London Book Haul

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

I was lucky enough to spend 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 a few 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 truly been four years since I last stepped inside their shop? 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.

At the time, everyone in London was in a rush to do their last-minute Christmas shopping. The Persephone shop is small, and people kept coming in and out to do their shopping. Additionally, when I was in the shop, their website was down so their two phones kept ringing back and forth. Sometimes simultaneously.

Kudos to the amazing Persephone staff! Even though they 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 ones 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. I love short stories so how could I resist? There are thirty stories and around four-hundred-and-fifty pages in the volume. This book is also a sampler of many existing Persephone writers: Helen Hull, Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, etc. I neither had 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 familiar names on the list, such as Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson – authors I already adore. I have high hopes for this anthology.

Then, I have Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. 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.

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 it. Someone at a Distance sounds like the realist novel of quiet dramas I love.

The Closed Door and Other Stories is another Dorothy Whipple book I bought. I just can’t keep away from short stories! In the store, I read a short story from this book titled “The Rose” and really enjoyed it. It made me think of a quieter Dorothy Parker. The wit isn’t as pointed or harsh, but the humor of human foibles is 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 they were tonally very similar. If she were me, she would pick Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. 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.

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 had to relocate slightly further afield from their iconic address but I can’t complain about their new interior.

I got two Margaret Atwoods, 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 the plot of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. But good Lord, the Virago Modern Classic cover is a thing of beauty! So it went home with me. Me? Shallow? Guilty as charged!

I was looking for a copy of East of Eden but the edition sold in Kinokuniya Jakarta was outrageously expensive. I ransacked my grandfather’s bookshelves too, to no avail. And so it was serendipitous that I found new Penguin Classics editions 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, I enjoyed how charming and comforting it was, which was why I purchased The New Moon with the Old. Knowing Smith, it will be delightful and eccentric and positive and I look forward to picking this up when I need a good comfort read.

Finally, 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; how could I resist?

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

Raumanen by Marianne Katoppo

An old cover, year unknown

I read Raumanen for work. It wasn’t a book I would have chosen for myself. I once owned a reference book on Indonesian literature and from it, read the synopsis and ending of Raumanen. I found the story dated and melodramatic and so was never interested in picking up the novel.

It was a shame I knew about the ending going in. Three-quarters through reading, I realized it was meant to be a plot twist. I will only talk about the ending vaguely here, should anyone be interested in picking up Raumanen.

Raumanen was first published as a serial in the popular women’s magazine Femina then published as a novel in 1977. Normally categorized in the romance genre, Raumanen is at times also considered literary fiction. Indonesians do love their romances.

The structure of Raumanen is simple. There are 3 sections: a traditional third-person narrative reciting the romance of Raumanen and Monang, a first-person POV narrative of Raumanen 10 years later, and a parallel passage from Monang’s POV. The 3 sections are written in short chapters that are interwoven together.

The novel begins with Raumanen’s perspective, 10 years later. It is established that her relationship with Monang imploded years ago. We continue reading to figure out what happened.

Raumanen met Monang at a university event. Monang is brash, flamboyant, and clearly a playboy. As is common with this type of man, he has a certain charisma about him. Immediately, he sets out to charm Raumanen. All her friends warn Raumanen against Monang, but she laughs off their attempts, claiming they are simply friends, that they have more of a brother-sister relationship. Yeah, doesn’t take long for all that to change.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the beginning of Raumanen much more than I expected. Because it is set in a university, the language is fluid and limber, not at all stiff despite being an older novel. Raumanen as a character is likable: witty and idealistic, while also painfully naïve.

The novel’s primary theme is interracial relationships. Raumanen is set in the 1970s, when Indonesia was still a very young country. It occupies such a wide swath of areas and islands, and people from disparate tribes could not conceive of themselves as part of a greater whole. Thus, despite Raumanen becoming pregnant, Monang’s wealthy and conservative parents cannot accept a marriage between them.

Reading Raumanen decades later makes for food for thought. Indonesia may be an older country now, but attitudes regarding interracial and interreligious relationships can still be as archaic as in the 1970s. It still isn’t easy for interreligious couples to get married here. Often, they must marry abroad or one half of the couple must convert. For those with limited funds or want to remain with their premarital faith, there are few options. Many parents still want their children to marry exclusively within the tribe or race. Ironic, considering Indonesia’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.”

Back to the plot. Glaring plot holes, to be exact. It really bothered me how permissive characters were in letting Raumanen be alone with Monang. Raumanen’s family lets Monang drive her around at night, alone. Wasn’t this the 1970s? I wasn’t surprised Raumanen ended up pregnant.

On the writing front, I wished Katoppo had written more scenes developing the relationship between Raumanen and Monang. Their friendship was told, not shown. The romance happened too speedily. Not too mention problematic as their first kiss was more of Monang forcing the act on Raumanen.

Then there’s Monang’s character. I don’t like him. He’s too brazen yet not courageous enough for what really matters. 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 the first-person POVs was a bit of a chore. Raumanen’s 10-years-later POV is irritating as it dripped with self-pity. Post-romance, she was a crusty, unlikeable character who was suspicious of everyone. In fact, both POVs were annoying as the parallel thoughts of ‘I’ve ruined her’ and ‘I’m ruined forever’ got tedious. Katoppo’s intention was to convey poetry in misery, the POV sections were replete with floral diction and poetic flourishes. It just didn’t work for me. I found it annoying and they didn’t advance the plot at all.

Or so I had thought.

Turns out, the POV passages had something to do with plot. They hinted at the ending to come. When I figured it out, I flicked backwards to see if I had missed all the signs. It was amazing to realize how Katoppo made a simple structure so effective.

I found it difficult to rate Raumanen. It was an OK read. Some elements frustrated me. Its plot twist had the power to surprise even though I had known the ending beforehand. I found the 2 main characters grating. I liked the deeper commentary Katoppo made, and the writing style flowed well. Mixed feelings all around. I will say this: I now understand why the story is well-regarded in the Indonesian literary canon, even if parts of Raumanen are dated by contemporary standards.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

When I was about 16, I was seduced by a glowing review of the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami. There was a passage that held my breath: the imagery of a man making enormous pots of spaghetti for no one. I thought, what an achingly lovely way to portray loneliness. I had never heard of Murakami before, but I had to have this book. When I spotted the paperback in a local bookstore, it quickly became mine.

Unfortunately, at 17 I went through a pretentious period where I read literary fiction not for enjoyment, but to dissect all symbolism and elements the author had put in place. At 17, the only feelings my self-imposed exercise produced were dejection and frustration. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was no different. I had no idea what a beautiful ear symbolized in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” or what the knife in “Hunting Knife” signified. I give up, I had thought after 100 pages, I just don’t understand these stories; they’re too weird and I’m too stupid to get them. My symbolism-sleuthing days were officially over. I felt more stupid when I realized that Murakami was an adored contemporary writer.

During my final year of university, I had to read the Murakami short story “The Elephant Vanishes”. To my surprise, I really liked it. So with no small amount of trepidation, I gave Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman another try.

I couldn’t stop smiling by the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl”. I couldn’t stop thinking that Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman would be one of my favorite books of the year while reading the rest.

At 17, I went with the completely wrong approach for Murakami. His prose is more meant to be savored than analyzed. The style isn’t beautiful in the lyrical or melodic sense but it isn’t spare either. I feel his descriptions are just right, neither meager nor fussy. Clean and elegant would be a good way to explain it. I did wonder if some people found Murakami’s style stilted as there’s a smidgen of formality in the prose and dialogue. All I knew was I found Murakami’s writing so wonderful I wanted to grab other people and read to them passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Murakami loves the strange and fantastical, yet everything is done in an accessible way. Yes, there are talking animals and vanishing people and Ice Men – things that are off-kilter. But somehow the coincidences Murakami portrayed could happen in our everyday existence.

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 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).

The man-eating cats of the story is from a newspaper article where an old woman is reported to have died alone. Her cats, after days of not being fed, started eating her corpse. The protagonist of “Man-Eating Cats” was read the story by his girlfriend Izumi. The protagonist and Izumi were married to other people but delved into an affair. Their spouses found out and left them. Feeling purposeless, the protagonist and Izumi took all their savings and exiled themselves to Greece where the relationship began a slow and inevitable decay. We don’t hold out much hope for them. Izumi’s preoccupation with the newspaper story added to the atmosphere. “Man-Eating Cats” isn’t an action-packed story, but the mood and feelings were perfectly rendered.

“Man-Eating Cats” is my favorite story, but I also really enjoyed “A Folklore for my Generation: A Pre-History of Late Stage Capitalism” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day”.

I researched Murakami after reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, proof of how much I enjoyed it, and gathered that he works with mainly 2 styles: realist and magical realism. I prefer a realist style and could do without the stories about talking animals. It’s a personal preference, not an indictment of Murakami as a writer. Overall, it was difficult finding stories I didn’t like. I must have enjoyed 20 out of the 24 stories in the collection.

I don’t think Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a particular favorite among Murakami fans. Yet I love it so much and if it is one of Murakami’s lesser work, I am excited to read more of what he has to offer. I’ve already picked up Norwegian Wood as I know it is classic realist Murakami.