Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Chinese woman, Z, moves to England to study English, a language she greatly struggles with. Z carries around her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary wherever she goes. When Z moves in and falls in love with an older Englishman, her struggle deepens. As their relationship grows, Z blossoms from the shy peasant girl into an independent woman. Sent off by her boyfriend on a solo trip around Europe, Z begins to understand and slowly challenge her idea of love.

Written in broken phrases and half baked sentences, a beginner's stumbling English, a foreigner's cautious steps, the novel is a humorous study of language and expression. Not quite a love story, it is a tale of culture shock and sexual awakening. The book was short listed for the 2007 Orange Prize.

Of all the Goodreads reviews I read of this book, I particularly loved one. I am going to model my review on this one. Things I liked and notes I made: 

1. Chinese words are awesome. Often in the book, Z teaches us bits and pieces of her tongue, and they make for a fascinating read. People interest themselves in finding out the roots of modern English words. I found the strange compound words in Chinese far more delectable. Potato literally translates as 'earth bean,' vagina as 'dark tunnel', and dandelion as 'fairy maiden from the water.' This reminded me of one of my favourite German words, the one for light bulb, which literally translates to glowing pear. 

2. Language alienates, brings closer and shapes people. Z learns best when she immerses herself into her relationship, she learns the most English from her boyfriend. That said, he is tired of her simple words, of having to speak slowly to her, of having to explain. In her meagre words, he seems like a silhouette of a real person. His letters and journal entries reveal more of him. You never fully understand Z, because she can't express her real self in the limited language. A couple of times this frustrates her too, and she bursts into Chinese characters that the editor translates for us. 

3. The influence of Chinese does interesting things to Z's English. Strange turns of phrase like, "I feel a concentrate of love for you," or "I breathe in your breath. I inhale your exhale," or "The sunlight is like a knife cutting the earth, half of the world is in the shadow, and the other half is bright. It is like a black and white movie, and everything is in slow motion." Free from the constraints of form, Z's English is fluid and delicate. 

4. Europe from an average Chinese pov is funny. This description of Berlin, 

"The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in its history. And, I feel, this is a city made for man, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing."

and this of Venice,

"I am staring at the water. Is this the sea? A real sea? I can't even see the colour of water in the dark. It is very different the sea on pictures or in the film. How could be possible a city still stands here without sinking? I thought a sea is boundless. I am disappointed."

and this of Dublin, 

"When I was in China, I thought Dublin is in the middle of Berlin, because that's how Chinese translated the word 'Dublin.' Also I thought London is in the middle of the whole Europe, because Britain sounds so big: 'the empire on which the sun will never set.' So London must be in the centre of Europe, just like the Chinese character for China, it means a country in the centre of the world."

and every single other one of England. There are a lot of observations on people worrying about weather, and acting confusing like the weather. There is also a lot of tea. 

5. Z's culture shocks never stop. When talking about Z's sexual awakening, from dating a bisexual, buying a condom to watching a strip show, the writing unfortunately falls into corny cliché, with lots of caves and deltas and birds. The other aspects of culture shock are better related, Z's surprise when she learns how the Chinese are perceived by the English. She continually talks about Chairman Mao and has Communism jokes thrown at her, but to this dry English humour, she is wholly oblivious. She learns that her point blank honesty is rude, that her assumption that her lover will pay the bills is improper, that her curious questions make her sound stupid. It is a difficult terrain, and she traverses it delightfully.

6. Z has a tricky relationship with her parents. She loves them and hates them, and you get a mild blast of culture shock every time she talks about them. I could never tell if the straightforward tone was mocking or earnest. 

"My mother had very bad temper. Maybe she hated me because I was an useless girl. She cannot have the second children because we have one child policy. Maybe that's why she beated me up. For her disappointment. Life to her was unfair too. She was beated up by her mother for marrying my father."

7. Biggest takeaway: look beyond the words. "Words are void." Empty space, they are simply the vessel for meaning. Even a crooked pot holds water, and when you're thirsty, that is what matters.  

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo is a cool book with frequent dollops of wisdom. A very breezy read, and if not much else, it will make you laugh and smile and learn a little more about this vast culture. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

This review is part of the R.I.P X  Challenge. Visit The Estella Society to learn more.

Bill Hodges was once a detective, one of the finest of the city. Now retired, he is a fat lonely TV-addict going over his mistakes and contemplating suicide. That is, until, Bill receives a goading letter from the perpetrator in his greatest unsolved mystery - the Mercedes Killer. Brady Hartsfield, also known as Mr Mercedes, was responsible for spree killing eight innocent people when he drove into a queue outside a job fair in a massive stolen Mercedes. Today, he is not happy that his glory days are over. Taken by another urge to kill, Brady plans to taunt the ex-cop into killing himself. But what the letter really does is jump start a dead investigation. This time, Brady may not get away so easily.

"Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue."

Mr Mercedes is a very basic mystery. The killer's perspective is introduced early into the book, the crime is long over, the clues are in place, it is up to Bill to figure out what we know. Mr Mercedes will guarantee you a swift exciting afternoon. And I love this grown up Stephen King who has so many master works under his belt, he can  go back to the basic. And nail it. I am reminded of something King said about Rowling's pseudonym, "What a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it." 

He may not be anonymous, rather the opposite, but perhaps it is the comfort of knowing he will be read and criticized either way, same old, that gives his writing an honesty. Every line in the book tells you he is enjoying himself. Maybe his books just don't fall prey to editing as frequently now that he is so established. So the book is full of classic Stephen King tricks. Name-dropping taken to a whole new level. He hurls jabs and praises at every crime show you have ever seen, from Dexter and The Wire to NCIS and Bones; I cannot imagine how many legal department people must run around to get Stephen King permissions. At one point, someone mentions the scary ass clown living in the sewer from that TV movie - that's right, one of King's myriad pop culture references is to himself.

Stereotypes abound the novel. The serial killer is an ice-cream man, because "everybody loves the ice-cream man." The fat ex-cop sits on his La-Z-Boy every day, and every day puts a gun in his mouth wanting to off himself. As he gets his life back together, he loses weight, and as he becomes slimmer and more attractive, he starts to believe more in himself. I don't think Stephen King has a problem with fat people. He simply knows how the world thinks, and this sort of stuff resonates, if reluctantly, even with our "ever-ready to prickle in offended indignation" sensibilities. Peter Straub once said that he has a 'connoisseur's appreciation of fear.' Well, Stephen King similarly understands stereotypes, he appreciates their existence so to say, and manipulates them delightfully.

[Edit: adding important afterthoughts] Stephen King usually writes about alcoholics, murderers and crazy fans. The woman who owns the Mercedes the killer used is one of the best characters in this book. This harmless 'good citizen' has to deal with her unwitting involvement in a crime of such great proportions. She is an example of the lengths normal people could go to convince themselves that "such things don't happen to them," that the thing they hit on the road that rainy night was just a dog, nothing else, of course. One of the coolest things in this book is the cop describing how desperately people all want to cling on to the comfort of normalcy.

Another thing that King hits the nail on the head with here is humour - dark sly humour. He makes you chuckle with one-liner-musings, sure, but also with these misplaced comedic situations, like someone accidentally poisoning the wrong victim. Jokes that make you wish you hadn't laughed.

“Hodges has read there are wells in Iceland so deep you can drop a stone down them and never hear the splash. He thinks some human souls are like that. Things like bum fighting are only halfway down such wells.”

A trillion pop culture references, dramatised clichés and forced resolutions make up this story - but what an enjoyable ride it is! Some may call it lazy, cocky even. But some sixty books and a dozen awards into his career, this man has earned his cocky. I realize this review may across as a defence, but it is more than that. I have consistently found it impossible not to fall in love with everything Stephen King writes, and here is why. Even in his smuggest writing, you see a simple yet rare dedication to the craft. Some of his books work and some just don't - this rests somewhere on a fence. But you can see he loves to write and that, to me, makes even his basic cosy mystery far different from a formulaic success on a best seller list.

In a word, Mr Mercedes is cool. I cannot wait to see what its sequel has to offer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

August in Review: Visiting A Palace

The last month was pretty busy. The posts I had scheduled in July kept the blog up and running. But they do not extend into September. As I am not ready with a review, this post will be about what I have been up to lately.

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I visited a cluster of palaces from the middle 1800s called the Chowmahalla (literally, four palaces.) Situated in the heart of the city, this was the official station of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Parts of the palace were unfortunately closed to the general public and some were under renovation. We went on a weekend and among the visitors were loud groups of children on what was obviously a school trip - a fact that made me all nostalgic. The grounds were fairly well maintained for a tourist attraction.



The palace basked in the afternoon light. The durbar hall, or court hall, was majestic, with its marble throne and flooring. It advertised these newly installed Belgian crystal chandeliers, though, which seemed to me a pompous modern addition that took away a little from the authenticity of the place.

The photo gallery adjacent to the durbar hall had both oil paintings and recent black-and-whites from the times of India's British rule, with pictures of the prince and princess at functions, at dinner and with a range of people from Nehru to Buzz Aldrin. You expect a palace to be old and a museum older still. The recentness of the Chowmahalla palace was intriguing, to imagine royalty living there not so long ago. Here are a painting of the court in session and a picture of who I think makes one charming princess. 



My favourites were the galleries, art, craft, weaponry and vintage carts and cars. Photography was charged extra. I took along my phone camera mostly to indulge in pretty petty selfies. But the galleries were full of little curiosities that kept me clicking. 


In the carved wooden furniture section stood this cool basin with four lamb heads, which went well with my fascination for animal motifs in furniture and architecture; though not embalmed animals, mind you. 


My friend spotted this, tucked away among saucers and bowls on the bottommost shelf; a Chinese vase with a tiger lounging on a branch for its handle. The blue was dizzying. 


The mirrors reminded me of a The Three Investigators (who solved only the coolest mysteries) book I had as a kid called The Secret of the Haunted Mirror. The book was about this huge grotesque antique mirror belonging to a dead magician, whose spooky green phantom supposedly lived within the mirror. I love the twisted lion-creature on this particular mirror, poised at the top, ready to pounce on the poor unsuspecting user. 



Our last stop was the vintage cars and carts display, it's main attraction the made-to-order Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Throne Car for the Nizam. I am practically a car-virgin, having only just learned to drive, and I have no trivia on models and makes. So all I will comment on is the colour, which is wow. I might have taken a better picture if not for my baby-level camera skills and the insanely thick glass shielding the car.

The visit coincided nicely with me reading Indu Sundaresan's Mughal tale, The Twentieth Wife. Though the book is set nowhere close to Hyderabad, it was cool to come across terms from the book. At the very entrance, a layout of the palace marked the "zenana," or the women's quarters which we later saw. That is where most of Sundaresan's book is set and I enjoyed finding real life imagery to support that constructed by my mind.