From the Fatherland, With Love – Ryū Murakami

December 28, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese in 2005
Translated into the English by Ralph McCarthy, Ginny Tapley Takemori and Charles De Wolf in 2013

**********

I’ve stayed well away from Ryū Murakami for a long while now. Though I can’t really remember the story or plot of the first of his books I read, Almost Transparent Blue, which incidentally was also his first novel, I vividly remember how disturbed I felt. I even remember saying that I wouldn’t read another book by this “other Murakami”. Simply way too far outside my comfort zone.

That was in 2009.

I’ve since found myself wondering if I would find it quite different today. After all, 7 years is a long time. So much has changed since then.

Maybe that’s why I dared to venture a second chance with him this time round. It was a really short visit to the library, and I was really only looking around for graphic novels. I took a sneak peek at the “M” shelves to see if there was any Mishima lying around, and ended up bringing From the Fatherland, With Love home instead.

It was daunting right from the start. There is a list of “Prominent Characters” featured in the book that runs almost 6 pages long. I took a look at that and immediately thought, boy, I’m in trouble. I don’t read many family sagas because I almost always can’t remember who is who; and the extensive list just cemented my belief that I was in for an uphill battle with this book.

Two prologues in, and I was hooked. Granted, I did have to constantly turn back to that list of characters to see who was who, but further along into the book, that no longer felt like a chore. In fact, that list was as much a part of the book as any other.

The story is set in a 2011 Japan that we don’t know. It’s a bleak time, everything that can go wrong for the island nation has gone wrong, and to make matters even worse, a group of North Korean army “rebels” have taken over Fukuoka. We are given glimpses and perspectives from every angle possible: the Japanese national government, the Fukuoka local government, the invading North Korean rebels, a homeless man, a bartender, the local media, the doctors in the hospital opposite the North Korean rebels’ HQ, a group of misfits whose base is nearby.

It’s all over the place. There are so many characters involved, I initially thought it impossible to get into the story. I need my characters built strong and solid; they are how I relate to the story. But despite myself, I did connect. I connected with all of them. I especially felt a certain kinship with the group of misfits. They had this way of thinking about the world, and society, that just hit a nerve.

Human beings had the freedom and potential to do anything whatsoever; that was what made them so scary.

At the same time, though the entire book was set in such a depressing time for the nation, there were many moments of pure humour. It’s like how we are sometimes able to see the ridiculousness around us, and just laugh in spite of ourselves. That’s the kind of feeling that this book exuded—just feel the feelings, admit them, face up to them, and you’ll be all right.

Why didn’t people just raise their hands and ask if they could use the toilet? Not to ask and to wet yourself, then blame the nasty guerrillas, seemed ludicrous.

One of the things that really stood out for me through this book, was how “individualistic” it was. Everyone in the book was his/her own person. They belonged to their groups—the Koryos, the misfits, the government—but they also didn’t belong. They were themselves. They had their own thoughts and memories and reasons. That felt important to me, and steadily became more important the deeper I went into the story.

It’s not an easy book to talk about, because there were so many things happening at the same time, so many elements working together to create the complex tapestry that is this story. But it’s definitely one brilliant piece of work.

Took me seven years to revisit this man’s work. But then again, it’s never too late. In fact, it may be that this is just perfect timing.

Solanin – Inio Asano

December 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese, 2005-2006
《ソァニン》, 2 volumes (complete)

**********

My brother has been on my case about this manga for a long time now. He read it online almost half a year ago, and said I should do the same. But I’ve got this thing about reading “books” from a screen—I don’t like it. The occasional articles and Facebook stuff, sure. But in my head, I just haven’t gotten to that place I need to be to fully enjoy a book that’s got light glaring back at me.

So when we found this book, 2 volumes in one, in the library that day (I’m in New Zealand at the moment, by the way, which explains why I was able to find this book), we knew we had to bring it home. And I have to say, my brother has got good taste in manga.

The story is really so simple. It’s about this young girl who’s tired of working at an office, and decides to quit. She lives with her boyfriend who does part-time design work but whose real dreams involve singing in a band. In essence, it’s about how these two go through life, how they make decisions, and how they cope with the pressures presented to them in the real world.

Their problems are not our problems. But in some way, we all have our own problems with the real world—it’s nothing like how we imagined it would be when we were still so young and free and naive. We’ve all had those dreams; dreams of making it big and living just how we want to without a care in the world; of not conforming to the norm and going all out for the things we love most. We look at society and we believe so deeply that we won’t be one of those who give up on dreams just to survive. We’ll more than survive; we’ll realise our dreams. We’ll never sell our souls.

We struggle with it, once we reach the real world. Some of us meet with a little less resistance, some of us fold on the get-go. Some of us almost kill ourselves trying not to give in, and some of us, very few of us, make it all the way to the end.

For me, that’s what Solanin was about. When there’s something you love so much, but the real world is telling you that you can’t love it anymore, what do you do?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

December 2, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2005

**********

I have this very odd tendency of bringing onto the plane some very thick books to read. I think about the 10-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Auckland, and I imagine myself buried nose-deep in a thick book that I’ll finish by the time the plane hits the ground again. It’s never gone that way before, and yet this time, I still find myself carrying extra weight in my backpack as I board the plane.

Still, I had many thick books to choose from, all of them sitting on my shelves. I decided to go with this one about a week before I left because it was screaming at me. Extremely loudly.

The only thing I knew about this book was that it was set in a post-9/11 New York. I didn’t know that it came in the form of a child’s narrative. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I don’t usually do well with young narrators, so I was quite apprehensive about it. After all, I was stranded in a metal bird in mid-air, with no other book to read.

I was, I’m glad to say, pleasantly surprised.

The narrative was, though a little choppy at times, simple enough to follow and understand. I wouldn’t exactly describe Oskar, the nine-year-old narrator, as a particularly gullible or naive boy, so that part worked for me. It seemed to be as somewhat believable that he was forced to grow up, to face his demons, after the 9/11 incident in which his father died. And if that’s why he ended up sounding a little too mature at times, I could buy into it.

The way the story was told, with one-sentence pages and full-page photos, was also a welcome break to the usual steady beat and pacing of a book. I think those worked well in this case, giving me some space in between the narrative.

At the same time, the in-between spaces felt necessary. It was like if they weren’t there, I would have zoned out of the text, of the narrative. And that’s where I felt the book sort of fell a little bit apart.

It was interesting enough for me to finish the book, and in good time, too. But it didn’t really “move” me, or reach me in a place I want books to reach. There’s a kind of touch that some books and stories have that just get you, and this book didn’t have that.

It was maybe just a little loud, and a little close. Not quite enough.

The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

November 25, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2009

**********

It took me about a month to finish reading this book, despite it not being an extremely chunky book. Given my normal reading speed, I should have been done with it in a week, give or take a few days. But this one took me a month. Why?

First, I did not feel any sense of guilt when I put it on the kitchen table and didn’t touch it for several days. I would then put it into my bag and carry it with me everywhere without actually taking it out of the bag to read. Following that, I would move the book onto my work desk, and still, I could happily look at the cover, and the bookmark peeking at me.

There was no sense of urgency to actually finish the book.

And I loved it.

The Anthologist is about a man, a poet of sorts, if he will allow us that, who’s putting together an anthology of rhyming poems. And like in most, if not all, anthologies, he needs to write an introduction. And he’s stuck.

So instead of writing that introduction, he’s chosen to talk to us. He tells us why it’s so difficult to get started with the introduction-writing, and how much he has already suffered through before starting this conversation. But of course, before he can really dig deep into the real reason behind his procrastination, he tangents off and tells us about the woman that he loves who used to live with him but no longer does because he couldn’t get the introduction written. And you know that it’s not the only tangent he will go off on.

He rambles on about the types of poems there are, and the ridiculous names they’re given. He goes as far as to make up songs for some of the poems he uses as examples to make his point, and that piano-playing young girl in me just wanted to sing and tap along with him. He says poems are like songs, and why shouldn’t they be, and so they should be sung.

Baker has a way of describing things, of talking about certain feelings that make the most benign things seem funny. There’s this one phrase in the book that very adequately described how I felt when I got a toothache and had to withstand a few days of pain before I could go and get my toothache fixed with a root canal procedure. I had some writing work to do at the time.

And I knew that I was going to be fine, but that I might not be able to type for a while, which would give me a reprieve on writing my introduction. A great whimpery happiness passed through me like clear urine.

And there were just too many times when his observations were simply too hilarious.

I looked at the USB cables dangling there, and I laughed pityingly at them, and I thought, Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race, because you can’t tell which way to turn it and you waste minutes of your tiny day, crouched, grunting, trying the half-blocked connector one way and the next.

I don’t know how much it would mean to anyone else to know that I thought this was a very comfortable book. Not comforting, mind you, but comfortable. It was like a plush sofa-chair that had just the right amount of cushion and sturdiness. Sometimes, the ramblings even felt like they were happening inside my head, and it seemed to belong just there.

Reading this book was like sitting alone, having a warm cup of coffee on a cool morning.

**

On poetry and writing:

If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art.

It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess.

What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you. […] Out of hundreds or poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. in other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and thens top. That doesn’t work. Nobody will give them the “great poet” label if they write just two great poems and nothing else. Even if they’re the greatest poems ever. But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.

In fact the letter may be better than any poem she wrote, though she wrote some good ones. But we wouldn’t be interested in reading the letter unless she’d written the poems. So once again it’s terrible confusing. You need the art in order to love the life.

**

On feeling:

When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.

And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or to boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, gray non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.

Isn’t crying a good thing? Why would we want to give pills to people so they don’t weep? When you read a great line in a poem, what’s the first thing you do? You can’t help it. Crying is a good thing.

 

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett

October 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2006

**********

Sarah Waters is a very tough author to follow. After putting down the last book I read, I had trouble finding the right book to read next. I picked up quite a few big authors, too. I tried reading a few pages from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, then David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, but I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages of either one of those giants.

I was a little lost. I didn’t want to lose my “steam”, to give up the momentum I had found with reading Waters. I wanted to keep it up, the reading. Especially since I have more time on my hands these days. But I simply couldn’t identify the right book.

I found this little gem as I was cleaning and rearranging my book shelves. I don’t like to stack up my books, or have them in double rows. It stops me from getting at the book right at the bottom of the stack, which I am prone to want to do; and it also makes it that much easier to forget about the books that I have hidden in the back row, behind a second row of newer books.

So clearing the shelves as I was, I realised that I had started this book some time ago (I can’t remember when this was anymore, but I’m willing to bet it was more than a year ago that I last picked it up), but just never made it past page 3. It’s such a small book, and I thought, maybe the Queen can tell me what to read next.

It’s an amazing book. Alan Bennett has written this little piece in such a way that it felt regal and royal, yet close and warm at the same time. Sometimes it read like being privy to some high-level secret, like being allowed a glimpse into the mind of someone brilliant, but you’re not allowed to take away anything but your own memory of the experience.

The Queen, having never been an avid reader, is one day fortunate enough to come across a travelling library. She steps in and politely borrows a book. That’s how she became an uncommon reader, often times feeling sad and a little regretful that she hadn’t discovered reading much earlier, but still eager to catch up as much as she could.

There were many little nuggets of precious phrases scattered about in the book; words that not only spoke to the literary part of my brain, but also to the squishy parts of my heart. I could feel my spirits being lifted, as if I found someone who knew reading like I did, who could understand the many issues I had with reading too much, or not enough.

It’s such a small book, really. But I have a feeling I’ll keep coming back to this.

Here are some of the nuggets I mentioned:

‘Pass the time?’ said the Queen. ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not.

To her, though, nothing could have been more serious, and she felt about reading what some writers felt about writing, that it was impossible not to do it and that at this stage of her life she had been chosen to read as others were chosen to write.

One Scottish author was particularly alarming. Asked where his inspiration came from, he said fiercely: ‘It doesn’t come, Your Majesty. You have to go out and fetch it.’

‘But then books, as I’m sure you know, seldom prompt a course of action. Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book, as it were, closes the book.’

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

September 22, 2016 § 2 Comments

First published in the English in 2002

**********

It’s been such a long time since I’ve read a book that got me so completely immersed in the story, the telling of it, that it felt like I had dove into the deep end of a pool with dark water and no light. It was uneasy at first, to feel like I had so little power over my own emotions (I was feeling rather desperate and nervous, as if I was Sue Trinder herself). Going deeper into the story, though, I had thought the mood would lighten up, or that I would stop feeling so dreadful, and start enjoying it for the book that it is. But that didn’t happen. Just as the desperation escalates to a high point, I found myself yelling, in my head, and my heart, “Oh, shit!”

I did not see that coming. Sue Trinder did not see that coming.

The book I have includes this one-liner from A.N. Wilson:

Such a brilliant writer… her readers would believe anything she told them.

How true that is. But for me, it was not only believable. It was the truth. It was THE truth. It was real. It was there, and it happened the way she told it.

She has a way of storytelling that just leads you in and, as if on drugs, you simply cannot pull away. She’s telling you something, and there’s no other reality but hers.

It was painful to be Sue Trinder.

She grows up with a gang of thieves, fingersmiths, in a dark part of London in the 1860s. One day, she’s presented with an opportunity to make her fortune, to repay the kindness of Mrs Sucksby, who’s been so nice to her all these years. And to do that, she goes to a big house, a mansion further north from London, to cheat a woman. She’s there to be a lady’s maid, to lead the lady on and push her into a marriage with a swindler, and she’s to be rewarded for her efforts. She  goes with a steely resolve to destroy this lady’s future. She doesn’t know just how easily that resolve will be melted, like snow in the middle of summer.

It was also painful to be Maud Lilly.

Maud Lilly, the lady of the house in Briar. Maud Lilly, the lady who accepts Sue Trinder as her maid. Maud Lilly, the quiet, unassuming girl—she’s still a girl!—with a sad past behind her, and a sadder future yet to unfold.

How does Sarah Waters do this?

Assassination Classroom – Yūsei Matsui

September 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

First published in the Japanese, 2012-2016
《暗殺教室》, 21 volumes (complete)

**********

I am a huge fan of manga.

This series is the best one I’ve read yet.

The setting is excellent, and so very simple to understand. A “creature” has destroyed most of the moon (so that it’s permanently in its crescent shape), and has threatened to destroy Earth a year after. It then offers humankind a way out. It will become the homeroom teacher for a class, 3-E, in a top-rated private school. It will teach the students to become highly skilled assassins. And in this one year, the students can use every chance they get to try and kill this “creature” before the one-year deadline is up, and Earth is destroyed.

Putting aside the seemingly morbid setting, the story is absolutely hilarious. It’s much like Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO), where each student goes through a life-changing and coming-of-age experience, and the teacher (in this case, the “creature”) plays a critical role in that experience. Adding to that the amazing ways the students think up of to attempt assassination, and you’ve got yourself the perfect combination.

I don’t know how he did it, but in the midst of all the comedy, the author managed to get me really attached to each of the students, and the teacher as well. I got so attached, I cried throughout the last 3-4 volumes of the series.

This manga has been made into an anime (2 seasons). I’ve been told it is good.

**********

All the manga I own is translated into Mandarin. That’s how I first learned to read the language, through manga. I’m hoping that one day, I’ll be able to read manga in its original language.