Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “China”

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #12: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

This was meant to be a well thought-out, clever review that was going to earn me several publications and eternal fame, but instead can I just say that I am officially in love with Amitav Ghosh, who is now my hero, ideal dinner guest and travel companion of my wildest dreams. I love him. In a good way though, the one which makes me want to be more like him. I’m rambling, aren’t I?

Amitav Ghosh has taken his time to write the second part of the Ibis trilogy, but although I had long forgotten what the first part was all about, it was worth the long wait. Picking up the many strings of the narration that led a colourful cast of characters to weather a storm on the Ibis on her way across the Indian Ocean, Ghosh quickly sends them off into different directions again. While some stay behind in their new home on Mauritius, Neel and Ah Fatt make their way to Canton, in search of Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium trader. His story is told against the backdrop of the unfolding Opium Wars between China and Britain, although by the end of the novel, war has not yet broken out. Instead, the reader gets a taste of what life was like in Canton, the only Chinese place that allowed foreign traders to live and work in the 1830s. As in Sea of Poppies before, Ghosh is a master of evocation. He manages to include even the tiniest detail in his descriptions of the time and place of the story.

And what a story it is – dealing with botany, opium, Chinese politics, painting and family histories, all across pretty much every culture that played a part in the history of 19th century Asia. What amazed me was that although I was constantly bombarded with facts I never once got bored of them. Ghosh makes the place come to life, every detail adds another layer to the story, and yet you can never get enough of it.

For me, being the nerd I am, those parts that dealt with language stood out. Again, as in Sea of Poppies, the entire text is one big example for the multi-cultured setting of the story. Like the boatmen on the Ibis, the traders and locals in Canton use a certain form of pidgin to communicate and not get lost in the multitude of languages spoken. This is a joy to read, although it can border on hard work, given that Amitav Ghosh takes his pidgin seriously. Sometimes you have to skim and try to get the gist, which is probably as close to the real situation as you can get. In this novel, Neel acts as the character who tries to get on top of the language confusion and plans to tame it by planning a dictionary. On his webpage, Ghosh goes as far as to publish the framework of this dictionary. What a man. (Really. Hmmm.)
River of Smoke is one of the rare books that promise a lot and deliver even more. It’s a wonderful, exciting story full of amazing characters and heaps of information. It will be a few more years until we can finish the trilogy, and until then, I would very much like to sit in Amitav Ghosh’s study and see that nothing happens to the man while he writes. Or is that too creepy?

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 31: The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan

Amazon: “Beijing, sometime in the near future: a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core. It is a message that will astound the world.

A kind of Brave New World reflecting the China of our times, The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future.”

This book is allegedly banned in China, and no wonder: it’s a chilling story that blends fiction and reality to construct an image of modern China, and if not China of exactly today, then the China of ~5 years from now. The novel introduces several characters with a range of lifestyles, motivations, and adaptations to the realpolitik of the Communist Party. The protagonist is not himself prone to revolutionary ideas, but he finds himself “taking the red pill” when he chooses to pursue a woman who has gone into hiding out of protection from the Party. He is one of those who has “forgotten” the lost month, but the woman he loves and a few other friends from the past remember vividly the crackdowns and fear that the government appears to have completely erased. When he falls in with them, he doesn’t begin to remember with complete clarity what happened, as they do, but he better understands his periodic feelings of unease and disillusionment with the seeming happiness and naiveté around him.

As a psuedo-documentary, this book works really well. The characters are fictional, and the specific conflict in the story (alleged government orchestration of an entire month being erased from public consciousness and history) is also fictional. However, the suggestions of power hierarchies and international political maneuvering are 100% believable, if not based in literal truth — and they might very well be, but I can’t consider myself suitably well-informed on  the interactions of the Party and middle-class Chinese to know for sure.

As a fictional novel, the pacing and structure are a little lacking. The “big reveal” when the characters kidnap the Party leader takes place as an enormous infodump that spans close to twenty pages (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s quite a lot,) and though it’s effective in the “pseudo-documentary” format I mentioned above, as a climax to the story it’s too overwhelming in scope to be punchy and effective. The characters do get the answer to their question, and then essentially the novel ends, but when “the answer to the question” reads like a senior thesis on contemporary Chinese politics, the effect on me at the end of the book was like “What just happened?”

Overall, I’d recommend this book as it was absolutely interesting and revealing. Be prepared for the quick shift from fiction to (alleged) nonfiction at the end, though.

Anxiousman’s #CBR4 Review #03: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

The famous playwright Anton Chekov once wrote, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” After finishing China Miéville’s sci-fi, fantasy epic “Perdido Street Station” I can best describe it as a brilliantly lit and dressed stage littered with unfired rifles. It’s a shame, because the set-pieces that Miéville develops in his fantastic world of ‘Bas-Lag’, and its principal city of ‘New Crobuzon’, are varied, imaginative, and frequently inspired. Unfortunately, and ironically given the 700+ page length of the novel, ‘Perido Street Station’ is stuffed with too many unfulfilled plotlines, half-realized ideas, and under-developed characters to create a satisfying reading experience.

It’s an experience that only hurts because Miéville clearly isn’t lacking for talent or imagination. The story follows a cast of disparate characters through a whimsical and grotesque world where magic, steam-power, and traditional science mesh together in a beautifully organic, tumbling, monstrous city populated by humans, bug-people, frog-men and monsters.  Our troop of protagonists inadvertently release several nigh-unstoppable monsters into the populace and then must attempt to undo their error while dodging the government, the military, the monsters themselves, and several shadowy organizations including a sentient robot-god and a drug cartel led by a frankenstein’s-monster-esque tyrant.

I’d love to give you further analysis of the protagonists, but I’m just as uninterested in them as Miéville was while writing them. This is where the novel falls apart: Miéville succeeds beautifully at nurturing bizarre concepts into engaging plot-hooks (just re-read the synopsis above and try NOT to get excited), and then expends no effort on further detail or character development to advance the hooks into an enjoyable story. The most fully realized characters are side characters that disappear from the novel for hundreds of pages at a time, and whose story arcs are terminated brutally with minimal resolution when the main arc is complete. Meanwhile, main protagonists who follow the majority of the plot’s primary action, such as Derkhan Blueday, receive no backstory and minimal motivation. I frequently forgot that Derkhan was a woman while reading, and did not realize she had a last name until I double-checked my spelling on Wikipedia.

Instead of falling in love with his characters, Miéville fell in love with his city of New Crobuzon and devotes pages and pages of prose to its shambling, polluted, ugly-beautiful bulk. This would be fine, even beneficial, except that there’s too much of it, and its placement destroys any overall flow of action the exciting monster-chase produces. For example, an absolutely nail-biting, action-filled fight in which our heroes strike a deadly blow to the monsters while escaping by the skin of their teeth is followed by ten pages of anonymous, nameless characters laying cable in the painstakingly described streets of New Crobuzon. These streets, and their characters, are never seen again.

This is a hard review to write because I want to recommend the book very badly. Its ideas are great, and there are a dozen exciting stories that could have been crafted out of the raw fabric Miéville has spun. Unfortunately, Miéville just can’t get out of his own way long enough to tell the story that needs to be told. Instead he squanders his gifts on describing a fascinating, but ultimately lifeless city instead of the engaging wonders

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