Friday, October 25, 2013

Short Takes

I've gotten behind on my blogging this last month, so here are some short reviews:

The first is for Gimme Shelter! by Mary Elizabeth Williams. I shoulda known from the title! that the book wouldn't be as good as I hoped. Gimme Shelter! is a book about the housing bubble as experienced by one New Yorker with no insights. Ms. Williams mostly takes her husband and two daughters around to different open houses on weekends. If we're lucky, the houses and condos she's visiting are comically messy, but mostly they're just empty like houses are when people sell them. Occasionally she throws in statistics about skyrocketing real estate prices and future foreclosures, or tells stories about her friends who moved to Ohio and bought a house for $200,000. Ms. Williams and her husband can spend $350,000 and they cannot find a two bedroom in New York for that money. Ms. Williams knows she's in a bubble, but homeownership is an American need and she has two kids. She and her husband finally buy a two bedroom co-op unit and she gets an ulcer in the epilogue. Ms. Williams is a freelance writer in New York, and the reader can tell that one night she went to just the right party: a man from Simon & Schuster was there, thinking, "If only I could find someone to write me a timely book about the housing bubble," and he saw Ms. Williams across the buffet table and said, "What have you been up to, Elizabeth?" and she said, "Jeff and I just bought a house. It's been crazy. I could write a book about it..."

I consider Pyongyang by Guy Delisle to be mandatory reading. Burma Chronicles, was good but not quite as good. It's hard to beat North Korea.  Pyongyang and Shenzhen are memoirs of Guy Delisle's time as a supervising animator for a French production company subcontracting to Asia. Both books are frequently funny stories about trying to get along alone in iffy places. North Korea being the most bizarre country on Earth, the book is better. In Burma Chronicles, Mr. Delisle is easier in his element, which makes a less wacky travelogue. Burma was a British colony, so the architecture is familiar and he meets elderly Anglophonic Burmese apologizing for the country being in such a state, as though he got to Myanmar and its socks were on the floor and it hadn't dusted. Since his last book, Mr. Delisle has got married and had a baby named Louis. His wife works for an NGO, hence the posting to Burma. Louis is more popular with the Burmese than Mr. Delisle is, and he learns the Burmese for "Louis' dad" pretty quickly. Between walking around the neighborhood waving at people who know Louis and spending time with diplomatic wives and their toddlers, Mr. Delisle has less material than when he was leaving flowers at the feet of a giant statue of Kim Il Sung. Mr. Delisle devotes space to the humanitarian crises in Burma, and he's able to spend some time outside of the capitol with his wife, looking at Medicens Sans Frontieres facilities. Mr. Delisle doesn't get a firsthand look at the horrible oppression that Burmese ethnic minorities are victim to, but he meets plenty of people who've seen it, and he tells some of their stories. Burma Chronicles is certainly worth reading, but read Pyongyang first.

I finally read Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. I saw the movie in the theater ages ago and I've always been intrigued to read it. I was in a peripatetic reading mood a few weeks ago and I wanted something unputdownable, which I figured Michael Crichton would be, considering how much Americans like him. However, this was Ibn Fadn as told by Michael Crichton so pretty good but it was written in the style of a chronicle: This happened, then this happened, then this happened, these Vikings are filthy, then this happened. Ibn Fadn is a scholarly fellow who's sent on an embassy to the Bulgars but, on the banks of the Volga, he runs into a group of Vikings and is recruited to be the lucky thirteenth in a band going north to fight an unspeakable evil. The wendol, which is like a grendel or, Crichton posits, a Neanderthal, is raiding an ostentatious settlement and eating people. On the way up, Ibn Fadn records a bit of Viking ethnography, for realsies. I ran into his account of a Viking funeral years ago in the most salient part of an old book called Daily Life of the Vikings. Free love.

Whether or not Ibn Fadn and twelve other guys slaughtered the mother wendol in the sea cave is historically less interesting than the low but devious fortifications on the great hall and the Vikings' blase attitude toward death. Herger, the Viking who speaks enough Latin to serve as Ibn Fadn's explainer, comes out a good character and there's a lot of randomly chosen description and some adventure spots, but it's all in cloud of befuddlement that the Vikings don't wash or behave like the good Muslims do in the City of Peace, the most civilized place in the world at the time, which is, of course, Baghdad.

Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl is a forking beautiful book, but it's a 181-page short story. I was looking forward to it a little too much. The Deportees killed me, as far as his new stuff goes, but cor the jaysis dialogue was left behind for A Greyhound of a Girl. Roddy Doyle is still good, but who wants to read Standard English when you can read an Irish brogue? I liked Mary, and Scarlett, and Emer, and Tansey, but he's getting a little bit too good at describing people.  One page of dialogue, and you already know their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears.  And they were all similar to each other, being a great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter.

As for my contention that AGoaG is a short story, here is the plot: Mary's grandmother is dying in hospital, so her dead great-grandmother appears to her and her mother takes them all to visit the family farm one last time. There are other things, details, reminiscences, a hatred for greyhounds, brothers, wide margins, that make up the 181-pages, but I would've got more out of this if it was called A Greyhound of a Girl and Other Stories.

Then there's the first installment of the Saga graphic novel, Brian K. Vaughn's new opus, which everyone I know read quietly sometime in the last year. They are all sitting on the edge of their bottoms now waiting for the second installment to come into work used so they don't have to buy it for full price.

Quick! Name the bestselling American author in 1908? Surprise! You have no idea. You've never even heard about her, and there's nothing wrong with that. Her pseudonym was Frances Little and the book was The Lady of Decoration. I didn't read that, but I read her other book Little Sister Snow. Japan spent two hundred years in isolation so that Sunday school teachers wouldn't write books like this about it. Little Sister Snow manages a dollop of information on top of a big condescension pie. It would be easy to underestimate the Japanese army and their long-range flight capabilities if your first impressions of the country was a prosaic descriptions of peasants failing at globalism. Yuki-chan's parents wanted a child more than anything and eventually got a live one when they were already old and poor because of Yuki-chan's father's ununderstanding of the new economic order.  The book opens with Yuki-chan's favorite sparrow being eaten by a cat. Yuki-chan chases the cat, intending to drown the motherfucker, when an American boy in a rickshaw knocks her down in the road, and, Dick Merrit, smiling, his eyes crinkling, with his nice blond hair hanging in a charmingly carefree way over his forehead, tells her not to drown that poor puss. Then Yuki-chan grows up to become Yuki-san and receive a letter from Dick Merrit, the American boy all grown up, asking if he could stay in Yuki's parents' house for some time, as he is coming to Japan on business and there are no hotels in the area. After I was extremely confused, Ms. Little backtracks to explain that the boy was the son of a teacher at the mission school Yuki-chan attended and they hadn't just met the once in a chance knocking-over. Adult Dick stays with Yuki-san and her parents. He is as loveable and charming as ever an American was and he and Yuki have some jolly times together. He teaches her English, she teaches him Japanese, they walk in the garden. There are some ham-fisted conversations where Dick explains the ever-loving kindness of the Christian God. Yuki falls in love with Dick, of course, although she's engaged to marry an officer she's never met. Duty, obedience, filial piety, and Dick's engagement to a woman offscreen in San Francisco prevent Dick and Yuki from getting together, but when he leaves, he leaves his diary behind and Yuki-san starts her own diary in the broken English that is her inner dialogue: "Ah, Merrit San, you the one big happy in all my life and I never forget all your kindful. You give me the good heart, like sun make flower-bud unclose. You telled me what is soul and purely, and you say be very good wife." Yuki, despite the American leanings in her heart, burns her diary and, at the end of the book, is going to the general's.

Gentle racism should ruin books for you, and I almost stopped listening to Little Sister Snow multiple times because of the eeeeeegh. But despite the charming pidgin inanities Yuki speaks in response to Dick's chummy exposition, Yuki is a good, strong girl character. Frances Little's biggest sin is presenting her in isolation. Japan was on the ascendant at the time, and showing a lonely little girl with absolutely no contact except two elderly parents does not do the country justice. With no community or context, Yuki is an inconsequential waif waiting to be rescued by an American's smile, and not a Japanese person living on a dynamic island full of Japanese people. Yuki must face a non-choice between a gay (you know what I mean) American and an officer in the service of the Emperor whom her near-invalid parents have somehow managed to match her with. In the end, Little Sister Snow is not a book about Japan and the Japanese, it's only a book about American concepts of foreign foreigners (the kind who aren't European) in the decades before those foreigners started asserting themselves.

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