‘How to Be Both’ by Ali Smith

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‘[…] this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.43

Based on my enjoyment of one of Ali Smith’s earlier novels, The Accidental – which I read in my late teens – and inspired by a talk I witnessed last year, by Smith herself (before I departed for Hong Kong), I picked up her latest book with no prior knowledge of the acclaim it was receiving before it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The title, itself, was intriguing enough to catch my attention; I instantly imagined a crossing of gender binaries and was not surprised to see this theme interweave throughout the story. However, How to Be Both is about so much more than this. It not only explores how a person can be both male and female, past or present; but it also explores how the novel form can be read both ways. There is not just one edition of Ali Smith’s latest book, but two. Made up of two parts that are exactly the same, word for word, one edition will begin with the tale of Francesco del Cossa – a brilliant fresco painter from fifteenth-century Italy, of which not much is known – whilst the other edition will begin with George – a present-day teenage girl who has recently lost her mother.

Left to chance, I happened to pick up the edition of How to Be Both which started with the narrative of Francesco del Cossa (aka, Francesca). Having attempted to read the novel a couple of times, I was initially struck by the opening passage which didn’t look very conventional. Sentences are stretched and shortened and cut off in the middle of thought to create a zig-zag shape across the page. It took me a couple of attempts to make it past the first few pages, but I think that had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to decipher the confusion. Once I had made up my mind not to fully undertand everything, I quickly settled into the novel where Ali Smith’s reimagining of this little-known artist’s past was vividly depicted and brought to life.

‘[…] many things get forgiven in the course of a life: nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right’.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith, Pg.95

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May Recap!

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May has been a very quiet month which has seen my reading improve ever so slightly (though I couldn’t get much worse than last month, with only one book read!). I am afraid to say I did not make any progress, whatsoever, on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. I did attempt to read some but when I opened up to where I left off I realised I could barely remember anything. I think my next plan of action will be solely to focus on The Second Sex from start to finish, with no breaks. I may not understand everything that way, but at least I would get the jist of it and may be more inclined to reread it again and again. I did, however, get round to reading Ali Smith’s brilliant novel, which has been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, How to Be Both. It is easily one of the best novels I have read this year, though it is taking me a very long time to express my thoughts into a blog post. I made it to the Invader exhibition, Wipe Out, in Central this month. It was very interesting to see some of his work and see photographs of his original work that was plastered around Hong Kong on the numerous trips he made here. Sadly, most of them were taken down by the Highway Agency but I was able to spot an original whilst walking around Tsim Sha Tsui the other week (see the pictures below, at least I think it’s an original).

Currently reading:

  • Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Books read in May:

May in pictures:

May Recap!

Looking forward to June!

I don’t have much planned in June other than to save money for my next (and last) holiday to Japan! I go in the second week of July so, in the mean time, I hope to do some more research of what I want to see and watch a few documentaries or films based in or about Japan. If anyone has any recommendations, I would really appreciate it. I may even try and fit in a book by a Japanese author before I go. I am also eagerly anticipating the announcement of the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction. As I am seven hours ahead here in Hong Kong, I will have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out the news. If the winner is one of the books I haven’t read yet, I may treat myself to a copy to read in June.

‘Three photos on your travels’ by Agnes Lam

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Way back in November of last year, I went to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and saw a host of wonderful writers (many of which I had never heard of before) give talks on their books or advice on writing. One such writer was Hong Kong’s own poet, Agnes Lam. Known as the forerunner of Asian poetry in English, Lam gave a talk on what it truly means to become a poet. Focusing mainly on areas like getting your work out there in the public eye and finding publishers (which didn’t really interest me), Lam also gave some insightful recommendations of other Asian poets who write in English. Ranging from China to the Philippines to Taiwan to Singapore, there are an array of writers who choose to use English to write poetry, which Lam states is ‘the closest thing to your voice’. I found this a very interesting concept for someone who’s mother tongue is Cantonese and it brought to mind the postcolonial literature modules I took at university where the argument for and against using English was often debated.

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Anyway, whilst I continue to write my review for Ali Smith’s How to Be Both (which is taking longer than expected to complete) I thought I would share with you a poem I stumbled across yesterday. As I was browsing the shelves in Kubrick I saw that they produced a number of poetry cards called Kubrick poetry. Although the majority of them were in Chinese, I found one by Agnes Lam entitled ‘Three photos on your travels’, written in 2006:

Three photos on your travels

Above your bed

hang three photos

taken on your travels,

each size about the size of

a sheet of writing paper.

On the left,

before historic buildings,

a road in a city of fast traffic,

the cars invisible, only lines

of multicoloured light

shooting across

the night.

In the middle,

another road on a mountain slope,

a cave by the roadside,

a small shop with no door,

simple objects hanging inside,

light pouring amber from the cave,

darkness all around.

On the right,

a wooden jetty,

a bank of snow,

the air tinged with blue light,

the dawn about to break

on the water at the far

end of the jetty…

From Hong Kong to Oxford,

from Oxford to London,

From London to Harvard,

road after road

you must have walked on,

sometimes in the company of friends,

perhaps after a dinner,

but more often alone

after library hours,

your backpack of law

books, a 5 kg laptop

weighing on your spine.

Perhaps

you were thinking

of going home

to your room

of light

in the vast mountain

of darkness around you.

Perhaps

you were waiting

at the end of the jetty

for the sun to rise

to warm the water,

the snow,

your face…

I do not know

what the future holds for you,

what other roads you will travel.

But I know

you have been brave

trekking by yourself

through the city of the night,

the darkness in the mountain,

the ice of no woman’s land

only with the light in

your young heart,

the little space of rest,

your home,

your bed.

‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

‘I was twenty-two, the same age she was when she’d been pregnant with me. She was going to leave my life at the same moment that I came into hers, I thought’.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.11

A couple of months ago now, I saw the recent film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir/travel-writing – Wild –  completely unaware of the story line, or the fact that it was based on a true story. Since watching the movie it has sparked an interest in travel writing by women. It’s not everyday that you hear or read about ordinary women who have done extraordinary things, like hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I have now come across two books: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson, which was also made into a very good film and is on my TBR list. Any other recommendations would be very much appreciated.

Wild is a very well-written memoir that tells more of a personal and spiritual journey rather than a practical guide to hiking the lesser-known, lesser-developed Pacific Crest Trail. Beginning with the news that would lead the protagonist into a downward spiral of grief, Strayed finds out that her mother is dying of cancer. At only twenty-two years of age, she is unable to comprehend the magnitude of this situation and, in the midst of her final year at university, drops everything to try and keep her family together.

It turned out I wasn’t able to keep my family together. I wasn’t my mum. It was only after her death that I realised who she was: the apparently magical force at the centre of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her. […] Hard as I fought for it to be otherwise, finally I had to admit it too: without my mother, we weren’t what we’d been; we were four people floating separately among the flotsam of our grief, connected by only the thinnest rope’.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Pg.34

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‘The Bees’ by Laline Paull

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‘A flora may not make Wax for she is impure, nor work with Propolis for she is clumsy, nor may she ever forage for she has no taste, but only may she clean, and all may command her labour’.

The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.25

I purchased a copy of Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, when I saw that it had made the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist earlier this year. It was by complete coincidence that it then appeared on the shortlist, announced last month. As I am currently limiting my book-buying, for the very sensible fact that it will cost me more money than the books themselves to send back to the UK, I will probably only read The Bees and Ali Smith’s How to be Both  (which I am currently halfway through and enjoying immensely) before the winner is announced.

The Bees tells the story of Flora 717, a sanitation worker who defies her social status from the moment she arrives in the hive. Born the lowliest of the low, Flora is unlike her fellow sanitation workers because she can speak. She is also very inquisitive for her rank and it is this inquisitiveness that leads her through a series of, often, unbelievable events. As Flora works her way up through the different levels of the hive, Paull interestingly allows us to see a whole cross-section of the bee hierarchy and the collective mind that controls it. Flora is given access to sacred areas of the hive – from the Nursery to the Queen’s own chamber, access that is strictly denied to her fellow kin – although, at times, this can seem a bit contrived and a stretch of the imagination. Paull’s character can be seen both as a plot device to highlight the intricate structure and workings of the hive, whilst at the same time Flora comes across as a very complicated and conflicted individual. I found myself constantly switching from enjoyment to frustration at the sheer translucency of this device.

‘It is to the honour of your kin! You are so numerous that we can easily spare a few to ensure good hygiene. It is your privilege: Accept, Obey and Serve!’

The Bees by Laline Paull, Pg.102

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April Recap!

IMG_2868 April has been very busy, I almost forget that I went to Shanghai right at the start of the month (it feels so long ago now!). China was a very different experience to Hong Kong, even though I went from one big city to another. Shanghai itself was beautiful in places and so was the ancient water town I visited, Tongli, however, the parts inbetween were not as inviting. Last week I had my friend from university visiting from the UK. It was such a lovely week. I was able to have the whole time off work so not only was it a holiday for my friend, but it was also the first time I was able to explore Hong Kong as a tourist. I can see why people come here for a holiday. Hong Kong seems to offer the best of everything from brilliant views and hikes to food and shopping. I don’t always get to appreciate it when I am working so it was a nice break. On the Wednesday we experienced an outdoor Shakespeare performance (called Shakespeare in the Port). We decided to see Lear and, not surprisingly, I recognised some of the actors from The Vagina Monologues, which I saw in February (there really is a small expat community here). The performance was good, they made some interesting changes to the plot, but I think I will plan a separate post for this. In terms of reading, I didn’t make much progress this month and only managed to finish one book! I did, however, start reading a couple of interesting magazines that I found in Kubrick (obviously) so I didn’t completely abandon reading this month.

Currently reading:

  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beavoir

Books read in April:

  • The Bees by Laline Paull

Bookshops visited in April:

April in pictures: April Recap Looking forward to May!

May will hopefully be a quieter month where I can relax and read, read, read! It turns out that May happens to be French month in Hong Kong so I am hoping to go and see some French films at the Broadway Cinematheque. I am also on my way to go and see an exhibition in Central by the French artist, Invader, which will hopefully be interesting. He has been ‘invading’ cities around the world for decades with his incredibly distinctive style of pixellated video game-esque street-art and this will be his fifth (?) time in Hong Kong. When he was here last year he transformed the streets with his art but it was sadly removed. In keeping with Le French May I am going to continue ploughing on with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I doubt I will finish it within the month but hopefully I will make more progress than I did in April!

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson

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‘Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out’.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.68

Although a quiet and unassuming read, Marilynne Robinson’s final novel in the Gilead trilogy, Lila, is a powerful and moving account of the Reverend John Ames’ young wife – a woman we hardly know anything about, though she appears in the first two novels, Gilead and Home. What I like so much about Robinson’s trilogy is how they focus in on the everyday; the everyday momentum of life and the everyday thoughts and feelings of ordinary people. I am so used to trilogies or series of books being packed full of action or fantasy (for example, Maddaddam, The Lord of the RingsGame of Thrones or Harry Potter) that to have a a trilogy like this, which is so down to earth, is refreshing in its originality.

Lila tells the humble story of a woman who has been an outlaw and outcast of society for most of her life. Lila grows up never knowing who her true family is. All she knows is that a woman named Doll took care of her and helped her stay alive through the hardships of homelessness and poverty. She owes her life to this woman and is thankful to her despite the less than satisfactory situations she has found herself in over the years. Although I won’t go into the details, it is these rough situations that have led Lila to the outskirts of the fictional town of Gilead. Despite its familiarity to the reader, Gilead is at first a lonely and alienating place for Lila. She sets up home in a small, abandoned shack just on the edge of town and encounters suspicious looks from the people that inhabit this place.

‘Lila was halfway to Gilead by now. The sky was grey and the wind was acting like it owned the place, tossing the trees, and the trees all moaning’.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Pg.156

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‘Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong’ edited by Marshall Moore and Xu Xi

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‘In Hong Kong, it seemed that no matter where you stood, there were people around, above, and below you. Space was the city’s hottest commodity: an inch of gold for a foot of soil, my dad would say’.

‘The Seventh Year’ by Jenn Chan Lyman in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.30

I found this collection of stories hidden away in the very commercial Dymocks Bookshop, situated in the ifc mall, Central, and thought it would be only appropriate to try and explore more contemporary ‘Hong Kong’ writers whilst living here. Although I bought a few ‘Hong Kong’ books before I arrived here, last August, I am ashamed to say I haven’t looked at any of them! Anyway, maybe after reading The Queen of Statue Square, I will be more inclined to pick up books written by Hong Kong writers.

What was most interesting about this collection was the ‘Introduction’ written by Marshall Moore and Xu Xi, who wrote The Unwalled City – a book I have yet to read on my to-be-read list. It is always exciting to learn about the reasons behind a specific anthology or collection, particularly when it comes to defining what it means to be from a particular culture or nationality. This definitely comes into acute focus and awareness when talking about what it means to be a ‘Hong-Konger’.

‘So who is a Hong Kong person, then? An important distinction is often lost: even though there is significant overlap between Hong Kong identity and Chinese ethnicity, they are different for reasons of history, culture, and law’.

‘Introduction’ by Marshall Moore in The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, Pg.8

Although there are many Chinese influences and traditions upheld in this very international city, Hong Kong has a unique history. With the territory’s previous British colonial rule, Western influences sit side-by-side Chinese tradition. Hong Kong is a melting-pot of cultures and identities, inhabited by Chinese people, Western expats, residents from other Asian countries and domestic workers who are never granted permanent residence. Therefore, issues of identity are not so clear-cut. Additionally, Moore points out that many children, from a young age, are sent overseas for schooling, which adds to the difficulty of defining a ‘Hong Kong person’. Yet despite these difficulties, the theme of ‘identity’ weaves through each short story, even though this was not a criteria of the submissions.

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Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore, Fuzhou Lu

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I planned to spend the Easter holidays in Shanghai. Although I was only there for a long weekend, I went out of my way to fit in a bit of book-related tourism. In my research I found that Fuzhou Lu was a great street to find numerous treasures. Full of bookshops and calligraphy shops I was glad I took some time to browse around this street.

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I only went into the Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore but was completely unprepared for the sheer amount and quality of English-language books I found there. Not only was the selection great, but the books in China are so much cheaper than in Hong Kong!! I found a brand new edition of George Orwell’s 1984 for 22 Yuan (which is around £2.40) and the average price of books were around £5-6. Though I didn’t buy the Orwell (I already have a copy back in the UK), I did find Shirley Jackson’s short story collection named after the controversial piece, ‘The Lottery’, which I was very pleased with as I have been unable to find a hard-copy in Hong Kong.

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I have already started on The Lottery collection and can tell that I am going to love it even more than We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson is an excellent short-story writer and her tales are dark and engrossing. Just by reading the first few stories on the plane journey home I was hooked.

I also stumbled across a Sherlock Holmes inspired cafe in the French Concession area which made me feel right at home. Named 221B Baker Street, this cafe (perhaps verging on the expensive side, compared to how cheap you can normally get food) served some delicious sandwiches, cakes and Sherlock-inspired coffees and cocktails. I decided on the Moriarty coffee, which consisted of iced-coffee and vanilla ice-cream with a slice of carrot cake which almost rivalled that of Kubrick‘s. This cafe has definitely inspired me to read more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories as well as re-watch the BBC Sherlock series, which was amazing. Here are a few pictures from the cafe:

Sherlock

‘The Woman Destroyed’ by Simone de Beauvoir

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‘The world seemed to me as fresh and new as it had been in the first ages, and this moment sufficed to itself. I was there, and I was looking at the tiled roofs at our feet, bathed in the moonlight, looking at them for no reason, looking at them for the pleasure of seeing them. There was a piercing charm in this lack of involvement. “That’s the great thing about writing”, I said. “Pictures lose their shape; their colours fade. But words you carry away with you”.

‘The Age of Discretion’ in The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.82

Simone de Beauvoir’s collection of three stories in The Woman Destroyed focuses on women who, having passed their youth, are experiencing unexpected crises. Written in three very distinct styles, The Woman Destroyed captures the moment when these women’s lives begin to crumble. Everything they thought they knew suddenly becomes alien to them as they fight to stay afloat in a world that no longer appreciates or is hostile to them.

The first story, ‘The Age of Discretion’, is narrated by an older, married woman who seemingly has everything she could ever wish for. She has a successful career under her belt, a husband who is equally successful, an adoring son, a comfortable home and loving friends. However, in the opening of this story we realise that with age comes great consequences for a woman, in particular. Having been the centre of her husband and son’s life, the narrator is slowly realising her fragile hold on what was once reality.

‘As far as I was concerned life was gradually going to take back everything it had given me: it had already begun to do so’.

‘The Age of Discretion’ in The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.74

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