Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Wild Swans: Wildly Good

November 18, 2008

china1I have China on my mind.

Why? Well, for one, I’m traveling there tomorrow and just finished stuffing a suitcase full of everything I might need. Which, on a housekeeping note, I must tell you that while I am gone, there will be no WordHappy posts. Do not fear that I have abandoned ye faithful few. I shall return with all sorts of yummy things I got to read and hear and watch on the plane. Marathon Spongebob episodes on DVD, anyone?

The other reason I have China on my mind is because I recently finished an enormously good book chronicling three generations of women in China, beginning with the early twentieth century. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by Jung Chang, is a book that needed to be written, and could only have been done so by her. It is the story not only of her family, but through a century of Chinese history so epic that it boggles the mind that it could be contained in only one hundred years.

The story begins with Chang’s grandmother, who in 1924 becomes a concubine to a general in Peking, during a time when China is mostly unified from the Kuomintang under Chiang-Kai-Shek. Her daughter, Chang’s mother, comes of age as the Communist Party is rising in China, marries a Party official and becomes one herself. The reader watches as she, along with the rest of China, idealistically follows the teachings of Mao Zedong, only to be persecuted and detained during Mao’s campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries. Then finally there is Jung herself, who spends much of her childhood entrenched within the Cultural Revolution. It is she who sees China emerge as a global entity, meeting her first foreigners in 1975 and winning a scholarship to Britain in 1978.

Wild Swans is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking tale.

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Ridiculously Fun: The Ridiculous Race

July 29, 2008

There’s nothing like a loooong plane ride trapped in the middle seat between two sleeping seatmates to make you pray to the heavens that you have a good book to keep you occupied. Fortunately for me, I was reading The Ridiculous Race. Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran have written a travelogue that reads like the love child between Bill Bryson‘s work and the ouevre of Will Farrell.

[Random book-buying note: If you purchase this book, write down the name somewhere. I went to buy it at the nearest Barnes & Noble, armed with nothing but the memory of good reviews from Entertainment Weekly and People magazine. “It’s titled something like ‘The Amazing Race,’ except that it’s not that name, obviously,” I told the woman at the help desk, when I did not see it displayed in the new books display. She proceeded to type in “The Amazing Race” and unsurprisingly did not come up with the book.

“Try just typing ‘race’ in the Title filter,” I suggested. She gave me a withering look and told me that such a search would elicit about 1.75 million responses. “Even if you narrowed the search to the last two months?”

Ooooh. She hadn’t thought of that. She tried what I suggested and immediately the name of the book came up. Learn from my mistakes. Unless you want the Barnes & Noble lady to look at you like you too are a moron, remember the name of the book.]

The set-up is simple: Steve and Vali, in a drunken fit of brilliance, decided that they should race to see who could circumnavigate the globe first using any mode of transportation except airplanes. The fact that one of them brazenly cheats on this primary rule almost from the get-go detracts from none of the enjoyment of the book – it in fact makes it funnier. The boys (for it is not possible to write of them as anything but boys) have an impressive humor pedigree: Hely writes for the cartoon comedy American Dad! and Chandrasekaran writes for the oft-cartoonish My Name is Earl.

And the book is very, very funny. For example, Vali goes to see a show in Egypt whose headliner is the most famous belly dancer in Egypt. He writes:

Two cute Japanese girls on vacation sat nearby. I shifted the position of my chair to make sure they could see me.

VALI: WHAT I WAS AIMING FOR

I took a long drag off my cigarette before resting it on the edge of the ashtray. Then I swirled the cheapest scotch on the nightclub’s menu around in my tumbler before taking a contemplative sip. Ahh life, I thought.

“I notice you were sitting alone, writing in a notebook.” I looked up to find the cuter of the Japanese girls. She licked her lips and continued, “Do you have some sort of book deal?”

VALI: WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING

The Japanese girls giggled like Japanese girls in movies do as the Important Arab Guy, who by then had started drinking the most expensive scotch on the nightclub menu, charmingly teased them, then invited them to sit at his table.

I continued drinking alone.

There is also a scene with Steve in China that rivals anything the makers of South Park have ever come up with. I almost woke my seatmates up, I was laughing so hard.

But what takes the book to another level, and saves it from being a cute throwaway, is that often without your noticing it, the boys manage to have an insight about a place, or their experience, that is both grown-up and maybe even a little deep. Whether Vali is commenting on how his race has affected the race, or Steve is commenting on how the United States is like the prettiest girl in high school, you start thinking that there might have been something to this race other than an expensive prank, that maybe they have been changed. Then again, maybe not.

Aces: Carl Hiaasen’s The Downhill Lie

July 14, 2008

Carl Hiaasen is funnier than watching a herd of cows trying to sing “Feelings” a cappella.

I’ve been a huge fan of his novels for years, which manage to combine vivid description of the wilder parts of Florida (and by wild, I mean “natural,” as opposed to college girls on spring break) with world-weary heroes and absolutely loony, not-too-bright villains. For people who haven’t yet discovered Hiaasen, start with my personal favorites, Tourist Season (introducing one of my all-time favorite characters, Skink) and Skin Tight, which will have you looking at weed whackers in an entirely new light.

Still, Hiaasen’s most recent book is a memoir about his bipolar relationship with golf, entitled A Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport. Anyone who has ever taken up the game or been widowed by a significant other who has taken up the game is going to love this book because it’s all about golf and why we continue to play it even when we’re just not that good at it. But you don’t have to be all that conversant in the sport to enjoy the book. A Downhill Lie actually resonates with a lot of emotion, stemming around the relationship Hiaasen had with his father, the memories of his dad, and the relationship Hiaasen is now forging with his young son – and how golf acts as the fulcrum that supports these relationships.

Now, lest you think I’m going all Field of Dreams on you, let me remind you that Hiaasen is a funny funny man. He can out-simile the best of them, and does in this book:

My first major mistake was prematurely asking to join my father for nine holes, a brisk Sunday outing during which I unraveled like a crackhead at a Billy Graham crusade.

Hooking a new Pro VI [golf ball] into the drink is like totaling a Testarossa while pulling out of the sales lot. It makes you want to puke.

After finishing this read, no matter whether you’re a weekend golfer, gave up the sport, or have never wanted to hold a golf club in your life, you’ll come away with the same conclusion: you made the right decision.