Radiance of Tomorrow- book review

Written by Ishmael Beah, the author of the child soldier memoir A Long Way Gone, Radiance of Tomorrow is a novel about a village in Sierra Leone trying to move on after a terrible civil war. This small West African nation experienced a savage civil war between 1991 and 2002 that resulted in 50,000 killed and perhaps more ghastly, the mass maimings of adults and children. The novel might be about the aftermath of this war and filled with terrible events, but its writing is lyrical and evocative, inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of Beah’s native Sierra Leone.

The village of Imperi comes back to life when years after the war, a trio of elders return and try to resume their life. Soon, other former residents make their way back including the son of one of the elders, who brings his big family. Bockarie becomes a teacher but soon sees a crisis envelop Imperi after rutile (a mineral used in road coatings and pigments for paint and plastics) deposits are found nearby, which lead to a foreign corporation coming in and opening a mine. Pollution, disorder and drunkenness afflict Imperi as the mining company ignores the concerns of the residents and its workers exploit their poverty. Soon, Bockarie is forced to take a job with the mining operation but problems still remain that eventually push him to consider a move to the capital Freetown.

While the events are not exactly uplifting, Radiance of Tomorrow is a pleasure to read. The book’s plot is heavy on reality, specifically the woes of a poor African nation struggling to take advantage of its mineral resources but still dependent on foreign expertise, while still unable to provide for its people. The one constant is the bond between individuals and family members, especially with Bockarie, his friend Benjamin and their families. There is no magic happy ending, but there is a slight sign of hope.

It’s good to see that with Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah is not a one-hit wonder.

Lord of Formosa- book review

Lord of Formosa is another book about Taiwan I recently read. The lord is Zheng Chenggong or Koxinga, a Chinese nobleman-warlord who seized Taiwan from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Often overlooked, this was a period of time covering several decades when the VOC (Dutch East India Company, a Dutch trading organization which owned its own navy and conquered places for its country such as Indonesia) ruled southern Taiwan. In China’s Fujian Province, Koxinga was a loyalist to the Ming Dynasty which was in its death throes after being defeated by the Manchus (who would go on to found the Qing Dynasty). As Koxinga was the son of a wealthy noble who had a strong naval fleet that often preyed on Dutch trading ships, it was natural that Koxinga would, after failing to withstand the Manchus, eventually set his sights on Taiwan. The Dutch didn’t give up without a fight despite being heavily outnumbered by over 15 to 1, and it took Koxinga a lot of men, time and subterfuge to eventually defeat them.

Koxinga was actually born and raised in Japan, as his mother was a local lady who met and fell in love with Koxinga’s father. After he turned seven, his father called on him to come to China where Koxinga was trained in military matters and business, specifically in managing his father’s trading affairs and fleet. He would grow up to become a very capable general but troubled by sudden fits of anger and serious illness. Koxinga is still remembered in Southern China and Taiwan, where a university in Tainan, the capital during the Dutch colonial period and Koxinga’s reign, are named after him.

Readers get a good sense of Taiwan as a frontier settlement, as the Dutch only really controlled the south of the island, while trading and trying to control local aboriginal tribes; settlers from China lived in villages clustered around the Dutch forts in Tainan. It is important to note that this is when the ancestors of the majority of non-aboriginal Taiwanese first came to Taiwan to live, most coming across from Fujian.

The book flows very well, and the political and historical details and military battles are described in rich detail. However, the narrative lacks depth at some points, as Taiwanese characters are one-dimensional and hardly feature. The Dutch characters and Koxinga are the main focus, which is not surprising since the author is from Holland.

Lord of Formosa is a historical novel that is entertaining while also highlighting a turbulent and formative period of Taiwan’s past and a fascinating personality.

I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, so you can check my full review there as well.

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is a historical novel about a war that took place hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, 1356 is about a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Paul is allegedly Tao Lin.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.