In restricting this blog to Japan-related content, I missed out on the opportunity to write about some of my favorite recent reads. I thought I'd highlight some of my favorite books not related to Japan (though many can be found in the Chiba library) I read in 2012/2013 to give them a little more attention.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
This 1960s novel tells the story of Mohun Biswas, an Indian born in Trinidad, and the third-world travails he encounters on the way to becoming a journalist and homeowner. It is not a climb up, though, because his life ends on the rather sour note that is played throughout life: the house he owns is faulty and cost way too much money; he continually bickers with his wife. Though the character is in many ways a pretty pathetic figure, I felt I could really understand the daily perils associated with his family's and community's extreme poverty amid the chaos of a malfunctioning court system and swindlers galore.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
A strange old man about to die introduces teacher Jake Epping to a portal that leads back in time to the 1950s. The old man encourages Epping to try to go back in time and change history by stopping the assassination of JFK. I liked two features of this novel: (1) King's musings on the nature of time, particularly his elaboration of the notion that "The past resists change"; (2) the description of life in the 50s and 60s and how someone from our age would experience it. Unlike King, though, I'm not so positive that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The assassination of JFK is such a controversial subject that taking it on as a piece of objective history that can be "undone" through time travel is somewhat problematic.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
I never read the famous autobiography, so I cannot evaluate the historian's attempt to flesh out untold stories and debunk some of the exaggeration, but I can say I came away from reading this with tremendous respect for the person of Malcolm X and a real sense of the tragedy of his murder by the Nation of Islam (with possible involvement of the FBI). I loved the description of Malcolm's changing identities and his embodiment of the person of the trickster and the preacher, two motifs common in black culture. I also appreciated for the first time how class played out in the civil rights struggle: while King and other peaceful demonstrators represented the African American middle-class, Malcolm took up the cause of the poor.
The God of Small things by Arundhati Roy
This is a beautiful, lyrical book. That said, I found the unraveling of the plot--the story of the death of Sophie Mol--a bit tiring. We know in the beginning that the half-white, half-Indian Sophie Mol, visiting her father in India for a short trip, drowns in the river, and we know something unjust happens to an Untouchable, a Paravan, falsely accused of being responsible for her death. Roy reminds us just a few too many times about the ending before actually shedding light on the real circumstances. Get on with it, I want to say at times. I also have trouble liking any of the characters, except the Paravan, of whom we rarely get an inner glimpse. That said, the description of the social and physical landscape in India in the mid-90s is breathtaking.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is the story about the birth and life of the hermaphrodite Cal, how (s)he came to be and relates to the world, and the deeply flawed but also intensely likable family members who influence her. This book has two major strengths: (1) empathetic character portrayal; (2) description spanning nearly a century of difficult topics in American history, for example, race relations and the immigrant experience. I liked it so much I want to try The Virgin Suicides soon. I'm less interested in the subject matter broached in The Marriage Plot, though.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
If the characters in Middlesex are intensely likable, the characters in Gone Girl are COMPLETELY BONKERS. The plot stems around the mysterious disappearance of Amy Dunne, wife of Nick Dunne, and is told alternately by Nick, as the investigation unfolds, and Amy, at first through the pages of her diary. The plot is juicy and Flynn, a former reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, sharply satirizes the media. This is a fantastic mystery/suspense/social critique/treatise on marriage.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
I had been meaning to read this book forever and finally got around to listening to the audio version last year. The detail in its description of the political maneuverings is fantastic, as are the journalist's commentaries on his life in Europe around the beginning of the war. This is a very thorough telling of the tragedy of the Third Reich. That said, the author's afterward about the dangers presented by a unified Germany (written in the early 90s) bothered me a bit, as did the lack of social and cultural history. Still, this helped me put a lot of events in World War II into focus, so I'm glad I listened to it.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I also listened to this book. It was worth it if only because I learned that Yellowstone is a giant volcano ready to explode any day now. This history of science flows from the origins of our universe to the discovery of the proton and neutron to the evolution of man to plate tectonics. It's a delightful read, and you're bound to find out something you didn't know that you are glad you now do.
Thanks for taking the time to look at this random smattering of books. If you've read any or have any opinions on what I've written, let me know!