Judith by Noel Streatfeild

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I loved Streatfeild’s “shoes” books for many years. We had a copy of Ballet Shoes and it was a book I reread many times (and still reread today). We also had Apple Bough (known as Traveling Shoes), Curtain Up (also known as Theatre Shoes), White Boots (also known as Skating Shoes). My favourite was always Ballet Shoes though!

While Streatfeild has written other books, I had not ventured past those books I had grown up with.

But once again, a reading challenge has pushed me to reading different things. This year I am hoping to do much better when it comes to the Back to the Classics challenge. One of the challenges was to read a “new-to-you classic by a favorite author”, and so who better to read than Noel Streatfeild?

The appeal of her books was typically that it was comforting yet also quaint. The families all tend to have problems with money and their parents tend to be a bit vague, so a Nana-like guardian figure always manages to wrangle things and keep the household together. But there’s always talent. Whether it be for ballet or ice-skating or dancing or acting.

So it was with these themes in mind that I started reading Judith. And aha, there’s the absent father, the vague mother who in this case is particularly cold and ignores her child. Judith is pretty much a child emotionally abandoned by her mother. She so longs for Mother’s attention which never happens, and which brings Judith and her governess Miss Simpson (or Simpsy as Judith calls her) together. The three of them seem to travel around Europe quite a bit, apparently because “Mother hated many things, amongst them cold weather, seeing the same dreary faces too often, publishers’ cocktail parties, and “your Father’s family.””

So the kind guardian figure in this book is Miss Simpson. She’s respectable and trustworthy (important characteristics for Mother) but also loving and kind towards her charge. In her own way, she takes the sting out of Mother’s criticism of Judith, rephrasing Mother’s orders in a nicer way, such as Judith’s being sent out for a walk as being indoors won’t give Judith a nice complexion.

Mother’s family looks down on Judith’s father’s family. Her father lives in the US with his new wife (there is a divorced couple in a Streatfeild book!). But the big news is that he will be in England for his sister Charlotte’s wedding. And Judith is to be a bridesmaid.

“Judith collected kind words and kind looks dropped by Mother. As she grew older she exaggerated these looks and words and on them built day-dreams.”

Essentially, Judith is about a young girl (we first meet her at age 12) who’s constantly let down by her family. Because of her circumstances, she doesn’t know how to interact with children of her age, like her cousins when she finally meets them. And what makes it worse is that the adults often use her as entertainment, due to her talent for imitating people.

And the thing is, she is not a likeable character. She is meant to be pitied. She’s clingy and needy and naive. So this wasn’t exactly the delightful Streatfeild read I was expecting. It didn’t leave me with that warm-hearted feeling of her children’s books. But well, I shouldn’t have been expecting a children’s book type read, should I?

In terms of a read, this wasn’t exactly the easiest, because although parts of it were amusing, there were few characters that were likeable or charming. And you desperately want someone to just be there for her (there are some glimmers of hope). I’m looking forward to reading more of Streafeild’s books as there are quite a few that are available as ebooks from my library. Now that I’ve had a taste of her non-Shoes books, I feel like I’m better suited to try more.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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It is interesting to read this book today. A book I have heard about, had a relative idea of its plot, read of the many times it was banned, including an attempt in 2000 at one California high school (one parent was quoted as saying: “It teaches how very easy it is to smother somebody…I don’t want to put these kinds of images in children’s minds. They’re going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out.” (This makes me wonder what kind of TV shows they watch in their household.)

In 2013, it was banned from production by an Alaskan theatre company for a different reason – because it’s racist and misogynistic.

So why did I read this book this year? Partly because of Nurse Ratched, the Netflix TV series. I happened to watch the first episode the other day and thought, ok I better read the original book first! And also, a comment from Jen at Introverted Reader on my blog post about Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings. She mentioned The Combine in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, similar to how the characters in Earthlings talk about The Factory.

Kesey worked as a night aide on a psychiatric ward in the Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital and it was his experiences as well as his experience with drug use (he was in an Army-sponsored hallucinogenic drug experiment) resulted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s funny to read of how Menlo Park and Palo Alto used to be places where experiments in LSD and other psychedelic drugs were carried out – not exactly the image that I associate with it at all today.

First off, I’m going to admit that this is not really a review. Just some random thoughts as I was reading this book. It’s incredibly hard to review a book that plenty of people have read – and some, even thoroughly studied. But well, since this is for a reading challenge, some thoughts must be put down, and a blog post to be uploaded. So here it is.

I’ve not seen the movie version yet (but I guess I ought to now that I’ve read the book), but I definitely had Jack Nicholson’s image in my head when reading about McMurphy, the trickster, the rebel, the one who champions the underdog. Yet while he’s meant to be seen as the tragic hero, he’s also the guy who decided to go to the psych ward instead of serving a prison sentence.

I constantly felt uncomfortable reading this. It was controversial for its time but it still makes for an uncomfortable edgy read even today. It’s full of themes such as individuality and power through the constant struggle between Nurse Ratched who’s trying to maintain the status quo and McMurphy who keeps trying to break it. But I kept wondering why it is a woman who is the tyrant, the cold heartless character. The doctor (of course, a man) is on the other hand, easily manipulated by McMurphy. Also, I kept pronouncing her name (in my head, that is) as “wretched”. The other women characters (except for another nurse I think) are prostitutes…

“What she dreams of there in the centre of those wires is a world of precision efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under the floor.”

Then there’s Chief Bromden, a large Native American who pretends to be deaf and mute. And how it wasn’t just that he started acting that way, but that people started acting like he was “too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all”. It’s a clever tactic, using this narrator (although reading it today makes me go ‘ugh’ about a white man writing the part of a Native American), as he is always in the hallways sweeping, and since everyone presumes he’s deaf and mute, they talk freely around him. Also, I’m never quite certain if what he’s talking about is a hallucination or real life. With regards to minority characters, I’m frustrated with the use of “boys” when it comes to the Black men who work at the ward. The patients are referred to as “men” though.

I don’t know how to sum up my feelings about this book. I’m glad I read it, for at least now I know more about it. It was an uneasy read not just in terms of what feelings it’s supposed to churn up (down with the man! for one thing) but it was also a book full of stereotyped minorities, as well as women who are either there to be used or to belittle the men of the ward.

Grown by Tiffany D Jackson

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I started reading this book on Sunday night. It was getting late and I reluctantly put it away to try to go to sleep, not quite realizing it would keep me wide awake for much much longer. It was full of rage-inducing moments that made me want to throw it across the room. It had this despicable man who used his fame and his charm to cajole and to enchant young girls. 

It does open with quite the shocker. Enchanted, age 17, finds herself in a hotel room, covered in blood, and there is Korey Fields, a famous singer, lying dead. What does Enchanted have to do with this? Did she kill him? 

The narrative moves back to Enchanted, pre-Korey, where she dreams of being a singer and enters an audition. That’s where they meet. He offers to help her but their text conversations soon start to get a bit creepy (at least to the reader). And soon the relationship turns abusive. But she’s far from her family and friends. 

This was such a difficult read. The way their relationship builds, the way Korey influences and manipulates Enchanted is so skillfully managed by Jackson. 

Don’t go into this book expecting a murder-mystery, although the synopsis does make it sound a bit like one. This is a story about abuse, psychological and sexual. This is a story about a pedophile and how he manipulated his victim. But this is also a story about how society turns a blind eye to these victims, questioning if they are to blame for what happened. 

Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

I love it when reading challenges push me to try books I’ve not heard of before. This book was a finalist of the JCB Prize, a book prize celebrating Indian writers. Latitudes of Longing was shortlisted for the 2018 prize, which was awarded to Benyamin for Jasmine Days.

Latitudes of Longing opens on the Andaman Islands, which already for me perked my interest. It made the news a couple of years ago after an American missionary traveled there (illegally) to visit an uncontested tribe known as the Sentinelese. They are one of six native tribes that live on the islands and Survival International termed them the “most isolated tribe in the world”.

Well, at any rate, this book – or at least the first section (novella?) – takes place on the Andaman Islands. Girija Prasad is an Oxford-educated scientist and is newly married to Chanda Devi, who sees ghosts and talks to trees. His work takes him to the islands, which was a former British naval base and penal colony, then captured by the Japanese during the war, and now owned by the Indian government.

I enjoyed reading about their life on the islands, and their growing relationship. The author brings in the environment and nature into the story in a lyrical way.

Unfortunately, while the first section was well told and evocative, the rest of the book didn’t enchant me as much.

Mary is a Burmese woman who works for Chanda and Girija, and she is the main character of the second novella. Her son, whom she hasn’t seen since he was a baby, is a political prisoner in Burma. He has renamed himself Plato. The third section focuses on Thapa, who is Plato’s best friend, and was the one who located Mary in the Andaman Islands. Thapa is a smuggler in Nepal. And his travels lead us on to the final section in the book, which starts out by being set in the remote mountain village. I don’t know if it continues in this setting as I eventually gave it up.

How does a book start out well like that and then result in a book I ended up just skimming through? I’m not entirely sure. I wanted to like it and finish it, but I found myself being easily distracted and bored towards the end. Maybe this was just too ambitious a book? Could it have been improved with better editing? Maybe if it were a novella, just the first section on its own?

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

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Squeezed in one last read for #JanuaryinJapan, a reading challenge on Instagram. I had read Kawakami’s work before in 2018, Ms Ice Sandwich. Although apparently that was published in 2013 (then in English in 2017?). This book, Breasts and Eggs, was originally published in 2019, then in English in 2020.

Kawakami was known first as a musician, then a blogger. If I’m not wrong, this book was written originally as a blog. It tells the story of three women, the narrator, Natsuko, who is about 30 and unmarried. Then there’s her older sister Makiko, who works as a hostess at a bar, and Makiko’s preteen daughter, Midoriko. Makiko, who is about ten years older than Natsuko, had to work to support them when their grandmother died (their mother had died some years ago). 

Makiko has come to Tokyo with Midoriko to get breast enhancement surgery. They still live in Osaka while Natsuko lives in Tokyo. Midoriko is worried about getting her first period. Natsuko wants to have a baby, but without a partner.

I was confused at first, as I had thought I was reading a novella. It turns out that the first part is originally a novella. The second part is about twice that length, and continues the story some 8 years or so later. It thus felt a bit uneven, the way the two parts were slapped together in one book. Sure, the same characters are there, but it just felt off balance somehow. Maybe because it’s mostly Natsuko’s story in the second part? We hardly see Makiko and Midoriko.

My interest in this title was because of the buzz, the startling title (especially for a Japanese novel), and I liked the exploration of topics such as single motherhood in Japan, as well as artificial insemination. Coming from Singapore, a country which still holds strong to its conservative Asian values, I understand how topics like fertility and artificial insemination are still difficult to talk about. And in both countries, the decrease in the number of births are concerning to its governments. Yet in Singapore, IVF isn’t available for single women, or for women over the age of 45. If I’m not wrong, even egg freezing has its restrictions in Singapore, such as requiring a valid medical condition. The result is some women have gone overseas to freeze their eggs.  

Out of all the Japanese novels I’ve read in January, this was the least strange, despite its title. Perhaps the others have been a bit too out there, and maybe I was expecting that bizarreness that didn’t happen. So it was interesting to finish up January in Japan with all the relative normalcy that happens in this book (other than weasels falling from ceilings). 

So Haruki Murakami praised her writing, but when they met in 2017, she discussed the sexism that she saw in his books. (The interview transcript is available here but here is one quote from the interview: 

“On the one hand, your work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to plots, to wells, and to men, but the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. It’s not possible for these women to exist on their own. And while female protagonists, or even supporting characters, may enjoy a moderate degree of self-expression, thanks to their relative independence, there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?”

It is curious though that the translators (two names are listed on the book) for Breasts and Eggs are male. Would it have been translated differently if they were female? Random thought I know, but it does make me wonder. 

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge and the Books in Translation challenge.

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida

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“The me who lives here is most definitely the Apartment Me I created, and by that I mean she’s someone who just doesn’t do serious. The me who gets along well with the other residents (Ryosuke, Koto, Naoki, and Satoru) is Apartment Me… But maybe they’ve also created their own Apartment Selves, too. Which would mean that they, too, don’t actually exist in this apartment. Conclusion? No one is in this apartment.”

Five people. One Tokyo apartment.

Ryosuke Sugimoto is a college student from a small town. Kotomi Okochi doesn’t go out. She spends her time by the phone at the apartment, waiting for her maybe-boyfriend, an upcoming actor, to call. Mirai Soma is an artist who works at an imported-goods boutique and spends her nights drinking (and drinking and drinking). Naoki Ihara is the only one who seems to resemble an adult. He has a job at a film company but also has a strange relationship with his ex-girlfriend. The fifth person only enters the apartment some chapters in. Satoru Kokubo is 18 and at first everyone presumes he’s Ryosuke’s friend but it turns out he isn’t?

Then there is something strange about the visitors, often young girls and old men, emerging from the apartment next door. And there have been attacks on young women on the streets around their neighbourhood.

But really, it’s a story in which nothing very much happens. It’s the daily lives of these four (then five) young people. As I read on, seeing things from each character’s perspective, I realised that they didn’t really know much about each other. They lived together, the girls sharing a room and the guys in another, and they would sometime go out together but there seems to be a lot of disconnect. The use of the different points of view is very effective in this story – the characters reveal their innermost thoughts, as well as their true feelings about their flatmates. Although as much as I followed along with these secrets and hidden thoughts, I was still surprised by how it ended.

“A cowardly college student. A love-addicted girl. A freelance illustrator who likes to hang out with gay guys. And a health-obsessed jogger. If I hadn’t met them there, there’s no way I would ever talk to people like that.”

I found this quite a fascinating read. No way as weird and puzzling as some of the other Japanese novels I’ve recently (I’m looking at you, Earthlings) but it has that sense of alienation and detachment that seems to haunt a lot of Japanese fiction I’ve read.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura; The Stranger by Albert Camus

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A college student is walking late one night when he comes across a crime scene. A dead body with a gun in hand. He picks up the gun and takes it with him. Although he is also afraid as he’s breaking the law. He becomes obsessed with the gun. It brings him a strange joy.

“Once again, its overwhelming beauty and presence did not disappoint. I felt as though I might be transported – that is to say, that the world within myself could be unlocked – I felt full of such possibilities.”

This is Nakamura’s debut novel. It was first published in 2002 (English translation published 2016).

I come from a country where guns are very strictly restricted. And now I live in a country where lots of people own lots of guns. It first really hit me when I had to fill in a questionnaire for a well-child check-up, something along the lines of “do you have guns in the home and are they locked up securely?”. We don’t. But I started to wonder, do my neighbours? How about school classmates’ families?

I still marvel that this is a country where you can walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun, and there’s a gun store about five minutes’ drive away from my house. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever feel ok about.

At any rate, The Gun is a young man’s obsession with a gun that he’s convinced is rightfully his. A gun he polishes and admires. A gun that he cannot stop thinking about. He does already have some sociopathic tendencies and this gun seems to just make things a whole lot worse.

The Gun is a rather unsettling read about an obsession.

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It was quite a similar read to The Stranger by Albert Camus. In that they both have main characters who are very detached from the world around them. Was Fuminori Nakamura inspired by The Stranger? Both characters have little or no feelings for the women they are involved with, nor their friends and neighbours. Perhaps The Gun is a modern, Japanese take on The Stranger.

I guess I should talk more about The Stranger here. I guess I didn’t expect it to be told so simply, and so effectively. It was a quick read that left me with many questions, which I suppose may be the point of all this.

Meursault has few (if any) opinions on anything, few (if any) feelings and emotions about anything that happens in the book. Is Camus’ point of this to allow the reader to project herself into his shoes? As we went through the trial, I kept thinking of how so much of it annoyed me, how the witnesses at the funeral pointed out that Meursault didn’t cry, and instead smoked and drank coffee. That he wasn’t sure of his mother’s age. As if all these were definitions of whether he had been sad about the death of his mother.

Typing this, I realised that I had an emotional reaction about a character who doesn’t seem to feel much emotions.

Was I glad to have read this book? I still do not know. But I suppose I am glad to finally know what the book is about. It wasn’t in any way a pleasant read, but perhaps in the future it may be something I reread.

I read The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura for January in Japan; and The Stranger by Albert Camus for Back to the Classics.

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

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I hadn’t heard of this book before the movie adaptation, Midnight Sky, came out on Netflix. You might have seen it or heard of it, maybe? It has George Clooney acting and directing.

The movie was ok. It left me with many questions and a general feeling that a lot was missing. But reading the book allowed me to fill in many gaps, especially about Sully.

(I’ll try not to reveal spoilers but will talk a little about the plot. So skip this post if you haven’t seen the movie/read the book yet and don’t really want to know much about it! But come back when you have!).

Essentially the story is about an ageing (ageing in the book, sick in the movie) astronomer, alone in a research centre in the Arctic, after everyone else has evacuated because of a major global catastrophe that isn’t exactly detailed. But he’s lost contact with the rest of the world, and he’s alone, until he comes upon Iris, a young girl who doesn’t say much. What is she doing by herself in this outpost? The other part of the story is on board Aether, a spacecraft on its return trip from Jupiter. Because of this catastrophe, they have not had contact with Mission Control for some time now. And they’re wondering if they can get back to Earth.

It’s a contemplative journey.

However, I was really surprised by the many changes made in the script. Not just Sully – actress Felicity Jones was pregnant during the filming, which resulted in a pregnancy being introduced to the film. Also small things like different characters used, the fact that Augustine wasn’t actually actively looking to talk to Aether (in the book it seems like a coincidence that he picks up their signal), and the way a death and mishap happen. I suppose it was to spice it up and make it more dramatic for the movie audience. Although one of them made no logical sense at all. How can you crash through ice and live through it when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the freezing subzero temperatures?

But for me, the ultimate difference was that small nuances were lacking in the movie. It didn’t feel like they were all that anxious about being out of contact with Earth. They didn’t explore more about the other characters. Everyone seemed like they were fine with being on the spacecraft – I suppose this also comes from my watching the Netflix space TV series Away in which one of the characters has space blindness, and all kinds of things (too many perhaps) happen to their spacecraft. So the movie was definitely an “eh” and a “meh” for me.

Also, the endings were so different! When I finished the book, I marvelled at how so many small changes were made. And so, while I cannot recommend the movie (except for its cinematography) , I would not hesitate to recommend this book. It was a great read, a reflective one, and a different take on the dystopian novel.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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“With the coffee in front of her, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. It was her moment of happiness. As per his insistence, the coffee had been made from mocha beans with their distinct aroma, which coffee drinkers either love or hate. Those who enjoy the aroma, like Kohtake, can’t get enough of it. In fact, you could say that the coffee picked the customers.”

A book about time travel. But one with limits. It takes place solely in a cafe. And there are very strict rules. There is one particular seat at the cafe that allows time travel. The person cannot move from the seat. And the time traveler must return before the coffee gets cold (and also drink said coffee).

It all takes place in Cafe Funiculi Funicula (if you aren’t familiar, Funiculì, Funiculà is a song to commemorate the opening of the funicular railway on Mt Vesuvius back in 1880). There are a few regular customers of the cafe which is owned by Kei and Nagare, who are married. Kazu, who is Nagare’s cousin, helps out when she’s not at university. Kazu is the one who has to pour the cup of coffee that allows the time travel.

In this book, there are four time travellers in this book – and also another four in a separate book titled Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe (although known as Before Your Memory Fades in Japan).

It was only after reading the book, then reading a review of it that I learnt that this book was originally a play. That may explain why I wasn’t enamoured with the writing. The writing was fine, nothing to shout about, and you have to put aside your doubts about the way the time travel works (why is it only Kazu who pours the coffee? was a constant question for me!). But I really appreciated the thoughtfulness put into how their stories unfolded, the emotions touched on.

It was a slightly quirky, quick read that doesn’t feel like a quick read. It’s a gently told tale. It made me long for a day when I can finally go sit in a cafe and read a book – no indoor dining or even outdoor dining at the moment in California.

It made me think of the days when I worked at a newspaper in Singapore. I worked odd hours. At first, for the online edition, working the early shift, starting around 6am I think? Then later, sub-editing which meant we put the paper to bed and finished after midnight. Also, that meant I had to always work either Saturdays or Sundays, and had a weekday off. All those weird hours meant I would often find myself having time off but no one to hang out with. I would often take myself out to a cafe, sit down with a book, and enjoy a flat white.

Gimme Everything You Got by Iva-Marie Palmer

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I love it when a book surprises me. And this one really did. I honestly wasn’t expecting very much out of it. But this was a fun read that explores first love and also, women’s sports!

It’s set in 1979 in the US. And while I have lived here for some years now, I didn’t know about how Title IX (established in 1972) was set down to establish access to any activity that receives Federal financial assistance, and that includes sports. So in this high school, a new athletics coach arrives to set up a girl’s soccer team.

It helps very much that he is good looking and wears shorts when he’s first introduced to the school. The shorts “hugged his butt like it was a package wrapped by an overachieving Christmas elf”. And lots of girls sign up for the soccer tryouts. Most of them drop out though, not realising soccer means more than standing around and ogling the cute coach.

Susan sticks it out, along with some of her friends. She begins to enjoy the game, and is getting to be quite good at it. But there aren’t many other girls’ teams to play against (they only have one game set up by their coach). She still has this hope that she’ll get close to Coach Bobby. And her infatuation for a teacher may mean that she’s missing out on some more age-appropriate boys.

It was especially interesting for me to learn about Title IX and the attitude that people had towards girls in sports at that time. One of the most amusing moments is when the parent of a boy Susan baby-sits sees her practising and asks if it has affected her menstruation. Oh boy. I suppose this was some kind of old-fashioned way of thinking that sports and exercise affects a woman’s ability to have children? Luckily Susan and her teammates chime in.

Susan is a great character – flawed, definitely, but she learns and grows so much, not just about her attitude towards sports and boys, but also with her relationships with her friends and family.

Gimme Everything You Got was a surprising, funny, fearlessly feminist read!