Monday, June 6, 2016

Mandarin Learning Material: FluentU


So I’ve been practicing Mandarin listening comprehension and building my vocabulary with FluentU. The site comes in Mandarin, Spanish, French, Japanese, and German-learning flavors as well as sections for EFL learners. I would assume that, apart from specific issues related to Chinese characters (more on those below), it offers basically the same experience for all languages.

The Content

FluentU takes the vast already-existing corpus of YouTube videos and puts them in an easily-digestible format for language learners. For Chinese, users get subtitles in English, pinyin Chinese, and traditional or simplified Chinese characters, any of which can be turned on or off at will. The user interface makes it easy to skip around in a video, or to listen to the last few seconds again and again repeatedly.

The above is likely to be seen as the most useful part of the site for most learners, and it has been a very valuable resource of listening materials for me. The listening material -- which FluentU carefully explains they’re using 100% legally through Creative Commons licences -- is harvested from YouTube’s corpus of Mandarin-language content (and as such, tends to skew towards Taiwan-based material). I’ve used FluentU to watch music videos, advertisements and publicity campaigns, a campaign ad put out by Ko Wen-je during his run for Taipei mayor, and snippets from TV shows.

There’s also Mandarin-language learning material already on YouTube that is accessible via FluentU, which somehow seems dodgy to me -- I wonder how the hard-working creators of material made accessible to the masses on YouTube feel about it being used by FluentU to make handy little exercises for its paying subscribers?

Finally, FluentU does put out some of its own material. For Mandarin learners, there are a few video stories aimed at lower levels, mostly revolving around social interaction, going out with friends, and so on. No moments of great drama, but frankly I find them far more tolerable than the famously awkward videos that NTNU puts out.

The language is of course graded for learners. The video of two college students making small talk improves tremendously if you imagine it actually shows two extraterrestrial spies who are practicing authentic hu-man communication before they go out to live amongst the hu-mans.

But those are mostly too easy for me. Unfortunately as of June 2016 there’s only a single solitary in-house video story for upper intermediate learners, the tale of a guy who goes in to interview for a job. I would like to see more videos at that level. Yes. More, please.

FluentU also has a lot of audio-only dialogue out there, much of it at upper-intermediate level, not dissimilar from what ChinesePod puts out but without the English commentary. It’s all hosted on YouTube so it’s tricky to put on an mp3 player, but accessing it through FluentU means you get all the nice FluentU support: subtitles, easy playback, and vocabulary practice.

Ah yes, the vocabulary practice.

Practice

For users willing to pay, FluentU offers its practice software. First and foremost, this includes vocabulary practice. When you choose to ‘learn’ the material from a video or audio dialogue, the vocabulary gets fed bit by bit to you in flashcard form. Ideally, you can hear the same word being used in different contexts across different videos in FluentU’s library. In practice, FluentU often gives you its own sample sentences instead, which you can hear read by a flat computer-generated voice. Better than nothing I guess, but with all my reading in second-language acquisition, I have yet to hear an SLA expert advocate listening to awkward computer-generated speech in the L2.

It is your job as the learner to supply the word, either by typing in pinyin (including tones) or in characters. The latter is much easier, as here it doesn't ask you for tones; you just have to type the pinyin and choose the right character from a menu. (Oddly, even though my FluentU is set to traditional characters, whenever I have to type I get simplified ones. Not a huge problem, as it’s not bad for me to develop a modicum of familiarity with them, but it’s weird anyway.)

At the moment I have 86 words in my vocab pile, of which the algorithm feeds me about a dozen to review each day; when I feel a word is sufficiently imprinted on my brain, it goes into the ‘Already Known’ repository, which is currently at 609 words, including those words I deemed too easy when FluentU first presented them to me.

There’s also sentence construction, where you hear a sentence spoken along and then reconstruct it by putting jumbled words in order. (You’re also given an English translation, but especially when it comes to song lyrics, the translation is often so clunky as to be useless.)

How much? And what’s the verdict?

$15 USD a month if you just want to watch videos through FluentU’s interface and enjoy the subtitles and playback options -- that is, if you want to use it for listening practice alone.

$30 USD a month if you want all of FluentU’s vocabulary practice options.

I’m paying the higher price, as I feel that for all its weirdnesses, FluentU’s learning software has been very helpful to me. We’ll see how far into the future I continue to feel that way.

Next up: Skritter.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Officially Unofficial

Officially Unofficial by J. Michael Cole


J. Michael Cole is one of the best-known Western journalists based in Taiwan. His 2014 book Officially Unofficial details his first several years in the country and his time working for the Taipei Times, which of course spiraled into unpleasantness, culminating in his angry breakup with the Times in 2013.


Huge swathes of this book felt as if Cole was recounting various controversies he has been involved in primarily to make sure his side of the story was getting out there so it could be read and understood by everyone. Of course he has every right to do that, but I won’t necessarily trust him as an objective source of information on what went on at the Times during his tenure. (That said, I do agree that the paper has declined precipitously in the time I've lived in Taiwan, or perhaps my standards have just evolved. my subjective impression is shown by the fact that in the time I’ve lived in Taiwan, I have gone from buying a paper edition of the Times to read every day, to skimming the headlines online when I bother doing so. For me, the nadir of stupidity came in May 2014 when they ran this article ('Game of Thrones' may be based on Taiwan) on the front page. Seriously, on page 1!)


But Cole is still a compelling writer (though I never fully warmed to his writing the book in occasionally awkward 3rd-person prose) and there is no doubt that he is well-informed about Taiwan affairs. His clear writing gave me a modest education about two things that I felt I could trust him to teach me about objectively.


First, I learned a lot of background information about political events in Taiwan during Cole’s tenure at the Times. I’m somewhat ashamed of this, as most of this recent history happened when I was in Taiwan and so I feel I should have been more knowledgeable already. I think I’ll have to be more observant of what’s happening in this country in the future.


Second, I learned a lot about the daily life and struggle of reporting; of cultivating and maintaining contacts, of schmoozing with your contact over drinks to get useful tidbits of info out of them. I don’t have the right personality traits to be a good reporter, but Cole’s description of the life of one was genuinely interesting to me.


Officially Unofficial contains Cole’s occasional rant about how he feels the hidebound, traditionalist nature of Taiwanese society is dangerously holding the country back. (He admits that many societies in the world suffer from similar problems, but he points out most of them do not sit next to extraordinarily large neighboring countries that want to annex them.) His ‘Afterword’, written midway through 2014, paints a far more optimistic picture. By this time the younger generation of Taiwanese was beginning to make its political power felt and respected, and Cole’s hopes for the country are buoyed by young activists such as Lin Ting-an and the future Sunflowers Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, all of whom he mentions in the book’s final section. We get the first appearance of the word ‘Sunflower’ in what is literally the book’s final paragraph.

One almost expects a dramatic TO BE CONTINUED… at the end.

Friday, June 3, 2016

First entry since 2013? Awesome.

I’ve decided to start updating this blog again. I really have very little excuse not to, as I’m not snowed under with work. It’s really a matter of getting around to writing something semi-regularly.


Well, I still read books on a regular basis, so I’ll start writing about them again. Recently Bookish Asia published my review of Patrick Wayland’s The Jade Lady, which encouraged me to start putting book-reactions (they seem too short to be called reviews) on Balancing Frogs again.


So here are four novels I’ve read since the beginning of 2016.


Josh Fruhlinger’s The Enthusiast is a comic novel about two very different things: the Washington DC Metro, and a fictitious soap opera-style comic strip that (in this novel's universe) had its heyday back in the 1960s. What ties them together is our protagonist Kate Berkowitz and her work for an unusual public relations firm that specializes in covertly stoking enthusiasm for its clients’ products. Kate and her colleagues haunt Facebook and message boards and infiltrate in-person meetups to give people’s enthusiasm just a little nudge to help it organically grow, whether it’s for new subway cars or a film adaptation of a cult comic strip.


I suppose I’m making it out to seem like a biting social satire, but in fact Fruhlinger’s book is actually a highly sympathetic exploration of some of the quirkier areas of 21st-century pop culture. I read the book because I like Fruhlinger’s site The Comics Curmudgeon, where he’s cultivated a modest online community of geeky enthusiasts. Fruhlinger’s affection for cheesy daily comic strips is obviously genuine, and he must have enjoyed crafting the ficticious ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ and its heavily ironic online fan community.


Mark Rosenfelder’s Against Peace and Freedom is a far-future science fiction work about politics. In a universe where human civilization has spread across dozens of star systems, a secret agent named Morgan arrives on the planet Okura, tasked with working to bring down its tyrannical government. (The narration is 2nd-person. This facilitates the fact that Morgan’s gender stays ambiguous throughout the story. Our hero eventually gets an explicit sex scene, a narrative challenge that I bet Rosenfelder had fun writing.) The writing is lighthearted, supplying a wry commentary on the often brutal violence (formenting revolution is not a nice, innocent pastime) and the reader also gets several doses of political philosophizing in the deal. As someone who read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, found the long ‘beauty of Mars’ passages to be boring, but was fascinated by the politics, this was to my taste.


This was another book I read on the strength of the author’s reputation online; I’ve been aware of Mark ‘zompist’ Rosenfelder as an online personality for years, having read several of his web-based essays on politics and culture way back in the very early ‘00s. The universe of Against Peace and Freedom is a place he has clearly thought out thoroughly. I particularly appreciated the fact that although the culture of Okura is clearly derived from East Asia, rather than the West, I never detected a hint of cliched outsider-writing-about-the-East silliness.


Only quibble is, I was rather befuddled by the appearance midway through of a boorish 21st-century American who gets thawed out from his cryogenic suspension, makes an ass of himself over several pages, and then disappears without having added anything worthwhile to the story. I know Rosenfelder has written other works set in this same universe; maybe Mr. Stupid American is connected to one of those?


Speaking of politics, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is old-fashioned court intrigue. When the Elvish emperor and all his sons but one are killed in an airship crash, the crown passes to the half-goblin Maia, the emperor’s least-favored son and the offspring of his least-favored wife. The earnest but naive eighteen-year-old Maia was raised out in the boonies far away from the imperial court. He faces a steep learning curve to say the least. As said above, politics matter far more than traditional fantasy heroics: we get a deep look at the inner workings of a national government in a world where cable news doesn’t exist.


Two things to say about the world of The Goblin Emperor. First, it’s remarkable how few traditional fantasy tropes make it into the main narrative. Aside from very occasional references to magic, and technology such as airships and pneumatic tubes, this could easily be a royal court in a fictionalized pre-modern Earth. Elves and goblins aren’t magical beings here; they’re just people. Second, the amount of world-building that the author did is impressive. Although the action mostly stays within the confines of the imperial Elvish court, it’s clear that Addison lovingly worked out the geography, politics, and languages of this world.


This leads to my one little quibble: I read this on a Kindle, which means it is a bit inconvenient to flip back to confirm that the character that just showed up is the same guy who was mentioned twenty pages earlier. This gets annoying given the profusion of characters, as well as the universe-specific titles they are known by. Score one for paper books!


Moving back to the 1980s, I also read Iain Banks’ Walking on Glass this year. Banks is an odd critter -- while he was alive, I kept hearing about how brilliant his science fiction novels were, but I never got around to reading them. Only after his premature death in 2013 did I try him out, and I found that I actually preferred the thrillers of Iain Banks to the SF works of Iain M. Banks (although I have his Player of Games sitting on my bookshelf unread, waiting for me to give middle-initialed Banks another try).


Despite the lack of a middle initial in the author’s name, Walking on Glass does not keep the SF genre out completely -- not by a long shot. The very weird narrative follows three plots simultaneously, one of which seems to be set in an entirely different universe from the other two. In ascending order of strangeness: in one, a young Londoner is doggedly trying to pursue a relationship with a lady he is smitten with; in the second, we follow the troubled life of a man struggling with mental illness -- or perhaps he really is being persecuted by extraterrestrial oppressors. The possibility seems more than a little plausible, because the third plotline deals with two exiles from an interstellar war imprisoned in a castle in a deserted snowscape, whose only hope of release lies in their ability to work together to figure out a series of fiendishly-designed board games.

Banks’s taste for unpleasant imagery may not be for everyone, but I’ve read three of his thrillers now and I have never failed to be engrossed by them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Delta Module 1

I've posted close to nothing for several months, as I've been focusing my mental energies on work and study. On December 4, Jenna and I both took the Delta Module 1 Exam, following a several-month online course managed by International House that incorporated plenty of reading and several assessed practice assignments.

I believe I turned in a thoroughly mediocre performance on the actual exam. Not bad by any means, but mediocre. I fully expect to come away with a 'Pass', unadorned with a 'Merit' or 'Distinction'. To tell the truth, I am satisfied with this -- I know I learned a lot in the run-up to the test, and I don't need the additional fancy word on my certificate.

Overall the course was well-designed and worthwhile. It was the first serious online course I've ever taken and invested substantial time in (sorry, Coursera and Udacity), and it exposed me, even more than my CELTA course did, to English teaching as a serious discipline. Not to sound too hoity-toity elitist, but there are probably cram school teachers with twice my experience working in East Asia who haven't consciously thought about teaching to the extent this course forces you to.

I also appreciated the online forum as a means of communicating with fellow Distance Delta students, although I didn't make use of it nearly as often as Jenna did. (Come to think of it, I think 10% of course participants probably accounted for 90% of forum posts.)

I was disappointed as the course ended, as International House unceremoniously pulled the plug on the website just before we took the test on December 4. I understand the logic of shutting down the forum on test day. There's no sense in letting us East Asian candidates go online and screech 'Omigod omigod Paper 2 Task 4 is all about teaching pronunciation!!!' before candidates in Europe have even taken the test. But IH had been telling us for weeks the forum would be shuttered at midnight December 6, so I'd assumed it would go back online after test day had finished for us to spend a final few hours sharing reactions and commiserating with those feeling glum about their performance. But we got no such sense of closure.

The Good:

I learned a hell of a lot by studying for this test. My knowledge of English grammar is now stronger than it has been at any point in my life. In addition, I now have a much larger vocabulary of pedagogical terms than I did a couple of months ago. This is valuable not so much so that I can drop terms and impress fancy ESL people, but rather because it's carved out real estate in my brain which has been occupied by actual concrete concepts. In other words, knowing that a test can have 'face validity', 'content validity' and 'construct validity' is useful, but even more useful is having the concepts behind those terms fully developed in my head.

Additionally, it was very, very good for me to feel like I should go and become familiar with what the key commentators on the state of English-language teaching have to say -- people like Lewis, Krashen, Thornbury, etc. This is my job, it's what's earning me money, and what I've read just in the past few weeks has already noticeably affected my teaching in my IELTS prep classes.

And this is because I wanted to be prepared for what the actual test would throw at me. Paper Two, Task Four presents some issue in ESL teaching, such as contrasting two different approaches to class planning, or the value of teaching writing in a class environment, and asks us test-takers to comment on it. The way the test is marked, writing something stupid does not detract from your score (apart from taking up valuable time) but everything you write that's accepted earns you marks. So it's in your best interest to make as many points as you possibly can. Students are motivated to have a great deal to say on any topic they could potentially be asked about.

The Bad:

I have nothing bad to say about the online course that International House put together.

As for the test itself, I have to admit I am a bit unsure what I think of Paper Two, Tasks Two and Three. In these two tasks, you are presented with a series of exercises from a commercially published ESL coursebook. In Task 2a, you comment on the purpose of selected exercises, as they are meant to relate to the lesson as a whole. In Task 2b, you list at least six assumptions about language learning that you can discern behind the design of these exercises, and provide reasons for these assumptions.

In past exam reports, Cambridge complained that many candidates seem to be memorizing assumptions that were accepted in past exams and slotting them in where they seem appropriate. But the design of the task continues to encourage students to do just that. Most of the coursebook selections used in Task 2 seem broadly similar to each other: there's a reading or listening that students process in order to do tasks, then students' attention is called to the lesson's target language which the reading/listening text used in context, then students manipulate the target language in controlled and freer practice exercises/activities. (The June 2013 test, which we took as a mock, differed from this and used a lesson from a Business English textbook teaching presentation skills instead. But our December 2013 exam was back to the same familiar pattern.)

Additionally, the guideline answers published with each exam report tend to list the same sorts of assumptions in exam after exam. So can Cambridge really fault students for thinking, Hey, it's a presentation of language in context! I'm gonna pull out my 'grammar should be presented in context' assumption! It's a guided discovery exercise! I'm gonna use my 'guided discovery' assumption!

I did. And if previous guideline answers are any indication, I'm going to get marks.

There's also the fact -- and Jenna has much more to say about this -- that the reasoning behind what Cambridge does and does not include in its guideline answers is often opaque, to say the least, and to ace the test you basically have to learn to think like a Cambridge assessor.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the whole experience -- it's taught me a lot and has pushed me in a more professional direction. It's also pointed me in the direction of a decent-sized pile of reading material I would like to work my way through before I start to seriously think about Delta Module 2.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Good Omens

Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Published in 1990
Published by Harper Torch

The Plot: Six thousand years after the world is created, it's time for it all to end. The Antichrist assumes human form and the armies of heaven and hell line up to do battle -- although the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, longtime frenemies who battle each other largely through witty banter -- are rather wistful and sad to see Earth go. As it happens, Armageddon is in trouble from the start, as babies are mistakenly switched and as a result the Antichrist receives the wrong upbringing...

My Reactions: This book is very well-known in the right circles, written by two of the most popular (maybe the two most popular) names in modern English lighthearted tales of the supernatural, back before either was nearly as famous as they are now. It didn't change my life. It didn't hold me in rapt attention.  But it was a pleasant read, and I snickered and giggled a lot, and on the whole it was not badly done.

Perhaps I would be more gung-ho about it if the writing style hadn't already been familiar to me from various works by Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, and Pratchett working solo. If any of these names appeal to you, you'll probably enjoy Good Omens.

I want to say something about this story's universe. At first glance, the events of this book appear to hinge on random chance. It's thanks to miscommunication among Devil-worshipping nuns -- in other words, ordinary human error -- that the Antichrist is given to the wrong family. Everything that happens subsequently, up to and including the way the Apocalypse unfolds, stems from that mistake. So it would seem this is a universe where Chaos reigns.

But this was all foreseen by the witch Agnes Nutt way back in the 1600s. It was always going to happen this way. The cosmos' vast orders of angels and demons sincerely believed the world was going to end, but they were misinformed because they couldn't see the big picture. This is, underneath it all, a deterministic universe, and primal Chaos (or the illusion thereof) is only a tool used by the hand of unfolding Fate to move people and things to the places on the cosmic chessboard where they were always going to be.

Aziraphale and Crowley make such a big deal over humans and their supposed 'free will.' But I see no free will here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Movie: V for Vendetta

In which Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving fight to free Londoners from a tyrannical dictatorship. At least I assume that's Hugo Weaving, which is something that must be taken on trust.


The Plot: Britain is a repressive dictatorship headed by the autocratic High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Our story centers on Evey (Natalie Portman), a low-level employee at the state-run TV network, who meets a masked crime fighter named V (Hugo Weaving).

My Reactions: I have not read the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and my ignorance will no doubt be glaringly obvious at several points in this post. I had some interest in watching this movie when it first came out, but I never got around to it.  A couple of years later it was playing on a long-distance bus and I sorta-kinda paid attention to it; what I gleaned from it was little more than 'Huh, Stephen Fry's in this'.

Meanwhile, the visuals of the movie grew in popularity, as anti-establishment protestors the world over took up V's mask as an iconic symbol. V's mask is based upon the old Guy Fawkes masks that British kids used to wear, but the masks you see at demonstrations nowadays use the specific style Moore & Lloyd invented. I realize V's mask design dates all the way back to the original 1982 graphic novel, but (as is so often the case) it was the movie that propelled the story and its accompanying visual look to the attention of mass culture.

So finally I decided that I ought to watch the movie properly, for the purpose of increasing my cultural literacy. I liked it, while at the same time I understood it's a movie that relies more on looking really cool than on having a coherent plot and characters. I'm not convinced the story is as substantial or as unproblematic as its blossoming fame among the young and disaffected, who I generally sympathize with, deserves. Perhaps I should read the graphic novel.

If you care about spoilers stop reading here. My thoughts, in no particularly well-organized order:
  • V is really a jerk, isn't he? His treatment of Evey is absolutely appalling. He does manage to transform her into a badass and this is a universe where being tough is an important asset, but that doesn't retroactively excuse all that he puts her through. Now, this doesn't wreck the movie, as it might if V were the sole main protagonist and we were supposed to empathize with him fully. In fact, I find it strengthens the movie, as it makes V into less of a sympathetic human and more of a symbol of an impersonal force.
  • We never see V's face, but we are led to believe it is a horrific ruin, a wreckage of burned flesh completely devastated by fire. But there's one part of V's face that we know was spared: his lips. He can speak perfectly well, producing the full range of English consonants without impediment, including his favorite consonant, which requires an intact lower lip to produce correctly. See for yourself: try to say 'V for Vendetta' out loud without using your lips. Just once I'd like to see a tragic hero with a facial scar whose injury causes them to lisp.
  • The fact that Stephen Fry plays himself (more or less) makes it all the more shocking when he dies. He's called by a different name in the movie, but he plays a highly cultured, homosexual, articulate, erudite comedian and TV personality, and many viewers probably saw him and thought 'Oh, this universe has a Stephen Fry too'. Then the High Chancellor's goons murder him.
  • Speaking of which, I really feel sorry for the two guys who play High Chancellor Adam Sutler in the comedy skit that gets Fry killed. Think about it. They were probably young aspiring comedians who thought themselves lucky to get minor roles as on-screen clowns on national TV. When they had to do the fateful skit, they probably thought, 'Well, this seems like it's treading on dangerous ground, but Mr. Fry says it's OK, so I'm sure we'll be fine.' We never find out what happened to them, but the consequences could not have been pleasant.
  • The idea of using Guy Fawkes as a symbol strikes me as problematic. Fawkes didn't want to blow up Parliament to free the people from tyranny. He wanted to blow up Parliament in order to replace an autocratic Protestant regime with an autocratic Catholic regime, which I hope most British people nowadays would consider a lateral move at best. Maybe there's something I'm missing as a foreigner.
  • That subplot with the police inspector nudged the plot forward a few times and provided some exposition. But I won't remember anything about it a year from now, even though the rest of the movie has lots of memorable scenes that will stick with me.
  • I can't be the first person to point this out, but let's think about V's final battle logically. V is facing down a half dozen bad guys, led by chief goon Creedy, and he invites them all to take a shot at him. They open fire and keep shooting him until they run out of ammo, tearing apart his body armor and fatally wounding him. Then it's V's turn to move, and he kills the bad guys with his knife, one after another. (This particular part, I can suspend my disbelief for.) V expected to die in this battle, but he also expected to have at least a chance of killing Creedy first. Isn't it remarkably lucky for him that not one of the bad guys shot him in the head?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Prague Cemetery


The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Published in 2012
Published by Vintage

The Plot: Simone Simonini is a forger and spy in 1890s Paris. He is our protagonist -- or shall I say one of our protagonists, for he seems to share an apartment with one Abbe Dalla Piccola, although the two men have never met. Deducing that they are probably a single individual with two personalities, they communicate with each other via a shared diary, and piece together the events of their life. Simonini is a terrible person, a sociopath who spreads mayhem wherever he goes -- which in this case includes many of the key events in 19th century French and Italian history. (In reference to Simonini's ability to influence so many disparate events, the New York Times review describes him as 'a Forrest Gump of evil'.)

Reactions: I've now read every one of Eco's novels except for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. He is very good at making me feel like a simpleton who is not quite educated enough to appreciate him fully. I felt that way when I read The Island of the Day Before, and I feel that way again with The Prague Cemetery.

The more familiar you are with 19th century Europe, particularly major events in Italy and France in the latter half of the century, the easier a time you'll have with this book. As for me, I know who Garibaldi is, I'm vaguely familiar with the Paris Commune, and I can give you enough information on the Dreyfus Affair to fill two, maybe three sentences, but don't ask me for details on any of these. Eco presumes his audience is up to speed on its history, and I'm sure as a result there are plenty of in-jokes and ironic asides that flew over my head.

All that said, the novel held my interest, partially because of a perverse fascination I had with the character of Simonini. Not since I read Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father several years ago have I encountered such a repulsive main protagonist in a novel. Readers who cannot stand such a disagreeable character are filtered out early on, as the book opens with Simonini explaining, in quite lurid detail, exactly what he thinks of Jews. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that Simonini goes on to express equally hate-filled feelings for the Italians, the Germans, the French, and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is Simonini's anti-Semitism that remains at the heart of the novel, and drives the plot towards its final conclusion. And Simonini's vileness goes far deeper than simple bigotry. He has a knack for stabbing his comrades in the back, often in ways that cause the deaths of many innocent people.

Umberto Eco is no anti-Semite. But he's fascinated by the history of human thought, and he loves his conspiracy theories, albeit as objects to play with rather than as things to believe. The book often seems like a spiritual prequel to Foucault's Pendulum, as the sprawling universe of 19th-century nuttery concerning the nefarious doings of the Jews and the Freemasons and the Catholics all turn out to be traceable back to Simonini's damaged mind and his remarkable knack for forgery. Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. Apart from possibly some background extras of trifling importance, every other person is real, and the book takes us from one historical event to another, showing us the events as they looked from Simonini's quirky perspective.

As for the conceit of having the narrative alternate between Simonini and Dalla Piccola's viewpoints, the two of them almost certainly two halves of the same personality (but we don't find out for sure until nearly the end), it was quite unnecessary as far as the main plot was concerned. But it's clearly a game Eco is playing with us, another layer of complexity on top of an already complex novel, and I'm happy to have him lead me through the labyrinth.

Despite the nagging feeling that I wasn't getting quite as much out of the novel as Eco intended me to, I enjoyed what I read. I just feel I ought to go do my homework and bone up on history, and come back in a few years to read the book again and see if I can glean more from it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bookseller of Kabul


The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
Published in 2003
Published by Back Bay Books

In November 2001, journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Kabul, and soon made the acquaintance of a bookseller she called Sultan Khan. Over the next few months, she lived with Khan's family and got to know them closely. Upon her return to her native Norway, she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a look at the lives of middle-class Afghanis in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule.

The picture she paints is of a socially conservative land, one where the family, not the individual, is the basic unit, and young people's decisions are made for them by the family. Any notion among Westerners that the fall of the Taliban resulted in the liberation of Afghan women is erroneous. In the society Seierstad describes, young women's lives are not their own; they are not free to make their own choices, and who they are going to marry and whether they are allowed to work outside the home are dictated by their elders.

The main difference that came with the fall of the Taliban is that now women can play music as they do their sixteen hours of daily chores without the fear they will be taken to jail. That's assuming their family says it's OK, of course.

In her book, Seierstad delves into the heads of several members of Khan's family. Two of the most prominent are Khan's son Mansur and his much younger sister, Leila.

Mansur is torn between hating his father and wanting to earn his approval. Mansur is inefficient and lackadaisical at running the family bookstore in his father's absence, but he forces himself to become utterly cold-hearted when a former employee pilfers postcards to sell and Sultan Khan insists he be punished severely. Despite the fact that the employee's family is clearly in extremely dire financial straits, and literally on their knees begging for leniency, Mansur acts as his father's representative and brings the full weight of the law to bear on the thief, who ultimately ends up spending several years living under terrible conditions in prison.

Leila, is a very different character. As the youngest of I-don't-even-remember-how-many children, Leila is the perpetual workhorse of the family, but she would dearly love to achieve a bit of independence. She wants to work as an English teacher, but there's an enormous amount of bureaucracy that she has to navigate before she can get herself hired. This is nearly impossible, with her family obligations.

Now, this book is a work of narrative nonfiction. I approach this kind of writing by treating it as realistic fiction. When I read narrative nonfiction, at the outset I assume at the very least that the author has performed acts of artistry such as rearranging events for dramatic effect, or consolidating two or more people into one for clarity. If I think of these characters as people who could very easily have been real, but who aren't necessarily based on any specific people, then I can keep myself from feeling cheated when it turns out the author took liberties with reality.

That is all very well and good, but when characters in a work of narrative nonfiction can be associated with specific people in real life, you get problems. 'Sultan Khan' is an invented name, but the character was drawn in enough detail that the specific real person he was based on could easily be identified, and boy oh boy was he unhappy. He took the author to court to sue her for defamation and an assault on his character. I have some sympathy. All my high-minded talk about how narrative nonfiction should be read doesn't mean much when there's this guy in a book that everyone knows is based on you.

The real person behind Sultan Khan drew up a list of specific complaints. The first was, 'Depicting me as a fundamentalist, when I have been against fundamentalism all of my life and have suffered personally from it.' I'm sorry, I don't see that. The Sultan Khan of the book is not a fundamentalist, unless the meaning of 'fundamentalist' is so loose that the word means nothing.

He is on much firmer ground when he says, 'Is it nothing to depict me as a domestic tyrant when I have preserved my family through a quarter century of war only through sacrifice, sweat, and tears?' He's right. Seierstad really does depict him as a domestic tyrant, and a really nasty one at that. The question is whether that depiction is accurate. I have no way of knowing.

That's why this is best read as a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Man from Primrose Lane

The Man from Primrose Lane
by David Renner
Published in 2012
Published by Sarah Crichton Books

The Man from Primrose Lane, an eccentric mitten-wearing man who lived a solitary existence in suburban Ohio, has been murdered! Not only was his death bloody (I'm talking fingers-in-a-blender bloody) and the list of suspects nonexistent, but investigation shows his identity was faked. No one knows who he really was. The years pass and the case grows cold.

Eventually journalist David Neff is persuaded to begin his own investigation. Neff has grown rich and famous from the success of his true-crime book The Serial Killer's Protege, which led to the institutionalization of one of Ohio's most notorious murderers. But he and his young son have lived a life of seclusion since the mysterious death of his wife. Researching the case of the Man from Primrose Lane promises to bring David out of his shell. Incidentally, David's wife died in a suicidal car crash the same day the Man from Primrose Lane was murdered, but any rational person would agree that there couldn't possibly be any connection between the two deaths. Right?

David Neff is clearly based, at least in part, on James Renner himself. Renner is an Ohio-based crime journalist who once published a book called The Serial Killer's Apprentice, though this was a compilation of Renner's previously published stories and not as explosively original as Neff's similarly-titled book. This strikes me as an in-joke rather than a case of Mary Sue.

Renner's real-life experiences help build the apparent verisimilitude of the novel's version of Ohio.  For roughly the first third of the novel, the story appears to stay within the boundaries of the crime fiction genre, despite the accumulating bits and pieces of oddness that promise that something very, very strange is going on.

And then things get explicitly science-fictional, and I almost feel bad for any SF-hating reader who was duped into reading the book by the fact it does not go out of its way to advertise its sciencefictionality.

I say, bring it on. I love banging genres together. I love the sound it makes. And don't worry, hardcore science fiction fans: Renner knows what he's doing when he plays with the tropes. I won't say too much about what's really going on, but I will say that Renner thought through the implications of how this universe works as well as any established SF author, and as far as I can tell the narrative never contradicts its own internal logic.

For all that's good about the novel, I do have to agree with Kirkus Reviews that it's slightly discomfiting that (a) a certain Cindy, who is the only female character who doesn't need to be saved by a big, strong David Neff, is 'made to look like an incompetent, vindictive bitch', and (b) said Cindy appears to be remarkably superfluous to the story, considering the amount of time spent on her. (Not that this is in any way provable, but I got the feeling that she was a real person, or composite of real people, that the author knew and disliked.) Point (a) above is surely unintentional and could have been avoided by fleshing her out more; fix that and point (b) probably would have gone unnoticed.

That aside, this novel does a tremendous job meshing the genres together. Whether you are likely to enjoy this depends on the degree to which you like the two constituent genres (bear in mind the writing style is primarily that of hardboiled crime fiction) and the degree to which you enjoy dumping them both in a bowl and mixing them together.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Game of Thrones: Season 3

THE GOOD:

Sooooo, did anyone else catch the episode where Edmure Tully married Roslin Frey?

Well, it generated the most online buzz that the show's had since the first season, and it took the phrase 'Red Wedding', which previously had meaning only to a niche of book readers, and planted it firmly within pop culture. The most infamously violent scene in a book series known for its violence is now part of our shared mass culture. Hooray!




See, there's nothing violent in this scene. Oh, you say the violence happens later on? Never mind.

The actual violence -- which was, if anything, more horrifying than in the books, and killed one additional major character whose book counterpart survived unscathed -- was shocking without being gratuitous. (But your mileage may vary, especially with the 'stab the pregnant lady in the belly' bit.)

Overall this season has been much stronger than season 2, which looks weaker the more I think about it in retrospect. I'm not so sure that it's as strong as season 1, but then the first season had the advantage of having stories that were relatively less geographically dispersed. I think the increasing dispersal of the characters has the potential to harm this series in the long run. It is only going to get worse, and could make it much more difficult to keep dramatic momentum going.

THE BAD:

I've already said that the show's missteps dealing with race bug me more than how it depicts gender. Something is very 'off' in the fact that it's the 3rd season before we see our first nonwhite characters who aren't obviously untrustworthy folks.

That brings me to the third season finale. The end of that episode, when thousands of brown-skinned former slaves hail Blonde Savior Lady as their liberator and new mother, was bad enough that it became downright embarrassing.

Now, don't misunderstand me here. The cringeworthy optics of it almost certainly wasn't a result of a conscious decision by the writers. It was just obliviousness. And, in this specific case especially, it was totally avoidable.

Think about it. We know the slavers are a cosmopolitan bunch of people. The geographical term 'Slaver's Bay' implies there's a lot of long-distance trading that goes on. And it is never hinted, either in the books or in the TV show, that slavers in this universe use a race-based ideology to justify what they do.

So there is no reason why the slaves couldn't have represented the full range of human racial variation. Fair-skinned slaves, swarthy slaves, dark-skinned slaves. Let's have some slaves mixed in who look like Daenerys. No need to change the script. Just make this one visual change and the scene would have been far more palatable.

But no. Instead, we got White Lady Saves the Day. I hope Meereen, where the show will presumably spend lots of time beginning next season, will be depicted with more thought.

People who wish to remain utterly unspoiled for future developments should stop reading here.

Other random thoughts:


  • Yes, I'm sure the real reason why the slaves of Yunkai were all vaguely brown-skinned people was that the Yunkai scenes were filmed in Morocco and just casting locals as extras was the cheapest choice. Doesn't change the bad optics of the scene.
  • My prediction for the pacing of Season 4: Joffrey and Margery get married in Episode 4 (possibly 3). Episode 9 will feature either the battle at the Wall (the action set-piece of the season) or Tyrion's departure from King's Landing (the dramatic highlight of the season). If they combine both into one episode, I'd be interested to see how that episode is structured. One more wedding in episode 7 or  8. The Moon Door at the Eyrie gets used again in episode 10.
  • I think it would be a good idea for the show to include more 'Blackwater'-style episodes that focus on a single location. The upcoming wedding in King's Landing would be perfect, as there will be lots of opportunities to show us different characters interacting and conversing about all sorts of different things, and that's before all of the drama that goes down at the reception.
  • Speaking of that wedding, I'm very curious to see what Sansa's actions are, since I doubt we'll see Ser Dontos again. And speaking of changes made for the TV adaptation, I must admit I'm curious to see exactly what's going to happen to Tyrion and Shae's relationship. Shae's a much stronger personality on TV than she was in the books, and it's hard to imagine her book storyline playing out on TV in exactly the same way.
  • Upcoming Challenge: When we first see Lady Stoneheart's face, the reaction of most of the TV audience will either be: a) Whoa. This show is awesome, man! or b) Pfft. Game of Thrones just jumped the shark. I think that for the show to hit a) but not b), laying the groundwork first will be just as important as the big shocking scene itself. Lady Stoneheart has the potential to make the show look really stupid if her reveal is handled poorly.
  • Upcoming Challenge #2: Eventually we're going to expect to see people riding dragons. I must admit that I don't see how the show, with its current standard of special effects, can show us a human riding a dragon without looking really fake or stupid. If I were in charge of special effects on this show, this would keep me up at nights, since its budget is not going to expand to rival that of Avatar anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters
by Kelly Link

This collection of Kelly Link short stories entertained me marvelously. Link's an SF (speculative fiction, the big-tent genre) writer, mostly fantasy with forays into science-fictional and horror territory, and usually with a good amount of sardonic humor.

These stories are of diverse settings and moods, and I assume are a good representative sample of Link's oeuvre.  (Aside from these, my Kelly Link exposure has been a couple of stories I heard in audio form on Podcastle: Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Hortlak.)

All of these stories center around young people, and I suppose that one who wished to classify everything could call these stories 'Young Adult'. Bear in mind that these aren't kid's stories, in case you have pejorative associations for that term.

So what do we have in this volume?

The Wrong Grave is about a teenage boy, Miles, whose girlfriend Bethany was killed in an accident. An aspiring poet (but not a very good one), Miles stuck the only copy of some of his poetry into her coffin in a romantic gesture, but a year later he regrets what he's done and he digs up her grave to get the poems back. Miles apparently manages to exhume the wrong teenage girl, who gets rather annoyed at Miles.

This is a universe where a just-exhumed dead person can walk and move and talk, and everyone treats it as normal. I like this. This is something you probably couldn't pull off in a novel. If reanimated dead people are not an amazing sight in this universe, it stands to reason that they are not uncommon, and that demands acknowledgement that this is a different society than the one you and I live in, and then you have to pull out the worldbuilding kit. Make no mistake, that could make for a really fun novel, but it would be different from what Link is doing here.

It's a feature of the short-story form that the notion of a world with unusually verbose dead people can be pulled off successfully with no explanation necessary.

The Wizards of Perfil is set in a fantasy world with a roughly 19th-century level of technology. A family fleeing war sells off daughter Halsa, who had incessantly bullied her siblings and her orphaned cousin Onion, to an agent of the legendary Wizards of Perfil, so as to have more money and fewer mouths to feed. Halsa possesses telepathic powers; so does Onion, and this allows them to maintain a channel of communication as the geographical separation between them grows.

This story's a charmer. Don't have much to say about it other than that I like the worldbuilding and the more-hinted-at-than-actually-delineated magic system.

Magic for Beginners is... well, drat. Look, in 1939 a guy named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby that didn't use the letter 'e', just to show he could. I'm going to have to do something similar if I want to describe this story without using the word 'quirky'. I feel obliged to do this because many people have a severe allergic reaction to the Q-word, and it would be a shame if they miss out on Link's story just because I describe it as q***** twice in the same sentence, which could happen if I don't pay attention.

This story is about a teen named Jeremy, and his family (including a best-selling horror father who specializes in books about giant spiders), and his friends in Vermont. And it's also about the wonderfully creative little TV show called The Library that they all watch.

The Library is a likably eccentric show, put out on an irregular schedule, which has built a loyal cult following. There are many details about it that attract me, but best is the conceit that they have a troupe of actors and rotate many of the leading roles among them. The most popular character is a woman named Fox who has never been played by the same actor twice. I don't know why, but I love this idea.

The plot deals with Jeremy's family, and the odd inheritance (a public phone booth outside of Las Vegas) that he receives, and his friends' love for and fervent analysis of The Library. This story won a well-deserved Nebula Award.

The Faery Handbag is about a young lady's relationship with her eccentric grandmother Zofia, an immigrant from Badeziwurlekistan who brought a very special handbag over from the old country.

I love how this story takes a plot with a bare-bones structure that, let's face it, is reminiscent of tales that have been told at bedsides and around campfires for generations, and very successfully marries it with modern idiom and worldview, giving it a firm grounding in the (to us) mundane. This story won not only a Nebula but also a Hugo.

The Specialist's Hat is a ghost story that centers on the two girls who live in a creepy old house with their father, who is writing a book about the creepy old poet who lived in the same house around the turn of the century. This story successfully convinces the reader that the word 'specialist', when spoken in the right way, is a very creepy word.

Monster is about a group of boys at camp. The boys of Bungalow 6 head into the woods for a night of camping. They're nervous after hearing stories of a boy-eating monster from their peers in Bungalow 4, but they don't let that stop them; they can't let themselves wimp out now, can they?

The viewpoint shifts to a nerdy boy named James Lorbick, who puts on a dress and pretends to be a zombie because he is willing to play the role of group weirdo if it means the other boys will accept him in it. The monster appears. He and James have a conversation. People are eaten.

The Surfer centers on a young soccer phenom who is kidnapped by his father and flown to Costa Rica where his father has connections to a UFO cult. Just then, a deadly flu strain breaks out, and father and son and various other people are quarantined together in Costa Rica, forced to interact, learn, and mature.

The UFO cult in this story was born several years ago when aliens arrived, picked up an airheaded surfer, and dropped him back to Earth minutes later. The aliens then left the planet behind, apparently for good. Ever since then the surfer's been preaching an utterly generic gospel of love and peace. Nobody in this world really doubts the existence of the aliens; rather, the skeptics tend to think it was the bad luck of humanity that the person the aliens randomly chose was this brainless dolt.  No wonder they packed up and left so quickly.

The Constable of Abal is the second of the stories in this book to be set in a 'high fantasy' setting (although it appears to be a different universe from 'The Wizards of Perfil'). Ozma's a girl who works as her mother Zilla's assistant, as Zilla uses the family ability to see and interact with ghosts to blackmail and bamboozle families in the city of Abal. One day things go wrong and Zilla is forced to murder a constable; they flee the city. Ozma hides the constable's ghost in her pocket, and the two grow quite fond of one another. They settle in another city, where Zilla insists they take up the lives of utterly respectable people. There are strange things happening and people who clearly know more than they are letting on. Like 'The Wizards of Perfil', this story is quite good at the worldbuilding.

And finally, Pretty Monsters. On one plane of existence, a girl named Clementine develops a hopeless crush on an older boy named Cabell when he saves her life after she sleepwalks into the sea. As the years pass, Clementine can not let go of her crush, even as Cabell gets married and moves to Romania...

But that's all fiction, a bad paranormal romance novel that Lee, a private school girl, is reading. Lee and her friends are getting ready to deliver their classmate's Ordeal (read: hazing ritual), and Lee retreats back into the book every time things go off-plan (which is often). The target of the hazing is Czigany, an Eastern European diplomat's kid. Czigany insists she has to be back home at five so she can take her never-precisely-explained 'medicine'. Her friends make promises, that they have no intention of keeping, that of course she'll be back in time. You can guess where this is going. Part of it, anyway.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I have every right to do this!

Say you see a guy named Bob. Bob is doing something that is really harmful and unfair to other people. Or maybe he's just making an ass of himself in public and doesn't seem to realize it.

You call him out. You tell him what a jerk he's being. Bob's response is that he has a right to do what he's doing, and he's not doing anything illegal. (Even though you never said he was doing anything illegal.)

When this happens, you are almost certainly right and Bob is indeed almost certainly being an ass.

This little rule of thumb can most often be applied to Internet conversations:

butthead69: LOL i heard he's dating a girl from bazorkistan, bazorkistanians are all terrierists and smell like farts, why can't he get an american gf
cosmo_nerd: My mother is a Bazorkistani immigrant. Racist lowlifes like you disgust me.
butthead69: hey dumbass ever heard of free speech? you can't take away my first amendment rites you nazi scumbagg

But really, you can apply it to almost any situation. What really crystallized it for me was a moment in a recent Planet Money podcast titled When Patents Hit the Podcast. There's this guy (not named Bob) who claims he invented podcasting back in the 1990s and now he wants all podcasters, including the little independent ones with no money, to pay him a licensing fee. (He did patent many of the basic principles behind podcasting back then; these patents subsequently sat forgotten and did nothing and inspired no one until he had a recent 'Oh, yeah!' moment.)

When the NPR reporter asked him what he would say to people who accused him of being a patent troll, charging people to use a bridge someone else had built, he explained that he was doing nothing illegal. Everything he did was allowed under the laws of the U.S. patent system. This would be an appropriate response if the NPR reporter had said people were accusing him of breaking the law. But she hadn't.

I don't claim to be knowledgeable about patents, and it's possible that this guy is making the world a better place (in a way that's unclear to me) by demanding that podcasters pay him. But he didn't say that, unless NPR maliciously edited the piece. Or he could say it was the principle of the thing. But he didn't.

And that's the point. It's not just that when my hypothetical generic jerk Bob says 'Nuh-uh, I have a RIGHT to do this!' he's answering an objection that no one raised. It's that he's doing this instead of explaining why he's right, or why he's not actually hurting anyone.