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Challenge Update

I totally agree with Andi that The Journal of Dora Damage should garner more attention and dance all over critics’ radar. It’s very intriguing read that not only Dora binds these pornographies for the high society behind her husband’s back, but she also suffers from the scruple of doing so. For she has navigated into areas for which her upbringing and society had not prepared her. But there is more to this bookbinding commission. I’m drowning right in the first twist and turn of the story and I simply cannot set the book down. More update and review later.

For Russian Reading Challenge 2008 I’ve got two down and just finished the third, Bulgakov’s A Dead Man’s Memoir (also known as A Theatrical Novel), a somewhat unfinished (unresolved) novel that is emblematic of a writer persecuted. It was partially his own story of failing as a playwright that satirizes many of the contemporary artists. The ongoing read for this challenge is Anna Karenina which cross-lists the Chunkster Reading Challenge. Also lined up for this stunt is Ken Follett’s latest, World Without End, which Bookpuddle has read and recommended recently. I also read along Les Miserables (the unabridged edition) with some of you.

Ex Libris has mentioned the Man Booker Challenge hosted by The Hidden Side of a Leaf. I have yet to select my 6 Booker Prize short-listing/winners but plan to stop by the bookstore for some ideas before leaving for Beijing. I wonder if the recent Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner would qualify for this project? Other ideas include John Banville (a favorite author) and J.L. Carr. Last but certainly not the least, I read about the Novella Reading Challenge from Eva. I plan to read unheard-of titles from favorite authors like Naguib Mahfouz and John Banville. Included in her suggested list is Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander which if I remember correctly Danielle read last year.

Whoa so many books! They fall over me like blocks descending in the Tetris video game. Just a thought.

Pleasure, Work, Challenge


I’ve been brainstorming a quiz that will be given during the first 5 minutes in tomorrow’s class. It will cover the first half of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In the past reading checks have fill-in, true/false and matching questions. Quizzes are to ensure students have scrupulously completed the readings and showed up for class. This time we decide to have the students identify ideas and/or phrases that are relevant to the reading from a pool. So here is what I have come up over coffee this morning:

nose /1369 / running track / isolation / freedom / extinction / equality / eyes hibernation / jazz club / San Francisco / prize-fighter / president / mirror /
light bulbs / phantom / 1942 / blindfold / Harlem / Thoreau / blood / knife

The landmark novel that has changed the shape of American literature (and shocked the public) has one of my favorite and unforgettable opening, full of symbols, innuendos and allusions:

“I am an invisible man. N, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The rest of the book revolves around this opening passage. Ellison uses numerous metaphors, images, and allusions to enhance the emotional and intellectual impact of his novel. For instance, Ellison invokes the colors of the American flag with red of sloe gin, the Optic White of Liberty Paints factory, and the blue of “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?” by Louis Armstrong. Ellison also uses the language of music throughout the novel to characterize the deeper meaning of a scene.

Besides the commitment to the class, I’m reading the book for pleasure as well, and it constitutes to the Chunkster Reading Challenge, which requires reading of four books that are over 450 pages. My other ongoing read, Anna Karenina crosses over with Russian Reading Challenge. It’s required reading for the Russian Novels class that I TA.

[120] Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

Russian Reading Challenge #3

heartdog.jpg“My hypothesis is that the grafted hypophysis has opened a speech center in the canine brain, and words have burst out in a stream. In my view, what we see is a resuscitated and expanded brain, and not a newly created one…And another hypothesis: during his canine existence, Sharik’s [a common name for dog in Russia] brain accumulated a mass of concepts. All the words he used in the beginning were gutter words. He heard them and stored them in his brain. Now as I walk in the street, I look at dogs with secret horror. Who knows what is hidden in their heads?” (63)

Like any dogs in cold Moscow, a scroungy mongrel has made peace with his fate, taking life one day at a time. Shaggy, lanky, tattered and most of all hungry, this mutt, which suffers from a scalded wound on one side, is in sheer luck when a lordly benefactor gives him a piece of fine sausage and leads to his apartment. But we know there must be more to the story, as there is no free lunches. The quality of sumptuous diet, along with the pampering, warmth, and comfort are only measures to strengthen Sharik for an operation.

Professor Philip Philippovich implants human testicles and pituitary gland from a recently-dead twenty-eight-year-old man into a stray dog to determine viability of such transplant and its effect on rejuvenation of human organism. In defiance of expected fatal outcome, the dog survives and shows sign of resuscitation. The creature proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, in both physical appearance and in speech.

“His appearance is strange. The fur remains only on his head, chin and chest. The rest of his body is bald, with flabby skin. In the genital area–a maturing man. The skull has grown considerably larger. The forehead is low and slanting.” (59)

So the outcome of the implant is humanization instead of rejuvenation. The creature’s words are no longer dissociated from surrounding facts, but are a direct reaction to them. Finding a niche of his talents, he makes a career as the director of a purge sub-section under the Moscow Communal Property Administration–chasing after stray animals, mostly cats. While chasing after one at the professor’s house, he wreaks a havoc in the form of a flood after breaking a water pipe.

Interpreted as a satire on the Soviet utopian attempt to radically improve human nature by creating a New Soviet man, or an improved human species, Heart of a Dog bears analogies to Dr. Faustus, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, but with an edge about a wry comment on scientist going too far. The historical prototype is a Russian-French surgeon, Serge Voronoff, who was known for his experiments on implanting humans with animal testicles and thyroid glands. Bulgakov satirizes the inconsistencies (and absurdities) of the system in which a man with a dog’s intelligence could become significant and influential. On the same note he praises the man who with his strong personalities and conviction could remain unaffected in the midst of insanity.

Melaka Pictures + Reading Update

The second installment of pictures from Malaysia is now available. They are snapshots of beautiful and serene Melaka, once an important port along the strait but now is striving in silence. It was thrice colonized, by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Brits. You may see the highlights from this slide-show:

[rockyou id=100106135&w=426&h=320]

A bit of a reading update. I have cleared the vacation pile except for one book, Contempt by Alberto Moravia, which I’ll get into eventually. The Russian Reading Challenge is moving along fairly well with two books down: Le Bal and The Kreutzer. Many of you have read and plan to read The Master and Margarita, which I have mentioned in yesterday’s post on Booking Through Thursday. The class for which I serve as a GSI (graduate student instructor) this term will also read Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, which will be my next Russian novel. Acquired from abroad is a novel translated from Thai called The Judgment, by Chart Korbjitti. It revolves around a young man who, less than a month after his father died, has taken his stepmother as his wife. Rumor has it that the two of them have cuckolded the old man before he even laid in the coffin.

I’ve been keeping a list of books that some of you mention. A partial list has been drawn from ideas of the last BTT post on bloggers’ favorite books that are unheard of. Someone mentions Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, a favorite author of mine. Another blogger shares about A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. A while back Gentle Reader recommended Black Swan Green: A Novel by David Mitchell to me, an author I have never read. The same title surfaced again in Danielle’s post yesterday. On the same list of hers is Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran, which sounds very comforting for the rainy, cold weather that we’ve been having lately. A recently-found literary blog of great staying power has led me to authors and titles that I’m not familiar with. Two books he has pointed out are Black Dirt by Nell Leyshon and Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones. This last book especially intrigues me with the hero’s opening lines:

“I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.”

So there you have it, my line-up of books for the rest of this month and February. Happy reading and happy Friday.

Booking Through Thursday | Huh?

It’s Booking Through Thursday time.

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is used to be a secret until I start raving about how this is one of my all-time top 10 novels. Several bloggers have graciously taken up my recommendation. They are either reading it for the ongoing Russian Reading Challenge or satisfying their whim for a good historical fiction. Whichever the cause may be, I’m happy that more bloggers and readers have found Bulgakov.

Set in the 1930s, the novel’s vision of Soviet life is so painfully accurate that, for fear of political purging, it could not be published during Bulgakov’s lifetime. The truths portrayed in The Master and Margarita are inveterate in society that key phrases from the book has become common Russian speech. Two closely interwoven narratives (although not very obvious at the beginning), one concerning Moscow and the other Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ times, make up this cinematic novel, which audaciously deviates from the classic themes (family, war, judgment of mankind, exile, politics) and respects no unities of geography or time. This reading, along with thoughts evoked from the past readings, dawn in me Bulgakov’s intentions and beliefs behind writing this novel that is so rich in themes and implications. The wotk itself in unique in a sense that it doesn’t belong to a particular genre–this uncertainty of its genre, along with the mystery, ambiguity, irony and humor–render readers clueless of what to expect from the book, which makes the reading all the more intriguing.

The runner-up choice is Maurice by E.M. Forster. I pick this book because the author is fairly known and famous but the book itself is almost unheard of. Very few, perhaps none of the contemporary gay fiction paints a more authentic, true-to-life picture of how a coming-of-age gay man is torn between his sexuality and the need to assimilate to social and cultural constructions of the “normal” than E. M. Forster’s Maurice does. Perhaps the fact that it was written before our time, prior to any of the gay activism and social awareness, renders it feasible to afford such brilliant verisimilitude. Forster does not offer any explanation nor attempts any effort to justify his protagonist’s queerness. The result is an honest, often heart-breaking and at times poignant map of emotions, inner-working of a tortured mind.

[117] The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy

Russian Reading Challenge #2.


“The vilest thing of all about it is that in theory love’s supposed to be something ideal and noble, whereas in practice it’s just a sordid matter that degrades us to the level of pigs, something that is vile and embarrassing to remember and talk about. After all, nature didn’t make it vile and embarrassing for no reason….And yet it’s quite the contrary: people behave as though what was vile and embarrassing were something beautiful and noble.” (56)

What is love? Does it sanctify marriage? The Bible says love is patient, love is kind, and love does not envy. In the voice of Pozdnyshev, a husband bemired in jealousy and rancor, Tolstoy also draws from his own experiences, which appalls his wife, to create a scathing indictment of marriage. Having lived a life of debauchery, which he defines as freeing oneself from any moral regard for the woman one enters into physical relations with, Pozdnyshev is fully aware of what horrible evil sex instinct is. He would go as far to be rid of sex instinct in order to live in monogamy. He blames this unrestrained outburst of desire on women, who ensnare the attention of men; because at the first place women are not treated as men’s equal:

“The ways things are at present, the woman is deprived of the rights possessed by the man. And, in order to compensate for this, she acts on the man’s sensuality, forces him into subjection by means of sensuality, so that he’s only formally the one who chooses–in actual fact it’s she who does the choosing. And once she has mastered this technique, she abuses it and acquires a terrible power over men.” (40)

This might ring a truth, but it’s not completely true. In reflecting his prenuptial, debauched existence, Pozdnyshev makes an unfair, flawed generalization that woman cannot keep to the wedding vow and remain faithful to her husband. He acknowledges that woman is no more than object of pleasure . So jealousy dictates his capricious bouts of emotional meltdown and sweet reconciliation, until he is consumed with rage, indignation, and a kind of morbid, drunk enjoyment of his own hurt pride.

For years he and his wife have been in love until she stops bearing children. No sooner has she escaped from pregnancy and breast-feeding than he realize the female coquetry that has lain dormant within her make a quick reappearance. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician (actually he is convinced that even if she hasn’t been unfaithful to him, she wants to), he is driven to even more dangerous lengths by his overpowering suspicion and delusion.

However feverish and absurd this self-lacerating confession is, a whole layer of truth exists beneath the violent tantrum. Pozdnyshev’s story is this grim reality propagated at large. Do love and monogamy co-exist? In marriage, and in relationship? The preference for one person above all others–in terms of intimacy–does it still exist in real life, or just in novels? If it does exist, how long will this preference last? The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence.

[116] Le Bal – Irène Némirovsky

Russian Reading Challenge #1


UK publishers are ahead of the game in releasing new translations of Irène Némirovsky’s other works after the thumping success of Suite Francaise. Browsing through Kinokuniya in Kuala Lumpur, I was excited to have found David Golder and La Bal, neither of which are available in the United States at the time of travel. This slim volume binds together two tales of 50 pages each that explore the same themes.

Le Bal is set in 1930s Paris. Némirovsky presents the Kampf family. Alfred Kampf, a German Jewish immigrant, struggles to be accepted for years until he makes a fortune on the stock market. Once wealthy, he marries Rosine, who becomes Madame Kampf, is a snob who enjoys denigrating other women for their dubious moral background. She is acrimonious, sullen, and pretentious. The opening sentences of this story, which is packed with actions and rich details, aptly summarizes the troubling dynamics of the relationship between Madame Kampf and her 14-years-old daughter Antoinette:

“Madame Kampf walked into the study and slammed the door behind her with such force that a gust of air made the crystal beads on the chandelier jingle with the pure, light sound of small bells. But Antoinette didn’t stop reading; she was bent so far forward over her desk that her hair brushed the pages of her book. For a moment, Madame Kampf watched her daughter without saying anything; then she went to stand in front of her, arms crossed over her chest.” (3)

How can one resist such intriguing opening? One senses a complex, standoffish, and hostile relationship, a product of years of living in fear of her parents. They frightened her with the roar of angry voice that resonates her head over the years. Hounded from morning to night, trapped in monotonous routine, she was subjected to humiliation and torture. Madame Kampf was obsessed with being accepted into the upper classes, material possessions, and status. The plan to give a ball was intended to confirm their acceptance into the Parisian high society, but her relationship with her daughter would intervene to give the tale a scathing twist. In an impulsive fury of adolescent rage and despair, Antoinette pulled a tantrum that would ruin her mother, for whom she felt contempt and scorn.

Snow in Autumn is set in revolutionary Moscow. It chronicles the life of a devoted servant following her masters as they flee Revolutionary Russia and emigrate to a life of hardship in Paris. For 51 years, Tartiana Ivanovrna cared for the children over three generations in the Karine family. As she watched the youngest son called up to war, she was resolved to stay and watch over the family property. Upon news of the family from Paris, she smuggled back the jewelry that was left under her guard to her master in order to cash in money. As the crisis pushed the Karine to brink of dissolution, the grown-up children found no use of the senile woman and chased her away. But Tartiana’s heart has been with the family house in Soukharevo, where she nourished and raised all the children against vicissitudes. As the Karines, having lost everything to warfare, desperate attempted to start a new life in a foreign country, the faithful nanny resorted to the beloved memories and waited in vain for her cherished first snows of autumn.

Duly bound together in one volume, the two classic tales present an insightful analysis of two recurring themes in Némirovsky’s works: the nuances in interaction between family members and how foreigners were treated with suspect in 1930s Parisian society. Némirovsky treats these emotions and feelings that associate to parting and loss with a touching sensitiveness.


I’m proud to announce completion of two reading challenges. Contingent circumstances interfere with both proposed lists and books that I have found during the trip have revised the reading plan.

Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge:

    6. Far Eastern Tales, W. Somerset Maugham (South Asia)

    Outmoded Author Challenge:

      5. Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton


    I’m ready to begin the Russian Reading Challenge on New Year’s Day, with Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, and Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. I was browsing PageOne, a local bookstore chain with compendious selection of fiction in English language. Also in the Penguin Great Loves series, which I have bought, is Chekov’s A Russian Affair. As I have promised, I’ll work on the tentative reading list for Reading Dangerously Challenge, so stay tuned!

      The Travel Pile

      The finalized vacation pile, consists of only trade paperbacks to ease my load.

      1. The Gentleman in the Parlour, W. Somerset Maugham [Armchair Traveler Challenge #5]
      2. Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles
      3. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov [Russian Reading Challenge #1]
      4. Mrs. Craddock, W. Somerset Maugham [Outmoded Author Challenge #5]
      5. Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue
      6. The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick
      7. Why I Write, George Orwell
      8. The Echo Maker, Richard Powers
      9. Contempt, Alberto Moravia
      10. The Eustace Diamonds, Anthony Trollope
      I’m only halfway through the book so I’ll take it with me–a “classics” airport novel.

      I also have to get one of the books under my Armchair Traveler Challenge list on the left to wrap up the challenge.

      1. Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei
      2. Fodor’s Bangkok Best 25

      Sticky Post | Vacation Reading List Winter 2007

      Those of you who have followed this blog for over a year know that my annual trip to visit my family in Asia is right around the corner (Nov 28). As early as two months ago, I have been thinking about what books I’ll bring with me over the pond. Although books are not the most traveler-friendly items to bring in terms of the weight, I have learned the lesson of never taking the overseas bookstores for granted. Maybe my reading taste is a bit eclectic, I haven’t had any luck with finding what I wanted.

      Like Dark Orpheus has shared, I am not a hundred percent sure what might end up in my backpack until moments before I head out to the airport. But I have a good idea of the reading materials and they are most likely drawn from this pool:

      1. The Gentleman in the Parlour, W. Somerset Maugham

      A travelogue of Maugham’s 1923 trip through Burma, Siam, and Indochina (the peninsula that nowadays consist of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia). How can I leave this one at home when I’m traveling to the same region Maugham did? This will be my last Armchair Traveler Challenge book.

      2. Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles

      This will be the third selection of my Books on War list. The book follows the story of Pete Hallam as he returns to the school and becomes a history teacher as well as a coach. It is a story of the aftermath of World War II and the loss of innocence of young men. I have a feeling I’ll finish this one in one sitting on the plane.

      3. Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

      It features a professor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky (his name is derived from the Russian word for “transfiguration”) who implants human testicles and pituitary gland into a stray dog named Sharik. Sharik then proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, picks himself the name Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, makes himself a career with the “Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc.)”, and turns the life in the professor’s house into a nightmare until the professor reverses the procedure. Kickoff title for the Russian Reading Challenge.

      4. Mrs. Craddock, W. Somerset Maugham

      Another Maugham of course. This is a penetrating study of an unequal marriage, between Edward Craddock and his wife. He lacks his wife’s education, but he is good-humored, handsome and popular with everyone. Not only does it satisfy my whim for Maugham, this will be another Outmoded Author Challenge.

      5. Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

      6. The Journal of Dora Damage, Belinda Starling.

      This book about the bookbinder in 18th century London intrigues me. How can a book lover miss a book on this subject?

        Last but not the least, the navigator Lonely Planet: Malaysia, Singapore, & Brunei. I need to figure exactly where my accommodation is, a boutique guesthouse in Bukit Bintang of Kuala Lumpur. In addition to these designated titles, I might pick up a few books when I go bookstore hopping.