Bookcase

A YEAR OF BOOKS 

I am a little late in doing an Oprah, but better late than never. In one of the Oprah newsletters I receive regularly in my mailbox appeared Amy Shearn’s article titled “11 Things Every Woman Should Write Down Before the Year Ends”. Perusing her list, I settled on borrowing one of Shearn’s suggestions: the read it list.
Reading is a refuge, hobby, and passion. For 2017, the genres were varied. Two of the books are still unfinished: Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” and “The Witches – Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff. Calvino’s novel presents a difficulty for me particularly one of the characters who is a loner and seem to unable to fit in. Oddly enough, I can stand the other characters whom I read with detached interest. I am more than half way done anyway. Meanwhile, I drown in the trial details in Schiff’s work which cross the borders of incredulity, but, as I quietly tell myself, it was how the trials were in those days. I find myself arguing silently with the presiding magistrates and commiserating with the accused. It is interesting, but the flow isn’t as smooth as Schiff’s book on Cleopatra’s life.

I read Paulo Coehlo’s “The Spy” within a day because the prose was easy. It stoked my interest further to learn more about the famed Matahari because although Coehlo based his new book on the released documents on Matahari he also recreated parts of the story. The structure reminded me so much of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, which wove brilliantly non-fiction and fiction. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys was an engaging ride with the twists and turns wrought upon the lives of Fat Charlie and his estranged brother “Spider”, sons of the West African trickster god, Anansi, after his sudden death in a karaoke bar while singing to a young woman.

Changing course, I jumped into juvenile literature by diving into a book lent to me by a former student. “The Merciless” by Danelle Vega proved engaging because it combined the macabre sense of Edgar Allan Poe sprinkled with a bit of the supernatural and a touch of the plot of the iconic “Mean Girls” film. It gave me an insight to the new generation of Western teenagers and their concerns. The other book was much lighter then Vega’s book. Rick Riordan’s third installment of the Magnus Chase and The Gods of Asgard – Ship of the Dead, was a welcome respite from the dark vibe of The Merciless with its characters’ funny quips, the sarcastic humor alluding to modern teenage life, and the reworking of traditional Norse mythology. The third juvenile fiction was Caraval by Stephanie Garber that presented a new take on fairy tale. It was a shade darker in terms of a damsel finding her prince with the right touch of suspense which I found refreshing.

Quitting juvenile fiction, I plunged into an author new to me, JG Ballard, and his work “High-Rise”.The impetus to read it was admittedly because of Tom Hiddleston who talked about it in one interview. But somehow life got in the way until I saw a reissue of it at Kinokuniya and the impetus kicked in again because gracing the cover was Tom Hiddleston who played Dr Robert Laing in the movie adaptation. Hiddleston aside, the opening paragraph on Dr Laing’s meal had me riveted – stunned but riveted. I had to be certain that what I read about the Alsatian was correct. From Ballard, I ventured into the complicated but riveting prose of Henry James in his “The Turn of the Screw” where I emerged gobsmacked with the steady development of the characters and the turn of events.

Then I went back to my favorite genre, mystery, and got reacquainted again with the former servant girl-turned-nurse who later transmogrified into a detective-psychologist Maisie Dobbs in Jacqueline Winspear’s “An Incomplete Revenge”. Maisie Dobbs brings the reader back to the traditional way of detective work much like Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and Ms Marple where sleuthing methods relied on the “grey matter” and good old-fashioned gumshoe work.


Closing the read-it list for 2017 are “A Zoo in my Luggage” by George Durrell and “Bad Girl” by Mario Vargas Llosa. Durrell’s book chronicled his adventures and misadventures on his trip to the British Cameroons in West Africa to collect animals for the zoo he planned to open in England. The former British naturalist – zookeeper- conservationist, author, and TV presenter regaled the readers – including me – with his hilarious experiences in capturing animals and how he maintained order in his menagerie of wild creatures. I caught people from the corner of my eye staring when I chuckled. A gaping jaw was what people would have seen if they looked my way when I was reading Llosa’s novel which was a complete departure from his usual work steeped in South American politics. Nonetheless, like his other works, his love story was also heavy. It dissected the concept of love peddled by society. Love in Llosa’s hands gives the reader the no-Cinderella-ending reality in the expectations-reality dichotomy. The bottomline: there is nothing nice and sweet about loving someone.

2018 will still see me reading. In fact, the new year is waiting for me to flatten my one and half tsundoku in my flat, and waiting to be opened is Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mystery of Udolpho”, another recommendation by “Professor” Tom Hiddleston.

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Bookcase

TOM’S HIGH-RISE UNIT

The impetus to read J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was admittedly because of Tom Hiddleston who talked about it in one interview as he was part of the movie cast. But somehow life got in the way and reading High-Rise took a backseat until I saw a reissue of it at Kinokuniya, Plaza Senayan. The impetus kicked in again because gracing the cover was Tom Hiddleston who played one of the primary characters in the book, Dr Robert Laing.

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Hiddleston aside, the opening paragraph on Dr Laing’s meal had me riveted – stunned but riveted. I had to be certain that what I read about the Alsatian was correct. The prose is straightforward in its description of what happens in the modern tower block and the tenant-characters’ physical attributes and emotions as chaos descended upon the expensive high-rise. Written in the mid ‘70s, I was struck by its verisimilitude with the current world situation of, among other things, society plummeting into the abyss of primal behavior, of the disintegration of order, and of the triviality of human lives. The chaos is almost palpable; it’s as if you’re watching it but through the novel.

Plot-wise, you push on to see how the narrative would come to an end. I personally like to read how a plot comes to its denouement if there is one. In High-rise, you read the breakdown in the high-tech 43-storey London skyscraper, a microcosm of society in general, which burst the bubble of tension long present in the socially-demarcated high-rise giving rise to mayhem. Tenants fight tooth and nail for survival and domination; most are caught up in their narcissistic visions of entitlement while some, like Laing, walk the thin line of sanity and insanity. Who wouldn’t be interested in finding out the resolution?

Character-wise, each comes alive with his/her idiosyncrasy, i.e. the truculent television producer Richard Wilder and his mousy wife, Helen; Anthony Royal, architect of the tower block, who seem to revel at the disintegration of order within his creation; and Laing who struggles between rationality and going off the deep end.

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Human behavior has always fascinated me and learning how each character turned out, how each dealt with the bedlam, kept me turning the page onto the next until the last page. There is something interesting about characters falling into the abyss of irrational behavior while trying to be less foolish in their actions.