October was a very busy month, and thankfully I was able to do some more major promotion for A Fickle and Restless Weapon, five months after publication!
1. On Saturday, 24 October at 8.30pm SGT, over 50 people attended the novel’s official virtual book launch, featuring me in conversation with my very dear friend Dean Francis Alfar, hosted by Epigram Books on Zoom and livestreamed to Facebook Live. And as much as I missed having an in-person event, I was also happy that so many people who would not have been able to attend otherwise had the chance to be there (like, for example, my family in the US, and Terri Windling in the UK). It was a fun and casual and joyful hour that mostly felt like two old friends chatting, and I’m very happy with how it went. The launch recording is now available on the publisher’s Youtube channel:
2. I’ve known Sharon Bakar out of Kuala Lumpur for a while now, and in 2012 she invited me to read in KL as part of the long-running Readings@Seksan series. Because of the pandemic, the series has now gone digital as Readings@Home, and I was flattered when she and host Sumitra Selvaraj so generously allowed me to participate in the series for October. It was a pleasure to share the same online space as Golda Mowe, William Tham Wai Liang, Melizarani T. Selva and Zen Cho. Since the video was being released on Hallowe’en, the passage I decided to read is concerned with my puppeteer character Vahid, and the ghost of his best friend who makes a startling appearance (it starts at 32:16):
3. This was the ninth consecutive year that I was invited as a featured author at the Singapore Writers Festival, which is something I’m deeply grateful for and hope to never take for granted. I was on one panel this year, “Worldbuilding: The Devil’s in the Details,” moderated by Wayne Rée (who did a great job), and joined by Amie Kaufman and Meihan Boey as wonderful co-panelists. The event was streamed live to Festival Pass holders on SWF SISTIC’s microsite, and is now available on-demand until 18 Nov; after that, it goes away forever, so check it out while you can. It was a really fun discussion, and I’m glad we all had the chance to get together (albeit virtually) to explore the topic (click images to watch):
4. I was invited on fairly short notice to appear on Wayne Cheong’s Creatives Asia Podcast after meeting in person to discuss publishing and Nine Inch Nails, and eat claypot chicken rice. We talked a bit about A Fickle and Restless Weapon and its creation, but most of the conversation consisted of fanboying out over NIN and Trent Reznor, and it was super fun! It was livestreamed to Facebook and YouTube, and will also appear on Spotify, iTunes and Twitch later on.
At long last, A Fickle and Restless Weapon is getting an official book launch! Epigram Books will be hosting the event virtually on Saturday, 24 October, 8.30–9.30pm SGT, and all are invited to attend! (Singapore time is GMT+8, so hopefully we can get people from all over the world!) I’ll be talking about the novel with my dear friend and literary comrade Dean Francis Alfar*, doing a short reading, and answering questions from the audience. The launch will take place on Zoom, and be livestreamed simultaneously on Epigram Books’ Facebook pageand YouTube page.
(Update: the event will not be livestreamed on YouTube, but it will be recorded and uploaded there afterward. So do attend via either Zoom or Facebook Live.)
1. The event is totally free, but you’ll need to register at Peatix in order to get the Zoom link emailed to you. And this is important because only the folks in the audience on Zoom will have a chance to win a special prize, a giveaway set of my three most recent books: A Fickle and Restless Weapon, the related novella Diary of One Who Disappeared, and my best-of collection Most Excellent and Lamentable. I’m very happy for people to watch the stream on Facebook Live and YouTube Live, but you’ll only be eligible for the prize if you register for the Zoom link at Peatix.
2. But wait, that’s not all! 😀 To celebrate the launch, Epigram Books is offering a 25% discount on A Fickle and Restless Weapon, Diary of One Who Disappeared and Most Excellent and Lamentable from today until midnight SGT on the 24th, if you buy the book(s) directly from the publisher. You’ll need to key in the discount code JEL25 at checkout, and indicate in the appropriate field whether you would like me to autograph the book(s).
3. Lastly, I am offering something special for the folks who have already bought the novel, and would like my signature: the first 15 people to post a selfie of themselves with a copy of A Fickle and Restless Weapon on Instagram and tag @wombatfishbone (which is my IG handle) will receive a signed bookplate in the mail that you can stick in your copy! I have a very limited number of bookplates, so this offer only lasts until those 15 people have posted, so get your selfie up ASAP!
* Dean goes way back with this novel; he was one of my very first beta readers back in 2012, and gave me some truly encouraging feedback, as well as thoughtful critiques about character agency and resolution, which caused me to write a new coda for the ending. He has been a huge inspiration for how to live a literary life, as well as a kind and compassionate big brother, and I can’t wait to see what questions he’ll ask during the event.
I just realised that I have been delinquent in updating this blog on the happenings concerning A Fickle and Restless Weapon since my previous post in June. I’ve been more regular about posting on Facebook, but some of y’all don’t follow me there. So, for posterity’s sake, here’s everything that’s happened since (with photos!):
1. On 24 June, I made a special trip to Books Kinokuniya’s Main Store to sign their entire stock of Fickle, which had just been delivered that morning. My thanks to Kenneth, Douglas and Pearline for their assistance in coordinating the signing and taking photos during the busy time of the store’s Phase 2 re-opening, as well as to Kenny Chan for putting me in touch with the right people and for his continued enthusiasm. What you see stacked here is the second half of the copies, as I realised halfway through signing that I should probably get photographic evidence. (Click to embiggen.)
2. On 26 June, I was interviewed by Doretta Tan, Epigram Books’ Marketing Executive, for the long-running Doing the Write Thing series on the Epigram Books Blog. The questions were great, and were helpful in getting me to articulate much of my reasoning behind writing the novel in the first place.
Later on, I took the same questions and recorded video answers for them, which differed slightly from the written responses. The video was uploaded to the Epigram Books YouTube channel on 12 August:
3. From 29 June – 5 July 2020, Fickle was the Epigram Books Book of the Week, and was on sale for a 20% discount (though you’ll have to pay full price now, sorry).
4. On 13 July, I was gobsmacked to discover that Fickle was a featured title on the front page of the Books Kinokuniya website, displayed right next to the 2020 International Booker Prize Longlist.
5. On 16 July, I was informed that in Epigram Books’ internal bestseller list for June 2020, Fickle debuted at #1 in Fiction and #4 in all genres released that month. For a speculative fiction novel released with very little fanfare during a global pandemic (aside from all the flailing about and jumping up and down I was doing myself), without any prizes or critical adulation attached, this was extremely heartening.
6. Also on 16 July, my essay “What’s It All About Then?” was published at Mackerel, detailing the thought processes that went into writing the novel, as well as the frustration that arose when trying to boil down what exactly it was about. Many thanks to Marc Nair and Carolyn Oei for letting me burble on in their webzine.
7. On 3 August, Fickle was featured on the Singapore Shelf at The Straits Times as one of 10 local reads to look out for in August.
8. On 6 August, I was interviewed by the English department of my alma mater, North Carolina State University, for their Wolfpack Writers series (which was then reposted at NCSU English Dept News). It was an honour to be given attention by the university department that has been such a big part of my academic and professional life, and to share a space with other such distinguished NCSU faculty and alumni as Dorianne Laux, Christopher Ruocchio and Elaine Neil Orr.
I’ve been very pleased to hear from a number of people how much they’ve enjoyed A Fickle and Restless Weapon, as well as to note how well it’s disseminating at the National Library of Singapore (it’s listed as On Loan at most branches right now). If you’ve been generous enough with your time and attention (and possibly finances) to pick up the novel and see something in it to like, I’d like to request one more kindness: please rate and review it on Goodreads and wherever you ordered it from online (if you in fact did so). Thanks in advance!
My brand new novel, A Fickle and Restless Weapon, is now available for sale: in paperback in Singapore, and in ebook internationally (links can be found by clicking the cover image to the right). This book has been a labour of love for more than 15 years, and I’m incredibly excited that it’s now out and ready for readers to pick it up. It is, without hyperbole, the best thing I have ever written, and I’m very proud of what I accomplished with it. I collected my author copies earlier this week, and you can see the unboxing video above (with videography by Anya).
It’s exceedingly strange to announce a book release while the world is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, and protests against systemic racism and police brutality are ongoing in every state of my home country and in nations around the globe. So if you have money to spare, please donate to those causes since a lot of people are hurting right now. However, if you have a bit left over and would like to escape your current daily existence for a while, do consider ordering my novel and giving it a little love on Goodreads. It does have something to say about resistance to authoritarianism and the ubiquity of surveillance, but it’s also a helluva fun story, and just might take your mind off your troubles for a spell.
Epigram Books has some marketing and publicity lined up soon, so keep posted here, and follow me at Facebook and Instagram.
If I could put on my editor’s hat for a moment, four of my authors at Epigram Books, as well as your humble narrator, will be appearing this Saturday afternoon at Kinokuniya’s Singapore main store as part of their World Book Day celebrations!
At 2pm, I will be moderating a panel on “Worlds Beyond Words” with our #EBFP2015-longlisted authors: Daryl Qilin Yam, Imran Hashim and Kevin Martens Wong. All three of their first novels (Kappa Quartet, Annabelle Thong and Altered Straits) go beyond Singapore’s shores to other places (and in Kevin’s case, to parallel worlds), so the discussion should be a fascinating one.
This past weekend, I flew up to Penang for the 2016 George Town Literary Festival. It was my first time in Penang, and I definitely want to go back when I actually have the time to check the place out. George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so many beautiful old buildings are protected, including Wisma Yeap Chor Ee (WYCE), which was the main GTLF venue. (Although this meant no air-conditioning during some very sweltering days.)
I had a wonderful time seeing some familiar faces (Marc de Faoite, Sharon Bakar, Amanda Lee Koe, Tash Aw, Darryl Whetter), as well as making new friends (James Scudamore, Tishani Doshi, Jérôme Bouchaud, Faisal Tehrani, Ismail Gareth Richards, Amir Muhammad). I was also happy to finally meet the indefatigable Bernice Chauly in person; we’ve been Facebook friends for years, and I’ll be editing her first novel for Epigram Books in 2017.
The festival theme, Hiraeth, was threaded throughout the many panels and readings over the weekend, in explorations of longing, homelands, identity, and the role of fiction. It was a privilege to hear from such thoughtful writers who’d come from all over the world to talk about their work in the context of this framework.
If you missed the recent launch of A Curious Bundle for Bo Bo and Cha Cha at the Singapore Writers Festival, you have another chance to see me publicly launch the book and do a storytelling session from it. I’ll be conducting a mini-whistlestop tour this Saturday the 14th at Woods in the Books‘ two locations: at their flagship store in Tiong Bahru at 1130am, and then at Books Ahoy! (on level 2 of the Orchard FORUM) at 300pm.
As with the SWF launch, my daughter Anya will be along to help me out, and to voice the little baby animal in the story (which is beyond cute, so you have to come). See you there!
It hasn’t even been two weeks since I got back from New York, but I already need to gear up for the 2014 Singapore Writers Festival. Once again, I’ll be heavily involved this year; Anya’s also old enough now that I think she’ll enjoy the Little Lit events, so we’ll be hitting quite a few of those as well.
So here’s my schedule, including events in which I’ll just be in the audience, if you’d like to catch me:
The trip was insanely busy, and so much fun that I didn’t want to leave when it was over. Warning: selfies abound. (Photo credits can be found on my Facebook profile.)
Arrival in NYC, greeted with a big smile and bigger hug from my sister Kristin.
First New York breakfast, at Café Bene in Washington Heights
SFWA Reception at The Manhattan Penthouse, where I got to see some old friends, including the very talented Eugene “E.C.” Myers.
Visit to Forbidden Planet; this little comic zine was about the Friday the 13th baddie, but I couldn’t resist the chance to be a narcissistic twit. (Later, I also visited Midtown Comics, as well as the Avenger’s S.T.A.T.I.O.N. at Times Square, but didn’t get any photos.)
Visit to The Strand, one of my favorite bookstores in the world; I found an out-of-print hardcover of Milorad Pavić’s novel The Dictionary of the Khazars (Female Edition).
Lunch at The Hummus & Pita Co. with good friend (and awesome writer) Jonathan Wood.
Belated birthday dinner with Kristin at Uncle Nick’s Greek Cuisine; we of course had to order the saganaki.
Morning critique session at Books of Wonder with Juliet Ulman, who gave me such insightful editorial feedback on my novella The Diary of One Who Disappeared that I’m still absorbing it.
PEN Member Mingle at Prohibition, where I chatted to novelist Daniel Akst, and Kristin was a huge hit.
Visit with my Aunt Elise; we had dinner at Vamos al Tequila in Brooklyn before my reading at WORD.
Front display at WORD Brooklyn, featuring books by me, Alvin Pang, and Cyril Wong.
“What Writing Means in Singapore” at WORD Brooklyn; Alvin, me, Cyril.
Reading “Occupy: An Exhibition” from Red Dot Irreal.
Post-reading group pic: The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker (according to Alvin).
Visit to the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, where I found a cape, mask, “energy-boosting” bracelet, and Jovian-fronted tee-shirt for Anya.
“The Local Cosmopolitan” at Book Culture, which doubled as the Singapore Literature Festival opening party; I read “Taxi Ride” from Red Dot Irreal.
Post-event photo by Tim Tomlinson; this is what relief and exhaustion looks like.
Talking to Cyril before the start of the day of panels at the 92nd Street Y, where I was thankfully only an audience member.
The packed, and quite diverse, audience at 92Y; here’s poet Eric Thomas Norris asking a profound question.
The book signing/mingling at the end of the day; me, Kirstin Chen and Christine Chia.
“Reading Culture” at Book Culture (again, but what a great store); I read from “Always a Risk” from The Alchemy of Happiness.
“Encore” at McNally Jackson Books, which doubled as the closing party. I read (and mostly avoided stumbling over my words in) “Bachy Soletanche” from Red Dot Irreal. This is a post-event group photo with the festival authors who were left (some had to leave early), as well as the organizers, Jee and Paul.
Got to finally connect with Amanda Lee Koe after this event and talk to her about her MFA program at Columbia, and her Singapore Literature Prize shortlisted collection Ministry of Moral Panic. Above: Amanda, Sarah Tang, Joshua Ip; Below: me, Amanda, Cyril.
Washington Heights on my last day in NYC, a fantastic neighborhood on Manhattan’s upper west side. I left late that night from JFK.
In transit, at Hamad International Airport in Doha, during a seven-hour layover. It was a looooooong flight home.
So, yeah, it was an amazing experience, and I had an incredible blast in the city of my birth. I really hope I’ll be able to get back there again soon.
Next month, I’ll be flying from Singapore to New York City to be part of the inaugural Singapore Literature Festival in NYC, alongside a baker’s dozen other remarkable fiction writers, poets, and dramatists. I’m only there for a week, sadly, and it’s looking like that week will be jam-packed; when I’m not involved in the festival itself, I’ll also be spending some time with family and friends (and meeting with Juliet Ulman to discuss my novella, The Diary of One Who Disappeared). So if you want to catch me while I’m in town, your best bet is to check out one of the events I’m participating in.
As mentioned above, the events at WORD on the 9th and Book Culture on the 12th are free, but all the ones scheduled at the 92nd Street Y are ticketed. Also, I’m likely to be at all the events on Saturday the 11th from 2pm onward, in the audience, so please do come up and say hi (and don’t worry that you’ll be bothering me, because meeting folks is a big part of the whole trip). I’m also happy to sign books at any point, not just during the official signing slot on the 11th.
It’s been a couple of months since my last proper blog entry, and things have been remarkably busy during that time.
Embracing the Strange and LONTAR #1 still haven’t come out, but indications are good that the journal issue will at least be out by end of July or beginning of October. *crossing fingers*
I’ve been writing flash fiction pieces for the new Math Paper Press broadsheet magazine, Twenty-Four Flavours, and having a blast. I’ve really missed writing such short pieces on a regular basis, as I did during the halcyon days of The Daily Cabal, and it’s great to have a friendly venue with which to explore the form once again. So far, I have sold stories for the first five issues (the second one, Century Egg, was launched this past weekend at The Arts House), and I’m hoping to have a piece in all twenty-four.
I turned in the manuscript for the third panda picture book, called Bo Bo and Cha Cha and the Not-So-Nice Friend, and am quite happy with how it came out; I think it’s the best of the series so far. It’s expected to come out in October, and Patrick Yee is at work now on the illustrations.
I’ve been doing a surprising number of writer appearances and storytelling sessions lately, so many that I needed to create a separate Publicity page just to keep it all straight. If you’re keen to invite me for an appearance or talk, please check there first to make sure I’m not already booked.
I taught at the Creative Arts Programme‘s annual seminar once again, and had a great time, as usual. If I ever fear for the future of Singapore’s creativity, I just need to think about the eager and talented students at CAP and my fears are allayed. I’ve also agreed to be a CAP mentor once again this year, to guide a select number of mentees through their writing process in order to improve.
I’ve also been invited to be one of the international judges for the for the 2013 Quantum Shorts flash fiction contest organized by the NUS Centre for Quantum Technologies, along with media partners Scientific American, Tor Books and Tor.com. I’m in some very distinguished company; the other judges are John Scalzi, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Mark Alpert, Mariette DiChristina, Artur Ekert, Paweł Frelik, Tania Hershman, and Lisa Randall (you can find bios for all of these remarkable people on the judges page). I can’t wait to read the stories submitted for the contest; one of my own, “TCB,” was posted as a “seed” story to provide some inspiration.
Revisions on A Fickle and Restless Weapon continue apace, and although it looks like I won’t make my self-imposed end-of-July deadline, I hope to get the book ship-shape by mid-August, and ready to send out to agents.
Going back to 2006, I’ve had a tradition of posting the books I’ve read each year, as a way of keeping track of my reading habits and preferences, and will do so once again here. The list is provided sans commentary, although I will say that the books I’ve bothered both to pick up and to finish are ones that I consider worth reading. And I would ask that if mention of the titles below strikes your fancy, please consider picking them up through IndieBound and supporting your local independent bookstores.
Quite a good year, coming in at 110 books; it’s amazing how much you can read when you don’t work full-time! This of course doesn’t include any issues of The New Yorker or A Public Space or Ceriph or other magazines and journals that I read, or the many many kid’s books I read to Anya. Most of below books should have pages on Goodreads, so you can search for them there for more information.
2012 Books Read:
The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow by Cory Doctorow (PM Press Outspoken Authors #8)
Gone Case: A Graphic Novel, Book 2 by Dave Chua & Koh Hong Teng
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
Despair by Vladimir Nabokov
Quiet: The Importance of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
East, West: Stories by Salman Rushdie
The Sigh by Marjane Satrapi
The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss
The Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Victor Pelevin
Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens
We Others: New and Selected Stories by Steven Millhauser
The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories by John Kessel
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Ganymede by Cherie Priest
What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang
Bare (素颜) by Terry Lee
The Law of Second Marriages by Christine Chia
The World Must Weigh The Same by Carol Chan
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry
Stories: All-New Tales edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio
No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo
Between Souls by Bryan Thao Worra
The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Victimology by Verena Tay
Careless by Jacqueline Ong
Do You Fear The Line? by Wong Shu Yun
I’m Still Here by Belinda Wan
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
City of Rain by Alvin Pang
womango by Grace Chia Kraković
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
Ajar by Grace Chia Kraković
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
Six Characters Looking For an Author by Luigi Pirandello
The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem
A Manual for Sons by Donald Barthelme
The Human Soul As A Rube Goldberg Device by Kevin Brockmeier
Stone Animals by Kelly Link
We Bury the Landscape by Kristine Ong Muslim
The Mirage by Matt Ruff
The Barbizon Diaries: A Meditation on Will, Purpose, and the Value of Stories by James A. Owen
Fair Coin by E.C. Myers
Dark Tangos by Lewis Shiner
The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov (re-read)
Fury by Salman Rushdie (re-read)
The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Chasing Curtained Suns: Poems by Jerrold Yam
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov
The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan
Memoranda by Jeffrey Ford
After the Apocalypse: Stories by Maureen F. McHugh
The Beyond by Jeffrey Ford
Redshirts by John Scalzi
Crazy Hair by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean
Return to a Sexy Island by Neil Humphreys
Malinky Robot by Sonny Liew
The Beating and Other Stories by Dave Chua
Circus of the Grand Design by Robert Freeman Wexler
Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed ed. by Daphne Lee
Zod Wallop by William Browning Spencer
The Steampowered Globe ed. by Rosemary Lim & Maisarah Bte Abu Samah
Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
The Billion Shop by Stephanie Ye
Sonnets From the Singlish by Joshua Ip
Cordelia by Grace Chia Kraković
When the Barbarians Arrive by Alvin Pang
Other Things and Other Poems by Alvin Pang
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Elektra and Wolverine: The Redeemer by Greg Rucka and Yoshitaka Amano
Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (re-read)
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
A Place On Earth by Tracey Sullivan
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Pantone 125 by Madeleine Lee
The Pillow Book by Jee Leong Koh
Parvathi Dreams About His Sex by Vinita Ramani Mohan
Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie
The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It by O Thiam Chin
Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at
RASL: Pocket Book One by Jeff Smith
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
Clear Brightness by Boey Kim Cheng
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Drifting House by Krys Lee
Longshot (Marvel Premiere Classic #14) by Ann Nocenti & Arthur Adams et al.
Slog’s Dad by David Almond & Dave McKean
Between Stations by Boey Kim Cheng
After the Fire: New and Selected Poems by Boey Kim Cheng
This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams
Scenegapore by Miel
Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise by drewscape
Ten Sticks and One Rice by Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng
Lobster Johnson, Vol. 1: The Iron Prometheus by Mike Mignola & Jason Armstrong et al.
Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Cairo by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker
The Ayam Curtain ed. by J.Y. Yang and Joyce Chng
Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder, Vol. 1: In the Service of Angels by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck et al.
This is long, and sprinkled with f-bombs and other strong language. You have been warned.
I had my daughter Anya to myself pretty much all day yesterday, and we had a lot of fun. We spent several hours at the Geylang East Public Library, which she loves; I needed to return a few books, and I’d promised her a week ago that we’d come back (they’d been closed for the Hari Raya weekend, and I’d stupidly forgotten; duh, public holiday). We’ve been taking her there since she was only a few months old; it’s only a five-minute walk from our housing block. She even has her own library card. The children’s library takes up the entire first floor, and is well-maintained, brightly lit, very colorful, and has lots of seating and a really good selection of books.
The baby and toddler books are all along the rear wall near the big windows, and that was where we parked ourselves for a long time. Anya kept taking Chinese books off the shelf to look through, and narrating stories about them based on the illustrations. She’s gotten quite good about actually putting the books back on the shelf when she’s done with them (rather than just tossing them on the floor), and after a while she asked if we could look for some Thomas the Tank Engine books.
So we moved to a different area of that section and took a look at the shelves there. We didn’t find any Thomas books, but we did discover several Peppa Pig and Wonder Pets books; I also found a small Dr. Seuss board book called The Shape of Me and Other Stuff. We sat on the floor. She looked through them a bit and then asked me to read them to her. At one point, she sat in my lap and snuggled against me, just like she does every night at bedtime. While we were doing so, a kind, smiling librarian approached us, noticed the books we’d picked out, and asked if we wanted any Dora the Explorer books; I thanked her and said no, that Anya didn’t watch that show.
“Really?” she said. “Wow, a couple of years ago, all the kids wanted the Dora books. We couldn’t keep them on the shelves long enough!” She laughed, reminded us that they were giving away balloon animals if we checked out 12 books (which was far more than I wanted to cart home), waved goodbye to Anya, and stepped out of sight.
As I was finishing one of the books, Anya looked up and shouted, excitedly, “There! That one!” I asked what she was looking at, and she jumped out of my lap and ran the short distance to a low bookshelf, where a middle-aged Chinese woman was browsing by herself. Anya started to pick up a book that was lying on the top of the shelf, and the woman reached down quickly and grabbed it. I guess the woman had picked out that book for her own kid or grandkid, but the sudden movement startled Anya, and she ran back over to me with a frightened look on her face, bursting into tears when she got to me.
The woman, who I’m assuming realized that yanking a book out of a two-year-old’s hands kind of made her look like a dick, approached and tried to offer the book to Anya, but Anya only cried harder. It wouldn’t have done any good to try and explain that she’s highly sensitive to stimuli (as am I, part of our introverted natures), and that getting up in her face while she was upset wasn’t really helping, so I just said, “It’s okay, she doesn’t want it anymore, just take it, it’s okay, it’s okay,” while trying to soothe the thoroughly upset toddler clinging to me like a koala. The woman got the idea, apologized, and then went away.
When Anya’s upset, it takes her some time to calm down, like most children. After a minute or so, she sat back on the floor again next to me, and picked up one of the books we’d been reading, still crying, less intensely but still audibly. I stroked her back, handed her a tissue so she could wipe her eyes, and talked to her about the book, hoping to get her mind on something else. Then, as if apparating out of thin air, a different librarian in a tudung appeared, bent down, and in a loud forceful voice said, “‘Ey, where your mommy, ah? Where your mommy?”
Anya, jolted at the sudden utterance, went quiet for a moment, and then the wails started up again. The librarian repeated herself, “Where your mommy?” and I finally said, “Her mommy’s not here. I’m her father.”
Ignoring me, the librarian squatted down on her haunches and said, “You should not cry, you know. It’s not good.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said, “she just got scared at something. Don’t say that.”
Still ignoring me, she continued, “Should not cry, make you ugly, you know. You cry and you not pretty anymore.”
Anya found her voice and shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” and exploded into a fresh batch of tears.
Out loud, I said to the librarian, who had stood up in surprise, “Okay, that’s enough, you should go, please, thank you.” And she moved off as Anya latched onto me again.
In my brain, I was shrieking, “OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, LADY?!!”
I was only stopped from yelling this aloud by three things:
I didn’t want to upset Anya even further by engaging in a shouting match right in her vicinity;
There were lots of other kids in the library, it being a Sunday afternoon, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to either make a scene or use such strong language; and
Misguided as the librarian’s execution was, she did have good intentions, and didn’t say what she did out of mean-spiritedness (at least, I don’t think so).
I’ve worked as a librarian, as part of my teaching duties at Hwa Chong Institution (the school where I used to teach), and I understand the impulse to keep the noise level down and defuse any overly vocal situations (although the children’s library was already quite noisy because of the amount of kids there yesterday), but this was absolutely not the fucking way to handle this situation.
First of all, it appears that the librarian in the tudung made the assumption that Anya was not my kid, and that the reason she was crying was because the big bearded ang moh had scared her for some reason. Not once did the librarian directly address me, or even ask if I was the crying child’s father. But then, after I told her I was, it seems as if she accepted the fact.
Secondly, trying to get a crying toddler to stop crying by scolding her is probably the stupidest tactic I’ve ever seen. Anya’s tall for her age (taking after her old man in that department too), yet she’s not even three years old. Trying to reason with her in such a forceful manner was the thoroughly wrong approach.
Thirdly, hoping to appeal to Anya’s sense of vanity was equally stupid. She’s two. She doesn’t have a sense of vanity yet, and I’m hoping to prolong that for as long as I can. When I talk to her, I ask her about the activities she does or the books she reads or the things she learns; I don’t talk about appearance ever. If I have to put up her hair, it’s so she’ll feel cooler in Singapore’s equatorial heat, not because it makes her look cute (although it does).
When she shouted, “I don’t want pretty!” (and I can’t tell you how proud of her I was for doing that), it wasn’t any kind of comment on vanity either. When she’s distressed, the Don’t Wants come pouring out: “Don’t want milk!” “Don’t want shirt!” “Don’t want Thomas train!” “Don’t want Daddy!” Even “Don’t want Anya!” In this case, she was trying to communicate that she didn’t want to have anything to do with what the librarian was saying, and that she wanted to the lady to just go the fuck away.
Fourthly, crying is a perfectly natural human reaction to being upset (and it’s a physiological way to relieve the stress of being upset). As we get older, we get better at suppressing this action out of embarrassment of making others feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a natural instinct, and does serve a bodily function. When I was little, my parents bought me the record album Free to Be… You and Me, and my favorite song was “It’s All Right to Cry.”
Kids cry. It happens. The librarian could obviously see that I was calming Anya down, but either it wasn’t happening fast enough for her, or she wanted to somehow swoop in and save the day by getting Anya to stop crying herself. Either way, she fucked up big time, and ended up making everything worse.
Fifthly, has anyone ever told a boy to stop crying because it makes him look ugly? (It immediately made me think of misogynist spy Sterling Archer saying something similar to his mother’s secretary Cheryl on the animated show Archer.) Boys are told not to cry because boys (and men) don’t do that sort of thing; crying is relegated as a feminine action, and so boys who cry must be “pussies” or “pansies”. But then girls and women are told not to cry because crying makes them “ugly”. What the fuck is up with any of this logic?
It’s true that when we cry, our faces screw up, and we become less attractive, but so the fuck what? What is this need to force girls to quash their emotions so that they’ll be “pretty” all the time?
I’m sending a strongly worded letter to the National Library Board about this incident. I don’t expect or even want an apology, but I’m going to recommend sensitivity training for their librarians, especially the ones working in the children’s libraries. This could have been handled so much better than it was.
Thankfully, Anya didn’t take too much longer after Mean Librarian Lady went away to calm down again. We read some more books, and had a potty break (both of us), and wandered around a bit upstairs in the Big People Library before checking out the books we’d found and then walking back home. We played some more when we got back to the flat, watched some DVR’d episodes of Denise Keller‘s Passage to Malaysia, and ate some Koka mushroom-flavored ramen for dinner (the only instant noodles we’ve found that don’t contain MSG, and actually taste better for it). Anya was slightly subdued, but she seemed to have put the incident behind her. I gave her a bath, and then got her ready for bed, hoping that she’d konk out quickly; she fell asleep as I was reading her Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book (awesomely appropriate) right around 9 p.m.
I lay in bed for a long time last night, thinking about the incident in the library, wondering if I’d done all I could have as a father, still upset myself that it had happened at all. I worried that Anya still might be troubled by it today, but when she woke up this morning, having slept almost twelve hours (more than she’s slept in some time), she was back to her normally happy chirpy self, giving me a big hug when she came out of her room. None the worse for wear, but oh, my heart.
I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.
The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.
1. What book is on your night stand now?
I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.
This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.
2. When and where do you like to read?
I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.
This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.
I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.
3. What was the last truly great book you read?
I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.
I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.
But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:
O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.
4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).
I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.
5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.
I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.
6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.
7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?
I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.
I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.
8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?
9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.
10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.
11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?
It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.
12. What do you plan to read next?
The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.
Yesterday was largely spent in Kuala Lumpur, or in transit. I flew up via SilkAir, caught up on my New Yorker subscription on the Nook, arrived around 11:15, then took the KLIA Ekspres train from the airport to KL Sentral, which seems to be the train and LRT hub for the city. While on the train, I sent SMS messages to Sharon Bakar, who had invited me up for Readings@Seksan’s (which up until this time I’ve been misspelling as Seskan’s, sorry!), but discovered later that my messages didn’t go through. I also SMSed my friend Wei Fen, herself a writer and editor (Ceriph, Coast), who’d decided to get out of Singapore for the day, and bus up to KL with a couple of friends, and we made plans to meet at Bangsar Village for, what I was told, was truly awesome ice cream.
From KL Sentral I grabbed a teksi, paying a set amount in the terminal and receiving a coupon to give to the driver, and made my way to Bangsar Village and the Marmalade Café. Wei Fen was there with three of her friends, two who’d come up from Singapore with her (Steven and Alex) and one based in KL whom she hadn’t seen in years (Abbi). At first, I felt a bit awkward intruding into such a close-knit group, but they immediately made me feel at ease. After hanging out there for a while, and trying the Teh Tarik ice cream (I was sadly denied the famed Salted Gula Melaka flavor, but apparently there was a run on it in KL yesterday because it was supposedly not to be found anywhere in the city), I finally realized that the number I was using for Sharon might not be the proper one (there was a zero in brackets which was messing things up), and after fixing it, I finally got ahold of her. She’d been waiting for me for an over an hour, panicked that I’d gotten lost, thinking that I was wandering the city by myself; I felt so terrible!
Anyway, she met us at Marmalade, chatted with us for a bit, then dashed off to get Seksan’s ready for the reading. After getting some lunch (eggs benedict for me, yum!), we walked to the venue, getting lost a few times along the way but finally making it there with about ten minutes to spare. Seksan’s is a landscape architect’s firm, and we were using the first floor gallery space for the reading. It was quite a lovely space, open on both sides, breezy, with natural light filtered in from a gap in the roof tiles.
There were five other writers there to read from their work, and I ended up being the anchor reader. It was a varied group of writing: short fiction, memoir, economic thriller (I think), and even erotica (although this was cut short of the sexy bits because of the kids in the audience). I read two short pieces: “Lion City Daikaiju” (from Red Dot Irreal) and “Bachy Soletanche” (forthcoming from Scheherezade’s Bequest in May, which I read off my Nook, something I think I’ll definitely be doing again). Both seemed to go over pretty well, which was a relief; it was the first time I’d performed “Bachy Soletanche” (which was written to be performed aloud), and I was worried it was just too weird to be appreciated (it was originally commissioned for a Futurism-inspired anthology that later folded), but I got laughs in the right places, and polite applause at the end, so it couldn’t have been too bad.
I’d lugged up a number of copies of Red Dot Irreal and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany for sale, and (wrongly) assumed that someone was manning the book table, and either because I wasn’t there in person after the readings were done in order to facilitate the transactions (I was chatting to folks about ten feet away), or because the audience just wasn’t in a buying mood, I didn’t sell a single copy of either book at the event. This was quite disappointing, and it meant I was going to have to hump them all back home again. I was a bit grumpy about this, but I have no one to blame but myself.
Afterward, I tagged along with Wei Fen, Steven, and Alex again back to Bangsar Village, and Sharon was incredibly kind to catch up with us and buy a copy of Surreal Botany from me (so I did sell one after all). After hanging out a bit longer and tasting a few more Malaysian delicacies, I bade goodbye to Wei Fen, Steven, and Alex, and took a teksi back to KL Sentral, so I could wait for the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport.
As I sat there on the train, looking at my bag full of heavy books with my name on them, I had an epiphany. I stood up, walked to one end of the train, and made my way to the other, asking each group of passengers, “Would you like a free book?” I smiled, and acted as polite as possible, but I still must have looked slightly demented since a number of people just flat-out refused; some, understandably, as I discovered they didn’t speak or read English very well, but others were almost hostile. Still, enough people were open to it that I handed out eight copies of each book, and I did get some nice thanks from a pair of older Indian gentlemen.
My bag lighter, I breezed through the airport (having gotten my return ticket in the morning), took the skytrain to my terminal, grabbed some dinner, found my gate with ten minutes to spare, then flew home (reading a number of pieces from Unstuck #1 on the Nook), all without incident. When I arrived home, Anya was already asleep, and I was barely into my pajamas before I crashed as well.
It was a long and tiring day, but also exciting and very fun. Sharon was wonderful to invite me up in the first place, and she was a generous and warm-hearted host; if any of you ever are lucky enough to have the chance to work with her, do it. I got to speak with Eeleen Lee, whom I’ve known on Twitter and Facebook, and Menon Dinesh, who I met for the first time and who shared very similar views to mine about books both paper and e-. And I was extremely touched that Wei Fen generously took the time during her brief holiday to support me and attend the reading, and to introduce me to Steven and Alex, who are both really cool guys, and with whom I hope to interact again now that we’re all back in Singapore. Bummed as I was about the lack of sales, the real point of spending the afternoon and evening in KL was the coming together of like-minded people to celebrate writing and literature, and in that case, the day was a roaring success.
Apologies for the lack of posting, folks. Dealing with some personal stuff I’m not at liberty to discuss right now. Hopefully, I’ll be back to normal (for relative values of “normal”) soon.
I’ll be up to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow for the day to participate at Readings@Seskan’s and get together with some friends. I’m bringing copies of both Red Dot Irreal and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany for sale and signing at the event, so if you’re in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur around 3:30 pm, do please stop in and say hi.
On March 1, I’ll be doing a tripartite reading at BooksActually in Singapore with Wena Poon and Stephanie Ye. More on this when I know it.
I just this morning accepted two mentees for the Ceriph Mentorship Programme. I’ll be meeting with them once a month to work on their prose writing, discuss publishing, and so forth.
But coolest of all, I was recently approved for Professional Membership in PEN. I’ve been an associate member of PEN for some years now, and have been proud to belong to an organization that does so much for freedom of expression and human rights around the world. I’m honored to now be counted, thanks to the publication of Red Dot Irreal, as a full-fledged member.
Here’s the announcement poster for Readings@Seskan’s in twelve days, in which I’ll be participating. I’m quite tickled that Sharon Bakar gave me top billing on the poster, as I’m about 99% sure that my name will not be one that attracts Malaysians to the event. I’m just happy that I’m being given the chance to read with five other fine writers.
If anyone happens to be in Kuala Lumpur on the 25th, please come on down!
Well, I knew I couldn’t go a whole week of blogging without missing a day. So, yeah, I didn’t post yesterday. Instead, I wrote 1100 more words in the Tower novel, and read some more in Susan Cain’s Quiet (which is excellent so far, highly recommended for both introverts and extroverts; I’ll be blogging a bit about it tomorrow). And much of today was spent mired in the drudgery of applying to arts grants, which I’m all for if they can throw some money my way, but the process to do so is exhausting.
Today, I want to talk just a bit about A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. My good friend Eugene Myers posted a link to this fantastic trailer for the book earlier today:
Isn’t that great? I really would like to know who performs the music here; if anyone knows, please pass it along in the comments.
A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite childhood books; I think I got it in a book fair in elementary school, and after reading it I pestered my parents to get me the rest in the series. It’s a great example of science fantasy, fantasy that masquerades as science fiction; many of the tropes are there — time travel, aliens, other inhabited worlds, telepathy — but they’re used in a non-rigorous unexplained way. The tesseract (which is still one of my favorite words), explained as a five-dimensional mode of transportation, like a wormhole or folded space, is presented here like magical teleportation without the benefit of machinery. Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which could have been called fairies and the internal logic of the story wouldn’t have changed a bit.
Not that I cared anything about all that when I was ten or eleven years old, and utterly sucked into the story. It’s debatable whether this could be called a middle-grade or young-adult novel now, but those distinctions didn’t really exist in 1986; the only divisions were Kids’ Books and Adults’ Books. The story was about kids only slightly older than myself at the time (which is really the perfect age to be reading about them), having to go on an adventure through time and space to save an adult.
My mind was blown by the fact that Mr Murray, who was considered a brilliant scientist, was the one who needed rescuing. And by his children! Up to then, if adults featured in the stories I’d read, they were a solid, dependable presence, the ones who were in control. But Mr Murray wasn’t in control. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin have to save him, and they all three put themselves at incredible mortal risk to do so.
And even though two of the three protagonists were boys, I heavily identified with Meg. She was awkward in school, always measured up against her siblings, and felt like the perpetual outsider, even among her family. She was gawky and hated how she looked, but was able to find incredible reserves of bravery and love which become essential in saving both her father and Charles Wallace. I remember telling a friend of mine about the book, and him coming back with, “You’re reading a book about a girl?!” I didn’t know how to respond; why would he have expected me to feel ashamed when this was a character I’d cherished so much?
But the one thing about the book that stays in my mind 26 years after reading it is the scene when Meg must confront IT, the telepathic disembodied brain that rules the planet Camazotz. IT has kept a tight reign on Camazotz’s citizenry by forced conformity; many people’s motions are mechanistically syncronized, no one has free will, and the entire planet feels like a dead place even though it’s densely populated. When Meg stands in front of IT, the pulsing waves of control are so strong that they even align her heartbeat with it. This was probably the scariest thing I’d ever read. And how does Meg defeat IT? With unbreakable love for her little brother.
A Wrinkle in Time was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy; a few years later, I asked my dad to buy me a paperback copy of Isaac Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation at some beach bookstore while we were on vacation, and I never looked back. From Asimov’s Foundation books, I moved on to Bradbury, and Clarke, and subscribed to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and one day decided that I wanted to be a science fiction writer myself. Without A Wrinkle in Time, I might not have become a writer, might not have applied to Clarion, might not have met Janet. Put like that, my daughter Anya owes her existence to Madeleine L’Engle.
I think the best way to thank Ms L’Engle for her profound impact upon my life is to pick up the 50th Anniversary Edition of A Wrinkle in Time, and re-visit Meg Murray’s adventures through the tesseract. It’s an activity long overdue.
Someone linked to this on Facebook, and I shared it last night, and within 30 minutes, 15 people had “Liked” it. Which is kind of remarkable seeing as I didn’t create this image or even post it originally (the initial posting has over 100 “Likes” and 35 Shares). I wish that I had attribution available so I could credit the person who did this; they did a spot-on job remixing this classic Penguin paperback design with new text, including typeface size and placement.
(There have been many remixes of the Penguin cover over the years, but my favorite still has to be the one created by Karen Wai and Kenny Leck for BooksActually’s Ode to Penguin exhibition last year. I own the very first two tickets given out to that event, but I never got to use them because of scheduling conflicts.)
Getting interrupted while I’m reading is one of my big pet peeves. And I’m talking about book reading here, not staring at the photons on my MacBook’s screen, like I’m doing right now. If I have a book in my hands, there is the reasonable expectation that I will be sinking all of my attention into those words, like a deep sea diver who’s most comfortable walking the ocean floor. And I ain’t coming up until I’m damn good and ready, at a section break or at the end of a chapter. I just can’t get my mind around people who can blithely stop reading in the middle of a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, and have no problem picking back up where they left off next time. It’s as alien an action to me as eating french fries with mayonaise or leaving the house without a thorough pocket pat-down for keys, wallet, and phone.
One of my favorite books is Italo Calvino’s masterful If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated from the Italian by William Weaver). It starts off like this (and please forgive the long quote):
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.
Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.
Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion. on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to , put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.
Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.
Calvino was a reader after my own heart.
As I mentioned on Saturday, I’m an introvert, and one of the most vital things toward preserving an introvert’s sanity is time spent alone. We need that time to recharge the dopamine levels in our brains, and then feel like we can emerge into the world again. There are many ways to do this (and I’d be curious to hear techniques and tips from other introverts), but the most satisfying and fulfilling way for me is to read a book. And specifically, to read fiction. Narrative is necessary for me to descend into that quasi-meditative state brought on by highly engaged reading. (Not to diss non-fiction readers; it may be fine for you, but it just doesn’t work for me, in that fundamental recharging manner.)
This past year, because of heavy commitments both at work and at home, I read fewer books than in any of the past five years, and this had a profound impact on both my state of mind and my behavior. As Janet can’t surely attest, I was much more irritable, much crankier, much more likely to snap. Some of this came with the stress I was under, but a big part of it was that I wasn’t able to properly recharge my batteries, and so I always felt as if I was running on fumes (to mix metaphors, sorry). I quit my teaching job at the end of the year, and even though I haven’t found something else full-time yet, I’m happier than I have been in years. I’ve already read six books in January alone, and finally feel as if I’m coming back to myself.
So if you happen to see me out and about with a book in my hands, you know what to do. I’ll be happy to talk to you later, but not until I’ve marked my page at the end of a chapter. Until then, respectfully, beat it.
Prior to this year, I had only a passing interest in the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov. I read Lolita several years ago to see what all the fuss was about, and found myself utterly seduced by Humbert Humbert’s language, and discomfited and disturbed by my empathy for such a charming pedophile. Nabokov challenges all kinds of assumptions of acceptability in that novel, and does it in a way that entrances you, as if putting the reader under an incredible spell for the length of the book.
At that point, I did want to find out more about Nabokov, but got a bit intimidated by the size of his published oeuvre. I had heard of Pale Fire, but many of the other titles were unfamiliar to me, and so I didn’t know where to start, with the result that I didn’t.
Time passed, and then I came across a copy of The Enchanter on the shelves of BooksActually, an exquisitely designed edition with watercolor cover art, and the look of uniform series design (which, when I found other Nabokov titles, turned out to be the case). Penguin had begun reissuing all of Nabokov’s books in 2010 with these beautiful covers and high-quality paper, and I was immediately attracted, much as I had been with the man’s language.
So I bought The Enchanter from Karen at BooksActually (who is also quite the Nabokov fan), took it home, and read an alternate, much shorter version of Lolita, a version that predated that much more famous work, and could almost be thought of as a dry run for it. A version that works on its own merits; the unnamed enchanter is less successful in his attempts to seduce his own nymphette, and comes to a much worse end.
Some time later, on a visit to Kinokuniya, I spotted other Penguin Modern Classics of Nabokov’s titles, and plunged in, steadily filling in the gaps of Nabokov’s bibliography with visits there and back at BooksActually (where the shelves were now more fully stocked). At this point, I’m only missing four books for the full set (Transparent Things, Look at the Harlequins!, The Original of Laura, and Strong Opinions). And though the books look beautiful on a bookshelf in their uniform simplicity, I had yet to get to the words inside.
Yesterday, I decided that this was the time, and issued myself a Nabokov Reading Challenge: to read the entire oeuvre in chronological order, starting with Mary. This way, I also get to chart Nabokov’s progression as a writer, and really get a sense of the differences between his books originally written in Russian and those in English.
I started Mary last night, and am already about halfway through it. It’s a short book, and this is a characteristic of much of his Russian writing (with The Gift being a notable exception). I’m hoping that the brevity of a good many of his works will enable me to finish all of them by the end of the year, but I won’t be too strict about this. I do have other books that I want to read, and may intersperse them as well.
I’m also hoping that reading the man’s writing in such a concentrated way will have a subconscious effect on my own writing. I did notice that whilst reading Lolita my own fiction was wittier and more language-conscious; I don’t read writers like Nabokov or Mieville to improve my vocabulary (a sentiment that some of my students actually subscribe to, as if this is all that reading literature is good for), but this tends to be a nice side effect.
So that’s, what, 23 books in just over four months? Certainly possible, though like I said, I’m not pushing it. Anyone want to join me?
Update (31 August): Based on my friend Deirdre’s excellent suggestion, I’ve decided to make this reading challenge more reasonable: instead of cramming 23 books into four months (which may exhaust me and inadvertantly turn me off from Nabokov forever), I’ve decided to read one title per month. Which means that I’ll be done sometime around June 2013, give or take a couple of months. This way, I have an attainable goal, and it allows for the reading of other authors during that time, which I’ll absolutely want to do.
I’ve created a Goodreads group, Nabokov in Two Years, to organize the reading challenge, and hopefully to invite others to participate as well. The group is open, so please join today!
This school year, I’ve been writing and maintaining the blog for our school library: Hwa Chong Institution Kong Chian Library. It was originally intended to focus more on Library events and Singaporean literature, but has expanded to include public library news in the US, book reviews, e-readers, and lots of other stuff related to books and reading. I think I tweeted about this (which means Facebook friends who obsessively check my status also knew about it, you know who you are), but I just realized that I never mentioned it here at the blog.
So here’s me mentioning it. :-j
As an email acquaintance noticed recently, I haven’t blogged here regularly in a long time, mostly because of simple lack of time thanks to both teaching and childrearing. But the Library blog is justified through my work with the school library, and so I feel like the time updating it is well-spent.
So if you’re interested, go give it a look-see. I may try to sqirt non-school-related posts over here if I can figure out how; would anyone know?
Jason Erik Lundberg was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and has lived in Singapore since 2007. He is the author and anthologist of over twenty-five books, including A Fickle and Restless Weapon, Fish Eats Lion Redux, Most Excellent and Lamentable, Diary of One Who Disappeared, the Bo Bo and Cha Cha picture book series, and the biennial Best New Singaporean Short Stories anthology series. More info here.