Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The Book Thief

I first came across The Book Thief by way of an Austrian professor who was reading it on a junk boat in Halong Bay a few years ago. It intimidated me then, all 552 pages of it and the idea of it being set during the Holocaust. Recently, I was looking for a book to read on my long train rides when this title was thrown up again. A quick online search revealed that this was more of a young-adult novel, so I decided to take the plunge.

I’m glad I did. Although it had a plodding start, I soon found myself immersed in the story of a feisty, voracious book reader/stealer by the name of Liesel in Nazi Germany. Liesel lives with her foster parents Hans Hubermann and Rosa who are concealing a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement. His friendship with Liesel, as well as the relationship between Hans and Liesel forms the core of the story. The characters are immensely likeable, even those who seem detestable at first and it is easy to find yourself absorbed in the miniature of their daily lives. Narrated by Death, this story isn’t exactly a walk through the park: lives are lost, there is abject poverty and all manner of wartime horrors. At times it appears to be ruminating on the human condition, on both the cruelties and kindness that our race is capable of. The use of Death as a narrator helps to provide some distance from these atrocities; at the same time, his observations of Liesel’s interactions with her family and friends suggest that he can be moved by compassion and tenacity.

What I like most about the novel is the use of language; how the author Markus Zukas manages to string together arresting sentences with such simple words, for example: “Her wrinkles were like slander”, or “If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread out on top of it.” They make the novel a breeze to read, despite the subject matter and length. The end product is an ambitious but triumphant piece of work.

Monday, 21 March 2011

One Day

The last book I read for my book club is One Day by David Nicholls. The story starts with the usual boy meets girl premise and then checks in on the lives of these two individuals once a year on the same day from 1988 to 2007. It's not just a love story though and I ended up enjoying this book a lot more than I expected, as did the girls in the book club. So when conversation came round to the movie adaptation, the girls were up in arms over the casting of the female protagonist - Emma Morley, who is English with a Northern accent will be played by ....Anne Hathaway. It was also pointed out that the young Emma is quite dorky and there are fears that elegantly beautiful Anne Hathaway will not be able to pull it off. Seems like we are not the only ones. The Guardian reported that "some One Day purists have been troubled by the thought of Anne Hathaway as Emma".

I found these images from the film shoot on YouTube, with Anne in the different life stages of Emma:


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Measuring life with coffee spoons

What are your favourite poems?

I'm not a big fan of poetry and I only read the bulk of poetry during my university days (when I had to for school) but I usually find myself returning to T.S. Eliot's works, especially 'Preludes' every now and then. I find the imagery beautiful and arresting, yet aptly describes the fragmentation and isolation of modern life:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;

The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Another favourite T.S. Eliot is 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'; how can you not sympathise with the middle-aged suitor who does not 'dare to eat a peach'? He reminds me of the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, another reticient suitor.

For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

There's just something extremely elegant in how all the words are strung together in his poetry that makes me want to read them time after time, even though I feel that I'm not understanding all of it. Maybe that's the appeal. To me, his poems are made up of fragmented beautiful images that describe a mood, a feeling of restlessness and spiritual decay that can be used to describe the society at large yet identifiable to the reader's own desolation.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Interview with a vampire fiction reader

Some people are addicted to smoking, drinking or drugs. Or all of them. Well, my addiction is trashy vampire novels. I think that would explain why in the span of 8 days, I've voraciously consumed 8 Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood novels (I didn't read the first 2 books since I already know the plot from the excellent TV series).

I've also read all of the, ahem, Twilight books. Yes there's real shame involved here. Please, let me explain.

I think I have been lured to vampire fiction since reading Bram Stoker's Dracula for the Gothic Literature class I took in university. It was one of the best novels from that class, well-written and fascinating. It is often read as a commentary on suppressed sexuality, especially fear of overt female sexual expression portrayed via Lucy's transformation from Victorian virgin to vampire vixen after being bitten by Dracula.

Vampires are interesting monsters because even though they are powerful and seem invincible, they are actually really vulnerable to attack. Wooden stake, sunlight, garlic, crucifix...all Krytonite to vampires. As monsters, they are probably the sexier ones of the lot, often cunningly seducing victims and bending them to their will. The blood, sex and death undertones of vampire stories are often a reflection of society's attitudes towards them.

Hence, the recent resurrection (heh) of vampires in the literary world piqued my interest again. I am intrigued by the portrayal of the modern fiction vampire in both Twilight and True Book series. Let's start with True Blood, which I feel is stronger of the two. I'm saying this not just because Alan Ball does a fantastic job of pushing the envelope with the TV adaptation of True Blood but the books are also definitely more interesting. The premise is that Japanese scientists have invented synthetic blood so the vampires can come out of the closet and live amongst humans. Since the human race feels a tad insecure about being potential prey, the vampires are often obstracised and relegated to minority status. It is almost like the civil rights movement all over again, except that the oppressed are physically superior and may not feel a qualm about ripping your head off. The author Charlaine Harris has created a fascinating world in which vampires live alongside with humans, and came up with details of how vampires can survive in such a world. For example, some of them own successful businesses such as a vampire bar to attract tourists who would like to get closer to vampires. They have human underlings who carry out their errands in the day. They even have a special airline called Anubis Air, which transports them in their coffins when they want to fly to another state.

What I like about the series is also how it sticks to the fiction vampire myths and improves on them; for example, they will burn in the sun, they need to be invited to a house before being able to enter, but also, their blood is a precious and much sought-after commodity as it gets people high and heals their wounds. The Twilight vampires, on the other hand, are able to walk around in the sun and get this, they *SPARKLE*. They also do not need an invitation to homes to enter and can only be killed by being torn apart and then burnt to crisp. Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned staking?

As for the epic love story of Twilight, I never really got why two extremely good-looking men are fighting over an indecisive and rather boring girl. I guess that is the wish fulfillment of tween girls - that you may not have the looks or even the personality, but some handsome fella(or two) will look beyond that somehow and think you are the bee's knees? Maybe. I enjoyed Eclipse the most out of the Twilight books because it features two supernatural creatures who are supposedly natural enemies - the werewolves versus the vamps till I found out that there is already a similar storyline in Club Dead (the 3rd True Blood book) which was written 5 years earlier. Coincidence? Also, the last book, Breaking Dawn, completely ruined the series for me because the plot is ridiculously dumb (sorry, Twi-hards, but it is).

While these book series are not intellectual fodder, they are fairly entertaining, light reads which have the potential to waste consume more of your time than you expected. Consider yourself warned.

p.s: The True Blood TV series is the bee's knees. Seriously.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Never Let Me Go

Spoiler-filled trailer for Never Let Me Go, the film adaptation of the novel with the same title by Kazuo Ishiguro, and starring Keira Knightly and Carey Mulligan:

I have read this for my book club sometime back. It is a dystopian novel which is rather haunting (aren't they all?). Read the first few pages here or Margaret Atwood's review here (spoiler alert!)

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

My experience with One Book, One Twitter

I started reading American Gods for One Book, One Twitter and have completed it ahead of schedule.
Here are some quick points on my experience:

1) Website - Or the lack thereof. I found that I have to keep searching for posts or tweets for the reading schedule or other information. It would be nice if there is a website dedicated to this project so details about it are all located at one place.

2) Word limit - Sometimes difficult to convey thoughts on each chapter or explain an idea within Twitter's 140 character limit. It is easier to encapsulate everyday life in short tweets but the format is rather limiting for discussion of a story. 

3) Spoilers - I tried not to read #1b1t or the related chapter hashtags too often as spoilers inadvertently popped up. Even though the chapter hashmarks are supposed to reduce the possibility of reading spoilers, it still happens when questions are raised and people who are ahead in their readings try to be helpful and answer them.

4) Schedule - Following the schedule became a real challenge as I found myself ahead of schedule a few times, so I would try and stop and wait for the next week to come along. In the end I lost momentum for a few weeks and had to drag myself back into it. Subsequently I ploughed through the book and finished it and am now just waiting to discuss the ending. Not sure how this issue can be resolved since everyone has different reading speeds.   

I'm glad I participated in this book club though, as I might not have picked up American Gods to read otherwise and it was fun to just read everyone's thoughts on the book (sans spoilers). Will still do it again if there is another #1b1t!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Handmaid's Tale

For my last book club meeting, we read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It turned out to be a gripping page-turner which I finished in one day.

For this post, I would like to talk a bit about the feminism portrayed in the story. Although this is the first Atwood novel that I've read, I've always known her to be a feminist writer. Hence it was a surprise to me to feel a discomforting stirring while reading the book - I think I expected to read a 'traditionally' feminist text but instead found a story that paints a complex view of feminism, and at several points, critiquing the movement and its ideas.

The novel was written in the '80s but I found the ideas explored forward-thinking for its time; in fact I think the only part of the book that was telling of its age or era it was set in was the portrayal of the second wave of feminism. This was shown through Offred's mother who took part in demonstrations that campaigned for abortion rights, the banning of pornography and other issues aligned with the second wave of feminism. Even though Atwood seemed to champion that the movement was necessary and not to take these rights for granted (like Offred did before the formation of Gilread), she also cautioned against extremism in the movement - for example, feminists who sided with the religious right against pornography might end up doing more harm than good to the movement.

Then there was the bleak depiction of a seemingly women-centric society in which women were supposed to support each other in times of birth, sickness and disturbingly, conception. The women lived almost in isolation from men and were inducted into their roles by other women - the 'Aunts'. Yet Atwood seemed to suggest that such a women-centric society would not work, as women were not naturally supportive of each others' roles.

Another idea put forward by Atwood was that when women and men are segregated to playing certain roles in society, it is not just the women who suffer. This could be seen in the case of the Colonel who wanted the casual company of Offred to play Scrabble but had to do it secretly as friendships between women and men were forbidden.

In addition, the novel brought up other themes relating to women, such as sexual violence and power, reproductive rights as well as the deprivation of language as a form of control over women.

The Handmaid's Tale is a chilling and powerful story of what might go wrong when a society becomes too complacent and allows a totalitarian government full of religious zealots to take over and abuse its power. What is scariest about this tale is that it could happen.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Who are you going to call?

Facing severe budget cuts, the New York Public Library recently invited 'public scene-maker' Improv Everywhere to stage the opening scene of Ghostbusters on its premises to draw attention to its plight. This video is the result:

I'm amused by how some of the library users were nonchalent when the 'ghosts' sat next to them. I'm also a big fan of the original scene from Ghostbusters; it was the first 'librarian' scene that was implanted in my consciousness, growing up:

When I visited New York a few years ago, NYPL was a 'must-see' on my list and it didn't disappoint. The majestic building has also been featured in many other films, such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Sex and the City; truly, it is an icon of the city. Don't close the book on NYPL!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Judging a book by its cover

Do you judge a book by its cover? I do. I am even willing to fork out more for a prettier cover or hard cover copy of books I like. Disagreeable fonts can also put me off reading a book. Yes, I'm superficial that way.

Here are some covers of the same books published in different countries. Some of them convey a completely different feel/look, for example:

Thursday, 13 May 2010


Looking for book recommendations? Try Bookulating: a book-recommending machine that asks you a few questions and generates suggestions! I've found that the recommendations seem to match more to age rather than interests, but the site is so cute it's worth going to have a look.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

American Gods - #1b1t

So I've started reading American Gods as part of the One Book, One Twitter project and it's been going well so far. I must say the hard cover copy that I borrowed from the library intimidated me - it's massive and thick. Thankfully, there is a suggested commenting plan that splits up the book into a few chapters every week and it seems a lot more manageable. And actually, once I started delving into the story, I am finding it hard to put the book down.

This is the first time I'm reading a Neil Gaiman book and I'm happy to be reading it with 7,546 (and still counting!) other twitterers. If you are unsure whether to read this book, you may like to read the first chapter here for free.

Gadgets in Iron Man 2

Engadget has an interesting post on the gadgets in Iron Man 2. I saw the film last week and my favourite gadget is the touch screen coffee table...totally decadent and unnecessary! Of course the transparent smartphone looks nice too (though fragile):

There was a scene when he was searching newspaper archives and I like how the search interface and results page looked. It was like a cleaner version of the UI in Minority Report.

For a list of 10 gadgets from films that became (or are becoming) a reality, click here. I'm still waiting for the day when I can buy a Hover Board off the shelves.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

One of my favourite books, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is going to be made into a movie; of course, as someone who loved the novel, there is always the fear that they will screw up the film adaption. Thankfully, it has been announced that the director will be Stephen Daldry who directed The Hours and The Reader - both made graceful transitions from page to screen, phew. Just wondering though, which child actor will be able to fill the shoes/heavy boots of the precocious Oskar Schell?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Love Stories

The Guardian recently interviewed the novelist Esther Freud and asked her to name her top 10 love stories.
It's led me to think about my favourites; here are 5 of them:

1) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Who says love has to make sense? What I like about Wuthering Heights is how OTT it is, from the dramatic gothic setting of the moors to all its crazy protagonists. A story of how thwarted love can bring out the worst in people and consume them with revenge for the rest of their lives. I don't know why this is romantic, but it is.

2) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
A story of how lovesickness is like a malady, an illness you suffer from when you can't be with the one you love. Thankfully, it's a tale of second chances too.  

3) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Or what happens when an English butler with a stiff upper lip falls in love but can never brings himself to admit it. More of a story of longing than of love, but still heartbreaking nonetheless.

4) Atonement by Ian McEwan
I have to admit I prefer the movie adaptation to the book, but the love story portrayed in both was moving.

5) Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
More of a philosophical treatise on love, but it is illustrated via the narrator's relationship from start to end.

What is your favourite romance novel?*

*No Nicholas Sparks please.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

One Book, One Twitter

A month ago, Jeff Howe, the author of Crowdsourcing and also the contributing author at Wired magazine proposed an idea to "get a zillion people all reading and talking about a single book. It is not, for instance, an attempt to gather a more selective crew of book lovers to read a series of books and meet at established times to discuss. The point of this (to the extent it has a point beyond good fun with a good book) is to create community across geographical, cultural, ethnic, economic and social boundaries."

The first book nominated for this exercise is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. This project will launch tomorrow on 5th May so if you are interested, get your hands soon on a copy of the book. I've already borrowed it from my library (sometimes it's convenient to work in one) so will attempt to read it and join in the discussions online. If you are interested to participate too, the twitter hashtag is #1b1t.

Read more about One Book, One Twitter project here and here.

Muggle Quidditch

I've just read in The Guardian that "more than 400 teams worldwide now play Muggle Quidditch by the rules of the Intercollegiate Quidditch Association, including squads from Harvard, Yale and MIT." Amazing! Apparently all you have to do it find a cross-country runner to be the Golden Snitch and get everyone else to play the game with broomsticks between their legs. Watch this:

Read the rules of the game here.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Can you trust the media for accuracy of their news reports?

My library puts out a quarterly bulletin called Library Xpress (very '90s name, I know) to update our users on library news and matters. For the most current issue, I contributed an article titled "Can you trust the media for accuracy of their news reports?" You can read it here, on page 7 (it's a PDF).

Friday, 30 April 2010


A writer/editor who found himself stranded due to the recent volcanic ash cloud has called for other creative types to participate in a colloborative magazine about their experiences:

"A US horror writer was stranded in the UK and he wrote a story set inside the ash cloud. A Belgian DJ stuck in Singapore has created a playlist to play in abandoned airports"

If you have suffered delayed flights and are interested to contribute, the open call for articles is here. Some samples are now available online.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Mystery of the mega-selling floppy disk

Just read a surprising news article on BBC: apparently, millions of floppy disks are sold in Europe every year. For real. I thought those relics from my childhood suffered a natural death in the '90s...apparently not. Only a few days ago did Sony announce that it will stop all sales of the 3.5inch floppy disks in Japan by March 2011. That means that floppy disks have been around all along, existing with the 2 TB HDDs. Who are these people still buying them and why? BBC suggested a few possible candidates - English National Opera, developing countries with second-hand computers, etc but concluded those wouldn't account for the millions of sales. If you have any ideas, please let me know!

The History of Libraries Through the Ages

My friend Brandon, who named this site, posted a great link about libraries yesterday:

The History of Libraries Through the Ages takes a look at the evolution of libraries from ancient Egyptian times to the modern day. Most interesting is the development of its link to academia, which led to the "golden age of the libraries" and birthed great libraries such as the Bodleian and the Library of the British Museum.

To accompany this article, here is a heartening piece of news from the Straits Times: according to the National Library Board, their book loans have hit a record 30 million last year, which means that Singaporeans are using the library more than ever! Considering that libraries these days are competing with your Wiis and what not, that's pretty outstanding.