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.

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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!!

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

I read Hotel Iris, my first Yoko Ogawa, last year (full-length review here) and had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I loved the prose: pure, pristine, and clear. But the story leaves something to be desired – its ending was rushed, abrupt, and anticlimactic. I loved Ogawa’s writing style enough to try again though, so here we are with a review of her short story collection Revenge.

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Folks, I love Revenge. The collection is subtitled “Eleven Dark Tales” and it’s no joke. I was left feeling a bit grim post-reading. But if you wanted serial killers and vampires, Revenge isn’t for you. Revenge is more eerie than scream-inducing, its horror lies in atmosphere rather than bombast. And I do think Ogawa’s almost-surgical prose lends an iciness that adds to the creepy atmosphere of Revenge.

How to describe the stories in unison? Sometimes it feels as though they had a touch of magical realism. In “Old Mrs. J,” a murdered husband is buried in a garden patch, resulting in carrots shaped like human hands. In “Sewing for the Heart,” a nightclub singer’s heart is attached to her outer chest. Yet you can read all the stories as part of the realism genre. The heart condition can be waved off as a health anomaly, the weird carrots can be attributed to the seeds or the soil. But always there is an underlying sense of the uncanny.

Revenge plays into my favorite horror thematic: that the scariest actions aren’t caused by supernatural beings, but by the awful side of human nature. This is a short story collection about being lonely and adrift – and the horrifying things people do to feel a little less lonely and adrift. Misery loves company and if you can’t be a little less miserable, why not drag others into a state of misery?

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I’m separated from my copy of Revenge as I write this review and I couldn’t find the full story list online, even Revenge’s Wikipedia page only noted eight stories. Surprisingly though, after some reminiscing, I remember the full list along with the general plot of each story. The incident speaks more of a strong short story collection than a superlative memory, sadly.

In case anyone is looking for Revenge’s story list, here it is in order: “Afternoon at the Bakery,” “Fruit Juice,” “Old Mrs. J,” “The Little Dustman,” “Lab Coats,” “Sewing for the Heart,” “Welcome to the Museum of Torture,” “The Man Who Sold Braces,” “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger,” “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” and “Poison Plants.”

If you have read a review of Revenge, any review of Revenge, you’ll know that the stories are loosely connected. The eponymous man who sold braces, for instance, is also the curator of the Museum of Torture. But you can treat each story as a standalone piece.

I didn’t structure this review well, sorry, so I’ll just talk about some of my favorite stories in Revenge.

Of all the stories, “Old Mrs. J” has the most traditional Gothic horror feel. There’s a creepy old lady, there’s a grisly murder, and there’s some, shall we say, odd-looking harvest. Now, I love Gothic horror a lot, a lot, but when I got to “Sewing for the Heart,” I knew Revenge was something special. In fact, all the stories following “Sewing for the Heart” are excellent.

In “Sewing for the Heart,” a bagmaker is asked to create a bag to hold the heart of a young woman who suffers a health condition – her heart is attached to her outer chest. Only the best of horror stories can create such a building sense of dread and trepidation. You are helpless to keep on turning the pages as the bagmaker’s obsession grows and grows, as tensions twist and knot to a climax. The bagmaker’s dastardly decision at the end is grisly but unsurprising, and the fact that Ogawa conveyed such a perfectly-contained story in under twenty pages is astonishing.

“The Man Who Sold Braces” is a character study first, and what a great one it is. Somehow Ogawa, in her unflinching, unsentimental, and unclouded prose, managed to make the eponymous man, despite his endless list of failures and misdeeds, sympathetic.

Prior, I wrote that in Revenge, people will perform dark deeds to be a little less lonely and adrift. But “Tomatoes and the Full Moon,” a quieter story than its predecessors, is an inversion. It turns out, people will also abandon self-preservation in their desperation to connect with another. People will go to extreme lengths, either way, to feel less unmoored in life, it seems.

The concluding story “Poison Plants” is also a quiet tale, with an unrelenting sadness rendered in Ogawa’s icy touch. This story made me fearful of aging, seeing how pathetic it made our narrator.

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Bottom line: Revenge is an excellent collection, even if horror is not to your taste. Most of the horror is borne from a dark look at human nature, so I’d say Revenge is great for fans of literary fiction. It’s certainly one of this literary fiction devotee’s favorite reads of the year so far.

Early July Bonuses

My brother is back home for the summer holidays! And with him came some gifts. Items in the top row I had requested, but he very thoughtfully bought me the coloring book without me asking.

Top Row: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser, and NARS 413 BLKR Semi-Matte Lipstick

Bottom Row: Lost Ocean by Johanna Basford

The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s fantasy novel is a mouthful, isn’t it? I’ve been intrigued by Valente for a couple of years now. I even read the prologue of her novel Deathless on Tor’s website (which you can also read here). Whilst I really loved her lyrical writing style, I kept dithering. Not sure why now that I think about it. Then, I found out she has written a middle-grade fantasy series and decided I would rather read that even though I haven’t touched anything middle-grade in years. Moods are changeable and strange.

The plot of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making sounds pretty standard. A bored young girl is whisked off into a magical place called Fairyland where she has her own quest and adventures. I’m here for the sensory prose, however – I’ve read small bits of the novel and was not disappointed by the writing.

(Funnily enough, this is one moody acquisition that logically ties into my life. My new job is demanding so it makes sense to stock up on easier reads).

This is not a beauty blog (she protests, for the hundredth time), so I’ll keep this brief. The La Roche-Posay is a facial cleanser that I kind of regret requesting, since my skin isn’t finicky. There really is no point in buying a more expensive cleanser. As for the lipstick – err, I own a truly shameful amount of lipsticks (sounds familiar?), but that plummy red-brown color! auxiliarybeauty has an excellent blog post about 413 BLKR, including swatches.

I had pooh-poohed the coloring for adults trend as a fad, but then someone suggested I try it to alleviate some of my anxiety. So I did. And I realized that I love it, although I think I demolish the entire point by taking it way too seriously. But I guess that’s my nature – I have a tendency to pour my heart and soul into projects (while simultaneously having a tendency to avoid projects but forget I wrote that). Here are some of my work:

As you can see, I love slapping on the bright colors. I’ve seen others utilize shading and gradation to beautiful effect and at first, I was envious of such skills. But in the spirit of being kind to myself, I tell myself that all that intense vividness doesn’t mean a less-skilled work. It’s just different.

Now that I’ve inundated you with shiny new things, it’s time to actually review a book. I finished Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge last week and really loved it. Its full-length review will be my next post.

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.

5 Minutes to Stress Relief: How to Release Fear, Worry, and Doubt… Instantly by Lauren E. Miller

Too many sticky notes? Yeah, I agree

You should know that this book has a low rating on goodreads and I can understand why. Lauren E. Miller is overly Christian-centric and repetitive. She uses herself as a sterling example so often I roll my eyes. She can also be preachy and unsympathetic. So why did I give 5 Minutes to Stress Relief four stars and thus, bumped up its rating? Because whether despite or because of her tough love approach (so reminiscent of my mother whenever I’m suffering depressive/anxious episodes), I found a lot of the sentiments expressed useful.

Also, it’s most likely that you’re reading self-help books in the first place to rectify something you’re doing wrong. I tried to read with an open mind throughout and focused mainly on 5 Minutes to Stress Relief’s positive aspects.

2016 has been good to me so far. Depression and anxiety attacks are fewer and farther between. In fact, this is the longest I’ve ever been without a depressive episode. I want to keep it that way. I’ve been taking care of myself as best as I can. I’m also taking this “bright” time to catch up on what to do the next time I get depressed/anxious. When I’m actually in trouble, I can’t even get out of bed – let alone find ways to help myself. 5 Minutes to Stress Relief was the first of my many unread self-help books to get some attention.

5 Minutes to Stress Relief isn’t revolutionary. It’s more of a basic refresher. That’s fine though. Stressed-out people don’t have the mental capacity to execute forty yoga steps to a balanced inner life. Basic is best. In fact, the focal chapter of 5 Minutes to Stress Relief: “Quick Stress Relief Tips That You Can Do in Less Than Five Minutes!” wasn’t that useful to me. I already know deep breathing and daily walks help ease the problems. I’m not interested in Miller’s tapping method or thymus thumps. Although I suspect I will try jumping around and stretching more.

What I liked most about 5 Minutes to Stress Relief was its abstractions. A lot of key statements were what I learned from some hard experiences. I have half a mind to write down these statements in index cards and reread them every time the “black dog” starts sniffing.

Well, writing them down in a blog post counts, right?

  • “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27)
  • “I have moved through challenges in my past, and I am willing to trust that I can do it again.”
  • “Guilt will keep you stuck.”
  • “Anxiety comes when the options involved in your decisions conflict with the order of your priorities.”
  • “Inner anxiety is caused when your body is where it is, and your mind is in the future or in the past. Be here now.”

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the theoretical that won me over. I am an academic person, after all. But more likely, I already know these assertions from experience. I just need to be reminded of them frequently and often – especially when I’m inside the black hole trying to claw myself out.

If 5 Minutes to Stress Relief was a novel, my succinct review would be: fundamentally flawed but I forgive it because it’s genuine and rings true.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Jane, the Fox and Me

Translated from French by Cristelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

At this point, I’ve read three of Groundwood Books’ graphic novels for children. Organized by reading order and incidentally, from least to most adored: A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova, Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau, and now, Jane, the Fox and Me. I’m sensing a pattern here: the artwork is always superlative, the stories quiet, gentle, and tender. So quiet, gentle, and tender are they – that all of them are a tad forgettable.

That’s not to say that Groundwood Books choose stinkers. Far from it. These are good graphic novels with some excellent qualities. To me personally, they just don’t have that special something that would push me to rate them higher. And in fact, I respect Groundwood Books for choosing subdued atmosphere over dramatic bombast. One of the elements I appreciate from these graphic novels is how precisely they capture a child’s innocence/self-centeredness. Political havoc in A Year without Mom matters not to little Dasha. She’s more concerned about her first crush and how her school friends treat her. A parent’s death is unreal to the titular protagonist of Harvey – he spends the night thinking of an old movie he once saw.

Jane, the Fox and Me similarly tells of a young child’s tribulations. Helene is not living in a war-torn country. She is not dealing with abusive parents. But she is struggling all the same. Girls who were once her friends are bullying her at school. Her mother, although loving, is too tired raising three children alone to notice. Helene finds solace in reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She identifies with Jane, from her plainness to her mettle. But when Helene’s class leaves for a two-week nature camp, will Jane Eyre alone save her from the cruelty of other kids?

I’m not the first reviewer who has noticed that Helene’s world is drawn in black-and-white yet moments when she is recounting Jane Eyre are fully colored. A clever and beautiful touch, I think. Not to mention, long-term bibliophiles would relate – As a child, school is too mundane and gray to be real, fictional worlds were brighter and felt more corporeal to me.

So to conclude, I was mildly disappointed because I had heard such lovely things about Jane, the Fox and Me on booktube. Perhaps the hype ruined it for me even though there was nothing particularly wrong with Jane, the Fox and Me. Britt and Arsenault really captured Helene’s isolation and loneliness exceptionally well. You can really feel Helene and her perspective of the world.

Of course, the artwork is simply beautiful – I expect no less from anything Groundwood Books publish at this point. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is the final unread Groundwood graphic novel I own and I’m looking forward to it.