February books

Some notes on the books I read during the first two weeks of February 2023.

The Dancing Girl of Izu

Yesterday evening (Tuesday, February 14), about an hour before I fell asleep, I read the short story “伊豆的舞孃” in Mandarin Chinese translation, The Dancing Girl of Izu 伊豆の踊子, Izu no odoriko いずのおどりこ, from the Japanese novelist and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata 川端 康成/かわばた やすなり. The hardcover copy I was reading was published last month in January 2023. I hope that this very recent publication date would imply the Mandarin Chinese translation was updated.

The short story “The Dancing Girl of Izu” was first published in 1926. It’s about a twenty-year-old high school student from Tokyo who takes a trip to the Izu Peninsula. He meets a young female dancer and experiences vague erotic feelings toward her.

The most interesting scene occurred when the narrator sees her young child-like body in a public bath. This was the turning point of the story where I thought may be at this point the narrator suddenly realises she has not become a young woman in terms of body shape, that perhaps he feels disappointed, perhaps he is surprised to see her straight and skinny body, which appears to be a lot younger than when she is dressed in dancer’s clothes and cosmetics. He had thought she was 17 or 18 years old when all dressed up with her think black hair. At the end the narrator promises the little dancer and the small group of companions that they will meet again. On the way back, the narrator breaks down in tears after saying goodbye to them.

The Dancing Girl of Izu was my first Kawabata’s story. It was quite good. It felt like it was written by a young novelist. Perhaps it’s the scene of the narrator’s attentive observation of the dancer running around in the nude in the public bath surrounded by nature, the rain, the mountains, the hiking trails, the drums, the dance performance, the onsen (hot springs), the the inns, the young wanderer’s loneliness that makes the story feels young and atmospheric. I might want to read it one more time.

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors

On Monday morning (Feb 13) I read the introduction of the non-fiction book “Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors” by Matt Parker while taking an MRT train (I have about a 40-minute commute these days). I noted down a few paragraphs in the introduction where it describes how human brains think numbers logarithmically by default:

“During our lives we learn that numbers are linear; that the spaces between them are all the same. If you count from one to nine, each number is one more than the previous one. If you ask someone what number is halfway between one and nine, they will say five – but only because they have been taught to. Wake up, sheeple! Humans instinctively perceive numbers logarithmically, not linearly. A young child or someone who has not been indoctrinated by education will place three halfway between one and nine.”

“Our human brains are simply not wired to be good at mathematics out of the box. Don’t get me wrong: we are born with a fantastic range of number and spatial skills; even infants can estimate the number of dots on a page and perform basic arithmetic on them. We also emerge into the world equipped for language and symbolic thought. But the skills which allow us to survive and form communities do not necessarily match formal mathematics. A logarithmic scale is a valid way to arrange and compare numbers, but mathematics also requires the linear number line.”

“What’s Cooking in the Kremlin: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire with a Knife and Fork”

Last weekend I read several chapters of Mandarin Chinese tranlsation of Polish author Szabłowski’s ”Rosja od kuchni” (“What’s Cooking in the Kremlin: From Rasputin to Putin, How Russia Built an Empire with a Knife and Fork’’). “克里姆林宮的餐桌” is the Mandarin Chinese translation of the book title. It came out in early February. His previous books translated into Mandarin Chinese were bestsellers for quite a while. I didn’t get to them but I saw them lying around in bookstores in Taiwan. This one I finally wanted to pick up – I picked up this copy at this year’s Taipei international book exhibition on a Saturday night (Feb 4.). because I thought the cover design was interesting and beautiful. I’ve never read a book from a Polish writer before.

What’s Cooking in the Kremlin was an interesting read. At one point I thought it was about stories of chefs on how they made their way to the top and ways to use expensive ingredients to make feasts exceptional to politicians. Then I realised it is more about the politics and history than it was about food writing. There was a chapter about famine and Siege of Leningrad told by a bakery chef. Some scenes were too devastating for me to read.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

On Saturday morning (Feb 11), I read the beginnings of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. A new translation by Lydia Davis. (Book link: https://www.amazon.com/Madame-Bovary-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/014310649X). Thought Flaubert’s prose style was interesting. In Chapter 2, there is a short scene where Charles’s first wife Héloïse conveniently dies so that he could go on and marry Emma. I’m not sure why Emma would like to get married at midnight (in Chapter 3).

“Emma, however, would have liked to be married at midnight, by torchlight; but Père Rouault found the idea incomprehensible.”

John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick mystery “Off Minor”

On Friday (Feb 10) I read another John Harvey’s Charlie Resnick mystery “Off Minor”. It’s the fourth in the Charlie Resnick series. I thought it was good, at least I finished reading the story. Perhaps better than the previous Resnick stories I hastily read and abandoned. My spine-chilling moment came when a murder suspect’s wife, the victim’s school teacher, visited the victim’s house and wanted to comfort and to offer condolences to the parents.

“Cutting Edge”

February 7 Tuesday morning reading session. In the morning, after having my first cup of warm coffee, I read some 80 pages of John Harvey, a British crime fiction writer’s novel “Cutting Edge” (Charlie Resnick #3). Some scenes were interesting, some scenes were not so interesting. Don’t know if I could go any further. The novel was published in 1991; the latest Mandarin Chinese translation edition was published in 2018, which, by the way, has a beautiful cover design.

I have read several John Harvey’s fiction stories before, some five years ago – I remember “Flesh and Blood,” a Frank Elder novel, was good. The overall impression was good. Perhaps I’d read another story by John Harvey some other time – there are so many of them!

“You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Connection, Trust, and Belonging”

While I was about to have my second cup of coffee, I picked up a random non-fiction book on the table, which happened to be Jon Levy’s 2021 book “You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Connection, Trust, and Belonging” (Published by Harper Business), and read some 40 pages of the book.

Some notes I jotted down:
From Jon Levy’s “You’re Invited”
Chapter 7 Connecting with Global and Industry Influencers

“Who do you think the most influential people in our culture spend the most time with? The most common answer I get to this question is either “other influential people” or “their family.” Then I remind them how much time important leaders spend with their admin or executive assistant. This is the person who manages their schedules, lets them know where to go and when, and makes their life work. After their admins, they speak to their teams, clients, maybe their boss depending on the company, and, at the end of the day, their family or friends.”

“When we consider attending an event, whether it is social or professional, our first question typically is: “Who is going to be there?” […]

“The more influential a person is, the more demands they have on their time. This is why industry influencers are willing to travel and spend to ensure that they walk into a room full of the people they want to meet. Like a great museum curator selecting the right combination of art to display, our job is to select both the people in a room and in our social circles and communities.