The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This was a great read. If you like books (and since you’re reading my blog post, I’m presuming you do) and libraries, this is a book for you!

I’d seen some reviews and synopses where it mentioned the Los Angeles public library fire of 1986 and I had thought, oh wow a book just about this library fire? I hadn’t known that this huge fire had occurred – it burnt hundreds of thousands of books and damaged many more – so that already had me intrigued. So I thought it would some kind of investigative reporting about the fire. It wasn’t exactly. And I was thankful it wasn’t.

We are told about the terrifying fire. How it burned for hours, hit 2500 degrees (!), had more than 3 million gallons of water dumped on it

Orleans discusses a variety of related issues like book burning in history. And how, as part of her research, burnt a book herself. Her research into the history of the Los Angeles Public Library is really interesting and thorough.

But for me the loveliest – and saddest – parts of the book was when Orlean talked about visiting the library with her mother. How her mother used to take her to the library as a child and as a teenager. How her mother had thought that being a librarian would have been the job for her. But sadly her mother had been suffering from dementia. I loved how she wrote the book for her mother, and shared her mother’s love for libraries with fellow library lovers and readers of this lovely book.

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realise it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it–with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited–it takes on a life of its own.”

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

 

I am a relatively quick reader, so for a book to take me some two months to read means several things..
1. I am not all that interested in it
2. I am not completely thrown off it so I am still willing to pick it up now and then, if I can remember to, among all the other many books I am reading at the same time.

So here this book is, it was brought along in the car as my ‘waiting to pick up the kids from school’ read, it was brought along in the swimming bag as my ‘waiting for the kids to finish their swim class’ read. For a book, it was relatively widely travelled, at least in my suburban town.

Parts of the book interested me. I liked reading about Tariq and his strange escape from Morocco. I was disappointed when Sandrine disappeared, I wanted to find out more about her. I learnt a lot more about the Parisian metro system and station names than I ever expected to learn from a book.

I enjoyed reading the invented archived interviews that Hannah listens to as part of her research. It reminded me of when I did my master’s thesis and how I combed through audio interviews in the Singapore archives.

The stories of Tariq and Hannah often felt like two separate books that just so happened to coincidentally come together in one, in a way that I still don’t get. And that was seemingly brushed off as a, eh, that’s what people do, kind of way.

For me this was a, ah Paris, and an, ah historical research, but essentially meh read.

Crudo by Olivia Laing

 

Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this book. I thought it was really clever and quite different (it’s written from the point of view of Kathy Acker, the writer of Blood and Guts in High School which I have to remember to go look for and read) but this whole stream of consciousness mode wasn’t quite for me. I enjoyed how current it was – set in 2017, full of mentions of political events and whatnot that take place around that time. Maybe I’d appreciate it more if I had read Kathy Acker’s works before? There’s a bitterness to this book that’s hard to swallow.

I’m intrigued by the different covers. The crab guts one is the one that attracted me (I’m always attracted to books with food on the covers), but the ebook version I borrowed ended up having the dismembered fly on the cover. Which one do you prefer?

Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu makes me want to know more about hockey

 

I know pretty much nothing about ice hockey! I grew up in a land where hockey = the kind with rounded sticks and a round ball and is played in a field. Very different kind of hockey.
And to be honest, this book was requested from the library because I saw “Check, Please!” on the Reading The End blog and thought, oh, a comic set in a restaurant? Yes, please!Turned out to be a different kind of check all together. But this comic has now turned me into a…. well, not a complete turnaround into a hockey fan but at least someone who’s curious now about hockey and wouldn’t say no to watching a game!

I love that the main character is a newbie, a freshman on the Samwell University hockey team. Bittle (or Bitty as he’s known) is a former figure skater, a baking aficionado (he makes pies!) and is gay but still hasn’t come out yet. And the teammates he has! There’s Shitty who’s funny and smart and deep. Holster and Ransom are in an amazing bromance. Then there’s Jack, the handsome captain with a sad past and who Bitty has the biggest ever crush on.

Check Please! by Ngozi Ukazu

It reminds me of manga, mostly because of the way Bitty has such big eyes. And there’s a cuteness to it that I would never associate with ice hockey.

So even if you don’t care an inkling about ice hockey like I do, Check, Please! is a fun comic series to try out! Also it will make you hungry for pie.

The Forsaken Inn by Anna Katherine Green

This is one of those free classics on the Kindle store that I found and I hadn’t heard of the author before so off I went to google her. It turns out that Green was one of the first writers of detective fiction in America, apparently popularizing the genre some years before Sherlock Holmes even.

Her most famous novel is The Leavenworth Case which is the first book in the Mr Gryce series

The Forsaken Inn isn’t a detective story though it is a sort of locked-room mystery set in an New York inn in the 1700s. Told from the perspective of the inn owner, the story begins with a couple spending a night at the inn. The man’s rather creepy and has a huge box with him. The couple spends the night (the innkeeper feels uncomfortable) and they leave the next day.

“I became conscious of a great uneasiness. This was the more strange in that there seemed to be no especial cause for it. They had left my house in apparently better spirits than they had entered it, and there was no longer any reason why I should concern myself about them. And yet I did concern myself, and came into the house and into the room they had just vacated, with feelings so unusual that I was astonished at myself, and not a little provoked. I had a vague feeling that the woman who had just left was somehow different from the one I had seen the night before.”

Some years later, a hidden room is discovered at the inn. And in it, there is the body of the woman and she has an engraved wedding ring. But didn’t she leave with her husband all those years ago?

Some interesting twists, but a somewhat roundabout manner of narration and a wordy way more suited to readers of 1890 meant that my eyes glazed over a bit occasionally but I ended up finishing this less than usual classic.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge – Classic by a Female Author

The Lost Garden by Li Ang

“Although I spent so much of my life at Lotus Garden, it was only recently that I was deeply moved by the many wondrous scenes, a result of learning to observe the garden in its minute details. The world is filled with boundless mysteries and wonder; everything is possible and nothing is tenable.”

I really need to start writing down how I come across certain books. I can’t remember the exact details for this one, possibly that it came from a list of books in translation written by women. I definitely hadn’t heard of Li Ang before this. She is a Taiwanese writer, her real name is actually Shih Shu-tuan. And her major work is The Butcher’s Wife. Unfortunately my library only had this book of hers so I made do.

The main character in The Lost Garden is Zhu Yinghong, an only child, the last generation of an old family in Lucheng, Taiwan. The family’s home is known as Lotus Garden, a sprawling estate, very much the pride of the family, and which, in the prologue we are told is being opened to the public.

There are two important men in her life. One is her father, Zhu Zuyan, part of the old guard, who speaks to her in Japanese, calls her by her Japanese name Ayako, and was once arrested for dissent, then returned to his family due to his old age. He then devotes his life to photography and to his beloved garden – replacing foreign trees with native Taiwanese plants

The other man is Li Xigeng, a real estate mogul, filthy rich, powerful, materialistic, and fond of the seamy nightlife of Taiwan.

The contrast between the two men is stark, representative of the old vs new, culture and tradition vs development and modernisation. It’s a story full of symbolism.

The narrative moves from past to present and back again but what takes some getting used to is the occasional switch from third-person to first-person (from Yinghong’s POV). It can sometimes be a bit too jarring.

The Lost Garden would please plant lovers as Li Ang is adept at writing about the garden and all its wonders.

“Cape lilacs were overtaken by a blanket of misty white flowers in the spring, like a lost cloud pausing at the green leaves; it was the kind of mysterious illusion that could only be embodied by a string of lithe, tinkling notes plucked by the nimble fingers of a harpist.”

Despite having traveled to Taiwan a couple of times – once as a kid with my family (my father used to travel to Taipei for work quite often) and then once again about 12 years ago for my own work when I used to be a research assistant and was working on a project about creative clusters in Asia – I know pretty much nothing about Taiwan’s history. So to read in the translator’s note that this book, published in 1990 (3 years after martial law was lifted), was the first to re-create in fictional form the “White Terror Era”. I of course had to go google that and learnt to my surprise that martial law in Taiwan lasted for 38 years and some 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned during this time with around 4,000 executed.

It seems that the following books also feature the White Terror Era and if you’ve got any Taiwanese author recommendations, please let me know!

The Third Son – Julie Wu

The 228 Legacy – Jennifer J Chow

Green Island – Shawna Yang Ryan

I believe this book works for the Reading Women Challenge – about nature.

Mary B by Katherine J Chen

When I found this on the library’s “new books” shelves, I was intrigued. Why would anyone write a novel with Mary Bennet as the main character? In Pride and Prejudice, she’s the middle daughter, very preachy, very serious, very down in the mouth. She seems to be surrounded by a perpetual cloud of glum – that is, if her presence can even recalled at all, except for that moment at the party when she’s told to shut up and let someone else have a turn. Mary is to be laughed at, in Austen’s book, but in Chen’s book, she holds her own.

Mary B begins in childhood, with Mary realising that she’s not treated the same as her other sisters. She is hurt in the face but the adults’ concern is for Jane.

“Though still a child, I already saw, unfolding before me, a life lived ingratiatingly in the shadwos, of sitting like an old gargoyle at dinner tables while, some few feet away, the living laughed and exchanged stories. I would have no stories to tell. No estates to run. No children to speak of. I would not be blessed with the holy rites of matrimony and would thus be compelled to live my years beholden to the loveliness of one or two older sisters, who would, by their charity, ensure that I always had food to eat and a roof over my head.”

The action then moves into the very same period with the original characters and storyline, except seen from Mary’s perspective. And this I enjoyed very much. It was interesting to see things from the sidelines, as a young woman with no suitors, assigned the “role of living scenery”, like Charlotte and Maria Lucas are too.

“These women will normally appear extraordinarily pleased with themselves and their company, for it is in their best interest that they look as happy in talking with members of their own sex as the women who are engaged in dancing, or, worse, the women who are not engaged in dancing but are surrounded by more men than should justly be allotted to them, which, of course, is any number more than one.”

I found it interesting that Chen developed Mr Collins’ character quite a bit, for he is quite a character and I’d always thought that he and Mary would have gotten along – or at least had more similarities than the other characters.

So I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the book, written in the same setting and period as the original book. But where Chen gets more daring is in the second half of the book, where she ventures to imagine a future for the Bennets.

And this is perhaps where things take a turn for the not so good. In this imagined future, things are not so rosy for all her sisters. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers so I won’t go any further but I must say that I do not like Chen’s vision of Elizabeth’s future. She writes Lizzy as a very whiny character, as if Chen herself has been affronted by Lizzy in some way.

Perhaps if Chen had stayed with the Pride and Prejudice story and not ventured too far, she might have been more successful. It’s never easy retelling a beloved story and this is an especially beloved story with its many movie and TV adaptations. I could feel her sentiments about Mary, I could tell she was so wanting Mary to have her chance to shine, to have her happy ending, but it seemed too much like it was at the expense of the other characters.

This is my second read of 2019 and I’m using this book for the Popsugar challenge – Retelling of a Classic