On Writing – Stephen King / The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros

On Writing - Stephen King

This Stephen King’s book on “A Memoir of the Craft” seems to be one of those books that is always recommended in any beginner writing courses. I didn’t grow up with Stephen King’s books, and in fact I never read any of his books, simply because they are of the horror genre (I just can’t take/read/watch anything remotely scary). I know he has written some stories that are non-horror – and I loved the movies based on his stories like Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me – but I guess I am never tempted enough to read in that direction.

His non-fiction On Writing is another case however, and I absolutely do not mind learning from someone who has been very successful in what he does, even though the works are not really my cup of tea.

In a nutshell, I enjoyed reading this book, and I was even pretty sad when it ended, because it felt like I lost a mentor figure of some kind that had been with me for a few weeks, who had become a voice on my shoulder, telling me what to do and what not to (Is that you, Jiminy Cricket?).

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is his memoir, about his life from childhood, teenagehood, life as a struggling writer, first breakthrough with first novel Carrie, and his subsequent books. As I am not his big fan, and therefore was not familiar with his books, this part was the one that was least interesting to me. But a story about the making of a writer, especially someone as bestselling as he is, has its own appeal. He seems to be genuinely a nice guy, and I think his good marriage and family life affect his works a lot. You cannot hate women or end up with aweful women characters if you love your wife in real life (I hope).

The second part is the meat of this book, the actual advice and instructions on writing. I loved reading this part. Some of the advice have been repeated often by others at various sites and articles (e.g. the use of adverbs, active vs passive voice, etc) but it’s nice to read them all together in the right context. The third part is sort of like an epilogue on a life changing event in his life that I won’t give away here, and it closes the book nicely.

My favorite part is when he equates writing to telephaty. There he was, Stephen King, in year 1997 in his basement somewhere in Maine, sending telephatic messages to me here in London, 18 years later in 2015. In 1997 I was a high school girl who never even read a novel in English. 18 years later I’m learning how to write an English book, and his voice has traveled through time and space, to the me who is here, right now, ready to absorb what he has to say. It would’ve been useless in year 1997, but now the time is right.

Love that image. Love love love.

In the last twist, Stephen King dedicated this book to Amy Tan, “who told me in a very simple and direct way that it was okay to write it.” What a surprise! They are apparently friends playing in the same author band, which is called The Rock Bottom Remainders (whose personnel has included Barbara Kingsolver and Mitch Albom, amongst many). I heard of this band before, since I am a big fan of Amy Tan and follow her Facebook page, but I guess I never made that connection with Stephen King. I read all Amy Tan’s books back when I begun to read novels again after my vacuum of a few years in my transition of moving from Indonesia to English-speaking countries. This was a very nice surprising detail for me, as if things have come full circle in a funny way. Perhaps if Stephen King had been born a Chinese ethnic woman in America he would’ve written Amy’s books. HAH :)

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros

When I started writing my book, I knew I had to read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I’m not sure why, perhaps because our house used to have a mango tree as well and it plays a significant role in my story, but the book is just like what I imagined it to be. It is written in a clear, almost childlike voice, that is also dreamy and original.

The book consists of dozens of vignettes, that “are not quite poems and not quite full stories” — most of them are only a couple of pages long. They all work together on a theme of growing up and surviving as migrants (in the USA in their case). Some of vignettes left me wanting for more, some of them felt like the right length — mixed feelings that always come for this kind of format. The book is very short in just over 100 pages, and I’d recommend it for anyone really as it is a nice, simple, and original read, that tells stories with a heart — something that I’d love to aim for in my own writing.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Best of 2014 and Wishes for 2015

Happy new year good readers :)

I read 35 books in 2014, 10 short stories (that are not part of a finished short story collection), and watched 101 movies (!). I’m particularly happy with the number of books, as my book number had been pretty horrendous since I came to London 3.5 years ago. For the past 3 years, my number did not even reach 20 books per year. The last year I read this much was back in 2010, with 36 books (I came to London in May 2011). So I can’t tell you how happy I am with 2014, reading-wise :)

My year in books of 2014 is nicely summarized on this Goodreads page. Looking at those covers, the first book seems aeons ago, maybe because this year I read more than I have usually in the past years. Say, my first book of 2014 was 34 books ago – a big number of books to digest and remember.

Though I’m a bit scared to pick favorites, I shall do so. My favorite books of 2014 are, in the chronological order of my reading them:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — Reza Aslan

Zealot - Reza Aslan

I did not post a review for this book, which I read very early in the year, and has probably become one of the most influential books in my life. I did write a post, but at the end just decided to keep it private. I did not think this book is offensive in any way, but it is in many ways challenging the religious interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, and I worried that what I wrote could offend or provoke arguments, which I won’t be interested to delve much into (religious argument is one of the things I take least interest in in this world). But if like me you have interest in history and want to know more about Jesus the person as a historical figure, this book is for you.

This is London — Miroslav Sasek

this-is-london-cover

A great picture book that will surely make me continue on the series (I’ve been eyeing This is Britain). I have also passed my copy to my nephew and mom :)

Song of Achilles — Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller

This book reminded me how I love Greek mythology and the time I used to read the stories when I was younger. It’s also possibly the first book that I read featuring gay main characters.

Things Fall Apart — Chinua Achebe

things fall apart

Many people seem to have read this book in school and remember it as one of those books you’re forced to read in school and therefore did not fully enjoy it. Well I only read it last year and absolutely loved it. For me this is as good as a classic can go.

Oscar Wilde: The Complete Short Stories — Oscar Wilde

oscar wilde complete short stories

Love Oscar Wilde. The more I read his works the more I love him.

Fictions / Ficciones — Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions - Borges

This book opened my world about what fiction could do.

Gone Girl — Gillian Flynn

gone girl

I don’t read many mystery drama at all, so maybe that’s why I found this so compelling? I couldn’t stop reading and finished the book in only a few days — completely exhausted at the end of it that I could not get myself to start a new book in a while. For enjoyability factor, I rated Gone Girl very highly!

I read more great books in 2014, but based mostly on impact and lasting factors, I would pick these books to be the top … seven — an arbitrary number, I know.

I don’t usually give any mention for the worst book of the year, but I will this year because it is so clear for me (some years I did not have the worst book) and I really, really, disliked it. It is also a very popular book that has one of the highest rating on goodreads and it’s only on the bestseller list for a million weeks, so I’m sure nobody will care about my unfortunate award.

*drum roll*

The Book Thief — Markus Zusak

book thief - markus zusak

Hate. Just hated it. A very long melodrama about what is a very little story, with silly gimmicks all over the place. What a big waste of time.

But let’s go back to being happy.

Apart from the number of books, I’m also happy to have read 3 new-to-me Nobel prize winners, read from 3 new countries, 9 books from the 1001 books list, and 10 short stories — all of which I would really like to do again for 2015.

For 2015 I’m not gonna set myself any kind of goal or reading resolution or challenges. Let’s just say I wish to read another 3 new Nobel prize winners, 3 new countries, at least 10 short stories, and however many books from the 1001 books list (as I’m already quite happy with the percentage I’ve read). So if I don’t reach these numbers I’ll be totally fine, as there is always another year :)

Hope you’re doing well too and wish you a good reading year ahead!

 

Beloved — Toni Morrison / The Driver’s Seat — Muriel Spark

I have resigned to the fact that I will not be able to write about all the books I read in 2014 by the end of the year, but that’s okay, my OCD level isn’t too high in this particular area. So this might be the last post of the year, since I’m flying away tomorrow to  what is in this part of the world called  the Far East, or in my language South East Asia :). I’m also keeping the Best of 2014 post for next year (I just cannot bring myself to do it before the year ends).

Beloved — Toni Morrison

toni-morrison-belovedmorrison

Beloved was the last book I read for the Coursera’s Fiction of Relationship reading list (which I have talked about in the past). I also had not read Toni Morrison before and she’s in the Nobel list, so really it was about time that I spend some time on it.

And boy it was a long time. Beloved is only around 220 pages long, and it felt really, really, really long. I think I spent around 6 weeks on it. It wasn’t like I tried to speed up – I was kind of in a busy period in other aspects of life as well – but it felt like I was moving at snail’s pace.

I’m glad that I spent time on this book and that I finished it, but I’d say it wasn’t too enjoyable an experience. The subject matter was hard to swallow, and the way the story is told was far from being straightforward. Unlike some people, I didn’t have problem at all with any elements of magical realism, I was totally fine with things left unexplained for example, but overall it’s a challenging book. It’s… muddled. I’m not sure if I’m going to read another Toni Morrison, just like I’m not sure whether I’m going to read another William Faulkner. Maybe not in the near future, but never say never :)

The Driver’s Seat — Muriel Spark

driversseatmuriel spark

One of the greatest things about Muriel Spark’s book is that they’re short. I so so love that they’re short. The Driver’s Seat is only shy of 100 pages long, and yet it’s smart and sharp. I love short book done well, lean, with every word written for a purpose. The Driver’s Seat is all those things, a controlled piece of writing. If ever I were to write a short book, I wish to write like Muriel Spark.

I have read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, back in 2010, so this is my second Spark’s novels. I heard that all her novels are just as good, so now after reading The Driver’s Seat and with some faint memory of Jean Brodie, I can be confident that I will like her other books as well.

I felt like I was in safe hands while reading The Driver’s Seat, even though the story was really odd, unsettling, and unusual. If you intend to read the book, I highly suggest that you do not read any blurbs or reviews, as it is extremely easy to spoil the book. I read one review on Goodreads after I finished reading the book and someone casually just mentioned the whole ending in the first sentence! (Unbelievable. I have since flagged it, and that particular review is now marked with spoiler warning.)

Why is it easy to spoil the book? Because you really have no idea what’s going on until the end. In essence, by giving away what the book is about, you give away the ending. You need to trust the author all the way through the book, which is probably not an easy feat, but I did. I felt like I was in the safe hands of a masterful author.

Happy Christmas all! 2014 has been a great reading year for me, and I can’t wait for 2015!

 

Siddhartha — Hesse / Of Mice and Men — Steinbeck

By this time I am horribly, horribly late in posting about books I’ve read. In fact, some books are already slipping away from my mind, even though I just read them a few months ago. Nevermind that, as I need to get on writing anyway, before they truly vanish from memory a couple of years from now.

Today is about two short books, both by winners of Nobel Prize in Literature. My first time to read Herman Hesse, second time for John Steinbeck.

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

siddhartaherman hesse

Siddharta was not quite like what I expected. I was expecting some kind of biography of Siddharta the Buddha, but instead, we follow the journey of another man, also named Siddharta, who seems to be in the shadow of Siddharta the Buddha (his timeline seems to happen after Buddha).

Our character Siddharta goes through a different journey to enlightenment, which I’m not going to go into too much details. I cannot remember much about the ending, so  I can’t tell you even if I want to.

I was very intrigued by Herman Hesse. A German writing about spirituality of the East in the early 1900s (Siddharta was published in 1922) seems unusual. Was it the time when the West started to be fascinated about the East? I wonder what his other books would be like. I might read more from him.

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

of mice and mensteinbeck

I have read East of Eden a few years ago and quite liked it, but to be honest I don’t know if I want read more books by John Steinbeck, purely because of the depression era that he concentrated his writing on; it’s just not where my interest lies.

Of Mice and Men however is so tiny and so popular that I might as well read it. One thing that put me off reading it for a while was that I knew about the ending. I can’t remember how it got spoiled for me, it wasn’t completely spoiled either, but I knew about it roughly. I was waiting for the memory to go away, but it never did, so I read the book anyway, knowing the direction it was heading.

It was a sad and heartfelt little book, exactly like what I expected.  I do wonder if I would read it differently had I not known about the ending. As such, I felt like I was seeing all the author’s techniques in bringing readers to reach the climax, and I don’t think I was ever fully absorbed in the story.

 

Fictions — Borges / The Ice Palace — Vesaas

Fictions / Ficciones — Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions - BorgesBorges

Last year, I read two short stories by Borges (The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz), and this time I plunged into his full short story collection: Fictions (Ficciones), while finishing up Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship course that I started last year. (I have one more book to go out of the 10 units of reading, a bit proud of that!)

My mind was blown away by Borges. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before. Some parts were a bit hard to read, and some sounded “technical”, but all the stories were so so refreshing, and different. It is definitely not a quick read and I don’t think you can/should rush it. Though Borges wouldn’t admit it, for me Ficciones is a book of ideas. It’s bursting with ideas and imagination. All the stories are only short (few pages long), but they pack a punch.

My favorite stories are: The Circular Ruins, The Lottery of Babylon, and Funes, His Memory. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, and I can see myself re-reading it in the years ahead.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Ice Palace — Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace - VesaasVesaas

The Ice Palace was also something that I read to finish up Brown University’s The Fiction of Relationship (if you want to know, the last book I have yet to read out of the 10 units is Beloved by Toni Morrison so look out for that soon-ish). It is translated from Norwegian, first published in 1963, and considered to be one of the classics in Norwegian literature.

I read The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist last year and fell in love head over heels for it, so I was happy to take a stab at another Scandinavian literature (pardon me for grouping all Scandinavian countries together, but I have very limited contact with the region in general). Unfortunately it fell a bit short of my high expectation. I didn’t like The Ice Palace nearly as much as The Sibyl, and even though the book is short I found it almost a slog to go through.

The Ice Palace tells the story of Siss and Unn, two friends who have only spent one evening in each other’s company, and the next day Unn is gone missing. The whole village is looking, and Siss feels extreme guilt that she might be the reason Unn has ventured off her usual paths. The setting here plays a big role, as it is a place that is cold, sparse, and has very short day light. The frozen waterfall (the one called the ice palace) is an important figure in the story, and its foreboding presence seems to be in the center of events and everyone’s mind.

Part of my problem with it was that I never quite figured out what was going on between Siss and Unn, not even after listening to the Prof’s lectures. I don’t understand the whole point of the story, and reading it was akin to an experience of walking in the fog. Or maybe in the snowy cold. It was all a bit blurry, and looking back you’re not quite sure what you just pass by.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Light in August – Faulkner / The Old Man and the Sea – Hemingway

The Fiction of Relationship course on Coursera is starting again 1 September this year, so I picked up steam to continue reading on the second part of the course, which has the following list of books: (I finished the first part of the course last year)

From all books in the list, I had been dreading William Faulkner the most. It was one of the reason that I got stuck on the first part of the course (ending with To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf). But with much trepidation, I finally picked up Light in August.

Light in August by William Faulkner

light in august - faulkner

Light in August is largely a story of Joe Christmas, a person who thinks that he might be black. As you can guess from that sentence, much of the book is about racism, what it means to be white, and what it means to be black, in that area of the US at that period of time. I’m not familiar with what’s so called Southern literature, so I had little clues about what the society and the rules at the time are like. At the beginning of the book, I was quite confused about who was white and who was black — while in any other novels set in other period of time these might be inconsequential, in this book it DOES matter. People who are more familiar with the culture would pick up the clues pretty quickly (from the way people talk and how they interact, e.g. the whites and the blacks almost never interact unless absolutely necessary and their difference in classes would be clearly shown), but it really took me a while.

I read Faulkner’s short story before (Pantaloon in Black), but this is the first time I read his novel. From what I read, Light in August sounds like one of his most accessible novels. The style is stream of consciousness, which somewhat reminded me of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and the writing is amazing – there were many jaw-dropping moments for me, as I could not believe someone could come up with such brilliant sentences. Faulkner was a revelation to me. It is really worth it to push out of your comfort zone every once in a while, and opens new world.

Amongst the brilliance though, there were also many confusing passages. I can’t say I understood everything 100%, but it was a good experience (and lectures from Prof Weinstein helped a lot). I won’t be rushing to read more Faulkner soon, but I’m sure I will read more in the future.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

the old man and the sea - hemingway

In similar fashion with Faulkner, I read both Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s short stories last year, but this is the first time I read Hemingway’s novel. The Old Man and the Sea is a novella of 99 pages, and it’s short and enjoyable enough for me to recommend it if you’ve never read Hemingway.

In similar fashion as Big Two-Hearted River, one of Hemingway’s most popular short stories I read last year, The Old Man and the Sea largely revolves around a man fishing. Fishing is something that is so far off from my world, that probably like a lot of you I wondered whether I would enjoy reading about it at all. I didn’t quite like Big Two-Hearted River — it was way too quiet and the type of story in which nothing is happening: a man goes fishing and reminisces about the time before the war. The Old Man and the Sea is a more happening story, though still has lots of fishing. This time in the sea. Also the fish is much bigger. I have not read Moby Dick, but I have an inkling that there are similarities, in that The Old Man is obsessed about catching the Big Fish and getting it home, in the similar fashion as Ahab obsessing about catching the whale. There is also the whole struggle between man and nature.

People mention how masculine Hemingway’s books are, and I somewhat agree, but was surprised to find a touch of much vulnerability and sensitivity in one of the characters in the book. The old man is poor and has nobody to care for him, but there is a boy who adores him and fetches food for him, and goes to him even though his parents disapprove. He cries when he sees the old man suffering. I was really touched by this boy character in the book, and felt like I saw the vulnerability and sensitivity of the author himself. Based on this, I will read more of Hemingway’s books in the future before deciding what I feel about his works. I’ve got Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises on my shelf.

Mee’s Rating: 3.5/5

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist / Pyongyang – Guy Delisle

The Boxer – Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer - Reinhard Kleist

The Boxer is another recent release by SelfMadeHero which I acquired soon after Vincent by Barbara Stok (which tells the partial life story of Vincent Van Gogh). The Boxer tells the true story of Harry Haft, a Polish who as a 16 years old was taken to Auschwitz. He was then fighting and surviving as a boxer, serving to amuse the German officers. It is clear to him, and to us readers quite early on, that to win the boxing matches was a complex choice, as the losers often, if not always, got killed soon after.

Though lots of literature and films have taken the subject of holocaust, I don’t think I have ever heard any surviving as a boxer, so the book piqued my interest. It’s interesting to learn about the untold stories, the minor paths that some people have taken. At the end of the book, there are a few pages of article titled “Boxing in concentration camps”: “For decades, these men were forgotten about, almost as though they had never existed. Journalists and historians have now started compiling information about some of the boxers…”

Half of the book was set in the camp, and the second half after the camp. Sadly, life after camp for Harry was almost as difficult as most of his family died and he set on a journey to find the girl he loved in America. The drawing is all in black and white, and at times felt harsh and cold, in many ways illustrating what Harry went through. So it was really unexpected when I teared up at the end. I thought the ending was especially profound.

Mee’s Rating: 4/5

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

Pyongyang - Guy Delisle

I have a weird fascination about North Korea. I’ve been to DMZ (the South and North Korean border), I’ve read Nothing to Envy, and I’ve been wishing to visit the hermit country for a while now. In Pyongyang graphic novel, Guy Delisle tells of his experience living in the capital for a few months as a lead animator for work outsourced by his French company to a team in Pyongyang.

I have read many articles about the situation in Pyongyang and what you would find when you visit as tourist e.g. can’t go anywhere without a guide, how the city looks so empty and artificial, how so much part of the city is without electricity including the hotels the foreigners stay in, the godlike status of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, and so on — and these are all in the book as well. If you know very little about North Korea, many things in Pyongyang will surprise you, even for me I still find them informative, and not less fascinating!

This is the first book I read by Guy Delisle, and I’ll be looking out for more for sure. I love his simplistic illustration style. I look forward to reading his books on Burma, Shenzhen (China), and his latest: Jerusalem.

Mee’s Rating: 4.5/5

 

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