Monday, August 18, 2008

The List

I started this list in January on a private blog, and it gradually grew into a series of reviews. Some of the books I never got around to reviewing, in the midst of the school year, but I have included them anyway.

I have no restrictions on genre and was not trying to aim for any type of cohesion among my choices. I have tried to read more nonfiction this year, since I tend to stick exclusively to fiction.

I am counting both books that I have reread, because if I really like a book, it will be reread, and books I read for school, because if I didn't, I would never reach 50.

Without further ado:

1. The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright

I've been reading this non-fiction book, largely concerned with diplomatic situations in Islamic-majority countries, off and on for a while and finally finished it. The writing style is very clear, the angle is openly biased toward a liberal viewpoint, but I was okay with it. Obviously, some of it is naively upbeat, but it's a good starting point for discussion.

2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The alleged English major book club chose this as our first expedition, however I have yet to hear of a concrete meeting time. Anyway, I received the book from lovely Tuesday afternoon and finished in the wee hours of this morn. Please take into account classes, reading for classes, and the fact that I had a lengthy presentation due in class yesterday, and you can conclude that this novel is intoxicating. I was honestly expecting a Dan Brown type novel, all plot and no substance, but I was partially wrong. The language is simple, but not in-your-face Hemingway imitation. What is most attractive about the book is of course the immersion in Afghan culture. I am also intensely grateful that the culture is not oversimplified or too politicized. The book does not shy away from harsh topics and addresses them with some understanding. One of the characters, Rahim Khan, exists for the sole purpose of being a preachy guide for the protagonist, and that annoys me. The characters are all too clear-cut. The novel does not deviate from a very familiar formula; protagonist grows up idyllically, then something changes it all, protagonist regrets past, returns to redeem himself. All the plot twists were predictable from a million miles away. I would recommend this book as a deeper read for someone who normally sticks to fluff (which is probably why it's so popular), but there are much better books out there with similar themes.

3. The Iliad by Homer

4. The Odyssey by Homer

5. Oedipus the King by Sophocles

6. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

7. Candide by Voltaire

8. Lysistrata by Aristophanes

9. A Woman Soldier's Own Story by Xie Bingying

So my Chinese Civ teacher made a test on this book count for more points, because everybody did only "okay" on the midterm. Which means, since I'm unhappy with my B+ (yeah yeah shut up), I figured I should actually read the book. So yesterday I did. Read the whole thing cover to cover, only skipping a few descriptions of flowers and sunsets. THIS WOMAN IS FASCINATING. Even more so because the fact that she was even able to write her entire life story is so rare. Chinese women have next to no voice until the twentieth century. No kidding. That's why this course on Chinese women focuses the first half on a couple thousand years of Chinese history and the entire second half is just the last hundred years. In her story, I was able to see the abuse of ordinary Chinese women, footbinding, fieldwork, all the weird arranged marriage customs, that we could only discuss in general terms in class. I could see all the revolutions in China through the eyes of a soldier and a student, she is right in the thick of whatever's happening at the moment. Then she returns home after being a SOLDIER, and her family imprisons her for months until she is forced into an arranged marriage that she later escapes. She's an entertaining writer, the pace is quick, and every moment is exciting. The English version is translated by her daughter and her daughter's husband, so it's probably very accurate. I really recommend this book, especially to history buffs.

10. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I've had this book since my last birthday and finally found time to read, I finished on the plane over here. I loved Eva Luna, so I was looking forward to reading for a very long time. It's very similar to Eva Luna, both books are essentially enlarged descriptions of quirky characters over the course of one or more lifetimes. Because of my seminar, I was able to discern the influence of Don Quixote that more or less pervades most Spanish and Latin American literature. The chapters are stories that work together or separately. I am particularly fond of character development, so maybe that is why I like Allende so much. The later part of the book becomes very political, which I don't usually like, but Allende conveys very well the terrible situation in her country, Chile. One of the main characters, Clara, is clairvoyant, and in homage to her, the book also reveals the fates of all the characters prior to their actual end. That technique builds anticipation and takes focus from the plot to the characters. I liked the remarkable way the book came together cohesively and purposefully in the end. If you like weird characters and magic and don't mind some tragedy, you should definitely read this.

11. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I forgot how absolutely HILARIOUS this book is. I read it once or twice around middle school age and remembered the very basic gist and that I really loved it and preferred it to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I also liked. I had to read it again for my Don Quixote seminar, so this time I was looking at it in a completely different way. I really see how it relates to DQ, in the fact that it's an episodic journey of two characters and that many of the episodes echo DQ, and the characters share traits of both DQ and Sancho. The other thing that struck me is how quintessentially American this story is. I know people often say that about it, but it's not just because it's written in dialect or takes place on the Mississippi River, though that's part of it. The themes of lying and trickery and rebellion against authority are such basic American problems and ideals at the same time. That is what Tom and Huck represent. The most honest character in the book is Jim, the runaway slave. And that's another statement about American society, of the time, yes, but it has modern applications. If you have time, this is a book well worth rereading as an adult. The goings-on seem so much more absurd and I'm sure my roommates think I'm nuts because of the number of times I cracked up while reading this.

12. The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy by Elizabeth Ashton

Yes, I'm bad, I know. I had a twenty page paper due and two labs and other little chores, and I was already sick and tired, and instead of doing it all, I read a book. This is Escapist Me. I needed a break. I still need one. And I won't get one till maybe this weekend, and I should be working on my Chinese Civ final essays then anyway, and studying for the Backgrounds and Genetics exams, that will both be killer nitpicky. But that's my life. Miss Alethea Darcy, daughter of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, has an exciting life. Ashton says all the things Austen never dared say (sodomites! flagellants! What is with her sexual deviance obsession?), widens the horizon of the historical period (OMG, Napoleon was just defeated at Waterloo!?), and is slightly less sarcastic, but otherwise does a fairly accurate imitation of Austen's style. This is your typical, maybe a tad more intellectual, historical romance thriller. This is for you if you've had a long day and just want to forget about it and immerse yourself in an easy, quick read.

13. A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman by Ida Pruitt from the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T'ai T'ai

I'm catching up on the books I sped through so I could write my Chinese Civ essays on them. This one is the true story of a woman born during the very end of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing. She was born into a very poor family and her life essentially gets progressively worse. She lives in a world steeped in Confucian tradition, but with whispers of change all around like the opium smoking that consumes her husband and the book ends in her old age as the Japanese invade Manchuria. The character has some spirit in her, but not enough to offset the unrelenting difficult circumstances of her life. This is probably a good source of information for scholars on the period, but otherwise not particularly captivating. The first person viewpoint is appropriate, as is the largely chronological order of events. That said, anyone interested? I'm selling! (Friends can have it for free).

14. Growing Up in the People's Republic by Ye Weili with Ma Xiaodong

Yay Chinese Revolution! Actually, this a very different take from the strongly negative, victimized literature I've read on the period before. This is non-fiction, in a very unusual format. The book is a conversation between two women who grew up in similar circumstances in the PRC and met as adults attending universities in Boston. It sheds light on the strange incident at the Beijing Normal Girls School where students abused teachers to the point of killing a teacher and set off a wave of female violence against authority, supported by Mao's government. The authors attempt to explore various lenses through which to view their childhood, and youth, one of which is gender. Growing up, they had no concept of themselves as women since they were treated and expected to be the same as men. Girls were encouraged to have short hair, wear plain unobtrusive clothes, and become soldiers and laborers. Even though I had an idea of this, I never thought before about the affect this might have on that whole generation's identity. I have always thought of myself as female, albeit equal to males in every way, I feel different from them. These girls did not. They're not sure whether this was positive or negative and neither am I. They do seem to express longing for some sort of female identity, but look down on more modern Chinese feminization movements that sexualize women. Parts of this conversation are very interesting and thought-provoking. Some of it rambles or is dry, but I think it is worth it to get through it. If you're interested in the PRC of the '50s and '60s at all, this is a must-read for a more fair and balanced look at the Communist Revolution in China and Chinese women in the Mao era. I might be persuaded to part with this book as well, for a price, or free on loan.

15. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I finished last night, been reading for almost a week but it's 607 pages. I sort of felt early on that the ending wasn't going to be concrete, so I wasn't disappointed when it wasn't. The main character, who narrates most of the story, is a Mr. Toru Okada. Murakami is a best-selling Japanese author, by the way, and the story takes place in Tokyo. This was my first book by him and I'm sure I'll be reading more. Murakami has a very clipped, clean writing style that usually makes the reader feel disconnected, but here there is enough detail and delving into the characters' minds to avoid that. It addresses popular themes like the blurring of fiction and reality, fate, and identity. The characters seem to develop an interesting theory that their bodies are containers for a few different identities throughout their lifetime that either become or obliterate their "real" selves. The villain is a true original and totally evil. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria seems to play a significant role in the novel, but I think it's just used as an example of violence and inhumanity, not really a statement on that war in particular. I would really recommend this novel, but only if you're comfortable being confused.

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