The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett

October 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2006


Sarah Waters is a very tough author to follow. After putting down the last book I read, I had trouble finding the right book to read next. I picked up quite a few big authors, too. I tried reading a few pages from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, then David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, but I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages of either one of those giants.

I was a little lost. I didn’t want to lose my “steam”, to give up the momentum I had found with reading Waters. I wanted to keep it up, the reading. Especially since I have more time on my hands these days. But I simply couldn’t identify the right book.

I found this little gem as I was cleaning and rearranging my book shelves. I don’t like to stack up my books, or have them in double rows. It stops me from getting at the book right at the bottom of the stack, which I am prone to want to do; and it also makes it that much easier to forget about the books that I have hidden in the back row, behind a second row of newer books.

So clearing the shelves as I was, I realised that I had started this book some time ago (I can’t remember when this was anymore, but I’m willing to bet it was more than a year ago that I last picked it up), but just never made it past page 3. It’s such a small book, and I thought, maybe the Queen can tell me what to read next.

It’s an amazing book. Alan Bennett has written this little piece in such a way that it felt regal and royal, yet close and warm at the same time. Sometimes it read like being privy to some high-level secret, like being allowed a glimpse into the mind of someone brilliant, but you’re not allowed to take away anything but your own memory of the experience.

The Queen, having never been an avid reader, is one day fortunate enough to come across a travelling library. She steps in and politely borrows a book. That’s how she became an uncommon reader, often times feeling sad and a little regretful that she hadn’t discovered reading much earlier, but still eager to catch up as much as she could.

There were many little nuggets of precious phrases scattered about in the book; words that not only spoke to the literary part of my brain, but also to the squishy parts of my heart. I could feel my spirits being lifted, as if I found someone who knew reading like I did, who could understand the many issues I had with reading too much, or not enough.

It’s such a small book, really. But I have a feeling I’ll keep coming back to this.

Here are some of the nuggets I mentioned:

‘Pass the time?’ said the Queen. ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not.

To her, though, nothing could have been more serious, and she felt about reading what some writers felt about writing, that it was impossible not to do it and that at this stage of her life she had been chosen to read as others were chosen to write.

One Scottish author was particularly alarming. Asked where his inspiration came from, he said fiercely: ‘It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.’

‘But then books, as I’m sure you know, seldom prompt a course of action. Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book.’

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2002


It’s been such a long time since I’ve read a book that got me so completely immersed in the story, the telling of it, that it felt like I had dove into the deep end of a pool with dark water and no light. It was uneasy at first, to feel like I had so little power over my own emotions (I was feeling rather desperate and nervous, as if I was Sue Trinder herself). Going deeper into the story, though, I had thought the mood would lighten up, or that I would stop feeling so dreadful, and start enjoying it for the book that it is. But that didn’t happen. Just as the desperation escalates to a high point, I found myself yelling, in my head, and my heart, “Oh, shit!”

I did not see that coming. Sue Trinder did not see that coming.

The book I have includes this one-liner from A.N. Wilson:

Such a brilliant writer… her readers would believe anything she told them.

How true that is. But for me, it was not only believable. It was the truth. It was THE truth. It was real. It was there, and it happened the way she told it.

She has a way of storytelling that just leads you in and, as if on drugs, you simply cannot pull away. She’s telling you something, and there’s no other reality but hers.

It was painful to be Sue Trinder.

She grows up with a gang of thieves, fingersmiths, in a dark part of London in the 1860s. One day, she’s presented with an opportunity to make her fortune, to repay the kindness of Mrs Sucksby, who’s been so nice to her all these years. And to do that, she goes to a big house, a mansion further north from London, to cheat a woman. She’s there to be a lady’s maid, to lead the lady on and push her into a marriage with a swindler, and she’s to be rewarded for her efforts. She  goes with a steely resolve to destroy this lady’s future. She doesn’t know just how easily that resolve will be melted, like snow in the middle of summer.

It was also painful to be Maud Lilly.

Maud Lilly, the lady of the house in Briar. Maud Lilly, the lady who accepts Sue Trinder as her maid. Maud Lilly, the quiet, unassuming girl—she’s still a girl!—with a sad past behind her, and a sadder future yet to unfold.

How does Sarah Waters do this?

Assassination Classroom – Yūsei Matsui

September 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese, 2012-2016
《暗殺教室》, 21 volumes (complete)


I am a huge fan of manga.

This series is the best one I’ve read yet.

The setting is excellent, and so very simple to understand. A “creature” has destroyed most of the moon (so that it’s permanently in its crescent shape), and has threatened to destroy Earth a year after. It then offers humankind a way out. It will become the homeroom teacher for a class, 3-E, in a top-rated private school. It will teach the students to become highly skilled assassins. And in this one year, the students can use every chance they get to try and kill this “creature” before the one-year deadline is up, and Earth is destroyed.

Putting aside the seemingly morbid setting, the story is absolutely hilarious. It’s much like Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO), where each student goes through a life-changing and coming-of-age experience, and the teacher (in this case, the “creature”) plays a critical role in that experience. Adding to that the amazing ways the students think up of to attempt assassination, and you’ve got yourself the perfect combination.

I don’t know how he did it, but in the midst of all the comedy, the author managed to get me really attached to each of the students, and the teacher as well. I got so attached, I cried throughout the last 3-4 volumes of the series.

This manga has been made into an anime (2 seasons). I’ve been told it is good.


All the manga I own is translated into Mandarin. That’s how I first learned to read the language, through manga. I’m hoping that one day, I’ll be able to read manga in its original language.

Hell Screen – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

First published in the Japanese in 1918
Translated into the English by Jay Rubin in 2006


I’ve been experiencing a reading drought. I’ve had a lot of “false starts”, never really getting past the first 20 pages, and it was starting to annoy me. I needed a pick-me-up, a literary sorbet of sorts to help me get past the books I couldn’t plough through, and get started on a good streak again.

My partner picked Hell Screen for me. Her reason: it’s a small book. And it is. It only goes up to 52 pages, and ends with a second short story, The Spider Thread, that’s less than 10 pages long. And it was perfect.

Hell Screen is told from an unnamed narrator’s point of view. Right from the get-go, it was obvious to me that his opinions and views were skewed and biased. I’ve read books with unreliable narrators before, like The Great Gatsby, but this was different for me. His story was so full of “personal” opinions that it felt like he was not only trying to convince me, the reader, that he was right about his master, he was also trying to convince himself  too!

And that was slightly disturbing, if not oddly comforting at the same time. It’s like when you’re talking to a friend, and they’re sharing some juicy piece of gossip with you. You get the feeling that you’re not getting the whole story, but you cannot help but get drawn in, believing his every word, and forming your own skewed opinions about people you’ve never met and only just heard about.

Ah, the beauty of the human nature.

In Hell Screen, the narrator tells us the story about his master who’s revered and well-loved by everyone; a young girl who works in the master’s home and is also well-loved by everyone; and her father who’s not only the most hated man in the land, but also a very talented painter who’s commissioned by the master to paint a hell screen.

The story borders on eerie, as the narrator tells us the extents the father goes to, to produce top-quality paintings. Even though all his stories were based on hearsay and gossip, and he even makes it obvious that he’s merely repeating what he had been told, it’s too easy to take his word for it.

It’s not easy to talk about this book, except that it’s a very good one. The short story, The Spider Thread, also drove the point straight home. It read like one of Aesop’s Fables, a story with a moral. A story about redemption and second chances. For a story only 6 pages long, I think it’s amazing that I actually felt both saddened and empowered by it. Really amazing stuff.


This Wikipedia page says that Akutagawa is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese Short Story”. I need to get Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Cain – José Saramago

July 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in the Portuguese language in 2009
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 2011


This was my second attempt at reading this book. The first time, I don’t think I went past the first 20 pages, because the way Saramago had written it was simply too difficult for me to follow at that time. I realised quite early on that I needed to be quite still, mentally and emotionally, to be able to fully understand the flow of the words and phrases on the pages. So this second time when I picked this book up, I had already somewhat prepared myself to dive in and indulge in the prose.

I was not wrong the first time.

First, the structure, or manner, in which Saramago narrated this story was very similar to Blindness. I can’t really recall how Seeing read, but I have my own copy of Blindness with me at home, and simply by glancing through a few pages, I could see that Cain had a very similar storytelling method. Everything felt like it was meshed into one, and if you lost your attention somewhere, you simply had to go back and reread it again. This is not a book that you can meander and wander around. It’s a book that you need to focus to understand. And even then, it’s not guaranteed that you will comprehend fully.

Cain starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The story very quickly moves on to tell how they were thrown out of the garden for eating the forbidden fruit, and following that, how they managed to learn to survive in the harsh world of reality, when all this while they had only known the perfect Garden. Cain is born, as is Abel, and after an unfortunate incident which resulted in Cain killing his brother. That’s where the “real” story starts: as Cain wanders around, he constantly finds himself in different “presents”—he doesn’t consider that he’s travelling to the past or the future, it’s merely a different “present”.

The people and events that he meets and comes across are, I would imagine, loosely based on the contents of the Bible. But because I’m not as familiar with the Book as I would like to be, I cannot comment on how much of what is written is really based on the contents of the Bible, and how much is his own interpretation. But I still found it quite intriguing, this constant travel from one time to another, as well as his occasional chats with god.

It’s not an easy book to digest. But well worth the time.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore

May 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published as a series of strips between 1982 and 1985
Published as a complete 10-episode series between 1988 and 1989 
Illustrated by David Lloyd and Tony Weare


It’s been a long time since my last graphic novel. And even then, it was Habibi by Craig Thompson, which was extremely visual and, if I remember correctly, nowhere near as wordy as Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. I had briefly caught the tail-end of the film a few years back, as part of a Guy Fawkes celebration thing, and I remember finding it quite interesting. But I kept shying away from reading the graphic novel because of Watchmen. I had glanced through a few pages of Watchmen, and there seemed to be so many things going on, and it was so wordy, I was just completely lost.

But anarchy is a concept I find quite interesting, especially after having read Fight Club recently. So I decided to take the plunge, and the chance, with this piece of work by Moore. And what a treat it was.

What really worked for me was the setting. The tyrannical organization that runs England in V is literally a body—the head is, of course, The Head, while the police, forensics, secret force and media were given names like The Eyes, The Ears, The Nose, Fingers and The Mouth. The ones in power are all corrupt, as they always are especially when there is nothing to keep the check-and-balance, and the people are scared. It’s the perfect setting for an anarchy waiting to happen.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November.

The story starts with a young girl, Evey, trying her luck at prostitution. She knows she’s taking a risk, as prostitution is a crime. To make matters worse, it’s also past curfew. She comes across a man and decides to try and seduce him, to take in her first client, but it turns out that he’s a Fingerman, and he has a few buddies with him. She’s immediately declared a criminal, and they try to force themselves on her (after all, they reason, she’s trying to prostitute herself anyway, which is a crime on top of being out during curfew), when a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask comes to her rescue.

Evey’s life is forever changed. She had no one, coming into the story, and now, she’s been saved by the man who has more or less declared war against the powers-that-be when he blew up the Houses of Parliament.

V continues to make things happen, and while he remains an enigma and someone whose identity the people in power simply cannot fathom, he plants hints along the way, as if to add even more frustration to the investigation, as well as to point them in a certain direction. The ending was, I felt, a very powerful statement. “Ideas are bulletproof,” V says, and I felt that the entire ending sequence embodied that statement to the T.

I found myself still getting a little lost as I read the graphic novel. Sometimes I couldn’t really tell who was saying what, and the characters sometimes overlapped each other for me. One of the characters, who in hindsight was one of the more important ones pushing the plot forward, disappeared for so long that I almost forgot about him. But in the end, once I finished it and had a few days to mull over it, some of the sequences stayed fresh in my mind. The book was both exciting and scary. I found myself in a pinch, because I hated the government, but I wasn’t entirely sure I could stand behind the idea of complete anarchy.

Apparently, according to Wikipedia, Moore had this to say:

The central question is, is this guy right? Or is he mad? What do you, the reader, think about this? Which struck me as a properly anarchist solution. I didn’t want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think and consider some of these admittedly extreme little elements, which nevertheless do recur fairly regularly throughout human history.

Maybe he was mad. I felt he was a little mad. After all, with all that he’s seen and been through, he would be mad if he wasn’t a little mad. I could see that. Was he wrong? Were his actions justified? Was his idea too extreme, too out there?

They are not easy questions, because answering them means digging deep into the dark corners of my heart and mind. So as I’m thinking about this, I realise that I’m still thinking about this two weeks after I put the book down.


Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk

May 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in 1996


In the new afterword that Palahniuk wrote for the 2006 Vintage UK version I have, this is what he says:

Really, what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby, updated a little. It was “apostolic” fiction — where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman. And one man, the hero, is shot to death.

It was a classic, ancient romance but updated to compete with the espresso machine and ESPN.

This book has been known as anything but a romance. And I don’t blame them. The details are gory, some of the acts are downright malicious, and there’s very little in there that obviously links back to the emotions and feelings that we often associate with romance—that fuzzy, wholesome, I’ll-love-you-forever kind of feeling.

But at the same time, there is also a certain charm to the broken characters in the book. Marla is almost beyond repair, and Tyler is such a tyrannic figure that you hate to love and love to hate him, yet you love-hate him anyway.

And then, of course, there’s the unnamed narrator. His version of the story is so skewed, so unreliable and so jumpy (I have no better words for this) that I often found myself wondering if he knew what he was talking about himself. He was here one minute, there the next, and he kept repeating this one phrase to justify the things he knew:

I know this because Tyler knows this.

I wouldn’t know until I’m on the last leg of the book the significance of this phrase. And I found it a stroke of genius. Suddenly everything tied back. Suddenly everything that didn’t make sense started to make some sense. Suddenly all that jumpiness was accounted for. Suddenly all the unreliability was explained.

Suddenly, I understood.

From the start of the book, the narrator painted a very unpleasant picture of Tyler. We saw all his weird and crazy ideas, his disregard for societal norms and his insistence on doing things his own way. Yet, the narrator also showed us his deep affection—an intense love, almost—for Tyler. Whether the narrator loved him for his crazy, or in spite of it, I couldn’t really tell. The narrator was drawn to Tyler, attached to him somehow, and because of this push-pull relationship, he also developed a love-hate feeling for the man.

In that way, it was very different from The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, painted such beautiful pictures of Gatsby and Daisy, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them. In hindsight, both Gatsby and Daisy are also very much broken and a little wretched, but reading Nick’s narration of his time spent with those characters was like reading a fluffy romance. Everything was just so beautiful.

But the characters in Gatsby, like the characters in Fight Club, are equally damaged. And to make this kind of comparison, to put these two books side by side and think of how they are similar or different, gave me a slight shiver. The line between hate and love, between the light and dark sides, is so thin and invisible, it could very well not be there. A slight change in perspective, a small shift in the angle, and it’s a completely different narrative.

The Tyler character in Fight Club is an anarchist through and through. It makes me want to read V For Vendetta. Just for comparison.


In the Afterword, Palahniuk mentions that Fight Club started out as a short story. Seven pages worth, all in Chapter 6. I reread that chapter, and I can definitely see how that is the anchor from which the whole book grew.

This is a book that will stay with you.