Mercedes Lackey, Louis Cha (trans. John Minford), G.K. Chesterton, Jasper Fforde

The Fairy Godmother, by Mercedes Lackey: What is there to say? It’s exactly what one expects from Lackey, complete with empowered female protagonist and all. It “overthrows” romance novel conventions in such a predictable way that nothing about the plot is unusual or surprising. Lackey does her best to make her characters well-rounded, but alas, while they sound human, they also sound like the same characters she’s created before in her other novels. The whole book is a little too indulgent, but I’ll freely admit that I did enjoy it nonetheless.

The Deer and the Cauldron, vol. 1, by Louis Cha (trans. John Minford): Louis Cha is the English pseudonym of the popular wu xia novelist Jin Yong. The Deer and the Cauldron is one of his works that is available in English. The translation is most definitely for people who don’t know anything about the Chinese language, and considering this audience, I’d have to say that the translator did a good job. Of course, one might be annoyed by the fact that several characters’ names are translated literally (for example, Xiaobao becomes Trinket) but I think that it does convey a nuance that English readers might otherwise miss. Also, the translator takes pains to explain every possible reference, even at the cost of interrupting the story, and there’s a very comprehensive glossary at the beginning that explains nearly everything else. The story itself is very humorous, detailing the adventures of Trinket, a young rascal who was born in a brothel and (at the moment) ends up masquerading as a eunuch in the palace. The setting is early Qing dynasty, when the Han Chinese, especially in the South, were still feeling resentful and rebellious toward their Manchu conquerors. (Trinket hails from such a Southern province.) In the Brotherhood of River and Lake, the underworld in which so many wu xia stories take place, the Triad Society (or more accurately the Society of Heaven and Earth) are among many who conspire to overthrow the Manchus and restore the Ming. Trinket makes for an unexpected hero, although well within the Chinese storytelling tradition (I suppose one could compare him to the monkey king in Journey to the West?), and he’s hilariously foulmouthed, tactless and yet somehow compelling. I hesitate to draw any larger conclusions at the moment, since there are two more volumes to the work, but it’s definitely a lot of fun to read.

Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, by G.K. Chesterton: In a sense, this book is not simply a hagiography of Thomas Aquinas, but rather Chesterton’s reaction to “modernism”: his explanation of why he turns to Catholicism to find answers that modern philosophy cannot provide. Very gently done of course because Chesterton never quite preaches at the reader; instead he presents his opinions in a delightfully subversive way, overturning the usual stereotypes about Christian religion and Catholicism in particular. One of his points, which struck me as particularly important, is that Christianity is essentially a religion that celebrates life. It is easy to forget this fact considering tendencies within the Church to emphasize asceticism and original sin, but Chesterton argues that asceticism is in many ways a natural emotional impulse, which the structure and dogma of the Church holds in check. He writes that the Church’s traditionalism is what prevents it from embracing extremes, that keeps it professing the innate goodness of all creation. Faith is complex and shifting, but religion provides a structure in which it can remain healthy instead of stagnant. Chesterton’s perspective is clearly far from conventional, but I felt that he articulated what it means to be Catholic.

Chesterton also does an excellent job, by the way, of putting Aquinas in a historical context: the renewal taking place within the Church, the rise of new monastic orders (the Dominican and Franciscan friars), the Manichaean heresy, Albertus Magnus, the revival of Greek classics via the Muslims in the East, Aristotelianism and Church theology. I appreciated the originality of his interpretations—he really has a way of turning one’s view of history topsy-turvy—although I will say that Chesterton has a tendency to generalize in order to fit things into a clear pattern (dialectic?—although he himself would deny that he poses any dialectics). He makes an interesting comparison between Buddhism and Christianity, saying that the two are similar precisely because their philosophies are exact complements: they describe the same contours so to speak but are nonoverlapping. In other words, where Buddhism ends with Self, Christianity posits a Creator, although that sounds a bit too glib. Not exactly a groundbreaking insight in itself, since the grandmothers at my church say essentially the same thing (our parish, being Korean-American, has a unique relationship with Buddhist tradition), but nonetheless meaningful. I don’t quite agree with the way Chesterton draws sweeping conclusions about the East—particularly since I’m Asian myself—but other than that, I must say that his conception of spirituality is very much my own. I really do recommend the book, if only to get a better understanding of theology. It’s very easy to read one or two books, or even worse, listen to one or two people, and believe you know what Christianity is about, but I find that everyone complicates the issue with their own personal psychologies (and no one less than Catholics themselves) and forgets the simplicity of the message underneath. Chesterton returns to that simplicity and explains the exterior complications with remarkable lucidity. His explanation of Augustine, or rather Augustinianism and its influence on Church theology, was eye-opening for me.

I find it very difficult to discuss religion directly—it is, after all, intensely personal, not to mention difficult to verbalize—but I think the following quote explains best my own reason for theism:

“Things change because they are not complete; but their reality can only be explained as part of something that is complete. It is God.”

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde: I read the sequel Lost in a Good Book first, so I had the disadvantage of already knowing, in a loose sense, what was going to happen in this book. This may have biased my reaction to it, of course. I think I enjoyed the sequel more, although I’m not sure if that’s because Fforde’s writing has improved since his first novel, because I dislike Jane Eyre more than Great Expectations or because Fforde’s cleverness can only last for the duration of a book and a half before growing tiresome. The uncharitable part of me would say it’s the last. I do appreciate the whole setup with all the details of this alternate world from the obsession with literature to the not-so-secret tyranny of the Goliath Corporation, and I didn’t even mind the worst of the puns, but at a certain point, I felt that Fforde was just throwing clever idea after idea at me without much substance to back it up. Frankly, his writing at its best is only average. There were a few moments when I was quite appalled at how awful the dialogue was and wondered what sort of editor would let him get away with that. Also, the characters are amusing as flat caricatures but there is absolutely no development whatsoever. One might ask, is there supposed to be, but when Acheron Hades utterly fails to come across as particularly evil other than Fforde’s insistence that he is, the story falls flat. I do acknowledge that Fforde is parodying certain literary stereotypes, but in Acheron’s case, he failed to make it amusing. Thursday also doesn’t work as a character for the simple reason that she isn’t one person, but ten. She keeps changing her personality to suit the situation—hardened veteran at one point, rejected lover at another—but she becomes completely amorphous as a result. Again, I suspect that this lack of effective character development is at least partly intentional, but I’m still left with the impression that Thursday is a badly executed Mary Sue that takes itself a little too seriously to be funny. Oh, I adore all of Fforde’s ideas, and I’ll freely admit that he’s clever beyond belief, but there’s still something missing. I can’t remember if Lost in a Good Book managed to acquire that something or not, but nonetheless I’ve lost all desire to track down the sequels.