Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review - "The Kite Runner"

I have mixed feelings about “The Kite Runner”. There is no question that Khaled Hosseini is a talented and charming storyteller. He knows how to titillate readers’ sensibilities. Indeed, that the movie adaptation was as much a success as the novel bears evidence to that. Somehow the story reminds me of the hugely popular film “Slumdog Millionaire”. Maybe because both stories are great tear-jerkers.

“The Kite Runner” does touch my sensibilities. I am deeply saddened by what happens to Hassan. I can empathize with Amir for his burden of guilt. I am moved by the description of Hassan’s unquestioning loyalty towards Amir and of the father-son relationship between Amir and Baba. I am shocked at the human conditions in war-torn Afghanistan and I am appalled about the plight of Afghan children. But I can’t help feeling there’s still something amiss in the novel. Perhaps a precious chance to embed a deeper meaning to the novel was lost.

In my humble opinion, a great novel should have one or several strong moral messages besides being a fantastic read. In other words, there should be more than just the surface layer of a story which serves the superficial function of entertaining, touching, thrilling, shocking or in whatever other ways of catering to the stimulation of the reader’s senses. In “The Kite Runner”, one important theme would seem to be that of social dilemmas arising from class distinction – between the privileged class of the Pashtuns and the downtrodden servant class of the Hazaras. I’m just a little disappointed that the author didn’t leverage on this theme to deliver a universal ethical message – that of the necessity of eliminating class discrimination in all societies, that all humans should be treated as equals. If the message is already there, it may be a little too subtle for detection.

In the main storyline, where Hassan’s unreciprocated loyalty and affection towards Amir is implied as the chief cause for Amir’s guilty conscience, there is no mention that Amir is in any way angry about the social norm that pits his class against Hassan’s class. Inasmuch as Amir has genuine feelings of remorse for mistreating the pal he grew up with, it’s not the same as showing disgust for the unjust social norm of class distinction and discrimination. (The best Amir can do in this respect is to tell his father-in-law never to refer to Sohrab, Hassan’s son, as ‘that Hazara’, in his presence.) One would wonder whether the adult Amir would fight for equality in his society if there was no war and if he and Baba didn’t have to flee to America, or whether he would just wallow in his snug privileged position all his life.

And then there is so much hypocrisy in Baba, the one who is portrayed as the brave, self-righteous, loving and generous father. He would rather endure not acknowledging Hassan as his lawful son and take the secret to his grave than having his “good” name ruined because of the shame he felt for sleeping with his servant’s wife, a Hazara. For all the charitable deeds that Baba does and for his kind treatment of Ali, he is still someone who condones class distinction. What he could have done for Ali and Hassan is to help them stand on their own feet rather than keeping them as servants and taking care of them. Again, one is not sure whether Amir thinks that Baba is in the wrong here, as playing patron to someone is quite different from respecting him as an equal.

Having said all that, I do admit that I may be overly critical, because in times of great turmoil, who would give a damn to social equality when there are the wounded, the hungry, the homeless and the destitute to worry about? But then shouldn’t every opportunity be grasped to spread the important message to and educate societies about a basic value?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Painted Veil" by Somerset Maugham

I saw the 2006 movie “The Painted Veil” on TV some years ago and somehow couldn’t quite forget Edward Norton playing the always tense and melancholic Walter Fane, who actually has a sensitive and loving heart beneath what appears to be a cold and distant outer shell.

Recently in an online chat with other readers at Goodreads, I was asked to name my favorite movie which was adapted from a novel and I answered “The Painted Veil” just because I loved the movie very much as I remembered it. But I had never read the novel before. So I decided to read the novel. When I finished reading it, I felt the novel impresses me even more than the movie.

The novel moves me on several levels.

The most elementary, or shallow, layer, is in the theme of unrequited love. As hackneyed such a theme as it is, here within the storyline there still lurks something that disturbs the heart profoundly. Walter, being perfect as he is as a human being (although not in Kitty’s eyes, which makes it ironical), doesn’t mind giving without expecting return in his one-sided love relationship with Kitty. Well aware of Kitty’s shallowness of character, frivolity and fatuousness, he is willing to love and dote on her with all his heart. His love for Kitty is unconditional, until he finds out her infidelity, which shatters him with no hope for salvation. But because his fantasy of love is so pure and his devotion so unrestrained, he is, whether conscious of it or not, apt to meet with utter disappointment in the end. Sand castles are built to be erased. When he decides to go to cholera-stricken Mei-tan-fu in China, dragging Kitty along, he is determined to inflict on himself (and Kitty too, initially) the ultimate punishment.

As Kitty thought aloud in the novel, “Because he had dressed a doll in gorgeous robes and set her in a sanctuary to worship her, and then discovered that the doll was filled with sawdust, he could neither forgive himself nor her. His soul was lacerated. It was all make-believe that he had lived on, and when the truth shattered it, he thought reality itself was shattered. It was true enough, he would not forgive her because he could not forgive himself.”

What Walter stirs in me is not so much pity for him as sympathy with his helpless reliance on mirages of love for survival. It is his deadly weakness, to be sure. But isn’t there a part of us that tends to believe what we want to believe? The pathos of the story lies in Walter’s inability to free himself of his over-indulgence in fantasyland.

The second layer of the story is the gradual conversion process of Kitty Fane from the worthless, self-indulgent and frivolous woman to the independent-thinking and compassionate individual who is at last free from the values she was brought up to believe in. Indeed, Kitty is justified to blame her mother Mrs. Garstin for her tortuous learning curve in life. It was Mrs. Garstin who nudged her into marrying Walter just for the sake of material comfort and nothing else. In Mrs. Garstin’s mind, a woman would be foolish not to use her beauty as a bargaining chip in exchange for a qualified provider of means. This brings to mind Ruth, the supercilious mother of Rose, in the movie “Titanic”, who insists that Rose should marry into high society. In both cases, the mothers are too callous to even have a clue what disastrous consequences might result from their forcing their daughters into unhappy and loveless marriages.

In “The Painted Veil”, Kitty is lucky to come upon soul-cleansing encounters in Mei-tan-fu where she stares death in the face every day and witnesses the selfless kind acts of the French nuns, which at the same time moves her and shames her to the core about the worthless life she leads. Fortunate for her, her chance for salvation comes knocking on the door and her life is changed forever. Her only regret is the tragic loss of Walter to the pestilence.

The third layer, which is tied to the second, is the championing of the idea that women should strive to be free and independent individuals and learn not to rely on men, which idea, given the timeframe of the novel, is a bold concept. It is Kitty’s own painful life experiences that lead her to that awakening. She has come a long way indeed, after first being betrayed by the selfish and narcissistic Charlie Townsend, who she erroneously trusts to be the love of her life, then suffering the silent alienation by her husband Walter while adjusting to an isolated life in inhospitable Mei-tan-fu, then discovering that she’s with child, then losing Walter tragically to cholera and, lastly, subjecting herself once more to degradation at the seduction of Townsend.

In the last Chapter, Kitty said to her father: “Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”

We all make mistakes in our lives, sometimes serious ones. Everyone deserves a second chance. Kitty is no exception.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Latest Youtube Upload "Let It Be Me"

During the process of rediscovering my favorite English oldies (again thanks to the Radio HK Radio 5 music program that I mentioned in an earlier post for jogging my memory), I've found through more research on Youtube that a number of popular English oldies actually came from French originals. They include: "Autumn Leaves" ("Les Feuilles Mortes"), "I Will Follow Him" ("Chariot"), "My Way" ("Comme d'habitude"), "If You Go Away" ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"), "Yesterday When I Was Young" ("Hier Encore"), "All Over the World" ("Dans Le Monde Entier").

I've just uploaded to Youtube another popular song that also came from a French original: "Let It Be Me" ("Je t'appartiens"). Here's the video for sharing:-

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A 5-Star Review on Amazon for "Fated and Fateless"

Here's the 5-star customer review on Amazon's site:-

"Alice has brought her first book to a lively fiction. It is an amazing transition from "the Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong"; incorporating some of the wealth imbalance and social economic ills to this intense compelling novel.
The book is beautifully written, so rich in details . . I felt I was in the middle of the story. . I could feel the emotion, see the streets of Hong Kong, taste the food, and smell the air. I found it hard to put the book down, it kept me reading long into the night.
The book told the stories of many characters from distinct diverse background, cultures and different generation. . It is a tale of desire, jealously, passion, and endurance . . It is indisputably captivating, filled with suspense and unpredictable twists and turns."

Link to the customer review.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

For the author of “Wolf Totem”, Jiang Rong, to be awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize and for the fact that the book is a huge bestseller in China, there is no doubt that the book has some very laudable qualities.

But 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.)

In proving his point, the author penned in one scene a poignant and sad analogical description of typical weakness of Chinese character, which is both 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.

Lastly, 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.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong 1941

I’ve just finished reading Oliver Lindsay’s “The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong 1941”.

The book was published in 1978 and was the result of thorough research into wartime official documents as well as interviews with survivors then living in Britain, Canada and Hong Kong. The author himself was with the 2nd battalion of the Winnipeg Grenadiers (from Manitoba, Canada) during the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941.

If reading “Not the Slightest Chance: The Defence of Hong Kong 1941” (please refer to my book review posted on 25th February, 2014) makes one feel as though watching a documentary with grotesque images popping up now and then, then flipping through “The Lasting Honour: The Fall of Hong Kong 1941” is just like sitting through a heart-rending war movie that culminates in evoking anger, despair and repulse about inhumanity and ends in drawing tears and reverence for the honorable, be they dead or alive.

That Hong Kong was doomed from the very beginning can be summed up in this passage:-

“The complete lack of air support, and inadequate sea power, made the defeat of Hong Kong a foregone conclusion. The defenders, too few in numbers and too thinly spread, have no knowledge where the weight of the attack is to be anticipated. So it can only be expected that the assault, with the advantage of surprise, pressed forward in great strength at a few points, will succeed in breaking through. This is what the Japanese achieved, and then they pushed forward to gain possession of the commanding heights which dominate the Island, and from that moment the campaign was lost.”

Even as early as April 1938, the War Office in London reconfirmed that the Hong Kong Garrison should defend Hong Kong, with no reinforcement, for as long as possible. The Chiefs of Staff in London thought of Hong Kong ‘more as a strategic liability than an asset’.

Then when it was finally decided to ask Canada for reinforcement, only two battalions with little fighting experience or training were sent to Hong Kong. Upon arrival on 16th November 1941, just three weeks before the Japanese invasion (which began in the early hours of 8th December), they had to hit the ground running, being totally unfamiliar with the battle territory, exhausted from the long sea voyage, and later weakened by malaria.

Was any help from the Chinese ever to be forthcoming? The answer seems to lie in this passage:-

“However China had her own problems. She was divided not only by the Japanese, but also by the political struggle between the Nationalists and Communists, which continued in a desultory manner. In 1937, both had joined in a ‘United Front’ to fight the Japanese. Ostensibly integrated with the Nationalist Army, the Communists concentrated on winning over the people, and setting up base areas from which to mount guerilla operations. The Communists were to be accused of conserving their strength and avoiding decisive engagements while consolidating political power, and the Nationalists were later to be criticized for corruption and inefficiency.”

It was bad enough that the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek’s empty promises of help raised false hopes for those desperate folks in Hong Kong. But more devastating were the subversive sabotage activities by Communists who had infiltrated into the Colony (referred to as “fifth columnists” in the book), who looted, murdered and in every way added to the already harrowing ordeal that the Hong Kong population were subjected to.

Barbarism is an understatement when it comes to the unspeakable wicked acts by the Japanese during the war. The late Dr. Li Shu-fan (late founder of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital) had estimated the number of rapes committed during the battle of Hong Kong to be over 10,000. Cold-blooded murders of allied soldiers (in some cases even when a white flag was raised) by the Japanese were especially appalling at the Shaukiwan Silesian Mission Medical Post (where captured prisoners were bayoneted to death from the back) and at the St. Stephen’s College Hospital in Stanley (where many wounded soldiers lying in bed were bayoneted to death, where two soldiers were brutally mutilated and murdered and where several nurses were raped and murdered and still others raped). Civilian deaths during the battle were estimated at over 4,000 (Banham: Not the Slightest Chance).

For the Hong Kong folks, the 18-day battle was only the beginning, horrible though it was, of a protracted period (lasting three years and eight months) of great trepidation, starvation, homelessness and utter destitution under the merciless rule of the Japanese. By May 1945, one million Hong Kong Chinese had left the Colony for the Mainland, leaving only 650,000 behind.

This particular part of Hong Kong’s history is probably unknown or unfamiliar to many of Hong Kong’s young and not-so-young generations. To them, and others who might have an interest in the subject, I would highly recommend Banham’s and Lindsay’s books.