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.

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?

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.

Deal Me In 2020

January 4, 2020 § 4 Comments

Earlier today, I came across a blog post on Dolce Bellezza about a short story challenge hosted by Jay. And then I thought to myself, this is a great way to get myself reading short stories again. And the way this challenge is designed makes it really interesting. So despite this being the first time I’m hearing about the Deal Me In short story challenge in its tenth year, I’m really keen to join.

So, here’s my short story deck for the year:

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♠ SPADES ♠

Like Jay, I’m going with darker stories for this suit. Mysteries and thrillers. The stories in this list will be coming from one of these two books:

  • FaceOff, edited by David Baldacci
  • In the Shadow of the Master, edited by Michael Connelly

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♥ HEARTS ♥

Focusing an entire suit on women writers, and I’ve got four books of selected stories by four authors to choose from:

  • Carried Away, by Alice Munro
  • Moral Disorder, by Margaret Atwood
  • Almost Famous Women, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • Barbara the Slut, and Other People, by Lauren Holmes
  • ♥ 2: Royal Beatings – Alice Munro
  • ♥ 3: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro
  • ♥ 4: The Moons of Jupiter – Alice Munro
  • ♥ 5: Monopoly – Margaret Atwood
  • ♥ 6: The Boys at the Lab – Margaret Atwood
  • ♥ 7: White Horse – Margaret Atwood
  • ♥ 8: Who Killed Dolly Wilde? – Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • ♥ 9: Hell-Diving Women – Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • ♥ 10: Saving Butterfly McQueen – Megan Mayhew Bergman
  • ♥ J: Barbara the Slut – Lauren Holmes
  • ♥ Q: New Girls – Lauren Holmes
  • ♥ K: How Am I Supposed to Talk to You? – Lauren Holmes
  • ♥ A: Carried Away – Alice Munro

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♣ CLUBS ♣

For this suit, I’m going with anthologies, selected by three authors that I really admire:

  • Birthday Stories, selected by Haruki Murakami
  • Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women
  • The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith
  • ♣ 2: Timothy’s Birthday – William Trevor
  • ♣ 3: The Birthday Present – Andrea Lee
  • ♣ 4: Close to the Water’s Edge – Claire Keegan
  • ♣ 5: Birthday Girl – Haruki Murakami
  • ♣ 6: The Young Girl – Katherine Mansfield
  • 7: The Rainy Moon – Colette
  • ♣ 8: Aunt Liu – Luo Shu
  • ♣ 9: The Loves of Lady Purple – Angela Carter
  • ♣ 10: Hanwell Snr – Zadie Smith
  • ♣ J: Magda Mandela – Hari Kunzru
  • ♣ Q: Puppy – George Sanders
  • ♣ K: Cindy Stubenstock – A.M. Homes
  • ♣ A: Judith Castle – David Mitchell

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♦ DIAMONDS ♦

This last suit of the deck is dedicated to short stories written by Malaysian authors, from the following anthologies published by our local publishers: Fixi Novo, and Word Works.

  • KL Noir: Red, edited by Amir Muhammad
  • KL Noir: White, edited by Amir Hafizi
  • Bitter Root Sweet Fruit, edited by Dipika Mukherjee & Sharon Bakar
  • Love in Penang, edited by Anna Tan
  • ♦ 2: Mamak Murder Mystery – Marc de Faoite
  • ♦ 3: The Unbeliever – Amir Hafizi
  • ♦ 4: The Gift of Flowers – Shih-Li Kow
  • ♦ 5: Savages – Nadia Khan
  • ♦ 6: Breadwinner – Hadi M. Nor
  • ♦ 7: Playtime – Arif Zulkifli
  • 8: Mad About Mary – Terence Toh
  • ♦ 9: Trail – Bathmaloshanee M.
  • ♦ 10: Bird – Ling Low
  • ♦ J: Appa’s Mutton Curry – Sumitra Selvaraj
  • ♦ Q: Oh, Snap! – Mamü Vies
  • ♦ K: Double-Blind – Zen Cho
  • ♦ A: Oil on Canvas – Eeleen Lee

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So, this is a great way to start off the year. Let’s see how this goes!

Wrap up: 2019

December 31, 2019 § 7 Comments

I started this year aiming to finish 26 books. I haven’t been reading much in the past few years, all owing to always being “too busy”, or having “too much work”, or that I simply “don’t have time”. So I thought to myself, I’ll give myself a reading goal that’s achievable. Surely I can manage one book every two weeks?

So on this last day of the year, I’ve managed to finish 51 books. Very near to one book a week. I thought I would have finished The Garden of the Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng before today, but I still have a few more chapters go to, and it is a book that I don’t want to simply rush through. I had really wanted to wrap up the year with the perfect “one-book-a-week” ribbon, but I guess things really don’t always have to be perfect.

In terms of actual reading, I think it’s been a pretty great year, filled with many very good books. My absolute favourites include A Man Called Ove, and The Travelling Cat Chronicles. I have also discovered new-to-me authors that I highly suspect I am quickly becoming a fan of: Neil Gaiman and Ira Levin. My love for Japanese literature has somehow expanded to include the entire Asian region, the familiarity of our shared cultures resonating strongly.

It’s been a great year for reconnecting, for finding time for myself, for quiet, for reading. And I’m thankful.

I’m looking forward to a good reading year again, starting tomorrow.

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.

 

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