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Blog Archive September 2007

Burma and the difference between Hardboiled and Noir

Monks were shot and killed in Rangoon. Crackdown troops have been called into the capital from the provinces. As the Blues song says, “You’ve only got your life to lose.”

Burma is a collection of many small nations with diverse histories, languages, cultures and aspirations. It is difficult if not impossible to say how a consensus would emerge in the event the military leaves the scene. General Aung San showed a way toward a solution. So it is possible. As for Yugoslavia or Iraq, the analogies may not hold. Analogies work better in science and literature than in politics where the dropped glass always breaks in a new and novel pile of debris. From this distance, it appears the military has managed to unite these diverse groups in a common cause.

They say hardboiled comes down to a tough perspective on life but there out of the howling silence in dark back streets some good can be found. There is a crack of light and if you follow it, then you might just keep your life and one or two small dreams. Noir is a locked room with no way out. No matter how hard you try, there is no hope, no chance of getting out, and no helping hand offered will mean a damn thing.

The Burmese are in the middle of a large crime fiction story. There will be more than one broken heart, more than a few monks clubbed or shot, and more than hurt and tragedy than any one story can ever tell.

In the streets of Rangoon and dozens of small towns in Burma, monks, students, shopkeepers, and the mass of people have hard choices in the few days. Do you bolt the door and hide under the bed; or do you take to the streets? What would you do? Unless you’ve spent time in Burma, you can’t really understand how desperate it is for most people. We are talking about lack of electricity, fuel, and food. This is about basic necessities to live. Climb up the hilltop and look down and see nothing but hunger, repression, and hopelessness. Would you stay under the bed or take to the streets?

The world is waiting to find out whether the horror of repression is only the first act of a hardboiled drama or the third act of a noir drama with the curtain falling hard. It’s the difference between getting knocked down and getting up from the floor and finding a way out. That’s hardboiled. But sometimes when a man is knocked down, he stays down. He’s finished. That's noir. When a noir ending happens to an entire country, that scales crime and tragedy beyond what most of us can comprehend.

My only regret is that I’m not in Rangoon.

If you want to keep up on the latest about developments in Burma, here are some websites:

New Mandala

Asia Sentinel

Siam Sentinel

Thailand Jumped the Shark

Posted: 9/27/2007 1:18:18 AM 

 

The Reading Space in Thailand

Cynthia Ozick’s The Din in the Head discussed in the Joseph Epstein article should spark some cultural soul searching in other countries. While the Americans worry about the advance of technological proxies to increase exposure to the crowd, in Asia the crowd has played a much a different role. The issue isn’t technology. The issue is the cultural constraints on people wishing to withdraw to innerness, to separate themselves from the crowd. Meditation springs to mind where such a withdrawal has broad cultural support.

But does this cultural support extend to the sphere of reading? The default for most Thais is submerging themselves in their crowd – friends, colleagues or families. This is not a crowd of strangers; but a crowd that functions as an inside group. If a Thai were to make himself unavailable to the in-group because he or she is reading a novel, that would be thought to be selfish (if not eccentric behavior).

To say that Thais don’t like to read is to miss the point. Reading requires a kind of withdrawal from communal life and most Thais would find that lonely and painful. The trade offs in entertainment, knowledge and information would not be sufficient compensation for the loss of being part of the crowd.

Another explanation is in the education system. In China, historically the Mandarin class was heavily drawn from the peasant class. Scholarship, discipline study and intellectual pursuit were highly valued at the grass root level. Though a communal society, the Chinese were able to establish a space where reading and writing were valued. The practical reality of the system over a thousand years led to the basis of good government. Thailand has no history of drawing upon the peasant classes for high government office and service. The Mandarin class wasn’t drawn from the peasant class.

One might argue that in the West, reading is a preoccupation of the middle-class and that the late development of a middle class in Thailand has more to do with a lack of reading tradition than the absence of a system that tracked the Chinese Mandarin system.

In other to read, a private space of solitude is necessary. Such space is needed by writers to create a narrative universe of words. It is in this confined space that readers and writers converge, where the twin solitudes share a world compose of words. Readers often feel that they know the author of the book they have read. A book may have magically channeled some of their deepest thoughts and emotions. In any event, a novel can’t be written with the backdrop chatter of a crowd ringing in the writer’s ear; nor can it be read in such an environment.

It may be that the West, from this cultural perspective, is becoming more “noisy” and crowded and reading books decreasing, but there will always be people who check into the quiet space with a book to read. Authors are responsible to bring to that private space provocative, intelligent, stimulating and memorable narratives that help to give shape to the ideas about how we live or how we should live.

Posted: 9/21/2007 5:48:24 AM 

 

The Invasion into the Reading Space

Joseph Epstein is one of America’s foremost social and literary critics. The rare breed of thinker who draws lessons from the intersection where technology and literature collide. In his article “The Literary Life” at 23 Epstein writes:

“A good heart remains the first requisite for a great novelist. *** So many young novelists appear to be up against the same problem, settling for composing books that go in for verbal feats and imaginative flights over gripping moral dramas: I have in mind the novels of Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Gary Shtayngart, Jeffrey Eugenides, among others. Belief goes to the heart of the problem: if you don’t know what you believe in, you cannot construct moral dramas, which leaves you with making jokes through elaborate literary constructs to make the sham point about reality not quite existing, or that life is really no more than a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom.”

Epstein also expands upon Cynthia Ozick’s The Din in the Head. The idea is that the new technology, the Internet, iphones, ipods, email created spaces filled by crowds. Novels – both reading and writing – need a space of silence and solitude. The world of words flourishes only outside of the crowd, with it’s noise, intellectual clutter and the staggeringly ever present machines streaming messages of distraction.

Posted: 9/21/2007 12:31:48 AM 

 

Word of Mouth in publishing and the Blurb

One question that comes up in publishing fiction is how to get someone in a bookstore to pickup and buy a book by an unknown author. We have all picked up a book where we didn’t know the author. What makes a reader take the chance on such a book? Part of the decision is connected with validation. If a friend or a member of our family has read a book and recommended it, that might be enough to tip the scales. And often it is. Or if we’ve read an appealing review of a book by a critic we trust, then we would often buy it.

Where there is no worth of mouth from friends or family, and no review, but you are attracted to the title, the subject and the cover, what can help you make up your mind? A recent article in the Denver Post says it is the blurb on the back of the novel you are holding. And bookstore employees are also readers, how do they view blurbs?

“Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores, said that blurbs serve any number of useful purposes. As a reader, she said blurbs "really influence how I see things," and she believes the store's customers see things similarly.”

Crime fiction book critic Sarah Weinman looks at what might be behind the blurb:

“I tend to go with Langer's point of view but that's because as soon as I see who blurbs a book - or the number of blurbers - I have a ballpark estimate of how much the publisher is supporting the book. Even if it's only one or two people, the quality of writers chosen is still a pretty good indicator of how much weight said publisher is throwing behind the book. But reading blurbs is fun as a means of guessing semi-hidden relationships, whether the blurb was, in fact, written by the associated writer and other less-than-above-board things.”

Posted: 9/19/2007 10:18:55 PM 

 

Looking Inside the Human Mind

The best fiction is often the result of character development that creates an arc of intellect and emotion, finely tuned, elaborately structured, and with broad spectrum or range. Such characters bore deep into our own consciousness as if in the story telling, the author has found a way to channel our own thoughts.

The advances in psychology and cognition research continues to reveal more about the way our emotions and intellect are networked. A recent article in The Edge worth reading on the subject is by Jonathan Haidt and titled: MORAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF RELIGION

Here’s an excerpt:

“The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation.

Just look at your stream of consciousness when you are thinking about a politician you dislike, or when you have just had a minor disagreement with your spouse. It's like you're preparing for a court appearance. Your reasoning abilities are pressed into service generating arguments to defend your side and attack the other. We are certainly able to reason dispassionately when we have no gut feeling about a case, and no stake in its outcome, but with moral disagreements that's rarely the case. As David Hume said long ago, reason is the servant of the passions.”

The problem is the expectation that truth can prevail over “face” and over “opportunistic” behavior. The cultural aspects further confound the role of truth in the mix of competing interest. This is one reason why good novels will always have an audience as the best stories work out the way truth and the interest that truth must compete with attract our attention as readers. That is no surprise. People want it all at the same time: truth, face, fairness to others, and grace under fire. When we say a character is flawed, we are saying that he or she will turn truth on its head if the case of a larger benefit turns up.

How much truth can people accept from their leaders, generals, religious figures, scholars and teachers? The verdict on this question remains for another day.

Posted: 9/19/2007 4:25:25 AM 

 

Asia Crime Fiction in the news

Manchester based novelist Michael Walters has written two crime novels set in Mongolia. Walters is a management consultant by trade. I would expect he would have an interesting angle on business deals in Mongolia. The English editions are available on amazon.co.uk, and the American edition of the first book will be released by Berkly Books in 2008. Meanwhile English edition of The Shadow Walker released in May 2007 by Quercus is available on amazon.com.

The Shadow Walker, a British geologist turns up in a Mongolia minus his head. The hero is a police officer named Negrui. And the first two books have drawn praise for the description of Mongolia, the culture, the people, and the legal system. Negrui partners with an English police inspector and they track the bad guys through the Gobi desert.

The Adversary, the second in the series is a crime/suspense thriller with the set up being an influential businessman buys his way out of a prosecution with some fake evidence. That sounds familiar enough. And the cop and judge who tried to nail the warlord has no sense of humor, and does everything in his power to plot his revenge.

A tip of the cap to Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders: A Forum for International Crime Fiction for bringing this author to my attention.

Posted: 9/18/2007 4:25:27 AM 

 

Budget Airline Crash in Phuket

Yesterday a MD-82 twin-engine departing from Bangkok crashed as it attempted to land at Phuket airport. Reports here list 88 known dead about around 42 passengers survived the crash. Among the dead 50 were foreigners. The flight was on One Two Go flight OG 269. There had been heavy rain and gusting winds at the time of the crash.

Last night all the local stations along with CNN carried footage of the crash. The plane split in part on impact. Some passengers were thrown out of the crashed plane; most died for fire or suffocation inside. The plane caught fire after the impact. Apparently there wasn’t much time until the entire plane was consumed in flames. Reports indicate that many passengers had been knocked unconscious by the force of the impact and still had their seatbelts on when the flames incinerated the aircraft.

The survivors didn't have long to leave the plane; most of the survivors were in the back of the plane and were able to scramble out of windows, emergency exit or holes in the broken aircraft. Foreigners listed as killed were from Australia, Austria, Britain, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands.

The current theory is pilot error. The pilot was among those listed as killed. Years ago when I lived in England on several occasions I trained on the flight simulator at Heathrow Airport. One purpose of the simulator is to train pilots in bad weather conditions. Wind shear, electrical storms, heavy rain, fog, or snow are all part of the training. It would be interesting to know how extensively the budget airlines flight training is for their pilots. Such training is expensive and time consuming and the question must be asked whether budget carriers to trim costs on these cheap flights are paying for pilots who have had the best training and regular flight simulator exercises.

Posted: 9/16/2007 11:13:23 PM 

 

The Australian Big Sleep

Authors of crime fiction often draw from real events to interject the feel of reality into their novels. Sometimes, though, reality becomes stranger than fiction, and the author may using “facts” that spoil the fictional world. For example, take a long trial before a jury and the judge nods off. No doubt this has happened on more than one occasion. But what if the judge has a condition that predisposes him to suddenly slip into a coma like sleep?

There is a court decision on this precise point that deserves wider circulation. In this case a judge who presided (when he was a awake) over a criminal case where the defendants were accused of drug offense. The judge fell asleep during the trial. Not once, but many times. The two defendants were found guilty by a jury, and they appealed on the not wholly unreasonable argument that the judge should have been awake during their trial.

Here’s what the dissenting appellate court judge in Australia (New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal) had to say:

First he reviewed the evidence:

“Sometimes when the judge was asleep I noticed that some members of the jury would look at the judge and then look at each other and then look back to the judge very intently. It was clear to me that some of the jury appeared to be paying a lot of attention to the judge when he was sleeping. During the times when the judge was asleep for long periods I noticed that many of the jurors appeared not to be paying attention to what was being said and would appear restless. They would fidget, look at each other, watch the judge, look around, appear to be scribbling and generally appear to lose concentration. This was very different to how the jury reacted when the judge was awake. At those times they would appear to be paying attention, generally looking at whoever was speaking or at their papers when asked. It was very obvious to me that there was a real difference in the jury’s behaviour when the judge was asleep.”

Here’s what the convicted men argued at the appellate level:

“9. When I was giving my evidence I was facing the bar table and the jury and the judge was behind me. At times during the prosecutor’s cross-examination I heard a deep rumbling noise come from behind me. At first I was not sure what it was and then I realised that it was snoring. It became louder and I realised that some of the other people in the Court and the jury appeared to have noticed and were looking at the judge and not me or the prosecutor. Some of the jury looked surprised and others were smiling.

10. When I first heard the noise it was quite soft and not particularly distracting but as it became louder and other people appeared to notice I found it very disruptive and it made it hard to concentrate on the questions. I did not really know what to do about this and I did my best to just try to concentrate on the questions and my answers.

11. At one point, when the snoring was at its loudest, the prosecutor appeared to stop asking questions and I turned to the associate who shrugged her shoulders. I looked back and then I heard a loud banging noise behind me and I turned to look back and saw the judge looking up startled. The questioning continued and after maybe ten minutes I heard the snoring noise again. This happened a number of times whilst I was giving my evidence.”


The argument on appeal:

“The basic proposition put forward by the Appellants was that proceedings are not being conducted in a properly constituted court if the judge is absent. A judge who is physically present in the courtroom but unconscious is in substantially the same position as a judge who is outside the courtroom. These propositions were tested by reference to the possibility of a judge who is out of sight but not out of hearing, a judge who is absent for the briefest of periods, a judge who was present and conscious but abstracted or inadvertent and a judge who was present and conscious but indulging in buffoonery or other distracting conduct.” And the dissenter concluded:

“[I]n my view the conduct of a trial before a judge and jury required that the judge be present and conscious during the whole of the trial proceedings, at least to the extent that any absence or period of sleep beyond any period which was insignificant because not more than momentary. Further, I am satisfied that the periods during which the judge was asleep could not be dismissed as insignificant for the conduct of the trial.”

The majority of the court, however, held the BIG SLEEP hadn't caused a miscarriage of the justice and the convictions were confirmed.

CESAN v DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS (CTH); MAS RIVADAVIA v DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS (CTH) [2007] NSWCCA 273

A tip of the cap to Professor David Vaver, Oxford University, for drawing this case to my attention.

Posted: 9/9/2007 11:44:41 PM 

 

 

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