Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war. In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching. In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits. Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator. They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.
My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French. In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives. It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime. I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.
So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others? Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age. She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays. Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels. Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries. This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation. Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team. In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women. Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well. Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.
French unfurls the story well. He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well. A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel. I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were. I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class. In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important. It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:
Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)
I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking. It took a bit to truly get into the story. A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice. At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl. But that’s not the story at all. The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people. It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.
Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism. It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.
4 out of 5 stars
Cain explains how the Extrovert Ideal became the norm in Western culture then proceeds to define the reality of the existence of both introverts and extroverts, not just among humans, but in the non-human animal kingdom as well. She explains the pluses and minuses of both personalities and provides advice for individuals, parents, and businesses in bringing out the best potential in both.
This book has been all the rage among book bloggers, which probably isn’t that surprising. Readers tend to be introverts, and the book’s title certainly implies that it’s all about us. In actuality though, although the book does have a focus on introverts, it also contains lots of information on extroverts and how we are all different but equally valuable to the world. Indeed, the Introduction features a statement that basically defines the point of the book as a whole:
Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality—the “north and south of temperament,” as one scientist puts it—is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum. (page 2)
After the Introduction, the book is divided into four parts: The Extrovert Ideal, Your Biology Your Self, Do All Cultures Have an Extrovert Ideal, and How to Love How to Work. As someone who was a History major in undergrad, I found the first section completely fascinating. It explains how western culture, particularly American culture, went from an introvert ideal to an extrovert one. It, not surprisingly, was all tied up with the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution people mostly interacted with people they had known most of their lives or who they would have time to get to know. After, if you wanted to make it in the business world, you had to make an amazing first impression. This push to give off the aura of friendly and awesome edged out the prior expectation to develop a moral character. This section also talks about how Evangelical Protestants take the Extrovert Ideal to an even greater extreme:
If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love. It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly. (page 69)
I’ve taken the Meyers-Brigg personality test multiple times at various points in my life. I am always solidly an INTJ. The I is for introvert. I was also raised Evangelical (although I am now an Agnostic). This section rocked my world. I even mentioned on GoodReads that it basically explained my life to me. Cain talks about how difficult it can be to be an introverted child or young person being raised in a culture of Extrovert Ideal. I wasn’t just raised in the American one (who just so happen to be the most extroverted people on the planet, page 186), but I was also raised in the most Extrovert Ideal culture within that culture–Evangelical. It’s no wonder I had some issues figuring out who I am and being ok with that. I can barely fathom what a difference it would have made in loving and accepting myself if I’d even just been told it is just as ok to worship alone in the woods as to be loud and proud about it in public.
The next section is more sciencey and discusses the biology behind personality differences. This section can definitely be empowering as it lets people know precisely how you became an introvert or extrovert. The overarching philosophy is that more sensitive babies, as in ones who are more easily startled or frightened of strangers, are predispositioned to become introverts. Nurture also affects this, of course. Cain discusses the good qualities of both highly sensitive and less sensitive kids and how how they are raised can either bring out the good or the bad in either natural temperament. Of course this is a great area for parents and those who work with kids, but it also explains to the reader how they got this way and what false ideas they might have about themselves. For me, this is the section that explained to me why I’m so passionate about causes like vegetarianism and mental illness advocacy. Introverts tend to be oriented around causes. An example of an introvert/extrovert pair who both got things done in their own way that Cain uses is Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. This is a wisely chosen example because both are people to look up to who played to their own personality strengths.
Personally I wasn’t so into the next section. As compared to the other sections that are three chapters, this one consists of only one. It essentially compares Asian culture to Western culture since Asian culture tends to idealize introversion over extroversion. I felt that this chapter was a bit rushed and less in-depth. Cain tried to cover both the experiences of Asian-Americans and all Asian culture as a whole. I understand that she wanted to address multicultural understandings of personality, but it does seem that this topic could be a book in and of itself. It felt a bit similar to the instances when in my job as an education and reference librarian that I tell a student their topic is too broad to possibly cover in one paper (or one thesis). It seems that a quick chapter on introversion versus extroversion worldwide could have been mentioned in the first section as a comparison without devoting a whole section to it. Similarly, the issues specific to immigrants to America from nations with an Introvert Ideal would have worked well in a different section. This would have felt more integrated and flowed better.
The final section contains advice on using your personality to your advantage in your life and also on how to strike a compromise with someone you care about of a different personality type. Overall, this section was well-written, although I felt not enough attention was given to “pseudo-extroverts,” introverts who have learned to pass as extroverts. This is a fascinating topic, particularly to an introvert who is constantly mistaken for an extrovert. I think this is the reality for a lot of people, and it deserved a bit more attention and research. For instance, Cain says in passing:
Emotional labor, which is the effort we make to control and change our own emotions, is associated with stress, burnout, and even physical symptoms like an increase in cardiovascular disease. (page 223)
I really wanted to know more about this! Particularly since I care so much about health and wellness. It almost seemed as if pseudo-extroversion deserved its own chapter.
The rest of the section though was great and quite helpful. I think if everyone followed the advice in it on dealing with other personality types and creating a loving environment for kids on both ends of the introvert/extrovert spectrum that we would have a much more positive world. Perhaps her best piece of relationship advice is A Free Trait Agreement.
A Free Trait Agreement acknowledges that we’ll each act out of character some of the time—in exchange for being ourselves the rest of the time. (page 221)
So for a couple consisting of an introvert and an extrovert they will go out some Friday nights and stay in and snuggle and read others. Preferably about 50/50. Mutual compromise. It’d be good to keep this in mind more often.
Overall, this is a well-written, accessible book regarding personality psychology and the history of it. It does flounder in some places and could have used another once-over for structure and focus, but it is well worth your time to read.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy
My new library (where I work as a librarian) serves a school of public health. Working with these students has opened up a whole new world of science to me. Public health is a fascinating combination of medicine, science, culture, and communication. So when I saw this public health book on Netgalley, I knew I needed to give it a shot.
This is a completely fascinating book. Prior to reading it, my main knowledge of rabies came from that episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman where her adopted son’s dog gets rabies and bites her other adopted son’s fiancee. I didn’t really understand how much of a plague it used to be, but I did know that you’re required to get your pets vaccinated for it.
I learned SO MUCH from this book! And it wasn’t a struggle to read or absorb the information either. Wasik and Murphy strike that hard to find balance in writing science for the layman. They explain complex, scientific things without so much scientific terminology as to be a struggle for the average reader but with enough so that you’ve still learned something. For instance:
With most zoonotic leaps in disease, animal contact is the spark, but urbanization is the bone-dry tinder; a newly evolved pathogen can’t spread from person to person, after all, unless people run across one another in the first place. (location 453)
There are a few passages that use more scientific terminology than that, but they only use them after explaining them. You do not have to be a scientist to be able to read, enjoy, and learn from this book.
The basic structure of the book is typical of a history book. In fact, think of it kind of as a scientific history book. It starts with the earliest accounts of rabies and moves up through time to the present. The strongest passages are: Greco-Roman history of the disease, Dark Ages history of the disease, Pasteur’s creation of a vaccination, and the modern day outbreak in Bali. These strike the perfect balance of discussing the understanding and treatment of the disease and the reflections of rabies and fear of rabies in popular culture of that time period.
For instance, in the Greco-Roman period we learn:
Pliny’s thoughts tend to involve using the animal to treat the man. His best-known cure—to “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite”—lives on today in our expression “hair of the dog,” referring to a not-quite-so-dubious hangover remedy. (location 473)
Or this fascinating bit of public health history in the Pasteur section:
Pasteur’s collaborator Roux believed that Pasteur selected rabies as a subject for research as a calculated bit of stagecraft, so that his ideas about vaccination would attract maximum public interest. (location 1714)
The other sections, particularly the era after the vaccine to about the 1980s, suffer a bit from a lack of focus and direction. There’s a part where the authors try to convince us that zombies are a reflection of a latent fear of rabies. Ok? But that’s rather speculative compared to the rest of the book. There are other elements of pop culture that are nowhere near as loosely connected that they discuss, such as the actual rabies books and movies that came out in the UK when the Chunnel was put in and people were afraid that rabid animals would come over to the island nation from France. That is a tight, interesting connection. The zombie one was a bit of a stretch. I was more interested in more information on things like Old Yeller and why the authors think that even with the vaccine in the US and very little threat at the time the public still was fascinated with the idea of a rabid dog.
The book also explores other zoonotic diseases (diseases that originate in non-human animals). Although this is also technically not rabies, this connection makes a lot more sense, particularly since more started cropping up in the 20th century after rabies was beaten down by vaccination. The knowledge we have from working against rabies and promoting vaccination of it via public health initiatives could really help with things like HIV/AIDS and H1N1. This is using past public health experience to aid in future endeavors, which helps give the book a certain umph and validity for modern readers.
So, although the book struggles a bit during the early 20th century time period, the rest of it is very well put-together. It is written at the appropriate level for a popular science history book. It is easy to learn from and includes lots of fascinating tid-bits in addition to the basic rabies history and information. It also demonstrates as a kind of side-story the history of public health. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of rabies, the history of vaccination, and most especially to those with an interest in public health issues.
4 out of 5 stars
This review needs a bit of backstory.
Once upon a time, I was dating a guy who is now so universally loathed by myself and my friends that we usually just refer to him as The Douche. Sometimes The Dickwad. One of his all-time favorite comics was (is?) Sarah Silverman, I’m not sure if that’s because A) he finds her funny B) she’s from NH and Jewish and he’s from NH and Jewish or C) he secretly wants to bang her. It is possible it is all three.
In any case, I am not a fan of Sarah Silverman myself, but when I saw that she was coming to Brookline Booksmith to do a live reading and signing of her new book, I bought tickets for us to surprise him with. Because I am seriously that awesome of a girlfriend. I kid you not. In any case, I did also buy myself a book to have signed because who goes to a book signing and reading doesn’t get a copy signed?
When I say that I’m not a fan of Sarah Silverman I don’t mean oh I don’t really know I never watched or heard or blah de blah. That’s not how my relationship with my ex (The Douche) worked. He liked her, ergo I wound up watching basically everything she ever did. I don’t dislike the woman, but honestly her sense of humor is not my style. It doesn’t offend me, but it also doesn’t make me laugh. The most she might get is a snort.
You can see how non-plussed I was by the whole event from this Friday Fun! post I did about it. (You may notice that post doesn’t mention my ex at all. Painting on the wall, Amanda. But I digress). In fact, the main things that stood out to me at the event were A) how poor Sarah seemed like an introvert who really just needed to be given a cup of tea and sent away from this huge crowd and B) how mortified I was by my ex trying desperately to be all “Hey I’m from NH too!” during the book signing. Dear Sarah, if you are reading this, I was the girl cringing next in line while you somehow managed to not be like “Wow another Jew in Brookline who has been to NH. I am shocked.” Also, we compared signatures later and my name got an exclamation point and a heart, which his did not. I told him that meant you liked me better. Possibly not true, but it was fun to use during fights, so. Brownie points to you, girlfriend.
In any case! Oddly, I still had this book, unread, on my shelf, signed by Sarah, over a year after my relationship with the ex dissolved. If that doesn’t say Bottom of TBR Pile I don’t know what does. But, I think it’s important to know the backstory of I’m not a fan and I got this book going to a book signing with my douchey ex who embarrassed me in front of a celebrity and I couldn’t pick it up for over a year due to a combination of first missing my ex while simultaneously loathing him then after that faded to just not being a fan so why would I pick up a book I would probably find not funny anyway?
Because I’m ocd about my tbr pile that’s why.
So. Knowing all of this, you will understand why my review you are about to read is more like “hey I’m a librarian so who might want to read this and what would they think” as opposed to “omg I love Sarah Silverman and here’s what I think of her book.” Capiche?
This is a memoir that says a lot without actually saying all that much. Sarah tells us some things about her childhood and adult life without actually getting into the nitty gritty real details of who Sarah is. The deeper moments we get are the best in the book–when she talks about struggling with depression in her pre and early teens and about being a long-term bedwetter. Beyond that, we don’t really get to know Sarah. What makes Sarah tick. How does she feel about being an agnostic while her sister is a rabbi on a kibbutz, for instance? Or how did it feel to have a relationship so abundantly in the public eye? (Hers with Jimmy Kimmel. Side-note: I’m Fucking Matt Damon is the only thing she’s done that I find uproariously funny).
Ok, I get it, some people aren’t comfortable talking about more personal stuff (even though that’s what people want in a memoir). But she’s a celebrity. She’s got unique experiences that can’t be all *that* personal. Like maybe she could talk a bit more about what being backstage at the MTV VMAs was like. But all we get is “oh the comics don’t get to see the act right before them.” Kind of disappointing.
There’s also the fact that the memoir is not particularly linear. It kind of swoops around in an ADD manner. Some readers might enjoy that. Others might be turned off. Again, that could be the sense of humor that I just don’t get.
Overall, it’s not a bad memoir. It’s not like it was torturesome to read. It just falls short of the level of information that people kind of expect from a celebrity memoir. It’s possible that it’s an uproariously funny piece of writing, but you’d have to be a fan of Sarah Silverman’s sense of humor to be able to determine that, which I am not.
Recommended for fans of Sarah Silverman with the understanding that it’s more a piece of comedic work than a revealing memoir.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Brookline Booksmith
Or bid on my signed copy on ebay Auction now over!
Cookbook Review: Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World by Gil Mars
Vegans beware. When this says it’s a vegetarian cookbook, it really means it! Almost every recipe is drenched in animal products, primarily dairy and eggs.
The Introduction explains the various food cultures that have sprung up in Jewish communities around the world, complete with maps and such. This part was fascinating, although I felt that it was a bit too Old Wold focused. I know for instance that there are strong Jewish cultures in Argentina and Brooklyn, but they are not included in the book.
After the Introduction is an explanation of vegetarian foods incorporated into Jewish holidays. I found this part rather averagely done and skimmed over it.
The recipes are oddly divided up. The chapters are: cheese and dairy spreads; pickles, marinated vegetables, and relishes; salads; soups; savory pastries; cooked vegetable dishes; vegetable stews; legumes; grains; dumplings and pasta; eggs; sauces and seasonings. As you can tell, some of the recipes are put together based on the type of dish (salad, soup) and others based on the ingredients (eggs, legumes). This makes the book appear disorganized. Also the complete lack of dessert is sad.
Beyond the maps in the Introduction, there are no pictures. Additionally, the recipes are mostly designed to serve 6 to 8. I’m not sure what planet the author is from, but that is not a typical family sized meal in America. I must admit, that I didn’t try any of the recipes because I couldn’t find a single one I wanted to try. They are all completely swimming in cholesterol and insane food portion sizes. Looking at the soups, which should presumably be a healthier option, the Persian Onion Soup on page 123 contains 3 eggs and the Hungarian Cream of Mushroom Soup on page 125 contains TWO CUPS of sour cream. Similarly, almost all of the breads and pastries are fried. My cholesterol practically spiked just looking at the cookbook.
Essentially, then, this book is a good introduction to Old World style Jewish food but ignores the healthier options that I know from experience exist in Jewish communities in the Americas. It is difficult to enjoy the cookbook since there are no pictures or colors. Additionally, all of the recipes are designed for 6 to 8 servings, which is a bit large for the typical American household. Overall, then, I would recommend this book to those with a vested interest in Jewish culture and cuisine who can see past the dull layout and design of the cookbook.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Public Library
There is not much to say about a book that is so short. Listing only 63 myths, each summed up within one or two sentences and then “debunked” in under a page, it is possibly the shortest history book I’ve ever read.
The myths and debunking are interesting, but there’s far too few of them. Additionally, while images are given citations, the debunkments aren’t! Well, why should I believe what you’re saying, Theobald, as compared to anyone else? Just because you *claim* there aren’t any records of thus-and-such doesn’t mean that there aren’t unless you back it up with solid evidence. While I enjoyed the myths and the talk about them, I can’t take it seriously as an academic due to a complete lack of citations.
The cover is super-cute though.
Overall, recommended to people who want to know what the myths are, but not to anyone seeking serious history.
2 out of 5 stars
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet. The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over. Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me. The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god. It was painful.
I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture. If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same. Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag. Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met. There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones. You’d expect more from him. I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true! This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.
Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism. Ok? But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book? A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude. I’m just saying.
Overall, this is an incredibly odd book. It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man. I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.
2 out of 5 stars