Winter reading

It’s the last day of my winter holiday here and it’s been so good to have some time to read and write. Not as much time as I would like — but I have new respect for all those mothers and fathers who balance childcare and writing / research. This past week I’ve been getting to my office at about 10am and have been relishing in the freedom to do what I like. I am way behind on blog-reading but my research is pretty much on track and I also managed to finish two books over the holidays and am busy with four more.

The Gift of Rain is the story of Philip Khoo-Hutton, a young Chinese-English boy’s relationship with his Japanese sensei before and during the Second World War. I took a while to get into this novel but I loved the descriptions of Penang, the island just off Malaysia where the book is set, the philosophy of martial arts that Philip must learn and the different groups of people (Chinese, Japanese, English, Indian) that populate the novel.

At first I wasn’t that moved by the relationship between Philip and Endo-san (his sensei) but as the Japanese occupation of Malaya unfolds, this sets up unbearable tensions in Philip’s life. The son of a wealthy English businessman and a Chinese mother, Philip straddles two worlds and his relationship with his Japanese sensei means that during the war he is involved on all sides of the conflict. The terrible cruelty of the Japanese, the suffering and resistance of the Chinese, the hardships and failings of the English all blend together in making him who he is. It’s a good story (if a trifle unbelievable at time – for example the emphasis on reincarnation and how this binds Philip and Endo-san together) and I was extremely curious to see how it would end. I was also glad to read a different perspective on the war (and a Chinese one as well) and it gave me a better understanding of Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese ways of life.

A Death in the Familyis an excellent if somewhat controversial memoir. Karl Ove Knausgaard has been a publishing sensation in his native Norway and I can see why. He writes with the skill of a novelist and his ‘merciless frankness’ is refreshing. At the heart of this story is his relationship with his stern (and later alcoholic) father but it is also a reflection on his life so far. He was under 40 when he wrote this memoir and I listened to an interview in which he described how he has had to shut himself off from any reviews and reactions in order to complete the next books in the series. At the moment I am reliving his adolescence with him and I am amazed at his candour. For example, he describes in some detail his first friendships and relationships and I couldn’t help wondering how the girls that he talks about (as well as his male friends) have taken to their details being shared like this.

Another book revelation has been Project Gutenberg, which is a site dedicated to free ebooks (mostly older books that are out of copyright). The most popular download so far has been an audiobook (as well as the text) of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and I snapped it up. I’ve listened to ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and am really interested to see how timeless but also a little dated Sherlock Holmes is. We are all so familiar with grisly detective stories that this mystery has a quite innocent quality about it. The detective story formula works so well here that it is lovely to see one of the earliest examples of it.

Psychology-wise, I’m taking a break from anger research and have started Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I didn’t realize how chatty he can be! And his thoroughness in analyzing his own dreams is quite inspirational. Lately I find that my dreams slip from my grasp before I can catch them but I know from experience that if the dream is important enough, it will allow me to get some glimpse of it.

Lastly, I am filling in the reading gaps (small as they are) with Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind. I won’t describe them here but she writes beautifully.

If only I had another three weeks (preferably in a warmer climate) to read all of these. The next big break will be December. I imagine that some of these may still be on the go then.

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7 Responses to Winter reading

  1. litlove says:

    It always gives me a jolt to think of you having winter, although frankly with the relentless rain here at present, we are hardly in what you would call summer. Very glad to think you’ve been having a break, too. As a parent of a young child, you really need them! I have the Zadie Smith essays and am really looking forward to reading them. I also have a copy of The Gift of Rain, which I bought with enthusiasm which quickly dulled. So thank you for perking up my interest in that one again. The memoir sounds fascinating – writer’s can’t be too frank or too oversharing for me (I’m sure that’s a pathology developing there!). And it will be very interesting to hear what you think of the Freud.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Litlove. I’ll definitely have to review the Knausgaard memoir when I’m finished and also the Freud. Now if I can only get some time to read them first!

  2. Thanks for the introduction to at least two books I hadn’t heard of. Zadie Smith is a favourite of mine and I’m looking forward to her next novel, coming out in September. You might find this link interesting –
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/interactive/2012/jul/13/biggest-novels-of-2012-interactive
    though on the other hand, since you’re going back to work, it might be tantalisingly frustrating!
    Also wanted to comment on your previous post – I did read Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger a number of years ago and found it incredibly helpful. Your post has prompted me to go back to it – so thanks for that too!

    • Pete says:

      HI Karen – thanks for the link. Glad you also found the Dance of Anger useful. I’m interested to read more of her work, so I’ve got a little more reading frustration right there!

  3. doctordi says:

    Great to hear you’ve managed some reading, Pete! As I am in a very similar boat, I really understand how hard it is to get any time for reading at all with an energetic (hyperactive?) toddler on the go. Good on you for managing such a respectable list! Memoir is a tricky area, isn’t it? I can’t imagine most featured family members and friends in such books enjoy their appearance unreservedly, and I am quite sure many react badly.

    • Pete says:

      Hi Di. The toddler time-juggling act is mind-breaking (and I have it easy) so I’m always impressed when you post. As for memoirs, yes, I think Knausgaard’s uncle tried to stop publication here (although I could be mixing him with someone else) and that always seems to spur on sales. It’s a tricky area as you say, and knowing what is a respectable time delay before you can publish.

  4. doctordi says:

    Pete, I am impressed when you post but AWED when you manage to read and comment upon everyone else’s blogs – now THAT is impressive when you are sleep-deprived and insane with your toddler!

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