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Fiction Matters

I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes

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I picked up this tome of a book just before I boarded the plane in Manchester, United Kingdom, for home last year. WHSmith was having a “2 for 1” sale and I just grabbed the two thickest and most well-reviewed novels at the Bestsellers section. I really don’t know man… it is definitely a helluva read, but it is also painfully over-plotted and tediously over-written. Something must be wrong with me because I see thousands of raving reviews and mine won’t be one of them.

Can you commit the perfect crime? Pilgrim is the codename for a man who doesn’t exist. The adopted son of a wealthy American family, he once headed up a secret espionage unit for US intelligence. Before he disappeared into anonymous retirement, he wrote the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. But that book will come back to haunt him. It will help NYPD detective Ben Bradley track him down. And it will take him to a rundown New York hotel room where the body of a woman is found facedown in a bath of acid, her features erased, her teeth missing, her fingerprints gone. It is a textbook murder – and Pilgrim wrote the book. What begins as an unusual and challenging investigation will become a terrifying race-against-time to save America from oblivion. Pilgrim will have to make a journey from a public beheading in Mecca to a deserted ruins on the Turkish coast via a Nazi death camp in Alsace and the barren wilderness of the Hindu Kush in search of the faceless man who would commit an appalling act of mass murder in the name of his God.

As a screenwriter, Terry Hayes gave us Mad Max 2, Dead Calm, From Hell and a few other noteworthy films. My copy of the massive book (888 pages) has a tagline that says “the only thriller you need to read this year”. For once, this isn’t some rubbish hyperbole tailored to make unsuspecting readers buy the book. But neither would I rave about it, but more of that later.

The premise is quite compellingly drawn – it starts with a gruesome crime scene and it segues to a larger plot involving a killer virus which will bring America to its knees. Hayes doesn’t re-invent the genre but draws two very credible characters that lift up from the pages. We get inside the head of a super-spy and learn what makes him an elite hero and a Jihadist doctor radicalised after watching his father’s beheading. Hayes alternates between the first and third person with an omniscient view of the proceedings. By far and large, it is a page-turner, but there are stuff that just didn’t sit down well with me.

I am of the opinion that suspense thrillers need to have a relentless pace and a succinct prose, every sentence written needs to push the plot forward and nothing much is disposable. But at 888 pages the narrative is drowning in extreme minute details and it could really use some judicious excising. Like why would I need so much languorous details on the characters’ childhood? Hayes’ style also doesn’t involve me a lot because he prefers to tell, tell, tell and tell. The book feels like a helluva lot of shorthands for him to eventually turn it into a movie, and I just checked IMDb, he is in the process of adapting it for a Mathew Vaughn film project.

I am also not convinced by the antagonist’s motivation during the climax. He has spent a good part of his life masterminding a deadly plan of revenge and he throws it all away because of one person. Call me skeptical, but I just can’t believe it. He is just one step away from the biggest terrorist act of all time and he just throws it all away in a snap. And that falling action… all the way to the last page, I thought it would never end. Oh well… maybe the movie will be better.

 

 

Joyland – Stephen King

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Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever.

This is one breeze of a read at only 283 pages and the prose pulsed like the heart of a young man in love. It reads like the narrator is sitting in front of you at a fireplace telling you the story and the cool prose is full of carny, as in carnival slang. For example, the Ferris Wheel is called a chump-hoister.

It is short on the usual Stephen King scares but don’t let that deter you. Two of my fave stories by him are Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, both novellas included in Different Seasons. Joyland‘s stylistics and narrative definitely belong in that same illustrious class. It is a nostalgic love story and it harkened me back to my first breakup. The second half gets spookier and a mystery surfaces. The scares are here but it’s tinged with a deep sense of melancholy. What totally came out of the left field and floored me is that I realized it is actually a beautiful coming-of-age story.

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

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I only heard about this book by Daniel Keyes during a concert; a mandarin concert no less. Eli Hsieh (谢震廷), winner of the Best New Artiste at the 27th Golden Melody Awards in 2016, named his debut album Progress Reports. During a concert which I attended, he mentioned that Flowers of Algernon changed his life. I am a sucker for this phrase “(insert song title/movie title/book title) changed my life”. I made a mental note to get hold of the book there and then.

With more than five million copies sold, Flowers for Algernon is the beloved, classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse. In poignant diary entries, Charlie tells how a brain operation increases his IQ and changes his life. As the experimental procedure takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment seems to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance–until Algernon begins his sudden, unexpected deterioration. Will the same happen to Charlie?

It is so hard to put into words the gamut of emotions this marvellous story sent me through, but I can share what happened with the last 20 pages. I was reading furiously, working against time to finish it before I had to teach a class, but alas I couldn’t do it. All through the 2 hours in class my mind was delivering the lesson, but my soul was somewhere else. The moment the lesson ended, I found a quiet corner at the foodcourt and as the food stalls closed up for the day I let the last 20 pages caressed my soul. I knew what was coming for Charlie but I was hoping against hope that the inevitable will not happen. When I reached the last sentence, I swear if there weren’t anybody around, my tears would have rolled down.

This is one amazing piece of literature and it wields such power. It has the ability to make me angry, sad and make my soul buoyant with hope. The premise is already brilliant and it never became a one trick pony. Keyes builds on it and it becomes a thorough and clinical study of how ultimate intelligence without a temperance for affection is medicine for mental and moral breakdown. The story also examines mental disability from both sides of the table and the human condition. It is masterfully written and can really make me get inside the head of Charlie and empathise with his plight and struggles. It may be heartbreaking but it succeeded in making me feel so thankful for my lot in life. This is one book that should be on your bookshelf. A story that can be savoured and make you want to be a better person.

I should by all means end my musing with that line above, but I thought I should share two more stories. Whenever I read a good book, hear a great song or watched an awesome film, I can never shut up. So a couple of weeks ago I shared in every class I teach about the story and its intriguing premise. I didn’t think anybody bothered, but one 16-year-old girl was so captivated by it that she borrowed the book from the library. She finished it two weeks later and told me about it. She even said she wanted to buy the book. So I helped her get a copy from Amazon since I was getting one myself. I asked her why she wanted the book when she has already read it. Her reply warmed my heart. She shared that she has never bought a book on her own, but she felt a deep need to get this one because there is so much wisdom in it. It is times like this that make me so glad I am a teacher; and I don’t even teach her English, I am her A.Math teacher.

After finishing the book, I studied the lyrics of the Chinese song that introduced me to it. My mandarin is crap so my wife patiently explained the lyrics to me. Even she was pleasantly surprised by the depth of the words. Eli Hsieh definitely meant it when he said those 5 magic words – “this book changed my life”.

查理 (Flowers for Algernon)

作词:谢震廷/Voice
作曲:谢震廷
编曲:谢震廷、罗恩妮

他看不清人们脸上的表情
他只相信笑容是一种肯定

不懂怀疑
听从每个指令 只想换得一颗真心
就会有鼓励 不会再孤寂
只想变更聪明 就能解开所有难题
所有人就会喜欢你

当 每一天累积了知识和反省
他 开始执著于起猜忌和怀疑

变得聪明
却越来越空虚 世界没有变更美丽
失去了耐心 失去了关心
在理解那些笑容 其实是嘲弄和嫌弃
才明白什么叫痛心

曾经 那双眼睛 拥有快乐和感激
可惜时间 却带来残忍结局
如果能够回到过去 能否再见你

当 我也还是单纯蒙懂的查理却 提早承受负荷不了的压力

懂得越多
却越来越恐惧 世界变得扑朔迷离
拥有了回忆 拥有了阴影
当最珍贵的东西被冷酷现实给擦去
才发现 自己不是 自己

曾经 这双眼睛 拥有无比的真心
一心只想为世界带来欢欣
没有算计的讨好你 只因喜欢你

如果你见到查理 请记得看着他眼睛
那是多么 天真善良的纯净
你会发现 在心底里 也住着查理

这首歌献给每个查理
请好好珍惜 最真的你

Revenge – Yoko Ogawa

 

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Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is also a collection of short stories. Revenge is the age-old perennial premise in many narratives and Ogawa’s treatment doesn’t go through the usual tropes. Her prose is elegant and twisted at the same time. I can’t say it as good as the synopsis… Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative that pulls together a seemingly disconnected cast of characters… The stories are linked through recurring images and motifs, as each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Filled with breathtaking images, Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos, enthralling in its passion and chilling in its cruelty.

I love how she connects the stories in such a subtle manner. At times I feel that after the ending of a story, there will be a coda or an epilogue in the next story which can amaze, sadden and surprise me. I never once felt it is manipulative or trying to be clever, and the stories are so engaging that I don’t want to see the nuts and bolts behind the story. The reason that prompted me to write a short write-up was a paragraph about bags. This is so surreal because last week in Tokyo, 3 guys and a gal went shopping for bags. Actually we were just tagging along with the gal, taking a break from CD hunting. It was a really interesting journey. We alighted at a train station, walked through a cemetery lined both sides with cherry blossom trees which would probably look amazing when in full bloom, and right at the end is the shop. In it we saw numerous handmade masterpieces which we won’t find anywhere else. We stayed there for an hour and walked out with 3 bags. Now read this eloquent paragraph about what is so special about bags…

You may be thinking that a bag is just a thing in which to put other things. And you’re right, of course. But that’s what makes them so extraordinary. A bag has no intentions or desires of its own, it embraces every object that we ask it to hold. You trust the bag, and it, in return, trusts you. To me, a bag is patience; a bag is profound discretion.

Maybe this is the reason why gals love bags. Anyway the story is about this lady who prides herself with the ability to make exquisite bags for any occasion and to hold anything, ANYTHING. One fine day a lady steps in and requests the bag-maker to make her a bag to put a heart in it. What a brilliant premise… I know what you are thinking… She wants a bag to put her unfaithful lover’s heart. You are very far from what it is about.

PS – If you have enjoyed this anthology, I would highly recommend The Housekeeper + The Professor. Haven’t gotten round to writing a review yet because words continue to elude me.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coehlo

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Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is so beloved by so many from all around the world that I feel so inadequate to write a fitting review. So I apologise for not being able to find the right words to capture my sentiments about the story. Words always elude me when it comes to the good ones.

Brazilian storyteller Paulo Coehlo introduces Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who one night dreams of a distant treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. And so he’s off: leaving Spain to literally follow his dream. Along the way he meets many spiritual messengers, who come in unassuming forms such as a camel driver and a well-read Englishman. In one of the Englishman’s books, Santiago first learns about the alchemists–men who believed that if a metal were heated for many years, it would free itself of all its individual properties, and what was left would be the “Soul of the World.” Of course he does eventually meet an alchemist, and the ensuing student-teacher relationship clarifies much of the boy’s misguided agenda, while also emboldening him to stay true to his dreams. “My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy confides to the alchemist one night as they look up at a moonless night.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself,” the alchemist replies. “And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

And so it goes for a story about following one’s dreams. Santiago’s arduous journey is also ours and a reminder that we are never too old to dream, and definitely never too old to fulfill them.

I actually bought this book years ago after listening to many raved reviews. On a trip to Down Under, I brought it along. 20 pages into it I threw it aside, feeling cheated and a waste of my time. Only last week in a meeting, I was treated to a Will Smith video where he mentions about the book very positively. Then the rest, as they say, is history. This is a very eloquent depiction of the indelible human spirit as God has always intended for each of us. As I read Santiago’s story I found myself getting connected with Him and everything else. The narrative never feels preachy, cloying or manipulative. It has wisdom by the truckloads and life lessons aimed at your soul. Anyone can tell you their favourite story from the book, and mine is the one in which Santiago searches for the meaning of his dream and meets an old man who teaches him four lessons. If I have 10 minutes to spare in a lesson, I sometimes end it by sharing this and watch the classroom transform into a magical place where learning goes beyond textbooks.

This is an awesome book and deserves to be on every literature lover’s bookshelf and it demands to read and re-read as one matures. Other than some great life-affirming lessons, I learned something else – I realise the reason I could not get into the book previously was that I was still young; not young in terms of age (I was in my 20s when I first tried reading it) but in terms of maturity. Going through many trials and tribulations have made me a lot more open to stuff. One should never be scared to face the bad times in life. It makes one become a better person if one so want it to be; just my 2 cents of wisdom.

Moonglow – Michael Chabon

First, some context and a recollection of my own memories… when I was a kid in primary school I loathed reading. My mother who was then an English HOD in a primary school has an equally loathsome way of instilling the love of reading in me. She would sit beside me as I read silently. An unconscious fidget, an oscillation of my body or an importune utterance would earn me a firm stare and a sharp rebuke. Half an hour of the dreadful time reading would pass like the changing of a season. After that it was not over. Next, I was tasked with writing down words I did not know from the book and I had to look in the dictionary for their meanings and to write down an example of a sentence of how the word is used. I did this for three to four times a week for months. If I even had an ounce of a love for reading, it was all destroyed by my Mom.

Then it happened… a few months down the road I started noticing that I was getting better marks and earning favourable comments from my English teacher for my essays, and I finally understood something – my Mom’s hardline method has worked. After that I was doing it diligently on my own accord and my Mom didn’t even need to sit beside me anymore. Of course I didn’t continue the routine for long. It was not needed since the love of reading and a love for the language are already in me. So it came as a huge surprise that I started doing it again recently.

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Moonglow by Michael Chabon is my first book by him. I have known this author for quite a while and I even have his Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay sitting quietly on my shelf, crying out softly to be read. Moonglow is a hybrid memoir of Chabon’s grandfather, a debatable fictional multigenerational family history filled with anecdotes and stories from his heavily medicated cancer-ridden grandfather on his deathbed.

In the days following the publication of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to California to sit by his dying grandfather, a typically taciturn and reserved man. But Dilaudid had loosened his tongue, and out came a torrent of remarkable stories of full of secrets, love, pain, sex, and regret. Chabon’s remarkable new “autobiographical novel” Moonglow is mined from, but not limited by, those conversations; as he states in his author’s note at the head of the book: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrating purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken … the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon.” The result is a sprawling, yet intensely personal, paean to his grandparents, their lives together and as individuals. World War II and its atrocities cast long shadows, as does the Space Race and the titular moon, which hangs over the story as a bright dream of escape and a dark reminder of failed aspiration… an intensely personal story uplifted by the shifting tectonic plates of truth and memory, floating atop his inimitably crafted, sometimes audacious, always original prose. –Jon Foro, The Amazon Book Review

Original prose is what this book has in spades. My mind was constantly engaged with the elegiac prose and vivid metaphors. I tried to memorise them or just plain trying to keep them in my head, but I knew I can’t and so I found myself doing something I have not done since I was a kid with my Mom sitting next to me. I started typing out the lovely sentences; this time on my iPad.

(He) introduced food into his mouth at mechanical intervals and stared at her without art or restraint.

She filled out the dress nicely but could not enliven it.

The absence of playfulness and flirtation in her manner brought out the languid solemnity of her feline face and eyes.

He felt that he needed, for the sake of clarity, to escape her gravity for a minute or two, for as long it would take to smoke a cigarette.

He saw her shudder once, a traveling wave that passed from her hips to her shoulders and then across her face in a ripple of dismay.

He was disappointed, and disappointment filled him with resolve.

An inner coaxial was cut, and his head filled with white noise, and then he passed out.

The girl was a labyrinth to him; only by chance and error did he ever stumble blindly into her heart.

(A bomb) jammed into a frozen pond like a cigar butt into the sand of an ashtray.

I see the hidden lovers, fates entangled like their bodies, waiting for release from the gravity that held them down all their lives.

Aren’t the phrases great and ever so playful? But I must confess the book is a huge pain to read in the beginning because it has not much of a plot holding the vignettes together. The stories also do not adhere to a chronological order, constantly going back and forth through the life memories of the unnamed grandfather. “After I’m gone, write it down,” the grandfather tells Michael at one point. “Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.” A mishmash this is, but what a beautiful mess this is. By presenting the episodes in a non-linear form, Chabon is perhaps questioning the authenticity of memoirs and film narratives with the adage “based on a true story” plastered across the screen. How can we be sure that the memoir is factual, free from any agenda? How much of the episodes are embellished to put the spotlight on heroic moments, while whitewashing others into obscurity?

“Everything you’ve been telling me is true, though, right?” Michael asks his grandfather at one point. “Well, it’s all the way I remember it happening,” the grandfather replies. “Beyond that, I make no guarantees.” To me, the truth isn’t that important anymore because I was kept entranced by the extraordinary life of an exceptional man who thinks he is unexceptional. He talks of life amounting to little, starting things but never finishing them, but what a colourful life he has lived, filled with V2 rockets, flying bombs, psychotic delusions, war-time espionage, prison life, sex and a late tender love affair with a neighbour involving a pussycat. Moonglow may not have a comforting spine of a plot to link all the non-linear rich bouts of memory recollections, but it does encompass all the episodes with a richness of imagination and a heart rending vibrancy of humour and warmth. One of the best novels I have ever read and one I will never forget in a long long time.

The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison

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Todd and Jodie have been together for more than twenty years. They are both aware their world is in crisis, though neither is willing to admit it.

Todd is living a dual existence, while Jodie is living in denial. But she also likes to settle scores. When it becomes clear their affluent Chicago lifestyle could disintegrate at any moment, Jodie knows everything is at stake. It’s only now she will discover just how much she’s truly capable of…

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is her first and last fiction novel. She passed away in 2013. At the novel’s zenith it was marketed as that year’s Gone Girl. It is again about a toxic marriage and a story told in unsettling alternating voices. Unlike Gone Girl, I couldn’t feel sympathy for anybody – both are awful people and they deserve each other. This one doesn’t rely on twists and turns to tell its story. So for me, it wasn’t much of a page-turner. However the beauty here is the prose – sharp, witty, slow, methodical, elegant and incisive. It manages to deconstruct the characters to their core which is as murky as hell. Harrison does tend to engage in lengthy description, but once I start to fall in love with her prose, I was all in.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

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I have just closed the book on Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. OMG! What a superb read. My mind is still swimming in all the magnificent viperish details. What an ingenious thriller… twisted and wild and yet romantic. Catastrophically romantic. What a fcuked-up couple! There are quite a few movies and TV series that make me want to step inside to kill the slimeballs, but this is the first time I want to do the same for a book. What a b*tch! A fcuking psycho b*tch! I want to stab her 100 times with a penknife but yet I also feel like kneeling before her to caress and kiss her feet. What a brilliant character!

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife Amy disappears. There are signs of struggle in the house and Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect. It doesn’t help that Nick hasn’t been completely honest with the police and, as Amy’s case drags out for weeks, more and more vilifying evidence appears against him. Nick, however, maintains his innocence.

Marriage is a killer.

We have all heard that before. Gillian Flynn takes the age-old notion into pure toxic wasteland in this story. The story is told in alternating voices and your sympathy for the two characters will change like the tides. It is a deliciously wicked pleasure to read a novel about the dark side of marriage. The prose is acerbic, twisted, clever, witty, dark and cerebrally absorbing. I had trouble getting interested in the first act because it is a detailing of a typical marriage heading for a car crash. However the second act changed all that. It was a complete mindfcuk… I was literally fcuked left-right-centre in my head and realized that Flynn had purposefully purposed her first act in that all too familiar fashion.

The second act completely subverts my expectations and everything that has happened in the first act is double entendre territory. The final act is just surprise after surprise… A double-edged revenge. My missus wasn’t quite impressed with the ending and I can understand that. We had a nice discussion of it last night and I shared why there’s such poignancy and eloquence in the final denouement. Once you can free yourself from the notion that “crime does not pay”, there are so many ways to play the narrative game and who is to say she got away scot-free.

Right now, I have embarked on A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. The synopsis interestingly reads almost the same as Gone Girl. Would be nice to compare both. But of course Gone Girl would lose out to The Silent Wife‘s sad mythical status – the author has passed away just after her debut novel was published.

PS – I am sorry for the expletives but the messed up Gone Girl absolutely warrants it.

The Return of the Young Prince – A. G. Roemmers

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First and foremost, the fact that The Return of the Young Prince by A. G. Roemmers is advertised as “the long-awaited sequel to The Little Prince” did it a huge disservice. It gave A. G. Roemmers a near impossible task. There are not many stories as widely read and cherished by adults and children alike as Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 classic, The Little Prince. Every time I mentioned that book in my class, the sight of enthusiastic hands shooting up with eyes that lit up like shiny stars, is a sight to behold. The book can be picked up at different points in one’s life and the thought-provoking allegory of the human condition will still cut right to the heart. This is one of those very few venerated books that I never want anybody to touch, let alone write a sequel to it. Roemmers definitely had a mountain to climb and it was an unenviable task. But did it work?

Even princes from faraway planets eventually grow up. No longer content with his tiny planet, the young prince sets off once again to explore the universe. And so begins another remarkable journey into the secrets and joys of living a meaningful life.

I would be lying if I say it didn’t. My wife and my students are the testament that the story and life lessons got to me because I would read them selected passages from it. Even though I could easily devour the novel in a day, I chose to read only two chapters a day just to let the life lessons wash over me and ponder over the words. I find the prose serene and zen, filled with lots of nuggets of deep wisdom and keen observations on current times. The accompanying illustrations by award-winning artist Pietari Posti, are simple yet beautiful. I especially love the colours used in the cover as can be gleaned from above. But I could love this so much is because I chose to see this as a standalone rather than a sequel. If I had not been able to do that I could foresee a whole lot of problems. For instance, I will tell you that unlike the original the story and the lessons do not have a symbiotic bond. I could literally feel that the author thought of the lessons first and then proceeded to weave a simple narrative through them. I could also tell you that the story is very weak and lacks the wondrous humanity of the original. It is as if having the little prince ask questions gives creative licence for the author to jackhammer his sententious philosophies and religious beliefs into my brain. Yes, it does feel at times almost over-written. However, if you can read this on its own merit, I am sure that like me, you will discover many gems. I will leave you with one… I find the words managed to capture an elusive aspect of life called memory so eloquently.

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