Canals, Murders, and China

Dear Reader:

I have been traveling again (I have a lot of travel this year) and find it hard to post to this blog while on the road.  Sometimes this is because it is impossible (China), extremely difficult (at last week’s intensive, rewarding workshop in the Netherlands), and sometimes just hard (due to jet lag, tiredness or general focus on other stuff.  So, here’s a photo from my hotel on the canal in Leiden, Netherlands last week (just so you know I REALLY did go somewhere  🙂  – Leiden is a lovely city not far from Amsterdam (which is pretty much true of all of the Netherlands – the not far part).

Mary Higgins Clark: #26 The Second Time Around (hard copy)

This is another one of those books that I started awhile ago and only got a little ways in when I stopped.  I brought it with me because I figured it was something I could leave behind while traveling, which I did.  I’ve read a number of Clark’s books and enjoyed them.  Maybe it is unfair to criticize a book that you pick up and put down for not being compelling (I know, I know, not being compelling is probably one reason it got put down, but not always – I might have gone on another kick, like reading Elizabeth Bowen or about China…).

Maybe I should go back and re-read something earlier by Clark because I don’t remember her being so unimaginative and cliched.  This book was both.  It is the story of a woman who’s step-sister gets caught in a fire after the step-sister’s husband mysteriously died in a single passenger small plane accident.  The narrator doesn’t like the step-sister, but allows herself to be convinced to investigate what really happened.  In the course of the book, danger lurks, people turn out not to be what they appear to be, and the mystery is revealed.  OK, there is nothing trite about that.

I’m not sure I’m going to be able to put my finger on why I found this book hackneyed – maybe what I could say is that I enjoy a lot of good British television shows based on mystery series (for example, Inspector Morse).  These shows are invariably intelligent – they don’t pander, the acting is very good, the themes provocative, the writing smart.  And then when I try to watch an American mystery-type tv show (with the exception of the current very good “Prime Suspect” – a mild take-off on the British show – I say mild because, aside from excellence and a feisty female detective, the shows have little in common) it is just AWFUL.  The acting is terrible, the writing is idiotic.  Well, that is what The Second Time Around is like – a bad American eighties tv show.  This is the kind of book where everyone gets described by their physical appearance – since I left the book in Holland, I can’t offer specific examples, but something like this “Joan was a svelte blonde with expensive taste in clothes and men.”  I did finish it, but I can’t recommend it.

#100 Beijing Man by Henning Mankell (library – kindle)

This was the first book I checked out from my library to read on my kindle.  I thought that this was Mankell’s final Wallander book, but turns out Wallander does not make an appearance, so obviously, I was confused about that one – although it was sort of interesting waiting and waiting and waiting for how they were going to work in Wallander….

Mankell has written many books and perhaps half are in the Wallander series – the other half are… I’m not sure – from the blurbs, it appears that they are non-mystery novels with the social themes that are strong in the Wallander series.  Anyway, this was a mystery novel with no Wallander.

It starts with incredibly bloody murders in a tiny village in northern Sweden.  I do try not to give out much detail on plots because I know a lot of folks hate to lose the surprise, but I’m going to have to provide some to explain why this was interesting.  The course of the book moves from the current day back about 150 years and connects China, the US, and Sweden.  It has a very strong social justice theme (actually two) – slave labor and Chinese corruption.  I didn’t expect that Beijing Man would have much to say about the corruption and injustice themes I talked about coming from my own reading about and visiting China, but I was wrong.

Actually, this book gives an inside perspective on just that issue, as well as another major issue I was just talking about with South African colleagues – China’s role in various parts of Africa.  And it was also obvious that Mankell has spent time in, at least, Beijing.  So that was fun.  I really liked this book for its insights into China and it’s political and economic processes.  Sometimes it felt a little draggy (maybe because I was waiting for Kurt?) but overall, it was a great read and connected in many ways to topics that interest me.  He pulls you along by providing you with pieces of answers and integrates diaries, history, letters into the story well.  Maybe not as fast paced as the Wallanders, but definitely very good.

#101 Country Driving by Peter Hessler (library-kindle)

This is one that a regular reader and commenter (Mary) recommended.  Hessler has an earlier book about China (River Town) that I read a sample of on my kindle (it looks very good, but there’s that whole try to limit my purchases thing…) and his wife wrote Factory Girls (about Chinese factory girls).

The first part of the book is about Hessler’s driving along the Great Wall – he’s doing this awhile ago (2000? maybe late 90’s) when cars had not taken off for average Chinese the way that they have today, but after China had done a lot of highway building (but not decent map writing – at least not publicly available ones – one of Hessler’s points is that geography/cartography is something that is absent from Chinese culture and teaching).  In the course of telling his poignant, funny anecdotes about attempting to circumvent the ever present Chinese police who don’t/didn’t like journalists/foreigners tooling around Western China by stocking the car with coke, gatorade and oreos – YUCK!!!!!! so he doesn’t have to stop to buy food, and camping out, so he doesn’t have to stay in motels that will report his presence, he tells you a lot about China.

The middle part of the book is about his time in his second home in the mountains north of Beijing.  The home is in a tiny, dying village (it has only one child left) – everyone has left for the cities.  He rents the place for a minuscule amount ($20/month) because the owners are living in some distant city, presumably working in a factory or sweeping highways with brooms made out of grasses (100s of people were doing this when we were in Xi’an during a big Euro-Asian economic summit, of course, with no protection – nor orange vests or anything – life is cheap).  He becomes part of the village and learns a lot about how things really work, this was fascinating to read – you can tell his Chinese is excellent (I think he has lived in China for upwards of 15-20 years) and his understanding of the culture deep.  He explains subtleties of interactions in really interesting ways – for instance, there is a chapter about his friend’s failed attempt at being elected as the local village leader.

I found the last part a bit less compelling, it is about the economic booooooming southeastern China, the construction of factories, the workers there – the boom and bust of various endeavors and towns.  A lot of this WAS very interesting, but I did skim some bits of it, I just found the section overall less interesting – I suppose I’m most interested in village life and human interactions, less so in Chinese business.  But again, you learn about the corruption and the strange thing that is the Chinese economy.  For instance, in one part of this region, the villages are famous for taking on making one thing (buttons, playground equipment etc) and only making that.  Why?  Who knows….

Hessler is very funny and gives you a view of Chinese life that I was not able to get from any other writer because he has lived there so long (he started out as an English teacher, maybe in the 90’s – I think maybe a Peace Corps volunteer), his language skills are superb, he’s an astute observer, and he really lives among the Chinese.  The only other non-Chinese author who had done this was #76 The Last Days of Old Beijing‘s Michael Meyer.  Excellent read.


OK, I bought another book in the Netherlands (fear of running out of hard copy books? lust for stuff that might not be out yet in the US?) #102 The Leopard by Jo Nesbo…. (#15 on the new books this year list…  getting awfully close to 20!!!!).

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. You are making my reading senses drool!
    So many interesting books…I may be breaking down and getting a Kindle in the next few months just so I can read more…you know, as I wait in doctor’s office, walk the dog, or drive on rural roads 😉 Or maybe more in the evenings.

    • Hi: Thanks for writing! Good, glad I got you intrigued.

      It is a great time to pick up a kindle – you should be able to get one locally (Walmart, I think) and now there are a wider diversity of them at various prices. I recommend that you get either the Kindle Touch or Kindle Keyboard – not the Kindle Fire (which is a color, back lit tablet – I prefer reading on the non-back lit Kindle Keyboard although I have an ipad with the kindle app, I don’t read books on it). You can choose Kindles with just wifi, with wifi and 3G (allowing you to download books when you are away from wifi but within reach of cell phone towers), and with special offers – you basically pay $40 less to get ads, including great bargains on new books. Personally, I prefer a kindle with or without a keyboard with both wifi and 3G – it is very flexible. Keep in mind that the kindle has a web browser, while it is slow, it has allowed me to, for instance, check my email internationally when I’m away from wifi and don’t want to use my iphone to avoid huge international data challenges. I’m able to get into Zimbra via the web browser and read email on my kindle.

      Yes, Kindles are excellent for double tasking and I DO highly recommend walking yourself and a dog or driving while reading, very good way to be efficient with your time, especially since you’ll have a lot of time to read when you are killed by an oncoming terrier… Ruby

  2. Mary

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Country Driving. I, too, love Hessler’s interaction with the Chinese people. He is so obviously fond of them but still able to stand back and analyze in what ways they are different. If you ever get caught up to yourself (fat chance with either of us!), do read River Town which will explain, among other things, how he came to really learn the language and become immersed in it. Much humor in that book, too.

    • Hi Mary: Thanks! I’ll keep River Town in mind for the future, having read the sample on my kindle and Country Driving, it is clear that I’d really enjoy it. All the best, Ruby

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