Community book share, spotted in Auckland, New Zealand

Live, learn, pass it on

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storytellers are readers
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Photo: Community book share, spotted in Auckland, New Zealand.
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Set me Free

Salvatore Striano quote from Set me Free

I haven’t met a Shakespeare fan I didn’t like. 

Dreamy fierceness oozes from his words like a tube of toothpaste, and make readers stick like mosquitoes on an oil plate.

And when two mosquitoes meet on oil plate, what else would they share than their love for wit that landed them there in the first place? 

It was with that curiosity that I picked up Set me Free by Salvatore Striano. The title itself wasn’t any different from the thousands that line the library aisle. It was the sub headline of the book that forced my feet to retreat and my hand to reach out: The story of how Shakespeare saved a life.

At that moment, I knew I had to read it.

Life got in the way, many times, slowing down my progress. And yet, I persisted—the deadline loomed and I didn’t want to be that person who extends a library book because they were too busy not reading.

I read in the bus, I read walking around the lake, I read in bed at night sipping black coffee.

This tale come from behind bars. It’s the story of a high-security, long-sentence serving prisoner in Italy. The narrator, Sasà—the prisoner himself—tells how he’s been a frequent visitor to jails since he was seven, walking us through various parts of his life leading up to the present. And all the while, he explains the realities of prison life, the solitude and hopelessness that hugs the air, and the spite that separates groups.

What’s Shakespeare doing in a place like this?

Saving souls, of course.

The narrator goes on to illustrate how one accidental play they put on opened the vault to an under-appreciated realm of sonnets and theatre. He reads Shakespeare, and with every play he finishes, Sasà feels himself glow and grow as a person. And in the end, the book closes with a hint of how even inside prison, lessons from good literature change and free people of their darkest despairs.

It’s a well-told short book.

However, at many instances while reading this book, I felt a tinge of irritation scratch the surface of my patience. For there are pages in the book that function, not as part of the story, but as the author’s opinion and observation of The Tempest. I scoffed, remembering CliffNotes. The narrator does this a lot—there’re chunks of references, poetic verses, and lengthy explanations of how and why Prospero forgives his enemies in the end. Sasà even argues with a fellow prisoner, who plays Prospero, for doing the character injustice.

As I read on, though, my annoyance melted. I grew intrigued at the narrator. For he’d internalised Shakespearean characters so much that he began identifying their real-world counterparts.

As readers, we see the plays help him discover his feelings towards the people in his life. His wife was like Miranda—loyal and pure. An older cellmate, a mentor and guide was Prospero—a father-like figure in jail. And he, the narrator, himself was Ariel. It becomes more than a role in a play, and we see how Sasà lets Ariel and other Shakespearean characters influence his own behaviour. Like an earthworm tossing out the dirt to let a breath of fresh air down the ground, these fictional men wade in and out of Sasà’s consciousness, picking out hatred and sadness, and replacing them with gardening, writing, and composure.

This is a small book. With a big takeaway. 

The more I recall incidents in the book, the more I understand the impact of these plays on the narrator. From being a thief, drugger, and gangster, he emerges as a poet, and a rather philosophical actor.

This is a good book. Give it a read.

Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.

The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street. 

The other side

I was never a great fan of Jane Eyre. 

Like most people, I also read it in middle school, when I hadn’t quite developed the patience to endure or contemplate why Jane, who was so praised for being plain and relatable, was such a big deal. 

And I still don’t understand why her love for Rochester was such praiseworthy. After all, she did abandon him when she heard he’d had an unhappy marriage, only to run back to him when he almost died in the fire.

I grew up watching countless movies where the lead female character’s sole responsibility was to prance across the screen, showing off, triggering the men’s emotions, and then falling in love with them because they’re willing to die for love. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jane Eyre, the book, was just another case of female objectification.

However, Jane Eyre, the character was something else. There were many moments in the story where I supported her decisions. I agreed when she raged at being kept in the dark about Bertha. And I believed she would’ve loved Rochester even she had known. Throughout the book, I was with Jane, but by the end of it, I wasn’t happy for her. Instead, I felt as if the story merited no merit. 

Of course, Bronte’s writing was so intense and beautiful in many aspects and I, by no means, belittle the book she produced. Regardless, for some reason, Jane Eyre remained incomprehensible to me because it lacked something. 

Then I read Wide Sargasso Sea. Written by Jene Rhys, this is a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  

The story unravels the life of Bertha, Rochester’s wife. Written in her perspective initially, later shifting to Rochester’s, the book walks the reader through Antoinette’s (Bertha’s first name) disturbing childhood, her mother’s fate, her family’s wealth and the implications of being a Creole heiress. 

This background into Bertha’s life, in many ways, threw light into real Jane Eyre, the book. 

The only references and perspectives we get from Bronte about Bertha, come from a Rochester who’s already fallen out of love with her. When he speaks of her and narrates his life with her, he’s so welded in self-pity and sadness. And as readers of Jane Eyre, we naturally cultivate a disliking to this unwanted character that was forcefully placed in our hero’s life. Our opinions are biased to begin with, and that leads us to justify Bertha’s death as a favourable outcome for the protagonist. 

That’s the idea Jene Rhys challenges.

The more we learn about Bertha as a person (as opposed to Bertha as the madwoman), the more we realise the realities of life. Her entire existence was a series of events for which no one could be blamed for. There were no evil witches or antagonists attempting to disrupt her life. As a child, she lived by the rules, as a woman, she married as she was told, and as a wife, she tried her best to love her husband and seek his affection in return. She was the real plain Bertha. And yet, we see her life toppling into misfortune, dragging along an innocent Rochester. 

In fact, reading Jene Rhys’s story increased my affection for Rochester. The second half of the book is entirely in his perspective and we see, despite his helplessness, a genuine desire to help the woman whose life was tangled with his. We get a fuller picture of Rochester as a character. 

For me, that was the best part of Wide Sargasso Sea. Aside from addressing plenty of social and economic matters in the Caribbean and women’s health issues, this story completes the picture that Bronte paints in Jane Eyre. 

Perhaps now, when I re-read Jane Eyre, I’ll appreciate it more than I did the first time.

Incredible how powerful perspective is.