Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bookspotting: Week 5



I had a very cool bookspotting moment this week. I stepped onto the MTR at North Point and saw a man reading a book called Clarinet. I stood across from him and opened up my paperback copy of The Finkler Question. I happened to glance down the train and saw a mother and daughter sitting side by side and reading two more English paperback books, though I couldn't see the titles. The four of us made quite a group. I do not think I have seen that many people reading in one place since I got here.

I saw a young man carrying a copy of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a teenager reading Caesar's Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins and a young woman reading 1984 by George Orwell in Chinese. A young girl sat next to me on another train reading a highlighted and dogeared copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I noticed four other Chinese books this week in various places, and I saw another Kindle in the Kubrik Cafe.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Friday, February 25, 2011

THE FINKLER QUESTION by Howard Jacobson



THE GIST:

In this smart, contemporary tale two aging men cope, or fail to cope, with the loss of their wives and their identities. The third man doesn't have either one, but he too mourns.

THE VERDICT:

The men in this book find themselves at loose ends. They have lost their footing, or else they never had it in the first place. Julian Treslove grasps for a sense of self and decides that being Jewish is his strongest source of identity, despite the fact that he is not actually a Jew. Sam Finkler is a Jew, but he struggles to separate himself from 'them' and flounders. Libor just misses his wife and mistrusts the tenuous safety of the Jews in Britain.

I did not like Treslove at all, though I am not convinced that you are supposed to like the protagonist in this story. Everyone needs something to ground them, and I found Treslove's way of swirling and eddying through life infuriating. However, his assumptions about and encounters with Jewishness are thought-provoking, revealing the complexity of the modern Jewish (Finkler) question.

Jacobson is at the top of his game in this book, which earned him the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The writing style is clever, poetic, and often funny. He explores themes of grief, jealousy, aging, and collective guilt. The story did not feel resolved in the end, probably because the complexities of the issues cannot be tied up into neat little packages.

THE LINK:

Profile on the Booker Prize site: Howard Jacobson

THE COST:

I borrowed this book from a friend in paperback format.

THE QUESTION:

Where do you get your sense of identity? Relationships? Nationality? Religion?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday Dim Sum: Hong Kong International Literary Festival


The Hong Kong International Literary Festival begins in two weeks. It will take place at various venues throughout the city from March 8-18. This will be my first HK Literary Festival, and I volunteered to help at some of the evening and weekend EVENTS. I haven't confirmed which ones will need me yet, but I will post about the events I attend as they happen. These are some of my top picks and I'll definitely buy tickets for these ones if I don't get to help out:

Three Hacks on China - Thursday, March 10th - 19:30-21:00 - Jonathan Watts, Peter Hessler, Frank Ching

An Evening with Emma Donoghue - Friday, March 11th - 19:00-20:30 - Emma Donoghue

Surviving the Modern World - Sunday, March 13th - 18:00-19:30 - Xu Xi, Rajeev Balasubramanyam, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

In preparation for these talks, I am planning to read ROOM by Emma Donoghue, COUNTRY DRIVING by Peter Hessler, WHEN A BILLION CHINESE JUMP by Jonathan Watts, and HABIT OF A FOREIGN SKY by Xu Xi. If I have time I'll read the other two Hessler books on his travels in China: RIVER TOWN and ORACLE BONES, and then try to work my way through some of the other authors featured in the festival.

Are any of you Hong Kong people attending the Literary Festival events? Has anyone else read these books before?

Monday, February 21, 2011

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



THE GIST:

The impossibly clever Holmes solves mysteries, big and small, using his keen eye for detail and his nearly supernatural powers of deduction.

THE VERDICT:

These stories, told from the perspective of Holmes' friend Dr. Watson, are just plain fun. Holmes solves his mysteries in approximately the same way each time, but the cases themselves are actually very different. They come from all sorts of interesting characters and Holmes (almost) always saves the day.

The twelve adventures can each be read independently, although Watson sometimes references earlier cases in the later stories. The good thing about reading them all at once is that you develop a fleshed out picture of Holmes' singular character. He keeps odd hours, goes to violin concerts between cases, and makes it his business to know everything about everyone, without being impressed by anything.

Holmes and Watson are characters that I've known by reputation for a long time, but this is the first time I've read any of their stories. Sometimes beloved characters do not live up to their hype, but in this case I was not disappointed. I was duly impressed by Holmes' abilities and charmed by Watson's voice.

THE LINK:

This is a cool website with everything you ever wanted to know about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

THE COST:

Free Kindle edition (the complete collection of everything Doyle ever wrote about Holmes is about $1)

THE QUESTION:

When you finally meet a character or read a book that you've known by reputation for a long time do they live up to your expectations? Does anyone have a good example?


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bookspotting: Week 4



This week my work schedule was back to normal, so I spent lots of time spotting books on the MTR. I think I notice more people reading now that I'm actively thinking about it. I counted FIVE Chinese books this week, plus another graphic novel. One morning I saw a school boy reading A Child Called "It" which seems like a depressing way to start the day. I saw a woman reading Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and a man with one of the Stieg Larsson books.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E. M. Forster



THE GIST:

A young woman travels to Italy with her stuffy companion and meets an angst-ridden but ultimately charming young man.

THE VERDICT:

This classic novel is full of eccentric characters and witty banter. The young women travel with chaperones, the young men read German philosophy, and the Englishmen abroad dine together at one table in their hotel. Forster captures the changing attitudes toward propriety and freedom in England after the turn of the century.

Essentially, this is a story of a young woman’s awakening to the wonders of the world. For the first time she experiences art, culture, philosophy, travel and love. She has to make the classic choice between a mysterious, free-thinking man and a respectable, uninteresting one. She has to look past her prejudices and the expectations of her family and figure out what she really wants.

It was interesting to read this book as a young woman living abroad. The differences in the ways in which women travel between now and 100 years ago are striking. It made me particularly grateful for my independence. I love Forster’s way with words, and this is a thoroughly readable story.

THE LINK:

Here's a Forster site: Only Connect

THE COST:

Free Kindle edition

THE QUESTION:

Do you think that people must defy the expectations of their family and/or their social circle in order to attain maturity?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday Dim Sum: Stylish Bloggers


Each Wednesday I will write a post with bits and pieces about Hong Kong, blogging, books and miscellaneous literary things. I am calling it Wednesday Dim Sum after the Chinese dishes that come in delicious bite-size portions.

This week I was given the Stylish Blogger award by Stephanie at The Conscientious Reader (thanks again!). I'm supposed to pass on the award to 15 other blogs, so for my first Wednesday Dim Sum here are 15 blogs that I read regularly. Not all of them are book blogs (sorry), but they are still pretty cool.


A Literary Odyssey
Living in Literary La La Land
Dash It All
Reads, Reviews, Recommends
Demitria Lunetta
Query Shark
Seattleite Imagery
Shredded Cheddar
The Book Frog
Eleusinian Mysteries
Tiny Library
She Is Too Fond of Books
The Traveling Writer
Sarcastic Female Literary Circle
Kendi Everyday


What is your favorite blog to read? Why?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell



THE GIST:

Gladwell explores the moment when minor trends (of various types) tip over the edge and become major fads.

THE VERDICT:

This book may be old news by now, but it is thoroughly interesting nonetheless. Gladwell uses fascinating examples and what appears to be careful research to explore his theme. He covers different types of trends from fashion to crime to politics as he talks about the group dynamics and essential moments that contribute to dramatic success stories.

This is a particularly useful read for anyone who is interested in (but not necessarily knowledgeable about) marketing. The writing style is targeted for regular readers, and Gladwell explains his points in clear terms. Gladwell’s emphasis is on understanding how the world works, rather than telling people how to run their businesses, but there are plenty of practical gems.

The way trends grow is a complex topic, and this book provides plenty of food for thought. It is engaging enough that I did not want to put it down, which is a great characteristic for a non-fiction book. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about that moment when you caught on to something that became huge.

THE LINK:

The author’s website: http://www.gladwell.com/

THE COST:

$9.99 from the Kindle store

THE QUESTION:

What do you think is the biggest factor that drives people to follow trends?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bookspotting: Week 3




This is the second week of the Lunar New Year holiday, so there are still more tourists with guidebooks than usual around the city. I spent a day in Macau, the former Portuguese colony known as the Las Vegas of Asia. It seems that just about everyone in Hong Kong decided to go to Macau this week. While I was waiting in the very crowded ferry terminal I saw a girl carrying The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Back in HK I saw two people reading Chinese books, a man with a graphic novel that may or may not have been in English, and a group of women reading the Bible in Tagalog. I also saw another Kindle! It was the newest generation in that great slate gray color. I've now seen four Kindles besides mine after six months in HK.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert




THE GIST:

In this classic French novel a passionate young wife falls into debt, adultery and despair in equal measures.

THE VERDICT:

Emma Bovary is a woman who refuses to settle for anything less than fiercely passionate living. She is unwilling to accept the realities of married life in a provincial French town and tries to solve her problems in all the wrong ways. She purchases luxuries she cannot afford and chases men who do not want her as much as she wants the elusive life that they represent.

In this novel Flaubert paints an enticing picture of Emma. She is engaging and seductive, despite the fact that she becomes bored very easily. Several times she tries to fix her mistakes, but she always does too little too late, ultimately succumbing to her desire for more. Her passion and her flaws make her an intensely memorable woman.

Emma, the original desperate housewife, is both frustrating and relatable. Her husband and her lovers never fully understand what drives her actions. She wants to have a life that is bigger and more beautiful than her situation allows, but the consequences of her actions finally catch up with her.

THE COST: 

Free Kindle edition

THE LINK:

Here is more information about the author and links to his works: Gustave Flaubert

THE QUESTION:

Do you think it is possible to live passionately and be content with your life at the same time?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

MOUSETRAPPED by Catherine Ryan Howard



THE GIST:

An Irish gal spends a year and a bit working for a Disney World hotel in Orlando and admiring all things space related.

THE VERDICT:

This is a fun travel memoir that will appeal to anyone who loves Disney, NASA and/or Starbucks. Catherine writes about her experiences in Florida with a fresh, chatty voice. She is honest about the difficulties of moving to a new country completely alone, while expressing the wonder she feels while fulfilling some of her childhood dreams.

This is an easy read that will make you kind of want to be an astronaut. It is interesting to see an outsider's impressions of the US, as well as an insider's perspective of a theme park city. The personable tone of the story is what ultimately makes the book. You end up sympathizing with Catherine's trying moments, laughing at her funny ones, and celebrating her special triumphs.

The cool thing about this story is that this is a self-published book. I'm very skeptical about most self-published material because agents and editors usually know what they are talking about when they turn manuscripts down. In this case the author had received positive feedback from agents who turned her down because they thought the market for this book was too niche. She also had her book professionally edited, so it was mostly free from annoying typos and grammatical errors. The ending was a little uneven, but other than that the story was well-written and well worth the $3 for the e-book.

THE COST:

$2.99 for the Kindle edition

THE LINK:

The author's blog, which includes her self-publishing story: Catherine Ryan Howard

THE QUESTION:

What makes memoirs about regular people worth reading? An exotic location? A special challenge or obstacle? Humor?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bookspotting: Week 2

Victoria Park flower market
Lucky Oranges
Lion dance
Night Parade in Tsim Sha Tseui
           










This week we have been celebrating the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong. This means I've spent less time on the MTR and more time relaxing in coffee shops and watching the festivities. I've seen far more guide books this week than I normally see around HK, especially in the hands of visitors from the Mainland who have come to spend time with their families. Last night on my way home from the fireworks I passed a young girl who was walking and reading at the same time (my favorite kind of person). She was reading The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. Other than that I saw two people with Chinese books and that was it.

What are people reading in your town this week?

Central Pier before the fireworks
video
video

Friday, February 4, 2011

BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER by Amy Chua



THE GIST:

The controversial memoir of a Chinese mother's strict parenting methods designed to produce stereotypically overachieving Asian kids.

THE VERDICT:

Chua, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the USA, writes about the extreme methods she used to turn her young daughters into musical prodigies. She spent countless hours fighting with them over their instruments, forcing them to practice on vacation, and driving hours each day to get them to the best music tutors in New England. Her standards and methods are fairly representative of the lengths to which many Chinese parents go to make sure their kids are successful, but they seem cruel and unusual from a Western perspective.

Although this book was promoted with an article calling Chinese mothers superior to Western parents, Chua does have a partial change of heart at the end of the book. Despite her micromanaging practices, you can see her very slowly realizing that she might not want her daughters to hate her after all. Most of the controversy on the web has surrounds the article, which does not include the part where Chua realizes she might have been too harsh. I would recommend reading the book before deciding what you think about it.

I think the book was written prematurely because the girls are still teenagers. It isn't yet clear whether their successes as adults will outweigh the potential damage to their relationship with their mother. I am also curious to see whether they will be able to demonstrate self-motivation, confidence, and creativity after having their lives so closely controlled by their mother. The book was also disappointingly short, especially for the price. I wish the author would have waited until her daughters were a bit older so time could truly tell how much wisdom there is in her methods.

THE LINK:

I don't think the author has her own website, but here is her profile on Yale's faculty page: Amy Chua. There are plenty of articles about her on the web following her Wall Street Journal article: Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior

THE COST:

The Kindle edition was $12.99 and it was very short. This is the first time I've thought an e-book was overpriced.

THE QUESTION:

Do you think it is more important to make sure your kids are successful or to make sure you have a good relationship with them?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot


THE GIST:

The classic story of an English town in the 1830's in which people argue, fall in love, and get married, not necessarily in that order.

THE VERDICT:

Despite my affection for British literature, I've never gotten around to finishing anything by George Eliot before. The great thing about this story is that it feels very real. The people are flawed and nuanced, and everyone gets what they deserve in the end. The foolish but kind-hearted characters learn lessons and become wiser, and the selfish and hypocritical characters end up a bit worse off.

This is a long book, originally published in series, that follows the doings in and around the town of Middlemarch over the course of several years. There are smatterings of politics, religion, history, art, and business, and everything else that real people talk about. It gives an effective portrait of the way gossip spreads and evolves in a small town.

One of the good things about this book is that it doesn't end with the marriages of the various young people (unlike in a Jane Austen novel, for example). Eliot takes an honest look at the expectations and disappointments of marriage, especially at a time when people didn't get to know each other particularly well before getting hitched.

THE LINK:

The author (real name Mary Ann Evans) doesn't have a website of course, but here's some more info about her life and work: George Eliot

THE COST:

Free Kindle edition

THE QUESTION:

Were you disappointed by Dorothea's decision at the end of the book?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

TALES OF A FEMALE NOMAD by Rita Golden Gelman



THE GIST:

A travel memoir about a woman's life with no permanent address as she gets to know people in villages around the world.

THE VERDICT:

I liked Rita's emphasis on the importance of community in the midst of her nomadic existence. She has a gift for connecting with people, especially women, no matter where she lives in the world. She includes many stories of cooking, laughing, and crying with women all over the place.

In this nomadic style of travel I did sense a lack of purpose sometimes. She wandered into people's lives, sometimes staying for six months and sometimes staying for eight years, with no particular aim. This caused the narrative to wander a bit too, and the book didn't hold my attention as much at the end. Perhaps it is harder for a young woman who still has a lot to prove to relate to this author than it would be for a reader who has already been 'successful' and is wondering what's next.

The book is written in present tense, which can be jarring for a memoir, however the voice is full of warmth. I would want to have a cup of tea with the author to listen to her stories about interesting places. She is still traveling, writing, and connecting with people, which I think is pretty cool too.

THE LINK:

Author's website and blog: Rita Golden Gelman

THE COST:

Kindle edition: $9.99

THE QUESTION:

Do you think travel must be driven by a purpose or goal?
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