Monday, August 24, 2015

“I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep going anyhow. It’s what we do.”

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Yes, it's still God's Own Country,” said the announcer, a news reporter pronouncing the final tag line. “The only question is, which gods?”
I opened Neil Gaiman's American Gods with 0 idea of what would follow, so gradually unpacking its mythical references to understand what the gods represent was an absolute joy. What are gods? Figures of worship, deities to whom we make sacrifices. Yet as we learn from the novel, "It's not always a good thing to be a god." Certainly not in America, which is not "good growing country for gods." (The same can be said about a lot of places, actually).

Shadow Moon, an ex-convict and recent widow, meets gods quite early on in the novel. The first (or so we think...) is the elusive and one-eyed Mr. Wednesday, who later becomes his employer and is eventually revealed to be Odin ("Wōden"), the Norse God. Other gods include the sledgehammer-wielding, chess-playing Czernobog, the truth-telling Zorya Vecernyaya, the goddess of warfare, Bast, and many more. These are all "real" gods, by the way, in the sense that they all have roots in Norse mythology.

(side note: Gaiman also raises the question of whether or not gods are "real" in the first place -
“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true.
"People believe, thought Shadow. It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.")
The gods with whom Shadow is affiliated are old gods, fading into irrelevance. We meet Easter, to whom Wednesday says, "They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them." The old gods are no longer being worshipped. When gods "truly die, they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.” However,
“There are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance. "They are aware of us, they fear us, and they hate us," said Odin. "You are fooling yourselves if you believe otherwise.” 
This is where Gaiman hits home. The whole idea about "gods" is a perfect metaphor - what do we worship, these days? To what do we offer our sacrifices? The media, the television, entertainment, excess? (Indeed, one of the new goddesses that Shadow meets is a woman called Media).
"People gamble to lose money. They may brag about the nights they won, the money they took from the casino, but they treasure, secretly treasure, the times they lost. It's a sacrifice, of sorts."
And thus broods the impending war between the old gods and new gods, the tensions of which form our main storyline.

What also makes the whole story special is that it is one loooong road trip. All the gods' important meetings take place at "road side attractions," considered sacred places in America, while their interactions also occur "Backstage," in the mind, in the world of the gods.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and the respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit.  Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.

American Gods is dark, edgy, and funny. Gaiman ties different characters and plot lines together in a way that is sometimes messy, but also gripping. He's an expert foreshadower, from hinting at Shadow's fate ("EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING. / LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON") to Mr. Wood's death... ("No one alive will take your life. You will die a soft, poor death. You will die with a kiss on your lips and a lie in your heart.” every word is true.) Wood's murder has got to be one of my favourite scenes in the whole book.

Given all the gods mentioned in the book, an appendix would have been extremely helpful for the less-mythology-savvy readers of this book (e.g. me). It is also interesting to consider all the gods that are left out of the book (e.g. Tyr)- why did Gaiman make such choices?

Anyhow, American Gods is explosively fun to read. It's always wonderful to pick up a book outside one's preferred genre!

Gaiman's musings on life/death:
I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.
"What you have to remember," said Mr. Ibis, testily, "is that life and death are different sides of the same coin. Like the heads and tails of a quarter."
"And if I had a double-headed quarter?"
"You don't. They only belong to fools, and gods."
And here is an ode to fiction: 
No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearl-like, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

“You need to learn how to walk the world, he told me. There's a lot out there.”

DrownDrown by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just finished reading Drown (signed copy, YAY), Junot Díaz's debut short story collection, and have confirmed that he is ever-reliable. In it are 10 stories that revolve around Yunior, the son of an immigrant family and also the protagonist of all Díaz's works. The immigrant experience is anything but smooth, and we see this at all stages of Yunior's life in terms of his family situation, relationships and work life.

Primarily, abuse - mental and physical - never leaves the pages of the book. In the first story, Ysrael, we learn about a boy who was attacked by a pig when he was a baby and thus has a partially deformed face, the reason why he is ostracized and bullied. Abuse, in the form of drug, physical and psychological abuse, is particularly potent in Aurora, in which Yunior and his girlfriend "hurt too well to let it drop." Violence and suffering weave their way into the characters' daily life and stay there. Yet as Yunior says at one point, "I had heart-leather like walruses got blubber." Toughness and machismo are tied to masculine identity.

Yet perhaps heart-leather is what you'll need in order to achieve the goal all immigrants-to-be are after - escape.
Back then I didn't have a clue what she was thinking but now I know what to pencil into all those empty thought bubbles. Escape. Escape.
Yunior's father - as the 'man of the family' - bears the unspoken responsibility to facilitate this escape for his family. Due to this, however, Yunior spends 5 years of his childhood father-less while his Papí goes to New York, works two jobs to support his family, starts a new family, becoming a U.S. citizen through that marriage, and eventually returns, abandoning his aforementioned second family - the second act of abandonment he commits. Abandonment and betrayal run their course throughout the short story collection, denting all relationships.

Despite all the difficulty the characters experience, however, Yunior puts it best when he says,
“Sometimes you just have to try, even if you know it won’t work.”
That is why I love how Ysrael comes back to us in No Face, this time as somebody who can yell FLIGHT, STRENGTH and INVISIBILITY (yes, all in caps) and keep running, still an outcast but at least hoping for a better future. That is also why young Yunior's frequent car rides as a child are terribly poignant - time and time again he is forced to sit in the car and try to not vomit, although time and time again, he does. When one is drowning, the fight for survival becomes desperate gasps for air and a frantic scramble of limbs. Even when "life smacks everybody around," you must still try to get back to the surface.

Drown is not as explosively entertaining as The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or spot-on witty as This is How You Lose Her, but it puts into words the frustrations, pitfalls and experiences of immigrants in a way that is accessible, memorable and strikingly personal. It's always a pleasure to read anything by Díaz (on a side note, he has a fabulous Facebook page).

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Like most people in the slum, and in the world for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai UndercityBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully written, impressively thorough book about the lives of slum dwellers in Mumbai, India. It is hard to believe, especially when we are in the middle of witnessing the shocking, immediate aftermath of Fatima setting herself on fire (not exactly self-immolation, though), that what we are reading is not fiction but narrative nonfiction - outstanding journalism writing, top-class reporting. Here is important world news stylistically, memorably and truthfully delivered to us in 244 pages.

The events of the book take place in Annawadi, a "sumpy plug of slum" where "three thousand people had packed into, or on top of, 335 huts." Here is where our protagonist, Abdul Husain, supports his family by being a "trafficker in rich people's garbage" - sorting out trash (plastics, metals) to sell for profit. Despite his efficiency, however, "fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged." Thus the fortunes of the Husain family take a sharp turn when Fatima, their disabled, one-legged neighbor, sets herself on fire and then blames them for the act. Is it at all surprising that Fatima does this while the Husains are in the middle of renovating their hut, conspicuously (and noisily) bettering their lives right next door? What drives a woman to use "her own body as a weapon against her neighbors?"
"Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition— to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slumdwellers of making the city filthy and unlivable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low.

Slumdwellers complained about the obstacles the powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first- century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai."
From Airport Road, the outskirts of Annawadi, the slum's horrors are hidden from view. All one sees is a concrete wall covered with a seemingly unending row of "sunshine-yellow advertisements" that each read, "BEAUTIFUL FOREVER," advertising Italianate floor tiles (the irony, right??). Boo takes us behind this wall and deep into the complexities of slum life.

A part of this life includes the sacrifices one makes for survival. Collecting garbage next to the rapidly expanding airport, for example, means living with the debris and dust of ongoing construction work; "bad lungs were a toll you paid to live near progress." Yet the most complicated sacrifice - one made so habitually that it ceases to be understood as a sacrifice but rather a necessity - is a moral one. Asha, who dreams of being officially recognized as slumlord, has long-discarded any residues of guilt ("a luxury emotion") within her. She profits by manipulating those around her, taking their money in return for 'favors' that mostly amount to under-the-table dealings with the police. Along a similar vein, others like her set up schools in the slums under the guise of "charity," but only 1) show up to teach on days when they will be inspected 2) abandon ship the moment the school receives government funds (which then go into the 'teacher's' pocket).
“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems---poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor---were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.
Even the police themselves are corrupt: “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

So, the most intriguing idea the book presents is that there is as much (maybe more) conflict between slum dwellers as there is between slum dwellers and the outside world; that the decline/absence of your neighbour's moral compass could, for the time being, have a greater say in sealing your fate than a public policy; that your security sometimes depends on sheer luck.
“Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself, "What a navigator I am!" And then the wind blows you east.”
Behind the Beautiful Forever wall is a messy mass of people whose forevers are cut short by self-imbibed rat poison, by fate, by overlooked murder.

Yet from the depths of such life emerge hope, the belief that "a boy's life could still matter to himself." That is also why Manju keeps up with her studies, even though all her teachers need her to do to pass is memorize plot summaries. Here is an analogy that will stay with me forever:
Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably a little different from the corrupt people around him. Ice was distinct from - and in his view, better than - what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals.
So, Abdul searches for a "verdict of ice" in waters too dirty for us to distinguish the sewage polluting them. How can we, like Abdul sorting out his garbage, possibly pinpoint all those who have become resigned to the "general indistinction in the mass of need?" Under Boo's sharp gaze, the seams of slum life in Annawadi expose themselves, urging us to stop simplifying poverty or underestimating the degree of personal resentment that influences ever crisis. For instance, Fatima burning herself could be interpreted as a response to "enervating poverty," the "lack of respect accorded the physically impaired" or "a brave indictment of oppressive unions." Yet "almost no one spoke of envy, a stone slab, a poorly made wall, or rubble that had fallen into rice."

Abdul laments, “I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.” In a place such as Annawadi, and many others like it, surviving takes endurance, bravery and hope. But it also takes chance, pragmatism and corruption. Behind the Beautiful Forevers gives voices to those whose sufferings are glossed over by false police records and muted by the roaring sounds of an airport that connects to another world entire. It is an eye-opening work that transcends the oft-rigid confines of journalism, crossing into a territory that more fittingly places it on the shelves of literature.

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Sunday, August 9, 2015

The more things change the more they remain the same. History repeating itself, though in a more modest vein. Perhaps history has learned a lesson.

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*many many many spoilers ahead*

I've been on a blissful reading spree for the past four books, reading books that resonate with me in the best ways. In A River Runs Through It, On Writing, History of Love and History of the Rain, I found characters who eloquently voice how I feel about family/writing/reading/life in general. I connected with Norman MacLean, Stephen King, Alma Singer and Ruth Swain to higher-than-average extents.

Yet because the serious reader should not only stick to reading what makes her/him comfortable, I decided to read a novel that has been on my to-read list for ages and definitely tackles dark themes: J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.

Our protagonist is the 52-year old and twice-divorced professor David Lurie, who goes through life teaching classes in which he has no interest (with the exception of his one course on romantic poets) and picking up scores of women who help him maintain a "moderated bliss." His one rule, "follow your temperament," is echoed in Byron's Lara, which David teaches to his class:

"... in some strange perversity of thought,
That sway’d him onward with a secret pride
To do what few or none would do beside;
And this same impulse would, in tempting time,
Mislead his spirit equally in crime;"

And thus it is by this "impulse he could not resist" that David begins a short-lived affair with one of his students, is later found out, brought to court, and eventually resigns, leaving civilization to visit his daughter, Lucy, in her farm in South-Africa.

By the way, the court case reminded me very much of Meursault's. Both demonstrate an absence of guilt and the eccentricity of the accused. As David says,
There is a difference between pleading guilty to a charge and admitting you were wrong. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.
And as someone who believes that
No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts,
David is even able to rationalize the unnecessariness of a issuing a formal apology. He makes the following remark about the women he meets:
“A woman's beauty does not belong to her alone. It is a part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”
So by this expert foreshadowing and in a striking turn of the plot, the tables are cruelly turned on David as his daughter - strong, independent, purposeful Lucy - becomes the victim of a double-rape. (I know that Wordsworth, one of the poets frequently alluded to in the novel, often wrote of a Lucy who was young, pure, but died an early death. After her rape, Lucy says that part of her has died, and David grieves for her as Wordsworth did for his Lucy. I can't help but notice the parallel).

Here is where the novel truly takes off, highlighting the grim depths of racial tensions, generation gaps and gender differences Coetzee explores. David has been "disgraced" by his scandal and now his daughter is disgraced by men she never laid eyes on. Men who, in a bitter stroke of irony, share David's views on the forgivability of an impulsive act and the commodification of women.

In the aftermath of the incident, the word "rape" is scarcely mentioned, but it need not be for readers to infer what Lucy suffered. Most troubling/shocking of all is her reaction to the incident, her initial apparent indifference and staunch refusal to raise criminal charges against anyone. Roles reverse as the steadfast Lucy seems maturer than David, who is absorbed by anger, saying, "'I want those men to be caught and brought before the law and punished. Am I wrong? Am I wrong to want justice?'" Again, how ironic is it that he, who was just trialled in court and pit against colleagues demanding an apology, is now begging his daughter (with similar fruitlessness) to accept his advice? How ironic is it that the professor of communications has lost the ability to connect with his own daughter, who does not even address him as 'dad,' but rather David?

The theme of generational gap is captured by David's inability to understand Lucy - her determination to stay on the farm, her love for women (as opposed to men), her decision to not report the rape. With the last point, however, Coetzee points out more troublingly the problems of South-Africa during the post-apartheid era, during which many homes of white farmers were trashed and robbed. Lucy's unwillingness to report the rape is tied to the fact of "this place being South Africa." Perhaps she feels that the rape is too "private" of a matter to be reported? That the rapists' act is in some twisted way rationalizable? That reporting will only bring her further trouble in a troubling society? Early on, David says that "there is a limit to sympathy," but his daughter's limit clearly extends much further than his does.

More on farm attacks, a problem which persists to today, can be found here:

Disgrace haunts nearly all the main characters in the book - the seemingly incorruptible Bev Shaw (who turns out to be not so incorruptible after all), in some ways Petrus's wife (is her brother disgracing her?) and even the animals. At one point in the novel, David speaks of the death of the sick dogs at the animals welfare center as the "disgrace of dying." To be "like a dog," as we learn from David's conversation with Lucy, is "to start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity." It is to be disgraced. And David is indeed "sunk in disgrace;" he becomes the "dog-man" who takes the corpses of dogs to the incinerator to be burned.

Yet in the final pages of the novel, he lets go. He gives up the dog to whom he was so attached. He even (in a bizarre way) manages to have dinner with the family of the student he seduced. Even though David insists at the beginning that "his temperament is fixed, set," and that he cannot change himself at this age, he proves himself wrong. Of course, this is the optimistic conclusion. One could equally say that the dog at the end of the novel is being released into the "disgrace of dying" (or being released from the disgrace of living). Yet with David's gentle treatment of the dog, his acceptance of Lucy's pregnancy (not as if he has a choice, anyway) and the somewhat-closure he achieves with his past, I'd like to think that he is less disgraced at the end of the novel than he was initially - that everyone is less disgraced.

Disgrace is best described as striking. It carries a brilliant and gripping plot, shocks us, and asks questions that have no definite answer but provoke important conversation. Should one be convicted for desire? Why does Lucy make the choices she does? Why do three assaulters get away so easily with rape, while David is brought before court in no time at all for seducing a student?
...We cannot live our daily lives in a realm of pure ideas, cocooned from sense-experience. The question is not, How can we keep the imagination pure, protected from the onslaughts of reality? The question has to be, Can we find a way for the two to coexist? 

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Saturday, August 8, 2015

In stories we exist // There's a library inside me

History of the RainHistory of the Rain by Niall Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Niall Williams's History of the Rain is a beautiful novel that, although set in Ireland, has its heart and soul in all the libraries of the world and in the celestial realms of mythology. I hope this review will explain exactly what I mean by that!
The book opens in the present, in which our protagonist, Ruth Swain describes herself as "Not Coming Right, Terribly Weak, Not Herself, and just A Bit Off." As we will later discover, she has lost both her twin brother, Aengus, and her father, Virgil. Yet before we even get there, we are first introduced to Ruth's grandfather - Abraham Swain - who, as his progeny would all be destined to do, subscribed to "the philosophy of the Impossible Standard" (in more colloquial terms, aimed for perfection). In this way, Williams establishes the idea of of inheritance quite early on in the novel. Virgil inherited his father's desire to "soar," a fate that left him most frequently disappointed in his own poetry (how can one live up to Keats and Shakespeare, the greats? It's no coincidence that Virgil is also the name of the poet who wrote Aeneid). Throughout the novel, we are often reminded of what befits the "Swain Way" ("Swains don't do Normal") or what is classic of the MacCarrolls ("We have mixed metaphors and outlandish similes for breakfast").

And speaking of inheritance, the most important things that Ruth has inherited from her father - to be specific, 3,958 things - are his books. Dickens, Austen, Brontë, Eliot - the list goes on. As she determinedly tells us from the start, "I am going to read them all because that is where I will find him." And this is possible, because "my book has in it all the books my father read, and in that way his spirit survives, as mine does." As Ruth puts it, "my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book." So the history of the rain is another way of describing the history of everything that ever was, and everything that continues to pour into the ongoing cycle of life, for
"The rain becomes the river that goes to the sea and becomes the rain that becomes the river. Each book is the sum of all the others the writer has read. Charles Dickens was a writer because his father had a small library and because solitude was not lonely with Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote. Each book a writer writes has all the others in it, so there's a library that's like a river and it keeps on going."
Aengus drowned in the river, and Virgil threw his poetry into the river. So, the river is where Ruth goes to search for them - although the her "river" is made up of thousands of books, each a raindrop in its own right. And by writing, Ruth is adding her own pellet of rain to this river of family history:
“We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.”
The style of the book is magical in the way that we do not travel chronologically, or even realistically, experiencing both the concrete and mythological through Ruth's narration. The most distinctive touch about Williams's style, however, is the way Ruth will express a thought/describe something and, in brackets, detail the specifics of the book that inspired her. Williams is not only giving us book recommendations throughout his novel, but also reinforcing, in an innovative and memorable way, the power of books. For example,
Any number of lovely people are married to horrible ones. Read Middlemarch (Book 989, George Eliot, Penguin Classics, London) if you don't believe me. There's something in me that can't just let it be. Goodness is a tidy bow you just can't help wanting to pull loose.
Indeed, I connect with History of the Rain particularly strongly because of Williams's vocal love for reading. He communicates the way I feel towards books in sentences that are at once poetic and spot-on:
“When my father first took me to Ennis Library I went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of writers, but the readers too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books. The books were worn in a way they can only get worn by hands and eyes and minds; these were the literal original Facebooks, the books where faces had been, and I just loved it, the whole strange sense of being aboard a readership.”
I read them all, read them one by one with a kind of constant hunger as if they were apples that fed and made you hungry at the same time.
It's been well-thumbed, at least triple-read, there's that smell the fat orange-spine Penguins get when their pages have yellowed and the book bulges, basically the smell of complex humanity, sort of sweat and salt and endeavour. Like all the fat orange Penguins, it gets fatter with reading, which it should, because in a way the more you read it the bigger your own experience of the world gets, the fatter your soul.=
William also expresses relatable thoughts on writing:
There are a parish of particulars, poets. But they all generally agree, a poem is a precarious thing. It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go.
Writing of course is a kind of sickness. Well people don't do it. Art is basically impossible. [...] Thing is, writing is a sickness only cured by writing. That's the impossible part.
You can't be beautiful and a writer, because to be a writer you have to be the one doing the looking; if you're beautiful people will be looking at you.
There are lines in this book that are pure poetry: "I lay in his lap, small as a sonnet, and just as difficult," "Your blood is a river," "When you're young you're protected by a cloud of vagueness." But History of the Rain is by no means accessible. There are allusions in this book that are gems you'll only be able to admire if you've read widely (I caught all the Great Expectations references, but Williams lost me at Robert Louis Stevenson).

Nonetheless, you, "Dear Reader," will find yourself struck by the rhythm, language and creativity of this book. Ruth read and wrote to find her father, just as I do, and in reading this book, I have also found parts of my whole family and myself. History of the Rain will hit you in the book-loving, childhood and family corners of your heart. 

Here are more quotes that are too good to leave out:

Human beings are not seamless smooth creations, they have insoluble parts, and the closer you look the more mysterious they become.

Each family functions in their own way, by rules reinvented daily. The strangeness of each of us is somehow accommodated so that there can be such a thing as family and we can all live for some time at least in the same house. Normal is what you know.

Hope may or may not be a Thing with Feathers. But it's definitely a Thing with Claws.

My brother was in another boat sailing away, and no matter how much I wanted to, no matter what I did or said I would never be able to get to him.

We thought that fatherhood was this immense weight like a great overcoat and there were all manner of things your father had to be thinking of all the time just to keep the overcoat from crushing him.

Before they are broken small boys are perfect creations.

People are so perishable. That's the thing. Because for everyone you meet there is a last moment, there will be a last moment when your hand slips from theirs, and everything ripples outwards from that, the last firmness of a hand in yours that every moment after becomes a little less firm until you look down at your own hand and try to imagine just what it felt like before their hand slipped away. And you cannot. You cannot feel them. And then you cannot quite see them, there's blurry bits, like you're looking through this watery haze, and you're fighting to see, you're fighting to hold on, but they are perishing right before your eyes, and right before your eyes they are becoming that bit more ghost.

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Friday, August 7, 2015


Dante Lam's 破風 (To The Fore) is the latest Taiwanese film to grace Hong Kong cinemas, and it does not disappoint. It's a movie about Taiwan's "national sport" - cycling - but also a fast-paced, suspenseful and refreshing exploration of the lengths one will go to for success and what it means to know (or push) one's own limits.

As the movie informs us from the onset, the “破風手" (called "the domestique") of any cycling team is the right-hand man who helps the sprinter facilitate a final sprint to the finish line by riding in his slipstream, blocking opposition. Despite the important role the domestique must play, however, it is only the sprinter who gets to stand on the podium of victory after each race. Domestique, after all, means "servant" in French.

破風 revolves around three bikers: 仇銘, 鄭知元 and 邱田. They all start off in the same team, in which 鄭知元 (Siwon Choi) is the sprinter, 仇銘 (Eddie Peng) is his domestique, and 邱田 (Shawn Dou) - although strong - stays near the rear. 仇銘's cockiness, 鄭知元's skill and 邱田's under-doggedness are all established early on. At first, such a trio brings their cycling team, Radiant, to glorious heights as they win race after race. 仇銘's bullheaded confidence is not yet disastrous, while 邱田's reserve does not take a toll on him yet. Once Radiant disbands, however, turning the three riders into immediate rivals from different teams, the film picks up - and each cyclist must face his flaws (and swallow his pride).

Although at times loophole-heavy and conspicuously CGI-ed, 破風 also teaches you more than you'd expect about biking tactics, competition rules, and the rigid (yet changeable) nature of human capabilities. Does the sidekick ever have the chance to be the star? How far can endurance take someone? Why do we go after the victory that we desire? These are the questions the movie poses and answers, supplying two-hours worth of humor, drama and explosive cinematography that will have your feet itching for a bike ride afterwards!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The opposite of disappearing

The History of LoveThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Immediate thoughts after reading The History of Love: 1) Aaaaah, how can a book be so marvellous.
2) Ken Kalfus was so right when he said this book "will break your heart and at once mend it." 3) I love how this book is not only about love, but also about history.

Nicole Krauss's The History of Love is a book I've been eyeing for ages, but only read today. It's a beautiful and complex story filled with surprises and characters whose stories intertwine despite their differences (halfway through the book, I actually had to draw a diagram to stay on track). I love it when that happens.

Our protagonist is Leopold Gursky, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. In the story, he wrote the book The History of Love for his childhood love, Alma Mereminski. They have a son together, but he is eventually raised by a different father when World War 2 separates the couple and leaves Alma thinking Leo has been killed. Zvi Litvinoff, Leo's friend, shares the same belief and - as the only one with the manuscript of The History of Love in his possession - ends up publishing it in Spanish under his own name. So the book goes out into the open, a certain David Singer reads it, he names his daughter after Alma, Alma's mother is approached by a mysterious stranger to translate the book from Spanish into English after David dies, and the whole story takes off from there as young Alma sets off to find this stranger.

The whole story is about searching. Leopold spends most of his adult life hoarding any records he can find of his son, an established author. Alma's brother, "Bird," never stops searching for an impression of who his father was. And as Alma says,

"I'd started out looking for someone who could make my mother happy again, now I was looking for something else, too. About the woman I was named after. And about me."

Everything that the characters search for ebbs on the brink of the forgotten. Leo, for instance, often says that he is invisible; when his photo is taken with a polaroid camera, his face does not appear on the film. Although he is a locksmith ("I helped those in who were locked out, others I helped keep out what couldn't be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares"), he ironically remains locked-out of life: forgotten after the war, author of a book that sells under a different name, father to a son raised by a different husband.

Krauss dedicates the novel to her grandparents, who were immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel. And at the very end of the book, it seems like it is also dedicated to the Leopold Gurskys of the world who "started dying on August 18 1920," who "died practicing a new way to sign his name," who knew the terrors of the war. In a very poignant moment, we learn that Leo's friend "Bruno," whose was always enigmatically portrayed, is actually a figment of his imagination - that the real Bruno "died on a July day in 1941." When Leo banishes Bruno from his room, he perhaps also banishes some part of the ghost of the war that haunts him.

Aside from its serious meditations on love and history, however, this novel is often humorous, such as when Alma's Judaism-enthusiast of a brother turns out to be surprisingly helpful, and when we realize that it is completely possible Alma may have sketched a naked Leopold during one of her classes. I also love how Krauss describes the only two kisses in the novel in details that vividly suggest their awkwardness: 1) "then we got it right, sort of, opening our mouths at the same time like we were both trying to say something, [...] then my shoulder got accidentally mashed against his accordion." 2) She tried to kiss him, but Litvinoff, taken off guard, backed away, leaving Rosa tipped forward at an awkward angle, neck outstretched. [...] He blindly stuck his neck out into the gulf. But by then, Rosa had already counted her losses and pulled back into safer territory." Alas, love is not easy. "Part of me is made of glass," Leopold admits.

The History of Love is beautiful and innovative. You will treasure both the young and old voices you hear in the novel (although the number of times Leo says "And Yet" is mind boggling excessive). Ah, reading is the best.
To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely. [...] Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.
"Having begun to feel, people's desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions.
“At the end, all that's left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that's why I've never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that's why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.”

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read Stephen King's On Writing for some time, and now that I've done it, it's something of a wake up call.
Something that King gets straight early on in the memoir is the importance of reading AND writing for any writer. I suppose I do loads of the former, but how about the latter? Time to amp up the hours, cut out YouTube and reserve a slice of early morning for creative outpouring...

On Writing is accessible, humorous and wonderfully insightful. It begins by seeming part-memoir through the way King writes about his early childhood, relationship with his family and later alcoholic problems - until we realize that every detail he offers helps explain why he is the writer he eventually became. From working for his brother's "magazine," "Dave's Rag," to virtually forgetting the experience of writing a whole book because he was so often under the influence, King has taken quite the writer's journey. And as he reminds us, behind the success of every bestseller was the huge pile of rejection letters he had pinned onto his wall with a spike.

The memoir is full of writing-advice gems such as these:
"The writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s."
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
"Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position."
I don't think I'll be able to use "the fact that" again, now that I know how much King detests it.

King also cautions us on the overuse of adverbs and misuse of dialogue attribution, and praises both the power of the paragraph and of choosing simpler words. He also notes the shortcomings of language itself: "The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning."

A whole section of On Writing is dedicated to the beautiful metaphor of a one's writing skills as a toolbox, where the "bread of writing," vocabulary, goes on the top drawer, followed by grammar and elements of style. If you haven't got the time to read the whole book or can't find it in your local bookstore, here are the 'toolboxs page:' https://thewritersjourney2011.wikispa...

Reading this novel, I felt that there were times when King glossed over certain details (his alcoholism, for instance, but I guess that isn't the point of the memoir). Nonetheless, I loved how I could resonate with some of his own experiences; from toothache - "each time I swallowed, pain lit up the sides of my face like a jukebox" (this is precisely what I tried to articulate post-wisdom tooth surgery ) - to a love for reading -

I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms are made for books—of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone's favorite, the john.

Yet the one pithy motto I'll take away with me forever is this:
You must not come lightly to the blank page.
Like all art, writing demands dedication and attention. With toolbox in hand, I vow to come to the blank page with the serious intention of creating something meaningful, perfecting my craft - and having a great time.

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