Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review: On Such a Full Sea

Author: Chang-rae Lee
Genre: Dystopia, Science fiction
My Rating: ★★★(3 of 5 stars)

On Such a Full Sea- Chang-rae Lee
Image courtesy of Google Images
In the wake of the commercial successes of ‘dystopian’ stories that have leapt from page to screen, the genre has been treated by many contemporary writers as their experimental sandboxes. However, modern dystopia requires a rather formulaic approach by design, so finding a title that effectively throws in a bit of thematic variety is very rare.

The typical formula goes like this: there’s a bleak setting, perhaps a wild landscape that is a by-product of (a) a big catastrophe, (b) an invasion of supernatural or extraterrestrial forces, (c) a deadly war, or (d) the neglect of its lousy stewards—humans. Smack in the middle, imagine surviving human settlements or patches of stratified societies closed off by walls or domes that protect them from the ‘world’. These societies live an unnatural lifestyle crutched by technology, with their governments continually promising to keep them safe. Enter a smart, young, and feisty hero/heroine, who will discover something wrong with the authority. That’s where (s)he will stand up, go beyond the walls, seek the help of the free outsiders, and try to rectify the wrong in the world she lives in.

Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea was introduced to me by fellow readers as a modern dystopian tale that is largely different from its peers. They told me it has the destroyed-world-with-walls setup, but insisted it is something new; they said it has got a young heroine in the forefront, but that it is not exactly catered for the young adult audiences. I was colored curious, so I picked it up. It turned out that the book does follow the typical modern YA dystopia blueprint, but the author twists his style in a way that lets the readers see—or feel—the genre in a new perspective.

In the story, the society is divided into three: the Charters, or the enclave of wealthy and sometimes cutthroat individuals living in grand villages; the lower labor colonists, usually of Asian ethnicity, who were driven away from their pollution-ravaged homes to now toil in providing the necessities of the Charter villages; and the counties people, the ‘uncivilized’ populace living beyond the gates that mark what are supposed the safe zones.

Our protagonist is a tiny teen-aged girl named Fan, a fish tank-diver in the labor colony called B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) who goes beyond the safety of their gates to search for her disappeared lover. Although we have her as the storyline linchpin, the book as a whole does not so much revolve around her as it does around the collective people of B-Mor. This is because the story is narrated in the first-person plural point of view, a powerful “We”.

The unusual POV choice is one of the things that separate On Such a Full Sea from its peers in the genre. It’s new and romantic; it’s friendly and able to establish an instant rapport with the readers. It could have been the story’s main strength only if it did not come twinned with its main weakness: the vague character makeup of Fan.

Whenever readers dive into a fictional world, I think it’s very important for them to have something to latch onto. Give the readers something to care for; give them something to root for. It’s obviously deliberate in Lee’s part to make a heroine out of an ordinary, quiet girl who makes an uncharacteristically bold choice, but if the reasons behind her choice are blurry, if they are just woven from gossipy speculations and blind admiration, her action that officially turned her into a legend loses a degree of impact. It may be an element of the fable structure, but the rest of the ingredients in the tale appear to be sacrificed.

The point is it’s good that the readers may get a fine, refreshingly impersonal, and sympathetically communal voice from the narrator, but it produces multiple blinds that prevent us from seeing what are supposed to be important in a good story. It makes a character, who could be unconventionally charming, a little too flat. The collective storyteller cheers for Fan’s successes, but what exactly for? Stepping out or running from safety is a significant symbolism for the B-Mors, but can its significance ripple through the audiences reading the whole thing?

(Some might argue that Fan did all what she did because of love. But saying that is just that, saying. The readers have never actually felt that love; the narrator is saying they know Fan loved Reg, but it’s all secondhand to the readers. That’s telling instead of showing.)

The world-building would have been spot-on if it weren’t for its loopholes—or should I say its inner mechanisms that are kept secret from the readers. Many questions popped into my head: How did such a society come about? What are the new main laws that such a society must abide by? What are the schemes they are using to keep a strong, surviving society where there is evidently a system for business, trade, and industry while chaos and ruin is running so close on its outskirts? These things, if touched even for just a couple of paragraphs or so, could have provided more concreteness to this universe.

There are so many things that needed to be presented clearly, but I do understand that Lee here is underscoring not the technical aspects of this world but the philosophy and effect of Fan’s actions. There are long passages on destiny, on freedom, on impacts of socio-cultural caste systems on a person's individuality, and on how a small decision of an ordinary girl can make people think again, can make people realize their choice is in their hands, can make people look the other way and remind themselves that they are actually longing for change.

Nevertheless, I loved how ‘romantic' my experience with this book had been. It's like listening to a friendly stranger talk fondly about the life he left miles away; it's like he has so much to say and you have so much to ask but time runs out, so when he leaves, you just let the loose threads of his story them be blown by the wind.

Although Lee succeeded in making me realize there is a refreshing flavor of contemporary dystopia out there, he wasn’t quite able in pulling me completely in his world. Some chapters proved to be engrossing while the others left me thirsty for more. I still think this is a decent read, though. I have heard that Lee’s previous works are much, much better than this, so I’ll definitely try them out.

Review: Orange is the New Black

Author: Piper Kerman
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir
My Rating: ★★★(3 of 5 stars)

OITNB-Piper Kerman
Image courtesy of Google Images

Netflix’s hit comedy-drama series Orange is the New Black is the kind of show that should be labeled “bad for viewers who got heaps upon heaps of important things to tend to”, simply because a single episode could hold you captive (no pun intended) and make you forget about the said piles of responsibilities until you blink at your clock and realize you’ve just twelve hours watching the whole season. I should know—I’ve been singlehandedly thrown back into my couch potato mode when I got a hold of the first two seasons. Naturally, when I learned the series was based on a book, I know I have to pick it up.

Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a short albeit delightful treat that is as engrossing as its web series counterpart. It follows the story of Piper Kerman, a “nice blond lady” who had to serve fifteen months in prison for her association with a drug-trafficker when she was still in her early twenties.

With the fast translation of books to TV series and movies nowadays, I have learned to work my way in the middle as a consumer who actively churns out my opinions about my favorite stories that happened to be presented in both formats. I have learned that for the most part, I favored books since they have always contained more honesty and more care for details. I have learned that TV/movie adaptations have a way of romanticizing scenes for a greater on-screen impact or aesthetics.

In the case of Orange is the New Black, I was right about the romanticizing part. But while I expected the book to be a patchwork of watered down scenes from what I have seen in the show, I still anticipated reading about a few things that could send brutal punches in the gut, things that could stand as eye-openers to society about what was really transpiring behind bars and in the American penal system—things that might have been the reason why this memoir received several thumbs up. Truthfully, I expected grit…lots and lots of it. Instead, what I’ve read about are the “normal” day-to-day accounts of prison life, which are not as bad as I thought they would be and could sometimes border on being soporific. The memoir actually reads like an all-women mixed-race/class Big Brother show except that everybody looks forward to being “evicted”, if you know what I mean.

That was not exactly a bad thing, of course. Reading the book was a very different experience compared to watching the series. While the show focused on the complex and often tumultuous relationships between the main characters, the memoir proved to be more insightful, zeroing in more on Kerman’s feelings, thoughts, and realizations. There were strings of hard-won lessons and advice there that could strike a chord with the readers. A few things that are begging for reform (i.e. facilities, BOP’s ‘ineffectual’ programs, etc.) were mentioned but were not mightily underscored.

Kerman’s storytelling was clean and she managed to throw in dollops of good wit and humor that buoyed the portraits of the inmates that she brought to life in her writing. However, some parts become repetitive, becoming a tad too banal and long-winded for a great read.

Oh, and I may have to say this too: in the end, I gleaned that TV-Piper was not entirely different from the real-life Piper, as she proved to be leaning a little on the high-and-mighty type. Throughout the book I couldn’t seem to see the narration detach itself from the “I’m white and better than and a class apart from you” vibe hidden underneath a thin veil of humility and friendliness. In fact, a little voice inside my head asked, “How many of those friendships do you think are genuine, and how many do you think did she establish for the sake of survival?” But hey, maybe that’s just me. :)

Be that as it may, Orange is the New Black proved to be a decent read in my commute to work and back, so here’s the three stars for that.

PS: I’d be waiting for season 3 of the show, of course.