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May Books

May Books


Not as many books this month, as I have been working on my projects for work and we took a two-week vacation in Uzbekistan (where I did read the two nonfiction books on this list). But one was excellent, two were very good and none were bad. So quality over quantity in May.

Coastliners by Joanne Harris (2002)

The least of this month’s reading, it was still diverting, although overall, easily forgettable. The author of the book Chocolat (I enjoyed the movie but did not read that book) returns to France, this time to an (presumably fictional) island off the coast of Brittany where one side of the island is a prosperous beach resort and the other side a queer, superstitious culture of fisherfolk. I love to read about interesting, small cultures, but this one seemed artificially constructed. And as I look at my notes, I did comment that the family secrets and love affairs – although fun to read about as they were revealed – eventually became so convoluted that they were ridiculous. I’d give an example, but that would ruin what fun you might have if you decide to give this book a try. Might be classified as a “beach read.”

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron (2011)

This was an excellent book to read in Uzbekistan – and I was saving it just for that trip. After reading the first few pages, I almost put it down because it seemed so pretentious, but I am glad I didn’t. I not only put up with his writing style, but ended up liking it. The first eight chapters were the most interesting to me as they were about his travels in China and Central Asia, and many of the places were ones that I have visited. The chapters on Afghanistan and Iran were interesting, but not quite as compelling. And although he described places I would love to see, they aren’t worth what he went through to get there. Plus, as a single man who speaks several languages, seems to be in great physical shape and even more eccentric than me, he was able to go places and talk to people in those last two countries completely off limits to women. Still, the idea of him making this trip in his late 60s is still amazing.

The book seemed to have two themes. One is “Why do I travel like this?” He comes to no conclusion, and that was the least interesting theme. The other was a question of identity for people on the Silk Road – then and now. He focused on the artificialness of and fluctuations in hard ethnic borders – both geographical and personal. Culture, identity and borders have interested me for most of my reading life – that is one of the reasons I went through a deep sci-fi stage in junior high.

If you like this kind of travel writing, I recommend this book.

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993)

Another excellent book to read while in Central Asia, and I also saved it for the Uzbekistan trip. I’ve known of Kapuscinski’s reputation as a revered Polish journalist for a long time and have read part of his book on Africa, but this was the first entire book I have read of his, and it will not be my last. I was not disappointed. Lively writing, good observation. This is not an “even handed account” of the fall of the Soviet Union, or of the good and bad it did in Russia and the other countries that were soviets – although most of it is about those areas that are not Russia. It is an account of what happened to those who were hardest hit. He talks of countries, communities and individuals in Central Asia and Siberia. For the first time, I have a real sense of the troubles between Armenia and Azerbaijan and what happened to the Aral Sea.

For a bit of 20th C history, I recommend this book.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000).

I just finished this Pulitzer Prize winner on May 31, so I get to include it this month. It was by far the most fun book I read this month – maybe this year.

Josef, a Jewish boy in Prague, grows up learning about magic and escapism (ala Houdini) and then escapes with the Golem from Nazi Czechoslovakia in a Houdini like escapade to Lithuania, finding his way to New York City where is aunt lives and he meets his cousin Sammy who is about the same age. Together, in their late teens and early twenties, they create a comic book character (several actually) and are in the center of the comic book craze that lasted through the 40s and into the 50s. The horror and sadness of the Holocaust for Jews in America, New York City bohemian life (including surrealism, Dali and Max Ernst), the World’s Fair, radio actors, love in many forms, homosexuality in the 40s and 50s, life in Antarctica during World War II, life in the New York suburbs in the 1950s, Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” that lead to a Senate hearing, and through this all, the art of comic book writing and drawing, are all part of the reading pleasure in this deeply satisfying book. Chabon has done his research and while the book is full of details, they never get in the way of the story or become pedantic. I don’t even particularly like comic books, but I want to go back and look at the old ones with an eye to the art.

This book deserved to win prizes.

It may be the aura of just finishing such an enjoyable book and I might change my mind after a year or so, but today I would rank it as one of the great American novels – along with Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath and Giants in the Earth.

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