Thursday, 31 May 2012

Before I go to sleep: Review


Before I go to sleep
SJ Watson
Published in 2011
Published by Transworld Publishers
ISBN: 9780552164139

What are we if not the collection of all our memories. What is the point of life if not to collect these golden (and occasionally not so golden) snapshots and home movies that play in our minds. Surely the reward for age is that feeling of warmth that washes over us when we recall the day we met a cherished friend, or spent the afternoon chatting with our now deceased grandparents. Albert Camus famously once said that “Life is a sum of all your choices.” Our past shapes us in all sorts of different ways, making us the person we see staring back at us from the other side of the mirror. What would life be if we lost the ability to recall this past?

Christine is an amnesiac. Every morning she wakes up to find a strange man in her bed and the shocking realisation that she is at least 20 years older than she thought. An accident in her late twenties has rendered her ability to store newly created memories useless and so every single day she struggles to make sense of the life she has been living since that day. An old scrapbook of photographs and the patience of her husband, Ben, are what buoys Christine through these terrible mornings until one day she awakes to find a disturbing entry in the daily journal she has been keeping as part of her rehabilitation: Don't trust Ben.

The race to discover the truth about her relationship with Ben is what gives this book its punch – is Ben truly untrustworthy or is it purely Christine's inability to remember anything that has caused her to question him? It's a fast-paced thriller that keeps the reader engaged and wanting more, but it's not only the question of Ben that keeps the pages turning, it's whether Erica will be able to recover her ability to remember. Memory is a mysterious and ethereal concept that has a hold over all of us and the thought that we could maybe lose it, as Christine has done, is horrifyingly gripping. And it's not just a great premise for a work of fiction – this novel was inspired by those who deal with these challenges in real life. If this subject of amnesia interests you, I would recommend that you seek out Forever Today: A memoir of love and amnesia by Deborah Wearing.

I would recommend this one for the summer reading list – nothing helps a long wait in the airport terminal better than a good bit of fiction in your hands. It's not perfect and there are times when your suspension of disbelief will be stretched (especially if you've got anything more than a passing interest in memory disorders and neurological capabilities) but if you can put that to one side and just enjoy the journey this book will take you on, I doubt you will be disappointed. We all need a bit of escapism from time to time, after all!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer: Review

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Published in 2009
ISBN: 0316069906

Can you handle the truth? It seems that I can't.

For a long time, I have been bothered by this vague notion that the fact that I eat meat does not entirely jive with the fact that I am not only an animal lover but one of those people who refuses to even kill a cockroach. This isn't for any religious or ideological reason. It's just that I am a huge softie. I want to adopt all stray dogs. And cats. And some of the squirrels in our local park. Of course I can't do this. I am bound by the necessary constraints of a thing called reality (and the protestations of my incredibly patient husband) which dictate that one large dog within one smallish apartment is quite enough.

Reality bites. But I had no idea exactly how hard it would bite me when I borrowed this book from the library. I mean, let's all be honest. Those of us who choose to eat meat rationally know, somewhere in a dark corner of our minds, that an animal had to die for us to be tucking into the juicy steak/ bucket of deep fried wings/ meat pie in front of us. Obvious stuff. Even further back, we probably acknowledge that given the world population and the existence of places called 'meat works' that this process is not likely to be very gentle or even totally humane. But for me, this acknowledgement was pushed way way back behind lots of disused boxes and debris to the darkest annex of my mind called Denial. Cognitive dissonance - the process of two totally opposing views living side by side in one person's headspace. Something has to give.

So why on earth did I decide to read this book? Or at least, attempt to read it because I should be very honest with you all right now: I could not finish this book. I guess it was because I wanted to face the truth. To test my meat eating. To see if I could handle the facts of where our meat comes from.

Test result: Abject failure.
Real life result: I can no longer eat chicken that has been processed through a meat works.

The big problem is that the people I live with are avid carnivores and I need to be able to continue to at least cook with chicken. My proposed compromise on this issue is that I am going to attempt to change the source of the chicken meat. Living, as I do, in a country where I don't speak very much of the language, certainly not enough to engage in any meaningful debate about the whys and wherefores of the origin of any meat with any shop vendor, this is not going to be easy. However, my plan is to try to get my meat from the traditional markets. They have live chickens at the market and they will kill them for you on the spot. Although this may not sound like much of a compromise to some people out there, trust me if you had read the description that I had of how chickens are slaughtered on masse, you might change your mind.

You see, in all honesty, I still want to eat meat. I enjoy it (don't judge!) But now I want to eat meat in a way that causes the least amount of suffering to the animals that end up on my plate. So a quick, individualized kill at the market seems to me, at this stage, to be a better death than one at the processing plant. And I should be woman enough to look my future chicken soup in the eye before I eat it right? We shall see how I really feel about this when I scrape together the courage to actually do this in a few days.

Although I do feel bad that I wasn't able to finish the whole book, but I think that as far as what it's aim was: to make its reader seriously consider their relationship with the food they eat, it succeeded. I'd like to think that Mr. Foer will forgive me for not making it to the last page in light of the adjustments I am making in what and how I eat.

This isn't one of those books that you can recommend or not. It's something that I feel probably every single person should read, at the very least so that they an make some informed decisions about what they put in their mouths every day. It is a hard read, but Jonathan Safran Foer is an excellent writer who makes the topic engaging, thought provoking and best of all, not preachy or guilt inducing. I couldn't handle the whole truth but I don't regret that I have been exposed to it.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: Review

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
By Beth Hoffman
Published in 2012
Published by Abacus
ISBN: 978-0-349-00018-3
(Great Britain edition)

Some of us jokingly worry about turning into our parents.  It might sneak up on us one day as we are scolding our kids, or during a conversation with friends all of a sudden something will pop out of our mouths that sounds exactly like them.  The echoes of our parents' influence may be unexpected, but for most of us it wouldn't be unwelcome.  But for CeeCee Honeycutt, recognizing echoes of her mother within herself is her worst nightmare, and something which has haunted her every day since she read in a book that psychosis may be inherited.

CeeCee has grown up as the sole caretaker for her irretrievably mentally ill mother.  Her father, unable to face up to the realities of his marriage, has retreated into his work and is barely ever home, leaving CeeCee to bear the brunt of her mother’s unstable moods and wild antics.  Old before her time and robbed of her childhood and all semblance of normality, CeeCee turns to her beloved books and her elderly neighbor, Mrs Odell, for solace and a place of respite.  But when she is twelve years old, her already chaotic world is thrown into further disarray when her mother makes a dramatic exit from her life at the beginning of the summer holidays.

As a result, CeeCee is uprooted from all she has ever known and whisked away to Savannah, Georgia, by her Great Aunt Tootie.  CeeCee's new world could not be more different from her old life.  She has been transplanted into the warm, pillowy comfortable place dominated by a cast of fabulous female characters.  It is within this world that CeeCee starts her slow journey towards recovery from the damage done by her childhood and learns the simple joys of friendship and stability.  

 
Although CeeCee's life with her mother reads as a gritty portrayal of what it is like to live with a mentally unbalanced parental figure, her life in Georgia reads more like a fairy tale, a young girl's fantasy escape story writ large.  Life in 1970s Georgia isn't perfect, and the racial issues of the time do make an appearance, but more as side concerns to the main storyline.  While some may find this optimistic turn of events to be problematically unrealistic, I personally found it fitting.  After the brutality of CeeCee's life in Ohio, the magic of Savannah was welcome relief and an utterly charming place within which to spend some time.  This novel achieves a balanced mix of opening pathways into conversations about the serious issue of mental illness while at the same time allowing for a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

Taipei International Book Exhibition 2012

If there are two words that excite my soul it is "Book" and "Exhibition" being uttered in the same sentence. Last year I wasn't paying close enough attention and I missed it, so this year I was determined to go. I set up my Google Alert in March last year. It worked.

Not knowing quite what to expect I bowled up with fellow book enthusiast, Catherine. She had horror stories from the previous year of having to beat a path through rabid credit card reps so we had decided to combine forces. Luckily for us, this year there were no such reps so we were free to browse in relative peace - you know, as much peace as an exhibition hall can really offer.

As awesome and fantastic as a whole hall filled with books sounds, in reality I find it a little disorienting. There's something about the bright lights and people thrusting pamphlets into your hand that can really put a bookworm off her stride. After two and a half years of living in Asia, you'd think I would be better at the whole "crowd" thing but the truth is I'm not nearly as good as I should be. Especially where buying books is concerned. It's a sensory overload - there are just so many books and not nearly enough time.

Which is not meant to sound like a complaint - it's really not. The opportunity to look at so many English language books all at the same time was really magnificent and there were some really fabulous displays of stationery and arts and crafts related stuff. I ended up purchasing Solar by Ian McEwan and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, two books which have been on my "Strongly Desired" mental list for quite some time. I think next time I will set aside more time for this whole experience. I think it's something I'll do in stages next year and now I know what to expect, I can go in with a clearer idea of what I want to achieve.


Saturday, 4 February 2012

Favourite Sentences VIII

Butterflies sailed across the open field, and the air was tinged with the sweet smell of peaches and warm earth. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, letting the scents travel through my body. I was in the middle of an accidental kind of happiness that made me grateful for having a nose. 
From Saving CeeCee Honeycutt
Beth Hoffman
Page 234

It's summertime and joy on the page. I absolutely love the way that reading this made me feel.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Buddha in the Attic: Review


The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published in 2011
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-70046-9

I purchased this book myself for the purposes of book club. 

What possesses someone to pack up everything they own and move to a country they have never been to before, especially when they don't speak very much of the language nor understand very much of the culture of their destination country? Necessity? A dream of a better life? Wanderlust? Love? For the group of young Japanese women in this novel it was a bit of everything. They were to be married to men who they had only heard about through written letters and a single photograph. Leaving their lives, their families, their culture and their comfort zone, they set out across the ocean for America. When they arrived the reality that faced them was devastatingly different to their hopes and expectations.

Through first person plural narration, Otsuka presents the collective experiences of these women, divided thematically by significant events – from their first night as wives to childbirth to their removal from the towns and cities along the Pacific coast during World War Two. As a result of this narrative style and thematic organization there isn't a traditional plot with a beginning middle and an end. Rather the experience of reading the stories of many comes to be almost like a meditation on lives past. The choice to present this material in this way is a wise one, I think, as to do anything other than present the simple facts could create a potential emotional overload for the reader. This is not only because of the number of different perspectives and stories but also because of the confronting nature of the content within.

I remember very clearly the first time I discovered that Japanese Americans and Canadians had been removed from their homes and livelihoods during the Second World War when I read Obasan by Joy Kogawa for a postgraduate trauma literature paper. I'd had no idea that this kind of thing had happened and to be honest, I was shocked by what I learned. It hadn't mattered if these people had lived there half of their lives, or if they had been born there and were therefore citizens – in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coastline and housed them in war interment camps inland. Like I said – it's confronting stuff. But let's forget for a moment all of the why's and the wherefores of this decision. Let's hold off on the pointing of fingers and the placement of blame and guilt and focus on what it is that Otsuka is telling us to do – to listen to the voices that couldn't be heard back then.

These voices are not only of the Japanese who were interred but also of their neighbors who were very much affected by their removal. The last chapter is written from the perspective of these neighbors which shows that at first they were worried, upset and guilty about the way the Japanese had been treated. But as time passes and new stores open in place of Mr. Harada's grocery or the Imanashi Transfer, and the Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry notices fade and blow away with a stronger breeze than usual, so too do the feelings and the memories. People move on. It seems cold but it is after all, human nature to let go of things that do not continue to affect you on a daily basis. Especially when your country is about to become involved in the worst war this world has ever seen.

Otsuka's novella is an attempt to reestablish these lost stories and assure their place within the narrative of America's history. As the title suggests, it is time for it to be taken down out of the attic, dusted off and examined, honestly and with an open heart and mind. As with many novels that deal with subjects of uncomfortable moments in history this is not an uplifting read. It presents us, the present day reader, with a slice of a time gone by told through the imagined voices of those who experienced it. It's a tale of belonging, of inner strength, of cultural struggles and of real life. It's a timely reminder of how far we have come in this world, but also, perhaps, how much further we have yet to go.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sunday Salon: Making peace with Kindle

The Kindle... The end of all real books???!!
"You kids with e-readers! Get off my lawn!"

That's basically what my 2009 post about the digital revolution in reading sounded like. I was the crochety old lady who was more than happy with her good old-fashioned paper books, thank you very much. All this gumph about new-fangled devices for reading, I huffed. I had no need for such shenanigans.... Did I?

By early 2011, I had softened considerably. It wasn't that I was against e-readers you see, I just preferred the entire reading experience. I'm one of those people who unashamedly sniffs books. I buy notebooks when I have no need for them. I like the way paper feels between my fingers. The clinical diagnosis, were I to get one, would likely be Severe Paperphilia. A diagnosis I embrace wholeheartedly - but the question that kept nagging in the back of my mind was, did my love affair with paper necessarily have to be so tightly linked to my love of the written word?

This question was answered at the end of last year, when my beloved husband bought me an iPad for Christmas. This gift came at a time in my life where reading for pleasure had become nearly non-existent due to the required reading necessary for the thesis which had taken up nearly all of my time and severely depleted my reading mojo. It was also a matter of timing - when I was thesis-free (that is, out of my house) and had the mental space for reading I was typically on some form of public transport or at a loose end somewhere. I had fallen out of the habit of carrying a book with me in my bag, for some reason but now, the iPad would be with me pretty much all the time.

Casually, I downloaded the Kindle App. I looked up. Checked behind me. No-one was screaming. I didn't hear any bookstores bursting into flames in the near vicinity. Excellent. Now, to find something to read. I downloaded Book of Mercy - an appropriate title, given my feelings about this whole foray into digital reading.

It was brilliant - not just the book but the whole experience. From click-to-buy to ready-to-read took all of 10 seconds. This is no small thing when, living where I do, the acquisition of books is not an easy task. The closest bookstore with a reasonably decent selection of English language books is a 15 minute bus ride away from my home and the one with the best selection is over an hour away by bus in Taipei. Ordering books online is easy but means waiting for two or more weeks for the books to arrive. Given this, I'm sure you can see why the immediacy of this appeals so much!

My swagload of real books (Image credit: Kath Liu)
Aside from that, the thing I worried about the most was the reading experience. Would it feel cold? Would it be uncomfortable holding an electronic device in my hands rather than a book? It certainly wasn't the same, but there were a couple of unexpected benefits, including the dictionary search function which helped me out on a few occasions as I read Game of Thrones. Highlight a word and its definition helpfully appears at the bottom of the screen. Further, I could add notes or highlight without feeling like I was committing the carnal sin of writing on a book. In fact, the only major downside was the constant distractions from email, Facebook and Twitter notifications. When you're deep into a dramatic moment, the last thing you need to know is that Bob Jones "Liked" your photograph. Easy solution: disconnect from the internet.

So there it is. Who knew. The Digital Dissenter has been turned and having access to e-books has shattered my reading slump. I have embraced the positives of this new way of reading and ceased worrying about my beloved physical book - I reckon those babies are going to be around in this world for a lot longer than I will, and I ain't planning on going anywhere for a good while yet.

And just to make sure, I bought myself a swagload of real books - and delightedly sniffed each and every one of them. Bliss.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Sunday Salon: The secret shame of unfinished books





It's confession time. In the last few years since I have had a full workload of both thesis and editing/writing work, I have been a serial non-completer of books. Not bad books. Not because I didn't like them. Not because they were unworthy. Purely because I would get distracted, put it aside, then forget which book I was actually working on and so pick up another. In this fashion, I have left a trail of many partially read books in my wake and quite frankly, I think it's time I put a stop to it.

Just as an aside, I have completed plenty of books during this time also - don't get me wrong. I do have at least enough attention span to complete most of the books I set out to read. But still. There is a noticeable issue here that I feel the need to address. The first step is admitting I have a problem.

Hi, my name is Kath and I'm a serial non-completer.

The next step is to map out a plan of recovery. Below is a list of the seven previously abandoned books I will complete during the year of 2012. I will complete these books despite the myriad shiny new books that come my way, beckoning invitingly. I will complete them despite having to read others for Book Club. I will complete them because they deserve it - they're damn good books and I was enjoying them until... well you know.

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
2. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
5. Possession by A.S. Byatt
6. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Has anyone else had this problem? I'll bet no-one has. I know my audience - the dedication and reading pace of the book blogging community impresses me no end! But if you're out there, fellow non-completer, speak up and join me on the Quest of Completion for 2012. [Edit: looks like I'm not alone! Jillian over at A Room of One's Own has set up a challenge specifically to deal with this problem. Trot on over there and join in!]

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Dirty Parts of the Bible: Review

The Dirty Parts of the Bible
By Sam Torode
Published by CreateSpace
Published in March 23, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-1450567633

I purchased this book myself. As an ebook. Again. I know!

Bad: Your parents have a massive row one night which leads to your father getting fantastically drunk and crashing his car into the side of the local church. He is thrown clear but a bird poops on his face whilst he is passed out leaving him blinded.

Worse: Your father is also the Pastor of that church.

Tobias Henry is the only child of an evangelical Baptist pastor father and long suffering mother living in Remus, Michigan. Although he has been raised in the church he has always had questions about the apparent contradictions within the Bible. His father is of the Bible as a literal document of Fact school of thought who (before his extraordinary fall from grace) preached that sex was vile and sinful and that alcohol is temptation from the Devil. How come then, Tobias wonders, are there all these references in the Bible to turning water into wine and some passages that talk of breasts? Having been involved in the Baptist church for a couple of years when I was a teenager, these are questions echo ones I also had, although I was far less concerned than Tobias about the sexual aspects of the Good Book! In the end, it was partially the failure to find answers that satisfied me that was responsible for me deciding that formal religion wasn't a good fit for me.

With these questions in his mind and a need to find a way to support his family now that his father had been thrown out of the the ministry pushing him along, Tobias sets off to Texas. His father has told him of an abandoned well on his family's farm where he hid some money many years before. Thus commences a journey of discovery and learning, guided by the unlikely character of Craw, a homeless man whom Tobias befriends along the way.

What I really connected to within this story was Craw's take on the Bible. He claims that taking the Bible literally is to miss its point entirely, that the meanings of the stories within the Bible are layered within, only found after some digging and thought. This whole idea reminded me of a discussion I had with one of my oldest NZ friends when she visited me here in Taiwan recently about Christianity. Her take is that it is not about judgement or trying to be perfect, rather it is about Grace and faith that what you believe in will ultimately be your salvation. This is an explanation which really struck a chord with me and one I wished far more people shared.

This book is a quick and fun read whilst also giving you something to chew over once you reach the final page. It's a classic coming of age tale with a twist of mysticism with a dash of romance thrown in. If you're looking for a light read with a bit of substance to it, this is a good pick.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Endings and beginnings...

What happens when you chain yourself to your desk for a whole month in a desperate attempt to get your thesis written? Well, a thesis, apparently. That and a lot of coffee drinking, which of course aided the cause. I have completed the thirty one days of concentrated writing which I dubbed Thesis Month with three chapters (an introduction, one on DeLillo's Falling Man and one on Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist) which total around 22,000 words, 16,000 of which were written in the last month alone. I still have one more chapter (on McEwan's Saturday) plus a conclusion and all of the suggested revisions from my supervisors to write over the next 20 days but the end is in sight and it looks like it is going to be possible.

This thesis will be, by far, the longest single piece of writing I have ever done. Normally I churn out blog posts or articles that are 1,200 words in length without too much difficulty but despite my love of writing, there has always been this weird mental barrier in my head when it comes to writing anything very much longer. Especially something with chapters. Locking myself away for a month has made me realise, though, that what all of the best writers have said is true: Writing is work and you just have to keep showing up at your desk every day until you get it done. Previously I had tended to be one of those "write when inspiration hits" types which, you can imagine really doesn't work so well when there are strict deadlines and academic penalties involved. Anyway, two more months and this thing will be submitted and I will be free of tertiary study for the first time in 12 years! The possibilities of what I will do with the extra time are endless including reading what I want, whenever I want, purely for the hell of it. Heaven is just around the corner.

In other news, I have been given an exciting new job. The place where I work, The Community Services Center in Taipei, has an English language lifestyle magazine aimed at the international community living in Taipei and beyond. Recently, the editor who had been doing a fabulous job of looking after this magazine decided that she was going to step down and to my absolute joy my boss asked me if I would like to consider doing it. Of course I accepted, joyfully and with many fist-pumps. I have just started work on my first issue due out in February. Yet another reason to get this thesis done and dusted so I can focus my attentions on this new project, also known as My Dream Job.

Once I have got the thesis out of the way I will be spending some time thinking about the direction I want to take this blog in and being more committed to writing it on a regular basis. I have been having a few thoughts about what kinds of books I want to spend my time reading and also thoughts about how much Taiwan I want to include here. But I want to finalise one commitment before I take on another to ensure that both get the love and attention they need. It's almost like I can't really and truly celebrate the new year until I finish the thesis because I can't make new goals and resolutions until I have. But that's OK - it just gives me another reason to pop a cork on a bottle of something a bit special at the end of the February!

I hope you're all well and have had a wonderful Festive Season with your loved ones and that 2012 will be a fantastic year for you. Also I want to thank you for bearing with me during this period of blogging silence - I even gained a few new followers which I am most grateful for. Happy New Year!