Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review - "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

Our lives are made up of years, of days, of hours. What happens around us on one particular day can make us take a blind, or even desperate, leap forward, or it can force us to look at life with patient gratitude. Each one of us would make different choices, according to our own personal system of values and beliefs, our sense of reasoning, our temperament and most importantly, our state of mind at the final hours of that particular day.

With lyrical prose, the author knits and weaves the events of one particular day in the lives of three women living in separate spaces and times. One of them is Virginia Woolf, who is recovering from her mental illness in a London suburb in 1923, while the other two are fictional variants of the leading character of her novel Mrs. Dalloway, one a modern-day bisexual (Clarissa Vaughan) living in New York in the late 90s and the other a bored suburban housewife (Laura Brown) living in post-WWII Los Angeles. The decision each of them makes at the end of their particular day has repercussions in their individual life.

I found this passage deeply touching:

“There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.” 

Friday, June 26, 2015

"Fated and Fateless" Five-Day Free Promotion!

One of the Goodreads Groups (Books, Blogs, Authors & More Group) of which I'm a member is going through the polls to select a book in the Historical Fiction genre for their July Group Read, and "Fated and Fateless" is one of the contestants. If the book gets selected, I'm committed to providing free Kindle copies for all the voters who would then discuss and review the book on the Group's appropriate discussion thread. Regardless of what the poll result is, I've arranged for Amazon to put the Kindle e-book through a FIVE DAY FREE PROMOTION DEAL, STARTING JUNE 30, 2015 AND ENDING JULY 4, 2015.

For those readers of this Blog who are interested in reading the book, be sure to get a free copy at Amazon during the said 5-day period! I would of course be thrilled if you would leave a review on the Amazon site.

By the way, the Chinese historical epic that I've been working on is only a few thousand words from the finishing line! This is about the life of the first Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty who made an indelible mark on Chinese history (her positive influence impacted on the reigns of three Qing emperors including Kangxi Emperor), but who is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. This epic novel is based on extensive research of both reference and literary works in Chinese and in English. Her dramatic life is fit for the movie screen!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book Review - "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

Many years ago I saw and loved the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck, but I never got to reading the book until a couple of weeks ago. Peck's impeccable portrayal of Atticus Finch has always stuck in my head. As I was reading the book, many scenes of that film kept coming back, but I already forgot how the story ends.

The story still moves me deeply, as the themes of human compassion, parenting, friendship, racial prejudices and class discrimination are evocatively explored. The voice of the narrator as a nine-year-old girl makes the story all the more endearing.

These quotes of Atticus's impress me most:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

"They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions. But before I can live with other folks, I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience."

Perhaps this passage is the most striking in the whole book for its piercing poignancy:

"Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed."

However, what really gets to me is the ending, which was disquieting enough to make me take away one star. Heck Tate's (the sheriff's) decision to falsify Bob Ewell's cause of death in order to protect Boo (Arthur) Radley from being charged is obviously based on a flawed reasoning. But Atticus's ultimate acquiescence to it seems to overturn the very principles of honesty that he has been fighting so hard to uphold, both as a lawyer and as a parent. To me, this is a disappointing ending to an otherwise brilliant novel.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book Review - The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Overall, this novel was a poignant and breezy read. I guess with biographical historical novels, one would usually feel that the author, in trying to fill in the blanks of a factual account with creative bits, would tend to assume a sympathetic stance in regards to the protagonist (otherwise why write the story at all). Whether that sympathy is so strong that it lends a revisionist tone or whether it is balanced by reserve is a matter of the author's judgment call.

The main storyline is riveting as it unfolds the menage a trois situation in Hemingway's first marriage with Hadley Richardson, with Pauline Pfiffer being the mistress. The writing style is silky smooth. The author's sympathy for Hadley Richardson is quite obvious throughout and her writing easily evokes readers' compassion for her heroine, but she doesn't let it saturate her story. She clearly also tries to be understanding towards Hemingway. Perhaps, by being reserved on the seducer role of Pfiffer's, she has managed to let Richardson gain even more commiseration.

Apart from the main story, the background stories about the fast lives that celebrity writers led in Paris and other parts of Europe certainly make for entertaining read.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review - "Pride and Prejudice"

This was my first Austen novel. I saw the 2005 movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley and my impression was that it was an artificially sweet romantic story bordering on the make-believe kind. Reading the novel has confirmed that first impression, and I've been wondering if I might have enjoyed the story more had I read it in my younger days.

For me, one redeeming element of the novel is Austen's attribution to Mr. Bennet of an acute sense of humor, other than her witty depiction of Mr. Collins' obsequious falsehood and Lady Catherine de Bourgh's self-important snobbishness. Overall, I find the novel in want of any meaningful themes, and the love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy seems to be no more convincing than a well-constructed fairy tale.

Friday, May 22, 2015

An Excellent NYROB Article on "Chin P'ing Mei" ("The Plum in the Golden Vase")

I've recently come across this NYROB article by Perry Link about the great classical Chinese novel Chin P'ing Mei (or The Plum in the Golden Vase"), which is such an interesting read that I had to share it (thanks to EastSouthNorthWest for the link). The writer also made some insightful comments about the difficulties in translation, as well as about the uniqueness of Chinese literature due to the written characters. These paragraphs relate to the latter:-

Let me put it the other way around. Novels were not the primary language art in imperial China. Measured by volume, "xi", translatable as “drama” or “opera,” would be in first place, and measured by beauty, calligraphy or poetry would be. Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen. Emily Dickinson might have come to be known as the greatest poet in world history if she had written in classical Chinese. Should Westerners feel defensive that this was not the case? Far better just to inherit what we all have done, and leave it there.

Here's the link to the full article.