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Preview: Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric

Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric



“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” ~ Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett"This is the sound my heart would make if I could amplify it." ~ Carrie Brownstein



Updated: 2017-06-22T10:22:56.637+08:00

 



BOOKS | 100 Books To Read 2016

2016-09-30T22:22:07.335+08:00

I'm still working on my reading list for this year. I was thinking of streamlining it down to just 40 books, but what the hell - why break tradition? So, list in progress for my readings in 2016. Emotional Agility • Susan David[ 23/09/2016 ~On the Move: A Life • Oliver Sacks[ 31/08/2016 ~ • Running & Being: The Total Experience • Dr George Sheehan[ 28/08/2016 ~ The Power and the Glory • Graham GreeneOrlando • Virginia WoolfMy Brilliant Friend • Elena Ferrante translated by Ann GoldsteinWork Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work, and mind • Dan CharnasGrit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance • Angela DuckworthAmericanah • Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe Bone People • Keri Hulme[ 30/7/2016 ~Your Song Changed My Life • Bob Boilen[ 05/06/2016 ~ Dig Me Out • Jovana Babovic[ 16/07/2016 ~ The Wretched: A New Translation of Les Misérables • Victor Hugo [ translated from the French by Christine Donougher] [03/07/2016 ~The Folded Clock: A Diary • Heidi Julavits[ 05/03/2016 ~At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails • Sarah Bakewell [ 07/03/2016 ~ The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals • Michael Pollan [ 12/03/2016 ~In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto • Michael Pollan Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World • Adam Grant and Sheryl SandbergTheir Eyes Were Watching God • Zora Neale HurstonDune • Frank HerbertSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome • Mary Beard[ 04/01/2016 ~If the Oceans Were Ink • Carla Power[ 15/08/2015 ~Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese • Patrick Leigh FermorGo Tell It On the Mountain • James Baldwin[ 11/12/2015 ~ Baghdad Sketches (1932) • Freya StarkThe Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) [On Mazandaran, Iran]• Freya StarkThe Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936)• A Winter in Arabia (1940) [On Hadhramaut] • Perseus in the Wind (1948). [Essays on philosophy and literature] • Ionia, A Quest (1954) • Freya StarkThe Lycian Shore (1956) [On Turkey] • Freya StarkAlexander's Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958) [On Turkey] • Freya StarkThe Zodiac Arch (1968) [Miscellaneous essays] • Freya StarkThe Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan (1970) • Freya StarkWhere the Stress Falls • Susan Sontag On Photography • Susan SontagReborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 • Susan SontagAgainst Interpretation: And Other Essays • Susan SontagAs Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 • Susan SontagThe Book of Disquiet • Fernando PessoaJane Eyre • Charlotte Bronte Venice • Jan MorrisBleak House • Charles DickensThe Age of Innocence • Edith WhartonA Time of Gifts (1977) • Patrick Leigh FermorBetween the Woods and the Water • Patrick Leigh FermorThe Broken Road • Patrick Leigh FermorThe Magician • W. Somerset MaughamRiver of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West • Rebecca Solnit A Writer's Diary • Virginia WoolfThe Violet Hour • Katie RoipheThe Handmaid's Tale • Margaret AtwoodPilgrim at Tinker Creek • Annie DillardThe Abundance • Annie Dillard I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen • Sylvie Simmons[ 25/04/2015 ~ On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes • Alexandra HorowitzThe Design of Everyday Things • Donald A. NormanThe Heart of the Matter • Graham GreeneOf Human Bondage • W. Somerset MaughamNo Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva •  Pema ChodronQuiet: The Power of Introverts • Susan CainThe Old Ways: A Journey on Foot • Robert MacFarlanePassionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark • Janet Fletcher GeniesseThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks • Rebecca SklootFelicity: Poems • Mary OliverFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience • Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiReal Happiness: The Power of • Sharon SalzbergThe Seven Storey Mountain • Thomas MertonZen Mind, Beginner's Mind • Shunryu SuzukiCollection of Sand • Italo CalvinoLandmarks • Robert MacfarlaneA Boo[...]



BOOKS | The End of Your Life Book Club, for the Waiting Room

2016-09-18T02:21:37.394+08:00

After The Obelisk Gate, I was at a temporary loss at which book to read next. I eventually started on The End of Your Life Book Club, and continued On the Move, the Oliver Sacks memoir that I picked up from the library a while ago.

Will Schwalbe, the author of The End of Your Life Book Club, started writing this when his mother was being treated for cancer. They spent many hours sitting in the hospital waiting together, and to pass the time, they started talking about books. They got around to exchanging books, and Will told his mom that this will be a bookclub of two.

It was the state of my mind then, which led me to pick up The End of Your Life Book Club. I am following up on some medical issues right now, and it has led me to some reconsideration of my life and my priorities. I have also been spending too much time in the hospital waiting room this year, and on days when I forgot to bring something to read, the waiting just feels harder. Which is perhaps why The End of Your Life Book Club rang true to me; I have always believed a person's brings their own experience and state of mind into the books they read. We are meaning-makers, and if someone is made conscious of their own mortality, how will this likely influence their reading?

I was reading this book last week while waiting in the hospital waiting room. So far, it feels interesting, and the conversations between the family and their dying mother were touching. They obviously love their mother. Sadly, it reminded me of my own damaged relationship with my mother. I thought about how it was all those weekly Saturday trips to the library with my mother, that probably turned me into the reader that I am now. Yet ironically, I have never discussed books with my mother.

I'm barely a quarter into the book, but it has already made a recommendation for a title to check out: Susan Halpern's Etiquette of Illness. The book was supposed to be able how to talk to people with illness. It's something that I feel I should pass to friends and acquaintances. To offer as a guide on how to approach this.

Some tips from the book on how to approach the people with illness:

1. Ask: "Do you want to talk about how you're feeling?"
2. Don't ask if there's anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it's not intrusive, just do them.
3. You don't have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.

I felt there could also be a fourth tip - depending on the person, it is also important to know when to give space, and respect their need for privacy. Most of all, don't always assume you know better - because you don't.




The Ghostbusters, and Why It Represents What I Want to See in Books and Movies

2016-09-18T01:09:36.712+08:00

I'm an unabashedly loud fan of the all-female remake of the Ghostbusters movie. I have the toys to prove it - including the Lego set with Ecto-1.

This article from Bust magazine was listing out the reasons why it's so important for women. The writer did have a very important quote from Kate McKinnon, who played the kooky and charismatic Holtzmann in the movie, and I think it also captured why I loved the movie so much:

In short, maybe McKinnon put it best when she said, “But his [director Paul Feig] most revolutionary act has not been in casting women as scientists and badasses. We’ve seen that before. Ish.

“No, his true subversion lies in creating female protagonists who are striving for the universal goals of friendship, connectedness, justice, and personal growth. These golden fleeces have always been the sole province of male protagonists. They don’t call it an Everyman for nothing. By building stories around female protagonists who are striving not for romance, but simply to become their best selves, he has permanently changed the game for us all.”

I would like to see more good movies made, where the women characters are not there to be the wives, the girlfriends, the desperate single female pining for a man to love her. This is also one of my pet peeves about some of the Young Adult novels I read recently - why does it seem like the romance is the most important part of the story? Can we just have female characters that are interested in friendship, in personal growth, and of course, occasionally, in saving the world? The Hunger Games would be so much better without the love triangle. Take out the romance, and The Hunger Games would be about a brave young teenager who would sacrifice herself to save her sister, and end up becoming a symbol of something larger than her, and overthrowing a flawed government in the process. Well, it still is that, but the love triangle part of the story dragged it down for me.

As a woman, I would like to see more stories where women help lift each other up, instead of backstabbing and jealous in-fighting - especially over another male. I want to see more stories of women being themselves, unabashedly, confidently, but with compassion and good-humour.




R.I.P CHALLENGE XI | Update 12 September 2016

2016-09-12T18:59:23.977+08:00

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I'm done with my first book in the challenge: The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin.




READING CHALLENGE | R.I.P. XI

2016-09-07T23:35:53.967+08:00

A long time ago, when I used to blog more frequently, I joined reading challenges. I did it for fun, and it was fun to be connected somehow through other book geeks around the world. Then I stopped blogging. I stopped reading even.

I'm back reading again, though I don't write as much as I used to.

I was reminded today of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI. From September 1st, 2016 to October 31st, 2016, to read books in any of these categories:

Mystery
Suspense
Thriller
Gothic
Horror
Dark Fantasy

I can do that, right? So I shall attempt to read at least 2 books from the genres mentioned. For my reading list, I choose:

  • The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin, since I just started on that. It is so good, but I'm afraid to continue with the story, because it seems to be leading up to something bad between two of the characters.
  • The Stress of Her Regard, by Tim Powers. There's Byron, Keats, Shelley - and some evil stalking them. I had the book for years, but I still have not started on it.
  • The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard - fin-de-siècle Paris, with magic, angels and deaths. Sounds cool, right?

Let us just have fun with it, right?

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BOOKS | The Fifth Season

2016-09-05T01:27:07.187+08:00

I just finished reading N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, and am working my way through the second book in the series, The Obelisk Gate. It's been a wild ride. Grand world-building, with a world built on people, known as orogene, or rogga, as they are also called by those with little reason to love them. It is difficult to explain how the orogenes' powers work, but in a nutshell, they are able to harness the energy in the physical universe, and part of it includes harnessing sesmic forces - they are able to cause and redirect earthquakes, air and wind currents, heat and other types of energy. They are born with their powers, and their race has been vilified for their potentially destructive powers. It's a story full of a lot of hate, and death, as it begins with a father's murder of his son, after he realised his son is a rogga, inherited from their mother. The mother returns to find the battered body of her son, and her husband and older daughter, gone. Oh, did I also mention it also begins with someone setting out a massive sesmic rift that brought forth a type of apocalypse? Yeah, there's a lot of death and destruction in just the first few pages.The story unfolds with multiple point-of-views, and I was curious how these different plotlines and characters will converge later. The beauty is they do eventually fold unto each other seamlessly, like stacking up Russian dolls, until there is only one grand doll left. Jemisin patiently builds up the intrigue, in the nature of her world, and the characters. There is a grand mythology at work, and you are left with a nagging sense at the back of your mind that the history and lore in this world is never the truth, and there's always something that was forgotten, or lost and misinterpreted through time and memory, or manipulated by those who in power. From the beginning, you are told this:This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say "the world has ended." it's usually a lie, because the planet is just fine.The Fifth Season was one of the few books lately that made me stay up all night to try to finish reading it, because the story was so compelling. Not just in the world she creates, but also in the themes, and the social consciousness inherent in her stories. In the Foreword of The Fifth Season, it says:For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.Which reminds me of the recent debacle of the Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards, where some "aggrieved" people (I'm not sure if I want to call them "fans") are trying to manipulate the results of the Hugo Awards. Jemisin by the way, won this year's Best Novel Hugo Award with The Fifth Season. (The Atlantic spoke with Jemisin after she won, and she is both articulate and thoughtful about her books, and what drives her as a writer.)For me, what's interesting about Jemisin's stories is her narrative on power - how we would seek to control those with power, because we fear them, and because we seek their power to serve us. In The Fifth Season, the orogenes are brought up to be trained in controlling their powers, and to serve the Fulcrum - the faceless authority in their world. However, those who are not able to control their powers are taken away. Brutal brain surgery were performed on them to reduce them to a zombie state, strapped to a wire chair, and sent to node stations across the country, so use their powers to repel earthquakes etc. It is one of the more disturbing part of the book, but so powerful as it set up the motivation for the characters later, as this is a cruel, unjust social system that needs to be broken, so that one might build something better.I love her stories that dare says, we cannot look away from a cruel, unjust system, and we need to have the courage and the strength to change it, [...]



Started reading Just Kids

2016-08-16T05:20:38.358+08:00

I took a break from blog several years ago. I was in another country, overworked, sometimes working 18 hours a day 7 days a week, often insomniac, imbibed too much coffee, and generally troubled and unhappy. I couldn't focus my thoughts enough, or get them to a coherent string to write. Maybe there's something to this malaise of being unable to write for a long time.

There's also been my experimentation with social media. The more I get into the various platform, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc, the less I write. I pretend I was generating content on the other media, but as I truly examine my posts - often, I was merely reposting other people's stuff, and not creating my own. I wasn't articulating my true inner voice. But I have a sense that to write again, I need to read, again.

So many distractions these days, from reading. Just playing on my iPhone sucks the time away. But reading is so much a part of calming the mind. Why have I neglected my friends, my books?

I picked up Patti Smith's Just Kids last night. I bought it a while ago, full of inspirations, determined to read Patti Smith's lyrical prose, and about her profound friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, about art, about being an artist. The pages were yellow, and spotted with yellow, the result of acid reactions on the paper.I bought it, and have left it unread for too long.

I'm a few pages in. Her writing lulls me into a state of quiet. The words are simple, but taut with memories, elegant even.

Much has been said about Robert, and more will be added. Young men will adopt his gait. Young girls will wear white dresses and mourn his curls. He will be condemned and adored. His excesses damned or romanticized. In the end, truth will be found in his work, the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away. Man cannot judge it. For art sings of God, and ultimately belongs to him.



BOOKS | White Sands: Experience from the Outside World

2016-08-15T06:38:01.044+08:00

The best things about deleting Pokemon Go from my phone was that I finally found myself reading again. Granted, I am still not reading as much as I would like to, but some reading on the bus is still better than nothing; still a lot better than wasting it trying to catch Poke stops to refill my Poke balls, and catching Pokemons. Yep, I was one of those people.

I finished Geoff Dyer's White Sands eventually. I was still one day late to return it to the library. What can you do about it, right?

The thing that caught my attention in the beginning (the Author's Note part of the book) was how he stated that the book was "a mixture of fiction and non-fiction". He explained, or maybe just stated, "The main point is that the book does not demand to be read according to how far from a presumed dividing line--a line separating certain forms and the expectations they engender--it is assumed to stand. In this regard 'White Sands' is both the figure at the centre of the carpet and a blank space on the map."

A little cheeky, and it reminded me of the time when we had to do Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines for a literature class, and some of us were a little perturbed at the idea that while the narrator is known as Bruce Chatwin, Bruce Chatwin the narrator might not be Bruce Chatwin the author; Bruce Chatwin the narrator might just be a fictional construct of the author, and the book might not be meant as non-fiction. Now Geoff Dyer seems to be doing something similar, subverting the expectations of the readers, or just simply refusing to play by the conventions of genre or classification.

So what exactly is this book about? Well, I'm not totally sure. It's about going somewhere else, and not necessarily always somewhere geographically somewhere else. He wrote about going to China, to Tahiti, living in Los Angeles -- but along the way, he also ruminated on his childhood, thoughts on looking at certain pictures and art. I guess ultimately, this is a book about how we see: within and without.

From White Sands:

What is the difference between seeing something and not seeing it? More specifically, what is the difference between seeing Tahiti and not seeing it, between going to Tahiti and not going? The answer to that, an answer that is actually an answer to an entirely different question, is that it is possible to go to Tahiti without seeing it.

This quote drew a nod from me, because it is possible to look at a piece of art, and not see it - not understand it. It is also possible (and it happens a lot of the time) to be somewhere and not see what surrounds us. To be talking to someone, and not be communicating. To know something, and not see them.

Or I might be wrong. Either way, it had been an enjoyable book.




Some Thoughts on a Recent Trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia

2016-08-05T02:32:22.179+08:00

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I was in Yogyakarta, Indonesia last weekend. It was a quick 4 days break - what I usually call a "mental health break", so vital to emotional and spiritual well-being. Was there any great revelations? No. Was it restful? Slightly - and I got a mild sunburn along the way too. Was it fun? It was okay.

I used to speak of travel as the great spiritual journey, wandering to discover oneself. But slowly and gradually, I have come to accept that the journey itself is slow to unfold. Between the moments of great adventure is a lot of boredom and discomfort in between. You have to get over the dull, painful parts to get to the fun parts - and you probably only appreciate it later (or sometimes, not at all), when you look back.

Was Yogyakarta one of those things that I will look back and appreciate? Maybe. I was told by people who went there a few times that the best way to get around was to hire a driver. However, I was curious about the local buses that brought you to Borobudur, and Prambana - the two famous UNESCO Heritage sites in Yogyakarta. Against the advice of the more experienced, I tried taking the local buses. It was comfort - but I did manage to get seats during my journey. The trip to Borobudur took more than two hours each way. I was charged more than the locals, because I was a tourist. But was it worth it? I felt just that little bit proud of myself for taking the bus in a foreign country. Was it a big deal? Yes, to me. Because while I would probably never admit it to friends - I was afraid.

That was the key to why traveling is so important to me; I am afraid most of the time. Yet, little by little when I do the things that scare me, a mundane thing like taking the bus - in a foreign country, makes me feel just that little bit braver.

Travel has constantly reminded me of the kindness of strangers. I travel alone, usually. It's moments like these, where taken out of the familiar, and forced to pay attention, I noticed the little things that people do for me, like letting me know there's a free seat on the bus, giving me advice about the local bus routes, letting me know where the public restrooms are. Minor things yes, but I find myself being grateful - more grateful than I ever was back home, for these little gestures. The only difference lies in my physical location, and my attitude to them.

So, my advice is: travel. It nudges you into little things. After a lifetime of travel, you will look back, and it will be worth it. Unless you close your heart to all things beautiful and profound, then all you will have are cheap souvenirs and maybe even bitter memories of people cheating you of your tourist dollars.




The ironically f-ugly Elena Ferrante book covers

2016-07-07T15:54:28.177+08:00

I was curious about the series of novels from Italian author Elena Ferrante last year. What kept me from purchasing the books though were the horrendous covers. Oh gawd - they look pastel and vulgar, like those dull novels about dutiful daughters, and long-suffering wives that I cannot endure. But I did read a few pages of the first book once, and I found the writing interesting enough to want to continue. But - but - the covers. My prejudices won, and I had not ventured to read the series. There was something about holding those awful covers in my hands. I picked up the Australian version of the first book though. One is thankful for the Australian covers.Why such bad covers? Really. Why? You would think with the phenomenal sales, the publisher could have gone with a better look.So, I came across this essay from The Atlantic recently, and it seems the choice for the bad covers were deliberate, the intention ironic. Although, these ironic covers were so universally despised (Ha! It's not just me! Yes, while having a popular opinion does not automatically validate my prejudice, at least I am not alone in my bigotry of awful book covers), the publisher were a little concerned: The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressed concern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.” So what is the game?...In interviews, Ferrante has said that the ambition of her writing is to make “the facts of ordinary life […] extraordinarily gripping when read,” which well captures the genius of her fiction. It also captures the genius of her bad covers. Although the U.S. dustjackets are far from gripping, they’re wholly, unapologetically domestic. And by binding her novels with domestic images, Ferrante insists that the women’s domestic lives are as literary as any others. Her covers don’t deny the possibility that the Neapolitan novels could be construed as “women’s fiction”; they argue that her novels are “women’s fiction,” whether or not they’re compatible with modern romance. Her fiction testifies that women’s stories are important not because they’re universal, but precisely because they’re specific—because women’s experience of their “sex and its difference,” as Ferrante has described her subject, are worthy of art, and worth reading about. The covers were chosen by Elena Ferrante herself. Ah. Author's intent. I appreciate irony, and I get the implication that our aversion to these stereotypical images is as much about our own snobbery of what "women fiction" is about. Yeah, I get that. But irony just isn't enough justification for how f-ugly the covers are. So far the covers haven't really hurt the sales, so I guess we're stuck with the ugly covers. Thank goodness for the Australian covers though. From the designer of the Australian covers: Everyone initially involved in the Australian edition of My Brilliant Friend – publisher, editor, marketing and publicity – was of one mind about the original Italian cover: “no”’ [source]Thank you, Australians. [...]



Story of Ultramarine

2016-06-08T20:35:51.665+08:00

A brief history of Ultramarine, from the Pari Review. Stories about colours always intrigue me. I feel like I should collect these stories about colours in notebooks with coloured covered - blue notebook for the stories about blue in all its shades etc.




Read these books. Be a Better Person. It's Easy

2016-06-02T00:35:51.990+08:00

Just saw this on The Guardian: Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person. I used to buy for the Self-Help section in the bookstore I worked for. Some Self-Help books make more sense than others. At least this list isn't about recommending Coelho's The Alchemist (boring), Carnegie's How to Make Friends and Influence People (meh), or Tolle's The Power of Now (you realise he's just repackaging other people's ideas and selling it back to you, right?).

This list seems more like a introduction to soul-stirring prose that raises your consciousness.

Then a thought hit me: What if I don't want to be a better person? What if I just want to know about myself, as I am, warts and all, and not need to feel like I am not good enough, and I need to be better? What if I am good enough, imperfect as I am?

What if I don't believe books will make me a better person? What if I believe reading all the books in the world wouldn't mean anything unless you also live a full, rich life? Learning and reading might give you knowledge, give you a clue on what to do, where to go - depending on what you read. What if I believe what will actually make you a better person is experience. Doing stuff. Connecting with people. Living life. Learning from mistakes. Rinse and repeat.

Why do people think reading a few books will make you a better person? That's crazy. What might work for him, might not work for you. What makes this writer's life experiences better than yours? His life is his, just was your life is yours. What he brings to the reading of the book, will be different from yours.

This article makes me want to throw a book at the writer.




Some books bought, and things said that made me roll my eyes

2016-05-31T22:58:58.683+08:00

I had a grand plan to reduce my spending on books this year. It was a good plan, a frugal, prudent one. It went very well early part of this year, but now that we are in May, it seems to have faltered a little. I was in a bookstore, and well - things just happened.

There was some self-restraint. I didn't buy over the store. Just two books - yes, entirely forgivable. There was this nice title I saw, Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind. It was one of those ideas that stuck with me when I first started reading about the Culinary Institute of America, and their work ethics - which was also something shared by chef like Thomas Keller etc. The idea of the mise-en-place; the ruthless organisation of their work space so that all energy is kept to its most efficient, and no energy is wasted. I wondered if this was something that could be applied to other areas. It would probably be an intense and highly focused way to live our lives. Some might even call it OCD. Perhaps I just want some focus in my life right now, so this work just looks really interesting.

Next up, Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City. My readings reflect my travel interests - which often revolve around places and history I'm more interested in the history and culture of a city than its shopping. I have been looking at Prague lately, so it would be interesting to read up on it. Just as an aside, when I mentioned my interest in Prague, a friend asked if I was going to also make a trip to Vienna, to Salzburg. I said no. And then there was a confused, "Why not? That's what everyone do." This was the kind of statement that makes me roll my eyes.

To each their own. Your travel plans are yours alone, and while it's good to take advice from time to time, you are not obliged to follow the itinerary or travel plans of others, just because it has been done before. Same with reading, you don't have to read what others are reading. You don't have to always read the award winners, or the bestsellers, or those books recommended by famous people - though it's not a crime to just put those recommendations under consideration either. But - follow your our heart, and try something new, once in a while - because you want to, not because someone else told you to.




BOOK | Reading "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu"

2016-05-29T22:13:34.216+08:00

I have to admit - the title was titillating: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hint of Indiana Jones, exotic location and well, bad-assery. What do I actually know about Timbuktu? I know the saying, "from here to timbuktu" from school - which basically means a faraway no-man's land. A friend of mine once mentioned she wanted to go to Timbuktu.

"Why?" I asked.

"Just so you can say, 'Hey, I've been to Timbuktu!'" she laughed. And why not?

I wouldn't know where to locate Timbuktu on a map, but thanks to the book, I now know it's a part of the African state of Mali, the place where guitarist Ali Farka Toure came from.

Timbuktu's story is a familiar one. From the 13th-16th centuries, it was the seat of great Islamic scholarship and the centre of vibrant trade. The scholars sought out Islamic texts and manuscripts and brought it to the city. There was a flourishing trade in manuscripts in the city - this was a city that prided itself on its learning, that traded in the written word, and knowledge. Over time, the city's fortunes fall. The manuscripts scattered, hidden, kept in private hands, or lost. The story of the book started with a man, Abdel Kader Haidara. His father was a reputable scholar, and after the father's death, Abdel Kader Haidara was approached, and asked to be help seek out the lost manuscripts. At first reluctant (Abdel Kader had planned to become a merchant), but he was eventually roped into the job, and became a manuscript hunter of a sort - a job he became very good at, eventually setting up his own great library, responsible for the conservation and collection of many precious manuscripts.

Then the story turns, and we get the background of the growing Islamic fundamentalist militarism in the region. Then the local government was overthrown by rebels, and their president fled. Suddenly, the world changed and the manuscripts were under threats from destruction, because ignorant men will always want to destroy those things that they do not understand. It saddens me that this is a familiar tale, and we are no closer to ending this sort of ignorance. In fact, the rise of powerful ignorance seems to be growing in our world today. And it makes me afraid, that it might come to a point one day when it would be punishable by death to read.

But that is something for another day, and may it never come. The book tells of brave librarians, people who understand the value of the written word. They will risk their lives to preserve it. We need more librarians like these, even though I understand that not all librarians will risk their lives to preserve books. Sometimes though, I just need to remind myself that there are still people who will stand up and do the right thing.




Mary Beard and SPQR

2016-04-24T21:47:18.651+08:00

I'm still barely mid-way through Mary Beard's SPQR. It's definitely a door-stopper, and an absorbing read that does not compromise on its scholarship. Life however, made it difficult to sit down with a good door every day. Okay, I also have to admit that my habit of reading several books at a time makes it hard to focus on big books like SPQR.

Saw the feature on Mary Beard yesterday, on The Guardian. She seems to me the sort of professor that would intimidate me back in the university - outspoken and takes no bullshit. She's something of a celebrity academic now, although she didn't ease into the position. Rather, the story of how she came to be on TV is quite interesting:

“It was [then BBC executive] Janice Hadlow who convinced me, basically on a feminist ticket. I thought it would be a waste of time, and she said: ‘You’re one of the people who says that television documentaries are presented by craggy old men, and now I’m offering you a documentary and you don’t want to do it? Money where mouth is, dear.’”

I respect a woman who has enough self-awareness to realize she has to stand by her words. Also, a good reminder to all women who complain that media is dominated by the male voice - all the more reason we have to step up and speak up. Loudly. Mary Beard isn't your typical glamour queen in front of the TV, but this makes her all the more endearing to me. She's intelligent, and she knows her worth, and really, getting dressed up to impress people in front of the camera is just not something she's interested in. She gets her fair share of trolls - seems like the era of social media just means we get more nasty along the way. Yet, she stands up to them. Mary Beard is the kind of woman you dream your daughters grow up to be, if they are intelligent and hardworking enough.

I love that she calls out the bullshit. She's spent her life among the classics, and she knows the hypocrisy of it - that it's useful as a rhetoric for many, but the same people who decry the destruction of art and culture wouldn't pay two cents worth to preserve it:

“I think the other thing that has bothered me about Palmyra: in some ways, everybody’s got a right to speak, but there’s an awful lot of commentating about its importance and wonder by people who, until Isis took over, had no clue what it was and would probably, if asked to provide some government money to do archeological research, have said that it was a complete waste of money.”

Fan girl moment is over. Time to continue reading SPQR. The paperback is out, which makes me wonder if I should continue with my hardcover from the library, or just get a copy of the paperback to highlight and flag with Post Its.




Story about a Don Quixote of Literacy to Remind me of Good in the World

2016-04-14T00:06:51.001+08:00

Sometimes the evil things people do in the world gets me down. I try not to be too affected by negativity, but it does get to me eventually. There was this quote I read once from Mister Rogers, about what his mother said to him when bad things happen. She told him to, "Look for the helpers. You'll always find someone helping."

This is partly why I try to collect tales of people just spreading goodness in the world, because they want to. Like this story I saw recently while I was sick: This man in Indonesia, Ridwan Sururi has been providing a modest library for children at a remote village called Serang in central Java. He brings them library books on horseback. A "Don Quixote of Literacy".

I like to imagine the smiles and laughters on the children 's faces when the horse library comes into the village, and as they pick out the book they get to borrow for three days. We who are more affluent have forgotten the simple joys of having just a book in hand, and is it any surprise when parents complain their children don't read anymore?

I would like to see more of this kind of goodness in the world.



The One Big Advantage of Kindle Today

2016-04-09T13:09:23.407+08:00

I worked in a bookstore for a good nine years. As far as things go, I am still a supporter of the traditional brick and mortar bookstore, and of the physical book. It took me a while to try reading a book off the iPad, then the Kindle . For travels, the Kindle does offer some advantages.

But today I have to admit there's something very convincing about having ebooks - the speed of getting your favourite books. The library and bookstores over here have not acquired the latest titles in the Mary Russell series - The Murder of Mary Russell. I decided not to wait anymore. The suspense is too much. So I went the kindle-way for a copy.

Will be spending my weekend with a good ebook this weekend. Cheers to technology.




Releasing Books Into the Wild!

2016-04-01T00:32:17.953+08:00

A friend posted this story about how a guy has been leaving stacks of books around New York City, with an email, and asking people to email him when they pick it up. In Bookcrossing term, it's apparently called a "wild release". This sets me wondering - I'm trying to declutter, and this seems like a great idea. Might be fun.




Carrie Brownstein at Wheeler Centre

2016-03-31T00:25:20.093+08:00

I was in Melbourne early March for the Sleater-Kinney concerts at The Croxton, and for Madonna. I regret however that I did not learn of Carrie Brownstein's appearance at the Wheeler Centre when I was there. I would have loved to hear her speak. She is a good writer, very articulate, and definitely a writer with a powerful and distinctive voice. Thankfully, they made the talk available on youtube finally.

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Hunger makes me a modern girl: Carrie Brownstein, All About Women 2016

2016-03-15T16:13:27.238+08:00

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Goodbye Harper Lee

2016-02-20T07:01:03.440+08:00

2016 seems fraught with celebrity deaths. This was followed earlier with the news that Harper Lee had passed away at the age of 89. She lived to a good age, nevertheless, the news was sad.

Personally, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the few books that I would claim truly helped defined my life. I read it was I was a teenager, when it was assigned to us - not part of the curriculum, but extra reading to help encourage and improve our reading habit. I was one of the few amongst my friends who finished the book, and loved it - and went on to tell everyone who had not read it the synopsis. The book resonated with my sense of what's important in life, back when I was just a teenager, and even now: kindness, courage, justice and most of all - doing the right thing even if everything and everyone seems to be against you. Who can forget this quote from Atticus Finch to his children:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what

I did not pick up the supposed sequel - partly because of the controversy that it might not have been the author's wish to publish the book in the first place. There were also people who read it and claimed it was somewhat disappointing; I decided I wasn't going to ruin my memory of the original by reading the Go Set a Watchman. Sometimes, we need to know when to step back and walk away.

Someone once said to me that she wasn't a great writer because she only wrote one book in her entire life. I replied, "But most writers never managed to write one great book; she wrote only one, but it was so great."

Charles J. Shields, who wrote the biography on Harper Lee, Mockingbird, said this of Lee: "She just wanted to be comfortable in her own skin". As a tom-boy growing up, I understood this desire to just be left alone to be my own person, to be comfortable in my own skin. It was one of those revelations that warmed me to the author beyond the book.

Rest in Peace, Miss Lee, and thank you for that one great book.




BOOKS | Girl Waits with Gun

2016-02-14T23:42:05.479+08:00

Some books, while good, have demands slow reading because they are so dense. Then there are the other types of books that are fun to read, and the writer knows how to pace the narrative so that there's a momentum that keeps you turning the pages - and before you know it, you're done and asking for more.

I was so glad to pick up Amy Stewart's Girl Waits with Gun. Amy Stewart took the characters of Constance Kopp and her sisters straight out of the newspapers from 1914-1915, and created this funny, historical pastiche of one of the early female Deputy Sheriff in the United States of America. All three Kopp sisters are funny caricatures, and their dynamics was the main part of the entertainment.

The story began when the Kopp sisters' trolley was knocked over by an automobile, owned by a rich man, Henry Kaufman, with shady connections. The Kopp sisters asked for compensation, and what followed was a series of events set out to intimidate them - bricks thrown through their windows, their house was also set on fire, and letters threatening to sell the youngest sister into white slavery. What I love about the story is how the sisters, while under considerable duress, never gave in to become the victims. We need more books abut women standing up for themselves, and looking out for each other.

This, and catching Deadpool at the cinema was a good conclusion to a Sunday.

I have my eyes out for Amy Stewart's other books. There's supposed to be a second Kopp Sisters titles out later this year in September. I hope it's as good, or even better than this one. Meanwhile, I am curious about The Drunken Botanist. How can I not be curious about a book about the plants behind our alcoholic beverages?



BOOKS | H is for Hawk

2016-02-08T18:39:20.654+08:00

I've just finished reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. My reading journal tells me that I started the book May of last year, and I finished it in February of this year. It took me a while, through no fault of the book itself. Life, and my short attention span made it so.

The book isn't always an easy read - partly because it's a few narrative threads running through, and because it is essentially a book on grief, on memories. Helen Macdonald tells of her experience trying to raise a hunting goshawk, even as she narrates the story of author T.H. White's (the author of The Once and Future King, the re-telling of the young Arthur's training under Merlyn) own neurotic attempt to raise a goshawk. For T.H. White, the desire to raise a goshawk comes from some self-seated self-loathing and anxieties over his own repressed homosexuality, for Helen Macdonald, it came soon after the death of her beloved father.

The two narratives run side by side in a somewhat lopsided fashion. T.H. White's narrative makes him seem like an odd, silly little man, throwing himself towards danger his entire life to prove his own masculinity to himself. That is sad, really, because he never could master the goshawk, and in the end lost it, by sheer negligence. Meanwhile, Helen Macdonald's grief was palpable through out the book, and her goshawk feels feral, alien and emotionally unavailable (I can't believe I am using this term for a bird of prey). The human trying to master the goshawk, and both learning that they would never quite tame the creature that is violence and murder, and both wondering if perhaps there is something within themselves that has been found wanting by their goshawk.

In the end, grief resolves itself. Nothing changed. Macdonald's hands are full of scars from the goshawk, and then there are the other scars, unseen. Yet time does heal, and she moved on, as she ends the book with her passing the goshawk to a friend for a few month; the goshawk would be moulting soon, and the next time she sees the goshawk, it shall be with a new set of feathers, and she will be different. Perhaps, that is Macdonald's own process of moulting, of shedding old grief, and growing new ones.

PS: Mid-way through the book last night, I came across a mention of Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring in H is for Hawk. It was an odd sort of synchronicity, because I had just picked up Olivia Laing's To the River earlier from the library. Soon after I finished H is for Hawk, I picked up and read To the River, and there in the page listing the Illustrations, was this credit: Map of the River Ouse, by Helen Macdonald.

Sometimes, it seems like my books are talking to one another, and they lead us to their friends by whispering to us through the pages.



BOOKS | "The bad news is that I haven't written anything"

2016-01-31T02:38:19.886+08:00

I finished reading Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air this afternoon. Before this, some of my ex-colleagues were talking about the book, and I was curious when they seem to think they would cry buckets reading it, even before they had even started on the book. Why do they assume that? I wondered.

The author was a neurosurgeon who discovered he had lung cancer when he was in the 30s. Faced with the prospect of death, he began writing this book. He passed away before he could finish the book, and his wife, Lucy, ended it with an afterword.

It was a contemplative read. Kalanithi was a man of the arts and the sciences. I admired his insights, his questions, and how he truly believed in making meaning of his life's work.
I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. 
Paul Kalanithi was truly an amazing man. A brilliant neurosurgeon, a kind man, and someone who could recite the poems of T.S. Eliot from memory. It should not have to take a medical emergency to force us to examine the meaning of our lives, yet most of the time, that's what is necessary. While reading the book, it does in a way lead me to consider how I am using the time in my own life, and those important questions. It was beautifully summed up in Lucy's afterword:
When Paul emailed his best friend in May 2013 to inform him that he had terminal cancer, he wrote, "The good news is I've already outlived two Brontes, Keats, and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven't written anything." 
It is not just about how long you have lived - but what have you done. Time to start writing.

Now.




Jan Morris, on her writing

2016-01-25T06:10:44.535+08:00

Jan Morris, in an interview:

I believe you aren’t fond of the term “travel writer” - what do you prefer? Are you more of a historian of place in books like Venice?
Yes, I hate being called a travel writer. I have written only one book about travel, concerning a journey across the Oman desert. I have written many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history. In fact, though, they are one and all about the effects of everything upon me – my books amount to one enormously self-centred autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply – a writer …