Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Of China, Life And Death And Its Many Spring Moons.

The recent launched of the the Beijing Olympics reminded me of a period in my reading interests, some twenty odd years ago, when I was intrigued with events inside the Bamboo Curtain, at a time when China had yet to open itself to the world.

Books like Red Star Over China, written by acclaimed journalist Edgar Snow, and The Soong Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave, provided fascinating historical perspectives and insights about China during a period of turmoil and struggle between the late 19th and early 20th century.

But it was the individual but rare accounts of life and struggles amid a nation trying to find its identity - from feudalism under the Manchu Dynasty to China's emergence as a republic and communism under Mao Tse Tung - that left lasting impressions on me.

To this end, two particular books and the stories that they told - Life and Death In Shanghai and Spring Moon - remained vividly in my mind after all these years. My recent re-reading of them did not diminished the impact they had on me when I first read them so many years ago but instead reminded me of the strength of the human spirit during times of adversity and I highly recommend them to readers.

And by the way, after recovering from my recent accident, it does feel good to be able to blog regularly again.

Life & Death In Shanghai by Nien Cheng
An autobiography published in 1987, Nien Cheng's memoir is an exceptionally gripping story of a woman caught in the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution and excesses under Mao Tse Tung's China.

Poignant and haunting, Life and Death in Shanghai is a detailed and courageous account of her imprisonment, incarceration, persecution and torture during the Cultural Revolution of the 6os'. A former adviser for Shell Petroleum China, her refusal to admit to being "an imperialist spy" led to six years of solitary confinement, torture and harsh deprivations in 1966. When finally released in 1973, she found out that her only daughter, Mei Ping, had been beaten to death by the revolutionary Red Guards.

Providing fascinating insights of life in Mao's China, Life and Death in Shanghai is an intimate, honest and addictive literary classic of a woman's determination to survive and the courage, triumphs and ascendancy of the human spirit in times of adversity and tyranny.

Spring Moon By Bette Bao Lord
Nominated for the American Book Award for First Novel when it was published in 1990, Spring Moon is an epic spanning five generations of a Chinese family and is set amidst a background of tumultuous events when China abandons its ancient tradition of an imperialistic monarchy and adopts the philosophies of a socialist order.

Seen through the eyes of Spring Moon, the headstrong daughter of the aristocratic Chang family, the epic provides an intimate glimpse of traditional China and the joys, sorrows and struggles of a great family amid uncertain and often, violent, social and political upheavals of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century China.

Thronged with memorable characters, compelling and exceptionally well-written, Spring Moon is an engrossing read and a spell-binding story of one remarkable woman - a woman ahead of the times - and of a love that is forbidden and a China in tremendous turmoil.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Back From The Dead And The Indomitable Spirit Of Charmaine Tan.

Sometimes, there are moments in our lives when things happen that changes the way we look at and live our lives. One of these moments occurred to me some three months ago when after dropping my kids at the school, a monster of a truck, against the flow of traffic, came charging at me after I did a right-turn.

The thoughts at that moment : "Damn, this is it." and "What about my kids?", the impact and the resultant black-out remained vividly in my mind three months down the line. Waking up in the hospital, disorientated and unable to move my legs, prompted another worry that I might be paralysed.

Well, I am not dead and neither am I paralysed. Guess somebody up there was looking out for me but the accident broke both my legs and right arm, fractured my hips and landed me in hospital for the past three months.

Moments like this reminded me of the unpredictability of life, of the importance of your loved ones and not taking them for granted, and more importantly, spending as much time as possible with my family, especially my kids. In the face of what I just went through, all other pursuits and considerations are actually distractions and are secondary.

There is an old saying that I could not remember in its entirety but it goes something like this : "I come this way but once, so any good...." Essentially it means that we live only once and we should be kind, compassionate and do as much good as we can while we are here. So, I intend to be less critical, more accommodating, compassionate and open-minded to others. And where possible, volunteering at some of the local charities.

While the focus of this blog will still be on books and the literary scene, my blogging will also take on a social bend, using my various blogs to promote social causes especially for the less-privileged.

Besides the change in perspective, there was another lesson learned - strength in adversity. This was largely due to an elderly gentleman, Marcus, who was my next-bed neighbour and in for colon cancer treatment.

Though clearly in pain, Marcus showed remarkable courage in facing his condition and also much grace in cheering me up during my hospitalisation. A fellow book lover, he also related a story that touched me profoundly - a story of courage, of dreams and hopes.

Charmaine Tan is one of the authors of the book "Pick Me Up", a community project by the "Make-A-Wish" Foundation Singapore. Her story, “Ceryni’s Secret”, is one among a compilation of short stories written by more than 40 people for the book - a collection of true stories about how people overcame their circumstances and turn their dreams into reality.

Nothing unusual about a published author except for the fact that she has a congenital eye condition which visually-impaired her, losing 95 per cent of her eyesight, and is also suffering from end stage kidney failure.

Despite her sickness and disability, Charmaine's love for writing resulted in “Ceryni’s Secret”, a 12,000- words story written in three days and it represented her first published effort. It also fulfilled her dream of being a published author.

When Marcus told me the story of Charmaine Tan, I realised, besides encouraging me, he was also drawing strength and inspiration from her, vis-a-vis his condition. The story of Charmaine Tan epitomised determination, courage and strength in adversity and with strength in adversity, the fulfillment of hopes and dreams.

All the more so for Charmaine. You see, Charmaine Tan is only 13 years old.

*Readers who wish to order the book can drop an email to : or visit the Pick Me Up website. All proceeds from the sales of the book will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

*For regular readers of this blog, please be patient as it will take some time ( for my right arm to heal ) before I can resume regular posting.

*Related post :
- For The Love Of Writing

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Another Blast From The Past - Vampiric Thrills With Anne Rice.

Besides Stephen King, who got me hooked on the horror genre in the early 70s', another author whose books have left a lasting impression on me was Anne Rice, especially with her Vampire Chronicles.

I remembered picking up a copy of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire in the late 70s’, largely piqued by the interesting title and wanting to try out books by not so-well known authors (Anne Rice at that time, have yet to become the highly popular author that she is now). And what a thrill it WAS!

Rather than being just creepy, evil and one-dimensional creatures of the night, Anne Rice’s vampires were imbued with so much depth, pain, loneliness and fluid sexuality that one just can’t help but identify with her vampires’ sufferings.

The lush and descriptive background that the stories were set in - from ancient Egypt in Queen of the Damned to biblical history in Memnoch The Devil - together with her immaculate grasp of history and the beauty she creates with her tales got me fervently hooked. So hooked, that I remembered eagerly waiting for her next novel in the Vampire Chronicles.

Rice's magical tales and her rare ability to make readers identify and connect with her characters' sense of alienation, their search for the meaning of their existence in a human world, and her excellent casting of vampires as metaphors for the human condition, have made names like Lestat, Louis, Armand, Marius and Akasha very special and memorable to me. And I have yet to come across vampire literature that can match the depth and breadth of the tales by Anne Rice.

Even though I have read her other books like The Witching Hour series and The Mummy, it has always been the Vampire Chronicles that made Anne Rice such a great author in my mind.

Sadly, for me anyway, since 2005, having reaffirmed her Catholic faith, Rice announced that henceforth, she will “write only for the Lord “ and that there will be no more such vampire tales.

While I respected her decision, I also mourned the loss of such rich vampire literature. So, to readers who have yet to experience the magic of Anne Rice tales, here are my favorite Rice’s tomes and I hope you will experience the same vampiric thrills as I did.

The Vampire Chronicles
Interview With the Vampire
Published in 1976, this is the first of her Vampire Chronicles and the book that started my vampiric thrills. Set apart from other works of the vampire genre by it’s confessional tone from a vampire’s perspective, it has the vampire Louis relating the story of Lestat, a vampire with a conscience. It is an engrossing tale of the despair of an alienated being who searches for the meaning of his existence, and his conflicts because he cannot find redemption and does not have the strength to end the evil that he is.

The movie adaptation in 1994, with Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat and Brat Pitt as Louis, was a rare and surprise hit of novels brought to screen. As an indication of its popularity, Interview With The Vampire remains the best-selling book in the Vampire Chronicles.

The Vampire Lestat
Set in the late 18th century to the late 1980s’, the 2nd book in the series is a rich narrative of the beginnings of the anti-hero, the vampire Lestat. From his origins as a penniless aristocrat to his becoming a vampire at the hands of Magnus, a vampire elder, The Vampire Lestat is an extravagant and dazzling story spanning prehistoric Egypt, ancient Rome to 20th century New Orleans.

The Queen of the Damned
My favorite among the Chronicles, The Queen of the Damned explores the rich history and mythology of the origin of vampires. Dazzling in depth and lush in historical myths, the story tells of the awakening of Akasha, Mother of all vampires, after more than 6000 years of slumber. Awaken by the electrifying songs of Lestat, it is now up to him to stop her monstrous plan of ruling the world of the living.

Breathtaking, imaginative and complex in plot, it is a must read for fans of vampire literature. The 3rd book in the series was also adapted into a movie in 2002, with the deceased R&B star, Aaliyah, as Akasha and Stuart Townsend as Lestat.

The Tale of the Body Thief
Published in 1992, The Tale of the Body Thief is a departure from Rice’s previous settings in history, with the novel set entirely in the late 20th century. Dealing with Lestat’s desperation to be free from the nightmare of his own immortality and his efforts to regain his lost humanity, it tells the tale of a mysterious figure, Raglan James, who has the ability to switch bodies and thus, possesses the cure for Lestat’s depression and conflicts. A unique and unconventional tale of despair and redemption.

Memnoch The Devil
Probably the boldest and most controversial book in the series, Memnoch the Devil goes back to the beginning of Creation and is a breathtaking and ambitious tale that reinterprets biblical stories to create a complete history of Earth, Heaven and Hell.

Imaginative as only Anne Rice can be, Lestat finally meets the Devil, who calls himself "Memnoch" and he takes Lestat on a whirlwind tour of biblical history, Heaven and Hell in an attempt to convince Lestat to join him in a noble quest. Lestat even meet God and his time on earth as Jesus. Lavishly narrated, it is an epic reinterpretation of biblical history and brought the Vampire Chronicles to a close.

Not surprisingly, with Rice’s portrayal of God as a flawed being and the idea that Jesus sacrifice was insufficient, Memnoch the Devil came under severe criticisms from Christians as being heretical and blasphemous.

*Related posts :
- In Memory Of Gary Jennings
- A Blast From The Past - My Journey With Stephen King

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Blast From The Past - My Journey With Stephen King.

Looking at how Duma Key, the latest book by Stephen King, is rapidly climbing up the bestsellers chart reminded me that the horror master has not lost his magic touch and at the same time, brought back many fond memories.

My journey with Stephen King began more than 30 years ago, in the 70s', when I was still a boy. Like most children during the 70s' who made do with hand-me downs, including books, I remembered being attracted by the book cover of Salem's Lot, brought to school by a better-off classmate. The black cover, with an etching of a girl's face and a drop of blood at the corner of her mouth, captivated me. Well, guess what I did? I "borrowed" the book (it's still with me) and so begun my journey with Stephen King.

Over the years, I have read most of King's books, including his earlier novels Carrie, Cujo, Christine, Firestarter and even books that he had written under a pseudonym, the "Richard Bachman" novels like Rage and The Regulators. So ardent am I a fan of his, that I have also watched all the movie adaptations of his work (unfortunately, the adaptations are all bad except for Misery).

Spell bounded by his rich imagination and his gift for telling compelling stories, Stephen King was largely responsible for my induction into and love for the horror genre. And every time the word "horror genre" comes up, his name will automatically pop up in my mind. So, going down memory lane, here are my all time favorite Stephen King books :

Salem's Lot
The book that started it all. Published in 1975, it came about when Stephen King asked his wife : "What if Dracula came to modern America?" "He will probably be knocked down by cars in Sixth Avenue!" said his wife.

Originally titled "Second Coming", this is the only book in my life that I finished in one night and it left me scared *stiffless. Set in a small town, it tells the story of the arrival of an old vampire, his corruption and decimation of the town populace and the struggles of a man to fight this menace. Rich in characterization and plot, it stands out among the many vampire novels during that time.

*Readers are advised that I, sometimes, take liberties with the English Language and there is no such word as "stiffless."

The Shining
Having watched the movie adaptation of this book, with Jack Nicholson as the derange father, I felt the movie paled in comparison in fleshing out the sense of eeriness of the hotel and the helplessness of the young son.

Published in 1977, though a simple premise of a couple with a young son isolated from the outside world in a old haunted hotel up in the Colorado mountains, the story fleshed out brilliantly the eeriness of the hotel and the helplessness of the young son in trying to deal with both the demonic forces and a murderous father. King's description of the derange morphing of the father got me hooked on this book and made me think twice about looking too long at a mirror.

Even among favorites, there are "favorites". I have read "IT" a total of 4 times over the years and I had never gotten tired of it. Published in 1986, it is one of King's few books of the monster-horror genre. Set in Derry, Maine (like most King's books), it tells the story of a evil clown who lurks in sewers and lures children to their death.

Spanning across their childhood years to growing up as adults, it also describes the heroic efforts and determination of a group of children in fighting this evil. King's superb characterization of the group's fears and their triumph over evil, especially the stuttering leader Bill, made "IT" a book to remember for a long time. And "IT" was definitely no clown.

The Talisman
Imagine a book that can transport you to another world, a parallel universe, a world so different and enchanting that you do not want to return. That was what the magic of "The Talisman", my all time favorite, did to me. Published in 1984, the book was King's collaboration with Peter Straub (another great horror master).

Wonderfully told, rich in characterization and plot, it tells the story of a boy, Jack Sawyer, and his travels in a parallel universe - The Territories - in search of the "Talisman" to save his mother. I was spell bounded by the rich imagination of the authors with their description of this parallel world and its inhabitants. Most of all, their concept of "Twinners", our twins in the parallel world, made this book such a wonderful read and further introduced me to the magical world of the "fantasy" genre.

When I first read the synopsis at the back of this book, my first thought was : "This is so unlike Stephen King, what is there to be scare about a fan and an author?" How wrong I was! Published in 1987, "Misery" was unlike King's previous books with its story about a rabid fan and her favorite author.

With only two main characters in the story, only King can turn it into a bestseller. His story of an author being kept prisoner by his number one fan and forced to bring back a character from the dead was a masterpiece. And the movie adaptation was, in my view, the only one of the many King's adaptations that was able to fleshed out the story. Kathy Bate's portrayal of the fanatical fan was fanatically good.

*Related Posts :
- In Memory Of Gary Jennings

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Phyllis A. Whitney - A Lifetime Of Words.

For a person with a voracious reading habit, there was a recent piece of writing that I wished I never laid eyes on - an obituary. Beloved American novelist Phyllis A. Whitney, whose romantic suspense tales has sold millions of copies, passed away recently at the age of 104.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, the superb and gifted story teller wove her magic for more than 80 years and words were her life even before she began writing professionally. She started writing at the age of 12 while still a student, and worked in libraries and bookstores, eventually serving as Children's Book Editor of the Chicago Sun and the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 40s'.

After graduation from Chicago's McKinley High School in 1924, Phyllis began to write seriously, starting with short stories. A prolific writer, her first hardcover success came in 1941 with A Place For Ann, a book for teenagers, and by 1960, had 37 books and hundreds of short stories.

Hailed by Time Magazine as "one of the best genre writers" in 1971, her popularity reached international proportions by the mid 1960's, particularly in England and the Scandinavian countries.

While she had great success with juvenile mystery, turning to adult fiction brought her international fame. Striking a chord with readers, her adult romantic mysteries always had a vulnerable female protagonist, offered optimism and have happy endings. Among her bestsellers were Feather On The Moon, The Flaming Tree, Daughter Of The Stars and her last novel in 1997, Amethyst Dreams.

Re-known for her exhaustive research, Phyllis A. Whitney also won many literary awards and accolades.

In 1961, Whitney's sixth juvenile mystery, Mystery of the Haunted Pool, received the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award for best children's mystery story of the year from the Mystery Writers of America. She won the same award again three years later with The Mystery of The Hidden Hand.

In 1975, Phyllis A. Whitney was elected President of the Mystery Writers of America. In 1988, she was named a Grand Master, the pinnacle of achievement for a mystery writer, by the Mystery writers of America, honoring her high quality work and contribution to the genre. With this lifetime achievement award, Phyllis A. Whitney joined the exalted ranks of former honorees like Alfred Hitchcock, John le Carre and Agatha Christie. She also received another lifetime achievement award - the Agatha in 1989 from Malice Domestic.

Phyllis A. Whitney's 1956 novel The Trembling Hills was also recently reprinted in the United Kingdom as part of the Hodder Great Reads series "celebrating the best and most-loved popular classics of the 20th Century." All in, she wrote more than 75 books and her works have been published in more than thirty countries.

* Fans of Phyllis A. Whitney can sent their condolences here

* Related posts :
- For More News From The Literary World