If one’s life can fit in boxes 1 trip, 2 trips, 3 trips down the corridor and packed in a car to be shipped (or flown, though it’ll be expensive) to a place used to be called home to a place where loved ones await to a place far away from loved ones Is there anything to keep one grounded? Or will one’s life be shipped in boxes (or flown, though it’ll be expensive) 1 ocean, 2 oceans, 3 oceans away wherever the waves deem fit?
I bought this book almost at random. I was looking for interesting YA books at Kinokuniya, and the cover intrigued me. Because of the headphones. And the redhead. So maybe I have a thing for redheads. It wasn't until after I bought the book that I found out how well-received it was. Not that it mattered; I always approach a new book ready to fall in love.
In essence, Eleanor & Park is about first love, about puppy love. In my language, we call it cinta monyet (monkey love). Unlike Romeo & Juliet, however, the protagonists do not fall in love at first sight. In fact, they are discomfited by each other's presence. And like all stories of first loves, this one hangs on to the promise of forever, though everyone knows the improbability of its very concept.
I don't really care about what other people say about a book when I'm reading it, but in certain cases, like this one, I checked out reviews on Eleanor & Park on Goodreads. Which brought about more conflicting emotions. There's nothing inherently wrong about the writing; the prose is clean if somewhat juvenile. There's a difference between using a teenage narrative voice and talking down to teenagers who read the book, and this one edges too close to the latter.
It's not about the writing, though. It's the story itself. Eleanor is what one would call a white trash. Flaming red & unruly hair, plus-sized (it's never clear if she's plump or fat), a stepfather who abuses her mother and a mother who is so trapped in an abusive marriage, she cannot even think about escaping, four younger siblings who all share the same room with Eleanor, weird sense of fashion because that's all she can afford. Park, on the other hand, is half Korean (his mom) and half Irish (his dad), but like his name, looks totally Asian. He has a younger brother named Josh, who, like his name, looks totally Caucasian.
Don't tell me you don't find anything wrong with that last statement.
Anyway. Park's mom, despite being Korean, comes off with a more Vietnamese vibe, but then again, Asian is Asian is Asian. Park doesn't really mix around with others but, the fact that his dad's family has deep roots in the community, he doesn't get teased or bullied. In 1986 America, where racial segregation was still an issue.
Let me backtrack. How the heck does a couple from different races produce children where one's fully Asian, and the other apparently fully Caucasian? Is it like eye or hair color or even blood type?
Hence, my first problem with this book.
Back to where I was. Park doesn't hang out with others other than his 'best friend' Cal (who the author forgot about from the middle of the book onward), listens to rock and punk music all the time, and loves comic books. For the record, I love how Ms Rowell uses comic books as a reference instead of the usual Catcher in the Rye or Charlotte's Web or Jane Eyre or other American classics that other American authors seem to love to mention to show how literate their protagonists are.
The stage is set. Two protagonists who are ripe to be social outcasts. The more gushing and eloquent reviews mention the inclusivity of diversity in this novel. Right now people are talking about diversity in YA, about how they want to see more protagonists who are persons of color (PoC) – I still consider PoC a derogatory term – and female protagonists who don't fit the typical cheerleader and/or bookworm-overachiever mold. To put it bluntly, this is what I think the author is capitalizing on. Her characters feel like props customized to fit the story. They don't feel…organic. Eleanor could have been a Goth or a gleek, and it would not have changed the story. Park could have been the whitest White kid, and it wouldn't have changed the story. The only reason he's Asian (other than his name) is because Eleanor keeps reminding us every couple of chapters or so – stupid Asian kid, grinning until his eyes disappears, straight black hair, skin like sunshine seen through honey (I love this reference, by the way).
The way the romance in this book unfolds, stealing the words from John Green (from his book The Fault in Our Stars), is like falling asleep: slowly at first, then all at once. Park gives up the aisle side of his seat in the bus because he pities the new girl, who is not welcomed to occupy any other seats. Eleanor thinks Park is weird. After a few rides, he notices she's stealing glances at the comics he's reading, but instead of offering to read together, he just opens the comics wider and keeps on the same pages longer. Then he leaves a stack of comics on her seat beside his for her to take home. Eventually they talk about music after he notices a song title on her book. Then he makes her a mix tape and supplies her with batteries for her Walkman at home. When Park realizes he likes Eleanor, he has reservations at first; he doesn't know how not to be embarrassed about it. And then he's completely in love and is willing to go to the ends of Earth for her. Park is a giver. He's definitely a giver.
Eleanor, on the other hand, takes, takes, takes. She doesn't like him at first because he's this weird Asian kid. Yes, I understand that she's afraid to open up to others because she doesn't want to know that her stepdad hits her mom and is angry all the time. She doesn't want to know that her family is dirt-poor and she wears Goodwill clothes. And when she's in love with Park, she doesn't want her family to poison that one pure thing she has, so she keeps him a secret from even her siblings. However, even at the end of the book, she only thinks about herself. Eleanor comes first. Eleanor comes second. Eleanor comes last. Me, me, me.
Park's family, despite his Korean mom, is as White American as it gets. Boring. Very blah. Eleanor's family. However, is a goldmine that, sadly, has been underplayed. Her mother is a gone case, that much is clear, but she's a loose end that should have been tied. Her younger siblings…well, if they never existed, the story would not have changed. Not even a bit. Which is a shame, as they would have added depth to Eleanor's shallowness if their characters had been employed properly.
As far as modern YA books go, Eleanor & Park plays it mild and safe. Lots of kisses and groping hands, one scene with alcohol and joint, but that's it. The main characters don't even smoke. The alternating perspectives between Eleanor and Park, albeit single-voiced, are well-played. The exchanges between the main characters are adorable, and sometimes brilliant. Other than that, however, I don't get why people are all gushy about this book. Maybe it's because the John Green gave it a glowing review, and that kinda clouded people's judgment. Maybe it's because there's an Asian and a plump outcast girl as main characters, reaching out to other outcast girls who want their own Park.
To me, this book doesn't reach its potential. Eleanor, at the end of the story, is the same as how she begins. She doesn't change. Park finds the courage to stand up for what he believes in, but this story is more about Eleanor than it is about Park. And there are too many loose ends. What happens to Eleanor's two Black friends? Or her mother and her younger siblings? We know what happens to their frienemies Tina and Steve, but other important named characters? Forgotten when the author devised an ending aimed to make readers cry. I love tear-jerker endings, but this one falls flat.
Oh. And the overuse of "practically"? Definitely did not appreciate that.
If you're looking for a book that has both diversity in YA and a much better read, check out Adorkable by Sara Manning. Even with the British humor, even with the elements that's more adult than YA, it's a much stronger book with similar protagonists.
I fell in love with Benjamin Alire Saenz's writing when I was reading Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Not after. During. What I did after was look for more books from Mr Saenz. Unfortunately, Kinokuniya only carried another title, Last Night I Sang to the Monster. I had to buy other books through Amazon.com.
I love technology.
In Perfect Light arrived a little worse for wear, with dented and creased edges, brownish discoloration of the pages, and a black marker mark at the bottom. It's the first paperback edition, printed in 2008 (the hardcover was first published in 2005). I've had it for a couple of years now, I think, but only came around to reading it last Sunday. And I finished it in one night.
I love the book.
Specifically, I love the story. Mr Saenz is a brilliant storyteller. Having read several novels and a book of poem of his, I appreciate the recurring themes he employs in his writing. He conveys the harsh beauty of the desert and El Paso, Texas. He brings to light perspectives and characters that are inherently Mexican, the pain of life as harsh as the desert. The pain that only he can tell, the way he tells it.
In Perfect Light tells the story of twenty-six-year-old Andres Segovia who, because of his past (which unravels as the book progresses), has lost his drive to live. He's not suicidal, but living for him means getting through the day, pushing everyone away. The book also tells the stories of three main supporting characters, Dave Duncan, who is Andres's lawyer and guardian angel, Grace Delgado, a therapist who has helped Dave before, and now is recruited to help Andres, and Mister Delgado, Grace's son who, despite not having any direct contact with Andres, plays a pivotal role in helping the story reach its end.
In Perfect Light is, despite its name, far from perfect. There are short chapters, interludes, that are told in the present tense, that show a glimpse of all four main characters at that very same moment. These interludes take getting used to, and they distract readers (well, me at least) from the story. There are parts where we jump into one character's head for a short dialog-paragraph when the section is told in another's perspective. There are long-winded sentences that have no punctuation marks. There are conversations in Mexican that are not translated into English and at times can alienate readers who do not understand the language. The prose itself, when compared to the elegance that is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, feels clumsy. The beat, the lyrical arrangement, the signature storytelling are all there, but less refined. Perhaps the reason is that In Perfect Light was written years before Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Perhaps this book was written this way for an adult audience, and the other was made more minimalist for its target young adult audience. The magic that Mr Saenz offers in his works is still there, just not as brilliant as I expect of him.
That said, the story itself makes up for more than the clunky prose. There is pain in this book, pain that transcends written words, transcends fiction. Andres's pain, his past and his present, it feels real. It is real. Andres is not a character out of a book, but a young man who has been through so much hurt, it's a miracle he's still a whole person. Andres's character and past are similar to Zach's in Last Night I Sang to the Monster, and like other main characters in Mr Saenz's other books, has an affinity toward poetry and the beauty of the desert. Despite his harsh upbringing, Andres has an unquenchable thirst for books and learning, and this thirst makes him stand out, and saves his life.
All four main characters in this book are fully fleshed out, and feel absolutely real, but it is Andres that pulls us in. It is his past that brings us to tears, and it is his pain that makes us want to reach out to him. Even though it has been several days since I finished reading the book, I still think about Andres. I want to buy him lunch and just hang out with him. I want to show him that I'm there for him, whenever he's ready to reach out to others. I want to sit beside him as he leans back against the wall, a lit cigarette in one hand, and a crumpled piece of paper with a poem he's written in the other. I want to hug him and tell him that everything will be all right. I don't know if anything will be, but I want to tell him that.
I wish I were half as good a writer as Mr Saenz is. I wish I can have that effect on others, that they want to hang out with the characters in my stories, that they want to hug them and tell them that everything will be all right.
For me, this book is not about the technique or the poetry in the prose or the storytelling. I can talk about the plot, but I want you to experience it yourself. This book is about evoking a raw urge to protect children from the ugliness in the world, and if that is too late, help them see the beauty the world still has to offer. It's about realizing the depth of a person's resilience, and the strength of one's spirit.
It's about Andres Segovia, who, despite being a fictional character, feels so real that I hope one day he'll read this, and know that there is still beauty in the world. There are still things that can be seen in perfect light.
To all the Andres Segovias out there, I don't know how, I don't know when, but things will be all right.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. This is your captain speaking."
The plane cruises over the South China Sea. The endless expanses of sky and sea are of the exact same shade of brilliant blue, and the clouds, patches of sun-kissed cotton candy, greet the rising sun as if they were a congregation of angels. And maybe they are. These clouds. Maybe they are angels watching over the land, and this is how we perceive their existence.
"This is your captain speaking."
How often do I hear this, without really paying attention? I never register the names of the flight crew, not even the good-looking ones as they make their rounds along the aisle, serving food and beverages and making sure the flight is as comfortable as possible for everyone on-board.
I'm sitting beside the window, the kind of seat I'm always willing to pay extra for whenever I book a flight ticket. I'm watching the sky and the sea and the sun-kissed clouds. Earlier I requested for a pillow for the little girl sitting beside me. I don't engage in small talk with her or her mother. Or maybe her grandmother, who has aged gracefully. I don't even ask for their names, though they remind me of my mother and my niece, those two who share an inseparable bond only unquestioning love can forge. In front of me, a man is snapping pictures of his teenage son. He's holding his dSLR wrong. He's even using the built-in flash. Amateur.
The plane sings a constant hum, though I'm sure outside it's roaring in defiance. A human-made bird of metal dares to take flight, to traverse across mountains and oceans to reach lands half a world away in a matter of hours.
"This is your captain speaking."
It's almost two weeks since the disappearance of flight MH370, bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. In the almost-two-weeks, the entire nation has moved from shocked disbelief to rallying people to pray for the safety of the 239 people on-board to craking jokes about our efforts to search for the plane that include employing shamans, and officials who appear to hide more than they are willing to share, and to conspiracy theories cropping up faster than malignant cancer cells do.
A baby is crying somewhere in front of me, and I can see heads turning, discomfited by the noise. I can only imagine the parents cycling between trying to calm the baby and stealing apologetic glances at other passengers. I have my noise-canceling headphones on, so the cries are muted. I may not come across the child again, or the parents, or the other passengers, or even the flight crew.
After the initial flurry of show of solidarity and prayers offered to God (and other deities) via Facebook status updates and Twitter and hashtags, things have noticeably slowed down. In my head, an army of angels are sitting in front of rows upon rows of computer screens, taking down all the typed prayers. Maybe the hashtags make things easier for them to monitor those prayers. Things sure have changed since the days of prayers whispered in the reverent hush of mosques and churches and temples.
The hashtags may have slowed down, but the conspiracy theories are only picking up steam. So are the jokes and parodies. And bomoh mobile apps. In a little less than two weeks, it is evident that the rest of the world is moving on. Their own lives are more interesting. It's back to hashtags like #foodporn and #selfie and #holiday. Maybe more than half the angels assigned to monitoring the internet are reassigned back to their original tasks.
A woman accompanying her son to the toilet stops to chat with another woman sitting behind me. They know each other. They exchange names of mutual friends, and promise to catch up back home. Or something like that. I don't really care. I'm writing this.
First the speculations revolved around the two passengers using stolen passports. Then it was hijacking by people of countries much more powerful than ours. Now it's the pilot who's under scrutiny. For some reason, his unyielding support toward a politician is emphasized. Maybe it's because his support is for a prominent opposing party, and not the ruling one. And his home-built flight simulation, first mentioned to show how dedicated he is to his work, now an object of further speculation, what with the wiped-out data.
I don't really pay attention to speculations and newspaper articles. In my head, I visualize a plane bigger than the one I'm in, with over 200 passengers on-board, flying over a pitch-black ocean, under an even darker sky but with silent starlight forming constellations. Maybe one of the passengers were looking out the window, figuring out the configurations of starlight that looked familiar but somehow different than those seen from outside the window of his or her home. I imagine a colicky baby crying, inconsolable, and the parents darting apologetic glances to everyone around them. Or maybe both the babies in the plane were sleeping in their parent's arms when all communications from the plane stopped.
I can only imagine, based on fiction and movies about airplane disasters, what went on when the blip of the flight disappeared from radars. I can only imagine the abject terror that gripped those on-board, the frantic prayers and the regrets and the anger and the love and the resignation. I don't know any of the passengers or flight crew. I don't eve know their names. I can only imagine the fear that overrode everything else. The absolute certainty that you are about to meet the Maker, but you don't want to. Not now. Not yet. I've lived through that same fear, though for me, I was ready to let go of everything.
I can only imagine. I can only speculate.
Perhaps I am no better than the conspiracy theorists and opportunists, after all.
We may have moved on, and the hashtags may have changed back to normal, but the lives of the families of the missing persons are forever changed. They are still holding on to that frail hope that gets ever smaller with each passing day. I can only imagine how hard it is for them, the fear of not knowing the fate of the missing people.
That's what we're forgetting. In the comfort of our offices and homes and restaurants, we speculate and crack jokes about how backwater our country is in handling this crisis. We share photos of parodies of bomohs (who were actually doing something, though using highly questionable practices) and apps that make light of the situation. We chat about corrupt politicians and conspiracy theories. We conveniently forget about the 239 people on-board that flight, because we don't know them at a personal level. Their lives don't really matter to us because despite the crisis, our lives are not affected. We can still Instagram delicious-looking food in restaurants and tag #foodporn and wait for strangers to click 'Like'.
When a crisis occurs, our first instinct is to find something or someone to blame. Let's face it. It terrifies us when something bad occurs and we cannot explain it. It means that the same can happen to us and that life is beyond our control and comprehension. It means that life is much larger than you and me and we have no say about it. Hence, the urge to villify someone. If the passport thiefs were terrorists, then it makes sense. If the pilot deliberately hijacked the plane, then it makes sense. If there was a technical error depriving everyone of oxygen at such a high altitude then it makes sense.
In order to make sense, in order to feel that much safer when we book a flight ticket, we come up with all these theories. We start scrutinizing everyone, from the flight company to every passenger. Compassion turns to morbid interest. We deconstruct people and make them less human. Even a pilot's political affiliation comes into question. Even a co-pilot's social activities become his undoing.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking."
How many times do we hear this and feel reassured by it? How many times do we trust our lives in that stranger in a sharp uniform and a distinct cap? How many times do we trust our lives in that gargantuan metal construct that seems impossible to take flight just by looking at it?
Our lives may have moved on, but for the families of the people on-board MH370, life is at a standstill. So please, find it in your heart to respect that, to respect them, and may we offer silent prayers in our own hallowed spaces even though the hashtags have slowed down to a trickle.
May angels keep them safe, no matter where they are.
May angels lead them home, no matter where that home is.
If there is one word to describe this book, unapologetic would be it.
Nazi Goreng by Marco Ferrarese is about a young Malay man, Asrul, who goes through a traumatic experience in the hands of a group of Indian thugs, and is then taken under the wings of one charismatic Malik, who is several years older than Asrul. I don't normally emphasize on race, but race is everything in this book. Everything. You see, Malik is a Malay supremacist skinhead who sees other races as impure, corrupt, a cancer that gnaws on the sovereignty of Malaysia. Much like White supremacist skinheads in the US or UK.
I kid you not.
This duo then escapes backwater Alor Star for better opportunities in Penang, and get involved with drug traffickers. Much like White supremacist skinheads from Lima, Ohio, who get involved with Mexican drug cartels. Why do I keep comparing the protagonists with White skinheads? Because, essentially, if you transplant these Malaysian characters and settings into an American one, you'll get the makings of an American novel/movie.
So is the book inherently Malaysian, you ask? I've been implied to take into consideration an author's Whiteness in writing a Malaysian book. In truth, I don't really care who the writer is; to me, the writing is everything. I got irked when author Marc DeFaoite kept using "Kay El" regardless the narrator is Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Nepalese, Malay, Indian, or whatever nationality that is not Western. In this book, Mr Ferrarese injects Italian sensibilities in a protagonist that has never been out of Alor Star. He compares characters and objects with Venus, Cyclops and Jesus. The main character, Asrul, is a practicing Muslim, by the way, though 'practicing' is a strong word for what he does.
But oh. My. God. Mr Ferrarese is one hell of a compelling writer. I finished the book in less than a day. The opening chapters are beautifully written, with exquisite imagery and characterization. Despite what I will say in the following paragraphs, reading this book makes me feel that the culture of skinhead Malay supremacists is pervasive throughout peninsular Malaysia, and that they represent an actual cancer that gnaws at the fragile equilibrium that is Malaysia. Reading this book makes me believe that the threat is real, and racism in Malaysia has deeper roots than I'm willing to admit. And that, to me, makes for a successful novel.
Nazi Goreng, in the introductory chapters, holds so much promise, so much potential. It has the makings of something great. Killer opener? Check. Excellent writing that feels real? Check. High concept? Skinhead racists plus Iranian cartels plus trigger-happy Africans plus multiple locations in Malaysia (and one in Taipei). Check. Page-turning thriller with danger at every corner? Check. Stakes that grow bigger and bigger? Check. A likeable protagonist? Check.
So what went wrong?
When Asrul and Malik get involved with the Iranian drug lord and aspire to do more than just trafficking drug at the Malaysian/Thai border, Asrul's life careens out of control. Unfortunately, so does the book. It's like the author introduces too many action/thriller elements and doesn't know what to do with them. Good news is, he tries to tie these elements together at the end of the novel. Bad news is, he loses interest in the main characters and is more invested in the stolen money instead. More on the ending later.
In the middle of the book, the author breaks off from the main characters and writes a few chapters on a group of four immigrants, Ngoc, Nyan, Cam and Than. I know, right? Not only are the names too close and confusing, introducing new named characters that are not essential in the middle of a book is not a good idea. Sure, Mr Ferrarese is smart enough to use these characters later in the book to move it, but if his intention to spend two chapters on their backgrounds and wants and needs to humanize them, to build sympathy toward marginalized immigrants, I say he's not done enough. In the end, these chapters and characters become mere fluff to thicken the novel, fluff that distracts a reader's attention, risking losing that attention altogether. Even if the author did not employ these characters' perspectives, did not even name them, he could still use them later on to move the story as he needed. This bit of fluff has earned the author some negative marking.
So Mr Ferrerese throws in Iranian drug lords, African rival cartels, sleazy bartenders, one hot Chinese national drug mule, and one not-so-hot Indonesian maid, with high-speed chase and machine guns, kapows and ratatatats that lead to torture and murder, all in the name of stolen money with a grand total of…drumroll please…
That's USD 12,182.12, according to Google.
Even a terrace house in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur costs over a million ringgit. Heck, give me forty-thousand ringgits and half a day at Pavilion, and I'll ask if you have another forty-thousand to spare at the end of three hours. Maybe two, depending on which stores I visit first.
The first job Asrul and Malik secure, transporting drugs in a car tire without them realizing it, earns them RM8,000. Have them do five jobs, they'll get the same amount of money. So all these murder and mayhem in the name of RM 40,000…. What I'm saying is that the stakes are not high enough. Not nearly enough. Too low, in fact. If it were USD 40,000 (which Google converts to RM 131,340.03), then it would have been something at least. Still not high enough, but much higher than what the author uses.
Also, Malik keeps mentioning he has connections in high places. At first Asrul thinks it's his connections with police officers who believe in Kuasa Melayu (Malay Power) as much as Malik does, but that's not it. When Malik does reveal who he actually is…OH COME ON! THAT'S IT?! Speaking of, I would have appreciated more insight on what makes Malik tick. He's a sociopath, that's clear, but why is he such an angry racist in the first place? With Asrul, it's pretty clear. Take a traumatic experience and a highly impressionable young man in his late teens, you get Asrul. Malik, however…. I think it's a lost opportunity with him. Would have made for a mighty interesting story.
Now. Coming to the ending.
I fell asleep at the supposed climax.
Like I mentioned before, when the ending comes, it's no longer about Asrul and Malik's journey, but about the missing money. It doesn't really matter what becomes of them; the protagonists are relegated into secondary characters. Worse, the greatest sin of all, the author ends the novel with exposition after exposition. It's like reading Naruto, where you're getting to the climatic fight (for that chapter in Naruto's life), and then you see the inevitable black background and you're forced to read ANOTHER back story. For an action thriller novel, writing a climax using exposition is not only anti-climactic, it's buzzkill. It's robbing a reader of a much-needed release. It causes blue balls.
Blue balls are NEVER good.
I don't think the author's entirely at fault here. It was pretty clear that he lost control of the story when Asrul lost control of his life. Mr Ferrarese did not self-publish this book, so an editor is involved. An invested editor takes the rein when the author loses control. Or supposed to, anyway. I wasn't lying when I said the beginning is brilliant and the writing is engaging. They are. Mr Ferrarese has the mark of a good writer. What he needed for Nazi Goreng was a team of good editors, editors who, without compromising his stylistic and artistic integrity, guide the story back to its intended path, to smoothen out kinks like Italian mythology in Malay characters, derogatory descriptions of a Muslim praying (he uses "kisses the floor" throughout the book to describe praying), to correct his consistently wrong usage of colons, all that jazz. And he needed a good proofreader (or two) to spot and correct the horrendous amount of typos, missed spaces, wrong punctuations.
In essence, Mr Ferrarese was sold short with Nazi Goreng, and what could have been a brilliant novel is merely a book of good writing, unrealized potentials, and a non-existent climax. What we have here is a book that causes blue balls.
When I started reading the book, despite what my friend said, I wanted to give it a 4.5 to 5 star rating. When the story went out of control, I wanted to give the book a 3.5 star rating, rounded up. With the ending taken into consideration, I'll only give it 3.5 stars, rounded down.
The author holds so much promise, and the book so much potential. It's unfortunate, really. I hope, if Mr Ferrarese writes another novel, he is fortunate enough to invest in invested editors.
This post is long overdue, I know. I can say that I wanted enough space between the trip and writing this to have a precise, objective view. I can also say that the experience was so magical, so personal, that putting it down in writing would smear the memory.
Truth is, as with everything else, I've been procrastinating. It's the one thing that I do with any passion at all.
However, it has come to mind that the longer I wait, the less vivid I can recall the sloping streets of Latin Quarter, or the stillness of chapel grounds despite the heavy traffic just outside the gates, or the cool autumn breeze atop Notre-Dame that carried with it the warm scent of freshly-baked pastries. So I write this now, for good or for ill, for better or for worse.
I write this now, in hopes that I will continue dreaming of Paris, city of artisans and dreamers, city of love eternal.
I had always dreamed of visiting Paris at one point in my life. It was high in my bucket list; if I were to travel anywhere, especially to Europe, Paris was always the first name that came to mind. Maybe it was because of the movies that featured this city of amazing architecture and art, maybe it was because the Paris I read in books like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Maybe it's the language itself, perfect to be whispered just behind the earlobe, and perfect to be shouted from across the street. Maybe it was all of the above. For a helpless romantic like me, Paris was the perfect place to be.
My trip there, to be honest, was only a tentative plan. Had I cemented the decision earlier, I would have arranged to fly back home from Paris instead of Frankfurt, and I would have gained another full day there. As things turned out, I extended my stay in Europe for two days—I still owe Kasha RM150 for the ticket change. I used the ICE trains between Frankfurt and Paris, which took about four hours and 140E one way. Unfortunately, it was also a long weekend for the Germans celebrating the union of East and West Germany, so a lot of Germans decided to visit Paris the same dates I went there. Needless to say, tickets were limited and freaking expensive.
The trip itself was excellent. First class, with croissants and hot chocolate (I did mention expensive, didn't I?). Outside, I saw sloping hills of green fields and quaint villages with steep roofs and smoking chimneys as the train speed along its track at three-hundred-and-thirty kilometers an hour. There were no mountains, and there certainly was no snow.
In the four hours, I edited the photos I took in Germany—those I hadn't edited yet, of course—and before long, the city came into view. At first there were only railway stations and graffiti-adorned walls, and everything looked drab. Definitely not the Paris in my mind. Then the train stopped, and I disembarked, and—
"PARIS, I AM IN YOU!" I yelled (in my heart).
Well, to be honest, there were plenty of very tall, very blonde people all around me, all conversing in German. Not the gentle, rolling language of romance, but the clipped, wintry language of conquerors. Fine, if you want to get technical, Napoleon Bonaparte was the conquering French emperor, and he certainly used French as a military language. Bear with me for a minute here.
Anyway. There were plenty of Germans to make me feel like I was still in Frankfurt, but looking at the signboards, there was no doubt where I was. Even the station I was at, Gare de l'Est, sounded so French! Oh la la!
Since everything was so French and I was so over my head, I headed straight for the tourist information center. Best. Decision. Ever. There was a line, but it was okay. I snapped a picture of the mailbox because it was yellow, not like the red ones in Malaysia. Ours are red, right? The guys behind the counter were friendly and helpful, and they advised me to get a five-day Metro ticket that could be used for the trains and buses, and a four-day museum pass. The two passes cost me 54E. Or was it 75E? Can't exactly remember, and Evernote ate my expenses list. The info counter guys offered me a Disneyland Paris pass, but I wasn't about to visit Disneyland without my family. No, sir. They also supplied me with a Metro map, and showed me which train to take, and which station to disembark at.
Of course I took the wrong train.
Technically, they gave me the wrong direction, and I still have proof of it. The guy whose English was decorated with French connotations marked the station Jussieu, so I took the number 5 (orange). But as I stood in the train, doing my best not to ogle at pretty French people—both the women and men were more than pleasant to look at, these French—I checked my hotel reservation email, and it said the hotel was near Notre-Dame, and where I was going, the cathedral was nowhere near. Well, on the map it looked near, but hey. I called up the hotel and they instructed me to take the number 4 (purple) to St-Michel. So I went back to Gare de l'Est and took the number 4 to St-Michel as instructed. In retrospect, I could have just taken the number 10 (mustard) to Cluny-La Sorbonne and then walked along the tunnels to St-Michel. Yes, French people, I KNOW, RIGHT?! Such a tourist.
Once I disembarked at St-Michel, lugging along my freaking heavy bags (yes. Plural), clunking each step of the endless staircases, I got a little intimidated by all the people rushing about. It was something like the LRT stations in KL, and people didn't wait for others to disembark before going in (unlike in Germany, where people actually waited out of the way), but the people there were generally bigger. And had way more fashion sense. Then, out of the underground station and into—
Rue St-Michel was as French as it would ever get in my head. Even the air was different, supercharged with this lively energy. People were everywhere: sitting outside cafes facing the street, gathering around fire-eaters in front of the statue of St-Michel, walking along the riverbanks lined by stalls that sold artworks, entering and exiting shop lots and boutiques. I was breathless, but I breathed deep regardless. The air was damp from the rain that had just settled, with an undercurrent of pigeon dropping, but over this was the scents of baked goods. Also, I noticed that it was much warmer than Germany. By warm, I meant twenty Celsius, which was cold by my native standard. However, having acclimated to the cold German air, I felt warm enough in Paris to take off my jacket and walk around in my short-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. The beanie and neck scarf I bought in Mainz were just a fashion statement. Ehem. My stomach was grumbling already, but I needed to store my bags first. I booked a room at Hotel Europe Saint Severin through http://www.agoda.com for the price of USD240 per night. Again, in retrospect, I could have saved on hotel, but I wanted someplace safe for me to leave my things for extended periods. The hotel was tricky to look for, but the staff were friendly and accommodating, and there was this big fat cat who had his own chair in the lobby. Plus, the hotel offered free WiFi. Schwing!
The room was small but quaint, and the bed was oh-so-comfortable that I could just lie down and….
I immediately got up, took out my camera and map, and made sure I had my Metro ticket and museum pass in my wallet. I was ready to walk about. The receptionist recommended me to visit Notre-Dame, which was within walking distance.
"Merci beaucoup!" I say with a smile. So French! Full disclosure: I almost said danke schoen.
I stopped in at St-Michel square to snap pictures of the statue. I would come to know in the days that followed that statues like this adorned the city. Works of art were not restricted in museums or special spots, but everywhere. Then I crossed the busy street and walked along the riverbank. Oil paintings, retro posters, noir artworks and of course, touristy souvenirs were displayed at the stalls. I wanted to get something for my family, but decided to take my time to look for something meaningful and not just touristy. And Notre-Dame, tall and imposing on its own island, got ever bigger as I approached it. Even from a distance I could appreciate the intricate details of the carvings and statues populating the cathedral. There was a long line to get into the cathedral, but I was not about to spend the evening lining up. Or so I thought.
After snapping pictures of the arched doors, which, I came to know, were carved to depict the Bible for commoners who were illiterate back then. When I walked to the side, intrigued by the scents of cinnamon and vanilla and chocolate coming from bakeries beside Notre-Dame, I spotted a shorter line along the side of the cathedral. It was for the top-level walkways where the gargoyles were. So I lined up, which ate up fifteen, twenty minutes. I showed my museum pass when it was my turn to walk up, and the unsmiling guy waved me in. We tourists walked in one file up the narrow staircase and into a very modern shop, another tourist trap. I browsed around, eyeing possible purchases, but then I just headed for the real goods: the view from above.
The spiral staircase were narrow and lit by slit windows that I imagined were for archers in medieval times. The rock walls were cool to the touch, and I could feel their age. I wondered what stories the walls were willing to share, and I imagined monks shuffling in their habit up and down the staircases, silent and devoted. I imagined the hunchback slinking in the shadows, looking out the windows where the world that could not accept his deformity went about without him. I imagined generations of builders and artisans working toward building one of the grandest, most intricate architectural wonders of an age long gone. Notre-Dame was celebrating its eight-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday when I visited Paris. Nearly a thousand years in existence, and it still stood strong.
Despite the crowded walkways atop the cathedral, there was this hushed, awed silence. I could hear the wail of breezes over the steep roof and between the stern gargoyles. I could hear the city below and I could see the entirety of Paris splayed as far as I could see. The Eiffel tower looked small but still majestic in the late-evening light, and so did Basilique du Sacré Caeur to the north. The imposing rectangle of La Défense stood among skyscrapers in the far distance. To the south, the white walls and dome of the Pantheon reflected the golden light of the sun. The gargoyles had been witnessing the rise of Paris, from ancient times to modern ones, for hundreds of years. The city below moved forward with time, but up there, I did not feel a part of it. Instead, I was part of something much older, something hallowed, something indescribably beautiful. I could feel God's presence for the first time in a long time. Masya Allah. God is Great.
For someone who was experiencing an existential crisis, the sudden welcoming presence almost brought me to tears.
So I stood there and existed.
Once out of the cathedral, I crossed the bridge back to the 6th arrondissement. By then, my camera battery was almost out, and I was charging the spare one back at the hotel. I made my way back, snapping pictures of fountains and streets, and I also bought a kebab for dinner. 5.50E, but try converting it into ringgit with an exchange rate of 4.41. Almost RM25 for a freaking kebab. It was good, but hey. I went up my room, finished the kebab, changed camera batteries, and then stepped out with no particular direction in mind. I just wanted to walk and breathe in Paris. I went into a comic store to look for graphic novels for Aunty Fa (didn't find them, sorry), and stopped by a pastry shop in Latin Quarter because I could no longer resist the warm scents of bread and chocolate. A cup of hot chocolate and a slice of lemon meringue cake cost me slightly over 10E (yeah. RM45 for a freaking slice of cake!) but it was worth it. My mouth still gets watery thinking about the dessert on the pavement beside a quiet street, and it's already four months since I ate it.
I walked up sloping streets and along old buildings. I stepped into chapel grounds and snapped pictures of busts and flowers. I had no direction, but the Pantheon loomed ever larger, so I used the dome as my compass. It was closed, but bathed in the light of the setting sun, the Pantheon and the Roman buildings around it lit up with a fire of their own. It was breathtaking. And I have pictures to prove it.
The Pantheon was closed for the day, so I walked downhill toward a congregation of trees, which turned out to be the park of Luxembourg palace. Here I finally experienced autumn for the first time. The trees flared red and orange and yellow and green, more often than not all these colors on the same tree. Dry leaves littered the walkways and grass, and the white statues with age stains seemed alive among these brilliant colors. I took in the scents of trees and wet grass, and I watched people cycling, jogging, sitting at the clearing in front of palace grounds and picnicking on the grass. I studied statues after statues. I was doing all I could not to get overwhelmed by it all.
At six, security guards started herding people out of the park, and I snapped more pictures as I made my way out. I had spotted a Metro entrance earlier, so I headed toward it. I wanted to go to the Louvre. Hells yeah.
With the map as my guide, I took the Line B (blue) train to Châtelet-Les-Halles, and then the number 1 (yellow) train to Louvre-Rivoli. I should have stepped out one station farther, Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre, but I didn't know any better. By then, the sun had set and streetlights were on, giving the city a different air, making it even more intriguing. The museum itself was closed, but people still gathered around the glass pyramids, and more than one couple in wedding attire were having outdoor photo sessions.
Louvre. What a sight to behold.
The main pyramid was lit from inside as well as out, and the illumination contrasted brilliantly with the indigo twilight. The centerpiece within the pyramid was a shrouded statue. I could not wait to get inside. I was already thinking about spending at least half a day there. Once I was satisfied with the amount of pictures I took, I strolled further west, along boutiques with expensive wares on display, past hotels with smartly-dressed doormen. Surprisingly, with the distance I had walked, I did not feel tired at all. Not a whit. Maybe it was the comfortable half-boots. Maybe it was the sights. Maybe it was the mild temperature. Maybe it was Paris itself.
Yeah. It definitely was Paris.
I made a stop at L'Obelisque, but I was more interested in the fountains flanking the Egyptian obelisk. Statues of water gods and goddesses glowed green. The details were exquisite, the faces expressive. Using a slow shutter speed was a fruitful endeavor, though I wished I had a tripod or a monopod with me. I made do with the outer basin of the fountains.
I wanted to walk farther up, where Arc de Triomphe stood majestic beyond the heavy traffic going uphill. Yeah, you Parisians are rolling your eyes at me. Crazy guy, planning to walk from Concorde to Arc. The drizzle stopped me. Or saved me, come to think of it. For all its wonders in capturing amazing photos, my E-P5 had no weatherproofing, so braving the rain was definitely not a good idea. I rushed back to the Metro entrance I saw just before the obelisk, and then took the trains back to St-Michel. I took a wrong train or two, of course.
The exhaustion did not overwhelm me until after I took a hot shower back in my hotel room. As I lay on my plush bed editing photos from the day, my eyes became heavier, and I surrendered to sleep.
That night, not only did I dream of Paris, I was also one of the dreamers in Paris.
Like I do with all storybooks, I approached Tropical Madness with open arms, ready to love it. Besides, I've read Mr de Faoite's stories in other anthologies, and while I notice a certain lack of sense of place, which I will elaborate in a bit, I like his writing. There's an elegance to his prose.
I'll be honest. A gwailo writing about local characters and Asian immigrants? It spells disaster as much as...say...an author who's never been out of Kerala writing a novel about high-society gwailos living it large in New York. I'm not saying it's impossible, especially with Google and Gossip Girl, but it won't feel organic, in part because the author draws on stereotypes. Somehow, however, de Faoite managed to pull it off. There are annoying tics that I'll talk about later, but once I got that de Faoite's writing is not much about the characters as it is about social observations--his social observations, to be exact--I was cool with the book.
However. Maybe my expectation was too high, but I did not get the same feeling I got from his single short stories when I read this book. Mr de Faoite seemed to have overreached too far, bordering on purple prose. He used too many adjectives and adverbs, and his attempts at literary prose were so clumsy that I had to muck through his writing and lost sight of the story. The only stories where the writing didn't get in the way were the Facebook updates, "Where is Ah Girl" and "Ah Girl is in a Relationship". Granted, both stories employ Manglish with all its horrendous grammatical errors, but this is where the writing doesn't stumble as it attempts to do literary acrobatics.
Speaking of, I mentioned before that de Faoite's stories are not about the characters, but about his social observations. "Sang Kancil" is about a Malay husband from an arranged marriage being forced to hunt for a mouse-deer to satisfy his wife's pregnancy-induced cravings. "Under the Shade of the Tamarind Tree" is about the futile attempt of a Hindu community to save their temple, and at the same time touches on the religious double standards in Malaysia. Oh, by the way, the call for Subuh/Fajr prayer doesn't come at sunrise. That's when the prayer time ends. "Siti Fatimah and the Bomoh's Curse" is how a bomoh's curse creates a "Final Destination" effect. No real story line. Just deaths.
Anything that went wrong in the stories, a bomoh, a Malay witchdoctor, was to be blamed. It didn't matter that the story was about a Chinese family ("My Good-Looking Bad-Luck Husband") or an estate Indian community ("The Rubber Tapper's Mangle"). And all the stories in this anthology, except for one ("Milking Pen") uses Kay El for Kuala Lumpur. Local people and Nepalese immigrants do not use the gwailo enunciation of KL. Kampung Malays use Kay El, estate Indians use Kay El, Sitiawan Chinese use Kay El. For the sake of authenticity, the author should have considered Kolumpo, Kuala Lumpur, or simply KL depending on the setting. Not the gwailo Kay El for everything. Maybe it was a stylistic decision, but it still annoyed me.
Another recurring problem with de Faoite's writing is the lack of sense of place. He mentioned Taman Ayer Jingga a lot, and it's a good way to tie the stories together, but Taman Ayer Jingga remained only a name throughout his stories. There are no descriptions of setting, no stage as a backdrop, that the stories are disembodied works that could have happened anywhere, be it Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, or Guatemala. The author didn't make full use of the senses to tie down his stories to make them more believable.
He also got lazy toward the middle of the book.
When you sign up for a guided jungle-trail tour, your experience depends on the weather, which is out of the guide's control (ie readers' preference), and the trail the guide uses, be them scenic or bland, as well as the guide's skill in making the trip entertaining and/or educational. Both are within the guide's control (ie an author's skill). If the guide is skilled enough, you get lost in the beauty of the trail, and not the guide's presence. Now, imagine the guide stopping in the middle of a trail and announces, "I'm stopping here. Make your own path. Find your own way out." How does that make you feel? "The Uncles", "All I Want to Do is Play Football", "2064", "Night Fishing", "Trapped in Traffic" and "Milking Pen" are incomplete stories, simply vignettes that have no conclusions or endings. 1/3 of the book. That's quite substantial.
There is one saving grace, however. "The Rubber Tapper's Mangle". It's beautifully written without creating a distraction, and the story itself came to life. There's an honesty in the prose. Honesty and beauty. I'm surprised this story wasn't made the opener for the anthology.
Having read other Fixi Novo books, the writing in this single-author anthology is good in comparison. It would have been much better had de Faoite polished his other stories to a shine that's at least half as bright as "The Rubber Tapper's Mangle". For a native English speaker, I would have expected a richer vocabulary instead of resorting to adverbs. And adverbs. And more adverbs. Why not use "slower" instead of "more slowly"? Why not use "grinned" instead of "smiled broadly"?
I give this anthology 3.5/5 stars, rounded down. It's definitely above average, but not even the beauty of "The Rubber Tapper's Mangle" can elevate the book to a higher rating.
It is the beginning of summer in 1987 and Aristotle Mendoza--Ari, as he calls himself--is a jaded, disillusioned 15-year-old who lives in the shadow of a much older brother who's not even there, who's not even spoken of by his parents. Ari only knows his brother is in prison for something he did when he was Ari's age.
Then he meets Dante Quintana, the boy who teaches Ari how to swim.
Dante is everything Ari is not. He is fair-skinned, much too American to be a Mexican-American in El Paso, outspoken, loves as openly as he is loved, and above all, hates wearing shoes. He loves to read. He loves poetry. He especially loves works by William Carlos Williams. He adores his parents, and they are fierce when it comes to loving and protecting him.
When I woke, Dante was gone.
He hadn't left any of the sketches that he'd done of me. But he did leave a sketch of my rocking chair. It was perfect. A rocking chair against the bare walls of my room. He'd captured the afternoon light streaming into the room, the way the shadows fell on the chair and gave it depth and made it appear as if it was something more than an intimate object. There was something sad and solitary about the sketch and I wondered if that's the way he saw the world or if that's the way he saw my world.
I stared at the sketch for a long time. It scared me. Because there was something true about it.
Ari, on the other hand, loves being alone. He has this anger inside him, and he's constantly afraid that he'll end up like his brother. He longs to connect with his war-haunted father, but at the same time is frustrated by how distant, how disconnected his father is. His mother is the only one who gets him, but he has a sinking feeling she is afraid he will end up like his brother, too.
And then there was this whole thing with my name. Angel Aristotle Mendoza. I hated the name Angel and I'd never let anybody call me that. Every guy I knew who was named Angel was a real asshole. I didn't care for Aristotle either. And even though I knew I was named after my grandfather, I also knew I had inherited the name of the world's most famous philosopher. I hated that. Everyone expected something from me. Something I just couldn't give.
So I renamed myself Ari.
If I switched the letter, my name was Air.
I thought it might be a great thing to be the air.
I could be something and nothing at the same time. I could be necessary and also invisible. Everyone would need me and no one would be able to see me.
In the span of two summers, the boys grow. They grow apart, yet at the same time they grow ever closer. Dante is the only one who gets Ari, even though he knows he may never get Ari. Because Ari doesn't even get himself. He is desperate to get to know his father, to get to know his brother, that he doesn't realize that the person he is searching for is himself.
My father was still there, sitting on my rocking chair.
We studied each other for a moment as I lay in bed.
"You were looking for me," he said.
I looked at him.
"In your dream. You were looking for me."
"I'm always looking for you," I whispered.
I picked this book up at random almost a year ago when I browsed the Young Adult shelves at Kinokuniya. Something about the cover grabbed my attention. In a sense, books are still judged by their covers regardless what people may say. I seldom look for books based on reviews or recommendations. Sometimes I hit rocks and sometimes I hit gold. With this book, however, I hit the mother lode. The Arkenstone, if we want to get all geeky about it.
For that almost-one-year, I've bought the hardcover, four copies of the ebook (1 for myself & 3 for my friends), and an unabridged audiobook. I've read the hardcover three times, read the ebook twice, and listened to the audiobook twice. I've also written to the author to personally thank him for sharing the book with the world, and he's written back.
It's that beautiful.
Benjamin Alire Saenz has a way with words. Since I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, I bought other books he's published. 1 I bought at Kinokuniya, the rest I had to order online from Amazon. They are all beautifully written, but this book is his best to date. The prose is lyrical, but it is also an effortless read. You don't sense the author's voice. You only hear Ari. And you feel for him. And you want to hug him and tell him that everything will be all right.
Because Ari lives. Dante lives. Their parents live. You want to get to know them more. You want to have dinner with them. You want to protect the boys from the harsh world while they discover the secrets of the universe and change the world with that discovery.
I read novels for pleasure, but with this book.... I want to achieve even half of what Mr Saenz has achieved with his prose. Reading this makes me want to be a better writer. It makes me look out for other books as beautiful as it is, because if one person is able to write something this brilliant, then perhaps there are similar writers, similar books out there.
Forget your aversion toward two boys loving each other. Forget your bigotry, forget your prejudice. Get lost in this book, and fall in love with the boys.
And maybe one day the world will be a beautiful, wonderful place for all children who play by different rules.
A friend of mine called me out after reading my review of Love in Penang. She said I was being suspiciously vague. Apparently I'm known for being bold & direct (her words), and my review stank of my chickening out.
My first instinct, of course, was to get defensive. After all, I have a story in the anthology, and saying outright which stories suck would be counter-productive. And using "bleugh" is part of my voice, just as I like using "pfft" and fragmented sentences and single word and/or sentence paragraphs. However, one word she said kept ringing in my head as I stood in the shower contemplating a proper reply:
Initially I kept telling myself that no one reads my blog and reviews, anyway, and the only reason I went against my stand to not review local English books again was that I was inspired to share the beauty that is Leroy Luar's "Happiness" with the world. Well that was a long sentence. Anyway, as hot rain-shower eased the tension off my shoulders, I thought about my previous reviews and about how right my friend was. If I was going to review the book, then the least I could do was to commit to my truth, my style, my voice. So here it is, the unadulterated review of the stories that make up Love in Penang.
"Double-Blind" by Zen Cho is about misguided assumptions from gender stereotyping. The use of Manglish is quaint, if somewhat niched, and the story line is quite standard. Read enough QUILTBAG-themed stories and you'll notice certain tropes: us against the world; finding the courage to come out; the queer pining for the straight; discovering and accepting one's own sexuality; mistaken orientation and/or gender assumption; out and proud and looking for love. I may have left a few. Zen's story employs one of the tropes. I like the little well-placed twist at the ending (definitely not a trick ending, which is a major plus), but I don't see the need for the first scene. The story would have been stronger if she had started from the second scene. As for the Manglish, though I don't personally prefer it, I do believe that the author pulled it off quite well.
"Amah's Bicycle" by Julya Oui is a quiet little story about a teenager who takes out her boredom & angst against a rickety old bicycle that has become a permanent fixture outside her grandmother's house, which prompts the grandmother to talk about the past, thus giving the girl a new perspective in her surroundings. It's an anecdotal story, where the scenes move not in front of the reader's eyes, but through the grandmother's storytelling. This means there is no sense of immediacy, but the story is beautifully written nonetheless. The narrator is transformed at the end of the story, so it's a definite plus.
"Happiness" by Leroy Luar is beautiful, pure and simple. As I mentioned before, the prose touches the literary. The story isn't about the narrator, but about his best friend Rachel who's always been haunted by her mother's abandonment when she was four. There is a certain subtlety that you don't realize the change until the story is over and you think about it and then it hits you. To me this should have been the opening story. I am now on the lookout for more works from Leroy Luar.
"Tingles" by Khaliza Khalid is one of the weakest stories in this anthology. There is no sense of place, there is no character depth or development, the plot is weak, and the solutions are immature. Made out of mainly narrative summaries, there is a lack of immediacy & intimacy. The story doesn't move me, doesn't give me tingles.
"When it Rains" by Celine Wu Yee Pheng is among the shorter stories in this anthology. It's a standard boy-meets-girl (in this case, girl-meets-boy), and is baby-platypus-in-a-top-hat cute. The style is simplistic, almost juvenile, but shows potential.
"Yana" by Nadia Khan is one of the few tragic love stories in this anthology. There's something about her writing that grabs you right from the start and keeps you enthralled. Mark my words: Miss Nadia will be one of Malaysian's literary giants of our generation. Her prose is unassuming and candid--in Malay we call it selamba--and you can't help but fall in love with the characters. My only concern is that most of the dialogs are in Penang-Malay, with no supplementary English explanations. While I had fun imitating the dialect, this much bilingualism may alienate readers who have no clue what is being said. However, the story carries its own weight, and I'm quite confident in saying that people will get the story anyway. The story works, dammit. It works.
"Rock 'N' Love" by Gina Yap Lai Yoong is about a man duped into entering the rat race and has to forsake his dream of being a musician. The complications and solutions are convenient--a bit too convenient, in fact--but the prose is clean and the story arc is complete. Standard story.
"Oil on Canvas" by Eeleen Lee is quietly beautiful, as expected of her. It revolves around the identity of a woman in an oil painting, and the love the deceased painter had for her. I was able to guess where the story was leading somewhere in the middle, but the story moved me nonetheless. It's one of the pieces in this anthology that gives it strength and solidity.
"Katak" by William Tham Wai Liang meanders about, and is a bit too generous with adjectives. It's about a guy pining over the memories of an old flame. I think. I kinda lost my concentration halfway through.
"The Baobab Tree" by Shivani Sivagurunathan -- I couldn't finish this story. I tried. I'm trying right now. Maybe one day I'll finish it, but not in the near future.
"Love Letters" by Lean Ka-Min is a fun read. It's about a bookworm who finds a love letter tucked between the pages of a book in the library and decides to trace the addressee. Complication arises and he flails and fails at attempting to save the day. The stakes aren't high, but it's a fun read nonetheless.
"Oh, Snap!" by Mamu Vies touches on corrupt politicians and the measures opposing parties take to defame one another. I can easily see this piece as a screenplay, and it's actually a solid read. Nothing groundbreaking about the plot, but it's entertaining and well-written. Definitely short-film material.
"A Swift Tour" by Kris Williamson can be a tour-of-Penang piece...if the author had any sense of the location in the first place. Where he excelled in describing Kuala Lumpur in his novel, Mr Williamson floundered here and ended up repeating "Penang" so much that it feels like a placeholder, letting readers conjure up their own images of the island-state. And to fit the theme of the anthology, the author also insisted on repeatedly saying how the protagonist loves Penang, because in essence, it's not a love story. The plot is simplistic, but the story could have been saved if actual descriptions of setting are used. Lazy writing, perhaps? However, I like the author's cheeky inclusion of his novel's title in the story. Sorta like finding an Easter egg.
"At the Bridge" by Agnes Ong is about what happens when reality follows happily-ever-afters. It's one of the only pieces that actually describe the setting. Not one of my favorites, but nothing glaring either.
"Runaway" by Dayang Noor is about a woman with commitment issues. Seriously. It's refreshing to know that this affliction is not limited to men. Clean prose, excellent characterization and a complete story arc. What's there to complain? One more pillar to lend this anthology strength. Like Eeleen Lee's works, I think by now I can recognize Dayang Noor's signature voice.
"She, He" by PP is about first loves, forbidden loves. The prose is a bit pretentious and overreaching, but it's not exactly bad, either.
"Majestic Heights" by Marc de Faoite is a beautifully-crafted piece. It's about the potential of love between a Nepalese and an Indonesian, both looking to make a living in a foreign land. I use "foreign land" instead of "Penang" because the setting could have been anywhere: Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Timbuktu. The story could have been leaps stronger had the author grounded the setting, which is a shame, really, because it is a good story.
"Name" by Fadzlishah Johanabas. Eh. That's me. I'll let you decide if it's good, bad, or blah. I know I wrote it with much love and affection.
So why did I give this anthology 5 stars on Goodreads, when there are weak stories? Stories I hate may be your cup of tea. Stories I swoon over may be blah to you. My actual grade is 4.5, but I rounded it up. There are plenty of pillars in this book that make up for the weaker ones, with -- for me -- "Happiness" being the central support pillar. There is a mixture of voices here that represent Malaysian English (except for barely-legible-English, which you can find on Twitter). The arcs are mostly complete, a rare commodity in Malaysian anthologies, and the contents of this book aren't overwhelmed by political, racial and religious parodies. It shows how Malaysia is moving forward, growing up. It shows grace, and there is much beauty in grace. I hope this book will be read far and wide, and I hope more anthologies of this quality (and more) will be published in the near future.
I am excited by the potential this anthology heralds.
I mentioned on Twitter that I'd rather not review locally-published English books anymore because of small-minded reaction by small-time author(s). However. This book has that much strength, leave that deep an impression, that I shall write a review anyway.
You may notice my name as one of the contributors, so if you think this is a biased review...eh. Read this review and I'll let you decide.
I have not been kind to books (especially novels) published by Fixi Novo. I expected...more, despite the clearly stated manifesto that Fixi Novo publishes pulp fiction. I still buy every title published, but my level of expection has significantly dropped.
Then Love in Penang comes along.
Where KL Noir series revel in the corrupt, the depraved and the less than savory facets of Kuala Lumpur, Love in Penang is, as its title implies, about love. The anthology isn't about bodice-rippers--come to think of it, why aren't there bodice-rippers? It's less about romance than it is about the romantic. Best of all, the romantic element is (mostly) Malaysian-style. I think this is what I love most about this book. Though written in the American language, not a single story in this anthology attempts to to emulate American sensibilities.
First, you'll notice how varied the "American language" is employed, from half the story (and most of the dialogs) unapologetically written in Penang-Malay (Nadia Khan's "Yana"), to Manglish with its lahs and hors and fragmented sentences (Zen Cho's "Double-Blind") to formal English with Malaysian sensibilities (my story "Name" is among them), and to prose that touches the literary (Leroy Luar's "Happiness" and Marc de Faoite's "Majestic Heights").
Perhaps stories like "Yana" will alienate readers who do not understand Malay, much less Penang-Malay, but will tickle the fancy of local readers who will read the story with much familiarity and vocalize the dialogs with a pseudo-Penang twang. Perhaps stories like "Double-Blind" will have actual American readers go, "Oh, how quaint. These third-worlders can speak and write a semblance of understandable English, and not live in trees as we've expected." Perhaps they are the most at risk to be set into a certain niche labeled "Malaysian English". Perhaps local readers will have difficulty accepting stories written in proper English, saying, "Konon Mat Salleh sangat la tu. Perasan." Let me tell you that it doesn't matter, because almost the entire spectrum of Malaysian English can be found within this anthology.
Then you'll notice the recurring locations. Eastern & Oriental Hotel is mentioned in 3 stories, the Esplanade in 2, Chowrasta Market in 2, Hard Rock Cafe in 2, Penang Bridge in...hmm...it's featured in 1 story (Agnes Ong's "At the Bridge") but mentioned in passing in several other stories. Funnily enough, Komtar is only mentioned in 1 story, and Bukit Bendera is not used as a setting. I wish there were a more defined sense of setting instead of simply mentioning these places. Take the E&O for example. I'm sure it is used because of its fame & history, but these stories don't describe the actual building. Kris Williamson's "A Swift Tour" does, actually, but if only there were..more.
A lot of the characters are also Hokkien Chinese (plus a Nepalese & an Indonesian protagonists in Marc de Faoite's "Majestic Heights"), and a recurring name is Hui Lin, Hui Ling, and Ling. Purely coincidental, mind.
And then there's the food. We're in Malaysia, and food is a major part of our culture. Perhaps this element could have been employed more, as certain foods are aphrodisiac, and a person's love for food will surely fit the general theme of the book, but this is just me being anal.
Because honest to God, this book is awesome. I am most concerned about a complete story arc (beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that particular order), and what's frustrating about Malaysian writing is that writers like to act "smart" and meander the whole length of the story, then abruptly end using totally new and unrelated elements in an open-ended conclusion that concludes nothing. Often, deus ex machina is used, and I hate that the most. Except for 1 or 2 stories (that shall remain nameless), stories in this anthology respect readers, and for that, I wholeheartedly respect the editor, Ms Anna Tan.
If you only have time to read one story, I highly recommend that you read Leroy Luar's "Happiness". The prose is brilliant, and every sentence moves the story forward. The story is quietly beautiful. It's a wonder I've never read his work(s) before. It's also a wonder why this story wasn't made the opener for the anthology. It's that strong.
There are also stories that touch on corrupt politicians and equally dubious political parties, namely Mamu Vies's "Oh, Snap!", but I'd be surprised if there are no stories at all that do this. Literature, and Art in general, reflect the time if its conception, and our political scene, with its toddler-tamper-tantrums, is a part of our culture, our life. I'm just thankful it doesn't overpower the theme of the anthology, as it does in other anthologies & long-forms.
This book is not perfect. I never claimed it was. One novelist keeps repeating "Penang" in his story, taking up the most "Penang" word count. Because, you know, if Penang is not mentioned enough for a story based in Penang, people won't know it's in Penang, because it is in Penang, you know? Because the anthology is Love in Penang, you readers have to know the story's in Penang. Again. It's in Penang.
Yeah. When an author is not familiar with a setting, generalize it enough, sprinkle the name of the location enough times that readers will get distracted & don't realize you don't actually know what you're talking about. However, I do give him props for subtly (or not so subtly) promoting the title of his novel. Brilliant.
Another novelist's short story in here is as equally messy as the novel. Poor characterization, immature plotline & measures to move the story forward, and overall it's just...messy. Bleugh.
1 story I couldn't not finish because it meandered too much that it got boring.
Others? They give this anthology strength and dignity. They give me a sense of excitement that Malaysian-English literature is leaping out of its sandbox & into international playing fields. They make me say, "this book should seriously be considered for serious awards." They are beautiful, they are tragic, they are well-written and well-chosen.
And then there is my story that closes the book. Well, that's for you to decide if you like it or not.
Technical-wise, the anthology is well-edited & well-formatted. I have qualms about the improper use of colons and semi-colons, but that's also me being anal.
All in all, I salute Anna Tan for compiling an excellent book, and I believe my hope in Fixi Novo is restored. May more volumes of this caliber be published and read worldwide. This book deserves 4.5 stars out of 5.