You can totally like and not like a book at the same time

Happy new year.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything longer than three lines. I’ve been lazy, but I’ve also been creative. The result is a whole lot of photos and haiku—you’ll see it if you scroll down a few months’ worth of posts.

Did you have a good Christmas and New Year’s?

photo of the cover of Trent Dalton's All Our Shimmering Skies

I did. I spend Christmas Day reading (listening to, rather) Trent Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies. He’s a renowned Australian writer, renowned not for this book, but for another one called Boy Swallows Universe. You’ve got to give it to him—the guy knows how to come up with catchy titles. I picked up Shimmering Skies because I heard so much about the writer and his “beautiful writing.” I finished it within two days. I enjoyed it. But it’s also the kind of book that you know you wouldn’t have enjoyed as much if you’d read it a couple of years previously. I would’ve hated the extensively exhausting descriptions peppered throughout the book. It was way too much at times, and a younger me would’ve lost patience within the first three hours (I was listening to it, remember—it’s a 12+ hour read).

However, in my current mental state, I could appreciate the descriptions, and even though some of them were bordering on boredom, I didn’t take it as a personal attack on my patience or reading capacity. This, I think, happens a lot to readers. We like or dislike books based on how we think a writer ought to write rather than appreciating the writer for who they are—along with their quirky and sometimes silly practices.

Nothing wrong in hating a book, of course. I hated Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee because it didn’t deliver what I expected. The writing wasn’t horrible (Lee wrote one of my favourite books—To Kill a Mockingbird), but it wasn’t the Lee I knew and loved. She was much younger when she wrote Watchman and far less strategic about her structuring. It shows in the book. I list those as if they’re flaws, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I read 50 books in 2021—thanks to lockdowns and living alone. It was a marvellous way of getting back into the literary world and analysing words from all over the spectrum of writing styles.

All the things I hate about Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, all the blunders I think she made in that book, are key elements that so many other readers love about the story.

That’s often a hard pill for us to swallow—how can someone enjoy something we abhor? What’s the point of online review sites and endorsements if one person’s treasure is another’s trash?

I guess that’s reality. It’s hard for us to digest the fact that one book can divide the reading community so. After all, isn’t reading one of the most uniting activities of all time? When you move to a new city, you find a book club—because that’s the best way to meet like-minded people, people you like having around. And yet, stories and storytelling have the gargantuan power to separate us and turn us against each other.

That’s what I realised when I read Dalton’s All Our Shimmering Skies. The characters seem to step out of a Disney tale. They’re likeable, but most of them, and mostly the main character, are too naive and childish. Admittedly, she’s 12. But like an overprotective father, the writer patronises the girl with his flowery language. It’s annoying, but as a reader, it’s hard to hate a writer who cares so much about this child. But then, you also realise that it’s so wrong to treat her like an injured magpie lark. These are problems I saw with this book, and when I see reviews that echo this emotion, I resonate with them.

But I also like the child’s innocence (to some extent), I like that she asks the crocodiles for their permission to cross the water. I like that she talks to the sky, and characterises the day sky as a liar and the night sky as the truth speaker. It reminded me of my own childhood when I spoke to the shower and the bucket and the handrail in our bathroom. I had names for them, voices, tones, and emotions. Kids do strange things like that—their imaginations are beyond anything an adult’s adulterated brain can comprehend. And I liked that this child (the main character) has a heart brimming with blind trust. She’s lucky it doesn’t come back to bite her. It’s a feel good fairy tale, almost. A lot like Frozen’s Elsa.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’d read this book as a younger person, I probably wouldn’t have given it a chance to show me what it really is.

Case in point—

“She spots a large army of green ants building a nest between two thin twig branches of a flimsy tree with floppy green leaves. “Look at this, Yukio,” Molly whispers, leaning into the tree where a line of ants with amber bodies and glowing jay-coloured abdomens are carrying a white grub along a designated worker road on a branch. “They make their homes out of leaves. Some of the ants are the tough ones who will work together to haul the leaves up, and some of the ants are the clever ones who will weave the leaves together, and some of them are gluers who use that white stuff they’re carrying to stick all the leaves in place.”

That is a beautiful scene. It should’ve brought a smile to your lips. It did to me. It’s so pure that you know it can’t possibly be true except in the mind of a child who’s so obsessed with seeing only the beauty of her surroundings. But after 300 or so pages of similar descriptions of excruciating detail, there’s a good chance it’ll just piss you off.

I’m glad I read this book when I read it. It was a summer day in Canberra, Australia. Absolutely stinking hot. And I had an average-tasting homemade cake and a book that made me think. Really, what else could you ask for?

Hope you had a good one, too. Cheers!

The natural way of things

The Natural Way of Things is a contemporary novel by Australian author Charlotte Wood.

It came heavily recommended. My friend, who’s incidentally an English teacher—no not the teacher of the language but a woman of the language itself—wrote a lengthy Facebook post (we’re millennials, we’re embracing technology) about how much she enjoyed this book.

Enjoyed in the sense that she was gripped by the crude reality that this story portrays. As a woman, a feminist, and as someone with a lot of female (and male) friends, she couldn’t believe how easily women can turn against each other. Or rather, she knew it was all possible, but was still shocked to physically hold a book that reflects, in a most provocative manner, that exact fear. It was strange for my friend to read through a life story of a character (albeit imaginary) who experienced the nastiness of fellow humans—both female and male.

It’s not the nastiness that gives this book its bitter aftertaste. Lots of books are nasty. It’s the level of nastiness.

For me, this book was a bit dull for a long time before it got interesting. It got interesting when the characters in the book—all women, all of who were kidnapped, bound in chains, and made to slave away without even knowing why or by whom—realised that the food was running out. That likely says a lot more about me than in does about the book itself, but the moral of the story is that when times become hard and everything seems bleak, when women become desperate for freedom (in a manner of speaking), they’ll betray anyone. Even those they considered friends, sisters, and fellow sufferers.

That’s it. That’s what the story says. In a fast-paced, realistic, Australian narrative, we follow the lives of a handful of women who under intense stress, display what it means to be human.

So many people who’ve read this book call it horrible and evil and other adjectives that mean the same. But it’s none of that. It’s chillingly real. If it were all men instead of women, the outcome probably would’ve been similar. However, because this book spotlights human weakness in a way that most of us know but can’t come to terms with, it’s sparked a lot of debate.

For instance, one of the most common responses to this book is whether women could ever be such bitches to each other. In this modern world where women are collectively braving the trials of male chauvinism and patriarchy, will women turn against each other when provoked?

The answer is a responding yes. And that’s hard to deal with. But deal with it we should because that behaviour has nothing to do with them being women—it’s human nature. Hence the title.

Is this the greatest book I’ve ever read? No.

Has this book changed the way I see the world? Probably not. (But that’s also because I’ve always believed humans will be the downfall of humans. I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.)

But is this book even worth reading? Hell yes.

Because it forces us to look at reality and accept it. To understand that in our weakest moments, we may lose everything we’re made of. And that’s ok, because humans aren’t perfect. We will all break at some point and being aware of it might help us stay intact for just a little longer.

Forty Stitches

I think I write decent haiku. I take pictures of everything that makes me gawk, and then I twist them, interpreting them in my weird way. Sometimes I even manage to impress myself.

But I never thought of how my haiku sounds to others.

Now I know. Because I’ve read CT Salazar’s book.

The title made me “ooh” and smile as if I understood what it was about. ‘Forty Stitches Sewing a Body against a Ramshackle Night’—hell yeah—this is my jam. I write haiku—I know exactly where this is going. Or did I?

Cover of CT Salazar's book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night
Cover of CT Salazar’s book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night

It’s a compilation of forty short poems, a hybrid-haiku form which the poet calls ‘stitches’. See, I didn’t realise that when reading the book. And so when I did, much later, it was as if someone had turned the lights on, laying bare the contents that had been so artfully cocooned within the title.

Ah, the pleasures of decoding poetry!

That title paints a powerful image to hook readers. Just enough, but not at all. That’s the biggest advantage—and the problem—with writing haiku. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) what to expect, but they know nothing of what they’re about to read. 

As a writer, you have to satisfy their wants—throw them a bone, if you will—and then when they think they’ve got the hang of what you’re saying, pull the carpet from right under their feet.

That’s what haiku is about. It embodies minimalism. It’s the ultimate form of contraction. Salazar does all of that. And then some more.

Opening the metaphorical pages, I thought I knew what style, tone, and tenor he’ll use. 

I assumed.

One should never assume anything about haiku.

trimming your hair
in the bathroom hundreds
of commas curl

No punctuation, no explanation, no direction for the reader. 

Go figure.

But that’s what’s so beautiful about haiku—and Salazar’s haiku, in particular—it makes you see—really see—the small, everyday things in life. The next time I see a strand of hair on my bathroom floor, I’ll think of commas. (And then I’ll moan about losing said hair.) That’s what good poetry does to you—it leaves you with lingering moments. 

As I read through the pages, more word treasures jumped out, shaking me completely off balance.

watched a cardinal
fly through me—sorry
through a window

Like most poetry enthusiasts, when I came across e e cummings for the first time, I was fascinated. As an English student, I cringed—no capitalisations and no language order. But I adored his rebel blood. He broke the rules and still made all the sense in the world.

Salazar does too. I mean, look:

river river
we’ve both been
running

See? It’s subtle, it’s delicate, but it punches you in the throat, and as you temporarily recover from gasping for air, it hits you again. 

I’ve read and reread this book plenty of times, and I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it’s about. Sure, I have five or six story lines running in my head, and every time I read the book, one of them seems to take precedence over the other.

However, as someone who writes a whole lot of haiku (or as I call it), I don’t mind if my readers don’t see what I see. That’s the beauty of any creative endeavour—it should always be open to interpretation. And so with Salazar’s book, even though I still haven’t cracked the code, I’m quite happy to revel in the pristine beauty of his words. After all, it’s not a test I need to clear—poetry is an artistic form of expression and food for the soul. And I will consume it in all greediness, inhaling it in gusts and letting it bloat me with pleasure.

Distracted

The press briefing was intended to elaborate on the measures taken to tackle the situation. But everyone lost focus, and their minds, when blustery winds blew the speaker’s wig off.


My entry for the final day of the Writers Victoria Flash Fiction competition. Today’s prompt: focus.

Impact

Father introduces us to his boss—his third son first, first second, and me last. Middle-class parents fixated on grades, I’d tell the adoption agent twenty years later.


Day 29 of the Writers Victoria Flash Fiction competition. Today’s prompt: fixated.