The City of Your Final Destination is set in Uruguay, although it won’t satisfy the armchair traveler as it is mostly takes place within a big house i...moreThe City of Your Final Destination is set in Uruguay, although it won’t satisfy the armchair traveler as it is mostly takes place within a big house in Uruguay
“Here I am in Uruguay, but I could be anywhere. I could be in Kansas. Although the air smelled different: there was some sort of warm, dusty scent that seemed vaguely exotic.”
That’s Omar thinking out loud. He’s a scholar trying to get authorisation to write a biography about the writer Jules Gund. Omar’s kind of a strange one, or at least his girlfriend Deirdre makes him out to be a strange one. He doesn’t seem to really push himself to do things, instead she does the pushing – she tells him to go to Uruguay to get the authorisation. And he does.
The story didn’t quite jell with me for a while, until Omar meets Caroline, Jules’ wife (who lives in the same estate as Jules’ mistress and brother – yeah it is complicated):
“She turned away from the window. ‘Of who I would seem to be if a biography were written of Jules. If, let us say, you were to write a biography of Jules. Who would I be? A mad Frenchwoman, who had been married to Jules Gund, painting in an attic.’”
And then I realised what this book was about. This biography of a man who is no longer alive would change them all, perhaps especially Omar:
“Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch.”(less)
This book took a while to get going. Perhaps it was because I started off with a little wariness – I’m not all that fond of reading Chinese immigrant...moreThis book took a while to get going. Perhaps it was because I started off with a little wariness – I’m not all that fond of reading Chinese immigrant stories, partly because they’ve always seemed… perhaps a little too similar to each other. Perhaps because they also hit close to home, but in a different sort of way (my great grandparents moved from China to Singapore – essentially moving from one Chinese-dominated country to another). It’s hard to explain, but it’s always made me hesitant.
Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony is set in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s and 40s and opens with a story of Jook-Liang, the ‘useless girl’ who dreams of being Shirley Temple and befriends old Wong Suk (Monkey). This story tripped me up a little, it was kind of sweet but I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to read it (still wary, still hesitant – the grumpy grandmother stuck in her old ways especially called for a big fat ‘aiyah‘*). I have to admit that I almost put this book away at this point. But I’m glad I stuck with it, as in the end, the book was quite worthwhile.
The second section was second brother Jung-Sum’s story. He was adopted by the family at age four and struggles with his new life and the spectres of his past. The third story is told through the eyes of Sekky, the youngest, during the Second World War and the tensions between the Japanese and Chinese immigrants in Vancouver. This third story has the most action – the other parts seem more like reminiscences, rather episodic. But despite the lack of action, the reader feels drawn into the lives of these three children, perhaps on the strength of their characters. However, the three stories seem quite separate from each other, and the three main characters seldom feature in each others’ stories, which is quite curious.
* Which can be translated into somewhat of a sigh or an ‘argh’.
You know how I had mentioned in my post on Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony that I am apprehensive about reading Chinese immigrant stories? So why was it that...moreYou know how I had mentioned in my post on Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony that I am apprehensive about reading Chinese immigrant stories? So why was it that immediately after reading Jade Peony, I picked up Cristina Garcia’s Monkey Hunting? I’m not sure myself. But from Vancouver’s Chinatown, I found myself in Cuba, following Chen Pan who in 1857 travels from China to be enslaved (unsuspectingly so) on a sugarcane plantation. He somehow makes it out of the plantation, becomes his own boss (he sells secondhand goods) and buys a mulatto woman out of slavery.
Of course, immigrant stories are never told just by that one generation alone, so Garcia throws us over to New York in 1968 where we meet Domingo, Chen Pan’s great-grandson, and also to Shanghai in the 1920s where Chen Fang, Chen Pan’s granddaughter beats the odds and finds work as an educator. These sudden shifts in location, time and character can be a bit jarring, especially when I was more interested in the goings-on in Cuba (I never thought I’d read a story about Chinese immigrants in Cuba, for one thing) and the way these other sections felt more like anecdotes and left many questions, and just felt somewhat incomplete. Perhaps a more sweeping story, allowing for a greater focus on the lives on Chen Pan’s descendants would have been better?
Today, writing this, a week after reading this book (and having gone on to several others since), Chen Pan’s story still sticks in my mind but those of his descendants, not so much. Garcia’s book offers up a unique setting for the immigrant story, and a rather engaging start, but in the end, it was a little forgettable and a bit confusing.(less)
Cemetery of Dreams and I got off on the wrong foot. Too many characters, all coming at me too fast. It was an overload of information, filling the pag...moreCemetery of Dreams and I got off on the wrong foot. Too many characters, all coming at me too fast. It was an overload of information, filling the pages, filling my brain. In this unfamiliar territory*, I was confused by what was happening. My knowledge of Iran and the revolution is quite scanty**. So yes, I am ignorant, shamefully so. Hopefully some of the non-fiction reading I’m doing this year will amend some of that.
Anyway, as I was saying, Cemetery of Dreams didn’t settle too well with me at first. I felt the need for a cast of characters, and I had to start making notes in case I got confused further down the road. Things began to settle down, but only after 40-odd pages, which is perhaps too long for some readers. The first chapter, the prologue, starts with general Hamid Rahimi, in prison for the murder of Commander Shirazi, meeting a lawyer, Dr Reza Ketabi who wants to know the truth, in order to help him.
Then we switch to the story of Arman Pakran, who is half American, and in Iran with his very American girlfriend Julia. He’s being blackmailed by Zia, a former agent of the Shah’s intelligence, to get information on the American hostages in order for the CIA to launch a rescue operation. But this blackmail/hostage situation/coup attempt is a backdrop to the relationships that take place in this tumultuous time. It is Arman’s story, but also the story of his childhood friend (and former love) Melody who is to be married to whiny Nader, as well as Melody’s cousin, Maryam, who is in an abusive relationship. In fact, I found the hostage rescue attempt and all that military talk to be quite clunky, getting in the way of what otherwise is a somewhat promising story. With the exception of Julia, who got on my nerves quite often, the women in this story are strong, brave characters, and despite this being a story filled with male characters, I got a good sense of who Melody and Maryam were.
If you’re interested in Iran or read suspenseful fiction, this might be a book for you, although you’d probably do better if you already have an inkling of the Iran hostage situation, and have a pen and paper handy to take notes that will lead you out of the confusion of the first 40-odd pages.
*Political thrillers aren’t a genre I read often… if ever, but the fact that this one was set in Iran intrigued me – and was ideal for the middle eastern leg of the Global Reading Challenge, so I was happy to have Greenleaf Book Group send it to me for review.
**I would very much like to place some of the blame on Singapore’s education system here – we spent far too much time, I reckon, on Singapore’s very young history (founded only in 1819) and far too little on the rest of the world, especially outside of Southeast Asia (I can tell you quite a bit about the history of Thailand for instance).
Molly Gloss has written an intriguing, quiet book that speaks volumes in The Dazzle of Day. This is a very international book. Escaping from a dying E...moreMolly Gloss has written an intriguing, quiet book that speaks volumes in The Dazzle of Day. This is a very international book. Escaping from a dying Earth, Quakers from various countries (they speak Esperanto!) have found themselves a home on board the Dusty Miller, a self-sustaining but ageing spaceship. A crew has been sent out to explore a frozen planet as a possible future home. Bjoro is among the crew, and the planet isn’t something he’s prepared for:
“He had thought in the filmcards he had studied of unbounded landscapes, of storms and snows and seas, there remained no surprises. It hadn’t occurred to him, the vast depth of the third dimension. He hadn’t thought he would fear the sky.”
The funny thing about The Dazzle of Day is that nothing seems to be happening, although things are actually happening. The crew crashes on the frozen planet, someone dies when out working on the sail, all major events that are but a sideline to the relationships, to the tales of the daily lives of these Quakers, such as Bjoro’s wife Joko and son Cejo, these people who work the fields, who cook in the kitchen houses, who take part in meetings and discuss their future on this frozen planet, who look after their families and each other.
“For 175 years they had gone on talking and thinking and making ready for leaving this world. They had lived for 175 years in a kind of suspended state, a continual waiting for change, but it was a balanced and deep-grounded condition, an equilibrium. They knew their world, root and branch, knew its history and its economies. The human life of the Miller and the life of its soil and its plants and animals revolved together, in a society that was well-considered, a community that was sustaining. Some people thought they had lived for 175 years in a world that was a kind of Eden.”
But there are no answers. Or at least the book doesn’t leave us with any firm ones.
The Dazzle of Day is a book best described in opposites. There is an ending, but it is not really the end. It is a story of beginnings and endings. The words are quiet, but also full of strength and understanding.(less)
I’ve been putting off writing about this book because….well, where to begin? No, really, where should it begin?
Perhaps it should begin with what I lik...moreI’ve been putting off writing about this book because….well, where to begin? No, really, where should it begin?
Perhaps it should begin with what I liked the most about The Ventriloquist’s Tale. Its setting. Guyana.
I know not of other books that are set in Guyana, do you?. I’ve never been to Guyana, nor has that thought – or any Guyana-related thought – ever crossed my mind. So it was a really refreshing setting, a nice change from the modern, western, or made-up world which most books I read live in. Guyana is a land of sounds, of smells, of animals, of cassava, rain and rivers and heat.
It is a story told by a ventriloquist, although I have to profess that I don’t quite understand why. And when that ventriloquist’s prologue began, I was a bit wary – was this going to end up as magical realism? I wasn’t all that keen on that genre. But the narrator throws the reader into the ‘real’ world of Chofy McKinnon, a Wapisiana Indian (who also has some Anglo blood – Scottish more precisely – in the mix). A farmer who lives with his family in the savannahs, he is driven to nearby Georgetown for work. Tagging along is his aunt Wifreda, who is due for an eye operation. There, he meets and falls for Rosa Mendelsohn, who is researching Evelyn Waugh and his journey to Guyana in the 1930s, supposedly spending time with the McKinnon family. But most of the narrative follows the McKinnon family in the early 1900s, offering a comparison of cultures and lifestyles, of different times, religion, and two different love affairs.
After getting over my initial disinterest in this book, I actually found myself quite immersed in this unusual story. But there’s still something about it that I’m not sure about. I can’t say that I liked it enough to gushingly recommend it to anyone, neither did I dislike it to the point of abandoning it or throwing it across the room. The Ventriloquist’s Tale is quite an intriguing debut novel with a unique and quite wondrous setting. The story itself though, isn’t exactly something that will stay with me.
’m always thoroughly pleased when a book surprises me. And this one was a wonderful surprise. Perhaps it was because I started off with almost no expe...more’m always thoroughly pleased when a book surprises me. And this one was a wonderful surprise. Perhaps it was because I started off with almost no expectations about A Golden Age. All I knew about this book was that it was set in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1970s. And what do I know about East Pakistan today, let alone in the 1970s? I guess that’s why it took me a while to pick up this one – really close to the library’s due date. I even renewed it online as I wasn’t sure if I would finish it, but then, after an initial setback when reading the prologue, I found the pages flying by (once again, a prologue throws me off track… huh).
A Golden Age is a story of a brave woman, who at first doesn’t seem so brave. Rehana Haque is a widow, the mother of Sohail and Maya, who are caught up in the resistance movement, attending meetings, rallies, debating their fight for independence. Rehana “did not have the proper trappings of a nationalist. She did not have the youth or the appearance or the words”. Rehana was born in western Pakistan and speaks the ‘enemy’ language of Urdu, but has called East Pakistan home since her marriage.
But this is 1971 and war is looming. And everyone has to play a part, and Rehana knows that she cannot stop her children from joining the freedom fighters, although there was a part of her that “wanted them to have nothing to do with it all, to keep them safe at home”. Rehana too enters the fray, opening her house to the resistance movement, taking in refugees and fighters, helping out at a refugee camp.
A Golden Age is such an accomplished first novel. It is strong, but soft at the right moments. With the fight for independence, there is violence and terror and fear. But Anam also manages to paint us into 1970s East Pakistan, describing its landscape, cuisine, dwellings, sights, sounds and smells with a loving hand. And creates such a strong character in Rehana, someone I couldn’t help admiring and loving.(less)
“A deep silence ensued. Her mind was as clear as the winter night sky, the Big Dipper and North Star in place, twinkling brightly. She had so many thi...more“A deep silence ensued. Her mind was as clear as the winter night sky, the Big Dipper and North Star in place, twinkling brightly. She had so many things she had to write, so many thoughts and ideas would gush out like lava, congealing into a steady stream of inventive works the likes of which the world had never seen. People’s eyes would pop wide open at the sudden debut of this Promising Young Writer with a Rare Talent. A photo of her, smiling coolly, would appear in the arts section of the newspaper, and editors would beat a path to her door.
But it never happened that way. Sumire wrote some words that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end.”
A while ago, I’d had too much of Haruki Murakami and had to take my leave of him (it was a pretty long one – I didn’t read any in 2010, and only his non-fiction, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in 2009. So the last Murakami I read was in 2008.) But when I returned to Murakami, it felt good. It was comforting, falling into his world of quiet, of music and literature, of Japan, of friendships and love again. An interesting relationship between a man and a woman, and another woman with that woman, a tale of early morning phone calls, of changes, of affection, repressed and unrequited love and longing. And as I read about this relationship of Sumire and the unnamed narrator (we never get to know our narrator’s name although this story is as much his), and of Sumire and an older woman Miu, who eventually becomes her boss, I am waiting, expecting that bit, that twist in the story. And then it comes and it is bizarre, a little creepy in its own way, a little like thinking you heard something in the middle of the night, then you wake up the next morning wondering if you had actually heard it or if it were just a dream.
“Sumire and I were a lot alike. Devouring books came as naturally to us as breathing. Every spare moment we’d settle down in some quiet corner, endlessly turning page after page, Japanese novels, foreign novels, new works, classics, avant-garde to best-seller – as long as there was something intellectually stimulating in a book, we’d read it.”
It takes a while to emerge from this book and back to the gloom and wet of my own settings. I am a little jealous of their journey to that little Greek island. It brings a little warmth into my living room where I am seated on my couch with the fleece throw over my socked feet.
I am glad to have picked up Murakami again. I just reckon one requires quite a breather in between his books, although two years is probably too long a break. However, I have to be honest and say that I am constantly confused by which of his novels I’ve read!(less)
Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet opens in the chaos that ends the first book. It’s a little hard to understand if you haven’t read the fir...moreDreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet opens in the chaos that ends the first book. It’s a little hard to understand if you haven’t read the first book, but essentially, Laura Hame’s protest against the government’s exploitation of dreams, in the form of a terrible nightmare, has shocked the patrons of the dream palace. The story follows not just Laura but her cousin Rose and her aunt, renowned dreamhunter Grace Tiebold, in the confusion that follows, as well as the government’s investigation into the protest. I won’t give any more of the plot away, especially if you haven’t read the first one (go read it!!), but there are so many changes ahead for Laura Hame and her family, as they uncover the secrets of the Place and work to expose corrupt politicians. So there’s some politicking, some adventures in the Place (where dreams are captured), some romance, and great family relationships.
It’s hard to really tell you about this book. I don’t want to give away anything and yet at the same time, want to encourage you to read it! Can’t I just say, ‘read this! read this!’ and let that be enough? Probably not. So let’s see here….
Dreamquake was a completely engrossing read, with some rather genius plot developments that unveil intriguing ideas. I love that this series was a two-parter, as sometimes a middle book can get bogged down with explanations and details. Instead, with a duet, Knox was able to plunge the reader back into the scene and fall back in with those familiar characters. As I turned the last page, part of me hated that I had to leave this fascinating world of Laura Hame’s behind, but Dreamquake offered such a satisfying conclusion that it quenched my thirst, but also left me eager to read more by the amazing Elizabeth Knox.(less)
My first Margaret Drabble! I liked how it opened with a family dinner, as I’m a sucker for books that feature food. It takes a while for us to actuall...moreMy first Margaret Drabble! I liked how it opened with a family dinner, as I’m a sucker for books that feature food. It takes a while for us to actually meet the ‘witch’, that is, Freida Palmer, the matriarch of the family who has just moved into a ruin of a house in Exmoore, as quite a bit of the story is about her three children and their respective families. Frieda then disappears about halfway through the novel, and the focus is then back on her family’s exploration of their eccentric mother. I got a little irritated by that, as I was more interested in Frieda than her whiny family, and the omniscient narrator can get a little too much in this King Lear-ish adaptation.(less)
A difficult read this one, mostly because it is dark, grey, very internal, with an oppressive government just looming behind everyone. Sardines follow...moreA difficult read this one, mostly because it is dark, grey, very internal, with an oppressive government just looming behind everyone. Sardines follows the lives of Medina, who loses her job as the editor of the national newspaper of Somalia. She struggles to bring up her young daughter Ubax, as her friend Sagal is herself trying to figure out whether she wants to flee Somalia or take part in some subversive political action, and discovering that she might be pregnant. Farah tends towards metaphors and lyrical, but meandering prose, but Sardines was in the end an interesting, complex read. Sardines is part two of Farah’s Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship trilogy which also includes Sweet and Sour Milk and Close Sesame, which, judging from Sardines, can be read independently.(less)