Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell, the British author (as opposed to David Mitchell, the British comedian) of Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream, Black Swan Green and now this, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Like Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks, Mitchell seems to write one "normal" or linear narrative in between the time and mind bending ones (someone is attempting to film Cloud Atlas. I think this is a very, very bad idea). That said, this is a good book, but not his best, which is rather like saying that The Magnificent Ambersons isn't Citizen Kane.

This is, to a certain extent (which looking back over my blog is a phrase I use too much), a historical romance set at the very end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th on an artificial trading island off the coast of Nagasaki. Mitchell lived in Japan for many years and is very familiar with the culture.

It is both a love story and a historical story--describing pretty factually as far as I have researched a true incident that took place in 1808. An English ship attempted to take the Dutch trading post by force and open Nagasaki to English trade. This was in part because the Dutch trading empire was in taters--the famous Dutch East India company had gone bankrupt, and Holland itself was occupied by Napoleon's army. The British ship failed, the lone Dutch port staggered on until Holland recovered and Japan was only finally opened by force when Perry sailed in in the 1850's.

That said, it is better when it is a love story. There is also a side line story which kept reminding me of The Name of the Rose, although they are not really similar, except that they both take place in Abbeys where some terrible things are going on.

Mitchell is a master at placing the person in time. The first section is a slow day-to-day of life in the tiny port (something like the size of a football field, as far as I can gauge, fan shaped with three warehouses, a main residence, lesser residences and an infirmary, perhaps 20 people all told, counting slaves) through the eyes of a young honest clerk, Jacob. Jacob falls in love with the slightly disfigured daughter of a Samurai doctor who is studying with the port's Doctor. Dutch studies became a staple of Nagasaki for many years. Whether she returns his love is a matter of conjecture throughout the book, so it is tragic, unrequited love, which sets in motion a variety of other things. The second half concerns Miss Aibagawa after her father dies and she is forced to retire to an Abbey despite or because of her skill as a mid-wife. The third part is about the British attempt. And in the last 5 pages we learn about the rest of Jacob's life--some thirty years back in Holland.

It is something of a let down, and that is unfortunate. Had it remained more of a character study I would actually think it better. Perhaps the last thirty years only take five pages, because the real part of Jacob's life is in those few years at the port of Nagasaki. Like the moment in Joyce's The Dubliners when the protagonist realizes that his wife is still in love with her dead young man.

No culture comes out unscathed. The lone American is a beastly captain who knows the way to deal with the "slave problem." It is one of Mitchell's few heavy handed missteps that EVERY time the American captain speaks of the lesser races and bringing civilization he does something particularly disgusting like pick his nose, fart or belch or examine the contents of his teeth. The Dutch are corrupt, the English arrogant, and the Japanese willfully blind--treasuring their sacred isolated culture over all else (detailed brilliantly in Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures about the Perry landing.) Locked into their code of honor which requires suicide to appease petty crimes. It was a pivotal time in the history of Japan, as the western inventions, such as the gun rendered Samurai little more than civil servants, but still required them to maintain a status that they could not afford, and prohibited the rise of the merchant class who had the money.

But it is in the private stories of the lower orders that we really learn about this time--of the press ganging that brought most of them out, of orphanages out of Dickens and abusive relatives. Of the promise of wealth in the east Indies that most of them will never see, instead spending the rest of their lives half a world away from all they know. No wonder then that they are so cruel and so incapable of empathy for anyone else.

"Act, implores the Ghost of Future Regret, I shan't give you another
chance...Damned fool, groans the Demon of Present Regret. What have you
done?"

"Creation unfolds around us, despite us, and through us, at the speed of
days and nights, and we like to call it 'love'"

Friday, July 23, 2010

James Baldwin quotes | Quotations at Dictionary.com

James Baldwin quotes Quotations at Dictionary.com

Extra! Extra! Loann Agrees With Sarah Palin (sort of)

Oh, how it pains me to say this, but I don't hate the word refudiate or Palin for creating it. And, she is right, Shakespeare added a plethora of new words and phrases to the English language, or at least solidified them from the spoken of the time to what we know and accept today. Any language is a moving, growing thing. A river that is different from second to second and possibly no more so than English which has become the closest thing to a global language (for no particularly good reason other than Imperialism and the British navy). Sometime ago now, I read The Story of English and wrote a little about it--meant to write more and somehow didn't. To a certain extent, Shakespeare defined English. James Joyce gleefully broke it.

So what makes them geniuses and Palin an idiot? Well, there is the fact that their writing is lyric and lasting. That they make sense (even Joyce if you are as learned as he--which I'm not) while Palin is famously incoherent in other ways. She is also a hypocrite--whinging about press attacks while happily jumping on band wagons to bash her opponents--but that's political and I don't mean this to be. Liberals forgave President Obama for saying he had been to 57 states on the campaign trail but the right waived their arms above their heads and spouted all kinds of conspiracy theories. So, perhaps we should give Sarah a little slack on this one.

I am not the grammarian about whom your mother warned you. I admit to playing fast and loose with the English language. I can't spell worth a damn. I never learned to diagram a sentence and don't remember all the rules about punctuation or grammar but go with what seems right in my head at the time. A comma for a pause, etc. I have embarrassingly used irregardless. I mispronounce words that I have only read on the page and I am probably guilty of more malapropisms than I am even aware of (ending with a preposition).

But what is "correct" English anyway. At the time of Shakespeare there were wide divergences in spelling from region to region, probably even from street to street in London. It would be almost 150 years before Johnson would write the first dictionary and many of his sources and usages came from Shakespeare. Some of the finest and most moving sentences in the language flout proper usage of their time--BUT become proper usage because of their power.

There will always be those who pedantically try to stem the tide--akin to standing in sand and trying to stop a slow moving train. You won't get hurt but you won't hurt the train, and you will be pushed backwards. Even the least snobbish of us has something that just sets our teeth on edge in common usage. I cannot stand the New England "draw" for "drawer" especially since I have seen many people here write it as "draw" as in, "My socks are in the top draw of the bureau." I also despise Aks for Ask.

But who am I to say--in 100 years time they may be accepted, if not in place of, at least alongside my preference in the dictionary (Futurama plays with this in one of its earliest episodes):



An Englishman's way of speaking
absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes
some other Englishman despise him.
One common language
I'm afraid we'll never get
--Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady

Whether high or low, someone will be annoyed by the way you speak.

That said, I believe that we should all aspire to speaking accepted conventional English as well as we possibly can, not because its "right" in some absolutest way, but because it opens up more opportunities. Like learning English--although the same is true of us, English speakers, should try to learn other languages.

I also despise the use of "txt spk" in non-text situations. But I continue to use LOL, LMFAO, IMHO and OMG. And thus, these things enter the lexicon. When did email become the verb and not just the noun that one sends? When did it become understood that when one says they have too much spam they are probably not talking about the canned meat immortalized by Monty Python? Who decided that a device for moving a cursor about a windows environment should be called a mouse--why not a potato? At the turn of the last century there was a typewriting machine and the typewriter who used it. At some point the typewriter became the machine and the user a typist.

I certainly prefer the loose conversational style of English to the stilted business or legalese like this fine example that came across my desk for editing the other day:


This is pursuant to a continuing Securities and Exchange Commission approved
program which permits the custodian to no longer retain the physical
certificates in representation of the positions...What renders the certificates
as nontransferable, in this case, is the lack of the transfer agent...It makes
for an efficient maintenance process of these positions by eliminating
statements for accounts holding only these nontransferable assets.
Yer wot?

Which I rewrote as:


This is part of a continuing Securities and Exchange Commission program which
allows the custodian to destroy the physical certificates. Lack of the transfer
agent can make the certificates nontransferable. This makes it easier to process
these positions by eliminating statements...
I probably could have done even better if I'd taken more time. And if I'd managed to understand more fully what was being said (the party of the first part...).

I think what annoys me most is a laziness in speaking. (And I am sure I am as guilty as I am condemning). Cliches last because they are true, but they are so often thrown out as a way of not thinking. Business gobbledygook pains me because it generally means nothing; it is as bland and unchallenging, herd mentalliting as it can be. Holistic and proactive are two words that make me furious and I replace as often as possible (only to have my boss put them back--grrr). Holistic, IMHO, belongs in the realm of homeopathic medicine and proactive in preventative care.

But (there is always another side, isn't there) short-hand common terms, cliches and trite expressions exist to make communication easier, to put us all on the same page (hate that one too--we're all going to the same URL, we all occupy the same point in the space time continuum, we're all friended) so that we can seemingly understand one another quickly. All language is but a short hand, symbols for concrete things to allow us to work with our fellow man. No word is anything in and of itself except for the thing we define by it.

And if you tell anyone that I forgive Sarah Palin, I will refudiate it to the best of my ability.

In For a Penny, in for a Pound--Twilight the Movie

I wasn't going to do it. Oh, how I wasn't going to do it. And I didn't. Not really. I only watched part, and even then I was working on other things. Not focusing. But those are really mea culpas.

I watched part of Twilight last night. It was not quite as bad as I expected. I suppose, if your expectation is 0, then a 1 is an improvement. Kristin Stewart was not quite as annoying as I expected. Robert Pattinson slightly more romantic. Which is to damn with faint praise. It's not a very well put together movie. How is it that this woman directed Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown?

Only two things actually interested me enough to pay attention. One, the fact that when Bella and Edward are in the woods and she says Vampire all mysterious and sexy like, the camera cuts away to the tops of the trees and then breaks and comes back to them lying on their backs. That used to be cinema convention for a sex scene, but, as we all know, Bella and Edward don't have sex until they are properly wed. Is the director inserting something here (no pun intended)? And two, totally trivia. Is the Cullen's house the same one that was used in Ferris Bueller? And were the interiors sets or location. I did like the set up of the baddies which is not part of the book--at least we aren't entirely trapped in Bella's head. (I didn't watch the payoff, so not sure how that set up played out)

Annoyances--why is it so blue? Why does Edward look like someone dumped glitter on him in the sun? Queen of the Damned was a terrible movie, but by God, the vampires glowed in that (probably with actual metal in the make-up or mica). Why is Mr. Cullen's hair color so fake? Why does Edward bounce around in the trees like some demented monkey, and why are the CGIs of his speed and agility so bad? I mean we've come a long way in the CGI department even from the First Hulk movie when he seemed to have no weight. Surely a movie this big could have done better.

Writing....?

Some mornings I wake up and think, "I want to write a story, start that novel, try something on the page." But rather than walk right in to my laptop which I named "Writer" for inspiration, I have to get ready for work, or if home alone and free, like today, there is the dog to be walked, both animals to be fed and medicated. After my own breakfast, perhaps, and, oh, there is a load of laundry to be started. And I should...

If I am so unhappy and underemployed in my current job, then I SHOULD spend every spare moment actively searching for work. Right? But I didn't do it even when happily employed (although sometimes I think that I have never been happily employed--either I liked the work and not the people or liked the people and not the work, and have never until this job liked the money--but that is a topic I've beaten before.)

And I write essays/blog posts. They are so easy for me--they're half written in my head before I even sit down at the keyboard. And sometimes I don't even manage that--once written in my head, the need to write passes.

Perhaps that is the key--I need to write the essays--to get them out of my head, to enjoy the sound of my own voice, to keep my writing skills from rusting away altogether, so that I can do my day job better, and keep my vocabulary sharp. But unfortunately, it's not likely that anyone is going to pay me for my essays. The papers are laying off seasoned essayists and movie and book reviewers are an endangered breed. The editorial or weekly column has been replaced by the blog. Oh, sure there are some who manage to get paid over at Huffington or Salon, but I'm not really in line for those. And some bloggers manage to make money but they write on one topic and I, I am, as always, all over the place. The marketer in me knows that I could market myself better--have better SEO--if I made separate blogs for the different threads, one for book reviews, one for movie reviews and film discussion and one for general rantings like this, but even then there is so much noise on the internet now. Once upon a time it might have been possible to stand out, but now, while there are numerous perfectly terrible writers on the web, there are also many, many very good writers.

But, I don't seem to NEED to write fiction, but I long to. I sometimes need to write poetry, but that is a fool's game even more than writing essays. I am not such an egotist to think that my poetry is so revolutionary that it commands attention and adoration. It is fair to middling. I am not Eliot or Ted Hughes whose talent was so blazing and original that people bowed down to it. And is that even possible now--to stand out from the crowd that much now? And even then I need to write a poem perhaps once every 6 months...hardly enough to call myself a poet.

Perhaps because it seems that all my friends are closet writers, and many are even published, I think that I should. Is it jealousy? Is it another 'should'? A sense that this is what my Amherst English degree was for, since it seems to not be helping me in any other way.

The essays are also easy because they are done--I could edit them, tighten them, would if it mattered at all. But a story--you can work on a story for years before it's done, before it holds together and has a voice and is compelling for anyone but you. I'm all about instant gratification. Even when I manage to walk into my studio I turn to the crafts and sewing first because I can call them done at a certain point. The dress is finished. The necklace done. I am not an artist of paint or materials who will work forever on a sculpture. My pieces need to be practical. A friend suggested that maybe I need to do the crafting in a way that I do not NEED to do the writing. But I think it is mere fear of the time commitment. Not that I enjoy crafting and sewing more than the act of writing, because I don't.

This friend has been religious in the last year in writing the morning 5 pages of brain dump and then the section of a novel. That's what it takes. Everyone says so. At least those who publish consistently, produce consistently. The commitment to treat the writing as a job, not as a flash of lightening. What I should do (again should--I am drowning in shoulds), is to treat the essays as a brain dump, and then turn automatically to the fiction. I certainly waste time--don't clean, don't look for work--in other ways, why not in something more meaningful, more hopeful than the next Hidden Object video game?

I think I am also afraid that I don't have enough ideas for fiction. I only seem to have three stories that I interested in telling. Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman talk of having so many "What ifs" in there heads that they can't get them down fast enough. God, grant me that problem. Or would they come if I only opened the tap?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Thoughts on Twilight by Stephenie Meyers

Ok, so I read the damn thing in one night--yeah, I'm weird like that.

It is a page turner, I'll give you that. And yet, when I turned the last page, even with the "preview" of the next novel, I had absolutely no interest in what happened next, because the tension in Twilight (and I presume the sequels) is not whether or not Bella will die, but whether she and Edward will ever consummate their love. And that is the secret of its mad success.

Beyond everything it is a Romance novel that happens to be with young adults some of whom are vampires. If straight (read male) porn is all about seeing the climax, then romance (read female) is all about NOT having the climax. The long, slow building with the end only in the reader's imagination.

I have read that Meyers is inspired by Austen, and while Austen was able to weave a great deal about human nature and even politics and mores of her time into her books, which Meyers absolutely is not, the books are, at the heart, romances and their popular appeal I suspect, has far more to do with that than their literary value in lit.crit. classes. The agonizing denial is the heart of the books. It is Mr. Darcy desperately wanting to touch Lizzy in the rain and denying himself. It is Emma falling at last into Mr. Knightly's arms after he has waited so patiently for her to figure it out. And it is very telling that all other romances (and apparently this one as well) end with a wedding. They don't begin there.

It is relatively obvious why the books should appeal to pre-teen and teenage girls. They can picture themselves as Bella. The chaste kisses that can never go any further leave out the messy details of real sex. And even if they are having real sex, it gives them a place to live out romance and sensuality which is probably lacking in their relationships with real teenage boys. What most girls are looking for is what Amanda Palmer describes "Cause like any girl all she really wants is That fickle little bitch romance...all around the nation The girls are crying and the boys are masturbating." (Shores of California, The Dresden Dolls)

The Moms who like it are a) remembering their own teenage years, identifying with Bella both if they were popular and certainly if they were not and b) looking for romance as well. They may love their husbands, but they are probably well past being "in love" with their husbands--that mad, passionate time when all you want is to be with that person every minute of every day (again, for the girls holding hands and whispering sweet nothings and for the boys, going further). That all you can think of is that person, their smell, their voice, their mere presence is intoxicating. Romance, by ending at the wedding (or death as in Bella's beloved R&J, and I guess in this--the undeath) promises a lifetime of that emotion. We never have to see if Mr. Darcy snores or goes bald or gets fat. Or that Lizzy after having the first child isn't really interested in sex anymore. Edward promises a lifetime of feeling like that--nay, an eternity. He doesn't have morning breath, he exhales perfume (a little odd for someone who is dead). In this the books resemble nothing so much as straight Yaoi (which I'm not going to explain here--go look it up).

And I admit that I am not entirely immune to that feeling. I admit to rewinding (what an archaic term that is now--but what do we say, reversing?) that moment in the rain between Matthew McFayden and Keira Knightly a few times over, or the moment in The Painted Veil when Edward Norton and Naomi Watts finally fall into each others arms in pleasure and pain. I certainly remember when I was a teenager that the moments that caused the sweetest feelings were certainly not the blatant sex scenes in Judith Krantz, or Harold Robbins (which are just plain scary) but the moment in those "literary" romances that expressed the most longing. From The Scarlet Pimpernel, this passage has remained with me always:

Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on the rose-lit garden,
she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light
and easy to bear--a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own
despair. ... the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly,
passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within
the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his
love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the
stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.


Dear God, who wouldn't want to be loved, worshipped like that? I read that passage over and over again. The suffering, the passion. That he is also the Scarlet Pimpernel, that daring and brilliant hero and it is his love for her and fear for her safety which make him stand aloof in defiance of his own feelings, is the crux of the romance, just as it is with Edward. The unfortunate effect of this is that we hold that romantic ideal into our grown up life. No one can be so devoted to us all the time, any more than we can be devoted to them all the time. Unless they are a cipher, a non-character existing only for those moments of devotion as it is again with Edward and Bella. I know people who expect that kind of devotion and when they do not find it (as it is impossible) they move on to the next, always disappointed and also, in many ways, cruel.

I suspect that even in the fourth book when the consummation occurs in the human sense, it is discretely off stage. That, like that other popular romance, Gone With the Wind, it probably ends with Edward carrying her off to their bedroom to engage in sex that is pain and awkwardness free. (Feel free to tell me if this isn't so.)

The other tension inducing consummation, that of Edward turning Bella, is probably described in excruciating detail because suffering for our love is so romantic. In fact, the writing style of the book reminds me of nothing so much as any teenage Live Journal that you can find from a quick Google search.

And there is where I loose interest. It is horribly written. Like some bad angst blog (which I hope this one is not) Bella is completely self-absorbed without any real self-knowledge. She is not a fully dimensional character and it's her book! Her narration! In some ways the book would be better if it were in third person. We might have a better sense of reality if someone or an omnipotent narrator were observing. Even Edward is hardly sketched in. He is passion and denial and guilt and that's about it. Everyone else is merely a line or two here or there. I could not stand four whole books of their dithering. The eroticism of his nose and mouth along her jaw wears out with repetition. I skimmed the unpublished and partial Midnight Sun to see if coming from Edward's perspective was any better--it's not. Bella is no more real or deep to him than he is to her. I quite frankly found it hard to believe that he would be interested in her. (And I find Kristen Stewart quite unattractive as well--which I suppose is fitting.) Although if we start down the path of plot points, why do the Vampires bother going to high school at all? They could pass themselves off as home schooled and their frozen ages would be less noticeable.

As Laura Miller in Salon notes:


... Bella is not really the point of the Twilight series; she's more of a
place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary
as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader
can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward's chilly charms.

I am intrigued by Meyers own story. A Mormon mother who has admitted Austen as her influence (which is unfair to Austen--as I said before, Austen is full of careful character and societal studies) as well as Orsen Scott Card, which makes more sense to me. Ender's Game appeals at a certain age because one visualizes oneself as the historyless and inner-lifeless Ender. Given that tribute, Midnight Sun makes more sense. Contrast Ender with Joe Hill's (Stephen King's son) Gunpowder sometime.

Likewise, contrast Twilight with any of its "cousins." Buffy and Angel couldn't consummate after the first time for totally different reasons, but Buffy had a vast life outside of Angel (and Angel had a show without her) involving friends, personal grief, conflicts and kicking ass, yeah, don't forget the kicking ass. Buffy was a match for Angel. She was the Slayer after all. Bella is no match for Edward in any way.

And the many comparisons to Harry Potter are (to me) unfounded. As Stephen King said, J.K. Rowling can write. Stephenie Meyers can't write worth a damn. And I know that many would find that rich coming from Stephen King, but both Rowling and King are able to do three things very well:
One--write, wordsmith, put sentences together that are descriptive, varied and with their own distinct voice
Two--write characters with histories that shape their presents and futures in which they change and grow, who are different from the other characters in the book and not just offhandedly superficially different
Three--craft multi-layered plots that leave one breathless with their construction, the early throwaway line or character who becomes vital later, the sense of real danger or at least of real change, the strong climax (no pun intended) and the graceful denouement

Likewise, Meyers is no match even for Anne Rice, her spiritual predecessor (in more ways than one), whom she does not cite as an inspiration, but surely it is Rice's beautiful, powerful, erotic but sexless vampires to whom she owes her own? Rice is an overblown writer, a little overly in love with her own voice (but then, so are Rowling and King) but her plots are far more interesting. I can still recall them more than 20 years later, the desperation at the end of The Vampire Lestat that one would have to wait for Queen of the Damned and then QotD's labyrinthine layers and detailed history of how the Vampires came to be. Her later books failed precisely because they gave way to sex in place of tension (and because she became repetitive.)

Touching briefly on Vampire literature and then I'll close, Vampires are always the other--first as objects of fear and then as objects of both lust, damnation and fear. They have stood in for our fears of the dark, our fears of addiction (both drug induced and human induced) and our fears of homosexuality. They are not going away anytime soon. There are many other Vampire series that are more interesting than this one and better written. Likewise there are many other books in general that touch on the same themes with better result.

Am I sorry that I read it? No, I do not mind the three or four hours of my life that are gone, but I don't regret that I need not watch the movies, or indeed ever worry about this again.