No Longer Human – Osamu Dazai

December 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 1948
Translated into English by Donald Keene in 1958

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Our narrator is a man called Yozu. He tells us about himself, from when he was very little, and how he already felt about the way humans around him behaved. He was very impressionable, easily affected by what his parents did, how his siblings spoke to him, and what his house servants said behind his family’s back. His conclusion was a simple one: humans are a scary species. The less he came in contact with them, the better.

This feeling that he had was strong, and it only got stronger day by day. One event stayed with him in particular, the way his house servants all complained about how boring and irrelevant a speech his father made was, but proceeded to praise and applaud his father when he asked them about it.

Why the lies? Does no one tell the truth? Does that mean that truth is useless in this world? Does that mean he cannot let anyone know how he really feels about humans and the world in general?

Yes. His answer, is yes. He cannot let ANYONE know the real person he is.

He resorts to becoming a clown, a regular comic, always keen to please and keep everyone smiling. He does this so often, it becomes second nature, and no one is the wiser. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer for it. Inside, he constantly questions the way he behaves, believing that he is both forced to act this way to protect himself, and yet wilfully deceptive to the world. He is unable to find a way to come to terms with himself.

So begins his spiral inwards and downwards, spurred on by the presence of what we call today “bad influence” – a friend who introduces him to the world of alcohol and prostitutes. In the drink he finds a bravery he never had to face the world; in the women he finds comfort and connection.

I remember I was first introduced to this title by a friend of mine who, in her own way, is a little eccentric in her tastes and thoughts. She never found it necessary to conform to what society deems is the norm – she is who she is, and she’s not apologetic about it. I vaguely remember that we were having a conversation about what humans are really like. Are we all born pure and untainted, or do each of us carry in ourselves a seed of evil, ready to germinate when the time is ripe? That was when she brought up No Longer Human. She thought I would find it interesting.

It’s been at least five years since that conversation, and in the meantime, I did manage to get my hands on the manga based on this piece of writing by Dazai. And I remember reading the manga, I had found it disturbing and rather uncomfortable. Perhaps it was just too graphic for me, but the idea was intriguing, and I remember making a mental note to find the English translation of the novel.

Now that I’ve read the book, I feel like the manga did not really do it justice. The idea, the very core of this book feels much deeper than just pornographic visuals and disturbing images. It is the very thought that humans are scary for all that we are, because we don’t know if anyone is who they really are; or perhaps precisely because we KNOW that no one is really who they really are. We see, we think, we believe; but how much of that barely even scrapes the surface of what lies beneath? What is at the base of our human hearts and conscience?

Maybe I should revisit the manga.

The novel, I believe I will revisit in time to come.

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Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

May 22, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2015

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Simon comes across as a slightly awkward boy, with family that shares way too much for comfort. He also has three close friends, one boy and two girls (but there’s a slight unease in that triangle, because one of the girls has a crush on the boy, while the boy seems to like the other girl). All very teenage-angsty.

It seems Simon would be okay with all this—he seems like an easy-going guy, happy to go along with the flow, were it not for one secret that he’s kept for as long as he remembers—one that somehow gets found out by a random classmate, Martin, who happens to read his secret emails. Simon’s gay.

I’ve read elsewhere (and my brother has told me) that this book has received some very excellent reviews. And yet I remained a little skeptical, to be honest, because I’m not a huge fan of cute, lovey-dovey YA fiction. I even thought I would give it up halfway through. But not only did I finish it, I found it rather enjoyable!

The book was at times funny, at times heart-warming, and at times just really really spontaneous and frank. Simon as a character, as a boy, just came right out of the pages (or the screen of my phone)—that was how relatable he was.

He was fun and flawed, making him very real for me. And I wanted to root for him all the way.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – Xinran

March 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in Chinese in 2010
Translated to English by Nicky Harman in 2010

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This book is a collection of ten stories about Chinese mothers and their daughters—daughters they have lost, daughters they were forced to give up, daughters they chose to give up, daughters who left them, daughters who have stayed with them in their hearts all these years.

I first found out about Chinese girls being adopted by Western families about a couple of years ago. A storyteller friend of mine at that time asked if I would come on board to help do some reading and research on a topic closely related to a story he wanted to tell: what goes through the mind of an adopted daughter whose birth mother in China simply left her at a random orphanage when she was less than a year old?

The more I read into the topic, the more I realised just how complex the issue is. There wasn’t any straightforward answer to why a mother would leave her child at an orphanage—sometimes it was poverty, sometimes it was the one-child policy, sometimes it was simply because she was a daughter.

The stories in this book are as varied as they come, in terms of where the mothers came from, and how they lost their daughters. And as one of the comments at the back of the book says: “One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.”

Yet at the same time, while I appreciated the hardships and heartache, it also almost felt like I was being spoon-fed. Were the stories moving? Yes. Were they painful? Also, yes. Did I feel bad for the mothers and their daughters? Yes. But those feelings didn’t feel organic, in a way. Almost as if Xinran was telling me that those were the feelings I was supposed to feel.

This is my second Xinran book, the first one being a novel, Miss Chopsticks, which I read about 8 years ago (wow, how time flies!). And when I read my thoughts on that book back then, I realise my feelings for Xinran’s writing style hasn’t changed much—I don’t dislike it, but I can’t say I like it very much either.

 

Exquisite Corpse – Pénélope Bagieu

March 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the French in 2010
Translated into the English by Alexis Siegel in 2015

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Zoe is a young woman who works as a product model. She also has a boyfriend who she lives with and goes home to everyday after work. The thing is, though, that Zoe isn’t particularly happy with her job—it can be extremely demeaning, and she can’t seem to see where it might lead to in the future. Her relationship with her boyfriend is also not a very fulfilling one—she’s not getting the love and attention that she craves for, and he doesn’t seem to care less how she is feeling.

It is at this point when Zoe, while sitting on a bench eating her lunch, sees a man peeking out of his window. She walks to this man’s apartment, asking to borrow his toilet, and an odd sort of friendship kindles from this chance meeting.

As it turns out, the man is an extremely established author, Thomas Rocher, though Zoe doesn’t know this because she’s not only not a keen reader, she’s also (gasp!) never been to a bookstore before. Oddly enough, this seems to put Thomas at ease, and their relationship starts to grow, and very soon, Zoe is living with him.

Thomas showers her with everything she could ever want in a relationship—love, attention, surprises. But the rule about things that seem too good to be true is that they are often just that—too good to be true. Soon, Zoe notices a glaring oddity in their relationship—they never leave the house. And one night, when she wakes up to find that Thomas is sitting in the kitchen with an unknown woman, Zoe learns that she has somehow gotten entangled in something she has never imagined possible.

It’s a fun graphic novel to read. The art is simple but very impactful at the same time, the use of colours very deliberate (I feel), which lend certain emotions to the panels and pages. The story itself, though not very eventful, is rather fast-paced and contains twists in some unexpected places.

I’ve been reading a couple of heavier books recently, and this graphic novel was a rather welcome interruption.

Silence – Shūsaku Endō

February 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese in 1966
Translated into the English by William Johnston in 1969

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It is sometime during the 1640s, and Christianity in Japan is under siege. Father Sebastian Rodrigues is determined to travel to Japan to help the oppressed Christians, to lead them and be their guiding light. It’s not an easy journey, even from the start, where he and two others like him have to travel by sea, in secret, so as not to be discovered by the ever-vigilant powers-that-be.

On the ship, he gets to know a Japanese who professes to be a Christian. His name is Kichijiro. He seems to be a coward, as word has it that he had apostatized once before in order to save his life. Rodrigues doesn’t really know what to make of this man—how can he have trampled on the fumie (a picture in the likeness of Christ) and still call himself a Christian? Little does Rodrigues know that this man will somehow be a most unexpected companion throughout his journey in Japan.

This is a difficult book to discuss. At least it is so for me. The book, indeed the author, constantly forces us to think deep and understand within our own hearts what faith means to us. What it means to one person may completely differ from the next, and religion in the time of peace can paint such a contrasting picture when compared to time of war or persecution. If it was to save your own life, would you deny your faith? And if it was to save lives other than your own, would you then deny your faith?

Freedom of religion is, in most of today’s world, a basic right. And yet, there are still parts of the world where this freedom is denied—some in more subtle ways than others. Some are brutally persecuted, not unlike the Japanese Christians in this book. Others are suppressed and cornered without even realizing that they have been muzzled.

And then Rodrigues, in a moment of desperation, sends this question to the heavens:

You are silent. Even in this moment are you silent?

Religion is a difficult thing.

The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin

February 9, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the Chinese in 2006
Translated into the English by Ken Liu in 2014

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Wang Miao is an expert in nanotechnology. One day, he is invited (forcefully) to attend a meeting in which he finds out that the armies of the world are getting ready for a war. He doesn’t understand—this is the most peaceful time on Earth for a long time. What war, and who is the enemy? Instead of telling him, the general, General Chang, leaves him with this to ponder on:

“Yes, the entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age till now, no real crisis has occurred. We’ve been very lucky. But if it’s luck, then it has to end one day. Let me tell you: It’s ended. Prepare for the worst.”

This meeting proves to be a turning point in Wang Miao’s life. Very soon after, a countdown timer appears in front of him. Only he can see it, and it continues to tick away the seconds. He is disturbed by this and seeks advice from a fellow scientist friend, Shen Yufei. She suggests something that has never occurred to him: “Stop your [nanomaterials] project.” He doesn’t understand—what is the link between the countdown appearing in front of him, and his work? But instead of offering any explanation, she only tells him: “Just stop. Try it.”

All this leads to his discovery of a virtual reality game, Three Body. In this virtual world, the weather is completely unpredictable. When is day? When is night? How many hours has passed? When is the next sunlight? How long will it last? There are no real answers to these questions in this Three Body world, and that is the aim of the game: to figure out the laws that govern this world, and thence calculate a way to predict the climate.

This game sucks Wang Miao deeper and deeper into a world that is both fascinating and horrifying. How do you survive in a world where drought can last for centuries, and cold nights can go on for decades without a single moment of sunshine? And in what way is this world connected to the one he is living in?

I don’t think I’ve read that many science fiction books in the past. (I just Googled “science fiction”, and it appears that dystopian fiction is sometimes considered a sub-category of science fiction. I beg to differ, but that is a topic for another day.) In fact, I’m finding it extremely difficult to recall the titles that I’ve read that fall into this genre. I guess it’s obvious—I’m not a huge sci-fi fan.

So why did I choose to read this one? Not to mention, it comes in a set of three, and The Three-Body Problem is only the first instalment of the trilogy. I chanced upon it. China is making this book into a film, and because of some personal connections, I somehow got interested to find out what the original work was like, and how it would compare to the upcoming film.

My thoughts after spending a week with the book: it’s not a bad one. I can see why it has become such an influential book in China. The premise is interesting, the ideas are cool, the plot is quick. And yet, that is all I can say about it: it’s not a bad book. It’s just not great for me.

There was a lot of explaining going on, and while I appreciated those parts (my lack of knowledge in advanced sciences really needed them), I also found them a little dry and easy to glaze over.

That being said, though, I have a feeling that I will continue to read the second and third books. I’m not absolutely excited and hyped about it, but I do want to know how it will end. And that’s a sign of good storytelling.

The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

January 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

First published in the English in 1897

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A stranger comes to a quiet little inn somewhere in the country. He’s wrapped from top to toe. The innkeeper’s wife finds this somewhat odd, but given that the stranger offers quite a handsome sum, she offers him a room and some food in return. The stranger is a curiosity—he keeps himself wrapped up despite being indoors and warm, as if he is always cold. He’s desperate to get his things from the station, insisting that his things are sent for immediately, which creates some unease with the villagers.

Some odd things happen around the village, and the villagers are convinced that these happenings have to do with the stranger’s arrival. They attempt to confront the stranger, only to see him slowly strip and disappear before their very eyes!

The Invisible Man is a short enough book, and quite a good one to end the year with. The language was simple and un-flowery, the characters rather interesting. Griffin, the scientist who became The Invisible Man, was especially intriguing. But perhaps the one person I found most interesting of all, was H.G. Wells himself.

As Griffin talked to his friend Kemp about how he came to turn invisible, and his first experiences as an invisible man, I found myself thinking, “How is it that Wells managed to think of all these things?” Things like stumbling down the stairs because he couldn’t see his feet, or mud stains betraying the shape of his invisible feet, or food that had yet to be assimilated being visible (and frightening, I believe, given that the food would be “floating”).

This is my first time reading Wells, and I don’t usually fare well with books that come from a century ago. But I feel that perhaps my reading tastes have changed somewhat, or perhaps Wells just reads well for me. I’m now rather interested to read the other book that he’s so famous for—The Time Machine.