Friday, May 18, 2012

Two New Book Reviews

Hi, team; I'm back. Three weeks ago I got an accidental cat-bite on my right thumb (long story), which got infected, which made it swell up, so I haven't been able to type for awhile. Now that my sore thumb is no longer sticking out and I can type again, I have a couple of overdue book reports for you. Enjoy!

 Ping and the Snirkelly People, by Aya Katz

 This is Aya Katz's third children's book, and it's thicker, deeper and darker than the previous two. It's told from the point of view of Ping, a bright little 6-year-old Chinese girl, who's come to America with her parents, and is sent straight into a public school first-grade class -- with absolutely no advance warning -- to learn English. She's supposed to pick it up by "immersion" (much as the author herself did, at the same age), which roughly means learning how to swim by being tossed into the deep end of the pool. To Ping, all these other kids and teachers aren't really talking; they're making "snirkelly-snorkelly" noises. Nonetheless, Ping observes and learns, phrase by phrase, to understand. She's obviously a bright little thing.

Half the fascination of the book is watching first grade through an outsider's eyes; the other half is what Ping's observations reveal about herself and her family. We can chuckle at Ping's innocent arrogance: thinking the American kids are "messy" because they all wear different clothes, and have different colors of hair and eyes and skins, or that they're "stupid" because they have trouble learning an alphabet that has only 26 letters. It takes a bit of thought to remember that the Chinese language has a different letter for every word, while English contains close to a million words -- which explains why the Americans "have trouble understanding their own language". More is revealed about Ping's background culture when we see her scandalized by a first-grade teacher "crossing the line" to talk to a second-grader, and we can understand the teacher having a good laugh over it.

 More intriguing is what her experiences reveal about her parents, even though we never do find out why they're visiting America in the first place.
Her father, who regards anything done only for pleasure as "opium", reveals himself as a self-righteousness-blinded bigot when he insists that one of Ping's classmates must be poor -- despite what Ping herself can see about the girl's huge house, abundant clothes and food and toys -- because her family has five children. He reveals still more when Ping develops tonsillitis and her father refuses to give her the standard tonsils and adenoids operation -- "no sulgelly" -- thus condemning his daughter to a lifetime of colds and a reedy adenoidal voice. (If this is a common Asian prejudice, it explains the adenoidal voices so common among them.) His condemnation of anybody else's religion as "superstition" is only to be expected from a proper Chinese official who could be trusted to visit America for a year -- and then come back.

Ping's mother, on the other hand, reveals herself as a subtle sadist. She never misses a chance to remind Ping -- and everyone else -- that the family will be returning to China at the end of the year, even as she urges the little girl to make as many friends as she can and learn everything possible about American society. She also lets the little girl suffer agonies of guilt for having said the Pledge of Allegiance in school every morning. The only comfort she offers her daughter at the end of the school year is to tell her that it's good for some people to be happy in their ignorance.

Most intriguing of all, though, is something mentioned only in passing -- that this is all taking place during the Johnson administration, the year 1967. This was the height of support for the Vietnam War. Ping and her family come from undeniably Communist China, yet nobody -- not the teachers nor the other 1st-grade children -- ever make Ping suffer for it. One can only hope that when Ping grows older, and looks back on her year spent in America, she'll remember that.

 Altogether, this is a many-layered and very thought-provoking story for a children's book.

Vacuum County, by Aya Katz, Inverted-A Press

An old friend once said that in a small town democracy can be really immediate -- but then again, so can fascism. Vacuum county, Texas, and its county seat, Vaca City, is a near-surreal example of the fascist variety. In the entire story, it's hard to find a single admirable character.

 Possibly the heroine might qualify; she's an innocent young college student who's too naive to take her lawyer's hints and lie a little to save herself from a false charge of drunk-driving. Nobody else does: certainly not the county sheriff, who makes a habit of coming on to pretty women he meets, and then slapping false drunk-driving charges on those who turn him down. Likewise, not the county judge, who rubber-stamps the sheriff's accusations, even knowing about his little abuse-of-power sex game. Not the supposedly idealistic young lawyer, who's not competent to get an innocent girl off a false drunk-driving charge, and who cheats on his wife with two married women at the same time. Not the county's wealthiest rancher, or his mother -- a certified, and certifiable, witch -- whose social attitudes are beyond reactionary and clear into the medieval; they both regard anyone of lower social rank than a judge as "peasants" and "rabble". Not the dumb ranch-hand, who's too naive to realize that he was given his job on the ranch purely to get him out of town so that the town lawyer could safely bed his wife. Not the heroine's incredibly shallow parents, who are so pleased to see her attached-at-the-groin to a rich man that they don't care about her dropping out of college. Certainly not the federal tax-auditor, whose only thoughts concern assessing the value of other people's property and finding excuses to steal it. Among all these varying degrees of stupidity and evil, it's hard to find anyone to cheer for.

As we follow the heroine's progress, during the year that she's forced by her sentencing to stay in the county, we get to see patterns of good-ol'-boy corruption play themselves out. The wealthy rancher finds his wife in bed with the lawyer, shoots her, and isn't even charged. The young lawyer, wanting revenge, betrays an old political colleague so he can get a judgeship and thereby gain revenge on the rancher. A displaced bureaucrat kills the crooked sheriff by stabbing him with a shish-kebab skewer, and likewise isn't charged. The heroine, out of despair, becomes the wealthy rancher's mistress;   he moves her into his elaborate ranch-house, pays her nothing, and openly calls her his "slut". The rancher's witchy mother drives the old judge to suicide, but brings a dead baby back to life. The young lawyer, now judge, sics an even greater evil -- the tax-auditor -- on the rancher for revenge.

And then a miracle happens. Out of this stew of corruption there blossoms, like the lotus from the mud, one mass act of virtue. All the crooked folk in the entire crooked county rally around the rancher to keep the government from stealing his house and land: an action massive enough that the government is obliged to back off, and the rancher is stunned to realize that he's been rescued by "the rabble". Of course, once the action is over, everyone goes back to their habitual corruption -- though the heroine learns that her probation is over, and she's free to go back to college -- though they all retain the memory of how once, just once, they all rose to heroism.

Altogether, this is a marvelously surreal novel about vice, virtue, and the irrelevance of the law to either.


Julia Writer said...

Enjoyed reading your synopsis about Vacuum County!

Anonymous said...

The Chinese family next door to me had a little girl whom I met as a five-year-old who spoke no English and looked at me with big wondering eyes when I spoke to her in Mandarin. She's now All Grown Up and as fluent in English as I am.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Julia. Glad you liked.

Hi, Raven. How long has she lived in America by now? I've heard that speakers of oriental languages find English fairly easy to learn because the grammar, though bizarre, is pretty simple -- despite its numerous exceptions. I'd recommend a delightful book called, IIRC, "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue", which offers the intriguing theory that English grammar is weird because its structure is based on Gaelic. Definitely worth a look.

Anonymous said...

I met the girl in question back in the mid- to late '80s, and she's lived here ever since. And English grammar is much more complicated than Mandarin...and I do speak both.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Raven. Hmmm, is that because of all the exceptions to every rule? Or is it the rules themselves?

Anonymous said...

Mandarin lacks the declensions of Indo-European languages; while English has lost most of them, it has by no means lost them all. Of course, when you get into reading-and-writing, Mandarin is much more difficult, even without those [CENSORED] "simplified" characters the Communists introduced...I hate them because I have a hard time figuring out which "radical" they come under, and therefore can't look them up in my character dictionary.

Leslie Fish said...

Hmmm, declensions vs. "radicals"? I can see why it's hard to translate between them.

--Leslie <;)))><

Anonymous said...

Declensions are like: "I am, thou art, you are, he/she/it is, we are, you (plural) are, they are." Radicals are the components that are put together to create Chinese characters; some of them are characters in themselves.