Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
by Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau, 2008
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Heather McLellan

Once again, our book review takes us to an exotic, faraway land. This time, instead of le gai Paris, we'll be exploring industrial China. Leslie T. Chang, an intrepid American reporter, writes the best kind of nonfiction in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China: namely, the kind that has no bias other than "what information will make the best story?" While Chang's book can be both fun and frustrating in equal measure, there is a ton of stuff to learn here, and almost all of it is worthwhile.

Factory Girls, at first blush, is most comparable to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Instead of early 20th-century Chicago, however, Chang's book focuses on modern-day Dongguan, China. Originally an out-of-the-way farmland, Dongguan has transformed into an industrial powerhouse over the last half-century. Powered by the insatiable lust for electronics and clothing in the West, as well as the cheap, inexhaustible supply of migrant workers from the Chinese countryside, Dongguan is now home to millions of young women who are making their own fortunes and dictating their own destinies. Part capitalist exhortation and part exposé, Chang documents these young women as they move from job to job, boyfriend to boyfriend, and city to farm and back again.

First and foremost, Chang's writing style is a nonfiction writer's dream come true, most closely resembling the works of V.S. Naipaul, but channeling her fair share of Sinclair and Orwell, too. Most of Dongguan's fast-paced tribulations come through the eyes of Chunming and Min, two factory girls whom Chang befriends early on to act as her eyes and ears in the factories, schools, ice cream shops, and governmental bureaucracies in the sprawling Chinese city.

Even as the two describe fairly abysmal working conditions - twelve-hour days with little overtime pay and only two days off each month - Factory Girls never devolves into a polemic. In fact, Chang takes time to point out how much these conditions have improved in the last twenty years, how much fun the girls are able to cram in after-hours, and how their newfound relative wealth gives them a considerable amount of social power, both in dealing with their families and potential suitors. Make no mistake - you probably wouldn't want to work in a Dongguan factory, but if you were a young Chinese woman whose only frame of reference was an idle, rural life, this would be the most exciting adventure imaginable.

The book falters, however, when Chang digresses into her own family history, which she intersperses into the narrative with increasing frequency. It's understandable that Chang, a born-and-bred American citizen who has little innate connection to China beyond her racial heritage, would want to learn more about her past. However, the links between Chang's family drama during the Communist revolution and the China's current industrialization are tenuous, at best, and the stories about Min and Chunming are frankly much more interesting. Unfortunately, when all is said and done, these sections take up a good 1/3 - 1/2 of the book.

In spite of a few boring patches, Factory Girls is well worth a read for anyone who's interested in Chinese culture, the power dynamics of women in China, or good reporting in general. At this point, I usually recommend a "better" book, but I'm not sure there really is one here. Both The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell deal with similar situations in the West in the early 20th century, and while both are better written, neither one explores Chang's subject matter. This is a book primarily meant to educate, and unless you are a leading expert on Chinese culture, you'll probably learn a lot.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: The Paris Wife

All right, guys and gals, let's dive into another book review!

The Paris Wife
by Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Debbi Honorof

Those of you who know me can probably already see how this review is going to play out in your head. I have no problem stating that, in general, literary fiction and women's lit do absolutely nothing for me; The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is both. McLain tells the true story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first wife, and that makes all the difference.

Make no mistake: The Paris Wife, from a writing and storytelling standpoint, is not so different from any other women's lit book you'd pick up off the shelf. McLain's style is concise, straightforward, and eminently readable, and her tale is one of a small-town girl who falls in love with a very unusual man, marries him, and eventually divorces him when their relationship sours. Hadley herself is not a fascinating protagonist by any means, but her unique relationship with Ernest Hemingway gives readers a chance to meet the man through a biased but fair observer.

As the title suggests, The Paris Wife is a novel that centers on Ernest and Hadley's time in Paris in the early 1920s. The actual meat and potatoes of the plot are nothing to write home about. Hadley spends most of the novel walking, swimming, making love, dining with friends, or fighting with her husband. McLain throws a curveball towards the end in the form of an affair that very nearly turns into a nontraditional marriage, but ruins the surprise somewhat by setting this turn of events up in the prologue. To put it succinctly, if Hadley had to carry this book on her own - despite McLain's reasonable approximation of her psyche and voice, and meticulous attention to factual detail - it would be a lost cause.

Ernest Hemingway's character, however, infuses the book with a spark that helps carry it from beginning to end. Even though it would be very easy to cast Ernest as either an immortal artist who was far too good for Hadley or an irredeemable scumbag who cheated on his wife, McLain instead opts for a middle path. In The Paris Wife, Ernest usually means well, but he can be petty, mean-tempered, selfish, and egotistical. At the same time, he is loving, generous, well-meaning, and adventurous. Throughout all of his violent mood swings and poor life choices, McLain maintains - probably correctly - that his unusual lifestyle was critical to his value as an artist. Even if Hadley had been happier if Ernest had been a well-adjusted individual, the world would have been poorer for it. Tragedy breeds great art.

The book's biggest issue, aside from its occasionally glacial pacing and bog-standard writing style, is that there's not much reason to read this book instead of an actual Ernest Hemingway novel. Much of Hemingway's work is somewhat autobiographical, and, with no offense intended to McLain, Hemingway's work was much more ambitious. Even so, The Paris Wife is fundamentally a good book, its only real crime being that it invites comparison to much better ones.

For female readers who want a lightweight introduction to the Hemingway canon, The Paris Wife is probably as good a place to start as any. Those who are fearless, however, would be wiser to challenge themselves a bit and start with something like Death in the Afternoon, which covers some of the same subject matter with a writing style that will either make you swoon with joy or tear your hair out with frustration. Only one way to find out!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Guy's Guide to Feminism

I turned 25 about three weeks ago, and so far, I've got no regrets. My birthday was fairly low-key, but I got to see my family and friends, drink some good beer, eat some good food, and get a few small gifts. Birthdays get more extravagant, I'm sure, but it's hard to see how they get better.

One of my gifts was a $100 gift card for Barnes & Noble, which is good, because I had just finished the last book on my nook wishlist. Now, I could have just bought the next ten books in the series I've been reading (more on Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in another post, I'm sure), but I decided to try something new. $100 buys roughly ten eBooks, so I opened up the floor for recommendations. I would take the first ten eBook recommendations that my friends offered me, and read them front to back, no questions asked. This way, instead of reading my usual Orwell/Hemingway/O'Brien/McCarthy/sci-fi trhillers, I could expand my horizons a bit and see what else was out there.

But, I decided, why stop there? My friends were thoughtful enough to share their recommendations with me, so I feel like the least I could do to repay the favor would be to let them know what I thought. So, without any further ado, I present the first review:

The Guy's Guide to Feminism
by Michael Kaufman & Michael Kimmel
Seal Press, 2011
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by John Funk

Speaking as someone who works in the games industry, feminism is a hot topic these days. It seems that we can't go two weeks without some new scandal cropping up about the role of women in gaming, whether as protagonists, content producers, or players. Given that it's such a big part of the discussion surrounding nerd culture lately, just what is feminism? Should men be feminists, too? Does feminism adequately address the needs of all women? How does it tie into concepts like racism and homophobia?

Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel set out to answer these and many other questions in their 2011 book The Guy's Guide to Feminism. They buoy a tough topic with engaging writing, a wide breadth of information, and a few legitimately funny jokes.

Unfortunately, that is literally all they do right.

The Guy's Guide to Feminism does so much wrong that it's actually insulting to read. For starters, the book opens up with an egregious anti-joke. The authors set up a situation where a rabbi, a minister, and an imam are having coffee. A Buddhist monk walks in. This sounds like a setup for comic gold, but instead of a corny punchline, all we get is a three-page treatise on why women feel angry about their place in the modern world, full of righteous indignation and sedate, respectful exchanges.

With all due respect to Drs. Kaufman and Kimmel, who are obviously gifted writers and smart men, their book is often incendiary and wrongheaded. Take, for example, their section on Emotion. Kaufman and Kimmel argue that the only emotion that men are "allowed" to convey in modern society is anger, and that other emotions - save for rare flashes of happiness, grief, or compassion - are bottled up behind a layer of stoicism because of outdated ideas of masculinity. Feminism, they argue, will improve the role of men, because it will allow them to be more in touch with their emotions.

This sounds like a good argument until you think about it for a moment. The whole point of feminism, as I understand it, is to point out the absurdity of many "predefined" gender roles. If that is the case, then Kimmel and Kaufman have absolutely no right to dictate how men should and shouldn't comport themselves (save for the obvious anti-violence and tolerance angles, of course). If men want to be emotional and open, that's certainly their prerogative, but it is also my prerogative to think they should be a little more restrained. Neither one of us is "right," but Kaufman and Kimmel make an impassioned argument for why my view is "wrong." That is not the way to win supporters.

The sections on Pornography and XX/XY (a short primer on male/female biology) are perhaps the most reprehensible. They both feature conversations between imaginary men and women; in both cases, the men are absolute ignoramuses who need the wise, reasoned woman to show them the light of feminism. Just once in the book, it would be nice to see a man and a woman converse when the man isn't absolutely wrong and the woman is absolutely right, but sadly, this never happens. There is, apparently, a lot men can learn from women, but nothing women can learn from men. This is an extraordinarily bleak way to look at the world.

The books failings are too numerous to list, but as a few examples, Title IX did bankrupt many successful collegiate men's sports teams, rape is often motivated by sexual desire rather than a power struggle, and there are biological differences between men and women that go beyond genitalia. If you don't believe me, look them up; the authors did not.

To be fair, some of the sections are fantastic, especially Chivalry (chivalry isn't dead!), Dads (dads should be given paid leave to take care of kids, too), and Fundamentalism (religious fundamentalism is not compatible with a modern worldview, period). It's a shame that they are short and tend to taper off just as the authors bring up interesting points.

While the author's sources are as solid as solid gets, they do not actually match specific statements to citations, opting instead to give a reference list for each chapter as a whole. This is not particularly helpful, and brings many of their conclusions into question.

There's no doubt in my mind that feminism is a useful philosophy and that the authors behind this book are stand-up guys; that much is evident in the way they try to celebrate hardworking men and women of all races and sexual orientations. It's a shame that the book does not deliver on its intriguing premise, too often falling victim to strawman arguments and the idea of shared guilt instead.

As always, if you want to learn the real deal about men, women, and the overall evolution of culture, I recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins instead. This is not even remotely a book about gender studies, and yet it still has more of substance to say about why men and women grew to occupy different places in society, and why such ideas are now outdated.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Receipt for that Popular Mystery

If I asked you to list Gilbert and Sullivan operas, you could probably come up with three off the top of your head: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. Did you know that they actually wrote 11 more? It's true! From the outdated feminist critique Princess Ida to the heartbreaking grand opera The Yeomen of the Guard, there's a lot more to Gilbert and Sullivan than high seas mischief and execution antics. With that in mind, let's talk about Patience.

Patience tells the story of Reginald Bunthorne, an Aesthetic (capital A) poet ever-so-loosely based on Oscar Wilde, who falls in love with a simple milkmaid named Patience. While all of the women in town fall madly in love with Bunthorne's pretentious poetry and artistic attitude, Patience remains unimpressed. Things only get worse when her old flame, Archibald Grovesnor, comes to town and steals the affections of Patience - and every other girl in town!

With catchy music, an incisively funny libretto, and some very memorable characters, Patience is a thoroughly charming opera, in spite of a surprise downer ending. My favorite piece comes from the Colonel of the Heavy Dragoons. You see, before the women fell madly in love with Bunthorne (and later, Grovesnor), they were engaged to be married to a squadron of soldiers. When the soldiers return, they sing a song to introduce themselves.

The Heavy Dragoon (also called "If You Want a Receipt for that Popular Mystery") is a patter song in the style of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" or "My Name is John Wellington Wells." These songs are characterized by fast tempos and tongue-twisting rhyme schemes. In this piece, the Colonel lists a number of historical figures whom the dragoons aim to emulate. In this post, I would like to explain who each one is. So, without any further ado:

"The Heavy Dragoon"
by William Schwenck Gilbert

If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
Known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon,
Take all the remarkable people in history,
Rattle them off to a popular tune!

  • A "heavy dragoon" is an armored footsoldier

The pluck of LORD NELSON on board of the VICTORY -
Genius of BISMARCK devising a plan;The humour of FIELDING (which sounds contradictory) -
Coolness of PAGET about to trepan -

  • Horatio Nelson, aboard the HMS Victory, was a British naval hero
  • Otto von BIsmarck was the founder of modern Germany
  • Henry Fielding was a humorous British novelist
  • James Paget was a British surgeon (trepanning is a medical procedure)
The grace of MOZART, that unparalleled musico -
Wit of MACAULAY, who wrote of QUEEN ANNE -
The pathos of PADDY, as rendered by BOUCICAULT -

  • OK, you should know who Mozart is
  • Thomas Babington Macaulay was an English baron, and wrote biographies of royalty like Queen Anne of England
  • Dion Boucicault was an Irish playwright; Paddy was a character in a song he wrote
  • The Bishop of Sodor and Man was a man named Rowley Hills, DD when Patience premiered
The dash of a D'ORSAY, divested of quackery -
Narrative powers of DICKENS and THACKERAY -

  • Alfred d'Orsay was a French dandy
  • Dickens? Come on now
  • W.M. Thackery was a British novelist
  • Victor Emmanuel was the first king of modern Italy
  • William Peveril was a knight who built a hilltop castle
  • Thomas Aquinas was a Catholic priest and philosopher
  • Henry Sacheverell was an English politician
  • Martin Tupper was an English poet
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson was an English poet
  • Daniel Defoe was a British novelist
  • Anthony Trollope was a British novelist
  • François Guizot was a French historian
Take of these elements all that is fusible,
Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible,
Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum!

  • A pipkin is a small cooking pot
  • Residuum is a fancy word for residue
If you want a receipt for this soldierlike paragon,
Get at the wealth of the CZAR (if you can) -
The family pride of a Spaniard from Arragon -
Force of MEPHISTO pronouncing a ban -

  • The czar was the ruler of Russia
    • Aragon was a lawful Spanish kingdom
    • Mephisto is the demon from Doctor Faustus
    A smack of LORD WATERFORD, reckless and rollicky -
    Swagger of RODERICK, heading his clan -
    The keen penetration of PADDINGTON POLLAKY -
    Grace of an Odalisque on a divan -
    • Lord Waterford was a nobleman who coined "painting the town red"
    • Roderick was a Gothic king who lived in Spain
    • Paddington Pollaky was a Hungarian private detective (and forerunner of Sherlock Holmes!)
    • An Odalisque was a Turkish concubine
    The genius strategic of CAESAR or HANNIBAL -
    Skill of LORD WOLSELEY in thrashing a cannibal -
    Flavour of HAMLET - the STRANGER, a touch of him -
    Little of MANFRED (but not very much of him) -
    Beadle of Burlington - RICHARDSON'S show -
    • Caesar was the title of a Roman emperor, so this could be a number of people
    • Hannibal was a Carthaginian who attempted to invade Rome
    • Lord Wolseley was a British soldier who served in the far reaches of the world
    • Manfred was the hero of Lord Byron's epic poem of the same name
    • The Beadle of Burlington was a security guard who patrolled the Burlington arcade
    • Richardson's show was a sort of traveling Victorian circus
    • Wilkins Micawber was a character from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield
    • Marie Tussaud was a wax sculptor who founded a museum
    Take of these elements all that is fusible -
    Melt 'em all down in a pipkin or crucible -
    Set 'em to simmer and take off the scum,
    And a Heavy Dragoon is the residuum! 

    And that's that! Why not take a listen to the song for yourself? Try to follow along with all the shout-outs.

    Big thanks to the Patience Glossary for helping me out on a few head-scratchers.