November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.

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.