Friday, January 29, 1999

Iron And Silk

by Mark Salzman

The author, a graduate of Yale in Chinese language and literature, went to China for two years to teach English and study martial arts.  This account is presented as a series of episodes, each with its own life lesson.  The book gives a clear picture of the variety of experiences he had, from the unsympathetic, even vicious, foreign-hating bureaucracy, to the incredibly open hospitality of those who had the least time to give.

The culture gap (and gape) is made readily apparent, in the student who thinks Americans must be cruel just to think up something like the Shirley Jackson story “The Lottery;” in the family of fishermen who wash and brush their teeth in the same river they use as a toilet; in the intellectual who calls The World According To Garp the most “unsuitable” book he’d ever imagined, then asks to keep it; in the man whose greatest wish is to eat and sleep well, saying Salzman’s dreams, to be liked and to excel, are easily attainable, but to eat and sleep well are beyond one’s control...  A beautiful, clever, unassuming book. 

five stars

Monday, January 25, 1999

An Indian Summer

by James Cameron

Cameron, a journalist, returns to India after a lifetime as a foreign correspondent, now married to an Indian.  He recalls his past there as well as India’s past and present, and along the way muses about life and death and everything else.  Then he gets into a serious car collision and finds that he needs an artificial heart.

A rich book, filled with truly deep thoughts and stunningly honest self-assessments about fear and dying as well as the human condition: “I am not afraid of the dark, I am afraid of the night, and I am afraid of the night only because it does not complete the finished day but announces the new one, which would almost certainly be as inadequate as the one before.”  He has some very perspicacious remarks about Indian politics and culture, and offers some reasonable explanations of why India works the way it does.  As insightful as these comments are, they’re not the main point.  It’s not so much a book about coming to an understanding of India but how it is possible to both love and hate that maddening country without fully understanding. 

four stars

Wednesday, January 20, 1999

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

Not his full life, but an unfinished work, beginning with his decision to leave New York, and his father’s rather forced guidance to become a printer in Philadelphia, to his rise to fame as a statesman, inventor, and mediator, and ending abruptly as he settles a dispute between the people and wealthy estate owners over contributing to the King’s war fund.  It’s written in a plain, unadorned style, in rough chronological order but resembling a series of anecdotes, a bit like a personal remembrance.

Though Franklin’s pride in his intelligence and industry comes through in his writing, he passes over some of his accomplishments rather than building them up to the reader, which can be a bit disorienting, and doesn’t help give a sense of what kind of man he was thought of as in the community.  But Franklin’s personality does shine through: a cunning, brainy fellow, puritanically honorable, proud and steadfastly methodical.  I enjoyed reading it for that, and because it conveys how much the people of the 18th century were like that of the 20th: not particularly bound by personal morality, but also fussy and righteous.  I dislike the editorial practice of leaving all nouns capitalized, it being somewhat distracting.

four stars

Sunday, January 17, 1999

The Cement Garden

by Ian McEwan

When the parents of four children die, they bury their mother in cement in the cellar and fend for themselves, drifting apart yet having only each other.  McEwan’s first book is not as grand in scope, nor is it as finely realized in its characters as Black Dogs.  Still, it’s quite disturbing, a suburban Lord Of the Flies.  With its bland incest and its unfeeling, unwashed narrator, I suspect that McEwan intended this book more to shock than to analyze truly the problem of how easily amorality can set in with only a little prompting. 

three stars

Saturday, January 16, 1999

A Good Man In Africa

by William Boyd

Overweight, beleaguered Morgan Leafy, a minor official in the fictional African country of Kinjaja, muddles his way through a series of misadventures.  He faces scandal, blackmail, and venereal disease, as well as a righteous Scottish doctor, whom he must attempt to bribe.  A very funny novel, with solid, human characters and wonderfully bizarre situations that are nevertheless more believable than, say, Tom Sharpe’s.  The plot unfolds compellingly, in three parts, with the middle part a flashback, and the third a continuation of the first.  This is more than just a comic novel, it’s an almost poignant commentary on what it means to be human.  Leafy is an ass, and he brings most (but not all) of his troubles on himself, yet he has the reader’s sympathy throughout.  An extremely enjoyable book.

four stars

Wednesday, January 13, 1999

Black Dogs

by Ian McEwan

The story of a young couple whose estrangement begins almost the day they’re married, as told by the fascinated son-in-law, an orphan himself.  An amazing novel, as universal as the fall of Communism and the memory of genocide and as introspective as one young woman’s discovery of the mystical, of God, inside herself when she encounters some vicious dogs.  As cosmic as the problem of pure evil and as ordinary as a bickering couple.  Beautifully written, masterfully paced, and told with just the right amount of tension mixed with a soothing degree of acceptance.  Each character is fully realized, and the dialogue perfect in its realism as well as its restraint.  McEwan lets the characters reveal themselves, though their actions as well as actual descriptions of each other, and the subtleties, and potential misunderstandings, are complex and brilliant.

five stars

Tuesday, January 12, 1999

A Zoo In My Luggage

by Gerald Durrell

The true and amusing tale of how Durrell went to the Cameroons to acquire animals for his own zoo, which was then set up on Jersey in the Channel Islands.  It’s apparent how much Durrell loves wildlife, or at least collecting it; and he knows how to write with fluidity and humor.  I think the story was marred by Durrell’s authorial ego (he criticizes his wife for clucking over and anthropomorphizing the cute animals, but he does it all the time himself; he assumes that collecting animals from their native habitat is a worthwhile endeavor, no debate about it), and by his colonialist tone.  His conversations with the Africans (and between Africans themselves) are all reported in a babyish pidgin, which may be a droll device but gets old and smacks of European condescension.  The last part of the book describes Durrell’s escapades with the animals in suburban Bournemouth, which is very funny, and even informative, when he reports some simian behavior.  I would have liked for Durrell to give some details of his collisions with the local bureaucracy to set up a zoo in England, but then I suppose he’s not that kind of writer.  All in all a cute, lightweight book, with minor flaws rooted in the point of view of Durrell’s generation and class. 

three stars

Friday, January 8, 1999

The Finanacial Expert

by R.K. Narayan

Set in the mythical village of Malgudi, this subtle book tells the story of Margayya, a self-appointed financial wizard who helps peasants with their money matters.  One day, after being shamed by a peon at the big Co-Operative Bank, he decides to become very wealthy.  He goes to a priest, performs the rituals, and gets into a variety of money making schemes, offering high interest rates for the villagers’ savings.  But when Dr. Pal, the learned journalist, gets too friendly with Margayya’s spoiled son, things fall apart.

The story is told from Margayya’s point of view, so sometimes the reader loses track of what a self-occupied, greedy miser he must be, although he sincerely wishes a better life for his rather dim son.  The dialogue is quite sharp, and apt; having been to India, I think I understand the characters more than if I hadn’t.  The whole book, in fact, takes a rather detached, Indian approach, with little in the lines of plot and a rather desultory climax and denouement; and when Margayya loses all his wealth at the end, he merely stoically declares that he will begin again, without moralizing to his son or blaming himself.  The book is an appealing slice of Indian life, told in a light, comical way which I enjoyed.

four stars

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

Gone Whaling: A Search for Orcas in Northwest Waters

by Douglas Hand

An account of the author’s quest for the culture of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, and the root of our fascination with orcas.  He goes from a museum to an aquarium to a renegade scientist to Haida craftsmen who carve whales.  It’s quite a meticulously researched book: the histories of the museums, the histories of the native crafts, etc.  This erudition is a sideline, however, used to supplement the human side of the story, rather than overshadowing it.

It is a subtly written book, yet I don’t think it succeeds.  I didn’t see that Hand hit upon the essence of our fascination with orcas, if only because he eschews philosophy in favor of factual commentary.  A philosophy he does come near to espousing may be a Zen-like acceptance (he mentions Chuang Tzu), not analysis: the orca is mysterious and amazing, and this should be felt rather than said.  And yet he wrote a 200-page book about it.  I also did not care for what I saw as Hand’s ego, apparent in the writing: Hand did the sketches himself (they’re unremarkable), and he seems to feel the need to insult all his interlocutors’ appearances, citing their balding heads or discolored teeth.  What’s the deal with that? 

three stars

Monday, January 4, 1999

Wobegon Boy

by Garrison Keillor

The narrator, a man from Lake Wobegon, moves to New York to work at a public radio station, and meets the love of his life.  And meanwhile, life happens: his father dies, he is fired, his restaurant idea fails as the developer appropriates the land, etc.  In other words, there’s not much of a plot per se, but slice after slice of life.  I must say, I’m surprised at how much I like this book.  Sure, I rebel against what I perceive as Keillor’s good ol’ Middle America anti-periphery values, but I must say that this book is laugh-out-loud funny.  Keillor truly excels at telling the weird, fantastic life stories of everyday, normal characters.  Everyone has at least one story to tell in this book – and the best part is, they’re all funny.

four stars

Friday, January 1, 1999

The Fifth Child

by Doris Lessing

A middle-class English couple buck the disapproval of both their families and plan to have “at least six” children, buying a huge house and becoming the focus of all holiday gatherings.  The fifth child, however, Ben, after a difficult pregnancy, turns out to be some sort of evil throwback, horrifying and sending away the extended family.

This slim novel appears to be making a comment on social selfishness, as well as being a parable for our violent modern times – “the barbarous eighties,” as the novel says.  I would have liked the story to come to some sort of solid ending; instead, the book ends as the mother considers selling the giant, empty house, and as Ben and his gang of Clockwork Orange droogs venture gradually from riots and petty theft to more vicious crimes.  The mother assumes he will probably move forever to some even more depraved urban pit.  This device is no doubt meant to emphasize the universality of the problem, as if Ben were an Everythug.  A rather chilling tale, but not exceedingly deep, and in the end unsatisfying.

three stars