Friday, September 23, 2011

Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas

Why China Will Never Rule The World: Travels in the Two Chinas
By Troy Parfitt

This is actually two books in one.

Good and bad.

At its best, Parfitt has written a readable, often witty account of his travels through China and Taiwan. His prose is decidedly readable and I found the book difficult to put down once I settled in. Each chapter catalogues a particular leg of the journey and provides fascinating historical subtext that fits the narrative. Some of the highlights include profiles of both Chiang Kai-Chek and Mao Zedong, a riveting account of cannibalism during the cultural revolution and the revolting account of Chen Chin-hsing, Taiwan's most notorious criminal. His travels include stops in Hong Kong, Macao, Lhasa, Shanghai, Harbin, Beijing, Chongqing, Kunming and Xiamen in china and virtually everywhere (except, mysteriously, Kaohsiung) in Taiwan over a span of a few years. The breadth of travel gives Parfitt a unique perspective on the wider Chinese world.

Parfitt pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to what he sees as the deficiencies inherent in Chinese culture. He refuses to accept the "you just don't understand the Chinese way of life" argument that gets bandied about by Sino-apologists (both Chinese and Western). He seems little interested in accepting Confucian ideals, communist rhetoric and the over-used "5000 years of tradition can't be wrong" argument. Instead, he attacks it head on and often comes to very erudite conclusions, many of which I have arrived as well (especially on the third of the book that pertains to Taiwan). I appreciate the no-holds-barred approach to writing and I got the feeling that if this book had been about 100 pages shorter, it would have been a really good book.

Unfortunately it's not....

Well, not entirely....

At its worst, Parfitt has written a nit-picky tract that seems to hold no real purpose beyond vilifying two nations of people. I felt like he could have written a similar book about Canadians or Finnish people or the Masai tribe. It's easy (if not cathartic) to be critical. If he had stuck to his larger, more sweeping conclusions and left his day-to-day irritants out it would have struck a grander chord. The ninth time he complains about being solicited for a massage in the middle of the night I just wanted to grab him and tell him to unplug his damned phone and quit complaining about non-issues. It lessened the impact of his valid conclusions.

Indeed, much of his writing comes across as an exhaustive rant against China (and sometimes Taiwan) which left a slightly foul taste in the my mouth. I understand that it is difficult to write a book such as this without falling foul of the politically correct crowd (of which I am not a member). But there are moments in this book where I found Parfitt flirting far too close to the line of what is acceptable to print and what should be better left unsaid. Parfitt is a classic example of an author lacking in subtlety. I realize that this book was aiming for the jugular, but there are a few instances that felt as if he was hitting below the belt.

Ofttimes, I found that Parfitt allowed his subject matter to get away from him and he allowed far too much emotion to seep into his narrative. As someone who, in a former life, worked in the publishing industry, I wonder about his editorial process. His editor was either unqualified or entirely unfamiliar with the subject matter. A good editor would have checked his emotional tirades and reigned in his rants (sorry if you read this Troy Parfitt's editor).

Overall, I recommend this book, but with a caveat. If you only plan to ever read one book about traveling through China and Taiwan, don't bother with this one. It's hardly objective. But if the subjects of China and Taiwan are of particular interest to you, it's worth the read. As an example of one man's journey through this part of the world and his frustration, it deserves a place among the growing bibliography of travel literature on the subject of the Chinese world.

In the beginning Parfitt implies that because he has no vested interest in China, his take on the subject would not be skewed by agenda. He's but a simple English teacher who lived and worked in Taipei who wanted to see for himself the rise of a global player. As a long-time resident of Taiwan I must challenge this notion. It is really difficult to live in Taiwan for an extended period of time (and be as well read as Parfitt seems to be) without having some preconceived notions about the Mainland. It's simply not possible.

In the end, I didn't expect any clear answer as to why China will never rule the world and I didn't get one. You won't get one either, but you'll probably enjoy a lot of the stories along the way. For anyone who has spent any time living inside the Chinese world, there will be much in this book to make you nod in agreement, and just as much that will make you furrow your brow in consternation.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Helmet For My Pillow

Helmet For My Pillow
By Robert Leckie

I'm going to cheat a little for this blog entry. My mother sent this book my way and left an interesting note inside the pages that seems to speak more about this book than any drivel I would have written. So instead of my usual bloviating, allow me to reprint my mother's note verbatim. It's way more interesting:

Fabulous book. I thought of (my) Dad and Uncle Bill throughout the entire read. Uncle Bill (Charles) died in 1975 in a road accident with his grandson. Uncle Bill married Aunt Lottie, a widow, and fell in love with her daughter (Irene P-----) and adopted her. You know Irene. Uncle Bill was fun loving and up for anything. I remember him as loving to play cards.

When the war started Dad got his mother to okay that he could join the Royal Navy (as the youngest son he needed his mother's okay). Uncle Bill and dad joined together and spent the war on all the same ships and subs.

Stories I remember:

Dad and Bill were invited to an elegant home in New York and both of them threw up all over the place as they were so drunk.

Bill finding Dad passed out drunk around a toilet in South Africa.

Bill and Dad on guard duty in San Francisco letting their shipmates back on board as they had left the ship unauthorized to party it up.

Bill so drunk on their return to the sub that he thought that the entrance to their sub was a pool and dove in. Dad says that was why he had a hearing problem.

This book was according to the stories I heard was as it really was.

Substitute the marines with the navy and I think Dad would have also agreed that it was a true account.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

Love, Mom.

P.S. Dad always said the best looking women in the world are from Malta. I always wondered about that.

Did you know I was named after a British nurse when Dad was in the hospital in Britain. Also, he refused to meet the Queen when she was touring that hospital during the war.

My grandfather, Harrison Pelley, died in 2002 when I was 28 years old. While he was always a little reluctant to talk about the war, especially with my grandmother around, you could always get a few great stories out of him when he was alone. One of my greatest regrets in life is not taking the time to listen to more of his stories.

I miss my grandfather very much, but just a little more while reading this book.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Captain Corelli's Mandolin

Captain Corelli's Mandolin
By Louis de Bernieres

Poor Captain Corelli never stood a chance.

As I've mentiond before, I'm a strict reader that adheres to a lot of self-imposed rules (My cousin, mentioned below, thinks this makes me strange). One of my self-imposed rules is that I finish everything I start, regardless of whether I enjoy it or not. The logic is that I gain from bad books as much as I do from good books, and it forces me to read outside my comfort zone. Also, laying into a bad book is so satisfying. Therefore, once I commit to a book, I'm locked in. Period. Paragraph.

When I picked up Captain Corelli's Mandolin, I was literally at my (reader's) wits end. I picked it off the shelf of my growing little community library (one of the biggest English libraries on the East Coast of Taiwan if I may pat myself on the back for a moment. Over 800 titles and growing!). I had zero interest in reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin when it was donated to the library last year and that interest had grown by a factor of zero. It just wasn't the sort of book that screamed: read me! But it was the best book available to me at that particular moment, so I locked in.

Almost as soon as I started the book a whole bunch of events conspired to ensure I would not give this book the chance it probably deserved. Here they are:

1. My cousin came to visit.

This is an awesome reason. Living 15,000km from my entire family means that when I get a visitor from home, it's a big deal. It happens less than once a year, but it's always a monumental event. My wife and I love visitors from home and we love playing tour guide for the area (Taiwan's east coast is spectacular and should be considered for your next vacation).

The visit has meant a lot of time driving, scootering, hiking, eating, talking, drinking and the such. Tons of fun for us, but less time for reading. Oh, sure, I'm fufilling my requisite 25 pages a day, but often not much more than just that. It's hard to really immerse yourself in a story when there is so much start and stop.

2. I'm knee deep in vinyl.

My cousin brought me a new needle for my turntable. This has been heavenly. My turntable has been out of service for over five years for various reasons but now it's turning and grooving and I have spent a lot of time rediscovering my vinyl collection (I am currently listening to Stereolab).

If there is one non-athletic pastime I enjoy more than reading, it's music. I started collecting vinyl records about 15 years ago and (like most audiophiles) prefer vinyl to CDs and MP3s. But moving to Taiwan put a temporary end to collecting as I did not have a turntable or records until my Mum shipped them all over earlier this year. It arrived fine, but the needle needed replacing. It has subsequently been replaced and it has been fantastic!

3. I got a whole lot of new books!

This is by far the best/worst thing to happen to me while reading something I would rather not read. When I got about 80 pages into Captain Corelli's Mandolin, I received three packages in the mail full of books from various awesome people. The first was a extraordinary birthday package full of books (and a George Foreman Grill... Thanks Mom!). The second came from a good friend on the other side of the island who was concerned about my recent lack of books (Thanks Tom!) and the third came from another fantastic friend on the other side of the island who has been kind enough to lend me some more books about Taiwan (Thanks Michael!). I also happen to know a fourth package is in transit from Canada (Thanks JP!). If anyone wants a book, let me know. I'll hook you up.

Within the space of 24 hours my reading shelf went from empty to full. New books staring at me and begging me to be read while I was mired in a book that never really found any rhythm for me given the relative chaos of the last week.

All of this was not fair on old Captain Corelli and his mandolin, which seemed like a good story that deserved a bit more attention than it got from me. I want to say it was the sort of book I couldn't put down, and I suspect that in any other instance it might have been. But circumstance conspired against Louis de Berniere this week and I'm left with very to say about a book and an author that should most definitely be given another chance.