One Book, One Twitter

First of all, a little housecleaning.   As has become evident, the book club is currently on a little hiatus.  We will probably start back up some time in the summer.  Sometime between now and then there will be a little conversation on Devil in the White City.  I am finding it difficult to gather my thoughts as regard non-fiction.  I am trained to analyze fiction.  That said, I’m sure I’ll have something in a bit.

In the meantime, I have something neat that I think people might be interested in.  It’s called ‘One Book, One Twitter’.  Sort of like the Big Read program that various cities put on, the goal is to get a whole mess of people reading and talking about the same book.  Only, this is not limited by geography, just who you follow on Twitter.  The project is being spearheaded by Jeff Howe of Wired and Crowdsourcing.

They’ve already completed voting for their first book, and it is going to be American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  Since Gaiman is, as some of you know, one of my favorite authors, I have already read this one, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to reread and discuss it with an unwieldy number of people on Twitter.  I am a big fan of Twitter, and would be happy to discuss the pros and cons of it as a social media with anyone who is interested.  I am excited to see how this experiment goes.

To join the conversation, follow @1b1t2010 and read hashtag #1b1t.

For more information:

Guardian article

Wired article

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An Open Letter on Devil in the White City

Dear everyone,

I’m sorry to say that the month of February has not been kind to my reading time.  I am about 20 pages into Devil in the White City.  March is shaping up to be far less crazy.  I have picked it back up, am enjoying it, and plan to have it done in the next week or two.

Which, I suppose, technically makes it the book for both February and March.  Which, if you’ll recall, I mentioned it might be.

A few things we can be doing –

1) Finishing up any last thoughts about Waiting (okay, this is me again – I still have a few things to say, which I will post soon.)

2) If you’ve finished Devil in the White City, you can go ahead and start a discussion thread (though I’d appreciate it if you don’t spoil anything in the main post.)

3) Start coming up with ideas for the book for April.  Let William and I know.

How are you all doing with the book?  Am I the last slacker, or has February been crazy for others as well?

Sincerely,

Kate

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Waiting: The Movie

Sorry if this is not completely related to the novel Waiting by Ha Jin, but word on the street is that the book will be made into a film starring the gorgeous Zhang Ziyi (Memoirs of a Geisha) and the dashing Takeshi Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers). They will play the parts of Manna Wu and Lin Kong, respectively. Originally the producers had secured Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love) and Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in those roles, but they decided to go with younger actors.

I talked to Kate about this via email and she is fond of the idea of casting younger actors for Lin Kong and Manna Wu, as it is easier to age the actors up than down. I agree with this assessment. However I personally think Chow Yun-Fat and Maggie Cheung are stronger actors. Plus, Chow has not only the stature, but the composure to carry the weight Lin Kong carries with him. And there is no finer actor than Maggie Cheung; in another Maggie’s words (Gyllenhaal’s, that is), Cheung is just “so compelling” in everything she does, and I need an actress like Maggie Cheung to gain my sympathy for Manna Wu. Based on the novel alone, I am not on her side. I also think that Takeshi Kaneshiro is way too dashing and Zhang Ziyi is way too beautiful to play the two leads; they are a physical distraction!

Having said all this, I am beyond excited that this film is in the works, and that it will come out later this year or the next. How films adapt books is something that is very interesting to me; sometimes the film can be better than the book (see: The Golden Compass) and sometimes it can be tragic (see: The Lovely Bones). Dramatizing the ‘waiting’ in Waiting will be difficult to do, but I sure hope the filmmakers pull it off.

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Waiting: Parts 2 and 3

(contains spoilers)

I wanted to post as soon as I finished the second part of Waiting, but I could not for the life of me put the book down. So I finished both parts in one sitting, and am now writing one post about the latter two thirds of the novel.

Language

My assessment of Ha Jin’s writing style in my previous post about Waiting, along with a few responses in the comments section, makes it seem like the novel is written in broken English, which it obviously is not. I only found instances of broken English in the dialogue, and in particular, the words spoken by Shuyu, Lin Kong’s country wife. In addition to these short bursts of broken English are shifts in language, all of which I find rather odd.

I understand that these differences are supposed to denote accents in the characters’ speech, and subsequently, social class. Since Shuyu is a simple country woman, her words are rough around the edges, which, I guess, can be conveyed through broken English (“‘You know, take off your shoes and socks is like open your pants.'” (Jin, 206)). And yet I am hesitant to accept the fact that a lower level of Chinese equates to broken English. A lower level of Mandarin consists of simpler words, fewer proverbial (and scholarly) phrases, more idiomatic expressions indigenous to a specific locale. A lower level of Mandarin does not broken English make. I think they are too separate to be made the same.

Another instance where the shift in tone/language jumps out at me is on page 157, when Manna Wu runs her bicycle into Mrs. Su’s backside. The lady, for she is the wife of a high-ranking official, cries out, “‘She was so accurate, man. Caught me right between the legs.'” Her use of the word “man” is so modern, so American, that I find  the sentence forced. I understand that the author is emphasizing that people, especially of different backgrounds, sound different, but I do not think does this in a smooth, or, for lack of a better word, brilliant way. It is a half-baked attempt at trying to marry English and Chinese together. And it don’t work for me.

This it not to say that the writing is bad, mind you. I actually think the writing here is good. Simple, poetic in many ways. I read this doozy of a sentence three or four times just to glean the entire image from it: “Dark clouds were gathering in the distance, blocking out the city’s skyline; now and then a flashing fork zigzagged across the heavy nimbuses” (162). And I admire the second to last paragraph on page 177, a description of the cold night just minutes before Manna is raped by Geng Yang. I was expecting something bad to happen, and the “clouds which were swaying like waves,” “naked branches,” “slithering and twisting” snow dust foreshadows the bad thing effectively. Romanticism.

Finally, I want to mention that I find chapter 11 of Part 3 very lazy. In this chapter, Lin Kong has these question-and-answer sessions that take place inside his head, as if he is acting as his own psychiatrist. The main character reaches a series of epiphanies in this crucial chapter, but they are not the result of forces outside of himself. Though I think it is important that Lin Kong finds the ‘error’ of his ways, that he himself discovers the limits to his love, I did not expect him to reach those conclusions by simply talking to himself. Here, one of the more obnoxious passages:

The voice went on, Yes, you waited so many years, but for what?

He found his mind blank and couldn’t answer. The question frightened him, because it implied that all those years he had waited for something wrong.

Let me tell you what really happened, the voice said. All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by others’ opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that what you were not allowed to have was what your heart was destined to embrace. (295)

That part is disappointing, because I don’t want, or expect, the author to spell everything out for me. It’s like the last minute of Jerry Springer where he sits on his stairs and gives the viewer his parting words, the lessons to be learned from this particular episode. It’s kind of offensive.

Oh, and one more thing about the writing. I’ve read a number of works by Asian-American writers who write in the English language, and I must say, it is wildly refreshing to read a novel about Asian characters without italicized exotic words in the text. You know how some writers, like Amy Tan (whose The Joy Luck Club is astoundingly great), will, instead of finding an English equivalent, resort to using the original Chinese/Korean/Japanese/etc. word (spelled out in English), then define said word right after? I can’t speak for non-Chinese speakers, but I assume that that can get tiring for those readers.

I’m happy to say that Ha Jin tries to tell this story using only English (whether it 100% works for me or not).

The Rape

I read in an article in The New York Times that Ha Jin had written many scenes of violence in his early works. Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), a classmate of his at Boston University, revealed, “‘He is such a gentle man, but his stories really pushed people’s buttons… There were a lot of brutal rape scenes in them. One was about a man who castrates himself. I remember people being shocked and outraged by some of it.'” Jin’s college professor even referred to Jin as a “great poet of rape.”

I knew that Manna Wu was going to be raped at some point in the novel because my eyeballs found the word ‘rape’ in one of Waiting‘s book reviews (prior to my finishing the novel). Because my eyes naturally zero in on words like ‘rape.’ As I read parts 2 and 3 I couldn’t help but anticipate the rape with each of Manna’s suitors:  Lin Kong’s cousin Liang Meng, Commissar Wei. But of course, it is the bulldog-like Geng Yang who deflowers the “old virgin.”

Even though the rape is violent and somewhat shocking, there are several reasons it is necessary in the novel. First, not a lot happens in the novel (which is not necessarily a bad thing), so I’m glad that something big happens (even if it is in the form of rape). Second, the rape drastically ups the emotional (and this time, physical) toll waiting has put on Manna Wu. Forgive me for being blunt, but one of the main reasons Geng Yang rapes her is because she is a virgin; here, she truly suffers in her agonizing wait for her man, Lin Kong. Third, the rape further humiliates Manna, and, in a way, punishes her (and Lin Kong, indirectly) for having an affair. She waits and waits and waits to give herself to Lin Kong, but part of that goes to waste as soon as this brutal man, a friend of Lin Kong’s, sexually assults her.

The fact that the rapist goes unpunished (he is a wealthy, successful man later in life) has very twisted implications, which I will not need to go further into. All I would like to say is, Ha Jin has a really dark sense of humor.

Sense of Humor

As I read further into the novel, the subtle moments of irony became less subtle. By the end of the book, I chuckled in several places, knowing full well that I was supposed to. Probably the most humorous instance of irony occurs on pages 273-274, when Lin is having one of his long, twisty arguments, this time about how baby girls are just as good as baby boys and how he would rather Manna deliver a girl instead of a boy. His thoughts are duly interrupted by Haiyan, who announces that his wife has just given birth to twin boys. Oh, and by the way, your new wife is going to die soon. How’s that for life!

When these moments of irony happened one after another, I felt kind of…awkward because I did not expect a novel set during and after the Cultural Revolution to have such biting humor (though it’s buried under the surface). It seems almost…inappropriate. Plus, the overall story is so quiet and mature, like a fable. But I did welcome these ironic occurrences (and many fables are irony-filled), and Jin’s deadpan delivery of them, especially in the last couple of chapters, when Lin finally realizes that his life would’ve been perfectly peaceful had he stuck with his first wife, Shuyu.

Characters

Can I say that I do not like the main character, Lin Kong? Most heroes of stories are active, daring, passionate. Lin Kong is none of these things, and that is frustrating for a reader. It is kind of like watching a movie about writer’s block. Do you know how interesting it is to watch a movie about writer’s block? Not interesting at all. Do you know how interesting it is to read a book about a man who does nothing? Well, the same rules don’t apply to reading, I guess.

Our leading man is a sensitive, thoughtful, gentle, rational human being, but yes, he does take the easy way out, and that is not an admirable quality. I do not like him, and I do not respect him, but I understand why he is the way he is. Lin Kong is a product of his time, the changing Chinese society. He is a character stuck in transition—from the country to the city, from Old China to New China, from traditions to modernity—which is why his sense of self and his opinions are molded by outside sources. I understand that, and I feel sympathy for him, but I do not identify with him. And because I feel this distance with Lin Kong, I was not invested in his story arc, or his growth as I was nearing the end of the novel.

And I must say that Manna Wu does not get my sympathy, either.

The only character who has my full sympathy is Shuyu, who, unfortunately, we do not hear much from. The last chapter, where Lin Kong visits his ex-wife and his daughter to celebrate the Spring Festival, touches me a great deal. This woman who had been dismissed so early on, continues to be loyal, selfless, and forgiving. She seems like the type of woman who accepts her lot in life and does not step outside the boundaries others set for her. I don’t necessarily respect that about her, but I…pity her, like I pity unwanted puppies or handicapped children. And because of this, I want to slap Lin Kong silly for not manning up and being accountable for his roles as husband and father. He is a fool.

And I think that he wants to return to his former family not because he falls in love with them, or he feels comfortable with them, but because his new wife will die and he cannot take care of those babies alone. Otherwise, he would go back to his ex-wife right now. The easy thing to do is to wait for his new wife to die, then move back to his previous wife and live a peaceful life. That is the easy thing to do.

—–

I am thrilled to have read Waiting, and I hope I get the chance to read other works by Ha Jin, to see how he develops as a writer. I get my copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City tomorrow, but i look forward to others’ opinions about Waiting.

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Book Selection #3: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

So, as we are starting our discussions on Waiting in earnest, I know that everyone is wondering, ‘what’s next?’  Well, for the month of February (and probably a little later, since we are starting a week into the month) we will be reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson.  This selection comes from Kay, a new contributor to the book club.

A finalist for the National Book Award in 2003, The Devil in the White City tells a paired story – the construction of the Chicago World’s Fair, and the serial killer that lurks in its shadows.  I kind of have a thing for the Chicago World’s Fair, and I have previously read and enjoyed Larson’s book about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (Isaac’s Storm), so I look forward to getting started with this one.  I’m going to buy my copy today, and look forward to our discussions.

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Reviews of Waiting and Interviews

I’m providing links to reviews of Waiting. They are not as easy to find as they were for Oscar Wao, since Waiting was published a decade ago. Read them at your leisure:

Also, interviews with the author, Ha Jin:

Also, as a little something extra, the author’s speech upon receiving the National Book Award:

Winner of the 1999 FICTION AWARD for Waiting

If only I had written something for the speech. There are so many people to thank. I’m deeply humbled and honored. I accept this award as encouragement, with my deepest gratitude to many people. To the National Book Foundation, to the judges, and to my publisher, Pantheon Books. To my editor, LuAnn Walther, to my agent, Lane Zachary. I’m also very grateful to my wife, who has suffered because of my writing. I think I also wish to thank America, a land of generosity and abundance, that they accepted me as a citizen. Above all, I thank the English language, which is embracive and vibrant, and has provided me a niche where I can do meaningful work. Thank you.

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Kate’s Oscar Wao Issues

I feel bad.  About my lack of response to Oscar Wao.

I was so into it at first.  I loved the voice, the allusions, the language.  And The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – what a title!  So epic in scope…

And this is where I fall apart.  What’s been holding me back from talking about the book.  Because I’ve been done with the thing for at least a month now.  But I haven’t been able to type about it.  I was disappointed.  The beginning held such promise – mystery, humor, generations interweaving narratively, a curse, incredibly long footnotes – these are all things that I am really into.

But Oscar.  Oscar.  Oscar achieved…nothing.  He fell in love, which for a nerd boy like him was quite an accomplishment, I suppose.  But because we get none of his affair from his perspective (the peril of dead title character, I suppose, though nothing is firm in this sort of Post Modern narrative), I have no sort of investment in it.  The narrator makes me so distant from him, his emotions have no impact for me.  They don’t seem worth dying for.  Oscar just seems like a fool.  And he never finished his novels, the one project of his that seems to hold merit – that was up to Yunior, I suppose.  It just…seems a waste.  I wanted Oscar to DO SOMETHING.  I wanted to care.

It makes sense to me that Diaz wrote short stories before this.  The best parts of this novel are like tremendous short stories – the chapter in first person, the story of Belicia Cabral – amazing, amazing stories that I couldn’t put down.  But it never came together for me as a whole.  Oscar wasn’t enough to hold it together, and ultimately I don’t know what it was for.  And this drives me crazy, because I feel like with some strong revisions – it might have been tremendous.

Of course, it won the freaking Pulitzer Prize anyway, so what do I know?

So, in the end, I have really very mixed feelings about this book.  I loved it, and it let me down.  And that’s almost worse than an awful book.  Because an awful book I can mock, or stop reading.  This was almost brilliant.  But I don’t think it quite got there.

And now I think I move on to talking about Waiting.  And starting our new book, which I will post about tomorrow.

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