tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Woohoo, it's Wednesday! (Wednesday is my Friday.) And by this time tomorrow I will no longer be a solo parent, and lo, life will be much improved.

I realise I haven't posted in... a very long time. I admit it: I've joined the migration to short-form platforms, in my case to Twitter. (If you want to know the minutiae of my life, I'm [twitter.com profile] ineketevere.) I haven't been fannish about anything for so long, and these days I spend what little creative energy I have on the Novel I Will One Day Finish Goddammit, so DW has been the thing to fall to the wayside.

I was in Dili last week (along with the kacang, who did not like it, even though she met Jesus and also a pig), and it was strange to see it so quiet, the familiar shops boarded up and expat supermarkets with empty shelves. I suppose it's the natural process of readjustment to domestic demand, now that the UN and other international forces have gone. On the other hand, there's also a new but vastly underpopulated mall (with a Gloria Jean's coffee chain!) and a cinema, so who the hell knows. People seem to be using Portuguese more often for marketplace transactions, and I haven't yet had a meeting in Indonesian, even if all the paperwork still is. The times, they are a-changing.

Reading

My reading on the redeye back from Denpasar was Anna Cowan's Untamed, which I didn't know a single thing about other than the hero was a cross-dressing Duke. When I started reading, though, I was fascinated to find that the cross-dressing trope didn't work at all in the way I'd expected. I'd expected to find a queered erotic tension due to the heroine thinking the hero is a woman, and falling for him regardless (a gender-flipped Coffee Prince dynamic). Instead, the hero is already queer (canonically bisexual, effeminate), the heroine is perfectly aware that he's a man, and there's little eroticisation of his cross-dressing. Rather than an erotic tension due to mistaken gender identity, I found that there was erotic tension in the knowledge of true (concealed) gender identity, both as a secret shared between co-conspirators, and also as the fraught but powerful possibility of that concealed gender identity being (consciously, deliberately) revealed. I was surprised to find that the sexiest part of the book for me wasn't, as I might have expected, a sex scene, but a single line in which the hero (who has adopted a long-term disguise as an exceptionally glamourous woman) offers to dress as a man in order to accompany the heroine incognito. I think perhaps the power of that line came from its jolting reminder of heterosexual potential, currently leashed and subverted but full of possibility. It's dangerous: a dropping of protective disguise, revealing a true self. And it's powerful: the resumption of a privileged gender identity, and a demonstration of the ability to thwart society by picking and choosing from the binary as he desires.

So, some really interesting things done with gender in the Regency genre! It felt exceptionally fresh to me, even as it didn't quite pull together enough at the end for me to find it completely satisfying as a romance.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
So, a common piece of advice to the new parent is to try and take a nap whenever your baby's asleep. But I swear to god, I have never encountered anything quite so infuriatingly infantilising as The Boy's mother constantly asking if I plan to take an afternoon nap. Uh, hello, I may be the caretaker of an infant, but I am still a fucking adult and I have SHIT TO DO during the day, okay.

Random thing the first: My good friend [livejournal.com profile] supacat is one of the smartest women I know, and the best I've ever met at understanding and explaining the nuances of storytelling technique. Her amazing Captive Prince series is deservedly well-known, and now the first two books are finally available for purchase in paperback and ebook! For all those people who've been putting off reading CP "because it's a WIP; I can't bear WIPs", take this as an opportunity to think of it in mainstream-publishing terms: it's two fully-satisfying, full-length novels that just happen to comprise Parts 1 and 2 of a trilogy, with the third and final installment forthcoming. It's the perfect time to give this incredible page-turner a chance, so please do!

Random thing the second, less pleasing: Judge rules that it's okay that British undercover police had sex with members of the activist communities they infiltrated, because James Bond did it. Yes, as far as I know it's not illegal for someone to instigate a sexual relationship premised on a false understanding of one's identity, e.g. someone saying they're single when they're not, or whatever. (Let's not discuss the case of that Palestinian guy who allegedly said he was Jewish; I don't know the details, I don't know Israel.) It's a dick move, no doubt. But there's a difference between something being 'not illegal' and being an activity condoned by, or directed by, the state. What about the children born from these unions? False name on their birth certificate? No recourse to child support? No access to medical histories? General abandonment issues when their parent fucks off, never to be found again? Again, lots of people fuck off and never see their children again; some people are dicks. But that's different from it being the result of an official police operation. Setting aside the question of whether or not the police should be infiltrating activist communities, there's absolutely no good reason for undercover operatives to be having sex with the people they're targeting: nobody needs to use sex to obtain information, or to build trust, or gain standing within a community. There will always be another way. Be better at your job; don't fucking rely on the lazy, unethical approach, and if you need sex, get it elsewhere. ALSO JAMES BOND IS NOT A GOOD FOUNDATION FOR A LEGAL RULING ON POLICE ETHICS, JUST SAYING.

Reading meme

I enjoy seeing what other people are reading! I feel very scattered in my reading at the moment, mainly because a lot of my available reading time is sucked up by research for an original fic project, and partly because I'm more distractible these days.

What I'm Reading

Return of the Condor Heroes (神鵰俠侶), Jin Yong. Given how well-known Jin Yong's wuxia stories are throughout Asia, it's amazing how hard it is to get hold of English translations. I'm reading a serviceable-enough fan translation. This series was recommended to me by a Chinese friend as a good example of a pop-culture product that says a lot about Chinese philosophy. I must admit I'm finding the martial arts sequences boring (I prefer them filmed), and the surprise stranger rape as a plot device to separate the hero and heroine was unnecessary, but I'm gradually getting into it.

Binu and the Great Wall, Su Tong. A nicely-written but fairly straightforward retelling of the myth of the woman whose husband was worked to death on the construction of the Great Wall, by the guy who wrote Raise the Red Lantern. Reading this retelling of a well-known story reminds me of an article I read last year that claimed that a (supposed) lack of creativity and innovation in Asia was the result of rote learning in schools. "What point is there in memorising a bunch of Tang Dynasty poems?" I believe the article asked (I paraphrase). I'm not an expert in Chinese literature or pedagogy by any means, but a few things occur to me. Classical Chinese literature was highly allusive, and in addition to that often used and retold and refashioned elements from older stories. As an educated individual you knew the canon back-to-front (the novels, the poems, the myths, the works of philosophy), which when encountering new material allowed you to recognise the origins of the material as well as the allusions within it to the existing body of works. And when you wrote something, you reached back into those works to make your own allusions. Like the shared sensibilities and conversations we have in the world of fanworks, allusions and retellings weren't stale repetition and a 'lack of orginality': they created a depth of meaning and an intertextuality; they placed works within an ongoing conversation. It's creativity that doesn't necessarily rest on invention, and I think that's what people miss when they issue blanket statements like, "Rote learning kills creativity."

What I Just Finished

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, Adam Phillips. When I read a review of this, I thought the premise was compelling: we're all haunted by the lives we haven't lived, the unrealised promises of our childhood specialness and 'potential', the paths not taken. We live in envy of what could have been, what we might have been. It's a fairly privileged worldview he's looking at, I think; some more than others are told from birth how special they are, how much potential they have, and then suffer the attendant disappointments. (See also criticism of Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece about being told she could 'have it all', and her realisation that she couldn't.) I can put my hand up as someone who was always told she was gifted and special, and I certainly haven't fulfilled any of those expectations in the way it was wished of me, but I'm at peace with that. I have a strong vision of my unlived life-- it's always singular, as there were three distinct branching points I think would have led me to the same place-- and it makes me shudder and think, repeatedly, how lucky I am. If I were religious, I'd say: but for the grace of God, there go I. Anyway! Don't read this book, it's a load of old-school psychoanalytic codswallop that I found an unreadable mess. I couldn't finish it.

Zen Heart: Simple Advice for Living with Mindfulness, Ezra Bayda. I have a soft spot for self-helpy books about mindfulness and meditation. A couple of new meditation techniques, and some Zen-ish, CBT-ish ways of dealing with emotional discomfort. Quite useful for my needs, but I think it's hard to offer objective assessments about anything on this topic.

What I'm Reading Next

Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You, Jerome Groopman

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Ugh, I'm pretty sure Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is the best non-fiction (the most interesting, most difficult, most gutting, most enraging) I've read all year. I want to buy dozens of copies and distribute them liberally at work, to everyone I know who works cross-culturally, and to all those otherwise intelligent people (e.g. my own extended family) who like to complain about "those dole-bludging refugees." It's framed by a nuanced, beautifully empathetic account of the medical case of Lia Lee, an epileptic Hmong child who suffered a grand mal seizure at the age of four that left her in a persistent vegetative state (the news that she died this year at the age of 30 was what alerted me to the book's existence), but it's about so much more: it's about the clash of traditional beliefs and Western biomedicine; individual and institutional racism and paternalism; bodily autonomy and the rights of the child; the US's proxy war in Laos and its devastating consequences for an entire ethnic group; the erosion of freedom, identity and hope due to inescapable welfare dependence; and assimilation, multiculturalism, ethnic identity. (There are strong parallels to the Vietnamese experiences documented in SBS's Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta, which I'm guessing isn't viewable outside Australia.) It's a hard book to read-- not because of the way it's written, which is lovely-- but because it's just so emotionally draining. I cried more than once while reading, and at one point had to run to the kacang's cot to scoop her up and reassure myself that she hadn't, you know, died while I wasn't looking, and was probably unlikely to find herself orphaned and starving to death in a landmine-filled jungle warzone.

Details )

Oh man, if I were to try and discuss every element of this book I found fascinating or thought-provoking or saddening or enraging, I'd produce a masters-length thesis. I've dog-eared practically every third page for further contemplation. Highly, highly recommended.

Bonus poll of curiosity:

Poll #11862 Library Books
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 27


Is dog-earing a library book okay?

View Answers

Yes, for everything I find interesting!
2 (7.4%)

Sure, but only to mark what page I'm up to
5 (18.5%)

I wouldn't do it myself, but I don't mind the practice
5 (18.5%)

Nope
11 (40.7%)

SACRILEGE
4 (14.8%)

Underlining?

View Answers

Yes! Others appreciate my contributions!
0 (0.0%)

Pencil only, dudes
1 (3.7%)

I don't, but I like reading what others have found interesting
3 (11.1%)

Nope
13 (48.1%)

SACRILEGE
10 (37.0%)

tevere: girl in gloomy cityscape (city girl)
This NY Times article about the physical effects of loneliness reminded me of a book I read a couple of weeks ago, Emily White's Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude. I'm perennially interested in why upper-middle-class people who seemingly 'have it all' can still be miserably, existentially unhappy (see also: Madeleine Levine's The Price of Privilege, which pretty much explains all the rich-kid basketcases I went to school with), and White's memoir is a good insight into one particular reason for unhappiness.

Unfortunately I've already returned the book (and as I was reading it the day I went into labour, my memories of it are a bit... scattered), but there was a lot of interesting stuff in there. White distinguishes between 'alone' and 'lonely' (some people who live alone are lonely, but others enjoy solitude; conversely, partnered people and people with lots of friends can still suffer from loneliness), and argues that despite popular misconceptions, lonely people aren't necessarily introverts, emotional vampires, lacking social skills, or unwilling to meet new people. Instead, loneliness is a quality rather than quantity issue: it stems from the feeling of lacking meaningful connections to others, not 'being friendless'. Short-term, situational loneliness, the kind we can all get when we move to a new city where we don't know anyone, tends to resolve itself over time as we meet new people, but the sufferer of chronic loneliness, for reasons inherent and inculcated, remains unable to connect. Unhappily, chronic loneliness also tends to be self-reinforcing: lonely people, aware that loneliness is regarded by others as a character flaw, often withdraw into themselves out of fear of rejection-- making connection even harder. There's no easy cure, although White suggests that the increasingly-lost state of being in 'passive company' may help:
Passive company is something that’s hard to define but easy to recognize. It’s the comfortable, quiet state of cooking as your spouse reads the paper at the kitchen table, or half-listening from the study while your brother takes a call in the living room. Passive company provides us with the chance to simply be with someone else. It’s time, as Glenn Stalker puts it, “when nothing much is being said.”
Which reminded me of the last panel in this comic explaining how to live with the introverted (ironically forwarded to me by one of my ex-flatmates, an energetic sort who enjoys bizarre-to-me combinations of activities such as, "Let's go for a run together and discuss post-conflict transitional justice!")

The Boy, who's one of those aliens who enjoys unplanned encounters with acquaintances, meeting complete strangers, talking on the phone, going to social events where he doesn't know anyone, and who has around 2000 friends on Facebook, often worries that I'll get lonely. We move around a lot, I don't go out of my way to socialise and meet new people, and I only have a few close friends-- almost all of whom live in different cities, if not on different continents. But I enjoy solitude, I have ample passive company, and most importantly I have something White completely dismisses: online fandom. Fandom gives me shared interests, good conversations, long-term friendships, interesting strangers passing by. I've been in fandom, in one form or another, since I was sixteen; it's not the biggest part of my life, but it's been one of the most enduring.

That said, I wonder if I wasn't content with my offline life, if fandom would be enough. Sometimes I peek into the little windows of people's lives, scrolling past on my network page, and I wonder how many of those people beneath the fandom chatter are lonely, unhappy, just wanting-- waiting-- to connect.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Last week a couple of friends and I went to hear New Yorker writer Katherine Boo speak at Sydney Uni about her new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Boo is a white journalist from the US, married to an Indian, who spent four years visiting, observing, interviewing and writing about the residents of a small slum illegally located on the outer edge of the Mumbai international airport. It actually wasn't the most interesting session, given that Boo's 'partner in conversation' was a faculty anthropologist who didn't seem that comfortable in the role and didn't ask any particularly difficult questions, but it did give me the impetus to finally get around to reading the book (which had been languishing on my to-read list for months). The one thing that really piqued my interest in the talk was Boo briefly touching on her decision to minimise her own presence in the narrative, in contrast to the academic approach of explicitly acknowledging the external observer's presence and unpacking its impact on people's responses and behaviours. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is basically a non-fiction book about real people and real events that reads like a well-plotted novel in an intimate third-person POV, and to say I was highly sceptical about the accuracy and appropriateness of this approach would be an understatement.

Hmm, this got long )

Recommended, even if perhaps the safest route is to take the text as a series of broadly representative stories, rather than the actual literal truth of history as happened.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
So imagine me making that Keanu Reeves whoa face, which basically sums up my feelings regarding experiencing ADSL again for the first time in, oh, a month or so. First there was the two weeks in Japan-- which, while obviously a very wired society, has remarkably inaccessible internet for the casual traveller-- and then there were two weeks in Timor-Leste, where internet speeds have drastically increased since I lived there two years ago (and the number of wireless hotspots has increased from two to four!), but when your baseline is "takes fifteen minutes to load one email, and doesn't work at all when it rains", there's still a long way to go towards customer satisfaction. And then there was the internetless week after moving into our new place. But now we have internet, and a flat in which there are only TWO PEOPLE, and life is looking up.

During those dark, internetless times, though, I managed to read some actual books. I read, and disliked, Dunnett's first Lymond book (sorry, [livejournal.com profile] freece!). Unsympathetic person that I am, I spent most of the time wishing that Lymond would just get over his goddamned manpain already. On the other hand, I'm now on Book 4 of Dunnett's House of Niccolò series, which I'm greatly enjoying despite some discomfort at the Orientalism and depictions of 15th century colonialism. Nicholas's competence, scheming, and restrained manpain (which fuels all his victories as well as his terrible mistakes), is just my cup of tea. I'm interested in comparing him to Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell (by all accounts another ridiculously competent but ultimately fallible character), so I've got Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in the queue for when I run out of Dunnett.

Recently, I've also loved Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, perhaps better known on the internet as Sugar. I know there are people who can't stand her, but I love her unflinching honesty, her understanding of grief, and most of all: her seemingly boundless compassion. The internet can be such a bitter, cynical place that I've come to treasure her compassion and generosity in extending a human connection to the people who need it most. Her columns are wise and humane and hurt and hopeful, and sometimes I just sit there and read a string of them and sob. (Some of my favourite Sugar columns are: How You Get Unstuck, We Are All Savages Inside, The Baby Bird [warning for sexual assault of a minor], and Write Like a Motherfucker.) I think reading Wild is a particularly touching experience if you know, through her column, Sugar's older, infinitely understanding self. Wild is a young woman's raw howl of hurt and grief and betrayal, and even as you see her take steps towards her future self, you can't help but know how much more she has to go before she becomes the Sugar we know. It kind of broke my heart. I wanted to protect her; to tell her it'd be okay in the end. That while suffering isn't for anything, those experiences nevertheless ended up becoming an integral part of a beautiful, admirable, whole, human being. Highly recommended if you're a Sugar fan.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Entertained myself on the plane ride back from Japan this morning with a rousing game of Murakami Bingo (played with a copy of 1Q84, a wrist-breaking tome of approximately 1000 pages):

1. First reference to an obscure piece of classical music: page 3

2. First reference to a male character's formative experience being a (sexual/sexualised) betrayal by his mother: page 13

3. First lesbian sex scene: page 29

4. First time a woman thinks way more about her own breasts than most women normally do (aka. the George R. R. Martin school of the female POV): page 34

5. First time a man experiences desire for a nubile but kooky schoolgirl: page 45

6. First mention of Cutty Sark whiskey: page 55

7. First mention of jazz playing on the radio: page 55

8. First time a hot 20-something woman sleeps with balding, 50-something man: page 61

I think I'm going to make my ninth bingo square the first reference to a US fast food chain (Denny's has always been a Murakami favourite, no?), and then I'm going to call it quits. I got better things to read than the n-th iteration of some middle-aged dude's fantasyland.

Weeping sakura tree in blossom over a Zen rock garden
Obligatory sakura photo
tevere: neha has both the boys (OT3)
I had a terrible job interview today. No, I don't want to talk about it. (Let's just say my incompetence-humiliation squick was triggered good and proper-- and by incompetent and humiliated I mean me, not them.) Instead, have my thoughts on a variety of trashy and not-so-trashy genre books.

Magic University: The Siren and the Sword, by Cecilia Tan. [Fantasy/Erotica] Saw this recommended somewhere on my network, and as it was on sale at Amazon (USD0.99/AUD0.93) I grabbed a copy for light train reading. I... did not love this book. In fact, I still haven't finished it because all the eye-rolling was starting to hurt my face. I've now finished it! And I'm still not in love. It's basically HP-redux: a magical university, four houses, broom riding (not an euphemism), a protagonist raised by a non-magical family and entering the magical world for the first time, a sneering pedigreed (and canonically gay) rival whose middle name may as well be Draco. I found myself perplexed as to who the intended audience was: on one hand, the protagonists read really young, even though they're supposed to be in university (and the writing style seems more suited to the younger end of the YA spectrum)-- and on the other hand, there are the explicit sex scenes. I have nothing against graphic detail, but I really couldn't detect any chemistry between the participants that might have made the sex remotely interesting to me. The world lacked plausible detail, none of the characters seemed to have much going on in the way of an internal life (especially the protagonist, who couldn't even muster interesting reactions to the revelation that magic exists), and the whole Chosen One/prophecy business was painfully heavy-handed. I could have taken a great fantasy world with a mediocre romance, or a great romance with mediocre worldbuilding, but mediocre on both counts? Pass.

Sex, Straight Up, by Kathleen O'Reilly. [Contemporary Romance] Got this on a rec from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which occasionally turns up the kind of contemporary mainstream het romance I really dig. It's always a bit of a gamble, and I didn't love this one-- I suppose it was merely adequate in the time-whiling-away department, with a few touches I liked. The slightly daring premise is well-handled: a normal guy, living a normal life with the love of his life, suddenly loses her in the tragic events of 9/11. After years of grieving, he finally meets another normal girl and realises that perhaps it's possible to love two people (equally, differently) in one's life. As I've said before, I love quotidian romances! Dude is an accountant: decent, quiet, competent. Girl is an art historian: nice, talented, slightly insecure. They have fun sex; there's a very slight plot involving corporate corruption; there are awkward workplace misunderstandings, eventually resolved. On the downside, the writing is stock-standard Harlequin in its most pejorative sense; it was more of a novella than a novel; there was a throwaway joke at the expense of trans people; and (as far as I could tell) apparently only white people live in New York. Oh, except for the people who sell you fake handbags.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. [Sci-Fi/Comedy] Light-hearted time-travelling hijinks to an era of steam trains and straw boater hats, and occasionally WWII. My experience of it was a bit idiosyncratic: I could tell it was good, and there were feliticious turns of phrase that I loved, but I couldn't really get into it. It's more of a plot story than a character-driven one, I suppose, and I've always been one for the big emotional payoff. If you like whimsical clockwork mysteries and time travel, though, I'd recommend it.

The Foundling and Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. [Regency Romance] I've always told myself that I don't like Regency romances-- I guess it's just a period of history I'm not hugely interested in. (That said, I'm even less interested in 15th century Europe, and I've recently fallen for Dorothy Dunnett's ginormous House of Niccolò series-- curse you, [livejournal.com profile] freece!) So these were the first Heyers I've ever read, and I was pleasantly surprised. Speaking strictly with my romance-reader hat on, I think I preferred Cotillion, which had a more classic romance arc as well as a super-charming tongue-in-cheek quality. But for characters and hijinks, I liked The Foundling as much, if not more, and it certainly had the faintest hint of a slashy vibe. (Did you know [personal profile] resonant has written Foundling fic? Now you do! Gilly and Gideon: Natural.) The Foundling did have more than a few moments when I wanted to scream with frustration-- at the characters, not the book itself-- but I was kind of simultaneously charmed in my frustration, so there you go. Both books are packed with practically incomprehensible period dialogue and detail, but I had fun looking everything up.

Silk is For Seduction, by Loretta Chase. [Regency Romance] This is the other kind of Regency romance, in which there is much anachronistic sexing in carriages and alleyways, and the dialogue is possibly somewhat less than period authentic. Less charming than Heyer, but more trashily fun. I liked the spunky, business-minded dressmaker heroine and her glowering apathetic duke, and the meticulous descriptions of her many different outfits were just delightful. This is Regency as dress-up paper dolls, and I have no problem with that. (I also tried Chase's Mr Impossible, but quickly gave it up as I have absolutely no faith that the dress-up paper doll technique in colonial Egypt is going to end up as anything less than fail. Feel free to correct me if it's not so bad.)

I'm looking for some more trashy reading for this weekend's wedding extravaganza in Adelaide; anyone got any recs? I prefer everyday contemporary romance with older characters (at least in their thirties), but if a historical romance is particularly good I'll give it a try. (FYI: Don't like Crusie, have already read all the Brockmanns.)
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
I was kind of surprised to realise that Disgrace is the first piece of literary fiction I've read in quite a while. I guess recently I've been reading mostly autobiographies (Malcolm X, Jane Fonda), non-fiction (Girls Like Us, Observant States, The Happiness Project, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower) and genre (Lois McMaster Bujold, whom I unfortunately do not like, and Georgette Heyer, whom I do).

I didn't really know anything about Disgrace, going in. I suppose I had the vague impression that Coetzee was of the same vintage and sensibility as Ian McEwan or Martin Amis, so I should expect some mid-life angsting of the white male variety. And, oh lord, how right did that turn out to be. The only reason I persisted through the first chapter ("Oh, woe, I'm in my mid-fifties and my life has never amounted to anything; the only joy I get is from sleeping with prostitutes") was due to a masochistic urge to see how outraged the whole damn thing could make me.

And yet-- despite the protagonist remaining an eminently unlikable, selfish and self-pitying individual from beginning to end (my mantra while reading was basically: "Shut UP, you fuck. Gross, gross, GROSS, ugh, you fuck, I HOPE YOU DIE"), I found the book as a whole thought-provoking and worthwhile. The story isn't, at its essence, about the protagonist (a white professor who flees in disgrace from Cape Town to his daughter's rural farm after an ill-judged affair with a student). As I read it, it's more an examination of the changing racial dynamics in South Africa, the lingering social and economic impacts of colonisation and Apartheid-- especially as played out on women's bodies, both black and white. Overlying the experiences of its white characters and their interactions with black South Africans, the narrative asks obliquely: what reparations ought whites make to black South Africans for colonisation and Apartheid? Can any reparations ever be sufficient? Is it realistic to hope for racial reconciliation in the face of persistent inequalities? Is there a place and future for whites in independent Africa, given their history there?

(A white Portuguese friend whose family had lived for Mozambique for three generations once told me about the experience of being forced to flee to Portugal in 1974; how it felt to live after the destruction of their house, their belongings, their entire existence in a place they'd always thought of as 'home'. I found it a vexing thing to think about: empathy towards the trauma of having one's life ripped away, but perhaps overshadowed by the unsympathetic thought that they should never have been there in the first place.)

Disgrace is a short read-- it only took me a morning-- but I wouldn't say it's easy. It took me quite a lot of concentration and re-reading to separate the POV character's views and actions from the overlying critique. There's horrid misogyny, some homophobia, and several occasions of violence against women that's experienced and understood from within a limited male POV (including rape and coerced consent)-- and although they make sense given the protagonist's character, I'm not sure they're entirely unproblematic as authorial choices (but I need to think more about it before forming a proper opinion). And again given the POV, there's enough racism to make the book a deeply uncomfortable reading experience. Which is how I think it's meant to be.

I don't know much about South Africa-- either its histories or its present state of being-- so I'd be interested in hearing what other people thought about Disgrace, if they're familiar with it. I think I must have seen someone else review it on DW recently--? I definitely encountered one striking sentence in it I'd read previously elsewhere.
tevere: nate with a thousand-yard stare (thousand-yard stare)
Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams and Michael E. Staub

I remember reading this book for the first time in late 2005 or early 2006, shortly after it was released. I really wouldn't say it's good, objectively speaking. It's an Iraq War memoir written in what I think of as that classic ghostwritten style: like an oral history, transcribed. And maybe that style is how people speak, but it's usually not how they think or how they write. It's so... external... that it kind of comes across as shallow, I guess. Even the subject's thoughts sound like dialogue, rather than existential musings.

And yet. While I was reading this book, half the time I could barely concentrate because of the volume of the anguished howl inside my head: yes, this is how it is. This is what it's like being a woman in a male-dominated environment, this is who that makes you, this is how it makes you act towards men-- and other women. You're either the slut, sleeping with everyone (in rumour if not in fact), or the bitch, thinking she's too good for anyone. There's no moment when you're not sexualised. No moment when you're not a female-- never 'a woman' in the way that males are 'guys' or 'men', but a female, a thing to be visually or physically groped, to be coveted, possessed, joked and boasted about, masturbated over. You feel powerful for being wanted; you simultaneously hate it. You hate the women who flirt and take advantage of their sexuality, and you think: now they think we're all like that, trading blowjobs for promotions. You hate the woman in the leadership position who breaks down and cries and blames it on PMS; don't men think we're weak and emotional already without some dumb bitch with poor self-control adding fuel to the fire? You hate the tough, mean bitches who made it to the top but are too busy dealing with their own issues to help you, the woman at the bottom. You hate them all, but eventually you end up hating yourself.

I met a friend yesterday for coffee, perhaps my closest friend from my old job. She asked if I'd ever come back. I had to laugh. At that job I:

Experienced a level of sexual harrassment that, in retrospect, nearly defies belief )

Did I complain? Of course I didn't complain. I was young; I'd never been in an environment like that before. Stupid as it sounds, I didn't realise it wasn't normal, or perhaps something I'd brought upon myself.

I'm sure there are better books out there dealing with the topic. But 'Love My Rifle More Than You' was the one I found at that particular point in my life, and Williams' experience spoke to me so strongly, that I guess I'll always be a little bit fond of it.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
No lie: my search for this book physically spanned four countries on three continents. (Eventually located in Melbourne, Australia, typically.) Having spent eight weeks imagining the glorious moment I would hold in my hands a perfect, epically weighty tome on the history of Kenyan Asians, I was... well, a little surprised by the actual product. I'm glad I didn't know its origins prior to seeking it out, because I never would have taken a chance on it otherwise. Two words: political theatre. I am, and will probably never be, one with political theatre. (I am also allergic to audiobooks, podcasts, radio plays, podfics, and plays featuring actors I know personally. This is no judgement on these artforms; I just have a thing.) Migritude the book has its origins in a one-woman show by Patel, and comprises the poems and pieces of the show itself; a useful companion section where Patel unpacks each piece and provides references; and a selection of other poems. It's a beautiful little volume, actually, with gorgeous illustrations spilling into the margins-- it's just nice to hold and linger over.

In a blurb on the back, Raj Patel describes Migritude as 'documentary as poetry'. I think that's a great description for a work that's hard to pigeonhole. (Patel herself variously describes her work as poetry, spoken-word theatre, text-based performance for the stage, and fully-embodied poetry.) I enjoyed the fragmented-but-coherent nature of the Migritude pieces, the shift between blank verse and documentary format (letters, media excerpts, histories), the multitude of female voices on their shared condition: subjects of Empire, vulnerable female bodies, African, brown and black, migrants. The best pieces are blunt and powerful, with complicated histories and meaning compressed into tiny spaces. (For a while I was thinking to myself, "But why doesn't she acknowledge the historically privileged position of Kenyan Asians compared to black Kenyans?" But it's there-- between the lines of her mother's letters.) And then there are subtler images:
The night Ravi Shankar
played sitar at Albert Hall
queer Asian boys with kohl-rimmed eyes
danced bhangra in the lanes of Brixton
saffron sashes at their wrists and hips.
[-from Love Poem for London]
At her worst, though, Patel's poems can be jarringly unsubtle. The bluntness that works so well in the Migritude pieces comes across, in some of the standalones, as un-nuanced and cliched-- the message overwhelming the story, I guess. I didn't like 'Eaters of Death' at all. Although based on the true story of an Afghan woman whose husband and children were killed by a US airstrike, it felt thin and artificial-- all the complex emotions of real life stripped out and turned into a monotonal political message. There were a couple more like that I just couldn't engage with.

My favourite piece is from the Migritude set: 'Shilling Love Part 1'. Familial love isn't about saying the words; it's about your actions. (Just the other day my mother told me that she had gotten an anonymous text message on the day I was due to arrive back in Australia: "I'm at the airport now, Mum. Love you." But, she said, "I knew it wasn't from you. You never say 'love you'." Which I don't; none of us do. We don't need to. Everything she's done for me lets me know that.)

Shilling Love Part 1 )
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
The Boy and I just did our finances for 2010. We thought we'd been fairly sensible, but-- er, apparently not so much. A large part of the problem?

Yeah:

Stack of paperback books
Try carrying these puppies around in your backpack for three months

If you want to hear about any of them in particular, let me know. Some were thought-provoking, some were completely unmemorable, others came to dubious conclusions, and one was downright enragifying and I deeply regret giving the author a single cent. I leave you to guess which one that was.

1. Saraswati Park, Anjali Joseph (India) [not pictured]
2. Stolen Heart, Geoffrey Musonda (Zambia)
3. Heart of Africa, Sihle Khumalo (South Africa, central Africa)
4. A Passage to Africa, George Alagiah (Ghana, various Africa)
5. Uhuru Street, MG Vassanji (Tanzania)
6. Petals of Blood, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
7. Brothers, Yu Hua (China)
8. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen (US) [not pictured]
9. A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan)
10. India: One Man's Journey Round the Subcontinent, Sanjeev Bhaskar (India)
11. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple (India)
12. Eating India: Exploring a Nation's Cuisine, Chitrita Banerji (India)
13. Yaraana: Gay Writing from South Asia, ed. Hoshang Merchant (India)
14. The Story of My Experiments with the Truth, MK Gandhi (India)
15. The Boyfriend, R. Raj Rao (India)
16. Being Indian, Pavan Varma (India)
17. The Gunny Sack, MG Vassanji (Kenya, Tanzania)
18. India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond, Shashi Tharoor (India)
19. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity, Amartya Sen (India)
20. Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother, Amy Chua (US) [not pictured]

From now on, no more books.
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
'The In-Between World of Vikram Lall' by M.G. Vassanji Read review )

'War Games' by Linda Polman Read review )

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam Read review )

I also saw Inception. I didn't love it; it felt hollow to me, like a shiny Christmas cracker with a disposable trinket inside. And yet-- here I am, well into a medium-length story already. Oh well, whatever gets the muse going.

PSA: Remember, it's Ramadan next week!

Reading

Apr. 27th, 2010 06:31 pm
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
I have no idea what this three weeks for Dreamwidth thing is (it seems to involve everyone posting a lot?), but I think I like it.

As my paltry contribution to the chatter, I offer you a book rec:

Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz

I found this by accident as part of my increasingly desperate search for this other Arabian Nights-based novel, title unknown, that I saw last year in Kinokuniya in KL (but, ironically, put aside to buy Mahfouz's 'Cairo Modern' instead). Recently released blue paperback, author possibly called Taufiq someone, first chapter starts with some sultan being forced to take another wife-- a situation he's less than pleased about, because he happens to be very fond of his current one? --Anyone? Sigh.

Anyway. Mahfouz is an Egyptian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, defended Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' and then got stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife for his troubles (he survived). 'Arabian Nights and Days' was written in 1979, but the translation is fairly new. It's a follow-on of sorts to the Arabian Nights: the Sultan Shahriyar has (temporarily) stopped killing the town's virgin daughters, and his wife Shahrzad (Scheherazade) is wary, pragmatic and resigned to her fate as the one person stopping him from starting it all up again. In a series of interlinked short stories, the novel follows Shahriyar, Shahrzad and various other members of their community as one by one they fall prey to the whims, schemes and tests of the local genies.

What I particularly liked is that each of the stories is a small meditation on morality. Power and opportunity corrupt. In difficult situations, people make even worse choices. Redemption is through the mercy of God. Bad things happen to good people, but bad people do (occasionally) receive their just desserts even in this world, and certainly in the next. I always find it interesting reading this kind of philosophical fiction when it comes from a non-Western, non-Christian frame of reference -- and while I'm fairly sure I didn't understand most of it, I definitely enjoyed it. And I'd read it again, but what with uni and part-time work and the Supernatural story that ate my brain (shut up), I'm currently surprisingly busy.

Reading

Oct. 25th, 2009 08:59 pm
tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
I haven't felt much like writing recently, having instead fallen into a weird state of frantic knowledge absorption-- possibly to make up for the six months earlier this year when the only things I read had to do with East Timor, the US military and/or Iraq.

I always like taking a look at what other people are reading, so here's a few I'm working my way through at the moment:

'Democracy Kills: What's So Good About Having the Vote?', Humphrey Hawksley (2009)
I picked this up in error, thinking it was Paul Collier's 'Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places'. So not only do I have the wrong book, I have a terrible book. It's littered with typos and comes across as rushed, superficial and poorly fact-checked (e.g. 'Bin Mohamad' instead of 'Mahathir'. Megawati didn't succeed Suharto; there were two intervening Presidents. East Timor didn't win its independence in a 'fairly bloodless' manner, supervised by the Australian military. The EU was unable to intervene in Bosnia in 1992 because the EU formed in 1993. And so on.) Hawksley is a senior BBC correspondent who takes a whirlwind tour around the globe, taking a look at a number of countries with different systems of government. Each country gets an overly-coloured anecdotal account of his meeting with one or two political figures and a person on the street. It's a strange format for making any kind of in-depth argument, and you can't really even tell what his argument is until the conclusion, where he wisely informs you that the key to successful democracy is strong institutions. Thanks, genius. (Although East Timor could take a tip.)
'The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse', Richard Thompson Ford (2008)
Ford argues that with legal discrimination against black Americans overturned by the civil rights movement, the antiracism effort has had to start addressing more nuanced forms of bias (as opposed to the outright, legally-sanctioned bigotry of the Jim Crow era). Where there's discrimination these days, there are often many factors at play -- including, but not limited to, racism and inherited racist structures. To make the blanket accusation that racism is the pure cause of certain cases of discrimination is to ignore the other factors, and the 'cry wolf' effect can harm attitudes towards clear-cut cases of bigotry. Ford has a humorous, very engaging style and convincing arguments. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book, which also looks at the problems with 'racism by analogy' (other discriminated-against groups using the language of the civil rights movement) and the difficulties in defining discrimination.
'The Idea of Justice', Amartya Sen (2009)
I've liked some of Sen's less technical works, but this one makes me feel like I'd have benefited from Jurisprudence 101 before tackling it. Sen argues that focusing on what constitutes 'perfectly just institutions' (Rawls, etc) isn't of much help to us in the real world, where we're trying to reduce injustice. Instead, he focuses on how we might think about justice in the context of people's real behaviours and as implemented by real institutions, and argues for the primacy of reason in determining what is just. I'm liking the way he draws on non-Western legal philosophy, such as his exploration of the Sanskrit concepts niti (specific rules and behaviours) and nyaya (the overall system of justice).
'Death of a Red Heroine', Qiu Xiaolong (2000)
This must be the first novel I've opened in months. I found the author while googling Liz Williams' 'Inspector Chen' series, as Qiu's protagonist is also a (Chief) Inspector Chen (Cao). Qiu writes in English and there's a certain element of China 101 in the way he describes things for the Western audience, but he has a vivid style with a nice flow and plenty of classical poetry references. This is the first in a series of murder mysteries set in Shanghai, and it contains enough of the seamy side of domestic politics that you can see why Qiu wrote it in the US.

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