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Marking the Books

Some people like to keep their books clean, I like to pencil in my thoughts on the margin and underline a passage that appeals to me. I can’t agree more that reading is a continual conversation with the author. Not only dies reading encourage critical thinking it also provokes a response.

I cannot agree more with this Time Magazine article about writing in your book. Marking my book is indispensable. I’m interacting with the author and what is written. I own almost all the books so I am not guilty about marking them.

On Grammar

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What is good English? Every teacher of English, particularly one who teaches foreign students, must have been asked the question “What is the correct pronunciation of —?” or “is it good grammar to write —?” and on giving his answer must have been confronted with the reply “But I have heard many Englishmen (westerners, Americans, native speakers…) pronounce it differently” or “But this eminent novelist breaks that rule; who is finally to decide which is right?” The answer, of course, is “No one”. There is no Academy or other body in England to determine the correct form (unless the Queen wants to). The chief criterion of correctness is established usage. Correctness in spoken English is conformity to the speech usages of the majority of educated people; correctness in written English is conformity to the usages of the best modern writers. The rules of grammar are like the laws of Nature. The laws were not made for Nature to obey, but are simply a few facts which wise men have observed as to the way Nature acts. So the grammarian merely examines the language of the best speakers are writers, and deduces rules from their use of it.

Custom is the basis of these rules, and custom is always changing. Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, words decay and become obsolete, and newcomers thrust their way in; words acquire new meanings, sentences are constructed on different lines, and even the syntax of the language undergoes modifications. It is the business of the grammarian to observe and record these changes (in usage) and differences and to decide as far as he can what is the form of language used by the majority of educated speakers and writers; and their usage is his only authority for saying what is “good” and what is “bad” grammar.

Noir Fiction

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“Noir” means black in French. But I never nailed what exactly is noir fiction. I have associated the terms with mystery and crime fiction. But why a separate term “noir fiction”? “Roman noir” is French for black novel. The term was first used by the French in the Eighteenth century to describe the British Gothic novel, but by the Twentieth century, it had acquired a new meaning and was being used to describe an American creation, the hardboiled thriller.

Author James Ellroy writes that noir “indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.” Noir as an idea and a mood may be familiar to us from its prominent, and easily parodied, place in cinema—the rich black-and-white cinematography, the tough talking dicks and sultry dames, the lines of cigarette smoke that run to the ceiling.

But what characterizes the style in fiction? And is there a difference between noir writing and detective or mystery fiction? Most mystery fiction focuses on the detective, and noir fiction focuses on the villain. A noir book can focus neither the detective nor the villain, but just a normal person who happens to have an eye for the dark. The people in noir fiction are dark and doomed—they are losers, they are pessimistic, they are hopeless. If one has a private eye, the private eye is a hero; and he’s going to solve the crime and the bad guy will be caught. That’s a happy ending, but that’s not a noir ending. Sometimes noir is about sex and money, and sometimes about revenge. The characters Cut off from the longstanding values of the human family, these characters turn to immediate desires.

Noir to me, rather morbidly, serves as a guide to my next travel destination, as it is highly atmospheric and redolent of local colors.

Famous Last Words

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What are some of your favorite final lines of novels? I took a quiz of these final lines. Some I got lucky, others I knew by heart, and still others I guessed by elimination. The ones I missed are marked red.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to than I have ever known.’

‘Poo-tee-weet?’

‘He loved Big Brother.’

‘Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the’

‘The sun is but a morning star.’

‘He sleeps. Although his fate was very strange, he lived. He died when he had no longer his angel. The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone.’

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

‘The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.’

‘After all, tomorrow is another day.’

‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’

‘Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.’

‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’

‘…how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.’

‘…but we must cultivate our garden.’

‘As you from crimes would pardoned be, Let your indulgence set me free.’

‘But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.’

‘It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.’

‘…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

”Like a dog!’ he said, it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.’

‘His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.’

‘He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.’

‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’

‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’

‘For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.’

‘And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers –shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle–to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.’

”You can trust me,’ R.V. said, watching her hand. ‘I’m a man of my’

‘So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.’

‘That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.’

Reclaiming the “Real” Life

I found an an interesting article on reclaiming our real life from social media. It’s funny, true, and thought-provoking.

If Hemingway were alive in 2014, he might not have finished what he started writing that day. Realistically, he probably wouldn’t have even put a pen to paper.
Instead, he might have ducked into the cafe, pulled out his smartphone and proceeded to waste an entire afternoon on social media. Perhaps he would update his Facebook to discuss the rogue weather, snap a picture of his café au lait to post on Instagram and then lose the rest of the afternoon to Twitter.

While I enjoy to see what my friends and family are up to, increasingly, my time spent on social media (only limited to Facebook) is starting to feel like a lot of wasted time. Like a virus slowly invading its victim, social media has methodically started to consume the hours of my day. I belong to the age bracket that spends the second most time on social media a day, at 3 hours. Gladly and proudly, I spend far less than 3 hours. Morning coffees, lunchtime breaks, time before bed, are still cordoned off for books. I still read at least 100 pages a day and roughly two books a week. So even if I’ll spend all day on weekend on Facebook, I won’t feel as guilty—but, I rather read a book.

Addiction aside. There’s deeper issue. We live in the age of narcissism. Walking down the street you can count the number of people you see pointing phones at their faces (now with the 3-foot long selfie stick) for selfies. Social networks are the “culprit” for broadcasting narcissistic tendencies that otherwise may have gone noticed. Simply speaking, everything you eat, every act, every place you go, are accounted for and broadcasted to the world. User-generated content like Facebook, twitter, and Instagram encourage an endless stream of self-promotion. At what point does this become psychologically destructive? People can get caught up in cultivating their own image rather than interacting with others. My worry (other than that I would stop reading books) is that we will be faced with a generation where everyone acts like the star of their own reality show.

Some Habits

Catching up with some writing prompts from Booking Through Thursday.

Do you read books recommended by friends? Or do you prefer to find your own books to read.
I’m reading Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish recommended by a friend. A recent winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, it’s so realistic of a book that makes me skip a breath. An illegal immigrant from China meets ex-American warrior ravaged by three tours in Iraq. As to friends’ recommendation, I would make a note of them. I’ll check the books out to see if they are up my alley. Book bloggers’ recommendations have played a crucial role in my reading life.

Do you carry a book around with you? Inside the house? Whenever you go out? Always, everywhere, it’s practically glued to your fingers?
I’m glued to my book wherever I go. Ever seen people glued to their phones, wiping the screens with their fingers, frantically texting, playing Candy Crush? While they’re riveted at the phones, I’m reading. Books make the perfect time filler, whether I’m taking a break or waiting for someone.

In an ideal world, what kind of book cases would you have? Built-ins? Barrister ones with glass doors? The cheapest you could find so you could have lots of them?
I would like floor-to-ceiling bookshelves made of cherry wood. They don’t have to be glass-in. In my condo I have built-in shelf lining one wall and I love it too. I prefer the bookshelves to be uniform in appearance.

Hardcovers or paperbacks?
Hands down paperbacks. Ever shove a hardback under your armpit? Trade paperbacks are much more handy. They don’t take up as much space on the shelf and in my bag.

Titans

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Every reader has them: books that gather dust on shelves. Those thick tomes with tiny type that have edged open windows, propped up wobbly tables and weighed down loose paper. They invoke fear. It’s the size, the daunting literary baggage, sometimes the impenetrable language. Mobdy Dick doesn’t scare me as much as it bores me. I don’t mind the 900 pages digression on moral in Les Miserables. The three books above just invoke so much fear in me that anticipate a sense of crushing defeat. 2015 is time to blow off the dust, bite the bullet, and tackle these books.

New Acquisitions

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Spring new book fever. I just cannot resist buying books.

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World by John Baxter. Not quite the guidebook that the title might suggest, this book is a source of inspiration for every visitor in Paris to discover their own Paris. I’m taking his words in my heart when next time I’ll in Paris, which is this summer: “And we who walk in Paris write a new history with each step. The city we leave behind will never be quite the same again.” In the end, Baxter does share what is the most beautiful walk in Paris for him, and it’s as personal and moving to him as your most beautiful walk in Paris will be when you discover it for yourself.

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. I know, I have been avoiding this one like a disease, for fear of being disappointed. It was wildly popular like “shades of grey” when first released but at least it’s not chick erotica. It tells the interlocking stories of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who locks her brother in a cabinet to hide him during the roundup for war during WW2, and a 45-year-old modern-day journalist who becomes obsessed with finding out if Sarah is still alive.

Half of a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang. For the first this contemporary Chinese classic is available in English thanks to the translation by Karen Kingsbury. A dramatic story of love, betrayal, opportunism and family oppression set in 1930s Shanghai, it is an enveloping, haunting and insightful read, rich in Chang’s trademark passionate prose. This is arguably the author’s most beloved novel, widely popular with her Chinese readers since it was first published in 1950 in serial form. (It was rewritten in 1968 in book form.) It has been adapted again and again—into a number of plays and television series, at least one full-length movie and even a stage musical.

The bottom two are books written in Chinese: Introduction to Buddhism and Conversations with Gods. Those are what I think would be good foundation works to familiarize myself with religion. I’m thinking of a two week meditation retreat in Thailand in a Buddhist monastery. Having always been fascinated by Buddhism, I am, however, not sure where to begin studying, consider there are many branches of Buddhism. The book gives a comprehensive introduction to the history, origin and doctrine of Buddhism.

Grandpa

“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.

Don’t Bother Me I’m Reading

A bit of a rant today. I am 50 pages shy of the end of The Goldfinch but I should have been able to finish this morning, had it not been for this overly friendly personality at the coffee shop. This person is sort of the neighborhoody ambassador who hi-and-byes almost everybody who walks by the cafe, which commands the view of the sidewalk through a huge alcove window. My acquaintance with this person progresses from pleasantries in apropos of politeness to casual chit-chat. But as many of you would understand, morning time is a time for quiet and solitude, and I am defensive of my privacy when it comes to reading. Unaware of the need for this privacy, this person takes the liberty to install herself at my table (which is fine as long as she keeps to herself) and starts talking up a storm—about things that distantly concern me, or her. Besides a few polite banter, I decide on the tactic of just keeping to my book and smiling, and so not to encourage further conversation. That seems to work. My being silent has trumped her effort at any further conversation—and hopefully might help her finish the book that she started two months ago but never seemed to be able to finish.

How do you cope with intrusive people?