Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li–A Review

 

Click to see on Amazon

Kinder Than Solitude is a book that I received from NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review. The story opens with the death of Shaiao, whose poisoning led to her lingering in a vegetative state for twenty years before succumbing. The mystery of her poisoning is connected to a group of three Chinese friends, Ruyu, Boyang and Moran.

The book cycles through the three viewpoint characters between the past when Shaoia was alive just around the time of Tiananmen Square Protests and the present immediately after her death. Although the book is labeled a mystery, it isn’t a traditional mystery because no one’s on a quest to solve the mystery. Instead we get the minute to minute ruminations, tedious conversations, angsty wanderings of the three characters. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of sadness and passivity, and the lot of the reasons cannot be excused away lightly due to tragedy or bad circumstances. The reasons are a lot stupider–the characters are simply unable to see beyond the dark prison of themselves for the light of cheer. Yes, the writing is crisp and Yiyun’s observations are piquant and perspicacious, but really the story is joyless little tale of profoundly miserable characters. And in the end the twist on mystery doesn’t save the book from its drudgery, as the culprit is still whom you expected it to be all along.

Every page has a quotable passage, and not the jejune hallmark offerings either, but highlight a penetrating analysis of the human heart. Either way, the preponderance of resonant observation could not save the lot of dialogue from feeling tedious. Every occasion of dialogue turns into the most dreary interrogation because everyone questions everyone else’s motives over the most trivial things. For instance, if someone said hello, the other person would ask, “why are you telling me hello?” the other would reply, “Are you saying there’s something wrong about asking hello?” and on and on they would go.

Why is this book three stars, not two? The writing. Yiyun Li has talent nevertheless that shines on every page, but dear God the characters …. It felt like such a waste.

Still I’d say you should read Kinder Than Solitude because the profundity of Yiyun Li’s writing is worth it.

by Wando Wande

The Roving Party by Rowan Wilson, a Review.


NetGalley offered The Roving Party in exchange for a review.  This book is a literary western with magic realism elements. The story is simple enough.  Set in the 1820’s Tasmania or Van Diemen’s Land, a roving party headed by John Batman  set out to track and apprehend an aboriginal clan. Central to the story is an aborigine, Black Bill, who aids John in hunting those of his kind.

There isn’t much of a plot or page-turning action or dramatic character development. Instead we’re immersed in the dreary day to day of thugs tracking the “blacks”. Despite the slowness of the plot, the book does engage, mainly because Black Bill is such a mystery. Why would he hunt his own kind? How can he be stoic in the midst of such agressive racism?  He is a difficult man to understand, but out of the merry band of thugs, he’s the most compassionate, amazingly enough.

Needless to say, if  you’re looking for an easy story to read, this isn’t it. Racism is vicious and ugly and pervasive. Animals are killed without hesitation. Women and children aren’t spared from the cruel calculus of conquest.  I didn’t know much about Tasmanian or Australian history before reading this. Oh dear, I know now. Black Bill’s a historical figure, as much as John Batman.  They really did go out into the wild looking for aboriginal men to kill, sort of like white men in the American West hunting down Native Americans to kill and scalp–A bit like Blood Meridian, you say?

You’ll find a lot of a reviews that compare this book to Blood Meridian, and the comparison is apt. The prose shares a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s style in cadence, spareness, and emphasis on stark descriptions of the landscape. Dialogue is without punctuation, and the narrative voice exudes poetic omnipotence. However Rowan’s style does leave out McCarthy’s  overbearing forcefulness of million-dollar words, paragraph long sentences strung together with ‘and’s, and the unrelenting nihilism of violence.  I’m happy to report that Rowan Wilson doesn’t imitate McCarthy’s penchant of taking climatic showdowns off camera.

Ordinarily, this book would earn three stars because I had to make myself read through too many sections of men being inhumane. But the ending surprised me.  I think it would surprise you too.  The ending only bumps the book from three stars to four stars.

Unflinching and haunting sums it all: The Roving Party.

Swann’s way, the Yale anniversary edition


Proust, yeah that Proust who writes books with paragraph long sentences about nothing. Many think him the example of dull indulgent literary fiction; others sing odes that somehow fail to rouse the most passionate of readers to try his books, and there are those for whom Proust is another author to namedrop in front of the pulp fiction reading masses.  When NetGalley offered a new edition of Swann’s Way (Volume one of the seven volume In Search of Lost Time, also know as Remembrance of Things Past) published by Yale University Press,  I decided I might as well see all about Proust for myself.

Yes, it is a long read, and yes, it veers towards the ponderous and the tedious, but it is not uninteresting. Even though the reading does demand a certain patience and concentration, I found myself drawn in. His observations of childhood were engrossing, more so because of his precise explorations of its exaggerated fears and the outsized anxieties. The attention to detail can overwhelm, but they do weave magical tapestry of  feeling and depth.  His explorations of characters, e.g. the narrator’s aunts and grandmother, captured humans in their most ordinary and their most captivating moments.  

An important theme of the volume is memory and its fickleness, its uncertain divagations, its distressing lack of assurances. A lot of passages were  long and impressionistic, dreamscapes so dense with images and vague feelings that I had to read a few times to comprehend the breathtaking immensity of it. Take the book cover image of a Madeleine, for instance:  the narrator’s simple act of tasting a Madeleine unleashes a torrent of feelings and flitting images that last for more than two pages.  After a while, you sense that the point of reading Swann’s way is not to consume wholesale, but to savor in piecemeal fashion–this is not a text you can read quickly like the latest pulp fiction novel.

As I understand it, this edition is a revision of the 1923 Scott Montcrief’s translation, revisions done by the editor and Proust scholar,William Carter. His annotations on French culture and French historical references were helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the text.  And the prose style was modern and readable enough for my standards. If you have been wary about trying Proust, you can do no better than trying a copy of this edition.

Kicking the Sky by Anthony Sa


I recently joined NetGalley, where you can sign up to read books in exchange for reviews. I picked up  Kicking the Sky, by Anthony Sa, a coming of age tale set in the Portuguese immigrant community in 1970’s Toronto.  The story takes places after the disappearance of twelve-year-old Emanuel Jaques aka The Shoeshine Boy. The twelve-year-old narrator, Antonio Rubelo, and his friends, Manny and Ricky, make a pact to be brothers and see each other through good and bad.  They need all help they can muster in a neighborhood full of hustlers, prostitutes, and massage parlors.

Events take a dark turn when Emanuel is found raped and murdered.   Antonio finds himself, hurt, vulnerable and full of questions, but the adults in his life are too busy, too hard-pressed to guide him as they too are struggling to survive in their rundown neighborhood. The confused circumstances set stage for Antonio and his friends to come under the influence of James, whom I would describe as a one of the shadiest characters I have had the pleasure to read.

The mystery of James runs through the heart of the book.  Is he a good man rundown on his luck, or is he another pervert like Emanuel’s murderers? Antonio himself does not know what to think. And his feelings are complicated by the fact of his own awkward sexual attraction to the twenty-one-year old James. Antonio is a engaging character in his own right. He tries to do right by his friends. He tries to be the man his father wants him to be. It is heartbreaking to see his innocence tainted by the harsh world he forced to confront.

Another central theme is the Portuguese immigrant experience.  His parents try to keep alive their native culture in the face of a hegemonic culture that seeks to reduce their identity to nothing more than cheap workers.  The various aspects of Portuguese culture were a delight to read especially since I know nothing of Portugal.

Setting aside the lurid episodes of child abuse, physical and sexual, homophobia, racism, the awkwardness and confusion of prepubescent sexuality, the book does a good job of balancing the dark with hope.  There were a few exciting boys-will-be-boys episodes. The prose, however, was not to my liking because I found it too ‘simple’. Child narrators do bore me easily; however the issues in the book were far from simple, so the depth of the story easily overcame my distaste for his prose style.

If you do not mind a dark, gritty read, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

The Casual Vacancy, reading circle

I’ll be doing a series of posts on The Casual Vacancy.  Be forewarned, there will be spoilers.

The book opens with Barry Fairbrother. The opening paragraph is fairly lacklustre in my mind.  “Barry did not want to go out to dinner. He had endured a thumping headache …” Doesn’t exactly scream hook, nor the voice especially pull in me in.

The chapter presents a boring Barry.  Tepid relations with wife Mary. A ho-hum relationships with his children. He tries to mollify his miffed wife by taking out to dinner at the country club. And then his headache acts up and he dies when they get there. Well.  I’m unmoved by this opening. Barry has bunch of little disappointments  but no major heaviness that would make me care about his loss. So now we have dead Barry and crying widow, and fatherless children.  Perfect.  Moving on.

The next chapter introduces Miles and Samantha.They had being by Mary’s side throughout the entire ordeal, and for a strange reason, are proud of their accidental charity.  They  are rather excited to tell Howard (who’s on speaker phone) and his wife Shirley about the news of Barry’s death.  There are tiny amusements as Samantha is engrossed with wanting to tell the news to others.  It’s all juicy gossip. There are little asides about the cool relations between Miles and Samatha. But nothing definite that would anchor me these characters as they all strike me as blandly petty.  There’s nothing in motion to set the story going.  Just a chapter of manners. Again moving on.

The next chapter has different tone.  At least the opening pov character Ruth is sympathetic about the death. she tells the news to her husband Simon, who comes off quickly as ignorant and grouchy.  The chapter strikes an interesting note.  The dialogue is perfect backdrop to the hostilities between Simon and his son Andrew. The contrast between what Andrew says and what he thinks makes for an engaging read.

The next chapter goes back to Shirley. This is just another chapter of exposition, a little bland and hyperbolic at that. Shirley hated Barry apparently, more so than her husband Howard does.  The reasons for the animosity point to vague assertions of haughtiness, but nothing definite.  Frankly I found this chapter a little on the caricaturish side.  Shirley despises Barry, but considers Howard, “… like sunlight and oxygen.”  She uploads a very proper condolence statement on the parish council website with a surfeit of a schadenfreude. I suppose, we are clearly meant to dislike Shirley.  No plot movement at this point.

So far we have nine different characters so far in less than 5% of the book.  Don’t wince yet, there’s more.

A review of Angel by Laura Lee

I hope to spotlight books with LGBT main characters that aren’t romances or erotica.  I have here a review of Angel by Laura Lee.

The book opens with a prologue with a spiritual, contemplative tone, which I like a very much.  A forty-two year old  minister, Paul Tobit, is bereaved of his wife Sally.  He is kind, gentle, overall likable and sympathetic. He crosses paths with twenty-four year old Ian, a gay man with a drinking problem. And so unfolds redemption, love, romance, add in opprobrium from his church family and religious issues. I think you can already guess what happens. And it ends exactly the way you think it will. The prologue hints it strongly.

The relationship between Paul and Ian is for the most part sweet and life-affirming. The book dealt with Paul coming to grips with his desire in a realistic way.  The book misses the mark in a few ways though.

The book strives to balance a contemplative tone with its discourses on spirituality and a simple love story. I didn’t think the balancing worked too well, as I thought the romance was too simply and too plainly executed.

The  dialogues on religion and homosexuality, I found, to be cliched. For those familiar with gay literature, these dialogues are a dime a dozen. For those not familiar with gay literature it might come off as preachy.

More damning problem with the book was the pacing. After the relationship’s consummation, which happens halfway the story, the book dragged from then on.  I dreaded reading the cutesy couple moments and relationship gushiness because the sad ending was like a sword of Damocles over my neck.  I had to force my way through to the end.

When the book was unabashedly literary, I enjoyed it. I liked the constant use of the mountain metaphor.  I enjoyed the theological digressions, for example Paul’s thoughts on the Eucharist were very interesting.  The opening paragraphs on spirituality were also very enjoyable.

That said, I would urge you to give the book a try.  It’s a quick, easy, fairly comfortable read. I would rate this a solid three stars.

Buy here on Amazon

The Fox Woman, Kij Johnson

I am going through a binge right now where I am trying to lay my hands on fiction set in medieval or feudal Japan.  The Fox woman is one such story, set in Heian era Japan.

The book is based on a folktale, in which a married man falls in love with a fox woman, marries her, apparently has a family with her.  It is only with the intervention of the villagers and the priest, does he get back to his human family.

The story is written with three first person pov accounts. From the wife SHujiko, husband Yoshifuji and The fox woman Kitsune. I found this not well done. The husband and wife sounded the same while  Kitsune had a clear distinct voice.

Kij begins with the married couple, Shujiko and Yoshifuji. They are rich and idle and are beset with marital problems.  The problems are bit hard to empathize with because of the setting. Shujiko is quiet and demure, suffers silently because women are supposed to be bear it all. Yoshifuji finds his wife unrealistically perfect.  The first half of the book was slow going over the emotional problems.  I thought it laboriously slow and found myself straining to care really.

From the wild, kitsune and her fox family watch over the family curiously. At first, this was interesting until the Kitsune suddenly falls in love with Yoshifuji.  Then Kitsune turnas into the annoying teenage girl who is in love.  She is strident,  she wants her man, despite the obvious problems and consternation from her family.  I didn’t like her at all.  I suppose she was to supposed to correct for Shujiko’s passiveness. But I just found her to be an incorrigible husband stealer.  And I couldn’t understand the basis of her love.

Through some contrivance Kitsune and Yoshifuji get married and make a family while Shujiko and her son worry about the missing husband. This was the part of the book was hard for me to read.  First off, Yoshifuji easily abandons his family for the fox woman.  I might have sympathised if there was something substantial to the attraction, but it was a nothing.  It seemed to me just some kind of physical attraction.  I was not feeling it.  Also Kitsune becomes really annoying as she tries hold onto Yoshifuji while her family has to put up with it all.    I was just reading through, wishing quickly for an act of god to end the farce.  Shujiko, meanwhile, becomes a stronger character in my estimation.  She slowly learns to be stronger. If not for her transformation, I would have deemed the book a hollow reed.

The author Kij Johnson is a Nebula award winner.  She is no lightweight, clearly.  But her writing style was not my taste. The prose was rich with description but I found the imagery lacking.  For all its richness, there were only one or two lines that struck  me.  In fact the prose was too rich. I think this is my own subjective taste here.  I do like highfalutin prose but the certain kind that is brazen with cleverness and witticism. This prose was more on the soft poetic side.

There was too much pathos and emotional wrangling, and not enough psychological heft.  I suppose being first person accounts I shouldn’t expect more psychological depth but I really wished for something to counterbalance the emotions because I wasn’t feeling it.

The husband is a heian nobleman so he’s supposed to be interested in poetry and hunting and things of a delicate aesthetic.  However, Kij mishandles his masculinity, I think, in the sex scenes from his pov.  They were really sounded like a woman wrote them, all flowery and emotional.  I think it takes a certain skill to show delicate sensibilities while still retaining an essential maleness to it, and Kij doesn’t quite grasp it.

Also there were the clumsy insertions of  random japanese words like sake-wine, shoji-screen, and things like that.  It was annoying. It added nothing. It didn’t make me more transported to medieval Japan, only reminded me that Kij knows a few Japanese words.

On the whole, the book is well written but the characters fell apart for me.  The writing is strong, very strong but not to my taste. But if you’re interested in Heian culture, then definitely read this book. It is very detailed and very interesting in that regard.