What I read on my summer vacation

I did get some good reading done on my recent two weeks off, though I’m padding the list with a couple things finished before I went on break:

  • In Manchuria, by Michael Meyer. I quite enjoyed this book on my favorite part of China; it is very nicely written and insightful. The structure is a combination of a few different threads: 1) a memoir of the time the author spent living in his wife’s home village in rural northeast China, 2) a history of northeast China and how that history has and has not been remembered locally, 3) a bottom-up portrait of the process of land consolidation now going on in many Chinese villages. The book’s subtitle–“A Village Called Wastleand and the Transformation of Rural China”–highlights only strands 1) and 3), but while I enjoyed all three strands I thought the history of strand 2) was the best part. The unearthing of the (often deliberately) forgotten history of this particular bit of nowhere is very interesting and well done. My judgment may be suspect as I am personally quite interested in this part of the world, but I think Meyer succeeds in making it lively and human with by interweaving his personal story and lots of reportage, and many of his observations are just spot-on. More reviews here.
  • 361, by Donald Westlake, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins. I go through occasional phases of reading classic hard-boiled and noir crime fiction, and these were the result of the latest. 361 is hard to describe without giving too much away, but really is quite good and involving, and actually manages to pull off hard-boiled prose trick of conveying inner turmoil by only describing outer surfaces (a lot of hard-boiled fiction fails to do this and ends up flat.) In Eddie Coyle Higgins essentially invented the genre of books about incompetent criminal lowlifes written almost entirely in dialogue. Elmore Leonard for one idolizes this book, a paperback copy of which appears onscreen in the last episode of the wonderful TV series Justified. I didn’t find it as great as everyone says, though this is likely because so much of what was new about the book when it was written is now commonplace.
  • The Color of Money, by Walter Tevis. I stumbled across Tevis because he wrote The Man Who Fell To Earth, which became the great, weird film starring David Bowie. His name meant little to me but apparently he was a quite successful popular novelist back in the day, with many of his other books also being adapted into films, including this one. I have no memory of seeing the 1986 film with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman so I came to the book fresh. The story arc–aging pool player tries to get his mojo back–sounds simple but I found it surprisingly compelling and empathetic. Somehow the details about snooker etc. were enthralling even though I know nothing about the game.
  • State, Economy and the Great Divergence: Great Britain and China, 1680s-1850s, by Peer Vries. I bought this based purely on the title, as it hits on a lot of my interests. Ultimately it is hard to recommend as a book, as like so many academic tomes, it is far too long, poorly organized, and often unable to distinguish between minor detail and important fact. But I still found it useful for getting up to speed on some of the big economic-history debates on China, Britain and the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and there are some good thoughts in here. Those who are more familiar with this material may not find it of as much value. One of these days I will blog about some of the specific points of interest I took away from the book.
  • Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. I’ve actually never been a real Stephenson fan though I know he is widely revered; I’ve attempted some of his previous works but not finished them, put off by the overly mannered prose and self-conscious techieness. This book is different. It’s really a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, with its straightforward “what if?” premise, careful technological extrapolation, and unabashed exposition of orbital mechanics and suchlike. I happen to prefer that style to the majority of sci-fi produced today, which is really about recombining a fixed set of genre tropes for a narrow audience and has almost nothing to do with imagining how the world might be different. Seveneves is not a perfect book by any means: the simplistic good-scientists-versus-evil-politicians dynamic of the middle section quickly gets tiresome, and the plot of the last third of the book holds no surprises whatsoever. But much of it is enjoyable and convincing, and it’s a great summer read for anyone interested in space travel.
  • From the Tsar’s Railway to the Red Army and The Chinese Labour Corps, by Mark O’Neill. I am quite pleased to plug these two short ebooks by Mark, a former colleague in the Beijing foreign press corps. They are part of a series Penguin did in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, and cover the little-known stories of the Chinese people who went abroad during the war, to Russia and to England. Neither wave of people turned out to be an earthshaking historical event, which is probably why these are not more widely-known historical events. But the obscurity is part of the charm of these stories of out-of-place people.
  • The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley. I’m cheating a bit here as I’m only partway through this book, but I’m really enjoying it so far. Modeled on the old Norse sagas, it’s the story of a family in a 14th-century colony on Greenland. The plain one-thing-after-another style of the narration dispenses with many standard fictional techniques, but this only increases its verisimilitude–for instance, characters die quite randomly, as people do in life. I was sucked in immediately, and will go read more once I press the publish button on this post.

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