temps perdu & retrouvé

Yesterday I went to my usual book store to buy a copy of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I’d been reading a copy I borrowed from the library, but, having finished reading it on Saturday night, I felt strongly compelled to buy my own copy because I just knew I needed this book in my own collection.

Sadly, there was nothing but an empty space on the shelf where it might have been, and I left the store empty-handed.

Perhaps it was not meant to be… or perhaps I’ll just go search through other book stores until I find it. Maybe I’ll never re-read it in its entirety, but I feel like there are parts that I’ll most probably like to revisit at some point in my life. If nothing else, I feel like it’ll be comforting to have a copy of my own, easily accessible in my home. Sort of like a salve in a literary first aid kit.

Anyway, as you probably gathered from the above paragraphs, and possibly also from other posts in which I’ve mentioned A Tale for the Time Being, I really, really like this book.

Continue reading

a return to adolescent fiction

On the week-end, I finished reading Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Since I said, in a post the week before last, that I’d try to not write book-related posts the following week (i.e. the week just gone), I put off writing this post until today. Yeah, I could have written it yesterday and just scheduled it to be published today, but was too busy/lazy to write the post yesterday.

Well, I suppose that’s only half-true. I also don’t really know what I want to write about it. Let’s start with some basics: EINTY is the story of a half-Asian, half-American girl in 1970s Ohio. The basic premise is that she’s suddenly found dead one day (and there’s a lot of suggestion of suicide) and her family try to figure out what really happened. It’s actually quite an interesting book in terms of the subject matter and issues that it’s addressing (racism, the struggles/angst of adolescence, societal pressure, family, ambition, etc), and I’d say, overall, it was well constructed.

I suppose it’s kind of similar to All the Birds, Singing (by Evie Wyld) in the sense that you have a back-story and present-story interwoven throughout the novel. (Unlike ATBS, however, EINTY progresses forward in each parallel story to gradually reveal more and more, leading you to the final resolution.) The transition between past and present is generally well done such that the story and the writing still flows smoothly.

This book took me about a week to finish reading, which is pretty good for me – I can’t remember the last time I finished a novel in such a short space of time. To be fair, I did spend a lot of time reading this last week, and it isn’t that massive as far as novels go. This might seem like a weird point to mention, but so much about the book – the smell, the physical size and dimensions, the font size, the laminated cover, the speed at which I read it – so much reminded me of books I used to read in primary school and high school. There’s a sort of nostalgic quality to it, even if the story is completely new.

Previously, I had contemplated purchasing a copy of EINTY, but when I found a copy at the library, I decided I didn’t have to. And, after reading a few chapters, I realised that was the right decision, since I probably won’t re-read it. (NB: This does not mean that it wasn’t good; it just means that I wasn’t overawed by it.) Sure, I’d probably recommend it to others, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone in particular. If you like YAF, and you like books that are full of emotional turmoil, then, yeah, this is probably a good book for you to read. If you’re after something that’s a bit different, that offers a deeper perspective, then, sure, give EINTY a go. It’s kind of eye-opening to see how each of the family members misunderstand each other, or misinterpret each others’ words/actions. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of books Ng writes next.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In a previous post, I mentioned that I was reading “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan, and that I had borrowed it from a friend. In that same post, I also mentioned that I’m predisposed to like books that are borrowed from friends. Now, I have finished reading TNRDN, and whilst I really, really, really liked the novel, I am wondering a bit about this bias.

Well, you see, the friend who I borrowed it from hadn’t actually finished reading it before she lent it to me; she just read a few chapters, and then kind of gave up on it. As I was reading TNRDN, I kept telling her how great it was, and that she should persist with it and give it a second chance. But I think at times I also forgot that she hadn’t read it yet – it’s not that I tried to discuss details with her, but in my mind I had this vague impression that she’s read it in its entirety.

Anyway, I’m not sure if my bias/predisposition still works if the person whom I borrowed the book from hasn’t finished the book and/or didn’t like it. And then I’m really grateful and really want to thank her for introducing me to this book, which I will probably always associate with her irrespective of whether she ever does finish it or not, but I’m sort of wondering if it’s kind of a false connection.

Am I overthinking this? Sorry to say, but this is typical of my thought processes sometimes.

Enough rambling.

I actually really, really, liked – wait, I already said that. Ok, let me explain why. But first, a bit of background: TNRDN is an Australian WWII novel about the POWs who helped build the “Death Railway” through Thailand and Burma. It’s mostly the story of one character, Dorrigo Evans, but the stories of some of the side characters are also explored in some detail – other POWs but also those working for the Japanese military as well.

I actually didn’t know anything about the Death Railway before reading this novel, which makes me feel like this was something I needed to read (also makes me feel guilty about my lack of knowledge about Australian history, but supposedly it’s a part of the war that just didn’t get talked about very much, and still doesn’t). The novel’s probably aimed at people like me.

There’s a lot of confronting, gruesome detail in it (not of actual warfare but of things like foul diseases, and crude surgery with makeshift instruments, and the cremation of corpses) but, although some reviews on Goodreads thought it was unnecessary or over the top, I thought it felt honest and was fitting with the story being told. (I should add, though, that the vast majority of reviews on GR are very positive. It’s just that I tend to only read bad reviews (after finishing the novel myself) so that I can gain a different or more critical perspective.)

One of the things about TNRDN that my friend found quite irksome was how Flanagan does not use quotation marks at all throughout the book, so it’s a bit hard to follow. Especially in the first several chapters, I found myself having to re-read sentences because I only realised halfway through that it was actually someone talking. Not sure if I just got used to it after a while, but it stopped bothering me. I’m not entirely sure what the point of not using quotation marks was – I mean, the novel would work just as well with them – but I’m speculating that it’s something to do with the visual flow of the text (if that makes sense).

There’s a lot of poetry in the novel – actual quotes from poems, as well as references to or mentions of poems – but Flanagan’s writing, in itself, is also immensely poetic. I especially like reading novels where the writing is very powerful; and it doesn’t have to be poetic to be powerful, but this novel was both. It was very human.

Dorrigo Evans, who becomes the colonel when the original one dies of dysentery, is more of an antihero, and he struggles with his position of command during the building of the railway, and also with the fame and respect he receives after the war is over. He feels like everything is false and that he is a fraud. And yet, despite this weakness in his character (or perhaps because of it?), and despite all the adultery and his random obsessions (which, strangely, didn’t bother me that much, but apparently other readers found really off-putting), I thought Dorrigo Evans was a likeable character. Definitely a memorable character.

For some reason, I also really liked the characters Darky Gardiner and Jimmy Bigelow. Maybe it’s a sympathy thing. There probably wasn’t a character I just did not like at all. I also reckon Flanagan did a good job of incorporating the Japanese perspective into the story, as told chiefly through Nakamura, but also through Choi Sang-min (AKA the Goanna), who is actually Korean but worked for the Japanese as a prison guard on the railway. There are a number of other reasonably significant side characters, but those are the ones that stand out for me.

TNRDN is probably the best historical fiction novel I’ve ever read (but, to be fair, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction). I feel like I’ve learnt a lot without feeling like the author was trying to teach me something. As such, I don’t think you need to have a keen interest in Australian history (or history in general) in order to enjoy and appreciate this book. It probably qualifies as a “challenging read” though (challenging in a number of different ways), so you probably wouldn’t want to read it if you prefer more straightforward novels. I might re-read it one day. It would be worth re-reading.

paradise of solitude

What a good start to the year – my first novel of 2015 is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Well, I started reading it last year, and read most of it in 2014, but I just finished it today, so I’m counting it in my 2015 tally.

I think I wanted to read a Marquez novel ever since I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Angel’s Game’, and read on the back cover that it was comparable to Marquez’s writing. However, after having read OHYS, I’d say I much prefer Marquez. That could just be recency bias, though…

To be fair, about halfway through, or a bit over halfway through OHYS, I did contemplate not finishing it. I know, shock horror, right? It was around the time that I wrote this post about my epiphany-like realisation that I’m not obliged in any way to finish reading novels that I don’t find engaging/exciting/enthralling enough (gee, that’s a lot of E words). This day was also about a week away from the day that OHYS was due to be returned to the library, and I was having doubts about my ability to finish reading it in that small and crowded timeframe (remember: public holidays, festivities, etc tend to mean less reading time).

But I later realised that I actually have two weeks after the “due date” to return it before they start charging late fees… Yeah, I know, it’s one earth-shattering shock after another – OHYS is a bit overdue now, but I’ll return it tomorrow!

Ok, before this becomes a post about random confessions of various book and non-book related crimes, let’s talk about what I liked about OHYS. For a book that I almost resigned to the “too hard” shelf, I am so glad that I persisted and finished it. One way that I know that I’ve read a remarkable novel, something worth five stars, is that I feel immensely sad after I finish reading it because it means that there is no more of it to be read. This is generally accompanied by the feeling of urgently wanting to re-read it, and rediscover any small details that might have been overlooked along the way.

As with a lot of books I read these days (or so it seems), I didn’t really know what to expect when I started reading OHYS. The three things that struck me quite quickly were that Marquez wrote in really, really long paragraphs (I’m talking about four-page paragraphs at times); there’s very minimal dialogue or actual speech (preferring to describe what the characters are talking about rather than provide a script); and that the transitions between one scene and the next, or one concept and a completely different one were absolutely seamless.

Basically, in these gigantic paragraphs, Marquez might start off describing one particular point in someone’s life. Then he kind of comes across a bridging concept, and before you know it, you’re suddenly somewhere else or with someone else or at a different point in time (or maybe all three). On the surface, as I describe it, it might seem like something that would get annoying. For me, however, it was both unbelievable and impressive. It was also a bit confusing at times, but that sometimes also added to the appeal.

What was confusing, though, especially at the start and then toward the end of the book, was the repetition of names. Of the central characters, there was only a handful of names shared among them: Jose Arcadio, Aureliano, Remedios, Amaranta, etc. This Buendia family tradition of naming kids after their father/grandfather/etc necessitated the use of people’s surnames all throughout the book, which was not a terrible thing, but for a character with a name as long as “Santa Sofia de la Piedad”, I kind of wished Marquez could have used a short form now and then. But I don’t mind, really; it kind of has a nice ring to it. Fortunately as well, the copy I borrowed had a family tree at the start, so it was a bit easier to track how everyone was related.

For a novel with so many characters, and in which so much happens, I don’t think i could pick a favourite character. I found something almost admirable about Ursula, though, and Colonel Aureliano Buendia, for the most part, was likeable. OHYS is actually quite moving and poetic. I found myself pitying a lot of the characters. It is a book about solitude, though, so it would kind of be expected… The “solitude” in OHYS, however, is not just the usual physical solitude of being by oneself, but a kind of metaphorical solitude of being emotionally/spiritually shut-off from the world. Well, something like that; it’s hard to explain.

Would I read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ again? 100% yes.

When I quickly came back to my senses after entertaining the idea of abandoning the book unfinished (man, it’s even hard to just write those words, let alone think that I thought of doing that), I had even considered buying a copy so that I could read it slowly, and then re-read it, and probably lend it to people to get them to read it. That’s another thing – I’m not sure if it’s just the way it was translated (excellent translation, by the way, Gregory Rabassa) but it was generally easier to understand the long sentences when I read faster than if I read slowly to try to absorb everything. Also, I feel like more commas in the right places might have helped.

Well, I didn’t end up buying a copy. Kind of need to clear up more bookshelf space first… It is definitely on the wish list, though (very subtle hint… too bad Christmas has just passed…)

on the edge

Imagine, if you will, a line on a page that starts at point A …and then goes all over the page in random directions – sharp corners and smooth curves, unexpected twists and sudden turns. A line that moves unpredictably, even moving off the page, in three dimensions, like the most extreme and most impossible rollercoaster you can imagine. And, like a rollercoaster, the line eventually returns to point A, where it started. And you enjoyed the ride for the most part, but the journey was almost beyond belief.

That’s pretty much how I feel after reading Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’. I thought I’d read some pretty weird and random novels in the past (e.g. ‘The World According to Garp’) but this was on another level altogether.

I was initially quite excited to find a copy of KOTS at the library, and even more excited to start reading it. I’m not really sure why, but I just felt like this was going to be an important book – a significant and meaningful story. Well, I certainly can’t say that I was disappointed. It’s definitely a rather deep, philosophical and thought-provoking read.

At times, when I was most immersed in the book, it felt like it was slowly, subtlely changing my way of thinking, making me look at things differently, so that I see significance in minor details, while realising the unnecessary attention and emphasis given to things of little import (in the grand scheme of things). It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s almost like the surreality (not sure if that’s actually a proper, accepted word) of KOTS seeped into the real world.

But, being honest (and I’m always honest here), I’m not entirely sure of what I’ve taken away, or what I’ve learnt, from reading KOTS. I actually don’t really fully understand the point of Kafka’s journey (as I said, it was like a crazy rollercoaster that finished where it started). And then there’s the other characters – Nakata, Hoshino, Oshima, Miss Saeki – and the interplay between them all. They sometimes seem too convenient to the story, especially how Oshima and Miss Saeki take Kafka in, and how Hoshino randomly decides to tag along with Nakata to help him out just because he reminds him of his grandpa.

I feel like maybe I could decipher it all if I went back through the book and really thought about it and deconstructed everything, but I also feel like part of the profoundness of the book arises from this confusion and mystery. I’m also thinking that perhaps the story feels important because it always seemed like Kafka was doing important things. But it’s not that straight-forward (KOTS is most definitely not a straight-forward book) because, as I said, he just returns to point A in the end. So was it really that important?

I’m not even sure that this post is making much sense. I reckon the books I read influence how I write (whether these effects are far-reaching or short-lived is another matter) and maybe KOTS has left my mind a bit disjointed.

While I was still reading KOTS, I wrote down some words to describe the story: abstract, bizarre, “interesting”, thought-provoking, etc. I think “thought-provoking” is the best descriptor – not just because it has made me think about life, but because I spent a lot of time wondering what the heck was going on. It was one WTF moment after another. There were also some unanswered questions at the end, so if you like having all loose ends neatly tied up at the conclusion of a story, then you might not be too fond of KOTS.

This was my first Murakami novel and, I think, the first novel I’ve read that’s been translated from Japanese. I reckon I’ll always have reservations about reading translated texts, but until I have the mental and temporal capacity to learn Japanese, French, Spanish, etc (or re-learn for Japanese), I’m afraid I have to trust in other people’s interpretations (or otherwise miss out on incredible stories like this one). I consider Japanese to be quite an eloquent and beautiful language, and I think that this preconception made me feel like the English translation didn’t do the story justice. There were several occasions when I paused during my reading and wondered if some of the nuances had been lost because, despite the scope of the English language, there are still feelings and concepts that we don’t have words for.

I did try to ignore the fact that it was a translated version but it wasn’t as easy to do as with other translated novels I’ve read (e.g. ‘The Angel’s Game’). Nevertheless, in the end, I almost feel like the juxtaposition between the simple – well, not simple per se, but not-as-nuanced language – the contrast between that and the complex nature of the subject matter actually kind of worked out well. But, you know, who am I to say that the translation wasn’t wholly accurate?

I reckon ‘Kafka on the Shore’ is one of those novels that could be discussed for hours on end – if only I knew people who have read it. As with ‘The World According to Garp’, I wish I could recommend KOTS to everyone, but I’m not sure if many of my friends would actually enjoy it. I suppose if you like to be challenged by what you read, then try ‘Kafka on the Shore’, or try any Murakami novels. I’m definitely keen to read more of his works.

like a moth to a light

Over the week-end, I finished reading ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman. It’s a book/series that I’ve wanted to read since I was a kid, but just never got around to it for one reason or another. Yep, it seems that even as a kid I had an impossibly long and ever-growing TBR list. And while I kind of forgot about the series as I grew up and moved on to other books, when I saw a shiney new copy at the library the other week, I just could not resist!

In a way, it was kind of refreshing – to the mind and the imagination – to read a YA fantasy novel again. I regretted never reading it when I was younger (it’s exactly the kind of book that younger me would have loved), but I don’t think my enjoyment of ‘Northern Lights’ was lessened at all by all these years of intending to read it.

I kind of wondered about writing a post/review for ‘Northern Lights’, seeing as it’s certainly not a new book, but I figure that people discover “new” books all the time. A colleague of mine, who I consider to be quite well-read, said she’d never heard of ‘Northern Lights’ before I started bringing it to the lunch room every day.

Well, anyway, I did thoroughly enjoy reading ‘Northern Lights’. I liked the premise of the story, especially the whole “daemon” concept, and having a constant companion (in the form of an animal) that you live and die with. I reckon Pullman did well with explaining about daemons throughout the story, in ways that made sense, rather than overloading readers with facts and background information at the start. The book made me want to have a daemon, and more than once led to day-dreams about what sort of daemon I would have… That’s the sort of thing that good fantasy novel does!

I also liked that he used a female protagonist in Lyra Belacqua. (I also have a certain admiration of fantasy/sci-fi authors who are good at coming up with really cool names, or names that really suit the character they belong to.) She’s a bit tomboy-ish, a bit brazen and daring, but still human and overall reasonably relatable.

There’s actually not much that I didn’t like about ‘Northern Lights’. Well, except maybe the ending. The ending wasn’t bad, but it felt kind of random and rushed, and not explained properly. At first I thought that this impression was born from my rush to finish reading it before it was due back at the library, but I actually re-read the ending the following morning, and was only slightly less dissatisfied…

I think there may also have been a few instances where the conversation didn’t seem to flow as naturally as it could have, but it was never anything really major. The overall writing style, however, was energetic where it needed to be, and smooth everywhere else. It was just incredibly easy to read (and not just because the font’s a bit larger than your average adult novel).

However, as much as I’d like to get on to reading the sequel, I kind of feel like I need a break from YA fantasy for a little bit. You know, just to allow my imagination to have a bit of a breather or something. Nevertheless, if I never get around to reading the rest of the series (which is quite possible at the rate I’m going), I’m perfectly content with having read the first instalment anyway.