Thursday, May 25, 2017

CBR9 #6 and #7: Birth of an Empire and Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden

In late February, as I was preparing for a work trip to Mongolia, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about the country. I knew nothing about the history or its culture, nothing about its customs or its icons. The only thing I knew was Genghis Khan, and... yea, just his name. That's it.

Luckily, a Pajiban mentioned the Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden, recommending it as a historical fiction alternative to trawling Wikipedia (which is honestly what I would have done.) I downloaded the series in bulk, and got through the first two books during my month-long trip in Mongolia.

CBR9 #6: Birth of an Empire


First off, I should say that my photographer colleague who traveled with me on this work trip totally made fun of me for reading historical fiction. "Why don't you just actually read a history book?" he said. "Because it's not as fun," I answered. Honestly, I have such a hard time getting through non-fiction books on current events, I can only imagine my stamina flagging on history books written in a dry, academic way. Why not imbue history with some narrative voice and personal motives? I can totally get with that!

Iggulden's books actually hew pretty close to historical records on the life of Genghis Khan, the fierce founder of the Mongol empire born Temujin. In fact, at the end of each book, Iggulden would go through the events of the book, pointing out what really happened and what he embellished, and it's really amazing to just marvel at some of the incredible conditions that Temujin and his family went through early in his life.

Birth of an Empire introduces the early life of Temujin and his brothers living as part of the Wolves tribe in Mongolia. Always vying for their father's attention, Temujin and his eldest brother, Bekter, grow up competing with each other. Bekter is shown to be the more serious, humorless brother no one really loves, while charismatic Temujin commands respect and friendship quickly and effortlessly. The other younger brothers worth mentioning are Kachiun and Khasar, both easy-going and natural leaders, while the youngest is Temuge -- a chubby boy considered the most weak-willed.

Their father, Yesugei, passes away from an infected wound (that he got from a Tartan tribe seeking revenge) when the boys are just pre-teens, and his first-in-command, Eeluk, takes over the Wolves. Hungry for power after serving Yesugei for a lifetime, Eeluk does not want Yesugei's family to grow up to seek revenge, so he and the tribe leaves them in the harsh grasslands as winter is about to set in.

The period where Temujin and his brothers and mother were trying to survive in the cold were some of the hardest to read because you really got the sense that hunger was just slowly breaking their family apart. Temujin, who was never close to Bekter to begin with, started to hate him deeply as he realized that his eldest brother was hiding food from the rest of the family after their daily hunts. Together with Kachiun, Temujin killed Bekter – a move which breaks his mother's heart, and it drives a splinter in the already suffering family.

When I got to this part, I was already in northern Mongolia freezing my ass off. While I found it difficult to fully understand Temujin and Bekter's hatred for each other, Iggulden's description – along with my experience of Mongolia's winter – made it possible for me comprehend why Temujin and Kachiun would feel like they were driven to commit murder. Bekter was stealing from the family as his mother, who had to nurse a newborn baby girl, and brothers were starving. Mongolia's tough conditions made desperate people angry.

A big part of Birth of an Empire is letting us understand Genghis Khan's origin, of how someone as likable and easy-going as him could grow up to become an ambitious warrior who united all the warring Mongolian tribes, rallying them on to become one of the most feared army in the world. Obviously it will be impossible to really understand Genghis Khan's actual personality, but Iggulden really manages to set up the building blocks of what made him a conqueror.

CBR9 #7: Lords of the Bow

The second book picks up after Genghis Khan has united all the tribes, and is looking southward towards the Chin empire. Genghis Khan understands – from his dealings with the Chin – that the different tribes and the Tartan in the north have been pitted against each other for generations by the Chin so that they will be divided and weak.

Along the way, his coalition had gained a shaman, named Kokchu, a manipulative and clever flatterer who used magic tricks and chemistry to keep an aura of mystery around himself. While Genghis Khan did not really want much to do with Kokchu, he decided to keep him around due to superstition of killing a shaman, and Temuge, the timid youngest brother, went under Kokchu's tutelage.

As Genghis Khan's army moves further south, much of his time is taken up by governing the warring tribes and strategizing on how to bring down the Chin's walled defenses. His two eldest sons, Jochi and Chagatai, have a relationship that seems similar to his earlier relationship with the elder brother he murdered, Bekter. Both vie for Genghis Khan's affections, though he so clearly prefers Chagatai because he believes that Jochi is the illegitimate bastard son that his wife Borte bore after she was kidnapped and raped by Tartans (which happened in the first book).

There are some amazing battles in this book, like at Badger's Mouth, where Chin General Zhi Zhong was convinced the Mongols would never be able to pass. But Genghis sent his brothers to climb the mountains flanking Badger's pass so that when the Chin army was attacking Genghis army at the pass, his brothers' armies also attacked the back. I really felt like whooping when I was reading about the Mongol riders who were able to shoot their arrows with true aim while they were upon galloping horses. Iggulden's books (and I guess history as well) showed that their prowess at archery while riding cavalry was surely the Mongols greatest strength, hence Book Two's apt title.

Once they got to Yenking – which is modern-day Bejing – the city's inhabitants and the royal family were walled in to prevent the Mongols from entering. This lasted for four years before General Zhi Zhong and the young child emperor were willing to negotiate with Genghis Khan. For four years, the Chin had no access to food or crops, and the millions of people within the city started to starve. This made for some truly horrific reading as you could feel the despair of the Chin as they started to cannabalize their neighbors. The young women of the city, knowing that they were going to be the ones who suffered the most once the walls were breached, dressed themselves in mourning white and threw themselves off the walls of Yenking. It's awful to imagine while reading; it's more incredible to learn through Iggulden's notes at the end that this really, actually happened. "Up to sixty thousand young girls threw themselves from the walls of Yenking rather than see it fall to the invader," he said.

The second book kind of threw a curveball at me. I went from rooting for Temujin's survival, to marveling at Genghis' military strategy and prowess, to being just truly horrified at the lengths he would go to propagate the Mongol race as being the most powerful. There are times when Temujin from the first book is recognizable in Genghis of the second book – but those times get fewer and fewer as we near the end of Lords of the Bow.


CBR9 #5: China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Fine, fine, fine. I'll review some books. I'm really terrible at keeping up with it. 

China Rich Girlfriend is Kevin Kwan's sequel to Crazy Rich Asians. Even though the first book was imperfect in many ways, I really loved it because it was sort of the first time I've seen Asians portrayed in an atypical fashion in English-language fiction. I also recognized a lot of my Singapore family in the first book, so I think that helped as well.

That being said, I'm really not as keen about the sequel. Rachel Chu and Nick Young is back, as is Nick's mother, Eleanor. There are a whole host of new characters introduced, while some old faces make appearances as well. The plot is a bit all over the place, and I feel like the book can be divided into two sections. The first section focuses on Nick's estranged relationship with his mother. This was made such a big deal, but all is forgiven once his mother was able to locate Rachel Chu's real father... and then Eleanor Young kind of disappears for the entire rest of the book.

The second half of the book is about Rachel making the acquaintance of her real father, and her step-family. Her father is now a politician, high up in China's politburo, while his wife is distraught at losing her husband to this new mystery daughter. Rachel also tries to get closer to her half-sibling, Carlton, who is very much like one of the "crazy rich Asians".

Meanwhile, there is a sub-plot concerning Kitty Pong, the former soap actress who used to date Nick's cousin. Kitty is virtually unrecognizable in this book, as she has re-made herself, and is determined to make an impression on Hong Kong's high society. But, as she soon learns, it's not as easy as appearing on the society pages. I think the funnest part of China Rich Girlfriend might be when Corinna, a woman born into an old money family who makes a living teaching people what to do to become "high-class," tries to educate her.

All in all, I found the second book to be harder to get through than the first. I honestly don't care much about Rachel or Nick – Kwan writes these two main characters in such a bland way that they are basically like Bella from the Twilight series. In a way, anyone can identify with Rachel's bewilderment when she encounters all kinds of gaudiness and overt wealth because Kwan has written her as a bit of a cipher. In fact, the best characters in his books are the ones who are actually "terrible" people, doing "terrible" things. I feel like I can see more human-ness in their actions and insecurities than in Rachel, who is just bland as hell.

That being said, I will definitely watch the hell out of the Crazy Rich Asians movie when it's out. I really hope they cast more Singaporean actors in it. So far, all the major roles are like Asian-British, Asian-American... which really annoys me, but is certainly interesting in terms of dissecting the racial politics involved when it comes to a major Hollywood movie that is groundbreaking in a way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

CBR9 #4: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth


This is my first book of poetry, ever. Or rather, pamphlet, because it is so thin. I bought it because of the Beyonce hype behind Warsan's words, because I'd heard her name over and over, because her name is now tangibly linked to words like "refugee" and "woman", because a Pajiba friend posted an excerpt from her poem on Facebook, because they actually (actually!) had it in a Bangkok bookstore, a thin sleeve of paperback tucked amidst hundred-page hardcovers.

I read it at home, and I read it while waiting for the train. I read it while seated during my commute, and also when standing packed among others. I soon felt a particular hotness reading it in public, so I did the bulk of my reading in bed, when I was about to fall asleep. Sometimes, I read it outloud to my empty room, just to see if the words would taste different in my mouth.

Poetry is a funny medium for me. It has always felt slightly out of my reach. I hoped for Shire's words to bring me closer, but sometimes it came too close for comfort. I never related wholly to a single poem, only to the sentiment conveyed – Shire ensconces the people in actions and images that are really feelings – but sometimes that sentiment hinged so accurately (and vulgarly) to my own that it felt almost intrusive.

This is not a book you should read on the train. At one point, I was trapped in my mind, with images of men and women kissing, and then the train jolted to a stop and I looked up, and caught the eye of a young woman heading home from work. What a strange experience.

In Love and In WarTo my daughter I will say,
'when the men come, set yourself on fire'.

There is also sadness and yearning and so much brutality running through her words. I know nothing about Shire's background, only that she is a black female, but a quick google search tells me she is a London-based Somali poet and only 28. Perhaps it was because I just got done with Drown, but the feeling I get from her writing is similar to what I got from Junot Diaz' – the quiet violence comes through in moments of tranquility.

I can hear you in our spare room with her.
What is she hungry for?
What can you fill her up with?
What can you do, that you would not do for me?
I count my ribs before I go to sleep.
(excerpt from "Bone")

You grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other's bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths
(excerpt from "Grandfather's Hands")

Perhaps her most well-known poem is "Home," which seeped into my consciousness some time last year or two years ago during the refugee crisis. I read Shire's words before I knew her name, before I knew she was a "serious" poet and not some activist getting her feelings out. (But really, how is one different from the other if the impact is the same?) I'm not sure when she finished "Home" but the beginnings of it were revealed in this pamphlet, called "Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)". In this piece, written in short paragraphs spanning four pages, you see that familiar phrase – "No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." – over and over again, like a resounding punch that doesn't quite land, not until you see refugees crowded on dingy lifeboats off the coast of Greece.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

CBR9 #3: Drown by Junot Diaz

Getting through Drown, a collection of short stories by Junot Diaz, took me close to a month. This delay was due to my very bad, no-good month of January, which included some emotional fall-out after the inauguration and the first two weeks of this administration.

I can thus say that the stories in the book can be divided like so: Read pre-Trump vs. read post-Trump. Obviously this wasn't Diaz's intent – after all, it was published in 1996 – but personally, for me, the short stories in the beginning of the collection were more tied to heartbreak and youthful malice, while the stories at the end resonated deeply with me as a tale of code-switching in an America that is fixated with race and of the immigrant's heartache of never belonging. His epigraph, a passage by Gustavo Perez Firmat, is incredibly fitting:

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else

Similar to two other books that I've read before by him – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and another short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her  – the sense of being an immigrant's child, or an immigrant, is prevalent in every single piece. From the way Yunior and his brother Rafa feel out of place when they are visiting the Dominican Republic to a chance encounter with a fellow immigrant while working a job putting together pool tables for rich families, there is always longing in Diaz's words. As always, Yunior, his alter-ego, appears frequently in the stories, tied up in various forms of heartbreak or childhood mischief, and the posturing masculinity – whatever that means for a growing adult male in America, or for an immigrant with a displaced sense of self and an absent father – seems to anchor much of his interactions.

The final third of the book really hit me hard. How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie made me so sad. It's written as a dating guide of how a young, brown boy should act around a girl and his mother when she drops her off at his house. The things he has to hide around the apartment, the places he chooses to bring her for dinner and how to act during dinner ("If the girl's from around the way, take her to El Cibao for dinner. Order everything in your busted-up Spanish. Let her correct you if she's Latina and amaze her if she's black. If she's not from around the way, Wendy's will do."), even how far they might go when they are sitting on the couch at the end of the night. At the end of the night, the "halfie" girl will likely not want him to touch her. "You're the only kind of guy who asks me out, she will say.... You and the blackboys." That paragraph shot like an arrow straight through my heart, and I can only imagine how it must feel to have that said to someone like Diaz, like being counted as second best because you are an immigrant, a non-white; never the gleaming white knight in white armor.

The last story, Negocios, felt almost like a relief as most of the stories in the book deals with Yunior and Rafa's absent father peripherally. While it is narrated by Yunior, it is mostly written from the point of view of his father, Ramon, about his journey as a new immigrant to America, and all the hardship he had to endure. The roommates who stole his money, the difficulty getting a well-paying job without a solid grasp of English, having to always worry about getting busted for not having a green card – it really drives home how grueling this experience is and how little knowledge and sympathy we, as US citizens, have for that. Ramon isn't even particularly a good person – he cheated on Yunior's mom and stopped sending her money, he hits his second wife, he never reaches out to his children when he went back to Dominican Republic for a visit – and even as I say this, I really did feel for him a bit. That's always been the genius of Diaz's writing. This Is How You Lose Her was full of stories of cheating cads and asshole men, but he is able make the reader understand, a little bit, how a human being being a massive dick could be due to all the hurt inside. Or sometimes, people are just dicks. And Diaz did the same with Ramon's dad. Perhaps I was also feeling a bit vulnerable to empathizing with him, after the month that I've had.

Friday, January 27, 2017

CBR9 #2: Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday afternoon, I read Frank Bruni's opinion piece, titled "The Wrong Way to Take On Trump." Bruni – former political reporter turned restaurant critic turned opinion columnist for the New York Times – decided to school the American public on how we should "go high" when talking, protesting,  and generally reacting to Trump. Except he didn't really give specifics on what to do, nor did he interview any activists on their advice. Bruni spent the majority of this column telling us how we failed in our liberal-ness (listing obvious examples such as the tweet sent out about Barron Trump and Madonna's provocative stage antics) and his last two paragraphs basically can be summed up to this: "to rant less and organise more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. to answer invective with intelligence."

Thanks, man. I didn't know that at all. How helpful.

And that piece just reminded me of all the column inches devoted to how the Black Lives Matters protesters were doing it wrong, how they should have done it this other way instead; how they need to be peaceful. And it just made me even madder.

Which is what compelled me to revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. I haven't read it since... maybe high school? I'm not sure, truly. But I wanted my anger to be justified, to be sated in some way, to stop feeling like I'm guilty when my white, male friends tell me that I am "attacking" them when all I am simply doing is talking and stating facts about race, sexism, and civil rights.

It will be no shocker to anybody when I say that so much of what King wrote in 1963 is still relevant today. From the description of having to hear the word "wait" over and over again for your civil liberties, to the line on police brutality ("hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalise, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity") to the descriptions of economic desolation for minorities ("air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society") – yes, it is still so relevant today.

What I did miss as a teenager though was how much of a burn master King was. He really got some choice jabs in! From his use of sarcasm ("I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticism are sincerely set forth") to his blunt statement of emotion ("I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.") to his subtle digs to the ministers who wrote the statement criticising King's demonstrations ("History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged grips seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.") King was totally all about setting them on fire.

But the real reason I wanted to reread it was for his admonition of the white moderate. Here is the beginning:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." 

Oh, he goes on, all right. King is merciless in his descriptions of the white moderate – and he is even nuanced enough to include middle-class blacks who have profited in that society and now has economic security (like The Invisible Man in the beginning of the book) – and it's astounding to me how direct parallels can be drawn in regards to the Black Lives Matters movement, and to the way certain (white, privileged) liberals have taken to reprimanding those with more vocal anxieties post-inauguration.

Seriously, there's even a #notallmen #notallwhitepeople section in the letter! King criticises the Southern church leaders (though he commended a single revered for welcoming black people to the worship service and Catholic leaders for integrating Springhill College) for preaching to follow the laws of integration, not because it is morally right, but because it is now a law. "I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour," he said. This was basically his #yesallchurches moment.

Another interesting thing that stood out to me was his purposeful use of indecisive language during key moments of the letter. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom..." or "I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic. Maybe I expected too much. I guess I should have realised that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed."

These "guess" "hope" and "maybe"s, read in an earnest way, take on a disappointed tone. It makes the reader feel that King truly had hope for the church leaders to do better, and he is greatly saddened by their lack of action. But read in a modern tone – which is how it started to sound in my head once I realised what an OG he was – it takes on an ironic tone, and then the piece shifts to anger. I don't know why I never saw it before, but now that I'm reading it in this current political climate, I can't help but feel like the moderates never showed up to begin with.

One final thing to mention: A friend of mine who reminded me of the letter when I was speaking with him also said that I am angry at these moderates because "that's really just aiming at someone you can hit." In a way, it's probably true.


Monday, January 23, 2017

CBR9 #1: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

New year, new Cannonball Read, so let's just kick it off by jumping straight to my review!



I purchased Story of Your Life and Others after I saw Arrival in theaters, which rocked me to my core, and I wanted to see just how it translated from the page to the screen. The answer? Very differently. For one, Chiang is a lot more technical in his descriptions, and I really appreciate the sparse-ness of his language. He does not use wordy descriptions to manipulate emotions out of his readers; he simply lets the readers draw the parallels between the science-y concepts he talking about to the plot events.

Overall, the emotional punch of the short story is quite similar to the movie, and I will refrain from discussing too much about it lest it ruins the film for anyone. If you haven't seen it, go. Run. Go see it.

But I will talk about his other pieces in the book. Once that made me really comprehend the varied paths that Chiang's mind traverses was Hell Is the Absence of God. He takes a single concept – "Does God exist?" – and runs completely amok with it by making it not a question, but a fact. Yes, God exists; yes, angels exist; yes, heaven and hell exist; but do people still believe and love God unquestioningly? I really enjoyed the world that he created where angels would appear on earth, but leave devastating consequences amidst "miracles," and a single man's quest to try and convince himself to love God despite the fact that his beloved (devout) wife was taken away from him too early.

Liking What You See: A Documentary has also burrowed itself into my mind. In this world, people are able to input some sort of device into their brains that blocks the neural paths that allow for them to recognize physical attractiveness in others. What happens then is that people will not be able to see if someone is attractive or unattractive, and would judge others only on the content of their personality. It's certainly an appealing idea and piece of imaginative technology, but Chiang does not just leave it to the realms of simplicity. The short story also follows the journey of a young girl who grew up with calli – the shortened name of the neurological procedure – who discovered what it was like to see others' faces... and liking it. One other student interviewed in the documentary also said that making society blind to physical appearances is just another way of erasing the problem by pretending it isn't there. There are a lot of strange and interesting discussions to be had from just this story, and I am very grateful – and slightly disturbed, truthfully – to have experienced it.