Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

I spent a lot of time on this book.  I got it from the library the same time I got the last book I read, Crumbtown, and ended up having to renew it and then three weeks later cram in the last 150 pages to avoid a late fee.  That last day was quite nice, though.  I ought to spend five or six hour chunks reading more often.  Good for the mind, good for the soul.

This is a roundabout, meandering way of explaning that this book is BIG.  In many ways.  Big in ambition, big in scope, big in number of pages; it comes with a substantial heft and would make a satisfactory projectile.  It aims to cover the lives of around a dozen characters while accurately representing a historical period little known by its audience all while keeping the reader engaged.  Does it succeed at all this?  Commence the review.

Summarizing the plot is a challenge because there is so much going on.  At its heart this is the tale of a trade dispute.  It takes place in 1838 Canton (now Ghangzou), the heart of the opium trade.  After years of unbalanced trade and societal issues the Chinese Emperor is trying to end once and for all the illegal opium trade in China.  The British and Indian merchants who benefit from the trade fight against this and a war of words and politics ensue.  Which sounds terribly boring but it's such a small portion of what is actually happening in the book.  Really we are intimately following the lives of the myriad foreigners living in Canton.  Some of them are merchants, yes, but most are artists and botanists and chefs and laborers, each on his or her own quest to take what China will give.

Each character is distinct in motivation and voice.  Part of this is because Ghosh pays particular attention to language.  Whenever possible he incorporates actual instances of Chinese or Bengali or the pidgin language that merchants developed for transactions between speakers of different languages.  This is offered with as translation as possible; the reader is expected to rely on context clues to decipher what is being said.  But even beyond which language is used, the way that it's being used differentiates each character.  You could go through each section having blacked out all the names and still know who is speaking.  It makes the balancing act of following a whole slew of characters much easier.

Reading this book I felt like I was a welcome intruder in a fully-formed and self-sustaining world, just watching people go about their business.  Ghosh gives unbelievably explicit detail about the smallest thing.  A character walks on a ship and we hear endless descriptions about the ship's floorboards and woodwork.  There's ship that is used specifically for transporting new plants from China to England and in one of the most fascinating passages of the book Ghosh devotes a few pages to the crew's practice of composting everything they eat at Sea.  I can't even fathom the amount of research that went into this book, but it pays off.  Everything is so clear; you form a picture in your mind and it stays with you.

And this is the beauty of the reading experience.  As a reader you just drift through this world, from character to character, concern to concern.  I don't want to call it directionless because that sounds negative.  Maybe free-flowing.  When I was getting close to the day I had to return it to the library but only found myself halfway through I didn't fret at all.  I figured I'd just inhabit this world as long as I could and then just move somewhere else.  I was actually a little disappointed when, about two thirds of the way in, the plot took off.  I understand the story has to go somewhere but I never wanted it to.  Still I was so enthralled I powered through to the end and I have no regrets.

I discussed this with a friend who read Ghosh's last book and hated it, seemingly for the same reason for I loved it.  I can understand, too.  This is a certain type of book for a certain type of person.  Maybe you don't want to hear about what different types of boats look like.  Maybe when language is given in the pidgin language with minimal translation you can frustrated.  If you are the type of person that needs to understand exactly what is happening in a book then this is the sort of book you'll have to read sitting by your computer, tuned in to a dictionary and Wikipedia at the same time.  But if you're looking for an atmosphere to float through and observe, pick this up and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The State of American Discourse, pt 1: Mitt Romney's Taxes

I'm not ashamed to admit that I love politics.  By this I mean actual politics (people sharing and debating ideas to determine which course of action best solves society's problems) not what passes for politics today (a bunch of people trying to yell louder than one another).  For this reason I, like many of you, am very disillusioned by the way politics is handled today, both in the media and by the politicians themselves.  But not disillusioned enough to turn away.  I have a curious fascination with it all.  In the same way that film buffs sometimes love bad movies most of all, I am obsessed with bad politics and bad journalism.  So I've decided to make a segment to discuss the many, MANY, MANY times that people remove political discourse from the realm of the useful and transplant it into the world of Shit That Does Not Matter At All, distracting you from what we should be discussing.  So, without further ado...

The Republican primary race.  Mitt Romney is in the lead, as he should be.  Being the most centrist candidate and therefore the most likely to attract independent voters, anyone with the most basic understanding of presidential politics can see why he would emerge as the front runner.  Anyone except Newt Gingrinch, who himself wants to be the front runner.  Unfortunately his stance on the issues and his winning personality have only brought him to third place and he needs an extra push forward to get to the lead.  Or instead of pushing to the lead he could just cut down everyone in front of him.  Let's go with that one.

So his plan has been to pressure Romney into releasing his income tax returns, saying that it's important for voters to not have to face any surprise revelations later in the year.  I love this tactic for its ridiculousness.  Firstly, Romney is a career politician.  He's held multiple elected positions over a long period of time; anything hiding in his tax returns would have come out by now.  Secondly, since when did the party of no taxes start judging a candidate's character off of what he pays in income taxes?  Best of all is just the process of watching a bunch of millionaires who spend most of their time defending millionaires suddenly spar over who is the biggest, elitist and therefore worst millionaire.

Mitt Romney will make his taxes public if he gets the nomination.  He has to; it's the law.  I can understand if Newt doesn't like this process, but it is the way it was before he started running for president.  He wasn't asking anyone to release their tax returns back in Iowa.  Why does he bring it up only when he's finding himself looking up the totem pole with precious little time?  The American primary system is unique.  It's downright bizarre.  But no one was complaining about that during the few months every four years when candidates pretend they care about Iowa.  No one complains as we dart from the Midwest to New England to the South weeding out potential candidates while a state like Hawaii, who is already basically left out of the presidential election by virtue of their late time zone, has no chance of impacting the race considering how late their primary is.

Newt Gingrich is painting this as a matter of integrity.  If Mitt Romney was only more honest, he'd tell us how much money he makes.  Yet Romney is the one behaving with dignity.  He committed to the electoral system we have, with its strengths and weaknesses, and is following its flawed rules.  He could even quell this whole thing by releasing his taxes, where he surely has nothing to hide, but that would be giving in to a bully.  Whereas Newt had no problem with a primary system that favors the voice of some Americans over others until he found a rule that makes it personally harder for him to become president.  Then it's an injustice.  Where's the integrity in that?