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A Guy's Moleskine Notebook

Thoughts and reflections on works of fiction and literature. Pondering of life through pictures and words. Babbling about gay rights. Travelogues and anecdotes.

  • [1] Annie Proulx: Brokeback Mountain
  • [2] Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha
  • [3] Yu Hua: To Live
  • [4] Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty
  • [5] Colm Toibin: The Master
  • [6] Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind
  • [7] William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • [8] Charles Higham: The Civilization of Angkor
  • [9] Graham Greene: A Burnt-Out Case
  • [10] Dai Sijie: Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch
  • [11] Alan Hollinghurst: The Swimming-Pool Library
  • [12] Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
  • [13] Colm Toibin: The Blackwater Lightship
  • [14] Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star
  • [15] Ross King: Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
  • [16] Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov
  • [17] Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
  • [18] Colm Toibin: The Story of the Night
  • [19] John Banville: Shroud
  • [20] Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection
  • [21] Peter Hessler: River Town, Two Years on the Yangtze
  • [22] Ian McEwan: The Atonement
  • [24] Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
  • [25] Ignacio Padilla: Shadow without a Name
  • [26] Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose
  • [27] Richard Russo: Straight Man
  • [28] Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground
  • [29] Alan Hollinghurst: The Spell
  • [30] Hermann Broch: The Death of Virgil
  • [31] James Baldwin: Giovanni's Room
  • [32] Ken Kesey: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • [33] Xingjian Gao: One Man's Bible
  • [34] C. Jay Cox: Latter Days
  • [35] Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
  • [36] William Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew
  • [37] Daniel A. Helminiak: What The Bible Really Says about Homosexuality
  • [38] James Baldwin: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone
  • [39] Kenji Yoshino: Covering - The Hidden Assault of Civil Rights
  • [40] Italo Calvino: If, On a Winter's Night A Traveler
  • [41] Arthur Phillips: The Egyptologist
  • [42] George Orwell: 1984
  • [43] Michael Warner: The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and Ethics of Queer Life
  • [44] Andrew Sullivan: Virtually Normal
  • [45] Henry James: The Wings of the Dove
  • [46] Jose Saramago: Blindness
  • [47] Umberto Eco: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
  • [48] Dan Brown: Da Vinci Code
  • [49] Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go
  • [50] Ken Follett: The Pillars of Earth
  • [51] Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace
  • [52] Michael Thomas Ford: Alec Baldwin Doesn't Like Me
  • [53] Jonathan Franzen: How To Be Alone
  • [54] Jonathan Lethem: The Fortress of Solitude
  • [55] Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club
  • [56] Zadie Smith: White Teeth
  • [57] Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Double
  • [58] Jose Saramago: The Double
  • [59] Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance
  • [60] Heinrich von Kleist: The Marquise of O & Other Stories
  • [61] Andrew Holleran: In September, the Light Changes
  • [62] Tom Perrotta: Little Children
  • February 28, 2006


    Part of Me That Lives in the Past

    My friend Tony and I were talking about how our mentality, values, and subtle things like music preference were inexorably ingrained in us during childhood. It's almost like learning a language most effectively in an enforced language environment. We were so used to the choices that were automatically made for us when we were kids. Born and raised in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to the embrace of the great motherland in 1997, I moved to California for almost 18 years and Tony, an ABC (American Born Chinese), is amazed that I still adhere to my Cantopop (Cantonese pop from Hong Kong) music. I told him a part of me still lives in the past and longs for that fragment of the past that shaped my values. Music embodies the power to take me back to an identifiable fragment of the past. For example, I develop a sense of nostalgia of my mother ironing my school uniform every time I hear All I Have to Do is Dream. She had the habit to listen to the radio during house chores. So I unconsciously cling on to certain music, tunes, and writing in order to preserve the part of my life that only lives in memories, which will be bleached colorless as time goes by. I remember the summer when We Are the World came out and immediately became a smashed bit that bombarded everyone's radio. Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now brought out the repressed libido of young lovers who felt not as qualmed kissing in the public.

    Current music scenes other than Van Morrison and other easy listening artists don't have such a tight grip on me. Most of the tunes are like one-hit wonders that don't even register in me because they lack that mindful association to my life experience. All the fantastical places of my childhood and the high times would be suddenly brought before me in the most extraordinary reality as soon as I click on the CD player or my iPod. Back to the Cantopop music that Tony thought I should have long ago dropped, it was a niche that rooted in me from the age at which the very first cornerstone of one's personality is laid and cemented. Sandy Lam is a Chinese artist whose music I had listened to since she made her debut in 1985. Yeah the nostalgic golden 80s! Sandy recently had a concert in Hong Kong that commemorates her 20th anniversary of her career. Anyway the point I try to make is to long something from the best part of one's heart simply becomes a part of me. It's a beautiful thing to spend years in pursuit of her CDs, her music, and rare editions. Her tunes always cater to my thoughts and my emotions, whether I'm sad, love-sick, melancholy, joyful or lost. I might walk around the streets of Hong Kong being mistaken for an American boy in my Gap cap but I listen to Cantopop!

    February 27, 2006


    [24] Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    51 years, 9 months, 4 days - which was how long Florentino had waited.

    Fifty-one years ago, Fermina Daza felt madly in love with Florentino Ariza. The affair was made possible only through her aunt's complicity. But under her father's tight regime and thus his intransigence of her love affair, Fermina eventually broke all ties with Florentino and married Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a wealthy, eminent doctor who merited in fighting cholera along the Caribbean coast by implementing stringent measures. What followed Fermina's denial of his love was an austerely beautiful story of unrequited love that had still not ended half a century later. They were two people, ambushed by death, who no longer had anything in common except the distant memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished with no vestige.

    Heartrending but not forlorn, it was during this long period of time (almost all his life) that Florentino changed his entire being. He whiled the years away by engaging in 622 affairs and maintained some link with his lovers but reserved his heart for the irreplaceable Fermina. The idea of substituting one love for another carried him along surprising paths that permitted him to find solace in other hearts for his pain.

    Florentino, whose only point of reference in his own life was the love affair with Fermina, made a fierce decision to win fame and fortune in order to deserve Fermina. In his demented passion, he did not even consider the obstacle of her being married to the doctor but regarded it an ineluctable event that he resolved to wait without impatience or petulance, even till the end of time. When meeting the doctor, he could not bear the pangs of grief at the thought that the admirable man would have to die in order for him to be happy. Florentino understood both he and the doctor were poignantly subjected to the ineluctable fate of loving the same woman.

    As the bell tolling resonated citywide for Doctor Juvenal Urbino, who died of a broken spine when he fell from the branch of a mango tree catching a parrot, death had interceded on his behalf after half a century of longing and imbued him the courage to repeat his vow of everlasting love to Fermina. So he planned to attend the funeral...

    Love in the Time of Cholera is a tapestry of the complicated human emotions: love, repression, nostalgia, sex, concupiscence, and pride. It is a tale of morbidly repressed love, of passion, of obsession, and of indomitable longing and fulfillment. Garcia Marquez, with an incredulously detached voice and matter-of-fact manner, slowly unfolds the story with succulent details and lyrical exuberance. Piercing fluidity and precision of words accentuate the beauty of prose. Peripheral characters are no less etched and are vividly limned to the essence of their thoughts and emotions. The book is riddled with an air of melancholy and repression that is held redeemable by an undying hope.

    February 26, 2006


    Revelation of a Personality Test

    Okay, I'm always skeptical about anything astrological or supernatural like birth signs, zodiac, or horoscopes. People will read my daily horoscope and I'll just sustain a politeness with a pretended smile. My friends have been egging me on to take this Global Personality Test that has gained some popularity around the web with test-takers posting their results. So being usually skeptical but even more curious about this test, I gingerly click on the link and complete a survey with 126 questions. Some of these questions measure personality traits differently than what I might have guessed. In other words, trying to give the "right answer" or tackling the questions in a way that I deem ideal might utterly screw up the results. The key, like approaching a relationship, is honesty because honest reflection on how the test-takers think, feel, and act in general is conducive to accuracy. Here are my results:

    Advanced Global Personality Test Results
    Extroversion |||||||||||| 46%
    Stability |||||||||||||| 56%
    Orderliness |||||||||||||||||||| 83%
    Accommodation |||||||||||||||| 63%
    Interdependence |||||||||||||||| 70%
    Intellectual |||||||||||| 50%
    Mystical || 10%
    Artistic |||||||||||||| 56%
    Religious |||||||||||| 50%
    Hedonism || 10%
    Materialism |||||||||||||||| 63%
    Narcissism |||||||||||||||| 63%
    Adventurousness |||||| 23%
    Work ethic |||||||||||||||| 70%
    Self absorbed |||||||||||||||| 70%
    Conflict seeking |||||| 30%
    Need to dominate |||||| 30%
    Romantic |||||||||||||||||||| 83%
    Avoidant |||||||||||| 43%
    Anti-authority |||||||||||||||| 63%
    Wealth |||||||||||| 50%
    Dependency |||||| 30%
    Change averse |||||||||||| 43%
    Cautiousness |||||||||||||||| 70%
    Individuality |||||||||||||||||| 76%
    Sexuality |||||||||||| 50%
    Peter pan complex |||| 16%
    Physical security |||||||||||||||||| 76%
    Physical Fitness |||||||||||||| 57%
    Histrionic |||||||||| 36%
    Paranoia |||||||||||| 50%
    Vanity |||||||||||| 50%
    Hypersensitivity |||||||||||||||||||| 83%
    Female cliche |||||| 30%
    Take Free Advanced Global Personality Test
    personality tests by

    The three areas which I score the highest are orderliness, romantic, and hypersensitivity. No sooner have I dismissed the result as another drivel than I realize that the test may speak a spiel of truth. I am details oriented, discipline, and am uncomfortable with perfection. I approach work as scheduled and planned, meet obligations on time. No wonder I get a 83 in orderliness. Neat freak! All the indicators from the romantic area hit home - I'm an incorrigible romantic. I'm not sure what a romantic idealist is like, but when in a relationship my attention is entirely focused on that person because I would merge and feel oneness with that person. The fallback is that I'm easily hurt. There is a saying that "Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow back and soften and purify the heart." That's me. In hypersensitivity, I don't get distraught easily but I tend to be emotional. Also I'm less of an introvert than I think I am! Bibliophile is under the intellectual category which I achieved only a mediocre 50 so I guess this is where the test collapses right?

    February 25, 2006


    [23] In the Mood for Love directed by Wong Kar Wai

    In the Mood for Love is such a charm despite a very simple plot. The year was 1962. Chow Mo Wan, a newspaper editor, recently moved into a dwelling populated by Shanghai immigrants with his wife. Through casual and accidental encounters Chow exchanged pleasantry with So Lai Jun (Mrs. Chan) who later found out about her husband's affair with Chow's wife. Heartbroken and devastated of the cruel truth, Chow buried himself in his job while So indulged in nightly movie screening. They began to let down the guard for one another and spent time during the mahjong sessions of their landlords. The characters forced themselves to abide by inveterate conventions and cultural morale that forbid an affair to become fruition.

    Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung as usual deliver an impeccable performance in this 2001 Wong Kar-Wai release. Leung portraited a man who is unsatisfied about his marriage and denied his spouse's infidelity. Cheung seizes the empathy of her character who is accustomed to hush about reason for his husband's frequent absence. Maggie Cheung is elegant and charming in this movie. Not to mention the dazzling wardrobe she wears consistently over the entire movie. Her leg movements are captured in slow motion. Her arms dangling with the thermos meant for the late-night porridge order-to-go from the street vendor.

    The movie is shot through a minimalist scope, that is, message is conveyed through very succinct scripts and imagery full of lush colors and meticulously chosen soundtracks. The film is shot in a very stealthy manner; it is as if a pin camera being fastened on the wall of the apartment. Conversations between Leung and Cheung are shot in an eavesdropping manner. The director seeks to de-emphasize other characters in order to focus on Leung and Cheung. Their spouse, respectively, always have their back facing the camera. Their performances are conducted by voices. The gaffer has done an excellent job adjusting the hues of light which is relatively dim throughout.

    As a native of Hong Kong (born in mid-70s) who never witnessed the city in glory 60s, In the Move for Love has done me a favor in reminiscence. Wong Kar Wai makes sure everything is done just like when it was the 60s. Yes, even the restaurant menu to which Leung and Cheung skimmed through briefly. It was a green piece of cardboard decorated with some coconut tree clip art. Menu with such heavy Malaysian touch can still be found at local cafés that serve a fusion menu of Malaysian spices and sirloin steaks. Napkins are folded diamond-shaped like paper planes and kept at the far end of the booth. Leung and Cheung sip coffee from flimsy green chinaware cups that hold maybe three gulps. The green vinyl blinds hang unevenly at the office windows. The rotary phone. The subleased rooms where newly-wed couples rent and the kitchen with whom they share with their landlords. The white-collared wardrobe worn by housemaids. These are all the epitomes of lives in the 60s, in Hong Kong. Some find this mmovie a little slow-paced. I savor the manner in which the film is made. I savor all the details, the choice of colors and the tiptoeing scores in the film.

    February 24, 2006


    Borders Rewards Program

    I have been a subscriber to Borders e-mail newsletter for a few years. The weekly bulletin briefs the current events at Borders and promotional items. The real motive to sign up, of course, is the priggish anticipation of the store coupons that slashes up to 30% off on any one book. Changing business climate and the shifting in consumers shopping habit might have forced Borders and other chains to retain as many customers as they can (recently it has been very aggressive in sending all these in-store coupons that used to be sent only once a month). I don't know since when Borders came up with this customer-love-bombing tactics known as the Reward Programs. You're supposed to pick up a Rewards card with the cashier and earn points from every purchase. What pisses me off (and thus adds to my snowballing pet-peeve list) is Borders now relegates the 30% coupon and reserves the discount for only Rewards cardholders. It means I can no longer just print the e-coupons and redeem at my purchase because I'm not part of the Rewards Program. Borders is trying to exercise control over its customers by locking them into this reward program. I never pay, and I refuse to pay, full price for any of my books. I always look for the coupons, specials, and perks. For example, independent bookseller Green Apple Books waivers sales tax on Independence Day every year. Online vendors like Amazon cuts the prices of almost every item by 20%, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Maybe it's time to let Borders go. Going in there now is just for the sake of scouring for the my next online purchase.

    February 23, 2006


    [22] The Atonement - Ian McEwan

    When the novel begins with Briony Tallis's writing a play to celebrate the return of her cousin, one might not be able to identify the immediate, or most conspicuous connection to the book's title. She might be all contentedly wrapped up in her musing and bathed in oblivious daydreaming. Propelled from the depth of her ignorance, or innocence some sympathetic readers deem, the 13-years-old witnessed flirtation between her sister Cecilia and Robbie, the son of the charlady. Bearing with an exhilaration to protect her sister, Briony perpetrated a crime that not only changed all their lives but also enmeshed the family into an estrangement fixed in the unchangeable past. This crime is serious enough to qualify for a redemption.

    As a result of this misdemeanor, the most affectionate memories of the Tallis were bleached colorless through burning bridges. Briony's perpetration was obviously in the wrong but what about her motive? Once she was finally able to reveal that Robbie was the incarnation of evil and that she could never forgive him his disgusting mind, Briony embarked on this proxy-Pride-and-Prejudice justification to vindicate her view. The Atonement follows the repercussions of her crime through the public upheaval of World War II. The carnage and chaos of war that once seemed distant to her private anguish now compounded the severity of her misconduct.

    The Atonement explores the ineluctable consequence of this misconduct prompted by a child's incomplete grasp of adult relationships. In following Briony's secret purge of her wrongdoing, McEwan delivers a story redolent of the nuances of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The unfettered objectivity of the prose provokes one's sympathy with the vulnerability of human heart.

    [21] River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze - Peter Hessler

    In his concluding remarks of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler points us to the nub of his experience in China:
    "I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps 'service' in China; I wasn't there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn't built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations."

    In fall 1996, Peter Hessler, at the age of 26, took a Peace Corps assignment that relocated him to a small town in the Sichuan province of China. Many natives let alone a young American who made his inaugural entrance into the country did not know and hear of Fuling. It's a former coal-mining town that is bounded by the Yangtze and the Wu. Chongqing and the Three Gorges are just hours away by boats. The book chronicles, in a rather casual but detailed way, Peter's teaching experience at the Fuling Education College and his life and anecdotes in town. Interwoven into Peter's diary are descriptions of local landmarks and customs. This book is by far the most passionate and yet accurate and objective account written any foreigners. Peter really does possess a keen sense of his surroundings. Throughout his crisp, interesting prose and attention to details, the Chinese 'laobaixing' (common people) become alive as if we are actually interacting with them.

    I am in awe of how far Peter has gone in making meticulous observations of the Chinese culture and its people. A lot of what he mentions in this book is often overlooked by foreigners. To cite some examples:

    1)Cultural shock: Wherever Peter goes in town, he often gathers a crowd looking dagger at him, saying 'hello', calling name and following him. To his surprises later on, he realizes the town has never had a foreign visitor for at least 50 years. It is a mixed bag of xenophobia and curiosity for foreigners. No soon than Peter arrived in town than he realized that foreigners are usually treated differently in daily necessities and accommodation. Certain inns were forbidden to accommodate foreigners due to the untidiness. Foreigners often had to pay a higher fare for the steamboats.

    2)Teaching style: Learning Chinese was excruciatingly painful for Peter (and for many Americans I'm sure). The Mandarin comes with 4 intonations and the thousands of characters have complicated strokes and dots. Suffice it to say that the slightest mispronunciation or missing a stroke in writing will reap a harsh admonishment from Peter's native Chinese teacher. 'Budui' is the devil word meaning 'wrong'. As Peter has pointed out, the Chinese teaching style is significantly different from the western methods. If a student is wrong, she needed to be corrected (or rebuked) immediately without any quibbling or softening. It is the very strict standard that motivates Peter to determinedly show his teacher he is 'dui' (right). His bitter encounter with the Chinese way enables him to finally relate to his Chinese-American peers, who go to school and become accustomed to the American system of gentle correction. But the Chinese parents expect more-unless you get straight A's, you haven't achieved anything yet! Hey, I can relate to this Peter!

    3)Hong Kong handover: Little did I know about how the mainland Chinese made such a big deal about the turn-of-the-century event in 1997 until I read Peter's account. His students have been drilled on the shamefulness of history, of how the Britain defeated the Chinese in Opium War, of how China was coerced to cease the fragrant city for 150 years. I knew about how the Chinese (especially the Party leaders) awaited the moment when the five-star red flag ascend to full staff in Hong Kong but shamefulness? The magnitude of the colony's return to motherland simply overwhelmed Peter (and myself): the handover lapel pin, the handover umbrella, and the handover rubber flip-flops!

    4)Chinese collectivism: This is something that not only amazes but also puzzles me and Peter has nailed it to the root. The Chinese people are often nonchalant, indifferent, and apathetic to politics, crisis or crimes. Well, according to Peter, 'as long as a pickpocket [or whatever] did not affect you personally, or affect somebody in your family, it was not your business.' So this is the usual Chinese mind-my-own-business attitude. This attitude is so implanted inveterately into the Chinese due to decades of isolation (from media and geography) and political control. I think Peter really brings it home. The consequence is a strictly standardized education system, common beliefs among the people, common reactions toward political issues, and an unchallenging submission to authority.

    River Town is indeed one of the best books on China I've ever read for years. Peter is not only an on-looking 'waiguoren' (foreigner) but he has found his identity among the Chinese. He befriended the owner of the restaurant and his family. He established daily and weekly routines which include newspaper reading at the teahouse and chatting with the teahouse 'xiaojie' (girls), hiking up to the mountaintop, visiting the vendors at a local park, and hanging out with his students after class. During the summer vacation, he took an excursion to the Great Wall in Shanxi and Urmuqi in Xinjiang. The prose is vivid, crisp, and gripping. I really appreciate how he approaches the people and culture with an honesty-to have gone so far as some of the moments of candor become unpleasant. This is a page-turner, the kind of book that you don't want to end so soon.

    February 22, 2006


    Brokeback Mountain Firework Scene

    That I nourish a burning desire tinged with a sense of obligation to talk about Heath Ledger's firework scene in Brokeback Mountain I decide to defer the book review to tomorrow. The immediate reaction to the fourth viewing is while both Gyllenhaal and Ledger are handsome the casting of these two teens idols might seem somewhat of a gamble in the beginning. Once I was able to regain composure which was inevitably robbed by how inexplicably handsome our two rugged cowboys were, I found both performances to be affectionate. Ledger, as many have said before, is the more effective of the two as the shy closeted Ennis. My friends have argued fairly that Ennis is the easier of the two roles because there is so much more to play. Where Jack is certain about his feelings, Ennis is excruciatingly conflicted. Ledger plays the role quite well with a sense of truancy that his loneliness has caught up to scorn him, even heartbreakingly well as the film closes.

    A handful of critics deemed the scene where Ledger faces down a pair of drunk bikers unnecessary because it does no more than a reassurance of Ledger's manhood. I like the compelling visual of Ledger against a night sky background filled with fireworks. Some critics even suggest to relegate the scene in order to edit the film tighter. Well, repetitious viewing of the film confides the significance of this scene. The contumely of the bikers lies not in their impolite rowdiness, but in what they said to him about his sex life with his wife, that squeezes his heart - the random spasm of the bikers' rude remarks hit home for Ennis. For he is more realistic and aware of the social barriers to such a relationship. He realizes that after Jack, who has reinstated their affair after they are married, the danger of their secret affair is on his brow because his out-of-control, flaming passion for another man is forbidden.

    February 21, 2006


    Library card catalog, R.I.P.

    A sad realization dawns on me just couple days after I fanatically talked about discovering LibraryThing and categorizing my books electronically. Do you remember the old library card catalog? Can you picture the neat rows of wooden cabinets, arrayed with columns of little wooden drawers filled with stiff paper cards arranged by author, title and subject? Many of us can. For the youngest among us (I'm not that old either!), however, that image is probably a thing of the past, replaced by online electronic catalogs. I insouciantly sauntered into the solemn arched hall of UC Berkeley's Doe Library that used to be the home of row after row of wooden library card catalog drawers. One of the librarians told me with a sober tone tinged with pique and remorse that Berkeley will eventually get rid of these antiques that are now can only be found as collectibles in eBay. I always think browsing through the shelves is one of the great joys of visiting the library. But when the shelves get too tall and threaten to take away precious study space, books are relegated to warehouses, sold, given away, or the ineluctable worst: retired to the circular file. Now it seems these exquisite wood card cabinets will confront the same destiny. Since the university library catalog system went electronic in the late 1980s, no update have been made to the card catalog. While these card catalogs have turned endangered species, more and more people are discovering the utility of a card catalog cabinet. Even though many libraries have or will discard their physical card catalogs, the demand for these used treasures is heavy. They can be storage for nuts and bolts, recipes, deposit slips, pin back buttons, coins, sewing supplies, or, if you still own them - cassette tapes, another things from the past.

    February 20, 2006


    [20] Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy

    The fact that this blog has been deprived of a mention of Tolstoy's work nags my conscience. Resurrection (1899) is the last of Tolstoy's great novels and unlike the previous War and Peace and Anna Karenina the architectural lines are fairly unique. Whereas in the previous novels attention is continually shifted from one hero to another, in Resurrection Tolstoy follows Dimitri Nekhlydov step by step, drilling to the core of his thoughts, commenting on his actions, analyzing his motives, evincing his engendered acts, and verbalizing the purging of his soul that inexorably manifests into a non-Christian regeneration process. Tolstoy hardly lets Nekhlydov out of sight for an instant: his conscience continually demands of him to atone for his sin. Interwoven with the flow of the story is Nekhlydov's painful realization of the demoralization that develops into such perfect madness of selfishness.
    If it had not been for the Doukhobors, who was accused of fighting against the spirit of God by the Orthodox Church, Tolstoy might never have finished the novel, the idea for which had been suggested to him ten years previously in order to raise fund for the sect. A nobleman, namely, Dimitri Nekhlydov, serves on a jury and recognizes the prostitute on trial for theft and poisoning a merchant as a girl he had seduced and loved when he was a young man. Katusha (Maslova), who is a yellow-card prostitute sanctioned by the government, has a checkered fate. She is wrongfully convicted as the jury inadvertently left out the phrase "no intent to take life" in the verdict. She is found not guilty in the theft but guilty of administering a powder and is sentenced to hard labor in the outlandish Siberia.

    As Nekhlydov embarks on the campaign to appeal for Katusha and do her justice, in the depth of his soul he becomes so conscious of all the cruelty, cowardice, and baseness - not only of this particular action of his but of his whole idle, dissolute, selfish and complacent life. The dreadful veil that has all this time, for ten years, conceals from him his sin, and the whole of his life, dictated by the religious sophisms, begins to wobble. He has to confront with his entire being that the faith of his is farther than anything else from being the right thing.

    One can gauge the progress of Nekhlydov's awakening by Katusha's attitude toward him. Ten years of prostitution has not completely extinguished the spiritual spark in her. This can be proven by the merchant's trust in her, the truth behind the poisoning of which she was accused, her behavior with a breath of equanimity at the trial toward the real culprits, the attitude of her fellow prisoners, and the outburst in which she would not allow Nekhlydov to gain his salvation at her expense.

    When Nekhlydov witnesses the cruelty of the government officials who put duties and responsibilities of office above humanity and the sufferings of the innocent people who have not in the least transgressed against justice or committed lawless acts but merely because they are an obstacle hindering the officials and the rich from enjoying the wealth they amass from the people, he repents of his selfishness and a spiritual resurrection dawns on him. Simplicity of the explanation seems very overwhelming: the officials can insensibly ill-treat others without feeling any personal responsibility for the evil they do because they are completely devoid of not only compassion but the chief human attribute, that is, love and pity for one another.

    As Nekhlydov becomes the mouthpiece for the innocent in Siberian prison, in whom Tolstoy expresses his own deepest aspirations and views on aspects of human existence. Nekhlydov's ambitious and heroic search to discover the purpose of life not only has become readers' striving, rekindled Katusha's love for him, but also unites with Tolstoy's ideals. Through the convoluted relationship between Nekhlydov and Katusha, Tolstoy treats the themes of love, passion and death with such compelling sincerity that one's heart is infected by pity and compulsive need to crusade against cruelty, injustice and repression.

    Resurrection is psychologically superb in the treatment of one man's thoughts and feelings, which stem from a study of his physical being. Tolstoy deftly builds up this "dramatis personae" line upon line, and through which he turns a highly critical eye on the law, the penal system and above all, the Church. He ridicules the usual sophisms that so inveterately dictate his hero's life, that the enlightened ones plunge the people into greater darkness with their hypocrisy and heresy. Line by line Tolstoy sets up Nekhlydov's awakening in which he must overcome the laborious path of expiation stimulated by a voluntarily moral desire to repent. This very teaching brings Tolstoy at loggerhead to the Church, whose practices of deceit and delusion Tolstoy vehemently rejects with utter intransigence.

    Resurrection gives us a vision that is beyond the historical reality of the given time period. A literary masterpiece it is, Tolstoy propagates his faith and moral ideals through his hero. Resurrection is an ultimate achievement of literary power that accentuates life of people in Russia.

    February 19, 2006


    Moleskine is always under construction

    Caught up with updating the template for this blog so this is an overdue post. By the way, A Guy's Moleskine Notebook just turned one month old yesterday with over 300 readers. I wish to express my gratitude to everyone who has checked out the blog. The latest revamp to the site is the incorporation of LibraryThing | Catalog your books online. This is almost like a dream come true when I recently discovered the catalog helper from other literary blogs. Basically I can catalogue my entire book collection through this service, which tabulates books alphabetically by titles, genres, or authors' last names. Since LibraryThing is an online reader community, every member catalogs together, I can use the shared network to find people with similar libraries, get suggestions from people with my tastes. It's great fun to watch my graphical shelf of books to grow and immediately links to those who share my titles. LibraryThing also allows me to tag my titles literature, gay studies, history, philosophy and so forth. One can be creative about these tags. For example, one person might tag War and Peace "Russian lit", while another tags it "religious, philosophical," and still another "novel I can never finish>" To add more style to my blog, I can copy-and-paste the script to include a wiget showing random books of my library on the blog. To share a bit of fun stat, here are the books in my library that are most unique and eclectic in LibraryThing:

    Naguib Mahfouz: The Day the Leader was Killed (0)
    Naguib Mahfouz: The Beggar, The Thief and the Dogs, Autumn Quail (2)
    Grace Tiffany: Will (2)
    Michael Thomas Ford: Alec Baldwin Doesn't Love Me and Other Trials from My Queer Life (2)
    Charles Higham: The Civilization of Angkor (2)
    Cao Xueqin: The Debt of Tears, Dream of the Red Chamber Vol.4 (3)
    Michael Lowenthal: The Same Embrace (3)
    Dai Sijie: Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch (4)
    Yu Hua: To Live (4)
    Cao Xueqin: The Dreamer Wakes, Dream of the Red Chamber Vol.5 (4)
    Colm Toibin: The Story of the Night (5)

    ( ) denotes the number of LibraryThing member who shares the same title with me. I'm very surprised that after the smash-hit debut Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie does not kick off a domino effect for his latest release, which came out last fall. Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, who is most known for his Cairo Trilogy, is also not very well-read among LibraryThing readers. The last two volumes of Dream of Red Chamber also reap a meager audience. Maybe the Chinese epic is too long and philosophical to engross a lasting readership. Now the top five shared titles in my library:

    Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (997)
    J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (927)
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (591)
    Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (511)
    Arthur Golden: Memoirs of a Geisha (499)

    What can I say to this? All classics but one - a toast to Arthur Golden. How do my all-time favorite reads fare in this community?

    Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose (469)
    Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment (373)
    Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (227)
    Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (213)
    Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty (88)

    February 18, 2006


    [19] Shroud - John Banville

    Shroud, like other novels by John Banville, is beautifully written against a vividly limned background. The main character, Axel Vander, is conceited, obnoxious, and goes out of his way to offend the readers. He identifies himself as a masterly liar who lies about almost everything, even when there is no need and even when the plain truth will be so much more effective in maintaining the pretence. I will not be surprised at his unreliable narration, shameless boasting and impudent lies as he spatters out the tale of his life.

    The shocking secret is that Axel Vander is not the real Axel Vander but has ineluctably appropriated the identity of an actor. He has impudently maintained the deception for over half a century since the time of danger during World War II. He must have thought he had shaken off his far past and wiped out all vestige of his old identity until the letter of Cass Cleave confronts him with irrefutable proof of his imposture. Banville devotes almost the whole novel chronicling Axel Vander's life, his delirious reflections, his reminiscence of his wife, the disturbing details of his impregnable alibi - all the minute heart-pricking details that permits Cass Cleave to privy the impostor's secret. Banville has written a beautifully crafted thriller, with meticulous prose, that prepares readers for the dreadful moment - the meeting of Axel Vander and his nemesis from whom he is so overwrought to buy silence for fear of being exposed.

    The prose is incredulously lyrical, rich, and refined - so much more compressed and yet detailed any prose in most contemporary fiction. Banville is one of the few living author who can maintain the flow of a novel with a taut sense while flourishing different themes as well as exploring and exposing, delineating the intricacies of human emotions. The book leaves us in awe of the marvelous silence with which human tolerate lies. Once again Banville has epitomized literary fiction with a twisting intrigue, which is unfortunately exiguous in the market now.

    February 17, 2006


    Ongoing effort to find more good books

    An entry titled An Attempt to Find Yet More Good Books from A Work in Progress eggs me on babbling about how I go about book hunting. Tayari Jones' guidelines in culling books would be a nice idea for the unhabitual readers who don't know where to start. But more experienced readers who have cultivated taste for certain genres or authors, literary magazines like Pages and Bookmarks Magazine brief a variety of new books, although they tend to emphasize on books by major publishers. The New York Times Book Review also discusses the note-worthy new releases but again, like any mass media, it focuses on the mainstream crowd pleasers, books that are most likely to make the bestseller list.

    I follow my heart and the instant mood. Last summer I found myself to be on a binge for Shakespearean comedies. So I dug out The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night and Comedy of the Error and read them all. Then a blooming desire to fulfill a dream since I was a kid told hold of me: to read the unabridged The Dream of the Red Chamber, a 5-volume novel hailed as one of the most significant works ever written in Chinese literature. I spent almost three months perusing the original Chinese texts and the Penguins English translation.

    Readers of this blog will notice my attachment to Russian literature especially the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I manage to re-read major works of these authors and thrive to compare the various available translations to the same title. Several Amazon reviewers whose reviews I scrupulously follow, like Grady Harp, Mary Whipple, and A.J., point me to many great reads over the years. Their insightful and thorough opinions have helped shape my reading habit.

    I'm blessed to be in San Francisco, a city so well-read and is endowed with a number of great bookstores. A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books is the grand central joint for book readings and literary events with an incredibly savvy staff. I often look into their staff recommendations for my next reads. Cody's is another of my favorite hangout spot and book hunting ground. The newest store in downtown becomes my daily quickstop on the way home. City Lights Bookstore is probably the most well-known bookshop in the city. Despise its somewhat snooty staff, City Lights offers the widest selection of books published by small presses. It houses sections devoting to European literature and the beat generation. Online vendor Powell's Books is thoughtful enough to devote a section on literary works published by small presses.

    I make it a habit to scour local bookstore at least once a week, browsing through the fiction and literature, history, and philosophy sections. A neat hand-written list of possible acquisitions accompanies me through the stacks. Sometimes I'm in for a specific theme like 20th century Chinese literature, or contemporary gay literature (not erotica), or whatever that appeals to me at the time. Usually I'll search out related titles and seek out authors with similar styles. This book hunting, like having lunch and dinner and doing laundry, is an ongoing effort that bears the ambitious mission to find the good books.

    So many books, so little time!

    February 16, 2006


    [18] The Story of the Night - Colm Toibin

    The Story of the Night is an audacious and deeply moving novel about a man, Richard Garay, who hides his sexuality from his mother in during the time of military dictatorship. Stifled by his job, Richard is willing to risk new possibilities professionally and sexually. As the country is slowly changing and attaining peace, Richard tentatively begins to engage in a secret love affair that does not meet the approval of family and society. His mother is a proud, elegant English woman who will wreak a shrill revenge on Argentina when it is at war with the Britain for the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands She almost thrives too assiduously to preserve the English gentility, which she think the Argentineans lack, in her son. She mistakes Richard's reserve, his reticence, and his distance from her as gentility, thinking it is real but understanding that it is fear.

    The Story of the Night captures South America in its crucial times of political instability and turbulence: the ruthless purge of dissidents after the Chilean coup and the grim uncertainty of the transfer of power in Argentina. As England declares war on Argentina and sends its vessels southward in claiming the ownership of the Falkland Islands, Richard abrasively abandons his unpromising, stifling teaching job and to be under the wings of two American diplomats. The Americans have infiltrated the country, given grand parties with hired guests as a disguise, observed the political climate of the evolving country in order to ensure an orderly transfer of power to a civilian successor. Richard hoists a two-fold responsibility: to serve as a translator and to lobby the Americans in Senor Canetto's candidacy for presidency.

    The Story of the Night develops in the backdrop of 1980s in which Argentineans were concerned with employment prospects, inflation, social welfare, stupidity of war, and the menacing disappearances of dissidents. The novel delineates the country in a manner so stultifying and inconsolable as The Line of Beauty evokes the forlornness of England under Thatcher in the same decade. Both novels explores the impact that such rough political terrain exudes on an individual who makes choices in life that are deemed alternative. As Richard becomes an indispensable hand in assisting the privatization of oil industry, he has imperceptibly spiraled into an intimate relationship that is sealed with stalwart discretion. His desire to move from having a hidden, secret life with his partner to the aura of recognition, again, echoes to his counterpart in The Line of Beauty. Little do they know that a much greater threat, one is that more formidable than being out to their family, prey on their life together.

    The Story of the Night tops the Lambda Literary Foundation's list of 100 most significant gay novels of all time. Beneath the equanimity of the narrative voice are a poignant novel of intimacy, sex, death, and the fear of connecting one's inner life with the outside world. It conveys the hidden fear of coming to family and the fear of elaborating same-sex relationship. The protagonist, on the other hand, is unrestrained in delineating the physical passion of his relationship, rendering it in shameless, exuberant details the scenes of his life that absorbs the needs for love and friendship. The prose exudes an explosive power of suggestibility, which bespeaks a pleasure that is only possible through a mutual understanding of physical contour and desire.

    The Story of the Night, strategically puts its protagonist in a country at a time that people shut themselves off to question authority and train themselves not to see the truth. The immediate effect is an accentuation of the protagonist's isolation from his family and the outside world out of his concealing of his sexuality. This tactic is not without flaw. The politics of the novel, which occupies over a third of the text, can render it dry and insipid. One point Richard Garay makes that really hits home to me (and thus redeem the dryness on all the politics issues) is that heterosexual engagement offers none of the excitement, effortless satisfaction, pure pleasure, and the sense of ease that he gets from being intimate with a man. The novel paints a powerful picture of intimacy and the deep terrain of relationship out of sheer suggestibility that percolates throughout the text.

    February 15, 2006


    [17] The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

    Funny but piercing, The Corrections is a witty epitome of an American family in which the old-fashioned world of civic virtue and moral values vehemently collide with worldly greed, lust, and in-law hostility. The immediate ambience the book affords is one of depression, anxiety, and looming alarm. It poses the ultimate question that is ineluctable to all of us in an up-front manner: what life is for? Speaking under the breath, Franzen is really asking what life is for if it's not for happiness. The novel develops in the silhouette of the idea that people who think they are happy are not really happy. The sadder scenario is the futility to gauge and to remedy this issue.

    The novel begins with a call for family reunion. After almost fifty years as a wife and a mother, as her children have gone separate ways to cruel reality of their lives, Enid Lambert is determined to make changes in her life. As her husband, Alfred, loses his sanity to Parkinson's disease, she sets her heart in bringing her family together for one last Christmas in St. Jude. She confides her plan in her daughter, Denise, though of whose immoral lifestyle, which includes pre-marital sex and affair with married men, she strongly disapproves. Alfred's diagnosis has become Enid's underground extension of her intelligence and persists in connecting the affliction with Denise's announcement of her affairs to her father. Denise feels obliged to help her mother reunite the family.

    Chip Lambert is the single knucklehead who is forced to resign from his teaching job shortly before securing tenure due to a subversive affair with a student that has gone backfired. Until he published this script that he claims to be lucrative, he lives on his sister's money.

    Gary Lambert is pathetically sandwiched between his repugnant wife (who calls him depressed at his mention of St. Jude and camouflages her animosity toward him as an ostensible concern for his mental health) and his parents. Gary suffers from a make-believe depression and a deepened sense of isolation that is the product his Caroline's cunning manipulation of and forming allies with his sons in the house.

    The Corrections comprises multiple layers of social niches that converge to one central theme that is not ulterior in literature: the meaning of life and the search for happiness. The circuitous musing of life's purpose is coated with domestic drama, sexual affair, globalized greed, hands-on mental health treatment, and inescapable senility. Chip struggles with the indignity of being out of a job and being penniless; but ironically the luxury at the tip of Gary's finger does not ensue happiness. His marriage pricks his mind and his entire life has been set up to be correction to his father's. Chip feels misunderstood but he never notices how badly he himself has misunderstood his father, whose struggle with fraternal bonding does not hinder him from loving his son.

    Peeling off the humor, openheartedness, drama and brawl, The Corrections affords sarcasm on the ineptitude to be honest with our feelings. It mocks the way our culture attaches too much importance on feelings to an incorrigible extent in which people try to correct their thoughts to improve their feelings. The novel calls for the awakening of the lost feelings in relationships that are usually rooted in family. It is poignant, brutal, and funny. It might have struck a discordant note in weathering spasm of hatred but it is, after all, a true-to-life and contiguous to certain walk of our life.

    February 14, 2006


    Valentine: To B. D.

    If I had to live my life without you near me
    The days would all be empty
    The nights would seem so long
    With you I see forever oh so clearly
    I might have been in love before
    But it never felt this strong

    If the road ahead is not so easy,
    Our love will lead the way for us
    Like a guiding star
    I'll be there for you if you should need me
    You don't have to change a thing
    I love you just the way you are
    So come with me and share the view
    I'll help you see forever too
    Our dreams are young
    And we both know they'll take us
    Where we want to go

    Hold me now
    Touch me now
    I don't want to live without you

    Nothing's gonna change my love for you
    You ought know by now how much I love you
    One thing you can be sure of
    I'll never ask for more than your love

    Nothing's gonna change my love for you
    You ought know by now how much I love you
    The world may change my whole life through
    But nothing's gonna change my love for you

    From Nothing's Gonna Change My Love for You, Glenn Medeiros

    February 13, 2006


    Amazon reviewers

    Rich Burridge blogs about some bogus reviews at Amazon. The post captures my attention as I'm an Amazon reviewer for over five years. I have always supposed Harriet Klausner, the #1 reviewer who claims to be an acquisition librarian in Pennsylvania, must have a load before the site comes along (around 1995) and just feeds it all at once to the system. How could a human being holding a full-time job produce 16 reviews every week like Harriet Klausner does? That I am able to finish 3 reads like Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, The Master and Margarita, and Shroud. I claim to be a prolific reader. But 16 books a month? Let's do the math: in order to read 16 books and to review them, a reviewer has to read at least one book a day in order to maintain that reviewing rhythm. The books could be some fluffs or bogus romances that require no critical reading and thinking.

    I question the thoroughness, the nuances, and quality of reviews if reviewers simply knock the books out at this outrageous speed. This simply defies the meaning of reviewing at the first place. Reflections and thoughts, which I scribble in my Moleskine notebook for every read, are conducive to a judicious review. Many reviewers shift to review a pack of gums, condoms, chocolate and other quick consumer items just to improve their ranking, admittedly an inventive for reviewing at the first place. The ranking has a strong tie to status, and identity to the products reviewers review. Nature of Amazon reviewing climate has changed, and unfortunately, so does the authority and quality of some of the reviews. Highly regarded books within literary circle are stigmatized by reviewers who don't even understand the meaning. I rarely pay attention to reviews on Amazon now other than the spotlight ones. I slowly shift the reviews over to my blog, with minor modification to the wording since Amazon claims intellectual property of all submitted reviews.

    February 12, 2006


    [16] The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

    The Brothers Karamazov shares the title of my all-time favorite reads with Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (post [12]) owing to the depth in core humanity issue: faith and belief.

    Spiritually speaking, Dostoevsky worked on The Brothers Karamazov his entire life. The novel is one artistic embodiment riddled with everything he experienced, thought, and created. The central theme is a familiar motif: the conflict between faith and disbelief. This conflict is most accentuated by the personality duality of Ivan Karamazov and his dreamy encounter with the devil. The novel is a cumulation of Dostoevsky's life that in the topography of which his memories of childhood are united with the impressions of his final years. The three brothers, Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha are aspects of Dostoevsky's personality, three stages of his spirituality.

    Dostoevsky portrays the brothers as a spiritual unity with some collective personality in its triple structure. The principle of reason is embodied in Ivan, the atheist, logician, and innate skeptic. Dimitri represents the principle of feeling in whom one finds the sensuality of insects. The principle of will, realizing itself in active love as an ideal, is presented Alyosha. However much the novel resembles a psychological treatise and a theological epistle; Dostoevsky merely meant it to be a novel. Religious-philosophical material was introduced into the framework of the novel genre and treated according to its laws. A tense dramatic plot is constructed at the center of which stand an enigmatic crime, a murder mystery, rivalry within family, and an entangled love affair. The religious mystery is thus paradoxically joined with a mystery-crime novel, as the ideological masses are ineluctably drawn into the eddy of the convoluted action, and clashing together, produce effective outbursts. Notwithstanding all its depth in philosophical treatise and the musing of immortality and existence of God, the novel is one of the most captivating and popular works of Russian literature.

    Tension instantly builds up as the novel opens. The gathering at the Elder's Zosima's abode is an exposition of the characters and complication of the plot, as well as foreshadowing of the imminent fatality. The main protagonists are all presented together in this dramatic scene. The first clash between old Fyodor Karamazov and Dimitri takes place here. Ivan, whose essay establishes atheism, reason and logic, exposes his idea of the impossibility to loving mankind. The scandal anticipates the novel's tragic denouement. Tension mounts with each scene, and one inevitably becomes convinced of the possibility of the murder both practically and psychologically. The murder is a mystery for it seems only that the false denouement with Dimitri's stormy, unbridled character by contrast prepares the tragic tone of catastrophe. No less skillfully is the false murderer Dimitri places in opposition to the moral murderer Ivan. The frenzy of the former is not so terrible as the latter's cold hatred.

    Conflict between faith and disbelief is brought to the full actuality in Ivan's nightmarish encounter with the devil. It is obvious that Ivan's consciousness is torn between faith and disbelief for the idea is not resolved in his heart and fretted him. Ivan longs for a world riddled with rational consciousness as opposed to evil and suffering. In a way, proportionally as the apparent atheist withdrew into the shadows, the wrestler with God steps out into illumination. In other words, Ivan is not an atheist but a struggler in the faith. The keenness of Ivan's reasoning lied in that he renounces God out of love for mankind comes forward against God in the role of the advocate of all suffering creation. He asserts the existence of evil in the world shows that there is no God and denying sin, he absolves man of any responsibility for evil and fixes it upon God. All the force of Christianity is in the personality of Christ, who overcomes sin and death. But if there is no sin, then redemption is not needed.

    Ivan Karamazov echoes the Grand Inquisitor whose monologue culminates the work of Dostoevsky's whole life: his struggle for man. In it he discloses the religious foundation of the personality and the inseparability of faith in man from faith in God. To the Anti-Christ freedom is a torment for freedom leads to evil. Under the false compassion for the sufferings of mankind is hidden in a diabolic hatred of human freedom and the image of God in man. This is what stuck Ivan Karamazov. The monologue contains a "proof by the contrary" in which the censure of Christ is turned into his glorification. His negative argumentation suddenly transforms into a positive one. The Inquisitor reproaches Christ for having imposed an intolerable burden of freedom upon mankind, having demanded an impossible perfection from it and, having acted as if He did not love at all. Dostoevsky, through a proof of the contrary, shrewdly makes the greatest spiritual disclosure: the free personality of man is revealed only in Christ. Love is not a divine nature and the lover of mankind is not a man but God, who has given his son for the salvation of the world.

    Since Ivan is with the Inquisitor against Christ, he must follow the road of apostasy and struggle with God to the end. The dichotomy of his consciousness between faith and disbelief is shown in his dialogue with the devil, which did everything in his power to compel the atheist to accept his reality. The devil might have been the product of Ivan's disbelief. The question of the devil's enigmatic visit will remain unresolved in Ivan's heart. Reality might have escaped the man who has lost the highest reality - God; fact merges with delirium, nothing exists but everything only seems.

    The overall framework of the novel prepares for the pro and contra that enters into Alyosha's very soul, becomes his inner struggle, temptation, and victory over the temptation. While Ivan's revolt ends in his struggle with God and negation of God's world, Alyosha's revolt is completed and pruned by his mystical vision of the resurrection, through a feat of personal love. After all, The Brothers Karamazov, in light of its violent nature, calls for love and the miracle it brings about in life.

    February 11, 2006


    Captivating lines from reading

    I'm not a good writer. Through reading and reviewing I hone my writing skills. As I become hip-deep in eating books (3 to 4 books at a time) it dawns on me that critical thinking contributes subtantially to the writing process. Words in mind have to be transcribed on paper, and this is where organization comes in the picture. Essays often read disjointedly because of the random thoughts and ideas that are deprived of the proper transition. So the sentences might be well written and achieve remarkable structural variation but they are like lumps in a bowl of porridge.

    I made it a habit to pen marginal notes, a task that has manifested into the colorful post-in thumb-tabbing all my reads the past few years. An important component of these scribbles, besides the usual thoughts and comments to the texts, are favorite lines. Improvement in writing more or less is conducive to imitation. So one of my Moleskine notebooks devotes to the tabulation of captivating lines and phrases. To share a few recent additions:

    "...reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people's lives in such a way that they have to deal with them."

    "...tainted with condescension."

    "...came stripped of all but its essential twists and nuances."

    "Even being lied to, though hardly was love, was sustained attention."

    And this is my favorite one:

    "I distrusted book clubs for treating literature like a cruciferous vegetable that could be choked down only with a spoonful of socializing."

    Your turn: Figure out where these lines might have originated. They are all taken out of two books.

    February 10, 2006


    [15] Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling - Ross King

    None of Michelangelo's other works ever won him quite the same renown as his fresco in the Sistine Chapel, a building now virtually synonymous with his name. Almost immediately after Michelangelo unveiled it in 1512, the fresco became like an academy for artists, who had since long been using the Sistine Chapel as storehouse of ideas. They treated works of Michelangelo as some kind of a portfolio through which they concocted new ideas. The prestigious style of buon fresco generated intense interest, in particular, among a new generation of painters that pioneered a movement later known as mannerism.

    Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling recounts the beguiling, fascinating story of the four extraordinary years Michelangelo Buonarroti spent laboring over the 12,000 square feet of the vast ceiling made up of concave vaults, spandrels, and lunettes. The works marked an entirely new direction in which he had brought the power, vitality, and sheer magnitude of works of sculpture into the realm of painting.

    The commission, however, did not commence on an auspicious note, as Michelangelo had meager experience as a painter, let alone working in the delicate medium of fresco and painting bent-back the concave and curved surfaces of vaults. Having been a masterful sculptor who had unveiled the statue "David" four years prior to the pope's summon, his rival Bramante took advantage of his lack of experience to thwart Michelangelo's ambitions and so to destroy his reputation. Such alleged conspiracy as perceived by Michelangelo made the dreadful commission all the more invidious. He would either refuse the Sistine project, and in doing so incurred the ire of Pope Julius II, or else failed miserably in his attempt through lack of experience.

    The outcome of Michelangelo's works had proudly (and vindictively) served as a triumphant reply to the sneer of his insidious rival, who had once stated that he would be unable to paint overhead surfaces because he understood nothing of foreshortening. What Michelangelo had achieved was exactly the sheer opposite: he demonstrated how vastly more daring and successful his foreshortening technique had become following four years on a special scaffold he designed for the purpose. It was through the power, arm-raced politics, vicious personal rivalries, and a constant paranoia over the possible hiatus of the commission that Michelangelo achieved a virtuoso performance at the summit of his powers.

    Battling against illness, financial difficulties, consistent changes of assistantships, domestic problems, family drama, predatory rival of the commission, and the pope's impatience and petulance, Michelangelo created his masterful scenes - The Creation, The Temptation, The Flood, The Crucifixion of Haman, The Brazen Serpent, David and Goliath - so beautiful that the telling movements lent the figures their verisimilitude and intense drama.

    The book is not a critique of Michelangelo's art works, but to a small extent it does make comparison to works of Raphel, a brilliant young painter who was working in fresco on the neighboring Stanza del Segnatura, the papal apartments. Michelangelo's ability to generate, in a short space of time, so many of hundreds of postures for the Sistine's ceiling stunned the young artist. Raphael's works after 1512, the unveiling of Michelangelo's fresco at Sistine, manifested absorption of Michelangelo's style: the tumult of bodies, throngs of figures in dramatic, muscle-straining poses showing gradations of tone along anatomically accurate knots of muscles.

    Ross King has written a brilliant book that combines uncommon insight on Michelangelo's works with historical facts. Woven through the artist's progress on the Sistine commission was history of upheaval during 16th century Italy, when Pope Julius II devoted on military campaigns against other Italian city states and against Louis XII of France. Niccolo Machiavelli defended Florence, Michelangelo's hometown, against Julius's attacking forces bent on restoring the Medicis to power. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling painted a portrait of life in Michelangelo's Rome, on the ingenious scaffold in Sistine Chapel, as well as the daily minute history of Italy. It is a book through which history and art converge.

    February 09, 2006


    Favorite Reads: Russian Literature Choices

    Eclectic but thought-provoking, Russian literature affords an air of sobriety and awareness of life and death. Almost half of my favorite reads belong to this genre and these books are regulars on my reading list. I contrive to read Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov, and The Master and Margarita at least once a year. Here is the exhaustive list of my Russian literature choices:

    1. The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov, Devil disguised as magician causing a havoc in Petersburg, prefer Vintage edition

    2. Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky, a study of human conscience and scruple, prefer Constance Garnett's translation

    3. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy, a classic love story; prefer Penguin Classics edition

    4. Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky's final judgment of man; Vintage classics
    5. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky, culmination of his arts and skills; prefer David McDuff's translation

    6. Dead Souls: A Novel Nikolai Gogol, a hilarious social humor with dark undercurrents; Vintage classics

    7. Fathers and Sons Ivan Turgenev, an examination of love, family, and Russian nihilism; prefer Richard Freeborn's translation

    8. War and Peace Leo Tolstoy, an epic of Russia evoking self-sacrifice, self-indulgence, love, and perdition; prefer Contsnce Garnett's translation

    9. The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky Fyodor Dostoevsky, a good introduction to his short work, dive into his profundity of thought, Modern Library Classics

    10. The Foundation Pit Andrey Platonov, a scathing indictment of the brutal and anti-intellectual soviet apparatchiki

    You may click here to view the complete list.

    February 08, 2006


    MeMe Me...

    I guess I'm officially tagged now since I have read both A Life in the Day and Cult of Jef. I'll join the club and follow along:

    Four jobs I've had:
    -Desk Clerk at UC Berkeley Library
    -Barista at Gallery Cafe
    -Researcher at UC Berkeley
    -Researcher/Chemist at UCSF

    Four movies I can watch over and over:
    -Shawshank Redemption
    -Dying Young
    -Music of the Heart

    Four places I've lived:
    -Hong Kong, China
    -Oakland, CA
    -Berkeley, CA
    -San Francisco, CA

    Four TV shows I love:
    -Grey Anatomy
    -The Amazing Race
    -CSI Las Vegas

    Four places I've vacationed:
    -Bali, Indonesia
    -Bangkok, Thailand
    -Angkor, Cambodia
    -Tokyo, Japan

    Four of my favorite dishes:
    -Gai Krup Pow (Basil Chicken - Thai)
    -Unagi nigiri (eel roll)
    -Scallop stuffed with shrimp
    -Penang beef curry

    Four sites I visit daily:
    -Penguin Classics

    Four places I would rather be right now:
    -back to the hammock on the beach in Phuket, Thailand
    -take a stroll at Marin Headland with Bill
    -on the gondola in Venice, Italy
    -read a book at a cafe

    I'm quoting Cult of Jef:
    "Four bloggers I'm tagging:
    If you are reading this, consider yourself officially tagged!"

    February 07, 2006


    [14] The Folding Star - Alan Hollinghurst

    The Folding Star tells the story of Edward Manners, a sentimentally detached man who leaves England to earn his living as a private language tutor in a Flemish city. The exquisite prose of this 1994 release delineates a man's aching melancholy and longing for love despite his odd sexual economy during the few years prior to his arrival in Belgium. Therefore, unlike the most recent, highly-acclaimed The Line of Beauty, the novel affords a plot no more than Edward Manners's hypnotic fantasy of one of his young pupils. The 33-year-old seems to be at the emotional crossroad: he often smiles at his own sense of anticipation, of being poised for change, and is ready to fall in love. But he is not used to spending so much time with one person that he thinks of a committed relationship dreads him.

    It might be love at first sight that no sooner has he met Luc than he takes an intimate fancy of him. The adoration quickly becomes a morbid infatuation that manifests into a pepperoni type of spying on the boy during his weekend excursion. He has no doubt driven Edward mad at times - he feels empty and is aching for him. The boy has affected everything Edward does to the point that he suffers without feeling afflicted. The stream of consciousness reflects Manners's despair over the unfulfilled love and the thumping of the heart. He can only console himself with other affairs to which no sentiment constitutes, other than the minimal trust of two people pleasuring themselves together, without much grasp of friendship or understanding.

    The Folding Star is about the unrequited love that leaves a man constantly longing, without the prospect of ever finding love. The mixed feelings of anxious longing and fear of commitment constitute a poignant air that hovers over the novel. It delivers the message that the course of true love never runs straight. The reading reminds one of the similar sentimental nuances Henry James experiences in Colm Toibin's THE MASTER. While Henry James consciously makes it a habit to keep his affection at bay and secretly longs for the intimate companion of a man, Edward Manners always finds himself marveling at how his sudden burst of feeling has wrongfooted him. Both engage in a somnambulist journey to find love. The former lives in such vessel of loneliness and independence - in a social sphere that is pinned and stifled with rules. The latter leaves his home to escape the same constraints only to find himself trapped by his emotions. That his sex life has well petered out before he comes to Belgium is the impediment to his surrender to commitment.

    The Folding Star is a stoic tale about the quest for love. Edward Manners lives among many gay men not only in the regard of the longing for a relationship but also in the sense of the nervousness, excitement, sensuality, and anxiety. One may think of the novel being made up of snapshots all these contradicting emotions that roam back and forth the character. It exquisitely depicts the nuances of affection, the anticipation for intimacy, and the desire of fulfillment of unconditional needs. Hollinghurst renders with artistry and haunting precision love's merging of language and lust.

    February 06, 2006


    Book-buying for different occasions

    There is time for everything; and there is a book for every occasion. I always scrupulously maintain a mental book-buying list that is more specific than grandma's grocery list. Braving through the fumes of the city's used bookstores, I was on a mission to locate all the works by Alan Hollinghurst after I read The Line of Beauty. The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) depicts London in 1983 and in retrospect constitutes an air of the reckless sex. The period in which it was written was significant in the sense that was the last summer before AIDS swept and changed the gay community for good. The Folding Star (1994) became my faithful companion during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. It is a lengthy and hypnotic novel that tells the story of an emotionally detached man and his infatuation with his 17-years-old student. Substantial pages of the novel is some accentuated unreality of the man's dream and awareness. The Spell (1998) was unfortunately out-of-print in the United States. So I boarded my outbound flight to Hong Kong with The Folding Star and two movie tie-ins: The Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain. With a stroke of luck, I picked up a new copy of The Folding Star at Asia Books in Bangkok on my day of arrival. It's still sitting on my night-stand, all wrapped up and patiently waiting for its turn.

    The point I try to make is that there is an unique occasion for every book - a call for the reading of a specific title. I designate a pile of books, usually stored in a plastic bin, which I would take with me on vacation. These books are usually light reads, trade paperbacks, and background materials related to my destinations. Past vacation readings include The Blackwater Lightship (when I was on a roll of Colm Toibin's works), The Civilization of Angkor (primer to history of Angkor architecture during my trip to Cambodia), and collection of short stories and essays.

    Re-read pile consists of mostly Penguin Classics. I enjoy and specialize in Russian literature so The Master and Margarita is a frequent visitor to my reading list. The philosophical depth in redemption and death exuded from this novel makes it my current all-time favorite read. I conducted a third reading of Crime and Punishment and a second perusal of Brothers Karamazov last year, both translated by the husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. So as you see, Dostoevsky is another regular on my reading list.

    So what is on now? I've got a random to-be-read pile from which I select my next reading. Here they are:

    Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Walter Kaufmann
    The Overcoat, Nicolai V. Gogol
    The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
    The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips
    Shakespeare's Language, Frank Kermode
    The Spell, Alan Hollinghurst
    Adrift on the Nile, Naguib Mahfouz

    So many books, so little time. I might be able to clear the list during spring, unless serious intrusion of some literary delights occur.

    February 05, 2006


    [13] The Blackwater Lightship - Colm Toibin

    Two of my favorites writers are Irish: John Banville and Colm Toibin. Two of my favorite gay writers are Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst. I discovered Tobin's works in 2004, and this is the introductory work.
    The Blackwater Lightship explores the nature of relationship between family members and between friends. It is the story of three generations of an estranged family reuniting to tender an untimely death. As the story ominously unfolds, deeper and more unplumbed layers of the wounds, emotions, misunderstanding, and pent-up anger manifest as friends of dying Declan, who had been through all the difficult times in battling AIDS, joined the begrudged family. It was at such sober and difficult time like this that everyone, regardless of their past wounds, unforgiving grudges, and even moral disapproval of homosexual life, should forget their differences and prioritize Declan's comfort and happiness.

    Helen dreaded breaking the news of her brother's sickness to her mother, Lily, not only because of the despondent nature of the incurable disease, but also due to the fact that she had deliberately excluded her mother from her life for 10 years. Ever since the row she had with her mother about moving to Dublin for school, Helen shut herself off to her mother, who had never got over the early, unexpected death of Helen's father. Helen could never forgive Lily of her abandoning her and her brother at the Granny's house after her father's funeral. Whereas for Lily, she had never expressed her pent-up fear and shame that descended in her immediately after the funeral. The years of ice and alienation unfortunately turned into a standoffish rife that excluded Lily from her daughter's life and family. Helen's bitterness toward her mother pervaded into her own family life, for her husband must have learned long ago to live with and manage the web of unresolved connections when he puzzled at her periods of withdrawal and caprice.

    The ingenuity of the book lies in the intensive de-layering of such family grudges and magnification of feelings in a time of mourning. Even though Lily made a promise to herself upon the burial of her husband to do her best with the children, Helen's inveterate resentment rooted in the fact that her mother had taken her father away. In her morbid consciousness, Helen always fantasized her mother being forceful and pushy chasing after her, determined to stop her having her life. Helen wished her mother to tolerate people and accommodate their needs, but all Lily wanted was that Helen could take interests in her and her life.

    Friendship is an indefeasible element of this novel. Declan's friends have always been there fighting the disease and egging him on. When Lily was rude and hostile to his friends, telling them to leave him to her, they fearlessly confronted how they had been looking after him during numerous life-and-death occasions when the family did not even seem to be around. Paul stood his ground being the closest friend to Declan. He read all the relevant books and kept himself cognizant of the latest therapies. He knew what and how to make Declan comfortable and to mitigate his pain. Paul vowed staunchly that he would stay with Declan and he would never leave unless Declan asked him to. Declan even confided in him about his mother with phrases and sentences which were not edifying. Moved to such loyalty and love the friends showed Declan, the stiff family succumbed to what they said and was inspired to reconcile its own strife.

    The Blackwater Lightship explores how true friendship can supercede relationship with family in a palpitating, brooding time of crisis. The fact that Declan chose not to trouble his mother, though he loved her, showed that the family was not as close to him as his friends were to him. This corroborated to the fact that his mother had no clue to his sexual orientation. Declan's fear of coming out to his mother and grandmother erected the barrier that stifled him to seek help from his family. He might be so afraid that his mother, at the knowledge of his sickness, would refuse to see him, even though he desperately wanted her to know and help him. Friendship not only filled this void but also dawned on the understanding, the de-icing, and finally the reconciliation of an unplumbed grudge that spanned over three generations of a family. Friendship offered to the family, with what openness and honesty, challenged the family's evasiveness. At one point in the book, the three friends were walking along on the beach, with Paul and Larry on either sides of Declan, quietly protecting him. This memorable scene epitomizes true friendship and is symbolic of the two lighthouses that unfailingly lights up Blackwater. Friends are guiding lights.

    Last but not the least, a more submerged point. The novel reflects on the palpitating struggle of one's gay identity. The quintessential "I knew that I was gay, but I had done nothing about it", the self-denial, and the resolution toward love and gay marriage are all touched on in this moving tale. It is an intense tale of woe and redemption, full of entrancing stories about the characters that so fatefully overlap. It's a humanizing, heart-thumping novel that tunes into the silent language of family.

    February 04, 2006


    Babbling about air-travel

    Busy day. So I dropped off a couple chums of mine at SFO. My cousin Frank and his girlfriend Stephanie concluded their two-week vacation in Quebec and San Francisco. They were to board Northwest Airlines flight NW027 bound for Tokyo Narita where they would transfer to another flight for Hong Kong. Northwest check-in at SFO was less than efficient and borderline chaotic. With a transpacific flight of over 300 passengers, only 5 check-in counters were open to serve both economy and business class passengers. The queue was actually not long with about 15 people but the wait was quite dreadful. Most of the passengers were not familiar with how the self-service check-in kiosks (of which Northwest seems to be very proud...) worked at the front of the check-in agents, who had to make frequent trips round the counters to assist self-check-in passengers while helping other passengers. So what was meant to expedite check-in became a waste of time. Northwest and other U.S. carriers should emulate world-class carriers like Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific (two of the four 5-star airlines in the world right now, according to Skytrax) in providing more efficient, more personal, more attentive, and smoother check-in procedures and in-flight service. One more thing, the Northwest boarding passes, do not indicate boarding time so travelers must allow more time for security check. I think it's little thing like this that separates top-notched airlines from the mediocre and poor ones.

    U.S. carriers at least for the international markets do not even measure up to the mediocre Asian carriers or Middle Eastern rivals like Emirates and Gulf Air. Food is horrible and insipid (not to mention now you have to pay $3 for some prepacked stale sandwiches and a bag of Sun Chips...are you kidding me?), not catered to passengers' creeds and dietary needs. In-flight service is indifferent to rude. Most of the aircrafts are aged and not equipped with personal entertainment system. Seats are worn...I do have to admit certain airlines like Air China should be avoided. I was once flying a red-eye 14-hour flight with Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong. On flight CX873, FAs served supper about one hour after the flight took off from SFO at 00:10 which I passed because I would instantly fall asleep. A couple of the FAs were attentive enough to offer a snack when I woke up empty-stomached some 7 hours later because they remembered I had skipped the meal. After the pleasant flight with CX, why would I settle for anything that doesn't live up to the bar? Why can't airlines implement measures to improve passengers' comfort in dreadful long-haul flights?

    February 03, 2006


    [12] The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

    A review on my all-time favorite read in literature.

    Whether one believes or not: Satan disguises as a foreign magician, and along with his thrice-cursed assistants, penetrated a theater in Moscow with black magic and hypnotic tricks. The artiste, who has personally met Pontius Pilate, is believed to have hypnotized director of the theater and has then contrived to fling him out of Moscow. The whole of the city is occupied with impossible rumors and portion of truth that is embellished with the most luxuriant lies. One thing is for sure: the theater has had to be closed owing to the mysterious disappearance of its administration and all sorts of outrages which have taken place during the notorious séance of Professor Woland's black magic.

    The Master and Margarita is about Woland a.k.a. the Devil who weaves himself out of the shadow of the "other world" and into Moscow. This fantastical, humorous and yet devastating satire of Soviet life consists of two interwoven parts - one set in contemporary Moscow and the other in ancient Jerusalem at the time of Pilate. The Pilate story mainly focuses on his decision in sentencing Jesus Christ to death and the purging of his soul owing to fear and cowardice. The Moscow story impressively brims with imaginary and frightful characters, most importantly of which is an anonymous master who writes a novel about Pilate (in fact Satan has read the story and re-tells it) but is accused by literary critics of possessing illegal literature. Closely interwined with the master is Margarita, a woman who deserts her wealthy husband for the master and whose book has so inexorably absorbed her. She is willing to pawn her soul to the Devil in order to rescue the master from delirium. After all the sorceries and wonders by which she flies on a broom and destroys the apartment of the man who has rejected the master's novel and so ruined his life, she knows precisely it is Satan she is visiting. But the meeting does not frighten her in the least for the hope that she will manage to regain happiness and peace makes her fearless.

    While thousands of spectators, the whole staff of the theater and members of government commissions have seen this magician and almost everyone who encounters the eerie retinue is in an delirious state, it is no doubt that all these events begin with the gruesome death of Berlioz at the Patriarch's Ponds. The chairman of a Moscow literature organization has slipped off some sunflower oil spilled on a turnstile and tumbled under a tram-car, head severed, and the exact manner of whose death fortold by Woland at his encounter with Berlioz and Ivan Nikoaevich Homeless. Poor Ivan has tried to convince that Devil does not exist and under Berlioz's tutelage writes an anti-religious poem that negates Jesus' existence. Ironically it is this very non-existing one who dwells in the beheaded writer's apartment and to whom Margarita desposits her faith., and from whom seeks salvation and peace after she and the master have been robbed of everything in the normal reality of the world.

    In The Master and Margarita, through its unusual range, picking up of tone, and sometimes a parodying voice, Bulgakov produces a novel that is a theatrical rendering of the terrors of 1930s. He meticulously weighs the question of cowardice, guilt, and conscience in considering the fate of his hero and through audacious portrayal of Christ, Satan and Pilate. The Pilate story, which is also the story written by the master, passes through a succession of narrators and converges to the Mosocw scene at the end, when the fates of Pilate, the master, and Margarita are simultaneously determined. Their fates reflect Bulgakov's own conviction that cowardice being the worst of human vices - for it is impossible not to believe that the indomitable Margarita has tried, at the expense of forfeiting her soul and salvation, to think up the best future for the master. As for Pilate, he persistently felt the scruple of his conscience since Jesus, whose life if not for his damnable cowardice he could have spared knowing the guilt of other prisoners is more considerably burdened. All that is left to the procurator are wicked pains, incomprehensible anguish, and the piercing feeling that he has lost something irretrievable and all his belated attempts to make up for Jesus' loss are nothing but some petty, worthless and despicable deeds.

    The novel is meant to educate, and to guide one of a state of enlightment in which the demarcation of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful and the transcendence of the need for retribution is the goal. The characters eventually are brought to see beyond apparent identity to the real identity, and to understand that Woland and Jesus being the same message. On top of the philosophical depth in redemption and death, the novel bespeaks details from Bulgakov's own life and a more personal tone in the satire of Woland and the retinue versus the literary powers. The normality of Soviet life is imposed from the very beginning, at the expense of the poet Ivan Homeless, who remains throughout the book and appears at each pivotal turn of the novel, especially when parable merges with normal reality.