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Satire, Cyberspace and the 25th Anniversary of the June 4th Massacre

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I learned several weeks ago that China Digital Times was about to publish Crazy Crab’s Chinese Dream in Cartoons, an e-book featuring material by a satirist whose work I had enjoyed seeing displayed on their site. When I got my advance copy, I began looking through it eagerly, expecting to be amused or moved by cartoons that I hadn’t seen before as well as appreciating the chance to look at some old favorites again. I wasn’t disappointed. And an added plus was making my way through the accompanying explanatory material provided by Sophie Beach, a central figure at CDT, on topics ranging from the derivation of the cartoonist’s name to the symbolism of some of the harder to parse panels.

It was nice to learn as well that the proceeds from sales of the e-book, which was published on May 12, were to be split between the cartoonist and CDT. It’s a site worthy of support, as it’s one of the key online ventures that I rely on—as do many others interested in Chinese current affairs—to keep up to speed on how China is being covered by the media and on how the Party tries to scrub the web clean of the many things it fears or simply dislikes. Continue reading


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Words, Words, Words: Part of Avidly’s Series on Public Intellectualism

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Avidly is running a selection of pieces on public intellectualism and the public commons this week. Today they published the first: an essay by Paul Erickson that raises a number of worthy questions, from the role of the public intellectual, to the preferred mediums for said intellectual, and finally what constitutes acceptable content for a public intellectual to weigh in on. An excerpt from the essay is below.  Continue reading


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A Quantitative Analysis of California in World Literature, from Boom

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Mentions of California in world literature, 1800-2009.

David L. Ulin writes: California owes its name to the written word. The source is the fictional Queen Califia, whose story comes from the Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1510 romance The Adventures of Esplandián. “Know ye,” Rodrí­guez de Montalvo wrote, “that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue. The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks.” Is it any wonder, then, that when Diego de Becerra and Fortún Ximénez landed at the southern tip of Baja in 1533, they chose to name the place the Island of California, as if they had discovered their own heaven on earth?

I think about the Island of California when I look at Joshua Comer’s data analysis graph. His task — to track the word “California” (and related phrases) through millions of books published across nine languages and several centuries — appears simple enough, but what it yields is something else again. To me, it looks like a voiceprint, or a series of overlapping voiceprints, the residue of a conversation we’ve been having without ever really calculating it, from continent to continent and year to year. It may start with Rodrí­guez de Montalvo, but it’s the proliferation that’s important. . . or, better yet, the cacophony.

Cacophony? Yes, the cacophony of California, which is itself made up of voiceprints, languages interrupting one another, each reading (and writing and speaking) the place through its own filter, its own point-of-view. Such an idea comes embedded in the very heart of Comer’s research, which seems to address the state as both myth and landscape, manifest and historical destiny, demographic and promised land. I’m not even going to try to summarize his findings; to be honest, I don’t think I could do them justice, and anyway, I’m less interested in the data than in the effect. Still, for all that his graphs reveal the fate of references to the state and some of its most essential tropes (the “California dream,” for instance, or “Californian gold”), what they also do is suggest that this is just the beginning of the story, that we are looking at the expression of California as idea.

Read the full piece, and look at Comer’s graphs, here.

(Have you heard? Boom: A Journal of California has joined LARB’s new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites AvidlyMarginalia along with Boom — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books.)


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Translating Poetry: An Essay from Marginalia

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(With today’s post, the LARB Blog continues featuring content from its new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites AvidlyMarginalia and Boom — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books. Today’s post comes from Marginalia, an international, open access review of literature and culture in the nexus of history, theology, and religion.)

Last week, Marginalia published this essay on the risks and rewards of translating poetry – we think it deserves a read. The essay, written by Rachel Tzvia Back, records the challenges of translating Tuvia Ruebner from Hebrew to English. Translating Ruebner is particularly compelling, Back notes, because of “the fact that Ruebner’s poetry and poetic sensibility occupied from the very beginning a place of being ‘always already in translation,’ a place of in-betweenness, doubleness and fragmentation.” Continue reading


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California Soul: Boom Interviews Richard Rodriguez

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(With today’s post from Boom, the LARB Blog continues featuring content from its new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites AvidlyMarginalia and Boom — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science, arts and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Recently, Boom interviewed Richard Rodriguez. They called the interview “California Soul,” and it’s certainly full of that: “It’s hard to read Richard Rodriguez’s essays and books without feeling that there is something deeply Californian about them. Every one of his books — Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard RodriguezDays of Obligation: Arguments with My Mexican FatherBrown: The Last Discovery of America, and Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography — takes place, at least in part, in California. Rodriguez has lived in California nearly all of his life. So what is it that now makes him say he once was but is no longer a California writer? There is something world-weary in the statement. Rodriguez has seen too much of the world in California, and perhaps too much of California in the world. At his writing table in his apartment in San Francisco, Rodriguez spoke with Boom about California’s soul, why he is no longer a California writer, what’s the matter with his hometown, San Francisco, these days, and love.” The beginning of the interview, where Rodriguez muses about his time in Los Angeles as a younger man, is below. 

Continue reading


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Isla Vista: Two Essays From Avidly

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With today’s post from Avidly, the LARB Blog begins featuring content from its new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include Avidly, Marginalia and Boom — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science, and the arts and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

Yesterday, Avidly posted two of the best essays we’ve read about the recent shootings in Isla Vista. They focus on “the challenge of reading Isla Vista” (our italics), and thus place the shootings within an intertextual history, from Mein Kampf to the seduction plots of pre-1800 American novels. Brief excerpts from each are below. Continue reading


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A Tale of Two First Books: A Conversation with NPR’s Louisa Lim and The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos

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In 2008, I wrote in the Guardian that there had recently been a “notable acceleration” in the frequency with which “illuminating books of reportage” on China had been appearing. It had become routine, I explained, after writers like Peter Hessler and Ian Johnson had come onto the scene, for two or three engagingly crafted books a year to come out that were by journalists who had spent considerable time in China and had sharp insights to share about the country’s recent past and current situation.  Still, the year of the Beijing Games was special, since it saw Factory GirlsThe Last Days of Old BeijingOut of Mao’s Shadow, and Smoke and Mirrors all published within a single twelve-month stretch.  I continue to admire that quartet of books, but the proximity of their publication dates no longer seems so striking.  Why? Because we are mid-way through a three-week period that, when it ends, will have seen the appearance of not just one but two major additions to the list of powerful books on China by talented journalists. I mean, of course, Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (just out from FSG and garnering very strong reviews, such as this one in the Washington Post) and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (which is officially published by Oxford on June 4, but is already available as an e-book, and getting positive assessments as well, such as this write-up in Kirkus Reviews).*

I caught up by email with Osnos and Lim — both of whom will be speaking in Southern California soon and both of whose books are reviewed, in the same article, in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review — and they generously agreed to not only answer a question from me, but also to play interviewer as well as interviewee and ask each other one question apiece.  My query for each of them is simple: What is in your book that you are proud of having there, but that you had no idea you would deal with when you started writing or planning the project?

Here, in the order in which they will be coming out this way are their answers, with Evan Osnos (who’ll be doing two events at UC Irvine on May 27) weighing in first, and then Louisa Lim (who will be speaking at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica on June 12) going next.   After that will come Evan’s question to Louisa and her answer; and then, closing out the interview, Louisa’s question to Evan and his reply. Continue reading


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Xi Jinping’s Peculiar Packaging of the May 4th Spirit

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By Rebecka Eriksson

Early this month, Chinese top leader Xi Jinping made a high profile visit to China’s most prestigious university.  While there, he had photographs taken with students and gave a speech that showcased, in revealing and sometimes bizarre ways, his penchant for drawing inspiration from a dizzyingly diverse array of parts of his country’s past, with Confucius and Mao Zedong and events of the early twentieth century all getting shout outs.

The setting for the speech was important.  It took place at an institution known internationally as “Peking University,” in Chinese called Beijing Daxue or simply “Beida,” for short, and sometimes described as China’s counterpart to Harvard.  The many claims to fame of Beida, whose website now features photos of Xi’s visit and a summary of some themes from his speech, include the central roles it has played in student struggles, from the great May 4th Movement of 1919, in which some future founders of the Chinese Communist Party took part, to the upheaval of 1989 that began in mid-April and ended with the June 4th Massacre.

The timing of Xi’s visit to Beida was notable.  He went to the campus to help the university mark the 95th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, which is important not only to the university but also to the CCP, which celebrates it as an event that helped put China on the glorious path to the “Liberation” of 1949.  His comments to students, not surprisingly, focused on the need to carry forward the patriotic “spirit of May 4th,” and, equally unsurprisingly, called on educated youths to follow the CCP’s guidance in doing this. Continue reading


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A Trip Back to Beijing — Courtesy of Xu Zechen and Eric Abrahamsen

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By Megan Shank

Step out of the Beijing airport, and taste the tang in the air. For the remainder of your time in the capital, it will linger, metallic, on the back of your tongue. Is it burning plastic? Coal? The sweat of migrant workers who have come to chase dreams and money? The boozy breath of corrupt officials? The hot asphalt poured for wide boulevards? The lingering dust of razed neighborhoods, a powdery earthen scent that haunts like an odiferous ghost? Pop music blares. Repairmen bike through neighborhoods with megaphones advertising their services. Garlic hits food vendors’ woks with a sizzle. Amateur opera singers warble in the park. Buses belch fumes. Modern subway doors swoosh open, people smoosh together. Old men with t-shirts rolled up over their bellies sit on stools in alleyways and chat. Young lovers wearing matching outfits interlace fingers and stroll in shopping malls. More than a million smokers could be lighting their cigarettes at any given moment. With enough of a spark, it almost feels like the atmosphere could burst into flames and smolder.

Xu Zechen’s slim 2008 novel Running Through Beijing, recently translated into an English version published by Two Lines Press (2014), transported me back to that city and all its colorful inhabitants. The novel captures the taste and tension of Beijing better than any I’ve ever read. I felt the grit from Beijing’s frequent sandstorms sting my eyes. I savored on my tongue again the spicy mutton of a hotpot joint. Readers will internalize the restlessness and loneliness of young strivers. And Eric Abrahamsen’s translation is so deft, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t originally written in English. He especially executes slang-filled dialogue with pizzazz. Continue reading

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Out Of Body: Freedom, Chaos, and Puppetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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By Emily Hunt

My first experience with A Midsummer Night’s Dream was watching Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film production. I’m sure the visually gorgeous cast had something to do with it – what 12-year-old girl can ignore the charms of Michelle Pfieffer, Rupert Everette, and Christian Bale? – but it was more than that: something entirely new had taken place on the screen. For the first time in my adolescent life, a work of art had induced a feeling of liberation, a distinct, excited sense of possibility.

Every production I’ve seen since has been aesthetically unique. With its magic, fight scenes, fairies, the backdrop of a seemingly opaque forest, and the changeable world of its play-within-a-play, – A Midsummer Night’s dream begs reinvention, much as its mercurial characters change while they delightfully, aimlessly wander through the woods. Nothing is definite: the four young Athenian lovers — Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander — speak in absolutes yet are characterized by anything but. They escape into the forest in the middle of the night, where Titania, a righteous and strong fairy queen, is duped into falling in love with an ass, part of a magical revenge plot by the seemingly heartless fairy king Oberon, so touched by the unrequited love of Helena that he attempts to enchant Demetrius, her wayward lover, into returning her affections. The mischievous sprite Puck mixes everything up, and the rampant, secret love affairs that drive the foursome into the forest devolve into a brawl.

And yet, somehow, in traditional Renaissance fashion, we wind up with a wedding-and-a-marriage happy ending. Continue reading