A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Being neither a young male Irish Catholic nor an English major and at least one even slightly acclaimed novel short of an artist, I felt lost slogging through this “more approachable” work of Joyce’s.

In praise of what I find to be an impenetrable text, Shmoop says:

This novel, the first in Joyce’s whopping hat-trick of great novels, is both shorter and more approachable than either of Joyce’s later masterpieces (for which we humbly thank him). Portrait of the Artist really unleashed the massive power of Joyce’s innovation and unconventionality upon the literary world.

Why I found A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man hard to read

Fiction has character, setting, plot, and style. When any one of these four elements is developed at the expense of the other three, you get strange fiction. Sometimes it’s good strange and sometime it’s bad strange. Joyce’s fiction is primarily characterized by style—innovative and unconventional style. The literary world considers Joyce’s fiction good strange. For me, A Portrait of the Artist was bad strange.

I’m more of a nineteenth-century Realist than a twentieth-century Modernist or Post-modernist. I don’t like unreliable narrators, stream-of-consciousness narration, or magical realism. Joyce is known for free indirect speech, which is a kind of stream-of-consciousness narration.

The edition I read in high school had an introduction and notes built in, but many free and “thrift” editions, like the one I just finished reading, do not. It would have been better (though slower) to read the novel alongside some kind of notes (e.g., CliffsNotes or SparkNotes).

See below for what stuck out as well as when and why I read it.

Continue reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

We Love Bedok by Urban Sketchers Singapore

Want to see inside? There’s a link to a PDF sample on the publisher’s page for We Love Bedok.

Thus far, Urban Sketchers Singapore and Epigram Books have produced books of sketches of:

  1. Toa Payoh (November 2012)
  2. Tiong Bahru (February 2013)
  3. Bedok (April 2013)
  4. Queenstown (September 2013)
  5. Katong (April 2014)
  6. Little India (Sept 2014)
  7. Chinatown (May 2015)
  8. Geylang Serai (January 2016)
  9. Serangoon Gardens (January 2017)

The first two are sold out at the publisher.

When and Why I Read We Love Bedok

This is an attractive locally-produced book.

Genre: non-fiction (art)
Date started / date finished:  20-Jun-18 to 21-Jun-18
Length: 96 pages
ISBN: 9789810754327 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2013

Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey

How often does one read a book whose genre is roughly equal parts philosophy, biology, Chinese history and literature? Not very.

Caveat lector. This book is not an ordinary monograph in Chinese intellectual history. It is not just about China. It is not just about Lu Xun. It is certainly not an introduction to Lu Xun, or to his works. It is not an intellectual biography. It is not “an appreciation.” It is not a study of Lu Xun’s genius or his art (although both will shine through). It is a philosophical critique of Lu Xun’s thought and a philosophical and political critique of what Chinese in the People’s Republic have done, and may yet do, with Lu Xun’s thought, and it is a reflection on philosophy and biology.

Some non-fiction books barely scratch the surface of a whole discipline, explaining the same terms and repeating the same well-trodden foundational anecdotes. It’s refreshing, once in a while, to read something truly niche.

Also refreshing is the author’s use of language play. For a serious book, it sure has a lot of jokes. Frequently, the same word is used in two senses in the same sentence. It’s self-indulgent and self-referential, but I find it charming. Any stupid old book could be distant, detached, and dry; this one feels like it was written by a real live human being who really, really likes to write, and who cares deeply about the topic at hand.

The topic at hand is an analysis of Lu Xun’s understanding of the implications of evolutionary theory for his country. Do ideas about evolution suggest that the Chinese have an inevitable destiny, good or bad? Do those ideas suggest that they are the makers of their own destiny, and should strive to evolve, individually or as a whole country? What ideas about evolution did people have in Lu Xun’s time, and which did he encounter, and how did he interpret them and incorporate them into his work throughout his writing career? How have his writings since been used, reused, and reinterpreted?

See below for scattered notes on the content and style of this treatise.

Continue reading Lu Xun and Evolution by James Reeve Pusey

We Love Tiong Bahru by Urban Sketchers Singapore

Want to see inside? There’s a link to a PDF sample on the publisher’s page for We Love Tiong Bahru.

Thus far, Urban Sketchers Singapore and Epigram Books have produced books of sketches of:

  1. Toa Payoh (November 2012)
  2. Tiong Bahru (February 2013)
  3. Bedok (April 2013)
  4. Queenstown (September 2013)
  5. Katong (April 2014)
  6. Little India (Sept 2014)
  7. Chinatown (May 2015)
  8. Geylang Serai (January 2016)
  9. Serangoon Gardens (January 2017)

The first two are sold out at the publisher.

When and Why I Read We Love Tiong Bahru

This is an attractive locally-produced book.

Genre: non-fiction (art)
Date started / date finished:  12-Jun-18 to 12-Jun-18
Length: 96 pages
ISBN: 9789810736255 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2013

Burmese Days by George Orwell

In Burmese Days, a novel inspired by the author’s own stint in the steaming jungles of upper British Burma, plot-related tensions seem on the verge of boiling over. The conflict between local crime boss U Po Kyin and the civil surgeon, Dr. Veraswami, threatens to interfere not only with Flory’s plan to get his friend elected to the local European club, but also with his plan to marry Elizabeth, in whom he somehow manages to see a worthy companion for himself—worthier, certainly than his Burmese mistress Ma Hla May! Elizabeth, meanwhile, seems to have fallen for a young horseman temporarily stationed in Kyauktada. Whose plans will succeed and whose fail, and what lessons does Orwell want us to learn from all this?

For more on where and when the novel is set, a list of the members of the Kyauktada European Club, and some interesting quotes from the novel, see my Backlist books post on Asian Books Blog.

When and Why I Read Burmese Days

Reading this as a follow up to Not Out of Hate.

Genre: fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished: 03-Jun-2018 / 08-Jun-2018
Length: 461
ISBN: ASIN B003WJQ6RW
Originally published in: 1934/1974
Amazon link: Burmese Days

Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

I believe I read Many Waters once previously (it’s not in my records, which go back to 1999), but I don’t think I liked it then either.

Yes, that’s Noah’s ark on the front. Sandy and Dennys, the twin younger brothers of Meg Murray, the central character of A Wrinkle in Time, accidentally travel back in time to the days before the Biblical flood, a time when people were shorter, and angels, fallen angels, and mythical creatures roamed the scorching desert.

The twins both fall for the same local girl, but apart from mild feelings of envy, their coming-of-age story mostly seems to involve recovering from sunburn while waiting for God to send the inevitable flood, hoping that a way home will eventually present itself—which it does, as you know if you’ve read A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

When and Why I Read Many Waters

First, there was just A Wrinkle in Time. Then it had a companion book, A Wind in the Door. Later, there was a follow-up book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, set a decade later, and the three were marketed as a trilogy. This fourth book actually happens between books two and three of what was marketed as a quartet. Lately a fifth book is being said to belong to the series, but I think of the series as 3+1 at the very most.

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 30-May-2018 / 03-Jun-2018
Length: 310
ISBN: 0440227704
Originally published in: 1986
Amazon link: Many Waters

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in what is sometimes called L’Engle’s Time Quartet, is a bit like Cloud Atlas in how people and their actions are connected across large expanses of time.

Charles Wallace Murray, a precocious child who is saved by his older sister Meg in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, is a teenager in this book. Watched over telepathically by his sister, he rides the unicorn Gaudior to different eras and mentally inhabits a series of people. By influencing their decisions for good, and using an ancient Irish Christian prayer taught to him by his sister’s mother-in-law, he hopes to avert the nuclear apocalypse that is likely to be kicked off by an insane South American dictator whose Welsh ancestors migrated from the American town where the Murrays live.

I remember being confused by A Swiftly Tilting Planet when I was younger, but even as an adult I found the plot hard to follow. The bits I remembered best were about the unicorn (which is invariably shown on the cover).

See below for a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book as well as specific comments on what I liked and didn’t like about the book.

Continue reading A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

In the first half of A Wind in the Door, the companion to the Newberry Medal–winner A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murray hones her powers of discernment with moral support from a somewhat conceited conglomeration of dragons (which is invariably shown on the cover). It’s memorably gratifying when Meg recognizes the inner goodness in her little brother’s mediocre school principal, but when she does, there’s still, alas, a whole third of the book left!

The finale takes place in a sub-microscopic realm that’s hard to picture and introduces a new character who’s hard to care about, even though he’s somehow the key to winning the climactic battle between good and evil. Good luck ever turning this one into a movie, Disney.

When and Why I Read A Wind in the Door

When I recently read A Wrinkle in Time, some scenes seemed missing. I assume they are in the sequel.

Genre: Fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 29-May-2018 / 29-May-2018
Length: 203
ISBN: 044098761X
Originally published in: 1973
Amazon link: A Wind in the Door

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (again)

A Wrinkle in Time is undoubtedly a strange children’s novel, but well worth reading, no less now than fifty years ago.

When and Why I Read A Wrinkle in Time

I just read this book recently, but then I read a whole lot of other things before I had the chance to read the books that follow it, so I’m just starting over.

Genre: Fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 27-May-2018 / 29-May-2018
Length: 198
ISBN: 0440998050
Originally published in: 1962
Amazon link: A Wrinkle in Time

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

When I bought The Good Earth from the Amazon Kindle store, I had to choose between buying it by itself for $7.50 or buying the whole trilogy for $15.39. I’m glad I only bought the first one. One was enough.

The style of writing is simple in a kind of old-fashioned, grand, Biblical way that grated on me long before I reached the end. Long compound sentences rolled along relentlessly, one after another, connecting each thought or action with the previous one. Never have I read a book that contained so many “and”s. Moreover, those “and”s didn’t seem to be building towards anything in a meaningful way. The novel had a straightforward timeline and virtually zero tension, zero plot.

See my forthcoming July post on Asian Books Blog for more thoughts on this Pulitzer Prize–winning historical novel set in 1920s China.

When and Why I Read The Good Earth

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for June 2018.

Genre: fiction (historical)
Date started / date finished: 23-May-2018 / 27-May-2018
Length: 225
ISBN: ASIN B008F4NRA8
Originally published in: 1931
Amazon link: The Good Earth