‘Waiting’ By Ha Jin


waitingThough short, Waiting moves slowly, working by accretion. Changes and revelations are not stated, except towards the end, but that doesn’t it stop from lovingly, subtly depicting the changes that occurred in China between the sixties and eighties.

The title comes from an unambitious doctor waiting to be able to divorce his wife (a peasant; the marriage having been arranged by his parents) so that he can marry his girlfriend. He’s finally able to… but only after eighteen years (a complicated quirk, apparently, of the law at the time).

The revelation is that the protagonist, Lin, is passive and he starts conversing with himself, suggesting that he waited for so long (no sex, incidentally) because it was easier than actually being with another person (in a real, paired up relationship).

But it is more about the small details about life and the passage of time. Events that I, as an outsider, assume to be earth shattering, like the Cultural Revolution, hardly happened for them in their military hospital serving a mid-sized city.

Holiday Reading…


…has so far been weighted more towards trashy than classy.

Trashy has included Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz, who is a name I’ve seen a lot, as a fan of fantasy, but have never read. It’s high fantasy in western medieval setting. A first novel (though written and published before I was born) and it shows. Characters are thinly sketched, but the potential is there. The entire novel takes place in a small geographic area and at least half of it takes place over thirty-six hours or so, which I as good sign – an attempt to do something a little different, as well as something focused on internal politics. That said, still needed some ‘seasoning.’ Also, there were characters known merely as ‘Moors’ who all work for bad guys and get exactly zero additional characterization, which I would suggest is borderline racist, if it weren’t so obviously fully racist.

Michael Moorcock has earned some literary cred, but he also wrote a lot of trash. Fun trash, but trash. Of his interlocking, slightly revisionist, high fantasy novels, the original Elric stories are, without doubt, the best. And the novels of Dorian Hawkmoon are, beyond a doubt, among the worst. Which makes the number of times I have read those novels inexplicable. And makes reading the original tetralogy again, during my holiday, incomprehensible. Hawkmoon, as a character, is boring (though on his companions, Huillam D’Averc, is, if thinly drawn, at least interesting and fun), the post-apocalyptic world of science and sorcery is not nearly as clever nor as relevant as Moorcock clearly believes.


But, at least I read the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. Too bad it was about how Trump is going to blow up the liberal order of progress and justice-based structures. So, um… yay! I read something worthwhile!

‘Hyperion’ By Dan Simmons


I swear that I didn’t know it was part of a series. I knew he wrote other books about the planet Hyperion, but I really thought this was a self-contained story. Feeling a little betrayed.

But it’s an excellent and intelligent space opera. Keats comes up a lot and he plays with Chaucer’s pilgrims (though much grimmer and with less sex and comedy).

The world is well realized (though it’s actually a vast universe) and the layers and multiplying plots are exciting rather than frustrating, overdone, or contrived. Really, if it didn’t require me to read a second book, I’d call it an unmitigated success.

The Tale Of Genji


So technically, I haven’t finished the entire volume, merely the first of the five books that make up the Tale.

I don’t know when I first learned about Genji. Certainly, it’s been decades since I deciding I needed to read it. But I’m alittle disappointed. Is that odd? Not to say I’m not loving it, but it’s paling in comparison to other ‘great’ books (in both size and cultural cachet) I’ve read over the last few years.

Partly it’s that Genji himself is such a shallow cipher. While the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past is often the least interesting person in the room, he’s always, nonetheless, a figure of psychological interest, whereas Genji lacks most introspection. Or maybe I’m just jealous at how easily he seduces women?

When The World Spoke French


9781590173756This book is a collection of miniature biographies, focused on (mostly, though confusingly, not exclusively) non-French figures of the eighteenth century who were deeply influenced by eighteenth century French culture, most especially, the intellectual milieu of the French Enlightenment. The biographies themselves, naturally, focus on these figures’ intersections with French Enlightenment culture.

The book is deeply interesting and provides some lovely insight into well known figures (Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia) and less well known persons (Abbe Galliani).

I did get very irritated around the half way point as the author started dropping the name Grimm. I assumed that it wasn’t one of the famed Brothers Grimm, but it would have been really cool to at least include a first name. At around the three quarter mark, we finally get a bio of Friedrich Melchior Grimm, editor of a famed journal of the Enlightenment, but only after I’ve been made to feel ignorant for not knowing ‘Grimm’ since birth. Similarly, a reference to the Enlightenment loving crowned heads included a list, among whom was Stanislaw. Stanislaw who, you ask? Well, the very last bio is of Stanislaw Augustus II of Poland.

But I shouldn’t gripe. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a lovely, winding journey through drawing rooms and salons, highlighted by excerpts from letters, of a wonderfully fecund time in European intellectual history.

Offices


The finish to Cicero’s Offices (or On Duties or De Oficiis) was both apropos and unsettling. The book is a missive to his son and most of it is ethical philosophy as light reading. Not to denigrate it! Part of the reason it is light reading, is that Cicero is known as an excellent Latin stylist and while my translation is little old fashioned, it keeps the clearness. But also because Cicero is not Kant and this is not a technical treatise. Yes, he talks about stoicism and he mentions his own school (the sceptics or Academicians) and notes that his son has chosen to study under a peripatetic (which is to say, an Aristotlean) philosopher. But this is a practical guidebook.

Or, at least, that’s how it begins… and actually, that’s how most of it goes.

But his bitterness over his fall (precipitated by his opposition to Julius Caesar’s power grabs; Cicero was not a democratic soul, but believed deeply in the Roman Republic and its institutions) takes over and it’s hard not to read the last twenty pages or so as a pointed attack on the people and institutions he sees as having failed the Republic and contributed to its decline and downfall.

Which might seem appropriate for the times, right? Like most Americans, I voted against Trump, and have, even before he has taken office, been found right in my opposition as he rather publicly dismantles our democratic norms (en route to dismantling our democratic institutions?). But Lord knows that I need a break. I didn’t pick up a two thousand year old book for insight into the current predicament affecting my country. I wanted a bit o’ ancient wisdom and a good read.