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


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.




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



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


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

Library Loot

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.


The Guild – Felicia Day


Internet phenomenon The Guild comes to comics, courtesy of series creator, writer, and star Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog)! Chronicling the hilarious on- and offline lives of a group of Internet role-playing gamers, the Knights of Good, The Guild has become a cult hit, and is the winner of numerous awards from SXSW, YouTube, Yahoo, and the Streamys. Now, Day brings the wit and heart of the show to this graphic-novel prequel. In this origin tale of the Knights of Good, we learn about Cyd’s life before joining the guild, how she became Codex, her awful breakup with boyfriend Trevor, and how she began to meet the other players who would eventually become her teammates.


Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: 55 Great Chefs Teach Me How to Cook – Dana Cowin


An uproarious, inspiring cookbook from the longtime editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, in which the first lady of food spills the secret of her culinary ineptitude, while learning—finally—to cook, side-by-side with some of the greatest chefs working today, from David Chang to Thomas Keller

For years, Dana Cowin kept a dark secret: From meat to veggies, broiling to baking, breakfast to dinner, she ruined literally every kind of dish she attempted. Now, in this cookbook confessional, the vaunted “first lady of food” finally comes clean about her many meal mishaps. With the help of friends—all-star chefs, including David Chang, Jacques Pépin and Tom Colicchio and many others—Cowin takes on 100 recipes dear to her heart. Ideal dishes for the home cook, each recipe has a high “yum” factor, a few key ingredients, and a simple trick that makes them special. With every dish, she attains a critical new skill, learning invaluable lessons along the way from the hero chefs who help her discover exactly where she goes wrong.

Hilarious and heartwarming, encouraging and instructional, Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen showcases Cowin’s plentiful cooking mistakes, inspiring anyone who loves a good meal but fears its preparation. Featuring gorgeous full color photography, it is an intimate, hands-on cooking guide from a fellow foodie and amateur home chef, designed to help even the biggest kitchen phobics overcome their reluctance, with delicious results.


The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

I just finished Old Man’s War, the first in this series, and it was quite an interesting book. I realize that I don’t read that much SF as it tends to be more fantasy that I read. There was some technicality involving skip drives and a variety of other things like colonizing planets and war and stuff. But generally it was a fun read. And I had this desperate need to read the next one.


The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF’s toughest operations. They’re young, they’re fast and strong, and they’re totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it’s about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers — a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin’s DNA, Jared’s brain should be able to access Boutin’s electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin’s memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reason’s for Boutin’s betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his “father,” he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity’s mere military defeat…

Living by Fiction – Annie Dillard

A book about books! Those are the best.

livingfictionLiving by Fiction is written for–and dedicated to–people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary’s Art and Reality, this is a book by a writer on the issues raised by the art of literature. Readers of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm will recognize Dillard’s vivid writing, her humor, and the lively way in which she tackles the urgent questions of meaning in experience itself.

Worn Stories – Emily Spivack

I’m curious about this collection of short essays about clothes! The contributors are rather diverse, although I wonder if they can all write well (plus I don’t recognize all the names… probably cos I’m not really in tune with the style world? But oh well, it’s a short read).


wornstoriesEveryone has a memoir in miniature in at least one piece of clothing. In Worn Stories, Emily Spivack has collected over sixty of these clothing-inspired narratives from cultural figures and talented storytellers. First-person accounts range from the everyday to the extraordinary, such as artist Marina Abramovic on the boots she wore to walk the Great Wall of China; musician Rosanne Cash on the purple shirt that belonged to her father; and fashion designer Cynthia Rowley on the Girl Scout sash that informed her business acumen. Other contributors include Greta Gerwig, Heidi Julavits, John Hodgman, Brandi Chastain, Marcus Samuelsson, Piper Kerman, Maira Kalman, Sasha Frere-Jones, Simon Doonan, Albert Maysles, Susan Orlean, Andy Spade, Paola Antonelli, David Carr, Andrew Kuo, and more. By turns funny, tragic, poignant, and celebratory, Worn Stories offers a revealing look at the clothes that protect us, serve as a uniform, assert our identity, or bring back the past–clothes that are encoded with the stories of our lives.

Kids’ loot:

What did you get from your library this week?

Library Loot

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.

I’ve been in a state of figuring out what my next read is to be. I browsed my library’s Overdrive (e-books) catalogue and page after page nothing really jumped out at me. Until I saw the latest Patrick Rothfuss. And ARGH I had to put a hold on it! But hooray! That hold came in the very next day. And I made sure to borrow it.



Peter Reinhart’s artisan breads every day : fast and easy recipes for world-class breads – Peter Reinhart; photography by Leo Gong

I am writing an article on Panettone and was trying to find a recipe for this Italian traditional bread, and this book has one. I’m curious!



Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day distills the renowned baking instructor’ s professional techniques down to the basics, delivering artisan bread recipes that anyone with flour and a fridge can make and bake with ease.

Reinhart begins with the simplest French bread, then moves on to familiar classics such as ciabatta, pizza dough, and soft sandwich loaves, and concludes with fresh specialty items like pretzels, crackers, croissants, and bagels. Each recipe is broken into “Do Ahead” and “On Baking Day” sections, making every step–from preparation through pulling pans from the oven–a breeze, whether you bought your loaf pan yesterday or decades ago. These doughs are engineered to work flawlessly for busy home bakers: most require only a straightforward mixing and overnight fermentation. The result is reliably superior flavor and texture on par with loaves from world-class artisan bakeries–and all with little hands-on time.

America’s favorite baking instructor and innovator Peter Reinhart offers new time-saving techniques accompanied by full-color, step-by-step photos throughout so that in no time you’ll be producing fresh batches of: Sourdough Baguettes • 50% and 100% Whole Wheat Sandwich Loaves • Soft and Crusty Cheese Bread • English Muffins • Cinnamon Buns • Panettone • Hoagie Rolls • Chocolate Cinnamon Babka • Fruit-Filled Thumbprint Rolls • Danish • Best-Ever Biscuits

Best of all, these high-caliber doughs improve with a longer stay in the fridge, so you can mix once, then portion, proof, and bake whenever you feel like enjoying a piping hot treat.


Recipes From My Home Kitchen : Asian And American Comfort Food – Christine Ha

I’m not a fan of Gordon Ramsay but I sometimes watch MasterChef. The season with Christine Ha really moved me – and I’m sure countless others.

In her kitchen, Christine Ha possesses a rare ingredient that most professionally-trained chefs never learn to use: the ability to cook by sense. After tragically losing her sight in her twenties, this remarkable home cook, who specializes in the mouthwatering, wildly popular Vietnamese comfort foods of her childhood, as well as beloved American standards that she came to love growing up in Texas, re-learned how to cook. Using her heightened senses, she turns out dishes that are remarkably delicious, accessible, luscious, and crave-worthy.

Millions of viewers tuned in to watch Christine sweep the thrilling MasterChef Season 3 finale, and here they can find more of her deftly crafted recipes. They’ll discover food that speaks to the best of both the Vietnamese diaspora and American classics, personable tips on how to re-create delicious professional recipes in a home kitchen, and an inspirational personal narrative bolstered by Ha’s background as a gifted writer. Recipes from My Home Kitchen will braid together Christine’s story with her food for a result that is one of the most compelling culinary tales of her generation.

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater


It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.

But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.


Here are the e-books I downloaded

The Slow Regard of Silent Things – Patrick Rothfuss

I’m so excited to read this!


Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place.

Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows…

In this book, Patrick Rothfuss brings us into the world of one of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s most enigmatic characters. Full of secrets and mysteries, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is the story of a broken girl trying to live in a broken world.

I Married You for Happiness – Lily Tuck

I’m curious about this one. Marriage and mathematics?


Throughout Lily Tuck’s career, she’s been praised by critics for her crisp, lean language and sensuous explorations of exotic locales and complex psychologies. From Siam to Paraguay and beyond, Tuck inspires readers to travel into unfamiliar realms, and her newest novel is no exception. Slender, potent, and utterly engaging, I Married You For Happiness combines marriage, mathematics, and the probability of an afterlife to create Tuck’s most affecting and riveting book yet.

“His hand is growing cold, still she holds it” is how this novel that tells the story of a marriage begins. The tale unfolds over a single night as Nina sits at the bedside of her husband, Philip, whose sudden and unexpected death is the reason for her lonely vigil. Still too shocked to grieve, she lets herself remember the defining moments of their long union, beginning with their meeting in Paris. She is an artist, he a highly accomplished mathematician—a collision of two different worlds that merged to form an intricate and passionate love. As we move through select memories—real and imagined—Tuck reveals the most private intimacies, dark secrets, and overwhelming joys that defined Nina and Philip’s life together


Anatomy of a Misfit – Andrea Portes

It’s a ‘Big Library Read’ on Overdrive, so I just downloaded it to have a peek.



Outside, Anika Dragomir is all lip gloss and blond hair—the third most popular girl in school. Inside, she’s a freak: a mix of dark thoughts, diabolical plots, and, if local chatter is to be believed, vampire DNA (after all, her father is Romanian). But she keeps it under wraps to maintain her social position. One step out of line and Becky Vilhauer, first most popular girl in school, will make her life hell. So when former loner Logan McDonough shows up one September hotter, smarter, and more mysterious than ever, Anika knows she can’t get involved. It would be insane to throw away her social safety for a nerd. So what if that nerd is now a black-leather-jacket-wearing dreamboat, and his loner status is clearly the result of his troubled home life? Who cares if the right girl could help him with all that, maybe even save him from it? Who needs him when Jared Kline, the bad boy every girl dreams of, is asking her on dates? Who?

Anatomy of a Misfit is Mean Girls meets The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Anika’s hilariously deadpan delivery will appeal to readers for its honesty and depth. The so-sad-it’s-funny high school setting will pull readers in, but when the story’s dark foreboding gradually takes over, the devastating penultimate tragedy hits like a punch to the gut. Readers will ride the highs and lows alongside funny, flawed Anika — from laughter to tears, and everything in between

Men We Reaped: A Memoir – Jesmyn Ward

It’s been far too long since I’ve read non-fiction.

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth—and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own



French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters – Karen Le Billon

So I am a sucker for books like this, on how kids eat. My two littles do quite ok in the eating side of things. The older one recently discovered tandoori chicken and is happy to eat things like Brussels sprouts and kale, and the younger one always wants to try what’s one our plates (although he might spit it out later). Oddly though he doesn’t like avocados and bananas and in general other soft fruits and vegetables that I thought most kids would eat. But I’m always interested in reading others’ experiences.


Moving her young family to her husband’s hometown in northern France, Karen Le Billon is prepared for some cultural adjustment but is surprised by the food education she and her family (at first unwillingly) receive. In contrast to her daughters, French children feed themselves neatly and happily—eating everything from beets to broccoli, salad to spinach, mussels to muesli. The family’s food habits soon come under scrutiny, as Karen is lectured for slipping her fussing toddler a snack—”a recipe for obesity!”—and forbidden from packing her older daughter a lunch in lieu of the elaborate school meal.

The family soon begins to see the wisdom in the “food rules” that help the French foster healthy eating habits and good manners—from the rigid “no snacking” rule to commonsense food routines that we used to share but have somehow forgotten. Soon, the family cures picky eating and learns to love trying new foods. But the real challenge comes when they move back to North America—where their commitment to “eating French” is put to the test. The result is a family food revolution with surprising but happy results—which suggest we need to dramatically rethink the way we feed children, at home and at school.

Wow, that’s a lot of books for me this week!

Here’s the kids’ loot:

What did you get from your library this week?

My Year of Meats – Ruth Ozeki




With a title like that – and that cover – surely I would have cottoned on to the fact that this book has to do with meat. As in meat that comes from animals. Specifically cows.

But yeah I didn’t quite get it until I opened the book.


(And this is the ‘cover’ of my e-book copy, which says: Hi, I have something to do with Asian culture because of the chopsticks and the woman’s black hair. Notice, there is no cow or meat on this cover.)

It is an anti-meat story. A book you don’t want to eat a hamburger with. A book that you shouldn’t take out for a steak dinner. Not a wining and dining sort of book. In fact it is a book that should stay far away from your kitchen, dining room!, breakfast nook, patio table or anywhere you sit down and consume things.

Because while it is fictional, it is also full of uncomfortable facts about the meat industry.

But before you run away screaming, My Year of Meats is also the tale of two women, Akiko Ueno, who lives in a Tokyo suburb and is married to a BEEF-EX exec, and Jane Takagi-Little, who produces the TV series sponsored by those very meat exporters for Japanese housewives like Akiko. My American Wife is its title and meat is the message. Pork is possible! Beef is best!

(Please note that I am a committed omnivore. We occasionally have meatless meals at home, which are balanced by the occasional vegetable-less meal. We compensate by always having fruits.)

The narration switches between Jane and Akiko. Akiko suffers under the thumb of her ogre of a husband, taking her revenge in her own way by throwing up her meals and discouraging her body from having babies. But her forced viewing of My American Wife becomes her lifesaver, her eye-opener to the unhappiness in her life, and as Jane takes over the direction of the show, it becomes, more honest, less staged, and also less about the meat recipes (beef fudge!) and more about the people, and such diverse people she digs up too. And the more Jane learns about the meat industry the more convinced she is that meat is indeed the message, just not the way the beef company expects it.

Jane, a biracial woman, and her Japanese crew trigger off interesting reactions from the various Americans (i.e. white Americans) they meet:

Then, at the pancake breakfast where we had been filming, a red-faced veteran from WWII drew a bead on me and my crew, standing in line by the warming trays, our plates stacked high with flapjacks and American bacon.

“Where you from, anyway?” he asked, squinting his bitter blue eyes at me.

“New York,” I answered.

He shook his head and glared and wiggled a crooked finger inches from my face. “No, I mean where were you born?”

“Quam, Minnesota,” I said.

“No, no… What are you?” He whined with frustration.

And in a voice that was low, but shivering with demented pride, I told him, “I…am…a…fucking…AMERICAN!”

My Year of Meats was both funny and uncomfortable. Kind of like that passage above. I’m not sure how Ozeki managed to straddle those two but it did. She drew up some great characters in Jane and Akiko, and even Jane’s crew members and the “American wives” she interviews. There was something rather fresh and interesting about this book, although, yes, I do realize it was written in 1997. And I kept having this feeling that I was reading an actual person’s story, a memoir, not fiction. I guess that means that the characters, the story, felt very real to me. This probably had to do with the fact that Ozeki herself is half Japanese, half Caucasian, and worked for several years making documentaries.

What I’m trying to say, in my clumsy, half-awake way, as the baby monitor carries my kid’s cries from his crib to my kitchen, is that this was a read that struck me, that kept me turning the pages, despite some of the gruesome scenes and uncomfortable knowledge, that Ozeki’s writing and characters pulled me in. And that I will be looking out for the rest of Ozeki’s books.

Halving the Bones. 1995.
My Year of Meats. Penguin. 1998.
All Over Creation. Penguin. 2003. 
A Tale for the Time Being. Viking. 2013.

The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin


I don’t have follow-through.

When it comes to books and series, there are far too many that I’ve started and stopped, searching instead for that other read, stretching out for something different.

But when it comes to NK Jemisin, it seems that I have read all of her books!

(And now I have to wait for the next one to come out…. what? next year?!)

I first heard of her books from Eva at A Striped Armchair, when she blogged about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the first book in the Inheritance trilogy.

And when I finished those three books (sigh! Perhaps a reread is in order!!), I turned to Jemisin’s Dreamblood series, of which there has been The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun. (Jemisin talks about  The Killing Moon on John Scalzi’s blog, if you’re interested in finding out more about her inspiration behind this book – two words ‘ninja priests’ – if that doesn’t make you want to read her books, I don’t know what will!). Here’s the first chapter of The Killing Moon on Jemisin’s website if you’d like to read a bit more.

It had unfortunately been a bit of a time lag between my reading of The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun. Goodreads tells me I read The Killing Moon in December 2012. And oops, The Shadowed Sun was first published in January 2012, making my read quite a delayed one.

Why the delay? I wish I had a legitimate reason like saving it for RIP or Diversiverse. But it probably can be chalked up to my lack of follow-through.

But oh what a read it was.

From that striking cover to its nightmarish premise, I drank it all in.

Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

Gujaareh, the city of dreams, suffers under the imperial rule of the Kisuati Protectorate. A city where the only law was peace now knows violence and oppression. A mysterious and deadly plague now haunts the citizens of Gujaareh, dooming the infected to die screaming in their sleep. Someone must show them the way.

It’s an unusually short synopsis this one. I suppose there must be a longer one somewhere but this one is adequate. Because what made the book was not just the storyline, this nightmare that is creeping around the city, but those wonderful characters that Jemisin has created, and how she has nurtured them and brought them through life and all its motions, its joys and suffering, its pleasures, its fears.

The two main characters are Hanani, the first female Sharer (she’s a kind of healer) and Wanahomen, the son of the fallen Prince, who is rounding up his allies and establishing his power. And what characters they are! You aren’t expected to like Wana at first, he’s hardened, unfriendly, and long-prejudiced against the Sharers and the Hetawa. Hanani comes across at first as unsure of herself, as a Sharer-Apprentice, as the first female Sharer-Apprentice, the first female member of the Hetawa.

Jemisin has created such genuine characters. While I did not start out liking Wana – and it took a very long time for me to grudgingly accept him – he seemed so very real a person. A large part of his character development is due to his interactions with Hanami but this is far from a romantic or traditional kind of situation. Hanami was my favourite character, her dedication to her work and to her life as Sharer, her willingness to adapt to her new life with the Banbarra, her ability to connect with others. And through her, learning about the gender roles in the different societies, the power structures in the tribe, and life in this new place she finds herself in.

And this world that Jemisin has created! Based on Egyptian mythology, a world where women are deemed goddesses but are hardly given any freedom to do as they wish, where men are veiled and only unveil themselves at home and with those close to them. And where the Sharers access dreamscapes and heal their patients. Of course, it was first introduced in The Killing Moon, but the introduction of the Banbarra and their tribal society brings such greater depth and sense of place to her constructed universe.

If you’ve never read anything by NK Jemisin before, go! Run out to your library or your bookstore or just buy an e-copy of one of her books. And read! And be amazed. And please come back and tell me all about it!


N. K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo (three times), the Nebula (four times), and the World Fantasy Award (twice); shortlisted for the Crawford, the Gemmell Morningstar, and the Tiptree; and she has won a Locus Award for Best First Novel as well as the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award (three times).
I read this book for Diversiverse and RIP IX

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


I picked up this book not long after the Tournament of Books 2014 finalists were announced. I had been thoroughly pleased to note that this list was full of books I was already wanting to read, like The Goldfinch and Life after Life and The Good Lord Bird (and am still wanting to read, having not actually read any yet). It was also one of the few times I had actually read a book (just one – the very adorable Eleanor & Park – which if you have not read, you really ought to!) on an awards shortlist (see the other finalists below – you are welcome). And there were also some books that I was rather curious about.

It so happened that one of these books I was curious about was available as an e-book download from my library, and so up it went, onto the Kindle. And there it stayed for a while, until in a moment of panic I realized it was due back in less than a week, and if you’ve borrowed e-books, you might know that these books can’t be renewed, and simply poof from your screens when the loan is over. And so I read it, and at first I was like, ugh, what am I reading? And then before I knew it I was up past my bedtime (really really easy to do since I sleep at 10pm – horrors I know, but the husband gets up at 6am, and the baby then gets awakened and while he’s a very easygoing little almost-ten-month-old who will play with his fingers and talk to his mobile instead of crying, he seems to have developed a morning poop schedule). Anyway, before we go into diaper details, I was trying to get to talking about The People in the Trees, which turned out to be a far more absorbing book than I was expecting.

But first, the Tournament of Books finalists:

At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
The Son by Philipp Meyer
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
[Winner of the Pre-Tournament Playoff Round]

Pre-Tournament Playoff Round
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Oh, that might not have been the best of ideas. I probably lost most of you there, you’re probably off scanning your library catalogue or making lists or something already.

Anyway, the story opens with an article from the Associated Press, “Renowned Scientist Faces Charges of Sexual Abuse”: Dr Abraham Norton Perina is charged with abusing his adopted sons. The article goes on to inform the reader that Perina won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1974 for identifying the Selena syndrome, in which “the victim’s body remains preserves in relative youth as his mind degrades”. This was discovered among the Opa’ivu’eke people of Ivu’ivu and acquired through the consumption of a rare turtle.

So essentially we know what Perina is famous for – and now infamous for.

Then we begin with a preface by Ronald Kubodera, who worked in Norton’s lab at the National Institutes of Health, and who claims to still be his devoted friend. And who is typing and editing Perina’s memoir, which he is writing in prison. Kubodera’s “light” touch can be seen in the many footnotes that dot the manuscript, adding a variety of details, both scholarly and personal. Unreliable narrator alert!

Perina joins the research team of Paul Tallent, an anthropologist looking for a lost tribe, more specifically for the Manu’eke, “he meant to hunt down a creature that loped through children’s nightmares, that populated campfire tales, that existed in the same universe as stones who could mate with planets and father mountains and men”.

“At night I dreamed of green, great floating blobs of it, morphing gently from one shade to the next, and in the mornings I woke feeling beaten and exhausted. During the daces: of glass and concrete and chips of mica glinting from asphalted streets.”

And after weeks of trudging through the forest, after days of endless constant green, they spot some thing, some one, who had “once, long ago, been taught how to behave as a human and was slowly, steadily forgetting”, “her tongue lolling out stupidly , her eyes fixed on nothing”. But the Spam they lay out attracts her and she moves with them in a kind of ritual “stare, stare, sniff, sniff, eat, eat, belch”.

Then there are more of them. And they all bear the mark of someone who has turned 60 (and in this society “an impossible age, and a coveted one”): “in slumber they appeared a strange hybrid, their bodies those of sturdy children, their faces those of someone much older: a crone, a wizard, a sorcerer”.

But there is a strange relationship with these elders and the villagers that the team find. They are shunned, outcasts. It is quite unexpected and a little bewildering. And Perina is determined to uncover their secrets.

Yanagihara has admirably created this whole society, an imaginary island nation with its own language and culture. One that feels so real that and well-researched, that it reads like an actual memoir, of an actual person.

And more importantly, she sucks the reader into the story of Perina, his discoveries, his perversities. His oddly compelling story. Odd because he is difficult, he is unlikeable, brilliant yes, but ultimately cruel and cold. Yet despite his brilliance he is also surprisingly honest about his own shortcomings. Perhaps that’s the part that makes him more human. (Perina is based loosely on the real-life scientist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, says Yanagihara in this interview. She conceptualized the book during Gajdusek’s trial in the mid-1990s when she was 21 and finished it when she was 36.)

But he is telling this remarkable, unforgettable story. Of discovering a ‘lost’ tribe, of uncovering the secret to their longevity. And unfortunately, it does also tells of some rather creepy, uncomfortable sexual acts (although, to be fair, Yanagihara does tell the reader straight up that this is the story of a convicted paedophile). For it is a story about power, a critique about western imperialism, and what a thought-provoking, absorbing read it is.


The Library Book


As a devoted library patron – and currently a member of libraries in two countries, Singapore and the United States (I used to also be a loyal member of the Jubilee Library in Brighton and Hove, a ten-minute walk from the international student apartments on Kings Road, when I was a graduate student at the University of Sussex, but sadly my membership has long expired!), I knew I had to borrow this e-book.

The Library Book, published for National Libraries Day in the UK, is a collection of short essays by British writers, from Alan Bennett to Val McDermid to Caitlin Moran to Zadie Smith.

There’s a nice variety here, with some fiction, like China Melville’s Un Lun Dun and Karen Mosse’s The Lending Library. Some historical details about the Library of Babylon from Tom Holland. Bella Bathurst’s The Secret Life of Libraries tells of the most pilfered books, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thoughts on bodybuilding (Liverpool), the UK citizenship test (Swansea).

I most enjoyed the personal anecdotes about growing up with libraries. Often the idea to take away is that libraries are about communities, not just about books.

Hardeep Singh Kohli recalls meeting his first punk in the Langside Library in Glasgow, and through that encounter, learning to claim his own Scottishness.

Ann Cleeves still remembers the name of her librarian, Mrs Macgregor, although she has long forgotten those of her teachers.

And I can relate to that, in a sense. Here we live in the Bay Area, far from our families, and while we had friends in the area, none of them had children at the time. So when Wee Reader was a baby, as a stay-at-home-mum, I was desperate for some company who could relate to what I was going through. So it was off to the library, to join their weekly “lap sit” sessions, where there were songs and finger plays and a ‘playtime’ at the end. It was amazing to see so many babies of different cultures and meet other mums. And today, Wee Reader still has regular playdates with some of these other toddlers we first met at the library, two years ago!

Of course that’s beside the very very many books we’ve borrowed – and will be borrowing!

One of my favourite quotes is from Caitlin Moran:

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’.”

And this one from Anita Anand:

“I love taking my son to our local. We choose our piles with great care and excitement. He’s one and a half, and I am pleased to report that so far we have learned that Spot loves his mum and Spot loves his dad, and Caterpillars can be very hungry indeed. As can children, as long as libraries exist to feed them.”

I wish I could say that we’re off to the library now, but Wee-er Reader is down for his morning nap, without a fuss for once! But I am ready to settle down with my library book, just that it’s an e-book!