Saturday, April 12, 2014

Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts introduces us to Zen Buddhism and to some extend Taoism to the average John and Jane. The history and background of Zen and Taoism in part one helps us understand the cultural contexts behind these philosophies: how Taoism developed in China, how Buddhism spread to China and how Zen developed in China and spread to Japan.


Watts explains Zen, to the extend that it can be explained, so that we can understand it, to the extend we should try to understand it. Though Zen is a branch of Buddhism, it responds to the formal ritual of its progeny with spontaneous thoughts and actions. The emptiness and silence of Zen contrast with our hectic everyday life amid rush hour traffic. The preoccupation of the self as the one to think and feel and to act and improve, and the desire for enlightenment all hinder our spiritual walk.


I particularly like the section on Zen and the arts. Zen has influenced artwork and poetry in China and Japan. Through Zen, we realize the white spaces in the paintings and the silence within the koans are as important as the brush strokes and the words. And cha-no-yu, or the tea ceremony, is as much a spiritual experience as an aesthetic one.

Alan Watts

If you are curious about Zen, this is the book to start with. Zen 101 for beginners.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Leonard Seet Blog Tour for Novel Meditation on Space-Time

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Richard Henderson 
rh0188@gmail.com

Leonard Seet will be going on a blog tour for his novel Meditation on Space-Time from May 12th to May 18th. For more information about this tour and the novel, please go to the Goodreads link:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1755979-meditation-on-space-time-by-leonard-seet-may-12th---may-18th

Midwest Book Review recommends Leonard Seet’s novel Meditation on Space-Time as “a strong pick” with “plenty of humor about life.” According to the review, the novel “follows one man who tries to consider the world around him and considers the very personal side to the universe-spanning question, trying to understand natural laws in an unnatural world.”

The novel portrays a man’s struggle to discover his identity in contemporary society, to sacrifice for his friends and to take the road less traveled. For readers who would eat up the hero’s every morsel of laughter and tear as if each were bittersweet chocolate. While sifting through clues to the characters’ true identities and hidden agendas. The protagonist proclaims “More than once, the broken moon would cast through the window a silver light and remind me of independent events yielding to their own momentum and interacting under natural laws while my mind would impose happiness, grief, beauty, ruin justice and chaos.”

According to David Lentz, author of Bloomsday: the Bostoniad, “Leonard Seet has left no literary devices on the table to narrate his tale…I was enthralled by the pure beauty of the writing among all the plot points. The scintillating writing is elegant, pure, grownup, originally cast, heartfelt, intelligent… The writing is simply breathtaking… brilliant bit of poetic science… If you prefer intelligently crafted novels, then do yourself a favor and by all means read this unforgettable novel by Leonard Seet: the writing is to die for.”

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Herman Koch's The Dinner

Some readers complain that none of the characters in Herman Koch's The Dinner is likable, but a good story need not have likable ones as along as they are interesting. And the narrator Paul Lohman is certainly interesting, though unbalanced and even creepy. Through this unreliable narrator, Herman Koch reveals the dark secret behind the two respectable middleclass families: those of Paul and his brother Serge. And the high-class restaurant in which they dine sharpens the boys' atrocity and Paul's madness.

At first, we empathize with Paul about his brother being a bourgeois snob and a sleazy politician, but we eventually learned of his violence and insanity and the brother is revealed to be a better man, though less than likeable. It is this use of the unreliable narrator to uncover not only the boys' atrocities but also the narrator's madness that makes the story interesting. Yes, the boys' killing the homeless woman is horrendous, but Paul's and Claire's abetting their son to eliminate Serge's adopted son in order to hide the original crime, that is malicious and even evil.

Guinea Fowl (Photo: Ewan Munro. London, UK)

Though Paul Lohman is interesting, Koch's peeling off layers of facade to reveal the dark soul within this man is what pulls me to the book. First person narration certainly helps to confine our view to Paul's and forces us to try to sympathize with his thoughts and actions, but only up to a certain point. As our view begin to expand and we learn of the truth, our feelings turn from sympathy to disgust. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day where we keep learning bits of the butler's biases and idiosyncrasies after each page.

The Church of St. Nicholas, Amsterdam (Photo: Swimmerguy269)

The Dinner is an indictment of the bourgeois lifestyle, the preoccupation with appearances, and the resulting skeletons hidden in the proverbial closet. The humorous style lends greater impact to the enormity of the dark secrets and the sick minds. Sure, there aren't any likeable characters in the story, least of all the restaurant manager, but the story is enjoyable.
Herman Koch

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Frank Herbert's The White Plague, A Dystopian Novel

Molecular biologist John Roe O'Neill is on vacation in Ireland when a bomb explodes and kills his wife and two children. The trauma splits his personality and he splices genes into viruses and contaminates bacteria with them, creating a disease that targets women and speeds up their aging. When he releases the bacteria in Ireland, England and Libya, the plague begins to spread around the world and governments have to close their border and expel these countries' nationals. And Barrier Command under Canadian Admiral Francois Delacourt seeks to isolate the plague by patrolling borders and controlling travel among countries. As women begin to die off, the U.N. gathers a group of scientists from the U.S., France and U.S.S.R. to find a cure. In the meantime, O'Neill sneaks into Ireland as John O'Donnell only to be captured by the IRA-controlled government and tried for genocide. The politicians of the U.S., England and Ireland manipulate one another to come up with the cure while trying to gain an upper hand.

When the scientists, with the help of O'Neill's insights, find a cure, they are able to spread the knowledge without allowing any government to gain an upper hand. But with only one woman for every tens of thousands of men, women begin taking on more than one husband. And with greater knowledge about genetic engineering, scientists are able to assure female newborns. But that knowledge also allows potential terrorists to engineer a plethora of deadly diseases. Welcome to the brave new world as Frank Herbert imagined it.

Gene Splicing (Drawing by Agathman)

The White Plague is a thoughtful exploration of the abuse of genetic engineering and it consequences. We do not read it for its science but the details of gene splicing, science and pseudo-science, make the reading interesting and I prefer this to science fiction without the science. The plague and the resulting apocalypse reveal more the darkness of the human soul than the failings of science and Herbert's discourse on political machination among the U.N., the U.S., England and Ireland--combined with the IRA's bombing and O'Neill's vindictiveness--reaffirms this theme. And Kevin O'Donnell and Herity are the epitomes of that darkness.

South Kildare, Ireland

Herbert's constant shift from one character's point of view to another's distracts from the story. (At times, there are multiple shifts in POV within a page.) We have trouble sympathizing with any single character though we dwell mostly in O'Neill's mind and may be ambivalent about him, an innocent bystander turned into a mad scientist turned into a schizophrenic. Perhaps the shifting points of view reflect the disintegrating world of the white plague and we aren't meant to focus on any single character or sympathize with him or her.

Frank Herbert

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground: Confession of a Madman

The memorable words “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man” introduces us to the bitter and misanthropic narrator of Notes from the Underground. Through this underground man, Dostoyevsky warns against the influence of western enlightened thoughts on Russia. The unreliable narrator, a veteran of the Russian civil service, through his distorted ramblings, criticizes logic and reason and enlightened self-interest. This reflects Dostoyevsky's turning away from such ideas after his arrest and imprisonment in Siberia. For the underground man, freewill will triumph over determinism as dictated by logic and reason. And a person will act illogically just to show that she is human and she has a choice.


When an officer moves him out of the way, the underground man becomes a non-being, an object in the path, which is confirmed when he later confronts the officer and the latter doesn't recall what happened. In the eyes of his friends, he is also nobody. They changed the time of the farewell party for one of them but doesn't tell the underground man. And later when the underground man looks for them in a brothel, they have retired with the prostitutes and again he realizes he is a nonentity. Even when he tries to be a hero to the prostitute Liza, he ends up mistreating her and invalidating his own existence.

St. Petersburg (Photo: Graham from London, UK)

The underground man believes he is miserable because he is intelligent and well-read.  He can appreciate beauty, but his reason and knowledge show how unprofitable it is to cling onto such outdated ideals, ideals contrary to logic and maximum utility. He despises utilitarianism but after understanding it, can't get rid of it. Like after being infested by the plague, he will have suffer it until death.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, most of Europe was worshiping reason and science and so Dostoyevsky seemed like a madman calling out from the wilderness. But today we have seen how reason and science can fail us and we can appreciate Dostoyevsky's warning though it would be as foolish to abandon reason and science and return to pre-modern society. We have moved beyond either/or and in the post-modern world we must grapple with the dialogue between romanticism and utilitarianism, between truth and beauty, between faith and reason, between the individual and the community. Pluralism but not total relativism.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea


Santiago hasn't caught a fish in eighty-four days and must set out in deeper waters to end his draught and gain his fellow fishermen's respect and the boy Manolin's admiration. After days at sea, he comes upon a marlin and struggles with it for two days before killing it and tying it to the side of the skiff. But while he is returning home, sharks follow the scent of blood and though Santiago kills several of them, they eventually eat most of the marlin, leaving only the fish's skeleton.

The Old Man

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago struggles though he couldn't win but because to struggle is human. He fights not to overcome, but to assert his humanity and transcend destiny and fate through his determination amid destruction. In his own words: "… man can be destroyed but not defeated." Like Dr. Rieux and his friends in Camus's The Plague, struggling with the plague, while people continue to succumb to the disease. Perhaps Hemingway has seen enough death and destruction while reporting on the Spanish Civil War to understand that at times, a person can only fight without the hope of victory, and he or she must choose either to give up, or to fight and be destroyed. In his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, in accepting the assignment to blow up the bridge, knows he wouldn't survive the task and he didn't. Still, he, like Santiago, chooses to fight. Hemingway in praise of human resolve.

And the Sea

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable

In his trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett explores the frailty of existence.

In the first novel, the unreliable narrator recounts his decline but through the monologue, the reader learns not so much his past as declining state of mind. From his phrases and sentences, we realize how far he has departed from reality and how little we can trust his words. And even Molloy couldn't trust his recollection of events and his perception of world. In the second part of the first novel, the narrator Moran, a private detective searching for Molloy, follows a similar decline into delusion and his world becomes as unreal as Molloy's. As if they are the same person.

In Malone Dies, an old man confined to an asylum recounts his story and that of a boy named Sapo. But here, as in Molloy, the unreliable narrator conveys not so much the events as his delusion and decline. And we see Malone's death on the last page of the novel through the paragraphs and sentences distorting into fragments to reflect the narrator's last thoughts.

Samuel Beckett

“Lemuel is in charge, he raises his hatchet on which the blood will never dry, but not to hit anyone, he will not hit anyone, he will not hit anyone any more, he will not touch anyone any more, either with it or with it or with it or with or
or with it or with his hammer or with his stick or with his fist or in thought in dream I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
never anything
there
any more ” from Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies.

Beckett's Birthplace: Foxrock, Ireland (Photo by Sarah777)

In The Unnamable, the narrator asks " What am I to do, what shall I do, what should I do, in my situation, how proceed?" As if only a nameless person, perhaps a nonexistent person, can seek to act and to live. The narrator claims to have created Molloy, Malone and other characters in Samuel Beckett's novels, and like them, he also struggles to communicate reality and follows the same path toward non-existence.

Beckett's trilogy is a postmodern fiction, not a meta-fiction but a story where the plot collapses and character and, even more so, style dominates. Through the narrators' babbling and occasional insight, through the fragmented thoughts and distorted sentences, we learn about their psyche, isolated and delusional. And we realize Beckett is describing postmodern men and women.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tanith Lee's All the Birds of Hell

In the fifteenth year of “Industrial Winter,” Henrique Tchaikov arrives as curator in a countryside dacha. In one of the towers, a pair of lovers has taken sleeping pills and committed suicide nine years ago and tourists would come to see their frozen remains. After the military removes the bodies, another couple commits suicide in the same bed and Henrique finds their bodies in the bed the next morning. Then he finishes his tour as curator and returns to the city to resume his life in the endless freezer.


All the Bird's of Hell is a dreamy and chilling tale of people defying fate and nature and seeking their dreams even through death. The haunting atmosphere of an everlasting winter and Henrique's quiet resignation contrasts with the couple's determination to define their own ends.

Tanith Lee

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ayn Rand's Anthem

Anthem is a parable more than a novel and its purpose is to praise individualism. Equality 7-2521 is the new Prometheus, bring "fire" to humanity that is under the bondage of collectivism and anti-intellectualism. Though the plot is formulaic and at times the pages read like propaganda, the last two chapters are poetic and indeed an anthem to individualism, and perhaps to elitism. After reading ten chapters of "we," "us," and "they," it is refreshing to see the word "I." As Prometheus has discovered fire, so Equality 7-2521 "I" and he, like his predecessor, will bring it to mankind.

Anthem

When I was reading Anthem, I kept thinking of Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We. In both books, "we" and collectivism and the totalitarian state dominate the story and the alphanumeric names stand out. But whereas Yevgeny Zamyatin analyzed the evils of Scientific Taylorism, Rand praised individualism as mankind's salvation.

Ayn Rand

Given Rand's experiences with Leninism and Stalinism, we can understand her enmity toward collectivism and anti-intellectualism. For her, only an individual's thoughts, talents and all the qualities of excellence that rise above the mass's mediocrity can defeat the evils that seek to destroy civilization. And so, Equality 7-2521 surpasses his brothers and sisters and will lead them out of bondage.

Whether we agree with Rand's philosophy or not, Anthem gives us a taste of the ideas she would expand upon in later novels.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf details the intricate and ambivalent relationships among members of the Ramsay family and their friends. During the gathering, when the son James wants to go to the lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay asserts himself by declaring that the weather wouldn't allow the trip the next day. Yet, when he seeks Mrs. Ramsay to comfort him, he shows his insecurity. And Mrs. Ramsay wants to make everything right and everyone happy. Lily Briscoe struggles to paint Mrs. Ramsay's portrait while Charles Tansley, Mr. Ramsay's admirer, undermines her confidence with his chauvinist remarks about women incapable of writing and painting. During dinner, when the poet Augustus Carmichael wants a second helping of soup, Mr. Ramsay was rude to him. When Mrs. Ramsay leaves the guests and reflects on the events of the day, we can sense the sadness amid the laughter and hubbub of the party.

The section "Time Passes" gives us a sense of loss. Not only because W.W.I. comes and goes, taking along with in millions of lives. Not only because Mrs. Ramsay and the son Andrew and the daughter Pru passed away. But also because the passage of time has washed away the past: the laughter of the party, the joy of the engagement between Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, the promise to go to the lighthouse, and Lily Briscoe's struggle with self-confidence. Those moments relegated to the survivors' memories, waiting to drop into oblivion.

Hoy Lighthouse, Orkney Islands (by Richard Harvey)

In the section "The Lighthouse," Mr. Ramsay his son James and his daughter Cam go to the lighthouse, and Lily finishes her painting. Promises and goals fulfilled. Yet, Mr. Ramsay remains insecure and seeks comfort from Lily but fails to receive any. He also asserts himself but forcing his son and daughter to go to the lighthouse, though eventually they come to respect him. Again the ambivalence between these characters. And Virginia Woolf is a master at these subtle emotions. To read her work is to experience the passing of time, and loss and sadness mixing with life and joy.

Virginia Woolf

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS


Ernest Hemingway's FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is not only a war novel but also a story of life, love, lost and ultimately death. Robert Jordan lives to fight with the republican guerrillas and he dies fighting alongside them. He lived a life that meant more to him than living in American suburbia with his wife and two children and a dog, working a nine-to-five job. That wouldn't be Robert Jordan, or Ernest Hemingway.

Sierra Guadarrama

Hemingway's minimalist writing reflects the pristine snow trails and pine forests, which reflect loneliness and death but also love and hope. Like a full moon reflected in a still lake. A poetry of war and camaraderie, where the violence of the writing would only temper the tragedy of lost. To experience these feelings is to experience the beauty of Hemingway's writing. For a war novel, there aren't many battle scenes. But we get to feel Robert Jordan's subdued emotions against the violence of war. The power of his love for Maria is that it couldn't be consummated. In the end, he chooses the only path consistent with his other choices: to fight to the end and risk capture and torture rather than have his comrades shoot him.

Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude


Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude portrays seven generations of the Buendía family and mimics the history of Columbia. A family saga as tortuous as Colombia's political journey. The magical realism of Márquez animates the brutal and shocking events and cements in the reader's mind a family determined to leave its footprint in history. The determination of José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán, the passion of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, the ruthlessness of Arcadio contribute to the tragedy and comedy of the Buendía family, which reflects not only Colombia, but also of humanity. To read One Hundred Years of Solitude is to experience humanity's grandeur and disgrace.

Gabriel García Márquez

What a fun novel to read. To enjoy the magic of Gabriel García Márquez's writing and to savor the peaks and valleys of humankind. Who needs realism when we have writers like Márquez?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas


Omelas's citizens have all the blessings we could imagine and they are cultured and wise but the price of having these good fortunes is one child's misery. A "scapegoat" to take on the "sins" of the city. Similar to the Biblical idea of the Savior taking on the sins of the world.

Though at first appalled at the barbarity of such a bargain, we may begin to realize that in our civilization, though not in such an extreme way, the majority benefits from those who sacrifice to make their lives better.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo by Eileen Gunn)

Policemen and policewomen put their lives on the line so we may live in a safer society and though we pay taxes for their services and they choose their profession, we are nevertheless benefiting from their "sacrifices."

Adults and children from Bangladesh may choose to work in garment factories but they didn't choose the poverty they were born into. And we as a society benefit from the relatively cheap clothing.

We may avoid buying clothes from Bangladesh but if we are to live in a society we cannot avoid benefiting from others' services. Ursula K. Le Guin's tale reminds us that our blessings come at a cost but also cautions us not to move toward Omelas, that "utopian dystopia." As in Omelas, some will choose to walk away from our society. But if they try to form another utopia, they will face similar dilemmas. That is not to say that we shouldn't look for solutions, but that those who walk away will bring the problem to their paradise.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ten With a Flag by Joseph Paul Haines

What if we can find out everything about a fetus: its potential health problems, including longevity; its skills and potential careers; its characters and temperaments? In Joseph Paul Haines’s “Ten with a Flag,” the government health organization has rated a fetus a ten--indicating potential greatness: an Mozart or an Einstein--but a flag hints at potential complications. And the parents have the option of aborting the fetus. To complicate the situation, their social status will depend on whether they have the baby: having it will raise them to status level eight--ten the top level.

We’re learning more and more about embryos through DNA mapping and technologies will advance to give us more information about a fetus’s health and perhaps its innate skills. Should parents get and view the information? What should they do if they find out their baby has a high risk of heart attack or Alzheimer’s disease? A situation similar to whether we should look into the future if we can. Will the information help us plot a course to minimize the risks? Or will it stifle us with fear and worry? And what are the moral implications? These are not easy questions though in general we should go through life with our eyes open. But we are humans and we fear and worry and indeed sometimes knowledge chokes us. May we have the wisdom and maturity for greater knowledge.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

In Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, though the stoning reminds us of the Old Testament punishment, its original intent has long been forgotten. We view with horror at the barbarity and insanity of the custom, just as we consider the Romans barbaric for entertaining themselves with gladiators. But perhaps a visitor to the U.S. without previous exposure may find American football, shoulders banging into heads and players piling on top of each other, also “barbaric and insane.”

Shirley Jackson

We do not question our customs and habits just as the villagers in the story do not theirs. What we view as “normal living” may be considered insanity to foreigners, and vice versa.

We sit in the traffics for hours, stare at the TV or computer or tablet until bedtime, and text 24/7 to feel connected with some body. Just because everyone else is doing it? Just because our parents or grandparents have been doing it for years? Just because TV ads tell us it’s the good life? Or because it’s the path of least resistance?

Through Jackson’s story, the reader reflects on his or her customs and habits, most of which are detrimental only when gone through without understanding their purposes. We may realize how silly some of our routines are. And also others’ habits and customs may no longer be as “strange.”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Blue Religion: New Stories about Cops, Criminals, and the Chase Edited by Michael Connelly

The collection of police crime fiction includes Law & Order type police procedural such as Persia Walker’s “Such a Lucky, Pretty Girl” to capers such as Bev Vincent’s “Rule Number One.” But all the stories are about cops and criminals and the onus and responsibility of the badge. And there is even a provocative story by Diana Hansen-Young, “Oaths, Ohana, and Everything,” about the handing-over of Hawaii to the United States. A great collection for crime fiction fans.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Philip K. Dick's The Minority Report

What if we can detect crimes before they happen? What if we can arrest criminals before they commit crimes?

Anderton is the commissioner and founder of Precrime, the police force that arrests criminals before they have a chance to commit crime. Computers manipulate “gibberish” from three “precogs,” each one seeing into a possible future, and Anderton determines whether a crime will be committed. When two or more “precogs” agree on an outcome, the resulting agreement is a majority report and the police can act on it. The system has been working fine until one day a majority report indicates Anderton will murder a retired general.

When he reviews the reports and tried to understand how the minority report differs from the majority. He realizes the fact that he, unlike other criminals, could see the report has altered the results. The first report gives the situation where he doesn’t know he will kill the general and in this scenario he would kill the general to prevent the military from taking over. But the second report, the minority report, considers his seeing the first report and therefore changing the outcome and in this scenario he wouldn’t kill the general. Then the third report, which consider his seeing the minority report, indicates he would kill the general. The very fact that he could see into the “future” changes it.

Philip K. Dick

In this story, Philip K. Dick questions the validity of “seeing into the future.” If we could “see into the future,” we have the opportunity to change that future and therefore create a different future. Hence, the paradox.

I enjoy reading Philip K. Dick because his stories spurs to think about issues in our existence. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it is the nature of being alive and being human. In Ubik, it the nature of reality. And here, it is the paradox of knowing the future.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Stephen King's Novel 11/22/63

When Jake Eppings, a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine visits Al, the owner of a local diner, the latter reveals a time tunnel in the diner’s kitchen, which could take him back to September 9, 1958, specifically at 11:58 a.m.  Al has traveled through the tunnel several times to buy cheap beef for his diner but in his latest trip, he tried to prevent John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When his health begins to deteriorate, he returns to tell Jake everything and asks the teacher to take on the mission. Jake at first hesitates but eventually agrees to save Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald, and using Al’s notes, he carries out the plan to stop the assassin. What Jake didn’t realize is changing such a momentous event redirects the course of history, the Butterfly Effect.

John F Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963

Time travel isn’t new in literature and through nitpicking we can always find technical flaws. In this case, given the asymmetry of the time tunnel, it is interesting to ask: if someone at Lisbon Falls on September 9, 1958 steps into the “rabbit hole” what date and time would she emerge into?

Lee Harvey Oswald in Custody

But nitpicking aside, Stephen King, through his research, succeeds in painting a picture of the cultural and social environment during the late 50s and early 60s, particularly in Maine and around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. King has delayed writing the novel for years because he needs time to research that era and he has succeed in the effort and written a novel that immerses the reader in the local climate of that period. And the characters come alive because of the local flavors.

The Butterfly Effect

After reading the novel, the reader would reflect on the causality of historical events, i.e. the Butterfly Effect on a global scale. What if Hitler didn’t rise to power? What if Gandhi remained a lawyer in South Africa? Would the world be better or worse in either case? We don’t know. We observe a triumph or a tragedy in history and we evaluate it according to our values and biases but a triumph may lead to a catastrophe and a tragedy a breakthrough. I wonder whether one day our supercomputers can predict the course of human history through Genetic Algorithms, Dynamic Programming, and other stochastic estimation methods. But at any moment in history, without knowing the “global optimum,” we like Jake Eppings would still strive for the “best” according to our values. We are human. We are only human.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Germinal: Emile Zola's Realist Literature

The wobbly cages descending into the pit, miners half-naked toiling in the scorching darkness of the mine’s galleries, the veins bursting and flooding the passages, the meager wages the miners receive at the end of the day, the wives desperately scouring for gruel each meal, the parents giving their daughters to the grocer to get flour and sugar; all recounted in a calmly detached voice.
-
Etienne, a vagrant worker, joined the fraternity and dissatisfied with the inhuman daily drudges and ambitious to rise above these defeated and resigned miners organized them into a union and led the strike. But the strike revealed as much the indifference of the owners and managers as the ignorance and violence of the miners. After many lives perished, many families shattered, many mines destroyed, the strike failed, the miners returned to work and Etienne left. In Germinal, Zola harmonized the detached narrative voice with the miner’s sub-human existence and their potential for gratuitous evil to evoke a chilling sonata that would haunt the reader long after the novel’s conclusion.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time: Memory Dispersed in Space and Time

Proust's Masterpiece on Memory and Time and Space


More than a commentary on Swann’s jealousy or M. Charlus’s homosexuality or the frivolity of the Guermantes’ sorties, Marcel Proust’s monumental work In Search of Lost Time paints the unsuccessful reconstruction of a forgone world and a lost existence from fickle memories, which like morning mists would fade with the rising sun. The narrator Marcel, longing for a past that didn’t exist but must be created, sought to experience Bergson’s continuous time rather than the fragmented and still-framed instantaneous moments by attempting to blur the boundaries between Cambray and Paris, childhood and adolescence, and Swann and himself and integrate here and there, before and after, and him and me through memory fragments of previous objects, people and sensations. As in a neural network or a mind-map, the madeleine linked his aunt to his mother, who in turn was linked to Albertine through jealousy, which also connected Marcel with Saint Loop and Swann, who, as with his (Marcel’s) grandmother, linked his childhood and adolescence. And through recollection, Marcel would try to relive the buried years and resurrect his grandmother and Albertine.


      But even during the narrative, Marcel realized memory’s willfulness and the variation in hues, shapes, pitch and timbre between the actual object and its mental reconstruction. When he encountered an old friend, the facial features were so different from his recollection and reconstruction, for better or for worse pregnant with all the emotions, preoccupation, biases, that he could not match face with voice.
Because recollected sensation can never equate with the actual experience and time, like a patient thief, steals memories a morsel at a time until one day the owner would realize he was ruined, Marcel ultimately would fail to recapture and assemble stolen sensations and decayed seconds and in the end, must create new moments, new sensations and ultimately a new biography, through the synergy between past experiences and creative imagination. From those deceased hours and decayed memories sprouted In Search of Lost Time, not only Proust’s novel but also that of the narrator.

      Whether we savor Marcel’s frailness, Swann’s infatuation, Charlus’s pompousness, Franscoise’s independent-mindedness, the sorties’ frivolousness or the social revelation of the Dreyfuss Affair, we can enjoy Proust’s classic without resorting to Marxist or Freudian or Feminist critique. And the sentences, like the serpentine Amazon, seemed to flow unceasingly into the distant horizon carrying with it the sparkling sunlight. Although ascending the novel’s three thousand pages appears precipitous, the effort will be well worth the while and, at the end of the adventure, the reader can rest on the crisp apex and savor time’s transience and memory’s playfulness as if they were mountain breezes.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake


Book Review of Oryx and Crake


“Oh, Snowman, what happened to Richard Nixon?”

“Shit! I mean, egad. He has offended Almighty Crake and His wrath was upon him. The spraygun is holy unto Crake and only Snowman could touch it. As Dick touched it, the Great Crake smote him unto death.”

“Oh, Snowman, tell us what we must do to please Almighty Crake.”

“Well, Abe, first off, get Snowman four fish daily, make that six. You must understand the more fish, the more it would please Crake. And hear this all Crakers. Never touch the spraygun or thou shall be struck dead like Dick.”

“But oh, Snowman, why this object and not others?”

“Thus spake Crake, Thou shall not touch the spraygun.”

“Oh, Snowman, how did this world came to be?”

“What? Well, Marie, in the beginning, there was Crake and He…”

Damn Crake, it all your fault. You created this mess and now I have to clean up your cesspool. I should’ve killed you earlier. I just want to eat my ChickieNob and drink my Happicuppa coffee. But no, you have to create a new heaven and a new earth.

“And where did Crake come from?”

“Shit!”

Snowman knows he will soon follow the footsteps of the dinosaurs and the Crakers will inherit the earth. He must leave them before he dies. And they would say he has rode a chariot of fire into the heavens where Crake dwells. They would venerate him as The Prophet and tell stories of how he slew the dragons, well, maybe just the wolvogs and pigoons.

Oryx and Crake is Margaret Atwood’s apocalypse, a bioengineering nightmare of wolvogs and pigoons and rakunks and of viruses embedded in aphrodisiac pills. Crake engineered a new species, the Crakers, and eliminated humans with an eboli-type virus. After killing Crake to avenge the death of his beloved Oryx, Snowman became the guardian of the new species and must protect them against the genetically engineered beasts as well as from knowledge and wisdom. When he discovers three human survivors, he must decide whether to befriend them or eliminate them.

Emily Antles in the nonfiction Frankenstein’s Cat depicted the current advances in genetic engineering. Today, bioengineers have created balding mice, glow-in-the-dark cats and cows that give therapeutic milk and they could just as easily make wolvogs, pigoons and rakunks.

The novel’s premise supplies food for thought, and though the writing isn’t as compelling as that in The Handmaid’s Tale, it is a worthwhile read.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

What does it mean to be alive? In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the androids can be as intelligent as humans and the Nexus-6 models embody the next improvements. And they are certainly smarter than the “chickenheads,” humans whose brains radiation has damaged. But in this world, androids couldn’t empathize as humans could. In Star Trek, the Next Generation, the android Data sought to be human through the “emotions chip,” but here Philip K. Dick stresses empathy over other emotions such as fear and anger. A more interesting question, as suggested by the title: can androids dream? And can they reflect on the self and reflect on the reflection? Through this novel, Dick raises a question that, as technology advances, becomes more relevant. What define humans?


A related question is the ethics of bounty-hunting androids. To the extend that androids are human, bounty-hunting becomes less legitimate. The police catch criminals and the courts try them before deciding on the punishment. To what extend do androids have rights to a fair trial? A broader question is what right they have? In the novel, they are only slaves and certainly do not have the right to liberty. And since organizations like the Rosen Association create these androids, is it ethical for these manufacturers to consider them properties?


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, like Philip K. Dick’s other novels is provocative and mind-bending and the reader would, after reading it, ponder on existence and reality. This is a great sci-fi read.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin


Iris Chase in her old age wants to let her alienated granddaughter know that the latter’s grandmother was actually Iris’s sister Laura. She tells the story of her unhappy marriage to Richard Griffen and his affair with Laura, who submitted to the man only to save Alex Thomas, a communist running from the authorities.

Iris publishes the novel The Blind Assassin, the affair between her and Alex, in Laura’s name, perhaps to compensate for Laura killing herself after learning of the affair. When we learn of Laura’s death in the beginning of the novel, we know it wasn’t an accident and suspect suicide. Midway through the novel, we may have suspected she killed herself because Richard had raped her, but the real reason was more powerful. Laura realized Iris and Alex had betrayed her.

The Blind Assassin is about the plight of women in an age when they were considered men’s possessions and their only goal was to satisfy them. There are plenty of novels and movies that tell of the suffering and dehumanization, but such a theme is worth telling and retelling.

When I read of how Iris married Richard Griffen hoping the businessman would save her father’s business and how she continued to submit to him even after she found out he had cheated her father and caused him to commit suicide, I wished she had the courage and strength to free herself from his grasp. I wished she Laura rebelling against the forces that repressed her. But she is Iris and not Laura. And she rebelled in the only way she knew, by having a secret affair with Alex Thomas and living a double life.

The Blind Assassin is a tragic tale and the greatest tragedy is Laura committing suicide after learning of the affair between Iris and Alex.

The tale-within-a-tale that Iris wrote and attributed to Laura misleads the readers to believe that Laura had the affair with Alex. What strikes me is the quality of writing between the main narrative and Iris’s novel, the former demonstrating Atwood’s skills and the latter Iris’s lack of. Perhaps Margaret Atwood wants to show Iris’s hollow life through the writing. The lovers in Iris’s novel come across as aloof and flat and they seemed out of the reader’s reach.

Though both Iris and Laura suffered and sacrificed, I like the latter more perhaps because she fought harder against overwhelming odds.