.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Started 3/9, Finished 3/16. I guess I'm slowing down a bit.

Bridge of Birds is considered "fantasy", but in truth I think trying to pigeonhole it into a genre is silly and a little bit disrespectful. It's a delightful read, charming and funny and skillfully done.

The story concerns a small village not far from Peking, China, around 640 A.D. All of the children of the village between 8 and 13 contract the same disease on the same day, and it is up to Master Li Kao, "a sage with a slight flaw in his character", and Number Ten Ox, the narrator of the story, to cure the illness. Hijinks ensue. Their journey will take them over mountains, under lakes, through caves, and overland in more than one flying conveyance. They encounter the Cavern of Bells, the Sword Dance, the Labyrinth of the Duke of Ch'in, and the Hand that No One Sees. They meet people who help them or hurt them, sometimes they hurt them before they help them. Sometimes they steal, sometimes they kill, sometimes they run away. It's hard to talk about specifics, because everything is so interwoven and integral that no single part stands out of context, and giving context is giving the story. Oh, you find out what caused the illness very soon into it, but that doesn't matter.

If there's a companion piece here, it's the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where you know the mystery within the first quarter of the story, and the journey is what counts. I just love taking a story like that, a North By Northwest-style "one damn thing after another" quest, and transposing it to a culture so foreign and so fascinating - you end up with the sense that all the world's culture originated in China.

Which brings me to the author, and a small sense of either guilt or bewilderment - do I really have the right to enjoy this as much as I did, considering that the guy who wrote it is about as Chinese as I am? Well, I'm trying to do a similar thing with Moorish Spain, so I'd better learn to cope. For me, it's not just that he invents legends and intermigles them with the legends and myths of China, but that he conveys a state of mind. That's what I can't be sure about. Does he get it? Is it still at its core a rather Western way of composing a story? Do I even have any right to draw any conclusions about the Chinese based on this?

I've been worried a lot about how to portray a period in history where I've made a lot of stuff up. My Moorish Spain is a bit romanticized, a bit fantastical, partially to suit my needs but mostly because the majority of source material I could find has either been in Spanish or in Arabic. I've worried that scholars would freak out at the decisions I've made and the inaccuracies, etc. Then I came to two conclusions: a) that's a great problem to have, and b) considering (a), I shouldn't let that get in the way of finishing the work. Then I happened across this interview with Hughart, and the following interchange (reprinted with permission):

JK: What was the reaction to the novels by academic sinologists? Were they impressed by your research, or were they horrified that you mixed elements from different eras and places?

BH: I believe I wrote you that sinologists avoid all printed material in which the text takes up more space than the footnotes, and that my sole academic response was from an asshole at Stanford who accused me of plagiarizing the sword dance in Birds, which was interesting because the sword dance was one of the very few things I had invented from whole cloth. My reply met with silence. Fortunately.

So, the good news is that he didn't have to worry about accusations of inaccuracies, but the bad news is that Hughart has no evidence that scholars have even read his work. Oh well. I still have a long way to go before I can have either problem.

One thing is for sure: this book was every bit as enjoyable as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lord of the Rings. You know what sucked about Tomb Raider and what I don't really like about the James Bond films (the books don't suffer the same problem)? They never had a sense of their mortality - the shark came at Lara Croft and she smirked as she punched it in the nose. Bond makes wisecracks as knives are being thrown at him. Sure, they get hurt a little, but it's just not the same. What makes Indiana Jones so great is this look he gets... like, "shit, I'm gonna die here". Master Li and Number Ten Ox frequently look at each other and say, "what do you want to be reincarnated as?" Then they have a pleasant little conversation while they wait for the Death By Inches Torture. It makes them endearing and a little more human than those cardboard cutouts.

Hughart put a lot of research and passion into this, and my understanding is that the other two in the series are just as good. For some reason I'm not rushing out to by them right now... maybe I just want to keep up the momentum and not get trapped in a series. Maybe it's because I want to savor them and not read them all at once. That's why I haven't read past the 4th Harry Potter yet.

Book #10 will be Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Started 2/23, finished 3/8.

Wow. This could be the longest review of the year. Hell of a read. This will be an Oprah-free review, by the way.

The Corrections follows the disparate stories of the Lambert family through the better part of a year. Each member gets a chance to narrate (albeit in 1st, not 3rd person), allowing the stories to overlap, collide, and culminate in "one last Christmas" at their nuclear Kansas home. As the father succombs to Parkinson's disease, conflicts from the past 40 years bubble to the surface, and the family has to do anything it can to remain a unit. The setup is simple, the characters are anything but. Hijinks don't really ensue... they infuse the air, they wrap around each other, they smother each other the instant they embrace.

Each character has a flavor of metaphor: With Chip, everything is compared to flowers and fruits. Gary uses macro-economics. Alfred uses engineering. Most interesting to me is that the two female characters, Enid and Denise, don't really use metaphors as much as they analyze the minutae of the situation and allow that to drive comparison. The contrast between the heavy imagery of the men and the near anti-imagery of the women would make the subject of a Masters thesis. using these tools to differentiate the character voices, Franzen is able to subdivide the psyches of the major characters, and through them, our entire culture. He clarifies the true nature of family, by emphasizing their traits as both the thing you like and the thing you hate. I think I even grew up a little while reading this book.

My brother is able to delve into the minutae of any topic, to a degree of detail none but an expert could appreciate. One day he commented that he enjoyed watching a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Two years later the rest of the family had had more G&S than they would ever want in a single lifetime, but my brother was directing plays, not having had a grain of interest in the theater before that first day. He drove us crazy with his attention to detail, his meticulous cataloguing of every single factoid he could find. But there's nobody in my family I'd rather have presiding over my estate if something happened to me. The thing that drives me crazy is the very thing I rely on. Franzen made me understand this.

As I was reading I kept trying to come up with companion pieces to The Corrections. The two I couldn't get out of my head were The Sound and the Fury and Requiem for a Dream. Faulkner for the "portrait of the downfall of a family" aspect, and Selby for the effect it had on me. The night I watched Requiem, K came into the living room and gasped. I thought she was gasping at the movie, but it was at me--on the edge of my couch, back as straight as a 2x4, my legs crossed at the knee and my hands clasped over my mouth. I think I forgot to breathe for 3 minutes. After I finished Gary's section of The Corrections, I lay in bed, on top of the covers, fully clothed, with the book resting on my face. It wasn't like the imagery and the depravity and the violence of Requiem, but the accuracy of the human suffering--in the midst of an economic boom, we're frequently reminded--was like an X-acto knife removing chunks of my flesh.

I was also reminded of American Beauty, Lullaby, and a host of the middle-class-suburban-nightmare pieces out there. Compared to Beauty, this was more subtle and more sophisticated. Compared to Lullaby, well, The Corrections made Palahniuk seem like an angry young amateur.

It's interesting to read reviews from back in the day, from before the various societal corrections settled into our lives. This book hit the NYT bestseller list in September of 2001 - right around the 5th, in fact. Can you even remember what you were thinking back then? Stop and try. I'll bet you're shaking your head right now. We were just getting over the first 20% of equity that was removed from the stock market, and we were about a week away from the terrorist attacks and losing another 30-40% of bubble. Corrections, indeed.

The reviews of the day toy with this book, they pick it up and examine it in perfect naivité, wondering whether great literature is even possible in such rich times. They're also distracted by that other matter. Five years later we're done with the irony of the 90s. Generation X became Generation Equity, then broke, then just plain-old disillusioned, but lacking the ability to ridicule or satirize as painlessly. Those reviews lack a fourth dimension of perspective. I'm not claiming to provide it here, but what I can conclude is that the work itself is probably more relevant now than it was then. The book was meant to be read after the good times were over, and not so we could savor the good times. Franzen intends the opposite: he knows we're going to tend to gloss over the bad stuff. That's where he pulls the miracle. He reminds us about the bad stuff and makes us savor that instead. The bad stuff was where we learned, where we grew, and where we learn to cope with the crap of today. Life is about Corrections. The word means as many different things to us as it does to the characters in the novel, but they are just nuances of the same thing. The universe constantly rebalances itself. Rich with poor, love with hate, memory with forgetfulness, fast versus slow, pretty versus ugly. Going against the law of Corrections is how we got into this mess, and it affected every aspect of our lives.

It's sweet and cruel and teasing and ambitious and warm. It's tidy and messy and disturbing and tragic and wonderful and stressful. It's harrowing. It's clammy. It's weird. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to try to be honest in their lives. I'd assign it to a high school student, who would have almost zero chance of understanding it. I'd assign it as required reading for anyone who wants to move to this country and stay for any length of time, Red State or Blue State.

I've only scratched the surface, and I haven't really talked about anything besides the emotional impressions I took away from it. Did I mention that it's frickin' hilarious? Makes you wonder what taking "Mexican A" would be like? There's a lot more to discuss, but I don't want to make this novel-length. It's time to move on. I'll reserve the right to do a 2.0 review.

Book #9 will be Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart.