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A New Beginning

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My new year starts in March, because I take annual vacation from late January onwards until March. It’s down time, reading time, and nature time. In Hong Kong and Bangkok, I found my reading haven in a couple bookstores that appeal not only to book lovers. I like the way these bookstores are decked out like a museum, with a touch of scholarly. I enjoy the open layout consider how precious space is in Asia, where every inch is used to maximize profit.

Browsing is an eye-opening experience. Browsing allows one to be bombarded with books of which the subject matter and author one has never heard of. It’s both enlightening and exciting. It’s inevitable that bookstore trying to appeal to the general public is cluttered with gimmicks of any kind. But a reader’s patience is often rewarded with substanced reads.I know what I don’t like—self-help books that are done to death, ghostwritten books of celebrities, chick lit, and romances—so I steer clear of them and come to cultivate interests in subjects I rarely get to read back home. I bought a couple books, written in Chinese, on buddhism and ideas of god but not necessarily about religion. As for fiction, Asia is the heaven for bargained UK paper editions of modern classics. Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Doris Lessing, to name a few, all for USD10. I know books are not friendly items to the skimpy luggage allowance, but I can’t help bringing back a stack that will see me through at least a few months.

[724] The Bell – Iris Murdoch

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” He made her talk about herself, and quietly circumvented her clumsy efforts to make him talk about himself. Her unsuspicious and unsophisticated mind harboured of course no conception of his being a homosexual; and although Michael guessed Dora to be one of those women who regard homosexuals with interested sympathy . . . ” (Ch.26, p.316)

For a directly religious novel, The Bell is pleasantly readable and does not get too caught up with tedious pedagogical issues. The novel centers around Dora Greenfield, an erring wife who returns to live with her husband, an art historian conducting research in a lay community encamped outside an abbey. During her stay, it becomes obvious that her effort of reconciliation is futile. She’s plain that things were mostly her fault and that she should never have married Paul at all. She feels intensely the need and somehow the capacity to live and work on her own and become, what she had never been, an independent and grown-up person.

God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many cases, the very core of the personality. (Ch.16, p.211)

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey of which the nuns are cloistered for life. The community is located on the land owned by family of Michael Meade, the leader, a homosexual who contrives to triumph over his vice and make another attempt at priesthood. The brotherhood is designed to allow laymen to have the benefits of the religious life while remaining in the world. The members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society. Together they tend the estate and cultivate a market-garden and observe daily worship activities. The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events: the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber’s member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun. Both events have gone awry due to a contingency.

Although Dora has remained an outsider, she has “fed like a glutton upon the catastrophes at Imber” and they had increased her substance. The Bell sustains a continuous effort to create a dense, real world of feelings and behavior. It’s a novel about people and their thoughts—how their thoughts change their lives as much as their impulses and feelings do. It’s a novel about goodness, cruelty, and power. The people are neither bad nor perfect, and this is how Murdoch is ingenious. She understands the way in which our sense of our moral beings, the imperatives and prohibitions we desire, or agree, to accept, depend on a religious structure which our society as a whole no longer believes in.

329 pp. Vintage Classics UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[723] The Accident – Chris Pavone

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” Who was the villain in this story? ” (Ch.54, p.486)

The Accident is a thriller about publishing. It concerns a manuscript by an anonymous writer that is so earth-shattering that people in the publishing world would kill to get their hands on it. The manuscript is sent to Isabel Reed, a New York literary agent renowned for her discretion. She knows how delicately the book needs to be handled. So while she pitches the manuscript to the best editor she knows, Jeffrey Fielder, the proof, also titled “The Accident,” has already gone into covert circulation. Her assistant read it secretly and blabbed drunkenly to her friends and posted about it on Facebook. It has even been photocopied by a subsidiary-right person hoping to see it in Hollywood. This means great danger to anyone who has come in contact with the manuscript, let alone Isabel herself.

There were the densely woven secrets he and Charlie Wolfe had been sharing for two decades, and the portion that he’d been keeping to himself There was also the new possibility that Charlie actually wanted him dead. (Ch.17, p.147)

Everyone sees the bombshell of the manuscript is the opportunity for a break. The publisher sees it as the life-saver to a company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. All of which brings reader to Charlie Wolfe, a man who is the subject of the manuscript. His own media empire sustains on “de-newsing” the news, with a content bias toward gossip, innuendo, voyeurism and scandal. It pinches CIA’s nerves that exposure of Wolfe’s malpractice, which helps further the cause of the USA more or less, would compromise national security.

So the book proceeds with twist and turn galore. The unfortunate thing is that it’s easier for Pavone to conjure up shocking dramatic turns, abrupt killings, and unexpected connections than it is for him to come up with anything truly damning about Wolfe. The so-called secret is nothing but hyped. That said, The Accident is filled with keen, bittersweet observations about the publishing world. It pays tribute to the permanence of written word and the printed matter—that there is a validation, a legitimacy conferred by having a story out there in a physical form.

509 pp. Faber & Faber UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[722] The Day After Tomorrow – Allan Folsom

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” That the creature was innately evil, had caused the deaths of two people and horribly and inexorably gnarled Paul Osburn’s own life from childhood on, seemed, at this point, to have little meaning. It was enough to have gotten the beast this far. ” (Ch.35, p.161)

The Day After Tomorrow is a thrill ride right from the beginning. Set in 1996, but hinged on a murder thirty years ago, the thriller weaves together three stories of global intrigue that bear no connection at a glance. A doctor has to confront his father’s killer; a detective investigates a series of horrible murders in which victims were all decapitated; an international organization devises a master plan of apocalyptic dimensions.

Something told him they weren’t, that somehow, in some way, the two wholly disparate situations were intertwined. And the coupling, though he had absolutely no evidence to back it up—had to be Osburn. (Ch.59,p.285)

Paul Osburn is an American surgeon who has never been able to close the emotional door on his father’s gruesome killing—right in front of his eyes. When he recognizes the man in a Parisian café, he attacks him with a blind, burst of uncontrollable rage, and thus plunging himself into a conspiracy, a neo-Nazi cabal to resurrect the Third Reich. Osburn soon tracks down and identifies his father’s killer as Albert Merriman, a career criminal supposedly dead since 1967. Osburn plans to eliminate Merriman after forcing out the truth of the murder, but a violent twist leaves him with no answer but another name, Erwin Scholl, who hired Merriman to kill four other men, all involved in the design and development of equipment for ultra-low temperature surgery. It seems like everyone who has a sixth degree of separation with this hired assassin is brutally eliminated, and Merriman himself is shot by an assailant Osburn believes to be in the hire of Scholl.

Perhaps what he had learned was already too much. He though of Karolin Henniger and her son, running from him in the alley. How many more had died because of his own personal quest? Most had been totally innocent. (Ch.127, p.615)

Osburn’s search for answer and attempt at closure have opened a Pandora box so dangerous that, in order to preserve its secret, the Organization would kill at all expenses. LAPD McVeg is recruited to investigate the series of murders of seven victims who show evidence of being kept in a cryogenic freezer. As the three plot fronts slowly converge, a series of violent sabotages aimed at McVeg and Osburn thwarts them from getting to the bottom of the matter which is shocking, believable and ludicrous at the same time.

The book just flies through a relentlessly breakneck speed, which aptly balances the heavy politics. The implications of what unfolds at the end could be disturbing—how a so-called elitist group determined to create a supremacy race at the expense of innocent lives. Those who helped contribute to the ambitious plan were put to death for the purpose of discretion. There’s something very spine-chilling about the spiritual and scientific affirmation of the whole master plan.

725 pp. Hachette Books. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[721] Well-Schooled in Murder – Elizabeth George

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” He wouldn’t sneak. That’s what it came down to, didn’t it? That’s the sum total of what he’d learned at Bredgar Chambers. To withhold the truth out of loyalty to one’s mates. How pathetic. What miserable creatures these places breed. ” (Ch.22, p.394)

Well-Schooled in Murder is set in the late 1980s, at Bredgar Chambers, an elite public school in the south of England founded in 1489. It’s a mystery that revolves around the strict yet unwritten code of behavior prevalent at independent schools which dictates that under circumstances must pupils ever tell on their schoolmates, no matter what they have done. When a 13-year-old boy goes missing one Friday afternoon and two days later is found dead in a church-yard an hour’s drive away, Inspector Lynley and his partner, Sergeant Havers, are up against a student body sealed in silence.

The pupils began to file out of the chapel—row after row of them, standing tall, their eyes straight ahead, their uniforms pressed, their hair neatly combed, their faces fresh. They must know, he thought, all of them.They’ve known all along. (Ch.17, p.288)

What appears first to be an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the boy to allow himself a weekend of freedom quickly points to murder of a disturbing and gruesome manner. He was found nude, with signs of being tortured—evidence that points to sadism, homosexuality, and molestation, so detrimental to the school’s reputation that the headmaster puts a lid on the incident. So begins a twisted, convoluted, and emotionally draining story as the Scotland Yard pair takes on a pointed exploration into both the written and unwritten codes of confidentiality that transcend the conduct of pupils. Even the adults, the teachers, the housemasters and headmaster have dark secrets they prefer buried.

George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. These elements of guilt, remorse, and honor take Lynley, Havers, and the reader through multiple dead ends that cannot immediately account for the full picture of Matthew Whateley’s murder but instead reveals the dark nature of humans. Before the final pages that lift the veil and reveal the true face of the murderer, the same elements of guilt and honor are part and parcel of the failing of a dozen people.

There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation. Nobody is what he seems and nobody is above suspicion. Several people are tangentially involved in the boy’s death but without their knowing. The complex rabbit warren of relationships would be key to solving the case. The book offers a piercing study of the education of a gentleman and his responsibilities and valor. Although the perpetrator is brought to justice, the wreck and ruin of all the lives that touch this investigation is truly the most chilling part of the story. After all, as this book goes, it all comes down to how one defies murder and love.

414 pp. Bantam Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow] Read in Phuket, Thailand

[720] A Coffin for Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

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” Ingenuity is never a substitute for intelligence. ” (Ch.15, p.292)

After finishing A Coffin for Dimitrios, a spy fiction set in the beginning of World War Two, one can see that Ambler’s mix of swift pacing, believable protagonists, and thrilling locales proves an untold influence on those who took up spy-story pen in his wake. The book, originally published in 1939, really holds up as a startling, elegant masterpiece of espionage fiction.

The story is simple but intriguing. Chance encounter with a Turkish colonel in Istanbul leaves writer Charles Latimer mesmerized at a mysterious, elusive personality, Dimitrio Markopoulos, whose body was pulled out of the Bosphorous. Curiosity piqued, and burned with a desire to account for this person, Latimer conducts his own investigation into Dimitrios’s life and death, putting him into a world of political maneuvers, assassination, espionage, and drug trafficking. He’s in contact with a colorful cast of shady characters across Europe who are not so much ruffians but as victims and confidents of Dimitrios.

Even though Ambler spends the bulk of the book poking fun at his protagonist’s idealized concepts of murder and philosophizing about human nature, the story-telling itself is engaging. The prose is light-footed and solid despite the complexity of the international intrigue it depicts, from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, France and Germany. Underlying the protagonist’s probe of his notorious subject is also a picture of the shifting allegiances leading to World War Two.

The Dimitrios emerged from Latimer’s investigation is a man of many faces, identities, and facets. By no means he’s good: he has used people’s dim wits, has played upon their religious fanaticism, has taken advantage of their simplicity with a skill that’s sophisticated and terrifying. He is a murderer, a robber, a drug peddler, an assassin, a pimp, a thief, a spy, a white slaver, a bully, and a financier. Dimitrios is not evil, he’s only logical and consistent in a world on the brink of belligerency. He curries the favor and works to his own benefits. He polishes the fine arts of survival. Equally intriguing is the writer-cum-amateur investigator. Ambler takes an ordinary man of a writer and drops him in the middle of extraordinary events beyond his imagination that will put him in danger, test his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.

304 pp. Vintage Crime. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow] Read in Pattaya, Thailand

Celebrate Handwriting

imageLast Saturday was National Handwriting Day, but for me everyday is a handwriting day. I write into my reading journey and keep notes. I could have done it on my iPad but I just prefer scribbling thoughts down as I read. In my bag I have at least two black-in pens in case I lose one or it runs out of ink. I just bought a new journal as shown in the picture. It’s a local Thai-made one with very flexible binding so I can roll the whole thing over without damaging the spine. At home or travel, my bag is not complete without a pen and a notebook.

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