I’m addicted to buying books, mostly used. I gather at least a hundred every year, and can only read a third at most. The titles keep piling up. I read a lot more when I don’t have reliable internet access so I tell myself to turn off the net more often, but distractions are hard to fight 😦

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Here are the books I read this past year and still haven’t reviewed:

The Billionaire’s Vinegar: About the most expensive vintage wine ever sold (more than $300,000 in today’s dollars). For many, wine is not only a good drink. It embodies class, history, mastery. I have read another book on wine titled Red, White, and Drunk All Over by sommelier Natalie Maclean. Maclean’s book is educational through entertaining stories of people in all aspects of the wine industry: growers, harvesters, chateau owners, merchants, sellers, tasters, and consumers. We learn not only about their trades and their love for wine. Billionaire’s Vinegar also has lots of experts’ voices: historians, authenticators (?) but more than that, we’re shown a world of passion, devotion, mania, and excessive money.

A Passage to India and the Good Earth: Orientalism classics that I’d never heard of. This is the great thing about browsing books physically; you stumble across gems. I picked up A Passage to India among the piles of not too inviting looking books at a hotel I usually stay at in Hue, and the Good Earth when I was buying mountaineering books in Kathmandu. (Orientalism here not used as a degoratory but simply to indicate a genre of books in the early 20th century by Western writers when the East was still considered exceedingly exotic and mysterious and incomprehensible.) They are both fast reads that I enjoy tremendously.
A Passage to India reminds me of Burmese days, written by men foreign to the country but can still love it deeply in their own way. The eyes are accepting to the natives (but not naively) and critical toward the self-righteous enlightened rulers. The climax is the trial of a Muslim doctor who is accused of harassing an English visitor girl while taking her on a tour of a landmark near his hometown to show her the “real” India. What does it mean to be Indian/English/British/Christian/Muslim/Hindu and does one pledge to his country, religion, skin color, ethnicity, caste, or to the human dignity?
The Good Earth: a portrait of China through the upheavals of the first decades of the 20th century, of hardworking peasants that work the land and prosper from the land (and whose offspring end up disdaining it). One of the most moving details is of the farmer Wang Lu, a frugal man who has always been so considerate to his industrious wife, demands from her two tiny pearls that she kept for herself from the fortune they got hold of, to give them to his new mistress. O-Lan, the wife, though full of resentment, silently takes out the pearls and sobs quietly. It is so easy to relate to the way the characters talk and how they think and act, I forgot sometimes that the writer is an American (born and raised in China).

Sea of Poppies: I discovered Amitav Gosh back in 2008 while in India and he has since always been among my favorites in my favorite genre (historical fiction). I love how he brings to life seemingly remote, complex events from times and places I’m not familiar and weave them together so seamlessly. It might be a strange thing to say: through his writings, he illustrates globalization in the sense of how interconnected we are. Let me just list here the themes explored in this book: the caste system in India, the British rule, the opium industry in India and the opium trade and war with China, the coolie trade in the Indian ocean. Sea of Poppies is supposedly the first of a trilogy so the ending doesn’t bring a real closure. I can’t wait to read the next 2.

La sombra del viento (The Wind’s Shadow): I was really excited to get a hold of this because of the rave reviews on amazon and the comparison to “Gabriel García Márquez meets Umberto Eco meets Jorge Luis Borges.” It’s not. Ruiz Zafon has a long way to go before he can get to the level of any of those 3 writers. Yes, there’s the fantastical and mystical, but that’s not what makes the writings of Garcia Marquez or Borges masterpieces. This is more of a thriller, with build up in the first 350 pages that I trudged through because of drawn out details and soooo much conversations (5-page transcript of bantering is not uncommon). Might be acceptable if it was a screenplay.

Absurdistan: Another book I recently rescued from my Hue hotel. I didn’t get the humor right away but once I did, I flew through the pages. There are so many references to contemporary Russia (Putin, St. Petersburg, the Russian mob) and US (Halliburton, Dick Cheney) that I wish Absurdistan was a real place so that I could look up the news and read about their ethnic tension and civil war.

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