Book Review: Love and Other Moods

Love and Other Moods is a novel with a lot to say. The new book by author Crystal Z. Lee takes place in Shanghai, starting with the backdrop of the 2010 Expo and continues on for several years through that decade. This makes for a good introduction to all the various elements that make up Rising China in the 21st century. Ostensibly, the character of Naomi Fita-Fan is the main protagonist. The half-Japanese and half-Taiwanese character, who does feel like a semi-autobiographical placeholder for the author, is a sophisticated businesswoman who comes of age while maneuvering throughout this complex landscape.

However, the city of Shanghai itself is the true star. The book continuously pours over details describing the evolution of the megapolis, full of history and politics and food and culture. The detailed backstory of the human characters generally serves as part of the world-building of this setting. The family backgrounds, the infodumps, even the dating scene these figures find themselves in—it’s all about making Shanghai as real as possible.

Although much of this describes a very upper-class scene, almost a “Sex and the City” in Asia, there is also a dark underside occasionally explored. Mentions of prostitution and drugs appear from time to time, which can be shocking in its contrast. The main hardships that the characters experience range from questions of identity, such as prejudice against Naomi for being Japanese in China and for being Asian in America. There is also tragedy and even violence that permeates through the history of this Communist land, as the main love interest Dante knows well.

Towards the end, the book becomes more of a conventional story. A typical love story in many ways, as the protagonist comes of age and deals with the challenges that arise from growing up. The generational divides that make up family, such how to get along with a family and how to define one’s own, are an endless source of conflict. Through all the heartbreak and even (spoiler alert) children, the relationship between Naomi and her best friend Joss is still just as valued as the romantic side.

Love and Other Moods might be classified as “chick lit,” and female readership does seem to be the intended audience. That said, anyone would enjoy learning so much about modern China by way of this book, and it is a valuable resource in capturing that moment in time…

Crystal Z. Lee takes the reader on a dazzling tour of hyper-cosmopolitan Shanghai. Here, the city is not romanticized in the typical manner, but portrayed the way it really is: exciting, loud, dizzying, sexy, sometimes risqué but always authentic. Love and Other Moods expresses the truthful energy of Rising China over the past decade, which those who’ve been would instantly recognize, and those who haven’t will find fascinating. It’s one of the most international places in the world, where everyone has a story, and some of those stories are told right here in this novel.

Love and Other Moods is published by Balestier Press and is available on Amazon.com.

Review: Lolita Podcast by Jamie Loftus

In this day and age, is it worth it to revisit Lolita?

For me, after I got very into audiobooks over the past decade, I recently had to ask myself this question. As I exhausted all my favorite novels and must-read literary canons over the last few years, #MeToo then happened. I found myself wondering: Has this book, as they say, aged badly? Fanciful prose or not, is Nabakov’s famous opus no longer appropriate in the 21st century?

I do remember reading back in my precocious and wannabe-edgy early twenties; why I specifically recall posting quotes on MySpace. There was no question that I was absolutely mesmerized by the language. Was younger-me, however, glamorizing child abuse way back then?

The whole molestation and kidnapping plot struck me as fucked up, surely, but like in a literary way. Honestly, I don’t think I was ever quite the sort to romanticize the disturbing premise as a “love story.” Yet it was quite fascinating.

I did consider it brilliant, and worthy of the reputation. I did watch the two film adaptations as well, which did not hold up. But now, as a more well-read and more knowledgeable man (of Humbert’s age no less!), it does feel kind of wrong to just read this like a normal novel.

I’m not saying old problematic stories must be—as they say so insincerely—“cancelled.” But I am saying that there are some questions that need to be considered. We need to think about these things.

Anyhow, I apologize for this droning disclaimer, but allow us to enter comedian Jamie Loftus’ 10-part Lolita Podcast. I first became familiar with the Robot Chicken writer’s excellent Mensa podcast, which highlighted so many problematic issues with that particular organization. It turned out, her latest was the exact context I so very much needed before revisiting.

A progressive and feminist take on Lolita comes at as a welcoming time as ever. It may be even more relevant to male readers (the demographic who tend to grossly take the notorious unreliable narrator at his word). As Loftus share so expertly, there is an extremely long and detailed history of popular culture not getting the point of this book.

Firstly, let’s make it absolutely clear. There is no question Humbert Humbert is the villain of this story. This really isn’t interpretable, look it up, author Vladimir Nabakov wrote extensively on how opposed he was to glamorizing the abuse of 12-year olds and calling it romantic. Again and again, he fought with the romantic notions that outgrew his novel and into its various adaptations.

Merely a cursory literary analysis gives endless evidence: Pedophile Humbert is introduced as a criminal in the introduction, the unreliability of his narration is laid out instantly! He is profoundly unlikable, and is consciously intended to be that way. He constantly lies to everyone around him. He spends his free time at the pool ogling children. He is contemptuous and hates all around him, insulting every random he meets with the worst kind of snobbery. Seriously, just because he claims he toxically loves one person so much and that is supposed to make him some sort of flawed hero?

He is pettily cruel to his new wife Charlotte Haze, he gaslights her, he fantasizing killing her in excruciating detail, he dismisses the tragic death of her son. (So much death, by the way. A theme that sure comes up a lot with his mother and his exes. But I digress.) Hell, if one really reads between the lines, he may have killed her himself and lied to the reader about the car accident just as he compulsively lies to his victim and every single person they meet. He drugs her with sleeping pills, then he drugs the eponymous character on their first night together so he can take off her clothes and fondle her, all while writing beautiful poetry of the sky-blue color of these rapey creep pills.

Indeed, Nabakov seems to be taking up a personal challenge to create the most creepy and cringing scenarios imaginable, and then dress it up with the most flowery of poetic language like it’s some kind of dare to see if the audience will buy his take. This takes seriously writing skill, no doubt. It can even be funny. But how very unfortunate that so often the public does just and are so easily impressed with this guy.

On the subject of the unreliable narration, the most egregious monstrosity of all must be the first rape after he picks her up from camp. The famous line, “Gentlemen of the jury. I wasn’t even her first.” As if that mattered. But whatever adolescent sexual experimentation his victim may or may not have engaged in, the very next day she specifically states that he “tore something inside me.” He was just plain lying through his teeth.

And then, the heartbreaking quote that really gives away the nature of this relationship. “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” To further illustrate, how Lo “sobs, every night, every night.”

So romantic, amiright? Furthermore, he threatens that if she turns him in then she’ll be a pitiful ward of the state. He calls her a whore and a slut and unjustly imagines the worst sexcapades. She accuses him of rape multiple times, using up a significant allotment of her rare moments of dialogue with which to express her truthful side of the story.

As a reader, I wholeheartedly thank podcater Jamie Loftus for preparing me to read between the lines with such careful analysis. Thank you.

Well, after that summation, if I may, I’d like to add some conclusions I have come to on my own.  Much has been said in criticisms of the assumption that Delores Haze is a “brat.” There is the issue of the so-called perfect victim, how that shouldn’t matter, but upon my reread that still doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t help thinking she’s only a normal child. Was Charlotte really a terrible parent who hated her daughter, or were they just having the normal bickering that happens in any family? The poor girl was certainly traumatized after the sudden death of the mother. Furthermore, there is the indication that she flirts with Humbert and has a crush on him: Again, he’s a damn unreliable narrator sociopath. Perhaps just let the kid be herself without putting so much on her.

My main maybe-somewhat-original perspective, is that I contend Clare Quilty does not even exist! That is, perhaps he was some celebrity playwright within this world, and perhaps Humbert was jailed for murdering him after inventing a reason. But I do not believe Quilty was following them around their Americana road trip, and I do not believe he was the one who helped Delores escape. There were other ways, and it must have driven Humbert mad to never know. He is a controlling paranoid predator, who admits hallucinations by the way, and the whole gimmick of someone driving behind does not ring true. That she ends up with an even worse abuser after leaving his clutches is just something his mind would project and imagine. The perfect rationalization for it all. I don’t buy it.

So, these are some of my thoughts after re-reading the book. On the subject of the podcast, the literary analysis and interviews with Nabakovian scholars made a supremely positive difference. But Loftus’s contribution doesn’t end there.

In fact, Lolita Podcast is as much about society at large as it is about one book. Popular culture has taken the trope of the sexy underage lover, sadly influenced far more by movie posters and YouTube clips than by actual reading, and the social impact is terrible. There’s the online Tumble “nymphet” fashion scene (ugh) which I previously knew nothing of, and that Lana Del Rey sure hasn’t helped. As a casual movie buff if nothing else, insider information about the 1962 Kubrick film and the horrible world of Hollywood was crucial and interesting. The 1997 film, featuring noted problematic male Jeremy Irons, was even worse. Note both of which aged up a star character who was twelve in the source material. There were also a couple of bizarre aborted stage productions which further reinforces how bad the sexualization of children has been, and how more modern audiences still don’t get it. The interviews and biographies of the main actresses showcases how their voices deserve to be heard. An important and informative work of journalism indeed.

Loftus concludes by asking the question of whether yet another adaptation would still have relevance and make a positive difference. For one thing, it’d be nice to have one helmed by a female creator for the first time ever. While there is the controversy of utilizing teenage actresses, and another question of how simulating ages can be just as bad, Loftus concludes animation may be the most ethical way. I’d argue a graphic novel could work, but in any case point taken. A new take does seem necessary. The themes of abuse and grooming and gaslighting are absolutely as valid as ever. The trope of a “Lolita” (and Loftus compassionately makes sure to always call the character Delores), often taken up by an opportunistic news media sensationalizing real-life tragedies, is still a term in our language today. The public deserves to know better of what this really means.

The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov is a horror story told from the point of view of the monster. It is, I strongly argue, a masterpiece of horrifying and toxic obsession. The ultimate anti-love story.

In the decades since, this tale has permeated the broader culture at large, drifting far from its literary roots, and the world has quite literally lost the plot. The solution is not to try any ill-fated attempt to send Lolita down the memory hole, but to think harder, and fix this mistake of pop culture by staying true to one brilliant author’s intentions and share the truth. Lolita can be a powerful tool for education on toxicity and abuse, and it is still worth a try.

 

Lolita Podcast is available from iHeartRadio and is available on podcast platforms such as Apple and Google

Bookish Asia review: All Flowers Bloom

http://bookish.asia/all-flowers-bloom-%e2%80%a2-kawika-guillermo/

All Flowers Bloom, written by Kawika Guillermo and published by Westphalia Press, is a book that is difficult to define, let alone review. It is ostensibly a novel, classified as queer speculative fiction, but there is not exactly a plot to follow. At least, there is not just one plot but at least 26 smaller stories within. The protagonist is not only one character, but a multitude of characters linked by a resurrected soul repeating through time in chapters labeled from A to Z. Gender and nationality and circumstances change again and again, leaving the reader with strong impressions but hard to remember details… Not unlike a dream that way.

The main character, if a name can be given at all, is called 871. (The only other character, just S.) The only consistent setting to keep track of is the strange surreal limbo known as the Ilium, the afterlife waystation described irreverently as some kind of gaudy cruise ship, a lonely sort of paradise. There, this soul finds him or herself occasionally between lives, reflecting on what has come before.

That reflection is often about love, for this is above all a love story. The most epic love story imaginable, consisting of endless lifetimes as two souls find each again and again in new circumstances. Guillermo shows much range in writing about so many times and places.

When the journey begins, far back in Biblical times, the prose is already eminently powerful in describing the obsessive struggle to go on. “The day didn’t come by itself. We had to push the sun up, lift it with our arms to keep time from standing still.”

The whole setup of this world is not explained in so many words initially, leaving the reader to interpret. Eventually, some questions are answered, such as in a certain lifetime when the two intertwined souls find themselves in warring tribes and a shaman explains, “You were in love before you were born.”

However, another theme other than love that keeps coming up is the concept of death. There are the suicides, the lives failed. One lifetime ends with the execution of a Roman slave, a tragedy finalized by the beautiful line, “The debris of time stripped away until I collided with your corpse.”

All over time and place, the book keeps going. The Kanem Empire. Colonized India. Every land from history that can be imagined. In imperial China, the soulmates are prostitute-courtesans unable to admit they are lovers. Sadly, in many of these timelines love is a sin. In so many cultures, their love is a blasphemy. They are infidels.

Soon, the chapters begin to catch up to the 20th century, featuring American servicemen, World War II from the perspective of a German POV, and the nearly-modern 1970s. Meanwhile, in the afterlife ‘Pleasure Cruise’, he/she laments on all these past lives while hibernating eternity away. Yet if this sounds too serious, there’s also plenty there to lighten the mood “Heaven has alcohol,” they say. “That’s what makes it Heaven.”

This sort of book can be a challenge, admittedly. The questions asked and unanswered repeat themselves at times, the fanciful wordsmithing is something the reader can appreciate and also something that can be exhausting. “The stream was a consciousness,” the text explains, a metaphor most literal.

In Book Two, the poetry continues but suddenly an even more ambitious genre begins. As the present time comes and goes, we enter the science fictional era. So begins tales of the corporate wars to come, of digitally uploaded sentience, of post-humanism. This makes for some truly surreal futuristic sex scenes.

Foremost, this is still a spiritual tome. From the Islamicist references early on, to a bourgeoning Buddhist enlightenment as the novel progresses, religion keeps coming up. One question that is repeatedly asked and never answered to satisfaction, is that of who and what is a god.

“Do gods exist?” (s)he asks.
“We’re the only gods I know of,” is answered. “We are the only true gods.”
“We’re souls, not gods.”
“We. Are. Gods.”

And back and forth it goes into infinity, never truly explained.

Millennia later, it turns out that this story may be more cynical than all that love talk previously implied. Not that there wasn’t foreshadowing. “Love is a false desire when directed at one rather than many,” warned the Buddha. A good reviewer shouldn’t give too much away, but perhaps there’s a lesson in there about how when we get what we want it doesn’t always make us happy. Even if it takes four thousand years.

If all is erased, then was it just meaningless? That is up to the reader to decide. In the grand scheme across epochs, there were three phases: Generation, Optimization, and Destruction. Interpret that as you will.

As for the title, early in the book we are told that not all flowers bloom. Yet later, after so much philosophizing, another conclusion is reached. All Flowers Bloom!

So there is reason to hold out for hope after all. Don’t ever forget it.

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht

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What I Says:  An autobiography about somebody unknown and done in the format of a comic, how could that work?  Well it worked for me, I really enjoyed reading this, I can’t stand those autobiographies by famous people full of name dropping and desperately trying to make every aspect of their life interesting.  Always Goodbye is the sort of book that could be about you, the reader, if you are a child of the 80’s then you’ll see similarities to your own life in this book, as Ray Hecht describes events you’ll be going “I remember that” and you’ll end up on your own journey down memory lane.  And being born in the 80’s means a lot of big moments in your life would be defined by technology, getting that first email address, joining myspace and Facebook, games consoles and smart phones are all big points in Rays life and until reading this I have never thought of things like that before.

A huge part of Rays life has been spent reading and making comics, falling in love with Marvel and DC universes and because he has that huge knowledge about comics it has made this book much more special.  Some clever little bits really bring this to life, describing his parents, birth, upbringing and how they met was cleverly done, drawn as a column with each event side by side worked well.  Each chapter starts off with a year of Rays life and the first window shows a significant event from that year and I loved trying to figure out what they represented.  There was the odd quirky bit thrown in too which gave me a chuckle, favourite bit was Ray sat at his desk at school and the writing about the scene takes up so much space that he has to have his head at an angle.

The comic has been hand drawn, which gives it a personal touch that would have been taken away by a piece of software, whenever Ray draws one of his girlfriends the amount of detail increases until they are almost glowing, it shows just how important they were in his life.

I have really enjoyed reading about Ray’s life and now wish I had a time machine to go and get my hands on the sequel in 30 years time 🙂

 

Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht

Always Goodbye: a review of the graphic novel by Frank E Beyer

https://medium.com/@frank.e.beyer/always-goodbye-b46c36a9d202

Always Goodbye

A review of the graphic novel

 

Ray Hecht’s autobiographical graphic novel starts with his birth in Israel, where his parents were immigrants, and ends up with him working in Asia. Moving to America as a small child he has an unstable upbringing, thanks to his Ukrainian mother and American father divorcing. The drawings and the layout here obviously took a lot of work and I dare say it may have been easier just to write the narrative, however, this was a more interesting way to tell his story. Each year is introduced with a picture of a key event and I laughed when I saw OJ’s Bronco being chased by police down the highway for 1994.

 

Things start out well for the family in America, but after a few years the cracks begin to show and his parents get divorced in the early nineties. His mother remarries a none-too trustworthy Israeli man and Ray stays with his Dad, who trains to be a nurse. Ray does recognise his father’s efforts to better himself. His sister is academic and as she grows up gets sucked into a conservative Israeli world that Hecht wants no part of. She learns Russian and presumably Hebrew too — as she moves to Israel and gets married there. Ray’s trips to Israel don’t work out well, it’s not a place he connects with. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that he prefers to study Japanese and later Chinese.

A self-confessed nerdy child, Hecht struggles socially and finds solace in comic books. (I was waiting for his reading to break out from the pure escapism of comics and this does eventually happen.) A convincing portrayal of how America can be a lonely place for a teenager, a lot of this must have been hard to bring to the surface again. One major problem for him is always moving from school to school, as the title indicates it is “Always Goodbye”. Probably the most painful incident is when he gets kicked out of school for something he says about a mass shooting. Despite being an introvert, he makes various efforts to improve his social life, investigating subcultures — punk, Goth, arty-type, straight edge, hippie — looking for something to hold onto. His friends do the same thing and he falls in and out with them depending on what phase they are in — a problem of a fractured society: you can join many different tribes but a sense of belonging is not guaranteed. He does some hallucinogenic drugs, but the answer doesn’t lie there.

 

In his early twenties Ray moves out of his Dad’s place and back again several times, in a non-linear surge towards independence common in his generation. He has a string of dead-end jobs in various States and then vaguely commits to life in California. Salvation comes in the form of China, recommended to him by a random character at the Burning Man Festival 2008. Like many young Westerners who go to work in Asia (me included), it’s the first time he has the luxury of living alone in a decent apartment. He begins teaching at a kindergarten in Shenzhen, the huge city over the border from Hong Kong where everything is new and exciting. He mentions the bootleg markets and this reminded me that one of the pleasures (and even social activities) of living in China back then was shopping for pirated DVDs; now of course we just download movies without leaving the house. He survives the kindergarten, moves onto a Korean owned school in Guangzhou, and escapes the English teaching world to become a copy editor.

Ray realises that a lot of the expat life is about drinking and tries to find meaning through writing and dating. The dating doesn’t go so well, but gives him material to write about. While many say it’s easy to get an Asian girlfriend, it doesn’t work out most of the time because of different expectations and, sure enough, Hecht takes us through a few awkward flings. The world of online dating also turns out to be a wash-out. Despite these romantic failures, he publishes a novel and eventually gets involved in a serious relationship with a creative South African woman— i.e. finally he has some good luck. I was interested to read that he initially went down to Hong Kong every six months to get visas, but later got a ten year China visa. Surely long term visas like this are not on the table anymore?

The text isn’t that polished and there are still a few mistakes to be ironed out, or perhaps they were left in the on purpose to emphasize the DIY nature of this work? His analysis of society is usually spot on and you can see a narrow view of the world broadening as he travels more — this gives the story a nice arc. As a thirty-something he ends up in Taiwan, looking at current events it was probably a wise decision to leave China and move there.

Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right by Michael Brooks

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of The Majority Report podcast. Watching their video clips online has become a daily habit of mine for keeping up with the political world, especially during these tense last few years.

Co-host Michael Brooks (who also hosts his own solo The Michael Brooks Show) always has a very poignant take which I enjoy listening to, with the ability to summarize complex issues in a way both intelligent and entertaining.

The news market nowadays is indeed very oversaturated, particularly when it comes to opinions on YouTube, yet there is a reason I find myself drifting towards the Majority Report more than sources like the more independent and objective Democracy Now. Because in this current climate, it’s not just about getting the most facts. Anyone can do so if they want.

The battle over messaging has really become about being able to fight back against misinformation as much as anything else. And that is what I truly love about Sam Seder and Michael Brooks, that they aren’t above the fray at all—unlike that example I’ll use again, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. They fully take on the trending online garbage of the extreme alt-right, refusing to cede the internet world over to those charlatans.

For whatever reasons of history, social media’s biases tend to reward the worst of the worst when it comes to extreme political rhetoric. Even the old medias of cable news and talk radio can’t compete with the unfortunately powerful trolls of today.

But at least some people are fighting back, and are damn good at it. Therefore, I was very intrigued when I heard about Michael Brooks’ book project titled Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right published by Zero Books. The book is slim at only a hundred pages, which fits well as an e-book for those more low-attention spanned readers struggling to keep up with the information overload of the times.

The main focus of his critique concerns the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” the IDW, which is truly one of the dumbest names for the cheap yet successful motivational speakers who now pervade the gross right-wing. He starts of with an analysis of Sam Harris, who rose in fame as one of those New Atheist war-mongering neo-cons during the Bush era. Brooks lays out the laziness of his debate, which never truly was very intellectual at all. Particularly embarrassing is his email spat with Noam Chomsky, in which he actually says: “The history is completely irrelevant.”

And that’s it right there. These grifters cash in by presenting themselves as deep, yet don’t care to analyze how much of the state of the world is a product of historical context. Again and again, they are proven to have an authoritarian mindset, “a penchant for defending hierarchy” as Brooks expertly sums up. Even the late Christopher Hitchens was able to mock the “IQ obsessed.” He may have been wrong on Iraq, but I can’t imagine Hitchens today tolerating the logicbro nonsense of his old contemporaries.

Much of the book focuses on Jordan Peterson as well, the very definition of a self-help hack trying to cash in on the zeitgeist. Clearly, Peterson is not very good at being an academic as he flames the campus culture wars with his overuse of the term postmodernism—that catch-all nebulous term which is usually conflated with Marxism for no reason whatsoever. Peterson famously crashed and burned in his big Zizek debate, and has since gone so off the deep end that he is now in some of kind of rehab and/or in a coma in Russia of all places after hawking a bizarre all-meat diet. You can’t even satirize this stuff.

As Brooks says, “the Petersons of the world want to naturalize or mythologize the injustices we see around us instead of analyzing them as a function of historical process that, because they are human-made, can be rectified in the future.” They never were very interested in honestly learning what makes the world turn and, God forbid, trying to make the world better. The truth is, they only want Patreon subscribers.

The way they pretend to be victims and underdogs while growing in power is particularly infuriating. As he says, “The IDW and right in general love to have it both ways with free speech. On the one hand, if a reactionary is criticized for something they say, Free Speech is Under Attack. On the other hand, if a left-wing professor says something they find objectionable, or if too many faculty members have political views they dislike, they have no problem asking the government to step in to examine the curriculum and impose ‘balance.’” (Hell, check out the presidential Twitter fact-checking controversy happening right this very moment…)

“Still, right-wing media is one of the easiest gigs in the world.” You said it, Michael.

While it’s easy enough to dunk on the shallow Dave Rubins and Ben Shapiros of the world, that standard conservative trying to rebrand as wannabe intellectuals all of a sudden—and dunk he does, who couldn’t not reference Shapiro’s disastrous BBC interview with Andrew Neils—Brooks’ real point goes far beyond such critiques. The true core of his thesis is that it’s time for the left to do better in winning over that angry young man demographic these guys so easily convert.

Don’t let them use fake terms like “classical liberal,” don’t let them have free reign on Joe Rogan and then just hope the moral superiority of the left will actually win elections and change hearts.

In his final criticisms of the “ultra-woke” left, Brooks has much to say on why we should encourage moral growth instead of shaming and canceling, of which the latter often adds fuel to the bad faith arguments of the right. Personally, I think the apparent craziness of the university protest crowd has always been exaggerated and never was as big a deal as the clickbait merchants would have us think. But Brooks does have a point.

Like it or not, this new crop of right-wingers is a loud voice today. It’s time to understand them, so that the good guys can win. The end goal is a fair and just society, a cosmopolitan socialism as Brooks concludes which is able to express itself successfully in the modern landscape and that can unify the positive traditions of cultures from all over the world. That’s the fight worth having.

It is time to form an international message of solidarity, and the path forward with be both for the left to get it together and also to finally defeat the manipulative new right of the web.

So let’s do it!

 

Review: An American Bum in China

https://chajournal.blog/2020/03/07/american-bum

[REVIEW] “A PERPETUAL HARD-LUCK CASE: AN AMERICAN BUM IN CHINA” BY RAY HECHT

{This review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.}

Tom Carter, An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bubblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, Camphor Press, 2019. 132 pgs.

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“Disparate as they sounded back then, however, I realize now that the arc of his adventures share the same timeless threads that, throughout world history, have driven other immigrants, expatriates, and refugees to the United States, only in reverse. His singular story has all the makings of an un-American folk tale…”

So author Tom Carter tells the story of his friend Matthew Evans, a perpetual hard-luck case who might just be the oddest expatriate you’ve ever heard of (and if you’ve been around a good number of expats, that’s saying a lot). The full title of this tome is An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, and it is a fitting title indeed.

Evans’s tale begins in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa—where Xi Jinping actually visited in 2012. The comparisons of rural America to rural China are vivid and foster much conversation. In a way that makes it only natural that such a person would be driven to Shanghai and elsewhere as he seeks a better life. Spoiler alert, he never does get that better life.

He does try. Sort of. As he drifts from one town to another, somehow surviving while apparently making no money, it’s not always clear how bumblingly brilliant the man’s so-called escapades may be. The lingering question is never fully answered: Is he an idiot savant or just a slightly-luckier-than-average idiot? In this sense, there are several ways to interpret the book.

Either way, Evans most consistent trait is that he takes it all in strides. “Like everything else that had happened to him in life, from leukemia to being deported, Evans took his dismissal stolidly and as a matter of course.” That just about sums it up best.

Within this slim tome, we are quickly taken on this man’s journey around the world. First, he pushes himself to run away from his controlling mother’s shadow, even as she dismissed the “commies” in China. Usually, he does this by way of spending his loving grandmother’s money. Also, he gets diagnosed with cancer.

He arrives in China after some QQ flirtations. His first relationship is never consummated due to his terrible bad luck of hitting on a lesbian, but he keeps trying. He then gets his first kiss and the book is even so personal as to describe how he loses his virginity. Time after time, he bumbles and messes everything up. He gets deported a couple of times, returns, orders up a fake degree most unethically, and so on, and so on.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be particularly remarkable to describe an American who teaches English abroad. That sort of expat memoir has been done many, many times and wouldn’t make for much of an engaging book. Rather, An American Bum is more unique, and full of legitimate surprises. For example, somehow Evans actually briefly becomes a “professor” at not one but two prestigious Chinese universities!

Matthew Evans is certainly interesting, and at the same time, not necessarily likeable. He becomes increasingly hard to empathise with, specifically when it comes to how he obliviously treats his female university students. There’s no question this poor fellow was not equipped with the skills necessary to make it in the world, whether in the States or in China. But he does keep making it worse for himself and most readers will probably not quite root for him.

In the end, whether one approves of his character or not, it certainly can’t be denied that he keeps one’s interest and I suppose that makes this a successful book.

Author Tom Carter began as a photographer, and there is a large visual element to the book featuring illustrator John Dobson’s additions. The black & white artistic depictions round out the story nicely, leaving an impression that resonates with the scenes described. If it was only prose, the book would frankly be too short at only about one hundred pages.

Eventually, the narrative rounds out with a Burmese misadventure involving several illegal uses of a passport, and finally jail time and outright homelessness. At last, Evans is permanently exiled from China. Justifiably so, it must be said. He arrives in Hong Kong as many such people do, and he is unable to even make it in Chungking Mansions. However, it turns out that there were other options at the time. The year is 2014 and he finds himself teargassed during the Umbrella Movement.

It happens to be a very poignant time to tell this particular story right now. In Evans’s own way, he joins the encampments purely out of personal convenience while undeservingly receiving credit for his brave political stance. That’s one way to witness history in the making.

The book is certainly a page-turner. Carter philosophises from time to time, speculating on what it all means. An American Bum can be very introspective, analysing the state of the West and China and modern societies. It does feel bigger than merely describing one random person’s misadventures. It’s a bit difficult to sum up these musings, but there are things here worth thinking about. Where does a man like Matthew Evans belong? In just what kind of culture would he be able to live a life worth living?

The book is over before you know it, leaving the reader with a strange yet authentic taste of life in the margins of expathood. Honestly, the book may not be for everyone and certain people will be offended and turned off by Matthew Evans. Whether one reads with feelings of compassion and empathy, or just can’t look away from the train wreck, one way or another, it will definitely be worth the read for some people.

Review: ALWAYS GOODBYE by Ray Hecht — Comics Grinder

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Always Goodbye by Ray Hecht. 88 pages. TWG Press, 2019, paperback, $5.99. With great insight and humor, Ray Hecht shares his life with the reader in his autobiographical graphic novel, Always Goodbye. This is an ambitious work as Hecht takes stock of his whole life thus far. Hecht sums up his life, year by year, […]

via Review: ALWAYS GOODBYE by Ray Hecht — Comics Grinder

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.

Impressions upon an Avengers: Infinity War

Almost goes without saying, massive spoilers herein forewarned.

Do not read ahead unless you’ve already seen.

Continue reading

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.