Category Archives: Off the shelf

Diary of a bookworm.

New book smell

One of my first book orders of the year arrived today. Started with the editor’s foreword and can’t wait to read Muir’s essays.

I wonder if it is the chemicals in the paper or someone accidentally pouring a bottle of perfume (also chemicals) into the book producing process, or am I simply imagining the whiff of lavender as I leaf through the pages. I sniff again. And again. And again. The scent lingers. I’m literally burying my nose in a book.

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Memorable reads of 2015

I don’t read enough, much less read enough new books to be able to write a list of ‘best books of 2015’.  I did read some lovely books last year that are worth mentioning and maybe you may like them as well!

  1. An Intimate History Of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

This has to be the best book I have ever read! It is an engaging, unconventional book about the history of the human experience and philosophies woven with semi-biographical narratives of contemporary women in France (read the book for the British author’s explanation of his choice of the  female subject and why French). If this is not enough to pique your interest, here’s a sample of the contents table:

  • How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them

  • How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations

  • How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough

  • How people freed themselves from fear by finding new fears

  • How travellers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned not to see only what they are looking for

The book was first published in 1994/1995, and I only discovered it last year while casually browsing in an indie book shop in Singapore. Moral of the story (and potential chapter titles, perhaps?):

  • How being late is still better than never
  • How a  book shop, even if it faces diminishing dollar returns, has not diminished in its ability to inspire reading.

2. Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe

A collection of short stories, and winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction 2014. The stories, while based in familiar Singapore setting, explore emotions that are universal and yet, uncomfortable to deal with. I can’t wait to read more of her works.

3. Eastern Heathens  contributed by Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, Jason Erik Lundberg, Bryan Cheong, Jon Gresham et al

Another collection of short stories, this set contains eastern folklores with a modern twists. The first thing that attracted me was the exquisite book cover – yet another reason to browse book stalls at artists’ fair! Some stories are better than others.

4. Sapiens – a brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Another history book, you say! But this proved to be such an engrossing read that I started over Christmas and finished it while on a flight back from Australia on new year’s day (I am a slow reader, by the way). Written by a professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (who happens to be only 39 years old?!), this book is an engaging take on the history on homo sapiens. There are some attention grabbing titles such as “The Agricultural Revolution – The Biggest Fraud in History” and certain sweeping statements at portions of the book. But there is no doubt that the book will make one question some of the assumptions that we make – and take for granted – about the history of our species. The book would have been more comprehensive if it had given some discussion about the development of art, literature and music in mankind’s history, even if these developments had never bore the label ‘revolution’.

5. China in Ten Words by Yu Hua

Written by reknown mainland Chinese writer Yu Hua who is famed for his fictional novels Brothers and Living, with the latter made into an acclaimed film by director Zhang Yimou. China in Ten Words  on the other hand is anything but fiction: part memoir, part observation of China, through Yu Hua’s eyes you get a personal glimpse of China’s Cultural Revolution and its uneven development that had led to the market-based Chinese economy of today. Each essay explores subject matter represented by the words People, Leader, Reading, Writing, Lu Xun, Revolution, Disparity, Grassroots, Copycat, and Bamboozle. The book is all the more remarkable because it deals with topics such as the Tiananmen demonstrations and June Fourth, topics that are generally considered to be taboo in China – it has been reported that Yu Hua did not even bother to get the book past PRC censors. Although Yu Hua wrote the book in Chinese, the book was actually first published in French, and then in English with the first Chinese edition published in Taiwan.

The book in English – though tame in comparison to the language it was originally written in (at least base on my quick read thus far of one chapter in Chinese) – is humorous, candid and a wry take of each of the 10 words, as seen through Yu Hua’s childhood against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, with connecting threads to present-day China. Highly recommended.

 

What are you reading?

Recent reads:

A couple of novels set around colonial times in Malaya:

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng. A story of tragedy and loss reminisced by a retired judge who returned to the lush greenery of Cameron Highlands long after the second world war. Although the plot seems to move at still pace, there is actually a rather intriguing story. For once I can read a novel and understand all the colloquial terms without looking them up. On the other hand, I did have to look up some of the references to Japanese culture (which coincided with my preparation at that time for a short trip to Japan).

The Singapore Grip, by JG Farrell. This author was recommended by a new friend and I was on a Malayan modern history binge (alright, the story was largely set in a time when Singapore was part of the Straits Settlement and not Malaya per se, but the fall of Singapore is pretty much the fall of Malaya). Again, there is an added sense of affinity to read a novel and get most of the references. Interesting bits on rubber price-fixing and supply manipulation for commerce junkies.

To Kill a Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee. Re-read this to much delight. So much humour and warmth. Scout was forced to wear a dress: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately“. In another chapter, Jem asked Atticus bleakly: “How could they do it, how could they?” to which Atticus repliedI don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems that only children weep.”

Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong (in Chinese). Life in Inner Mongolia with the wolves. Book consists of chapters of the protagonist’s life as a young cadre sent to the great grasslands during the Cultural Revolution. The book is said to be a projection of the author’s own owe of the nomadic people. But that doesn’t mean the book is not informative in its depiction of the life of nomads even if as a biased contrast to the Han chinese settlers. In case you are interested, there’s an English translation of this book.

The Little Book of Plagiarism, by Richard A. Posner. It really is a little book. A short and concise explanation on the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement, and why good art doesn’t necessarily have to be original (in the author’s opinion). Written by a U.S. judge.

Now reading/soon-to-read:

The Last Lingua Franca, by Nicolas Ostler. This is the second book I have on the history of languages by the same author. Glad to have this book on my shelf to flip through before my trip to Uzbekistan (where so many people are multi-linguals but seldom one in common with me! If there is one super power I want to have, it is the ability to understand 10 languages. Or 10 lingua francas. I’m not greedy. Just 10 will do.)

Europe and the people without history, by Eric R. Wolf. Just into the first chapters: so far this book is fascinating.

The Rock of Tanios, by Amin Maalouf

Law and Literature, by Richard A. Posner

The Railway, by Hamid Ismailov

A collection of plays by a Malaysian playwright.

I’d like to know what interests you. So tell me, what have you been reading?

The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier

Seldom read travel memoirs. But this one has so many gems of passages.

The Way of the World, by Nicolas Bouvier. Translated from French by Robyn Marsack.

On travelling:

Travelling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you – or unmaking you.

On foreign aid:

practising charity demands endless tact and humility. It is much easier to rid a village of malcontents than to change its ways, and no doubt it is easier to find Lawrences of Arabia and agitators than technicians who are also good psychologists. … We know that the Americans are the most generous people in the world. We also know that they are often ill-informed, that they like things done in their own way, and that their hearts are warmed by results that appeal to their sentimentality… It is not so easy to admit that what works at home mightn’t work abroad; that Iran, that old aristocrat who has known all about life – and forgotten much – is allergic to ordinary medicines and calls for special treatment. Presents are not so easy to give when the children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.

On sensibilities. The author was plagued by a riddle and asked his student:

‘Please explain to me, awhite-castle-without-doors”: what could it possibly be?’

‘An EGG’, she said immediately. ‘Couldn’t you guess? It’s easy, even a child knows that.’ And she sat back, as though to savour the significance of her answer.

An egg? I didn’t see how. De Chirico himself couldn’t have worked that one out, yet the least of my pupils could see the association at once. As neither their eggs nor their castles were so very different from ours, it had to be their mentality that was different. And I had accused them of a lack of imagination! No, it was just that they exercised it in a totally different realm.

On that indescribable moment, the passage that got me interested in the book:

The widening light caught the plumage of quails and partridges… and quickly I dropped this wonderful moment to the bottom of my memory, like a sheet-anchor that one day I could draw up again. You stretch, pace to and fro feeling weightless, and the word ‘happiness’ seems too thin and limited to describe what has happened. In the end, the bedrock of existence is not made up of the family, or work, or what others say or think of you, but of moments like this when you are exalted by a transcendent power that is more serene than love. Life dispenses them parsimoniously; our feeble hearts could not stand more.

Who writes/translates like this? I’m smitten.

Feeling inadequate with words to express how I feel now, I borrow these lines from the film History Boys:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I contentedly let my hand be taken.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story – by Shahriar Mandanipour

I must share this extraordinary book that I recently discovered by accident.

The book tells the tale of a writer who writes an Iranian love story. Supposedly, this is a country where unmarried lovers cannot be alone together: in one scene, the couple, Dara & Sara, has a date in a hospital emergency room, where they will not be noticed amidst the chaos. The writer also contemplates a date scene in the cemetery because that is the least likely of date places. At the same time the writer is being questioned by the censor (all this happens as some sort of internal conversation in his head) for introducing bad ideas to young people by showing them how to dodge scrutiny to commit “immoral acts”.

As he writes the story, the writer battles with himself, constantly anticipating what may be seen as “immoral” and censored by the authorities. When the censors replace an offensive word with “…” (the ellipse), it gives rise to unintended consequences. As the writer explains, when the reader encounters the “infamous” three dots, he is no longer within the control of the writer nor the censor, and the reader’s imagination roams unbridled as to what the three dots represent:

It is thus that Iranian writers have become the most polite, the most impolite, the most romantic, the most pornographic, the most political, the most socialist realist, and the most postmodern writers in the world.

The book goes back and forth from the writer’s created characters, his own consciousness to his encounters with the ministry’s censor, Mr Petrovich (named after one of Dostoevsky’s characters). The writer explains the complicated censorship history in Iran and the some times over-the-top similes fashioned by long dead Iranian poets as a way of dancing between the line separating the divine and the carnal. That, he explains, is why “Iranian literature, which is quite rich, is so difficult to translate and to read.” The author illustrates this point with samplings of the great Sufi poets’ writings, weaving them into his story of Dara & Sara – in some ways it is almost like an introduction to ancient Persian literature.

Would a person who thinks he lives in a place with much freedom find this book relevant? I truly believe that censorship or self-censorship is just as pervasive any where. We are all affected in some way with what is considered as politically correct or socially acceptable. Social norms subtly dictate us to behave or express ourselves in a way that make us more amenable to others. In Dara & Sara’s case, the writer may have dealt with this issue when he agonised over who was supposed to call whom after a lovers’ quarrel:

if I write that Sara dials Dara’s number first, there is a chance some hard-line Iranian feminists, who bear no resemblance to Iran’s true activist feminists and who scare me very much, will pull their headscarves down over their uncombed hair that they have not washed in a week, and… say “See! despite all your cunning, you finally revealed your male chauvinism, Mr. Writer”… As you may have guessed, I am introducing you to another world of censorship, one that is even more powerful than Mr. Petrovich and all the employees and bureaus of his ministry.

I hope I’m not giving the impression that this is a tough book to read. It is actually the opposite. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour (translated into English by Sara Khalili) is witty and enigmatic. And full of surprises. It’s been a while since I have read such a beautifully written book.

Wanderlust explained

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The only textbook I kept from my school girl days is this atlas. I love old books especially those that I kept all these years. On the top corner is my handwriting of the date… this atlas is almost two decades old! The atlas was meant to complement Geography, which hardly serves much purpose in most people’s adult life. But stripped of all its dry facts are glimpses into age-old, far flung places that are nature’s greatest gifts, sowing the seeds of imagination of adventures across the world so wide and diverse.

Wondering where to travel next? Take out the atlas and have your pick!