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!

Go set a watchman

Disappointment is a result of expectation.

If you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed. But then, if you don’t expect something from an experience, it means you’re not invested in it. That you’re indifferent and neutral. At that point, is that experience even worth your time?

When I first heard Harper Lee had released a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thrilled. I’d read that book a few months ago at the time, and snatches of Atticus and Scout and Jem were etched in my memory. That was 2017-ish. I’d stepped into my twenties, bright young thing, and had dutifully posted a photo of my reading journey on Instagram.

Go Set a Watchman would be a lovely way to relive those characters in a different, more mature light, I thought.

Life happened. So many other books took precedence over Lee’s second masterpiece. Indeed, it took a global pandemic and a second lockdown for me to get my hands on it. A lot had changed since Mockingbird, and far too much time between then and now.

However, my thrill remained unchanged. I still remembered Scout (although I might’ve accidentally said Scott in a few real-life conversations with friends), and I still loved the relationship between the old lawyer and his children, a reflection of my own relationship with my father, even though it was starkly different.

I had a lot to look forward to. Which is why the disappointment was enormous.

As readers, we last saw Scout as a pre-teen tomboy. When we see her again in the sequel, she’s 26 and a lady, more lady-like than I ever imagined she could be. Clearly, people are never who they were when they were adolescents. Disappointment 1. But it’s the reality. Harsh, but acceptable.

We then learn that she’s got a boyfriend now. Of course, she’s a straight woman of marriageable age. Why wouldn’t she have a boyfriend? But did it have to be her best friend, the one she grew up with? Cliché. Disappointment 2.

Still, it’s the ’50s, and the story’s set in small-town Maycomb. Having lived there all his life, Henry knows little of the life outside of his town. It’s probably not too surprising that he falls in love with what seems like the only girl in town. Speaking of which, where are all the other girls? Aside from showing up to a gossip party with stories of husbands and children, there aren’t many young women in town. Again, I tell myself, it’s a small town. Justifiable, to some extent.

We move on. Curiously, Jean Louise doesn’t know how to get into a car without hitting her head. She can drive, though. Sure, she lives in New York, where you don’t need a vehicle to commute, but come on, I’m 26 and can’t drive, but I still watch my head when I get into a car. Common sense.

Sure, Jean Louise’s character arc is to have her grow as a person. But there’s a difference between immature and nonsense.

If she’s mature enough to discard the name Scout and have people call her by her real name, Jean Louise (not Jean or Louise), then she’s mature enough to know how a car works, surely?

So disappointment 3: Jean Louise gives us a lot of mixed messages about who she is as a person.

Disappointment 4: “He poured himself a man-sized drink.”

Jem’s dead. And the only explanation we get is that he dropped dead on the street one day. He’d inherited his weak heart from their mother. Now I know that Jean Louise is the protagonist, and we’re interested in her personal growth. But I have a brother, and if he dropped dead suddenly, it’ll gnaw at my head and heart for as long as I live. Even if I recover from the initial shock, I’d still be unable to talk casually about wearing a hat to my brother’s funeral, with ‘he would’ve laughed at me’ as an afterthought. The absolute lack of acknowledgment for Jem’s death is alarming. Sure, there are a few mentions of it, but none seem enough. Disappointment 5.

It’s not all bad, though. Jean Louise lives in New York, and from the beginning, she’s doubtful whether she wants to marry Henry. Identity crisis, nicely done. Although, not. Fan of her leading him on to believe she’ll eventually say yes. Seems terrible, especially because he’s her best friend. Does she wonder if this would affect their friendship in the future? No, she doesn’t.

Jean Louise visits Calpurnia. Shows there’s still some love there. There’re a few pleasant moments for a while. Flashbacks to how Cal took care of the Finches are all good additions. Again, there’s one random instance of Jean Louise recollecting how Jem was Cal’s precious little Jem. It makes you wonder, as a reader, and want more, but the train of thought ends abruptly, leaving you wondering why she brings Jem up in the first place.

Childhood memories. I enjoyed these anecdotes, even though some were a bit drab. There’s some mild emotion as Jean Louise speaks about how Jem’s good friend, who went to Europe in the army, is the only one they hadn’t personally told about Jem’s death. Found out about it from the paper. That’s a grim way to hear your best bud passed away prematurely. It’s a helpful detail in the overall narrative. Even though it doesn’t do much to move Jean Louise’s story forward, it’s one of the more solid acknowledgments to Jem’s death.

Dr. Finch. No one can hate an eccentric old doctor. He’s exactly what Jean Louise needs—someone who’d tell her to shut up and listen, and when she doesn’t, slap hard enough to make her pause and reflect. I don’t support violence as punishment, especially for children, which is why I like that it comes from her uncle and not her father. From his interactions with Jean Louise throughout the story, we see that, like Atticus, he takes things in his stride, but he’s also a strong guardian and a second parent who watches her back. Every kid needs that—someone they can talk to other than their parents. The relationship dynamic between the two is interesting—unlike with Atticus, Jean Louise is far more direct and curt with her uncle without having worrying about hurting him or how he’d perceive her. In many ways, he’s helping her figure herself out. I also find it quite amusing that Jean Louise thinks of him as bat shit crazy when he’s probably the sanest person in the story.

Of course, all of these are small things that cumulate into my big fat opinion. But there’s also one big fat thing that takes my opinion from fat to dangerously obese.

Jean Louise is a 26-year-old independent woman who lives in New York among, possibly, a myriad of people from all ways of life. We see some reference to black people being a part of her everyday life, which is why she’s so indignant when her townsfolk look down on them. We see her as a modern-ish, socially aware young person. All that’s brilliant.

But she doesn’t understand human nature.

She can’t process the fact that her father is an ordinary man with complex emotions. That he has his own opinions and that he doesn’t have to embody her beliefs.

Of course, she’s disappointed in her father. She has expectations of him, as we all do of people we admire and look up to, and when Atticus doesn’t live up to those expectations, she’s upset. Just like I was with this book. That’s understandable.

But her reaction to all this is bizarre. She responds as if she’s never been disappointed in her life before. To me, that signals a bigger problem. She’s either never had people oppose her views or never had a genuine relationship with anyone else. The foundation of any relationship is trust, knowing you’ll still get hurt along the way. Even long-lasting couples would have conflicting opinions and disappointments. 26 years is a long time not to have known that.

Dr. Finch explains to Jean Louise that she’s so upset with Atticus because she regarded him as god. As someone who can never make a mistake. Now, we’ve all done this. We place our heroes (actors, musicians, writers, politicians, even) on high pedestals, thinking they’re perfect and incapable of anything less than godliness. That’s how humans work—we stupidly seek idols all the time. But we don’t do that with people closest to us, regardless of how much we adore them. If you’re close to someone, you’ll notice their flaws. That’s why it’s easier to set the god status to people we can’t reach—the distance enables our blindness.

That’s not the case with Jean Louise. She loves her dad dearly and grew up with him around. Even if she hadn’t realised his humanity then, she should’ve when she left home. Coming back every year should’ve opened her eyes little by little.

There’s a lot of psychological complexity to unpack in this story. Strangely, that’s also good—it’s made me mull it over, and that’s always a positive thing in book marketing.

In the middle of the book, we hear Jean Louise was born colour blind—a fact she doesn’t know (how?!). An odd detail to throw in at mid-point. However, towards the end, we go back to it, as Dr. Finch informs her she’s colour blind, referencing that to their conversation about black and white people. I’m not a fan of using “colour blind” in that context for many reasons. Disappointment 6.

The racism in this book is brazen, and coming from educated adults, it’s… ignorant. That does feel real.

I’ve learnt from various online reviews and commentary that this book was supposedly a ‘crappy initial draft’ never meant to be published. It’s also not a sequel. Makes sense. There’s just too much going on for it to be one complete piece of work. Apparently, this was the original, which Harper Lee then upgraded and published as the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird. That does make me feel better—if Lee had indeed turned Watchman into Mockingbird, then damn, she’s one good writer, with a kickass editor.

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.

Hear, hear!

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Isn’t Sylvia the best? I love her writing—there’s something so enchanting about the way she transforms grief and depression into such evocative words.

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks, and until I get back with more haiku and photographs, I’m sharing some of my favourite quotes. Hope you enjoy!

If you want more, check these out:
Travel haiku | Musings about life | Copywriting adventures

Making peace with silence

Writer’s block is just a symptom of feeling like you have nothing to say, combined with the rather weird idea that you should feel the need to say something. Why? If you have something to say, then say it. If not, enjoy the silence while it lasts. The noise will return soon enough.

Hugh McLeod, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks, and until I get back with more haiku and photographs, I’m sharing some of my favourite quotes. Hope you enjoy!

If you want more, check these out:

Travel haiku | Musings about life | Copywriting adventures