Steven’s Picks for Fiction and Poetry 2014

Want to know what literary works I have been reading? Here’s my list for 2013-2014.

Flight of the Hummingbird by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Wangari Maathai, His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Rating 10/10

A touching parable about how a bunch of insignificant individuals can work together and achieve something worthwhile. The moral is not original, but the story (and its purpose) is unique. Wangari Maathai is well acclaimed for winning the Nobel Peace prize for her social activism for democracy and human rights in Kenya, as well as the founder of the Green Belt Movement for environmental conservation. This tale is a motivational fable for the Green Belt Movement. What makes this book special is the Haida artwork by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. It gives the book a unique flair, combining cultures between continents. As bonus, the Dalai Lama wrote the afterword. Not sure why…

Brave New World & Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

Rating 10/10

We all know Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, so let’s skip that shall we? Brave New World Revisited is a remarkable essay written by Huxley himself nearly three decades later (1958). In the essay he criticizes everything: the world, politics, his story, himself. Amidst all the talk about how the future of mankind is descending into madness, Huxley may have gone mad. But what I find striking is the accuracy of his many predictions of the coming decades. His novel is prophetic enough, but seriously, read the essay –– it is damn accurate about our generation and our parent’s generation.

Gilgamesh (Stephen Mitchell version)

Rating 10/10

Why read the Stephen Mitchell version? Simple: it cuts the crap thrown in by intellectual fear since the Victorian era. Is there a lot of sexuality in The Epic of Gilgamesh? Yes. Is Gilgamesh gay? He’s bi, but yes. Were ancient Sumerian/Akkadian/Babylonian storytellers high? Probably yes.

The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse

Rating 10/10

For me Das Glasperlenspiel was an emotional book. I can really relate to the main character Joseph Knecht­ –– his quest for knowledge and truth, his frustration with the ugly political world, his interest in the esoteric philosophies of China, his hard choice of living as a wanderer. I deeply feel like that at heart. What I found more interesting is how the book made me think in dialectics (much like Taoism). The protagonist had to face the dilemma between belonging to Castalia (an already reclusive intellectual sect), or become an outsider and learn for contributory purpose.

The “Glass Bead Game” is rather vague. To me, the game itself is a challenge: the challenge to really learn things. True learning takes patience, determination, and appreciation. Never forget what you have learned, for it has already changed you forever.

My favourite poets of 2014:

Jorge Luis Borges

Thomas Tranströmer

T. S. Eliot

Rainer Maria Rilke

Toshiko Takada (高田敏子)

Lo Fu (洛夫)

Gary Geddes

bpNichol

Paris in the Twentieth Century (The Lost Novel) by Jules Verne

Rating 10/10

This was an interesting find… In my opinion it was Verne’s greatest work; ironically, he could not publish it in the 19th century because the publishers found the story an outrageously ridiculous (even impossible) prediction of the 20th century. So how come we can read it now? Somebody found a chest belonging to Verne and opened it. Inside lay a manuscript. The manuscript was then reviewed with astonishment; then the manuscript was properly edited and published in 1994.

This book is terrifyingly prophetic. The accuracy in which Verne envisioned the year 1960 is remarkable, provided that we allow some of his predictions to take place up to the year 2014.

  • Don’t study Arts in university: study Science. (Essentially true, at least in attitude)
  • The demand of science degrees made science textbooks obscenely expensive. (True)
  • Chinese is the second most important language after English. (We are getting there)
  • Art has become minimalist and techno-influenced. (Damn accurate! Too bad he didn’t imagine autotune!)
  • People don’t go to libraries for books. (This is sad and true)

This is why I think Paris in the Twentieth Century is Verne’s greatest work.

No Longer Human (人間失格) by Osamu Dazai (太宰治)

Rating 10/10

What made me read this book was the anime version from the series Aoi Bungaku. Out of all the featured novels Ningen Shikakku was the best in my opinion, so I felt that I got to read it. The novel blew me away. Dazai’s talent for eliciting powerful negative emotions forces you to truly understand what shame, disgust, unworthiness, sorrow, the list goes on. I must warn that the story is depressing and autobiographical (he committed suicide shortly after publishing the novel), so read if you are ready. Read it properly, you will taste Dazai’s bitter life: depressingly beautiful.

Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka

Rating 8/10

Okay. This book is a big WTF for starters. So there is this guy. He has no ambitions. He has a decent job, a decent home, and doesn’t really care about changing. Then comes his old friend (younger than the protagonist), a guy who wanders the streets with a camera, and crashes at friends’ houses cyclically. To make things worse, this tramp has a girlfriend and wishes to live at the protagonist’s place. They do a bunch of stuff (nothing sexual) and the story ends with the idea that they are there. They exist. I don’t get it. It reads like a symphony of blah, making it beautiful in a strange way.

The Art of Writing (文賦) by Lu Ji (陸機)

Rating 10/10

I initially read the English translation, not knowing the original Chinese author. The fu (賦) is a form of literature unique to China. Being a hybrid prose-poetry form, the fu was regarded more as artwork than document. The wen fu by Lu Ji is a classic meditative look into how to write. By meditative I mean to think clearly and carefully, as well as harmonizing oneself with the universe. I know, esoteric advice for writers. That is precisely the reason why I find this book both agreeable and beautiful. I later read the original Chinese in 文言文 (archaic Chinese). Rewarding but difficult I’d have to say. There were many obscure words and meanings that were considered common in 3rd century literary circles, but foreign in modern Chinese.

Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅) by Scoffing Scholar from Lan-ling (蘭陵笑笑生)

Rating 10/10

Okay, time for Chinese Culture 101: Ming Dynasty Novels. Novels first appeared in China around the 14th century. Similar to the Japanese monogatari, Chinese novels were written in third person omniscient, containing more than 60 chapters (usually 100), and including too many characters to remember. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) you have four major titles: Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義), The Water Margin (水滸傳), and Journey to the West (西遊記). Wait that’s three. What happened to the fourth? Now there is an infamous novel called Plum in the Golden Vase published around 1610. Why? Because this novel was banned for depicting too much eroticism! In recent years, the book has resurfaced as a literary marvel in China for all the graphic and poetic descriptions of sex positions, narrative complexity, and its illustration of female power.

The male protagonist is a philandering merchant named Ximen-qing (西門慶) who is just too perfect: young, handsome, smart, pro-gambler, expert social-climber, rich, and good in bed. Throughout the novel he builds his harem by seducing women, killing husbands, and getting away with it with cash and connections. Sounds bad? Gets better, because his foil is his harem! Especially his favourite wife Pan Jin-lian(潘金蓮). So after a series of steamy and kinky sex scenes (about one per chapter), the women of the story plot against Ximen-qing. With what better way? Too much sex, alcohol, and aphrodisiacs. Wow, talk about the power shift! Anyway, this novel is immoral, hypersexual, and ahead of its time. No wonder why it was banned! Also, read carefully to learn about Ximen-qing’s relationship with his boy-servant.

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