Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: "American Visa" by Wang Ping

American Visa (1994)  

Wang Ping (1957-)

179 pages

The day after finishing the book American Visa by Wang Ping, I suddenly found myself transported straight back into the stories by an interview I heard on the radio. A psychology professor was discussing the different approaches to education and learning in Eastern versus Western cultures, and he stated that in Eastern cultures the focus is on the importance of struggling and overcoming obstacles as part of the learning process. Deep into the book I had just read the main character, Seaweed, comes to a shocking realization that precisely validates the professor’s observation.

Although the cover of the book describes it as a set of ‘Short Stories,” in reality Ping has written a series of connected vignettes on the life of a girl who grows up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Seaweed is fourteen in the first story, and living with her parents and one of her two sisters. The subsequent stories follow her from her parent’s home to a distant village deep in the Chinese heartland where she goes to learn to work like a peasant --- and hopes to earn the right to go to college. Eventually making it out of the village and into a university, she earns her degree and then moves to New York City, where she struggles both to make a life for herself, and to help her family back in China. (Wang Ping having been born in the same year as Seaweed, and having emigrated from China to the U.S., it is hard not to imagine that there is an autobiographical aspect to the stories.)

The first story sets the pattern for Seaweed’s experiences in these stories: she discovers something forbidden --- in this case a used tube of lipstick that has been lost in a hidden crevice where she hides her books --- and tries to make sense of it in the context of her life. The Cultural Revolution has made the lipstick (and her books) taboo, and she wonders to whom it had belonged and how it had been missed in the round-up of such things that had occurred. When she then rubs the lipstick across her hand to see the color, we feel with her the bright flash of red that contrasts so deeply with the grind of cooking, cleaning and school work that we have learned fill her days.

This vivid scene is characteristic of Ping’s writing throughout the stories. The tension in the family when the mother suffers an insult that Seaweed is expected to avenge makes the pages crackle with energy. The back breaking work and desperate living conditions that Seaweed experiences as an ‘educated youth’ working among the peasants in rural China highlight for the reader the intensity of her desire to attend university. And later, when she has settled in New York, we experience with her the confusing contrasts she finds between the difficulties of her life in the U.S. and those of her family back home.

Ping’s ability through her rich descriptions and pointed dialogue to place us directly into Seaweed’s struggles make these stories wonderful to read, and provide a western reader with a window into life during the Cultural Revolution as well as that of an immigrant trying to make it in a truly foreign land. We experience with Seaweed her sudden insights, staggering disappointments and profound frustrations; in short we experience what we look for when we read a story.

Other reviews / information:
Link to the interview I mentioned above on approaches to learning in Eastern and Western cultures here.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Mule" by Juan Eslava Galan

The Mule (2003)  

Juan Eslava Galán (1948-)

290 pages

Soldiers and civilians caught up in the front lines battles of a war face a violent and horrific experience. In a civil war, and particularly one where the ideology dividing the sides does not lead to a clear geographic split, widespread confusion is added to the mix. The Spanish civil war (1936-39) was just such a brutal and chaotic event for the Spanish people, as the forces supporting the republican-style government in power fought against groups in the army and among the population that wanted to restore a more conservative, catholic, and for some, monarchical form of government. The war quickly split the country into separate areas of control, but these regions were based primarily on the side with which the army leadership in a particular area allied itself, and many supporters (civilian and military) of a particular side found themselves caught on the wrong side of the suddenly evolving dividing lines.

Juan Eslava Galán’s main character in The Mule embodies the confusion of those times. A corporal in the Nationalist (that is anti-republican) army, Juan Castro Pérez is the leader of a group of muleteers --- he and his team of soldiers care for a group of mules that they use to haul supplies to the soldiers at the front lines. Castro is a peasant from the Andalusian countryside, whose family carved out a hardscrabble existence before the war working for the wealthy land-owner in their small town. Despite the extreme poverty his family experienced, and in the face of many of his friends arguments supporting the pre-war republican government to counter what they found to be the oppression of the large peasant population in Spain by the wealthy few, Castro conforms to his family’s conservative views and supports the Nationalists in the war. When the war started, Castro found himself in Republican territory, and was called up into service with the Republican army. He eventually deserted, crossing the lines into Nationalist territory. Once able to prove that his support for the Nationalists was real (few on either side could be completely trusted about the true nature of their hearts), he joined the Nationalist army.

(A short note on names: Spaniards typically don’t have a middle name; thus, Juan Castro Peréz’s last name is Castro Peréz, the Castro coming from the first last-name of his father, and the Peréz from the first last-name of his mother, and he would typically be referred to as Castro by anyone not a close enough friend to call him Juan.)

As the novel opens, Castro discovers a mule wandering, apparently owner-less, near the front lines. He leads it back to his company’s team of mules, and a subplot of the story develops around his efforts to keep the presence of the additional mule off the official army lists, in the hopes that he will be able to take it back with him to his rural home, once the war ends.

Thus, in a war seen by the leaders and supporters of the two sides as a battle for the future political and cultural direction of the country, Castro’s simple hope is to survive the fighting and return home with the mule he has found. More generally, he and his team, all fellow peasants from simple backgrounds, go through the war experiencing extreme hardship and searching for simple pleasures as they struggle to survive not only the fighting itself, but also the day-to-day life on the front lines with poor food and little shelter. They carry on with a kind of stubbornly hopeful resignation that the war is simply their lot in life of the moment, an event they must try to make it through. They feel some basic level of support for the cause for which they are fighting, but feel little direct connection to or fervor for the larger goals.

In this wonderful story that is at some points tragic and others full of almost slapstick comedy, Eslava gives us a glimpse into the absurdity of the Spanish Civil war for many of those caught up in the heart of it.

Other reviews / information: Although I haven’t seen it yet, the book has been made into a movie.

In my review of The Spanish Civil War there is a high-level summary of the history of the war.

I have review some other books related to the war, such as Waiting For Robert Capa, A Manuscript of Ashes and The Mexican Suitcase.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Book Review: "Hypnotizing Maria" by Richard Bach

Hypnotizing Maria (2009) 

Richard Bach (1936-)

154 pages

In Hypnotizing Maria, Richard Bach returns to the themes of several of his earlier books: the joy of flying and the need to overcome our self-imposed limitations. Bach has flown planes all his life, from his time in the air force, to commercial flights and even barn storming, and his central character in this book is a pilot who has a similar background as Bach, and who spends most of the story flying his renovated military trainer on a cross-country trip. During the trip the pilot goes through a process of self-discovery, as Bach describes through him the view that we all box ourselves in with our expectations and assumptions of how the world is, and that actually the world we perceive is, to borrow from one of Bach’s most famous titles, an Illusion of our own creation.

The story opens with the pilot in flight, hearing a radio call from a woman in nearby Cessna; her husband has collapsed. She has never flown a plane and is calling out for help. He manages to calm her down and talk her through to a safe landing at a nearby airport before continuing on his way. The next morning he reads a news report, in which the woman says she was only able to land the plane because her unknown helper ‘hypnotized’ her into believing she could fly it. Her comment recalls for him a dramatic experience he had had when he was younger, of being hypnotized on stage by a traveling showman. The sudden recollection of that event, combined with a chance meeting at his next stop, leads the pilot to consider how apparent coincidences can change the direction of our lives, and how what we tell ourselves --- the suggestions we make to ourselves in everything we think and say --- can often lead us to create a world around ourselves that constrains our lives.

Although I very much enjoyed Illusions when I read it, so many years ago now, and also several other of Bach’s books that I read in the years that followed, I found this one a little too forced in terms of the presentation of his philosophy. In Illusions, the plot involves a pilot who meets a messiah who’s decided to ‘drop out of the messiah business’, and the philosophy that Bach proposes through the story develops slowly, in incremental steps like building blocks, as the ex-messiah talks to the pilot. In Hypnotizing Maria, I found the basic ideas intriguing --- the power of coincidences to change our lives and the limitations we can talk ourselves into --- but the story, for me, makes an abrupt leap to a larger philosophy that says that the entire world around us is in fact just a construct of our minds that we find so convincing that we no longer realize that we can simply step back outside of it any time we wish. We follow the pilot to this discovery through his thoughts and words, but it is not motivated so much as laid out for us on a platter.

Nonetheless, the opening pages of the book, in which the pilot guides the woman to safety, and the subsequent descriptions of flying and handling surprises in the air such as weather and malfunctions are told with a sure hand and make for a good story. And there is at least a kernel, and maybe more, of important truth to realize or remember in the ideas Bach presents here, as in his earlier work.

Other reviews / information: An interview with Richard Bach on KBOO radio.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION