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book

I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. Maybe for once it’s really not me that’s at fault. Maybe it’s The 2012 Best American Short Stories collection that I have been reading. I have cried suddenly and uncontrollably over several passages. None of them were overtly sentimental. Certainly for a collection of this caliber you would not expect a blatant tearjerker. Melodramas are considered to be uncouth and frown upon. Perhaps it’s the understatement, the deliberate nonchalance that tricked me into reacting to them so violently on a subconscious level. An unadorned sentence described in passing the disjointed human interactions plainly yet accurately so much so that I had to pause to feel it inside the hollow of my body. I caught my breath as I caught the profound sadness.

Then, while she is sitting on the toilet, she sinks into the special sorrow of peeing while your mother is out cold on the floor next to you.

She dreams vividly, then can’t call up the dreams on waking, but carries through the day their emotional tone, an echo from the blackout chasm of Darlyn’s free fall. She can hear her soft scream as she tumbles down again and again. This is the harrowing/fabulous form in which love has come to her.

From “The Last Speaker of the Language” by Carol Anshaw, originally appeared in New Ohio Review, which you could read here.

And then the tears came.

The tears came unrelentingly. They flowed with little effort and I was amazed at how much water was stored behind my eyes. The gentle, continuous flow made me wonder whether I was indeed crying. I sat there, with tears falling in silence, until I was caught by an urge to just give in.

Let it out. I said to myself. Just bawl your eyes out. Fling yourself on the bed and bury your face into a pillow. You know, the way you cried when you were a kid. When you broke your favorite porcelain doll that played Für Elise when you wound the knob on the bottom. Or when you came home from school after yet another day of nobody making eye contact. Or when you missed your parents while you were staying at a relative’s house and your cousin was being a brat and was mean to you.

When was the last day I had a good cry like that I don’t even remember.

I had not anticipated the tears as I opened up my Kindle after the plane took off. Something caught on the edge of my neurosis I guess and I simply came undone. At first I ignored the tears and wiped them away surreptitiously with my fingers. Again and again. I stopped reading and closed my eye, willing the deluge to stop. Still the tears continued. I wanted to stay away from clichés such as broken faucet, waterfall, fire hose, but really these would be the most effective way of making you understand the trouble I was having, sitting on a packed plane.

I tilted my head towards the window and angled my body away from the person next to me, worrying that the telltale movement of wiping my face with the heels of my palms would give me away. I soon discovered that not wanting to cry on a plane is very much like not wanting to cough in a movie theatre: Alas, your needing to control it somehow only makes the urge uncontrollable and worse.

Next I was heaving for air. My shoulders trembled. My chest rose and fell. My hands moved like windshield wipers.

I hope nobody notices what a mess I am.

On the other hand, I was wishing someone would have handed me a Kleenex.

I would have started bawling. So it’s probably good that nobody did.

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Books. I am talking about books here. Books made with paper (or if you are so inclined, dead trees). Although I do also love the feel and smell of new, crisp, uncirculated bills.

I have been very happy with my Kindle (which I named Marvin) esp. when I was trudging through 1Q84 in all its 944-page glory. It was a blessing to not have to log that book around for several months. (I did say I “trudged through” it…)

But I miss holding an actual paper book in my hand, feeling its heftiness of promisses and anticipation. I miss wandering amongst the library aisles picking up random books because, I confess, the book covers look interesting or the book titles sound intriguing, like a mystery waiting for you to solve.

These are chance encounters of the best kind.

 

IMG 20120722 143325 600x600 That feeling of paper between your fingers

 

You all know Chuck Palahniuk of Fight Club fan, and I know quite a few are rabid fans. How apropos was that I picked up this book from the shelf as I was pondering the enjoyment of feeling papers between my fingers that no technology can replace. In his re-introduction to the re-publication of Invisible Monsters (now dubbed Remix), he said that he wanted to do this book the right way, the way he envisioned it when he wrote the book a decade ago, inspired by his strange encounter with a Vogue magazine (What? No page numbers? And they make you jump back and forth to finish reading an article?)

I really love what he said about his desire to recreate that feeling of holding a hefty Sears catalogue in your hands, not knowing what’s inside, and every time when you randomly flip through the pages, you find something you’ve not seen yet. Full of surprises, promises of surprises.

Chuck Palahniuk Invisible Monsters Remix 600x600 That feeling of paper between your fingers

 

Don’t worry my dear readers. I am not imaging this post to be a book review or something. I suck at that. What I am good at though is to MARVEL at the brilliantness of people and things that I encounter, and at the randomness of such discoveries. There was no reason other than serendipity that led me to pick up This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor and scanned through the first few pages. Once started, I was compelled to sit down in the comfy chair and read half of the book while in the library.

I don’t know how to describe the book. It suffices to say that Mr. McGregor is stingy when it comes to word count. But what he accomplishes in as few words as possible is unsettling and seething, the most disturbing kind of malice. I am still haunted by a few of the stories, wondering what happens next?

Brevity is the trademark throughout the book. The story, The Remains, is only 3-page long… The repetition of simple phrases brought chills down my spine. I have been wondering how one could visually, as in a film, convey this feeling so succinctly.

The Remains 600x474 That feeling of paper between your fingers

 

And for my stream of thoughts, conveniently, he is also fond of playing with syntax, and more, using the page as his canvas (apology for using such a cliche. I told you I suck at writing reviews…)

Could eBooks faithfully represent pages such as this?

IMG 20120722 144321 436x600 That feeling of paper between your fingers

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Apparently many of my friends from my “real life” LOVE The Help. Love it. They are telling people on Facebook to “GO SEE THE HELP. RUN. NOT WALK!” including a dear dear friend who studied and wrote about Apartheid in South Africa. As I ponder how much I should share my perspectives with her at the risk of hurting her feelings and alienating her, I re-read my post from January 20. 2010, and nope, my view has not changed. Since the movie adaptation is receiving rave reviews all over and I have not seen my Anglo-Saxon lady friends so enthusiastic about a movie with an African American lead since The Blind Side (yes please argue why the African American characters are at most CO-lead, and you’ll be right in my book), I feel compelled to share this post from almost 2 years ago again.

Or, actually, skip this post entirely and go read My Brown Baby‘s post “I Was the Help —- and My Experience Taught to Dream Big“. If you have been reading my blog and liking what you have been reading, I have a feeling that you are going to appreciate very very much what Denene Millner, the autohor, has to say about the book, the movie and the reception of it. Peace out.

 

REPOSTED from January 20, 2010

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. I am not even making any coherent argument, not to mention grammatical errors! Run-on sentences! totally exposing myself as a feeble-minded person. Even the title spells “MEH”.

That being said, I feel this pathological need to be on the record, I guess. Since I have been treating this blog as my diary, I want everything that comes out of my head to be on here. So, sorry about this… mental puke…

I brought the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett with me on my flight back home last December. I have had the whole flight between IAD and Narita to ponder on this book. I won’t even attempt at writing a review since I am really not qualified to do so. And at any rate, there are already more than 1,400 reviews on Amazon.com. Furthermore, all the book reviewers in the major news outlets have done so and waxed poetic on this book, with one of them comparing The Help to To Kill A Mocking Bird.* I will just make a list of things that I have been chewing on. By Tap Tap Tap on my iPhone (without a SIM) and therefore heavy editing involved thereafter.

Spoiler alert: If you are thinking of reading this book, you should skip this. I will also be 100% honest with myself, which means I will be contradictory, at times nonsensical, and possibly offending, especially if you love the book.

Confession first: I enjoyed reading this book tremendously. Cliché, yes. Truth is: it IS a page turner. For me. From the moment when I opened it in August when I first received it, I could not completely put Aibileen out of my head until the Christmas week, when I finally had time to sit down and read the book in long stretches.

The stories are riveting. The voices are, as much as I hate using this word because it is often confused with “stereotypical”, or at the very least “archetypal”, the voices sound to me “authentic”. That is, when I was reading it, when I was caught up in the drama of the story that was being expertly told, when I was kept in suspense as to the safety of the women, when I was hoping with clenched fists and a racing hear that they would triumph over evil and that justice would be done. Well, justice be done to a certain extent, in the strict confines of the story-telling.

Now I ask myself: How many Southerners do I know? None.

Do I know any African American domestic help? Nope.

What do I know about Southern dialects and accents? Not a thing.

So what do I know about whether the book is “authentic” or not? Hasn’t this always been the gripe I have against books like Memoirs of a Geisha? That a fiction novel, on account of its main characters being of a non-white race, is evaluated and praised for delivering an “authentic” portrayal. Do we even care whether Dan Brown’s characters are authentic or not?

Damn the identity politics theories I read, classes I took.

I cannot help, in the back of my mind, though I immensely enjoyed the stories of these women, that a white woman took possession of the black women’s stories twice, especially after I read Kathryn Stockett’s personal note at the end of the book: like Skeeter in the story, Stockett wrote the black women’s stories and gained wild success.

I understand the above statement reeks of identity politics, but I cannot help the gnawing feelings in the back of my head.

What bothers me even more is Skeeter’s cajoling, forcing almost, these women into telling her their stories because she was told that she needed to write something that nobody had ever written before in order to get into the publishing world. Throughout I was extremely uncomfortable with her motive: next to the all too real risk to the black women’s lives, her motif seems so trivial. Selfish even. What is the potential downside for her engagement in this feat? None too serious really. And indeed, there was a happy ending for Skeeter. But for Minnie and Aibileen the future remained uncertain.

Although I do wish something horrible would happen to the wrong-doers and was a bit let down when it didn’t, I do applaud the author for not cheapening the story by taking the easy way out. They are still in the mid 1960s in Mississippi and it is not like they are going to all of a sudden find true equality by the end of the book. I need to give the author props for not providing her White readers with an easy cathartic way to assuage the white guilt. “The villain that caused such misery is dead/appropriately punished, all is well in the universe. Now get on with your merry life.”

As I mentioned, the book received gleaming reviews. From White book reviewers. This could be racist on my part, and certainly identity politics at its worst as some might say, nevertheless, I feel I NEED TO know how an African American reader may feel about this book. NOT because a white woman from a privileged family in the South wrote this book, but because, again, despite my immense enjoyment of this book, and yes indeed I feel guilty for liking this book when I started wondering how my friends back in my graduate study classes would have said about this book, I cannot ignore the conflation of the tropes: 1. the White heroine being rescued, or finding self-realization, through Black folks around her that she does not socialize with, 2. Black people, unable to help or save themselves, being rescued by a White person.

I imagine this book already optioned by a movie studio. Or soon will be. Anyway you look at it, it IS going to be a great vehicle for some of the outstanding African American actresses, and god only knows how hard it is for a good script with a strong minority character lead to make it all the way to some head honcho’s desk. I do hope that the script and the actor that portrays Leroy would breathe some more life into him rather than the one-dimensional wife-beater. When in doubt, we reach for the things we share as women: abusive husbands, cheating boyfriends, sexist Chauvinistic patriarchs. In that process, our men are further demonized. Joy Luck Club immediately comes to mind. I can’t watch that movie without cringing. Not a single man in that movie is worthy of loving. Is it why it was accepted by the white mainstream audience? “Poor Asian women. They are so much better off over here. Away from their men.”

When The Blind Side came out, and the Internet was all abuzz about what a feel good movie it was, it immediately raised the mental red flag for me. “Feel good” means, to me, “Not for you. You are probably not the target audience/reader. Stay home. Otherwise you won’t feel good.”

I asked an African American columnist whether she planned to see the movie,

“No. We don’t consider that movie an attractive idea.” She said coyly.

* The surest way to incite heated debate against the worth of any book is to compare it to the beloved To Kill a Mocking Bird… So if you hate someone, yeah, go ahead and compare them to Harper Lee.

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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

November 14, 2010 a picture is worth a thousand words

I went to an actual Brick-and-Mortar bookstore today. This is a rare occasion ever since Amazon.com was founded in 1995. (I still remember when I first heard about it. “What a stupid name?! Who would buy books online?! And why would I want to buy their stocks?!”) I do enjoy going to the book stores in real […]

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A Night with David Sedaris

October 24, 2010 through the looking glass

When I learned that David Sedaris is on a tour for his new book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, I knew I had to do something. I checked his agent’s website and saw that he would be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a book reading, in addition to book signing. Since I did not think […]

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Do you know what you are reading to your children?

February 26, 2010 no manual for parenting

Do you really know? I mean, really really? Do you know what you are reading them and how they are hearing what you are reading them?… I was browsing through the Costco “magazine” (what sadly passes as reading material for me nowadays) in bed when my oldest came to snuggle with sit by me. Not […]

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Wanker Wednesday: My problems with “The Help”

January 20, 2010 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

I probably don’t need to publish this post on my blog. It is not appealing. It is not good writing. It will not make you laugh out loud. It is not even a proper rant. Besides, it is friggin’ long – I am amazed at how much I tapped out on my iPhod, and tedious. […]

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Live squid is not part of the standard diet in China, or Asia for that matter

August 13, 2009 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

Once in a while I get all riled up with my mouth foaming like a rabid dog. My irrational anger especially loves a good target of Stereotype Mongers and Exoticism Panderers. This is that kind of moment. PMS. Whatever. The target of my rant today is this book: Lost on Planet China: The Strange and […]

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“Raw information will become not just a commodity, it will be a nuisance”

August 11, 2009 imho is just a polite way to say I know you don't give a hoot what I think but I'm going to say it anyway

Chris and Malcolm are both wrong… The title says. Once in a while I come across smart people (online only, since you know, we moms are notoriously boring and mundane in real life, and many may even suspect that we have few braincells left so we don’t get engaged in intelligent conversations, in real life […]

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