What I’ve Been Reading Lately

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A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is my favorite author, but this was not my favorite book of hers. It was missing some of the coziness and cleverness I’ve come to expect. Also, it dealt with time travel. There are always plot holes in time travel stories. Always. It drives me batty. I don’t deal well with plot holes.

But I still liked it. I couldn’t help it. Jones has that sort of power over me. 

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger

Salinger also has a curious power over me. Reading his work always leaves me profoundly moved. 

Well, “always” might be an exaggeration. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I was intrigued by the writing style, but I wasn’t “moved” per se. However, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction blew my mind. Franny and Zooey didn’t blow my mind, but I was still moved. I don’t know why everyone is so hung up on The Catcher in the Rye when the Glass Family stories are so much more…I don’t even know the correct adjective to use. 

I’ve had Nine Stories on my shelf for a while, but I just now got around to reading it. I think I was partly avoiding it because I knew that “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” would deal with Seymour Glass’ suicide, and that can be a very triggering subject for me. However, I must give Salinger credit. I feel like few people who write about suicide actually understand it, and Salinger does. Reading it, I’m convinced that Salinger had PTSD. But it actually makes the story seem very odd and arbitrary. 

I enjoyed most of the stories, particularly “Just before the War with the Eskimos” and “For Esme⁠—With Love and Squalor.” I was indifferent to a few of them. 

I started reading “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and immediately thought, “wait…I’ve read this before!” Ah yes. My handsome hipster writing professor who was too cool to watch Star Wars. He made us read this story. It was just the sort of story that writing professors make you read…lots of selfish people being selfish in a literary way with no point at all. Needless to say, it was not my favorite of the bunch.

But the only one I actively disliked was the last one, “Teddy.” I’m sure a writing professor would tell me it was actually the best story in the book, and while I can recognize the technical skill that went into creating such an unsettling but inevitable ending, there was no heart or redemption or human nature or anything good in it. I’m sorry. I hated it.

Still, I cannot properly express the way that most of Salinger’s writing, particularly his Glass family stories, make me feel. I think the Glass family reminds me of my family. 

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell

I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s a graphic novel about two teenagers who are working at a pumpkin patch for the last time before they go off to college. It’s cute and fun. The end. 

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull

This is a book I ended up with after the new librarian wouldn’t let me browse in peace. LOL. I’m happy to get book recommendations, but does anyone else feel a bit weird when the librarian seems a bit too invested in your reading choices?

Anyway. This was a fairly typical middle grade fantasy. A couple kids visit their grandparents and find out that, surprise! They’re actually running a haven for fairy tale creatures. It was an okay read, but Mull is no Diana Wynne Jones. His stories for kids are actually stories for kids, not stories for adults with big imaginations. 

Two Years in the Forbidden City, by Princess Der Ling

I don’t know a lot about Chinese history, and every time I think I’d like to know a little more I immediately get a headache when I realize how impossibly vast it is. But I’ve had this memoir on my shelf for a while, and I finally decided to read it. 

Still, I had to get a bit of historical background before I could even make sense of it. And this is what I learned:

China used to be run by emperors and/or empresses. In 1912 China became a republic, but of course that ended with Mao’s communist revolution. There’s a lot of complicated history surrounding all that, but this book is about the woman who was essentially the last empress of China, Empress Dowager Cixi.

Princess Der Ling, the author of the book, was a Chinese woman who received a western education in France. When her family returned to China, the Empress Dowager Cixi asked her to be a lady-in-waiting, so in 1905 she moved to the palace and lived there for two years. But in 1907 she left that lady-in-waiting life to marry an American. 

I had a hard time understanding the whole Chinese emperor system, but here’s what I gathered: it seems like, I guess since men were expected to respect their mothers so much, that the emperor’s mother had a lot of power in the system. Cixi married the emperor of China, and then when he died, her son became emperor, but she still had a lot of power.

Then, when her son died, she decided that her nephew should be emperor. So she basically adopted him and made him the emperor, but later staged a coup, took all the power for herself, and made her nephew the emperor in name only.

Both Cixi and her nephew died in 1908. It’s a bit sus, because he was poisoned the day before she died. A random two-year-old from somewhere in the family was chosen to be the new emperor, but that only lasted for four years before the monarchy was abolished.

Anyway. When Cixi died, she was widely regarded as a pretty evil person. And Princess Der Ling was like, “I knew Cixi personally, and she was awesome!” so she wrote a memoir about her time as lady-in-waiting, hoping to set the record straight. 

Not gonna lie, she did a pretty bad job at making Cixi seem like a good person. But whatever.

The memoir was interesting, but in the way that a Wikipedia article is interesting. I have never in my life read about such opulence. Der Ling was obsessed with detailing Cixi’s gowns, jewels, everything, and it’s mind blowing. Like, once they were going to go on a 4-day trip, and the servants were like, “let’s bring 50 dresses for Cixi, just so that she has plenty of options.” And of course these dresses are all hand-embroidered silk masterpieces.

Or once, Cixi was wearing a cape made from perfect pearls the size of canary eggs.

And the palace. I mean, just google “forbidden city” to get an idea of the size of Chinese palaces. They essentially were cities. And there were several of them that they’d go back and forth between. 

But the hardest thing to read about was the eunuch system. The whole palace was staffed with eunuchs, and they were essentially slaves. It was an extra cruel type of slavery, not only because these men were castrated, but also because there was no life for them outside the palace. And Princess Der Ling was so casually cruel when she talked about them. They were ungrateful and lazy, she said, and deserved their frequent and severe beatings. 

Goodness though, Der Ling is one of the most unlikeable memorists I’ve ever read, constantly bragging about how she was Cixi’s favorite. Also, there’s no plot to the book whatsoever. And Der Ling was weirdly obsessed with the most minute details of Cixi’s insane wealth. 

At the beginning, it was so plotless that I couldn’t figure out how Der Ling would find a book’s worth of material to write about. Then I found her Wikipedia page and realized that she went on to write seven! more! books! about this stupidly short period of her life. I…how?

Yeah, I’m not gonna read any more of her work. But I’m glad I read this one. It had interesting information even if it was delivered in a boring, self-righteous, cruel way. 

Other Books

I also recently read through the Lord of the Rings books, as well as Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien. But I have so many thoughts about that, it will have to come in a future blog post. 


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One response to “What I’ve Been Reading Lately

  1. Emily, Can email me?


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