2016 Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown

That’s Chang’e, the goddess associated with the moon and the full moon harvest festival of Chinese culture. Every year, though there’s no autumn to speak of in Singapore, Chinatown is decorated with lanterns, and all the shops (including Starbucks) start selling mooncakes.

(Mooncakes are kind of like the Chinese equivalent of fruitcakes—their purpose is to be given as gifts, not necessarily to be happily consumed. I like mooncakes, though, except for the fancy ones that have egg yolks baked into them. Whose brilliant idea was it to make a treat that’s sweet and savory at the same time? For Pete’s sake, pick one or the other!)

This year’s decorations seem to be quite specific in how they tie into the legend. I see suns, the archer who shot them down, the moon rabbit, and the magic herb needed for the elixir of life. The flowers might be cassia tree flowers, from the tree on the moon in the legend, but I’m not sure. (Cassia bark is cinnamon.)

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The view from Shabestan

I’m at Robertson Quay eating lunch outside with a friend at Shabestan, and that’s the Singapore “River”.

It’s a little hot, but okay in the shade with a breeze. And yes, it is the end of September and the leaves are not only still on the trees but also green. They’re always green. Usually that annoys me, but today it’s kinda nice.

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V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Although the graphic novel V for Vendetta has been in the house for, I dunno, years, I hadn’t read it yet because I opened it up and didn’t like the art. I still don’t. There’s not much I do like about it, but it’s interesting.

Why I didn’t like V for Vendetta

  • I thought the literariness was overbearing rather than deep. Evey gets frustrated with V’s roundabout answers that are all in quotations; I did, too.
  • There were way too many rapes and rape threats. There are several powerful women in the story, but it still comes off as male-dominated.
  • I found both the text and the images difficult to decode in places. (Who and what am I seeing, exactly? Is that a U, a W, or an L and an I?)
  • I do not buy the underlying ideology of anarchy-as-voluntary-self-governance. I can see how toppling a dictatorship could be a good thing. What I don’t get is how order is supposed to re-establish itself… I mean, okay, the will of the individual citizens, but… really, how, exactly?

More thoughts on the story below, including SPOILERS.

Continue reading V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Reading The House of the Spirits taught me that “nacre” is a natural material related to pearl. And that I don’t actually like magical realism.

The author is a Chilean-American (born in Peru), the novel was written in Spanish, and—though the narrative never says—its setting is Chile. There are a couple of unnamed real (or real-ish) people in the narrative whom I don’t know anything about without looking them up. (“The Poet” is Pablo Neruda and “The Candidate/President” is Salvador Allende.) Wikipedia informs me that the purpose of the book was “to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship,” which overthrew President Allende, a Socialist who had been elected democratically. The last name is not a coincidence; he was a cousin of author Isabel Allende’s.

The narration strangely flips between first and third person. I found the narration frustrating because the events are told in a kind of distant, rushed way. Rather than feeling involved in the story as if I was living it alongside the characters wondering what would happen next, I felt as if the events didn’t matter because they’d already happened and the narrator knows it all in more detail than I’m ever going to hear. Not every frame story causes this kind of bored impatience. This one does in part because from time to time the narration drops in facts about later events, which made the story feel even more abrupt and made it even harder to relate to the characters.

Thus, as long as the story is, it feels like a summary of a story and not a story. It feels like a movie of a book, the kind of movie that pogo-sticks through a much longer tale, picking out only the highlights. But at least in such a movie, one that switches from scene to scene with a lot missing in between, the scenes themselves are immersive.

I don’t get it. If the point of the book is to teach those who do not know how bad the dictatorship was, why tell a long, quasi-magical family story that doesn’t actually convey much history? The book seems merely to be using the coup as a dramatic climax for the story… to the extent that the book has a singular climax rather than a series of them.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it. I bought it by mail from someone on Carousell in Singapore.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  9-Sep-16 to 23-Sep-16
Length: 491 pages
ISBN: 0552955886 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1985
Amazon link: The House of the Spirits

Why I don’t like magical realism

I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in 1998; it was the first book I recorded in the book log I’ve been keeping ever since. About six months later I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits.

I’ve read more than a thousand books (over seventeen hundred, actually) since my first recorded exposure to magical realism, so I’m better able to articulate an opinion. All three of these strange books are great in the sense that they are literary, cultural touchstones. But I don’t like them.

Probably I dislike these magical realism books in part because I don’t know enough political history to appreciate their settings, but I think mainly I dislike the books because they’re exaggerated. Grotesquely. I don’t like exaggeration as a form of humor—or as a form of literature, apparently.

I don’t mind fantasy books at all. I am willing to suspend disbelief when reading stories about dragons or other planets (or dragons and other planets—thank you, Anne McCaffrey), perhaps because it’s super clear when I’m supposed to. Pretending that wizards or warp drives are normal is a cooperative enterprise I can happily engage in with the author.

In contrast, magical realism makes me feel like the victim of a prolonged practical joke. The author presents what seems to be a realistic world, but then, here and there, nonchalantly distorts it worse than a fun-house mirror. Am I supposed to take the magical bits at face value (which is how they’re presented)? Are the magical bits just literary cleverness signposting some kind of wise metaphor that I’m stupidly overlooking? Is the magic just random nonsense that’s supposed to be funny, precisely because it makes no sense? I’m uncomfortable with all three of these theories, especially because a single book could, for all I know, include a mix of elements that fit all three patterns.*

Is magical realism to be lauded for causing feelings of mystery that reflect the mystery of real life, or is it to be criticized for pretentiously making book-reading as a form of entertainment harder than it needs to be? The former, judging by the sales figures.

However, in fact the sales figures have been used by literary critics to support the notion that magical realist works are not deserving of respect. Regardless of whether it’s about McCaffrey’s Pern or Allende’s Chile, any novel the masses enjoy, the logic goes, cannot be very profound.

Personally, no matter what the sales figures or the critics say, I’d far rather read magic than magical realism.

 


*Or—this didn’t even occur to me but was pointed out by someone in the HHBC discussion—maybe the magical elements are indicative of an unreliable narrator. In other words, maybe the story involves no magical events at all, but is being related by someone who’s lying, confused, or crazy. (I don’t like unreliable narrators any more than I like magical realism, so for me, this theory, while useful, doesn’t exactly fix the problem.)

Phnom Penh (September 2016)

My husband Aquinas and I went to Phnom Penh, Cambodia during his break week.

While there, I drank a Kingdom Pilsener. The label says:

Cambodia’s lush, mysterious jungles hide more than the splendours of Angkorian majesty. Deep in these green bastions rare beasts roam wild. The elusive clouded leopard, the strange plated pangolin, the stalwart kouprey—if not mythical, at least immensely difficult to find. Kingdom Pilsener, Cambodia’s first truly premium beer, celebrates this enigmatic empire. Singular in flavor and a little hard to track down, Kingdom’s rare quality is well worth the adventure.

On this trip to Cambodia, we forwent the Angkorian splendours. We did not see any clouded leopards, plated pangolins, or koupreys, stalwart or otherwise. I don’t even know what a kouprey is! (Google says it’s a forest-dwelling bovine—you’re welcome.)

We visited the royal palace, the national museum, a Buddhist temple, and the Art Deco market; we patronized a spa and a couple of handicraft shops; we relaxed in the hotel cafe and ate at two of the best restaurants in the country (one French and one Cambodian). That’s it!

Below are 25 photos, mostly from the palace grounds.

Continue reading Phnom Penh (September 2016)

Deadpool (2016)

I knew what to expect since the folks who knew the character from the comic books went out of their way to warn the rest of us that Deadpool would not be NOT a family-friendly Marvel superhero movie.

Although the crude language, the blood and violence, and the explicit sexual messages of the movie did not appeal to me, there were aspects of the movie that did.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/deadpool/id1078111961

See below for more on the movie, including SPOILERS.

Continue reading Deadpool (2016)

Indocafe Coffeemix

This is the advertisement on the back of the JetStar inflight magazine.

Some people would never drink instant coffee at any time, but I am fairly confident that even people who really like instant coffee would never drink it while inline skating.

Congratulations, nameless graphic designer. The ad is certainly eye-catching. Baffling, but also definitely eye-catching.

Singapore Changi Airport T1 Cactus Garden

When you think of Singapore, you don’t think of cacti, and an airport is pretty much the opposite of a garden, right? Yet Changi Airport boasts a cactus garden.

How do cacti even survive outdoors in Singapore? My guess is they’ve worked out the right kind of soil to drain water away from the plants, but what do I know. My thumbs are about as green as a fire engine.

Below are 10 photos I took of the cactus garden at Changi Terminal 1 while waiting for the gate to open for our flight to Phnom Penh.

Don’t make fun of the “wildlife” tag on this post. Obviously, this garden is the opposite of wild. I guess I’m just using the tag as shorthand for “plants and animals (and mushrooms, which aren’t even plants)”.

Continue reading Singapore Changi Airport T1 Cactus Garden

Mobile phones make the wait more bearable

at Westgate in Jurong East
at Westgate in Jurong East

When I first saw five people sitting on a bench in a mall staring intently at their mobile phones, totally oblivious to their surroundings, I thought: Aha! Here’s an opportunity for me to comment about the idiocy of mobile phone culture—with phones in their hands, people seem incapable of paying attention to anything else.

And then I realized: They’re all men.

Presumably they’re all waiting for their womenfolk to emerge from some nearby store. They’d be bored to tears, or they’d not have come along in the first place, if they didn’t have mobile phones to help them pass the time.

Mobile phones may make people rude in some ways, but here, they’re making these men very, very patient.

Every icloud has a silver lining?