Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused

Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused is a translated anthology of short fiction that came out of China roughly between the years 1985 and 1995. In other words, this is the China of Deng Xiaoping: authors are shaking off the trauma and restrictions of the Cultural Revolution and living through the beginning of today's modern capitalist China. The events of June 1989 are never directly alluded to, although it should be noted that roughly half the stories were published before Tiananmen Square, and roughly half were published after.

The twenty-one stories vary widely in style and subject matter. Some strike me as more traditionally told short stories, while others seem quite avant-garde and experimental (Shi Tiesheng's 'First Person' and Yu Hua's 'The Past and the Punishments'). But I do have to admit that I haven't actually read very much Chinese fiction, and what seems to me to be a novel and interesting way of telling a story might be standard in another culture's literary tradition.

Despite the title of the anthology, there's no direct criticism or mockery of the Chinese central government within these pages. After all, Deng-era China may have been more open than what came before, but it was hardly a paradise of free speech. There is certainly satire aimed at local politics -- Li Xiao's 'Grass on the Rooftop', for instance. I've read just enough Chinese fiction that mocking local officials stands out as a theme when Chinese authors get satirical -- for example, in Xiaolu Guo's UFO in Her Eyes, which I read last year. There are also satirical barbs aimed at Chinese society of the 1980s -- see Wang Meng's 'A String of Choices' and Bi Feiyu's disturbing 'The Ancestor'.

The stories in Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused are disturbing, bloody, and occasionally perplexing. As such, I recommend them highly.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Moral Politician

Rick Santorum, former Senator from Pennsylvania, has cultivated a certain public image. Whatever else you may say about him, the thinking goes, he's sincere and he's moral. Plenty of people who disapprove of his politics nevertheless subscribe to this view.

I have my own opinion, but explaining it is a rather delicate issue. The sad and awkward fact is, it has to do with Santorum's dead son. I'm just going to barrel forward and explain, hoping I don't sound like a complete jerk.

Santorum's family suffered a personal tragedy in 1996, when their son Gabriel died at birth. The grieving parents brought their dead son home for a ritual of saying goodbye as a family. This act caused some tittering and shaking-of-heads among people in Pennsylvania not predisposed to supporting Santorum.

I believe there is nothing 'weird' about this, and people who would criticize Santorum over it are being narrow-minded and culturally provincial, not to mention insensitive jerks. Humans process grief in different ways, and the Santorums' actions don't strike me as especially bizarre, or outside the realm of empathy.

We as a culture are not good at dealing with death. We nervously titter when a grieving person's displays of emotion go beyond what we are comfortable with. We lack the mental and emotional facility to handle it.

It's a fairly well-known bit of historical trivia that in Victorian times, families would have formal photographic portraits taken of their dead children. (A Google search will turn up some examples.) What's less well-known is that there's still an industry for that in American today. This recent Dear Prudence column on Slate contains a letter from someone whose sister had such a photo taken.

Yes, some of us will mock these practices. But we shouldn't. We're talking about grieving families here. Let's leave them alone.

There's nothing strange about how Santorum handled the death of his son in 1996.

How he handled it in 2012 is another matter. The following comes from a New York magazine story on the Republican race:

Then, at his penultimate event, at a Pizza Ranch in Newton the night before the caucuses, Santorum was asked about some criticism leveled at him over how he and his wife, Karen, handled the death in 1996 of their infant son, Gabriel, after she miscarried: They brought the dead child home so their “children could see him,” as Santorum put it; so they could “know they had a brother.” Choking back tears—as Karen, standing beside him, let hers flow—Santorum told the story and then chastised those who would attack them for it. “To some who don’t recognize the dignity of all human life, who see it as a blob of tissue that should be discarded and disposed of, [what we did] is somehow weird,” he said. “Recognizing the humanity of your son is somehow weird, somehow odd, and should be subject to ridicule.”

Wow, Mr. Santorum.

I was going to address the rest of this post directly to the former Senator, but then, owing to the sensitivity of the matter, I decided to be charitable. I'm going to address Mr. Virtual Santorum, the impression of the candidate that is created through the mass media. After all, there is always the possibility that New York magazine misrepresented what Mr. Flesh-and-Blood Santorum said. That is the only possible defense.

Like I said, Virtual Santorum, I don't doubt that small-minded people would attack you for what is nobody's business but your family's. In fact, it's probably true that most of the people who attacked you are culturally liberal, although that's because people who are culturally liberal are more likely to dislike you, and thus more predisposed to attack you generally.

But look at what you said in that quote. I'm going to mercilessly unpack it.

Your language makes me think you are trying to make a point about the abortion issue. People who are pro-choice, people who think a 'blob of tissue' should be discarded and disposed of, are unable to understand why a person like you would want to bring a dead baby home from the hospital, so your children could know 'they had a brother'. Am I right?

Never mind that every day staunchly pro-choice people suffer miscarriages.

Never mind that for the most part it is a terribly traumatic experience.

Never mind that they grieve over their lost children afterwards.

Never mind that they certainly don't feel like they've merely lost a 'blob of tissue'.

No, what's more important is that you make people think pro-choicers want to mock you for treating your dead child as anything other than a 'blob of tissue'.

But what am I doing, dragging reality into this? The overriding fact of American political discourse is that people on the other side of the culture war are to be vilified and caricatured. They don't have inner lives. Their feelings aren't real. They don't really exist in the same way that we do.

You're a victim. People who feel sad at stillborn babies are victims. And once you feel like a poor old put-upon victim, you get defensive and become less willing to listen to the other side's point of view. I hate victim-making in politics. I know everyone does it. But I hate it.

Mr. Virtual Santorum, when you brought up your son it was genuinely touching. I may not care for your politics, but you can't criticize a man over his dead son. People who attack you over it are jerks.

And then you blew it big-time. The whole reason you mentioned him was to use him as a tool to vilify the Other Side.

I know you're far from the first politician in history to use a dead relative to make a point. No need to remind me of others. This doesn't mean you're the worst human being in politics today. It just means you're no better.

Look at the very next paragraph in that New York article. The one immediately following the 'blob of tissue' paragraph.

Say what you will about Santorum and his wife’s ardent pro-life views and how they chose to process their grief over losing their son. The sincerity and depth of the candidate’s feelings on the subject are indisputable, and the moment at the Newton Pizza Ranch was a moving display of his humanity. This is no small part of the attraction that some voters feel for Santorum: There is scarcely a shred of slickness or phoniness about him—something that cannot be said of his rivals, and, indeed, a quality that is the opposite of the perceived plasticity that disturbs many Republicans about Romney.

No. No no no.

To me, Mr. Virtual Santorum, that quote showed exactly the opposite.

In fact, your soulless bit of rhetoric, where you mentioned your dead son in order to use him as a tool to make vague smears is precisely why I find your ilk -- no matter where on the political spectrum -- to be facsimiles of human beings. You have no more of a soul than your rivals do.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Of No Fixed Address

Before he became a well-known comic author and movie director in India, Kaizad Gustad traveled the world for three years, doing odd jobs and living, generally, with no fixed address.

He published this collection of (tenuously) linked short stories, each associated with a different prominent world city. They (mostly) share the same central character, a young writer traveling the world, with no place to call home. Whether some of the stories are autobiographical is never fully made clear.

The writing style varies from story to story, keeping the reading experience fresh and new. I didn't care so much for the stories that focused on romance and sex in faraway places; it wasn't so much that the fault of the stories themselves as that I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd read it all before, despite Gustad's experimentation with narrative.

Somehow the two stories I enjoyed the most were homages to more traditional forms of narrative: "Phaedrus and the Funny Papers", the London story, in which our narrator rooms with a dull and stodgy proper English couple; and "Apprenticeship of an Author", the Toronto story, in which a fictional Indian character dreamed up by a Canadian-based Booker-winning author goes off to confront his creator.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Gold Coast

It's hard to know what it is about Kim Stanley Robinson's novels. They're page-turners in the sense that once I'm already reading one I feel compelled to continue reading, but somehow once I put the book down I do not look forward to picking it up again. His characters and situations are memorable, but I can't escape the feeling that I read him because he's somehow good for me.

This, combined with the fact that his books tend to be rather long, means he takes a while to read. I've accumulated something of a Robinson backlog on my shelf, and I pledge to work my way through it by keeping one Robinson book going at all times while I'm also reading something else.

Have I just warned everybody not to read him? I hope not. His books are worthwhile... they're just long-term projects.

The Gold Coast is not about Australia, it's about Orange County, California in what seems to be approximately the 2030s. Jim is a marginally employed writer in his twenties who spends much of his time hanging out with friends getting high. The other chief protagonist is his father Dennis, a cog in the military-industrial complex desperately trying to find meaning in his work as he deals with the frustrations of bureaucracy and corruption within the Defense Department.

Jim falls in with a group of quasi-anarchic peaceniks who sabotage local defense contractors, fully recognizing the obvious moral dilemmas this will most surely cause for him. Meanwhile, as a local history buff, Jim writes of the history and the transformation of Orange County, and the loss of the orange groves which once gave it its name.

The Gold Coast, published in 1988, takes place in a 21st Century in which the Soviet Union never fell. I can accept this; there are plenty of USSR-laden 21st Centuries in science fiction. The USA and the USSR have put off the Cold War's apocalyptic nuclear finale, which some people are convinced is inevitable but which Dennis convinces himself his work is helping to make impossible. Instead, the superpowers are fighting proxy wars on several continents simultaneously. As hypothetical futures which are no longer within the realm of potentiality go, this is a believable one. What strained my credulity was the fact that nobody in this 21st Century owns a cell phone.

You'll never know this from the novel itself, but The Gold Coast is the middle entry in a trilogy called 'Three Californias'. Apparently the first book, The Wild Shore, is about a post-nuclear war California; the last book, Pacific Edge, is a positive look at an ecologically sane future. I have yet to read these futures. The middle child of a book that I just finished reading got a hyper-capitalistic ultra-developed California as its setting, and you know, despite the whole USSR-still-existing thing, somehow I suspect this future is still the most likely to come true of the three.

I have never been to Orange County. In fact, if you don't count changing planes, I have never been to California. All I know of Southern California geography is what I've managed to piece together from movies and TV. And that's OK. Readers of SF know how to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar fictional environment, and the Orange County of the 2030s is no different.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Questions for the Explainer, 2011

Slate's 'The Explainer' column has posted the greatest unanswered questions left over from 2011. Great fun.

Long ago I posted my own attempts at responses to some of the 2008 questions for The Explainer. I'm going to try that again. (My mind is pure. I have not read the comments.)

2. It's not really topical, but it's been bugging me for a while: Why do comedy clubs have such unfunny names? Not just boring—it's hard to tell a joke in a three-word business name—but it's usually something inane like “The Laugh Factory” or “The Chuckle Hut.” Why don't they just name comedy clubs after comedians?

I've never been to a comedy club, but this bothers me too. I think it bothers me because of the implication that comedy clubs think the public is a bunch of morons who won't understand if they give themselves even remotely original or creative names. Surely that can't be true?

7. Why do furniture stores rely so heavily on the advertising gimmick of “going out of business” sales? It seems obvious that they aren’t actually going out of business, but are just trying to drive traffic to their store. I can understand why they might do this, but the real question is, why is this so prevalent among furniture stores and no other industries? It seems the same principles that apply for furniture could apply elsewhere, but I only see these with furniture stores. I’m guessing the answer has to do with some furniture industry pioneer and his lasting legacy.

I always figured it was an industry-wide in-joke. When you see a commercial for a furniture store that's having its 2nd annual going out of business sale, surely someone along the line's got their tongue firmly in cheek. Right?

8. Why don't roaches live in cars more often? There seems to be plenty of food in many cars to support them. Do they get motion-sickness?

My guess is that roaches only start to infest a place after it's remained stationary for a while. So a perpetually parked car full of delicious organic foodstuffs is eventually going to attract roaches.

10. Odd to say the least, but why do so many of our states end with the letter a? Way too many to be happenstance—there must be a reason.

Because in the linguistic mindset of our European and particularly Anglo-Saxon predecessors, that '-a' ending is the sort of ending the name of a geographical area ought to have. It's an English language thing. Note that all the continents (except Europe) end in the letter 'A' as well. Sure, plenty of American states have names that at least nominally came from Native American languages, but they all those names got chewed up and spit out by the rules of English phonetics before they became state names.

12. When you cut open a pumpkin, there is no whoosh so there must be a gas inside the pumpkin filling the "empty" space. What is it and how does it get inside.

I'm going to admit that I never took Physics of Naturally Occurring Spongy Substances back in school.

13. When parking in a nearly full parking lot, is it quicker to a) park in the first open space you see and walk, or b) drive a few laps around the lot and grab the closest possible spot? In my experience the two ways are about even, since the extra time spent driving for "b)" means a quicker exit when you leave. Please settle this using statistics as my wife has refused to argue anymore regarding this issue.

Gotta smile at the story implied by that last sentence.

14. Let's say that a meteor never hits the earth, and dinosaurs continue evolving over all the years human beings have grown into what we are today. What would they be like? Would they have a society? A language? iPods?

Clearly this person has never seen the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'Distant Origins', which aired back in 1997 and was about a race of civilized dinosaurs living on the other side of the galaxy.

More seriously, any answer to this question would have to be pure speculation; it's the paleontological equivalent of asking a historian what modern geopolitics would be like if the Roman Empire never collapsed, the Mongols conquered Europe, or the Chinese industrialized first. As a kid I poured over Dougal Dixon's book The New Dinosaurs, a lavishly illustrated zoological survey of a contemporary Earth where dinosaurs never died out. But none of Dixon's neo-dinosaurs had developed civilization. No dino-iPods.

17. Why don't they ever use “presents” in advertisements? It’s always about “gift”-giving, and “gift” ideas, never a “they'll love these as presents.”

I bet some advertising consultants did some linguistic research and determined that 'gift' is a much punchier-sounding word than 'present'. I'm not even sure I'm joking.

18. Why is it wrong to say things like, "I'm not a ___ (e.g. anti-Semite, racist, whatever); half my friends are ___ (e.g. Jewish, black, whatever)." It seems logical, if not said after an offensive remark, but it seems we learn quickly in life not to make that statement because it's quickly laughed at and discredited. No, it hasn't happened to me in 25 years, but I'm not sure I understand why it's taboo.

I don't think it's taboo, so much as it's become a pop culture cliche that this construction is used solely by bigots who want to deny their bigotry. My guess is that it goes back to old-timey Southern gentility, when a white person could be on perfectly polite and civil terms with numerous black people, yet be appalled if one of his or her kids dated one.

And it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I've got the idea that the only people who say 'I don't hate X. Some of my best friends are X' are people who hate X, and I don't want to come across as hating X, then I won't say it.

These days it's become an ironic joke. Hipsters say it to be funny. TV and movies use it to signal that a character is an unconscious bigot.

Related is the observation that when a person begins a sentence with 'I'm not racist, but...', what follows is almost invariably racist.

26. We are taking my daughter to Disney World. I remember as a kid being a little scared and intimidated by the huge characters. Why are they so big? Is there a psychological study that finds this to be the appropriate size for fantasy characters; does it make them more fantastical? I think quite the opposite. It almost breaks the illusion and calls out the fakery.

The final sentence is absolutely true; there's nothing less lifelike than a seven-foot-tall Goofy walking around forever frozen on that one facial expression. I suspect there's no reason why you couldn't create character costumes that were more life-size; the problem is in finding enough four-foot-tall people to wear them. (And truly life-size renditions of Chip and Dale and other small, not-as-anthropomorphic-as-Mickey rodents will have to wait for advances in robotics.)

30. Why aren’t there any topless casinos in Las Vegas? There are plenty of casinos and plenty of strip clubs in Vegas but there aren’t any combinations of the two. It seems like someone would create a casino where the dealers were topless.

I've never been inside either a topless bar or a casino, but I know a money-making idea when I see it. I predict this person will be a successful entrepreneur in 5 years. Who else wants to invest?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year Dawns

2011 ended, for us, with a burst of fireworks from Taipei 101. Our new apartment is within easy walking distance of plenty of decent places to watch the 101 fireworks from, so we and a couple of friends departed at roughly 11:45pm to join the droves of people walking north along Daan Rd, to the intersection with Xinyi Rd which offered a clear line of sight to Taipei 101.

The crowds were happy and boisterous. Plenty of people of all ages watched the fireworks display, and there seemed to be a marriage proposal taking place just a few feet from us.

But nobody seemed surprised, or too disappointed, when half the fireworks were obscured by huge clouds of smoke that were generated.

From the direction the smoke clouds appeared to be drifting, I would guess that people watching from Keelung Rd, where Jenna and I watched the show a few years ago, found themselves engulfed by the smoke fairly quickly. It's probably nothing that a Taiwanese person who has attended temple fairs with firecrackers hasn't experienced.

By the time we reached our apartment near Daan Rd's southern terminus, the air had grown noticeably smoky as the effects of the 101 fireworks dispersed. We continued to hear assorted random fireworks being set off into the night. Happy 2012!

One year ago, I made a New Year's Resolution that, in 2011, I would work my way through 40 novels and 40 non-fiction books, and write about them here. I wrote,

I have no plan, no set reading list. My 40 nonfiction books and 40 novels will consist, in part, of my working my way through the dozens of books on our shelves that I haven't read yet. They're sitting there now, waiting for that as-yet-undetermined future date when we move, when I find myself wondering which unread books I want to ship overseas and which I want to sell or donate, unused. And every time I visit a used bookstore, my impulse buys exacerbate the problem.

When I say 40 nonfiction books and 40 novels, I mean 80 physical, bound paper, full-length books. I'm a big fan of long-form journalism, and lately my iPod Touch has made it pretty easy for me to polish off several newspaper or magazine articles while I'm riding the bus or on the subway. (Here is where I rave again about InstaPaper, and web sites like Longform.org and Give Me Something To Read.) I'm also a big fan of short stories, particularly SF/Fantasy/Horror, and I follow several podcasts that feed my addiction. They don't count. I plan to keep consuming shorter content alongside my 80 full-length books.

Now, let's be blunt about it. I didn't make it to 40 for either fiction or non-fiction. I made it to 34 novels, and I probably would have hit 40 if not for the four-week ultra-intensive course I took in September and October, and the experience of moving house in December which turned out to be far more stressful and time-consuming than I could have predicted.

I think the goal of 40 novels was an admirable one, and it got me reading at a somewhat faster clip than I would have managed otherwise. So I'm going to repeat it. But I'm going to modify it a little.

I'm going to aim for at least 25 novels. Any genre. A collection of short stories counts as a novel, if all the stories are by one author.

In addition to that, I'm going to read at least 10 older novels. Classics, if you will. My definition is one whose author died before 1950. I read zero of those in 2010.

And in addition to that, I'm going to read at least 5 short story anthologies. I plan to get plenty of short stories in podcast form, but there are some collections on our bookshelves I'd like to read through.

25 + 10 + 5 = 40.

As for nonfiction books, I honestly believe my original goal was just plain somewhat screwed up. I read a lot of nonfiction, largely in the form of longform journalism that mobile apps like The Browser and Instapaper make easy to read. 40 additional full books is not a worthwhile goal for me to set for myself. Especially since I seem to have the bad habit of reading trendy contemporary nonfiction books that are basically just padded magazine articles.

Now, don't get me wrong -- I definitely aspire to read more full-length nonfiction. I''ve become an avid reader of The Browser's Five Books series, in which various experts recommend five books to become better acquainted with a particular topic. I intend to start following some of their recommendations, probably as soon as I get an e-reader.

But for now, setting the goal of 40 nonfiction books is silly and unproductive. I still want to give myself a goal, so I'm lowering it to 20 nonfictions. I'll probably easily read more than that, but I want to make sure I don't let myself get lazy.