Wednesday, April 06, 2016

NYTimes Interactive Project on Race

NYTimes has a touching introduction to some of the problems with race in the US: I'm not sure if it's the economics of the paper or the impatience of the readers or that of the editors that prevents it, but I really wish that they could have gone much deeper into the topic. As such, it comes across as the introduction one might get at college, that triggers emotions in the moment, but just doesn't do enough to provoke change. Mefi

Friday, January 02, 2015

Breakfast at Tiffany's : Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's
By Truman Capote

I've seen the film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, multiple times and overall, except for the ending, the film does a pretty good job at capturing the tone of and the personalities of the protagonists in this breezy short novel.

Capote's writing is phenomenal.  What is really eye-catching is Capote's imagery. For example:
  Holly was alone. She answered the door at once; in fact, she was on her way out - white satin dancing pumps and quantities of perfume announced gala intentions. "Well, idiot," she said, and playfully slapped me with her purse. "I'm in too much of a hurry to make up now. We'll smoke the pipe tomorrow, okay?"
  "Sure, Lulamae. If you're still around tomorrow."
  She took off her dark glasses and squinted at me. It was as though her eyes were shattered prisms, the dots of blue and gray and green like broken bits of sparkle. "He told you that," she said in a small, shivering voice. "Oh, please. Where is he?" She ran past me into the hall. "Fred!" she called down the stairs. "Fred! Where are you, darling?"
And I'm amazed at his knack for conveying personalities, moods and little moments in such few words:
I didn't trust my voice to tell the news;as soon as she came to the door, her eyes squinty with sleep, I thrust the letter at her. It seemed as though she'd had time to read sixty pages before she handed it back. "I wouldn't let them do it, not if they don't pay you," she said, yawning. Perhaps my face explained she'd misconstrued, that I'd not wanted advice but congratulations: her mouth shifted from a yawn into a smile. "Oh, I see. It's wonderful. Well, come in," she said. "We'll make a pot of coffee and celebrate. No. I'll get dressed and take you to lunch."
The other short stories are also worthwhile reading as well, all of which tell stories of love and friendship with equally detailed characters, imagery and emotional hooks, particularly A Christmas Memory. 

I'm embarrassed to say that this is the first time I've read Capote, but I'll definitely be picking up more of his works.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

To Live : Yu Hua

To Live
Yu Hua

Fantastic and touching.

The novel is structured as a minor narrator character, who is listening to an old man tell his life story.  The secondary narrator occasionally jumps in to describe the old man's current actions, but primarily this is about the old man's life.

Similar to Red Sorghum, the narrative focuses on the personal details and actions of the protagonist, but it just so happens that his life happens during some of the major cultural events in China's last century: the Chinese civil warthe Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution

The sentences tend to be short, like the is actually someone telling a story.  It certainly makes the events told and personalities described easily digestible. 

  After shouting, even my father-in-law himself thought he was a bit out of line. Softening his voice a bit, he said, "Don't blame me for being cruel. It's all because of that animal's wild behavior that things have gotten to this stage."
  After he finished, he turned toward me and yelled, "I'm leaving Fengxia for your family. The child in Jazhen's stomach will belong to the Chen family!"
  My mother stood to one side crying. Wiping away her tears, she said, "How am I supposed to make this up to the Xu family ancestors?"
  Carrying a bag, Jiazhen emerged from the hut.
  "Get in the carriage," my father-in-law ordered.
  Jiazhen turned her head to look at me.  When she got to the carriage she turned around to look at me once more, and then to look at my mother before getting into the sedan. It was then that Fengxia came running from out of nowhere. As she as she saw her mother in the wedding carriage, she wanted to go along. She was halfway in when Jiazhen's hand pushed her out.
  My father-in-law waved his hand to the sedan-chair carriers, and the carriage was lifted up. Inside, Jiazhen began to wail with grief.
  "Sound the drums!" my father-in-law ordered.
  More than ten young men began beating and banging on drums and gongs with all their might, drowning out the sound of Jiazhen's crying. As the carriage took to the road, my father-in-law, holding his long gown,walked just as quickly as the carriage bearers. My mom with her twisted little bound feet followed pathetically behind; only when she reached the edge of the village did she stop.
Despite the straightforward narrative, however, there is a recurring theme that for this protagonist to truly live, he must bear the burden of suffering and losing loved ones.  Unlike the nihilistic tone of say the film Bicycle Thieves, the tone here is of unquestioning acceptance that this is how things are and must be, neither optimistic nor pessimistic, just neutral.

It's difficult to go more into details without spoiling the novel, but To Live is a simple-to-read and touching novel that is a good starting point for learning about China's recent history.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What do Women Want? : Daniel Bergner

What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
By Daniel Bergner

There is a fine line authors tiptoe to cover science research well.  On one hand you do not want to misrepresent or over-represent the findings of scientific research with its very specific and precise experiments and findings. On the other hand, you need to provide analogies, narratives and/or a human aspect story, in order to make the science understandable and relate-able to the non-science reader,.  Unfortunately, this book just does not get that balance right.

Don't get me wrong, the science is fascinating and delves into findings that are culturally uncomfortable to talk about.  And Bergner does a decent job describing what questions researchers are trying to address and how they go about their experiments. For example, Meredith Chivers showed video clips of erotica to female subjects who were not only hooked up to a plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow to the vagina, but also were rating their own feelings of arousal on a keypad.  Clips included lone masturbation scenes, straight male-female porn, gay male-male porn, lesbian female-female porn, and even sex between bonobos.
  Chiver's objective numbers, tracking what's technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, variations in degree, one of them curious: the humping bonobos didn't spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, the chiseled man ambling alone on the beach - an Adonis, nothing less - lost out to the fornicating apes.
  There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians... amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians' blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn...
 The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced indifference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted - even less linked to what was going on between their legs.
While Bergner does note that Chivers is cautious about not wanting to "declaim more than the data could support," clearly these are experiments that raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. 

My issue is more with Bergner's writing and his approach to the human aspect angle. For example, in the following paragraph, Bergner iterates through and compares the physical traits of researcher Marta Meana's physical traits to those of Annie Lennox's.  He does this all to build up to the subject of relationship intimacy and its impact on female lust.  Wait, what?  What do the researcher's physical traits have anything to do with intimacy?
... there was a poster from an Annie Lennox concert Meana had been to. Lennox's piercing, incantatory voice... seemed almost audible sometimes as Meana spoke... She then laid out, without judgment, without lament, some of the inescapable realities of lust. Meana's face was round while Lennox's was lean; Meana's bangs were pixie-ish while Lennox's hair was shorn half an inch from her skull; Meana's voice didn't hold the singer's unremitting insistence. But there was a shared impatience with the tales people tell themselves about desire. Meana's features were nimble, expressive; her mouth twisted occasionally, faintly, into something akin to a grimace. This happened when she talked about the legion of couples counselors who held to the idea that, especially for women, incubating intimacy would lead to better sex.  
It is not the only time Bergner makes sure to describe the physical appearances of the female researchers.  Here's the very first page: 
When Chivers and I first met seven years ago, she was in her mid-thirties. She wore high-heeled black boots that laced up almost to her knees and skinny, rectangular glasses. Her blond hair fell over a scoop-necked black top. She was a young, but distinguished scientist in a discipline whose name, sexology, sounds something like a joke,...

There is a section in the book on vanity's role in female sexuality.  Perhaps the most generous explanation for Bergner's penchant for these physical descriptions is an awkward attempt at complimenting the researchers. However, it is the not-so-generous explanation that I lean toward - that this is a male author with his own biases, who is letting a fantasy of female sexology researchers, come to surface.

There were also a few passages, which I won't quote here, where Bergner seems to attempt to wax poetic, devoid of any coverage of scientific research and it just does not work.

All in all, it's a net positive to get exposure to the science going on, which is some very thought-provoking stuff.   But unfortunately some of the surrounding writing is a bit of a slog to ignore / get through.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Stoner : John Williams

By John Williams

The novel starts off with a seemingly depressing two paragraph bio, denoting just how insignificant the eponymous protagonist is:
  William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
  An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.
Immediately afterwards, the novel launches into William Stoner's life in detail and lo and behold, although the bio is accurate, his life is quite full and interesting. He stumbles upon a love for his English literature.
  Stoner drew back. "What do you mean?" he asked and head something like fear in his voice.
  Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stone saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
  "But don'tyou know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."
  Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office reced. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
  "I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
  "How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
  "It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
  It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential.
The recurring theme seems to be about finding love for something or someone and then about facing significant challenges to pursuing them. Stoner later falls in love with a woman and marries her, but not a week after the wedding, it is clear that their relationship is doomed.  His wife goes from being passively resistant to the relationship to taking on an active nemesis-like role, particularly after they have a daughter, where she drives as deep of a divide between Stoner and his daughter as possible.  Meanwhile in his university life, a talented professor, Hollis Lomax arrives and proceeds to make Stoner's professional life, hellish through political machinations.  Later on, Stoner eventually finds true love with another woman, but both Lomax and Stoner's wife end up challenging his happiness there as well. 

You could also make the case is that it's about an introvert's struggle through life, where Stoner clearly loves and is knowledgeable about English literature; however, really struggles when it comes to defending against those who can use social relationships as weapons. 

The introduction has a quote from Williams on his viewpoint:
I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job - a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher... I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.
I think it is interesting that Williams thinks that simply finding and truly knowing the love of your life, whether or not it's "successful" is sufficient to say that your life was worthwhile.  I don't happen to agree with him, but I think that just the fact that Stoner elicits thinking about your philosophy on your life makes it more than a worthwhile read.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Round House : Louise Erdrich

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich

A really well-done novel.

Joe is the thirteen year old Native American protagonist/narrator.  A crime befalls his family, and the novel describes his coming-of-age, while working through with the emotional damaging effects of the crime on his parents and him.

A lot of the expository sections, particularly those that describe the episodes of Joe and his three friends reminded of the film, Stand by Me.  In terms of the pacing, the tone and the actual stories, in which they play, get in trouble and fall in love, they tread on familiar ground, but are done well.

The parts that lift this work above other coming-of-age stories are the ones describing Joe's emotional states. Erdrich's word choices and analogies are just particularly striking:
  I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart. I didn't want to blurt out the sound. I didn't want to give a voice to this roil of sensation. But I was naked and tiny before its power. I had no choice. I muffled the sounds I made so that I alone could hear them come out of me, gross and foreign. I lay on the floor, let fear cover me, and I tried to keep breathing while it shook me like a dog shakes a rat.
  I lay under this spell for maybe half an hour, and then it went away. I hadn't known whether it would or not. I had clenched my whole body so tightly that it hurt to let go. I was sore when I got up off the floor, like an old man with joint pains. I shuffled slowly up the stairs to my bed. Pearl had stayed by me all along. She'd huddled next to me. I kept her with me now. As I fell into a darker sleep, I understood that I had learned something. Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass.
Also, Joe's relationship with his parents are well-written: it's refreshingly loving, honest, but still anchored in reality with nuanced differences in opinion and feelings of teenage confusion.
He came downstairs sweating again, and tole me that every night at six o'clock I was to be home for dinner, which we'd bring upstairs and eat together. Like a family again, he said. We were starting this regimen now. I took a deep breath and carried up the tablecloth. Again, though my mother was angry, my father opened the shades and even a window, to let in a breeze. We brought a salad and a baked chicken up the stairs, plus the plates, glasses, silverware, and a pitcher of lemonade. Perhaps a drop of wine tomorrow night, to make something festive of it, Dad said without hope. He brought a bouquet of flowers he'd picked from the garden that she hadn't seen yet. He put them in a small painted vase. I looked at the green sky on that vase, the willow, the muddy water and awkwardly painted rocks. I was to become overly familiar with this glazed scene during thse dinners because I didn't want to look at my mother, propped up staring wearily at us as if she'd just been shot, or rolled into a mummy pretending to be in the afterlife. My father tried to keep a conversation going every night, and when I had exhausted my meager store of the day's doings, he forged on, a lone paddler on an endless lake of silence, or maybe rowing upstream.
Lastly, the story is set in a Native American reservation and almost all Native American characters. I am unfamiliar with the culture at all, but I thought this was done well.  She was able to mix in the general aspects of any teenage boy growing up in the US (Joe and his friends are Star Trek fans, they sometimes sneak out to drink and smoke) with activities more specific to their culture (picking up
"grandfather" stones for the sweat lodge, the cultural acceptance of visions in dreams), without the exotic-ification or the "look at these interesting things I, as an outsider, know of this culture" proud tone that so too many authors fall prey to.

All in all, this novel was both easy-to-read as well as thought-provoking.

Friday, October 03, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad : Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan

This is a non-linearly structured novel, with each chapter showing the perspective of a different character.  All of the characters relate to at least one other character; however, each chapter does not describe the same time frame (i.e. there is a bit of bouncing back and forth in time from one chapter to another).

So the good: Egan's writing draws you in and can absolutely dazzle at times.  In particular, I found chapter 10 to just stick out as a really tightly written, emotionally nuanced section.  (I quickly realized I had read it before - it was actually selected as a short story in the 2011 Best American Short Stories Series).  Other chapters, however, also are successful in portraying unique personalities in situations that are engaging to want to read about.

The bad: Non-linearly structured narratives were novel and exciting for me, back in the 90's, what with films like Run Lola Run, Go, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia and Memento bringing the structure to the mainstream and my having read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five during that period.  In this novel, Egan does not bring a new spin to it and in particular, the super intertwining relationships between the characters feels both forced and tired.  Secondly, the non-linear narratives really live or die by how well-done the end-reveal of how the different strands relate to one another and here, well, the ending was ok, but it just didn't really pop.

With that being said, this was a fast, relatively fun read and if I get a chance, I might pick up another of Egan's works, just purely out of appreciation for her writing ability.