Book Review: ‘Tokyo Sketches’ by Peter Hamill

February 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews


My ignorance was highlighted recently when a friend and colleague lent me a collection of short stories called Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill. I had no idea who this guy was — cousin of Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, perhaps? — but I did thoroughly enjoy the anthology. As it turned out, Peter Hamill is a “legendary” New York journalist, an lifetime award-receiving writer, novelist and essayist and a columnist and editor for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Hamill’s background explains a lot, including why the 13 short stories in this 1992 book are so varied, well-written and insightful. The prose is confident but light, which makes for a brisk read, and the atmosphere is expertly conveyed through a small handful of spot-on descriptions and astute observations. What impressed me the most was how Hamill could, in only a few pages, always get me to care about his characters, no matter who or where they are. It’s the sign of a writer who has an uncanny grasp of universal human emotions and knows how to connect them to readers through words.

The common theme is, as the title suggests, Tokyo, but each story is told through the point of view of a very different character, from a young female Japanese reporter to an old, lonely Japanese man, from an over-the-hill American boxer to a Samurai-obsessed student. I haven’t seen anything in the Hamill’s biographies suggesting he has ever lived in Japan for an extended period of time, but his wife appears to be Japanese. I’m sure I’m sure having interviewed hundreds if not thousands of people over the decades has given him a whole treasure trove of unique characters and little stories and snippets to choose from, but either wher way, it’s damn impressive how diverse his stories are and how he manages to slip some aspect of Japanese culture into each and every one of them — whether it is music, baseball or the war. Even after 20 years, the book and its characters still ring true.

I’m usually wary of short story collections (especially if it’s from the same author) because they tend to be a mixed bag of some good and some not-so-good stories, or alternatively, stories that won’t appeal to everyone. Of course, there are some stories I liked more in this collection than others, but on the whole there really isn’t a weak link in Tokyo Sketches. Personally, my favorite stories are probably The Price of Everything, about a Japanese widow learning to love again; The Opponent, about a fixed boxing match, and The Magic Word, which is about one of my favorite things in Japanese culture — manga. A lot of them — actually, most of them — are kind of melancholy and deal with disappointment and heartbreak, but there are some heartwarming moments littered throughout to prevent you from getting too depressed.

On the whole, this is a strong collection of short stories and definitely one of the better ones I’ve encountered. Thanks to Hamill for making my trips to and from work over the last couple of weeks so engrossing.


Book Review: ‘Zero and Other Fictions’ by Huang Fan

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Short stories and novellas are in a weird grey area for me. I love the idea of them, but at the same time, there aren’t many that I find myself fully engaging with. It is with this bizarre love-hate relationship that I have that I read Zero and Other Fictions, a collection of three short stories and a 100-page novella by acclaimed Taiwanese writer Huang Fan.

Not many people have heard of Huang, but he is no doubt a big deal in Taiwan’s literary circles, having won just about every major literary prize the country has to offer. Zero and other Fictions is the first collection of his work to appear in English, and it is translated and edited by award-winning translator John Balcom.

This is a fascinating anthology because it is so varied in its subject matter and styles. If the idea was to show off Huang’s versatility and the range of his imagination, this collection certainly achieves that.

The first story, “Lai Suo”, which propelled Huang to the forefront ofTaiwan’s literary scene in 1979, is a subtle and sometimes confusing story about a naïve man who becomes an unwitting pawn of Taiwanese politics. Spanning a period from the Japanese colonial era to the late 1980s, the story jumps back and forth effortlessly through time in a stream-of-consciousness style. It is the type of story that allows the reader to appreciate Huang’s literary genius but many not connect with it unless they have a bit of an idea about Taiwanese history and its political environment through the years.

The second story, “The Intelligent Man”, provides a stark contrast. It is a light-hearted satire about a Taiwanese businessman who moves to the US but through his business travels frequently back toAsia– where he has developed a habit of keeping a mistress in every port. It’s actually not an outlandish concept because I know for a fact that it is rather common.

The third story, “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”, is a bizarre metafictional tale of the narrator’s childhood in a rapidly urbanisingTaipei. This one had me scratching my head more than once because I had no idea what it was getting at until the very end, and I believe that was Huang’s intention. It’s an experimental piece, well-written, sure, but probably the least enjoyable of the collection.

The fourth and final story is “Zero”, which takes up about two-thirds of the book’s pages. It is the first work of science fiction to win a major literary award inTaiwan, and considering that it was written in the 1980s, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. “Zero” depicts an Orwellian future, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where nearly every significant human decision – from jobs to holiday destinations – is made by higher powers. Conformity is not an option – it is mandatory and an accepted philosophy. It is with this backdrop that the story’s protagonist, Xi De, an independent thinker, begins to ponder whether this totalitarian world is all there is to know.

One hundred pages is an uncomfortable length for a piece of adult fiction. It’s too long for a short story and in this case, one gets the feeling that Huang could have easily made it a novel three or four times as long, but chose not to. As a result, I found Zero engaging, certainly the most engaging piece of the four, but still strangely lacking in the end. Also, having seen so many sci-fi movies over the years, it wasn’t easy getting excited about a world which is not too dissimilar – I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written nearly three decades ago.

All of Huang’s stories have political and societal undertones which will resonate more with people who have background knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written. Every story in this collection, especially “Lai Suo”, demands multiple readings to fully appreciate the power of Huang’s writing. However, I still think my lack of genuine understanding of Taiwan’s political history has made me lose something from the experience. Balcom’s translations, as elegant as they are, probably also failed to convey the full force of the writings in their original Chinese. The result is a sometimes enjoyable but also frequently frustrating read that I wished could have been better.

3 out of 5

Book Review: ‘Lives and Letters’ by Robert Gottlieb

September 11, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

I’m a big fan of profiles, so I was ecstatic to receive a whole book of them in the mail to review for a trade publication.  The book was Lives and Letters, an anthology of profiles and essays by Robert Gottlieb, one of the most prolific editors in America.

Gottlieb is a former editor-in-chief of power publishing houses Simon & Schusters and Alfred A Knopf, and the former editor of The New Yorker.  He has over 50 years of experience in the industry, and is probably best known for ‘discovering’ and editing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and has edited the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ray Bradbury, Michael Crichton, Sidney Portier, John Lennon, Bob Dylan…and even John Cheever! (see video below).


Lives and Letters is marvellous collection of 44 pieces of splendid writing, most of which are profiles of celebrated writers and performers in film, theatre and dance, as well as iconic public figures.  Names everyone should recognise include Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Sarah Bernhardt, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Katherin Hepburn and the British Royals.  There’s also a couple of more personal pieces — essays on Gottlieb’s love affair with the New York City Ballet, and the surprisingly venomous fallout from Gottlieb replacing William Shawn as editor of The New Yorker.

My favourite pieces were the profiles on Harry Houdini and Minou Drouet, a child poet who took the poetry world by storm when she was just 7 or 8 years old before fading into obscurity.  The piece on the touching relationship between writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and legendary editor Maxwell E Perkins was also a pleasure to read.

All pieces were commissioned for a print publication over roughly the last 15 years, so naturally they differ in length, detail and focus.  Some are as short as 4 pages, while others can go for a dozen or more.  Some are straight profiles, while others feel more like reviews of books or films about the subjects.

Gottlieb’s style is simple, articulate, confident and efficient.  That said, his writings do have a certain highbrow sophistication to them reflective of his privileged upbringing that might irk some people.

The great thing though is that because Gottlieb is such a fabulous writer and editor, every piece is an engaging read that provides illuminating insights into his subjects.  He seems to always be able to find just the right quotes and anecdotes to reveal what makes the subject tick, their quirks, the relationships that defined them, what made them successful, and often, what led to their downfalls.

That said, not every piece was to my personal liking because they might be about subjects I’m not particularly interested in (especially dance and classical music).  Those pieces had many technical references I was not familiar with, and I’m sure other readers without Gottlieb’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts would be in the same boat.

Every now and then Gottlieb’s critical editor eye can also go overboard and overwhelm the narrative by getting too pedantic about every little thing that was wrong with, say, a biography written about the subject, including the author’s/editor’s poor grammar.  That’s why I preferred Gottlieb’s straight profiles — but everyone will have their own preferences and favourites.

Ultimately, Lives and Letters is a superb collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  My aim was to read one piece a day, but on most days I read 3 or 4 because they were so fascinating.  Even some of the subjects I thought I knew a little about contained so many juicy nuggets of info that I couldn’t help but read on.  I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the arts or the lives and scandals of the rich and famous throughout (Western) history.

The Waiting Game…and Getting Published!

February 12, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing, Study


It’s a waiting game for me right now.

For starters, there’s not much happening around here lately as I wait for this blog to be moved from the free domain to my own at

Let’s face it, I have absolutely no idea when it comes to the Internets, so all I’m doing is waiting for the free experts from the place I signed up at to work their magic.  I’m just not sure if I’ve ‘applied’ properly and when it’ll actually get done.  It’s always been a dream of mine since I commenced this blog that some day I’ll get my own domain, and now it’s finally happening!  Maybe now I can finally get my own erectile dysfunction ads in the sidebar.

In the meantime, I’ve finally figured out how to add custom drop down menus to posts.  Check it out!  Ahhh…so nice.  I’ve also tried to clean things up a little by reducing and parenting the categories.  Maybe no one else will notice, but it feels good to have done something.

In other waiting news, I’m going to officially become a ‘published’ author in book format.  It’s only one of many entries in an anthology but it’s well respected and paved the way for many successful writers.  And besides, it took a lot of hard work and luck (about a one in ten chance) to get selected, and then I had to endure the brutal process of book editing (working one-on-one with an editor) to get it into shape.  It’s a 4000 word non-fiction piece and I’m very proud of it, and the only thing I hope is that the publisher doesn’t use its veto power to deny it at the final hurdle!

While I wait for all that to sort itself out, I’m waiting to get the motivation to work on my novel(s) and another magazine piece I have signed up to write (with a mid-March deadline).  This one will require me to scour the Internet and go out to speak to professionals.  Looking forward to getting out there again.

Lastly, just waiting before class starts again.  Less than a month away.  Oh, and I’ll be going to Shanghai for a week in March.  Looks like more travel posts are coming.