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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.