Category Archives: recommended to me by someone

The Distant Land of My Father – Bo Caldwell

My favorite moment in Caldwell’s novel of political upheaval in China during the 1930s, and the corresponding personal upheaval in a small American family living there, comes late in the story. The heroine, Anna, is a young adult living in Pasadena, and has a job at the Huntington Library ( a real place for those of you who aren’t in Los Angeles). Anna’s job is to read letters and documents from local estates that have been left to the Huntington, and make notes of information relevant to Pasadena’s history. If I were to invent the most perfect job in the world it would be no different from Anna’s.

Caldwell clearly feels similarly, because The Distant Land of My Father reads like a story created from journals and correspondence. The narrator focuses in and out, from micro images of a mother’s hairclip or a Chinese wax seal that seem pulled from an attic inventory to factual historical events, straight from newspaper clippings or soldier’s letters.

As a lover of details, I found The Distant Land of My Father’s slow pace and quiet tone soothing, although I could imagine more active readers growing restless. Caldwell describes Chinese breakfast menus and South Pasadena gardens with the same tone as she depicts the horror of political prison camp and Japanese bombing. It’s slightly disconcerting. In the end, the story of personal forgiveness is less interesting than the details surrounding it, but this is worth a read for any fans of Pasadena or Shanghai. It’s really a story of cities.

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Filed under Fiction, recommended to me by someone, Review

Windy City Blues – Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s short stories about private investigator V.I. Warshawski came as a welcome relief from the violence and nonsense of some of the other books I’ve been reading lately (just as the nonsense was a relief from Wuthering Heights. Balance, people, it’s all about balance).

That isn’t to say that Windy City Blues isn’t violent. There’s at least one murder per story, but at least they are normal murders. Guns, poison, garrotes made of tennis rackets…these are polite sadism-free killings. People kill in Warshawski’s world for old fashioned reasons like money and jealousy. It’s all very refreshing.

It’s also refreshing to read stories with actual characters. The people in Windy City Blues may be dramatic, but they are possible and interesting. From obese ex-football players to children of Holocaust survivors, each story is populated by complicated and developed human beings. Paretsky clearly has a back story for everyone but just as in real life, we are given mere glimpses into a character’s psyche and left to imagine the rest.

Windy City Blues is also a book about  a city and like the people in the stories, Chicago is portrayed with flaws and beauty both.

Although there is some movement, the stories in Windy City Blues are almost all solved in a single room, in a single day, mysteries in their classic form.

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Filed under Fiction, recommended to me by someone, Short stories

The Girl who played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

Now here’s a series problem again. I should really be reviewing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, since that was the first book, and the one that’s being made into a movie. A movie! With famous people!

The thing is, I didn’t really read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I listened to it as an audio book, and only sort of, through a Nyquil haze when I had a very bad flu last year, so all I can remember about Larsson’s first book is this; Everyone spoke with a twatty English accent.

If we set the confusing nationality of narrators aside, The Girl who played with Fire is similar in structure and theme to the first book. Someone is wrongly accused of something, computers are hacked, dildos are mentioned and there are Nazis. Really, it’s the perfect book for a long airplane flight to Mexico. It was available in the airport bookstore in paperback, it’s very long so I didn’t finish it on the runway, and it’s shock full of very disturbing sexual imagery so the person sitting next to me now thinks I am a pervert. Win all around!

NOTE: You don’t have to be flying to Mexico when you read this book. You could be flying somewhere else.

MORE NOTE: For a review of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by a man who read it on an airplane and wasn’t much impressed, go here –  Ezra Dyer. I’ve also heard from several friends who really enjoyed the book while not on airplanes, so there you go.

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Filed under Fiction, recommended to me by someone, Review, Series

Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I’m concerned that I might not be smart enough to review this book. Whether you agree with Ali’s ideas regarding Islam and Dutch politics or not, she’s clearly an extremely intelligent and dedicated woman.

I on the other hand, am dedicated to few things that don’t have frosting and spend most of my time giggling about words that might be euphemisms for feces.

Still, I will drag myself away from camping aisle in Target (where they have a display of “Fire Logs”) and instead encourage you to read this book.

It’s thrilling. There’s pretty much non-stop action, so it won’t even occur to you that there are controversial opinions regarding cultural freedom and political correctness being presented. Ali is an astute observer of behavior. From the villages of Somalia to the Dutch Parliment, each character is carefully attended and expressed. You will find yourself with lots of interesting facts to bring up at parties, at least, you will if you go to the kind of party where people discuss the ethical ramifications of banning female circumcision. (for the record, I say ban that shit and never, ever google it).

This book was recommended to me by my Pa, who thinks Ali is brilliant and an excellent role model for politicians. In a family discussion, my Mom said that she felt Ali used the people around her, and was insensitive to them. If you read Infidel, you can let me know which of my parents you agree with.

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Filed under biography, non fiction, recommended to me by someone

Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon

From a letter to he who recommended it:

“Why did you make me read that book?

I’m not sure if I disliked it because of the comicbook fanboy attitude towards women and rape, or simply because it made me feel ignorant for not getting most of the mathematical and historical references without the help of the internets. Also, I fell asleep pretty often while reading it and it took me months to finish.

That said, I keep thinking about it, so apparently it made some impression. It’s important to solidly hate a bit of artwork every once in a while. ”

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