Books I’ve Read This Week: On Land and At Sea

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 48: On Land and At Sea My recent reading includes a blend of titles read on land and sea during my recent Southeast Asia cruise ship lecture series. The library on the cruise ship had a large collection of music biographies and I purchased both fiction and non-fiction about Malaysia, the last stop in my travels, in various airport bookshops. I also listened to a variety of audiobooks. Here are this week’s reviews:

#331 of 365 Becoming Beyoncé: The Untold Story by J. Randy Taraborrelli

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: November 28-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 494 pages

Review: An engaging biography of Beyonce Knowles with a strong focus on the development of her career through various early girl groups then Destiny’s Child then her current solo career. The author clearly recognizes Beyonce’s talent, work ethic and drive to succeed and writes about her music career with a great deal of warmth and admiration. (He has a less favourable opinion of her film appearances in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers). The biography, however, is hampered by the author’s limited access to key sources as none of the members of Destiny’s Child or Beyonce’s immediate family provide interviews exclusive to the book. A fun travel read but limited in terms of the range perspectives included in the biography.

#332 of 365 Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 24-December 1, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 8 hours and 21 minutes

Review: A moving novel about orphaned city children who were sent out west to be placed with new families in 1920s America. The novel goes back and forth between the perspective of Neve/Dorothy/Vivian, a young Irish girl who loses her family in a New York tenement fire and finds herself on an orphan train with other children in equally difficult circumstances, and Molly, a 21st century First Nations foster child who is assigned to organize Vivian’s papers as community service. The novel captures the hardships experienced by both Vivian and Molly in their respective time periods and the friendship that they develop as they discover that that they have a great deal in common. The audiobook is well read by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren.

#333 of 365 Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz

Genre: Biography/Music

Dates Read: December 2-4, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from the Cruise Ship Library

Format: Hardcover, 520 pages

Review: A biography of Aretha Franklin written with a great deal of Respect. David Ritz collaborated with Franklin on her autobiography but observed that Franklin was careful about which aspects of her life that she was interested in sharing with the public. In Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Ritz interviews Franklin’s siblings, all talented musicians themselves, to provide a more comprehensive portrait. Franklin was passionate about her career and reputation as the Queen of Soul, observing that if Queen Elizabeth could be queen for life then so could she. Behind the scenes, however, Franklin suffered a great deal of heartbreak and these difficult circumstances informed her music. An engaging read that is also a portrait of the music industry over the course of her career.

#334 of 365 Beartown by Frederik Backman

Dates Listened: December 1-7, 2018

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 432 pages

Review: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. We chose the wrong village.” Beartown is an extraordinary achievement. At first glance, Beartown  appears to be a novel about the importance of a junior hockey team to a small town but it instead examines how that town creates the conditions for a crime to take place and how the victim and her family come to be ostracized by the community that has known them all their lives. Backman knows his characters inside out including their past, present and future decisions and he ruminates on the nature of society, family and community as the events unfold. The friendships and other relationships between the characters shift as the story unfolds in unexpected and compelling ways. The ending is especially powerful. Highly recommended.

#335 of 365 Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman

Date Listened: December 8-10, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 16 minutes

Review: An overview of the science behind the importance of sociability to human life. I enjoyed some chapters more than others. The chapter on social pain was well reasoned and explains the lasting harm caused by childhood bullying. The victim often views the bully as speaking for a wider group of silent bystanders and the trauma of this perceived wider social exclusion endures long after the actual bullying has ended. In contrast, I found Lieberman’s suggestions for how to make the education system more sociable to be simplistic. He presents stereotypical depictions of how History and English are taught based on little more than his own experiences in high school and provides heavy handed advice about how he believes these subjects could be improved. The book contains some interesting research and insights but it is an uneven read overall.

#336 of 365 Malaysians and their Identities edited by Yeoh Seng-Guan 

Date Read: December 9, 2018

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased at Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia

Format: Paperback, 199 pages

Review: I purchased and read this book at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and enjoyed learning more about Malaysian society. The essays in Malaysians and their Identities are written by young scholars at Monash University Malaysia and discuss a variety of different subjects including coffeehouse culture, the indie music scene, fashion, beauty standards, technology and sports. There is a lot of interesting analysis of women’s roles in society including perceptions of female musicians and foreign wives of Malaysian spouses. The chapter about how the smartphone has transformed society speaks to wider cultural trends around the world. Recommended for travelers and readers interested in learning more about Malaysia today.

#337 of 365 The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: December 16-17, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Acquired: Purchased from W. H. Smith, Changi Airport, Singapore

Review: “Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals the gap, and the world is in shadows again.” A beautifully written novel about grief, loss, and the nature of memory. Yun Ling is the sole survivor of a Second World War Japanese internment camp in Malaysia who seeks to create a memorial garden for her sister in the 1950s, at the height of the Malaysian emergency. The other characters in the novel have all been shaped by these traumatic events in Malaysian history as well and Yun Ling’s quest to memorialize her sister emerges as part of a wider effort to survive and remember the past. A haunting and thought provoking novel.

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