Joker

Has enough time passed to post a Joker review? Or, is it too late?

In any case, I shall share some spoilers. Note that this review shall be divided into three parts below: on the subject of problematic issues, the actual content, and of the more comic book-ish implications.

On the *problematic* issues:

Firstly, there hasn’t been a real-life shooting inspired by this film. Looks like that criticism so much in the media brought up was extremely overblown. And to fair, there have always been violent movies about criminals with various degrees of controversy. Is 2019 really such a different time that society can’t handle a movie with such overtones?

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a film or any work of art, for any reason at all. But to say that bad movies should be banned, because it may inspire violence, still feels like a stretch to me. If you just find the movie immoral and whatnot, then don’t pay for it or give it a low rating and move on.

It is interesting that Joker specifically says “I’m not political” in the infamous De Niro talk show scene. It’s a bit of a cop out, but I do appreciate that the themes are all over the place enough to be interpretable. One could just as much say that there’s a leftist moral lesson is about austerity–that Gotham shouldn’t have cut civil services and then all the tragedies could have been avoided.

(And as for the whole incel thing, while the character did fantasize about a girlfriend and couldn’t get any action, ultimately there never seemed to be a strong hating women theme.)

Last point with the controversies here. Director Todd Phillips has shown himself to be a douche with some of his “anti-woke” statements as a comedy director, which is very disappointing. If only he would let the work speak for itself, instead of lazily complaining about he resents that audiences don’t finding him funny anymore.

As for the actual content:

I happen to think the Joker is a vastly overused character. He’s supposed to be mysterious, not such a mainstream nemesis. There are of course many classic Joker storylines, but just because Batman is the most popular DC hero and he’s the main villain doesn’t mean they keep having to go back to Joker trying to top himself again and again and again. It’s an overplayed gimmick, at least in the comics.

I do appreciate Warner Bros-DC doing something different with the superhero film genre. A rated R villain film is certainly a different style than that Marvel Cinematic Universe formula.

Still, a definitive origin for the Joker is paretly of missing the point. The Dark Knight and The Last Laugh were simply smarter in exploring ambiguity. The Joker of the film is an unreliable narrator at times, but perhaps not unreliable enough.

Another valid criticism is how derivative of Scorsese this is. Both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy? There is such a thing as too much homage. And Arthur Fleck living with his mother, that is pretty cliched.

However, I watched the movie and I’m still thinking about it weeks later. That is saying something. The arc of Fleck’s descent into madness powerfully told, I have to admit. From the beginning it can’t be denied Joaquin Phoenix is an absolutely brilliant actor, carrying every scene and pushing himself to the limit. As he descends into violence, first by killing in self defense and then immediately after by killing someone running away, the audience is sucked into his disturbing world until the body count rises enough to take down the whole city.

Damn, what an ending. Incredibly pessimistic as Gotham is on fire, his minions in clown masks burning it all down in anti-1%er riots. It may or may not be happening in the titular character’s mind to some degree, but either way, geez what an effect as he dances to the tune! Finally, the world pays attention to one Arthur Fleck.

One leaves the theater affected for sure, and in some sense that means it is a successful work.

Overall, after giving it maybe too much thought, I conclude it’s a good movie. The Joker is well-crafted and leaves a deep impression. Very much worth watching as long, assuming you’re already into gruesome crime dramas.

Comic book implications: 

Lastly, here’s my take as a fanboy. It was an entertaining twist to speculate on Joker maybe-or-maybe-not being Bruce Wayne’s illegitimate brother. (Glad it’s left open; those ambiguous factors are always the strongest.) Thomas Wayne as an out of touch rich asshole, who is partly responsible for the iconic orphaning of his son, now that sure is an original version.

Continuity-wise the age difference is too wide to have this be the same villain who will one day fight Batman. Bruce was only a child right, so it would have to be twenty years later at least. It is fun to see some of the Batman origin, however overdone, even if it doesn’t quite fit.

Plus, the Joker should be a genius. I don’t see this guy inventing chemical compounds or even planning any intricate crime sprees. His only ‘power’ really is that he acquired a gun, and that some his murders are big deals. Also, he’s not funny. There are several dark humor scenes to be sure, but Arthur Fleck’s tragedy is that he’s not even good at being a comedian which just isn’t really the Joker in my view.

Hence… the only way this could work in any DC universe is if Fleck isn’t so much *the* Joker as much as he is *the first* Joker. The comics do say there were three. Like there have been a series of Jokers, and Arthur Fleck inspired them. Maybe that’s the point?

Even if so, let’s still repeat that it’s just a movie and please don’t be inspired to be super-villain in the real world. So long as that’s clear, enjoy 🙂

Book Review: The Mueller Report

The Mueller Report by Robert S. Mueller makes for a somewhat different kind of book review.

Well, I did it. I slugged through the entire report. It’s all free online, don’t even have to steal it.

As eBooks go, this is not the most entertaining page-turner. There are a lot of footnotes, for example, which tend to interrupt the flow.

Moreover, as a narrative this is one of the all-time most anticlimactic stories ever told.

Rather than a book to be judged on its own merits, it’s really more about the news cycle context than anything else.

All this makes it rather difficult to review.

But let us try. Firstly, the context of Volume I: This section heavily details Russian interference in that infamous 2016 election via social media spamming as well the DNC hack. Is this still a controversial fact in some circles? If you are interested in learning about the IRA—the Internet Research Agency—this report is as good a source as any. If you dismiss it as a left-wing conspiracy theory fake news or something, then apparently nothing will truly convince especially some legalistic government report.

The schizophrenia of the U.S. government at this time is quite fascinating, how the highest level of the executive branch can have such a different spin than the entire intelligence apparatus (although recent tweets may have finally admitted that he had help, if tweets are something we are going to get into then).

Which perhaps is the whole point. In these post-truth times, can anyone be convinced of anything anymore?

Then we have endless detail on collusion. Yes, outright collusion. There’s a colorful cast of characters, such as foreign policy “expert” George Papadopoulos and the ever-present diplomat Sergey Kislyak. There’s Richard Gates, Roger Stone, and of course Don Jr. and the big tower meeting. What a stream of reports and reports and reports about how much they welcomed Russian help and even tried and failed to further collude but couldn’t get as far as they’d have liked due to incompetence.

It does not make for a very satisfying read. To learn all this, and then find out that the legal definition for conspiracy is so narrow that they ultimately find it inconclusive and ultimately don’t charge the big guy. Cue the insipid right-wing exoneration talking points.

One particularly close example of what may be illegal, as far as specifically trading campaign work for favors, is the question of the Republican party changing their stance on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine at the RNC convention. This highlights the entire problem with the report right there–we have a question that is unanswered. Did or didn’t officials in the campaign trade influence? This subject even part of the written answers with the president, which were dismissed and sadly not followed up on. More on that failure of a Q & A below.

These near-misses continue; again and again it’s a running theme. Was it illegal for Don Jr. to have a meeting with Russians, whether or not it was really about adoptions? The answer is yes, due to campaign finance law, that’s clearly against the law. But then… they say let’s go ahead and not charge him because he probably didn’t know it was illegal and it would be hard to prove intent in court and whatever in this case ignorance of the law is apparently a valid excuse.

So much painstaking research, and so much giving up. These impossible standards keep making it frustrating for the reader.

Not that there aren’t plenty of convictions and crimes uncovered. Paul Manafort was a pretty large get, let’s acknowledge that. But when it comes to the most powerful of the powerful, there is a sense of exasperation. That in the end, America is about protecting those who are too big to lose and the system will always find a way to make sure those on top will never face the consequences they deserve.

And at least we reach Volume II: Obstruction. Here is where it may or may not get good. There are the ten examples of the president unambiguously obstructing justice to the best of his ability. Public witness-tampering, changing the story on firing Comey, live on TV no less, demands of loyalty, et al. There’s quite a lot of that whole thing.

[And please don’t give me that line about how there can’t be obstruction if there’s no underlying crime. 1: That’s not true, period. If it was true, wouldn’t it be an incentive to obstruct because if it works criminals would get away with the crime? 2: More importantly, there were so many crimes! The president’s own personal lawyer Cohen lied about the Moscow tower, is in jail now, and let’s not even get into the campaign finance violation with the porn star affair hush money. If nothing else simply firing Comey in order to protect his friend Michael Flynn, a convicted criminal, then that is clearly obstructing justice. It’s not only about evidence of collusion/conspiracy at the top. There’s still plenty of obstructing investigations if only to protect his dirty circle. If that’s not corrupt, what is?]

So, then it all ends in a pathetically lame copout in which DOJ guidelines say they can’t indict so they don’t bother indicting. Yes, Mueller went on television trying to explain his logic puzzle of how you can’t charge a crime against someone who can’t go to trial, even though at the same time it’s not an exoneration, punting to Congress as he hints that only they can hold the office to account. Yeah, like oversight is going to go well.

This is the core frustration of this document, and of this entire era we live in. It is postmodern enough that everybody gets their own talking point. You get to interpret the entire investigation however you want. Witch hunt or a valid call for impeachment, pick and chose your own interpretation. Attorney General Barr certainly wants you to interpret it in a political way that benefits his side, based on his initial coverup-y behavior. Mueller simply wants you to be smart enough to read 400 pages and decide for yourself (one of the most naïve positions possible in this age).

In the end, everyone is unsatisfied and the waters couldn’t be muddier. So if you want a sense of closure after reading this, you will still have a long while to wait as we see how history unfolds. So far, to put it lightly, I’m not sensing anything close to a national consensus in the near future.

Isn’t it amazing? This was supposed to be it, and the polls show that right-wingers still believe what they believe, they even have a few quotes to highlight to defend their extreme rationalizations. While the rest of the country vaguely listen to mainstream news summations and have ever so slightly leaned towards kinda’ maybe let’s-investigate-more-and-maybe-impeach-even-though-it’s-for-naught-cause-of-the-Senate.

Sadly, it seems that perhaps obstruction totally works and the people will never know. The appendix in which the president submits his written answers are certainly more of the same. Mueller even says more or less outright that the questionnaire isn’t enough, but he must give up because a subpoena would take too long and he wants to get this damn thing over with. Over thirty answers of “I don’t remember” with no chance to follow up. Once again, the system let’s the powerful get away with anything.

Hell, perhaps all the good stuff is redacted. There are a lot of redactions. So if this is a coverup, then one can only conclude that coverups work.

The story is still continuing. The television drama won’t be over any time soon. In the meantime, the vast majority of Americans will not read this free report. They won’t even read the summaries.

I suppose all that’s left is to depend on the Democrats, and that is a sad notion indeed.

The country is in trouble.

For these reasons above, for this humble reader at this particular time in history, one can only judge this book however full of facts to be a terrible disappointment.

Review: Kiss and Tell

Kiss & Tell by Japanese-American artist MariNaomi is quite the hypersexual graphic memoir. (Which was recommended to me by a friend who compared this work to my own comic project, if I may say so.) To be honest, these tales have left me with mixed feelings. I always like a good uncensored tell-all, and I certainly respect the bravery of the artist to share all her most personal intimate moments.

But that sure was a whole lot of underage teenage sex, and it seemed wrong to me somehow. Am I losing my own “edginess”, or is it that in the post-Metoo era this 2011 book hasn’t aged well, and now we all know better when reading about high school girls fucking guys in their twenties… Like, is that what everyone in the Bay Area was like in the 80s and 90s? For this reader anyway, it was a bit much.

(Not that these experiences are celebrated exactly, but the straightforward way the memories are swiftly paged over makes one wonder if there’s some kind of a lesson missing or not. Perhaps I’m just missing the point though.)

The narrative is scattered, from one youthful vignette to the next, that is okay as a work of this nature. The most engaging parts do seem to have a greater story structure however, such as when she was a teen runaway or dated the guy who was in and out of jail–is it too judgey to point out her apparently questionable taste in men– and then the most interesting sort of storyline is towards the end when the author is in her first longterm relationship fraught with the challenges of an open relationship. That always makes for interesting drama! The same-sex encounters once she hits her twenties also somehow come across deeper than the earlier dramatic flings. Oh, and lest I forget to add the LSD psychedelia experiences were also drawn with much heart. Both sex and drugs make for a good read…

Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 is presented in the understated indie comics style, with simple pure art and it works well in that context. I’d definitely agree that an autobiography the cartoon form is an excellent way to delve into the roughness that is one’s own memories. As a whole considering the emotional depth, art, and storytelling (discomfort or not), I’ll give it 3.5 stars and I’ll even round up.

I humbly thank MariNaomi for sharing.

Review: Hong Kong on the Brink

Hong Kong on the Brink is a memoir by an American diplomat who writes about Hong Kong in the 1960s during the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution. It’s a personal story with historical relevance.

The author, Syd Goldsmith, is not known as a particularly high-level diplomat. Yet his take as a Cantonese speaker at the American Consulate gives him a window into the inner workings of the time which makes this book about far more than just granting visas. With over fifty chapters, it covers a wide range showcasing both day-to-day life as well as complex international politics.

Goldsmith starts out with his backstory, explaining just how he became a Foreign Service Officer and found himself sent to Hong Kong in 1965. With an exceptional education, he decided to forego the business world and instead enter government service. He also delves into his personal life, his marriage and the birth of his first child, although those topics often seem to warrant less attention than the focus on his career (which he even admits in some critically self-reflective parts).

After a thorough screening process, he is sent to Hong Kong. It was not his first choice, but he soon starts to embrace it and studies Cantonese seriously. In the chapter entitled ‘The Tricks They Try,’ the book gets entertaining with an overview of the scams that immigrants utilized in the hopes of coming to the United States. Goldsmith always writes with no judgment. As a diplomat, he also gets to observe the high life of the rich and powerful. For the first third of the book all seems well even with the backdrop of Maoist China and the Vietnam War… Then, by chapter fifteen it is explained to him that “there was real trouble just below Hong Kong’s appearance of calm.”

The crux of the book is the communist riots of the year 1965, which is often foreshadowed until it finally explodes in the climax of the narrative.

The title of the chapter ‘The Labor Strife Boils Over’ shows an example of how  economics caused much unrest in the British colony. In the following chapters it is noted how many of Mao’s infamous Little Red Books have taken over the streets. At first it may not be judged as a serious threat, but the reader can feel the rising tension.

Meanwhile, various chapters jump from one topic to another, from briefly meeting Richard Nixon to an expose of Macau. Eventually, the author becomes a sort of CIA analyst as he meets with Cold War agents to discuss what may come. Not to mention a source for journalists as the resident expert.

Goldsmith can be downright poetic at times. “It strikes me that fright can sear memory, etching it deeply into grooves,” he muses. “A needle will play it like a 33-rpm record, over and over for a lifetime. But the trauma can also reduce memory to ashes.”

I learned a lot in reading this book. There were many complicated factors that tied colonial Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China even during the heights of the Cold War. For example, even under the threat of a possible military attack they still hoped to be able to trade for water with officials across the border. But the book is still from the subjective perspective of one man, and not meant to be a complete history of all things Hong Kong during that decade. Still, a very informative perspective indeed.

Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail in the end although the city went through very challenging times. Syd Goldsmith made it. The extremism of the Cultural Revolution, as we all know, never did fully overtake Hong Kong. The cost of freedom was, however, rather high as the British ultimately seized control.

“By early 1968 Hong Kong’s emergency was pretty much behind me,” the author writers at the end of the book, as he reflects upon what he witnessed and survived.

Hong Kong on the Brink (appropriately subtitled An American diplomat relives 1967’s darkest days) is not introductory and is only recommended for those already familiar with Hong Kong and modern Chinese history. Hong Kong expats particularly curious would be most interested. For a certain kind of reader, this an excellent read.

Published by Blacksmith Books, the book is available on Amazon and at bookstores within the former colony and current special administrative region.

Mao’s Town

Mao’s Town by Xie Hong is the first English-language novel from Chinese author Xie Hong, and showcases the author’s unique voice in exploring the Revolutionary era of recent Chinese history. Told in short, pointed sentences, Mao’s Town expresses something that only an author who lived through the terrible era could truly understand. Nonetheless, this book gives an excellent introduction to so many horrors of the time–from the hunger pains of the Great Leap Forward to the abusive madness of the Red Guards circa the Cultural Revolution. It was a time that hopefully will never be repeated, but needs to be remembered.

Mao’s Town is told from a childhood point of view, full of memories and written in direct language that always seems appropriate. The central theme is the concept of family as well finding one’s place in a small town which represents the enormous nation of China, and furthermore the narrative explores how the edicts that came down from the dictatorship of Chairman Mao can affect everything for one small boy.

There are the little things that one remembers, details like enjoying food in the early days. Though then the lack of it later when the hardships begin. The protagonist of the story spends his days watching propaganda “Red” films about fighting landlords, celebrates Chinese New Year, and plays with his friends Sun and Ahn as all of the families are eventually torn apart culminating in his brother’s and father’s sagas.

Some of the memories can be very intense, like when a teacher must be chosen as the “rightist” of the school for public punishment. Others seem so innocently naïve, such as when the family gives up their pots and pans out of faith to the Party’s now known horrific steelworks projects. They townspeople kill sparrows, and more, yet never know the full impact even while the path leads to starvation. All the while, the children don’t even know what the word “capitalist” means…

Mao’s Town is a quick read about both Chinese history and about how young minds process tragedy. Recommended for historians of all ages.

Mao’s Town by Xie Hong is published by Whyte Tracks and is available on Amazon.

Taipei Times – Book review: Haunted hotels, typing dogs and the expat experience

http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2018/04/12/2003691146

Taiwan Tales Volume Two, by Taipei Writers Group

Taiwanese ghosts abound in the second edition of ‘Taiwan Tales’ by the Taipei Writers Group, but the writers don’t stop there, digging deep into the nuances and fine details of life in Taiwan 

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

One might expect a collection of short stories written by expats in Taiwan to largely tell of the experiences of, well, expats in Taiwan, but the first three stories of Taiwan Tales Volume Two feature a Taiwanese businesswoman, a well-read and verbose red poodle (a popular breed) and a shy Taiwanese old computer game shop vendor in the underground malls of Taipei Main Station

Such a book wouldn’t be as rich, however, if it there were no foreigners involved at all — after all, they have unique experiences that are usually not featured in mainstream Taiwanese media or literature. Out of the seven stories, three of them speak from the quintessential “expat experience” in Taiwan, making this collection a bit more rounded given that the majority of writers hail from the US.

Representation is always tricky with anthologies like these because there’s always something to nitpick, but it’s understandable that there’s not a large pool of English fiction writers living in Taiwan to solicit quality stories from. For what this book is, it’s an enjoyable and well-edited read that anyone who has spent significant time in Taiwan can identify with and chuckle at the “only in Taiwan” references sprinkled throughout the book.

From the very first story, Room 602 by Pat Woods, it’s clear that the authors are deliberately writing from a Taiwanese perspective, or at least consciously featuring local nuances and elements that only someone who has lived here for a while will catch. Woods speaks of the freezing air conditioning that makes you bring a coat to work in the sweltering summer, the feel of shame, or “losing face,” after losing one’s cool in a public setting and giving very specific details, such as exact dates, when speaking to ghosts.

The plot for Woods’ story follows a pretty standard ghost story formula, but it is perhaps the most ambitious out of this collection, as he tries to write from the first-person perspective of a Taiwanese woman — and pulls it off fairly well. This is what makes the stories fun to read. While they are all well-crafted and the prose is lively and well-edited, the creative use of Taiwanese elements is what sets them apart.

In the same vein, the second tale, Mark Will’s Notes From the Underfoot, written from the perspective of a slightly snobby but very well-read and pensive toy poodle, is a rambling monologue that hits many points spot on to the Taiwanese dog experience — from the practice of dressing one’s canine in baby clothes and wheeling it around in a stroller to people who abandon dogs after they stop being cute.

Will also comments on Taiwanese politics through the dog’s perspective — Lulu the corgi feels that it’s linguistically oppressive to refer to Taiwan as “Formosa,” while Baobao the poodle is fine with the term but not okay with “Chinese Taipei.”

The remainder of the book is just as entertaining, including a trippy ghost adventure, an urban fantasy that features all kinds of strange creatures from the folklore of various countries, and a hilarious account of an obsessive expat on Tinder, hoping for a last hurrah before he leaves Taiwan while things go completely awry.

Taiwanese (and other Asian) folk religion and beliefs, especially the belief in evil spirits, feature prominently in the book, since, after all, that’s the most easily recognizable element of Taiwanese culture that completely differs from Western beliefs. But that’s just scratching the surface, and the writers do a good job in digging deeper.

As a result of this fascination with the occult, only three of the tales are completely rooted in reality. These provide the reader with temporary relief (otherwise the would have to be called “Taiwan Ghost Tales”), from Taipei Underground’s sketch of an ordinary man looking for love while working for his demanding cousin, to an unexpected friendship between two expat English teachers running away from their origins and eventually facing their demons.

Also worth looking at is the vastly different “expat experience” between male and female Western residents of Taipei. The two female writers almost exclusively focus on expat characters in their stories, as Bob, the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant by Laurel Bucholz features an expat teacher and the only Taiwanese characters are the children she teaches (who discuss with her how to get rid of the unfriendly ghost).

There is, of course, a reason for this. The Western female role is made clear in the beginning of the story, when the author writes that “white girls in Asia, living in obscure towns, get very little love. They are bottom of the list for the pickings,” and the protagonist is companionless until she returns to the US to snag a guy to bring back to Taiwan. As a result they are less integrated into Taiwanese society, whereas the men tend to date and marry local woman.

While this is largely a stereotype of female expats in Asia, stereotypes are based on truths, and again it’s a good thing that the author doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue directly. It only paints a more complete picture of expat life in Taiwan, and makes this book a more complete anthology.

Asian Review of Books – “Taiwan Tales Volume 2: An Anthology” from the Taiwan Writers Group

 

taiwan3

There aren’t that many English-language books about Taiwan, especially fiction. This is a pity because despite being wedged between much larger neighbors such as China, Japan and the Philippines, there is a lot to Taiwan that often gets overlooked. There are many good stories that are still waiting to be told and the Taiwan Writers Group, a collective of local and expat writers, tries to tell a few in their latest collection.

This second volume of Taiwan Tales is compact, but its seven short stories are diverse, ranging from ghost stories to mystery. As the writers are all expats, most of the stories feature expats as protagonists. This obviously presents mostly an outsider’s view, but their fondness for and knowledge of Taiwan is evident in their descriptions of contemporary Taiwan life and culture. But there are also local protagonists, including that is an animal.

In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

Mark Will’s “Notes from Underfoot” is an amusing story of Taipei life from a dog’s perspective. Baobao, a literate poodle owned by an expat and his local girlfriend, provides a witty narrative that includes cross-strait politics, the frequent neglect of pet dogs by Taiwanese, and buxibans or local tutoring centers for students. In Laurel Bucholz’s “Bob the Unfriendly Ghost vs The Mother Plant”, an expat finds herself under assault from a tormented ghost in her apartment right after taking Ayahuasca, a medicinal herb from South America. The combination of local superstition and hallucinatory visions from the herb produces a potent tale.In what might be the story with the most Taiwanese twist, “Room 602” by Pat Woods sees a local woman face unusual problems in her hotel room during a business trip in Kaohsiung, falling back on childhood memories involving superstition and the appeasing of ghosts.

JJ Goodwin’s “Underground” takes readers on a wild ride through an underground universe populated with deities and creatures from Taiwanese and other Asian folklore. This Taiwanese Odyssey features an unsuspecting hero who must complete quests and brave dangerous creatures to find his way back to the real world. Connor Bixby’s “A Completely Normal Male Expat”, the most humorous story in the collection, pokes fun at a stereotypical randy male expat while also parodying online dating. The story sees an American expat who becomes fixated on a local Tinder match, only to become increasingly neurotic as things go awry with the ensuing date.

Ray Hecht’s “The Taipei Underground” features a blossoming romance between two Taiwanese youngsters working in an underground electronics goods arcade in Taipei. It is a good take on work and social anxieties faced by young Taiwanese, in a setting that might not be well-known but is one of Taipei’s many distinctive facets.

Last but certainly not least, “Onus” by Ellyna Ford Phelps is an intriguing story about two female English teachers who form a close bond, but whose backgrounds suggest mysterious, tragic pasts. The story takes a dark turn midway but it blends expat friendship tale and mystery thriller in a poignant and suspenseful way that works very well.

It is no coincidence that there are two stories in the collection that feature ghosts, for  Taiwanese society has a strong superstitious nature due to the influence of traditional religion. Ghosts do feature regularly in modern Taiwanese life. For example, “Ghost Month” in the lunar calendar is widely observed by many Taiwanese who worship the ghosts of their ancestors by burning paper in urns outside their homes or businesses.

The anthology is a good reflection of Taiwan: small, calm on the surface but belying a fascinating, quirky, and pulsating character.


Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.

Fire and Fury review, or Too Much F*cking Tr*mp

Although it’s not my primary focus, I do write about politics on occasion (it has been a while). I try to stay informed, and as an American I hope I have well-thought out opinions worth sharing. And, of course, these days how can one not pay attention!

Coupling that with my propensity to write book reviews, I would like to go outside of my lane a bit and do an extensive review of the explosive new book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff.

No doubt you’ve heard of it, as well as all the fallout. This is my take.

Overall I think the book is excellent and damn what a fascinating read, but there is a certain challenge in it. Not that I think criticisms of the accuracy are what’s wrong—I will defend them below. But the problem is that that living in this age and rehashing the past year has been very mentally stressful. And at the same time to read, there’s keeping up with the endless barrage of new scandals which threatens to overwhelm my feeble mind.

Simply put, too much fucking Tr*mp. I get conflicted because this is important and worth paying attention to. Yet the sad fact of it is that he is the history’s all-time greatest attention whore and good or bad press he no doubt relishes in all the constant fretting. Note that in my small way I try to rebel against this by hereafter only referring to Prez you-know-who as 45.

As to the merits of the book, here I go: I genuinely think it is excellent and everyone should read it. It came at the right time, just when one may worry that we are getting used to it and normalization has set in, this amazing story was suddenly published to usher in more fresh outrages. And fatigue or not, outrages is the sensible reaction. Michael Wolff has done a great service.

Starting from the scene of election night at the campaign when they shockingly won, the premise from the get-go that no one expected him to win. The campaign was a terrible mess, as was reported on at the time, thought the one guy who believed he could make it happen was Bannon. From beginning to end, Bannon is certainly the protagonist of the book.

Wolff lays out the insanity of recent history in a readable and dare I say entertaining manner. It’s not only the dry facts, but a narrative arc that somehow all makes sense. Some may criticize that but I think it is a perfectly fair way engage the reader. There is even commentary on the reality show nature of the current presidency to create this sort of drama, which we’ve all been witnessing. Usually history is made sense of and turned into story long after the fact, but this is the new postmodern age isn’t it? Wolff is simply transcribing in the most appropriate way possible.

Some may think it grossly irresponsible for Wolff to relay rumors, but so far there isn’t anything specific which has turned out not to be true. No one has denied any quotes. Wolff is upfront in the book when the same events often have competing interpretations from different camps. I find the author’s judgment to always be fair. If there are later corrections made then so be it.

If one can just call a spade a spade, we know it’s all basically true. Like, the way the book states that 45 hated his own inauguration and was visibly fighting with Melania. Anyone can watch the videos to know this is truth. Another example that comes to mind is when Bannon gave the speech at CPAC which was a dig at Jared, it’s obvious! All the behind the scenes footage is valid and America knows it. Above all, the glaringly open secret that 45 is an idiot and everyone who works for him constantly talks about it.

Moreover, the rumory nature of the book is what has gotten headlines but for the most part it’s about Michael Wolff’s analysis of public happenings than just the gossip. Wolff, in omniscient narrator fashion, gives thorough critical examination to the firings and the scandals and panic, and without the lame partisanship in so much punditry. Although the central theme that 45 is shallow and empty and doesn’t read and constantly watches TV (an interesting term, he’s “post-literate”) and he can’t control his worst impulses and who refuses to even know that he doesn’t know, barring that overall important point the other characters are indeed analyzed with respect. There’s still more to learn about 45 beyond his mere stupidity, like the way he prefers loyalty of women. There are the the occasional pop psychological riffs on his motivations to just be liked, paternal-related and otherwise.

In any case, 45 and his defenders have rather had an enormous problem with the concept of objective truth… So why listen to their attacks on Wolff? I for one trust the leaks.

Michael Wolff is clearly talented at writing about politics in surprising ways. For example, he does repeatedly criticize the so-called liberal media. Makes it all the more poignant when he explains the world of right-wing media with its far lower standards of entry. And after all the due respect given to the original core members of the cabinet, it can’t be denied that the unqualified Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller’s promotions towards the end show an absolute problem with finding professional staff. Wolff simply, as they say, tells it like it is. 

One of the most haunting analyses that come to mind is when white supremacist Richard Spencer is declared to be the intellectual base of “Trumpism”, which is all the more a horrifying concept because the more one thinks about it the more it can’t be denied to be true.

Overall, the book is about the disastrous and chaotic infighting which took place in the White House. From chiefs of staff Preibus to Kelly, when it all settles we find ourselves nearly caught up in the low morale present. There’s the Scaramucci affair, which turns out to be yet worse knowing the backstory. Often it’s 45’s own family, Jared and Ivanka, who are the worst of the worst.

If Bannon is the main character, then the utterly incompetent “Jarvanka” family faction proves to be the antagonist. Spoiler: They win in the end. It’s hard to say if that’s a happy or sad ending.

In satisfying faction, by the time of the infamous Charlottesville “many sides” comment, absolutely everybody knows that 45 is a lost cause who cannot do this job. Not to mention the tweets. Then there’s the growing Russian scandal, which initially is given a lot of skepticism but grows worse and worse veering into that incredibly inept Comey firing and then revelations of inexplicable meetings and subsequent coverups and obstruction of justice allegations and Rosenstein’s revenge in the form of the Mueller Special Counsel. By the conclusion no less an authority than Bannon himself has to admit that eventually this will bring the administration down.

Because we are living this, the story goes on.

The odds indeed are very high that scandal is going to take this administration down, perhaps even soon, but for a reader who has learned so much I am left wondering why the hell it is taking so long.

At last, Bannon loses his job but remains hopeful for the future of his outsider revolution, and the book ends with as much feeling of closure that can be expected. Yet, now we know that due to the fallout of the book Bannon has even been let go from his Breitbart, which does seem just. I just hope to read in the paperback updated edition of Michael Wolff’s take on the latest.

A recurring motif is that 45 as such an anomaly to everyone in Washington, with everyone who doubted the loud-mouthed reality show host having to reluctantly work with what they have. Sadly, as true as the strangeness of this strange chapter of American history is, Wolff does leave something out after all that focus on 45 and his ilk. The question still remains on how America—even if not due to the majority of voters—could let this happen. How can this train wreck of a government have happened and so many citizens supporting such chaos and bigotry and corruption? Those questions may have to be answered by future historians after far more time passes.

Meanwhile, Wolff did his best to explain the inner workings withing Fire and Fury and America must wait and see to further understand and reflect.

[Review] Hong Kong in the Fifties: John Saeki’s The Tiger Hunters of Tai O

Cha

{Written by Ray Hecht, this review is part of the “Writing Hong Kong” Issue (December 2017) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films}

John Saeki, The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, Blacksmith Books, 2017. 304 pgs.

tiger-hunters-of-tai-o_800The Tiger Hunters of Tai O is a new historical novel with a unique perspective. Author John Saeki paints a colourful portrait of Hong Kong in the 1950s, capturing the spirit of the times in this page-turning police thriller. Sometimes hilarious, and sometimes deadly serious, most readers should be fascinated by the intrigue and politics of the era. Though Hong Kong—especially Tai O—has certainly changed over the past half century, locals will find this world a familiar place even while discovering new surprises and secrets uncovered about the region.

The plot ostensibly revolves around a Eurasian police officer named Simon Lee who is investigating suspicious tiger attacks. The…

View original post 786 more words

Eating Smoke: review of memoir, and audio

 

Chris Thrall’s memoir Eating Smoke (sensationally subtitled One Man’s Descent Into Drug Psychosis In Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland) was published in 2011 but resparked buzz last year when the book was adapted into a radio dramatization for Hong Kong’s RTHK station.

The memoir is about Thrall’s time in Hong Kong in the 90s when he found himself addicted to ice—that is, methamphetamine—and indeed written in the style one would expect while on speed.

It is a dazzling ride, full of flowing neon and inebriation. First, the British Royal Marine suddenly quits his military position and moves abroad with dreams of making it big in the business world. Before he knows it, his business fails and he has to start hustling. The bulk of the story consists of jumping from one sketchy employment opportunity to the next, constantly maneuvering through new scams which grow increasingly desperate. He stays in the infamous Chungking Mansions, then hangs out among the hippie scene on Lamma Island where it starts out innocently enough with some strong weed, and ends up in the seediest parts of Wan Chai addicted to crystal.

“Quiss” Thrall meets a seemingly never-ending parade of colorful characters who live on the very edge of Hong Kong society, the caliber getting lower and lower as he is dragged down to the dregs. But there are so many he meets that it becomes difficult for the reader to follow what’s going on after a while.

The subtitle of the book declares his descent into the “Triad Heartland”, but the part when he becomes a doorman for a Triad-connected club is just one section among many, which comes rather late in the book. The stakes do get higher as threats of violence and death race towards the climax.

The radio drama, an audiobook really, overall can be quite superior to the book because as an edited abridged version it can get to the point quickly and highlight the best sections. Many odd jobs are skipped over in order to focus on the Triad and drug-crazed scenes. I did miss some, such as the English-teaching episode, although that is a story that has been told before. The unique nature of Thrall’s perspective is worth focusing on, though my personal favorite was the weekend-long DJing gig in China which unfortunately didn’t make it to the radio for some reason.

The narration from RTHK is excellent, with acting that can be funny when necessary as well as solemn, and always powerful. One noted part details the time a woman passed out due to a possible overdose at the club, Thrall calls an ambulance but the boss coldly stated he just wanted her thrown out. Stories like these are best listened to and not only read, so be sure to download the free podcasts…

For the most part, Thrall remains likable through it all until perhaps the finale of the memoir when he descends deeper into madness. His greatest talent is his ability to get by in Cantonese, which grants him a window into an authentic world which most foreigners never get to see. Eating Smoke is a fascinating insight into 1990s Hong Kong that readers and listeners from all over the world would do well to appreciate.

 

The radio drama is available free as a downloadable podcast on the RTHK website here: http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_all.php?pid=1130

Eating Smoke is published by Blacksmith Books, and available at Hong Kong bookstores and Amazon.

Tome Tender Book Blog: Saturnine In Her Head, Out of Time & THIS MODERN LOVE

http://tometender.blogspot.hk/2017/07/saturnine-in-her-head-out-of-time-by.html

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time
by Ray Hecht
My rating: 4 stars
 
Publication Date: May 24, 2017
Publisher: Ray Hecht
Genre: Time Travel | Sci fi
Print Length: 32 pages
Available from: Amazon
 
  Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time by Ray Hecht

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time  Do-overs in life; wouldn’t it be nice to be able to go back and re-live a moment in time you would like to either change or find closure for? Saturnine has that chance, thanks to a tech company that claims to take a person back in time to re-live any moment they want, but they do not guarantee you can change the events set in motion, after all, the past is in the past, it is written on the timeline of life, or can it be erased? Saturnine did indeed go back to re-live the night she her boyfriend walked out of her life for good. Many times, but could she find the answers she was looking for?

SATURNINE, IN HER HEAD, OUT OF TIME by Ray Hecht may be a short tale, but it packs a punch for young woman living with regrets from the past and the boy she let get away. Mr. Hecht has created a complete and intriguing tale with just a few well- placed words. Entertaining, thought-provoking and fun, I was left wondering what one thing in my life I would like a do-over on until I realized that, nope, I’m good and probably better off not going through my personal Ground Hog Day adventure!

Continue reading

Short Story review – Saturnine, In Her Head, Out of Time

healed1337

About a year ago, I reviewed Ray Hecht’s debut novel, South China Morning Blues. He’s written other stuff too, like a couple of short stories here and there, and his personal blog where he talks about life in China. Full disclosure, he sent me this story for free when I offered to read it and talk about it. Normally I don’t talk about short stories on this blog, but I’m making an exception here. Because this was written by a fellow blogger and I’m not used to talking about short stories, I won’t be giving a review score.

Saturnine, In Her Head, Out Of Time is a dramatic short story with a touch of science fiction. Saturnine is a recent graduate from University who’s suffering from an event she found traumatic. I won’t say anything too specifically, but it’s about a former boyfriend who seemed to just disappear. She…

View original post 179 more words

Expat Jimmy

Expat Jimmy is the latest by noted China-expat author Travis Lee. This quick read of an eBook is more of an eNovella, or even eNovellete, and the brevity of the piece is in fact one of its greatest strengths.

Expat Jimmy takes place over the course of one day in Wuhan in the summer of 2008. Basically, it’s about the impressions of a young graduate named James as he is introduced to second-tier China. In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

The main character can be passive, as he is led around town by Adam who is certainly a stereotypical ESL teacher with issues. Yet neither James nor Adam are the true stars of the show. It’s the city of Wuhan that steals the limelight, and that is the point.

Then there is the one-page epilogue which maps out Jimmy’s character arc in more long-term fashion for a good sense of closure and leaving the reader wanting more, but overall it’s just about that one normal day…

It does strain credulity a bit that so much fills up one jet-lagged day. But it works, and I wouldn’t want to read it any other way. Even as the day progresses into bouts of drinking (yes, there is Baijiu), with all the harshness of sex and drugs and cynical interpretations of Chinese family dynamics, climaxing even to near-death experiences as Jimmy witnesses one progressively seedier scene after another; even including all this, the overall feeling of the story is enthusiasm. The initial enthusiasm still outweighs all else.

This quote says it best:  “I want you to take it all in. Every sight, every smell, everything. Because this is a once in a lifetime event. You will never again feel t his optimistic, the sense of wonder you’re going to feel at being in China the first time. Nothing compares to it and nothing ever will.”

There is just nothing like the first time moving to a new country.

So read Expat Jimmy, and learn much about Wuhan and explore that elusive concept of the so-called “real China.” Being such a pithy read, there’s no reason not to.

 

Expat Jimmy is available at Amazon.

Author Travis Lee blogs at www.travis-lee.org