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!
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?
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
I skippe December’s book reviews in lieu of the “Year in Review” post, so here they are, along with the books I read in January. A pretty diverse selection, even if I say so myself:
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman:
This book has a very specific plot that it shares with several other works of fiction – a grumpy but sympathetic Caucasian widower learns to open his heart with the help of his Asian neighbors. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, “Up”, and “Gran Torino” – they all have the exact same plot. Sure, the settings may be different and the actual stories are different, but the plot is the same. That may make it a little predictable, but the characters are all quite interesting, and I dare you to reach the end without choking up a little. 3/5
The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley:
I know Lucy Worsley from her BBC series about the six wives of Henry VIII, and I love anything that has to do with British history, so this book, which revolves around the court of George I and George II at Kensington Palace, is right up my alley, especially since these early Hanoverian monarchs don’t always get a lot of coverage from other historians. What I like about it is that it manages to give us a glimpse of the everyday life at court without getting bogged down by the historical and political facts. The facts are there, but the focus is on the people, and that’s what makes it fascinating. 5/5
The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamman:
I grew up watching the trilogy of films about the life of Elisabeth of Austria (or Sissi, as she was usually known) starring a young Romy Schneider, and since then, I’ve always been fascinated by her. This biography doesn’t take such a romantic look at her life; instead, it portrays Sissi as she was – a highly sensitive and complex but also emotionally disturbed woman, thrust into a marriage and a life she was not prepared for. Highly recommended. My only complaint is that the flow of the book is a bit all over the place – the first few chapters follow a chronological order, but then the book turns to specific areas in Sissi’s life (her beauty and fitness regime, her relationship with her children, etc.) which forces the narration to go back and forth in time. I’m familiar with the events in Sissi’s life, so it doesn’t bother me too much, but it can make the book difficult to follow. 4.5/5
Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire:
Have you ever wondered what happened to Alice after she got back from Wonderland, or the Pevensie children after they got back from Narnia, or Dorothy after she got back from Oz? This dark little fantasy explores that question – it takes place at a school for those children who have traveled to fantasy worlds and are now having troubles adjusting to the “normal” world. I’ve read Seanan McGuire before, and I’ve started to recognize a pattern here – her world-building is top-notch and her subversion of the familiar fantasy tropes is super cool, but the story itself tends to be lacking and the ending feels very easy. Still, it’s a super quick read, and like I said, the world and the characters are pretty awesome. 4/5
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor:
It’s a murder mystery set during the Great Fire of London, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would enjoy. Unfortunately, this falls completely flat. Even though the murder is introduced quite early on, it’s very slow, and the mystery itself, when it gets revealed, is very anticlimactic. There is no twist or surprise. The problem is that the story alternates between two protagonists (a young man working for the editor-in-chief of The Gazette, and a young woman trying to escape her ruthless cousin and an arranged marriage, both children of fugitive Royalists), but what is seen as a mystery in one storyline is often revealed in the other, so often the reader is left frustrated since we know so much more than both characters. Plus I don’t feel engaged to either of them, and the historical setting is not well utilized either. 1.5/5
Farewell, Lady Opium by Vu Bang:
This memoir tells the story of a well-known Vietnamese writer’s struggle with opium addiction and his arduous road to get sober. I read it mostly for the description of life in Hanoi during the 1930’s, so the opium stuff and especially the author’s ennui can get tedious after a while, but you can’t deny that it’s painfully honest and surprisingly relatable. 3/5
I want to do a different “Year in Review” for the books. As opposed to just rounding up the favorite books of 2018, I got this list of questions from Kezzie, which I think is a fun way to look back at my reading of the year. Here we are:
Best books you read in 2018:
– Children’s fiction: I didn’t read any that can be comfortably called children’s fiction (the closest is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, but it is too dark for a kid’s book), so I guess none.
– Crime fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan. Actually I prefer Altered Carbon, but it belongs to a different category (see below).
– Classics: I didn’t read a lot of books in this category so Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee pretty much wins by default.
– Non-fiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It’s horrifying but uplifting at the same time.
– YA: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The Book of Lost Things deserves an honorary mention, though again, I think it’s not a true YA book. More like a fantasy for adult featuring a kid as the main character.
– Dystopian fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. I’m not sure if this is true dystopian, but it’s definitely better than the “true dystopian” book I read this year, Red Rising.
Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2018: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It sounds like a typical ghost story at first, but it ends up haunting me even now.
Book that you read in 2018 that you recommended most to others: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, The Little Stranger, any Discworld book.
Best series you discovered in 2018: Either the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon) or the Daisy Dalrymple series (Death at Wentwater Court) by Carola Dunn. Both are crime series, though they cannot be more different – one is set in a futuristic, Blade Runner-like world, and the other is set in the upperclass British society of the 1920’s – but they’re both enjoyable in their own ways.
Favorite new author you discovered in 2018: Mary Roach. I have read Mary Roach before, but this year solidifies her position as my favorite science writer. When I pick up one of her books, I know I’m going to enjoy it. The list of authors whose books I always enjoy is very short – Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Bill Bryson – so I’m glad to add another author to it.
Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Hidden Figures is merely disappointing, but Margaret the First absolutely infuriates me with how bad it is.
Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: People who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s not the first true crime book I read, but it’s definitely more modern and sensational than my usual fare, yet it turns out to be really well-researched, well-written. A true page-turner.
Book you read in 2018 that you’re most likely to read again: A Cook’s Tour. I like to reread travelogues whenever my wanderlust hits me, and I always like to read about food, so a book that combines both is naturally going to be reread multiple times.
Favorite book you read in 2018 from an author you’ve read previously: Monstrous Regiment and A Cook’s Tour.
Best book you read in 2018 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Death at Wentwater Court. I picked this up after reading about it on Kezzie’s blog, so thanks, Kezzie!
Favorite cover of a book in 2018: Margaret the First. Too bad the book isn’t good.
Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2018: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. I’ve always loved nature, but this book has made me a lot more aware of my relationship with nature and made me resolve to spend more time in nature.
Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2018 to read: Speak. It’s such a classic YA book, and I like the movie and also enjoy the author’s other works so I didn’t know why it took me so long.
Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it: The ending of The Little Stranger (the entire book, actually, especially the interpretation of who the “ghost” might be).
Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2018: the friendship between the soldiers in Monstrous Regiment.
Most memorable character in a book you read in 2018: Sergeant Jackrum of Monstrous Regiment (if this was the Oscars, then Monstrous Regiment would be the movie that sweeps all the categories before winning Best Picture).
Genre you read the most from 2018: sci-fi/fantasy (of course) and non-fiction (surprisingly).
Best 2018 debut: Tell the Machine Goodnight by Kate Williams (it’s not a debut book but at least it was published in 2018. All the other books were published earlier).
Book that was the most fun to read in 2018: A Cook’s Tour and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Bonk by Mary Roach is funny as well but it’s just too gross sometimes.
Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2018: Monstrous Regiment.
Book you read in 2018 that you think got overlooked this year or when it came out: The Road to Little Dribbling, maybe? I don’t know if it’s “overlooked”, but it’s definitely not well-received as Bill Bryson’s other books. I still enjoyed it though.
Total number of books read in 2018: 40 (with some rereads).
If you guys want to do something similar, feel free to grab these questions. I can’t wait to read your round-up!
I reread Bill Bryson’s At Home earlier this month, so I only managed 3 new books, but they’re all quite enjoyable. Here goes:
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett:
Continuing my Discworld read from last month, I picked another one-off book (it features supporting/cameo roles from some familiar characters like Sam Vimes and William de Worde, but the main characters are one-off). The story is set in the small country of Borogravia, which is always at wars with its neighbor, and revolves around a very special regiment made up of a girl disguised as a boy to find her brother, a troll, a vampire, an Igor, and several other eccentric characters. It starts out a little slow, but the pace soon picks up and it ends up becoming something quite profound and moving – not just a funny story about girls dressed up as boys, but also about the nature of men and women, about war and religion, and about finding your place in the world (with the help of a well-placed pair of socks). 5/5
The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett:
This is often listed as a Rincewind book, though Rincewind plays more of a supporting role in this one. The main character is Cohen the Barbarian, who, along with his Silver Horde, decides to embark on one last quest and return something stolen from the gods by the first hero – fire. This threatens to destroy the entire Discworld, so Rincewind has to reluctantly step in to stop them. This book is quite short, but to make up for it, it is gorgeously illustrated by Paul Kidby. I think people tend to dismiss the Rincewind books as goofy adventure tales and not as “deep” as the other Discworld books, but I dare you not to smile and cheer at the end of this one. 4.5/5
Bonk by Mary Roach:
To be fair, I only read this because it is mentioned in At Home, but I’ve always enjoyed Mary Roach’s books, so why not? As the title says, this is about the scientific study of sex, and I have to admit, it’s more information that I ever wanted to know. I constantly made this face while I was reading it:
and occasionally this face:
But at least it was entertaining. 3/5
So what did you guys read? Check out my friend Mike’s reviews here!