora: Post-Colonial Fiction Smackdown

Today I offer up a point-counterpoint Guest Post from my friend Flora, who tackles two novels: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis.   Flora and I went to grad school together, so beware the references to post-colonial narratives and such.  These are awesome books, and I hope you enjoy Flora’s take on them.

I read too much Babysitter’s Club as a child. Despite token acknowledgment of ‘difference’ (Stacey’s diabetes! Mary Anne’s shyness!)  the series was a pretty unsuitable template for a second generation American kid whose best friend lived 45 minutes away, who’d never babysat in her life (since when were 11 year old’s appropriate caregivers anyway?), who couldn’t even name all her aunts and uncles, much less tell you which continent they lived on. Split the hairs on difference: most of my high school friends were either first or second generation themselves, and spoke at least two languages fluently. This was Washington, DC, after all. But I was stubborn and confused: ripe fodder for angsty writing, except I didn’t think to give whatever my heritage was a book of its own.

This was long before I’d heard of Bhabha and Appadurai and post-colonial narratives, and when Zadie Smith’s White Teeth came out my reading list docket was full of 1960’s R&B histories. I finally got to it a few weeks ago, and I have to admit the first two-thirds were spent just a little jealous that I didn’t think to write something similar when I was 24. By the last third I caved in to overwhelming admiration of literary talent, aided by a pleasant but not captivating detour into Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis. The two books both detail late 20th century identity politics, although Petropolis is a picaresque novel which follows the misbegotten adventures of the quarter-African, nominally Jewish Sasha Goldberg of Asbestos 2, former USSR, and in White Teeth the stories and characters of immigrant London come twirling together, 200 years in the making, converging on a evening’s celebration of the allegorically denominated “FutureMouse”.  In short: ok, maybe they have different scopes, but Petropolis made a great sprint of a plane read, whereas I submerged myself in White Teeth‘s London for weeks. Continue reading