Archive for 2011

Rilke’s Dolls

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 § 1

I came upon Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Some Reflections on Dolls” in which he describes his nightmarish, visceral loathing of dolls. Granted he had a large assortment of issues to work out with dolls, the foremost being that his mother tried to pretend he was a girl and gave him dresses and dolls and called him "Sophie." Nonetheless, there's something more there:

... I pass over the intimate, the touching, the deserted, thoughtful aspect of many things, which, as I passed them, moved me deeply by their beautiful participation in human living; I will only cite in passing quite simple things: a sewing clamp, a spinning-wheel, a domestic loom, a bridal glove, a cup ... If we were to bring all this to mind again and at the same moment to find one of these dolls–pulling it out from a pile of more responsive things–it would almost anger us with its frightful obese forgetfulness ... it would lie before us unmasked as the horrible foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardour; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the flood-tides of our affection ...

One: as L notes, "we’re freaked out by dolls and puppets and masks and distortions to the face because we’re programmed to carefully search faces, and abnormal patterns ring atavistic alarm bells." Two: I think that on top of ingrained human responses, Rilke really did see death in his dolls. There is a time when a child thinks a doll is a toy to be animated with imagination, and then the child realizes that humans are mortal, and begins to perceive dolls as lifeless things that don't respond to love and longing and sadness any more than people who have died. Other objects are warm and comforting because they have never changed and will not as long as you lavish care and attention on them, but dolls before and after the realization of mortality are two different things.  It is possible for dolls to die, and Rilke's did.

Maggie Gets It Right

Saturday, December 17, 2011 § 0

Maggie Simpson takes up the life of a writer. Most accurate depiction I have ever seen!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Sunday, December 11, 2011 § 0

On realizing that I really want to watch the movie, I've been trying to finish the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  I quite like it so far, you can really tell the author was one of them (or do I only imagine I think that became we all know Le Carre worked for MI6 ...?).

The plotting is stellar thus far.  With some envy, I note that a good intelligence agent, analyst, etc. is probably as good as many writers are at plotting, since their job is to put together plots, and they deal with much higher stakes than I do.  Also, if you've ever skimmed through any official cables, you find that many people in foreign-based services and such are excellent writers; their reports are often quite delightful and even hilarious to read.  I forget who told me this, but I was once informed that the diplomats et al are generally extremely motivated to write excellent reports, because they know that the cables are basically forever.

Good Reminders

Thursday, December 1, 2011 § 0

A clipping from Ursula Vernon's commentary on Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:

... [Bird by Bird is] full of actually useful statements that have nothing to do about writing technique, like the fact that everybody wants to get published and once you do, it doesn’t actually change the world and make you suddenly happy and fulfilled and you do not run toward your self-esteem across a field of flowers.

Wise words to remember.

[translation] The Chinese Restaurant

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 § 0

I've posted a translation, by yours truly, of a humorous short story by Sanmao (三毛), a famous Taiwanese writer (links go to English/Chinese biographies).  She lived an exciting life, albeit one that ended in tragedy, and she wrote about a lot of it in clear, clever prose.  This short story, "The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert," comes from a time that she was living with her husband, Jose, in what is now the Western Sahara.  An excerpt:

The first course I made was chicken soup with vermicelli. Whenever Jose came home he'd always yell "get something going, I'm starving!" In the end, the sole result of his years of devotion was a daily demand for food without even a glance towards his beloved spouse -- though this did mean that I didn't need to trouble myself over any possible loss of looks after matrimony. Anyway, as I was saying, the first thing I made was chicken vermicelli soup. He drank some and said, "Huh, what is this? Chinese noodles?"

"Would your mother-in-law mail noodles from so far away? Of course not."

"What is it? Give me some more, it's great."

I picked some up with chopsticks. "This here is called 'rain.'"

"Rain?" He looked at me blankly.

Like I said, my philosophy is to pretty much do as I like in marriage, so I just said whatever inspired me and came to mind. "See, these are formed from the first rains in spring that fall in the high mountaintops and freeze there. People who live there pick the rain and carry it down the mountains in bundles and trade it for rice wine. It's not that easy to buy, you know!"

Jose stared at me blankly some more. Then he peered at me, then at the "rain," and said, "Do you take me for an idiot?"

I kept my face blank. "Do you want some more or not?"

"Yes I do, you goddamn liar."

Since then he's eaten quite a bit of "rain," and I still think he has no idea what it is. Sometimes I ponder to myself that Jose is kind of dumb, and that does make me a bit sad.

You can read the rest of "The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert" (2300 words) here.  If you catch any mistakes or have any comments, please feel free to comment and let me know.  Thank you for reading!

it gets harder (to write)

§ 0

Most writers'/authors' blogs actually give writing advice, and I figured that I should probably do that too - give back to the people who've inspired and given me advice by passing it forward. But most of what I know has, of course, already been covered 1000000x on the internet and I don't think anybody wants to see it here again.

I do have a little bit of advice though that I think bears repeating, and that I don't see all the time.

The better you get at writing, the harder it becomes. You see all your pitfalls and mistakes (past and present) that much more clearly, and you feel that much more pressure to fix them, and that much more grief that things just don't seem to be as good as you know they can be.

But this is a good thing, because if you stop being able to see what's ahead of you, then that means you've gone as far as you can. Not that I think anybody ever needs to worry about reaching that point.  Remember what Murakami said: there exists no such thing as a perfect sentence. Just as there exists no such thing as perfect despair.

It gets harder, but it comes with the guarantee of getting better.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go beat my head against my laptop. Cheers!


Tuesday, November 1, 2011 § 0

I've updated my website with a page linking to some fiction that's been posted online.

I Have The Right To Destroy Myself

Monday, October 31, 2011 § 0

I Have The Right To Destroy Myself, by Young-ha Kim

A note: Young-ha Kim has written a whole lot of other things, many of which are nothing like this book, so this review does not generalize to the rest of Kim's works.

I bought this along with The Other Side Of Dark Remembrance.  I didn't like this book nearly as much, although I attribute that to being totally out of the targeted audience, rather than actual lack of merit.  I do recommend this book to people who would enjoy it.  It's seriously stream-of-consciousness, wandering here and there, so be forewarned.  I probably wouldn't have bought the book if I'd actually known what I was in for, so I file this one under Broadening My Reading Horizons.

Also, I'd like to note, that's the catchiest title I've seen in ages.

The premise is revealed very early on so I don't consider this a spoiler.  The arguable protagonist is a nameless man who gets paid to help people commit suicide.  He wines & dines and chats them up and tries to nudge them towards offing themselves and paying him for the consultation.  Kim isn't a psychologist (for all that the characters' motivations are about as opaque as those from a Russian novel, this isn't one), but he's very good at at character, at portraying how a number of different people are all detached from the world, seeking anything that can heighten reality for themselves, and by the way are completely perverse/disturbed/delusional in their own ways.

At one point the narrator tells an outrageous story to a woman and she is implied to believe it.  Then the internal dialogue kicks in:

Sometimes fiction is easier to understand than true events.  Reality is often pathetic.  I learned at a very young age that it was easier to make up stories to make a point.  I enjoy creating stories.  The world is filled with fiction anyway.

Death is the ultimate reality that the narrator's clients find in the book, and the only solid anchor in the entire story.

Robbe-Grillet, two novels

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 § 0

Picked up Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy/In The Labyrinth, I don't know what possessed me to give this a try. Maybe I've been reading too much Eco? But here I am, and sunken cost fallacy be damned I will finish this book. Barthes' intro essay was interesting (and I haven't read Morrissette's or Minor's essays, sorry I went for the name I recognized) although it took 2000 more words than necessary to say that Robbe-Grillet has the amazing skill of writing a novel like one might write problems in a mathematical text, ie, when he describes something you don't really take it in as anything more than factual phenomena. Why is the table 1m wide? It just is and to think otherwise is to miss the point.*

Which is I suppose is legit an achievement, since most writers tune the mood of the world up or down to accompany their story. One might think that at the worst end of the scale sits dystopic fiction writers who make it feel like the universe is out to get you -- but Robbe-Grillet's universe is at the absolute zero: there exists no meaning one way or another, which in a sense is even harsher and colder than the universe's boot in your face.

* for the record: I don't agree with this universe; I agree with William Gibson (and I can't for the life of me remember the interview where he said this) that you can pick up a mass-manufactured disposable hot coffee container and write a whole book on how its materials, dimensions, and other specifications came to be. But that's a ramble for another day.

[short story] Window Birds

Friday, September 30, 2011 § 0

I contributed a short story to Issue #29 "Autumn" of Imaginary Beasts, a webzine edited by the lovely Sub Divided and Eve.

Window Birds, 2500 words, PG-13. A narrator, now grown, recalls a childhood friend spinning a fairy tale about birds.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011 § 0

Tossed and turned when I tried to sleep yesterday, and my mind caught on this piece by Tin, discussing Bede's Ecclesiastical History Of the English People. Excerpt below.
Looking closely at the text, which is beautiful in itself, one perceives that the thane's thought opposes certain age-old habits of mind which persist even today. Those who, like Vigny, see life as a luminous interval between two infinite periods of darkness readily depict those two shadowy zones of before and after as inert and undifferentiated, a kind of frontier of nothingness. For Christians, despite their belief in a blessed or infernal immortality, what will follow after death (they pay little attention to what came before life) is perceived, above all, as eternal rest. Invideo, quia quiescunt, said Luther. For this unknown man, in contrast, the bird issues from a storm and returns into a tempest. Between these two storms, the thane interprets the flight of the bird across the hall as a moment of respite (spatio serenitatis). That's quite surprising. Edwin's thane knew perfectly well that a bird which has flown into a house of men darts about madly, running the risk of dashing itself against walls, of burning itself in the fire. Life as we know it is hardly a moment of respite. Yet, there it is.

Perdido Street Station, etc.

Sunday, July 24, 2011 § 0

  • Reading more of Perdido Street Station, reading madly. What's truly amazing is that Mieville isn't actually creating that much new stuff; 99% of these are tropes I've seen before, but he handles them so well. I'm sure this is a total cliche but I do feel like New Crobuzon is an excellent metaphor for his own writing -- crowded with a million styles and genres that all are tied together by some mysterious junction that links all his works. A friend whose taste I trust has already mentioned that Perdido Street Station has a Bad End so I am on tenterhooks, but enjoying the ride so far ...

  • (Also, is it just me or is this book seriously obsessed with body fluids. It's like a 14yo boy trying to see how many times he can get excrement into a book.)

  • Went to Borders last night, trying to take advantage of their liquidation. Of course the rest of the city had the same thought and I didn't find most of what I wanted. But I did pick up a copy of Iain M. Banks' Surface Detail, which I bought actually because I read a somewhat critical review whose criticisms made me really, really interested in the book.  We'll see how this turns out.
  • Reading: Perdido Street Station

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 § 0

    After everyone else in the world already has ... I finally started reading China Miéville's Perdido Street Station. I am really enjoying the fantastic worldbuilding.

    “Ged,” Isaac asked. “What can you tell me about the garuda?”

    Ged shrugged, and he grinned with pleasure at imparting what he knew.

    “Not very much. Bird-people. Live in the Cymek, and the north of Shotek, and the west of Mordiga, reputedly. Maybe also on some of the other continents. Hollow bones.” Ged’s eyes were fixed, focused on the remembered pages of whatever xenthropological work he was quoting. “Cymek garuda are egalitarian…completely egalitarian, and completely individualistic. Hunters and gatherers, no sexual division of labour. No money, no rank, although they do have sort of uninstitutional ranks. Just means you’re worthy of more respect, that sort of thing. [...]”

    [...] “Well, seeing as you know so arsing little about them, I might as well just stop talking to you,” said Isaac.

    To Isaac’s astonishment, Ged’s face fell.

    “Joke, Ged! Irony! Sarcasm! You know fucking loads about them. At least compared to me. I’ve been browsing Shacrestialchit, and you’ve just exceeded the sum of my knowledge. Do you know anything about…uh…their criminal code?”

    Ged stared at him. His huge eyes narrowed.

    “What you up to, Isaac? They’re so egalitarian…well…Their society’s all based on maximizing choice for the individual, which is why they’re communistic. Grants the most uninhibited choice to everyone. And as far as I remember the only crime they have is depriving another garuda of choice. And then it’s exacerbated or mollified depending on whether they do it with or without respect, which they absolutely love…”

    “How do you steal someone’s choice?”

    “No idea. I suppose if you nick someone’s spear, they don’t have the choice of using it…What about if you lie about where some tasty lichen is, so you deprive others of the choice of going for it…?”

    “Maybe some choice-thefts are analogies of stuff we’d consider crimes and some have absolutely no equivalent,” said Isaac.

    “I’d imagine so.”

    “What’s an abstract individual and a concrete individual?”

    Ged was gazing at Isaac in wonder.

    “My good arse, Isaac…you’ve made friends with some garuda, haven’t you?”

    Isaac raised one eyebrow, and nodded quickly.

    “Damn!” Ged shouted. People at the surrounding tables turned to him with brief surprise. “And a Cymek garuda…! Isaac, you have to make him--him? her?--come and talk to me about the Cymek!”

    “I don’t know, Ged. He’s a bit…taciturn…”

    “Oh please oh please…”

    “All right, all right, I’ll ask him. But don’t get your hopes up. Now tell me what the difference is between a fucking abstract and concrete individual.”

    “Oh, this is fascinating. I suppose you aren’t allowed to tell me what the job is…? No, didn’t think so. Well, put simply, and as far as I understand it, they’re egalitarian because they respect the individual so much, right? And you can’t respect other people’s individuality if you focus on your own individuality in a kind of abstract, isolated way. The point is that you are an individual inasmuch as you exist in a social matrix of others who respect your individuality and your right to make choices. That’s concrete individuality: an individuality that recognizes that it owes its existence to a kind of communal respect on the part of all the other individualities, and that it had better therefore respect them similarly.

    “So an abstract individual is a garuda who forgot, for some time, that he or she is part of a larger unit, and owes respect to all the other choosing individuals.”

    There was a long pause.

    “Are you any wiser, Isaac?” asked Ged gently, and broke off into giggles.

    Isaac wasn’t sure if he was or not.

    “So look, Ged, if I said to you ‘second-degree choice-theft with disrespect,’ would you know what a garuda had done?”

    This Post Signifies Nothing

    Thursday, June 16, 2011 § 0

    I finally decided to start reading up on semiotics, which is the study of symbols/signs -- in the ways that humans generate, parse, and use them -- and all the processes that depend on symbols/signs, such as semantics, communication, etc.

    You'd think I had already done some reading if only for the sake of appearances, ahem, but I had always resisted. My resistance was not based on not believing in semiotics. On the contrary, I believe it too much. Humans by necessity process the world in signs and symbols because face it we just don't have the cycles to do otherwise. When I see an object from many angles in multiple instances, I compress them all into one symbol that signifies the object, instead of thinking each view represents a different object altogether*. When I receive many experiences, I learn from them by generalizing to "the big picture" -- another "sign". In fact we do this to our detriment (thinking everything is a monolith is just one of many symptoms ...). In the end we need symbols and signs for shorthand, we need keys to efficiently retrieve the tons of data entries swimming in our brains.

    So as you can see it would be so easy for me to become (if I haven't already skirted that line) something like a first-year philosophy major who goes around analyzing EVERYTHING OMG EVERYTHING IS A SIGN AND WHAT DOES THAT SYMBOLIZE and thinking that eeeeverything is miiiiindblowingggg. Woooooooooo! I couldn't stand that much obnoxiousness and neither could you.

    And yet, having blathered all about this, I've been pretty engrossed in the reading, especially because I think that semiotics is a valid angle to approach how we think, and thus informs slightly more "practical" (or at least more provable) fields like, oh, linguistics and natural data processing, etc. I don't really intend to work on those things but I'd be silly not to think they matter and will be very powerful when they are finally worked out better. And it also gets at things that I like to read and write about, namely memory and experience. It's always helpful to have more material/resources if only for bullshitting purposes, and if that's the way my interests lean ...

    (Especially since now that I've read up on the basics ... suddenly Italo Calvino's The Uses of Literature makes 80% more sense than before. But that's a ramble for another day.)

    * Borges said this much better in his brilliant short story Funes, The Memorious.

    reasons to (not) date writers

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011 § 0

    Too funny to keep this to myself. Choice excerpts:

    There is this thing currently going around tumblr about why dating a writer is good. I think it’s nice that this thing is going around, because I like writers, and lots of us could use more dates. As a writer who has dated people, though — including other writers — I would like to offer some correctives to this list.

    2. Writers will write about you. You don’t want this. Trust me.
    8. Writers are really passionate. About writing. Not necessarily about you. Are you writing?
    9. Writers can think through their feelings. So don’t start an argument unless you’re ready for a very, very lengthy explication of our position, our feelings about your position, and what scenes from our recent fiction the whole thing is reminding us of.
    18. Writers are surrounded by interesting people. Every last one of whom is imaginary.

    Read the whole thing here!

    And the wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless.

    Friday, May 27, 2011 § 0

    This isn't my writing, and it's not even technically about writing, but it was so wonderful that I really wanted to share it. John Adams, composer, gave the 2011 commencement speech for Julliard. If left to my own devices I might quote the whole thing, but here one part I particularly love. He wrote it for artists, and I hope that he won't mind too hard if I try to grab a few crumbs for writers?

    The arts, however, are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult. You can't learn the role of Hamlet (no less write it), you can't play the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata (no less compose it) and you can't hope to move effortlessly through one of Twyla Tharp's ballets without submitting yourself to something that's profoundly difficult, that demands sustained concentration and unyielding devotion. Artists are people who've learned how to surrender themselves to a higher purpose, to something better than their miserable little egos. They've been willing to put their self-esteem in a Cuisinart and let it be chopped and diced and crushed to a pulp. They are the ones who've learned to live with the brutal fact that God didn't dole out talent in fair and equal portions and that the person sitting next to them may only need to practice only half as hard to win the concerto competition.

    And the wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless. You can't eat music or poetry or dance. You can't drive your car on a sonnet it or wear it on your back to shield you from the elements. This "uselessness" is why politicians and other painfully literal-minded people during times of budget crises (which is pretty much all the time now) can't wait to single the arts out for elimination. For them artistic activity is strictly after-school business. They consider that what we do can't honestly be compared to the real business of life, that art is entertainment and ultimately non-essential. They don't realize that what we artists offer is one of the few things that make human life meaningful, that through our skill and our talent and through the way that we share our rich emotional lives we add color and texture and depth and complexity to their lives.

    The entire text can -- and should! -- be read here.

    The Other Side of Dark Remembrance, short review

    Saturday, April 30, 2011 § 0

    The Other Side of Dark Remembrance is a novella by Lee Kyun-Young, about a businessman who wakes up hungover and disoriented, in a place he doesn't recognize. As he tries to piece together what happened the night before, he begins to remember a bit more than he had bargained for.

    There is a more in-depth review here, and you can buy the book on Amazon here.

    I found the book very moving, and the scenes of the boy with [SPOILER] made me tear up. It's said out of desperation, by someone who genuinely and absolutely means it, in one of the most painful ways possible.

    If you're left all alone in this wide world, you cannot go on living because loneliness is so painful. Hold each other's hands. You should not part from each other even if you have to die. Go on living, the two of you, holding each other's hands.

    There were some elements that I didn't like, but I feel that there would be no point in listing them? The story feels more like a memoir or personal history than packaged fiction, and after a certain threshold of how much realism one intends to convey to the audience (which I apparently think this work has crossed even if it's not auto/biographical), I think I can't and shouldn't write around what the people I knew really were like. Even if it's not how I would have wanted them to be, and they're not who I wish I would have been. I might as well read someone's diary and critique the characterizations. And in the end I think it took an amazingly deft touch to make the work what it is.

    scattered thoughts on william gibson

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011 § 0

    I read William Gibson's Idoru once in high school, and I couldn't get into it at all. I picked it up again a few months ago and this time I was totally immersed. I feel a little behind the times, considering everyone I know read his work way earlier than I did, and I'm just starting to mainline his books now. I have to wonder if it's just because I didn't understand the internet in high school, and now I ... understand it slightly more. But also, when I was age sixteen I consumed very little pop media/culture, and that is also a reason that the book didn't do anything for me -- at the time. Gibson builds his worlds on references. The reader has to have already done the homework. I hadn't at the time. I've done a bit more now, but for example, the Bigend Trilogy is pretty opaque to me, but my bandom friends are all over it.

    I enjoyed Idoru but I think the strongest feeling the book instilled in me was a desire to get my hands on the computer models that Gibson describes, which just goes to show Gibson really understand products after all XD. Sandbenders are steampunked up laptops and okay I don't want those, but I love the name *g* I do want one of the "Korean models" that he describes, the ones that look like sacks of jelly with candy-colored cubes floating inside. 1) that DOES sound exactly like what half of east asia would crank out if they could just get silicon to behave that way, 2) I really really want one.

    I have surprisingly little to say about Neuromancer. It feels way more mainstream ahead of time -- like it is less irreproducible than many of his other works, not because they aren't visionary/worth imitating/etc, but because not as many authors THINK like Gibson, and that's much more evident in certain books than in others. Neuromancer's flavor is something that many people can pull off, whereas Gibson's other stuff still feels unique to Gibson, even after all the other authors have had their time to get inspired and crank out their own stories. Neuromancer is (more) something that someone else could have written; his other works less so. This isn't a slam on Neuromancer at all, I loved it XD and it's not like "unique" is any kind of standard of awesome writing since you can also have Uniquely Horrible Writing, but I think being unique makes a "good" work ... stand out more, against all other works that could be equally "good". So in the end it's just why I think the others are more ... Gibson. Maybe.

    In conclusion, I also finished Count Zero recently (on a Kindle, appropriately?) and really loved it. *g* It really gives the best of all of Gibson's worlds! Now to work my way through Virtual Light.

    review: source code

    Tuesday, April 19, 2011 § 0

    Watched Source Code - the title actually doesn't make any sense, fyi, even though the phrase gets said a lot - and so long as I pretend the very end didn't happen, it was beautiful and bittersweet and I wish I'd written it. I highly recommend watching it. I feel the end ... would have been good if they worked that into the rest of the movie a bit more smoothly, but it felt like cheesy executive meddling, so I choose to forgive it.

    P.S. I went in thinking it was basically a scifi-movie version of the DS game Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (a dead person jumping through multiple other dead people's last 8 minutes in order to reconstruct a mysterious series of events), but it was actually more like just ONE minigame. Which is just as well, considering that I couldn't beat one of the minigames and so I ragequit >_>;

    ... So I guess there's still room for someone to write the movie I thought it was going to be XD