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Fiction Matters

… because it does and it should.

The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith

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At a mere 69 pages and lots of white spaces in between, Zadie Smith crafts a quiet story that is no less important in that it is a window into London’s immigrant culture. It may be London in context, but here in Singapore it is the same. We may be living in a First World country, but race, gender, ethnicity and religious belief play a huge role in one’s station in life.

First published in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another. Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, NW London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.

Smith’s painting of Fatou is exquisite and evocative. Through short chapters numbering from 0-1 to 0-21 (clearly reflecting a lobsided badminton game), we get to follow Fatou. She accepts her station in life, harbours no big dreams and holds no bitterness. Her only “crime” is a weekly filching of the family’s guest passes to swim at a local club. She owns no swimsuit and swims in a black bra and panties, but the garments are so inconspicuous that nobody pays her any heed. On Sunday, after church she will go with her only friend, Andrew, to a Tunisian cafe for coffee and cakes. It is not a routine, more of a comfortable rut.

Zadie Smith’s prose is simple yet elegant and purposeful. For a short piece of work, she packs a lot of details that cry out gently for a closer reading. For instance the high walls of the Embassy and a constant badminton game going on behind the wall as she passes on her way to the pool is a subtle metaphor for the sad state of foreign menial workers like Fatou. Even how the chapters are numbered suggest the state of affairs for people like her. The split narrative structure is genius – it switches between a third person narrative that observes Fatou and a first person narrative voice that represent the people of the town, another words that represents us. The gear shifts invisibly and effortlessly, putting us in the story, sometimes next to the character and at times outside observing her impassively.

This short read is superbly observed and rendered. You know only an author with deep compassion can write something so multi-layered and nuanced. A gem of a read of a human tragedy.

 

 

 

 

Orphan X – Gregg Hurwitz

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Holy mackerel! Believe the hype! This is one frigging page-turner! This is my second book in a row about a protagonist who possesses a “very particular set of skills, skills (he) has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make (him) a nightmare for (bad guys)” and this is a class act way sleeker than Derek Haas’ The Silver Bear.

The Nowhere Man is a legendary figure spoken about only in whispers. It’s said that when he’s reached by the truly desperate and deserving, the Nowhere Man can and will do anything to protect and save them.

But he’s no legend.

Evan Smoak is a man with skills, resources, and a personal mission to help those with nowhere else to turn. He’s also a man with a dangerous past. Chosen as a child, he was raised and trained as part of the off-the-books black box Orphan program, designed to create the perfect deniable intelligence assets—i.e. assassins. He was Orphan X. Evan broke with the program, using everything he learned to disappear.

Now, however, someone is on his tail. Someone with similar skills and training. Someone who knows Orphan X. Someone who is getting closer and closer. And will exploit Evan’s weakness—his work as The Nowhere Man—to find him and eliminate him. 

The story centres around the character Evan Smoak, which is not even his real name. He lives steadfastly by his commandments – #10 is “never let an innocent die”. But it is #9’s “always play offense” that will bring a world of hurt on scumbags in his way. Gregg Hurwitz’s prose moves like a speeding bullet gunning for your jugular and it doesn’t rest until a fountain of blood explodes from the fatal wound. From the disquieting opening where a boy begins his dramatic transformation, Orphan X rockets the reader on an exhilarating cat-and-mouse chase with a galore of twists and turns. The characters live and breathe on the page, even though they are not exhaustively developed. In a thriller you won’t want your characters’ back stories dragging the pace down to a literary crawl. Hurwitz knows the thriller genre like the back of his hand and he delivers in spades. Brilliantly conceived, amazingly plotted, the story moves like a summer tentpole action movie. It has some uber-sleek action scenes that will look visceral on the big screen and some super-cool world building scenes that will set it apart from the usual action thrillers. As I typed this I learned that Bradley Cooper’s production company has acquired the film rights and he will be in the lead role. OMG! I can totally see him in it.

Manga: Oldboy & Ikigami

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Ten years ago, they took him. He doesn’t know who. For ten years he has been confined in a private prison. He doesn’t know why. For ten years his only contact with the outside world has been a television set and the voice of his jailers. In time, he lost himself… changed… transformed himself into something else… something hard… something lethal. Suddenly one day, his incarceration ends, again without explanation. He is sedated, stuffed inside a trunk, and dumped in a park. When he awakes, he is free to reclaim what’s left of his life… and what’s left is revenge.

After reading this 8-volume I have even more respect for Park Chan-wook who made the 2003 film of the same name. He managed to distill the filmic elements from the manga and made the Mother of all revenge thrillers. He only retained the main spine and nihilistic feel of the manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi. The manga itself is a great read. A twisted cat and mouse game with quite a lot of characters, more than the film. The first 7 volumes are gripping and cerebral stuff but IMHO the final denouement is rather lackluster, unlike the grand operatic crescendo of the film. Still I would say this adult manga comes recommended and the movie which is a masterpiece comes even more highly recommended.

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Dear Citizen: You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You’ve probably asked yourself: Why isn’t anything being done to stop this systematic decline? Well, you’ll be happy to know measures are being taken. We, your government, have decided society needs a wake-up call. So beginning today, we will randomly select a different citizen who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is, and how important it is to be productive, active members of society. Thank you for your attention and your cooperation and participation in this new program.

This is both my wife and mine favorite manga for the past couple of years. Each time a new volume is released it is an almost religious experience. We would find a quiet place to devour it – I would of course get first dibs. I am not fully convinced by the big picture of the dystopian premise but the metaphor of what a government does to thumb down its citizens is plain to see. What I love are the short stories. Each one is a three act play – shows a new character and end the first act with Fujimoto delivering the ikigami (a death notice), the second and third act then centre on how the person reacts to his/her final 24 hours and what he/she does about it. Then it usually ends with Fujimoto questioning what he does for a living and the purpose of life. Some of these stories are incredibly powerful and it did something few comics can ever do to me – it made me ponder the greater meaning of life. I started reading this some years back but some of the stories and characters continue to remain in my consciousness. The ending of the final 10th volume feels rushed and it was trying to achieve too many twists and turns, but like I mentioned, it is the short stories that will make you ruminate over the meaning of life. There was a movie made that incorporated a few of the better stories. It is worth checking out.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared- Jonas Jonasson

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I thought Scandinavian writers only write crime, apparently not. This is one of the funniest novels I have read in years. Heck, I can’t even remember the last time I read a funny novel because ‘funny’ is one of the hardest skills to achieve in prose without becoming pretentious.

Desperate to avoid his 100th birthday party, Allan Karlsson climbs out the window of his room at the nursing home and heads to the nearest bus station, intending to travel as far as his pocket money will take him. But a spur-of-the-moment decision to steal a suitcase from a fellow passenger sends Allan on a strange and unforeseen journey involving, among other things, some nasty criminals, a very large pile of cash, and an elephant named Sonya. It’s just another chapter in a life full of adventures for Allan, who has become entangled in the major events of the twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War and the Manhattan Project. As Allan’s colorful and complex history merges with his present-day escapades, readers will be treated to a new and charmingly funny version of world history and get to know a very youthful old man whose global influence knows no age limit. An international best-seller, this is an engaging tale of one man’s life lived to the fullest.

I love the prose. Jonas Jonasson writes it in a way that is so matter-of-fact and the humour is so black. There are some moments I LOL but on reflection I realized that I was laughing at someone who has died. It is not so much the dying but the manner in which the unfortunate fella is disposed of that is so morbidly hilarious. The book is not just funny, it is intelligently funny because Allan Karlsson is a ‘Forrest Gump’. He didn’t just meet people like Stalin, Harry Truman, Oppenheimer, Mao and other illustrious historical figures, he frigging influenced the history that has become ours. The one I love the best is Harold Einstein… say what? That’s the half brother of Albert Einstein! If you are in the mood for something intelligently funny, grab yourself a bottle of vodka and get ready for a rollicking time. The book actually makes you feel growing old is not so bad after all. Now I have to look for the movie.

 

The Silver Bear – Derek Haas

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Derek Haas is the co-screenwriter of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and his debut novel, standing at just over 200 pages, is one lean, muscular and taut page-turner. Being a screenwriter, one can distinctively observe a pumped-up B-grade visual style in his prose. Think of this like Leon: The Professional (1994) sans the emotional heft and John Wick (2014) but with lesser guile and slick.

“A natural killer,” his mentor—a middleman named Vespucci—said he was. He proved it with his first professional hit: a Fifth Circuit Court judge in Boston, executed with a sheet of Saran Wrap in the stairwell of her own courthouse. He’s proved his merit often, usually with a Glock semiautomatic, but he’s improvised too, with his bare hands, the heel of a shoe, knives, even a sewing machine. He is the consummate assassin, at the top of his form, immune to the psychological strains of his chosen profession. He is what the Russians call a Silver Bear. He calls himself Columbus. It’s the name Vespucci gave him, ten years ago, when he discovered a dark, new world of fences, clients, marks, jobs, jack. Not that his real name meant much to him anyway. He never knew his father or his mother, a prostitute who became dangerously involved back in the seventies with an earnest young congressman named Abe Mann, then a rising star in the Democratic Party. The magnetic Abe Mann has since become the Speaker of the House. He is currently running for the Democratic nomination in an exhausting presidential campaign, weaving his way across the country. Columbus is not far behind. But as he pieces together his past and prepares the seamless assassination of his mark, the criminal underworld he has always ruled begins unraveling violently around him.

The thing I like about this is the very lean “take no prisoners” prose written entirely from the assassin’s point of view. Every word counted and amounted to more than most authors tend to land in twice the pages. I also like how it segues into flashbacks rather deftly. The purpose of the flashbacks is to peel layers from the assassin, linking the past to the present. The book reads like I am watching a pulsating action thriller which includes highlights like quick reversals, kickass action and a jaw-dropping denouement. It also manages to get inside the mind of a Silver Bear, the term given by Russians to killers who never miss with their bullets. It is what it is – a quick and no frills entertaining read that isn’t high art, and sometimes that is so refreshing.

 

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.

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