Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Angelic Darkness

The Angelic Darkness
Richard Zimler

When Bill Ticino's wife moves out, he is beset by insomnia and childhood fear of spirits. Hoping to reassure himself, he rents part of the house to a mysterious Portuguese diplomat. Called Peter, the new tenant brings his pet hoopoe, piles of bizarre relics, pointedly important stories, and new experiences with spirits and mystics.

As an emotional Bill starts to piece life back together, he finds that things are far from what they seem. From the feminine transvestite prostitute he interviews for an article just before his murder to the pixie-like Indian singer who seems to know far too much about the world, Bill's normal way of framing things are bent. But are any of these things really happening?

Although I was initially intrigued by the characters and their stories, the point of the book was disappointing. I expected the mysticism to reveal the deep overlap between myth and reality, perhaps breaking the boundary altogether in a step into urban fantasy. But it was about figuring out how to be gay in a straight world. Oh, well. Ok, then. This was a letdown not because I deem it an inappropriate struggle to portray, but rather because the beginning, the stories, the tone, were not well tied in to the conclusion. I was left feeling like I had started one book and finished another.

The Shack

The Shack
William Paul Young

This tale of how God responds when bad things happen to people who want good lives has been discussed all over the place. Copies of it have even made it to Russia, which is saying something. So, now it's time for my three cents.

The scene is set with Mac losing his baby girl to a brutal serial killer. His depression grows gnarlier, his relationships falter, and he doesn't trust God anymore. After all, if the ruler of the universe were actually good, He wouldn't let people kill adorable small children. And then, God invites him out to the shack where the last bloodstained traces of Mac's little girl were found. Desperate, he goes.

When he's given up all hope, the shack is transformed into a beautiful house, and God the Father walks out of it to give Mac a big hug. The idea of God manifesting as a big black woman whippin' up great meals is delightful to me, and I am thrilled that someone finally portrayed Jesus as being Middle Eastern. The Holy Spirit as a mystical iridescent Asian woman is a bit more cliche, but still entertaining. The three of them work together to show Mac that his view of life, God, and tragedy are skewed.

Hang'in out with members of the Trinity for one-on-one chats about free will, omnipotence, forgiveness, and justice, Mac finds his depression lifting and worldview radically changing. He leaves so impressed by the truths he's learned that his friends and family eventually believe his incredible story.

Thanks to this book, I now believe in the importance of an editor and understand why self-publishing is such a bad idea. It took long, conscious effort to turn off my internal writer/English teacher/editor and actually pay attention to the story. Young uses far too much passive voice and makes sentences and ideas overly complicated, bogging them down with multiple extraneous metaphors. It's a great story, but the writing - oh dear.

Contemporary Chinese Fiction

The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction
Ed. Carolyn Choa & David Su Li-Qun

Sadly, the only contemporary Chinese fiction I've read in the past three years is the marvelous little Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. So when I found a collection of contemporary short stories, all translated into English for the first time, I was delighted.

The book did not disappoint. The nineteen authors cover broad territory in the twenty-eight pieces: death, marriage, love, disappointment, the change of traditions, respect, ghosts, and how to share a crowded courtyard with too many other people. Each character is carefully sculpted with a minimum of movements, fully three-dimensional and elegantly portrayed. Reflecting on bits of life in communist times, the authors manage to present a rich, deeply colored glimpse of life using deceptively simple strokes. Reading is like listening to bells and watching the wind tickle a pine: mystical and yet very connected with the dirt of life.

I am babbling because it is hard to adequately sum up how different these stories feel from what I normally read. I suggest you do what you can to find them yourself.

The Red and the Green

The Red and the Green
Iris Murdoch

I admit to not knowing much about Ireland or its history, other than that it really didn't like the English shoving it around and it has leprechauns. I also admit to planning a trek there this winter. So. Enter Iris Murdoch, whose book The Sea, the Sea was my traveling companion on my last foray to the British Isles, and who proved a fantastic wordsmith and traveling companion, particularly as I was on her home soil. Who better to introduce me to the Irish mind in the week leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916?

Her story follows various members of an extended Irish-English family as they move about Dublin in the days prior to the uprising, painting a picture of diverse households, motives, and ideals. Murdoch presents the tale in pairs of opposites: Andrew, the London-raised English cavalry officer just about to be sent to France to fight the Germans, in contrast with his admired cousin Pat, one of the junior leaders of the revolution; Christopher, a well-endowed gentleman pushing life around with the end of a walking stick until it's just as he likes it, as opposed to Barney, who muddled up his early religious devotion and can't quite seem to sort out his consequent life; Millie, the eccentric, defiantly unfeminine, incredibly alluring widow who plays her many partners against each other and is vastly different from innocent, prim Frances, who watches the restless sea with calm eyes and has been raised in the most ladylike fashion.

And then, after all the build-up, all the political arguments and riding around on bicycles and surprising each other in secrets and proposals and refusals and generally wandering around in the heads of all these men (the women are supplemental characters, really), the uprising comes in and drags them all off, and the book is finished off in eight and a half pages. We find out what happens to the bodies of all the people, but I was left frowning after how the battle affected the minds I'd been inside. Suddenly my intimately known characters became ghosts. Perhaps that's as Murdoch meant it to be.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Empires of the Plain

Empires of the Plain
Lesley Adkins

This summer I visited the British Museum, where I was overwhelmed by the huge rooms full of ancient treasures. Besides the Rosetta Stone, what impressed me the most were huge relief carvings from Assyrian palaces, beautiful pictures covered in intricate cuneiform writing.

Unfortunately, I only remember Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Israel from school, and had no idea what cuneiform was or who the Assyrians were. So when I saw a book on Henry Rawlinson, the East India Company soldier responsible for much of the work done on cracking cuneiform, I picked it up.

Rawlinson was a soldier, diplomat, and self-taught linguist in the employ of the East India Company for the first several decades of the 1800s. His greatest single feat was climbing a formidable rock face to make copies of a huge trilingual inscription recounting the victory of Darius the Great over rebels. He spent much of the rest of his life deciphering the symbols and three languages, while colleagues began to unearth colossal palaces and wall carvings bearing more cuneiform.

Following Rawlinson's career from homesick initiate to trustee of the British Museum, Empires of the Plain gives an astonishing look into the politics, trade, archeology, and linguistics of the knowledge-hungry British Empire in the Middle East. It also showcases the worth of tenacity and determination in the face of seemingly impossible tasks. If you have any interest in the Middle East, British Imperialism, ancient races, archeology, or linguistics, this book is well worth the read.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
and The Return of the King
J.R.R. Tolkien

The quite good film adaptations of this epic classic has rendered it famous even to those who don't tackle thousand page tomes. But even good films are not the same as books - "The media makes the message," as dear old Marshal McLuhan would say - and The Lord of the Rings is more than worth the read.

It's the story of nine people who step into a journey that tests, refines, and transforms them, ultimately deciding on their place in the new world and what that world will be. It's about doing hard things, what happens when you succeed, and the terror of failure. And it's about faith in friends.

Along the way, we adventure with hobbits (those remarkably sturdy small earth-dwellers), elves (fair folk of the forest), rangers (grim protectors of the borders), dwarves (rugged stone-shapers and metalworkers), men (some good, some bad, all tall), ents (ancient tree-herders and by far my favorite), old creatures of unclassifiable sort (Tom Bombadil!), and wizards (keepers of lore, wisdom, and power at need - and some make spectacular fireworks). They are set against troubles (orks! trolls! demons! snow! wolves! axes! love!) that threaten to overrun them at every turn and defeat their mission to thwart the conquest of the world by the evil Sauran.

The plan is simple: destroy the ring that Suaran made to control all other rings of power. The execution of the plan... well, therein lies the tale.

One of my favorite things about Lord of the Rings is that it is largely told from the point of view of the "least" characters. The hobbits are unknown to most of the world and viewed as simple farmers by the rest. They do not set out reknowned or heroes. But the parts they play impact the world more significantly than any, even the wizards and elf-lords, could have predicted.

But even the heroes struggle with self-sacrifice, feelings of inadequacy, and the temptation to just step back and say they've done enough, which makes them intimately accessible and real. And the friendships in this book are magnificent. It is riveting and epic, and yet close to heart and calming. Not because it is Happy, but because it is Right.

The back of my volume quotes The Sunday Times: "The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them." I hope they are right.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Popular Music

Popular Music
Mikael Neimi
translated by Laurie Thomson

Featuring Finnish speaking characters, but written in Swedish and set in a small Northern Swedish town just across the border from Finland, Popular Music is the growing up story of a boy and his home.

Matti and his best friend Niila are born into a tiny rural town where most people speak Finnish and don't understand the soft Southern Swedes, who don't even know they exist. When they are boys, they watch automobiles arrive and sneak into an older sibling's room to play records of Elvis and The Beatles. But they still ride kick-sledges to school and chop wood for their mothers.

As they get into scrapes, work their first jobs, learn to play guitar, and are initiated into the rites of family feuds, their town also changes. Slowly but as surely as the spring thaw, modern living creeps in, leading the grandparents to scoff that they're all getting soft.

The story is told in first person, taking us inside Matti's head and adventures. He doesn't skimp on boy-humor and teenage capers, so if you don't like fart jokes or air gun wars, stay away. Somewhat crusty and crude at times, it nevertheless is an intimate look into an intriguing culture and a touching story of coming of age in a forgotten rural village.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Half a Life

Half a Life
V.S. Naipaul

A couple of years ago, I read a rich and provoking memoir by Paul Theroux about his relationship with V.S. Naipaul. Until that point I had heard of neither of them; since then I have wanted to read their works. So, even though Half a Life cost three Euro, I bought it. It also won a Nobel prize, which also helped justify the cost.

It's hard to say precisely what this book is about. Will has a lot of angst about Purpose and Race and Ethnicity and his place in the world, but he never really resolves any of them. Born of a mixed-caste marriage in provincial India, he dabbles in converting to Canadian missionary whiteness, moving in Notting Hill bohemian society, hobnobbing with those in vanity publishing, and living with half-Portuguese half-African ruling colonials in Africa. None of them fit him, though he adapts to each for a time.

Driving his ethnic angst is a cloudy sense of purpose. He gets out of India, writes a book, almost completes a degree, and still has no direction. Not all who wander are lost, says Tolkein, but many are. Will marries, slides into his role as the man of the manor in Africa, but is not content. Nothing drives him, and he drives nothing. Each time he realizes he is unhappy driftwood, he moves on to a different mix of folks, waiting for them to validate him and teach him to paddle. Ultimately, none do.

He tries exploring sexuality as a means to fulfillment, beginning with whores and his friends' girls, and moving on to marriage and then falling back to whores before finishing in adultery. But sex gives unsatisfactory, temporary answers, and he dismisses it eventually.

Along the way, we are treated to Naipaul's terse, telling descriptions of persons, events, neighborhoods, and classes. The subtle brilliance of the work is in the way he uses words. Whatever one thinks of the themes, Naipaul is a master of his craft.

An almost raw look at race, identity, and globalization, Half a Life carefully reveals the emptiness of a purposeless life. Unfortunately, it ends as hopeless as Ecclesiastes: vanity, vanity, all is vanity...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai
Helen DeWitt

Once I had to spend 16 days in Finland with very little money, waiting for a visa to Russia. I whiled away much of the time in the English book section of the public library. As I had no library card, I could not take books out, so I sat in hard wooden chairs and read books cover to cover, averaging two a day. This was one of them.

Unfortunately I have not the time nor necessity to read books cover-to-cover in a single sitting now, but still I re-read The Last Samurai in only three days. I couldn't help it; I love this book.

Are you ready to be surprised? This book is not about Samurai. It did not inspire any films. Not the Tom Cruise one, not any other one. Sorry. It's about a single mother from a family of thwarted genius, raising her son as well as she can to explore his interests and proclivities. Since she does not want him to grow up with no male role models, she makes him watch the Japanese film The Seven Samurai (on which the classic American film The Magnificent Seven was based) repeatedly. And in between he teaches himself Greek at age 4, Japanese at 5, starts in on Algebra and aerodynamics before kindergarten, and generally makes it difficult for his mother to continue computerizing back issues of obscure magazines such as Carpworld. The boy, called Ludo, turns a precocious eleven and starts thinking of applying to Oxford and trying to find his father.

Such is the storyline. The style, well! DeWitt dispenses with traditional punctuation like quotation marks, which gives the book a stream of consciousness quality, but it is not so annoying that I cannot read it. The story of Ludo and Sybilla (his mother) is interspersed with their summations of interesting people they admire ("He was a linguist, and therefore he had pushed the bounds of obstinacy well beyond anything that is conceivable to other men."), comments on syntax and language structure (Japanese, Icelandic, Inuit...), passages from aerodynamics texts, and Sybilla's dry, sarcastic humor ("Tall Men in Tight Jeans! I haven't seen this in years! ...Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tight jeans! It's simply MAGNIFICENT!").

It is possible that I like this book because everyone it in is as obsessive and strange as I am. It is also witty, original, and makes me laugh. Hard enough that people stare at me on the metro. Care to give it a whirl?