31 August 2006

Curious Circumstances

Last night, I saw my most interesting death certificate yet.

It was an 83-year-old man. His cause of death was listed as:
a. Mechanical asphyxia
b. Inverted body position and compression of the thorax
c. Suspension over window sill
A further note said:
Became suspended over sill of window while trying to gain entry to his residence

If You Could See Me Now. Cecelia Ahern.

Godawful book. I kept stopping to see if I could work out the antecedents of pronouns, then reminding myself that it wasn't worth the trouble and speeding on. I only read to the end because I was amused by the central conceit, of a sort of social services agency sending out invisible friends to people in need, and I wanted to see how it worked out.

Life Mask. Emma Donoghue.

This is a story of personal confusion and political intrigue set at the time of George III's first spell of madness and the beginning of the French Revolution. I like stories full of details of life in other times and places. If things weren't really like that then, I don't really care, as long as I don't happen to know that they weren't like that, and since I don't run about doing vast quantities of historical research all the time, I am unlikely to know.

I did notice in Life Mask, however, that either William Pitt was a lot like George Bush (in what ways, I can't quite remember--I read this book a week and a half ago, and a lot can disappear from my memory in that much time, but I think perhaps Pitt was characterized as highly inarticulate and hopelessly dependent on a few advisors) or Emma Donoghue was shaping him to serve some contemporary political purpose. And then a few dozen pages on, the Tories started talking about homeland security. And then a bit farther on the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" actually popped up in some context where it really did not seem quite fitting.

It is possible, however, that I'm remembering wrong and the "weapons of mass destruction" were Gregory Maguire's, not Emma Donoghue's. I read Son of a Witch and Life Mask about the same time, and was noticing the same odd phenomenon of political commentary cropping up in otherworldly fiction in both novels.

If it were China I'd think maybe someone was trying to start a Cultural Revolution through carefully deployed historical analogy. But right now in North America (Donoghue lives in Canada, Maguire in the U.S.) you can pretty much say what you want without political consequence. Even political leaders seem to be able to blurt out pretty much whatever's on their minds without suffering much for it. Ordinary members of the public can go about bellowing their opinions aloud, trying to gain adherents, and no one will pay them the slightest attention, so certainly there is no need for them to disguise their political views in fiction. I think people are just so disgusted with the current political situation that they can't keep their their thoughts about it from leaking into everything they do, even if they end up with water damage to the sort of timeless quality they may be striving for.

26 August 2006

Sucker for Snow

At 12:18 a.m., as I became somewhat frantic in my haste to get everything in its place (weekly report emailed to department managers, lotion and water bottle in my big drawer, lip gunk in the little drawer with the paper clips--but I bunged it in in such a hurry it bounced out again onto the floor and I lost a few seconds retrieving it--scraps of paper with people's Social Security numbers in the shredding bin) so I could get home and have something to eat and start my weekend, along came W to my desk.

"Yes?" said I, moderately testy. A few minutes before, as I was hurriedly counting files waiting to be checked, to put in the weekly report, he'd come along and started telling me about some case he was working on in a way that led me to believe he had some question for me about it. It turned it out he was just telling me about it because it seemed to him interesting. To me, it did not seem all that interesting--I have not now even the most general memory of what he was saying. But it made me a minute and a half hungrier.

If he had clocked out and was now coming back to ask me yet another question, well, he could just eat shit, fuck off, and die, the way he says he told the National Guard to.

His question wasn't such a bad one this time, though: did I want to go across the street to get something to eat?

Hunger being uppermost in my mind at that moment, I said yes. Besides, it was high time I overcame my fear of Italian restaurants. Normally, given the choice, I pick something safe--Ethiopian, Burmese--and if there's no way to avoid entering an Italian restaurant, once I'm there I order something unintimidating, such as soup and salad. At home I eat pasta all the livelong day, but that's at home.

This time I was brave! I ordered linguine with roasted red pepper pesto!

For some reason W started telling me about spy school in Syracuse, and all the snow there, and moved on to boasting of meeting Robert Graves, who was eating a sandwich and held out a clean pinky to shake.

There was a Graves poem I had posted up by my bed my junior year in college, where I could read it before I blew out the candle and went to sleep.

When I got home from eating pasta I got out the battered volume that I still feel guilty for spending my dad's money on and looked it up. (The book is battered more from being mailed about in cardboard boxes more than from being read, though I think I did read it quite a bit when I first got to Kunming and had made myself a rule that I could only read things in Chinese. Poetry was sort of honorarily in Chinese, I can only presume I must have thought.)

She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low:

As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.
It's a short poem, highly accessible, and fit my situation at the time. (It was someone else who told his love, and me who was half asleep, so the whole thing was possibly imaginary but in any case about as likely to flourish as crocuses in February.) I think, though, more than anything, it was the snow in the poem that got me.

I would have had tacked to the wall above my desk a postcard of Hiroshige's famous snow scene. I spent a lot of time in the Northwest Airlines waiting lounge at the Narita airport in those days, flying back and forth between Cleveland and Hong Kong. It was an atrocious lounge, but at least there was a little shop where I could replenish my supply of postcards with this picture. I always tried to keep them for myself, but sooner or later some person or other would inspire me a moment of sympathy or esteem, and I'd take my postcard from the wall and mail it off to them and have to scrape together some Yen to buy myself a new one. (Now I drink tea out of a mug bearing the image. I bought it at Ten Ren in Chicago's Chinatown.)

Above the wall where the postcard would have been was a bookshelf, and there kept my House at Pooh Corner, bearing my earliest favorite poem:
The more it
The more it
The more it

And nobody
How cold my
How cold my
I didn't have a book of Theodore Roethke, but didn't need one, for "Dirty Dinky" was embedded firmly in my mind:
Oh what's the weather in a beard?
It's windy there, and rather weird.
And when you think the skies have cleared,
Why, there is Dirty Dinky.

Suppose you walk out in a storm
With nothing on to keep you warm,
And then step, barefoot, on a worm,
Of course it's Dirty Dinky.

As I was crossing a hot, hot plain,
I saw a sight to give me pain.
You asked me before, I'll tell you again:
It looked like Dirty Dinky.

Last night you lay a-sleeping? No!
The room was thirty-five below.
The sheets and blankets turned to snow.
He'd got in: Dirty Dinky.

You'd better watch the things you do.
You'd better watch the things you do.
You're part of him; he's part of you.
You may be Dirty Dinky.
For a class in Japanese history, I was required to buy and read any four of a list of ten books. Ryokan (translated by John Stevens) was not of the four I chose, but I couldn't help buying it anyway, just to read, after I squatted for a while by the bottom shelf where the books for the course were stacked, reading things like this:
A thousand peaks covered with frozen snow.
Ten thousand mountain paths, yet no sign of human beings.
Every day, only zazen;
Sometimes the sound of snow blowing against the window.
Not until later did I start going to art museums. I soon grew quite fond of them, though. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, I lingered long before Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, where I sometimes went for my lunch break on free Tuesdays, of all the Monet wheatstacks on display I liked the one with all the snow sitting on it best.

A life with too little real snow in it? Certainly. But even when I lived where you have to roll your knit hat down over your face to keep the windblown snow from scouring your skin, I liked this stuff. Things with snow in them are just better than things without.

24 August 2006

Son of a Witch. Gregory Maguire.

The first Chapter Book I ever read, back when I was six, was The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Soon after that, I had to throw out The Emerald City of Oz because its pages were falling out.

Why were its pages falling out? By my calculation, there were only about six months between me learning how to read and my family moving out of the house where I threw out that book. Can a six-year-old really have read a book to pieces in less than half a year? Granted, it was a cheap, gluey-spined ("perfect-bound," the Chicago Manual of Style tells me is the term I should be using--perfect, my ass) paperback, and it got lost in the toy chest for quite a while, where it probably got quite a bit of an a-literate beating. But something tells me some grown-ups were reading me those Oz books.

Once I could read, though, I read them for myself, and oh, often it was that I read them. A couple of years later, my dad lost patience and forbade me ever to read an Oz book again. (The only books I have ever been forbidden to read.) Being a goody-goody sort, only once did I give in to temptation and reread the whole cycle in hiding. And then at some point in my adolescence I figured the prohibition, like the one on sugar, and like my 9:00 bedtime, had at some point lapsed without anyone bothering to inform me of it. I think at that point I read all Baum's Oz books through again, and concluded that really there was nothing much in them.

Visiting me in Kunming once, my mom went downtown to the big new bookstore and found there some Oz books in translation. So what did she do but buy them and bring them home to me. (Oh, the hypocrisy!) Reading The Wizard of Oz in Chinese, I was struck by its peculiar crass Americanness, its strange combination of good plain Kansas values with fervent descriptions of crowns and jewels.

Gregory Maguire seems to me to show signs of a life just like mine: childhood Oz fascination followed by adult disillusionment. Somewhere in Son of a Witch he says Dorothy's eyes were "button bright" with some emotion or other. "Button-Bright!" says I to myself, thrilled as a wan Chinese scholar with the pleasures of allusion. "Mr. 'Don't want to be soup!' himself! Now which book was that in, The Road to Oz?" (I've just now checked. It was. I haven't read the book in about twenty years. See how these things stick.)

So it was with the greatest relish that I read Wicked a few years back, and now Son of a Witch. How delightful to see Dorothy portrayed as a flighty, interfering busybody, and Oz as a country grossly ill-governed and riven by tribal and factional strife. Besides which, despite the fact that at one point he uses "caravanserai" in place of "caravan"--why did his copy editor let him get away with that?--Maguire really knows, far far better than most in this degenerate age, how to put the English language into writing.

16 August 2006

A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity. Kathleen Gilles Seidel.

This is the story of a mother in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, DC who is traumatized when her sixth-grade daughter is suddenly one of the popular girls and then, as suddenly, isn't.

Somehow I kept reading this as a sociological text, and being alarmed and troubled. Perhaps it's not reasonable to think that what a novelist happened to decide to write down one year must be true, but--it sounds true. When Seidel describes a place I've been (downtown Bethesda, the Pentagon City mall) or the sort of situation I've been in (Georgetown fundraising auction) it sounds just the way I remember it, and so I'm inclined to believe that there really are private school moms running all around DC worrying that other kids are having parties and their daughters aren't invited, or that their friends' kids don't have rides to the mall.

Come to think of it, this novel has very little in the way of plot, which just reinforces its impression of authenticity. If it had a plot, I might suspect some of the lifestyle details were invented just to advance it, but since the story doesn't go anywhere, the details must be real, right?

I was going to say how glad I was my mother didn't concern herself with this sort of thing, but I don't know. Maybe her efforts to make sure I didn't go to parties even if I was invited, because there might be wheat there, were just as bad. But I bet if we'd lived in DC when I was eleven she would have let me go on the Metro by myself, and she would never have taken some other girl's mother out for lunch at an expensive Georgetown bistro just to see if she could be induced to make her daughter be nicer to me, and she never ever would have thought she couldn't go out of town because I might not get to bed early enough the night before a standardized test at school. So I calculate I got off lucky.

And if I ever have a daughter, she can be as socially and academically backward as she damn well pleases.

14 August 2006

Rosie Dunne. Cecelia Ahern.

The other day I was considering my budget, or at any rate what budget I might have were I to decide a budget was a good idea. It seemed to me that all my luxuries were nice luxuries that I wanted to spend money on, with the exception of frivolous books. I sometimes think I can avoid wasting time reading frivolous books by refusing to go to the library and fetch any of the things back into my house. But then I find that when the need for a frivolous book arises, generally outside library hours, I just go out and purchase one (or three), and then I just have less money and more useless chunks of paper in my house.

Yesterday, therefore, I was very good. I went to the library and I brought home frivolous books, of which Rosie Dunne was one. Now that I've read it, I can just take it back again. What a lovely invention is the library.

Rosie Dunne is also a rather clever sort of invention. I've always had a weakness for epistolary novels, composed as they are of reinterpretations of events made in the lulls between the events themselves. And it's nice no one's omniscient. You can suspect to your heart's content that whoever's writing's being purposely misleading, or else perhaps has no idea what they're talking about, and usually your suspicions are confirmed.

It also seems likely to me that pulling off an epistolary novel is so difficult a trick the ones that fail fail so completely that they never come to public view.

Or maybe they really have no definable virtues, it's just I like them. I do, anyway. Including this one.

12 August 2006


I thought it might be fun to write a story but could think of nothing to write a story about, so gave up on the "about" part and and wrote this one:
She said, repeatedly, that the fridge was smudged. The goats didn't hear it. Not before the flood came down, anyway. There was still some likelihood of sage, at that point, but the slow spell did not last long.

Afterwards, when the folks in the town were muddling about with their trousers off and a herd of farthingales at their feet, swirling, it seemed too late to do too much about it. She sweltered, the way they all did, and she hurled a gale of muffin pans up there among the chimney poles, but slow sad smells of punditry were the most that could be got there, that day, at the end of the month of June.

It was a sad comeuppance, but a trenchant one. She kept it, muffled, in the farthest corner of the swiftest smelter of the road. It sat there, and it ate pie, breathing. She nurtured it, when she could, clandestinely, but for the most part it was all that she could do to keep on mucking there around it, in the filth and sand and dirt.

No one cantered, really, but the sad souls in the old town who were always, in any case, obstruse enough to castrate all the chickens in the deep south of the board, but of what sconce was it, truly, to settle bunions in the places where the greasy swirls of cactus swept? It was hardly a matter for neophytes.

She would see, she decided, how the swift feet of the crabs went among the faucets of the square, and when she was done, it would be done. No muffet, no obtuseness. Just a quick, black stroke of dudgeon in the seeping of the air, and then it was gone. Where the pippins lay, over and under the rail ties and the pidgeons of the slum, the puffins would grow, and the candles glow in the dim.
There seems to be something lacking, here. Nothing too important, for my purposes. There is syntax, including a certain attention to proper parts of speech. There is rhythmic variation, and assonance, and consonance, and even something resembling a narrative structure.

There just isn't any meaning. Were I reading, I would probably want some meaning there somewhere. Why is it that, in writing, it's so easy to dispense with?

I Am the Messenger. Markus Zusak.

This promised to be a tale of entertaining ne'er-do-wells, but then they ended up finding purpose and meaning in life, which was somewhat disappointing. At one point the protagonist hears someone compare him to a saint. Then he reflects that in fact maybe he is. This struck me as a bit too much.

Nevertheless, to someone as perplexed by others' motivations as me, the story, which is structured as a series of trials in which the messenger must observe someone, discern what they need, and provide it, was rather alluring. I do not know whether it is realistic to suppose that there could be someone with this ability to fix things for people, but it is the sort of thing that I occasionally set my mind to for a little bit before giving up as hopeless. (I did once come upon someone collapsed in a heap of furniture and other belongings in the entryway of the building I lived in in Chicago. It was quite unambiguously evident that she needed help moving in. I helped her. That's the only time I remember that sort of thing working out, though.)

In this book I got to attempt puzzle after puzzle, fail at each of them, and then be presented with a solution. This was interesting, so I didn't end up minding too much the unexpected optimism of the whole exercise.

08 August 2006

Life along the Silk Road. Susan Whitfield.

Susan Whitfield knows what she's talking about and knows how to write. I think I once assumed that all history books were written by people both knowledgeable and articulate, but I have long since discovered that not to be the case. At least occasionally I do run across one with not too much bad about it.

The book is organized around ten people (some historical, some invented) who lived between Samarkand and Chang'an during (more or less) the Tang. They are not so much protagonists as organizing principles--a Tibetan soldier provides an excuse to describe military campaigns, a nun a reason to recount sutra stories, a widow a pretext for quoting from a sex manual.

The device of narrating individuals' stories sometimes led me for a moment astray. "Kumtugh's grandfather?" thought I. "But if there was no Kumtugh, whence a Kumtugh's grandfather? And if there wasn't a real Kumtugh, why can't this Kumtugh do something more interesting than think about how to make felt while he he drives some ponies from Dzungaria to the Chinese border?"

Mostly, though, it wasn't hard to suppress the expectation that these narratives should behave like fiction, but because it fit somehow into a particular hypothetical life, each everyday detail--the sand that weights a wool bale, the malachite and orpiment that color a cave painting, the traced outline of a hand that seals a contract--felt more significant than if it had just been part of some general description of how things were done.

07 August 2006

Imperial Pretensions

I seem to have fallen of late into a certain terminological confusion, induced no doubt by overconsumption of history books.

This afternoon, starting to get ready for work, I found myself ruing that I'd not found time to clean up my "empire," by which I meant the bathtub and the kitchen counter. (At least I didn't call them the Western and the Eastern Marches.)

This reminded me of a morning last week (I think it was Wednesday) when I had intended to sleep in, but was prevented by someone "at my borders" (as I thought grumpily to myself, slowly and reluctantly waking up) with a leafblower or some such motorized gardening implement.

There is something alarming in this. However, earlier when I awoke from a nap and wanted coffee, I said to myself not that I must schedule an audience with my Minister of the Interior, but merely that I thought I'd put the kettle on. So perhaps my megalomania has not yet exceeded acceptable bounds.

06 August 2006

Music in Brazil: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. John P. Murphy.

This is a textbook, so as long as it conveys information it needs do nothing more. And in fact it does nothing more. It organizes its musics into national ones, regional ones, and cosmopolitan ones. (It says somewhere something about the construction of identity with relation to each, but that's just because everything these days has to say something somewhere about construction of identity. Which, I figure, means that in five or ten years no mention will any longer be made of construction of identity. And then another ten or twenty years after that there can be a revival of the concept, and it may be useful for another two or three years before becoming again obligatory.)

I was of the opinion that I read only for entertainment, never for information, but I guess I must conclude that I sometimes find information entertaining.

The book's conveyance of information did fall down here and there. It is incessantly referring readers to "the website," and though the book came out just this year said website no longer seems to exist. And the very useful CD that comes along with the book would be yet more useful if you could play all of it. I can't be certain that the accident that befell mine, rendering the last two and a half of the cosmopolitan musics unhearable (I had to skip Recife rap and electronica), wasn't after the book came into my possession, but a bit of flexible plastic inside the back cover of a paperback book doesn't seem like adequate protection.

03 August 2006

Wild West China: The Untold Story of a Frontier Land. Christian Tyler.

I was carrying this book around at work for some weeks. "What are you reading?" Voldemort asked. I showed him the cover. "Oh, still that one about China," he said.

That one about China? I had been thinking of it as Xinjiang, for some reason focusing on the largest word on the back cover rather than the ones on the front. Probably I just didn't want to let myself recognize that I was carrying around something called Wild West China. Untold story, forsooth.

It's funny the cover should display the Chinese name of the region it's about, though, considering the book's marked splittist tendencies. In fact, the longer I look at this cover, the more confused I get.

The silly, sensationalist title is a very good indicator of the tone of the book, and a downtrodden minority girl surely fits, but--just what ethnicity is she? Mongolian, I would guess, with a very fair probability of being wrong. But certainly not Uighur, and really this is a book about the Tarim Basin and its Uighur inhabitants, with the rest of Xinjiang--a region composed, like so many others, by administrative accident--drawn in only where it throws light on the situation in the Tarim oases. So what is this girl doing on the cover?

The allusion to the Wild West has, of course, to do not only with the fact that Xinjiang is the westernmost portion of China, but with colonization and the suppression of indigenous peoples. The trouble is, the particular indigenous people with which Tyler concerns himself just aren't going to look right on the cover. I have no idea what Tyler looks like himself, but I think his excited description of the mummies uncovered in the Taklamakan gives a clue:
More remarkable even than the preservation of the mummies is the character of the faces preserved. For these people look nothing like Chinese. Tall and slender, with aquiline features and high-bridged noses, light brown or red hair and heavy beards, they plainly come from the west.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what peoples were moving which direction when, up and down and back and forth across the middle of Eurasia, but so far as I can tell from Tyler and others (without having devoted too much care or effort to the question), these mummies were Tocharians, speakers of an Indo-European language, who more or less stayed around the Tarim and grew things, and a couple of millenia later learned to speak a Turkic language from the Uighurs, a nomadic people who invaded from Mongolia, so that the people now called Uighurs are at least partly and distantly of Tocharian origin.

Now, put a paunchy white guy in a slouchy felt hat on the cover of your book, and there is a distinct danger of people interpreting him as the oppressor rather than the oppressed. With a gloomy-looking brown-skinned girl in quaint costume, you're not really likely to run into that problem. Heck, this girl could almost be Native American.

This is not entirely a bad book. It is organized to convey a great deal of information (and possibly some misinformation) in an readily digestible and reasonably nourishing fashion. It is well balanced--structurally, at any rate, and perhaps even, in a sense, in judgment. I find myself irked not by the positions Tyler actually ends up taking, but by the slipshod* way in which he lets himself leap rhetorically well beyond them and then slowly shuffle himself back.

I'm not sorry I read it, I learned a lot from it, and it just irritated the bejesus out of me. I filled it with green scribbles, and now I'm going to indulge myself in an airing of opinions:
  • You shouldn't talk of "today's occupants of the Forbidden City" when nobody lives there these days
  • You shouldn't make a very definite statement about the flamboyant manner of someone's execution and only in an endnote indicate your doubts about the reliability of your source
  • You shouldn't describe major nationwide political campaigns (e.g., land reform) as if they were particular to border areas, thus conveying the impression that they were designed for the explicit purpose of squelching minorities
  • You shouldn't refer to a "woman radiologist" and a "male secretary" and thus make your reader absolutely confident that when you say "cancer surgeon" and "university lecturer" you are talking about males
  • You shouldn't cite your source for a perhaps-fact as "Internet"
  • You shouldn't draw several pages of description of a social situation almost entirely from the work of a particular scholar, and then preface one last detail taken from that person with the phrase, "As an anthropologist has remarked," thus implying that all the preceding description was based on either your own experience or synthesis of a body of knowledge
  • You . . .
. . . oh well, I might as well quit now.

* No insult is intended to my Hawaiian reader(s).