Sum up: Q1 2021

April 1, 2021 § Leave a comment

Ah. It is frustrating, and increasingly so every year, when I find that I have once again let my reading slide to the sidelines to give way to other things happening in my life. Other things that, I’m adamant to deny yet is so shamefully true, I simply place in a position of higher importance over my reading time.

During the two months after January 2021, I have only managed to somehow squeeze in one book. ONE book.

It’s frustrating.

I’ve made multiple attempts to read, or to start reading again. I read the first ten pages of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys while I was waiting for a friend to pick me up. I read maybe a few chapters of Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity while having some coffee out one day. And I still have Gaiman’s American Gods and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children sitting there, simply adding burden to my already heavy desk, waiting for me to miraculously find the time, or mood, or motivation, to pick them up.

It’s extremely frustrating.

But still, I look back on this first quarter of 2021, and I also feel blessed. Blessed that despite all the challenges we face in terms of health and economy, I am both healthy and working. Blessed that despite being alone at home during this time of semi-lockdown, I have friends to talk to, and the occasional cafe visits to stay in touch. Blessed that I am spending so much more of my time writing, creating stories, and having meaningful conversations with characters to find out what it is that they truly want deep down in their little fictitious hearts.

It’s a constant cycle, a battle that never really ends or begins, this frustration with what hasn’t gone right, and this gratitude for all that has been right. They replace each other, they co-exist, they wipe each other out, and they validate each other. It’s a little bit like night and day: there really simply isn’t one without the other.

So back to that one book that I’ve managed to read so far. It’s Danzy Senna’s You Are Free, which is a collection of short stories that revolve around being different, about being coloured, in this world that for so many is overwhelmingly a white one. But their colour does not take center-stage. It feeds into the story, into how their lives unfold around them, before them, after them. It’s in the details, and yet it may or may not be important.

It’s a dynamic that I’ve seen countless times, on screen and on pages. This feeling of otherness because of the colour of one’s skin, because it is not white.

And while this dynamic is so so familiar, it is also not so familiar. I was born and raised in Malaysia, a country blessed with its multiracialism and multiculturalism. We are nothing if we are not coloured. White is the other. We are not.

But at the same time, we are also such racists in our cores. We see shades with a kind of sensitivity that Westerners will probably find rather unfathomable. Without batting an eye we know if you’re local, if you’re one of us, if you belong in our group, or not.

Yellow-white, yellow-beige, and yellow-brown are different. Light brown, medium brown, and dark brown are different. Black is different. White is different.

Every shade and hue is different.

Should we really care what colour our skins are? Maybe we shouldn’t. But then again, maybe we should. Maybe we need to. Because our stories, though they may be similar, are really so so different. It is in the way we experience the world. A slight twist of the lens filters creates a world of difference.

Maybe this is what Danzy Senna was trying to show us in her collection of eight stories that felt almost as if it could happen to anyone, and yet could really only happen to those exact characters in her stories.

Sum up: January 2021

February 3, 2021 § Leave a comment

Malaysia is currently under extended lockdown again. Our daily Covid-19 cases have been increasing in the past couple of months, reaching our all-time high of more than 5,000 just about a week ago. The slight optimism with which I had ended the year with in December 2020 is fast evaporating.

The overall vibe of the world is not an encouraging one, and it affects me rather deeply. Still, I try. Don’t we all?

Reading-wise, I started the year quite well, with my third Keigo Higashino book. I had written about my thoughts on this earlier.

Following that, I chose My Wish List by Grégoire Delacourt. I had high expectations for the book, mostly because it came highly recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. Perhaps I set them too high. But while it was not the best book I’ve read in recent times, it did have its charms. On the cover, it reads

If you won the lottery, would you trade your life for the life of your dreams?

How intriguing, I had thought. It was a complex question, one that felt so simple on the surface, yet packed so many layers of meaning and contemplation beneath, and it boasted of a type of burning soul-searching to get to the core. And that’s where I thought the book fell a bit short. There were moments, of course, where I felt the pain Jocelyne felt, the things that she yearned for, and the things she lost, her relationship with herself, with her husband, with her children. And those moments do stay with you for a while afterwards.

I then read Charlie Jane Anders’s Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. It is a collection of six short stories that are out of the world. Literally. These stories explore some pretty out-there scenarios. I did think that I would enjoy this collection more than I did. After all, I thought I had would have enjoyed the absurdity. In actual fact, though, perhaps this book showed me how far I could actually go, or enjoyed going. Not my best choice of read so far.

I ended the month with Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Absolutely loved this. It was a simple book, but there was also an underlying tension that was going on throughout the story. And I was genuinely surprised when we got to a point in the story when I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. I was not expecting that at all.

We followed Leonard around on his 18th birthday, and this was also the day, he decided, that he was going to shoot his ex-best friend, and then kill himself after. He doesn’t tell us why, because, obviously, he already knows, and we are the ones who are joining him only today. But when we do find out, it hurts us like it hurts Leonard. And yet it is not the most painful thing we are to experience yet.

How important and crucial those small things become when we suddenly realise that we have them. And how painful when we realise that we take them for granted.

This book, as an afterthought, reminds me quite a bit of A Man Called Ove. It was like getting to know a guy, from the inside out. Learning about what he would do on the day he thought would be his last day.

The hurt we carry around with us, our history, our secrets, our burdens. We may not all have the same ones, but we each carry with us something we might never want to reveal to anyone. Sometimes even to ourselves.

Malice – Keigo Higashino

January 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

First published in Japanese in 1996
Translated into English by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander in 2014

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I’ve been having a hard time finding my focus and inner calm to do much reading in the past month or so. That’s more or less the story of 2020, to be honest, for most of the year at least.

So to get myself started on the right foot, I knew I had to find a book that was by an author I was familiar with, whose style I knew I would be able to grasp and follow quickly. And for that, I chose Keigo Higashino’s Malice. I’ve read two of his books in the past year, and his writing style was one that made for easy reading. That, and mystery/crime/thrillers are always page turners for me.

Malice is written from two points of view, both in the first person, both as notes or accounts of what events have occurred. In the first chapter, Osamu Nonoguchi takes us back to the day the incident took place, though he doesn’t immediately tell us what that incident is. He introduces us to his friend, Kunihiko Hidaka, who he visits at his home for the last time before Hidaka moves to Canada. He tells us about a stranger he meets in Hidaka’s house, even when Hidaka’s not home. He then discovers (as do we) that this stranger is a neighbour whose cat has recently died. He shares with us the shock he felt when he learns that Hidaka was actually guilty of poisoning the cat himself.

Then 20 pages in, we finally know what that incident was. Hidaka was found murdered in a locked room in his locked house.

What follows is the classic cat-and-mouse story, where Detective Kyoichiro Kaga tries to figure out exactly what had happened that day, and how Nonoguchi, who is the murderer in his mind, managed to get himself an alibi.

There is, of course, a twist in the middle of the book, which to me is just classic Higashino. Publishers Weekly called this book “fiendishly clever”, which I agree to wholeheartedly. There was this feeling that I constantly got as I was reading the book, like there was something just at the corner of my eye that I can’t really see, but if I turn to look at it proper, it disappears. Yet its existence cannot be denied. And when Higashino shines a light at the end of the book to what the truth of the incident really is, that feeling was immediately rewarded.

I’m glad I decided on this book to start the year.

Summing Up 2020

December 31, 2020 § 6 Comments

This has been a difficult year, to completely understate the obvious. At the same time, I also somehow feel like I can’t believe today is already the last day of 2020. I want to ask, where has all that time gone, and within that same time, what have I actually done and achieved?

I take a look at my Reading Goal at the beginning of the year, and I feel sort of shy to see how far I am from that initial goal. 52 books a year. That was my aim. One book a week. And I told myself that if at any time I feel overwhelmed, maybe I could go for shorter books, novellas, in between.

Then some time in July, I realised I was not going to make that goal in any way or form. So I cut it down to half. 26 books a year. That’s one book every two weeks. No matter how I looked at it, it felt completely doable. I am, after all, a fast reader. Surely I could read one book in two weeks.

And then today, I look at the list of books that I’ve read, and it is at 15. Not shameful, but that’s only slightly more than one book a month. Given all the time that we’ve had to spend indoors this year, one would have thought there would be more reading, not less.

But as the universe has constantly been showing us, who can truly say? Just because I am physically at home does not mean I’m in the right frame of mind to do meaningful reading. And if the act of reading is not meaningful, then why do it at all? In fact, this applies across the board. If we’re to do anything at all, it had best be meaningful.

So here’s where we take a closer look at the books I managed to read this year. I started the year on a high note, with the beautifully written novel by Tan Twan Eng. I had wanted to read it before watching the film they made, but after reading it, I no longer wanted to watch the film. The prose and descriptions in the book were so beautiful that I didn’t know how I would feel if the film couldn’t live up to it.

That book was followed by two Haruki Murakami books. He’s a favourite author of mine, and it’s been some time since I’ve last indulged in his wacky, quirky world. And while the worlds he create are still as bizarre as always, I have found it easier and easier to dive in and immerse myself completely. To suspend reality and believe every single word Murakami puts on the page. That’s the best way to read his books, I feel. Just let him take the lead.

There were a couple of books that didn’t quite hit the mark for me this year. Both Black Chalk and The Fire Gospel were not as good as I had wanted them to be. Meanwhile, the other books scattered throughout the year were either just right, or fell a little below expectations.

That doesn’t make for a bad reading year. I think what this year has given me in terms of books, is that I have read outside of my comfort zone. And it is precisely because of this that I’ve had some mishits, which comes with the territory of reading what I’m not used to.

There are also a couple of books that have been on my nightstand since the start of the year. Neil Gaiman’s The American Gods, and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Both are huge books, heavy in content and prose. Both are brilliant, but my frame of mind has been kind of on and off, especially during the latter part of the year.

Moving into the new year, I’m really hoping to finish both books, and get started on some good ones as well. I don’t know what this year holds for me, or for us. But I’ll keep doing what I do. I’ll still plan to read as much as I can. But my focus will be less on how many books I read, but how meaningful my reading is. 52 books a year, one book a week, is not impossible. It is still the goal. The only difference now is that I know better than to be ashamed of not achieving what I set out to do. Because, after all, in this unpredictable world that we’re living in: Who can say?

Denis Ever After – Tony Abbott

December 21, 2020 § Leave a comment

First published in English in 2018

**********

Denis was seven years old when he died. It is now five years later, and he’s gotten used to being in Port Haven with GeeGee. Lately, though, there have been sounds and noises coming from within himself, and it’s been causing sleepless nights for him. He talks to GeeGee about this, and he’s told that this means someone from the living world is holding on to him, holding on so tightly and intentionally that it’s literally grating at him on the inside.

To make all this noise stop, he’s got to go see who it is who’s calling out to him from the living world. He’s got to try and get them to let him go, so that he can remain peacefully in Port Haven, until the time comes for him to move on.

He’s got to pay a visit to the living world. And when he does, he finds out that it’s his twin brother, Matt, who’s been holding on to him, calling out to him every night. Matt has learned something about Denis’ death. He’s learned that his parents have secrets that could be related to Denis’ death. He’s learned that Denis’ death was shrouded in mystery. And with all this new information, he’s determined to find out the truth—which is why he’s been calling out to Denis.

Now Denis has to help his living brother solve the puzzle, the mystery surrounding his own death. But he doesn’t remember. And it seems the more he gets involved with the living, the more difficult it may be for Matt to let him go in the end.

It’s an intriguing story, I feel. And there are many meaningful elements as well. How it feels like to lose someone so close and so dear, and how the circumstances of the loss can sometimes cause more pain. How do we move on? And how do we hold on to memories without causing more hurt to those of us who are still living?

I liked the book. And I’m also very thankful for it, because it has somehow gotten me out of the reading slump I’ve been in for the past couple of months. It’s a simple read, very easy to follow, and it’s very well-done.

All-in-all, though, I feel like I wanted more. I wanted more pain, more anguish, more complex feelings and internal conflicts. I wanted to go so much deeper.

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.

**********

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.

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