Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year !

Our Kids

Wow! I've finally received the long-awaited photo books from iPhoto. The quality is very good..... much much better than the test print I ordered from a local printing house, which kept on telling me that my digital images are not hi-res enough for CMYK output. Bullshit! Even my Epson printer can yield high quality prints with the same files.

I'm a happy customer. Thanks to Apple.

Click here to view some of the images.

Book By Book

Another book by Mchael Dirda, Book By Book: Notes On Reading And Life is a short collection of essays about topics that include reading, learning, work, leisure, love, art, the self and death. For each of the themes, Dirda includes exquisite passages and meaningful quotes/life lines, and lots of book recommendations - all relevant to the themes being discussed.

The lists are in fact highly personal and you might disagree with any of them. Such is what strongly anticipated and encouraged by the author himself, You might go ahead to make your own lists, quote the passages that mean the most to you, name the most important books and authors of yours, and come up with an entirely different result. Yes, a reader's guide of your own.

A few favourite passages/quotes from the book:

The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don't know what will be the end. - Michel Foucault

Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. - Thomas Carlyle

There is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is some respects more cruel than a prison. In a prison, for instance, you are not forced to read books written by the warders and the governor and beaten or otherwise tormented if you cannot remember their utterly unmemorable contents. In the prison you are not forced to sit listening to turnkeys discoursing without charm or interest on subjects that they don't understand and don't care about, and are therefore incapable of making you understand or care about. In a prison they may torture your body, but they do not torture your brains..... - Bernard Shaw

No man is offended by another man's admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment. - Jane Austen

Romanticism is what brings a couple together, but realism is what sees them through. - John Updike

A few passages for your thoughts as well:

Lying awake at 2 AM, though, even the most apparently successful among us might wonder: Did I somehow take the wrong turn in the road? What went wrong? How did I come to be so dissatisfied with everything? A good deal of this malaise can be blamed on the cult of speed. We are always on deadline, rushing from one appointment to the next, grabbing a quick bite at our desks, constantly multitasking, repeatedly checking our PDA and e-mail, weeping with road rage when the traffic slows, logging in ten or twelve hours at work, day after day. How many of us live on that edge, that fraying edge? In every aspect of our daily routines we feel overbooked, overscheduled, and overextended. Alas!

The novelist Arnold Bennett once estimated that "not in 1%, even of romantic marriages are the husband and wife capable of passion for each other after 3 years. So brief is the violence of love! In perhaps 33% passion settles down into a tranquil affection - which is ideal. In 50% it sinks into sheer indifference, and one becomes used to one's wife or husband s to one's other habits. And in the remaining 16% it develops into dislike or detestation."
(What mentioned afterwards is true - shared memories, common pursuits, reliable support during times of crisis, even the same old arguments - these really matter than you realize.)

Don’t harp on “good books”. Remember how boring you thought required school reading was? Nothing kills what pleasure a novel might offer like ordering a kid to read it just because it’s won a Newbery or Coretta Scott King award. Roald Dahl pointed out that what really matters in children’s books is that they be so entertaining that they "convince the child that reading is great fun."

Sadly, we grown-ups can't help these shameful desires. To feel proud of one's children - this is the drug every parent hungers after. Only when the kids start to disappoint our expectations, as inevitably happens, do we settle for wanting them to be merely happy.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books .....

Purchased these books from PageOne warehouse sale last weekend.
  • Experimental Formats 2 / Roger Fawcett-Tang @ SGD10
  • 都市空間筆記 / 黃衍明 @ SGD1
  • 邊緣閱讀 / 黃子平 @ SGD1
  • 繭中紅塵—張蒼松創作成年禮 @ SGD5

How Starbucks Saved My Life

Bought this book and "consumed" it right away last night.

It tells the story of a man who was on top, a member of Skull and Bones from Yale, part of a privileged society, someone who spoke with Hemingway, Thurber, Frost, Eliot and other literary giants and then a high-powered, top-paid guy in a top advertising firm, only to be thrown out at 53, because he was simply too expensive to keep and no longer young. He spent the next ten years struggling as a consultant, lost his identity, had an affair with another woman and impregnated her, and then got divorced, losing everything - his house, his money and his four children - in the process.

Nearly penniless and had no clue about the future, he happened to be in Starbucks while they were having a hiring fair. When he was offered a job (might be a kind of joke), he accepted desperately. It wasn't until he went to work at Starbucks that he found any purpose in life, and finally learnt to care for others and respect for all.

It is a mostly enjoyable, light and easy read. The only setbacks are the writing is somewhat repetitive and the constant glorification of Starbucks (a bit too much).

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bound To Please { part III }

Continuing with my reading, I've encountered the following writers and their books which caught my fancy, and would like to read them someday :

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood is not only a classic of lesbian literature, but was also acknowledged by no less than T. S. Eliot as one of the great novels of the 20th century. First published in 1936, the novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, revolves around the lives of five characters: the mysterious, elusive and beautiful Robin Vote, her Viennese husband Felix Volkbein, her lover Nora Flood, her subsequent lover Jenny Petherbridge and their loquacious, outrageous Irish friend Dr. Matthew O'Connor (a transvestite): two of whom are actually based on Barnes and Thelma Wood, the lesbian love of her life, and it reflects the circumstances surrounding the ending of their eight-year relationship.

Barnes' own life was melodramatic. Her father was a loser who make little effort to support the family of one mother, one wife, one mistress and eight children financially. Zadel, Barnes' grandmother, was the one who struggled to provide for the entire family, supplementing her diminishing income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances.

At 16 Barnes was raped, apparently by a neighbour with the knowledge and consent of her father, or possibly by her father himself. She referred to the rape obliquely in her first semi-autobiographical novel Ryder and more directly in her furious final play The Antiphon. There was also suggestion of incest with her grandmother Zadel, with whom she shared a bed for years. Shortly before her 18th birthday she reluctantly "married" a 52-year-old man in a private ceremony without benefit of clergy. The match had been strongly promoted by her father and grandmother, but she stayed with him for no more than 2 months.

In 1912, the move to New York City after the split up of her family due to financial ruin gave Barnes the opportunity to study art formally the first time, though only lasted for about 6 months. The burden to support herself and her family soon drove her to leave school and take a job as a reporter. Over the next few years her work appeared in almost every newspaper in New York; she wrote interviews, features, theatre reviews, and a variety of news stories, often illustrating them with her own drawings. In 1915, she moved out of her family to an apartment in Greenwich Village. Soon thereafter, she entered a thriving community of artists and writers, and engaged in a numbers of affairs with both men and women.

HAUNTINGS by Vernon Lee

There are 4 fantastic stories :
- A beautiful and deadly Italian ghost
- A rescued orphan girl with mystical powers
- A modern woman in love with a long-dead poet
- A composer haunted by a "wicked voice"

Anyone ? You can download the ebook here for free.

THE TALE OF THE 1002ND NIGHT by Joseph Roth

In essence, the book examines the cultural crucible of Vienna thru the eyes of the Shah-in-Shah of Persia and his one-night-stand with a young Viennese prostitute, with wonderful dialogues and lyrical, sexy, lust descriptions. Ooh la la !

Let me serve you the following excerpt as a starter :
On his first momentous trip, this sovereign finds himself utterly dazzled by the European women at ball: "Thus far, the women he had known had been of two kinds: either naked bodies or arrangements of drapery. But here were both together, at one and the same time! A gown that seemed to want to fall of its own weight, and yet clung to a body: it was like a door that wasn't locked and wouldn't open. When the women curtsied to him, the Shah caught a glimpse of cleavage and then the downy hair on an exposed neck. And the split second in which the ladies raised their skirts with both hands before bending at the knee had something indescribably modest and at the same time fabulously indecent about it: it was like a promise that they had no intention of keeping..... How inexhaustible the amorous arts of the Occident must be!"

You can also go here to read chapter 1 and 2, to have a taste of it and enjoy.

Friday, December 26, 2008

In Cold Blood

Can you believe it ..... instead of going out on Christmas night for celebration, I had decided to stay at home and watched "Capote" on cable TV. Not bad though.

To be honest, I was not that familiar with Truman Capote prior to watching the other film titled "Infamous", with the same subject as "Capote", 2 years ago. Of course, I do know his earlier novel Breakfast at Tiffany's, thru the film starring Audrey Hepburn. That's about all.

The film tells the story of how Capote wrote In Cold Blood, a "non-fiction novel" about two men who killed a family of four in a small town of Holcomb, Western Kansas.

On 14 Nov 1959, Capote read an article about the crime in New York Times, fascinated by the crime, he decided that the effect of that brutal murder would serve as the basis for his new book. He traveled to Kansas with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, the writer of To Kill A Mockingbird, who helped him conduct and document his research. Over the course of several months, they managed to ingratiate themselves into the community of Hotcomb. At some point, Lee went back to NY, and left him to continue his exhaustive research alone.

Capote spent 4 years working on this book, extensively interviewing the killers and in the process, formed a particularly close bond with one of them, Perry Smith. If Capote had ever fallen in love with Perry .... there was no real answer in "Capote", but seemingly yes in "Infamous".

When Perry finally opened himself up to Capote and told him everything about the ghastly murder, that was it. Though not without tremendous internal struggles, by and by, Capote became distant to Perry, avoiding to visit him until the very day. Capote was nevertheless devastated by Perry's execution, which he witnessed in person, and blaming himself that "he could have done more", but deep down, he did not want to. His long-awaited book was then able to be finalized when the proper ending came : the execution of the killers.....

In Cold Blood was the last full-length book Capote ever produced. He died in 1984 from the effects of alcoholism.

I would recommend those interested to watch both films. Yes, they might have many scenes that are almost identical, but they differ in the way they portray Capote and the way they frame the facts.

As for me, I'm going to buy the book and read it someday.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bound To Please { part II }

"It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one, behind one's back, that are absolutely and entirely true." - Oscar Wilde

Let's continue the "gossip" tidbits I found in the book and like to share :


According to Cohen, Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), the author of the two Alice books and the great nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, has a passion for little girls (I already know by now) and took photographs of unclothed prepubescent girls. How, you may ask, did he manage to convince the upper-class mothers to allow him to take such pictures, especially in 19th century? Through his avowal of a purely artistic interest in the nude or the hints that other children had been photographed in this way as well? Who knows ? Apparently, the ardent admirer of eleven-year-old Alice Liddell may have even hinted to her mother that at some future date he might ask for the hand of young Alice. It never happened, of course, Mrs. Liddell intended her girls to wed the highborn and wealthy. Besides, the grown Alice had fallen in love with Queen Victoria's son Leopold, but did not last.

With incredibly strong self-control, at least he managed to keep his relations with his child-friends flirtatious strictly honorable, never in life crossed the thin line that took Humbert Humbert into the arms of his Lotita. Wow!

There is a beautiful limited edition of Alice's Adventures under Ground from The Folio Society (For members only, though). This is a facsimile of the earlier version, personally produced by Lewis Carroll as a Christmas gift for Alice. All the 37 illustrations, some full-page, were drawn by Lewis Carroll himself (surprisingly). You can acquire a copy here.

JOHN RUSKIN by Tim Hilton

John Ruskin (1819-1900), who produced Sesame and Lilies, The Stones of Venice, Unto This Last, The Ethics of the Dust, is remembered, mainly, for the poetry of his prose and for the oddities of his personal life. Oh yes, his mysterious, or perhaps humorous, sexual nature.

In 1847 he married Effie Gray, but for 6 years of their marriage, the couple never once engaged in sexual intercourse. Why? One know for sure only when Effie later wrote, "He had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening." (My god!) Ruskin might be shocked by the existence of female pubic hair to the possibility that Effie was menstruating. Apparently, he had been overly protected by his adoring parents. Eventually, their marriage was annulled; Effie then wed the painter Millais and bore him 8 children.

He might have been humiliated by this publicity, but Ruskin, in his forties, finally and irremediably fell for a barely pubescent girl named Rose La Touche, who grew into a sickly religious fanatic, and died at age 27. Nevertheless, she was the center of Ruskin's life for 15 years, even during the 6 years when they were forbidden to meet. Another unhappy Humbert Humbert, along with Lewis Carroll. And surprise - he knew the three Liddell sisters too, but much preferred the eldest, Edith, to Alice.

OSCAR WILDE by Richard Ellmann

The fate of Oscar Wilde (1843-1900), who plummeted from the heights of fame to utter ruin, by his "intimate" relations with the pretty and amoral Lord Alfred Douglas, or his "Bosie", is well known.

While his sweet and intelligent wife, Constance Lloyd, was occupied with his two sons, Oscar went off to visit Oxford and was seduced by the 17-year-old Robbie Ross, his first penetrative sexual experience he had. Soon, Oscar found himself leading a double life. He met an extremely handsome young man named John Gray while he was writing the book The Picture of Dorian Gray. Apparently, Oscar named the central character after him. Though Their relationship lasted at least two years, Oscar began to tire of him, as he tired of most of the young men he became involved with - with only one exception. That exception was Bosie, who piloted Oscar into a world of expense and excess - opulent dinners, hotel suites, boy prostitutes, sordid Maison de passe (brothels).

Eventually, Oscar was sued by the angry father of Bosie, the marquess of Queensberry, and was found guilty and given the maximum sentence: two years. This may not sound like much, but meant six hours a day on a treadmill, a diet of water and starches, a plank for a bed, a bucket for a toilet, which nearly killed him the first year. In prison he apparently tried to end his love for Bosie, but upon release, he went back to Bosie, and to a spendthrift's life in Italy with the borrowed money from friends - till the money run out. He was never able to write since.

Obviously, his life was over, and simply waiting for the final curtain. His end, at age 46, most likely from meningitis, finally came in a dingy hotel bed, where at the moment of dying fluids exploded from every orifice of his body. A tragic death indeed.

You may wonder what happened to Bosie ? He married in 1902 and fathered a son, though the marriage did not last. Bosie eventually became a Roman Catholic, and renounced his past life. He became a serial litigant, persecuting Robbie and other buggers (sodomites), before being sent to prison. When he died, at the age of 75, he was living with a farming couple who had taken pity on his semi-destitute and lonely condition.

Book Corners

If you want to protect the corners of your favorite, or valuable hardcovers, this little product might come in handy. Each pack, costs 8.50 GBP,  has 24 small, 24 medium and 12 large nickel corner protectors made from galvanised steel plate. You can purchase them here. They also carry few simple and sleek steel bookends.

That Cover Is Naked

What will you do ? You can draw, paint, scribble or scratch to make your mark on it. Frame it, read it, give it as a gift or hide it away on a shelf at your library.

Few months back, I came across some peculiar books published by Penguin on the shelves at Commercial Press in The Cathay.  The covers of these books were blank, just white, not even a title. Only upon closer inspection then I realized that they did it on purpose.

Penguin wants the readers to design and make the covers. I bought The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Great Gatsby, thinking that I might want to give it a try, but eventually gave up due to busy schedules (an excuse, may be). The contest is over, but do go here to view the inspirational creations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Religion Bookshelf

"5,084,000,000 people, 5,360 pages, 3,700 years, 243 countries, 7 books, and 1 shelf. For the first time, the world's most influential religious texts are brought together and presented on the same level, their coexistence acknowledged and celebrated." This is how the designers, Mike and Maaike, describe this piece of art.  It is made of solid reclaimed hardwood that contains 7 religious books - Bhagavad Gītā (Song of God), Holy Bible, The Qur'an, The Analects of Confucius, Tao Te Ching, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya and The Torah - which are being put literally on the same level.  It is made in a limited edition of 50, but with a big statement.  You can purchase it here.

Bound To Please { part I }

"A nice book to keep around just for the time when you're run out of something to read and need a suggestion."  -- Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

It is indeed an extraordinary one-volume literary education on great writers and their books. I've learnt quite a  bit of Herodotus, The Arabian Nights, The Name of the Rose, just to name a few.

Here are some tidbits that I would like to share :

BLAKE by Peter Ackroyd

William Blake (1757-1827), a great poet and artist, did read trashy gothic novelists and often sat in the audience at "cheesy" melodramas;  but also got up each morning, laid the fire and make tea for his wife; worked every day at his copper engraving and completed 500 plates; spent his last years in utter poverty; and finally died singing.

In his old age, after a life's work largely unnoticed and by then nearly forgotten, Blake ruefully observed, "What is fortune but an outward accident, for a few years, sixty at the most, and then gone?"  As he lay calmly dying, he added, "I cannot consider death as anything but a removing from one room to another."  He passed away in this accepting spirit.


This book reveals the vast gulf that looms between spirit and the personal life of Alexander pushkin (1799-1835), a poet, the author of Eugene Onegin, The Bronze Horseman, The Queen of Spades, and a handful of short poems.  He drank like a frat boy, treated and spoke of women as whores, reduced his family to penury by additive gambling, and typically allowed his usually dirty fingernails to grow long and clawlike (Gross!).  Once he arrived at a formal dinner "wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear" - do you believe that ?.  He could be utterly thoughtless of others' feelings and quickly roused to anger, jealousy and spite. He conducted himself like a lout and a vulgarian, except (of course) in his writing.

Can't imagine someone like him can produce such a beautiful verse :

I loved you; love still. perhaps,
Is not quite extinguished in my soul,
But let it no longer alarm you;
I do not want to distress you in any way.
I loved you silently, hopelessly,
Tortuned now by shyness, now by jealousy;
I loved you sincerely, so tenderly,
May God grant you be so loved by another.

Approaching 30, Pushkin was drawn to the social whirl, attending "routs", losing vast sums at cards, frequenting brothels, while at the same time publishing his verses in magazines, reading Walter Scott, translating Chateaubriand.  For a man already given to gambling and extravagance, marriage to Natayla Goncharova proved to be a very expansive proposition. She was a high-maintenance, attending balls almost nightly, requiring a household of over a dozen servants, keeping her husband from the "spiritual tranquillity" he needed to write. Though amazingly, he managed to produce two novels, a short story, a re-working, as a narrative poem, of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure; two imitations of the verse folktale, two translations of ballads by Mickiewicz; and a handful of short poems, all in under six weeks.

In 1836-37 a young Frenchman named Georges d'Anthes start paying increasingly indiscreet attention to Pushkin's beautiful wife.  Rumors began to circulate. Pushkin issued a challenge to d'Anthes, but their rencontre was averted through friends; The Frenchman even married Natalya's sister as a way of defusing the situation.  But the sense of dishonor festered in Pushkin and eventually flared up again. The two men finally met on the field of honor: Pushkin wounded d'Anthes slightly but was himself shot in the abdomen.  He was dead at only 37.

After his death, his friends discovered that Pushkin was roughly 100,00 rubles in debt and that he could hardly have sustained his financial house of cards for more than a few more months, making one wonders if he might not have been half in love with easeful death as a way of solving his unsolvable money problems.

THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA by Jan Potocki / Translated by Ian Maclean

At its most magical this book reads like The Arabian Nights, the narrator Alphonse van Worden is launched into one of the strangest and structurally complex novels of the 19th century.  Before van Wanden comes to understand the meaning of the night he has passed in the Venta Quemada , a deserted inn, he will encounter a host of strange beings, among them, a Kabbalist who aspires to immortality; a wonder-working hermit; the dreaded bandit Zoto; a gpysy chief with an adventure-filled past; the learn daughter of a great magus; a geometer who reduces everything, including love, religion and storytelling, to mathematical propositions; and even Wandering Jew.

The author's death may also make up one last story for the book.  In his mid-fifties, suffering from political despair or depression or chronic pain or the rumours of incest, no one know for sure, Potocki supposedly hand-forged a silver bullet, had it blessed by the chaplain of his castle, and then use it to blow out his brains in his library.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Every Book Its Reader

Recently, I've just finished reading this interesting book, subtitled 'The  Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World' by Nicholas Basbanes.  The book offers a good many consideration of writings that have "make things happen" in the World, works that have both nudged the course of history and fired the imagination of countless influential people eg. Shakespeare (of course), Milton, Adolf Hitler, Herman Melville, Henry James, Isaac Newton, and many others.

Now I know how the verb 'bowdlerize" {pg 60-61} - to identify the process of literary expurgation - came from.  Long before the British physician Thomas W. Bowdler (1754-1825) and his sis, Henrietta Bowdler (1754-1830), took it upon themselves to make the plays of Shakespeare "safe" for innocent eyes, the wholesale editing of another author's writing so that it might be more palatable to prudish tastes was known as "castration" (sounds brutal, i guess) to some, "winnowing" by others.  After Bowdler retired from medicine at the age of 31, he undertook a campaign to bring about the "erasure of indecent" passages from Shakespeare's works while taking steps, in his words' "to retain the spirit and fire" of the original. (What a noble man !!!)  These sanitized versions were the principal text by which England's national poet reached thousands of readers for close to a century, the dialogue discreetly pruned of any references to God or Jesus, with every hint of sexual pleasure or misconduct snipped out.

An outraged writer even railed that the Bowdlers had "purged and castrated" Shakespeare, "tattooed and beplaistered him, and cauterized and phlebotomized him".

However, bowdlerism was far from being abandoned, and was adopted by numerous successors. Modern bowdlerism exists to get references to race and ethnicity out of books, and there was nothing like the present major force in children's literature.

My other interesting discovery is that there was a Victorian Irish poet named James Henry {pg 252-253}, not Henry James.  He had published, at his own expense in Dresden, in the 1860s, a volume of poetry, which was then presented to Cambridge University Library.  The book lying there unopened till a chance discovery by the British critic Christopher Risks more than a hundred years later, who had included the lovely poetry of this Victorian doctor in his edition of the New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.