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On Beijing Smog

That an article about the severe smog in Beijing appears on a literary magazine really intrigues me. The truth is, the air in Beijing is constantly bad, at a hazardous level. When I went in March 2008, just five months before the Olympics, thanks to the government’s strident measures to reduce carbon emission (no burning of wood, cars take alternate days on the road according to license plates, etc.) I enjoyed clear blue sky all over the city and up the Great Wall.

Beijing’s air quality index hit 755 on a scale of 0 to 500. Pictures from the Chinese capital look like an early arrival of apocalypse. For miles and miles the city is saturated with smog and the only visible thing is a flashing video screen on a building. So why is this pollution good for China? Because the government can no longer hide its dirty laundry. The government can gloss over rights abuses. It can conduct secretive trials of prominent activists. But it cannot hide this kind of air, or blame it on foreigners. This detrimental smog is the result of the country’s own making–the heedlessness of environmental measure, unregulated industrial emission, and sheer ignorance.

The days of 24/7 mask wearing is near if China doesn’t implement concrete policy changes. The wave of pollution sweeping through the capital is more than an alarm for the intransigent Chinese negotiators.

Myanmar

imageThis is why I posted any book review this month. I’ve been perusing everything about Myanmar–travel books, history, tips on independent travel. I’m going for two weeks in January on my own before heading home for a visit in Hong Kong. Myanmar is now open to foreigners but a single-entry visa good for a month is mandatory of all visitors arriving in Yangon and Mandalay by air. I have to arrange hotels, transports, and coordinate with a mixture of domestic flights, trains, and a cruise on the Irrawaddy River.

Some preliminary thoughts:

1. Shoes must be off in all monasteries and temples. This means Myanmar trip will be a flop-flop one. I need to bring at least two pairs.
2. The country is caught between the desire to grow and in the rusty old colonial facade. It’s growing in a speed that even guide books cannot keep up. It’s high time to go as international chain like Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the country.
3. Horse carriages will be used for seeing the thousands of pagodas that flank all over Bagan. Temple ruins are the prime reason why I’m going.
4. Hotel/guesthouses rooms can be scarce during high seasons. Reservations a must.
5. Mystery. It’s the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia due to its prolonged closure. I want to see Myanmar’s truest forms before it becomes “assimilated.”

On Cleaning the Bookshelf

From Barnes & Noble blog is an article providing very practical suggestions to cleaning your bookshelves. I admit I tend to keep every book but in reality it’s not reasonable due to lack of space. Purging is the inevitable option. It’s not easy to pare down my library, but I tend to do it toward the end of the year before my big annual travel home to Asia.

The article raises some good points, and questions every reader can ask him-/herself when considering to purge:
1. Do I ever intend to reread this book?
I have books for which I have developed a sentimental attachments over the years and I am determined to keep them. I’m on a rotation to reread them, so they stay. Time constraint is something to consider when it comes to rereading.
2. If I haven’t read this book, how long has it been sitting there?
It depends on the author and my interest in the subject matter. If it was an impulse buy or a book gifted to me that I am not all that interested in, purged!
3. Am I keeping this book on the shelf to say something about myself?
I don’t have enough shelf space for self expression, so I’ll purge it. Doesn’t the entire book collection say something about myself already?
4. Was this nook part of a phase, and am I still in that phase?
I never assess my library in this consideration. But I can understand I probably don’t need all the supermarket novels that I perused out of boredom during my younger days.
5. Can I remember any significant plot details or characters from this book?
This is usually the deciding factor when purging. If I cannot recall any details or plot about a book, then it’s got to go. It means I wasn’t really all into it. The book has served its purpose and has not made an influence.
6. Is this part of a series, and did I buy the rest of the series?
The chance is if you jump ship after one installment, you’re not going to muster the will to plow through the rest. Time to rid of the book.

“Popular Fiction”

Here’s an about the myths of popularity in fiction. It’s long but worth a read. That question popular fiction vs. literary fiction comes up again. I know publishers want to make the most profits out of the books, but the whole talk of what is popular and what makes a book popular is rather irrelevant. I don’t think there’s a formula to commercial success, but books that are short on literary elements, like mysteries and thrillers, tend to be more popular in the sense that they are more likely to be picked up and finished promptly. That said, to compare “popular fiction” with literary fiction is unfair and irrelevant, because the non-literary genre pretty much encompasses everything that literary fiction is not. There’s no competition.

Popularity is a myth when it comes to books. To speak of a specific genre is not practical. I can’t say for other readers, but I didn’t buy into any of the Gone Girl doubles after I finished Gone Girl. This speaks the fact that despite the regular conflation of genre fiction witch popular fiction, most genre fiction is not popular at all. What’s popular is whatever you want it to be. Also too often it seems readers’ interest in “popular books” is actually only an interest in books that are popular in the styles they like. So if the focus in the industry is to boost sales and encourage commercial success, it would hurt literature. Why? Because sales have essentially no relation to quality. One way to crack the homogeneity of “popular books” is to read out of our comfort zone and peruse literature on a niche, exploring books from all genres from the world.

Great American Novel Map

1litmap11litmap2I so covet this map, which arrives in the mail at work as a gift from the maker, Hog Island Press in Philadelphia. “The Great American Novel: Places from the pages of America’s finest literary works” chronologically celebrates 42 of the most important works of fiction inspired by life in the United States. It’s just exquisite–hand-drawn and printed on archival paper. Listed are some favorites of mine, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, and The Catcher in the Rye. I’m slightly disgruntled that Grapes of Wrath is picked in stead of East of Eden. This makes a great gift for book-lovers, and serves as a resource of reading lists!

Book Titles Matter

I don’t judge a book by its cover more than I do by the title. As long as the cover is not racy or movie tie-in, I’m an easy sell. But titles matter and they convey to me an immediate message about the book. If F. Scott Fitzgerald adhered to the earlier title of The Great Gatsy, Trimaochio, I probably would give the book a pass on first sight. Like strange-looking, eerie-smelling food, books with an ambiguous titles are usually deal breaker.

Lithub posts an interesting article about the origin of some iconic titles. I prefer simple, disarmingly beautiful book titles. Something lyrical and poetic, not cliched or too catchy. I’m sure authors are as fussy about the titles of their novels as parents are about the babies’ names. One can imagine the tediousness of the conception of book titles. For me a book title is a very slippery thing. It determines whether I’ll pick up a book or not, that is, before hearing the feedback of the content. I avoid anything that sounds obscure and ridiculous. Sometimes random isolated phrases make the best titles.

December Reading

The clock is ticking away for 2015. It’s December—the time of the year for holidays, gatherings, food, celebrations, and for some, distraction from readings. I usually like to sit by the fire place with my punkins and read mysteries. On the eve of my annual trip home in Asia, December also sees many travel/history/historical fiction crammed into my readings. This year Myanmar is put on the spotlight.

Since the country has opened up to tourism, development of infrastructure has gone on a break-neck speed, and so are the prices which has more than doubled compared to 2011. It’s the perfect time to go or it will become another Angkor Wat (Cambodia), heavily tread by package tours.

Before traveling to Myanmar, an excellent historical novel to read is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I have read years ago. To refresh and to gain relevance of the upcoming trip, I’ll reread. The book enables reader to appreciate the days before the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the years under the British rule, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.

Other books on the “read-dar” include the mandatory Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, and Burmese Days by George Orwell. I usually would read up on the travel guide while flying over the Pacific. That said, for the first time ever, I’m ditching Lonely Planet for the more updated Rough Guide on Myanmar. A two-year-old guidebook is too dated, at least for the prices on accommodations and transportations, for a country that is growing with an lightning speed.

Mysteries Demystified

I read mostly mysteries during the holiday seasons. The writing is more simple and requires less brainpower to read between the lines. But sometimes looking for the right mysteries could be a challenge. Mystery fiction has had many labels attached to it over the course of the genre’s history and there have been many attempts to classify it. The easiest is to stick with authors I like and branch out from there.

Thrillers, whodunits, mysteries, crime fiction, detective fiction, noir: all of these, and more, have been used, separately or interchangeably, to describe basically the same thing. They are all essentially referring to the same overall genre of literary fiction, the mystery or crime story. I divide them up in three categories and keep that mind when I’m browsing:

1. Puzzled Mysteries. One book that comes to mind is the recently read, lesser-known Bodies in a Bookshop by R.T. Campbell. A murder victim is discovered in a room or enclosure with no apparent exit, leaving the detective to ascertain the killer’s means of escape. What if the killer never escaped? The locked-room format uses such devices as misdirection (red herrings) and the illusion to deceive the reader into thinking that escape from the sealed room is an actual impossibility.

2. Cozy Mysteries. Some bookstores now have a separate section of these mysteries. This genre is generally acknowledged as the classic style of mystery writing. Prominent in England during the 1920s and ’30s, this style focused on “members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who became suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.” (Crime Classics) The stories almost always involved solving some form of puzzle, and invariably, observation, a keen understanding of human nature, and a heavy reliance on gossip were indispensable tools used in the solving of the crime. Representative authors are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

3. Hard Boiled/Noir. Born in the 1920s with the rise of pulp magazines, these stories captured the reality of life in America at this time in history. Most stories featured a tough guy main character, an isolated protagonist who managed to obey his own code of ethics and achieve a limited and local justice in a less than perfect world. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the quintessential hard boiled mystery novelists.

4. Police Procedural. The main characteristic of these types of stories are their realistic portrayal of police methods in the solving of crime. Police novels, or procedurals, usually center on a single police force or precinct, with each individual within becoming a part of the story. Often showcasing several cases at the same time, procedurals concentrate on the detailed investigation of a crime from the point of view of the police. Most of the supermarket bestsellers fall into this category.

Thankful for These

Goodreads: What book are you thankful that you read this year?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Having grown up in a foreign country, I never read this children classic. It’s a celebration of friendship and its meaning. It’s an evergreen tale that deserves recognition as a novel in which readers will find wisdom, humor, and meaning.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. It’s as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony of Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. It’s a spellbinding murder case and most importantly, a testimony to how our justice system comes through.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I would not have picked it up, let alone read, this book if Tina didn’t pick it as a read-along. Rand’s philosophy can be outlandish but she is not without reason. The huge tome delves on the importance of reason and individual thinking. When one is rid of its own will and thinking, the virtues that make life possible and the values that give it meaning become agents of its destruction.

“E-Reader Police?”

The New York Reviews of Books has an article reminding us that today in 2007 Amazon introduced its electronic reading device, the Kindle. Francine Prose is not concerned about paper vs electronic reader but on privacy of readers. E-book retailers are now able to tell which books we have finished or not finished, how fast we have read read them, and precisely where we snapped them shut. I’m not surprised or bothered by the fact. In the age of electronic devices, and with the aid of social media, every move of ours can be tracked and traced. Publicity means tractability. Our smart phones are really GPS by which the government can tract our whereabouts and ply into the information and sites we are looking at.

I digress. As per books the data show mystery/thriller and romance are the two most popular genres readers most likely to finish the books. But does that mean readers would feel guilty and shameful about not finishing a book? Will it ever happen that someone can be convicted of a crime because a passage that he is found to have read, many times, on his e-book? I think Francine Prose is way too opinionated and paranoid about how readers’ habit are being too transparent. Does it really matter? Does everything have implications?