United Daily article on Taichung’s Central Book Store 中央書局

The article itself wasn’t much, but I found the historical reference to Taichung’s Central Books to be of interest. Basically the millionaire guy who founded pchome.com and who is from Taichung, Jan Hung-tze (詹宏志), wants to organize a reading group at the old Central Book Store (中央書局) building. According to him,「中央書局是1927年台灣中部仕紳們共同成立的一個帶有強烈浪漫文化色彩的書局。」Err, so I guess in the same extremely romantic spirit he wanted to form a reading group to contemplate works of (mainly) Western literature. And he did.

The book store, which is almost 100 years old, founded when Taiwan was still part of the Japanese empire, was recently reclaimed (I think it used to be a clinic) and re-opened to much fanfare last October (2020). Pic above, from this detailed CNA article, is canonical image of the founders.

 

“The Young Companion” and modern China

First published the same year Hugo Gernsback came out with his legendary science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, The Young Companion《良友》catered to the tastes of young middle class people, but it was also a force for social change. This fascinating article (in Big5) talks about 《良友》the “natural breast movement” 「天乳運動」 among young women in the 1920s-30s, and this sohu article (GB) discusses the fashion sense displayed in the pages of the magazine. In this pic you can see that the bobbed, flapper hairstyle we associate with the West was popular in China of the 20s also. The Young Companion is often thought of as product of Shanghai’s hybrid culture, but this article talks about its founding by a Guangdong native, Wu Lian-de (伍聯德).

 

 

 

Tang Fei in English w/links

Tang Fei (糖匪) is one of the more interesting of the Chinese New Wave SF authors in that her work frequently crosses genres and seems, to this reader at least, to be closer to slipstream fiction than SF.

《黄色故事》”Call Girl” Trans by Ken Liu 2013 @ Apex, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014(Rich Horton ed.)
《蒲蒲》”Pepe” Trans by John Chu 2014 @ Clarkesworld, Apex best of the year reprint Vol 4
《宇宙哀歌》”A Universal Elegy” Trans by John Chu 2015 @ Clarkesworld
《碎星星》”Broken Stars” Trans by Ken Liu 2016 @ SQ
《自由之路》”The Path to Freedom“, Trans by Christine Ni 2016 @ paper-republic
《看见鲸鱼座的人》”The Person Who Saw Cetus” 2017 @ Clarkesworld, and the Chinese version

Morphine Lollipop and the End of the World

short review of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Now that the movie is a flop I might as well publish this overly detailed review of the book I did some time ago.

Tartt’s novel begins with Theodore Decker, a thirteen year old New Yorker, visiting a downtown museum with this mother. Lingering on the first floor alone Theo meets an enchanting girl just moments before a terrorist attack takes the life of his mother is killed in a terrorist attack. When Theo wakes up he is in shock, lying in the dusty ruins of the museum with a dying old man who turns out to be the girl’s guardian. The man gives him an old ring and tells him to take it to an address on the Lower East Side, and shortly afterwards dies. Still in shock, Theo rescues his mother’s favorite painting, Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, stashing it in his backpack and beginning a lifelong attachment to great art.

Later, when he finds the address the old man gave him, Theo meets the man’s partner, Hobie, who befriends Theo and treats him as an equal in mourning for a lost loved one. Unexpectedly Theo is reunited with the museum girl, Pippa, whom he met but didn’t speak to at the museum on that fatal day. The story takes on an aura of love mysticism from this point, and one day in the hospital Pippa kisses him after sucking on a morphine lollipop, literally making herself intoxicating to him. Tartt’s Theo attempts to reconstruct the presence of his lost mother in various ways—both Pippa and the Fabritius painting are his connection to a maternal “absence” he can’t quite fill up.

A fatal family greed tears the two apart, even though they are so naturally drawn to one another, and we get to a major shift that is one of the few inconsistencies of the book: although Theo is clearly in love with Pippa, he seems to utterly forget about her after she departs for Texas to live with her aunt and he is taken to live in Las Vegas with his estranged father. There is no further recollection of Pippa for the next hundred or so pages, and we are left to assume that Theo has either become very unsentimental or he copes with the loss of Pippa so well because he has already overcome the loss of his mother(?). When Theo meets his best friend, Boris, a Polish-Ukrainian émigré whose father is a cosmopolitan miner, the atmosphere of the novel abruptly shifts to the other side of American culture. As the boys soon discover, the subdivision they live in is a deserted suburban wasteland on the outskirts of Las Vegas, and their shared sense of abandonment seems to weld them together for life. It is in this section that we encounter some really brilliant, unusual dialogue that makes it easy to discern that Tartt, author of another adolescent-focused novel, The Secret History, enjoyed writing this part the most.

It would be unfair to compare Tartt’s novel to Extremely Loud and Very Close, and even though the plot of the marginally upper class young New Yorker who must overcome the loss of a parent due to terrorism by discovering his roots is far too similar, I wish to avoid insulting her work. It’s not a question of Tartt’s book being superior (even though it is), the trauma narrative is not a mystery to be “solved”, but a beginning that takes Theo out of the city and puts him in the middle of the Nevada desert in his father’s enormous, vacant home. There he meets his best friend, Boris, and his life truly begins.

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would. Tartt’s style is atmospheric but leaves hollow spaces in you after you read it, places that you really want to be filled up with pieces of Theo’s life. The novel is not entirely without problems though, I think. At the end, when Boris sees to it that the painting is returned and earns the reward from the museum for leading to the location of the painting, returning to Theo in his Amsterdam hotel room on Christmas morning, it is not clear why. Boris explains that he has discovered something about fate and the mystery of unintended consequences, but then….[spoiler]? The problem is that although Boris is likable in many ways, he sometimes seems a bit too one-dimensional and all too often the stereotypical Slavic émigré. It also seems implausible that Theo hasn’t opened the painting since he left Las Vegas, and hasn’t discovered Boris’s hated Civics textbook in lieu of the painting.

Despite these minor problems, the book is a page-turner that brilliantly evokes the wonder and amazement of youth, a novel that eschews experimentalism in favor of in-in-the-gut storytelling. It is most definitely worth reading at least once.

Four ★s

As near as I can recall this was written in a blur shortly after I read the book, in 2014.

Let us Militantly Loiter on the fringe of nowhere

Hanging around, not doing anything except, like a droog, hanging around. Strange how what is still the most threatening thing imaginable for urban governments is just people loitering, occupying, striking, or just hanging around aimlessly on the streets. An essay along these lines by Susan Buck-Morss, a brilliant scholar of the writings of Frankfurt School and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, points to this problem/opportunity in interesting ways:

The Flaneur, the Sandwich Man, and the Whore: the Politics of Loitering.” New German Critique, No. 39 (Autumn 1986): 99-140.

 

Crowds and Don DeLillo’s Mao II

Excerpt from an interesting 1993 lecture by Tom Leclair on Mao II

“The real secret, though, belongs to crowds. Bodies gather together to become one powerful body reciting one powerful idea that will let them forget their uncertainty and their individual bodies. Millions of Maoists create a revolution. Thousands of Moonies chant the end of time. The Islamic revolution unites politics and religion. The crowds at Khomeni’s funeral mourn the passing of a body. The Iranians beat their own bodies to keep the body of their Master from leaving. And then in their religious and political passion they expose the body of their leader. Even Masters have skinny legs.”

Not all crowds achieve the power of certainty and forgetting for themselves. Not the homeless in New York. They are a true band of hostages, pure uncertainty about tomorrow’s home, pure body in the layers of clothes they wear. They are the crowd we want to forget, not just because they indict our social and political and economic system but because they are bodies that cannot hide from themselves. Like us, they are readers but what they read, says Omar, is their own small space. They see themselves in themselves.

The full essay can be found here.