book review: boxers & saints

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.

The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.

Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.

book review: the white tiger

When my mother recently went to India she asked what I wanted as a souvenir. I requested “books by South Indian writers” and if they were ones I’d have trouble finding in Canada all the better. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker in 2008, so it’s not like it’d be especially difficult for me to find here, but I hadn’t read it before this week. Well done, Mom.

The White Tiger is about a country boy named Balram from The Darkness, interior India’s villages. He’s pulled out of school as a child and eventually becomes the driver for a landlord’s son. That job takes him to Delhi where he formulates his ideas of servanthood and the terrible nature of it. Balram is telling this story in the form of reminiscent letters to Wen Jiabao (now former-) leader of China. Now that Balram is a successful entrepreneur he is teaching the communist leader how India really works.

There is a lot of cheating and other dishonesty throughout. It’s a very entertaining read and its struggle against the chicken coop of a democracy that lets votes be bought and sold is effective and maddening. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me. In both of them Balram is a bystander as someone “goes mad” and tries to behave as if you could take what people say at face value. In one instance a man tries to enter a shopping mall. In another a man tries to vote on election day. Both are futile exercises for the poor man.

book review: under heaven

Under Heaven is the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I’ve read in years and years. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his since the Fionavar Tapestry, but I haven’t. Weird.

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel set in a world almost but not exactly like Tang Dynasty China. The difference is basically just enough to let Kay stray from history and include ghosts and someone who is something else. Also women have stronger roles than you’d usually see in a story actually from the first millennium.

When the book begins Shen Tai has spent the last two years burying bones from a decades-old massacre. He is given a gift in recognition for his service, a gift that means he must go to the capital. Someone is also trying to assassinate him, even before the extremely valuable gift is made known. The story follows Shen Tai and his bodygurd (and eventually a poet he befriends, who is one of the Banished Immortals) as they go to the capital to see the emperor and confront whoever is trying to kill him.

Shen Tai’s younger sister is a secondary character who has been traded to the barbarians beyond the Long Wall by her other brother (who’s at court in the capital). Her story is interesting and provides motivation for Shen Tai, but even though it’s the more fantastical part of the book, it feels a bit perfunctory.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since it is self-contained. As the end nears we’re learning more and more about what happened in history because of these events and the sense that we’re just dipping a ladle into a river of events that make up these lives is emphasized. It feels right in the way a historical epic should. Traditional, I suppose. Romantic. Very recommended for fantasy/historical fans.

book review: the drowned cities

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities is a sequel to Ship Breaker, but not a direct one. It features Tool, the half-man war machine from Ship Breaker, but also two new characters who live in what was once long ago the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Now Washington DC is underwater and being fought over by myriad warlords after an interlude a bit more than a decade previous when Chinese peacekeepers were on the ground trying to keep a lid on the fighting.

Mahlia is a cast-off war baby, disliked because of her obvious Chinese descent, and her friend Mouse is another scavenger. When one of the factions of soldierboys end up in their village chasing Tool, everything goes to hell.

The book does a great job in exploring how you negotiate a life in a violent world. Tool was built for war but Mahlia and Mouse weren’t. Mahlia’s mentor is a doctor who is kind and mollifies the people who irrationally hate her for her Chinese father. But when she gets the chance to ally with Tool and let violence into her house, she finds she likes the power it brings. Mouse gets turned into a child-soldier and learns to do terrible things to be a part of a terrible world. Very good stuff.

It feels less YA than Ship Breaker did, and more like a regular science fiction novel that happened to have young protagonists. If you’re into stories about war that don’t glorify it, this’d be a great choice.

book review: the blue dragon

The Blue Dragon is a gigantic comic done in a Chinese brush and ink style. It’s about a Canadian man living in Shanghai and two women, one from Montreal, and an artist from Shanghai. The woman from Montreal is in China to adopt a baby.

The story is adapted from a play, and it feels very much like a play, with things happening off the page and discussed with restraint. It’s a beautiful book and does the bilingual stuff very well since there’s so much room on each of the massive pages for the text to slip in.

The main reason to read this book is for the art, which is very good. If you like a lot of intricate plotty things you’ll be disappointed.

book review: the fat years

On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.

The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.

The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.

book review: debt: the first 5000 years

I’ve been grabbing people by the arm and talking their ears off about David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a couple of weeks now. Putting together a few thoughts about it here has been a little daunting though. Partially because I liked it so much, but partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.