The #10Books meme has made its way all over Facebook and finally I have been tagged by a friend to contribute to this rather painful and grueling task. It brings mixed emotions; and the idea of picking and choosing one over the other seems a daunting task to take on.
I prepare the list of 10 books that have left an indelible influence in my life. These may not essentially be the books I like the most, but I can sleep without guilt after listing them for their influence in shaping me.
1. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Fiction/Gay Literature)
One of my first gay literature books that is not fluff. It explores the troubling emotions of man’s heart with unusual candor and yet with dignity and intensity. It delves into the most controversial issue of morality with an artistry. The most touching and absorbing thing is Giovanni’s unconditional love for David, whose fearful intimation opens in him a hatred for Giovanni that is as powerful as his love for him.
2. Mapping the Territory by Christopher Bram (Nonfiction/GLBT Studies)
This one really expands my scope on why gay men and women search for a mirror for reality in literature. This collection of essays is so rich in anecdotes, humor, philosophy and literary critique. Amazing how many of his feelings and experiences corroborate to mine. As a young reader, I shared Bram’s experience in reading the way into homosexuality—something is that is both eye-opening and relieving. The literature assures Bram, and myself, that being homosexual is not being off the margin. Homosexuality should be connected with the rest of life.
3. Time Was Soft There: A Memoir. A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer (Nonfiction/Memoir/Travelogue)
This memoir of a Canadian journalist cum bookstore employee was what decided my first trip to Paris. Although the owner’s grand-niece had taken over the store when I finally went, I think back to what George (the original owner) said about the bookstore being an annex to Notre Dame and I think it is very true. In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can. It’s a literary testimony to a book haven.
4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Fiction/Literature, Russian)
This book shows me the power of a cross-genre novel mixing literature, folklore, history, political polemic, and scientific fantasy. It was banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime for its criticism against Stalin. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities. Not only does it awaken the existence of god but more importantly, evil. Evil was capable as a magician who wreaks a havoc of Moscow in this novel. This novel is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil?
5. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Fiction/Literature, British)
Another novel that keeps showing up on my literary map—a re-read material. Subtly plotted, this novel gives the impression that characters and scenes in the beautifully paced novel become no more than mouthpieces and backdrops for Ishiguro’s concern for the human condition: A desire to exceed one’s limitations. It also concerns with one’s ignorance and stubbornness, subverting, and mistaking immorality as high ideals.
6. A Separate Peace by John Knowles (Fiction/Literature, American)
One of the few books read in school that really blew me away. It’s the classic tale of innocence lost for good. Fear, hatred, and love all battle to gain the upper hand in the young protagonist’s heart—and it is the victory of such dark forces human nature that makes the 16-years-old introvert boy realize each person is alone with his enemy–something that is within the human heart–and not influenced by external circumstances. The desire to outsmart everyone else destroys any feeling of affection and friendship he might have had for his friend.
7. Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth (Nonfiction/Memoir, Hong Kong)
I couldn’t stop nodding my head when I read through this one. Although Martin Booth was at least decades older than I, I live vicariously through his vivid details of sights and smells of my hometown. Besides the fact that Booth’s narrative, sometimes very novelistic for a memoir, is full of color and anecdote, wit and originality, this book strokes my heart-string because his first residence in Hong Kong, on Waterloo Road near Soares Avenue in Ho Man Tin, is right across the street from where I used to go to school.
8. Stoner by John Williams (Fiction/Literature, American)
This book is a hidden jewel in American Literature. It’s one of those quiet novels following a straight course of a protagonist who strives in silence. Stoner is a farm boy, initially studying agriculture and a requirement of his course is to take a class in English literature. Good things do happen in Stoner’s life, but they all end badly. He relishes teaching students, but his career is stymied by a malevolent head of department; he falls in love and marries, but knows within a month that the relationship is a failure.
9. Half a Lifetime 半生緣 by Eileen Chang 張愛玲 (Fiction/Literature, Chinese)
Rich in period details, set in Shanghai in the 1930s, it’s a love story not in the sense of titillating dialogue and actions, but in the sense of fate’s convolution. It’s neither about romantic passion nor intimacy. It’s one of the very few love stories that stays with me. Manjing and Shujun succumb to a succession of intrigues on which their families are to blame: misunderstandings, conjecture, white lies, and manipulation. The hunt for that lost love and happiness is always on, and in some tragic, truthful, stunning way it forever eludes them. This might very well be Chang’s view on love: one that is grim, unwarranted, and will-o’-the-wispy. Keeping a distance from her characters’ drama, at an angle of repose, Chang writes with a quiet prose that is emotionally detached, as if she is watching with an eagle’s eye her lovers are doomed by fate’s caprice and turbulence. Chang is very acerbic of wit.
10. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Fiction/Literature, American)
I dig books about good vs. evil. As Steinbeck disclaims and reiterates throughout the novel, the struggle between good and evil is not only a recurring narrative within the frame of the story, it will always coexist with human history. The same ancient problem, dating back to Adam and Eve, will always confront future generations.