Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The King's Last Song, by Geoff Ryman

I just finished The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman, which I read while in the throes of a head-poundingly miserable virus. This left me in awe not only of Ryman's breathtaking talent but my own ability, even when reading about centuries of war and almost unimaginable human suffering, to maintain a really impressive level of self-pity. I mean, sure, millions of Cambodian people lack the basic necessities of life and have lost family members and the situation is horrifying, but I feel like I have spikes being driven into my ears, I've pulled every muscle in my torso coughing, and I am a dictionary, nay, a veritable encyclopedia of snot. It's all about my pain, people.

I've only ever written (e-mailed) three fan letters, and they've all been to fantasy writers. My husband says he always wants to meet people he admires, because he has this fantasy that he'll be able to come up with something witty and brilliant to say that will impress them and make him memorable. The only time I've ever handed an author I loved a book to be autographed, I just stood there beaming like a slightly backward three-year-old after one too many trips to the sundae bar until she cleared her throat politely and said "um... what's your name?"

Anyway, one of my fan letters was to Geoff Ryman for his book The Child Garden, which was amazing -- one of the few books that made me feel like I'd truly never read anything like this before. He wrote back and was very gracious (all three of them were). Unfortunately (for me) I didn't love his next few books as much. Still, one of the things I admired about him was how he could differ in style and approach so much from book to book -- he's the furthest thing you can find from a formulaic writer. The Child Garden was fantasy -- subversive and thought-provoking fantasy, dealing with themes of social engineering, thought control and repression, among others. The King's Last Song moves between fiction and historical fiction. The modern narrative deals with the archaeological discovery of an ancient book written on gold leaves at Angkor Wat. Luc Andrade, a professor who grew up in Cambodia, is kidnapped along with the book. William, Andrade's motoboy, guide and friend, and Map, an ex-Khmer Rouge member, are two of the men involved in the attempt to rescue Andrade and the book. The other narrative is the story of Jayavarman VII, the Buddhist King who ruled Cambodia in the twelfth century.

Usually when a book alternates narratives, especially one in the present with one in the distant past, I find myself rushing through one of them in order to get back to the other. I didn't feel that way in the least with this book -- both stories are equally riveting, and wrenching. Perhaps Ryman's greatest strength is his characterization. His characters are so fully realized, so nuanced and multi-dimensional, that you can almost see them right in front of you. There are no types here -- good people commit unthinkable atrocities, and evil men are capable of amazing feats of generosity. Ryman also evokes Cambodia vividly, its heat and beauty and poverty and desperation.

I've heard that connecting something you're learning with a strong emotion makes it much more likely that you'll retain it. I feel as if the events and characters in this book are burned into my mind permanently. Luc Andrade, the French professor who grew up in Cambodia -- he's taken prisoner, held hostage and in fear for his life, and he still cares more about the people of Cambodia and protecting the book than he does about himself. William, the touchingly earnest motoboy who keeps files on everyone he meets in order to learn from them, who "buys fruit and offers you some, relying on your goodness to pay him back. When you do, he looks not only pleased, but justified." Map, who confronts every situation with a frightening zeal and hilarity, who acts with the single-minded fearlessness of someone who has nothing at all left to lose. Jayavarman, the prince who becomes a slave and then a King, a rare King who thinks about the lives and needs of all of his people. Jayarajadevi, his first wife, wise and enlightened but tormented by the need to accept the second wife he brings home from his period of enslavement. Rajapati, the king's son, born with twisted legs and struggling to temper his bitterness by finding a way to be useful.
Nothing happens the way you expect it to in this book, which I guess is also one of the themes. At one point it says that 1985 was the worst year of Map's life, and then a number of good things happen, which naturally you read with a sick feeling of foreboding because clearly something horrifying is coming. The Khmers Rouges committed unthinkable atrocities, and yet many of them were just poor, uneducated young boys who joined the army out of desperation or ignorance. The book is full of searing moments of honesty and unlikely friendships that make small redemptions seem possible, in the midst of despair, which seems the very best one can hope for (for which one can hope?) It is a passionate, eloquent, moving, disturbing story. I am now going to buy a copy (I got it from the library) and obnoxiously demand that everyone I know read it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

But who will take care of us when Daddy's in the hoosegow?

So my husband brought me this form that I have to sign in order to register Eve for hockey. Yes, the man I married has decreed that the child who ranks skating as an activity slightly less enjoyable than bleeding from the eyes, will be playing hockey in the fall.

The first item in a list of parental good conduct rules states "I will not force my child to participate in hockey".


Obviously I thought he was asking me to sign it because he couldn't. But there was his signature, in all its treacherous glory.

There you have it. My spouse, he of the flaming trousers of the Liar Liar variety, has committed fraud on official paperwork.

Is that the pounding of truncheons on the door?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't bother reading this.

I have low self-esteem. There's no really good reason for it. I had great parents and a perfectly fine childhood (apart from the low self-esteem thing). Nothing deep and dark and traumatic has happened to me. I haven't spent years with anybody telling me I'm ugly and worthless and unlovable (nobody apart from me, anyway). So I have no good excuse for my low self-esteem, which naturally only makes me feel worse about it.
One of the blessings of getting older is that I understand more about myself. One of the frustrations of getting older is that I understand many things about myself without seeming to be able to actually change them a whole lot. Intellectually I know that I'm intelligent and friendly and average-looking. I know that when I go out in public and I feel so ugly that I have trouble meeting anyone's eyes, that's my own personal weirdness, not objective reality.
It took me years to start blogging, even when I knew I would really like it, because I couldn't believe that my opinion was worth anything. Then I decided not to care. Low self-esteem is not attractive. At the Oscars, Katherine Heigl came out to present an award, looking ludicrously beautiful, but the first thing she said was "Forgive me, I'm unbelievably nervous. I'm not very good at this". Did I feel sympathy? Empathy? I did not. I thought, "oh honey, you're a movie star, you're hot, you're at the Oscars, no one wants to hear about your issues." Even though I'm the opposite of a movie star (today I found a plastic grocery bag tied up on the stairs and when i opened it there was a pair of boys' sports socks that smelled like shit. I thought about investigating, but I decided to just throw them out and never speak of it again. Except for now), I figure the same is probably true with me. So I'm trying to show improvement in that area.
I belong to an on-line dvd service, from which I keep telling myself I'm going to unsubscribe, because it's really not worth the money, but I can't quite do it because they send me movies! in the mail! It's like Christmas every time I get one. And it means I get cool obscure foreign films and cheesy horror movies that I would be too embarrassed to rent from the video store, plus it all happens without my having to talk to anyone! I also joined one of those websites that lets you list and rate all the books you've read, simply because the other day my kids started out by asking me when I started liking reading so much and ended up by saying "you must have read a thousand books!" and I got curious about how many books I actually have read. Finding this website was a very bad thing of course, because it's scary addictive, and I end up sitting there for hours thinking "oh, and what was that one by the Swedish guy, with the outhouse thing and the... oh, something about a girl. I'll just type in 'girl' and see how many titles they come up with. Twenty five thousand and seventy-eight? No problem, I have some time before I have to start dinner."

Anyway, both of these websites have the five-star system for rating movies and books. I would sit there agonizing over how to rate them -- well, the plot was good but the characterization was a little weak. The writing was spectacular, hated the ending. It was entertaining, but was it a really valuable addition to the canon? Then, totally by accident, while I was scrolling over the stars, I saw that each star is tagged with a phrase. Something like: one star = I didn't like it, two stars = it was okay, three stars = I liked it, four stars = I really liked it, five stars = it was amazing. And I had a tiny epiphany; it's not about how objectively good the movie or book is. It's about how much I liked it. It's about how it moved me, or not. My taste is eclectic and quirky, and people looking for recommendations might as well know that. And now I'm giddy with power, throwing around four or five star ratings with gay abandon, because screw you if you think the coincidences were unbelievable or that Mormons don't really behave that way or you didn't like the leading lady's nose -- this is my list. And my opinion is just as good as anyone else's. (And better than some -- four stars for Maeve Binchy? puh-lease!)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Everyone has their game, right?

Angus and Eve just got home from baseball sort-outs. They don't have to try out, because everyone who wants to play gets to play, but they put them through some throwing and hitting trials just to make sure the teams are 'balanced'. As you may remember, Matt decided Eve should take skating lessons this winter, which was a constant source of grief and vituperation. Being the well-organized family we are, we didn't actually realize the last skating lesson was the last skating lesson until it was over. When we told her there was no more skating this year there was much rejoicing. Then Matt told her next year she'd be... playing hockey. She said "that sort of spoils my perfection". Then she said "how can I play hockey? I'm the slowest skater in the whole place! Even the kids who fall down pass me!" This is because the kids who fall down, fall down because they lift up their feet and glide, rather than taking a thousand precise, miniscule steps that mean you probably won't fall, but make crossing the rink an hour-long enterprise.
So she got home from baseball and I asked her how it went and she said....

"I smoked it like a big bowl of fire."
Go Baby go.