‘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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March Recap!

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As you can see the month of March still hasn’t brought me any closer to blogging as regularly as I used to. I am slowly trying to make the effort to write everyday (in my draft posts), even if it is only for a short period. I am snatching moments of time to fit in reading and writing – on my lunch breaks and in the evenings after a tiring day of work. Though, recently, my reading pace has haltered as I try and read Simone de Beauvoir’s huge – in physical size and in influence – text, The Second Sex. Although I am enjoying it immensely – de Beauvoir’s intelligence and wit is astounding – I have found myself gathering a long list of secondary reading or research that I feel would help me understand the text more (and I am only 4% into my kindle edition). If anyone has any suggestions of decent ‘philosophy for beginners’-type books I would very much appreciate it! Other than that, March has been a very quiet month. I did however, find a bargain second-hand bookshop last week on Hong Kong Island called Spirit. The prices were so cheap I couldn’t believe it! I bought Charlotte Roche’s bestseller, Wetlands, for $8 Hong Kong Dollars, which works out to be around 60-70p! It took all of my strength to walk away with only the one book!

Currently reading:

  • The Bees by Laline Paull
  • The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
  • Emily Dickinson: The Complete Poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Books read in March (and February):

  • The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong by Marshall Moore
  • This is my heart, it’s a good heart by B. Wing

Bookshops visited in March (and February):

March in pictures:

March Recap

Looking forward to April!

At the end of this week I will be taking my first step into the ‘mainland’. I will be visiting Shanghai for a nice long weekend over Easter and cannot wait to experience ‘real’ China and see how different it is to Hong Kong. Though I expect a huge city like Shanghai won’t be too much of a culture shock, I intend to spend one day outside of the city to visit one of the ancient water towns (I haven’t decided which one yet). I will also make sure to seek out any book-related tourism (if any). In mid-April I have a whole week off work as my friend from university is coming over. I can’t wait to see a familiar face and show her all the tourist ‘must-see’ sights, as well as the more hidden aspects of Hong Kong that you wouldn’t normally see if you were just on holiday for a week. I plan to take her hiking, sightseeing and, of course, no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without an afternoon at Kubrick browsing books and eating carrot cake (which is how I spent my last Sunday)! I also hope to improve upon the number of blog posts I have been uploading to my blog. It will happen slowly but surely!

‘A Very Easy Death’ by Simone de Beauvoir

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‘The sight of my mother’s nakedness had jarred me. No body existed less for me: none existed more. As a child I had loved it dearly; as an adolescent it had filled me with an uneasy repulsion: all this was perfectly in the ordinary course of things and it seemed reasonable to me that her body should retain its dual nature, that it should be both repugnant and holy – a taboo’.

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir, Pg.19-20

I went through a Simone de Beauvoir phase back in February (and still am as I slowly make my way through her opus, The Second Sex) where I devoured two of her books back-to-back. She is such a fantastic writer whose pieces of work never fail to amaze me in their variedness and difference.

Published in 1964 – a year after her mother died – A Very Easy Death recounts, in detail, the day-by-day decline of her mother’s illness. Steeped in a tragic sense of realism, de Beauvoir narrates a painful, yet searingly truthful story of her mother’s diagnosis of cancer and subsequent fatality. Including the mundane details of hospital visits, the influx of doctors and nurses that clutter their lives as well as the changing relationship with her mother, de Beauvoir captures and does justice to an area of life that is all too hidden in the ‘sumptuous arrogance of a world in which death had no place’ (78).

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‘The Vagina Monologues’ by Eve Ensler

‘The miracle of V-Day, like The Vagina Monologues, is that it happened because it had to happen’.

‘Introduction’ to The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

I had the pleasure of going to see a production of Eve Ensler’s world-famous play, The Vagina Monologues, last month during V-Day – a global movement, born out of the success of The Vagina Monologues, held around Valentine’s Day each year to raise awareness and end violence against women and girls. This particular production was to raise money for the Hong Kong Helpers Campaign, which helps to promote the rights of local Foreign Domestic Workers – a pressing concern in Hong Kong, particularly in the light of the recent Erwiana case.

This particular production was held at the Premium Sofa Club – a name which perfectly encapsulates the venue. In the basement of what looked like an unassuming, residential building in Sheung Wan, dozens of mismatched sofas and chairs were crammed into a tiny space. Luckily, arriving slightly late, me and my friend nabbed seats right at the front. The play itself was performed by a mixture of professional to first-time actors, from women representing many areas of the globe. For some you could visibly see their nerves, though this only added to the authenticity of the play. They were all holding their monologues on cards they had individually decorated to highlight that these stories are from real interviews, real women. As Eve Ensler mentions in the introduction to her play (which she performed in when it was first produced):

‘I had to hold 5-by-8 cards in my hands all through the performance every night, even though I had the piece memorised. It was as if the women I had interviewed were made present by those cards, and I needed them there with me’.

The stories in this play were varied and sent me on a roller coaster of emotions. However, the overall experience was empowering. Learning to talk freely, without flinching, about taboo and painful subjects – from orgasms, to shaving to the more damaging invasion and abuse of the vagina – Eve Ensler was astounded by the response she got. She was amazed by how many women openly talked about their vagina’s when given the chance.

Going to see The Vagina Monologues was definitely the best way to spend Valentines Day and the fact that Ensler allows people to put on productions over that period without the need for copyright has made it spread around the globe. I will be keeping my eyes peeled for another production next year!

I also came across Eve Ensler’s wonderful talk at the WOW Festival this year on their youtube channel. She is such a brilliant orator as she talks over her own abuse as a child, to fighting cancer and setting up the One Billion Rising project – which claims to be the biggest mass action to end violence against women in human history. An artist and activist, Ensler has stayed true to what she does best, which is inspiring people – men and women alike – all over the world. I urge anyone reading this to watch her talk: