Daily Reads

Sites I read regularly aka The Black Holes I fall into when I’m procrastinating:

Advice Columns

AskAManager : Has helped me through many work situations and generally in my understanding of professionalism and boundaries at work. (Her book recommendations are also spot on)

Dear Prudence: Have read this column for years, before Daniel Mallory Ortberg took it over. I don’t agree with Daniel-as-Prudie’s advice as much as I did the previous columnist, but still worth reading for the truly bananas problems that people have. I miss The Toast! (Have just started subscribing to The Shatner Chatner)

Captain Awkward: More advice! More problems which are evidence of how strange and rich and occasionally awful this human tapestry is.

General Interest

Buzzfeed: To temper the horror that is world news with daily dose of memes

Cup of Jo: Love the motherhood around the world series, beauty uniforms, recipes, and Mari Andrew. Also, the weekly link round-up game is strong with this one

The Billfold: I am kepoh about people’s finances. Used to love Mr Money Mustache as well, but haven’t read it recently. Minimalism and finances were very interconnected for me at one point, so I also loved Becoming Minimalist and Zen Habits, but again, have not read those regularly for a while.

May these serve as comforting, reliable sanctuaries for the procrastinatory out there.

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Mid month round up for June 2018!

9 books by mid-June, planting me squarely in 73 books for the year.

Of note:

Aisha Malik For You, I Do The second halal romance from this Bruneian writer about two doctors in a KL hospital – I found the women in this novel grating – every woman apart from the heroine is portrayed as too skinny, too bitchy, too motherly, too fierce, in order to show how the heroine, a domestic, family oriented goddess despite her brainy doctor brain, is ultimately perfect. The hero is also a bit strange in his fetishization of the heroine’s petiteness and femininity. It all just felt a bit Perempuan Melayu Terakhir. BUT it was very readable and well-crafted and wish-fulfillment-y and on that level enjoyable.

Aammton Alias How I Became a Self-Published Author: The Journey to 51,000 words I’ve read this Bruneian writer’s fiction and thought it needed much much sterner editing to ruthlessly trim and shape what was a somewhat indulgent and bloated narrative. This memoir is much more likeable and the voice is stronger and clearer here. There are moments where Alias writes away from what is most interesting – why he wants to write, what the awakening was, why the urgency and need for speed, and we don’t really know much about him at all, but there is some useful stuff on the mechanics of self-publishing. It’s not a balanced view by any means, but certainly that makes it more enjoyable and authentic. There isn’t much self-reflection in this memoir, or self-interrogation, which means it is less honest, and therefore less compelling than it could be, but its an earnest, eager plea that reaches out and feels genuine.

Sarah Winman Tin Man A woman buys a painting of sunflowers, and opens up horizons and beauty and a glimpse at a world that is so much more for two boys, who become men, who love each other and others and who make of that love a quiet, lovely thing that endures and expresses itself in ways that grow and deepen and broaden. There are brief but lingering moments where the novel shows itself aware of all the ways that love can twist and warp and turn dark and ugly, but then steps quietly away from them anyway.

I also read Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is a fun accompaniment to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved; Joanne Harris’ Different Class, a dark thriller set in a boys school and which smells of must and dust; Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date which is a fun but unmemorable interracial romcom.

Not much else – I don’t think there have been a ton of good reads lately, but I’m turning to oldies but ostensibly goodies now – Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith and Andrea Levy’s Small Island – which I’m looking forward to.

Newishly I have Nalini Singh’s Ocean Light and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad on the go.

Eid Mubarak!

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May 2018 Round-Up

Number of books read in May: 14

Amount of money spent on books in May: BND202.99 (Amazon UK, Book Depository, Best Eastern)

Books of note:

Emily Fridlund History of Wolves (Atmospheric, sinister, deeply sad for its depiction of how limited horizons can lead to stunted, empty, longing lives. Key words: Christian Science, cults and parental negligence, northern Minnesota. I agree with this review that the mood is a bit one-note after a while. )

Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers The Bestseller Code (I’ve been reading this for months, a chapter at a time, and finally finished it in May. An empirical study of bestsellers, how gender influences writing, how plot influences readers viscerally, how first sentences draw in the reader. You can read about all these things elsewhere, of course, but this is the first time I’ve read an attempt at a primarily empirical approach to discourse and linguistic analysis of literature. A loooot of numbers to take in, best read a bit at the time rather than all at once.)

Zen Cho Sorcerer to the Crown (British wizards and witches, some Malaysian vampires and magic thrown in, strong flawed female characters and a really good hero)

Elizabeth Busar Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress (this one is a bit more academic – I was co-reading this with a friend, and really enjoyed the experience of discussing it in real time. Case studies of Tehran, Yogyakarta and Istanbul, and some great observations about the process of reading aesthetics, the relationship between aesthetics and piety, and the terminological use of “pious” rather than “modest” fashion. Loved the accompanying photographs, which were often obtained in collaboration with local fashion bloggers, and wished there had been more of them!)

AJ Pearce Dear Mrs. Bird (Heartwarming and gentle British wartime novel – London in the midst of bombing raids, heroine who helps to write an advice column, lovely cast of supporting characters. For fans of A Man Called Ove, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society etc.)

As of the 1st of June 2018 I had read 64 books, so just about on target for the 150 books in 2018 goal. So far in June I’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark Dark Wood (very good thriller) and am almost exactly halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which is very readable but very very very sprawling and long. I’m also a couple of chapters into Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, which is creepalicious so far, and am supposed to start co-reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. All yay!

At the end of June I should have read 75 books to stay on target, which means I need to read 11 books in June.

Ramadan Kareem to all.

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May 2018 mid-month Round-Up

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.

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April Round-Up (On track for 2018 goal!)

In April I read 12 books, which is a pretty solid effort! More importantly, that means that at the end of the first third of 2018 I’ve read 50 books. Math tells me that that means I’m on track to hit my 150 book target for the year.

I’ve covered most of the notable reads for the month here, and I only have one more to add to that: Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, a fiction-non-fiction novel about a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. This was a beautiful, distant read, cerebral and ruthless, a woman constantly using her intellect and education to distance herself from the physicality and illogic of what was happening in her marriage. Her ability to view what was happening to her with the perspective of an outsider, through the lens of everything she’d read and knew, was what helped her survive – her insistence on writing the narrative of her life while she was living it, was a fierce, powerful, invincible flame.

I’ve read this sentiment in a handful of other novels – as long as you can still think about how you’re going to tell the story of what is happening to you, you’re still okay. You can still survive whatever is happening. It will not break you, not utterly, not completely. Narrative as salvation, narrative as survival. I believe in this, so much.

I was held at arms length from When I Hit You, forced back but also forced to watch. The addendum at the end, a review telling us who needs to read this book, was so perfectly placed and written it almost felt like part of the book.

Expense Report for April 2018

Amazon UK: 31.8GBP

Kinokuniya Singapore: 262.25

Best Eastern Brunei: 16.8

Total: 337BND

Funnily enough, when I sat down to do this expensing, I thought I hadn’t spent that much on books this month. Perception VS Data. Sigh.

To end April, here are two pictures of my re-organized TBR piles, now down to two from what had hitherto been uncountable lumps of books scattered dustily and spider-attractingly around.

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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.)

SPOILER ALERT

 

 

 

 

 

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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