Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Well, after that she would do her best.  That was the only way.  You did not want things for yourself.  That made you small.  That kept you safe.  That meant you could move smoothly through the world without upsetting every applecart you came across.  And if you were careful, if you were a proper part of things, then you could help.  You mended what was cracked.  You tended to the things you found askew.  And you trusted that the world in turn would brush you up against the chance to eat.  It was the only graceful way to move.  All else was vanity and pride.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is novella from the perspective of one of the secondary characters' in Rothfuss's series The Kingkiller Chronicle.  I devoured the first two books in the series last year over my honeymoon and was excited when I saw Rothfuss was giving his readers a little morsel to tide us over while we wait for the final installment in the series (which, unlike ASOIAF, I'm pretty sure will be completed eventually).  This story gives us an insight into Auri, the mysterious girl that Kvothe (the protagonist of the series) occasionally encounters.

We don't learn much about Auri's backstory in this selection, save for a quick allusion to a possibly violent and traumatic experience, but we do get immersed into how her mind works, which is what made the novella stand out to me.  We knew Auri was a little off in the first two books, but here we see how strange and beautiful the way she experiences the world is.  Auri lives in the tunnels and caverns underneath the school of magic that Kvothe attends and seems to have a little bit of magical ability herself, and to her, every room and object is alive, with moods and personalities that she must encounter and react to.  A bottle might be lonely on a shelf, so Auri must find the perfect leaf to put next to it to keep it company, or she sense that a room is angry and full of screaming, so she must avoid it for the day.  Her life's work is to tend to all of the items and spaces of her world and make sure they are all settled, and most of the novella describes her efforts.  She alludes to preparing for "his" visit several days hence (I assume this means Kvothe, but I'm not sure, and he has not arrived by the end of the story), but for the most part there isn't much plot.  It seems like this would be weird or boring or just too strange, but what I liked about the story was that by the end I was reading along thinking "Of course she can't use the laurel berries in the soap, they have too much anger in them," totally bought into her mindset.  It's one thing to create a world, which Rothfuss does admirably in The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear, but it's another to create a worldview that is unfamiliar but then still make it seem so natural.

This wasn't what I expected, but it was a nice interlude, and I anxiously await the last of the series.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Revolution Continues: New Art from China by The Saatchi Gallery, with an introduction by Jiang Jiehong

Saatchi Gallery, with an introduction by Jiang Jiehong

Mao evaluated himself in his late years and pointed out only two significant achievements in his lifetime: the conquest over Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and the Kuomintang, and the Cultural Revolution.  After more than three decades since Mao's death it is widely agreed that the Cultural Revolution was a national tragedy.  Most of its visual elements were no more than political instruments offering little of further cultural value.  The Cultural Revolution is in fact frequently referred to as a 'cultural desert'.  Mao's legacy has been deeply embedded by virtue of the sheer scale of the mass movement.  The unlikely consequence is that it has equipped a new generation of artists with the audacity, if required, to be subversive. It has provided a young generation of artists with layers of visual complexity derived from reflection, reinterpretation and redefinition, and with a hunger for radical change.  The revolution indeed continues in China's new art, through a spirit of rebellion.

On a recent visit to San Francisco, I visited an art museum that was having a crazy sale on art books.  I bought this and a book on street art (review inevitable) at shockingly low prices.  This book focuses on art that, according to introducer Jiang Jiehong, belongs to a lineage starting from the cultural revolution.  That is, this is art responding to something that started with the cultural revolution and is continuing through to today.  Thus, Chinese contemporary art is a mix of subversive, historically pointed, and critical of both the opening of the Chinese economy and the failure to open civil rights.

Consider:


A poster, reminiscent of the cultural revolution posters but given a sense of commodity by streaming the word "MATERIALIST'S" on the top and printing the numbers all over it.  Or the following piece:


The juxtaposition of Mao onto the Quaker Oats logo parodies the cult of personality surrounding Mao while also showing the commodification of that image in China's new capitalized economy.

In another work, Yang Zhenzhong takes a speech by Deng Xiaoping, and has 1,500 factory workers each recite a single word or phrase:


Tragically, I couldn't find a copy of the video on the internets.

Lately, and I should note this is based on my extremely limited knowledge of the "art world,"  it seems like everyone is obsessed with contemporary art from China.  After going through this book, I can see why.  The works within all are beautiful, pointed, and political pieces of art.  I'm sad to say, I have not seen anything this compelling from a U.S. artist (whether due to my own ignorance or due to the lack thereof).  This makes me wonder why.  Why do we lack important, political art?

One possible reason, it seems to me, is that, unlike the Chinese, we don't have a "unified" political experience around which to create art.  As this book makes clear, the Cultural Revolution had a profound impact on art, culture, and society in China.  Another good example is the plethora of amazing movies about the Cultural Revolution. See, e.g.,  Farewell My ConcubineTo Live.

In contrast, we don't necessarily have a single political experience to unite around.  The nearest analogue is the general unrest during the 60s and 70s, but that feels like a distant era.  And, our political climate today is not informed by that time period the way that China is today.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny, meanwhile, speaking only when she could not help it, was very earnestly trying to understand what Mr. and Miss Crawford were at.  There was everything in the world against their being serious but his words and manner.  Everything natural, probably, reasonable, was against it; all their habits and ways of thinking, and all their own demerits.  How could she have excited serious attachment in a man who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many, infinitely her superiors; who seemed so little open to serious impressions, even where pains had been taken to please him; who thought so slightly, so carelessly, so unfeelingly on all such points; who was everything to everybody, and seemed to find no one essential to him?  And farther, how could it be supposed that his sister, with all her high and worldly notions of matrimony, would be forwarding anything of a serious nature in such a quarter?  Nothing could be more unnatural in either.  Fanny was ashamed of her own doubts.  Everything might be possible rather than serious attachment, or serious approbation of it toward her.

Well, I did it: Excepting the unfinished Sanditon and her juvenilia, I have read all of Jane Austen's books.  There are only six of them, of course, so it's not that tremendous a feat, but it's pleasing to me all the same--except in the realization that there are no fully developed Austen novels left to read.  That's a little sad.

Why did I read Mansfield Park last?  Like its heroine, Fanny Price, Mansfield Park seems to fade into the background when talking about Austen's stuff; it quietly exists, not really demanding to be noticed.  It isn't as dramatic as Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, or Sense and Sensibility; nor is it as mature or complex, I think, as Emma or Persuasion.  But like all those novels, it is a detailed and insightful depiction of human relations, an investigation of character all the more remarkable for the narrowness of the social mores that circumscribe those who inhabit it.

Fanny comes to live at her uncle's house when she's ten; coming from a squalid lower-class urban household, she finds Mansfield Park to be daunting and her uncle to be intimidating.  Her older cousin, Edmund, is the only one who goes out of his way to welcome her--in a charming scene in which he helps her post a letter to her beloved brother, out at sea--cementing a lifelong crush that Fanny broods over throughout the novel.  But Fanny is too demure to ever declare her love for Edmund, and too interminably shy.  Though she becomes increasingly comfortable at Mansfield Park, she prefers not to be noticed, and is obliged in this until she becomes a beautiful young woman.

The stasis at Mansfield Park is interrupted by Henry and Mary Crawford, who move in to the Regency version of "across the street."  Mary is vivacious but selfish, and becomes attached to Edmund.  Worse, Henry, who nearly destroys the marriage of one of Edmund's sisters with his flirting, decides he wants to make a contest of Fanny, to, as he puts it, "put a hole in Fanny Price's heart."  Henry is a classic male predator: he refuses to relent when Fanny says no, always hanging around, ingratiating himself not only with her but with her uncle as well.  Ultimately he falls in love with her--like Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That, you know--but Fanny is smarter than Rachel Leigh Cook, and a better judge of character.  She knows that Henry is bad news, and yet he's superficially such a good match for that her uncle becomes angry at her for rejecting him.

Fanny is easy to like: quiet, self-effacing, but also determined and principled enough to stand up against Henry's repeated attempts to woo her.  Yet Austen actually suggests that she may capitulate, not because her regard for Henry changes, but because of her love and regard for her uncle and cousin.  Until the very end, I wasn't actually sure which way Austen was going to go.  Fanny is a true believer in custom and deference to one's family--that's what makes her such a good match for the conscientious Edmund, but also threatens to force her into a miserable marriage.

I suspect that quality is one of the reasons Mansfield Park lacks the cultural cache of Austen's other works.  Fanny is a strong heroine, but fails to meet the independent woman trope we look for when we talk about "strong heroines" today.  Appreciating her strength as a character requires an ability to think in a way our culture finds strange.  Such an ability is also necessary to appreciate the novel's greatest episode: while Fanny's uncle is away overseas, Henry, Mary, and some of the other young people at Mansfield Park decide to stage a play to pass the time.  Yet, as both Fanny and Edmund see it, the play is inappropriate: it requires Henry and Edmund's sister to play lovers, for example, and her uncle would not approve.  This episode, as it gets all of the various characters in one room, scheming variously to get the best part, is the best in the novel because it exhibits Austen's understanding of how people interact.  It's incredibly realized, and frequently funny.  But it asks the reader to accept that Fanny's judgment is ultimately right, and this anti-theatrical prejudice is foreign to us and can seem silly.  It is silly, but it shows how Fanny is always deferential to those she loves, while the Crawfords are unthinking and--as much as any Austen character can be--crass.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

This book is out of print,
but I managed to get a first edition,
which is kind of cool.
When Kleinzeit opened the door of his flat Death was there, black and hairy and ugly, no bigger than a medium-sized chimpanzee with dirty fingernails.

Not all that big, are you, said Kleinzeit.

Not one of my big days, said Death.  Sometimes I'm tremendous.

As soon as I read Chris's review, I knew this was a book I had to read.  I love the idea of everything tangible thing in a universe being a talking character.

Hoban did not disappoint.

As noted in Chris's review, everything in this novel can talk to Kleinzeit.  Thus, throughout the novel he has conversations with Death, Hospital, Action, the yellow paper, which beckons him to write upon it.  What I particularly liked about this stylistic quirk was that Hoban was able to give objects motives and desires.  Consider this passage from the beginning:
He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror.
I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit?
Not my problem, said the mirror. 
I love that the mirror has an interest in its own existence but then cavalierly disregards Kleinzeit's interest in the same question.  The attribution of motive plays out in o
ther interesting ways later, as Kleinzeit tries to escape an apparent inevitable death in Hospital.  As the novel progresses, Kleinzeit and Hospital have a number of exchanges in which Hospital seems to toy with Kleinzeit.  This happens with Death, too; in both cases I found it hilarious.

Given my recent interest in "great" novels, I couldn't help noticing that this is a good novel but not a great one.  Why?  One reason is that I kept reading passages to Brittany, who was consistently not amused.  I think this reflects the fact that there's a universality that this novel lacks.  Absurdity is amusing, but only to people already interested in absurdity. Thus, this novel reads more for a specific audience than a general one.

Although Hoban accomplishes everything he seems to want to accomplish in this novel, I'm quite curious about the potential of this form--the form of anthropomorphizing everything within a universe.  It seems to me that properly worked out, it could lend itself to a great novel.  By anthropomorphizing everything and allowing Kleinzeit to converse with these things, Hoban was able to expose a great deal of conflict and character in his writing.  I think a more ambitious novel could use this flexibility to do interesting things.

But then, what do I know about good writing?  I'm a lawyer (sob, sob, sob).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The New Men by John Enfield

"You have money, Mrs. Abramoff. Enough for better, and I'm afraid I must know where it has gone. Me Ford wishes everyone to share in the profits, but he will not five profits where they will disappear into nothing." He held his hands up to forestall protest. "Now, if you have a sick mother in Vladivostok, or a starving nephew in St Petersburg, or a drunken brother-in-law in Hamtramck who needs care in a sanatorium..."

Set at the turn of the century, Job Enfield's The New Men explores a little known cubby of American history, that of Henry Ford's profit-sharing program and his Educational department. In a nutshell, Ford was looking for a way to retain employees and so decided to institute a $5.00/week salary for his employees, on the condition that they would allow their bank accounts, their lodgings, their recreation--everything, really--to be regularly inspected and critqued by Educational, a group of largely idealistic employees who saw their job as a way to help create the titular "new men", men who would be productive, relatively well-off members of society.

This historical aside is paralleled by the life of Antonio Grams, an Italian immigrant who comes to America with his family after the death of his father. Initially (mostly) optimistic and idealistic, his decline mirrors the decline of Ford's Educational, as changing social mores and economic necessity turn the profit-sharing program from a well-intentioned social welfare program into an invasive organization which roots out Commies and slowly pushes out minorities.

This information is mostly place-setting though, as the story itself follows Tony through said changes in the country. With his friend, Ross, a slightly-shady newspaper reporter and his lover/ice queen Thia, he struggles to keep his head above water during the seismic shift of the industrial revolution. The well-researched and interesting setting make The New Men a good choice for fans of historical fiction, if Grams, ultimately sympathetic but frequently pretty awful, doesn't put them off.

My only real complaint about The New Men was its tendency at points to overexplain its symbolism.  can't find the exact passage, but there's one point where Tony is sitting at a table, a picture of his dead father hanging at one end, and a picture of his dead sister at the other, and he thinks, "I guess in some sense, the dead are always watching us. I just don't like it be so literal." If it makes him feel any better, neither do I.

There are some particularly strong points as well: Thia herself is an interesting character--initially coming off as an unusually uninhibited Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Enfield slowly turns the tables, revealing a tragic past and ruthless behavior that would be badly out of place in Garden State. It's also worth noting that Enfield sticks the landing, tying all the story threads up in a satisfactory way and managing to draw significant pathos from even some minor characters--something that's not necessarily a given in literary fiction. Or book reviews.