The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body ProblemI feel almost embarrassed to have waited over six weeks to talk about this book, but, see, here’s the thing: this book is bonkers. And not just bonkers like I usually mean it, where it’s weird and strange and requires a lot of brain power to make it through, although all of those are certainly true. But bonkers like, there was so much going on and the narrative was so all over the place that my brain just went ahead and jettisoned all of my memories of it. I listened to it for 14 hours with my husband on our pilgrimage to Cleveland and honestly the thing I remember most clearly is the narrator saying “REEEEEHYYYYYYYDRAAAAATE” like some kind of health-conscious Dalek.

Obviously, there’s more. The book starts during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with the government decrying heretical things like physics. There’s a looooooong bit with a physicist being persecuted for SCIENCE and lots of boring talky talk, and I was like, “I swear to god this book is supposed to be about aliens. If I had data signal right now I’d double check that.”

Then there’s more stuff with the physicist’s daughter getting caught up in more anti-Chinese things and getting sent off to do, um, stuff, I have no memory of any of this, and then there’s a dude in the near-future-day taking pictures with weird ghostly time stamps that no one else can see or take a picture of and cue me being like YES ALIENS but no, no aliens yet, just super weird science and shadowy government organizations and a weird video game with dehydrating people and chaotic eras and winter is coming.

When we finally get to the aliens, this does not solve the problem of the book making only 5 percent sense. The aliens are weirdos, the people who like the aliens are weirdos, the people who hate the aliens are weirdos, there are two mysterious protons that have a backstory that is highly amusing if you are a complete nerd (our amusement level: fairly), and I still have no idea what any of that was about.

So, like, you know The Martian? You know how it’s got all that awesome science that is super cool because it’s explained in pirate ninjas and whatnot? Okay, take that, but instead of space engineering this has theoretical physics and instead of pirate ninjas this has no useful explanations whatsoever. And you can’t just kind of skim over the science parts, as you can with The Martian, because the whole dang book is science parts.

But the thing of it is, the author and narrator do a great job of telling this story. I may not remember the actual story, but I do remember that I had more than one book downloaded and ready to listen to and Scott and I chose to keep listening to this one. It’s weird and crazy and makes no sense when you’ve had six weeks to forget all of it, but in the moment it’s kind of awesome and fascinating, if you’re into that theoretical physics thing.

There’s two more books in this series, and the second one just came out, and it’s definitely going on my list of road-trip audiobooks because I need to know what’s up with these aliens but I will never find out if I don’t have Scott around to commiserate with when the book inevitably goes completely off the rails. I’ll try to remember that one better, but no guarantees!

Recommendation: For science nerds and wannabe science nerds ONLY. Do not attempt this book without at least a passing interest in theoretical physics.

Rating: 6/10

China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan

China Rich GirlfriendI read Crazy Rich Asians last year with my book club and it was a complete surprise “holy crap this is great” book. I had no idea I would love a book like that so much, but I did. Then the television show Jane the Virgin happened and I was like, no, no, I won’t like a show like that but of course I did because it’s the same level of crazy (and crazy rich) soap opera drama that permeates Kwan’s work. When Jane ended a few weeks ago I didn’t know what I’d do with myself — until China Rich Girlfriend showed up. Crazy adventures and misunderstandings for everyone!

Seriously, it’s so great, guys. China Rich Girlfriend picks up a while after Crazy Rich Asians left off, so there has been plenty of time for insanity of that book to percolate into even insaner insanity. Nick and Rachel, the engaged and then estranged couple from the first book, are back together and better than ever now that Nick’s not talking to his mom at all. Because that’s healthy. And going to go well. Let’s just say that Eleanor literally crashes her son’s wedding, but for a good reason — she’s found Rachel’s dad and she totally approves of him. But Rachel’s new family may not feel quite the same way about her.

Meanwhile Nick’s cousin Astrid, who had some serious marriage troubles due to her extreme wealth and her husband’s lack of it, is now dealing with a husband wealthy in his own right who suddenly doesn’t have time for anything that doesn’t make him look and feel richer than God. And former porn star Kitty Pong, who played a small role in the first book, shows up to flaunt her own ridiculous riches and make several enemies in the process, but with the help of a sort of personal life coach she’s hoping to turn her image around so that she can continue her flaunting in even better company.

So, yeah. AMAZING. Many of the characters from the first book make appearances of varying importance in this second book, but it doesn’t really matter who’s there because the main stories are all completely engrossing in their own right. Like, seriously, I was making excuses to invent time to read this book. It’s kind of absurd how Kwan can take a plot like “Will Rachel’s newfound family accept her?” or “Can Astrid make peace with her husband’s new life goals?” or, most ridiculously, “What the heck is up with Kitty’s husband?” (spoiler: omg the greatest thing ever) and make the answers something I must know immediately right now but okay, sure, you can go ahead and talk about drag racing and fashion, I can totally wait. I probably don’t even know what half the words in this book mean, between the fashion, interior design, and various Asian exclamations (okay, I know what those mean because there are footnotes [!!]), but I do not care.

If you haven’t read Crazy Rich Asians but you like or think you might like wacky rich-person soap operas, you should go read it, then read a bunch of other books, and then when you’re in need of absurdism come back to this one. You could maybe read China Rich Girlfriend first, but the beginning won’t make a lot of sense and also you would be missing out on all the wonder of the original novel. Regardless, whenever you get around to reading this novel, let me warn you that the ending will leave you dying for a third installment in this series, so have plenty of other books on hand to distract you from the fact that there isn’t one (yet???).

Recommendation: Why are you even still reading this blog, go obtain these books immediately!

Rating: 10/10

I Did Not Kill My Husband, by Liu Zhenyun

I Did Not Kill My HusbandGosh, what a strange little book. I picked this one out of the mountain of advance copies available to me due to its awesome title, the fact that it’s a book translated from the Chinese and I don’t read enough books written by non-Anglophone writers, and the fact that the description made it sound like it might be a little bit like Out.

It is not like Out. But it’s still pretty cool.

So the deal is, there’s a Chinese woman, Li Xuelian, who gets pregnant with a second child in a strict one-child area. But she’s got this great idea — she and her husband can get divorced, he’ll keep their kid, she’ll have the baby, and then they, two adults with just one kid each, can get married and have two kids! Genius! Except that after they go through the divorce, the husband gets remarried. Wah wah.

From the title, I was expecting that either Li would kill her husband and then deny it (as you do), or she would all but kill him and make his life terrible. The latter is what she tries to do, certainly, but what actually happens is that he goes on with his happy life and happy new wife, and Li becomes the tortured soul.

See, Li tries to undo that divorce of hers, but the judge and the court decide against her. She thinks this is ridiculous, so she goes to higher-ranking person after higher-ranking person in an attempt to get her way and leaves a trail of fired, demoted, and/or terrified government employees in her wake, but never gets the recourse she seeks. She eventually ends up sort of accidentally lodging a protest at a national event and ends up attempting to return every year for twenty years, though without any success.

The story is satirical in the style of Candide, where thing after thing keeps going wrong, though Li never thinks that any of it is for the best. As her fight progresses through the government, we meet some interesting political players and see Liu’s take on the ambitious go-getter, the no-nonsense planner, and the dude who just wants to get through the day, all of whom are shaking in their boots when Li comes around because they just can’t figure out what she wants. Of course, at some point all she probably wants is an apology, but by then it’s way too late for that.

There’s some other kind of joke in this book that I don’t quite get, which is that the characters often speak in idiom after idiom, repeating the same sentiments with different metaphors. I understand that that’s what they’re doing, but I’m not sure why or if it’s a joke on the characters or just fun wordplay or what. I will clearly have to study up on my Chinese satire.

Oh, and then the ending… this whole book is just trolling its reader, I think.

I’m really not sure what to make of this book, as I’ve never read anything quite like it before, but I’m pretty sure I enjoyed my time with it. It has definitely inspired me to seek out more Chinese literature, though maybe just some straightforward fiction next time? We shall see. Suggestions welcome!

Recommendation: For readers who don’t mind books that make almost no sense even in the end.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

It feels a little strange writing a “shorts” post about two entire books, but, I mean, I read them both over the course of about two hours. Graphic novels are weird like that. These two books are sold as a boxed set and are companions to each other rather than a series; one tells of the Boxer Rebellion from the Boxer side and one from the Christian side, with the main character in each also showing up in the other book. I definitely recommend reading them one after the other, and probably in the boxed set order.

BoxersThis book tells the story of Little Bao, a regular kid with bossy older brothers who gets caught up in the rebellion when the Christians/foreigners/Chinese leaders (it turns out the Boxer Rebellion is super complicated) come to destroy his town. The other fighting-age boys train with a travelling martial arts master, but said master sends Little Bao off to meet an even stronger master who helps Little Bao harness the power of the Chinese gods to fight the invaders. Eventually he and his band of warriors take to the countryside and, um, kill everyone who does not stand with them, which is super not cool.

SaintsMeanwhile, a girl who is given the after-after-afterthought name of “Four-Girl” and who is unsurprisingly ignored by most of her family discovers Christianity in a way that I will not spoil and devotes herself to the religion and the people who practice it. Where Little Bao has his Chinese gods, the renamed Vibiana gets to hang out with Joan of Arc, which is way cooler, and she turns to Joan for guidance throughout the story. She works to protect her fellow Christians from the roaming terrorists but of course that doesn’t work out as planned for either side. Saints contains a bit of a coda to Boxers that probably won’t have the same impact if the books are read in the opposite order, but you can let me know if I’m wrong!

Both books provide a fantastic overview of this whole Boxer Rebellion thing that I know so little about, what with my established antipathy toward all things history. My knowledge is a lot better now that I’ve read these books and done some cursory Internet searches, so three thumbs up for learning things! I love that Yang shows “both” sides of the story, Boxer and Christian, but also shows that each side has its own good and bad guys and that history and life are super complicated.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich AsiansI vaguely recall hearing about this book before my book club picked it, maybe just the title, but it was in no way on my giant list of books to read, like, ever.

Mistake! Huge mistake! Don’t make the same one!

I’ll admit that when I opened the book and there was a family tree staring at me, with footnotes, I was like, what is this I can’t even. I scanned over the tree and didn’t understand a bit of it and never went back. I have a decent head for family relations, so I never needed it to figure out who was who or anything like that, but I kind of wish I had gone back to see what those footnotes were all about.

The book itself starts out in the past, with a brief story wherein several of the family tree people attempt to check into a hotel in London. They are disheveled from walking rather than taking a taxi, so the manager is like, sopping wet Chinese people? Yeah, I don’t see a reservation here, sorry. Unfortunately for him, a quick phone call secures the sale of the hotel to one of those family members, and he is promptly fired. Oops.

In the present, this giant extended family is still “richer than God” and living all over the world, but everyone’s coming back to the family manse in Singapore for a family friend’s 888-guest wedding. One of everyone is a fellow called Nick Young, who has been living in New York City and working as an academic, having lots of money but spending it quite wisely. He’s got a nice ABC girlfriend called Rachel, also an academic, and he convinces her to take her summer off and travel around Asia with him, you know, meet the family and stuff. It’s that latter part that causes all the problems.

Nick and Rachel are the main story, but the narrative trades off between them and several other family members, showing how each of them has chosen to use their wealth and family prestige. There’s Astrid, who buys million-dollar dresses and tells her frugal husband that she’s splurged and spent thousands on them, and who soon finds out that said husband is maybe not as committed to their relationship as she is. There’s Eddie, who dresses his tiny children in bespoke suits and rues the fact that his friend has a 2000-square-foot closet (that’s three times the size of my apartment!) and he doesn’t. But most importantly, there’s Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, who understands the significance of bringing a girl home to meet your family better than Nick does and who has hired a private investigator to find out just what secrets Rachel is hiding that will keep Nick from wanting to marry her.

It’s all absolutely fascinating. Kwan does a great job of making all of his crazy rich Asians at least subtly different, with some of them conspicuously consuming everything and some of them spending no more than they absolutely have to and some right in between, and all of them have opinions about how everyone else is spending their money and really, the money part of the story could take place with middle-class Americans arguing about buying hundred-dollar dresses or whatever but it’s way more awesome to be arguing about private jets and molecular gastronomy. Right? And it’s also fascinating to look at the “Asians” part of the title and see how much difference there is between being Mainland Chinese and Singaporean and Taiwanese and Hong Kongese, at least in the eyes of fabulously wealthy old-money Singaporeans.

Most of the book is wonderfully ridiculous, with metaphorical catfights and literal dogfights and crazy rich Asians doing crazy rich Asian things with great gusto, but it kind of jumps the tracks at the end with the reveal of Rachel’s secrets and the sudden seriousness with which the book starts taking itself. But once you get past all that weird stuff, the ending is actually pretty well done and mostly unexpected by me, so we’ll just ignore that whole storyline and call it a win. Yay wins!

Recommendation: For fans of over-the-top wealthy people and their foibles.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?