Monthly Archives: July 2006

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

orange.jpgVintage;1998, 171 pages

The first book of Jeanette Winterson, this is a semi-autobiographical novel about her growing up years in a small town in London. Adopted and raised by an extremely puritanical mother obsessed about cleansing sins living a ‘pure’ life (“…[my mother] had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, more that she didn’t want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first…”)

Expressing her environment through school works (art and writing), Winterson stood out even at an early age, among her peers, always being singled out by school teachers, in fear of poisoning the minds of other children.

She tried to abide by her church’s rules, until she reaches her teens and she falls in love with another woman. Following this is a series of prosecution and abomination from her mother and the church. With pastors coming over in an attempt to ‘exorcise’ her.

She moves out of the house and works for a funeral parlor. In the end, “reconciles” with her mother. Whats amazing about this book are Winterson’s views, beautiful writing and how she takes the blows of life. She tries to see herself in other historical figures, and uses that as a method to move on with life. Not like most autobiographical books on growing up / adolescent years, Winterson is not confused. She does not feel mixed up about her sexuality, knowing well what she wants, “..I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man. Because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is why they are unfit for romantic love.”

Everytime she finds herself down, her mother always gives her an orange, and at one time, the fruit has become an icon of her ‘evil side’.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit gives a good insight to survival mechanisms (rejection, loss, etc) and undeniably, her writing will draw you in.

Asked if this is an autobiography, Winterson states, not at all and yes of course. Hence, she beautifully wrote in the book that,

“People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history, which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognise its integrity.To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spirit until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our own way. People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult. Flesh will burn, photos will burn, and memory, what is that? If we can’t dispose of it, we can alter it.”

She does not wallow in self pity or depression, but also humble enough to say that “Cats can count on fire brigade, and Rapunzel was lucky with her hair. Everyone thinks their own situation is most tragic. I am no exception.”

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Tales From a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir by Fran Lebowitz

fran.jpgBantam (2004)

At some point in our lives, we meet her. She talks loud enough for you to wince everytime she speaks, and she yaks at a rate of 600 words per minute. Yes, she loves to talk–about me, me, me (herself), and complain about everything. She has a temper that makes a matador’s bull demure, and most of all, she is your friend.

This whole book is like an unedited one-sided conversation with a loud friend who doesnt know how to use the comma or period. She also thinks that the world revolves only around her.

So this American woman, Fran Lebowitz, a famous (or so she claims) literary agent in New York, whines to her husband (a music copyright lawyer) about being burnt out. So the dutiful husband takes her and their 2 kids along to Singapore, when he gets sent there by his boss for a long business trip.

Lebowitz now focuses her radar on the people of Singapore, locals and fellow expat wives alike. This lady bitches just about everything, its irritating. She is right in a lot of ways though–like very candidly advises “don’t forget the ‘LAH!'” when communicating with Singaporeans, and how these people are so square and move through their lives like a robot under command. Example: she went down to her condominium’s tennis court, and was greeted by a “No reservations, cannot play ,lah” So she offered to make a reservation now, on the spot. “Madam, cannot, lah” Losing her temper, she asks how to make a reservation then, and the receptionist tells her, through a phone call. So Lebowitz flips out her mobile phone on the spot, calls the guy who is in front of her, makes the reservation, and gets the court.

Then her husband announces that the boss decided to station him in Singapore for three more years, hence Lebowitz grudgingly becomes an expat’s wife. Her adventure ranges from looking for a Filipino maid, and the headaches that go with it, and living the life of a frat student–partying with other expats almost everyday. Reading the book is like going through the thoughts of a 13 year old school girl who has yet to overcome the perils of adolescence. (Mood swings and pure grade A bitchiness)

No nationality is spared from her sonar, imitating her Canadian friend, “Will you give me that baig please?”, checking out her Swede friend’s grand breasts and butt, and introducing an Irish friend “She has 3 daughters whose names are Caoughin, Byrehrn, and Siebheidn, but of course, they are pronounced as Lisa, Kim, and Ann, respectively” Ok, the last one I found funny, but there’s more criticisms of her surroundings (both places and people) than storyline. The only thing that is appreciated is the food.
And she’s in Singapore, for crying out loud. I can’t imagine how many verses of whinings she will have if she goes to the neighboring countries. She did go to Malaysia, and her accounts are predictably like a high school composition. (“I can’t believe we’re eating this icky food and feeding it to my children”)

The story ends (thankfully!) with her joining a triathlon, and placing fourth. At last, something productive from her runnung/excercise addiction. The husband also announces that the boss is cutting their 3 year placement short, and to her surprise, she is reluctant to leave Singapore afterall.

I don’t believe that all expats are fat pampered pumpkins, but this ‘memoir’ is a bratty and ungrateful diary that just about fortifies the generalization that expats are indeed, spoiled.

One shouldn’t take this book seriously, and its not hard to do that with a cover And a title as such. The problem is, even if you do take it lightly, it will still weave its way into your nerves.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

euca.jpegHarvest Book, 1998, 255 pages

 

A story of old fashioned medieval type courtship that’s as magical and simple as a fairy tale.

Not so once upon a time, there was a widower called Holland, who had a vast planation of eucalyptus off in New South Wales. (” It was west of Sydney, over the ranges and into the sun–about four hours in a Japanese car”)

He is obsessed with his eucalypts as he is protective with his only daughter–Ellen, a 19- year old ethereal beauty who has captured men not only around New South Wales, but as far as New Zealand, Tasmania and Darwin. (Her “speckled” beauty is so captivating it turns loud mouthed men into stuttering lambs and the very first male who saw her naked died)

 

Holland always cautions his daughter to “beware of any man who deliberately tells a story. You’re going to come across men. like that. I want you to listen to me. There’s no real reason for you to be going into town. But leaving that aside, its worth asking, when a man starts concocting a story in front of you. Why is he telling it? What does he want?”

 

Tired of all these men hovering around his daughter, Holland one day decides to hold an auction/contest. Whoever can correctly name ALL the species of eucalyptus tress in his plantation is free to marry his daughter.

Hundreds of men, young lads, even old men come and try their hand/brains/memory at the conquest. As with other fairy tales, many tried, but failed. Meanwhile, Ellen is getting less and less impressed with the pursuit for her hand. She doesn’t know anymore if the men are more interested in the conquest, or herself.

The men grew weary and soon hundreds trickled into dozens, until the only suitor left was a Mr. Cave, a eucalyptus expert from Adelaide. Day by day, Mr. Cave continues to succeed, and Holland seems to be getting along well with his prospective son-in-law. Soon it was obvious that it was only a matter of days until Ellen would be given away..that is until, one day, Ellen stumbles upon a stranger resting on one of their trees.

This stranger, who was unlike all the other suitors, appeared to be uninterested in Ellen, and, just as her father forewarned her, seems to draw her in his numerous tales of just about anything. In the meantime, as Mr. Cave draws closer and closer to becoming the successful suitor, Ellen gets drawn deeper and deeper by this nameless storyteller.

Just who exactly is this mysterious storyteller that has captured the normally aloof Ellen?

I just found out that there were plans of a movie adaptation of this book, starring Russel Crowe and Nicole Kidman. But the production was halted due to “creative differences” between the director and Crowe and, perhaps from Bail, who was reportedly not very satisfied with Kidman portraying his 19 year old muse.

Save for the frequent scientific information on eucalyptus, Bail’s narration is beautiful, and wraps around you, almost entangles you in inside a web of stories. These stories inside the stories unfolds gracefully the identity of the indifferent stranger. And will spark your insight as to why those who truly love us are often unoticed. Recommended.

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Harper Perennial (May 8, 2001), 224 pages

A friend recommended this long long ago but just because I thought the title and the cover were too depressing, I decided to hold reading it. Time passed and I was able to read The Alchemist and By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. I didn’t like both, so I had more reason not to read Veronika. Another lesson learned for me, don’t judge a book by its author (does this make sense?)

Veronika Decides to Die is simply beautiful! I wish I read it sooner, so I can justify my craziness. Just reading the first few pages and I loved the book already. I am not very impressed by novels like this (“life enhancing” fiction) but this one relays a really great message and life lesson.

Veronika, a young girl from Slovenia one day decides to die—that is to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. She fails to kill herself and wakes up at a famous mental institution. She was told that although she wasn’t successful enough to have totally taken her life, she has damaged her cardiovascular system so much that she only has 5 days to live.

And on the next days, Veronika suddenly gets the urge to live and survive. She meets 3 people inside the institution, Zedka, Mari and Eduard. They are people who are deemed ‘mad’ by the normal society. And with their enlightenment, Veronika lives and explores her life to the fullest over the next days. On her fifth day, her supposed last day, Veronika finds out she is still alive. Unbeknownst to her, and all the other patients of the mental institution, the head physician, Dr. Igor, has come up with this technique to cure people of their ‘illness’. If someone was brushed closely by death, and was told that he/she hasn’t got much days to live, they will start to embrace and appreciate life as opposed to going down the drain. And Veronika will therefore, take everyday as a miracle knowing that she should have been dead (unless she seeks the second opinion of a normal doctor).

The best part for me, is how it tackles the reason why human beings go ‘mad’. We are all designed to be unique individuals, and act as we please, that is the human nature. And for the longest time, man’s actions have been confined to what society deems ‘normal’.

Ive always been an advocate of “f*ck what other people think” (as long as you are not harming any other human being). And this book really says it all. People are always consumed of what people think of them, and because of this, they are also pressured to act a certain way, say certain things. And the everyday battle of trying to be normal is what kills people.

Even if the facts and main plot of the book may seem abit unrealistic, I cannot say enough good things about what insights this book brings.

I am already in love with the book, and definitely, most certainly RECOMMEND this.

I will end this review with an excerpt that I completely love: (thought/said by Zedka, as she is leaving the mental clinic)

 

“When I came here I was deeply depressed. Now Im proud to say I’m mad. Outside, I’ll behave exactly like everyone else. I’ll go shopping at the supermarket, Ill exchange trivialities with my friends, I’ll waste precious time watching television. But I know that my soul is free and that I can dream and talk with other worlds, which, before I came here, I didn’t even imagine existed.

Im going to allow myself to do a few foolish things, just so that people can say : she’s been released from Villete. But I know that my soul is complete, because life has meaning. Ill be able to look at the sunset and believe that God is behind it. When someone irritates me, Ill tell them what I think of them, and I wont worry what they think of me, because everyone will say: she’s been released from Villete.

Ill look at men in the street, right in their eyes, and I wont feel guilty about feeling desired. But immediately after that, Ill go into a shop selling imported goods. Buy the best wines my money can buy and I’ll drink that wine with the husband I adore, because I want to laugh with him again. And laughing he will say: “Youre mad!” And Ill say : ‘Of course I am, I was in Villete, remember! And madness freed me. Now, my dear husband, you must have a holiday every year, and make me climb some dangerous mountains, because I need to run the risk of being alive.”


Paulo Coelho

 

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 1, 1998), 336 pages

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month.
I caught a glimpse of the first line of this book at a bookshop and I was hooked. But it won’t be months later until I finally get to devour the entire novel. I wasn’t wrong. I knew the book would be unforgettable. Because days after reading it, here I am , still disturbed–both frustrated yet madly infatuated with the book.
I am in love with: the twins, Rahel and Estha, their youth and innocence slowly being surrounded by the madness of adult world. The story, though it seemed to be focused on them, actually skips to every character in the book (no person is missed), and just when you are about to be engrossed on this or that character’s story, like a spotlight gone amock, the story again re-focuses to either the twins, or to a different person.
I love the unusual simple narration, the use of ‘titling’ some words Like This and at times joiningthem atthehip is pretty amusing. The characters make a good combination actually. Twins that are inseperable, their single mother who loves them in a realistic way, the grandmother who spoils their uncle who was schooled in Oxford and loves to quote novels here and there, their grand aunt who seems to be a half baked antagonist.
I love how the characters do not fall into stereotypes. There is an abundance of political and social puns in the narration.

Now that he’d re-Returned, Estha walked all over Ayemenem. Some days he walked along the banks of the river that smelled of shit, and pesticides bought with the World Bank loans.

Too much detail, no matter how beautifully written sometimes overpowers a good plot. At times, I felt lost in the beautiful poetic jungle of details. Just when the story is about to be ‘cooked’ right in front of your eyes (and you are looking forward to it), a sudden chopping board-full of lush cool greens are doused into the pot, delaying the climax yet again. She seemes to be plucking at a beautiful fruit when its just 3/4 ripe.
Storytelling is an art, and many writers use various techniques. Such is the time travelling style. However, there is also proper(reader-friendly) use of it. Usually, this style will leave you confused, but in this book, it will leave you wanting to re-arrange chapters in the book because you know the story will flow more beautifully when told in a straight sequential line.
Many important issues are dealt with (racism, religion, caste system, communism and child molestation) but it seemed they are just brushed in passing because of the “swinging spotlight”.
Scenes and lines still come to my mind. They are all hauntingly beautiful on their own, but somehow when you piece them together, the chemistry is not exact.

Arundhati Roy

The Debutante Divorcee by Plum Sykes

Miramax; 2006, 256 pages

The justifiable reason why girls indulge in “chick lit” (chic literature if there is such a thing), is that they are at least funny, shallow and light, and have characters one can identify with.
This book does not offer even one of those perks. Its not witty at all, the characters–pffft, I can identify more with an Orc from LOTR. No witty lines or dialogue, not even an exciting plot to follow. So apparently, according to the book, the latest hot thing in NYC now is a divorce (marriage is so last season) and the divorcee gets to throw a debut/party of some sort, announcing her back to singlehood status to society. The narrator, who doesnt have enough character content for the reader to sympathize with, is trying to salvage her newly wed life, amidst friends who are screaming that she should join the bandwagon.
These kinds of books are supposed to be shallow, yes. But they have to be at least entertaining in some way right?  Take an author who looks like a supermodel (who also writes for Vogue and Vanity Fair) and you’ve got a showcase of brand names, latest clothing styles, and places to be . This “book” is just an excuse.

Don’t Pee On My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining by Judge Judy Sheindlin (with Josh Getlin)

Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (February 19, 1997), 256 pages

So just as I was about to condemn all books that have catchy titles, I come across this one. We all know that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and title. I learned that I also shouldn’t judge a book by its author’s TV show. A court session on TV? Just another reality tv show right? Ive seen only a few episodes of Judge Judy and I can’t help but think that the ‘cases’ were very trivial, and were just hyped by a super sharp tongued judge, and a super reactive audience. I was amazed by Judge Judy Sheindlin’s no hesitation, no holds barred approach to telling off those that have wrongfully crossed family laws.
The book offers the same approach. No beating around the bush, no lengthy introductions. She goes straight to the topic of the book: How American law is pretty much skewed and can be ‘criminal-friendly’ (and that is coming from a Judge).
If there is a simple term to describe Sheindlin, it is: Fed Up. She is fed up by a society that produces a more violent generation after another. And more fed up by laws that, because it was drafted to protect the people,  can be turned around and be moved in favor of the criminal. Such as investigations for a juvenile case not being carried out because of certain ‘juvenile criminal rights’–a lawyer refusing to have his client’s (defendant) fingerprints taken.
“Look at it this way: We fingerprint honest people at work for security reasons. Why all the reistance to identifying  people who break the law? “

She’s also noted that juvenile crimes from the 70’s until the present have progressed to a worse level. Back then, car vandalizing were one of the more serious crimes teens can commit. But now, children steal, rape and kill.
That is also one of the personal questions I myself have: Are crimes of all sorts becoming too rampant and common that we have actually become a very tolerant society? Are we becoming too open to changes of time that we view juvenile crimes as normal nowadays?
“Somehow. we have permitted irresponsible behavior to be socially acceptable and have set up an elaborate bureaucracy that encourages lack of individual repsonsibility, thereby ensuing the longevity of both.”

She believes that in America, the government takes care of its people too much (?)–(though this is, I think a very subjective point of view) hence the people do not help themselves and just solely rely on welfare:

“Part of the problem is that too many people have come to expect too much from the government. And the assorted social service systems, however well intentioned, are crumbling under the sheer numbers of people who look to government first, instead of relying on themselves and focusing on government as a last resort. By shifting the emphasis from individual responsibility to government responsibility, we have infantalized an entire populaiton.”

Undeniably, she has a point. But it seemed abit too elitist when she suggested that the government shouldn’t provide welfare for teenage mothers, because “that’s what the relatives/family are for”. If this is her ideal set-up then she should go to the Philippines where all illegitimate children are born and raised without any help from the government!
People will always find loopholes in policies. Like how, in the state of New York, there’s a preference over relatives/grandparents being eligible for adopting/being foster parents of an abandoned child. The relative will recieve full welfare for the child, as long as they can prove that the child really was abandoned by the parent. Naturally, this is what some famillies do: they declare child abandonment, welfare goes to the grandmother(or whoever relative), but the mother is also around, only becoming invisible when the social worker comes to check.
And as a chain reaction, that’s where the child learns how to decieve: at home, even in small ways. Telling the child to say that “Mom is not around” because the social worker is going to check in a few hours. She believes in teaching your child how to respect and be scared of the law is important in raising a law abiding citizen.
What she lacks in data and statistics in her book, she makes up for no-nonsense discussion on what goes on in the real world of family court justice.

Despite her almost too tyranical views on carrying harsher punishments for juvenile delinquents and abhoring the welfare system, this is I think the first time Ive ever felt positive about a book. (Not about the subject). This book is highly recommended for anyone who would like to understand how the law works and how further juvenile crimes can be prevented. More importantly, Im positive that this book may encourage responsibility and self-reliance.

“If you want to eat, you have to work.
If you have children, you’d better support them
If you break the law, you have to pay
If you tap the public purse, you’d better be accountable.”