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[835] My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry – Fredrik Backman

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“They’re ferocious and bloodthirsty, and if you’re bitten by one you don’t just die; a far more serious and terrible fate lies in store: you lose your imagination . . . you wither away year by year until your body is just a shell.” (Ch.5, 46)

Elsa is an 8-year-old smartypant who gets bullied in school for her precociousness. Her only friend, and best friend, is her eclectic grandmother. Elsa’s precociousness along with her granny’s disregard for societal rules mark them as trouble to most people they encounter and make Elsa a pariah at school. To escape from reality, Elsa journeys to a fairy realm created by her granny, the Land-pf-Almost_Awake, with six kingdoms, each with its strength, purpose, and interlocking mythologies. When granny dies, she leaves Elsa a treasure hunt—she gets tapped to deliver a series of letters of various people in her building, and she is compelled to find out the secrets behind why there is a message of apology to all of them.

The fairy tales can often get the better of the main story. They can somewhat overwrought and tedious but Elsa’s adventures press on the pages. There is quite a system granny has invented for the relationships between her imaginary kingdoms. As Elsa learns about the troublesome day on which she was born, she is also enlightened to the philanthropic work her granny did as a surgeon and why her work had alienated her mother. It doesn’t surprise that the hunt reveals that each of the misfits in the building has a connection to her granny, and they are all hurt, damaged souls who have a story reflected in granny’s fairyland. It’s quite a complex tale and is intricately woven. Sometimes it gets really tedious, but it captures beautifully the honestly of children and obtuseness of adults.

(Note: I picked this up because of the universally acclaimed The Man Named Ove; but I am glad I have read this first and save Ove for later because the reviews are all in favor of Ove.)

372 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[831] The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

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“What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive in him.” (Ch.31, 140)

The Days of Abandonment (Il Divorcio) is the raw, ferocious depiction of one woman, Olga, and her descent into disarray after her husband of fifteen years suddenly announces that he is leaving her because he is confused and unhappy. He manipulates Olga to call the shot of their separation. After he leaves, Olga has to care for the two children in addition to housework. She would sit in her increasingly disorderly home, writing letters to Mario and trying to identify the moment when her marriage ceased to be the mature partnership that she’d always thought it to be.

… and I don’t know what physiognomy he had attributed to me, what montage of me had made him fall in love, what, on the other hand, had turned out to be repugnant to him, making him fall out of love. (Ch.26, 124)

What makes the book so powerful is the voice, first-person, caught in space between telling a story and explaining, justifying to herself what had happened to her marriage. Reader gets inside Olga’s head, witnesses her erratic thoughts, her dangerous motives, her hallucinations, her rage, her pain and her desperation. This is when the book sometimes get too difficult and muddy. She plunges into this vertigo where she cannot help lash at society and turn cynical and sarcastic, and withdraw her trust in people. She’s in a purgatory of rage and bereavement.

Without herself knowing, she has taken absence of her sense and lapsed into a momentary loss of sanity. But it’s almost as if this trip to hell and back is necessary and conducive to the healing. She’s making decisions that have sure consequences. She’s in self-scrutiny but also self-denial. Between reason, insanity and survival, she continues to live. It reads like a monologue of someone thrives to fight, who might have taken absence of sense but never an absence of morality.

187 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[830] The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain

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“How many things do we feel obliged to do for the sake of it, or for appearances, or because we are trained to do them, but which weigh us down and don’t in fact achieve anything?”

Set in modern-day Paris, The Red Notebook is the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its plethora of contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it. Unbeknownst to him, the handbag belongs to this woman had been mugged the night before.

The book is a gem of a novella. It uses a found object as the pivot on which to turn a tale of happenstance. Laurent Letellier is a banker-turned-bookseller in his mid-forties. Given the handbag provides no information on owner’s contact and identity, he combs through the personal effects and reads through the journal for clues. Ensued is a whimsical experience of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened or will happen–he gets to know her and her preferences and intimate details through her words but not knowing her in person.

Who is she? What does she do for a living? Why so many keepsakes in a small handbag? The aggregation between owner and finder is lightly spun, but eventually joined by the inventory of objects that bodes well for their kinship. This novella observes the totemic power of belongings. That Laure fought her mugger and grieved the loss of her bag speaks for the value of it—a piece of life that is irreplaceable. Laurain really captures the potent combination of sentiment and association attached to the most unlikely things.

A tale of serrendipity.

159 pp. Gallic Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[827] The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

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“Never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.”

The Luminaries is an entangled, convoluted story, at least told in a convoluted manner, that is set in the 19th century, during the last days of the New Zealand gold rush. It’s an action-adventure, sprawling detective story, well-plotted but owing to the stylistic choice Catton so scrupulously pursues, too long due to the reiteration of events. The style is that each successive part is half the length of its predecessor, such that before long the chapter introductions are longer than the text they preface. And Catton’s commitment to delineating a full year’s astrological changes requires looping back to events of 1865-1866 repetitiously for the last quarter of the book.

A string of coincidences is not a coincidence.

The novel attempts to unravel the mystery of a day when a chain of events unfold in the town of Hokitika. A very wealthy man—owner of a gold mine, disappeared. A prostitute tried to end her life. An enormous fortune was found in the home of a hapless drunk, who was overdosed on laudanum. His identity and mining tight had been stolen. These seemingly unrelated events turn out to be part of a bigger plan of an ex-con man. The arrival of a man who is running for councilman kicks off this string of strange coincidences. This ex-con man who has cheated Alastair Lauderback out of his ship then lost the shipping crate by which he had forced the politician’s hand. Inside this crate was a trunk containing gold, a fortune that had been sewn into the lining of five dresses. The seamstress was a crafty woman named Lydia Wells, a brothel owner who was, at that time, posing as the ex-con’s wife, and helping him to steal her ex-husband’s fortune. When the prostitute learned, some weeks after her arrival in Hokitika, that a trunk containing women’s dresses had been salvaged from a wreck, she purchased all five without noticing the added weight since she is an opium user and it as sober.

So a multiple storylines cram the 800 pages, winding up a skein of a mystery that’s rich with sibling secrets, sex, opium and drugs, a doomed love affair, murder, extortion, impersonation, fraud, forgery, and double dealing. It opens like a play, with Walter Moody stumbling upon a clandestine meeting of twelve prominent men in a hotel meeting hall. It’s highly wrought, artificial piece of tale-telling accorded to the astrological framing device. The opacity of this angle results in reiteration of events over and over again. In this respect, the novel appears too clever for its own good. That said, Catton’s use of contemporary slang, circumlocutions, and lexicons befitting the different characters are all spot-on.

830 pp. Little Brown Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[815] Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

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“Why is the measure of love loss?” (9)

An anonymous and genderless narrator reflects about the affair with a married woman. It’s a thickly written literary fiction that amounts to no more than allusions and incessant tirade. The story (if it can be called so) is about the narcissist’s love for Louise, the kind of love that is completely situated upon her body. Her body is constantly compared to a territory to be discovered, mapped out, cultivated, and conquered. Then one would have the idea that the book is a tribute to love—until it is complicated, if not ruined by the presence of other bodies.

…I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know. (120)

For the whole duration of reading I constantly shift my idea of the gender of the narrator. The meager hints push me in one direction of thinking or the other. But it dawns on me that the whole idea is not to have imposed any gender stereotype on the narrator. Gender is fluid. The narrator reflects on his it was a mistake to let go of Louise—and exhausts the prose waxing on about bodies and love and Louise’s body in flowery language until she is so ubiquitous and encompassing of a landscape.

Phrases and themes are repeated throughout that it seems impossible not to be struck by her reliance on cliches of love and desire. It’s ironic how much the narrator tries to make the impression that Louise is a unique lover but the more s/he rambles on, the less Louise seems unique. Louise is just any other woman, married woman who makes excuses for adultery. Louise herself is a cliche. The embellished prose is much ado about nothing.

189 pp. Vintage Contemporary. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[812] Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

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Revisit of this classic in light of the recent events that implicate the assault on individual freedom and freedom of speech in Hong Kong

“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.” (Book Three, II, 249)

1984 is bleak and eerily prophetic. It is sadly more relevant today. Written in 1949, Orwell asked himself what Britain would look like if it fell prey to either one of the totalitarian creeds that dominated the mid-20th century. From this basic inquiry ensued a speculative dystopian novel, 1984. The novel creates a world so plausible, so frightening, so complete that to read it is to experience another world, in which

all the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterize our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived. (Book Two, IX, 210)

Winston Smith lives in a country where individual thought is banned, where emotion is suppressed, where only the leader, Big Brother, is allowed to reason and to decide. Prodded by his natural need for reflection and critical analysis, he finds it difficult not to question the wisdom of the Party. In a dystopian society where all thoughts are under surveillance, no one would have suspected that Winston (and Julia, with whom he falls in love) is capable of crimethink (dangerous thoughts) or a secret desire for ownlife (individualism), After all, Party-member Winston is one of the Ministry of Truth’s most trusted forgers who rewrites, rectifies, and modifies records such that every statement and prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct. In other words, infallibility of the Party must be ensured even at the expense of truth and history. History could be altered and events of the past erased to ensure this controlled reality. By feeding false information and turning lies to truth, people are deprived of their human qualities.

Winston’s fellow intellectuals have sold their inalienable right to think freely for security and a semblance of physical well-being. More chilling than the Party’s goal to perpetuate its power is the large mass of common people who do not find in themselves the need to think independently, to question or to investigate what they have been taught. When he comes across a newspaper about three men who had been wrongfully condemned for treachery and intrigues against the Party, he falls prey into traps and is doomed. He is “converted” and “made sane.”

When I read the book as a young teenager, what holds me is the fate of the lovers, who are arrested by Thought Police for having individual thoughts, and their doomed attempt to taste freedom. Over time 1984, its portrayal of a totalitarian tyranny roaming in the fray of my consciousness, becomes a political statement, an admonition to mankind, and a standard by which one is to gauge how far society has fallen in terms of individual freedom. Orwell proclaims that 1984 could happen if man did not become aware of the assaults on his personal freedom and did not defend his most precious right—the right to have his own thoughts. Man shall become so helpless, near-sighted, and deceived that they would surrender freedom for short-term happiness.

328 pp. Signet Classic. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

The Master and Margarita Revisited

Stalinist Russia. Two men, a poet and an editor, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Pond in the heat of the day. As the editor lectures his friend on Jesus Christ’s non-existence, a foreigner, impeccably dressed, appears, introducing himself as Professor Wolan, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. Shortly after the encounter, within minutes, the editor is dead, by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum.

Professor Woland is the Evil, in gentlemanly disguise. Within the framework of the book he is “a stranger”, “a visitor”, somebody whose origin is unknown. Then, after he mysterious acquires a gig at the Variety Theater, he is “a visiting celebrity”,”a famous foreign artiste”, “a magician.” He is more a social devil who lives the lifestyle of a wealthy gentleman than Evil. While he provides pensive commentary, his entourage of underlings cut out most of the mischief that wreaks havoc in Moscow.

The book is obviously a satire of the time it was written—and indeed it was duly banned by Stalin. In a city full of hypocritical bureaucratic mortals, Woland, ironically, is the honest one who sees self-righteous citizens and officials punished for their hypocrisy. Margarita, who is in love with the literary Master, is Woland’s only friend who benefits from this relationship–to be granted life (listen to this, Evil grants life).

The entity of Woland really tests our idea of what evil is, until one comes to see his place in a hierarchy that contains good. “What would your good do if evil didn’t exist?” he asks, “and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” Woland may be the catalyst for the chaos and death that open the novel, but he is also the enforcer for the final act of justice.

[808] The Door – Magda Szabó

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“The bond between us—produced by forces almost impossible to define—was in every way like love, though it required endless concessions for us to accept each other.” (Politics, 104)

In modern postwar Hungary (1960s-80s) an old woman who is now a famous author (who is named Magda) recalls the times when she hires an old peasant woman as her housekeeper. The novel begins after the young writer passed through a “political frozen” time, a period rife with censorship, and starts to be able to write again, paving her way to renown. Magda and her husband, a college professor, moving up on the social ladder, are desperately in need for a charlady in their new flat. Inquiry around the neighborhood leads them to Emerence—gruff, stubborn, proud, secretive, bluntly honest and highly critical lady who is a hard worker. More accurately, it’s Emerence who selects them.

All her life [Emerence’d] been like royalty, adjusting her memory to suit political reality. (Amnesia, 221)

The Door follows the intracacies of the young writer’s intimate filial relationship with Emerence. The book is a story less about events than about relationships, the gradual discovering, and awakening of who another person is and who one is oneself. The stark contrast in background—Emerence an illiterate peasant who is anti-intellectual and contemptuous of culture; and Magda an up-and-coming author who is unduly self-conscious—creates an irresistible dynamics between the two women, who make concessions along the way and strive to see and make sense of each other’s life.

They eventually become close in spite of their differences. Despite remaining stern and aloof, Emerence sustains Magda through her husband’s grave illness and bestows upon them a number of gifts that they resist at their peril. The greatest intimacy Emerence shares with the “Lady Writer” (as she becomes to call her) is to permit her entry to her house, to witness her secrets, to know her history. It is a unique privilege denied even of her family. It is also on account of this privilege, this knowledge to Emerence’s past, mottled with much tragic losses and disappointment, that an unintended, heartbreaking betrayal inevitably ensues.

The book is stately, full-blooded, and contemplative. It exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes agonies of Hungary’s recent history. Emerence is as practical, anti-intellectual and hostile to the church as Magda is abstracted, literary and religious. Emerence sustains on her values and morality, which transcend any religious teaching and political dictate. If she embodies dignity, she really embodies humanity. She ministers to the needs of many in the neighborhood on her own term and schedule. As this unlikely friendship evolves, there’s something profound and provocative about the meaning of love. To love is not to impose one’s own standard and values on another being, but to accept and to respect one’s choice in life.

261 pp. NYRB Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[806] The Sisters Mortland – Sally Beauman

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Published under The Landscape of Love in the United Kingdom

“I can feel the force of my stare, over thirty years later . . . It had never occurred to me that these three girls, whom I’ve already pursued for months, alive with curiosity, peeping out at them from trees and hedges, spying on them in the church, even in the house, wondering if they will be my friends, . . . Are they assessing me, dismissing me, accepting me or judging me?” (Ch.26, 359)

With a slow beginning, this novel, revolving around three sisters in their derelict abbey-turned-home in 1967, grows in me as their complex relationships, between themselves and with their admirer friends, run the courses to an excruciating end.

Adolescent Maisie narrates the first quarter up to the end of the tragedy that befalls her. Despite a mild mental disorder that confines her to her home, she is bright and well-versed, endowed with an intractable will and peculiar thinking. She keenly observes the maturing of her older sisters: the bookish and emotional Finn and the alpha female-ish, vain Julia. They over the years become inextricably entwined with the friends and the tragedy that summer becomes the focal point by which they contemplate in later years what have gone wrong in their lives.

Along the visitors are Lucas Feld, a transient young painter executing a portrait of the sisters, Daniel Nunn, the gypsy grandson of the family housekeeper who is in love with both Finn and Julia, and Nicholas Marlow, a neighbor training to become a physician. Maisie watches their coming and going in silence. She withdraws to her world of reading and dusty keeping, and communes with the abbey’s dead spirits. She is an outsider, the family misfit. Despite the family’s effort to protect her, trauma befalls her and nobody knows why she jumps off the abbey tower.

Dan’s narrative, which makes up s heft portion of the book, is one of wrenching memories. He’s also prompted to search for the past of his family and the circumstances under which his mother died while giving birth to him. He’s a filmmaker burned out from drugs and travel, stricken by a sense of loss and misery. He has a moment of mental clarity—being on the verge of death but for the critical assistance that reaches him. He sees in a moment his whole life, in its minutest incidents, arrayed before him simultaneously. These images are all retrospective of the days leading up to Maisie’s tragedy in the abbey back in 1967.

Beauman paces the book well, carefully weaving the different perspectives together. Maisie’s dreamy and vague narrative is justified as more details are revealed later by Dan. Suffice to say that what happens to Maisie and the cause of it have lasting impact on everyone in years to come. Beauman also depicts Britain as divided between the poor and the privileged through Dan’s self-pitying rant on dreams unfulfilled. The ultimate driving momentum is the plethora of secrets and betrayals, the infidelities, the lies piling up on lies over the years. It’s an exploration into how secrets come back to haunt us, how nothing is as it seems, and how relationships are bound as much by love and as by guilt.

432 pp. Time Warner Books. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[805] The Sellout – Paul Beatty

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“I understand now that the only time that black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.” (Prologue, 18)

This book is incendiary and funny. In a time when race in America is at an absolute boil, Paul Beatty comes along with a book so bold and straight-forward, tackling all the racial taboo and faultlines. To the conservative mind it is repugnant, but to the liberal it’s brilliant.

In the nutshell The Sellout is about a young black man born in the “agrarian ghetto” of fictional Dickens, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of LA, who becomes a farmer and weed dealer. He ends up before the Supreme Court because he is reinstating slavery, at least in his own house, and segregating the local middle school, erecting around town signs that scream “COLORED ONLY.” Son of a psychologist, “Bonbon” has a weird childhood in which he was subjected to many social experiments studying blacks’ behavior.

When I was young I had a reputation for being extremely lucky. I never suffered from the typical ghetto maladies . . . Hoodlums would jump on my friends but leave me alone. The cops somehow never got around to putting my name on a scare card or my neck in a choke hold. (Ch.9, 124)

When Dickens is removed from the map of California, Bonbon aka “Me” goes on a campaign to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkin, an erstwhile chattel who is the last surviving Little Rascal, who used to perform racial skits. He volunteers to be the narrator’s slave. In addition to segregate the local middle school, he creates facade of a fake charter school populated by smiling white kids that he paints across the street from the real public school, inspiring a race to racially segregated achievement.

What really makes this book shine is Beatty’s constant barrage of asides that takes precedence over the whole plot. His wicked wit, bold racial discourse give the book it’s momentum. The rich asides, so full of racial slurs and innuendos, are very incendiary and provocative. They touch on the hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable. Within the humor, Beatty encourages the reader to re-examine the preconceptions of race and look at race relations in America in a new light. The book by no means suggests that black Americans were better off in the eras of segregation and slavery; instead, Beatty argues that the idea that racial issues are a thing of the past is a misguided and very detrimental concept. He calls for accountability and open discussion, dealing with inequality, prejudice, and discrimination in a honest way.

304 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]