Breaking a Six-Month Hiatus, En Route to the USA

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Umm, hi there. Where to start?

Books! Let’s talk books!

2017 has been a year of paltry reading. I’ve only read 6 books so far, three of them (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda) rereads. The rereads are deliberate; these are comforting, easy to speed through, and they inject some much-needed joy to my days.

Quite sad that my own personal writing has been minimal so far this year too. Not just this blog, but I also wanted (and still want) to tackle one of the two big fiction ideas that has been knocking about in my imagination since college.

Putting aside reading and personal writing were done in favor of my day job, for which I have poured all my efforts, energy, and heart. Man, 2017 has been a roller-coaster year for my career. I work for a high-stress, high-pressure company, which demands more and more from us each passing day. My supervisor told me everyone can see my skills. Indeed, I recently got a promotion and each quarter, more responsibilities are heaved my way.

So that’s good. But I do notice that this stressful and draining office environment often breeds insensitivity. Maybe that just my idealism talking, but I can fully see that some people will eventually refuse to be pushed further and harder without positivity to balance out the pressure.

Anyway, let’s move on from apocalyptic thoughts.

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I’m on leave from the office at the moment and Shelter by Jung Yun is my airplane novel of choice.

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Look at this photo! I’m halfway through after only 3 hours. I’m a pretty slow reader but it’s been demoralizing to see that I’m only sixty pages into a book a month after I’ve started just because I’m so busy these days.

I will write a full-length review of Shelter eventually. It’s really good so far, very gripping and compulsive. I am forgoing on-air entertainment to keep turning the pages.

Shelter is a very dramatic novel, almost excessively so, which knocks it down a bit in my eyes. But such a compelling page-turner is the perfect novel to feel like an incurable book lover all over again. And the novel raises some fascinating points on family and parenthood.

More on the themes in a proper review later! For now, I’m back on the blogosphere – and very happy to be back!

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (Review and Book/Movie Comparison)

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Hahaha, the last book review on this blog was uploaded in early July. I hope I’m not too rusty.

(Although the fact that I finished The Painted Veil in early July also does not bode well).

Having read this novel nearly four months ago means that I have forgotten the finer details. Overall, however, I really liked it, in spite of my inability to create neat conclusions of its message and/or themes. Yet, in a way, the lack of absolute coherence in The Painted Veil added to its charm. Especially as the novel tackles some topics that, in real life, defies easy categorization, such as: the irrationality of romantic feeling and the influence on religion on one’s character.

Kitty, a pretty and frivolous English debutante, missed her prospects in the marriage market. In a panic, she accepts the proposal of Walter Fane, a dull bacteriologist due to sail to Crown Colony Hong Kong for his post. They quickly marry and settle in the colony, where Kitty meets Charlie Townsend, a handsome, suave, and married British government official. Kitty and Charlie fall into an affair and The Painted Veil enters at the point when Walter discovers the infidelity.

At first, Kitty and Charlie dismiss Walter. He is Charlie’s inferior in the job ladder. He is far too besotted with Kitty. Instead, Walter pushed an ultimatum to Kitty: he will either file for divorce and humiliate her, or she must follow him to the cholera-infested Chinese interior, risking death. Charlie shows his true colors: craven and unsympathetic. Kitty has no option but follow Walter to the mainland.

The Painted Veil, at least the novel version, is the story of Kitty’s introspection and self-improvement. It is not a love story, which the 2006 film adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts might lead you to believe.

While I liked the film version for what it was, I much preferred the novel. The novel’s outlook on life is far less simple. Love, and the blossoming of romantic love, is never simple. In the film, Kitty sees Walter’s virtues: his devotion to patients, his kindness, his morals, learns the error of her ways and falls in love with him. Kitty’s book counterpart, however, never falls in love with her husband despite seeing and acknowledging his qualities. She grows to admire him, but eros does not strike.

I appreciated the book’s touch. The film, in a way, pushed a simplistic message: “women, be less foolish and frivolous and just fall in love with the nice guy, will ya?” Never mind the fact that one must wonder at Walter’s supposed kindness when he insisted on bringing Kitty to a region that may spell death.

(I inwardly applauded “That’s my girl!” when book-Kitty exclaimed, “It’s not my fault you were an ass!” at Walter’s misguided punishment)

Kitty’s journey towards self-betterment, almost a coming of age, really, is believable because of the missteps she makes along the way. No one can ever say that Kitty attained perfection. Despite maturing throughout The Painted Veil, she falls short again and again. But she does learn after every debacle. She becomes stronger, wiser. Yet even stronger and wiser, Kitty can still make dreadful decisions – with a particular error close to the novel’s end. But Kitty learns from that too.

At the start of this review, I wrote that I couldn’t eke out the message of The Painted Veil. But perhaps it is simply this: that we make horrible mistakes in life, then we learn and get stronger. We slip up again. But we survive.

Maybe it’s trite. But that’s the point of fiction, no? To make clichéd bumper sticker phrases fresh and true all over again.

What I’m Reading

Man, getting back to fiction reviews isn’t easy. So let’s try a fluffy post to get the writing juices flowing.

I am firmly on the “one book at a time” camp. And yet. There had been four books that I wanted to read next and I truly could not decide which one beckoned most seductively.

One of the defining traits of a perfectionist is a “should, should, should” mentality: I should have done more work today. I should be doing something productive. I should focus my attention to one book only since reading multiple books has never worked in the past.

Well, literary polyamory may have never worked for me in the past, but I am working on my perfectionism. So screw rigidity! Here are the four books that lured me away from book monogamy:

  1. Social Media is Bullshit by B.J. Mendelson

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In my efforts to learn more about marketing, especially social media strategies for modern marketing, I browsed the business shelves of NYC’s The Strand Bookstore. I ended up with two books from that section: The New Rules of Marketing and PR and Social Media is Bullshit.

I was excited to read Social Media is Bullshit, because I read a few pages of it at the Strand and found it gripping – plus, I think a contrarian viewpoint would be a refreshing antidote against the breathless thinking that social media is the answer to all your business ills.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good book so far. I’m not finished, but I’m more than halfway through and I dislike the author’s dour and overly cynical tone. His analogies don’t always make sense and some of the math is wrong. I do hope those issues were caused by human error rather than an insidious attempt to get readers to agree with his arguments. The book wasn’t well-edited as well, I spotted grammatical mistakes here and there.

  1. Kubah by Ahmad Tohari

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Tohari wrote my very favorite Indonesian novel, the venerable Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (English translation: The Dancer), and I love his prose in general (see here), so it’s no surprise that I’m enjoying Kubah (roughly translated as Dome) very much. In fact, Kubah gets the second-most reading time after Social Media is Bullshit.

 Like Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, Kubah’s plot thread is put in motion by the infamous 1965 coup in Indonesia. While I love how Tohari treated the subject in Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk – that is, with sensitivity and complexity, I have my concerns about Kubah. The main thematic of the novel seems to be rediscovering religion and spirituality and I worry whether the denouement of Kubah will be nuanced and satisfying. Fiction that tackles this theme can end on an overly moralistic or simplistic tone. I hope I am proven wrong, though.

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Maybe it’s time to get a new one…

I wanted a comfort read to go along with the shiny new things. I tried to fight the desire, yet whenever I attempted to stop adding Pride and Prejudice on my reading list, my inner Catherine de Bourgh threw a tantrum. In her immortal and hilarious words: “I insist on being satisfied!”

What can I say about Pride and Prejudice? Saying it is one of my favorite novels ever is hardly original. Look at the state of my copy! I once dropped it into a wet bathtub during a reading session.

There really is no point in providing a plot summary. Who doesn’t know the story gist at this point? Suffice to say, every time I pick up Pride and Prejudice again, I just feel so damned happy.

  1. Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo

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I’ve been talking a lot about perfectionism in my last two posts and this book is a big reason why. I’m only forty pages in and haven’t gotten into the strategies to utilize in daily life, but I’m impressed so far. Better than Perfect is very easy to read while still being insightful. The first segment is more about what makes a perfectionist tick, and reading the first chapters feels like multiple slaps in the face.

Dr. Lombardo includes a Perfectionist Self-Assessment in Better than Perfect. I scored 109 out of 120, which made me cringe. I mean, I obviously knew I was a perfectionist, but 109 out of 120 seems pretty extreme.

I might finish the other three books first before devoting entirely on Better than Perfect. It’s probably a good idea to focus on the self-help tactics with no distractions.

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And we’re done! I must say, I’m delighted that Kubah and Pride and Prejudice are on my current reads stack. I’m so hopelessly behind on my Classics Club Challenge.

Checklist

I’m a perfectionist. It’s an aspect of my personality that has both rewarded and cursed me. Last week, I had a performance review at work and I was described as someone who “goes above and beyond to deliver the best and most satisfactory results.”

But my perfectionism is also a source of much grief and indecision. It’s crippling, for one thing. It feeds into my depression and anxiety, makes me obsess if I feel I am perceived negatively.

Like this blog post, for instance. I dithered on whether or not it is worth uploading, as it has no valuable insight, so it can be construed as mindless fodder.

This is just a list of all the pending blog posts that I still want to write, even though some of the posts will be reviews of books I have read months ago. With some of the books, I have a contrary opinion compared to the general consensus – and I think I will enjoy the exercise of rationally arguing why I didn’t enjoy these much-lauded books as much as I had expected.

“Checklist” is more for me, so I can keep track of all the posts I still want to write and cross out the uploaded ones while providing links.

Hmm, perhaps “Checklist” itself is a manifestation of my perfectionist spirit? It always gives me much joy to strike through completed tasks.

Without further ado, the list:

  1. Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops in official English translation) by Andrea Hirata
  2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (Review link here)
  4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
  5. The Doll by Daphne du Maurier

USA Travel posts:

  1. San Francisco and the South Bay, California
  2. Seattle and Spokane, Washington
  3. New York City Area

Endnote: There are books I have read but will not review. A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie is a good example. It was an OK novel. Not bad, not great. I have nothing to say about it and I have no strong feelings for it either way. It did serve a good purpose: entertaining me on my twenty-hour flight to California.

And now, to work on actually writing the posts! (Insert muscle emoji here)

Checking In

 

When it became clear that my unannounced hiatus was stretching longer and longer; when my workload was piling up week after week; when – shockingly, it was becoming clear that I was in no mood to read and was whittling days with not a page of a novel being turned, I knew that I wanted to write a “Checking In” post. Partially to just get the writing going, partially to list down the heavy backlog of blog posts that I still wanted to write and were therefore pending.

At first, I wanted to finish my “Checking In” post by mid-August. But I got swept away by work. I would mentally note an arbitrary deadline but work was unrelenting. Finally, I told myself that I should just crank out and upload “Checking In” anytime before September 10, when I would be leaving for my USA vacation.

Well, it’s early October now and I’ve been in Indonesia for more than a week. Whoops.

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I’m always a flurry of apologies and excuses whenever I start blogging again. While I’m always genuinely sorry for absences and wish I could write more consistently (for myself too, since persistence and writing everyday will make me a better writer), I can’t pretend that blogging takes precedence over my job.

In my case, up until my flight boarding time to San Francisco, I was frantically wrapping up an article in an airport coffee shop. It was worth it, though. I got to spend my vacation work-free. Being an INFJ, sometimes I couldn’t stop myself from helping out my office here and there – until my own supervisor told me to knock it off and just enjoy my damned vacation.

So enjoy my vacation I did.

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After coming back and unpacking, it became clear that putting the brakes on book buying throughout July and August was the right thing to do. I bought no books in August and got two free hand me downs from my grandfather in July (details here).

Look! Just look at this pile. There are 16 books here. It took me a while to reorder the configuration of my shelves so these new books will fit.

Haul of shame

Bonus: I, uh, stole September’s start and bought the anthology Kumpulan Budak Setan prior to my USA trip  at the local Gramedia. I’ve wanted to read Intan Paramaditha’s feminist/Gothic short stories for a few years now. The book I actually wanted was her short story collection Sihir Perempuan (which I will roughly translate as Women Magic) but I couldn’t find it. On a brighter note, this anthology includes short stories by Eka Kurniawan (who I seriously need to start reading) and Ugoran Prasad (who I have never heard of, but who knows? He might be a new favorite author for all I know).

Kumpulan Budak Setan (roughly translated: Slaves of the Devil)

Another no buy is in order: no new books throughout October and maybe November.

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A “Checking In” post seems a good place to list down all the blog posts I wanted to write during vacation. Or even all the posts I had hoped to finish pre-vacation but didn’t, and yet I still want to write them anyway.

Here’s a list of pending book reviews:

  1. Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops in official English translation) by Andrea Hirata
  2. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
  3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  4. A Pocket Full of Rye (Translated to Indonesian as Misteri Burung Hitam) by Agatha Christie
  5. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Additionally, I have plans to write about my USA trip and the book shopping I did. Combining all the material into one post is too much, though. I’ll need to split the post into three, denoting the three major areas I visited.

  1. San Francisco and the South Bay Area in California
  2. Seattle and Spokane in Washington
  3. New York City Area

Each post will be about the books I bought, musings on local bookshops, and some of the photos I took. Since I have accumulated a backlog of food and general travel photos, I can write about that too (Let me know if you’re interested).

Well, look at how this simple “Checking In” post has bloated. Congratulations on making it this far and I hope it won’t be long until my next post.

July No-Buy Report (aka Free Books!)

My bookshelves welcomed some new additions this month. As I mentioned here, my brother got me Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Making. I also acquired two more free books after.

There’s still a week left of July, but I have no intentions of getting more books – free or otherwise. In fact, I’ve imposed a suspension on book acquisition for the rest of July and all throughout August. Why? First, I know I will buy a lot of books in September so I’m trying to balance the spending starting now. Worse, I’m running out of space to store my books.

I have so many books – plenty of them unread. I think I will exile myself from bookshops until September. I’ll shop my own shelves instead. When I did a cursory check this afternoon, I found unread, unloved novels I had forgotten about. Poor books.

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I seem to do more navel-gazing than book blogging. Onwards. After all, the post title promises a look at some books, not my personal bibliophile dilemmas.

L-R: The Last Emperor by Edward Behr, The Book of Spices by Frederic Rosengarten

The books look ancient because they belonged to my dear grandfather, forever a reading enthusiast. He is kinder to his eyes these days and so everything in his collection is now at my disposal. What joy!

He had finished rereading The Last Emperor, a biography on the last emperor of China, just last week and offered to relinquish ownership, to which I happily accepted. The next book I’m going to read is Jung Chang’s biography of Empress Dowager Cixi aka the infamous Dragon Lady, so this is a nice tie-in. Interestingly, Chang’s biography seems revisionist, while Behr described Cixi as “extravagant, cruel, corrupt, and xenophobic.” It will be quite a juxtaposition to compare both biographies!

I found The Book of Spices hiding in the recesses of my grandfather’s bookshelf and ohmygosh I was so delighted. I mentioned in my July Desires post that I kept dithering on whether to buy Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton or not. I love the history of spices but wasn’t sure if Nathaniel’s Nutmeg would cover the topics that fascinate me – Nutmeg seems more focused on the antics of some traders.

The Book of Spices, on the other hand, contains an overview of the spice trade, maps of trade routes, along with an individual chapter for each spice, ranging alphabetically from allspice to vanilla. Bonus! There are recipes for every spice. Already I’m itching to bake the blackberry clove cake and the blondies with cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla.

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A final note and some words: If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a pretty sporadic poster. But I do feel bad for not reading and commenting on other blogs. People have been kind enough to like and comment on this blog but I’ve been silent. And not only do I feel bad, I really miss interacting with bloggers I enjoy and admire.

Someone said that working for a startup is like taking on a year’s workload in one quarter and it sure feels that way the past couple of weeks. I’ll try to read my favorite blogs during my commute starting Monday, but whether it translates to thoughtful comments on my part remains to be seen.

Also, I have books to review! Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops) by Andrea Hirata, The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I’ve pretty much abandoned my personal writing lately as I lack the energy for it post-work. But I’ve been reading quite a bit. It’s a great way to unwind! I’m going to try and rustle up some reviews soon. Fingers crossed.

July Desires

Around mid-May, I imposed a book low-buy upon myself for the rest of 2016 to control my swelling spending. But of course, there are books I currently want. There are always books I currently want. If I had a default mode, it would be: “always wanting books.” At the moment, these are the books that nags loudest of all:

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Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton

I have wanted this book ever since I was in high school, because the spice trade is so fascinating to me. No doubt it is related to my nationality – I’m Indonesian and Indonesia is widely known as the Spice Islands. Nutmeg and cloves are indigenous to Indonesia, actually. And it is this very wealth that lured centuries of colonialism to our shores. I had thought that Nathaniel’s Nutmeg would explore the spice trade and the political situation in Indonesia at the time, but online research is telling otherwise. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is more against-all-odds adventure caper, it seems. Boo!

However, my desire for Nathaniel’s Nutmeg has ebbed and flowed for such a long time that I suspect I may just pull the trigger and buy it. And yet, there’s probably a reason why I managed for years without it. It’s probably bad policy to buy a book unless you really, really want it. Gah, let’s just call my desire for Nathaniel’s Nutmeg low-level lust.

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Anthony Bourdain Omnibus: Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour

This is another book for which my desire has waxed and waned. I have loved Anthony Bourdain’s travel shows ever since junior high school. Underneath his brash machismo is a deep respect for the culture of others. I specifically want this edition because it has two of his early books: Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour (also the name of the TV show that first put him on the map). Like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, I have wanted this omnibus for a long, long time but have never pulled the trigger. Lately, I find myself wanting it again. Yet like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, there’s probably a good reason why I haven’t shelled out my cash by now. I’ve never desired the book badly. And I guess I can always satisfy myself by binge-watching Bourdain’s television shows.

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The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, specifically The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron

Sometime this week, I watched Disney’s 1985 film The Black Cauldron following a dear friend’s recommendation. Such mixed feelings. The visuals were splendid, the score is moody and haunting, and there were moments full of childlike magic. But the storytelling and characterization left something to be desired.

According to the film’s Wikipedia page: “Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander’s work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.””

When I found out Lloyd Alexander authored the source material, desire for the Chronicles of Prydain sharpened. He is another author I’ve wanted to read for a long time but somehow never actually picked up.

(Yes, there is a definite pattern here)

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I squarely blame mudandstars for this lemming. Her review (link here) is irresistible for this literary horror lover. How could I resist a shrouding sense of menace, the specter of a break-up, creepy parents, and knotting dread and tension exploding into a climax? Ugh, I want this book.

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Weirdly, listing all these books and analyzing why I want them has deflated my desire a little bit. Perhaps I find my own desires ridiculous? And perhaps I should make my monthly desires a regular post for my own sake?

This low-buy will stick all throughout 2016 excepting the month of September, when I will attend my cousin’s wedding in the USA. If I’m going all the way to the Bay Area-Seattle-NYC (in that order), I’m going to take full advantage of all the wonderful secondhand bookshops. Take all my money, America!!