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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