January Recap

At the end of every year, journalist and photographer Howard French posts a list at his website of all the books he read during the preceding twelve months. I decided I wanted to start doing that in 2013, but the end of December seemed too far away—when I’m excited about a book, I want to tell people ASAP—and I also decided not to limit myself to just discussing what I’ve read most recently. So, here are some of January’s highlights in several different spheres.

I read …

Andrew McCarthy, The Longest Way Home – My favorite book of 2012 was unquestionably Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and McCarthy’s memoir/travel narrative is a good complement to that (appropriately enough, Strayed reviewed McCarthy’s book for the New York Times). Both write about feeling like they’ve wandered off course in their lives and want to get back on track, and both decide to do so by taking off on lengthy journeys—Strayed hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, McCarthy goes everywhere from Patagonia to Dublin. In the end, of course, things work out, but it’s far more of a challenge for both than the neat resolution of the most famous recent “finding yourself” travel memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (Which I disliked. Intensely.) I’d give Wild five stars, and The Longest Way Home gets a strong four-and-a-half.

Monisha Rajesh, Around India in 80 Trains – After the emotional weight of McCarthy’s book, I was in the mood for a travel narrative on the lighter end of the spectrum. Rajesh more than delivers, offering tales from her epic eighty-train journey around India that are so much fun to read, and so interesting, that I started to think that it would be a good idea to follow in her footsteps. Or maybe one of these years I’ll write a companion, Around China in 80 Trains.

Benjamin Anastas, Too Good to Be True – Another “I screwed up my life, how do I fix it?” book—there seem to be a lot of those these days—but it lacked the punch of Strayed’s work and the insight of McCarthy’s.

Janet Chen, Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 – I read Chen’s book when it came out last year (and wrote about it then for Pacific Standard). I wanted to read it again now that I’m deep in dissertation research, since my topic covers some of the same ground that Chen does, and I think I appreciated it even more than the first time around—and I thought it was excellent then. Her research, narrative, and analysis are all exemplary; Guilty of Indigence sets the bar high for those of us writing about the social history of modern China.

I watched …

Lots of stuff, but I’ll single out two things to mention:

Silver Linings Playbook – For me, this was a fantastic movie until the final ten minutes or so, which I thought offered far too neat a resolution to a messy and complicated story. But ending aside, it was great, and even more so because it was shot on location in Upper Darby and Lower Merion, PA, two neighborhoods just outside Philadelphia that I know well. I enjoyed seeing a little bit of home on my laptop screen in Shanghai—and bonus points for whoever found so much vintage ‘80s Eagles gear for Robert DeNiro to wear.

The Hour – While most of the people I know in the States are finally getting to see Season 3 of Downton Abbey, I’ve been watching a different British historical drama, this one set in the mid-1950s. The Hour follows the production team of a BBC news show as they struggle to balance the demands of their bosses with their commitment to journalism. The plotlines are considerably more complex than those on Downton Abbey—I have to admit, I watched the six episodes of Season 1 twice because I lost the thread of the convoluted Cold War spy plot the first time through. Season 2 is somewhat more straightforward. Great show.

I knit …

IMG_2947A pair of socks. Not terribly exciting (I followed this very basic pattern), but the vibrant colors were a nice relief from the gray weather of late.

I traveled …

Absolutely nowhere. I think the longest excursion I took all month involved riding the subway across the river to Pudong for two days of an academic conference last week. That’s incredibly unusual for me; as far as I can recall, the last time I went an entire calendar month without traveling anywhere was … May? And even then, I was commuting to work in New York from my home in New Jersey, so I still racked up the train miles. But looking forward, I’m not sure when I’ll next have such a settled month, so I’m not too disgruntled with my lack of adventures in January.

I wrote …

I started blogging for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and my first two posts appeared in January: a review of the movie Shanghai Calling and a revised version of something I published here a few weeks ago, an essay on John Garnaut’s The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo. I should be writing for the LARB about once a month from here on out.

I cursed …

The Chinese government’s renewed attack on Internet access via VPNs (Virtual Private Networks, which allow users to circumvent the Great Firewall that blocks websites the government has deemed troublesome). I’m not just upset because VPN outages prevent me from accessing Facebook and Twitter for hours at a time. What’s far more annoying is that when my VPN isn’t working, I can’t get to scholarly databases like JSTOR, the American version of Google, or the archives of periodicals like The New York Times, so I’m prevented from moving forward in my research and writing. Perhaps it’s making me even more irate because this crackdown on VPNs coincides with an extended run of bad air quality days, but I’m finding that there’s nothing so frustrating as getting settled and ready to work, only to see my VPN struggle and fail to establish a connection. I’m very much hoping that the government will back off soon. It’s making me cranky.

I planned …

After not traveling anywhere in January, I’m looking forward to my first trip of 2013, which will begin one week from today. I’m heading to Hainan Island in south China for part of the Chinese New Year holiday. My plans involve reading on the beach, breathing cleaner air, and eating a lot of seafood.

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