Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

Kiffe Kiffe what?

Well, the title is a play on words. Kif-kif is Arabic slang that means “same old, same old” and kiffer (used mainly by young teens in France) kind of means ‘to be crazy for’.

“…it’s just kif-kif tomorrow. Same shit, different day.”

 

This book is a different look at life in France, one from the perspective of a teenager of Moroccan descent. Her father has returned to Morocco to start a different family there – i.e. one with a son. And so  her mother has to work desperately hard at a housekeeping job in a crappy motel.

“Everyone calls her ‘Fatma’ at the Formula 1. They shout at her all the time, and keep a close watch on her to make sure she doesn’t steal anything from the rooms.

Of course Mom’s name isn’t Fatma, it’s Yasmina. It must really give Monsieur Winner a charge to call all the Arabs ‘Fatma’, all the blacks ‘Mamadou’, and all the Chinese ‘Ping-Pong’. Pretty freaking lame.”

Doria is 15 so you can expect all the usual teenager problems and angst. And being abandoned by her father, she feels lost.

“What a shitty destiny. Fate is all trial and misery and you can’t do anything about it. Basically no matter what you do you’ll always get screwed over.”

But it’s an especially interesting one as she is a young Muslim girl in France. For instance, she has to get her mother to write her note explaining that she won’t be eating in the school cafeteria because it’s Ramadan, and the principal thinks she forged it because her mother’s signature is a poor one.

Her family is poor and they survive on help from their neighbours, the grocer letting them rack up a bill, and this being France, help from the government – social workers come by and Doria even gets access to a psychologist. But it’s not an easy life for Doria, who doesn’t do well in school, doesn’t seem to have many friends, and has to wear horrible hand-me-down clothes. TV is her main escape.

It is perhaps the ordinariness of her life that appeals to me. That she is just a regular teenager living in France, her life isn’t terribly full of drama in the YA sense – some stuff happens to people in the neighbourhood but you wouldn’t find it hard to believe that this happens out there in the world today.

“Once, he told my mom that in ten years on this job, this was the first time he’d seen ‘people like you with only one child.’ He was thinking ‘Arabs,’ but he didn’t say so.”

I don’t read much translated French literature. And I find it difficult to name any contemporary French writers. Muriel Barbery is the only contemporary translated French author whose work I have recently read. (Please enlighten me!).

And perhaps because of this, I felt that it was rather refreshing reading this authentic teenager’s voice by French-Algerian writer Faïza Guène. This first book of hers was published in 2004 when she was just 19 years old. It’s been translated into 22 different languages. Kiffe kiffe demain was translated into English in 2006  under the title Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow.

She’s had another of her books translated into English, it’s called Men Don’t Cry.

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Flight by Oona Frawley

“She wonders if these same business people, these men and women that she pushes past on the paths – did they vote yes, vote to change the constitution and keep people like Sandrine out? It scares her, in a way, that this baby is about to arrive in a country that only this week has voted to disallow her citizenship. She will be born placeless on this day, an unwelcome baby.”

 

This book is set in Ireland in 2004 (and written in 2006) but could not be more relevant today, in the time of the Brexit referendum, and Donald *ass* Trump’s call for the removal of birthright citizenship in the US. 

Sandrine is from Zimbabwe. She’s in Ireland on a student visa, supposedly to learn, but she is really there to work, to find a better life for herself, her husband and child back home, and her unborn child that she is keeping secret. She finds a job caring for Tom and Clare, an elderly couple who can no longer manage on their own. Their daughter Elizabeth doesn’t live with them and has a bit of an awkward relationship with her mother. The family used to live in Vietnam and America, where Tom worked in the spice trade.

It’s a very emotional read. It’s hard to see one’s parents fade away in terms of health, both physical and mental. As Tom becomes a mere shadow of himself, his story is unraveled through his memories and recollections of their time in Vietnam and America. My late grandfather had dementia and the last time I saw him, I don’t think he knew who any of us were. I was living away from Singapore by then, and learnt of his death via Skype. So it was hard to read of Tom’s decline.

“His hair is softer than she expected, thinning, and the scalp pulses like a newborn’s. She senses this pulsing in her hands. He is living, his mind is moving, and he is looking up at her with surprised, glazing green eyes. Her tears are for nothing. There is nothing to weep for, since he is unaware, gazing at her crying or laughing with the same indifferent emptiness in his look which seems always surprised now, because everything lacks for him the context of memory.”

 

This is also Elizabeth’s story, one of belonging and fitting in – or not. Her childhood in Vietnam and America, then moving back to Ireland, then back again to Vietnam. Where does she belong? Is she Irish? Is she American? It’s similar with my own family. We are from Singapore, but the kids, being born in the US, are American citizens. We travel to Singapore once a year, and both sets of grandparents travel up here at least once or twice a year. My five-year-old once described himself as a Singapore American. I wonder how he will feel in the future. Will he still have a connection to Singapore?

Although we don’t really learn much about Sandrine’s life in Zimbabwe, her experiences in Ireland are the key to this book. Her struggle to adapt to life in Ireland, to learn to be a caregiver for these elderly people she now lives with. The racism she experiences, because of the colour of her skin.

“She does not know that it doesn’t matter how she perceives herself to fit in. What she feels, how she might work to become part of this new society, it makes no difference. Sandrine has been spat and cursed at, has peered with shock into women’s faces as they have sneered at hers – she expected better of women, and has been disappointed. At moments the desire to commiserate with another black Zimbabwean is overwhelming. She knows of the news that instances of assault are on the rise, the country is increasingly angry about non-nationals, and there is a referendum coming up that scares the life out of her.”

Flight takes time to get into. But when you do get into it, it is a gem. It is a story about feeling lost, both within the world and within themselves. It is unsettling, it is emotional. It is a thoughtful story that makes you examine your own life, your own situation, and where you belong.

Flight by Oona Frawley is published by Tramp Press, an indie Irish publishing company. 

 

 

 

The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories

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It is times like this that I wonder what I was reading as a child. And why did I never read any Joan Aiken?

Would the child-me have enjoyed the Armitage family’s antics as much as the adult-me does today?

Because it was such a fun, silly, charming and enchanting read that I so wished I could share with my kids.

(They’re 2 and 4 and while they are developing their own sense of humour, I don’t think they’re ready to appreciate this book quite yet.)

What is an Armitage Family story?, you may wonder.

Well, there is Mark and his sister Harriet, and of course their parents, Mr and Mrs Armitage. Mark and Harriet are very likable, rather sweet kids, to whom delightfully odd things happen. Their parents often get turned into things, but react in very straitlaced manners. Like fundraisers and business meetings. Although the fundraiser is for the Distressed Old Fairy Ladies and Mr Armitage takes his meeting as an insect. As in, oh I am an insect, oh bother, here, son just take me to my office so I can conduct my meeting anyway.

You know, because these things happen. And mostly on Mondays. Because on Mondays, “unusual things were allowed, and even expected to happen at the Armitage house”.

One of my favourite stories involved Brekkfast Brikks, a dusty kind of cereal with a cut-out garden on the back. A magical cut-out garden that is!

And the one where Mr Peake, the ghost who lives in the house, takes Harriet out from school for the holiday weekend.

Or maybe it’s the one where the unicorn makes its appearance.

It’s just full of wonderful stories to read, reread and share. Whether it’s a Monday or not.

“Well,” she allowed, “we could have a special day for interesting and unusual things to happen – say, Mondays. But not always Mondays, and not only Mondays, or that would get a bit dull too.”

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

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The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play. This year will be its 63rd year. 2012, its 60th year, also marked its 25,000th performance. Its author, Agatha Christie, didn’t expect the play to last more than eight months.

In a Guardian article, Ian Watt-Smith, director of the touring show, said about the play: “You have to concentrate on the reality of the situation. Everyone is trapped in this guesthouse – they have no means of contacting the outside world, and the murderer is among them. No one is quite what they seem. They all have secrets. You have to encourage the characters to play the real backstory and then cover it up, which is a challenge.”

I’ve never seen the play, nor did I really have much of an inkling of the story except that since it was written by Agatha Christie, it had to have a murder mystery within.

And ah there it was, in a snowed-in rooming house, where a young couple has just opened their house to their first guests, someone is found dead. And they’re all a little odd and suspicious in some way.

(While tapping my fingers on my keyboard, thinking what to write next about this play, I did think of something else, Kate Milford’s Greenglass House a book I thoroughly enjoyed last year. A book also set in a snowed-in inn, a mystery and more. So one good thing coming out of my having read The Mousetrap is now being able to nod and say sagely, ah yes, Milford was likely to have been inspired by The Mousetrap and other similar type mysteries).

There’s Mrs Boyle, an uppity older woman critical of everything at the rooming house. Major Metcalf, retired from the army. The rather odd Miss Casewell. Mr Paravicini, an unexpected guest who claims his car is stuck in the snow. Christopher Wren says he’s an architect but he’s acting suspiciously (not to say that architects can’t act suspiciously). Mollie and Giles Ralston, husband and wife, run Monkswell Manor. Then there’s Sergeant Trotter, who’s trying to find out what’s going on.

Everyone is a suspect. And it’s fun to try to come up with your own guesses at whodunnit.

Of course there is a twist at the end. This one, I don’t know, it just felt a bit odd and unsatisfying. Just in case you haven’t read it before or seen the play, I’ll just leave it at that. Maybe it really ought to be seen as a play, to be part of the experience of watching this murder-mystery unfold ‘live’ before your very eyes. It was still a fun read though.

 

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I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge – A Classic Play

Comics round-up: Underwater Welder; Adventure Time; Jem and the Holograms; Hexed….

This post is just getting longer and longer. I really have to run it soon.

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Underwater Welder – Jeff Lemire

Lemire excels in taking ordinary people, those living in small towns, their lives a little bit lost and their hearts a little bit broken, and turning it into an emotional, unforgettable, moving story. I loved Essex County, and Underwater Welder was just as excellent. It’s kind of weird to say, hey, you should read this comic about an underwater welder but luckily it s more than that. Jack and his wife are expecting a baby in a month when he goes off to the rig to work. He sees something in the water that makes him think of his dead father. Not just think but more like return to that time when he was a child and his father was still alive, and as that happens, as his memories creep into his life, they pull him away from his wife and his unborn child. It’s a story of how the past can affect, can take hold of the present.
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Lucille – Ludovic Debeurme
A painful read this one. Lucille is an anorexic teenager. She is slowly starving herself so that she can look like the other girls. Arthur is a boy with OCD, the son of an alcoholic fisherman. And they somehow meet and become friends, then more than friends. The illustrations are spare and panel-less, which makes for a rather different flow from the typical comic. A moving, minimalistic read.

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Borden Tragedy – Rick Geary
I didn’t know anything about Lizzie Borden except that children’s rhyme which I probably might be familiar with from watching TV/movies? So why did I read this? Still have no idea.

I did like the black and white illustrations. And the whole story, despite the potential for gore and bloodiness, is simply and effectively told, although we are not given any answers
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Pride and Prejudice (Marvel adaptations) – Nancy Butler and Hugo Petrus

This is one book that really shouldn’t be judged by its cover. Because I really adored the cover art – by Malaysian-Singaporean artist Sonny Lies – but I definitely did not like the artwork within. So it was very disappointing. Elizabeth Bennet always looks so harsh and angry. I don’t think I would recommend it, unless you’re introducing Jane Austen to a reluctant reader who prefers comics to classics.

 

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Adventure Time: Banana Guard Academy  – Kent Osborne (Writer), Dylan Haggerty (Writer), Mad Rupert (Illustrator), Britt Wilson (Illustrator), Whitney Cogar (Colorist), Leigh Luna (Letterer)

Ah what can I say, I adore Adventure Time. I never thought I would as it seemed rather cutesy. But it’s just such fun.

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The Cape – Joe Hill, Zach Howard, Jason Ciaramella

One of the more disturbing comics ever. I mean sure, having read Locke and Key, as well as two of Hill’s novels, I know that he’s got a strange mind, wandering towards the macabre, the creepy, the disturbing. But with Locke and Key, while it was violent and morbid, it had a lot of heart. Those were some awesome kids. Here in The Cape, it’s a superpower gone wrong story. A deadbeat guy who seems to hate everything and everyone and thinks the world has done him wrong. I felt so angry reading this.
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Jem and the Holograms – Kelly Thompson, Ross Campbell (Illustrator)

I hadn’t heard of Jem and the Holograms before Andi’s post. I guess this was one American TV show that didn’t make it to Singapore? It’s a fun read, mostly for its colourful outfits and big hair. And I love its diverse characters. That is, not everyone is skinny and white and straight.

 

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imageHexed – Michael Alan Nelson  (Writer), Dan Mora (Artist)

So Lucifer is a thief and there’s a lot of artwork involved and something about a Harlot and spirits and a necromancer. Ok I don’t really get it either. But compared to another recent read, Pretty Deadly, it was a little more easily understood (although still puzzling) and had some decent and relatable characters. One thing I did appreciate is that this comic written and drawn mostly by men has females as its main characters. And they’re tough and strong. I was just disappointed that Scribd only has seven issues.

(I really liked that page above where they wandered through several different art styles)

 

Can’t wait to read these Library Loot books

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

 

 

With grandma around to read to the boys for a bit, I got to wander among the fiction shelves and pick up some goodies.

 

Fortunately the Milk – Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Skottie Young 

Yup this was more for me than the kids! Hee hee!

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“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

“Hullo,” I said to myself. That’s not something you see every day.” And then something odd happened.

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal.

Mildred Pierce – James M Cain
I just realized this would be perfect for Back to the Classics. I’ve watched a little of the HBO series via Amazon Instant Video and Kate Winslet is amazing as always, even playing an American housewife.

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Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Out of these elements, Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

 

Four Souls – Louise Erdrich

Ok I did not know that this was a continuation! Hopefully it will work reading it on its own.

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Four Souls begins with Fleur Pillager’s journey from North Dakota to Minneapolis, where she plans to avenge the loss of her family’s land to a white man. After a dream vision that gives her a powerful new name, Four Souls, she enters the household of John James Mauser. A man notorious for his wealth and his mansion on a hill, Mauser became rich by deceiving young Indian women and taking possession of their ancestral lands. What promises to be a straightforward tale of revenge, however, slowly metamorphoses into a more complex evocation of human nature. The story of anger and retribution that begins in Tracks becomes a story of healing and love in Four Souls.

Children of the Sea #1 – Daisuke Igarashi

I kind of love these covers

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When Ruka was younger, she saw a ghost in the water at the aquarium where her dad works. Now she feels drawn toward the aquarium and the two mysterious boys she meets there, Umi and Sora. They were raised by dugongs and hear the same strange calls from the sea as she does.Ruka’s dad and the other adults who work at the aquarium are only distantly aware of what the children are experiencing as they get caught up in the mystery of the worldwide disappearance of the oceans’ fish.

Children of the Sea #2 – Daisuke Igarashi

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The sea has a story to tell you, one you’ve never heard before. Umi and Sora are not alone in their strange connection to the sea. Forty years ago, Jim met another young boy with the same powers. As penance for letting the boy die, Jim has been searching the world for other children with those same ties to the ocean. Anglade, a wunderkind who was once Jim’s research partner, lures Sora away with the promise of answers. This leaves Umi severely depressed, and it is up to Ruka to help her new friend find his brother. But time is quickly running out… When Ruka was younger, she saw a ghost in the water at the aquarium where her dad works. Now she feels drawn toward the aquarium and the two mysterious boys she meets there, Umi and Sora. They were raised by dugongs and hear the same strange calls from the sea that she does. Ruka’s dad and the other adults who work at the aquarium are only distantly aware of what the children are experiencing as they get caught up in the mystery of the worldwide disappearance of the ocean’s fish.

 

 

E-books:

Black Water Rising – Attica Locke

I’m supposed to read Locke’s latest, Pleasantville, for an upcoming book tour. But didn’t know that it had the same characters as Black Water Rising. So thought I would try to read this first! Also, I enjoyed reading her previous book, The Cutting Season. 

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Writing in the tradition of Dennis Lehane and Greg Iles, Attica Locke, a powerful new voice in American fiction, delivers a brilliant debut thriller that readers will not soon forget.

Jay Porter is hardly the lawyer he set out to be. His most promising client is a low-rent call girl and he runs his fledgling law practice out of a dingy strip mall. But he’s long since made peace with not living the American Dream and carefully tucked away his darkest sins: the guns, the FBI file, the trial that nearly destroyed him.

Houston, Texas, 1981. It is here that Jay believes he can make a fresh start. That is, until the night in a boat out on the bayou when he impulsively saves a woman from drowning—and opens a Pandora’s box. Her secrets put Jay in danger, ensnaring him in a murder investigation that could cost him his practice, his family, and even his life. But before he can get to the bottom of a tangled mystery that reaches into the upper echelons of Houston’s corporate power brokers, Jay must confront the demons of his past.

With pacing that captures the reader from the first scene through an exhilarating climax, Black Water Rising marks the arrival of an electrifying new talent.

Kids’ loot:

 

The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai: Four Girls and a Compact

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The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai deserves a better reader than me. It required three renewals – easy enough as it was an ebook and no one else was interested in it. There was quite a bit of glancing through of passages. And I really got confused by the very many characters in this book. The lack of a true story arc didn’t really help matters. In fact, it seems that few Chinese have read this tome – The New Yorker said that it may be “China’s ‘Ulysses'”!

But while it is lengthy and not the easiest of reads, it is a fascinating look into a time that is hardly written about. Brothels in 19th century Shanghai, specifically, in the foreign settlements outside the city.

It begins with a young man arriving in Shanghai, fresh from the country, and falls for a courtesan who turns out not to be a virgin despite his having forked out plenty to ‘deflower’ her. It is a cutthroat business after all! The story is more episodic than most, so we catch glimpses of this young fellow throughout the book. The focus here is on the (many) girls instead.

Here’s what I did gleam from the book:

– there are different classes of prostitutes. There are girls and there are “maestros” who sing and don’t play finger games. The ones called ‘prostitutes’ are something else altogether. More like streetwalkers. Likewise, there are different ‘classes’ of sing-song houses, and within those houses, the girls were ranked. Although all of these girls really do provide more than entertainment, it is only hinted at in the book. Nothing hot and heavy here!

– there is a ‘humble’ side to a divan

– opium opium opium. All the time!

– Besides opium, plenty of drinking  and finger games. Having watched my share of Chinese movies, I can guess at what the finger games are like but I wish there was more description.

– To “call” a girl, you send a servant out with a ticket
– They did eat “western” meals and drink coffee, probably because they were in the foreign districts. I wish the western-style meals were described though. There were also ‘foreign’ policemen.
– Girls are bought at ages 7 or 8. And they can “do business” at age 16.
– The Shanghainese thought the Cantonese uncouth. Cantonese prostitutes are described as having “terrifying” physical strength.
– bound feet can make a “rickety noise”. Yikes!
– Although most of the girls, especially those who have been in the trade since young, are skilled in music and singing and charm, they were almost always illiterate
– Courtesans were not supposed to go anywhere on foot. They were usually transported from party to party by sedan or rickshaw, or even carried by manservants

– Plus, it was first translated by Eileen Chang, of Love in a Fallen City fame. The translation was discovered among her papers after her death.

Here’s the New York Times’ review for a more complete picture.

Also some background to how prostitution transformed Shanghai’s Old City in this article from CNN Traveler.

 

 

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2015 Translation

I read the Sing-song Girls of Shanghai as a Translated Classic for Back to the Classics Challenge

And for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge

 

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In contrast, the novella Four Girls and a Compact was light, breezy and easy to read. But also quite forgettable.

The girls are tired of work and life in the city. They’re ready for a break out in the fresh air. They send one girl out to seek their El Dorado.

“To get out of the hot, teeming city and breathe air enough and pure enough, to luxuriate in idleness, to rest—to a girl, they longed for it. They were all orphans, and they were all poor. The Grand Plan was ambitious, indefinite, but they could not give it up. They had wintered it and springed it, and clung to it through bright days and dark.”

The girls are a little indistinguishable but otherwise it’s a cute little story. It’s available to read online or as a free download at Project Gutenberg

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I read Four Girls and a Compact for the Back to the Classics Challenge – Novella