Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Library Loot (30 September 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

After a noon-time visit to the dentist, I hopped across the street to the other branch of the library. Now I don't usually go to this library because of its very limited free parking and its much smaller collection. But since I was in the area, I figured I'd check out some books I couldn't find in my usual branch such as the 2nd book of the Sandman series (they have everything else!).

Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
A legend in China, where it won the major literary awards and inspired an Oscar-nominated film, this is a novel of family, myth, and memory, set during the fratricidal barbarity of the 1930s, when the Chinese battled both Japanese invaders and each other.

The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
This volume of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman book series features the first appearance of Death, the Sandman's older sister. As Clive Barker says in his Introduction, ". . . there is a wonderful willful quality to this mix . . .slapstick comedy, mystical musings, and the grimmest collection of serial killers this side of Death Row."

The Sandman Library 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
The third book of the Sandman collection is a series of four short comic book stories. What's remarkable here (considering the publisher and the time that this was originally published) is that the main character of the book--the Sandman, King of Dreams--serves only as a minor character in each of these otherwise unrelated stories. (Actually, he's not even in the last story.) This signaled a couple of important things in the development of what is considered one of the great comics of the second half of the century. First, it marked a distinct move away from the horror genre and into a more fantasy-rich, classical mythology-laden environment. And secondly, it solidly cemented Neil Gaiman as a storyteller. One of the stories here, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," took home the World Fantasy Award for best short story--the first time a comic was given that honor. But for my money, another story in Dream Country has it beat hands down. "A Dream of a Thousand Cats" has such hope, beauty, and good old-fashioned chills that rereading it becomes a welcome pleasure.

The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll
Finally got hold of this one!

A man falls in the snow, hits his head on a stone curb and dies. A ghost that's been sent to take his soul to the Afterlife arrives just as he falls. But something strange occurs: the man doesn't die. The ghost is flabbergasted. This is unprecedented. Going immediately to its boss, the ghost asks, what should I do now? The boss says, we don't know how this happened but we're working on it. In the meantime, we want you to stay with this man and watch to see if he does anything that might help us figure out what's going on.

Unhappily, the ghost agrees. It is a ghost, not a nursemaid. The last thing it wants to do is hang around watching a human being walk through his every day. But a funny thing happens—the ghost falls truly madly deeply in love with the man's girlfriend and things get complicated. The Ghost in Love is about what happens to us when we discover that we have become the masters of our own fate. No excuses, no outside forces or gods to blame—the responsibility is all our own. It's also about love, ghosts that happen to be gourmet cooks, talking dogs, and picnicking in the rain with yourself at twenty different ages.

It's tough being a ghost on an empty stomach.

See more Library Loot here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Read: The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

It is the year 2024 and the world is a mess. Children don't go to an official school because they're not allowed to leave their walled community, which are more like prisons than homes. If they have to go outside, residents go in groups and with guns. Water costs more than gasoline, and when firefighters or the police have to be called in for an emergency, they have to be paid. There is poverty and lawlessness. It is a dangerous, frightening world.

Our narrator, the teenaged Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a minister, is a unique character. She is hyperempathetic: "I get a lot of grief that doesn't belong to me, and that isn't real. But it hurts". As a child, she would even bleed when she saw others bleeding. Not only that, she has found her god, the book of which she calls Earthseed, which she continues to write as the story progresses. She is an incredibly strong, resilient person, especially for someone that young. She studies up on survival strategies and plans to head north as soon as she is able. She doesn't understand how life can go on as normal - or at least what is normal to the community - for her family and neighbours.

Then one night, their community is attacked, their houses destroyed and their belongings looted, many of the residents are killed, the others have fled in all directions. Lauren manages to escape with her survival kit and comes across two of her neighbours and they join her in her northern quest on the dangerous highways.

The Parable of the Sower was a great read. It was well-paced, although initially slow going. Butler has created a very believable future which is the result of the collapse of civilisation. While it can be terrifying with all the dark and disturbing things happening around them - violence, slavery, hunger, poverty - Lauren and her growing group of followers show that there still is hope.

This is my first read for the Sci-fi Challenge.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Read: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Synopsis: Richard Mayhew is a young man with a good heart and an ordinarylife, which is changed forever when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. His small act of kindness propels him into a world he never dreamed existed. There are people who fall through the cracks, and Richard has become one of them. And he must learn to survive in this city of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels, if he is ever to return to the London that he knew.
"There's London Above - that's where you lived - and then there's London Below - the Underside - inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you're one of them."
Oh, Neil Gaiman has been quite quite clever with Neverwhere, his first full-length novel. He's created this dark world located underneath London - a surreal place where the names of Tube stations like Earls Court and Knightsbridge take on a completely different meaning. It is a clever little idea that is. I was also quite entertained by hired henchmen Croup and Vandemar, whose offerings include: "Obstacles obliterated, nuisances eradicated, bothersome limbs removed and tutelary dentistry".

It was a fun plot, easy to read and overall very satisfactory. It was like going out to In-N-Out and having a simple meal of a double-double and fries. It's not an exquisite mind-blowing delight for the palate, but it'll do to satisfy the hunger pangs. A good meal that I can count on to always be tasty.

I'm not quite sure why I've gone with the food metaphor today. Perhaps because I've just had some laksa (from a Prima box) and it's made me think about the food that I used to take for granted, like laksa. It's a completely satisfying meal when I'm in Singapore, but out here, where one has to go all the way down south for a Singaporean/Malaysian meal that doesn't quite hit the spot (something always missing), it's become a luxury. And perhaps it's because I'm starting on the first few pages of Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault which has such poetic writing but some sentences require thorough rereading. And right now, I'm not sure if that's the kind of meal that will satisfy me. But Neverwhere, that was quite a delicious read.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Finds (September 25 2009)

Friday Finds is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading

Breathe the Sky: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Amelia Earhart - Chandra Prasad (via A Work In Progress)
Amelia Earhart disappeared from the world's radar in the 1930s, but she has not been forgotten. Breathe the Sky is a fresh and provocative portrait of the legendary pilot whose courage and charisma have dazzled millions. It is also the first novel to reveal the dark side of Earhart's fame-and the dangerous, madcap course of her final voyage. Venturing where history and biography have not, Breathe the Sky takes the reader on Earhart's last expedition along the equatorial line, through wild storms, across endless desert and jungle, and over shark-infested waters. With stark, nimble prose, Prasad brings Earhart to life once more, securing her place in the pantheon of great explorers, while inspiring risk and adventure in readers.

Moloka'i - Alan Brennert (via A Life In Books)

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawaii more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place---and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end---but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Yes We Cane

On the latest episode of Glee (available in the US on Hulu), cheerleading coach Sue advocates caning:
"caning has fallen out of fashion in the US, but ask anyone whose ever walked the immaculate sidewalks of Singapore... they'll tell you one thing - caning works"
I couldn't find the video of that, but here's one from the same episode.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Library Loot (23 September 2009)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Eva and Marg that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

On this gloomy and incredibly foggy day, what better than to snuggle up to my Macbook, watch Buffy on Hulu (even my TV viewing is RIP-related) and tell you about my library run yesterday evening. I'd written a list beforehand and managed to forgot it when leaving the house! Somehow, I managed to end up with some pretty good finds! 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume Izzy Bickerstaff) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet's name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book's epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet's quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving that one forgives the authors (Shaffer died earlier this year) for not being able to settle on a single person or plot. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers.  - Publishers Weekly

The Winter Vault - Anne Michaels
Award-winning poet and novelist Anne Michaels gives us a love story of extraordinary depth and complexity, a mesmerizing tale that juxtaposes historical events with the most intimate moments of individual lives.

In 1964, a newly married Canadian couple settles into a Nile River houseboat moored below the towering figures of Abu Simbel. Avery is one of the engineers responsible for the dismantling and reconstruction of the temple as it’s rescued from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. He is a “machine-worshipper,” yet exquisitely sensitive to the dichotomy of creation and destruction of which machines are capable. Jean is a botanist by avocation and passion, interested in everything that grows. They had met on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and watched together as the construction of the seaway changed the course of the river and swallowed towns, homes, lives. Now, at the edge of another world about to be lost forever, Avery and Jean create their own world, exchanging the “moments that are the mortar of our days, innocent memories we don’t know we hold until given the gift of the eagerness of another.”

But that gift will not be enough to bind them when tragedy strikes, and they will go back to separate lives in Toronto. Avery returns to school to study architecture, and Jean enters the life of Lucjan, a Polish émigré artist. Lucjan’s haunting stories of occupied Warsaw draw Jean further and further away from Avery. But, in time, he will also offer her the chance for forgiveness, consolation, and, finally, her own, most essential life.

Stunning in its explorations of both the physical and emotional worlds of its characters, intensely moving and lyrical,
The Winter Vault is a radiant work of fiction. 

Brooklyn - Coim Toibin
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following World War Two. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find a job in the miserable Irish economy. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.
Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, a blond Italian from a big family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. He takes Eilis to Coney Island and Ebbets Field, and home to dinner in the two-room apartment he shares with his brothers and parents. He talks of having children who are Dodgers fans. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
By far Tóibín's most instantly engaging and emotionally resonant novel, Brooklyn will make readers fall in love with his gorgeous writing and spellbinding characters.

The Story of My Life: The Restored Classic, Complete and Unabridged, Centennial Edition - Helen Keller
One of the "hundred most important books of the twentieth century" (New York Public Library), finally published in complete form.
The story of Helen Keller, the young girl who triumphed over deafness and blindness, has been indelibly marked into our cultural consciousness. That triumph, shared with her teacher Anne Sullivan, has been further popularized by the play and movie The Miracle Worker. Yet the astonishing original version of Keller's and Sullivan's story, first published in 1903, has been out of print for many years and lost to the public.
Now, one hundred years after its initial publication, eminent literary scholar Roger Shattuck, in collaboration with Keller biographer Dorothy Herrmann, has reedited the book to reflect more accurately its original composition. Keller's remarkable acquisition of language is presented here in three successive accounts: Keller's own version; the letters of "teacher" Anne Sullivan, submerged in the earliest edition; and the valuable documentation by their young assistant, John Macy. Including opening and closing commentary by Shattuck and notes by Hermann, this volume will stand for years as the definitive edition of a classic work.

The Children of Men - PD James
Mmm... I'll have to watch the movie version after this. Clive Owen! 
Told with P. D. James's trademark suspense, insightful characterization, and riveting storytelling, The Children of Men is a story of a world with no children and no future.

The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Stories - Robert Louis Stevenson
Idealistic young scientist Henry Jekyll struggles to unlock the secrets of the soul. Testing chemicals in his lab, he drinks a mixture he hopes will isolate—and eliminate—human evil. Instead it unleashes the dark forces within him, transforming him into the hideous and murderous Mr. Hyde.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dramatically brings to life a science-fiction case study of the nature of good and evil and the duality that can exist within one person. Resonant with psychological perception and ethical insight, the book has literary roots in Dostoevsky’s “The Double” and Crime and Punishment. Today Stevenson’s novella is recognized as an incisive study of Victorian morality and sexual repression, as well as a great thriller.

This collection also includes some of the author’s grimmest short fiction: “Lodging for the Night,” “The Suicide Club,” “Thrawn Janet,” “The Body Snatcher,” and “Markheim.”

Did you do a library run this week too? See more Library Loot here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Read: A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous

Synopsis: For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. "With bald honesty and brutal lyricism" (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. "Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity" (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject--the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.
A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary is a war memoir like no other. Written by a then 34-year-old German journalist, it begins with the fall of Berlin, as the Russian army takes over. It is brutal and honest and written with an observant eye.The writer and the rest of the occupants of her building struggle to survive - hiding out in the basement, scavenging for food. But when the Red Army moves into the city, the rapes begin.

After being raped several times - and realizing that her neighbours will never come to her rescue - the writer realizes that in order to survive, she needs to find her own form of protection: "No question about it: I have to find a single wolf to keep away the pack. An officer, as high-ranking as possible, a commandant, a general, whatever I can manage."

The writer's willingness to write about her experience is truly admirable. And she writes about the rapes with the same strength and endurance as she writes about the rest of the degradation of society - it is after all, a matter of survival.
"What does it mean - rape? When I said the word for the first time aloud, Friday evening in the basement, it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything - but it's not." 
Reading A Woman in Berlin makes one thankful for the little things. I was having breakfast (tea and buttered toast) when I read this passage. My simple breakfast never tasted better.
"To round off the evening I concocted a small dessert. I took a teaspoon of what sugar was left in my bag and sprinkled it into a little glass. Now I'm dipping my index finger into the glass, slowly and deliberately, so that my fingertip picks up a few grains at a time. I look forward to every lick, enjoying each sweet morsel more than I ever did a whole box of prewar chocolates."
At the author's request, the book was published anonymously, although her identity was revealed in 2003, two years after her death. The film version was released in 2008.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Finds (18 September 2009)

Friday Finds is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading

I'm Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir - Jennifer Finley Boylan (via A Striped Armchair)
From the bestselling author of She’s Not There comes another buoyant, unforgettable memoir—I’m Looking Through You is about growing up in a haunted house...and making peace with the ghosts that dwell in our hearts.

For Jennifer Boylan, creaking stairs, fleeting images in the mirror, and the remote whisper of human voices were everyday events in the Pennsylvania house in which she grew up in the 1970s. But these weren’t the only specters beneath the roof of the mansion known as the “Coffin House.” Jenny herself—born James—lived in a haunted body, and both her mysterious, diffident father and her wild, unpredictable sister would soon become ghosts to Jenny as well.

I’m Looking Through You is an engagingly candid investigation of what it means to be “haunted.” Looking back on the spirits who invaded her family home, Boylan launches a full investigation with the help of a group of earnest, if questionable, ghostbusters. Boylan also examines the ways we find connections between the people we once were and the people we become. With wit and eloquence, Boylan shows us how love, forgiveness, and humor help us find peace—with our ghosts, with our loved ones, and with the uncanny boundaries, real and imagined, between men and women.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street - Hilary Mantel (via Reading Matters)
When Frances Shore moves to Saudi Arabia, she settles in a nondescript sublet, sure that common sense and an open mind will serve her well with her Muslim neighbors. But in the dim, airless flat, Frances spends lonely days writing in her diary, hearing the sounds of sobs through the pipes from the floor above, and seeing the flitting shadows of men on the stairwell. It’s all in her imagination, she’s told by her neighbors; the upstairs flat is empty, no one uses the roof. But Frances knows otherwise, and day by day, her sense of foreboding grows even as her sense of herself begins to disintegrate.

Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane (via My Tragic Right Hip)
The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new ­partner, Chuck Aule, have come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Multiple-murderess Rachel Solando is loose somewhere on this barren island, despite having been kept in a locked cell under constant surveillance. As a killer hurricane bears relentlessly down on them, a strange case takes on even darker, more sinister shades—with hints of radical experimentation, horrifying surgeries, and lethal countermoves made in the cause of a covert shadow war. No one is going to escape Shutter Island unscathed, because nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is remotely what it seems.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Read: The Collector of Hearts by Joyce Carol Oates

The beauty of this collection of 27 short stories is in the everyday. And how terrifying the everyday can be. Oates, like Shirley Jackson (whose Haunting of Hill House was my previous RIP IV Challenge read), is very adept at leading the reader into the story,  and placing these subtle hints and whispers in our minds that we become such an active part of the story, that, at the end of it, we're not quite sure if we are the ones who are creating the horror...

Of course, with 27 stories, some read and forgetton. But the ones that did stick in my mind included The Sky Blue Ball, where the unnamed teenaged narrator throws around a ball with an unseen stranger across a high brick wall. Another creepy one was The Hand-puppet, where young and shy Tippi creates a rambunctious hand-puppet that more or less freaks out her mother. One of my favorite stories was Posthumous, one of the shortest of short stories. However, I feel that even to provide a synopsis would reveal too much! You can sorta guess what it's about from the title though. 

So if you're looking for something a little spooky, something that makes a nightmare out of the mundane, this is the book for you.

This is my fourth read for the RIP IV Challenge, which essentially completes the challenge. But I'm not done yet, as there are many other RIP IV-related books left on my TBR list.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Read: Hellboy Library Edition

Synopsis: This handsome collection of the first two Hellboy arcs is comparable in splendor to DC’s slipcased Absolute gatherings of Sandman and The Dark Knight. Arc one, Seed of Destruction (1994), is Hellboy’s origin story (but see Hellboy Junior, 2004, for his prehistory), revealing how Nazis were behind it all, though they were being used by that old Russki bogeyman, Rasputin. The somewhat longer Wake the Devil (1997) shows Hellboy putting the kibosh on the worse-than-Nazis scheme Rasputin got rolling in Seed. Scott Allie introductorily opines that Hellboy isn’t the red demon we know and love ’til Wake, but Mignola’s Ben Shahn–meets–the Austrian Secession–meets–Mervyn Peake style is uniformly magnificent. - Booklist
I was first introduced to Hellboy in the Guillermo Del Toro movie Hellboy and then with its sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army, as I suspect many people were. The movies were quite a romp, fun and funny and full of great Hollywood special effects. It didn't quite prepare me for the dark world filled with mythological creatures that Hellboy creator Mike Mignola imagined for the comic series (however, the two animated films Hellboy - Blood and Iron and Hellboy: Sword of Storms did). In Seed of Destruction, the basis for the first Hellboy flick, Hellboy learns about his origins and his connection to Grigori Rasputin and the Nazis. In Wake The Devil, Hellboy meets the goddess Hecate.  And it made me realize just how R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril)  IV-friendly these comics are. For also included in the gorgeous (although a bit unwieldy) Hellboy Library Edition, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil are Baba Yaga, a vampire, frog-men, harpies, rituals and resurrection (oh my!). And did I mention the homunculus? This is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

One thing that always does it for me when reading graphic novels, are the extras at the back of the book. In this case, pages from Mignola's sketchbook. These are a very welcome insight into the artist/writer's development of Hellboy aka Anung un Rama aka the World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator, and the other characters that feature in the series.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm joining the Sci-Fi Challenge!

I came across the Sci-Fi Challenge hosted by Stage and Canvas via Farm Lane Books and thought that sounds right up my alley as I've been trying to read more science fiction books this year.

Essentially it requires the reading of "3.14 or 8 books (or audio books) of the science-fiction genre" from August 28, 2009 to August 8, 2010. I will aim for 8!

Here's my pool:
The Children of Men - P.D. James
I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
Parable of the Sower - Octavia Butler
His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1)- Naomi Novik
Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson
Passage - Connie Willis
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?- Philip K. Dick
Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
The Female Man - Joanna Russ
The Other End of Time - Frederik Pohl
The Illustrated Man - Ray Bradbury
The Telling - Ursula K Le Guin
Woman on the Edge of Time - Marge Piercy
Fledgling - Octavia Butler