April mid-month check-in

Just a quick mid-month check-in. So far this month I’ve read 9 books, and most of them have been pretty noteworthy, one way or another! Here are some:

Sheryl Sandberg Lean In I enjoyed it! I was aware of some of the backlash against Sandberg’s work, but she’s pretty clear at the beginning of the book exactly who she’s trying to speak to, and I think she does a pretty good job of acknowledging that her advice will not and cannot apply equally or at all to women who are disadvantaged by institutional and economic and class factors. I don’t recall her acknowledging the racial factor* very much if at all. I’m going to try to take her advice about literally sitting at the table – I do find that I’m generally more comfortable taking a literal back seat in some meetings and environments where objectively I shouldn’t.

Relatedly, the media this week about WW tears has been spot on. The magnificent Luvvie has articulated it wonderfully.

Celeste Ng Little Fires Everywhere I read Ng’s first book, Everything I Never Told You, which I kind of guiltily felt I should have liked more than I actually did. It was competent and smart, but I just felt nothing for the characters – I didn’t care about them or find them very memorable. Little Fires Everywhere , about the upheaval of a small community in the 1990s after a white couple adopts a Chinese baby, was so much better! The craft is sure and polished here, I cared about and understood all the characters, and the ending is the tiniest bit cheesy but believable. So good!

ed. Azalia Zaharuddin The Tudong Anthology A collection of fiction and non-fiction by Malaysian writers about their relationship with the tudong. The quality is variable, and sometimes you can’t tell which is fiction and which is non-fiction, but it’s worth reading for some insightful articulations on the complexity of what wearing the tudong means in Malaysian society and how it’s bound up with class, race, and all that other good stuff. I was a little startled at the almost ubiquitous disdain (whether the writer was a tudong-wearer or not) for “hijabsters”.

Leila Slimani Lullaby Translated from the French, this is the story of a French couple who hire a white nanny who is almost too good to be true. Obviously this is the set up for a tense, sinister story which is quite painful to read. There’s a lot of matter-of-fact commentary on xenophobia in France, tied up with how we treat those who work in our homes but are not family; and those who society has chosen to forget – the poor, the lost, the broken. It’s a short, quick read, but it packs a punch.

Philip Pullman La Belle Sauvage (the first in the new Book of Dust Trilogy) I finished this last night and am still thinking about it! This is a worthy follow-up/equel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Malcolm, the hero of La Belle Sauvage is an instantly classic child hero! He is good and smart and loyal and affectionate and you root for him every step of the way. It’s so good to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, and despite being over 500 pages long, you can race through this book, it’s so brilliantly paced. The villain is a true villain; broken and ruthless and relentless and wrong, and I cannot wait for the next in the trilogy.

11 days to the end of April! To keep on track for my 150 goal this year, I should read at least 3 more books this month – I’ve got a book of essays on writing by Philip Pullman (Daemon Voices) , AJ Pearce’s Dear Mrs Bird and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad cued up next, so hopefully all on track.

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Imagining Brunei: Sarong Party Girls and The Tudung Anthology

Brunei appears in two of the books I read this weekend – not surprisingly, both are Southeast Asian. Firstly in Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls (very highly recommended by the way – funny and sad, there is so much depth and compassion for the loveable, determined Sarong Party Girl protagonist Jazzy as she moves through the clubs and hawker centers of Singapore in search of an ang moh Prince Charming. There is stuff on race, on feminity, on class and consumerism…it’s just so good. I don’t know enough about Singlish to comment on its authenticity here, but as an outsider it read authentic and was almost another character in the novel.).

Photo 4-8-18, 8 37 45 PM (1)

Getting a tiny bit off topic there, but I am still thinking about this novel – it’s lingering with me. Anyway, the reference in Sarong Party Girls was incredibly throwaway – Brunei is mentioned as a site of business in the same breath as Hong Kong and the Philippines. The business in question is a furniture import-export company (Court? Ashley? Haha) owned by a super rich Singaporean guy. So…a place of trade, which is interesting.

More depth in Az Karim’s The Frenchman, a short story in the Malaysian collection The Tudung Anthology edited by Azalia Zaharuddin. Karim’s author bio states that she worked as a newspaper editor in Brunei for a while, so some of this may be observational. (The passage below may have spoilers, so don’t read if you want to be spoiler-free. Sorry, I continue to not know how to hide text and toggle for reading. There will be a spoiler over sign if you scroll down real fast.)







The narrator of the story is Marya, a Malaysian journalist (and hijabi – this is a plot point, which is why I mention it) working in Brunei who is in Sri Lanka on a holiday. To assuage her guilt at the cost of the holiday, she also attends a conference, which is where she meets Jean Pierre Tschumi, a doctoral student who is giving a talk on the historical expansion of Kampong Ayer. Struck by this coincidence, she requests an interview with him. Turns out Jean Pierre has spent some time in Brunei, and been burned by a relationship with a Malay Muslim woman. He blames this in part on her practice of wearing the tudung to work but not anywhere else, leading him to believe that her faith isn’t all thaaaaat important to her. He is consequently flummoxed…FLUMMOXED when he asks her to move with him to Melbourne and she says she won’t unless he converts to Islam. Jean Pierre is furious and now thinks all women wearing tudung are hypocrites, including Marya, who he is still reluctantly attracted to.

Let’s be real, Jean Pierre is a total jerk, and I have issues with the fact that the story is called The Frenchman when really – why is he even the focus? And the interracial relationship – hmm. Well, I HAD just read Sarong Party Girls, which very poignantly pointed out the problematic discourses sometimes at play about/in such relationships. Still, I was absolutely fascinated by these articulations of Bruneian tudung culture, where the wearing and taking off of it is in some ways more fluid than in other Muslim communities.






SPOILER OVER (Unless you read the following passages out of context)

Shots of some of the relevant passages!

The hunt for imaginings of Brunei continues.

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[NABP] A few miscellanous things

  1. I wrote an article for the Kyoto Review about the development of Bruneian narratives, which was generously edited by scholar and friend Keryn Ibrahim. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
  2. I picked up everything in the local authors section in Nollybook at the airport, read these three on the flight out, and really liked the CuboiArt collection – I found it funny and often incisive. I have the second collection as well, and am looking forward to discussing it with friends – the depictions of gender, and class, particularly. You may remember this cartoon which appeared the Borneo Bulletin last year, which caused a lot of outrage in my friend groups about what it implied about gender roles in the household.
  3. Book haul! From the ever-reliable Kinokuniya in ION. Get some chairs in there, though, Kino. Photo 4-1-18, 6 18 19 PM
  4. I travel a moderate amount, alone and with company, and I have often thought what an incredible blessing it is not just to be able to go away, but to have a peaceful, lovely and loving home to come back to; half the joy in going away is in coming back again. Photo 3-31-18, 6 51 06 PM
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March Round-Up

I’m hoping to finish another book on the flight tonight (I’ve got Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In locked and loaded), but I feel that may be optimistic. So I’m going to check-in now:

At the end of March, I’ve read 16 books. It’s been a pretty good set of reads, also! Since the mid-month, here are some of the notable reads:

Alexandra Christo To Kill a Kingdom YA version of The Little Mermaid, reimagined with murderous sirens and mermaid-killing Prince Charmings. I really enjoyed this and the mythology got nice and twisty; I wasn’t convinced by the heroine’s redemption arc, but it was a quick, fun read with sparky, complex protagonists who were all doing their best with the brokenness they had been given.

Marie Brennan Tropic of Serpents The sequel to A Natural History of Dragons wasn’t quite as fun for me as the first novel – there was toooo much world-building and not enough plot and character. I’ll probably give the third in the series a go before giving up on this.

Zen Cho The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo Looved Spirits Abroad and this novella about a Chinese Malaysian writer of book reviews in 1920s London was just more pragmatic, wistful deliciousness.

Alicia Malone Backwards and In Heels: The Past, Present and Future of Women Working in Film This month’s Feminist Book Club read was a history of women in Hollywood. This was interesting to me as a primer on the subject – short sections, snappily worded – but the Kindle version was really weirdly formatted, and I would have liked photos to accompany the text, especially of women whose looks were a big part of the personas they played professionally. I don’t know how interesting this would be to people already versed on the subject – it was kind of broad strokes stuff, but I enjoyed it. The fact that sticks with me is that Rita Hayworth lasered off her hairline and dyed her hair red to move as far away from her Hispanic looks as possible.

Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza Fitness Junkie A send-up of the health industry, cross-fit, kale juice, hot yoga and all, through the story of a fashion mogul who’s told to lose 30 pounds or else. It was fun, entertaining, body positive (mostly).

Helon Habila The Chibok Girls A short journalistic account of the Boko Haram kidnappings – this was terse and restrained and angry and necessary.

March Expense Report

Books Actually 120BND

Book Depository 168.42BND

Amazon UK 92.35GBP ~ 170BND

Total: 458.42BND over 29 books which is about 15.8BND per book – not cheap, but not monstrously expensive. A few academic texts from Book Depo drove the amount up (averaging about 42BND each). That’s still a lot of money to spend on books in a month though. (I am trying very hard not to judge myself right now.)

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[NABP] Gema di Menara (Echoes from the Minaret)

Yesterday I went to White Screen Cinema in Sungai Hanching for a special screening of Brunei’s first film, Gema di Menara (1968) translated as Echoes from the Minaret, and it was amazing. The screening was arranged by a colleague, who has watched the film 3 times, and I’m already jealous. As soon as I left the cinema I wanted to watch it again. This October will be the 50th anniversary of the film, and I understand that Regal Blue will be hosting a bunch of events leading up to the anniversary.

Gema di Menara 3

The film (originally shot on 35mm and digitized by Regal Blue Productions) was commissioned or at least purpose-made for the Ministry of Religious Affairs. It opens with two official statements by a Bruneian official and then I assume the British High Commissioner at the time, who reads a Malay statement. Both of them emphasize that it’s explicitly a dakwah film, meant for the edification of Bruneian Muslims and the ummah in general. I loved this framing of the film, just because it reminds me so much of Victorian lit, in which every novel opens with a very defensive moral justification of its own existence. Art for art’s sake? No no no.

The story itself is pretty simple: it’s about three siblings, Azman, Noriah and Nordin. Azman is a Good Son (anak yang sempurna) who has been educated in the West but still follows the “teachings of Islam” (SHADES OF SITI NUR), and Noriah and Nordin are Bad Eggs. We see them for the first time dancing on the beach (Muara beach?), Nordin in a skimpy pair of bathing short-short-shorts, and Noriah sporting cat-eye glasses. Both think that Azman is an Enemy of Progress and Modernity, what with his unfortunate tendency to bring every conversation back to Religion. Their parents lament Noriah and Nordin’s waywardness, but it all comes to a head when the Father goes off to Makkah for Hajj and leaves his property in Nordin’s hands.

Observations (I will try to keep this spoiler-free, but no promises)

  1. It was so so so fascinating to see “Brunei” of the 1960s! The tactic of this movie is to warn people away from Vice by SHOWING ALL THE VICES (gambling, alcohol, zina) and it is AMAZING. You could never see any of this stuff on Bruneian TV today – the girls in swimsuits! The bared shoulders covered only by a sheet when someone is caught post-coitally lounging in bed. The GAMBLING scene. The drunk driving scene!!!
  2. The choral performance that opens the film is INCREDIBLE. You know how back in Victorian times, the sign that a girl was getting older was that she would be permitted to let down her skirts? I.e longer skirts = older? I was wondering if that applied to Malay boys in the 1960s because schoolboys wore shorts while men wore long trousers. Also, the sinjang “length” on the boys!!!! I am not exaggerating when I say they were almost belt-like in their brevity. And the performers!!! They seemed so put-upon – no smiles, just singing.
  3. I counted maybe 3 instances of someone wearing the tudong the way we do today i.e covering the entire head, no fringes or neck showing. Everyone else, even the ustazahs preaching Islam, had sort of a cursory selendang.
  4. THE ISLAM AWARENESS ROADSHOWS – everything about them. The content of the speeches, the complete lack of performativity. Sin leads to Death and Destruction.
  5. When the Father comes back from the Hajj (that whole scene at the airport with the MSA plane is incredible), he’s dressed like a Full On Sheikh, flowing white headpiece secured by a band, robes, two hard suitcases.
  6. EVERYONE wears sunglasses indoors
  7. At Nordin’s birthday party, the camera continually cuts back to these 4 wallflowers, whose only job is to bop their heads along to the music (the LIVE PERFORMANCE)
  8. RIPAS – nurses in skirts and stockings and white heels. I just found all the female costuming amazing. And an interesting commentary on just how and how much the sartorial landscape and our cultural interpretation of modesty has changed over the last 50 years.

donkey-carrot-stickAs a modern-day viewer, I found Azman’s speechifying on behalf of Islam incredibly unconvincing – Nordin’s repeated question, “But what good can Islam do for my life?” is never answered properly. Azman almost doesn’t seem to understand the question. His argument is that “Islam is correct so it must be good.” The film answers the question by saying, Sin leads to Death and Destruction – it’s a Stick answer, and the Carrot seems pretty tasteless, it’s a lack of punishment rather than an actual reward or an explanation of how living according to the tenets of Islam can make your life better, happier, more fulfilling. I mean, Azman was kind of a bore, to be quite frank. He would have turned me off virtue as well, what with his prosifying and his handlebar moustache quivering in righteous indignation all the time.

There is so much to do with this film – the plot, the cinematography, its place in Bruneian cultural history. I’m going to start digging into what’s already been written about it, and will link up any interesting finds – I can’t wait! In the meantime, here are some pictures of White Screen Cinema, which is so so interesting – I can’t believe there’s an arthouse cinema in my neck of the woods, and that the studio has been there for like 15 years. I literally drive by this studio all the time and have never once thought it was anything other than a regular house.

I would love to hear your thoughts, or any interesting leads or knowledge you have on this film!

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Mid-month check-in: March

At the halfway-ish point in March, I have read 6 books, of which were really good!

Marie Brennan A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent I was sold on this when the blurb described it as a cross between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, both of which I love. Lady scholar is determined to scholar despite patriarchy, and to scholar flamboyantly. Set in a sort of steampunk-ish, Victorian England-ish but fictional world, the conceit is that this is a memoir by a renowned scholar in her old age, writing about her early days, before she became the internationally famous dragon scholar she is today. She is outrageous and outspoken now; this first in the series takes us through her early days, before she came into herself. I’d add for fans of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree and maybe even Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock series – if you like strong, academic heroines (my fictional weakness) this might be for you. Light and fantastic, I’m a few chapters into the second in the series now.

ed. Nick Haramis, illustrations by Joanna Avillez Courage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to be Grateful for Michelle Obama A collection of tributes and essays to and about the former FLOTUS – some chapters made me tear up. I found the fact that Lena Dunham wrote the foreword a bit off-putting, but otherwise I really enjoyed this dissection of what Michelle Obama meant to so many.

“When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” – Michelle Obama. Words to live by.

“No president in recent memory has done more for women than Barack Obama. But it wasn’t just his policies that sent a message–it was his marriage to a brilliant woman every bit his equal, and the two fabulous daughters they’ve raised together…A president who reveres his wife, not by placing her on a pedestal but by seeing her as a complex human being.” – Cecile Richards. Who doesn’t want to be revered and loved in this way?

“I love explaining to [my daughter] that Michelle went to Princeton first, and then Harvard Law, that she was a successful attorney and university dean before becoming first lady.” – Charlamagne tha God.

Zen Cho Spirits Abroad loved this collection of short stories about the supernatural in Malaysia, and with Malaysians abroad. The title, I felt, referred both to supernatural entities wandering around, and to the displaced Malaysians in disapora, whether they were studying overseas or had moved there. Some stories were whimsical, some were darker, some were sorrowful, some were romantic but they all had a thread of Southeast Asian pragmatism and humour running through them. This is the collection I wanted to read growing up, when I wanted to see Southeast Asian-ness, Bruneian-ness, made manifest on the page, given weight and heft, recognizable and familiar but still touched lightly, deftly, as if our Asian-ness is not all that we are, on the page. Without gimmicks, but with that magic of fiction. Some of the stories I loved:

The Many Deaths of Hang Jebat (legend questioned, made contemporary, rewritten)

The House of Aunts (Pontianak falls in love with human (Muslim) boy, and tells him he can’t share her nuggets because they’re not halal. This immortal line: “They’re not not-halal because they’re made of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.” To which he responds: “If you don’t want to share your nugget, say lah. Why so shy to admit you’re greedy?”)

From One Day Travelcard to Fairyland This line is the best description of English bus heat I’ve ever read: “The air outside the airport had been cold beyond belief, but the bus had been warm – not an honest sticky heat, but a stultifying man-made warmth that smelled of dusty upholstery.”

The Mystery of the Suet Swain – a Malaysian girl in England has a Malaysian stalker from the community. This is one of the most feminist stories in the collection, and it was hugely hugely satisfying to read an articulation of the ingrained sexism of Asian courtship.

The stalkee, Belinda, at first feels guilty about being stalked: “I should have said yes to somebody,” gulped Belinda. “One of the eleven boys. I should have said I’d go out with one of them. But I didn’t like them that way. I didn’t ask them to like me also.”

“Who said you did?”

“Feels like I’m being punished,” sobbed Belinda, “Because I didn’t say yes to any of them. Bullet was sent to punish me.”

“This is what comes of being religious,” Sham told her. “You all think everything that happens is because God wants to teach you something or other. Sometimes things just happen lah.”

The Earth Spirit’s Favorite Anecdote – this was just hilarious. Toyols and all.

The four generations of Chang E – a woman moves to the Moon. Each generation changes, evolves, adapts in the timeless ways that all humans do when they inhabit a new land.

“Here is a secret Chang E knew, though her mother didn’t.

Past a certain point, you stop being able to go home. At this point, when you have got this far from where you were from, the thread snaps. The narrative breaks. And you are forced, pastless, motherless, selfless, to invent yourself anew.

At a certain point, this stops being sad–but who knows if any human has ever reached that point?”

I have bought two other Zen Cho novels.

And not a new read, but a re-read, so I didn’t include it in my book count: Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale for Feminist Book Club. I liked this so much more than I did the first time I read it ten years ago – and it’s scary how much more contemporary it feels today.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen – to be seen – is to be – her voice trembled – penetrated. 

Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary. 

In other news, March has been an expensive month, bookwise! Expense report to come.

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February Round-Up – zombies and mermaids and dragons oh my

Tried my hardest to come back from a pretty poor start to the month, but I did not manage to break into the double digits in February, tapping out at 9 books. I am halfway through Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad, a collection of short, supernatural, hilarious stories set in Malaysia (which I am loving, and which was recommended by a good friend) and I was hoping this would be the read that tipped me into 10, but I didn’t quite manage it.

Never mind! Onwards and upwards, and what with 10 days off and dealing with packing and other leaving-a-country logistics (bills must be settled, goodbyes must be said to people and places, gifts must be procured, and I like to budget in some dreamy wandering time), I’m okay with having read two books a week instead of three in Feb. March, you’re gonna be my comeback month! I have declared it!

And to help with that, this week I shipped off three boxes of minty new books to Brunei, which I look forward to diving into when I get back!

Some fun reads in Feb:

C.L Lynch Chemistry A humorous feminist rewriting of Twilight, where the heroine is plus-sized and prickly and the hero is a pasty and respectful zombie, and the parents are reasonable people all around – I liked this better than I thought I would, because the heroine isn’t just a self-righteous send-up of Bella, but a complex, flawed and very insecure and teenager-y character. There seems to be a sequel, and I’m interested enough to look into getting it.

Imogen Hermes Gowar The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock In Georgian London, a merchant’s ship is sold by its captain for a mermaid; the merchant, one Mr Hancock, doesn’t quite know what to do with this mermaid and how to recoup the loss of his ship. Enter: prostitutes and brothels, mixed-race and black history in London, some quietly tender prose about lost children and grief and the loneliness of routine, the awakening of Mr Hancock and the grim but also gay precariousness of just being female in that era. This was such a surprising read for me, to the very end – the novel kept evolving and twisting, and the ending was entirely convincing (although the pacing was a tiny bit off).

Julian Barnes The Only Story Tonally, this had the same musing, slowly unfurling feel as The Sense of an Ending – a young man falls defiantly in love with an unsuitable woman at 19; through the years he realizes how this unsuitability has shaped him, destroyed him, made him. This was an uncomfortable read, a read that made me squirm, and cringe – for the young man, and for the people around him. I didn’t like it; but it was a good book. (The only Barnes novel I’ve loved has been Arthur and George; I’m struggling now through a re-read of England, England)

E Nesbit The Book of Dragons and The Larka collection of light, funny children’s stories about dragons; and the only adult novel from the author of The Railway Children, Five Children and It and The Treasure Seekers that I’ve read.

Expense Report for Feb 2018

Number of books bought: 9

Amazon UK: 6.32 GBP (~11.55BND)

Maruzen Kyoto: 16,565 yen (~204.76BND)

Tokyo Tower Records: 1800 yen (~22.25BND)

Total Expenses: 238.56BND (approx 26.5BND per book)

That’s actually tremendously expensive per book, so I’m a little horrified, but it seems to be about right for new English language fiction in Japan.


Happy March!

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