Sum up: May-June 2021

July 14, 2021 § Leave a comment

In the past couple of months, I’ve picked up a number of books, only to read the first few pages and then put them down on my work desk to collect dust. Even right now, I have four books sitting there in a pile, and I have yet to finish any single one of them.

The one that I’m more likely to finish before July is up, is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Incidentally, I thought I was doing a re-reading with this one, but only later figured out that the first time I read Brave New World, it was an abridged version. So really, this is like reading the book for the first time.

The one book that I’ve actually managed to finish reading back in May (and I have not completed one book in the whole of June) was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

I don’t usually read books that are personal narrations of a real-life event, so this was something new to me. It was interesting enough, and I managed to gain some sort of an insight to mountaineering and what an expedition to the highest peak on the planet entails. I did feel that the author tried his best to be inclusive in his writing, in trying to bring non-mountaineering folk (like myself) along on the journey, in making sure that we understood not only the stakes, but everything that was involved to finally make it to the top.

It was interesting, but I still felt like an outsider for most of the book. Maybe it is also because of the state of the world that we’re in right now, with lockdowns running rampant in various countries due to the outbreak of COVID. Spending time outdoors with fresh air and people just feels alien, in a way. Almost like something from a very long time ago. Something we no longer have as matter-of-fact, and something we’re looking forward to hopefully in the not-to-distant future.

It hasn’t been the best reading year for me so far. I’ve had bad reading spells when I simply cannot digest the words on the page, and of the few that I’ve managed to read, they didn’t all speak to me. Again, I want to put the blame squarely on COVID and what it’s done to us emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Maybe the second half of the year will be better. Maybe that’s all we can hope for.

Sum up: April 2021

May 1, 2021 § Leave a comment

April saw the tying up of some loose ends in terms of work-related matters, which also meant that I got more time on my hands to do what I wanted. Obviously, I spent a lot of that time sitting on my bum and watching shows on Netflix. Not extremely proud of that, but I also know better than to admonish myself for consuming brilliant content. After all, what better way to learn than by watching and studying how others do it?

Meantime, I also managed to read a couple of books.

The first was The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. This was one of the first books I bought way back more than ten years ago when I actually started buying my own books. Somehow, I managed to let this book sit there, moving from a small box in a small room, then onto a small shelf in a bigger room, and now onto a big shelf in my living room, without opening it to read a single page.

I trust in the ways of the universe. I believe that somehow, timing is everything. And things that are meant to happen will happen when the timing is right. So perhaps I was only meant to read this book now. And what a powerful book it was.

There was a certain beauty to the scenes that Galloway painted through his words. And it does seem like an odd thing to say about a book that describes a war-torn city under siege. But for me, it was beautiful. Everything seemed so temporary, so destructible, so much so that any present moment became something to embrace and cherish, no matter how hopeless it seemed.

The siege is told through the eyes of three different characters in the city, all of whom never cross paths with each other, and yet, their fates are so tightly entwined. The cellist, who is really the core of the whole book, doesn’t feature very often, but when he does appear, it is almost as if I am there, too, listening to him play that beautiful music in the middle of the street.

And the most amazing thing about this book was how relatable it was, despite how little I knew about Sarajevo and that part of the world. Galloway was very specific about the places in which the characters roamed in the city, and often I’ve found this level of detail to be a little too overwhelming. And yet, with this book, I did not feel that way at all. I did not know the streets, the bridges, or the buildings that Galloway talked about. But in a strange way, I could see the streets, bridges and buildings that I do know, and they had somehow got implanted into this world that Galloway created. I’ve never known war, but everything felt so intimate, it was almost like watching everything happen in slow-motion right in front of me.

***

The second book I read last month was The Dog Who Dared to Dream, by Sun-mi Hwang, and translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim. I had a really pleasant experience reading a previous book by this same author, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, and I perhaps made the mistake of going into this book with expectations that were placed too high.

I remember what it felt like after finishing the one about the hen—I remember thinking how odd it was that I could somehow relate to that hen! With this one about the dog, however, I found myself constantly stuck floating about above the characters in the story. I was unable to get down to the ground, go deep into their thoughts, and it was frustrating. It wasn’t a bad story. But it most definitely didn’t have the same impact on me as her previous book did.

***

As for the other books on my nightstand/desk/”currently reading” pile.

I’ve given up on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for now. I had left it on the side for far too long, and I had lost track of the thread. I know I’ll pick it up again one day. Maybe when the time is right.

Instead, I’m reading Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It’s a non-fiction book, a personal account and recollection of a disaster that struck when he was climbing Mount Everest. It came highly recommended to me by a friend who is a keen hiker. It’s a really good read so far, and I expect I’ll be finishing it before the month comes to an end.

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

**********

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?

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