The right book at the right time: a mid-month check-in

Closer to the 2/3rd point, really, but who’s counting?

At the 2/3rd point of the month, then, I’ve read 15 books. It’s been a good crop this month. Some stand-outs include:

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton – Strout has been a bit of a hit or miss for me. I loved The Burgess Boys, but was never able to finish the Pulitzer winning Olive Kitteridge. Partially because it was painful in how precisely it cut to the emotional nerve, but also because it was a little slow. My Name is Lucy Barton, a short narrative about the eponymous Lucy and the few days she spends with her mother while she is in the hospital – memory, dysfunction and a sort of bewilderment with the hardness of the world, but also love.

Rainbow Rowell’s Kindred Spiritsanother story about nerds and outcasts from Rowell – two teenagers stand in a Star Wars line. Rowell’s trademark readability, nerd-friendliness, compassion.

Mary Oliver’s Upstream and Why I Wake Earlythe former a curmudgeonly sort of passionate love letter/memoir to nature as temple, church and muse, and the latter a collection of poetry through the natural world. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, it’s so filled with a delight in the world that is forgetful of self.

Nalini Singh’s Silver Silencethe latest in her Psy-Changeling romance series which I am a big fan of. This one…featuring shapeshifting bears!

and the discovery of Mary Balogh!

But really I want to flag up Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim. A few friends have mentioned this year that certain books come to us at exactly the right time – any earlier, and we wouldn’t have appreciated them in the same way, or been ready for them. That’s exactly how I feel about this collection of letters that Ghobash writes to his son, a pilgrimage through his own childhood and relationship with Islam. Even two years ago, I wouldn’t have been – in the right headspace for this. I was reluctant to even read it now, thinking it would be repetitive or preachy – but it isn’t. It sits nicely between being too pro-ijtihad-y and too fiqh-y.

The takeaway for me was the deep, deep necessity of not abdicating intellectual, emotional, spiritual responsibility to the care of others, or to signs from the universe in the guise of “listening to Allah.” We must, must continue to strive and work for our own answers, and take ownership of our own choices and decisions. During difficult times in my life, I have often prayed for signs of some kind, desperate to be told what to do. When these have not been forthcoming, I have been content to go where the wind takes me in lieu of taking the reins and thinking through decisions whole-heartedly, whole-headedly.  Trusting to circumstance instead of taking a deep breath and making a decision. My own decision, my own accountability, my own acceptance of the outcome.

There is seeking advice, and there is redha and tawwakkal, of course – but in every person’s life, there is a moment when you must say, this is the decision I will make. The capacity to think rationally, and to be morally courageous enough to step forward and accept the outcome, whatever it may be…this must be the true goal in an uncertain life. What is the right thing to do? is a difficult question to answer sometimes – but always waiting for someone else to answer it for you is not the way forward, and is not always the way to God. Take a breath, say a prayer, and take that step.

Some moments in the book:

  • I also realized that intense repentance and compensating for sins with greater piety could be just as destructive as the original errors […] I want you and your generation to know that repentance should not be self-torture. Regret should not overwhelm you and force you into another form of intensity. Intensity distorts reality. And Islam in its essence is against the distortion of intensity.
  • Who has the right to talk about Islam? You will discover lots of people telling you what to do and when to do it. I want you to be polite, but demand respect for your mind and independence of will. If what someone tells you sounds convincing, ask more questions. In today’s world, take more than a step back. There are many things to consider. Stay strong and do not hand your fate to others.
  • If we are to work on combating this type of distortion of Islam, then we need to spend the time also working out in words, both spoken and written, the philosophical and theological arguments for a wholesome Islam. We need to fill the world of Islam with works of literary fiction that allow us to empathize with one another, and give words to our feelings.
  • Growing up, before Facebook, the advice I would often hear was to “be yourself”. This advice is powerful but empty at the same time. Had I known what “myself” was, it would have been easier to be it. The advice may be better expressed: find yourself, look for yourself, discover yourself, shape yourself, fill the gaps of yourself, draw clearer lines around the areas of yourself that you recognize, discipline yourself, and test yourself.
  • It may be true that the greatest sacrifice that a person can make is to give his life for a cause. But it is not the most difficult sacrifice a person can make. The more difficult and perhaps more valuable sacrifice a person can make is to face the complexity of modern life and live life to its fullest–morally, spiritually and socially.
  • This is perhaps the key weakness that we need to tackle. Do our Islamic role models lock us out of the modern world, or can they allow us into the modern world?
  • There is one unfortunate model that has survived through the centuries: the warrior. When I think back to the lessons we would receive in our Islamic history classes, I remember very clearly the lists of battles that we would have to memorize […if] you want to be true to your Muslim heritage, then you need to explore its history properly. You and your generation need to study it and realize that Islam was never a one-dimensional army of fanatical recruits for war, as we are told by those who seem to speak the loudest. Islam was a vibrant, exciting, intellectually adventurous, and logically rigorous religion. It was a religion of life and growth. It was a religion of worship and the world.
  • Freedom is a good that is preserved and defended because it places individual responsibility at the heart of society. Freedom is not presented as a gift to self-destruct of to engage in immoral acts out of principle. Freedom is a gift to use your will and perception to impose a moral structure on yourself. Without the freedom to choose our path, we are morally crippled.
  • There is no knowledge that is wrong. Only knowledge that is difficult, troubling, enlightening, liberating and intoxicating.
  • If this basic respect that any human being deserves became more widespread, then perhaps we would not witness the awful cases of sexual harassment that we have heard of in the Muslim world. If we were true to our moral code of respect for the inviolability of women’s dignity, then we would not violate their dignity when they are strangers to us.
  • […] in constructing my father, I was constructing myself. In imagining my father’s life and behavior, I was also imagining what kind of model I wanted to follow for myself. I remember clearly thinking of this process as bootstrapping a father role model out of my imagination and a few threadbare facts.

It was exactly the book I needed to read this Ramadhan. The friend who lent her copy to me, J, says that If Oceans Were Ink is a good accompaniment to this one, but in the meantime, she passed me Balli Kaur Kaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. Ramadhan reads, eh.

Three books to go to hit my June goal of 18!

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May round-up! (In which I read a lot of male authors)

In May I read 14 books. I think breaking out of my 12 books a month rut is worth a celebration, so lets crack out a graph!

Untitled

My excel skills sort of failed me so I couldn’t get a label on the horizontal axis, but left cone is May 2016 and right cone is May 2017

Ah, life is much better with a cheery graph.

Apparently in May 2016 I read 15 books, so my 2017 self is a little annoyed, but there’s always June! (June 2016 Kat read 18 books, so lets see what Version 2017 can do).

In a startling turn of events, I read six books by a male author this month, which is actually almost half of my reading! (43%)

I had to google JP Delaney to find out his gender, and came across this fun interview, in which he’s asked:

Your characters are very well-written. Did you find it challenging to write from a female point of view?

My two lead characters are women, but they’re middle-class, educated women – in other words, pretty similar to me in almost every way except for their gender. I’d say it was probably harder to think myself into the mind of someone in their twenties, as Emma is, than it is to think as a female narrator. One of my favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier, wrote several books from a male perspective and back then no one blinked an eye – we’ve become much more conscious of gender today, I think.

Also, though, wasn’t/isn’t it kind of default for people to write from the male perspective? Maybe that’s also why there was no blinkage.

Anyway, some standout reads from this month:

Trevor Noah Born a Crime Who doesn’t love Trevor Noah? I’ve said separately to about three friends in the last month, “I’d like to marry Trevor Noah” and been met with a resounding, “Oh yeah, me too” on all occasions. He’s a staple on my morning get-ready background noise routine, and his memoir is lovely. He is so, so big-hearted, with such a love for humans – not humanity, with it’s awful tendencies and cruelties – but for individuals. Compassionate, honest, wry, if you know his comedy work, you’ll read this in his voice. I’m not sure how it comes across if you’re not familiar with his TV work – so would be keen to hear from those readers.

Leo Tolstoy A Confession This conversion memoir was maybe the only Russian text I’ve read to completion in the last five years. I’m a sucker for conversion memoirs anyway, and this was such a familiar one – his overthinking, his commitment to his bohemian, liberal, intellectual life and community, his throwing himself into religion with a vengeance (which for him also meant putting aside rational critique, briefly), and then the gradual pull back to moderation, and doubt, but still within faith.  It ends in an appropriately dreamy, skeptical way.

Eka Kurniawan Man Tiger This Indonesian novel was incredibly coiling, like a snake eating it’s own tail. It started with this incredible premise – a man sharing a body with a female tiger, a murder – and then wound down from this fantastic premise into the mundanity of life in a village. The grinding poverty, the brutal physicality of it, the small pettinesses and inhumanities of deprivation. But also wound up unexpectedly into sly supernatural touches, like a garden that grew and grew and grew, and out into the unbearably human love of a mother for a child that just never quite manages to redeem entirely. I am still thinking about it, and I didn’t expect to. It was miniaturist painting in writing.

Honourable mentions: EM Delafield’s The Provincial Lady series (so funny), Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (painful, angry in the best way, hopeful), Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up (on having a very human heart, a very human will).

18 books? Bring it on, June 2017.

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[NABP] Not a Book Post: “The Tudong Monologues”

I wasn’t going to write anything about this, simply because this blog is supposed to be about books. But because reading and writing are so linked for me, and because theatre comprises a lot of the Bruneian creative output that I consume, I wanted to acknowledge that it happened, and that it was wonderful.

So here it is. I wrote a short play called The Tudong Monologues. My friend Z directed it. She found 7 amazing actresses, and 4 mind-blowing dancers, and we put it on, the first Salted Egg Theatre production ever. An all-female production, an all-female audience. I hope there will be more – I hope we get more writers, who can write stories about and around and featuring Bruneian women. The more stories we tell about ourselves, the more stories we read about ourselves, the stronger we become, individually and as a community. The more we understand ourselves and each other, the more compassion we sow. When we tell stories about ourselves, we are making space for laughter, for unspoken grief, for all the feelings we share and reject. For each other.

It was a beautiful night, and the thrill, for me, started, when the lights went out and our emcee, J, said, “Ladies.”

I was waiting, unconsciously, for the “…and gentlemen.” And when it didn’t come, when it ended there, I felt that thrill skim across my skin, electric and warm. It felt good.

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Feminist Book Club: Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman”

I missed last month’s book club meet up, but I did read the book, Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. I enjoyed it, and thought the protagonist was hugely, flawed-ly relatedly human. She was continuously perplexed by all the people around her who wanted her to feel certain ways and be certain ways, and sort of struggled with the fact that she didn’t. I had fun hike-chats about it, and swim-chats about it, so although I missed the actual meet up, I was able to discuss it individually with book club members.

This month our book was Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which I read while I was at Oxford and had only just started reading about body positivity, feminism, feminism in pop culture, intersectionality, all that fun stuff. I was pleased to have the chance to re-read it.

It did feel a bit dated while re-reading it – many of the issues covered in the book seem to have fallen out of conversation, superseded by what seem now to be more urgent issues. The chapter on body hair, for example, her throwaway line on how she feels about the burka (she opposes it. I much more subscribe to Luvvie Ajayi’s modus operandi, which is – feminism isn’t about helping women to be more like you. It’s about helping women to be whatever they want to be, freely). The two chapters side by side about why to have children, why not to have children. Undermined, to me, by another throwaway joke about how her accomplished, childless sister should stay childless so she can babysit Moran’s own children.

Some chapters, on the other hand, were so emotionally truthful that they were definitely worth the re-read. The chapter on abortion. On the awful relationship she had with that man who was just in it for her connections.

As usual, the conversation at book club ranged widely from the book to other things we’d read, and proceeded at a pace of about 100km/hr. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Alex Tizon’s essay, “My Family’s Slave” in the Atlantic. The critiques that have sprung up around it, the various perspectives of Americans who still have to confront the legacy of slavery in the country. Our own feelings as Bruneians, as people who live in Brunei, about cheap labour, domestic workers, the corrupt, rotten infrastructure of amah agencies and complicit embassies and the labour department. The (illegal, unethical) rampant practices of holding on to passports, refusing to stick to agreed on wages, the lack of standardized working hours. Our own stories of maids who have lived with us for decades. The increasing religiosity of Brunei, leading to different questions about the politics and tensions of having an unrelated woman live in your home, around your husband and children. The need for a concerted, holistic effort to reduce dependence on this exploitative system – daycares, creches.
  • Keryn’s essay, “On white faces and white bodies in Malay dress”. In short, we all hate this practice, and we all get mad about it.
  • Related to the book, what do we all call our own genitalia? Several rather hilarious and interesting names came up, and a brief reminiscing about ugama school and its contribution to our sexual vocabularies.
  • When expats talk to us like we are dumb. Alternatively, being the token “oh you’re not like other Bruneians” Bruneian.
  • A brief skirmish over whether we call ourselves feminists or not. What this label means to each of us, individually.
  • The shadow dating scene in Brunei – Tinder, OKCupid, expectations, in-laws. Pornography – of the Malay variety.
  • I managed to sneak in a brief chat to a friend about her thoughts on UBD art exhibitions. I haven’t arranged my thoughts appropriately, but it is well worth a read.

All this, accompanied by warm chocolate cake, nutella french toast, sauce-drizzled char siu kolomee, lemongrass carbonara pasta, lots of water and various flavoured drinks. Soft yellow lighting, and karaoke music being sung along to by the waiters. It felt like being in a bawdy, literary (ish) salon – I was surrounded by intelligent, strong, funny women telling amazing stories and laughing and listening.

It was a great way to spend the night as we walk into Ramadhan. Salam Ramadhan to all – may the year ahead see peace, wisdom, faithfulness and joy reign.

Our next book is Naomi Alderman’s The Power! My thoughts on it here.

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Bingeing on thrillers

So I’ve been binge-reading thrillers – the last three have been JP Delaney’s The Girl Before (girl moves into creepy minimalist, automated, high tech house in which she finds out other girls have died), Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me (serial liar in his 40s gets caught up in a weird, creepy family holiday in Greece), and Felicity Everett’s The People At Number 9 (bourgeois neighbour with inferiority complex tries to keep up with the Joneses, only the Joneses are negligent parents with high manipulation quotients).

It’s making me want to write a thriller set in Brunei. I shall call it THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW. Here’s the brief.

Hajar has never gotten along with her mother-in-law, Anisah. She’s mostly gotten used to it, or so she thinks, until Liyana comes along. Submissive, polite, eager and educated, Liyana is the perfect daughter-in-law, and Hajar can’t help feeling a little bit jealous.

Only, is Liyana really as perfect as she seems?

Suddenly Anisah starts having little accidents. A fall here, a cough that won’t go away, a car whose brake lines are frayed. And then there’s the diabetes medication that gets swapped out for arsenic/blood thinners/insect repellent (Editor’s Note: I haven’t decided yet). A mistake, the pharmacists say, except Hajar knows that Liyana is the one who picked up the medicine from RIPAS…

Alternatively, there’s THE MOTHER-IN-LAW

Hajar has heard all the horror stories from her friends about their in-laws, and counts herself incredibly lucky when she meets Azizul’s mother. From the first, Anisah tells Hajar to call her “Mama”, includes her in all family discussions, never makes a single overstepping move when it comes to Hajar’s pregnancy.

Only, is Anisah as perfect as she seems?

When they move out of the family home, the incidents begin. The snakeskin underneath the sofa, the crockery washed with bleach instead of liquid Fairy, the iron left on to burn the laundry room down/increase electricity bills astronomically (Editor’s Note: Haven’t decided yet). Anisah tells Hajar it must be the amah, but Hajar isn’t sure…

And then there are the voices at night, when everyone else is sleeping…

I think I’m on to something here. Call me, Hollywood directors!

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April Round-Up

April reads capped out at 12, which is frankly pretty poor! So, not much to round up here.

  • 2 male authored reads (so, 20%)
  • 1 non-English read
  • 4 Muslim bits of fiction

No worries, we go onwards and upwards into May! On the flight home, I finished off the early 20th century Diary of a Provincial Lady (and it’s sequel, The Provincial Lady Goes Further), by EM Delafield which are frankly quite hilarious, started in on The Provincial Lady in America, and got well stuck into Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which is already pretty shocking and gripping.

There’s a comparison to be made here between the flappy, fluffy, indomitable eponymous British Lady and Angie Thomas’ African American teenager Starr, who sees her black friend killed in the first few pages for doing nothing more than being black in America. But I’m not quite up to it yet.

Quite lost my head in the WH Smith in Heathrow and recklessly bought a bunch of bestsellers, which I then had to gloomily lug around Heathrow and Dubai International, due to new policy on RBA that you have to take allllll your hand luggage with you during the 20 minute transit. The indignities of air travel.

On a better note, despite having stuck 12 books in my checked luggage, it came in under 20kgs. I had a sneaking suspicion that couldn’t have been right, but I hurriedly rushed off before the check in counter began to share my suspicions.

Sometime soon I’ll clock in my book expenditure for the month, which I’ve been trying to track for a few months.

4 months into the year, and I’m at 58 reads, which means I’m still on track to hit 150. Excelsior!

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Book haul! 

So over the last few years, my book haul philosophy for bookstores has been to look at what the bookstore itself has curated and foregrounded, and just pick up anything that seems interesting on the spot (within a set budget). This is because it’s NICE and refreshing, to have books catch my eye which weren’t predicted by an Amazon algorithm. (I love and hate you, Amazon algorithm. You know too much. You definitely shape my reading too much.)

I try not to get bogged down by wishlists I already have on the go, or books I need for work, because  – that’s what bookdepository.com is for. If I really need it, I’ll get it at some point. In the meantime, the fun part about physical bookstores is their own philosophy, ethos and passion for books. Which comes through in the books chosen for display, and how they’re displayed!

Daunt Books is on a really pretty street in Marylebone! It’s famous for curating books according to country, and having loads of travel reads. Here’s a picture.
img_0335And these are the books I got!26220576_unknown

So, from top to bottom:

1. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts

This just had a really fun cover. I thought it might be a graphic novel, but it’s not. I love advice columns, and a book written in the early twentieth century in Great Depression NY about an advice columnist sounded awesome! The book jacket tells me West was friends with Fitzgerald.

2. Tom Hodgkinson’s Business for Bohemians 

I got this because my sister is always telling me that I’m too fluffy and creative to be business-minded. “You creative artistes,” she sniffs at me. I mean, I think I’m pretty pragmatic as artistes go, but this memoir about a writer going into business looked funny, and when I flicked through, a couple of lines made me laugh, so yay!

3. ed. Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke, Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation

There was another collection of Palestinian narratives arranged according to historical incident, but it looked more academic than this one. A few things to note: the Palestinian stuff in the bookstore was shelved under “Levant”, whereas Israel got its own section. The maps being sold by the store also had Israel but not Palestine.

4. Noah Hawley, Before the Fall

A new thriller! Looks like Gone Girl Girl on a Train but in male hero form, on a plane. The tall bookseller at the cashier, who reminded me tremendously of a colleague who can also come off as super snooty but is really very sweet, lit up at this one and said in the most upper class accent you can imagine, “This one is very good.”

I had a moment of dissonance from the words and the accent. Anyway, this looks like the perfect plane read.

5. Eva Kurniawan’s Man Tiger

So I have Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, but haven’t gotten past the first page. I’ve heard this Man Booker nominee is gooood and it came up during a forum a couple of weeks ago, so here goes!

6. Fredrik Backman, Britt-Marie Was Here

A Man Called Ove was THE quintessential plane read – heart-warming, authentic, easy. Another book about a crotchety but golden-hearted geriatric finding a new lease on life? Yes please!

7. Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

“Where there is life, there is faith.” Well, I had to pick that one up right? I’d just been having a days-long text conversation with a friend on faith, talks with God, personal growth, etc, and this short book, it occurred to me, might be more palatable than Tolstoy’s other stuff (ANNA KARENINA I’M LOOKING AT YOU). Plus, it’s super short, might be a nice cheat way to hit my monthly reading target.

8. Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

I’m really drawn to South African narratives, I like Trevor Noah on the Daily Show, and I like memoirs by comedians, generally. I did ask if this was out in paperback yet because LUGGAGE SPACE COME ON but it’s not, till Sept. Well all right then.

9. HELLO pack of small cards because come on, you have to buy ONE frivolous, nonsense stationery thing when you go in a bookstore.

Tall Snooty Colleague-Doppelganger gave me a free cloth tote (he even let me pick a colour! I chose dark green, the colour of scholarship and the forest. I was tempted by navy blue, the colour of seriousness, but green won out.) that the website tells me is worth 10GBP to carry my loot around in. It was comfy and light and sturdy and I appreciated it very much because I ended up walking 10km and going to a wildlife photography exhibition with my haul. I didn’t even feel it.

To cap things off, here is a non-book, but very pretty cafe just around the corner from Daunt. Spring in London! (Is very cold and deceptively sunny and my fingers are already frozen from typing this.)

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