Read And Misread In October

Reading often goes hand in hand with misreading. Being an immigrant and reading English as a second language have taught me this fact. At first this made me rather uncomfortable–the sense of uncertainty and self doubt following me like a shadow in a bright sunset, which means the shadow is much bigger and longer than my own figure. However, I’ve since got used to it.

“Modern Love” audible book by Daniel Jones, who’s the editor. It includes more than 40 tales, each around ten to fifteen minutes, by more than 40 authors. It’s easy to misread the title to consider this book as a collection of modern romance stories, which it is not. A more accurate title will be “Love And Unlovable Consequences”. The problem is that love is in a modest amount and consequences are huge. It could be that our industrialized social structure and value system are incongruous with out emotional needs. Is it so that any social structure will be a hindrance to our natural flow of love and emotions and human connections, which prefer a random unstructured existence?

“The Barbarians are Coming” by David Wong Louie. I thought of dropping the book when I had 70 pages left. I trudged through the first 300 pages and was at the end of my meager strength. Somehow I continued, not without a lot of mental flagellation to keep myself going. Now I still have 20 pages to go, but I know I would really enjoy throwing it away. Years ago I read “Jude The Obscure” and was so depressed by the story that I had to give up half way. These two books, about entirely different subjects and with very different writing styles, are similar in its depressing hopeless, almost suicidal, view of life.

“Aimless Love” by Billy Collins. It’s a delight to read his poems and he can always animate an inanimate object and award significance to the insignificant.

“Feminasty” by Erin Gibson. Half way through the book. I wouldn’t call it “nasty” at all. I would say it is asking questions of equality and can be named female in shining armors ready to fight and shout.

“We Wanted to Be Writers” by Eric Olsen. Finished it, but still find my own writing lacking. I feel like a movie director who imagine a lot of interesting scenes, but not able to reproduce them through the camera.

“How to Write Great Blog Posts that Engage Readers” by Scott Steve. Great suggestions, but whenever I try to follow the suggestions, I feel that my hands are tied and my writing just don’t flow as naturally. Why? I don’t know the reason.

Finished With A Sigh

I shouldn’t read this book, “We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” by Eric Olsen. I knew I shouldn’t but I still did. A lot of things I did in my life, I only did for conformity and convention and survival, which take up huge amount of time and energy. I’ve always thought that with books I have total freedom and autonomy. I read what I want to read. But now I think of it, I’ve been too optimistic about myself. This is the book that I should not read since it is about those native speakers who want to be writers. For a non-native speaker like me, this book doesn’t apply at all. Still I read it. It’s arranged in a non-conventional way, in which each person comes up to talk about his or her Iowa experience for several minutes. At first I didn’t like this kind of arrangement, but after a while I got used to it and even developed a preference to it in the end. If you ask me what I’ve learned from the book, I will say probably “keeping on with your writing” is the loudest of all the advice. No matter what happens, just keep on writing and chasing your dreams until you succeed or die of trying or find solace in Buddhism.

“Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems” by Billy Collins. I started to read this book about five years ago. During a Christmas shopping trip, the book landed in my bag with a big Barnes & Noble discount tag sticking to the front page. Since then, I read one or two poems here and there, often opening the book to a random page and closing the book five minutes later. Two months ago, I suddenly felt an urge for poetry and started to write bad poems. Even bad poems need inspirations and this book was fished out of the corner of the shelf. “A Word About Transitions” will inspire you to write a whole paragraph for the sake of transition just to avoid the simple word like “moreover”; you are reminded by “Last Meal” of a rude waiter in Central Jersey who you have to endure just for the weekly dim sum. Your Asian mentality tells you it’s not your last meal since there will be the next meal after the last and you will come back to kowtow to this sadistic waiter just for the good food. I like the poet’s range and variety and style. He’s the one I always come back to when I am blocked. And I am very often blocked and my block is worse than the New York City traffic jam.

“The Barbarians are Coming” by David Wong Louie. There are 70 pages to go, but I am at my wits’ end. I can’t endure it any longer. Several years back when I dragged one of my friends to a restaurant to watch an NBA game. He complained every minute of it. The meal was terrible, and the game was even worse. I insisted that we went to cheer for a rising Asian sports star. I wanted to show my ethnic solidarity. My friend despised me for this. He had watched Jordan for years and he hated the fact that he had to cheer for somebody just because he is an Asian. I think I feel the same way about this book just like what my friend felt for that NBA game. The more I read, the more I feel that the author is exercising a form of intellectual flagellation. He writes so well and I admire his writing, but he is using his talent to portray something so depressing. I can understand why Lung, the main character, dislikes his father. Lung has all his first world troubles while his immigrant father, who runs a dry cleaning place, is stuck in his third world mentality. He portrays his father as somebody without style and without taste. And then suddenly he writes pages after pages of his father’s love stories. I can’t imagine anybody would want to read a love story, in which the boy is in such a pitiful condition. I feel bad to be so negative on a book and I’m glad that the author passed away a few years ago–I won’t hurt his feelings with my negative review.

The October Book Plan

For about half a year or so, I wrote book reviews devotedly for books I read, but then I felt that I didn’t really enjoy doing that. I guess the main reason is that it feels like I’m still in school, trying to come up with something to say while worrying that what I am going to say is not going to be considered popular or correct or acceptable.

I like books without meaning just as much as I like books with a meaning, probably even more. This is my opinion: existentialism should be applied to books as much as our own life–existence over essence. Live and let live, exist and let exist. Anything more smells like a secret agenda to bend the world to a certain way. I would be happy with a combination of existentialism and Taoism.

My favorite book review is probably like this, “this book has no meaning but I just like it as it is.” Of course this will be an unacceptable book review. This may sound weird. However it will not be so weird if one considers that things we grow up thinking indisputable can be and will be disputed. For example what will be the future of work ethics when AI and robots become prevalent, and most people lost their jobs and will never be employed? Being an immigrant has prepared me for this kind of thing. Being an immigrant means that what you considered to be an unquestionable existence suddenly becomes very questionable or even nonexistent in another culture.

And now before this dismal robotic dictatorship arrives, let’s enjoy our life–by reading the following books for October. I know I will not finish several of them, hate at least two of them, pretend to like Shakespeare even if I don’t, insert a bad romance book even if I won’t admit that I or anybody else can love a book so vulgar. Well, plans are made so that unplanned events may happen.

  • Finishing “The Barbarians are Coming” by David Wong Louie. He writes so well and I love his writing, but his perpetual praise of French cuisine and his contempt for greasy low dig food, Asian food included here, are depressing to read. I think the problem is that the author doesn’t really understand Asian food. (He passed away at the young age of 63. Otherwise I would not say this for fear of hurting his feelings.) Just because his own parents cook greasily, he thinks all food, represented by his parents’ Asian face, are greasy. Just because the Asian restaurants he visited are greasy, he thinks all Asian food are greasy.
  • Finish “Hog Pilots, Blue Water, Grunts” by Robert D. Kaplan. There are so few good books about Asia that I have to dig into military books to find solace. In military books, Asia and Asians are not treated as sidekicks or decorations. Instead there are solid contents, serious descriptions, attention to historical facts. I like the author’s “Asian’s Cauldron” and want to read more from him. Unfortunately, he’s very much into the details of a ship or a boat or a plane or a deployment setting that I am not interested in.
  • Read “Where The Past Begins” by Amy Tan. I’ve had this book for a while, but I haven’t liked her later books as much as I like “Joy Luck Club”. So I was afraid of getting disappointed. I really enjoy her writing in “Joy Luck Club” even though she portrays Asian cultures as exotic oddities. I often imagine myself writing with her style about Asians as non-exotic normal ordinary people. I scanned through several pages of “Where The Past Begins” and felt that it is much better than “Valley Of Amazement”, a book I really tried to like but couldn’t.
  • Read W. H. Auden’s “Selected Poems”. I don’t think I will finish this book. I started it several years ago, but still it is there, unread and unattended to. I bought it because I encountered his poems “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” and I thought it’s so good. I had to order a book of his. However when it arrived, I flipped through the pages and couldn’t feel a connection with any of the poems. I don’t know why. Probably because I’ve no background information about him, his era, his circumstances, his life style. I don’t know what he’s talking about in his poems and I can’t relate. Also I am too lazy to do some research on him.
  • Read “The Marlowe Papers” by Ros Barber. I’ve never read a novel in verse before and this is my first one. If I like it, I may proceed to other similar verse book, but judging from the first several pages of it, I am not too enthusiastic about the format. I don’t know if Lord Byron’s Don Juan is qualified as a verse novel or a long epic poem or whatever other literary terminology it wears as an outfit. I like it very much. I listened to the audible book, but I’ve always wanted to listen to it while reading the text to enjoy both the beauty of the sound and the pleasure of the reading.
  • Listen to the audible book Vol. 1 of Anton Chekhov’s Complete Stories. This is a free book from audible plus.
  • Listen to the audible book “If I understand you, Would I Have This Look On My Face” by Alan Alda. I bought this book on discount. I just can’t handle my stupid impulse of overbuying whenever there’s a sale. My closet is full of discount clothes that I never even wear twice in my life. Same with books. Bad habit is very hard to get rid of.
  • Continue “Sailing Alone Around The Room” by Billy Collins.
  • Watch “Merchant Of Venice” 1996 (YouTube) and 2004 (amazon) and read the play and watch one lecture (YouTube)
  • Listening to “Modern Love” by Daniel Jones.

The Peril Of Persistence

It’s the peril of persistence. I was brought up on the principle of finishing what you started and now I am suffering the consequence. I can’t go on with this book, but my habit of persistence doesn’t allow me to give up in the middle. What to do?

I can’t stand “The Barbarians Are Coming” anymore and if I read one more page, I’m going to scream–do something with your life, Lung, and stop complaining about your girlfriends (he has two if you don’t count the third) and your parents (from Hong Kong with all the stereotypical Asian traits in more vivid and intimate display). I say this because I know the author died young and I can say this without really hurting him. He writes so well and I feel bad to criticize him, but the plot of this book is so agonizing. Somehow I feel that his girlfriends exist for the sole purpose of plaguing him about marriage and burdening him with offspring, and his immigrant parents live for nothing but to foist on him their bitter frowning, disappointments, rude remarks of prejudice, oily food, unwelcome expectations. And poor Lung can hardly defend himself against all these officious attentions and suffered in silence and depression. I wish I could sympathize him, but somehow I just can’t. I want to sympathize and please give me a reason to sympathize with you. I beg you.

Something else about the plot that bothers me: Lung dislikes his parents’ ways, from conversation, attitude, to food. He has no real connection with the tradition his parents adhere to and tries his best to detach himself from the odd reality he considers his parents live in. If he has such a mentality, how can he respect his father’s dying wish and marry the girl he hardly knows and shares nothing with?

I remember last year, the book “Life Before Man” finally extinguished my enthusiasm and ended my “Atwood Period” which lasted six months or so. It’s a book as agonizing as this one but I finished it in one month. Somehow I had to resort to false imagination that Nate loves Lesje passionately and suicidal-y in order to perk up my strength to go on. Atwood is so much more optimistic when she talked about other types of relationships, like those in Robber Brides for example. Such good stories.

Magnificent In Different Ways

This is not for me. I mean the book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”. It’s obviously for those native speakers. The magnificence described by the book must be felt by a lot of people, but as a non-native speaker I feel differently. If I feel the magnificence, it’s a different kind of magnificence.

Mencken and Orwell also wrote about English language in books and essays. The same kind of “this is not for me” appeared to me when I read them. I guess in a way I should feel happy about this since I am quite in the category of “know yourself”. I know what is for me and what is not. That’s knowledge, though sometimes I wonder if I am too arbitrary in my judgement. One thing I’ve learned from living with the ubiquitous presence of English is that I’m never so sure of myself no matter how much I understand the line. There are always the possibilities that a hint here, an allusion there, or a meaning between the lines that I have missed. My suffering from the consequence, most likely in the form of embarrassment, is never far away and sometimes just a minute or two away.

After struggling and laboring under the English language for decades, I cannot enumerate all of what I want to say about the language. However I can make modest attempts to list one or two. The first one is its almost limitless words. If you google, you can find forty different words for different shades of red color– a daunting task probably for native speakers and an impossible one for immigrants.

Also as a non-native speaker, I learn it first hand that there seem to be infinite ways to write a grammatically correct sentences, but to the ears of the native speakers, there are very limited ways those can sound right. This is annoying, but still bearable. What’s even more difficult for a non-native speaker is that whenever I try very hard to get something right, the sentences feel forced and affected. However labor always involves certain degree of discipline and enforcement, is it right? So this is the thing–you can’t force yourself, and you can’t not force yourself. What are you going to do?


is a word that I cannot handle. No matter how many times I’ve encountered it and looked it up, I have to look it up again for the next encounter. Same for words like flout, flounder, flaunt. F for failure to remember. I don’t know about native speakers, but for non-native speakers like me such an inadequacy is negligible, compared with other annoying language incapacity I’ve discovered and felt powerless to deal with. I can always attribute my memory lapse to the fact that my mind is not wired for alphabets. Genetically I am a tonal language live machine even if scientists haven’t found the tonal genes, or probably will never find.

Then I watched an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and all those cool things Leon teaches Larry. By the way, I think Leon should open a language school for immigrants since he can make the language alive and kicking, unlike those English language courses I took in school for which vocabulary memorization and grammar rules strangled the last bit of spirit out of English. Leon tells Larry that he’s been foisted with a secretary that everybody wants to unload onto somebody else. Bingo! I suddenly learned the word foist without really learning it and memorized it without beating my brain with a mental stick.

And “foist” is the most suitable word to describe the central character Sterling Lung in “The Barbarians Are Coming”. His relationship with Bliss is practically foisted on him by Bliss’ one-sided enthusiasm, sort of like the motherly love. Bliss is pregnant with his child. Even this unborn child seems to be foisted on him. Then he cooks for a beautiful Xena like woman and the next thing he knows, she’s drunk and tries to foist herself on him. His parents try to foist all kinds of things on him–the idea of going to medical school which he rebels against, their contempt for his culinary aspiration etc. They even arrange to get a picture bride–I think the barbarian in the title actually refers to her but I can be wrong–from Hong Kong for him, forcing him to ditch other women and to marry this barbarian. This last piece of foisting is the most egregious of all.

I am still at the 4th chapter of the book and I don’t know if more foisting is going to happen. It seems that cooking is the only thing nobody foists on him and everything else in life is imposed and unwelcome.

He writes so well and it almost pains me to talk about the prevailing foisting in his book. Fortunately he passed away two years ago and would not get hurt by whatever I say about his book. Only 63 years old. Too young to die for a modern man.

The Cauldron

There’s always this table, on which books pile up high, in one of the local grocery stores, the ShopRite of Edison township. Sometimes one or two precariously perched books on top would fall off when an inattentive shopper passes by and inadvertently brushes against the table. I’ve seen the books forever but never noticed them until the pandemic started. Isn’t it strange that when something as seismic as the lockdown happens, one’s mind starts to view things differently than before and see things one hasn’t seen for a long time? Is our brain shaken up and reframed? One day after a fruitless search for vinegar and rubbing alcohol, I stopped at the table and examined the books. I thought they were all unsuccessful romance books that nobody would care to buy, but that’s not completely true. Half concerns romance but the other half is about politics and military. I don’t really like military books but it’s the only genre that includes a lot of stories about Asia–WWII Pacific theater, Korea, Vietnam etc. Thus I have no choice but to read them since there are not so many good books on Asia or about Asians written in English. It gradually becomes my habit and now I know a lot more about wars than I had ever wished to. The strange thing is that the more one knows about wars, the less one likes wars, but still due to one’s habit one can’t stop reading about them. How weird? I wonder if one can ever really know or understand oneself.

The book is covered by a picture of two planes, which is a good start, but the title is incomprehensible “Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grants”. What does it mean? As a non-native speaker of English and non-slang comprehender, I have no idea what it means. Flipping through the first several pages, I saw Thailand and Korea, each occupying one chapter, and maps of Pacific. That’s enough for me to buy it. Coming home, I searched Amazon for other books of the same author and discovered “Asian’s Cauldron”, which instinctively attracted my attention. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to read, given the current global political circumstances.

“Asian’s Cauldron” is such a good book and the author is such a skilled writer. The author Robert D. Kaplan traveled to all these countries and he offered such spirited description of each country’s characters. It was published in 2014 and now the world is completely different. I think the author belongs to the previous generation of strategic thinkers since he’s almost retirement age now. The younger generation who are making strategic proposals right now think differently from him.

I am not very interested in the description of military buildup although I know some of my friends would love it–planes, missiles etc. I am very interested in the history of south and north Vietnam, the ethnic and religious conflicts in Philippine, and the condition of Sabah province of Malaysia. I wish he could talk about these anthropological aspects more, but that’s too much to wish for in such a book. I had a book before “Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters”, which I only read a little since I’m too unfamiliar with the history of Malaysia to be able to enjoy it. However just such a little bit of reading makes the chapter of Sabah more comprehensible and the condition of Philippine, Malay, Chinese, Indians more clear to me.

Canopy And Canape

At first I thought it means awning and then I realize it is not spelled canopy, but rather canape, for which Firefox’s quick search shows it means those little bite sized dim sum like food. For Asian immigrants like me, hors d’œuvre is a type of dim sum no matter what you say otherwise. Somehow my mind makes an unexpected shortcut to capybara and cayman. Why? I have no idea. The mind has a mind of its own. Probably because all these words share the first letter “c”? English can be so confusing to my mind, which is not originally wired for alphabets.

Canape didn’t appear in the book, but rather it appeared in the book review. I should have got the kindle version of “Winners Take All” since it mentions many names–people or organizations or books”–which I have no idea of. It would be convenient to highlight them, but it’s impossible to do in an audio book. The narration is not doing the book justice. This happens many times when the author does the narration. He performs it in a rushed way. No doubt his brain rushes forward in a higher speed than what the verbal communication is capable of achieving. Such a mismatch has often made a smart man look awkward or weird in social situations. Although a narrative book is not the same as a conversation in a party, it does involve speech, tone, poise etc.

I feel that what I want to say about this book has already been said by the review in Guardian. I won’t be able to say anything interesting. It is not even a topic I am interested in, but I know probably I should be interested. This is the thing. Whenever I am telling myself I should be interested in certain things, I just won’t be. It is a worthy cause, but it seems it is not an interesting enough topic to attract my attention. If it is not on sale in Audible, I would never have bought it. And this brings me to something I am interested in: how to transform a mundane topic into something interesting. How about write something about the author, analyzing his intention of writing the book, exploring his psychological fear and aspiring vanity, throwing something about his relationship with others.