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.

Visit me on deviantArt.com

giulienhwan

Today my brother found some fake Yu-Gi-Oh! cards with religious leaders. It was quite funny, and it reminded me of the humorous Yu-Gi-Oh! cards I made back in Grade 12. Surprisingly, you can search them easily through google images. 

The entire collection can be found here (alongside experiments with da muro):

http://stzheng.deviantart.com/gallery/

Perhaps, I will add more cards in the future…

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Visit me on deviantArt.com

Today my brother found some fake Yu-Gi-Oh! cards with religious leaders. It was quite funny, and it reminded me of the humorous Yu-Gi-Oh! cards I made back in Grade 12. Surprisingly, you can search them easily through google images. 

The entire collection can be found here (alongside experiments with da muro):

http://stzheng.deviantart.com/gallery/

Perhaps, I will add more cards in the future…

Steven’s Picks for Non-fiction 2014

I present my favourite books that I have read from 2013-2014. They are not ranked by order of preference or date of completion.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Rating 10/10

Much is to be learned from Rilke. I am a Rilke fan, so there’s bias. But I highly recommend it. Rilke’s letters teaches life lessons like being yourself, to how to be an artist, to challenging the norm.

Letters To A Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

Rating 9/10

Letters To A Young Scientist is an honest personal account of an entomologist’s journey through science. Wilson writes with a humble tone and gives great advice for aspiring scientists. My only problem with this book is his ‘chase your dreams’ and ‘be a daydreamer’ attitude, which is characteristic of most great scientists. Unfortunately, the landscape of modern education is eroding with the rise of standardized testing, intense competition, and career driven attitudes at a young age (which he did mention in his book). This is making the “Wilson experience” difficult to have (speaking from personal experience). 

How to Solve It by G.Polya

Rating 10/10

Anybody interested in teaching mathematics, or teaching in general should read this book! This classic teaches people that anyone can do mathematics and problem solve –– all you need is clear thinking, patience and the right type of guidance (nature and/or nuture).

A History of Chinese Mathematics by Jean-Claude Martzloff

Rating 10/10

For those interested in mathematics in other cultures, this book is a perfect window into Ancient Chinese Mathematics. Concise but very informative, this book will open new mathematical eyes for laymen and experts alike.

Janos Bolyai: Non-Euclidean Geometry and the Nature of Space by Jeremy J. Gray

Rating 10/10

This book goes into the historical details of how Janos Bolyai’s obsession with Euclid’s Fifth Postulate ushered a new age of geometry. As a bonus, the book also comes with Bolyai’s groundbreaking dissertation on the Fifth Postulate.

Theoretical Concepts in Physics by Malcolm Longair

Rating 10/10

This book teaches undergraduate level physics well not because it is used widely across academic institutions (believe me, books that claim to be the ultimate textbook are not), but because it delivers the physics through the experience of famous physicists. This book introduces the elegant theories and experiments of notable physicists from Galileo to Planck. This book derives what is ultimately correct from thought experiments by the great minds in physics. Read this book not only to learn about physics, but to learn how science really works.

The well-polished theories of today were the product of lifelong thinking, terrible mistakes, flawed models, and plain ignorance. What is most impressive is how physicists circumnavigate their problems and make monumental discoveries.

Classical Mechanics: A Modern Perspective by V. Barger and M. Olssen

Rating 9/10

You want to learn mechanics, but most other texts are either too simple or too abstract. This modern method of teaching mechanics using interesting objects is certainly the book for you. The math is understandable for advanced high school students up to 2nd year undergraduate physics students, and the analysis of boomerangs and tippe tops are complicated enough to stimulate curious minds. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough exposition to Hamiltonians and Poisson Brackets.

Classical Mechanics by Herbert Goldstein

Rating 10/10

If you are finished with Classical Mechanics: A Modern Perspective but you want to learn more about Hamiltonian mechanics, Poisson Brackets, calculus of variations, and a rigorous treatment of special relativity, then you ought to read this book. This classic is definitely a lasting book on the shelves.

Elementary Number Theory in Nine Chapters by James J. Tattersall

Rating: 10/10

This is an excellent (and readable) intro text to number theory with proofs of many important number-theoretic formulas and theorems. Aside from theory, there is also an emphasis on applications such as calendrics, representations, and cryptography. From front to back, there are many interesting historical notes that connect the subject to several cultures (including Chinese, Islam and Indian). I highly recommend this text to anyone who enjoys challenging and enlightening problems.

The Works of Archimedes

Rating 10/10

Forget Euclid’s largely unnecessary and long treatments on trifles; Archimedes is the greater teacher. This book is very readable to the modern mathematician (unlike Newton’s Principia) despite being over 2000 years old. The math is rigorous and by no means elementary, though its archaic qualities will make one gasp at how brilliant this man was.

Ancient Puzzles: Classic Brainteasers and Other Timeless Mathematical Games of the Last 10 Centuries by Dominic Olivastro

Rating 10/10

This book is great for three reasons:

1) You learn a lot about problem solving in discrete math

2) It’s a fun read because the problems are presented in recreational and novel ways

3) The book introduces tons of ancient and medieval math outside the Greco-Roman tradition (which is a breath of fresh air)

Darwin’s Notebook by Jonathan Clements

Rating 10/10

I’ve read Newton’s Notebook by Joel Levy, which was very good, but Newton’s personal life was limited to semi-legendary anecdotes. Darwin’s Notebook is a collage-like compilation of Darwin’s life, thoughts and discoveries. Here you will learn of Darwin’s struggles with school, his love for collecting and recording stuff, and his gradual distrust in the Bible (as a scripture and source of beliefs). Most importantly, the reader will learn to appreciate Darwin as a man who lived for great adventure, sticking to the facts, and finding truths.

Thermal Physics by Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer

Rating 9/10

This book is worth reading. The exposition to thermal physics differs from traditional textbooks because it derives the definitions from basic principles, most notable entropy. I took thermal physics in second year, and from personal experience I would warn that the book is quite challenging for somebody with limited knowledge about statistical mechanics. The problems were difficult, for many of them were derived from actual physical research (including the authors’); hence, requiring higher abstraction and deeper thinking. The good thing about this book is what you learn. You read this book because you learn a lot more than most textbooks on thermal physics. In addition, this book also serves as an excellent primer on modern topics such as solid-state physics, quantum mechanics, and exotic states of matter. 

About this Site

Welcome to giulienhwan, a page dedicated to science, art and culture. The name is derived from the Medieval Chinese pronunciation of the famous nine-ring puzzle (九連環). Each ring symbolically represents a subject that is important to me. Whatever I share will belong to at least one of the nine subjects:

1) Mathematics

2) Science

3) Art and Architecture

4) Literature

5) Ideation

6) Innovation

7) The History of Things

8) Philosophy

9) Computer Programming