The Lives of Tao, Wesley Chu

Roen Tam eats too much, drinks too much, and works too much because he is incapable of telling his boss ‘no.’ Because he has a cat and rent, you see. He hasn’t been on a date in years and compensates for the lack of a social life by going to nightclubs that he hates.

Tao is a Quasing, a brilliant, amoeba-like alien race that crash-landed on Earth hundreds of millions of years ago. Quasing can’t tolerate Earth’s atmosphere and survive by forming symbiotic relationships with other animals, including humans, through which they work with the hope of, someday, returning to their home planet. They and their hosts have been responsible for both some of the greatest achievements and worst catastrophes in human history. Of course, the Quasing are also engulfed in a centuries-long civil war between the Prophus (betrayers) who want to return home without destroying the human race and the Genjix who have no such scruples.

When a mission goes wrong and Tao’s host pays the ultimate price, he needs a new host and fast. Roen, drunk, happens to be available. Prophus can’t afford for one of its best operatives to be on the sidelines at this critical moment and it is up to Tao to turn Roen into a hero capable of saving the world, fast.

The Lives of Tao is a fast-paced action story that follows a fairly traditional narrative arc, an unlikely hero, training montages, and exciting fight-scene climaxes. Before reading the book I had heard that Chu used his experience as a martial-artist and stuntman to write particularly excellent fight scenes, and the book lived up to the hype. In particular, I appreciated how each of the different Quasing characters had a distinct personality, almost more so than the human characters did, which is apropos given their lifespans. Tao, for instance, is cynical and sarcastic, but is also an optimistic dreamer who has learned from his numerous mistakes.

I usually dislike this sort of alternative explanations for historical events, but Chu pulled it off for several reasons. First, the explanations were not restricted to isolated events, but included broad developments, including those that predated human existence. Second, while the relationships underpin how ignorant and dim-witted humans are, it is still fundamentally a symbiotic relationship where the humans have agency and have their own natural abilities enhanced, the hero drawn out from within, rather than the person being taken over or undermined by the “superior” being. The Quasing simply provide superior pattern skills and aeons of experience.

The Lives of Tao is a tremendously fun read, complete with action, humor, romance, and a coming of age story starring a thirty-something year old man and an impossibly old mentor. Given the themes in the book, particularly with a clear dichotomy between the good guys and bad guys and the moral gray area with which only the heroes wrestle, and the energetic pacing, it is not a surprise that The Lives of Tao won a young adult fiction award.

I look forward to reading Chu’s sequel, The Deaths of Tao, and, in the meantime, recommend this book to anyone who likes science fiction, fantasy, or just a fun action story.

What is Making Me Happy: Ha Ha Tonka

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming. This week: the Missouri band Ha Ha Tonka.

I am weird about music. It helps me attune myself to what I am doing and have to have something on while I write. I also like a fairly wide selection of genres and can really get into artists, but am by no means a music snob. It is not an artistic medium that I care a great deal about and my tastes frequently diverge from those of, for instance, the writers at NPR music. Partly for that reason, I usually don’t spend much time browsing for new music in the way that I do for books and recipes. On the other hand, when I usually add things to my playlists when I hear something I like in other contexts. In this case, I saw Ha Ha Tonka on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations when he visited their home region of Southern Missouri (the Ozarks episode). Within twenty four hours of seeing the episode I listened to four Ha Ha Tonka albums and looked up their tour dates for when they will be in Columbia, Missouri next so that I can see them live.

The song that has hooked me the most is “Staring at the End of Our Lives,” from Lessons (2013), but I couldn’t find a readily available link to it. Second, though, is “The Usual Suspects,” Death of a Decade (2011), the video for which is linked below and was featured on No Reservations. I like the combination of catchiness and lyricism and highly recommend all four albums.

October Reading Recap

After ditching Don Quixote in early October, I worked through three novels, all by decorated authors.

Old Man and the Sea– Ernest Hemingway

A story about a fishing trip and daydreams about baseball. An allegory about life. Well worth reading and a book that justifies my belief that Hemingway improved as a writer through his career. Much of the story is spent with the old man on his boat, accompanied only by the eponymous sea and the fish, so there isn’t a lot of Hemingway’s trademark staccato dialogue. At the same time there is no natural breaking point in the text, but I was able to find places to put the book down since there was still a natural, tidal rhythm to the text. The content of this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others did, but I could appreciate it for what it was and this simple fishing story is marvelously layered with meaning in such a way that it can provoke reaction on a variety of levels and none of them will be wrong.

Of the stand-alone, book-length stories of Hemingway’s, I’ve now read six, as well as Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast. Unless I find a cheap copy of Across the River and into the Woods, the next on my list of Hemingways is Islands in the Stream

Waiting for the Barbarian -J.M. Coetzee

The Magistrate has spent most of his life governing a small border town, overseeing interactions between the barbarians, the marsh people, and the Empire, and conducting an ad hoc archeological dig in the ruins of a a lost civilization. The peaceful rhythm of this life is broken when the Empire learning of an impending invasion by newly-united tribes of nomadic barbarians and is determined to exterminate this threat. The Magistrate becomes entangled in this string of events when he becomes rapturously enthralled by a captured barbarian woman who he pities, lusts after, and is repulsed by. Though she is his focus, he sympathizes with all the captured barbarians, whose threat he is sure the Empire is inventing and manipulating.

Coetzee’s themes of otherness, bureaucracy, propaganda, exploitation, and brutality, usually attract me and they entirely dominate the novel–and the South African man won the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature for his treatment of these issues. The focus on the border town does distinguish Waiting for the Barbarian from other stories of this sort in that both external threats to living life provide their own measure of barbarity, but there was something about the bleakness that I found off-putting. I still don’t know what it was exactly about the book that left me feeling this way, but while the topics are critically important for the modern world, I just found it unfulfilling.

The White Tiger– Aravind Adiga

Adiga’s first novel, which won the 2008 Booker Prize and was easily my favorite of the three, delves into the inequalities of modern India, particularly between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural, and how both manifest themselves in the corruption of Indian politics. The novel unfolds as Balram Halwai, a self-described entrepreneur, writes a series of email communiques to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who is about to visit India. Balram tells Mr. Jiabao that he needs to ignore the Indian politicians and visit him, a real businessman entrepreneur, the type of person who is going to be the future of India. Of course, Balram is also a murderer, an up-jumped peasant, and a White Tiger, a once-in-a-generation predator.

Adiga’s novel is darkly funny and powerful. It is driven by Balram’s self-effacing, almost-obsequious megalomania that he cultivates from his brief stint in school through his career as a servant to his former landlords to his acquisition of his start-up capitol. The letters expose heart-breaking conditions, depraved lifestyles, and the violence that the combination of the two engenders, all the while remaining unendingly optimistic about the prosperity that a white tiger can achieve in this state. It is clear that Balram is a madman, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong.

I wanted to write a full review of The White Tiger, but I dallied on picking the appropriate form to write it in and then got busy. It will appear on my updated (an expanded!) list of top novels that will appear in early January–six books have been added to the list so far this year, bringing the list up to 36 thus far.

November is looking like it will be more of the same in terms of pace since the end of the semester is nigh. I am, however, about two-thirds through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ The General in his Labyrinth, which is a re-imagination of Simon Bolivar’s final journey after giving up power and is interspersed with his memories. It isn’t my favorite of Marquez’ books, but I am consistently amazed by his use of language.

The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Andrew Young

Andrew Young, The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Westholme, 2014.

“This is a book about a book,” Young opens, but that book is lost. Young declares that it nevertheless possible to reconstruct Ptolemy’s history of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore Ptolemy’s vision of Alexander. A dedicated manuscript–not a not a full reconstruction, obviously, since that is tantamount to tilting at windmills–about Ptolemy’s history would be a wonderful benefit to scholars and general readers alike and recovering the “real” Alexander, or how Alexander died or even the original histories about Alexander are the ambitions of bookwork treasure-hunters everywhere. Ptolemy is even an engaging figure himself, a royal court hanger-on, soldier, governor, king, historian, so situating what is known about his historical work within the context of the early Hellenistic world where he was not the only ruler to engage in intellectual pursuits (see Demetrius of Phalerum and Antipater) would be a worthwhile enterprise. This is not that book. In fact, it is not even a book about a book. The Lost Book of Alexander the Great is another dry regurgitation of Alexander’s campaign, with passing attention paid to passages known to derive from Ptolemy’s history.

There are a host of issues with Young’s book. First, although he makes broad pronouncements about his angle of inquiry being the reconstruction of Ptolemy’s history, and thus being a textual study, he admitted in a Reddit AMA that he doesn’t know Greek and therefore relied on translations. It was not a surprise, then, to see that Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians and Brill’s New Jacoby project are absent from the bibliography, both of which provide commentary on the known fragments of Ptolemy’s history. But also absent were Bosworth’s commentaries on Arrian’s Anabasis and From Arrian to Alexander and Hammond’s Sources for Alexander the Great, which include essays about the source tradition. A general audience does not require these sources, but any study looking at the source tradition (which this purports to be) does. A deeper dive into the bibliography reveals further deficiencies. Neither Errington’s “Bias in the Ptolemy’s History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1969) nor Roisman’s “Ptolemy and his Rivals in his History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1984) appears. Nor do the biographies of Bosworth, Hammond (x2), Worthington, Heckel, Cartledge, and Green show up, though Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s volume, published in 1890, does. Young does list the translations he used and honestly includes the list of websites used in composing the manuscript. Of course, without any sort of citations, including for the direct quotations of modern and ancient sources, the bibliography is minimally useful.

this book is intended for a broad audience and while I have thus far identified where he failed w/r/t the declared purpose, I wish that I could recommend it as a general audience introduction to Alexander. I cannot. There are a number of inconsistencies in style (mons/mount; Roxanna/Roxana), but four issues, increasing in severity, stood out.

  1. Young chose to use “Belus”, the latinized version of the Greek name for Bel, rather than keeping the semitic version (97). This is not a problem per se, but it comes off as archaic and awkward.
  2. For some reason Young chose to use “Pexodarus” instead of “Pixodarus” (14), a variant I don’t recognize since the Greek original uses an iota.
  3. Instead of “Hetaira,” the Greek word for courtesan, Young multiple times used “hetera” (101-2), a spelling choice that a simple Google search changes to the latinate “hetaera.”
  4. According to Young (116), Zeus chained Perseus to Mt. Caucasus and allowed his liver to regrow every night, sending an eagle to eat it out every day. Except that that fate belonged to Prometheus.

Note that almost none of these issues actually concern the campaigns of Alexander. The issue is that there is nothing remarkable or innovative about the account. Or about Ptolemy’s history. Young’s book is not a book about a book, but a narrative about Alexander’s campaigns interspersed with vignettes about aspects of Greek culture–often gleaned from the internet–that the author finds interesting. I cannot recommend this book for anyone. May this ill-fated offering inspire someone to write a more current contribution to the study of this history of Alexander the Great in its social milieu than Pearson’s The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.