American Tabloid


I’ve become a huge fan of Ellroy. There is something brutally poetic about his stuff, something that comes off as simultaneously stylish/fantastic and gritty/stark. American Taboloid, is really one of the more polished, more “fun” – if that’s a word that can be applied to Ellroy. Tabloid is almost more of a spy thriller or conspiracy thriller/alternative history, rather than the typic Ellroy fare of hardboiled/film noir set in 1950’s LA which at times borders on horror or a sort of science fiction.

It’s all about the Kennedy Assassination – its the story of the murky events leading up to the murder and it supplies a plausible alternative history as to why, who and how. Oozing with mafia dons, Teamster goons, CIA spooks, and loaded with “cameos” by ’60s celebrities – JFK and RFK are major characters – this a roller coaster ride that explores the murky line between crime and the law – it shows how easy it is to “cross-over”.

One of my favourite Ellroys yet.


Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi


This is a remarkable book – unique, actually. This is a “self-portrait” or autobiography of the K’ang-hsi or “Kangxi” Emperor, fourth Emperor or the Chinese Qing Dynasty – reigning 1661-1722, one of the longest reigns in Chinese history. What makes it unique is that this is taken entirely from the writings of the Emperor himself, distilled from private letters, imperial dispatches, reminisces, etc.

Now, when I read the back cover, I had my doubts as the idea of a western scholar translating this assorted writings, and then recombining them to form a book completely alien to both the original purpose of the writing, but also a form of literature that would be quite alien to Emperor K’ang-hsi as well. It was unlikely to be successful.

But I was wrong. This book is excellent and fascinating. It works almost completely perfectly; it feels natural, it feels right. Of course, I need to immediately qualify this with an observation that it’s almost impossible to know how far Spence had to go to make the whole thing work in terms of translation, editing and arraignment.

But qualifications aside, it’s both a portrait of man both wholly the Emperor, but also struggling to live up to what that means, and a portrait of early-modern China already being impacted by contact with Europeans.

This book is accessible, I should mention, no special history yen is needed. Enjoyable, interesting, unique.

Empire of the Sun


Growing up, my parents would often trick me into watching moves because they were “war” movies. Gone with the Wind? I watched it because I thought it was Civil War movie like Gettysburg or Glory. And so I wound up watching the movie Empire of the Sun, promised to be a war movie. Being too young to appreciate anything other than gunfire, explosions, and special effects of model battleships shooting around director’s bathtubs, I felt cheated.

I found a copy of this book in a awesome bookstore tucked into a corner of Chaing Mai, Thailand run by British ex-pats, and having just visited Shanghai, and looking for a book to read on the airplane, I thought I would forgive my childhood memories and give the book a try.

Set during the last day of normalcy in 1930’s Shanghai and then the rest of the war, it is the story of a young English lad surviving WWII in a Japanese interment camp. It is excellent – both poetic and concrete, mixing child psychology and fantasy with the grim realities of wartime. It’s war story, a coming-of-age story, and a survivor story that captures the deeper truths of wartime.

1930’s Shanghai – for quick reference consult the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – was a fascinating combination of international entrepôt, political flashpoint and cultural mixing zone that was highly unique. A product of European powers forcing territorial concessions of imperial China, Shanghai was a city run by Europeans in mainland China – and this book captures the last day of that era, December 7th, 1941. The next day, the Japanese invade and take over the city from the British.

The main character is the young child – maybe eight years old – of an English “mandarin” – an extremely wealthy and powerful official or businessman. He is “English” but has never been to England. When the Japanese invade Shanghai, his privileged world of private chauffeurs and garden parties disappears and he finds himself separated from his parents. With the English social order of shanghai destroyed, he finds himself isolated – neither really English or Chinese, he fins himself identifying with the Japanese and later, the Americans.

This sense of isolation drives the story – and the child’s survival. He survives, but also discovered himself and his adulthood.

Excellent writing. Excellent story and based on the author’s own experiences, which makes this book even more remarkable. Highly recommended.


The Pillars of the Earth


When I was a child, PBS was dominated Ken Follett and Pillars of the Earth – I recall an animated series or movie based on the book, but also constant chatter as well. Ostensibly about the development of Gothic cathedrals out of the Romanesque style, it had just the right mix of fact and dramatization (or to be more cynical, there was plenty of story with just enough intellectual stuff to make it seem smart). It spawned a host of imitators (there was one about castles, I remember specifically) and I would argue it directly led to the whole genre of historical fiction a la The Tudors, The Borgias, The Vikings, Rome, etc. I’ll even go so far to say as this book sets the ground work for the Game of Thrones phenomenon.

I was amused to find that this halo of intellectual achievement still hangs around this book – Oprah added it to her book club, and the book itself is published as if it is a treasured piece of history: note how the top of the picture above calls it “the classic masterpiece.” Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I even learned some things from it – but Pillars of the Earth is much more “fiction” than fact.

I was expecting a much more historical, architecture-focused work – I was even expecting diagrams – and I found myself reading sexy history with an interesting, almost awkwardly bolted on focus on medieval cathedral building. So you are reading along about the rape, the drama, the passion and then there will be a brief section where one of the main characters thinks about architecture for a little bit – and then the story moves right along.

Follett makes sure he covers all aspects of the medieval world, from pilgrimage to politics to eating habits – and I will say that he artfully, majestically, mixes real history with his fictional little village of Kingsbridge – and I think that’s the best, most satisfying part.