Saturday, November 24, 2018

Post Day of Plenty Reading

My week blew up because one of my kids wasn't feeling well and we ended up in the ER. We're all okay--very, very okay--but the lack of sleep on Tuesday night meant Wednesday's productive activities were canceled. But that's okay, because I got a lot done on Tuesday.

The one upside of so much time in the hospital was that I got a lot of reading in. I finished The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and oh my, it is one of the best things I have ever read. Right after that I tucked into Prophecy by Ellen Oh and finished that in two days (sorry, but Thanksgiving festivities got in the way). I now need to read everything Liu and Oh have written. Serpentine by Cindy Pon was pretty good, too, but I'm not jonesing to read the sequel like I am the other two. Also need to read The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (who just happens to be the translator of the Three Body Problem).

A young woman scarred by the Cultural Revolution is assigned to work on a project to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrials. What could possibly go wrong?
Semi-legendary version of medieval Korea with a female warrior heroine who has mystical powers. Where have you been all my life?

Weirdly, I struggled mightily and then finally gave up on Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep. I think most would agree it's not as difficult as the other three, and probably falls into Middle Grade...but when one considers how much Middle Grade books grated on my nerves at that age, it suddenly starts to make sense.

I also might just be burnt out from all of the reading over the last two days, along with the writing I've been dragging out of myself for NaNoWriMo. A walk would make me feel better, but the universe's punishment for ordering a bed frame from Amazon is that their delivery is late and I can't leave the house until it arrives. If only I'd gone to Ikea, where I could have gotten in a good walk while looking for something that would break in a year. In fairness, Amazon did apologize for FedEx's mistake, but if I don't get this thing by tomorrow there are more than a few thrift shops in Boston I'll be happy to spend my money in.

What did you read this week?

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Don't be an Intellectual Snob: Artistic Lineages, 80s Fashion Magazines, Information Entropy

I'm taken with Austin Kleon's idea of tracing our influences and the people who influenced them as a way of deepening, I think, our understanding of our own artistic impulses. I encourage people, even those who don't think of themselves as creators, to explore what it is that moves you.

Not feeling too well in the latter part of the week (it take about two weeks of non-stop activity and socializing for me to me remember why I've sworn off such things), I decided to start tracing my creative ancestry in order to keep myself in the game. What I have so far is woefully incomplete, but I'm pleased to see it still reflects my eclectic tastes. And while Google has done much to ruin the internet, there is something kind of neat about being able to see the influences of Tolstoy on a pre-delivered page.

Words, of course, are my thing, but it would be a sorry world if we all stayed in our lane (that applies to people in general as much as artists). I get a thrill from finding musical artists to fall in love with, and while I'm much more discriminating about the visual art I enjoy (I think I'm not unique in that; most of us have a "tighter" band of what we consider attractive visually than in the other arts), when I find a piece that speaks to me, I could stare at it for hours. So it's worth coming up with a list of composers and painters and tracing their pedigree.

The artist that first came to mind was Marc Chagall. For me, his art is perfect: whimsical, magical, visual fairy tales, and like the best of all fairy tales, profound in both its simplicity and surrealism (see Thought below). I remember the feeling I first had when I saw his art, as if the world was opening up to me beyond the clean, perfectly geometric lines I'd been told I needed to live in. This, of course, prompted me to place the memory in a specific time (aren't we all such linear creatures?), and where I saw him for the first time.

Antonio rocchi su dis. di marc chagall, le coq bleu, 1958-59
Le Coq Bleu, Marc Chagall

The answer was that the first time I saw his work was when I was twelve in 1985, shortly after his death, and the place I saw him was in Harper's Bazaar (and I'm pretty sure it was the May issue). Could it have been Vogue? Maybe, but it was one of the two, and I remember staring at those pages, completely entranced. It was definitely in a Harper's Bazaar that year that I read about the passing of Tennessee Williams, and with such lyrical quotes that I decided I had to read him, and soon.

As I thought about this, I remembered that this was just the first contribution, and I use that word without irony, that I got from the glossies. Trust me, I learned more about makeup application than was useful, but I also learned about literature and art; that's got to be part of the reason that I was enthusiastic about reading and watching things my classmates turned their noses up at, including Oscar Wilde. (That was definitely a Vogue contribution; the editors there were constantly mimicking his arch affect.) Just as importantly, I learned a lot about personal finance from Glamour, whether it was getting a binding estimate on moving cost's, or the merits of using the stock market index to find the best place to apply for a job (FYI, it worked). Finally, let's give it up to American Elle, who in its first year included a profile of Mies van der Rohe, making him sound like kind of curmudgeonly badass. Less is more, suckers.

Is saying I read the articles in women's fashion magazines the equivalent of saying you read the articles in Playboy? Probably. Is someone going to remark that I'm making women's magazines sound like the picture book equivalent of what one might get in a more "serious" magazine? Almost definitely--smart people can be pretty snotty.

A quote:
I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good.
--Mies van der Rohe

A thought:
He remembered taking a class in information theory as a third-year student in college. The professor had put up two pictures: One was the famous Song Dynasty painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, full of fine, rich details; the other was a photograph of the sky on a sunny day, the deep blue expanse broken only by a wisp of cloud that one couldn't even be sure was there. The professor asked the class which picture contained more information. The answer was that the photograph's information content--its entropy--exceeded the painting's by one or two orders of magnitude.
--The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Monday, November 5, 2018

Exploring Asian and American writing, and NaNo thus far

A couple of weeks ago I decided that I was going to read more Asian and Asian American writers--but that's not going to stop me from opening this post with my thoughts on a Korean movie.

I was so excited that Netflix got a new Korean movie that I ignored the reviews that said it was "off", but I should have listened. Illang: Wolf Brigade made almost no sense to me. The backstory is admittedly compelling: China rattled its saber one too many times, which forced Japan to re-arm. In response, the two Koreas agreed to reunify in order to put up a strong defense. But a group called The Sect is against reunification, and they use terrorist tactics to prevent it. In response, the South Korean government forms an elite security force known as the Wolf Brigade. After a security operation goes sideways and numerous unarmed school girls are killed, the Wolf Brigade begins to hide their faces behind masks.

Interesting, but while what I just described could have taken easily half an hour to cover on film, that was glossed over in under five minutes. When the story picks up five years after the incident with the school girls, another young girl with the Sect (Shin Eun-soo), who just happens to be wearing a red sweater, leads the soldiers through an underground system of tunnels after most of her cell has been killed. Cornered, she blows herself up, devastating the unit. One soldier (Gang Don-Won) takes it particularly hard. When he's asked by an old colleague now working for the security department (Kim My-Yeol) to visit the older sister (Han Hyo-Joo) of the dead girl, the story really begins. I'm not giving anything away when I say that nothing is as it seems.

Little Red Riding Hood

By the end, I had no idea what the movie was about. It had slick visuals, the kind I haven't seen in Korean cinema before. Think Blade Runner but without mechanized human beings. Seoul looks cold and hopeless, and whatever high ideals people think they're fighting for is overshadowed by the daily grind to survive. My issue was that there wasn't enough of Gang's inner life to explain why he had enlisted to serve in the first place. And while I understood Han's conflict, I needed to know more of her backstory to understand how she found herself in her situation. It's ironic that a film that really mastered visuals indulged in so much telling and not showing.

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh also explores what a post-unified Korea would look like and, perhaps not surprisingly, does a better job of it (books > movies, who knew?). Here again the Koreas have unified in reaction to forces in Northeast Asia, but this time the rebels want Korea to be an independent country, not part of a greater council of nation. Seoul, known now for being one of the most technologically advanced cities on the planet, is so advanced in the year 2199 that it has its own Dome which protects it from outsiders--including the have nots in Old Seoul. Do I need to say that this was a dystopian YA, the genre I swore I had no interest in several years ago? Okay, fine, you caught me, I'm a fan, and I can't wait for the sequel to come out.

I'm dying to get my hands on The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, the first book in an internationally acclaimed Chinese sci fi series. I can't remember, but I think this was recommended to me after I ready City of Brass by S.A. Chakroborty, but it's only now that I feel brave enough to tackile it. While I wait in the library queue, I've gotten my hands on some works by Asian-American authors, including Serpentine by Cindy Pon, Prophecy by Ellen Oh, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep, and Half World by Hiromi Goto. Serpentine reminds of the real reason that I avoided YA: some of the themes make me squirm. I'm not uncomfortable with exploring a same-sex orientation awakening, but I found a parent's violent reaction to it very hard to read. The more things change, the more they don't.

Even if you can't write 50K words this month, why not write anyway?

We're five days into NaNoWriMo right now and I've technically signed up, but there's no way I'm writing 50,000 words this month. I did it last year and I was grateful for the kick-start to my project, but it took a lot of out of me, to the point where I don't think I wanted to write for a month after that. On top of that, my sons are now high school-aged and we've cranked up the intensity of instruction. If I write 10,000 words this month, I'm going to be very pleased with myself. I'm sure some purists are going to wonder why I'm bothering at all, but it's nice to be able to have an excuse to hang out with other writers for a month.

What are you working on (or watching or reading) this month?