Amazingly innovative, Cloud Atlas is a book that’s hard to describe and even harder to put down. I didn’t like it, but I absolutely think you should read it because it’s that interesting.
The (presumably rather Westernized) Buddhist themes of reincarnation and interconnectedness didn’t really bother me, though I prefer their opposites, transience and individuality. I think the movie scores better on individuality: there’s maybe as much emphasis on the line, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” as there is on “Our lives are not our own; we are bound to others, past and present.” In both the book and the movie, the nature of truth is a major theme, and one I like.
In the book (but not the movie), two of the six protagonists were rather despicable, and the book’s view of humanity is bleak: the message seems to be that we keep repeating the same mistakes and don’t deserve a civilization, since we keep wrecking it in various ways, heroes notwithstanding.
For a kind of overview and more on what I thought including SPOILERS, keep reading, but only if you’ve read the book or don’t intend to.
Also see my post on the movie Cloud Atlas (2012).
Continue reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I don’t like murder mysteries because I don’t enjoy contemplating early deaths. Any justice achieved at the end of the story is rather after the fact for at least one victim. And Then There Were None is no exception.
However, in part because it is the celebrated work of a celebrated author, I’m not sorry I read it. For more thoughts on the the book (no big spoilers), see below.
Continue reading Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) by Agatha Christie
I purposely did not go in any used bookstores while I was in the U.S. (though I admit I was tempted). Still, somehow I wound up returning from Denver to Singapore with these 21 used books. I bought them at two thrift stores where I went to buy pants. (Trousers? Whatever.)
These books cost me less than US$23.00 in total. (For the sake of comparison, note that the website of the most prominent bookstore in Singapore, Kinokuniya, lists new copies of the hardcover Four for the equivalent of about US$19.00.)
From a content standpoint, the book I’m most excited about is probably the psychology textbook. From a collecting standpoint, I’m most excited about Wolf Wing and the Percy Jackson books, because they match books I already own.
Concluding remarks by George Murray Smith, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, in which the installments of the unfinished novel Wives and Daughters were first published serially:
While you read any one of the last three books we have named [i.e, Wives and Daughters, Cousin Phillis, and Sylvia’s Lovers], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.
In other words, it is a book well worth reading. For more on what stood out, when and why I read it, and related works, see below.
Continue reading Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
Andrew Keen’s rant, The Cult of the Amateur, is, like all rants, intellectually undermined by its angry tone. The book contains a substantial amount of scorn and Chicken Little–style alarmism, with, unsurprisingly, a dash of nostalgia for the good old days.
Nevertheless, the book has real polemical value insofar as it raises awareness of quality and the expertise required to achieve it.
If you want to hear more about this book from an expert reader (and amateur reviewer), keep reading.
Continue reading The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen
Ever wondered what etymology is like in the Chinese language?
It’s like this.
So, is Chinese ‘pictographic’?
Well, does the ‘zhōng’ in ‘Zhōngguó’ (‘China’) look like part of a sundial? Because that’s what it is.
Drawing of a pole with some decorative streamers. The pole was placed in the center of a circle or dial so that a shadow cast by the sun on a calibrated dial could measure solar time—much like the gnomon or style of a sundial.
So yeah, ‘zhōng’ means ‘middle’ (as in ‘middle kingdom’), but it’s not because the line passes through the middle of the box. Rather, it’s because the whole stick thing (which has lost its notably asymmetrical streamers) is in the middle of a sundial.
I don’t know enough Chinese to benefit much from this book, but here and there I found something interesting, and the whole things reinforces the idea that the Chinese writing system is old, old, old. Examining how the characters evolved is like looking back in time. Reading the book made me feel like an archaeologist holding up a burning torch to peer at mysterious lines scrawled on the walls of a cave. The oldest characters embody the basic concepts of the society in which they were invented: food and shelter, war, birth and life and death…
When and Why I Read It
It was a gift to me from my husband’s parents years ago (sometime between 2003 and 2005). At the time, it was even more over my head than it is now, so it just sat there.
Frankly, I’m shocked that it’s still in print. It’s even got three reviews on Amazon. And since it’s selling at at a moderate price and a 15% discount, it’s not one of those print-on-demand inventory items.
Genre: Non-fiction (language, Chinese)
Date started / date finished: 22-Mar-16 to 11-May-16
Length: 200 pages
ISBN: 7800522431 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: The Origins of Chinese Characters
A Complaint Free World claims it can change readers’ lives and make the world a better place. And maybe to some extent it can and it has. But I’ve heard this kind of claim before. Every other self-help book takes its mission just as seriously. No matter how successful any one book is, or even how much I agree with a book’s message, the claim always sounds overblown.
I guess the thing to keep in mind is that the real value of a self-help book is not just in the core ideas it contains but in the way those ideas are explained and embedded in a compelling story that speaks to you.
Did this book speak to me? In a word, no. It does have a couple of good ideas, but there were a lot of bad ideas in there, too. Read below to find out what parts of the book I saw as valuable and what parts were not suited to my taste.
Continue reading A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen
There’s a huge difference in style (as well as size) between the Guy Delisle book about Shenzhen and the Guy Delisle book about Jerusalem. In the Shenzhen book, the drawings are darker and fuzzier like pencil or charcoal sketches, whereas the drawings in the Jerusalem book are very clean, with splashes of color added.
I think part of the reason is the separation in time between the books. The Shenzhen book was published in 2006 about a trip in 1997, and the Jerusalem book was published in 2012 about a trip in 2008.
In terms of content, I think I enjoyed the Shenzhen book more. China feels frustrating and foreign… but you’d expect it to. Jerusalem feels if anything more frustrating, since in theory it’s less foreign. The ongoing conflicts there involve the political ideologies and religions of the West. In reading this book, I realized I know very little about those conflicts…
As always, I admire the artist’s nonchalance in the face of daunting situations, and his ability and willingness to transmit his experiences to us in words and pictures. Sometimes the episodes depicted are funny and sometimes they’re not, but they are eye-opening.
More on when and why I read the books below.
Continue reading Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle
The Three Circles of English is a collection of conference papers published in Singapore on 2001.
The title refers to the varieties of English in the inner circle, outer circle and expanding circle of the “three circles” model invented by Braj Kachru.
I’m glad I read this book, though parts of it were eye-stabbingly inarticulate and other parts contained opinions that went all the way through defensive and out the other side…
I now have more sympathy for people who feel that although they have grown up speaking English, they can never really achieve a respectable level of English, simply because they weren’t born and educated in places where the local variety of English is automatically respected. I mean, how unfair is that? Especially since all our enshrined standards are nothing but historical accidents. I’m not saying that we don’t need standards, or even, necessarily, that they should change or multiply, just that it stinks if you’re on the receiving end of one, so to speak, through no fault of your own.
For a list of the papers and what I found interesting about them, keep reading. (TL;DR? Try this summary instead.)
Continue reading The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo
I was expecting Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar to be depressing, and it was—just not as depressing as I’d expected.
I don’t think I’d read anything by Sylvia Plath, but I had the impression that she was famous for poetry relating to depression and death, and that this famous book had some kind of morbid theme. I also had the impression that Plath was the author of “Resumé”, a memorable and oddly charming poem about suicide that turns out to be by Dorothy Parker.
The novel tells the story of Esther, a nineteen-year-old college student in the US who has been sent to work at the office of a New York City fashion magazine for one month. The story follows her anguished personal struggle with others’ expectations of her and with her own professional and romantic ambitions.
The novel did not impress me favorably overall, but I attribute that judgment to my personal taste for happier content.
For more about when and why I read the novel and what stood out (including a detailed plot summary in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat), see below.
Continue reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath