Category Archives: Barry Hughart

Books by Barry Hughart.

Best (and not-so-best) of 2010

You know, everyone else is doing lists, so now that the year is over, so am I. Here are the best books I read in 2010!

  • Howard Zinn – A People’s History of the United States. Either a long-overdue look at the disenfranchised and overlooked victims in America’s rise to power or a screed of anti-American socialist dogma. Take your pick, but I know which side I come down on.
  • Warren Ellis – Crooked Little Vein. A trip through Weird America, introducing you to the things people do that you didn’t know people did.
  • Max Brooks – World War Z. An oral history of the Zombie War. Enthralling, exciting, disturbing.
  • Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou – Logicomix. A graphic novel involving the search for ultimate truth. So involving that I had to read it several times in a row.
  • Barry Hughart – Bridge of Birds. It’s rare that a book shoots right into the “favorite books” category, but this one did it.
  • James Randi – Flim-Flam! This book  is great to give to people who you want to be more skeptical in their lives. A harsh takedown of the ways we try to fool ourselves and others.
  • Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan. Reading this was like taking a trip back to the early Church, and realizing that they were all just making it up as they went along.
  • North, Bennardo, and Malki ! – Machine of Death. Personally, I’m hoping for HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE, but we can’t all get what we want.
  • Robert Kirkman – The Walking Dead, Compendium 1. A really good zombie comic, something I don’t usually find myself reading.
  • Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha – Sex at Dawn. A funny and very compelling look at the nature of human sexuality, at least before we invented agriculture and screwed everything up.

I don’t really have a “worst” list, because my baseline for “worst” is The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket, so this is more like my “Meh List.”

  • Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg – The Science of Supervillains. Much like their Science of Superheroes book, it focused more on why comic books get science wrong than what comics can teach us about science.
  • Robert Heinlein – Starship Troopers. A love letter to militarism, thinly disguised as a science fiction novel.
  • Terry Pratchett – Unseen Academicals. This isn’t Terry’s fault, it’s mine. The book is about soccer, and I really couldn’t care less about soccer.
  • Henry Hitchings – The Secret Life of Words. I like words, but this was every bit as boring as people who don’t like words think that books about words might be.
  • Robert Heinlein – I Will Fear no Evil. It would be a great story, if there was a story there. As it was, it was a memoir at best. A really weird memoir, but still….
  • John Scalzi – The God Engines. A really cool idea that didn’t seem to come to life for me. If he explores it further, though, I will happily read it.

That’s it! How about you – what were the best, worst, and meh-est books you read this year?

Have a happy New Year, and keep reading!

– Chris

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Barry Hughart, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, Christos Papadimitriou, David Malki !, Elaine Pagels, FYI, Henry Hitchings, Howard Zinn, James Randi, John Scalzi, Lois Gresh, Matthew Bennardo, Max Brooks, Robert Heinlein, Robert Kirkman, Robert Weinberg, Ryan North, Terry Pratchett, Warren Ellis

Review 78: Bridge of Birds


Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

It’s not often that you read a book and it immediately jumps up into your “Best Books Ever” list. Usually it takes some time and reflection, careful thought about the book’s characters, themes and message. Perhaps a re-read would be in order, and then, after some consideration, you might say, “Yeah. I think this is a really, really good book that I want everyone else to read.”

I think I hit that somewhere around page 182.

This is, as the cover tells us, a novel of “An ancient China that never was.” It’s set in the long-ago, indeterminate past (of which China has so very much), and starts off in a small village with an unusual history. The village of Ku-Fu, the story goes, was home to a section of the Great Wall, commissioned by the Emperor of China many centuries ago. This would not in itself be notable, except that it was built 122 miles south of the rest of the wall, thus serving no real purpose whatsoever. The general in charge was, he maintains, given the orders by the Emperor of Heaven himself, a story which held no sway with the more earthly Emperor who was ready to execute him. A more believable story was produced – that a great dragon had rested itself on that part of the wall, thus moving it, and it shouldn’t be tampered with.

And so the village of Ku-Fu became home to what was known as The Dragon’s Pillow, a place that would one day loom large in the history of not only the village, but all of China.

It is a peaceful village with the usual colorful characters that you get in such a place, such as the terrible partners Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, two greedy and unscrupulous men who hold the economic life of the village in their hands. When their misdeeds go too far, resulting in the horrible poisoning of many of the village’s children, the story’s narrator, Number Ten Ox (whose given name is Lu Yu, but he would not want to be confused with the famous author of The Classic of Tea) is tasked to bring a wise man from the city to diagnose the problem and find a solution. Out of the many wise men, Ox finds Li Kao, a cynical, world-weary curmudgeon with, as he so often tells us, a slight flaw in his character.

Together, Ox and Li Kao must travel the length and breadth of China to find the Great Root – a ginseng root that was kept by the mythical Princess of Birds, and whose healing properties are all that stand between the children of Ku-Fu and certain death. Along the way, they must travel terrible labyrinths, fight unimaginable monsters, battle against an immortal evil, bring peace to restless ghosts and solve the greatest mystery in the history of China – what happened to the Princess of Birds, beloved of the Star Shepherd, Prince of Heaven.

There is just so much to recommend this book, I don’t even know where to start. For one, it’s a lot of fun to read. The person who recommended it to me did so on the reasonable assumption that, since I like Terry Pratchett so much, I would probably like this book as well. And that was a very good assumption – there is a certain similarity between the two. Hughart uses humor very deftly, keeping the characters alive and interesting through even the most dangerous of times. Where Pratchett’s humor often feels like literary slapstick, however, Hughart’s is a bit more subtle. The characters are funny, yes, but the book was not written to make you laugh. It was written so that the reader would have a good time reading a story well-told.

And what a story it was. It begins with a fairly straightforward quest – a search for the Great Ginseng Root to cure the children of Ku-Fu – and turns into something so much larger than that. As the evil Duke of Ch’in says, they’re on the right quest, but for all the wrong reasons, a cryptic statement that takes a while to make sense. The scope of the story gets bigger and bigger as it goes on, and you realize that the pieces for this quest were put into place hundreds, if not thousands of years before the story actually started.

The history of China is on display here, if somewhat distorted for the purposes of entertainment. Hughart spent time living in the Far East and gained a healthy respect for its long and often unbelievable history and culture. The book includes elements of China’s history of inventiveness and ingenuity, as well as cultural myths that extend beyond its borders.

The characters themselves are wonderful, too. Number Ten Ox is an earnest, strong, well-meaning young man who has one goal in mind- save the children of his village. Li Kao is a devious old man who tends to use his wisdom and quick thinking for more nefarious purposes – thus the slight flaw in his character. There are a lot of notable minor characters as well, including Pawnbroker Fang and Ma the Grub, who somehow manage to turn up all through the story, always being chased by the people they’ve cheated. The Duke of Ch’in is a terrifying figure, Henpecked Ho is comically dark, and Miser Shen starts off utterly unlikable, but if there’s one character in the story that forces you to put down the book for a few minutes and gather your thoughts, it is he.

It’s a moving tale of hope and perseverance and the power of myth. It’s a story about the need for humanity to temper desire and what happens when we let our lives be governed by fear and greed. It’s about love and justice, revenge and history. It’s a book that almost immediately earned my respect and admiration, and that’s pretty hard to do.

So go get it. Block out some time when you can sit and fall into the story and really get absorbed in it, because let me promise you – it will be well worth it.

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“Take a large bowl. Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means ‘dry cup’ – and drink to the dregs.”
“And I will be wise?”
“Better. You will be Chinese.”
– Li Kao to Procipius, on attaining wisdom, Bridge of Birds
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Barry Hughart
Bridge of Birds on Wikipedia
Bridge of Birds at Amazon.com
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Qixi Festival on Wikipedia

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Filed under Barry Hughart, China, fantasy, humor, quest