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.


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


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.

A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami

April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

First published in Japanese in 1982
Translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum in 2000


Sometimes I wonder if it is fruitless to even attempt to write a “review” on a Murakami book. My thoughts on it, perhaps, but every time I think about how best to present the story in a nutshell, I draw a blank. It has been this way for all of his books that I’ve read so far, and A Wild Sheep Chase is no different.

First, we’re introduced to the narrator—nameless, of course—by way of him attending a funeral. I don’t even know if this funeral, or his divorce, is any matter of consequence in the story or not. Because the bulk of the story relates to a friend, Rat, and a photo he had sent to our narrator with the singular request of publishing it where people can see it. It is this photo, insignificant as it may first seem to the untrained eye, that sets into motion the quest that is to take him from Tokyo to Hokkaido, in search of an odd sheep.

The premise is as mythical as it typically is with Murakami. A weird-looking sheep that takes over a human’s body and mind, in order to control the ebb and flow of mankind? The appearance of an actual Sheep Man towards the end of the book who, it seems, knows just about everything there is to know about our narrator’s quest? A woman with magical, perceptive, seductive ears?

No. It is not in search of the “deeper meaning’ behind the goings on in Murakami’s stories that I find myself indulged. It is in the beauty of his storytelling, the way nothing makes sense, but seems to somehow come together, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to my brain. In a way, it is almost as if his stories speak to my subconscious, just out of reach for my conscious brain to fathom, but just enough so that I can see the thread that leads through, though barely.

I had read this for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, and while I did finish it before March 31, I have had trouble finding time and frame of mind to post about it. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read my second Murakami for the challenge, and I thank Bellezza again for hosting it this year.

On another note, I do hope everyone is keeping safe, staying at home whenever possible, and finding ways to cope with this Covid-19 outbreak.

Deal Me In 2020: #5

March 2, 2020 § Leave a comment

Picked ♦5 from the deck today.
Savages, by Nadia Khan, from KL Noir: White


I don’t read enough local authors. It’s a very personal problem for me, because I think it’s important that we support our local authors, and the best way is always to purchase their books and read them. I’ve got about two handfuls of locally published books, but it’s hardly enough. At least, that’s the way I see it.

That’s why it was important for me to have a whole suit in this short story challenge dedicated to locally published stories. I need to make a conscious effort.

So anyway, back to the short story that I read this morning. It’s by a personal friend, actually, and while she typically writes in Malay, this particular story (as are the others in the anthology) was written in English.

KL Noir is a collection of stories that reveal, or dwell, in the darker side of this metropolitan city that is the capital of Malaysia. What lurks in the shadows? What happens behind closed doors? What monsters hide within all of us?

In a nutshell, Savages is about a woman who makes it her life’s mission to purge the world of its savages: monsters who parade around as men, predators who don’t think twice about the harm their actions cause to their victims. She thinks of herself as a vigilante, a woman who has found strength from a broken past.

It’s a quick read, but perhaps not as dark or twisted as I had expected. I’m curious to see how the other short stories within the anthology fare, but from what I’ve read in her other works, Nadia can go much deeper than she did in this short form story.

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