Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei translated by Canaan Morse

This wonderful short novel, Ge Fei’s first translated to English, has just been published by NYRB as a Classics Original. The cover copy calls it a “comic novel” and it is...in the sense of the straight man in a comic duo undergoing relationship trouble, family trouble, and job trouble in a fast modernizing Beijing. Our hero—we only ever learn his surname, Cui (pronounced Ts-wei)—plays the straight man role to the end, never quite losing his nerve, though he comes close, while we watch helplessly.

Cui is not completely destitute, except in terms of money, love, and friendship. He has skills. He can put together hi-fi sound systems that audiofiles want to buy. When forced to move from his sister’s unused apartment one winter, Cui develops a sound system that should qualify as “the best in the world,” for any discriminating buyer in China, in hopes that the profit will give him enough to buy a small courtyard for himself to live in.

What elevates this novel is the ordinary man quality, the sense we have of a human fleck bobbing on a wind-tossed sea over which he has no control. The bad things that happen are outside of his control, and though he makes plans and efforts to extricate himself, there is a certain inexorable flow to his outcomes.

This novel is not especially dark, though it has delicious elements of horror and mystery. We become genuinely terrified when a mysterious wealthy stranger offers to buy the "best sound system in the world," but who exudes a hard inflexibility and sense of ferocity when challenged...or when asked to pay. There is some evidence that he has done damage to those that oppose him.

Who wears the invisibility cloak in this novel? Cui tells us that
"In the 1990s, Mou Qishan, the celebrity tycoon, was a household name in Beijing. He liked calligraphy, climbing mountains, and hanging out with female movie stars—all an open secret. Other rumors, however, told of his eccentric and often unpredictable behavior. The wildest story I heard was that he could show up at any event unseen because he wore an invisibility cloak…"
When Mou died, Cui bought a pair of hexagonal Autograph speakers from Mou’s estate. He used them to construct the “best sound system in the world.” It could be the invisibility cloak passed from person to person with ownership of the speakers.

When Cui’s childhood friend Jiang Songping played a joke on Horsewhip Xu, an old man in his neighborhood, Cui had a personal revelation:
"...the best attributes of anyone or anything usually reside on the surface, which is where, in fact, all of us live out our lives. Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone. For as soon as you poke a hole through that paper window, most of what’s inside simply won’t hold up to scrutiny."
What do we take from this? If you are wearing the invisibility cloak, you not only cannot be seen, there isn’t much worth seeing? It does seems as though once ownership of the Autograph speakers changed hands, the “freed man,” as it were, becomes once again visible, and able to express himself “on the surface,” without us having to look through “the hole in the paper window” to their inner thoughts.

One of the more intriguing things Ge does in this novel is debunk the integrity of Jiang Songping, Cui’s best and only friend, and he does it using a pomegranate. Jiang Songping was a clever boy, but Cui’s mother could see right away he was going to be the kind of person who owned people. Jiang had a way of sounding authoritative, even when he spoke rubbish. All of us come under his spell to some degree when he states categorically that all pomegranates, no matter how big or how long they've grown, contain the exact same number of seeds, 365 to be exact. Our eyes pop a bit with this news, for who has ever actually counted pomegranate seeds, and who could dispute this entrancing fact? Later, we learn with the chagrin we share with Cui’s sister that, in fact, Jiang lied on this occasion, and perhaps on many others.

One of the more poignant moments in the book was when Cui returned to the neighborhood where he grew up and discovered it much changed:
"Human memory really is unreliable. I could clearly remember this alley being long, wide, submerged in green shade or sprinkled with white locust flowers, and nowhere near as cramped and seedy as it looked that day…As I sat on the stoop and surveyed the cluttered street under the setting sun, I felt vaguely alienated from everything."
Not all change is good...but memory is unreliable.

This is a delightful addition to the canon coming out of China today, having none of the syrupy schmaltz that earlier, more severely censored works demonstrated. Terrific translation by Canaan Morse, and many thanks to NYRB for picking this one out to share with us. Kudos to all on this one.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Arab of the Future, Part 2 by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor

Volume II is a continuation of the adventures of Riad as a young French-Arab in Homs in the mid-1980s. Riad is still a child, blond-haired and six years old. He is ready to go to school for the first time, and is terrified. With good reason, it turns out.

Sattouf positively outdoes himself drawing scenes from the classroom. The headscarf-wearing teacher has a skirt so short and legs so large that our eyes widen in fear. Riad takes a frame to zero in on the impossible narrowness of her high heels, her calves looming dense and heavy above, like a boulder snagged over a walkway. She looks dangerous. That is to say nothing of the smile she holds a second before she strikes the boys on the palms with a wooden rod. Nothing so thin as a ruler, her tool is a rod that looks very solid and hard in her hand.
"Ha, ha, [Riad’s father chortles that evening] you’re funny. You’re just like me at your age. Scared of everything…Don’t worry, nothing will happen."
More false words were never spoken. Lots happens, and much of it is life-threatening. But perhaps most importantly we see the utter cruelty with which people treat one another. If there was ever a time to be grateful for political correctness in our daily interactions, after reading this you will breathe a sigh of relief for those tedious niceties. You will remember the menace of schoolyard bullies, and realize Arab society, in Syria at least, is taught this is normal human behavior: to be admired if you win, killed if you do not.

Sattouf takes his time with this installment of the story of young Riad. We spend a couple of days sampling the coursework in first grade: patriotic songs, basic characters for writing, reading skills without comprehension, and inventive slurs and punishments. We meet the neighbors: a police-chief-cousin whose stash of gold jewelry could finance a bank, and whose home is a huge unfinished concrete pile cratered with moisture-seeping cracks. We go on a day trip to Palmyra with a general while Riad’s father spends his time trying to wrangle the general into “putting in a word” for his advancement at the university where he works. Palmyra is littered with ancient-looking pottery shards which Riad’s father disdains.
"In the third century after Jesus Christ [Riad’s father says dully, lighting a cigarette] Zenobia turned the nomad’s city of Palmyra into an influential artistic center."
Riad returns to France and enjoys it at the same time he begins to realize he is changing…has changed. He is a desert child now, confused with the plenty that surrounds him in France. It is a poignant section we all recognize for its dislocation. He does not read or speak French particularly well. The French language is difficult, and complicated. Where does Riad fit in? Where does he belong? Where will he be accepted?

The scenes of RIad with the men in his community when he returns to Homs are memorable. Very little is said; the drawings do the work here. I did not understand all that was implied, but someone will. Perhaps the punchline will be revealed in another installation of the life of Riad in Syria. Riad’s father is becoming more and more unbearable as a husband, as a father, as a man. He is hopelessly out of his league wherever he is, and always aspirational, never in control. His wife is losing patience, and he himself is recognizing a few hard truths that have him sitting by himself in some frames, smoking and silent.

Sattouf leaves us feeling unsettled and unsure. Do we want Riad in this place with these people? I think his mother is feeling similarly unsure. The father…one gets the sense that however much the father thinks he is the man, there is precious little he does control.

This installment just cements my sense that this kind of graphic novel may be the easiest, most immediate, most fun way to learn about a culture. When it is done well, a boatload of information can be transmitted in a couple of frames. Sattouf appears to be completely frank about life in Homs as he sees it, and it is remarkable for its insights as well as its humor.

I love this series and will insist upon reading everything about Riad growing up. The Tintin series was the first set of books Riad had access to, the series being only one of two books his academic father had in his personal library. The other book was the Quran. Will look to see if I can see the influences from Tintin in Sattouf’s marvelous story of growing up Arab before his third book hits the stands.

The terrific translation of this work is done by Sam Taylor, and the U.S. publisher is Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt.

Paperback, 160 pages. Published September 20th 2016 by Metropolitan Books (first published June 11th 2015) Original TitleL'Arabe du futur 2 : Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1984-1985) ISBN 1627793518 (ISBN13: 9781627793513)

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

There is much to admire in what Thien tried to do in this 2016 Booker-shortlisted novel, and judging from the laudatory reviews, she must have succeeded. Personally, I struggled against the style of this novel, which I found cloying, despite the fact that different members of one family each had pieces of the story to tell. I have yet to find the author who can tell me a Chinese fiction that I really enjoy, except for classics like the The Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) and Journey to the West, which have always held me in thrall.

The period of this novel, from the end of the revolution through the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen is almost impossible not to find interesting as straight history because of the wrenching societal upheavals, personal traumas, the hugeness of the country, and pace of change. What Thien did was to put a face and family history through that trauma and connect that history to the great Chinese migration east, to the West.

Her lens was a good choice for the story she chose to tell, musicians who played western instruments and music, for it is they who were targeted during the Cultural Revolution most harshly, along with other specialists in western thought or sciences. The part about getting “sent down” to the countryside was not as thoroughly fleshed out as it could have been, but she included details which placed many friends and colleagues in far reaches of China long after that decade passed. The dislocation and missed opportunities were apparent in the lives of those she spoke of who had returned, to some extent, to their old lives. The interpretation of western music by Chinese musicians is a fascinating thread that could have been a story in itself, another frustration. Thien's story is both too big and too small.

The Book of Records was a strangely effective tool, if I understood it correctly, to tie together the lives of those past and future, and the samizdat quality of appearing and disappearing chapters had an authentic feel. Citizens had a real fear of the reach of the state. The scenes before and during the Tiananmen incident also had an immersive, completely authentic quality. When Thien talked about the buildup to June 4 on college campuses, the innocence of the students, the terror of the parents, the gradual buy-in by the factories and universities from around the country, the sense of held breath, and the euphoria, these details rang true.

So why was it difficult for me to listen to this novel? It could be the uncomfortable sense of listening to heartstrings, or perhaps it was the Western connection. I'm not sure. This was a nation ripping itself to pieces. Pity is not an appropriate sensation, nor is any sense of a Western mindset. There is much that was pitiable about life in that period, but perhaps it was the lack of distance, or humor, or sense of historical moment that I missed. These small stories against the backdrop of fifty years in the life of a nation in revolution seemed too small, or too magnified. I never felt really engaged.

The last portion about Tiananmen filled in pieces in my understanding of that time and was detailed and involving for me in a way that the rest of the narrative wasn’t. But this is what I mean about the history being much more interesting than the individual stories. Her characters didn’t matter. We are looking at this spectacle of a nation struggling between revolt and control. The individuals are swept away, a distraction to the magnificence of something on the scale of a natural disaster. It seemed too much for her tiny story, though how else could such a thing be described, except in this way? One day we may find someone who has figured that out.

Thien deserves credit for the enormity of what she attempted, successful or not. It seems that those who didn’t already know this history intimately might have found much to interest them. Those who do know China more intimately might, like me, be waiting for a work that even comes close to encompassing even a piece of the inexpressible and unfathomable hugeness of China as we know it, with no inkling of the West. It is the East that interests us, not the West looking at the East.

I listened to the Recorded Books audio production of this novel, narrated by Angela Lin. Beautiful Mandarin pronunciations were dubbed in for place and people names. There were times when I wondered if the paper copy would help me to understand the form and function of the Book of Records, the form of which I only had a hazy idea about after listening for some twenty hours. And I wondered if the paper copy had ideographs copied out, which would add to the reading experience. If one wants the immersive experience and is unfamiliar with China’s recent history, I think I would recommend the Whisper-sync option, so that one could listen or read alternately, or one after the other, perhaps, to capture all the nuance in this big, ambitious novel.

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The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine

This novel contains so much naked yearning, sadness, despair, and exhausted hilarity—poking fun at man’s powerlessness in the hands of Satan and Death accompanied by Angels—that we could be forgiven for imagining it a memoir. Alameddine has given us something rich upon which to sup, slowly, for there is much to assimilate. A poor Arab son of a whore (literally, as it turns out) is intellectually realized by nuns and priests in Beirut, schooling paid for by an absent father.

The boy and his schoolmates discover his gayness early, and the rest of his life is nary a denial, only acceptance, and once he found his circle, a verbally rich and figuratively celebratory consummation. Consumption is the other half of the story, the harvesting of lives, the dropping away of the circle. Alameddine does not shrink from the most revealing descriptions of life, love, and death in the life of a "little brown gay" man, just giving us pieces sometimes, as though he can’t remember clearly. He probably can’t, which is how we get the feeling that this is something remembered rather than merely invented.

This is not an easy read, there is so much thoughtful erudition here. Our eyes take in more than our brains can process. References to earlier works are everywhere apparent, some boldly proclaimed—Mikhail Bulgakov, Goethe, the Bible, the Quran—others we see faint outlines of in the swirl of colors and language that comprise invention, memory, and forgetting. This is a novel unlike any other, for that little brown gay Arab has given us something we have not seen before, all beauty and crescendo and wit and the most unbearable sense of loss. This is a revealing, naked novel that expresses a longing for acceptance, despair of a kindly world, and a stunning reversal—that hoarse, defiant shout, drenched in a kind of mad joy, into the void.

The novel opens with Satan having a conversation with Death. Shortly we learn that the man they came to discuss, Jacob, has signed himself into a mental hospital…to check his despair. The man, the little brown gay Arab, had lost many friends to AIDS in the scourge. He wants both to forget and to remember. It is not just his life he must remember, but all of it. All of his history, starting with his Yemeni blood. Satan tells us “forgetting is as integral to memory as death is to life.” It is not immediately obvious why we need to know this, and we are not sure we understand it anyway. We will forget it, and remember it again and again.
"Yemen is one of my favorite places, [said Death]...That nation has refreshed and rejuvenated me for centuries."
Love between partners is a momentous thing, not easily found and not easily lost. It lasts forever, some believe, or its vestiges linger forever. It leaves a mark. One is not supposed to lose one’s partner to death in mid-life. It is cruel. It is unnatural. This is the place where Jacob finds himself, struggling through a life filled with losses since childhood. Now in adulthood, he should be expert at it. And there is some resilience there that we poke and prod with interest. How will Jacob respond to his challenges?
”As it was in the beginning, said Satan, lying on my bed, so shall it be in the end, so shall it be first, last, midst, and without end, basically you’re screwed, Jacob, you know, the supremacy of Western civilization is based entirely on the ability to kill people from a distance….You can never win, Jacob.”
Death, on the other hand, promises peace, lethe, forgetfulness, and silence. “Peace on demand, instant gratification.” Which will our confused and suffering Jacob choose? His answer is foreshadowed throughout the novel and has something to do with his covering angels. Despair is normal, despite Jacob’s need for a psych ward. Despair is what we get, sometimes. Forgetting and remembering…you can’t have one without the other.
One early memory is Jacob envying his older cousin, a schoolgirl who faced life silently, in a beige school uniform. Jacob tells us “My Halloween costume that years [was] a headscarf with two pink pigtails sprouting out of it…”

An interview with Rabih Alameddine gives some notion of his carefully hidden depths. This link has the conversation recorded in a noisy cafe. I prefer it, though there is also a written transcript. It is a messy, imperfect thing, this interview, but Alameddine is just so irrepressibly himself.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dead Soon Enough (Juniper Song #3) by Steph Cha

Those of us interested in mystery series, crime novels, and police procedurals are usually on the lookout for the next series by a newcomer that is going to excite us. A Korean-American private investigator called Juniper Song headlining a series set in L.A. looked promising, and I jumped in at book #3 in the series to see what Steph Cha had done with the form.

The voice in this novel is young, smart, and challenging. Song widens our eyes with her opener:
“When I was twenty-two, I sold three sets of eggs for a total of $48,000. I was broke, bored, and quietly depressed, and had no strength to fight the call of easy money…
…Apparently, [Asian-American egg donors] commanded high premiums for rarity on the market…”
Everything about Song’s story as it unfolds in this installment of her adventures is current, relevant, and raises important issues designed to make us think…think not only about her perspective as an Asian-American woman but also about corporate law, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, online shaming and stalking, and surrogacy in childbearing. There is a lot going on, but Cha manages it handily.

The fictional private eye Philip Marlowe and his creator, Raymond Chandler, are mentioned explicitly in this novel more than once, drawing our eye to parallels Cha hopes to highlight. There is a hard-boiled, noirish feel to this piece, despite its clear generational separation from those earlier novels. The comparisons are still a bit aspirational, as there were areas in this novel that did not measure up to the more limited word count of the Marlowe detections.

What did work was the somewhat world-weary tone Song takes in the beginning, which is plenty hard to pull off for a twenty-something with a degree from Yale. Somehow Song manages to make us believe she is one of those disaffected bright young things who is simply bored with the more usual job prospects she could be seeking out. Cha perhaps plays a bit with our stereotypes and expectations about terribly bright Asians here, but she has my sympathies for this approach, and I could laugh soundlessly with her. Besides, intelligence can be used to make most jobs interesting, and in this case, she would have missed out on private detection if she had been more aggressive uncovering well-paid employment opportunities.

What also paralleled Marlowe and worked well was the consistently moral standpoint from which Song conducted her investigations and follow-ups. She had to make some tough decisions about people that may not have been completely straightforward, but her real-life judgements about truth and honesty asked a complicated question about where those two things got everyone in the end.

The final half of the book was beautifully fluent, well thought-out, and moved at a pace befitting the more usual form of a crime novel or police procedural. The first half was workman-like, explanatory, and needed tightening. Young women were the focus of this novel, but sometimes their thought processes, chatty conversations, and questionable choices are simply not interesting enough to hold our attention.

Overall, the attempt to raise important, thoughtful issues in a crime novel and its unusual point of view through the eyes of a Korean-American elevated this genre novel beyond its peers. Though I liked the idea of a brainy woman pulling off an escape from some pretty rough characters in this novel, it did occur to me that her lack of physical prowess might be a hard sell down the line. Perhaps Juniper needs to take some exercise in the form of self-protection skills that might be more useful to her than the gun she yearns to carry.

Hardcover, 292 pages, Published August 11th 2015 by Minotaur Books,
ISBN13: 9781250065315

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Friday, October 14, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James

The 2016 Preface to this collection of stories invokes Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, and Agatha Christie. James mentions that short story mysteries are challenging to write because the author must give their psychological studies an immediate point, without all the space that a novel presents, all in service to the surprise and satisfaction of the reader. Agatha Christie is explicitly mentioned in at least one story, but it is Sayers and Conan Doyle who I think are evoked most completely. This collection brings together four very short detective stories all centered on the Christmas season and, no matter when James actually wrote her preface, there can be no doubt that these are a substantial Christmas gift to her readers.

I listened to the Penguin Random House (Faber Audio) production of this book, and enjoyed them absolutely. The stories are not new: one was written in 1969, another in 1979, 1995, 1996. It may be possible to find the stories elsewhere, but I am going to recommend you listen to these. Altogether the reading is about 3 hours, and the time spent listening places you way back in time, out of your daily life and into the early 20th Century, recalling a time when the mystery greats were stalking the earth.

Born in 1920, James centers her first story, "The Mistletoe Murders", about the time she in real life married Ernest Connor Bantry White, an army doctor, in 1941. Her husband White developed a psychological illness during World War II, and James subsequently had to support the family which included two young daughters. She did not begin writing until the 1950s, but from the time of the war she worked in hospital administration for a London hospital board, a job she held until her husband died in the mid-1960’s, two years after her first novel featuring Adam Dalgliesh, called Cover her Face, was published. James then took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Home Office. [info courtesy of Wikipedia].

There are two Dalgliesh stories in this collection, both deliciously demonstrating his unrivaled talent for observation and deduction, which prompts one character in “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” to compare him to Ms. Marple. Dalgliesh was of course a man in a man’s world and was recognized as a great detective by his own colleagues and those of the local constables. It is reassuring for me to find in this story the understanding of the staff of a local CID is quite up to the standards of the Met, though they allow Dalgliesh to strut his stuff before they take the case in hand themselves, on Christmas Day.

Each of these stories have James’ special intelligence and quiet control about them. If I had to choose a favorite from among these, it might be the first story, “The Mistletoe Murders,” which reveals the abyss most creepily, the dark river flowing beneath the surface of our world.

This Penguin Random House CD set or audio download is a great Christmas treat for parents or anyone who appreciates stories told in the vein of those earlier great mystery story-tellers, Conan Doyle, Sayers, Christie, and Poe. The reading is done most ably by TV and film star Jenny Agutter and Daniel Weyman, narrator of the complete series of Dalgliesh novels. Publication date is set for October 25, 2016. Of course the set will be available in e-reader and paper formats from Knopf as well. Don’t miss these little gems.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"The Arrangements" A short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For months now nearly every piece of fiction I’ve read has a character in it that reminds me of America’s presidential candidate, the infamous Donald Trump, perhaps because he is larger than life. Earlier this year, the New York Times commissioned short stories about the election, and then published this one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in their newspaper available to read anytime by subscribers. I have just learned that Penguin Random House is publishing an audio version that will available for download October 25th.

Adichie mentioned in an interview that she patterned the story on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but my sense of Adichie’s story is far more Shakespearean, or Greek tragedy-ish. (Not having read Mrs. Dalloway recently, perhaps I am missing an obvious parallel.) Adichie makes the Trump women “clever as foxes,” which was my impression as well. Not only do they work hard at their beauty, which anyone with any sense will realize is an obvious advantage they are by now well-skilled at controlling, but they are astonishingly resilient and forgiving, which only comes from understanding, which comes with a certain amount of knowing. Clever as foxes.

I recommend this read or listen for the opportunity to imagine the whole big familial tragedy of Trump’s run for president. Thanks to Adichie to making the effort to add her imagination and skill (and the twist).

The PRH audio version is quite good, getting Melania’s accent down almost perfectly, though the reader, January Savoy, hammers the American accent pretty hard when it comes time for Janelle or Ivanka to speak. Anyway, the whole thing is amusing. You will be surprised at the twist in the story, and it all takes less than a half hour. Check it out.

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