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A Few Good Books

October 20, 2008

For the first time in my life, I actually have leisure to be in a book club.  And yes, it’s just about the best thing ever!  We have a slightly different format than anything I’ve heard of before: each month we pick a theme, and then we nominate books within the category, usually ending up with around 5 choices.  The brilliance of this plan is that you’re never stuck reading a book you don’t like; the difficulty is that the discussions can’t be too in depth.  You don’t want to bore the people who haven’t read the book, and you don’t want to spoil it for anyone who didn’t get around to it but still plans to read it.  I’m often that person, by the way.  The result, though, at least for me, is I’ve read several great books (that I would not have found on my own) and had several more recommended.

And really, how many book clubs honestly talk about the book for the whole time anyway?

As you might be able to tell from the following list, our themes the last two months have been Russia and China.  Next month is “classics,” including The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice. Oh, and The Stranger (or The Outsider, as it’s sometimes translated), which I’m hoping will be less painful in English than I found it in French.

Just a Few Good Books

Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler—a fascinating account of the author’s experience living in China after having served in the Peace Corps.  A journalist by trade, Hessler’s writing is spare, direct, and crystal clear.  He thoughtfully and revealingly discusses his time from 1999 to 2004 in Beijing.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff—beautifully written novel about a Russian teenager on a bizarre mission during the siege of Leningrad.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky—the classic that’s been on my bookshelf for years.  Entirely worth the effort.

Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin—recommended with slight reservation because the writing is somewhat awkward, which is, I suppose, to be expected given that the author is not a native speaker.  His compelling life story overwhelms any defects of style, though.   As a small boy growing up in an impoverished peasant family during Chairman Mao’s regime, Li gets a chance to escape his bleak future when he is rather randomly selected to train as a ballet dancer.  I honestly couldn’t put it down.

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