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Extra: Under the Tree?

Matt 139

Happy Holidays! Picture taken at the Christmas tree in the Castro.

When Christmas carols were within earshot last night on the street, it occurred to me that readers have their traditions too. With just a week left in 2012, and Christmas celebrations and festivities descending upon me, I doubt I will get to all these books but I’ll share the list anyway.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, is enduring a grim wartime Christmas at his stiflingly suburban mother’s house when a Frenchman, Pierre, turns up to give him news of the small son that he had to leave in occupied France. After the war, Hilary returns to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace the child.

Dickens at Christmas by Charles Dickens. It is said that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a quintessential traditional Christmas brought to vivid life. Nuff said.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. This is the story of Hig, his dog Jasper, and his plane, as they discover life after the end of the world. Since the end of the world didn’t happen, I can now put this book back on my list.

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway. A few people have recommended this book to me. This is a detective novel in which the mysteries of people’s lives threaten to overshadow mysteries born of criminal activity. The crime that gives the novel its initial momentum fades away like the half-glimpsed vintage car, never to reappear.

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore. A debut novel from a high-achieving independent publisher, The Lighthouse has surprised some observers with its place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Disquieting, deceptive, crafted with a sly and measured expertise, Alison Moore’s story could certainly deliver a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling to those splashier literary celebs who take more pains over a pyrotechnic paragraph than a watertight plot.

Granted Wishes


Penguin 75. As the old adage says, don’t judge a book by its cover. But when it comes to the standout jacket art in Penguin’s compendium of eye-catching covers, I can’t help it. In honor of the publishing house’s 75th anniversary, Penguin’s creative director chose covers and illicited commentary from artists that have created memorable images for books.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. It’s an overstuffed anthology of essays, cartoons, reported pieces and poems that includes work by everyone from Roald Dahl and Jules Feiffer through Susan Orlean and Roz Chast. Malcolm Gladwell’s introduction is far better than it had to be. About other pet owners’ barking dogs, Mr. Gladwell asks, “Who am I to judge an animal with no other meaningful outlet of self-expression?”

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. In this enthusiastic, heartfelt, and sometimes humorous ode to bookshops and booksellers, 84 known authors pay tribute to the brick-and-mortar stores they love and often call their second homes.

Extra: Skipping Christmas

Becca at I’m Lost in Books kindly asks book bloggers to contribute guest posts for her during the month of December. She will be hosting a Holiday Post Extravanganza which started yesterday with a list of 10 Holiday Gift Ideas for Book Lovers.

Being raised Baptist and enrolled in Catholic boys’ school, I knew the Bible like the back of my hand. The story of Jesus’ birth was a staged tradition in school. Despite all the Christian, religious, and biblical inculcation, I was not converted. I resented the notion that a religious faith makes a person. My parents were first generation Chinese raised in Hong Kong just before Mao defeated Chiang Kai Shek and declared the formation of People’s republic of China. They belonged to the generation that believed in being hard-working and making a better life. Religion was the last thing they deemed necessary in improving the quality of life. Religion, or schools sponsored by the missionaries and religious denominations, however, were the answer to children’s welfare, because they were more respectable schools with good discipline record. Christmas was inevitably a tradition observed in school and celebration stayed within its bound. My parents were indifferent about Christmas, although they would take us out to dinner.

Now Christmas is a time to celebrate family (although they live Hong Kong and I don’t always go visit during this peak travel season) friends. It’s a time to get together, enjoy the company, and eat! My favorite is a pot-luck hosted at a friend’s house where everyone contributes to the feast, which is always an international buffet with samosas, sushi, sesame chickens, and tacos on top of the traditional holiday fares. Over the years I have become scandalized at the collective insanity of Black Friday. Usually, it is associated with a hot new toy or electronics everyone wants. People fear the supply will run out, so an atmosphere of panic buying develops. Now it seems there is no “Big New Thing” and yet people are engaging in the same kind of desperate, driven shopping behavior for ordinary products they can buy any day—like attacking a pellet of cheaply made sandwich maker for $2 each.

The leisure brought about by holidays is best spent on reading and browsing bookstore like City Lights. I don’t have any designated Christmas reading, but would read Christmas carol for fun. I usually read what appeals to me in the pile, picking the novels that book bloggers have passionately recommended to me and that I have saved for the long hours of holidays. This year I’m hoping to read Amber Dermont’s The Starboard Sea and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, which I ended up not reading over my birthday weekend. These are the “cream of the crop” books. I won’t go as far as the Kranks in Skipping Christmas, but I won’t go through the frenzy and hassle myself. As for gifts, I have opted out long time ago. I don’t do gifts and advise friends and family to count me out. I could be spared from the whole madness of elbowing through the stores buying and returning things I have no use for. Food I have plenty and am happy to share, I tell my friends.

Words from Mothers’ Hearts: To All Moms

(Taken with mom when I was 2.)

Reading A Big Storm Knocked It Over evoked a lot of memories of my mother, who passed away 12 years ago. Mothers give births to children, nourish them, raise them, think ahead of their problems, worry they will do drugs… While the advice books go only so far, the literature of motherhood is rich, and getting richer. Since my mom’s pass, I have been fascinated by motherhood. I’m grateful to find a connection in books, where I get to know other mothers through novels or memoirs. I have over the years maintained a list on motherhood.

The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich took her baby with her to her little writing house in New Hampshire, where she wrote the book, an impressionistic journal of the births of her three daughters.

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
This book is high in my reading list thanks to The King’s English again. It is about a mother who loses herself in the years she spends taking care of her family, a theme she also explored in Breathing Lessons.

Turtle Moon & Illumination Night by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman writes of lives lived for children and the simple gifts, hurt feelings and unspoken emotions that swirl as a family grows up, apart and sometimes together again.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
One of the most haunting books about the fear of losing a child.

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
A family saga woven together with philosophy.

Family Pictures by Sue Miller
Absorbing story of a semi-dysfunctional but loving family set in the 60’s- and 70’s.

A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin
A soon-to-be mother anticipates the birth of her child and struggles with the anxieties and insecurities attendant to the enormous responsibility.

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
It’s one of the most memorable book because it shows how fate entwines an ordinary woman to people who forever antagonize her. It explores what it means to have a career and sustain parenthood for a single mother whose scope in life is ahead of her time.

The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out by Robb Forman Dew
A moving account of her sometimes awkward attempts to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality.

American Mom by Mary Kay Blakely
It chronicles her life as a divorced mother of two sons, scraping to make a living.

The Broken Cord by Michael Dorris
Dorris, who is married to Louise Erdrich, wrote eloquently about his adopted son, damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome in this book.

The World According to Garp by John Irving
Another high priority for me. This book gave voice to “the undertoad,” the panic that lurks in the pit of parents’ stomachs, the primal radar that wakes us to check a sleeping child’s breathing, or to worry until the gravel crunches in the driveway.

Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
It tells of a mother who never stops creeping into her son’s room to watch him as he sleeps, even, goofily enough, after he grows up and moves across town and she has to strap a ladder to her car to climb to his window.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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.

The Unofficial Christmas Reading List

(Picture taken at Union Square, San Francisco 12/19/11.) This post is inspired by my overhearing of a customer who asked for Christmas books at the indie. “Unofficial” because I don’t seek out books on and/or about Christmas. These are books I read in the past that happen to have a Christmas theme. But—you’ll never know, maybe you’ll find your stocking filler here.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas Agatha Christie. I always make exception to this one. If I decide to read a book on Christmas, this is it. Multi-millionnaire Simeon is intent on playing a sadistic game with his family’s emotions. An unexpected guest, Stephen Farr, son of Simeon Lee’s former partner in the diamond mines, means that the house is full of potential suspects when the game turns deadly.
The Battle of Life Charles Dickens. The setting is an English village that stands on the site of a historic battle. Some characters refer to the battle as a metaphor for the struggles of life, hence the title.
The Christmas Carol Charles Dickens. The story tells of sour and stingy Ebenezer Scrooge’s ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation after the supernatural visits of Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.
Skipping Christmas John Grisham. The funniest Christmas book ever. John Grisham turns a satirical eye on the overblown ritual of the festive holiday season, and the result is Skipping Christmas, a modest but funny novel about the tyranny of December 25. Grisham’s story revolves around a typical middle-aged American couple, Luther and Nora Krank.
A Jolly Good Fellow Stephen V. Masse. Probably the most overlooked novel, not just one with a Christmas theme. Two weeks before Christmas, Duncan Wagner gets into his car for another attempt at kidnapping the son of his most despised enemy, State Representative Win Booker.
Merry Christmas Mr. Baxter Edward Streeter. It’s a 1956 classic about the humorous view of a successful businessman’s methodical approach to “this Christmas business”, contrasted with his wife’s chiding scorn over his “typical businessman’s approach to something beautiful and intangible.”
The Angel Doll: A Christmas Story Jerry Bledsoe. Fortify yourself with a full box of Kleenex with this one. It concerns a pathetic 4-year-old named Sandy, a victim of both poverty and the great polio epidemic. If you insist on a dying child this season, this is the book for you.
The Christmas Tree Julie Salamon. The novel is based on a true story about some nuns in New Jersey who donated their Norway spruce to Rockefeller Center.
* * *
Two non-Christmas books I found at the indie by writers I have enjoyed: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright and We Had It So Good by Linda Grant, both were Booker Prize winners. Having enjoyed The Translation of the Bones, I have also got Francesca Fay’s debut, An Equal Stillness. Looks like my stocking is filled!

Dickens’ Christmas

“Happy Christmas” is what you hear most often at the Dickens Christmkas Fair, a Bay Area tradition since 1970. This year the Great Dickens Christmas Fair returns to the San Francisco, with shops bedecked with Christmastime finery and filled with unique treasures. What renders the verisimilitude of Victorian England, on top of the theatrical experience through authenticity, participation, and playfulness is the setup, which lanes of Victorian London, as the glow of twilight settles upon the city, with the scent of pine boughs & freshly baked scones floating in the air and the sound of carolers and holiday merrymakers accompanying your stroll. Telegraph boys announced reception of missives. Chimney men paraded the streets. A brutal chimney sweep almost claims Oliver in Oliver Twist. A witty, swaggering Cockney, Sam Weller, who rejuvenated the story of Pickwick Papers, is also sighted. Although Little Nell broke thousands of hearts the world over, reduced politicians to tears, and has been argued over by critics and readers ever since, the heroine of The Old Curiosity Shop is well alive here. A cruel ice queen forever clad in her dusty wedding dress, Miss Havisham is one of the most fascinating figures in literature. She haunts the pages of Great Expectations, living in a decrepit mansion and plotting the downfall of others. Clad in white wedding gown, she was seen at the fair signing a marriage contract on a wheelchair. But the con-artist fiancée was nowhere to be seen. Wielding a club, terrorizing his family and, scariest of all, eating eggs whole with the shells on, Daniel Quilp from The Old Curiosity Shop is like some fairy tale creature, milling about the tea shoppe. In the same tea house, I met clones of Mr Micawber from David Copperfield, Pip from Great Expectations, and the swaggering scoundrel, a quasi-grubby, amoral variation of Peter Pan, Mr. Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, all taking afternoon high tea. The one character that steals the show no doubt is Ebenezer Scrooge, the old misery-guts who becomes a good man after being visited by a number of ghosts on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the great stories of all time. Not only was Scrooge there in person, a handful of shops and taverns were named after him.

The fun thing is that I cannot distinguish between the characters from the attendees, as most folks are fully dressed Victorian for the occasion. Are the drunken lads characters? What about the alehouse whores? The old ladies behind the kitchen counter are making meat pies from scratch. A family, all dressed up in Dickens England costumes, some with tattoos and piercings, are having a meal at the tavern as in the picture above. You can stop in for a hot toddy or a pint of Lagunitas at Mad Sal’s Dockside Ale House, where the low-life hang out and the high-born drop in. You can raise a champagne toast to the holidays at Fezziwig’s Warehouse, the most cheerful spot in London. That wearing coats, shawls, wraps, bonnets, hats, scarves and gloves while “on the streets of London” goes a very long way towards creating the illusion of a cold Christmas Eve. Folks who are attentive to the minute details of their costumes and outfits head-to-toe constantly remind me that I’m walking in London on Christmas Eve. While you feast on food of the British Empire, or shopping for a corset at Velvet Bedlam or bowler’s hat at Gentlemen’s Fit, pedestrians have to part and make way for the retinue with sign bearing the message: “Lips that touched liquor shall not touch ours.” The one place that is so close to my heart, of course, is the Books and Print Shop in which a plethora of antique leather bound novels are shelved. They go from $35 to $150, depending on condition and date. Some Dickens are dated pre-1900. So tempted was I to buy the whole soft leather-bounds. (Thank you Charles Lougee for the pictures.)


Halloween is tomorrow, but Halloween parties had begun Friday night. It’s been a parade of alter-personalities all weekend. A mummy behind the wheels. Alice with long eye-lashes walking through la-la-land. Cross-dressers and people of ambiguous gender. The walk up Buena Vista Park with the dogs this morning afforded some dreadful sights: stilettos with gnarled straps, lacy underwear, spray cans, broken beer bottles…

My kind of Halloween is to barricade myself at home with the lights off. The room is dark except for the cold glare of a lamp on my night table. I would sink deep within the covers, only my head poking out from the blanket. Everything is quiet. (Too quiet.) There is only the sound of pages turning, and my heart beating, hammering, echoing in your ears. I have been reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of the Hill House and An Anthology of Horror Stories.

“Hear the tolling of the bells—
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!” (The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe)

“It was the devil that was omnipresent. It was the dead who squeezed the living between fragments of time, on both sides, the past and the future, making of humanity a ghoulish sandwich of doomed meat that had yet to learn to stop kicking.” (The Cold One, Christopher Pike)

“Th (e most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” (The Call of Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft)

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” (The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson)

“He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it.” (The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson)

“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.” (The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson)

“At first cock-crow
The ghosts must go
Back to their quiet graves below.” (The Neighbors, Theodosia Garrison)

“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.” (One Need Not Be A Chamber To Be Haunted, Emily Dickinson)

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft)

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present, and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” (Supernatural Horror in Literature, H. P. Lovecraft)

“True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them.” (The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe)

“It’s from the mysterious that we make the leap to godly grace or evil.
And only from there.” (When the Penny Drops, Jack Ketchum)

Have a fun and safe Halloween.

For Japan the Bells Toll

Strong quake of magnitude 8.9 hit the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan. Sendai is most hard-hit city. My heart goes out to all the Japanese people and wish them safe and well. For latest information and people finder, visit the crisis response page.

Truly Chillaxing, and Bookish Palm Springs


Tortuga del Sol, Palm Springs, originally uploaded by moleskineboy.

I spent my birthday in Palm Springs the past weekend. Tortuga del Sol is a very quiet resort tugged away in the desert against the backdrop of the mountains. For a good amount of the stay we were the only guests who got to enjoy all the facilities to our own. If you look to the right of the photo, the corner taken up by wicker chairs and love seat was my reading spot. I would peruse Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (a recommendation thanks to many of you) over coffee when the sun touched on that spot. In the afternoon, the sunny spot fell on the left side of the pool. I would get into the pool with my book propped up on the cement side. I would for hours on ends in the sun while having a drink. Did I tell you that we made our own cosmos? We would much over a nosh on candle-lit table by the pool and walked around the garden. Palm Springs is my winter paradise.