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[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen

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*Currently only available in the Chinese- and Japanese language. Pokong Chen appears on Voice of America radio.

Where the Chinese are there will always be racket, filth, and kerfuffle. It’s for a fact. Pokong Chen, a dissident originally from Szechuan and now residing in New York, cities many incidents of uncouth behaviors of mainland Chinese people to argue that inveterate despotism and one-party rule are to blame for the vices. He recognizes that rudeness and uncouth are not exclusive to the Chinese, but the Chinese people’s distasteful behavior are tied up with a long history of suppression, persecution, and cruelty by the government. The age-old monarchy and dictatorship system in China is not conducive to development of ethics on an individual level as people, out of fear, are led to blind observance. They are stripped of their own thinking and more caught up with pleasing the system at the expense of right-or-wrong.

Chen expounds on the culture of control that reigns over the people as a whole. Under generations of censorship, China has remained closed to any democratic liberation as seen in former East Germany and the USSR. China, ruled under the Communist Party, has become a nation that does not respect the dignity of human freedom. Chen is relentless in his denouncement of party officials, whose vices are endemic to their political culture. Bribery is rife as it’s the unspoken norm to get things done. The demonic values and pervasive influences of their party have every last Chinese person to some extent. Daily life becomes currying favor with local officials. The rougue behavior of Chinese tourists is a result of a deep-seated anxiety and fear imparted in them over the years. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s fear that material properties will be taken away from them. They dare not to criticize the Party or the government. Every man is for himself and so individual integrity diminished.

Chen further demonstrates the Chinese psyche is mere manifest of a political system so corrupted from the very top. Bureaucrat is the most coveted job in China because it’s the bright path to money and power. Their pride and arrogance; their exclusivity and elitism; their outward vanity and bravura; their titles of respect, authority, and personal renown; their heavy burdens that crush so many; their exploitation to maintain the standing—all trickling down to the common people, entangling them and weaving them into actions and thinking that are not of their own volition. In pleasing the devil, the people become devil of their own, given to corruption, cowardice, deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, effrontery, greed, apathy, distrust …

The book title sounds gimmicky but Chen is neither sermonizing nor pedantic. He draws on facts from over a long period of time from the dynasty periods to modern China and makes objective generalizations. He seeks a fair justification of the cause of the unruly, uncouth behaviors of Chinese people from a social and historical perspective. He argues there will be no trust and freedom until the demise of the tyrannical rule. Until then, the weightier matters of the law-justice, love and mercy are neglected, and ultimately, the eventual slavery of men to the powers that be.

269 pp. Open Books Hong Kong. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “Turkish Awakening”

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This is no light reading, but I thought it would serve as a good starting point to get to know Turkey. Modern Turkey has its historical and cultural roots in Ottoman Empire, which peaked in 16th century, spanning three continents and reaching as far as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, all of Asia Minor and Greece. This is all I know about Turkey.

Turkey has followed a turbulent path in recent years (in light of the recent bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, which makes me hesitate to visit) years. It is like an oddball relative, and understanding it a lifelong effort. As EU is considering to waiver visas of Turkish nationals, and Turkey being the top of my list, it’s time to read and understand history of Turkey.

Born to a Turkish mother and british father, Alev Scott returns to Istanbul to find her roots. She was about to finish this book when the Gezi protests broke out in May 2013, leaving more than 8,000 injured and 6 dead. She had no clue what gave, but it was clear to the world, and the Turks themselves, that the country is far more complicated than it looks. Scott interprets the Gezi spirit in this book and investigates the culture and society that precipitated the movement.

The book’s devotion to Turkish people and culture is a deciding factor. It is replete with real observations on daily life in Turkey. “Turkey is more than a country, it is a religion, and that is why anti-Turkish sentiments are equivalent to blasphemy.” Scott observes. The way Turks talk about their country sounds a religious fervor. The day-to-day anecdotes are so informative and appealing—exactly the way way how I would travel. She also alludes to the village-like interdependency of Turkish society. This leads to the dilemma between a solidarity and parochialism.

Scott writes a rich account of life in Istanbul, with thoughtful examples of how language is the soul of any culture. She also catches the myriad contradictions in Turkey, especially in how Kurds and Turks get along. She approaches her subjects with an open-mindedness and without prejudice. I am only browsing through the book and reading a passage here and there. But I get the impression that this is exactly what I have been looking for in helping me understand the country.

[789] Twilight in the Forbidden City – Reginald F. Johnston

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The author, a Scottish academic, who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the boy Emperor, the last Emperor Puyi, gives a fascinating account of the checkered history of China since 1898 as seen from the palace. The story covered in this memoir continues to the time of Puyi’s ascension to the Manchukuoan throne in the northeast of China. The memoir mostly concerns Johnston’s time with Puyi, who is then 13 years old, with whom he cultivates a relationship beyond that which is expected between teacher and pupil. Johnston later supervises Puyi’s residence in Summer Palace after he is evicted from Forbidden City, and plays a role in his seeking refuge in the Japanese embassy. The book therefore provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China, bound by tedious formalities, protocols, and regulations.

By the time Johnston commences teaching in 1919, China has fragmented politically in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The dictator Yuan Shikai attempts to form a strong central government and even contemplates declaring himself emperor, but his failure plunges China into even more states of warlords. In 1912, the Qing court announces the abdication of the last emperor who, under the privilege treaty, is to retain his residence i Forbidden City, to retain his imperial appellate but divested of political power, and to live off an allowance from the Republic of China. It is under this political disquiet that Johnston begins his engagement in the palace, where he observes and criticizes the corrupted goings-on among the courtiers in the imperial household department. These people live out for their own benefits and suck the lifeblood of the remnant of the Qing court. Johnston cities malpractices and embezzlement and advocates for the dismissal of this department. He later manages to dismiss all the eunuchs and bureaucrats in order to save expenses and to pave the way for moving the imperial household to the Summer Palace.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent it’s true. He cannot help being biased in defending Puyi and the Qing monarchy in the face of the republic. devotion and affection aside, he blames Empress Dowager Cixi’s mismanagement that has squandered and repleted the benefits of a strong monarchy, and that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact. Johnston is for a central government, but he doesn’t see anything wrong if a figurehead of an emperor being in conjunction with a democratically elected president. The Chinese translator, with his well-researched annotations and comments, really supplement Johnston’s narrative and correct his biased comments. A scholar who is contemporary peer to some of the historical characters that populate the pages, Guo Pak-U provides historical context and expounds how the Chinese imperial system works. The backdrop of facts that Johnston provides is richly interspersed with comments and annotations from Guo, which renders Johnston’s account more readable and objective.

Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape. The book’s scholarship, quality of writing, and personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and engrossing read.

389 pp. Oxford University Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

History of Japan

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A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Third Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.

Memoir of Puyi’s English Teacher

imageReally looking forward to reading this one. Reginald Johnston was Puyi’s English teacher in Forbidden City. I had no luck finding the original text in English, but am indebted to a friend working at Oxford University Press for finding me a Chinese translation.

British academic and diplomat Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874–1938) published Twilight in the Forbidden City in 1934. The work is a memoir of Johnston’s time in Beijing between 1919 and 1924, at the court of the Qing Dynasty, where he served as tutor to Aisin-Gioro Puyi (1906–1967), last emperor of China. Johnston was one of only two foreigners who were permitted to enter the imperial palace, and so his account provides a unique Western perspective on the epochal events of the period. The work has a preface by the emperor Puyi and includes detailed descriptions of palace rituals, including Puyi’s wedding ceremony; translations of key documents; Johnston’s perspective on the revolution of 1911 and the 1917 restoration; his observations on Chinese society as a whole; and eye-witness accounts of the political intrigues of the palace.

This is an important book as it provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China. It was written and published prior to the Communist takeover in China and therefore sits squarely in one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history, without the benefit of hindsight. Through it all, Johnston provides remarkable opinions on the issues of the day via his brilliant writing style.

Memorable Readings of 2015

imageSycamore Row by John Grisham.
The bigger picture is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end.

Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
This one keeps me on the edge of the seat and makes me a fan of Elizabeth George. 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. 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.

A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines
When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death. A white teacher Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
In this melodrama of a book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s gargantuan enterprise of a novel advocates selfishness. Selfishness in terms of safeguarding and preserving an individual’s thinking, achievement and reason from the hijacking of the government. Groundbreaking and outlandish. In the context of the novel, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
This is my Paris primer when I made the trip to the French capital. Paris is riddled with history and Horne dissects into seven periods. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells
First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readable prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose. The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A mixed drama-romance-thriller. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
This is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. The book gives insight into the mental faculty of the mind’s working of those who are prosecuted for the murders. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts.

[770] Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard

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“Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but at the same time he felt as dead as Mr. Maxted. Perhaps his souls, instead of leaving his body, had died inside his head?” (Ch.32, p.293)

Empire of the Sun is an autobiographical novel of World War II in China. It’s the story of a young boy’s search in vain for his parents in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is based on events which Ballard himself witnessed and suffered while interned as a boy in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945.

There is a triumph of truthfulness of tone to this book. It’s not about frontline combat but concentrating on prisoners’ experience in the camp through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Separated from his pants, Jim first camped out in his own empty house and then in the deserted house of his parents’ friends’ house. Eventually he’s interned for four years in the camp of Lunghua, where he performs a variety of chores under the direction of a Dr. Randsome.

But he had outgrown them and made other friends—Dr. Randsome, Basie, and the American seamen in E Block, with their ancient prewar copies of Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics that Jim devoured. (Ch.20, p.176)

War is war, as Ballard convinces reader. There is nothing admirable about it, even for the winning side. There are no heroes, no heroics, just war as the normal condition, and the only battle that to survive. There’s the battle against diseases and hunger. There’s the constant fear of reprisal. The driving force to live, at least for Jim, is the hope to be with his parents again. Maintaining a civil relation to the Japanese guards gets him some perks but it doesn’t ease the threat of death. Aside from the pestilent living condition, food is depleting at a rate faster than that at which people are dying. Ironically, Jim is at the mercy of some Japanese soldiers for food, while the cubicle-mates, an English couple, deprived him of his food rations.

He sucked on his knuckles, glad for even the taste of his pus, then tore stems of grass from the bank and chewed the acid leaves. (Ch.30, p.272)

This book has the authority of experience: a novel of clear moral purpose and power, but written in a detached, matter-of-fact manner like journalist reporting. Ballard didn’t write about this experience until some forty years after the war. He reflected that for the rest of his life, he found it difficult to leave food on his plate after the Lunghua years. This is perhaps the worst consequence of war—surviving and yet traumatized.

375 pp. Washington Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[768] Mother Tongue – Bill Bryson

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“It is a cherishable irony that a language that succeeded almost by stealth, treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants, should one day become the most important and successful language in the world.” (Ch.4, p.48)

Mother Tongue is as casual a history of the English language as it is an insightful study of how it becomes one of the most common-spoken languages in the world. Bryson begins with why English has easily invaded foreign cultures: the richness of its vocabulary, the flexibility of the language, and the simplicity in spelling and pronunciation, as English is devoid of any diacritical marks like umlauts and circumflexes. But English is not without its shortcomings. Although the consonants conform to a regular sound pattern, English spelling can be treacherous because for centuries after the Norman conquest in 11th century, English has been disparaged to a peasant language. Even in Shakespeare’s days the use of English for purposes of scholarship was only experimental. After all, without adaptability English could not have permitted Shakespeare to coin some 1,700 new words. Pliancy has made English easy to learn; but such versatility also made regulation of spelling difficult. Having been a second-rate tongue for peasants, proper spelling of English words had been disregarded in history. The changes attributable to such efforts had generally been few and frequently short-lived.

It would be a mistake to presume that English is widely spoken in the world because it has some overwhelming intrinsic appeals to foreigners. Most people speak it . . . because they need it to function in the world at large. (Ch.12, p.181)

Bryson applauds the vitality with which English has spread and evolved itself. He concurs that a system should lay down the ground rules of grammar that both native speakers and foreigners shall abide. That said, where there is proper usage that is conductive to good English, Bryson reminds us what makes good English or bad English is up to an uncomfortably large extent matters of prejudice and conditioning. In this spirit of tolerance, he sees no valid objections to split infinitives (only because Latin doesn’t permit it?), to sentences ending in prepositions, or to the use of “hopefully” at the head of a sentence.

Bryson is not a linguist, neither is he a historian. But he does a good job presenting the evolution of the English language with a fizzle and pop. He writes with an exuberance and excitement about what English is capable of that is infectious and uplifting. Though it’s not a comprehensive history, it does drop in at key moment and point out some of the really interesting, weird, trivial tidbits. It surveys English’s vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations with style, flare and humor.

Penguin Books. Orange Series Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

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“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“The Fall of Hong Kong”

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Another great find from the used bookstore. The Fall of Hong Kong has been out-of-print and I have never set my eyes on a copy—until today. On December 8th, 1941, Japan launched an all out offensive against Hong Kong. On Christmas Day—just seventeen days later—the Colony was surrendered. This is the story of those seventeen days. It is the long, true, and terrible story of a battle and of the men who fought it: British, Indian, and Canadian soldiers; sailors and airmen; civilians of many different nationalities. These are the people who, with sudden and violent unexpectedness, were jolted from security into a maelstrom of savagery. In face of the recent China’s “celebration of victory over Sino-Japanese War”, this book is a timely slap in the face to the Communist Party, which hardly played a role in liberating Hong Kong.