Book Review — The Years, Months, Days

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The Years, Months, Days: Two Novellas by Yan Lianke is a translation of one of China’s rising writers. Lianke is a Chinese writer of novels and short stories based in Beijing. His work is highly satirical, which has resulted in some of his most renowned works being banned.

Carlos Rojos gives the introduction to this collection.  Lianke is no stranger to hunger.  He was born in the first year of the Great Leap Forward (1958).  The rush to grow an economy rivaling Britian ended up creating famine instead.  Tens of millions died throughout the country.  It is little surprise that the title story of “The Years, Months, Days” centers on drought and hunger.

The village elder decides he would not survive the move east out of the drought affecting the village so he decides to stay and care for a seeding corn plant.  The plant represents the village’s future as the source for seed for the next season’s crops.  The Elder is left with a blind dog as a companion who seems to understand what he is being told.  The story has a Twilight Zone eeriness to it. The loneliness and emptiness of life jump from the pages.  It is as if the elder was abandoned on a barren planet and not his home village.  He takes his duty to the plant seriously and the aptly named dog, “Blindy”, becomes his world to him.  Hunger and unexpected enemies begin to make life even more difficult.  The Elder’s senses adapt to his surroundings.  He can hear the sunset and the sound of his corn plant growing.  He measures the sun’s heat by its weight.  It is a story of duty where minor things become the most important.

The second story, “Marrow”, takes the uncanniness in a different direction.  Here an almost fairytale imagery drives the story.  Stone You and Fourth Wife You have three daughters who suffer from what seems like a form of epilepsy and not much intelligence. Counting to ten and performing simple tasks were nearly impossible.  The children acted more like apes than humans.  Stone You drowns himself after finding out Fourth Wife You was pregnant again.  Fourth Wife worked the farm and raised the children.  Daughter Number One and Daughter Number Two had been married off to men who were also less than whole.  Daughter Number Three is tormented by the youngest, her brother, Fourth Idiot.  The bulk of the story is finding Daughter Number Three a “wholer” to marry. This story reads like a demented fairytale the reader will be both appalled and drawn into the story.  It is disturbing in many ways but still something not to be put down.

Lianke can weave a compelling story despite the bleakness of the first story and perhaps the, contemporary American,  offensiveness of the second story.  Both stories are writing in a simple but beautiful language.  The simplicity of the language is much akin to the skills needed in making an old movie before special effects.  The reader relies on Lianke’s profound storytelling ability rather than gimmicks or tricks.  A very interesting and worthwhile cross-cultural work.

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Poetry Review — Salvage: Poems

Salvage: Poems by Cynthia Dewi Oka is the poet’s second collection of poetry.  Oka is the author of Nomad of Salt and Hard Water. Originally from Bali, Indonesia, she is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry as well as grants from the Leeway Foundation and Vermont Studio Center.   She is based in the greater Philadelphia area, where she works as a community organizer with immigrant and faith communities.

Some people think their lives are a wreck.  Some countries are in the process of being wrecked.  Some see the world, the planet, on its last gasp.  Oka looks around the world and into lives to find what can be saved or salvaged.  “Ishtar in Suburbia” opens with a message of how many have been killed in the 423 US drone strikes in Pakistan and continues:

Whir. Enormous mosquitoes.
The bowels release.
Then Empire

There is a way to cleanse the sex out of war
I mean libido, lick. The funk
& nasty. The sweat-paste, moaning
hair

She brings it home:

You ride the train downtown.
Past the crow-picked rubble. Charred row houses
Their windows missing like teeth.

Pain and destruction are not far in many poems.  Oka reminds the reader:

The Hellfire travels 995 miles per hour.  Where it lands, soul
is freed like fire through skin, touching dirt for the first time. 

There is even a scattered poem “Elegy for the Hellfire”

Not everything is manmade. “After Hurricane Sandy” ties to the land of the native people and is followed up “Nom De Guerre.” The First People of Quebec stand up to the Mounties and the military to protect their burial grounds from an expansion of a golf course.  While British Columbia brings thoughts of wilderness and Vancouver city, Oka takes the reader to the Downtown Eastside which is on par with any American big city in murders, drugs, and prostitution.  Tribute is paid to the women murdered there and is followed up with “Jesus is Tested in the Downtown Eastside” which would give the diety more of a challenge than Satan in the desert.  From there the reader is moved to the poet’s homeland of Indonesia.

Oka follows with a series of sonnets for her mother.  This showcases her ability as a poet.  She shows that beyond creative language she can remain creative in the strict confines of rhyme schemes and line structure.  The final section of the collection turns farther inward than places and even parents.  It is the poets look inward.  Salvage is a wide-ranging tour of our world and ourselves.  Oka has an intriguing style and insight.  Her work is thought-provoking and this is a collection that one will enjoy reading and rereading.  It is a collection that the reader will want to keep on their shelf and not let it slip away into the hands of friends.

Available December 15, 2017

 

 

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Book Review — How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

Living is not a great matter; all your slaves do it, and all the animals.  To die honorably, prudently, bravely — now that is great. 
— Seneca

How to Die:  An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

 

How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life by Seneca and edited by James S. Romm is a collection of letters concerning death and dying. Seneca was a stoic philosopher and tutor and advisor to Nero. It was under Nero that he was sentenced to take his own life for a plot that he was not likely a participant. Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Associate Professor of Classics at Bard College. He received his B.A. from Yale and Ph.D. from Princeton, and has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships.

Death presents many questions and in itself can be incomprehensible. What death is and what happens when one dies baffles the human mind. It’s like thinking about what is on the other side of the edge of space. Nothing really doesn’t seem like a good answer. Throughout time man has worked to explain what happens after death. The Vikings had Valhalla where they could fight on forever. Christians and others have an afterlife where one continues to exist with their creator. Some believe that we come back, and keep coming back, in reincarnation. Seneca didn’t know what was on the other side but to him, it was important not to fear it. In one place he describes the experience of death as the experience before birth.

Religion uses the promise of an afterlife to celebrate funeral rites as in the Catholic Church. Mourners should be consoled in the fact that the loved one is in a better place. Seneca took a more logical approach to death. This work is divided into five sections:

Prepare yourself
Have no fear
Have no regrets
Set yourself free
Become part of the whole

Prepare yourself is simple enough to Seneca.  Unlike the things we do in life, we only die once.   It is not something that we must be prepared for so that we may die with honor.  If one lives without honor that is the opportunity to change.  That is not the case in death.   Having no fear is the realization that death is part of life.  It is as natural as breathing.  Everything in the universe rises and falls; it is the same with life.

No regrets is the knowledge that one cannot judge the length of life as the quality of life.  There is no set length for life The most complete life is one that wisdom is attained.  The feeling of living to “finish one’s work” is not valid to Seneca either; death is as important as one’s work.  Setting oneself free is seen as leaving a situation that would create more pain:

Death gives release from slavery to a hated master; it lightens the chains of prisoners…

Do you think there is anything crueler to lose from life that the right to end it?

Becoming part of the whole is a summary of the previous topics.  It reinforces the topics and completes the circle.  One may question the thoughts of suicide in the previous topic and Seneca addresses that.  One must consider obligations one has to others even if suicide seems to be the proper answer.  Seneca considered suicide for his illness in his younger days because of his respiratory problems.  He did not follow through because his elder parents counted on him for their survival.  In the end, though, Seneca does take to his life at the command of Nero.  Seneca indeed walked the walk.

Rommer provides a detailed introduction and introduces and comments on each of the sections.  He uses eight treatises written by Seneca and provides the original Latin text for all the works he uses as well as cited sources for his explanations.  How to Die is a quick but very deep read on a subject we have been trained to avoid or simply become desensitized to through movies, video games, and the news.  Seneca considers death a part of life equal or even greater than living.  An interesting and enlightening study of the one thing in life no one has survived to tell about.

Available January 16, 2018

 

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Book Review — SR-71

SR-71: The Complete Illustrated History of the Blackbird, The World’s Highest, Fastest Plane by Richard H. Graham is the history of America’s most mysterious aircraft. Colonel (ret) Richard Graham is the author of three books on the SR-71 Blackbird. He flew this aircraft for seven years and ended up with 756 hours in its cockpit.

When I was a kid the SR-71 had been flying for a few years. It was the model kit every kid wanted. It was the fastest and highest flying plane ever built. Its specs remained classified. There, however, was little doubt how fast it was; in 1981 it outran a North Korean ground to air missile. By that time my childhood illusions of the SR-71s maneuverability had long since been substituted for the practical. Still, it remained one of the coolest planes to ever fly.

Graham takes the reader on a heavily illustrated history of the remarkable aircraft. From its beginnings in Burbank and its stealthy road trip to Groom Lake for testing. There is something for everyone to learn including the SR-71’s piggyback drone and its initial role as an air-to-air missile carrying interceptor. Graham’s book is filled with first-person experiences from training through flight operations. Support necessities to overcome the hostile atmosphere where the SR-71 operated are included. The human body can’t breathe at the altitude where the plane performed its mission. The air is thin and very cold and yet the plane’s skin temperature was very hot. Reading through this book one sees how planning, preparation, and execution rivaled the manned space program. SR-71 pilots and astronauts had much in common with SR-71 pilots having the additional problem of mid-air refueling.

SR-71 is a richly illustrated history of the plane, the pilots, and all the supporting staff much of it told by those who worked the missions.  Official documents are also used in photos and diagrams.  This was an age of espionage where people put their lives on the line for information.  Although intelligence today may be better and safer with the use of satellites and drones it does lose that mystique.  During the Cold War years, we kids, talked about the SR-71 and to some extent the U2.  I doubt today that kids sit around and talk specs on reconnaissance satellites or imagine what its like to operate one.  This is a book of days gone by and is a tribute to the plane and people who risked it all for their country.  A timely read for this Veteran’s Day.

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Book Review — The Book of Esther

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The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate reality version of World War II set in a Jewish area of the present-day Caucasus region. Barton has written three novels so far. Her first, The Testament of Yves Gundron, called “blessedly post-ironic, engaging, and heartfelt” by Thomas Pynchon, won the Bard Fiction Prize and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

With a degree in history, I am not much of a fan of historical fiction. I find too many holes in the historical aspects of the story that usually ruins the book for me. I picked this book because the plot revolved around something that is not part of actual history. To my surprise, this book had very little to do with actual history. It resembles more of a fantasy story than historical or alternative fiction. The map of Europe has been redrawn with new borders and slightly different named countries. There is also a mix of magic, through kabbalism, and an unusual mix of military technologies. What remains from our historical timeline is the holocaust and refugees from the Nazis.

The book started a bit slow for my taste and this is mainly because of my preconceived perceptions. Looking at the cover the heroine, Esther, is riding a mechanical horse. This is something that bothered me throughout the book. The four-legged horse is controlled much like a motorcycle with the exception that they have a sort of consciousness. This is accomplished by mechanical means and not magic or some advanced technology. It really seems out of place in a practical sense; a motorcycle would have made a better choice. It does, however, seem to add to the fantasy sense of the story and perhaps a reminder of what happened to the Polish horse cavalry when it fought the German Panzers.

There are several things that I really liked in the story.  First, it plays on two different female heroes.  Esther, the main character’s namesake, saved the Jews from Haman in ancient Persia and it is now her role in this book to save her people.  Her leadership also rivals Joan of Arc in creating and leading an army.  There is also an interesting discussion of what it is to be human and the role of having a soul.  This was discussed in the open but its full value lived just below the surface.  One thread that remained under the surface of the story was sex and sexuality.  The later plays a bigger role than what may have been initially presented.  It creates an interesting twist in a society that runs strictly by the laws of the Torah.  The role of religion and Jewish tradition does play a major role throughout the book.

I did enjoy the story and writing once I got set into the story.  The plot is solid and flows well.  The fantasy essence of the story is within most people’s willing suspension of disbelief; it fits well within the created world.  The mix of real Judaism and history with the Barton’s created world is also a good mix.  What makes the story most enjoyable is the interconnecting weave of genres: historical fiction, Judaism, dieselpunk, military fiction, and fantasy.   The Book of Esther was a book that caught my attention from both the description and cover. I nearly lost interest when I found out it was not what I thought it would be, but then the story caught and I could not put it down.  It is a well written and thought out story that leaves the reader with the hope that there may be more to come.
This book was provided by bloggingforbooks.com

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Book Review — Call of the Wild

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Call of the Wild by Jack London is the fictional biography of a Santa Clara dog who finds himself on an adventure of a lifetime.  London was an American novelist, journalist, social-activist and short-story writer whose works deal romantically with elemental struggles for survival. At his peak, he was the highest paid and the most popular of all living writers. Because of early financial difficulties, he was largely self-educated past grammar school.

The story opens with Buck, a St. Bernard and German Shepard mix, who has a comfortable life in Santa Clara living with a fairly well to do family.  One day he is kidnapped and sent north to be a sled dog in the gold rush of the 1890s.  The story goes well beyond a dog’s life and perhaps is a metaphor for life.  Those who served in the military might recognize the storyline — Comfortable life, being broken down, becoming part of a team, becoming a leader, dedication, picking your battles, and of course becoming a legend.  There is a connection to the human drive.  The story itself is moving and full of rousing adventure.  It is not hard for the reader to follow the path to primitivism and its role in survival outside the comforts civilized city life.  The state of nature comes into play in both the lives of dogs and man. It is where beings thrive.

I am most familiar with Dover Thrift books but this edition is different.  It is hardcover with color prints as well as black and white artwork both by wildlife artist Paul Bransom.  This book is one for your bookshelf for the story and the artwork.  It’s a story in the same vein as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; a story one does not outgrow.

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Book Review — No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984

 

No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976-1984 by Matthew Worley is a study of the Punk Rock movement and its evolution in England. Worley is Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading specializing in 20th century British politics with a particular interest in the labour movement.

America had its punk rock movement in 1970s New York. The Ramones, Television, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and the New York Dolls played to shock American rock out of its corporate rock slump and put an end to disco. In the 1980s West Coast punk came into being and was much closer to the British movement in style.

The British punk movement was built almost out of necessity. “No future” was much more than a catchphrase but it was a deeper feeling of the bleak destiny. Today, young Americans can expect not to do as well as their parents and not live as long either. Americans hide in cheap consumer goods and an abundance of processed food. The British youth fought back with music and attitude. Margaret Thatcher is still hated in England while Reagan moved quietly into history. The British economy was in shambles — high unemployment and inflation. Unions lost power most famously in the 1984-85 coal miners strike. State industries were privatized. Squatting became a common necessity. The threat of nuclear war (and the Falkland Islands) proved to many that there was no future.

The Sex Pistols and (now British Butter spokesman) Johnny Rotten (Lydon) take center stage in this book. The Buzzcocks, Crass, Malcolm McLaren, Siouxsie Sioux, The Adverts, and the Clash all make it into this book and their role in the evolution of Punk Rock. Punk rock was not a monolith but an evolving movement.  Punk was not just music.  It was art, sex, and style. It had many players from anarchists, communists, and the far right.  Neither the mainstream liberal or conservative parties accepted or considered the punk movement part of their ranks. It was not about changing just the music like in America; it was about changing society as a whole.  The youth acted out against a system that abandoned them.  

Punk evolved.  The most well known and first to gain popularity was “dole punk.”  The dole was the welfare system that was used to support those out of work.  It would eventually be cut back by Thatcher.  In 1976 England need to take out a $3.9 billion loan from the IMF.  It was the largest loan ever requested at that point.  The English government was forced into an austerity program to stabilize the pound and England’s sovereignty.  The Labour Party began to splinter giving rise to Thatcher.  

Bands like the Buzzcocks produced their own EPs in a do it yourself (DIY) fashion.  DIY became a movement of not counting on commercial production for your needs.  It was an attempt to separate from the system.  While some groups initially believed in self-reliance later these same groups worked with charity efforts. The range of music types was large from Aryan to reggae with Oi punk trying to unite the various groups.

I took plenty of notes throughout this book hoping to include them in this review.  I found myself with a pile of notes and ideas I could not fit in.  This is also a little surprising since one-third of the book is notes and source material.  The material is from a variety of reputable sources as well as Fanzines of the time which connected with the feelings and views of the youth from that period.  Well written.  Well researched and literally packed with relevant information on a pivotal point of social, music, and art history. 

 

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