Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam: Read This If

Well, then. That was an intense read. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting - it'd been months since I read the description, and I just dove in. The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam sweeps you along several decades, from the 1940s until the mid 1970s, in Vietnam, from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant. A businessman. A fairly clueless - or, at least, ostrich-like - businessman. From this man's unique (head in the sand) perspective, we learn about the many transitions Vietnam - Saigon - underwent mid-century.

You want history? Check. Love story? Check. Soap opera-like family drama? Ohhh yes. Sex? Drugs? Violence? Check. Check. Check. Classism? Duh. Racism? Check. Politics? War? Power? Loyalty? Betrayal? Of course. Everyone is divided.  From white ghosts to Anamese to métisse (mixed) background capitalist Chinese, everyone is the enemy. And your friend. Depending. When Percival takes a métisse lover, he marvels at her strangeness, comparing her to milk. She responds:
The yellow think I am more white. The white see the yellow. People always see the portion of other more clearly than that of self.
And that, my dears, could easily be the theme of the novel, if it were as simple as that. With so many sides, so many secrets, and so many threats, the battle between self and other is only one of many. The atrocities of war are brought nauseatingly to life - the completely uncalled for cruelty never justified. This is not a read for those with weak digestive systems.

In sum, read this if:
  • You relish learning about history through fiction.
  • You don't read a whole lot, and want absolutely everything packed into your novels to make it count.
  • You do read a whole lot, and love complicated plots.
  • You can remain optimistic in dire circumstances.
  • You know you didn't start the fire. 
Don't read this if: 
  • You are looking for that peaceful easy feeling.
  • The open-ended leaves you dissatisfied. 
  • You are easily offended. 
  • You hate character development.
  • You are looking for something light and goofy.
*I received this book courtesy of the Crown Publishing Group via TLC Book Tours. See what others thought

Monday, October 15, 2012

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang: Impressions

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang is, as you might have guessed from the descriptive subtitle, is a book of linked stories, the link here being the Nanking Mansion, an old building renovated into condos in an up-and-coming Chinatown neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The Zhang boys, around 3 and 6, have just lost their young, blonde mother in the opening story, and their father is having trouble dealing with his own grief at the same time as figuring out how to care for his young sons and deal with their confusion of the sudden disappearance of their mother. The young Zhang boys see everything, the peculiar habits of the neighbors, the comings and goings into their apartments, but are, of course, too young to fully comprehend the obvious conclusions to their observations.

The Nanking Mansion is full of an eclectic bunch of neighbors, all dealing with their own struggles - divorces, infidelities, heartbreak, financial woes - each trying to find a bit of comfort in their lives, if not meaning. The glimpses we get get into each of the characters lives are a bit like walking down a dark street, glimpsing in the scenes behind uncurtained, lit windows, except that all these neighbors interact in a very un-urban like way, possibly due to the limited number of condos in the building. The neighbors are friendly in a way that distantly echoes Melrose Place, sans communal pool and the comparatively easy drama of those early-twenties lives.

The stories compel the reader on, not because the characters are particularly worthy, morally upstanding citizens, but because they are deeply human and flawed, on the precipice of realizing something deeper, but, with few exceptions, ultimately failing to overcome their less-than-honorable character traits. Each of their voices are distinct, their portraits carefully crafted to reveal a darkness contrasted with a thin light, and a striking vulnerability. Though many of their lives seem bleak, and the characters are far from perfect, they do offer a hope of continuing, of moving on towards a richer, fuller life.

*I received a copy of this book courtesy of Press53 and TLC Book Tours - see what others thought of the book.
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