Sunday, 24 June 2012

Smilla's Sense of Snow - #9

This is one of those books I hope so much that the author did their homework and therefore all the interesting facts I learnt are true. This book at times is like reading a science textbook, but an interesting one, that has a murder mystery behind it. Maybe our educators could learn something from that (although as is the way with most "educational initiatives" there would be a 97% chance that they would make it incredibly lame).

This book spends half it's time in Copenhagen and then the other half either in Greenland from memories or actuality, or travelling to Greenland. I have therefore counted it (maybe in a slightly dodgy way) as a read for both countries. Coming from the humidity and heat of the Solomons to the icy chill of Denmark and Greenland in winter, suited my switch from Singapore back to icy Canberra.

The book was interesting and had a good pace to it. It did have some twists in it that you felt like you knew exactly what was going to happen in the build up, and then it threw you in a different direction. The writer had the lovely Scandinavian way of not patronising you, of taking you on a journey but allowing you to work things out for yourself along the way. I am beginning to *love* this way of writing as a wonderful refreshing change. And the ending was unlike any English book I had read before, which was infuriating but kinda cool.

Gripes. My English translation was titled "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow". I hate it. Smilla's Sense of Snow has this beautiful ring to it and conveys the meaning perfectly and concisely. The Miss is completely useless and redundant and is only there to let sexist English speakers know the gender of the protagonist. I bet that there are people who have put it down because of the Miss, or picked it up because of it, or gone "Oh thank you publisher for explaining this ridiculous foreign name to me on the cover as I am too stupid to pick it up in the first couple of sentences". Why does gender matter? Argh!

Also, and this is because I am the victim of my Australian upbringing, if it is an English translation could you please translate the German as well as the Danish. Place names were not translated thank god (overtranslations are sometimes worse!), and the Greenlandic words weren't translated but explained. The Swiss cook however spoke entire sentences in German which had important plot points in them without them being explained in English. I know that it was trying to portray him as an other, but you could say the German and then get him to translate it into English or something. Google translate and I formed a close relationship over the last few days, and I now know enough German (of words I memorised in order to not look them up again) to say "I am not a Swiss clock." Useful.

Lastly and most importantly, there were two sentences that nearly made me hate the book. They were jarring and not written like the entire rest of the book. They were unnecessary and I just don't know what happened. Either the author or the translator had a massive brain fart, and it really bugs me. I would be interested in knowing if anyone else had this feeling when they read this book. But these two sentences turned me from about to exclaim to my Mum from the back of the car that she had to read this book, to going nope, no way if this is what the rest of the book is like. Luckily, it wasn't and I will recommend it to her again, but with this disclaimer. Where the hell was the editor is what I want to know.

But besides these things, and the fact that it went on longer than I thought entirely necessary however I still very much wanted to read it, it was a great book. I am slightly cold still after finishing it, and have an overwhelming wish to travel to Greenland. 4 stars!

Next: To Chile to warm up with Zorro

Sunday, 17 June 2012


I went to my grandfather's funeral this week. This included a trip to Melbourne and a long drive home with my family back. I was supposed to get a lot of reading done, but it didn't really happen. But that's okay.

Besides being a sad occasion, my family has a way to make any event a memorable and usually hilarious one. Most of our family is in Melbourne, so we tend to only really catch up together at weddings and funerals. For some of us, that is more frequent than we would like, like the "black sheep" who stuffed his pockets full of biscuits from the wake. For all my cousins, who spent the rest of the day taking turns to try and turn the pocket biscuits into crumbs while the rest of us watched from the other side of the room, this is not enough.

But the man of the moment was my Dar. Dar was an incredibly successful and intelligent man. He was a research food scientist who started working for Kraft in the late 1930s and is the man credited with discovering that vitamin B1 and therefore Vegemite, is good for you. The Vegemite we eat today, is his team's recipe. He helped start one of the biggest Academies of Science in Australia and the annual Award of Merit awarded to Food Scientists in Australia each year is named after him. He got interested in my aunt's study of history at Uni and then decided he would go earn himself a Masters in history just because he could. And he went on to write quite a few books on science, food science, the history of food science and history.

He and I shared a love of science too, and I think he was a little chuffed that I used to work at the Science Centre here in Australia, and worked on the largest science prize awarded within Aus. At least I hope so, because I was always thinking of him while I was there.

What ties him in to this blog I guess, besides me obviously, was that this was a man I can never remember not reading. When he used to come stay with us what I remember as a kid, besides us having to have the best table manners in the world, and me being told off constantly for my pronunciation of the letter H, was that he always had so many books with him.

Usually it was work related, but he loved humorous British novels and British detective novels as well. He always sent us money for books or book vouchers for our birthdays and Christmas. One Christmas a couple of years ago at Mum's, we had all opened our presents. All 7 of us were sitting there with a pile of at least 3 books in front of us, some of us with 7 or 8. Dar looked around the room and just burst out in his large, explosive laugh. "Well," he said, "I have never met such a bookish family!"

I am very grateful to this old man, who always wore dress pants, a blazer, a vest, business shirt and a tie no matter the weather, who instilled in me a love of reading. I am grateful he taught his children this too, with my Mum and her sister both becoming librarians, and them making sure I always had books. I will miss our discussions about literature, education and science. I will miss the way he made me value all of them. I will just miss him.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Devil-Devil - #8

This. This book was perfect for Singapore. I couldn't quite get my head into a space with Norwegian Wood, where I could imagine snow. What I needed after that, was somewhere where there was 28C temp and 85% humidity like Singapore. This book filled it. So what about it?

Straight up.
This book had 1 major error that I had problems getting past. It just SCREAMED(!) outsider (it was written by a Brit who had lived in the Solomons). All these intelligent islanders, were sent to Australia for an education. If, and I understand they were in the 60s, they had the unfortunate experience of drinking XXXX, they would know to spell it XXXX. As an Aussie, you spell it XXXX.

Not, definitely not, 4X.

The whole joke is "Why is spelt XXXX? Because Queenslanders can't spell Beer!".


So with all that aside. Murder mystery. Traditional culture vs colonial culture clash. Hiking around the bush in the heat and the humidity. The fact that there were too many fallible characters that any one of them could be the killer. Grumpy, precocious nun.

You like the main character Ben Kella. He is straddling a world that is drastically changing, which he knows  and has to balance them both. He is the traditional peace keeper of his traditional culture, yet a policeman of the new world order. You respect him and empathise with him.

Same with Nun-face (yes I called her nun-face. I call everyone whats-his-face if I don't know their name and I have no idea how to pronounce the rest of her South American name, so nun-face will have to do). You respect her for what she is doing and where she is. Also, as much of me resents it, in the 1960s it was probably the most amount of independence she was going to get (as a woman, to become a nun and end up in the Pacific).

Best read ever? No. But fun read? Yes. Nice murder mystery? Yes. Nice Pacific Island read? Yup. Read it. It gives you perspective, and education (it comes with a map inside! Bonus!) and I think shines light on a place that hasn't got that much light shining on it (what is it with the lack of Pacific fiction? Seriously?). 4 stars.

Next: Denmark with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Norwegian Wood - #7

I wasn't expecting this book. I again have heard wonderful things about it. But I am going to plead something that I hate doing, but I think I was an ethnocentric Westerner. I think I combined Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro, both of which I wish to read and have it seems slightly fantastical, futuristic and almost sci fi elements in their fiction. But that wasn't Norwegian Wood.

Norwegian Wood is named, thank goodness, after the Beatles song. That would have driven me mad otherwise. It is set at the turn of the 60s and 70s, with Toru Wanatabe heading to University in Tokyo and learning about himself and in turn love. However his learning about love is long, and more complicated than you could  really imagine.

I guess that is the benefit of fiction at times. You can have these characters experiencing things that seem so far fetched, in a way so you don't have to. Or so you can work through your own response to those scenarios just in case they ever eventuate for you. But you feel for Wanatabe. You wish for him to fall for a normal and uncomplicated woman. Although part of you wonders if he falls for incredibly complicated women as he is borderline boring himself.

I will say however, that this is not a book to read if you do not want graphic sexual descriptions. And it does make it uncomfortable to read on the Tube/Metro/SMRT system in Singapore as in our heads at least, it is considered a very conservative place. Surrounded by headscarfs and people who at least (yes, see above, judgey Westerner, I hate it) look like they are Hindu or Muslim it makes it hard to read passages about noises made during sex. Although there were other times when there were many teenagers (either Chinese, Malay, Indian, or European) in tiny clothes rubbing up against each other in those trains.... Point is Singapore is complex, and it made this book uncomfortable at times. But that was my own issues... Maybe don't take it to read in the Middle East.

But in summary, beautifully written. I think I could have hated the story and still loved the book. Looking forward to reading more of this author. Loved that it was set in Tokyo as I have spent a few days there and could imagine quiet vividly some of the settings.

I did want to drink Midori while reading it due to Midori's name in the book (which simply means "green" in Japanese), but even better was we had bought some Choya plum wine duty free (well the expensive stuff, but this is what we drink at home) and spent a few nights after coming in from the sweaty crowds and bustling markets to sitting reading this book and some ice cold, Japanese plum wine (if you haven't tried this stuff, you *have* to). Perfect, or in one of my few Japanese phrases: totemo oishii desu. 4 stars.

Next: Solomon Islands with Devil-Devil

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - #6

We went to Singapore for a week. My work had a conference there, so we decided to buy another ticket and take a week off. Once you get on a plane for 8 hours (or 9 if you include the transfer to Sydney), you better bloody well have a holiday I think. The benefit however of living on an island where the closest neighbour is 4 hours away (which is closer than flying to the other side of the "island"), is that it gives you lots of time to read. The draw back is that with the data roaming charges being what they are, I'm going to be spending this week playing catch up.
I really don't have anything to complain about.

Anyways, Hedgehogs. Elegant ones.

This book had been on my "to-read" list for a while. I don't know why exactly. I think it was because it was one of those books that popped up everywhere, without any real reviews I could see. It had a nice cover. And it mentioned hedgehogs. I have read books for more ridiculous reasons.

This book sort of screamed self-indulgence for the first third of the book. The two main characters were incredibly intelligent. Like brain bleedingly so. But then they just tried as hard as they could to conceal it. I personally cannot fathom that. I feel that I am surrounded by stupidity so often, that intelligence should be embraced, encouraged and waved in everyone's faces.

What I ended up feeling like with this book was that the author made the characters that way to show off how clever *she* was. So maybe the waving it in everyone's face is a little obnoxious. All I wanted to do was shake her and yell "Yes! We all get how clever you are. Get on with the damn story!!"

Thank god someone listened and in comes Mr Kakuro Ozu who finally makes the book interesting, makes the book likable and somehow wiggles a plot out of the rest of the book. Everyone at 7 Rue de Grenelle is fascinated and in awe of him, and you as a reader are too. 1. Because he is infinitely likeable and a great human being, and 2. because he's made the 100 or so pages you have just struggled through worthwhile.

We had a ... lively discussion... over the book title in Sydney Airport. I said it was because hedgehogs are elegant in their own little way. My partner thought that this was ridiculous, and that it must be some metaphor on how something really wasn't elegant at all. It resulted in a "HAH!" moment when I came across:
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terrible elegant.” 

Take that Mr Hedgehogs-aren't-elegant. 3.5 stars from me.

Next: Japan with Norwegian Wood