Saturday, March 30, 2013

River Town: Two Years On the Yangtze

by Peter Hessler

A volunteer for the Peace Corps, Hessler lived in Fuling, a little town in Sichuan province, on the delta of the Yangtze and Wu rivers, for two years teaching English. As one of the few Westerners in the town since World War II, Hessler becomes the focus of not always kind attention in town, but as he learns more Chinese and more of the Chinese way of doing things, he sees his place more clearly and almost, at times, seems to fit into the daily life there. Of course, nearly everything in China is political: the literature he teaches is used by his students as a springboard to analyze their own lives, even as Hessler learns how hard it is to broach certain subjects in a culture where everyone is brought up to believe the same things.

Written in calm, meditative prose, this is an excellent entry into the annals of the Westerner-in-China body of memoirs. Hessler is wise beyond his years, and his China (or rather, his Fuling) is never of the sadly typical “oh look how foreign everything is” variety. He recognizes full well how foreign he himself is, and even during his lowest points of cultural contact – when men try to pick fights with him simply because he’s a Westerner – he reports with a detached and reflective eye. He learns rather quickly how to deal with some of the illogical bureaucracy – I enjoyed his clever face-saving solution when confronted with the lie that he was required to get a chest X-ray to participate in a foot race, for example – but he is troubled and bemused by certain other aspects of Chinese culture. He cites the lack of empathy and collectivist thinking that he saw in Chinese crowds, and the disturbing lack of fixed individual values in a culture where “wrong” thinking can become “right” as easily as it takes for an authority to say it. In his own small circle of students and friends, he hears of two deaths, a suicide, and a kidnapping (of a woman to become a forced bride). Near the end of the book, he muses that he can only brush against “the slightest sense of the dizzying past” that informed the values and behaviors that he encounters. His Fuling is, as he says, “a human place,” and that puts his memoir in the top ranks of its kind.

five stars

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Burglars Can't Be Choosers

by Lawrence Block

Bernie Rhodenbarr, a dapper and skilled burglar with a taste for fine things and no propensity for violence, is found by the police in a Manhattan apartment which is not his own, with the legal occupant in the next room bludgeoned to death. He flees the scene and hides out in a friend’s building, where he meets a suspiciously helpful girl who urges him to find the real killer. Tracking down the man who apparently framed him, Bernie gets caught up in a scheme involving blackmail, kinky sex, and lots of money.

This is Lawrence’s more light-hearted series, the flip side of Matt Scudder’s gritty rough justice, and it’s an enjoyable “noir lite” leavened with wit and humor, courtesy of Bernie’s wry, self-effacing narration. The mystery is clever, and although one of the twists requires a rather far-fetched coincidence (of all the apartment buildings in all of New York, she had to walk into mine…), but the solution to the main whodunit was a pleasant surprise. Bernie is a sympathetic character because he’s intelligent and benevolently self-serving, so I’m not surprised Block went on to write a number of sequels.

four stars

[followed by The Burglar In the Closet

Monday, March 18, 2013

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens

The famous tale of the titular orphan, born to a mother of uncertain origin but assumed to be low-born, who grows up mistreated and half-starved in the workhouses of the time. He is apprenticed out to a coffin-maker, where the contempt and bullying he undergoes impels him to flee to London. There, he is taken in by master criminal Fagin, who trains streets urchins to be pickpockets to enrich his own coffers. Fleeing Fagin and the harsh, brutal house-breaker Sikes, he is taken in by a gentleman and then a young lady in succession, where his lot improves, but the mystery of his parentage, and how he figures into the nefarious plans of Fagin, Sikes, and the mysterious man Monks, remain to be realized.

This novel is of course widely regarded as a classic, and though I don’t believe it to be of the same quality as Great Expectations, it’s not hard to see why it has endured: the villains of the story are vivid, fully realized, horrifying at times, and almost noble in their way at others. Dickens set out to present an honest account of vice with this novel, and he certainly succeeded: his willingness to give motives, fears, and conscience to the villains, rather than simply making them cartoonishly evil, is fairly modern. (Fagin is an absurd anti-Semitic stereotype, but I overlook that as a reflection of Dickens' time and place.) The novel also succeeds as social satire; especially at the beginning, with its descriptions of 19th century England’s treatment of the poor, he comes off as sharp, angry, and as full of black, biting wit as Twain or Swift. The book has its flaws, however. Despite his upbringing, young Twist himself is nearly a cipher, cartoonishly beatific and good; his personality borders on mawkishness, even sanctimoniousness. The same can be said for Miss Rose, the lady who takes him in, which makes them uninteresting as well as unrealistic. It’s no accident that Fagin and the Artful Dodger are as well-known to the general public as the titular hero himself. Finally, Dickens’ social satire is rather cut off at the knees due to his decision to make Twist the son of a gentleman, as if actual lower-class paupers don’t deserve happy endings and decent treatment. It’s a terrific story in its essence, though, with rich characters, suspense, and broad humor, as well as a righteous social satire and invective against hypocritical power mongers.

four stars

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Science And Sex

by Mary Roach

A cheery analysis of how and why scientists have observed, recorded, and theorized about human sex behavior, since gynecologist Robert Dickinson’s case studies in the 1890s, through the Masters and Johnson reach, Kinsey’s questionnaires, Marie Bonaparte’s studies on the relation of clitoral position to enjoyment of sex, and so on.  Roach travels to Denmark where she observes pig inseminators sexually stimulating the sows for better results; watches penile enhancement surgery in Taipei; peeks into the small and unsettling world of sex machine hobbyists; interviews the maker of a suction device for women (to increase blood flow to the clitoris); discusses the strange history of testicle grafts; and opens many other windows into the vast array of human sexuality.  Stuffed with the kind of tidbits of information that make you cross your legs and squirm (there is a great deal of historical insertions of objects into urethras, for example), and told in vivid, bold, often hilarious prose, this is a hugely entertaining book.  It’s not exactly a definitive study of human sexuality, being wide in scope but not deep and with very little in the way of general thesis; however, Roach’s winking, irreverent prose style, her wisecracks, and her wordplay set this book in the highest ranks of popular science surveys.

four stars

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Language Is: And What it Isn't and What it Could Be

by John McWhorter

A linguist explains for the layman, in easy, readable prose and affable wit, the professional view on languages: they are Ingrown, Disheveled, Intricate, Oral, and Mixed.  He tries to dispel the ludicrous and unfounded belief that some languages are more “real” than others (which are thought of as “primitive”) simply because they are better known or have a tradition of literature.  Rationally, with no dogmatic axe to grind, he explains the prescriptivist view of language – all languages – as ever-changing oral traditions, most of them a macedoine of borrowings from neighbors, colonists, conquerors, and subcultures.  He inverts the layman’s suppositions about “primitive” creoles – it’s writing which is the perversion of language, not the other way around; and it’s the baffling impenetrability of, say, Navajo that is unusual, rather than the more simplistic grammars of Persian and English - which have been streamlined over time by an influx of adult immigrants who honed off some of the intricacies while learning them orally, as well as infusing some of their own language into the pot.

This is a terrific book, full of fascinating tidbits about individual languages (the English word “notch” used to be “otch” but the initial n was transferred to the indefinite article; Mandarin uses some shape-based classifiers for its numbered nouns; the African language Serer has ten genders; Twi uses various particles to indicate how you have come to know a statement; Berik nouns specify the time of day things happened to them) as well as wise, compelling pronouncements on language as whole.  McWhorter looks at a language’s entire background – its history of colonization or conquest, its geographic setting – to explain its own individual quirks.  As McWhorter notes, languages have fetishes over different things – English's insistence on differentiating the indefinite and definite articles of nouns baffles Mandarin and Russian speakers, who don’t use any articles, while other languages are anal about specific counting words or the relations of objects to the speaker.  This doesn’t make them “strange” or not “real” languages, just individual, and it’s that variation that is so endlessly fascinating to us language geeks.  Where I think McWhorter fails to convince is in his argument that textspeak and the slipping of written standards results in just as “real” a language than the AP Manual of Style; this may be true, from a linguistic point of view, but the actual criticism is that slipping standards are worse, not less real, than the heavy precedent of our vast, complex written tradition, which has ennobled us, and which is being forgotten.  This aside, the book is charming, captivating, and compelling; anyone who makes misinformed comments about what language is – and that is so many otherwise perfectly rational people – should be forced to read it.

four stars