Book Reviews: April 2021

It’s an interesting month of reading. Some of the books are not my usual fare, but I enjoyed them all, so here goes:

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr:

It seems my specialty this year is short, simple novels about the human condition and non-fiction books about nature. Since I just read a non-fiction book about the English countryside (“Wilding”), I thought I’d read a fiction book about the English countryside next. Revolving around a shell-shocked WWI veteran hired to restore a medieval mural in a Yorkshire church, this book definitely falls into that Ruskin Bond camp of “profoundly simple and simply profound”. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be about much – the main character interacts with the locals, commiserates with a fellow veteran/archeologist, falls in love with the wife of the local vicar, and muses about the anonymous artist behind the mural, all in a very restrained, understated manner. But the whole book is filled with a powerful sense of nostalgia, for things that were and things that could have been, that will leave you both heartbroken and deeply touched. 4/5

Wintering Out by Seamus Heaney:

I’m still slowly working my way through Heaney’s works, and it seems natural to move from “A Month in the Country” to this. I’m still struggling with poetry as a whole (maybe because English is my second language, so some of its nuance is lost on me?) and this collection, which is the most abstract of Heaney’s that I’ve read so far, doesn’t make things easier. My favorite poems in this (“The Wool Trade”, “Veteran’s Dream”, “First Calf”, and “Mother of the Groom”) are about very simple and even prosaic things, but they reveal deeper meanings upon reflection, whereas some others I don’t even know what they’re about, so I just let the lyricism and musicality of the language wash over me. Sometimes that may be the best way to enjoy poetry. 3/5

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges:

I took a break from my usual non-fictions with this combination of my two favorite genres – non-fiction and fantasy. This encyclopedia lists 120 mythical creatures from religion, folklore, and fantasy writings from around the world, ranging from the well-known (Banshee, dragon, elf) to the more obscure (axehandle hound, chon-chon, squonk). It’s a good reference book, though I was hoping for a more scientific, consistent approach. You know, like an actual encyclopedia – an entry may consist of descriptions of the creature, its origin and history, etc. Here, they are a bit all over the place. Most do describe the creature and its origin, but others are only excerpts from whatever book or piece of writing that mentions the creature. It may be irrational to demand a scientific approach, considering that this is a book about fantasy creatures, but I think it would make it much more interesting to read. 3/5

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot:

From imaginary beings to very real animals, my next read is this classic memoir (actually, I’d call it a work of autobiographical fiction, since the stories are only loosely based on the author’s experiences.) It’s a series of anecdotes that tells the story of a country vet in 1930s Yorkshire (again). The anecdotes, which are about the animals as much as the colorful people and landscape of the Yorkshire Dales, are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always moving and full of human interest. The TV series (at least the 2020 version, I haven’t watched the 1978 version yet) is very enjoyable as well. 5/5

Devotions by Mary Oliver:

After Seamus Heaney, I wanted to branch out to other poets. I thought about reading some “classics” like Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, but then I came across Mary Oliver’s name and found her a little more accessible, so I read her first. One of the reasons I never quite “get” poetry is because I tend to skim while I read, while poetry requires slower, more meditative reading, and Mary Oliver’s simple language is easier to absorb. Her poems all deal with nature, which is another reason I’m drawn to them, and while they’re a lot more introspective (compared to Heaney, which is more narrative), they’re also beautiful in their simplicity. 4.5/5

Book Reviews: March 2021

My reading this month is as usual – two short works of fiction and two longer works of non-fiction. I don’t really read much fiction anymore, unless the premise is really, really interesting, or the story promises to be cozy/relaxing, or I’ve read that author before. As for non-fiction, I’m reading a lot of books on nature this year, as you can see:

My Sweet Orange Tree by Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos:

This book revolves around a young boy growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, who finds comfort with an orange tree in his backyard and later develops an unlikely friendship with an old man in the neighborhood. It reminds me of Ruskin Bond in its profound simplicity (perhaps that’s why I picked it up), and also reminds me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as both deal with childhood hardship and… both have a “tree” in their titles? It can be quite depressing, though, as the boy is treated quite harshly by his family and it ends with (spoiler) a tragedy, with little to lift up the story. I like it, but it’s just too sad. 3/5

Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison:

I’m a big sci-fi fan, but I’m terrible about reading classic sci-fi authors – I’ve never read Asimov, Heinlein, or Vonnegut; I’ve read but don’t really enjoy Ursula K. LeGuin or Philip K. Dick; in fact, I think the only classic sci-fi authors I regularly read and enjoy is Ray Bradbury. However, this is mentioned in the afterword of American Gods, and it’s a short story collection, so I decided to check it out. I can definitely see the influence on American Gods – most of the stories deal with gods and beliefs in one way or another, some subtle, some explicit. However, it can be exhausting at times, because it’s so… intense. It doesn’t have the dreamy quality like Bradbury or the whimsical touches like Gaiman to lift it up. So, though I quite enjoy it, I’m not tempted to check out Ellison’s other works (well, the fact that he was a bit of a dick doesn’t help either.) 4/5

Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson:

I’m sure that for many of us, insects are at best a nuisance and at worst, disease-infested creepy-crawlies, but this book, which explains how insects are essential to life on Earth, may change your mind. I, for one, have always found insects fascinating (except for mosquitoes and flies), so the information in this book may not be as surprising, but I still found it quite fun and enjoyable to read, and by the end of it, I had to grudgingly accept that even the pesky mosquitoes and flies have their roles in the ecosystem. 4/5

Wilding by Isabella Tree:

This book came up in the “Recommendation” section of Goodreads because I’d just finished Extraordinary Insects, and when I found out it’s about a couple’s attempt to return their British farm to the wilderness, I immediately picked it up. It turns out to be less romantic than I thought – it’s about conservation of a huge estate (, involving careful science and planning, not just letting a little backyard garden run wild – but it’s no less riveting. It certainly gives me a different perspective about nature and our place in it. I only wish it had something about how this “rewild” effort can be applied on a smaller scale. 5/5

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire:

This is the second book in the Wayward Children series, but it’s actually a prequel to the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, which I read back in 2019. It tells the story of twins Jack and Jill and what leads to the events in EHAD. It is very quick read (I finished it in 2 sittings), but not as subversive as Seanan McGuire’s other books and I find the characters a little flat, though it certainly does a good job of exploring the complex dynamic between twins. 3.5/5

Book Reviews: January – February 2021

The first two months’ reading has been interesting. I read 9 books, and as usual, they’re an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction. There are some Vietnamese books too. Let’s get to them:

A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow by Laura Taylor Namey:

I wanted something easy and cozy to start the year, and although this book (YA chick lit) is not my usual fare, it has two things that spark my interest: it’s set in England and revolves around food (baking, to be precise). The main character is Lila, a Cuban-American girl sent to stay with her aunt in England to recover after a series of heartbreaks – her beloved grandmother passed away suddenly, her boyfriend broke up with her, and her best friend changed their plan for the future without telling her. Then, of course, she meets an English boy and all is well. The story is cute, too cute in fact – there isn’t a lot of drama here, despite what the book keeps telling us. And perhaps because I’m an Anglophile, but I find Lila rather whiny – imagine having to spend three months in England with free room and board, the horror! This seems to be a recent common complaint of mine with YA books – the main characters all come off as whiny, spoiled brats. Maybe I’m getting too old for this shit. 2.5/5

Chữ số và Thế giới (Numbers and the World) by Đỗ Minh Triết:

This book about the history of numbers, written by a Vietnamese mathematician, was a Teacher’s Day present from my students, who said they didn’t know what kind of fiction I like, so they picked a non-fiction book to be safe (very sensible of them.) I’ve read a lot of books on the history of languages and other social sciences, but never on numbers before – it hadn’t even occurred to me that numbers could have such a long and diverse history – so this is fascinating to read. Some technical bits (such as how people used to do math when they had no zero and even no concept of zero) are a little difficult to follow, but overall, it’s well-researched and quite engaging. 4/5

The Room on the Roof and Vagrants of the Valley by Ruskin Bond:

I discovered Ruskin Bond last year from a short story collection, so this year, I decided to read two of his novels – “The Room on the Roof” (written when Bond was only 17!!!) and its sequel. They are autobiographical, telling the coming-of-age story of an Anglo-Indian boy who runs away from his abusive guardian, makes friend with the local youths, and experiences love as well as heartbreak. Like Ruskin Bond’s other writings, both books are simple, quick reads, but they’re about profound things like growing up, first love, friendship and solitude, and finding your identity and your place in the world. They can be too prosaic at times, but after you finish, the characters will surely stay with you. 3.5/5

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso, translated by Alessandra Viola:

I picked this up because the premise (proving that plants are just as intelligent and animated as animals or even humans) sounds interesting, but as I read it, I realized I was the wrong audience for it. This book is for someone who knows nothing about plants and thinks of them as inanimate things, because the evidence cited by the author to prove the existence of plants’ intelligence is very basic and well-known. I was hoping for more explanations as to how plants know how to do these things (for example, how did the Venus fly trap evolve into a carnivorous plant?), but there is very little of it. 2/5

Gánh Hàng Hoa (The Flower Seller) by Khái Hưng & Nhất Linh:

This novella is a classic of Vietnam’s Romanticism movement (1930-1945), so I’m well acquainted with the story; I just never read the actual book until now. It’s about a struggling student who, after an accident renders him partly blind, gains unexpected fame as a writer, but it also causes him to betray his loyal wife, a flower seller. Written at a time when Vietnamese literature was hugely influenced by French romance novels, this can be very maudlin and melodramatic, but there is something charming in its naïveté, and the description of life in the olden days is always a plus for me. 3/5

Đi Trốn (Going Hiding) by Bình Ca:

This is another Vietnamese book, which tells the story of a group of teenagers who run away from their evacuation camp during the Vietnam War (which, in Vietnam, is called the American War) and go on an adventure in the wilderness of Northwest Vietnam. I picked it up because I enjoy this kind of adventure stories, but this one turns out to be a disappointment. The writing is rather dry, and the story takes itself so seriously that the fun and innocence of the kids’ adventure are lost. There are some interesting bits that describe life in an evacuation camp, but that’s about it. 2/5

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicolas Carr:

For the last couple of years, I noticed that my ability to concentrate has gone down considerably – before, I used to be able to read two or even three screenplays a day, but now I’m lucky if I can read one a day. I blame burn-out (if the script is well-written, I can finish it much more quickly), but there appears to be more than that, and this book confirms I’m not the only one suffering from this form of ADD. It takes a look at the concept of neuroplasticity and explores how intellectual technologies, starting from maps and the printing press, all the way to the Internet, have affected the human brain. It’s not anti-Internet or anti-technology, but it certainly makes you think harder about how you can use technologies without losing yourself to it. I only wish it was a bit more entertaining to read – it can be a bit dry at times. 3/5

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

This book focuses on three animals – the elephant, the wolf, and the killer whale – and the science of animal behaviors and answer the questions: Do animals feel? Do they think? Do they communicate (both with each other and with us)? It goes to show that we humans are a lot more similar to animals (we are, after all, animals too) than we think. It can be heartbreaking to read at times, especially the parts on how callously we treat these animals and consider ourselves superior to them simply because we can think and feel and talk. However, it’s also powerful, beautiful, and moving. 5/5

A Year In Review: Books Of 2020

This year, I’ve branched out from my usual fare of sci-fi/fantasy and non-fiction to include more mystery and drama/romance. Also, this is the first year in a while that I didn’t read a single Discworld book. But I tend to save them for “rainy days” when I don’t feel like reading anything else, and this year has been filled with interesting books, so they can wait (plus, I’m rationing them because I don’t have that many left that I haven’t read!) Anyway, here’s a look at my reading of 2020:

Best book you read in 2020:

– Crime/Mystery: The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer

– Horror/Thriller: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (this is more of a fantasy/horror, but I’m including it in this category anyway.)

– Sci-fi/Fantasy: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

– Romance/History/Other: Time Stops at Shamli and Other Stories by Ruskin Bond

– Non-fiction: Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow (I debated between this and Ace, but in the end, this wins because it was more engaging to read. Ace is impactful but on a more personal level.)

– YA: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2020: Agatha Christie – an Autobiography (I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, since I almost never read biographies and certainly not autobiographies, but her description of life in Britain in the early 20th century is great.)

Book that you read in 2020 that you recommended most to others: Ace by Angela Chen, Catch & Kill, the Enola Holmes series

Best series you discovered in 2020: Enola Holmes

Favorite new author you discovered in 2020: Ruskin Bond

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kahn, Around the World in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: Time Stops at Shamli and Other Stories. I don’t usually read “slice of life” books like this, but sometimes you just want something uncomplicated.

Book you read in 2020 that you’re most likely to read again: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, A Campaign in Tonkin by Charles-Edouard Hocquard (they’re good as reference books)

Favorite book you read in 2020 from an author you’ve read previously: Piranesi, Ninth House

Best book you read in 2020 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Time Stops at Shamli and Other Stories – this isn’t a recommendation from someone else, but rather because I saw a cover of another book by the same author and thought, “I would like to read something like that.”

Favorite cover of a book in 2020: These three

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2020: Ace, Read My Pins by Madeleine Albright

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2020 to read: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (too bad it turns out to be a disappointment)

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss etc.): The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (I wasn’t reeling or anything, but the plot definitely merits some discussion)

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2020 (be it romantic, friendship etc.): June and Toby in Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Alex and Darlington in Ninth House

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2020: Enola Holmes, Piranesi

Genre you read the most from 2020: Non-fiction

Best 2020 debut: Followers by Megan Angelo (I’m still a bit hazy about this category – does it mean a book published in 2020 or an author that debuts in 2020? I went with the latter, which is why I chose Followers. If it’s the first, then it’s Piranesi. I may axe this from future reviews.)

Book that was the most fun to read in 2020: the Enola Holmes series, Ninth House

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2020: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Total Number of books read in 2020: 47

Book Reviews: December 2020

Usually, around this time of year I’ll post my yearly book reviews, but as I’m doing my “yearly review” posts next week, I thought I’d post my monthly reviews now. It’s another eclectic collection:

Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewelry Box by Madeleine Albright

I know that Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton and was the first woman to hold that position, but I didn’t know that she is also famous for her collection of brooches and pins. Just like Ruth Bader Ginsberg (RIP) and her collars, Madeleine Albright used her brooches to send certain messages and convey certain images, and this book shows us a number of those brooches along with stories of their significance to her. You guys know I love my brooches, so this book really speaks to me. What I love about Albright’s attitude to her brooches is that the sentimental value of each brooch is far more important than its monetary value. And of course, the accompanied photo illustrations are beautiful and make me green with envy. 5/5

Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages by Gasten Dorren:

The idea sounds great – exploring the 20 most-used languages in the world (starting with Vietnamese at #20) – but the execution is rather uneven. What I find really annoying is that the author’s idea of “exploring” the language is so inconsistent. For example, the chapter on Vietnamese is about the author’s own experience of learning the language, then the chapter on Korean is about the characteristics of Korean pronunciation, then the chapter on Tamil is about its role in the national conflicts of India and Sri Lanka, then the chapter on Turkish is about the history and development of modern Turkish. You see what I mean? There is no uniformity in approach between the chapters, so in the end, I came away with a bunch of trivia but no complete view of the languages. 1.5/5

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia:

The title says it all – it’s a Gothic novel set in Mexico in the 1950s, in which a spirited young socialite is sent to a remote town to check on her cousin, who has married into a family of English mine owners and is now sickening and behaving oddly. I’ve never actually read any classic Gothic novel (unless you count Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), so I quite enjoyed it. It’s very atmospheric and reminds me a lot of Crimson Peak. However, it can feel too familiar – I appreciate the subtext of colonization and racism, but I think it can dig a lot deeper and put a new twist on the traditional Gothic tropes. Plus, book commits the cardinal sin (in my opinion) of making the main character an observer instead of directly involving her in the plot, so there isn’t much urgency behind her journey until the very end – and even then, she doesn’t exactly discover anything; it’s all told to her. 3/5

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen:

After being disappointed by “Let’s Talk about Love” and its failure to represent asexuality in a nuanced and interesting manner, I have to turn to a non-fiction book instead. Using interviews, social studies, and the author’s own experiences, this book explores what it means to be asexual in a society where sexual desire is treated as default. It really resonates with me – I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted so many passages in a book before. It’s really helped me to better understand not just asexuality, but sexuality on a whole. On the other hand, it made me a little depressed that in this day and age, asexuality is still so misunderstood and underrepresented, and a non-fiction book like this is unlikely to change that. What we need is more representation in the media. Maybe I should get on that. 4/5

Stay tuned for a yearly review of all the books I’ve read!