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Sunday Salon: the Goodbye, February Post

February 28, 2010

The Sunday Salon.comThe end of February seriously snuck up on me. (I feel I say that about every month, though! lol) This month started out with a really bad fibro flare-up, and I didn’t blog or read for two weeks. Crazy! Since then, I’ve definitely had ‘dry spells’ in regard to my reading, but I’ve still managed to get through quite a few books. :) This week, not counting the books I’m doing co-reviews with other bloggers or that I know need their own post, I’ve got six books to talk about. So let’s get going! (Oh, and I suddenly realised that I love footnotes, so maybe I should include them in blog posts too. So whenever you see an asterisk, click on it for a footnote, then use your browser’s back button to return to your place. If this seems affected or silly, just let me know, and I’ll stop.)

The Road to Home by Vanessa del Fabbro was my second Christy Awards Challenge read, and I chose it because it was set in South Africa. del Fabbro is very talented at bringing her nation to life: I felt like I was in the streets of Jo’burg right along with the characters (see? I even call it by slang now). But, this story felt a bit forced to me…it deals with the Big Issues of race and AIDS and most of the characters felt more like cardboard cut-outs than real people. (And honestly, the way most of the black characters were portrayed made me cringe a little…although to be fair, most of the white characters definitely don’t come off as angels.) It was pretty easy to see how the book would end up after just the first few chapters, and while that’s not always a problem for me as a reader, in this case the plot seemed a bit too formulaic. I loved both of the South African novels I read last year*, so perhaps those authors gave me unrealistically high expectations for all of their compatriots. I’d recommend this to those who like feel-good fiction set in a more exotic locale.

I finally finished listening to A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipul. I’ve always wanted to try out Naipul, and this novel about Indians in East Africa sounded right up my alley (I enjoyed Vassanji’s East African set novel The Book of Secrets last year). The first half was quite interesting, and I enjoyed it despite the main character annoying me (I think that annoyance was deliberate on the author’s part). But then, things just started to drag, and soon it felt like torture to open up the file. However, I’m not sure how much of this was Naipul’s writing and how much of it was the voice of the audiobook narrator…he had this smarmy accent that didn’t bother me too much at first (since it matched how the main character acts) but eventually began to feel like nails on a chalkboard. I ended up finishing it, and I wouldn’t be too averse to giving Naipul another shot in the future, but I can’t say I’m out recommending this to all of my friends! Usually, I think audiobooks really enhance my reading experience, but in this case I probably should have switched to a hard copy. But while Naipul is very talented at bringing scenes to life, I have to wonder how much of the book’s almost smarmy snobbishness and uber-conservative viewpoint is due to the author rather than the main character (who narrates the book in first person). I definitely want to read at least one more Naipul book (and I’d love for anyone who’s better acquainted with him to recommend one for me), but I doubt we’ll ever be bosom buddies.

Honestly, Sisters in War by Christina Asquith (which I picked up for the Women Unbound Challenge) was an incredibly difficult reading experience for me. Not because of Asquith’s writing style, which is smooth and journalistic. But because the subject matter, this is a nonfiction look at women’s rights in Iraq from the beginning of the US invasion through 2005, was so upsetting. I often found myself so enraged I forgot to breathe. Women getting murdered for promoting women’s rights. Women being groped for walking down streets alone, unveiled. Women being kidnapped, gang raped, and killed for working for the Americans. Women getting trafficked into sexual slavery because in their desperation to escape their current lives they believe charming people. The book is pretty much unrelentingly negative, not because of how Asquith has slanted it so much as simply reporting the events that took place related to women’s rights paints a depressing picture. And honestly, when I closed the final pages, I felt hopeless and empty. I’ve always known that war is a horrible, horrible thing for women (should we talk about how refugee and IDP camps are also called ‘rape camps’?*), but seeing how the optimism of the early days of the Iraq war turns into disappointment and terror was just so awful. That being said, I learned a lot from this book, and I especially liked how Asquith regularly takes the time to look at Muslim feminists, and their reasoning (which is rooted in the Qur’an). Those reminders are so important in a book like this, which of necessity often focuses on how the conservative religious elements of Iraqi society set out to attack anyone promoting women. Meh. I’ve already deleted a ton of sentences from this paragraph, just because these are delicate issues. But I will say that, any society that systematically dehumanises women is wrong. I don’t care about bloody cultural relativism, and how we “need to respect traditions.” Let’s call a spade a spade. In post-invasion Iraq, the women Asquith profiles all end up in mortal danger because of their gender. And that’s just fucked up.*

Ahem. Let’s move on, shall we? An Ocean of Air by Gabrielle Walker is my first Science Book Challenge read of the year.* I read Walker’s Snowball Earth book a couple years ago and really enjoyed it, so I picked this up because of her, rather than any long-seated interest in air. ;) And I definitely wasn’t disappointed! The book is more like a collection of essays, all united around the ‘air’ theme, since each chapter is standalone and doesn’t really reference the others. Many of them include some history of science, which I find fascinating, with Walker tracing the discovery of air pressure and oxygen, for example. Of course, there’s a lot of modern science included as well, and I learned a lot of fascinating stuff! The chapter on trade winds is sure to come in handy whenever I’m reading some nautical fiction, and I expect to wow people in years to come by being able to tell them what the Northern Lights really are. As you might be able to guess, I really enjoyed this book-Walker’s a master of making the process behind scientific discoveries come alive (and she really humanises science, without taking away from its academic aspects), and I found most of the chapters absolutely fascinating. The two exceptions, for me, were in the middle when Walker looks at carbon dioxide and global warming, followed by a chapter on CFCs and the hole in the ozone. These were still well-written, and I definitely enjoyed the profiles of various scientists involved, but I felt like it wasn’t as ‘fresh’ as the other stuff. Still good, just not fascinating! All in all, I’d highly recommend this book, both to general fans of pop science books, and to those more wary of nonfiction, since this is very readable. Honestly, I was sad when I turned the last page, because I could have done with many more chapters of Walker’s wonderful style! I can only hope that she publishes a new book soon.*

With my completion of Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang* , I’m only two books away from completing the China Challenge! I’ve heard a lot of good things about Chang, and I must say that her writing style lives up to all I’ve heard. It’s exquisite! I was surprised on opening the book to see that it’s a collection of stories instead of a novel. With one exception, though, the stories are all at least 60 pages long, so really it felt more like a few novellas than a more standard short story collection. Which is my way of hinting that, if you don’t like short stories, you shouldn’t write this book off! Now, as much I loved Chang’s writing, and her ability to bring upper-class Shanghai and Hong Kong of a bygone day to life, I will warn you that she makes Edith Wharton look optimistic. Chang seems to delight in ruining her character’s lives Greek tragedy style, but she does it so beautifully I can’t hold it against her. My favourite story was the title one, in which a young woman and man play a game of love, in both Shanghai and Hong Kong. I really cared about the main character and her fate, and I loved watching the machinations unfold. I’m not sure how she does it, but from the first page of the book, Chang brought me with her into her China, and I can’t wait to return via her other books. Honestly, she’s the first Chinese fiction author I can see myself falling in love with.

Finally, I finished The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma for the International Year of Biodiversity Challenge (Biomes category). It’s subtitled ‘a biography of an ecosystem,’ and it surely lived up to that. I learned so much about a patch of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, from the trees to the soil to the canopy…every layer was covered. I have been called a tree hugger my whole life (and proudly embrace that title), so obviously I found a book about forests really interesting. But I think even people who don’t have my inborn fascination would enjoy it; Luoma is a good writer, and his writing has a definite journalistic feel to it that I think works well in pop science books. That being said, the book takes a little bit to get going…the first couple of chapters aren’t nearly as interesting as the rest of the book (the concluding chapter is kind of weak too, but since I find conclusions the hardest thing about writing, I can’t hold that against it!). I just flipped through the book, to see what my problem was with those chapters, and I realised that ones I liked the least were the ones discussing the timber industry. I don’t think this is Luoma’s fault at all, and he does a good job laying out the politics. However, I get so upset even thinking about loggers*, that I think I emotionally shut down during those bits, which is why I found them less engaging. If you’re not as big a tree hugger as me, you’ll probably enjoy the book from the very beginning! Anyway, this was not only a great read in general, it was also perfect for the Biodiversity challenge, since much of the book traces scientists’ awareness that natural forests were incredibly more complex than they had realised at first, and there’s much talk of the importance of a big variety of species (of everything from truffles to mites to trees). Luoma also looks at problematic biases in the scientific community itself, from physicists and chemists looking down on biology as a ‘soft science’ to a lack of funding for observational studies (which aren’t seen as ‘real science’ since there’s no hypothesis at first) to the relative short-term focus of a lot of researchers (which is the opposite of what ecology needs). I found this frank discussion of the shortfalls of academia refreshing, but I don’t want to imply that Luoma is anti-scientists at all. His profiles of individuals who blazed trails in ecology and forest studies are inspiring! All in all, a wonderful book that I’d recommend to anyone at all curious about the natural world.

How has your reading month gone? Was February unusual at all, or was it pretty much same old, same old?

Footnote One: A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (whose second book comes out in just a couple months!) and A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein.

Footnote Two: IDP means ‘internally displaced person,’ or a refugee who hasn’t crossed a national border. For more info on rape and refugees, read this article or this one or watch this video. Girls and women are regularly raped while carrying out everyday tasks such as collecting firewood or water. Or corrupt camp administrators trade life essentials like food for ‘sexual favours’ (I hate that euphemism). Or UN peacekeeping troops themselves rape the women they’re supposed to be protecting, as this article outlines. I’ll stop now; I’m sure you get the picture.

Footnote Three: Now you see why I don’t dare devote a whole post to reviewing Sisters in War, though…there would be so much rage and profanity, y’all might not recognise me.

Footnote Four: Which means I’ve fallen behind my ‘one science book a month’ goal. Eek! That’s a good excuse to double up in March though. :D

Footnote Five: In addition to this and Snowball Earth, she has published a primer on global warming (The Hot Topic), but I doubt I’ll read that since I already feel sufficiently primed on the topic.

Footnote Six: I’ve also seen her name spelled Ai-ling Chang or Aileen Zhang…so I wasn’t sure which spelling to go with.

Footnote Seven: My dad occasionally watches that show about Pacific Northwest loggers, and if I don’t leave the room right away, I start sobbing when I see one of those gorgeous huge trees cut down. And I root for the tree, hoping it’ll take the loggers out with it. Which I know is irrational, since it’s the evil corporations that are the problem more than the employees who are just making a living. But I can’t help it. (I feel similarly about those deep sea fishing shows…I’m always rooting for Mother Nature to strike back hard.) So now you see the extent of my tree hugger insanity…I would totally have chained myself to a tree without a second thought if the occasion ever arose.

67 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2010 5:52 am

    Looks like you had a great reading month, and you read so diversely, too!

    I´ve only ever read Naipaul´s The Mimic Men and while I didn´t hate it, he didn´t inspire any other strong feelings in me. I felt it was a book that´s much better read for studying literary and cultural themes than for plot and characters.

    The Chang book sounds great. I have to admit I don´t read much Chinese fiction. Or any come to think of it, other than Xiaolo Guo whose one of my all-time favorite authors. Have you tried reading her works?

    • March 2, 2010 8:22 pm

      I suppose Naipul just writes in more of a theme way than a character/plot way. I haven’t tried Xiaolo Guo; I’ll see if she’s in my library catalogue. :)

      • April 5, 2010 1:26 pm

        I’m a BIG fan of Xiaolu Guo, you will love her books. Especially the Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.

  2. February 28, 2010 6:24 am

    I love your footnotes! Definitely keep doing them. And now I sort of want to read Sisters of War, even though it inspired you to use the f word in a blog post! I can handle grim books, even when they are depressing, if as you say, I will learn something. Happy Sunday! :)

    • March 2, 2010 8:23 pm

      I tried rewriting the ‘f’ word line, but nothing else suitably expressed my feelings. ;) I think you’d definitely appreciate Sisters in War, so I’d recommend it to you!

  3. February 28, 2010 7:00 am

    I love footnotes! Up with footnotes!

    February’s been a slightly slow reading month for me, and I’m having a hard time getting my reviews written. I find February frustrating. You know, it’s all short? So I get paid less? But I still have to pay the same amount of rent. Hardly seems fair.

    • March 2, 2010 8:23 pm

      That doesn’t seem fair at all! At least we have footnotes, though. ;)

  4. February 28, 2010 7:28 am

    Wow, Sisters in War sounds like a must read even though it will make us angry. The feminists in that society are probably some of the bravest people in the world.

  5. February 28, 2010 7:44 am

    I’m glad to see you enjoyed An Ocean of Air. It’s on my mile-long to read list :)

    • March 2, 2010 8:24 pm

      It was good! I can’t decide if I liked it or Snowball Earth more. :)

  6. February 28, 2010 7:54 am

    We’re so glad to have you back in action and hope you continue to feel better. That book on women in Iraq sounds so interesting, intense and good! February was a pretty good month for me. I plan on doing my month in review post later today.

  7. February 28, 2010 8:11 am

    You’ve read some really deep books this month!

    I’ve been noticing “wrap-ups” for the month around the Blogosphere today, and I didn’t actuall do that in my post. But I did go to my document, the one I created to track the books I read this year, and I was surprised that I’ve read thirteen books this month! That’s more than usual for me.

    I’m thinking the weather, my budget (stay out of shops!), and just the general mood have contributed to that total.

    My Salon:

    • March 2, 2010 8:31 pm

      Since I’m unemployed, I totally think that my reading time has increased thanks to me not shopping! Congrats on a high total for the month. :)

  8. February 28, 2010 8:12 am

    Oh, I love footnotes, and I love your footnotes, but centering them and keeping them the same text size looks a little weird- perhaps left align them and make them a smaller font?

    Eileen Chang sounds wonderful; I think I’m going to go ahead and add her to my TBR list!

    • March 2, 2010 8:32 pm

      You know, I experimented w/ making them smaller. But the main font is pretty small to begin with, and I worried that making the footnotes smaller would make them illegible. So I centered them in order to distinguish them from the rest of the post. But I’m still playing with it…maybe I’ll just leave it left-aligned in the future.

  9. February 28, 2010 9:11 am

    I saw a book on Amazon Vine the other day that I think would be good for you (though I ultimately chose a different book from there). It’s called A Thousand Sisters and it’s about women living in the Congo.

    Also, it looks like your book for the China challenge was an NYRB edition- awesome! I LOVE that publishing house :-)

    • March 2, 2010 8:33 pm

      Ohh-that sounds interesting! I’m off to hopefully put it on hold, as long as my library’s acquiring it.

      Yep-the library had the NYRB edition, which made me super happy! I like them a lot too, and their covers are always so gorgeous. :D

  10. February 28, 2010 9:50 am

    A wonderful post, Eva. I’m glad you enjoyed “The Hidden Forest”, living in the Pacific Northwest it had a deep inpact on me. Februry was weird, short, and I read short books and picture books! I am also behind on my Science Book challenge! Have a great week.

    • March 2, 2010 8:42 pm

      I imagine living in the region, I would have been out in those forests all the time. :D

  11. February 28, 2010 9:53 am

    I love the footnotes! I didn’t get as outraged at Sisters in War, I guess because I’ve read much worse about women! But I thought it was a very good book.

    • March 2, 2010 8:42 pm

      You know-I’ve read a lot of worse things about women too. But for some reason, I just got SO angry while I was reading this. I get angry whenever I read stuff like that though.

  12. February 28, 2010 10:14 am

    Eva, I don’t think it was the narrator of A Bend in the River – I read the book myself and had the exact same reaction as you did. Some readers love Naipaul…and I will most likely give him another chance; but I was pretty unimpressed with that particular book (and so was Raven who chewed the back cover off!!). My review is here.

    • March 2, 2010 8:43 pm

      Thanks for linking to your review Wendy! :)

  13. February 28, 2010 10:25 am

    Wow. You had a heck of a month, Eva. Despite the fact that you were absent for two weeks and had trouble getting back into reading, you did really well. And I really like the footnotes. I love footnotes in a book and I like them on here – it definitely gives you something not all bloggers have and it’s interesting. :)

    • March 2, 2010 8:43 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad everyone’s responded positively to the footnotes, because I’m kind of addicted to them already. :D

  14. February 28, 2010 10:35 am


    Have you read Iran Awakening? It is equally upsetting. Women so distraught, they set themselves on fire.

    I envy your reading life.

  15. February 28, 2010 10:38 am

    I’m sorry you’re having such bad luck with your Christy books!

    • March 2, 2010 8:44 pm

      I already tweeted you about this, but I’m letting you pick my next book for the challenge! You know them much better. :)

  16. February 28, 2010 10:39 am

    I am amazed by your reading diversity. I really haven’t ever read any science books, but you make them sound so interesting that I feel I need to read them.

    • March 2, 2010 8:45 pm

      Thanks Vivienne! So many pop science books are really interesting! You might start with Woman: an Intimate Geography by Natalie Angiers…it was awesome. :D

  17. February 28, 2010 10:44 am

    You have had some reading month, Eva! I have vowed to someday become acquainted with Mr. Naipaul, and have added Sisters in War to my must-read list. Thank you.

  18. February 28, 2010 10:59 am

    I’ve read half of Naipaul’s A Way in the World and I thought him extremely intelligent. I didn’t finish it because we were moving and my copy somehow got lost. I will be getting hold of another copy though, someday. I will be reading A House for Mr Biswas in March, so you’ll know what I think soon enough. I think that his arrogance does shine through in his books. There was a biography of him released not very long ago, which I really want to read. It reveals how such a self-righteous man Naipaul is, but at the same time I am intrigued by him.

    Yay for Eileen Chang! Love in a Fallen City was my pick for our Asian Book Group and we’ll be reading it in June, so very excited about that. I had read the first page (couldn’t help taking a peek) and I already love it!!

    • March 2, 2010 8:47 pm

      I think he’s intelligent, but a bit too love with his own intelligence. ;) I can’t wait to see y’all’s discussion of Love in a Fallen City!

  19. February 28, 2010 12:23 pm

    Sob!! I loved A Bend in the River (read it in print in the 1980s). So sorry it didn’t work for you. Sisters in War sounds very intense.

  20. February 28, 2010 1:45 pm

    Re: your tree-hugger-ness. Our neighbors recently cut down a huge old pine in their yard, for no real reason that I could see. It appeared to be completely healthy and not any kind of a danger to their house or others’. And I was telling my husband yesterday that I’m kind of annoyed with them for doing that. I see no reason to cut down a healthy, beautiful tree! It takes so long to replace them! GRRR! Anyway, your comments about being a tree-hugger made me think of that. I guess I’m a bit of a tree-hugger, too!

    • March 2, 2010 8:48 pm

      That’s so upsetting! We had this gorgeous big pine in one of our nieghbour’s yards, and it fell down in an insane windstorm we had a few months ago. Our whole little group of houses mourned.

  21. February 28, 2010 1:56 pm

    I like the footnotes! I think they’re a good way for you to add asides without clogging up your thoughts too much.

    I don’t have any experience with the books on your list this week, but Sisters in War has gone on my to-read list. Angry as it would make me, too, I think it should be read. I think I’ll also investigate Eileen Chang, as I’ve really been interested in Chinese fiction and history lately. Thanks!

    • March 2, 2010 8:49 pm

      Thanks! I agree-Sisters in War is an important read, even if it upset me.

  22. February 28, 2010 5:31 pm

    Great round up! And I, too, love the footnotes.

    Is that copy of Love in a Fallen City published by NYRB? Just curious – I love their book packaging!

    • March 2, 2010 8:49 pm

      Yep-it is NYRB! I love their publishing aesthetics too. :D

  23. February 28, 2010 5:40 pm

    You, once again, had an amazing week/month; great books/great reviews.

  24. February 28, 2010 8:39 pm

    “she makes Edith Wharton look optimistic”

    This makes me laugh out loud, and it actually makes me want to read Love in a Fallen City!

  25. February 28, 2010 9:12 pm

    I am a big fan of your footnotes.

    I have a question for you. How do you research what you are going to read? You read so diversely and read so many authors and books that I have never heard of; do you have a system?

    I had a great reading month this month-more normal to what I usually read. I finished 7 books, including a 600 page and a 500 page novel, which was pretty awesome. I’m hoping to keep it up.

  26. February 28, 2010 11:02 pm

    The footnotes worked great.

    My parents had a lovely white birch in their yard, but it was sickly and they finally had to have it taken out. I was so sad.

    • March 2, 2010 8:58 pm

      I’ve always been so attached to my parents’ trees, in every house we live in. :D

  27. March 1, 2010 1:15 am

    Footnote 8: I think that is it for footnotes!

    Love them!

  28. March 1, 2010 7:20 am

    Aww i think it’s ncie that you want the tree to win (although perhaps less crush the loggers, more scare the loggers to never come back without death?). I’m another big fan of the footnotes. I like that it lets you link to other sources without disturbing your review.

    • March 2, 2010 8:59 pm

      That’s a better approach…trees scaring the loggers. Thanks for giving me feedback on the footnotes!

  29. March 2, 2010 2:24 am

    It looks like you had a great reading month! I read with a lot of interest your thoughts on Eileen Chang’s ‘Love in a Fallen City’. One of my friends recommended it recently, and so it was nice to read your review on it too. I liked your comment ‘Honestly, she’s the first Chinese fiction author I can see myself falling in love with’ – I couldn’t stop smiling :)

    Have you read ‘A Many Splendored Thing’ by Han Suyin? It it set in a similar locale and era (early 1940s in Hong Kong and some parts of China) and is quite nice.

    • March 2, 2010 9:00 pm

      I haven’t read A Many Splendored Thing-thanks for the rec!

  30. March 2, 2010 5:24 am

    The footnotes are a lot of fun. I too love footnotes, so fun to see your own.

  31. March 2, 2010 5:46 pm

    Love in a Fallen City was full of exquisite prose as you say, but I did wish the individual pieces were tightened up just a bit from those lengths. Just a personal preference, I guess.

    Looks like you have had a very productive stretch of reading even with the setbacks last month. And thanks so much for taking part in Woolf in Winter.

    • March 2, 2010 9:01 pm

      Thanks for hosting Woolf in Winter!

      I enjoy novellas as much as I do short stories, so I didn’t mind the longer lengths. It is a personal thing though! :)


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