Thursday, June 23, 2011

A New Direction

After a long absence during which I have been spending my time here, I decided that I am not ready to let this blog die just yet. Whatsmore, I want to come back and direct it to a new course of life.

No matter I strongly deny it, no matter how eagerly I avoid it, I realize that reading and writing is an inescapable part of who I am. And the desire of wanting to accomplish something, anything, with books has never left the negligent heart of mine. And I don't even know why I shied away from it in the first place. Maybe it is a preemptive strike -- if I don't do anything about it, I will not be subject to disappointment.

Tentatively, I want to devote this blog to my reading and writing experience. I will continue to write book reviews, and I will do writing exercises here as well.

I am not promising that this blog will live, but I am trying my best to save it from dying an uninspiring death.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

So Caught Up

After a long hiatus, I am back and ready to work on my neglected book blog before it puts itself up for an adoption. Even though I am putting off blogging, that doesn't mean that I've stopped reading. For the past few months, I have managed to (re)read Charles Dicken's Great Expectations, Diane Setterfield's Thirteenth Tale, several (and might I add, amazingly well-written) books (in Chinese translation) by an up and coming young Japanese writer called Nanae Aoyama, as well as a few other not-so-impressive books that are not worth mentioning.

At this moment, I am on a Jane Austen high. I have had so much Jane Austen that I don't want to go to work I just want to take long walks by the shruberries in the morning and dress up to go to a ball where I can meet handsome young gentlemen in the evening! Oh, the good ol' days! Having finished three of her books Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, I am now on my way to untangle the messy love affairs at Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

Right now, I am somewhere at Mansfield Park. There is a ball tomorrow night, and it will be the first one that Fanny Price has ever been to. Who would her sweet little heart finally go out to? Her kind cousin Edmund Betram? Or playboy Henry Crawford?

No, don't tell me.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pride and Prejudice - A Life of Fairytales

More about Pride and PrejudiceJane Austen
First published in 1813
Trade paperback edition published by Barnes & Noble     
Books in 2004
392 pages

Jane Austen’s love story would not be nearly delicious had it not served us a plate of tasty appetizers that consists of ill-formed first impressions, prejudice and misunderstanding, all of which have caused our heroine, strong-minded Elizabeth Bennet, take a disliking of our hero, prideful and principled Mr. Darcy, right from the start. Not to mention that the ladies’ gossip did not help either.
Elizabeth is as lovable as any Austen’s heroines, and just like the other heroines, Elizabeth is not without flaws. She is very perceptive but sometimes has too much confidence in her ability to read people. When she overhears Darcy criticize her look as “only tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt (him)”, she easily becomes irritated and quickly decides Darcy’s character at face value, without prudently finding out his real strength. When comforting Elizabeth, we find her mild-tempered sister Jane says:
            “We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured. We must not expect a lively young man to be always so guarded and circumspect. It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Women fancy admiration means more than it does”.
            But Elizabeth is too romantic and too stubborn to be sensible, thus began a story of emotional growth.  For Elizabeth and Darcy, pride and prejudice are not flaws but character traits that require minor adjustments, and before long the couple comes to recognize each other’s merits and live happily ever after. Now you may wonder, why are pride and prejudice are not condemned as unacceptable qualities in the Austen’s day? That is because the gentry society considers pride not as arrogance but as a manner worthy of one’s rank in social status. They also see prejudice as a quality of discrimination that is helpful in preserving the order and stability of aristocratic class. New ideas and progressive thinking, which could cause disarray of the upper-class, are quickly fended off by this sense of prejudice.
            The union of Elizabeth and Darcy could not have been more what the readers ask for. Not only is that Elizabeth and Darcy admire each other dearly, but Darcy is also an incredibly wealthy man! In an age when friendship, economic motive and family ties and religious duty are all more acceptable incentive for marriage than romance, Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship is as perfect as a fairytale!
            It is interesting that Jane Austen, the woman who wrote about many happy-endings, remained single her whole life. It is said that she once accepted a proposal from a wealthy man, only to turn it down the next day, reason being that she felt that she didn’t love the man enough to marry him. This action is just as shocking as when Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s marriage proposal. The motives behind these two refusals are very much alike, since neither Jane Austen nor Elizabeth Bennet sees marriage as a mercenary pursuit. It seems like that Austen has written herself into the story. I often wonder whether she used this story, as well as many others, to compensate the loneliness in her non-existent romantic life, but I would very much like to wrong than to accuse Jane Austen to be a lonesome and fragile spinster. Austen chose her to live her life the way she preferred, with a strong sense of self and faith for romance, two virtues as timeless as fairytales, certainly still need to be preached to young women in modern days. In a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, Austen wrote:
                        “Do not be in a hurry; depend upon it, the right Man will come at last….”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sense and Sensibility - A Matter of Head and Heart

More about Sense and Sensibility

 Jane Austen
First Published in 1811
Published by Penguin Classics in 1995
409 pages

Meet the Dashwood sisters. Elinor, the eldest of all three daughters, is considerate, reserved and very sensible, while Marianne, the second daughter of the Dashwoods, carries a set of characteristics completely opposite of those of her older sister. She is wildly romantic, outspoken and emotional. In the pursuit of love, neither sister was successful at finding happiness by solely relying on their natural instinct, be it Elinor’s sensible reasoning or Marianne’s uninhibited passion. Marianne falls head-over-heels in love with deceitful Willoughby who, in the end, confesses that he’s never had the intention of returning her affection. At the same time, Elinor finds out that the man that she has become attached to, Edward Ferrars, was already engaged to someone else.
Early on in the story, Jane Austen established the parallel progression of both sisters’ love lives. The obvious contrast between Marianne’s and Elinor’s different ways of dealing with the pain caused by every turn of event allows readers to identify and compare the mental capacity and behaviors produced by each disposition – sense and sensibility. Austen has chosen Elinor as the person who delivers most of the important scenes in the story. It is not hard to detect that Austen favors the cool-headed and thoughtful Elinor over the romantic Marianne who is still too young and stubborn to compromise her emotions outburst for the consideration for others and circumstances. The main contrast between Elinor and Marianne codes of conduct lies in Marianne’s romantic insistence that desires be spoken, whereas Elinor requires that they be silenced. When Marianne learns that Elinor has silently suffered just as much as she has, if not more, she is ashamed by comparison with the virtues of her sister Elinor. But is this to say that sense is a superior form of disposition than sensibility?
If we define Elinor and Marianne’s temperament with our modern-day psychology jargons, Elinor would certainly be labeled as someone with a high EQ, whereas Marrianne a not so high one. The ability of reserving one’s emotions and thoughts and directing them to an appropriate outlet at an appropriate time is a derivate action of delayed gratification which is the most important sign for high EQ. Elinor possesses exactly this ability. It is unfortunate that women in Jane Austen’s time could only bestow this power in tasks that are no more impressive than the task of searching for a good husband. However, when Elinor puts her high emotional quotient to use in the matter of love, she fails miserably. Her cautiousness and emphasis on form have delayed her from getting to the truth that would have made her suffer much less by lessening her attachment to Edward Ferrars.
While reading texts from the beginning part of the book where the sisters are excitedly speculating of the verity of affection from their prospective lovers, I was fondly reminded of the scenes from movie “He is just not that into you”.  Throughout time, women have waited by either their door or their phone for their lovers to call. It is undeniable that women have disposed to be emotional, and they have been in the passive and submissive position during courtship for as long as time. What Jane Austen is trying to tell us with Sense and Sensibility is that neither being highly sensible and logical nor being crazily romantic and emotional guarantees the success of love. Sometimes, women have to love with their heart, just as much as with their head.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

More about THE SECRET GARDENTitle: The Secret Garden
Author: Frances Hogdson Burnett
Genre: Children
Publisher: Geddes & Grosset 2004
Length: 222 pages

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.

10-year-old Mary loses her parents to epidemic cholera. She is sent away to her uncle who lives at Misselthwaite Manor in England. Mary's life begins to change after she discovers a secret garden next to her uncle's house. While she tries her best to revive the dead garden, she realizes that there is so much more to life than just feeling lonely and getting everything her way. Like the roses and lilies that sprout to life in the secret garden, Mary becomes healthier and happier. However, Mary is soon to realize that she is not the only person whose life has changed because of the secret garden.

"The Secret Garden" is essentially about the power of positive thinking, a classic children book where something valuable is to be learned. The young characters are all very lovable. The beauty of their innocence is hard to find in many children/YA books nowadays. Although the story is enjoyable, I can imagine that this book could be too wordy for young children who lack of long attention span. Parents could instead read this book to the kids before bedtime. 

Now why did I read this book? Well, I read it because I wanted to see if this book would be suitable for translation and brought to China's children book market which lacks of quality books. I have to admit that this is the first time in a long time since I've read a children book. I am glad that I picked "The Secret Garden" to jump start my memories because this book is awfully sweet and refreshing. I decide not to translate this book in the end due to various reasons, but I do not regret reading it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Illusion - Edmond Cheng


About a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a local Hong Kong writer named Edmond Cheng who asked me if I'd like to review his new novella "Illusion". I was quite excited at the opportunity of reviewing and supporting a local writer's work, so I happily agreed.

"Illusion" is a story of riveting mystery. The protagonist - a happily married young man named Thomas - has a bizarre encounter with his best friend's mother Aunt Wai Ha who informs Thomas that her daughter-in-law, Helen, is having an affair and urges Thomas to warn her son Jonathan.  Thomas doesn't think much of this incident until when he finds out from his wife Karen that Aunt Wai Ha has been dead for months. From this point on, Thomas' life is forever changed. He is haunted by an unknown spirit that repetitively infuses unusual images into Thomas' mind. After a failed attempt to warn his Johnathan about Helen's evil deception, Thomas receives a strange phone call which leads him to Johnathan's dead body. At the same time, his wife has gone missing. In order to get his wife back, Thomas has to summit all courage and goes head on with the two people behind this tragedy: Helen and her lover Brian. After several thrilling chase scenes, Helen and Brian are finally caught by the police. However, Johnathan's journey does not stop here. Another truth of the mystery is revealed to him, and he realize he is the master of his own illusion.

This is Mr. Cheng's first attempt at writing a mystery novel, the effort is worth applauding for as mystery is one of the most difficult genres in literature. The story is a good one, although there are a few imperfections. While the ending the story is suspenseful and surprising, it has taken quite a sudden U-turn and left me a bit bewildered. I feel that somehow it lacks a close connection to the previous development of the plot. As a reader, part of the fun of reading a mystery novel is the constant guessing of what the ending will be, and the success of a great mystery often lies in the writer's ability to end the story at a place that is just inches away from most reader's guess but still within the sensible realm. As for "Illusion", I'd say that the ending has just stepped out of sensible realm, thus the shock has become too far-fetched to have a substantial effect.

I assume that English is not Mr. Cheng's first language, since the writing comes off a bit stiff and even awkward in a few places. I strongly recommend Mr. Cheng engage in intensive reading in English literature so that he can bring color and emotion in his narration.

This novella is included in the book "Unearthed" which is published by Midnight Showcase. Mr. Cheng is an English teacher in Hong Kong. He is currently working on a new sci-fi mystery named "Prison". I wish Mr. Cheng the best of luck on his writing career!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Pursuit of Reading

How do you decide what book to read next? How often do you refer to Amazon's best seller list to make your decision? Do you pick the book that everyone else is reading, or do you choose instead a book that satisfies your own intellectual need?

These are the questions that should be addressed after reading New York Times article titled "The Book Club With Just One Member". In the article, author Motoko Rich pointed out that, in the era of Facebook, Goodreads, Shelfari or book clubs, people's attitudes toward reading have changed drastically. Long ago, Virginia Woolf once said, "The pursuit of reading is carried on by private people." Nowadays, however, there is no longer any privacy left in reading. The act of reading has turned into a "relentless social pursuit". When people read a good book, their natural and immediate instinct is to share it on Facebook, Twitter, blogs (guilty as charged myself) or whatnot.

Long before the age of internet, the relationship between books and readers are much more intimate. Books were private possessions. The bookshelf reflected the reader's taste, intellectual altitude and even personality. Back then people decided on what books to read without much social noise. They spent more time indulging in books that piqued their interest and quietly savored the great moments in reading.

The act of private reading can be soul-enriching albeit a bit lonely. In our fast-paced society, loneliness is something we frown upon. Loneliness is not tolerated. But, think about all these book clubs where people get together once every two weeks to sip champagne and discuss the latest Oprah selection. How many people do you think are really there for a heated discussion on how well crafted chapter 15 is? How many people are there because they are hoping to reach out to someone else who could share their thoughts? Better yet, how many people do you think are reading a book that they don't care at all just so that they can use it as an ice-breaker at a social setting in order to meet people? Maybe we are all lonelier (and shallower) than we'd like to admit. Nonetheless, it is a fact that book reading has become a great tool of communication and connection among people (and the lonely souls). As much as it is digressing from what reading is really about, it is benefiting the society a great deal.

What I like to see is that each one of us indulges in a bit of private reading. Forget about the best sellers. Forget about Oprah. Forget about what you are told to read. Go to the bookstore and pick a book that is entirely "you". Get absorbed into the book! Soak up all of its wonder and glory. Preserve the experience for reflection. Put the book at the end of your bookshelf, and never utter a word to a soul. And that is the book that you will not forget for a long time. Mark my word.