Literature: Escape the Prison

This is a story a cynic or skeptic wouldn’t think is possible. A Somali man in jail reads Anna Karenina and it changes his life. The man doesn’t read it strictly speaking, but hears in tapped out in a type of Morse code from an adjacent doctor cellmate and he deciphers it. And it is the features of Tolstoy’s writing–the shift in perspective of several scenes; his portrayal of the trapped circumstances of the Russian noblewoman–that wrest a pulsing empathy from this man. He regains faith in his wife and direction in his life. There is a wonderful circle of relations here between the man, the doctor, the wife, Tolstoy, and “Anna Karenina.”

Breaking down class and racial barriers, the more I think of this, the more extraordinary it is: proof that literature can change a life. Listen to the account on NPR’s Rough Translation podcast:

One Story – Journal

I have been reading more short stories lately. I took a Short Fiction online course from Jennifer Caloyeras. I have been looking over some of the links provided and have been searching out paper journals as well.

I was lent two issues of One Story, a relatively new journal / literary magazine. With its slim profile of about twenty pages, cover rich in color, crisp text, and focus–there is indeed only one story per an issue–it has a memorable design that lingers after you close the back.

They publish many new or emerging authors. A story I read “Prairie Fire, 1899” was a portrait of the lead-up and that blaze as it ripped through a Dakota frontier town. Click here for an interview with the author and a brief excerpt. Worth checking out.

Movie Review: Wong Kar-wai’s 2046

Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a lavish, flurrying piece on love in its dizzying expansive heights and its restrictive chambers of regret and obsession. As a sequel to In the Mood for Love, Kar-wai follows Chow Mo-wan (Tony Cheung), a journalist and a writer of romances, after his rejection by his lover Su Li-Zhen (the regal Maggie Cheung). The superstructure of the stories in this film is a science-fiction story written by the Chow set in 2046. In it, he imagines himself as a Japanese man (Takuya Kimura) stuck on a train in an endless loop; he falls for an android (Faye Wong) on board. He can’t escape, but nevertheless he doesn’t want to escape (Hotel California-style).

In the present tense of the film, Chow falls in and out of love with a frisky, petulant call girl Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), lands a trusting, short-lived friendship with Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong), and relies on and almost devours another woman called Su Li-Zhen (the stunning Li Gong). Throughout his longing and feeling of loss can’t be restrained or quieted, but reoccurs in all his future relationships. In a dazzling scene, Chow pushes Su Li-Zhen to a wall with a violent, long kiss goodbye-it is as if to say this is what kind of passion I have for you (and her) but if I stay with you, I can never be content as I would have been.

Wong does as masterful job of getting those scenes of riotous feeling, angst, and regret just right. Though its sci-fi escapade seems inessential and excessive and sometimes the characters dawdle around too much (cutting down on the pace), Wong delivers another insightful, bare treatment of love.

Book Review: The Woman Warrior

I picked up Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Women Warrior at a local used bookstore. As I went through the pages, I noticed that almost every page had extensive annotations in red, green, and black Sharpie. There were brackets, underlines, circles, and notes. The first page had the name of the previous owner, a New York state campus, and a date “1992.” I purchased it. Reading this book, which is subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts,” took longer than a spell at the end of 2016 when I went through a couple in succession. This book took several months. Not because of its length at 209 pages, but because of the author uncompromising method which fights against the signposts we seek in a memoir: an narrator from a future time speaking about the past; a this-then-that chronology; the sketch of the growth of relationships; and all that explanation.

While the subtitle states this book is a collection, it is a memoir. At first, I thought that each story was a segment of the narrator’s life from a different perspective. While it has that in it, each piece starts with the narrator and then segues into another story from or about her aunt, mother, younger aunt: it is storytelling about storytelling. Once all the pieces are read, you start to fill in the gaps a-chronologically but with the guide of context from the collective body of these voices and how they shape and express the narrator’s psyche. I would only realize that the urgency of those annotations from grappling with this maze.

I return to the word uncompromising because Kingston’s vision does not rest. For one, it does not abide by the traditions of Asians in American letters. She sees the transitory state of immigrant not as a recent phenomena, a challenge or fulfillment of to the American ideal, or solely a particular socioeconomic condition, but a state carrying through human history. She does not simply externalize this, but shows through her method how that state also a personal even literary one. It is one thing to be written about and for a story to be told about you. It is one thing even to take advantage of a story for oneself. But only rarely would one wield the power of the immigrant, outsider, or warrior–like the Mulan of this book’s title no less–to bring forth and articulate a new vernacular: true to one’s own and polyglot and American. Here Kingston clasps the hilt.

Book Review: 8/10: A singular memoir that breaks and re-imagines the genre.

Television Review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 (2016)

A television series that has not been mentioned in any awards show is Halt and Catch Fire. It was at least one of the top three shows last year. I have been a fan of this show since its wildly uneven yet provocative first season about the origins of the personal computer in Central Texas.

In this third season, the triumvirate of Cameron, Gordon, and Joe has been reunited in Silicon Valley despite the machinations of the other characters. Especially, I didn’t like that they let go of their Indian character Ray in the service of Joe’s personal growth. Though it was unfair for the series to knock these people off, it is true to the storytelling of this series which is perhaps the most true to everyday life I’ve seen: people rarely change; the professional is personal; a most curious, wondrous thing is the human relationship.

You can feel in Donna, Cameron’s once-friend and business partner, the simple thirst for fiscal success and the longing for a companion and forgiveness for herself. In Cameron’s moodiness and spontaneity, she has moments of clarity like when she states that “the future” is just a nothing that people sell you on. These characterizations and the working group scene at the end of Season 3, where they figure out and explain how the Internet will change the world, should be appreciated by more. Halt and Catch Fire is available on Netflix.

Television Review: 8.5/10: Through the lens of work and love, a discourse on the human relationship.

Mahatma Jotirao Phule

I picked up a book about Mahatma Jotirao Phule (Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth-Century Western India) to learn more about education in India pre-Independence. At the end, I learned also about a social reformer who, despite significant material challenges, social resistance, and, at times, weak ideas, began to change how a major portion of Indian society looked at themselves and their destiny. I praise the author Rosalind O’Hanlon for taking up this neglected and important topic and learning Marathi to investigate primary sources. Her wise and adroit manuevering through the delicate and substantive differences between ideologies, communities, and power structures seeks to dissemble false conflations. She expounds their differences while noting their at times coalition in terms of joint protest.

Jyotirao Phule lived during the British Raj in the city of Pune in Maharastra. He received a modest education at missionary schools. He then founded and ran schools for members of the scheduled castes and women who had been denied an education based on social prohibition. His wider role was of a founder of a reformist association. He also served as a spokesman for another association petitioning the British Government for representation in a congress to make their needs plain to the British administration. Previously, Brahmins had monopolized such posts based on their social and religious standing. Phule welcomed British rule as a way to unhinge Brahmanic control over India, but saw the new system was, on the whole, perpetuating the same inequalities as before.

One of the virtues of O’Hanlon’s book how she traces the origin of Phule’s ideas to Indian sources and missionary arguments. Missionaries had linked a Deist conception of God and Nature, the advances of Western science, and the deplorable condition of the majority of Indians under a stagnant and exclusionary religious order maintained by Brahmins. Though he did not convert, he used this linkage to create an alternative history and reinterpretation of major figures in India, such as Shivaji, to emphasize how the contemporary order was primarily a mental oppression by the few who had monopolized learning and religion. One of the weaknesses of Phule’s argument was his unclear reinterpretation of religion. Though Brahmins used this as a basis of authority and some analysis and refutation was needed, I think that he could have stuck to his reformist agenda based upon shared interests of the oppressed rather than wade into a religious debate. If Buddha had called for the abolition of caste more than two thousand years ago, Phule’s ideas about religion and caste had no luck when drawn into this contentious sphere.

O’Hanlon’s book makes you wonder and ask for a book connecting Mahatma Phule’s work with Mahatma Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s during India’s Independence movement. I think a work like this needs to be in English, given that these conflicts are an every present reality of contemporary India.

Movie Review: Arrival

I give Arrival credit for being different from the typical sequel or tent pole movie. I like that it spends much of its two hour run time following a linguist (Amy Adams) as she decodes an alien language. Also, its ending is unorthodox and mirrors its theme, the non-linearity of time. However, this movie tries a little too hard to be a sentimental about world affairs. Without much of a way of explanation for their other motives, it appears that the alien activity was meant to get the world together under a “United Nations.” While this idealism may have been touching at another time, right now it seems inadequate and a narrative troupe.

Many reviews cite that this movie was more about Amy Adams’ characters personal struggles and not about the aliens as a sort of virtue. The aliens are weird enough, but the narrative just doesn’t seem to have much interest in why they are there. Yes, the action is based on finding out their purpose, but we don’t know much about them. An alien narrative can be weird and help us learn more about ourselves. I had read Octavia Butler’s Dawn soon after watching Arrival. That book had the courage to posit and explain out a strange alien culture and use it to expose human frailties. While a well-acted movie, Arrival’s ideas (some of which ripped from Noein and other anime) need some more action or even time to breathe.

Movie Review: Arrival: 6.5/10: Amy Adams stars as an unconventional explorer of the unknown but the narrative does not astound as it should.

Book Review: the Moon over the Mountain

Both Atsushi Nakajima and Haruki Murakami are taught in Japanese high schools. Nakajima is the kind of author that is loved in Japan, but not praised by the Western press and are often ignored outside of Japan if translated at all. You may think it’s because of the subject matter. Instead of liberal protagonists living in post-War Japan, Nakajima goes back to historic and mythic China.

While the text in Japanese is in an elaborate masculine style with an extensive use of Chinese characters, in translation the text is more accessible. Despite the intricate style, Nakajima does not presume a cultural background, but sits at a juncture between East and West. This intertextuality is evident when critters in a bizarre short story promulgate Western philosophies. But this is true also with Nakajima’s orientation: Nakajima is concerned with elemental existential questions and doesn’t seem to operate solely within his cultural milieu nor see his culture as a box or barrier in his quest.

The Moon over the Mountain
The most famous work “Sangetsuki,” or “The Moon over the Mountain,” is a strange tale of a government official who wants to be a poet. His desire, so intense, turns him into a tiger that stalks the mountain country. Some tales with the excessive listing of battles, provinces, leader names, war stratagems, court drama, and battles course with the martial vigor. When he turned historical, Nakajima paid closer attention to facts, but the emotion of his work reflects the time it was written, which is during the brutality of the Japanese occupation of a fractured China during World War II. While this may bear scrutiny of complicity, his best work is when he focuses on the human relationships or individuals trying to make sense of the world and themselves.

The best story is “The Disciple,” a historical tale about Confucius and his disciple Zilu. This story, because of that open intertextuality, expresses the teacher-student tradition common knowledge for those in the Eastern (and Greek) tradition into English. Ironically but truly, Nakajima shows that moral education is not about adhering to strictures, the grasping of the intellect, or performance in the field, but it is a form of love.

Book Review: 7.5/10: Nakajima’s best work are classics of modern world literature