Deal Me In 2020: #3 and #4

February 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

These two cards from the deck today are almost a month late, but instead of berating myself for not being able to strictly keep to the intended timeline, I’ve decided that I can afford to cut myself some slack, and allow myself some leeway to play catch-up now that I’ve finally gotten back some semblance of sanity in daily life.

With that said, let’s have a look at the two short stories that I picked from the deck.

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Picked ♠Q from the deck
Gaslighted, by R.L. Stine & Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, from FaceOff

Of the two (or three, depending on how you look at it), I’m only familiar with R.L. Stine. I still remember visiting the school library and picking out Goosebumps books from the shelves. I went through them like a child goes through candy—extremely quickly and with an increased appetite for more. That has been ages ago.

Reading his work again today (albeit in collaboration with two other authors), I didn’t really know what to expect. Would it be scary? Creepy? Weird?

I found it easier to read this short story, compared to the first short story I read this year, also from FaceOff. While in that one, I felt a little hesitant, and rather unable to really dip myself into the story, Gaslighted caught my attention right from the word ‘go’. The pace was quick, the manner very brisk.

This is a very well-written short story. Very masterful in its storytelling, with just the right amount of suspense, mixed with doubt and mystery.

Maybe, I’m getting the hang of reading short stories.

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Picked ♣5 from the deck
Birthday Girl, by Haruki Murakami, tr. Jay Rubin, from Birthday Stories

The second short story I read today was another Murakami (I’ve just finished Kafka on the Shore, which I will post about in a day or two). And I am reminded yet again why I love this author so much. The writing is always so simple, but so full of life, as if at the very core of his story lies the essence of a certain spirit, something that speaks to us, and through us. (Never forgetting, of course, the magic that his translators, in this case, Jay Rubin, are able to do. Absolutely fantastic work.)

A middle-aged woman is talking to our narrator, telling the story about her 20th birthday, when she was given a chance to make a wish. Any wish at all, she was told, and it would be granted, no questions asked. But she doesn’t tell us what her wish was—after all, “You’re not supposed to tell anybody what you wished for, you know.”

It’s an open ending, as it usually is with all of Murakami’s works. It can be frustrating for some readers, but for me, this is part of the reason why I enjoy reading his work so much. It leaves so much to our own imagination and interpretation, sometimes rereading his books can conjure completely different emotions and interpretations from the first read.

Then again, it could be my bias at work.

(This being a short story written by a Japanese author, I’m including it into my Japanese Literature Challenge 13, hosted by Dolce Bellezza.)

Deal Me In 2020: #2

January 14, 2020 § 2 Comments

Picked ♥9 from the deck today:
Hell-Diving Women, by Meghan Mayhew Bergman, from Almost Famous Women

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The premise of this collection of short stories by Meghan Mayhew Bergman is an intriguing one. In her own words:

The stories in this collection are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes.

How does one turn away a book like this?

In Hell-Diving Women, we are introduced to the world of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a jazz band that is not only all-female, but also “racially-integrated”, something that just wasn’t done back in the 1940s. In the centre of this tornado, is Tiny Davis, though from what we can tell, Tiny is anything but. She is big, loud, strong-willed, and so full of life, she affects everyone around her.

But this story is not only about Tiny. It is also about Ruby, the woman next to the woman. It is Ruby who has Tiny’s back. It is Ruby who watches out for her, who worries when she goes overboard, who stands up for her when she picks a fight. Tiny is boisterous and outgoing. Tiny loves the stage, and the audience love her, too. Ruby is a replacement, a back-up for anyone who’s out sick or down with the flu. She can be anyone, and yet she is no one.

But when Tiny walks up to Ruby and whispers in her ear, “You and me, baby,” Ruby feels her heart flutter, and her stomach do a little butterfly dance. And you get goosebumps, because Ruby gets goosebumps. She doesn’t say it, but you know she does.

Hell-Diving Women reads like a peek into the real lives of these women; what happens when they’re on the road between gigs, or behind the scenes just before the curtains pull open and send them into the limelight. It’s intriguing, but also mundane; it feels exhilarating, yet so everyday.

And maybe that’s what it’s like, to be almost famous women.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng

January 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

First published in English in 2012

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“What kind of gardener will you be, if you do not feel the soil with your bare hands?”

~Nakamura Aritomo

I completely forgot how dreamy Tan Twan Eng’s prose can be. It’s been such a long time since I’ve felt the urge to pull myself out of a book, just so I could pen down a line from the page, so that I could keep it, so that it could speak to me over and over even after I closed the book and returned it to my shelves.

“But how does one capture stillness on paper?”

~ Nakamura Aritomo

Sometimes, flowery prose can really annoy me. Especially when it feels like the prose is flowery just for the sake of it—to look pretty. But with Tan’s book, the prose sets the scene, it creates an aura, it opens up a world that rises from the pages and encapsulates me into it. His words, and how he arranges them to form sentences and paragraphs, have a magic that remind me of why I love beautiful writing.

The Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of Judge Teoh Yun Ling, who returns to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Her return to this place brings her back to earlier years: her memories of the time she had spent in the garden with Nakamura Aritomo, the Japanese gardener who had once worked for the Emperor of Japan; and the painful ordeal she had to face during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War.

This book is a love story, but not only about the love between a man and a woman. It is also a love story about our relationship with nature, with our memories, with our losses and our sacrifices. Because the best love stories are about push and pull, about tension, about bitterness mixed with sweetness. The most beautiful of love stories are filled with some sort of sorrow that we somehow convince ourselves that we deserve, that we need in order to get that heart-bursting, tingling feeling that all of us yearn for.

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.

Love.

Deal Me In 2020: #1

January 4, 2020 § 2 Comments

Picked ♠9 from the deck today:
Red Eye, by Dennis Lehane & Michael Connelly, from FaceOff

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This is the first short story I’m reading from this anthology, FaceOff, so I think it might be a good idea to talk about the book briefly before moving on to the story itself.

So this book is a collection of stories, each written by two thriller authors featuring well-known characters from their own books. In each story, the characters meet each other, they face-off, and a story spins from there. The premise is interesting, but perhaps even more interesting for someone who’s an ardent fan of thrillers, and who are familiar with the authors and their beloved characters.

As I read this story, I realised—with quite a surprise, really—that I don’t read a lot of books from the thriller genre. So, while the authors are familiar to me, their characters are definitely not. I didn’t know their ticks, their habits, their individual characteristics. I didn’t know them.

So, I found it a little tough to really get pulled into the story that was unfolding, not because I don’t like thrillers (because I actually do!), but because I couldn’t relate to the two men who were after the same guy. That didn’t sit well with me.

But that’s also not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading this story. Because I did. While slightly predictable, the story was presented in a way that kept the pages turning. And that’s one of the things that mark good thrillers—the pages turn themselves.

This is a good start.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

Published in English in 2008

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It’s interesting how we choose the books we read at any given time. The Slap has been sitting on my shelves since almost five years ago, and never once was I compelled to pick it up. I was always aware of the premise of the story: a gathering of friends and family goes wrong when someone slaps a child. The book then continues to explore what happens as a result of that incident, and how everyone has been affected.

I have to say that the first chapter of the book was immensely difficult to get into. There were so many characters being introduced, each couple with their own child or children, and not everyone’s age particularly clear. It was also quite difficult to tell who was talking to who sometimes. And I found myself having to refer to previous pages just to check and see if I had the right wife attached to the right husband to the right kid.

It all felt a little tedious for me. And I typically either stop reading entirely, or it sits on my table for months until I finally decide that it’s got to go back to the shelves. Somehow, though, I made it past the first chapter, in which the slap has occurred. And moving on to the next chapter, I thought maybe it would be less tedious now that it’s no longer centred around the gathering with the many, many people.

I’m kind of glad that I finished the book. It wasn’t particularly excellent for me, and despite each chapter being told from a different character’s perspective, the narrative sometimes felt like it had the same voice. But the flow was intriguing. The “slap” didn’t necessarily feature heavily in their lives, but the effects were definitive.

I had wondered if there were just too many characters, so much so that they got jumbled up together. They sorted out themselves towards the end, but this is probably one of the reasons why I don’t really go for huge family drama books, especially those that span generations.

So, no, this is not the type of book I normally go for. But, it had a good flow, and it kept me interested through most of the book.

I am a little curious about the miniseries, though.

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.

 

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly – Sun-mi Hwang

November 1, 2019 § Leave a comment

First published in Korean in 2000
Translated into English by Chi-Young Kim in 2013
Wonderfully illustrated by Nomoco

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Sprout is a hen who lives in a coop, right next to the barnyard. She is an egg-laying hen, has never left the coop, and is longing for the day when she gets to lay an egg, watch it hatch, and take care of her own baby.

Sprout wants to be a mother.

But it’s tough for a hen who’s only raised for her eggs. Tough because the eggs she lays will never hatch. Tough because she will never really be let out of the coop. Tough because she can never really be a mother.

These thoughts depress her to such an extent that she refuses to eat, is unable to sleep, and one day, even the single egg that she manages to lay is not fully formed. Her very existence has come into question. The farmer and his wife decide that this is it for Sprout—if she cannot lay eggs any longer, then there’s simply no more space for her in the coop.

It’s a harsh reality, but Sprout somehow manages to turn it around. Thanks to a mallard duck called Straggler, Sprout comes out of a near-death experience, and decides that she will live the way she wants to live, free from the coop, free from the awful barnyard animals.

But freedom comes at a price—she is now constantly on the look-out for the one animal that could not only take away her freedom, but also her life: the weasel.

This feels like such a simple book, such a simple story, and yet there are certain dynamics within it that scream at you from the most unexpected places. There are complexities that are so intricately woven into Sprout’s life that I did not notice them until some time had passed after I finished the last pages of the book.

Who knew a story about a hen could be so profound?

Because, the way I see it, life is life no matter. There will be fears to overcome, challenges to face up to, criticisms to sidestep, disappointments to get over, tears to dry. And every step is an achievement in itself, in that it was a step, there was action, and things will happen.

Life unfolds the way it does. We live the way we do. And we are stronger for it.

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