Sum up: November 2019

December 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

Blogging has somehow taken a back seat this past month, and while I would have loved to have been able to blog about my thoughts on the books (eight of them!) I’ve read since my last blog entry, I also have to believe that sometimes, we need to be okay with how we prioritise the things we have in our lives. Not everything gets to get our attention all of the time, simply because it is limited. Time is also limited. And despite wanting to do it all, we need to accept that sometimes, we cannot.

We need to be okay with it. I am learning. Still.

Nevertheless, I do still want to post about some of the really good books that I’ve managed to squeeze in this past month.

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I read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which is a book about friendships between young girls. It’s a book that has somehow managed to stick with me. Not all the little details, but instead the overall feeling of unease that the book had, where Atwood warned us not to be so easily taken in, to not assume innocence simply because young girls are “sugar and spice and all things nice”. Female bullying is something that’s been underrated, mostly because we don’t identify it when it’s happening, and there are no immediate physical markings after. Bullying, especially between best friends, exists in a world that’s highly invisible, but the effects are typically more severe than fistfights. One never truly recovers from it—the bruises are so deep that we don’t even know we’ve been inflicted.

Very soon after that, I read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was also a book about young female friendships, but one in a completely different tone, about a completely different side of such relationships—about small jealousies, insecurities, and wanting to fit in. I don’t want to say that the book doesn’t delve as deep into many of the issues because it is a YA book—there are many YA books that perhaps explore the dark side of young adults and adolescents. And I don’t think this book is shallow in particular. In fact, I think it’s probably because I read it so soon after Cat’s Eye that I pitted the two against each other in my head, despite each being so different, and found Blume’s book coming up a little short.

The Peculiar Life Of A Lonely Postman, written originally in French by Denis Thériault, was a very pretty story, and had just enough of a twist that completely blindsided me, and left me rather breathless when I finished the last page. The haiku passages littered throughout the book were absolutely beautiful, and a very elegant way of sort of bringing the story full circle.

The last two books of the month were The God Of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, and The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi. It is only now, thinking back about them, that I realise that both of them revolved around cultures so different from my own, and also explores the mysterious bonds between twins that not all of us can fully understand. Again, both books had certain similarities, but surely, once more, their differences stood out even more.

The God Of Small Things explored a side of India I never knew, setting up the perfect backdrop for a story about people who loved, but who…

…broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

The story itself was often rather surreal, never conforming to a conventional timeline, almost as if time had nothing to do with it, because this was a universal story that told of universal truths. Everything was Fact, and told as such.

It’s not the easiest book to get into, to be honest. It took me a number of days before I got with the flow, and allowed the author’s storytelling to float me along.

The Icarus Girl is equally magical in its setting, but the storytelling is much more straightforward, and it took less “effort” (for lack of better word) to really drown myself in the world that Oyeyemi built. Maybe also because it is told from the eyes of an 8-year-old girl, the world seemed simpler, and yet still so mysterious and complex.

In the past months, I’ve also read three Malay language books by Nadia Khan, a friend of mine. One of them, Gantung is so popular in Malaysia and Indonesia that it’s been made into a TV series, and very well-received. I don’t read nearly enough Malay language books, really.

I’ve also read a few non-fiction books, and while not all of them were impressive, I did really enjoy the latest one, After The Prophet, which tells the story of how the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam formed after Prophet Muhammad’s death. Fascinating, mostly because I’ve always been curious about religion, especially the Abrahamic ones, and Islam in particular because of my being a Malaysian. The book was easy to read and digest, and impressive because it told a very complex part of history with minimal confusion.

All in all, November has been a good reading month. I’m still going to hope that I’ll be able to blog individually about the books I read next, but if I can’t, I’m not going to beat myself up over it.

Here’s to a good reading month to end a very good year.

 

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly – Sun-mi Hwang

November 1, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Korean in 2000
Translated into English by Chi-Young Kim in 2013
Wonderfully illustrated by Nomoco

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Sprout is a hen who lives in a coop, right next to the barnyard. She is an egg-laying hen, has never left the coop, and is longing for the day when she gets to lay an egg, watch it hatch, and take care of her own baby.

Sprout wants to be a mother.

But it’s tough for a hen who’s only raised for her eggs. Tough because the eggs she lays will never hatch. Tough because she will never really be let out of the coop. Tough because she can never really be a mother.

These thoughts depress her to such an extent that she refuses to eat, is unable to sleep, and one day, even the single egg that she manages to lay is not fully formed. Her very existence has come into question. The farmer and his wife decide that this is it for Sprout—if she cannot lay eggs any longer, then there’s simply no more space for her in the coop.

It’s a harsh reality, but Sprout somehow manages to turn it around. Thanks to a mallard duck called Straggler, Sprout comes out of a near-death experience, and decides that she will live the way she wants to live, free from the coop, free from the awful barnyard animals.

But freedom comes at a price—she is now constantly on the look-out for the one animal that could not only take away her freedom, but also her life: the weasel.

This feels like such a simple book, such a simple story, and yet there are certain dynamics within it that scream at you from the most unexpected places. There are complexities that are so intricately woven into Sprout’s life that I did not notice them until some time had passed after I finished the last pages of the book.

Who knew a story about a hen could be so profound?

Because, the way I see it, life is life no matter. There will be fears to overcome, challenges to face up to, criticisms to sidestep, disappointments to get over, tears to dry. And every step is an achievement in itself, in that it was a step, there was action, and things will happen.

Life unfolds the way it does. We live the way we do. And we are stronger for it.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson

October 3, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2015

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I had loved The Psychopath Test. And so I have a number of books by Jon Ronson. The Men Who Stare At Goats is a popular one, but one that for some odd reason I’ve just been unable to finish. Then there’s Lost At Sea, which I’ve not yet started. And then, of course, there’s this book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

It is an intriguing topic, public shaming. Especially in this world we live today where it has become so, so easy. All of us who have connection to the Internet have at least one social media network account. It could be YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… these are just the giants, and I’m pretty sure there are many more that I don’t know of.

Social media has made it possible for us to deliver our thoughts to the world about something happening in a completely different timezone, regardless of how or even whether or not that event impacts me in any way at all. The platforms are designed in such a way that hashtags (#) have made it easier to create and track trends. And if something someone said far far away manages to capture your attention, and perhaps create some resentment, it really doesn’t take that much effort at all to let the world know just how you feel about it. You don’t even have to lift your bum off the chair.

I had imagined this book to take this line of thought and roll with it. And perhaps it did, for a little while. But then it started diverging elsewhere, and I kind of got lost a little. Maybe I should have managed my expectations a little better—and I really should know better than to plug my own expectations onto a book.

In saying that, I ended up not loving the book in the way I had thought I would. And in my head, it does not rank up there with The Psychopath Test. But he had some very interesting stories to tell, some of which were perhaps more related to how we deal with shame, rather than the animal that public shaming is shaping out to be. And that’s all fine, actually. If I had started the book without any pre-conceived notions about what I thought the book might be about, then I would have very likely enjoyed the book far more than I did.

But that’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? We approach everything with our own versions of what we think something should be, and when it ends up not matching what we had imagined, it throws us off a little.

The Mother’s Tale – Camilla Noli

September 29, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2009

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The narrator is a young mother of two. Her eldest daughter is only just 14-months old, her youngest son only just born not too long ago. She used to be a successful career-woman, she tells us, but when she found herself smack in the middle of motherhood when she gave birth to Cassie, both her and her husband decided that the best way to cope with it was for her to quit. He had told her it would be temporary, and she tells us that she was simply too tired to argue about it, so she quit.

Today, she’s still a stay-at-home mum, and it seems, slowly losing her mind. She tells us about the exhaustion, about the many, many niggling details about caring for two very young children that would suck any person dry. She tells us about the group of mothers she sometimes hangs around with, simply because that’s the only choice she has now. She tells us about her husband, Daniel, how he is smitten by their daughter, and how sometimes she gets just a little jealous that he no longer has eyes for her alone.

She tells us about the life she had before motherhood, about how she met Daniel, about how they became one. She tells us about how good she used to be at her job, when she still had one. She tells us all this, her memories of a past life, almost, with a longing so desperate, it seeps out of the pages into our hearts. It’s a life she had to give up to become something she hadn’t banked on—a mother.

I was immediately intrigued by the one-liner on the cover:

All mothers love their children… Don’t they?

The book is not about all mothers—it is about one mother in particular. And while it seems horrific to think that there might be, somewhere out there, a mother who doesn’t love her children, this book makes a very good argument for why that might be.

I’ve read a number of reviews on this book saying that it’s simply not believable, and that the unnamed narrator was just too evil to be real. But for me, that was simply not the case. I didn’t love the woman, but I could relate. I could feel her frustration. I was able to put myself in her shoes, to see her point of view. It was like I knew why she needed her old life back—she didn’t know how else to be herself anymore.

For me, this was a brilliant book.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

September 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2008

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The man Jack is in a house with a mission—murder everyone in it. He’s almost done; there’s only the baby boy left, and that would be easy. But he doesn’t realise that the baby has crawled out of his crib and onto the road, and found his way into a graveyard. By the time the man Jack realises this and arrives at the graveyard, the baby is no longer anywhere to be found.

The man Jack doesn’t know this, but the baby has been taken in by the residents of the graveyard, a Mr and Mrs Owens, to be more specific. They name the baby Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, because

“He looks like nobody but himself,” said Mrs Owens, firmly. “He looks like nobody.”

“Then Nobody it is,” said Silas. “Nobody Owens.”

It’s unheard of to have someone from the realm of the still-living to be given the Freedom of the Graveyard. But Mrs Owens insists that this child is to stay with her, and so it is that Bod Owens becomes a living being amongst the dead.

The boy grows up, of course, as he is still living and breathing, and as the days and years go by, he learns more and more about this world that he is not supposed to be a part of. But he cannot cut ties with the world of the living, either, because he cannot deny what he really is.

It is this ambiguity that becomes the source of many of his misadventures, and yet it is also because of his link to both worlds that he finds precious relationships.

This is my second Gaiman book this year, the first being Stardust, and I did read both within a short period of time. I must say I felt Stardust was a more beautiful and complex story, and perhaps The Graveyard Book, a more simple one. But both were really quite wonderfully constructed, the worlds were not only believable, but almost tangible.

Neil Gaiman is an absolute master in creating the world that exists within the pages of a book.

Once We Were There – Bernice Chauly

September 27, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2017

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Delonix Regia, or Del as everyone calls her, is a young journalist in Kuala Lumpur during a turbulent time. The economic downturn, the Reformasi movement, the remaining Mahathir years, and the subsequent Badawi administration, all form the backdrop for the story of her transformation.

At the start of the book, Del comes off as rather idealistic, and somewhat of a free-spirit. As the years pile on, she finds love and marriage and parenthood, she learns how harsh reality can be, and experiences the darkness and helplessness that society can inflict on anyone with even the slightest vulnerability.

I somehow feel like I’m not sure what to say about this book. I know I didn’t like it much, but it’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading it, and I still can’t figure out what it was about it that didn’t sit right with me. This is a story set in a city that I was born and bred in. The political setting is one that I’ve experienced myself. And yet, I felt a little alien to it, like I couldn’t place myself in the story, couldn’t get pulled in, couldn’t really feel the atmosphere like I know how it can feel.

It’s strange, I think, to read about a story set in a place so familiar, and yet feel like a stranger. Maybe that’s what threw me off. Maybe there were too many things going on.

And I don’t think I liked Del very much. Or her husband, Omar. Or her friend, Sumi.

I don’t know. It just didn’t gel with me.

Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

September 26, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 2003
Translated into English by Rebecca Copeland in 2007

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A woman, Yuriko, has died. In fact, she had died two years ago. Strangled and left alone in an apartment unit. Less than a year after that, another woman, Kazue, is killed, seemingly by the same means. And amazingly enough, both women are related in some way to our narrator. She is unnamed, but we know her to be Yuriko’s older sister. And Kazue was our narrator’s classmate in the prestigious Q High School.

From the very beginning, we know that our narrator never liked Yuriko. In fact, she probably hated her very existence, resorting even to calling her a “monster” simply for being so inhumanly beautiful—so perfect that she is almost eerie. Our narrator also didn’t like Kazue very much, thinking that Kazue was over-ambitious and naive and simply didn’t have her foot in reality.

To be honest, our narrator probably didn’t like anyone at all. Not her parents, not her classmates, not her colleagues.

But what’s this story really about, anyway? Our narrator is trying to tell us what had really happened to Yuriko and Kazue, why they had become prostitutes, and why they had been killed. She’s telling us her side of the story, what she believes had happened, and she tries so hard to convince us to believe her. Yet at the same time, we are also allowed to view the incidents from various other sources—Yuriko’s and Kazue’s journals, for example. Quite quickly, we realise that everyone’s got their own take on what had happened in the past, all of them are telling the truth as they perceive it, and all of them are lying to protect themselves. None of them are reliable.

And isn’t that just how all of us are? That no matter how truthful we claim ourselves to be, what we say and believe can only be our own truths, and these truths, though we may die for them, may quite jarringly be an untruth in someone else’s retelling.

Still, this was an uncomfortable book to read. Not because of the subject matter. Perhaps it was the language, or the translation. Or perhaps it was how the journals didn’t read like journals, but like articles written with an audience in mind. Or perhaps it was how obsessive our narrator was with her younger sister’s perfect face, so much so that it became rather repetitive.

I almost didn’t care for any of them anymore, but the time I got to the end of the book. I know that the author’s got a strong message, and it did come across as I was reading it. But somehow, it was an odd reading experience. And interestingly, I’m keen to give Out a go, just to see how that one reads.

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