Monday, June 27, 2011

Some Good Books

  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - Richard Mayhew is one of Gaiman's typically unlikely heroes: a good boring man with a good boring job, good boring girlfriend and good boring prospects. Until the untypical thing happens, and he is led into one of Gaiman's fantasy worlds--this one a dangerous, complex society hat has dwelt underneath London for millennia. Now he must help the Lady Door evade the ominous Mssrs Croup and Vandemar and find the Angel Islington if he wants his boring but safe life back. Rich in action and imagination, well-written and well-paced. Good, very unboring stuff!
  • Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel - Beatrice and Virgil are stuffed animals, she a donkey, he a howler monkey. They are stuffed. They are the lead characters in a play being written by a taxidermist. The taxidermist sends a copy of the opening scenes to a successful author (who seems much like Yann Martel) to ask for help. So the author and the taxidermist begin an odd and unlikely collaboration that culminates in a scene of unexpected violence. There is much to like in this book, including the way Martel uses animals to explore human behavior as he did in Life of Pi, but I found it ultimately too odd and too unsatisfying.
  • Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang - Shanghai in 1966 found 12-year-old Ji-Li Jiang an outgoing, ambitious and bright Chinese girl. A class leader, talented, popular, she was on her way to admittance into Shanghai's best middle school, then onwards to high school, university and a great life in Chairman Mao's new China. Then came the Cultural Revolution and the campaign against the Four Olds--old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas--that must be destroyed. Despite the fact that her family were fine communists, they were targeted by the Red Guard because Ji-Li's grandfather had been a landlord in the old days. This memoir describes what happens to Ji-Li and her family during a two year period at the height of the Four Olds campaign. Highly recommended for anyone interested in Asian history.
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield - A complex and exceptionally well-written modern Gothic: a decaying manorial estate in the Yorkshire countryside, madness, forbidden urges, untamed twins, sabotage, and murder are some of the common Gothic themes explored in this book. Best-selling author Vida Winter is terminally ill and wishes, once and for all, to tell her true life story. As biographer, she chooses unknown Margaret Lea who has secrets of her own, and so unfolds the memorable story that may have been 'The Thirteenth Tale of Change and Desperation'. I suppose this is Chick Lit, but it was such a damn good read I didn't really notice.
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey - This groundbreaking piece of long-form journalism covers the story of the first nuclear attack in history by focusing on its effects on a half-dozen ordinary people who were near Ground Zero on August 6, 1945: a seamstress and mother of three, a pair of priests, two doctors, and a young secretary. Originally published in 1946, this 1985 edition includes an Aftermath chapter following up on the lives of Hersey's original subjects 40 years later, only one of whom has passed away. What surprises me most about these people is their disinterest, in the most part, for finding someone to blame--whether the Americans for obvious reasons, or the Japanese hierarchy for failing to protect, or at least warn them.

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