Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee: Review

go-set-watchman-book-covers(Contains spoilers) Go Set a Watchman is really a story that completes To Kill a Mockingbird and seems more relevant to the contemporary debate over race relations. The title is a quote from The Prophecy Against Babylon in Isaiah 21:

1 The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.

2 A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.

3 Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.

4 My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.

5 Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.

7 And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:

8 And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:

9 And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

10 O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.

11 The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?

12 The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

13 The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.

14 The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.

15 For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.

16 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:

17 And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the Lord God of Israel hath spoken it.

Babylon was a grand historic city that had sacked Jerusalem and taken the survivors back to the city where they mistreated them as suggested in Psalms 137. It was thought that the destruction of Babylon was impossible given its size and grandeur. It’s eventual destruction signifies liberation and vengeance for the wrongs down against God’s chosen people. In the context of the book Babylon is presented as the American South and the enslaved citizens of Jerusalem forced into exile the former black slaves. Jean-Louise’s childhood and her respect for Atticus was to some extent built upon this Babylon too.

The book is set many years after To Kill a Mockingbird, when Jean-Louise returns to Maycomb from New York where she has been living. Other central characters from the first novel are no longer on the scene; Jem has dropped dead and Dale is living overseas. Atticus has taken another of Jean-Louise’s childhood friends, Henry (Hank), under his wing to work as a lawyer. Hank has become somewhat of a love interest for Jean-Louise although she refuses to marry him as this would mean she would have to return to live in the Maycomb that she escaped. She also visits Calpurnia, the housekeeper who essentially raised her and Jem together with Atticus, but she discovers a rift has arisen between her and Calpurnia, who treats her with a polite distance. The central event of the novel is when Jean-Louise spies on Atticus and Hank attending a citizen’s council meeting at which a speaker makes dehumanizing comments about black people. A few incidents have foreshadowed this, with references to the NAACP interfering in what Atticus suggests is a just system. This suggests a different motive lay behind Atticus’s defense of Tom in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s only after witnessing the citizens’ council meeting that Jean-Louise comes to the realization that they are on different sides of an argument. Although Jean-Louise is opposed to Federal interference in state issues, she thinks that in this case it was the better option. That the Atticus from her childhood who had always been so respectful to black people and who had defended Tom in his trial could take part in a meeting such as this disgusts her. After confronting Hank and Atticus separately about the meeting, she learns that Atticus has beliefs which are diametrically opposed to her own. This shatters her illusions of Atticus as her moral compass and she feels the urge to flee from Maycomb and never contact anyone there again.

Her uncle had tried to prepare her for this shock to her system that he knew was coming and it is her uncle that eventually tries to persuade her to stay in Maycomb and to treat Atticus with respect, even though she might disagree with his views. His suggestion is that her outrage and her decision to flee Maycomb won’t do anything for the community or for the black people she wishes to help. He suggests rather that being a friend to someone you vehemently disagree with is the most productive path forward for the South.

Despite having been written before her first novel, this one seems completely in tune with the contemporary debate around race relations. Atticus, who was hoisted high as an example of a good man in the racist south, turns out to be the propagator of a more insipid kind of racism against black people, in that his inability to see them as his equals is hidden from plain sight by his politeness. Atticus sees them only as a force that will destroy the South, while Jean-Louise is able to see humanity in them.

We can see almost direct parallels between the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP in the novel and between the attachment of Atticus and Hank to romanticized notions of Southern society and those who want to “Make America Great Again”.

Jean-Louise’s uncle’s speech could be compared to recent remarks on “patience with others” by George Bush on divisiveness in politics:

 

 

Attempts to Author the Sunflower Student Movement

Was waiting for a friend at a bookshop and was flicking through a few titles when I saw these volumes about the Sunflower Student Movement. The first one I picked up was this:

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The cover looked OK, but my heart sank a little when I saw that the dedication was to Benedict Anderson… and sank even more when the opening sentence featured Marx…

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How very politics student circa 1989. I guess that’s why they called it a student movement. The chapters are each written by different people, but it seems quite dense in style and heavy with academic aspirations as opposed to aiming for readability. That said my friend arrived before I was able to get any kind of measure of it.

There were another two as well, and they seemed a little more aimed at the general reader:

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Anyone had a read of them or would recommend?

I also read a chapter of Luo Yu-chia’s (羅毓嘉) new book You’re my stove light in dark days (天黑的日子你是爐火). It was a little bit too much navel gazing for my taste, discussing his romance with a Hong Kong man. As Luo is a gay rights advocate the Hong Kong man’s unwillingness to adopt a gay identity is challenging for him. The chapter I read showed him attempting to justify the lack of recognition with humour and by insisting that non verbal markers like wanting Luo to be well fed shows affection where words do not. The romance wasn’t very engaging for me, and I didn’t find the Hong Kong guy very likeable as Luo sees him.

Book Review: ‘Poet Robot’ by E.I. Wong

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Some time ago I stumbled across a blog on WordPress called “A Narcissist Writes Letters To Himself” that made me laugh. The style of the blog reminded me of a mix of the absurd humor of Flann O’Brien and the comic logical fallacies of Douglas Adams, and this was reflected in his self-published book, Poet Robot: An Introduction to E.I. Wong. I preferred the off-the-wall absurdity to some of the other stuff, but it was an enjoyable read overall and had me laughing out loud at parts.

The highlights of the book for me included ‘To Describe Blowjobs Artistically’, wherein the author takes up the challenge of one of the literary critics in SlaughterHouse 5 who states that the purpose of the modern novel is ‘to describe blow-jobs artistically’. I enjoyed the tone of this section of the book, essentially charting the thought process of a man receiving a blow job. Much as it may be packaged as pastiche, there was a real depth to his examination of the male psyche and how it hovers between the horrifyingly banal and the comfortably lewd when inhibitions are wavering:

As Oscar’s mind leaves for an indescribably present yet distant sense of time, the beast within this soulless man will occupy her with pulsating gyration of up, down and up, and she will sync up with him, her fishy lipstick going, up and down.

The other highlights were a bit punchier. Some of the shorter pieces hit the mark and made me laugh, while a few just didn’t land. I liked the internal monologue that ran through the book, from the copyright information, through the footnotes and in the letters to the governor about the author’s bid to be Poet Laureate of California. When it came to the other longer piece in the book, ‘The Second Person’ I found that it was the more outlandish lines that really made me laugh. I laughed at the repeated reference to police officers having an irrational hatred for foster children, for example, and the moose pee. I didn’t quite get the attempts at race humor, but that could be that I’m not American. Wasn’t sure about the “it’s funny because he’s a dwarf” angle of the story either, and the male presence in the book could have done with a little more female input than references to my girlfriend (read: the shrew) which came up now and again.

Looking forward to seeing what he gets up to in the future.

 

What I’m Reading Dec 2015-Jan 2016 我最近在看什麼書?

Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.

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I bought a book called 《斷代》 by  Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man (《荒人手記》):

我站在那裡,我彷彿看到,人類史上必定出現過許多色情國度罷。它們像奇花異卉,開過就沒了,後世只能從湮滅的荒文裡依稀得知它們存在過。因為它們無法擴大,衍生,在愈趨細緻,優柔,色授魂予的哀愁凝結裡,絕種了。

《荒人手記》,朱天文,時報文化,二版,臺北市,65頁

Translated by the talented Howard Goldblatt Continue reading

Book Review: ‘Sewn Together’ by Lai-chu Hon 韓麗珠的《縫身》書評

12315282_10102256948261369_1284331862_oThis novel is set in a dystopian society where people are encouraged to be sewn together, although it’s a little unclear why exactly this is. There are hints that it’s got to do with some sort of disease which threatens people’s health if they are not joined to others, but it’s never really definitively set down. The changes to infrastructure necessary as a result are said to have stimulated the economy, but this is not why they are being sown together.

Even after resolving to suspend my disbelief by accepting this premise, I still found the novel a little scattered and the protagonist a bit one note – a depressed insomniac who is bereft of any humor Continue reading

Review of ‘Revisiting the White Bridge’ by Roan Ching-yue 書評:阮慶岳的《重見白橋》

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*Contains spoilers*

Roan Ching-yue is an architecture professor in Taiwan and has written several stories featuring gay themes, including ‘The Pretty Boy from Hanoi‘ and ‘The Con Man‘ (click through for my translation), both featured in the short story collection City of Tears (《哭泣哭泣城》), this was his first long-form novel and it was published in 2002.

We meet the protagonist of this novel at a time of crisis. An only child, he meets a man resembling his dad who claims to be his brother by the same mother and father. Despite the questions that surround the man’s sudden appearance in his life, he accepts him as a brother pending further inquiry. It’s at this time that he finds out that his company is moving the majority of its employees to China, so he quits and fails to find another job, so has a larger amount of free time. Over this period he discovers that his “brother” is gay and then we are introduced to the brother’s perspective, with a chronicle of his childhood growing up in Australia and his wild sex life.

The glimpses we get of the brother’s life, show him to be a lot more carefree than the protagonist, however, one of the main stories he recounts involved an attempt to shame him:

[My translation] I was once at a motel in Los Angeles and, bored, so I decided to pleasure myself. I stuffed the cap of a bottle of shaving cream into my ass. As I was unable to get it out again, I had to go three days without moving my bowels. I gradually lost my appetite and my face turned a shade of reddish purple. The doctor at the emergency room knew, of course, what I’d done, but he insisted on forcing me to recount all the gory details of what I’d gotten up to that night in the motel room in front of a group of strangers comprised of interns and nurses. He made me lie squatting on the bed like a dog, while he and his female assistant tried in vain to take it out, threatening that if I didn’t cooperate as best I could, he would have to cut my anus open with a knife. I calmly asked him: How long would the wound take to heal if you cut it open? He said: Maybe a lifetime, maybe you’d never be able to use it again for anything but shitting.

I accepted him shaming me through the entire process and at the moment when he finally retrieved the plastic cap, I sprayed the shit I had accumulated over several days out of my elevated ass all over him and his assistant just as the cap slid out.

This was shame’s parasitic twin, revenge.  [pg. 138]

Continue reading

A Dictionary of Maqiao 《馬橋詞典》書評

A Dictionary of Maqiao is a really considered and philosophical book, whilst managing to retain an earthiness and wit throughout. 10867069_10101763657599809_38699079_nI liked the way the narrator poses the book as an effort to deconstruct traditional story-telling. He sees the traditional novel as directing its gaze selectively – focusing in on those things that relate to the central narrative, while ignoring the things that are on the periphery of this:

Things that can’t be put in the traditional novel are normally “insignificant.” However, when your focus is theocracy, science is insignificant; when it is humanity, nature is insignificant; when it is politics, then love is insignificant; when it is money, then aesthetics are insignificant. I suspect that everything in the world has the same level of significance, however, and that the reason that some things appear insignificant at times, is because they are filtered out by the author’s framework of meaning and are resisted by the reader’s framework of meaning, as they are not exciting enough. Clearly, these frameworks are not innate and unchanging, but rather the contrary, they are reformed by fads, habit and cultural tendencies – this mould is then set in the form of the novel. [My translation]

Continue reading

A Review of Li Ang’s ‘Everyone Chews on Sugarcane by the Side of the Road’ 李昂的《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》書評

lubianWarning: there is adult content in this post.

This is Li Ang’s much anticipated follow up to her 1997 book Everybody sticks it in the Beigang Incense Burner (《北港香爐人人插》), which I’ve yet to read. At first glance it is an irreverent look at the misogynistic self-aggrandizement that characterizes the generation of democracy campaigners who rose to fame after being imprisoned in the martial law era in Taiwan, some of whom later formed the Democratic Progressive Party and went into government under former president Chen Shui-bian. The book also deals with the symptomatic nature of the way the February 28 incident and the White Terror continue to manifest themselves in the political arena. Although this might seem a rather obscure or outdated theme, it can give us an insight into the background of the political mindset in today’s Taiwan, particularly in light of the recent Sunflower Movement and the problems in governance that it has highlighted. The attempt to smear the participants of the Sunflower Movement in March and April as violent rioters, for example, is reminiscent of the Kuomintang’s rhetoric against democracy protesters during the 1980s and 1990s that features in the book.

The book centres around the life of Chen Junying (陳俊英) from his youth as a dissident during the Martial Law era, to his slow drift into irrelevance as a retired politician living in the US in his later years. Li Ang goes to great pains in the introduction, stating several times that the character isn’t based on any one person in particular – her protestations are so frequent however that it’s almost as if she’s prompting us to take this denial with a pinch of salt.

Chen feels owed by Taiwanese society and Taiwanese women in particular and he has a mantra that recurs throughout the book which rationalizes his misogynistic behavior:

(My translation) He was forever the one being let down, it wasn’t just the Taiwanese people who owed him, didn’t Taiwanese women owe him too‽ So it was natural for him to sleep with a good number of women when he came out of jail.

The book can be read as a satire up to a point and parts of it are quite funny, recalling the satirical bite of Wang Chen-ho’s Rose, Rose, I Love You /玫瑰玫瑰我愛你》, like the protagonist’s assumption that he will ejaculate more than other men because of the years he spent in prison, and because he thinks so much of his own masculinity:

(My Translation) She discovered that Chen Junying was excessively liberal with toilet paper after making love. When he climaxed, he didn’t leave that much ejaculate in her (his sperm wasn’t particularly greater in volume than other men, nor did it smell fishier), and not much of it would drip out of her vagina after they’d finished, so one or two sheets of toilet paper would have been enough to absorb it all. He would grab a handful of tissue from the box, however, and pass her a pile, watching her as she meticulously wiped herself clean of any trace until all of the tissue was used up.

In the same vein, Chen takes a very chauvinistic attitude during sex, as, despite being reviled as a dissident by many women in his youth, he still finds time to grumble about the only girl who is willing to get together with him, and treats her with scorn, viewing her status as the product of a “mixed marriage” between a mainland soldier and an aborigine as below his – with a lot of his fellow dissidents using the phrase 「無魚蝦也好」 (bô hî, hê mā ho – If there’s no fish, you can make do with shrimp) to  tease him Continue reading

‘The Face Changer’ by Wu I-Wei in Unbraiding the short story

When I was still a student at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, an American professor came to visit one of my professors and, as one of the two resident foreigners in the department, I was enlisted to see what it was he wanted over dinner. The professor was Maurice A. Lee (see picture second left) and he was hoping to organize a conference in Taiwan, unfortunately our research institute didn’t have the funds to make it happen, but we had a nice chat.

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Some years later, Taiwanese author Wu I-Wei (吳億偉) asked me to translate a short story for him called ‘The Face Changer’ (〈換照者〉), which it turns out has been published in a new anthology edited by Maurice A. Lee called Unbraiding the Short Story, which includes short stories from all around the world. Looks like an interesting read, here’s a quick sample of Wu’s story:

The face changer had been born without a face. His mother said that he’d wanted it that way. Back when he was in his mother’s womb, she was unable to make him whole, and he had to face the world lacking. The only favor his mother granted him was helping him decide which part of his body to go without. Floating in his mother’s amniotic fluids like a corpse, he saw his arms, his two feet, and his body, he felt reluctant to part with the bits he’d already seen, but that only left his face, the only thing he couldn’t see, after his tacit response to his mother’s question, he cried out, and then came into the world.

 

He scared the doctors and nurses in the room when he was born, each of them guessing as to what the child would look like when he grew up. This would be the reason that he would later change his face so much, but it wasn’t because he wanted to shock everyone, with a face that could never be pinned down, but rather that he wanted all their guesses to come true, to satisfy all of their imaginings. Before his face-changing days, back when he was young, he faced a lot of challenges. His mother was worried that he’d scare people, so she drew a face for him. Lacking in imagination as she was, however, the eyes, nose and mouth she drew were those from your average picture book, his features all curved in shape, with eyes like rainbows, and a mouth like an upturned rainbow. If his mother had remembered, she would have drawn a little dot for his nose too.

 

What a splendid face she had drawn him, it always looked so happy that whenever his teacher saw him, she would pinch his cheeks, asking him why he smiled all day long. He couldn’t open his mouth to say anything, so he could only smile in response. As his expression was dictated beforehand, he became the nice guy in his class, and gave the impression of having a particularly good temper. If people hit or cursed at him, he’d still smile away. Sometimes a teacher would intervene, then seeing that the look on his face hadn’t changed a fraction, they would say how innocent he seemed, like an angel…

 

換照者一生下來就沒有臉。他母親說這是他自己要求的,早在娘胎的時候他母親便無力給他一個完整的身體,他得缺陷的面對這個世界,他母親唯一能幫忙的,就是讓他決定要缺少哪個部份,像個浮屍般漂在母親羊水中的他,看到自己的雙手,看到自己的雙腳,看到自己的身體,這些看得到的他都不想放手,只剩下臉了,他唯一看不到的東西,悄悄回答母親的問題後,哇的一聲,就見到這個世界了。

 

據說剛出生的時候他嚇到在場的醫生護士,大家紛紛猜測這小孩長大之後會長怎樣,這可以說是他日後之所以換照的遠因,但絕對不是因為他想要跌破大家眼鏡,擁有一張他們猜不到的臉,而是他要大家的猜測紛紛成真,滿足每一個人的想像。在這之前他年幼當然也受到了一些挑戰,他母親怕他嚇到大家,幫他畫上了一張臉,只能怪他母親想像力貧瘠,他的眼睛鼻子嘴巴就是那種在一般畫冊中看到的,臉上五官都由弧線所構成,眼睛像彩虹,而嘴巴則是反過來的彩虹,若是他母親記得的話,會在彩虹的中間補上一點,那是鼻子。多麼燦爛的臉啊,看起來永遠那麼快樂,學校老師看到他,總喜歡捏捏他的臉,摸摸他的眼睛,嘴巴,你怎麼一天到晚都在笑,他沒有辦法張口說話,只能微笑以對。由於他的表情使然,成為班上有名的好好先生,沒有脾氣,不管別人怎麼罵他打他,還是笑容滿溢,老師幾次幫他解圍,看到他表情沒有一絲一毫的改變,直呼他真是天真,如天使般……

Wu has won numerous awards including the United Daily Press Literary Award for Fiction, the China Times Literary Award for Fiction and Essays, the United Literature Monthly Literary Award for Fiction, and the Liberty Times Lin Rungsan Literary Award for Short Essays. He published his new collection of essays, Motorbike Days (《機車生活》), in 2014 and is now a PhD candidate at the Institute of Chinese Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and regularly reports the latest German literature news for Taiwanese magazines and newspapers.

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Still working on reviews, not given up on the blog, expect more content soon.

Book launch: The woman from Taichung meets the little French prince《臺中一姊遇到法國小王子》

IMG_0398smallWent to an enjoyable book launch today. The book is called 《臺中一姊遇到法國小王子》(The woman from Taichung meets the little French prince). I read the first few chapters when I was waiting to meet the author. The book seems like a charming, light read, on the development of the romance of the author and her French boyfriend (now husband). If you’re asking “why do I care?” right now, the answer is perhaps that Taiwan is still very conservative about what it calls “cross-cultural” relationships, and this book has an important task in offering an alternative representation of foreign male/Taiwanese female relationships to the one that Apple Daily most revels in, ie a nasty foreign guy who is unemployable in his own country, comes to Taiwan, and uses a combination of drink and foreign tricks to sleep with her, robbing Taiwanese men of their birthright (I think Li Ang’s book is having an effect on me). The couple are very charming, and the vocabulary is definitely very accessible for foreign learners looking to pick up their first Chinese-language novel. Of what I gleaned of the tone of the book, it’s not about foreigner worship, or doing down Taiwan, but is rather a comic but sincere look at how relationships like these function long term, which is what Professor Fongming Yang was asking for in this article.

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Thanks to my skills with the camera, most of the footage is a little fuzzy along with the pictures, but had an interesting chat with the author (above), and will write a review after I’ve read it, incorporating some of the footage I shot.