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.