Thursday, May 5, 2016

CBR8 Review #2: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates with his son, Samori
If you've picked this book up, you probably already know about Ta-Nehisi Coates, or have read his work on The Atlantic before. It's hard to be sure because I live outside of the US, but based on my casual observation, Coates has become more prominent and publicized during this final Obama administration. Part of it may be due to his incredible long-form piece published two years ago, The Case for Reparations (if you haven't read this, go. Read it now. Come back to my review later.); but I believe that his voice may have echoed clearer and louder across the media landscape as instances of police brutality against black people have gained more news coverage. As a journalist, his work is sobering, eye-opening and unexpected (seriously, if you still have read through that reparations link, go do it now). As a commentator, his voice is at once enraging, evocative and, honestly, kind of despairing.

Between the World and Me is a relatively quick read, and was penned by Coates as a letter of sorts to his 15-year-old son, Samori, who cried in his bedroom after he learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free.

I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. 

This slim book was written with fervor and anger at the unspoken injustices that the black community suffers under the ignorance and subjugation of the White Men. It is written in such a voice, tone, style that you will want read every page hungrily, but would have to stop to catch your breath – and sometimes to choke back a sob over how utterly unfair things are.

Because – if we pay attention to our surroundings – everything he says is recognizable. And it is infuriating that the talking heads on TV have to debate on whether if America has a race issue, that the privileged (read: white people) can scoff and say, "#alllivesmatter," that people have to tiptoe around their environment simply because the color of their skin could determine if they get through the day.

And the saddest part is that he's writing this for his teenage son as a way to inform him of the world he will inherit when he grows from a teenaged-size kid to a grown-up with black skin. And while it's not all doom and gloom, it ends on the notion that Samori must continue to persevere, despite the fact that he, a black man, cannot change things.

I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle.

Monday, May 2, 2016

CBR8 Review #1: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

We are five months into 2016 and this is my first book review. I've read a couple books this year, but between me trying to figure out my life, breaking up with my boyfriend (yes, the one who loves Ellroy), and doing a fair amount of traveling, it's been difficult to force myself to sit still for a moment and collect my thoughts.

And getting through this tome was a bit of a problem for me. I had heard about it because A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker prize award last year, and many reviewers -- while raving about the book -- also took a moment to observe that Marlon James wasn't the "typical" winner. One could read between the lines and see that they meant that James, being black, Jamaican, and not from the Oxbridge crowd. I don't know if it's an achievement or if it detracts from him winning it. What I do know is that having people describe the book, a historical fiction of sorts exploring the backdrop to Bob Marley's Smile Jamaica Concert in 1976, as "exploding with violence and seething with arousal" made this something I wanted to check out, even though I have zero interest in Bob Marley.

(Quick confession: I don't like reggae. Maybe it's because I heard it too much while working in bars and restaurants, and it just all sounds repetitive to me. Yea, I know this is a controversial statement to make if you're speaking with someone not over the age of 25.)

But the book turned out to be so much more than that. Yes, the beginning covers the lead-up to the Smile Jamaica Concert, which was seen as a political event in favor of the ruling party. Warring gangs in Kingston tussle for turf and struggle to understand their role when the CIA approaches them to teach them to build bombs. There is a Rolling Stone reporter in town trying to get his big break, trying to convince everyone that he's not just a parachute journalist, that he's so with it; there's a former lover of the Singer whose inner running commentary can really be used as a treatise of how women are seen in Jamaica; there's young gangbangers who have never known their father, never really known affection, and is immediately pushed headlong into a world where guns and cruelty exemplify strength.

Then the concert happens, and I am only a third of the way through the book.

As a reader, I sometimes feel that books get to a natural ending, but I'm left wanting more. What happens next? He got the girl, then what. They solved the mystery, then what? Writers, in their haste to tie up all the loose ends of the central conflict, fail to realize that life must go on after the tidy conclusion, and I am really interested to see what happens next.

Well, James does not skimp on that. It continues past the concert, past Bob Marley's attempted assassination and his concert, and leaps into the lives of the characters surrounding it. I didn't always understand the politics behind what the characters were saying, and I didn't always follow the point, but I definitely understood all the characters, illustrated in their myriad of voices and motivations. This is where James' ambition and talent really stood out -- his ability to unfold the thoughts of different characters, even those who were lying to themselves or attempting to conceal a secret. Sometimes his faithfulness to the character challenged me, like the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of Jamaican English that can feel tiresome to read for long stretches.

A closer reader will be able to tell you what really happened. Me, I can only tell you that I enjoyed it, I admired his ability, and I'm glad to have made it through. Even if it did take me four months to finish it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

CBR7 #5: LA Confidential by James Ellroy

LA Confidential was a present from my boyfriend, a James Ellroy junkie, so the pressure for liking this book was already high. And since I'm a bit of a contrarian (A bit?! my boyfriend would say), I'm predisposed to dislike things that others so vehemently love. I'll find the holes to poke through, the flaws that are there -- whether intentionally placed or not -- and I'll do my best to skewer the book/movie/show that others love so much. Because I'm a bitch. There's a reason why I was first drawn to Pajiba, and it lies in its original tagline -- Scathing Reviews. Bitchy People. This motto properly encapsulates me in my heart of hearts.

Yet every now and then, there are universally beloved works that sneak past my walls of resistance, and this book is one of them. Generally, I have a rule about reading books, especially fiction. The rule is I finish them. So when I started reading LA Confidential, I knew I couldn't give up on it, despite my trouble with the zig-zagging slang and the curious, seemingly nonsensical wordplay. I hated the short sentences, and the elimination of punctuation, proper grammar and just... words. I hated that I didn't get it, and I absolutely hated the liberal use of sexual and racial invectives -- probably accurate to the period but for my 21st century (Asian, female) ears were difficult to swallow.

Then midway through Part One, my brain clicked and began comprehending the sentences. I didn't have to reread a paragraph five times to get it, and I started to understand Ellroy's style, his use of punctuated sentences favored with evocative vocabulary choices. He wrote the way we speak, if we were disillusioned policemen from the 50s. Layers of competing politics, allegiances and context could reside in a single paragraph, and if I wasn't paying attention, I'd miss it. In a 2009 interview, Ellroy objected to describing his sentences, sometimes comprising only four words, as minimalistic. "Minimalism implies small events, small people, a small story," he said. "Man, that's the antithesis of me."

For those who don't know LA Confidential, the plot is definitely not minimalistic. It follows the point of view of three cops in LA and spans the 50s: Bud White, a hardened short-tempered police officer who really loves beating on wife-beaters; Ed Exley, an ambitious war hero who lives in the shadow of his older, dead brother and has some serious Daddy issues; and Jack Vincennes, a Hollywood wannabe who loves getting papped as he's apprehending celebrities for innocuous drug usage. None of these three men really get along, but they are brought together by the Night Owl massacre, a shootout that left a lot of dead bodies and zero leads. This case, which initially appeared to be solved and closed, had to be reopened years later, and it might be connected to a smut distribution case. (It was amusing to me that pornography distributed in magazines was illegal in LA in the 50s – a laughable notion today considering its proximity to San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the world.)

Halfway through reading the book, my boyfriend asked me who my favorite character was. I found that a very tough question because all three are decidedly selfish, amoral, and exasperating in varying degrees. Forced to pick, I said I preferred Jack Vincennes, because he was honest about his attention-whoring personality. I could probably also get with Bud White because he was "one of the people," in the sense that he sympathized with the victim, but I couldn't shake the sense that his hero complex was totally condescending in some regards.

But I was adamant that Ed Exley was definitely the one I disliked the most. He was nakedly ambitious, yet dishonest about his desires. He might have been the most moralistic man in the precinct – doing "the right thing," so to speak – but I hated his intentions for doing them. What happens if his end goals don't intersect with what is morally right? What happens then?

In a primitive sense, the three men personified Freud's primary three concepts. I haven't studied psychology enough to know the ins and outs of it, just the rough edges. But Jack is the id -- he wants a measure of fame and comfort in his life, and he doesn't mind that the path to this is paved with regrets; Ed, the ego, in his relentless, calculating quest for the top job in LAPD while also utterly conscious of how society views him and his famous father; and Bud – who cannot let a grudge go – is the preachy, self-aware superego. What's right is right, what's wrong is wrong, and when Bud does something that he knows is wrong, he twists himself up in self-loathing; Bud is a coil wound so tightly that the spring threatens to snap at any moment.

By the end of the book, some of my pre-conceived notions for each character had been turned on itself – the anti-hero theme is strong in this, and there's nothing more I love than a complicated character that makes sense. Which is why I'm disappointed that Ellroy didn't afford that same consideration to the women in his book. He said in that 2009 interview that all his books were about "bad men in love with strong women" and I can understand that LA Confidential is set in a period that is very a white man's world. But the two main female characters were short-shrifted. Depicted as either a damsel in distress or a femme fatale – sure staples in the crime genre – Ellroy, self-described as the "greatest crime writer ever," could have fleshed them out without quite so much flesh. (Also, this might be more of a plotting issue, but I can't imagine why there aren't more than two or three women in LA for all three men to sleep with. I mean, come on, seriously?? Go sleep with different people, guys.)

Either way, this will not be my last Ellroy. He seems like an immensely interesting person (the 2009 interview is really worth reading in full), and I'm especially curious about how he'll write about his murdered mother in a fictionalised and memoir form.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


A friend in Thailand working as a reporter for a national newspaper texted me one recent morning:

Her: We're writing an article on six people who are working freelance for next week's issue. Can I interview you as a freelance journalist?
Me: Ah thanks for thinking of me but I don't like to be interviewed.
Me: I can point you to other people who are doing better work more frequently than me though.
Me: Mr. X is a freelance journo, has been doing it for years and even published a book earlier this year.
Her: The thing is, I don't want someone too successful.
Her: Do you know anyone who works as a freelance journo but isn't that successful? 

(This is where I switched subjects briefly to congratulate her on a recent story she did. Then I returned to the subject at hand)

Me: It's really hard to define success, to be honest?
Her: So, like the one you suggested has written a book. That is too successful in my opinion.

So. How's your life going?

Monday, September 7, 2015

CBR7 #3 and #4: Shift and Dust by Hugh Howey

I should say that I have let way too much time lapse since I read both these books. Coming off my high on Wool, the first of a three-part series by Hugh Howey, I was very eager to get into the other two and bought them both pretty much immediately. My memory on some of the details are spotty, but I'll try to keep this about my feelings regarding the two books. (Possible spoilers ahead for people who haven't read Wool. In which case, you should totally read it because I loved that book.)

Shift Omnibus

Shift is separated into three sections, and it begins in the not-so-distant future, where reality is still somewhat recognizable to our present. We meet Donald, a young newbie congressman who gets roped into designing a giant structure for Senator Thurman. The project is strictly off-the-books, and Donald only gets enlisted because the senator trusts him due to their history (he used to date Sen. Thurman's daughter, Anna) and trusts his background in architecture. Obviously, from reading Wool, we know that what Donald is actually designing is the silo, but he doesn't yet know exactly what it's for, and is clueless about how it would affect his future.

There is a sense of political expediency in this first part -- do what you're told and don't question too much about it or it will make your life difficult. The problem with this concept, which we can see in real life as well, is that we tend to carry out the ideas of those in power without fully seeing the consequences. Donald's involvement in the project, and his inability -- or, really, perhaps his obstinate refusal -- to see past just the drawing board where he designed the silo, is tantamount to the survival of human kind. Yet he does not ask Thurman exactly what it's for, does not question the high level of secrecy, and plays along with keeping others in the dark for Thurman.

When his world finally ends, morphing into the world that we saw in Wool, he is enlisted to "maintain order." Like the rest of the crew in Silo 1 who is woken up to work six-month shifts, Donald is given pills to suppress his old memories, to keep him dull and unquestioning. The other two sections chronicle each time he is woken up to take on a new shift, jolting him up into a grey reality that seems unchanging and surreal. We also get to revisit other characters that we knew in Wool, which I found a welcome call-back, a nice reminder that they are all part of this same world even though we are exploring a different element of it. .

Donald's struggle with his memories and understanding why the silos exist in this new world was somewhat reminiscent to my reading of the young adult dystopia novel, The Giver (another brilliant book that absolutely needs to be read.) He's reaching for enlightenment, for better clarity on why Thurman did what he did, for better direction on how to keep each silos "alive," but he does not understand his place in this whole new world. Nobody in Silo 1 really feels -- all are too numbed by the drugs and the unending mundanity of having to wait up every couple years for a six-month shift -- and Donald fights beneath the surface of trying to keep his feelings and memories at bay for his contribution to this world, and the betrayal of his mentor.

This book is extremely well-written. It really, really is. It's dark and depressing -- there are moments when Donald contemplates, and attempts to carry out, suicide, and you get the hopelessness that he feels. I've read some other reviews online that said Shift Omnibus is slow, but I personally disagree. I liked the slow burn of dread throughout, of a man who is rendered almost unrecognisable by the end of the book. I enjoyed the existential crisis of a human who should not be a part of this new reality, who knew and wanted none of it, and yet is instrumental in keeping it afloat.


We come back to Juliette, our awesome badass heroine from Wool and part of Shift. Turns out she spends most of her days fighting with Donald over in Silo 1, who is trying to convince her that he's on her side, while carrying out her duties as mayor of 18. She and Lukas have embarked on a relationship, and she's also trying to use a massive digger to tunnel her way to Silo 17 so that Solo and the children there can join their Silo.

Meanwhile, over at Silo 1, Donald and his pilot-fighter sister are trying to figure the end-game of this whole silos underground reality, and how to get out of it. The glimpse of green and blue -- colours that have never been seen in their current world -- is the tantalizing thread of hope that keeps them working to get to there. But they are in a race against time as Donald is slowly dying from being exposed to the outside air in Shift Omnibus.

So I mentioned in my above review how politicians, and people in general, tend to follow orders from up-high without questioning the reasons and its consequences, and how that can often lead to outcomes that one does not want but is immutably a part of? I saw the exact opposite here happen with Juliette's character, and to a degree where it just was not smart. Her hatred of Donald -- she does not recognize him to be any different from Bernard or the head of Silo 1 before because of the voice technology that renders everyone's vocals to sound the same -- blinds her to what he is trying to tell her. Lukas is a little bit more receptive to Donald and able to realise that there is truth in what he says. He asks Donald questions about the Books, which contain history about the Old World. But Juliette angrily dismisses everything he says as lies, making it difficult sometimes to side with someone so unwilling see any good in her opponent.

Dust is the conclusion to the trilogy, and it actually leaves some things up for debate. I admire Howey's restraint when it comes to not tying things up neatly. It allows past grievances to remain unresolved, past questions to remain unanswered. That's just how life is -- we don't get to have every answer to every problem, and frankly, I'm not sure if we necessarily want to be cluttered with so much information. In Juliette's world, she is looking forward, charging ahead, unfettered by the worries and restraints that weighed Donald down when he first started as a leader in his role as congressman.

I've kept my reviews vague on purpose. I genuinely want more people to read this and be surprised by it. Be surprised by who you root for, how we change our point of views on certain characters, and how much grey there is in the decisions made by the people who just want to typecast as "good" and "evil." Howey did a brilliant job with the Silo series, and I think I'm due for a reread soon.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 7, so part of this review appears on their website as well. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

CBR7 #2: A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

A Lover's Discourse came recommended by a very good friend with very good literary taste, so I did not question a thing about the book when I picked it up. I went into it blind. Finding out that it was actually a philosophical treatise on the language we use as lovers was the least jarring of discoveries. Depending on what type of person you are, and what type of relationships you've been in, A Lover's Discourse functions more as a mirror, and it can be a painful and uncomfortable read.

Written by Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, philosopher and linguist, the slim book is really a dictionary of words, scenes and emotions that a lover will go through when interacting with his loved object. Yes, it is peppered with philosophical terms like "loved object," and sometimes the sentence structure Barthes uses (or, more accurately, employed by translator Richard Howard) can be tedious. But unlike most philosophical texts -- which can be a jumble of jargon forming baffling theorems -- there are so many recognizable emotions and inner monologues uttered by the lover, that you might find yourself underlining and dog-earring pages while whispering "yes."

The lover's neurosis unfolding on these pages is not the same as the one in movies that recites Corinthians 13:4-8. In reality, the lover is not patient, and he is not necessarily kind. In fact, he's usually Waiting (one of Barthes' defined terms) by the phone, wracked with Jealousy, wondering if he could ever understand The Unknowable about his loved object, and contemplating Ideas of Suicide. If all this sounds over-dramatic, then you've either never loved -- whatever that word means, really, especially in the context of Barthes -- or you are an equal (and therefore, very, very lucky.)

Barthes charts the glorious beginning of a love affair, maps out the feelings that goes through a lover's mind when a prospective loved object makes contact -- even the slightest touch -- and how dissects every interaction is imbued with meaning. He even breaks down the words "I love you." Reading this actually broke me a little, because it made me wonder what is going through my mind, or my boyfriend's mind, when we say those words to each other.
The word (the word-as-sentence) has a meaning only at the moment I utter it; there is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armory of meaning. 
Or more to the point,
"I speak so that you may answer." 
The lover is also often caught in an endless cycle of suspicion and blame, wondering if the feelings of his loved object are true. In defining the word Monstrous, Barthes writes about the realization the lover has of himself, "that he is imprisoning the loved object in a net of tyrannies: he has been pitiable, now he becomes monstrous."
I who love am undesirable, consigned to the category of the bores: the ones who bear down too hard, who irritate, encroach, complicate, demand, intimate (or more simply: those who speak). I have monumentally deceived myself. 
As I thumbed through the chapters, seeing so many clear images of myself, I wondered why Barthes never provided any sort of panacea to the lover. After all, for someone who's so good at pinpointing the symptoms, can't he also give us a how-to guide?

It wasn't until close to the end that I finally understood that this wasn't a book about love; it's about unrequited love, about not being fully loved back, and even about not loving yourself enough to stop seeking your self-worth in your lover. It's a cautionary tale; more terrifyingly, it's a how-to guide to identify what you go through when you are not loved, not the way you yearn to be. In the chapter about Signs -- or rather, The Uncertainty of Signs -- Barthes writes about how the lover would seek constant approval but have no system of definitions of signs to discover if the other loves him.
I look for signs, but of what? What is the object of my reading? Is it: am I loved (am I loved no longer, am I still loved)? Is it my future that I am trying to read, deciphering in what is inscribed the announcement of what will happen to me... Isn't it rather, all things considered, that I remain suspended on this question, whose answer I tirelessly seek in the other's face: What am I worth?
This is not an easy book to read. Barthes is so good, so articulate, so in my head (in my head) that it pains me to recognize bits of myself in A Lover's Discourse. I looked up the book after I was done, and this Buzzfeed story came up; the title ("Why I Ended a Perfectly Fine Relationship") should tell you everything. Its always a strange thing when the very qualities that make a book phenomenal are the same ones that lead me to say, "You will not enjoy this."

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 7, so this review appears on their website as well. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CBR7 #1: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

My decision to read Crazy Rich Asians wasn't an accidental one. I had just returned from a family wedding in Singapore, and being around so many of my relatives -- some of whom I haven't seen in more than 15 years -- aroused such a bizarre sense of nostalgia. Part of it is comforting, like seeing the familiar faces and personalities of my aunts and uncles (all of whom are physical variations of my mother); part of that nostalgia came with relief. It reminded me of how exhausting it is to always have to consciously, or subconsciously, factor in what your relatives/extended family are going to think of you (or your parent) if you were to make a single misstep in your life (or if you're just merely impolite to an elder.)

This is what Crazy Rich Asians's whole premise hinges on -- about what you are expected to do and how you are expected to act when you are part of a "clan," a somewhat-archaic word that is still used liberally in Asian families; about how your actions reflect on your upbringing and on your parents; and about how your actions can be perceived by the rest of the family, whether if the assumptions they come to are true or fair.

The plot is pretty simple: Nicholas Young, a handsome professor of history who comes from Singapore's upper echelons of "old money," has invited his girlfriend, Rachel, an American-born-Chinese NYU economist, home to Singapore to join him for his best friend's wedding. Only that Nick does not tell Rachel how wealthy his family is, nor does he prepare her for the scrutiny she would receive as a woman from an "improper background." Whether he is naive or cruel, Rachel is thrust into the middle of a decades-old in-family feuding, in which everything -- especially marriage -- is calculated in dollars.

Personally, I think author Kevin Kwan intended for his book to serve two purposes. The first, if you are reading as the average American (or Westerner -- for the lack of a better term), it is to show that Asia is more than just China and Japan, and that Asians are more than just the Chinese and the Japanese. This may seem like an absurdly patronising way to put it, but the truth is that most of the Western world (again, a word used in a similarly bland, general way as the word "Asian") conceives the continent as a single entity with a single people of a single personality. Case in point, I attended a conference last year in Singapore where its participants -- many of whom were part of the American and European luxury retail industry -- held presentation after presentation about how Asian consumers can no longer be classified as simply "from China." "There are different types of Asian consumers; there are even different types of Southeast Asian consumers," said a straight-faced presenter at one point, completely unaware of the irony of saying these very words in Singapore.

So, it's good that Crazy Rich Asians is here to present a different view of Asians, one that Westerners often don't hear about -- at least not in the context of China having the largest number of millionaires in the last 10 years. Kwan certainly has a lot of fun doing so, laying it on thick by listing all the designer brand clothing that the characters wear, allowing his characters to sound ultra-educated (and haughty and materialistic) in British-inflected English, and taking pains to describe elaborate homes that double as tacky palaces.

But the second purpose of the novel is to showcase Asian culture, or at least Singaporean-Chinese culture. There were so many instances in the novel where I felt were an exact replica of what I've experienced, either as a child who grew up in Singapore, as a teenager who moved to the US and visited Singapore occasionally, and as an adult who has had to explain to non-Singaporean friends the strange family obligations I am bound to. One of the beginning chapters, when Nick told Rachel that he had not informed his mother of their relationship despite dating for almost two years, is an almost word-by-word copy of a conversation I had with my boyfriend a year earlier, when he was surprised that I had not told my mom that we were dating.

Kwan also perfectly captured the calculating relationships that large families in Singapore allow themselves to co-exist in, submerging themselves in toxic environments weekly just so that they can come out on top -- and by come out on top, I mean, inherit the family wealth. There are so many mistruths spread between the Youngs and Leongs (the families that have married each other for wealth). I don't know if all Singaporean families are like that, but this aspect of the novel smacked of so much truth that it was comical for me to think that some readers might assume it a caricature.

Finally, that concept of an "outsider" -- which young, naive Rachel was used to personify -- is repeated throughout the book, sometimes obnoxiously hammered home with tell-all, cathartic speeches. But Kwan isn't wrong about that protective cocooning of clan-like families against the rest of the world, even people that their relatives are married to. Nick's mother, Eleanor, formerly a Sung, has never been truly accepted into the Youngs; the marriage of Astrid, Nick's beautiful cousin, suffers because her husband feels looked down upon by the Leongs. Yet their children are always immune to that sort of treatment, because of the Asian obsession with blood (which is akin to Games of Thrones' obsession with lineage). Growing up, my cousins and I always spoke about the in-laws within our family as if they were other -- this sort of talk mimicked the way our parents spoke about so-and-so's spouse who of course married them for the money, not love

And it was always about the money, always. Maybe not uttered so nakedly and in such listicle-heavy terms (some of the soliloquies mounted by Kwan's characters could double as a BuzzFeed post on "The 20 Things a Rich Spoiled Singaporean Girl is Looking for in a Husband"), but the talk was there. It has lessened somewhat now that I'm an adult -- because adults watch what they say around other adults -- but as a child, nothing was censored.

I've so far massively praised this book for being true to the reality I know. I grew up in Singapore as part of a large well-to-do family, moved to the US when I was a teenager (and even lived in the Bay Area, where Rachel was raised), and have returned occasionally to visit what I consider my homeland -- so yes, it resonates. But truthfully, I don't know if this world would come through to any other reader who haven't been raised in my specific situation, because the writing really wasn't great. The main characters, Nick and Rachel, are just so broadly drawn that it's hard to imagine people -- coming from their education and socio-economic backgrounds -- to be so naive and completely unaware of how family politics work. How is it that Rachel, a seemingly intelligent woman with a curious mind, allowed two years to go by without knowing a thing about her boyfriend's family or how he grew up? How can Nick, knowing how status-obsessed his family is, be unconcerned about how his mother would receive Rachel?

Perhaps I should just take what I can get and be grateful. Frankly, I'm just glad that there is a book about modern Asia -- one that is about more than just China, that isn't about poor suffering peasants or communism, that isn't a story about racism, that isn't a history book. Maybe next time, there will be a better-written one.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 7, so this review appears on their website as well. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Diary of an Insomniac

Last night, I slept at 11:30 pm. This is unusual for a night owl like me. My typical bedtime is 2 am, at the earliest. But I was tired from not sleeping the night before. And from a weekend of drinking. And from my general terrible sleep schedule last week. So yea, I went to sleep at 11:30 pm.

I woke up in the middle of the night. After resisting checking the time for a good while and trying to coax myself back to bed, I gave up and just peeked at my cell. It was 3:30 am.

Anyone who knows a thing or two about my sleep habits know that I barely sleep 4 hours a night. Friends always say, "Maybe you should sleep earlier." Or they give well-meaning advice like, "Don't check your computer/cell before you go to sleep." But what they don't understand is that I do lie in bed for approximately eight to nine hours each night, yet only about 3 to 4 of that allotted time is spent sleeping. I shut my eyes and my mind just turns on. I make lists, I make plans, I think of story ideas that I forget once dawn comes, probably because I'm so tired, and my mind just does. Not. Stop.

3:30 am last night, I was lying awake, contemplating what I should wear the next day, what I need to get before my trip back to the US, how I'm gonna juggle work, boyfriend, and friends before I leave.

And you know what? When my friends tell me not to check my phone or turn on the computer, I swear I'm resisting the urge to do so. I am hoping against hope that my brain will switch off soon and I will just fall the fuck asleep. But it doesn't, and I don't, and by hour two, I'm bored shitless. So I check random shit on Buzzfeed or Instagram, and then after a while, I try a different sleeping position.

This usually does not work. Sometimes it does, but most of the time, no.

At 6:30 am, I gave up. I went to take a shower, stepped out to buy some eggs, and made myself an omelette. I've already spent most of the night planning the ingredients in my omelette, so I might as well do it even if I wasn't hungry.

You know what the best case scenario is? It's when I fall asleep without realizing it, and morning comes, light streams in, and I wake up, surprised that I've been aroused from slumber. I want to find the formula to that, please. Seriously. And I want it without taking any sleeping pills or any "natural remedy."

My friends make fun of my sleep schedule, sometimes marvelling at my ability to function on so little hours of shut-eye. I marvel at their ability to fall asleep from midnight to 8 am, without interruptions. What they don't know is that I'm chronically tired, everyday, every week, every month -- which is all fun and games, until I fuck up at work, or I allow my personal relationships to deteriorate because I'm too exhausted to think rationally. I fucking love to sleep, but as I grow older, it's feeling more and more like work.

It's 8:30 am now, and I have a full day ahead of me. I'm already exhausted.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

CBR6 #12: Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

I loved Scoop. LOVED IT. I'm also slightly miffed that I never read it until this year. How could it be that this awesomely biting satire on journalism was not in my life before?

Ew no. Not that Scoop.

Wanna kill some brain cells? Google "Daily Mail"
under images, and some of the most infuriating
front pagers will appear. 
As we know, British and American journalism is a bit shit nowadays. Save for a few publications, a lot of what's reported is noise and lacking in substance. Apparently, this mediocrity was evident to Evelyn Waugh -- who Wikipedia tells me he worked briefly at The Daily Mail, today the pinnacle of shit journalism -- and Scoop is essentially a farcical glimpse into the profession of being a foreign correspondent.

What starts out as a case of mistaken identity secures a foreign correspondent gig for the reluctant William Boot, a hapless columnist for the gardening section of the Beast. He is sent to the fictional African country of Ismaelia, where he is told to report the war between the good vs. the bad (though it's unclear to him which side is the "hero") and to find (or create, whatever) news that is favorable to England.

There's so many things I recognized here from my working experience, and then there were some things that were just absurd. Things that I'm sure any media worker would recognize is the publisher, who is portrayed as a know-it-all who in fact knows very little, but cannot be directly disputed. The editor-in-chief of The Beast is unable to say no to the incorrect things that the publisher utters, so he substitutes yes for "Definitely" and no for "To a point." There's also the hilarious scene of William Boot trying to prepare for his trip abroad and he just brings a shit ton of unnecessary baggage -- like a canoe!!! -- and charges it on the Beast's expense account.

Then there are moments that are more painfully recognizable, like how journalists abroad often work in a pack mentality in gathering news (see Boys on the Bus for how that works during political campaigns), or how everyone is willing to provide information to each other if it helps each their cause, but will burn as deemed necessary for a scoop. There is a disturbing free flow of information, but only up to a point. What I thought was also accurate was that journalists often choose not to pursue what's obviously a story or a hole if it doesn't fulfil their preconceived narrative (see Nicholas Kristof and his "shock" at disgraced sex-trafficking symbol, Somaly Mam... or really, most of what Kristof has done, really) -- that was painfully true and hilarious to see in Scoop.

Finally, the idea of a parachute journalist, a term used to describe reporters who are shipped into a country with no real knowledge of historical or political context, is literally portrayed by a journalist parachuting into Ismaelia. That's essentially what all the reporters in Ismaelia are, and Waugh's eye for harpooning the media's penchant for employing these types is very on-point.

Tin Tin is definitely a parachute journalist. And also, barely a journalist since he's never
written anything while "on assignment."

Read this if you work in media, read this if you've never worked in media and want to laugh at us media folks, and read this anyway no matter what your profession is because it's wickedly funny.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, so part of this review appears on their website. 

CBR6 #11: Welcome to Burma and Enjoy the Totalitarian Experience by Timothy Syrota

This book was a random acquisition and comes with a bit of backstory. I was reporting in Mandalay, central Burma, on a number of stories, and one of them required me to interview a comedy troupe that is known for staging vaudevillian shows that harpoons the country's authoritarian regime. Now that Burma is considered a democracy, this comedy troupe is still putting up nightly shows for tourists, making fun of the fact that the current government is really a puppet for the military. One of the comedians passed me Timothy Syrota's book, and told me that him and his family members were mentioned in it. He said that it was "banned in Burma." I brought it back to my hotel to read those chapters, but ended up just finishing it in one night.

Nowadays, Burma -- also known as Myanmar -- is lauded in the international press as a country that is embracing democratic change and openness. These developments came with the most recent administration of President Thein Sein, which the local press usually affixes the words "nominally civilian." However, before 2010, Burma was under one of the most restrictive military regime in the world for about five decades, and has a particularly bloody history when it comes to stamping down political challengers. (I highlighted some of that in my third CBR book.)

Published in 2001, Syrota's book is an account of his travels in Burma in the late 1990s (I think 1999) as a backpacker. Though Syrota claims to be a "writer" living in Bangkok, it's not clear in what capacity -- but it is certainly not as a journalist. I say this because there are many points throughout the book where he displays sheer naiveté and ignorance. For example, I find it extremely difficult to believe that he has never heard of Aung San Suu Kyi before he arrived in Burma, especially if he's done cursory research into traveling around the country.

That being said, there is some attraction in his "bumbly backpacker" act, mostly because so little is known about the places that he's traveled to. Even today in its new shiny clothes, large parts of Burma is cut off from tourists: besides Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan, much of Burma remains either closed to tourists or just extremely difficult to get to, and Syrota is able to arrive at some of the cities that are really still considered off-the-beaten-path. That, in my opinion, is where most of the interesting stuff happens, such as the government spies checking up on him, or him being forbidden to travel outside the town he is in.

Rice fields in central Burma
And despite the crappy writing -- he's not a good writer, sorry -- I was really taken by the sense of growing paranoia that Syrota had as he traveled further away from towns that were popular with tourists. He started noticing secret police watching him everywhere he went, and was extremely nervous about endangering civilians he spoke with as they were later questioned by the secret police. Syrota was so gripped with fear about what might happen if government officials found his notes that he started sewing pages of it into his clothes, an act I found both incredulous and also understandable.

Why incredulous? Because I tend to eschew the idea that most tourists have -- that they are being "targeted" for whatever (crime or deportation or whatever). I also dislike thinking that as a foreign reporter, because it is just another way of expressing our overbearing profession-driven egotism ("This story/book/film is the most important thing ever, and that's why the government is targeting me" syndrome. Yea, right.)

And why understandable, you may ask? Because before I picked up the book, I found myself in similar situations as well. Reporting in rural areas of central Burma (not Mandalay, which I believe is the second most populated city in Burma, but don't quote me on that) earlier that week had left me a little shell-shocked. It's not just the feeling that you're being watched, as a foreign reporter, or that every single local who sees you wants to take a photo of you -- a prospect that makes me really uneasy because I never know how these photos would be used to target me. (And lest you think I sound paranoid, this bait-and-switch has happened to a colleague of mine.) It's also because every single person whom you speak to will absolutely mention it. "Be careful of that lawyer; I think he is a spy." "The government knows everyone that comes to this town." "Those farmers who are collecting 'toll' money so that you can drive through their land also inform the government that you are here." "He's secret police. Over there is also another secret police." Paranoia is a state of mind that is normal for everyone in Burma -- not just backpackers in the 90s or foreign reporters -- and I think Syrota's book captures that very well.

Whether or not these suspicions are warranted by me, a foreigner, is unclear. But for the locals, it is absolutely something they subscribe to, because they have been living under a hyper-secretive military regime for five decades, a regime that is incredibly smart and have proven to be adaptive and manipulative in the past in order to maintain its stronghold on power.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to Burma newbies, because it barely skims the surface of political, social and historical issues. However, I believe it is a good supplement to a growing body of literature about Burma. Syrota doesn't really analyze the events he goes through or the things people tell him, but the matter-of-fact tone in which he presents many of Burma's idiosyncrasies is a window into what the government was/is like. Yes, I know that 1999 was a different time, and yes, it's now a different government. But, as I said, there is a reason why most local reporters use the term, "the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein." It's because no one is sure whether if the changes instated are really changes, or if they are chess moves for a larger purpose that is, for now, lost on us.

I'm reading and reviewing for Pajiba's Cannonball Read 6, and a part of this review appears on their website.