Made in China

Every now and then you read a book so disturbing you change your life because of it. That’s how I felt about Amelia Pang’s book, Made in China. I have not been so disturbed by a book since Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam. 

In 2012 Julie Keith opened up Halloween decorations, only to find a note in broken English, asking her to “kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Julie did – contacting Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations Human Rights Council, and Anti-Slavery International.

None of them called her back.

Through her own research, she slowly learned the extent that America’s cheap consumer goods are, too often, being manufactured illegally by political prisoners in China, who work in concentration camp conditions amid torture and starvation.

 It wasn’t until she spoke to Immigration and Customs and Border Protection that she got anyone to listen – ICE and CBP are the agencies responsible for preventing forced-labor products from entering US markets. ICE made a formal request to visit the “reeducation center” where the product was made. China refused. Keith learned that China has never allowed inspection of their manufacturing facilities, and one piece of evidence isn’t enough to push further.

But Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the person who wrote the note. She wound up doing an interview for The Oregonian, and suddenly found herself in the spotlight of Chinese dissident news, CNN, Fox, and more. Through the group Human Rights Watch, Keith found out it’s almost impossible to prove human rights violations – Kmart insisted the factory had been audited every 6 to 12 months, absolutely within the law, but audits cost money and mostly check for cleanliness and quality control. They never check for the source of labor. When you have a hundred thousand subcontractors, and each audit is $1,000, the costs and time add up to impossible.

Sun Yi and his letter

Sun Yi was the man who wrote that note in 2009, three years before Julie Keith found it. He was imprisoned and tortured for belonging to a meditation group that fell into disfavor with the Party. After two years of  starvation, torture, and working sometimes 24 hours a day in inhumane conditions, he was released. CNN interviewed him, blocking his face so he could not be identified. Sun Yi decided that, while he could get the information out, he wanted to write a letter to Julie, thanking her. He included his email address. Sun realized if he was to live, he had to leave China, and slipped out to Indonesia before the Chinese authorities could stop him, since Indonesia didn’t require a visa for Chinese citizens. There, he had free communication with the world.

In March of 2017, Julie Keith flew 36 hours to Indonesia, to meet Sun Yi in person, something she always wanted to do. The meeting was bittersweet, and Keith learned much about Yi’s poor treatment.

In October of 2017, Sun Yi died mysteriously of a lung infection and kidney failure. He was said to have been befriended by a Chinese woman not long before. She wasn’t seen in Jakarta afterward. No autopsy was performed.

This book tore at my heart. It’s short, easy to read, and always engaging. As we flip past internet bargains and snap up dollar deals, think twice before buying cheap merchandise. Ask if the item was made in the USA, and try (oh yes, it’s difficult) to buy items made only in countries who pay fair wages and rely on fair trade. Does that pop-up ad on social media look beautiful, at a reasonable price? Google the company. If there’s little to no information on it, it may be because it’s fly-by-night. You might get a nice product, but the company may fold in one town and open up under a different name three blocks away in the same Chinese city, using the same illegal workers. 

I got suckered in by that myself: researched the company, found no red flags, ordered what I thought was a hand-made item by a small Mom & Pop company, until a few weeks later when I got an email telling me my package had just cleared customs from China.

Huh? 

The package arrived with a label that had a New York State company address – slapped directly over the label that was on the envelope that arrived from China.

Think when you purchase something. Without demand for cheap products, there will be less demand for labor. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Is the price too good to be true? Where was it made? Who made it? Who is profiting from my buying it? Was someone harmed by my decision to purchase this item?

Sometimes, the answer might be yes.

Re-Covery

They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but a book cover can make or break a book’s success. While browsing a used bookstore decades ago, I fell utterly in love with the covers of a book series I’d never heard of before – DragonLance, by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I had to buy them, even just to look at the covers. The cover paintings were done by Larry Elmore, one of the premiere fantasy artists of the time. I’d never gotten too much into sword and sorcery books, but I devoured these. The second trilogy was still being written, and it was agony waiting for the next book in the series. I love those books to this day; they influence my own writing and imagination, and all because I had to have that book cover.

And nothing, of course, is more infuriating than when they change that book cover you know and love, and not usually for the better. Have you read this book? The title looks familiar, but not the cover … and then you start to read and find out yes, you’ve read it before, they changed the cover on you. Why?

There are many reasons a book gets a new cover. It may have changed publishers. It may be the paperback edition of a hardcover, or a school edition, or an audiobook – and audiobook companies, who often have a middleman, don’t always get permission to use the same cover. It may be a new printing – if a book contract agrees to a run of 5,000 copies, and 6,000 are ordered, the book may get a new distribution run, resulting in a new cover. The book may have been sold to a new publisher – such as Bantam Books being sold to Random House. Random House will then reissue a strong seller with their own brand of cover. If a movie or TV series is made from the book, a new edition will be released with a cover that reflects the new media, as happened with Lord of the Rings and Ready Player One. Sometimes the publisher gets flack because the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and they rework it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up, and sometimes, the cover art makes you scratch your head. Take, for example, the book Alas, Babylon, a 1959 novel of nuclear apocalypse that, if it’s not still my absolute favorite novel, it’s in my top three. First below is the cover I read it with – sensible, with the red/orange color of disaster and warning and nuclear fire, and people walking out of it. Compare that with the many covers it’s had since 1959:

The current one, number two above, a fourth edition by Harper Collins, to me, is puzzling – small font, an empty boardwalk, and a hand? This is not a cover that invites me to read, tells me a single thing about the story. Perhaps, after so many editions, they run out of ideas. Another fact: it’s very rare an author gets to choose the cover of their book – or have any input at all. You may submit your perfect dream cover along with your manuscript, and the publisher will toss it and give the work to one of their contracted artists. This is how you wind up with a blonde, blue-eyed heroine on the cover when the main character has short black hair.

Book covers also reflect what seems to be popular – a few years ago it seemed every book had a girl rolling around on the ground. If one sells, then everyone wants to copy that success. The bottom half of a face? Those are popular. Romance novel covers were almost interchangeable – how many were based on the model Fabio?  This year, pink is supposed to be “in” for covers again, as well as layered graphics and bold lettering.

Don’t like a book cover? Let the publisher know! Editors read the books, not the artists, or the publisher. If they’ve missed the mark, tell them. Authors depend on good covers to grab readers; if the cover isn’t intriguing, it’s wasting money.

What book covers have hit the mark, reached out and grabbed you so you had to read it?

What types of covers make you walk away?

Has a book cover ever made you angry?

Let us know!

The Scandalous World of Art

Edvard Munch, The Scream

 On May 1, CPL is hosting a program on The Art of the Scandal: Thefts, Vandals and Forgeries.

 Well, that’s nice, you say, but art doesn’t interest me.

Are you sure about that? Everyone loves a good mystery, and high art is probably the most mystery-filled subject there is. Anything with that much crime circling around it means there is a bank vault of money involved. 

There are many sides to fine art – the talent side (no one disputes a da Vinci, but you can start a fight over Pollock), the artsy side (the use of light and dark in paintings creates mood and movement that symbolizes man’s desire to control the universe: discuss), the history side (Phoenician art of the 18th century BCE shows a developing amalgamation of influence of the entire Mesopotamian region), and the rarity side (there are more Roman statues than there are da Vincis). We can discuss the purpose of art, of man’s desire to create, of the abstractness of art that leads back to man as the only animal who creates art for art’s sake, despite our knowledge that apes will draw and paint for pleasure, and that elephants, dolphins, and rabbits can be taught to paint as a behavior. It often boils down to one thing: 

Money.

The price of fine art (paintings and drawings, as opposed to jewelry work, sculpture, enamelwork, etc) has a few things going for it. First is rarity – many of the greatest paintings are hundreds of years old. They are one-of-a-kinds, and not a lot of them have survived. There are only 15 authenticated da Vincis known – as opposed to 400 Rembrandts. A second consideration is fragility – light, moisture, and age can cause ancient paintings to crack, flake, and fade (Van Gogh liked using red lake pigments, which fade rather quickly). The Mona Lisa is not painted on canvas, but an old board. A third thing is authenticity, and here is where the art world goes to pieces.

Salvator Mundi, by da Vinci

Because of the money involved in fine art (Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million dollars), as in too many movies, everyone is out to steal or fake originals. Forgery rings have been around for hundreds of years – one of the biggest was by Han Van Meegeren in the late 1930’s, a talented artist who sold more than $30 million in fake Vermeers to the Nazis. In 2004,  Xiao Yuan, the Chief Librarian at an academy of fine arts, stole more than 140 paintings in his care by carefully replacing them with his own copies – only to find some of HIS copies stolen and replaced with less-skilled replacements. Forgeries (actually, they’re called counterfeits, since legally only documents can be forged) are so rampant (about 50% of the market), Sotheby’s bought their own forensics lab to weed out fakes

Modern fakes are often easy enough to spot – today’s paints and canvases and even brushes aren’t the same as the 1500’s, and simple chemistry will find them. But what if the work copied is of modern origin – say, a Picasso, or a Warhol? Because of the modernity of materials, it is incredibly difficult to prove authenticity. 

Conan the Barbarian, by Boris Vallejo

Questions still arise, though, as to what constitutes an authentic work of art. That 450 million dollar da Vinci has had so much restoration that there is more paint by restorers than by da Vinci, so is it still genuine? If a student of an artist (Rembrandt, Renoir, Reubens, etc) is so talented that a professional art historian/critic cannot tell the difference, how are you defining fine art and value? Where does the value lie – in the skill, the history, the age, or the subject matter? Why do we so value Edvard Munch’s The Scream (of which four originals exist, two of which were stolen), yet not value Boris Vallejo?

Art, by its very interpretational nature, is a scandal.

Art of the Scandal is an on-line program sure to peak your interest. You can sign up for the attendance link here.

The Nobel Dylan

If you’re under thirty, you might ask, “Who’s Bob Dylan?”

If you’re over thirty, you might ask, “Bob Dylan’s still alive?”

Yes, Dylan’s still alive, though he’s 80 now, and a lot wealthier for having sold his entire recorded catalog to Sony music, a deal worth between $150 and $200 million

That’s a lot of social security.

Dylan, most widely known for folk and folk-rock music, has a career spanning more than 60 years. With more than 500 songs under his belt – many of them covers sung by other artists and movie soundtracks – he ranks in the top 30 most successful musicians of all time (The Beatles being number one, and Michael Jackson being number two). You may recognize not only Blowin’ in the Wind (a top hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary as well), but Quinn the Eskimo (made a hit by Manfred Mann), Too Much of Nothing (another Peter, Paul, and Mary hit), and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which became a major hit for Eric Clapton – all written by Dylan.  In addition, he was a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys, a short-lived group (1988-91) composed of the royal powerhouse of Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. 

Dylan with Rubin Carter, a free man

Dylan, following in the social justice footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, wrote the ballad Hurricane in 1975, based on the arrest of boxer Rubin Carter for a 1966 murder he didn’t commit and who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Dylan played several concerts to raise money for his defense. Carter was found to have been unfairly tried in 1985, and released. In 1999, a movie version of his story was released, with Denzel Washington playing Carter.

If that’s not enough of a resume, Dylan is the only American songwriter to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 – yeah, that Nobel Prize – for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  He’s only the second songwriter to ever be awarded the prize, the first going to the prolific Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote more than 2000 songs – back in 1913.

Dylan on his own can be hard on the uninitiated. His voice is nasally and sometimes whiny, and the socially conscious ballad style of the 1930’s and 40’s isn’t in a resurgence as it was in the 60’s, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen. Dylan has a wide variety of songs and styles, and if you don’t like him singing it, look for someone else performing the song (Joan Baez does several, but she can also be nasally and whiny. Her song Diamonds and Rust is allegedly about Dylan.). With a resume like that, there’s a lot to like.

Try these biographies on Dylan, too!

The Double Life of Bob Dylan
Chronicles
Down the Highway
Bob Dylan in America

New Trends in Science Fiction

Say Science Fiction, and most readers will make a face as images of bad 50’s movies, computers and technobabble, and Star Wars arguments come to mind. “I don’t read Science Fiction,” but chances are, you do. Science Fiction simply means a story that more or less follows the laws of science as we know them, as opposed to fantasy, which drags in magic and elves and things that don’t normally exist on Earth. The material is as broad as anything else in fiction.

Science Fiction has come a long way since 1977, and is almost unrecognizable to the campy 50’s tin-can imagery. Like rock music, science fiction has a hundred sub-categories, and chances are you’ve read – and liked – at least one. Here are some of the newest trends you may not know about.

Soft Science Fiction:  “Soft SF” isn’t new, but the definition is newer. Soft SF doesn’t deal with “hard” techno stuff, but concentrates on people, societies, psychology, and intrigue.  Cloud Atlas, The Handmaid’s Tale, Flowers for Algernon, Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Alas, Babylon all fall under “Soft” SF. Half of Stephen King can be categorized here. You could make an argument for Jason Bourne, too.

Gender-Focused: These stories explore cultures and people who may have a single gender, multiple genders, or are genderless entirely. Check out Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller, or the Grandmama of them all, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Afrofuturism: Representation of minorities is growing in SF, and with it new ways of seeing inclusion in the future. Check out top authors like N. K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, Nnedi Okorafor, P. Djeli Clark, and Octavia Butler.

International: There’s a huge influx of stories being translated from other countries. While America may be stuck on space opera and predictable heroes, other countries aren’t, and offer a refreshing break from the Same Old Thing. Try The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Witcher Series (yeah, the TV one) by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Lost Village by Camilla Sten, or Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon.

Generation Ship fiction: No faster than light ships here, but pressure-cooker stories onboard ships making a long haul. Dangers take on a whole new meaning when you’re dependent on your ship for years on end. Check out Across the Universe by Beth Rivis, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, or Ship of Fools by Richard Russo.

New Space Opera: Space opera traditionally involves weapons, danger, heroes, and rescued damsels (Star Wars being a perfect example, among many), but newer stories are throwing in more gritty realism. They’re a higher quality of writing, more scientifically plausible, and tend to address more social issues under the guise of “fiction.” Grown-up SF. Try the Leviathan Falls series by James Corey, Hail Mary by Andy Weir, the Thrawn series by Timothy Zahn, The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, or Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell.

Climate SF:  With the doomsday clock ticking down the moments to an expected 6th mass extinction, climate SF may be the most relevant wave of stories to hit shelves, and can fully include apocalyptic virus stories. Read them!  State of Fear by Michael Crichton, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Overstory by Richard Powers, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Science Fiction isn’t the same old trope you’re used to, but a growing, evolving body of literature with numerous authors, styles, and focus – and guaranteed there’s one right for you!