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Sunday Salon: the Healthier Post

January 10, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comI’m so happy to finally be feeling much healthier; the past few days, I’ve been steadily feeling more and more like my old self. :) Of course, that means that my reading has decreased as I’m able to get out of the house more, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing! And since I was sick for most of the week, I still have a few books to talk about.

The first book I finished this week was Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. I’ve already written about how much I loved it! So we’ll move on to my first nonfiction read: The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, which was also my 13th Canadian Challenge selection (which means I’ve officially completed the challenge!). Chong decided to write a biography of Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl who’s at the center of one of the most iconic photographs of that war (click to enlarge):

In so doing, she gives us a glimpse into everyday life for the South Vietnamese during the war, life under the Communist regime, and a bit of background on the lives of various Westerners involved with either that photo, the napalm campaign, or who helped Kim later. She sketches some of the key events of the Vietnam War, just enough for readers to get their bearings, but if you don’t know anything about the big-picture war stuff going in, you won’t learn much from this book. That’s not Chong’s focus; she’s much more interested in an individual, eye-level look at the war and its consequences. There’s a lot about this book that I really liked: getting peeks into the lives of Vietnamese people, Chong’s portrayal of how a totalitarian government affects every aspect of its citizens’ world, and how everyone, even those who just appear for a few pages, are treated as human. That being said, there was barely any discussion on the ethics of photography, which the book summary led me to believe was the focus of the book. More problematically, Chong seems to be unable to decide how to prioritise aspects of Kim’s life, so instead she simply goes into exhaustive detail. She really needed a good editor; the book’s 400 pages, and often begins to feel like a bit of a chore, whereas at 300 pages it would have been tighter and better. I’m glad that I read the book; it expanded my horizons, let me get to know some people from a radically different culture, and Chong’s writing is fluid, intelligent, and exactly what I think nonfiction prose should be. But I wouldn’t recommend this to people unless they have enough of an interest in the overall topic to get through minutiae of Kim’s life that I find it difficult to imagine anyone but her mother would be curious about. I do think this would be a good selection for those doing the War Through the Generations Challenge this year, though, with its focus on the Vietnam War!

Meanwhile, I was racing through Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie, which I gushed all over on Friday. After finishing it, I turned to my first graphic book of the year: Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki. This was a great way to start off the Graphic Novels Challenge 2010! I picked it up, because last year I enjoyed Skim, which Mariko co-wrote with her cousin. Emiko Superstar also features a Canadian Asian high school girl who’s out of the mainstream and searching for where she belongs. But Emiko is more light-hearted, and it also has a fun art element that reminded me of Plain Janes (so I wasn’t surprised to discover they share a publisher, Minx). I really love Tamaki’s drawing style: she renders faces especially evocatively, and even the shape of Emiko’s mouth would give away her mood. The storyline was a bit John Green-esque, with Emiko looking back on a life-changing summer and its events. I loved how a chance encounter at the mall led to Emiko discovering performance art, and I especially loved all the zany artists she ends up meeting and hanging out with. There’s a hint of a romance, but it’s no more than that, which I think fits the awkwardness of that age perfectly. All in all, this was a great graphic novel experience, one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys well-written young adult-centric books, one that I think would be great for teenage girls to read. My only quibble was that it felt a bit short: I wanted to know more of Emiko! The storyline itself, though, was well shaped and the ending didn’t feel abrupt…you know me, I just prefer chunksters. ;) Also, I would have enjoyed a bit more depth at times; while the light-heartedness made it fun to read, it wasn’t a big thought-provoker.

Next up was The Good House by Tananrive Due, which I *finally* finished listening to! Somehow, when I grabbed it from the library, I didn’t notice that it was nineteen discs long, which for my audio tastes is a touch too much. I feel really comflicted about this one. On the one hand, I think Due handled the evil spirits/horror aspect of it quite well (there were a lot of deaths, so it was a bit hardcore for me personally, but then the ending redeemed that). And the characters were all memorable, with pretty individualised voices (she switches points of view frequently). And the plot, which weaves back and forth in time, was satisfyingly complex. On the other hand, the writing itself seemed to oscillate, and it often descended into cliched territory. I’m pretty picky about writing styles, but it seems to me like Due’s editor should have worked on maintaing a more consistent voice throughout the book…it would occasionally feel like chick lit, then flip back to horror, leaving me confused. Speaking of editors, it was also too long-winded; I think Due could have accomplished just as much in a book two-thirds as long. All of that being said, this still had a spark for me, the kind that makes me want to read another one of Due’s novels in the future. She’s really good at doing the scary thing, which is pretty rare in my experience. I’ll definitely be reading a hard copy next time though! In this case, I think the audio format negatively affected my enjoyment of the book. If you enjoy scary horror-esque novels that still have good character development, and you haven’t heard of Tananarive Due before, I’d definitely encourage you to look her up! I just have to decide which book of hers to read next…right now I’m leaning towards The Between, but if any of you have read other Due novels and would recommend a different one, definitely tell me! :)

Speaking of conflicted feelings, Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi ended up doing a complete 180 for me. As I mentioned in my library loot post, I have no idea how this book ended up on hold, and I have no memory of even hearing of it before. lol But since I had it, I decided to read it for the Japanese Lit III Challenge! It’s a slim book, and after the first sixty pages, I seriously considered abandoning it. It was just so weird…two middle-aged people meet, feel a spark, and then manage to make a money-for-sex deal. What?! The dust jacket referred to Takagi as Japan’s foremost romance author! Honestly, if she had been a male author, I probably would have simply stopped reading, because there was so much potential for bad portrayals of the female character. But I decided that at only 180 pages total, I should go ahead and read it, just to see where Takagi was going. And after the most awkward sex scene I’ve ever read (it had me wincing and cringing), somehow Takagi begins to slowly steer the narrative around, and soon it actually did feel like a love story, and one with much better sex (lol). At the same time, it maintained its literary tone, and the whole story is so bittersweet. I honestly have no clue how Takagi did it, but I ended up in love with the book, and there is this beautiful ‘secret sign’ the couple develops that I know I’ll always remember. The ending was perfect for the storyline, and now I want to read more of Takagi. She doesn’t have Yoshimoto’s immediate appeal, and her voice is much more stylised…I think it takes more getting used to. But if you’re looking for an unexpected romance with a distinctly autumn feel, you should definitely give Translucent Tree a chance. (Also, if you’ve read the book, Bookslut has a fascinating interview with Takagi.)

Finally, I finished Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, which is his travelogue about following in the steps of 1300s Moroccan Ibn Battutah from Tangiers to Constantinople. Mackintosh-Smith is the editor of the version of The Travels of Ibn Battutah that I started the year with, and as I mentioned last week, that book left me underwhelmed. The good news is, you don’t need to have read Ibn Battutah (hereafter referred to as IB, which is what Mackintosh-Smith does) himself in order to enjoy Mackintosh-Smith’s travelogue, since he summarises IB’s travels and quotes relevent passages as he goes. When I began Travels with a Tangerine, I found myself pleasantly surprised: Mackintosh-Smith is an old school Oxbridge Arabist, who has made Yemen his home, and he writes like the British uber-nerd that he is. I really enjoyed his writing style, how his fluency in Arabic and knowledge of the area gave me insights into the countries he visited, and his sense of humour. That being said, I noticed a pattern. I almost always read books in 50 page sections, and whenever I picked this one up, I’d really enjoy the first 30 pages or so. Then I’d become bored and restless, and start almost constantly checking to see how many pages I had left, until with relief I got to the end of my planned reading. I think the problem with the book is that Mackintosh-Smith is simply too self-contained…while he’s obsessed with IB, he never really analyses his obsession, or tries to draw the reader into it with him. And without that love of IB, parts of the book are simply going to be boring…why do I care about some random 14th century ascetic that IB happened to run into? You know what I mean? For me, Mackintosh-Smith’s descriptions of the various cultures he moves in (and especially his brief foray into the Crimea, which brought back all my Russian experiences, except he doesn’t speak Russian, lol…the whole chapter made me laugh constantly) made the more tedious bits worth it, and I definitely want to read his previously published book on Yemen. I also loved that it was a book about the Maghreb/Middle East from a Westerner’s perspective published right before 9/11, so it felt contemporary but without the obsessions of our current time. But my ultimate recommendation is much like what I said about Chong’s book…if you have enough independent interest in the topic to sustain you through the boring parts, go for it! But as a general travelogue, it fails to draw the reader into complicity with the traveller, which is what the best travelogues I’ve read have all done.

This morning, I finished up Moby Dick, which I’ll be writing about tomorrow! And now I’m off to read more; I finally updated my ‘Currently Reading’ sidebar, so for the truly curious, you can have a look to see what I’ll be spending the rest of my morning with. ;)

61 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010 12:04 pm

    Oh, how I remember that picture from the Vietnam War. I’m disappointed to see that the book wasn’t edited better, because it sounds like it has promise.

    • January 11, 2010 9:18 am

      The first half, which is much closer to the time of the picture, is strong than the second, which is about Kim’s adult life, imo.

  2. January 10, 2010 12:44 pm

    I am new to your blog and enjoyed your reviews very much! I like the fact that you write long reviews :) I liked your review of Nobuko Takagi’s ‘Translucent Tree’ very much! I haven’t read this book or heard of this author, but liked the fact that the book started interacting with you on a not-so-good note, but ended up making you like it :) It almost feels like the book was a person!

    It was also nice to know that you are reading Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ now. I read it last year and enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the idyllic countryside in the book. Looking forward to reading your review on it.

    • January 11, 2010 9:19 am

      Hi Vishy! Thanks for commenting, and for the compliments. :)

  3. January 10, 2010 12:45 pm

    I can testify to the fact that being sick can increase one’s reading! Add to sickness having your Internet go out…and…zowie! I read a lot yesterday.

    Glad you are feeling better. I’d rather be feeling better and reading a bit less.

    • January 11, 2010 9:19 am

      LOL: the power going out during the day always increases my reading a ton too! There’s nothing else to do, and I can’t shower to go anywhere, because our bathrooms don’t have windows.

  4. January 10, 2010 12:49 pm

    Eva, glad you are feeling better. I hate being sick.

    I have The Good House on my Kindle. I will read it at some point. I have not read any of Tannanrive Due’s books, but I have had her on my radar for several years. Glad to hear the horror factor is good.

    Take care.

    • January 11, 2010 9:20 am

      It definitely freaked me out at parts! :)

  5. January 10, 2010 12:59 pm

    I’ve wanted to read Emiko forever. Enjoyed your post as always.

    • January 11, 2010 9:20 am

      It’s really an afternoon read. :) I think you’d enjoy it!

  6. January 10, 2010 1:01 pm

    Translucent Tree sounds truly bizarre and oddly rewarding! I love those books that start out iffy and then suddenly they turn your head around and it’s love. Who knew?

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Moby Dick because I’ve never been able to love that book. Maybe you’ll prompt me to try again. :)

    • January 11, 2010 9:21 am

      I’ve loved it from the first page, so I’m probably the exception. ;) But yep, it was really interesting to have all my expectations flip-flopped by Translucent Tree…that rarely happens for me!

  7. January 10, 2010 1:03 pm

    I’m interested in the Indian Killer! Never heard of it. Great Sunday Salon!

    • January 11, 2010 9:21 am

      Indian Killer was awesome! Go read it! ;)

  8. January 10, 2010 1:03 pm

    I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better, Eva! I hope you keep getting progressively better.

  9. January 10, 2010 1:11 pm

    I’m glad to hear that you are feeling better Eva! Emiko Superstar sounds like a fun read and one that I might have to check out. Enjoy your reads!

    • January 11, 2010 9:22 am

      Definitely a fun read-I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

  10. January 10, 2010 1:20 pm

    Glad to hear you are feeling more like your old self. I am presuming you get a lot of flare ups with it.

    I love the look of Emiko Superstar. I shall add that to my list.

    • January 11, 2010 9:22 am

      I was sick from a cold this time, not from fibro. :) I’m still sleeping 10-11 hours a day, and have quite a bit of pain to deal with, so I’m not in the clear yet with that. But I’m hoping for slow & steady improvement.

  11. January 10, 2010 1:29 pm

    Glad to hear you are feeling better–I hope the weather cooperates with your plans to get out a bit more!

    • January 11, 2010 9:23 am

      Thanks! We haven’t been snowed in that much this winter, which is nice. :)

  12. January 10, 2010 2:59 pm

    Glad you’re feeling better, Eva! I’ve never thought about reading any of the books you’ve featured today, but Translucent Tree sounds like a good one. I’m really looking forward to what you thought about Moby Dick!

    • January 11, 2010 9:23 am

      Short review of Moby Dick: I loved it, but the ending could’ve been better. ;)

  13. January 10, 2010 3:20 pm

    You have quite an intriguing selection of books. I, too, hoped to hear that the book about the girl in the picture might be better. That photo defined a time in my young life (young then!), and informed many choices that some of us made.

    My Sunday Salon:

    • January 11, 2010 9:24 am

      It sounds like you’d probably enjoy it then, since the subject matter is important to you. :)

  14. January 10, 2010 3:30 pm

    So happy to hear you are feeling more like your self!

    And, yay, I didn’t know Mariko Tamako had a new book out. I really enjoyed Skim too so I’ll have to add this one to my radar.

    • January 11, 2010 9:24 am

      Yep! It’s not with her cousin this time, but it’s still fun!

  15. January 10, 2010 4:04 pm

    Just found your blog and want to thank you for the recommendation for Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamako. I’m going to check this out.

    You should read Absolutely True Diary if you haven’t read this by Alexie yet. It’s fantastic.

    • January 11, 2010 9:25 am

      Thanks for stopping by Greg, and I’m glad I could recommend a book to you! :) I’m reading Alexie’s books in published order, so it’ll be awhile before I get to Absolutely True Diary, but I can’t wait for it!

  16. January 10, 2010 4:13 pm

    I’m glad you’re feeling better!

    The Girl in the Picture sounds like something I’ll have to check out. I’m doing the Vietnam War challenge, and I do so love learning the stories behind photographs.

    • January 11, 2010 9:26 am

      If you read it, I hope you enjoy it! As I mentioned earlier, I think the first half, which is more directly about the photograph is the strongest. ;)

  17. January 10, 2010 4:48 pm

    Even while ill, you manage to read so much! Translucent Tree sounds interesting, in a weird i’m-not-so-sure-i-get-this kind of way…
    Glad you’re feeling better!!

    • January 11, 2010 9:27 am

      I had a weird cold/flu thing, that made me dizzy every time I stood up, so I pretty much only sat and laid down until I felt better. That’s lots of reading time! lol

  18. January 10, 2010 5:21 pm

    Eva – So glad you are feeling better, and I am happy to hear about Travels with a Tangerine. I will get it from my library. have a great week.

    • January 11, 2010 9:27 am

      I hope you enjoy Travels w/ a Tangerine! I think I might have enjoyed it more if I had read it in smaller chunks, but with library books I always feel a count-down, you know?

  19. January 10, 2010 6:33 pm

    So it’s looking like you may be the one to give Ana a run for her money this year when it comes to Bad Blogger points if anyone can! LOL. Right now you’re in second place and I totally just scored Emiko Superstar on Paperback Swap after reading your review!! And I added Translucent Tree to my wishlist too as bizarre as it sounds :p Ok, so I’m actually still really excited about reading about Kim Phuc now :p I thought it was going to be all bad writing which scared me at first, so I’m glad to hear it’s not!

    I’m so glad to hear that you’re feeling better Eva!!! I hate it when you feel bad :( And I meant to tell you the other day too that I love your pictures :D I especially loved the one looking through the pine tree. So gorgeous!

    • January 11, 2010 9:29 am

      lol…I’m sure Ana will triumph in the end! It’d be fun to make her work for it there. ;) Translucent Tree starts out kind of bizarre, but ends up incredibly touching!

      And thanks for the good health wishes and picture compliments! :D

  20. January 10, 2010 6:54 pm

    That picture makes my heart hurt every time I see it.

    I’m so very glad you’re feeling better, though!

    • January 11, 2010 9:30 am

      I know; I had to keep the book lying cover down, because my eyes welled up whenever I looked at it. :/

  21. January 10, 2010 8:18 pm

    I’m so glad to hear you are feeling better. I went through a flare-up this week myself, yesterday being the worst day. Today was much better, thank goodness. Sometimes when I am like this though, I don’t read as much as you’d think because I am sleeping so much! I slept from the time I got home until the next morning every day last week. Hopefully the worst is over and this week will be much better. Glad you got some reading done.

    • January 11, 2010 9:31 am

      I’m so sorry to hear you’ve had a flare-up Rebecca. :/ I was sick last week from a cold/flu thing, so that’s why I got reading done. When my fibro flares up, I barely get any reading done-I’m either sleeping all the time like you, or my brain can’t focus, so I end up watching TV on DVD instead. Sometimes I can listen to an audiobook, but that’s it. Fibro=evil.

  22. January 10, 2010 9:05 pm

    I’m glad that you are feeling better. I’m having an interesting week health wise myself so I can certainly relate.

  23. January 10, 2010 10:13 pm

    As someone who grew up in the 60’s watching the Vietnamese war on television every night, I was immediately drawn The Girl In The Picture. I’m sorry to hear that it is not better written.

    Glad you’re feeling better!

    • January 11, 2010 9:32 am

      It’s wasn’t horribly written…it just could have used some pruning. You know? :)

  24. January 11, 2010 2:52 am

    Translucent Tree by Nobuko Takagi is a new book and author to me-it sounds like I will have to get to this book in 2010-thanks for posting on it

    • January 11, 2010 9:32 am

      It’s short too, so it’d be an easy way to check out a new author! :)

  25. January 11, 2010 10:31 am

    I have several fo these on my wish list so it was good to read your thoughts on them. Thanks!

  26. January 11, 2010 11:07 am

    Wow, the first book sounds excellent! I think I’ve heard of it before, but I definitely want to look into it!

  27. January 12, 2010 1:36 pm

    That book about the picture sounded fascinating but sounds like it was ultimately disappointing. So sorry to hear that!

    • January 12, 2010 8:51 pm

      It wasn’t disappointing…it was just kind of ‘meh’. :)

  28. January 13, 2010 3:59 pm

    Glad to know you’re feeling better, Eva. THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE INTERESTS ME, despite the need for some editting :) That photo is captivating/shocking!

    I’m putting the book on my wishlist, and will likely seek it out for the War Thru the Generations challenge.

  29. March 4, 2010 9:09 pm

    56 responses?! Wow.

    Anyway, congrats on finishing the Canadian book challenge. I have the Denise Chong on my shelf. I’m disappointed that she doesn’t get into the ethics of the photo, too. It makes me less anxious to read it now.

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