Christmas Vacation: Reading for Fun

I’m just back to reality after three glorious weeks of break from school, and nearly two weeks off work. I desperately needed this break – my first since June – to recharge, see my friends and family, catch up on several house projects (more on that soon), mentally prepare for 2012, and just relax.

I also got to read a lot. I really miss picking what I read, but between work, heavy academic reading loads, and daily news, there’s just not much time left. So immediately after I finished my fall exams, I dove into the stack of “fun” books on my coffee table. Ironically, I ended up reading more Kindle books than those on dead trees, and I acquired a few new ones, so the coffee table pile has grown. I tried to balance some fun, light books to cleanse my palate from school-assigned reading with non-fiction about topics that captivate me.

Farewell, social life. You were fun. Now, I have 7.75 lbs (or 124.15 oz) of legal opinions to keep me company!

Tonight, during my first Law, Policy and Ethics class, the professor handed us three giant course packets weighing a total of 124.15 oz, or 7.75 lbs. (Yes, I weighed them when I got home.) And that’s just for one class! I’ve bought the two books for the other class, but don’t yet know if we’ll have a complementary course packet.

Honestly, I’m excited for my June graduation and the freedom to read whatever I like. At least I love my classes – and this quarter’s syllabi look interesting.

In the meantime, here’s how I spent the reading portion of my Christmas vacation.

Alice Bliss. Laura Harrington. After a glowing recommendation from Katie Leigh, I had this on my ever-growing list of books to read. Then I found it available on the library books for Kindle list through Gail Borden, so I checked it out.

It’s been ages since I devoured an entire book in a single evening. But I loved this book and inhaled it. It’s the story of what happens when a family’s nucleus and glue is suddenly not there anymore. How do the relationships shift? How do family members have to change to understand each other?

Alice is a 15 year old girl in upstate New York, right on the cusp of growing up. Her father’s National Guard Reserve unit is shipped to Iraq, leaving her family flailing to move forward. Her family has always been split into two alliances: Alice has been a daddy’s girl, while her sister has been closer to their mom. With her dad thousands of miles away, Alice and her mother struggle to “get” each other, so other family members step up, each navigating the situation differently. Alice’s mom (understandably) goes through depression, so Alice has to take care of her little sister and keep the family going.

The characters were so very real and well written, even if some infuriate you – but that’s true of real people and families.

I laughed, I cried, and cried some more, but I would do it all over again. This is fantastically written food for thought.

Shanghai: The Rise & Fall of a Decadent City – After my September visit to Shanghai, I’ve been reading a lot about the city and its history. (My favorite so far was Nien Cheng’s Memoir of her harrowing Cultural Revolution experience, Life and Death in Shanghai – it’s truly gripping and haunting.) Stella Dong’s history recounts Shanghai’s colonial period, from the 1830s through World War II. Fascinating, though I wish she had continued into the post-revolutionary period.

Water for Elephants – I saw the movie on my flight home from Asia, and the Kindle edition was available for free library lending. I’m glad I finally read it – fantastic story of traveling circuses during the early 1930s. While the circus stories and love story intersected nicely, there were several hints about how the country as a whole was grappling with the Depression. Excellent, excellent read.

Veiled Freedom – Jeannette Windle’s novel offers a very interesting look at the challenges of rebuilding Afghanistan, from a missionary’s perspective. Through three intertwining stories, Windle tells the tale of working to rebuild a country with a very turbulent past. Several of the characters are military or former military who have returned as civilian contractors, a very common scenario we usually hear little about. In addition to the rebuilding challenges, Windle injects quite a bit of religion, which surprised me, but it proved thought-provoking. Her main protagonist is a Christian missionary who must tread carefully to offer relief to women without running afoul of local Islam rules and traditions. While the characters don’t discuss this with each other, they do examine how Islam and Christianity view core human challenges like retribution and evil. Examining women’s lives in a heavily patriarchal, fundamentalist society also raised my eyebrows.

The Girl in the Italian Bakery. Kenneth Tingle’s memoir caught my eye on the “read for free” Kindle list The story of Kenny’s rough childhood – from public housing and foodstamps to the complete dissolution of his family – drew me in. Kenny lived in tough old Massachusetts mill towns in the seventies and eighties, and got into a lot of trouble that was described in great detail. Though the ending was abrupt, as were several of the plot lines, it was an entertaining read, with a touch of redemption.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves – And Why It Matters. BR Myers.  When Kim Jong Il died just before Christmas, I realized I don’t know all that much about the “hermit kingdom,” beyond a bit of school and some long-lost South Korean classmates. While perusing Amazon, I found this brand-new book that focuses on the internal propaganda that fuel the culture. The premise of the book – which I’m only about halfway through – is that the West’s perception of North Korea as a Stalinist  state or a Confucian patriarchy is wrong.

Propaganda has always intrigued me. I have an old poster of a red fist crashing into Parliament from Béla Kun’s 1919 Communist takeover of Hungary, and one of my most memorable undergrad classes was called “Springtime for Hitler,” dealing with the propaganda movement that brought Hitler to power. While in Shanghai, I tried to make it to the Propaganda Museum during their limited hours, but had to settle for browsing bookstores and drinking in the contemporary posters I saw hanging.

So far, Myers’ book is a fascinating look at why North Korea needs to derive pride from its military – and how that continues the myths of the state’s personality cult. This revised edition was published Dec 20 – just three days after Kim Jong Il’s death – and so far talks just tangentially about the unknown heir-to-be. I’m determined to finish it quickly, somewhere among the 7 lbs of legal cases.

What are you reading? I’m always up for adding more to my list!