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Points of View

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Which is better (or preferred) … stories with multiple character points of view? Or stories that stick to just one or two at most? And, why?

I don’t have a preference as long as the story is coherent. I do understand why authors choose to write a mystery or historical fiction in multiple points of view for the suspense factor. When I begin a book, I want to know the relation of the narrator to the action of the story—whether the narrator is, for instance, a character in the story, or a voice outside of the story.

Personal stories often require a tight POV to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle. Epic tales tell a bigger picture story and often require multiple people to show all sides. If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single POVs (third or first) can be a great choice, because they allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it. A good example from recent reading is After Her by Joyce Maynard.

Multiple POVs can be tricky because when a novel has a lot of them, it can be a red flag of a premise novel. So unless every person who is telling the story has a solid reason for being there, it’s best o be without that narrator. If the only reason is because “you can’t show that part of the story any other way” then you might want to reconsider. If there’s no goal driving that character, or nothing in particular happens to him/her, then the story will fall flat. Multiple POVs work best when each POV brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story. The reader cares about that POV, even if all they care about is to see them get what they deserve. A recent example that exemplifies multiple POV is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.

Two Books

I stumbled upon this book, Before the Last Dance, when I stumbled upon a friend who was reading it. Then on a gay men social network I saw that name again and it rang a bell. Until then I have never heard of James Randall Chumbley, whose website I just located. The novel, which I promptly acquired today, tells a familiar tale of iconically beautiful gay men and their obsession with youth and aging, the pursuit of of physical perfection and, of course, sex. Honestly, over the years I have grown weary about the subject matter because it’s been written to death. You will have some charged sex scenes that transcend pornography. Chumbley’s book delves in an inevitable subject all all gay men have to face: aging. This book really helps put my recent trip to Palm Springs in perspective. Over half of the (gay) population is men over 50. Every Gay man can identify with The main characters, Tom and Trey. I saw a bit of myself in Tom with his obsession with youth and his terror of growing old. The topic of growing older in our youth-obsessed gay culture is something that cries to be discussed and considered. I’m looking forward to reading this when I take a weekend off in Los Angeles at the end of the month.

The other highlight is Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram, whose fictional works I have long revered. Bram brilliantly chronicles the rise of gay consciousness in American writing. Beginning with a first wave of major gay literary figures-Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, and James Baldwin-he shows how (despite criticism and occasional setbacks) these pioneers set the stage for new generations of gay writers to build on what they had begun: Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, Tony Kushner, and Edward Albee among them. Like all good books of criticism, this one will make me eager to read the many works I may have missed or re-read others.

The Master and Margarita: Translations

Taking a break from the dense The Sound and the Fury, I took a walk around the neighborhood. The window of the picture frame shop has this poster of Behemoth the Cat matted in a frame. The print is exactly the same as my t-shirt. It was a prop but the owner let me have it for $20. Now I just have to find the original Signet edition of The Master and Margarita with this cover.

Although I did not find exactly what I wished for, but luck is definitely on my side today. A short walk from the frame shop is Aardvark Books, where the residence orange tabby, Owen, who once out of either boredom or insecurity assaulted me. Today he was oblivious of the activities in the store, for he slept right at the window, soaking up the winter sun. Despite his skittishness, Owen is a cutie. I have to give him credit that some people go into Aardvark because of him.

Among the few copies of The Master and Margarita—Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Burgin & O’Connor (1995), and Pevear & Volokhonsky (1997), I found a copy of Hugh Aplin (2008). This new translation, published by Oneworld Classics, is based on the recently restored, unexpurgated edition, which benefits from over three decades of Bulgakov scholarship. My next reading of the novel would be Aplin translation. The new copy is available online for £8.99 but I bought it at ta bargain of $9. So the search for the Signet edition, translated by Michael Glenny, goes on; but up to this point, I still think Burgin & O’Connor is better, and more carefully done. The standard by which I compare different translations is a passage, a rather awkward one, the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth the Cat, have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (a crow?).

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs. (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)

This particular passage made a huge impression in me during the first read because I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air,”, but rather “everyone” in their company: Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context and logic, it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. The translators shall have no excuse to confuse the readers, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin & O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs. (Burgin & O’Connor translation)

As you can see, both Pevear & Volokhonsky and Burgin & O’Connor contrive to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. While translator should try not to break down Bulgakov’s long sentences to preserve his original style, it’s more important not to sacrifice clarity. Now Alpin offers:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase. The crow switched on the headlights and drove out of the courtyard past the man asleep at the entrance.

Alpin also resolves the pronoun issue, but the sentence is still somewhat cluttered. I do have expectation for this new translation, especially it’s coming out of the U. For new readers my advice is to shy away from Pevear & Volokhonsky and read Burgin & O’Connor.

The Twelve Books of 2010

Sticky Post. Since it’s irrelevant (and almost unfair) to compare books from different genres (i.e. a mystery with many twists and turns that entertains vs. a literary fiction that is redolent of its beautiful writing), I decide to rid of the ambivalent notion of “best books” and “top 10 books” and instead turn to the extent to which a book makes an impression on me. Of the 82 books read this year, over half of them are favorites. Rereads are not included in the selection pool.

















Death with Interruptions Jose Saramago. As people cope with the crisis by humanizing death to mitigate their fear: calling its name, demanding a frank and open dialogue with death, mocking its treachery, death itself humanizes and gives up her dominion.

Fingersmith Sarah Waters. Waters has downplayed the romance, focusing on the layers of secrets to be revealed carefully. The ingénue of Fingersmith lays in her execution, juxtaposing facts and events that would otherwise contribute to an ordinary tale of chicanery and betrayal.

Molly Fox’s Birthday Deirdre Madden. In one day’s time, Madden prises the well-guarded nutshells of her three characters, the three friends, who are connected mostly deeply through their emotionally charged moments, in which they comfort, console, and communicate one another in career bumps, failed marriage, unspoken affection, and family tensions.

East of Eden John Steinbeck. It is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else.

The Meaning of Night Michael Cox. The themes of betrayal, revenge, social status, and moral hypocrisy echo the works written in the historical period in which the novel is set. It ponders on how inherited wealth and privilege have trampled implacably on the claims of common human feeling and family connexion.

Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides. This novel, as lyrical as it is splendid, takes reader through a roller coaster of emotions. On top of human experiences marked by polar opposites, the novel ponders at life when it is deemed outside of normal existence by society’s standard. It explores nature vs. nurture, rebirth, and how one comes to terms to his/her own human identity.

The Imperfectionists Tom Rachman. The novel, in capturing the vicissitude of the diminishing newspaper industry, also affords a myopic, but authentic view of human foibles. The paper’s staff reminds us that imperfection is what makes us human beings. Although they have fears, regrets, secrets, unhappiness, resentment, disappointment, and hurts, life still goes on.

Learning to Lose David Trueba. As they collide and interact under very dramatic circumstances, they come to realize that normality, one that is not prescribed by society with its norms, but dictated by the inner voice of the heart, is the recipe for happiness. In a sense they have to lose what they thought is the most important in order to be happy.

Insignificant Others Stephen McCauley. This novel is a haunting social satire about how we throw our energy in the wrong direction, onto the distractions, onto the pursuits that are insignificant, instead of into the main event of our lives. Ironically, how do we know what is significant? The lack of self-knowledge and cowardice often provoke us to ignore what is significant. That is why discretion becomes acceptable standard of fidelity.

Call Me By Your Name André Aciman. Intimacy is what happens when two beings become totally ductile that each becomes the other. This book doesn’t explore the reason behind this consummate affair nor does it justify the outcome. It gives us a story of two men who have found total intimacy that marks their life, regardless of the paths they have taken afterwards.

The Palisades Tom Schabarum. This novel is about love and healing. Told in alternating perspectives of mother and son, the novel revolves around family—how the loss of sustainable love, for Nick the loss of his mother and for Marjorie her Native American father, inform and predispose their lives. Best debut novel.

A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry. The book is an indictment of a corrupt and ineluctably cruel society, combining sympathy for the poor and the controlled outrage for the corrupted. The struggles of the protagonists, along with absurd ways undertaken by many to scrape a living, hold our attention throughout the novel, where Mistry succeeds in balancing his desire to create a moving tragedy with his strong impulse toward political and social commentary.

It’s been an excellent reading year with so many great, memorable reads. It’s amazing how some of the best books find their way to me at the very end of the year.

[299] The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

” The truth was rather different: in fact Maugham was remarkably unchanged by his success, although inevitably his level-headed manner struck some observers as a form of vanity. He was pleased by the acclaim, of course, but he had worked hard through ten long years to achieve it and he saw very clearly the nature of that achievement: he has discovered a knack, a facility for writing light comedy that audiences found amusing; it was an ability he rated very highly, nor did he see himself continuing with it for very long . . . ” [5:118]

For many years after the passing of at one time the most famous writer in the world, W. Somerset Maugham’s life story has not been fully told. In his late years not only did he destroy all letters of correspondence with friends, he also issued mandatory notices to literary executors that no biography should be authorized. Throughout his life an appearance of conventionality was of profound importance to Maugham. For the first time a definitive account of the celebrated literary figure’s extraordinary life is made possible, in literary excellence that the subject probably would approve, by Selina Hastings. Granted unprecedented access to Maugham’s most personal correspondence, Hastings portrays the secret lives, passion, and betrayal—the great deal out of his outwardly respectable life that he was determined to conceal.

The irony was that he himself never experienced what he described as ‘the bliss of requited love.’ Expert at covering his tracks, Maugham left little documentary evidence of specific attachments; nevertheless there are numerous signs—references casually made in letters, fictional versions lightly disguised—of his love affairs and of an emotional neediness only partly hidden behind the reserve. [5:115]

For a man who from childhood had been wholly deprived of love and emotional security, financial stability became a vital substitute. But in other personal facets, he succumbed to an acute emotional vulnerability to which adolescent trauma predisposed him. Behind the social and career triumphs, which placed him among political and literary illuminaries, his marriage to Syrie Wellcome, a manipulative society woman who ensnared him with pregnancy, was a disaster.

The frequent scenes Syrie staged, the endless reproaches, the daily testing, and questioning of Maugham’s feelings for her, maddening to him . . . The fact that she was in love made her desperate for any show of affection. It also made her physically demanding . . . [8:238]

Behind this painted veil of a marriage (which existed merely on paper since Maugham was always on the leave to travel), despite the lack of felicity and harmony, Maugham was able to cultivate many affairs with men, including his great love and soul mate Gerald Haxton, who albeit being an alcoholic cad, had the sheer power to unlock a door inside the novelist’s shut-away secret wall. Not only did he give full rein to a sensuality and subversiveness that Maugham held in check, he also dominated him mentally. The struggle between maintaining his marriage in public and nourishing the intimate affair forays into his major novels—Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, and Cakes and Ale, in the form of recurring themes like masochistic sexual obsession, ill-matched marriage, sexual passion, meaning of love, the mores of society and the nature of goodness.

And with admirable detachment he analyzes his own strengths and weakness as a practitioner of the art to which he had dedicated his life. ‘I am a made writer,’ he states unequivocally. ‘I do not write as I want to; I write as I can . . . I have had small power of imagination . . . no lyrical quality . . . little gift of metaphor . . . [but] I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. [13:422]

Indeed, as Hastings has repeatedly pointed out, in citing letters of correspondence between Maugham and his contemporaries, that Maugham understood the range of his engagement. It wasn’t the big picture that appealed to his mind’s eye, but the small lives of unremarkable individuals struggling to create assurance in life out of an exotic environment. His extensive travel had fueled and furnished his stories with such characters, for he was a realist who needed actual people and events to work on. Although his stories are not remarkably profound and laden with symbolisms, metaphors, and subtexts, they are of absolute verisimilitude owing to his adherence to psychological truth. Not for once did he comment on the tottering British empire in The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travel throughout colonial Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Nor did he judge Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil, who was not aware of her selfish and shallow existence until her husband, on whom she cheated, succumbed to cholera and died unreconciled. His keen observation and perspective, which often penetrates to the nerve and fiber of his subjects, are what hold generations of readers in thrall.

The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. The biography demonstrates how closely his works mirror the temperament of his social circle as leading members of cultural establishment as well as his romantic flames alike were all tempting targets for the irreverent streak in Maugham’s nature. This volume is the perfect literary companion to Maugham’s works.

626 pp. 1st US Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Nabakov’s Definitions of a Good Reader

In Vladimir Nabokov’s essay, Good Readers and Good Writers (from Essays on Literature), he lays down the ground rules to become a good reader and a good writer. o become a good reader’s and good writers, one must have certain skills. In this essay Vladimir describe much about these skill in become good at reading and writing. He also talks about how rereading is one of the important key to becoming a good reader and good writer.

One evening at a remote provincial college through which Nabakov happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, the writer suggested a little quiz—ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. The list somehow reminds me of the bill of reader’s right that circulated quite extensively around the blogsphere. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. The reader should concentrate on the social economic angle.
4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

My choices are 2, 7, 8, and 9. Technically speaking 1 should also attribute to a good reader because group discussion should provoke new meaning and inspire deeper thoughts on the meaning of the book. Items 2 and 4 are correlated, but 2 preponderates over 4 to me. Many a time I enjoy reading literary fiction, which often asserts, delves in, meditates on an idea, such as family, relationship, love, and forgiveness, without stitching a story with much action. I often resonate with a book more profusely if I can relate to and/or identify with the protagonist. Imagination is conducive to being a good reader. It is the bridge to the author’s mind as to what the words really say in a book. Is the novel autobiographical in incidents or just emotions? What is the underlying meaning behind the upheaval in The Master and Margarita? Imagination comes the rescue when the surface of the writing doesn’t seem to make any sense. Memory is my measure of how great a book is—whether it will be a classic or just another good read. What impression does a book make on me? How long does this impression last? Does the book beg re-reading? A dictionary, along with a pen and a notebook, is indispensable to a reader. I have never encountered more new vocabulary than when I read John Banville or Alan Bennett. I might not always have a dictionary handy but I make sure to jot down words to look up later.

’10 Favourite Reads Highlight

As per the the recent post on rating, and the halfway mark of the year calls for a mini review of books read in 2010, I’m looking through the right sidebar-ful of books and ask myself a simple question?

What do I remember about this book?

Since it’s irrelevant (and almost unfair) to compare books from different genres (i.e. A mystery with many twists and turns that entertains vs. a literary fiction that is redolent of its beautiful writing), I turn to the extent to which a book makes an impression on me. As Buried in Print has truly nailed it in a recent comment, the guage is really a matter of admiring or adoring. Out of the 46 read so far this year, the books, whether it’s the story or the prose styling, that still linger vividly in my mind are:

Lives of the Circus Animals Christopher Bram: What begins as a series of disconnected scenes quickly develops into a densely integrated plot which coalesces into a rousing, swiftly paced (events take place over ten days) comedy of manners—and errors.

Emma Jane Austen: Even the most impartial, infallible person could not pass an unbiased judgment when romantic feeling is involved. Inventions of emotional engagement contribute to the comedy of errors that are revealed to readers by way of the ironic detachment of the narrator.

Death with Interruptions Jose Saramago: As people cope with the crisis by humanizing death to mitigate their fear: calling its name, demanding a frank and open dialogue with death, mocking its treachery, death itself humanizes and gives up her dominion.

A Meeting by the River Christopher Isherwood: It provokes deep thoughts on love and need: Is the need to be needed stronger than love? It challenges the validity of marriage’s being the norm for civil union, when the meaning of marriage fails to acknowledge the human capacity to love.

East of Eden John Steinbeck: It is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else.

Fingersmith Sarah Waters: Waters has downplayed the romance, focusing on the layers of secrets to be revealed carefully. The ingénue of Fingersmith lays in her execution, juxtaposing facts and events that would otherwise contribute to an ordinary tale of chicanery and betrayal.

Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck: The novel suggests that the most visible kind of strength—that used to oppress others—is itself born of weakness. This is made the most obvious in the interaction between Crooks (the black with a crooked back) and Lennie.

A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry: As the characters move from distrust to friendship and friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of human spirits, full of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, in the face of pervasive misery.

Molly Fox’s Birthday Deirdre Madden: In one day’s time, Madden prises the well-guarded nutshells of her three characters, the three friends, who are connected mostly deeply through their emotionally charged moments, in which they comfort, console, and communicate one another in career bumps, failed marriage, unspoken affection, and family tensions.

Noble House James Clavell: Clavell weaves many intricate story lines into a coherent pattern. Complexity, how these plots bear no resemblance of any connection, compels me to read on. Unlike many half-baked popular fiction, the characters in Noble House are etched and developed, duly reflecting the biracial and colonial psyche of the last British overseas sovereignty.

On Literary Fiction and Literature

Thank you for voting. The purpose of the poll is to let readers decide the genre since I do not know the difference between literary fiction and literature, although what I mostly read isn’t a far cry from these two categories. I was clearing out old e-mails from last year’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week, in which the blog was nominated for literary fiction and GLBT categories. What is literary fiction? To recount the poll result, 59% of you voted literary fiction, and 33% literature.

According to wikipedia, the term literary fiction dated back to 1960. It is “principally to distinguish serious fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction (i.e., paraliterature). In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, the plot may or may not be important. Mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot.”

What distinguishes literary fiction from other genres is somewhat subjective, and as in other artistic media, genres may overlap. In the back of my mind, the impression on literary fiction fairly agrees with the above definition. Toni Morrison is what comes right off my mind. Literary fiction is a subset of literature, but doesn’t necessary promise a story. Literature is a conversation across the ages, and the epochs, about our experience and our nature, a conversation in which there is a surprising breadth of agreement. Whereas literature can be plot-driven or purely stylistic, literary fiction concerns with structure, forms, and stylistics. Literature teaches us how, out of the complex welter of impulses churning within us, we make the choices that define us and seal our fate. Imagine how we grasp, response to, and make sense of the complex internal mix of feelings an author imbue to his/her characters.

Even so, literary fiction is generally characterized as distinctive based on its content and style (“literariness”, the concern to be “writerly”). Would I categorize Anne Enright as literary fiction or literature? I tend to associate literary fiction with the criteria used in literary awards and marketing of certain kinds of novels, since literary prizes, in particular Booker Prize and Pulitzer Prize, usually concern themselves with literary fiction, and their shortlists can give a working definition.

(Previously written on May 6, scheduled to appear today.)

Year in Review: Favorite Books of 2009

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Today’s question: What were your favorite books of the year? (Books that were new to you in 2009, if not necessarily published this year.)

Refrained from joining reading challenges and set on reading some of the books I have always wanted to read, 2009 is a rewarding year for me in reading. The best books for me are ones that stay with me for months after I have put them down. It’s a tough call to pick the best books because “best” is a very broad and somehow ambiguous term, depending on what one’s preponderating criterion is. In no particular order, here are my top 10 choices, books that are new to me in 2009, but not necessarily published this year:

Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh
The book explores friendship (gay and straight), religion, and reminiscences in life. It portrays a family divided by an uncertain investment in Roman Catholicism and by their confusion over where the elite fit in the modern world.

Howards End E.M. Forster
Forster envisions a society where all the conflicts and understandings created by division of class will disappear as the different values and ideals will resolve the differences and complement one another.

Rebecca Daphne du Maurier
The novel explores the meaning of love and the extent of mutual understanding in a relationship. Beneath the mystery of the death are deeper faults that are all too human: pride, vanity, and self-absorption.

Shanghai Girls Lisa See
The women in Shanghai Girls endure, accept defeat, mourn, and bear physical and mental agony far better than men. It’s through their stories and relationships, however petty they might be, that one sees glimpse of hope in the face of tragedy and obstacles, in a foreign land so far from home.

The Writing on My Forehead Nafisa Haji
In the face of global terrorism that jolts the world and endangers the Muslim identity, the heroine has come to terms with the truth of family and that her obligation to them mandates their happiness.

The Secret Scripture Sebestian Barry
The novel illuminates on memories that the conscious mind ruminates repeatedly, as well as those that come back without conscious thought and that are experienced again like dreams.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is an American classics because it captures the intimation that the American dream has been corrupted by the sole, empty pursuit of money.

The Woman in White Wilkie Collins
The intricate details and occasional discrepancy of the narratives contribute to the ingeniousness of plots in The Woman in White. That many of these characters are isolated renders them most susceptible to the chicaneries of the perpetrators. In a way, the purpose of the manipulations is to create “blindspots” in everyone involved so that one is often led to court suspicion that is wrong for the sake of diverting himself from other suspicion that is right.

Almost History Christopher Bram
The series of incidents, from back home in Washington to Saigon, Bangkok, and Manila, filled with human drama, sexuality, and political intrigues, forces him to re-examine his resignation to failure and personal life.

The Piano Teacher Janice Y.K. Lee
The Piano Teacher transports readers to a time when everyone was confronted with impossible choices: between love and safety, between fortune and family. The book ponders at how we all make choices and how important we have to stand by the choices and acknowledge responsibility if we find ourselves on the wrong end.

I have re-visited some of my favorite reads which I don’t consider in compiling this list. They hold very special place in my heart because these novels never finish t=what they have to say: transcending the plot and challenging values of our society. These books include The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Maurice by E.M. Forster, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin.

Posterity: What Makes a Classic?

Last week’s Booking Through Thursday question concerned the posterity issue in literature. It asked whether any of the modern authors can measure up to the caliber of Dickens, Austen, and Bronte. While I’m not sure what qualities the host thinks give these authors their status but I must say, from my humble and limited experience as a reader, the knack for telling an entertaining story with which readers resonate, the talent in achieving beautiful literary forms, and the sheer luck of earning fame and popularity, these authors have endured. Classics refers to something that is of the first rate. The matter can be very subjective because some of the works that are recognized as classics today received fairly poor reviews at the time they were published. In the same way, work that has merited the highest accolade like Growth of the Soil might not find favor in every reader (at least not me). The widely-accepted notion that a book has to achieve a level of critical and popular success that endures for many years can be a tricky standard to be rigid about. The length of time it takes for a book to achieve a classics status can also be disputable. Judging from how quickly they become popular and how widely they are perused, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro could be considered classics and that they would most likely endure.

Works of literature that delve in the large and unpredictable forces in life would more likely to achieve the classics status. Despite the enormous changes in society throughout history, the subject matter of human experience that writers explore in their work is often very similar. Evil, guilt, materialism, love, self-fulfillment, and violence are all perennial themes that writers over time and geographical barrier have cultivated in their writings. Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Howards End, The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities all embrace a theme that is at large, addressing to the deep-core question of humanity (and its corruption), state of a nation, and morality. The ambitious scope of a work of fiction can eclipse the scarcity of forms and style: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston are prime examples. They address important issues of America at the time they were published and became instant hits. Still other classics have frighteningly specific contemporary relevance: 1984 by George Orwell and The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The latter deals with the threat of terrorism in London, which was an issue of great concern and panic that bomb plots targeted to London transport and monument in late 19th century. If prophecy is considered a criterion for classics, then Margaret Atwood will for sure endure.

Many a time readers are put off by classics, dismissing them as some outmoded, dusty works that fail to evolve with time and continue into future. While many classics titles are written in very formal prose and are meant for serious study, some classics are also enjoyable and humorous. Who knows what some of these classics have inspired our modern authors to write their bestsellers, with their seminal meanings rooted in the classics. When the definition of classics becomes blurry, I can only resort to the one criterion that never fails: is the book going to be re-read? A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. A classic is a work of literature that, regardless of the style and forms, affords new meaning and interpretation every time it is read again.