August: 9 books, 2790 pages, 90 pages a day; 77 books in 2012
August was a great month for me reading-wise. I read books that I have wanted to read or a long time, for one reason or another, I have not mustered up to read them. Forbidden Colors by Mishima Yukio is such a book. That I kicked off the month with such dense, heavy reading was quite a paramount achievement. I find Mishima more readable than Murakami, despite his obsession with an aesthetic style that at times could be suffocating. Forbidden Colors is bleak and challenging, offering only the hope of freedom in conformity—in a culture that traditionally has no room for homosexuality by any stretch of imagination. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi is just as difficult and substantial in size. It follows a Shanghai girl who won third place in beauty pageant but that was the pinnacle of her stardom. From there her life succumbed to a series of relationships that never flourish. Other than Eileen Chang’s style that Wang evokes, the book appeals to me because it borrows its title from one of the most famous literary works of the Tang Dynasty, Bai Juyi’s extended narrative poem Chang hen ge, which forms the single most important subtext to the novel. The original poem tells of the epic romance between the Tang emperor Xuanzong and his beloved concubine Yang Guifei, whose stunning beauty is legendary in Chinese historical lore. Beginning with Yang’s entry into the palace, the poem recounts the emperor’s passionate love for her, which eventually leads to his dereliction of state affairs and a full-scale rebellion (the leader of which gained power through Yang’s influence). In the wake of the coup and growing unrest, Xuanzong is pressured to order the execution of his beloved consort, and the final section of the poem describes his quest to find her in heaven.
Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer was another notable read. I had the most difficult time finding this book: for over a year, I was mindful to look up this book whenever I stopped by a bookstore. What contributed to the trouble was the ambiguous label(s) by which this book is categorized. Mercer’s memoir of his stay at the Shakespeare and Co. in Paris is listed under occupation at the public library. At different indies I have looked under “Memoir”, “Travel Writing”, “Books on Books” but had no luck—until one day I randomly looked at “Miscellaneous Anthology” at Dog Eared Books, where I took Danielle during her visit in San Francisco and, lo and behold—spotted Jeremy Mercer’s name on a spine. If you like Paris and books, you have to read this book. As much as I live vicariously through Mercer’s adventure, I come to learn about George Whitman and his amazing life devoted to books. Time Was Soft There evokes that lost generation of writers and artists that find haven in Paris. Reading the book offers a glimpse of the magic this literary establishment has brought to those who have been part of it. He does not write like Hemingway, but he does capture the elusive quality that makes Paris the mecca it is for dreamers and romantics.
New authors read this month include Caroline Petit, whose Deep Night revolved around Second World War in Hong Kong where a young woman became a spy for the Brits; Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mrs. Hawkins’ career as an editor; Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange triggered unexpected conversation by the pool in Russian River. In the author’s own words, if a person can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange, meaning that “he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by Good or Devil or (since this is increasingly replacing both) the Almighty State.” The novel, written in a very articulate and invented lingo, has a three-pronged narrative that depicts moral progress: from the total evil to a total good rid of criminal propensities, and the ultimate reconciliation that evil and good must coexist because they justify one another. It is as inhuman to be totally good as it is to be completely evil. The month was nicely concluded with Chris Cleave’s latest, riding on the recent craze of the London Olympics, Gold. I did not hesitate to pay full price for the hardback because I had enjoyed his two previous books tremendously. Gold does not have any political components, but it does not lack in human dynamics. As much as these women are thriving for gold and getting caught up in their dream, each has more than a medal to lose. Each has to overcome more than the demand of physical capacity—their own ghosts. Gold is a morality tale that examines the values that lie at the heart of our most intimate relationships.