Sunday, March 11, 2012

Vacation Reading

  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher - Debut novel intended for teens about a high school girl who commits suicide, and records a series of tapes explaining why. Clay Jensen comes home from school two weeks after Hannah Baker's death to find a shoebox of cassette tapes, sides numbered 1 to 13. He listens with increasing discomfort, building to horror, as he understands the tapes are for those who played a role in Hannah's decision to kill herself--one side for each guilty party. He listens through one long night, as the story snowballs much like a thriller, her narration intertwined with Clay's reactions. Ingenious format and a very real story--the kind of book that stays with you for a while.
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell - After giving up in disgust on being a British policeman in Burma, Eric Blair came back to England in the late 1920s; finding no ready employment, he went to Paris as an English tutor--such work became harder and harder to come by, until he ended up as a plongeur or dishwasher in a fancier Parisian hotel, working 18+ hour days for little better than slave wages. He finally threw in the towel and returned to London, where he he shuffled round the home counties as a bum. This book describes this lifestyle, and the lives of people he met, in harrowing detail; he also explains how the laws intended to help the chronically unemployed only make their lot worse and keep them from becoming productive members of their society.
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  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones - This unconventional tale by a popular New Zealand author centers around life on a small Pacific island which is engulfed in a revolution led by guerrillas. When the war breaks out, all the whites leave the island, including the teachers--all the whites except for Mr Watts, who is married to a local. The story is narrated by Matilda, who becomes enthralled by Charles Dickens's Great Expectations which Mr. Watts reads to the children chapter by chapter after he takes over at the school. Government soldiers and guerrillas who come down from the hills alternately threaten and burn the village, the violence escalating with each incident--all in a search for the non-existent Mister Pip, a character from Dickens. Fittingly sad ending and an interesting read. (Movie version starring Hugh laurie coming out this year.)
  • Merrick by Anne Rice - Surely the greatest Gothic storyteller of our time, Rice here combines characters from her two best-selling brands, the Vampires and the Mayfair Witches. The narrator is David Talbot, former head of the Talamasca turned vampire, who had mentored Merrick as a young girl; he calls upon her now to bring Claudia back from the dead in order to make Louis happy (if you don't know who these people are, don't read this book--go and start with Interview with the Vampire). The main episode of the story is a return trip to the jungles of South America to retrieve powerful talismans that Merrick believes will be helpful in restoring Claudia--this is actually not true, as Merrick has other purposes in mind, purposes which may soon lead the Talamasca Elders to wage war on the vampires ...
  • Bubbles Betrothed by Sarah Strohmeyer - This fifth novel in the Bubbles series is a stand-alone story about beautician-turned-reporter Bubbles Yablonsky who is trying to find out who killed Lehigh, PA's popular high school principal with a secret life. At first, everyone thinkks the killer was a deranged homeless woman called Popeye, but when she is murdered moments she is to testify, her innocence becomes apparent. Meanwhile, Bubbles suddenly finders herself engaged to world-class reposrter Steve Stiletto, while her ex-husband, ambulance-chaser Dan the Man claims someone is trying to kill him. The plot thickens when someone drops in her car a series of explicit photographs taken by a security camera showing the dead principal in flagrante in the local podiatrist's office with another man. Fast-paced, well-written and fun, Bubbles is a winner--and the Agatha Awards agree, giving her the Best First Novel prize in 2001.
  • The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P Hogan - Hogan was known for his "hard" science fiction, and this early novel certainly fits that characterization. Published in 1979, and read thirty-odd years later, it reveals one of the main difficulties with hard science fiction: the non-existent and/or emerging technologies of the time are described and explained in a way that is quite tedious to the modern reader. Still, the basic ideas that the story wrestles with--the role and power of technology to change, control or even destroy humanity--are with us today. Worried that the "Titan" system that runs a lot of things on earth could get out of hand, government powers design an experient aboard an orbiting space station in which a supercomputer will be given the desire for survival, and then human colonists will attempt to shut it down. Codenamed Janus (two faces, get it?) the head scientist and our protagonist is Ray Dyer, who meanwhile falls in love with Laura Fenning, an attractive but irritating journalist who is to document the experiment for later public consumption--if they survive to tell the tale ...

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Taipei: Subway

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While Seoul's subway system began operation in 1974, Taipei's MRT only came online in 1996, but has had an enormous impact on the city's liveability, easing an unbearable traffic congestion problem and making a big difference in air quality. It has also spurred urban renewal, making outlying areas more accessible.

I stayed at the Happy Family Hostel (which I can strongly recommend for no-frills accommodation), located a two-minute walk from "Taipei Main Station". On my first morning, I was concerned by the many doors, hallways and staircases/escalators of what seemed a maze of a station; however, it was well-marked, and is besides an exception to the simplicity of most MRT stations, as it is the confluence of three lines, the main bus station, a shopping mall (Qsquare) and an underground shopping center.

I was surprised and charmed at my entry point to the station by this artwork:

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Artwork frequently adorns the exterior of such public spaces, but I can't remember seeing much of it on the actual subway platform before:

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While coverage of the MRT is still a bit sparse, they are working on it, with the brown line opening in 2009 and the Nangang Eastern Extension being completed last year.

It is also foreigner-friendly, with English everywhere, and video screens that give the arrival times in minutes of the next train, like I noticed in Shanghai. Most routes in Seoul now have a linear picture which shows the next arrival inching along the line.

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And, like any other big city, you can buy a "SmartCard" for about USD 3 and save a little bit on your fares--which are quite cheap at around 20 to 30 NT, where 30 NT (New Taiwan Dollar) is about USD 1.

Just like Seoul, the subway system is a key part of having a good experience in the city.

Taipei: Temples

Confucius Temple:
Was built during the Qing dynasty; it is dedicated to education, but on my visit there were no acolytes in evidence.

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Boa-an Temple:
Located directly adjacent to the Confucius temple, it is gthe oldest Buddhist temple in Taipei. It stays busy, but not as busy as Longshan temple.

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Guandu Temple:
Located far to the northwest of city center, get off at the Guandu stop on the red line, then take one of the frequent mini-buses the short distance to the temple. This is quite simply the must-see temple in Taipei. First of all, it exists in multiple levels, stretching to the top of the hillside, and affording nice views of the river.

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Secondly, there are a pair of tunnels running through the mountainside. They are lined with icons of minor Buddhist gods and bas-reliefs of religious scenes.

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Taipei: Food at Shillin Night Market

Taipei's most renown market is the Shillin Night market, but to go there, don't get off at the Shillin subway station, use Jiantian, one stop to the south.

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No Seoulite will be especially impressed with Shillin, or at least no Seoulite who has been to Namdaemun or the Dongdaemun food market. Understandable as Seoul's population is three times larger

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Below are some red bean cakes being assembled; the filling in these is not as tasty as what we get in Seoul, but I liked the cake part better.
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Here are a couple odd choices, first some roasted cane, and below that, Wow! Frogs eggs! Okay, they aren't really frog's eggs, but some kind of green fruit beverage--frankly, I think they're oranges that haven't turned orange.

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