Its October 5th. Summer is officially over, although it doesn’t feel that way here in Hong Kong. The stifling steaminess of August and September has subsided, but the humidity doesn’t seen to be aware that it’s October. We still worship the air conditioner as our source of sanity.
I’m not complaining… too much. I’m the first to admit that I whine about winter. I hate the cold. I hate the dirty, frozen sludge that lines the streets of Montreal from December till April.
But lately, I’ve been feeling nostalgic. I don’t miss winter, exactly, but I do miss the lead-up to winter. I miss autumn: crackling, russet coloured leaves, jackets and infinity scarves, pumpkins and apple picking and cinnamon and nutmeg. I miss sitting indoors, warm and cozy, armed with hot coffee and a good book, watching the first snow of the season drift down through the window.
Books are such an important part of winter for me – so let’s talk about them!
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This one was a bit of a journey. I was determined to get through it, but I’m not sure why it was such a struggle for me- the writing was beautiful and thought provoking. But the entire book made me vaguely uncomfortable, mainly because Florentino Ariza, the main character, is downright repulsive. He is a disgusting, weak, obsessive, pedophilic stalker. The book is hailed as a great love story, but to me it seemed almost the exact opposite.
Despite my disgust towards Florentino, the book is a worthwhile read. Florentino and Fermina fall in love as teenagers, but when they grow up Fermina marries a rich, popular doctor. Florentino never gives up, and obsesses over her for his entire life. Marquez’ writing is beautiful, and every so often I would read a simple phrase that managed to somehow strike a deep chord and unexpectedly resonate with me in some way. The book isn’t a comfortable read, but I enjoyed it enough to want to read more of Marquez’ work- 100 Years of Solitude is waiting on my bookshelf!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I recently read The Glass Castle, which prodded me to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the story of Francie Nolan growing up in 1900s Williamsburg. It is simply written, but absolutely fascinating, and despite the hardships of life during that era, the story pours out a flood of feel-good warm and fuzzies.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
A funny and engrossing exploration into middle class America during the 1950s- a ridiculous but hilarious time in history when a new appliance was cause for a block party and TV dinners were considered the epitome of sophistication. Imagine a nostalgic Grandpa regaling you with stories of the days when life was simpler and the only worry a white, Iowan 9 year old had was the slight possibility of nuclear war with far-off Communists.
The material isn’t what I would normally consider gripping, and I kept waiting to be bored. But I somehow managed to finish almost the entire book in one sitting thanks to Bryson’s dry wit and well-researched anecdotes.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris
This book is also hilarious, and I found it more relatable than Bryson’s work, probably because I am not in fact a white Iowan born in 1951. But also because many of Sedaris’ essays seem to describe my life right now. Sedaris writes about moving to Paris, the French countryside, and Tokyo, and manages each time to capture the image of an awkward, anxious, bumbling foreigner, desperately trying to learn the language and make sense of a new, confusing environment. After living in Hong Kong for a month and a half, I like to think I have most things figured out. But every once in a while when I get lost or am unable to communicate to a Cantonese-speaking taxi driver or cannot hope to decipher Cantonese characters on a signpost, I revert back to that anxious, blundering foreign idiot. At least I didn’t befriend the local child molestor in a desperate attempt to maintain a human connection, as Sedaris does.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I was in the mood for a hairs-on-end, can’t put it down, who-dun-it thriller. I read this one way back in August the first week after our intensely draining job wrapped and we were on a sailboat for a week roaming the true blue waters of New England. This book deals out alcoholism, gas lighting, and gruesome murder in spades, and yet the only thing I remember is trying to get through the last page without being rocked to sleep by the boat, and not succeeding.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth
After an American democratic primary in which the Scandinavian Model was lauded as the way of the future, after years of the Danes being named the happiest people, after countless links shared to Facebook walls about how perfect Swedish schools are, this book that promised to take a more critical look at a region we simultaneously admire and know nothing about intrigued me. Booth is married to a Dane, his children go to Danish schools, and he has lived there for about 12 years. In this book he makes his way through Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, logging countless interviews and (I’m sure) hours in the library. As he has the most exposure to Denmark, he is most critical of Denmark, to an almost unsavory degree. Once you get through the Danish section, however, it is an absolutely fascinating book. I learned so much about Nordic history and the resentments and bloody tensions between the countries, the changing hands of leadership, the mono-culture and immigration woes, the successful egalitarian efforts, the little quirks (Finnish wife races, Swedish saunas) – and all the while, he makes you laugh. This was a fantastic morning-with-coffee read. I miss it. I really miss reading it.
Bonus: check out the two different covers. My version is “Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” but there’s another subtitle: “The Truth Behind the Nordic Miracle.” FASCINATING!