[Master Post] Femme Friday

Well, obviously I’m ambitious. And rash. And slightly mad. I’ve always been an irregular blogger but somehow, I’m now committed to two blog projects. Opat’s Japanese Literature Reading Challenge and Books and Strips’ Femme Friday.

(I will say upfront that posting for both will always likely to be sporadic. I’ll do my best but slow writer me won’t force myself to churn out posts.)

I blame Books and Strips for creating a project that pings all my sweet spots. What do you mean you tagged us to write about women and literature every Friday, Vicky? Oh, and the rules are super loose? I can write about women writers (prominent and/or underrated)? I can write about women-run publishing houses? I can wax lyrical about awesome fictional female characters???

I’M IN! I’M IN!!! (Will you shut up, rational part of my brain that tries to rescind my ugly habit of making promises far too easily?)

I’ve always thought my bookshelves are skewed towards lady writers, but that’s not necessarily true. There’s a pretty good balance between male and female authors there, and that makes me happier than if my shelves were mostly female. Support equality, not imbalance!

That said, I do genuinely believe that women in the literary world, be they writers or publishers, are still in need of more visibility. Things are getting better, I think. Yet better doesn’t mean equal.

I also have issues with the term “strong female character.” Too often, writers substitute depth and personality in a female character with brute strength. To be fair, these authors are afraid of unthinking criticism if they made any female characters physically weak (I can hear the “sexist!” and “damsel in distress = garbage!” online lynches already). But to me, personally, a good fictional character is one with a rich inner life, with their own individual flaws and yearnings and stories. That should be the only criteria for a good character, be they male or female, in my opinion.

(If you disagree with any points I have made, please say so! I enjoy discussion. I only request you disagree respectfully. We all have different viewpoints)

Women in literature is a topic I deeply care about so I’d be very happy if you want to discuss the issue or even join Books and Strips’ Femme Friday project.

My first post for Femme Friday will be something more light-hearted: a general introduction to the delightful, the wonderful British press Persephone Books. I hope you didn’t yawn too loudly. Yes, I’m aware Persephone Books is pretty well-known in the book blogosphere. But a little more tooting couldn’t hurt!

I have a lot of future ideas of what I want to write for Femme Friday, but as of now, they’re still half-baked and in need of fleshing out. Not to mention, I’m a super slow writer in general. Books and Strips will be lucky to see one Femme Friday post a month from me. Ayayay!

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[Master Post] 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge

One of the things I learned about myself since starting this blog is that I tend to botch readalongs and reading challenges. I read much slower than other book bloggers, I’ve noticed, and write even slower than I read, so it takes me ages to pen a wrap-up post.

Because I’m rash, however, I have signed up to join Opat at casualbookreader’s Japanese Literature Reading Challenge. The reading challenge spans the entire year and you can read as many or as little Japanese fiction as you like. Pretty forgiving even for a slowpoke like me.

(Important note: this is also part giveaway, since Opat has pledged to tally points for each Japanese book you read + review and give prizes to two winners)

Opat has set some ground rules though, all listed here in her own master post. Some of the important ones include:

  1. Being an Indonesian blogger living in Indonesia. Reviews can be written in English or Indonesian.
  2. Any blogs welcome, not limited to book bloggers.
  3. Write your own challenge master post and add the challenge button on your widget
  4. Japanese prose fiction only (No manga or graphic novels)
  5. Compose a wrap-up post on December 31, 2016

My first entry for the challenge will be the Japanese classic Snow Country by Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata. It’s short and I’m more than halfway through. Sadly, Snow Country is shaping up to disappoint me. Hopefully it will redeem itself by the end.

I’d say expect a review soon, but considering my erratic posting, I make no promises.

Do join Opat’s challenge if you are interested! The more, the merrier!

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World is a tricky novel to review because it is impossible to talk about it without comparing it to Ishiguro’s subsequent, Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day. Many readers have rated An Artist of the Floating World unfavorably. To many, the lesser-known ugly duckling is simply an inferior copy of The Remains of the Day, transplanted to a Japanese setting. Even Ishiguro fans offer less a defense than a wan explanation of its existence. An Artist of the Floating World is simply an embryo for the future, preferable The Remains of the Day.

I loved An Artist of the Floating World; I mentioned in previous posts that it is my second favorite book of 2015, second only to, yep, The Remains of the Day. So is An Artist of the Floating World, indeed, a second-rate The Remains of the Day?

Not at all. Yes, even I, who is very enthusiastic about An Artist of the Floating World cannot talk about it without mentioning The Remains of the Day (which I have reviewed here). Yes, both novels are very, very similar. Almost identical, even. But there’s a good reason for that. I think An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day are companion pieces. An Artist of the Floating World is a complement, neither a copy nor an embryo.

An Artist of the Floating World is what The Remains of the Day would be if it were told from Lord Darlington’s perspective, not Stevens. In The Remains of the Day, a loyal butler (Stevens) realizes too late that he has devoted his life to an authority figure (Lord Darlington) championing a misguided cause. In An Artist of the Floating World, an authority figure (Masuji Ono) spends his twilight years wrestling with the misguided cause he attached himself to during his youth.

Masuji Ono, our narrator, is a painter who, appalled at the helpless poverty of Japan during his youth, decided to create political art in service of Japan’s imperialist ambitions pre-World War II. Ono becomes well-regarded and well-feted, something of a celebrity, complete with devoted protégés and a toadying audience. Of course, we all know our history. Japan’s expansionist ambitions crumbled. Post-World War II, a new generation armed with the gift of hindsight looked upon the authority figures leading Japan into such a disastrous scheme unkindly. Ono is now an old man, and while he lives a comfortable life, he is generally looked down upon.

So yes, An Artist of the Floating World is a slow, measured story; not at all plot-driven. All the meat happened in the past –Ono’s biggest present worry is finding a suitable marriage for his daughter. This is a character study through and through. In fact, both An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day are individual characters studies and as such, these two novels wouldn’t work if Masuji Ono and Stevens have the same personalities. Both men are markedly different.

And oh, Masuji Ono made me cringe. Such delusion, pomposity, and lack of self-reflection! Ono is depicted as someone more pitiful and less sympathetic than Stevens. Stevens himself can be deluded, but Ono sorely needed self-reflection; more so than Stevens. In the early pages of An Artist of the Floating World, Ono is flattered that his old student Shintaro remains admiring. Simultaneously, Ono is appalled that Shintaro still worships the old guard who supported Japanese imperialism.

(Seriously, Ono is incapable of putting two and two together! Although I did wonder throughout whether Ono’s delusion is natural or willed as a defense mechanism.)

Ono gets better and worse throughout An Artist of the Floating World. Through flashbacks, we find that he has done some very terrible things during his career. He can be hypocritical; asking old friends to lie and whitewash his past yet refusing to do the same things for people who once looked up to him. Yet Ono grows to understand that what he did was wrong, even becoming the “big” person and genuinely apologizing for his past. Ono’s virtues and flaws are both exposed to us as readers; he is just human. Who among us has the gift of foresight? In his youth, Ono truly felt he chose the right cause.

Thematically, An Artist of the Floating World is rich. The thread of the youth vs. the older generation runs strong. Ono is baffled at young men, with their values and harsh view of their elders, completely forgetting that in his youth, he himself was against his elders’ values. There’s something almost fatalistic here. Almost as though we are doomed to repeat and recycle ourselves.

Something else to consider and unpack: how we perceive people who are “evil.” No doubt, in school textbooks, Masuji Ono would be a real-life historical villain, an evil man. His job makes him evil –we couldn’t call Hitler anything but evil considering what he did. But if you read An Artist of the Floating World, things become more complex. Masuji Ono is just human. Is he evil? Does a man like Ono deserve to be happy? Questions to ponder.

(My own very personal interpretation is: no, Ono is not evil. Yes, he deserves to be happy eventually. Not at the end of the novel. He hasn’t atoned enough for the damage he wrecked in his past. Yes, he apologized – but apologizing and atoning are different.)

So, which Ishiguro novel should you start with first, Artist or Remains? On a technical level, both novels are similar: prose style, technique, point of view, etc. I don’t think An Artist of the Floating World is less accomplished than The Remains of the Day. Both are excellent novels. In both novels, Ishiguro’s extraordinary talent for writing fiction that feels fluid and effortless despite requiring lots of planning and plotting really shines through. The only reason The Remains of the Day is my numero uno of 2015 is that I felt intensely connected to the novel’s narrator. It’s a pure emotional choice, not at all because The Remains of the Day is better.

The Remains of the Day tugs at the heartstrings more, I think. But An Artist of the Floating World generates more thought. Depends on what you want at the moment: do you want to read with your head or do you want to read with your heart?

Siblinghood of the World Blog Award

I’ve amassed quite a few pending posts and tags considering I was absent from this blog for four weeks (Meh, what else is new? I’m often MIA). This is one of my overdue tags, tagged by Books and Strips. I love tags, I personally think they’re super fun. I do think that doing too many, too often dilutes the heft and substance of your blog. My review on Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World is up next, I promise.

(Plus, my reading life was awfully meager and insubstantial in 2015 so HAHAHA this blog needs padding)

Thanks for tagging me, Books and Strips! Your chosen questions were both fun and interesting.

So, the rules:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you and link to their blog in your post.
  2. Answer the questions the blogger who nominated you provided
  3. Nominate 10 other bloggers
  4. Create new questions for your nominees to answer

Books and Strips’ Questions:

  1. What country are you from? Tell me something about your place that is not a commonly known fact.

I’m from Indonesia. A little-known fact about Indonesia? Hmm, I think Indonesia in general is a little-known country despite its considerable size. During my travels abroad, I’ve heard people talk about Indonesia and Malaysia interchangeably. How about a common fact then? Indonesia is the country with the world’s second richest biodiversity, behind only Brazil, which has the Amazon forests. Indonesia has dragons, yo!

Not the exciting, fire-breathing monsters of lore but hey, a Komodo dragon is still a dragon!

Yawn! Not thrilling enough? I get you. Who wants dry facts when you can have most-likely-untrue, salacious historical gossip? Rumor has it that once, the KGB tried to blackmail our first president Soekarno with a sex tape starring him and a Soviet honeypot spy. Soekarno was delighted and requested extra copies for himself. Foiled gambit, KGB. Foiled gambit.

The venerable father of our country, first Indonesian president Soekarno

2. What do you normally do while eating breakfast?

Nothing? I’m usually too busy stuffing my face and I’ve never been good at multitasking.

3. What is a New Year resolution you are determined to fulfill in 2016?

I used to write every day and I really fell off the wagon the past couple of years. There’s nothing I want more than to rekindle my love. More specifically, I’m determined to complete good drafts of at least two of the three well-formed fiction ideas in my head.

4. Do you collect anything?

Alas, my stamp collecting days has set long ago. Shame, really. I had some really good ones. My most precious acquisition was a Tintin stamp from Europe. The image took a panel off Explorers on the Moon, which is my very favorite Tintin issue.

Also, I’m a book blogger, yo! Obviously I collect books. And bookmarks (I’ve got hundreds, most of them freebies). You can say that I collect lipsticks, I guess? I don’t set out to collect lippies, but somehow I have ended up with more lipsticks than one person with one set of lips actually needs.

5. Do you listen to any podcasts? Recommend some to me. If not, why?

Nope, not an aural person. I think I choose to process information strictly through reading and writing. Really, it’s you who ought to be recommending podcasts to me.

6. Are you part of a physical book club? (Off Goodreads)

Only one, a book club devoted to Indonesian literature. Sad thing number one, most of the members are expats. Sad thing number two, my attendance has been abysmal as of late.

7. What was an unexpectedly great book this year?

I’m gonna assume ‘this year’ means 2015 since 2016 is still too young.

Runaway by Alice Munro, reviewed here. I gave up by the third story when I first attempted to tackle it. It was too mundane, too flat, too pointless. I picked it up again last year with fresh eyes and was awed by Munro’s talent. Munro will always be slightly too clinical and perfect for my taste, but Munro’s dissection of life’s complexities and her grand theme of how things beyond our control are often (and unfairly) life’s turning points are a marvel.

8. Do you have other bookish hobbies? (Cosplay? Wizard poetry? Are you secretly a member of the order of the phoenix?)

An utter cliché, but it’s writing. I love writing as much as I do reading.

9. If you could change one thing about your favorite book, what would it be?

Nothing. It’s my favorite book for a reason: somehow, through pure alchemy, someone out there touched my life, exposed my flaws, wrung out my emotions simply through faultlessly chosen words on paper.

10. Have you met your favorite author? Did you like them or did you hate them?

I have met Ahmad Tohari, my favorite Indonesian writer, a couple of times. Lucky for me, he is nothing like the stereotypical diva. Tohari is lovely, courteous, very kind, and deeply humble.

I am the blogosphere’s worst tagger. I tag anyone interested in doing this. Hopefully my chosen questions are fun enough to sway you. Oh, and I’m totally going with the world theme of this tag.

  1. Is there a book from your birth country (or country of residence, whichever) that you would recommend to others? Why would you recommend that particular book?
  2. What country/planet/imaginary world is your favorite book set in?
  3. Who is your favorite author and where are they from? Do you think their geography has affected their writing?
  4. What is the book you are most excited to read in 2016 and why?
  5. Are you good at practicing self-control when buying books or are you a hoarder?
  6. How many Wonders of the World have you visited? Which ones are they? Which ones do you want to see most?
  7. Favorite country or region to read about and why?
  8. Snark and sarcasm: funny and refreshing? Or unnecessary and nasty?
  9. Do you follow any literary prizes? (Ex: Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer)
  10. What is the most necessary life skill according to you?

An Unspeakably Late 2015 Retrospective (Bonus: Top 5 Books of 2015)

New year, better hopes.

Failure

Every book blogger and their mothers already wrote their closing introspective bookish thoughts for 2015 three weeks ago. I am, as I am growing wont to be, pathetically tardy. I’m not just talking about this blog, the updates for which has always been erratic ever since I started. I’m growing tardy and lazy for every aspect of life: work, hobbies, self-improvement, etc.

Overall, 2015 was not a good year for me. 2015 was a year of failures, missteps, blunders, and inertia on my part. There were a lot of personal failures and what was frustrating is how nearly all my failures had to do with myself and my own stupidity rather than lack of opportunities. I let opportunities slip by or simply sabotaged them.

I even failed books, my one true love and the one constant in my life. On an average year, I can read fifty books. In 2015, I read exactly twenty.

It hurts. It really, really hurts because I don’t like myself the way I am now. During my teenage and early college years, I brimmed with confidence and contentment. Who wouldn’t be proud to be the way I was then? Ambitious, hungry to learn, bright, hard-working, diligent, well-liked, and productive. The way I am now? Replace all the adjectives in the previous sentence with their antonyms. I don’t want to type them myself; it makes me cringe.

In 2011, the onset of my mental disorders charged and I’ve been limping and turtling ever since. I hesitate to call my journey the “road to recovery” as relapses occur very often; always vicious and inexplicably worse every time. 2015 was filled with tearful rock-bottom moments. I reached points (not just one point, but several points) where I thought to myself: ‘I’m tired. In the mornings I am chased by anxiety; I get so worried nothing gets done. The other half of the day I am veiled by depression; I get so lethargic nothing gets done. I’m ashamed of my ineptitude. And I’m so, so tired. I’m ready to go. Please just take me. I’m ready to go’

So far 2016 has been kinder and gentler to me. I may not be in the ideal place but those dark thoughts haven’t caught me yet. I can only hope 2016 will be kind and gentle to me all year-round, and in return I will try to actively improve for the better. To return to that someone I can be proud of. I will try my best.

You know, all the therapists I’ve seen have advised me to “be kind to myself.” It’s funny, but almost five years later I still don’t know what being kind to yourself means. I just know, through trial and error, what it does not entail. Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean just relaxing. Being kind to yourself doesn’t just mean leisure. Being kind to yourself doesn’t mean fun. Being kind to yourself means being productive too. Being kind to yourself means learning as well.

Perhaps being kind to yourself entails finding that elusive balance between work and play, between striving and breathing. Perhaps this year I have to try harder but not succumb to anger and shame for the millionth time when I fail. Alternate pushing hard and pulling back. Maybe. I will try my best.

For those of you who survived my spoiled angst, I won’t cheat you of the second half of this post’s title. Here are the five books that gave me much-needed shots of joy, immersed me in a better world, made me more knowledgeable, made me think, and reflected my own experiences in far superior writing than I can ever attempt. The books are ranked in order from the ones I loved most. Full-length reviews are linked.

  1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Thanks to The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro transformed from “author I must read simply because he’s so well-regarded rather than for my own personal preference” to “omg he speaks to me—one of my favorite authors—must have all his books!!!” By pure literary merits, Ishiguro is excellent. His prose is limpid and elegant and creates a final effect that is fluidly effortless despite his novels clearly being a towering achievement of planning and outlining.

But what made The Remains of the Day truly special was how I emotionally connected to it. Being an analytical person, I sometimes forget that the best books are the ones where the author reflects back your life and flaws so honestly and yet so beautifully. Stevens is me, from our shared lofty goal of furthering “the progress of humanity” to the hurtful reality that what we’ve done was simply waste years of our lives.

It was pure heartbreak watching Stevens break down crying, saying that he no longer has “a great deal more left to give.” And it was pure relief to hear someone comfort Stevens, advising him not to look back in regret all the time; one needs to look forward too. Ishiguro may as well be talking to me. How does an author commit this wizardy?

2. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

I simply couldn’t wait to read another Ishiguro so in December I picked up one of his early novels: An Artist of the Floating World. Before the halfway point I knew this was my second favorite book of 2015. Ishiguro’s prose is as faultless as it was in The Remains of the Day. Whilst I didn’t emotionally latch on like a barnacle to An Artist of the Floating World the way I did The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World made me think more. In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro explored hypocrisy, tensions between the young and the old, change vs fatalism, what makes a person evil and how “evil” people view themselves.

I am working on a full-length review of An Artist of the Floating World, so I can squawk more about this novel. A mini endorsement doesn’t cut it.

3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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The first two novels on this list are character studies and Revolutionary Road is no different. Can Frank Wheeler simply be words on a page? He must be a living, breathing human carrying on with life somewhere. A talker, a charmer, full of artistic pretensions and wannabe intellectualism. Sad and pathetic, but isn’t that human? Who hasn’t met a Frank Wheeler in their lives? You laugh and cringe and nod at Frank’s familiarity.

On the surface, Revolutionary Road is about the Wheelers’ disintegrating marriage. Thematically, the novel is an indictment of American suburbia. But to me, Rev Road is a masterful character study of Frank Wheeler above all.

4. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

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The only non-fiction book on this list. Half the Sky’s first half is a description of all manner of unspeakable human rights abuses towards women and its other half is a passionate call-to-arms for us to help combat these problems. Half the Sky is an emotional text, it is not meant to be studied. It shocks, disgusts, and angers. Some people may cry foul at such a manipulative method of writing about human rights abuses, but Kristof and WuDunn’s voice always felt genuine. I believed that they cared about their subject matter and I was driven to want to make some small contribution to the cause. Happily, Kristof and WuDunn included a list of non-corrupt charities doing excellent work for women worldwide.

5. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

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The most fun book I’ve read in 2015. Almost too fun to be considered a classic, a word usually associated with stuffiness. Jamaica Inn’s ingredients? A spunky damsel, a menacing antagonist, a charming horse thief, an albino monk, rainswept and windswept moors, a murder mystery, and a lush, gothic prose. Who doesn’t want to curl up with that?

Jamaica Inn is not a perfect book. The characters feel like caricatures sometimes and the ending has unfortunate implications, but more than any other book this year, Jamaica Inn engulfed me into another, better, happier world whilst I was reading it.