January 2021 Book List

“Aria Da Capo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I somehow suspect that this one act play with an incomprehensible title is based on the infamous Stanford psychology experiment. Once people get into a situation, in this case an artificial wall and in Stanford’s case an artificial prison, people tend to act according to the new norm established in the situation, no matter how temporary, how artificial, how ridiculous. Our brain is so eager to digest the world in an ordered manner that it will accept the most ridiculous order possible. This play can very well been transformed into a modern family with a looming Greek tragedy. For example, two loving brothers change from their loving nature and their mutual respect to two fighting monsters when they come back home to divide their inheritance. As they fight each other, one strangling another while not knowing he himself is being poisoned already, a lawyer shows up to announce that their father didn’t pay taxes on this and that for years and the whole estate is under government investigation. That put an end to the brothers’ fight. How ridiculous they are as they look at each other and both pass out on the floor.

A Few Figs from Thistles” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are so many memorable lines in this little book that I almost highlight everything. The effortless beauty of her lines. And one thing particularly fascinating is that some of the things she says are most certainly judged inappropriate and frivolous and anti-romantic. However in a woman’s mind, it rings true; it is mature; it is refreshing. She combines the most refined form with the most unrefined wildness. She throws them at you so casually as if she doesn’t care.

“Dostoevsky in 90 Minutes” by Paul Strathern. I really like this series because not only it is free for audible members, but it also highlights some of things I have long felt about the philosopher or the author in question. For example, I never really like Dostoevsky as much as I like Chekov or Tolstoy since he’s a little crude and a little lack of refinement and a little extreme, which Strathern aptly points out. However I do like “Notes From Underground” very much. For one thing it is tight and short. So short that it’s impossible for Dostoevsky to go on his rambling ways. I often get annoyed by his verbal stream without much restraint from a good structure. Another good thing about this book is that it talks about Gogol’s influence on him. I’ve never read about Gogol, but I know one or two of my parents’ friends love Gogol very much. I tried once to read Gogol, but the beginning paragraph of endless details of scenery threw me off track. Now I think I will get one book of Gogol next to see if I like it. The only problems is that all these books are translated English versions, their original beauty of language lost. As Asians, we read translated literature all the time and often more than half of our readings are translations, from Russian, from Japanese, majority from English. However native English speakers don’t often read translated literature. I know C who’s a literature major, who grew up in New Jersey, and who’s only read one such book.

“The Hundred-Year Marathon” by Michael Pillsbury. This is the first book I finished in 2021–a companion to me when I do chores. Listening is easier than reading. Most of the non-fiction I read nowadays are actually through audiobooks–I wonder if a new word should be created. I mean I am not actually reading it, but rather listening to it. For example a word like “readlisten” is probably more apt to be used on audiobooks.

I don’t really agree with the book since it is assuming a paranoid tone and use one fictional book “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” as a guides to gauge a whole country and its people. It’s like using “Iliad” and “Odyssey” to judge Greeks. It sounds ridiculous if somebody claims that people of certain nation is devious because they used a “Trojan horse” to deceive people of Troy. Another guide the author used is the modern version of “Spring Autumn And Warring States”, which is based on the history book written by historian Sima Qian about two thousand years ago. If you are familiar with the historical plays by Shakespeare, or watched shows about “Wars of the Roses” or Henry VIII, or read the trilogy by Hillary Mantel, you will feel that the strategy, the plot, the power play are similar despite the difference of location, race, timeline. It’s the age old story all over the world.

There are no good books about Asia or China in English. I just can’t find any good books. If anybody read a good one, please let me know. I am so desperate for some good books in this direction that I have to read books about the Pacific Theater of WWII. I dislike books on wars, but at least they are about Asia and they are assuming a normal narrative tone. This is how desperate I become. Most books about Asia or China don’t have a normal narrative tone. They are usually filled with superficial observations, uncritical praises, paranoid criticisms, incorrect historical facts. Also generalization is so common that one starts to feel that it cannot be done any other way. And most important of all, all the books about Asia are devoid of humor. How come? I find humor in books about other regions. LOL. The world is incomprehensible.

“China and the World” by David Shambaugh (Editor) Thanks to a bout of serious insomnia, I finished listening to half of the book in one night. I wished for a book with stories and anecdotes, but that’s not what the editor and the authors intended. It’s quite a scholarly analysis and assessment of the current situation, with no intention of making the book more interesting to readers. I guess if you are a known scholar and expert, you don’t need to make your writing attractive. Pages after pages of inanimate piles of facts at one point soured my mood, but I knew I have to trough on, grudgingly and unwillingly though.

I finally finished this book and I’m afraid this is for academics rather than for general public. Too many figures and numbers, and not enough stories. Even the last chapter, which supposedly the best according to one or two previous readers, is too afraid to make bold predictions. I am just disappointed that there’s no spark of drama in this book.

I would like to beg the book publishing industry to publish some good books about Asia. A little bit of anecdotes, a little bit of humor will suffice.

“Seize the Day” by Saul Bellow. I don’t really like this book since it really doesn’t want the readers to sympathize with Wilhelm. Why is he speculating when he doesn’t even have the money? Why is he trying to borrow money from his old man when he has money to throw away in the stock market? Why is he invest if he knows and feels his agent is a crook? Also if he doesn’t have the money, he should stop paying for his sons’ life insurance. It is said it’s a highly regarded book, but I somehow couldn’t understand why he deliberately make decisions that can harm himself. It really doesn’t make sense. I am reading his “Herzog” and it seems a much better book than this one.

“Blithe Spirit” by Noël Coward. It’s a typical Coward play. At first, I really think it is ridiculous to talk with the spirit of a dead ex-wife, but somehow the idea grows on me and eventually I feel it quite natural for Charles Condomine to talk with his dead wife. When the second wife Ruth is dead too, it becomes even more natural that Charles Condomine lives with his two dead wives.

“Easy Virtue: A Play in Three Acts” by Noël Coward. I feel sorry for John and his two sisters. I don’t understand why they can’t learn some skills and become useful to the society. Their ancestral land is declining and they may not even have enough money to keep up with the property tax and the maintenance of the house and the land. Can’t they get a job or go into politics? Larita is just a normal girl and I don’t see anything that’s inappropriate about her from today’s perspective. I guess being married before, and being suspected of ending the life of a long suffering husband who’s too sick to do it himself could be unforgivable crimes.

“Lady Windmere’s Fan” by Oscar Wilde. This is probably the fifth time I go through this play. Once in a while, one just has this urge of reread Wilde again. I like the other plays better, but this one is good too. Whenever there’s a new movie based on his play, I have to watch it too.

“Renascence and other poems” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’ve never felt for sonnets until I read Millay’s poems. I don’t know why it takes so long. I know this is a book I will come back again and again. One never feels one’s finished with a poem one loves. There’s no beginning and no ending, no completion. I know I will come back again even before I finish reading it. English is not my native language and I have to keep reading poems to make my mind accustomed to the flow of the language. It’s not an easy task and often I don’t find time to read poems since there are so many interesting things to turn my attention to.

One thought on “January 2021 Book List

  1. Thank you for this book list. I will surely pick “The Hundred-Year Marathon” to read. We may get the author’s view on how the US government has helped China unwittingly and sometimes deliberately in the past over 40 years till today that China has started to make its dream for 2049. That should be a big topic or even big worry for the world to face the greatest security challenge of the 21st century.


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