Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review: "The Belly of Paris" by Emile Zola




I’m not going to lie: I was on the verge of giving up when I reached Chapter Three. The revolting description of the putrid smells of the Central Markets (present-day Les Halles), while evincing Zola’s extraordinary keen observation of details and his skills with words, was a major turn-off. I think I will avoid eating cheese for a long time to come.

Notwithstanding, I did slog along to reach Chapter Five, whence the action started to pick up steam, and by the time I finished the novel, tears filled my eyes. In the final analysis, I have to admit that I still liked Zola’s use of symbolism that is heavily laced with satire, especially in his tongue-in-cheek depiction of the hypocrisy of the haves (“the fat”) towards the have-nots (“the thin”) (like Beautiful Lisa’s initial superficial warmth towards Scraggy Florent, which then turns to bitter alienation when her self interest is threatened), of the envious tendencies of the wannabe haves (like the jealous malice of the gossipy and greedy Mademoiselle Saget, Madame Lecoeur, La Sarriet and Madame Mehudin), and of the invincible driving force of materialism in a bourgeois society in general (like the markets being symbolized as the “glutted, digesting beast of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently upholding the Empire”) .

It seems to me that somewhere beneath all the stomach-turning descriptive lexicon, Zola wants to express just one thought in this novel, which is what the painter Claude says in exclamation at the very end: “What blackguards respectable people are!

In a less serious note, the novel does offer some interesting tidbits about Paris in the early days of the Second Empire. One of these was a practice where bijoutiers peddled leftover food scraps from the large restaurants, the royal households and state ministries to the underprivileged class for a few sous per portion. Another was that the fattening of pigeons was done by specially trained laborers called gaveurs, whose job was to force-feed the pigeons. 


Saturday, April 4, 2015

Confessions of a Bookaholic - Interview with Alice Poon


U.K. Book Blogging site Confessions of a Bookaholic has featured the interview with me on their Sunday Spotlight (April 5, 2015). Here's the link to the interview:-

Sunday Spotlight: Alice Poon, Author of Fated and Fateless

In the interview, I shared my personal thoughts on the underlying themes of the novel, on writing, on my reading interests and on my current writing project. Also shared is a tidbit of Chinese historical information about the Forbidden City.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Melissa Rose's Review of "Fated and Fateless" and Her Interview with the Author


Melissa Rose's book review blog "Around the World in Books" has just posted a review of my novel "Fated and Fateless". Melissa is a member of Book Blogs. Here's the link to the 3-star review:-

Review of "Fated and Fateless"

Melissa has also been kind enough to interview me about my book. Here's the link to the interview questions and answers:-

Melissa's Interview with Alice


Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review - "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong


I read the Chinese edition (original) of the novel "Wolf Totem" in 2008 and posted a review of it on Asia Sentinel's website. Recently, a Goodreads friend mentioned that she's enjoying the novel very much. That got me to re-post my review on the Goodreads site. I thought I might as well re-post it here too.



[Before dwelling on the good points, let me just quickly point out the one thing that I find hardest to accept, and that is the author’s tendency to explain away the weak disposition of the Chinese ethnic race with a simplistic rationale that it is due to the traditional sedentary agricultural lifestyle since the ancient times, and then to attribute all glory and success in certain historic periods to the venturesome nomadic characteristics of China’s hunter-gatherer tribes who came to be the rulers during those periods. Based on this premise, he came to the conclusion that in order for China to become once again a power to be reckoned with, Chinese people ought to discard their submissive character and assume a more aggressive, or wolf-like, outlook on life and the world at large.

There may well be a million factors and nuances that can help explain Chinese racial characteristics, and the traditional farming lifestyle may be only one of them. But this is a subject that is outside the scope of this review. (Bo Yang’s “The Ugly Chinaman” may be a good way to start exploring the subject.)

Despite that, the author penned in one scene a poignant and sad analogical description of typical weakness of Chinese character, which is valid and sobering. It is the scene where a herd of sheep was being attacked methodically by a pack of wolves, and where those sheep that luckily escaped just stood and watched as others were being slaughtered.

“This scene reminded him of what Lu Xun wrote in an essay: some Chinese imbeciles stretched their necks and eagerly watched the Japanese soldiers behead Chinese prisoners – it is exactly the same scene now. No wonder the nomadic tribes regard the Hans as sheep. The wolves are devilish to devour the sheep. But it is those selfish, callous and craven sheep-like people who are even more loathsome and more disheartening.”

As for the strong suits of the book, there are plenty. Not least is the honest warning about the urgent need to protect the environment. Reckless farming of natural grasslands in Inner Mongolia has had the devastating effect of letting the soil dry up and turn into sand, resulting in frequent severe sandstorms that have been plaguing cities like Beijing for years. This ‘farmers’ invasion’, along with their deliberate purging of the grassland wolves, entirely skewed the natural cycle that had gone on peacefully for centuries – a stinging reminder to the whole world that humans have been destroying the natural environment with their own hands.

Jiang Rong has nothing but praises for the natural cycle that had maintained the ecological balance in the Mongolian grasslands, with the wolves playing a key part in the cycle. Nobody knows the importance of letting nature take its course better than the nomadic people. They roam with their herds of sheep and cattle because there’s a need for grasses in the grazed areas to grow again, so that they can rotate among the patches of grasslands. The wolves who feed on gazelles, mountain beavers, rabbits and field rats are doing the nomads a great favor because these animals are unwelcome grazers. But if the wolves grow to such a number that these can no longer fill their stomachs, they would threaten to feed on the domestic herds and even horses. So the nomads in turn would, when occasion calls for it, hunt down wolves just to keep their numbers in check, but never to eliminate them completely, because they are the natural grassland protectors. Unfortunately, this ecological balance is destroyed when the farmers begin to ‘invade’ the grasslands….

The down-to-earth and unpretentious writing style throughout the book has captured my heart (it is the original Chinese edition that I read), and I was especially moved by the part about the protagonist Chen Zhen raising the wolf cub and how he tried to bond with it. The story is so compelling, vivid, and rich in emotional details, that it’s hard not to believe that it is a true life experience. The cub’s inevitable destiny, which it brought on itself in fighting for its freedom, seems to be an iron proof that wolves are a species that cannot be domesticated by men. In praising the free-spirited and audacious cub, is the author not also trying to say that freedom is worth fighting for, even if it means giving up one’s own life?

Doris Lessing once said that a novel is an outpost of journalism which reveals information about areas of life that readers don’t’ know and that successful novels are those that report the existence of an area of society or a type of person that is not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. In this sense “Wolf Totem” certainly is a successful novel, as through it we come to know about a place, a people and a lifestyle that many of us would not ordinarily be able to come into contact with.

The author’s plain but flowing story-telling technique tends to keep the reader in suspense and unable to stop turning the page as he/she gets sucked into the world of the Mongolian wolves and grasslands. Gripping episodes include the wolf pack’s strategic cornering of a group of gazelles into a half-frozen lake; the wolves’ brazen and vicious attack on a pack of horses; the villagers’ vengeful hunting and killing of wolves after the latter’s predatory massacre of the villagers’ horses; the farmers’ hunting of swans on the swan lake and the student’s futile attempt to save two big swan eggs from the greedy farmers.

All in all, “Wolf Totem” is more of an entertaining novel than a scientific study of wolves and much is based on the author’s life experience in Inner Mongolia during his youthful days. There are nonetheless strong messages that the author wanted to put across, the most important being: a call for immediate action to save the environment before it’s too late and an advocacy for following the wolves’ example of freedom loving and dauntless character.] 


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf




This was my first Woolf novel, having recently read her non-fiction title “A Room of One’s Own”, which is an extended essay in fictional narrative form and which gave me a taste of her writing style.

Still, I have to admit that in the first tenth of the novel I had a slight problem adjusting to her “stream of consciousness” style, often having to turn back the pages to get a grip on who’s saying what. Once I got adapted to it, I found that I became sort of addicted to being transported into the hearts and minds of the characters, who are just members of an ordinary family and their friends, each trying to cope with changes in his/her life.

The outstanding skill of Woolf is her way of using affecting imageries throughout the novel, at times to paint an atmospheric background (particularly in Part 2), and at other times to inject thoughts and emotions into her characters. The end result is a picture-perfect story that is created out of a non-dramatic, even mundane narrative concerning the everyday life of the Ramsay family and their friends.

After putting down the book, I found that the words are no longer there, but the imageries have stuck.

  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

An Update

Recently I've joined another social media network: LinkedIn. This seems a good place to get in touch with writers' groups and keep abreast of news in the publishing industry.

So, right now these are the social media platforms that I have a presence on:

(1) Twitter (account name: @alicepoon1)

(2) Google+ (Personalized URL)

(3) Youtube (Personalized URL)

(4) Goodreads

(5) LinkedIn

My reading has slowed down in the last couple of months as in late December 2014 I embarked on my writing project, which is a historical novel about the life and times of an influential figure in the early Qing Dynasty. During my research, I discovered that her influence spanned the reigns of three Qing Emperors and felt that historians and literary writers have not done her justice at all. My novel attempts to explore, from a humanistic angle, her emotional and intellectual world and her relationships with those closest to her. I've finished about one-third of the planned length of 100,000 words.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: "Bel Ami" by Guy de Maupassant




This was my first Maupassant novel and it impressed me as a brilliantly told story about how a journalist-turned-parvenu of low-born parentage attained status, wealth and power by sleazy means in Third Republic France.

In a witty and crisp style, the story flows smoothly along as the protagonist jumps from one woman’s embrace to the next, gathering each time more worldly benefits like career advancement, social recognition, wealth and status. His only weapon of conquest is his youth and his handsome face, hence his nickname “Bel Ami”, apart from a heart of steel. Maupassant sketches with virtuosity each of his cold, calculated social-climbing ventures with smirking irony, barely hiding his own scornful snide at the Parisian society’s bourgeois-capitalist immorality and journalistic farce.

After reading the first few chapters, I thought the protagonist seemed to bear resemblance to Eugene de Rastignac in Balzac’s “Le Pere Goriot” and Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black”. When I reached the end though, I had to conclude that Georges Duroy is the true heartless, predatory and hypocritical villain of the three.

This novel, being a 19th century work of realist fiction, deals with themes that are just as contemporary as they are historical. It makes one mull over the connection between today’s unbridled capitalism and societies’ lack of scruples.