Ghetto at the Center of the World by Gordon Mathews

Likely the most fascinating place in Hong Kong with some of the best South Asian food in the city. Chungking Mansions is a curiosity that is not to be missed.

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 256 pages.
Read from June 25, 2019 to July 3, 2019.

I’ve called Hong Kong home for a few years now and have come to love it for all of its unique flaws and qualities. Hong Kong is a busy city but outside of its city walls are beautiful running trails, beaches, and hikes. There is something for everyone in this diverse city no matter what kind of person you are. As an expat, Chungking Mansions is a fascinating place that needs to be visited at least once, but for locals, it is generally a place to be avoided. The stories of crime and gang activity, along with the lack of familiar local faces, usually are enough to keep many locals away. However, this impression of Chungking Mansion isn’t its whole story.

1400_933.Facade
Grey facade – Photo by Gerald Figal on Flickr

Gordon Mathews is a university professor in Hong Kong and spent years living in and studying the people and it’s unique economy and isolated globalization. Chungking Mansion is located in the bustling and wealthy Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. It’s a popular district for shopping and has lots of tourists from mainland China and elsewhere from around the globe. Yet inside Chungking mansions is like entering a different world. Just outside of the building, you’ll find it brimming with South Asians, who, if you’re white, will try and sell you knock-off watches, handbags, or tailoring services. Inside the building is old and run down compared to the shiny shopping area it’s surrounded by. Inside you’ll find cheap rooms for rent, refugees, illegal workers, traders, sex workers, drug addicts, and small businesses from all around the globe. African traders come to find cheap cellphones to bring back to their countries. South Asians come, often illegally, to try and improve the quality of their lives as well as their families. Many refugees come and get trapped in the system of long waits within Hong Kong and are unable to work legally too. Despite the illegality of most of what goes on in the building, a blind eye is often turned by police. Without the illegality of workers and many other trades, Chungking Mansions would not exist. The diversity of the building makes for some of the most eclectic and delicious food in Hong Kong and for rock-bottom prices. It also makes for a unique area of globalization that isn’t really seen anywhere else in the world.

ChungKing-Mansions-21-august-2018
Image from Asia Times

I’ve actually had the pleasure of dining in Chungking Mansions with a group of refugees and have nothing but great things to say about the place despite its seedy reputation. I would go back in there in heartbeat for the great food, company, and people watching. That isn’t to say that sketchy things don’t happen at Chungking but in general, it’s a decent place to grab a good bite to eat provided you don’t mind how run down some of the establishments are.

13-08-11-hongkong-chungking-mansions-07.jpg
Image from Wikimedia

This book is a perfect insight into Chungking Mansions as its clear that the professor himself has become an established name inside the building and is someone that everyone seems to be comfortable talking with. He seems to have a clear understanding of Chungking Mansions and the people that live there. The novel felt a bit like something I would read in a university class but that’s not surprising since I’m sure that was one of the reasons it was written. Mathew’s writing is as informative as it is fascinating and if you’re in Hong Kong and have ever wanted to visit or know more about Chungking Mansions I would highly recommend this book.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

5/5 stars.
Hardcover, 440 pages.
Read June 12, 2019 to June 17, 2019.

Well, well, well, isn’ it wonderful when the hype about a book turns out to be true? This novel had the perfect combination of things that I love in a good book. A historical-fiction plot based in WWII (one of my favourite settings), strong and dynamic female characters, great writing, and a few surprises in store at the end. If this book has been on your TBR pile, it’s time to go and pick it up!

It’s 1939 and the Nazis have started to encroach on France. Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are about to face the war that’s coming. Having lost their mother at a young age and with an absent father who was dealing with his own demons from WW1, the two girls each felt abandoned in their youth. Vianne, the eldest, found love and married early but always relied on her husband for the guidance, rarely making decisions for herself. Isabelle never stopped feeling angry for being abandoned by her whole family. Rebellious at heart, she was kicked out of several girls schools before the start of the war and is rash and headstrong. The two of them couldn’t be more different yet each of them must face the war and the occupation of their country. Vianne must say goodbye to her husband, the only solid foundation she has ever had in her life, as he leaves to fight in the front. Isabelle is anxious to do something to assist in the war efforts, naive to the potential costs and sacrifices. Each sister grows and finds strength through horrible circumstances and rekindles a sisterly love and forgiveness for each other before the tragic end of the war.

The depth of characters in this story is what makes this book so exceptional. Vianne grows from a meek and passive young woman to finding her own voice even through immense tragedy and suffering. Isabelle joins the Resistance and makes an impact in the war yet when she returns home she finds that she is not the only one that has suffered and comes to understand her sister’s sacrifices, as well as their father’s.  The story is both moving and inspiring and there is a particular moment with the father that nearly brought me to tears.

This book has something for everyone and combine that with the great writing it’s no wonder it’s been so popular. Unless another book comes around before the new year, this book is the top contender for my favourite book of the year.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

“There is no such thing as a true tale. Truth has many faces and the truth is like to the old road to Avalon; it depends on your own will, and your own thoughts, whither the road will take you.”

4/5 stars.
Library binding, 884 pages.
Read from May 23, 2019 to June 11, 2019.

This iconic fantasy novel has been on my TBR list for years and after I friend of mine raved about how much she was enjoying reading it I decided to finally pick it up for myself. Little did I know that the Portuguese versions of this book, that my friend was reading, is broken down into four separate books which is what I was expecting, whereas the English version, the version I read, has all four of the books put into one gigantic tome! Nearly 900 bloody pages. It’s a good thing I enjoyed it.

Written in 1984, Bradley takes the classic story of King Arthur and gives us the version of the story from the perspective of all the female characters. Especially the perspectives of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar. This feminist re-telling takes the generally male-centric story of Arthur and relays another perspective of how it all came to be with him and his legendary sword. The female characters are far less conniving in this story and instead, show what their real motives were and generally how hard it would have been to be a woman during King Arthur’s time.

Christianity is on the rise and the ways of the Goddess and of the old ways of magic are falling aside to make way for this new religion. Each character makes choices based on their own beliefs on how best to navigate this new world, whether that’s to preserve the old, embrace the new, or take a more neutral stance in which both can exist.

“All gods are one god.”

A lot of people slammed this book for its religious undertones, for, well, its occasionally very blatant remarks against Christianity, and many felt that the whole book was a platform to discuss issues with Christianity. I strongly disagree, especially having actually read the whole book. While yes, the story does make a lot of remarks against Christianity, it also does the same for the pagan Goddess that many of the women in the story follow. I think one of the main driving features of the novel was about how religion takes such a major hold in people’s lives, for better and for worse. Following the Goddess lead to some horrible and tragic circumstances for Morgaine and many of her kin. I feel that the book focused more on the distress that comes in trying to do the right thing by your religion as well as by your self and trying to be as faithful as you can. This internal conflict between wants, needs, and desires versus what is dictated by a character’s religion creates unending turmoil for every single character in the book, both male and female.

Spoilers ahead… Think of how much misery would have been spared if Gwenhwyfar and Lancelot had just run off together but because Gwen was so pious the two of them lived a life of misery and shame, always thinking themselves horrendously sinful. Morgaine, what would have her life had been like if the will of the Goddess had not forced her to lay with her half brother and bear her child? She lived her whole life trying to escape the confusion of that moment and what the Goddess meant to her in her own life…end of spoilers.

The beautiful part of the book is that it also shows how wonderful faith can be too as each of the characters does eventually find peace in the end with their choices, faiths, and fates.

The character work in this book is its true focal point and driving feature. Despite the length of the book and the occasional tediousness of the plot, especially towards the end, you fall in love with all the rich and dynamic characters. I think I had a love/relationship with the majority of the female-led characters in this book because you grow with them. I loathed Gwen for a long time and even though she is still my least favourite character her character development gives me an immense appreciation for her. Morgaine, the best character in this story, especially since she is normally portrayed as a conniving and incestuous whore in the traditional version of Arthur, is a phenomenal woman and character, with deep faults and strong ambitions. The characters aren’t perfect either as sometimes they make terrible choices or occasionally give the impression of the stereotype they were thought to be in the original story but with the back story and character development provided by Bradley you get the whole picture and can decide for yourself. It’s like the traditional story of Arthur is only one piece to the whole picture and Bradley wrote the rest and filled in the much-needed gaps so that the women finally got to have their own voices and perspectives heard.

Bradley was so far ahead of her time with this book so it’s no wonder that it is still considered a fantasy classic to this day. If you love fantasy and have not read this book yet, you’ve got to. Bradley recreated the whole realm of Camelot, Avalon, and Arthur with this book and I don’t think I could ever go back to the original version since I like this one so much!