Books I Gave Up On

I gave up on Moby-Dick the first time - even after getting halfway!

Two weeks ago, I mentioned I was reading The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  Well...I'm still reading it, and I'm not even halfway.

For a story about a family moving to the jungle, this book is extremely slow.  I keep thinking "I'm finally getting into it!" only to get bogged down by endless descriptions of Allie's (the dad) smart-aleck comments and ego bigger than the commune he's founding.  So yeah, I'm thinking about calling it quits.

It irritates me to give up on a book...I'm a completist by nature.  Since 2012 (when I started keeping track), I've given up on 14 books, which spread out over 6 years is still more than I'd like.  On the other hand, there have been books I wish I'd given up on (Kafka's The Castle) but for whatever reason just couldn't bring myself to do it.

With that in mind, which are the 14 that made the unlucky cut?  In roughly reverse-chronological order:

14. The Kill by Émile Zola - I talked about this a few months ago.  What started out as an interesting family drama turned into a squicky romance novel.  TMI for this reader.
13. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald - This had some of the worst parts of The Great Gatsby (adulterous affairs) without any of the better parts (compelling backstory and interesting characters).  Couldn't relate at all.

12. Rhett & Link's Book of Mythicality - This was a tough disappointment.  I shared some thoughts on Goodreads.

11. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway - The title story really pulled me with its misogynist protagonist.  /sarcasm

10. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I get really, really tired of Christians being the bad guys.

9. Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature by Robert Michael Pyle - I was hoping for some interesting anecdotes, but most of the essays I read were more like lectures.  Might try it again in a decade or two, but not now.

8. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu - Fantastic concept: Chinese history and steampunk!  Sadly, after 100 pages I did not care about any of the characters, though I tried very hard.  Needed better character building and less description.

7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - This dude is supposed to be under house arrest, but he has a more comfortable lifestyle than your average college student.  After he got a girlfriend (a pushy one at that), I gave up worrying about him.

6. On Basilisk Station by David Weber - This is book 1 in a series which is supposed to be like Horatio Hornblower meets Star Trek with a female protagonist.  My expectations must have been too high - I couldn't get past the first chapter; the characterization and settings didn't ring true.

5. The Republic by Plato - Will probably try again someday.

4. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzeziński - Boring start.  Didn't get very far, but I've read another of his books so could sorta guess where it was going.

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - Another one that was hard to get into.  I meant to try it again when the movie came out; will eventually do so.

2. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark - The language/tone turned me off.  I might try it again someday.

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - This also started out boring, but I plan to try it again.

Judging by this list, it looks like "boring" used to be a big factor, which means I've either got better at giving books a chance, or managed to choose books that are bound to be interesting.  I guess that's a good thing?

Clara Schumann's Lieder - A Classical Cousin

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has me currently entranced with its gentle, yet poignant questions about women's history - not just in fiction, but in culture and arts generally.

According to a Washington Post quiz (which, given its loaded questions, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt), I come under the umbrella of "Yes, but..." feminists, meaning I identify as somewhat feminist but am also critical of feminism as it stands today.  Without getting deeply into the topic - I am trying, by a thread, to stay apolitical on this blog - I would say that's a fairly accurate summary of my outlook.

My main concern for women's rights are those basic ones which are still lacking in other countries.  In Woolf's book, I am reminded that women in the West underwent similar struggles.  For example, as lately as 100 years ago, a choice of career was limited:
...I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.  (ch. 2)
More to come on this later.  (This will be Monday's podcast episode!)

Here I just wanted to share a piece by Clara Schumann, the talented pianist and composer, best known (for better or worse) as the wife of composer Robert Schumann.  Like Robert, Clara composed lieder, or songs, which put German poetry to music.  (I picture the German gentry gathering around of a summer's evening, listening to a talented family member performing these songs, though whether that is totally accurate, I cannot say.)


These are the lyrics, translated by David Kenneth Smith:

Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884)  Op. 13 No. 4




Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
mit seinem gold'nen Schein,  with all its golden shine,
da schläft in holdem Prangen  there sleeps in lovely glitter
die müde Erde ein.  the weary earth below.




Und auf den Lüften schwanken  And on the breezes waft down
aus manchem treuen Sinn  from many faithful hearts
viel tausend Liebesgedanken  true loving thoughts by the thousand
über die Schläfer hin.  upon the sleeping ones.




Und drunten im Tale, da funkeln  And down in the valley, there twinkle
die Fenster von Liebchens Haus;  the lights from my lover's house;
ich aber blicke im Dunkeln  but I in darkness still look out -
still in die Welt hinaus.  silent - into the world.

When We Were Orphans - A Study in "Meh"


It's London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England's leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can't forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher's greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships - including his love for a lonely socialite - make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I've raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I'd be able to disagree with Ishiguro's own comment, that it's "not his best book," ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve - in-your-face exposition - I'm afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher's voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher's voice, and I don't mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I'm watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah - well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I'll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher's youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira - a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher's mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It's easy to trace the parallel between Christopher's altruistic career choices and his mother's campaign against the opium trade.  He's simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories - foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it's one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won't divulge spoilers, but the "solution" is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session...  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he'd given it more time, and I'm puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There's some morally questionable elements which I've alluded to, and if that didn't bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won't be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you're new to Ishiguro's work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

What I'm Reading: A Little Bit of Everything...

It's been an interesting week.  As I shared on my personal Instagram, it's been a rough one, too.  What do I do when I'm having a bad week?  Read, obviously.

The last couple of weeks, I've been juggling a veritable carousel of books.  Here's the rundown:

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux - I fully expected to finish this one in time for next Monday's podcast episode.  (It didn't happen.)  Basically, this is a dark comedy about a prepper, Allie Fox, who uproots his family from rural Massachusetts and relocates to Central America.  It's as weird as it sounds.  I find a steady diet of cynicism to be a bit much, but there are some genuinely humorous moments.  Be warned, offensive (not funny) language also abounds, as well as racial slurs.  I am curious to see how it ends, though I can't imagine it ends well.

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - On Goodreads, I described this as "Sherlock Holmes meets Empire of the Sun."  It's not Ishiguro's most gripping novel - for that, see An Artist of the Floating World or A Pale View of Hills - but I'm liking it so far.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor - Last Monday I shared my first impressions of Flannery O'Connor.  Still have a ways to go to finish her short stories, though.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne - My third reading, I think.  Love this book.

About Orchids: A Chat by Frederick Boyle - I keep falling asleep to this!

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman - Reading this for work.  Interesting stuff.

The Book of Daniel (NKJV) - I finished Job (which I appreciated, though still don't fully understand) and then decided return to a childhood favorite, Daniel.  Daniel has an interesting narrative format... I'd forgotten chapter 4 which reads like a proclamation by Nebuchadnezzar.  Really fascinating to re-read it now.

Did I mention I started The Lost City of Z by David Grann?  To be honest, the storytelling style really turns me off in a historical book...  However, the subject matter interests me.  I hope to get back to this one soon.

And Ben-Hur.  No, I have not abandoned my book journal for the year.  It'll be back, soonish.

Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 3


More 19th-century literature!  I get chatty about Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll, and Jules Verne as we finish off this second shelf.  And oh, those wood engravings... <3   Let me know if you've read any of these!

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 3

How does one become the President of China?

If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric.  According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China "belonged more to the realm of magic than political science" (p. 92).  The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided.  This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  Please see Part I and Part II, if you'd like to read more.)

Defense.gov photo essay 110110-F-6655M-017
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 -
by Jerry Morrison

Coincidence and Conviction

Xi's life has been filled with the unexpected - from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader.  Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?

From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu.  These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point.  It was a tight "race," to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.  
  • Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care.  His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.  
  • Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was "more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers" (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role.  In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi's term was secured for life.  Li Yuanchao's rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.
Was the Lis' ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor?  While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.
He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)
Essentially, Xi - like every compelling leader, good or bad - presents his story as part of what he brings to the table.  He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96).  This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.

The Future According to President Xi

The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating.  In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:
  • The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
  • How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
  • What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)
It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters.  What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.

Money, Corruption, and - Democracy?

As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both.  For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government's revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155)  SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.

Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care.  The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159).  How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man?  For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided.  It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.

Technology as Power

Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital.  Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.

While China maintains the "Great Firewall," blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens' opinions and wants.  Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177).  Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.

Globalism and the Two Centenaries

China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals.  By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a "moderately well-off" status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy.  By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a "modern socialist country."  Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the "Chinese Dream."

In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role.  It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.

China's interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa - see China's Second Continent by journalist Howard French.  Additionally, Xi's renaissance of the Silk Road, now called "The Belt and Road," contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries' infrastructures.  The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi's China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin's Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.

Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary.  His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China's future.

In Summary

CEO, China is not just a biography.  I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis.  It's one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I've gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one.  That said, current events and China's human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.

Elie Wiesel's Open Heart, and Thoughts on Christian Suffering


In his memoir Open Heart, Elie Wiesel takes us through his experiences surrounding his 2011 open heart surgery.  Wiesel is famous for his Night trilogy, and here some of the same themes come back in short, fleeting chapters - the dark memories of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as the perennial question: why does God allow His children to suffer evil?  What should a Jewish person's response be in times of persecution or pain?  Question marks abound in this short work, underlining the great despair we may sometimes feel when evil touches our lives.

One reason I picked up this book was to understand something of what a patient experiences during this medical procedure.  My grandma has faced a myriad of health issues, including two heart surgeries; she endured them with grace even while she was in terrible pain.  What could she have been feeling?  I have never asked her, choosing instead (as with other personal questions) to seek another avenue of understanding in Wiesel's book.

Of course, it is not an exact parallel.  For one thing, Wiesel's perceptions or imaginings of the afterlife are not identical to Christian beliefs on the same.  He describes his picture of hell as "ruled by cruel, pitiless angels" and full of physical tortures.  In this book, he does not seek to systematically explain his beliefs, offer a treatise on death, or even describe the surgery in detail.  Instead, Wiesel presents his thoughts and reactions moving from one scene to the next - a surreal, metaphysical, and ultimately personal exploration.

I've mentioned before Shūsaku Endō's book The Silence, one I've been actively avoiding (yet will ultimately read).  In Open Heart, Wiesel touches on the same theme - the apparent silence of God.
...Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also - and most of all - a theological scandal.  For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.  But then how is one to understand His silence?
For Christians, too, this question is not irrelevant.  Many of my family members in Christ are enduring persecution as I write.  Barnabas Aid is a charity I support, and every day their prayer focus features a story of the horrifying, often government-sanctioned brutalization of Christians in other parts of the world.  The Armenian Genocide - which Wiesel worked to bring awareness to - is a historic example. On a personal level, each of us has suffered his or her own tragedy, be it a physical disease, a mental health struggle, the death or loss of a loved one, or something else which we may never tell another human being. 

Wiesel's answer, in part, is as simple as the question: "Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers."  There is certainly wisdom in acknowledging mystery.  Humanity itself involves mystery, from questions such as the Creation of the world and the beginning of a human's soul, to those about the origin of evil and enduring hatred.

To add to this, it is no coincidence much of the New Testament covers the existence of persecution.  I've personally found comfort in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks to His disciples directly on this subject, with empathy:
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  (John 15:18–19, NKJV)
I wish there were words to adequately describe John 17 - epic or poetic seem trite.  But here, too, in His last prayers before death, Jesus speaks of His followers:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20–23, NKJV)
Suffering remains something of a mystery to me.  Through my own experiences, though - which, while personally crushing, were minute compared to those of others - I can affirm God was never absent.  If even small struggles matter to Him, how much more so the greater ones.