Books Read

I can’t decide whether to make a list of books read for each year or just a huge master file. So I’ll just start with 2010 and see how easily bored I become with list making.

2011-12-31. Update

I decided to add to the list for 2011 rather than break it into two lists.

Books Read 2010

I should clarify to say that this is a list of books read for the first time in 2010–well, mostly. I love to reread books or just to step into the pages for a short visit with favorite characters. Sometimes I get involved in rereading entire long series of books. In some ways it’s as difficult to interest myself in a new book as it is to interest myself in a new person. Both require my concentration and energy, so they must be compelling in some way. If I reread the book from beginning to end, I included it; if I just dipped into it, I did not.

I felt that in 2010 I read comparatively few new books. When I list them all, my list is longer than I thought it would be. I’d already forgotten some of them! AJM bought an iPad this year and is now reading more light fiction as ebooks. I prefer bound paper books…but then I don’t read much light fiction.

  • 2010-01-01. Heat Wave. Not a great book but a very clever tie-in to Castle. I like the characters so can forgive much for a little fun.
  • 2010-01-09. My Life in France. Julia Child.
    Julia is an ESTJ, I think. I love how she attacks everything with gusto and is so straightforward and matter-of-fact. No apologies.
  • 2010-01-24. Un Lun Dun. China Mieville.
    Very slow in the first and second acts. More of an adult’s idea of what a children’s book should be than really a children’s book.
  • 2010-02-13. West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915.
    I like reading books about places I’ve been–understand layout.
  • 2010-02-28. Where Angels Fear to Tread. E. M. Forster
    Would have appreciated the movie more had I read the book first. Like how the book expands my understanding.
  • 2010-04-01. Extra Virgin.
    (Reread for the umpteenth time.) I would like to find the sequel.
  • 2010-04-17. Predictably Irrational.
    DanAriely was my favorite speaker at #SXSWi 2010. This book on behavioral economics gave me a lot to think about.
  • 2010-05-07. Romancing Miss Bronte.
    A novel that wants to be a biography but has to imagine so much it can’t be called one.
  • 2010-05-30. Villette. Charlotte Bronte.
    (Reread) Didn’t engage me any more this reading than when I first read it 35 years ago. Really tried to pay attention this time, too.
  • 2010-06-11. The Nutmeg of Consolation.
    (Reread) The first book I read in the Aubrey/Maturin series but the second to last to acquire. One left to complete my set.
  • 2010-06-20. The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants.
  • 2010-07-02. The Upside of Irrationality. Dan Ariely.
    I saw Dan Ariely at SXSWi 2010. Reading his books is just like talking with him. Insightful and interesting.
  • 2010-07-19. Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. (Reread.)
  • 2010-07-28. Enchanted Temples of Taos: My Story of Rosario.
    In which I learn a lot about my mother’s side of the family.
  • 2010-08-23. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
  • 2010-09-25. The Year of No Money in Tokyo.
    I was 1/3 of the way through before I discovered he wasn’t just another whiny white guy in Japan.
  • 2010-09-15. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol I.
  • 2010-09-30. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol II.
  • 2010-10-13. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol III.
  • 2010-10-28. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol IV.
  • 2010-11-24. The Ivington Diaries. Monty Don.
  • 2010-11-29. From My Grandmother’s Bedside.

Books Read in 2011

I will reiterate and say that this is a list of books read for the first time in 2011–well, mostly. If I reread the book from beginning to end, I included it; if I just dipped into it, I did not.

One of my resolutions for 2011 was to write something about every book I read. This started out well and then worked against me. Sometimes I hadn’t digested a book fully and hit a wall trying to write about it. As a result, I began to shy away from reading toward the end of 2011 because I was failing in my resolution. In the beginning of 2011, I had to move all our books around several times because we had the house painted. As a result, I got back into reading some science fiction and enjoyed it a lot.

  • 2011-01-21. Japanese Houses: Architecture and Interior.
    Mostly a picture book.
  • 2011-02-21. Shanghai Diary.
  • 2011-02-27. Old Man’s War.
  • 2011-02-28. The Ghost Brigades.
  • 2011-03-01. The Last Colony.
  • 2011-03-01. With Respect to the Japanese.
  • 2011-04-10. Beautiful Joe.
    I loved this book as a child. Possibly I read an abridged version. The original is disappointingly racist.
  • 2011-05-06. At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England.
  • 2011-05-??. Fuzzy Nation.
  • A Midwife’s Tale.
  • Shirley.
  • Vanity Fair.
  • Wild Swans.
  • 2011-11-??. Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You
  • 2011-11-26. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
    I found the movie more affecting.

I reread Wild Swans and Women of the Pleasure Quarters completely. Dabbled in Tales of Old Japan. Started but didn’t finish: The Morville Hours. Began and am still reading: The Silent Traveller in New York, A Little History of British Gardening; Retribution Falls.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is straight forward action from beginning to end. In fact, it is very much like The Adventures of Tintin and I like them both for the same reason: simplicity. The good guys are good and the bad guys must be stopped. There’s a job to do and our heroes get it done. The focus is on the method not the motive.

I also appreciate that Ghost Protocol lacks the meanness of many action movies. Sure the generic bad guy wants to detonate a nuclear bomb and start Armageddon. But that’s general evil, not personal sadism. As much as I liked Daniel Craig’s reboot of Bond, watching him stripped naked getting his balls kicked wasn’t exactly escapism.

Ghost Protocol also succeeds in taking itself not too seriously. For example, thanks to face recognition software there’s now apparently an app for identifying assassins. The only downside is that while you’re looking at your phone to see why it’s alerted you, the assassin has time to walk right up to you and kill you. Ah, the dangers of contemporary life; walking around looking at your phone oblivious to the world in front of you. In fact, Ghost Protocol has quite a few amusing instances of user experience design failure. I’d certainly have words with whomever designed a lock on a train car that can be opened only with a retinal scan. Director Brad Bird has a lot of fun with all the gadgets but also seems to be reminding us that we can’t rely too heavily on them. In the end, we must depend on our courage and wit.

Simon Pegg, as computer geek turned newly minted field agent, also balances Tom Cruise’s one-note intentness. Jeremy Renner is interesting as the analyst that becomes part of the team when things go dark. After an improbable escape he can’t help but ask the questions the whole audience is thinking, “What made you think that would work?” The only weak link in the cast, for me, was Paula Patton. Her character was competent but she didn’t bring anything special to the team; she wasn’t quite at their level. She seemed merely to be the “female team member”, stuck in for diversity. However, what I really like about Ghost Protocol is that we don’t get bogged down with character backstory or motivation. It’s simple, clean action from beginning to end.

Finally. Kudos to Tom Cruise for the skyscraper stunt.

Bottom Line: Recommended

Thrills. No frills.

Hugo (3D)

Any sense of wonder was more cerebral than heartfelt…which was okay by us. However, it didn’t really seem like a “fun for the whole family” movie. The joys were too abstract for children and too childish for adults. We found it interesting but not great and in many places just too contrived. The bits of the Scorcese documentary on film, which the Alamo was running as a prelude, interested both of us more. Both of us preferred the scenes of Georges Méliès making film. That’s the real feast for the imagination.

Also, I detest characters such as Sasha Cohen’s–the one-dimensional evil which exists only as a convenient roadblock to the course of the story. This is such lazy writing and it bothers me especially in movies targeted toward children because it talks down to them. I hated it in Disney films when I was a child and I hate it now.


Lukewarm recommendation. Good set design. Wrong story focus.

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Enchanted by the movie, I searched for a used copy of the book for about half a year. In my impatience, I finally bought the paperback edition new from Amazon. When it arrived, I read it in a night. After all my anticipation, I felt a little let down. The book is slight. In fact, without the movie to provide detail and context, it would not have had much of an effect on me.

Set in early 1970s China, the novel with some autobiographical elements is about two first loves intertwined: the discovery of the opposite sex and the discovery of literature. Two city boys are sent to the peasant countryside to be reeducated. Reeducation consists primarily of carrying manures and night soil to the fields or working in the coal mine. Their parents are professionals and have been condemned as class enemies of the state. The boys, however, prove to be just boys. The story does not focus on history, politics, or even much of the privation of rural life. Instead, the boys fall under the spell of illicit foreign literature and the charms of the little Chinese seamstress. The narrator’s friend has an affair with her. He seduces her with stories of faraway places and hopes to raise her to his intellectual level so that she can be a suitable mate. He succeeds too well. Once the little Chinese seamstress tastes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

Perhaps the point of the story is that even a terrible experience like Mao’s reeducation experiment can be tinged with the nostalgia and bittersweet memories of first love. Overall I was much more affected by Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans. She, too was from Chengdu and sent to the mountains for reeducation. No nostalgia there. Is this the unbridgeable difference between men and women? Women endure suffering. Men escape it via sex and books.

My comparison is unfair. Dai Sijie has said the point of his book is to show the power of literature, and was not intended to be a critique of history of politics. I feel the movie succeeds in this even more than the book. Because of it, Balzac’s Cousin Bette is next on my reading list.

Change of Season

A change of season always invigorates me especially if it is changing from summer to fall. Although Advent is weeks away, I’m already in prep mode. That means cleaning out closets. The physical weighing, evaluating, maintaining, and purging reinforces my psychological need to step back and take stock of the year and my life.

We packed away our summer clothes and got out our winter clothes last weekend. I have only three linear feet of closet space so half my clothes are stored in the garage at any given time. I don’t find this a burden. I enjoy it. Unpacking clothes is like opening presents. I never remember what I have. This year was especially fun because, after losing more than twenty pounds, I’m able to fit into my 1990s work outfits–all of which are much fancier than my current working-in-the-garden peasant clothes.

I also found it extremely satisfying to pack up the clothes I bought when I was overweight to give to Goodwill. Not that there were many. I resent spending money on clothes. I’ve always reasoned that a dollar spent on clothes is dollar unavailable for purchasing books, so buying clothes has never been much of a priority nor brought me much joy. And when I look at clothes, I usually walk away thinking, “I could make that myself.” even though I haven’t sewn in decades. For the last ten years, buying clothes has been a depressing experience which I put off as much as I could. However, now that I’m back to my former size, I find my interest in clothing and costuming perking up.

The day we cleaned the closets was also the final day of the Settlement House garage sale. I bought a $3 box intending to fill it with clay pots and anything else I could find for the garden. I did. I picked up much more than $3 worth of small clay pots. But I still had a box to fill. So I wandered over to the clothes section and found seven knit tops and sweaters that Iiked. I didn’t care if they fit or if I would like them in the long run. At this point, I’d already gotten my $3 worth and so anything I picked up was essentially free. As it turns out they all fit well. The donors to the charity auction have good taste and donate far more expensive clothes than I normally buy. I like all the clothes I found but nothing matches the pleasure of the bargain.

Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo

This 2009 Spanish film starts out very promising and so is all the more disappointing when it doesn’t fulfill its promise. Watching the first third of it I became deeply aware that the way a film is shot and edited, the language of film-making, has a distinctive national accent. I’m used to the flavor of Japanese films and American films set in Japan. I think Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is the first European film about Japan I’ve seen. The result? Tokyo looks very much like Paris in some 1960s film noir flick. The cinematographer focuses on bridges arching over dark rivers, on cold, colorless modern buildings, and on scenes of isolation and emptiness. It is the antithesis of the usual shots of Tokyo’s assault on the senses–a great look beyond the cliches.

The sound editing is likewise distinctive, as the title leads you to believe. In one of the few air shots where the camera pulls back to provide a typical night scene of the Tokyo tangle of freeways, you hear nothing but the sound of cicadas. From a distance, we are merely insects in the hive.

The story begins well, focusing on a wealthy Japanese business man who learns of his daughter’s suicide. He cannot stand the thought of her foreign lover being alive while his daughter is dead so he has his assistant hire a hit. The killer is a young woman, Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi) who works at the fish market, so that she does not have to think too much. She goes to check out her mark, David (Sergi Lopez), a wine merchant. He asks her to try a wine and she finds him disarming, in both senses. This is the point that the movie dies for me because it turns into a silly romance. If it had ended the way that all French noir movies end (everybody dies), then the last act would have had tension and poignancy.

I’m surprised to discover that Map of the Sounds of Tokyo was both written and directed by a woman, Isabel Coixet because the third act devolves into western male fantasy. The sacrifice is completely on the women’s side in this film. The men get life, guilt-free sex, and melancholy nostalgia. True, we foreigners look back fondly on our years in Japan and remember how it changed us forever and still infuses our life with bittersweet memories…but in a movie, it’s a cheap ending.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

I enjoyed this anime more than I expected to initially. I see myself watching it again. The protagonist is a klutzy Everygirl, Makota Konno, who pals around with two guys in her class, the cool and gorgeous Kousuke Tsuda and the sidekick type, Chiaki Mamiya. Makota is having a very bad day. At the moment when the day veers from comic daily irritations to near tragedy, Makota is flung off her bicycle and back in time.

At this point the movie takes off. What does a junior high school girl do when she learns she can time travel? She doesn’t go back in time to meet Einstein or kill Hitler. Instead, she employs her power as a do-over button. Her life become a little video game where she wakes up on time, aces the pop quiz (which she can now prepare for), and avoids awkward entanglements (both physical and romantic). Of course, we the audience know by now that if you change the past you change the present.

As Makota deals with the consequences of her actions, the movie gets both funnier and more serious.

Super 8

As movies go, 2011 is the summer of the aliens. Of the three I’ve seen this month, I think that Super 8 captures a kind of innocent magic that is lacking in Attack the Block or Cowboys and Aliens. Maybe it’s manufactured Spielbergian magic but, somehow, J.J. Abrams never falls completely into the schmaltz that the man he’s paying homage does. (Spielberg produced and Abrams worked with him on earlier films.) I think it’s because Abrams always cuts to the chase, literally, instead of lingering too long on sentiment.

Just as he did with Star Trek, Abrams brings a fresh energy into a pretty well-worn genre. There’s a scene where all the characters pull together to take action and you know that it is the beginning of act 3 and that the ride is going to be fun and fast. Such joy. It’s suspenseful and scary but it isn’t gory or violent. This is not E.T, though. I think it would be most fun to see it with an 8 to 12 year old.

The set design and costumes are also very good. A lot of shows that portray the 70s make it look like a costume drama. Here the 70s looked pretty much real and not like a parody of itself.

But please, J.J. Lose the lens flare. I know it’s your signature thing and all. But it just distracts rather than adds anything to every scene it is in. You overuse it. There was a few times that it was so bad that I thought there was something wrong with the projector.


I snapped up an old Everyman’s Library copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley at Recycled Reads for $2. Although worn and covered with library stamps, the little volume is sturdy. Physically, they are wonderful books, just the right size for the hand and well bound.

Most of Shirley is written in a voice that sounds like Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. I think it interesting to imagine that Charlotte Bronte identified more with Mr. Rochester than Jane Eyre. It’s so easy to mistake the voice in a first person narrative for the author’s, thinly-disguised. In one of my own stories, I realized I could write more freely if I wrote with the voice of the character that was the least like me. Jane Eyre, although very singular, tried always to appear correct. Mr. Rochester had the wealth and position to do as he pleased. Charlotte Bronte grants Shirley the same freedom.

Quotes and Notes

“…it is a novel of wonderful interest, for the framework has been clothed with the stuff of her own mind and much of it is unforgettable. It contains more of her thought than any other of her novels, and for the reader who comes to it with some knowledge of Charlotte Bronte’s life, Shirley is an oddly moving experience. And that, after all, is how most of us approach this uneven book. We read Jane Eyre in youth, falling at once and for ever under its spell. Next, we turn to Mrs. Gaskell…” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p vi

So I have followed a well-worn path, although I’ve yet to meet any other travellers.

Reading Shirley, I’m reminded of a remark I read years ago from Virginia Woolf (from A Room of Her Own?) in which she complained of a passage in Jane Eyre where Jane is feeling bitter that a woman’s life is so narrow and constrained. That one outburst in Jane Eyre fills most of Shirley.

“When she wrote Shirley, Charlotte [Bronte] believed that she would never marry. She had pondered much on spinsterhood, and was appalled at the barren lives of middle-class unmarried women, without education, without occupation, with nothing to expect from society but contempt.” –Margaret Lane, Introduction p viii

The frustration at being denied occupation and employment colors the whole book. So while I thought Virginia Woolf was being a bit hard on Charlotte Bronte for the passage in Jane Eyre, I begin to see her point. This isn’t to say that Shirley isn’t worth reading; it’s just more interesting reading it for historical insight than as fiction.

However, the opening lines are wonderful.

“Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills; every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.” –1

Charlotte Bronte, who was writing under the pen name Currer Bell, then goes on to savage those curates. Unfortunately, her identity and those of the curates quickly became public knowledge.

“‘Some people say we shouldn’t give alms to the poor, Shirley.’
‘They are great fools for their pains. For those who are not hungry, it is easy to palaver about the degradation of charity’.” –209

Being raised as a Catholic, I came quite late to the knowledge whole sects of Protestants had taken St. Paul’s and Martin Luther’s idea that good works flow from faith and twisted them into the justification that faith alone matters and thus we should abandon good works. It seems that not a lot has changed in 200 years. It’s still odd that the people who claim to be Christians are the ones arguing against helping the less fortunate.

“…till a man had indisputably proved himself bad and a nuisance, Shirley was willing to think him good and an acquisition, and to treat him accordingly. This disposition made her a general favourite…nor did it diminish the value of her intimate friendship, which was a distinct thing from social benevolence, depending , indeed, on a quite different part of her character. Miss Helstone was the choice of her affection and intellect; Misses Pearson, Sykes, Wynne, etc., etc., only the profiters by her good-nature and vivacity.” — p 234

“…when I see or hear either man or woman couple shame with love, I know their minds are coarse, their associations debased.” — p 251

Midnight in Paris

Manhattan meets Back to the Future meets Before Sunset. The story is thin, more of a short story subject than a novel. Not enough to flesh out an entire movie. It’s concept-driven rather than character-driven. The concept being that when we let nostalgia light up the past we become blind to the beauty of the present. We romanticize the good ole days at the expense of living fully in the now.

I would have enjoyed it more if Owen Wilson hadn’t channeled Woody Allen throughout. I realize that Woody Allen is the main character in all his films and now he has to have younger actors play his character. But it was distracting. Not only does Owen Wilson never find his own center in the character but he (or his character) lacks the full range of Woody Allen’s neuroses. So Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, really does seem to be “missing” something; he never seems whole or completely present.

All the great bits come from the supporting players. The conversation with Man Ray (Tom Cordier), Dali (Adrien Brody), and Buñuel (Adrien de Van) was laugh-out-loud brilliant. So was the conversation between Gil and Adriana (Marion Cotillard) about his relationship with his fiance, Inez.

I didn’t think much of the central conflict. Should Gil marry Inez (Rachel McAdams) a woman with whom he has nothing in common except a love of pita bread? The bigger question is, how did these two ever meet much less fall in love and get engaged? You can’t imagine that so you can’t feel any anxiety about the demise of their relationship. They don’t have a relationship. What if Gil had been engaged to Adriana instead? Then Gil would have had to choose between a beautiful, understanding woman in the present time and his fascination with historical figures and nostalgia for a past Golden Age. That would have been a conflict.

Seeing Paris brought to mind the last scenes of The Accidental Tourist. Now there were three interesting characters. All three had faults as well as virtues. All three had deep-set inner conflicts and complicated feelings for each other. No matter how it turned out, someone was going to get hurt and no one was going to be unreservedly happy. It made you care.

The surface and beneath the surface