The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).

Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.

The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.

In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.

In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.

I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.

During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

220px-Enchi_Fumiko
Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)

The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes #2)

the sign of 4

I read The Sign of Four as my last book of 2015, actually finishing on the 31st December. I read the first one in the series – A Study in Scarlet in 2014, but alas, it was a period when I got too lazy to write about every single book I read, so I didn’t put any thoughts down – something that I kind of regret. These days I’ve gotten into the habit of writing about every book I read again, because I know my future self will thank me for it.

Therefore I only have a vague recollection of A Study in Scarlet. I know I quite liked it (a 4 stars read) and it was about a murder mystery (you think?) and a back story of American Mormonism. A bit odd, and old-fashioned, but readable.

The Sherlock Holmes books appear in various must-read book lists, the 1001 Books, the Guardians’s 1000 novels, and 100 best novels written in English, to name a few. But they all seem to pick different ones in the series. So after reading the first, I decided to just read them all in order. One for every year (hence the rush to finish one before the end of 2015). The Sign of Four is picked by Robert McCrum for his 100 best novels list, so my expectation was high.

I’m not sure if it met my expectation.

I don’t read or watch much mystery, but even for me the plot and the mystery seemed too familiar, as if I’ve seen it a couple of dozen times on various media (and no, I have not seen all Sherlock TV series, only the first season). Even more interesting, some people on GR mentioned that the plot is too convoluted. I wonder if I missed anything, as I thought exactly the opposite.

Just to give a brief idea, the mystery involves secrets and betrayal happening in India, while featuring ridiculous set of characters: a twin Indians in turbans, one-legged man and a dark-skinned dwarf man – a savage one at that. Really?

A silver lining is that this is the book where Watson meets Mary Morstan – his future wife, and their relationship is pretty sweet. So if you’re a completist, it’s definitely worth reading. I do plan to continue to book #3: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which features his short stories, and people say Sherlock short stories are really the best, more than the novels, so I look forward to that.

After watching some episodes of the TV series and reading the first 2 books, I can say that the TV Sherlock by Benedict really stays true to the books. So much so that the image of Sherlock as I was reading was that of Benedict Cumberbatch. And when I explained some parts of the book plot to hubby, I started saying Benedict instead of Sherlock “Then Benedict says…” Yeah, it’s that close.

To conclude, The Sign of Four isn’t my favorite Sherlock Holmes, but I still have quite a few books to see whether it’s the worst of the bunch. The rating on GR *is* the lowest amongst the 9 books. So how did Robert McCrum chose this particular one? Perhaps it is more to do with the history. Do you know that Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Doyle’s The Sign of Four were the results of the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? Now that kind of story, I love.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

conan doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle – what a fabulous name!

Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole

I love graphic novels, but I’m always dreading the time I have to write about them. How does one put into words something that works visually? For me at least, it’s a challenge.

Black Hole was drawn in strong style of black and white. It is set in an alternate world, similar to our world (or U.S.A world, Seattle to be exact) in the 1970s, at the time of sexual liberation, and the age of sexual exploration.

There’s a strange disease spreading in the area, transmitted by sexual contact. The symptoms are different for each individual. Some are outwardly grotesque (anything in face area), some are less obvious (anything that can be hidden within clothing). It ranges from disfigured face, gross skin rashes, to having extra mouth in the neck, or a tail. Those who can’t hide their disease go somewhere in the forest and live as outcasts. Akin to fatal sexual disease like AIDS, there’s no known cure, so if you got it, you cross to the other side of the line and become “the others”.

The atmosphere is pretty creepy and nightmare-ish for the majority of the book. The black and white style adds to the eeriness and claustrophobic feeling, which is really perfect for this story.

I found the themes and the visualisation very interesting and unique, but like some reviewer on GR pointed out, the book lacks resolution. It’s the all-too-common case of book starting very strong, but the author doesn’t know how to end it in a satisfying way. But really, everything else up to the end is a remarkable achievement.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Literary Disco’s great episode on Black Hole

Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion

betlehem

Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.

didion

In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

Year 2015 Wrap Up and 2016 Plans

Happy new year good readers!

Oxford St, London
A picture I took on Christmas Eve at Oxford St, London

I haven’t done stats for a long time on this blog, but with all the diversity talks that seem to happen recently *cough* #diversedecember #ReadDiverse2016, I feel inclined to do so.

So in 2015 I read 26 books + 1 Happy Reader (the latter I don’t count for the purpose of below stats, because even though it has an ISBN and a Goodreads page it’s contributed by various people).

And of those 26 books:

10 by women (38%)

and 16 by men (62%)

of those, 11 were white men (42%)

7 PoC / BAME authors (27%)

9 translated (35%)

22 new-to-me authors (85%)

So far in my reading quests I never aimed to have gender balance (meaning I just read what I need to read) because I was catching up with the so-called “English canon” and well aware a lot of them are dead white male authors. Considering that, my gender stats in 2015 isn’t bad I think, but in 2016 for the first time I’m going to make a conscious decision to read at least 50% of female authors and I’m going to keep track of it to make sure this happens.

I was always a bit unsure about the whole PoC/BAME concept. I support diversity of course, but I didn’t see much point when one of my most important reading project is Reading the World. My aim is always to learn culture that is different than mine, that is unfamiliar, so in that regards reading from different countries fills that need. A conversation with a fellow Goodreader enlightened me that the PoC (Person of Color) term is really US-centric (while BAME / Black Asian Minority Ethnic is UK-based term), and it may not fit very well outside of that context. I don’t know about you, but apparently someone needed to spell it out for me to make sense of it, finally! In any way, I’m pretty happy with my percentage 27% when combined with the overlapping 35% translated works, considering I didn’t even make an effort.

The 85% new-to-me authors was expected, and seems I will continue the trend for many years.

What I’m most surprised of is that 50% of these (13 books) are by Americans! WHAT. I always felt I read more British authors. I was definitely delusional. The other 50% are divided between English, Irish, Dutch, Japanese, German, French, Argentine, Chinese, Malaysian, Austrian.

Of the 26 books, the majority are novels, apart from:

4 non-fiction

2 plays

4 short stories collection

1 essays collection

2 graphic novels + 1 manga + 1 illustrated book

Happy with these. It’s the first year I started reading plays, and I will read more in 2016. Reading short stories collection is kinda new to me too, as in the past years I often just picked a story here and there from a collection. Having finished 4 collections, I’m now a complete convert. I think reading short stories as a collection is the way to go. Reading one random short story is rarely satisfying in my opinion, but by reading a collection you really get the style of the author and what they’re trying to say, which you wouldn’t get by reading just one story (and that’s if it’s the *right* story).

Reading projects stats

7 1001 books

1 new-to-me Nobel prize winner

4 new countries

A bit disappointed at the Nobel project. I had Orhan Pamuk book on my night stand in the last couple of months of 2015 but didn’t really start to read. I already line up a few Nobel authors for 2016 though so hope I can make amends. Will continue doing these projects, with my new 50 Classics in 5 Years project with the Classics Club – who’s by the way doing a Women’s Classics Literature event in 2016.

I’m not even going to make an attempt to collate favorite reads this year, as they were all good, and there was no dud. But I can say my new-to-me favorite authors are Edith Wharton, Yukio Mishima, and Stefan Zweig – all of whom I already plan to read again in 2016.

For 2016, I have bits and bobs of reading goals, nothing huge, just lots of varieties. One thing of note is I try to read one big classic per year (I might have skipped 2015, but the previous year I read Great Expectations), and this year I’m going to read Middlemarch. It seems to pop up a lot in the past few months, so I got myself the beautiful Penguin cloth-bound copy, and I’m all ready to start… in February. It’s over 800 pages, so I plan to spread it out in 8 months, and maybe write a post every 200 pages. Do let me know if you want to be my reading buddy for Middlemarch.

Wish you another great year of reading!

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût

tenthousandthings
First published: 1955, English publication: 1958

In The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût brought us to my birth country, Indonesia. This is the first time for me to read a Dutch Indies literature so it was truly an interesting experience. I had to look up Moluccas – the place where the book is set, and only then realized it’s the islands of Maluku. In fact, I only recently discovered that pre-independent Indonesia is called Dutch East Indies. Just things you wouldn’t learn in school’s history books :).

I was born in the capital, and never left the island of Java for the first 17 years of my life. Weeks after my 17th birthday I left the country, and since then only go back very occasionally, each time making an effort to travel the country even if it’s just for a short while, even if I couldn’t go very far. I’ve never been to Maluku or Papua — those places are probably as exotic to me as it is to people from outside the country.

And exotic is how I would describe The Ten Thousand Things, from the description of the places, the islands, the sea — and the creatures of the sea! The stories were dream-like, giving you the feeling of floating in and out of a dream, in far flung places, somewhere in an obscure corner of the world, where the water is clear blue and deadly at the same time, where the islands store ten thousand stories and the spirits roam. It gave me nostalgic feelings as indeed where ever you are in Indonesia you are never far from the ocean.

The main character that holds all the stories together in the book is referred to as the Lady of the Small Garden, who is from a Dutch family but born in Moluccas. She went to Netherlands for her education, and eventually came back to the islands with her son. The “garden” has been in the family for generations and the lady’s grandmother has always stayed there. She’s become part of the island as much as the local people.

I have awareness that the majority of Ambon people are Christians (which is something that stands out in a country that is almost 90% Muslim), but I never quite connected it with its important role as one of the Spice Islands in the time of colonization. It all makes sense now.

I love that I’m learning so much by reading the perspective of an outsider looking in, though I have conflicting feelings about calling Dermoût an outsider. After all her family had stayed for generations (she’s the 4th generation) and she might even have indigenous blood somewhere along the line.

Maria Dermout

How long does one need to stay? How many generations before you can truly belong?

Though The Ten Thousand Things is not strictly autobiographical, it’s not hard to see how Dermoût drew from her life experiences. Thankful that NYRB Classics has taken her book into their line. Here’s hoping that they will republish her other book, as it seems to be out of print and would be hard to get.

Maria Dermout

One interesting thing to note, if you look for the pictures of Maria Dermout, the above would be the one most widely appears. It was taken in 1907 when she was 19 years old, and somehow gave an impression of her as a young writer. But her books were not published until she’s in her 60s!

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Magical reading set in a place both familiar and unfamiliar to me. It has sparked a new found interest in Dutch Indies literature. I have The Black Lake by Hella Haasse to be read soon-ish.

The World’s Literature goodreads group discussion with whom I read this book and The Garden of Evening Mists.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

gardeneveningmists

The Garden of Evening Mists is the second book by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng. It’s the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, and the winner for Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction 2013. Tan’s first book The Gift of Rain was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007. What amazing accolades to start a literary career!

The book is set in the exotic post-war pre-independent Malaya, a turbulent time in which people tried to pick up the pieces from the Japanese occupation, still under British government, while the Communist insurgency threatened everyday’s life. The protagonist is Yun Ling, a sole survivor of a Japanese camp. The book switches back and forth between the present day Yun Ling in 1980s and her experience immediately after the war. There’s no heading to explain which period each chapter is set, the only clue being the use of present tense or past tense, so it could be quite confusing at the beginning. An interesting editorial choice that I’m not convinced about.

Equally important character is Aritomo, a Japanese who previously worked as a gardener for the Emperor, and at the end of his career settled at the Cameron Highlands of Malaya. Aritomo is the neighbour of Magnus, a Dutch descent from South Africa. Magnus is a family friend of Yun Ling, and it’s through him that Yun Ling and Aritomo meet.

Yun Ling later becomes an apprentice to Aritomo, learning the art of Japanese garden. Her motive is to create a Japanese garden for her sister, who did not survive the same camp Yun Ling was in. Japanese garden was the dream they both played in their heads in order to survive the ordeals, but it was more the sister’s dream than Yun Ling. The fact that the garden is of Japanese style of course gives Yun Ling contradictory feelings.

I had the opportunity to go to Tan Twan Eng’s talk at the Hay Festival a couple of years ago. I had been to his talk and his contemporary and fellow countryman Tash Aw’s at different times, and to be honest I didn’t get much impression from Tan at all in person, which is one reason I had been putting off reading his book for a while (thanks to my goodreads group I had the push to pick it up). It was a panel of authors so he was kind of buried by the louder authors. Tan mentioned that the gardening part of the book was all research – he wasn’t into gardening at all before writing it.

That didn’t help because I personally also have little interest in gardening – I enjoy gardens but I don’t work on one. The thought that it was going to be 350 pages of gardening put me off, but let me just tell you that it’s not! Yes the garden and gardening is central to the theme, but the book encompasses so many other things. It is complex, and very ambitious, spanning multiple cultures and nationalities (indigenous Malays, Chinese migrants in Malaya, Japanese, Dutch South African, British), multiple historical events (WWII in Malaya, Boer War, Malayan Emergency), and multiple time periods. To tell all these in such beautiful writing is no mean feat by Tan Twan Eng.

I learned so much about a period and setting that I was not familiar with, even though Malaysia is not totally foreign to me. I spent 15 months living in Kuala Lumpur as a college student back in 1999. I have traveled the country up and down, from the south, JB (Johor Baru), to the north, across the Thailand border, from Penang to Malacca. And a few years later I lived in Singapore for 2.5 years, and had the chance to go back a couple more times to Malaysia.

It felt good knowing the Malay words that are sprinkled in the book (Indonesian and Malay language are largely similar), as opposed to language that I’m absolutely clueless about (French for example, hah). I’m also surprised to find familiar words from Magnus — those from South Africa adopted from Dutch. While Malaya was occupied by the British, Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch, so many Dutch words were adopted into Indonesian. My own grandmother from my mother’s side is what you’d call Straits Chinese (close to European culture/society, like Yun Ling) while my grandmother from my father’s side is what you’d call “peranakan” – Chinese that have assimilated more with the locals. (Though in Indonesia we don’t use these terms as it’s an issue that is more sensitive over there.)

Many things in the book felt both familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time. Tan Twan Eng is about a decade older than me, so the story he tells felt almost one generation removed from what I know. I haven’t read his first book, but it seems to cover similar ground, which is obviously something that he is passionate and cares very much about.

The book touches on difficult subject matters, but it was not a tear-jerker (or at least not for me). However there’s one section that sent me to a proper cry — a story that is told by one of the characters, about his experience as a young kamikaze pilot and his love, a fellow soldier. Apparently this story originally appeared (in a different and longer form) in the Asian Literary Review, Autumn 2007, Volume 5. I imagine this was received well, and the novel was extended from this seed of idea.

If I have a slight reservation it’d be on how monotone and melancholy the book can be (e.g. lots of moments where people stare off into space or the scenery), though whether it’s considered weakness or not is really down to one’s personal taste.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5 

The Garden of Evening Mists sparked my interest in the period and setting which I’m sure I’ll be reading more in the future. In the middle of reading I was reminded of The Railway Man (starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) and watched it on Netflix. A very touching film based on a true story and I highly recommend it.

tan twan eng
Tan Twan Eng

A little anecdote:

A quote from beginning of chapter 3: “Teoh is my surname, my family name. As in life, the family must come first. That was what I had always been taught. I had never changed the order of my name, not even when I studied in England, and I had never taken on an English name just to make it easier for anyone.”
— obviously reflects Tan Twan Eng’s own view, as his family name is Tan and he also studied in England.

I went to two libraries to check his books in London. Knowing his family name, I went to shelves T first, but the books were not there. They’re under E for Eng!

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