Town Boy

Author: Lat
Year: 1980
Genre: Memoir

In his native Malaysia, Lat is a phenomenon. A cartoonist since age 9, he's been enormously popular for the last thirty years, and was even commissioned to draw the artwork for AirAsia jets. Of course, he's practically unknown here in the United States, but First Second Press (publishers of American Born Chinese) are introducing him to American audiences by publishing two autobiographical volumes, Kampung Boy and Town Boy.

I haven't read the first volume, but that was no handicap at all. This book starts off when Lat's family moves from a village (or kampung) to the town of Ipoh, and follows the exploits of Lat and his friends through their first (age 10) and last (age 17) years of school together. They discover rock 'n' roll, cheat on the cross country race, perform in the marching band, and dream about pretty girls.

The striking thing about this kind of story is the mix of similarities and differences from what I would find familiar. While all the subplots could (and probably would) be found in an American memoir from the same generation, the setting shows some tremendous cultural differences. Malaysia is a very diverse country, and the English edition of the book includes some aspects of Malaysian English (notably the multi-purpose particle lah) as well as bits of dialogue in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, and what I believe is Tamil. Also, the schools are boys only, and the British-derived educational system makes some of the school scenes difficult to understand completely.

Despite the foreignness of the Malaysian setting, though, the overall feeling is of the warmth of friends and family. Lat has fond memories of childhood fun and mischief, an engaging storyteller's style, and a wicked caricaturist's sense of humor. I look forward to reading Volume 1.

The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006
Genre: Novel

Some years following an unnamed cataclysmic event, a father and son wander through the desolate wasteland that was once America. They hide from bandits and cannibals, living on hidden caches of canned goods and other forgotten products of the earlier world. It's pretty bleak.

I read the story as a thought-experiment in morality. The boy and his father constantly reassure themselves that they are "good guys," still "carrying the fire." If the earth can no longer support life, though, then everyone is doomed. What does it mean to be a "good guy" in such a world? When faced with a choice between hoarding a week's worth of food, or sharing with a stranger and running out in six days, what is the right thing to do?

Although he's grown up almost entirely in the post-cataclysmic world, the son has somehow acquired a very highly developed moral sense. Not only are murder and robbery out of the question, but even taking advantage of a windfall — for instance, the untouched survivalist bunker that they find by chance — must be explained and rationalized, its original owners supposed to be dead or otherwise past caring.

The father's morality, on the other hand, has shrunk around the figure of his son, who now takes up the entire universe. What helps the son to survive is good. While the son cares about "other people" in general, the father's concern is with this one specific other person (which may be McCarthy's comment on parenthood).

There's an arresting passage near the end where an old man steals the father and son's few belongings. The father tracks him down and takes everything from him: not just the food and blankets that were not his to begin with, but down to the clothes on his back. The father later says of it, "At least we didn't kill him," to which the son replies, "But we did kill him." This highlights the two characters' different worldviews: the son's feeling of responsibility to all humanity, the father's protectiveness of his remaining flesh and blood.

I initially considered the book's extreme setting to be a place where morality must be reconsidered. The world has basically ended; what consequences can our actions have? The more I read, though, the more I found McCarthy's post-cataclysmic morality to be just as applicable to the real world. After all, nuclear winter or not, all of us are going to die one day, and our every act of selflessness is simply a postponement of someone else's inevitable end.

So what does McCarthy leave us with? He considers different aspects of moral obligation, and vividly describes the horrors of a world where those obligations have not been fulfilled, but provides few clear answers in the end. The book's final image, of a stream with fish swimming in it, does remind us of the fragile beauties of our world, but The Road is not environmentalist polemic. Rather, this image signals the end of our journey into hell; we return, like Dante, "to see the stars again," but changed by the persistent memories of what we have witnessed.

Istanbul: Memories and the City

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Year: 2004
Genre: Memoir

Orhan Pamuk is a lifelong resident of Istanbul, and in this book he tells both the city's history and his own. It's a terribly difficult book for me to write about because there's a lot going on: he doesn't just write a history of Istanbul, but also a history of Istanbul writers and painters (both Turkish and Western), of himself as an Istanbullu, of himself as an Istanbul writer and painter, of certain buildings or classes of building or times of day that he finds evocative, of the different moods that these buildings and times of day evoke. There's a lengthy discussion of hüzün, which is a peculiar sort of Turkish melancholy that the residents of a city can feel collectively because of the knowledge that they have been the capital of three empires but are now marginalized and impoverished.

And, there are the times when Pamuk addresses himself directly to the audience and hints at his deeper purpose in telling the story. That purpose, as I understood it, is to describe the artistic lives of Orhan Pamuk and of Istanbul, but through tangential stories that show their richness as well as their deep interconnections.

Reading this book is like listening to the ramblings of your favorite uncle, if your favorite uncle were Turkish, and a Nobel-winning novelist.


Author: Atul Gawande
Year: 2007
Genre: Science / Current events

A doctor takes a long, hard look at the modern-day practice of medicine and catalogs its weaknesses. He asks a lot of embarrassing questions like "Why don't doctors wash their hands as much as they should?" and "How much money do doctors deserve to make?" and "Is it really worth the effort to eradicate polio?" Gawande is a very readable writer and clear thinker, and following the path of his researching and soul-searching can be educational.

I bought this as a father's day present for my dad, who is also a member of the medical profession. He found it notable that Gawande, a surgeon, would draw attention to his own weaknesses. In particular, Gawande tells the story of a patient who developed a post-operative infection, and admits the possibility that he himself is to blame for spreading it.

In the end of all his investigation, Gawande makes some pretty interesting points. I don't remember all of them (and can't check now, as I've given the book away!) but here's what I remember: don't be negative; take a critical look at what you're doing, in a way that's interesting to you. He intends his advice to be for doctors and other medical professionals, but I think they're more widely applicable, and I've been trying to apply them to my own profession of teaching.

Black Hole

Author: Charles Burns
Year: 2005
Genre: SF/Fantasy

In 1970s Seattle, a mysterious sexually transmitted plague turns teenagers into hideous monsters. Amid typical teenage dramas of love and independence, kids try to continue their normal lives despite the threat -- or fact -- of having caught "the bug."

This is obviously symbolic of something, but what? Does it represent the 1970s herpes outbreak and the AIDS epidemic to come? Does it mean that these former children have a hard time forming and recognizing their new adult identities? Is a loss of innocence signified by acquiring a tail or webbed fingers or a second mouth in your throat that talks when you're sleeping? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's just another impossible situation that young people can find themselves in when they've acquired access to the adult world but don't fully understand adult responsibility.

Burns's detailed, high-contrast black-and-white art provides a feeling of surreality to the whole story.

Mrs. Pollifax on Safari/on the China Station

Author: Dorothy Gilman
Year: 1977; 1980
Genre: Mystery

OK, it was the end of the school year and I needed some brain candy ... and you don't get much better than old Mrs. P. I once knew a fifth grade teacher who used these books to teach geography, and it's not hard to see why (although a lot of the political stuff is really dated now). But of course, I read them for good old-fashioned escapism.

Gilman's languages got better as the series progressed; the Chinese in China Station was correct as far as I could tell, and she made some attempt at reproducing African languages on Safari (I have no idea how faithfully). This is a long way from her Yugoslav characters calling Mrs. Pollifax Amerikanski in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. (It should be Amerikanka.)


Author: Andrew Clements
Year: 2004
Genre: YA fiction

This book isn't just a well-written story about a bright fifth-grader who learns to question authority. It's also a children's introduction to prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. Both linguistics and irreverence are dear to my heart, so of course I love this book. In fact, on rereading (and Meaghan didn't believe me when I told her this) the scene in the end, where an adult Nick goes back to meet his fifth grade teacher, actually made me tear up.

Y: The Last Man Vol. 8: Kimono Dragons

Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Year: 2007
Genre: Action-adventure

In this installment, the party arrives in Japan and splits up, with Yorick and 355 following Ampersand's trail to a Canadian pop star, and Dr. Mann and her new girlfriend looking for Dr. Mann's mother.

The writing is still really creative. One memorable bit was basically porn for girls: a handsome android who says "Tell me about your day" and "Would you like to hold me?"


Author: Neal Stephenson
Year: 2004
Genre: Historical fiction

Stephenson claims to be a science fiction writer, but I have to disagree. Like Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver is not science fiction so much as historical fiction about scientists. Maybe he calls it science fiction because his audience is the same; SF or no, Quicksilver can unquestionably be shelved under "zany fun for geeks."

What a tangle of subplots: there's the Puritan in Restoration England, the early history of the Royal Society, 17th-century financial intrigue a la A Conspiracy of Paper, Louis XIV court intrigue that's not too far removed from Mel Brooks, and two pirate stories. Half the fun is keeping all that in your head.

I'll see if I can still remember it when I get around to reading Book Two.