2003/02/22

Resuming reposting five-year old entries about books. At the moment, still sifting through the “Chesterton phase” of my last year in high school.

[Tales of the Long Bow, by G.K. Chesterton]

I’ve been going off on a G.K. Chesterton reading rampage, and I have a funny quote, from “The Unobtrusive Traffic of Captain Pierce”:

“I have every reason to believe,” affirmed Pierce solemnly, “that Gurth the Swineherd made use of this identical building. I have no doubt it is in fact far older. The best authorities believe that the Prodigal Son stayed here for some time, and the pigs—those noble and much maligned animals—gave him such excellent advice that he returned to his family. And now, Mr. Oates, they say that all that magnificent heritage is to be swept away. But it shall not be. We shall not so easily submit to all the vandals and vulgar tyrants who would thus tear down our temples and our holy places. The pig-sty shall rise again in a magnificent resurrection—larger pig-stys, loftier pig-stys, shall yet cover the land; the towers and domes and spires of statelier and more ideal pig-stys, in the most striking architectural styles, shall again declare the victory of the holy hog over his unholy oppressors.”

Religion

Silence, by Shusaku Endo (trans. William Johnston): According to the translator’s introduction, Shusaku Endo has often been called the Japanese Graham Greene, and more specifically, Silence is considered Endo’s response to The Power and the Glory, another book that was on Charmian’s list of recommendations. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to reading The Power and the Glory in time, but from what I can tell, both feature protagonists who are renegade Catholic priests living under violent regimes bent on stamping out Christianity. While The Power and the Glory is set during the early twentieth century in Mexico under a military government, Silence is set in Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate.

I hadn’t known much about the history of Catholicism in Japan, and the translator’s introduction proved to be helpful in providing some background information. Missionaries, mostly from Portugal, had achieved considerable success in establishing themselves in Japan and had built churches and seminaries with the approval of local daimyo before Japan went through political upheavals that changed the attitude of authorities to Western influence and culture. Foreign priests were banned from Japan, and any Catholics caught were tortured until they denied their faith. Silence thus tells the story of a young Portuguese priest, named Rodrigues, who secretly enters Japan in order to find out what happened to his former teacher, Ferreira, a missionary to Japan who has apostatized. (Ferreira is a real historical figure, while Rodrigues is not.)

As a Korean Catholic, I’m familiar with stories of martyrdom: I’ve heard all my life about the forty Korean martyrs who were executed by the government during the Yi Chosun dynasty, not to mention read my share of hagiographies of early Christian saints under the Roman Empire who died in pots of boiling water or by arrows or on spiked wheels. But the description of tortures in Silence seemed particularly alien and cruel: being tied to wooden posts in the middle of the sea or hung upside down in a pit filled with excrement with holes cut behind the ears to let the blood drain. The goal was not to kill them for the crime of being Christian but rather force them to deny their faith in front of their families and neighbors.

Rodrigues enters Japan with a fellow priest, Garrpe, and spends some time ministering to the Christian villagees he finds, while hiding from authorities. He is, however, eventually betrayed by the guide he hired, Kichijiro, whom he (arrogantly) considers as his own personal Judas. Rodrigues sees the Japanese villagers who helped hide him undergo torture and eventually die, while clinging steadfastly to their faith; he however is spared any suffering. He begins to doubt his faith, wondering and even raging at God’s silence while Christians die ingloriously without any sign from the universe that their martyrdom has been acknowledged. Only in the moment of his own apostasy, as he is about to step on an image of Christ, does he hear God’s voice again: “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.”

Rodrigues’ anguish at the silence of God reminded me of some of the post-Holocaust literature that also asked how could a benevolent God let such atrocities happen. Of course, I don’t equate the persecution of Catholics in Japan with the Nazi attempt at systematic genocide, and perhaps that was why I felt impatient at times with Rodrigues’ self-absorption: what right did he have to be angry at God when he hadn’t suffered nearly as much as those who did undergo torture? (Then again, what right do I have to judge Rodrigues, when I myself have never experienced what he has?) I think though that Endo intends Rodrigues to come across as a priest who has always been somewhat complacent in his faith, who has never been so challenged until his trip to Japan. Rodrigues anticipates hardship and expects to at least be given the chance at a glorious martyrdom: it is all the more dramatic when he apostatizes without even being tortured. It strikes a deliberate contrast coming after his patronizing albeit compassionate attitude towards the Japanese villagers, as well as his wholesale condemnation and judgment of Kichijiro. Rodrigues is human and imperfect and weak—weaker, perhaps, than Kichijiro. The novel moves from a first-person voice in letters to a limited third-person narrating from Rodrigues’ point-of-view to a series of documents recording what happened to Rodrigues after his apostasy. Is the outward progression in perspective meant to mirror Rodrigues’ own progression in self-awareness about himself and his faith? Or is it intended to detach the reader from Rodrigues’ character, giving us space to draw our own conclusions as Rodrigues is forced to grapple with more and more contradictions?

On a final note, Endo questions whether Christianity can truly exist in Japan, whether the Japanese can really be Christian. It seems to be an extremely personal question (Endo himself is a Japanese Catholic) to which he has no answer. Ferreira tells Rodrigues:

This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp. [...] But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God [...] No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider’s web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.

I’m not certain why Endo believes that there is a fundamental incompatibility between being Japanese and being Christian—or for that matter, what that incompatibility consists of—but it does become clear that Rodrigues drastically redefines his image of Christ in his moment of apostasy. Can he still claim to be a priest, a Catholic, a Christian? I don’t know, but I can relate to him more in that moment than in any previous part of the book because I too find it easier to believe in the Christ who suffered than the Christ who saved us.

Samuel Beckett, David Shenk, Jostein Gaarder (trans. Anne Born), Martin Palmer, P.G. Wodehouse

Endgame and Act Without Words, by Samuel Beckett: I went to see the Cutting Ball Theater production of Endgame in San Francisco with Steve, who later lent me his copy of the play since I hadn’t read it prior to the performance. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I read the play without any a priori impressions, but I suspect that it makes more sense when seen on stage. The dark humor of the play is inherent in the script (which, in fact, did include fairly detailed stage directions that account for almost all of the actions I saw, down to the folding of Hamm’s handkerchief) but I think it’s funnier when given inflection and pausing. All that being said, it’s a rather depressing play, but then again, what else does one expect from Beckett? I also noticed that there were puns in the dialogue that I hadn’t picked up on during the performance (not discounting the possibility that I’m seeing wordplay where it doesn’t actually exist).

The volume also included Beckett’s Act Without Words, which indeed has no dialogue. The whole pantomime seems rather like a post-existentialist satire of Camus’ assertion that the only philosophical question of any importance is the question of suicide. The lone actor, in confronting the futility of his actions, tries to commit suicide but even this option is denied him. Camus at least gives us the will to choose suicide if we so wished, but Beckett seems to be saying that we aren’t even permitted that escape. The actor ends up on the floor, paralyzed and unresponsive. What I would dub the modern nightmare.

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, by David Shenk: The book calls itself a history of chess, but it doesn’t simply relate the development of the board game alone but frames it in the context of why people have obsessed over this game for centuries. Chess as metaphor, chess as cultural phenomenon, chess as a mirror of sociopolitical and intellectual history (e.g. the rise of “courtly love” under Eleanor of Aquitaine, the French Enlightenment and subsequent revolutions), chess as rational system. The book describes myths and legends associated with chess (the caliph who did not evacuate his burning palace because he was engrossed in a game of chess), as well as famous games (the “Immortal Game” of the title describes a match between Anderssen and Kieseritzky in the nineteenth century) and grandmasters (the personal history of Bobby Fischer). It also talks about the evolution of game rules and strategy over time–I was fascinated by the four historical “stages” in chess style–and the appearance of chess in literature and computer science. All in all, an excellently written book. Shenk likes to dwell on the implications of chess as a game representing the power of free will (versus games of chance, like backgammon) and by extension, the triumph of civilization and rational thought, which he freely admits carries a personal meaning for him in the wake of 9/11. I’m not sure if the more memoirist parts of the book strengthen or weaken it (after all, he also talks about how the obsession with chess can be all-consuming and how chess geniuses lose their sanity), but I did like reading about his own attempts to improve his chess game.

Vita Brevis: A Letter to Saint Augustine, by Jostein Gaarder (trans. Anne Born): In the introduction, Gaarder purports to have found and translated a letter written to Augustine from the “concubine” whom he mentions in his Confessions. I actually took him at his word at first, but if you read the book, it becomes clear that the letter is a fictional vehicle in which Gaarder can criticize Augustine and his influence on Christian theology. Despite Gaarder’s conceit of including “footnotes” citing the original Latin phrases, it’s clear that Floria, the supposed letter writer, sounds like Gaarder (or at least like Gaarder’s usual English translator) and has surprisingly modern ideas that coincide nicely with Western liberal opinions largely held today. I’m no classics expert, but I doubt that a letter originally written in Latin would ever “translate” into the style that Floria adopts. I suppose I’m annoyed because if Gaarder was going to make the pretense of having found a letter to Augustine as some sort of metafictional device, he could have done a much better job of it. It would have been brilliant if he executed the writing well enough to really make the reader believe his framing story of buying the manuscript at a book fair in Argentina. (Choice of country a nod to Borges?) As it is, all it becomes is a tiresome rant on Augustine’s extreme Platonism. Floria basically says (over and over again, while quoting extensively from Confessions) that believing in a Creator God who loved his creation means not denying the physical world and the facts of our physical existence; in fact, it is as much a sin to hate the world as it is to love it too well. Chesterton made the same point in his biography of Aquinas much more eloquently and with much more subtlety. Also, like most poor arguments, the whole book started making me sympathize with Augustine. I mean, I think Augustine’s conception of religion as divorcing oneself completely from the material world as much as possible is a little ridiculous, but I also think that he was genuinely trying, in his own fashion, to devote himself completely to God. And honestly, do we really need to blame all the excesses and mistakes of the Church on Augustine? As Chesterton points out, there are historical reasons for why Augustine’s brand of Platonic Christianity had such great appeal. Then again, I suppose we don’t like to accept that theology can have relativity without being untrue. (Oh, the poststructuralist paradox.)

The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, by Martin Palmer: The subject matter of the book is quite fascinating since it traces the history of early Christianity in China centuries before any Jesuit missions. It describes a Christian tradition that developed separately in the Middle East, India and central Asia and is hence not continuous with the history of Catholic church (and subsequent Protestant denominations) in the West. It’s unfortunate though that the writing wasn’t very compelling and used phrases like “the Church of the East”, which implied an orientalist attitude that grated on my nerves. I think the book was also extremely disorganized: Palmer kept jumping from his personal account of discovering the ruins of an indigenous Christian monastery in Western China, to recounting the history of how Christianity entered China and merged with Taoist and Buddhist doctrines, to summarizing and translating the “Jesus Sutras” (Chinese texts that refer to Christian scripture and liturgy) without providing an overarching flow to his argument. I wish he had chosen a more academic tone and stripped the personal commentary from his book. I also wish he didn’t analyze the Sutras prior to providing the translated text; it seems to be dodgy academic practice to try to bias the mind of your reader with a particular interpretation of a text (given that he can’t exactly assume that his reader is already familiar with the texts in question). Mostly, what I found most irritating was that he built up my expectations with his claims that the Sutras were an important contribution to spiritual literature. Granted, I have no idea how the original Chinese reads, but the English translation sounded awkward and uninspiring to me. Also, I didn’t find the blending of Christian theology with Buddhist and Taoist (more Buddhist than Taoist, in my opinion, despite the title) philosophy to be all that radical. It’s easy to find common points among all religious doctrines; the question is at which point do you end up generalizing so much that you end up becoming nondenominational. If Palmer had seriously addressed whether or not this “adulteration” of Christian theology can still be called Christian, I would have liked the book a lot more. (Are you still Christian if you diminish the historical existence of Christ and turn him into an abstract Savior? Conversely, are you still Christian if you emphasize the humanity of Christ and overlook his divinity? I don’t know the answer. To be honest, I don’t think I’m capable of grasping the dual nature of Christ; instead I slip into the fallacy of believing in two different Christs, one human and one divine.)

I should add that of course, one could say that Catholicism (and the Protestant sects which it spawned) is the adulterated form–and I think to a certain extent, that is Palmer’s contention. The Christian message has become distorted and politicized in “the West”, and hence we ought to look to “the East” to revive Christian spirituality and return to a more original form. But I find that whole attitude aggravating: Buddhism and Taoism have been equally subject to distortion, and I would presume a “Taoist Christianity” would be no different. No matter where you go, religion has been a tool for power.

Mike at Wrykyn, by P.G. Wodehouse: The prequel to Mike and Psmith, although I don’t know if it can rightly be called a prequel since I believe the two books were originally published together as Mike. The book talks about Mike’s first year at Wrykyn as he makes his mark through his superlative cricket skills, while juggling relations with his brother, an overbearing head of house, his roommate (an upperclassman known for getting into trouble) and the Wrykyn cricket captain. Schoolboy pranks included, although not as many as I expected, since the book is in fact mostly about cricket. I wish I knew more about cricket but the book is still enjoyable without any knowledge of the sport.

Leave It to Psmith, by P.G. Wodehouse: Switched from reading about Jeeves and Wooster to reading about Psmith, who is absurdly and delightfully verbose. He is able to get away with anything by simply never losing his composure; in the stickiest situation, he always makes everyone else feel that he has the upper hand. That’s the charm of a thoroughly arrogant character, of course. I suppose the trick is that he never irritates the reader with his arrogance, although other characters certainly find it infuriating. I liked that Wodehouse also finally created a strong female character, who is assertive and independent, without including any criticisms that come off as subtly sexist. (Female characters that are as spunky as Eve in the Jeeves and Wooster books come off as irresponsibly mischievous or domineering or scheming to entrap Bertie in marriage. Along the same lines, the weepy poetic female character in this story turned out to be a thief, whereas in a Jeeves and Wooster book, she would simply have remained soppy all the way through.) I also hadn’t realized that Freddie Threepwood was such an idiot; I read a later Blandings short story where he becomes much more competent.

School stories

A repost of books read for the “school stories” theme.

Maurice, by E.M. Forster: Maurice draws a portrait of the eponymous protagonist, in the process of self-realization of his homosexuality while struggling with the taboos and social restrictions of his time. I’ve read Forster’s A Room With a View and Howards End a while ago, and somehow I felt the prose style in Maurice was rather different from what I remembered of Forster. (Or perhaps my memory’s just foggy?) Maurice is almost deceptively straightforward; the novel almost has the quality of a psychological case study, albeit with a more sympathetic touch.

In the beginning, Maurice is very much unaware of his desires, which express themselves confusedly in dreams and the usual cruelties among boys at public school. He only begins to “awaken” when he arrives at Cambridge and meets Clive, who is more self-aware but also conflicted about his sexuality in a way that Maurice, for all his obtuseness, is not. Clive tries to channel his attraction to Maurice into a sort of transcendent Platonic relationship, in what he interprets as the ancient Greek fashion, without allowing any physical consummation. Maurice easily follows Clive’s lead at first, but Clive abruptly decides after a trip to Greece that he no longer has any homosexual feelings and loves only women.

I found this part of the story to be the most bewildering and difficult to interpret. I was under the impression that most people who identify as gay or lesbian speak of their sexuality as something that they’re born with, something that they can’t just change or will away simply by wanting to. So is Clive simply going back into the closet? Or was his flirtation with “the Greek vice” merely an adolescent phase, the result of over-romanticizing classical times? How do you suddenly wake up one day and realize that your sexual identity has changed?

It’s interesting though how Clive and Maurice’s relationship starts in Cambridge and ends after they leave: the university as this highly artificial environment where Maurice comes to know himself but is unable to find fulfillment. It is only when he moves on from Cambridge and from Clive that he starts being an individual. At first he tries to ignore his desires, then tries to “cure” himself by consulting a doctor and even a hypnotist. But in the end, he does finally end up becoming sexually involved with Alec—Clive’s gameskeeper and a social inferior—and despite Maurice’s ambivalent reaction, one gets the sense that he has stopped trying to deny himself.

The ending felt a little abrupt—what happens to Maurice and Alec?—and there were quite a few unresolved issues left. Maurice and Alec are no ideal couple, and though their attraction seems much more tangible, they don’t seem to communicate any better than Maurice and Clive had. Forster wrote a terminal note, which made me wonder if the novel is unresolved because the larger social issue was unresolved at the time.

The Invention of Love, by Tom Stoppard: The play is set at the death of A.E. Housman, known for being a classical scholar as well as poet. As he crosses the Styx, ferried along by Charon, he sees moments from his life as a student at Oxford, where he met Moses Jackson, for whom he developed a lifelong unrequited love. Housman was also the contemporary of Oscar Wilde, whose shadow slips in and out of the play before making one appearance at the end to converse with Housman’s younger self.

I loved reading the play: Housman’s obvious passion for the classics delighted me, and I enjoyed the neurotic squabble of the academics who are his professors and colleagues. I really regret not being able to see an actual performance though, and I think I would have had a better appreciation for the play if I knew more about Housman himself (e.g. if I had read his famous cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad). I got the sense that Stoppard quoted extensively, though I could only really note the quotes he attributed, and I think I would have a better understanding of the play’s structure and direction if I knew the references.

Stoppard’s language is delightful. There’s a particularly funny dialogue among Oxford academics, which incidentally makes for nice commentary on education and the purpose thereof:

Pattison: The modern university exists by consent of the world outside. We must send out men fitted for that world. What better example can we show them than classical antiquity? Nowhere was the ideal of morality, art and social order realized more harmoniously than in Greece in the age of the great philosophers.

Ruskin: Buggery apart.

Jowett: Buggery apart.

Pater: Actually, Italy in the late-fifteenth century…Nowhere was the ideal of art, morality and social order realized more harmoniously, morality and social order apart.

Ruskin: The Medieval Gothic! The Medieval Gothic cathedrals which were the great engines of art, morality and social order!

Pattison (at croquet): Check. Play the advantage.

Pater: I have been touched by the medieval but its moment has passed, and now I wouldn’t return the compliment with a barge-pole. As for arts-and-crafts, it is very well for the people; without it, Liberty’s would be at risk, in fact it would be closed, but the true Aesthetic spirit goes back to Florence, Venice, Rome—Japanese apart. One sees it plain in Michelangelo’s David—legs apart. The blue of my very necktie declares we are still living in that revolution whereby man regained possession of his nature and produced the Italian Tumescence.

There’s something particularly poignant about Housman’s love for Jackson. As in Maurice, Oxford becomes the place where Housman first discovers love but is unable to realize it; unlike Maurice, he returns to the academic world, keeping his passion suppressed by burying himself in classical scholarship. A lifetime spent loving one person without hope of ever being loved in return, and the way Housman preserves his love by remaining in the timeless cloister of academia appeal to my romantic sensibilities I suppose.

Mystery

A repost of reviews for the “mystery” theme that inaugurated The Bibliophagic Society book club.

The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde: I chose to read this book first because it was the only title to appear on two different lists. I’d read the first two books of the Thursday Next series before and found them entertaining, but I did find myself fed up with the character of Thursday Next herself as well as Fforde’s occasional lapses into awkward prose. Reading The Big Over Easy though convinced me that I should give Fforde another chance and finish reading his other books. I think Fforde struck the perfect balance between being entertaining and unexpectedly serious (one of my main objections to Next was her tendency to grow self-pitying) in The Big Over Easy: Jack Spratt has problems, to be sure, but he takes them for the most part with a laidback good humor that makes him an easy character to like.

But I should probably first introduce the premise of the book first. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jasper Fforde, he writes what are essentially mystery novels set in an alternate Britain. I don’t think the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crimes series (of which The Fourth Bear is the first novel) belong to exactly the same universe (although The Eyre Affair is mentioned in the book), but they share many similarities: both protagonists are detectives investigating “literary crimes”. In the Thursday Next universe, where books still dominate most people’s everyday lives, reading is much more than a passive activity: you can enter books and change the storyline or steal characters. Fforde takes this idea one step further for the Nursery Crimes series: here, characters from children’s nursery rhymes and fairy tales actually exist, although they are unaware of being “characters”. Hence, Jack Spratt (yes, from this rhyme, as well as “Jack and the Beanstalk”), Detective Inspector and head of the Nursery Crime Division with the Reading police, is assigned to investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty with his new partner, Mary Mary (who is not so quite contrary as I would have expected). The Nursery Crime Division is considered a laughingstock unfortunately, and Jack is snubbed and ignored by his former partner, Friedland Chymes, who is the star of the police department.

It’s particularly appropriate to read this book for this theme because the Jack Spratt universe is set in a world where detectives are adored as celebrities, and solving a case is as much a matter of creating publishable cases (serialized in Amazing Crime Stories and often turned into TV dramas) as they are about finding the culprit. Friedland Chymes is the worst example, and in his pompous, self-congratulatory accounts of how he solved his latest case, Fforde parodies the mystery genre at its most contrived:

“It was the small traces of pastry around the gunshot wound on Colonel Peabody’s corpse that turned the case for me,” began the great detective, his sonorous tones filling hte air like music, “minute quantities of shortcrust whose butter/flour ratio I found to be identical to that of a medium-size Bowyer’s pork pie. The assailant had fired his weapon through the tasty snack to muffle the sound of the shot. The report heard later was a firecracker set off by a time fuse, thus giving an alibi to the assailant, who I can reveal to you now was…”

Every detective, who is registered with the Guild of Detectives, also has an Official Sidekick to record his adventures, à la the grand tradition of Watson and Hastings. Detectives are expected to drive fancy cars, be confirmed bachelors (preferably with a dark and angst-ridden past), and have interesting character quirks, all the better to amuse the audience. The celebrity detective trend seems to have begun with Holmes himself, whose legacy was continued by Hercule Porridge, Miss Maple, Lord Peter Flimsey and Father Broom (I wonder why only Holmes got to keep his name?), as well as of course, Friedland Chymes, who not surprisingly turns out to be a total fraud.

The mystery itself is well-constructed, with several suspects wanting to kill Humpty Dumpty and (spoiler ahead) each one of them turning out to have made a real attempt, although all but one were unsuccessful. The process of investigation however isn’t exactly a standard for deduction: Jack Spratt and Mary Mary are pretty much swept along from obvious clue to obvious clue until they finally find the real culprit. What’s entertaining however are all the nursery rhyme and fairy tale references that one encounters along the way (I was almost tempted to start writing down all the ones I recognized), and the amusing twists that Fforde puts on each one. Humpty Dumpty for example was a philanthropist and notorious playboy (playegg?), the Gingerbread Man was a insane psychopath, and Giorgio Porgia (better known as Georgie Porgie) is the head of the mafia. Fforde also makes sure to touch on a lot of film noir conventions, from the angry, jilted wife to the washed-up film star. And let’s not forget the crazy architecture of Spongg Castle (a parody on crumbling Gothic mansions?), the mad scientist Dr. Quatt, and Prometheus (yes, the actual Greek Titan) meeting Jack Spratt’s daughter Pandora.

Fforde is very inventive and funny, and despite his seemingly endless stream of clever puns and asides and references, he never loses track of the central story either, and we get a nice, tidy ending with all plot points resolved (not such an easy task given how many plot points there are!). Which, if you think about it, is what we’ve come to expect from a mystery novel.

Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie: I think I’ve only read one Poirot mystery before, since whenever I looked for an Agatha Christie novel, I always looked for her Miss Marple mysteries first. I wasn’t very familiar with the character himself—I barely remembered his trademark reference to “the little grey cells”—and I hadn’t realized that his method of choice was constructing a psychological profile of the suspects to decide who would be the most likely culprit. It’s an interesting method!—but limited in approach. It’s particularly well-suited though for drawing-room murders, where there are a finite number of suspects and the means of murder is known.

Naturally, Cards on the Table features such a murder: the victim is Mr. Shaitana who invites four sleuths (a Scotland Yard inspector, a mystery writer, a secret service agent, and a private detective—namely Poirot) and four murderers whom he believes to have gotten away with their crimes. Shaitana is found dead, presumably killed while all eight guests were playing bridge, and the four sleuths combine forces to solve the crimes. Everyone has their own approach and personality of course: Mrs. Oliver, the novelist, relies on her “woman’s intuition” and jumps to unsupported conclusions based on what she thinks will make a good story; Superintendent Battle, the Scotland Yard inspector, investigates the suspects patiently and thoroughly, according to the book; and Colonel Race, who actually doesn’t feature much in the novel, pops in to share information via his contacts about one of the suspects. Poirot is the most “unorthodox” and asks the suspects about their bridge game and what they remembered from the room, rather than anything directly related to the crime itself. I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that Battle got his fair share of respect—ever since the much-abused Lestrade, it seems that the Scotland Yard don’t usually get much respect in detective fiction—and his “hard work over genius” approach wasn’t considered futile, even if it was Poirot who solved the crime.

As for the four suspects, they all proved to be rather likeable, even Anne Meredith, although I found her well-suppressed envy and vindictiveness to be unnerving. Mrs. Lorrimer was my favorite though, with her passion for bridge and exact personality, and I have to admit that I was left a little curious about the murder she got away with, since only her crime remains incompletely solved. (All of the four suspects have murdered before, so the four detectives essentially end up investigating five crimes instead of just one.) Major Despard remains the only one that escapes serious suspicion, although I would have thought him the most likely suspect myself, if I hadn’t remembered that a similar sort of character in And Then There Were None ended up being innocent. (Guessing the right culprit seems to usually be a matter of how well you can read the author’s mind.) I was a little disappointed with the solution—I’m not sure if it’s the one I necessarily anticipated or not, so I can’t make any conclusion about my self-esteem—because it turned out to be a lot simpler than I expected. That’s the problem with the drawing-room murder: the method of murder is fairly straightforward. I did rather like Poirot himself though and plan to read more in the future.

2003/02/18

[The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton]

I finished The Man Who Was Thursday last night, and I reaffirm my goal to try to write like G.K. Chesterton. I really can’t describe the book adequately, but it was like one of those dreams where you’re terrified or wildly delirious but you don’t want to wake up because you want to know what happens next. Chesterton’s prose is vivid and dramatic, but just a little bit tongue-in-cheek so that you don’t know whether to hide under your blankets or to just laugh out loud. It’s surreal and yet believable at the same time—you’re sort of sucked in by the story until you find yourself a million miles from where you began. And I sound like the back cover of a cheap paperback.

Dorothy Dunnett

A Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett: I picked up Dorothy Dunnett on Cat’s recommendation. A Game of Kings is the first book in her famous Lymond series, featuring the Scottish aristocrat, Francis Crawford of Lymond, the Master of Culter. The book felt bewildering at first because Dunnett drops us into the story with very little background, and since my global history course back in high school had spent only a few days on Tudor-era England, I felt rather at sea in the morass of Scottish-English relations. (What I know of Scottish history mostly comes from two Sir Walter Scott novels and the movie Braveheart.) Actually, simply keeping track of who was related to whom and who had married into which family was difficult enough at first before I realized there was a useful list of characters at the beginning of the book.

But once I’d managed to get my bearings, the book became one of those compelling reads that keep you up late into the night because you simply can’t put it down. Dunnett’s prose is intricate and dense but beautifully descriptive; I’ve read few authors who could write such detailed action scenes while preserving the suspense. (The swordfight between Lymond and his brother, for example.) Her characters are vivid, almost to the point of being larger-than-life, and speak with an eloquence that probably would only have worked in historical fiction. E.g. Lymond, on patriotism:

Into the silence, the Master spoke gently. “These are not patriots, but martyrs, dying in cheerful self-interest as the Christians died in the pleasant conviction of grace, leaving their example by chance to brood beneath the water and rise, miraculously, to refresh the centuries. The cry is raised: Our land is glorious under the sun. I have a need to believe it, they say. It is a virtue to believe it; and therefore I shall wring from this unassuming clod a passion and a power and a selflessness that otherwise would be laid unquickened in the grave.” [...]

“And who shall say they are wrong,” said Lymond. “There are those who will always cleave to the living country, and who with their uprooted imaginations might well make of it an instrument for good. Is it quite beyond us in this land? Is there no one will take up this priceless thing and say, Here is a nation, with such a soul; with such talents; with these failings and this native worth? In what fashion can this one people be brought to live in full vigour and serenity, and who, in their compassion and wisdom, will take it and lead it into the path?”

Would you see such gifts of oratory in a modern-day character? It’s not just Lymond’s gifted tongue that moves the stage to silence either; Mary de Guise’s heartfelt speech in the last chapter was also amazing.

Lymond does edge dangerously close to being a little too ideal: he is charismatic and accomplished, speaks at least a half-dozen languages, is gifted with the sword and bow, charms women, possesses an ironic wit, is both a debauched scoundrel and a man of honor. But I still ended up liking his character nonetheless (six years ago, I would have fallen in love with him). Perhaps I’m just weak to protagonists who can quote at the drop of a hat. Lymond speaks in quotes as much as Wimsey does, although I recognize far fewer of his sources.

I’m no expert on this historical period of course, but Dunnett does seem to have done her research thoroughly. I did notice a few anachronisms, such as a reference to Shahrazad from 1001 Nights, which (Wikipedia confirms) was not translated into any Western European language until the eighteenth century. (Or perhaps we are to assume Lymond read it in the original Arabic? But then why would other characters even recognize the reference?) But these anachronisms are only occasional, and given the length and scope of this book, I think a few mistakes are entirely forgivable.

2003/02/16

More than four years later, I still aspire to write like Chesterton.

[The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton]

Oh, and The Man Who Was Thursday is really an absolutely wonderful book. For example:

And in some strange way, though there was not the shadow of a shape in the gloom, Syme knew two things: first, that it came from a man of massive stature; and second, that the man had his back to him.

(It has just occurred to me that it may not be self-evident why this particular sentence is so wonderful, but it’s too much trouble trying to explain it. Also, explaining things tend to take the flavor out of them. Let it suffice to say that I read this sentence and felt delighted, though it was indeed surreal and slightly frightening, “nightmare” that it is.) I have decided that one of my life’s goals will be to write like G.K. Chesterton.

2003/02/06

I still continue to have contradictory expectations of Asian-American authors. I have yet to come across one that has managed to say something new about the so-called “Asian-American experience” while still remaining meaningful to me. Although thinking more on this issue, I think I would have preferred it if Chang-rae Lee had written about an entirely different subject altogether; it’s the fact that he chooses to write about an Asian man in American society without really writing about immigrant life (at least in a form that is recognizable to me). Perhaps Ha Jin’s new novel is more along the lines of what I’ve been subconsciously expecting.

[A Gesture Life, by Chang-rae Lee]

Started reading Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, which made me feel slightly betrayed, since he’s writing about a Japanese man who “fell in love with a Korean comfort woman during World War II.” It’s all very well to explore controversial issues, but he’s a fellow Korean, and irrationally, I wish he’d show more nationalism. I know, I know, it’s art, and therefore, we durst not argue with whatever the dictates of his artistic conscience demand. (I like the sound of that, “durst not.”) Still…

Also, it may be just me, but I find his writing incredibly dull. There’s an Ishiguro-esque quality to his style, but Ishiguro makes the content of his writing interesting, the nostalgic and wistful descriptions lingering over faded, yet beautiful things. The nostalgic and wistful descriptions here linger over an ordinary middle-class American life, albeit that of a Japanese immigrant. It’s just…tiresome. I think maybe the style itself could potentially be parodic, or at least evocative of modern Japanese writers, but still, I don’t enjoy this story. (Then I feel somewhat guilty, because Chang-rae Lee is probably the only famous Korean-American contemporary writer. But who says Asian-Americans should enjoy Asian-American writing? I didn’t like Native Speaker much either.) What’s odd is that my friends and I have criticized most Asian-American writing for dwelling too much on the “oh, I rebelled against my roots but I can never escape them” theme, but for some reason, this is exactly what I dislike about Chang-rae Lee. Not enough about Korea, or of Korean heritage. I want him to distill the essence of my Korean-American existence, in the exact manner of that cliched phrase. I want to see him muse about speaking the language, about wearing hanbok, about passing by “Koreatown” in Flushing, about sappy “trot” music that the grandparents love singing. I don’t want to hear of a wholly American life, where the man has an American wife and a normal job, all of which is falling apart, but in a typically American way. I want to read about “feeling caught between two worlds” when the writer is a Korean-American, and therefore like me. How silly is that? A shared nationality still allows room for infinite variations.

2003/02/03

I don’t even know I’d call the book “ingenious” and “innovative” anymore. It’s certainly well-written though.

[The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen]

I’ve finished Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which I concede is creative and ingenious and innovative, etc., etc., etc., but it was difficult to enjoy. I mean, considering that it’s about a midwestern American family, going through various stages of midlife crises and/or depression, it couldn’t be further detached from the world I live in. I suppose for the critics it captured the essence of being American and suffering the changes in ideas and ideals and ideologies, but as an Asian-American, who has lived on the East Coast all her life (and yes, those nine years in Houston counted as East Coast), it couldn’t be more alien.

One would expect that reading fantasy would, well, be escapist, and yes, it is to a certain degree. On the other hand, all the books I really enjoy are probably closest to me in terms of mental familiarity. Even contemporary mainstream books like The Lovely Bones focus on something I can relate to myself, like family life. The Corrections has very few chances for that kind of connection. I don’t understand these characters very well, and it’s hard to experience their world through their minds. And, well, the fixation on fecal matter and urine may have been thematically important, but was it necessary to describe the smell of rancid urine? I tend to have overly vivid reading experiences, and I nearly threw up on those particular passages. Sheesh.