The Neapolitan novels

This post is dedicated to my fellow Neapolitan sister Disha.

There are few books ever written which, put it simply, rocked your world. Such an experience is by necessity to a reader’s sanity few and far between.

And yet when I started reading My Brilliant Friend, the first of the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante, I already knew it was going to change me, my world, and my words forever. I read the four books in the series about a year ago – practically inhaled them once I got the complex web of characters and relationships down. And it’s one of those experiences where I wish I could erase my memory of it just so I could live it again. For a year I’ve known the impact of these books on me and my worldview but I couldn’t articulate quite properly why they were so life-changing and important, and every effort that put words to paper felt inadequate and cumbersome.

But today I’m trying. Because I’ve been thinking recently about how we can never know what’s going to happen in life. I’d like to think I know everything and can see everything lying ahead, but the truth is the universe is just playing with us as tennis balls. I’m inspired to use the Neapolitan novels as a lens to life just because while the author grasps that wild, unpredictable quality of life, she is able to contain and control it in her narrative – something I’ve never quite experienced, and something I envy.

The Neapolitan novels chronicle the lives and friendship of two girls from a poor neighbourhood in Naples: Elena/Lenu the narrator and her friend Lila. From the beginning, Lila is a force of nature that leads Elena everywhere and Elena is always a step behind, in her studies, in love, in understanding the world. Elena would gladly follow Lila where she leads, yet this also means Elena is always trying to catch up to Lila but will always remain in her shadow, despite the fact that Elena eventually escapes her poverty through education, while Lila becomes trapped in a loveless marriage and the conventions of provincial life.

The story is a traditional bildungsroman so we follow the two characters as they grow up and learn about the caprices of the world, while they try to take what they can from it. While traditional in structure, it’s not traditional in tone. There’s no pot of gold waiting for Pip at the end, or a courageous build up to killing Voldermort. The books follow the natural crest and fall of life as it is, and it’s the most realistic thing I know. There’s no satisfying emotional payoff because life just goes on and on and on.

At the start the reader hopes for these two girls – these brilliant, creative, interesting, girls with so much interiority. We hope they could journey on like other famous characters to get out, get better, especially when Lila (and Elena) show the promise of brilliance which in other novels mean they could have an extraordinary story ahead. Lila is years ahead of her class, and Elena is the most hardworking girl – both deserve exceptionalism. After all, why else are we reading about them?

Yet as the reader keeps going, you realise there is a sense of resignation that permeates the novels. Despite hope, despite education, despite upward mobility, despite class struggle, Ferrante punctures her words with a minimum brick layer of despair. I’m not sure what it is – is it because these characters are female and are therefore not meant to hope/strive for what they want, or is it because these characters are born in the violence of poverty, and much like Gatsby, will never escape that stink? Or is it both?

This sense of inevitable disappointment makes the experience of reading the books an emptying affair. I always close a chapter feeling like my guts were completely dug out. But at the same time, the level of psychological detail in the narrative is so rich that I feel like I’m bursting to the seams in my imagination, almost leading these people’s lives – that this is me. I am Lila. I am Lenu. They are every woman. I am every woman.

While Elena goes away to complete her college education and meets people from more educated and affluent backgrounds, one day she is inspired in an almost torrential rush (in fact by a book Lila herself wrote many years ago) to write a novel and there’s something very female about it that demonstrates what it means to be a woman. She pens down a sexual experience she had on a beach with a man she did not love, a man who thinks he could have his way with any woman, a man she turns to in an act that completes her lack of self-worth, following the most painful rejection by the one Elena actually loved. This act is characterised by a kind of dirty quality – the kind that almost all women can understand because so much of interaction with men still has that dirtiness – just in the way men use women, in the way men treat women as objects just for sex, in the way there is violence in some intimacy, and in the way there is almost always an element of shame to women’s sexuality.

That dirty quality is one other women in the book recognise; when Elena returns home, the other women from her childhood echo her, praise her, for her ‘dirty’ book because they know what it’s like – that Elena has articulated the previously incommunicable. However male intellectuals are embarrassed by Elena’s book or they see it as gratuitous, unimportant and sensationalised. But that’s because there is some element of being a woman that men can never understand, with men as conquerer rather than the conquered, the one acting but never the one being acted on.

As I’ve read in a review, Elena Ferrante is Jane Austen on fire. I have never read a series of books that more accurately portrayed what it means to be a woman in the world, which makes this such a quintessentially female experience that perhaps only women can possibly fully understand the text, just like the women with Elena’s book. But at the same time these books are one of the best ways men can ever hope to get into the minds of women subject to the violence, inequalities, hopes and dreams, and poverty of being female. For any dudebro who says ‘I just don’t understand women’ or ‘women are a mystery’, well, attempt to read Elena Ferrante and you’ll understand.

Another element of the female experience is Elena and Lila’s friendship. That sense of despair I mentioned is also felt in their friendship. It’s one of the best, most complex depiction of a female friendship I’ve read before, and it rings so true. There is so much in the life and death of these friendships. Lenu and Lila were inseparable; they mirrored each other; they supported each other. But at the same time there was comparison and rivalry and envy. I felt at certain points in the novel that we were all Elena; we all wished we were Lila but we could only be Elena. And despite all the ugliness that Lila’s life became, there’s still an inequality there that Elena could never fill.

The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend and I’ve always thought this title referred to Lila as she had so much natural potential which Elena so envied and wanted. But in the end because of Lila’s circumstances and fear, Elena is the one who could complete her education while Lila dropped out of school. And as Elena advanced in her studies, Lila one day tells Elena ‘you’re my brilliant friend’ in the novel, when Lila is using her newly gained husband’s money to help Elena buy her books. It’s a deliberate twist of perspective from the author, but for the characters it was just so. And that’s when I realised that perhaps we all thought we were Elena, and Elena is perhaps enough after all, perhaps even better than Lila. That this circle of envy emblematic of many female friendships is just that: a cycle that should be broken.

Throughout the series, both women rely on each other in a manner of deep love, but also holding each other as the benchmarks of their lives: Elena always comparing herself to the Lila in her mind, who she could have been, and Lila seeing in Elena the life she could have lived, the mother who could have given her children more. On some level it’s almost sick that these women would do this to each other. But at the same time, when these women come together, something electric happens – they bring out the best in each other and they create a force that – no matter how parasitic – pushes them both to move forward in life.

As Malaysian writer Sarah Ngu says, “Lenu and Lila are so primordial in their drives—one hungering for approval, the other for control and stability—and so unchanging throughout the series that, over time, they come off less like two characters and begin to sound more like two warring voices within ourselves. Lenu is the voice that we hear when we wonder, “Was that enough? Am I enough?” while Lila is the voice that hisses back, “What do I care? Fuck them all.” ”

And there seems to be nothing more female than this.

The truth is reading the Neapolitan novels makes me rather depressed about the state of class and gender in the world. While much has changed since the time these girls grew up in Naples, so much is still the same that I almost feel like giving in to that sense of despair.

But what I choose to take away from this complex series of works is that there’s something spellbinding in Ferrante’s writing that bounds us all, and it is this common point from which we must build.

 

 

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2016 Reading Challenge: Water For Elephants

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book I felt like writing about but I finished Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen at 2am last night and the words just flowed out of me. I got the novel on my Nook shortly after I watched Totem by Cirque du Soleil, which was absolutely amazing, and it was fascinating to imagine the life of a circus performer or working man which is entirely different from mine. And how if you’re part of a circus, that’s your whole life. I wikied the whole of Cirque du Soleil’s history that night, but needed more.

I remember watching the Water For Elephants movie trailer starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon years ago, and remember thinking meh. It just felt like yet another typical 1930s story, and Rob Pat held the same expression the entire trailer – sorry dude. But of course the book is different. The book is always different. And so there I was at 2am, voraciously swallowing the book to know every detail.

Water For Elephants is about vet student Jacob Jankowski who jumps a train after tragedy befalls his family and he’s left with nothing. Little did he know the train he jumped was a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth! He’s in for the craziest ride of his life, and the story is framed by 93 year old Jacob who is living in assisted care and trying to hold on to who he is while slipping away, though not without a fight.

The book is known as historical fiction plus romance, and that’s exactly what the book delivers. The details written of the circus, so crazy, so bizarre, so completely extraordinary, were so fantastical that they had to be true, and some of them were. From the hippopotamus paraded in formaldehyde, to Lovely Lucinda, the resident ‘fat lady’ dying prematurely and the circus leader using her death to sell more tickets, the amazing thing about circus life is: the extraordinary is the ordinary, but at the same time, the magic means it’s all an illusion. We are brought up close to circus life, but the readers are never fooled; we are not the circus audience. We discover from the beginning of the book as one of the muscle guys holds Jacob out of the train car and wants to drop him for no reason other than his being dispensable that circus life is ugly. It’s rough, it’s wretched, there’s no glamour, nothing truly all that spectacular.

Of course the novel is set in the gritty 1930s during the American Depression era, and some of the book is passed for the young Jacob in an intoxicated frenzy, made even more urgent by the Prohibition at the time. Everything about the circus feels forbidden, and that’s only befitting of the central romance between Jacob and Marlena, the trainer who performs with the horses, and later an elephant named Rosie. Marlena is married to the equestrian director August, who’s equal part charming and violent, almost a personification of the circus himself. Jacob inevitably falls in love with Marlena, which is all so typical that no one can miss it, but how his story with Marlena plays out ultimately reflects the consequences of the violence, both from August and the circus.

(Spoiler alerts from here)

Jacob and Marlena restrain themselves for most of the novel, and the reader feels the overwhelming pressure. In a world where people are drinking openly during the Prohibition, offering prostitution and having sex in the grass outside tents, it can feel like the circus is the exception to morality and the ordered lives of Americans in that era. And yet here were Jacob and Marlena bursting to the seams trying to keep their feelings and desires under wraps. Ultimately when August breaks and accuses them in a violent fit of cheating, he’s mistaken, but he’s also not wrong. And the reader feels an odd sense of injustice and fulfillment. Sara Gruen is skilled in creating a world held together by violence and punctuated with small moments of kindness and generosity, and ultimately you just can’t help but root for Jacob and his foolishness.

And you also grow to love many of the minor but three-dimensional characters like Walter the dwarf who sleeps in the same train car as Jacob and the horses, and instinctively hates Jacob on first sight but has remained kind in spite of the prejudice he’s faced his whole life. You even grow to absolutely love all the animals, especially gentle but deadly Rosie the elephant.

However, it is the human relations that ultimately are all so interesting for me. While the circus is exception to the moral order at the time, prejudice, discrimination and class differences remain, and are magnified in the small space of the circus. The novel does an interesting study of the way people succumb to ugliness because they are subject to ugliness themselves. But how such moments are understandable, so very human. When Walter is angry with August, it seems only fair to use the arsenal of hate already afforded to him by the cultural milieu.

“Because I just know. There’s not a human bone in that kike’s body.”

“Watch your damned mouth!” I shout. 

Walter stops to look at me. “What? Oh, hey, you’re not Jewish, are you? Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It was just a cheap shot,” he says.

“Yes, it was a cheap shot,” I say, still shouting. “They’re all cheap shots and I’m getting mighty damned sick of them. If you’re a performer, you take shots at the working men. If you’re a working man, you take shots at Poles. If you’re a Pole, you take shots at Jews. And if you’re a dwarf–well, you tell me, Walter? Is it just Jews and working men you hate, or do you also hate Poles?”

Eventually Walter admits he doesn’t hate anybody, not really, not based on race or ethnicity or class. It’s almost force of habit, it’s what we know, what is easily reachable, a cheap shot. And how much of this is the same today? How much of our hate is automatic, learned, pre-thought? While prejudice against Poles and Jews is taken as matter of fact in the book, it’s never taken as right. And these themes continue to ring true today, if not for Poles and Jews, but for people of colour, Muslims, refugees…

At the end of the day, my favourite part of the book is how it plays with reality. Everything that we know is what we know from Jacob as a cantankerous old man. His memory is not what it was, and the novel reminds us that people tend to remember what they want to. And it’s amazing to consider this key theme in the novel precisely because the circus has never been about the truth. So how much is historical, how much is fiction, and how much does it matter?

One of the most important things in the book is that the prologue which details the ending and the ending itself are written differently. It’s a simple twist that fools the reader at the beginning, and many readers online have insisted on one version of the story because it seemed told with more authority and clarity, but with old Jacob framing the narrative, do we really know? Is he just telling us what we want to hear, just like how circus goers see what they want to see? I’m not really sure, and I think that’s the point.

I’m really glad I picked up this book. When I was done, I went to rewatch the movie trailer again and still meh, though I noticed August was played by Christopher Waltz which can only elevate the material. Maybe one day I’ll actually watch the adaptation, but for the moment, Water For Elephants has got me excited about discovering new worlds again.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015-2016 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A classic romance: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  3. A book that became a movie: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  4. A book with a number in the title: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
  5. A book with nonhuman characters: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
  6. A trilogy: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
  7. A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
  8. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  9. A mystery or thrillerCrocodile Tears (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
  10. A book with a one-word title: Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  11. A book set in high school: Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
  12. A book with magic: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
  13. A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
  14. A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)

2015 Reading Challenge: Legend of the Condor Heroes

I know what you guys are thinking. Man she abandoned another challenge!! The truth is, I’ve spent the last few months on a comic book series and haven’t been able to finish 38 books of it until recently. It’s no excuse cos who takes three months to finish a comic series and another two weeks to write this post haha but that’s what it is.

When I was 12, a few friends in Primary School got me into 神雕侠侣 (The Return of the Condor Heroes) which as many Singaporeans would know is that martial arts show where Fann Wong and Christopher Lee were lovers and he called her 姑姑 (Aunty) and she wore white and was frankly a bit strange and they insisted on living or dying together. Chinese martial arts comics tend to have such romances. I was rather into it, as 12 year old girls tend to be, and was gushing to my mother about the comic book versions which only refreshed vague memories of the Channel 8 local production. That was when my mom went ‘Oh but you haven’t read the original, which is so much better!’ And there was no turning back from that.

Legend of the Condor Heroes

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For the uninitiated, Return of the Condor Heroes is as its title implies – a return. Which means it’s a sequel of the original Legend of the Condor Heroes 射雕英雄传. One of the more recent adaptations was in 2008 starring Ariel Lin, but this book, like other series from Louis Cha, have been worked and reworked into series and movies for many years. It’s part of the Chinese canon of literature and popular culture now. And I love it. I read the series then at 12, and again recently because I missed it. I also bought the original Hong Kong adaptation of the series which I will attest to my dying day is the best one, complete with people throwing props into the screen as special effects and very very very visible stunt wires. I might have watched it a little more than I should and it’s probably why I can understand a bit of Cantonese.

But back to the story. 

Legend of the Condor Heroes is about 郭靖 (Guo Jing) and 黄蓉 (Huang Rong) who are such canonical characters that when I type their pinyin in, their names appear. As all ancient Chinese stories, our protagonist’s birth is tied strongly to their place in history. For Guo Jing, he was born in a time of dynasty collapse–where the Song Dynasty was corrupt and ineffectual, where the Middle Kingdom faced threats from all sides, the invasion of the Manchurians spreading through the country like plague and the looming shadow of a consolidating Mongolia under Genghis Khan. Growing up to be honest and loyal to a fault, Guo Jing becomes instrumental in fending off his country from these threats.

Guo Jing’s father Guo Xiaotian was sworn brothers with this other dude Yang Tiexin and they were local heroes in their own right but living their lives quietly with their wives in a small village. They brought trouble on their doorstep when they helped a priest who was famed for killing corrupt officials. Later, the priest will name the brothers’ unborn children as Guo Jing and Yang Kang in the hope that they never forget the country’s 靖康之耻 (Jing Kang Zhi Chi)–the country’s humiliation in the Jing Kang era suffered during the successful invasion of the Manchurians in the East capital where they massacred, burnt, raped.

But as Chinese stories go too, history is made intensely personal. Ultimately what sealed the terrible fates of the Guo and Yang families was that the Manchurian prince fell in love with Yang Tiexin’s wife. The prince got the help of a corrupt official to kill both families and took the wife away under pretences. He was to bring up Yang Kang, and Guo Jing’s mother escaped to the West and gave birth to him on a bed of snow.

This then begins the most interesting crux of the story–watching Guo Jing and Yang Kang diverge and grow up to be entirely different people and pursue very different endings. Guo Jing never forgot the humiliation of his country and Yang Kang never remembered anything beyond his status as a princeling and the fierce desire to protect a life of riches.

The romance 

What I love most about the series though is the central romance. Hardly surprising.

Growing up in Mongolian camps, Guo Jing finally goes back to China (or the central plains quite literally translated) when he was older to find his own path. Guo Jing is a very moral person, but is not very bright. Once he got there, he got tricked into spending all his money on a good meal with a beggar and giving the beggar his fur coat and super awesome horse. The beggar on the other hand was very bright but not very moral. She’s Huang Rong.

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Huang Rong is a spoiled and eccentric girl who grew up with her father on the strange and isolated Cherry Blossoms Island. After a fight with her father, she ran away in a huff and disguised herself as a beggar, convinced no one could love her. Until she met Guo Jing who gave her everything he had because he’s the most trusting person on earth.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

One of the things I love most about the central relationship is how much the two characters complement each other. Guo Jing is trusting, but he can also be stupid. And Huang Rong reminds him that the world is not as kind as he is. Huang Rong is one of the most intelligent people in the series, and her smarts often get her out of trouble, but Guo Jing helps her to be a better person so she doesn’t leave other people behind. I am always a fan of relationships that make each other better. They are a stronger unit together than they ever were alone.

As they started traveling together, almost everybody in their lives disapproved of the relationship–Guo Jing’s mentors finding Huang Rong highly inappropriate and devilish while Huang Rong’s father finding Guo Jing an untalented brute who doesn’t deserve her. And it was very early on in the books that the two declared their undying love for each other, which can be a tad unrealistic and reeking of youth naïveté, but also rather romantic. How did they know? From the start? Huang Rong makes him reckless and Guo Jing makes her devoted.

Chinese martial arts stories tend to speak of undying love at first sight, and that might not be the experience of the real world, but I just love the strength of the couple’s conviction. That they’re so willing to sacrifice for each other the moment they determine the other is The One. And the best thing about the relationship is how it becomes stronger over time. Sometimes they get separated, sometimes in life and death circumstances, some other times they piss each other off, but they always come together again better than they were in the past.

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This notion of moral progress and growth is essential in the series’ portrayal of positive relationships. Love and romance exist yes, but they are not healthy and good for you if not accompanied by some sort of morality. Huang Rong and Guo Jing ground each other and therefore see progress in their relationship.

In contrast, Yang Kang–who himself experiences great love in his life with the beautiful and devoted Mu Nian Ci–is doomed to a miserable relationship with her as she oscillates from loving him and hating herself for loving someone who betrayed his own family and nation for riches and fame. In some moments, you almost root for Yang Kang and Mu Nian Ci. He obviously loves her, enough to kill for her. And her loyalty to him is devastating. But ultimately Yang Kang’s evil deeds brought his own downfall and Mu Nian Ci has to raise their son alone.

Similarly, the Manchurian prince who attacked two families to snatch a woman over never got his happy ending. Sure, eventually Yang Tiexin’s wife married him and he brought up Yang Kang, but the wife never forgot her former life. She stayed in a wooden shed within the palace and thought of her husband, whom she believed to be dead, everyday. And when Yang Tiexin reappeared, she chose to die along with him. At the prince’s last moment of death, as Guo Jing brings him to execution for his war crimes and personal revenge, the prince looks up at the sky and says ‘Xi Ruo, I’m coming to join you.’ And it’s bullshit because if I were the lady up in heaven, I’d be like dude go away I’m with my husband now. But you also feel a sense of sadness for the prince. All this, and for what? All this love and no morality causes only destruction. 家破人亡.

And that is a very Chinese notion I think. Romantic love can be grand, self-sacrificial, and everything you ever wanted, but it’s not the be all and end all of the world. You need love for your family. Love for your country. Love for your fellow man. Only when you’re able to do that can your love thrive.

The journey 

Together, Guo Jing and Huang Rong go on an epic journey where they meet plenty of amazing heroes and villains from the 江湖 Jiang hu, who teach them kungfu and lessons. Through a series of fateful events, Guo Jing becomes one of the strongest and most skilled heroes out there, worthy of fighting to be the best in the world. This is a coveted title and many misguided people use untoward means to get their hands on the most powerful kungfu.

I guess the martial arts component of the comics is the nerdiest part. It’s unrealistic and sometimes hilarious. But just like the romance, learning martial arts in the comics is all about morality. 水能载舟,也能覆舟 – it’s not about who is more powerful, more skilled, more experienced. It’s about how they put their skills and experience and power to use.

As the series comes to an end, Guo Jing has lost almost everything – his only family his mother, he thinks Huang Rong is lost, and all his loyal service to the Mongolian Khan has come to nothing but destruction and war. Devastated, he questions why he even began learning kungfu in the first place when he has been unable to protect the very people he loves. Martial arts have brought nothing but trouble in his life.

But ultimately, Guo Jing is reminded by his shifu the North Beggar that his pursuit of excellence in kungfu is intricately linked to his commitment to being good. And I love it. The reasons why I love this comic series are somewhat similar to why I love Captain America – our hero is a straightforward black and white character whose goodness is the best thing about him. And he exists in a world of complexity where heroes are not always what they seem and villains are human too.

All in all, Legend of Condor Heroes – highly recommend! It’s also a great opportunity to improve your Chinese.

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Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
  3. A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
  4. A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
  5. A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)

PS. I also read two more books during my recent trip to Hanoi. Whether I’ll write reviews I’m not sure yet. Watch this space.

2015 Reading Challenge: The History of Love

A book by a female author:

I am terrible because I said in my previous post that this review was coming soon, and it was not soon at all. The truth is, I’ve had some difficulty penning this review down because it was definitely not going to be as comprehensive as the previous one, for a myriad of reasons, the first being that I read the book mostly on the bus to work and had to digest it in parts, instead of in one sitting the way I did The Handmaid’s Tale. And the second reason is that the book is so fundamentally different from the first one I read this year that I just didn’t know where to start.

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The History of Love is a novel published in 2005 by Nicole Krauss, whom some might know as the author married to Jonathan Safran Foer. Their writing styles are highly similar, but unfortunately I never finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to do a real comparison.

What I can say though is that The History of Love made me feel. A lot. For that half an hour every morning, I am deep into the world created by Krauss, and every single word made the loneliness of the characters so palpable. It happened far too often where I was so absorbed in the book that I almost miss my stop and when I get off the bus, I’ll feel a little disoriented from being snatched from the reality of the book.

Weaving two intertwined storylines together, the novel follows 80-year-old Leo Gurksy as he survives day-to-day in New York City, reminding himself with petty actions that he is alive everyday, and 15-year-old Alma, who wanted nothing more than her mother to love again after her father’s death.

Alma is named after every girl in a novel that Leo wrote for the love he had as a boy and lost due to the war. It’s a novel that Leo believed to have been lost forever, but has in truth been plagiarised by a friend and published in his name.

The interesting parallels between Leo and Alma make reading the book just like putting together a literary puzzle. Tedious at times, overzealous at times, but at the end of the day, truly rewarding.

– –

The book documents loneliness in all its forms and stages. Loneliness and longing, two sides of the same coin. Leo longs for his son whom he has never got to know, and Alma longs for a mother who would look at her and not see the husband she lost. And while they are longing for those things, they are both on a journey of self-discovery – of Alma discovering the roots of her name and learning who she is both in relation to and without her parents, and of Leo realising his impact as a writer and father.

The longing in the book is written well that it makes me ache – both because there is such hope contained within, but also a sense of defeat and finality. Especially with Leo’s old age, and so much death (Alma’s father, World War II, Leo’s son, Leo’s love) that happened before and in the book. The references to World War II are particularly moving, as one examines the ordinary lives of people who have survived the war, and how this history reverberates throughout the Jewish culture, gets imprinted on new generations, creates a loss in them even before they truly understand.

This notion of inheritance – of the aftermath of wars, of values, of paranoia, of lessons learnt are all important for the theme of parenting as well. In the novel, Alma’s mother was never able to truly get over the loss of Alma’s father, and therefore stopped being a parent. This is one of the saddest stories to tell – that of a child losing both parents after one parent’s death. This shapes a child most inevitably; it creates in the child a need to connect with their dead parent – not just to revive them, but their surviving parent as well. Because of this, Alma becomes obsessed with a book on how to survive in nature that her father owned, and she sees herself as finishing something her father started. For Leo, there is a certain allusion to inheritance as well, as his son becomes a writer that he never was.

Feeling is such a large part of the book, and a large part of how readers relate to the book. But Krauss was also keen to remind us that feeling is not everything. Feeling can be destructive; it can consume our whole lives.

Alma on her mother:

“She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her. Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.

My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father. And to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.”

I really enjoyed reading from 80-year-old Leo’s perspective, and walking a mile in the shoes of an elderly person who has lived most of his life. There is something about reading about an elderly person – there’s always a sense of looking back, of turning back. There is no longer any hope for the future, no plans. Just the past haunting the present.

But ultimately, I enjoyed reading from Alma’s perspective even more. As she reads about how to survive in the wild, she connects many things in life, especially matters of the heart, to the vastness and cruelty of nature:

“An average of seventy-four species become extinct every day, which was one good reason but not the only one to hold someone’s hand.”

“During the time I waited, a whole species of butterfly may have become extinct, or a large, complex mammal with feelings like mine.”

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

2015 Reading Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale

A book you can finish in a day:

Began my 2015 Reading Challenge with a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, written by an author whose prose and poetry both move me profoundly: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Illustrations from Anna and Elena Balbusso

Published in 1985, this novel was later dubbed by critics to be just like ‘Orwell’s 1984, but for women.’ It’s telling that women have their own special kind of dystopian hell, because it simultaneously signifies a kind of oppression that men simply do not face in reality, as well as the ghettoisation of women’s literature that so often discounts the universality of female authorship and experiences.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where ecological disasters and modern lifestyles have created a vast decrease in birth rates and widespread sterility. In order to ensure our survival as a population, a new order is born where non-elite women who are found to be fertile will serve as Handmaids, essentially a birthing machine for the upper class families. In this society, men of a certain rank are entitled to a wife, who takes care of the household, a Handmaid, who serves as a vessel for birth in cases where the wives are sterile (cos in this society it’s never the man who’s sterile yeah), and a Martha, who is an older, non-fertile woman who does the cooking and cleaning. It’s the trifecta of oppression for womanhood – of our wifely duties, domestic labour, and reproductive responsibilities. For these men and their Handmaids, sex is never romantic or lustful; it’s simply a means to an end, taken place in a Ceremony where the Handmaid lies as a conduit between the wife and the husband.

After finishing the book, I saw that someone online had called it ‘the dumbest dystopian story ever written,’ and I immediately thought: he must be a dude. Because as a woman, the book is terrifying because of how possible it is. Because institutions such as nations and public spaces staking a claim on female bodies is something that every woman goes through, to some extent. As a Singaporean woman, we are always called upon by the nation to do our duty by creating more babies. Such a duty is simply not placed on the shoulders of Singaporean men, despite their part being equally essential.

Yet, at the end of the day, dystopia is dystopia. Just as it is terrifying that society organises women via their fertility (the Unwomen are ferried off to the Colonies to do cleanup work), it is frightening in equal measure that men are expected to behave without love, lust, morality, affection, greed, freedom, envy… So many dystopian novels are similar because all extreme ways of organising society can never snuff out humanity, in all its shortcomings and all its beauty. Atwood succeeds at this: revealing the true nature of mankind, and how many parallels our current society shares with this dystopian imagining.

My favourite part of the book is Atwood’s decision to explore this new society at its very beginning. The protagonist Offred (literally ‘Of Fred,’ her Commander) is the very first generation of Handmaids, and she still remembers a past life of normalcy, freedom, a husband, and a child. She remembers how it was like before, and she still holds on to fragments of her family. As I read the book, I kept waiting for the next moment she would find her husband or her child, but thinking back on this, I should have known that it was damn near impossible, and even Offred was resigned to leaving them behind in her memories, even in the very same moment she relished them. I love the consistent shifts between the dystopian present and the nostalgic past, and the talking about them in the same breath, precisely because were they really so different?

When the very first moves against women were made in the novel’s universe by freezing their bank accounts, Offred is terrified, but her husband Luke doesn’t get what the big deal is. He can just support them, he says. That crippling feeling of having no power is female-specific in this book, while the men can never truly understand, because they benefit from the system, or appear to. As Offred says,

“I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.” (also see: Gaslighting)

One of the most interesting things to me was how Offred was brought up as very much a second-generation feminist. A part of the book shows us Offred’s mother in flashback, who reminded Offred that many women’s lives and women’s bodies had to be sacrificed in marches, protests and rallies in order to even get to a stage where her husband would do some cooking. This is something Offred doesn’t recognise or bother to recognise, even just as she benefits from the gains of feminism, of all the things women of the previous generation have achieved for her. And this reminds me so much of a quote from Amy Poehler:

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And of course, it also reminds me of how many women of my generation are so complacent of our place in the world today, saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist; it’s too strong a word’ even as the privilege to speak their minds, to have that very opinion, to be heard, to debate, to insist on their stand, even as this very privilege was something that feminism fought for them.

In Offred’s case, she quickly learns that what feminism gained can quickly be dismantled and transformed into a nightmare that simply won’t go away. For some of us in real life, this nightmare continues to stay. For others, we are lucky enough.

The Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous in its prose – rich in detail and bursting to the seams in emotion. While Atwood’s intricate writing is hardly naturalistic, and can be overwhelming at times, I promise you following it to the very end will be worth it.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

2015-2016 Reading Challenge

As the year 2014 draws to a close, the night is ripe for reflections and resolutions. While I love reading and see myself as a reader, I’ve actually been rather terrible at it for many years. A new year brings new challenges, with my joining the workforce as a useful member of society, and embarking on a new stage of life. And it is times like these where it is even more important to hold on to things you love. So, when I saw this 2015 Reading Challenge trending on Tumblr, I knew I had to at least try it. Even as some of the challenges I take on fail (ahem Alphabet Challenge ahem) (I actually have not given up on that yet), I do still wish to try. After I read each book, I will update this list and possibly do a review on here. Also, many books actually fit into more than one category, so I will simply go through the list and fit each book into the first one that comes up. So here goes.

Edit: It’s 2016 and this list is still not complete. I shall extend my deadline.

2015-2016 Reading Challenge

A book with more than 500 pages
A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A classic romance: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
A book with antonyms in the title
A book that became a movie: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit
A book published this year
A book that came out the year you were born
A book with a number in the title: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
A book written by someone under 30
A book with bad reviews
A book with nonhuman characters: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea
A trilogy: The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor
A funny book
A book from your childhood: Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong
A book by a female author: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
A book with a love triangle
A mystery or thrillerCrocodile Tears (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
A book set in the future
A book with a one-word title: Villette by Charlotte Brontë
A book set in high school: Scorpia Rising (Alex Rider series) by Anthony Horowitz
A book of short stories
A book with a colour in the title
A book set in a different country
A book that made you cry
A nonfiction book
A book with magic: Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
A popular author’s first book
A graphic novel
A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
A book by an author you’ve never read before
A book a friend recommended
A book you own but have never read
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book
A book that takes place in your hometown
A book based on a true story
A book that was originally written in a different language: The Boat to Redemption by Su Tong
A book at the bottom of your to-read list
A book set during Christmas: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who)
A book your mom loves
A book written by an author with your same initials
A book that scares you
A play
A book more than 100 years old
A book based entirely on its cover
A banned book
A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
A book based on or turned into a TV show
A memoir
A book you started but never finished

4 Items of Popular Culture With Which I Have Been Recently Obsessed

An update here seems rare, but if anyone is looking at my Twitter feed, you would know that I am almost always consuming a huge load of popular culture, way too much for my health. In fact, it’s become such a big part of me that I even cited it as one of my hobbies during job interviews recently. (Interviewer: So, what do you do for leisure? Me: Uh, I mostly consume a lot of fiction?) I’ll get back to you on how that fared.

One of my pet topics is how much popular culture rocks. There are always going to be snobs everywhere who believe that something is not of artistic merit simply because it is also on billboards (I do sometimes have that tendency too), but these people usually have something against fun (I’m not, though). And not only that – I think there is great value in popular culture simply because it has the power to reach so many people. Excellent pieces of popular culture are not rare at all; in fact, so much good writing and mythology can be found in popular things. So, I thought I would share with you four things that have recently captured my obsession, and just how good they are. Cos I like talking about things I like.

1. Selfie

Selfie is about social media-obsessed Eliza Dooley, who suddenly realises ‘likes’ and friends on the Internet are not the same as having friends in real life. She enlists the help of Henry Higgs, who can pretty much market anything.

When I first heard of this, I thought it sounded like the most ridiculous show and yet another thing that feeds the insanity of the Internet. Eliza Dooley sounded like someone I would hate. BUT of course I was wrong because how could I hate a character that Karen Gillan plays.

Selfie is AWESOME. Not only are the characters absolutely charming and funny, the show is also about how to balance cherishing a genuine connection with the logics of social media that have seeped into real life. It explores a real friendship between two people who just make each other better, and I think that crux is what makes me love the show so much. That, and the fact that John Cho and Karen Gillan have so much chemistry. I would argue that without Karen Gillan playing the character, Eliza Dooley can easily be someone very dislikeable, but she is charming and vulnerable. Also, John Cho!!!

The show is also pretty awesome with diversity in their media representation, from having an Asian American romantic male lead, to exploring the relationships of African American secondary characters.

The only downside is that ABC has ostensibly canceled this little gem of a show, and there will only be 13 episodes, and they are not even airing the last few!! The final few episodes will appear on Hulu and ABC.com though, so web ninjas outside of the US can access those. But who knows, an online campaign to get the show back on track might gain traction. If any show can attest to the power of the Internet, it is Selfie.

2. Black Widow and Winter Soldier comics

There have been many One True Pairings that I have loved with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but this one. This one. Has been scorched into my heart very recently and have left me with all. the. emotions. All. Of. Them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Black Widow and Hawkeye pairing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, during our viewing of Captain America 2 in the cinemas, my boyfriend and I spotted Natasha’s arrow necklace at the same time and pulled at each other excitedly and violently.

‘You know what it’s like to be unmade?’
‘You know I do.’

My recent foray into the Black Widow comics have made me realise that these lines from MCU apply even more to the Winter Soldier and Black Widow’s relationship in the comics. As a young girl training in the Red Room, Natasha was trained by Bucky, who was then the Winter Soldier, fished out of the water memoryless and revived by the Russians to act as their assassin. They quickly begin a relationship that is forbidden, as Natasha was promised to the Red Guardian and the Winter Soldier’s programming started to crack with the help of a real connection. After the people in power found out, they punished the both of them for it, and placed Bucky in temporary frozen stasis (the one you see in Cap 2) between missions.

Their relationship is so compelling to me simply because of the parallels in their histories. Both Nat and Bucky were heavily brainwashed again and again by the Soviet Union, causing them to lose memories and identities. Both have red in their ledger, and have a lot of make up for. Both are masterspies but believe themselves to be unworthy of superhero status, but they are such superheroes to me. Steve Rogers is all moral uprightness, but Nat and Bucky are both so honourable, despite all the ugliness of their past.

Black Widow and Winter Soldier are also among the best-written romances in comic books, in my opinion. Their romance is one of equal partnership, where both are amazing at their jobs, and both are major badasses. No one is used as bait, victim or source of (wo)manpain for the other, and both are allowed to shine and be more awesome together. There are also a few glimpses into their domesticity that can be scream-worthy for a fangirl.

“I remember everything, Natalia. And you were the one good thing in all of it.”

3. Code Name Verity

Recently, I consumed this book on the journey to and from Hong Kong as if I was eating fire. A stunning piece of historical fiction set in WWII, the novel tells the tale of two best friends: a female spy who got caught in Nazi-occupied France on her first day and the female pilot who dropped her in the country.

Firstly, it is incredibly rare to find a good novel that focuses primarily on a female friendship with two fully developed and interesting characters. I was so moved reading about their friendship, thinking about all the female friendships I’ve had in my life, and how extremely important all of them are to me.

Secondly, it’s a book that focuses on the role of women during the wartime effort, which is also rather rare. These women are depicted as extraordinary for confronting the strict gender norms and roles of their time, but were also simply great at their jobs and therefore perfect for the roles they play in the war.

This book is truly awesome. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending is devastatingly good, as books set during the war tend to be. Its narration is also really inventive, and it catches you off guard by using two limited perspectives. I feel like I cannot really give more detail for fear of spoilers, but Code Name Verity is certainly highly highly recommended.

4. Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin is a telenovela-styled drama that features 23-year-old Jane, who has decided to stay a virgin until marriage, but was impregnated via artificial insemination by accident. It is the funniest show I’ve watched in a while, and each episode’s dramatic twists and turns are simply great television. The telenovela tone of the show is pretty much the best thing, complete with a self-aware and hilarious narrator and fantasy sequences.

The greatest thing about this show, however, is that despite its sense of drama, there is something very real about it. Caught in different situations, the characters are so so understandable, even as their make mistakes and bad decisions. I completely understand the trajectory of each character, even if I do not necessarily like them. And I think that’s one of the marks of good television writing.

Main character Jane is also very likeable. It’s interesting because so much drama can happen in the show despite Jane being super honest with everyone around her. The fact that the show does not fall back on overused tropes or in contrast uses them extremely well is testament to great creative decisions.

Also, Jane’s long-lost father is telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega, and he is basically the best character I’ve been watching on television these few weeks. He is, quite simply, the best.

On materialism and Snowpiercer

Today, I met a close friend who reminded me that I’ve been neglecting this blog, and I really have! Sorry to the readers who are out there (?). (I put a question mark, but I know a few people regularly visit my blog cos WordPress has a Site Stats portion and yes I check my Site Stats!) But yes, a post is due, but also, a topic has been recurring recently in my discussions with friends, and I guess in general in my stage of life as I transit into being a gainfully employed adult, and it’s something that I really wanna talk about.

Just a few days ago, a few of my friends and I were talking about realising how materialism is such a huge part of our lives, and how easy it is to fall into this endless cycle, especially in today’s world. When people around you are consistently talking about the latest bag, how gorgeous that luxury watch is, or which brand their dream car is, it really can become such an invisible yet ubiquitous part of our consciousness. Instead of discussing ideas or people or life events, the topic of discussion can so easily revolve around products. We define ourselves by which brand is the most ‘us’.

And who can blame us, really? Every corner we turn, we are told we should want this thing, and that we are incomplete without that other thing. Even ideals like liberation or equality come with a price. Even education!! What kind of world is it where schools (especially universities) see themselves as a business first, and an educational institution second?

It’s really terrifying, and Singapore is particularly susceptible to this way of life. I have definitely fallen into it myself, and I think it takes a constant and consistent guard that you need to put up to fight the way materialism has seeped into our daily lives. The most important thing is to critically examine parts of your life and really think about why and how certain things have come to just be.

For example, a friend was telling me about how she had encountered a person who wasn’t too impressed with her engagement ring because it didn’t cost 3 months of the guy’s salary. This whole the diamond is supposed to cost 3 months of your pay thing is truly weird! It has become a norm that goes unquestioned in Singaporean society, but, really, why and how did this figure come about? 3 months? Why not 2 or 4 months? Why not 1 year? Who came up with this? Why?

If you really examine it, doesn’t it seem a tad bit arbitrary? In fact, who even decided the purchase of diamonds had to be involved in an engagement – a commitment to another person to spend the rest of your lives together? Let me tell you who: the diamond industry. Once upon a time, a marketing person at De Beers thought to associate diamonds with the concept of eternity – of being a mark of forever. Something that is so common in popular culture, and so ingrained in our daily lives – we often ask our girlfriends to show us the ring after she is proposed to – began as a marketing campaign, as most things are nowadays.

Of course, if you want a diamond ring, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a gorgeous piece of jewellery, and even I can appreciate its beauty and its significance. Symbols that are popular in a society can still personally mean something to you, and it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you what should or should not mean something to you. But I guess what I’m getting at is: we should all think for ourselves when we make a (purchase) decision, whether or not this thing really means something to us, and if we are merely subscribing to a norm for no reason at all other than ‘that’s the way things are done.’ Because we all need to think about who’s telling us how to do things, and why. And who ultimately benefits.

Perhaps when we really get right down to it, we have no reason for believing in the idea that a diamond ring needs to be equated to 3 months of your boyfriend’s salary. In fact, doesn’t that put a monetary worth on the person? Are we transferring the price of the diamond to our partner? Are we commodifying the relationship? Are we?

I don’t think it’s wrong to want things. The people who say that money doesn’t buy happiness are usually the people who already have the money. In fact, buying the entire 10-season DVD series of Friends would make me extremely happy. Stocking up my wardrobe over the last week also pleased me. I think what is important however is that we need to question why we want certain things, and learn to prioritise the most important elements of our lives.

When I was doing my Media and Representation class a few semesters ago, I remember I had one of those *mindblown* moments when my lecturer (I miss you Dr. Ingrid!) was talking about the role of women in society. We talked about how the notion of a woman being a housewife and taking care of domestic matters being a socially constructed one – which is a central tenet of the critique on patriarchy. This, we all know, or at least I did. But then she questioned – what about the notion of a career woman? I had always assumed that being a career woman was just a natural consequence of women moving out of their homes and forging new paths for themselves. But Ingrid reminded us that the imperative to be productive – to go out into the world to work – is actually something that capitalism has instilled in us. And women were called upon to go into the factories and eventually into offices to work, to be productive, because this would help capitalism. In Singapore, especially, both men and women are urged to work, because of our small labour force. Because we don’t have Malaysia as our hinterland.

But capitalism is merely one way of life. We are so used to it that sometimes we cannot imagine another framework of living. There are many models of reality, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of that, even as we are stuck in a society run on money.

Over the weekend, I watched Snowpiercer starring my beloved Chris Evans, which was a pretty obvious dystopian take on the class system and how we let it destroy us, even as we are the last of humanity. Really great casting choices and racial representation aside, the show was amazing in how it critiqued the capitalist system. The story is basically this: to combat global warming, scientists released a synthetic molecule supposed to cool the world down, but it freezes the world over. The earth becomes too cold for life, and the last of humanity is cramped together on a train that runs on an eternal engine. The train is divided into distinct classes, from the hedonistic upper classes eating steaks and partying all day to the tail end of the train where hundreds of people share one car eating protein blocks. Chris Evans is Curtis who leads a revolution as the people from the tail end strive to get to the engine room and end this insane hierarchy.

(Spoiler alert from here on!!) But as he eventually reaches the engine room, it is revealed that the revolution and Curtis’ goals are all an essential part of the system. It’s population control. Even as Curtis reaches the top of the class system, he cannot defeat it. Any attempts at moving forward are feeding the system, reaffirming an oppressive structure. Therefore, to end this reality once and for all, we cannot think in linear terms – moving forward or looking backward. The only way out is to think laterally – to consider the world outside the train, and to therefore break the hold of this system and way of thinking.

Everyone should watch this film!!!!! And after you’re done with that, you should watch this review below as it captures what I’ve been saying and examines how the director Bong Joon-ho illustrates these ideas in his artistic direction.

At the end of the day, I think we should all remind ourselves from time to time that life isn’t an eternal train ride, and it’s not about who gets to be in front. Perhaps it is about how we enjoy the view outside, or perhaps it’s about how we choose to spend our days with the people in the same car. Many films repeat the same message, and many other blog entries or The Guardian articles convey similar ideas, but the need to dismantle materialism is perhaps a notion that bears repeating.

You can have Manhattan

Listening to Sara Bareilles’ new album The Blessed Unrest is a special kind of heart-wrenching. She had always been so good at expressing, evoking and recreating ache. A turn of phrase or a group of chords could recall precisely the things my heart has weathered and understands my little losses and spaces even before I knew how to give words to them myself. This brilliance moves me in a way that just reaches deep inside and pulls everything out, the good, bad, ugly and at the end I’m just completely spilled open. How terrible but how exquisite.

One of the songs in Sara’s new album is Manhattan, and it perfectly conveys my personal brand of a recent break-up.

Some break-ups are messy and crazy and emotional and simply gut-wrenching. Mine was amiable, loving and full of goodwill. It was the end of a long period of companionship and love that simply had run its course. And most importantly, it was as much a leaning on each other as it was a separation.

So you know, he can have Manhattan. (Our very own bright lights & our own long nights.)

Cos I can’t have you.