Current Reads: A Double Whammy of Easy-Reading Andreas

I had thought of prefacing this post with an announcement: a new and very positive development in my life will hinder me from posting as often as I’d like. But then I had to laugh. I have always been and will continue to be a frustrating, sporadic poster. Oh well. Anyway, I’m not happy yet with how my review of Leila S. Chudori’s Pulang (Home in English translation) is coming along.

(A part of me is kicking myself for being so slow with Pulang’s review. It’s good to strike now, since Texan Deep Vellum Publishing has brought out a new cover. But I justify myself by saying that I really like Pulang and there’s a lot I want to cover in my review)

So I’ve decided to upload something more relaxed. Here’s a commentary on the two novels I’m currently reading: Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy and Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops in English translation) by Andrea Hirata. A chance to overanalyze similarities between two unrelated novels? English lit graduate here, that’s my forte – yes, please.

In all seriousness, it’s not hard to spot the resemblance between the two. Both Andreas try to tackle tough topics; Levy with racism and the second generation immigrant experience, Hirata with education and social disparity in Indonesia. Neither are thin novels, but worry not about being bogged down. Stylistically, the themes are wrapped in an easy, readable package.

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My focus right now is on Fruit of the Lemon since I’m almost at the finish line. The novel doesn’t cater to those who demand their literary fiction dense and challenging. Fruit of the Lemon is a quick & easy contemporary read, with some stock tropes. The protagonist feels like a chicklit heroine sometimes. There’s awkward humor and eccentric roommates typical of a sitcom. I’d caution you not to expect a deep, dark novel in Fruit of the Lemon.

Fruit of the Lemon focuses on Faith, a recent university graduate and daughter of two Jamaican immigrants. The first half of the novel is all about Faith’s life in England; her new job, her crazy roommates, and her family. Unlike other novels I’ve read of the immigrant experience, there’s little emphasis on the first generation’s attempt to preserve motherland culture for their family; no painstaking description of Faith’s parents preparing Jamaican dishes, no reference to an English Jamaican community, no long-winded stories about Jamaica from the parents. This is a family that doesn’t look back to their roots. Faith knows very little about Jamaica and her relatives there. In the first half, Faith’s identity is thoroughly British. Until little things and bigger events start to make her question that once-strong sense of identity. The second half of Fruit of the Lemon is set in Jamaica, where Faith learns more about her history.

If Fruit of the Lemon is easy reading through and through, Laskar Pelangi has a weightier style that belies its unprecedented blockbuster status. Andrea Hirata is clearly someone who is fascinated by different fields of study; botany, history, literature, astronomy, you name it. And it shows! Laskar Pelangi is enthusiastically dripping with unusual metaphors and references. 60% of the time it works. His turns of phrase are odd and singular and smile-inducing. The other 40% of the time? Sadly clunky. It works more often than not, though. Also, like Fruit of the Lemon, Laskar Pelangi is compulsively readable – I couldn’t put Laskar Pelangi down when reading. I only resumed Fruit of the Lemon because I really wanted to finish it, otherwise Laskar Pelangi would be done first.

Hirata needs a better editor though. He is so passionate about everything that he can spend three pages describing a plant; from its Latin terminology and species, to its elements, to its medicinal properties. Laskar Pelangi is nearly 500 pages in my Indonesian edition and it can easily be cut.

Laskar Pelangi is advertised as a novel, but everyone in Indonesia knows it’s really a thinly-veiled autobiography. The book tells anecdotes and stories from a dilapidated classroom in Belitung Island, Sumatra. The class is comprised of ten ragtag students from poor families. Laskar Pelangi does both close-ups and wide shots. We follow the kids’ adventures and stories during their school years and we get a bigger view of the gap between the rich and the poor in Belitung Island. Belitung is known for its tin (today, local government is trying to diversify their source of earnings). In the social pyramid, the majority are tin laborers and at the very top we have executives with their own gated, sheltered community, unaware of how the “others” live.

I’m nearly sure I will rate Fruit of the Lemon 3 stars on goodreads, unless something mindblowing happens in the final chapter. I have no complaints against it. The prose flows very well and the novel is well-written. But I don’t think it has that special something that elevates it to more than “a good, easy read.” Laskar Pelangi is trickier. Right now, it’s between 3.5 and 4 stars. It’s unputdownable with a conscience but has some flaws I can’t ignore. I’ll probably have a better idea when I actually finish the book.

Enjoy your weekend everyone! I hope you spend it with good companions and good books.

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This is Not a Travel Blog

This is not a travel blog, but let’s make an exception for this post. On March 9, areas in Indonesia experienced a total solar eclipse. My mother surprised me with a two day trip to Belitung Island in Sumatra, one of the hotspots for watching the eclipse.

(By surprise, I mean more of an ordered “I bought tickets and we’re leaving on March 8.” Is there anything I could say other than “OK?”)

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A good friend asked, “What was like to experience a solar eclipse?” At the risk of sounding spiritual, I told her I felt small. The universe is so large and extraordinary and mysterious.

I have no photos of the eclipse itself since I have no proper camera for the event. There were plenty of dedicated photographers though. Some people climbed rocks and builders to achieve the perfect angle. A tourist attached three different filters to his serious camera. So I’ll bet there are excellent photos of the March 9 solar eclipse you can find online.

What I do have are photos of the beach and the ocean. In the hopes of imparting some aquatic delight towards you, here are some photos from my island hopping adventure – taken immediately post-eclipse watching.

Tanjung Tinggi beach in the early hours

The same beach later in the morning

The view from inside our boat

A lighthouse on Lengkuas Island, one of the smaller islands off Belitung

Rock formations off an island

I was most enchanted by the ocean’s color. It’s the Pacific Ocean, but never have I ever before seen ocean water so flawlessly turquoise. Any chance a dress could be made with the water’s color?

The boat dropped anchor in the middle of the ocean and I took a dip into the waters. What an experience! I saw coral reefs of many patterns: large and Rafflesia arnoldii-like or small and ornate. Best of all was the fish. Mostly they were small and flat; some zebra-striped, some lemon yellow, and best of all, a more rounded, longer fish of the most beautiful color. No other shade could describe it but royal blue.

(No photos for my underwater antics either. No waterproof camera. Ducks rotten tomatoes)

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This is not a travel blog, so I made a literary stop at Belitung. I went to Museum Kata Andrea Hirata (literally Andrea Hirata’s Museum of Words). Andrea Hirata is an extremely famous Indonesian author, most-known for his Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Troops in English translation) tetralogy. The first novel in the series, titled simply Laskar Pelangi, was an unprecedented blockbuster in Indonesia. Readers and non-readers bought it. Movies were made. A musical was staged. Settings in the book became tourist attractions in Belitung Island. People began to care more about children’s education in the area. It’s a term overused these days, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call the Laskar Pelangi quartet a cultural phenomenon.

Photo of the museum’s welcome board

The museum is basically a monument of Laskar Pelangi’s success. There were newspaper clippings about the books, the author, and their impact. There were posters of international book covers and a selection of Hirata’s novels in every translated edition. Not really a tourist must-see but I rather liked the building itself. The color scheme is so vivid and whimsical and childlike, which reflects Laskar Pelangi’s subject matter. If I am not mistaken, the artwork are from Hirata’s own hand – the works were signed by him.

Laskar Pelangi international editions

The museum walls

A sign saying: Indonesia, let’s go to school! Never give up!

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This is not a travel blog, so let me update you on my bookish ways. I finished Pulang (Home) by Leila S. Chudori prior to my Belitung excursion. I loved it, definitely the standout novel of the year so far to me. A gushing review will follow in a few days and for the curious an English translation has been brought out by Deep Vellum Publishing.

 

I’m currently in the middle of two novels: Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy and Laskar Pelangi by Andrea Hirata. Both are quick, easy reads, it turns out. I’ll review both when I’m finished. Just call it a double Andrea book whammy!

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

My Vintage International edition was translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

How do you review a book that is just so… nothing? I just wasn’t moved by it whatsoever. It elicited no emotional response from me. I trudged on because I desperately wanted to get it, to feel something for Snow Country. But I shut the final page deflated and dissatisfied.

Snow Country relays the affair between Tokyo dilettante Shimamura and lowly hot spring geisha Komako. I’ve seen others describe Snow Country as a love story of sorts. I can’t bring myself to label Shimamura and Komako’s entanglement as such.

Shimamura is such… I have no words. Wealth is wasted on him. His life is all fantasy and no substance. He thrives on transience and ephemera. He has no profession. His main occupation is writing about ballet despite never seeing it performed.

A ballet he had never seen was an art in another world. It was an unrivaled armchair reverie, a lyric from some paradise. He called his work research, but it was actually free, uncontrolled fantasy. He preferred not to savor the ballet in the flesh; rather he savored the phantasms of his own dancing imagination, called up by Western books and pictures. It was like being in love with someone he had never seen (25).

To Shimamura, everything is a “wasted effort” – he explicitly called at least (by my personal count) three different actions, habits, or hobbies a “wasted effort” in Snow Country.” It’s fine if he wants to live like that alone but why does he have to drag other people into it? Poor Komako. Poor Shimamura’s wife and children.

Other than irritation towards Shimamura, however, I found reading Snow Country an empty enterprise. Reading good fiction transports me to another world and shakes my emotions. Reading a scholarly paper adds knowledge to my head. Now, imagine getting neither – none of the benefits of reading. I was just turning the pages for the sake of finishing. I thought, ‘Right. Let’s just get on with this.’

It’s a shame, really – Snow Country is an accomplished little novel from a technical perspective. The writing is clear. Subtle and restrained, never showy. I personally like my prose to be more lyrical but I really can’t fault Kawabata’s style.

Snow Country really embodies the “show, don’t tell” rule. There’s little backstory, little exposition. Many things are left mysterious. Reading Snow Country somehow reminded me of Hemingway’s signature style. There are a lot of things on the surface, you have dig and interpret the details yourself. Snow Country is very dialogue-laden. Komako and Shimamura say a lot of things, 90% of them mundane, confusing, and inexplicable – yet if you look deeper, you glean things. Shimamura is incapable of committing, Komako is full of incommunicable passion.

Finally, there’s the gorgeous imagery. Gorgeous, despite the simplicity of Kawabata’s writing style. I particularly enjoyed this description of a tree:

From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back. The dark needles blocked out the sky, and the stillness seemed to be singing quietly. The trunk against which Shimamura leaned was the oldest of all. For some reason all the branches on the north side had withered, and, their tips broken and fallen, they looked like stakes driven into the trunk with their sharp ends taut, to make a terrible weapon for some god (30).

“A terrible weapon for some god” – isn’t that a lovely phrase?

I racked my brain to figure out why Snow Country isn’t for me. Ultimately, I think it’s simply personal taste. Snow Country’s connection to Hemingway in my brain is unfortunate, as I was equally apathetic about Hemingway. I felt nothing – all the characters could catapult themselves from a cliff and I wouldn’t care less. I don’t mind figuring things out and interpreting things for myself, but I’m growing to realize that, as a reader, I like fiction that does both show and tell. I like knowing the characters’ backstory. I like fiction that explores a full, rich life. Snow Country feels like it was painstakingly rendered through small, single strokes when I prefer a complete picture.

A more complimentary review of Snow Country is included here, if you want another perspective. In addition, japaneselit’s review incorporates information surrounding Japan, Snow Country’s publication and Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel win.

[Femme Friday] A Guide/Spotlight on Persephone Books

Vicky over at booksandstrips tagged me to join her Femme Friday project. Every Friday, one ought to post something related to women and literature, be it favorite strong female characters, favorite female authors, women-run publishing houses, anything. The rules are pretty fast and loose.

My first entry into this project is a guide-slash-spotlight on the London publisher Persephone Books. Persephone’s mission statement is perfect for such a project as Femme Friday. According to their website, “Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 115 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

Currently, I own six Persephone books and want to acquire many more. There’s something dependable about Persephone titles. I can expect some solid, charming storytelling and the books rarely disappoint on that front. I live for Persephone’s mantra of “neither too literary nor too commercial” – there are days (many days, in fact) when you have little patience for the abstract and the esoteric yet still want something with heft.

A sparknotes history of Persephone Books: it was established in 1998 by Nicola Beauman, herself an author of several books. Persephone’s 21st book Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day put them on the map (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would later be adapted into a film starring Amy Adams). Persephone Books now have an office and shop in Bloomsbury, London.

Persephone Books have published novels, short stories, diaries, and memoirs. The majority of their books are women-centric, relationship-driven, and deal with the home and hearth. There is criticism that Persephone titles are too twee and too domestic, or not exciting enough. Maybe, but I enjoy slow, character-driven stories with good old-fashioned storytelling and an engaging writing style. If you like these qualities, there’s a good chance you’d like Persephone.

(And why is domestic an insult anyway? Don’t the majority of our life stories and dramas happen at home?)

My copy of The Persephone Book of Short Stories and its bookmark

All of Persephone’s books have the same dove-gray jacket, but a different endpaper and matching bookmark for each title. Not only do I love the content of Persephones, these books are beautifully published — with an immaculate paper quality and a luxurious feel. Which is why, yes – they are expensive at £12 apiece (although they do have a 3 for £30 deal). Persephone Books have reissued eleven of their more popular titles in a different edition at £9 apiece. These eleven ‘classics’ have pictures as covers, and does not have the full-color endpapers or bookmarks.

Persephone Books has, to date, reprinted 115 titles. Their entire list of books is linked here. To buy a Persephone, you can visit their Bloomsbury shop, place an order at their website, or e-mail them directly. I have e-mailed Persephone a couple of times and they always reply promptly. And yes, they ship internationally.

Their Bloomsbury shop is a must visit bookstore and is often included in lists of places to see in London. Persephone Books is located in 59 Lamb’s Conduit Street. I always find my way there via the Russell Square tube station. The shop is easy to find with the help of a good London map. Some negatives: the shop is small, their two phones often ring, and they don’t open late (10am-6pm Monday to Friday and 12-5pm on Saturday, closed Sunday). Their stock is limited and very occasionally a title runs out for a few weeks. But it is a lovely, cozy little shop and the staff is friendly and informed.

Once, I paid the shop a visit during the Christmas rush. People were barging in and out, buying Persephone books as gifts for their loved ones. The store’s two phones were ringing constantly with Christmas orders. Silly me only had a vague idea of what I wanted. The staff quickly recommended several titles. More than that, I was welcomed to sit down with whatever book took my fancy, read the first pages, and see which ones grabbed my attention the most. It took me some time to decide but I was never left to feel like an annoyance. And they gave me a free bookmark to boot.

Here is a list of the Persephones I own:

  1. Book 3: Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  2. Book 21: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  3. Book 38: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
  4. Book 74: The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
  5. Book 97: Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
  6. Book 100: The Persephone Book of Short Stories

Some of them are still unread as I save my Persephones for awful, desperate days when I need a treat. So far, my most enthusiastic recommendation is meant for Dorothy Whipple (coincidentally, she is Persephone Books’ star author). She had wit, a skill with characterization, and a sturdy prose.

To guide you further, here is bookssnob’s handy dandy Persephone recommendations for a variety of moods. She’s a book blogger I really trust and one who really knows her Persephone.

A (hopefully) helpful assortment of links:

Finally, a photo of Persephone’s physical catalogue and biannual newsletter. My newsletter is from the autumn/winter 2014-2015 edition and it contains many fun things. There’s information on (then) Persephone’s newest titles, updates on what Persephone Books is up to, and a short story at the back.

I hope this is a helpful post. This is my first time highlighting a publisher and I hope I did well. Please let me know what I can do differently: if I inserted too much information or too much personal experience, if you found this post useful etc.

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau

Harvey

My edition of Harvey was translated from French by Helen Mixter

Someone ought to stop me from compulsively checking on Groundwood Books’ catalogue. The Canadian children’s publisher has released many beautiful picture books and graphic novels. Harvey is the second graphic novel of theirs I’ve read and the art doesn’t disappoint. The illustration style is lovely and whimsical, with a muted color scheme that echoes the story’s mood and setting. I can’t remember any bright shades anywhere in Harvey.

Harvey

Harvey

Harvey feels like a picture book/graphic novel hybrid. There are no speech bubbles, although dialogue exists. All the text is presented in a picture book format. And the text’s font relays a subtle sweet touch. Handwritten and stiff, it perfectly mimics a schoolboy’s best classroom writing.

The plot follows Harvey, our eponymous narrator of young grade school age. Harvey and his younger brother had only finished racing and playing in the slush of Canada’s early spring when they find out their father has died of a heart attack. Harvey deals with the boy’s life immediately prior to this sudden death and his reactions and coping approach immediately after.

Having read Groundwood’s Harvey and A Year Without Mom (reviewed here), I have a hunch that their editors love gentle, tender stories. Because A Year Without Mom is set in early 1990s Moscow, I had thought the graphic novel would impart some historical and political lessons. With Harvey, I had thought the father’s sudden death would feed a lot of drama into the story. But it is not so in both cases. Both Harvey and A Year Without Mom are about kids quietly struggling with life. Their struggles aren’t overwhelmingly bombastic. Rather, they are relatable day to day hurts and aches: problems at school, problems with friends, feeling alone and out of place and uprooted.

What I loved and related to most about Harvey is how accurately it captures a young child’s reaction to death. Little Harvey wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t distraught. In fact, his emotional reaction can feel too subdued to a reader. Little Harvey fended off the idea of death by searching for his father at home, despite seeing an ambulance take the body away. He spent the night fantasizing about a film. But gradually he grows to understand things are different now. Permanently so.

Overall, I appreciated Harvey’s art more than the story. But then, there’s not much of a story to begin with. I admired that the book feels emotionally true –especially taking into account that the story is told from a young child’s perspective. I like Harvey more than A Year Without Mom and I absolutely would love to read more of Groundwood Books’ publications.