American Born Chinese/ Gene Luen Yang

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A 2006 publication.

Coming of age story about a teenage boy coming to terms with his racial identity.

The concurrent backstory is of the legend of the Monkey King Sun Wukung, and a Sit-com character about a extreme Chinese stereotype.

In brief, the protagonist finds his race (Chinese) a mark that prevents him from being assimilated with his American school mates. The parable though, is that the real obstacle is one’s acceptance of oneself.

“Returning to your true form is not an exercise of Kung-fu, but a release of it.” (The Tang Sangzang character to Sun Wukung; with the latter being able to free itself effortlessly by just reverting to his smaller monkey form rather than trying to be a man).

The book tackles the issue of racial identity by highlighting the particular perspective of the protagonist.

The theme probably resonated more then, compared to now (or are things the same?), where the dynamics of what it means to be “Chinese” is a lot more of an identity divide than now.


Jia: a story of North Korea/ Hyejin Kim

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When are they going to make this into a full fledged Korean drama serial?

It had the right stuff, I thought.

At the end of the novel, i read that the author won the Korean Novelist Association award for best Korean Drama Scenario. Very engaging read.

A lost soldier.
To Pyongyang.
Into the orphanage. Picked as a dancer.
Scandal in the hotel. Betrayal, extortion.
Desperation. Capture. Torture.
Pint-sized unexpected help.
Life in the cave.
Almost caught (yet again)!
Neither here nor there.
Betrayal. Abduction.
A rescue of sorts.
Caught and bailed.
A new identity.
The spy.
The end. Or a new beginning?

“Selling flowers” as a euphemism for prostitution.

Humans are humans. Ideology remain as ideology.
People still fall in love. Love is not rational.
Stomachs still go hungry. Ideology alone cannot feed people’s minds, body and soul.

“I was breathing every moment but I wasn’t alive” – Jia, the protagonist.

Gone case/ Dave Chua

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Book blurb: “Set against a backdrop of stairwells, playgrounds and living rooms, Gone Case sees 12-year-old Yong embarking on a rite of passage fringed with adolescent desires, scrapes with his younger brother, escapades with his friend Liang… Told in a voice that resonates with lucid simplicity and honesty, the story will tug at the very core of anyone who is, or has been, an adolescent growing up in the heartland of a changing HDB landscape.”

First published in 1997.

Another “HDB Heartlander” book (the other than I know is Heartlands by Darren Shiau.

The depiction of HDB living in the late 70s/ early 80s was realistic. The washing machine, on the verge of breaking down, reminded me vividly of the Japanese model washing machine my parents first owned. The one with the outlet hose.

Also the part of how Yong was motivated to study for his O-levels when he realized his peers were far ahead in their revision while he wasn’t. That part resonated with me.

Throughout the story, the focus wasn’t really on Yong but his friend, Liang. Or the troubled sister of Liang’s, choosing to hang out with a gangster. Or Liang getting into trouble because of his obsession with rocks.

I think some parts of the story can also be analysed from the sociological context. For example, Yong’s Christian aunt arguing with her Taoist elder brother, over their mother’s funeral rites.

Overall, I liked this story. Authentic dialogue. Easy to read, and I could identify with alot of what was depicted.

Says in the book that author was born in Malaysia in 1970 and studied in Singapore from Primary 4 onwards. Then to VJC and University of Berkeley, returning to Singapore in 1994. The book came about after he was awarded the 1996 Singapore Literature Prize commendation award then in 1997 he jointly won the first prize for the Golden Point Award for short-story writing.

The appeal/ John Grisham

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Not so much a courtroom drama, but a novelisation of corporate America’s manipulation of the justice system.

A state jury has just awarded a massive award for damages, in a tort case involving a company whose toxic wastes have polluted a town’s water supply. The company lawyers decide to appeal, and at the same time, the billionaire behind the company decides to manipulate the Justice system by making sure to appoint a judge, who is likely to rule in his favor, to the court of appeal.

An interesting way to introduce readers, especially non-US citizens, to an aspect of the workings of the US justice system. Or specifically the state court of appeal and the negative aspects of electing, rather than appointing, judges.

In theory, as I understood it, the idea behind democratic elections for judges might have been to ensure fair and equitable appointments of the office holders (rather than appointment by favouritism). But the nature of elections in the US is that judges have to seek the support of people and groups in order to get elected (nobody will vote for someone they do not know, seen or heard of). To reach the voters, massive amounts of money has to be spent for mailers and TV ads.

In order to finance such political campaigns, donations are solicited and that’s when things start progressing down the slippery slope. The judges who are eventually elected inevitably feel compelled to make decisions that are more in favor of the views of his/ her supporters and donors. In theory, one could campaign to be impartial and unbiased, but human nature is such that donors and supporters would want someone they favor to be in office. Or to have someone whose views (on religion, sexual orientation, policies) are aligned with theirs.

I also understood better why tort cases and civil litigations may sometimes be necessary in the US system (especially when government checks and regulation is not always available to prevent gross negligence).

One take-away was that politics, religion and the legal systems should be at arm’s length.

A part of me wondered if is book was carried through more in the merits of the author’s fame rather than the writing style. The writing style tends to be “describing” rather than “telling” the story for most parts. Still, the plot was interesting enough to carry me through the entire novel.

The past and the punishments

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ISBN: 9780824818173

Eight stories translated from Chinese/ Mandarin.

P.267 “what unites these restlessly innovative, willfully provocative stories is Yu Hua’s almost obsessive preoccupation with the twin spectres of Chinese history (“the past”) and the human capacity for cruelty and violence (“the punishments”).”

Classical Love – a ghost story/ love story, Chinese style: Scholar meets maiden; falls in love; hunger and cannibalism; maiden is killed;scholar meets maiden again and wondering if she’s a ghost.

Blood and plum blossoms – another swordfighting genre-based story; Plum Blossom Sword.

The death of a landlord – Japanese invasion of China; young man forced to lead them to a town.

Some were rather surreal (“The past and the punishments”) and bloody (“1986”; p133 lists the various ways of execution by torture through the eras of Chinese rule).

The translator’s postscript section gives more context (and sense) to the stories, some of which were pretty macabre.

The unwritten: Inside man/ Mike Carey & Peter Gross


The Unwritten Vol. 2: Inside Man
ISBN: 9781401228736

“Suggested for mature readers”.

Quite a complex fantasy story in a contemporary setting. I consider this one of the better showcase of the Graphic Novel format, where the story is intellectually and visually fleshed out between texts and illustrations.

The mood, plot-twists and tone is like “Fables” but without the fairy tale association. More contemporary and storyline is deeper, with overlaps of fiction and reality

This overlap even extends to the reader, by featuring realistically portrayed web articles, news casts and blog posts that follow Tom’s imprisonment.

Parts of it seem to borrow from the real life controversy over the Harry Potter series.

Tom Taylor is framed for murder, it seems. He is jailed and there’s a murder attempt on him while in prison. He escapes the prison with a magical door knob (a legacy of his father), only to find himself in Nazi Germany, before the outbreak of WWII. As a reader, I’m also brought along the journey, discovering a hidden quest of sorts with the protagonist.

Hungry stones and other stories/ Rabindranath Tagore (translated from the original Bengali by various writers)

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Hungry Stones and Other Stories
ISBN: 9788171677139

Tagore, Rabindranath, 1861-1941.

Some stories reveal why Tagore was reviled, in his time (perhaps even today), by some for his writings. Specifically, his speaking up, subtly and at times explicitly, against traditions and customs like the caste system. Like “Once There Was A King” (some lines taking a dig at how adults take away the joy of enjoying stories), “The Kingdom of Cards”, and “The Renunciation”.

Stories like “The Home-Coming” and “My Lord, The Baby” revolve around the theme of parent-child relationships.

“The Devotee” (a woman who took upon herself to worship the author as a god; as the story unfolds the woman isn’t quite as mad as she seems to be) was more philosophical, and perhaps an allegory about the real priorities in life. And what it means to really live.

Reading the translated words made me wonder if any of the magic was lost in interpretation.

Even if so, the flavour of the magic still comes through. Like “The Cabuliwallah”, a tale of his daughter’s childhood friendship with a street peddler.

The premise was simple (a father’s love for his child) but the magic was in the art of telling: separation, prejudices, the ageless, universal and instinctive fears parents have of strangers toward their offsprings. And of simple human empathy.

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