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.