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.

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1/18 First They Killed My Father

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

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

47/17 When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

By Le Ly Hayslip

I have lied to you since November. I completely forgot to add this to my list of books over December – and have in fact hit the big 50. I only remembered when I went through my screenshots to find a quote from Refuge, and saw some from this book instead. A few days before I visited Vietnam, I wanted to find a book by a Vietnamese woman. Not necessarily about the War, but just by a woman from the country, preferably a Vietnamese to English book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you search “vietnamese women books” or the like, you find a lot of books about the war, and a lot more by men about women as they suffered in the war. The woman who wrote this book was Vietnamese and left for the U.S. in her early 20s, but I’ve put both down as country because the book focuses on her life in Vietnam. However, she’s very proud of being American, and I think her experiences made her grateful to Americans in Vietnam as well – this is a memoir, and so these are her experiences. Like I will say about Persepolis later, it’s hard to critique someone’s life. After all, it’s just what they lived. But I am equally critical of their biases as written into their books as I hope I would be if I were to meet and speak to them.

The book’s full title is When Heaven and Earth Change Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace. It follows her childhood in a village in central Vietnam, which had presumed allegiance to the South (where the Americans were based) but in fact supported the North (where the Vietcong was mainly). She has a difficult time navigating the two sides, and the book details the hurt both sides caused. The book alternates between flashbacks to her childhood and the war, and present day, when she returns to Vietnam after many years living and raising her family in the U.S., with a final plea for Americans and Vietnamese people to make peace.

Given that I read this right before and during my trip, it was incredible to read about things in here (e.g., the tunnels that the Vietcong used to travel between places) and then visit them at the same time. Rarely do we get the experience to have such opportune synchronicity between the knowledge we learn on paper and that we learn in real life, so it was quite special for me. When she details the things she did, the way the Vietcong operated, their tricks and evasions, it was just very rich detail, the sort you can only get from lived experiences. In that vein, the pain she suffers, the brutality experienced by men and women, it is so clearly something she remembers viscerally, and she writes it that way too. There were a few moments I had to set it down because it was so absolutely disgusting. When I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, it was odd to see that some of this terrible reality was translated into facts and statistics up on boards too – they were both important in different ways.

Like I said, I do think her positive experiences with American troops and then with the country itself lent itself to a different perspective than many other Vietnamese people might have had, and still have. I think her final call that people should just come to peace – that everyone suffered – well, I’ll never think that’s completely fair. Of course both sides suffered. But one side was in their country, trying to defend their land and lives, and the other side came in from a completely foreign place for their own agendas. People did suffer on both sides (and she captures the different cruelties both sides inflicted so well) but I just don’t think it’s fair to equate it, which is what I think she was doing by the end.

Nonetheless, it was a great book for that trip and that time in my life. Having had this experience, I’ll definitely try to align what I’m reading (because I read on every trip – buses, evenings, etc.) to the place I’m in. So maybe when you visit next year, we can find a book about Singapore, and learn more together as we go around!

47/17 When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

46/50 Inheritance

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

So, one fine day in Singapore, my laptop didn’t work, and my iPad was dead, and I had nothing to do during dinner. So I went to my sister’s room and looked through the shelf, and one of the first books I saw was this one. It was published by the same company that published my brother’s book and so I recognised the layout. The author’s quite popular, so I’d also heard of her.

Set in the 1970’s to 90’s, it follows the life of a traditional Pubjabi family: two brothers and their unruly sister. The book is very interesting. I mean, at some point I thought to myself, “surely no family could be so unfortunate?” But I suppose some are, thank heavens not my own. They’re a very troubled family; each family member individually, but also collectively, they’re not the most functional family. Their mother’s absent, their father is harsh, Amrit the daughter is constantly in trouble, one of the brothers feels constantly unvalued, and the other is taking part in personally and politically troubling activities.

It’s very interesting. It follows their family through the microscopic pictures of their lives, but against this backdrop of change in Singapore, of the little protests and rebellions of siblings against the political manoeuvrings happening across a rapidly-developing nation. I thought it played with and between the two so well. It could have done better to be more seamless when trying to integrate their ‘Singaporean-ness’ into the writing – but I’ve never seen writing that did that perfectly, so I suppose this did better than most. It’s a story about family, and she really captured the nuances of that; the anger and the love, the support and the betrayal.

I’m not sure what exactly was lacking in this book. The plot followed beautifully, and there were quite a few twists (especially at the end) that really surprised me. The family itself was cohesive, nothing felt like it went too fast given the amount of time it covered. I suppose it was that it felt a bit contrived. Like I said earlier, “Could any family be so unfortunate?” It felt like it couldn’t be so – which might be my own bias given my knowledge of better families, I don’t know. But every member of this family was so broken in their own way, that it almost felt like she was trying to include as many themes and tropes as possible, at the expense of just letting the characters develop the way they naturally would. Some of the other books, like Penance by the Japanese author Kanae Minato, felt like they were just stories of people who happened to be women of colour and by women of colour – this wasn’t like that. It felt like I was to know, straight off the bat, that this was going to be An Important Book filled with Important Issues. That desire to be so much and do so much is what, in the end, made it feel less than it could have been.

46/50 Inheritance

30-41/17 Legend and Sequels

By Marie Lu

The trilogy consists of Legend, Prodigy, and Champion.

This was my first series by Marie Lu, which I accidentally read because I started Prodigy and realised it was a sequel very quickly. The stories take place in what was once western U.S., but now the Republic, a nation at civil war with its neighbour. 15-year-old Day was born into the slums and is now the country’s most wanted criminal.15-year-old June is a prodigy, groomed for success in the Republic’s military. When Day is the prime suspect for the murder of June’s brother, June is asked to catch him. But in doing so, the two uncover the truth of their nations (and their hearts).

Again, I love a good young adult novel. And I can tell how much I love it by how I read out the summary as I type it; a good one just gives you those sound effects. Horror! Shock! Betrayal! Sorrow! I love it.

Anyway, the series is quite enjoyable. It’s a bit loose on world-building, so over the first book and a half I was more than a little confused about what the Republic was, and whether the old-East (the Colonies) and this little rebellion group that wants to go back to the a UNITED States of America (the Patriots – and there’s this big hoo-hah of, “No, there was never such a thing!”) but the world itself was very cool. At some point they go to Antarctica, and it’s quite funny because Antarcticans have these little glasses which give them a virtual reality overlay of the world – and it’s something the author uses in her other book, Warcross, I was like, “Self plagiarism!”

It’s a bit unbelievable because, well, they’re 15. Are they really the absolute best? Really? They’re taking this ‘special’ thing to new bounds in this book, and that was a bit hard to swallow. They also seemed to instinctively trust each other quite quickly and I’m always skeptical of that. But besides those little tidbits, a thoroughly enjoyable series. Very easy to read, good for summers by the pool.

30-41/17 Legend and Sequels

38/17 War Cross

By Marie Lu

The first of basically every Marie Lu story, all of which I read over two weeks. I had War Cross and Prodigy downloaded, and when I realised Prodigy was part of a series I downloaded it, and after that, I discovered another series she wrote and tried it.

War Cross is my favourite of her stories, and I was so bummed that she didn’t have a sequel written (yet). In a techno-future the likes of which my government would love to create, Warcross is a virtual reality game: you turn on your glasses and you enter another world, you can score points, fight, and every year, the best of the best enter the international Warcross Championships. Emika Chen is a young, but pretty of course, teenage hacker working as a bounty hunter – and wanting to make some quick cash, hacks into the Championships. But she accidentally glitches herself into the game and becomes an overnight sensation! She thinks she’s going to be arrested, but is instead invited to Tokyo by the creator of the game, supremely intelligent, young, and of course handsome, billionaire Hideo Tanaka. He needs a spy on the inside of the tournament to uncover a problem, and she’s the woman for the job.

Girl, even my summary sounded like it should be read by one of those TV voices, really exaggerated? This book’s so entertaining. In terms of the world it has built, it’s the most convincing in my opinion: an entire population reliant on escapist technology and their screens? I could see it. It’s ridiculously over-the-top, with this team and mystery and thrill all trying to get their screen time over the length of your typical YA book. And it’s got online battles. The characters aren’t frustrating, surprisingly? Haha, I always struggle with female leads in books like this (why, hello there my old friend, internalised sexism) but Emika wasn’t just your “orphan girl who’s struggling but so smart and pretty” – ok she was, but she was also just not stupid. She didn’t try do everything by herself and worked with her team.

Really cool diversity checks too, in unassuming ways. Like the captain of her virtual team is in a wheelchair but still lead on combat, and the two male teammates have had a steamy past oooh, and most of the main characters aren’t white. Even though Emika and Hideo have their typical love, it really takes a turn at the end, man! Like, did not see that coming! Such an easy, enjoyable, young adult book. Makes me smile just to think about it.

38/17 War Cross