Book Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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The Weight of Our Sky

By Hana Alkaf

[Salaam Reads, 274 pages]

Owing to its subject matter — the May 13th race riots — and publishing circumstances, The Weight of the Sky was probably the most highly anticipated book to be written by a Malaysian author in the last few years. Hanna Alkaf is a Malaysian who lives and writes in Malaysia, and her publisher is an imprint of American publishing house Simon & Schuster. Malaysians get very excited when our authors are recognised (i.e. given contracts) by Western publishers, but I think this recognition couldn’t have happened to a better writer.Read More »

The Big Pym-Re-Read: Some Tame Gazelle

Some tame gazelleWhile Less Than Angels is about a community of anthropologists, Some Tame Gazelle, Barbara Pym’s first published novel, features her other favourite profession, the clergy.

The main characters, however, are spinsters, another Pym speciality, in this case, a pair of sisters called Harriet and Belinda Bede.

Harriet, the older sister, is plump, attractive, garrulous, and rather more flamboyant than the quiet, mousy, self-effacing and reflective Belinda.

Harriet has a fondness for young curates, a completely respectable regard, mind you, taking the innocent form of mothering these men of the cloth, inviting them for tea and dinner, and presenting them with gifts of knitted socks and sweaters, fruit, and homemade jams.

Meanwhile, Belinda loves their neighbour and the vicar of their parish, Archdeacon Henry Hoccleve. Belinda has been friends with the Archdeacon since they were at university together, and has remained steadfast for thirty years. Alas, he is married to the formidable Agatha, whom Belinda views with a combination of awe and fear.

Archdeacon HorcleveIn the first chapter of the novel we are introduced to Harriet’s latest young curate, Edgar Donne (I picture him looking like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins [right]. Bizarrely, I also picture the Archedeacon looking like Hopskins!), who has come to the Bede’s for supper, and, as the book progresses, we meet the other characters, part of the Bede’s circle, including Henry and Agatha Horcleve; Count Ricardo Bianco, an Italian nobleman settled in their village, who is in love with Harriet and proposes to her regularly and in vain; Edith Liversidge, a ‘decayed gentlewoman’, and her poor relation, the dreary harp-playing Connie Aspinall who will not stop speaking of her days as companion to a lady in Belgrave Square.Read More »

The Big Pym-Re-Read: Less Than Angels

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I haven’t really blogged about Barbara Pym’s novels and, now that I have physical copies for all of them, I thought I would do a big re-read and then write a post about each book.

I chose Less Than Angels at random, but after this I will read the novels in order of publication:

  • Some Tame Gazelle (1950)
  • Excellent Women (1952)
  • Jane and Prudence (1953)
  • Less than Angels (1955)
  • No Fond Return of Love (1961)
  • Quartet in Autumn (1977)
  • The Sweet Dove Died (1978)
  • A Few Green Leaves (1980)
  • An Unsuitable Attachment (written 1963; published posthumously, 1982)
  • Crampton Hodnet (completed circa 1940, published posthumously, 1985)
  • An Academic Question (written 1970–72; published posthumously, 1986)
  • Civil to Strangers (written 1936; published posthumously, 1987)

Read More »

Wifely Duties

I finished reading The Wife by Meg Wolitzer and also watched the film, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.

I didn’t expect to be, but I was disappointed by both.

I loved Glenn Close in the film — she was very good, but then I have not seen her falter in anything. Pryce was good too, his character was both pathetic and odious, and he portrayed him well. (He almost made me gag because he reminded me of a creepy someone in the lit scene here!)

However, I wasn’t convinced by the story. (No spoilers!)

In the film, I felt it was not developed sufficiently and so, I had trouble believing it. In the book, I didn’t think we got to know Joan well enough to understand why she did what she did. Intellectually it made sense, but not viscerally. We know Joan (a little) but we don’t feel her and so we don’t feel for her either.

Wolitzer’s writing style did not appeal to me. I found her voice cold and distant. Perhaps Joan is those things because of what she’s been through, but the author doesn’t allow us to get under her skin. She doesn’t give us a sense that Joan is torn between love and hate; pride and shame; she doesn’t make us feel Joan’s desperation.

Glenn Close, in the film, is successful in bridging that gap between the character and the audience. Her portrayal of Joan allows us to experience (at least to some degree) the conflicting emotions that must engulf the character at every turn. Still, I didn’t feel much more than a fleeting pity for her. Perhaps the problem was ‘resolved’ too conveniently and quickly. Or seemed to be. I suppose Joan is left to live with the truth, and to decide how to deal with it. Perhaps Wolitzer needs to write a sequel!

 

 

A New Comfort Read

www3It took me a while as I’ve been busy with editing deadlines, but I finally finished reading Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa.

I loved it and I’m glad I was ‘forced’ to take my time with it.

The book is about Sentaro, a middle-aged man, who works at a dorayaki shop and is pretty tired of his job and his life. Once upon a time he thought he might be a writer, but then he ended up in jail and in debt, and now he simply goes through the motions, making and selling dorayaki in the day and getting drunk in the evenings.

Read More »

The Exorcist: The Film, the Book, the TV Series

The-Exorcist-Horror-SeriesI can’t even remember how I found out, but there is a TV series inspired by William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist. The first season aired in 2016. (There is nothing spooky about me not knowing how I know this, just more evidence that my memory sucks big, hairy balls.)

When I was a practising Roman Catholic, the evil portrayed in Blatty’s work coincided with what I had been taught to believe. The 1973 film (starring Linda Blair as the possessed child, Regan) disturbed me for the same reason, but also, I feel, largely due to the cinematography, the way the set is lit, the soundtrack.

exorcistcoverWhen I was in my early teens, I tried reading the novel and was so spooked that I threw it in the trash. I used to say that I thought the book was ‘watching’ me. I projected my own beliefs onto this block of paper and ink, giving it a power it didn’t have.

In Christian culture, Demons are malevolent spirits. Christians also conveniently and arrogantly view the gods of other (non-Abrahamic) religions as demons. The Christian god is the default supreme being in The Exorcist and many Western-based narratives that portray evil spirits being weakened by the sign of the cross and the contact of holy water. There is no room for anything that suggests that there isn’t just one ‘true’ god. Every other being is a servant of this god, and any that question the might and right of this god is automatically relegated to the ranks of the unholy; the vile; the evil.

Hindu and Daoist demons can have good or bad intentions and natures. In Daoist exorcism, the spirit is questioned in an effort to understand its motives. This is because possessions or hauntings may be caused by human transgressions and the spirits/demons simply responding as they see fit. An amicable solution is always preferred.

Demons, as portrayed in Christian stories, are not reasonable. They only seek to destroy and harm their hosts; they often attack without being provoked; and there is no negotiating a peaceful departure. At very least, they are driven into swine that run into water and drown. Reading about that event in the gospels I used to wonder what happened to the demons after the two thousand poor pigs died. Did they go off in search of new ‘homes’?

There are spoilers below this line so stop reading if you want to avoid them.Read More »

Interview: Stephani Soejono

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Stephani Soejono is an Indonesian freelance illustrator and creator of comics. She has lived in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Canada where she went to university and majored in animation.

In her own words, ‘I am a little disappointed to have to come back [from Canada] for various reasons, but mainly [the lack of] Female Health Empowerment and Religious Freedom [in Indonesia]. On the other hand, Indonesian food, lol.’

Soejono recently published Tale of the Bidadari with Maple Comics. You can read my review here.

The following Q&A was done over email and Twitter. For more of Soejono, follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.Read More »

Book Review: Tale of the Bidadari by Stephani Soejono

bidadariTALE OF THE BIDADARI

Author/artist: Stephani Soejono

Publisher: Maple Comics, 110 pages

Erlang visits a remote village with his father, a doctor, on a mercy mission. From the architecture and headdress worn by the womenfolk, this community seems to be Minangkabau. Furthermore, the village chief is a woman: the Minangkabau are largest matrilineal society in the world.

Drought has left the villagers hungry and sick, so Doctor Tanuwe’s skills, as well as the medicine and food he has brought with him is well received although there is some indication that there are those who are resentful of his ‘modern’ ways.

Old beliefs and practices are still a feature in the village, and there is even (rather mysterious) talk of ‘sacrifice’ to address the drought.

Meanwhile, big city boy Erlang, is not enjoying himself. Not only does he find rural living and the villager’s traditions alienating and boring, he can’t even have something as simple as a bath because the water sources are dry as a result of the drought. Luckily, he meets Upik, a precocious little girl who proves to be a welcome distraction.

Erlang and the doctor are staying with a villager named Aminah and Upik is her daughter. There are hints that Aminah is supposed to keep an eye on the father and son, and that this is something that she needs to do to keep Upik safe: what is going on? Has it to do with Mayang, a young girl who is kept prisoner by the village chief and whom Upik sets free?

The chief tells Erlang that he should keep out of the village temple and the forest, but while playing with Upik, the boy finds himself led into the woods. There, they are met by Mayang, who opens Erlang’s eyes to the beauty of nature.

Who is Mayang? Well, the title of the comic hints at her supernatural nature. Bidadari are fae and, in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, they are also known as Bunian. However, despite its title, the story does not really focus on the character, does not delve into what she is, where she’s from, nor the complexities of her relationship with the village and villagers.

I see this story as an account of the experiences of a city boy in a small Indonesian village rather than the tale of a fairy. I admit that the title’s focus on the ‘bidadari’ is potentially more intriguing to readers, but I feel that it is less Mayang’s nature that is interesting than the villagers’ beliefs, including the practice of blood sacrifice to ensure favourable weather for a good harvest. I am curious if this is based on historical fact, or if it’s pure fiction.

As a reader I found this a charming, engagingly illustrated story, but as an editor, I wanted more character development, more exploration of subject matter and themes, and more details in both the illustration and text. I was left with many questions about the nature of Mayang; the village’s past, including the reasons for Aminah’s apprehension; and even a suggestion of what the future has in store for her and Upik, bearing in mind the decision they make at the end of the book.

Finally, I was pulled up short on several occasions because of distracting typos so I hope Maple Comics gets their publications thoroughly proofread in future.

Apparently, Indonesian author/artist Soejono will be publishing another comic with Maple soon. Looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

prvenanceAnn Leckie’s latest book, Provenance (Orbit Books, 448 pages) is every bit as enjoyable as her Imperial Radch Trilogy. It’s quite different in its themes, story and characters, but Leckie’s style holds steady at unpretentious, clear and engaging.

Its protagonist is Ingray Aughskold, a young Hwae woman, one of the foster children of high-ranking public representative Netano Aughskold. Netano has yet to name her heir and now, it’s really either between Ingray and older Danach, whom Ingray believes is Netano’s favourite.

In an attempt to win her mother’s approval, Ingray arranges for the release of a Hwae prisoner, Pahlad Budrakim, believing that Netano will be impressed by the plan’s reckless brilliance. In fact, Ingray’s idea is shockingly, laughably bad and stresses just how desperate she is to be noticed by ‘Mama’.

The thing is, Ingray isn’t quite the hopeless case she seems. Really, she’s just young and inexperienced, and incredibly stressed thanks to the way she’s been treated by her mother. Yes, they really fuck you up, your mum and dad. And, it transpires that Pahlad Budrakim and another key character, Tic Uisine, have also, in various ways and degrees, been screwed over by their parents. You could say, the results of all these different kinds of bad parenting are what drive the plot of Provenance.

When I got to the end of this book I wanted to start from the beginning again, and that was how I felt about all three of the Imperial Radch titles. There is just a lot to unpack and think about given that Leckie is all about creating worlds, cultures and technology that you never anticipate.

In the Trilogy, there was the exclusive use of the feminine pronouns within the Radch Empire. In Provenance, the Hwae have three genders (using the pronouns she, he and e) and choose one, along with their adult name, usually in their late teens, although one character doesn’t make up her mind til she’s twenty-five. Another character, the ambassador from the planet Geck, is a ‘she’, but has been another gender previously.

Issue08_Leckie_200x305This ambassador, by the way, may be my favourite character in this book. The Geck are, actually, a fascinating species, whom I hope Leckie will write more about. I would love to see their way of life and their thinking at the centre of a future novel.

For now, read the Trilogy if you haven’t already; and read Provenance. They’re all thought-provoking and exciting stories with protagonists that I, at any rate, got really attached to and protective of. It’s just a plus when you care so much about fictional characters that you start imagining their lives outside the books. That doesn’t happen too often to me.