Here are some books I have read these last months:
I read Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists. Both books are set in Malaysia during WWII, and both are concerned with how people coped with the Japanese invasion. It seems to me (and maybe it’s just something missing from my own education) that one doesn’t hear nearly as much about Asia’s war as one does about Europe’s, although the scale of atrocities is similar. For example, China is second only to the Soviet Union in number of war deaths. So, it was fascinating to read both of these novels on that level. Furthermore, Eng is a really gifted, empathetic writer, and his characters are rounded, full of contradictions and self-delusion. Both books are beautifully researched; brought to life by vivid detail. There is such a love of place in both stories. Of the two, I thought Garden of Evening Mists was superior, even though I would say that Eng’s rendering of his female protagonist was just a little bit…masculine? It didn’t really bother me when I was reading; after all, you can put a lot down to idiosyncrasy. I only noticed it later, when I was nit-pickily looking back on the whole thing. The stories are quite similar, in that they both feature a young, local protagonist falling under the sway of an elder Japanese mentor with whom he/she has a complicated relationship. It’s almost as if, having written The Gift of Rain, Eng thought he could do the whole thing just a little bit better, and did.
I read another 100 pages of Infinite Jest this past week. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this book I haven’t finished here, but it feels like an accomplishment. This book is a slog. The internet tells me it’s going to be worth it. I have to say though, Foster Wallace is not exactly my kind of writer. It sometimes feels like he hates all his characters. Which is fine, except why should I care, then? Every time I read this, I have this image of Foster Wallace just sitting at his desk, sweating and working so, so hard. Every sentence feels labored. He sure doesn’t make it look easy. You read Alice Munro, for example, and you can delude yourself into thinking, “hey, I could do this.” She makes it seem so easy to write something great.
On the other hand, I listened to Consider the Lobster on a road trip, and it was excellent: melancholy and sharply observed. Especially the essay on the Maine Lobsters Festival. As I later learned, the audio version is super-abridged from the book…but it’s read by DFW himself, so…
I am currently reading Rivers of Gold, Hugh Thomas’s history of the early years of the Spanish Conquest (from Columbus to Magellan, as the subtitle would have it). For my purposes, no detail is too minor, but if I were reading this for funsies and not for book research, I might wonder if it’s necessary to know the name of every banker that ever gave Columbus a maravedi and every Genoese merchant living in Spain and the name of every sub-assistant to the Inquisition that blablabla.
I have also been listening to hundreds (seven) of the Mrs. Pollifax books, which (if you’re not familiar with them) are a cute series of adventure/mystery stories about a middle-aged widow who inveigles the CIA into recruiting her as a spy. They’re set in the bad old days of the Cold War. They’re buzzy, light reading. I gardened to these in the spring.
AND OF COURSE, I continue to both read and listen to the Disc World books. I often think about Terry Pratchett and his Alzheimer’s and I wonder if it’s any comfort to know you’ve created something so wonderful as the Disc World.