The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
In July 2014, Japanese police arrived at the apartment of manga artist Rokudenashiko and began searching her home. At first, the visit didn’t seem particularly serious to Rokudenashiko (a pseudonym that translates to “good-for-nothing girl”). Her roommate watched the proceedings and then went to work when it got dull; Rokundenashiko even helped the police pack up her art, which they were collecting as evidence. She imagined the whole thing was due to a misunderstanding, and thought what a great comic it would make.
Things started to feel more serious when Rokudenashiko was arrested on charges of obscenity. The charges stemmed from her art, which involved making things from casts of her manko (vagina). She had turned her manko into buttons, dioramas, and cell phone covers. Her most recent project had been to 3D scan her manko so that she could blow it up and make larger items. She had crowdfunded the project, and used the money to make a kayak in the likeness of her manko. It was the rewards for the crowdfunders that attracted police attention. Anyone who contributed to the project got, among other things, a link to a downloadable file containing the scan of Rokudenashiko’s manko. This was enough to be considered distributing obscene materials under Japanese law.
What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy is Rokudenashiko’s graphic memoir of her initial arrest and time in jail. It is collected here from its original serial publication in Weekly Friday, a left-wing Japanese magazine. Between each chapter are short sections expounding on some aspect of Japanese culture for a non-Japanese audience; these range from details on obscenity laws and the state of feminism in Japan to brands of milk referenced and the mascot of the Japanese police force. There are also interviews with Rokudenashiko about her arrest and a final section on her early years as an artist, which provides a fascinating, if brief, look at the challenges of establishing oneself as a mangaka in Japan.
In the confusion of her arrest, Rokudenashiko did not consult a lawyer, and was discouraged from doing so by the police. They told her the costs would be too great — this was a blatant lie; a lawyer is provided to those who cannot afford one in Japan. Nor did the police inform her of her right to remain silent, though they later claimed to have done so, and they tried to coerce her into admitting her crime by misrepresenting the evidence they had collected. In the press, they denigrated her by referring to her as a “so-called” or “self-proclaimed” artist.
Eventually it became clear to Rokudenashiko, during her post-arrest interrogations, that she was arrested because someone had seen her art and decided that representation of the vagina is obscene. The legal rationale followed that initial decision, and it seemed as though the police and prosecutors didn’t have a firm grasp on what it was they were using to excuse the arrest. The formal charge the police leveled at her was based on the reward for anyone who had donated to her crowdfunding campaign — the file of a 3D scan of her manko. The police claimed she had sent this “obscene material” to an “unspecified large number” of people. In fact, as she explained to them, it had gone to a small number of people who had pledged to her crowdfunding campaign. Her explanation only led to further confusion, since no one in the police department seemed to be aware of what crowdfunding was.
In Japanese law, the statute covering obscenity says that it is anything that violates a “reasonable person’s sense of propriety.” This is as troublingly vague as it is ostensibly democratic. According to the male-dominated police and legal framework of Japan, Rokudenashiko has broken this law: the men who represented the law considered themselves reasonable, and their sense of propriety had been violated. However, society at large saw Rokudenashiko’s art as harmless, and so a different group of people who thought of themselves as reasonable saw the legal community’s actions as unreasonable. While Rukodenshiko learned to navigate life in prison, unbeknownst to her, supporters outside began to mobilize.
In attempting to use silliness and fun to demystify a part of the body of half of the world’s population, a crowdfunding campaign by a moderately well-known mangaka blew up into a case challenging Japanese obscenity laws that had not been updated since 1957 and brought international attention to a legal system more concerned with confessions and punishment than with seeking justice. When Rokudenashiko was made aware of the support her case was gaining outside of jail, it galvanized her sense of defiance, as well as her seemingly unflappable sense of fun. As she says, “I am using anger as a springboard, laughter is my weapon of choice in this battle.”
That attitude shines through in this memoir. The endless interviews and examinations by humorless bureaucrats are told with equal parts exasperation and humor; she takes great joy in making the old men who have decided that her art is obscene say the very word they consider obscene. Though her time in jail is short, her uncertainly about how to navigate the arbitrary rules of the guards — which cover everything from the way chopsticks are returned in a bento box to the manner in which a package is torn — make for a fascinating addition to prison literature.
The presumption of guilt is strong in Japan, and it is expected that someone accused of a crime will confess for a lighter sentence. The police came up against a stronger personality than they expected in Rokudenashiko, who has fought the charges with the support of her fellow artists and advocates. Since publication of this book, Rokudenashiko has been found not guilty of obscenity regarding her art, but guilty of distributing digital data of obscene material, for which she has been ordered to pay a fine. In a news conference, she displayed her typical defiance, saying she was “20 percent happy” that the court acknowledged her figurines as art, but stressed that she was “completely innocent,” and added, “I am of course indignant. I will appeal and continue to fight in court.” A fight she will hopefully win, or, at the very least, turn into another charming, keenly observed book.
I had a hell of a time picking my book of the month this time around. This happens every few months, and I’m always better off for the difficulty in choosing my favorite. One month I will go through four books and have a definitive favorite – a book that I’ll recommend to friends, etc. The next, however, I’ll manage to read three books that are not only better than the one I picked the month before, but are good enough to make my preliminary “best of the year” short list. It never fails – I’d have more balance in my life if I had read them a month apart, but it never happens that way.This month my choice was between Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer), Hard Laughter (Anne Lamott), and Other Electricities (Ander Monson). Hard Laughter was good – better than I had expected it would be – but it was the easiest one to leave off. Many months it would have been my favorite (I’m a sucker for books that are 80% conversation) but this month it had too much to compete against.Foer and Monson fought it out in my mind until I realized something – I’ve already picked Foer as a Book of the Month – my first one, for The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. So, by process of elimination, Ander Monson won the right to have his book selected.I first heard of Ander Monson through the LitBlog Co-Op’s “Read These Books or Die” Winter 2005/6 campaign and was extremely interested in its use of indexes. I was intrigued enough to request it from our local library, and to my surprise they purchased a copy and put my name at the top of the list.Mr. Monson, you can send me a thank you anytime.Really, Other Electricities is like no other book I’ve ever read. It’s not quite a novel, but it’s also not quite a short story collection. It’s somewhere in between – a group of essays and short stories that all interplay with each other; all create another piece of a grand novel. It’s a series that is bound by one theme – the lives of a small town shortly before and shortly after the death of a girl. Her accident – she and her prom date were drowned in a frozen lake after they attempted to drive on it – binds every character together to the point where each story, regardless of the protagonist, is ultimately connected.The resemblances to Fargo and Twin Peaks are evident. And while Other Electricities may not have been inspired by Laura Palmer and Marge Gunderson, there are a lot of similarities in their worlds. In fact, the episodic nature of Monson’s overall story cries out for the comparisons. Much like Twin Peaks was a collection of odd characters whose lives intertwined; each of these stories overlaps and peeks into the life of this town in the years leading up to and following the death. The setting is Coen Brothers, but the town could have been created by David Lynch.Don’t think that this is a simple knock-off, though. Monson creates a complex town that’s filled with failed dreams and eccentric people – the group of bored and rutted kids that nearly always drinks too much, gets themselves stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, and commits murder. It’s cold, and the town has adapted to it. There’s mystery in the air, not to mention a vast array of disappointment.The variety in the style and length of each story in Other Electricities helps create a mosaic of voices and lifestyles; each character brings a new revelation about their small town, about death, and about growing up as a teenager in the middle of domestic tundra. Everyone gets their say.The layout of the book is wonderful. Monson charts out every character and connects each in a web, then gives an explanation of the themes and characters – both artistically and satirically. An index not only helps reference common ideas but also gives a little insight into the relationship between Liz, the drowned girl, and her prom date – a relationship that isn’t mentioned directly. You can cross reference to your heart’s content.It’s amazing to think of these stories on their own – they’re all very good, but as a whole there are ideas and themes that aren’t even mentioned; are simply implied by the connections between stories. I’ve never felt so cold, and I’ve never desired to go wandering through a small town, around a lake, and into the city center during a vicious snowstorm as much as I did after reading Other Electricities.Well, it’s snowing outside. I guess I could start now.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar.
I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.