Random Reader

A blog mostly about books

Apologies for the long hiatus. Events at the library have precluded blogging. However, they are over and here we are. In an effort to avoid these long gaps I am going to make this more of a true blog, not so much the essay format. I hereby resolve to write every Friday (gulp!) about what I've read the previous week.

This past week it was Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. Long, detailed and utterly fascinating. Cixi is in the same class as Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia – a remarkable ruler in her own right, amazing when gender prejudice is taken into account. Apparently, she has gotten a bum rap from both pre-Revolution and Communist historians, not fitting in with either group's agenda. Newly available documents and more recent scholarship inspired Jung Chang, memoirist and biographer, to correct the balance. She may even go too far in the opposite direction.

Empress Dowager Cixi, by Jung ChangCixi was born in 1835 into an old and illustrious Manchu family, long-time civil servants in the Qing dynasty. At age 16, she was chosen to be one of the new young Emperor Xianfeng's many concubines and entered the closed harem in the Forbidden City. Cixi was the name she was given then and her real name has been forgotten. Four years later she gave birth to the Emperor's first, and only, son which elevated her from the Third Rank to number two consort, second only to the Empress Zhen with whom she had become good friends. After the Emperor's premature death in 1860, the two women, with the help of two of Xianfeng's brothers, had themselves declared the Empresses Dowager and seized power. Cixi effectively ruled China until her death in 1908.

China in 1860 was a mess. Governed by an outmoded and unwieldy bureaucracy and hampered by a stagnating economy, the country was in many ways mired in medieval times. Circling like hungry vultures were Japan and the main Western powers – Britain, France, Russia and Germany – eager to open up the country for exploitation. Cixi had to keep them at bay, and an increasingly restless populace placated, while she tried to strengthen and modernise the nation. This incredible juggling act was performed in the face of resistance, and treachery, from the tradition-bound nobility and civil service.

Cixi's struggles, carried out with absolute ruthlessness, make for absorbing reading. She always had to remain, literally, the power behind the throne, ruling for, and later through, her son and after he died of smallpox, her nephew. While she made many mistakes, the most drastic of which was encouraging the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to repel foreign interests, she probably did better than anyone else could have under the circumstances. Chang, I think, goes a bit far in suggesting that, if left unmolested, Cixi would have been successful in turning China into a constitutional monarchy. However, she does an excellent job of portraying an intelligent,dynamic, patriotic woman who was a natural leader. Highly recommended.

After the Empress Dowager, needing a change of pace, I read the new Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley. A big disappointment. The only thing that kept me reading was the character of Flavia. She is a wonderful and lifelike invention unlike the leaden plot of this book. The story starts with Flavia's mother's body coming home for burial. Harriet was finally found, frozen in a crevasse in the Alps. Some unusual people turn up for the event, including Winston Churchill, and one of them is murdered.

There is little detection involved in solving the crime(s) and what there is is extremely tedious. I basically skimmed the last half of the book and swore that this would be the last one I'd read. But then – Flavia is being sent to boarding school in Canada! How can I resist?

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I have recently finished reading the new Elizabeth George mystery, Just One Evil Act, which is why I haven't had a moment to spare for this blog. Well, not really but pretty close. 725 PAGES!!! Would have been twice as good a book at half the size.

For non-fans, this is the 18th Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers mystery. At the end of the previous one, we were left with a cliff-hanger: Hadiyyah, a neighbour's nine-year-old daughter who Barbara has grown very close to, has disappeared. It seems highly likely that she has been 'kidnapped' by her mother who, after an absence of years, had suddenly reappeared in Hadiyyah and her father Taymullah Azhar's life. Just One Evil Act takes up the story at this point.

Barbara is as frantic as Azhar to find Hadiyyah and tries to enlist Lynley's help. Lynley shows little interest. Besides being busy pursuing a love interest, he points out that Azhar has no legal claim on Hadiyyah. He is not named on her birth certificate and never married her mother, Angelina, despite abandoning his legal wife and children for them. Barbara and Azhar hire a private detective, Dowdy, but he too offers little hope.

Just One Evil Act, by Elizabeth GeorgeMonths go by then a frantic Angelina turns up in London. Hadiyyah has disappeared from the marketplace of Lucca, the Italian town where Angelina has been living with her new lover with whom she is expecting a child. Angelina is sure that Azhar has kidnapped the girl. So there's the answer to why I persevered - characters I'd grown to know and like are in danger and there is a lot of mystery as to who, why and what's going to happen. Who has Hadiyyah? Will she be okay? And the dangers and mysteries multiply. Did Azhar kidnap her? If not, who did? Someone does end up dead. Who killed them?

So what was the problem? Too many characters and too many subplots. Havers' attempts to manipulate the tabloid press seemed stupid and naive, totally out of character, and did nothing but annoy the reader. They certainly didn't add to the suspense. Neither did the excess amount of time spent on the private detective Gowdy's agency and its operations, most of which was not even needed to advance the plot. As well, there were multiple machinations in the office politics at Scotland Yard, not to mention Lynley's extracurricular activities.

That was just the English side of the story. Over half of it takes place in Italy. One can't help leaping to the conclusion that Ms. George has recently started spending part of her time there. Long untranslated Italian phrases are interspersed throughout which I found pretentious and highly irritating. I reached a point where if I read one more thing about the walls of Lucca, I was going to hurl the book through the nearest window. (I mean I got it - they're old, they're unusual, they're pretty - enough already!) Much research was obviously done on the Italian legal system and its many shortcomings, and they are all painstakingly elaborated.

On the plus side of the Italian equation is the Lucca police inspector, Salvatore Lo Bianco. He is a delightful character and George's writing seems lighter and more animated when he is in the picture. One of his many endearing qualities is that he finds much to admire in Barbara Havers, including her looks. This is a refreshing change from the exasperated, grudging and often condescending attitude she receives from the English contingent, even Lynley. One hopes she and Salvatore will meet again.

If fishes were wishes, an editor will kindly but firmly take Ms. George in hand and force her to cut, cut, and cut again. Get rid of all the unnecessary plot lines. If there are more than three that are worthwhile, maybe consider writing two books instead of one. For example, Lynley's developing relationship with a woman could have waited for a book where he was the central character rather than this one where his role is peripheral. George's structure of flipping among little vignettes with the various groups of characters was very annoying. They were repetitive at almost all levels, each only minutely furthering plot or character revelation.

The problem with George's books of late is that there is an excellent book inside of a lot of extraneous stuff. I have no problems with fat books. I adore fat books - Lanchester's Capital, Franzen's Freedom, Trollope's The Way We Live Now (actually, anything by Trollope). Fat books are big books but every bit that's there belongs. With book bloat, only half of it does.

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The above is a famous quote from C. G. Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis rests on the premise that we can get stuck in disfunctional patterns of behaviour, usually learned in childhood, that can't be changed until we take a good look at them and figure them out. To quote Jung again: "everything in the unconscious seeks outward expression; an inner situation that is not made conscious will manifest in outward events as fate". That is why we can do or say things that seem inexplicable and preposterous.

I recently (and subconsciously?) read two books that explored this idea. The Examined Life is factual, a series of actual case studies in psychoanalysis, while The Silent Wife is a "psychological thriller" about a marriage gone wrong because the partners refuse to "look inside" either themselves or their marriage. Both books were fascinating and thought provoking.

The Examined Life is written by Stephen Brosz, a practicing psychoanalyst for over 25 years who lives in London. It consists of brief (4 – 10 page) summaries of actual cases from his practice which illustrate how the process of psychoanalysis works. It is a process of talking, listening and understanding, as the analyst helps the patient understand his "story" and how it can be altered. We can change but only if we become aware of what we are actually doing. The stories show dilemma, signs or symptoms, and analysis and Brosz's style is elegant and aphoristic. He is very honest and includes cases where he was stuck himself (doesn't want to acknowledge that there can be no "cure" for an autistic boy) or made a misdiagnosis (an anorexic woman who realizes before Brosz does why caring for her dying father has enabled her to become a mother).

As Brosz puts it, "if we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don't understand". This is exactly what happens to the protagonists in The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison. Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a long-time commonlaw couple in their mid-forties. He is an entrepeneur, a small-scale real-estate developer, and she is (ironically) a psychotherapist who works part-time out of their home, a beautiful waterfront condo in Chicago. They lead a perfect dual-career middle-class life – a golden retriever, lots of friends, frequent trips, expensive cars, gourmet meals, and so on.

The only fly in the ointment is the fact that Todd is a committed philanderer, a fact Jodi has simply chosen to ignore. Everything else in their life is perfectly satisfactory as far as she is concerned so if she refuses to acknowledge the adultery, it doesn't exist and all is fine. That is until Todd becomes clinically depressed and gets himself out of it by having a fling with his best friend's daughter, Natasha, and impregnating her.

We know from the first page of the book that this will end with Jodi killing Todd. What is unknown, and totally mesmerizing, is how things get to that point. Despite the desperation of the situation and over twenty years together, Jodi and Todd do not talk to each other. Jodi seems to feel that talking will be too painful and will only make things messier while Todd wants to avoid direct confrontation with either woman. He never seems clear about what he wants, or rather refuses to acknowledge that he can't have everything he wants. His vascillation makes him easy prey for Natasha who is very clear about what she wants – marriage to Todd.

The story is told by alternating Jodi and Todd's viewpoints and we get some hints as to why each is the way they are. This is a very compelling read with taut pacing and almost unbearable suspense. The mysteries of the human psyche are truly enthralling.

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I live in a fairly comfortable middle-class multi-ethnic urban Canadian environment. It can be very interesting, and sometimes even fun, to leave it. And doing it via books can be more enlightening than actual travel if you have the right guides. Two writers who have "walked the walk" and took me places I would never have even imagined are Kevin Kwan with Crazy Rich Asians and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie with Americanah.

Crazy Rich Asians is set in the world of the super-rich of the East (Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai),a world I hardly knew existed, let alone knew much about. Neither does Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU and an ABC (American-born Chinese). Her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, a fellow history professor, has invited her to go to Singapore with him to attend his best friend's wedding and meet his family and friends. Nick has neglected to tell her that he is the heir to one of the largest Chinese fortunes in Asia, as is his friend Colin,and that Colin's bride-to-be is the super-model Araminta. Rachel becomes the target of both Nick's snobby and dynastic family and of the envious Asian "princesses" who have their own designs on Nick.

The jaw-dropping opulent lifestyle of this jet set is described in detail: designer names, spending and investing patterns, conspicuous consumption, insane extravagances. However, what makes it more fun and interesting are the differences in culture and social mores between these rich and North American rich - Whistler rather than Aspen because good Asian food is not too far, stereotypes ("I hope she's not one of those Taiwanese tornadoes"), acronyms (UBC stands for University of a Billion Chinese), prejudice between old money Overseas Chinese and nouveau riche Mainland Chinese. As well, there are enough subplots to provide narrative complexity to the basic question of whether Nick and Rachel's love can withstand the forces arrayed against them. This is light-hearted fun with a little barb, a highly entertaining read.

Americanah is also a social satire grounded in a love story. However, its satire, while humorous, is more nuanced and serious, targeting racism, class and gender. The story is told mostly from the viewpoint of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman. She is from an educated family - her mother is a schoolteacher, her father a civil servant, her aunt a doctor - and in high school falls in love with Obinze, son of university professors. The succession of military coups make life problematic even for this class and while at university, both Ifemelu and Obinze decide to immigrate.

Ifemelu gets a scholarship and student visa to study in Philadelphia. This is where the book gets very interesting. As a Nigerian, Ifemelu has never encountered racial prejudice – she has always been in the majority. She starts a blog – "Understanding America for the Non-American Black" – which becomes very popular and turns her into a "personality". It also helps that she is a very attractive female and has boyfriends with status: a wealthy and artsy white man and later a black Yale university professor.

Meanwhile, Obinze, probably because he is male, hasn't been able to obtain a student visa. His mother smuggles him to London where he works illegally to earn money to pay for a sham wedding which will give him landed immigrant status. He is caught and deported back to Nigeria. Obinze can't find work in Lagos and in desperation becomes a hanger-on of "The Chief", finally getting an opportunity to make a "deal" and ending up a wealthy property developer in a very corrupt society.

The central narrative question is whether Ifemelu and Obinze will ever reconnect but their stories are used to explore issues of racial prejudice from many unusual angles, including class, gender and tribe. Interspersed throughout the novel are Ifemelu's blogs. These are witty in and of themselves but are also a clever way to make points without being tediously preachy.

Both of these novels took me places I could never have gone even if I had physically travelled there.

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I've just finished reading two books which couldn't be more different – other than that both were brilliant! The Rosie Project was one of the funniest books I've read in a long time while A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was the first book in ages to make me cry.

A Constellation takes place over five days in 2004 during the Chechen wars. In the tiny village of Eldar, Dokka, who has already lost his fingers as retribution for aiding rebels, is taken away in the night and his house burned to the ground. His eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, has escaped to the woods but the Russian soldiers continue to look for her. Akhmed, a neighbour and family friend, finds her and takes her to the hospital in the nearest city, hoping to find shelter for the child there.

The bomb-shattered hospital has almost no supplies and is being run by a surgeon, Sonja Rabina, with the assistance of only one nurse. Sonja is an ethnic Russian, raised in Chechnya, who left her career and boyfriend in London to return home when war broke out to try to rescue her sister, Natasha. Natasha has disappeared for the second time but Sonja has stayed, hoping Natasha will reappear or that she will find out where she went. Meanwhile, Sonja cares for the wounded of both sides as best she can.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony MarraSonja wants nothing to do with the child but Akhmed offers to come daily and help at the hospital in return. Akhmed seems a simple man but by the novel's end it is clear he is also a great man. In the midst of every kind of horror, he retains his humanity, finding beauty and humour where he can, and does his best to care for those around him. Besides Havaa, this includes his invalided wife, Ula, who had a breakdown after the first Chechen war and an old intellectual, Khassan, whose son Ramzan has become an informer for the Russians. Ramzan makes it clear to Akhmed that he knows he has hidden the child Havaa somewhere. Akhmed must come up with a permanent solution for saving Havaa.

Over the five days, we move back and forth in time through the ten years of the Chechen wars, learning everyone's back stories and how they are interwoven in ways beyond anyone's imaginings. These connections seem as nebulous as the many acts of memory depicted – Akhmed's portraits of dead and 'vanished' villagers, notes with burial instructions sewn into pockets, Natasha and the nurses' drawing of the city landscape now obliterated by bombs, the suitcase full of the relics of refugees that Havaa saves from her burning house. Yet it is these connections which lead to survival and the possibility of regeneration. Like the textbook definition of life, they are "a constellation of vital phenomena".

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is a complete change of pace – a lighthearted and funny read. Narrator Don Tillman is a genetics professor with Asperger's syndrome. He has decided to find the perfect partner and commences the Wife Project, starting with a 16 page questionnaire. Through a series of miscomprehensions in steps Rosie Jarman who turns out not to be a candidate but someone with her own project, the search to find her biological father. Tillman becomes distracted not only with the Father Project but Rosie herself.

The plot is very predictable. What charms are the characters, which include Gene, Don's philandering professor friend and his patient wife Claudia; the tone of the narration, since Don is oblivious to many of the reactions his behaviour elicits; and the sheer craziness of the situations that the various projects lead to. This is top quality fun and fluff.

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