Behind the White Coat

As usual, I am not especially proud of this poem (or rather, these three poems). But since I already wrote it for my Medical Humanities assessment, I might as well publish it here. 😅

Each side is an individual poem (the left, Science; the right, Art). But they can also be read together, as if there were no gap in the middle, forming a holistic portrait of an oncology consultation. Continue reading “Behind the White Coat”

Vicious

There are no good men in this game, said Mitch. Only Mitch was not entirely correct. There are no perfect men – good and pure is a dangerous conflation. And good, being a relative thing, suited Mitch and Sydney well, at least. Victor was surprisingly good too. Sure, he hungered for sweet, sadistic revenge. Fantasised the exact places he would fire bullet after bullet into his former best friend. But said friend almost killed him first, so it was fair play. Or within the confines of understandable human reactions, anyway. (In V.E. Schwab’s other series, Lila relished the thought of carving Holland up, but no one would call her bad.) But even though Victor never grows into the villain that flared in the blurbs and summaries and mountains of praise, it did not matter in the end. This book is still dangerously enchanting.

I had said before that Schwab paints her characters in shifting shades of grey. In Vicious, she painted them in black. Some more than others (Eli is straight up Vanta), but all nonetheless a deliciously dark absence of colour. To be clear, black still does not necessarily mean bad here. In my books, Victor is arguably ‘good’. What it does mean is that this cast is on a completely different level than Holland. But not quite on the Dane twins’ either. They tore free of the pages with fascinating motives and wants and needs. Fascinating because with a little more blind ambition and a lot more arrogance, it becomes disturbingly easy to imagine ourselves in the protagonists’ shoes. That is how well Schwab crafts her characters – with deeply grounded motives, rationales, pasts, calculated trajectories. Even Eli’s depraved fanaticism and Serena’s similarly perverted, misdirected anger were, in a terribly twisted way, understandable.

The pacing was breakneck, even with the constant cutting back and forth between the past and the present. In Shades of Magic, the fickle dance between places and perspectives was the weakest strand. But in Vicious, Schwab doled out hearty, even servings of suspense. Every present chapter ended on the glinting edge of another precipice, but so did every past chapter. Even as I inwardly groaned whenever I was whipped away from the present timeline with a burning desire to know what happens next, I also had to feed another burning desire to know what happened next in the past timeline too. A cruel game, Schwab played. But a very clever one. Where there were slower (but alas, necessary) flashbacks, she wisely kept them succinct.

Some readers found Eli’s ‘religious’ fanaticism too abrupt or extreme to be believable. Personally, his ‘religion’ felt wrong even before he convinced himself that he was doing “God’s work”. As Victor wryly observed, what sane religious man would pray to Him for the strength to play God? Eli was worshiping himself, feeding his sickly inflated ego first by demanding that God make him into more, then by masquerading as a blessed angel. Besides, today’s grim reality shows how it is all too possible to twist religious zeal into something terrifyingly corrupt.

For a truly vicious tale spun from an original reinterpretation of superhumans and characters you will loathe and be intrigued by to the same disquieting degree, Schwab’s debut adult book is a thrilling, unputdownable read.

Favourite quote: “I want to believe that there’s more.” Victor sloshed a touch of whiskey over the edge of his glass. “That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.” “We could be dead,” said Eli. “That’s a risk everyone takes by living.”
Rating:
5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

For my review on Warm Up, the short story prequel, click here. For my reviews on V.E. Schwab’s other series, click here.

A Conjuring of Light

In truth, Schwab’s matter-of-fact prose plunged too far into the unfortunate ‘telling’ territory. And her miscalculated attempts to throw in some final paradigm shifts cast an amateurish tone over the characters’ voices. But lacing up the loose ends well (and leaving all the right ones free) is half the battle when it comes to concluding instalments, so I must give Schwab well-deserved credit for doing such a masterful job. I stand by my four stars.

While Schwab’s penchant for s p e l l i n g  o u t her characters’ emotions was already noticeable in the first two novels, the passages were far less frequent and drawn-out (and hence less glaringly obtrusive). Even more exasperatingly, many of the passages in A Conjuring of Light simply repeated the same tiresome internal ‘dilemmas’ in the preceding books. (If I drank every time I read yet another paragraph on Lila’s instinct to run or kill Alucard or otherwise sever relationships, I would have been too intoxicated to read past the first few sections.) Continue reading “A Conjuring of Light”

A Little Empathy

Two days ago, some friends and I went to a popular 茶餐廳 (cha chaan teng, literally, ‘tea restaurant’) for lunch. Within seconds of arriving, we heard a loud stream of Cantonese profanities, punctuated only by shrill cries of ‘democracy’, ‘independence’ and ‘ridiculous’. Searching for the source of the commotion, my eyes found an elderly man hunched beside another group of waiting students (as I said, this restaurant is popular). He was hurling the same fragmented insults again and again, raising his voice whenever an onlooker smiled (from his perspective) dismissively.

The man was evidently unwell. And the students seemed to know. So they continued to wait, staring nonchalantly at their phones until a waitress called their number. Eventually, the same waitress also called the police. Of course, shouting in a public space is not a crime in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, I still had some trepidation – given our city’s reputation as a community that still stigmatises mental illnesses, the Hong Kong police did not seem to me to be the most well equipped to recognise, empathise with and help aggravated mental illness sufferers. But the policemen who came were professional and understanding, and gently asked him what was the matter. Gradually, he calmed down. From the little we could glean, the man had lost his livelihood, possibly during the Occupy Central movement, which had ended just over two years ago. He had consequently lost his apartment as well because he could not pay the rent. Regardless of whether these years of pent-up bitterness triggered his outburst yesterday, or whether it was a genuine account at all, the man was obviously stuck in a cycle of despondence and desperate anger, which he unfortunately directed at the students.

What struck me was not his ceaseless barrage of insults, but the reactions that it elicited. Most onlookers who commented on the situation were clearly sympathetic towards the students, but none towards the man. Instead, the surrounding faces were marked by irritation. A few even disgust. Some explicitly remarked that they felt much more sorry for the students than the man, because the students’ afternoons were now ruined. Or that they wanted the man to be arrested, good riddance. Frankly, this irked me. In the first place, the students did not look all that perturbed. If they felt too uncomfortable, they could have always left. Sure, being shouted at could not have given them an amazing time. But whatever distress they may have experienced would have been temporary – probably even easily washed down with some good food and retrospective laughs, or the thought of having a ‘juicy’ story to tell their friends. The man, on the other hand, had no such options. Would I rather be subjected to his insults for less than half an hour or be filled with so much misplaced anger that wiling away my hours shouting at passers-by becomes an appealing pastime?

Even if he were arrested, it would have done nothing to solve the actual problem. I doubt he would have been referred to a specialist outpatient clinic or otherwise given the mental healthcare services that he so clearly needs. In all likelihood an arrest would have made him feel even more marginalised and ignored. Admittedly, public mental healthcare services are woefully limited. But that does not take away from the fact that wanting such people removed from our vicinities without even trying to empathise with them is not an ideal way forward.

Just last week, another elderly man had set himself on fire on the MTR (the underground railway system in Hong Kong) at rush hour, an eery mirror image of the 2004 incident. He had a history of paranoia, and although his condition had been stable, he had missed his most recent check-ups. I understand that this does not make his actions any less terrible (19 passengers were injured, some critically). But this also highlights, like the 2004 incident did, how inadequate the Hong Kong mental healthcare system is. Almost a quarter of Hong Kong residents are estimated to suffer from a mental illness, yet psychiatric patients in the public sector have the longest waiting time out of all specialties. Among the seven hospital districts, the longest wait is currently over three years. Our psychiatrist-patient ratio is also ridiculously low compared to other developed nations (only 4.5 per 100,000 people; in the UK, the ratio is 14.6 per 100,000, and in Australia, it is 9.16 per 100,000). Not to mention that only 344 psychiatrists work in public hospitals or clinics.

And yet many reactions to the fire were fuelled by anger. Why did he have to hurt others too? If he wanted to die so much, he should have killed himself somewhere else, quietly. But the tenet of mental illnesses is that they do not deal in the currency of rationality. Does shouting at random students because you lost your job and apartment make any sense? Is setting yourself on fire, knowing that you will likely injure other passengers, remotely reasonable? Imagine how tortured he must have been to consider self-immolation the best way out. He was in no place to properly evaluate the consequences of his actions. Even if, in that moment, he felt a searing rage to see others hurt, he could not have rationally comprehended the harm that he caused them.

Having been fortunate enough to grow up in schools keen to teach their students about mental health, I wholly underestimated how widespread misconceptions are. I was shocked to hear one of my Medical Humanities instructors tell us how frustrated she was when her close friend (who had committed suicide) ‘chose to be so depressed’. Thankfully, she is not a doctor (if she were, I would be even more worried about our mental healthcare system). Not that that is necessarily an excuse.

I say all this not from some pedestal of superiority, because I am no expert on mental illnesses. But as someone who suffers from cleanliness anxiety and who knows family friends crippled by clinical depression, I could not help but empathise with the two men above. Lashing out at my parents after an anxious incident, sometimes until they cry, is not exactly comparable to screaming at passers-by, but I think it stands on the same principle. What mentally ill people need is not more fear or marginalisation. The least they could ask for is a little empathy.


The Samaritans Hong Kong +852 2896 0000 is a round-the-clock hotline offering emotional support for anyone experiencing emotional distress and/or suicidal thoughts, no matter how disturbing or ordinary the problem may seem.

Freakonomics

Last semester, I was confused into thinking that I needed an elective to fulfil my course requirements. I chose Macroeconomics 101 because of two reasons: (1) The only other courses that fitted my schedule were Social Work and Chinese Religions, neither of which interested me in the least, and (2) Economics has a reputation as a subject any self-respecting intellectual must have some acquaintance with. And I wanted to be a self-respecting intellectual. Thankfully, towards the end of the add-drop period, I found out that I did not, in fact, need to take an elective and I could have my Thursday afternoons off instead.

But the desire to be a self-respecting intellectual continued to nag the edges of my consciousness. It grew especially loud whenever my debating partner essentially had to ironman1 economics motions, even though I was the extension speaker2. So I put Freakonomics on my to-read list, thinking its generally positive reception from laymen readers and the How to Fossilise Your Hamster-tone would make it a useful starting point.

However, contrary to my high expectations, I finished Freakonomics this afternoon with very mixed feelings. While I can understand why it has been lauded as ‘refreshing’ and ‘unconventional’, ‘groundbreaking’ is a bit excessive. On the book’s Goodreads page, the top question asks why the average rating could possibly be below four. The user goes on to call the book ‘pure genius’ and dismiss readers who gave it low ratings as ‘people [who] do not understand the basics of economics’. Needless to say, I disagree. In fact, I suspect the low raters to be more familiar with economics, or at least subjects requiring similar critical and analytical skills. Too often, I struggled to find the crucial intermediate steps between Levitt’s bold hypotheses and conclusions. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources (the outdated baby car seat study from Chapter 5 being a notable example). And the explanations were generally too simplistic to be convincing or evaluable.

In Chapter 1, the title question was overworked and misleading – akin to a sensationalist headline more suited to the Daily Mail. If the only commonality between the two entirely different professions is cheating, then really, a more appropriate question would have been: “what do most people have in common?” After all, even the authors themselves agree that it is something everyone does, to varying degrees and frequencies. And the title of Chapter 3 implies that poor drug dealers is somehow deeply shocking. Surely, the average informed reader knows that the vast majority of dealers earn barely enough to survive, let alone live among the top 1%? But I digress.

Levitt’s presumptuous tone is most apparent in the final two chapters; although he admitted that his data cannot conclusively answer how much parents matter, he was still unpalatably dismissive. In pointing out, say, museum visits by ‘obsessive’ parents as having no correlation to their children’s early test results (and hence no impact on the children’s dispositions – a ridiculous leap in their logic), the authors were missing the point. I doubt parents organise these supplementary cultural outings to boost their children’s arithmetic or reading comprehension. And an appreciation of the history and wonders of our world can hardly be quantified in an elementary school exam. Similarly, regular spanking may not have a discernible influence on early test scores, but that does not automatically negate the potential effects on the child’s emotional well-being and perspective on violence.

Or in Chapter 6, where Levitt happily determined that names carry no weight at all. Look, Loser is now a high-ranking detective! And Winner, his brother, is a convicted criminal. This proves my point! Would it have been too far-fetched to entertain the possibility that a name like ‘Loser’ could have instilled a defiant determination to succeed? Sure, giving a child a ‘high-end’ name will not catapult him into the educated and upper classes. But Levitt’s black-and-white claim was feebly supported, at best. Likewise, he argued that the most important factor in the sudden drop in crime was the legalisation of abortion. Yet he also recognised that at least three other factors were largely responsible too. How was he so sure that abortion was the biggest contributor? His deductions (beyond superficial appeals to intuitive logic) were never made clear. Besides, the abortion argument was based on many assumptions (for one, that most poor, uneducated pregnant women would always choose abortions), which were not identified or substantiated either. Levitt would have to do much more to give his argument a solid foundation.

Alas, it seems I am no closer to becoming a self-respecting intellectual. Nevertheless, I concede that Freakonomics was engaging and easy to grasp (hence my generous rating). I especially liked the epilogue, Two Paths to Harvard, which I think wrapped up the book in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. I would, however, highly encourage reading it critically, and more as a stimulus than a thorough manual on how things work.

Rating: 3/5


1In Parliamentary debating, teams compete in pairs. Usually, each member speaks once. If a debater drops out, the remaining debater can make both speeches for the team. He/she is now an ironman. Of course, in the instances mentioned above, Ty (my partner) did not actually ironman. But since he came up with all our points and told me what to say, he essentially did.

2In each team, one person is usually the first/extension speaker and the other the second speaker/whip (unless something drastic happens and they switch roles). The first/extension speaker always gives the bulk of the case (the most important arguments).

Caraval

I reserve five-star ratings for works so close to flawlessly crafted as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and Harry Potter. So when I decided on five stars for Caraval after only several moments’ hesitation, I knew I have to write a sound review, if only to assure myself that my discernment had not rusted away after such a long spell of mediocre fiction. To be clear, my ratings are strictly personal; if I were to rate an acclaimed classic such as, say, Lord of the Flies, I would unabashedly give it one or two stars. So while the cultural significance is still a factor (as I am sure it is for many readers), my own enjoyment of the plot, prose, characters and unique (or not so unique) universes is what ultimately decides my ratings.

Out of the novels that I have rated, the determinant that separated almost all ‘very good’ books from five-star status was the pacing. I gave The Night Circus only four stars because despite the sublime (an understatement) descriptions of the titular circus, somewhere along the journey, I grew as tired of the competition as the protagonists did. The intricate details became bothersome distractions, the build-up to the inevitable central romance too slow. A more recent candidate, A Darker Shade of Magic, suffered from a similar problem. The frequent shifts to less riveting perspectives created unnecessary delays, kindling frustration more than they did constructive suspense. Admittedly, some of the books that I did give five stars to do not have perfect pacing either (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was an especially slow read in the series), but it was not to an extent where the exceptional creativity or meticulous world-building and plot planning could not more than make up for it.

In the early hours of yesterday, I finished Caraval in one sitting. In itself, that may not prove good pacing. But this story flew – I was not even remotely tempted to skim over a single passage or flip to a more action-packed page (a terrible habit that occurs with the overwhelming majority of books I read; patience is not one of my virtues). The lists of wondrous items typical when setting fantasy scenes or the protagonist’s indecisive monologues were never too drawn out. Nor were the chases and fights, of which the difficulty to write succinct (yet sufficiently well-matched and theatrical) ones is far too often under appreciated. There was enough to show the author’s thoughtfulness, but not so much that it became pretentious or amateur.

The idea of a game or performance blending magic and reality is not novel, but the premise of Caraval was original enough to make this interpretation feel completely unlike anything I have read before. And the distinction between what was real and what was not became so increasingly blurred that I began to second-guess almost every explanation and event. For every reveal, another twist lay in wait. This ‘meta’ element of mystery was a major contributor to the book’s appeal, which, on top of all the mysteries embedded in the actual plot, sealed Caraval’s place as an exceptionally compelling story. And like Victoria Schwab, Stephanie Garber has a knack for knowing exactly when to reward her readers with answers. Questions ranged from being answered just a few paragraphs later to taking the entire book for the puzzle pieces to fall into place.

In a book where the impossible is possible, there is always the unfortunate threat of a deus ex machina happy ending. Thankfully, that did not happen in Caraval. I was sceptical in the final chapters, but the justifications were convincing and consistent with the capabilities and limitations that the rest of the novel had hinted at. Where there were slightly dubious explanations, or where the characters’ actions were contrived [highlight to reveal spoiler] (such as the reasons Julian gave in the tunnels and when Tella was driven to commit suicide), it ended up legitimate because it was all an ingenious ruse in the first place. In fact, retrospectively, the vague sense of something being ‘off’ was what made the book so incredibly brilliant. It was the perfect tightrope walk between where small but significant cracks could leave room for actual deception and where the reader could still easily brush it off as paranoia from the preceding plot twists.

As for the romance, the author was wise to keep it a supplement rather than the all-consuming focal point. Although the characters’ determined denial of their obvious chemistry would have been infuriatingly petty and cliché in many other books, the twisted lies the sisters were told for most of their lives, the manipulative nature of the game and the oft repeated warning to ‘not get too carried away’ were very sound reasons for caution. Not to mention [highlight to reveal spoiler] Julian’s express instructions to not encourage any romantic interest. The reasons for their mutual attraction were also much more meaningfully fleshed out than the all-too-common ‘two attractive people happened to be thrown together for a dangerous adventure’. The romance was responsible for the weakest passages (some were amateurish and abrupt), but all things considered, it added to the book more than it took away.

My other minor complaint was that Aiko was little more than a stock ‘enigmatic Far East Asian’. But she was at least less cringeworthy than the flat stereotype that Tsukiko was in The Night Circus. Hopefully this review adequately justifies my five-star rating relatively concisely. If you are in the mood for an immersive melange of mysteries bottled in a spectacular adventure, disguised alternately as a murderous race and a magnificent performance, I wholeheartedly recommend Caraval.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Georges Chakra S/S 17

The notion that haute couture should be what women dream to wear is always touchy, because it suggests that only the incredibly rich are afforded the chance to achieve their sartorial desires. But there is no doubt that Georges Chakra’s collection of delicate pastel lace and luxuriously draped silk looked as if it were fashioned from a dream. The tulle trains and ruffled mermaid hems gave the pieces such fluidity it was hard to remember a spring breeze was not actually blowing across the runway. And although many dresses featured floral prints, they were far from predictable. Rather, the juxtaposition of heavy and light, satin and sheer textiles emanated a refreshing quality of youthful grace.

Continue reading “Georges Chakra S/S 17”