The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado is an energetic and funny story about a 21-year-old who is very persistent on exploring Europe herself, carrying a defiant attitude with her everywhere. She reminds me a little of the girl-against-the-world motif, though I haven’t read something quite as sizzling and, I would say, tragic, as Sally Jay’s story. The chaotic backdrop of 1950s Europe, the twisted motivations of each character and the naivety of a young and attractive woman come together for a one of a kind coming of age tale.

Sally Jay’s journey is filled with parties that end in very comical and unexpected ways. Elaine Dundy showcases her brilliant talent in describing people – their gestures, language, attitude – and brings each person together to form vivid partying scenes and endless nights. The lavish social gatherings where elites backstab and steal and form plots against one another are chaotic and horrendous, but are also luxurious and generous: “by merely clattering up the used cups and saucers onto their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, the better to clear the stage for disaster, […], they could predict for you the whole miracle that was going to take place four hours later when you […] would emerge, talking the most utter balderdash, spilling beans of shattering truths or equally shattering lies, singing with friends, fighting with strangers, promising favors, promising love, scrambling into bed and clambering out again […]” At some of these parties, Sally Jay ends up in trouble; at others, she learns truths about the people she used to trust, and therefore “grows up”. It is a brutal coming-of-age story because she pays for her lessons with high prices, from losing her passport to being betrayed by a man she thinks she loves. Mid way through the novel, Sally Jay reflects: “Well, I’d certainly stayed out late and eaten what I liked. And I was meeting people I hadn’t been introduced to. […] I was more or less in jail. Uncle Roger, I thought, you can’t say I’m not trying.”

Not only was the social background of her journey chaotic, the motives of the people who accompany her – lovers, co-workers, friends – questionable and twisted, leaving Sally Jay lonely and abandoned. This was not very apparent in the first part of the book, but the foreshadowing of her sleeping alone many nights despite attracting the attention of many bachelors leads to her apparent solitude in the second and third parts. This feeling is emphasized by the dramatic change in the atmosphere: from energetic parties to the barrenness of the countryside, confined by the pouring rain and heartbreak that she experiences for the first time. In the second backdrop, however, she becomes wiser and start to see the truth without the veil of wealth and lust. It is loneliness that allows Sally Jay to “come of age” and eventually find what she wants in life (very unexpected she chose to become a librarian, which has a large amount of time being alone).

Sally Jay reflects some classic sentimentality the youth finding their way to adulthood. She is a headstrong woman who has the power to refuse the things she does not like, but it still takes a long time for her to realize what she does like. When she found a man who loves her and they share a mutual deep relationship, Sally Jay, however, recognizes: “I tried to remember one minute that whole weekend when Marion and I weren’t either feeding people, or clearing up from doing it, or preparing to do it again. And presumably she never stopped doing it. But I couldn’t quite see why just because she did, I should.” So she forsakes the traditional responsibilities of a woman, and she has the wealth and power to do so, but she is still lost in a world of possibilities: “what happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again?” Sally Jay – or rather Elaine Dundy – is so charming, however, that I root for her till the end, even when she is afraid she won’t “burst into bloom”, like “a dud avocado”. Once again, the themes of coming-of-age appears: the low self-esteem and anxiety of a young woman who does not have a life plan.

Through all her lovers and adventures, Sally Jay in the end still found a place she belongs. “The Dud Avocado” is a coming of age story as much as it is a feminist empowerment story. If you are not charmed by Sally Jay’s misadventures, then you’d still be dazzled by her bewildering world.


The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan


When I first read Keegan’s last essay for the Yale Daily News, I was captivated by her writing. There is something earnest, sincere, heartfelt, brave, optimistic and hopeful in her last words as an undergraduate student that drew me, as well as more than a million other readers, to her. She described perfectly what it feels like to be in one’s early twenties and so uncertain, but at the same time so full of hope for the future. In the other pieces that she wrote, she experiments with a wide range of themes and genres. It feels like she hadn’t quite found where she belonged as a writer, but at the same time, she showed a unique eye and take on modern fiction. Exploring the relationship between people in the age of technology, insecurities, war and instability, she was certainly a talented budding author.

My favourite pieces are “Cold Pastoral” and “The Ingenue”; two very difference pieces. In the former, Keegan confronts the topic of death. Not an uncommon topic, but at such a young age, she explored the imminence of death and how that affects the precarious relationships between young people, and how they handle the tragedy. Facing death, the true value of relationships, long term and committed romantic relationships versus casual sexual relations, shows the different degrees of intimacy that we experience. I consider it a brave confrontation of the author with death and self-worth, evaluating earnestly and sensitively what we, young people, look for in our relationships. Keegan concludes that we all want and need intimacy, both on a physical and emotional level: “And suddenly, more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life, I wanted him to love me.” Somehow there is a tone and feeling of loneliness in her short story, subtly pervading her writing, but only became apparent in the last paragraph, where reality is put in contrast with the hopes and wishes of true intimacy. The piece is optimistic; death is not the end, but could be a beginning filled with hope.

In “The Ingenue”, Keegan shows her humour. A light-hearted piece, the short story skillfully portrays the ups and downs of a young relationship and how the little interactions between people can express a lot about a person’s true personality. The structure of the piece is interesting; it is told in a non-linear order, placing a short ‘hook’ at the beginning, which sounds very trivial and leaving lots of questions to be answered, before telling a longer story of the protagonist’s love story. There is an iconic moment of young love: the girl being jealous over the guy’s coworker who seems much more “compatible” with him than she is. (I must admit I related to it and I’m sure many other young people relate to it as well). But the breaking point of the relationship is quite an original point. The climax of the story reveals a key personality trait in Danny and why his dishonesty, even though is harmless, is ultimately the reason the protagonist could not accept him. The story’s ending paragraph connects back to the opening to explain its significance and wrap up a coherent story. Overall it’s a cleverly written piece that utilizes all the classic tricks of story telling to make it a compelling, believable and interesting read.

Keegan’s non fiction is not as charming, however, “Stability in Motion” is a standout. While she explored human relationships in the fiction, this piece described her love for her car, which acted as her friend and shelter for important life events. All in all, her writing shows a budding talent in the making. Even though they are not masterly executed, there is enough to see her knack for seeing people from different and new angles and describing them as interesting personalities. Her attempts to deal with death and other important life decisions are impressive.


Captain Pantoja and the Special Service – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa - Captain Pantoja And The Special Service

Dealing with a sensitive and controversial topic, prostitution, Mario Vargas Llosa utilizes humour and elements of modernism to highlight the conflicts and irony that the protagonist faces in completing his job as an Army captain. Masterfully combining comic, tragedy, satire and irony, the Nobel prize winner presents moral questions relating to the existence and exploitation of prostitution – a topic that is as hard to discuss now as it was in 1973.

With a fluid and flexible format, ranging from linear story telling to segments of military documents, radio broadcasts, dialogue etc., the novel portrays different and varying positions on the Special Service that captain Pantoja is assigned to create and manage. To the captain, this is simply an order from the Army that he must complete and therefore his approach and view at the beginning of his assignment is methodological and objective.  The character displays no moral opinion of the subject and proceeds with careful analysis and calculations of supply and demand and planning the logistics of the prostitution service. To the religious people of Iquitos and surrounding areas, the women in the service are “those who dishonorably deal in their own body” and is an abhorrent and unacceptable practice. The women are considered shameful and disgraceful, filled with sin and utterly dishonourable. To the women themselves, service for the military is stable, low risk, well paid: “security working with the soldiers, feeling yourself protected by the Army”. These opposing views rooted in extremely different motives present the main conflict of the novel that the protagonist finds himself in. The captain struggles between orders from the general, pressure from religious groups and his own military discipline, which is further complicated by his lustful instincts, and pressure from his family. As the conflict builds up and escalates, ironically because the protagonist had “converted the Special Service into the most efficient unit of the armed forces”, the central question of the novel presents itself subtly: “should prostitution be accepted?” Llosa does not answer this but merely presents readers with story line and character branches that are vibrantly developed, charged with energy and strong motivation for the opinions they hold.

This chaotic environment is managed ingeniously by Llosa’s light and farcical tone, which worked extremely well for the topic at hand, one that stirs emotionally and heated debate. Due to the comical tone throughout the narration, the novel allows readers to take in the topic with a relaxed and open mind, hence making the novel effective at communicating different points of view. Most importantly, it has the effect of making Pantoja appear likable; if a more serious and grim tone had been employed, he would have been perceived gravely by the readers right from the start from organizing the service, in other words, being a “pimp”. The novel eases in to such serious topic playfully, but never normalizing or diminishing the importance of the novel’s central theme. However, half way through the novel, a drastic change in tone marks and foreshadows tragic endings. As Pantoja’s nightmare plagues him, the use of strong words such as “terror, distrust, frightened, devil, torture” marks the shift of the story’s direction.

The tragedy that happened to the Special Service has deep thematic implications. Up until that point in the novel, the Special Service has never been described as being a violation of another’s body and they have always been escorted with secure measures. However, the prostitutes’s attack, rape and murder reinstates the vulnerability of the women, placing them in the same danger they had been when they were working outside the army. In addition, the assailant of the women signifies a failure of the army to protect the people who rely on it, and work for it, and symbolically, combined with the bureaucratic implications in the army from the beginning of the novel, is a strong criticism of the Army’s inability to achieve its goals. The crucifixion of the beautiful woman can be interpreted as religion’s role in the danger that women in prostitution face: religion cannot make prostitution go away, and provides little help for the women in such situation.

Mario Vargas Llosa ultimately leaves it up to his readers to take a moral stance on the subject of prostitution. In the end, Pantoja is portrayed as a hero, one with compassion for the women he recruits and strong sense of discipline in the job he undertakes. He is a hero for standing up for the women under his control, by bravely saying to his General Scavino, “And as for the women who carry out this work with true self-denial, what they do has never been acknowledged.” He is a one of a kind hero, a controversial one no doubt.


Chocolates for Breakfast – Pamela Moore


At 18, Pamela Moore wrote a coming-of-age story, but it is rather a crashing-into-age “tragedy”. Even though the characters announce that they “are not capable of tragedy” and their lives are a “child’s game that came to an end”,  I can’t help but feel a sense of overwhelming sadness as the story closes, as if the protagonist had failed her life. It was then that I catch myself doing the thing that the parents, in the story and in real life, do and think for their children, and I realize the ultimate struggle and conflict of this story: how to gain power and freedom when one is not ready for it.

Struggling against parents is one of the major themes of the novel. From the first chapter, Courtney laments about her relationship with her mother, “why do we have to pretend to the parents?” The girls lie and avoid their parents when needed so they can achieve a sense of freedom: going to parties at night, drinking with boys and having affairs at their command. Inadvertently, the lies distance them from their parents, and build up an illusion that they have complete control over their lives. Courtney and Janet learn to become masters at controlling the people they meet, through dates and love affairs. Their attractive youth becomes one of their weapons and they equate sexual liberty and breaking laws with power. But it is not just defying parental rules that make them free, it is also breaking away from their parent’s influence. Courtney resists her parents advice, but it is Janet who displays her struggle emotionally and physically as pivotal points of the novel.

In the two scenes between Janet and her father, dynamic and different attack strategies were utilized by the characters. These attacks are seen again and again in many different stories of parent and children, which may be different in words but the same in essence. Janet’s position is her right to privacy and freedom, while her father’s is his right to maintain guidance and control over his underage daughter. The struggle starts from an isolated incident to emotional and accusatory language, escalating in intensity. This is how family relationships are destroyed, from small incidents, building up to accumulating unresolved bitterness to the point where emotion and fact cannot be separated. Once tangled up in this mess, the characters have no way out.

Not unlike parental struggle, which is both physical and emotional, the female protagonists also plunge themselves into love affairs that result in damage. Courtney’s affair with Cabot, which under current laws can be considered statutory rape, met with strong disapproval from her wise guardian Al Leone. This love started out to be a “Romeo and Juliet” type and seemed to head out to a strong and glamorous finish, but Moore chose to let the affair meet with reality and end with pain. The centre piece of the lost of innocence in “Chocolates for Breakfast” is not losing virginity sexually, but rather Courtney’s realization that love is “ugly” and never perfect. It is then she learns to manipulate her lovers, as seen with George, Anthony, Charles etc. She moves from one to another without pain, just like her moving from one restaurant to another, “I get tired of the same places.” Perhaps this is her declaration of sexual independence, that she is not in need of one single man. Readers may disagree with Courtney’s way of finding sexual liberty, but it is no doubt she is making her statement loud and clear. To me, it is a tragedy, because I could no longer see what her value in love is, though she longingly wants to be loved.

And as the girls learn about their life and values, I find myself judging them, disapproving of their decisions, being disappointed and at the same time cheering them on. I react to their actions the way their fictional parents do, and realize the girls did achieve freedom because they made decisions independent of other’s judgments and faced the consequences. The story is a complete coming-of-age tale, with strong female protagonists who refuse to be victims. When the book was published, it probably gained attention for its sexual themes, but I believe it is the psychological and physical struggles that make the story so riveting and moving and relatable to anyone who is going through or remembers the difficulties of growing up.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu started with a very simple and interesting idea. Instead of creating a story about the excitement of time travel, Yu chose his main character to be a normal tech guy. Yu focused his story on an aspect of time travel that pop culture has not explored. And from that idea, the novel offers an observation of our life from the perspective of a science fictional world. That is indeed a very clever and creative idea, which is also the highlight of this unique science fiction novel.

I am not a fan of science fiction, but Yu’s writing has some kind of charm and novelty that interests me greatly. Yu doesn’t spend too much of his book on just creating a science fictional world. He doesn’t spend pages and pages describing this imaginary scientific universe. Instead, Yu draws parallel comparisons between the world we dearly know and the world Charles Yu (the character) is from. To many readers, this novel is a disappointment because it is not really ‘science fictional’; it’s quite “real”. The book’s themes and feelings need not a futuristic setting. But by using “time travelling” as a metaphor for regret and nostalgia, Yu offers a different spin on the topic of time and space travel, while allowing readers to relate to his main character on a human level, instead of trying to imagine him as some kind of robot or alien.

Yu defines his own physical world using the same template as our scientific theory. I enjoy reading his theorems, especially since I study physics and math on a regular basis. With all the fancy words and the paradoxes (especially the non-existing object paradox), Yu’s definitions aren’t just descriptions of the science fictional universe in his novel, they are also Yu’s attempts at explaining human emotions in a scientific manner. What if all emotions can be clearly defined like a physics theorem:

“Nostalgia, underlying cosmological explanation for

weak but detectable interaction between two neighboring universes that are otherwise not causally connected.

manifests itself in humans as a feeling of missing a place one has never been, a place very much like one’s home universe, or as a longing for versions of one’s self that one will never, and can never know.”

These fundamental concepts make up Yu’s own version of time-travelling: it is a process where one observes a different timeline from the timeline one is currently in. It is a process that relies on human memories, because time travelling is very similar to revisiting memories in our head. And once readers understand Yu’s paradigm for time-travelling, they will realize that after all, this science fiction is not a science fiction, but in nature, a novel about the past, mistakes, regrets and how to deal with them.

So perhaps those disappointed readers do have a reason. 

And for that same reason, I am very fascinated with the way Yu perceives and constructs time-travelling. It is not a big fancy action-packed rocket-science process that Hollywood movies make it out to be. It can be, rather, a leisure activity affordable to the masses and allows us to relive over and over again moments and milestones that we want to preserve. It is ultimately an private emotional journey that we experience everyday when we think of a happy or sad moment in the past.

“Time travel is not a technology built outside, with titanium and beryllium and argon and xenon and seaborgium, but rather it is am mental ability that can be cultivated. […] We experience the present and remember the past. We can’t remember the present, except what is deja vu but a memory of the present? And if we can remember the present, why can’t we experience the past? What kind of machine is this? This machine, what my son and I have built, this is a perception engine, and it works on your mind as much as anywhere else.”

As much as I enjoyed the unique ideas that Yu presented, the writing toward the end of the book became heavy and wordy. The verbosity became a flaw instead of a stylistic bonus, and the way Yu wrote theorems was much more appealing than reading paragraphs and paragraphs that present the same thing. That took away from the quality of this impressive debut. However, some lines now and there are such a pleasure to read.

“The good news is, you don’t have to worry, you can’t change the past. The bad news is, you don’t have to worry, no matter how hard you try, you can’t change the past.”

Love in a Fallen City (collection of short stories) – Eileen Chang

This is the first work of fiction by a female author I’ve read this year (apart from E.L. James, but I don’t want to admit that). So I read Eileen Chang’s collection of short stories, one that is praised internationally because of the sharp, observant and loving stories that combine exquisitely both traditional Chinese and modern Western styles.

Chang’s stories are dynamic and panoramic. Her characters are moving, interesting, alive and multi-dimensional, often passionate and unpredictable. They are believable and understandable even though they come from a different culture and time than most of us. The stories’s settings are exotic and unique, often in Shanghai and Hongkong around the years of transitioning to more Westernized cities. The endings are often bittersweet. The language soft and calm. The clever descriptions short, selective and beautiful. Chang’s command of fiction is masterful; her keen observation of the changing society is transformed flawlessly into stories of China’s volatile time periods, with people struggling to make decisions, to love and live in a shattering environments.

There are many things I love about Chang’s stories: the setting, the characters and the writing.

The China that Chang describes in her stories is beautiful as I would imagine from Chinese ink paintings: “already, beyond the wall a roar of wild azaleas was blooming across the hill, the fiery red stomping through brittle grass, blazing down the mountainside.” The flowers, the tea, incense, mountains create a romantic dreamy backdrop for Chang’s stories. But there are also Western theaters, dance halls, beaches, trams, crowded cities. Chang’s world is fiercely aristocratic and considerably wealthy, with traditional values still strictly in place with the Confucianist familial hierarchy, but at the same time, people still fall in love, to marry, to have affairs, to divorce, to go against families for one’s happiness. However, Chang’s setting is not messy, chaotic, broken, but rather liquid, changing, unsettling, creating the perfect background for Chang’s memorable characters.

They are often fierce and passionate. They learn to love with a naive mind or broken hearts, or both. These characters define their own kind of ‘love’: the “red rose” love, the “white rose” love (Red Rose, White Rose), the “Wei-long-innocent-adolescent-sweet” kind of love (Aloeswood Incense), the “love in a fallen city” kind of love. And then there is also hate, the twisted, suppressed, confused hate of a young man struggling to face his emotions and lie up to his parents’ expectations (Jasmine Tea). These characters glow with passion and motivation; they are individuals finding their own path, making their own families and culture while the world around them changes. What I love most about them is their eager to fight for their own life: Weilong setting out on her own to create the life she always wanted, Liusu and Liuyuan rising from the debris of the bombed Hong Kong to create a marriage for themselves. These new and modern men and women of the changing China constantly come to terms with their feelings and decisions and respond to changing circumstances with logic and determinism. 

Chang uses her beautiful language to bring the setting, characters and stories to life. For me, language-wise, “Sealed-off” is the most successful story in the collection. Chang uses sound, colors, motions masterfully to describe an encounter between people on a crowded train. The invisible human connection and the internal psychological feedback mechanisms are highlighted cleverly and realistically. Chang’s writing echoes the nostalgia of classical literature and adopts modern techniques into one unique and genius style of her own.    

“But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall that she could be vindicated? […] Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. […] Those legendary beauties wo felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that. Legend exists everywhere, but they don’t necessarily have such happy endings. When the huqin wails on a night of ten thousand lamps, the bow slides back and forth, drawing forth a tale too desolate for words-oh! why go into it?” (Love in a Fallen City)

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

There is nothing much about “Catch-22” that has not been mentioned in scholastic articles and essays that analyze this “apocalyptic masterpiece”. I’m sure if I was a literature student I would have to write an in-depth report of this novel at some point in my academic life, but I am not, so instead of trying to dissect this work of art, I will just jolt down some of my reactions to this novel.

I believe that “Catch 22”, along with 1984, is a must-read for everyone. If its reputation hasn’t convinced you enough, here are some of my reasons, from the objective of a common reader and not an academic literature researcher, for why you should (must) read this book.

Firstly, it’s funny. It’s not like “Heart of Darkness” or other Ondaatje war novels with such thick, over-bearing melancholic tone. Dealing with the ghastly topic of war, the novel chooses a humorous approach. It’s pretty obvious from the first chapter how unique this novel is: the absurdity of the character’s action, the contrasting and illogical sequence of events, the meaningless conversations. You should laugh, and not criticize the total incoherence logic, because as the novelty of the humor start to wear off and you don’t find Heller’s jokes funny anymore, you would come to realize that his jokes are not just cheap ways of pulling attention. The illogic is the theme of the book; the paradoxical motifs keep repeating itself to build fundamental themes of this classic novel. So do try to find those jokes funny instead of resisting the (seemingly) nonsensical layout of the book, because the book gets much darker afterwards. 

Secondly, it’s quite unpredictable. That is an obvious fact anyone can observe from just the first few chapters. Chronology does not exist in the novel, neither does logic. Even Kurt Vonnegut places his jokes in order and creates an apparent plotline that readers can follow. But Heller just keeps pumping out illogical jokes after illogical jokes, and if you can find the patience and mood to play along with him, you’re in for a fun ride. Unlike usual books that go in a direction that you can predict, Catch 22 just spirals out of control. It’s very fun, indeed, to, for once, let the story lead you.

Thirdly, it’s meaningful and smart. You could easily pull some materials off the book and crack a joke to people and look very intelligent. Furthermore, it is a very recognized book, so people might even perceive you as a scholarly person just when you allude to Catch-22.

I can think of more, but let’s talk about the book now.

Many themes appear and re-appear in Heller’s novel, usually at unexpected moments. Before my eyes, the novel transforms illogic into logic, creates its own rationale and justifies its unusual characters. Heller’s brilliance lies in building up this absurd world, then making his readers realize that is the world we have. The juxtaposition between sanity and insanity, between normal and abnormal, justice and injustice (and much more) emphasizes the crucial effects of war, bureaucracy and capitalism. Hidden among the complex humor and satire is the truth that we may or may not have accepted. This truth involves greed for money and power. And the system has allowed individuals to manipulate logic to their own benefits, resulting in the absurdity that we observe but not always realize. 

While playing with logic, Catch-22 also describes the graphic terror of war. In the last few chapters, as the tone switches from “hilarity to horror”, readers come to face the more immediate effect of war: death. Strangely, I felt “sad” as the characters disappear. The sombreness of the theme of death is greatly emphasized by the contrast between humor and horror. The novel also redefines “heroism”. As Yossarian comes to realize his ultimate solution, the novel also presents a new perspective on the glory of war and what it means to truly be a hero.