London Book Haul

This is a light-hearted blog post where I simply drool over the books I have bought over the Christmas hols. Beware of rampant consumerism!

I was lucky enough to have spent a week in London for the holidays. I love London. To me, it’s the literary capital of the world. My spiritual habitat. Of course, there’s a multitude of reasons to visit London be they historical, cultural, sartorial, or culinary.

Screw it, man! Just take me to the bookshops!

I’ve been to London before, even lived there for four months. This particular trip was a comforting little getaway. It was the opposite of adventurous. All the places I went to, I’ve been before.

I went slightly mad at Persephone Books. Has it been four years since I last stepped inside their shop, truly? I first discovered Persephone Books when I was living in London. My heart leapt when I read about their mission. They sounded like just the publisher for me! For those who aren’t acquainted with them, Persephone Books republish neglected and out-of-print mid-century fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) women writers. And for those who hasn’t seen their books, they are gorgeous! Persephone publishes their books in uniform dove-grey covers but with individual patterned endpaper.

My timing in London was a bit bad. Everyone was in the Christmas rush to do their last-minute shopping. The Persephone shop is small, and people kept coming in and out to do their shopping. Additionally, when I was in their shop, their website was down so their two phones kept ringing back and forth. Sometimes simultaneously. But I really need to give a lot of props to the Persephone staff. Even though they clearly had a lot on their hands, they were gracious enough to spend time recommending books to me, grabbing the books I was interested in and sitting me down and telling me to read the first few pages of all the books I wanted so I could see which one grabbed me the most. I was told to take as much time as I needed. Which was very sweet.

The first book I got was The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Now, I love short stories. They must be my favorite fiction medium. So how could I resist this? There are thirty stories and around four hundred and fifty pages here, which I think is very generous. This book is also a sampler of many existing Persephone writers: Helen Hull, Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, etc. I neither have the money nor space in my suitcase to hoard all of Persephone’s catalogue so this is a good way of experiencing as many Persephone writers as possible. But there are also more comforting names on the list, such as Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson, authors that I already adore. I have high hopes for this anthology.

Then, I have Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the book that I will read the soonest. This is the favorite Persephone book of one of the staff who was kind enough to recommend books to me. Though harrowing, she told me, this book is gripping and beautifully written. The story of a disabled girl who is taken advantage of by her relatives for her inheritance is clearly not a happy one. But I read the first few pages at the shop and couldn’t put it down. That and the staff’s recommendation had me sold.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was the one book I knew for sure I was going to get even before I entered the shop. This glowing review from bookssnob convinced me that I should get this book. I love domestic dramas and ambiguous characters who are neither angels nor complete monsters. Someone at a Distance sounds like the realist novel of quiet dramas for me.

The Closed Door and Other Stories is another Dorothy Whipple book I got. I just can’t keep away from short stories! As I mentioned, the Persephone staff let me sit down and read through their books. I read one short short from this book entitled “The Rose” and really enjoyed it. It made me think of a quieter Dorothy Parker. There’s no sharp witticism here, but there’s humor and human foibles that’s reminiscent of Parker’s work.

Prior to entering the shop, I wanted to get Miss Buncle’s Book. But when one of the staff saw that I was interested in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day she remarked that tonally, they were similar. And if she were me, she would pick Miss Pettigrew by Winifred Watson. She described it as an adult fairytale. I read the first few pages and like Harriet, I couldn’t put it down. This time, for a completely different reason. Miss Pettigrew is sparkling, charming, and funny. I was immediately reminded of Dodie Smith and really, my bookshelves are in need for more positive, happy books.

I went to Foyles twice during my trip. I quite like their new incarnation. The new shop looks clean and modern and minimalist. It’s a shame they have to relocate slightly further afield from their iconic address but I can’t complain about their new interior.

I got two Margaret Atwoods. Sometime this year, I wondered why I don’t read more Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly one of my favorite books. So I picked up both Alias Grace and The Robber Bride. Virago has published Margaret Atwood’s back catalogue except The Handmaid’s Tale in gorgeous editions: all block colors and a mixture of drawing and photography on the cover. I am particularly fond of The Robber Bride’s cover. It’s a perfect combination: the color red and a femme fatale.

Speaking of lovely covers, I don’t know what the plot behind Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is. But good Lord is the Virago Modern Classic cover a thing of beauty! So it went home with me. Me? Shallow? Guilty as charged!

I had been looking for a good copy of East of Eden and the edition sold at the Kinokuniya in Jakarta is outrageously expensive. I also ransacked my grandfather’s bookshelves, to no avail. So it was serendipitous that I found new Penguin Classics edition of Steinbeck’s best-known novels at Foyles. I love the new cover; I love the tones of the reds, whites, and blues. Obviously, Penguin was trying to highlight how Steinbeck was a quintessential American writer, maybe even a bit heavy-handedly but the cover worked for me.

Although I didn’t love The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith when I read it this summer, I enjoyed how charming and comforting the read was. I’m also trying to work through Smith’s back catalogue before I finally read I Capture the Castle, which I know in my heart that I will love whole-heartedly. So with those thoughts in mind, I purchased The New Moon with the Old. Knowing Smith, it will charming and eccentric and positive and I look forward to picking this up when I need a good comfort read.

Finally, because I’m loving the theme of doubles, I purchased both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve heard too many good things about Ishiguro’s writing. A friend of mine whose taste I completely trust considers Never Let Me Go to be a modern masterwork so I picked it up at The Notting Hill Bookshop. I found The Remains of the Day at an Oxfam a few days later for 99 pence so, how could I resist? If I end up not liking it at least it didn’t cost me too much.

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In total, I bought twelve books. Madness! I don’t even count the number of unread books languishing in my bookshelves anymore. Oh well, at least I know I’m excited about all the books I bought. Cheers to happy reading in 2015, I guess.

Raumanen by Marianne Katoppo

Jakarta in the 1970s

When my boss gave me an assignment having to do with the novella Raumanen, I groaned a little inside. I knew the synopsis and ending from a reference book on Indonesian literature I once owned. I had balked at the ending, which I found melodramatic and old-fashioned in its morals. However, I can only talk about the ending in vague terms here since about three-quarters through reading, I realized that it is meant to be a twist ending.

Raumanen was first published as a serial in the popular women’s magazine Femina and then published as a book in 1977. Despite being in the romance genre, Raumanen has always been well-received and well-regarded in the Indonesian literary canon. But then again, Indonesians do love their romances.

The structure of Raumanen is quite simple. There are three running sections: we have a traditional third-person narrative reciting the romance between Raumanen and Monang, a first-person point of view of Raumanen ten years later, and a parallel passage from Monang’s point of view. These sections are written in fairly short chapters that are interwoven together.

From Raumanen’s POV in the very first pages of the book, we already know that her relationship with Monang has imploded years ago. We are simply reading the third-person narrative to find out why.

Raumanen met Monang at a university event. Monang is brash, flamboyant, and clearly a playboy. As is common with these types of men, Monang also has a certain charisma about him. Immediately, he sets out to charm Raumanen. All Raumanen’s friends warn her against him, but Raumanen laughs their attempts off, claiming they are simply friends, that they have more of a brother-sister relationship. Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to change…

To my surprise, I enjoyed the beginning of Raumanen much more than I expected. Because it is a college novel, the language is appropriately limber, not at all stiff. And Raumanen as a character is likable: she is witty and idealistic. But it’s also painfully clear how naïve she is.

Marianne Katoppo was not content in constraining her novella in the college romance genre. Raumanen does deal with a heavier topic: interracial relationships. Raumanen is set in the 1970s, when Indonesia is still a very young country. There is commentary on how because Indonesia was still a young country, people from different tribes and islands still cannot conceive themselves as part of a greater whole. Thus, despite Raumanen falling pregnant, Monang’s wealthy and conservative parents cannot accept a marriage between the two.

To be honest, reading Raumanen in 2014 makes for food for thought. Indonesia is a much older country now but attitudes regarding interracial and interreligious relationships can still be as archaic as the 1970s. It can still be very difficult for interreligious couples to get married in Indonesia. Easy solutions would be for one half of the couple to convert or for them to marry abroad. Not easy for those with limited funds or for those who want to remain within their religion. And there are some who still cling to tradition, wanting their children to marry exclusively within the tribe or race. Clearly there’s something deeper in the Indonesian psyche regarding differences than maturation. If lack of maturity in the 1970s was the only problem, we’d be far more enlightened by now. Ironic, considering Indonesia’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.”

But back to the plot. One thing that shocked me is how permissive people are in letting Raumanen be alone with Monang during their budding friendship. Raumanen’s family lets Monang drive her around at night, alone. Wasn’t this the 1970s? There really is no caution and is it any wonder that Raumanen ended up pregnant? I was worried that something more sinister was going to happen. This plot hole really bothered me.

On the writing front, I wish Katoppo wrote more scenes on how Raumanen and Monang became closer. Their friendship is told, not shown. Then all of a sudden, they are launched into a romance. A romance I found quite problematic as their first kiss is more of Monang forcing the act on her. Even Raumanen’s inner thoughts show that she felt forced into it. Then, there’s Monang’s character. I don’t like him. He’s too brazen and yet he’s not brave enough when it comes to what matters. And I couldn’t help but wonder how Raumanen and Monang became attracted to each other in the first place: they are clearly incompatible. Raumanen is ambitious and wants to be independent, while Monang is secure in mediocrity and would rather drift through life.

Reading through the point of view sections was a bit of a chore. Raumanen’s point of view is particularly grating as it drips with self-pity. Raumanen post-romance is a crusty, unlikable character who is suspicious of everyone. In fact, both point of view angles become quite irritating as the ‘I’ve ruined her’ and ‘I’m ruined forever’ thoughts get tedious. I understood that Katoppo was trying to convey poetry in misery: the point of view sections were replete with parallel repetition and floral diction. But it just came across as very, very annoying. Well, I had thought, the poetic flourishes are all it’s got working for it, since these passages don’t advance the plot at all!

Or so I had thought.

The point of view passages indeed had something to do with plot. They hint at the ending to come. When I figured out the ending, I frantically flicked through the point of view sections to see if I had missed all the signs that led to it. There’s some writerly respect I afford to Marianne Katoppo in how she made a simple structure so effective.

I found it a little hard to rate Raumanen. I kept going back and forth between giving it two or three stars out of five. I thought it was OK and the ending certainly surprised me. Structurally, it was a good novel. I just didn’t think thematically it was the novel for me. I settled on giving it two stars for lack of personal enjoyment. I just found Monang and Raumanen’s characters (particularly her later personality) too grating. I still understood why this novel was well-regarded and I don’t regret reading it. However, I do hope the next books I read will give me more pleasure.

On Half-Broken Resolutions and Annual Favorites

As far as New Year’s resolutions go, mine didn’t turn out too badly. I had two reading resolutions in 2014: to read more Indonesian literature and to read World War I literature. I made good on my promise on the Indonesian lit front. The first book I read in 2014 was Saman by Ayu Utami, which I enjoyed so much it is included in my top reads of 2014. I reviewed Leila S. Chudori’s 9 dari Nadira on this blog. And thanks to my new job, I have the opportunity to read through a bunch of hard-to-find Indonesian short stories.

Sadly, fulfillment on both fronts of my bookish goals didn’t happen. Since 2014 was the centennial anniversary of World War I, I had planned on reading WWI fiction and poetry, supplemented with articles and history books. Failing that, I had hoped to read at least Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Ford’s Parade’s End this year. Forget it! I was intimidated by the size of Parade’s End and never got the inspiration to pick up All Quiet on the Western Front.

I started 2014 knowing absolutely nothing about World War I and I would end 2014 knowing equally nothing about World War I.

I always aim to read at least fifty books a year. Such a scheme makes for one book per week, plus an extra two weeks for chunky books –all in all, a rather laid-back schedule. But I only read little more than half my aim. I found this shocking as I used to be an inordinately fast reader. As a child and a teen, I could finish books in a matter of hours, sometimes in a day if the pace was slow. Somehow I found my reading pace snailing until it hit me earlier this year that it’s taking me weeks to finish thin books. This is ridiculous, I had thought. Some mental digging made me realize that since becoming an English major, my reading pace slowed and slowed. I suppose all that scouring for themes, motifs, symbols, and repetition made me a reader who never skipped a single word.

Consequently, I only have five books in my top reads of 2014. A pathetically minimal amount but considering the few books I read it’s really not a surprise.

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Hands down my favorite book of the year! I think it’s the only book I would give a five out of five-star rating this year. Prior, I didn’t want to touch Morrison’s novels even with a ten-foot pole as I was too intimidated. I had heard that Morrison’s works were dense, rich in symbolism, and tackled difficult subjects. I fretted that everything would fly over my head and I would be left ill-equipped and inadequate. But I had to read it for a Contemporary Lit class so I had no choice but to plunge into it.

I’m so glad I did! Please, if Toni Morrison intimidated you the way she did me, don’t worry! Beloved is a readable novel, not at all incomprehensible. The writing style is exquisite, the storyline compelling, and everything about this novel is rich and vivid. The horrors of slavery, a mother’s love, identity and memory are the main themes in Beloved. None are easy to write about but Morrison wrote them so well. I read that some have found Beloved overly sensational but I disagree. I think Morrison framed a sensational subject –a mother killing her child, with understandable motivations and difficult questions.

On a personal level, Beloved stole my heart because it is also a Gothic ghost story in a way. The Gothic lit acolyte in me rejoiced that such a beautiful book could be written while incorporating my favorite elements.

  1. Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Don't Look Now

Don’t Look Now is a collection of nine du Maurier stories spanning thirty years of her career. And no book I read this year had me so enthralled under its spell. I was so obsessed with the story “Don’t Look Now” that I missed going to the gym. I was so absorbed in “Split Second” that I didn’t even notice a friend calling for me and kicking at the chair near me. du Maurier was a plot-weaver of the highest degree and this is compulsive, page-turning reading at its finest! The stakes are always high and the tension palpable: whether it’s a murderer on the loose in Venice, birds inexplicably attacking humans, finding out your home is overrun by complete strangers, or waking up to find everyone around you has an animal’s head, all of du Maurier’s stories keeps you reading to find out what the hell is the going on.

du Maurier was also interested in the blurry line between the physical and the supernatural, ensuring that her stories were infused with a Gothic imagination. If you are a fan of Gothic literature, please, please ensure that you read du Maurier!

  1. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I think at this point you may know that I love my short stories; Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is another short story collection. A generous one at that! There are twenty-four stories here. And by the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl,” I was smiling, convinced that this would be one of my favorite books of the year. When I turned the final page, I was proven right.

If you have never read Murakami before, you may need to brace yourself for some talking animals and vanishing people. But if you’re a fan of realism, don’t fret! Murakami writes both surrealism and realism. I’m a fan of the realist myself and I loved twenty of the twenty-four stories. Most of the time, the talking animals and vanishing people are red herrings anyway. These stories are more about loneliness and the sadness of lovers rather than the bizarre surfaces Murakami paints over.

It’s also much more rewarding if you savor Murakami rather than trying to figure out what all these stories mean. I tried analyzing Murakami at seventeen only to glean frustrated results. Just enjoy Murakami’s style, which I find so beautiful. I wanted so much to grab whoever is nearby and read them passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

  1. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Angel is constructed like a tragic play; in five acts with a short epilogue. The novel charts the rise and fall of romance writer Angel(ica) Deverell. Angel is unquestionably one of the more odious fictional creations; she is ghastly towards her mother and the people who care about her and she refuses to accept any blame and responsibility. Elizabeth Taylor paints Angel as someone who lives in fantasy; she must be the adored one, everyone must love her, her writing is genius and the critics are all wrong despite her romances being more purple than the lavender fields of Provence.

Yet despite all this, I sympathized and even admired Angel at times. Mostly for her audacity. After finishing her first novel, she goes to the library, copies a publisher’s address from the first book she finds and sends her manuscript off. Overweening arrogance aside, there’s something to applaud when someone wholly believes in themselves.

Taylor does an incredible job in keeping us simultaneously pitying Angel and feeling repelled by her. Taylor also hits on a writer’s insecurity: that the critics are right and their writing really is that bad. I can’t be the only person to blush when reading examples of Angel’s writing. Oh, the junior high days when I thought burping contents of a thesaurus was the hallmark of good writing. Thankfully I am now cured of such delusion!

There’s a precision in Elizabeth Taylor’s writing that I greatly admire. Angel is the first and only novel of hers that I’ve read. I would very much love recommendations on where to go next with Taylor’s oeuvre.

  1. Saman by Ayu Utami

It is so rare when your first book of the year becomes one of your favorites. It’s rare that you can remember the contents of the book in the first place. Saman refers to the protagonist of the novel, a budding priest stationed at a rubber town in Indonesia’s Soeharto era. Several subplots run through the novel involving four women: Laila, Shakuntala, Cok, and Yasmin. Don’t bother with the subplots! The women’s plights are tepid. One of the women spend the novel fretting whether or not to sleep with her married lover. I spent the duration of her story thinking ‘This is a bad idea! Don’t do it!’ I really don’t understand how and why the women’s issues are feminist when they just seem whiny at best. Saman’s tale is really the meat of the story and it’s really why the novel made it to my top 5 list.

Saman’s story is a fascinating peek into village mysticism and village economy. The arc about government crackdown on poor farmers and land grabs by big corporations feels neutral and isn’t anger-filled but all the more horrifies the readers. This is one of those moments where a novel feels real. It’s also an eye-opener: I had thought that because Saman was so famous for telling the tale of Soeharto-era authoritarianism, it would relate to city-folk more. I had forgotten that it is the people in the villages who probably suffered most.

Saman isn’t without its flaws. Utami tries to weld together metaphorical lyricism with journalistic realism in Saman but ultimately it is the journalistic realism that wins out. Sometimes it is overwritten and the feminist commentary is a bit weak but all in all I cannot ignore the novel’s strengths. And I keep remembering bits from time to time. I already feel like rereading Saman even though it hasn’t even been a year. It is certainly memorable and has earned its place in this list.

If anyone reading this thinks there is a book I might enjoy, please don’t hesitate to recommend me!

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

When I was about sixteen, I was seduced a review laden with glowing praise for the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. There was a passage that held my breath: a description of a story where a man made enormous pots of spaghetti, for, no one really. I had thought, what an achingly lovely way to portray loneliness. I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before, but I had to have this book. The next year, I spotted a reasonably-priced little paperback version in the local bookstore. And so it became mine.

Unfortunately, at seventeen I went through a pretentious period where I read literary fiction not for the sake of enjoyment, but to uncover all the symbolisms an author had put in place. At seventeen, the only feelings my self-imposed exercise produced were dejection and burnout. The Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman experience was no different. I had no idea what a beautiful ear was supposed to symbolize in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” I was no closer in gleaning what the knife in “Hunting Knife” signified. I give up, I had thought in frustration after a hundred pages, these stories I just don’t understand. They’re too weird. And abnormal. And I’m too stupid to understand them. My symbolism-sleuthing days were officially over. I was made to feel even stupider when I found out that most readers adored Murakami. What was it that I was missing? I railed.

Recently, I had to read the Murakami short story “The Elephant Vanishes” for class. I found, to my surprise, that I really liked it. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I picked up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman again.

By the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl,” I couldn’t stop smiling, I couldn’t stop thinking: this will probably be one of my favorite books of the year. Oh, however did I dislike these stories in the first place? Murakami writes so, so beautifully.

At seventeen, I went with the completely wrong approach for Murakami. For Murakami is not meant to be analyzed, he is meant to be savored. I’m being repetitive here, but his writing is so, so beautiful. It’s not beautiful in the sense that it is lyrical or melodic. The beauty of his writing is not easy to describe. It isn’t spare. I feel like his way of descriptions are just right; neither meager nor fussy. I suppose clean and elegant is a good way to explain his prose. I did wonder if some people would find Murakami’s style a bit stilted, since there’s a smidgen of formality in the prose and dialogue. If you do find Murakami lacking, let me know. I’d love to know why. Anyway, all I know was I found Murakami’s writing so wonderful that I wanted to grab other people and read passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Now, for the plot. Or rather, plots. I’m having trouble trying to describe the plots. It’s a short story collection, after all. There are, though, some conflation between plots. Murakami, as you may know, loves the strange and the fantastical. But it’s all done in an accessible way. Yes, there are talking animals and vanishing people and Ice Men but most of the things that happen are more like coincidences. Yes, these coincidences are a bit off-kilter but they can happen in everyday existence. This is not an Alternate Universe. Most of the time, it’s just our world and its oddities.

Murakami’s protagonists are average men and women. Most of the time they are aware of their mediocrity. The protagonist of “A Shinagawa Monkey” thought:

Nothing approaching the dramatic had ever touched her. If her life were a movie, it would be one of those low-budget environmental documentaries guaranteed to put you to sleep. Washed-out scenery stretching out endlessly to the horizon. No changes of scene, no close-ups, nothing exciting, just a flatline experience with nothing whatsoever to draw you in (341).

Often they’re passive, often they’re nameless, sometimes they’re jerks. The protagonist of my absolute favorite story “Man-Eating Cats” explained away his adultery with:

It’s not like I’m in love […] It’s a special relationship, but completely different from what I have with you. Like night and day. You haven’t detected anything going on, right? That proves it’s not the kind of affair you’re imagining (119).

Oh dear, I sympathize far too easily with characters but all I could do with this guy was laugh derisively.

I suppose I should talk a bit about my favorite stories. I’ve mentioned “Man-Eating Cats” as my favorite, but I also really, really enjoyed “A Folklore for my Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day.” But since I’ve rambled on too long, I’ll only talk about “Man-Eating Cats.” The man-eating cats in the story is from a newspaper article where an old woman died alone and her cats, after days of not being fed, started eating her corpse. I think this is a good illustration of Murakami’s standard style; they are indeed odd happenings, but it does make sense. The protagonist of the story and a woman named Izumi, both married, delve into an affair. Their spouses find out and leave them. Left with a sense of purposelessness in life, the protagonist and Izumi take all their savings and exile themselves to Greece. The relationship slowly decays and we don’t hold out much hope for them. It’s not necessarily an action-packed story but the atmosphere and descriptions are just perfect. This, out of all the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, made me want to read out passages to other people.

I researched Murakami after reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman –proof of how much I enjoyed this book, and from what I gathered, Murakami works with mainly two styles: realist and magical realism. I myself prefer him when he’s being realistic. Which was why I could do without the stories about talking animals. I am especially not fond of “Dabchick.” It’s a personal preference though, not an indictment of Murakami as a writer. If I had to rate it, I’d give it four-and-a-half stars. I’ve knocked back half-a-star for stories I didn’t like. Overall, though, it was difficult finding stories that I didn’t like. I must have enjoyed twenty out of the twenty-four stories in this collection.

I don’t think Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is an especial favorite amongst Murakami fans. Yet I love it so much and if Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is one of Murakami’s lesser works, I’m excited to read what else he has to offer. I’ve already picked up Norwegian Wood last weekend, as I know that one is classic realist Murakami. I plan to read Norwegian Wood sometime in the new year but I also want recommendations. Since I love short stories so much, is his other collection The Elephant Vanishes worthwhile? Is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle intimidating? How is he as a non-fiction writer in Underground? Any comments and recommendations is much appreciated.