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Reflection on 2015 Readings

As of today I have read 65 books this year, the least in 5 years, but I have read extensively and out of my comfort zone. Nonfiction has made up 25% of my readings.

1. The entire month of January, my usual vacation month, was devoted to thrillers. Read John le Carre and John Grisham for the first time.
2. Most-read author of the year: Elizabeth George. Love how she doesn’t write cookie-cutter whodunit. By the end of her books I appreciate how people act they did more than the solution to mystery.
3. Still Alice is actually a more-than-passable movie tie-in.
4. The best translated novel: Half of a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang. The unfulfilled tale of a hapless couple in 1940s Shanghai has long made an impression in me.
5. Most bizarre (but beautifully written) novel: Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. Revenge through seduction and sex of a student for her teacher by seducing a father and son.
6. Most disappointing book by an author I long to read: The Accidental by Ali Smith.
7. One of the best books: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. Thomas creates an intimacy with the protagonist’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving. This book will for a long time remain with me. The account of the illness and its terrible progress through a life is minutely examined in a ponderous pace.
8. The longest book read: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Thanks to blogger Tina who musters up the courage for me. It’s a provocative read about how we shall never surrender our will and our own thinking.
9. Most read-about city: Paris. I read up on the city, its people, and history before my trip to the French capital in summer. The readings enhanced my understanding of Paris in historical context.
10. The book with the longest time span: A Short History of the World covers from the beginning of time to mid-20th century. Informative, interesting, and factual.
11. Most impressive true crime: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. The landmark Manson cult murders captured in this book with surgical details of the evidence and court proceedings.
12. Best cross-genre: The Paying Guests by Sarach Waters. A genteel English mansion has to accept paid tenants to make ends meet. The book reflects the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. But the most unexpected evolves—a lesbian relationship, a death, and the drama to evade the law. The women’s invisibility is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing drama. Riddled in this novel is the unbearable pressure of remorse and moral responsibility.



In early elementary school years, in Hong Kong, the Chinese-language curriculum comprised of a section known as “letters”. The textbook consists of sample passages and letters to be modeled after in various occasions. Today letters are a relic from the past. To learn how to write a letter, in the face of technological advent and decadence of social etiquette, is almost unheard-of. The texts aimed to help kids learn the parts of a letter and how to write their own letter. The format was rigidly formal and you are to address your father “Superior Father.” To show respect and politeness phrases like “on my knees” (equivalent to addressing the king “Majesty”) and “head bowed” (equivalent to “sincerely yours”) are used. Even letters between peers are to observe the basic format and abide by correct grammar usage. (No emoticons, sorry) The most difficult aspect to teach and to master is the appropriate tone of language. It’s important to use the right type of language, the right “register”. Most letters you write will need to be formal, but not overly so.

The text was called “Foot-Long Script”, because in the days of the dynasty letters were written on foot-long square bamboo scroll or silk.


“He missed her; there was a silence in the studio that he seldom had minded before, but that evening he counted the hours until she would come again.” (Part 2, circa 1866-67, p.71, Claude and Camille by Stephenie Cowell)

The short paragraph describes Monet’s longing for Camille Doncieux, who modeled for him in Fotainbleau and eventually, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, married him. In me this sentence evokes a whole different picture—that of my grandfather.

It must have been a summer in mid 80s, I was in fourth or fifth grade. My grandfather came down with cancer and he had maybe months to live. My parents thought it would cheer up my grandfather, who was still capable of walking and taking care of himself, for me to go stay with him for a week. Grandpa was himself: with me he played chess, watched TV, and read. But in the fringe of my mind, haunting me, was this cancer business. Not so much I feared cancer might renege and claim my grandpa earlier than the doctor said but the idea of cancer’s insidiousness. It’s quietly working underneath the skin, in the midst of the body. Cancer was in the house, thriving silently as the clock ticked away in the dark silence, literally and figuratively. I would have counted the hours until my aunt would come again in the morning with groceries and flowers.

I share this because this is the perfect example of reading’s associative power. Reading often evokes a distant time and transports me back to a different station in my life. I felt I was a fourth grader all over again.

Memorable Reads of 2014


Not necessarily books published in 2014, just the books I read this year.

Defending Jacob by William Landay
An exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing story of a 14-year-old boy who is accused of murder. The is rooted in the very sense of ambiguity—it’s possible to get almost all the way through the book without knowing where it heads and how it will end. Expect huge twists at the end.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
The slow, murderous disintegration of a marriage is all too believable in this painfully suspenseful book set in Chicago that switches between Todd and Jodi’s perspectives. The murder is announced right off the bat, but Harrison takes her time, building the small details and emotional nuances which make the killer’s move to commit the unspeakable believable.

Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story by Tony & Maureen Wheeler
This is a vast armchair travel around the world, but is also a chronicle of how the staff would go to make the tedious run to update the information. There’s a personal touch to the book as Wheeler reflects not juggling between work, family, and travel. The book is a remarkable testimony to how a love and passion of travel has led to a life of fulfillment.

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, published a year after his suicide in Brazil in 1942, is not a conventional one, for it is a mirror of an age rather than of a life. Beautifully written but utterly poignant, it is through this book that we appreciate the full measure of a man in the lost era before the First World War.

The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
Is it possible to open a bookstore that strictly carries high-brow literature? Who is to judge what good literature? What happens if people go to the extreme to dictate what good literature the public is to read? It’s a very creative and provocative story.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
This is part biography and part history. Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression.

Ficciones I & II by Jorge Luis Borges
Borges is a brilliant mind. This collection of stories, through Borges’s best-known motifs like mirror, labyrinth, library, and chance, explores the ideas of parallel times in a multiverse in which, we, human beings, are part of the mystery that it’s impossible for us to attain full knowledge of such infinite domain. Borges uses the reader’s collective memory—preconceived images, ideas, experiences, and knowledge as the foundation of his stories, only to subvert them and replace with a new, unfamiliar context.

The First Three William Monk Mysteries by Anne Perry
The first three mysteries in one volume. All there concerned hidden family secrets that constitute murders. All three keep me guessing to the very end, pulsating as the truth is slowly revealed. Perry’s characters are complex, flawed, and authentic. She doesn’t spare the squalor of the Victorian age, nor waste any opportunity to lambaste on the hypocrites who claim to be of genteel rearing but whose endeavors are as pathetic and treacherous as those in the underworld league of fraud and vices.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Anne Boleyn is beheaded. While it is in the nature of historical fiction that one knows what happens next, the genius of Bring Up the Bodies is that Thomas Cromwell, opaque, labyrinthine and vengeful, despite controlling the fates of so many, doesn’t know the outcome of these events that are narrated through his consciousness. On top of his acumen and perspicacity, Mantel suggests that it’s Cromwell’s origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family that allows him to play the role he does.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham
This is a riveting story of retribution and justice set in the South. It is a provocative read that grabs you from the start. Grisham raises very thought-provoking questions on races and justice. It’s more than just a page-turning legal thriller. The book is an intense social commentary that begs the question: can justice be truly color-blind?

Velvet Heart


It’s been said that looking in retrospect often affords a sharper clarity. Reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs certainly puts me in sharp perspective of how I grew up being he little boy with the bug secret. I was lucky that the other boys never bullied me or called me names, but at a very early age, I knew I was different. This “different-ness” is not a preference for a ice cream flavor, but more intrinsic, something that will cause me to lose the love and affection of my parents. So in a way I grew up “disabled”, because I was trying to avoid situations that would invoke shame but to solicit validation. Unfortunately, validation for boys came from where I dreaded the most—the playground and sport field. It is on the playground that I probably first began to consciously think about how I was different from other boys. I didn’t want to play the same games as other boys. I was ignored (at least not taunted) by the more athletic, aggressive boys who always seemed to win the positive attention of their classmates and even the teachers. Unbeknowst to me at the time of course, I was operating on a defense mechanism that ensured survival. Perhaps I learned that I could win approval by becoming more sensitive than the other boys. What caused all this? The answer is often embarrassing: The fear that there was something about me that made me unlovable. This is exactly what Alan Downs addresses. The book really hits the spot. As I read, I keep bumping into my self, hopefully my old shelf.

Author in the House

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon among us. Neither does she bare her teeth like a tiger nor is she bestowed with power a dragon in Chinese mythology. She is Ruthanne Lum McCunn, author of God of Luck, a novel about coolie trade in Peru, which was gifted to me by the author herself. Speaking fluent Cantonese with perfect tones (each Cantonese sound has 9 tones that in many cases distinguish the meanings of characters), Ruthanne puts many of us in shame, as we Chinese manage only with some sort of pidgin English with smatterings of Chinese words. For a long time she’s known as the American lady who speaks perfect Chinese and with whom we exchange stories of growing up in Hong Kong. Often a lighthearted question would lead to a very facetious reply. She’s totally amiable and kind. In fragments of conversations over months Ruthanne let on more biographical information than I can imagine.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn is an Eurasian of Chinese and Scottish descent. Born in 1946 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, she grew up in Hong Kong, where she was educated first in Chinese and then British schools. In 1962 she returned to the U.S. to attend college. Her grandmother was Chinese, thus the linguistic and cultural root planted in her. I cherished talking with her, and listening to her reflections on Hong Kong before my time. If you just listen to her talk alone, you would never realize she’s Eurasian. She talks like locals, using colloquial expressions and slang. It’s just wonderful to discover a published author among the coffee shop clientele—who speaks your native language! Is there a better way to start the new year with an autographed book from the author herself?

The Year in Life

Despite a broken limb and a stolen wallet, 2011 is a good year for me compared to the world. Walking out of the shadow of emotional turmoil.


  • The blog turned 5. I could believe I had been writing for that long, let alone an awesome group of followers/readers. Now 6th anniversary is coming up.
  • Participated in Independent Literary Award.
  • Started a new job with a slightly lower pay, but I have made the right decision because it’s where I belong.


  • After being stricken by eczema/scaly skin for a year, doctor suggested a change of diet. The benefit of gluten-free diet is two-fold: much improved skin and weight loss.
  • First words of Borders going under. Scoured the store for bargains.


  • Spent the whole paycheck on Japan post-earthquake relief.
  • Lambda Literary Award month.


  • Discovered Wallace Stegner who is the author of a favorite read of 2011.
  • SFO Terminal 2 open house.
  • Participated Chinese Literature Challenge and managed to finish in 2 months.


  • Trip to Paris for two weeks.
  • After almost 20 years, I finally read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Finished it in Paris.
  • iPad arrived. Read a small of books on the electronic device; but still haven’t got an iPhone. Maybe iPhone 5?


  • Another landmark in reading: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
  • Skipped the 4th of July celebration.
  • My cousin Fiona got married—and for the first time I realized I’m getting old!


  • Began The Divine Comedy but have yet to finish.
  • Participated 30 Day Book Meme.
  • Started a new exercise regime to work toward 100 pushup goal.
  • Internal promotion at work.



  • Alan Hollinghurst published his first novel since 2004.
  • 8 months since going gluten-free, weight drops to 148. Pant size 29. A friend said I looked anorexic. It’s time to head back to the gym to do some weight-training, which I haven’t had a chance to.


  • Trip to Dallas (Texas for the first time) and reconnected with someone I haven’t seen for 4 years. The beautiful and serene Dallas Arboretum made a fond impression on me.
  • OccupyXX campaign hits the campus, inducing violence and gunshot. Dismissed early from work.
  • Attended Dickens Christmas Fair. That was heaps of fun.
  • Celebrated my 36th birthday. Instead of a party, had dinner with individual friends.
  • Trip to Palm Springs.


  • Skipping Christmas.
  • Trip to Las Vegas to see Sandy Lam in Concert.
  • Saw Sandy Lam live again in San Francisco.
  • Finished the most difficult book ever, The Sound and the Fury, other than Ulysses.

Lotus 蓮

Las Vegas Rundown:
1.愛上一個不回家的人/2. 夜太黑/3. 心野夜/4. 埃及玫瑰/5. 沒結果之後/6. 灰色/7. 燒/8. 柿子/9. 為你我受冷風吹/10. 聽說愛情回來過/11. “Love, Sandy” Medley (影子情人 / 知難不退 /這些那些 / 傷痕)/12. 當愛已成往事/13. 好人–側田/14. 三十日–側田/15. 男人KTV–側田/16.傾斜17. 講多錯多/18. 醒醒/19. 一分鐘都市一分鐘戀愛/20. 推搪/21. 逃離鋼筋森林/22. 瘋了/Encore: 23. 鏗鏘玫瑰/24. Have Yourself A Marry Little Christmas/25. 至少還有你

(Pictures taken at the MGM Grand, Las Vegas, on Dec 24, 2011) I’m seeing Sandy Lam live in Las Vegas on 12/24 and San Francisco on 12/26. Once I purchased the tickets the anticipation is unbearable. I cannot believe it’s been 26 years since I bought her debut album, a cassette tape, in 1985. Sandy Lam has always been a part of me, a part of my adolescence, growing up, coming out, and simply, living. She earned her first dollar as a DJ, known as 611 in the airwave, with Commercial Radio in Hong Kong. She was then aged between fifteen and seventeen. It was around this time that she signed an artist contract with CBS Sony, becoming known in pop-music industry as Sandy Lam.

Because of the marginal position of alternative/contemporary pop (more artistic, vocal technique-oriented) in the Hong Kong society, she is now probably known, certainly born after 1990, more as an almost archetypal figure of show biz tragedy than as a pop artist. (By the way, this is meant to be a compliment.) It didn’t help that her repertoire comprised what were then largely pop songs which, like most pop songs of all eras, were often churned out and never meant to have much of a life beyond a few weeks’ eager rotations on the radio, despite her strong position to command even the least popular of the songs. At least, to the consolation of many of her fans and I, her lesser known sidetracks have carried on and become our beloved favorites, that define different stations of my life.

Yet a few months after the new millennium, when “the best of” polls ran rife almost in every niche thereof, music critics in Hong Kong and Asia were moved to describe her as unquestionably one of the most important influence on Chinese popular singing of the previous twenty years. What was it about her singing that made them say that? Like some of the greatest international pop-stars, Sandy often takes liberties with written-down melodies, modifying them in subtle ways, rendering them more emotionally effective and more her own. To some extent, she is making the best of an already-wide vocal range which, even at her most supple and robust, is probably at least fifteen notes. You’ll never hear her sing the same song even if it’s the same song taken from the album.

A soprano, but her musicianship is greater than the sum of its parts as these might be identified by a musicologist. What lifts her at her best above almost everybody else in her field (except Faye Wong) is the presence in her singing of genuine emotion without artifice. There are musically purer, smoother, silkier, more perfect voices, but they don’t have the capacity to make you feel the singer’s emotional intention within the song as easily as hers do. And she does this with bright, up-tempo, happy, or sexy songs in the first half of her careers (CBS Sony, Warner Music, Capital 1985-1994) just as much as she does with the now far better known melancholy songs she chooses in the second half of her career (Rock, Virgin, Gold Label, EMI), which has primarily targeted Mandarin-speaking markets.

There are many senses in which I shouldn’t even know about her. Two years after her debut I moved to San Francisco. The eight concerts she held in Hong Kong (1991, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2004–with Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, 2005, 2007, and 2011) I attended only the first two. I saw her at Lake Tahoe in 2006 and San Diego in 2008. Why am I talking to you about Sandy Lam, besides the fact that she is my only pop diva? That this is a book blog probably isn’t appropriate to talk about music, but I think you can tell a lot about people from what is important to them. Do they like art? What kind of art? How much do they like it, and why? Where did the liking come from? Provide the answers to these questions and you will have gone a long way toward revealing much of yourself. Ultimately, for all the expert criticism in the world, the test of something as subjective as music or literature or even a relationship, as my favorite novelist E.M. Forster put it, our affection for it. And conversely, the test of us is that for which we have affection. That is why you are apt to get upset when somebody you care about does not share your taste in music or movies or literature. If I am a pod, the peas in this pod would be literature and Sandy Lam’s music.

Many of her songs that I like most are not the ones the critics praise, nor are they No.1 hits. They are songs that stroke my heart and evoke memories, both happy and sad, in my life. You can neither find fault with her performance nor expect new surprises. Sandy Lam is just one consistent performer, full of passion and emotion. Las Vegas was a great show, with a very play-safe rundown. I expect more sidetracks in San Francisco. Thank you Sandy for a wonderful concert—and I love your glamorous long hair!

Top 25 Most Played SLs: 1. 沒結果/2. 微雨撲巴黎/3. 破曉/4. 心野夜/5. 微涼/6. 多謝/7. 夢了/8. 哭/9. 早晨/10. 瘋了/11. 至少還有你/12. 赤裸的秘密/13. 滴汗/14. 一分鐘都市一分鐘戀愛/15. 一輩子心情/16. 沒有你 還是愛你/17. 野花/18. 願/19. 最佳男主角 (頒獎典禮後…At His Penthouse Suite)/20. 為何他會離開你/21. 黃昏/22. 誰像你好/23. 沒結果之後/24. 你是我的男人/25. 逃離鋼筋森林

Between some reading and prosecco, I’m living to Sandy all day up until and between her concerts.

28/30 Day Book Meme: It’s in the Name

Day 28: Favorite title

This is difficult. I don’t really know. (Three cups of coffee later) I’ll say The Gentleman in the Parlour by a favorite author of mine, W. Somerset Maugham. Not only is the title unique, it contains a word spelled in British manner, which somehow exudes an air of staidness and dignity. W. Somerset Maugham once said in this delightful, engrossing travelogue that captures his travel from Rangoon to Haiphong he didn’t know how he would put in words an account of all the wonders and render more than a vague and shadowy impression of the gradeur. He needs not to worry, for every page, which I try to delay reading, is eloquent, absorbing, and is never below the weight of the matter. His writing evokes deep interests of local life and makes no attempt to euphemize nor to judge the natives’ ways of life, customs and traditions. I actually followed Maugham’s travel route and lived vicariously through his descriptions. In many a palour I have drunk tea, written in my journals, read, and tried to be a gentleman!

21/30 Day Book Meme: Childhood Book

Day 21: Favorite book from your childhood

I have to search carefully my memory of the very first book that I liked and re-read. That was Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. It was actually a reader book my aunt found in the library. It wasn’t my mom but her older sister, who was a school teacher, being responsible for my brainy well-being. Subtitled The Simplest Seuss for Youngest Use, this book is perfect for teaching the rudiments of reading. Simple rhyming words, such as pup and up, are stacked one over the other in large capitals, so that readers see that up is contained in the word pup. Sentences using these words are accompanied by humorous illustrations to complete the playful reading lesson. It was both fun and educational.

A year or so later, out of my volition, I rummaged through the children’s book section at the library and found the favorite childhood book, also by Dr. Seuss: The Cat in the Hat. In this, the first book featuring the character, “the Cat”, he brings a cheerful, exotic and exuberant form of chaos to a household of two young children one rainy day while their mother is out. Bringing with him two creatures appropriately named Thing One and Thing Two, the Cat performs all sorts of wacky tricks to amuse the children, with mixed results. The Cat’s antics are louted, yet ultimately ignored, by the family pet, who is a sentient and articulate goldfish. The children (Sally and her older brother, who serves as the narrator) prove to be quite typical latchkey children by capturing the Things and bringing the Cat under control. It was only when I re-read the book years after, as a grown-up man, that I realized the ingeniousness of this book. It simultaneously maintains a strict triple meter while it keeps to a tiny vocabulary, and still tells an entertaining tale. It’s my all-time favorite children’s book.