Discussion · review · Review Copy

The Nonexistent Knight by Italo Calvino

Nonexistent Knight

Paperback, 144 pages
Published August 15th 2017 by Mariner Books
Source: Raincoast Books

I have been a fan of Calvino’s ever since I read his If On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler but I have never had the chance to actually give much time to his other titles. Mariner Books recently repackaged and released his older titles in this sparse minimalist style that I adore.

The Nonexistent Knight is about…well, a nonexistent knight. If you are Calvino, you can write about nonexistent knights and very well at that. The story is told from the viewpoint of an initiate nun in an obscure order. The nun is very much a character in this novella and brings her own experiences to the tale she is telling.

Calvino makes use of a dizzying array of techniques to tell the story of this nonexistent knight who is bound in the armor he wears and by his habits. Not gonna lie, I was uncomfortable by the fact that the villains in this book, the enemies of the Christians were the Muslims but Calvino didn’t focus on painting any group any shade of black. Calvino looks at war and the stiff, unyielding, set of rules is often made to seem ridiculous especially when juxtaposed by the reality of a thing. For example, the romance of the armor is depleted when the person inside the armor is only too dismally human with human failings and flaws. Or when the chivalry of a knight is for naught when the damsel he is rescuing would much rather not be rescued.

All in all, Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight is not a book you can speed through but it is something you savour in sips and dips, appreciating his wordsmithery and the way he tells a tale.

Discussion · memoir · Nonfiction · review · Review Copy

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

My Life With Bob

Hardcover, 256 pages
Published June 13th 2017 by Henry Holt and Co.
Source: Raincoast Books

When I was ten years old, my mother handed me an empty notebook and told me to write down the titles of all the books I read. Twenty three years later, I have moved to tracking my reading on Goodreads but I have two or three notebooks filled with simply the titles of the books I read when I was younger.

Pamela Paul’s Bob, her Book of Books is a similar thing only she was much smarter than me and noted down not just the titles but the authors and perhaps what she felt about the books she read. Now as she looks at the titles she has recorded in her Bob and the notes accompanying it, she can construct for herself the time she spent reading this book, what she going through while reading this book, and what she got out of this book. For instance, she remembers her travels in Southeast Asia by remembering the books she read while there. Sometimes she constructed her entire experience of a place by the book she was reading at the time which is certainly problematic but at the same time, understandable.

Her memoir will appeal to all bibliophiles who are in constant search for their people. You know, people who look forward to book release days, who cannot pass a bookstore without going in and browsing, who talk about books they are currently reading and plan to read. Those kinds of people.

Paul’s writing is sympathetic and I could relate to her intense love for books.  However, I must point out that unlike Paul asserts in her book that “every girl who aspired to become a writer fancied herself as strong and independent Jo,” I never did. In fact, The Little Women rang a bit too saccharine for my tastes.

I was also amused by the almost sheepish way in which Paul confesses in one of the latter chapters that kidlit was a source of great pleasure for her. As someone who specializes in children’s lit, both academically and creatively, I am entertained when people who have spent their lives reading literary fiction discover the wonder of it and feel guilty for liking it.

Anyway, My Life with Bob was fun reading. Like any bibliophile worth her salt will know, going into other people’s houses is only wonderful for the peeks you can take at their bookshelves, reading Pamela Paul’s memoir was like taking an extended look at someone’s personal bookshelf. She should read more diverse kidlit though.

I do recommend the memoir, especially for other bibliophiles who will take pleasure in reading a book about books.

Discussion · Japanese Literature · review · Review Copy

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women

Hardcover, 224 pages
Published May 9th 2017 by Doubleday Canada
Source: Publisher

There’s something about the way Murakami tells a story. I know I have whined on occasion about his habit of detail, his fascination with cats and ears, and the way his characters always seem to be stir-frying vegetables or making pasta but there’s something about the way he tells a story that not many people do. I don’t know if it’s because they are emotionally resonant even when the protagonist is strange in a much stranger world or because there’s an honesty, a truth, inherent in his fiction but I am unable to resist his books.

By his own admission, Murakami prefers writing short stories to novels and my goodness, he is a master of them. His stories in Men Without Women are all excellent but I have my faves. The one about the guy who, after discovering his wife red-handed with a lover, opens up a bar and runs into supernatural stuff and the one about the actor whose wife has died and he has to adapt to a new female driver are two of the stories that linger with me.

Murakami knows how to build tension, keep the pace, and most importantly, how to end the story. Many writers either end a story too soon or too late. Murakami sometimes leaves the reader gasping for more and surprised there isn’t because he couldn’t leave the story there, could he? And he can and has.

I have read a lot of Murakami books (only two remain before I’ll be done with all that have been released in English) and I can say with the authority this has earned me that Men Without Women is one of his finest works. I recommend it.

Discussion · Nonfiction · review · Review Copy

Trust No Aunty by Maria Qamar

Trust No Aunty

Hardcover, 176 pages
Expected publication: August 1st 2017 by Touchstone Books
Source: Publisher

This might possibly be one of those books that bring about a jolt of recognition in some people and utter bafflement in others. Luckily I belong to the former group which means the Aunties in this book are more than familiar to me.

I first got to know about Maria Qamar on Instagram where she is known as Hate Copy (@hatecopy). Her comics are out of this world funny especially if you are familiar with old Bollywood/current Bollywood style and the melodrama associated with it.

When I found out that she has a book coming out, I was quite excited because it meant owning these comics in physical form and I can never have enough of that (stay tuned for some sample images) but the book is more than a collection of comics. It is also a how to…hm, it is sort of an elaborated advice column with a lot of humour, art, and ghee in it.

Now an Aunty is not solely a desi phenomenon because I’m sure my Asian friends will find the one aunt/lady you might be related to but not always familiar in their own families. And don’t get this book wrong, it’s making fun of these aunties but there’s no malice in it. Aunties are a loved part of our culture.

Qamar shares her experiences and gives tips on how to avoid or handle the more insufferable aunts and shares recipes that have tided her over the more lean periods of her life. More importantly, Qamar talks about some more important things like cultural appropriation and forging out a less-walked path on your own.

And of course, there are the hilarious comics:

HC1

HC2

HC3

HC4

And my fave:

HC5

Discussion · review · Review Copy

Teng’s Review: Rich People Problems (Crazy Rich Asians #3) by Kevin Kwan

Teng is my very best friend and you can find more of her posts here.

Crazy

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published May 23rd 2017 by Doubleday
Source: Publisher

Soon after I heard that Kevin Kwan will be publishing his third book in the Crazy Rich Asian series, Rich People Problems, I have been diligently stalking my local library to see if I can get my hands on a copy. Fortunately, Nafiza, with her book magic, procured me a copy, so that I do not need to obsessively hit refresh to see if the waiting list at the library has been updated.

I have read all three books in the Crazy Rich Asian series, and Rich People Problems is a great finale that neatly ties up all the loose ends and brings the story to a very wholesome close. Granted, I would love for the book to be longer, or for Kwan to just keep writing. But I can say that I am happy with the way things ended.

Like the previous two books, Rich People Problems is outrageously funny, deliciously gossipy, and I have yet to read a book that name and label drop with such class and sass. Rich People Problems is worth reading just for the laughs.

As an Asian, Taiwanese to be exact, I adore this book and this series not just for the laughs but also for giving the world a glimpse at very typical Asian culture and family drama. Kwan seems to emphasize on this point as well, that he is, in a way, modernizing or making Asian culture more palatable for Western readers. For Asian readers, like me, I think it is safe to say that we relate to a lot of the issues and storylines used in the book. Ok, I do not have even 1/10000 of the wealth of some of the characters in the book, and honestly, the world Kwan has created is like reading about Narnia and knowing that it is real(Yes, people like the characters in the book are definitely real. The stories I can tell). But the dialogue between Nick Young and his mother, and the relatives conversation about grandmother’s health are very, very familiar.

This is slightly spoilerish, but in the book, Kwan includes a “ten-point social placement scanner,” where he explains how one Asian evaluates another in terms of social status and wealth. The ten points read very privileged, and very few people can probably make it through all ten stages and score a decent result at the end, but dear lord, I understand it. One part that really resonated with me is actually the first point of the ten-point plan that considers what kind of Asian is the individual being evaluated? I know that to others, all Asians look the same, if not similar. But to us Asians, we have clearly drawn lines in the sand between each group and sub-group of Asians, we are clearly aware of the boundaries, and damnit, we are not one of the other Asian that you think we are! On a slightly vain note, as a Canadian Asian from Vancouver, apparently I score about middle in Kwan’s order of importance of different kinds of Asians. I think Kwan’s ordering is quite accurate, and I am, dare I say, proud, that I scored higher than the other type of Asians listed behind my group on the list?  I know it is discriminatory to say one type of Asian is just better than the other, but this way of evaluating other Asians does feel very prevalent in Asian communities, and affects the way we interact with each other.

Speaking of discrimination, I really like that Kwan addresses some of the prejudicial views held by the older characters in his story. Some of the prejudicial views mentioned in the book about parents’ expectation of children, money, mental health and others do exist in Asian populations, and I have heard them. Kwan explains the prejudicial views as because the older characters have held these biases for so long and with their wealth and age, their biased views become the right view in their minds.  This does not necessarily excuse the biases, but I think Asian readers will relate to Kwan’s explanation. Respecting our elders is a core value in Asian culture and in my family too. Oh, it drives us, the younger generations, absolutely bonkers sometimes, but in the end, we respect our elders wishes. Even if it means we stress eat alarming amounts of sweets…and crispy, crunchy deep-fried food.

I highly recommend this book. It is highly entertaining and gossipy, a wonderful glimpse into Asian culture for some, and it is so comforting and relatable for others. Also, I would urge you to read this with some authentic Singaporean food close at hand. Reading this already drove me to visit a Malaysian restaurant, and the book just made me hunger for more Singaporean food.

Have you read Crazy Rich Asians? Are you excited to see the movie adaptation with an all-Asian cast? They just wrapped productions last month! @kevinkwanbooks

Discussion · review · Review Copy

The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, 한유주, Janet Hong (Translator)

Impossible

Paperback, 214 pages
Published March 7th 2017 by Graywolf Press
Source: Raincoast Books

This was a strange strange book. But first, the official synopsis:

The Impossible Fairy Tale is the story of two unexceptional grade-school girls. Mia is “lucky”―she is spoiled by her mother and, as she explains, her two fathers. She gloats over her exotic imported color pencils and won’t be denied a coveted sweater. Then there is the Child who, by contrast, is neither lucky nor unlucky. She makes so little impression that she seems not even to merit a name.

At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence.

But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years earlier. Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.

To talk about this book with any clarity, I’m going to have to give some inevitable spoilers. I will try to avoid them if I can but I might find that I simply cannot evaluate the book without mentioning them. But we’ll see.

You should also note that it’s 3 am and I am fasting just in case this effects the tone and content of my review.

I can read and understand Korean (mostly with the help of a dictionary) so before anything else, I will say that the writing style in translation drove me absolutely nuts. I was very annoyed by the fragmentary narrative which worked in parts but got old pretty quickly because you cannot sustain the style for an entire novel–in English. I reckon that the book in its original language is wildly poetic, the repetitions make beautiful use of the Korean language and the effect is lyrical. In English, this style is, I’m sorry to say, nothing less than annoying.

Still, the style creates remarkable atmosphere and works wonderfully with the sections detailing the lives of the children and in particular the brutally sad life of the unnamed Child. However, as a writer, I cannot help but speculate how different the book would have been (in English) had the author utilized different styles in each of the two parts of the novel. The difference in the narrative styles would have delineated the adult character from the Child and given the book a more solid feel. But that’s just me as a writer.

The story itself is a bit like On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler by Italo Calvino in the way it is somewhat metaphysical in that the story is aware of itself as being a story, as being fictional. And I feel the style in the second part drowns out this important fact which would otherwise have been fascinating.

As it is, there is an  unsettling ambiguity about the Child whose name we never do find out and the adult narrator. I can’t say anymore because to do so would be giving away the story and I think the book is crunchy enough, for all its flaws, to be worthy of a reading. The Impossible Fairy Tale is eerie and reminiscent of a horror movie except a lot more intellectual in the way it approaches its story.

Discussion · Nonfiction · review · Review Copy

I’m Judging You: The Do Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi

Judging

Paperback, 241 pages
Published November 17th 2016 by Henry Holt & Company Inc
Source: Raincoast Books

I’m thankful to Janani who is quickly becoming my source for interesting book titles. She reads wonderful books and leads me to fantastic ones. Aah, okay.

This book though, you guys. It says everything that’s in my heart and more. I hadn’t heard of Luvvie before I read this book and now I’m following her everywhere because she speaks the truth.

Talking about looks:

“Society has failed people to the point where they feel they cannot like themselves in the skin they were born in.”

SO TRUE.

And you know those people who claim they are blind to colour? Huh. For them:

“I want people to see my colour and my culture written all over me, because I’m proud of the skin I’m in. It is an important of my identity. What I don’t want them to do is mistreat me because of it.”

There’s a poignant piece where she talks about how she ended up using Luvvie as a name because people mispronounced (deliberately lazy?) her beautiful name. This is particularly relatable to me as during my first class in Canada, the teacher looked at my name and said “Napizza” like “Nafiza” is somehow difficult to pronounce or he cannot read like wtf even?

I’m STILL SALTY about this, kay? I’m Judging You has no problem calling out the people in Luvvie’s own community for their problematic ways even as it calls out the white people for their problematic ways.

I particularly loved this sharp clear observation on rape culture:

“Rape culture is the prevailing attitude that women exist primarily to please men, and therefore are not equal human beings with agency of their own bodies.”

Heck, I could quote the entire essay because that’s how much it spoke to me. I adored this book. I return to it every time I am angry and annoyed by people because chances are, Luvvie has judged them already and I can share in the not-so-silent side-eyeing. If you want to read something sharply funny, keen and piercing observations on culture and the faulty way we have constructed our societies, you should read this book.

It is brilliant. I don’t say that lightly.