Mid (ish) October Round-Up (Epic Reading Slump)

19 days in to October and I’m definitely feeling a reading slump. I’ve gotten 5 books under my belt this month, and they’ve all been good, but last night I was rifling through my TBR book pile and thinking, why are all the books in this pile so depressing? I finally picked up Fay Weldon’s Worst Fears for some acerbic, biting, machine-gun paced prose, finished it, then started in on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, but I think I need to add some lighter, faster things to my TBR pile. To that end, this is what I’ve put in my bookdepository cart:

Bookdepo1bookdepo2bookdepo3

The books I’ve gotten through so far this month have been the ones that have been lighter, easier.

Anne Helen Petersen Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman (So good! The chapters on Serena Williams and Nicki Minaj, in particular, I thought, were excellent. The Hillary Clinton chapter was also objectively good, but felt familiar – I’ve read too many thinkpieces on Clinton since the election for it to be otherwise.)

Robin Sloane Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore (Excellent, fast-paced quest through Google, bookstores, archival dives, told by a very likeable protagonist. If imagining bookstores as magical places full of promise and adventure is your thing, you will like this.)

Fay Weldon Worst Fears (Man dies, and his accomplished, beautiful wife finds out he’s been cheating on her. Worth reading for how well it captures the sheer, complex bitchery between women, and the utter trashness of men.)

I also reviewed Rozan Yunos’ Monsters, Dragons & Fairies: Myths and Legends from Borneo and Brunei, over at The Scoop. Thanks to everybody who’s reached out and given feedback and thoughts on the column, I’ve appreciated every comment.

12 days to the end of October. I’d need to be getting through a book every two days now to meet my October target of 11 books – doable? My schedule makes me doubt it, but we’ll see! I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of not-so-great stuff lately, and I do want to nourish my brain and soul with some quality nutrients, so am diving determinedly back in to TBR.

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Imagining Brunei: Miguel Syjuco’s “Ilustrado”

Just a quick post to flag up another mention of Brunei in fiction – this time in Miguel Syjuco’s Man Asian-winning Ilustrado. Throwaway references, as in David Mitchell’s Slade House.  

In the first reference, on pg 97, Brunei is referenced in the same sentence as Saudi, as a destination for domestic helpers from the Philippines. Interesting comparison here – small, oil-rich Muslim kingdoms.

In the 2nd reference, on pg 118, “the larger home of the Sultan of Brunei’s brother’s Filipina mistress” is part of the Makati setting, placed in the same area as the expatriate, affluent elite – the polo club, the American ambassador’s residence.

Imagined Brunei – the lookout continues!

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September Round Up: The Muslim Woman’s Double Bind

  • 13 books in September!
  • 12 female-authored
  • 2 Bruneian novels (The Last Bastion of Ingei and Jewel: An attempt at a halal romance – review for The Scoop here)
  • 3 books on Islam
  • 1 book on Erotic Stories for Punjabi widows (I just love that title so much. And the novel itself is pretty awesome as well!)

Of note this month:

Susan Carland’s Fighting Hislam, which I read on the heels of S.K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits and at the same time as Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – and around the same time that the Nouman Ali Khan case came under public scrutiny.

Carland talks about the “double bind” faced by Muslim women who want to speak up about injustices, prejudices, crimes, abuse, wrongs in their own communities – how they face the gauntlet of knowing that Islamophobes and opponents to the religion are just waiting to pounce on any signs of dysfunction in the religion and Muslim communities; as well as the resistance within their own communities to the airing of “dirty laundry”. Muslim women on the ground, Carland points out, want to speak out about what’s wrong with Muslim communities, but they want to protect their religion from Islamophobic hijacking of their narratives, and they don’t want to alienate the communities they are trying to help.

This double bind comes up in Erotic Stories – what if silence is the cost of protecting your community? What are you protecting it from, if the demon comes from within? Erotic Stories started out fluffy and chick-lit toned – it quickly deepened and darkened in scope and voice. Through the “modern” British Sikh Nikki, somber questions about the Sikh community in London emerge. I really liked this novel, and can’t wait to discuss it at the next Feminist Book Club meet. (Our book after that is Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen)

It also came out in Saints and Misfits – this endemic concern about the positions of power openly “religious” men have to police female behaviour through their unquestionable social status, and how open this lack of accountability is to abuse. Does power corrupt, or do certain kinds of people seek out certain positions because they see opportunity? I have more to say about this, but the subject deserves more time, sensitivity, nuanced attention than I have to give it right now.

Last October was 11 books – as always, I have pasang niat to match or surpass that. And I’m so excited about the Singapore Writers Festival next month inshaAllah! I have bought all my tickets and plotted out my itinerary. Iski-ness abounds.

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Mid-month round-up! September 2017

8 books so far in September, which is basically what I read in August, so I’m optimistic I can match my Sept 2016 number of 13 books. Of note so far this month:

S.K. Ali Saints and Misfits, a YA novel set in America with a hijabi Muslim protagonist. I was really looking forward to this because it got a lot of buzz on Twitter. It was fun and interesting and wasn’t afraid to make the heroine very very flawed, and the Muslim community very very flawed –  the hijabi heroine, Janna, has a crush on an unsuitable white boy, and is being harassed by a hafidz in the Muslim community; she has a complex relationship with her hijab, she is passive when she should speak up, she harbours a lot of anger due to her parents’ divorce.

I enjoyed Saints and Misfits, and thought it was important, but it didn’t blow my mind. It was very American-Muslim + culture clash + diaspora and I find lately, that maybe I’m a bit saturated as a reader on American/culture clash/disapora stuff.

Arundhati Roy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, of course, the much-acclaimed second novel from this critical darling, and our feminist book club read for August. It was – long? Very very long. The prose was sharp and shrewd and blackly humorous – the characters fully drawn, the events – individual and collective – tragic. But I couldn’t feel for any of them, not after the first 100 pages. I grew desensitized to the suffering – partly in response to the prose, I think, which treated the suffering with bullet-train speed, flippant and relentless. Partially – there was so much of it. We discussed this in book club – how the outsider’s horror of poverty and suffering in India is exacerbated by a horror of how commonplace and normalized it is, how residents who see it everyday simply cease to see it. A defense mechanism, a coping inevitability. As a reader, it was actually shocking how quickly I stopped feeling.

Sophie Hannah Closed Casket. The second Poirot offering from Hannah – I remember exactly 0 from her first attempt, The Monogram Murders, but for some reason decided that I would give this another go. I also remember almost 0 of this novel a mere 16 days after reading it. So – I would remind myself to categorize this as Poirot fanfiction, don’t pick up another one, move on.

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. An oldie but a goodie, a perfect accompaniment to last month’s Deerskin. Sensuous, gothic prose, full-blown and heady, gorgeously reimagined fairytales. The Bloody Chamber, the Erl-King, the two Beauty and the Beast re-tellings – gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. And the Puss in Boots retelling was just a completely out-of-place bit of humour that was not unwelcome.

Sherry Thomas A Conspiracy in Belgravia. The second in the Lady Sherlock series – the conspiracy itself felt a little fluffy at first, but everything tied together at the end into a nice level of malicious sinister villainy. I love all the characters – the good-hearted and worried Watson, the fiercely pained Livia with her writing, the delicious, loyal Lord Ingram – Charlotte Holmes is a delight and her love of pastries may eventually become a character crutch, but for now ONWARD TO BOOK THREE PLEASE SHERRY THOMAS.

And finally, finally finally,

Aisha Malik Jewel: An attempt at a halal romance. A Bruneian romance novel! Set in Malaysia, feat. Malaysians instead of Bruneians, but of course, I am always giddy when a Bruneian writer puts something out. It’s cheesy, clearly derivative of Twilight, which the author biography specifically references, and a little cringey in spots – MILD SPOILER: see end of post.  (Sorry, I don’t know how to do spoiler tags!) But as my friends say, it’s a DEFINITE conversation starter, it moves along at a clippy narrative pace, and I think teenage girls would definitely enjoy! (Perhaps for problematic reasons, but everything is problematic in some way, shape or form. As I reminded myself this week in class – there is no innocent text, there is no innocent reader.)

I’ve got another Bruneian novel on tap at the moment – Aammton Alias’ The Last Bastion of Ingei. Like The Ministry, it is very long. I’m also reading Susan Carland’s so far very excellent Fighting Hislam, and giving Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians another crack.

 Onwards through September!!! 3/4 of the way through the year, I’m at 116 books. 46 more to match last year’s amount!

(Scroll very quickly past below for Mild Spoiler).

***

MILD SPOILER: the valorization of whiteness, the extra-ness of the heroine’s eventual religiosity.

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August round-up, fresh September start

So, since the mid-month check-in, I have managed the lofty completion of one more book, bringing August’s grand total to 8! Which is…exactly the same number I managed last year. Is August just not a reading month? We’ll see next year whether these two data points join up to form a pattern.

On the bright side – there’s always one – I managed to churn out a lot of words this month, I travelled a bit and tried out two new hotel pools, and despite back to back flights, my immune system held strong and I didn’t come down with any nasty flu/bug-type things! Happy days.

The noteworthy books of August have already been covered in this post; all except this one: Saroo Brierley’s Lion, originally titled A Long Way Home: A Memoir. Most people I’ve spoken to have been familiar with this story, either from the book or from the 2016 Oscar nominated movie starring Dev Patel. A 5-year old Indian boy gets on a train in India and is lost for 25 years – at 30, he uses Google Earth to find his way home. It’s an amazing story in and of itself – it is also compellingly written, a tribute both to Brierley and his co-writer, Larry Buttrose. It’s fast paced and matter of fact, not shying away from the horror of a lost child on the streets of Calcutta – somehow, however, it is not so painful to read that you don’t want to keep going on. There’s a lightness of touch, less to do with flippancy and more with the courage and optimism of spirit that Brierley insists on as part of the human condition. Am definitely going to look for the movie, and also maybe incorporate the text into my non-fiction class next year! (I lent this to my mum and she finished it in a day, so a pretty fast read!)

So far in Sept, I’ve read 3 books – Tessa Dare’s The Duchess Deal (yes good very good bubbly fun), Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (epic…ally long, and I’m not convinced it was all that rewarding given the length) and Sophie Hannah’s second Poirot offering, Closed Casket (nope, not convinced, no).

May Sept bring more fun books my way – I’m going to try to finish off some of the books that have been loaned to me so I can return them! (Sorry J!)

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Fairy tales retold: Robin McKinley’s “Deerskin” and a mid-month check-in

I have always had a soft spot for fairy tales re-told, re-imagined, re-made. I have an unfashionable love for what I consider classic Disney – the hazy unreality of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Cinderella. The fuzzy happiness of these meant that when the Brothers Grimm came to me, it was a shattering of what I had thought to be canon. I hated the mutilation of the stepsisters’ feet in Cinderella, the heartbreak and sacrifice of the Little Mermaid dancing on knives, only to be discarded on the prince’s wedding night, the bloody chamber of Bluebeard. The cruel arbitrariness of Grimm led to the mercilessness of Oscar Wilde, where happy endings existed, but not in this world – you had to be content with a higher meaning, a higher power. The little prince and his bird, cast into ashes –

And then my dad brought back a book of fairy tales for feminists – I can’t remember exactly what it was called, and can’t find it now, but I remember giggling through it. I thought at first it might have been this Barbara Walker one, but I suspect it may have been this one instead. (Possibly it was neither.) In any case, I loved it, and realizing that fairy tale adaptations could be humorous instead of, you know, bloody, maimed versions of my favourite stories, was well-prepared for William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

I LOVED this book, and there was a point in my life where I had basically memorized the first chapter. The book was so good that I was always amazed that people seemed to like the movie better. I don’t remember it at all now, but I do remember loving it how it gently poked fun at fairy tales while also being completely invested in the Happy Ending.

All this to say – Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is a mix of all of the most intense feelings I had about fairy tales when I was younger. It’s a retelling of an old Charles Perrault tale called Donkeyskin, apparently. (TV Tropes calls it a “Grimmification” of Perrault.)  A king, married to the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, is heartbroken when she dies after making him promise that he will never marry again unless it’s to someone as beautiful as she is. A few years later, he realizes that his only daughter is actually pretty gorgeous. DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN (It’s awful. Wth.)

Painful – yes, it’s painful. Rape, and incest, and miscarriage and violence and trauma. Incredibly painful to read. For a fairy tale retelling, it’s tremendously accurate and brutal about the realities of trauma, and the awakening of consciousness, and how disempowered we are when we cannot put name to things.

There are quiet stretches of wonder, too – the healing powers of time, of nature, of memory. An animal sidekick, a prince who is warm and human and good. A satisfyingly vengeful ending (could have been more vengeful), with enough promise for the future to make it, if not Happily Ever After, still a happy ending, for me. But man, was it painful to get there.

Mid-month check-in

7 books so far this month, with 10 days left to go. Can I hit 5 books in that time? We’ll see. In the meantime, two books of note other than Deerskin:

  1. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen ( My third or fourth graphic novel for the year? It reminded me a little of Joss Whedon – revisionist superhero history, brutally ripping away the heroes from their airbrushed capes, asking the mundane (and wry) questions about what kind of people would really choose to wear tights and capes. No one is likeable in this comic – every friend I spoke to about it said, “They’re grey!” – but they’re very particular shades of grey. I often wonder – greyness is often associated with the complexity of human behaviour and thus, realism, but goodness is real too! Why does the postmodern mind persist in valorizing badness and immorality as part of the human condition, but not goodness, just everyday cheerful goodness and aspirations to be better? TL:DR It was hard to like anyone in this comic.)
  2. Emma Donoghue The Wonder (Set in mid 19th century Ireland, Lib, a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale, is set the task of observing 11-year old Anna O’Donnell, who is whispered to have survived without food for 4 months. Miracle or hoax? Riveting, fast-paced, I was scrambling to get through this on the flight home, wanting to find out. Donoghue is probably most familiar to most for Room.)

 

Onwards through the tome that is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness!

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July round-up

This round-up is coming a little late, because I was on holiday! And read absolutely nothing while I was away – I started the graphic novel/comic Watchmen while on the flight out, but didn’t get very far in.

So in July I ended up reading 11 books, for an overall 2017 total of 100 so far! Last July I read 12, and at the end of July had also hit exactly 100! So it’s tentatively looking like while my reading patterns fluctuate slightly from month to month, it evens out over an annual period.

Noteworthy Reads in July 2017

  • Plum Sykes Party Girls Die in Pearls – fun, flippant murder mystery set in 1980s Oxford U. Privilege, caustic footnotes, class warfare and a typically boisterous American sidekick who serves to show exactly how antiquated and arbitrary British society and mores supposedly are in the novel. The pacing of this was really off – too slow, then too fast – it wasn’t so much social commentary as observation, and the humour fell flat for me a lot; it wasn’t as sharp or as acerbic as I would have liked, but still worth a read I think, although I’m not enamoured enough of the protagonist Ursula Flowerbottom to look for the next installment in this new series.

 

  • Sue Townsend Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems – for anyone who was ever a fan of Adrian Mole (I definitely was – my favourite tortured adolescent), these poems will make you laugh. I devoured this while waiting in line for a Van Gogh exhibition in Melbourne, and the letters to and from the BBC editor were hilarious.

 

  • Meg Howrey The Wanderers – The blurb for this was a little misleading. Basically three astronauts have been chosen to man a mission to Mars. As part of their training, they have to spend 18 months in a simulation of the journey, and that’s what the novel is about, rather than the actual mission to Mars. The perspectives shift between the three astronauts and the family they’ve left behind – chilren, spouses, ex-spouses. What does it take to leave family behind in search of something greater than self, greater than humanity? What does it take to love someone who leaves, who is drawn to something beyond this world? There is some interesting stuff about being female in a male industry, and how different it is for females to leave family than males. It is poignant and quietly piercing, and not really about Mars at all, but about what makes humans yearn for it, to achieve things that seem so incredibly impossible, to walk among the stars. The pacing is a little iffy, especially towards the end, but for a book about space, it is really the space within the self that ends up being interrogated, explored, known.

 

  • Robert Seethaler A Whole Life – this translation by Charlotte Collins was an incredibly masculine read, I think.  It follows the life of Andreas Eggers, who lives and dies in a mountain village in Europe, lives through World War II etc etc. It’s incredibly spare prose, and it’s a very short read. It’s the kind of book that lingers with you – the poverty and limited reach of some lives, and the way that meaning is still made through the living of life. The title is A Whole Life, but a few years from Andreas’ childhood are actually missing, and that is significant also – how you can tell the entire story of a life, and still there is so much that is a mystery. Worth reading.

 

  • Han Kang The Vegetarian – this South Korean novel won the Man Booker in 2016, and is about a woman who stops eating meat after a series of bloody dreams and how her family reacts to that choice. It’s weird and unsettling and gory, and certain scenes linger with me. It makes a point about the autonomy of one’s own body, and how just to be a certain way is a political challenge and taken as judgement. I’m putting this here because it was a noteworthy read, but I don’t think I’d recommend it. Yoko Ogawa is similar, but her prose is more effective, I think.

 

Last year I read 8 books in August. I’m hoping to at least get to 12 this year, but this whole first week of August has been a wash, so we’ll see! (I’m so behind on our July book club read as well, Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness)

Onwards!

 

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