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Balancing Frogs





Updated: 2017-11-29T20:31:00.170+08:00

 



Fiction I've Read: August-October 2017 Edition

2017-11-27T19:39:44.042+08:00

The Grace of Kingsby Ken LiuEpic fantasy. I’m just going to get it over with and say that I’m going to be making some Game of Thrones comparisons here. It’s not because it’s the only other epic fantasy I know, but rather because it’s the best-known example of a certain sub-genre that Liu’s work also comfortably inhabits. This is a world where magic technically exists but is rarely front-and-center, and where most of our focus is on realistic history-inspired drama of pre-modern politics and statecraft.For centuries, the kingdoms of the island archipelago of Dara have warred with each other, but in recent years the kingdom of Xana has conquered all of Dara and established centralized rule. Emperor Mapidere’s ruthless conscription of the common people for the sake of vast engineering projects has aroused quite a bit of anger, but many people choose instead to focus on the material benefits that his rule has brought. However, the Emperor is not a young man and his health is poor, so the future stability of the Xana Empire is not assured.Kuni Garu is a street-smart young man who is quite good at talking his way into and out of situations; Mata Zyndu is a mighty warrior from a noble family, who seeks to avenge the grievous harm that Xana has done to his people. These two characters, among many, many others, populate a narrative that is filled with action and political intrigue.The supernatural exists but never really comes to the forefront. Dara has a pantheon of deities who like to interfere in the affairs of mortals. (They say they have a rule against direct interference, but honestly that rule seems about as firm as the Federation’s Prime Directive -- that is to say, not at all.) In addition to gods, Dara also has some impressive steampunk technology -- airships, submarines, and all sorts of odd gadgets that the warring factions’ technologists seem able to whip up when needed. I’m not sure why all this technical expertise hasn’t snowballed into a full-on industrial revolution yet, but the worldbuilding nevertheless is intricate and engrossing.Now, if you want to enjoy this fantastic grand adventure on its own terms, you can stop reading here. I’m not a historian but I am a history geek, and I feel like my impression of The Grace of Kings was somewhat bifurcated. I enjoyed the story at face value, but at the same time this book fully engaged my history geek brain. We’re talking complete nerdery. Why? Here’s why:People make a big deal of how George R. R. Martin sorta kinda based Westerosi politics on England during the Wars of the Roses. And he did, kinda, sorta. But that’s nothing compared with what Liu has done here. This is a remarkably direct fictionalization of the collapse of the Qin Dynasty and the bloody civil war that followed, from roughly 215 to 202 BC. Liu has merely transposed the setting from continental East Asia to an insular archipelago, added airships and other technology, and changed all the names. Otherwise, most of the characters correspond to specific individuals who lived 2,200 years ago, and political entities rise and fall as they did in the history books. The history that Liu uses as source material is very well-known in East Asia but much less so in the West; if you’re not familiar with ancient China, you have the privilege of reading a modern work of epic fantasy completely unspoiled, but a half-hour on Wikipedia will give away the broad outlines of the plot. (Where to start: Qin Dynasty. Chu-Han Contention. Have fun from there.)I have to say that I am very impressed with this, as I’ve never read a work of fiction that adapted history on this scale, with this level of detail. It’s very well-done and the deviations from real history are seamlessly integrated. Of course, Liu's work can be enjoyed completely on its own terms. I personally couldn’t shake the habit of reading the corresponding Wikipedia articles while voyaging through Liu’s book, but that’s merely my own compulsive nerdery, not necessarily recommended for others.The Man with the Compound Eyesby[...]



Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

2017-08-06T22:10:29.196+08:00

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countrysideby Quincy CarrollI live in Asia and I teach English. This colored my reactions to Quincy Carroll’s novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside -- a book I enjoyed reading.The story opens with an easily irritated and easily irritating older Western man, an English teacher, trying to make sense of a bus station in Hunan, China. A few pages in and I had a strong negative reaction to this guy. Oddly strong. Why? I happily meet all sorts of people in fiction that I wouldn’t want to hang out with in real life, but this washed-up man and his context struck a little too close to home. Surely it can’t be that I’m afraid of becoming him, if my life goes horribly wrong? No, I don’t think that's it. Rather, I think I'm afraid there are people who might lump all of us long-term language teachers in Asia into a category, and think he is a good representative type. This is a tale of two Westerners working as high school English teachers in Ningyuan, a small town in Hunan. Daniel is a young man who sincerely wants to help his young students. He speaks good Mandarin and is generally well-liked in the community. However, he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He’s a good teacher and he’s interested in improving his professional skills, but he also doesn’t want to remain a teacher his entire life, and he’s afraid of wasting his youth in backcountry Hunan. (Personally, I think even if Daniel doesn’t stay a teacher forever, he’s still gaining experience and developing useful skills in Ningyuan, and so even from a purely selfish perspective he is hardly wasting his time, but he’s a fictional character so it doesn't matter what I think.) Unfortunately, Daniel’s insecurities eventually get sussed out by his newly arrived coworker, my friend from the first chapter. He is called Thomas by his students but he calls himself by his surname Guillard in his POV chapters. Guillard is a cranky, jaded American in his 60s who has been bouncing around China teaching English for years, usually through an alcoholic haze. He sees Daniel’s desire to help his students and improve his community as youthful idealism that he just can’t abide, as he loudly makes clear to anyone within earshot when his patience runs thin. We see Ningyuan entirely through Daniel and Guillard’s eyes; the local Chinese people generally do not get complex characterization, with one exception. Bella is a student at the high school where Daniel and Guillard teach, and is quite eager to improve her English skills to secure a better future for herself; as a result, she tends to latch onto foreign teachers to maximize her English speaking practice time, and she figures prominently in both Westerners’ time in Ningyuan. The story unfolds over an academic year, as we follow the experiences of these two English teachers in Ningyuan. Daniel has a large circle of local and foreign friends, both in Ningyuan and back in Changsha, but he’s unsure of how he himself fits into either Ningyuan or the local Westerner scene. Meanwhile, Guillard has no friends. At best, other people merely tolerate him. I’m not sure I mustered enough empathy to really feel sorry for him, as he’s so clearly made his own bed. As I said above, while I’ve never lived in China, I’m also an English teacher in Asia, and I can’t help but have purely idiosyncratic reactions to this book. I will sheepishly admit that I started out as an inexperienced kid who didn’t really know what I was doing. (To be fair, a lot of us did.) Now that I have far more experience and some certifications, I’m able to see language teaching as an actual profession, not just a thing that one does. As time goes on I’m increasingly amused and befuddled by people who can’t seem to conceive of language teaching as anything other than what inexperienced backpacker-teachers do. I liked the ridiculous Welshman who Daniel meets in a bar in Changsha, who seems to think TEFL consists of pointing to a glass of water[...]



Six times nine = Forty-two

2017-10-28T10:37:48.396+08:00

I rewatched the six half-hour episodes of the old 1981 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV show, inspired by this article. I hadn’t seen it in 20 years or so. It was better than I remembered. Why did I remember any part of this less than fondly? I think it's because the last time I really paid attention to this story in any form, I was immersed in an adolescent smart-alecky culture which so overused lines and gags from the Hitchhiker's Guide that they became stale. The cure for this turned out to be a decade of not revisiting Douglas Adams's work, which gave the old gags new freshness. The basic storyline by the late Douglas Adams is well-known: middle-class Englishman Arthur Dent survives the destruction of Earth at the hands of dull interstellar bureaucrats due to his friendship with alien Ford Prefect. He and Ford eventually fall in with celebrity criminal Zaphod Beeblebrox, who happens to be vaguely related to Ford ("We share three of the same mothers"), and fellow Earthling Trillian, a woman he not only once knew but had something of a romantic interest towards. The utter improbability of their meeting again is lampshaded to perhaps the most epic degree I have ever seen in fiction. In the following episodic storyline, Arthur learns some highly disquieting things about the Earth, the Universe, and the origins of the human race.The TV show was based on an original radio series from 1978; this radio series was also adapted into a series of novels, which is probably how most people nowadays get introduced to the story. From a book reader's perspective, the plot of the six TV episodes roughly corresponds to most of the first book (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and about half of the second (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).The special effects of the TV show get criticized a lot. I think this is unfair. Yes, Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is one of the all-time great special effects failures, made worse if you know that apparently they had genuinely hoped it would look cool. But apart from that, the special effects actually stand up rather well, when you remember that we’re talking about 1981 effects technology on a TV budget. And the Guide ‘animations’ are a triumph of design. I particularly liked how an epic space battle between vast fleets of warships was represented as an early-1980s video game. It’s also true that Trillian was played as a ditz and dressed in Space Cheerleader uniforms. But hell, if we're going to be honest, if anything it’s even worse than that. Remember the original Star Wars trilogy’s infamous three female characters with dialogue? (Apart from Leia, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma were the only women who got to say anything in the three movies.) Well, I just realized for the first time that apart from Trillian, the only woman with any lines at all is that female Golgafrinchan nincompoop in the final episode. Both are played by Americans, so we’ve got the oddity that we never hear a woman with a British accent. But of the show’s massively male-dominated cast, I have to say they generally did a good job, with David Dixon’s performance as Ford Prefect as the standout. (That said, I also liked Mos Def’s very different interpretation in the 2005 movie, so maybe I’m just a Ford fan.) Simon Jones makes Arthur Dent more assertive than I remember him, which is hilarious given that he has no control over anything that happens to him at any point. Marvin’s silly robot suit kinda grew on me, and I even came to like the goofy, generic sci-fi look of the background aliens. Lots of silver reflective clothing and gratuitous goatees. In the end, I appreciated the dark nihilistic black comedy of the whole thing. Other media -- the novels and the radio series -- continue the story, but as far as the TV show is concerned we’ve got these six episodes and that’s it. So we have no reason to believe Marvin survives his fatal plunge into the sun. Arthur and Ford are going to spend the rest of their lives on prehistori[...]



Yerevan and Tbilisi: One Tourist's Superficial Impressions

2017-07-20T10:10:33.024+08:00

We visited Armenia and Georgia this year. Prior to our trip, I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of life on the ground there, except for stereotypes about post-Soviet states. This was my first-ever time in the old Eastern Bloc of the Cold War. (I’d been to China and Vietnam, but they don’t really count -- Beijing and Hanoi never marched to the beat of Moscow’s drum.) I expected crumbling 20th-century factories and wonderfully ugly 20th-century Soviet architecture. And yes, I saw examples of both of those. But both of these countries are also busily remaking themselves in the post-Soviet era. Now, I’m not going to say anything about either nation’s contemporary culture, because I don’t have the knowledge. I was just a tourist in both countries, drinking wine and visiting grand old stone buildings in the countryside. I’m so ignorant I still don’t even know how much I don’t know. But what I can do is compare and contrast the two capital cities. Even to a casual visitor like myself, Yerevan, Armenia and Tbilisi, Georgia present very different images. I liked both cities. I would happily spend a few more days in either city. And they look very different. YEREVAN The city of Yerevan is built on an incline. South is downhill, north is uphill, consistently across the entire city center. At the “bottom” you’ve got Republic Square; at the “top” you’ve got the massive statue of Mother Armenia holding her sword and glaring across the valley at Mount Ararat in the distance. And she is standing next to a kiddie amusement park with rides and cotton candy, but you can’t see that from the downtown, you can only see Mother Armenia up there on the hill. Yerevan is a city of big solid stone buildings, often adorned with plaques that tell you which government agency is located inside. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many big solid stone buildings taking up entire city blocks outside of Washington DC. Say what you will about the Soviet Union -- and there’s a lot you can say -- they were very good at large-scale stone architecture. There’s not much that is old in Yerevan. There are a very few historic buildings in the city center. The tiny, ancient church known as the Katoghike is an exception, but its singular existence just makes the lack of other pre-20th century buildings even more noticeable. Just outside of the city center is a neighborhood called Kond, where old houses still exist, but next to the monumental architecture elsewhere, Kond looks almost like a neglected slum by comparison. Yerevan's downtown was built, for all practical purposes, in the Soviet era and later. A map of the city center has a strong “planned community” feel to it, and with good reason: architect Alexander Tamanyan planned it in the 1920s. According to Lonely Planet, he deliberately oriented the grid system so that major avenues pointed to Mt. Ararat. I am thoroughly unqualified to make more than the most superficial observations of Armenia. But as someone who makes a living from Taiwanese students’ need to improve their English in order to study abroad, I have to say it was a welcome knock to my worldview to come to a country where English isn’t the primary foreign language. Russian can be seen and heard everywhere in Yerevan, and I’m sure the majority of Yerevanites are perfectly capable of having a conversation in it. English is spoken by some, but we faced much more of a language barrier than monolingual Russian visitors would. It makes me wonder what it’s like to be part of a small linguistic community. The total population of Armenia (even if you add Nagorno-Karabakh) is no more than the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. When we went to the supermarket, a few packaged food labels were in Armenian, but the vast majority were in Russian (plus some English). The washing machine in our accommodation was all in Russian, because why would a multinational company bother manufacturing and selling a[...]



Things I've Read: May-June 2017 Edition

2017-11-27T19:35:07.531+08:00

I read a bunch of books in May and June while traveling outside of Taiwan. I dipped a bit into non-fiction, including two by Bill Bryson. (Summary: Bill Bryson travels around and does a fair bit of complaining, sometimes unfairly, but he’s funny and entertaining so all is forgiven.) But when it comes to fiction, I read: 1 um, fantasy? Urban fantasy? Magic realist?1 space opera SF1 near-future techno-thriller1 absurdist comedy romance1 hard SF horrorThe Gray Houseby Mariam PetrosyanTranslated by Yuri MachkasovThe Gray House was first published in Russian in 2007 and it became a cult classic in the Russian-speaking world long before the English translation I read was published in 2017. Mariam Petrosyan is Armenian, and I read her book as I traveled in Armenia and Georgia. The Gray House is not explicitly set in any specific country, but it seemed fitting to read it in the author’s homeland. The eponymous House is a boarding school for physically disabled children and teenagers. These young people are isolated from the wider world and neglected by the system, and so they have developed their own miniature society within the walls of the House. Petrosyan’s 734-page epic exploration of this world was not only engaging, it practically colonized my brain during the two weeks or so I spent reading it, as my mind would keep working through the complexity and to try and untangle the plot long after I put the book down. The worldbuilding of this quirky little community is intricate, and it is very gradually revealed to us readers. Once we’re comfortable in this little world, we begin to get hints that something supernatural is going on. This thread gradually grows to become the main element of the story. We’re in full-on fantasy territory by the novel’s latter chapters. The story switches between “present” and “past” chapters. The novel kicks off in the present when a disgruntled boy called Smoker leaves his conformist dorm in the House for more freewheeling surroundings down the hall where eccentricity is tolerated, but Smoker’s place at the center of the narrative is soon overtaken by his oddball classmates. They are all known by nicknames: Sphynx, Tabaqui, Vulture, Noble, and so on. (I write “classmates”, but I’ll be damned if I know what, if anything, these kids are taught in their classes.) There are also chapters that take place half a dozen or so years before the main story, setting up the present-day situation. As the story moves back and forth in time, the elusive details of the House, its inhabitants and its history gradually come into focus. The plot meanders and takes its time to unfold, and much must be inferred by the reader, but I was eager to delve deeper into the mysteries of the House and its inhabitants, to figure out how things worked. This is one of the very few novels I was tempted to begin rereading immediately: I felt I could get just as much out of it the second time. A Google search of the book’s Russian title, «Дом, в котором...», reveals a devoted fan community, comparable to that of Harry Potter, which was in place well before the novel ever penetrated the Anglosphere. Linguistically I can’t comprehend what these fans are saying without the unreliable help of Google Translate, but the gorgeous fan-made artwork helps me see how it all came across to those readers who experienced the story in the original language. Obscure in the English-speaking world but not so elsewhere, The Gray House not only provided me with a rich, original world to explore, but also made me thankful for translators who help literature cross boundaries. The Player of Gamesby Iain M. BanksJernau Morat Gurgeh is a celebrity player of strategy board games, said to be one of the finest in the galaxy. Because he lives in the Culture, an immensely wealthy and powerful interstellar anarcho-socialist state, he has the luxury of living a life of leisure, surrounded by material comforts[...]



Taiwan: A Political History

2017-03-13T17:57:46.737+08:00

Taiwan: A Political Historyby Denny RoyI'm trying to read more books about Taiwan, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Denny Roy’s history is the latest one I've completed. I’ve lived in Taiwan for a decade. I already knew the broad outlines of this land’s history. But this was the first time I read a survey of Taiwan’s post-1945 political history. I figured it was time I learned more, and indeed I did learn a lot from Roy’s book. Now, the book is not for the novice with no preexisting knowledge of Taiwanese history. Denny Roy tends to move back and forth through the decades, expecting his reader to already know the political progression from the elder Chiang to the younger Chiang to Lee to Chen. But if you’re moderately familiar with the basics, this is an informative look at Taiwanese politics from 1945 to 2003, when the book was published. I write “from 1945 to 2003” even though the book is billed as covering the full scope of Taiwanese history. In reality, everything prior to 1895 is covered in twenty pages. The fifty years of Japanese rule, 1895 to 1945, receive another twenty-two pages. The remainder of the book’s 246 pages are devoted to the ROC era. This is fine -- there is certainly a lot to say about Taiwan under the ROC, and the starting chapters do provide necessary historical context for what comes after -- but the reader should be aware that this is not a comprehensive source of material about Taiwan before 1945. In fact, I was a bit frustrated with the coverage of early Taiwanese history. On page 21, Roy writes of “a total of 159 sizable rebellions during the period of Qing rule, including three particularly large ‘Great Rebellions’ in 1714, 1787, and 1833”. He then goes on to describe an uprising in 1721 in which rebels seized control of a large portion of Taiwan, forcing the government to flee to mainland China. If this doesn’t qualify as a ‘Great Rebellion’, some truly epic uprisings must have been cut for space! On page 22 two rebellions are briefly described as taking place in 1786 and 1832; Roy never mentions one that happens anytime close to 1714. Fortunately, Roy’s coverage of the 1945 to 2003 era is interesting and informative, and filled in several gaps in my knowledge of Taiwanese political history, about which I do not claim to be an expert. To take one example, I noted a recurring theme where the ROC’s stubbornness decades ago contributed to the country’s present-day international status. It was the ROC that took Taiwan out of the United Nations: even when Chiang Kai-shek came to accept a PRC presence in the UN, he couldn’t bear the indignity of the PRC taking his place on the Security Council, and so Taiwan quit in a huff when the PRC was admitted in 1971. (p. 134-135) Similarly, there was a time when Beijing would enter into full diplomatic relations with countries that recognized Taipei, without demanding that these nations break relations with them. They didn’t need to -- Taipei would be so angered at the perceived disrespect that they would be the ones to sever ties with one more diplomatic ally. (p. 130) Well done, ROC -- that’s worked out well for you, hasn’t it? I can only conclude that ROC leaders must have been perpetually convinced that the PRC was on the brink of implosion -- not an entirely illogical belief, when you consider what the PRC must have looked like to them for the first quarter-century of its existence, staggering from one massive self-inflicted crisis to another. To take another example, I knew Lee Teng-hui primarily for his more recent role as an elder statesman and a pro-independence figure who has decisively burned his ties with the KMT, so reading about how he was perceived when he was actually the head of the KMT was fascinating. In contrast to the impression I had of Lee in his retirement, Roy paints quite a different portrait of Lee as cunning politician - summarized on p[...]



Things I've Read: Science Fiction Edition

2017-03-03T11:28:22.624+08:00

There will be nothing about Taiwan here. But that's OK.Sevenevesby Neal StephensonSuddenly, the moon blows up, which is never really explained. But that’s okay, because we’re more interested in what happens next. Like the Ewoks watching the Death Star’s destruction, humans of Earth are transfixed by the show in the sky until the grim truth becomes clear: According to the cold equations of physics, our civilization is doomed and the clock is ticking. Those bits and pieces of moon are coming down, and we can't stop them. The thousand or so pages that follow encompass arguably the largest scope ever for a Stephenson novel, as all the resources of Earth are deployed to ensure that some humans survive the coming apocalypse. And then the book deals with the consequences of that. And then the consequences of those consequences. By the time the story ends, a hell of a lot has happened, is what I’m saying. Overall, there’s a lot to like here. I’m generally a fan of Stephenson’s prose, and there are indeed some choice bits here. There are also plenty of pages upon pages of engineering geekery: we don’t get five pages of breakfast cereal, but we do get long, lovingly worked out descriptions of orbital mechanics and futuristic technology. That’s fine; many readers enjoy that sort of thing, I know. I do have to say that there were times I felt my suspension of disbelief was under considerable duress. There were also a couple of rather remarkable narrative coincidences, and I’m still undecided about whether these things bother me enough to damage my liking for the book. That said, it’s been months since I finished Seveneves and yet I keep thinking about it. It’s rare for a novel to persist in my brain like this. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planetby Becky ChambersWe’re in a galaxy with faster-than-light travel and interstellar federations and starships where humans and aliens work side-by-side. Also there are space pirates, dens of scum and villainy, and massive interstellar wars. With all that said, our focus is on the relations among the crew of the small and fairly mundane starship Wayfarer, whose job is to facilitate interstellar travel-by-hyperspace by larger and (I’m sure they think) more interesting vessels. This is cheerful, optimistic space opera. The interstellar lingua franca that humans and aliens use to talk to each other is rendered as hilariously colloquial contemporary American English. The ship’s techies are so blase about the wondrous indistinguishable-from-magic devices they work with that they’re free to devote considerable attention to the quality of their snack food. Most of the scenes read like they could play out verbatim in a hypothetical TV adaptation. The feeling that this could be a novelization of a well-written sci-fi TV show is bolstered by the story’s episodic nature, as well as the fact that despite the moments of drama, action and even tragedy, the mood of the narrative keeps returning to that of a workplace comedy (and I mean that nicely).Shades of Greyby Jasper FfordeDroll British dystopian fiction. Our protagonists live in Chromaticia, a land ordered by color and governed by surrealistically arbitrary but strictly enforced rules. These people are all color-blind to varying degrees, and their social class is determined by the colors they can perceive, from red at the bottom to purple at the top. Main protagonist Eddie Russett is, as his surname implies, at the low end of the ROY G BIV class spectrum, but at least he can see a color -- that is, he’s not one of the Grey proletariat. The writing style, and the glimpses we get of the everyday lives of these people, is very droll, but Chromaticia -- a future Britain that exists centuries after the unexplained collapse of our own society -- is a frightening totalitarian state, which could use a good overthrow. All in all, Shades of Grey is a charming litt[...]



A Pail of Oysters

2017-03-05T14:05:27.715+08:00

A Pail of Oystersby Vern Sneider In 1953, American journalist Vern Sneider published his novel A Pail of Oysters to acquaint Western readers with the political situation in Taiwan. The ROC had come to Formosa less than a decade before, and the West saw it as a bulwark against Communism that must be supported with financial and military aid. Sneider did not write his book to bring us Chiang Kai-shek’s side of the story; he sides with the ordinary people of Taiwan who suffered under ROC rule, the White Terror, and the after-effects of the 228 Incident. The story begins by introducing us to Aboriginal youth Li Liu, his family, and their daily struggle for existence, harvesting oysters from the coastline and trading them for rice and other necessities. Not a prosperous family even in peaceful times, their daily life is made harder by the bands of ROC soldiers (called ‘Save-the-Country soldiers’) who see it as their right to loot at will from these unimportant nobodies. When the family’s god-image is stolen, Li Liu sets off to recover it. On his adventure he meets friendly American (and obvious author surrogate) Ralph Barton, hardscrabble former prostitute Precious Jade, and Precious Jade’s brother, who goes by no name because he no longer acknowledges his tyrannical adoptive father. The story that follows is a fairly simple one, all things considered, with a couple of big narrative coincidences that make it seem like the population of Taipei is maybe a hundred people. It is not hard to predict our heroes are not going to have a happy ending, even as the narrative teases us and makes it seem things might actually work out well for them. You know they’re not going to have a happy ending because the book’s purpose is to make people outraged. That’s not a bad thing, because sometimes outrage is warranted. This novel is meant to raise political awareness, using the novelist’s timeless tool of taking impersonal numbers from news accounts (‘thousands executed in anti-Communist purges’) and turning the statistics back into tragedy by giving a small handful of them individual names, backstories and personalities. The number of verifiably Communist characters in A Pail of Oysters is zero, but we see how anti-Communist witch hunts can be a very useful tool for unscrupulous people pursuing their own personal vendettas that have nothing to do with politics. The book is also an interesting historical perspective on issues that, 64 years later, are still controversial and unresolved, notably expropriation of land owned by local farmers. The book turns didactic midway through when a Taiwanese businessman with dissident sympathies, Mr. Chou, turns up to lecture Ralph Barton about what should be done for Taiwan, and by doing so crowds two of the three Taiwanese viewpoint characters out of the narrative for a large chunk of the book. Mr. Chou, whose views are never rebutted and so are presumably Sneider’s own, thinks the KMT shouldn’t be removed from power entirely, but rather sees a pro-democracy faction within the KMT that ought to be running the country rather than the authoritarians in power instead. (Presumably he's thinking of K. C. Wu and the liberal faction he represented. It's too bad that, at about the same time A Pail of Oysters was published, Wu went into permanent exile in the United States.) One could argue that Sneider is fairly diplomatic towards the KMT/ROC, all things considered. He makes an effort not to paint ROC soldiers as uniformly evil, and Chiang Kai-shek himself is never directly criticized. Chen Yi, the military governor of Taiwan in the immediate postwar years, is the one real-life figure who does get thoroughly blamed by name in the text. Again, Sneider’s being diplomatic here -- by the time the book was written, the KMT had already removed Chen from power and executed him. Sneider may have tried[...]



Party Members

2016-10-05T13:51:43.202+08:00

(image) Party Members
By Arthur Meursault

This is a satirical novel about a lowly Chinese bureaucrat whose penis starts talking one day and begins telling him how to live his life.

Your reaction to the above sentence is a good indicator of whether this book is for you.

The humor is black and the book would be really unpleasant if it were remotely realistic. The two main characters, our bureaucrat hero and his penis, are both terrible beings. Don’t make the mistake of getting attached to anyone -- the only reason the story has characters who are not 100% reprehensible is so that the main characters can treat them horribly. And of course there are some big gross-out moments. I’m not necessarily being negative -- all of this is by design. I rather enjoyed it, but then I think I have a high tolerance for both scatalogical humor and surreal insanity.

Yang Wei is a low-level government bureaucrat in the fictional Chinese city of Huaishi (Badville?). He has led an utterly mediocre life, and he has a wife he doesn’t particularly like and a lazy son who shows no promise.

The turning point in Yang Wei’s life comes when his penis starts encouraging him to be (yes, I’ll say it) a dick to everyone. And he finds that the more dickish he is, the better his life becomes, as doors begin opening for him that he hadn’t known existed. How low can he sink? If he wants to rise high in society, he’ll have to sink awfully low indeed.

China, we can infer, is a society run entirely by dicks. Not because the Chinese people are inherently dickish, but because of the twisted incentives in place that reward dickishness as a way to get ahead.

Towards the end of the book, our phallic protagonist lets loose with a rant indicating that this is simply the natural condition of humanity everywhere, which may help shield Meursault from charges of being a Westerner up on his self-righteous pedestal, inappropriately bashing Chinese society blah blah blah five thousand years of history and so on.

It may be true that people are dicks everywhere, more or less, but I would rather be part of a society that doesn’t reward dickishness quite so much.



History of Rome Volume I

2016-10-01T12:10:33.723+08:00

History of Rome Volume I: The Republicby Mike Duncan For me, this book was a review of material already covered. Practically all the important stuff i know about Ancient Rome, I learned through podcast. My education took me through only the barest details of Roman history -- togas, Caesar, Vesuvius -- and the classes I took as a history major in college covered far later eras. The first time anything stuck was when I discovered Dan Carlin’s podcasts on the Punic Wars and on the fall of the Roman Republic. Carlin has a knack for making things memorable, giving me a mental framework on which I could hang additional information. At that time Mike Duncan was diligently working away on his History of Rome podcasts, but I didn’t know about him yet; I only discovered him in 2013, when he’d finished with Rome and was starting his Revolutions podcast. Revolutions was (still is) a brilliant cast for anyone interested in political history, and I was sucked in by its first season, which covers the utterly fascinating (and bloody) events in the British Isles between 1640 and 1660. (Apparently Britain wasn’t just ahead of the rest of the world when it came to industrialization; they also had one or two modern military coups in the mid-1600s as well!) I started listening to The History of Rome very soon after. I came to admire Duncan’s ability to tease apart very complex (and potentially very dry) history and make it interesting and comprehensible without simplifying or dumbing it down. So when Duncan edited the transcripts of the first quarter of his old podcast’s run into book form, from Rome’s founding to Julius Caesar’s assassination, I decided to spring for the Kindle edition immediately. For one thing, even though I’d heard it all already, it couldn’t hurt to consolidate it all. Besides, I figured it was about time I spend real money on something Duncan put together. I enjoyed reading what I had listened to back in 2013-14. The editing is good enough that it doesn’t generally seem like a written record of spoken English (though there are more than a few comma splices and spellcheck-invisible typos) and although I’d forgotten a whole lot of the details of 700 years of ancient history, I did smile with recognition when I came across a witty aside that I remembered Duncan making in the podcast. So, how about the content? In the first half of the book, we read about Rome’s mythological founding, and then follow the city as it establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with in Italy, suffers growing pains (sacked by Gauls), recovers, becomes the master of all Italy (Samnite Wars), branches out and establishes colonies, and then becomes the master of the western Mediterranean Sea (first two Punic Wars). All interesting enough, but mostly because the stage is being set for what’s going to happen later on. I feel like things change with the Third Punic War. I hate the Third Punic War. Rome is the bad guy. I can’t think of any way Rome isn’t the bad guy. And Rome wins, because in this era, Rome always wins. But in the aftermath of the Third Punic War, things become very interesting for their own sake, as Roman politics become the center of the narrative. This isn’t Game of Thrones-style medieval politics where the only question is which ruler gets to rule; no, this politics seems weirdly modern, with ideological factions and competing interest groups. The modern history geek looks at the Optimares and Populares of ancient Rome and thinks holy crap, they kinda had right-wingers and left-wingers back then. And then, after a few decades, the Republic fell apart, the Empire rose, and and the era of politics that looks so oddly familiar to us was over. In the end, the basic impression I am left with (and this is not something I specifically remember Mike Duncan or[...]



Welcome Home, Master

2016-07-13T10:55:03.640+08:00

Welcome Home, Master: Covering East Asia in the Twilight of Old Media By J. D. Adams J. D. Adams’ memoir of his years as a Taiwan-based reporter actually opens with a reporting trip to Japan he took in 2010. He went there to do research for a weighty piece about how Japanese companies increasingly rely on temporary workers. These workers get far less job security (and kind of a raw deal overall) compared to standard employees. While in Japan, he also does a puff piece on a local fertility festival that has become a kitschy celebration of the penis. One of these stories was far more click-worthy than the other -- anyone want to guess? Such is the life, it turns out, of the Old Media journalist nowadays. Adams then takes us back to the dawn of the 21st century, when he started his career in Asia hanging out with old-school foreign correspondents in Hong Kong, most notably the venerable and legendary Clare Hollingworth. (Remarkably, as of 2016 Hollingworth is still living in Hong Kong, more venerable than ever as her age is now well into three-digit territory.) Deciding this was the life for him, Adams eventually settled in Taipei, where he worked as a copy editor at the Taipei Times while also reporting as a stringer for Newsweek, which over the next decade would slide into irrelevance (good luck, Old Media). Taipei would become his primary home for the next several years, and so in Welcome Home, Master he goes into more detail about Taiwan than any other place. If you’re already a Taiwan expert, you may not learn much new here, but newbies will gain a sense of the country’s politics (Adams arrived midway through the Chen Shui-bian presidency and stayed for much of the Ma Ying-jeou administration) and issues (apart from the usual cross-strait diplomacy, he does several stories dealing with traditional Taiwanese religion in its myriad eclectic forms, reports from the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung and does a story on an Aboriginal village willing to take in nuclear waste in exchange for financial support). Adams writes in a clear, compelling prose style which is about himself to exactly the right degree: he describes his accommodations in Taipei and his degree of fluency in Mandarin to add color to his writing, but he never lets the writing be about him. Until the final chapters, I didn’t know he had a significant other/girlfriend/wife. The final Taiwan story Adams includes is the tale of the Hsichih Trio. In 1991, three teenagers were implicated in a brutal murder in the Taipei suburb of Hsichih (or Xizhi, in this country that confuses the hell out of foreigners by using multiple Romanization systems at the same time and sometimes follows none of them). The principal suspect in the case was convicted and executed, but the police were convinced that he had accomplices, and so the three young men were allegedly tortured into providing confessions. In 2010, Adams interviews the man he calls the most articulate of the three, who describes the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of the police and of the time he spent in prison wondering if he would be executed. By discussing the public controversy around the Hsichih Trio (who would be exonerated in 2012), Adams turns the focus on elements of the same politically-oriented civil society that J. Michael Cole has written about recently, as Taiwan transitions from the brutal state it once was to the more gentle society it is in the process of becoming. While based in Taiwan, Adams wrote stories from neighboring countries as well. He describes reporting trips he made investigating the the tiger-parts trade in China, insurgencies in the southern Philippines, and the whale meat industry in Japan, to name just a few. (Also while in Japan, he writes another trendy ‘quirky Japan’ piece about a cafe w[...]



Black Island

2016-07-03T10:33:14.685+08:00

Black Island By J. Michael Cole Black Island describes how the pivotal years 2013 and 2014 exposed the pitiful inadequacies in both the two-party structure of Taiwanese politics and the narratives we use to talk about Taiwan. These were the years when a new set of groups rose to prominence, unaffiliated with any political party, in response to the failures of Ma Ying-jeou’s second term. The first and final thirds of this book are a narrative made up of opinion pieces published by Cole during this period. This narrative tells the story of grass-roots protests against acts of high-level overreach: plans by Chinese-sympathetic corporate behemoths to acquire Taiwanese news media, and the land expropriation scandals at Huaguang Community in Taipei and Dapu Village in Miaoli in 2013. These protests represented a blossoming of Taiwanese civil society’s confidence to make its voice heard against government actions it saw as cold-hearted, greedy, and/or lacking in transparency. Cole makes it very clear that these protests cannot be made to fit into the standard ‘blue vs. green’ dichotomy traditionally used to make sense of Taiwanese politics; in the Huaguang Community land expropriation case, for instance, young student protesters (traditionally ‘green’ voters) championed the cause of elderly residents who had been born in China (the most stereotypically ‘blue’ people one could imagine). Cole also demolishes the idea that these protesters were agents of the DPP in a proxy battle against the KMT, a framework used by some hack journalists and pundits to explain the increasingly tumultuous events of 2013 and 2014. Not only have the protesters kept a careful distance between themselves and the DPP, but Cole does not hesitate to point out how DPP officials have been duplicitous and hypocritical while promising to help the ‘little guy’. Where DPP officials failed to lead, public protests rose up. The second part of the book is quite different from the first and third sections, as it deals with the gay marriage battle here. Taiwan is on the whole one of the more progressive countries in the non-Western world when it comes to LGBT issues. Social issues have not been politicized to the extent that they have in the USA (they don’t fit neatly into Taiwan’s traditional Blue v. Green political polarization) and while many families are still run under traditional lines (anecdotally, I’ve heard many gay Taiwanese are ‘out’ to their peers but not to their parents), there is little anti-gay sentiment in society at large. It is easy to be optimistic that same-sex marriage will become a legal reality in Taiwan soon, as polls show a majority of people either actively support legalization of gay marriage or are indifferent to it. In this section, Cole examines the gay-marriage fight in Taiwan and the segment of society that seems most opposed to it: Christian church groups. According to Wikipedia, less than 5% of Taiwan’s people are Christian. However, Christian churches have been able to mobilize to the point that they pull significantly above their weight on this issue, despite the fact that there’s not much traditional anti-gay bias in Taiwanese culture. (Or in the teachings of Jesus, for that matter. Sure, there is anti-gay stuff in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but as everyone who’s actually read them knows, most bible-thumpers have to cherry-pick liberally from those books.) As Cole delves into the background of the Christian churches leading these anti-gay movements, he uncovers connections to the creepier side of American evangelical Christianity. Many of these connections involve the Bread of Life Church, which sent all sorts of weird feelings up and down my spine because I’ve walked right past this church’s[...]



Mandarin Learning Material: FluentU

2016-07-03T12:53:48.232+08:00

So I’ve been practicing Mandarin listening comprehension and building my vocabulary with FluentU. The site comes in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Japanese, and German-learning flavors as well as sections for EFL learners. I would assume that, apart from specific issues related to Chinese characters (more on those below), it offers basically the same experience for all languages. The ContentFluentU takes the vast already-existing corpus of YouTube videos and puts them in an easily-digestible format for language learners. For Chinese, users get subtitles in English, pinyin Chinese, and traditional or simplified Chinese characters, any of which can be turned on or off at will. The user interface makes it easy to skip around in a video, or to listen to the last few seconds again and again repeatedly. The above is likely to be seen as the most useful part of the site for most learners, and it has been a very valuable resource of listening materials for me. The listening material -- which FluentU carefully explains they’re using 100% legally through Creative Commons licences -- is harvested from YouTube’s corpus of Mandarin-language content (and as such, tends to skew towards Taiwan-based material). I’ve used FluentU to watch music videos, advertisements and publicity campaigns, a campaign ad put out by Ko Wen-je during his run for Taipei mayor, and snippets from TV shows. There’s also Mandarin-language learning material already on YouTube that is accessible via FluentU, which somehow seems dodgy to me -- I wonder how the hard-working creators of material made accessible to the masses on YouTube feel about it being used by FluentU to make handy little exercises for its paying subscribers? Finally, FluentU does put out some of its own material. For Mandarin learners, there are a few video stories aimed at lower levels, mostly revolving around social interaction, going out with friends, and so on. No moments of great drama, but frankly I find them far more tolerable than the famously awkward videos that NTNU puts out.The language is of course graded for learners. The video of two college students making small talk improves tremendously if you imagine it actually shows two extraterrestrial spies who are practicing authentic hu-man communication before they go out to live amongst the hu-mans.But those are mostly too easy for me. Unfortunately as of June 2016 there’s only a single solitary in-house video story for upper intermediate learners, the tale of a guy who goes in to interview for a job. I would like to see more videos at that level. Yes. More, please. FluentU also has a lot of audio-only dialogue out there, much of it at upper-intermediate level, not dissimilar from what ChinesePod puts out but without the English commentary. It’s all hosted on YouTube so it’s tricky to put on an mp3 player, but accessing it through FluentU means you get all the nice FluentU support: subtitles, easy playback, and vocabulary practice. Ah yes, the vocabulary practice. PracticeFor users willing to pay, FluentU offers its practice software. First and foremost, this includes vocabulary practice. When you choose to ‘learn’ the material from a video or audio dialogue, the vocabulary gets fed bit by bit to you in flashcard form. Ideally, you can hear the same word being used in different contexts across different videos in FluentU’s library. In practice, FluentU often gives you its own sample sentences instead, which you can hear read by a flat computer-generated voice. Better than nothing I guess, but with all my reading in second-language acquisition, I have yet to hear an SLA expert advocate listening to awkward computer-generated speech in the L2. It is your job as the learner to supply the word, eith[...]



Officially Unofficial

2017-03-13T14:26:04.307+08:00

Officially Unofficial by J. Michael Cole J. Michael Cole is one of the best-known Western journalists based in Taiwan. His 2014 book Officially Unofficial details his first several years in the country and his time working for the Taipei Times, which of course spiraled into unpleasantness, culminating in his angry breakup with the Times in 2013. Huge swathes of this book felt as if Cole was recounting various controversies he has been involved in primarily to make sure his side of the story was getting out there so it could be read and understood by everyone. Of course he has every right to do that, but I won’t necessarily trust him as an objective source of information on what went on at the Times during his tenure. (That said, I do agree that the paper has declined precipitously in the time I've lived in Taiwan, or perhaps my standards have just evolved. My subjective impression is shown by the fact that in the time I’ve lived in Taiwan, I have gone from buying a paper edition of the Times to read every day, to skimming the headlines online when I bother doing so. For me, the nadir of stupidity came in May 2014 when they ran 'Game of Thrones may be based on Taiwan' on the front page. Seriously, on page 1!) But Cole is still a compelling writer (though I never fully warmed to his writing the book in occasionally awkward 3rd-person prose) and there is no doubt that he is well-informed about Taiwan affairs. His clear writing gave me a modest education about two things that I felt I could trust him to teach me about objectively. First, I learned a lot of background information about political events in Taiwan during Cole’s tenure at the Times. I’m somewhat ashamed of this, as most of this recent history happened when I was in Taiwan and so I feel I should have been more knowledgeable already. I think I’ll have to be more observant of what’s happening in this country in the future. Second, I learned a lot about the daily life and struggle of reporting; of cultivating and maintaining contacts, of schmoozing with your contact over drinks to get useful tidbits of info out of them. I don’t have the right personality traits to be a good reporter, but Cole’s description of the life of one was genuinely interesting to me. Officially Unofficial contains Cole’s occasional rant about how he feels the hidebound, traditionalist nature of Taiwanese society is dangerously holding the country back. (He admits that many societies in the world suffer from similar problems, but he points out most of them do not sit next to extraordinarily large neighboring countries that want to annex them.) His ‘Afterword’, written midway through 2014, paints a far more optimistic picture. By this time the younger generation of Taiwanese was beginning to make its political power felt and respected, and Cole’s hopes for the country are buoyed by young activists such as Lin Ting-an and the future Sunflowers Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, all of whom he mentions in the book’s final section. We get the first appearance of the word ‘Sunflower’ in what is literally the book’s final paragraph. One almost expects a dramatic To Be Continued… at the end. [...]



First entry since 2013? Awesome.

2016-10-04T11:16:42.122+08:00

I’ve decided to start updating this blog again. I really have very little excuse not to, as I’m not snowed under with work. It’s really a matter of getting around to writing something semi-regularly. Well, I still read books on a regular basis, so I’ll start writing about them again. Recently Bookish Asia published my review of Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, which encouraged me to start putting book-reactions (they seem too short to be called reviews) on Balancing Frogs again. So here are four novels I’ve read since the beginning of 2016. Josh Fruhlinger’s The Enthusiast is a comic novel about two very different things: the Washington DC Metro, and a fictitious soap opera-style comic strip that (in this novel's universe) had its heyday back in the 1960s. What ties them together is our protagonist Kate Berkowitz and her work for an unusual public relations firm that specializes in covertly stoking enthusiasm for its clients’ products. Kate and her colleagues haunt Facebook and message boards and infiltrate in-person meetups to give people’s enthusiasm just a little nudge to help it organically grow, whether it’s for new subway cars or a film adaptation of a cult comic strip. I suppose I’m making it out to seem like a biting social satire, but in fact Fruhlinger’s book is actually a highly sympathetic exploration of some of the quirkier areas of 21st-century pop culture. I read the book because I like Fruhlinger’s site The Comics Curmudgeon, where he’s cultivated a modest online community of geeky enthusiasts. Fruhlinger’s affection for cheesy daily comic strips is obviously genuine, and he must have enjoyed crafting the ficticious ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and its heavily ironic online fan community. Mark Rosenfelder’s Against Peace and Freedom is a far-future science fiction work about politics. In a universe where human civilization has spread across dozens of star systems, a secret agent named Morgan arrives on the planet Okura, tasked with working to bring down its tyrannical government. (The narration is 2nd-person. This facilitates the fact that Morgan’s gender stays ambiguous throughout the story. Our hero eventually gets an explicit sex scene, a narrative challenge that I bet Rosenfelder had fun writing.) The writing is lighthearted, supplying a wry commentary on the often brutal violence (formenting revolution is not a nice, innocent pastime) and the reader also gets several doses of political philosophizing in the deal. As someone who read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, found the long ‘beauty of Mars’ passages to be boring, but was fascinated by the politics, this was to my taste. This was another book I read on the strength of the author’s reputation online; I’ve been aware of Mark ‘zompist’ Rosenfelder as an online personality for years, having read several of his web-based essays on politics and culture way back in the very early ‘00s. The universe of Against Peace and Freedom is a place he has clearly thought out thoroughly. I particularly appreciated the fact that although the culture of Okura is clearly derived from East Asia, rather than the West, I never detected a hint of cliched outsider-writing-about-the-East silliness. Only quibble is, I was rather befuddled by the appearance midway through of a boorish 21st-century American who gets thawed out from his cryogenic suspension, makes an ass of himself over several pages, and then disappears without having added anything worthwhile to the story. I know Rosenfelder has written other works set in this same universe; maybe Mr. Stupid American is connected to one of those? Speaking of politics, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin[...]



Delta Module 1

2013-12-08T23:16:13.517+08:00

I've posted close to nothing for several months, as I've been focusing my mental energies on work and study. On December 4, Jenna and I both took the Delta Module 1 Exam, following a several-month online course managed by International House that incorporated plenty of reading and several assessed practice assignments.I believe I turned in a thoroughly mediocre performance on the actual exam. Not bad by any means, but mediocre. I fully expect to come away with a 'Pass', unadorned with a 'Merit' or 'Distinction'. To tell the truth, I am satisfied with this -- I know I learned a lot in the run-up to the test, and I don't need the additional fancy word on my certificate.Overall the course was well-designed and worthwhile. It was the first serious online course I've ever taken and invested substantial time in (sorry, Coursera and Udacity), and it exposed me, even more than my CELTA course did, to English teaching as a serious discipline. Not to sound too hoity-toity elitist, but there are probably cram school teachers with twice my experience working in East Asia who haven't consciously thought about teaching to the extent this course forces you to.I also appreciated the online forum as a means of communicating with fellow Distance Delta students, although I didn't make use of it nearly as often as Jenna did. (Come to think of it, I think 10% of course participants probably accounted for 90% of forum posts.)I was disappointed as the course ended, as International House unceremoniously pulled the plug on the website just before we took the test on December 4. I understand the logic of shutting down the forum on test day. There's no sense in letting us East Asian candidates go online and screech 'Omigod omigod Paper 2 Task 4 is all about teaching pronunciation!!!' before candidates in Europe have even taken the test. But IH had been telling us for weeks the forum would be shuttered at midnight December 6, so I'd assumed it would go back online after test day had finished for us to spend a final few hours sharing reactions and commiserating with those feeling glum about their performance. But we got no such sense of closure.The Good:I learned a hell of a lot by studying for this test. My knowledge of English grammar is now stronger than it has been at any point in my life. In addition, I now have a much larger vocabulary of pedagogical terms than I did a couple of months ago. This is valuable not so much so that I can drop terms and impress fancy ESL people, but rather because it's carved out real estate in my brain which has been occupied by actual concrete concepts. In other words, knowing that a test can have 'face validity', 'content validity' and 'construct validity' is useful, but even more useful is having the concepts behind those terms fully developed in my head.Additionally, it was very, very good for me to feel like I should go and become familiar with what the key commentators on the state of English-language teaching have to say -- people like Lewis, Krashen, Thornbury, etc. This is my job, it's what's earning me money, and what I've read just in the past few weeks has already noticeably affected my teaching in my IELTS prep classes.And this is because I wanted to be prepared for what the actual test would throw at me. Paper Two, Task Four presents some issue in ESL teaching, such as contrasting two different approaches to class planning, or the value of teaching writing in a class environment, and asks us test-takers to comment on it. The way the test is marked, writing something stupid does not detract from your score (apart from taking up valuable time) but everything you write that's accepted earns you marks.[...]



Good Omens

2013-08-05T12:48:58.671+08:00

(image) Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Published in 1990
Published by Harper Torch

The Plot: Six thousand years after the world is created, it's time for it all to end. The Antichrist assumes human form and the armies of heaven and hell line up to do battle -- although the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, longtime frenemies who battle each other largely through witty banter -- are rather wistful and sad to see Earth go. As it happens, Armageddon is in trouble from the start, as babies are mistakenly switched and as a result the Antichrist receives the wrong upbringing...

My Reactions: This book is very well-known in the right circles, written by two of the most popular (maybe the two most popular) names in modern English lighthearted tales of the supernatural, back before either was nearly as famous as they are now. It didn't change my life. It didn't hold me in rapt attention.  But it was a pleasant read, and I snickered and giggled a lot, and on the whole it was not badly done.

Perhaps I would be more gung-ho about it if the writing style hadn't already been familiar to me from various works by Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, and Pratchett working solo. If any of these names appeal to you, you'll probably enjoy Good Omens.

I want to say something about this story's universe. At first glance, the events of this book appear to hinge on random chance. It's thanks to miscommunication among Devil-worshipping nuns -- in other words, ordinary human error -- that the Antichrist is given to the wrong family. Everything that happens subsequently, up to and including the way the Apocalypse unfolds, stems from that mistake. So it would seem this is a universe where Chaos reigns.

But this was all foreseen by the witch Agnes Nutt way back in the 1600s. It was always going to happen this way. The cosmos' vast orders of angels and demons sincerely believed the world was going to end, but they were misinformed because they couldn't see the big picture. This is, underneath it all, a deterministic universe, and primal Chaos (or the illusion thereof) is only a tool used by the hand of unfolding Fate to move people and things to the places on the cosmic chessboard where they were always going to be.

Aziraphale and Crowley make such a big deal over humans and their supposed 'free will.' But I see no free will here.



Movie: V for Vendetta

2013-08-02T16:21:55.806+08:00

In which Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving fight to free Londoners from a tyrannical dictatorship. At least I assume that's Hugo Weaving, which is something that must be taken on trust.The Plot: Britain is a repressive dictatorship headed by the autocratic High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Our story centers on Evey (Natalie Portman), a low-level employee at the state-run TV network, who meets a masked crime fighter named V (Hugo Weaving). My Reactions: I have not read the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and my ignorance will no doubt be glaringly obvious at several points in this post. I had some interest in watching this movie when it first came out, but I never got around to it.  A couple of years later it was playing on a long-distance bus and I sorta-kinda paid attention to it; what I gleaned from it was little more than 'Huh, Stephen Fry's in this'.Meanwhile, the visuals of the movie grew in popularity, as anti-establishment protestors the world over took up V's mask as an iconic symbol. V's mask is based upon the old Guy Fawkes masks that British kids used to wear, but the masks you see at demonstrations nowadays use the specific style Moore & Lloyd invented. I realize V's mask design dates all the way back to the original 1982 graphic novel, but (as is so often the case) it was the movie that propelled the story and its accompanying visual look to the attention of mass culture.So finally I decided that I ought to watch the movie properly, for the purpose of increasing my cultural literacy. I liked it, while at the same time I understood it's a movie that relies more on looking really cool than on having a coherent plot and characters. I'm not convinced the story is as substantial or as unproblematic as its blossoming fame among the young and disaffected, who I generally sympathize with, deserves. Perhaps I should read the graphic novel.If you care about spoilers stop reading here. My thoughts, in no particularly well-organized order:V is really a jerk, isn't he? His treatment of Evey is absolutely appalling. He does manage to transform her into a badass and this is a universe where being tough is an important asset, but that doesn't retroactively excuse all that he puts her through. Now, this doesn't wreck the movie, as it might if V were the sole main protagonist and we were supposed to empathize with him fully. In fact, I find it strengthens the movie, as it makes V into less of a sympathetic human and more of a symbol of an impersonal force.We never see V's face, but we are led to believe it is a horrific ruin, a wreckage of burned flesh completely devastated by fire. But there's one part of V's face that we know was spared: his lips. He can speak perfectly well, producing the full range of English consonants without impediment, including his favorite consonant, which requires an intact lower lip to produce correctly. See for yourself: try to say 'V for Vendetta' out loud without using your lips. Just once I'd like to see a tragic hero with a facial scar whose injury causes them to lisp.The fact that Stephen Fry plays himself (more or less) makes it all the more shocking when he dies. He's called by a different name in the movie, but he plays a highly cultured, homosexual, articulate, erudite comedian and TV personality, and many viewers probably saw him and thought 'Oh, this universe has a Stephen Fry too'. Then the High Chancellor's goons murder him.Speaking of which, I really feel sorry for the two guys who play High Chancellor Adam Sutler in the comedy skit that gets Fry killed. Think about it. They were probably [...]



The Prague Cemetery

2013-08-01T11:43:15.301+08:00

The Prague Cemeteryby Umberto EcoTranslated by Richard DixonPublished in 2012Published by VintageThe Plot: Simone Simonini is a forger and spy in 1890s Paris. He is our protagonist -- or shall I say one of our protagonists, for he seems to share an apartment with one Abbe Dalla Piccola, although the two men have never met. Deducing that they are probably a single individual with two personalities, they communicate with each other via a shared diary, and piece together the events of their life. Simonini is a terrible person, a sociopath who spreads mayhem wherever he goes -- which in this case includes many of the key events in 19th century French and Italian history. (In reference to Simonini's ability to influence so many disparate events, the New York Times review describes him as 'a Forrest Gump of evil'.)Reactions: I've now read every one of Eco's novels except for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. He is very good at making me feel like a simpleton who is not quite educated enough to appreciate him fully. I felt that way when I read The Island of the Day Before, and I feel that way again with The Prague Cemetery.The more familiar you are with 19th century Europe, particularly major events in Italy and France in the latter half of the century, the easier a time you'll have with this book. As for me, I know who Garibaldi is, I'm vaguely familiar with the Paris Commune, and I can give you enough information on the Dreyfus Affair to fill two, maybe three sentences, but don't ask me for details on any of these. Eco presumes his audience is up to speed on its history, and I'm sure as a result there are plenty of in-jokes and ironic asides that flew over my head.All that said, the novel held my interest, partially because of a perverse fascination I had with the character of Simonini. Not since I read Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father several years ago have I encountered such a repulsive main protagonist in a novel. Readers who cannot stand such a disagreeable character are filtered out early on, as the book opens with Simonini explaining, in quite lurid detail, exactly what he thinks of Jews. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that Simonini goes on to express equally hate-filled feelings for the Italians, the Germans, the French, and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is Simonini's anti-Semitism that remains at the heart of the novel, and drives the plot towards its final conclusion. And Simonini's vileness goes far deeper than simple bigotry. He has a knack for stabbing his comrades in the back, often in ways that cause the deaths of many innocent people.Umberto Eco is no anti-Semite. But he's fascinated by the history of human thought, and he loves his conspiracy theories, albeit as objects to play with rather than as things to believe. The book often seems like a spiritual prequel to Foucault's Pendulum, as the sprawling universe of 19th-century nuttery concerning the nefarious doings of the Jews and the Freemasons and the Catholics all turn out to be traceable back to Simonini's damaged mind and his remarkable knack for forgery. Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. Apart from possibly some background extras of trifling importance, every other person is real, and the book takes us from one historical event to another, showing us the events as they looked from Simonini's quirky perspective.As for the conceit of having the narrative alternate between Simonini and Dalla Piccola's viewpoints, the two of them almost certainly two halves of the same personality (but we don't fin[...]



The Bookseller of Kabul

2013-06-26T12:43:00.147+08:00

The Bookseller of Kabulby Asne SeierstadPublished in 2003Published by Back Bay BooksIn November 2001, journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Kabul, and soon made the acquaintance of a bookseller she called Sultan Khan. Over the next few months, she lived with Khan's family and got to know them closely. Upon her return to her native Norway, she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a look at the lives of middle-class Afghanis in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule.The picture she paints is of a socially conservative land, one where the family, not the individual, is the basic unit, and young people's decisions are made for them by the family. Any notion among Westerners that the fall of the Taliban resulted in the liberation of Afghan women is erroneous. In the society Seierstad describes, young women's lives are not their own; they are not free to make their own choices, and who they are going to marry and whether they are allowed to work outside the home are dictated by their elders.The main difference that came with the fall of the Taliban is that now women can play music as they do their sixteen hours of daily chores without the fear they will be taken to jail. That's assuming their family says it's OK, of course.In her book, Seierstad delves into the heads of several members of Khan's family. Two of the most prominent are Khan's son Mansur and his much younger sister, Leila.Mansur is torn between hating his father and wanting to earn his approval. Mansur is inefficient and lackadaisical at running the family bookstore in his father's absence, but he forces himself to become utterly cold-hearted when a former employee pilfers postcards to sell and Sultan Khan insists he be punished severely. Despite the fact that the employee's family is clearly in extremely dire financial straits, and literally on their knees begging for leniency, Mansur acts as his father's representative and brings the full weight of the law to bear on the thief, who ultimately ends up spending several years living under terrible conditions in prison.Leila, is a very different character. As the youngest of I-don't-even-remember-how-many children, Leila is the perpetual workhorse of the family, but she would dearly love to achieve a bit of independence. She wants to work as an English teacher, but there's an enormous amount of bureaucracy that she has to navigate before she can get herself hired. This is nearly impossible, with her family obligations.Now, this book is a work of narrative nonfiction. I approach this kind of writing by treating it as realistic fiction. When I read narrative nonfiction, at the outset I assume at the very least that the author has performed acts of artistry such as rearranging events for dramatic effect, or consolidating two or more people into one for clarity. If I think of these characters as people who could very easily have been real, but who aren't necessarily based on any specific people, then I can keep myself from feeling cheated when it turns out the author took liberties with reality.That is all very well and good, but when characters in a work of narrative nonfiction can be associated with specific people in real life, you get problems. 'Sultan Khan' is an invented name, but the character was drawn in enough detail that the specific real person he was based on could easily be identified, and boy oh boy was he unhappy. He took the author to court to sue her for defamation and an assault on his character. I have some sympathy. All my high-minded talk about how narrative nonfiction should be read doesn[...]



The Man from Primrose Lane

2013-06-25T14:32:24.882+08:00

The Man from Primrose Laneby David RennerPublished in 2012Published by Sarah Crichton BooksThe Man from Primrose Lane, an eccentric mitten-wearing man who lived a solitary existence in suburban Ohio, has been murdered! Not only was his death bloody (I'm talking fingers-in-a-blender bloody) and the list of suspects nonexistent, but investigation shows his identity was faked. No one knows who he really was. The years pass and the case grows cold.Eventually journalist David Neff is persuaded to begin his own investigation. Neff has grown rich and famous from the success of his true-crime book The Serial Killer's Protege, which led to the institutionalization of one of Ohio's most notorious murderers. But he and his young son have lived a life of seclusion since the mysterious death of his wife. Researching the case of the Man from Primrose Lane promises to bring David out of his shell. Incidentally, David's wife died in a suicidal car crash the same day the Man from Primrose Lane was murdered, but any rational person would agree that there couldn't possibly be any connection between the two deaths. Right?David Neff is clearly based, at least in part, on James Renner himself. Renner is an Ohio-based crime journalist who once published a book called The Serial Killer's Apprentice, though this was a compilation of Renner's previously published stories and not as explosively original as Neff's similarly-titled book. This strikes me as an in-joke rather than a case of Mary Sue.Renner's real-life experiences help build the apparent verisimilitude of the novel's version of Ohio.  For roughly the first third of the novel, the story appears to stay within the boundaries of the crime fiction genre, despite the accumulating bits and pieces of oddness that promise that something very, very strange is going on.And then things get explicitly science-fictional, and I almost feel bad for any SF-hating reader who was duped into reading the book by the fact it does not go out of its way to advertise its sciencefictionality.I say, bring it on. I love banging genres together. I love the sound it makes. And don't worry, hardcore science fiction fans: Renner knows what he's doing when he plays with the tropes. I won't say too much about what's really going on, but I will say that Renner thought through the implications of how this universe works as well as any established SF author, and as far as I can tell the narrative never contradicts its own internal logic.For all that's good about the novel, I do have to agree with Kirkus Reviews that it's slightly discomfiting that (a) a certain Cindy, who is the only female character who doesn't need to be saved by a big, strong David Neff, is 'made to look like an incompetent, vindictive bitch', and (b) said Cindy appears to be remarkably superfluous to the story, considering the amount of time spent on her. (Not that this is in any way provable, but I got the feeling that she was a real person, or composite of real people, that the author knew and disliked.) Point (a) above is surely unintentional and could have been avoided by fleshing her out more; fix that and point (b) probably would have gone unnoticed.That aside, this novel does a tremendous job meshing the genres together. Whether you are likely to enjoy this depends on the degree to which you like the two constituent genres (bear in mind the writing style is primarily that of hardboiled crime fiction) and the degree to which you enjoy dumping them both in a bowl and mixing them together.[...]



Pretty Monsters

2013-06-18T15:45:13.170+08:00

Pretty Monstersby Kelly LinkThis collection of Kelly Link short stories entertained me marvelously. Link's an SF (speculative fiction, the big-tent genre) writer, mostly fantasy with forays into science-fictional and horror territory, and usually with a good amount of sardonic humor.These stories are of diverse settings and moods, and I assume are a good representative sample of Link's oeuvre.  (Aside from these, my Kelly Link exposure has been a couple of stories I heard in audio form on Podcastle: Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Hortlak.)All of these stories center around young people, and I suppose that one who wished to classify everything could call these stories 'Young Adult'. Bear in mind that these aren't kid's stories, in case you have pejorative associations for that term.So what do we have in this volume?The Wrong Grave is about a teenage boy, Miles, whose girlfriend Bethany was killed in an accident. An aspiring poet (but not a very good one), Miles stuck the only copy of some of his poetry into her coffin in a romantic gesture, but a year later he regrets what he's done and he digs up her grave to get the poems back. Miles apparently manages to exhume the wrong teenage girl, who gets rather annoyed at Miles.This is a universe where a just-exhumed dead person can walk and move and talk, and everyone treats it as normal. I like this. This is something you probably couldn't pull off in a novel. If reanimated dead people are not an amazing sight in this universe, it stands to reason that they are not uncommon, and that demands acknowledgement that this is a different society than the one you and I live in, and then you have to pull out the worldbuilding kit. Make no mistake, that could make for a really fun novel, but it would be different from what Link is doing here.It's a feature of the short-story form that the notion of a world with unusually verbose dead people can be pulled off successfully with no explanation necessary.The Wizards of Perfil is set in a fantasy world with a roughly 19th-century level of technology. A family fleeing war sells off daughter Halsa, who had incessantly bullied her siblings and her orphaned cousin Onion, to an agent of the legendary Wizards of Perfil, so as to have more money and fewer mouths to feed. Halsa possesses telepathic powers; so does Onion, and this allows them to maintain a channel of communication as the geographical separation between them grows.This story's a charmer. Don't have much to say about it other than that I like the worldbuilding and the more-hinted-at-than-actually-delineated magic system.Magic for Beginners is... well, drat. Look, in 1939 a guy named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby that didn't use the letter 'e', just to show he could. I'm going to have to do something similar if I want to describe this story without using the word 'quirky'. I feel obliged to do this because many people have a severe allergic reaction to the Q-word, and it would be a shame if they miss out on Link's story just because I describe it as q***** twice in the same sentence, which could happen if I don't pay attention.This story is about a teen named Jeremy, and his family (including a best-selling horror father who specializes in books about giant spiders), and his friends in Vermont. And it's also about the wonderfully creative little TV show called The Library that they all watch.The Library is a likably eccentric show, put out on an irregular schedule, which h[...]



I have every right to do this!

2013-06-16T12:47:15.905+08:00

Say you see a guy named Bob. Bob is doing something that is really harmful and unfair to other people. Or maybe he's just making an ass of himself in public and doesn't seem to realize it.

You call him out. You tell him what a jerk he's being. Bob's response is that he has a right to do what he's doing, and he's not doing anything illegal. (Even though you never said he was doing anything illegal.)

When this happens, you are almost certainly right and Bob is indeed almost certainly being an ass.

This little rule of thumb can most often be applied to Internet conversations:

butthead69: LOL i heard he's dating a girl from bazorkistan, bazorkistanians are all terrierists and smell like farts, why can't he get an american gf
cosmo_nerd: My mother is a Bazorkistani immigrant. Racist lowlifes like you disgust me.
butthead69: hey dumbass ever heard of free speech? you can't take away my first amendment rites you nazi scumbagg

But really, you can apply it to almost any situation. What really crystallized it for me was a moment in a recent Planet Money podcast titled When Patents Hit the Podcast. There's this guy (not named Bob) who claims he invented podcasting back in the 1990s and now he wants all podcasters, including the little independent ones with no money, to pay him a licensing fee. (He did patent many of the basic principles behind podcasting back then; these patents subsequently sat forgotten and did nothing and inspired no one until he had a recent 'Oh, yeah!' moment.)

When the NPR reporter asked him what he would say to people who accused him of being a patent troll, charging people to use a bridge someone else had built, he explained that he was doing nothing illegal. Everything he did was allowed under the laws of the U.S. patent system. This would be an appropriate response if the NPR reporter had said people were accusing him of breaking the law. But she hadn't.

I don't claim to be knowledgeable about patents, and it's possible that this guy is making the world a better place (in a way that's unclear to me) by demanding that podcasters pay him. But he didn't say that, unless NPR maliciously edited the piece. Or he could say it was the principle of the thing. But he didn't.

And that's the point. It's not just that when my hypothetical generic jerk Bob says 'Nuh-uh, I have a RIGHT to do this!' he's answering an objection that no one raised. It's that he's doing this instead of explaining why he's right, or why he's not actually hurting anyone. 



Sea of Poppies

2013-06-13T15:27:11.098+08:00

Sea of Poppiesby Amitav GhoshPublished in 2008Published by John MurrayHere we have a full-fledged action-adventure novel, full of fighting and danger and valiant last-minute escapes and bad guys coming to satisfyingly violent ends and other bad guys living to fight another day. Sea of Poppies is the first novel in a trilogy, you see, and Amitav Ghosh has officially hooked me.Every character with a narrative POV eventually ends up on the Ibis, a ship on the Indian Ocean, where each individual person aboard is probably harboring some sort of deep dark secret. If there seem to be people who aren't, that's just because the narrative hasn't seen fit to tell us about them yet.But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's the 1830s and Britain rules the seas.Britain also makes a great deal of money off of its overseas trade; it controls the production of opium in India and makes huge profits by selling the opium to millions of addicts in China. This is pure and simple exploitation on both counts; agents of the British Empire use a combination of economic pressure and hooliganism to force the Indian peasantry to grow poppies as a cash crop rather than allowing them to be self-sufficient, and when the economic overseers of China want to limit the amount of opium the country can import, Britain prepares for war.Do we detect a whiff of politics in this story? Yes, we do, and if the preceding paragraph makes you roll your eyes at Ghosh's politics, then you'd better get ready to roll your eyes a lot. For the rest of us, Ghosh does quite a bit of riffing on his Western characters' tendency to call slavery 'freedom' and economic bullying 'free trade'.He makes the West appear vaguely ridiculous in payback for its world-dominating ways back in the 1800s, but he includes sympathetic Westerners and bad, thuggish Easterners in his cast of characters. Of course he does. If he just wrote of evil Westerners and virtuous Asians, he's be little more than an unimaginative hack.(That said, I did notice that of the two sympathetic Western POV characters, one is culturally more Bengali than French or English, and the other is a fair-skinned man of partially African ancestry who must hide his true heritage. One could derive the unfortunate implication that if you're both a Westerner and a sympathetic character in Ghosh's fiction, there must be a way to see you as not really Western, at least not according to 19th Century standards.)As the title implies, everything in this book ultimately comes down to the opium trade. We begin in rural northern India, along the banks of the Ganges in 1838, where peasant woman Deeti supervises her poppy fields as her opium addict husband works at the opium factory in Ghazipur. Her husband's habit has taken its toll on his constitution, and when he becomes too weak to continue to work and support Deeti's daughter, she is thrust into a terrible family-based dilemma. (Every Ghosh novel I've read has featured a woman who is mistreated by a family she was not born into, and generally it's an older woman who orchestrates the mistreatment.) She eventually ends up in Calcutta and her fate converges with that of the remaining characters, who come from a variety of backgrounds in Indian society and from abroad.As I said, I am hooked. Some very minor qualms:I was confused by a bit of muddled motivation that makes it unclear what drives a certain person to do a certain thing. There's this young woman who's being rai[...]



The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

2013-05-30T17:31:22.746+08:00

The Forty Days of Musa Daghby Franz WerfelEnglish translation by Geoffrey Dunlop and James ReidelPublished in 1933In 1915, during World War I, the government of the Ottoman Empire took measures to expel its Armenian minority, which was relatively wealthy and generally Christian. Expulsion turned to eradication as entire communities of Armenians were brutally transferred, death-march style (causing the deaths of tens of thousands along the way), to horrific relocation camps (where untold thousands more perished). When the relocation orders came to the Armenian communities of Hatay, the populace revolted; the locals retreated up the coastal mountain of Musa Dagh and dug trenches. Several waves of Ottoman troops tried and failed to drive them out of their makeshift fortress. The Armenians held out for fifty-three days before they were rescued by French naval forces. (Werfel shortened the siege to forty days because he liked the religious resonance of the number.)One of the Armenian men who defended Musa Dagh was my wife's great-great-grandfather. It's the ancestral meaning the story has for her that was the reason why she and then I read Werfel's book. (It's also why we visited the Musa Dagh region when we were in Turkey last year.) And what's more, the book is an important work of historical fiction; it is still the best-known literary work to deal with the events for which the word 'genocide' was first coined.Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction. All of the Armenian characters are heavily fictionalized, although Werfel does delve into the heads of several non-Armenian actual historical figures such as Enver Pasha and Johannes Lepsius. Werfel shortened the length of the siege from 53 to 40 days, and if Wikipedia's figure of 18 Armenian deaths in the fighting is accurate, then Werfel substantially inflated the death toll.But that does not diminish the struggle of the actual Armenians who defended their families on that mountain in 1915. Even if the number of deaths in actual history did not reach the novel's total, Werfel nevertheless very accurately conveyed the stakes involved. The Armenians of Musa Dagh really did face almost certain death when the expulsion orders reached them; their only options were to submit meekly to the authorities who wanted them eliminated, or to reluctantly take up their arms and fight. Knowing that Werfel made some dramatic embellishments does not negate the facts of what really happened in 1915.As for the book, I had mixed impressions overall. It took me a long time to read -- I must admit that between the dates when I started and finished Musa Dagh, I polished off three other novels. (I don't remember if the book actually took me forty days to read, but it'd have been amusing if it had.) That said, it's very readable, especially in the book's latter half when things are moving much more quickly. (Werfel makes use of the trick of telling the reader directly that something awful is about to happen, several pages before the details are revealed; I suppose I should consider it a too-easy way of snagging the reader's attention, but it worked on me.)The characters, for me, were a mixed bag. I never warmed to chief protagonist Gabriel Bagradian. Especially in the latter half, he felt less like a real person and more like a literary character. Of course, a literary character is exactly what he is, but he's not supposed to seem that way when I'm i[...]