Hopefully, this is to become a monthly feature, renewing a (brief) tradition from the old xanga blog. I fear that next month I'm not going to have very many books to talk about because I haven't been doing too much reading (and I actually still have 50 or so pages of the MacFarquhar book). I'll start out by talking about the Mamet book, Wicked Son, because that is the only one that doesn't fit into any of the other categories. It was a good quick read that hit home, but in a lot of ways doesn't really apply to me, so let's move on...
Category 1 - Politics
The political books were all written by prominent Democrats and were all pretty much the same thing written by 5 different authors (2 of the books had 2 authors) to make 3 times the money. The Democrats need to win back the social issues, blah, they need to regain their image of being strong on national security, blah, they need to work to reunite the country, blah. Okay, I don't mean to downplay these things, they are all crucial points, but I think after reading them over and over and over again, I slowly lost how these are important commentaries on the direction of our country and instead saw them as an oversimplified picture being sold to those outside of the much talked about "gang of 500" who dream of being "players" in that "gang" and so buy such books. Fortunately, I have a great library at hand so I didn't have to pay for any of these books. As I said, many of the points are very valid and fortunately the Dems were willing to implement a lot of them and win back Congress this past year, but things may start to come apart again in late 2007 as the primary bulldogs sink their teeth into each other.
Category 2 - Cookbooks
Once you've read one Jamie Oliver book, you sort of know what to expect, but I like his recipes because they are pretty simple, usually turn out good, and the books/recipes are well written. The Asian Grill and The Irish Pub books were good for some ideas and possible alternatives to certain recipes, but the Asian recipes are closer to fusion and if you're looking for an Irish cookbook, I'd recommend one of the Paul and Jeanne Rankin books (though, admittedly those are more focused on "new" Irish cuisine). Now, Dok Suni is like a new bible for me. I love Korean food and for whatever reason, I've always had the impression that its so much easier to prepare than Chinese food, and Dok Suni made it seem even simpler than I'd imagined. It has all of my favorite dishes and for the most part, the recipes are good at creating authentic Korean flavors. The problem is that some of the recipes seem to leave some things out and so unless you have a Korean mother (or Korean friend or another Korean cookbook at hand), its definitely a process of trial and error before perfecting it, but isn't that what cooking is anyway? Then again, if you're struggling, there is always the website, My Korean Kitchen, which has never let me down.
Category 3 - CHINA
I know, I know, what you've all been waiting for, right? Over the years, I've read what feels like almost every book out there on China and so its hard to find new ones that I like, but this month I've been a bit surprised. The book on Li Lisan, Before Mao, almost lived up to the drama and romance that the dust cover promised. A google search for Li Lisan turns up around 15,000 hits, though it appears many are connected to this book while a search for Mao Zedong turns up over a million hits. Inside China, Li's far from a well known figure, despite the extent of his work and dedication to the Communist cause. I only heard a little about him from grandparents and relatives that had a vague memory of him from his days in Dongbei. This is sad at almost every turn and, in that sense, sort of reminded me of the movie, "To Live."
Chinese Lessons, by John Pomfret, was an interesting romp through China's history, touching on everything from the Cultural Revolution (through the stories of his classmates) to the reform and changes of the early 80s (when he first arrived in Nanjing), to Tiananmen (where he was a reporter), to the changes of the 90s (through the stories of his classmates), up to the present including, for good measure, F---- Gong (with his return as a reporter). I am convinced a "popular" book can't be published on China in the West if it doesn't talk about the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, or F--- Gong, and this one hit on all three. In doing so, however, it offers an interesting look at the country for those who are just getting to know China. For those "old China hands," there isn't very much, but it can be interesting to notice the same "types" of people that Pomfret talks about (the lovable loser, the person who keeps on fighting in the face of adversity and finds happiness in the end, the ethically challenged with a desire to reach the top) amongst one's friends and colleagues.
MacFarquhar's book, Mao's Last Revolution, is not something that the average person would want to pick up. Unless you have an intense interest in the Cultural Revolution, have a lot of time on your hands, and/or are a scholar, there's no reason for you to start reading this 462 page monster (609 if you include the notes). I guess its interesting to see things through the eyes of the Party (the authors focus more on the leadership than anything) instead of the common people, which is typically what you see in the Cultural Revolution memoirs published in the US. Then again, most of the leaders suffered equally (or worse) than those "common people." It also shows how out of control things were around the nation, instead of those other books which can only focus on the area where that person was, and how little control the central government had over things.
So out of all the books I've read this much, my main recommendations are for Dok Suni if you like to cook and want to learn about Korean food and Before Mao, a great nonfiction story that almost reads like fiction about love of a principle and love of a woman. If you're looking for an introduction to China, pick up Chinese Lessons, but otherwise you may want to consider something else.