Sorry for the late post – the time just completely slipped my mind. Anyway, it’s a month of non-fiction for me, and on a whole, they’re pretty good. Here goes:
The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson:
This explores life in England in the summer of 1911 – George V has just been crowned, Winston Churchill is Home Secretary, and the Titanic is about to set off on its maiden voyage. The subject matter is certainly interesting – it’s a summer of social and political tension, of traditional values clashing with modern ideas – but the book is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Certain sections are interesting, but the book overall fails to make me see what’s so fascinating about the summer of 1911 and why the author chose to write about it (compare it with Bill Bryson’s “One Summer – America, 1927”, and you’ll see what I mean.) Plus, the chapters are weirdly divided. Ostensibly, they are chronological, starting in Early June, then Late June, and so on until Early September. However, instead of following the events in those time frames (which would be the boring but logical thing to do), each chapter then focuses on a different subject – Early June focuses on Queen Mary’s struggle with the upcoming coronation, Late June focuses on a socialite’s London “season”, etc. The book is certainly well researched, but it feels both too detailed and not detailed enough somehow. 2/5
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou:
This seems to be on everybody’s reading list lately. It follows the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to build a billion-dollar Silicon Valley startup out of essentially a lie – that her company has revolutionized healthcare by performing blood tests from just a finger prick. I’ve never heard of Holmes or her company, Theranos (which sounds like a Marvel villain), but this is getting rave reviews and being made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, so I decided to check it out. It’s certainly fascinating and disturbing to read about all the lies that Holmes and her cronies told and all the people they stepped on (one Theranos employee ended up committing suicide) on their way to success – the red flags are there from day one, so you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the moment it all comes crashing down. My one complaint is that the book is very detailed on the “what” and the “how”, but less so on the “who” and the “why” – in other words, we never really find out who Elizabeth Holmes really is. Is she a master manipulator who hoodwinked everyone with her charm, or is she simply a victim of the “fake it till you make it” mentality whose delusions of grandeur got out of hand? We may never know. 4.5/5
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan:
This book attempts to answer the question “What are we having for dinner?” by exploring the three sources of food – industrial, organic (or alternative), and foraged – and showing what really goes into our food. It is interesting stuff if you’re into food and science and history, but sometimes it can be horrifying to read, especially the “Industrial” part, which is about how corn has found its way into everything we eat and how it has ruined not only our taste buds and our health, but also agriculture and the environment (though it is not the corn’s fault. It’s our fault.) It really makes you think about what you’re putting into your body. My complaint is that the writing can be a bit dry, and I sometimes found myself zoning out and just flipping the pages without understanding a single word of what I was reading (but maybe it’s because I always read it before bed.) 4.5/5
I only managed three books this month, but in my defense, two of them are pretty dense, so here goes:
Possession by A.S. Byatt:
I’ve read one other book by A.S. Byatt, “The Children’s Book”, because I was hired to translate it. I didn’t think much of it at first, but after translating it (which took forever because it’s so dense), I’d gained a new sense of appreciation for the characters and their lives. So I decided to check out her more famous novel to see what she does with a more defined and contained plot – two academic/literary researchers stumble upon evidence that two Victorian poets may have had a secret affair, and must rush to discover the truth before their rivals.
It sounded great, but I wasn’t impressed. It’s mainly because I can’t connect to any of the characters, and the stakes aren’t high enough (at the end of the day, it’s just about some dead poets. The emotional stakes just aren’t there.) And I admire Byatt for including the poems and stories by her fictional poets, but they slow down the story a great deal. I often found myself skipping those passages to get back to the main plot, even though I already knew the story from the terrible adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow. 2/5
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf:
This is another book that hooks me because of its pretty cover. Plus, I’m always interested in books about natures and explores, so a biography of one of the most prominent naturalist explorers of the 19th century seems like a good choice. I’ve never heard of Humboldt before, so it’s fascinating to read about him and to learn that many of our understandings about nature today came from him or were popularized by him – such as the idea of plant geography or the very concept of nature preservation. The book also includes some chapters on how Humboldt has influenced other scientists and writers, like Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. These can be a little reaching (take the chapter on Simon Bolivar, for instance – sure, Bolivar and Humboldt were close acquaintances after Humboldt’s trip to South America, but how much did Humboldt influence Bolivar, really?) but they’re interesting to read, nonetheless. I also appreciate the fact that everything is in chronologically order instead of jumping all over the places like some biographies I’ve read (like the one on Sissi, for example). 4/5
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab:
After quite few non-fiction books, I figured it was time to get back to my roots with a fantasy novel. This one, the first of a trilogy (one of these days, I’d like to read a standalone fantasy book for a change, thank you very much), follows Kell, a young magician with the ability to travel between four different worlds – Grey (our non-magical world), Red (the magical, thriving world), White (the world starving for magic), and Black (the world destroyed by magic). One day, Kell stumbles upon a dangerous relic from the Black world, and together with a human pickpocket, he embarks on a journey to restore the balance between the worlds. It’s quite standard fantasy stuff, as you can see, but the world-building is interesting and the action is fast-paced, which makes for a quick, easy read. My only complaint is that the characters, to me, feel a little flat. Still, I enjoyed it enough to want to check out the other two books in the series. 4/5
What did you read this month? You can check out my friend Mike’s read here, or discuss your books in the comment!
The outfit is nothing to write home about, so I’m hijacking this post to talk about Avengers: Endgame instead. The title is actually an obscure reference to Goose, the cat/Flerken in Captain Marvel – I’m wearing a cat brooch after all. I’m still wondering why they renamed him “Goose” instead of keeping the name “Chewie” from the comics. Probably now that Disney owns both Star Wars and the MCU, they don’t want the two confused, plus “Goose” is a nod to Top Gun, which is appropriate for a film about a fighter pilot set in the 80s/90s.
Anyway, let’s move on to Endgame. In short: it’s good. OK, slightly longer: it’s really good. It’s everything a Marvel fan can hope for in a film that is 11 years in the making. And yes, it is a film for Marvel fans. I can’t imagine any casual viewer can watch it and feel the same emotional impact. But as for those who have been with Marvel from the start, you’d laugh, you’d cry, and you’d cheer your heart out. I especially love all the callbacks and payoffs of details set up in other films, which make the whole thing (and I mean the whole of MCU, not just this movie) very cohesive and well thought-out. And it’s a very focused film too, despite its 3-hour run time. Unlike Infinity War, which has to set up so many new dynamics, Endgame is very much a film of the original Avengers – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. It is their swan song, and as painful as it sometimes is, it is the send-off they (and the fans) deserve. We have a new generation of superheroes now, but I’m not sure that the success of this phase of the MCU can ever be repeated. It truly feels like the end of an era.
It’s an OK month of reading – I enjoyed some books and was disappointed by others. I’ve also realized why I’ve been reading so many non-fiction books lately. Between my two jobs, script reading and teaching, I have to read so much crappy fiction writing that I can’t enjoy novels anymore. At least non-fiction doesn’t make me angry, unless it’s terribly written.
Anyway, on to the books:
The Big Necessity by Rose George:
This book is about toilets. When I picked it up, I was hoping for a history of toilets (hey, what can I say? I’m interested in all aspects of history), but this is more about the current problems in the world of toilets and sanitation all across the globe. Yet I wasn’t disappointed, because it is strangely fascinating to read, especially when you realize how many people in the world don’t have access to toilets (in fact, indoor plumbing in Vietnam is still relatively new. I still remember visiting my grandmother in the countryside when I was about 10 and being told to “just go in the nature.”) It really makes me think about my privileges. 4/5
A Million Years in a Day by Greg Jenner:
This is another “historical everyday life” book, sort of like Ian Mortimer’s “The Time Traveler’s Guide” series. It follows the tasks of a normal day – such as brushing one’s teeth, showering, eating, etc. – and looks into the development of those activities throughout history. It’s a great idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The book supposedly follows 24 hours in a day (or, more exactly, 15 hours, from 9 AM to 12 AM), but for some reason, the author decides to skip the entire afternoon and go straight from 12 PM to 6 PM. There are also two chapters on alcohol and two on time, which, even though they talk about different things (one chapter is about champagne and the other is about alcohol in general; one chapter is about time-keeping in general and the other is about the development of the clock), feels very repetitive to me. Also, the author is a writer and consultant of Horrible Histories, but some of the jokes feel a little try-hard. 3/5
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke:
I picked this up because the title caught my attention. It’s about a man who accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson’s home near his house when he was 18 years old, and 20 years later, somebody starts burning down writers’ homes all over New England, which forces him to confront his past. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the book is a total letdown. Mostly it’s due to the characters, who are either feckless or selfish or both. The main character is the worst of all. And then there is the writing, which tries so hard to be funny and profound, and ends up anything but. 1/5
I got so angry reading “An Arsonist’s Guide” that I decided to read some poetry just to forget it. I’ve read Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist” before and loved it. The poems in these two collections are more philosophical and obscure in their meanings, so I didn’t enjoy them as much, but some I still quite like (“Clearances”, in “The Haw Lantern”, is an elegy to Heaney’s mother and very moving). I also love how Heaney managed to describe the most mundane details or activities of everyday life in rural Ireland in such beautiful language (like “A Lough Neagh Sequence”, which is about eels and eel fishermen.) Maybe I’m just biased because I love Ireland. 3.5/5
What did you guys read?
As I mentioned in my “Overview” post on Iran, the dress code is one of the things that stress people out about visiting Iran, but it’s actually quite simple. All you have to wear is a headscarf (no need to worry about covering up all of your hair) and a top/jacket/coat that cover your butt and with sleeves past your elbows (the men have to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants as well.) Other than that, it’s anything goes – skinny jeans (and other tight clothes), heels (or sandals in the summer), and bright colors are all allowed.
You may have heard of the “morals police” going about admonishing people for not sticking to the dress code, but I only witnessed one instance on Tabiat Bridge, in which a local girl was gently reminded by a security guard to fix her headscarf, which had fallen down. As long as you don’t walk around with your head bare, you’ll be fine. The ladies in Tehran are especially stylish; I felt a bit underdressed with my travel wardrobe!
Travling during the winter, like I did, definitely makes covering up easier, but I imagine that in the summer, the scarf and long shirts would actually be cooler than baring it all (as anyone who lives in a hot climate know, you should cover up in the heat.) That being said, here is what I packed for my 10-day trip:
– Tops: 4 thermal tops (I get cold easily), 1 turtleneck top.
– Bottoms: 3 pairs of tights/leggings (for layering under my jeans), 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of fleece-lined pants.
– Outerwears: 2 turtleneck sweaters, 1 cardigan (these are all long enough in case I had to take off my coat), 1 waterproof coat.
– Shoes: 2 pairs of boots (one lightweight for city walks, the other for more vigorous hikes.)
– Acessories: 3 scarves (they are harder to keep on my head than I expected! Bring a hairclip to fix them to your hair if necessary.)
I did feel relieved to take off my headscarf upon boarding the flight home, but I never felt any pressure from having to dress a certain way while in Iran. Don’t let it deter you from visiting this wonderful country!
Shiraz is my favorite place in Iran for three reasons. One, the hotel, Niayesh, is easily the biggest and fanciest place I’ve stayed in during the whole trip. I booked a single room, but I was put in a huge room with a king-sized bed, and, get this, separate bathroom and toilet. If you’ve seen how tiny the bathrooms in Iranian hostels are, then you’ll appreciate the sheer joy of not having to put away the toilet paper every time you shower (to keep it from getting wet).
The hotel also has several restaurants, and it was here that I got to try dizi – a stew of mutton, beans, chickpeas, potatoes, and tomatoes. I wanted to try it not just because it’s traditional, but also because it’s so fun to eat. First, you pour the tomato sauce from the stew into your bowl and eat that with the flatbread. Then you mash up the stew itself and scoop it up with the rest of the bread. It’s good and very filling!
Two, I spent the longest time in Shiraz, so I actually got to know the city. Actually, I had just as long in Tehran, but in Shiraz, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t remember anything. Also, the sights in Shiraz are well incorporated into the “everyday” part of the city, so it feels harmonious and graceful.
I arrived in Shiraz late in the evening after my Persepolis tour, so I decided to take it easy. The next morning, I headed out early to beat the crowd to what is easily the second most famous attraction in Iran, after Persepolis – the Nasir-al-Mulk Mosque, aka the Pink Mosque, so named because of the pink roses on the tiles used to decorate it.
It’s best to visit the mosque from 8 to 11 AM, when the sun shines through its stained glass windows, so I was there at 7:30. Turned out I made the right decision – a Chinese couple was there before me, and another couple arrived just after me. Still, I managed to grab a couple of photos before the place filled up. It would’ve been nice to just sit there and watch the windows lit up, but alas, that’s the way it goes with popular destinations.
After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, I went to a couple of historical houses nearby – Naranjestan Qavam and Zinat-al-Mulk. They’re not as big as the ones in Kashan but better preserved, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. There are also museums attached to them, so you can learn more about the history of Shiraz.
Later, I headed to Vakil Bazaar, the main bazaar of Shiraz. However, thanks to my genius sense of direction, I ended up lost. That’s when I got to experience the third reason I fell in love with Shiraz – the kindness of its people. As I was wandering up and down the main street looking for the bazaar’s entrance, I ran into an elderly gentleman who spoke English. I asked him for direction, and he not only showed me to the bazaar but also spent the rest of the afternoon taking me to other sights in Shiraz – the Ali Ibn Hamzeh Holy Shrine (which is not as famous as Shah Cheragh, but it allows photos while Shah Cheragh doesn’t), Hafez’s tomb, and the Citadel.
Oh, and he insisted on treating me to lunch as well. Having read about taroof, a complex form of Iranian etiquette in which people may offer to pay for you (but it’s just their way of being polite), I tried to refuse, but he kept insisting, so in the end, I accepted. At least he let me pay for tea and snacks afterward!
As we walked around the city, we talked about his family (he and his wife were both teachers, now retired), about Vietnam and Iran, and the culture and history of Shiraz. It was the best time I had in Iran. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an email address or any kind of social media, so I don’t know how to stay in touch with him, but I’ll never forget him.
And that makes for the perfect ending for my trip, because that’s what Iran is all about. The sights may be marvelous, but what’s more wonderful is the kindness of its people. From little things like the family sitting next to me in a restaurant in Kashan who reminded the waiter to take my order and the old lady sharing her trail mix with me on the bus on Yazd, to the grand gestures like this gentleman I met in Shiraz, it is what stays with me and what will bring me back to Iran.
I missed last month’s book reviews because it was my turn to host SIA, so here is my reading for both February and March:
Reflections (Indexing #2) by Seanan McGuire:
This is the second book in the “Indexing” series (read my review of the first book here), and it continues to follow Agent Henrietta “Henry” Marchen and her team as they try to stop fairy tales from taking over their world while Henry continues to struggle with being a Snow White. I enjoy the world and the characters, as usual, but I still have the same problem with this book as I did with the first one: the villain’s motivation is not clear. They want fairy tales to manifest in the real world, okay, but why? What would they achieve by doing that? For example, are they trying to pull off a heist by pulling a “Sleeping Beauty” and making everybody fall asleep? No. The only answer the book seems to offer is that they are nuts, but I think that’s a bit lazy. 3/5
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux:
Considering how much I love train traveling, I’m a bit surprised it took me this long to read this classic travelogue about a train trip from London to the Far East. However, as I read it, I began to understand why. It’s not a humorous travelogue, and I’m used to Bill Bryson’s more relatable travelogues with his self-deprecating humor. I find this boring and the author seems so full of himself. More importantly, the author doesn’t seem to enjoy his journey in particular (as opposed to Bill Bryson’s books, he always finds something nice or at least funny to say about the place he’s been to.) And if he doesn’t, then why should we? 1/5
Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy:
This claims to be a biography of Elizabeth I focusing on the latter half of her reign, but I think a more accurate description would be “The Events in the Latter Half of Elizabeth I’s Reign”, because that’s what it is. Most of it focuses on the men around her – Francis Walsingham, Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, Walter Raleigh, and the Earl of Essex, as well as the kings of France and Spain – and how their actions affected the Queen. It delves into the men’s motivations and desires and feelings, but as for those of the Queen, there is very little. It seems that the author is so afraid of making mistakes in his conjectures about the Queen’s thoughts and emotions that he decides to do none at all. It’s well researched, to be sure, but it is not a biography of Elizabeth I. 2/5
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, illustrated by Golbanou Moghaddas:
This book takes a look at some of the weirdest and most wonderful animals in nature (one for each letter of the alphabet, except there are two “X” animals and I’m not sure why) and discusses how they can help us to better understand our world. Some of the analogies are definitely reaching (for example, what does an axolotl have to do with racism?!) but it’s still fascinating to read. The beautiful illustrations help, too. 4/5
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Madj:
I picked this up before my Iran trip but didn’t get a chance to read it before I left, so I decided to wait until after I got back and see how the book measures up to my own experience. Subtitled “The Paradox of Modern Iran”, this is an attempt to present the modern Iran society in a nuanced and balanced way. The author is an Iranian who grew up and currently lives in the US, so he certainly can understand both worlds; I only wish that he is a better story-teller. The book is a bit too political for my taste – not in the sense that the author tries to force his political views on the reader, but rather, it discusses politics and politicians a lot; I’m much more interested in the parts that describe everyday life. Plus, the author is really fond of long compound sentences. Sometimes I had to reread the beginning of a sentence (going back about half a page) just to remember what it was about! 2/5