Posts tagged “fiction

Women’s literature – Passing Under Heaven

I have a prejudice against what I call “women-life-stories” – the kind of book that narrates the life story of a girl, because I am too impatient for the slow, often ruminative style of sharing and reflection that the recount of a woman’s life almost necessarily entails. Therefore, I nearly passed this book over upon reading the blurb :

Married at sixteen; divorced at nineteen; executed at twenty six.

In the twilight years of the Tang Dynasty, a young girl is given up by her mother and orphaned before she is five years old, yet rises to become one of the most famous and celebrated women of her age…”

I stopped there, thinking it was another of those stories celebrating the indomitable feminine spirit (I’ve had enough of sub-par determined-woman-finds-meaning-in-life books) and would have completely passed it by if I hadn’t suddenly recalled how much I enjoyed Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“. Just as Arthur Golden had extensive exposure to Japanese culture, so was Justin Hill familiar with Chinese culture, having lived in China for several years (or so I researched)…I decided to give Passing Under Heaven a try.

I was beguiled by Hill’s simple, flowing prose. This is not a book that seizes your imagination and yanks you along at breakneck pace, but the ephemeral quality of it is equally entrancing. There is none of the dense metaphors and indulgent description I was cynically expecting. Instead, Hill moves the reader’s attention from the harsh life of women to the culture of the Tang dynasty with elegance. Little Hope, the only daughter of Concubine Hwa, is orphaned at seven and adopted into another family as Little Flower. As a woman she is named Lily, and pon being sold as a concubine to Minister Li, she becomes Mistress Yu. Minister Li has to juggle his grandmother’s dislike for concubines, his own wife, as well as Lily’s affections at once, while Lily, craving for purpose and excitement, is stifled by the docility and submission expected from women in the Tang dynasty. The tormented love between Minister Li and Lily is as classic a symbol in the Tang Dynasty as Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love is in the Victorian Era.

From The Manual For Instructing Women.

To be his.

To serve him.

To lie in his arms at night.

To fold his garments.

To bring him his food.

To pour his tea.

To heal his headaches.

To obey his commands.

To obey the commands of his mother.

To test the flavour of a dish or the heat of the wine.

To care for him in his old age.

These will be your joys in life.

The relationship between Minister Li and Concubine Lily soon sours terribly, and while Lily manages to leave the minister, neither she nor Minister Li truly get over their love. Lily becomes both a notorious seductress and a skilled poetess before eventually being punished for her crimes. More than a love story, Passing Under Heaven is a understated yet powerful book about the society of China a thousand years ago. The details on culture and era were believable and evocative; on the whole, the book was thoroughly enjoyable. For the Guardian review, see here.


This coupon entitles the bearer too …


Hence passes the big-ol’ be-all-and-end-all school term, leaving me, finally, after having suckerpunched some academic discipline and restrain into myself, living too much in the past and too little in the present. Glorifying yourself with fragments of old wealth, faded beauty, once-youth, long-ago-vitality, recollections strong enough to leave you breathless and insane, frantic with your own delusions, like Blanche Dubois. Like Anwell, like poor, frightened, pathetic Charles Kingshaw. My beloved psychedelic protagonists – to think that after I have dissected your motives and circumstances and served it up proudly on fresh, blank paper, I would end up like you – pitiful and neurotic! How present I was then. Imagine Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry making sense only after I no longer need it to. 


“The film is on a loop.
…You remember little things. Telling stories
or pretending to be strong. Mommy’s never wrong.”

Whoever She Was, by Carol Ann Duffy

You placate a sudden, restless emptiness with flotsam and jetsam inconsequential goals. Completing the Sinnoh-dex. Achieving maximum tactician stats. Re-reading character supports. You remember (or pretend to have known) love, lovers, loving, but really, it’s mostly just the little things. I don’t even know what they are, really. Uh : you-me-I -?- sounds schizoprenic even to your-my ears.

I don’t – I wish – I want I do – I came up with a whole family I’d love to have. A cross between the Russian and Irish wolfhound, called Taichou, or Tai (Ty) for short. A Belgian shepherd (groenendel), called Inferos, or Ros for short. A Norweigian terrier I want to call Shin, short for Shinpachi. An Afghan hound, named Khal Drogo, either Khal or Drogo for short. And a labrador retriever. I really only had one but once he’s gone, now I have five! Five. There they go again, beloved, multiplying all out of proportion. Rabid as Chuck Palaniuk’s Buster Rant Casey.

Hot damn, but talk about wickedly good covers and wickedly good books. I’m game for anything brutal and visceral as long as its well written, and while (normal) kids should stay away from Rant, adults could learn a bit or two from it.  Finding the guts to love Palaniuk’s books is something like cultivating an acquired taste – it’s a little trying to read beneath the gore and the fragmented narrative style. I’m more favourably inclined to Palaniuk’s book than this book reviewer; however, it is is a good summary and the criticisms are valid.   



After our pre-Chinese New Year gathering for Assisi Hospice

Wow – stocking mandarins on trees! An angbao (with a condom and a sleazy coupon, no less!) from the illustrious WifeEe and Wife#1! Thank you for the moments I’m too lost to remember.

Cold wind and clear sky. PS Wish You Were Here.

Detective fiction – Evil Under the Sun

(Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings intended, and comments always welcome.)

I’ve mentioned before that most would-be-catchy book titles warn me off pretty effectively, but this is largely untrue for Agatha Christie titles. For one, her tried-and-tested ‘old school’ writing style guarantees good language, description and narration – winning half the battle for a good book. For two, (for two?? Is this correct??) Harper Collins (one of my preferred publishers) uses an elegant, quietly confident design for Christie’s books, meaning that even the loudest titles are balanced by subtle colours and fonts. I couldn’t find my edition of Evil Under the Sun online, and in the previous version of this post I used the ‘newer’, standardized Harper Collins edition of Agatha Christie. Then I hit upon the brainwave of bluetooth-ing the image of my book cover to the computer! (I am so tech savvy now!) So here now is the edition of Evil Under the Sun that I have. A pity the old design – apparently the signature edition one – seems to be unavailable now. Good book covers are always worth admiring. I particularly like the embossed “POIROT” on the bottom right corner.  

Evil Under the Sun has been made into a movie, a computer game (Wii??) so far, and it’s often in the “Poirot classics” collection – which says something about it’s positive reviews so far. This Christie involves Poirot investigating the murder of a beautiful actress while he is on a holiday by the beach. Expect the usual set of puzzling clues, the appreciable leisurely character development, the turning of Poirot’s mental cogs and the quivering of his incredible mustachios, and yet another unexpected ending.

However, something about Evil Under the Sun lacks completeness. The story begins with engaging characters and an exploration of some interesting concepts, but once the murder takes place, the book’s focus on clue-finding and suspect-eliminating takes centerstage, cutting short character and concept development. I would have liked more thorough portrayal of evil and predation, which, after all, drives the killer’s actions. To explain it with “it is natural instinct to murder for money” is not only abrupt but disappointing; even if predatory instinct was deemed largely animalistic in Christie’s time, I’d expected a better psychoanalysis on Poirot’s part. Furthermore, while the method of murder itself is ingenius, I find it unbelievable that Poirot was able to unravel the entire sequence of events. For me, the lack of conviction is due in part to Poirot makes one too many “lucky guesses” this time.

As with many Five Little Pigs (can’t generalize with other Christie books), Evil Under the Sun has its characters exploring values like love, loyalty and marriage. In broader terms, Christie’s murders address the conflict of ideals between Victorian society and modern society. It adds suitable societal background to the book without digging up sordid pasts or dwelling on angsty scenes. From Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun, it seems safe to trust Agatha Christie with a tasteful, well written and intelligent mystery. Since the reviews of this book have been largely positive, I would go ahead and recommend it anyway.

Detective fiction – Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect)

Disclaimer : The following is purely my own opinion. No hard feelings, and comments are always welcome.

Other than some devious smart-talking in Powerpuff Girls monopoly, five whole days with the Raju gang has left me severely starved of intellectual activity. Luckily for me, I have enough books to restart my mental faculties, while remaining well within the boundaries of my no-working-only-slacking promise to myself.

So my cloggy innards were itching for a good detective fiction. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Watson and Holmes? I cleave invariably to the funny little Belgian detective with the large moustache and the “little grey cells”, so Hercule Poirot it was – although I’ll admit to having never really acknowledged the quality of Agatha Christie’s writing until only two days ago. Now that I do, my only defence is that I read Agatha Christie alongside writers like R.L. Stine (Goosebumps series) and Enid Blyton (The Wishing Chair, the Secret Seven the Famous Five, etc). That is to say, I read Agatha Christie’s novels when I was around 7 or 8, long before I was mentally ‘equipped’ to appreciate a good detective novel. Other than my favourite Poirot case, Curtain, which I read (and stupidly misplaced) nearly ten years ago, I recall almost nothing of all the other Agatha Christie novels I’ve read.

I decided on Five Little Pigs this time. The alternative title is Murder in Retrospect, which is rather more appropriate a title, since the book involves Hercule Poirot investigating a murder case which was closed sixteen years ago. Carla Lemarchant, daughter of convicted murderess Caroline Crale, is convinced of her mother’s innocence and recruits Poirot’s remarkable detective prowess to clear her mother’s name. Knowing full well that the crime scene can no longer be accessed, Hercule Poirot is nevertheless confident that “psychology doesn’t change with time. The tangible things are gone – the cigarette-end and the footprints and the bent blades of grass. You can’t look for those anymore. But you can still go over all the facts of the case…and then lie back in your chair and think. And you’ll know what really happened.” Thus armed with his formidable and imaginative brain, Hercule Poirot interviews those who were involved in the crime sixteen years ago and pieces together, from their recollections, the truth that will acquit Caroline Crale of any charge.

“…with the passage of time, the mind retains a hold on essentials and rejects superficial matters.

“We are speaking now from the psychological point of view. I do not want bare facts. I want your own selection of facts. Time and your memory are responsible for that selection.”

I have read that Five Little Pigs is the best of Christie’s Hercule Poirot collection, and while I have no other Christie to compare it to, it was definitely a very enjoyable and stimulating read. The crime is covered from ten different perspectives (friends, police reports, lawyer, etc), allowing Poirot to pick out little details and construct his own version of what really happened. As a mark of excellence, Christie does not allow the repetition to become tiresome, but uses the opportunity to capture each storyteller realistically and distinctively. Aside from developing a solid, convincing cast, Christie lets readers compare personality with testimony and judge each character’ on truthfulness (the characters do lie!). Discerning readers will be able to spot the inconsistencies through the multiple-narrative technique, pick up character traits and biasness, and guess the real murderer before the denouement. Furthermore, Poirot – or Christie – has a superb understanding of human psychology and presents, very comprehensively, the human impulses that are often abstract, vague, and not easily described in words. 

“Do you know the way that things suddenly come back to you – after years, perhaps. I was once staying at a hotel. As I walked along a passage, one of the bedroom doors opened and a woman I knew came out. It was not her bedroom – and she registered the fact plainly on her face when she saw me.

“And I knew then the meaning of the expression I had once seen on Caroline’s face when, at Alderbury, she came out of Philip Blake’s room one night.

“I had no idea at the time, you understand. I knew things…but I didn’t connect them with reality. Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom was just Caroline coming out of Philip Blake’s bedroom to me. It might have been Miss William’s room or my room. But what I did notice was the expression on her face – a queer expression that I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand it until, as I told you, the night in Paris when I saw that same expression on another woman’s face. ” – Angela Warren, to Hercule Poirot

And Hercule Poirot himself – what a very marvelous character! – marvelous in the way that Arthur Weasley beams and says of muggles and their ‘ekeltricity’, “marvelous!” By any definition of the word Poirot should be ‘intriguing’ and ‘fascinating’, but these words connote a dynamic and compelling protagonist, which does not square with the quaint, foreign, odd little Hercule Poirot. There are many protagonists who are charismatic and forceful, who can herd and gather and direct the thoughts and actions of others. But Poirot is not one of them, and that is why he is so remarkable. Poirot is a hero who does not convince and does not influence – it is not his job to do so. Poirot goes out of his way to be “despised, but patronised”, a “most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! – a foreigner.”

“Hercule Poirot prided himself on knowing how to handle an ‘old school tie’ (a colloquial term for the usually conservative, slightly exclusive upper-class Englishman). It was no moment for trying to seem English. No, one must be a foreigner – frankly a foreigner – and be magnanimously forgiven for the fact. ‘Of course, these foreigners don’t quite know the ropes. Will shake hands at breakfast. Still, a decent fellow really…'”

My only problem was the unrealistic clarity with which a sixteen-years-ago event is recalled. Facial expressions, standing positions, exact words and phrases recalled in such detail…it’s all rather unbelievable, and while Poirot’s genius is obvious, a few of his conclusions are also based on certain small coincidental words said by the witnesses – without which Poirot would have had a harder time coming to his own conclusions. I suppose, in hindsight, that if these testimonials had been questioned, re-questioned and reconfirmed by the court during trial, then they would be more easily remembered. I would have also skipped a the ‘written record’ of each testimonial as that makes a total of fifteen recounts of the same incident. Other than that, Five Little Pigs is a highly recommended read.

Storytelling fiction – Housekeeping, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Lighthousekeeping

(Disclaimer : The following comments are purely my own thought. No hard feelings intended. Criticism and opinions are always welcome.)

My experience with literature texts have been mixed so far, but if you like your literature books, it’s usually a treat to re-read them and rediscover the stories and characters you used to study, especially when you don’t feel like risking dissatisfaction with a new, ‘untried’ book. Some texts, like Tenessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, or certain poems like Muliebrity, Before the Sun and Rising Five, have stuck with me over the years, while others I try to un-remember. My latest prose texts were Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Women’s literature isn’t my usual cup of tea and I approached these two books anticipating unending female rhapsodizing. On my first reading, I found Oranges a little too flighty and incongruous, but Housekeeping was surprisingly enjoyable. They both grew on me, or perhaps it is more fitting to say I grew into them, the way you grow into good books if you put in enough effort. 

HousekeepingHousekeeping is intensely beautiful, expansive and intimate at once, with layer upon layer of texture and emotion in its prose. Ruth and Sylvie, restless and attuned as they are to the overlapping experiences of desire, loneliness and death, tell their stories the way the night sky or a sunset shares itself : simple yet brilliant, moving each person on a level where language becomes … indescribable.

“…I dreamed that the bridge was a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surface…I dreamed that Sylvie was teaching me to walk underwater. To move so slowly needed patience and grace, but she pulled me after her in the slowest waltz, and our clothes flew like the robes of painted angels.”


Oranges, on the other hand, is a quirky, skilful blend of allegory and comic realism that I had trouble understanding at first. After getting the hang of the patchwork narrative and the consistently incongruent nature of the text, however, I grew to love it in equal measure. The protagonist, named Jeanette, is an outcast amongst her peers and finds her strength in the Christian church and her mother – until both church and mother condemn Jeanette for homosexuality, punish Jeanette and her lover for their ‘unnatural passions’, and banish Jeanette from their midst. Betrayed by family and lover alike, Jeanette is forced to make her own way in life, questioning the unreasonable rigidity of religious and conventional norms. 

oranges are not the only fruit

“…I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend.

“As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me…Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere is is still in the original, wirtten on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is  why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.”


And since I was in the mood for something humorous and thought provoking, I picked up another Jeanette Winterson novel : Lighthousekeeping. It resembles Housekeeping in more than just the title – both books are highly similar, from the themes of storytelling and the loaded literary references, to the technique of concurrent narratives, right down to the motifs of death, darkness, desire and memory. 

My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that – even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.

His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.

Shoals of babies vied for life.

I won.”

Lighthousekeeping starts off well, promising Winterson’s usual personal and irreverant style of narration. Silver is a familiar ingenue for Winterson’s readers (with the familiar unusual mother and dog), confronted too early with the death of her mother and her ‘destiny’ as a keeper of stories. Lighthousekeeping’s unwavering emphasis on storytelling, intially refreshing, soon becomes cloying, and I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of wordplay and aphorisms that prevents Silver from reaching her point. It feels like a writer’s indulgence. For me, the only redemption is Pew, the blind and eccentric old man who “tends the light” like a mother a child, and opens Silver to the world of light, night, and storytelling.