The Bradbury Report – Steven Polansky

December 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2009

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The narrator, or “author”, if you will, of this report is a man called Ray Bradbury. But that’s not his real name, he tells us quite early on. It’s the name of a famous author in the past, a name that he learned of from his friend and colleague. A name he has borrowed to write this report and remain as anonymous as he can possibly be. And he needs this anonymity because the contents of this report could very much cause a great deal of trouble for not only himself, but for anyone who has the slightest ties to him. (Though his wife has long died, his parents even more so, and his relationship with his in-laws is estranged to say the least.)

Ray has been contacted by the friend who gave him this name. His friend is called Anna Weeks, or Anna Pearson after she took her husband’s name. Though both names are also not real, as she is not really called Anna, and Ray (not his real name) cannot use her real name in the report.

So Anna contacts him out of the blue to ask him for a favour—a favour so odd and unexpected that Ray doesn’t know what to make of it. She wants him to meet his clone, and write a report about it.

This is in a world where America is the only country in the world that has not only NOT outlawed cloning, but also devised a government programme where clones, or “copies”, as they call them, are made so as to become convenient “spare parts” for the “originals” when they need them.

Where do these copies live, and how do they live? Do they know of their “true” purpose, which is to serve as a bag of spare parts for their originals? Do they speak? Do they understand language? Do they know what we know? Do they feel the same emotions and think the same thoughts as we do?

These are some of the questions that Ray, and Anna, are supposed to help find out. They’re asked to spend time with this clone, to teach it our language, to teach it to talk and respond, so as it may one day become a “spokesperson” against cloning. So that one day, it can speak against its very existence.

The Bradbury Report was a rather surprising book, probably because I didn’t know much about it prior, and because of the way it was written. The world is a dystopian one, and yet not really that far in the future (2071, it said) that there is no longer any memory or knowledge of the world that we live in and know today. It’s as if it’s the start of a really crazy world, one that if allowed to continue would bring about a catastrophe of epic scale. And yet, because it was a personal report by a man, Ray Bradbury, who hardly feels any attachment to this world, there is a slight apathy to his voice, and in essence, the entire report. It’s almost as if he’s writing it so others may know what he knows, which is very little, but he doesn’t really know, or care, what this report will do. Will the world change because of his report? Will cloning be outlawed in America? Will the protestors grow in numbers? Will the living conditions and other information about the clones be more transparent?

He doesn’t know if his report will cause any dent or ripple, major or minor, at all. He writes it because it is what has been asked of him.

This very personal, apathetic voice is what made the book really intriguing for me. At the same time, it was also what frustrated me the most. I wanted to know more. I wanted him to want to know more. But to be inquisitive, to be curious, was to be someone he wasn’t.

Maybe I’ll reread this in a few years. It’s a keeper.

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Strangers – Taichi Yamada

December 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese in 1987
Translated into the English by Wayne P. Lammers in 2003

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Hideo Harada is a 47-year-old scriptwriter. He’s recently divorced, and as a result, his finances are in the worst possible shape, forcing him to move into his office. It’s busy enough in the day, he tells us, but when night comes along, everyone else leaves the building, and soon, the silence is eerie, the rumbling of trucks hurrying along a busy road just amplifying how quiet the building really is.

One night, he sees a light in one of the units as he is walking into the building. Ah, he’s not alone after all. A beautiful woman lives in that unit—it is someone he has seen before once when he was sitting in the lobby and she was rushing in and simply walked past him. This same woman, Kei, pays him an unexpected visit one night, and later, a rather awkward love affair starts between them.

During this same time, he decides, on a whim, to visit Asakusa. That’s the place he grew up in with his parents, until he was 12 and his parents died. Just visiting the place brings up dear memories of his time with his parents, so much so that he thinks he is seeing things when he sees a man who looks very much like his own father. His father, that is, as Hideo remembers him—a man of thirty plus years.

This man who looks like his father invites him to his home, and Hideo accepts this invitation, perhaps out of curiosity. How far will this hallucination go? When he walks into this man’s home and sees his wife, his heart almost skips a beat—that is his mother as he remembers her!

How young they are! How is this possible? Even as ghosts, shouldn’t they have aged? But somehow, he talks to them as if they are indeed his parents, yet it seems ridiculous, even to himself. After all, it’s impossible for a 47-year-old man to have parents younger than himself!

He knows how impossible it is, but he can’t seem to resist going back to Asakusa again and again. Soon, he even looks forward to those visits, glad that he is able again to spend time with his parents. At the same time, he realises (though he cannot see it for himself) that he has changed much physically—he has lost a great deal of weight, looking quite pale and wasted. He knows this, and suspects that it is his visits to Asakusa—to see his “parents”—that are doing this to him. He knows this, and yet—

Perhaps I was destined to go on wasting away, never able to see the ravages with my own eyes, until suddenly one day I dropped dead. So be it, then. One who’s been given the chance to spend time with his departed parents must not ask for much more.

I don’t usually like reading stories about ghosts, but Strangers is quite different. There is nothing spooky about it, because Hideo simply tells it as if it’s quite normal to meet with ghosts of your past. However, it does have an immense feeling of indulgence—in the past, in loneliness, in worthlessness.

It is beautiful book about dealing with loneliness and lost time with loved ones. And because it is so spare with its words, there’s a lot of space to read in between the lines. What would it mean for you to be able to spend time with departed loved ones? What does living this life mean for you now? How real is the now, and how real is the past? Are your memories ghosts of your past, or are you a ghost of your own life?

*

I read this for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 11.

Room – Emma Donoghue

November 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2010

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Jack has just turned five years old. He lives in Room with his Ma, and every day, they go through more or less the same routine. They wake up and clean up, eat, watch some TV, play some games, read, and when night-time comes, Jack has to go and sleep in Wardrobe so that Old Nick doesn’t see him.

Some days, they stare up at Skylight and play Scream. They also get to ask Old Nick for some things they want as Sunday treat. But Jack has never left Room, nor has he seen what is outside of Door. It’s Outer Space, as far as he is concerned, and everything in Outer Space is not real. Not like him and Ma and Old Nick.

A few days after he has turned five, Ma starts telling him some very disturbing things about Outer Space: it is real, it is where she was from before she lived in Room, and she wants to go back out there. She comes up with an idea on how to do that, but Jack thinks it’s ridiculous. Why would she want to go into Outer Space? It’s making him have a headache.

Room is entirely told from young Jack’s point of view. I’ve read a few books now (not many, just a few) that are told from a young child’s perspective, and I have to say that this book, as well as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has been very convincing. The voice was naive enough, and there were no instances (not that I can recall) where Jack felt like he had to explain anything to us readers. He tells it like it is for him, and it’s up to us to decipher what he means.

That’s part of what made this book work. The topic itself is immensely depressing—a woman and her child are kept under constant lock-and-key for years on end by their captor. But Jack has never known life outside the four walls of Room, and it’s not depressing for him that he has to live in such a confined space. From his point of view, this is what life looks like, and because he’s not upset, I didn’t get upset either. (Which I would have, given the nature of the topic, if it was Ma who told the story instead.)

I felt for the boy. So innocent to the world.

A Pale View Of Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro

October 27, 2017 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 1982

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Etsuko is a Japanese woman residing in modern-day England. Her youngest daughter, Niki, is coming for a visit—one that doesn’t come by too often, it seems. They don’t seem to have the easiest of relationships, but there is something floating between them—something they seem to want to talk about and avoid at the same time. Etsuko’s eldest daughter, Keiko, had committed suicide not too long ago.

Instead of talking about this incident with Niki, Etsuko chooses to talk about a woman she once knew from a long time ago, back when she was still in Nagasaki. A woman and her daughter—Sachiko and Mariko.

Much of the book dwells on Etsuko’s past, or more precisely, that one summer in Nagasaki when she had gotten to know Sachiko and her daughter. And it is through Etsuko’s memories that we get to know them as well, which then becomes convenient for us to be influenced by Etsuko’s descriptions of the woman.

Sachiko comes off as someone immensely odd. She constantly tells Etsuko to ask whatever she wants, making it seem as though she’s willing to tell all. And yet Sachiko answers none of Etsuko’s questions directly. In fact, she often just laughs or smiles, then walks circles around the question before arriving to a conclusion that perhaps it is Etsuko who is too worrisome, too close-minded, too doubtful.

Mariko is an even odder character. She ignores her mother and Etsuko most of the time, then stays out late into the night. She refuses to answer questions, choosing to repeat herself, sometimes saying completely unrelated things. Weirder still is how she constantly talks about a woman she sees by the river—a woman that neither Sachiko nor Etsuko can see.

The overall atmosphere, aura if you will, is one of slow, misty resignation. As if the sun doesn’t shine too brightly, not even on the hottest of summers, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It almost feels like Etsuko believes that she has no say, that things simply happen to her—like meeting Sachiko, and Keiko committing suicide.

I’ve read a few of Ishiguro’s books by now (this book itself is a rereading), and I found A Pale View Of Hills very similar to An Artist Of The Floating World. Similar not only in tone and atmosphere, but also in the descriptions and characters. Beautiful and quiet, very nostalgic, a little melancholic.

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If you’ve not read the book, and plan to do so, this is where you should turn away. *Spoiler Alert*

Because I read this book as part of a read-along with Bellezza, I thought it would be good to have this extra bit to discuss a bit further about my other thoughts.

There were two things that really stood out for me, especially as I reached the end of the book. The two mother-daughter pairs (Sachiko-Mariko, and Etsuko-Keiko) felt so eerily similar that I find it hard to believe that Etsuko is perhaps Sachiko herself. Did Sachiko really exist? Or did Etsuko make her up, gently moulding her own memory to make it seem as if Sachiko was indeed a neighbour?

This became even stronger in that scene where Etsuko tried to convince Mariko to follow her mother to America, saying that “If we don’t like it there, we can come back,” as if talking to her own daughter. Perhaps it was really Etsuko talking to Keiko, and not Mariko at all.

The second thing that sort of caught me by surprise also came in this scene. As Etsuko continues to talk to Mariko, Mariko suddenly sees a rope in Etsuko’s hand and asks about it. Etsuko says that it just got caught on her ankles.

But as I was reading it, I had this nagging feeling about it, so I did a Google search. Apparently, there’s an interpretation about this—perhaps Etsuko is really the child murderer, and the rope that she had in her hand was really for her to use against Mariko.

I’m not completely convinced about this, and it could mean something else entirely. But it just really stood out as something out of the ordinary, and the fact that Ishiguro cared about that rope being caught on Etsuko’s ankles should mean that there’s something more there than meets the eye.

 

On Writing – Stephen King

October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 2000

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How long has it been since I’ve sat down with a book and found myself unwilling to put it down? I even somehow managed to find my “reading spot”—something that I’ve been unable to locate in the four years I’ve lived in this home—simply by opening its pages and allowing it to speak to me, while my body unconsciously moved around and found a sweet spot where it stopped and nested.

Stephen King is an author with more than 50 books to him name. And yet somehow, this is the first of his that I’ve ever picked up. I’ve read many good things about this book, On Writing, and how it dispenses with great advice. I got curious—I wanted to read it, too. Maybe, I thought, it could help make me a better writer.

As it happens, I did NOT buy my own copy. I visited a fellow writer friend at their home, and they had a copy sitting on a shelf in their living room. I picked the book up and asked to borrow it. They told me, “Go ahead. It’s a great book. It saved my writing.”

It got me curiouser. Save their writing?

“Not that it got me past a writer’s block or anything,” they explained. “It simply got me writing again.”

As for me, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately, writing-wise. I wondered it this book would save me, too.

I still don’t know if it has, because I’ve just put the book down, but suddenly there’s a very different energy pulsating in my brain. Or somewhere in my body. I don’t mean that I feel a sudden urge to write and write and write. I don’t mean that I have gained some mysterious power of words. I don’t mean that I am suddenly sure and confident of my writing skills.

I mean, I simply feel a little different.

Read a lot, write a lot. Read a lot, write a lot.

That’s all we can do. And that’s all we have to do.

*

On being a writer:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.

The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.

On dialogue:

In the end, the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.

On the process:

And I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there. I buried those unhappy, lackluster pages in the bottom drawer of my desk and got on to the next project. Little by little I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again.

… put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free, so drink.

Drink and be filled up.

 

Confessions of a Ghostwriter – Andrew Crofts

August 25, 2017 § 2 Comments

 

First published in the English in 2014

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I had not expected to be reading this book so soon. I’ve got so many other books sitting on my shelves, some that have been bought way before this one. (Sometimes, I even feel guilty towards those books that I haven’t yet gotten to, but that’s a story for another day.)

The thing is, I had picked up this book at a sale some time last year. The title, Confessions of a Ghostwriter got me right off the bat—after all, I am a ghostwriter myself. I don’t know of any other ghostwriters, so I was curious to see what it was like for someone else who also does what I do, but with a great deal more experience and success.

In this book, Crofts shares short anecdotes of the experiences he’s collected in his years of writing for others. He tells us about the funny characters he’s come across, the amusing things some of them say to him, and some of the odd circumstances he has found himself in.

To be honest, I don’t really know where to start in terms of describing how comfortable and reassured this book made me feel. I’m not weird, I’m not odd, I’m not the only one. It felt amazing.

There were, for me, a great many quotable quotes contained within the pages. Here are a few that I’ve found particularly cheeky.

Ghosts, like other authors, need to be able to remain objective, slightly distant, hovering above the emotion, watching and noting what it looks and sounds like. But at the same time we need to understand what it feels like in order to convey it to the reader.

Extremes of evil are as interesting as extremes of goodness. Extremes of wealth are as interesting as extremes of poverty. Without the bad guys there would be virtually no drama and no storylines strong enough to hold anyone’s attention, no vampires or zombies or serial killers. Life is indeed a bitch.

The moment you decide that you are going to earn your living as a freelance writer (or a freelance anything for that matter), you condemn yourself to a lifetimes of thinking about money. Every day you will find yourself frantically doing sums in your head when you should be thinking about something more productive, trying to reconcile the money that you think you are going to be earning in the next month or two with the bills that you know for sure are going to be coming in.

I am confident this is a book I’ll be flipping through regularly, if not to look for gems of wisdom, then to at least feel not so alone in the world of ghosts.

 

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

July 5, 2017 § 8 Comments

First published in the English in 1992

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Bunny is dead. The Secret History is Richard Papen telling us what had happened.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.

He brings us back to when he was 20 years old, and new student at a small town college. He decides to study the Classics, and joins a rather exclusive class to study Greek. Bunny is one of his classmates, along with an enigmatic Henry, a rather flamboyant Francis, and twins Charles and Camilla. They grow close, the six of them, and it’s unavoidable since they spend so much time together.

At the same time, Richard also feels a little on the sidelines, since he was the new addition to their original gang of five. So many things seem to be happening where he isn’t looking, and he isn’t entirely sure if it was simply because he was not paying close enough attention. Soon, though, he finds out about something—a terrible something—and that’s when things start spinning out of control.

At this point, Bunny is still very much alive, but he is starting to make everyone very nervous, which leads everyone, including Richard himself, down a very slippery slope. This ultimately leads to Bunny’s death. And that’s really all I can really say about Richard’s story, because anything more and I feel like I’m telling too much of his story myself.

This is not an easy book to talk about. It was tragic, there’s no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the kind that was sad or weepy or made you want to get all teary-eyed. It was painful, even a little shocking. Excruciating. I was drawing sharp breaths between the swift turning of pages, then make long exhales at the ends of chapters.

Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.

The beauty, the terror, wasn’t just in Richard’s story. It was also in each character in Richard’s Greek class. All of them were so complex, so likeable and disagreeable at the same time.

I never got a full picture of any of Richard’s friends. After all, it was a story he was telling us, and if he never fully understood them, then we never would either. And there were times when I almost wanted to pull my hair out, wishing that I could, in some way, jump away from Richard’s mind for a moment and dive into Henry’s mind to see what he was really thinking about. I wanted to wiggle into Camilla’s heart, and Charles’s too, to try and understand what they were going through. I wanted to spend a day wearing Francis’s shoes, or see the world through Bunny’s eyes.

And yet I knew, at the very back of my mind, that the beauty also lay in not knowing. Not for sure, anyway. I could venture a guess, I could make my own deductions, very much like what Richard could do, but there was never any knowing for sure.

It’s the same for us, living our own lives, isn’t it? We want so much to dig a little hole into the minds of the people around us to find out what they are thinking, or to crawl into their hearts to know what they are feeling. Even just a glimpse. But we know we cannot. And frankly, if we were indeed to be frank with ourselves, we may not dare to.

Something else that I felt while reading Richard’s story, was a little bit of doubt I had about his own honesty with himself. Was he being completely honest and transparent as he told us his story? And if, by any chance, he was suppressing something he did, or saw, or heard, or felt, if by any chance at all he hid a tiny bit of truth from us, was he also hiding it from himself? Did he know it?

I doubt he did.

And like all of us, I doubt we’re able to be absolutely transparent, even with ourselves, when it comes to our deepest, darkest selves.