Category: Books

by Amy Tan

 

As I read The Joy Luck Club, I was reminded of what’s great about books, especially fiction. Here I am, a middle-aged white man living in 2019 America, suddenly immersed in the lives of Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters, spanning most of the 20th century. It was a bit like snooping in a stranger’s medicine cabinet: Much of what you see there is fascinating; some of it is unfathomable.

Tan is very good at world-building. Open her book to any page and you are immediately absorbed by whatever she’s writing about. Vivid images and memorable metaphors abound. That’s the good news.

Yet if I’m honest … there are eight main characters in the story – four mothers and four daughters – and I often found them indistinguishable. The mothers all suffer hardships and learn valuable life lessons, which they attempt to pass on to their girls. The daughters are all more optimistic but also more foolish. At times I felt I was reading the same story four times over, just with different character names.

But Joy Luck seems relevant to me, some 30 years after its publication, in part because there is so much talk about China today, and it illustrates the gap between the Chinese way of seeing the world, and the American way. The Chinese – at least traditionally – seem to be all about fate and omens and what the West might consider superstition. They see America as a place of much opportunity, but too little wisdom and too much worship at the altar of money.

 

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by David Foster Wallace

 

Wallace is the author of One of Those Novels I Mean to Read Someday — right after I finish re-reading Moby Dick and War and Peace. That book is called Infinite Jest, and I admit that its mammoth length is the main reason I haven’t yet tackled it.

In the meantime, I checked out Consider the Lobster, a collection of Wallace essays published in 2005. Wallace, who committed suicide in 2008, was a writer of infinite curiosity. He was highly intelligent but had a quality so often missing from the highly intelligent: humility.

Lobster contains Wallace’s observations on everything from a pornography convention in Las Vegas to the impact of September 11, 2001 on Middle Americans to, as the title implies, the boiling of lobsters.

All of it is interesting; all of it is engaging. My only complaint is Wallace’s love of the footnote (and footnotes within footnotes). At times it becomes distracting and tiresome.

 

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by Bill Bryson

 

Bryson is a genial fellow, and very few writers do gentle humor better than he does, but this short biography (barely 200 pages) is really just an intro to The Bard.

What’s notable isn’t what we learn about Shakespeare, but how little we learn about Shakespeare. There simply isn’t much in the historical record, and what there is, is often incomplete or vague. Not Bryson’s fault, of course. He obviously loves Shakespeare and that feeling is contagious.

Even so, this is less a book about the great writer and more a picture of what life was like in England 400 years ago.  My advice: If you’re really into Shakespeare, find a more substantial book. And if you’re really into Bryson, he has better (and longer) works out there.

 

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by G.K. Chesterton

 

Chesterton was obviously influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle when he penned these eight short stories, with Horne Fisher a variation on Sherlock Holmes and journalist Harold March in the role of Dr. Watson. In each story, some sort of crime is committed, usually a murder, and everyone is flummoxed save the wise and world-weary Fisher. Alas, unlike the cocaine-ingesting, violin-playing Holmes, Fisher is a bit too enigmatic to make a strong impression. (Chesterton also created priest-detective “Father Brown,” a character who has better stood the test of time.)

Chesterton’s stories are also heavily invested in the politics of the day (the 1920s). But this intermingling of mystery and social issues dilutes the overall effect. The suspense is interrupted by political digressions, and the politics aren’t explored enough to resonate.

 

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by Bryan Gruley

 

A 15-year-old autistic boy goes missing and his parents receive cryptic texts and e-mails, including an apparent ransom demand.

Bleak Harbor was just … average; not terrible, but certainly nothing special. There is a lot of texting and hacking and computer sleuthing, which I suppose modernizes the plot, but this is a story we’ve read many times before. There is, of course, a “big twist” near the end. Alas, the unexpected turn isn’t particularly credible.

 

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by Charles Krauthammer

 

I used to watch Charles Krauthammer spar with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and be reminded of Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound, hawkish lunatic from Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I thought of Krauthammer as a conservative villain. Problem is, that’s about as much as I thought of the psychiatrist turned political pundit; I certainly didn’t listen to what he had to say. That was my mistake.

I still don’t agree with everything he has to say in Things That Matter, a collection of his essays from the 1980s until 2014. But I respect his opinions, whether about domestic policy, international issues or, well, his love of chess. Krauthammer’s essays are sprinkled with wit and, yes, wisdom. The man did his homework.

As might be expected from a conservative columnist, there is much criticism of Obama in the book. My guess is that, were this book more current (Krauthammer died in June), he would also deploy his rapier wit against our current president.

I wish he was still around to appear on cable news. If nothing else, his calm demeanor would be a welcome respite from all of the shrieking hysterics.

 

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by Jefferson Farjeon

 

A gathering of upper-crust Brits and their servants fall under suspicion when foul play interrupts a weekend retreat. This 1936 whodunit is pretty much what you’d expect, if what you expect is an English country-house murder mystery with Agatha Christie DNA in its bones. Farjeon is no Dame Agatha, but a few of his characters – in particular an acerbic journalist named Bultin – are amusing.

 

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by Arthur Conan Doyle

 

When I think of Arthur Conan Doyle, like most people I think of his most famous creation, the indomitable Sherlock Holmes. Or perhaps I think of the author’s storied fascination with the paranormal. I did not, until now, think of great adventure tales, in the vein of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. The Lost World, however, is a genuine classic of the genre, with its short but thrilling depiction of four men discovering a prehistoric land in the depths of Brazil, and their dual struggle to survive that environment and to convince the outside world of its existence.

The story, published in 1912, is old hat in 2018, of course. Large chunks of the narrative are politically incorrect, what with its quartet of European white men dominating and condescending to numerous people of color. But the adventure is the thing in Lost World. And by George, what a delightful twist ending – “Lake Gladys,” my ass!

 

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by Camille Paglia

 

I am drawn to feisty intellectual Camille Paglia for two reasons: 1) Being a straight man, I appreciate any feminist, like Paglia, who does not indulge in obligatory male bashing, and 2) I share Paglia’s aversion to “herd mentality.” She’s a contrarian, but often for good, fact-based reasons. It’s refreshing to find a feminist willing to take on “women’s studies” dogma and cultural icons like Gloria Steinem.

Her main theme in this collection of previously published essays is that modern feminism downplays human nature — or the role of biology — in modern life. Every problem cannot be solved by social engineering, she believes. We are who we are.

A minor complaint: If you don’t know what Paglia makes of Katharine Hepburn, Amelia Earhart, or Dorothy Parker, she will let you know on page 35. And on page 176. And on page 222. Etcetera, etcetera. If you weren’t aware that Paglia wrote a feminist-themed letter to the local editor when she was just a teenager, she will relate that story multiple times.

Then again, this is a collection of Paglia musings from a period of 25 years. If you feel you are a lonely voice in the feminist wilderness, you probably feel the need to repeat yourself.

 

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by Gary Larson

 

I pretty much lost interest in the “funny pages” decades ago because so few of them were actually funny. An exception was Gary Larson’s single-panel classic, The Far Side. Larson’s loopy, goofy illustrations looked adolescent but displayed out-of-left-field wit. I mean, how can you not smile at this?

 

 

That’s the first cartoon you see in The Far Side Gallery, an anthology of Larson’s syndicated strips from 1982-84. Here is another example from the book:

 

 

But I have to admit that I found this book a bit disappointing. For every absurdist gem like the two examples above, there are a dozen entries that seem either dated, lame, or (to me, at least) incomprehensible. Maybe Larson improved with age; perhaps by purchasing this collection of his early work, I just picked the wrong years.

But man, when Larson was good, he was very, very good.

 

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