Wonderful Week of Reading

I was on vacation last week and as usual for a beach vacation, I read a lot. Two mysteries, two novels, one epistolary volume, and one non-fiction, all so very different one from the other, and all good.

I started the week with Penelope’s Way by Blanche Howard. A seventy-year old woman decides it is time to figure out the meaning of life, both metaphysically and physically. A memory of a sudden dizziness followed by illumination, experienced during a long ago trip to France, sets Penelope off in search of corresponding experiences — a worldwide wave of heightened consciousness, fertility, and vision — and what she finds affirms both the wonder and the unknowability of life, and the myriad possibilities of its meanings. What matters is what connects us, the bridges between “our lonely, disparate, personal universes.” Penelope is influenced inevitably by circumstances (illness, death, ebbs and flows of friendship) but, relying heavily on her own intuition and memories, stays more or less on course in her quest to find meaning.

Contrasting with Penelope Way‘s exaltation of intuition and self-determination, is the last book I read during my week of vacation, the non-fiction Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman exposes both human intuition and rational thinking (and financial traders) as less prevalent and reliable than we’d like them to be, intuition being a gut reaction derived from evolutionary requirements of survival but too often influenced by our own prejudices and predilections, rational thinking being influenced by the same — and financial wizardry more a game of luck than expertise.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating and flowing exploration of the two systems at work in our brain (and body), the first-phase of gut reaction (System 1) and the second-phase of more applied thinking (System 2). Meant to provide a stimulus for discussion at the work place and at home (we’ve already had a number of great dinner table conversations on the topics covered by Kahneman), provoking conversations about rational thinking and motivation and planning, I fear Kahneman’s insights, gleaned from decades of research, will be used in this season of politics to manipulate System 1 and blunt System 2 as much as possible! Rational thinking, after all, has little to do with voting. As Kahneman notes, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

I also read The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, another fascinating exploration of human motivation, self-knowledge, and manipulation of others for personal gain (and satisfaction).

I loved the story and the characters of this novel but James is not easy to read, and if you have never read him, The Wings of the Dove might not be the best work with which to become acquainted with his writing. I recommend starting with novellas, including The Aspern Papers, Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, then moving on to the novel The Portrait of a Lady, and then coming to other novels, including The Wings of the Dove. It might be a great project for a year — a year of Henry James!

I read two mysteries on vacation. Don’t Cry, Tai Lake by Qiu Xiaolong provides a unique window into modern China, with its lead character a vacationing police detective who also writes poetry. Inspector Chen not only writes poetry (including a beautiful poem that is delivered in sections throughout the novel) but also quotes extensively from different periods of Chinese literature, using his vast stores of ancient sayings and poems to support his present-day reflections on life.

Inspector Chen becomes fascinated by a young woman, an environmentalist and activist, who becomes embroiled in a murder investigation. Has she murdered to punish a polluter? Chen must use all his wits, and quotations, to solve the crime and save the girl, and perhaps even nudge the power-wielding cadres to care about the pollution threatening China’s natural resources.

China plays a role in the other mystery I read, The Shanghai Moon, another great Lydia Chin/Bill Smith novel by S.J. Rozan.
I love Rozan’s mysteries (see my review of Ghost Hero) and The Shanghai Moon is another well-crafted, factually fascinating (the exodus of over 60,000 Jewish refugees to Shanghair during World War II), thoroughly entertaining, and thrilling novel.

And finally, I read a collection of letters (of course). The Yage Letters by William Burroughs is a mix of fact and fiction, the amalgamation of letters Burroughs wrote to Allen Ginsberg during his 1953 journey to South America in search of the Yage, famed hallucinogenic of the Amazon. Burroughs is a strange mix (no surprise there) of experimental risk taker, critical traveler, and genuine humorist.

The letters are fun — and sometimes horrifying — to read, and the addition at the end of Allen Ginsberg’s own letters documenting his travels in search of hallucinogenic enlightenment add to the atmosphere of search and (mental health) seizure.