Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review - "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

This short book (which was compiled from a series of lectures delivered by Virginia Woolf to Newnham College and Girton College at Cambridge University in October 1928)  resonates with me personally because I am an aspiring writer in my retirement! For exactly the reason elaborated by Woolf in the book - financial security being a prerequisite to the dream of authorship – I shelved my writing plan as common sense told me long ago that it was best to keep that dream dormant until I could secure a room of my own!

I like the way Woolf tried to engage her audience by painting a vivid picture in their mind through the narrator, using her beautiful poetic prose to depict the historical backdrop of her subject matter "women and fiction" in the first half of the book. I thought this fiction-like narrative was a clever way to establish emotional rapport between the speaker and the audience.

Her key message is in fact quite simple and can be found in these two sentences: "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom."

Woolf's secondary point which is just as important as the key one, and with which I also have complete agreement, is that woman writers should not write consciously as a woman. She quoted Coleridge's saying that a great mind is androgynous. This is what she said:

"It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Book Review - "Jenny" by Sigrid Undset

This book was recommended to me by some Goodreads friends and I've given it 4 out of 5 stars. Sigrid Undset was a Norwegian novelist who won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature and was best known for her trilogy "Kristin Lavransdatter" which is set in Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.

Here's my review of "Jenny":-

This is a heartbreaking story set in the distant past about a young Norwegian woman artist who is torn between her desire for self-development and her longing for true love. However, the values and principles behind the actions of the protagonist could well reflect the moral dilemma of many decent women of today with an educated mind. Is love or work more important?

Born to an unwholesome family where fatherly love is lacking, Jenny has always had to fend for herself while growing up. Her greatest attributes – independence, sense of responsibility, moral fortitude, diligence, compassion for the weak – could be her invincible armor against any adversity in life.

Just as she is set to go out and conquer the world, armed with artistic talent and an optimistic outlook on life, she trips up by making one small mistake – letting herself grow weak and be pampered by a short moment of tender love that she’s been long thirsting for – and loses all control over her own fate.

During her fateful love affair and in the aftermath, her independence, sense of responsibility and moral principles drown her in an emotional ebb of guilt, remorse and shame and abandon her to carrying all blame on her shoulders. Her disinclination to hurt others sends her into a downward spiral, from which she never recovers. Her greatest attributes become her greatest curse. Her life is ironically ruined by her longing for true love.

Jenny said this to Gunnar, which sums up her life: “One day, I made a slight change in course. It seemed to me so difficult and harsh, living the life I thought was the most worthy – it was lonely, you know. So I veered away for a moment, wanting to be young and to play a little. And then I was caught in an undertow that carried me off, and I ended up in circumstances that I never for an instant imagined it would be possible for me to be anywhere near.

The novel makes one wonder: can the female soul ever overcome the longing for true love? Are women in truth just like what Gunnar describes: “so strong and erect in her striving, and yet so frail and brittle.”?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review - "Therese Raquin" by Emile Zola

This is a bleak and gruesome psychological tale that highlights the dark side of human nature and it's definitely not for the faint-hearted.

I'm giving it 3 stars because I personally do not like the lengthy, repulsive description of human evilness. That being said, the story is no doubt a gripping page-turner.

In the "Preface" of the book, Emile Zola summed up nicely what he intended to explore with this novel:

"In a word, I had only one aim, which was: given a powerful man and an unsatisfied woman, to seek within them the animal, and even to see in them only the animal, to plunge them together into a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and their actions. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses."

As much as I don't like the macabre and cruel tone that permeates the novel, Zola does impress me that he was indeed trying, as he claimed, to present a study of the temperaments of Laurent and Therese and how the environment and situations they find themselves in impact on their respective psyches. It must have been an ambitious attempt on his part to write such kind of psychological novel in his times.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: "Stone in a Landslide" by Maria Barbal

A powerful, heart-rending story told in Conxa's humble and impassive voice. Conxa is a simple Catalan peasant woman who accepts her crosses with grace, humility and stoicism.

The story is set in Catalonia, Spain in the early 1900s. There is no drama in her life. There is only simple everyday living in a farming community, sometimes pleasant, but at most times trying, until one day a fatal blow from above snatches her husband away. Even after the ordeal of being oppressed by those wielding power, Conxa knows she has no alternative but to go on living for her family's sake, and she does, with unfazed calmness. Life just goes on without drama.

Yet it is exactly the lack of drama and the tantalizing calmness that takes your breath away.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: "Pereira Declares: A Testimony" by Antonio Tabucchi

This has been a totally enthralling read!

The narrative is simple and the tone of the narrator is calm, if a little tongue-in-cheek. But the story grabs you from the first page right through the end. This is not a thriller though. It is just the story of a certain period in an ordinary middle-aged widower’s life, set in authoritarian Portugal in the 30s (circa the Spanish Civil War period). It so happens that during that period he meets two idealistic anarchist youngsters, and his life and his worldview are turned upside down.

What makes the novel so compelling is that it is a stinging reminder of the egregiousness of a police state and government censorship and oppression. It sends a loud message that we, whatever our nationality, must all be vigilant, lest history repeats itself. After all, what civilized human would want to be in Pereira’s shoes, living like a zombie and blighting an instinctive sense of right and wrong?

It is not that long ago that Portugal finally came out of the devilish shadows of a corporatist authoritarian regime, which lasted for 48 years and ended with the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Who knows, had there been a greater number of "converted Pereiras", perhaps the Salazar police state would have ended much quicker.

I would highly recommend this book to all who truly love Hong Kong!