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Just short notes on a few books I read in April and May:

Complications: A surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science: Gawande is a well-known science writer, but this is the first long work by him that I read. All the more respect to surgeons; there’s so much unknown and uncertainty about how our bodies work. And when you actually think about the processes, the details, it’s so barbaric, cutting open fresh and across bones. My main take-away, whether the author intends it or not, is that you should not be obese. That complicates everything: surgeons don’t know where exactly to cut in, they have to forage around for the right organ; anesthetists have to rough guess the dose; you can’t lie down because of sleep apnea… So don’t be obese!

Arabian Sands: My new favorite travel/culture book, and now permanently in my favorite list of all genres. Life in Arabia before all the seismic changes caused by oil exploration and production. Eye opening. Great description of the desert and its way of life. I’m quite a bit jealous of his experience that sure is not repeatable anymore.  Confirmed my belief about the overwhelming hospitality of nomads and their admirable code of honor, and that the Saudis’ Wahhabism is despicably backward and has been so even before all the big money. Too bad they got rich and get to spread their influence. If only it was the other way around, the world would be so much more peaceful.

Song of Solomon: Picked this up, because well it’s by Toni Morrison. She’s a powerful writer, such a distinct voice and imagination, lyrical and magical. Story of Milkman, a black man born in the 30s, and his experience through life: some representative of his race, others peculiar to his family and upbringing. The uneasy disconnection you can have towards others of the same race, because of location, class, or ideology, even when you feel like you should stick together because that’s the only way to move forward. What exactly defines a black experience? And the struggle to find your roots, where your family comes from and what it means to living you life. A hard book to sum up, especially since the ending is so open.

El tiempo entre costuras: I was as doubtful to start this after my disappointment with La sombra del viento. Another heavy book  (over 600 pages) of contemporary Spanish literature that receives rave review on Amazon, and both have the backdrop of the Spanish civil war and world war II. Luckily, this one turned out to be delightful, and taught me so much about Spain’s engagement in WWII and the role of Spanish protectorate of Morroco in the civil war; I knew very little to none about both. Great explanation about historical figures like Surreno and Beigbeder, the working of British intelligence operations in the peninsula, and lively fictional characters of the pension owner/blackmarket dealer/ever-resourceful resolver of all pinches Candelaria, the artist possibly gay neighbor that knows everything about everyone Felix, and I loved reading the streets and houses in different neighborhoods in Tetuan Spanish Jewish Muslim, the smell and odor of Mediterrean Africa, the social scenes and expats and rich refugees waiting to leave the Continent behind once and for all, the destitution and brokenness of Spain. I know that’s a long run-on sentence, but too lazy to fix.

The Glass Palace: by one of my favorite historical fiction writers Amitav Gosh. All his books deal with complex issues and I’ve always reveled in how his meticulous research is weaved in his expansive stories, but in this one he is overly ambitious. There’s royalties and colonialists, sovereignty and invasion, exile, business and slavery and exploitation, imperialism and the Empire, mutiny and world war, the colonial mindset and its awakening and questioning, independence and democracy, and among all of that love, relationship, family, friendship. There are too many main characters and too many story lines, few fully developed to my satisfaction, and in some places it seems like Gosh is running out of breath to keep abreast of all the web that he’s weaved. All that said, without a doubt, he never ceases to amaze me with the breadth and depth of his knowledge on so many topics, and the power of his imagination to bring to life so many seemingly disparate characters and put them all together. Where else could you learn about the last royal family of Burma and their exile in India in such a realistic sometimes depressing but always so poetic story?

[Leopold Gursky]
Who is Bruno? she asked.
I studied her face. I tried to think of the answer.
Talk about invisible, I said.
To her expression of fright and surprise was now added confusion.
But who is he?
He’s the friend i didn’t have.
She looked at me, waiting.
He’s the greatest character I ever wrote.
She said nothing. I was afraid she was going to get up and leave me. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. So i told her the truth.
He’s dead.
It hurt to say it. And yet. There was so much more.
He died on a July day in 1941.
I waited for her to stand and walk away. But. She remained there, unblinking.
I’d gone so far.
I thought, Why not a little farther?
And another thing.
I had her attention. It was a joy to behold. She waited, listening.
I had a son who never knew I existed.
A pigeon flapped up into the sky. I said,
His name was Isaac.
//////////
[Alma Singer]
And then i realized that I’d been searching for the wrong person.
I looked into the eyes of the oldest man in the world for a boy who fell in love when he was ten.
I said, “Were you in love with a girl named Alma?”
He was silent. His lips trembled. I thought he hadn’t understood, so i asked him again. “Were you ever in love with a girl named Alma Mereminski?”
He reached out his hand. He tapped me twice on the arm. I knew he was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t know what.
I said, “Were you ever in love with a girl named Alma Mereminski who left for America? ”
His eyes filled with tears, he tapped my arm twice, then twice again.
I said, “The son you think didn’t know you existed, was his name Isaac Moritz?”
//////////
[Leopold Gursky]
I felt my heart surge. I thought: I’ve lived this long. Please. A little longer won’t kill me. I wanted to say her name aloud, it would have given me joy to call, because i knew that in some small way it was my love that named her. And yet. I couldn’t speak. I was afraid I’d choose the wrong sentence. She said,  The son you think didn’t know – I tapped her twice. Then twice again. She reached for my hand. With my other I tapped her twice. She squeezed my fingers. I tapped her twice. She put my head on my shoulder. I tapped her twice. She put one arm around me. I tapped her twice. She put both arms around me and hugged me. I stopped tapping.
Alma, I said.
She said,  Yes.
Alma, I said again.
She said, Yes.
Alma, I said.
She tapped me twice.
///////////
//////////
THE DEATH LEOPOLD GURSKY
Leopold Gursky started dying on August 18, 1920.
He died learning to walk.
He died standing at the blackboard.
And once, also, carrying a heavy tray.
He died practicing a new way to sign his name.
Opening a window.
Washing his genitals in the bath.

He died alone, because he was too embarrassed to phone anyone.
Or he died thinking about Alma.
Or when he chose not to.

Really, there isn’t much to say.
He was a great writer.
He fell in love.
It was his life.

——————
These last pages filled my eyes with tears as i read and reread and reread them. They’re from “the history of love“ by Nicole Krauss. I had mistakenly thought the book was nonfiction but it turned out to be one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years. The story is told in multiple voices, and my favorite parts are Leopold Gursky’s, funny, self-deprecating, and heartbreaking. The pain and despair of living a life invisible, unnoticed, unrecognized. (And despite having a great talent, a great son, and a great love.) And the joy of finally knowing that your existence makes sense, of having it all acknowledged, even by just one person, a young girl who was named after his love. What purer joy could there be?

Man’s search for meaning: Once elected as one of “the ten most influential books in the US,” sharing the prestige with the Bible, LOTR, and To Kill A Mockingbird, and yet I never heard of this book of modest 180 pages. In the first and main section, the author examines the psychology of concentration camp inmates, of whom he was one, which led him to developing his own psychiatric theory of logotherapy which he summarizes in the second part. The question he seeks to answer for himself and for us is why under such horrific conditions of starvation, humiliation, torture, and looming death, some people never gave up even when they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The main argument is: Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live, can bear any how” and the why may not only be the wish to reunite with loved ones, or to finish one’s life work, but could also be because you can find meaning in suffering. Lots of food for thought. Especially in the meaning in suffering part. It’s probably easier for people of faith who look at suffering as a test of character. But if you’re not of faith, is there any reason to embrace with dignity and grace the worst that life could give you, when it’s likely that no one would ever know about your act?

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob yo of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

 

Down and Out in Paris and London: I picked up this book by George Orwell, somehow assuming it was similar to his Burmese Days that I read a couple of years ago. It’s not a novel, more of a travelogue/memoir and unexpectedly, from the viewpoint of a working class poor in Paris, and a tramp in London, trying to survive with little to no money in these two great cities during the Great Depression. (Not sure why I didn’t deduce this from the title.) It is distinctly Orwellian in his description and observation and remarks, but not quite. He’s more outright and the humor not as dark here. I had an ah ha moment when I found out that it was his first published long work. Things have certainly changed in terms of social services for the poor and the homeless, but a lot of the book still reads relevant about the never-ending struggle to scrap enough to barely exist and without any dignity. There’s no other writer whose political and social views I agree more with, though I’d never join any party.

A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good – for slaves, at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery. I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think … The mob is in fact loose now, and – in the shape of rich men – is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom…

It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life… There are three especial evils that need insisting upon. The first is hunger, which is the almost general fate of tramps… The second great evil of a tramp’s life – it seems much smaller at first sight, but it is a good second – is that he is entirely cut off from contact with women… A tramp, therefore, is a celibate from the moment when he take to the road. he is absolutely without hope of getting a wife, a mistress, or any kind of woman except – very rarely, when he can raise a few shillings – a prostitute … But deeper than these [homosexualty, occasional rape] is the degradation worked in a man who knows that he is not even considered fit for marriage. The sexual impulse, not to put it any higher, is a fundamental impulse, and starvation of it can be almost as demoralizing as physical hunger. The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually… No humiliation could do more damage to a man’s self-respect.

Back like me: A white journalist from Texas decided to pass as a black man in the segregated south for 6 weeks. Except for his darkened skin and shaved head, he changed nothing about himself and answered truthfully to anyone that asked about his identity, his credentials, and the purpose of his trip. His experience was nothing short of mortifying. And I cried, omg did I cry. More than anger at injustice, it’s the heartbreaking reality of the existence of a sinister side in every human soul. We’re capable of love, just as much as we’re capable of hatred. A white southern gentleman tat shows his respectable civility to to his white fellows and turns into an animal, no a demon when he sees the brown skin. This is but a specific example. It takes so many forms in so many places around the world. That people can feel so righteous while preaching and internalizing such pure hatred frightens me.

Nothing can describe the withering horror of this [the hate stare] you feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it terrifies you. I felt like saying ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”… my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men’s souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock.

Good thing I ended such a heavy series with the delightful The hobbit. There’s really not much to review here. Tolkien is one of my favorite novelists and the best that I’ve ever read in English in the fantasy genre.

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 😦

book collage1

book collage2book collage 3

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.

I actually read two of the three while in Nepal, both considered classics of the genre: Edmund Hillary’s View from the Summit, and Jon Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air. The third, which I finished a week ago, is Jamling Norgay’s Touching My Father’s Soul.

Hillary’s book recounts his superhuman adventures through his whole life: the first to summit Everest (and come back alive), the first to drive overland across Antartica, riding a boat from the mouth of the Ganges to its source, and a later life committed to improving the life of the Himalayan people. What I love about these explorers stories is how it’s mostly about their skills and determination, and not so much about their background (a beekeeper from New Zealand in Hillary’s case). Many of them actually struggle financially for a long time, or barely make it, to keep their passion going. It’s either that, or the sense of grandeur they put themselves in, or maybe both that to me none of them ever comes off as conceited, which seems a lot more common in people that have achieved fame and riches in other endeavors. Hillary’s account is a clear reflection of the sharp mind of a climber/adventurer: he fully recognizes his achievements and which part is due to his own effort and which part is due to luck or circumstances.

Kraukauer’s focuses on the worst disaster in Everest history (at least in the media) in the 1996 spring season. As always he writes en engrossing story, meticulously researched and clearly explained, full of quotes and sources. But this time the difference is that he was actually a participant-observer, being a climber/media representative in the expedition with the highest loss. His account, largely praised, has definitely been accused of personal bias and putting blame on everyone except for himself; questions have been raised about the influence of media presence on expedition leaders to try and prove themselves and their team’s success and thus overturning safety decisions. Quite a few other books have been written but Kraukauer’s still the remains the definitive account to most people’s mind.

Touching My Father’s Soul is among the few rare books written by a Sherpa, the ethnic group instrumental to mountaineering in the Himalayas since its birth. The writer, Jamling Norgay, is the son of Tenzing Norgay, Hillary’s companion in the 1952 climb and the other first-summitter, an enormous pride to the people of the South Asian sub continent. Even more fascinating, Jamling was also present on Everest for the 1996 season, summiting for the first (and only) time with the IMAX film crew. His account to me is the perfect companion to the 2 previous books. He devotes substantial chapters to his father’s historic climb and later life, and to the 1996 incident. It’s always nice to see alternative views (especially for such a complex event; I tried to read another account The Climb from the perspective of the Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, but it was so poorly written in my opinion that I gave up after the first 10 pages). The thread that runs through the book is about Norgay trying to make sense of his relationship with his legendary even deified father. He also details many rituals concerning climbing (or any other daunting dangerous endeavors) for Sherpas and their families, from asking for divination to offering prayers to reciting mantra, as well as the changes that climbing has brought to the Sherpa way of life.

By Bill Bryson. That’s almost good enough for a review. He is – as always – funny and so endearing in his enthusiasm to make acquaintances with the strange and unfamiliar, and that includes people, landscape, history, customs. Who else could get so excited to about stromalites, the most ancient life on Earth that looks just like rock, that he drove a thousand miles to take a look at it so he could tell you? I dig those offbeat facts that are completely irrelevant to daily life. And he’s honest. You can tell he’s telling you exactly how he sees things. He’s not humorous for the sake of being humorous, but because he instinctively finds the humor in every situation. In the same honesty, he doesn’t shy from what might be sensitive or offensive, like posing hard questions about he treatment of the Aborigines, or calling the country’s national sport boring (and ironically, his description of cricket makes it sound a bit more entertaining).

It was a great read, as expected. And while it surprised me plenty and made me google-imaged a bunch of spots, it confirmed my impression of the country as too vast, too dry, too dangerous. Australia, wait for me in the next life. Right now I’m too busy dreaming about New Zealand.

The Museum of Innocence is a couple of brick thick and heavy at more than 700 pages; it’s been a long time since I last read such a long-winded novel.  The first 200 pages set the story: a rich Istanbulite, Kemal, about to get engaged with a girl from the same social standing meets and falls in love with a long-distant cousin. Kemal plays with the poor cousin’s feelings (inviting her to his lavish engagement party at the posh Hilton while promising to right the wrong) and then when she steps out of his life, he feels unlatched and tries to get back to his old routine without success. The whole thing develops in the length of a month and feels reasonably paced: readers are introduced to various characters of the Istanbul bourgeoisie, their neighborhoods and activities (cruises on the Bosphorus, brothel visits), and get acquainted with the idea that there’s an actual museum, and it’s dedicated to the memory of his poor cousin … and you can’t help guessing along what happens and what is the end result. The next 400 pages take place over the next 8 years. You would think that it would be much faster, but no, it is drawn out because it mostly revolves around Kemal spending time with Fusun’s family every night to court her (now married) while everyone pretends that he’s just a rich kind relative. In those years, he picks up millions of items from their house, from cigarette butts to saltshakers. I struggled to flip the pages, in one part because I was fed up with such obsessive possessive love that seems to have no rational explanation. (What exactly is it about Fusun that he loves anyway? Besides the fact that he relishes in her natural beauty and their illicit month of daily love-making.) At the same time it was interesting  sociologically to read about the rituals of the family and the Turkish society (in Istanbul at least), and a curiosity about how this would all end. The last 100 pages tied up the whole story, and unexpectedly, as everything came together and I can look at it wholly, I enjoy it a lot more. I can’t say that it’s my favorite, or even among my top 10 or 20, but I’m fond of it. From feeling alienated to the protagonist, I have sympathy for him, though not empathy. And the background which is the Turkish society just come out quite prominent, the expectations of the sexes, of young people, of poor people, of rich people. It feels quite suffocating to be caged in, and I can relate to what it feels like to live in a society where the rules are rigid and you feel like you’d get punished and ostracized for breaking any of them.

Love in the Time of Cholera is another story of lifelong obsessive irrational love, but the magic of Garcia Marquez is that he tells a million interesting “side stories” while keeping you engaged with the “main” plot. The young Florentino falls in love with the teenage Fermina and persuades her into a secret affair by correspondence. Later when she grows up and realizes it was just a fantasy, she dumps him and gets married to the respectable and lively Dr. Urbino. Florentinio then waits out half a century till Dr. Urbino dies so he can court Fermina again. In those five decades, he works his way up society and discreetly beds more than 600 women and has a notebook to keep track of all of them. Oh yes, Garcia Marquez’ are always fantastical, and quite believable. You learn about love in its different shades and tones: in marriage, when they’re young and under the thumb of the husband’s mother, when they’re on their own and absolutely free to do as they please, when they’re old and keep going back to their ritual arguments. In affair, young widows that still have the fire in them, old widows as they’re experienced and still enjoy it, women with strict fathers, and even those with husbands, etc. But the last one really pushes the limit, and for me, it crosses the boundary and repulses me. Florentino, in his 70s, grooms for his 14-year-old protegee America into his lover. No matter what can be said about culture and the time set in the novel, I couldn’t get over how morally wrong that is, and almost didn’t finish the book. I turned from cheering for a hopeless romantic to hoping that his lunatic selfish behaviors are revealed and he would lose Fermina forever. The last part focuses on his relationship with Fermina, now that she is a widow. It does have a pleasant note and for a while I thought this was the point of the story, of finding your true love in old age and enjoying the simple things in life together. But Garcia Marquez being himself leaves me utterly perplexed by the ending. Florentino persuades Fermina to go on a river cruise with him, and then on the way back, he decides to fake an outbreak of cholera so that he and Fermina (together with the captain and his lover) can have the whole boat to themselves. When they arrive at port, not knowing how to deal with authorities, Florentino orders the captain to keep on sailing with the cholera flag up. I closed the book with a loud “wtf!” Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, my impression is that it is a chronicle of loves, including diseased love. In that sense, it is ultra realistic. Haven’t we all heard stories of people that suffer and make others suffer, or even kill, in the name of what they call love?

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