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Memorable Readings of 2015

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

Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
This one keeps me on the edge of the seat and makes me a fan of Elizabeth George. George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[769] Half A Life – V.S. Naipaul


“I have been hiding from myself, I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over.” (130)

This is one of those unfulfilling books that, in spite of the quality of writing, nuanced and lyrical, fails to keep one engaged because the life of the main character is sadly pointless and wasted. The novel begins with Willie’s father, who is sick of his privileged life as a Brahmin and eager to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, makes a vow to turn his back on his family and takes up the life of an ascetic. He marries a dark-skinned woman from a lower caste, one whom he looks down upon with scorn and condescension, and she becomes Willie’s mother.

Willie grows up being attached to his mother. He despises his father as a hypocrite and snob but, out of sheer desire to get away from India, accepts his help in getting a college scholarship in England.

I just want to tell you why I was able to follow someone I hardly knew to a colonial country in Africa of which I knew little except that it had difficult racial and social issues. (132)

In England Willie becomes a drifter. Interwoven through Bohemian parties he meets people from all walks—editor, critics, Oxford graduates—and emerge as a writer. The child of a mixed parentage, he is subject to racial and class prejudice. Always being conscious of his difference, he is given to feeling of shame and ignorance. The search into his self becomes ridiculous bouts sexual escapades. There is where I no longer care about the book.

I recognize Willie’s ardent desire to escape his provincial rearing and an exile’s sense of incompleteness and detachment. But the book drags on as Willie wanders from London to Africa to Portugal, putting himself into the hands of strangers. Deluded, aimless, and incompetent, he depends on women for his idea of being a man. He lives in Africa for 18 years only to realize he’s been living someone else’s life. Naipaul wants to explore the end of colonialism and the rise of new illusions through Willie’s sojourn, but the story just doesn’t resonate.

211 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rereading “Candide”


Candide is considered Voltaire’s magnum opus and is often listed as part of the Western canon; it is arguably taught more than any other work of French literature. Experience had it that the trimmer the book, the more penetrative its meaning. The novella was published in 1759, a period in Europe when all the sovereign princes and republics carried on schemes of aggrandizement against each other.

It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world.

The 18th century saw the appearance of a literature profoundly skeptical and critical of the courts and politics of the time. Politics was so petty during that age of multifarious sovereign states that the history became more and more manifestly gossip, more and more unmeaning and wearisome to a modern intelligence. In such a book as Voltaire’s Candide one has the expression of an infinite weariness with the planless confusion of the European world.

Mahfouz and Egypt


I read Naguib Mahfouz out of curiosity for Egypt, the anicent civilization of Pharaohs, Sphinx and the pyramids. Indeed, for centuries most Westerners thought of the Middle East as a place of mystery, where writers like Sir Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence swaggered across sandy landscapes and returned with accounts of the exotic customs they had glimpsed there. More recently, the mystery has turned sinister; many of us have come to believe that the entire Islamic world is seething with inscrutable religious fanaticism that ferments violence and mayhem.

It was in the midst of all these stereotypes that Naguib Mahfouz, then unknown to the English-speaking world, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Until this year, his masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, published in Arabic in 1956-57, has been unavailable in translation. Now, finally, readers can see for themselves why Mr. Mahfouz has long been considered the finest Arab writer of modern times.

Palace Walk, the first volume of the trilogy, centers on the life of a family living through the period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the 1919 revolution against British rule, a time of dramatic change in Egypt. The family’s patriarch, al-Sayyid Ahmad, is a member of the colorful fraternity of Cairo merchants. At home, he is a tyrant who has forbidden his wife to go outside the walls of the house for 25 years. When he discovers that his adolescent son Fahmy has a crush on a neighbor’s daughter, al-Sayyid is enraged. Yet his wife and children revere him as much as they fear him. The father is a complex figure, whose life is “composed of a diversity of mutually contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity.” In his shop he is generous and gregarious, and on his nightly carousings with other middle-aged businessmen he is a connoisseur of fine wines and fleshly courtesans.

Then, as now, the issues in Egypt center on several key themes: the role of women in society, moderate versus radical Islam, democracy, and military repression. The recent revolution distinguished itself in that women fought alongside the men in Tahrir Square. Yet those same women were sidelined in the formation of the new government. And some of them were arrested by the military and issued humiliating “virginity tests.” The same old battles remain. The new president, Mohammed Morsi, promises to respect international treaties and even to choose a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. But he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, known for marginalizing women and Christians.

Mahfouz describes the first days of post-revolutionary Cairo as having a tenuous calm. At the same time, he describes Cairo as having “come back to life … The heart of the nation was throbbing. It was alive and in rebellion.” It’s a sentiment recently shared by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who tells of the same euphoria after the 2011 uprising, describing friends on antidepressants “who, over the 20 days of revolution, forgot to take their pills and have now thrown them away. Such is the effect of the Egyptian revolution.”

The series hardly seems to have aged in the nearly six decades since publication. The novels record the voice of a people coming to terms with their own power, facing the thrill—and fear—of taking their destiny in their own hands. There has perhaps never been a better time to read them.

[762] Oreo – Fran Ross


” The girl’s got womb . . . she’s a real ball buster. “

This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read—puny, hilarious and sublime. Fran Ross’ throwaway lines have more zing than most comic writers. Sadly, it was the only book she wrote and that it didn’t get much attention when it was published in 1974. The heroine is Christine Clark a.k.a. Oreo. An “oreo” is, of course, a cookie, white on the inside and black on the outside; it’s also the taunt of choice for black people who appear to “act white.” Oreo doesn’t act white, in fact she embraces her multiplicity, aggressively asserting her mixed identity, code-switching between Yiddish, Ebonics, and highbrow academic jargon. Born to a Jewish father and black mother who divorce before she turned two, Oreo grows up in Philadelphia with her maternal grandparents while her mother tours with a theatrical troupe. Soon after puberty, Oreo heads for New York with a backpack to search for her father, a voice-over actor in Manhattan who has left her an absurd list of clues regarding her birth. He’s a bum, according to her mother, and her mission turns into a wickedly humorous picaresque quest.

Although the novel draws no conclusions and the quest leads to no ground-breaking revelatory payoff (a slight let-down), it’s diversion from the quest by wordplay and metareferences that makes Oreo shine. Ross has no qualm about racial taboo and she just goes off the tangents with racial puns. The narrative challenges accepted notions of race, ethnicity and culture. Oreo is Oreo’s quest, in bumpy parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus, to find her (Jewish white) father. She is cheeky, intelligent, and mischievous. She develops a self-defense system that deploys against many men who beat women with impunity. Her encounter with a horde of diverse people allows her to meander through her wicked and free imagination and to push reader toward a hyper-awareness of language itself. This book is erudite and playful. That it’s tied to the Greek myth allows it to go through some very insane materials without spinning out of control. Uproarious feminist attics!

230 pp. New Directions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Chick Lit Demystified

I do not like to be known for reading certain literary labels. Literary labels exist for the sake of categorizing books so they can be easily found in bookstores and libraries. Every literary labels has its audience: different strokes for different folks. While I have a solid understanding of what to expect in literary fiction, chick it is more ambiguous in this regard. What is chick lit?

Elizabeth Merrick delivers one of the best answer. In her latest, This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, she enlightens me that “chick lit is a genre, like the thriller, the sci-fi novel, or the fantasy epic.” So chick lit is a subset of fiction. “Its form and content are, more or less, formulaic: white girl in the big city searching for Prince Charming, all the while shopping, alternately cheating on or adhering to her diet, dodging her boss, and enjoying the occasional tear-eyed with her token Sassy Gay Friend. Chick lit is the daughter of romance novel and the step-sister to the fashion magazine. Details about race and class are almost always absence except, of course, for the protagonist’s relentless pursuit of Money, a Makeover, and Mr. Right.”

Is this the right genre for me? Not exactly, but I do enjoy the soapy dish of The Devil Wears Prada and Bridget Jones’ Diary. I do have reservation for books of which the title contains words like stiletto, bed, shopaholic. Truncated legs, handbags, and heels on covers are good indication of what I shall avoid.

[293] Noble House: The Epic Novel of Modern Hong Kong – James Clavell

” It’s a Hong Kong characteristic. If you live here there’s never enough time, whatever you work. Always too much to do. People are always arriving, leaving, friends, business people. There’s always a crisis—flood fire, mud slide, boom, scandal, business opportunity, funeral, banquet or cocktail party for visiting VIPs—or some disaster. ” [65: 1104]

As the title suggests, Noble House is set in Hong Kong, in 1960s, with a complex and engaging tale tying together a multitude of disparate elements: business and political intrigues, kidnapping, murder, espionage, financial double-dealing, and natural disaster. One a night of torrential rain in 1960, Alastair Struan, the current taipan (big boss, ultimate ruler) of the Noble House, a trading and finance company that is the main artery of the colony’s economy, confers the title of taipan on Ian Dunross Struan; he must take an oath to uphold the traditions and oaths established by the first taipan and founder of Noble House, Dirk Struan, the mightiest trader in China from the 19th century. Dirk Struan’s illegitimate marriage to a woman in the Chen clan had perpetually interlinked the English family with the Chinese by ownership and blood. It is later discovered that the true reason of their century-long relationship is a triad that had asked the Noble House of a huge (and dangerous) favor to provide sanction and financial succor to a Boxer Rebellion insurgent against the Qing Dynasty.

One reason’s because we’re such a closely knit society, very interrelated, and everyone knows everyone else—and almost all their secrets. Another’s because hatreds here go back generations and have been nurtured for generations. When you hate you hate with all your heart. Another’s because this is a piratical society with very few curbs so you can get away with all sorts of vengeances. Oh yes. [13: 262]

Most of the actions take place over the course of one week in August 1963, as a typhoon is closing in on Hong Kong. Inside Ian’s office penthouse in Central the taipan is weathering another storm, a financial predicament that would throw the Noble House in total disarray, and that its being the “dragon back” of colony’s economic well-being, the fall of the Noble House means Hong Kong will also be down the sewer. Under the insidious eyes of the KGB, the CIA, and the People’s Republic of China, British and American businessmen maneuver for control of Hong Kong’s oldest trading house.

I don’t want his head, or death or anything like that—just an early demise of the Noble House. Once Struan’s is obliterated we become the Noble House. [11:231]

Just when the betrayer (who passes information on to American tycoon) of Noble House is inexplicably kidnapped by triad thugs who also prey on a priced heirloom of the trading house, Ian’s arch enemy, Quillan Gornt of Rothwell-Gornt joins force with Linc Bartlett, an American billionaire who craves a share of the pie, to attack the cash-light Noble House. Quillan has his former mistress, an Eurasian named Orlanda Ramos, manipulate Bartlett to close the deal. Special intelligence that Ian Dunross receives also triggers an international espionage war that traces back to the Soviet Union’s scheme to weaken China and its tie to the West. As time is running out, the taipan has to secure financial backing and identify the spy that has infiltrated the Noble House from the Soviet Communists.

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. Clavell is considerate to apologize to the Hong Kong yun (Hong Kongers) in the book’s disclaimer for rearranging events and places, and for taking incidents out of context, but the book is very rich and authentic in local flavor and culture, steeped in lore and history. It’s utter delight to revisit Hong Kong in the 1960s through his writing: the boat houses, the make-shift tenements that accommodated huge influx of immigrants from China, the panoramic view of the Peak, and the tragic mudslide that demolished an entire building on Kotewall Road in the mid-level. The tragedy, coincidentally, occurred today, June 18, 47 years ago.

1370 pp. Dell mass paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Thoughts on Comfort Reading

I take quite a lot of notes when I’m reading. Note-taking does compromise the time taken to finish a book, but, at least for literary fiction, notes and quoted passages will come handy to understanding the novel as a whole. Although I enjoy reading literary fiction like those of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Jose Saramago, the flowery prose and the curlicue of sentences that often beg to be jotted down pose a problem when I’m, say, on the airplane across the Pacific and all that I can write on is a tray table the size of a sheet of paper or in the swimming pool. Every once in a while I crave a book that doesn’t require close reading: a book that immediately engages my attention with quick turn of events and multiple story lines. Noble House by James Clavell is such a book. It is part of Clavell’s Asian Saga. At well over 1000 pages, Noble House is not closely based on a specific series of events, but is more a snapshot of the 1960s in Hong Kong, and serves as a capsule history of Jardines in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the impending Vietnam War, under the spectre of the recent Kim Philby defection. This is the one book that always stares at me on the shelf at the store.

[203] Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

olive“—then Olive felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life. She leaned forward, peering out the window: sweet pale clouds, the sky as blue as your hat, the new green of the fields, the broad expanse of water . . .” [202]

Olive Kitteridge is an unforgettable character. Heightened is the anticipation of when and how this tall, big-frame, brawny retired 7th grade math teacher, whom many revere and fear, makes her regal entrance in each of the episodes stitch together the novel. Although not an ambassador, nor is she a magnet of gossips, Olive Kitteridge seems to be savvy of of the town’s happenings. While she deplores the vicissitudes in Crosby, Maine, acquaintances, former colleagues, and students alike, all talk about her in an eye-rolling manner. She is like an axis around which these townfolks’ lives revolve, abiding her orbital without a chance to be rid of her stern scrutiny.

The heart of the novel is Olive’s family, which she presides over with a peremptory air. Her husband Henry, a retired pharmacist, finds his loyalty to the marriage both a blessing and a curse. Her son Christopher, an adult child, feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities, which she only believes as an expression of love, for she doesn’t like to be lonely.

She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people (other than her family).” [146]

The fear of death, its inescapable and indiscriminate consequence, hangs over everyone throughout the book. These episodes, unified by Olive Kitteridge’s presence and influence, ruminate on sickness, aging, and the different level of sadness children create for their parents and spouses implement on one another. As these town people grapple their problem from domestic issue, bitter regret, unresolved loss of loved ones, love affairs, anorexia, to mental illness, Olive Kitteridge comes to terms with of shortcomings—that she has been clueless of her bluntness, which has offended people. A night of contingency allows her husband to confide in her his true feelings, which have forever altered their relationship and the way they see one another.

And while Olive Kitteridge had never in anyone’s memory felt inclined to be affable, or even polite, she seemed less so now as this particular June rolled around. [104]

What her son says are like splinters of wood shoved into her heart:

You kind of behave like a paranoid, Mom . . . And I never see you taking any responsibility for it. One minute you’re one way, the next—you’re furious. It’s tiring, very wearing for those around you. [229]

The episodic form Strout adopts not only allows readers to see Olive Kitteridge from different set of eyes, it also accentuates her power of influence on the community. Her complexities—at times in denial, at times thoughtful, at times patient, at times perceptive, and at times capricious—are fully realized in many permutations. She does not physically appear in some of these scenes but her allure resonates far more intensely than in person. For these people stand in awe of even the thought of her.

Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology, and Jane had kept her distance. [130]

The episodes mandate a constant effort of renewal in perceiving the relationship between a wide of cast of characters on the readers’ part, because their association is not immediately established during the first half of the book. Through the conflicts and tragedies, which are rendered very ordinary, the novel reminds us that even sad moments in life are gifts and which make life worth living. Natural landscapes are often metaphoric. They deliver a subtle message of hope, that a happier, more fulling life might only require a different perspective and change of attitude, like leaning forward, and peering out the window to the blue sky and broad expanse of water as I quoted at the beginning of this review.

286 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Oliver Kitteridge is the winner of Pulitzer Prize in 2009.