October 3, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 2015
I had loved The Psychopath Test. And so I have a number of books by Jon Ronson. The Men Who Stare At Goats is a popular one, but one that for some odd reason I’ve just been unable to finish. Then there’s Lost At Sea, which I’ve not yet started. And then, of course, there’s this book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
It is an intriguing topic, public shaming. Especially in this world we live today where it has become so, so easy. All of us who have connection to the Internet have at least one social media network account. It could be YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… these are just the giants, and I’m pretty sure there are many more that I don’t know of.
Social media has made it possible for us to deliver our thoughts to the world about something happening in a completely different timezone, regardless of how or even whether or not that event impacts me in any way at all. The platforms are designed in such a way that hashtags (#) have made it easier to create and track trends. And if something someone said far far away manages to capture your attention, and perhaps create some resentment, it really doesn’t take that much effort at all to let the world know just how you feel about it. You don’t even have to lift your bum off the chair.
I had imagined this book to take this line of thought and roll with it. And perhaps it did, for a little while. But then it started diverging elsewhere, and I kind of got lost a little. Maybe I should have managed my expectations a little better—and I really should know better than to plug my own expectations onto a book.
In saying that, I ended up not loving the book in the way I had thought I would. And in my head, it does not rank up there with The Psychopath Test. But he had some very interesting stories to tell, some of which were perhaps more related to how we deal with shame, rather than the animal that public shaming is shaping out to be. And that’s all fine, actually. If I had started the book without any pre-conceived notions about what I thought the book might be about, then I would have very likely enjoyed the book far more than I did.
But that’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? We approach everything with our own versions of what we think something should be, and when it ends up not matching what we had imagined, it throws us off a little.
April 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 2018
“It’s a lot of fluff.”
That was what I told my dad when I was about 60 pages into the book. I casually left my bookmark where it was, and passed the book to him so that he could have a go at it. I said what I said as a sort of warning, because of what I understand of my dad’s reading preferences, this didn’t seem like a book he could fully immerse himself in.
If I felt it was a lot of fluff, chances were, he would find it slightly unbearable.
Surprisingly, that was not the case.
He finished the book in less than a week, and when I asked him what he thought about it after, he held the book in his hand, paused for a moment to really think about it, and said to me, “I thought it was quite sensible.”
Not quite the reaction I was expecting. So I thought to myself, maybe I was too quick to judge. Maybe I should continue reading the book and see where it takes me.
The entire title of the book is “Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom For A Perfectly Imperfect Life”. The author, Beth Kempton, attempts to explain the concept of wabi sabi to us, and on page 4 itself, this is what she writes:
As I’ve said, trying to articulate a definition of wabi sabi is a tricky endeavour. It’s a bit like love—I can tell you what I think it is and how it feels to me, but it’s only when you feel it for yourself that you really know.
And that, for me, rather sums up the book in its entirety quite well. It is about trying to explain something that is supposed to be personal and intimate, something innate in our beings, something that means different things to different people.
When I got to about page 120, my brother saw me reading the book and asked what I thought of it.
“It’s a lot of fluff.”
That was still what I thought of it. It was a lot of fluff. Much more than what I’m used to. But I could see where my dad had a point. It was sensible. For much of the book, I felt like I knew what she was talking about, like I understood why she was espousing what she was.
The book was “nice”. And again, this was something I am simply not used to in the books I typically choose to read. (And as I’m writing this, I’m starting to wonder, why is it I tend to choose books that lean towards the “darker” side? What does that say about me?)
Yet at the same time, I also felt like all this is old news. Kempton was telling me things that I could feel deep down that I already know, and have always known. Why I know those things, I cannot tell, but I know that I know them.
The forest does not care what your hair looks like. The mountains don’t move for any job title. The rivers keep running, regardless of your social-media following, your salary or your popularity. The flowers keep on blooming, whether or not you make mistakes. Nature just is, and welcomes you, just as you are.
And what surprised me the most, was when I finished the book and closed the covers, I sat there with the book on my lap for 15 minutes. It was near midnight, my parents had gone to bed, and the only sound I could hear was the ticking of the clock on the dining room wall. I could feel myself going through everything Kempton shared in the book, from recognising our flaws, to knowing when to walk away, and learning to pace ourselves.
And I knew that the book was not there to teach me something new. It was there to remind me of something buried deep down in my heart.
January 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
First published in English in 2013
I started the year by ending a job. Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start the year, but the job had reached a point where it consumed too much of me, and I had very little left to give. “For your sanity,” a (then) colleague of mine said to me, “just pack up and go.”
So two weeks into the first month of 2019, I packed up and left. I came home, sat on the sofa in my living room, and stared at my books. I picked out Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I had very recently purchased a copy of this book for a young colleague (now ex-colleague) because she loves dystopian but has never read this by Atwood. I told her this book is great.
And so I thought, I’d re-read it, simply because. I need to get back into the groove of reading, and I always find it easier to get my rhythm back by reading something I’ve read before.
Two pages in, and my mind wandered. I needed a buffer. My head was not in this.
I climbed up my small stepladder to see what books I had on the top shelf. I almost never do this, because I have so many other unread books on the lower shelves that I can reach. So when I reached the top shelf, I was immediately drawn to the bright red cover of this book, Carl Honoré’s “The Slow Fix”. And I thought to myself, I need to slow down. Maybe this book can help my head slow down.
The book itself was a rather quick read. Honoré provided plenty of examples of how others in this wide wide world applied what he called the “Slow Fix” to solve problems, both big and small. Some of the examples were intriguing—I always like reading about real-world problems and how real-world people have managed to solve them.
Somewhere about three-quarters of the way through the book, though, it started to feel a little dragged out. Yes, there were some new examples, but he also kept referring again to the case studies in the earlier chapters, to drive home his point that there are key ingredients that can be found in almost every “Slow Fix”.
The end fell a little flat for me as well, almost like one of those self-help books that don’t really help much in the end. The book didn’t jolt me, it didn’t wake me from my slumber. It helped broaden my knowledge, that’s for sure. But it didn’t revolutionise my thinking. Maybe I was expecting that. Maybe I wasn’t. But no magic happened.
But I did manage to get some of my reading rhythm back.
Onwards to Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
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.