In Which Other People Talked About Books

one dayThis month of First Tuesday Book Club features One Day by David Nichols. Now the premise of this book intrigued me very much:

“After graduation from university, Emma, with her youthful aspirations and good humour, shares a night of passion with the shallow and vain Dexter. In a series of annual updates spanning 20 years, we return to the two friends every June 15. We follow their lives as they travel their own paths, intersecting and deviating along the way. As the years tick by, it becomes clear that they are happier, better people when they are together than when they are apart.”

Really, I was hoping this could be the second The Time Traveler’s Wife. But alas, (most of) the panel hated it. I highly trust Marieke and Jason, since they’re always honest and spot-on. Jennifer likes too many books including the not-so-liked ones, so I take her opinions with a grain of salt. Possibly as the main host she can’t butcher a book too much. Or she just has a bubbly personality that doesn’t allow her to be mean to any book.

Marieke started her opinion by saying “I hated it so much. I thought it was a smug, unfunny, unlikeable book about two smug, unfunny, unlikeable people.” (I love her) In the whole show Marieke, Jason, and Wendy (guest) just went on and on about how they hated the book, it’s so funny. Rob (also guest), as the only person apart from Jennifer, who liked the book, actually started talking to the audience instead of the panel (like he’s meant to)! Appealing to the audience to convince them to read the book!

I laughed so much during this segment. Must be one of the funniest episode of First Tuesday. You can watch it online here (12:21).

portnoy's complaintThe second segment features Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Marieke’s pick. I am now absolutely convinced that I need to read this book.

“First published in 1969, Philip Roth’s novel is the story of Alexander Portnoy, a young Jewish American who, on regular visits to his therapist’s, pours forth a rambling biography of his early childhood and teenage years. His tale is one of a strict upbringing, a raging libido, sexual guilt, compulsive masturbation and an overbearing mother. Unhappy with his parents and his sex life, Alexander’s confession becomes a comic attempt to cure himself of his one overbearing ailment, his Portnoy’s Complaint.”

You’re not convinced? Well watch the episode online (7:34)! They unanimously loved the book. Marieke this time started with “I just could kiss every page.” Very convincing Marieke. Then the rest of the panel just raved on and on about it.

Must. Read.

Have you read Portnoy’s Complaint or other Philip Roth‘s books? Which one would you recommend?

Are you planning to read any of the two books? Did I or they change your plan?

First Tuesday Book Club is Australian’s ABC monthly book club. You can subscribe to their video podcast on the website to get the full episodes (instead of two cut segments on the website).

The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The Push Man - Yoshihiro Tatsumi

This must be the bleakest graphic novel/manga I have ever read. I was intrigued when I saw this copy at Sydney Japanese Foundation Library. The book is designed and edited by Adrian Tomine (whose Shortcomings I have yet to read), and includes Tomine’s introduction.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is known as “the grandfather of Japanese alternative comics”. In 1957, he coined the term gekiga to differentiate the gritty, naturalistic style of cartooning he helped pioneer from that of the more commercial, youth-oriented manga. From the Introduction by Tomine:

“As plans for this translation project began to get off the ground, it soon became apparent that a comprehensive reprinting of Tatsumi’s work would be literally impossible. With a career spanning from the 1950s to the present day, and with a work ethic that yielded up to twelve pages in a week (and, with the help of assistants, fifty pages in one night!), Mr. Tatsumi has produced a mind-bogglingly immense body of work. So this will be a selective survey of his best work, beginning, at Mr. Tatsumi’s request, with the year of 1969. Our hope is to release one volume per year, each focusing on a single year in Mr. Tatsumi’s career.”

Yoshihiro TatsumiSo Push Man and Other Stories is Tatsumi’s best-of collection from 1969. It contains slice-of-life portrait of grim life of Japanese working class (or what they literally call “salary-man”). The stories were originally published in a bi-weekly magazine called Gekiga-Young, a minor young men’s magazine with limited print runs. Tatsumi was only given 8 pages per issue because he had no reputation as a manga artist at the time. So most of the stories in this collection (16 altogether), except for a couple, are super short. Too short in fact that I found myself flying through the pages, hungry for more. I read this thick volume in almost one sitting, almost unheard of me.

Going back to my impression at the beginning of the post, the book is surprisingly grim, with numerous sexual elements and violence, “both refreshing and unsettling” according to Tomine, to which I have to agree. The illustration style is very simple. The main character is always a man, who almost looks the same in all the stories, and eerily, rarely talks, which makes the underlying silent resignation from and frustration of life strongly resonate throughout the book. The title story is about a pushman (you know how in Japan they have official pushers to push people into the overcrowded trains?). Many, if not all, of the stories revolve around hopelessness of everyday’s life and often end in death, murder, or suicide.

There’s an interview with the author at the end of the book and when asked about his influences in general that had a significant impact of his work, Tatsumi answered police reports and other human interest articles in papers, and that he hardly read any manga. Little wonder then that reading this book almost feels like reading crime newspaper, full with events and crimes that are hard to believe, but you know they must be happening somewhere in the society. The stories are highly unsettling, but really addictive. I likened it to watching a train-wreck. You know it’s horrible and probably haunts you for a while, but you can’t look away.

a drifting lifeI think it needs a lot of courage to produce this kind of work and I commend Tatsumi for that. He himself doesn’t feel very secure however, noting at the end of the interview “I myself am a very normal person. Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.” I’d be worried too if I were him. I mean I don’t even dare to summarize you the stories. If you’re curious, Drawn Quarterly, the publisher, provides one complete story as a preview (click the pdf file on the side), so you can check that out.

The Push Man and Other Stories is quintessentially Japanese, the darker, perverse side of it that is. Recommended for the freshness, the boldness, and the absurdity of it all. But the sensitive and the faint of heart must stay away. Will I read more Tatsumi’s works? Uum.. YES. I’m dying to read A Drifting Life, his massive 800+ page autobiography (in comic form, of course).

4 stars
1969 (Japanese), 2005 (English), 202 pp

Pushman and Other Stories is included in Time’s Top Ten List for Comics.
Star interview for 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival 3 pages interview (also at 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival)

Graphic Novels 2010 (book #9)

Have you read the book or Tatsumi’s other books? Let me know!

Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy (Short)

Russian literature is something I’m completely unfamiliar with. So when The Classic Circuit announced Tour on Imperial Russian Literature, I knew I had to partake in some way. I wouldn’t have enough time to read a full-length novel (what with Russian novels all look so freakin thick), so I was looking for short stories. I went for the names I recognized. Since I’ve read a Chekhov’s story before, it was either a Tolstoy’s or a Dovtoyevsky’s for me (only after a few searches did I start to spell his name properly). A quick search on Stanza brought me to Best Russian Short Stories on Project Gutenberg, compiled by Thomas Seltzer, which looks promising. This collection features The Christmas Tree and The Wedding by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, God Sees the Truth, But Waits by Leo Tolstoy, and many others. The introduction by Seltzer struck me: tolstoy

When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness, perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a “Behold how the other half lives!” The Russian writes of the poor, as it were, from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of us.

However at the end I settled on the story in DailyLit’s Classic Shorts: Eight Stories for the Summer because it came at a great timing and I love their format more. The Russian shorts featured in the collection are A Doctor’s Visit by Anton Chekhov and Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy. So Tolstoy it is. I’m thinking it’s also good to dip my toe in the water before reading Anna Karenina next year.

Ivan the Fool is surprisingly simple story. It reads almost like a children folktale/fairy tale. Three brothers with different ideals go their own separate ways. One with an ambition to conquer, one to be wealthy, and the last one–the Fool–pursues nothing but happiness in simple life. The devils try their hardest to create troubles for the brothers as they’re not happy to see peace.

Curious about what was behind the story, I quickly googled it, to find University of Adelaide website (which looks great) that has the story available online. According to the unknown translator’s preface:

The story of “Ivan the Fool” portrays Tolstoi’s communistic ideas, involving the abolition of military forces, middlemen, despotism, and money. Instead of these he would establish on earth a kingdom in which each and every person would become a worker and producer. The author describes the various struggles through which three brothers passed, beset as they were by devils large and small, until they reached the ideal state of existence which he believes to be the only happy one attainable in this world.

Well that makes so much sense! Thank you Mr Unknown Translator.

If Anna Karenina is as easily readable as Ivan the Fool, I’d nothing to worry about!

4 stars


Complete Schedule for Imperial Russian Literature on Tour

Shaun Tan’s Short Film: The Lost Thing

Don’t know how I missed this, but I was so excited to find out about this short a few minutes ago! The short is part of Sydney Film Festival last month and will take part in Melbourne International Film Festival later this year. It is based on Shaun Tan’s book The Lost Thing (1999). He’s been working with a Melbourne-based small team from 2002 to 2010 for this 15 minutes short. It’s 3D with 2D hand-painted textures. Like all Shaun Tan’s I think it’s amazing! Love! I haven’t read the book, but I will surely do so now, and also look for the film!

Find out more about the film from Shaun Tan’s website (many images from the book, concept arts, and the film)

The official website (A very pretty site!)

Mid Year Challenges Wrap-up

It’s mid year so it seems like a good time to wrap up some challenges I’ve completed!

Once Upon a Time IV

once upon a time iv

Once Upon a Time IV ended on 20th June. I read 6 books that fall into category folklore, fantasy, fairy tales, or mythology, so I actually completed Quest the First (5 books) despite aiming for just The Journey (1 book). I did not even try for the challenge, so I guess fantasy and the likes are really in my comfort zone. Thanks to Carl for hosting this always fun challenge! Books read:

  1. The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (4/5)
  2. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (5/5)
  3. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (4/5) — contains 10 short stories
  4. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (4/5)
  5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (5/5)
  6. The Sandman Vol 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman (3.5/5)

Apart from the books above I also read 1 short story (apart from 10 Angela Carter’s short stories in The Bloody Chamber): The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change by Kij Johnson (4/5)

My favorite is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Brilliant, brilliant work! The Bloody Chamber warrants a special mention too. It was my first Angela Carter and I think I will enjoy more of her works. And Pride of Baghdad for its excellent artwork!

Book Awards IV

Book Awards IV officially ends in November 2010, but I’ve completed it with flying colors as award winners are really my thing. But the challenge seems to die down. I haven’t seen much update from either the host or the participants. I decided to wrap this up and stop keeping track.

Books read:

  1. Waiting by Ha Jin (finished 01/10, rating 5/5)
    1999 National Book Award for Fiction
    2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
  2. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (finished 01/10, rating 5/5)
    1966 Nebula Award for Best Novel
  3. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (finished 02/10, rating 4.5/5)
    2008 Ignatz Award for Best Graphic Novel
  4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (finished 03/10, rating 4/5)
    2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Overall Best Book
    2009 ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) Book of the Year
  5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (finished 03/10, rating 4.5/5)
    1932 Pulitzer Prize
    1938 Nobel Prize for Literature (the author for body of work)
  6. The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (finished 03/10, rating 4/5)
    1999 Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year
  7. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (finished 04/10, rating 5/5)
    2006 IGN Best Original Graphic Novel
  8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (finished 04/20, rating 5/5)
    1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Overall Best Book
    1995 Giller Prize
  9. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (finished 04/10, rating 4/5)
    1979 Cheltenham Prize for Literature
  10. Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (finished 05/10, rating 4/5)
    2009 World Fantasy Award (Novel)
    2009 Honor Book: Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature
  11. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (finished 06/10, rating 4.5/5)
    1961 Pulitzer Prize

My favorites are A Fine Balance, Waiting, and Flowers for Algernon, all amazing for completely different reasons.

China Challenge

china challenge

China Challenge officially ends in September 2010 but I decided to wrap this up too now because the next level is 10 books and I don’t think I’m gonna get there. I personally really enjoyed this challenge and will try to incorporate Chinese books in my future reading every once in a while. I completed Fast Train to Shanghai level which requires 5 books (but uum.. I forgot the nonfiction. Oops.)

  1. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (finished 10/09, rating 4/5)
  2. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (finished 12/09, rating 4.5/5)
  3. Waiting by Ha Jin (finished 01/10, rating 5/5)
  4. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (finished 03/10, rating 4.5/5)
  5. Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang (finished 06/10, rating 4.5/5)

I really enjoyed all the books here. If I have to pick the tops of the lot it would be Waiting and Love in a Fallen City.

I have more challenges to wrap up, but I really need to sleep so those’ll do for now. Did you join any of those above? How did you go?

Some post-challenge pondering: Though I love challenges, I think from now on I’m gonna pass any challenges that are longer than a couple of months, especially the ones that go for a year long. The excitement dies down pretty quickly, and the initial intention to share reads with readers that have the same interests don’t really work out well. After two months or three everybody seems to have forgotten about the challenge and we never hear from each other again. Do you think that’s true? Do you forget about the challenges you join after a couple of months? Do you make effort to visit fellow participants of the challenges you join? Do you expect the host to give you a visit once in a while? What do you hope/expect to get out of challenges?

A Picture Paints A Thousand Books

What one picture would you choose to represent your reading taste without a book in it? Simon of Stuck in a Book started the wave a while ago and I saw many who have responded to the challenge, which I loved to see (list here and pic compilation here). I know I’m awfully late, but it is something I’ve been thinking about and can’t possibly miss to contribute!

I’ve decided to settle on this painting by Salvador Dali. I saw this painting so many years ago, when I was a teenager. At that time I didn’t know who Salvador Dali was, never paid any attention to paintings, and didn’t know who painted it. Just last year I stumbled upon Destino, an animated short, collaboration by Disney and Dali (you can check the video on youtube). Only after learning more about Dali did I find out that he was the painter of the painting I fixed my eyes upon almost a decade ago. Boy how it stuck on my mind. I remember staring at it for at least a couple of minutes at some random small store which I just went in by chance. Didn’t quite make out what it was, but I was absolutely enchanted by it. It probably remains the only painting that is engraved in my memory from my teenage self.


What does it have anything to do with my reading taste, you ask.

I love books that are memorable and long lasting. I love books that make me think, challenge my world, and come up with a new reality. Books that are haunting, bold, and different. Books that grab my soul and don’t let go.

Books that make me go Wow.

Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang

love in a fallen cityLove in a Fallen City was picked by Claire for our Asian Book Group. It’s a perfect selection after The Good Earth, because both women wrote in the same era, both about China. Buck is even mentioned in the Introduction by Karen S. Kingsbury, the translator.

“[Chang] tried , with little success, to break into the English-language fiction market… But the cultural and linguistic gaps were to wide to cross. As C. T. Hsia, one of her earliest and most perceptive advocates, remarked, mid-century American readers’ views of China were greatly influenced by writers like Pearl S. Buck, which left them unprepared for Chang’s melancholy incisiveness and insider’s perspective.”

Don’t you find it ironic that the real Chinese was less accepted? Once I started, I could sort of see why. While Buck concentrated on the poor rural life, Chang wrote about the middle to high class Chinese society. From Westerners perspective, the tale of misery from a third world country might be more exotic than the intricacies of ordinary Chinese life and relationships.

The first story, Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, quickly set an image in my head as Pride and Prejudice in Hong Kong. There are parties and courtships, and people are measuring someone’s worth from how much he/she owns or earns. But unlike P&P, it’s not a feel-good romantic story, a pattern that will follow throughout the rest of the book.

Chang’s stories may be about love, but it may be love you’re not familiar with. The stories are essentially–borrowing words from the Introduction–“anti-romance”. Every single character is calculative–a very Chinese trait I think. I likened it to watching a game of chess, or a game whose rules I’m not very familiar with, so it’s required of me to pay attention to details, to what is said between  the lines, to things they say and not say, to little gestures. I love the intricacies, the power play, and complexity of the relationships. This is almost unheard of for short story collection, but I loved all the stories in the book. The more I read the more I love Chang’s writing and the more I appreciate her skills in building these tales of life.

Chang wrote film scripts apart from short stories and novels, so it’s little wonder that her strength in this aspect shines through. Her writing is often cinematic, it’s almost like she wrote with a big screen in mind. Jasmine Tea, her second story in the book started with a cup of tea:

“This pot of jasmine tea that I’ve brewed for you may be somewhat bitter; this Hong Kong tale that I’m about to tall you may be, I’m afraid, just as bitter. Hong Kong is a splendid city, but a sad one too.

First pour yourself a cup of tea, but be careful–it’s hot! Blow on it gently. In the tea’s curling steam you can see… a Hong Kong public bus on a paved road, slowly driving down a hill. A passenger stands behind the driver, a big bunch of azaleas in his arms. The passenger leans against an open window, the azaleas stream out in a twiggy thicket, and the windowpane behind becomes a flat sheet of red.”

In Jasmine Tea, we follow a young man who grows up in family with little love. Frustrated with his own father and stepmother, he starts to contemplate having a different father. He indulges in possibilities if her dead mother had married another man. All leads to dire consequences. The story is probably my least favorite because it’s quite disturbing at the end.

hui_loveinafallencityNext is the title story, Love in a Fallen City, which was made into a movie with the same name in 1984, played by Chow Yun Fat (The King and I, Pirates of the Caribbean). I really wanted to see the movie, but it’s an old movie and it’s so hard to find with proper subtitle so I gave up looking. But I searched some clips on youtube and watched some to have a feel of the atmosphere during the time as I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Chinese or Hong Kong movie from this era. I was especially intrigued by the clothes. During the time of reading, I had a hard time imagining the clothes they were wearing, so it was nice to see the clips and learned what they actually might look like. The story itself is one that most resembles a love story, with a man and a woman who find love in each other in the middle of turbulence and chaos.

In The Golden Cangue, we are faced with the epitome of evil mother and mother-in-law. She’s a very strong character, but I almost couldn’t stand to read on. Several times I needed to close my eyes and take a deep breath before continuing. Do you know what cangue is? Google it and check it out. It often appears in Chinese movies and only now I know the name of it. The title has great meaning in connection with the story.

My favorite stories happened to be the last two: Sealed Off and Red Rose, White Rose. In Sealed Off, the city is sealed off for unexplained reason and everybody is stuck at where they are until city is “re-opened” again. Camera pans to a tram, to the people in it, then is focused to a man and a woman. Two people meet by chance, forced to interact by circumstances. From the footnote of Sealed Off:

The military situation that creates this interlude is presented very obliquely; all that we know is that the authorities have shut down, or condoned off, all or part of the city. The authorities, in this case, are probably the Japanese occupiers or (more likely) the Chinese puppet government that answered to them. Chang made a point of never directly referring to the political or military situation in Shanghai prior to the defeat of the Japanese, and thus she usually escaped censorship and was never thrown in prison (as did befall those of her associates who took a more aggressive stance).

eileenchangInteresting insight into the political situation of that time. Chang left China when she was 32 and for the next three decades was a banned writer in her homeland, though still much loved by loyal readers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the overseas Chinese communities. Sealed Off is told to be one of the stories that impressed Hu Lancheng, an influential man of the time, that “he looked her up, swept her off her feet, and became her husband” (from the Introduction).

Last, another favorite of mine, is Red Rose, White Rose. It has such a great opening:

“There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. Isn’t that just how the average man describes a chaste widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory–as spotless, and passionate too?

Maybe every man has had two such women–at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is “moonlight in front of my bed.” Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.”

Just brilliant.

This is the short story that was picked by Jeffrey Eugenides to be included in anthology he edited: My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, whose short stories I’ve been reading and talking about here several times before.

Like Hong Kong the city, the recurrent theme in the book is fusion or clash between the East and the West. There are many mixed blood people make appearances or Chinese people who have spent a lot of time overseas. That and the progressive nature of the place and time, there bounds to be confusion and tension between the old and the new ways.

“Yanli rarely spoke or raised her head and always walked a little behind him. She knew very well that according to modern etiquette she should walk in front, left him help her put on her coat and wait on her, but she was uncomfortable exercising her new rights. She hesitated, and this made her seem even slower and more awkward.” ~ Red Rose, White Rose, p294

Love in a Fallen City contains 6 short stories, 4 of which are sort of novella length, and I think they worked really well for me exactly because of that. The short stories are not too short, so there’s time to develop the characters and the plot and there’s time for you to get immersed in them. They’re not perfect, as I found the dialogues sound a bit odd at times, but it’s understandable as Chinese is a very sharp and short language (though sing-songy), so it must be hell to translate to a wordy language like English. Then the behaviours of the characters can sometimes be very abrupt which I didn’t quite get. But all in all, what a great find. Thanks to Claire for picking this up, otherwise I may not have found it by myself. I will definitely look for more Chang’s works in the future. She is a gem of the East.

Chinese (1940s), English (1990s), Penguin Modern Classic (2007), 321 pp


“No matter how amazing a woman is, she won’t be respected by her own sex unless she’s loved by a member of the opposite one. Women are petty this way.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p127

“Basically a woman who was tricked by a man deserved to die, while a woman who tricked a man was a whore. If a woman tried to trick a man but failed then was tricked by him, that was whoredom twice over. Kill her, and you’d only dirty the knife.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p152

“Even though status wasn’t something you could eat, losing it would be a pity.” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p153

“We were way too busy falling in love–how could we have found time to really love each other?” ~ Love in a Fallen City, p166

China Challenge (book #5), Women Unbound (fiction #9), Reading the World

Also reviewed by
kiss a cloud | A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook | A Striped Armchair

ps: We are going to read Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima for our next group read in September. Would you join us?

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