AL: "Aiyaa, it's got kaya on it. You b...moreWith apologies to native Singlish speakers.
Ah Lian (AL): "So, what you got with you hah?"
Ah Beng (AB): "A book."
AL: "Aiyaa, it's got kaya on it. You been reading it at the kopitiam, issit. No good- lah. Must not read books while makan. Must respect books."
AL: "Where got?"
AB: "At Borders."
AL: "You bought it? Usually you so kiasu. Only want to read books in the store."
AB: "No-lah. Only when I boh lui. Yesterday I got salary. So can buy buy. Besides the story is set in Singapore."
AL: "So, what is it about hah? Got a picture of cat statue holding a knife on the cover."
AB: "It's a mystery."
AL: "Oh, like Agatha Christie, issit? So, who is the detective?"
AB: "It's this guy, Mr. Wong. He's a fengshui master who solves crimes with his ang moh assistant, this girl called Joyce. There is also a Malaysian bomoh and some Hong Kong samsengs mixed up in it."
AL: "How come can find killers using fengshui, ah?"
AB: "Not just fengshui, also some smarts-lah. Can find kidnapped girl, get rid of ghosts in dentists' office."
AL: "So, is it any good?"
AB: "It's OK. Decently written, but the mystery is light at best. Got plot holes. Some humor from East/West culture clash. But how come this girl Joyce, who had lived for years in Hong Kong still don't like dim sum? How come so blur? And how come Mr. Wong never heard of Sydney Opera House? How come so bodoh?"
AL: "Dunno, ah. You always so wrapped up in books. I'm hungry. Let's go get some of that char kway teow in Geylang. Can or cannot?"
AB: "Can, can. That char kway teow, die cock stand one!"
Decently written, if somewhat predictable in its conclusion. Adam Lang is an ex British PM whose policies were so pro-US that he must h...moreSPOILER WARNING
Decently written, if somewhat predictable in its conclusion. Adam Lang is an ex British PM whose policies were so pro-US that he must have been a CIA puppet --- and yes, it turns out to be literally true (DUH!). And the said handler is no other than the former first lady herself (GASP!), who was recruited before she even met him. Somehow, Lang has been married to her for more than a quarter of a century without ever finding out about it (HMM, REALLY!?). Apparently the CIA is so much better in planting moles (talk about EXTREMELY long planning here) among the Brits than in finding real WMD in Middle Eastern countries.
Feels more like a political diatribe disguised as fiction than a bona fide thriller, with barely two-dimensional characters and an anticlimactic ending that makes you scratch your head. (less)
In a world full of flawed characters, pity for another human being may be the greatest flaw of all. The story charts the gradual decline of Major Scob...more In a world full of flawed characters, pity for another human being may be the greatest flaw of all. The story charts the gradual decline of Major Scobie, an upright colonial policemen who slowly succumbs to corruption and adultery. The irony is that the mortal sins (yes, this is a Catholic novel) that he committed are fueled not by garden-variety greed or lust, but by his propensity to take pity on other human beings. Pity for his wife --- he doesn’t love her but he feels an overwhelming sense of duty towards her wellbeing --- leads him to accept bribes. Pity for a friendless young widow, a war survivor, leads to an illicit relationship. Before long, he gets so entangled in a web of deceit that there is only one way out. You may or may not agree with Greene’s assertion that pity is a kind of pride that can lead to damnation, but there is no denying the power of this sparely told, bleak morality tale.(less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. We are essentially naked apes, albeit an extremely sophisticated ones, who are descended fro...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. We are essentially naked apes, albeit an extremely sophisticated ones, who are descended from other, more ‘primitive’ apes. But everyone has known this for a fact since the 19th century, don’t they? Unless you are home-schooled by strict Creationist parents, that is.
2. Creationists (and those who believe in Intelligent Design Theory) base their position on Argument from Personal Incredulity.
3. Way back before apes, naked or otherwise, our ancestors were rodent-like mammals (ever wonder why some people are described as looking ‘ratty’?), and before that they were lizard-like reptiles (hence the ‘reptilian gaze’ of certain human psychopaths).
4. Even before that, they were lobed-finned fish. Our arms and legs are modified lobed fins. You CAN’T eat fish and call yourself a vegan.
5. Creationists are DUMB.
6. Douglas Adams is COOL.
7. But ultimately, we are nothing but highly evolved BACTERIA.
8. THE BACTERIAL MANIFESTO. Yes, you bipedal apes, you stump-tailed tree shrews, you desiccated lobe-fins, you vertebrated worms, you Hoxed-up sponges, you newcomers on the block, you eukaryotes, you barely distinguishable congregations of monotonously narrow parish, you are little more than fancy froth on the surface of bacterial life. Why the very cells that build you are themselves colonies of bacteria, replaying the same old tricks we bacteria discovered a billion years ago. We were here before you arrived, and we shall be here after you are gone.
9. Think about THAT, you bacteria fodder.
10. We are the only species who invented the tax (and also the welfare state). Actually the fact that we invented the welfare state and other charitable institutions presents a challenge to Darwinism, but this book is not the place to go into that.
This book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- ha...moreThis book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- have been written in the last five hundred years. Apparently, this book is also the only biography of Felice della Rovere that has ever seen print. It’s easy to discern why --- compared to Lucrezia, who (among other things) is accused by some of having an incestuous relationship with her father, Pope Alexander VI, Felice lived the relatively dull, virtuous life of a Renaissance clan matron. She was married twice, both arranged by her father for dynastic/political purposes, the second one to a scion of the powerful Orsini family, whose continuing street brawls with the Collonnas make the Capulets/Montagues feud looks like a schoolyard fight. In fact, their everlasting vendetta against each other drove the Papacy away from Rome for a while, and Julius II, Felice’s father, was desperate to engineer peace between the two clans. Marrying his bastard daughter into the troublesome, warlike family would ensure that they toed the papal line.
Unlike his predecessor (and arch-enemy) Alexander VI, who had numerous illegitimate children from several different mistresses, Julius was actually considered quite chaste --- the ‘Warrior Pope’ was more interested in making war than love. His having a daughter was nothing strange in an age when the preferred vice for a Catholic priest was not pedophilia but plain old-fashioned fornication with women, preferably aristocratic ones. The children that issued from such relationships became valuable pawns in their fathers’ political games and were mated with the sons of the powerful families that effectively ruled Italy. Their relatives, in turn, were given cardinals’ hats through blatant acts of nepotism (non-relatives were expected to engage in simony --- the Vatican did not believe in freebies for strangers).
Felice, despite having an unblemished reputation, was an adept of all the aristocratic arts of the day, which included everything that Macchiavelli advocated short of murder. Apparently, had she been born a man she would have been a formidable player, but being female, she had to be contented with being the dynastic brood mare of the Orsinis. When her mercenary husband died, she became the regent for her small sons and the de-facto ruler of the Orsini fiefdom. She spent the rest of her life managing the vast estates and outwitting the clan enemies, as well as envious, even murderous in-laws. She not only survived, but was able to hand over the family patrimony largely intact to her sons (who turned out to be totally undeserving, but that’s another story). To her credit, she was also piously charitable, ever ready to listen to sob stories and share her estate’s bounty with hard-luck tenant farmers and loyal retainers.
The story of her life, although not as piquant as Lucrezia’s, is an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period in Italian history; it was during her father’s reign that St. Peter was built and the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Raphael preserved her likeness in frescoes commissioned by the pope. She survived the sack of Rome by paying an enormous ransom, fleeing the city in a disguise.
Not much is known about her private thoughts, save for a few hints gleaned from official correspondences, and it seems that the author had to form quite a number of conjectures about them. It’s hard to know which are hard facts and which are mere inferences as there is a dearth of footnotes about them. It makes her story reads more smoothly, but is it really an accurate portrait? (less)
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narra...moreSPOILER WARNING
I have mixed feelings about this book. I like how Bronte used the narrative framework, with Lucy Snowe as the not always reliable narrator, who alternately reveals her deepest feelings while deliberately concealing certain fact/plot point from the reader. We are both privy to her innermost thoughts --- at least those that she feels appropriate to share --- while at the same time being held at a distance by her sly opaqueness and secretive nature. Jane Eyre she ain't. How Bronte utilized this framework to both tell the story and illuminate Lucy’s complex psychological states is both subtle and brilliant, and surely ahead of her time. We get to learn firsthand what makes Lucy Snowe ticks; we see her being reticent about the tragic circumstances of her early life, pining over Dr. John --- while still making excuses for his shallowness, being amusingly sardonic about the goings-on in the pensionat (secret love letters! cross-dressing as a nun!), struggling with depression, and (in a plot development that is hard to swallow --- more on this later) learning to love a man whom she previously despised.
That said, the technique also exposes us to a lot of her internal monologues, which occasionally devolve into tedious ramblings composed of melodramatic, adjective-laden sentences that seem to breathlessly run forever. Perhaps Bronte used Lucy to explore her own dark night of the soul, but somehow my eyes tend to glaze over whenever they occur.
Another recurrent theme is Lucy’s vehement anti-Catholicism and strong belief in English superiority. I have no idea whether Bronte shared the same views, but they are an integral part of Lucy’s personality and perhaps are simply a reflection of the times that they were living in. The French are shown to be similarly afflicted with national and religious chauvinism.
Eventually, love between Lucy and her “little” Frenchman, M. Paul, conquers all --- which brings us to my major beef with the story. M. Paul is a misogynist (“A ‘woman of intellect’,… a luckless incident, a thing for which there was neither place nor use in creation, wanted neither as wife nor worker.”) and control freak (“Pink or scarlet, yellow or crimson, pea green or sky blue; it was all one: these were all flaunting, giddy colours…”) of the first order. He constantly harangues Lucy about her dress, her intellect, her manners etc. ad nauseam. Sure, the man is not entirely devoid of little gestures of kindness for the lonely English teacher, and there is that big reveal about the life-long sacrifice that he made for a bunch of ungrateful semi-relatives, but he never repents of his earlier unPC-ness, and Lucy seems to happily gloss over them once they become an item. Oh, and Lucy is supposed to be fiercely independent, but at the end it is M. Paul who sets her up financially by giving her the girls school to run. Perhaps it’s better that he never returns from that business trip to the West Indies --- we never know, because Lucy is just as reticent about the closure to her story as about her early life.
3 ½ stars (1/2 star deducted for the awkward romance and rambling monologues). (less)
“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wo...more“Letters are just pieces of paper,” I said. “Burn them, and what stays in your heart will stay; keep them, and what vanishes will vanish.”
Norwegian Wood is supposed to be Murakami’s realistic novel; there are no mind-bending revelations, or even cats that talk, but a strong sense of ephemerality pervades the novel in a way that is at times surreal. There is nothing extraordinary about Toru Watanabe, the first-year student protagonist; he is studying drama, though he seems to have no real passion for it, he is apolitical in the age of worldwide student revolts, a middle-class kid from Kobe and a mediocre student who works part-time in a record shop to make ends meet. He is also at that precious age on the cusp of adulthood when everything that happens takes a looming significance. The central drama of his adolescence revolves around Naoko, the pretty but fragile girlfriend of his best friend who committed suicide at the age of 17, and Midori, an outgoing fellow student who is a tenacious survivor of both her parents’ deaths from cancer. Torn between the two, Watanabe navigates through the haze of love and lust, life and death, only to find himself at “the dead center of this place that was no place”. Yet, for all the tragedies that it contains, the story ends on a note of battered hope, flitting though it is, just as ephemeral as a firefly’s fading light.
We also get a fascinating glimpse of Japan in the late 60’s/early 70’s, when the country was well on its way to become a mighty economic power --- a Japan with bullet trains and hostess bars, where the soundtrack was The Beatles and almost all the artistic references were Western. A Japan full of model students and overachievers, who most often than not ended up losing their souls. Hence the suicides are given a sort of poignant dignity; they just happen to see the pointlessness of it all and calmly, rationally, opt out. Here today, gone tomorrow, like petals that fall away with the rain and are swept away the next day, or perhaps, as in that old Beatles song, the “bird has flown”. (less)
In Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby returns to his favorite stock character: the emotionally stunted fanboy. He’s considerably older, though, and somehow mo...moreIn Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby returns to his favorite stock character: the emotionally stunted fanboy. He’s considerably older, though, and somehow more distasteful in his petty obsessiveness, perhaps because we are finally allowed to see him through the eyes of the long-suffering woman who wasted the best years of her life hanging around him. Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, an obscure singer-songwriter who has not released any new material after his seminal 1986 album, Juliet, is not just a weekend hobby. He drags Annie, his live-in girlfriend of 15 years, through obscure corners of America in a voyeuristic quest for his reclusive idol. At one point in their trip, Duncan asks Annie to take a photo of him pretending to pee in a smelly rock club restroom where he thinks something pivotal had happened to Crowe. Annie is glad that the toilet couldn’t talk, because otherwise, “Duncan would have wanted to chat to it all night”. It doesn’t get better back home; Duncan is also a self-appointed world-class ‘Crowologist’ who spends an inordinate amount of time on his website about the singer with his fellow obsessives. They have no time for marriage and children, and now, herself pushing forty, Annie feels that her chance for happiness has withered away along with their dead-end relationship.
When Crowe unexpectedly releases a demo tape of Juliet (subsequently known as Juliet, Naked by fans), Annie gets her double chance at revenge: first by listening to the album ahead of Duncan (unthinkable!), and then by writing a negative review of it on Duncan’s website (how dare you!). Duncan considers her lack of appreciation for the new album to be a fatal moral failing and leaves her for another woman. Surprisingly, the great Tucker Crowe himself agrees with Annie’s assessment and begins to write confessional emails to her, divulging nuggets of information that Duncan would give his right hand for. His own marriage failing, Crowe heads to England to visit one of his numerous children from former relationships, taking his youngest with him. Then, in a bid to escape reunion with assorted abandoned children and ex-spouses, he goes to stay with Annie in Gooleness, the dreary coastal town where Annie and Duncan live.
Will Annie find a second chance with Crowe? Will Duncan be cured of his obsession after meeting his all-too-human idol in the flesh? Will serial husband /absentee father Crowe finally gets it right? If this were an earlier Hornby novel, say High Fidelity, or About a Boy, the answer to these questions (after a certain amount of angst) would be a resounding Yes. But we are in a different territory here. The landscapes of middle age are different from those of early adulthood, and some people are probably just too set on their way to tread another path.
I am giving this novel four stars, but actually it’s more like three and a half stars. Hornby is in a fine form here, but the ending somehow feels anticlimactic after so much build up earlier on, and some parts with Crowe and Annie feel redundant to the point of dullness. There is no laugh-out-loud moments, instead, the humor comes from Hornby's ribbing of the internet fanboy culture and the earnest errors that it propagates. "Dear God", indeed.
"...when it comes to books, conventional morality doesn't exist."
The Club Dumas is ostensibly a mystery, but the real mystery here is the depth of our...more"...when it comes to books, conventional morality doesn't exist."
The Club Dumas is ostensibly a mystery, but the real mystery here is the depth of our obsession with books, not just for what is contained therein, but also for their physical selves: the luxurious vellum or shagreen bindings, the fading gilt letters on their spines, the linen papers that would stay fresh for three hundred years, the rare first editions and complete serials that cost a small fortune. And what is written inside can change our lives, influences our perception of reality and even drives us mad with forbidden knowledge.
The other mystery inherent in all narratives is the narrator. How faithful is he to the reality of his subject? How much embellishment does he add to the bare bones of the story? Is he telling us the unvarnished truth or instead coddles us with beautiful lies? Did Borja ever meet the devil? Who really killed Enrique Taillefer? Was the girl who called herself Irene Adler really the devil incarnate? How reliable is Boris Balkan, the 'nearly omniscient' narrator?
A page-turner of a mystery with some loose ends. The conclusion is either briliant or a cop-out, depending on your taste.
I feel rather underwhelmed by this book, my first by Allende. This is a story about the making of Zorro, and it has all the incidents that we might ex...moreI feel rather underwhelmed by this book, my first by Allende. This is a story about the making of Zorro, and it has all the incidents that we might expect in such an account. Shoshone shaman grandmother who concocts magic potions; mute Indian sidekick/ milk-brother; Barcelona fencing master who is also the head of a secret society; lovely but fickle love interest; evil, sneering antagonist; fat Sergeant Garcia; gypsies; and even pirates. Everything that should make this a fun, swashbuckling ride that Zorro should be are there, but Allende writes of them in the driest, most uninvolving way possible. The prose is bland, cliche-ridden, and the characters, including Zorro himself, are scarcely more than cardboard cutouts. The bits of history that the author slip in to provide background to the story are somewhat interesting, but this is not a history book. Zorro should be the literary equivalent of a rousing, action-adventure matinee offering; in this respect this book fails miserably. Or perhaps I was expecting too much from the union of a character who is essentially a pulp fiction creation and a respected South American author. I expected better of Zorro, and I expected better from Allende. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. You can use the same adjective 19 times in a short chapter to describe a s...more3.5 stars
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. You can use the same adjective 19 times in a short chapter to describe a single character and still be considered a great literary stylist. Yes, I get it, Mr. Dickens: Bella’s adorable father is CHERUBIC.
2. It is perfectly acceptable to deceive your wife-to-be, and even marry her under an assumed identity, for the noble purpose of ascertaining her moral worthiness.
3. Once you are convinced that she is no gold-digger, she can be informed of your true identity as the sole heir of a wealthy garbage man.
4. She of course, having been established as a person of high moral standing, would take the news with perfect equanimity, even though she was of the mercenary persuasion just before she agreed to marry you.
5. It is perfectly possible for a hard-nosed, mercenary beauty to be reformed through the example of others whose characters have been debased by the sudden acquirement of wealth.
6. A barely literate, retired garbage man with no acting experience whatsoever can convincingly act this example.
7. The notion of the bee as a paragon of industriousness is vastly overrated. We as a bipeds should object on principle to being constantly referred to insects and other four footed creatures. As human beings, we cannot be required to model our behavior on the behaviors of the bee, the dog, the spider or the camel.
8. One of the most salient reasons of why this is so, is the undeniable fact that a camel has several stomachs to entertain himself with, while we poor humans have only one.
9. One of the best ways to educate oneself is to listen to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire being read by a one-legged street ballad seller. Thus we may learn of fascinating historical characters such as Polly Beeious (a Roman virgin, and therefore cannot be discussed in polite company), Commodious (an Emperor who is unworthy of his English origins) and Bully Sawyers, a.k.a Belisarius, a great military leader.
10. If you need to have your leg amputated, you can always sell it to Mr. Venus, a bone man whose collection includes preserved Hindu, African and (articulated) English babies, a French Gentleman, human bones (“warious”), mummified birds and dried cuticles.
The most entertaining part of the book for me is when Dickens is being caustically funny. Mr. Boffin’s reading of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mr. Venus’ dry recitation of his macabre inventory, and Wrayburn’s argument against the bee made me chuckle. The social satire with the social-climbing, money-obsessed Veneerings, Podsnaps et al is piquant and sharp, and perhaps as relevant today as it was in the Victorian era. The plot is intricate but deftly woven, with hardly any improbable coincidences that mar his other works such as A Tale of Two Cities. The evocation of the Thames and the marginal characters that make their living from its ebb and flow is immediate and pungent: we can palpably see and smell the great river, the seaman’s taverns and the muddy lanes where the Hexams and Riderhoods live. The river is a metaphor for growth and decay, and the most interesting characters are those that are associated with it. In fact, I find the supporting cast more interesting than the bland main characters. I don’t really understand who Wrayburn and Rokesmith/Harmon are, aside from the traits that they are given to support their roles in the plot. Bradley Headstone is a one-dimensional plot device. Bella is given more personality than the usual saintly, long-suffering Dickens heroine, but her sudden transformation seems to be hardly credible, and so is her romance with Rokesmith/Harmon. The contrast between the dark satire and the fairy-tale conclusion is jarring, and at times the pace of the story is as slow as the silt-burdened current of the Thames. And I was sorely tempted to fling the book to the wall every time Dickens calls Bella’s father a ‘cherub’ --- it’s like a literary Tourette syndrome.
A mixed bag for me, and if not for the melodramatic A plot and bland main characters, should have been a solid four stars. (less)
I'd give it 2 stars if not for the funny moments that Gilbert managed to slip in between harrowing accounts of her depression and rather boastful repo...moreI'd give it 2 stars if not for the funny moments that Gilbert managed to slip in between harrowing accounts of her depression and rather boastful reports of her older boyfriend's sexual prowess. Do we really need to know how she got that bladder infection? Yikes.
The writing is fluid and the book was a fast read. Some of the insights that she learned during her time in the ashram are quite interesting, although she did not break any new grounds with them. I wonder why she needed to travel to India to stay in that ashram while the same experience (so she told us) was available in California under the guidance of the same guru. Some of the characters that she met were rather too cutesy to be wholly believable, like Richard from Texas, who nicknamed her 'groceries' and acted as her personal guardian angel in that ashram.
If you are interested in books about westerners travelling in Asia in search of spirituality, you'll be better off with Tiziano Terzani's A Fortune Teller Told Me.
A word or two about 'running amok'.
Gilbert told us that the word 'amok' came from the Balinese language and that it specifically refers to a 'battle technique of suddenly going insanely wild against one's enemies in suicidal and bloody hand-to-hand combat'. In fact, the word 'amok' came from the Malay language (nowadays more commonly spelled 'amuk' in Bahasa Indonesia), although the Javanese and Balinese languages also have their own version of the word. It does not refer to a specific battle technique; 'amok' simply means being violently angry. Maybe Gilbert was thinking of another word, 'puputan', which is a Balinese word which means 'fighting to the death'.(less)