Sunday, October 25, 2009

War Trash - Ha Jin

2004; 350 pages. Awards : Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award (2005); Pulitzer Prize nominee. Genres : Historical Literature; Fictional Memoir. Overall Rating : C+.
War Trash offers a unique view of the Korean War from the Chinese perspective, which is : "MacArthur's army would have crossed our border and seized Manchuria if we hadn't come to Korea. We had no choice but to fight the better-equipped aggressors." The title refers to the lot of the Chinese POW's (and tangentially, the North Korean POW's) and the choices they will have when they are repatriated at the end of the war. Both the Communists and Nationalists view them as traitors, yet both sides want to use them for propaganda purposes. Once their propaganda value is used up, they can and will be discarded.
The book is told in first-person by Yu Yuan. Because he speaks English and isn't a card-carrying member of the Communist party, he has enhanced value to both sides. OTOH, he trained at a Nationalist Military Academy, but served in the Red Chinese Army, so neither political side trusts his loyalty.
What's To Like...
The story is fiction (Ha Jin was born in 1956; the Korean War ended several years before that), but many of the events are grounded in history. For instance, the ingenious kidnapping of an American general by the POW's actually occurred.
The book is written in memoir style - "First I did this; then that happened." Adjectives and adverbs are few and far between. Ha Jin wrote War Trash in English, so there is no fall-off due to translation.
But the memoir-style has some inherent limitations. Although it is superbly written, it remains a piece of fiction. It's kinda like if you were to read a novel called "The Thoughts of Mother Teresa". Even if it was a literary masterpiece, you'd most likely still prefer to read her actual words.
Also, the plot doesn't build to any sort of climax. Yu Yuan goes to war for 50 pages; spends 270 pages in a POW camp; then the next half-century of his life is covered in 20 pages. Throughout everything, he doesn't give a fig about political ideology. All he wants to do is survive and return home to his aged mother and his fiancée. The book aptly closes with this paragraph :
"Now I must conclude this memoir, which is my first attempt at writing and also my last. Almost 74 years old, I suffer from gout and glaucoma; I don't have the strength to write anymore. But do not take this to be an "our story". In the depths of my being I have never been one of them. I have just written what I experienced."
I give War Trash a C+, even though it is worthy of its Pulitzer Prize nomination. History buffs and lovers of Chinese culture will find it enlightening. Everyone else may find it slow-go.
The Americans had taken us to be an army of peasants, more like cattle than men. The play seemed to have changed their perception of us a little. Later I noticed the guards would treat the few actors somewhat differently from the regular prisoners, with more respect. They would no longer curse them. (pg. 133)
"History has shown that the Communists always treat their enemies more leniently than their own people. Only by becoming their significant enemies can you survive decently." (pg. 128)
High-falooting word from War Trash...
Raconteur. A fancy word for a "story-teller".

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storm Front - Jim Butcher

2000; 322 pages. Genre : Urban Fantasy (so sez Wikipedia), or Semiautomagic (so sez Butcher). I like Butcher's choice better. Book #1 (out of 11, I think) in the "Dresden Files" series. Overall Rating : B-.
Harry Dresden is a Wizard. He's in the Yellow Pages, where his ad reads : "Harry Dresden - WIZARD. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment."
Harry's main activity is finding enough money to pay the monthly rent. Today's his lucky day. A woman wants to pay him to find her husband. And the Chicago police want his professional opinion as to whether any magic was used in a double homicide. Where the hearts of two lovers exploded out of their chests (shattering ribs on the way out) and splotched all over the ceiling. Yeah, there might be a tad bit of paranormalcy involved here.
What's To Like...
There's a vampire or two. There are black mages and white wizards. There are pizza-loving fairies, and a wise-cracking spirit caged in a skull on Harry's desk. There are slow-witted demons, 6-foot-tall scorpions, some hookers, and some mobsters. There's a strong female police detective named Karrin Murphy.
It's a murder-mystery, but with AD&D-ish magic blended in. Spells are cast, but one is never quite sure what they'll do and how effective they'll be.
Buzzword for this book : "Thaumaturgy" (pg. 19).
Magic. It can get a guy killed.
Storm Front is Butcher's debut effort, and it shows. There are some trite metaphors, some "roll your eyes" scenes, and some telegraphed plot twists (is that an oxymoron?). For example - he concocts two potions - an Escape Potion (which he plans to use), and a Love Potion (which he has no discernible plans for). Things go awry during a battle with a demon, and he calls for his female companion to drink the Escape Potion. Yeah, guess which one she drinks.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
You can nitpick the storyline to death, but that misses the point that it is meant to be a light-hearted read with an entertaining stream of humor running throughout. Several reviewers say that Butcher gets a lot more polished with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

1961; 268 pages. Genre : Contemporary Lit. Overall Rating : B.
On the surface, Harold W. Campbell is a World War 2 "Lord Haw-Haw", an American who broadcasts propaganda for Nazi Germany to the Allied soldiers fighting in Europe. Only a select few know he is actually a hero, a double-agent transmitting vital war secrets via coded phrases in his radio diatribes.
What's To Like...
It's Vonnegut; it rocks. There's a fascinating storyline, superior writing, and a bunch of interesting characters, most of whom turn out to be not what they seem.

.Vonnegut gives us the moral on the first page of the introduction : "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." A couple pages later, his dedication to Campbell reads, "a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."

.There's a brief reference to a great, obscure historical figure - Tiglath-Pileser (pg. 4), and a cameo appearance by one of my favorite words - susurrus (pg. 177). Oh, and I swear each of the 45 chapters ends with a storyline "twist". Try pulling that off every 3 or 4 pages.

.Underneath all the absurdity, Vonnegut examines a fundamental question - what constitutes the "real" you? Is it your innermost being, or is it the summation of the effect your actions have on Humanity?

.If the theme of Slaughterhouse Five is the insanity of war; then Mother Night is its sequel, with a theme of the senselessness of post-war. MN is not quite up there with S-5 and The Sirens of Titan, but it's still a superior book, and highly recommended.

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 160)

."Any news of my parents?" I said.
"I'm sorry to tell you-" he said, "they died four months ago."
"Both?" I said.
"Your father first - your mother 24 hours later. Heart both times," he said.
I cried a little about that, shook my head. "Nobody told them what I was really doing?" I said.
"Our radio station in the heart of Berlin was worth more than the peace of mind of two old people," he said.
"I wonder," I said.
"You're entitled to wonder, " he said. "I'm not."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett

1996; 357 pages. Genre : Fantasy Satire. #19 in the Discworld Series (out of 36, oops, out of 37, since "Unseen Academicals" just came out this week). Overall Rating : A-.

    An old priest and a dwarven baker are murdered; someone is poisoning the Patrician in a very slow fashion; amd no one is sure how. This would be a typical day in Ankh-Morpork, except that the Assassins Guild isn't involved in any of these dastardly deeds. So it's up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to find and arrest the miscreants. The trouble is, those pesky things called clues keep getting in the way of blind justice.

What's To Like...
This is Pratchett's nod to mystery stories in general, and Sherlock Holmes stories in particular. We are introduced to a number of cool chartacters. There's Cheery Littlebottom, just one of the dwarven boys, until he starts wearing lipstick, earrings, and a kilt. There's Wee Mad Arthur; a ratter by trade, 6" tall, with the fighting power of a stick of dynamite. And for us techno-geeks, Sam is equipped with an unorganized organizer; consisting of an imp in a small pocket-sized box, who can manage his calendar, alert him to appointments, take memos, and give him inspiring daily quotes, but can't do any of this competently.

Oh, and there's also a bit of synesthesia; see an excerpt of it below.
There are always themes in any Discworld book after about #5. Besides murder-mysteries, the themes here are The Monarchy (Pratchett finds little use for it), Racial and Gender Prejudice, Labor Unions, and Evangelists (meet Constable Visit, short for Visit-The-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets). Pratchett also tackles the question of what constitutes Life itself.

.The storyline in Feet Of Clay is well done, and all the threads get tied up nicely. Sam is gradually coming to grips with his inter-species bigotry. By the end of the book he decides that Golems and Zombies can now be part of the City Watch, although Vampires are still excluded.

.The story is formulaic, but that's okay for a series of this genre. The characters evolve from book to book, and Pratchett comes up with new themes each time.

Afterward, she always remembered the odors as colors and sounds. Blood was rich brown and deep brass, stale bread was a surprisingly tinkly bright blue, and every human being was a four-dimensional kaleidoscopic symphony. For nasal vision meant seeing through time as well as space: man could stand still for a minute and, an hour later, there he'd still be, to the nose, his odors barely faded. (56)
.The barman leaned over to Sergeant Colon. "What's up with the corporal? He's a half-pint man. That's eight pints he's had."
Fred Colon leaned closer and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Keep it to yourself, Ron, but it's because he's a peer."
"Is that a fact? I'll go and put down some fresh sawdust."
"Slab : Jus' say 'AarrghaarrghpleassennonononoUGH'." (Slab is an illicit drug in Discworld) (26)
T'dr'duzk b'hazg t't!" ("Today is a good day for someone else to die!") (311-12)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Come On In! - Charles Bukowski

2006; 279 pages. Genre : Modern Poetry. Dewey Decimal Number : 811.56 B869C. Cost (new) : $27.50; Cost to check it out from the library : free. Overall Rating : A-.
The prologue to Come On In! reads : "These poems are part of an archive of unpublished work that Charles Bukowski left to be published after his death." Although he is best known for his 5 semi-autobiographical novels (Ham On Rye, et. al.), most of Bukowski's books are either poetry or poetry/short stories.
What's To Like...
The poems are broken into four sections. The first part is his reflections on growing old; the second is about women; the third is about the writing profession; and if there's a unifying theme in the fourth section, I didn't catch it.
The poems have no meter, no rhyme, and no structure. I usually struggle with this form of prose, but these were quite readable. There are even two poems referencing Li Po, who happens to be my favorite classical Chinese poet. It's amazing that Bukowski was familiar with and influenced by him.
I found the "Aging" section especially poignant. It should be rated PG-50 : anyone younger than that has to read it with their parents. Towards the end of his life, Bukowski was battling leukemia; and he offers a lot of insight regarding his mortality. His point in one poem is that a poet is never allowed to retire. His public expects him to keep following his muse and composing poems, even when he's dying.
The "Women" section is revealing, but less inspiring. Bukowski's philosophy on the opposite sex seems to be : Live with them, even marry them if need be. But when they get to be irritating, it's time to move on. He chides couples that have been married 60-70 years, writing, "either of whom would long ago have settled for something else, but fate, fear and circumstances have bound them eternally together".
In the "Writing" section, he cuts through the BS associated with his fame, laughing at aspiring authors who butter him up, then send him their unpublished manuscripts for him to read and forward along to his publisher.
I give Come On In! and A- because it resonated with me. There's nothing high-brow here - indeed, he mocks poets who feel compelled to work Greek and Roman gods into their prose, or who try to impress with a line or two of French or Italian. Instead, Bukowski is a poet for the proletariat, a Robert Frost with an attitude. Read Come On In! when you're tired of social snobbery and just want some honest, down-to-earth insight.
I can't think of another poet who makes people as
angry as I do.
I enjoy it
knowing that we are all brothers and sisters
in a very unkind extended
and I also never forget that
no matter
what the circumstances,
the park bench is never that far away
from any one of
(last part of "the x-bum")
peace of mind and heart
when we accept what
having been
born into this
strange life
we must accept
the wasted gamble of our
and take some satisfaction in
the pleasure of
leaving it all
cry not for me.
grieve not for me.
what I've written
forget it
drink from the well
of your self
and begin
(last part of "mind and heart")