When we were in Alleppey, Kerala, India, we took a boat cruise around the backwaters, through canals and past islands and temples older than America. It was with a tourist group, and at the end of the boat ride we had a big Kerala fish feast at a local’s house, all of us tourists crowded around a bunch of plastic tables under an overhanging, eating and drinking and meeting each other. Alice was on my right, and spent the whole lunch speaking to someone to her right, so I tried to make conversation with the pretty French girl across from me. Where are you from? France. Are you traveling for a long time? I don’t know. Why are you here? I don’t know. Fin. She understood English perfectly; the person next to her also tried to talk to her. She was just dull as dirt. At the end of the lunch, Alice mentioned that the couple she was speaking to was fascinating, and she got their contact information, and would I want to see them for dinner? After such a painful lunch, I happily agreed.
We met them that evening – Lina and Pankaj – and after trying a couple of restaurants that turned out to be duds, we went to one we’d been to the previous night that I loved. And Alice was dead-on – they were fascinating, creative, well-read, well-traveled, outspoken, opinionated, thoughtful, loving, kind. They were perfect dinner companions and immediate friends. I can’t remember how it came up, but we asked them what book they’d read recently that they would recommend, and without hesitation they recommended A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers.
I added it to my wish list, and there it sat; I try not to pay more than £2 for a book, which means Kindle deals and thrift store finds, and I finally saw this title on a shelf last week for £1, so I grabbed it. How stupid! Ryan Holiday makes it a habit to always buy books he wants, no matter what the cost, and my thriftiness has proven costly; for the sake of a few pounds, I’ve missed out on one of the most incredible journeys I’ve ever taken over pages.
This book is, without a doubt, my favourite book of the year, the second now being The Lover. A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers is, on the surface, about a Chinese woman who falls in love with an older English man; The Lover is, on the surface, about a French woman who has an affair with an older Chinese man in Vietnam. But just as The Lover is more about memory, and age, and life, A Concise— is about life, and the modern world, and politics, and London, and empathy, and culture, and a thousand other things that are addressed in single sentences and then stay with you for days because they strike you as tragic and true.
I recommended it to a guy at work who had married a Ukranian, and he said he read the first chapter and cried, because after twenty or so years of marriage, he had never understood the difficulties of a foreigner moving to the UK in quite the same way as he suddenly understood from this book, and he suddenly realized how difficult it must have been for his wife to come to Britain and just survive. I wouldn’t say it is a perfect book, but that’s not because I have a problem with it – I just don’t want to say it’s perfect now and then come back in two or three years and find that there’s a flaw I hadn’t seen before. It has made me see people in a completely different light; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Easily the best thing I’ve read all year, again, and I now have exceptional faith that whatever Lina and Pankaj recommend is going to be amazing. Pankaj is coming out with a book of his own soon; I can’t wait to read it.