Tuesday, April 27, 1999

From Heaven Lake

by Vikram Seth

As a graduate student in Nanjing University, Seth used his vacation to hitchhike home to Delhi via Tibet.  The result is a wonderful book, full of witty observations, good, clear prose and profound meditations on India and China.  It’s a fresh and interesting perspective to this American reader: there is very little comment on the lack of cleanliness or crowded conditions, as travelers in the West often harp about.  Also, Seth is happy to give the Chinese political system the benefit of the doubt: where an American traveler assumes the flaws and reports the good, Seth assumes that China works and treats the flaws as unavoidable as with any system.  He is as angered by the bureaucracy as Western travelers are, but at least he made it to Tibet.  His descriptions of that region are revealing and hopeful: the people seem happy when he talk to them, but great evils are in the very recent past, and they have not forgotten.  A rich, fascinating book.

four stars

Sunday, April 25, 1999

Unreliable Memoirs

by Clive James

A fictionalized autobiography of a writer’s school days in Australia, or an autobiographical novel, according to him.  Anyway, the book is both appallingly funny — although the writing is staccato and not very ornate, he times a punchline with impeccable skill — and genuinely interesting as an account of 1940s and '50s Sydney from the eyes of a child and then an adolescent.  It also contains a few quite perspicacious insights into human, or at least a cynical human’s, nature, such as: "I rather liked the idea of being a shit — a common conceit among those who don’t realize just how shitty they really are."  Great stuff, exact and clever.

four stars

Friday, April 23, 1999

In the Skin Of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje

A novel like a painting, not without plot but not exactly systematic either.  Nicholas, a daredevil immigrant bridge worker, saves a nun from falling off.  One Patrick Lewis, sometime explosive engineer, falls in love with the lover of a missing millionaire.  Then he falls in love with her friend, Alice, who might be the ex-nun.  Alice dies an unnatural death.  Caravaggio, the thief, befriends Patrick.  As the narrator says, “Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.”  It’s a beguiling, well thought out story of how various people become connected, and of a strong, righteous love.  The prose is masterful, poetic, dreamy and dark, the descriptions rich and the dialogue sparse, as befits the manly, tough characters.

four stars

Sunday, April 11, 1999

Still Life In Harlem

by Eddy L. Harris

Harris goes to Harlem to live for a year to write about the experience, and stays for at least two.  This memoir is unlike his others.  His other books concerned the reactions of others to him in odd surroundings (Blackamerican in Africa, black man in the South, black man paddling a canoe down the mighty Mississip’) as much as his reactions to their reactions and his own development.   This book, however, finds Harris in what could or should be his own "place," surrounded by people who on the surface are like him.  Thus, this book is mostly his meditations on the self: why does he or doesn’t he fit in Harlem?  Why did he come here?  What does it mean to fit in Harlem?

When he’s addressing these difficult questions, he is profound; when he describes other Harlemites’ takes on the problems, he is revealing.  But I have a big problem with this book’s writing style.  Harris repeats himself.  He repeats the story of the creation of Harlem as mecca several times.  He repeats minor observations (he didn't work while in Harlem; Harlemites can’t easily move away).  He repeats the metaphor of Harlem as weedy garden.  He repeats what others told him.  Etc.  In sum this is a fairly good book but could use some better organization and paring down.  And then too I would have liked a bit more description of the people and places.  Maybe Harris didn’t want to report Harlem like some exotic oddity, but I would have liked to hear more from the Harlemites. 

three stars

Sunday, April 4, 1999

Master And Commander

by Patrick O'Brian

A ripping yarn, this long book introduces the unlikely pair Stephen Maturin, learned ship’s surgeon and Captain Aubrey, bluff Epicurean fellow.  There’s a series of naval engagements, not much of a plot aside from some business with some Irish rebels which causes dismay with the Irish lieutenant.  Anyway, though there’s far too much naval jargon — lengthy paragraphs describing the ship’s movements which may as well be in Greek — the epic creates magic.  With its meticulously researched descriptions of all aspects of 19th century life and witty dialogue, the book makes fascinating, vivid reading.  I tore through it.

four stars