December 2015 Reading Recap

PSA: I’ve been doing these monthly reading recaps for the last few years and it has been a good opportunity to give mini-reviews of anything for which I do not write out longer posts. That will still likely be true for such posts, but for the books I have reviewed, I will likely just give a link to the longer review and forego a more detailed summary. The blurbs that accompany the recap post will be used as a chance for further reflection, updating, amending, or otherwise adding tidbits not in the original post.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The one book from December that I did not review. (Actually, as I write this I am still trying to figure out how to write a review of Don Delillo’s White Noise, though I am going to finish that post before this one is published, so there.) The Name of the Rose is a book that I thought I read years and years ago, but I do not know that I ever finished it and yet it is so ingrained in culture that I consume, through references, through discussions, and through games, that it was as though I had read it. Adso, the apprentice of William of Baskerville, accompanies his master to a rich and esteemed monastery in Northern Italy to attend to a theological dispute, but a series of deaths derails the specific inquest and forces the visitors to dive into a series of other mysteries, including the labyrinthine (and forbidden) library, the inquisition, longstanding philosophical disagreements, heresy, and challenges of living on earth. William is tasked with unravelling the mysteries using the powers of logic that positions the story within the rich world of medieval philosophy. Eco’s work is deep and allusive, but this story is at some level an excellent mystery.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Reviewed here, I don’t have much new to add about Greene’s entertainment, but am again thinking of the distinction between “serious” literature and “fluff.” To an extent there are structural differences, particularly when judging serious literature by the standards of the Nobel committee, which usually has a preference for books that make the Oscar voters’ choices of movies look downright optimistic. Non-serious literature, by contrast, is designed to be easily read. It is a caricature to suggest that easily read books can’t deal with important issues or profound topics hidden beneath the glitz and glam.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Gu Hua

Reviewed here, Hibiscus is Gu Hua’s critique of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s China. He idealizes capitalism and the success of small-businesses, who succeed through hard work and through the support of the town officials and town community. It is a deliberate choice (as often happens) to praise these virtues through the remote, anachronistic, and bucolic village. Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but it is possible to create a healthy and comfortable life if one works hard because the universe of the town is limited to the surrounding villages and the town is thus unpolluted by the wider, impersonal forces that cause people to become disconnected and then to turn on one another. There is probably a parallel story that could be told where the force that corrupts the town is a large retail establishment instead of the government.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Reviewed here, Hyperion is a beautiful and moving work of science fiction that, other than stories-within-story structure, stunning imagery, and suffering of nearly every character, is notable for a major reason: it has no real ending. It is as though Dorothy went with her companions to see the wizard, with the entire story consisting of how the Tin Man came to be without a heart*, etc, and then left off as they approached the Emerald City. There is a sequel to Hyperion, which suggests that this story is nothing but an extended prologue. Yet, I like that this is a story about the intersection of the characters both in the specific case of the pilgrimage and in wider events. In other words, the story is about the journeys, not the destination. I already wonder if the second book (which I have not yet read) will too dramatically shift these messages and leave me wishing that Hyperion existed as a standalone work that just ends without conclusion.

*According to Wikipedia, this story exists and the Wizard of Oz movie would have been even more horrifying had it been told in vivid technicolor.

White Noise, Don Delillo

Live Tweet and (short) review. The college that Jack Gladney works at in this novel is known as College-on-the-Hill, set, of course, in the midwest. Delillo shows that it is possible to flee the unbearable crush of the big city by going to the midwest, but that it is impossible to escape. However, the college (for all its faults) is still presented as aspiring to be a genuine refuge, presumably for both the students and the teachers. I suspect the name is meant ironically, particularly since it clearly does not save Gladney from his family, but I would like for the school to serve as more than just a foil for the rest of society because it perpetuates a vision of an ivory tower that really doesn’t exist.

Siam, or the woman who shot a man, Lily Tuck

Reviewed here, Siam was the only book I read last month that provoked an extremely negative response from me. The knee-jerk hostility has somewhat waned, though I stand by everything I said in the review. Claire’s relationship and situation does not work out in Southeast Asia and I was frustrated by how the story doesn’t much engage with the relationship between Claire and James, the latter of whom is frequently absent, which, in turn puts further strain on the relationship–i.e. I didn’t get a sense of why or how Claire cared a whit about James outside of the physical relationship. However, part of the problem with my frustration is that the story is a psychological study about Claire’s isolation, not a study about the failures of the relationship between Claire and James. I still did not like the book, but I think Tuck is more successful than I gave her credit for.


Favorite from December: Hyperion.
Currently reading: The Green House, one of the early books by Mario Vargas Llosa. After that I have a lengthy list, but no concrete plans. 2016 is a blank slate and I have some ambitions, but those are for another post.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus – Gu Hua

Struggle is ruthless, with no room for such bourgeois weaknesses as human kindness.

I don’t remember where I first picked up A Small Town Called Hibiscus, but I think it was for a college class on twentieth century China. Assuming I read it then, ten years have passed and I approached the novel without any memory of it. I both liked and am conflicted by the story, which follows several families in a rural town in southern Hunan province over the course of two decades between the 1960s and 1980.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus consists of multiple overlapping stories. First and most plainly it is a portrait of a small, out of the way town that must cope with the changes beyond its power. In this way it is analogous to Ivo Andric’s Bridge on the Drina. Modernity comes with its sterile hospitals, high walls, and polluted rivers, but the the worst suffering is at the hands of familiar faces, not this anonymous leap forward.

Second, there the story of the condemnation and eventual vindication of Hu Yunan, Sister Hibiscus, who is beloved in the town for selling beancurd at a stall at the market. Hers is a story of a happy marriage and how hard work and aroused envy and thus hatred, causing her fall. And yet, amid the pain and suffering, there is love and there is hope.

While Hu Yunan’s specific story is given the place of honor since she is shown as nearly without fault, it is also representative of most people in the town. The citizens of Hibiscus for the most part want to live as a community and love their neighbors, to eat well, laugh, and grow old. The changes in the world make this idyllic vision just a fantasy and make Hibiscus a grim and frightful place.

Third, A Small Town Called Hibiscus is a moral parable about capitalism and communism, and this is where I was conflicted. Hu Yunan is what might be termed a petty-capitalist Mary Sue—she is perfect. Beautiful and charming, she has both a husband and a small business that succeeds through her hard work. She and her husband make enough money that they can purchase a plot of land from Wang Qiushe (a lazy “activist” who makes his living by mooching off land redistribution rather than by working) and build a house. Out of jealousy and thinking he should have charged more dor the land, Wang conspires with Li Guoxiang, a petty party member who is jealous of Hu Yunan’s looks and business success (it cuts into her state-owned business’ margins), to have the couple declared “Wealthy Peasants.” The devoted “communists” are largely revealed to either be envious of the couple for the success of their hard work or too fearful to push back against the elements destroying the town. Presented with these stark alternatives, capitalism is shown favorably.

I suspect, however, that Gu Hua is primarily critical of the Chinese communist party in this time period since political repression became the weapon of the vindictive and he shows it operating with no real sense of what it stood for other than the power of the party itself. These same mechanisms are easily turned on those who once wielded them. Gu Hua honors characters who live their lives humanely and generously, whether they do so by farming, selling bean curd or looking after children in the neighborhood. They suffer, but they persevere. Hibiscus is a small town and this is above all a story of survival.

One final point: I read the Gladys Yang translation, which is perfectly adequate, but by her own admission misses some of the richness by her deficiencies. I didn’t like some of her choices, such as translating Chinese to American currency, which both felt out of place and loses something in that the translation itself is thirty-five years behind in terms of inflation. The translations also erred toward the literal and were at times choppy in ways that lost the force of a scene.