Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Yerevan and Tbilisi: One Tourist's Superficial Impressions


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 appliances with Armenian writing on them? I wonder if it’s possible to even live a modern lifestyle in Armenia if one only knows Armenian. There’s so much that we speakers of dominant languages take for granted.

TBILISI

Because we visited Yerevan first, my impressions of Tbilisi tend to be in contrast to Yerevan.

While Yerevan has very few pre-20th Century buildings, Tbilisi has loads of them, particularly south of the modern city center (in the “Old Town”). Tbilisi seems to have been a much more prominent city prior to World War I; back then, when it was known as Tiflis to non-Georgians, it was an important regional city of the Russian Empire and seems to have been known to internationally-minded people around the world.

While Yerevan has a very cohesive, well-defined city center. Tbilisi is more spread out, despite the two cities having comparable populations. As tourists in Yerevan, we only took the subway once (partly to see what it was like, and partly to reach the northern half of downtown without walking back up the incline). By contrast, in Tbilisi we took the subway rather more often, as stuff to do was dispersed over a larger geographical area. A map of Yerevan has a “planned community” look to it, but no one would ever get that impression from a map of Tbilisi.

I mentioned Mother Armenia standing atop a hill above Yerevan's city center, holding a sword. Well, Tbilisi has a Mother Georgia statue atop the hill overlooking the Old Town. She's holding a sword in one hand and a wine glass in the other.

While Yerevan doesn’t show signs of a major tourist industry, other than a couple of tour company offices in the city center, Tbilisi's Old Town is full of foreign tourists and companies catering to them (and I’m not making any judgements -- I myself was a tourist!). That is in addition to the extensive 19th and 20th-century city center, north of the Old Town on both sides of the river, which is full of not only photographable buildings, but also cafes and shops making their tourist-friendly nature clear through English signage. (Russian signage also exists, as in Yerevan.)

Visitors to Tbilisi see the streets full of cafes with tourists dining alfresco, hosts using English to beckon passers-by to come eat, and shops selling tourist souvenirs. This is common in many touristy cities in the world, but not in Yerevan (although Yerevan's got a miniature version near the bottom of the Cascade Complex). Georgia is putting a lot of effort into developing its tourist industry, and Tbilisi shows it.

Yerevan’s not a boring city. Far from it! I’m just saying it’s not obviously touristy. No matter where you are in the city, you get a local experience. You can get a local experience in Tbilisi too, but you just have to get away from the touristy bits.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Things I've Read: May-June 2017 Edition

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 SF
1 near-future techno-thriller
1 absurdist comedy romance
1 hard SF horror


The Gray House
by Mariam Petrosyan
Translated by Yuri Machkasov

The 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 Games
by Iain M. Banks

Jernau 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. But Jernau is dissatisfied with his life; he feels ennui. Seems like the right person for the Culture’s ruthless, shadowy Special Circumstances division to recruit for a mission that requires mad board game skills…

This was my second of Iain M. Banks’ exceptionally well-regarded Culture novels, after Consider Phlebas. I am stubbornly determined to read the Culture books in order, even though most Banks fans don’t recommend it. I think I see why. Consider Phlebas, the first one published, had lots of neat ideas, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the storytelling. But I felt worn down by page after page of action scenes that I think would have worked much better on a movie screen, or perhaps in a cable TV miniseries.

By contrast, The Player of Games had me utterly enthralled from beginning to end. It actually made me think “Perhaps I don’t play enough board games” -- I don’t know if Banks himself was into strategy gaming, but his descriptions of Jernau’s experience as he put his whole self into games not only seemed plausible enough as the way a master gamer thinks, but also presented board games as a fun intellectual challenge.

The book was fun enough that it didn’t matter that the board-game-centric culture of the alien Azad race didn’t strike me as terribly believable. I think I subscribe to the theory that Azad was meant to be a satire on us Earthlings, and their weird alien biology was thrown in there as a red herring (note that for all the attention paid to their tripartite sex differentiation, when all was said and done it was irrelevant to the plot). Whether you believe that or not, one book is exactly as long as the Empire of Azad need to stick around to be a foil for the Culture, and not to overstay their welcome.

Persona
by Genevieve Valentine

Near-future technothriller. Our heroine Suyana Supaki is a Face. As far as we schlubs sitting on the couch in front of the TV are concerned, she is the living embodiment of her country, and its main representative on the world stage. In this world, geopolitics has just gone ahead and adopted all the vapid, shiny aspects of celebrity culture. Viewers at home know the countries of the world through their Faces: beautiful, stylish young people who hobnob at trendy bars and clubs, working out international alliances. No presidents or prime ministers even rate a mention; I suppose no one pays attention to them anymore. Meanwhile, the paparazzi lurk outside, hoping to capture some unauthorized images of Faces, possibly causing great diplomatic embarrassment and making big bucks.

One of these paparazzi is Daniel, who manages to snap some pictures of Suyana in central Paris just as she’s wounded in an assassination attempt. Despite his clearly muddled ethical situation, he throws his lot in with Suyana, getting her medical attention while hustling her away from those who would cause her harm. Suyana is no damsel in distress: even as she’s bleeding across half of central Paris, she remains the main decision-maker and driver of the plot. She herself does not have squeaky-clean hands, as not even the government she represents (the “United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation”) is aware that she owes allegiance to a shadowy radical environmental group.

Persona is the first volume in a trilogy, so I don’t know how the story eventually turns out. I can say that it’s a very fast read: I polished it off in a few hours.

Still Life with Woodpecker
by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is an oddball. It’s not just his knack for appearing half his actual age in all photographs taken this century, but also writing oddball books.

Still Life with Woodpecker is the earliest Robbins novel I’ve read -- it’s as old as I am, and full of fun dated 1980 details (though it’s good to know satirical takes on left-wing activism haven’t changed much in nearly 40 years). It is a love story between a radical anarchist-eco-terrorist and an heir to a deposed European royal family, and it’s full of odd takes on sex, bits of goofy humor, and long asides on whatever Robbins happened to be thinking about at the time (these three things are not always distinct from each other).

You’re not going to read this for the plot; you’re going to read it for Robbins’ authorial voice and style. I read Robbins whenever one of his books happens to cross my path (which works out to about once a decade), and whenever that happens I find I appreciate it greatly.

Echopraxia
by Peter Watts

Peter Watts’ brand of science fictional horror is ruthless. He makes George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing off main characters seem naive and adorable. His Rifters trilogy probably overdid the darkness, despair and death at the expense of the cool, mindblowing ideas, but his 2006 novel Blindsight achieved a perfect balance and won a well-deserved reputation as one of the best SF novels of the decade.

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, with a different cast of characters. Daniel Brüks, who is probably the most psychologically normal and well-adjusted protagonist Watts has ever created, is a field biologist who gets caught up in a conflict between rival groups of posthumans which he can barely begin to comprehend. He soon finds himself in space with a motley assortment of humans and near-humans who treat him with varying degrees of contempt and condescension. Many people die. This is a harsh universe. Along the way, Watts works in a ton of ideas taken from cutting-edge science; many of these are elaborated on in the book’s lengthy Afterword.

In the late 21st-century world of Blindsight and Echopraxia, we humans have been forcibly made aware that powerful extraterrestrials are monitoring Earth. We don’t know what they want, we can’t do a damn thing about them, and their existence has given the human race a collective neurosis that we really can’t afford as political instability and climate change are wreaking planetary havoc. Also, vampires are real. Yes, literal vampires are actually real. In Blindsight’s best and most well-known bit of worldbuilding, Watts made vampires scientifically plausible, and the result is even more horrifying than the supernatural creatures of legend.

Echopraxia expands on Blindsight’s worldbuilding. We learn far more about this word’s posthuman societies that have modified themselves to dramatically boost their brainpower. We normals can’t comprehend them, let alone compete with them! Vampires are expanded upon as well. It’s true that Valerie the Vampire in Echopraxia seems much weirder than Sarasti the Vampire in Blindsight, but my explanation is that our narrative is filtered through our point-of-view characters’ impressions, and since Daniel Brüks is much more of a normal human than the posthuman cyborg who narrated Blindsight, it’s not surprising that he’s far more weirded out. (Or maybe Sarasti just worked harder to acquire human social skills.)

When all is said and done, the theme of this book is manipulation. Everybody is being manipulated by powers they cannot comprehend, to fulfill agendas they do not understand. (You can go look up the dictionary definition of "echopraxia" if you like.) Watts definitely likes to put cheerful nihilism into his fiction, and while I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of it, it makes for a fine bracing occasional read.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Taiwan: A Political History

Taiwan: A Political History
by Denny Roy

I'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 page 181 that “Lee’s desire to consolidate his power took precedence over his ideological commitment to political liberalization”. The book’s 2003 publication date means that there’s a time capsule-like quality to how certain figures are portrayed, notably the well-known anti-corruption crusader Ma Ying-jeou. Even Tsai Ing-wen makes a cameo on page 237 where she pops up in the year 2000 to clarify that Taiwan doesn’t accept Beijing’s One-China Principle.

Overall, as a relatively brief overview of Taiwanese history, Roy’s book gave me what I was looking for: I learned a lot, and several shameful gaps in my knowledge were plugged. There are still several books on Taiwanese politics sitting unread on my bookshelf, which I can read now with a better knowledge base to build on.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Things I've Read: Science Fiction Edition

There will be nothing about Taiwan here. But that's OK.

File:Seveneves Book Cover.jpg Seveneves
by Neal Stephenson

Suddenly, 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.

Image result for the long way to a small angry planetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers

We’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).

ShadesofGreynovel.jpgShades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde

Droll 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 little dystopia that takes its time unfolding its true horror. Some reviewers were put off by the slow (if not glacial) pace of the plot development, but I saw that as a positive point. We readers have plenty of time to get accustomed to the rules of this strange society, and come to realize that all the odd bits that don’t initially make sense do, in fact, add up to a coherent yet highly unsettling big picture.

I enjoyed the book immensely, and I look forward to the promised future installments following Eddie’s career in Chromaticia.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Pail of Oysters

A Pail of Oysters
by 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 to be diplomatic, but it appears the KMT did not appreciate his helpful suggestions. The novel was banned in Taiwan, and according to the Taipei Times, rumor has it that pro-KMT students hunted down copies of it in libraries overseas and burned them (since that’s how you look like the ideological good guys, you know). The American political climate in the 1950s was not very receptive to the novel’s themes of “anti-Communist witch hunts hurt innocent people” and “the KMT is not always good” and so the book's success failed to live up to its author’s hopes.

To be honest, A Pail of Oysters is not great literature. But that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. Now that it’s available again from Camphor Press in e-book or paper form, it’s of great interest for anyone invested in Taiwan. A comparatively thin volume (I read it on a Kindle and was surprised at how fast the %-completed figure rose), it gives a fascinating historical perspective on Taiwanese history and politics as perceived by a Westerner in the 1950s.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Party Members

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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

History of Rome Volume I

History of Rome Volume I: The Republic

by 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 anyone else specifically saying) is that throughout the era of the Republic, Rome never really stopped being a city-state. Even as Rome took over the Italian peninsula, Sicily, Spain, and much of northern Africa, it wasn’t so much a large country with Rome as its capital, but rather a powerful super-city with lots of colonies and vassal states. If you weren’t in Rome, you were ruled by Rome. The political issues of the city of Rome were the issues of the country as a whole. This eventually changed, but only well after the Republic had been replaced by the Empire.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Welcome Home, Master


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 where the clientele is waited on by girls dressed as maids acting all subservient -- the source of the book’s title, for those of you who have gotten this far in my review and are still scratching their heads at it.)

Throughout Welcome Home, Master, Adams provides a fascinating description of what it’s like to be a foreign correspondent for declining Old Media behemoths in the first decade of the 21st century. He ends his book getting out of the business completely in 2010, and while he clearly believes an end of the glamorous era of the foreign correspondent is at hand, he is not all doom and gloom: he is optimistic that low-paid part-time stringers, more versatile and with a deeper understanding of the place they are covering, can pick up the slack. I am not 100% convinced that this is desirable, either for the quality of international news reporting or the quality of life of these ‘stringers’, but it is true that decent reporting requires a deep understanding of the local situation -- perhaps deeper than a professional foreign correspondent who parachutes in is capable of providing.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Black Island

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 Taipei location on Heping East Road countless times over the years.

All in all, this is a subject Cole feels strongly about: a very close family member of his is gay and married, so it's easy to understand his righteous anger at homophobic church groups peddling anti-gay slander as religion (not that he needed an excuse of course). As the subject matter is quite distinct from the first and third chapters, Chapter 2 does fit slightly awkwardly into Black Island as a whole, but I suppose one could see it as a dark side of the Taiwanese civil society whose awakening Cole celebrated in Chapter 1.

The final section of Black Island opens on the eve of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan on March 19, 2014.

For me personally, though I lived in Taiwan for the entire period of time covered by Cole’s book, I never really paid enough attention to the events covered in Chapter 1 while they were ongoing to fit them into a larger mental framework. I saw stories in the news about anti-government protests and worries about Chinese influence in Taiwanese media, but seldom gave them more than a passing notice. The Legislative Yuan occupation was very different though -- a real ‘holy crap, is this actually happening?’ shock delivered straight to my brain.

Unlike certain people whom I am married to, I never actually ventured to the vicinity of the Legislative Yuan while the occupation was going on to hang with the protesters. That said, I did go to the mass protest of March 30. While I don’t have the expertise to estimate numbers, I can say it felt like the largest gathering of human beings that I have ever personally witnessed, and I am easily inclined to believe the higher estimates of how many people actually came out that day.

I’ll admit that when the occupation began, I was antsy and nervous -- dudes, is this really a good idea? Will it really help your cause? Think about the optics, people!

In retrospect, I was wrong. The images left in people’s brains are ones of overwhelming civility -- protesters being kind to police, and occupiers cleaning the Legislative Yuan to make it nice before vacating it. Whatever you may think of their politics or their methods, the Sunflowers won the optics.

The short-lived Executive Yuan occupation of March 23 left a very different impression. I remember sitting on the couch at home that night, nervously watching a livestream of the events, wondering just what the people involved could possibly be thinking. Every time I heard a siren in the distance I assumed it was headed toward the Executive Yuan (and as I live in central Taipei, there’s a good chance I was right at least some of the time). And when I went out the following day, after police violently evicted the protesters, I felt as if there was a noticeable sense of dazed glumness hanging over the city -- a sense of ‘geez, what is this country coming to?’ (With that said, I must point out that in a country just a few decades removed from tyrannical military rule, the biggest police crackdown of the pivotal year of 2014 produced zero fatalities. This is, by global standards, an extremely civilized country. May it always stay that way.)

I am absolutely not defending the violence of the police crackdown at the Executive Yuan, but I never really warmed up to the protesters’ actions when occupying it -- a bit too much like prodding the beast to get a reaction. Fortunately, the aforementioned mass protest of March 30 took place a few days later, and helped cleanse the EY occupation’s bad taste from my mouth.

And it does feel as if the country has been different, post-Sunflower. It’s not just the two devastating KMT electoral losses; there’s also been a blow struck against the condescending old “we know what’s best for you, so sush your mouth and let the adults run things” mentality of the past. There was more reason to feel optimistic about Taiwan’s future at the end of 2014 than when the year started, and in the time since, my optimism has only grown.

In conclusion, Black Island is a better read than Officially Unofficial, because Cole is reporting and opining on events rather than writing a memoir, which means he spends far less time explaining and defending his own actions and far more time describing the political situation in Taiwan, which is presumably what the reader is more interested in. The essays that make up the book all deal with Cole’s two main topics, which means the reader will have to look elsewhere to find coverage of other issues in Taiwanese politics during this time, such as President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempts to oust Speaker Wang Jin-pyng in the autumn of 2013.

The fact that the book is a collection of previously published essays means that the prose has a certain amount of repetition, and of course this is a collection of opinion pieces, not a magisterial work of history. I note that no publisher’s name graces this book; there are several typos and malformed sentences that likely would not have gotten past a professional editor. Also, twice in the book the reader is presented with a paragraph of Chinese text, for which no English translation or gloss is given, but the reader is still apparently expected to read and understand. (I choose to view this not as an oversight, but rather as a vote of confidence in my language ability.) If you’re on board with these issues, Black Island is an excellent look back at several interesting aspects of the last few years of Taiwanese political history.

My own views don’t always match up exactly with Cole’s. I think I am more of a free-speech absolutist than he is. In the Chapter 2, when Cole spoke of anti-gay groups that defended themselves by saying they had freedom of speech to speak their mind, I wish he had pointed out yes, these groups do indeed have a right to free speech, but asserting it’s not illegal to state your opinion is literally the weakest possible argument in favor of your opinion that you can make. Also, Cole’s tendency toward pomposity, while less pronounced here as in Officially Unofficial, still pops up from time to time; see the occasional overblown metaphor and his silly cliched rant about smartphones at the opening of Chapter 3.

In the end, the lessons learned from Black Island can be applied beyond the shores of Taiwan. Of course in many ways Taiwan is unique -- most countries do not have an enormous neighbor threatening annexation or war. But Taiwan is not the only country with an ostensibly democratic government that acts like an authoritarian regime when convenient. Cole describes how Taiwanese civil society is capable of spawning groups that can exert pressure on governments, independent of established political actors. This lesson applies outside Taiwan, and it will keep governments around the world on their toes in the coming years.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Mandarin Learning Material: FluentU


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 Content

FluentU 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.

Practice

For 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, either by typing in pinyin (including tones) or in characters. The latter is much easier, as here it doesn't ask you for tones; you just have to type the pinyin and choose the right character from a menu. (Oddly, even though my FluentU is set to traditional characters, whenever I have to type I get simplified ones. Not a huge problem, as it’s not bad for me to develop a modicum of familiarity with them, but it’s weird anyway.)

At the moment I have 86 words in my vocab pile, of which the algorithm feeds me about a dozen to review each day; when I feel a word is sufficiently imprinted on my brain, it goes into the ‘Already Known’ repository, which is currently at 609 words, including those words I deemed too easy when FluentU first presented them to me.

There’s also sentence construction, where you hear a sentence spoken along and then reconstruct it by putting jumbled words in order. (You’re also given an English translation, but especially when it comes to song lyrics, the translation is often so clunky as to be useless.)

Context is key

A big part of what keeps me coming back to FluentU is that it gives me memorable context for the words I learn, even if the context is silly. Here's an example.

There's a video on YouTube called 中文Siri是這樣子的 (translated by FluentU as 'Siri, What Should I Do?') about a girl who regrets partying at KTV all night and asks Siri how to keep her boyfriend from noticing the bags under her eyes. Silly stuff, but I'd like to focus on one bit of contextualized language. When Siri suggests plastic surgery, our protagonist responds 'How could I have time for plastic surgery?!', or, in the original Mandarin, '整容怎麼來得及?!' The verb she uses -- laideji -- is one I've known about abstractly for years but have never used in speech, even with my Chinese tutors, because I have no subconscious sense of how it's meant to be used. But the sound of this lady complaining 'Zhengrong zenme laideji?!?!' into her iPhone is now etched into my brain, thanks to a silly comedy sketch on YouTube and FluentU's learning software. I could even produce a similar sentence more or less on command (and probably swapping a different noun for zhengrong), probably using my brain's interpretation of that girl's intonation, for better or for worse.

How much? And what’s the verdict?

$15 USD a month if you just want to watch videos through FluentU’s interface and enjoy the subtitles and playback options -- that is, if you want to use it for listening practice alone.

$30 USD a month if you want all of FluentU’s vocabulary practice options.

I’m paying the higher price, as I feel that for all its weirdnesses, FluentU’s learning software has been very helpful to me. We’ll see how far into the future I continue to feel that way.

Next up: Skritter.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Officially Unofficial

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.

Friday, June 3, 2016

First entry since 2013? Awesome.

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 Emperor is old-fashioned court intrigue. When the Elvish emperor and most of his sons are killed in an airship crash, the crown passes to the half-goblin Maia, the emperor’s least-favored son and the offspring of his least-favored wife. The earnest but naive eighteen-year-old Maia was raised out in the boonies far away from the imperial court. He faces a steep learning curve. As said above, politics matter far more than traditional fantasy heroics: we get a deep look at the inner workings of a national government in a world where cable news doesn’t exist.

Two things to say about the world of The Goblin Emperor. First, it’s remarkable how few traditional fantasy tropes make it into the main narrative. Aside from very occasional references to magic, and technology such as airships and pneumatic tubes, this could easily be a fictional royal court in a pre-modern Earth. Elves and goblins aren’t magical beings here; they’re just people. Second, the amount of world-building that the author did is impressive. Although the action mostly stays within the confines of the imperial Elvish court, it’s clear that Addison lovingly worked out the geography, politics, and languages of this world.

One quibble: I read this on a Kindle, which means it is a bit inconvenient to flip back to confirm that the character that just showed up is the same guy who was mentioned twenty pages earlier. This gets annoying given the profusion of characters, as well as the universe-specific titles they are known by. Score one for paper books!

Moving back to the 1980s, I also read Iain Banks’ Walking on Glass this year. Banks is an odd critter -- while he was alive, I kept hearing about how brilliant his science fiction novels were, but I never got around to reading them. Only after his premature death in 2013 did I try him out, and I found that I actually preferred the thrillers of Iain Banks to the SF works of Iain M. Banks (although I have his Player of Games sitting on my bookshelf unread, waiting for me to give middle-initialed Banks another try).

Despite the lack of a middle initial in the author’s name, Walking on Glass does not keep the SF genre out completely -- not by a long shot. The very weird narrative follows three plots simultaneously, one of which seems to be set in an entirely different universe from the other two. In ascending order of strangeness: in one, a young Londoner is doggedly trying to pursue a relationship with a lady he is smitten with; in the second, we follow the troubled life of a man struggling with mental illness -- or perhaps he really is being persecuted by extraterrestrial oppressors. The possibility seems more than a little plausible, because the third plotline deals with two exiles from an interstellar war imprisoned in a castle in a deserted snowscape, whose only hope of release lies in their ability to work together to figure out a series of fiendishly-designed board games.

Banks’s taste for unpleasant imagery may not be for everyone, but I’ve read three of his thrillers now and I have never failed to be engrossed by them.