This morning I finished reading JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson of the US-based Equal Justice Initiative. It’s a book that enlarges the reader, for sure. I didn’t know there were so many ways for my heart to break. Part of me wants to buy a copy for every school library in Singapore.
It’s not that I didn’t know, before, how dreadful the death penalty and the US penal system are, or how awful race relations are in that strange and yet strangely familiar land. I used to work at a prison reform organisation, so many of the issues are not new to me (something which made it hard for me to fully appreciate, say, THE NEW JIM CROW as a fresher reader might). But in the warmth of Stevenson’s stories, the directness of their no-nonsense telling, rather than academic or forensic education there is… transformative human connection. I’m botching this sell. Just read it yourself.
(I actually had the opportunity to very briefly meet Stevenson in the outfit I used to work for. I had at the time only a much sketchier concept of why he matters so much. I wish I’d been more informed of what a great honour I was enjoying.)
This will surely destroy any vestigial appearance of literary seriousness I may have, recommending Star Wars slashfic, but I am absolutely loving the incredible work on characterisation in Children, Wake Up, a series that begins with three chapters of Kylo Ren/General Hux pornography (uh… yeah), continues with five chapters of romance, and is currently taking off with 28 chapters of political (?) drama. I found the huge clumsy “HEY THIS IS STAR WARS” elbow digs in Episode VII trying, but the reversal of the parent-child dynamics was an emotional masterstroke. The fact that Kylo Ren is mildly comical only made it all the more poignant. This fanfic series is doing a fantastic job of exploring the potential in that.
Otherwise, for the first time in a very long while, I haven’t really been reading, so there is little to report from the world of text. This is mostly because I’ve taken up watercolour painting and am mildly obsessed with trying to get the lighting right on some succulents right now. I’m sure literature will return eventually, but not yet, not yet.
Piqued by a friend’s enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante, I decided to check THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT out of the library. It swallowed me whole over a short series of interstitial times: bus rides, walks between office and lunch, bus stop and home, home and dinner, and then the final thirty pages on the sofa. I was put in mind of Houellebecq. They share a deceptive transparency of prose, fluid and crude; a kind of exaggerated consciousness of gender; and a pervasive misanthropy which turns an obsession with sex astringent, hollow, somehow without desire. But Houellebecq is plainly horrible – sounding haunting notes despite his horrible self – while Ferrante… Ferrante is something else, I can’t decide yet. I will have to read more.
Been awhile, eh? My word world has been quiet. Against all better judgment (and every single source you could consult), I have been watching the film adaptation of Possession, which is terrible in every way imaginable and then a few more. As it seizes every opportunity to alienate the Byatt reader and must surely be incomprehensibly dull to everyone else, I can’t quite grok who the target audience is meant to be. Perhaps the same baffling market segment who enjoy Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet I find myself still watching. (Yes, I’m the sort of person who keeps pressing a bruise.)
More edifyingly, I am reading Piketty. The first 150 pages or so are, strictly speaking, purely accounting; but who knew accounting could ring with such clarity and insight? How do we manage to gabble and bicker so much about resources without simply taking stock of where they are and who they belong to? I feel a little like someone is showing me that I have lived on our earth without ever having a simple description of the shape and size of its continents and oceans. It makes me feel a little stupid. In the best way.
I haven’t been so good at keeping up the reading notes lately, though the books have certainly been there. Savoured more Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake was a more fluent read than the jerkier The Lowland, but I’m beginning to spot her personal tropes; I called Ashoke’s death once the Christmas cards appeared). Reached the finale of epic fanfiction entry Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (don’t laugh at me, it’s brilliant, and very funny, though I skipped some of the more tedious wargames) and sped through Longbourn by Jo Baker – also essentially fanfiction, also superb. Nicked Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man off a friend’s shelf, as a light read: it was more knowingly self-deprecatory than my memories of the film adaptation suggested, and felt rather less like someone else’s painfully “high-minded pornography” (which is not in itself problematic, I feel, it just, erm, didn’t really cater to me). Now taking a saunter with Carson McCullers. So there you go. The books.
This past week I have had the very great pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri for the first time, via Unaccustomed Earth. The collection’s titular entry is basically perfect: I haven’t been so transported by a short story in a long time, possibly not since Greg Egan’s ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’ blew my fifteen-year-old mind, or since A.S. Byatt scared the bejesus out of me for a week five or six years ago (‘The Thing in the Forest’). But the rest of the volume is also consistently superb. Lahiri knits bare, weightless sequences of detail together with compassion and grace. My only niggle is that every story centres on families which are affluent and hypereducated (I’m not sure, in fact, that there is a single one which doesn’t have a PhD involved). This feels a bit oddly unbalanced, but it seems uncharitable to hold that against the book when there is drama and craft aplenty to be found in its tales regardless.
My year began between bits of Claire Tham. I liked how The Inlet started, but it petered out toward the middle and end. I agree with much of what Kirat Kaur and Pooja Makhijani have said about its lopsided focus; and in addition, I struggled with the fact that the dominant mode of so many of Tham’s characters is ennui. After a bit, all that boredom gets, well, boring. The same issue bedevilled Fascist Rock and made me give up on Saving the Rainforest after the first story. I like Tham best when her people care about something: there’s the compellingly drawn conflict between The Inlet‘s Willy Gan and his nephew, for instance; Winston’s ambition; Ling’s gift of a parrot to an old man. But these moments didn’t come often enough.
On a smaller note: I suspend a lot of judgment about how to deal with different registers and Englishes in fiction set in Singapore. In my view, there’s no easy or obvious approach for writers to take, and I dislike the idea of policing text for the so-called ‘authenticity’ of Singapore English. (Maud knows I speak weirdly and I exist.) But one scene with Cheung Fai rather jars, because he uses the word ‘ersatz’ in conversation, which in itself is fine, except he’s allegedly allergic to all things atas, and the exchange in question goes out of its way to imply that he’s oblivious to the (un)likelihood of his colleague understanding it. So the whole thing just seemed a bit confused. This is just a nit, though.
The last month has been illness, on and off. And reading, of course: revisiting Are You My Mother? (I liked it better this time, knowing in advance it would be more abstractly intellectual, less of a sucker punch of passion than Fun Home); tumbling through House of Leaves (my feelings are broadly similar to those in this Guardian review); now alternating between Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries.
Binged on rereading S.E. Hinton: That Was Then, This Is Now; The Outsiders; Rumble Fish and Taming the Star Runner. I hadn’t touched some of these books for perhaps upward of a decade. It made me realise how much my teenage development of a sense of narrative owed to her. This is a nice article about her.
Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude: I really admire The Vagrants, so I was very excited to sink my teeth into this. I loved it – it was rich and powerful and (mostly) beautifully written – but the frequency (and sententiousness) of Li’s aphorising was sometimes an obstacle to my enjoyment, even though as a reader my tolerance for authorial intrusion is unusually high (I absolutely adore Byatt, and as a teenager I loved Heinlein and Hardy, so go figure).
Jo Walton’s My Real Children: I found this a little disappointing. It was fluent enough and offered a characteristically comfortable geek-feminist home, but it was a tad predictable (you could smell the fact and nature of Mark’s infidelity, and also Bee’s accident, a mile off), and also, didn’t I read another version of this novel – written with perhaps a little more emotional immediacy and less purely biographical sequencing – about seven or eight years ago?
Kraken, at last. This is the first time I’ve struggled to keep going with a Miéville – which didn’t even happen with the polarising Iron Council – because bits of the first third seem entirely too reliant on the reader finding giant squids as TOTALLY WAY COOL, MAN as the author clearly does. I know baroque and excess is kindof his whole point as a writer, and the charges of padding and affected, gasping grandiosity can be brought to any of his novels, but this has been the only one I’ve read where I felt they sort of stick. That said, it was reliably full of exciting mindfuckery, it all got more interesting as things came to a head (especially with some of the later character development, like with Paul and Marge), and I must confess to enjoying the silly bottle gag (a set-up worthy of Jasper Fforde). I still ♥ him is I guess what I’m trying to say.
Blankets by Craig Thompson. A friend lent this to me and I sped through it in an hour and a half. “You read really fast,” she said when I returned it. I hemmed. “I guess it has a lot of pictures?” It was sweet and serious and overwrought in the way that teenhood has to be and I may or may not have teared up.
I managed to get through Etiquette‘s A Certain Sort of Hunger despite the beginnings of a horrible head cold. It made me wish I could get out to spoken word shows more often. I especially liked Nabilah Husna’s holey gutted whore and Stephanie Dogfoot’s post-breakup cheapskate ex.
I’m currently in the midst of rereading That Was Then, This Is Now (discovered in the remnants of my childhood book collection) and will be on a Singapore Writers Festival panel this Sunday. I can’t actually imagine why anyone would pay any part of $20 to hear me witter on, but if for some reason you do, please say hi.
Only last year, though it feels a lifetime away, I had a review in The F Word of SF collection The Other Half of the Sky (edited by Athena Andreadis and co-edited by Kay Holt). I especially enjoyed Aliette de Bodard’s The Waiting Stars,
which most effectively of the 16 stories fuses worldbuilding, characterisation, thematic depth and plot. The Dai Viet Empire’s ships are Minds, at once space vessels and members of large, close-knit families. Some, captured by the Galactics, are left derelict – necessitating a daring liberatory raid. For their part, the (recognisably white Anglophone) Galactics view the production of Minds with horror and attempt to ‘rescue’ so-called Dai Viet “refugees” through violent assimilation into Galactic society. De Bodard’s portrait of one refugee’s conflicting attachments and mixed identifications – a sense of self literally spread across stars – powerfully echoes the experience of postcolonial cultural displacement. It certainly resonates deeply with me as someone born and bred Anglophone in a former British colony.
I’ve been delighted to find that it’s now available for free on the author’s website. Away with you, shoo, go read.