Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Review - "Giovanni's Room" by James Baldwin

This was a deeply poignant read, where the poignancy creeps up on you and drags you under water and makes you lose your breath. That is the power of Baldwin’s writing.

Part One is made up of the ending scene of the story and a series of flashbacks of the narrator David’s recent and more distant past. That ending scene involves the impending dark fate of his lover Giovanni and it gives a distinct fatalistic and remorseful air. In the recent-past flashback, it is mechanically revealed that David has a plan to marry his girlfriend Hella, who is away in Spain thinking over their relationship. This is followed by flashbacks to his motherless childhood, his relationship with his conventional father, and a sexual fling with a boy in his school days.

Part Two tells of how he meets in a Parisian bar a handsome and poverty-stricken Italian migrant Giovanni who works there, with whom he falls in love but tries to resist with all his might. Two shady characters, Jacques and Guillaume (Giovanni’s boss), also appear on the scene. During the stint spent in Giovanni’s dingy rented room, David learns of his wretched experiences with Guillaume, but feels a need to keep aloof. Giovanni finds out about Hella and taunts David about his relationship with her. Giovanni then gets blamed for a theft and sacked from the bar. Encroaching helplessness, guilt and fear compel David to decide to give up the relationship. I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Savior had met in me. Out of desperate need, Giovanni goes to Guillaume and implores him to give back his job. Then something vile happens.

Overall, what deeply moved me was the character Giovanni. There is a sweet, naked sincerity and fragility in him under his forced self-possession that is so irresistible. He looked at me and I saw in his face again something which I have fleetingly seen there during these hours: under his beauty and his bravado, terror, and a terrible desire to please; dreadfully, dreadfully moving. He will remain one of my favorite literary heroes!

This is a riveting description of Giovanni’s room:

But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.

I’m giving this heart-breaking novel 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review - "Pavilion of Women" by Pearl S. Buck

This novel deeply moved me, not only because Pearl Buck illustrates in it her sweeping knowledge and sympathetic views of the Chinese society in early- to mid-20th century, but also because of the humanistic attitudes and nuanced philosophies that color and enliven her characters.

This particular époque in China is one of East-West cultural clashes coming to the surface as the younger generations begin to seriously contemplate a clean break from the yoke of old Chinese traditions and customs and embrace freedom of the mind and soul. This nascent way of thinking is particularly manifest in man-woman relationships and in the values and belief system. Christian missionaries play an important part in brewing social changes, but even among these, there are the dogmatic and the more liberal streams of preaching.

The protagonist Madam Wu is first portrayed as the beautiful, all-wise, fastidious and capable mistress of the wealthy Wu household (which brings to mind the character Xue Baochai in Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin). With diplomacy, tact and intelligence, she manages her large household of sixty with success and accolades from within and without the family. Yet in the depths of her soul, she is a lonely creature yearning to be freed from her duties. She feels no one understands her and views herself superior to all those who surround her, including her sons and daughters-in-law, whose marriages she feels compelled to arrange for their own good. She even arranges for her husband to take a concubine, hoping to gain her own freedom. Eventually she comes to discover that none of her family members is happy.

Then a renegade foreign missionary enters her life and lights up her soul. Using a liberal approach to religion, he wins her admiration where another dogmatic Catholic nun fails, shining a whole new light on the meaning of love and freedom. She begins to understand that to love is to not judge others harshly and that self-fulfillment is the key to setting one’s soul free, and that this applies to all man-woman relationships. Shortly thereafter, something vile happens to him, which devastates her, and she realizes that she is in love with this foreigner, and that the single most important thing that she always lacked is the capacity to love. With that epiphany, she sets out to follow the foreigner’s selfless example and to remedy her past mistakes.

I’m giving this novel 4.5 stars, rounded up.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Sunday Panel and Workshop at the LiterASIAN Festival

I so appreciate the support (and kind words) of Todd Wong, President of the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop, and of Allan Cho, Festival Director of the 2018 LiterASIAN Festival, who invited me to participate. They both are passionate and dedicated promoters of Asian Canadian writers. I admire their energy!

This is my book reading at my Sunday Workshop:

At the Sunday, September 23, 2018 Panel (in which I took part), there was book reading by panelists and sharing of our selection of favorite Asian Canadian authors and their works.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Memorable 2018 LiterASIAN Festival!

I had a wonderful time on the Opening Night of the 2018 LiterASIAN Festival. The highlight was meeting in person the lovely Madeleine Thien, prize-winning author of "Do Not Say We Have Nothing", which I loved and would highly recommend, and chatting with her for a bit. I also found out from Winnipeg author Michael Kaan (author of the new novel "The Water Beetles") that his father used to live in Happy Valley, Hong Kong! His novel is based on his father's memoirs about the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. And I got him to sign my copy, which I bought from the Festival Bookshop.

  At the Sunday Panel, which was near full-house, I enjoyed the stimulating discussion with fellow panelists about our favorite Asian Canadian authors and their works. Later that day, my Workshop ran fairly well with lots of thought-provoking questions from the audience about my novel "The Green Phoenix" and about the craft of writing historical fiction. I was thrilled to find my Goodreads friend Rowena Monde in the audience! It was so wonderful to finally meet her in person! One interesting episode was that one of the attendees happened to be a lady of Manchu ethnicity who adores Empress Xiaozhuang, and she kept asking if there's a Chinese version of "The Green Phoenix"! But she bought a copy of the book any way from the Festival Bookshop! So sweet of her!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Thrilled to Meet Madeleine Thien on Opening Night!

On Opening Night of the LiterASIAN Festival, I was thrilled to get a chance to chat with Madeleine Thien, the 2016 Giller Prize winner for her seminal book Do Not Say We Have Nothing! Then this afternoon, at the end of the Panel that I took part in, I had another chance to talk to her! She is such an understated, modest, sincere and warm person. It was my honor and privilege to have met her in person.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Tonight is the Opening Night!

Monday, September 17, 2018