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Thankful for These

Goodreads: What book are you thankful that you read this year?

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Having grown up in a foreign country, I never read this children classic. It’s a celebration of friendship and its meaning. It’s an evergreen tale that deserves recognition as a novel in which readers will find wisdom, humor, and meaning.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. It’s as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony of Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. It’s a spellbinding murder case and most importantly, a testimony to how our justice system comes through.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I would not have picked it up, let alone read, this book if Tina didn’t pick it as a read-along. Rand’s philosophy can be outlandish but she is not without reason. The huge tome delves on the importance of reason and individual thinking. When one is rid of its own will and thinking, the virtues that make life possible and the values that give it meaning become agents of its destruction.

Reading “Seven Ages of Paris”


How Paris Became Paris chronicles the major architectural and changes in Paris rendered by Henry IV and Louis XIV in the 17th century. Now I’m ready to tackle something grander, more epic and covering a wider period of time—Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. From the rise of Pjilippe Auguste through the reigns of Henry IV and Louis XIV; Napoleon’s rise and fall, Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris; the Belle Epoque and the Great War that brought it to an end; the Nazi Occupation, the Liberation—Horne brings the city’s highs and lows, savagery and sophistication, to life.

Paris has undergone woe after woe for centuries—without ever being budged from its position as the most beloved city in the world. For all its violence, greed, inequality and double-dealing, Paris is most impressive, Horne thinks, for its ability to recover from collapse “and live again as if little had happened.” After Waterloo, after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, after the carnage of World War I, Paris did not merely survive; it saw ”an extraordinary blossoming in the gentler and more enduring works of humanity.” A trip to Paris should focus on Paris and its history. Except the Rick Steves’ guide, this book is the only book I’ll bring with me to Paris next week.

“Who’s John Galt?” – Atlas Shrugged Read-Along


I kick off second half of 2015 with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reading in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter. Here are the mechanics:

Runs from July 1-Aug 15, 2015
Use #AtlasRAL to talk about it on Twitter.
Tina hopes to write an update post on my blog after each part (I, II, III) just to see how we are doing.

Part I by July 15 (approx 300 pages)
Part II by July 31 (approx 320 pages)
Part III by August 15 (approx 450 pages)

First published in 1957, it’s a huge book with a tremendous scope. It is a dramatization of her unique vision of existence and of man’s highest potential. It explores the pursuit of profit and success against individualism. It probes the relation between faith and reason. Is self-esteem possible or are we consigned to a life of self-doubt and guilt?

I started this morning and I’m riveted at it already, despite the daunting size. The famous opening line “Who is John Galt?” is a mystery. Nobody knows where the expression comes from. The mystery of the plot certainly hinges on this bizarre question. Thank you Tina for calling the shot to read this one!

Writers Nobody Knows (Let Alone Reads)

Both of my favorite local indies, Green Apple Books and City Lights, shared a list of ten great writers nobody reads. Honestly, reading is an old sport, and it takes much longer time to finish a book than to watch a movie or to listen to an album. Reading takes concentration and effort. A lot of books have gone unnoticed, unfashioned, forgotten, neglected, and out-moded.

Ten new names for me, many more opportunities: Marcel Schwob , dying young, is a writer whose influence far exceeds his readership. Mary Butts has a penchant for scandal. Marguerite Young takes so long to finish a novel that she is forgotten. Joao Guimaraes Rosa is the Brazilian James Joyce. Julien Gracq is geographer teacher-cum-writer. Jane Bowles can be classified as a very quirky and strange writer. Augusto Monterroso is the author of one of the world’s shortest stories. Rosemary Tonks retreated from the literary scene and preferred nobody to read her work after the publication of two collections of poetry. Fran Ross is a writer who was way ahead of her time. Driss ben Hamed Charhadi is an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier!

I have also come across hundreds of writers forgotten by history or ignored altogether. Some undoubtedly deserve their fate; others, immensely talented writers, would nearly break my heart. This list couldn’t have come to me at a better time as I’m thinking about my summer reads. I’m never a fan of fluffy beach reads so this list gives me a good reason to browse the dusty shelves of used bookstore and seek out these forgotten authors.

Han and Hanff


I’m back to my old haunt from college days—Walden Pond Bookstore on Grand in Oakland. It’s a wonderful used bookstore with an amazing fiction and mystery selection. I love the high shelves of fiction all on one wall extending to the back of the store. I love the creaky wooden floorboard. This reminds me why I love indie used bookstore so much—I always find books that are either forgotten or no longer in print.

People probably won’t know who Han Suyin is. But I say she’s the writer of A Many Splendored Thing, which was made into a movie, set in Hong Kong, called, Love is A Many-Splendored Thing, would that ring the bell? Han, like her heroine in Splendor, is a Sino-Anglo mixed woman who was trained in medicine. She was born in Beijing and lived in Hong Kong after the war. This copy of The Crippled Tree is the first I come across after a long hunt.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the sequel to 84 Charing Cross Road, a record of a postal love affair with England through a twenty-year correspondence with a London bookseller. In this book, Helene Hanff’s dream come true as she makes her way over the pond to visit England. Finding this book also makes my dream come true.

Epistolary Novels


Some of the memorable and beloved reads are epistolary novels. Recently I popped the cherry of The Color Purple, a collection of letters between two African African sisters from the south that was censored over the years since it was published. A more modern representative of this genre is The Perks of Being A Wallflower. They are stories told through journal entries, letters, and more pertinently nowadays, text messages and emails. The one epistolary novel that I keep returning to is 84 Charing Cross Road.

The book is the collection of a New York woman’s correspondence with a London bookstore. First published in 1971, the slim v olume became a most unlikely bestseller. Hanff was an impecunious book-lover. Her correspondence with the staff of Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore in London, spanned two decades. Evoked from these letters was the post-war austerity in Britain. Hanff wrote them with a wish list of titles she’d been unable to acquire in new York. She had an antiquarian taste in book but couldn’t afford the high prices. The shop manager, Frank Doel, sent her some o the items and promised to look out for second-hand copies of the out-of-print books. The business transactions evolves into a personal relationship. Having heard about the food rationing in effect in Britain, Hanff sent the staff a small Christmas present of foodstuffs most Brits hadn’t seen for years, including a large ham.

Epistolary novels are fun to read. They are fascinating way to capture how we communicate at a certain moment in time. They are like mini communication time capsules. Think of the last time you wrote a letter. I’s only a matter of time before we get a novel told entirely of Instagram and Twitter updates.

Reading The World Book List

I find this fantastic A Year of Reading the World book list. Writer Ann Morgan set herself a challenge—to read a book from every country in the world in one year. She describes her experience in this BBC article. This is a great list of books to expand my reading horizon.

Singaporean Literature


The literature of Singapore comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans in any of the country’s four main languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, this cross-linguistic fertilization is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Singaporean writers work to create a literary voice and space that celebrates Singapore’s multicultural society, Singaporean literature (like any other literature) is not without its flaws. And, moreover, its writers should be wary of oversimplifying a complex issue by assuming that they are capable of speaking for all Singaporeans. However, because Singapore embraces multiculturalism and hybridity, Singapore’s national identity is “evolving” with its literature. While Singaporean literature addresses the issue of national identity, it is not so much an issue of creating unity within (which tends to be the Malaysian theme); Singaporean writers are concerned with creating a voice and space for Singaporean literature.

Noir Fiction


“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.

War and Books


Yesterday I mentioned the rare copy of Green Light that I found in a garage sale. The disclaimer on the jacket about compliance with wartime regulations on publication provokes a little research on the subject. According to an article in The Atlantic, during WW2, Council of Books in Wartime circulated an audacious proposal, which proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just 6 cents a volume. The plan, breath-taking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. The plan calls for massive production of something that resembles the magazine format instead of the hardcovers that had prevailed during that time. The Council decided to use the magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of texts for easier reading in low light.

Publishers took an audacious gamble to see the armed forces cheap paperbacks, shipped to units scattered around the world. Instead of printing only the books soldiers and sailors actually wanted to read, though, publishers decided to send them the best they had to offer. Over the four years between 1942 and 1946, American publishers gave away over 120 million copies of their most valuable titles. Instead of ruining the business as they initially feared, publishers have created a generation of new readers and democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all, because serious (high-brow literature) books were find to find before the war. Dedicated readers were also ones who were well off and could afford these books on mail catalog. There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution.