Golden Moments, 18-31 March 2018

The idea for this post is shamelessly ripped off from inspired by the wonderful holdsuponhappiness. Her blog is one I constantly come back to: cozy, cheering, and charming. Golden Moments is a series on her blog that I take pleasure in; stories of recent events and little items that make her daily life happier and brighter.

Sometimes, I am hesitant to write more lighthearted content. Part of me isn’t sure it’s “me” (the Internet would type me as someone with “zero chill”) and part of me doesn’t think it would be interesting for readers. Yet evaluating the little nuggets of gold that brighten your day is surprisingly effective self-care. Looking at the photographs I compiled for this post made me smile and a little happier.

Warning: this is an unusually photo-laden post.

March 18

I mentioned in my last post that I went on a short vacation to Manila, Philippines in early February. One of my favorite cafes in Metro Manila so far is Wildflour, a cozy/contemporary brunch spot. Last time I was there, I had a thick wedge of sourdough with homemade ricotta, strawberry jam, and granola on top. With a cup of coffee, it was breakfast heaven.

wildflour

On March 18, I replicated the dish. I mean, come on. It’s so simple a toddler can do it. I did, rightfully, substituted the strawberry jam with raspberry. The extra tartness of raspberry jam provided a sharper and tastier contrast against ricotta. My less-photogenic version below:

wildflour wannabe

It’s a really good breakfast option to keep in mind, by the way. Requires no effort, but feels slightly more special than regular toast or cereal.

March 20

charcoal

My baby brother sent me this photo. Yes, with the heart-eyes emoji. That black-and-charcoal business bag was my birthday gift to him. He loves it. It is now his daily office bag, his gym bag, his travel bag; he takes it everywhere. I’ve seen him take it everywhere too.

His delight was hard won. My big-sister instinct told me he would love it. Also, a proper business bag was a genuine gap in his list of possessions, making it a practical present. But I was nearly dissuaded from the purchase by my mother, who told me he wouldn’t use it – he was too much of a backpack loyalist.

Considering the happy outcome, however, three cheers for big-sister instincts!

March 23

ricotta omelet

Behold my omelet-folding skills! I really am honestly proud of this minor talent. Do you know how many wonkily shaped omelets I had to cook to get to this level? Actually, you don’t really want to know.

This is a simple ricotta and spinach omelet, by the way. No sense in wasting leftover ricotta.

March 24

senja di jakarta

Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta in English translation) is an Indonesian classic and I enjoyed it far more than I expected, considering how Mochtar Lubis’s other famous novel Harimau! Harimau! left me indifferent. Lubis to me was our answer to Hemingway. Their writing style and chosen themes were similar. I have enough thoughts about Senja di Jakarta to write a review, so it will come… eventually!

March 27

oggo

This big baby is a living, breathing antidepressant. He whines a lot, roughs around, gets dirty all the time, bites, licks like a maniac, is unbelievably naughty, and is possibly the most spoiled dog that ever lived. But I forgive him every time. He is so loving and affectionate and he never fails to make me feel loved – by endless licking and constantly parking his big bum on my lap and giving me puppy eyes. I am so weak, guys. Help me!

March 31

goggles

I’ve always been terrible at physical activity. P.E. was consistently my worst subject in school. Compounding my lack of natural talent was indifference. I find running on a treadmill and most gym activities so boring, yet competitive sports like soccer are a nightmare of planning and effort. I tried yoga and found it boring as well.

pool

I’ve found my sport, though – it’s swimming. I took swimming lessons as a little girl for a few years and mastered the basics, but it is only now that I’ve developed a genuine appreciation for it. You can go hard and fast if you want to or follow a relaxed pace when you need to. Swimming helps you focus on the present (otherwise, you’ll start swallowing the pool water) and it’s an individual sport – no logistical faffing or interacting with a bunch of people you don’t know well.


It’s funny that only one of the Golden Moments above features a book. This is, after all, a blog focused on literature. But it makes sense for a Golden Moments blog post to feature various facets of the blogger’s life. The blogger’s blog may specialize in literature/beauty/sports/current events/whatever, but that’s not the lone element of the blogger’s life. And thank goodness for that. My life would be much poorer without a spectrum of interests.

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 God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

the god of small things

Oh look! A novel I had planned to review last year because 2017 marked its 20th birthday. What? It’s January 2018 now? Whoops. Oh well.

The God of Small Things wasn’t the best fiction I read in 2017 (That minor honor goes to Shelter by Jung Yun, which I have yet to review), but I couldn’t get it out of my head months after finishing it.

The God of Small Things focuses on a trope I have always loved and Roy built a family saga around it. The trope in question? A noble house in decay.

Roy chose a fascinating period in the decline of an esteemed house. The God of Small Things wasn’t written in chronological order, but as our mind figures out the story’s linear timeline, we realize that the story enters at a point where the house is already in decay and losing prestige. The current generation is simultaneously in denial and attempting to stave away the inevitable.

So we turn the pages awaiting a climax, after which the house loses all standing, good name, and even its income.


The God of Small Things starts with church rites. Sophie Mol, the nine-year-old half-British and half-Indian daughter of family heir Chacko, is dead. We know that Ammu, Chacko’s sister, and her twin children Rahel and Esthra were somehow seen as responsible for Sophie’s death. They were ostracized and pointed at during the funeral.

We are then launched into stories of various family members: the current clan and the older generation. Their backgrounds and most revealing anecdotes are told, creating fully realized characters. No one in this sprawling family is likable. In fact, the whole pack seriously needed copious therapy. All I see, page after page, is delusion, hypocrisy, petty drama, incompetence, and recklessness.

But then, is it a surprise when the man who built the family name was odious? A violent husband and an abusive father, but toadying towards the colonialists, his family cannot escape his clutches long after his death.

Decay and suffocation are themes that infuse The God of Small Things. When the timeline starts, Kerala, where the novel is set, was verdant and beautiful. When twin daughter Rahel returned as an adult woman, her hometown has become a tourist trap where water no longer supports life. The fish are dead and belly-up. The house falls, the land polluted. There is decay and there is inertia, the sense that everything stays the same, yet rot inevitably infests. There are fathers with great hopes for their sons but sons grow up to be menial men with mediocre jobs and class stays unchanged.


The prose of The God of Small Things is famously divisive. It took me a while to finally take the plunge and read as I feared the novel required complete focus, with a dense writing style and a tangled family tree. Nah. Everything’s easy to follow.

The poetic flourishes of The God of Small Things reads childlike and excited to my eyes, rather than esoteric. Makes sense. While we are given an omnipresent view of nearly all the family members, a sizable chunk of the novel’s voice is heard from the twins Rahel and Esthra – children when the story begins, devastated adults at the novel’s end.

Overall, I took pleasure in Roy’s writing style, but the prose can and does cross the realm into being irritatingly overwritten. The God of Small Things is deeply descriptive, lyrical, and lush. Roy turned her pen and her senses to describe absolutely everything. The season’s overripe mangoes got a page’s worth of writing. It does get tiresome and The God of Small Things isn’t even a long novel. My edition is around 340 pages, but 40 pages of the book’s excessive detail could have been easily cut to produce a stronger novel: beautifully written and focused.

(Because dear god, sometimes I thought: right, can we get on with the actual story? Please?)


Despite my quibbles with the writing style, The God of Small Things is a rich novel, full of themes to unpack and beautiful imagery.

I thought the climax and mystery surrounding Sophie Mol’s death were predictable. I guessed what happened not even a quarter into reading the book. No matter – I don’t think Roy was ever invested in the mystery either: the themes, characters, and overall story were what was emphasized.

Here’s a question: why hasn’t the BBC commissioned a miniseries on The God of Small Things? I mean, it’s got the big themes they love: class and colonialism. That alone should have gotten the agents talking.

Life

I wanted to give this post a more creative title. Or at least something more specific. A basic “Life Update” would do, or “Life, Currently.” Yet weirdly, that one word, “Life”, said it all.

Life hasn’t been OK. Sometimes I’m willing to go into details but not today.

Last week’s stress-fueled and tear-fueled mini book haul

I mean, the photo caption above says it all. But while circumstances and recent events have been dire, I know with a bizarre certainty that while I’m not OK now, I will be OK. And you know what? That’s the nature of my life.

It’s certainly not the life I expected or wanted, but I’ve come to accept it.

Let me clarify – that sounds ungrateful.

What I mean is, my life has been a total roller coaster when I had always expected stability and monotony. Funnily enough, I remember praying a prayer of gratitude, in which I was thankful for my flat and solid life mere months before the dramatic ups and downs began.

I know I’ll be OK because I’ve been through other hardships and I’ve learned that things will eventually be OK. I was telling all this to my best friend earlier this week and she sent a message saying, “You would never be happy with a monotonous life. You are so full of life!”

So there we go. Life, in all its challenges and beauty and victories and discontents.

An anonymous blessing

This is one of my very favorite purchases from my New York trip in May. I am astonished that the words on a tourist-shop card, of all things, have managed to encapsulate the story of my life. I am annoyed that I didn’t come up with such perfection.

My life has had everything: happiness, trials, successes, times when I had to be extra strong and determined, moments where I had to take a leap of faith. I just have to take this life as a compliment and a challenge because I can handle it.


Reading, sadly, has had a diminished role in my life this year (and last year, ugh!). Yet I keep buying books at an alarming rate. It’s almost as if my wallet is doing all the work in maintaining the central role of good books and good writing in my life.

I am trying harder than ever to jump-start my reading. I am currently in the middle of 5 books, but Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo has kept me turning the pages most. Of the reading pile, it’s the last book I’ve started, but it will likely be the first book I finish.

Finally, I also want to jump-start non work-related writing. No promises, but I aim to upload two more posts this month. And just try to write an introductory segment to a fiction project. Wish me luck!

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

13539184

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

 15990306

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.

***

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.

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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!!

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.