My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

First published in Italy in 2011. Published in English by Europa Editions in 2012. Translated by Ann Goldstein. I received my paperback copy from Europa Editions. Elena Ferrante is pseudonym and her real identity is kept secret. 

I had quite a high expectation going into this book, because of the popularity. And I can’t say it met my expectation.

My Brilliant Friend is set in 1950s Italy and features two female friends as the main characters. The prologue was intriguing. The “brilliant friend” is missing – or to be exact “taking off” without a trace. She’s mentioned as a computer programmer – which is what I do – so I thought this started great! I have never read a book with a female computer programmer as the main character.

But after the prologue – which is the most exciting bit about the book unfortunately – the readers are brought to the very beginning of the two friends relationship. Way way back to childhood, which takes about a quarter, then another three quarter of the book about their adolescence. This might be a matter of personal preference, but in general I’m very impatient reading about childhood and teenage-hood. I love classic children stories with multiple layers that serve adult readers too – if not more, but I avoid YA like a plague. I don’t have patience for it. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, the beginning part that tells Jane’s childhood to teenage-hood was the most boring part for me too. I wish it was cut altogether. And My Brilliant Friend is exactly that part – the part which I think should be cut if talking about Jane Eyre!

Hard to believe I’d say this about a book, but I also found the narration way too linear. I wonder if I’d been reading too many convoluted books? How could I complain that a narration is way too linear? But it is! It literally goes from one small event to another in chronological order. There’s no flash forward or flash back (apart from the prologue), it’s point a to b to c to d to e – a long tedious Beverly Hills 90210 style, with a web of not very distinguished characters (friends, brothers, sisters) hooking up with each other. The similar names really didn’t help. There are Rino, Nino, and Gino. Really? Even the two main characters are called Lila – sometimes Lina, and Lenu – or Elena. There’s a big list of character names at the beginning of the book, which I referred to a lot at first, but gave up after a while, because I stopped caring. I was bored. Halfway through I switched to audio book and continued on audio. I doubt I’d finish it without the audio book.

So yeah, I can’t say I liked this book very much. I suspect the next books are probably better and where all the juicy bits are, but at the moment it seems very unlikely for me to continue to the next ones in the series. I may try Ferrante’s other shorter books, but I don’t have a definite plan now. I read they’re going to make TV series based on this, I may just watch that.


Mee’s rating: 3/5

My Brilliant Friend on audible

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


Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film – Edward Ross

filmish - edward ross
200pp. Published in Nov 2015. Kindly sent by the publisher SelfMadeHero.

When I saw Filmish in recent SelfMadeHero catalogue, I knew it would be the right graphic novel for me. Regular readers may know that I work in the film industry, specifically post-production house. Though what we do is often more technical than creative, everyone I know in our company loves movies. Many aspire to and do their own shorts or full length films independently.

As any informative non-fiction, it is often hard to guess the level of the book until we read them. With this graphic novel too, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I possibly thought somewhere along the line of beginner’s guide to film history. I was slightly wary that it’s going to be a repetition in different format of the many script writing classes that I’ve taken in the past.

It actually went in different direction. Edward Ross, who is a British (Scottish? He lives in Edinburgh.) comic book artist goes more in depth than “brief history of film”. He divided the chapters into interesting themes: “The Eye”, “The Body”, “Sets and Architecture”, “Time”, “Voice and Language”, “Power and Ideology”, “Technology and Technophobia”. Rather than simply going chronologically, Ross takes individual tools of movie making, and discusses the use of them by giving a lot of film examples.

In fact, some pages in, and I felt inadequate. Despite watching 50 to 100 movies per year, there are still so many movies that I have never watched. I would say from the films mentioned and covered in the book: a third I have watched, a third I know but have not watched, and another third I had never heard of. The majority of the panels are drawings of movie scenes, so if you know the film, you get it straight away. If you don’t, well it takes a little more effort. There are quite extensive foot notes at the back of the book explaining each page, and specific panels on the page. I’m usually one who is quite obsessive about reading foot notes, but for this book I let myself relax a bit so I could enjoy the flow more, and only stopped to look when I was really curious about certain panels.

I can see this book being used in some film classes. The watch list grown from reading it itself is a great start to direct any movie aficionado to watch movies that are worth watching. I can also see myself dipping in and out of the book a few more times in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – The graphic novel style akin to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics makes Ross’s advanced film theory easier and interesting to digest. But I’m thinking the audience for Filmish is possibly smaller and needs to be more keen than Understanding Comics. Would recommend it for any movie enthusiasts, but not so much a real beginner.


The Meursault Investigation – Kamel Daoud

the meursault investigation
First published in 2013, translated from French by John Cullen, published in English in 2015

The Meursault Investigation (henceforth will be referred to as TMI) by Kamel Daoud is a response to the literary classic The Stranger / The Outsider by Albert Camus. I happen to read The Stranger last year, so when my GR book group chose this and that it was available to buy in Waterstones as their “Buy Books for Syria” program, I decided to delve in.

To give a bit of background, Albert Camus is French Algerian (or pied-noir), and published The Stranger in 1942. He won the Nobel prize in literature in 1957. Algeria became independent from France in 1962 (though the decolonisation movement started in 1956).

Would you need to read The Stranger first before TMI? Yes, I’d recommend it. You would have a deeper understanding starting from The Stranger.

So in The Stranger, the “hero” named Meursault murders a man who is referred to in the book only as “the Arab”. The “hero” of TMI is the brother of the Arab, named Harun. From Harun we learn how the murder affects his and his mother’s life. The mother becomes obsessed about finding the murderer, and forever lives in grief of her dead son, almost forgetting about her other son.

Harun himself is obsessed about the death of his brother, though much of it stems from his mother’s. The fact that his brother is never named in Meursault’s narrative becomes his biggest sore point. I can understand the anger towards Meursault as the face of the French colonists. I was nodding at him about the absurdity of the use of the word “Arab”. Quoting Harun: “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes.” 

I liked the book. Would it be able to stand on its own without The Stranger? I’d like to think it could, thought the connection to the Stranger doesn’t hurt the promotion surely. From TMI I learned more about the socio dynamics of native Algerians, the relationship with their French colonists, and the history of the country relating to its independence.

My only reservation is that the book could be a bit repetitive. I guess there’s only so much you can write about in the limited context. It could probably benefit from a tighter editing – cut it by 20-30 pages. Just my 2c :)

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – I like how TMI offers a fresh perspective of a native Algerian. It is quite different with reading Algerian story by Albert Camus. One country, two perspectives. Read both.

Kamel Daoud
Kamel Daoud

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng


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!

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december

Tenth of December and George Saunders seem to be highly acclaimed everywhere. I had not heard of George Saunders until the appearance of Tenth of December (which felt like it was just published, but apparently it was first published 2 years ago in 2013), but upon reading it I found out that he had enjoyed some literary success prior to this book. His short stories have been picked up by The New Yorker many times over. And in fact, most of the short stories collected in this book are available in The New Yorker.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I took me a while to warm to his style. I did not read the stories in the book in order (there are 10 in total), but I read the first story first: Victory Lap. Going in I was completely disoriented and did not know what’s going on. After pages, I had to go browse the internet to get a general idea of what the story was about. Three characters: a girl, a man in a van who intends to kidnap the girl, and a neighbour boy who knows the girl and will be the hero by saving her. The story jumps from inside one character’s head to another. I wasn’t completely foreign to this style after reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but to have that style in a short story was exhausting to read. I’d be really surprised if average readers enjoy this story, it seems to be intended for more avid readers, and probably one that has read Saunder’s stories in the past.

The second one that I read was The Semplica-Girl Diaries, which is probably one of his most famous stories, and can be read in The New Yorker. I liked this one, and went so far as to persuade my short story club to read this story for our next meetup (We did and they all liked it – though there were differences about how we interpret/read the story). Again it took me a while to warm up to the style. The story is written in diary format, and in a very colloquial style, as if by someone who really jots down stuff in his diary in a rush manner thinking that nobody would see it ever. As the story is one of the longer ones, you have time to get into it, compared to Victory Lap for example.

To be honest by this point I started to wonder if I would finish the book at all. I decided to jump to the title story, Tenth of December, which is the last story in the collection. There are 2 characters: a sick man who intends to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in the wood, and a boy who happens to explore the same wood at the same time. The narration jumps from one character’s head to another, ala Victory Lap, which was now half as confusing than when I first read the first story. This one was alright, but not my favorite.

Luckily I found my favorite story next called Escape from Spiderhead. This is the story that I expected George Saunders to write: a slightly futuristic world or an alternate world that is exactly like ours, but with a twist. This story is set in a kind of laboratory, where they do experiments on people who’ve been convicted for some crimes and would rather be in the lab and participating in experiments, than being in normal prison.

I seemed to have read all the meaty ones first, because after that I flew through the rest, going at them in order. Sticks is tiny, a few pages long on the oddities of a father. Puppy delves into two mothers and their different style of raising a family. Exhortation is a long letter from an employer to an employee, urging him to do something that he’s reluctant to. Al Roosten is a reminiscence of Victory Lap and Tenth of December, in which the main character struggles to do the right thing. Home explores the experience of a soldier who just comes back from duty. In My Chivalric Fiasco chivalry is questioned, whether doing the right thing is always the best for everyone.

By the end of the book I realized the colloquial style of writing is really George Saunder’s voice, and not of any specific story, as it permeates in ALL stories. It fascinates me that this kind of writing style has won literary prizes, as it does not seem “literary” in its conventional meaning. That just goes to show how there’s no rule for writing style and it can go in all different ways.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – I like some stories more than others. The style took a while to get into (it’s my first George Saunders). Only after reading 3-4 stories (10 stories in total in the book), it started to get much easier to get into a story and I enjoyed reading it more. But at the end of the book I’m still not totally convinced by the choice of style and language. Mmm.

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