Books I've Read Recently

I just got back from a few weeks of vacation and I took advantage of my time out of the country to plow through a bunch of my reading list. I was in Geneva (shameless plug: check out my vacation photos!) and riding an innumerable number of trains, buses, trams, gondolas, and streetcars made me realize what a boon public transit is to book-reading. I still read plenty of books here in California – but not at the rate that I used to. It’s something I really miss about New York and the trip made me realize I should carve out more time to unplug from the internet and read real books.

Anyway, of the books I read in Geneva, I would say that two were excellent and three were pretty good. Here are some extended thoughts, in order of how much I liked the book.

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1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Amazon | Indiebound

The title of Wecker’s first novel is surprisingly literal – the two creatures, one created by a man and the other controlled by one, end up in late-1800s Manhattan. The golem and the jinni turn out to have very different natures, but they each have to learn to live among mankind at its messiest and most chaotic.

It’s a delightfully traditional story, with elements that would be deemed cliche in other works – monsters, magic, star-crossed lovers, and (best of all) a deliciously amoral villain.  It’s also exceptionally well-written, and by its very existence it neatly refutes the idea that “literary” books need to be serious or somber affairs. I loved it. 

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2. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War by Stephen Platt. Amazon | Indiebound

The Taiping Civil War has mostly fallen from public historical knowledge through a combination of Orientalism and deliberate suppression by various Chinese governments. But it was almost certainly the bloodiest Civil War in history, and between the war, famine, and a vicious cholera epidemic, it killed between 20 and 80 million people between 1850 and 1865. 

Platt chooses to focus not on the historical minutiae of the war but on the varied cast of characters, both Chinese and foreign, whose ambition, short-sightedness, gullibility, and capriciousness shaped the course of the War. He focuses most on two characters, one on each side of the conflict. On the Imperial side is Zeng Guofang, the reluctant scholar-turned-general who become the most important – and ruthless – military leader in the war. On the rebel side is Hong Rengan, who rose from being a minister’s apprentice in Hong Kong to being one of the most powerful figures in the rebellion, consumed by his quest to remake China in a Protestant image.

Platt’s cast of characters is huge, but in Guofang and Rengan he finds representations of the central tensions at the heart of the civil war - isolationism versus globalism, Christianity versus Confucianism, modernity versus tradition. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom is tragic and often very grisly, but it’s also one of the most fascinating works of narrative history I’ve read in a long time.

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3. The Unwinding: An Inner History of New America by George Packer. Amazon | Indiebound

Packer is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and this is his attempt to tell the story of America between the mid-1970s to today. His thesis is that many of the institutions that propped up American life in the early part of the 20th century collapsed over the last thirty years, and he follows a cast of characters who were witnesses to that collapse – a black woman in Youngstown, Ohio, who sees her town decimated as all the steel mills and automobile factories close, an unlucky clean energy entrepreneur in North Carolina, a D.C. lobbyist. 

Packer’s prose is excellent and he skips between stories with ease, but the book is also a bit overlong and, because it deals with real people, it doesn’t really wrap up in a satisfying way – it just kind of runs out of steam. 

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4. Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton. Author’s website.

Matthew Amster-Burton is the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Spilled Milk, and Pretty Good Number One is his second food memoir. He, his wife, and his daughter traveled to Tokyo and lived there for a month and ate basically everything they could get their hands on.

It’s a fun, breezy read. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had read it two years ago, before I had been to Tokyo a few times. But if you have an interest in learning more about Japanese food - real Japanese food, not just sushi – Pretty Good Number One is a great place to start.

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5. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Amazon | Indiebound

I picked this one up because I kept seeing it referenced in discussions of other books – I feel like it’s having a bit of a Renaissance right now. It was fine, if a bit overlong and overwrought. I liked this book better when Ray Bradbury wrote it and it was set on Mars.