A Retrospective

I’ve been privileged to see many historical and cultural landmarks, yet this random building with the most gorgeous Art Deco detailing in Makati, Philippines might be my favorite piece of architecture

Last December, my family had a big trip together for Christmas and 2018 New Year. It was a serious affair: aunt, uncle, cousins, grandparents, cousin’s wife, and cousin’s boyfriend. My uncle, who enjoys a reading hobby, had a peek at the unread books strewn inside my suitcase while I was rifling through.

“Do you still read a lot? What good books have you finished this year?” he asked, smiling and pointing at his current read – a Wilbur Smith novel. I know he’s a fan, so it was probably Smith’s latest release.

I sighed. “To be honest, I haven’t been reading much this year. I’ve been too busy with work. That’s why I’m bringing, like, three books in my suitcase. I just want to read this trip.”

“It’s good you are still reading physical books,” said my uncle. “When we moved to the new place, I organized all my books, then brought the ones I didn’t want anymore to the local used bookstores. No one would buy my books. The owners all kept saying the same thing, that no one is buying books anymore: “Bookstores are closing left and right, so we can’t afford to buy these.””

“It’s sad to see bookstores die out in my lifetime. I know, I know. On with the times. Doesn’t make it less sad, though,” he said.

Last month, I went to Manila, Philippines for a short vacation. I enjoyed the company of a dear friend from college. We lost touch for a few years, but have now reconnected and I am much happier for it. She, like me, is a voracious reader.

Haha, make that was. I asked her what she was currently reading and she responded that ever since she subscribed to Netflix, she has pretty much stopped reading. She wants to, though. She keeps buying new books to motivate her, but distractions are plenty.

(Haha, that sounds familiar)

I haven’t succumbed to a Netflix subscription. I know its availability will whittle down what leisure time I have for reading. We have so many content options these days: Netflix, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, apps, and aggregators. Choice is a good thing, but I see fewer people engrossed in doorstopper physical books.

Like my uncle, I feel a bit wrong-footed about this. Rationally, I know it comes back to reading and content consumption. But it does make me nostalgic, mostly for the simplicity of childhood.

Damn. And I’m not even that old. Oh well. On with the times.

I’m a bit sad to have missed February’s Persephone Readathon, which I was alerted to by holdsuponhappiness’ Instagram post. I completely missed the deadline to contribute, but two of my reads in 2018 made me feel cozy, comforted, and happy – what the best Persephones do.

One is a Persephone; it’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. For some reason, I’ve been picking it up and reading it for the past 3 years. And I always hanker for it around February/March. I suppose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is like Pride and Prejudice in the way they make you smile and hope for a happy ending. It’s the right novel to savor during the early year doldrums.

The other novel is The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith, a novel that feels very Persephone Books to me. Utterly British in tone and setting, it’s cozy, charming, and well-plotted yet immersive. Plus, who can hate a novel when read at a cute creperie?

Photo Taken at Café Breton at Greenbelt Mall, Makati

One of the photographic evidence of last month’s Manila trip. I love this crepe café. If you ever go, get the crepes with butter, sugar, and lemon. Sometimes nothing beats the simplest option.

In 2017, I read the following books:

  1. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson (reread)
  2. Kubah by Ahmad Tohari
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (reread)
  4. Matilda by Roald Dahl (reread)
  5. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
  6. Perfection by Debbie Lee
  7. Shelter by Jung Yun
  8. When I Carried You in My Belly by Thrity Umrigar
  9. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  10. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  11. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (reread)
  12. Green Tea by Sheridan J. Le Fanu (Penguin Little Black Classics)
  13. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh
  14. Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  15. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
  16. Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo
  17. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  18. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  19. Eating by Nigella Lawson (Vintage Minis)
  20. Strangers by Taichi Yamada
  21. Destination Moon (Tintin #16) by Herge
  22. Explorers on the Moon (Tintin #17) by Herge
  23. You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt

For a passionate bibliophile, 23 books is a poor annual sum. That’s fewer than 2 per month. It’s in the past, though, and I’d rather move forward. Reading and writing are my dearest passions. Why poison them with pressure? Let pressure stay at work.

Funny thing is, I’m reading more so far this year. I’ve completed 6 books and am well into several others. I think at this time last year I was struggling through my first read.

Maybe I’m reading more because I’m being more relaxed and following wants rather than only shoulds? Maybe I’m finally achieving work-life balance? Who knows? It’s working.

This has been a meandering post, hasn’t it?

It has taken writing this far for me to realize the point of this post. I think 2018 will be a good year for me, whatever the inevitable challenges. My twenties have been marked by a lot of struggling then learning priceless lessons on how to cope with whatever life throws at you. There’s precious little time left in my twenties. 2018 will be a good year because I will make it a good year. Let’s see how successful I am come December!

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


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


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


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.


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.

June Low-Buy Report

Um, hello. I’ve been a bad blogger: neglecting my blog, ignoring comments from lovely people. Work has been intense but that’s no excuse. Besides, I miss blogging.

Good news: I stayed within my budget this month. June was only my second month of noting all my discretionary spending but already I see results. My biggest spending is concentrated on reading materials and beauty products and in June, I only came away two books and one Urban Decay eyeshadow poorer.

Of course, it helps that two lovely friends gifted me two novels each. So in total, I got six new books in the month of June.

Clockwise from top left: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson, Mariana by Monica Dickens, The Book Collector by Alice Thompson, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Bekisar Merah by Ahmad Tohari, and From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

I studied abroad in London as an undergraduate. That was when I found out about the glorious Persephone Books. I visited their shop and bought Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey for myself and Miss Buncle’s Book as a birthday gift for a flatmate. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is mediocre – the only dud Persephone I’ve read. But Miss Buncle’s Book stuck with me. My flatmate couldn’t stop thanking me and praising the novel to the high heavens. How charming it was! How funny! How adorable! And so I fell into book lust.

This was some years ago. A dear friend asked if she could get some Persephones from London for me, which was already lovely in itself and I didn’t want to burden her so I only asked for Mariana by Monica Dickens. I’ve wanted Mariana ever since I read that Persephone reissued it because they wanted to publish a book similar in feel to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

(I Capture the Castle is wonderful forever. Read it, read it, read it!)

The friend said, ”There’s something else you want from Persephone that you aren’t telling me. Spill!” Some persistent nudging and a recounting of my long lust for Miss Buncle’s Book later, here I am with both novels. Friends who trained to be therapists can be so eerily perceptive.

I had asked for The Book Collector by Alice Thompson for my birthday this year. I was seduced by Salt Publishing’s description of the novel on their website, which reads:

Alice Thompson’s new novel is a Gothic story of book collecting, mutilation and madness. Violet is obsessed with the books of fairy tales her husband acquires, but her growing delusions see her confined in an asylum. As she recovers and is released a terrifying series of events is unleashed.

Gothic fiction might just be my favorite genre and The Book Collector promises to have the uncanny and the locked-up madwoman in spades. I’m also intrigued because the description promises touches of modernism and meta within the Gothic and the horror.

A good friend couldn’t find it online so she got me Kelly Link’s short story collection Magic for Beginners instead. She recently found The Book Collector on Book Depository, however, and pounced. Oh, and she added The Vegetarian by Han Kang on her cart since I’ve been eyeing it too.

(I have such wonderful friends, guys. Slap me if I ever take them for granted).

I’m sure most of you know by now that The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize recently and tells the story of a South Korean woman who renounces meat in a society where vegetarianism is rare. It’s the themes that made me want the novel badly. Gender politics, mental illness, and societal imprisonment are all themes I love and cannot stop reading about.

My pangs of regret on buying Bekisar Merah by Ahmad Tohari waxes and wanes. Ahmad Tohari is the Indonesian author I adore most and I have resolved to reading everything he has written that is currently available. However, purchasing Bekisar Merah could have been delayed. I had several unread Tohari books already and now I feel guilty every time I approach my bookshelves.

Oh well. What’s done is done. And at least Indonesian novels are cheaper than imported ones. I remember little about the synopsis of Bekisar Merah except that it is a historical fiction novel that follows a mixed-race woman throughout her life in Java as she navigates a society that is hostile towards her.

Lately, I’ve been wanting to read more educational material. Maybe political, maybe historical. Usually, I would pick up Time magazine or the Economist when such desires flow but this time I wanted it in book form. I read the blurb of From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra in a local bookshop and was immediately fascinated. The Victorian era was a horrible time for Asia – most areas had been colonized and From the Ruins of Empire details the intellectual response of Asia. Some figures want to stick to traditional roots, some become moderates, and others became convinced that a radical ideology was the answer.

I might read From the Ruins of Empire first but I don’t know. My mood changes daily. Anyway, thank you for sticking through this unnecessarily long post. I hope you enjoyed oohing and aahing over my new books with me.

Early Impressions: Nigella Bites and Some Baked Goods

This post was supposed to be a review of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but I forgot to take a photo of my copy and I’m away at the moment. Thereby, my review is postponed. Foreshadowing alert: I loved Of Mice and Men. It’s the second book I rated five stars on goodreads in 2016.

You may think it’s a bit silly to delay a book review just because of its cover. Yes, I can easily upload a picture of one of the hundreds of Of Mice and Men covers floating online. But my copy is dear to my heart. It previously belonged to my grandfather and was published in 1938, merely one year after Of Mice and Men was first released. I kind of want to give whoever is reading this blog a feel of how damn thick 1938 paper were. Reading my grandpa’s Of Mice and Men felt luxurious, even if I shudder to think of the unnecessarily murdered trees.

So instead, here’s a mini-review of Nigella Bites and some tested recipes.

I adore Nigella Lawson. I love her style, her personality, and her philosophy. As a young teenager, her television shows were a revelation. Wow, I thought, cooking really isn’t so difficult. I can do that.

Until little over two weeks ago, however, I did not own any of her cookbooks – even though I’ve always had lemmings for all of them. Cookbooks are notoriously expensive. The inside flap of Nigella Bites says it normally retails for 35 US dollars, but I scored it for around 11 bucks at the Big Bad Wolf sale.

Now, I haven’t read the cookbook from cover to cover. Nor have I tested all the recipes (who has?). But this is a lovely book to flick through when tired after work. Or when searching for practical recipes. Nigella has a wonderful “voice:” funny and charismatic, unaffected and unpretentious. Weirdly, I find that she is more eloquent when presenting her television shows; naturally rattling off quotes by Oscar Wilde and John Keats. Her prose is more restrained and simple, but no less charming. I like both her speaking wit and her writing, but it is funny when someone’s prose is more conversational than her actual conversations, is it not?

(Yes, yes, someone probably scripted her television monologues – but she always pulls them off with aplomb)

I’m more of a baker than an actual meal cook, so the recipes I have tried were the chocolate fudge cake and the breakfast orange muffins. What I loved most were how easy they were to make. I’ve tried plenty of Nigella recipes (mostly from online and by memorizing the telly shows) by now, and she has never lied about the practicality of her recipes. Texturally, the cakes turned out wonderful. Visually, they had that rustic/homey look yet were still somehow attractive.

Nigella’s Chocolate Fudge Cake

What I think the recipes lack were that extra kick of flavor. I wanted the cake to be even more chocolatey and the muffins to be even more citrusy. Although in this case, your mileage may vary. The Javanese have a word called medok, which essentially means thick – too thick, tasteless makeup; too thick a speaking accent; or too thick a taste – almost vulgar flavors. My preference is for my food to be medok. I rarely want subtle, delicate, or flimsy. I want overly flavored nearly all the time.

Breakfast Orange Muffins

People that I have offered the orange muffins were pleased with the subtlety. And the same people found the fudge cake very chocolatey already, so again, different strokes for different folks. They also appreciated the fact that the cakes weren’t overly sweet, I sentiment I happily share, even though I didn’t reduce the sugar content of the recipes.

Now I’m curious about the savory dishes listed in Nigella Bites. I’m already bookmarking the gingery-hot duck salad, although I think I’ll replace the duck with beef.

Oh, I still want Nigella’s other cookbooks, by the way.


Big Bad Wolf Haul

Here it is! A photo of my haul of shame:

It wasn’t deliberate that, excepting Nigella Bites, all the books I bought were written by postcolonial authors. Whilst I follow and read a number of book bloggers who focus on diversity in literature, I’d be heartbroken not to have total unlimited choice of reading material.


Back to my haul, I affectionately call these two my nostalgia duo:

I first encountered both novels during my semester abroad in London. I call those beautiful four months ‘the best time of my life,’ mostly because what happened immediately after was the darkest time of my life. London came to symbolize that precious time when one felt the world was their oyster and theirs for the taking.

I had never heard of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies until a glorious sunny autumn day in London – yes, sunny autumn days do exist in London. I was on a tour boat, cruising the River Thames with a delightfully snarky Brit as guide. I sat next to out chaperone professor as I felt bad no other student wanted to sit next to a professor. I needn’t worry, he had an engrossing novel. Halfway through the trip, we struck a conversation. I remember precious little: he had been to London several times and I really ought to pick up Sea of Poppies because it is excellent. It was with a smile and with sweet memories I picked up Sea of Poppies at Big Bad Wolf.

Brick Lane was another novel raved about by a London professor. But what pushed my purchase button was the beautiful memories I made in Brick Lane; from taking photographs for class projects to sampling South Asian desserts that turned out absolutely vile to a delicious curry dinner paid for by our Shakespearean professor. That Tesco sticker is staying there – that enabler of endless late night munchies.


I named this photo “new and interesting” on my laptop despite knowing all of the authors. Some buying motivation aka navel-gazing behind all of them starting clockwise.

V.S. Naipaul has said some very funny things about women and women writers. Yes, misogyny is still very much a thing. But the blurb of Among the Believers whet my appetite. It’s non-fiction and in it, Naipaul compares Islam in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. I am fascinated by outsider views on Indonesia and I cannot resist books centered on such. So into my arms Among the Believers went.

I almost bought A Thousand Years of Good Prayers at full price from the famous Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. So of course I wasn’t going to pass up a copy sold for 60 thousand rupiahs (around $4.50). I’ve never read Yiyun Li before but I’ve wanted to ever since her “A Sheltered Woman” won the Sunday Times short story prize. “A Sheltered Woman” is available to read for free here.

Of course I wanted Things Fall Apart. I’ve never read Chinua Achebe before and everyone starts with Things Fall Apart, but there were only three Achebes at the Big Bad Wolf: A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, and No Longer at Ease. I found No Longer at Ease the most interesting from the blurb and its first pages so it came home with me. Hey, at least when I review No Longer at Ease, I can say: how many reviews of Things Fall Apart does the book blogosphere need anyhow?

A creative writing professor once commented that a short story of mine reminded him of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s early village fiction. My heart soared despite having read next to nothing of Marquez’s works. I’ve made it a mission to read more Marquez during the new few years. Even without that personal quest, the blurb of Chronicle of a Death Foretold would have spurred me on to buy it. It’s apparently a non-linear story about a brutal murder and the contradictory testimonials and journalistic pieces surrounding why and how the murder happened. I love that. I love crime stories that focus on psychology; I don’t read enough psychological thrillers, really.


A final note on Nigella Bites: Oh, how I have wanted Nigella cookbooks for years! I just didn’t want to part with my money. Cookbooks are expensive, but at the Big Bad Wolf, they go around for about $10 dollars. I’ve already marked some recipes I want to try. I’m more of a baker but the salmon fish cakes are really calling my name…

Let me know if you went to the Big Bad Wolf and have written a post about it. I’d love to read about your experiences and your hauls!


Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Set around the late 1970s, Fruit of the Lemon is the story of Londonite Faith Jackson, a new university graduate with dreams of making it big in the fashion and textile industry. She is also the daughter of two Jamaican immigrants but that matters little to her. Her identity and her mannerisms are thoroughly British. Faith knows very little about Jamaica, about her family tree, and her history. She finds her parents’ Jamaican ways old-fashioned and slightly out of place.

The first half of Fruit of the Lemon follows Faith’s life, from her new job at the BBC costume department and the eccentric coworkers that come with it to her quirky roommates. It sounds light because it is; this is a very quick and easy read – with Faith echoing a chicklit heroine and the novel feeling sitcom-esque at times. Gradually, little things and offhand comments make Faith question her place as a black woman in London. Small things escalate, as they usually do, causing Faith’s parents to urge her to go to Jamaica to learn about her history. And about herself, by extension.


Someday there will be a novel that successfully renders contemporary neuroses and anxieties in a sympathetic way and we will all rejoice. Fruit of the Lemon is not such a novel, by the way. I think Levy wanted Faith Jackson to be an everygirl but she came across as whiny and annoying (the fault of comic exaggeration, perchance?) I wasn’t happy that the first half of Fruit of the Lemon focused on her life. I couldn’t wait for her to get to Jamaica already so there will be stories of other characters.

The second half is better. No more of Faith’s inane blathering. We are told stories of Faith’s family members up to three and four generations back. All the life stories Faith is told folds together into a mosaic of struggles, hard work, the ups and downs of life – along with how dreary life can be between the ups and downs.

I admire the final message of Fruit of the Lemon. You’re not that special. Faith thinks she was easily going to make it big. But as shown by all the stories of her family members; Life is hard. Life is full of ups and downs. Life is that way whether we are black, white, Jamaican, or Asian. That is inevitable. Being part of a certain group obviously affords privileges, but at the end of the day it is our choice to defeat or be defeated by the daily grind.

This is, of course, a contested point of view/interpretation. The topic of free will and how far hard work takes you vs. how much power society allows you will always be controversial.


While Fruit of the Lemon improved at the end, I could give it no more than three stars at the end. The bulk of the novel is an easy but average read, quite forgettable. Only the ending stuck with me.

A couple of days ago, I read this review of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song by booksbythewindow. Levy seems to have grown and matured as a literary writer. The Long Song denotes a dense, rich novel. Meanwhile, Levy’s most famous novel Small Island is almost universally lauded. Clearly, I chose the wrong novel to start my journey with Andrea Levy.

I don’t recommend Fruit of the Lemon as your first Levy. Small Island and The Long Song seem a safer bet. Thanks to Sally’s review, I’m wondering if I should give Levy another chance.

Ah, if only I didn’t have 7853 unread books to read already!

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

“The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling”

Jane Austen on her own novel Pride and Prejudice

Austen’s oft-quoted line above perfectly describes how I feel about Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It’s happy and bubbly, frothy almost, and it gladdens the heart.

Miss Pettigrew is a drab, nondescript governess on the edge of destitution and homelessness. A final chance at employment takes her to the abode of nightclub singer Miss LaFosse. No unruly children in sight here. Instead, Miss Pettigrew is pleaded to assist Miss LaFosse’s romantic entanglements. Beautiful, glamorous, and frantic, Miss LaFosse is juggling three boyfriends and it is all up to Miss Pettigrew’s wits to keep LaFosse’s men clueless and separate from each other.

The action whirs from the start and whizzes continuously. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day spans a day and follows our eponymous heroine as she is introduced to LaFosse’s world of beauty makeovers, captivating characters, theater figures, and jazz clubs – gradually, Miss Pettigrew learns to be merry, learns to live.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the novel that put Persephone Books on the map and I can see why. It has been a while since a novel calls to me every time I had to put it down. I just couldn’t wait to pick it up and continue reading, which is a bit silly since Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is essentially a Cinderella story; there’s no extra points for guessing a happy ending. But the journey is such an entertaining and playful romp I couldn’t help but race through the pages.

The preface of this novel described Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day as “closer to a Fred Astaire film than anything else I can think of.” Now, I have never seen a Fred Astaire film, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day certainly has an old-fashioned comic charm. It feels slightly fantastic, its settings glamorous, and its mood playful, light-hearted, mischievous, and just pure fun.

Now, it is important to note that despite being stuffed with some delightfully subversive views (“A woman’s got to sow her wild oats”), Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is most definitely a product of its time. Which means, there are extremely dated sentiments that may be considered odious to a contemporary eye. Here’s an example:

[…] I wouldn’t advise marrying him. I don’t like to jump to conclusions but I think there was a little Jew in him. He wasn’t quite English. And, well, I do think when it comes to marriage, it’s safer to stick to your own nationality.

Readers fall into two camps when it comes to retrograde viewpoints in fiction: those who shrug and reason that reading about, say, sexist diatribes doesn’t automatically turn them sexists and those who cannot abide hateful ideas and will refuse to support such ideology by not purchasing the novel. If you fall into the second camp, perhaps best to stay away.

Complaints on obsolete attitudes aside, shutting the final page of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day fills sweet positivity to my heart. Sometimes books don’t need flash and flourish. Sometimes books just need to make you happy.

April Persephones, the Joy of Receiving, and Self-Care

I wanted to kick off April with my March book haul but it’s already April 10 here. It feels a bit late and my notes for the aborted draft ballooned to insane length. I shall spare you that baggy monster and give you something shorter. Still about new books, but in gift form aka I don’t have to record my own gross consumerism.

Someone lovely spent March in London and asked me if I would like a book. I didn’t even have to think; I almost screamed “PERSEPHONE!”

Greenery Street and Heat Lightning

My love for Persephone Books is welldocumented on this blog. Plus, I thought, most books I can order online.

(Actually, you can order Persephone books from their website and they will ship it to you, even internationally. What? You expect me to be logical when it comes to books?)

And so to the Persephone website I went for “research.” There are always Persephone books I kind-of-want. Miss Buncle’s Book, for one. The Victorian Chaise-longue is another. I dithered between Little Boy Lost and High Wages too. I just really love Persephone, okay?

Eventually, I settled on Heat Lightning by Helen Hull, a relatively new Persephone reissue –or number 101 from their current list of 115 books. The plot follows Amy Norton, who returns to her Michigan hometown to escape her family problems in New York only to find her home is no longer an idyll. The moral seems to be: don’t run away from your problems, face it. Heat Lightning’s blurb really hits home. On the spectrum of fight vs. flee vs. accept, I definitely flee. No wonder I have crippling anxiety. And so Heat Lightning became my pick, bypassing Miss Buncle’s Book and the other Persephones I sort-of-wanted.

But wait! I knew Persephone sometimes runs out of a specific title and takes a while to restock. So I needed a back-up option. I relied on this wonderful list of recommendations by the equally wonderful bookssnob. She lauded Greenery Street as a splendid, joyous, positive gem about a happy marriage. A dear friend and I lamented the dearth of enduring loves in literary fiction. It must be so much easier to sound “deep” when your subject material is 100% depressed and dysfunctional. On to the back-up choice Greenery Street went. I gave specific word that Greenery Street was to be purchased only and only if Heat Lightning was unavailable.

Imagine my surprise when the lovely one sent a message late March saying “I have your books.”

Books? As in plural? I cautiously replied, “Books? But I only asked for one.”

Reply: “I got them both.”

Happiness can be such a simple thing. I found it so easy to smile that day.

I met my lovely benefactress last week to pick up Heat Lightning and Greenery Street. Of course I told her I would transfer money for them but she would have none of it. She went on a ten-minute tangent on the ‘joy of receiving’ and how important it is for healing and a well-rounded life. Being so grateful, I was at full attention for eight minutes but nodded off the final two minutes.

(Actually, that probably was her master plan. To bore me into not asking for her account number. Gambit successful, madam!)

And yet, I find myself mulling over the ‘joy of receiving’ a lot. When I was younger, my philosophy was ‘Expect nothing from others. You are the only variable you can control in life, everything else is unreliable.’ I’m beginning to think that I was arrogant and presumptuous, that having faith takes a lot of bravery. I also suspect my anxiety was caused by burnout or overcompensation. Maybe. Could be. I don’t know yet.

I’ve been thinking of self-care a lot too. Being productive and meeting deadlines is self-care because it keeps anxiety and depression at bay in the long run. Pleasure reading is self-care as no other leisure activity makes me happier and teaches me to be a better writer. Writing every day is self-care. I am my worst critic and defeat myself if I ever so much as write a mediocre sentence. Yes, writing is hard. Yes, I need to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite again. But I love writing so much. If I stop often, I’ll never the good writer I aim to be.

I’m currently in the middle of six books and I’ve lost passion for all of them. The one book I really want to read right now is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I’ve been saving it for, well, something. I always save Persephones for special reading occasions, most likely because it’s not easy for me to get ahold of them. But my books are not more special than I am. I think I’ll take out Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from my shelf. I’ve been doing well at my new job and rewarding myself with a good book is also self-care.

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.



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.