Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battleborn : Claire Vaye Watkins

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Brilliant. It's the range that is evident from story to story that is particularly impressive.

One story describes a 60 year old man who finds a young female teenager abandoned in the middle of a dried out lake.  Another portrays a pregnant woman, hung-up on an old boyfriend and scared of becoming like her mother.  Yet another describes the dynamics between a teenager female and her best friends, a male and a female.

All of the characters are unique with varied personalities, neuroses and fears, yet remain realistic. In addition, each story varies in pace, tone and structure, which fits each story and character and yet providing a refreshingly different emotional turn.

A few quotes from different stories to illustrate the point:
I cried and cried on a bench outside the Asian white rhino exhibit after seeing the marks in the enclosure where the rhino had worn his horn down to a stump, scraping it against concrete sculpted to look like mud. It was foggy at the zoo, and Peter sat silent besides me while I cried, his large hand on the small of my back, light as the fog mist on my skin. People walking by probably thought he'd broken my heart, when it likely the other way around.  We sat like that for a long time before he said, What's wrong?
  Just the same old thing, I said.
  And he said finally, Ecosystems are complex things, Catie.
A blackened sheet of baking parchment floats in a dish of hot grease. The grease has a name, and as our girl tells the story this name will return to her, along with other details of this place, which had until now left her - the flatulent smell from a newly opened bag of sausage, the flimsy yellowed plastic covering the computer keyboards and phone keypads, the serrated edge of a cardboard box slicing her index finger nearly to the bone. Naked in her own bed with a man for whom she feels too much too soon, our girl will recall the name of the grease - Whirl, it was called - and the then-exquisite possibility of searing off her fingerprints.
  Lena, her friend, finally pulls her hands from the rack, shaking the sting from them. You win, she says.
  Our girl waits a beat, gloating, then lifts her palms from the surface, lustrous with heat. She folds a pepperoni disk into her mouth. Let's go again, she says.
As soon as Carter and Marin learn they've conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights.
 Just about the only common thread that runs through these stories is the setting of the American West, which harsh and dusty atmosphere plays an invisible force driving many of these characters.

All in all, I'll be picking up more of Watkins' works.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Train to Lo Wu : Jess Row

The Train to Lo Wu
By Jess Row

I got through the first two stories and simply could not finish.

The stories are all based in Hong Kong.  The jacket blurb says that Row spent two years teaching English in Hong Kong, I suspect to convince readers that Row's insights into Hong Kong are "authentic."

But in the end, Row just cannot put aside his inherent biases to understand Hong Kong well and its differences in culture, pace and history from that of the US. 

For example, in the first story, I noticed that all native Hong Kong characters speak in broken English and yet, the Caucasian character (ha, a teacher!) speaks perfect Chinese.  Not only does this reaffirm certain stereotypes of Asians (hooray!), the poor language does nothing to further convey the personality or the emotional state of the Hong Kong characters.  Yes, the Caucasian character is a teacher, but I think Row misses the chance to address the inherent problem of bilingual communication: how it's tremendously difficult, no matter how advanced you are in a non-native language, to express subtleties.

Secondly, it's always frustrating when people associate Asian cultures with mysticism.  That you travel to a less modern culture and that its people are in touch with the arcane and mysterious.  One, it's a well-trodden trope with historically racist overtones that any decent author should avoid.  And two, for Row to have stayed in Hong Kong for two years and still use, it's plain lazy.

Not putrid, but on my actively non-recommended list.

The Borrower : Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower
By Rebecca Makkai

Children's librarian, Lucy Hull, finds herself driving an unexpected cross-country road trip with ten year old Ian Drake, who is a regular of her library and has been forced by his parents to enroll in Pastor Bob's at-risk (of being gay) classes. 

This was a light, easy read.  Despite protagonist Lucy's fears that she will be found and arrested for kidnapping, the prevailing tone is similar to that of some popular tv shows and movies, where you know that the protagonists will never die / have anything too atrocious occur. 

With that being said, I generally hope that there is an interesting emotional turn that makes things worthwhile and that never really came in this novel.  All in all, this was entertaining while reading, but somewhat forgettable afterward.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Steps : Jerzy Kosinski

By Jerzy Kosinski

It's interesting to reread my thoughts on Jerzy Kosinski's Blind Date and compare it to what I think about Steps.  Both novels delve into more edgy sexual topics.  However, in Steps, there is a sense that society as a whole has a sickness to it - the main character is not the only one that has odd fetishes.  Furthermore, when abnormal sexual actions are described, it's done so with a casual tone, not so much that these actions are widely and publicly accepted, but that they are not uncommon and if someone does object, they would rather just turn a blind eye.  It's as if the protagonist, albeit with his set of own sexual fascinations, wanders around a society exploring various sexual areas.

A passage to illustrate:
   During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I loved the door. After I had undressed she told me to look in the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.
   But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.
In this manner, this novel reminds me of the subversive movies of the 60's and 70's that make your head spin a bit (Cabaret in particular).  In short, this novel is a quick-read, but not a particularly easy one.

The Visible World : Mark Slouka

The Visible World
By Mark Slouka

I really liked the first half of this novel.  The writing was evocative. Frequently, I had to reread passages to detail out the entire image in my mind before moving on.  The first half was memoir-like, jumping around from memory to memory and there are vague dream-like allusions to past events that are just terrifically pretty.  It was like an abstract painting in word form.
   I didn't remember that dream for a long time. Many years later I found myself on a train traveling south from Prague to visit friends near Jindrichuv Hradec. Wet snow had been falling all morning, but now a dull winter sun had broken through. Coal smoke hung like a mist over the towns with their smudged little houses. The train ran beside the river that curved against the hills and spread in great gravelly shoals between the fields, and everywhere I could see the remnants of a flood which only that past October had submerged all the things I was now looking at. I saw a sofa lying upside down on a sandbar and white refrigerator like a boulder in the current. On the television antenna of a low abandoned building I glimpsed what looked like a pair of blue pants, stiff as a weathervane. And at that moment for some reason I remembered my dream - the dream I had had a year after we had moved out of our apartment on 63rd Road. I didn't think much of it at the time. I watched the country scrolling by. All along the way, beards of trash hung in the bushes and the trees like Spanish moss, except that here everything was at the same height - the high-water mark - everything below having been swept away by the current.
   Strangely enough, just as dreams will sometimes color our memories, the view of the river that day and the dream it recalled together forced themselves on the past, so that afterward, whether I thought of our old apartment, my recollections would always carry a residue of future times, and remembering our apartment I would immediately be forced, like a man stumbling down a series of steps, to recall wandering those same rooms in my dream, and from there to remember the winter morning I'd spent, years later, looking out the dirty windows of the train to Jindrichuv Hradec at all the things, once caught in the current, the flood had left behind.
I was not as much of a fan of the second half, where the protagonist journeys to his parents' home-town to piece together his vague childhood memories.  Slouka then starts to clear up what actually happened with these fuzzy allusions in the first half.  I think large portion of why I was so non-plussed with the second half was that the first half described how some of these events / memories emotionally affected the protagonist.  And the second half, while revealing what actually happened, did not actually lead the protagonist to any further emotional epiphany. As a result, it was nice to find out what happened, but I did not care that much.

I'm a big fan of Slouka's writing though and will likely pick up some more of his works.

Red Sorghum : Mo Yan

Red Sorghum
By Mo Yan

I watched the film, Red Sorghum, years ago, but was curious to see what the book was like.

With the movie as a comparison point, the novel is quite interesting.  The film does follow some of the scenes from the book fairly closely, such that when I got to certain parts of the book, I distinctly remembered the corresponding scene in the movie.  That being said, the movie and the novel dramatically differ in structure.  Whereas the movie follows a linear storyline, the book hops back and forth in time, almost in a circular manner.  The narrator say will mention an incident, talk about an event that happened before that, then an event that happened well after and then perhaps 100 pages later revisit the first incident in more detail and then again 50 pages with further detail.
 The non-linearity is different that used by self-aware, post-modernist authors, who do so to build up to a surprise ending.  The narrator refers to the protagonists as Granddad, Grandmother and Dad, which together with the non-linear structure, make the novel come across as a long multi-day, oral story that one of your parents would tell you about their parents and grandparents.  And the non-linearity comes from the narrator, remembering more details about an event, once they've started talking about something different but related.

Admittedly, the non-linearity and the referral to the protagonists as Granddad, etc. confused me at times, as to who was doing what.  But the novel was interesting enough to force myself to reread passages and figure out what was going on.

The content itself covers the span of about 40-50 years, ranging from how Granddad (Yu Zhan'ao) met Grandmother and their difficult relationship as well to Dad growing up with Grandad during violent and fend-for-yourself times.  The content of the novel does touch upon historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of China during WWII and the growing Communist movement within the country, but the novel is anchored primarily as a personal tale. 
 In that historical era, there were some gruesome atrocities and they are described in detail, so those readers sensitive to violence would be good to be wary.  In general, the writing is fairly descriptive of people, the sights and smells and the protagonists' emotions.   However, the tone in which the violent acts occur is even-handed and neutral, helping bring home the fact that everyday life was brutal and almost barbarian.

I'll end this with a lengthy quote, which touches upon all of the things I've mentioned:
  Then when he [Granddad] was thirteen, his mother began an affair with the abbot at Tianqi Monastery. The well-to-do monk often brought rice and noodles over, and every time he came, Yu Zhan'ao's mother sent the boy outside. Flames of anger raged inside him as sounds of revelry emerged from behind the closed door, and he could barely keep from torching the house. By the time he was sixteen, his mother was seeing the monk so frequently that the village was buzzing. A friend of his, Little Cheng the blacksmith, made him a short sword, with which he murdered the monk one drizzly spring night beside Pear Blossom Creek, named for the trees that lined it. They were in bloom on the wet night, blanketing the area with their delicate fragrance.
  Granddad fled the village after the incident, taking odd jobs and finally getting hooked on gambling. Over time his skills improved until the copper coins that passed through his hands stained his fingers green. Then, when Nine Dreams Cao, whose favorite pastime was nabbing gamblers, became magistrate of Gaomi County, he was arrested for gambling in a graveyard, given two hundred lashes with a shoe sole, forced to wear a pair of pants with one red leg and one black one, and sentenced to sweeping the streets of the count town for two months. When he'd completed his sentence he wandered into Northeast Gaomi Township, where he hired out to the service company. Upon learning that, after the death of the monk, his mother had hanged herself from the door frame, he went back one night to take a last look around. Some time later, the incident with my grandma occurred.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blackout / All Clear : Connie Willis

All Clear
By Connie Willis

A refreshing combination of sci-fi and historical.

Historians in Oxford in the year 2060 are able to travel back in time to see what life really was like in-person. The plot centers around three protagonists: Eileen, Polly and Mike, who have gone back to the Blitz in UK during WWII and begin to have troubles returning to their regular time.

The novels are rich with historical details of what it was like in England during WWII: of having to go to bomb shelters, of working in department stores, of working as ambulance drivers, of hearing V-1 bombs drop from the sky etc.  Willis certainly has done her homework in this regard, and if  nothing else, one can learn more about history from these novels.

I also liked the sense of fear, uncertainty, and later, desperation that the main characters must face and the extent to which Willis does not let readers off the hook to this either.  Too often, you know that protagonists will survive, completely unscathed, with a happy ending.  Here, there is a sense of the characters not knowing what will happen and not knowing whether they made the right decision or not, which is more similar to real life and is refreshing.

Lastly, it's great to have both female and male characters, who are relatively fleshed out and where no manufactured love story plays a major role.

A few dislikes:

* The multiple mentions of Agatha Christie books - One of the characters is a fan of Agatha Christie and mentions that she always amazed by the reveals, since she has been thinking about the who-done-it situations wrongly.  These mentions setup expectations for the Willis novels that there will be an marvelous reveal for how things work out.  While the ending is certainly well-thought out, the reveal is still a bit of a let down, especially because of these build-ups.

* Lack of emotional back-story so the reader can empathize with the characters.  Willis does a great job of placing you where the protagonists are: conveying what they are feeling at the moment, understanding their brief emotional bonds to the people they meet and the conundrums they feel knowing some of the future.  But there is not as much coverage of each protagonists' memories or personality quirks or some attribute that allows you to root for their survival.

That being said, overall, the novels were quite enjoyable and certainly I will have no problem picking up another Connie Willis novel again.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Banquet Bug : Geling Yan

The Banquet Bug
By Geling Yan

The protagonist, Dan Dong, a simple man from a village, accidentally stumbles into a corporate-sponsored banquet, where he finds out he can get paid to eat delicacies that only the rich elite of the nation get to enjoy. Enamored with the luxurious food and easy money, he decides to fake being a reporter, coming up with a dummy business cards and reporter credentials.  Unfortunately, with such wide disparities between the have's and the have-not's in Chinese society, the poor and powerless start to demand that he use his position as a reporter to write about their situations and speak out against the corruption that cripples them. 

Dan is a simple-minded character, who is simply unable to control any of the situations he gets into, simply because those around him are more ruthless, smart, passionate, demanding and/or political than him. In this respect, it captures how a Westerner might initially feel when living in China, where the culture is more relationship-focused and where situations can get complex quickly.  Dan does get into situations, where construction workers go unpaid for their work, where real-estate moguls fleece buyers of their money without finishing their purchased condos, where sex-workers struggle for money, all while the rich and powerful enjoy rare delicacies at banquets, so this does seem like a somewhat broadly accurate depiction of China in the recent past and now.

My problem really was the lack of depth to the characters.  Dan is an exagerratedly passive, spineless and not that bright cartoon character.  Other characters play out stereotypical roles - a ruthless, hard nosed reporter, a sex worker with a heart of gold, a demure wife, etc.  If this novel was purely for entertainment, the lack of characterization might be less noticeable.  But when trying to point out social injustices, it felt like when a comic-book like the X-Men tried to address serious issues.  It's feels a bit clumsy and it's difficult take the issues serious with such broad writing.

All in all, I made it through the novel, but I'm not sure I'm much more enlightened after reading it. 

Note: this was Yan's first novel in English, which is not her native language.  Certainly, that is an impressive feat by itself and I'm a little curious to pick up one of her novels that she wrote in Chinese and was translated to see, whether or not language was partially the issue.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Running with the Kenyans : Adharanand Finn

Running with the Kenyans
By Adharanand Finn

Finn moved his wife and three children to Iten, Kenya, in order to train with Kenyan runners and understand why there are so many great Kenyan long-distance runners.

Refreshingly, this book is not like an extended Western-culture-centric,  running magazine article that proclaims "The secrets of Kenyan runners that will enable you to achieve your personal record!"

Rather, this is really a memoir of Finn's and his family's experience moving to and living in Iten, Kenya.  Finn does learn factors that contribute to Kenyans' success with running, but these are bundled into the larger experience of learning to live in a new country.  And that is what is really enjoyable about this book: you get a sense of the novelness of moving a new location, of meeting new people, uncovering differences in cultural norms and eventually the comfort of settling in.  And running just happens to be one large aspect of the culture there.

Finn does organically piece together a number of different factors that contribute to the Kenyans' success in long-distance running. But in the end, he concludes that many of these are are inherently linked to location (ex. high-elevation) and culture (ex. Kenyan children run barefoot to school when they are young / running as the only way out of poverty) and are not transferable elsewhere, much like how the charm of Parisian cafes or the success of Silicon Valley have not been duplicated in other locations. 

Finn ends up organizing a team to train for and run the tough, local Lewa Marathon, which serves as an end focal point for his narrative.  But it's really the descriptions of Finn's tough training runs, of his conversations with local coaches and successful athletes, and other colorful anecdotes of living there that make this such an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Underground : Haruki Murakami

By Haruki Murakami

On Mar 20, 1995, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, released sarin, a poison gas, on subway lines in Tokyo. 5,510 people were brought to hospitals - thirteen died, over 1000 had serious injuries.  

Murakami interviewed the victims, to understand who they were, what the day of the attack was like and how they were affected by the attack.  You get a sense of what it was like being on one of the affected subways and the extent of the confusion at what was going on (many victims continued to work, despite symptoms and only later realized they should head to the hospital).   Since Murakami talked with a range of people, in different professions and with different personalities, it's very easy to imagine what if it was me, or one of my family, or one of my friends, who had been on those subways...

Months after the attack, nearly all of the interviewed victims were still affected: fatigue, worsened vision, worsened memory, to such an extent that some could not continue their previous jobs.  It's just such a devastating, in-depth look into how just being in the wrong place at the wrong time can affect you so much.

After the original interviews, Murakami later added a section, interviewing members of the Aum Shinrikyo group, to understand who they were, why they joined Aum, what they did in the group and how they felt about the subway gas incident.  Many of the members had been struggling with bigger philosophical questions, felt lost as a member of "normal" society, and found that Aum was a place they could explore their spirituality.  Murakami strived to understand the members as people, probing deeper than the news media, who generally seemed to dismiss those in Aum as "others" (those crazy cultists).  That's not to say that he sympathizes with the Aum folk, but he was trying to understand how it is that people who felt lost in the cracks could be convinced to do such a destructive act, in order to form a better support network for similar people going forward.

Murakami does a really fine job questioning and probing not only to understand the event itself, but also the larger surrounding societal context as to how an event like this could happen.  While this event occurred in Japan in 1995, given events and the overall security-sensitive mood here in the US, over the last ten years, this book is still relevant and poignant.