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

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

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

37/17 A Little Life

By Hanya Yanagihara

The book is an absolute goliath. Goliath as in,

1: It’s a massive book. It took me more than two days to finish reading, and this was given that, well, it’s me, and I was reading non-stop.

2: It’s a monster. This isn’t a light read.  This is an intense, once you start, you might need to take breaks and have mugs of hot chocolate to feel a bit warm again sort of reading. I’ve put it down as a Must Read. But I do not know if this applies to you. Hell, I’m not even sure if that applies to me.

I really don’t know how to review this book or where to start. I found it because I was chatting to some people at the airport, and some man recommended this, and I just looked it up and started (abandoning said man for his book). As the tags would’ve informed, it’s a giant mess of triggers and heartache. It’s phenomenal. It’s disgusting. I’ll start with a note, specific to us and the warnings at the start, this is not a book that features someone who gets better. Mental health does not always get better. How we treat ourselves, no matter how much medication or therapy or outside love we get, does not always change us. This book exemplifies that. It’s hard for me to review, because as much as I want to recognise the importance of this book, the fact that it exists and that so many people are reading it, I am also aware of how unhelpful it can be for people in their own self-growth and journeys.

A Little Life is about four friends in New York City after they finish college: Jude, a lawyer with a dark past and “ambiguous ethnicity” (pet peeve, did not understand the need for this phrase); Malcolm, an architect from a rich, biracial family; JB, a somewhat spoiled black painter; and Willem, a white aspiring actor. Willem and Jude are particularly close, because both are poor and share a flat, but also because both are orphans. Despite their long friendship, nobody knows much about Jude’s past. The book is divided into second parts, and follows chronologically with several flashbacks. Over the first third or half of the novel, it uses the third person to show one of the men’s thoughts. But over the course of the book, it focuses on Jude; his own thought processes and how others interact with him.

Jude is troubled. His past is dark and his present is tainted by that to the core. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Will my being raped at 16 have an effect on the absolute rest of my life?” then this book says, “Yes.” Trauma does not leave; it affects your mental, emotional, and physical health, and changes the way you navigate the world. Jude, of course, is a lot more troubled than just that (if it really was just that one incident than, damn, we screwed). It’s very welcoming to have this perspective in fiction, that you neither need nor are expected to be better; that when you are hurt so dearly, it is not unusual to fall into cycles of such abuse over the course of your life and it’s not your fault (because, even if Jude doesn’t believe it, the book is very careful to have all the other characters surrounding him absolute in their belief and love in him). It’s just maybe not very inspiring – to me – to read it.

However, the book doesn’t just tackle these heavy intangible issues. Jude suffers from chronic pain and a physical disability. I’ve never seen any book explain with such detail the every-day effects of having such a condition – the way Jude’s own desire to be independent are thwarted by his body as it grows weaker, and how his life is almost entirely structured around pain management; how, thus, his friends’ lives are too. We’ve had conversations about ableism, but this book really opened my eyes to the limits of my understanding, and the need for more to be done.

But, like I said, all the supporting characters are very literally there to support Jude. Their unwavering love, commitment, kindness, well – it reminds of you, honestly. And my other friends and family. But it also astounds me. Can anyone really have so much kindness around them and not believe it? Not think it’s real? I’m so grateful never to wonder this, and was filled with so much pain that he did. Mind you, I also read this in 2 airports and a plane ride, and I could not stop weeping.

You know, this book’s been lauded as “the long-awaited gay novel”, and I can understand why. It is such an important book, I’m so glad it exists. But I don’t think it should be our gay novel. LGBT media, both novels and movies, have had a long-standing trope of trauma. Their loves never last because the characters don’t, and I would like the ultimate gay novel to break that trope – be more The Notebook than The Titanic. We deserve that much. So, like I said, and I haven’t said enough but I don’t want to say more either – this book is hugely important and heart-breaking. I’d just make sure I was in a good place before picking it up.

(Or, in case this clarifies where this book is emotionally for me, I would speak to you and my boo about it. I would hesitate with anyone else.)

37/17 A Little Life

34/17 Everything Belongs To Us

By Yoojin Grace Wuertz

EBTU is about four students attending Seoul National University in 1978. Jisun, a young woman from a very wealthy background who wants to be part of the student revolution; Namin, a poor scholarship student trying to support her family, and Jisun’s best friend; Sunam, a boy who torn between both women and who really just wants to climb the social calendar; and Juno, who is really only interested in advancing himself. At the center is the university’s prestigious and secretive club: The Circle, created and led by Jisun’s brother.

First off, the book is exceptionally written. It takes place in the 70s, in the middle of the factory protests of that time – in fact it starts off with a scene where a woman, faced with the police, takes her top and bra off, standing bare chested. The other women follow, and for a moment there’s a pause – as though the police might respect their modesty, that most-valued thing – and it breaks, and they’re jailed, with Jisun quickly released because of her wealthy, influential father. It combines the heart of these kids (who are growing, but you’re often reminded of how unfair things are given how young they are) with some fascinating political back-drop. I’ll need to pick up a historical account of Korea next year, though, because the scene of topless women protesting has appeared in two separate books now (or maybe three) and yet I can’t find any evidence of it in real life, making me wonder if it’s a common fictional trope that authors have picked up on, or a small facet of history that just happens not to have been publicised in English-medium websites.

Second, which follows easily, that much like the other books by Korean women in this list, it picks up a very interesting point of Korean history and follows it through: it doesn’t try to cover that much ground in terms of time, so that gives it a lot of depth and detail. It focuses on the student revolution and activism on the ground, especially how Jisun is involved in it.

Third, it does a fantastic job of showing how naive, yet complex, the characters are: it shows us how hypocritical Jisun can be, and how selfish Sunam can be, and how self-involved Namin can be. But even given all their flaws, it also makes sure that, rooted in the political themes of the book, space is given to give voice to those who deserve to have it within the narrative. I think it does justice to the people in and the themes of the book. Mind you, it’s a slow read. Really slow at first, especially. I found Namin and Jisun’s stories the most interesting, in that order too, but Sunam was also a huge component, stuck between these two women and his own selfish desires to become one of the chosen ones in The Circle. And that slowness comes from trying to flesh out that much complexity – sometimes, too much detail drags down a story, and at a few points EBTU suffers from that. I’d still recommend it, though. Korean women (ok she’s American, but whatever) killing it again.

Lol, coincidentally me and Sue’s friend had just watched the movie The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, and that also was about this club of elites. But they have nothing to do with each. I was a bit disappointed.

34/17 Everything Belongs To Us

29-30/17 Parable of the Sower and Sequel

By Octavia Butler

I’m writing the reviews for both these books together because, honestly, I struggle to remember exactly where the first ends and the second begins – because in the first we see the story from Lauren’s point of view, then the second involves her daughter, Larkin, looking through her journals, and so again from Lauren. I’m sure you’ve read these two books because they’re on your Kindle and you recommended them to me, but if not: Parable of the Sower takes place in the U.S. in the early 21st century, after we have essentially killed the land and brought the world to a dystopian era of poverty and a generally terrible environment. The main character, Lauren Olamina, begins creating her own Bible of sorts, called Earthseed, and wants to create a community of people based off these beliefs. The new President in the book has an eerie resemblance to the current one. The second book takes place years later, from the point of view of Lauren’s daughter Larkin, who is reading her mother’s journals and trekking her own journey of finding her mother.

I have so many thoughts and emotions connected to these books, and I’m going to be quite spoiler-y while expressing them since you’ve read it.

First: when we are first introduced to Lauren as a child, and she comes up with this odd idea of Earthseed – well, as a child, I came up with entire worlds and religions and families, and that was it, you know? I’ve got journals on journals somewhere in my home with my 10-year-old self’s thoughts scribbled in them, but they started and ended with me. Lauren speaks to her friend about Earthseed, but even though she was so convinced, I didn’t think so much of Earthseed because she was so young. And isn’t that what young people do, get fixated on a thing then eventually grow out of it? I didn’t actually think that Earthseed would grow the way it did. But it still seemed like a kind, innocent belief system (again, because she’s young, and children come up with good things), and even at the end of the book when she has these friends creating Acorn, that was it. Sweet, but that’s all. So my point is, at some point when her daughter’s explaining the expansion of Earthseed and how it’s grown, I was so surprised! I mean, you have a woman who went from wanting people to believe her religion to becoming a God – a bit like preachers or whatever I hear of in the U.S. who have TV programmes and stadiums for their sermons. It was really disconcerting. So the second half of the book left me so disillusioned, because she started off noble and wanting this paradigm shift, and by the end, it felt like she’d become something less pure.

Mind you, this made for incredible character development and, on hindsight, we see the sort of leader she would be even when she was making emergency bags in her home and was right to – but it was still odd.

Second: this would have gone first, because it was my most prominent thought reading the book but I didn’t want to start off so serious – if I knew an apocalypse was coming, I would get sterilised. Because the only thing that seems to be a certainty in war is that men hurt, and women get raped. I mean, there are so many instances in the books of different sorts of pain, but even there it’s implied that the worst is always rape (whether it is better to get raped than some other sort of torture, I don’t know and have no desire to find out). The way you have these ‘sharers’ who feel other people’s emotions, and those girls who had to feel their rapists’ joy while they themselves were in pain? Or that scene where she’s faced with her dead husband and feels her own grief but also her captors’ pleasure? I think those were some of the most powerful moments of the book. But yeah, book left me a bit unsettled because, of course it happens and happens often, but the absolute frequency? To these children? Or just to any one girl in the middle of war? Just reading it made my heart ache a bit (a lot).

I thought the books dived into how cruel ordinary people could be in the course of their ordinary lives. Specifically, I remember when she visits the shelter of the church her brother works at, and she thinks maybe the church and the people who invaded her camp were different, but she sees one of the men at this church shelter who raped her friend most painfully every time he visited. Now, I haven’t read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (the one on the banality of evil), but reading these descriptions of men and women in a religion/state/system which gave them specific roles and which had a powerful majority paradigm in play – well, I’ll get around to reading that book, and I think it’ll be interesting to see whether we could understand these people’s motivations using the book. That book is about the Holocaust, but I think it’s possible to draw a few parallels given the systematic imprisoning, murder, separation of parents from children, etc. in the Parables.

Third: okay, I don’t remember exactly, but how large was the age difference between Bankole and Lauren? I found that a bit… odd. Nice for her to find love and all, but still odd.

Fourth: I liked the way they explored religion. You obviously have Earthseed and “God is Change” at the centre of it all. But Earthseed exists in opposition to Christianity, since her Dad’s a Baptist, and also Islam, I think – since Zahra has a name like that and seemed difference (can’t recall, though, if you do, holla at me). I enjoyed Earthseed, for one. If I had met Lauren on a journey where she saved my life and offered me a home and a religion that just preached that everything changes and that change rules all like some odd variation of Darwin’s evolution, I would have jumped straight on that bandwagon. But I took many screenshots of pages – of verses of Earthseed. Because they were beautiful, and lyrical, and gave me hope. So, as far as religions go, this one wasn’t so bad!

Until later, anyway; anything that grows that large always fills me with suspicion. I think that our changing perspective of Lauren and Earthseed is also telling; we realise even a religion borne out of the innocence and kindness of a child can become more than it is and twisted by human bias, agendas, and interests. And the President Jared is a fine example of how Christianity can be (and was, in the book) perverted the same way. So I thought that the books ultimately did a great job of showing us how – well, like Earthseed purports, “All we touch, we Change.”

Fifth: I remember the first time you talked to me about these books, it was because you’d just read an excerpt of the President’s campaign, and you went, “She wrote this in 1993!” and how nothing has changed. So these books could win an award for omniscience, or real-world foreshadowing: after all, we do have a President of the Free World (lol) who is the king of capitalists, who does not believe in climate change, and isn’t particularly, uh, at the forefront of feminism (lolol) – so a lot of the realities of the book seem like, maybe not by 2024, but if things continued down the path they’re currently on, they don’t seem outside the realm of possibility. Which is terrifying. But also interesting, how these were concerns of Butler in 1993, and they probably receded over the last 20 years, and now they’re back at the front of the world’s agenda.

Anyway, I truly enjoyed reading both books. If a novel’s power is in the suspension of disbelief, then both books did an astounding job doing so. At no point in this science fiction did I think – this is science fiction. The reason these aren’t on the Must Read, though, is because I didn’t feel hugely connected to the characters. Lauren herself has an almost detached voice (maybe because of her hyperempathy in the book, the way she dictates and thinks tries to be as distanced as possible) and people kept dying and getting hurt; I found it difficult to stay very connected to any one character, even her. Obviously it was well written, so when a young child or a man get shot or something, you do feel that quite keenly, but it never felt like I was personally invested in what they were going through. But I feel like that might have been on purpose, I’m not sure. It was still fantastic.

29-30/17 Parable of the Sower and Sequel

28/17 Allegedly

By Tiffany Jackson

This is another book I found on your Kindle. It features Mary B. Addison, who allegedly killed a little white baby when she was 9 years old. Flash forward to when she has been transferred from ‘baby jail’ to a group home.

Now, you’ve probably already read this. But I found this book so straightforward to read, in the sense of 1. the writing being so clear, using AAVE, and from the point of view from a teenager so simple, and 2. in that it led so clearly from one point to the next that you just did not want to stop. It pulled at my heart without trying to. In fact, the parts where she’s the most detached and apathetic are the most sympathetic, because she’s a girl who gets pregnant, but is trapped in a system which gives her absolutely no way out. It’s incredible insight into a system I don’t know much about, and also very affirmatively looks at black women’s friendships and support systems. I though the final chapter was a huge thrill – some people wouldn’t like it, but I loved it. I think I actually yelled.

28/17 Allegedly