A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

The wind breathes hard and the branches shake in response.  The green leaves dance in the warm wind and the yellow ones succumb to gravity, falling gracefully onto the car park below, covering the cars with patches of yellow.  This is as much of an autumn view I will ever see outside my window, in my part of the world.  That is, if I allow myself to be limited by what I see and feel around me, physically.  The beauty of reading lies in its magic to transport readers into an entirely different world, and I have experienced winter just by doing that.  

I bought A Christmas Carol about two years back during a sale, planning to read this for leisure.  Not wanting to make excuses for the long lapse but well, one more book is cleared from my shelf!  It is a very short book (100 pages, Collins Classics) with a fairytale-like story to instill in readers some kind of moral.  The book does remind me of comics in the sense that it uses exaggerated images that have no place in reality but nevertheless leaves a meaningful message for readers to take away at the closing of the last page.  Although this book was meant for the Victorian audience, it is still applicable in today’s world, since inequality will always exist and society will always have a part to play in helping the poorer ones. 

The summary of this book is as follows; an old man, named Ebenezer Scrooge, rich in material wealth but poor in humanity, is visited by the ghost of his old friend and three other spirits.  The spirits share with him a tour of his past, an omniscience view of the present, and a glimpse of a possible future.  Scrooge changes for the better and trades his material wealth for kindness towards others.  

Just as Scrooge is reminded of kindness received in his younger days by the spirit, I am reminded (while reading) of one incident that happened two decades back.  I was heading home from school and I got off the public bus before my intended destination as I was feeling very unwell.  It was a migraine attack but I was not aware that it was one such attack at that point in time.  Feeling weak and nauseous, I was sitting down in the middle of the pavement and vomiting into the drain.  A woman in her fifties stopped by and brought me to her house which was nearby. If I had more sense then, I would not have followed her home due to safety concerns.  But I followed her in my moment of weakness and she gave me water and made me rest.  Drifting in and out of sleep and tears, I could hear her comforting me by my side.  I had no idea how long I stayed there.  Her daughter (an adult) came back and then took a taxi with me to send me home.  And yes, her daughter paid for the fare.  

That is one kindness I have not been able to repay till now.  I tried finding the house after a few days, but I could not remember the location.  I tried recalling their faces but I could not picture how they look like.  Lame as it sounds, but it is true.  I remember very little of the specifics but their kindness is never forgotten.  This little kindness may not sound much for many people, but to a person in need, a little would have meant much.         

Many of us are probably not as rich as Scrooge has appeared to be, in terms of material wealth, but to do a little charity is definitely within one’s means.  I can understand that in our current city life, we constantly have to deal with the challenge of rising costs with our almost stagnant salaries.  To beat the inflation, one would have to risk making investment, if not; one will have to watch the hard-earned money losing value in an ordinary savings account.  Such is the woe of many city dwellers, especially those classified as “middle-income”.  To add on, the high level of hypocrisy that has been exposed over the years, of certain names and organizations that had misappropriated funds meant for charity purposes, is bound to have affected the extent of kindness that people are willing to show.  

One friend told me before that when he was a child, on one occasion he had asked his father for money to give to a beggar who had appeared to have no legs, but minutes later, he witnessed the same beggar running on two legs, from the police.  This incident had a very negative impact on him, since he views the needy with distrust after that.  I believe some of us fall into this same category that shares the similar distrust.  

A different perspective was heard from another friend.  I asked him about how confident he was, about the money he was donating, that the money would really reach the needy.  His reply to me was that it would be good enough if at least a dollar out of the ten dollars donated could reach the needy.  It took me a while to digest and assess the worthiness of that donation, but I finally agree that the needy should not be deprived of a chance just because greedy worms exist.  Do I still make donations? Yes I do.  Do I do volunteer work?  Not at the moment, as I am not prepared to make the long term commitment.  People tell me that I can stop the volunteer work anytime if I cannot manage, but I would prefer to really go for it on a long term basis.  I would want to make it as part of my regular activity and not as a onetime effort.    

Scrooge, in the tale of A Christmas Carol, is allowed a glimpse of the possible future, but such a view will not be visible to us, as we are humans living in the real world.  What then, do we want to make out of this?  One could see it on a surface level as Scrooge’s individual future, or one could derive from Scrooge’s initial end as a lesson learnt on the importance of humanity.  After all, we weren’t born to be Robinson Crusoes living in isolation on different islands.  A little kindness can, and will go, a long way. 

Looking out of my window again, the warm wind picks up momentum, and the yellow leaves continue their falling dance.  The seconds pass by and time flies by.  Before I know it, I would have aged and so would you.  If tomorrow is your last day on earth, what would you have done differently today?

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Lan Ling Wang 兰陵王

I had just finished this period drama of 46 episodes. Overall I enjoyed the drama. It is based on historical figure Lan Ling Wang but in a highly romanticized version. A summary gathered from Wikipedia depicts Lan Ling Wang to be a great general of Northern Qi Dynasty, one who was well loved and admired by his people. He was said to have a beautiful face and so he always wore a mask during battles to appear more fearsome to the enemies. His greatest battle appeared to be the successful rescue of the siege of Luoyang city where he fought the enemy of 100, 000 soldiers with only 500 cavalrymen. But as in many tragedies, heroes die young, and there was no exception for Lan Ling Wang. The only regret, in my opinion, was that Lan Ling Wang did not perish on the battlefield, but was poisoned by his cousin who ascended the throne, due to jealousy of Lan Ling Wang’s fame. So did this drama stick to the tragic fate of the historical Lan Ling Wang? I leave that for you to find out.

The plot for this show is, on the whole, an acceptable one. It starts off typically with battle scenes and the getting to know each other for the protagonist and his love. After getting through a couple of ordeals (including the famous rescue of the siege of Luoyang city) and getting their love tested, the pair finally ties the knot. By this time, a peace treaty (for duration of three years) with the enemy was also obtained. It does seem that the drama is done since the pair is united and there are no more battles. But the drama is just halfway through! So what happens now is that the plot introduces a villain character whose life mission is to get rid of the protagonist’s wife. Then you get treated to some annoying episodes detailing the little schemes she does to break up the couple. She fails miserably but returns to the plot as a stronger enemy (Empress) who makes use of the Emperor’s authority to wreak revenge. So there you go, the grand battle plot has dissolved into a typical love-hate revenge plot. The last part of the plot, though returning to the battlefield, is focused on the petty revenge and the hasty deaths of many characters. (By the way, the peace treaty had expired by this time.)

One aspect of the drama that appears to die out by the end is the prophecy that seems to be overwhelming in the first half of the drama. There is no direct mention of it in the later part of the drama. The thing with prophecy is that people will want to resist fate and change destiny but very often, people do not seem to understand that their knowledge of the prophecy and the actions taken to resist it, are part of the prophecy itself. Just as in Greek play Oedipus Rex, the first step in fulfilling the prophecy is to believe it and resist it. Watch the drama yourself and you will know what I mean.      

The underlying themes in the entire drama are blind love and blind loyalty. The characters behave the way they do, due to either blindness. Things would have turned out much differently if the characters have more common sense or some logical thinking. The only one with a high level of logic is the character of Emperor Northern Zhou, but he too succumbs to love. It may be frustrating as a viewer but this blindness is the element that touches us in the heart for it reflects back an image of reality in life. How many of us actually manage to act on logic rather than feeling? I think we are generally irrational creatures, swayed by emotions.

I would give high marks for the aesthetic aspect of this drama. Just look at the pretty red cover! Yes I am kidding you, it’s more to that of course. For one thing, the protagonist has more than one hairstyle, and it is not common (from what I have watched so far) for men to have multiple hairstyles in period dramas. He has multiple outfits too, in different designs and colours, complete with matching belts. And his battle suit reminds me of role playing games, as I find the design quite similar to that of the characters’ in those games. The outfits for the female lead character, though multiple, are plainer in comparison to the protagonist’s. Nonetheless, they are still quite pretty and they aid in complementing her carefree character. If you were to pay attention to the details of the outfits worn by the characters, you will see that a considerable amount of effort has been put in creating the image of each character. 

In terms of acting skills, the protagonist is very skillful in balancing moments of humour, sadness and sternness. This can be seen especially in those scenes whereby he is wearing a mask. His expressions are conveyed clearly, despite his face being covered up. The next character I would like to mention is the one who commands a majestic aura. He is Emperor Northern Zhou who clearly exhibits the image of a no-nonsense ruler throughout. This is even so when he is supposedly down and out in a beggarly outfit. As for the female lead character, she portrays the carefree image naturally in an adorable way and ugly teary images during sad moments that reach out to the heart. Indeed, there is quite a display of talents here.

To conclude, I think this drama is worth watching even though the plot is not that fantastic. The overall feel is also slightly lighter than Scarlet Heart (步步驚心), in the sense that it is not so heart wrenching towards the end.

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An Anchor for the Soul – Ray Pritchard

This is the first Christian book I have finished so far.  I have nothing against any religion but I do resist human attempts of any kind to change my thinking and belief.  Being born into a Taoism family, I am exposed from a young age to concepts of fairness, retribution and reincarnation.  The idea of being able to live eternally in heaven sounds nothing more than wishful thinking to me.  So when I heard that one (even for murderers) only needed to trust in God to go to heaven, I was incredulous.  Whatever happened to fairness and retribution?  I was not convinced about this ticket to eternal paradise.

For a long time, I thought I was against Christianity, since I was always running away from friends and people who were preaching continuously and trying to get me to step into their churches.  However, as I grew older, I became aware of my own thinking, in the sense that I was not against the religion itself, but rather, it was the way church-goers tried to convince me that repelled me.  The harder they tried, the further I ran.  By this time, some friends had become Christians, the most influential one in my life being my best friend.  Till today, she had never made a single attempt to drag me to her church, nor had she ever tried to preach to me.  By that, I do not mean to say that she totally kept the religion as a topic off our conversations.  But what she did was to share her experience, and not impose her belief.  I remember very clearly that she told me that my time will come. 

The book that I have read is a gift from another friend.  To be honest, I was a little put off when I first received it.  If I had received the book years ago, I would have probably left it on the shelf to collect dust.  But now, I am willing to read it with an open mind.  For one thing, my friend never came back to check if I had read it and so I do not feel pressurized into completing the book.  For another thing, recent deaths in the family had led me into feeling that the concept of retribution is not a healthy one.  It’s all very well to use that concept to intimidate people and prevent them from doing evil.  But what happens when bad things happen to good people?  By “good people”, I am referring to people, who have worked hard all their lives only to suffer from diseases and to pass away painfully.  Inevitably, time was wasted in wondering “what have I done to deserve this”, at a time when time was so precious in battling the disease and in creating the last moments.  From what I have read and heard, it appears that Christians generally have a healthier way to deal with such crisis.  They think of it as a test from God, and that God will provide, and that eventually they will go to heaven.  With this thirst for optimism, I open up my heart to know more about God.

An Anchor for the Soul is a very short book, even though the number of pages is at 179.  The font is big and the page is small.  Even with my slow reading speed, I could easily swallow 50 pages at one go.  Each chapter has a clear objective to convey and the understanding it expects from the readers is a direct one.  The use of monetary depictions aids readers of all backgrounds into grasping the concepts easily and although it does borrow authority from the Bible at times, the examples quoted are not overwhelming.  To provide a summary of such a short book would mean to deprive the reading pleasure of potential readers and so what I would do here is to touch on two concepts mentioned in the book that I have always been in disagreement with, but am now convinced to a certain extent.

The first concept is that murderers can go to heaven too.  The second and third chapters talk about sin and about how all of us are sinners to start with, whether or not, one is a murderer.  The basic idea is that a murderer becomes an obvious sinner to everyone (even to himself/herself) and when he/she asks for God’s grace, he/she places himself/herself totally in God’s hands and hence will be granted entry into heaven.  As for the rest of us, we might think that we are not sinners since we did not murder anyone and in that sense, we do not ask for God’s grace.  But actually in God’s eyes, we are all sinners and we all need his grace.  And so this explains why some murderers may go to heaven while the rest of us (non-murderers) may not. 

The second concept is about church attendance.  For a long time, it had appeared to me that one must attend some church before one can be a Christian.  The question of “What is the difference between being a Christian and a church member” is being addressed in the book and that one can come to God “just as you are”.  Although attending church will allow one to be better connected with fellow Christians and to gain a greater understanding and deeper insight to the Bible, church attendance is not the first step to reaching out to God.

 

The book itself, as the author states, is not meant to argue people into Christian faith and I am not convinced to the extent of conversion, but nevertheless it does address some major doubts that I have and I do believe this is a step closer to the religion and that perhaps my time will come soon,

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The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone is one of the thickest books (482 pages for this edition) I have read in the recent years. I can’t say I love the book but I certainly appreciate it. For it being the first English detective novel, I can understand the thrill that it gives readers as the plot slowly unfolds in multiple narratives. Unlike a typical detective plot in the today’s world…, a detective plot in older times does not involve methods such as matching fingerprints or decoding some passwords. The plot, in those times, is based mainly on deductions that are formed from observations gathered through events and conversations. (Sometimes I think our brain is getting lazier as more inventions are being made available.) There is one little complaint on this book though, that is, the most boring and insignificant part is the one that is being narrated by a woman. The interesting parts are all narrated by men. Is that a hint by Wilkie Collins that men are more superior and reliable compared to women? I leave that open. One more thing, The Moonstone, being a Victorian novel, is somewhat longwinded. If one can get past the little details that are meant to guide readers in picturing the scenes, one can certainly enjoy the book and at the same time exercise the brain!
 
(15-Jan-2014)
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The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

“It is about the faith, power, and courage we all have within us to pursue the intricate path of a Personal Legend, a path charted by the mysterious magnet of destiny but obscured by distractions.”

Many meaningful quotes – simple yet thought provoking – can be found in this text. This would be an inspiring read for those struggling to find their meaning in life but it would take a high level of maturity to balance dreams and practicality. After all, fantasy in many instances, remains as fantasy. As such, i would not recommend this book for lost “kids” who are just eager for quick success but not at all willing to sweat for it.

(06-Aug-2013)

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The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey

The first time I came across this book was many years ago. A friend wanted to lend me his copy after reading but the idea somehow never materialized into action. Lately, another friend told me to read this. This time, I decided to search for the book. I am not into the habit of buying books now because I feel that the same copy is… more valuable if more people read it. For that reason, I am passing my books around too. When another friend finally borrowed an available copy from NLB and passed to me, my initial thought was “300+ pages, oh my god”. And the horrible part to me was that it looked like some kind of management or financial book. For the past three years, I had been reading either classics for literature class or when I could spare the time, a few comics for pleasure.So I started reading, somewhat reluctantly. And I am so glad that I finished the book and I really have to thank the friend for telling me to read it (no, she didn’t exactly recommend, it was more like an instruction). The language in the book is simple, the writing style direct and the examples are so precise that I could relate to them immediately. As with other self improvement books, this book offers knowledge and insights that one could apply to daily life. Although the book is structured by seven habits, these habits do not go sequentially, as most of us might be conditioned to think, given our years of mandatory education. Instead, the habits are all tied together to either to “private victory” or “public victory”.

The journey into the book starts off with a standard overview. The one thing I have learnt from this overview is the frame (or lenses) of my view, and not the angle. I have always thought that I could see things from different angles, and I still think that is true. But what I have not realized is that, I am still using the same frame to look from different angles. This frame is not something that anyone can change overnight, as it is the subconscious tendency that governs our choices and decisions. With this realization, my focus is now on my frame, rather than my angle. Of course, there is no shortcut in life. If one wants to improve myself, one needs to sweat for it.

The first three habits are tied to “private victory”. There is a common saying “the greatest enemy is yourself”, and I could not agree more. External factors can only torment us this much, and the last straw to break the camel’s back is usually served by ourselves – that is, despair. Habit one says to be proactive and the first word that came to my mind is “initiative”. Having initiative is just the basic, but rather, it means to have initiative to choose your response. At this point, I am happy to say that this is not something new to me; I just need more practice to perfect it.

Habit two is very lengthy, even though it is something that should have been very obvious. But I guess the reason for the great length is that many people do not realize that they are missing that. To begin with the end in mind requires imagination and perseverance. All great inventions begin with imagination. Without imagination, there can be no progress or improvement. After the end is visualized by imagination, perseverance becomes the next ingredient to turn this vision into action. A friend mentioned to me the concept of “baby steps”. Successful people are always taking baby steps towards their visions, while the rest of us are just walking in circles. In management terms, it would mean “to do the right thing”. It sounds very simple in black and white but how often does any of us stop to think whether this thing is a necessary (right) thing to do? Instead, many people would be engaged in thinking how to finish the thing (fire-fighting), and this leads us to the third habit.

Habit three is probably one of those habits that are already practiced by many people. To put first things first is definitely nothing new as it simply means doing the thing right. At this point, the word “priority” comes to mind and to master this habit, there are a few concepts to clarify. Firstly, “urgent” is not the same as “important”. After being in operational work for many years, these two words have tied themselves together. People yell “urgent” all the time and we rush to complete the tasks. Subconsciously, I have taken “urgent” to be “important”. But it is definitely not the case. Important things should be those that are important to me in the long run, things that I will regret not doing when I am on my deathbed. Urgent things are simply things that require immediate attention, but if one does not attend to them immediately, it does not matter that much anyway. Secondly, human interaction should have more priority than task completion, and that one should think effectiveness with humans, and efficiency with tasks. At the end of the day, we want to manage time efficiency but not at the expense of sacrificing our human relations.

The journey now moves to the area of “public victory”. This is not an area that I am focusing on right now, but nevertheless, I will touch briefly on them. Habit four says to think win/win. This will be something that sounds familiar too, only that your idea of win/win might not be my idea of win/win. At the end of the day, if each of us looks at the opposite end with our own frame, there can never be a truly win/win situation. Habit five is also something that sounds easy and many of us are likely to think that we are doing it already. But to seek first to understand, then to be understood is a skill that is very difficult to master, although it is something that anyone can start practicing now. I feel that it is only when the other party opens up to you, then you can really know that you have done it. To simply “be a good listener” in your own terms is just not sufficient, because you are dealing with another individual with his own frame, his own thoughts. It is at this point that perhaps a win/win situation is possible, when both truly seek to understand and then to be understood. Habit six is to synergize. This is something right at the end of the tunnel, where it is only possible to reach after the rest are passed. The main idea here is to acknowledge that the strength of a combination is greater than the strength of each isolated individual. If one is of the opinion that he is always better, then this will never be possible.

The last habit is to sharpen the saw. It simply means maintenance. The one to be doing all the above is yourself and this is the main asset one should invest in. Spend an hour daily to maintain yourself in four areas – mentally, spiritually, socially, and physically. I personally have a rough idea of this but it is always good to be reminded as we are all trying to squeeze everything into a day’s work. Finally, I want to conclude this by saying that all the above are simply text on an electronic screen, and that a book is nothing but just printed words on pages that are bonded together, it is up to the individual to “open the gate of change” as change has to come from within.

(06-Sep-2013)

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Always the bridesmaid – Whitney Lyles

I received this book as a gift in 2004 and I had read it halfway and left it aside for many years before I finally took it up and read it from the first page. And yes, this time I completed it. It’s not that the book is bad, it’s just that my schedule was bad.Quite a predictable plot and an easy-to-follow story line. As with many other American novels,… there is a rich description of cultural background. It’s also quite informative for me in the sense that I have never been a bridesmaid all my life. However, as many of my friends are way into married life, I do see the similarities and differences in the way people view and treat wedding versus marriage. If there is any takeaway from this novel, it would be not to be immersed in the event and to lose sight of marriage itself. It’s ironic to read that one places so much emphasis on the wedding that one forgets to accept the identity change. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there are people who want so much to share a life together that they do not care much about what happens at the wedding.The bridesmaid has a typical happy ending that has been set in place in the background since the beginning of the novel. And so this is indeed a very lighthearted novel, perfect for bedtime reading.

(23-Sep-2013)

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