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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West : Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West
By Cormac McCarthy

Like Phillip Meyer's The Son, this novel not only describes the relentlessness and unforgiving nature of the West during the formative times, but also the tough, chaotic and unpredictably violent people it attracted.

A few notes on the form.  First, the protagonist is never named and is referred to as "the kid." He uses physical violence to survive: think of if the protagonist from A Clockwork Orange was by himself in the West.  Beat and kill first, then take the money, food, etc.

Second, the narrative initially focuses on the kid, but he later joins up with a group of men, who are paid to hunt and scalp native Americans and who either are as or even more chaotically violent than s the kid.  The narrative shifts focus to cover the group, to the point where there are swaths of text, where the kid is not mentioned at all.

Lastly, and I am not a master of grammar, but the novel starts off with a fascinating initial tense (past continuous?):

  The kid wasnt going to do that and he saw no use in discussing it. He kicked the man in the jaw. The man went down and got up again. He said I'm goin to kill you.
  He swung with the bottle and the kid ducked and he swung again and the kid stepped back. When the kid hit him the man shattered the bottle against the side of his head. He went off the boards into the mud and the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye. The kid was fending with his hands and they were slick with blood. He kept trying to reach into his boot for his knife.
  Kill your ass, the man said. They slogged about in the dark of the lot, coming out of their boots. The kid had his knife now and they circle crabwise and when the man lurched at him he cut the man's shirt open. The man threw down the bottleneck and unsheathed an immense bowieknife from behind his neck. His hat had come off and his black and ropy locks swung about his head and he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant.
A few other notes: there is not a strong plot-line.  It more follows the kid / the group's travels through the west and their series of violence, but in doing so, you get a sense of the environment and the different personalities.

The optimist's daughter : Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter
By Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter focuses on Laurel McKelva, a young widow, who returns to New Orleans to see her father, before he passes away from complications of an eye surgery.  It then describes her dealing with the death and the tensions between her and young step-mother, as well as her with other small community members, who have their own agenda.

I was slightly reminded of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? when reading this.  It comes nowhere as close to being as biting and acidic as that classic, but each character, even minor ones, have their own distinct (irrational) personality and the conflicts due to these difference comes across in dialogue.
  "I couldn't save him." He laid a hand on the sleeve of each woman, standing between them. He bent his head, but that did not hide the aggrivement, indignation, that was in his voice. "He's gone, and his eye was healing."
  "Are you trying to tell me you let my husband die?" Fay cried.
"He collapsed." Fatigue had pouched the doctor's face, his cheeks hung gray. He kept his touch on their arms.
  "You picked my birthday to do it on!" Fay screamed out, just as Mrs. Martello came out of the room. She closed the door behind her. She was carrying a hamper. She pretended not to see them as she drummed past on her heels.
  Laurel felt the Doctor's hand shift to grip her arm; she had been about to go straight to the unattended. He began walking the two women toward the elevators. Laurel became aware that he was in evening clothes.
  At the elevator he got in with them, still standing between them. "Maybe we asked too much of him," he said grudgingly. "And yet he didn't have to hold out much longer." He looked protestingly at the lighted floors flashing by. "I'd been waiting to know how well that eye would see!" 
The above passage gives an example of the level of distinctness of all three personalities: Fay (the step-mother), impetuous and entitled, the Doctor, rather emotionally clueless in responding to an unexpected death (caring more about how the eyesight would have turned out rather than the two members affected by the death) and Laurel, quietly reflecting and absorbing.

I would not be surprised if this novel is commonly taught in classrooms and dissected, since there's a lot of details to think on, (the first of which that I would bring up being the unusual title.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist : Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist
By Frans de Waal

Enjoyable and interesting.   de Waal discusses research on how bonobos, chimps and other animals empathize and live by social behavior rules, which ensure smooth social relationships.  He posits that human ethics/morality developed in a bottom-up fashion, evolving from emotions and good day-to-day social interaction behaviors, rather than in a top-down approach of religion dictating good ethical behavior.  In this manner, he argues that ethical and moral behavior existed long before any organized religion and can therefore exist in a society without any central religion.

I found his description of the research on animal behavior to be the most interesting.  He particularly focuses on bonobos, since they are unusual for the ape family: the groups are led by females, and bonobos are comparatively peaceful (i.e. unlike chimps, who are highly territorial and will brutally kill others, it's possible for two separate groups of bonobos to merge or coexist with one another.)  However, he does describe experiments and anecdotes with a number of varying animals, which demonstrate psychology and social traits, which are very familiar to us.

For example, a story of how bonobos care about the social welfare of others:
Apes do seem to worry about the possible death of others... Upon hearing sudden screams in the swamp forest, fieldworkers found a male, Malusu, crouching with a metal snare around his hand... Other bonobos unfastened the snare from the lianas, and tried to remove it from Malusu's hand. He kept getting stuck, however, and was left behind while the others traveled to the dry forest where they usually slept. The next morning, these bonobos did something never observed before: they returned over a mile distance straight to the same spot where they had last seen Malusu. Once there, they slowed down and searched around. Given their knowledge of snares, the bonobos may have made the connection with the loss of a group member. They failed to find Malusu, but a month later he rejoined the community.  Despite a permanently mangled hand, he had survived his ordeal.
Some of their experiments demonstrate that apes have a psychological sense of fairness:
This became an immensely popular experiment in which one [capuchin] monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task.  The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings... The monkey receiving a cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart.
He also gets into the environment of scientific testing and specifically, how scientist bias in believing that humans are unique, negatively influences research:
This bias was ignored not too long ago when humans were considered good at face recognition. Apes had done poorly on the same tests as applied to humans with the same stimuli, which meant that the apes had been tested on human faces. I call this the "anthropocentric bias" in ape research, which is responsible for much misinformation.  When one of my co-workers in Atlanta, Lisa Parr, used the hundreds of photographs I had shot in Arnhem to test chimpanzees on portraits of their own species, they excelled at it. Seeing the portraits on a computer screen, they were even able to tell which juveniles were offspring of which females, doing so without personally knowing the pictured chimps.
His intention in bringing up research into empathy, social behavior and fairness of bonobos and chimps is to make the link that humans may have similarly developed their sense of ethics and morals from being in a social communities, well before organized religion.  I found this linkage to be rather weak.  As de Waal's focus is in animal research, he does not go into any similar human psychology experiments, which would make this point more explicit.

With that being said, he does have some nuanced thoughts on the current atheist vs believer and science vs religion 'war' taking place in American media/society.  His thinking goes along the line that it's completely feasible for a society to be ethical and moral without organized religion.  He, however, disagrees with neo-atheists' view that 1) those who believe in religion should be mocked and 2) religion should be replaced with science and rationality:
Science isn't the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the "naturalistic fallacy" and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been very much involved in the genocidal machine... Children had been sown together to create conjoined twins, live humans had been operated on without anesthesia... I have never forgotten this dark postwar period, during which every scientist who spoke with a German accent was suspect.  American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics...
  ...As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior... While I do welcome a science of morality, I can't fathom calls for science to determine human values. Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? ... I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality's handmaiden.
Lastly, I should mention that de Waal also refers to the works of the artist, Hieronymus Bosch, frequently throughout the book.  He mentions on the first page: "I was born in Den Bosch, the Dutch city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself", so clearly the works of Bosch seem personally special to him.  However, his descriptions of the works and his attempts to link to the other topics were both weak and distracting to me, particularly without being able to see the works being described.

All in all, the research and points that de Waal does explore and discuss were interesting enough to make this a worthwhile read.

Monday, June 02, 2014

If White Kids Die : Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die
By Dick J. Reavis

I met an older Caucasian gentleman in a bar, who to my utter surprise told me that he had participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's.  He ended up recommending this short memoir, written by another Caucasian volunteer in the movement.

From the get-go, Reavis gives a disclaimer that he was simply a foot-soldier in the movement, so while he has some interactions with the more well-known people of the movement, he solely had limited view into what was going on locally.  I actually found this view really refreshing and much more accessible. 

I loved his a first-person perspective on the atmosphere...
On two or three streets, in blocks just east of Strawberry [street], an oddly interracial pattern had evolved. Blacks lived on one side of these blocks, north or south, and whites lived on the other. Late in the afternoons, they'd gaze at each other from their front porches, never crossing the pavements to exchange neighborly news. Those blocks were, I always thought, slices from divided Berlin: wary encampments, living cheek by jowl.
... and the context he's able to provide:
 In the South from Reconstruction until 1964 - and in some places, afterwards - all social arrangements reflected a caste system based on color. Under penalty of law, whites and blacks used separate bathrooms, eateries, water fountains, etc. Blacks weren't permitted to try on clothing at department stores, nor to be on the streets of white residential districts after sundown. The regime was so thorough that the Southern Building Code called for racially separate waiting rooms in bus stations, hospital offices, and the like. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly removed these barriers, but it couldn't always reach into behaviors governed by custom: blacks weren't customarily permitted to enter the front doors of white people's houses, for example, and no law could give them entry there.
From how other documentaries and history books are written, I don't think one would ever get the sense of how loosely structured the movement was and that were tensions between local and national efforts:

  Then he explained.
  "You see, SCLC has a strategy. SNCC and sometimes some of us call it, 'Local failure, national success.' What that means is that SCLC goes into a place, gets the existing leadership to back its plan, and then creates a crisis that will bring in TV and the press. When they do that, see it puts pressure on the politicians up in Washington to pass the kind of bills that we need."
  I was at last learning the basics, but I didn't like what I heard.
  "Dr. King comes in," he said, "at the point of the crisis, to bring it to a head or to dramatize it. He doesn't stay there afterwards, he doesn't go beforehand. That's not his role."
  "Now, the trouble with the strategy," he continued, "is that it's just what it says, 'local failure, national success.'  People lose their jobs, get evicted, things like that.
  "If you go back there [to Selma] now, you'll find that a lot of people are disgusted with the Movement. They'll feel like that they've been left holding the bag. They'll say, 'Where is Dr. King now? He's run out on us,' because they don't understand.
I think with all the accusations of racism today over people publicly saying inappropriate words, folks may have forgotten that racism isn't solely words.  As described in this memoir, it's a truly awful sense of powerlessness, simply because of your race.
A few days later, Charlie, still a prisoner, was brought to a Linden courtroom for trial. The sheriff, the judge, and his assistants began furtively paging through law books, apparently perplexed. This went on for twenty minutes before Charlie was called to the bench. "Charlie," the judge said, following  the Southern custom of addressing blacks by first names only. "You were brought here on a charge of Peeping Tom. But we can't find any law against being a Peeping Tom. So we're going to change the charge to Public Disturbance. We'll bring you back for trial in two weeks." The bailiffs took Charlie away.
Lastly, there are subtleties and shades of racism (that still exist today). That they had to split hairs when it comes to terrible conditions is pretty gut-wrenching.  
These incidents showed me Cooper's understanding of his role. He saw himself as being the man in charge of stopping or slowing the Movement. That's why he'd ordered the arressts on the driver's license charges, and that's why he had bent the truth in his testimony at my vagrancy trial. He felt that persecuting us was the duty of lawmen - but that it was not a job for uncertified racists, for Klansmen and the like. He was a by-the-book racist. Not all Southern police chiefs were so restrained and the Marengo sheriff's office was not so restrained. I concluded that under the prevailing political conditions, we were lucky to have Cooper as Chief.
All in all, this was really eye-opening to read and I whole-hardheartedly recommend it.

Martin Dressler : Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler
By Steven Millhauser

An odd one this. 

The novel follows the eponynmous Martin Dressler, from when he's a boy, helping out his father at a cigar shop to when he's a young man, pursuing an ambitious entrepreneurial path.

The story starts off fairly straightforwardly and with a direct, forward movement.  After Martin is recruited to work as a nearby hotel, due to his dedication and hard-working nature, he soon finds himself moving up the career ladder.  He also gets his first taste for entrepreneurial success, opening up a cigar shop in the hotel lobby.  As he accrues success after success, there is a sense that this will be a story like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and in some ways, there are similarities between the two stories.

However, unlike the protagonist in The Fountainhead, Martin does go through spells of cluelessness and indecisiveness, particularly when dealing with women.  Millhauser details these experiences in an off-kilter dreamlike way.  For example, a sick hotel guest seduces Martin:
And Martin entered her fever-dream, at first awkwardly, then easily: it was all very easy, easy and mysterious, for he barely knew what was happening there in the dusk of the parlor, in a world at the edge of the world - Mrs. Hamilton's dream. The silk-smoothness of her skin surprised him, and under the skin was bone, lots of bone, skin stretched over bone, and then a sudden warm wet sinking and sinking, and somehow he was standing his uniform with an empty pitcher in his hand and Mrs. Hamilton was looking at him with wide-open eyes over which the lids came slowly down halfway. And she said, "Mind you don't catch a fever, Martin," and raised a forefinger that she waggled lightly. Then her eyelids closed decisively.
Also, unlike The Fountainhead's simple unimpeded success story, this one ends with a more ambiguous tone, when it comes to unabashed ambition, both from a career standpoint and a personal life one.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Son : Philipp Meyer

The Son
By Philipp Meyer

Impressive.  The novel follows three related characters: Eli McCullough, Peter McCullough, Eli's son and Jeannie, Eli's great-granddaughter from when each of them are younger to when they get older.

Meyer is primarily interested in the nuances of the characters and how incidents and relationships shape them as they grow older.  In the process, he's able to touch upon a lot of interesting topics and describe them in full multifaceted detail.  For example, he covers the frontiers-men' violent and racist treatment of Mexicans and Native Americans and gets into why this thinking comes about.  He describes Peter's attempts to stand up against this prevailing mentality, but how difficult it is to, how the community ostracizes him and how he fails.  He covers the flip-side, how brutal and violent, the Native Americans, particularly the Comanches, were and how brutal and conniving some Mexicans were in taking over folks' land and cattle.  In short, Meyer tries to portray Western history without rose-colored glasses - it was an zero-sum game environment and no one was completely innocent in their actions. 

Another interesting theme was how Jeannie, despite being tough, smart and successful is treated differently than her husband, because she is a woman.
they were slow to follow orders, seemed to think she could not tell the difference between a good job and a bad job, they were reluctant to start big projects that they were certain she would abandon. There were casing problems, cementing problems, flow problems, the equipment broke constantly ... to Hank they had given their best, to her they gave nothing.
Something was going to happen and the overthrow of Mosaddegh was a miracle unlikely to ever be repeated. And so she had begun to look at domestic acreage... it was just a question of seeing what was actually in front of you, instead of what you wanted to see.  
  Oil went nowhere. Then Bunker Hunt bet big in Libya and got massacred and the Egyptians went into Israel and the embargo hit. The boom had lasted ten years. And still this dissatisfaction. She had won her bet but they would not recognize her.  They being... she was not sure. ... You expect a medal, she thought. And she did. It was not entirely unreasonable, some notice from other operators, a bit of recognition, a mention of her alongside the Richardsons and Basses and Murchisons, the Hunts.  She was certain - ragingly certain - that if Hank had pulled off what she had, his name would have been included.  Maybe she had a victim complex.  That's what they wanted her to think.
Just as Meyer is uncompromising in showing the warts of all parties in history, he's also unafraid to show the warts of all three characters. Eli leads the massacre of an entire Mexican family, who the community incorrectly believes stole cattle and who Peter tries to stand up for. Peter is weak-willed and incapable of saving those who mean anything to him and protecting the morals he knows are right.  Jeannie, refuses seeing extended relatives, since they are a Mexican-American mix, thinking that they are solely out for her money.  While not likable, this makes these characters rather realistic. 

 Finally, a couple other quotes that I particularly liked:
She became deliberate to a fault, building cases for every decision, she was never not reading... Though in more sober moments, she knew there was something missing. The men around her were always sure they were right, even when there was no good reason. That was what mattered. Being sure of things. If you were wrong, you just defended your position even more loudly.
The woman's book had come out and later was made into a movie starring James Dean. It was one long exaggeration. It made everyone look like clowns, as if they had stumbled dumbly into wealth, as if the state was nothing but backwoods tycoons without two brain cells to rub together.
  And yet most of the oilmen had liked it. They began to invent over-the-top mannerisms, throwing silver coins out of the windows of their limousins, taking twenty-thousand-dollar baths in champagne. Maybe it was no different from any other time. The frontier was not yet settled when Buffalo Bill began his shows and the Colonel always complained about the moment his cowboys began to read novels about other cowboys; they had lost track of which was more true, the books or their own lives.
All in all, I liked this novel.  A lot of great details on character flaws and how complex societal views come about.  I'll be keeping an eye out for other Philipp Meyer works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battleborn : Claire Vaye Watkins

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Brilliant. It's the range that is evident from story to story that is particularly impressive.

One story describes a 60 year old man who finds a young female teenager abandoned in the middle of a dried out lake.  Another portrays a pregnant woman, hung-up on an old boyfriend and scared of becoming like her mother.  Yet another describes the dynamics between a teenager female and her best friends, a male and a female.

All of the characters are unique with varied personalities, neuroses and fears, yet remain realistic. In addition, each story varies in pace, tone and structure, which fits each story and character and yet providing a refreshingly different emotional turn.

A few quotes from different stories to illustrate the point:
I cried and cried on a bench outside the Asian white rhino exhibit after seeing the marks in the enclosure where the rhino had worn his horn down to a stump, scraping it against concrete sculpted to look like mud. It was foggy at the zoo, and Peter sat silent besides me while I cried, his large hand on the small of my back, light as the fog mist on my skin. People walking by probably thought he'd broken my heart, when it likely the other way around.  We sat like that for a long time before he said, What's wrong?
  Just the same old thing, I said.
  And he said finally, Ecosystems are complex things, Catie.
A blackened sheet of baking parchment floats in a dish of hot grease. The grease has a name, and as our girl tells the story this name will return to her, along with other details of this place, which had until now left her - the flatulent smell from a newly opened bag of sausage, the flimsy yellowed plastic covering the computer keyboards and phone keypads, the serrated edge of a cardboard box slicing her index finger nearly to the bone. Naked in her own bed with a man for whom she feels too much too soon, our girl will recall the name of the grease - Whirl, it was called - and the then-exquisite possibility of searing off her fingerprints.
  Lena, her friend, finally pulls her hands from the rack, shaking the sting from them. You win, she says.
  Our girl waits a beat, gloating, then lifts her palms from the surface, lustrous with heat. She folds a pepperoni disk into her mouth. Let's go again, she says.
As soon as Carter and Marin learn they've conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights.
 Just about the only common thread that runs through these stories is the setting of the American West, which harsh and dusty atmosphere plays an invisible force driving many of these characters.

All in all, I'll be picking up more of Watkins' works.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Train to Lo Wu : Jess Row

The Train to Lo Wu
By Jess Row

I got through the first two stories and simply could not finish.

The stories are all based in Hong Kong.  The jacket blurb says that Row spent two years teaching English in Hong Kong, I suspect to convince readers that Row's insights into Hong Kong are "authentic."

But in the end, Row just cannot put aside his inherent biases to understand Hong Kong well and its differences in culture, pace and history from that of the US. 

For example, in the first story, I noticed that all native Hong Kong characters speak in broken English and yet, the Caucasian character (ha, a teacher!) speaks perfect Chinese.  Not only does this reaffirm certain stereotypes of Asians (hooray!), the poor language does nothing to further convey the personality or the emotional state of the Hong Kong characters.  Yes, the Caucasian character is a teacher, but I think Row misses the chance to address the inherent problem of bilingual communication: how it's tremendously difficult, no matter how advanced you are in a non-native language, to express subtleties.

Secondly, it's always frustrating when people associate Asian cultures with mysticism.  That you travel to a less modern culture and that its people are in touch with the arcane and mysterious.  One, it's a well-trodden trope with historically racist overtones that any decent author should avoid.  And two, for Row to have stayed in Hong Kong for two years and still use, it's plain lazy.

Not putrid, but on my actively non-recommended list.

The Borrower : Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower
By Rebecca Makkai

Children's librarian, Lucy Hull, finds herself driving an unexpected cross-country road trip with ten year old Ian Drake, who is a regular of her library and has been forced by his parents to enroll in Pastor Bob's at-risk (of being gay) classes. 

This was a light, easy read.  Despite protagonist Lucy's fears that she will be found and arrested for kidnapping, the prevailing tone is similar to that of some popular tv shows and movies, where you know that the protagonists will never die / have anything too atrocious occur. 

With that being said, I generally hope that there is an interesting emotional turn that makes things worthwhile and that never really came in this novel.  All in all, this was entertaining while reading, but somewhat forgettable afterward.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Steps : Jerzy Kosinski

By Jerzy Kosinski

It's interesting to reread my thoughts on Jerzy Kosinski's Blind Date and compare it to what I think about Steps.  Both novels delve into more edgy sexual topics.  However, in Steps, there is a sense that society as a whole has a sickness to it - the main character is not the only one that has odd fetishes.  Furthermore, when abnormal sexual actions are described, it's done so with a casual tone, not so much that these actions are widely and publicly accepted, but that they are not uncommon and if someone does object, they would rather just turn a blind eye.  It's as if the protagonist, albeit with his set of own sexual fascinations, wanders around a society exploring various sexual areas.

A passage to illustrate:
   During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I loved the door. After I had undressed she told me to look in the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.
   But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.
In this manner, this novel reminds me of the subversive movies of the 60's and 70's that make your head spin a bit (Cabaret in particular).  In short, this novel is a quick-read, but not a particularly easy one.

The Visible World : Mark Slouka

The Visible World
By Mark Slouka

I really liked the first half of this novel.  The writing was evocative. Frequently, I had to reread passages to detail out the entire image in my mind before moving on.  The first half was memoir-like, jumping around from memory to memory and there are vague dream-like allusions to past events that are just terrifically pretty.  It was like an abstract painting in word form.
   I didn't remember that dream for a long time. Many years later I found myself on a train traveling south from Prague to visit friends near Jindrichuv Hradec. Wet snow had been falling all morning, but now a dull winter sun had broken through. Coal smoke hung like a mist over the towns with their smudged little houses. The train ran beside the river that curved against the hills and spread in great gravelly shoals between the fields, and everywhere I could see the remnants of a flood which only that past October had submerged all the things I was now looking at. I saw a sofa lying upside down on a sandbar and white refrigerator like a boulder in the current. On the television antenna of a low abandoned building I glimpsed what looked like a pair of blue pants, stiff as a weathervane. And at that moment for some reason I remembered my dream - the dream I had had a year after we had moved out of our apartment on 63rd Road. I didn't think much of it at the time. I watched the country scrolling by. All along the way, beards of trash hung in the bushes and the trees like Spanish moss, except that here everything was at the same height - the high-water mark - everything below having been swept away by the current.
   Strangely enough, just as dreams will sometimes color our memories, the view of the river that day and the dream it recalled together forced themselves on the past, so that afterward, whether I thought of our old apartment, my recollections would always carry a residue of future times, and remembering our apartment I would immediately be forced, like a man stumbling down a series of steps, to recall wandering those same rooms in my dream, and from there to remember the winter morning I'd spent, years later, looking out the dirty windows of the train to Jindrichuv Hradec at all the things, once caught in the current, the flood had left behind.
I was not as much of a fan of the second half, where the protagonist journeys to his parents' home-town to piece together his vague childhood memories.  Slouka then starts to clear up what actually happened with these fuzzy allusions in the first half.  I think large portion of why I was so non-plussed with the second half was that the first half described how some of these events / memories emotionally affected the protagonist.  And the second half, while revealing what actually happened, did not actually lead the protagonist to any further emotional epiphany. As a result, it was nice to find out what happened, but I did not care that much.

I'm a big fan of Slouka's writing though and will likely pick up some more of his works.

Red Sorghum : Mo Yan

Red Sorghum
By Mo Yan

I watched the film, Red Sorghum, years ago, but was curious to see what the book was like.

With the movie as a comparison point, the novel is quite interesting.  The film does follow some of the scenes from the book fairly closely, such that when I got to certain parts of the book, I distinctly remembered the corresponding scene in the movie.  That being said, the movie and the novel dramatically differ in structure.  Whereas the movie follows a linear storyline, the book hops back and forth in time, almost in a circular manner.  The narrator say will mention an incident, talk about an event that happened before that, then an event that happened well after and then perhaps 100 pages later revisit the first incident in more detail and then again 50 pages with further detail.
 The non-linearity is different that used by self-aware, post-modernist authors, who do so to build up to a surprise ending.  The narrator refers to the protagonists as Granddad, Grandmother and Dad, which together with the non-linear structure, make the novel come across as a long multi-day, oral story that one of your parents would tell you about their parents and grandparents.  And the non-linearity comes from the narrator, remembering more details about an event, once they've started talking about something different but related.

Admittedly, the non-linearity and the referral to the protagonists as Granddad, etc. confused me at times, as to who was doing what.  But the novel was interesting enough to force myself to reread passages and figure out what was going on.

The content itself covers the span of about 40-50 years, ranging from how Granddad (Yu Zhan'ao) met Grandmother and their difficult relationship as well to Dad growing up with Grandad during violent and fend-for-yourself times.  The content of the novel does touch upon historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of China during WWII and the growing Communist movement within the country, but the novel is anchored primarily as a personal tale. 
 In that historical era, there were some gruesome atrocities and they are described in detail, so those readers sensitive to violence would be good to be wary.  In general, the writing is fairly descriptive of people, the sights and smells and the protagonists' emotions.   However, the tone in which the violent acts occur is even-handed and neutral, helping bring home the fact that everyday life was brutal and almost barbarian.

I'll end this with a lengthy quote, which touches upon all of the things I've mentioned:
  Then when he [Granddad] was thirteen, his mother began an affair with the abbot at Tianqi Monastery. The well-to-do monk often brought rice and noodles over, and every time he came, Yu Zhan'ao's mother sent the boy outside. Flames of anger raged inside him as sounds of revelry emerged from behind the closed door, and he could barely keep from torching the house. By the time he was sixteen, his mother was seeing the monk so frequently that the village was buzzing. A friend of his, Little Cheng the blacksmith, made him a short sword, with which he murdered the monk one drizzly spring night beside Pear Blossom Creek, named for the trees that lined it. They were in bloom on the wet night, blanketing the area with their delicate fragrance.
  Granddad fled the village after the incident, taking odd jobs and finally getting hooked on gambling. Over time his skills improved until the copper coins that passed through his hands stained his fingers green. Then, when Nine Dreams Cao, whose favorite pastime was nabbing gamblers, became magistrate of Gaomi County, he was arrested for gambling in a graveyard, given two hundred lashes with a shoe sole, forced to wear a pair of pants with one red leg and one black one, and sentenced to sweeping the streets of the count town for two months. When he'd completed his sentence he wandered into Northeast Gaomi Township, where he hired out to the service company. Upon learning that, after the death of the monk, his mother had hanged herself from the door frame, he went back one night to take a last look around. Some time later, the incident with my grandma occurred.