Something Special – Iris Murdoch

May 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

First published in the English, as part of the anthology “Winter’s Tales No. 3”, in 1957


Something Special was my choice for the most recent flight I took. I had always carried heavier books, and always found that I couldn’t finish them before the plane landed, so I thought I could go with a thinner book this time.

I finished it in less than two hours.

I’ve seen the name Iris Murdoch around very often, but I’ve never been familiar with her work. And usually it’s so important to choose just the right book to start a new author with. Sometimes, good authors, and other good books by the same author, can be ruined if that first book was the wrong choice.

I’m still a little unsure about how this book was for me. It’s been more than a week since my flight, and while I can’t say that it was extremely memorable and I’ve been thinking of it ever since, I must say that it was definitely very intriguing for me.

Nothing much happens, I feel. The story starts in the living room of a house, where Yvonne, her mother, and her uncle are having a discussion of sorts about why Yvonne is refusing to marry a man called Sam. Later, Sam comes to the house and brings Yvonne out on a “date”, which involves walking around the city, then going into a bar to have some drinks.

The night isn’t going very smoothly at all, and when something goes wrong and upsets Yvonne, Sam brings her to a secret place that he is convinced will lift her spirits. She doesn’t react the way he expects her too. The book then ends in such a spectacularly surprising way, I was simply at a loss for a long while, and just sat staring out into the clouds.

I haven’t been reading that many short stories recently, and while the edition I read was a standalone book, the back cover blurb did mention that this is the only short story that Iris Murdoch ever wrote for publication.

Like I said, I was definitely intrigued. In a way, I felt like the house in which Yvonne, her mother, and her uncle, were talking in, as well as the streets of the city, and the bar that Yvonne and Sam later went into, were all important characters in the story as well. It says, also on the back cover blurb, that the story is set in Dublin in the late fifties, and it’s a backdrop that is as alien to me as Mars. So trying to get my head wrapped around what it looked like, and how Christmas cards were sold during that time, and why bars were separated into upstairs and downstairs and why it mattered, was a little bewildering.

And perhaps it’s because the backdrop is so foreign to me, I found it difficult to indulge myself into it. The story held itself up, of course, but in a way, I feel that if I had been able to completely immerse myself into the setting, into 1950s Dublin, it would transform my whole understanding of the story.

This was as much a story about Yvonne, as it was a story about the times.

And it got me to thinking, if we put Yvonne into modern-day Malaysia, what would that be like?


Hell Screen – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

September 13, 2016 § 6 Comments

First published in the Japanese in 1918
Translated into the English by Jay Rubin in 2006


I’ve been experiencing a reading drought. I’ve had a lot of “false starts”, never really getting past the first 20 pages, and it was starting to annoy me. I needed a pick-me-up, a literary sorbet of sorts to help me get past the books I couldn’t plough through, and get started on a good streak again.

My partner picked Hell Screen for me. Her reason: it’s a small book. And it is. It only goes up to 52 pages, and ends with a second short story, The Spider Thread, that’s less than 10 pages long. And it was perfect.

Hell Screen is told from an unnamed narrator’s point of view. Right from the get-go, it was obvious to me that his opinions and views were skewed and biased. I’ve read books with unreliable narrators before, like The Great Gatsby, but this was different for me. His story was so full of “personal” opinions that it felt like he was not only trying to convince me, the reader, that he was right about his master, he was also trying to convince himself  too!

And that was slightly disturbing, if not oddly comforting at the same time. It’s like when you’re talking to a friend, and they’re sharing some juicy piece of gossip with you. You get the feeling that you’re not getting the whole story, but you cannot help but get drawn in, believing his every word, and forming your own skewed opinions about people you’ve never met and only just heard about.

Ah, the beauty of the human nature.

In Hell Screen, the narrator tells us the story about his master who’s revered and well-loved by everyone; a young girl who works in the master’s home and is also well-loved by everyone; and her father who’s not only the most hated man in the land, but also a very talented painter who’s commissioned by the master to paint a hell screen.

The story borders on eerie, as the narrator tells us the extents the father goes to, to produce top-quality paintings. Even though all his stories were based on hearsay and gossip, and he even makes it obvious that he’s merely repeating what he had been told, it’s too easy to take his word for it.

It’s not easy to talk about this book, except that it’s a very good one. The short story, The Spider Thread, also drove the point straight home. It read like one of Aesop’s Fables, a story with a moral. A story about redemption and second chances. For a story only 6 pages long, I think it’s amazing that I actually felt both saddened and empowered by it. Really amazing stuff.


This Wikipedia page says that Akutagawa is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese Short Story”. I need to get Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories.

Brokeback Mountain: Story To Screenplay

July 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’ve just signed up for a screenwriting workshop, and during the first lesson last week, we were all given the chance to borrow a screenplay home to read. During the workshop, I found out that I had a tendency to “kill off” my characters too quickly, which meant that my stories felt more like shorts than features. By the end of that session, I had decided that I needed to study a little more on how short stories get adapted into feature-length films, and to see if I could get some insight on how to “lengthen” my stories without dragging them out.

The first thing I found out, reading this book, was that the natural counterpart for the feature film, is actually the short story, not the novel. You see, novels are typically very descriptive, with long prose and complex plots, whereas shorts are typically leaner with a clearer structure. Feature films are like short stories, with a little more meat in the form of visuals.

The book came with three essays, one written by Annie Proulx on having her work being turned into a film; and one by each of the two screenwriters who adapted the short story into a feature-length film. The screenplay had won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Proulx wrote about some of her concerns, having the written word being transformed into something visual. It had taken a lot out of her to write those pages, to pen the lives of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist onto paper, and she was worried that those painfully strung sentences would get lost in the translation and transition into film. In her essay, she wrote that she even mentioned this worry to Ang Lee, the director who was to shoot the film.

We smiled and made small talk for a while and then, reassured by something in his quietness, I said that I was very afraid about this story, that making stories sometimes took me into off-limit places and that I feared the film would not follow that path. He said that he was afraid, too, that it would be extremely difficult to make into a film.

That sense of being afraid, I believe, is something that permeates throughout the creation of this story, from the written word, to its visual art form; from the writing to the adapting and filming. Proulx was afraid for her story; Ang Lee was afraid for the film. Ennis was afraid that people would find out; Jack was afraid of losing Ennis.

I had read this short story before, and wrote about my thoughts HERE (together with my thoughts on the film), but as it is with all things, time changes our perspectives, and the way we view the world around us. This time I had felt a stronger connection to the short story. The lean structure it had felt like it was just enough for me to hang on to, to get a glimpse long enough that I could sense their pain and loss.

I then read the screenplay. And I saw in more vivid light the Wyoming landscape, the rough boys and their tumble in the hay, their days and nights spent out with the sheep. It was like Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana had taken Proulx lean structural skeleton exactly as it was, and simply added the necessary fats to make it a whole meal. There was just enough juice, the scenes gave me something to chew on, and the outcome left me feeling just full enough, but deeply satisfied.

McMurtry and Ossana had added scenes into the story that Proulx hadn’t written about, but those scenes felt as if they belonged anyway. There was nothing about them that felt forced – in fact, they gave me more context about where the story was taking place, and provided me with more chances to see the boys in their element.

I have yet to rewatch the film, and I have to honestly say that I don’t remember too much of it. But if it’s anything like the screenplay, and because it’s Ang Lee’s work, I have little doubt that I’ll be quite engrossed.

from “Moral Disorder”

June 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Is bad news worse with pictures? I think so. Pictures make you look, whether you want to or not.

The Bad News
Margaret Atwood

I thought everyone would be familiar with this figure: if I’d studied a thing in school I assumed it was general knowledge. I hadn’t yet discovered that I lived in a sort of transparent balloon, drifting over the world without making much contact with it, and that the people I knew appeared to me at a different angle from the one at which they appeared to themselves; and that the reverse was also true. I was smaller to others, up there in my balloon, than I was to myself. I was also blurrier.

The Headless Horseman
Margaret Atwood

Currently reading: Carver

August 24, 2012 § 10 Comments

I have my first Raymond Carver book in my bag, and it goes wherever I go. I had picked What We Talk About When We Talk About Love from the shelves at the bookstore (quite some time ago now), because (1) I had heard good things about Carver and his short stories, (2) I’m starting to really appreciate short stories these days, and (3) Murakami’s sort-of autobiography is titled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

The first story I jumped straight into was the title story. I didn’t quite get it, the meaning and all that, but I really loved the tone of it, for some reason. I just couldn’t pinpoint the exact something that I found so enticing.

So I left the book in my bag for a few days, just to let it smolder for a little while.

Then yesterday, I picked it up, and read the first few stories in the collection, starting from the first page.

I don’t think I’ve read short stories as stripped down as Carver’s. His stories feel like there are absolutely no frills – everything that’s in it is essential to bring the mood and tone of the story out.

And I don’t think I’ve read anything so sad and lonely. There’s just this feeling of emptiness that resonates from his writing.

It’s like looking at a square table, with one chair, at the corner of a cafe. You can’t see the cafe, but you can hear the sounds, and smell the smells. There’s a little notebook sitting on the table, its pages open. A pen lies with its cover off, just right next to the notebook. And the chair is angled in such a way that it looks like someone had just stood up and left.

And you look at the table, and feel all the loneliness and emptiness of this stranger’s life, no matter that you did not even get a glimpse of the person. You can just feel the sadness emanating from that abandoned seat.

There’s nothing you can leave out of the picture that wouldn’t change the story. The notebook and uncovered pen, though seemingly useless, are indispensable.

That is what Carver reads like. For me.

Good Bones – Margaret Atwood

May 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

It does get a little funny, really, when you’re reading a story that’s about a story you read a long time ago, only that this story is a completely different one. It’s like one of those books in the Myth Series by Canongate – retelling a story that’s already so age-old, that you simply can’t think of any other way to think of it.

And then you have authors like Atwood, who write about the stories like as if they were clay – soft and easy to mould. Give it slight twist here, and maybe a little pinch there, and a host of other shape-changing actions, and what was originally a jug would now become a fat plate.

I didn’t manage to finish all the stories in Good Bones before leaving New Zealand and returning the book to the library where it belongs. But I did go through a good half of it.

Some stories in that half I went through – I’m not sure if they even are stories. It’s like Atwood’s just trying to piss us all off by changing the rules of the game that we know so well in fairy tales. She’s just telling us, like as if it’s the truth, that the things that we read were all lies, or at least, sob stories that were covered up with lies to make them read like happy-ever-after stories.

Maybe it’s not what she does to the stories, but how she does what she does. The stories have a certain, “oh, and by the way,” feel to them, the way you would tell someone they forgot to mention that there was also cheese in the burger. But I’ll be damned if it was only just cheese – when Atwood tells its, it’s not just cheese anymore. It becomes diced cheese shaped like animals eating other animals on an isolated island in an unknown sea.

I didn’t really get the image, sometimes, but for most of what I read, it was funny. It was believable. You’d read, and you’d think, “Yup, that’s exactly what happened.” And those images you had since so many years ago when you first read those stories just vanish into thin air, because now you can’t get Atwood’s version out of your head.

I mean, if the Little Red Hen was really so happy to just do all the hard work to make the bread, would she really suddenly harden up and not share that bread? Really. The Little Red Hen would be more than happy to give the whole bread away to those who didn’t have to work for it. And more.

[SS] Japanese Stories

June 12, 2010 § 12 Comments

Short Saturday: I join Mee on her journey in search of 5-star quality short stories. It’s all about the journey, she says, not the destination.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any short stories, so imagine my delight when I found this little treasure of a book sitting on my aunt’s shelf! It’s a collection of 178 different short stories written by different authors of different nationalities. How’s that for diverse? To begin with, I decided to read two Japanese stories, which also coincides with Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4, which I’ve not talked about, but am really excited to be participating in.

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