Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle

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.

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The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo

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.)

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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.

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Chinese for Dummies

I feel like my 2005 copy of Chinese for Dummies is a bit out of date, though apparently the 2013 edition also has a CD inside. (If you ask me, CDs were rightly mocked as obsolete by Nick in Zootopia.)

I’m a fan of the “for Dummies” series published by Wiley. I have dummies books on several topics, and in every case, the information inside is characterized by its simplicity and clarity. The dummies books are an easy first step into any topic, saving readers from needing to understand and evaluate a wide range of available reference books in an unfamiliar niche. Wiley’s got you covered.

This book’s tagline is “Speak Mandarin Chinese the fun and easy way”. Now, no matter how much I like and respect the dummies brand, I do not believe there is any book, or teacher, or class that can make Mandarin Chinese easy for a native speaker of English. That being said, a useful feature of this particular book is the Englishy spelling approximations (e.g., nee how) that are shown alongside the pinyin (e.g., nĭ hăo) to aid pronunciation.

Note that this book teaches readers how to speak Mandarin, not how to read or write it. That’s a totally different thing. This book has no Chinese characters in it anywhere.

Some things it does have:

  • a fascinating list of the different names for Chinese in Chinese and where and why they are used
  • a list of some Chinese proverbs
  • a cartoon for each part of the book
  • a verb list separate from the glossary
  • practice exercises and answers to them
  • bits of cultural knowledge and etiquette advice

Overall the book is fine, but it’s really for absolute beginners, and I’m not one.

Still, I suppose I should learn to say this sentence from page 162:

Wǒ zhēn xūyào liànxí.
I really need [to] practice.

Genre: Non-fiction (foreign language)
Date started / date finished:  10-Nov-15 to 22-Mar-16
Length: 314
ISBN:  047178897X
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Chinese for Dummies

Find Your Strongest Life by Marcus Buckingham

Self-help, self-improvement, management and other advice books typically explain how you can fix the things that are wrong with you or improve the things that you are doing badly; few tell you that you’re already doing okay, actually, and not to worry, a message that may not sell a lot of books but that people nevertheless should hear more often.

What I loved about Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton was the positive, reassuring message that you should focus more on what you are good at rather than on your shortcomings.

I expected to hear more of that message in Find Your Strongest Life, but somehow it seems the book spent a lot of time describing in detail the problems of women who do not have their priorities straight: they are choosing to lead unfulfilling lives. And maybe you, reader, are one of those women! In fact, if you’re not doing this, that and the other thing, you probably are. If you identify more with this negative anecdote than this positive one, you definitely are, and you need to change.

That’s not a helpful message, actually; just more of the typical self-help snake oil: buy my book, follow my instructions, live a happy life. Don’t buy my book and follow my instructions, and you’ll be miserable.

Perhaps I’m not being totally fair.

The nine life roles Buckingham describes were interesting and useful to read about, and you can take a free Strong Life Test to see which role fits you best. The book also contains a lot of helpful tips on how to be more positive and shift your life towards your strengths.

The book just didn’t strike me as positive overall. Perhaps the underlying message still seems to be, “If you don’t do this, you’ll be unhappy… and you’ll deserve to be.”

What Stood Out

The metaphor that success isn’t like juggling (throwing lots of things away from you), but rather involves choosing which aspects of life to catch and bring closer to you (xviii).

The core insight that happiness often consists of time spent engaged in a challenging task of the specific kind that suits you (8).

The hypothesis that there is no universal karmic justice:

Life is not designed with anyone’s happiness in mind, and it has the disconcerting habit of not rewarding the good as much as we’d expect, of punishing the wicked less vigorously than we’d like, and even, on occasion, of getting the two completely mixed up (24).

The idea that yes, expertise takes practice, but that you’re more likely to practice things you like doing in the first place (164).

When and Why I Read It

Bought it very cheap at an atrium book sale in Singapore because I liked Now, Discover Your Strengths. which has apparently been superseded by Strengthsfinder 2.0.

Genre: non-fiction (self-improvement, business)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-16 to 22-Mar-16
Length: 263 pages
ISBN: 9781400202362 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2009
Amazon link: Find Your Strongest Life

Two Books by Peter Walsh

It’s All Too Much was written before the obnoxiously titled Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat, and seemed a lot more useful.

Both books were written in a tone I found slightly annoying. It was a little too personal and informal. There were many pointed rhetorical questions. I guess I would have preferred a more analytical, objective style.

It’s All Too Much had some useful advice and did inspire me to clean out a few things. The other book convinced me that I should make the effort to buy groceries at the store that’s inconveniently on the other side of a steep flight of stairs and eat at home more often.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

So, unfortunately, the theme of The Mayor of Casterbridge seems to be that people can’t change. The book is fun to read, though, because there are a lot of secrets revealed dramatically through the interactions of the characters. And because literature uses long sentences with awesome words in them in a way that other stuff I read does not.

See below for quotes from the book, links to other Hardy books, and more on when and why I read this one.

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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha is a rambling quest for enlightenment with many mistakes and revelations along the way. It’s a classic, but it’s not really my kind of thing.

You can get it free from Gutenberg, but I would recommend buying it so that you get the benefit of a good translation.

When and why I read it

I wanted to download something free from Gutenberg to read on my Kindle while on a trip to Bangkok. This book was recommended to me by a neighbor in New Jersey several years ago.

Genre: fiction (literature & classics); religion and spirituality
Date started / date finished: 05-Mar-16 to 05-Mar-16
Length: 98 pages
Originally published in: 1922 in German
Amazon link: Siddhartha
Gutenberg link: Siddhartha

“Related” books

  • Buddhism Explained by Laurence-Khantipalo Mills
  • I have at least one other book on Buddhism…

Two Works by Oscar Wilde

I enjoyed the Importance of Being Earnest as much because now I don’t feel left out whenever I encounter a cultural reference to it as because it’s funny. It’s a story of deception, mistaken identity and revelation told in the form of a play. Now I really want to see the movie, starring Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench!

I did not enjoy The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The stories are morbid and depressing as well as extremely moralistic (spoilers below).

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Telling Lies by Paul Ekman

Paul Ekman’s Telling Lies is a serious, important work in the field of psychology. It’s readable by a lay audience, but it’s not hawking ‘ten simple FBI tricks that anyone can use to detect lies at home and at work’. In fact, the answer Ekman gives as to whether a certain behavior is a clue to lying is always: it depends. There are as many ways to lie as there are people, and as many ways to tell the truth. Furthermore, as you may have guessed from watching spies outwit them in movies, even polygraphs are not reliable lie detectors. Turns out—surprise!—people are complicated.

Continue reading to find out more about Ekman’s approach and findings, what I thought of the book, what I learned about lying, and what else I’ve read on the subject.

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