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Saturday, October 9, 2021

Book Reviews Previously Posted on Various Other Sites

Taming the Dragon

by Dan Armstrong 

Oct 11, 2019



Dan Armstrong's "Taming the Dragon" is a very good read. It tells the tale of an engineering consultant who is assigned to look at the Three Gorges Dam for some German investors back just before the huge dam was completed. It is really about the Chang Jiang (长江) or as it is often called in English, the Yangtze River. The Yangtze drains the slopes of the Himalayas, rushes passed Sichuan province through the heart of China's rice belt finally draining into the Pacific near Shanghai. Armstrong takes us up the river into the heart of China literally and figuratively. It is a great story about fixation and desire for both the narrator and China itself. It was set 30 years ago, so much of the story might seem dated because China doesn't need foreign investors to complete its mega engineering projects anymore. But still, there is a universal theme to the story. Like W. H. Hudson's "Green Mansions" also a story about a trip up a river, it shows what happens when we come face to face with our illusions and discover that ordinary reality is really much more enticing.




Portland Zionists Unite! and Other Stories by Eric Flamm

September 2, 2019 

Eric Flamm’s collection of short stories contains a powerful, informative, artfully intelligent story titled “Mauser Karabinder”. It reminded me of different aspects of two of Tolstoy’s masterpieces of short fiction, “The Cossacks”, and “The Death of Ivan IIyich”. Flamm's writing style in this story is slightly melancholic, yet accessible (in that Tolstoyian manner) that adds up to an encompassing 360-degree view of his subjects that leaves the reader stunned and in awe of the depth of the reading experience. It really is that good.

The other stories were excellent and very different from one another and serve as a nice supporting structure around “Mauser Karabinder”. All of the stories are longer, (30-40 pages), and deeply explore the experience of American Jews coming to terms with their Hebrew heritage. I am not Jewish myself, and I found myself engrossed in all of them.

The American Jewish relationship with Israel is present in all of the stories, and if you have ever thought about the American-Israeli political relationship in a casually critical sense, be prepared to get out of the kiddie pool and be thrust into deep water. Every aspect, from every point of view, finds a home with some character, (or in the main characters, many conflicting views, fighting for control in their own consciousness.)

The Portland stories, “The Mount”, and “Portland Zionists Unite!” are fun reads because I live just outside the Rose City and sorta, kinda, know the “types” he is talking about. “The Mount” is set in tony Northwest Portland, and revolves around young, well-off Jews who grew up in Orthodox or at least very conservative homes, that from the outside seemed cut-off from “normal” American society, but from the inside you see the struggle to be “normal” and the desire to escape from that lifestyle. The main characters, for the most part, all men, felt they were rebelling against Orthodoxy, while still fighting within themselves to maintain their identity. “The Mount” is an upscale Portland Synagogue, and the story gives an unsentimental look at the struggle within the community to define itself in the face of the new authoritarian reality of Netanyahu’s Israeli, and the response American Jews should have to it.

“Portland Zionists Unite!” is about a Millennial kid, Gary, whose mother “told him he was a Jew”, but who otherwise has little consciousness of his Jewish identity. Flamm catches the rhythm of Gen-Y dialog really well and is able to pump life into a believable portrayal. Gary manages a rental unit and encounters a struggling semi-Jewish couple who rent the duplex next door. It is a very believable story of the struggles, and relationships of youth in this current age of so much uncertainty.

As for the masterpiece of the collection, “Mauser Karabinder”, I am going to only say it is about an American Jew who enlists in the IDF and is doing occupation duty on the west bank in Hebron, protecting a tiny group of Orthodox settlers, surrounded by a sea of Palestinians. If you have seen the recent HBO series “Our Boys”, about retaliatory ethnic murders and the Israeli response to them, you will quickly get the picture of the setting. The story will blow you away.

Eric Flamm is a talented writer, and this collection is worthy of his talent. 


The War of Atonement: The Inside Story of the Yom Kippur War

by Chaim Herzog, Michael Herzog 

Jul 08, 2021


This account of the 1973 Arab Israeli war is full of facts and vignettes that were not previously discussed in the popular press. Chaim Herzog has a very interesting bio, which I urge you to look up on Wikipedia. But to summarize he was a prominent member of the founding generation of Israeli leaders, as a general, politician, and prominent Labour Party Leader. He was President of Israel for a period.


The account of the war is an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, dispassionate story of the two week long war. It was fought on two fronts, in the north against Syria, and the south against Egypt. In many ways it was a proxy fight between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the weaponry and strategies of the two sides being tested out.


For Israel it was a life or death struggle. The first three days could have gone either way. It was in the middle of the Yom Kippur holiday, and it took Israel by surprise. Herzog points out all of the blunders of the Israeli intelligence establishment, of the political leadership, as well as its tactical and strategic shortcomings that led to the near disaster. He also praises the Arab strategy from a military point of view.


It also points out the sacrifice, and heroism that saved Israel. He explains the reasons for the superiority of Israeli pilots and tankers. He also says that dependence on tanks and airpower, while relatively playing down the importance of infantry and artillery was a serious mistake. It was also interesting to see his disdain for Ariel Sharon, a rising political rival at the time and of course eventual Prime Minister of the country. He points out that Sharon’s "primadonna" behavior led to some indecision as well as other problems on the battlefield initially, but in the end gives Sharon his due as a brilliant and fearless tactical general.

If you are interested in modern military history, this is a very good read.


The Oppenheimer Alternative 

By Robert J. Sawyer

September 20,2020


I like books that both entertain and inform and this Speculative fiction novel works on both levels. It is an excellent "biography" of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. It is real history mixed with some very intriguing and imaginative speculation. The novel drills into exactly what caused "Oppie's" loss of security clearance in the Red Scare days. We get penetrating and entertaining portraits of the great scientists with whom he worked, including Teller, Einstein, Richard Feynman, and many others. The novel tells the story straight - with one wrinkle. Oppenheimer was a great physics theorist in addition to being the greatest "science project" administrator ever. His work related to the nuclear processes in stars, and (here is the wrinkle) in 1938 it was discovered, (using his theories) that - something bad was going to happen, a strong likelihood that the earth is doomed and soon, very soon.  The novel is a story of how all of the superstar physicists  of the Manhattan project worked to overcome their disagreements and come up with a plan to prevent the bad thing from happening.

The story is told in a non-sensational way, and this was its strength and perhaps its tiny weakness. It stays true to the plodding nature of the way real science actually works, and the manner that real history happens, and sometimes as a reader you want it "sexed up' a little. But I recommend the book highly because it will keep you engaged, and will teach anyone (whether they are experts in science or in history, or both) something profound and interesting. Sawyer proves again why he is a master.




Squeeze Me (Skink #8)

by Carl Hiaasen

Sep 20, 2020



Hiassen finally turns Skink loose on the White (House) Whale. You knew it was coming, and it is a great and satisfying read. Melania is getting boned by a couple of Secret Service guys while the biggest Scumbag in American History is porking a local pole dancer over in a strip mall in West Palm. The old Palm Beach widows and divorcees plot to get invited to the Winter White House. There is a catch though - one of those rich bitches gets eaten by a python, and if the news gets out it will ruin the coming party season.

It says it right there in the title - Skink #8. If you love Hiassen when he is on the hunt for scumbags - environmental rapists, scam artists, hucksters, corrupt Florida pols and other lowlife frauds who plague the Sunshine State, you will like Squeeze Me. Skink - not the burrowing lizard, but the former Florida Governor,Clinton Tyree, former war hero, and highly popular Florida native. Tyree was run out of the Governor’s Mansion back in the 80s,  by the real estate lobbyists who didn't like him blocking their development projects. He retreated to the Everglades and pursued a career of unrelenting vengeance on the human trash who have been working to make Florida into America's trashiest combination amusement park and nursing home. This is the 8th novel Skink/Tyree  has appeared in and every one of them will give your spirit a lift, even if it is only fiction. It's a hilarious peek at life down in North America's infected appendix, where life after death comes early. Hiassen is a national treasure.




Lest Camelot Fall

by Danny Adams

Dec 11, 2015


Danny Adams has written a strong historical novel about what happened after King Arthur died in battle and Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake. It is interesting because it attempts to fuse what (little) we know from solid historical sources, while maintaining faith with the legend. The story puts a real context to characters whose only existence is confirmed by stories written some 700 years after the fact.


It takes place in the decade of 530-540. We know that at that time, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian was attempting to reconquer Italy, which had been overrun by various Germanic tribes over the previous century. We have a good deal of knowledge about the events and people in the Mediterranean area, but little about Britain. We know the Saxons have invaded to stay and have settled in the Wessex region of south central Britain but they are not really secure. Other Germans tribes are also on the scene, as well as the native Celts and the Romans who stayed after the Western Empire withdrew its troops.


Adams has a historical eye on all of this, but what I think the reader wants to know is what about the characters of Camelot? At this point Adams has to use his imagination to tell us their histories. Who was Merlin? How did he live so long? Who was the real Lady of the Lake? What was Arthur's parentage and who were his descendants in history? What were the ultimate fates of Guinevere and Lancelot?


Adams takes the myths of Camelot and blends it into what we do know of history and he does a very good job at it. He has altered my own internal map of that part of the world at that time. I think his vision is very sound.


His main character is a nephew of Arthur's, Lucian Flavius Aurelianus, whose ancestry is part Roman, part Celt. He tells the story as he journeys back and forth across southern Britain. First person narratives have the obvious strength of being immediate and camera-eyed on the action. The disadvantage of first person is you only see and know what the character knows. So all that history that Adams offers up must be told through the eyes of a Dark Age Royal Prince, who has his own issues that often blind him to the motives of the people around him. He is a young man with many insecurities.  These issues get in the way of him seeing clearly what his final place in the world will be. Lucian is petulant, quick to anger and full of self-doubt and guilt over his own hates, lusts and desires. So when he tells how a Saxon Camp is laid out, or discusses the religious squabbles of Pagan Celts and Christian Camelot, or explains new weaponry such as the crossbow brought in by agents of Justinian, this information-rich discussion causes the story to wait. As a serious history buff, I don't mind, but maybe other readers might lose the thread. Shifting that focus without the all knowing omniscient narrator is tricky.


But never mind that. It is a meaty book and I enjoyed it all. In addition to Arthurian lore and Dark Age history, Adams throws in lots and lots of allusions to Tolkien and Beowulf and probably much more that I missed. It is a work of a sound scholar and a good fiction writer. Well done.




Havana Bay (Arkady Renko, #4)

by Martin Cruz Smith

Oct 26, 2015 


 Havana Bay is about tramping the streets of Havana and I suspect that it will be a resource to understand the Cuba that is soon to disappear now that we Yanks are invading as tourists. Arkady has lost some of his fire I think - he is suicidal in the beginning, (over a horrible lose that will hit hard on long time readers of the series) and then seems to accept what comes afterward. It makes sense character-wise but it is like he is sleepwalking. There is a lack of tension in the story compared to some of the past Renko novels. But it is a wonderful story of the Havana streets and if you are going, this is the book to read to create your own adventure. Smith delivers the scene better than any of his contemporaries - after you read it you can see and smell the city. He did the same thing for Chernobyl in Wolves eat Dogs.



The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

by Max Boot

Jun 30, 2021  


Edward Lansdale has an outsized reputation that has inspired conspiracy mongers for the last 60 years. Max Boot has written a somewhat pedestrian biography of the American “dirty tricks” empresario of our anti communist wars in the Philippines and Vietnam.


His biographer here, Max Boot,  immigrated from Russia with his parents when he was a young child, went to Yale, studied history, and is now a regular opinion correspondent for the Washington Post. He has had an interesting ideological journey, moving from staunch supporter of our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, to a harsh critic of Trumpism. He has been described as a “neocon”, a label he rejects. He has (of late) developed more liberal views on most domestic issues and is a strong supporter of the military and our recent wars. He recently recanted his support for the Bush-Cheney Iraq war debacle.


His biography of Lansdale is a fairly blatant attempt to revive the liberal/conservative American view of the “Third Way”, toward moving what were once called “emerging nations” away from Marxist insurgencies toward American style democracy. Lansdale, a former advertising executive, stuck in a somewhat loveless marriage, stayed in the Air Force after World War II and joined the precursor organization of the CIA and was stationed in the Philippines, a recently independent former American colony. The Philippines were ruled by landed families, but were beset by the growing threat of the Hukbalahap Rebellion (Huks) which began as resistance to the Japanese invasion in World War II and continued into the post war era of American predominance.


Landsdale met a Filipina woman during his tour of duty and fell in love. She remained his lover whenever he could see her during the next decades, even though he never got divorced from his American wife. She was a member of the elite class on the islands and through her he met many of the leaders of the landowning class, which was afraid of the Huks. Lansdale also met Ramon Magsaysay, a war hero during the fight against the Japanese, and an auto mechanic by trade. Even though the upper class didn’t like Magsaysay, Lansdale saw his charismatic open personality had the best chance to succeed in Philippine politics and they became great friends. Lansdale used this friendship to barter his way into a powerful position within the American intelligence community and Magsaysay became President of the Philippines. This “coup” launched Lansdale’s career.


The big story about Lansdale is of course in Vietnam. Lansdale was the supposed model for Graham Greene’s popular novel “The Quiet American”, and he also was allegedly portrayed positively in book and later movie “The Ugly American”. As the war got hotter and larger, Lansdale was stationed in Saigon and tried to use the same technique of playing the friend and power behind the throne to President Ngô Đình Diệm. And for a while it seemed to be working. But Diem was not nearly as charismatic as Magsaysay, and in spite of Lansdale’s efforts to popularize him among his own people, the effort failed. Diem and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu were overthrown and executed in a coup in November 1963, with the tacit approval of President Kennedy. From then on Lansdale’s influence waned.


The thrust of Boot’s biography of Lansdale was that he was not the sinister figure that he has been made out to be in popular myth: That he was an open, friendly Californian with a salesman’s personality and a belief in the decency of American intentions. He was no intellectual but possessed a “can-do” attitude, and while he was complicit in some murderous treachery in jungle battles in the Philippines and did approve of assassinations during the Phoenix operations in Vietnam, his record was not nearly as murderous as it has been thought by some writers and conspiracy minded leftists. Boot goes out of his way to “prove” that Lansdale had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination as has been alleged by some.


Boot’s political motive for writing about Lansdale’s (and he clearly has one, which really is a no-no for a serious biographer) appears to me to attempt to justify (or at least explain in the best possible light) American post-war anti-communist behavior in the developing world. He is trying to counter the prevailing left view that much of our problems today stem from our ignoring the popular will in other countries (like Iran, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, etc) and imposing our will through force and connivance wherever we could. Lansdale, in popular culture, was a symbol of that post war American aggression and while Boot seems to show his warts, (such as his adultery), he really paints a pretty benign picture of Lansdale.


I learned a great deal from the book, especially about how Lansdale came to the forefront of American counter insurgency, and while it didn’t change my mind about the folly of much of American post-war foreign policy, it did disabuse me of some of what I thought about Lansdale.


I will say that for all his intellectual diligence, Boot is not nearly as self-reflective as he should be. He was a front and center cheerleader for our most recent misadventure in Mesopotamia that ended in disaster much as the Vietnam war did. Both wars not only killed vast numbers of people and destroyed much of their society, but they had a profound negative effect on our own country. Boot seems to hate Trump, as I do, but he doesn’t seem to realize that if we had never invaded Iraq we likely never would have had Trump. Bush-Cheney’s historic blunder is the most important factor in the fragmenting of our social and political cohesion as a nation and opinion molders like Boot still have a good deal of explaining to do. I appreciate Max Boot’s conversion but until I see a bit more contrition, (a’la Robert McNamara) I am not going to take him that seriously as a journalist or a biographer.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Review of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami



's review originally published in Goodreads 

1Q84 is a strange book that I almost gave up reading numerous times. Nearly 1000 pages, it is full of seemingly trivial details that repeat again and again. 

Yet I did come back. In fact, I am within 50 pages of the finish, so I am well positioned to discuss the book, yet there is no danger I will give away the ending. I will definitely finish it soon, because of the strange spell this book has on me, plus my own stubborn determination to finish any task into which I have sunk deep resources into (I have read over 850 pages already) guarantees I will finish reading it. 

Do I recommend it to you? As the characters in the book feel about their own quandaries, I am not sure. I can easily see someone throwing it down and cursing me for roping them into reading it. The chapters seem to meld together, and the details we learn about the characters and their environment repeat, again and again like a Buddhist chant. And yet, I can also see other readers so captivated by it, that they will seriously wonder about my lack of literary taste because I wasn’t over the moon with praise. Or rather over the two moons.

Tengo is a man about thirty, accomplished as a writer and teacher of mathematics, big, athletic, and painfully shy. His mother left her husband when he was a very young child and the husband raised him. He was poor, and as Tengo subsequently learns, not his biological father. But once out of the house Tengo’s exterior life prospers. His major longing in life is for a girl who had been his classmate when he was ten years old. 

Her name was Aomame and she grows up to be an assassin of men who sexually abuse young girls. She is pretty, athletic and also painfully shy. She too longs for the boy she knew when she was ten. This longing goes on, back and forth even when they are within shouting distance of each other, for the first 900 pages. I still don’t know if they will meet. 

They are connected by a strange teenage girl named Fuka-Eri who has written a book about the little people who actually control the world. Tengo’s editor convinces him to polish her book, and edit it for publication. He does and it, titled “Air Chrysalis”, becomes a mega best seller. 

To both Aomame and Tengo, the world of Air Chrysalis becomes real. There are indeed two moons in the sky, and other more subtle differences between the world of 1984, when the story is originally set, to the new world of 1Q84. 

And there is a religious cult called Sakigake that doesn’t like the story of Air Chrysalis being published and is after both Aomame and Tengo. Aomame must use her skills as a killer, while Tengo tries to learn the secrets of his slowly dying stepfather.

It is not a thriller by any means, in fact, it is difficult to fit it into any genre. That alone might be what has kept me coming back to get to the end. The author Murakami, takes his time, and builds the suspense - builds it past what often seems like the breaking point, but you soon see that that is the point. The novel is a different sort of story.

As I said, I can’t wait to get back to it. Reader discretion advised.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

by Jonathan Lethem

Jul 02, 2021

After the first fifty pages, I really wanted to like this book. Lethem has a dry, semi-confused, pyrotechnical, and fearless way of writing sentences. It seems he often starts them not quite knowing where they are going to end. And that is exciting, because he lets you ride shotgun on his creative joyride. But, in “Chronic City”, his characters were pretty dead inside, and after a couple hundred pages it starts to get to me.


I saw Edward Norton’s really interesting and entertaining film adaptation of Lethem’s novel “Motherless Brooklyn” and that book is on my list to read, because Norton made his character burst with life. I recently read that Lethem has a form of Tourette’s syndrome, which of course was Norton’s fascinating idiosyncratic mannerism in the film.


“Chronic City” is nothing like the film “Motherless Brooklyn” even though it does take place in NYC, and both stories feature semi-fictional City power players. But the time period is different and so is the “lifeforce” of the people portrayed. Similarities aside, they are very different stories, and while I like that Lethem doesn’t repeat himself, I guess I need to root for somebody.


As I said, I found the “Chronic City” a bit frustrating. The setting is speculative and semi-imaginary, but that didn’t bother me. The characters are both repulsive and attractive, all with bizarre routines and backstories. Chase Insteadman, who is the narrator, is a former child actor on what was the most popular TV show of the 70s, but hasn’t worked in decades. He seems to have money, at least he never complains about it. His wife is an astronaut who is stuck in space and not likely to return because the Chinese have surrounded her space station with space mines. But that angle, (why are the Chinese doing it and what are we doing about it?) is never explained. His name, Insteadman, can lead you on a long line of musing - Instead of a man? - or Oprah’s boyfriend, Steadman, who in popular imagination seems what? Hapless? Invisible?


Chase lives in an imaginary Manhattan that is beset with all kinds of terrors - a giant tiger roams the subway, coming up occasionally to eat people, and an amorphous mysterious cloud envelopes  whole sections of the city and seems to come and go. Chase is connected to the “important” people in Manhattan, and attends diners with the mayor, his staff, journalists, and artists. He walks all over the upper West Side, and I am sure for the locals it is fun to ID all his landmarks. His best friend, Perkus, is a perpetually stoned former art critic who collects albums and videos no one has ever heard of and only goes out of his apartment to eat at a restaurant on the ground floor of his building. Chase steals Perkus’s “girlfriend”, Oona, and occasionally receives steadily more hopeless and depressing messages from his wife on the space station. The City’s Society, in both the Press and at the social galas he attends laud him for his courage in holding up under the duress of his wife’s increasingly bleak fate. The dialogue is both spellbinding and again, frustrating, because on one level Lethem constantly fires out majestic verbal gymnastics, but on another “level” (reality) it is inane.


Chase is with Oona ...and is ‘suspended in her slippery limbs in some kind of interlude or afterglow’ ...”My theory is you can never overestimate how much sex the people having sex are having,” Oona said. “Or how little sex the people not having sex are not having.” “The rich get richer?” I suggested and she said, “Yes and the healthy healthier.” Then I’d said “And the -” and she put her finger to my lips.’


I mentioned Lethem’s Tourettes, because it is kind of an “ah hah!” for me trying to understand his characters. Insteadman and his friends are very “in” in terms of their connection to the power and the glamour of the city, but at the same time very “out”. They feel hopeless and fear losing out or missing the next big event. I think it likely that Lethem deeply understands social isolation, (in spite of great success). The one character who is confident and “in charge” is the mayor’s assistant who has been tasked with fixing the city’s problems, such as the giant tiger (that shows up and kills everyone at Perkus’s restaurant, which will cause his apartment to be condemned by the city and put Perkus out on the street). The Mayor’s assistant is a typical NYC blowhard who brandishes an “I got this under control” attitude, but the results always say otherwise. Insteadman despises him but still clings to him, and needs him.


Anyway, Lethem is a very well regarded and highly praised novelist. He writes about NYC and maybe that helps. He is imaginative and endlessly verbally inventive and Chronic City  kept me reading even as I sort of lost interest in the story. It is a sad story. Chase, lives out a life I can’t imagine living. I keep hoping he will at least try to escape from his Upper West Side trap. I kept hoping maybe Wojciehowicz and Dietrich from Barney Miller would take him back to the 12th Precinct and straighten him out, but that would have been another story.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Remembering my Friend Qi

 Qi Xing Hua (亓兴华 (1951–2006) with his wife Ling Na)

At a certain point in life, you realize that losing friends is normal and to be expected. I lost my parents and then heard that Qi had died of pancreatic cancer all almost within the same year. 

Qi had a bigger effect on my life than anyone outside of my family. In my early thirties, during the early eighties, when I was somewhat lost, I met Qi and he taught me how to learn Chinese, then invited me to teach English at the school he represented. I quickly learned that every single one of my Chinese students knew English grammar better than I did, (or do.) So I had to teach other things, most of which would get me kicked out of any respectable language teaching program, but, if it I do say myself, my method worked. Almost the entire class I taught passed the TOEFL and were able to study abroad.

Qi and I were both born in second half of 1951. I met him in 1983. I had gotten divorced and after that had quit a pretty good job, out of pride, ennui and spite, and then, to make it worse began to feel that I had made a horrible mistake. I was floating, in my early thirties, with no ambition and no ambition to even have ambition. I took a Chinese class on a whim, at the University of Oregon, and he was the teacher.

And Qi was a wonderful teacher, maybe the best I had ever had up at that point. I really never expected to learn Chinese when I took it, I just thought the experience would broaden my understanding of Asia and give me an excuse to hang out with college girls. But Qi was so charismatic and so determined that everyone in his class would learn his language, that I had no choice but to take it seriously and study.

He only stayed in Eugene for a year. He loved it, loved America, loved Oregon, everywhere he went he made friends and changed the people he met for the better. Or rather, gave them some special thing that caused them to change themselves. He told me, “I don’t want to live in Chinatown.” So I brought him into my world, which at the time was the crazy 1980s Eugene Oregon bar and party scene. Even on the nights when I didn’t feel like going out, he would get me out and with him around it was always exciting, and interesting. We would end up in amazing conversations with people who I otherwise wouldn't have realized existed.

He had his own life too, which I won’t talk about. But when it was time to return, to his wife and son, even though he was offered a very well paying job to continue teaching, he went back. I know it wasn’t easy, but I also know he never regretted it. In 1984, China was still blindly finding its way back to sanity, and no one was sure it wouldn’t revert to the madness of the Cultural Revolution.

He had been exiled like everyone else in China in the 70s to the countryside. He told me at that time, he was always looking for a way out, even though at the time it seemed worse than hopeless. He studied English quietly when no one else was watching. His father had been one of Mao’s most feared guerrillas, leading a small band on many attacks against the Japanese. But in 1965 his father was denounced, beaten and exiled. Qi had to raise himself and support his family, until his own exile a few years later. They were both released in 1977, and Qi resumed his studies and eventually got a chance to teach and study in the US. If he had stayed in Oregon he could have gotten his family to join him eventually, and he knew that, but he decided to keep his promises and return.

I took another year of Chinese, studied hard, and he invited me to teach English in Xian, where he was the vice-director of the English Language training program at the Xian College of Medicine, (now Xian Medical University).

He saw to it that I didn’t end up always trapped in the sometimes claustrophobic world of Foreigners in China. He got me on the faculty basketball team, (a big deal, we traveled to other schools for tournaments and we all got a bump in salary – so I can say I played pro-basketball.) He introduced me to people, including his legendary father, hosted my parents when they visited, and supported me against the frightened and sometimes dangerous Communist party on campus. The most notable accomplishment we pulled off was performing two plays in English for the entire campus. I promised my advanced class that we would get the plays they were memorizing performed. And we did. All lines were in English and hundreds of students and teachers came to see the performances.

Qi and I used to talk about being old men together after life became normal in China. There are not many people in life that have a transformative effect on you. I can’t imagine what my life would have been if I had never met Qi, but I am sure it would not have been as full. He was my big brother, born three months before me. He was so wise and good, and he made me so much better than I would have been otherwise. I wish he was still around, but, really, in my mind, he never left.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Review of "A Sentimental Education"



Flaubert is more famous for what is called “The Perfect Novel” - “Madame Bovary”, but to me, about to begin my 8th decade, “A Sentimental Education” (SE) is really his greatest work. (Unfortunately, I don’t read French so my understanding and appreciation is no doubt limited by that).

SE covers the active adult life of Frédéric and his lifelong love for the older wife of a friend and business partner, Madame Armoux. There are many other characters who come and go through the years. It is a long, extended account of their youthful friendships, petty betrayals, reconciliations, failures, and revivals over the course of about a quarter of a century.

There is a lot going on in the background which makes it doubly fascinating for us in the Boomer generation. I spent several semesters studying 19th Century European history, so the period - the incredible Revolutions of 1848, the Franco Prussian war, the rise of Bismarck, the Paris Commune, is all pretty familiar to me. SE is about a young liberal from the provinces, who doesn’t want to give up his newly won place in the middle class, and who during the 1848 Revolution, thought he was living through the arrival of freedom and democracy for the France and the rest of the European continent. But then, drip by drip, in the major centers of power, the counter attacks from the Right succeed and you can feel the exuberance of life drain out of Fredric and his compatriots. In Paris, where all the action takes place, Emperor Napoleon III, the second rate nephew of the first Bonaparte, takes power. The thrill is gone, but life and the petty bourgeois drama of Frederic and his acquaintances goes on, and they replace their revolutionary zeal with serial seductions and betrayals.

As a parallel to our times, the Sixties were a kind of 1848 moment. Like 1848, the revolutionary movement was worldwide, and it combined not just politics, but art, and literature and culture. But as perhaps happened to us, time passes and the purity of their feelings slowly becomes polluted. For Frederic and his friends, whose relationships are defined by those heady student days of demonstrating against the power, they have a second chance 23 years later in the aftermath of the Franco Prussian War, during the brief Paris Commune, with its refrain “To the Barricades!” But they are now older and have their petty lives with some pitiful fortunes to protect. And thousands caught in the wrong palace at the wrong time are being shot. Their reaction to it, their self justifications and avoidance of the larger reality all is quite interesting in light of how we baby boomers have reacted to Trump.

But it is the way Flaubert shows the passage of time and how his characters react and feel this passage which is the most amazing feature of the novel. It is a difficult book to read, especially, I suppose, if you are not steeped in the history of those times. Flaubert thrust you into the middle of things with little introductory preparation. You feel unmoored, and even though you might know that outside their petty jealousies and recriminations and flare ups of romantic feelings and subsequent melancholies, the reader knows there is a world going on out there, and sometimes wonders, do they know? How much does any of it matter? It is a lesson in life. I have read it twice and feel I am only just beginning to understand this novel.