Monthly Reads – January 2015

I’ve been reading quite a fair bit this past month and it’s definitely an improvement from last year. So far my average is about a book a week, up from last year’s count of a book every fortnight. However, it’s too early to know if I’ll be able to keep up the pace since we’re only one month and a bit into 2015.

Contrary to what people like to think, I’m actually a pretty slow reader for an English major*. So for me to average one book a week is quite a good record as sometimes I can spend a month reading a book. Good things are best enjoyed in small doses (i.e. another way of saying that I take my own sweet time finishing a mid-size novel – usually about 250 pages).

If you take a look at my reading history (hover above the button “Readings”), you can see that 2011 and 2013 were my worst years. In my defense, I excluded a number of books from the 2011 list. Those books were novels and texts for my English Literature courses and because I’m a humble braggart, they are considered as ‘work’. The reading lists in my blog consist only of personal readings – books that I read for pleasure and don’t have to analyze the hell out of them through the lenses of different literary theories.

For 2013, I have no idea what the hell I was doing. I think I was watching a lot of movies and TV shows. And hey, movies and TV shows are still books, but in moving pictures.

2010 remains my best year so far… in terms of count. In terms of diversity, not so much. I was mainly reading graphic novels by Neil Gaiman and Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. For non-fiction, I went through a phrase of devouring all of Gladwell’s pop-science books (I haven’t read his most recent “David and Goliath” though).  Yay for count, nay for diversity.

So when 2014 came to a close, I was determined not just to read more, but also to read widely. What does this means? It means reading classics that you thought an English Lit major like me would’ve read (but haven’t). It means reading stuff that I have always wanted to read but ‘never had the time’. It also means reading books that I avoided purely because I thought that they were either boring or below my reading station (yeah I’m a fucking snob). I’ve never really like thrillers or suspense because I thought they were just cheap thrills for the hoi polloi. I’ve also avoided the sword and sorcery sub-genre because I perceived them as ‘bad’ fantasy. Yeah, yeah, that’s just me judging the books by their genre.

I may even take a stab at Singapore literature canon. I’m not implying anything here, just that I very, very rarely read Singaporean fiction (aside from True Singapore Ghost Stories).

Another reading habit that I need to adopt is reading more non-fiction. So for 2015, for every three or two fiction books, I will read one non-fiction. They can be any ranging from self-help to history, as long as they’re, you know, non-fiction.

So anyway, my reviews for January 2015 reads:

 

“The Circle” – Dave Eggers

the-circle

I first came across “The Circle” on a website back in 2013 or 2014. I can’t remember what website it was, but basically it had a sneak peek of The Circle. The sneak peek condensed a number of chapters into one short story length and it was captivating enough that I was highly intrigued by the premise. So when I saw the book in a store – no questions asked.

The premise is simple enough: a female protagonist is employed by the most powerful and influential company in the world called The Circle. It is a technology company that handles all Internet and social media activity. Life’s basically a technological utopia covered in unicorn’s rainbow shit. But beneath the rainbow, there’s no pot of gold but rather a pot of leprechaun’s shite.

It’s basically part 1984 and part Brave New World – but now with social media and the sharing economy added in! While the novel started off strongly, it slowly devolved into “an ending flat and inane beyond belief!” That line was taken from Cloud Atlas, by the way.

Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but the ending wasn’t that strong and I found that the characters were not very well rounded and towards the end the protagonist was just incredibly infuriating. I mean, gawd….

I feel that what Eggers tried to achieved here in this polemic, Orwell and Huxley did it better and with a much lighter touch in 1984 and Brave New World respectively. Eggers managed to capture the overall omnipresent Big Brother feel beneath the techno-utopia vision, but he did not successfully instill a deeper sense of despair and hopelessness.

3/5 – Google! Bad! Facebook! Bad! You didn’t hear this from me.

 

“Snowing in Bali: The Incredible Inside Account of Bali’s Hidden Drug World” – Kathryn Bonella

snowing_in_bali

This is one of those books that are beneath my reading station. It’s one of those books that I won’t read it or buy it or even think about it. The moment I read the title, I would automatically move on.  It’s also one of those books that you see prominently displayed on book racks at airport bookstores, especially in places like Singapore.

There’s a reason why I seldom read books like this. It’s because I think they’re mostly sensationalized bullshit. Sure, there might be a grain, or a nugget or even a palm-sized truth in them. But surrounding them are mostly window-dressing. Just look that the title.

But to be honest, I was intrigued when my sister passed me this book. And since I’ve made the decision to read more non-fiction, I decided to give this a go.

Sensationalism sells. But it’s sex that gives it the spice, and this book started off with a bang, by getting a former drug dealer to describe a blow-by-blow account of a sex orgy.

Sex and drugs aside, the story is relatively well-told and structured and charts the rise and fall of several drug dealers in Bali and their fast paced high-living life. But what I thought was the book’s glaring weakness was the lack of character development. Since Bonella calls them the drug kingpins of Bali and vividly details their sexual and drug escapades, you would expect the characters to be more descriptive, more vibrant, and more ‘out there’. This is not the case; after a while the story gets repetitive and you can’t differentiate one drug dealer from another. But perhaps that this might be Bonella’s method of protecting certain ex-drug dealers who are not in Indonesian jails yet. All in all, a decent read if you’re killing time in the airport.

2.5/5 – At least it gives you an idea of where to buy drugs in Bali, at your own risk, of course.

 

“Stardust” – Neil Gaiman

stardust

I saw the film Stardust when it first came out in 2007 and thought that it was quite unexpected from the usual fairy-tale movies (i.e. Not bad. It was nice to see Robert De Niro play a pirate captain with a twist) . At that time I had no idea who Neil Gaiman was/is and so did not know that it was based on his novel of the same name. It was only until I started devouring his Sandman series and his other novels did I then learn that he wrote Stardust. Dust me surprised (sigh, bad pun).

Stardust demonstrates Neil Gaiman’s ability for darkly humourous moments and for revealing fairytales in a slightly different spectrum of light. I find that it’s quite similar to another of Gaiman’s novel, Neverwhere, but while the latter is much more dark, Stardust is much lighter. It trots along at a lively pace and the action never really lets up and you keep turning page after page to find what happen next. While the characters are interesting to keep you emotionally invested, they tend to be one-dimensional. But then this is to be expected when you’re reading an adult fairytale. Or maybe I’m just biased towards Neil Gaiman.

3.5/5 – Great, fun read for a lazy weekend and gives adults (like me) an excuse to read subversive fairytales.

 

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” – Hunter S. Thompson

fear-and-loathing

Oh boy, where do I start with this? How about we start with the man himself?

Hunter Thompson aka Raoul Duke aka Doctor of Journalism is famous for employing and popularizing Gonzo Journalism**. Gonzo is basically subjective reporting (as opposed to objective reporting) and is a highly personal blend of both fiction and fact. The focus is not just on the story, but also on the journalist reporting on the story.

Prior to Fear and Loathing, I’ve only read one of Thompson’s work sometime back in 2009 or 2010: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. This article is where Thompson first employs gonzo which would later be heavily featured in all of his works. So while I had a small exposure to Thompson’s style, nothing prepared me for Fear and Loathing, which is Thompson’s most famous work, and for good reasons.

The book opens up with one of the most well known opening lines:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…

From there on, Thompson takes you on a harrowing ride that constantly teeters and skids around on the edge of insanity and drug-induced psychosis.

Throughout the journey, Thompson paints psychedelic sceneries that leave vivid impressions in your mind. An example is the way he uses deceptively simple words to hammer home the point, such as the word “heavy”. Thompson uses this word several times throughout the book to describe a situation that is so foreboding and ominous that you can actually feel it pressing against you. Complementing Thompson’s writing is Ralph Steadman’s absolutely breathtaking illustrations. You know how Roald Dahl’s stories and Quentin Blake’s illustrations suit each other perfectly? It’s the same here from Thompson and Steadman.

This book is one hell of a heavy trip.

4/5 – A seminal work (but don’t take my word for it since I haven’t read the rest of Thompson’s writings). Thompson makes quite a number of references to the 1960’s counter-culture era and that may be confusing for people who don’t know much about that era. But don’t let this stop you from reading Fear and Loathing.

Note: The book has been adapted into a film of the same name. It’s directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame and stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro. I haven’t seen it but I heard it’s a pretty good movie. However I would recommend to read the book first because I heard that the movie lifted quite a lot of dialogue from the book.

 

* It also means I read slightly faster than the average reader.

** Wikipedia’s entry for Gonzo Journalism.


The buildup towards the end is awesome. It starts around 5:35 but I recommend that you listen to the whole song.

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