Read in February 2012

I tried hard to stick to my personal challenge of reading books in translation for February. And I thought I did pretty well, until I actually look at the numbers. I only finished 9 books in translation out of the 18 in total I read. One book (Banquet Bug) I had mistaken for being a translated work, only to find out later that it was the author’s first work in English (she previously wrote in her native Chinese). Then there was the other issue of heavy heavy books. And I had to take a break and go for some lighter reads by finishing the Lemony Snicket series. The non-fiction books were also those I had started in January.

Excuses excuses, I know. I’m continuing with a few more translated works in March but my plan this month is to read more non-fiction.

Fiction (13)

The Confessions of Noa Weber – Gail Hareven
Brothers – Yu Hua
Out – Natsuo Kirino
To the end of the land – David Grossman
Voice Over – Celine Curiol
Detective Story – Imre Kertész
The Tale of the Unknown Island – Jose Saramago
Banquet Bug – Yan Geling
Tokyo Fiancee – Amelie Nothomb
Slippery Slope – Lemony Snicket
Grim Grotto – Lemony Snicket
The Penultimate Peril – Lemony Snicket
Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea

Poetry (2)
Wonders and Surprises – Phyllis McGinley (ed)
A book of luminous things: an international anthology of poetry – Czeslaw Milosz (Ed)

Graphic novel (1)
Daytripper – Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

Non-fiction (3)
The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food – Adam Gopnik
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life– Sandra Beasley
The Essential Feminist Reader – Estelle B. Freedman (Ed)

Total: 19


Happy New Year!

Back home in Singapore, there’ll be some new pots of flowers, plenty of mandarin oranges for visiting, snacks of all kinds (my mom was busy making her yummy cookies the past weekend), new clothes perhaps?, and everything will be relatively spick and span. Here in Fremont, not much is new, although I guess the house is relatively clean, and we’re expecting a friend to pass us bak kwa (a kind of sweet-salty dried BBQ pork slices… so good) that we bulk ordered from a company in the Bay Area, and a feast at R&G Lounge (warning – site automatically plays music) in the city on Saturday. Celebration or not, I’m looking forward to the new year!


(Here’s wishing you a happy Year of the Rabbit, may everything you do be successful, and here’s to good health!)

Chinese New Year

by Lynda Hull

The dragon is in the street dancing beneath windows
pasted with colored squares, past the man
who leans into the phone booth’s red pagoda, past
crates of doves and roosters veiled
until dawn. Fireworks complicate the streets
with sulphur as people exchange gold
and silver foil, money to appease ghosts
who linger, needy even in death. I am
almost invisible. Hands could pass through me
effortlessly. This is how it is
to be so alien that my name falls from me, grows
untranslatable as the shop signs,
the odors of ginseng and black fungus that idle
in the stairwell, the corridor where
the doors are blue months ajar. Hands
gesture in the smoke, the partial moon
of a face. For hours the soft numeric
click of mah-jongg tiles drifts
down the hallway where languid Mai trails
her musk of sex and narcotics.
There is no grief in this, only the old year
consuming itself, the door knob blazing
in my hand beneath the lightbulb’s electric jewel.
Between voices and fireworks
wind works bricks to dust—hush, hush
no language I want to learn. I can touch
the sill worn by hands I’ll never know
in this room with its low table
where I brew chrysanthemum tea. The sign
for Jade Palace sheds green corollas
on the floor. It’s dangerous to stand here
in the chastening glow, darkening
my eyes in the mirror with the gulf of the rest
of my life widening away from me, waiting
for the man I married to pass beneath
the sign of the building, to climb
the five flights and say his Chinese name for me.
He’ll rise up out of the puzzling streets
where men pass bottles of rice liquor, where
the new year is liquor, the black bottle
the whole district is waiting for, like
some benevolent arrest—the moment
when men and women turn to each other and dissolve
each bad bet, every sly mischance,
the dalliance of hands. They turn in lamplight
the way I turn now. Wai Min is in the doorway.
He brings fish. He brings lotus root.
He brings me ghost money.

Lynda Hull, “Chinese New Year” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2006 by the Estate of Lynda Hull. Used by permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota,

Lost bread and green tea

I loved today’s Writer’s Almanac poem, French Toast by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Pain perdu: lost bread. Thick slices sunk in milk,
fringed with crisp lace of browned egg and scattered sugar.
Like spongiest challah, dipped in foaming cream
and frothy egg, richness drenching every yeasted
crevice and bubble, that’s how sodden with luck
I felt when we fell in love. Now, at forty,
I remember that “lost bread” means bread that’s gone
stale, leftover heels and crusts, too dry for simple
jam and butter. Still, week-old bread makes the best
French toast, soaks up milk as greedily as I turn
toward you under goose down after ten years
of marriage, craving, still, that sweet white immersion.

“French Toast” by Anya Krugovoy Silver, from The Ninety-Third Name of God. © Louisiana State University Press, 2011.


I then started wondering (it was 5 am and I couldn’t sleep), so I browsed Poetry Foundation for more poems on food and drink and fell in love with this one, Green Tea by Dale Ritterbusch.

There is this tea
I have sometimes,
Pan Long Ying Hao,
so tightly curled
it looks like tiny roots
gnarled, a greenish-gray.
When it steeps, it opens
the way you woke this morning,
stretching, your hands behind
your head, back arched,
toes pointing, a smile steeped
in ceremony, a celebration,
the reaching of your arms.

Source: Far From the Temple of Heaven (Black Moss Press, 2006)

(ok it’s not for green tea but it’s a gorgeous Peranakan-style tea set that my mom brought for me from Singapore).

In Praise of the Potato

Potato, sojourner north, first sprung
from the flanks of volcanoes, plainspoken kin

to bright chili and deadly nightshade,
sleek eggplant and hairy tobacco,

we could live on you alone if we had to,
and scorched-earth marauders never bothered you much.

I love you because your body’s a stem,
your eyes sprout, and you’re not in the Bible,

and if we did not eat your strength,
you’d drive it up, into a flower.

By David Williams, from Traveling Mercies

And with those thanks to the potato (and sweet potato), I plunged my spoon into my Japanese curry leftovers. Japanese curry and rice. Not all that good for you, but quick to prepare and oh, so tasty a dinner.

Six Billion People by Tom Chandler

And all of you so beautiful
I want to bring you home with me
to sit close on the couch.

My invitation inserted in six billion bottles,
corked with bark from the final forest
and dropped in the ocean of my longing.

We would speak the language of no words,
pass the jug of our drunken joy
at being babies growing into death.

Sometimes, I know, life is stupid, pointless,
beside the point, but here’s the point —
maybe we would fall

in love, settle down together,
share the wine, the bills,
the last of the oxygen and the remote.

“Six Billion People” by Tom Chandler, from Toy Firing Squad