Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Such a Full Sea - Chang-rae Lee


On Such a Full Sea
Written by Change-rae Lee
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published January 7th 2014 by Riverhead
ISBN 1594486107 (ISBN13: 9781594486104)
Edition language:  English
Characters:  Fan, Reg, Liwei, Oliver, Betty, Quig, Glynnis, Trish, Joseph, Loreen, Sewey, Vik, Eli, Landon, Dale, The Nicklemans

This is a strange novel expertly written.  It is a dystopian novel taking place after most of the worlds' civilizations have been wiped out due to disease and pollution.  Baltimore ("B-Mor" as it is now known) has been resettled by "New China" immigrants and society has been starkly stratified into the counties (rural poor), settlements (middle-class, highly-structured communites - B-Mor being one of them), and the Charters (the elite living in secured, gated communities).  The B-Mor community as narrator tells the story of Fan, a diver tending fish tanks who suddenly leaves after the disappearance of her boyfriend, Reg.  Although this could have easily been a highly political novel, it is primarily the story of Fan finding her way through these strata and her affect on those around her:
"What hasty preparations we make for our future.  Think of it:  it seems almost tragic, the things we're sure we ought to bring along.  We pack too heavy with what we hope we'll use, and too light of what we must.  We thus go forth misladen, ill equipped for the dawn. 
But not so our Fan.  She wasn't a prophetic one, as we know, or always ever ready, nor was she chosen, at last, to lead anyone but herself.  For at every turn, whether she bore a full satchel or one slim or nothing at all, she stood resolved, her boldness not one that simply pushed her forward but rather fixed her, solid, on the very spot she found herself.  Where you are.  Did this make her impervious?  Heroic and wise?  Not at all.  She was as subject to chance and malice as the rest of us.  She could only entertain hopes for the future.  But we know very well that there was a quality about this rootedness, which, unlike the rest of us, she never bemoaned or fought or disbelieved, that every person who met her couldn't help but recognize with a gentle trembling."  p. 301
Chang-rae Lee has given us a Greek chorus that brings us along their musings about Fan, how the community views her absence in various regards and, yes, describes some political undercurrents.  However none of this is "on the nose," and I would be hard-pressed to find a "point," or something that Lee was trying to demonstrate other than, perhaps, that everyone, no matter what class, can live a very narrow and myopic life, only needing to look up from our labors once every so often to gain perspective:

"We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides onto it, a secret span that deepens the original's stamp.   We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks.  They conscript us more and more.  We find world enough in a frame.  Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up."  p. 193
I imagine this book would be frustrating for some.  As one reviewer noted, it is more Philip Roth than Philip K. Dick.  Lee is one of those authors, however, whose writing is so well-crafted that although his story may not be full of fireworks and even drag in places, the writing pulls you along and is a joy to slow down and appreciate.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Bad Girl - Mario Vargas Llosa

The Bad Girl
Written by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman
Paperback, 276 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by Picador (first published May 30th 2006)
Original title:  Travesuras de la niña mala
ISBN 031242776X (ISBN13: 9780312427764)
Edition language:  English
Characters:  Ricardo Somocurcio, La niña mala, Paúl, Juan Barreto, Los Gravoski

I wanted to give this one star, but he's a fantastic writer. My discontent lies in that I abhor people who are door mats, fictional narrators or not. If I had to do it over again, I would have stopped when I thought I should - about 30% of the way through, and started reading "Feast of the Goat," which I hope is much better. Unfortunately, the prose and translation kept me going. I've never read "Madame Bovary," which this is a retelling. The "bad girl," the woman so filled with what some critics so ridiculously call "LIFE," (which I call manipulative narcissism), does not treat her readers by committing sweet, sweet suicide like Bovary's Emma. After the 30% mark, I told myself that anything less than a murder-suicide at the end would leave me incensed, and it has. It gets two stars and a commitment to read at least one more Llosa book; a testament to his skill. If the next book delves into this absurd sentimentality, I'll still call him a great writer, but will read no more.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Pattern Recognition - William Gibson

Pattern Recognition (Blue Ant #1)
by William Gibson
Hardcover, 356 pages
Published February 3rd 2003 by Putnam Adult (first published 2003)
ISBN 0399149864 (ISBN13: 9780399149863)
Edition language:  English
Series:  Blue Ant #1
Characters:  Hubertus Bigend

Literary Awards:  Locus Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2004), Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee (2004), British Science Fiction Association Award Nominee for Best Novel (2004)

Pattern Recognition's major theme considers humans' tendency to see order out of chaos, patterns when there are none.  Other themes include branding, marketing, and consumerism, among others.  The multiple themes that require abstractions on top of abstractions left me cold and not invested.   I am empathetic to the dangers of consumerism, branding, and the post-modern marketing conceit wherein you are designated as "cool" and being a rebel for using a certain product.  Of course, if you use that product, you are possibly succumbing to the marketing and not cool or a rebel.  David Foster Wallace discussed this in his essay "E Unibus Pluram:  Television and U.S. Fiction."  DFW cites the (now almost forgotten) Sprite campaign "Image is Nothing!  Thirst is Everything!"  From the essay:  "Above all, of course, the audience is not supposed to recognize the absurdity of products being billed as distinguishing individuals from crowds in order to sell to huge crowds."  I am also simpatico with the main theme that our advanced primate evolution doesn't get us beyond seeing Mother Mary on the surface of a squash.  That's a crude way to put it - in other words, humans want order and organization in their lives and sometimes events, people, etc., simply can't be ascribed order and that's a source of anxiety.  We then find order out of randomness to help dispel this anxiety.

It's a coincidence (is it?  Or is Gibson reading my mind?!  Ahem.) that just today Gibson tweeted an article from Psychology Today about apophenia - the tendency of humans to see patterns in randomness.  After reading this, I probably shouldn't wax flippant about our advanced primate evolution - it's far better (from an evolutionary standpoint) to find patterns when there are none vs. not finding a pattern when there IS one.

Despite my affinity for these themes, I simply don't think Gibson's combination and explication of them makes a good story.  All of the underlying themes are quite interesting, but I learn more from the non-fiction material concerning these concepts and therefore find the non-fiction material also more engaging.

His prose is always very good, but I also must admit that it felt too... precious(?) at times - "The spent match makes a tiny ceramic sound when he drops it into the ashtray. "

Perhaps the book is too smart for me and I just don't "get" it.  In any event, moving on, and debating whether or not I want to read the other books in the "Blue Ant" or "Bigend" series.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Upon a Dying Lady - W.B. Yeats

I am on vacation and I promised myself I would get reacquainted with poetry and W.B. Yeats in particular. I'd like to share an explication of his collection of poems entitled "Upon a Dying Lady."




WITH the old kindness, the old distinguished grace
She lies, her lovely piteous head amid dull red hair
Propped upon pillows, rouge on the pallor of her face.
She would not have us sad because she is lying there,
And when she meets our gaze her eyes are laughter-lit,
Her speech a wicked tale that we may vie with her
Matching our broken-hearted wit against her wit,
Thinking of saints and of Petronius Arbiter.



Bring where our Beauty lies
A new modelled doll, or drawing, 
With a friend's or an enemy's
Features, or maybe showing
Her features when a tress
Of dull red hair was flowing
Over some silken dress
Cut in the Turkish fashion,
Or it may be like a boy's.
We have given the world our passion,
We have naught for death but toys.



Because to-day is some religious festival
They had a priest say Mass, and even the Japanese,
Heel up and weight on toe, must face the wall
--Pedant in passion, learned in old courtesies,
Vehement and witty she had seemed--; the Venetian lady
Who had seemed to glide to some intrigue in her red shoes,
Her domino, her panniered skirt copied from Longhi;
The meditative critic; all are on their toes,
Even our Beauty with her Turkish trousers on.
Because the priest must have like every dog his day
Or keep us all awake with baying at the moon,
We and our dolls being but the world were best away.



She is playing like a child
And penance is the play,
Fantastical and wild
Because the end of day
Shows her that some one soon
Will come from the house, and say--
Though play is but half-done--
"Come in and leave the play."



She has not grown uncivil
As narrow natures would
And called the pleasures evil
Happier days thought good;
She knows herself a woman
No red and white of a face,
Or rank, raised from a common
Unreckonable race;
And how should her heart fail her
Or sickness break her will
With her dead brother's valour
For an example still.



When her soul flies to the predestined dancing-place
(I have no speech but symbol, the pagan speech I made
Amid the dreams of youth) let her come face to face,
Amid that first astonishment, with Grania's shade
All but the terrors of the woodland flight forgot
That made her Dermuid dear, and some old cardinal
Pacing with half-closed eyelids in a sunny spot
Who had murmured of Giorgione at his latest breath--
Aye and Achilles, Timor, Babar, Barhaim all
Who have lived in joy and laughed into the face of Death.



Pardon great enemy,
Without an angry thought
We've carried in our tree,
And here and there have bought
Till all the boughs are gay,
And she may look from the bed
On pretty things that may
Please a fantastic head.
Give her a little grace,
What if a laughing eye
Have looked into your face--
It is about to die.

Originally published in Yeats’s 1917 collection “The Wild Swans at Coole,” The collection of poems “Upon a Dying Lady” visits the larger collection’s theme of life, love, and death – an elegy to a young woman whose life dramatizes the tension between passion, play, and responsibility (mainly vis a vis religion).  An adoring, admiration-filled acquaintance is the speaker of this poem who is visiting a dying, unnamed woman.  We know from Yeats’s letters that the woman in question is Mabel Beardsley, a young actress and friend whose long, brave battle with cancer gave Yeats a muse through which to examine bravery and mortality.  (Unterecker, pp. 145-146). 

In the first poem, “Her Courtesy,” the poet describes her kindness, her grace and her “lovely, piteous head.”   The poet’s admiration of the woman’s strength comes from her strength in the face of her mortality.  Her “laughter-lit” eyes, her “wicked” tale, contrast with the poet’s “broken-hearted wit.”  This character brings about the last line, echoing both the saints and the mischief of Petronius Arbiter, a compatriot of the Roman emperor Nero, purported to write “The Satyricon” and a teller of ribald tales. (Johanides)

The second poem, “Certain Artists Bring Her Dolls and Drawings,” relates how the young lady receives gifts of dolls and drawings, and the last lines “We have given the world our passion / We have naught for death but toys” conjures a darkly humorous moral of spending all of our passion in life so that we only have our insignificant trinkets to offer when Death appears.

The third poem, “She Turns The Dolls´ Faces To The Wall” conveys a satirical view of religion as even inanimate objects must show respect during mass and describes the priest as “baying at the moon,” contrasting this with the playful nature of Longhi, a Venetian artist who had a number of paintings depicting Venetians at play.[i]  Yeats echoes this vision of Venice throughout, especially costume and galas, the “domino”[ii] (the half-mask worn over the eyes), the “red shoes,” etc., the last line culminating in the wistful notion of taking refuge in play, leaving the world behind.

The fourth poem, “The End of the Day,” continues the play motif, but darkens when Death, the parent, calls the child in. 

The fifth poem “Her Race” further exemplifies the poet’s admiration of the young lady.  She does not decry the pleasures she’s experienced and uses her example of her brother to be strong in the face of Death.   In Yeats’s letters, he writes that Mabel describes her brother as being the one to introduce her to Heaven, although “they might not appreciate the introduction” and that he had a “passion for reality.”  (Unterecker,  p. 146).

The sixth poem “Her Courage” wishes that when young lady gets to her “pre-destined dancing place” she is visited by various persons of myth and history who exemplify her character.  These include Grania[iii], a passionate heroine from Irish mythology, and Diarmuid[iv] (Grania’s lover).  There is a priest who with “half-closed eyelids in a sunny spot” is murmuring about the Italian painter Giorgione[v], whose paintings were notably void of devotional themes.   This image contrasts with the earlier priest baying at the moon and the backs of dolls – rather, this is a man getting beyond his strict devotion to appreciate the tactile and the beauty of art unrestrained.  There is Achilles, the famous Greek warrior, Timor and Babar, fearless Mongolian leaders, and Bahram, a hunter in “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” These and others are “all who have lived in joy and laughed into the face of Death.”[vi]  (Unterecker, p. 146), (Khayyám and Fitzgerald, p. 251)

The seventh and final poem, “Her Friends Bring Her a Christmas Tree” begins by asking Death a pardon so that the poet and his friends can bring in a Christmas tree to please her and then asks Death to give her a little grace as she looks him in the face with her laughing eyes.

Yeats contains multitudes.  He has a bright spirit, a kind heart, a sharp wit and a keen intellect.  I enjoyed reading this poem and learning its references and history immensely.


Johanides, Milton. "Poetry analysis: Upon a Dying Lady, by William Butler Yeats." 13 January 2012. www.
Khayyám, Omar and Edward Fitzgerald. Edward FitzGerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám: A Critical Edition. Ed. Christopher Decker. University of Virginia Press, 1997. Google Books.
Unterecker, John Eugene. A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats. Syracuse University Press, 1996. Google Books.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jonathan Franzen on Karl Kraus

Jonathan Franzen, unafraid to post his own unpopular opinions, wants to bring light to Karl Kraus - a "fin de siècle" thinker, who was also wrote challenging, abrasive opinions about culture and was read by many prominent thinkers at the time. Both writers reflect my own growing fear about modern culture, especially the dark side of the internet.

An excerpt from the article follows - find the entire article here.

In his (Kraus's) essay "Apocalypse", a few years earlier, he'd written: "Culture can't catch its breath, and in the end a dead humanity lies next to its works, whose invention cost us so much of our intellect that we had none left to put them to use. We were complicated enough to build machines and too primitive to make them serve us." To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting "Whoa!"

A book of Kraus's essays, "The Kraus Project," edited by Franzen, is due out October 1.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The River Swimmer - Jim Harrison

This book contains two novellas - one concerning an aging art professor and the other explores a gifted, young swimmer whose wisdom belies his years.

Harrison seems to use his characters as proxies of himself lately and these two novellas are no different - lustful outdoors-men who enjoy their whiskey, wine and food. At first I was scared that this his writing was beginning to become a parody of itself, but even if these tropes show up often, his insights and prose lay the parody notion to rest. Mr. Harrison, please keep writing about struggles of the heart, the mysteries of life and if whiskey, women and French cheeses seem to often appear in the mix, so be it. What a ridiculous complaint, eh?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

Although the "Aw shucks, this country is going to hell" theme got on my nerves by the end, McCarthy's prose is amazing:

"The raw rock mountains shadowed in the late sun and to the east the shimmering abscissa of the desert plains under a sky where raincurtains hung dark as soot all along the quadrant."1

It took me a couple of rereads and a dictionary to parse that sentence. It's impressive.

The plot shouldn't be examined too closely - let the prose and a villain for the ages pull you through this.

1Mccarthy, Cormac (2007-11-29). No Country for Old Men (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 517-518). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Reamde - Neal Stephenson

There must have been SOMETHING for me to finish a 1000+ page book, but this was exposition upon exposition. I cannot think of anything more boring than reading hundreds of pages concerning the economy of a FICTITIOUS MMORPG.
I'm an action nut, so I kept going, but shame on me.