March 28, 2018 § Leave a comment
First published in Chinese in 2010
Translated to English by Nicky Harman in 2010
This book is a collection of ten stories about Chinese mothers and their daughters—daughters they have lost, daughters they were forced to give up, daughters they chose to give up, daughters who left them, daughters who have stayed with them in their hearts all these years.
I first found out about Chinese girls being adopted by Western families about a couple of years ago. A storyteller friend of mine at that time asked if I would come on board to help do some reading and research on a topic closely related to a story he wanted to tell: what goes through the mind of an adopted daughter whose birth mother in China simply left her at a random orphanage when she was less than a year old?
The more I read into the topic, the more I realised just how complex the issue is. There wasn’t any straightforward answer to why a mother would leave her child at an orphanage—sometimes it was poverty, sometimes it was the one-child policy, sometimes it was simply because she was a daughter.
The stories in this book are as varied as they come, in terms of where the mothers came from, and how they lost their daughters. And as one of the comments at the back of the book says: “One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.”
Yet at the same time, while I appreciated the hardships and heartache, it also almost felt like I was being spoon-fed. Were the stories moving? Yes. Were they painful? Also, yes. Did I feel bad for the mothers and their daughters? Yes. But those feelings didn’t feel organic, in a way. Almost as if Xinran was telling me that those were the feelings I was supposed to feel.
This is my second Xinran book, the first one being a novel, Miss Chopsticks, which I read about 8 years ago (wow, how time flies!). And when I read my thoughts on that book back then, I realise my feelings for Xinran’s writing style hasn’t changed much—I don’t dislike it, but I can’t say I like it very much either.
October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the English in 2000
How long has it been since I’ve sat down with a book and found myself unwilling to put it down? I even somehow managed to find my “reading spot”—something that I’ve been unable to locate in the four years I’ve lived in this home—simply by opening its pages and allowing it to speak to me, while my body unconsciously moved around and found a sweet spot where it stopped and nested.
Stephen King is an author with more than 50 books to him name. And yet somehow, this is the first of his that I’ve ever picked up. I’ve read many good things about this book, On Writing, and how it dispenses with great advice. I got curious—I wanted to read it, too. Maybe, I thought, it could help make me a better writer.
As it happens, I did NOT buy my own copy. I visited a fellow writer friend at their home, and they had a copy sitting on a shelf in their living room. I picked the book up and asked to borrow it. They told me, “Go ahead. It’s a great book. It saved my writing.”
It got me curiouser. Save their writing?
“Not that it got me past a writer’s block or anything,” they explained. “It simply got me writing again.”
As for me, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately, writing-wise. I wondered it this book would save me, too.
I still don’t know if it has, because I’ve just put the book down, but suddenly there’s a very different energy pulsating in my brain. Or somewhere in my body. I don’t mean that I feel a sudden urge to write and write and write. I don’t mean that I have gained some mysterious power of words. I don’t mean that I am suddenly sure and confident of my writing skills.
I mean, I simply feel a little different.
Read a lot, write a lot. Read a lot, write a lot.
That’s all we can do. And that’s all we have to do.
On being a writer:
Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
In the end, the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.
On the process:
And I never stopped writing. Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there. I buried those unhappy, lackluster pages in the bottom drawer of my desk and got on to the next project. Little by little I found the beat again, and after that I found the joy again.
… put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.
In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.
Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free, so drink.
Drink and be filled up.
August 25, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 2014
I had not expected to be reading this book so soon. I’ve got so many other books sitting on my shelves, some that have been bought way before this one. (Sometimes, I even feel guilty towards those books that I haven’t yet gotten to, but that’s a story for another day.)
The thing is, I had picked up this book at a sale some time last year. The title, Confessions of a Ghostwriter got me right off the bat—after all, I am a ghostwriter myself. I don’t know of any other ghostwriters, so I was curious to see what it was like for someone else who also does what I do, but with a great deal more experience and success.
In this book, Crofts shares short anecdotes of the experiences he’s collected in his years of writing for others. He tells us about the funny characters he’s come across, the amusing things some of them say to him, and some of the odd circumstances he has found himself in.
To be honest, I don’t really know where to start in terms of describing how comfortable and reassured this book made me feel. I’m not weird, I’m not odd, I’m not the only one. It felt amazing.
There were, for me, a great many quotable quotes contained within the pages. Here are a few that I’ve found particularly cheeky.
Ghosts, like other authors, need to be able to remain objective, slightly distant, hovering above the emotion, watching and noting what it looks and sounds like. But at the same time we need to understand what it feels like in order to convey it to the reader.
Extremes of evil are as interesting as extremes of goodness. Extremes of wealth are as interesting as extremes of poverty. Without the bad guys there would be virtually no drama and no storylines strong enough to hold anyone’s attention, no vampires or zombies or serial killers. Life is indeed a bitch.
The moment you decide that you are going to earn your living as a freelance writer (or a freelance anything for that matter), you condemn yourself to a lifetimes of thinking about money. Every day you will find yourself frantically doing sums in your head when you should be thinking about something more productive, trying to reconcile the money that you think you are going to be earning in the next month or two with the bills that you know for sure are going to be coming in.
I am confident this is a book I’ll be flipping through regularly, if not to look for gems of wisdom, then to at least feel not so alone in the world of ghosts.
January 9, 2017 § 2 Comments
First published in the French in 2003
Translated into the English by Helge Dascher in 2005
There’s very little that I know about North Korea. And I never found myself interested in finding out much more about this “authoritarian” country. Then, about a couple of months ago, I watched a Korean TV drama, Descendants of the Sun, which had a very small side story involving a North Korean soldier and peace talks between the North and South. That intrigued me a little, because I knew nothing about the reunification attempts, but it also frustrated me to know that there’s so much to learn!
Then, by pure chance, I came across a book by Ryu Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love. In that book, there was a significantly bigger North Korean appearance, and again my interested was piqued. I knew then that I was keen to learn about this country that had so far eluded itself from me.
So, by no coincidence, I picked up this graphic novel at the local library. I wanted to see what a foreigner might see in this evasive country. What else can he show me about it that I have not read or gleaned from the Murakami book, and that I have not seen or felt in the Korean drama series? I was thirsty for more.
The graphic novel does read like a journal of sorts—he writes about what he encounters, his benign work days, the Friday nights that offer him a sense of what the rest of the world might be up to in this country that cuts itself off from everyone.
Truth be told, though, I was a little underwhelmed. Much like the Osamu Tezuka book, I felt like this one presented more facts than it did tell a story. Perhaps it was meant to be this way; a simple illustrated recollection of the things he saw and experienced, limited as they were, as foreigners in a country that mandated translators and guides to follow you around. Perhaps the lack of story is not his doing, but entirely in the way the country presented itself to him—there is no room to meander.
This is the first book of his that I’ve read, so I don’t really know. But judging from this book alone, I don’t feel an immediate need to rush for his next.
January 5, 2017 § 4 Comments
First published in the Japanese in 1992
Translated into the English by Frederik L. Schodt in 2016
Being a huge fan of manga, I’ve known for some time now that Osamu Tezuka is considered the “god” of manga, especially in the land of manga, Japan. Despite this, very little is known of the man outside of his own country. That doesn’t stop me from feeling somewhat ashamed that I don’t know more of his work, but then again, because I don’t know the Japanese language (yet!), I’m very dependent on work that has been translated into English. That it has taken so many years for this tome of a biography to be finally translated and published for the English-speaking world is yet another indication of how late we are in appreciating the master of manga.
Aptly written in the form of a manga biography, it starts from when Osamu Tezuka was a very young child, ending only at his death, when he was 60 years old. And his life was indeed full of manga, anime and film. Right from the start, it seems that Tezuka has never had any other dream—all he wanted to do was make manga and anime.
There were loads of mini nuggets of information and trivia within the pages that I found very interesting. At the same time, the zeal and tenacity at which Tezuka insisted on accomplishing his almost impossible goals has left a strange feeling in me. He never wasted any time, never gave up, never left the path that he believed so strongly that he was meant to be on. As I read the book, I found myself constantly reflecting on how I’ve been working on achieving my own goals, if I had even half the kind of devotion that he had.
As I reached the last quarter of the book, I started to realise that this volume was somewhat different from the kind of manga that I’ve gotten used to. Perhaps it was Ban’s intention to draw a manga that best reflected Tezuka’s style, which is, of course, quite “old-fashioned”. Perhaps, also, because it was originally drawn way back in the early 90s, which could explain how different it is from the manga of today. So in a way, I felt like this book was a little less organic in its style and presentation.
The story itself was also a little dry. All the little details were there, of course. How he went about rushing deadlines and how his country and the world was changing. But the whole book was more of a recollection of information, more than a telling of a story. There were countless points in the book where I had hoped I could get more information, or more elaboration, or even just a little more illumination, but Ban kept to the main frame of the story, which was a little disappointing to me.
Still, it’s a book much worth reading, especially for those who are manga fans, or even just fans of Japanese culture.
It’s a great book to start the year with. I’m hoping some of that passion will rub off on me.
September 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
When you’re at a sale where books are going for RM5 each (that’s really just slightly more than USD1 at the current exchange rate…), it’s almost impossible to leave without taking more books home than you intended when you first stepped into the space. And that’s what I did. Not only did I take home more books that I thought I would, I also bought unexpected books – books that almost never call out to me.
I’ve always been quite fascinated about Wall Street. Fascinated in the way that one would be about things they completely didn’t understand. Finance not being my strong suit is an understatement. So when I got home and checked my purchases for the day, I was a little bewildered to find out that I had in fact picked this book up and put in into my shopping basket. At the same time, I thought, “What a coincidence! I’m just in the mood to read some good, non-fiction stuff!”
I don’t live in America. And I also don’t read the New York Times. So I had no idea who this Greg Smith person was, or what he had written in a op-ed in the paper that apparently drew more than 3 million readers. So I guess in a way, I was in for a little bit of a surprise.
The story flowed quite well, I have to say. I did glaze off slightly when he started explaining how derivatives worked (it’s not that I’m not interested, but I simply couldn’t wrap my head around it! I swear!), but for the most part, I quite liked how he told this story about an idealistic intern, excited to start working for his dream company, Goldman Sachs.
Maybe it was also because of the timing. He joined just before September 11 happened, and he was also there when the economic crash happened in 2008. If his story didn’t include these events, his book may not have made such an interesting read!
For me, this was an okay book. It was good in that it introduced a side of the world that I just never really got to know. It got me interested to find out more about how Wall Street functions, and it amazed me to read about just how influential it is to the world.
At the same time, it did fall short. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it simply didn’t reach far enough. I wasn’t reading enough about what was really going on. I wasn’t getting the real reason why he left Goldman Sachs. I wasn’t seeing enough of how the place had gone from being the best company to work for, to becoming the “toxic and destructive” environment he criticized it for.
I just couldn’t see the real point behind the whole thing. I always remember this phrase, “The magic is in the details”, and there was, simply put, not enough magic at all.
August 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
There’s something to be said about rereading books.
When I was a young girl, I didn’t have the privilege of visiting bookstores very often. In fact, we only ever visited book fairs and sales, and even then, we would mostly only bring home dictionaries. My dad was, and still is, a big fan of dictionaries. So as a young girl, the only new books that we had were heavy and thick – they were dictionaries.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t have other books at home. My dad had friends from all sorts of backgrounds, as he was a businessman. And his friends were very generous with their books. In fact, of all the books we used to have at home, I reckon more than half were from his friends’ personal libraries – books that they no longer wanted, and books I learned to cherish.
But also because of this, that meant I had to learn how to make do with the limited variety of books I had at my disposal. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get new reading material. I simply reread the ones I had grown to love.
There were some obvious favourites. My Enid Blyton books had tape all over, holding the pages, only barely, in their places. My Roald Dahl “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” met with the same fate – in fact, the spine was so worn, only I knew what book it was from its non-existent spine. I knew exactly how each of the Five Find-Outters mysteries was going to pan out, and what each character was going to say on the next page. I could almost sing-along with the Oompa-Loompas as they laughed at the kids in the chocolate factory.
And with each reread, I grew to love the stories even more.
There’s something to be said about rereading. The book, the story, grows on you, and every time you reach out for something that’s somewhat familiar, it’s almost like reaching out for family.
I read Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” a few years back. This was when I first got acquainted with his work. I had only read one other book of his, “Dance Dance Dance” back then, so he was someone unfamiliar. Reading this book then allowed me a little bit of insight into someone who has now become one of my favourite authors.
Since I last read this book, I’ve gone on to read quite a number of his other works. And with each novel, I felt like I got to know him a little bit better. And as I was sitting in front of my bookshelf that day, thinking of what book to read next, my hand simply reached out for this one, my mind telling me that it was about time I saw him in a different light.
And I did.
I remember feeling that this book felt very conversational, that it felt like he was sitting right in front of me, speaking to me and telling me all these things about himself.
This time, while still conversational, it felt different. It was no longer about himself. I felt like he was telling me about life and life’s decisions, and how perhaps only we know what’s best for us.
This book is so different from his novels and short stories, and yet, there’s no doubt that it’s the same voice. This voice that spins bizarre stories of wells and cats gone missing and talking sheep, is the same voice that’s telling me, ever so calmly, that everything requires discipline, effort and a lot of great timing. On the one hand, we have a crazy world full of unexpected twists and turns, and on the other hand, we have this seemingly calm and peaceful world that’s equally full of unexpected twists and turns.
It’s the same crazy world. It just depends on what glasses you put on.
But that’s just me. Most people may not feel what I felt when I read this book this time around. And truth be told, I believe I’ll have a completely different take on it if I read it again five years from now.