Books & More
"A good book has no ending. "
— R. D. Dimming
Sunday, June 26, 2016
Surviving it all
Title: Outrun the moon
By: Stacey Lee
Mercy Wong lives with her family in the Chinatown section of San Francisco in 1906. Frustrated that the local Oriental Public School only goes up to the eighth grade, she makes a deal with the head of St. Clare’s School for Girls, which is open only to upper class white girls: if she can get the leaders of Chinatown to sell the man’s chocolates, she’ll be allowed to attend St. Clare’s for three months. Mercy tries hard to fit in at St. Clare’s, but she is looked down upon for being Chinese, and she is not used to being around girls who have never worked for anything. She must deal with a suspicious housemother, a mean girl who happens to be the headmaster’s daughter, and with being seen as an oddity by girls who haven’t ever spoken to a Chinese person. Then, one April morning, tragedy strikes—an earthquake has shaken San Francisco. The girls of St. Clare’s, including Mercy, end up at Golden Gate Park, which has turned into a tent city for displaced residents. When fires begin raging throughout the city, Mercy worries that her family has not survived, and becomes determined to find them. As the days pass in Golden Gate Park, Mercy becomes the girl’s de facto leader, teaching them how to survive in the real world. But as the city continues to burn, and the girls go days without word from their families, the real world is becoming a scary place. Will Mercy get news of her family before it’s too late? And what will become of San Francisco?
Outrun the Moon tells the story of an enormous tragedy that shaped California's history and how one girl might be able to survive it all.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Title: Dies the fire
By: Richard Sterling
The first book in S.M. Stirling’s Embervers series, Dies the Fire, was one of the first postapocalyptic/speculative fiction books I read that wasn't about zombies or nuclear war ravaging the world. Instead, this book addresses the question of what would happen if you took away modern convenience and weapons from everyday life.
This is done by allusions to a mysterious event like a giant EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that causes all electronics and explosives to stop working. The skeptical reader might balk at the tiny detail of the laws of physics being totally thrown to the wind here, but the action doesn't leave you time to really speculate.
The story follows three groups of survivors: The Bearkillers, led by Mike Havel, former Marine and bush pilot turned leader and warchief; Clan MacKenzie, led by Juniper Mackenzie, former folk singer and Renaissance Faire reenactress, whose cabin in the Oregon mountains provides an ideal headquarters for her growing clan of survivors; and The Protectorate, led by David Arminger, former professor of medieval history now warlord and conqueror of the former city of Portland. The three groups grow and eventually interact, with mixed results for everyone involved.
The book is well balanced between interpersonal drama and action. You grow to love and hate many of the characters as they struggle to address realistic issues of survival such as food sustainability, weapons training, and medical treatment.
So, if you like post-apocalyptic fiction but are tired of zombie survival stories, this might be a good option for you. Action, drama, and intrigue fill its pages and make it a quick but satisfying read.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Fast-paced, darkly humorous, and fun
Title: Rock Paper Tiger
By: Lisa Brackmann
In Rock Paper Tiger, we meet Ellie McEnroe Cooper, an American Iraq War veteran who has followed her husband and his job to Beijing. Ellie’s husband, also an Iraq War veteran, has fallen in love with a Chinese woman, and is asking for a divorce. Ellie cannot bring herself to sign the divorce papers, and she has no intention of returning to America. Complicating matters, she is nursing an explosives-related leg injury that hasn’t healed, and has post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from another (as yet unspecified) nightmare she lived through in Iraq.
Lao Zhang (also known as the dissident artist, Zhang Jianli), an artist who is more than just a friend, introduces Ellie to an Uighur, a Turkish ethnic living in China. Following their meeting, both Lao Zhang and the Uighur vanish. The Uighur is under government suspicion of being an Islamic terrorist, and it is likely that Lao Zhang has also come under suspicion and has fled. With Lao Zhang aka Zhang Jianli missing, the future of the edgy arts community he founded also is endangered. Ellie feels most at home in this community, and wants to save it. She needs answers.
Agents from multiple security agencies, Chinese and American, spy on Ellie as she travels about China searching for clues as to Lao Zhang’s whereabouts. She has a glimmer of hope when a group of avatars claiming to be friends make contact with her through a government-unsupervised Internet game. Is Ellie safe playing the game? Should she trust the avatars? Events eventually come to a head, and we learn about the trauma Ellie experienced in Iraq.
Everyone and everything appears intentionally off-kilter in Brackmann’s story. How well does the setting reflect modern China? How closely does Ellie’s experience typify the veteran-expatriate experience? I don’t know. The author paints a light brushstroke against a canvas of highly serious subjects--torture and war, to name a couple. The book’s appeal is Brackmann’s willingness to take risks. It is interesting to suppose the vulnerabilities of a female veteran of the Iraq War. Ellie initially is characterized as a deeply immobilized young woman. I was hooked by her shows of independence and spirit of rebellion--against her broken body, a morally-challenged husband, and the seemingly ludicrous agendas of government agents.
This is the first of a series featuring Ellie. I’ll read the next one on some weekend when I don’t want to think too deeply about serious subjects like war or international politics, or government oppression or espionage, and merely want to go for another roller coaster ride through a character finding her way in an imagined China.
Note: if you prefer more literary titles that are similarly atmospheric, fast-paced, darkly humorous, and fun, you may enjoy Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. If you enjoy reading books featuring expatriates in China, I recommend Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones.
Thursday, June 9, 2016
Title: Dark souls II: collector's edition guide
By: Bruce C. Byrne
Do you know where you stand on perhaps the most urgent question of our troubled modern age: "Are video games art"? (Remember that movies were first regarded as mere popular entertainment, and novels once dismissed as a woman's leisure activity.) This lavishly illustrated volume can help.
Video games, at their best, can provide an immersive experience of another world that feels more participatory than traditional media. As player, you have the convincing illusion of writing your own story by virtue of your actions in the game's fictive space.
Dark Souls II, like its predecessor, achieves this immersion and sense of agency through a coherent, thematic design in which every gaping dragon, twilit wood, and mossy ruin contributes to the game's singular mood: the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, or beauty in decay; the beautiful sorrow of time's inevitable passage.
This guide is not only an encyclopedia of the game's arcane lore, but a visual testament to the fading majesty of a decaying world.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
Found in translation
Title: Love in a fallen city
By: Ailing Zhang
In 2007, New York Review Books published Love in a Fallen City, a collection of seven novellas by famed Chinese writer Zhang Ailing. Originally published in 1943, it tells the story of a rapidly declining aristocratic family in Shanghai at the end of the 1930s. Not unlike Mrs. Bennet, the mother in Pride and Prejudice, the old matriarch is anxious to marry off her three grown-up daughters, especially Bai Liusu, the sixth daughter, whose ex-husband has just died, to eligible rich bachelors. Instead of succumbing to fate as a widow to claim a share of the inheritance or a future of shaving her hair to become a nun, the 28-year-old Liusu is determined to live her own life: "First marriage for the family, second marriage for oneself." Her half-sister, the seventh daughter, admires Liusu’s fiery and free spirit and chooses her as her companion for her first formal meeting with Fan Liuyuan, a wealthy Chinese heir from London. In a twist of fate, the sophisticated Liuyuan shows more interest in Liusu than in the intended betrothed. He engineers an invitation to Hong Kong for her. They fall in love after resolving a series of misunderstandings, and survive untold hardships during the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation.
The title story, which made Zhang Ailing the most popular new writer in Shanghai in the 1940s, displayed what became her literary trademarks: settings (Shanghai and Hong Kong), time periods (prior to and after World War II), characters (European or American educated intellectuals from declining aristocratic families), and themes (tension and uncertainty between love/freedom and societal restraints). She drew substantially from her real life experience, as reflected in her autobiographical novel Xiao tuan yuan (SCPL has a copy in Chinese).
Despite her early success and later recognition as one of China's four female literary giants (along with Lü Bicheng, Xiao Hong, and Shi Pingmei), Ailing remains relatively unknown to today’s readers. Her first marriage, to a Japanese collaborator in the Sino-Japanese War, resulted in the banning of her books in Mainland China until recently. And, while a handful of her books have been translated into English, many subtleties have been lost in the process. However, Ailing's literary works transcend time and space with their penetrating language to portray "the desires, imaginations, and personalities of urban residents," (Encyclopedia Britannica). Meanwhile, their conflict between traditional Chinese culture and Western modernity is one of the constant themes favored by film/TV directors. Many of them have been adapted into movies, mostly notably, Love in a Fallen City (1984), Red Rose, White Rose (1994), and Half a Lifelong Romance (1997 as a film; 2003 as a TV series).