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I’ve been trying hard, and failing, to read a book.

It’s not the first time. It doesn’t happen often, and so when it does happen, these books remain in my mind vivid, as the Sydney Opera House in June.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a couple others.

Not that these books were complex in language, but they featured elements and situations that bored me. However, I did finish One Hundred Years of Solitude and mentally kicked myself for putting it off for so long. It took me a good nine months to finish that book because I kept forgetting I was reading it. That’s a great book—I admitted when I did read it.

But the dragon tattoo was too much for me. It went into such gruelling detail about sex that it threw me off. I don’t mind descriptions that add value to a story, but as I was reading it, it felt as if the author could’ve edited away some of the detailing and still achieved a crisp narrative. But that’s just me. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about the book was surprised that I quit halfway through. I got tired of waiting for the exciting part of the story.

That happened about five years ago. Perhaps I was too young to digest it. Perhaps what was casual description for many was too gory for me. That’s when I realised I could return a book without reading, and not feel guilty about it after.

Except, now, after all these years, I’m reading a book that I don’t feel like finishing. It’s a lighter-hearted than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s non-fiction. But it’s still too much detail. It’s a semi-biography of an American-Australian author. It’s the first full-length comedy book I’m reading, and although I appreciate the author’s ability to laugh at her faults and shenanigans, some of her anecdotes aren’t funny—they’re just silly.

It feels as if I’m too old to laugh at these stories. Some of them are too personal—stuff that I’d take to the grave. Of course, there’re learning opportunities in every embarrassing situation, but sometimes, lessons are personal. Writing about the time you strutted around the school in sex-stained jeans thinking it was cool, isn’t cool. Now imagine an entire book of stories like that. Of course, not every story is about sex, but the embarrassment-level is quite similar.

I’m certain there’re some stories in there about good things that happened to the author—like winning a game or passing a big test.

I’ll know for sure when I get there. If I get there at all.

That’s what I’m struggling with now. I know it’s a popular book. It may even be a good one, according to most readers. But perhaps it’s just not for me.

Ever been there?

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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.

Company

She’d definitely be at the opera. Alone.

I should go too—there’s no way she’d bring the restraining order along.

A writing tale

Anna rammed her index finger on Backspace, tap tapping at first before giving up and pressing down as the computer erased her work. Efforts of the last few hours.

No biggie. 

She was a writer, and this is what writers did. Writing every day, crouched on a supposedly comfortable desk, forgetting back support, ignoring foot rest, impervious even to the cold wheezing through the door crack, yet finicky—disconcerted by squiggly red lines on their canvas, the maniacs, telling themselves a measly coffee was all they’d needed to spew out a mash of creative fiction like an infant being sick from mother’s milk.

That’s what they did. Before re-reading and scratching it all out. 

Anna was no different. She wasn’t above any other writer who struggled to find their voice amongst the hoard of inspiration that sprung upon them through school and university.

My, how wonderfully the Bard describes a crow—Rosaline, he calls it.

Pfft, Anna scorned to herself wondering what a fool Romeo was. And Juliet. And the masses for considering them the best lovers ever to grace the unreal world.

Goodness, what a good writer the Bard had been. She’d never be as good as he—no, him?

She paused, fingers in mid air, stretched in odd angles over her keyboard, hovering, her mind racing as grammar police tailed her, sirens wailing. Did she dare go on or should she wait for the authorities to catch up?

Ah, she gasped. The horror of letting them get to her. To her, a proper writer, one who reviewed every line as she wrote it, scrutinising every syllable, reading aloud in her mind to verify rhythm, tone, and intonation. 

Definitely him.

She marched along. Better move on than get caught—and worse, taught. She was too old for that now. She had a job, for god’s sake—she was an adult. She should know the difference between he and him. Yes, she should, she nodded to herself in indignation. She did, her nod agreed back.

Pausing, she breathed deep before cruising along—a little slower now. In the long road to her destination, the police had often come along, riding too close at times, once even yelling through the window, demanding she stopped to reconsider her points of view. It hadn’t been easy to ignore them, to swerve around, overtaking their nagging voices, looking beyond their raised eyebrows and disapproving head shakes. But she’d come thus far—

Screeeeech—

Thus?

Anna rammed her index finger on Backspace.