What I’ve Been Reading, February 2017

It’s been awhile since I did one of these, partly because I’ve been reading more short stories than novels, partly because I’ve been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events. So, other than those books, here’s what I’ve been reading:

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan – This novel is a family epic, which surveys the lives of two families of Vietnamese immigrants—the Truongs and the Vos. The families are linked by the marriage of Tuyet Vo and Sanh Truong, but there is plenty of bad blood between them, revealed throughout the book. Cherry Truong is the daughter of Tuyet and Sanh, and the main character of the story—though really, the book is an ensemble work.

Each chapter is told from a different perspective, giving a broad scope of the families, and their lives as immigrants—one family in Paris, the other in Orange County, California. Every character is intriguingly flawed, and watching them interact, and seeing how small conflicts beget bigger conflicts is fascinating. The scope of the book is satisfyingly large, and all the backstories of the characters memorable. The book doesn’t have much of a coherent through-line, and I felt Cherry’s arc was a little rushed, but I still enjoyed it overall.

Democracy by Michael Frayn – There’s quite a bit going on in this play. It opens with Willy Brandt accepting the Chancellorship of West Germany, becoming the first left-of-center chancellor in decades. The play quickly pivots from this larger-than-life moment in international history to Gunter Guillame, an East German spy who has infiltrated the new administration, and will eventually rise to become Brandt’s personal assistant.

In style, it’s a lot like The West Wing—although it’s all based on real events. The story swings from one legislative crisis to another, shifting focus between scenes of argument, insidious scheming, and on a few occasions intimate, personal conversations, as the Brandt administration tries to stay afloat. It’s fast, and almost unrelenting. The core of the play, and the part that engaged me most, is the relationship between Guillame and Brandt. Guillame is conflicted between his personal views and the undeniable charisma of Brandt. Strategically, he has a strange tightrope to walk—while he is feeding information back to East Germany, he also has to make sure that Brandt’s administration stays in power, so that he can continue spying on the chancellor. While the play mostly focuses on the constant scramble to put out fires, there are a few beautifully rendered scenes between Guillame and Brandt that develop their friendship, and underscore the tension of the whole play.

In addition to exposing the human element in these characters, Frayn also touches on the human element of Germany as a whole. The strength of this play is that it balances these dramatic political battles with their emotional underpinnings. It’s not just a flurry of historical events and ministers shouting at each other, the issues being debated spring from a turbulent environment of fear, remorse, and hope. I had essentially no knowledge of post-war German politics before reading this, so this play shone a light on a part of history I’d never explored before. I found this passage especially striking:

SCHMIDT: You were a Communist. You got your hands dirty. You were part of the great train-wreck of German history like all the rest of us. Even our chirpy friend here from Berlin,no doubt. What, seventeen at the end of the war, Herr Guillaume?

GUILLAME: Eighteen.

SCHMIDT: Hitler Youth? Boy soldier?

GUILLAME: Of course. Anti-aircraft. Like you.

WEHNER: All of us on the train, except the great man himself.

I highly recommend this play, especially if you can see a production of it. Though I’d also advise that you brush up on some of the political figures, and the general climate of the period if you’re unfamiliar with it. There’s a lot of people introduced all at once, and having some knowledge of this episode of history will help ground everything.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain – Of the four Twain books I’ve read, this has been my favorite. The book is narrated by Hank Morgan, a Connecticut Yankee who works as a foreman at an arms factory. One day he gets into a fight with one of his workers, and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he’s in 6th-century Britain, in the time of King Arthur. With a little trickery and 19th-century know-how, he’s able to convince everyone that he’s a powerful wizard, more powerful than Merlin, and he becomes the King’s right-hand man. The book is largely episodic, with a few travel narratives forming larger story arcs, and a very violent, climactic arc forming the conclusion.

All the episodes and characters are full of Twain’s typical imagination and dry wit. What I enjoyed most about the book is its thematic breadth. Plenty of Twain’s books cover a large range of topics, and this one is no different—however, in those other works it often feels like the narrative has to come to a sudden halt, or a sudden twist in the path in order to have the slavery chapter, or the feud chapter, or the mob chapter—but in Connecticut Yankee, the narrative blends seamlessly with all of these issues. The book is about Hank Morgan trying to build up a civilization, so naturally every element of 19th-century civilization and, 6th-century civilization, is examined or mocked—with an overarching exploration of colonialism.

As well, the book sticks the landing. Mostly. Much better than others of Twain’s books. The ending is unflinchingly brutal and final. It’s elusive in terms of stating any moral, or pointing the reader in any direction, but I didn’t mind that. Throughout the entire book it’s hard to determine how much Twain approves of his narrator’s actions, and the ending is no different. I highly recommend this book.

The End of Cheap China by Shaun Rein – A non-fiction book by Bloomberg columnist and founder of China Market Research Group Shaun Rein. The book reviews recent trends in China’s work force and economy at large, and speculates on where these trends are headed, and how companies will take advantage of them. The main threads he follows throughout the book are the overall increase in wages, the growing consumer economy in China, and China’s prominence on the world stage.

The book reads quickly, almost like a collection of essays, with lots of personal anecdotes to humanize the issues discussed. It’s like a documentary, flipping smoothly from the big picture to individual examples. And like a documentary, the evidence provided in the big picture is a bit shallow. At worst, Rein’s claims are based entirely on anecdotes, though for the most part he backs his arguments with a mixture of case studies and marketing research from his firm. Which is appropriate, for a book which delves into the shopping patterns and economic aspirations of the Chinese. I would’ve preferred more specific, sourced data, but the book is still highly informative. Here are some of the greatest insights I got from it:

  • Chinese businesses build cheap, slapdash infrastructure not because they are short-sighted, but because regulations and urban development are shifting constantly, and they don’t want to waste money on an investment which the government might order them to vacate.
  • Chinese are less cynical about corruption in federal government than they are about corruption in local government, where low salaries for party officials make bribes an almost essential source of income.
  • Local governments derive an enormous amount of their tax base from land sales, and because few municipalities have any annual property tax, they encourage new developments constantly in an ultimately unsustainable cycle.
  • Pizza, Huh?

If you have an interest in gaining a better understanding of China as it is now, and as it may be, this book is a great, well-packaged read.

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