The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester

The topic – precision engineering – isn’t something that immediately draws me in. But having read Winchester’s books before, I know them to be well-written and thoroughly researched. And when I listened to the sample of the first pages, which he reads, I was drawn in to the story because he began with how his father used to work as an engineer in a factory and one day brought home some machined metal tiles called gauge blocks used for measuring things. And I liked how Winchester talked fondly about visiting his father in the factory and watching the machines and how Winchester started writing this book about precision.

And in the end, this book was full of fascinating insights into the world of precision – from cars to guns to airplane engines. It’s not easy to make notes while listening to an audiobook and part of me wishes I had had a printed copy alongside but I quite liked that Winchester, in his sore-throaty voice, read the book himself.

The Perfectionists is full of facts and insights that I had never thought to think about, all these big and small things that make our world go round, that enables me to type this sentence out on my phone. How our world has changed so much in what is just a few decades. You don’t have to love science or engineering to read or listen to this fascinating book. You just need a little bit of curiosity about how this world is as it is today.

Unthinkable: What The World’s Most Extraordinary Brains Can Teach Us About Our Own

A science journalist’s interest in rare brain disorders takes her around the world as she meets people with lycanthropy, audio hallucinations, Cotard delusion or Walking Corpse Syndrome (ie thinking you’re dead). I listened to the audiobook, read by Thomson herself, & I felt all the earnestness and hard work that she poured into her research as well as her fascination for the subject.

In the country we love by Diane Guerrero

There was an article in the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper I glance at every day, about families in the Bay Area applying for dual citizenship for their American-born children at Mexican consulates. The fear of deportation has led them to plan for these emergency situations where the family has to be uprooted. It’s based partly on a misconception that US-born children won’t be allowed into Mexico without proper documents.

Reading the stories of the undocumented rushing to get Mexican citizenship for their kids made me angry and made me reflect on the story of Diane Guerrero, an actress on Orange is the New Black. She is an American citizen but her parents were undocumented immigrants from Colombia. And one day, when she was just 14, she returned home to find that they were gone. They had been taken by the immigrant authorities and were inmates in a detention centre.

Guerrero had to live with a family friend. Although they made her feel welcome, she was  always worried that she would do something to make them kick her out. She wasn’t an actual family member after all. And with everyone just barely making ends meet, an extra person in the house (even if her parents sent money) was difficult.

Guerrero applied to Boston Arts Academy, a public high school for visual and performing arts, and it was there she honed her performing skills. But her long-distance relationship with her family becomes even more fractured.

I love how Guerrero has become a fierce advocate for immigration. Guerrero is set to play an attorney defending undocumented immigrants. And the pilot sounds like it’s based on her story – that the attorney is the child of undocumented parents.

In The Country We Love, co-written by Michelle Burford, has a very casual tone of voice. I can imagine Guerrero talking as I read it. And I have the feeling it would be quite a good audiobook to listen to.

Nonfiction Reads from Roz Chast, Emily Spivack, and Sybille Bedford


Chast’s graphic memoir is both funny and sad. It was such an eye opener with regards to growing old and dying.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir of her last years with her parents, who are in their 90s and live on their own in Brooklyn. Her parents are quite a pair – her mother is bossy, and to be honest, a little bit scary and demanding; her father is a chronic worrier, and becomes senile. They have a fear of retirement homes and refuse to talk about the inevitable. But it does happen. Her mother falls down one day and can’t get out of bed, and she is the one who cooks, drives and keeps their lives together. And so they have to move into an assisted living home, and Chast has to clear out their apartment – and all the many many items they have accumulated over the years (shavers??).

But wow, to first of all learn of 90-plus-year-olds living on their own. And then to read of the cost of assisted living. It was a big shock to my system.

This was a hard book to read. Some of the pages were hilarious, and others were just gut wrenchingly sad. You will inevitably think of your own family and wonder what you will do when your own parents can no longer look after themselves.


Worn Stories – Emily Spivack

The synopsis from Goodreads:

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

I was excited to read this, it sounded like it would be a great read, but I think I was expecting something more in-depth but each story was just one or two pages long. Some of the stories were poignant, relating to a tragedy or a loved one, one or two were humorous, but too many were rather forgettable. And towards the end, I didn’t really want to read on, although I did finish it, just to finish reading the book. Sigh.

Maybe you would enjoy this more than I did, especially if you’re a fan of some of the contributors, see above. I felt that the collection could have been more diverse, as a lot of the contributors were those from the art world.


A Visit to Don Otavio – Sybille Bedford

Bedford, a German-born English writer, led a rather interesting life (click on the link for the Wikipedia entry). This book is about her year in Mexico after World War II.  Originally published as The Sudden View: a Mexican Journey in 1953, A Visit to Don Otavio is a witty, intelligent look at Mexico in these times. Bedford is a beautiful writer, and occasionally turns her eye to the food that she consumes around the country, pleasing this foodie very very much. I am always enthralled by descriptions of food, especially in countries I’ve never been to before. Bedford is a master of observation and I am pleased to note that she has written quite a few other books:

  • The Sudden View: a Mexican Journey – 1953 – (republished as A Visit to Don Otavio: a Traveller’s Tale from Mexico, a travelogue)
  • A Legacy – 1956 – her first novel, a work inspired by the early life of the author’s father, which focuses on the brutality and anti-Semitism in the cadet schools of the German officer class.
  • The Best We Can Do: (The Trial of Dr Adams) – 1958 – an account of the murder trial of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams
  • The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s report – 1961 – a description of the legal systems of England, Germany, Switzerland, and France.
  • A Favourite of the Gods – 1963 – a novel about an American heiress who marries a Roman Prince
  • A Compass Error – 1968 – a sequel to the above, describing the love affairs of the granddaughter of that work’s protagonist
  • Aldous Huxley: A biography – 1973 – the standard, authorized biography of Huxley
  • Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education – 1989 – a sort of followup to A Legacy, this novel was inspired by the author’s experiences living in Italy and France with her mother
  • As It Was: Pleasures, Landscapes and Justice – 1990 – a collection of magazine pieces on various trials, including the censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the trial of Jack Ruby, and the Auschwitz trial, as well as pieces on food and travel.
  • Pleasures and Landscapes: A Traveller’s Tales from Europe – a reissue of the above, removing the legal writings, and including two additional travel essays.
  • Quicksands: A Memoir – 2005 – A memoir of the author’s life, from her childhood in Berlin to her experiences in postwar Europe.


Library Looting some non-fiction!

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

After lunch, we popped into the library for a quick pick-up of books and a wander around the puzzles area. Then it was home for nap time! I had some holds come in! Woohoo!

L.A. son : my life, my city, my food – Roy Choi with Tien Nguyen and Natasha Pha

Oh so apparently I put this on hold and forgot about it. Good thing then that it’s come in just in time for Nonfiction November!


Los Angeles: A patchwork megalopolis defined by its unlikely cultural collisions; the city that raised and shaped Roy Choi, the boundary-breaking chef who decided to leave behind fine dining to feed the city he loved—and, with the creation of the Korean taco, reinvented street food along the way.

Abounding with both the food and the stories that gave rise to Choi’s inspired cooking, L.A. Son takes us through the neighborhoods and streets most tourists never see, from the hidden casinos where gamblers slurp fragrant bowls of pho to Downtown’s Jewelry District, where a ten-year-old Choi wolfed down Jewish deli classics between diamond deliveries; from the kitchen of his parents’ Korean restaurant and his mother’s pungent kimchi to the boulevards of East L.A. and the best taquerias in the country, to, at last, the curbside view from one of his emblematic Kogi taco trucks, where people from all walks of life line up for a revolutionary meal.

Filled with over 85 inspired recipes that meld the overlapping traditions and flavors of L.A.—including Korean fried chicken, tempura potato pancakes, homemade chorizo, and Kimchi and Pork Belly Stuffed Pupusas—L.A. Son embodies the sense of invention, resourcefulness, and hybrid attitude of the city from which it takes its name, as it tells the transporting, unlikely story of how a Korean American kid went from lowriding in the streets of L.A. to becoming an acclaimed chef.

Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? – Roz Chast

I keep seeing this memoir on book blogs! I’m looking forward to reading it!

In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the “crazy closet”—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.

An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant will show the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.


Seconds – Bryan Lee O’Malley

I think I first heard of Seconds from Beth Fish Reads’s post


Katie’s got it pretty good. She’s a talented young chef, she runs a successful restaurant, and she has big plans to open an even better one. Then, all at once, progress on the new location bogs down, her charming ex-boyfriend pops up, her fling with another chef goes sour, and her best waitress gets badly hurt. And just like that, Katie’s life goes from pretty good to not so much. What she needs is a second chance. Everybody deserves one, after all—but they don’t come easy. Luckily for Katie, a mysterious girl appears in the middle of the night with simple instructions for a do-it-yourself do-over:

1. Write your mistake
2. Ingest one mushroom
3. Go to sleep
4. Wake anew

And just like that, all the bad stuff never happened, and Katie is given another chance to get things right. She’s also got a dresser drawer full of magical mushrooms—and an irresistible urge to make her life not just good, but perfect. Too bad it’s against the rules. But Katie doesn’t care about the rules—and she’s about to discover the unintended consequences of the best intentions.

From the mind and pen behind the acclaimed Scott Pilgrim series comes a madcap new tale of existential angst, everyday obstacles, young love, and ancient spirits that’s sharp-witted and tenderhearted, whimsical and wise.



Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff

This is one of two readalongs for Nonfiction November. I’m not sure if I can finish this book in time but I’ve been curious about this book for a while, so this is probably a good time to try it!


Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.



Some e-book holds came in too! As they say, when it rains….

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

Aha! I am excited to read my first Scalzi! I’m not sure if I picked the right one to start with. Anyone have any idea?


John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

War Horse – Michael Morpurgo


A powerful tale of war, redemption, and a hero’s journey.

In 1914, Joey, a beautiful bay-red foal with a distinctive cross on his nose, is sold to the army and thrust into the midst of the war on the Western Front. With his officer, he charges toward the enemy, witnessing the horror of the battles in France. But even in the desolation of the trenches, Joey’s courage touches the soldiers around him and he is able to find warmth and hope. But his heart aches for Albert, the farmer’s son he left behind. Will he ever see his true master again?


Just a few books for the kids today, as they still had plenty (PLENTY!) books left from last week’s loot:

Have you read any of these books? What did you get from the library this week?

Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks


This is the fourth book in the National Geographic Directions series that I’ve read. If you haven’t seen any of these yet you’re in for a treat. Jamaica Kincaid writes about Nepal, Jan Morris about Wales, Louise Erdrich about books and islands in Ojibwe County, and here, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about his journeys in Oaxaca.

And ferns.

Yup. Ferns.

For Sacks is a member of the American Fern Society (AFS), which has been around since the 1890s.

Most of the thirty people on the Oaxaca tour are members of the AFS.

They are quite a different breed of tourist.

“Luis – our tour guide for the next week – points out the innumerable churches and the confines of the old colonial city. No one pays the least attention.”

Instead they are scanning the roadside for ferns or the skies for birds.

Sacks writes a good travel journal. He throws in some facts about ferns and other plant life, but not too much that it would throw off those with black thumbs (i.e. me). For instance, his own fascination with ferns:

“Ferns delighted me with their curlicues, their croziers, their Victorian quality (not unlike the grilled antimacassars and lacy curtains in our house). But at a deeper level, they filled me with wonder because they were of such ancient origin. All of the coal that heated our home, my mother told me, was essentially composed of ferns or other primitive plants, greatly compressed, and one could sometimes find their fossils by splitting coal balls. Ferns had survived, with little change, for a third of a billion years. Other creatures, like dinosaurs, had done and gone, but ferns, seemingly so frail and vulnerable, had survived all the vicissitudes, all the extinctions the earth had known. My sense of a prehistoric world, of immense spans of time, was first simulated by ferns and fossil ferns.”

It intrigues me, this interest in ferns. A passion for a plant that leads them to hike and travel and observe.

I wonder what it would be like to have a love for plants. I so very admire people with green thumbs, who grow fruits and vegetables, whose gardens bloom with every shade of the rainbow. While I like to look at plants, I just don’t care very much for taking care of them. Insects and bugs and mud and all that (I know I know…).

So the idea of devoting a trip (and for many of Sack’s fellow fern-lovers, many other trips past and future) to plants is rather fascinating.

And it made for a fun read too.


PS: Martha Stewart talks ferns (and this book) with Oliver Sacks. Bonus: he brings along a resurrection fern

Funny in Farsi and Late for Tea at the Deer Palace


Funny in Farsi tells of Firoozeh Dumas’ move as a seven-year-old girl from Iran to the US in 1971, when her father was sent there by the National Iranian Oil Company for two years. They returned again for good.

Her collection of stories about her family is not just funny but also an interesting commentary about adjusting to life in the US, during an especially hard for Iranians – the hostage crisis and the revolution, during which her father loses his job and finds it difficult to find another.

“Overnight, Iranians in America became, to say the least, very unpopular. For some reason, many Americans began to think that all Iranians, despite outward appearances to the contrary, could at any given moment get angry and take prisoners. People always asked us what we thought of the hostage situation. ‘It’s awful,’ we always said. This reply was generally met with surprise. We were asked our opinion on the hostages so often that I started reminding people that they weren’t in our garage. My mother solved the problem by claiming to be from Russia or “Torekey”. Sometimes I’d just say, ‘Have you noticed how all the recent serial killers have been Americans? I won’t hold it against you.'”

Funny in Farsi was a quick, entertaining read. Dumas could probably have probed a little deeper into the politics at the heart of it all, but keeps mostly to the clash of cultures – not just American and Iranian, but also with French culture (she eventually marries a Frenchman):

“Being French in America is like having your hand stamped with one of those passes that allows you to get into everything. All Francois has to do is mention his obviously French name and people find him intriguing. It is assumed that he’s a sensitive, well-read intellectual, someone who, when not reciting Baudelaire, spends his days creating Impressionist paintings.”

As someone who moved somewhat recently to the US (although Singapore is probably far more similar to the US than to Iran), I could understand some of what her family was going through, like the celebration of culture-specific holidays – in her case Nowruz, a celebration of spring:

“No longer did we feel the excitement building toward the big day. No longer did we see people cleaning their drapes, buying new clothes, or sweeping their yards spotless. No longer did we prepare for an onslaught of visitors. Gone were the smells of pastries coming from every kitchen, gone were the purple hyacinths that decorated every house, gone were the strangers wishing us ‘Nowruz Mubarak’, ‘Happy New Year’. Gone was the excitement in the air.”

Sadly it’s the same for us and the Lunar New Year celebrations. Back in Singapore, we would indeed be buying new clothes, spring cleaning, baking up a storm, buying oranges by the boxes, decorating the house, in preparation for the friends and relatives coming by to visit. I tried to do a little here myself, spring cleaning for sure (during the 15-days of the New Year, traditionally you’re not supposed to clean house as it will ‘sweep’ the luck away), baking a little and putting up some decorations. Wee reader virtually offered his grandparents oranges via Skype and I made some cookies. But it’s so different being here without family around. I remember the huge celebrations growing up. My paternal grandparents would have a gigantic feast for the reunion dinner (Lunar New Year eve), and a lion dance troupe would be hired to come by on the first day. We would all be dressed up in brand new clothes, a little bag stuffed full of ang bao (red packets of money), another bag full of oranges to present to elders. And then we would nosh on all the different snacks and drinks at the various relatives’ houses we’d visit. What fun!

Of course Lunar New Year isn’t a vacation period here in the US (in Singapore, one would usually get the first two days off work), so it’s a typical working day. It’s also the husband’s busy season which means the likelihood of visiting Singapore at this time is very low!

Global Women of ColorThis is my twelfth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).
firoozehFiroozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran and moved to Whittier, California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and lived in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, they moved back to Whittier, then to Newport Beach. Firoozeh then attended UC Berkeley where she met and married a Frenchman.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace traces the story of four generations of a prominent Iraqi family from the early 1900s till recent years, from their beginnings in Iraq to exile in London and Lebanon, and finally a return to their homeland. If Firoozeh Dumas’ book was fueled by the funny, then Tamara Chalabi’s was triggered by her anger.

Chalabi, daughter of the controversial politician Ahmad Chalabai, wanted to convey her feelings about her homeland

“I was angry at what I perceived initially as a country hurled back to the Middle Ages through misrule, neglect and sanctions, and a beaten people who had lost their voice long ago. I was also angry about what I saw as the expropriation of those people’s silent voices, and of Iraq as a land by the US civil administration and the international press to serve their own agendas, political and otherwise. They became the designated spokespeople for an Iraq they barely knew and didn’t care about, in the shadow of a greater preoccupation with the role of America in the region. They reduced Iraq to a desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children. The country’s ancient history and cultural output over millennia meant nothing to them. I tried to understand the silence of the Iraqis themselves – perhaps it was the consequence of enduring fear, or a habit developed as the result of decades of oppression; perhaps it was their unfamiliarity with the latest means of communication owning to those long years of sanctions, I didn’t know. One of Iraq’s burdens has always been the way it is presented to the outside world as patchy, Manichaean, extreme. It is a nation that is portrayed either through its politics, most notoriously through Saddam and his regime, or through its ancient and glorious history, but never through its people.”

While Chalabi was born in Beirut, Iraq has been in her mind since she was a child, with memories recounted by her relatives, especially her uncle Hassan. She first visited Iraq in 2003, ten days after Baghdad’s fall.

Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is part history, part memoir, discussing the fall of the Ottoman empire as witnessed by Chalabi’s great-grandfather, the ties with the British that her grandfather had, and the 1920s and 1930s social life and household customs as demonstrated by her grandmother Bibi, such a gem of a character, headstrong and prone to dramatic outbursts, and whom Chalabi tends to focus on.

This book is Iraqi history seen through the eyes of the Chalabi family, who have pretty much seen it all – royalty, politicking, intrigue, military coups, exile. But throughout all of that, their love for Iraq is unshakable.
Global Women of ColorThis is my thirteenth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).

tamarachalabiTamara Chalabi has a PhD in history from Harvard University. Her first book, The Shi’is of Jabal’Amil and the New Lebanon: 1918–1943, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006. She has written for the Sunday Times, New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Slate and Prospect on war, culture and identity. She lives in London and Beirut.

Is that a Fish in your Ear?

“Give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, and the chances of any two versions being identical are close to zero. This fact about interlingual communication has persuaded many people that translation is not an interesting topic – because it is always approximate, it is just a second-rate kind of thing.”

Indeed, I have never thought much about translation. Even while reading all these translated works this past month, I’ve never thought about the actual act of translating, and how incredibly difficult it must be.

And Bellos’ book makes me respect this job, this science, this art of translation.

And David Bellos knows what he is talking about. For he is a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton University, and also the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. In this book, he sets out to investigate:

“What is it that translators really do? How many different kinds of translating are there? What do the uses of this mysterious ability tell us about human societies, past and present? How do the facts of translation relate to language use in general – and to what we think a language is?”

One of the biggest eye openers was the seemingly simple Asterix comics. In the book, Bellos reproduces a single cell from the strip, where Asterix meets ‘Anticlimax’, who is in the original French called ‘Jolitorax’, a pun on “fair chest”, “pretty thorax” which doesn’t mean anything to English-speakers, but would to someone who speaks French. Translator Anthea Bell substitutes ‘Anticlimax’ for ‘Jolithorax’, and Bellos quips: “If you thought translating Proust might be difficult, just try Asterix”. For cartoon translators have to make it fit the picture, and the speech bubble, among other issues.

Of course translation of graphic novels is just a teeny weeny part of this book. Bellos discusses all aspects of translation, from dictionaries to oral translation to translating humour.

Quite a lot of this is out of my league, way over my head, or just too much information. And it all got too much towards the end of the book – I skipped the chapter on Language Parity in the European Union (seems to belong more in a textbook), and skimmed most of some other chapters like the one on automated language-translation machines.

But Bellos did make me think more about translation, translators, and their effect on language and the world.

An interesting example is that of a junior trader in the Dutch East India Company who translated the Gospel of Matthew from Dutch into Malay, using words from Arabic, Portuguese and Sanskrit when he knew no corresponding term. However, when the Dutch version talks of a fig tree, the translator used the Malay word ‘pisang’ or banana tree, which he justified by the fact that there are no fig trees on Sumatra. So it makes one wonder about the translations that we read, how much of it is interpreted in a different way for us, for those who may not understand that culture, that society, that style of humour, for instance. It goes to show much translators put of themselves into what they translate. As with the first quote right at the start of this post, no two translations will be identical. It is quite fascinating!

I could continue with many more examples from the book. I found myself sticking post-its all over this library book (of course I’ll remove them before I return it).

“English, for instance, doesn’t possess a designated term for the half-eaten pita bread placed in perilous balance on the top of a garden fence by an overfed squirrel that I can see right now out of my study window, but this deficiency in my vocabulary doesn’t prevent me from observing, describing, or referring to it.”

Is that a Fish in Your Ear? is incredibly informative, and far more humorous than I expected it to be, and the parts that I didn’t skip over were great reads, peppered with great examples. But while this book started out so strong and made me so interested in the act of translation, it’s a bit disappointing how  it ended – a little too tedious for the everyday reader. However, as David Bellos says at the end of the book about translation, “We should do more of it.”

And as readers, we should read more of it.

Title: Is that a Fish in your Ear?
By David Bellos
Published in 2011

bios ‘life’ + -graphia ‘writing’

I’ve been thinking about the last two books I finished. Usually I would hardly consider a fiction and a non-fiction book together but they had something in common – aside from being featured in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust To Go that is. The fiction: Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination and the non-fiction: Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.

The City of Your Final Destination is set in Uruguay, although it won’t satisfy the armchair traveler as it is mostly takes place within a big house in Uruguay

“Here I am in Uruguay, but I could be anywhere. I could be in Kansas. Although the air smelled different: there was some sort of warm, dusty scent that seemed vaguely exotic.”

That’s Omar thinking out loud. He’s a scholar trying to get authorisation to write a biography about the writer Jules Gund. Omar’s kind of a strange one, or at least his girlfriend Deirdre makes him out to be a strange one. He doesn’t seem to really push himself to do things, instead she does the pushing – she tells him to go to Uruguay to get the authorisation. And he does.

The story didn’t quite jell with me for a while, until Omar meets Caroline, Jules’ wife (who lives in the same estate as Jules’ mistress and brother – yeah it is complicated):

“She turned away from the window. ‘Of who I would seem to be if a biography were written of Jules. If, let us say, you were to write a biography of Jules. Who would I be? A mad Frenchwoman, who had been married to Jules Gund, painting in an attic.'”

And then I realised what this book was about. This biography of a man who is no longer alive would change them all, perhaps especially Omar:

“Suddenly it seemed exhausting, impossible: How do you write a biography? he wondered, when there is so much, when there is everything, an infinity, to know. It seemed impossible. It was like compiling a telephone book from scratch.”

And that then is my reason for connecting this review with that of Gertrude Bell’s biography. For indeed, how do you begin a biography? Especially with a woman who has lived such a life? A woman who once used to be more famous than T.E. Lawrence (who was a good friend actually), who travelled the Middle East, at a time when women rode side saddle (she had an apron sort of garment made to cover her pants), who climbed mountains (taking off her skirt to do so!), who was daring and brave and adventurous – at a time when women tended to keep to the home.

“Constrained and compartmentalised at home, in the East Gertrude became her own person.”

Howell does a great job piecing together her life, from letters, from other accounts of her, from the many works Bell wrote, essentially to figure out:

“By what evolution did a female descendent of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East?”

A gung-ho spirit, a fierce determination, wit and charm helps. As does knowing the right people! If you’re in the mood for a biography, may I suggest this one. Gertrude Bell, she astounds me.

Alright, to finish off this post, here’s a little music to think of biographies by (or to listen to with your favourite biography?). Richard Julian‘s A Short Biography

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I thought this was a book about Henrietta Lacks, about biology, about science. But it is also a story about a family struggling to understand what happened to the mother they never really knew, whose death they never quite understood. It is also about the writer herself, as she places herself very firmly into the story, including her own difficulties in researching and writing this book (she spent over a decade on it!). This is a book that fills you up – it makes you angry, sad, disgusted, happy. It doesn’t matter if you’re into science, or if you, like me, never took biology after secondary school (I went into the arts stream at junior college*, which meant that I took Literature, Economics, Mathematics, Chinese and General Paper, having dropped History after my first year). The science part is there of course but it isn’t too in your face, nor is it zzzz…boring. Instead, this was a truly amazing read, non-fiction or otherwise. It’s been on many best books of 2010 lists. And it’s soon to be a movie, although I wonder how exactly a film can convey the many many layers to this book.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot (author’s website)
Published in: 2010
Pages: 369

* In Singapore, after four years of secondary school (aged 13 to 16), you have a choice of polytechnic (diploma) or junior college (A levels).