China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

China in Ten Words offers an astonishing look under the shiny veneer of modern China. Yu Hua’s life experiences make for fascinating, if sometimes gruesome, sad, absurd, or horrifying stories. The essays don’t pull punches.

Yu Hua isn’t technically a Chinese dissident, since in China he enjoys fame as a respected novelist, yet this book was not, could not have been published on the mainland because he talks about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still a taboo (censored) subject in the PRC.

I’m so glad I read China in Ten Words, because it seems that almost all the other nonfiction books I’ve read about China were written by outsiders. An exception (the exception?) is a book I read in 2013 called Life and Death in Shanghai, a powerful memoir by a woman named Nien Cheng who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She was older and much more privileged than Yu Hua, whose upbringing was rural and far less comfortable, but she suffered more as a result of her special status.

Yu Hua’s book is organized around ten words, but the essays aren’t about the words themselves. The words just serve as concise labels.

More on the ten essays below.

Continue reading China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

Point Break (1991)

Well. Point Break (1991) was about fifty million times better than Point Break (2015). It had some actual characters and plot.

It also seems to have been a cultural touchstone, though not one that I was ever particularly aware of. If the interviews on the special features menu are to be believed, it introduced the zen of surfing to the masses.

My personal opinion is still mixed. On the one hand, the movie was horribly bloody. On the other hand, the skydiving was awesome.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/point-break/id547103622

Now, having just seen a Keanu Reeves movie and a Sandra Bullock movie, I feel like I need to re-watch Speed.

We Love Toa Payoh by Urban Sketchers Singapore

Urban Sketchers Singapore has produced books of sketches of:

  • Toa Payoh
  • Katong
  • Queenstown
  • Little India
  • Bedok
  • Chinatown
  • Tiong Bahru
  • Geylang Serai

I should really get the Chinatown one of these. Used to live there.

When and Why I Read We Love Toa Payoh

This is an attractive locally-produced book (featuring a Singapore neighborhood I’m not personally familiar with).

Genre: non-fiction (art)
Date started / date finished:  25-Mar-17 to 25-Mar-17
Length: 96 pages
ISBN: 9789810736231 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2012
Kinokuniya link: We Love Toa Payoh

Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Since I’ve read other books about Chinese language and culture, since I’ve studied Mandarin Chinese, and since I live in a partly Chinese-speaking environment, many of the sparkling, shining, fascinating bits of trivia embedded in Dreaming In Chinese were no surprise to me. But even I learned a thing or two.

The author’s words paint a picture of a difficult but rewarding sojourn. The writing is clear and concise, warm and insightful. This is a short, entertaining, accessible book on an interesting topic.

When and Why I Read Dreaming in Chinese

This expat’s view of Chinese language and culture sounded like it would be interesting.

Genre: non-fiction (travel, language, China)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-17 to 25-Mar-17
Length: 212 pages
ISBN: 9780802779144 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: Dreaming In Chinese

Ghost Protocol (2011)

I remember seeing Ghost Protocol among the new releases in a DVD shop years ago. Somehow it didn’t register as a movie I wanted to see. Since then, I’ve realized how iconic that 1996 Mission Impossible movie is and therefore will probably watch however many more are made, as long as Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt. At some point I decided I’m basically willing to watch anything Tom Cruise is in, though that doesn’t mean I like everything he’s in—I hated Jerry Maguire, and Minority Report was a horrible mess.

I really enjoyed the fight scene in the mechanical parking garage, but parts of Ghost Protocol were hard to watch; surely they filmed those Spiderman stunts with a greenscreen? Um, no. No, they did not. And it wasn’t a stunt double. Tom Cruise really had himself filmed on the outside of the Burj Khalifa. I don’t know who’s crazier, him or Jackie Chan.

A lot of heist movies show you the plan and show you the hero executing most or even all of the plan successfully; it’s fun because there are parts of the hero’s plan that you don’t know, or because you see the bad guys fall into traps set up for them. There’s still conflict because sometimes the bad guys get the upper hand, or someone on the good guy’s team turns traitor, but the good guy often has a secret backup plan, so it turns out he was never in danger, or at any rate is fully capable of getting himself out of it again.

What was fun about Ghost Protocol was the sheer number of things that went wrong for the characters. It was just one thing after another! The plans went awry over and over again! Or I thought they were going to, and that was worse!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/mission-impossible-ghost-protocol/id501587325

Miss Congeniality (2000)

Miss Congeniality came highly recommended by Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat. I think he and I have different taste in movies.

Sandra Bullock plays a rather slovenly female FBI agent who is selected by a co-worker she has a love/hate relationship with to go undercover and participate in a beauty pageant to catch a terrorist, so Michael Caine gives her an unrealistically rapid makeover, and she winds up making friends with her competitors, who are grateful to her for being herself and protecting them.

I tend to think of makeover movies as rather offensive, but I was impressed at the way Miss Congeniality transformed the “tough girl” character without requiring her to alter the core of her identity. Sandra Bullock’s character in fact expresses her own skepticism about the value of a beauty contest in assessing the worth of a person, but comes to believe that people aren’t ever as superficial as they seem, even—or especially—beauty pageant contestants.

And to be fair, makeover movies probably aren’t as superficial as they seem, either. Everybody loves a good Cinderella story; Cinderella is always kind and good before she gets the fancy dress and shoes, which is why we believe she deserves them.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/miss-congeniality/id328167954

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye was not a book I enjoyed. In general, I don’t like spineless characters, and I don’t like unreliable narrators, and Holden Caufield is both!

If your idea of great fiction is a story that successfully produces a powerful emotional reaction, then okay, I agree that Salinger’s book is great. It made me feel absolutely awful. After reading it, I felt I needed to go look at pictures of kittens or something to wash it out of my head. Blech.

More details about the book with SPOILERS below.

Continue reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Writing the Breakout Novel is a book by an experienced agent about how to write fiction that is not just good but great.

Maass offers valuable advice on how a newbie can avoid amateur mistakes and how a published author stuck in a rut can get out of it.

Broad topics include: premise, stakes, setting, characters, plot, subplots, point of view, theme, and industry shop talk.

Do you want to be published? Drop what you’re doing and read this book. Do you want to start getting fat royalty checks again? Sit up and pay attention. Whatever situation you’re in, it’s time to seize the day. It’s time to break out.

If you’re interested in this book, I also highly recommend Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

When and Why I Read Writing the Breakout Novel

Go big or go home!

I also read this book 26-Mar-14 to 28 Mar-14. Worth reading twice, or as many times as necessary.

Genre: non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  13-Mar-17 to 19-Mar-17
Length: 260 pages
ISBN: 9781582971827 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2001
Amazon link: Writing the Breakout Novel

Constellations by Nick Payne

Constellations, acted by Edward Harrison and Stephanie Street at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, has a parallel-universe premise built on some very hand-waving “physics”.

The play has just two characters, Marianne and Roland. They appear in a series of short scenes on an empty stage below a light fixture of 100 LED “stars”. The scenes tell the story of one couple, but the two lovers don’t have just one story, they have many differing stories. Sometimes they never get past an awkward hello.

More below about the play and why it was entertaining.

Continue reading Constellations by Nick Payne

Looper (2012)

Looper has a time-travel premise, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better.

I was perhaps expecting something like Edge of Tomorrow, if only because I read a reference to this movie when reading an article about that one a year and a half ago. But no, there is hardly any Groundhog-Day style repetition, just two simultaneous versions of one guy: a younger one (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an older one (played by Bruce Willis).

As I was watching it, I started to think maybe Looper would be like Paycheck, a sci-fi movie in which a hunted, mind-wiped character has to figure out some mysterious clues he gave himself, or Predestination, a time-travel movie in which there are some really strange relationships between the characters. But although it’s just as flawed as any time-travel movie, Looper isn’t really that complicated.

Looper has some dystopian futuristic stuff and some magical sci-fi stuff (mostly done with practical effects and not overbearing CGI), but the heart of the movie is not sci-fi, it’s drama. The themes include justice, redemption—and motherhood, of all things! The resolution of the conflict doesn’t hit you hard because it’s a clever gimmick, it hits you hard because it’s a deeply felt moral choice.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/looper/id575490887

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Looper (2012)