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 my wonderful husband is an avid carnivore 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. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Pancakes, coffee and the importance of traditions

Pancakes with lemon and sugar. Bliss.
Credit: Here
When I was a kid, there was one day on the calendar that would excite me nearly as much as Christmas: Pancake Day. Also known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent which is a period of ritual fasting prior to Easter. It was also the magical day when, as kids, we would come home to have stacks of pancakes for dinner, doused in golden syrup or laced with lemon juice and brown sugar. Some of the most vivid memories I have from childhood are of this day and so it has always had a special significance to me.

When we moved to New Zealand, however, Pancake Day ceased to be as important as it had been back in England. The family tradition trailed off and one of my favourite days of the year became a childhood memory. I'm not sure exactly why this was - possibly it was a cultural thing and it just wasn't as big a deal in New Zealand. Possibly it was a matter of timing, as our move to NZ coincided with me starting high school, and the attention this day got was kept to the realms of primary school. Possibly it was just that outside of the structure of our home country, certain traditions just seemed less relevant to my parents and so they just let it die a natural, if regrettable, death.

This year, aged 29, I reinstated Pancake Day. As I draw closer to a time where I might start thinking about having kids, I find myself re-evaulating what's important to me and what the value of traditions are. Traditions are what that give our lives structure and meaning. There's something really comforting, to me at least, in knowing that at certain times of the year the same familiar, fun activities will be repeated and living overseas only makes this feeling of comfort even more important - traditions are like a piece of home being reenacted no matter where you might be. I know that I want any (at this point completely hypothetical) children I might have to experience these traditions and the feelings they elicit. I want them to get the best of both sides of their heritage, both British and Taiwanese, with strong Kiwi influences. And so, even though neither hubby nor I are in any way religious, Pancake Day is back.

Forty days and nights without this. Pain.
But you can't have Pancake Day without having Lent. That would just be cheating. For me, Lent is about giving up something that I will really miss as a test of character, not so much the religious aspect of it although I do understand and of course respect that. As a kid I would usually give up chocolate in anticipation of the screeds of chocolate eggs that would appear with Easter, but since I'm not such a big consumer of chocolate anymore, that wouldn't really cut the mustard. I needed to give up something that I desired on a daily basis. Something that I had never successfully given up before: Coffee.

Let me put this into context for those of you who might not understand the gravity of this, although if I listen carefully I can already hear howls of "Whyyyyyy!" from my fellow caffeine lovers. I love coffee. I can't honestly remember a single day in my life where I haven't had some form it it. My preferred brew is black, straight up, although I'm partial to the occasional latte. My first ever email address was This has been a lifelong affair: I didn't have parents who didn't let me drink coffee until I was 16 or 18, so I started young. It started with instant Nescafe, developed further with a high school job at a coffee shop and blossomed from there.

So it really is a pretty big ask to give up this beautiful black nectar for forty entire days and nights. Such a big ask, in fact, that I didn't really tell anyone until now. I had to try it on for a couple of days to make sure I wasn't going to be driven to desperate measures. Happily, on Day Four of the Kathmiesta Decaffeinated project, sanity prevails.... for now. Stay tuned.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Blogging Anniversary Number Five!

Image Source: Here
Five years ago, I timidly tapped out my first ever blog post. I had no clear idea what I wanted this blog to be about beyond the vague but earnest idea that I needed to spend more time honing my writing skills. I wanted to be a writer and as I had been advised in a creative writing course I had just completed at undergraduate level - if I wanted to be a writer then I just had to get on and do it. Talkers talk, they said. Writers write. Which one are you going to be? Looking back at those first few posts makes me feel something half way between a cringe and proud. Re-reading what I wrote I can feel how much younger I was then and how in need of some honing my writing really was. It's kind of like looking at a "Before" photo after you've lost a lot of weight or gotten yourself fit - you can't believe you used to be in that place but you feel good that you've come so far.

This blog started to look less like an online thought bucket and more like a book blog in early 2009. Standing here at the beginning of 2012, it's still a blog about books but the expatriate/cross-cultural side of it is starting to show itself a lot more. At first I worried about that and thought of starting a new blog to house the "Living Overseas" stuff but then I thought - why? There's no rules against me doing both, especially now that I'm less worried (read: not worried at all) about attracting publishers to give me books to review. There have been several really good posts about the state of book blogging floating around lately that have really crystallised what I've been thinking and feeling about this lately, including this one at Estella's Revenge. It's a great read and hits the nail smack bang on the head and if the flood of "Preach it, sister!!" comments are any indication I would say that right now we're in the midst of a bloggy revolution. 

But enough of that for now. This is a birthday party! More balloons, cake and streamers! More happy speeches!

I had no idea, five years ago, that blogging would have taken me to the places it has. I have met a bunch of wonderful, intelligent, insightful, glorious people with whom I feel a real connection. I couldn't believe it when I got one follower who wasn't just a supportive friend. At this stage I have 119 lovely followers which to me is amazing. It's not much compared to some folks but I love it. Every single time I get a new follower, I do a little happy jig. Every time I get a comment notification in my inbox I grin like a maniac. Because it all comes down to the very basic desire I had when I first started this blog: I want people to read what I write. I want to entertain people. If someone comments or follows me, it feels like confirmation that I'm doing something right. And don't even get me started about how I feel if I am reading someone's blog and I notice I am in their blog roll. Then we're talking a victory lap of the entire apartment.

I would like to sincerely thank each and every one of you who takes the time to read this blog. It's YOU who have made the last 5 years such fun and have spurred me to continue on even when I really didn't feel like it anymore. Here's to many more years of writing and entertaining people for all of us!

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.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Sunday Salon: Personal revelations on the page

Have you ever had that moment when you're reading a book and you think to yourself: "This is my life"? Right there, in black and white, printed quietly on the pages resting in your hands are words that cut so close it seems like the author has been reading your diary. Of course we all know that our life experiences are shared by others, but that's not it. It's the experience of reading our closely held emotions, a silently repeated mantra or a never-spoken thought that catches us off guard. It's as if the author has reached through the pages and caught a hold of our hearts. It's both terrifying and utterly liberating. It's not just me - someone else has felt this way too.

Within minutes of picking up Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman, I had read an aspect of my childhood that has affected me so deeply that I can still hear its dark echoes from time to time. There it was on page six:
"She became so unpredictable that I never knew what would be waiting for me when I got home from school - a plate of gooey half baked cookies or muffled sobs leaking from beneath her closed bedroom door."
Even though a good friend who knew I was reading this book had cautioned me that this might happen, it still hit me like a freight train. Even though it's not exactly a closely guarded secret, the emotional facts of the damage that was wreaked on my childhood by mental illness is not something I like to chat openly about. Even as I am typing this I wonder if I will even post this for anyone else to read. The habit of trying to hold it all inside and act as if I've had the most normal life ever is hard to let go but at the same time I know it's kind of stupid. Life is rough sometimes, after all, and most folks have experienced some of that to some extent.

Reading someone else's story that in many ways parallels your own is a release. It opens up doorways to different perspectives on things that you have yourself experienced. Possibly more importantly that any of this, it lifts a veil of shame that shrouds this kind of topic and starts conversations.

This has been a pretty tough post to write. I've nearly deleted it a number of times but my desire to leave the door open for starting these conversations has eclipsed my wariness of being exposed, even though quite frankly I don't think I have really exposed all that much of anything. Reading this book wasn't like reading a carbon copy of my life - the details are vastly diferent but underneath it all, the emotional truths that shyly showed themselves to me as the story progressed have given me pause to think about what has happened in my life, how far I have come and where I have yet to go.

Have you ever had something you struggled with revealed to you through fiction? Or have you ever read a book and recognised something intensely personal explained on the page?

Or, in case any of these questions are a bit too much for a Sunday afternoon, have you read anything good lately?

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.