Earthlings by Sayaka Murata


I don’t know where to begin with this book. Perhaps I should start with, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is intense. It is full of taboos. There is abuse. And so very much more. And there is the way the mind works to handle all this trauma. It is, in its strange way, about survival. Don’t be fooled by that kawaii cover.

The story opens with a young Natsuki, age 11, who is convinced that her stuffed hedgehog is an alien from Popinpobopia. She shares this with her cousin Yuu, who is also her boyfriend, when they meet in the mountains at a family gathering.

(Something happens at this gathering but I don’t want to unleash any spoilers). But after the first two chapters, we fast-forward to Natsuki at age 34. She’s married, but to someone who has a similar mindset, both of them feeling alienated from society, preferring to believe that they themselves are aliens.

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they’d failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.”

Natsuki and her husband return to the mountains where Yuu is staying and the three of them decide to train to avoid becoming Earthlings, to come up with their own ideas for living on a planet that isn’t their own. And it descends into something shocking and bizarre, that, as I said, isn’t for the faint of heart.

“I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments,” Murata once said in an interview. And this is one extremely outrageous experimental story. Yet to be honest, is it really all that outlandish? The trauma that a young girl experiences from the various abuses she suffers, from people who ought to be her defenders, has led her to believe that she’s not of this earth. For who would want to be, if you were in her shoes? And that feeling of being alienated, not fitting into the norms of society, is something many of us can relate to, I reckon, although the three characters take it to such an extreme level.

Earthlings is an uncomfortable read, it’s dark and twisted. It’s not for everyone. I hesitate to say “read this” because I know some are likely to be put off by, well, many parts. But for me, it was something I couldn’t stop reading. It’s way out of the box and unconventional but well, this past year has been anything but ordinary. Maybe I just needed something extremely bizarre to kick off my 2021 reading. Whatever the reason, Earthlings is a book I’m definitely not going to forget.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

Kiffe Kiffe what?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Ate Up All the Shinga? by Park Wan-Suh


Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute publishes books! And such interesting ones too! Weatherhead Books on Asia includes books by Natsume Soseki, Zhu Wen, Abe Kōbō and more. As well as one of my all-time favourite books, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi (my thoughts).

I hadn’t heard of Park Wan-Suh before browsing their catalogue. My knowledge of Korean authors is a bit limited, but I have read books by Shin Kyung-Sook (I’ll Be Right There and Please Look After Mom), and the Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, a comic series. There might be one or two more but that’s all I can recall at the moment!

But I haven’t come across any non-fiction reads from Korean authors. So I jumped at the chance to read this one!

Who Ate Up all the Shinga? is such a charming book. Park has a very personable tone to her writing. And it kind of reminded me a little of another favourite book in translation, Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Chihiro Iwasaki (Illustrator), Dorothy Britton (Translator). Tott0-chan’s story sticks to her early childhood years and focuses on this very fascinating school life she had in pre-WWII Tokyo. Park’s story begins with childhood but she goes on to tell us about her teenaged years as well.

It is an account first of her childhood in a rural village with less than twenty households in the 1930s. She has a grandfather who dotes on her, the only granddaughter. And this grandfather of hers tries to uphold the image of their family as “aristocracy” although that’s not entirely the situation. Plus it’s also a bit odd as their village is such a tiny one.

I am utterly fascinated by how the kids amused themselves. From making dolls out of grass, “noodles” out of pine needles, catching dragonflies and shrimp! It is such a gentle, idyllic life.

“We were part of nature, and because nature is alive, changing, in motion, not resting a single moment, we had no time to be bored.”

Her mother was determined to raise her and her older brother in Seoul, and when Wan-Suh turns seven, they move to Seoul for school, where she first discovers what city life is like. Korea is still occupied by the Japanese and Wan-Suh is made to learn Japanese in school.

Partly because her mother discourages her from playing with the neighbourhood kids, and partly because her classmates disdain her for being a country girl, Wan-Suh’s life in Seoul isn’t a joyful one. And she was thrilled to return to the village for summer.

“All day long, you’re going to be stuck in alleyways, playing marbles or skipping rope. The best treat you’ll have are the snacks you get by begging one chon at a time off the grownups. Meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around in the country like a puppy. Everything there is alive and breathing and moving around in the breeze. Tomorrow, I’m going to get to climb up hills and walk through fields and splash in streams. I’m going to get to breathe in air that’s got the smell of grass the wild flowers and soil.”

On another level, this is a story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Not entirely a happy peaceful one as her mother is quite a character. She’s rather demanding and determined, and was relatively educated at a time when women typically were not, especially those who were from the country. The account of her haggling with a porter to carry their bags when they first arrive in Seoul is quite hilarious. She is incredibly thrifty and hardworking, and yet at times, rather extravagant.

But her mother’s determination to have her children study in Seoul seems to pay off and their family does well, that is, until the Japanese leave Korea and things fall apart all around them.

It is a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse at life in Korea during the Japanese occupation and its aftermath. And while that may sound like a difficult period to be reading about, Park’s friendly, confessional tone, and her family’s moving story will capture your imagination and your heart.


Park Wan Suh was born in 1931 in Gaepung-gun in what is now Hwanghaebuk-do in North Korea. Park entered Seoul National University, the most prestigious in Korea, but dropped out almost immediately after attending classes due to the outbreak of the Korean War and the death of her brothparkwansuher. During the war, Park was separated from her mother and elder brother by the North Korea army, which moved them to North Korea. She lived in the village of Achui, in Guri, outside Seoul until her death. Park died on the morning of January 22, 2011, suffering from cancer.

Park wrote her first book just before she turned 40, and went on to write 20-odd novels and more than 100 short stories, winning prestigious Korean literature awards along the way. 

Works in translation
My Very Last Possession: And Other Stories
The Red Room: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea
Sketch of the Fading Sun
Three Days in That Autumn
Weathered Blossom (Modern Korean Short Stories)
Who Ate Up All the Shinga?: An Autobiographical Novel

2015 Translation


This is the first book I read for the Books in Translation Reading Challenge

Japanese lit, done three ways


I first visited Japan (Tokyo and Yokohama) in 2004. A friend was travelling through and invited me along (one major attraction was that we could crash at his cousin’s place – free accommodation in Tokyo, and in a nice central neighbourhood too). Tokyo was at once fascinating and overwhelming! The Asakusa temple and the street food! The craziness of the Shinjuku station. That awe-inspiring sight of Mt Fuji (and the many many elderly people making their ascent). Hitting the Tsukiji fish market for a sushi breakfast.

It was all so amazing that a few days after I returned to Singapore, I was back in Tokyo again, this time for a press junket for the Trocks (Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo). So it was for work, which meant interviews, and watching rehearsals and a performance (and marveling at their many Japanese fans who would hang around outside the theatre and hotel), and erm, staying at a rather nice Hilton.

And I’ve never been back since.

Isn’t that sad? Especially since I owe my Japanese flatmate (when we were in the UK in 2006-7) a visit. She’s become such a dear friend although we’ve only seen each other once since 2007.

I guess this is a long segue into what I’ve been reading recently, because in just a a couple of weeks I read three works of Japanese fiction: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, thanks to holds (two e-books, one physical book) coming in at pretty much the same time.


This isn’t my first Natsuo Kirino read.

Out was a fascinating tale of murder in the suburbs, a young woman kills her husband and seeks help from her coworkers.

Real World has similar undertones, a murder in the suburbs, this time by a teenaged boy, and how it affects those around him. But perhaps because the cast of Real World is young, teenaged, and angst-y, there was this sense of irritation as I read this book. Erm yeah, I was a teenager myself, half a lifetime ago, and I was angst-y and moody and all that, but to empathise with a killer? Really?

Perhaps that might have been the point, that these teenagers were behaving like teens, self-absorbed, and Kirino offers no other viewpoint than theirs (from the perspective of four girls and the one boy). The boy, Worm, is probably the perspective I didn’t like the most. I appreciated that the girls were all so different, one is intellectual, another is the flirty girl obsessed with boys, another coming to terms with her homosexuality and her mother’s death, and Worm’s next-door neighbour Toshi who is just trying to fit in.

Like Out, Real World is less about the murder than the insight into the life of Japanese teenagers, trying to make their own path in this loud, brash, uncertain world. I was just a little ambivalent about it. But I’m still looking forward to reading more of Kirino’s books.

thiefNakamura’s Thief has one character at its core but he too is troubled one. He is, as the title suggests, a thief. We meet him as he deftly picks pockets, making sure to carefully choose only rich marks. He has become so adept at his job that he finds himself having picked pockets he doesn’t even remember.

Our thief finds himself being roped in for a big job, a robbery at a mansion that he later learns is just a cover-up for a bigger crime.

The Thief is not your typical crime novel. It is instead more of a kind of, well, a reflection on crime. There is some talk of a tower, a symbol for something I didn’t quite get and made me a little confused. And a bit of an philosophical meandering about how life is already laid out before us.

But it was still a relatively enjoyable read. The intricacies of his pickpocketing ways, his ‘mentorship’ of a young boy whom he catches shoplifting in a supermarket (at his mother’s request). This is the first of Nakamura’s works translated into English, it won the Oe prize and I’m curious about his others.

housekeeperprofessordivingpoolI’ve saved my favourite for last. Ogawa’s Revenge is a true treat (I’ve previously enjoyed her The Diving Pool and The Housekeeper and the Professor). The stories are written simply, but there is a constant element of creepiness, in a subtle way. They are separate yet linked somehow, faintly, obscurely, like a little secret between the reader and Ogawa.

“But the heart itself still appeared to be cowering in fear, the blood vessels trembling with each contraction. From close up, the sinews and folds of muscle seemed to conceal a mysterious code.”

Some of the stories that really stuck with me are Sewing for the Heart, where a bag maker has an unusual request; Tomatoes and the Full Moon, where a writer, on assignment in a seaside resort meets a strange woman and her dog; Afternoon at the Bakery, the opening story about a woman trying to buy strawberry shortcakes.

But you know what, writing a description about these stories seems to render them very trivial. I can’t tell you anymore about the stories because that really would be too revealing. And as I thought of the stories that stuck with me, I realized that each of them, in their own way, kind of did. Whether it be the way they are tied together or just the little details Ogawa slips in gently (but disturbingly), this collection of stories prods at you, like that dream that isn’t quite a nightmare yet you can’t shake it in the morning when you wake up.

It was simply quite brilliant.
Global Women of Color

These are my tenth and eleventh reads for the  the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).


natsuoNatsuo Kirino (桐野 夏生) quickly established a reputation in her country as one of a rare breed of mystery writers whose work goes well beyond the conventional crime novel. This fact has been demonstrated by her winning not only the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan for Out in 1998, but one of its major literary awards–the Naoki Prize–for Soft Cheeks (which has not yet been published in English), in 1999. Several of her books have also been turned into feature movies. Out was the first of her novels to appear in English and was nominated for an Edgar Award.

Kao ni furikakeru ame 
Tenshi ni misuterareta yoru 
Auto (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1997); English translation by Stephen Snyder as Out 
Mizu no nemuri hai no yume
Faiaboro burusu [Fireball Blues] 
Yawarakana hoho; French translation by Silvain Chupain as Disparitions
Dâku [Dark]
Gurotesuku; English translation by Rebecca L. Copeland as Grotesque
Riaru warudo; English translation by J. Philip Gabriel as Real World 
Zangyakuki; English translation as What Remains 
Boken no kuni
Yasashii Otona 

Short fiction:
Sabiru kokoro
Jiorama [Diorama]
Rozu gâden [Rose Garden] fuminori
Ambosu mundosu [Ambos Mundos] 

Fuminori Nakamura was born in 1977 and graduated from Fukushima University in 2000. In 2002, he won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize for New Writers for his first novel, A Gun, and in 2005 he won the Akutagawa prize for The Boy in the Earth. The Thief, winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan’s most important literary award, is his first novel to be published in English.

yokoYoko Ogawa was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Since 1988, Ogawa has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. In 2006 she co-authored “An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics” with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

Bibliography (translated works)
The Man Who Sold Braces (Gibusu o uru hito, ギブスを売る人, 1998); translated by Shibata Motoyuki
Transit (Toranjitto, トランジット, 1996); translated by Alisa Freedman, Japanese Art: The Scholarship and Legacy of Chino Kaori, special issue of Review of Japanese Culture and Society, vol. XV (Center for Inter-Cultural Studies and Education, Josai University, December 2003): 114-125. 
The Cafeteria in the Evening and a Pool in the Rain (Yūgure no kyūshoku shitsu to ame no pūru, 夕暮れの給食室と雨のプール, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 9/2004.
Pregnancy Diary (Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder, The New Yorker, 12/2005.
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (Daibingu puru, ダイヴィング・プール, 1990; Ninshin karendā, 妊娠カレンダー, 1991; Dormitory, ドミトリイ, 1991); translated by Stephen Snyder
The Housekeeper and the Professor (Hakase no ai shita sūshiki, 博士の愛した数式, 2003); translated by Stephen Snyder
Hotel Iris (Hoteru Airisu, ホテル・アイリス, 1996)
Revenge, Translated by Stephen Snyder

Empress by Shan Sa


“Alone, I manipulated the pawns on the vast chess board of an empire orphaned by its master. I was nothing more than a mind, a mind contemplating the world below with chilled compassion.”

Empress traces the rise of Heavenlight, a seventh-century Chinese woman who becomes its first and only female emperor, Empress Wu Zetian. Shan Sa takes us through Heavenlight’s life, from (bizarrely enough) the womb to her death. Her parents are born noble but rule a humble household (well humble in comparison to the monstrosity of the emperor’s palace), her mother cold and distant. Her father dies when she is young and her family is ill-treated by his clan (she is his second wife).

Heavenlight is an unusual girl for her time – a tomboy. For her ninth birthday, she receives armour from her father, and another sends a falcon. And she attracts the attention of a general who sends her to the Emperor Eternal Ancestors’ court, and given the rank of Talented One of the fifth rank, now officially overtaking the rest of her clan.

Being the nonconformist she is, unlike the rest of the women there, interested only in cramming themselves with food (the Court liked fat women) and gossiping, Heavenlight finds refuge in books, visiting the Inner Institute of Letters where learned eunuchs gave lessons:

“Books became wings that bore me far away from the Palace. The annals of former dynasties tore me from the immobility of the present. I lived in those vanished kingdoms and I took part in plots, galloped across battlefields, and shared in the rise and fall of heroes.”

It is her less than ‘feminine’ ways, especially her skill with horses, that makes her stand out and allows her to make friends with Little Phoenix, who is the King of Jin and one of the grandsons of the Emperor (I think – the hierarchy is confusing). Heavenlight and Little Phoenix (who is three years younger) grow up together and eventually become lovers. And though not not a direct heir, through some chance of fate, Little Phoenix becomes the Emperor of China. Heavenlight’s intellect and wiles helps him maneuver his way through all the politicking and seal his power. And she eventually wrangles her way to become Empress. She is ruthless and doesn’t hesitate in delivering punishments (sometimes death) where she thinks it necessary.

Heavenlight’s story is a fascinating one. Despite being surrounded by plenty of supporting characters, she is lonely and struggles to keep her place (and that of the emperor) as all that wrangling for succession plays out.

“There was still the Tang dynasty and its vast provinces. The millions of souls in the Empire had become a huge family in which I was the embodiment of an energetic and authoritarian mother.”

Empress is a colourful historical novel. It shines with its descriptions of palace life, of life in the Tang Dynasty.

“The Side Court was a kingdom within the Empire, a painted box inside a golden trunk; it was a labyrinth of tiny rooms separated by walls of adobe clay, bamboo hedges, and narrow passageways. Official pavilions, little gardens, tunnels of wisteria, and countless bedrooms were linked by long covered galleries. Thousands of women came and went with a rustling of sleeves and a murmuring of fans, without ever exposing themselves to the sun or the rain. Imperial hierarchy was scrupulously respected despite the confines of that overpopulated world. The further down someone was on the social scale, the smaller her room, the simpler the decor, and the more modest the furniture. The slave quarter was packed with ramshackle little houses, gloomy rooms, and cold beds; the women there were like insignificant stitches in a vast embroidery.

But this story does get bogged down by a little too many details of courtly life like formal ceremonies, politicking and its many side characters. A bit of a slow-paced read of the life of an unforgettable historical figure.


Global Women of Color
This is my eighth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).


Shan Sa is the pseudonym of Yan Ni, who was born in Beijing, China, and began writing and publishing poems from the age of 7 and also began studying Chinese calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting. Her first collection of poems was published at her age of 10. She became the youngest member of the Beijing Writers’ Association at age 14.


In 1990, as a teenager, Shan Sa left Beijing for further studies in Paris, France. She learned French and studied philosophy in a Paris university while attending courses in art history at the École du Louvre.

The Girl Who Played Go was the first of her novels to be published outside of France, and won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (a prize voted by secondary school students).

Les Poèmes de Yan Ni (Yan Ni’s Poems) (1983).
Porte de la paix céleste (Gate of Celestial Peace) (1997).
Les quatre vies du saule (The Four Lives of the Willow) (1999).
La Joueuse de Go (The Girl Who Played Go) (2001).
Impératrice (Empress) (2003), based on the life of Empress Wu of Zhou
Les conspirateurs (Conspirators) (2005)
Alexandre et Alestria (Alexander and Alestria) (2006)
La Cithare nue (Naked Zither) (2010)

Malinche by Laura Esquivel


The story of Malinche is a rather interesting one.

And yet it was also a book I didn’t quite enjoy reading. But somehow managed to finish. I don’t know – was I already too far into the book to give it up? Or am I just reluctant to give up books, unless I really detest it? I didn’t hate reading this book, it had some interesting moments. Partly because it is based on a historical figure. One I hadn’t heard of before, but has such an iconic status.

And she is the almost mythical character of Malinalli, a Nahua slave turned interpreter turned lover of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire.

We meet Malinalli at her birth, her maternal grandmother, a key figure in her childhood, acting as midwife. She is sold into slavery at age five, after her grandmother’s death, and eventually lands up in the Spaniards’ hands. Now baptized and with her aptitude for languages, she becomes the Spaniards’ translator, known as ‘The Tongue’. She quickly catches the eye of Cortes, resulting in their son Martin, one of the first mestizos (person of mixed European and indigenous ancestry). It’s not really a love story though, as he is obviously the one in charge, and pretty much delivers her over to one of his underlings when he’s done with her.

Writing about a historical figure must be tricky. And with Malinalli, controversy is no stranger. She has been blamed for betraying her people by some, yet praised by others for saving many lives. She has been portrayed as a victim, a symbolic mother of Mexico’s people, a woman of authority. Today the term malinchista refers to a disloyal Mexican.

While there are some absorbing details about life in 16th century Mexico, the awkward speech and the odd pace of the book (tedious at parts, rushed at other times) as it shifts between past and present makes for a difficult read. The chunks of spirituality strewn throughout the book resulted in my flipping through the pages, eyes a bit glazed.

Perhaps what is most telling about my experience with this book is that as I was about to return it to the library, I realised that I had another ten-odd pages to go. I thought I’d finished it already!

(On another note, I quite like the cover of this book. Illustration by Brian Cronin)

Global Women of Color

This is my fourth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).


Laura Esquivel, born in Mexico in 1950, is perhaps best known for her book Like Water For Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) which has sold over 4.5 million copies. She began writing stories when working as a kindergarten teacher.

Como agua para chocolate (1989) (English: Like Water for Chocolate)

La ley del amor (1995) (English: The Law of Love)
Íntimas suculencias (1998)
Estrellita marinera (1999)
El libro de las emociones (2000)
Tan veloz como el deseo (2001) (English: Swift as Desire)
Malinche (2006)

The song of everlasting sorrow


“The longtang are the backdrop of this city. Streets and buildings emerge around them in a series of dots and lines, like the subtle brushstrokes that bring life to the empty expanses of white paper in a traditional Chinese landscape painting. As day turns into night and the city lights up, these dots and lines begin to glimmer. However, underneath the glitter lies an immense blanket of darkness – these are the longtang of Shanghai.”

Wang’s writing style takes a while to get into. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) opens with details of the longtang or neighbourhoods within enclosed alleys of Shanghai. It’s a beginning that requires some patience from the reader. Because plenty of beauty awaits within.

“Four decades the story spans, and it all began the day she went to the film studio.”

Wang Qiyao is taken to a film studio by her classmate Wu Peizhen. There a director notices her and asks her to a screen test. However he realizes that:

“Wang Qiyao’s was not an artistic beauty, but quite ordinary. It was the kind of beauty to be admired by close friends and relatives in her own living room, like the shifting moods of everyday life; a restrained beauty, it was not the kind that made waves. It was real, not dramatic”.

To make up for it, he asks his friend Mr Cheng, a photographer, to take some pictures of her and one of them is published in a newspaper and Shanghai begins to notice her:

“The girl in the picture was not beautiful, but she was pretty. Beauty is something that inspires awe; it implies rejection and has the power to hurt. Prettiness, on the other hand, is a warm, sincere quality, and even hints at a kind of intimate understanding.”

She is convinced by the photographer Mr Cheng and her classmate Jiang LiLi to join the Miss Shanghai contest, where she becomes known as ‘Miss Third Place’:

“Girls like Miss Third place, however, are a part of everyday scenes. They are familiar to our eyes, and their cheongsams never fail to warm out hearts. Miss Third Place therefore best expresses the will of the people. The beauty queen and the first runner-up are both idols, representing our ideals and beliefs. But Miss Third Place is connected to our everyday lives: she is a figure that reminds us of concepts like marriage, life, and family.”

This is just the beginning of Wang Qiyao’s story. She gains the attention of a high-powered man, who essentially makes her his ‘apartment lady’ or mistress. After his accidental death, she is forced to restart her life in a different longtang, taking on the identity of a widow, making ends meet by giving injections (yes, this puzzles me too, apparently people come to her for various injections such as vitamins and “placenta fluid”). She makes new friends, starts to have a clandestine relationship with one of her mahjong partners (he is from a wealthy family) and finds herself with child.

While Wang takes us through the years of Wang Qiyao’s life, an aura of mystery still wafts around her. She is quite the enigma.

“She is the heart of hearts, always holding fast and never letting anything out.”

She is that woman at the party who sits quietly in the corner sipping tea. Not the life of the party (she is after all, much older than the rest of the partygoers) yet the eye is drawn to her:
“She was an ornament, a painting on the wall to adorn the living room. The painting was done in somber hues, with a dark yellow base; it had true distinction, and even though the colours were faded, its value had appreciated. Everything else was simply transient flashes of light and shadow.”

This is not just Wang Qiyao’s story but the story of Shanghai, as we move from the 1940s to the 1980s.

“Shanghai in late 1945 was a city of wealth, colours, and stunning women… Shanghai was still a city of capable of creating honor and glory; it was not rules by any doctrine, and one could let the imagination run wild. The only fear was that the splendor and sumptuousness of the city were still not enough.”

In 1960 though, times have changed drastically.

“In the still of the night the city’s inhabitants were kept awake not by anxious thoughts but by the rumblings of their stomachs. In the presence of hunger, even the profoundest sadness had to take second place, everything else simply disappeared. The mind, stripped of hypocrisy and pretensions, concentrated on substance. All the rouge and powder has been washed away, exposing the plain features underneath.”

Then in the 1980s, Shanghai is booming. Construction sites abound in this new districts’ “forest of buildings”:

“This was indeed a brand-new district that greeted everything with an open heart, quite unlike the downtown area, whose convoluted feelings are more difficult to grasp. Arriving in the new district, one has the feeling that one has left the city behind. The style of the streets and buildings – built at right angles in a logical manner – is so unlike downtown, which seems to have been laid out by squeezing the emotions out from the heart.”

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow was such a different read for me. It moves at a very gentle pace and is probably best described as a portrait of Wang Qiyao’s life. Yet I was drawn to her melancholic story, to Wang Anyi’s intricate depiction of Shanghai through these volatile years. It’s an enduring, elegant novel, and one of my favourite reads so far this year.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow was made into a movie titled Everlasting Regret starring Sammi Cheng and Tony Leung Ka-Fai, as well as a 35-episode TV series.


wanganyiUnfortunately it looks like not many of Wang Anyi’s works have been translated into English

  • 雨,沙沙沙 (1981)
  • 黑黑白白 (1983)
  • 王安憶中短篇小說集 (1983)
  • 流逝 (1983)
  • 尾聲 (1983)
  • 黄河故道人 (1986)
  • 六九屆初中生 (1986)
  • 母女漫遊美利堅 (1986)
  • Lapse of Time 蒲公英(1988)
  • Love in a Small Town 小城之戀(1988)
  • Love on a Barren Mountain 荒山之戀(1988)
  • Baotown 小鮑莊(1989)
  • 海上繁華夢 (1989)
  • 旅德的故事 (1990)
  • 流水三十章 (1990)
  • 神聖祭壇(1991)
  • 米尼 (1992)
  • The Song of Everlasting Sorrow 长恨歌 (1995)
  • 我读我看 (2002)
  • 剃度 (2002)
  • 启蒙时代 (2007)
  • 天香 (2011)

Global Women of Color
This is the third book I’ve read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge  (challenge page).

Born in 1954, Wang Anyi (王安忆) is the daughter of a famous writer and member of the Communist Party, Ru Zhijuan (茹志鹃), and a father who was denounced as a Rightist. At age 16, she was sent to work as a farm laborer in a remote commune. She later joined a cultural troupe and began to publish short stories in 1976, and was allowed to return to Shanghai in 1978. In 2011, Wang Anyi was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

February in Translation (the 2013 edition)

So last year I set myself a personal challenge – reading translated works in the month of February. And I’m going to give it another try this year.

I had a rather random pool last year, so this time I would like to read from a variety of languages. So my pool is listed below, with each book translated from a different language. I’m not sure if this is really the right approach either, as there are plenty of books translated from European languages, but not very many translated from Asian (especially Southeast Asian) languages. But this will have to do for now. I’m sure I will add on to my list as I move along. And please feel free to let me know your recommendations, especially from languages I have yet to include!


Black flower – Young-ha Kim ; translated from the Korean by Charles La Shure
Sky burial : an epic love story of Tibet – Xinran ; translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesle
The thief – Fuminori Nakamura ; translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coate
All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer ; translated from the Indonesian by Willem Samuels
Divorce Islamic style – Amara Lakhous ; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Dimanche and other stories – Irène Némirovsky ; translated from the French by Bridget Patterson
The year of the hare : a novel – Arto Paasilinna ; foreword by Pico Iyer ; [translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas]
The hottest dishes of the tartar cuisine – Alina Bronsky ; translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Stone upon stone – Wiesław Myśliwski ; translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
The accident : a novel – Ismail Kadare ; translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Censoring an Iranian love story : a novel – Shahriar Mandanipour ; translated from the Farsi by Sara Khalili
Zeina – Nawal El Saadawi – translated from the Arabic by Amira Nowaira

Reading Southeast Asia (updated)


Ah the real fun of themed reading is coming up with the lists!

As I had mentioned, my goal for this month is to concentrate on reading books set in Southeast Asia, especially the countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately my list is limited to books available in my library.

Of course I realize that I won’t actually finish reading the books on the list, but a girl can dream. And try.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

In the shadow of the banyan – Vaddey Ratner
The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him

All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Map of the invisible world : a novel – Tash Aw


The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

Evening is the whole day – Preeta Samarasan
The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw
Rice Mother – Rani Manika
The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mist – Tan Twan Eng

The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe
Burma chronicles – Guy Delisle

Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva
The Tessarect – Alex Garland
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis

Tanamera – Noel Barber
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell
The thorn of Lion City : a memoir – Lucy Lum
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh
A different sky – Meira Chand
Shadow Theatre – Fiona Cheong
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan
The bondmaid – Catherine Lim

Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett

Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli
A dragon’s tale – Long Lee
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam

The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham

Southeast Asia in general (often multiple countries)
The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan
The Inspector Singh Investigates series: (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy; A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree) – Shamini Flint
The unyielding clamor of the night – Neil Bissoondath

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?

The title caught my eye.

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?

And I too wanted to know, what happened to Buzz Aldrin. And what this book, set in Norway, had to do with Buzz Aldrin.

So I was surprised to find an opening about rain. And the thoughts of a very ordinary man.

Who has had a very pedestrian life.

Who just wants to be a regular guy, who doesn’t stand out.

“Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Simple mathematics.
So here I was. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.”

This is Mattias. He is 29 years old. And he is a gardener. He loves his job. He’s the kind of guy who comes into work early, who sits in the garden and watches the traffic go by.

“If I could have just one wish, I often thought it might have been for nothing to change. To have everything fixed for eternity. I wanted predictable days.”

Other than that, since he was a youngster, Mattias has been a fan of Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. Aldrin is, for him, the man who was on the moon when everyone had turned off their TVs and gone to bed, the one who works hard behind the scenes, no less important, just less visible.

“Buzz Aldrin’s story had to be read between the lines about Neil Armstrong, and other illustrious men, hIs was the great story of the parentheses.”

He even dressed as Aldrin during a high school dance, where he finally spoke to Helle, the new girl. The one he fell head over heels for the first time he saw her.

“Because you’ve been there too, haven’t you, you’ve been there in that class, when you’ve fallen in love with one of the others, on the first or third day, and the room seems to grow infinitely small, cramped and it’s hard to sit at your desk, and there’s nowhere to fix your gaze, because if you look at her, everybody will notice, and if you look the other way, look up, look at the wall, look beyond them and at the blackboard, as if that one particular person doesn’t exist, they’ll notice that too, and they’ll think you really overrate yourself, sitting like that pretending you don’t care. Because it can’t be hidden. You’re totally transparent. Cellophane. And as breakable.”

Mattias is also good friends with Jørn, a musician, who invites him to the Faroe Islands to be the band’s sound tech. And somehow Mattias finds himself alone and bleeding and in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how he got there. A passerby stops to help him and eventually invites him to stay with him. Havstein lives in Gjogv, a little settlement in the north, with three others, a kind of halfway house. And there he finds himself in a place he hardly expected to be:

“…the fields spread imperceptibly out into the landscape and rose to become massive hills you could almost stroll over, a completely rounded landscape with no irregularities or jutting knolls, opening itself up in all directions this, I thought, was like the moon, dressed in grass, this was what it must have been like to walk on the moon for the first time, an untouched wasteland. And I was an explorer of virgin territories. I knew nothing, was nobody, and I think I was grateful.”

This is a story about friendship and kind of about finding yourself.

(Although there is a funny/depressing moment (as quite a bit of the book seems to be) when Mattias thinks of Norwegian band de Lillos’ song with the lyrics “Are you trying to find yourself? What if the man you found, was a man you didn’t like, who you’d have to live with for the rest of your life?”)

Harstad’s stream-of-consciousness style isn’t for everyone. As is the fact that this is not a plot-driven book. And I have to be honest, it can be depressing at times. This is far from a cheery feel-good story that makes you feel all warm inside. But I found myself just completely sucked into the story of Mattias, of life on the Faroe Islands. And his ordinariness. Because I too was that kid who never stood out, who never got the top marks in class, never excelled in sports or activities, who turned up on time and didn’t cause any trouble.

“I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, at college, whose name you can’t remember when you take out the class photo ten years later, to show your boyfriend or girlfriend how you looked back then.”

I’ll leave you with a little soundtrack for the book. The Cardigans – a favorite with one of the characters, and this song is quite a suitable one for this book: “For the good times and the bad times we know will come”