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Ali Smith

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I must have mistaken Ali Smith for another author who writes chick-lit. With much gratefulness for a friend who points me to her direction, I have been on a hunt for her books although luck hasn’t been on my side. The Scottish writer has a long roll of honors and merits. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winner of Scottish Book Award, Clare Maclean Prize, and Whitbreak Book Award.

To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.

I will begin my Ali Smith journey with The Accidental, the story of the Smart family and Amber, the strange girl who comes into their lives one hot summer holiday. Her mysterious tales force each member of the family to view themselves in a new light.

Singaporean Literature

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The literature of Singapore comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans in any of the country’s four main languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, this cross-linguistic fertilization is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Singaporean writers work to create a literary voice and space that celebrates Singapore’s multicultural society, Singaporean literature (like any other literature) is not without its flaws. And, moreover, its writers should be wary of oversimplifying a complex issue by assuming that they are capable of speaking for all Singaporeans. However, because Singapore embraces multiculturalism and hybridity, Singapore’s national identity is “evolving” with its literature. While Singaporean literature addresses the issue of national identity, it is not so much an issue of creating unity within (which tends to be the Malaysian theme); Singaporean writers are concerned with creating a voice and space for Singaporean literature.

[744] Green Light – Lloyd C. Douglas

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” For so long had the name of Newell Paige been indisolubly associated with her mother’s tragic death that it had acquired, in Phyllis’s memory, a peculiarly sinister quality, symbolic of an inexcusable and irreparable disaster. She had never tried to visualize him. ” (XII, p.192)

Green Light begins with the stock market crash in 1929, on the eves of Great Depression. Newell Paige is a young surgeon who is to assist his venerable mentor, Dr. Endicott, in a kidney excision operation for a Mrs. Dexter, who has scraped an acquaintance with Paige that has ripened into a comradeship. When Endicott receives news of the stock market crash, he botches the operation, the patient dies, and Paige takes the blame for it rather than have his elderly mentor’s reputation sullied. To escape the ensuing publicity, he runs away, travels under a new persona, Nathan Parker, and finds himself in a hotel and later a mountain research station in Montana.

People collide with circumstances that push them off the commonly accepted moral reservation—and then they assume that they have lost their souls… (IV, 53)

Through the various people Paige (Parker) meets, he comes under the influence of the deeply spiritual Dean Harcourt, left permanently crippled by infantile paralysis, is knowledgeable of the various anxieties which bedevil the mind of the average citizen. He has also come to meet, inevitably, Mrs. Dexter’s daughter, Phyllis Dexter, who has alternately dreaded and desired to see him. The story is very simple, but heavy in authorial intrusion, propelling along with the multiple plots tethered together by Dean Harcourt and his philosophy. Although the characters are not fully developed, Douglas manages to put the troubles of Paige in perspective. It’s a good novel about how a man finds his redemption.

326 pp. Grosset & Dunlap. Hardcover 1st Ed. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Noir Fiction

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“Noir” means black in French. But I never nailed what exactly is noir fiction. I have associated the terms with mystery and crime fiction. But why a separate term “noir fiction”? “Roman noir” is French for black novel. The term was first used by the French in the Eighteenth century to describe the British Gothic novel, but by the Twentieth century, it had acquired a new meaning and was being used to describe an American creation, the hardboiled thriller.

Author James Ellroy writes that noir “indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.” Noir as an idea and a mood may be familiar to us from its prominent, and easily parodied, place in cinema—the rich black-and-white cinematography, the tough talking dicks and sultry dames, the lines of cigarette smoke that run to the ceiling.

But what characterizes the style in fiction? And is there a difference between noir writing and detective or mystery fiction? Most mystery fiction focuses on the detective, and noir fiction focuses on the villain. A noir book can focus neither the detective nor the villain, but just a normal person who happens to have an eye for the dark. The people in noir fiction are dark and doomed—they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless. If one has a private eye, the private eye is a hero; and he’s going to solve the crime and the bad guy will be caught. That’s a happy ending, but that’s not a noir ending. Sometimes noir is about sex and money, and sometimes about revenge. The characters Cut off from the longstanding values of the human family, these characters turn to immediate desires.

Noir to me, rather morbidly, serves as a guide to my next travel destination, as it is highly atmospheric and redolent of local colors.

War and Books

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Yesterday I mentioned the rare copy of Green Light that I found in a garage sale. The disclaimer on the jacket about compliance with wartime regulations on publication provokes a little research on the subject. According to an article in The Atlantic, during WW2, Council of Books in Wartime circulated an audacious proposal, which proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just 6 cents a volume. The plan, breath-taking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. The plan calls for massive production of something that resembles the magazine format instead of the hardcovers that had prevailed during that time. The Council decided to use the magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of texts for easier reading in low light.

Publishers took an audacious gamble to see the armed forces cheap paperbacks, shipped to units scattered around the world. Instead of printing only the books soldiers and sailors actually wanted to read, though, publishers decided to send them the best they had to offer. Over the four years between 1942 and 1946, American publishers gave away over 120 million copies of their most valuable titles. Instead of ruining the business as they initially feared, publishers have created a generation of new readers and democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all, because serious (high-brow literature) books were find to find before the war. Dedicated readers were also ones who were well off and could afford these books on mail catalog. There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution.

Rare Lloyd Douglas Find

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I’m no book collector. I’m more a reader who appreciates literature from a bygone age. Lloyd Douglas’s Green Light is such a book. It’s been out-of-print. Although many of his books have been made into movies and this one included, the novel is relatively less known. I found this first edition at a garage sale for $5. The lady was either not aware of its value or she’s just not interested in monetary gain. The book, a 1934 first edition, has this note on the inside jacket disclaiming it was produced in full compliance of wartime regulations. It’s still in decent condition, wrapped in a plastic-kleer transparent jacket. Spine is intact despite yellowed pages.

[743] Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik

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“What truly makes Paris beautiful is the intermingling of the monumental and the personal, the abstract and the footsore particular, it and you. A city of vast and impersonal set piece architecture, it is also a city of small and intricate, improvised experience.”(8)

Although the book is somewhat dated (it was written during his stay between 1995-2000), I totally agree with Gopnik on the interaction of the architectural with he personal. This book is actually a collection of essays from the New Yorker, and some of the them are very insightful. I am interested in the subject matter: living in Paris, the expat life, culture clashes, etc. But the author’s style is rather long-winded and unnecessarily dense; some passages reminded me of esoteric literary criticism I used to have to read in college, not particularly suited to light observational journalism. At the first glimpse the book is sophisticated, but later uneven: some essays are excellent, heartfelt, incisive, clever while others are smug, condescending, boring. The book does not ultimately come together as a unified whole. Other than the pieces on food and fashion and the architecture, Gopnik’s prose was dead set on describing the political events of the time, and the events leading up to them. Gopnik told me about worker’s strikes, government nonsense, and current affairs (which, considering his soirée lasted from 1995 until 2000, is now ancient history) and barely anything of his Paris, which is really what I was looking for. I regret this book is an utterly boring scope of minute differences between New York and Paris life. There are many better books on Paris than this one.

338 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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