The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #42: They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?

Hmmm…do I plug my own blog or do I make a dumb joke…what kind of an obvious question is that?

What’s the difference between a blogger and Kim Jong Un? Bloggers have the good sense to hide their bad hair cuts.

They Eat Puppies Don’t They?

It had been a while between sharp witted political satires for Christopher Buckley. Blame it on the irrational expectations after the film release of Thanking you for Smoking, or the general difficulty in satirizing Barack Obama without verging into “SOCIALIST HITLER” quackery, but it’s good to have him back.

His latest adventure in the annals of ethically questionable PR protagonists tracks a defense industry lobbyist charged with whipping up anti-Chinese sentiment in America. Once we have an enemy again, the thinking goes, we’ll feel a much greater need for a bright shiny missile defense technology. In the process of adding some vigor to our vitriol, we run into a couple of beautiful/amoral talking heads, a civil war re-enactor, a besieged communist party leader, a woebegone national security advisor, an aspiring equestrienne and the Dali Llama, all slammed into each other through surreal political machinations that would be laughable if they weren’t so oddly believable.

Surprisingly, Buckley’s usual passion for exposing the power behind the throne is underwhelming, the PR’tagonist “Bird McIntire” seems, in a classic Buckley-ism, just to “be in it for the mortgage”, making him a rather bland hero for most of his chapters. The real connection comes with the beleaguered Chinese President Fa, who seems to have genuine patriotism, intelligence and compassion on his side, even though none of those traits seems particularly helpful amongst the swooping war hawks and oblivious ostriches in the rest of the novel. (Just how accurate Buckley’s observations of Chinese political culture are is questionable, but his sense of people is still strong).

To be sure there’s plenty to appreciate in Buckley’s ever-present sharp eye and clever repurposing of political vanity here, but the imbalance in characters leaves it a few strides short of his best offerings. I only hope that he’ll have a new offering sooner rather than later.


Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #64: In The Pond by Ha Jin

This sparely-written debut novel by Chinese author Ha Jin pokes delicious fun at the bureaucratic and collectivist mentality of post-Mao communist China. The lead character is Shao Bin, a worker in a fertilizer plant who shares a cramped one-room home with his wife and baby daughter, and yearns for more—specificallly, an apartment in the newly-constructed workers communal park currently occupied by the families of the (Communist) party leaders, plant managers and suckups. Unlike the majority of his colleagues and peers, Bin is self-educated and a talented artist and calligrapher who feels his talents are wasted in his present job, which he nonetheless cannot walk away from.

When he is passed over for an apartment despite his seniority, a furious Bin paints a political cartoon skewering the plant managers, which gets published locally and gains him instant notoriety—and the enmity of his managers, who immediately expose him to mockery before the corps of workers, strip him of his urgently-needed year-end bonus, and demand a self-criticism. His response is to get a second cartoon published, which leads to his further humiliation by the managers, and a physical beating. Even while expressing regret for having gotten himself into such a mess, Bin’s rage causes him to escalate his campaign beyond the confines of his town, involving a fellow artist, a newspaper editor from a nearby town, a prominent doctor, and ultimately Beijing itself.

All the while, we get to see first-hand the insidiousness of corruption and bureaucracy, the class divide in this supposedly class-less society, and the fickleness of “crowd-think,” against which the creative force of art, poetry, and philosophy can nonetheless prove a powerful antidote. Our “hero” Bin is, in fact, not a hero but an ordinary and indeed, rather flawed, character. He is prideful, spiteful, given to rages and jealousy. He is also stubborn, strong-willed, and a creative thinker who, almost despite himself, manages to wage a campaign of unexpected consequences against the system. Bin’s “victory” is ultimately nothing of the sort—his campaign is defused and he is absorbed into the very system he is battling. But our author leaves this resolution deliberately open-ended. From everything we have learned of Bin, new confrontations are in the offing.

While I enjoyed this quick read and appreciated the author’s subtle blending of political satire and humor, I couldn’t help but feel that the characters were too caricaturish, the humor too slapstick, and that Ha Jin’s light-hearted treatment of a mind-deadening system somehow downplays the seriousness of the condition he clearly wants to expose.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #84: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

I’ve been hesitant to read this one because I didn’t enjoy Shanghai Girls, the novel that preceded this one, that much (what is the good term for that? I feel like that prequel is inaccurate because to me a prequel is something that takes place previously but was written/filmed afterwards … I would never call the first part of Harry Potter a prequel to Part II though I have seen the word prequel used in that kind of context; I just think it’s incorrect). Shanghai Girls started off well enough, but by the end of the novel, it just felt too much like a rehashing of any other novel about the difficulties of being an Asian immigrant to the United States. I don’t think I would have been quite as disappointed if the novel hadn’t started off strong, and if I hadn’t had such high expectations due to Lisa See’s previous novels. I also think I was getting irritated with the main character who did tend to focus on the negative in life and the things she didn’t have (so it was nice when her sister called her out on that).
Having said that, I enjoyed Dreams of Joy more than I did Shanghai Girls. I’m not sure if that is due to lowered expectations, or if it is because she dealt with a topic that I’m familiar with in passing, but haven’t read too much about in fiction or otherwise. At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy finds out the truth about her parents, and decides to run away to Communist China (this novel takes place in the ’50s). The chapters alternate between Joy as she sees Mao’s China, and Pearl as she follows her daughter to save her. Joy’s parents have always warned her against the Communist regime of China, but in college, she joined a student group that discussed the positives of Communism and the community it creates. As a result, 19 year old and idealistic Joy is an extremely annoying and naive character for the first half of her chapters, always seeing the positive, ignoring the bad despite the half clues her birth father, Z.G. Lin occasionally gives her.

Katie′s #CBR5 Review #13: The Elementals by Troy Jackson

Title: The Elementals
Author: Troy Jackson
Source: from publisher for review
Review Summary: Creative and original idea, with an unusual setting and an engaging, complex plot.

Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, could have been a hero for bringing peace to his country. Instead he chose to enslave many of his people to create grandiose projects, such as The Great Wall, pandering to his own ego. Fortunately, his force for evil is opposed by a group called The Dragon’s Spite,  a group intent on seeing him overthrown. In order to face each other, each side must gather those with the power of the elements to fight on their side. The Dragon’s Spite’s best hope is three young women who might use their supernatural powers to fight for good – but only if the emperor doesn’t get to them first.

Read more at Doing Dewey…

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #20: The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

A beautifully rendered book in the style of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s fourth novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter takes us forward and backward in time, skipping between modern-day California and pre-Revolution China. It excels at what Tan is best known for, her exploration of relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters.  She also sensitively deals with the issue of immigrant families which split between generations over the old ways vs. the new ways, and she presents us with an intimate portrayal of life in China during the upheaval of war and revolution. And, finally, she weaves the theme of communication—oral, written, pictorial, familial—throughout her novel as a way of letting her readers know that a good way of getting to know ourselves is through getting to know others.

Chinese-American Ruth Young is a ghost-writer of self-help books, living in California with her partner Art with whom she has an increasingly strained relationship. Juggling her personal life, her professional life and her own growing self-isolation, Ruth is also trying to cope with Liu-Ling, her 77-year-old mother who is succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimers.  Ruth was raised by Liu-Ling as an only child, and her relationship to her mother has been warped by the fears, superstitions and depression to which Liu-Ling has always been subject. Believing her life is cursed, Liu-Ling’s emotional life is scarred by her past, but it is a past Ruth begins to unravel in the form of a journal her mother has written in Chinese and given to Ruth to “learn the truth.”  In the course of that unraveling of her mother’s memories, Ruth is able to reconnect with the mother she has long disdained—and, most importantly, with her own family history.

Through the journal , Ruth learns that her mother had been raised by her family’s horribly scarred and mute nursemaid, the daughter of a famous bonesetter in rural China who treated people’s ills with a secret cache of revered “dragon bones” and “oracle bones.” The nursemaid is horribly mistreated by everyone, and eventually rejected by Liu-Ling herself, who only later—after the woman’s terrible death–learns that the nursemaid was actually her long-suffering mother. Liu-Ling is sent to an orphanage, where she grows up to become a teacher, falls in love with a young anthropologist who is part of a team unearthing “Peking Man,” and learns that the famous “dragon bones” her mother knew the location of through her bonesetter father, were actually part of the world-famous archaeological discovery.  Liu-Ling’s husband is killed by the invading Japanese, and Liu-Ling eventually manages to escape to America, where Ruth is born and where Liu-Ling remains haunted  by memory of her mother until she is finally able to share her story with her daughter.