Here we are, almost mid-way through 2018 and two days into Ramadan. One of my favourite things about Ramadan is that the government work day finishes at 2pm – you have SO much extra time in the day to do non-work things, it’s almost like having an extra day. Normally one has to squeeze all one’s leisure activities into those 5 hours between the end of the work day and bedtime – having these extra hours to oneself is literally Bonus Time.
So! 19 days into May and I’ve read 8 books, putting me at 58 for the year. Yesterday in a moment of madness I briefly contemplated trying to finish 30 books in Ramadan, but thankfully my More Reasonable Self awakened and laughed me out of it. I would like to read more this month, however, so am going to try and hit 20 books in Ramadan. In years past I’ve tried to read more Muslim books during this month, but I have a ton of TBRs to get through so I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that this year.
In any case, here are some of the books of note so far in May!
Samira Ahmed Love, Hate & Other Filters This one got a lot of hype on Twitter, but I wasn’t that interested because it seemed a little too similar to Saints and Misfits – American-Muslim YA fiction, high school drama (I love all of these things) – but I saw it in Best Eastern a couple of weeks ago, so I picked it up. I’m glad I did, because it was a really great read and while there are some overlaps with Saints and Misfits, no more so than with any other American YA fiction. What I liked most about Love, Hate & Other Filters is that the character’s Muslimness felt a lot more familiar and knowable to me than in Saints and Misfits – Maya Aziz is a nominally practicing Muslim who doesn’t cover, but feels guilty about kissing her Muslim suitor, wearing a bathing suit, and is a little bit shocked when she sees Muslims drinking alcohol. She’s an aspiring filmmaker, and the novel itself is just very gentle coming-of-age, with the added conflict coming from Islamophobic hate crimes perpetrated against her family and herself, with the consequence that her doctor parents are worried about letting her go to another state for college. The love interests aren’t binary Bad Suitor, Good Suitor, so that’s fun. I would have loved a novel like this when I was a teenager myself and reading tons of SVH – reading about a Muslim American in that setting, with those romance and growing up tropes would have been lovely – but I think I may have now aged out of that demographic. I look forward to more from this writer.
John Price Notes from the Jungle: Teaching Abroad in an International School I was doing a google sweep of any new stuff on Bruneian lit and came across this – not new, having been published in 2009, but definitely new to me. Written by the former headmaster of JIS, it’s supposed to be an expose of sorts about teaching in international schools. It is neither scandalous nor very interesting – the narrative follows one year of headmastering in JIS, interspersed rather clunkily and awkwardly with excerpts or full reproductions of some articles Price wrote for the Brunei Times while he was their education correspondent (“I get two hundred smackers for each article! Clearly they are desperate for copy.”)
I was skeptical from the start – that title, while meant to be tongue-in-cheek, is the kind of old-fashioned, dismissive, laughing bigotry that so many older expatriates in Brunei who scoff at “political correctness” also dismiss as harmless joking. “Harmless” because it doesn’t harm them, except in the way that poor manners and lack of empathy harms one’s own sensitivity to the rightness and wrongness of things, in the long run. Much of the mild offensiveness in this memoir is in the same vein; well-intentioned but tone deaf – Price cracks jokes about international school teachers, but they at least get names, even if he mentions them in passing – Trevor, Arthur, whatever. Bruneians are “the boys in the market”, “the Chinese doctor”, “Asian students”, nameless, faceless, a blurry backdrop. Price admires Maugham and his depiction of “a strange breed of men and women who left sedate English life for an existence that was altogether more feral”. He also admires JAMES BROOKE “who, despite his swashbuckling colonial attitudes, invites our admiration”. (Reminiscent of this article about the upcoming film, in which Brooke’s entire colonial history is described as “an incredible romantic adventure” about a man who “had a dream of something different, a wilder and more vivid life”. The entire history of Brunei and Malaysia seems to be a vehicle to romanticize Brooke as adventurer.) In the same way, Price uses his “snake stories” in Brunei as cultural capital back home in Britain – the exotic made spectacle over and over and over again. He misspells Dusun, Supasave etc, but I guess these words, like Brunei, are unimportant in and of themselves – they are important only for how he can turn them into an anecdote.
Despite these rage inducing moments, the most offensive thing about the memoir, which, like I said, I think is generally well-intentioned, is that it is stultifyingly boring when he starts in on his thoughts about international schools and how they should be run – none of these thoughts are particularly ground-breaking and they seem to harken back to an older, Eton-informed time.
Curtis Sittenfeld You Think It, I’ll Say It I’ve not read any of Sittenfeld’s work before, although Prep regularly makes it onto my Amazon wish list, but this collection of short stories definitely makes me want to look at her novels. The first story is written in Hillary Clinton’s voice, about her encounters with the same female journalist over her political career. There’s another piece about a female journalist later on in the collection which is a nice comparison point. It’s a collection about chance meetings that are imbued with the kind of significance that doesn’t shape a life, but reveals character, reveals the person we want to be and the person we really are. How much pettier, and grander, we are, than the narratives we impose on our lives at the end of it all. I really really liked this collection.
Marjane Satrapi Embroideries I read the Persepolis books a long long time ago, and funnily enough I bought them a few months ago meaning to re-read them, when a friend sent me Embroideries, with this article. I liked it although felt a bit confused at one point – I wondered if the copy my friend had lent me was missing a few pages, because the narrative had jumped. But we figured out that that was the narrative style. Women discussing sex, femininity, freedom.
Fun fact: I also read an Iranian romance novel this month! More on that at a later date.
R.L. Stine The Dead Boyfriend and Give me a K-I-L-L Also from Best Eastern, these two were fun fluffy easy reads, no real chills or thrills, but was funny to see how Stine has updated his points of reference for teenage girls. Sephora makes an appearance! Also the same pick -up line appears in both books: “Let me guess your name,” teenage dude flirts. “It’s Tabitha/Cindy/something equally unlikely”. “Yes,” teenage girl flirts back. “How did you know?” And of course that’s not really her name, she’s just playing along.
Yeah, I don’t really know either. Hahaha.
On we march through May! Ramadan Kareem and if anyone can tell me what time Gerai Ramadhan closes after sungkai, I would very much appreciate it. Kuih Malaya dreamz.