2/18 Confessions

By Kanae Minato

This book is the perfect example for why I already have so much love for this blog. I read Penance last year and just loved it, and you told me about a movie based off another book of hers. I don’t know whether I knew about this other book, but I had forgotten, and then you made your comment and while getting books from my online library (not illegal, actual Singapore Library online using Overdrive) I remembered and downloaded it.

I didn’t love this as much as the last book, but I just as easily could have! See, her writing is so, so similar across the two! This one isn’t a mom hearing from five girls who were there when her daughter died, but a teacher who tells her class aa few of the students have killed her four year old. Even the plot is similar. And just like the last one, she has these little slips and turns which are really unexpected – motivations that you wouldn’t have expected, lies that you didn’t catch, suspects that you didn’t… Suspect at all. Lol maybe I’m a shitty detective. Nonetheless, huge similarities, and I think if I had read this first it would have also been a must read. But I did not, so the shocks weren’t as shocking because I knew something like that must happen. In all fairness, I also think the other book had a cooler finale.

But yes you can read this book too and then we can watch the movie together in a few months!

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2/18 Confessions

1/18 First They Killed My Father

By Luong Ung

This was such an interesting read to start the year with. My boss gave it to my the first day of work – we had spoken about it and he said I could have it when he was done. It’s about a five year old Cambodian girl, one of seven children, whose father was a high ranking government official before the Khmer Rouge came into Phnom Penh. It then tracks her life, and occasionally her other family members’ as well, throughout the Pol Pot regime.

It’s an autobiography of a young girl in the middle of war, and the combination of the themes (communism, war, child soldiers) and the style of writing (without much finesse, in my opinion it was very easy to tell she isn’t an author so much as someone telling her story using written words) reminded me a lot of the book I read while I was in Vietnam. In both, the girls end up in the U.S., and they have grown up there. In both, they also show us their return to their home countries after a very long time. My problems with this book are very similar to my problems with that. In fact, it’s my problem (not even the right word, more like something that discomforts me while reading) is that you have characters telling their stories from very privileged positions, tucked into and happily American while writing. Makes sense they would Americanise – I probably would too if I was taking refuge in a foreign land after living through a war. Just makes me more likely to narrow down their experiences as just their lived experiences without any generalization. I mean, of course the voices we hear are the most privileged, it’s the way of the world and makes surviving easier too. In the book, even she acknowledges that her family was only able to survive as well as they ultimately did because they were very wealthy before everything happened.

That being said, what a thought provoking piece of work. I’ve been to Cambodia a long time ago, and I wish I had read this and known some of this history before going., and I am glad to know this before my visit in June. I hope to read more, too. Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the writing is very good. Parts were very bare and it really did read like a teenager’s writing in parts. You know, when it’s just “this happened. Then this happened.” So that’s not worth commenting on. I am however very impressed that she has remembered so much to put to paper – in the acknowledgements she thanks her elder brother for writing so much history down, so I expect she’s also extrapolating from other stories and putting things together. But nonetheless there’s almost nothing I remember before the age of 10 and this book starts when she’s just 5! There’s very precise, small pieces of things, little details, that really capture the sense of what she was going through.

Its also very painful, as expected. It was another book I read on the trains and buses (since my boo was visiting over this time so I didn’t want to take any more) and I had to put it down several times to catch my breath. And just not cry.

1/18 First They Killed My Father

52/17 The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison

This is such a beautiful, lyrical book. I’ve wanted to read something by Toni Morrison for years, but I always thought I would start with Beloved. I’m glad I started with this instead. I read this over two days (a Friday and a Tuesday), both at work and separated only by the long Christmas weekend. Work in my office is so quiet, and the atmosphere so still, almost dull, just a few people clicking away at their computers. Rewarding this book in that setting made it so solemn. There are books that make you want to be loud and exuberant in explaining how you feel about them. But there’s something about the tone of The Bluest Eye and the beauty with which its been written that makes you want to calm yourself and absorb it differently, because it demands a different sort of respect from you.

The premise of the book is the sad hope of a young black girl, impregnated by her father, to have blue eyes. It really was so beautifully written but I have just one example here that gave me pause:

Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the two most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap.

But this excerpt also acts as an example of what frustrated me about the book sometimes. There was something very obviously reflective, even reflexive, of personal experiences throughout it; Morrison’s own thoughts about black lives and experiences, beauty and ugliness. But I’m a fan of these ideas coming out in their characters instead of feeling like an aside from the authors themselves, and the book’s failing, to me, was that these were a lot less subtle than I would have liked them to be. But even in telling me what she’s thinking so explicitly, she does it poignantly, elegantly, and the books reads like poetry.

Besides the writing, the story is just captivating. The idea of this little girl wanting something so desperately made my heart hurt, and the way she explored how her father, her mother, her friends, came to the places they had arrived to – she humanised everyone, without exception. I think you would like that about this, actually, how empathetic the book reads. Things you could cast off as despicable were given context, background, thought, some measure of understanding from author to character and thus reader to character as well. It was an impressive and thought provoking read, and I would highly recommend it. (Also my last book of the year, which is a strong note to end on.)

52/17 The Bluest Eye

51/17 Juliet Takes A Breath

By Gabby Rivera

You know my current state of boredom at work, which has left me with a lot of time to read. I started this one on my way to work today, and finished it over a few hours; it’s very easy to read. The language is so authentic in it’s young-ness that it felt like I was reading something actually written by a teen.

It was also thought provoking. Obviously, over the last few years, I’ve learnt so many new concepts and words for phenomenons that I didn’t know while I was just here in Singapore. A lot of that learning comes through exposure to cool, forward-thinking people like yourselves, who have graciously and patiently taught me new ways of thinking. However, I remember the feeling of not having these words when I was younger and talking to my brother (still happens, actually) and being so lost, then frustrated that I was lost, because I had what I thought were solid points but not the appropriate lexis to describe it. But now reading this, and trying to talk to my colleagues about the things that come up, I realise that the lexis that we use and know so well is actually incredible dense and elitist; I have to break it up for them, or there’s not going to be any room for communication. So I enjoyed seeing her process of learning and the moment where her adorbs cousin teaches her things.

On the other hand, at some moments it felt like a Queer Theory 101 course, because the language was so exact and they were throwing out these massive concepts in supposedly casual conversation; it felt like it was written to be used in high schools across America. And because so much of it was, “tell, not show”. Even those moments which are supposed to be the most emotional, like when she comes out and her interactions with her mother that follow – even those, they explicitly say some things that I don’t feel need to be said because they can be implied in gestures and actions. So that was a bit of a pity, that it was cool concepts and these incredible ensemble packed in there with their own complex relationships, but could have used a better editor.

I did very much like the insights through different characters of how tiring it can be to be poc, but also how everyone makes mistakes – and that people’s friendship, their willingness to try and learn, and their spirit/aura/whatever, these can be more important than any mistakes they make. I took away a very positive note from the book, particularly from the friendship between Harlow, Zaira, and Maxine. The visibility of queer and brown spaces and people was so lovely too. I did find elements of it too, uh, hippie? But I think within the book they’re also cognizant of that and how absurd it can be, and they make fun of it too, so it works out. Overall an enjoyable, easy read.

Also, the chapter about the periods was quite cool. I’m gonna try the trick with the salt and water to wash out stains lol.

51/17 Juliet Takes A Breath

50/17 Persepolis

By Marjane Satrapi

I’m really unsure how to rate this.

I really enjoyed this. I read it during my train rides in the mornings and evenings for three days, and at least twice I had to put it down because I was tearing up and didn’t want to frighten the work crowd that was pushing in around me on the trains. It was such evocative, moving work, the sort I rarely get to read because I don’t pick up comics – even though the two you have introduced me to so far have had so much value and insight. This was also packed with information. I know that, at some point over the year, I’m going to have to just learn more about Iranian history and then re-read this book, now with some context. Although the infographics were very helpful, at points I really just felt like I need to know more to really understand the historical context of what’s going on. I do, nonetheless, intend to lend it to my cousins so that they can hopefully learn a thing or two in the meantime. Because it’s a fantastic read, and you can learn so much off the bat.

I suppose my problem with the book was the character – or the author, since it’s based off her life. Even within the context of Iran, she clearly led such a privileged life. I didn’t know anything about Marx growing up because my parents were not so educated, they would not and still do not know about these things. Her family owned a lot, and only at one or two points does she seem to reckon her privilege as a child or teenager (once, when she recognises that her maid’s child suffers worse in the war, and another when she sits in her fancy car and feels ashamed), but she goes to a fancy French school, and holidays in Europe, and is just very privileged. Even when she comes back from Europe, she has a moment where she thinks, “Oh, I had it easier,” but that’s short-lived.

But of course, when a book is based off a real life – well, you can’t really critique it, can you? It’s just their life. When she leaves for Europe for a few years, I was so frustrated with her behaviour, speaking out and squandering her money – maybe because I know that, even at 15, I would have never done those things. Me, and my siblings, would have had a lot more respect for a safe home and any amount of money. So I suppose, the source of my frustration wasn’t anything about the book, but the inevitable comparison I make between her behaviour and my, “What would I do?” You can’t make such a comparison, I suppose, because I never lived through a war. Maybe some people in my family did, two generations ago and half of them in a different country, but I’ve never. I don’t know how I would act. I like to think the author drew the way she did to characterise her selfishness and naiveté of herself in that time as exactly that: of that time; that she has grown since then, realised that for all her suffering, her family were all kept safe because they had the resources to.

I’m sure she does. And besides this critique, which is not so much critique as personal grievance, I really did enjoy this comic. I can only hope to find more like it, because they’re so easy to consume, and the visual material really does leave a starker impression – in the way words have to try a lot harder to.

 

50/17 Persepolis

49/17 Embroidery

By Marjane Satrapi

Lol I’m lending this to my aunt so she can live a little. The Muslim one, of course.

I read Embroidery in the buses to work and felt at some moments that I was being a bit obscene, haha. It was such a cute, light-hearted read. I mean, these must have been a very well-off group of friends because, for one, they were so much more liberal with their talk and ideas than most women anywhere, and two, they travelled a lot, man! But it was super cute, and I will have such a group of friends meeting in my home to gossip like this when I’m old so my grandchildren can learn at my feet.

 

49/17 Embroidery

48/17 Little White Duck: A Childhood in China

By Na Liu

Aiyah, this was so cute! I’m going to keep this book to read to my children one day. I don’t know nearly enough about Chinese history – maybe next year we can make sure we read more books translated from these countries which we don’t know much about? But this gave me rare, sweet insight into the country. Sweet because the only other book I tried to read about China (which I unfortunately did not complete – the only book this year I did not complete) was very dense, and full of difficult information that I didn’t fully understand because of my lack of knowledge. This was the opposite, it was light and friendly, but more importantly, it was the sort of book that I felt I could learn from without needing background in Chinese history.

Out of curiosity, who picked this? You, Sue, Iz?

48/17 Little White Duck: A Childhood in China