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Asian Literature

Musing Mondays asks you to muse about:
Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).

disappeared

I have always been fascinated by Southeast Asia and its history. Having traveled through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, I have developed an awareness for the politics and economic progress for the region. What fascinates me even more, of course, is the literature from this region. Except for Thailand, all the countries in this region had at one point been colonized and stricken by internal warfare, so you can only conceive the richness of history and humanity as well as the important role literature plays to express humanity. In places where people are suppressed literature often gives people a voice and coveys the quality of life. The most recent purchase, from Barnes and Noble, to my surprise, is set in the Khmer Rouge killing fields of 1970s Cambodia. It brings awareness of the UN-backed tribunal on Pol Pot’s genocide. Cambodia’s wounds are absolutely fresh and raw: the bones of the dead still work their way to the surface. The Disappeared by Kim Echlin is first and foremost a love story, but the core of it reveals Cambodia to be a mortuary world whose survivors endure continuing chaos, violence, want and corruption. Horror is normal, the heinous ordinary: the Khmer regime deliberately erased the piety of family, culture, religion and memory itself.

Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.

shanghai

I’m reading the last 100 pages of Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, a gripping and poignant of her courage and fortitude during the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1973. An employee of Shell Oil and the widow of an official of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, she immediately became a target of political renouncement. Accused of being the spy for British imperialist, she was placed in solitary confinement, where she would remain for more than six years. Honestly I don’t enjoy reading about Cheng’s sufferings and injustice, but her uncompromising spirit and courage make the book very powerful. While she is recounting great chunks of the last 40 years of China’s history, she brings people and places to life.

Nemesis

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This week’s question:

Is there a particular book that is your nemesis—the book you’re determined to one day finish?

The Civil Disobedience portion of Walden. The God of Small Things. The Tale of Genji. The (unabridged) Moby Dick. But it won’t happen ay time soon.

Stretching Patience

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This week’s question:

What was the last book you could not finish and why?

I know life is too short for underwhelming book but I usually finish what I started. The one book that came so close to not being finished this year is London Fields by Martin Amis. I lost interest about two-thirds of the way and I just skimmed through it so that I didn’t miss anything important. I have the sense that Amis may have been too clever in outwitting himself. It opens brilliantly with this pre-announced whodunnit without a motive. But from there, despite his lyricality and ingenious monologue, the entire book is a con-trick that leads you to expect one thing, and offers you another. At times the authorial voice is too intrusive, screaming pretentiousness and undermining the characters. I admire his wit, the prodigious span of diction, but he needs more substance and less of this intrusive style. I’m disappointed at this tome of a book that is entirely an elaborate tease. It’s just another meditation for the way the world ends wrapped in a quasi-love story that turns out to be an unresolved mess.

The End

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This week’s question:

Do you read the ending before you start a book? Do you ever skip ahead to read the ending?

I read straight through. Sometimes if I’m really concerned about the welfare of a character, I’ll skim later pages just to see if their name comes up. The book I’m reading now, my 100th for the year, is The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen. I have found myself skipping forward a few pages to see what what I anticipate a disaster—revelation of a secret per se, might befall the character. It has come to my attention that not everyone reads books chronologically. You know, starting on page one and finishing at the very end. The idea of that is like a sacrilege to me. It’s madness. Another reason I would skip parts is when the writing is a bit boring but I want to find out how it ends. I am scandalized at skipping to the end. But not shocked. I have friends who do it, and we have argued about it.

Musing Mondays: Book Meme

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From the hostess: For this week’s Musing Monday, I’m going to give you the option to answer any of the following questions — or, if you prefer, you can answer them all! Have fun! {questions were supplied by my readers when asked for suggestions}

1. If you had to choose only 3 books to read forever, which ones would you choose?

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Interesting how I don’t really care for any of his other books, but this one rocks. It is a tale of a master’s journey in unraveling a complicated knot at a sacred institution. Under the veneer of scholastic and immaculate surface is prurient desire for knowledge, covet for power, and scruple for sin against chastity. The interminable discourse on church history and heresy will be elucidated throughout the novel (so don’t be discouraged by the difficult prose), as relevant personalities will recount their involvement with heretics. It’s an ingenious, fine piece of literature that challenges bright minds.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Set in the iron curtain of a society that is Soviet Union in 1930s, This iconic novel, banned in Bulgakov’s lifetime, is his response to this fear-struck, panic-stricken era. Despite the atmosphere of terror that deepened all through the years he was working on the novel, the book takes on a surprisingly light tone, one of multifaceted humor, without compromising its philosophical depth. It is Bulgakov’s embittered and sarcastic response (and indictment) to his era’s denial of imagination and its wish to strip the world of divine qualities. It is a product of reconciliation of the absolute opposites: how would anyone ever conceive a world in which God and Satan work toward the same end, and that good is not necessarily better than evil? This is only possible through Bulgakov’s enduring experiences during the remarkable era that powerfully affected his perspectives on politics and life.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. This novel dramatizes the perpetual conflict between good and evil within the individuals of the Hamiltons and Trasks. While their destinies cross path, Hamiltons serve more as a chronological collage, it is the Trask family on which the reenactment of the fall of Adam and Eve and he vicious rivalry between Cain and Abel are staged. The novel, which is parallel to the book of Genesis, bears the primordial power and sheer simplicity of an allegory. Once you turn the last pages, you’ll realize it is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else.

2. Do you read outside your preferred genre? Has your preferred genre changed?

I mostly read literary fiction and high-brow literature unless my trusted book bloggers/mavens convince me otherwise. Over the years my preferred genre has not changed, more like moving from classics that school required to modern/contemporary fiction. Mystery is one genre I would like to explore more at depth.

3. Do you have a favorite book/movie combination?

For the question above about the three books to read forever, I almost pick The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, but I saw this question so I save it for later. I absolutely love Ishiguro’s lyrical writing as well as his keen observations on human foibles. Subtly plotted, the novel gives the impression that characters and scenes in the beautifully paced novel become no more than mouthpieces and backdrops for Ishiguro’s concern for the human condition: A desire to exceed one’s limitations. The film adaptation is just as stellar. I remembered walking into the cinema with little expectation of The Remains of the Day which is based on the novel with the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro. Books and films are completely different in their artistic imaginations. In books, readers can construct the world of the characters from the authors’ words, fill the gap for what’s not said, and speculate from between the lines. So it becomes very subjective, a matter of one’s own interpretation. The film is a manifestation of the story in the director’s perception. So different nuances can be exuded through the appearance of the cast, the scores, and the screenplay, which most of the time would have taken exact words or dialogues from the book, but the context becomes inevitably different. In this case, the film is a very faithful and fair portrayal of the book. There are fine points and nuances in the story that I have to refresh myself to see the film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, who both deliver a stellar performance. I have a penchant for literature set in early 20th century, and Ishiguro’s ponderous and perceptive writing is always a comfort. Seeping through beautiful and quiet prose is a profoundly compelling portrait of a first-rank English butler who is an effective, dedicated, but also a repressed servant. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive during which he looks back and reflects upon his career to reassure himself that, by abiding to principle and dignity, he has served humanity.

4. Name a book that you thought you wouldn’t like much, but you ended up loving.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Rand believes that there is only black and white in moral issues; there is no gray. Therefore, giving in a little is not compromise but rather forfeiting one’s values and surrendering to evil. She argues that society, tainted by collectivism, has a herd mentality that corrupts individual mind. One might not meet the living counterparts of her characters in fullness, but one will recognize many a facet of them in people we know. The novel is an American epic because the values and ideals she proclaims can be applied to our world today. She makes a strong case for her extreme philosophy, although it’s difficult to digest and accept in fullness. I personally settle for a middle path, where the call for individualism and acknowledgement for the needs of society are equally important. Following the life of Roark and the insidious orchestrations of his enemies is both fascinating and gripping.

Book Buddies

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This week’s musing asks:

Do you have people online that you often discuss the books you read with? Not just book groups, but individual readers who share the same taste in books? If so, what do you like best about this? If not, do you wish you did?

No, I don’t have any individuals online who are reading the same books as me and then discussing them—not actively discussing. But I am lucky to have found a few book bloggers who share the same reading taste with. We might not be reading the same book, or are “on the same page,” but we often read the same batch or authors. They become my sources for books. Tina, Sandy, JoAnn, and Marie to name a few. It would be fabulous if we all live in the same town and start a book club. As for my friends, I’m the ultimate source if they need a book recommendation.

Crush on A Character

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This week’s musing asks:

Do you ever get crushes on fictional characters? Name one (or a few), and tell what you liked…

About four years ago, I read a book called Letter from Point Clear, a novel the love, need, discomfort, resentment, and warmth shared among grown siblings. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel it was given the reception it deserves. So I choose this book today. The novel begins after a year since all three of them—Ellen, Morris, and Bonnie—had reunited at their father’s funeral. Bonnie, who sported an unsuccessful career as an actress in New York City, moved back to the family mansion and took care of her father in his final days. Bonnie has married a fundamentalist preacher whose parents prophetically named him Pastor. Pastor is a few years junior of Bonnie whom he has converted to the faith and rescues from drugs. Although he shows depth of his understanding of her lifelong trouble–which she sees as a train wreck–he cannot make sense of her not having Ellen and Morris at the wedding. The truth is, Bonnie hates herself for thinking of Morris, a 41-years-old professor, his being gay, as something to avoid and put off, and she reminds herself that Pastor’s primary message is love, and that whatever he believes about homosexuality would be filtered by that. I quickly warmed to Morris and his character—he is intelligent, funny but also reserved. As I perused the book, I worried about Morris, who resorts to silly barb at the hint of any emotion discussion, and how his brother-in-law’s manipulations, well-intentioned or not but wrongheaded for sure, might hurt him and how it might affect Bonnie’s marriage. McFarland deftly resolves the conflicts pulsing subtly but insistently through the pages, which grapple with the dynamics of family love and reminiscence in all their infinite depth and complexity.

Favorite Series

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This week’s musing asks:

Do you have a favorite series? Do you have a favorite book out of that series?

My all-time favorite is the Hercule Poirot series by Agatha Christie. According to this page, Hercule Poirot appears in 41 works. Her most famous and well-received book is probably Murder on the Orient Express, which is a classic full of mysterious and contradicting clues and circumstances. Returning from an important case in Palestine, Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded for the time of year (a clue that is often overlooked). Poirot secures a berth only with the help of his friend M. Bouc. That night, near Belgrade, at about twenty-three minutes before 1:00 am, Poirot wakes to the sound of a loud noise—somewhat like a wail. It seems to come from the compartment next to his, which is occupied by Mr. Ratchett, a sinister man who is suspicious of his personal safety. When Poirot peeks out his door, he sees the conductor knock on Mr. Ratchett’s door and ask if he is all right. A male voice replies in French “Ce n’est rien. Je me suis trompé”, which means “It’s nothing. I made a mistake”, and the conductor moves on to answer a bell down the passage. Poirot decides to go back to bed, but he is disturbed by the fact that the train is unusually still and his mouth is dry.

As Poirot lies awake, he hears a Mrs. Hubbard ringing the bell urgently. When he then rings the conductor for a bottle of mineral water, he learns that Mrs. Hubbard claimed that someone had been in her compartment. He also learns that the train has stopped due to a snowstorm. Poirot dismisses the conductor and tries to go back to sleep, only to be wakened again by a thump on his door. This time when Poirot gets up and looks out of his compartment, the passage is completely silent, and he sees nothing except the back of a woman in a scarlet kimono retreating down the passage in the distance. The next day he awakens to find that Ratchett is dead, having been stabbed twelve times in his sleep. Some of the stab wounds are very deep, only three are lethal, and some are glancing blows. The evidence points to more than one killer.

Equally intrigues me is And Then There Was None, the creepiest of any Christie book I have read thus far. Although readers know the outcome of the story by way of the title, there is something very creepy about this book. Ten people dead on an island and not a living soul on it. The person who picked up the guests also perished. A curious assortment of strangers answers a suitable bait of a letter, respectively, and is summoned as weekend guest to a private island. These people would never have crossed paths were it not for U.N. Owen’s invitation: a doctor, a governess, a soldier of fortune, a carefree playboy, an ex-cop, a judge, a retired general and a married couple who are to be servants in a luxurious house that is well stocked with amenities.

Distraction

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This week’s musing asks:

What distracts you when you really “should be reading”? (Pun intended, because the blog that hosts Musing Mondays is called Should Be Reading)

The internet is the culprit but I have to hold myself responsible as well. What started to be the inspiration for readings ideas can be a distraction at times. I downsize my blog reading and Facebook time in order to make time for reading. Work and hanging with friends could get in the way but at least they are obligatory and/or welcoming distractions.

Even since work has imposed a monthly furlough day, I have scheduled a weekend getaway—Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las vegas—all within two hours of travel by flights. I have caught up with lots of reading that I wished done when I’m home. Between gate to gate, you’ll be amazed how much you can read.

Reading Notes

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This week’s musing asks:

Do you take notes while you read?

I have always taken notes. I used to pencil in on the margin until I was convinced that it’s unethical to do so. I also ran out of room and so consigned my immediate thoughts to a separate piece of paper that I slip into the pages.

A picture is better than a thousand words. On the left is my reading notes for my current read, The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I note the dates I read the book, along with page references and thoughts and important quotes. On the right is my journal entry for the recently-read Gold by Chris Cleave. My notes transpire into a fully developed book review in my journal.

As you see, reading notes are integral components to this book blog.