Friday, February 29, 2008

Disagreeing with Smart People

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

Charlie Rose, as he is wont to, did a retrospective on William F. Buckley Wednesday night, running together conversations from the many interviews he had done with him over the years. The show, and the passing of Buckley, made me reflect on my own dilemma: How do I think about people who are both brilliant and insightful while at the same time embracing ideals that seem to be an affront on common sense.

Listening to Buckley talk is an absolute delight, but thinking of him as the intellectual father of modern American Conservatism is frightening, made ever so much more so because he, apparently, was proud to be seen that way.

The more urgent dilemma, however, may be why there is a dilemma at all. When stupid people say stupid things it does not bother me. I shrug it off as a curiosity or, if I am feeling particularly empathetic, try to understand how they might have arrived at those views. But when smart people say stupid things it bothers me. Instead of trying to understand how they arrived at their views, I try to understand what mistake they made in arriving at their views.

That intolerance is more than a product of getting grumpy and set in my ways. Public discourse, especially political public discourse, more and more looks for a one dimensional rating system. When Hillary Clinton claimed that Barack Obama was to the right of George Bush because he did not support freezing interest rates on subprime ARMs, I was astonished. I just can’t fathom in what sense picking a position on the best way to deal with foreclosures is a left-right choice, I would have hoped there would have been some talk of effective versus ineffective.

In the face of this one dimensional worldview, I think it is more important than ever to listen to the people you disagree with, especially when they are talking about the things you disagree about. It is true that some disagreements are big enough that all the understanding in the world won’t change anything. But there are lots of disagreements that are not like that and by listening more thoughtfully, we might get closer to the truth. If in doing this we end up needing seven dimensions by which to identify ourselves so be it.

So thank you Mr. Buckley for everything you have said that I disagree with. Perhaps it is time for me to read more of your 55 books.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Our Ancient Watchman

A very long driveway, I thought as we drove in to look at a suburban house. We had seen so many, but this one looked promising from the outside except for the ugly green utility box in front. Inside was much nicer than any place we had seen and, to my delight, there was lots of land for gardening.

In the end, we did buy the house. But the first time I commuted back from work, I was greeted by the ugly green box. Why the developer placed an eye-sore at the most conspicuous spot in front of a nice house, it was beyond my logic.

“You will get used to it,” my husband, Bob, said, “it’s just something that needs to be there.” A typical male attitude: ugliness overlooked and beauty taken for granted. I kept telling him we should do something about it, and he kept saying that it belonged to NStar Electric and we couldn’t put anything on it.

Then one day, I saw a small sculpture of a man dressed in Qing Dynasty clothing sitting and pondering in a garden catalog. That is it, I told Bob. “Only $89, okay let’s try it,” he said. Apparently it was about price all along.

Our Chinese Man came, and was put on top. A wonderful difference. When friends came to visit, they praised, "Where'd you find such a nice stand for your sculpture?" The ugly utility box, as intact as it can be, magically disappeared from everyone's eyes.

However every time I walked by I had to move our Chinese man. The wind would always make him face a different direction. Bob said that he was looking around to see the world, but I didn’t really like the directions he chose. One windy night he blew off altogether and I found him in the morning on the ground, broken to two halves at his middle. Almost in tears, I asked Bob what to do. “No problem,” he replied, “I will fill him up with sand and glue him back together.”

So that's what Bob did, turning a bad situation into a good one. The heavier man was now able to hold his position in any weather. He outlasted his original stand, which had started leaking oil, and happily sits on the new one. He is slowly turning green with moss, but remains as happy and unperturbed as ever. In the snow he even gets to wear an extra hat.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Another Kind of Movie Reviewer

On January 17th, a review of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, was posted on the LanceReviews website. That review received over 1,000 hits in a single day from virtually every corner of the globe.

It is remarkable given that this website is only seven months old, and is one man's labor out of love for good movies and anguish over bad ones. In July 2007, Lance Berry launched his movie review site, on which he posts a new review every couple of days. He does not get paid doing this, and he does not run ads on his site; what he gets is the fun of reviewing and venting, plus an unexpectedly large readership.

Once a film critic/columnist for Latest Issue Entertainment, Lance Berry started his own site dedicated specifically to movie/TV/entertainment reviews, because he has a passion for film and believes that good movies should be praised and recognized, while bad films should be "drop-kicked to the furthest nether regions of hell whenever possible." The LanceReviews site receives daily hits from around the world, including places such as Japan, Russia, Australia, and the UK, in addition to the United States.

Lance is not your average movie reviewer who has to please some special-interest audiences, including the movie industry. He reviews things exactly as he sees them, which makes him a reviewer for the average person, rather an irony that "average" has such divergent meanings. And, unlike many reviewers trying hard to be entertaining for the sake of entertainment, Lance strives to be informative. That, I think, actually makes his reviews more entertaining than most.

And he is humorous and insightful. His headline on Vantage Point is “Disadvantage Point: New espionage thriller plays like another familiar film...but with half the charm.” For Jumper it is “Clunker: anywhere is possible. Teleportation flick goes nowhere fast.” Of course, not every movie is a dud. For The Spiderwick Chronicles, Lance says “Magically Enthralling: Spiderwick spins a web that ensnares its viewer...and doesn't let go!”

As you can see from the picture above, which I adapted from his website, Lance has a clever eye for layout, in this case with an ironic twist. He uses the medium of Hollywood presentation, to present Hollywood.

I don’t often go to see movies in theaters, but when I do it seems like about half the time I am disappointed. Lance, who does go to theaters a lot, seems to agree with me. In fact, he had it so strongly that he started reviewing as a way “to vent about bad movies that are foisted on an unsuspecting public.” But this is not venting in vain, not for the people who read his reviews. If you are lucky enough to read his review in advance, you are forearmed – you might instead curl up in bed with a book. If you see the review too late to save the evening, you can turn the disappointing event into a memorable laugh.

Though honest criticism might upset some people, it can also transcend that. After he saw Casino Royale, in which Daniel Crag plays James Bond, Lance posted what he called "the most honest review of Casino Royale you will read," with the headline "A Bond movie that ISN'T a Bond movie." Several people pasted copies of the review on pro-Craig sites, in order to allow bashing. Apparently some of those people still liked Lance's writing enough to come back for more.

After Lance allowed, a British-based site, to post his review of Casino Royale, as well as a link to his article on why Christian Bale should be the next Bond, his site began to get a lot of European hits.

I hope Lance's screenplay writing also benefits from his film reviews. Yes, he has been writing scripts seriously for the past 5-7 years. "I write well, I write fast. In the past, I have re-written 120-page screenplays literally overnight," he says, "I am versatile, writing all types of screenplays: drama, horror, science-fiction, etc. I have made several good connections within the industry recently, but I am still waiting for that 'big break'."

It is his intention to eventually produce a science fiction series, based on his screenplay and novels "The Reign".

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Michael Wood on Lust, Caution ("色戒")

Michael Wood, London Review of Books' movie reviewer, says:

"Lust, Caution
is billed as a film about sex and espionage, lots of both, and occasionally it looks like such a work. All its interesting moments, however, are about something else: style, masquerade, glances, silences. Each character in the movie has a movie running in his or her head, and when a young woman called Wong Chia-chi (played by Tang Wei), about to become a temptress setting up a collaborationist Chinese official for assassination, sits in a cinema and weeps copious tears, we know she will never be able to cry in this way outside the movie house."

Read the rest of the review here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"Cornerstone" of a Mystery

The Eye of Jade
by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $24.00

(Book Review by Xujun Eberlein)

Diane Wei Liang's female detective protagonist, Mei Wang, is a character built up of conflicts between her mindset and reality. She is aloof, "an outsider who never wanted to be in" while in college, but her college friends turn out to be the only ones who truly care about her. Her longing for her mother's love manifests as resentment, and her mother suddenly has a stroke before there is a chance to reconcile. She desperately wants to cure her mother, but she has no money or connections, and those things can only come from the sister she looks down on. She detests "guanxi" (connecting with purpose) and people who are good at it, yet whatever clues she obtains for her investigation are through "guanxi." Wherever she exhausts her network of relations, her means of investigation also dry up. For the most part the novel leaves the reader wondering if the only way for Mei Wang to make progress in Chinese society is to embrace the opposite of what she values.

Yet this is a quite realistic depiction of the late 1990s' Chinese society, post Cultural Revolution, in the midst of the Reform-and-Open era. And Diane Wei Liang is at her best depicting it using multi-voice dialogue. Here is such a dialogue at a class reunion:

"I'm going to Shenzhen. I've had enough of Beijing and Xinhua News Agency," Sparrow Li declared.

"What?" Fat Boy shouted. "You didn't tell me! You are giving up the Steel Bowl for a private local newspaper? Are you out of your mind?"

"What's so great about Xinhua News Agency? We have no housing, and the pay is lousy. When we graduated, it was all about getting a job with the big ministries. Now it's about money. If you are rich, you are somebody. I'm going to be the chief editor and make a lot of money."

"Don't be naïve." Big Sister Hui popped open a can of Tsing-tao beer. "What's money compared to power? Mei had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment when worked for the Ministry of Public Security. She traveled in official cars and dined in the best restaurants. She wasn't rich, but didn't she live a good life! Look at your chief. He doesn't need to be rich. He gets everything he needs and more from his job."

"I don't need a car. But I would like to have a roof over my head." Fat Boy sighed. "Beijing Daily is much worse than Xinhua News Agency. It doesn't even give me a dorm room. I'm thirty years old and still living with my parents. So I told the matchmakers that I'm only interested in girls whose work units have housing."

This conversation is so real, I can almost see those people's lips moving and hear their voices, as if they spoke in Chinese, as if I were among them.

Dialogue is also an economic means deployed in The Eye of Jade to convey background information of supporting characters. In the example above, with less than a page, we get to know several friends of Mei, even something about Mei herself, without dragging on through long descriptions.

The intimate reflection on everyday life of contemporary China is a good quality of this novel. For a reader who knows about China, this quality is engaging. Too often I can't finish a novel set in China written by non-Chinese, because it turns me off when the author gets obvious things wrong.

For readers who are less familiar with China, The Eye of Jade provides a lens into Chinese society. The author picked a good starting time for the story. Between 1980 and 1997 there were amazing changes that took place, almost as amazing as the changes between 1997 and now. The central case that Mei is investigating takes us back in time: to the origin of the relics she is trying to locate, nearly 2,000 years ago; to the circumstances of its disappearance 30 years ago; and to Mei’s youth 10 years ago. Thus, without a complete recount of history we are given insights into it. One can reasonably predict that, as future cases come for Mei Wang, we will get a chance to see China develops more, and hopefully also to explore more of its past.

That said, there are some holes in the work. For one thing, the Ministry of State Security (analog of the FBI) did not exist until 1983, so some of the retrospective actions during the Cultural Revolution in late 1960s are not completely plausible. Still, compared with some other English fiction on China, the lapses are small.

Ultimately, Mei Wang does not give in to the Chinese societal trap. Toward the end of the novel, Mei's true self, aloof and courageous as she is, does triumph. When her "guanxi" ends, she singular-handedly confronts each hypothesized suspect one by one, alone and determined. And sure enough, each confrontation takes her closer to the entire truth, until the case is solved.

At this point, however, this triumph should be read as the author's fictionalized ideal ending, rather than a depiction of the reality. After all, it is unlikely in reality that any private detective, not to mention a young woman apparently with no training in self-defense and no backup – would go to each (dangerous) suspect and point a finger at him, "You are the murderer, aren't you?" simply to see if he'll admit to it. A detective who relies on this approach wouldn't be the smartest one anyway.

So why does Diane Wei Liang make Mei Wang do this? One can find a partial answer from the author interview by her publisher, in which she explains:

"Guanxi is loosely translated as connections and networks of relations. But it means much more. It is a cornerstone of Chinese culture, as the society is operated according to it – people are introduced, things get done – or not – based on who they know."

Except guanxi is more like extra oil for an age-old societal machine than a cornerstone of Chinese culture. In any case "guanxi" is an external factor; the concept might assist a novelist to move forward a plot, but it can't enhance characterization, nor excite the reader. If Mei's entire investigation "operates according to it," the intricate behavior and actions would be absent. The final confrontations carried out by Mei Wang, therefore, are a last-ditch resolution for both the author and the central character.


This raises a key question: is this novel really a detective story? The answer is both yes and no. It is what the author sets out to make; it is not quite accepted as such by readers.

For detective genre readers, the fun of reading is solving a puzzle with the author. It is the chase of logical inference that is thrilling. In The Eye of Jade, however, this element is largely missing. Sure, Mei Wang confronts the suspects with her hypotheses, but when we see this, the hypotheses are already made. We read the conclusions without being letting in the process of reasoning, and we don't know how she gets there. This thrill is not quite there.

Apparently, the author has a different idea about what this book should be. The Eye of Jade is the first in a series of "Mei Wang Mystery" novels, for which the author has a very interesting and intriguing concept. The interview mentioned above opens with the following Q and A:

Q: Why did you decide to tell your story of modern China through the lens of crime fiction?

A: Because crime fiction brings together different elements of a society and exposes their frustrations, conflicts and desires. I found it an ideal format to examine the social and economical changes that are at the center of modern life in China. I also wanted to paint an honest and authentic picture of life in Beijing. "The Eye of Jade" gave me such an opportunity, allowing me to move among its different neighborhoods and varied social and economical groups, to explore the inner life of that fascinating city.

That is exactly what she does in The Eye of Jade, and quite successfully. The social and economic aspects of life in Beijing are given equal, if not greater, emphasis than Mei Wang's case investigation. A reader who is not looking for a particular genre story could enjoy both threads. To a mystery/crime genre reader, however, the author's stated goals, however admirable and ambitious, do not provide the same thrill as logical inference.

On the other hand, would a romance novel bother its readers for its lack of logic? No. One would have to be bothered by something else. This is to say, the genre label pre-sets reader expectations. It is a double-edged sword. It helps us find the right category for reading pleasure; it can also stop us from being entertained.

Therefore, the author has options. The smart idea of conveying modern China's societal change to English readers through genre fiction (which has a much greater readership than literary fiction) might actually work, if she finds the right genre and executes in it well. If she (or her publisher) chooses to stick with the current label, then she will need to enhance the genre's "cornerstone": logical inference.

Monday, February 18, 2008

What Ruined Willesden Herald Writing Contest

Entering writing contests – with or without fees – have some attractions over standard submissions. One of those, believe or not, is it gives a good writer better odds of actually getting somewhere.

That is one of the reasons that many of us enter writing competitions. Or, if not just the hope of winning, or being recognized, at least to be certain we actually get read, which is not always true in standard submissions. When we pay our entry fees, we expect at least that. We also expect some amount of professionalism and, dare I say it, integrity, in the way the contest is run. Most fee-charging contests meet such expectations. I myself have happily won a few of them, and only once submitted to a contest that was clearly done wrong.

What happens, though, when there is no entry fee? Does that relieve those running the contest of the responsibility to see it through? Curiously, when I ask the question in this stark manner, the answer is obvious. But apparently when it gets to a specific case, things become murkier.

In the recently upended Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize, the £5,000 first prize was given to charity and the promised anthology canceled (details here). In the explanation by the adjudicator, Zadie Smith, she says, among other things: “There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation.” Apparently they were looking for good work, what they found didn’t satisfy her, case closed.

For most the people who submitted to the contest, Zadie Smith is probably right. However, like any major contest, there were other judges who put their heads together to create a short list. This list was not published, but the ten people on it were notified. Looking at the winner as a random draw, that means ten people were told they had a 10% chance at £5,000. Most certainly, looking at the contest descriptions, their work was going to be published in a prestigious anthology. Or so they thought.

Now comes the joy of withdrawing from other contests. Sometimes that is heartrending – Oh God, I would really rather it be published in …, but they probably won’t accept it, or will they? ­– But not in this case (or so I would assume). The promised anthology was a great place to be published so those withdrawal letters were probably pretty jubilant, perhaps with a sneer thrown in, perhaps with a sigh over the fees paid and wasted.

Then Zadie Smith decided that not one of the ten short-listed was good enough, and none of the other judges was willing to contradict "someone of her stature." Well, not surprisingly, those in the top ten were not too happy. When the judges offered to split the prize evenly among all ten, some apparently resorted to profanity. As a result, everything was simply given up. No publication here, already withdrawn from other hopeful places, nothing for the honored top ten except the unhappy prospect of placing a story elsewhere.

Not good enough, not meeting a standard, not a cure for cancer. While an absolute standard for quality is a nice fiction, it seems some realism may be more appropriate. There is a point where trying to hold oneself to an ideal threatens integrity and it was reached in this case. It is absolutely tragic that such good intentioned people put so much effort into something that has done no good for anyone except the charity that was given the £5,000.

They should have at least published the anthology.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Memory of a Cyber Friend

On January 19, in response to my request for reading recommendations, he posted in my Zoertrope cyber room:

As adverse as I am to tooting my own horn, here's a little piece that generated a lot of controversy KIN OF THE DEVIL.

I thanked him and bookmarked the link, but did not read the story right away. When I eventually read it, I did not tell him how much I liked it.

On January 30, he died.


I "met" David Veronese in another writer friend's cyber room in 2004. In that lively room he did not post as often as many others, but there was an odd humor that made him stand out. Though I enjoyed his wit very much, I was wary about people I did not know well and would not invite anyone to my cyber room before a long period of observation.

One day I workshopped a personal essay in the friend's room. David suggested:

And how about something a razor's width more dramatic, more consonant at any rate with the atmosphere of the rest of the story, but preserving somehow the New World (galaxy?) touch until it hits the "circle"... (e.g. in extremis: The narrator catches her daughter with a male in a murky/dreamy candlelit/aquarium laden basement. Words are exchanged, crying, a misunderstanding? Wait! That music in the background... The Boxer Rebellion, The Wu Tang Clan... Mao says: "Romantic love is class love..." Call on everything, ring every doorbell... Delicate, large footed girlchild hovering at the edge of the imaginal... Tinker away, Xujun, pick up the baton and lightly whack the editor twixt the orbits of his eyes

I was inspired by his suggestion, but thought he had faked the Mao quote for humor and I cracked up. It was so like what Mao could have said, yet the way David phrased it was very westernized, it was really funny to my Chinese ear. When I told him this, David responded,

Xujun: truth be told, the only thing that wasnt 'fake' in my 3am descry, was the quotation from Mao.

I realized David's version wasn't far from what Mao said, "In class society, every kind of thinking without exception is stamped with the brand of a class." I was impressed by his knowledge. I think it was after that I invited David to my room.

We had many stimulating discussions on writing and he was always very supportive. Once, I lamented on an agent rejection, and David said,

Don't think that I'll ever forgive her, Xujun

One has to be a writer who received numerous rejections before a final acceptance to appreciate the solace such humor could bring you.

On another occasion, David wrote me:

hi xujun: just read your story in night train. what a brilliant and intriguing piece. the fascinating backdrop of non-tourist china is the magical ingredient. our minds are so brainwashed it is somewhat electrifying for me to read :"It was not in the newspaper because this kind of news had no benefit to our country's stability and unity."

He understood the irony in my story, and I truly appreciated him telling me it.

I never met David in person. I learned about his death from another cyber friend Saturday. I had not told David how good his writing was in Kin of the Devil, or in The Operation.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

DAVID GARRATT: Who says words with my mouth?

(I met DAVID GARRATT at VCCA last October, and visited his open studio with great interest. He is a thoughtful, inspiring and gifted artist. I hope many of you will go see his solo exhibition in Philadelphia. -- Xujun)
The Clay Studio

DAVID GARRATT: Who says words with my mouth?
Juried Artist Solo Exhibition
March 7 - March 30, 2008
Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 11 - 7 PM, Sunday, 12 - 6 PM

Ceramic arts are our passion at The Clay Studio, a non-profit learning center in the heart of Old City, Philadelphia. Our exhibitions, retail shop, classes, artist residencies and community outreach programs educate and inspire locally, nationally and internationally.

The Clay Studio is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Exhibitions are supported in part by:
The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, The Philadelphia Cultural Fund, The Independence Foundation & The Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It Is Not Gender, It Is Not Color

Today my schedule is packed so I'll be short, but I do have a few words to say about the primary.

A friend told me she was going to vote for Hillary Clinton because Hillary is a woman and would be the first female President of the United States. My question is, if one truly advocates equality between men and women, why would gender be the first consideration for anything?

I'm going to vote for Obama today. It is not because of his gender, it is not because of his color. Among all the candidates, Obama appears to be closest to truth, and that is what matters to me. He speaks and acts like a real person rather than a pretentious politician. He may be relatively inexperienced, but that also means he's less corrupted. For the first time during my two decades of living in the United States, I feel motivated to vote in a primary.

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Why I'm Voting For Obama"

by Laila Lalami

Voting in presidential elections usually means picking the lesser evil among the politicians running for office, but this time I found a candidate I'm genuinely excited about: Barack Obama. The primary reason for my choice is that Obama opposed the Iraq war back in 2002. Read more>>