Just how much of the past two-and-a-half years do you remember?
For example, do you recall that when COVID-19 vaccinations were first introduced, rumour had it that the vaccines contained microchips and were part of an Illuminati plot to control the world? Or that at one point, restrictions had become so severe that regular people were forced to fly the white flag outside their homes to signify their distress and cry for help? Or that a local entrepreneur had tried to cynically flog halal rubber slippers in the midst of the pandemic?
I’ll be the first to admit that I recall painfully few of these developments, even the really serious ones like the raising of the white flag. Or that other really serious one, i.e. the Emergency ordinance that was in place from January to August 2021. Do you remember how outraged you were when Parliament was suspended or the anxiety you felt about the uncertain direction of the country? In hindsight, these were all but farts in the wind: they happened, they made a big stink and then they went away.
And yet, it somehow feels important that these developments should be remembered. As a former journalist, I had believed—and continue to believe—that newspapers should be the chronicler of these events, to write the first draft of history. Unfortunately we don’t really have one, singular compiler of events anymore, not with the way media is run these days. Fortunately, however, we have Ernest Ng and we have If Malaysia Was Anime: Covidball Z.
From a Facebook webcomic born out of sheer boredom to a much-anticipated serial that brought laughter and light into the MCO-restricted lives of Malaysians , Covidball is now a published comic (seven volumes and counting!). Narrated as an epic battle between humanity and invading aliens—Ernest makes no pretence that this comic borrows heavily, including its title, from Akira Toriyama’s classic manga Dragon Ball—Covidball hilariously documents the funnier-than-fiction reality of Malaysian life and politics.
The series’ main arc is focused on Malaysia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, peppered with various non sequiturs and strange happenings along the way. Importantly, Covidball assembles much of these happenings in a single, unifying story, although admittedly, some of the more obscure references still required some Googling. What Ernestdoes so well, and in the opinion of this writer better than his contemporaries, is the way he points to Malaysians to say, “Look how ridiculous we are!” (And let’s face it, we are indeed ridiculous!) Covidball works because it doesn’t spare anyone—not even itself—from its purview. As a result of which, Ernest’s satire does not feel patronising or antagonistic. Rather, it feels more like the cheeky observations of that slightly-too-clever cousin who’s always there poking fun at familial foibles in all the gatherings.
Thanks to the inclusivity of Covidball, Ernest has created a communal platform which, despite being satirical, cannot be construed to be cruel. I have been reliably informed that even politicians—who are usually the butt of the joke in Covidball—like the comic; it could be because Ernest tends to render politicians in the book quite flatteringly: where else would any of our Prime Ministers be drawn with six-pack abs?
As booksellers, Elaine and I constantly work through an endless pile of books to determine their suitability for our shelves. We usually divvy up the books between us and avoid reading the same book to speed up the assessment process (which makes for interesting book conversation, because rather than discussing something we had read together, we are almost always telling each other about the book that we just read). It’s not often that we would say to the other person, ‘Hey, you need to read this book’ but she said just that after finishing Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars several months ago. I mumbled, ‘Okay, I’ll get around to it,’ and left it at that. But several weeks ago, she’d thrown the book at me, metaphorically speaking, and said ‘Read It!’, because the author was going to be making an appearance at our shop and I Needed To Read The Book. And so I did.
At first blush, We Could Not See the Starsis a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate Malaysia populated by emigrant Chinese in which Manglish is spoken exclusively. The story begins in Kampung Seng, a small fishing village on the west coast of the Peninsula, where our protagonist, Han, lives the quiet, unassuming life of a rural fisherman. He schleps for his rich uncle — Tauke Lim — who owns the largest fishing operation in the kampung and spends his days aimlessly rooting around, despite his young age. What sets Han apart from all others, however, is his spotty provenance: his mother, Swee, had suddenly appeared at Kampung Seng with him in tow years ago armed with a mysterious looking spade, and never disclosed any information in regards to her origins or her family. That she would then deliberately run into the sea to her death several years later, leaving no clue as to her origins save for the odd-looking spade, would further deepen the mystery of the pair.
Han, who has little recollection of his mother and even less of their past, is phlegmatic about this void in his life even though he is plagued by dreams and fragments of memories embedded in his being. All this changes when his mother’s spade is stolen from his house — “She’s dead and I have nothing left of her!” — spurring Han to go after the thief, setting him off on a journey that will take closer than ever to the discovery of the truth of his heritage. His odyssey will see him leave his tiny kampung for the first time, taking him to the Capital in the Peninsula, then across the deadly Desert of the Birds, and finally across the sea into the Hei-San archipelago where the secret of his origins lies within the forest of Naga Tua.
First, a word about the language. It is clear from the off that Elizabeth Wong is adamantly writing a book about Malaysia, for Malaysians. However, there is also no doubt that she is writing about a specific setting of Malaysia and for a specific segment of Malaysians:
In their evenings, they lingered in the parking lot of the former Golden Star cinema. The last rays of sunlight flared across their motorcycles as they smoked their cigarettes, and the dust clouds from the main road billowed around them. Sometimes they would race from Golden Star to Liu’s prawn farms on the other side of the village, and back again… If they were at Boon Chee, they would watch football matches that were showing on the twenty-year-old Sony TV that hung over the entrance, next to Laughing Buddha looking at them. ‘Eh, boss, boss, more beer, peanuts also, why like that so slow?’ Chong Meng would holler, and the workers would scurry.
Those of us of a certain vintage and variety would certainly recall such locales: Chinese townships anchored by the local cinema — the Sentosa, Paramount and Ruby cinemas come to mind — supported by an enclave of petty merchants selling sundry items and fireworks under newspapers during Chinese New Year. The local patois would very much be dictated by the majority dialect group in the area, and if any English was spoken in these areas, it would be in the Manglish so deftly illustrated in the line of dialogue above. Even the cry of the rooster, which Wong phonetically dishes out as Goukokoko, is typically Manglish; nowhere else would you find a rooster’s cry written out in this way, in the same way that so many thousands of Chinese Malaysian mums have sounded the cry of the rooster to their children.
Indeed, all of Wong’s characters speak in Manglish in the novel. Nevertheless, it is a particularly Chinese Malaysian variety of Manglish that dominates in the book which leaves the question of, ‘What about the other races?’ unanswered. The fact of the matter is, the other races don’t feature in the book at all; or if they do, their distinguishing marks are subsumed under generalities and abstractions. (White men do make an appearance in the book, although they are, perhaps slightly pejoratively, described as the White Ghosts, a literal translation of the Cantonese term for Caucasians, gwai lo [鬼佬]. Before anyone loses their composure over this, it’s a very minor role and their presence more a function of world-building demarcating boundaries than anything else).
But there is a reason for the Chinese-Malaysian-centricity of the book. At its core, We Could Not See the Starsis a fable about the Chinese diaspora, and about the descendants of those who left the motherland for Nanyang in search of riches in these relatively virgin lands. It is about those of us who have been separated from our ancestral lands for generations, who have lost all bonds of familiarity with these lands, and yet hold on to a thin thread that ties us to a past and impels us to seek out our identity by following that thread of history. This theme is repeated in several passages through the novel:
We are all part of this world, Ah-ma explained, connected in this great shining net of humanity, and to belong in it fully, one needs a past, a history.
For we are stardust — we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planet forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death.
We Could Not See the Stars is not a perfect novel. I have some reservations about the pacing and the structure of the book, and there is a sense that the balance between world-building and plotting is slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, the book continues to resonate deeply within me because the problem of historicity and identity is one that I can strongly identify with. Going back to the metaphor of the thread of history which ties us to our past, we can also see that the thread thins and weakens with each successive generation. There will be a point of inflection in which the thread snaps altogether, and decisions will have to be made: about when and where we are to re-anchor ourselves, and to decide our part in the larger narrative. We will need to do this, because, as Wong tells us, to lose this history is death.
Join us for an author session with Elizabeth Wong in Lit Books on 6 Aug! Purchase tickets here.
Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.
The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.
On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles: I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.
While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…
On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character: Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.
The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.
On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories: There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.
When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.
On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery: Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.
On her favourite word: One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.
Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, we hosted our first in-person, in-store literary event on Saturday, 4 June, 2022. The occasion was to fete Malaysian author Shivani Sivagurunathan and her first full-length novel, Yalpanam, published by Penguin SEA last year. The novel is about the unlikely friendship of 185-year-old Pushpanayagi and her 18-year-old neighbour, Maxim Cheah, and how both would have to revisit the past in order to become whole persons and move forward in their lives.
Shivani, who is assistant professor in English and creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, spoke with Lit Books owner Fong Min Hun about the long journey it took to write her first full-length novel and the intricacies of the story and characters. Excerpts from the conversation is reproduced below.
Min Hun: How did you come to write this particular story and how long did it take you to write it? Shivani: It was a very convoluted journey because I started writing it in 2011 just after my first book was published, Wildlife on Coal Island, which is a collection of short stories. I was on a writing spree basically; something was unlocked within me. The first image that appeared with regards to this book was of Pushpanayagi herself. What I saw was a really fat old woman in a white saree doing a bit of gardening. It was a very compelling image. I saw that the garden was very fertile, almost Edenic, and at a slight distance was an old colonial-style house.
That was a very magnetic image that I started to follow and basically, image followed image followed image, and then a story was unfolding. The first half of the novel, right up to the point where Maxim moves into yalpanam, would flow beautifully. It was very engaging; I was really getting into the mood of writing. I felt very much in control. When I reached the middle point of the novel, things would just fall apart. I would be lost; it drove me mad. From 2011 to 2014 I was writing and rewriting this novel.
This book went through so many changes and finally in 2014, I put it away. I thought fiction writing isn’t for me; I’ll just go back to poetry. In retrospect I see that what had to happen was I had to grow up as a person and as a writer in order to complete this book. I put it aside, got a job teaching creative writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and frankly, that was the training I needed.
In 2018, I managed to score myself a sabbatical. I got six months off work to do something. Initially I was not planning to go back to this novel… I had a novella written in 2014 so I thought to return to that novella and work on that. But a writer friend of mine took me away to Tioman and encouraged me to go back to the novel. Very interestingly I realised that the distance, the time spent away from the manuscript, really helped me to see it more clearly. I could read it more objectively; I could see where it was problematic. I basically rewrote it.
MH: How autobiographical is this book? S: I’d say that all fiction is autobiographical; it’s just a question of how [much so]. This novel is not very overtly autobiographical but I definitely did draw on my complex relationship with my Sri-Lankan-Tamil heritage, exploring the complex relationship one can have with one’s own inheritances in terms of the question of displacement and the pain of feeling severed from one’s own culture.
MH: It’s a challenging book to read, Shivani, but at the same time rewarding. I find with a lot of difficult literature, if you persist with it, while there may be parts that you don’t fully understand, you find yourself rewarded by it at the end. Your book was one of those. There were two or three different timelines going on at the same time and at the start, I think you deliberately try to confuse your reader. For example in the book, you talk about the rupturing of the notions of reality and when I read that I thought to myself, ‘This is what Shivani is doing. She is trying to shake me out of this comfort zone from the very start of the book.’ Was that what you were trying to do?
S: Absolutely. I’m really glad that you experienced that. When the novel starts, we see Pushpanayagi, who’s basically been a recluse for close to seven decades. She lives in this house on her own, and the only person she meets is Hadi the vegetable seller who comes to her house to collect the vegetables that she grows; that’s how she earns a living. She’s been living in a state of stagnation for seven decades and she has a very myopic vision of reality, of the world, and of herself. The way she lives life is a very narrow way of living. The process of transformation that she goes through is a process of dismantling these fossilisations, a rupturing of this perception of reality that has basically kept her in a kind of paralysis.
Similarly, with Maxim — she’s been brought up in this very sheltered home, she’s been fed on a diet of certain beliefs and ideas that are very limiting. The journey that they’re both on is one of dismantling these encrustations and that necessitates a questioning of what they’ve been believing, a questioning of assumptions, and then seeing what else is there. It’s problematising reality, problematising what is. It’s saying that reality is so much bigger and so much more complex than we think it is. There are multiple versions, multiple perspectives. It’s sort of asking the reader also to consider what you’ve been taking for granted and saying let’s open up the world.
MH: Maxim wasn’t particularly enigmatic but I couldn’t figure her out. Why was she so hurt by her family’s circumstances that she felt the need to run away? Tell me more about Maxim and how she fits into this picture. S: Maxim is, you’re right, not a very enigmatic character. She’s also very young. There is a big contrast between someone who is 185 years old and an 18-year-old who is particularly emotionally immature. She’s a deeply lonely person. She’s friendless. She hasn’t really had that kind of training in looking at her emotions, at her interior world, and being able to process it and understand what’s going on. In terms of her response to her situation, I think it’s fitting for the kind of person that she is.
MH: There is something very broken about Maxim, or something fundamentally missing in her and we do get that part of the story later on when she tries to uncover her own secret history. You were talking about how reality is not all that it seems to be and there is something about reclaiming history and the past for an alternate future. So, this is a book about secret histories, isn’t it? S: To some extent, yes, the unearthing of stories that have not been heard before, the stories, the voices, the experiences and feelings that have been repressed that have been banished to some kind of psychical outer space that need to be aired in order for us to get a fuller perception of reality. What does it mean to open up reality? It is to bring in these perspectives that haven’t been seen before. In that sense, yes, there is a lot of secret histories that are coming to the surface.
MH: There does seem to be a lot of writing with a preoccupation with secret histories, or an attempt to try to flesh out the world as we know it through knowledge that was once known but perhaps now hidden or now lost. I’m wondering, why do you think there is this current in contemporary writing? Is it because we are somehow dissatisfied with who we are today? Is modernity so sterile and so limiting that we want to recover something about ourselves that we no longer have? S: That’s a great question. I think it comes, yes, from our dissatisfaction with who and what we are now because we feel lost in terms of our identity. Maybe we don’t feel like we’re grounded enough or that we understand where we are. What do you do if you you’ve lost your way? You can’t move forward without going back. There’s always something that occurred in the past that hasn’t been resolved, accepted or processed, that hasn’t been truly grasped. And so, we have to keep returning to the past in order to really understand where we are now.
MH: There are two very distinct voices throughout the book. One voice is very poetic, uses a lot of imagery and allegory. The other one is more straightforward prose. Was this tension between these two voices deliberate? S: Yes, in a very practical sense because there are actually three narrators in the novel. There’s Pushpanayagi’s point of view, there’s Maxim’s point of view, and then there’s a third unnamed narrator…. the grandiose, philosophical, poetic voice. I had to make sure that the language Maxim uses and the language that Pushpanayagi uses were authentic to the kind of people that they are. Maxim would never speak in very poetic, grandiose ways. For Pushpanayagi, in the initial stages of writing her, her voice did come out very poetic, but then as I clarified her voice, I realised that it wasn’t actually that philosophical or that dense. Then I realised that there was still space for a lyrical, philosophical voice, hence, the third narrator. I have a very clear idea of who or what that narrator is and it’s sort of related to the core of the story, which is asking metaphysical questions.
When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.
Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.
But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?
Four Treasures of the Skyis a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.
In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:
“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)
Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.
This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker,Four Treasures of the Skyis for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.
If there is a lesson to Keiichiro Hirano’s At the End of the Matinee, it is this: love endures. A quiet romance replete with all the clichés, Matinee can, nevertheless, resonate with the right reader at the right time. It is also a reminder that however much love can strike one like a bolt of lightning, a whole series of accidents and happenstances need to fall into place in order for love to work.
Matinee is the story of two people, Satoshi Makino and Yoko Komine. The former is a genius classical guitarist and the latter a renowned journalist. The two meet entirely by chance as they both reach what would be the first apex of their respective careers and were immediately drawn to each other. Their time together at the first meeting is short, but they would build their relationship through emails and video calls, finding succor in the company of the other even as they find their individual powers starting to wane.
But the course of true love never does run smooth, and the very deliberate intervention of Makino’s jealous suitor proves insurmountable for the pair. They separate and life goes on. They find new partners, start families but neither can shake the feeling that something essential is missing in their lives. They eventually come to know of the sequence of unfortunate events that had led to their break up, which brings with it some comfort. They are drawn again to each other, but has too much time passed, for better and for worse, to pick up where things had left off?
There is little that is new in Matinee but the old-fashioned charm it does possess makes for a refreshing read. The lovers are earnest and uncomplicated, and the relationship is derailed only due to the highly unlikely and malicious intervention of a third party, whose only function in the book, really, is to do just that. There are no last minute dashes to the airport—
He didn’t want to do anything that drastic—or rather, he didn’t want Yoko to put him in the position of having to do something that drastic… he had the painful feeling that going after her would not only make him into [sic] a pitiable figure but the fact that she’d made him go might also lower her ever so slightly in his estimation.
—because, let’s face it, those Hail Mary passes never work. Lofty discussions are liberally scattered throughout the dialogue to remind us that our lovers are forces of nature to be reckoned with, wholly constituted with intimate knowledge of Bach, art house films and philosophy.
It will be difficult to imagine At the End of the Matineestanding as a testament to the endurance of love or as a story of romance par excellence but there are certainly layers in the book that deserve further attention. There are pleasures to be had from the story, and the loftiness is told well enough to be interesting and only occasionally hint at their being artifices for a more profound truth. Worth picking up together with a nice chardonnay from the left bank.
What a doozy of a year 2021 turned out to be — trying in so many ways. But it is times like these that I am so grateful that I can turn to books and find solace, truth, and escapism. These are the five books that made an indelible impression on me this year.
Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger During the lowest moments of her life, Ella Risbridger found meaning, purpose, and catharsis in the act of cooking and baking. This book — which is a memoir, cookbook, and manifesto for living all rolled into one — was such a balm to read during this anxiety-ridden and despair-filled year. Risbridger’s evocative and conversational style of writing sparkles with warmth and sincerity, and it was a joy to follow along with her as she shared all kinds of wonderful recipes (which are easy to make for the most part) and told the stories associated with them: a burrata salad with plums that she first made in Rome where she went on a whim, and how baking challah bread and giving them away helped her in grieving her grandfather’s death. This gem of a book is an ode to living, and cooking and savouring food; it is a call to make for oneself a life worth living.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders What makes fiction good? This is the question that Saunders, the author of bestselling novels such as Lincoln in the Bardo, explores in this book. He takes readers on a delightful romp through seven short stories by Russian masters such as Chekov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol. And he does so in an accessible, entertaining way, revealing the technical craft behind great stories (there are even writing exercises included) and guiding readers to see the world with renewed curiosity. It articulates the reasons we get swept up in a story and conversely, why we don’t. It makes the case for why fiction is the lens through which we can see the truths that reality obscures, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. This literary master class gave me a new perspective on literature and life, and a fresh appreciation for great stories.
Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver takes the very serious topic of dying well and turns it into a darkly comic, thought-provoking work of wry humour and wit. The story is about Kay and her husband Cyril who decide that they want to exit this life with dignity when they reach the ripe old age of 80, and so they make a pact to commit suicide. Well, that’s one scenario, but what Shriver has done is imagine 12 other different ways this story could play out: from living in a terrifying retirement home, to waking up in an unrecognisable future from a cryogenic state, to taking a cure for ageing, and discovering the surprising pleasures of dementia. It is at turns touching and laugh-out-loud funny, sobering and irreverent. Along the way Shriver makes known her position on present-day issues including Brexit, mass migration and COVID-19, for better or worse. What’s undeniable, though, is how skilled of a writer Shriver is — this novel is brilliantly and masterfully executed.
We Could Not See the Stars by Elizabeth Wong Malaysian author Elizabeth Wong’s debut novel beguiles with its lyrical prose and imaginative plot set in an alternate Malaysia. Mystery and intrigue abound in a story of a young man, Han, who sets off in search of an artefact that belonged to his late mother and which got stolen. His journey takes him from his sleepy fishing village across the seas to an island of lush forest where a curious tower stands. There are several narrative strands and voices that Wong deftly weaves into a complex whole with fantastical elements and dreamlike sequences that elevate it above the ordinary. It is also imbued with a wonderfully Malaysian flavour with the deliberate use of local vernacular. A tale of loss, memory, and remembering, this literary speculative fiction surprised me at every turn.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe Investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s fourth book earned him the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 — and truly, it deserves nothing but superlatives. Epic in scope and depth, Keefe recounts the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis in the US. This isn’t a strictly straight-forward story, as many of the conditions and practices that enabled the abuse of the highly addictive painkiller oxycontin produced by the pharmaceutical company the Sacklers used to own was put in place by the generation before. Keefe peels back the curtain behind the impunity of America’s super elite and presents an indictment on the greed and indifference that drive them. I found this book compelling and unputdownable — this exposé is narrative reporting and writing at its best.
Deciding a best of list is always a frustrating experience because there are so many books to choose from in any publishing year. Then you also have to decide if books that elicit a strong emotional response is more or less deserving of a place than a novel that is, though more subdued, on the whole, a more technically accomplished work — it’s tough. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your reading year as much as I did.
Summer by Ali Smith Each entry of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet has made my “Best of” list in the past three years and Summer has unsurprisingly made the list again. While not my favourite of the four books in the series, Smith’s pretty good is still terribly good although I couldn’t bring myself to read it until there was a lull in the pandemic newsfeed. Tackling prickly issues including immigration, nationalism and COVID-19, it is a true testament of Smith’s storytelling ability and deftness of touch that the novel can seem light and even delightful at times. Which is not to say that the novel panders. It is sharply critical as were the previous three entries and, as with the previous novels, near impossible to sum up briefly what it is about. Nevertheless, we find the redemptive value of art again a central theme and a reminder that the tragedy of evil persists because of the inaction of good men and women.
How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt The title is misleading because Dunt doesn’t really dwell very much on how one is to be a liberal. Instead, this is a masterful work chronicling the genealogy of liberalism from its philosophical roots to its political, economic and moral instantiations. Dunt does a good job in correcting widely held misapprehensions along the way, e.g., by restoring Harriet Taylor’s rightful role as John Stuart Mill’s collaborator rather than just a hanger-on, and expertly weaving together the disparate threads to create a cogent historical sequence of events. Starting out as a polemic against the rising tide of nationalism, How to be a Liberal charts the development of liberalism from philosophical ideology to economic and political dogma, and reveals the way this cornerstone of the 20th century has now come to be reviled and abused by political leaders. Written with the aplomb of a page-turning thriller, this book is particularly worth reading for those of us with poor knowledge of European history.
The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin The Giant Dark doesn’t feel particularly exceptional during the reading; however, the impression it leaves after turning the final page makes it one of my most memorable reads of the year. A stunning retelling of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Giant Dark follows the doomed love affair of cult rock star Aida and Ehsan, an erstwhile poet and artist who has lost his mojo. The story picks up with the lovers meeting again after having broken up for the last 10 years after Aida returns to the US from their London home. In that time, Aida has channelled her heartbreak and longing into her music, which has turned her into a rock star with a fanatical following. A chance dinner date brings the two of them back together. For Aida, it is the fulfilment of a decade’s longing; for Ehsan, it is a rebirth but to what end? Comes replete with a Greek chorus (read bacchantes) ready to worship and tear down their hero with equal aplomb.
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman Richard Osman’s cosy mystery — and I use that term advisedly because there seems to be something pejorative in it — is an excellent read to wind down the year. We return to Cooper’s Chase in this second instalment of the Thursday Murder Club series where a group of old age pensioners (OAPs) choose to unravel unsolved mysteries and crimes that occur in their surrounding environs. In The Man, Elizabeth, the de facto leader of the group and a former spy, receives an unwanted visitor in the form of her ex-husband. Also a spy by training, he has been called out of retirement to infiltrate the home of a crime lord, which, naturally, goes wrong. Meanwhile, Ibrahim, the brains of the outfit and the voice of reason, has been the victim of a snatch-theft and is suffering from post-event trauma. Joyce, the ever-cheerful and enthusiastic member of the group, is trying to hold everything together. A page turner that is readable in every aspect.
Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino I am a huge fan of Keigo Higashino so anything new from him almost automatically makes it to the list. Silent Parade is the latest of the Detective Galileo series featuring Manabu Yukawa, Higashino’s sleuthing physicist who is always ready to pitch in whenever the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department encounters a sticky case. This time, it’s the death of the prime suspect involved in the murders of two young girls 20 years apart. Reticent and more cunning than his external demeanour lets on, Kanichi Hasunuma has already escaped the judgment of the court once, and the family and neighbours of the second victim wasn’t about to let him get away again. Hasunuma is conveniently murdered during a popular parade through the neighbourhood but everyone seems to have a rock solid alibi. Our returning flatfoot, Chief Inspector Kusanagi, is again stumped and calls on the deductive powers of his university friend Yukawa to help solve the seemingly impossible murder. A gripping page turner, Silent Parade is a book you want to finish in one sitting.
A few years ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to accompany my wife and her brother on their sibling-bonding hike up Mt. Kinabalu. This was — is — something that I am not particularly keen to do, and the only reason I would have ventured to do so would be out of love or, as it was in this case, out of spite. The hike up Kinabalu is not particularly difficult or treacherous but it can be dire when the weather is inclement — which it was — and when the hiker at issue is unfit and overweight — which I was. There were plenty of occasions on the way when I’d simply wanted to quit, turn around and say, this is not for me. However, it was one of those occasions in life when you just had to keep going forward because you couldn’t turn back.
M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Againreminds me of that hike: beautiful, grueling, unforgettable, momentous. I would add ‘regrettable’ but as with the hike, I think I’m rather glad for having read the book/ascended the mountain than if I had not. It is not the most accessible of books and it does not yield readily to judgements of “I liked it” or not; indeed, it may be almost sublime (in the technical sense of the term). Seldom does a book prompt immediate re-reading but this one did, if only for one to piece together the various clues scattered throughout the book.
Sunken Landfollows the lives of two protagonists: Shaw and Victoria, unlikely middle-aged lovers whose lives are linked by a conspiracy website and the myth of an ancient, atavistic race of water people. Both are gripped in some form of low-key existential crisis — Shaw, recently unemployed, checks into a low-rent guest house on the bank of the Thames while Victoria, tired of city life, opts to move into her late mother’s house in Shropshire in the Midlands. They have a tenuous relationship, further strained by Shaw’s continuing effort to give up any and all forms of agency, while Victoria’s attempt at bucolic life is interrupted by a parade of strange characters at her new home by the river Severn.
Shaw picks up work with the eccentric Tim Swann whom he meets at a cemetery harvesting muddy water from a depression in the ground. A general dogsbody, Shaw is set to work on a number of seemingly random tasks, including visiting derelict wholesalers in the depressed outskirts of Greater London, jotting down the testimony of a retired civil engineer who had been arrested for violent disorder, and video recording the actions of a psychic during a séance. Shaw is happy to go along with Tim’s increasingly strange bequests, including the transport of a pale green body from a swimming pool to places unknown and bearing witness to an incestuous coupling.
Victoria, meanwhile, settles into a community where the locals seem to be participants in a strange cult that has as its bible Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, a Victorian-era fable about a boy who transforms into a water sprite. Her only friend is Pearl, the owner of a café in town who occupies a queenly position of sorts in relation to the other oddballs in town. Victoria’s suspicions become even more piqued by the strange gatherings of men in the middle of the night, a mysterious voice calling out to her at all hours of the day, and Pearl disappearing into a pond only inches deep.
Drained by their experiences, Shaw and Victoria meet once more but find themselves unable or unwilling to connect with each other. “I’m living without explanations, if you can understand that,” Shaw explains at one point. And Victoria: “I always want to tell you about my life but somehow I never can. Isn’t that weird?”
No and yes.
From a plot perspective, Shaw is doing exactly what he says — living without explanations. Things happen to him, around him, by him, but he is simply there accreting circumstances. One reviewer describes Shaw as “post-critical” — he no longer questions or wonders or connects, but simply allows things to happen around him, effectively transcending the subject-object dichotomy. This aloofness, if it can be called that, finally fails him at the end of the book:
Shaw stood in the doorway. He became convinced there was another person in the room with them, then recognised in a single pure instant that it was himself. Events seemed to have paralysed him, casting his consciousness into the old root of his brain whence it struggled to escape.
Victoria, who has more of her wits about her, finds that she, too, has lost her agency. Driven into a psychic noose by the cult-like inhabitants of her city, Victoria confronts a reality of her home in the Midlands that jars with her big city London sensibilities. Unlike Shaw, she is caught in an eschatological maze that defies her will at every turn and prods and leads her to an inescapable fate.
Reviewers have read in Sunken Land a psychogeography of Brexit Britain. While it may be difficult for anyone not residing in Britain to ascertain the veracity of that claim, it must be said that Sunken Land can be a discomfiting experience. The inconclusive and allusive plot that leads the reader on with the promise of closure — “Everyone gets an answer in the end,” an exasperated Victoria is told; “All will be revealed” Tim tells Shaw on another hapless adventure — never comes to a satisfying close. And yet there is something beautiful but haunting in the writing that both gladdens and terrifies at the same time; while I’m reluctant to draw parallels with Lovecraft, there is more than a nod in that direction viz the watery gothic imagery that saturates Sunken Land. The bookis also about forgotten places: spaces left behind and forgotten by the passage of time, and in which the distinction between legend and reality becomes inseparable.
This was my first Harrison. Despite a substantial backlist of work in the realms of speculative and literary fiction spanning decades, I’d not come across his work until he showed up in my newsfeed as having won the Goldsmiths Prize for 2020. I tend to give this award, which recognises excellence in experimental writing, a wide berth. I will likely continue to do so but Sunken Land will at least make me pause to reconsider, and pick up a book out of spite.
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is available here.
Bill Gates’How to Avoid a Climate Disaster doesn’t set out to change your mind about climate change. Not really. Instead, Gates — who says he thinks more like an engineer than anything else — sets out to do what an engineer does best: the book is a comprehensive and accessible summary of the problem, and the tools and solutions that he thinks will help stave the climate disaster. Which is not to say that he is a climate fatalist — say like Jonathan Franzen — Gates is optimistic throughout (almost annoyingly so) but one can expect no less from a billionaire philanthropist who has spent the better part of this century on aid programmes and developmental schemes.
The main thesis of the book is that humanity needs to reduce our current rate of carbon emission from 51 billion tonnes each year to, well, zero within the next few generations. Failing to do so would result in disasters of epic proportions that will be costly both in terms of resources and human lives. He then goes on to detail the main human activities that must be addressed in order to curb carbon emissions — power generation, construction, transportation, heating and agriculture — and some of solutions that are already available or on the horizon that may solve the issue. Gates is a wonk so no surprise that his solution to climate change is a technological one.
He is well aware that climate change is as much a geopolitical issue as it is a technological one; carbon emissions will only increase as lower income nations climb up the value chain and it would be “immoral and impractical” to try to stop them. The only solution, it seems, is to once again put our faith in the marketplace and price the new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative alternatives so that they become more affordable than the current carbon-emitting solutions. This will require a radical rethinking of existing laws and pricing mechanisms that must of necessity be cross-border and holistic.
How to Avoid a Climate Disasteris a handy guide which gathers all the relevant information into one place. If nothing else, it is an accessible and informative book that spells out the scale and challenges of the problem. However, climate change is perhaps the intersectional issue and any solution that addresses it from one or two perspectives, as this book does, may seem ineffective. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster might not change any minds, but it might give the right reader some ideas on how they might make a greater contribution.