Aramink

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Tag: books

Après la Chirurgie

Did you hear? I had a softball-sized tumor removed from my neck three weeks ago.

I noticed it about a year ago and shrugged it off, thinking it was a little lipoma that wasn’t any big deal. Then I began having trouble turning my head. The lump was getting bigger – about the size of a golf ball – and I couldn’t comfortably wear turtlenecks or even mock neck shirts. I named my lump Esmeralda and patiently waited for her to gain sentience.

When Esmeralda started aching, I decided to go to the doctor. I hate going to the doctor, especially if I think I’m going to get bad news. I’ve had cancer twice, so having a tumor made me think that number three was here. If I pretended it didn’t exist, it would go away.  I’m a very bright girl in these matters. I knew exactly what I was doing when I ignored the wretched thing for so long. Really.

My doctor looked at it and said that there was no question that it needed to come out. Clearly, it was causing me trouble. Even if it was probably just a lipoma and not something devastating, it was in a bad place. And, he said, even for a lipoma it was, well, kind of big. There was definitely an asymmetry to my non-gazelle-like neck. A bump about the size of half a golf ball hung off the side it.

I knew all this before he told me. I knew he’d have to refer me to a surgeon. That’s why I was there, right? So, deep breath, I got the referral and made the appointment and went the next week to see when I could divorce myself from dear Esmeralda, who I was beginning to think of as my dicephalic parapagus conjoined twin.

He sent me to an otolaryngology clinic. Otolaryngologists  cut on people’s necks when the spine isn’t involved. I was glad my spine wasn’t involved, although I did wonder if that was because I simply didn’t have one. What kind of person, being possessed of a spine, was afraid of what was probably just a harmless little lipoma?

At the otolaryngology clinic, I got a CT scan of my neck. Back in the examination room, the surgeon pulled up the scan on the computer screen. “Wow, it’s really big!” he exclaimed. He showed me what to look at. The difference in the two sides of my neck was obvious. One side of the screen looked like what you’d think a neck should look like on a CT scan. By that I mean it had not much flesh and a big amount of bone. At least, that one side did. The other side? Well, it was different. Waaaay different.

lipoma-scan
There was a vast blackness that took up a lot of space on the right half of my neck. It looked as though Darth Vader himself had taken up residence there and his helmet was pushing things around.

The doctor pointed out how my muscle was stretched over this dark growth, how my nerves and blood vessels were pushed out of place, and how much space the thing took up.

“It’s sooo biiiig,” he said again. And again. And yet another time, just in case I hadn’t heard him before. That’s right.  Only I could have a freakishly large tumor in a place with as little flesh as my neck and not notice it for years on end. Evidently, I can’t see a damn thing with my eyes full of sand.

Lipomas usually grow just right under the skin and are fairly simple to remove. Unless they become bothersome, it’s not necessary to remove them at all. Mine was different. It was under the muscle, which, the doctor graciously postulated, was probably the reason I had never realized it had been growing there for so long. It was also pressing on important nerves and blood vessels. There just isn’t a lot of room in a neck, and there’s a lot of important stuff there. Like, say, the carotid artery, which feeds blood to the brain. Which my lipoma had shoved out of place. In fact, it had shoved things so far out of place that I was in danger of soon looking like the Elephant Man.

Surgery wasn’t just an option; it was necessary due to both the size and the location. If Esmeralda really did get large enough to become sentient, state law would forbid me from removing her. I mean, I could already forget about using federal funds. Her presence could no longer be disguised with loose clothing or makeup. I had to act, and act quickly.

The problem was, the size and location of the tumor meant that a different doctor needed to do the surgery. Someone who specialized in cancers of the head and neck.  Swell. The”C” word again. Fortunately, I liked the new surgeon. I liked the old one, too, but the new one was quick-witted, funny, and personable. And probably married. (sigh)

My family rallied around me. My sister went with me to the pre-surgery appointment. My mom took me to her house after the surgery so I could be pampered. Jack came to see me that night.  I felt pretty raw, and my throat, complete with a drainage tube, wasn’t pretty either.

scar

Wanna see?

Three weeks later, I’m still a little tired, but I’m fine. Some mornings it’s harder to shake off the latent effects of the anesthesia than others. Of course, staying up until 1 a.m. to finish a novel I can’t put down sort of contributes to the problem, but I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. (The books are really good. Brent Weeks is a new, young author and he has time to grow. I can’t wait for his next offering.)

night-angel-trilogy

My son, Jack, has demanded credit for cajoling me into reading this series.  Here you go, son.

I have an awe-inspiring scar on my throat. I can come up with plenty of tales to explain its presence.

I’ve told the story of Jack the Ripper to my wide-eyed nieces and youngest nephew (they’re 11, 8, and 6). I have the scar to prove that I narrowly escaped him.

Next, I plan to work up a tale of the Bride of Frankenstein for their entertainment. I’ve already got the white hair at the temples going on, so between that and the scar, I’m not going to have to spend a lot on costuming.

bride-of-frankenstein

The surgeon said that the tumor had to have been there for a very, very long time to be as large as it was. How the hell does a softball manage to hide in a neck for years and only show up as a golf-ball sized bulge?

The size of the thing was apparently really impressive. Every time I call his office his nurse exclaims, “Oh, you’re the one with that really huge lipoma!” Every time. Every stinkin’ time. I’m beginning to wonder if I ought not to have saved the damn thing and taken it on the road. I could have made a living in the sideshow as the girl with the softball in her neck.

Maybe I should have had the thing cut in two and used it for a boob job. Next time, if there is a next time, I’m going to think that through carefully.

Books and Movies

Last night Jack flipped me his copy of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. “Your Rule, Mom,” he reminded me. “You can’t see the movie until you’ve read the book.”

“It’s a good Rule,” I said defensively. “And I’ve been meaning to read it anyway. You took it from my pile of books, remember?”

My Rule about reading the book before seeing the movie applies to all three boys. (All three? Yes, all three. It applies to my sister’s sons, too. Andrew is four months older than Jack and Austin is two and a half years younger. We call them the “cousin-brothers” because they spend so much time together. Hey, we’re in Arkansas. My sister and I co-parent well.)

The Rule came about because my sister and I knew that if they didn’t read the book first and they saw the movie, they’d never bother with the book because they’d think they knew the story. I bet I can get a few confessions from my friends – perhaps one or two of you saw movies when you were supposed to read a book for school assignments.(To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe? A good movie, yes, but a much better book. Since it’s the only book Harper Lee ever wrote, I think we owe the author the courtesy of reading it. Go ye forth and buy it now, Wench commands thee!)

You see, there’s a sneaky thing Hollywood does. It doesn’t make movies of books. It makes movies based on books. There is a huge difference.

The fact was never presented more clearly to the boys than when the first Harry Potter movie came out. Despite J.K. Rowling’s close supervision of the project and her input, the movie just wasn’t like the book.

“Neville didn’t have much of a part at all,” complained Andrew, the older cousin.

“Hagrid keep changing size,” said Jack, unimpressed by the special effects.

“They found the keys too easily,” Andrew groused.

“That chess game was lame,” agreed Jack.

“I liked it,” offered Austin. He was too young to have read any of the books by the time the first movie came out, so he had no problem with it whatsoever.

My sister and I had taken them to the movie together. We both laughed. “See? This is why we say always to read the book. The book is always better than the movie.”

“But why is that?” The kids were really disappointed.They had read this wonderful book and the three that came after, and were absolutely riveted by the story and the characters. The books had already told them what Harry, Hogwarts, and Diagon Alley looked like.

“Why is that? Because your imaginations are much better than anything a movie can show you,” we answered. “Even the best movie-maker is limited by what he can do with the actors and special effects. Your imagination has no limits at all. Anything can happen when you read.”

When Holes was made into a movie, the same sorts of criticisms occurred. Both older boys had read the book and really enjoyed it. Once again, the movie was a disappointment.

“The lake wasn’t as big as it should have been.”

“The casting was terrible.” (They were a little older and more discerning about such things.)

“The vermin in the pits weren’t as scary as they were supposed to be.”

“The climb up the mountain didn’t have the same significance.”

“I liked it.” Austin, again, wasn’t old enough to have read the book.

When I told Jack that movies were going to be made based on the His Dark Materials trilogy, Jack sighed. “It’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I guess we’ll have to read it.”

“Why haven’t you read it before now?” I asked. I had given him the trilogy for some past Christmas after reading a rave review.

“I tried once. I just couldn’t get into the first book. I put it down and haven’t tried again.”

I do that, too, I must admit. Sometimes I pick up a book and it’s just not the story or the style I’m in the mood for at the time. I put it down meaning to get back to it eventually, but it collects dust for a long time waiting for me to approach it again.

When he returned The Golden Compass to me last night, I asked Jack how he liked it.

“It was good,” he answered. “It’s sort of an anti-Narnia. But it did take me some time to get into it. It was slow at first.”

“Do you think the movie will be good?”

“Sure,” he answered.

“Even though all books are better than the movies made based on them?” I grinned, feeling a little smug and superior, pleased at the chance to drive home my point that books beat celluloid hands down.

“That’s not always true,” Jack said.

“Give me one example of one movie that was better than the book!” I demanded in surprise.

“Starship Troopers.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. The movie was better than a book by Robert Heinlein?”

“It was, Mom. I mean, I just don’t like the way Heinlein writes.”

I gaped. Who was this child, this alien being, this life-form from some other planet? He doesn’t like the way Heinlein writes? This… this…. creature… standing in front of me couldn’t be something composed of my DNA.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I managed to gasp.

“No,” he said. “I hated the book Starship Troopers. The movie was good, though. They changed up the plot and the characters so that they were better.”

I’m still dumfounded.

When he was about 10, I gave him a copy of Heinlein’s The Star Beast,assuming that he would fall in love with the Lummox just like I did.

“It’s boring,” he announced halfway through, just as the two kids took off to the hills with the beast to hide her from the hoards of scientists and media.

“You’ve just gotten to the most exciting part of the book!” I objected.

“I’m sick of that book. I’m not reading it any more.”

I backed off. I didn’t want Heinlein to be an assignment, but he had to read him. He just had to.

I gave him The Rolling Stones, knowing that he would be delighted with the twins Castor and Pollux, and that he would even get the mythology reference. He didn’t even open it.

Again, I backed off. Maybe he really wasn’t ready for Heinlein. Maybe when he was older…

Recently he asked to read Stranger in a Strange Land.
“Hell, no!” I said.

“Why not?”

“Are you kidding? That book has tons of sex in it!”

Jack’s face went through several different expressions before he settled on defiance. “But you keep wanting me to read Heinlein.”

“Yes, but you aren’t starting with Valentine Michael Smith and Jubal Harshaw. Nor are you starting with Lazarus Long.”

“Who’re they?”

“Mike Smith is the Man from Mars, and Jubal is his lawyer. Lazarus Long is his own grandfather.”

“No way!”

“Time travel, baby. But at 16 you aren’t yet old enough to grok the Martian version of god or love, and you aren’t yet old enough to find out what Lazarus and his maternal ancestors do for entertainment during long spaceship rides.”

“When will be old enough?”

“Old enough for me to give you Stranger in a Strange Land? About the time you register for the draft,” I retorted. That’s in a couple of years. “About the time you are old enough to order a draft beer legally,” I revised.

I bought a copy of Time Enough for Love and left it conspicuously on a table. It disappeared. I saw it in his bathroom, a bookmark about halfway through it. He started it. I’m not sure if he ever finished it. Hopefully my strategy will work and he’ll swipe Stranger from the bookcase and read it under the covers with a flashlight just because I was so shocked and said he couldn’t. Hopefully he will learn that Heinlein’s place at the apex of the pantheon of science fiction gods is deserved. If he doesn’t, I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of his chromosomes came solely from his father’s side of the family.

I hope Hollywood never makes a movie based on Stranger in a Strange Land.

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report

laughing-sutra.jpg

 

Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

What if magic was real, and enjoyed a long tradition? And what if magicians only studied magical history and not magical practice? Then, what if someone discovered the practice of magic again, and brought it back?

This hefty tome by Susanna Clarke explores those ideas, as well as the arrogance and failings of hubris.  It’s not a classic good vs. evil story, which is really what I expected when I bought this book at an airport (for the 800 pages of light reading).  It’s conflict of the establishment against progress, of innovation versus convention, of the young and the old both grasping for a valid place in the world.

It takes place in early 19th century England, primarily in London although there are forays to the countryside as well as to the French battlefield when Napoleon becomes a nuisance.  The author wrote in what she deemed the period style, but it was much more easily readable than, say, even Victorian (shudder) literature.  She was quite liberal with commas, which certainly lent a degree of credulity to the period writing style.  She also used footnotes throughout the book, and if I were the sort of person annoyed by footnotes, I suppose they would have annoyed me.  But since I’m the sort of person who uses a second bookmark to keep up with even endnotes, and I kind of enjoy flipping back and forth (it burns more calories)I found the footnotes to be a humorous way to give the reader “background” without sacrificing the pace of the story.

The pace of any story that takes 800 pages to tell will occasionally drag.  I really didn’t find that to be the case with this book, though, until very near the end, when poor Jonathan Strange spent entirely too much time in Italy and not nearly enough time arguing with Mr. Norrell.  I liked their conflicts.

I gave the book to my mom to read.  I figured with her science fiction/fantasy inclinations she’d really enjoy it.  Shows how much I know!  She struggled through it to please me, but the last 100 pages never got read.  How she could have left the story before it was resolved, I will never understand!  But she got bogged down in Venice and just had to extricate herself before she suffocated, I think.   Oh, well.  Thanks, Mom, for trying.  Now I really wish I knew someone else who had read the book so I could talk about it without giving away the many significant plot twists!

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