Friday, November 16, 2018

Not This Year

It's an annual tradition here at the cafe for C.S. to read and handicap the National Book Award winners. Baseball season conveniently ends shortly before the five finalists are announced on October 10, so the timing is excellent.

Following his personal tradition, C.S. devotes the hours immediately after the announcement to locating and buying first editions of the fiction nominees. Sometimes it takes more than one bookstore. This year he found all the novels in one sweet location.

(BTW, also part of C.S.'s personal collecting rule is that he must buy his books in person or receive them as gifts. That way the quest isn't too easy and he enjoys some adventures along with his purchases.) 

Anyway, the timing continues to be excellent because the Miami Book Fair takes place in mid-November, usually featuring finalist authors, so C.S. has the opportunity to get his first editions signed. Always an eye on the future, that guy. He's ended up with some relatively rare books that way.

Unlike some collectors, C.S. actually reads his books. Every year he puts the hammer down and reads all his NBA finalists before the winner is announced. This year he had 160 pages left on the final day, but managed to finish with 10 hours to spare.

In years past he's also correctly predicted the winner, based on his own reading acumen, 13 of 14 times! Unfortunately, this year dropped his record to 13 of 15. He found it difficult to make a prediction: the books were quite evenly matched, unlike some years past where there were a few strong candidates and others clearly not equal to the standard. (If you want to read some of those past prediction posts, click here to find them collected, along with a few reviews.) 

This year, C.S.'s personal favorite was A Lucky Man; he feels it has the potential to be enduring. He picked The Great Believers and Florida as the two most likely winners. Two long shots were Where the Dead Sit Talking and The FriendUltimately, after some thought, he chose Florida as the most likely to win.

And of course we now know that The Friend won. Sometimes longshots come through!

C.S., however, remains skeptical. He's just not sure that a women bonding with a Great Dane is enough to hang a novel on, much less a prize-winning novel. Maybe I'll have to read it myself!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Selected Views

Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists languished on my shelf for quite a while, patiently waiting for me to make time to slip into its hushed world. I bought a flight of the Man Asian Literary Prize winners with the intention of broadening the cultural scope of my reading. So far this has been the most successful (meaning: enjoyable) of the four winners I have read: Ilustrado (review), The Boat to Redemption (review), and Three Sisters (review).

The story is narrated by a recently retired judge, Teoh Yun Ling, who has returned to a place from her past after having been diagnosed with aphasia. Before the disease robs her of her ability to speak and to understand speech, Yun Ling wishes to write a memoir, and to process past experiences from the Japanese occupation of Malaya. While staying in the home of a friend and his wife, she also meets with a Japanese professor who is studying the life and work of a famous artist and gardener, Aritomo, formerly gardener to the Japanese Emperor. And Arimoto himself is her neighbor. Although the war ended years ago, its echoes and tensions remain.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of the Japanese internment camp where she was placed with her sister, and has never fully come to terms with that experience. Yun Ling's cathartic attempt to build the Japanese garden she promised her sister, trying to instill hope in her, is complicated by Yun Ling's tense relationship with Arimoto, cultural and racial frictions left over from the war, and contemporary political unrest in the countryside, compounded by rumors of buried treasures, looted from occupied territories during the war. The past is very much present as Yun Ling pursues her goal.

This is an intricately plotted novel with many unusual twists and turns. To the author's credit, he creates a story steeped in history and politics without making detailed knowledge essential to the reader's understanding. I am not sure that I appreciated the full effect of this novel, but I certainly received an introduction to the complex aftermath of the Japanese occupation. The issues of wartime ethics and survival throw long shadows into the lives of those who lived through that time; their peacetime relationships cannot be navigated without an awareness of all that's gone before.

As the principles of Japanese gardening require the balanced use of natural elements, selected and arranged to create a desired effect, so this novel gracefully combines Yun Ling's personal experience and desires with the elements that surround her. The effect -- like a Japanese garden -- is artificial, but very, very real.


The sprinklers came on, releasing the smell of the sun-roasted grass into the air. The leaves discarded by the guava tree in the centre of the garden had been raked into a pile. Behind the courts, the Gombak and Klang rivers plaited together, silting the air with the smell of earth scoured from the mountains in the Titiwangsa range up north. most people in Kuala Lumpur couldn't bear the stench, especially when the river was running low between monsoon seasons, but I had never minded that, in the heart of the city, I could smell the mountains over a hundred miles away.

I sat down on my usual bench and opened my senses to the stillness settling over the building, becoming part of it.

After a while I stood up. There was something missing from the garden. Walking over to the mound of leaves, I grabbed a few handfuls and scattered them randomly over the lawn. Brushing off the bits of leaves sticking to my hands, I stepped away from the grass. Yes, it looked better now. Much better.

Note: This book counts toward the Color Coded Reading Challenge (green) and the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.    

Monday, November 12, 2018

Love in Words

Let me just say that I love Pablo Neruda. When I think of what it takes to be a poet, his work provides the standard: a certain freshness that's drawn from the stuff of everyday life, the ability to juxtapose words and concepts in a way that illuminates both, a talent for expressing the inexpressible.

The poems in 100 Love Sonnets are dedicated to his wife Matilde Urrutia de Neruda, printed in translation with the original Spanish on the left page and English on the right, and 14 lines each, though without rhymes.

To say they are love sonnets is to say that water is damp. Adoration is more like it. A deluge of devotion. And yet, again: fresh, vibrant, never cloying in the moon/June/ love/dove poetic tradition.

He will always be part of my library. Yours, too, if you're wise.

Excerpt: (two, because Neruda is so wonderful)


I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way

than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.   


Among the broadswords of literary iron
I wander like a foreign sailor, who does not know
the streets, or their angles, and who sings because
that's how it is, because if not for that what else is there?

From the stormy archipelagoes I brought
my windy accordion, waves of crazy rain,
the habitual slowness of natural things:
they made up my wild heart.

And so when the sharp little teeth of Literature
snapped at my honest heels, I passed along
unsuspectingly, singing with the wind,

toward the rainy dockyards of my childhood,
toward the cool forests of the indefinable South,
toward where my heart was filled with your fragrance.

Note: I've had this book in my library for a very long time, but I read it cover to cover for the Birth Year Reading Challenge. I'm also counting it in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Scaring Myself

While looking for something else, I happened upon this in-progress report on Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, in which I confessed that I'd heard the ending was devastating and I was curious what it could be, as I drew nearer and nearer to finishing the book.

What's weird about that is that I have absolutely no memory of the book, including the ending. And I never wrote a review of it, meaning I didn't capture my thoughts.

For a few panicky minutes I thought that the lack of a review meant that I'd failed to enter it into my Done Read list, but whew! That wasn't the case. Apparently I didn't read it for a challenge, and I didn't feel compelled to review it.

So a couple of lessons for me here:

1. Don't let worry about some sort of a mistake cloud my vision. I was really worried that the integrity of the Done Read list had been compromised, but all that was for naught. It took me a while to figure that out, because I was panicky -- the book is missing from the Reviews page, but not from the Done Read list -- and all that's wasted energy now.

2. Review everything. I'll thank myself later.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Reading Challenges Update

If you're part of the Birth Year Reading Challenge, the Dread & Read Challenge, or the Reading Naturally Challenge, this post is for you!

I apologize that I've gotten so far behind on your comments and reported progress. Thanks to Marina Jevdokimova's tactful comment, I realize I have lots of catching up to do! I'll get to that ASAP so please keep an eye open for updates, and thank you for your patience.

The Dread & Read Challenge is still open until December 1, as is the Reading Naturally Challenge. If you're feeling the urge to enter, there's still time. 

And if you happen to know it got to be (yikes!) November already, please explain it to me!