Reviews here. Updated list to follow.
- Bang Bang in Ampang - Norman Cleaveland
Norman Cleaveland was born and raised in Oakland, California, and graduated Stanford. He toured Manchuria (Manchukuo at the time, I believe) as part of a U.S. team assessing war reparations efforts around World War II. He subsequently worked in his family's firm mining tin in Malaysia, in fact in Ampang, near Kuala Lumpur. Although his account of life during the Malayan Emergency is interesting because he's a funny guy, his short-sighted attitude towards the MPAJA and his Cold-War infused opinions really aren't worth reading. I read the book anyway because I needed to know what life was like during those days. Regrettably, the book mostly discusses what the life of the orang putih Tuans was like. It speaks of the concentration camps that foreshadowed similar attempts to separate the guerilla "fish" from the sea of "the people" in Vietnam with a cheer that I thought completely inappropriate. Not worth reading unless you're in the mood to be amused by unrealistic yet nonfictional accounts of a different time.
- Believer Book of Writers Talking To Writers - Vendela Vida
Borrowed? Does "thrust upon" count?
Recommended? No. This is the kind of book you read if you're bored, have plenty of time, and the book features one or more favorite writers. Not for writers looking for tips on the craft, and not for your average reader looking for something stimulating, either.
- Chinese Blue & White - Ann Frank
Recommended? An excellent little book for those interested in the topic. This is a beginner's guide to the art of collecting Chinese blue and white porcelain. The author's expertise shows clearly, and she is careful to include Chinese characters for the names of various aspects of Chinese porcelain.
- Encyclopedia of China - Dorothy Perkins
Recommended? Dorothy Perkins is a China scholar of some renown. I didn't actually read this book (the days when I would spend lots of time reading an encyclopedia for the sheer joy of encyclopedic reading are far behind me, I'm afraid). However, I did look through it and was very impressed with the wide scope and the deep detail.
Reread? I'm sure this book will find a lot of use when I begin reading the enormous stack of books on China (there must be at least five bloody hundred, for crying out). But that's not this year's project, so snippets in the future at best, hungry masses.
- Fantasies of the Six Dynasties - Tsai Chih Chung
Recommended? This little graphic novel is of interest to those who want to know more about China. I can't really say I'm impressed with the artwork, but graphic novels have an interesting history in East Asia, and I enjoyed these familiar tales.
- Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman
Borrowed? I'm not naming anyone named Brian, or anything. Especially if he brings pizza.
Recommended? I have a lot of respect and admiration for Neil Gaiman as a creative writer, but this book wasn't really memorable, although individual pieces were gemlike in their beauty and polish. Still, Gaiman is always an enjoyable writer, so read what you like and skip the rest.
- Fu Lu Shou - Jeffrey Seow
Recommended? Fu Lu Shou refers to the gods and immortals of Chinese myth and legend. This is another enjoyable little graphic novel presentation, simplified, of course, for the typical graphic novel reader. Of interest if you're interested in things Chinese or graphic novels as such.
- Glory - Vladimir Nabokov
Recommended? I blame Mr. Nabokov for making his beautiful works inaccessible to me for several decades. Young readers should not read Lolita without an adult guide, which is what I did, and as a teenager with issues, I was utterly revolted by the book and conceived a strong dislike for Nabokov. A stance that I greatly regret now, finding his work unbelievably good. This is an artist, a writer of genius.
Reread? Yes, as soon as I've gone through a couple of bookshelves of dust-collectors.
- Golden Boy and Other Stories From Burma - Saw Wai Lwin Moe
Recommended? This charming little book showed up thanks to someone's fascination with books published in Southeast Asia. It was an educational and entertaining read, as my knowledge of Burma is rather sketchy.
Reread? No. It's really for children and people interested in myths and legends.
- How To Write A Damn Good Novel - James N. Frey
Borrowed? I'm not blaming anyone who might have as a nom de plume the name of a Canadian province.
Recommended? No. It's hard for me to enjoy a book that purports to tell writers how to write but contains typos and basic spelling and grammatical errors. Not that the advice isn't practical, but it's really more for people who want to get published. Dan Brown territory, not William Faulkner.
- Robert van Gulik - JanWillem van de Wetering
Recommended? This tiny volume is a fascinating look at Robert van Gulik, and he was a fascinating man.
Reread? No. This book was acquired because I have always been a tremendous fan of Robert van Gulik, detective fiction writer extraordinaire and one of the great Sinologists. van Gulik also wrote some very interesting nonfiction works, including a study of the sexual mores of ancient China. He was born in Java (then Batavia), and spent most of his life in East and Southeast Asia as a diplomat. He was serving in Japan when WWII broke out.
- Strange Tales of Liao Zhai - Tsai Chih Chung
Recommended? No. Clearly, this is not Pu Songling's version. It's a cutesy little graphic novel of the wonderful and powerful works of Pu Songling. As such, it's a very light read. And frankly the artist ain't that great either. Oh, well.
- That Fellow Kanda - AUPE
Recommended? The Amalgamated Union of Public Employees of Singapore commissioned this work of love as a token of their appreciation for all that Mr. Kandasamy, their first, and longtime, leader had done for the workers and unionists he led for so long. It's a terrific read if you're interested in trade unions, labour issues, workers' rights, Southeast Asian history and politics, or in Mr. Kandasamy himself.
- Tao Te Ching - Ursula K. LeGuin
Borrowed? We don't point fingers at those who bribe us with pizza as well as books.
Reread? No. Having read China scholar John Blofeld's translation from wee sprogdom, I have to confess to being prejudiced against Ursula LeGuin's. She's a fine writer of fiction, but without an understanding of the underlying culture, history, language, et cetera, how can you hope to write a definitive interpretation of something as inaccessible as the Tao Te Ching? On the other hand, the fact is, translations of poetry are best performed by poets. It was difficult reading this mostly because I kept arguing with myself, and I'm still not sure who was winning.
- The Areas of My Expertise - John Hodgman
Borrowed? Pizza papers over a multitude of mortal sins.
Recommended? John Hodgman is a very funny person indeed, as you probably already know if you've ever watched The Daily Show. His deadpan sense of humour makes you wonder just which leg he's pulling at times. Wry, ironic, and just enough off-the-wall to make you wonder if he's crazy or just very smart and twisted.
- The Art of Fiction - John Gardner
Borrowed? We cannot blame anyone whose name might or might not start with the letter M who introduces us to greatness in the written form.
Recommended? This beautiful, well-written book contains the finest advice a great writer could give an aspiriting great writer. If you fancy yourself venturing into the world of writing, then you really need to buy and read this book. And I mean buy it. It's a keeper.
Reread? Yes, yes, and yes again.
- The Audacity of Hope - Barack Obama
Borrowed? It's amazing what a small bribe of food and books will do for your reputation among the Reading Masses.
Recommended? I didn't want to read this book till after the elections were over, but I'm running out of stopgaps before working on The Great Book Project. So. I succumbed. Whatever else Senator Obama may or may not be, he is a very fine writer. I loved his first book, and this one's even better. If he's not a genuine and caring soul, then he's a damn fine actor.
Reread? Please, Senator Obama, if you win the Presidency don't force me to reread this book out of disappointment.
- The Brooklyn Follies - Paul Auster
Borrowed? Timeo Danae et dona ferentis (I fear the Greeks when they come bearing gifts?), but we've never said no to a book yet.
Recommended? This is a little gem of a novel. The author has a fine ear for dialogue and human relationships, even if, sometimes, he did seem to get out on a limb with some of the things he was saying.
Reread? Love to - perhaps in my next life when I have some spare time.
- The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole
Recommended? This novel is supposedly the first example of the gothic romance. My acquaintance with such being slight, despite a great fondness for the works of Pu Songling, with which I've been acquainted since early sproghood, I thought, as part of an exercise in writing gothic fiction, I ought to read it. Oh, my. Recommended only for educational purposes. Overwrought is a mild description of this work.
- The Death of Woman Wang - Jonathan D. Spence
Recommended? Jonathan Spence is an academic and I wonder if this is his first foray into literary expression. Despite the dryness of some of the details, it is beautiful. However, it would probably only be of interest to a Sinophile.
- The Family: They Fuck You Up - Granta
Recommended? Oy. Like, I really needed to read about how a family can fuck you up. Like mine was somehow found wanting in the task. Let me just say that you can choose psychoactive meds, illegal happy substances, or alcohol as an accompaniment to this fine piece of literature. You'll need it.
Reread? No. It's patchy. Some excellent and some agonizing, as is typical, I suppose, of literary magazines.
- The Other Side of War - Zainab Salbi
Borrowed? We're not going to say one word against those who might bring us a Zachary's deep-dish good health chicken breast and spinach pizza.
Recommended? This is a beautiful and very very special book created by several women who work to help women and their children and men deal with the horrendous effects of war. In dealing with an extremely painful subject, the writers and photographers have shown the utmost respect to both their subjects and their readers. It touched me deeply, and I highly recommend it. Preferably as a gift to those assholes who are largely responsible for the poverty and exploitation throughout the world that creates war and victimizes the most helpless elements of society. On the positive side, it does tell you what you can do to make a difference.
Reread? Someday, I'm sure.
- The Singapore Grip - J.G. Farrell
Recommended? No. I'm trying to figure out why this book won the Booker. Because what it's about is the supposedly exciting and exotic deployment of vaginal muscle by certain ladies of distant shores. Sheesh. Well, actually, it's more about WWII and what life was like in T3h Colonies. The writer certainly did his research, but a lot of the book could've used an editor like Faulkner's.
- The Situation & The Story - Vivian Gornick
Borrowed? I'm not saying. I sense an opportunity to score further pizzas. Maybe even sushi, sashimi, or chirashi.
Recommended? Vivian Gornick is a fine, fine writer, but that's not what this book is about. This book is about how to write a memoir, and I think she does a good job. Of course, if you're not interested in writing a memoir, then you're not going to want to read it. But you really ought to read her fiction.
Reread? Probably not.
- The Unabomber Manifesto - Ted Kaczynski
Recommended? Good gravy. Why did I decide to read this book? Well, I heard a lot about this guy in the mass media, and wanted to examine the subject deeply. The book is Mr. Kaczynski's enunciation of his own politics, attitudes, mindset. Let me tell ya, after reading this, I'm glad he's locked up. He doesn't need anyone to make him out to be a loon, he does that just fine by himself. I couldn't find a single person or group of people or ideas that this guy doesn't just rag on. He doesn't like anybody. Plus, he's got, how you say, issh-shoos. He needs lots of help, and I sure hope he gets it, because without it, he should never be allowed out to where he could be a threat to society again.
- Tripmaster Monkey His Fake Book - Maxine Hong Kingston
Recommended? No. I have the utmost respect for Professor Maxine Hong Kingston, but a novelist she ain't. I couldn't finish the book. Really. It was that ... unreadable.
- Writing Past Dark - Bonnie Friedman
Recommended? No. Bonnie Friedman is a writer whose work I have not previously read. This book is a good little self-help type "feel empowered as a writer" book if you need such a thing. I've always wondered why people would attend writing workshops and get MFAs and stuff, and this book will reveal why. So you can teach writing workshops and MFAs, that's why.
- Totto-chan - Kuroyanagi Tetsuko
Recommended? Only if you're into children's stories, or Japanese culture. The author is so cute it makes me ill, but in a good way. The book is about her experiences, or perhaps her hopes, for the education of children in Japan.
- Travels in Siam - Henri Mouhot
Recommended? This is a very fine book about Laos, Kampuchea, and Thailand in 1858-1860. This not being the area of my expertise, I soon tired of the patiently detailed descriptions of the culture and history. It's really quite a narrowly-focused book, although it's my understanding that it contributed a great deal to the knowledge of the colonizers about the colonies they planned to exploit.
- The Sabahan: The Life and Death of Tun Fuad Stephens - P.J. Granville-Edge, Rajen Devadason
Recommended? Dato Donald, later Fuad, Stephens, played a major role in the formation of the nation of Sabah, its move towards self-rule, and finally, its incorporation into Malaysia. This fine book, written by Dato Stephens' niece, describes the life of this charismatic and fascinating man whose love for his KadazanDusun people led him to make great sacrifices on their behalf. Of interest to students of Southeast Asian politics, history, and culture.
Reread? Unfortunately, I don't really see how I will find the time to reread this excellent book.
- Early Views of Indonesia/Pemandangan Indonesia di Masa Lampau - Annabel Teh Gallop
Recommended? I'm always flabbergasted by the sheer cheek of the British, who scoured the entire world for beautiful arts and crafts which they then brazenly stole (to wit, the Elgin marbles, have they returned those to Greece yet?). This, of course, is only eclipsed by their incredible gall in "presenting" to the robbed beautiful catalogues of the stuff they took. This book represents drawings, paintings, natural history studies, et cetera, taken from Indonesia in the 1800s. Apparently the British government recently decided to exhibit these treasures, which they then followed up by creating this beautiful catalogue of the exhibit, which they presented to the Indonesian government as a mark of their, I dunno, esteem? Gratitude? Scorn?
Reread? I'd like to see the actual exhibits, and it was fun trying to read the catalogue in Bahasa Indonesia, but I really don't need my blood pressure raised.
The astute reader will notice that I have been hopelessly inconsistent in using the Wade-Giles or Hanyu Pinyin systems of transliteration of Chinese names and words. I throw myself upon such readers' tender mercies and confess to being hopelessly slack-arsed when it comes to making the determination and following through with that steely rigour that is required of the non-slack-arsed.