space and beyond

Last week-end I finished reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, a book about the African American women who helped launch America’s first astronauts into space. If you’ve seen my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve been quite engrossed in this book, which is about something that I thought I had next to zero interest in.

Don’t get me wrong — I have a reasonable interest in maths, science and historical events; and the age-old question of what is really out there? has some portion of my curiosity, but space exploration has never rated very highly on the list of things I’m interested in enough to actively and independently research. (What would be on this list? Sounds like it could be a whole other post on its own, but probably stuff that affects my day-to-day, or stuff about why things are how they are. But in truth, I don’t think I’ve done much non-fiction reading, web browsing or other “research” since finishing formal education.)

I guess space exploration, to me, was always something a bit pie in the sky compared to immediate problems like climate change and poverty in developing countries. Shetterly even mentions in the later chapters of her book that the space race left some African Americans of the time quite disgruntled, wondering why their country was so concerned about getting into space (and spending millions of dollars on it) when there were Earthly troubles to be addressed, like why they were still being treated as second-class citizens.

So why did I read this book?

Continue reading


You know that you’re really enthralled by a book when, walking home with said book in hand, you’re waiting to cross the road, and, in those precious seconds of waiting, you feel compelled, even then, to open your book and continue reading.

The book that I’m currently reading is “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan. I borrowed it from a friend, and, again, I’m convinced that I am predisposed to love novels that are borrowed from or recommended by friends.

I’ve been pretty busy recently, helping my sister with wedding preparations, so don’t expect me to finish reading it any time soon (only about 70-something pages in at the moment), but I just wanted to do this quick post before I get back to the wedding prep. There will definitely be a post on this book once I’ve finished it, though. (And maybe a post on the wedding. We’ll see.)

of Life, the Universe, and Everything

In high school, we were lucky to have a number of different English units/courses to choose from for grade 9 and 10. Depending on your interests, you could spend a semester learning about fantasy, romance, comedy, classics, etc. For one of those semesters, I chose the science fiction unit, mostly because I wanted to expand my reading horizons (I mostly read fantasy novels at the time).

I remember our teacher explaining that sci-fi can include anything that asks the question “what if…?”, and by this broad definition, a lot of novels can fall into the sci-fi category. Our focus novel was ‘Jurassic Park’ but, if I remember correctly, we also analysed ‘I, Robot’ quite a lot as well. Since then, I’ve tried to include more sci-fi books in my reading list. I’ve come across a lot of bad sci-fi, but there’s also a lot of good sci-fi out there as well. I reckon a good science fiction book can instil a sense of wonder and awe (and maybe fear) at previously unexplored possibilities.

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams is often featured on lists of “books you should read before you die” and is probably one of the most renowned sci-fi novels ever written. Many fans would consider it to be a classic. I’ve wanted to read THGG since high school, but just never got around to it …until now!

My overall impression of THGG is that it’s a very funny book mostly because it’s silly but seems to take itself quite seriously. It could easily have been a focus novel in the comedy unit (I never chose that unit because I thought analysing why comedies are funny would take the fun out of them) but I understand that different people have different senses of humour, so THGG might not suit everyone. When I was on GoodReads earlier, I saw several reviews by people who found absolutely no enjoyment in reading THGG at all.

When I think about it, though, a lot of the positive reviews just listed quotes or concepts that people thought were really funny, clever or insightful. Because of this, I feel like the storyline was perhaps a bit randomly all over the place and lacking in real substance. It doesn’t have the same profound resonance that other great sci-fi novels have – the ones that echo in your mind long after you’ve finished reading them. But that’s not to say that it’s not thought-provoking in its own right. You just have to remember that it started out as a radio series, so that would have affected how the story was constructed.

Truth be told, I was surprised once I’d gotten to the end of book to find that it’s actually part of a trilogy, and then when I got onto GoodReads, I realised there’s actually a volume 4 and 5… All this time, I actually thought it was a stand-alone book (whoops…) The question I’m asking myself now, of course, is whether or not I want to seek out the rest of the series and read those books too. I suppose I would like to (so I can find out if/how they find the question to the answer) but I’m not in any great hurry to read them.

As I was reading THGG, I was constantly smiling at the random jokes. I’d like to share some favourite parts because I feel like the main reason I liked this book was because it’s a collection of funny things put together into a story. Be warned, there may be spoilers.

  • The history of Ford Prefect’s real name, which he couldn’t learn to pronounce (so his father literally died of shame) and the nickname he was given, Ix (“which in the language of Betelgeuse Five translates as ‘boy who is not able satisfactorily to explain what a Hrung is, nor why it should choose to collapse on Betelgeuse Seven'”)
  • Why Vogon poetry is only the third worst in the universe
  • The missile that turned into a whale, which then briefly pondered its existence before dying on impact on the surface of Magrathea
  • A lot of the things that Marvin the depressed robot says
  • Slartibartfast and his revelation about how and why Earth was created
  • The mini side-story about how the Vl’hurgs and G’Gugvuntts joined forces to attack Earth but “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog”

keep passing the open windows

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind week – or, as I’ve been known to say, it’s been an “interesting” week. Well, an interesting two weeks, to be fair. My department manager has been on holidays this last fortnight, so I’ve kind of been filling in for her. Nothing terrible has happened, but it’s just … it’s been interesting. And I’ve done my share of over-time. The 7am starts didn’t turn out as bad as I was expecting (I’ve only had one coffee this whole time, and that was more as a treat than for any alertness benefit).

For some reason, this last week has just taken a lot out of me. I had to work yesterday (Saturday) as well (and it was crazy-busy, as far as Saturday mornings go). Yesterday I felt a bit destructive, felt a bit like I was edging closer to a breakdown of some sort (probably being a bit melodramatic there, and possibly hormonal, but I won’t go into that). But, you know what, apart from the wonderful people I work with, something that helped pull me through was reading John Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire”. (Also spent some time playing “Pokemon” last night while listening to Sia’s “Elastic Heart”, but let’s not get into that.)

THNH is a novel that is, ultimately, very endearing. It’s about the Berry family (Winslow (“Win”) Berry and Mary Bates, and their five children: Frank, Franny, John (the novel’s narrator), Lilly and Egg) and their life living in different hotels. The story starts out normally enough, with the parents recounting how they met, but it gets very random very quickly. However, after reading “The World According to Garp”, I felt like nothing in THNH could really surprise me. And that’s not a bad thing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading THNH, and there were certainly still a lot of things that made me smile. Irving does have a good sense of humour – an interesting sense of humour.

Despite that random-ness, there’s something very human about THNH, as if they could all be real people. (If you’re wondering just how random THNH was, let me just tell you that the edition I read had a picture of a bear riding a motorcycle on the cover.) I sympathised with their struggles, and did not begrudge them for their successes (spoiler alert – they return to America and make loads of money from Lilly’s novel and related ventures).

Actually, there are several similarities between THNH and “Garp”. Both John Berry and Garp are running enthusiasts. Both novels also feature a fair bit of writing about writing – Garp and Lilly both become authors. And Susie’s rape help centre based in the third Hotel New Hampshire (by the sea) is reminiscent of the Jenny Fields Foundation based in the Field’s family mansion (also by the sea). The Berry children attend the Dairy School at which their Grandfather Bob coached football, and their father taught English (he had also attended the Dairy School as a student). Similarly, Garp grew up in the school where his mother was the resident nurse.

But, you know, I don’t mind all of these similarities between the two novels. It kind of gives a sense of familiarity that’s as good as being surprised and astounded. THNH is still an amazing book. I’ll probably end up reading most, if not all of John Irving’s novels – one day.

“Keep passing the open windows” is a phrase the children say to each other throughout the book, and basically means “don’t jump out of any open windows” i.e. don’t commit suicide i.e. persevere. Just keep passing the open windows – that was the kind of encouragement I needed yesterday.

“Get obsessed and stay obsessed” is another great pearl of wisdom from THNH, and is spoken by Win’s father Bob AKA Iowa Bob AKA Coach Bob, who is obsessed with fitness, particularly lifting weights. I don’t really like the idea of being obsessed with something or someone, but maybe people need to get obsessed with something from time to time. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

A big chunk of the book is set in Vienna, so I kind of learnt some random German words as well, such as schwanger (pregnant), schraubenschlussel (wrench) and schlagobers (whipped cream, but a German workmate informs me that this is not really German, but more of an Austrian thing to say). Not necessarily useful words to know, but it adds to the interest in the novel.

The edition I read was published over 30 years ago. The manager who has been on holidays for two weeks was the one who lent it to me. She lent it to me after I told her that I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Garp”. And, yes, the book is old and kind of falling apart (split right down the spine – twice); and the pages are yellowed and stained; and it altogether has such a beautifully musty smell like it’s been well-read and well-travelled (to the minds of various readers), but has long ago retired to a corner of her bookshelf.

And I think this is important to mention because, in the same way that foodies like to tell us that “we eat with our eyes”, I think that format and context and other factors not directly related to the actual words of a book can enhance how a book is received by a reader. Don’t get me wrong – I love the look and feel and smell of a brand new book as much as the next book-worm, but there’s something wonderfully sentimental and, yes, endearing about a novel that’s a bit worn out and well past its physical prime.

“Sorrow floats; love, too”

just phenomenal

I would like to say that it’s not often that I come across a book that’s just totally mind-blowingly amazing, but it seems to be happening more and more often. Maybe it’s because I’m just getting better at picking good books to read, or maybe I’m more receptive to different writing styles and genres and content. Perhaps a bit of both, or something else? Who knows?

What I do know is that ‘Burial Rites’ (by Hannah Kent) is one such mind-blowingly amazing novel. A colleague recommended this book to me back around the time of it’s initial release. I was quite intrigued by it at the time, since it seemed so different and unique. The patriotic part of me likes that it’s written by an Australian author; the worldly part of me loves that it’s set in Iceland, a place whose culture and history I know very little about.

I will admit, however, that part of the reason I put off reading ‘Burial Rites’ for so long was because of all the Icelandic names for characters and places, which I thought might make it a bit difficult to read smoothly. Turns out, I didn’t really have anything to be worried about, since there’s a pronunciation guide at the start, and their words are easy enough to read – at least, it didn’t interfere with the flow of the narrative.

‘Burial Rites’ is actually Hannah Kent’s debut novel, which just adds to my amazement. Her writing is practically flawless, and the way she constructs the characters, the settings, the story – it’s just brilliant. What I really liked about ‘Burial Rites’ is that it alternates between third person and first person (from the point of view of Agnes Magnusdottir, the protagonist), and it’s done in a way that feels like it’s really adding depth and intrigue to the story. It’s sort of like getting inside her mind, like she’s telling you these secrets, and then you’re back to being an observer. Hmm… I’m probably not doing it justice with that description.

Interestingly, the novel is actually based on real people and real events, and even features real places. This actually makes me want to visit Iceland so that I can see all of these places and learn more about the history. Kent’s story of Agnes has sparked my fascination with Iceland, so it’s easy to see how Kent was inspired to share this story in the first place. Something else that I quite appreciate is that Kent isn’t overly descriptive about the landscape and weather. And for a place where it seems to basically be cold and snowing 99% of the time, it would have been easy to get repetitive and/or overly creative with metaphors.

In her author’s note at the end of the novel, Kent mentions that some of the publications she read as part of her research portrayed Agnes as “an inhumane witch”. However, I actually found myself sympathising with Agnes for a lot of the book. Perhaps she was innocent…?

This brings me to another point that I want to write about, but it is kind of a spoiler, so if you don’t want to know anything about the ending before reading it for yourself, please do not continue to read this (until you’ve gone and read ‘Burial Rites’, of course). You have been warned!

As the story nears its inevitable conclusion, Agnes gradually reveals what really happened on the night of the murder, and the reader is told more about her relationship with Natan, one of the victims. The hints start earlier in the novel, but as more of Agnes’s story is revealed, I found myself believing in her innocence, and hoping that her death sentence would be revoked. I almost believed it would be possible for her to have a “happily ever after”, but it was just not meant to be. As I reflected on this after finishing the novel, I realised that “good” endings, or satisfying endings, often are not very happy endings. If Agnes had been acquitted, would I have felt cheated of a “good” ending for the sake of the characters’ happiness? (“Characters” plural, because the Kornsa family she was with and (Assistant) Reverend Toti all cared about her in the end.) So it’s kind of the “best” ending, even if it is a sad one.

I reckon I like ‘Burial Rites’ a lot more than I’d expected to when I first added it to my to-be-read list. I would like to read it again one day, and certainly wouldn’t mind having my own copy (I got this copy from the library). I kind of just want to go around telling everyone to read it.


I actually finished reading ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ (by John Green) last week-end, but I’ve put off writing about it because I prioritised finishing the last of my NZ posts, and I haven’t had an awful lot of time and/or energy, finishing work late more than once this last week… Also, I’m not entirely sure what I really think of the book.

Let me say, straight up, that I did like the book. It’s written well in the sense that it was easy to read quickly; I just kept reading page after page, and before I knew it, I’d finished the book. I also liked that the characters and the story seemed so real. However, I can also appreciate the author’s note at the start about how it is a work of fiction: “Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter”.

This is quite possibly more resonant with me after having just read ‘The World According to Garp’ prior to reading TFIOS. I’m kind of still wondering if I still have remnants of a book hangover from ‘Garp’ because even though I took a brief pause (can’t remember how many days – just a few at most) before starting a new book, I was still thinking about ‘Garp’ as I read TFIOS and, evidently, I’m still thinking about it now. (Note that I didn’t take a break from reading – I just went back to ‘Great Expectations’ instead of starting anything new.)

As an aside, one of the parallels between ‘Garp’ and TFIOS was that the protagonist in each novel talked about the books that were important to them. For Garp it was ‘The Secret Sharer’ (Joseph Conrad) and ‘The Man who Loved Islands’ (D.H. Lawrence) – both of these are now on my to-read list. For Hazel it was ‘An Imperial Affliction’, which is a fictitious fictional book by fictitious author Peter Van Houten. I will admit, I was a bit disappointed when I realised that it wasn’t a real book.

Regardless, it doesn’t detract from the story, except maybe that there isn’t that feeling of being able to continue the connection with the novel via other novels. But I’m digressing…

Having an interest in health/medicine, I did like the references to drugs and hospitals and whatnot. And although “Phalanxifor” is not a real name for a real drug, the basics about her treatment are all there and realistic, such as the “moon-face” adverse effect from her anti-nausea medication.

I have to warn you now that there’s a spoiler in the next paragraph. I know that most people who do care about what happens in TFIOS have already read the book or watched the movie (or both) but in case you have not done either of these, and you do want to find out what happens for yourself, then consider yourself sufficiently warned. Just don’t even read the rest of this post – go and read TFIOS instead.

I’m sorry, but I can’t sufficiently discuss TFIOS without talking about the ending.

The main thing I liked about how TFIOS ended was that Hazel didn’t die. Once her case was introduced as being terminal, and then she started having complications with fluid in her lungs, it was sort of expected that she would barely survive the whole novel. But it would have sort of sucked for it to end like “An Imperial Affliction”, mid-sentence. It does still leave unanswered questions, though, like how much longer does Hazel live, what her parents do after she’s gone, etc.

On the other hand, I reckon it is ok that Augustus died by the end of the book. If I feel like over-analysing it, I could say that TFIOS essentially finishes when he dies because, in the same sense that AIA finshed when Anna (the protagonist, afflicted with cancer) dies or is just able to continue writing, TFIOS ends after Augustus dies because, for Hazel, that’s worse than dying, herself. Too much?

Well, I’m not much into literary romance and whatever, but the relationship between Hazel and Gus was kind of adorable. And I can understand all the hype (and the memes) now.

There’s also quite a lot of humour in the book, too. It’s good that it’s not all sad and waiting-for-people-to-die. I have to commend John Green for making Hazel so likeable. I’m always especially amazed at how well some male authors write female characters. TFIOS is written in first person, from Hazel’s perspective, and she does some great commentary.

Perhaps what I’m most disappointed about with TFIOS is that it was too short. After reading ‘Garp’ gradually over a few months, it feels like TFIOS ended too soon for me. And there’s little to no chance for a sequel! Except maybe about her parents… Who knows…