Dance by the Light of the Moon – Judith Vanistendael

Published in English in 2010 by Self Made Hero (first published in Belgium, 2007)

I went to a panel of European Graphic Novelists a couple of years ago at the British Library (wrote a little about here), and one of the panelists was Belgian author Judith Vanistendael. Her semi-biographical graphic novel based on her own experience falling in love with a refugee piqued my interest, and I still remembered it as I saw this book at my library one day.

It’s quite surreal reading it now and felt how timely it is, what with the refugee crisis all around us. The book was actually published in 2007, and I imagine the real event was happening even years before that. It is now 2017, and seems the time has finally caught up with the graphic novel.

The first part of the book is told from her father’s perspective (it’s said to be in response to the short story written by the author’s father), the second part is told in flashback by the protagonist, Sophie, to her young daughter.

The man in question is from Togo, who sought asylum in Belgium. Despite prejudice and skepticism, Sophie’s parents try their best to stand by their daughter and open their home to Abou. I found it quite touching actually, and could feel the parents’ mixed feelings in particular. After all it’s not just skin color they had to overcome – that’s probably the least of the problems, it’s the vastly different background and culture, socio-economic factor, not to mention residential status. Abou’s refugee application may not even be accepted and the potential to be deported is looming.

Here we get a glimpse of how complicated and how fragile the refugee application process is. The fact is only a small percentage of applications would succeed, and there are too many factors – at times seemingly arbitrary – at play. In my life I’ve gone through many immigration processes, and I could relate in some ways. You’re at the complete mercy of unknown individuals “up there”, you never know if one single tiny oversight could cause rejection, and once rejected, there’s very little you can do. It costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and not to mention emotional toll. It makes you feel very very small.

The black and white illustrations are very effective, and beautiful in showing the black and white skin individuals. I think this book definitely deserves a wider audience.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

First published in 1965

In Cold Blood is said to be the original non-fiction novel, based on a true crime in a small town called Holcomb, in Kansas, USA, in which a family of four were killed without apparent purpose – hence “in cold blood”. In light of recent political events, it seemed like an apt time to read American book set in the Midwest. I feel that as non-Americans we’re often fed California and New York, the East and the West coasts, but not much of others. The barren landscape of Holcomb seems like to the forgotten part of the US that came to light more recently.

I don’t usually read crime fiction, and I don’t watch crime TV series. But I watch a lot of crime documentaries. I’m not sure why I don’t have interest in crime as work of fiction at all – I just see little point in it, even though some may be inspired by true events. But in documentary format, I can’t get enough of!

I’d consider In Cold Blood as journalistic piece, albeit in a narrative that is close to novel. Other people may argue about the proportion of fiction and non-fiction elements in the book, but I’m on the side of ‘never let truth get in the way of a good story’. I don’t mind reconstruction of personal events and dialogues in between the hard facts.

I’ve always liked Truman Capote. I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and some of his other short stories. And I’m glad that I liked In Cold Blood too, very much. The beginning was a tad slow, and it took me longer than his other works to get into, but once the murder happens – about 50 pages in, it just flowed.

There are liberal sprinkles of single quotes, marking words, phrases, and sentences that I assume were taken out of the real people’s mouths, such that the book at times seems like a long string of people’s words put together by Capote. He filled in the gaps, and knitted them into a coherent single piece.

It is quite an amazing piece of work. I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of research and energy put into the book. And probably most important of all, the story telling ability of the author. Why this case? There are so many murder cases around, some of which are similar. Because for one reason or another, this was the case that just happened to come to Capote, at the right time. Just like Sarah Koenig with the Adnan case (Serial podcast). It came to her at the right time, and something in it piqued her interest. Thanks to the storytellers, these cases get their stories told, immortalised in some ways, unlike so many others that are buried and forgotten forever except in the memories of the few friends and families. In Cold Blood showed me once again the power of storytelling.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Movie companion: Capote (2005)

I watched Capote starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman soon after finishing In Cold Blood. I’d been meaning to watch it since it came out, but insisted I read In Cold Blood first, because I knew the movie is about Capote researching materials for the book. After reading and watching, I do recommend people to read the book first!

Prior to watching the movie, I didn’t know what Truman Capote was like. I knew he was gay, but that’s about it. It was immediately apparent that he had quite specific mannerism. He was flamboyant in his speech and dressing, portrayed so well by Hoffman. People say that in fact Capote was even more exuberant in real life, and Hoffman had toned down his portrayal. I have not seen other movies portraying Capote, like Infamous (starring Toby Jones), so I can’t compare, but I was impressed by PSH. I always liked him.

The movie showed things that happened in the making of the book, behind the scene. I mentioned the research and energy put into it. It’s even more emphasised in the movie, though in a slightly different way than I expected. Truman Capote inserted himself completely in the case, and was not just an observer. He influenced how certain things went, he had relationships with the inmates, namely Perry Smith and Richard/Dick Hickock, but especially Perry Smith.

I guess in a way it shouldn’t be surprising. After all In Cold Blood humanises the perpetrators. He couldn’t have done it without personal relationships with the guys. But in the movie Capote went steps further. He manipulated them in some ways, to get the story that he needed. It was a very complex relationship. Seems very taxing to say the least. And at the end In Cold Blood was the last book Capote ever finished, and was his last masterpiece. It’s as if it has taken everything that he had.

Another striking point is, in the movie Capote was shown as someone with a big ego, who enjoyed being the centre of attention. But in In Cold Blood, he completely disappeared. There is no ‘I’, ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’, or any sign of him present. I find this remarkable, the ability to extract yourself completely from your writing, especially now knowing how he was as a person. Something that I am still learning.

It wasn’t a perfect movie, as there were some discrepancies with the book that bothered me a little. But I still rated it highly.

Mee’s rating: 8/10

 

My Friend Dahmer – Derf Backderf

First published in 2012. Setting: Ohio, USA, 1976.

I first heard of My Friend Dahmer from Literary Disco podcast. The trio spoke very highly of it, and I think it was mentioned even as one of their favorite or most memorable books of that year that they read as a group. So I snapped this book when I saw it at my library.

I have a certain fascination for serial killers and murderers. I could spend a lot of time reading about them on Wikipedia, and I watch plenty documentaries about them. There’s just something inside me that wants to understand the psychology behind what I think is very unnatural acts.

My Friend Dahmer tells the story of Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal, who killed 17 men and boys. But the book tells the part before he was a murderer. Backderf, the author, was in the same high school as Dahmer, and even though you can’t say they were close friends, they had some interactions. Dahmer may not be Backderf’s closest friends, but it seems Backderf was one of the closest to Dahmer during that teenage period.

The book seems like Backderf’s way to dissect what happened in the past, to question if there was any sign leading Dahmer to become what he was, if anything could’ve been done to prevent the making of a murderer.

I did not (re)read Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wiki before reading this book, though I’m sure I’ve read about him in the past amongst one of my many afternoons spent reading about serial killers on Wikipedia (Tell me I’m not the only one?). Just so I could read the book as it was, without images in my head about what he’d done after.

I must say the foreboding was clear from the first few pages. There was an uneasy feeling throughout the book, from the beginning to the end. It definitely made for an uncomfortable reading. Dahmer had always been an awkward kid, with separating parents at home, and teachers that were oblivious to his drinking problems. Other students, including Backderf, treated him like a mascot – a character that provided entertainment for many, but no real friendship ever formed. It was a lonely existence.

The art is excellent. The blocky, flat, kinda psychedelic way of Backderf’s drawings show the 70s era and the characters in such an amazing way. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. Backderf also provided extensive appendix at the end of the book, explaining his sources: interview with various friends, teachers, parents, and Dahmer himself, newspaper articles, and the author’s own memory. The research he’s done was commendable.

The book practically ends at Dahmer’s first killing. I spent the next couple of days reading about the details of his subsequent murders and watching some of his and his parents’ interviews. It was chilling. A good chunk of the interviews were focusing on the “why”. And after what must’ve been hours and hours, nobody, including Dahmer himself, seemed to get any closer to the answer. Dahmer died in prison in 1994, so I guess that is the end.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Hunting Gun – Yasushi Inoue

First published in Japan, 1949

This is the first book I finished after a couple of months of reading slump. And it was just the right book. It’s short and compelling, and the Pushkin edition is just beautiful to hold and read.

It’s not a perfect book, and for me the ending peters out a little. But there are a lot of things to like. I find the story framing fascinating in particular. The story starts from a poet, who is sent letter by a reader of the poem recently sent to a magazine. The reader thinks the poem is based on him, as he remembers a time and place, where he carried a specific type of hunting gun – all elements of which were featured in the poem. Together with his letter, the reader attaches three letters from three women in his life. Through these letters the story is told.

I don’t generally like novels written in letter format, as they often feel contrived. But the book is short enough for me not to mind. It just felt like story told from three point of views.

The Hunting Gun is Yasushi Inoue’s debut novel. He later won the Akutagawa prize for his second novel, also published by Pushkin: The Bullfight. The three perspectives in The Hunting Gun reminded me of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s possibly most famous short story: In a Bamboo Grove (which Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon is based on). I read and mentioned this not long ago, and would highly recommend the short story, in which a single event is told from multiple character perspectives. It seems very apt for Inoue to win the prize, though it’s for his second book.

I read the book with my Japanese Lit GR group. We agreed that the prose was such a delight to read, that we could gloss over the possible lack of depth in characters and unique story line. But really for a debut book that barely reaches 100 pages I think it’s accomplished a lot.
It’s my first time to read Inoue, and I’d be interested to read more of his works in the future when I get the chance.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Inoue Yasushi

2016 Wrap Up

It’s that time of the year again!

Unfortunately I fell into a deep reading slump sometime around November, and I have not gotten out of it. I was quite on track for a lot of my goals for 2016 at the beginning of the year, but it just petered out badly at the end of the year.

So in 2016, I read 35 books. One of my main goals was to read at least 50% female authors. Sad to say that I badly failed on this. I thought I could count graphic novels separate to novels (as the majority of graphic novels authors are male) and have a more balanced number. But even after having graphic novels in separate group, the female author number stayed stagnant almost the whole year. I could blame other factors, like how my book groups tend to choose male authors over female. But hey, it is what it is. It may just be by setting goal I set myself to failure. Maybe a more natural approach works better for me. So I’m not setting this goal again for 2017, and I’ll see if I do better that way.

Of the 35 books:

20% by women, 54% by men, 26% by both genders

51% translated works (even though high percentage was not a goal)

I started Middlemarch as planned, and read halfway. I intend to continue, but accepted a couple of months ago that I wouldn’t be able to finish it this year.

Also cant’ read because my cat uses Middlemarch as paw-rest.

The following are 2016 reading goals that I kept on my personal notebook. Might as well share them:

Completed goals

3 books from 500 great books by women:

  1. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
  2. The Lover – Marguerite Duras
  3. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

6 African books (The World’s Literature GR group – African Festival Challenge):

  1. Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
  2. The Meursault Investigation – Kamel Daoud (Algeria)
  3. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih (Sudan)
  4. Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
  5. The Book of Chameleons (Angola)
  6. Aya of Yop City (Aya #2) by Marguerite Abouet, Clément Oubrerie (Ivory Coast)

3 new-to-me African Countries:

  1. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih (Sudan)
  2. Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
  3. The Book of Chameleons (Angola)

2 countries I’ve visited and not yet read:

  1. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (Finland)
  2. The Vegetarian – Han Kang (South Korea)

2 new-to-me Nobel winners: 

  1. Death and the King’s Horseman – Wole Soyinka
  2. Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz
  3. No Man’s Land – Harold Pinter

5 books from 1001 books You must read before you die:

  1. A Room with a View – E. M. Forster
  2. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih
  3. The Lover – Marguerite Duras
  4. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
  5. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  6. 1984 – George Orwell
  7. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Incomplete goals

1 New Zealand: 0

2 new-to-me Caribbean / South American countries: 0

3 books by Women of Colour 

  1. The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi
  2. The Vegetarian – Han Kang

5 books from 100 best novels written in English

  1. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
  2. 1984 – George Orwell
  3. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

10 classics (pre-1966)

  1. The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi – 1957
  2. A Room with a View – E. M. Forster -1908
  3. Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih – 1966
  4. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde – 1890
  5. Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz – 1958
  6. Orwell, George – 1984 (1949)
  7. The Book of Tea – Kakuzo Okakura (1906)
  8. Hell Screen – Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1918)
  9. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (1963)

1 Persephone: 0

1 Peirene: 0

1 Pushkin: 0

Looking forward to 2017

I’m going to bring over the incomplete goals to the new year and see if I can finish them by the middle of this year. I already finished 1 Pushkin book, and review is coming soon.

I have the usual few perpetual goals (on my top and side bars) to keep me busy. Apart from that, I just want to keep reading, and reading diversely. I also want to pick up writing again, and realise that once I do, it will eat my reading time, and I’m okay with that. I’ve been picking up games again, games with good, immersive stories, and I love it. I’ve also been catching up on TV series I’ve been meaning to watch.

I think my goal for 2017 is to keep the pressure off and let myself be immersed in whatever form of storytelling I feel like being in that time, and it’s okay if it may not always be books.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

the bell jar
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (US, 1963)

I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.

The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.

For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.

It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.

While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is one of the Guardian’s 100 best novels written in English, amongst plenty of other book lists.

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Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

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