Thursday, July 25, 2013

Making home on a changing island (Books - Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester)

A capsule will have to suffice for this entertaining read on multiple generations of English ex-pats in Hong Kong.  This is the first novel by John Lanchester I have read.  Fragrant Harbour is itself fragrant with a sense of place.
We went down the hill, toward one of Hong Kong's most amazing spectacles, the Sunday gathering of Filipina amahs around Statue Square, spilling out toward Legco, the park, the Exchange.  You hear it long before you see it, a high fluttering sounds, a cross between a roar and a twitter, like thousands of birds, like no other human sounds you've ever heard.  The noise made by ten thousand Filipinas all talking at the same time isn't like a crowd event, a march or a rally or a sporting match, since they aren't concentrating on an external entity but on one another - eating and swapping picnics, swapping news and reading letters from home, listening to music, shopping at the impromptu market that features carefully targeted goods (like big, cheap folding suitcases, ultracheap towels and T-shirts), swapping photos, but all, mostly, talking, all the time.
Lanchester's writing makes details of time and place vibrate with life.  He tells a good story too, or really, he tells many  - of multiple generations who lived from the 1930s to the present day.  One cares about each of the characters a great deal, but I was not equally compelled by every succeeding story.  And did they ever fuse into one?  The last, a modern-day story, particularly stands apart.  This is partly because we go from times in which people spoke to each other in person, or wrote letters, to one in which we live thousands of miles from someone and communicate with a brief call, email, or text  - and yet, this novel seems to say, we remain miles apart. I'm not sure that this quite comes together, but this is a novel about people who don't hang onto the past but instead remake themselves in a brand new place and, as such, it is about a certain sense of unrootedness and yet, it all relates to a common place.   An unusual paradox, but one that makes enjoyable reading.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Getting in touch in the cold desert of the modern world (Books - A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers)

I'm a fan of Dave Eggers clean, mission-infused writing from having read What is the What, a fictionalized biography of one of Sudan's lost boys.  A Hologram for the King (Vintage, 2012) is more straightforwardly novelistic, that is, it is not about anyone Eggers knew.  And yet.  And yet, it is a portrait of a man we all know, a man of our times.  Alan Clay is an IT salesman and a dreamer.  He is divorced, can no longer pay his mortgage or his daughter's college tuition.  He is trying to make one last sale to hold his work-driven life together.  So he comes to a poorly air conditioned, nearly empty tent in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert to make a business pitch to the King.  Only, neither he nor anyone else know when the king will arrive.  He makes the trip day after day, week after week, hoping for his chance to sell his wares  - a system which includes the ability to have business meetings via hologram - and put his life back together.  And succeed. 

Eggers places Alan thousands of miles from home, separated from his wife, unable to speak with his father on the phone for two minutes without a fight, composing countless openings to a letter to his daughter which end balled up in the waste bin.  He has a frightening growth on his neck.  His life consists of endless waiting, of receptionists who will not let him speak with another person. Eggers creates a sense of place that is barren.  Where most of the things that move and express are electronic.
A the end of the hall he spotted an elevator door closing.  He jogged to it and thrust his hand into the gap.  The doors jerked back, startled and apologetic.  
Here success means that Alan's will connect the king, if he ever comes, with another person who is not really there. 
Everywhere, relationships no longer mattered, Alan knew this.  They did not matter in American, they did not matter much of anywhere, but here, among the royals, he hoped that friendship had meaning.
A Hologram for the King is a man's journey to get back in touch.  To remember the value of other lives.  To move from asking people's name as a sales technique, to having some sort of authentic contact with other living persons, not figments in his head.  To have real encounters with real people, not build holograms for kings.  It is a keenly observed book, the voice reminding me more of Didion's essays than anything else - spare writing which looks, sees, and describes.  The book's effect opines, but Eggers's narrative doesn't preach.  Amidst his clean prose is a message of genuine warmth.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Doors slam on old identities on a Greek Isle (Books - Skios by Michael Frayn)

I have enjoyed Michael Frayn's plays and memoir, so I was excited to find his Skios on the table at my favorite bookstore.  It is billed as a farcical beach read, a satire of academia, with serious philosophical undercurrents and I thought it would be an enjoyable distraction.  In it, a famous academic is scheduled to deliver a lecture at a philanthropic institution on a Greek Isle while a wastrel with a shock of blond hair has a scheduled tryst elsewhere on the Isle. The two are mixed up, but as they take up residence in the others lives they are each changed, sort of.  Farce? Yes, complete with door slamming and cell phone mishaps.  Satire of academia?  Perhaps.  But its machinations with mistaken identities and the wish to crawl into someone else's life were superficial, hardly philosophical.  I could see every coincidence in Skios coming from nine miles away. But it's good for a laugh or two and there are one or two clever moments.  My favorite: the academic ends up involved with the woman who had expected to have a tryst with the layabout (who is now posing as an academic).  The woman has two moles, and as he reviews his lecture...
He turned over more pages, but his mind was wandering.  Two dark spots had appeared in the air between him and the page like importunate flies.  He brushed them aside.  He turned back to the section about the overall framework of social responsibility.  The two dark spots reappeared.  they were two moles, he realized.  They had become detached from the shoulder blade on which they lived, and taken up residence inside his brain.
Frayn plots cleverly and crafts clear and even elegant sentences, but, philosophical?  Not really