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[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

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“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)

Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.

And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)

The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.

The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.

334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[819] Lost Horizon – James Hilton

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“Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared . . . For what possible reason could four chance passengers with the British Government aeroplane he whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?” (Ch.5, 103)

A British group of four, one of whom consular officer Hugh Conway, leaves India in the 1930s by plane only to be skyjacked and whisked away to the distant Tibetan mountains. In the fabled mountainous rampart of Shangri-La, in the valley of warmth and beauty, where a group of lamasery pavilions cling to the mountainside, they find a people leading lives of simplicity, moderation, and peace. Despite the hospitality offered, a part of Conway still insists that there’s something queer about the place that he cannot blame the truculence of his fellow Mallinson, who insists on leaving right away.

We want to return to civilization as soon as possible. (Mallinson) And are you so very certain that you are away from it. (Chang)

As the group becomes settled, a deep anesthetizing tranquility begins to sweep over Conway, who prefers the peace and quiet of Shangri-La over the racket of the world. He undergoes some curious transformation of the mind and becomes comfortable with the surrounding. A meeting with the reclusive High Lama affords him the secret behind the confounding mystery of the place.

This is a strangely absorbing and fascinating story that has sustaining interest in me. The atmosphere of the setting is soothing but the mystery behind is stimulating. There’s a spiritual force and an underlying philosophy that carries the reader’s imagination beyond the scope of the book. The power of this novel is in the sense of potential peace that is evoked. This sense of peace, calm and profundity is available to everyone but is not for everyone. Metaphorically, it’s the personal journey in search of that inner peace that is Shangri-La. That reaching true enlightenment for those who seek it, will find the Shangri-La.

231 pp. Pocket Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[818] The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr

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“As Marcus had said the night before, the jury was past caring about any psychological explanation of what context had produced a normal, sane girl who would one day be capable of murdering her own children; in fact, they were past believing that she had murdered her children in the first place…” (Ch.48, 606)

The Angel of Darkness is the sequel to The Alienist in terms of the same cast: the brooding alienist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, his indomitable servant Cyrus Montrose, the high-living New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, the detectives Lucius and Marcus Issacson, and feisty Sara Howard, now a private investigator for her own. The current story is narrated by a former street urchin taken in by Dr. Kreizler, the street-smart and observant Stevie Taggert, who figures prominently in this investigation of a peculiarly dastardly crime.

The plot is initiated by the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s baby, then thickens, quite convolutedly, as suspicion falls on Elspeth Hunter, a malevolent nurse (actually an imposter) who left under the allegation of having suffocated several babies. Further probe reveals that she has been a suspected murdrress of her own children in upstate New York, under the name Libby Hatch. The most baffling aspect of this woman, and thus the long pursuit, capture, and attempted conviction, is that she is an unending string of paradoxes—some of them, unquestionably, possessing deadly dimensions. Her contradictory behavior confuses many: she looks like a predatory animal, but she seems genuinely caring for the girl she kidnaps.

The book is more a courtroom thriller than a police procedural; and the pursuit of Libby Hatch involves such notable historical figures as women’s-rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Libby’s defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Thomas Roosevelt.

The story sags here and there, but Carr’s presentation of the socio-politics is authentic of the period and cannot be easily dismissed, because the villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims. The very theme is the role of females in that world, how females must assimilate to the roles expected of them—motherhood, housekeeping, nurturing children; and if they cannot fulfill these responsibilities, they are worthless. Dr. Kreizler seeks to connect the two sides of the character, leading to that shaky ethical question about a woman’s determination to gain over her life against society’s expectation of her. So what the investigation team and reader are faced with is not an inconsistency as much as a troubled unity.

The book can plodding at times, but characterization is detailed and nuanced, really getting into the mind of the criminal. Carr is attentive to historical details which makes the reading very enjoyable. Once again, forensics and psychiatry are used to nail a very dangerous perpetrator who is not only sane, but calculated, manipulative and meticulous to cover her trail.

749 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[817] The Alienist – Caleb Carr

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“From that moment on, he said, we must make every possible effort to rid themselves of preconceptions about human behavior. We must try not to see the world through our own eyes, nor to judge it by our own values, but through and by those of our killer.” (Ch.13, 129)

The Alienist is an engrossing historical fiction taking place in New York City just before the turn of the century. It revolves around the activities of one of the first forensic investigations in world history. In 1896 a serial killer is brutally slaughtering young transverstite boy prostitutes and mutilating their bodies. With neither the public nor the police interested in lives or deaths of these abominations to society, and that the poor and the new-immigrated warrant little attention, there is very little incentive to investigate. Not only is the police not interested, along with church officials who are only concerned with their own monetary interests, they contrive to obfuscate and suppress facts of the crimes.

If we accepted the supposition of his sanity, then we were left with the nagging question of what possible satisfaction or benefit he could be deriving from the butchery. (Ch.15, 157)

The task of tracking the killer has been assigned to Theodore Roosevelt’s (Police Commissioner at the time) old friend from his Harvard days, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, who is an alienist, or an expert on mental pathologies (minds that are alienated from themselves). Kreizler recruits John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the New York Times to investigate, along with Sara Howard, a woman detective who is looked down upon by her male colleagues. A firm believer in psychological causation, Kreizler thinks the context of life leads to a psychopath, The dredging up of this argument takes reader to the philosophical heart of the book, which explores the causes of sanity and criminality, and ultimately the nature of evil.

So unfolded is a challenging and tedious investigation on various facets. Between setbacks, interference, slow advances, with the help of modern forensic techniques, a profile containing the killer’s facts and personal histories is assembled. The team comes to terms with the mandate that they have to abandon their own preconceptions and start seeing the world in the killer’s shoes. When confrontation with the killer becomes inevitably imminent, on the killer’s schedule, the team comes to empathize with a man who is equal parts predator and prey.

The Alienist isn’t only an ingenious thriller, it gives authenticity of old New York. This I attribute to the fact that Caleb Carr is a historian and biographer. Beneath its rich historical trappings is a breathless and sometimes grisly detective story that reveals the social turmoil of the time. It shows, sadly, that a crisis like the serial killer is inevitable because he is himself an offspring of a society and its sick conscience. The killer dodges the law but craves the society, craves the opportunity to show people what their society had done to him. And the odd thing, as Carr has really nailed, is that society revels men like the killer who are easy repositories of all that is dark and wrong in our own social world. Society tolerates what makes the killer.

498 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [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]

[811] Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #5

“She had returned to the United States hoping to find out where she belonged—the United States or the United Kingdom. But now I struck her that a woman without a country, without a husband, without parents, and without religion was in the perfect position to be a spy. To be on her own, not answering to anyone.” (Ch.20, 316)

The fifth installment in the series takes Maggie Hope back to her native country. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States has finally joined the war effort in December 1941. In the entourage of Winston Churchill, she returns to America, where she comes to work closely with Elanor Roosevelt after the mysterious death of the First Lady’s personal secretary, Blanche Belfour.

Within the frame of this book, the murder of Blanche’s murder takes priority over the unstable and urgent political situation at large. Whoever behind the murder is determined to incriminate Elanor Roosevelt, to discredit her, and to poison the country with a scandal in the White House on the verge of war. Maggie is quickly drawn into Eleanor’s confidence in order to track down the murderer.

Within the story were days leading up to the scheduled execution of Wendell Cotton, a black tenant accused of killing his white landlord, but out of self-defense. It’s not difficult to put two and two together as Maggie becomes more involved in advocating for the suspension of death penalty. The First Lady is a target of incrimination because of her support for minority and civil rights. Wendell comes to personify all those to whom democracy is denied. Deprived of a fair trial, he really embodies the deep-seated racial and economic injustice that poisoned the society then and now.

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a Tudor mansion where conversations are under surveillance, Clara Hess talks of German rock installation. John Sterling, the ex-RAF pilot, becomes involved in Hollywood commissioned propaganda.

The social fabric is very rich, redolent of details in the White House ministrations and the President’s own secret agent. But Maggie Hope, again, is marginalized and she is involved in no more than a murder investigation that amounts not much to a mystery. The perpetrator has been explicitly stated out front so there isn’t a mystery. In this book social commentary preponderates over Maggie’s assignment. There’s the moral question of colonization: nothing Hitler does is worse than what the Brits did to the natives of its colonies when acquiring them. And how is it that white Americans can become so incensed over the ousting and purging of Jews in Europe and yet not the ousting and purging of blacks in their homeland? Such social critique is what makes the book so engrossing.

319 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[809] His Majesty’s Hope – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #3

“There was no choice. I was lucky I was able to work for the Abwehr, not be a soldier, not kill. At the Abwehr, there are a few other like-minded people. We are doing what we can to help as many Jews escape as possible. To lay the framework for a new Germany, a non-Communist Germany, after Hitler.” (Ch.7, 106)

Margaret Hope, when working as Prime Minister Churchill’s secretary in 1940, cracked a secret code on a newspaper put in by a Nazi spy and saved not only Churchill’s life but also St. Paul’s Cathedral from destruction. These strengths along with her fluency in French and Germany landed her an assignment to protect Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping scheme in Windsor Castle. On account of these achievements, she is initiated into Special Operations Executive, a covert organization designed to aid the British effort abroad—and her first assignment sens her to Nazi-controlled Berlin.

This isn’t about morality—it’s anout delousing. Genetic hygiene. The mercy killing of the sick, weak, and deformed is far more decent, and in truth a thousand times more humane, than to support a race of degenerates. (Ch.5, 79)

Hope is dropped into Berlin to delivered communication devices to a resistance group made up of anti-Nazi Abwehr officials and priests. Working with Lehrer, an Abwehr agent who is a spy for Britain, she is to plant a microphone in the study of a Nazi high official, who happens to be Clara Hess, Maggie’s mother. She is part of the plot to poison London’s water supply. Maggie then stumbles upon Elise, her half-sister, who is uncovering the euthanasia program of sickly and weak children with the help of an anti-Nazi Catholic priest. Elise becomes crucial in Maggie’s mission and delivers her to safety, along with Jews she is hiding in her attic.

The first half of the book is way more engaging than the second. It’s all dynamics at the beginning: the mission to infiltrate Clara Hess’s house; the planting of a bug; the stitching and knitting for coded messages. But the chaotic events ensued are less-than-convincing. They waste all the dynamics that was built up in the preparation stage of the mission. And the only “mystery” that involves poisoning London’s reservoirs is no more than an afterthought. The whole mission to Berlin doesn’t live up to its promise.

The book owes a great deal of its strength to the well-fleshed Maggie Hope, who is brave and determined but not without flaw. She is also beset by doubts. The writing is also a strong suit. It gives a well-researched look at the maneuverings of intelligence gathering efforts on both sides of the English channel.

334 pp. Bantam Books. 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]

[803] Memories of Beijing Southside 城南舊事 – Lin Haiyin 林海音

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This volume of five sequential stories is autobiographical of Lin’s childhood from age 6 to 13. The novella captures life in Beijing through the eyes of Yingzi, who lives with her family in a shiheyuan (a Chinese quadrangle in which four houses command a central courtyard) in the southern part of Beijing in 1930s. They are middle class people living among the poor. It’s 1930s but etiquette and social practices still resonate the imperial times. The stories testify the growth of this rambunctious girl into a keen observer of the social family turmoils she is not aware of at an earlier age.

Her life revolves around her family house and the rabbit warren of alleys (hutongs) that strew the neighborhood. She braves the neighborhood with a curious mind, exposing herself to the sights and sounds. The people really flesh out through the 7-year-old’s keen observation and interactions. There’s the young mad woman who yearns for her daughter, whom her family gave away because the bastard child is a disgrace to the family. Her best friend is an adopted girl whose abusive parents primes her to be a sing-song girl. Yingzi then befriends a thief who is hiding his loot behind her house. Then she plays the match-maker for a young concubine from next door who takes refuge in her parents’ house. Her nanny’s son dies in the distant village. her father, who has always been strict and loving, and most of all, interminable, becomes sick and dies as she graduates from elementary school. But her father’s death really marks her graduation from a childhood full of joy and innocent escapades. She matures to become cognizant of the turmoil and demands of life, and shoulder responsibility.

The world Lin portrays (through the eyes of Yingzi) is at the crossroad of old and modernity. She is especially keen on the role of women—how they thrive silently in a male-dominant, feudal society. Few women went to school. They all end up working away from home or being a concubine. There’s the nostalgia of the grown up who once upon a time was a child. The sense of loss and bewilderment that arouses the child’s awareness of the uncertainties of human relationships, even of life itself, and which jumpstarts her adolescence, is handled with great sensitivity and lyricism.

238 pp. Chinese University Press Hong Kong. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]