Keigo Higashino: A Pair of Books

October 8, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Devotion of Suspect X
First published in Japanese in 2005
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith in 2011

I read this book knowing that it’s a popular book that’s been made into a movie (or several). My partner told me about the film and said it was interesting, encouraging me to watch it, which then got me interested in reading the book first.

The way the story was constructed got me hooked almost immediately. Within the first few chapters, the murder had already happened, and we all knew who had committed it. So instead of the classic whodunit plot line, it goes down a totally different route. How do they get away with it? And how will the detectives find out?

It has been a long while since the last time I finished a book in one sitting. I simply haven’t been in the right frame of mind, and there’s been too much going on to really focus. But this book simply sucked me in from the start, and it was so easy to fall into the plot.

That isn’t to say that the story wasn’t completely unexpected. I had a small, extremely tiny inkling of what might have been the trick that they employed to get away with the murder, but I never was able to pin it down exactly. Which is also part of what made this book such an interesting read. You can feel the answer just within your grasp, but also just far enough that you can’t really see the full picture.

Then, of course, I had to read Higashino’s second book that I had on my own shelves, which so happened to be the second book in the “Detective Galileo” series.

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Salvation of a Saint
First published in Japanese in 2008
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith in 2012

His second book follows a similar pattern. We know from the beginning who the real suspect is. And in this story, Higashino introduces a new detective who sees things from a completely different perspective from the leading detective on the case. This not only creates a lot of tension, but also gives us two very contrasting views on who the suspect might be, and why.

But unlike the first book, we don’t really know how the suspect managed to pull off the murder. Somewhere along the line, we’re inclined to think that maybe she isn’t the suspect after all. But that’s really just throwing us into the fog, because of course she is. We just need to figure out how she did it.

This story had a lot more curveballs than the first, and definitely much more difficult to anticipate. So when the answer came, it was a lot more surprising. Was this then necessarily a better story? I wouldn’t be so quick to say so. Precisely because it had more curveballs, it also became a less straightforward story, and some parts of the story felt like they were intentionally put in there to draw your attention elsewhere. They felt less organic.

But it was still a great read. I can see why Keigo Higashino is such a popular author.

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo

September 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

Published in English and Chinese in 2008
Translation into the English by Rebecca Morris and Pamela Casey

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We live in a world today where change is not only constant, it is also happening at unbelievable speeds. Many 20-year-olds today don’t even know of a time when the internet didn’t exist. It’s something that really shows our age, whether we would like to admit it or not.

So it was interesting for me to read the author’s acknowledgements at the back of the book, where she mentioned briefly how difficult she found it to translate the original work, which was first published in Chinese in 2000, almost ten years before. She said:

… I was no longer completely happy with the original Chinese text. Ten years on, I found I didn’t agree with the young woman who had written it. Her vision of the world had changed, along with Beijing and the whole of China.

~ Xiaolu Guo

I did a little bit of a Google Search, and found out that the original Chinese text was titled 《芬芳的37°2》, which literally translates to “Fen Fang’s 37.2“, an indication of the heat that engulfs her. Perhaps also an indication of the passion of youth that burns within.

I remember having read and loved one of Xiaolu Guo’s other books, The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and therefore had a rather higher expectation than usual for this book. And it didn’t disappoint. Written in 20 different chapters, all of which start with a rather unrelated photograph, and each chapter depicting parts of Fen Fang’s life that, while sequential, don’t always tie up nicely with one another, this book read very much like a young person’s heart racing into her future, despite having no idea what lay in the steps in front of her.

The title of the book tells you exactly what to expect. These 20 chapters are fragments of her youth, her hunger for something more than just the typical, her yearning for meaning beyond making it to the next day. What else does life have in store for her? Does she even have a say?

Xiaolu Guo has a way of writing (and her translators have obviously done a great job) that pulls you in without really using any methodical tactics. It’s like sitting down and listening to someone speak, the way the words flow on the page are simple and easy, and before you know it, you’re already on Chapter 4.

Do I relate to Fen Fang? Maybe, and maybe not. After all, I’m no longer 17 or 21 or 28. Nor was I born and raised in a rural village, and I never had to make a long trip to the city to try and find my place under the sky. But that feeling deep inside, that hunger to know more, to have more, to be more, is something so universal, I feel, that I would be lying to myself if I said I didn’t see even a little bit of myself in Fen Fang.

And that’s really the magic, the brilliance, of Xiaolu Guo’s writing. Her ability to create characters that are real, flawed, so individualistic, yet so general she could be anybody. So grounded in the harsh reality of the world today, I wish I could give her wings.

Sum up: May 2020

June 4, 2020 § 1 Comment

After Sweet Bean Paste, I’ve only managed to finish a couple of books, and before I knew it, it was June.

Time has flied by.

I’m not sure what inspired me to pick H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, but I have had enough reading experience so far to know better than to question the forces at work. This slim volume was written a long, long time ago (1895, that’s more than a century!), but somehow, it didn’t read like ancient text. I’ll be eternally grateful for that, because I know I very often shy away from the classics because I’m afraid I might not be able to fully grasp the language.

It’s a simple enough story, and one that has been told and retold in all shapes and forms throughout the years. It’s interesting for me, though, that I have never once read or watched any of the remakes/retellings of this well-loved classic. Perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise. I went into the book having nothing in my mind’s eye, and left it with some very vivid images implanted in my head of the Eloi and Morlocks that no movie will ever be able to erase.

I’ve also managed to finish Sophie Hardach’s The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages. I remember like it was yesterday, when I picked this book from a mountain of other books at the Book Sale of the Year. I had found the title extremely tantalising, and did not even bother to read the blurb. And while I won’t say that the book has been disappointing, it also somehow didn’t achieve my expectations of it. Perhaps my expectations were ill-placed.

Yet at the same time, reading such a story about illegal immigrants and terrorists and the lives of those who fall through the cracks seems only too eerily apt. In Malaysia, a country where a majority of us are descendants of immigrants, we have somehow managed to conveniently forget our roots. Especially during this Covid-19 pandemic, we have learned to draw arbitrary lines in the sand to separate the “us” and the “them”, as if it were even possible.

It is sad that so much has changed, and yet, nothing really has.

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Hope everyone is keeping as well as possible under the circumstances. The world needs more kindness.

Sweet Bean Paste – Durian Sukegawa

May 16, 2020 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 2013
Translated into English by Alison Watts in 2017

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The story revolves around a lonely man who works alone at a dorayaki shop. He’s been working there for many years, not because he particularly likes it there, or that he likes the sweet desert. He’s only there to repay a debt to a man who had been kind enough to take him in when he was at rock bottom. He’s counting days to when his debt can finally be repaid, and he can go on with his life. Though what that might look like is also already quickly fading away from him.

One day, an old woman approaches him, offering to work for him for pennies, almost, and then giving him a small batch of the most delicious red bean paste that he has ever tasted.

How do you turn away such a magical gift? But why does this old woman strike him slightly odd, as if there is something she is hiding from him? And yet he doesn’t press on, because who doesn’t have a secret or two?

I’ve had rather mediocre experiences so far with books that centre around food and cooking. It’s weird, because I love watching cooking shows, but when it comes to books, somehow the sensuality and anticipation of the cooking process just doesn’t quite hit my senses.

I’ve found that it was the same with this book. For all the beautiful prose and deep mind wanderings that I loved, the dorayaki didn’t reach me. It’s a lovely book, really, that visits some of the emotions that I talked about in my previous post—that sense of loneliness and melancholy—and yet I reached the final page feeling a little bit underwhelmed.

I also liked how the author explored this concept that one’s value is determined by how useful he/she is to society. It’s a concept I sometimes find myself questioning as well. Why are we here? What is the point? How do we make it worthwhile? And sometimes I think, this being “useful to society” is a very Asian concept, maybe because of Confucius, because the focus is on the bigger picture, on something larger than yourself.

Maybe the author didn’t quite spend enough time contemplating this through the story. But he definitely planted the seeds.

Sum up: April 2020

May 11, 2020 § 3 Comments

Summing up my reading for the past month in the middle of this month seems a little off, but nothing’s really going as planned these days, and one most of them, I tend to let myself off the hook way easier than I usually would. So, I pat myself on the back for finding the right frame of mind to do any reading in the first place. Blogging has since become secondary.

But still, it is important to me that I have some kind of record of what it is that I’ve been reading and feeding my brain. Even if it’s just nuggets that merely suggest what the books are about, or small peeks into what I feel and think about them.

I read Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates early April. The premise is not entirely a novel one: a group of young adults indulge in a life-changing game that ultimately comes back to bite them in their behinds. There were some twists that I saw coming from a mile away, and some I couldn’t have guessed no matter what. And while it wasn’t an absolute thriller, it was a book I could sit with. There was some intrigue, some suspense, and a little bit of bizarreness, that made it a good read.

Then I read My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey. Some of the story was set in Malaya, and it was interesting, to say the least, to read how a foreigner sees my own country. It is painfully difficult for me to read how Malaysians describe Malaysia sometimes (Tan Twan Eng is a rare exception), perhaps because I know it so well, and so the descriptions become, for me, simply lengthy paragraphs of nothing.

Story-wise, I think the last bit in the blurb says it very well.

… a fantastic story of imposture, murder, kidnapping, and exile—a story that couldn’t be true unless its teller were mad.

Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel was one of the very few letdowns I’ve had in recent months. Maybe I went in with too high expectations. I have, in previous years, thoroughly enjoyed some of the books in the Canongate The Myths Series, so it is unfortunate that this book didn’t really hit its mark with me.

Lastly, I read Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan. This was interesting. It’s a story that’s set in a fictional town just outside of Tokyo, Japan, but written by an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer. Yet the loneliness that exudes from the pages of this book remind me so much of all the Japanese authors I’ve read so far. It’s a kind of loneliness that I’ve come to recognise as a very Japanese one, and to find that this same feeling can also be born from a writer not native to Japan, but simply by locating the story in the country, is nothing short of surprising for me.

The friend who so kindly loaned me this book told me that Indonesian writers also have a way with talking about loneliness, and perhaps she is right. After all, I have nothing to compare it with. And yet, this book was so submerged in its melancholy of daily life, it made the other elements of the story—the murder-mystery, the love affair—pale in comparison. Maybe even distracted a little from the quiet sadness that lay underneath.

I lay down on the ground, panting. The rain hit my face, but I stayed still and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the sound of rain.

[…] The rain got heavier, and I stayed there, losing track of time. I waited until it stopped before opening my eyes. I turned over to face the road. The puddles shone, reflecting the streetlights. So this was what she saw before she died. I got up and walked back with an unbearable heaviness.

It’s the type of prose that doesn’t seem to *want* to do anything, but tell you the bare truth, and yet it does so much more on a deeper level.

I had to find out if it was the same kind of melancholy that I got used to getting from Japanese authors, so I’m now reading Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. Let’s see what May brings.

Thoughts in the Time of Covid-19

April 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

A Movement Control Order (MCO) was announced on 18 March 2020, in response to the growing number of Covid-19 cases we had in Malaysia. It meant that we were all to start working from home, we couldn’t eat out, and travel was to be whittled down to a bare minimum, and only for purposes deemed essential.

Given that we were all supposed to stay at home with only the things in our house to amuse ourselves with, I thought I would be reading a lot more. Instead, it has barely been the case.

The first two weeks, I hardly turned a page. It was difficult to focus, to find the urge to read, to immerse myself in a world that didn’t have Covid-19. I turned on the news instead, choosing to witness how this disease could bring about such chaos in the world. It was disturbing to see how selfish we could be, and the only way to cope was to close my heart.

It became easier the following couple of weeks, where I consciously decreased the number of hours I spent watching the news. I decided that while I needed to stay abreast of the latest news, I didn’t actually need to allow the news to define how I felt. I told myself that I only needed to know the bare minimum, and that would be my daily “news dosage”. With less emotional attachment to the virus, I was freeing up space in my heart for other things that could perhaps make me feel better.

It’s been slow getting back onto the reading chair, but I have had progress, and that is what matters. I’m still getting my daily news feed, but I have decided to give it less and less authority with how it affects my heart.

Sometimes I wonder if this is me being selfish. After all, the frontliners are risking so much, for our sakes, and here I am talking about how I need to detach myself to feel better. What about them? How do they feel better? Do they even get that choice?

But I cannot do what they are doing. So I will do what I can, in my own way, to take care of my own. I need to be good, in order to be there for those who love me, and for those I love.

I hope everyone is staying safe, and keeping well, in any way you can.

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