Being Mortal

Part review, part reflection. Maybe the withering aeroplane air was making my eyes watery. Maybe I wasn’t functioning properly with only two hours of sleep. For whatever reason, as I read this book on my flight to New York, I found it so profoundly moving at times, I even shed a few tears.

I am not unfamiliar with mortality and death; my eldest cousin passed away a few years ago, my father was hospitalised during the SARS epidemic, my great-great-aunt is in a nursing home and no longer remembers who I am, my mother had cancer, I wrote my IB Extended Essay on active and passive euthanasia. Yet I had never given serious thought to the social, cultural and economic crisis ageing has become.

In his fourth book, Gawande unpicks the crucial ingredients of a life, though limited by a body breaking down, that is still fulfilling. He also unpicks when it becomes wise to start letting go, and what letting go really means. He touches on euthanasia and assisted suicide, and how their implications run deeper than simply offering one more choice – they shape entire cultures’ perceptions of, reactions to and proposed solutions for the ageing population. And he does all this with a compelling, compassionate voice.

When put into written words, our attitudes towards dying and the dying are almost absurd. Our modern culture increasingly prioritises the children’s need for peace of mind over the ageing’s need for a dignified, autonomous life. And this prioritisation is viewed as the loving course of action. It is paternalism – a word the said children’s generation cringes at – reversed. The history of nursing homes likewise stems from logic that retrospectively sounds foolish: why don’t we shuttle the old and infirm into these hospital ward variants until they recover? Hence, “nursing” homes. The fact is, we never recover. The only certainty in life, after all, is death. So why do we so stubbornly pursue ever more aggressive invasive procedures and sterile, depressing ‘homes’ for the dying? This is the pressing question Gawande attempts to answer.

On a more personal note, like the AIDS patients in the Carstensen Hong Kong-American experiments, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, her perspective was overhauled. By the time I was finishing primary school, I knew where my parents keep their share certificates, the passwords for all their financial documents, how to pay the electricity and water bills online, and the minutiae of their wills. Just in case I die in a freak accident, she would always say. I never had much interest in these conversations, not because I wanted to avoid thinking about death, but because her fixation had turned it into another mundane source of nagging. And an 11-year-old could only have so much interest in life insurance claims.

But Gawande pushed me to empathise with her fixation, which I shamefully admit I had never attempted to do. Being Mortal is an important book, not only for the generation that is currently ageing, but also (and perhaps more so) for the generation after. We are the ones who wield the power to shape how we will age in the future generations to come.

Rating: 4/5

New York City: Days 3-4

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Oh look – an actual photo of me on this blog!

Of the three most famed museums New York has to offer, the MoMA is currently my obvious favourite. The Met was a mess. It began assuredly enough; the Hellenic halls flowed chronologically from the fifth millennium BC to AD 3, revealing an intriguing progression of techniques and themes. Sure, even there, some sculptures were dubious – a surprising number were mere replicas or ‘reconstructed’ from a single limb. Not sure how they deduced that an isolated torso belonged to a centaur. Not sure how accurate the head, arms and equine body they added are either. Within each room, there was also little rhyme or reason to how they arranged the artefacts. It was often impossible to judge each item’s relative importance. I suspect the curators simply grouped similar-looking objects to sufficiently fill the space.

But where it really started to break down was when I stepped out of the Greek and Roman wing. And immediately into Oceania. Wait, what? And as if bewildering its visitors is the primary objective of the museum, the artefacts in this hall were not even arranged chronologically. In fact, I doubt they were arranged at all. The next hall was the Modern Art section, which should not have been too hard to organise. Yet the paintings were grouped neither by artist nor by date. Picasso portraits sporadically appeared at the beginning, middle and end. There was a random ‘sculpture’ in one corner. The Met was, quite literally, a labyrinth.

The Egyptian wing was particularly perplexing. Several instalments felt as if they belonged to a history museum instead: the tomb, the room of miniature dioramas, and the incongruous modern map of the Nile. These exhibits were obviously not displayed for their artistic merit, yet the accompanying plaques encouraged only a terribly contrived historical understanding. I would rather spend an afternoon in the Victoria and Albert, thank you very much.

The American Museum of Natural History had some awe-inspiring fossils and life-size models. But as a whole, it was somewhat underwhelming. The building felt much smaller and less impressive than, for example, the British Museum. And it was nothing like the grand hallways I saw recreated in Night at the Museum.

The MoMA, however, knew what’s up. Monet’s Water Lilies triptych was deservedly given a prime display space, taking up three entire walls in a room without any other distractions. The Starry Night and Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 were likewise given centre stage. Picasso had his own room dedicated to his astonishing stylistic evolution. Everything was purposeful. And as I walked among Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I and Oppenheim’s hairy teacup and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, quiet reverence pervaded the atmosphere. It was surreal to finally see these works in person after years of studying them in secondary school. Beyond the famous works, I especially liked Untitled (Dreams) by Louise Lawler with its cheeky postscript almost buried beneath the long list of references: “This will mean more to some of you than others”.

Day 3 was also the day of this trip’s main event: Jewels. I am no ballet critic, but it was spectacular. Perhaps the Parisians were a tad too chic in Emeralds – the female soloists were a little too polished to be the spry wood sylphs I always imagined the roles to be. But Teresa Reichlen was a powerhouse in Rubies, partnering not one but four men. And the Bolshoi’s Diamonds was phenomenal – the finale with everyone dancing in complete unison was so breathtaking, I had chills. And to think Alena Kovaleva only joined the illustrious Russian company a few months ago! Flying halfway around the world for this was not a bad decision.

To conclude the weekend, we went up to the Top of the Rock. Sadly, it was a cloudy evening, so we weren’t able to catch one of New York’s cotton candy sunsets. But at least it did stop raining during the hours we were up there. There was also an unbreachable wall of tourists packed against the wall facing the Empire State, so no photos could have been taken until the sun was well below the horizon. Still, I like to think it was less crowded than the Empire State itself. And you can’t see the Empire State from the Empire State. So the Top of the Rock is definitely my recommendation for getting that perfect skyline selfie in the morning or late afternoon for a clear, blue expanse, or braving the gathering sardines at dusk for a sienna sky.

For Day 1, please click here.

Swimming Lessons

Yesterday (or rather, the day before, since it is now past midnight), I walked into the most beautiful bookstore in Tribeca, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, gleaming brass ladders, and the kind of muffling carpet that belongs to grand hotels of old. It was called The Mysterious Bookshop.

Feeling quite overwhelmed, I simply plucked the first pretty cover I saw and sank into the burgundy leather sofa. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. It began beautifully – the prose was limpid, like running water. The words tumbled and pooled into Southend Pier summer snapshots – pastels, sunshine, bubbling laughter. I was hooked.

But it quickly dissolved into a love-hate relationship, though thankfully not quite as tempestuous as Ingrid and Gil’s. Flora was the generic self-centred, sexually assured, ‘screwed up’ millennial younger sister. Nan was the generic Bert to her Ernie. And Gil was the generic smooth-as-silk seductive English professor. The only character that had any flesh was Ingrid, the vanished mother we only meet in hidden letters. Her voice was a lucid dream, and I was rooting for her from her very first page. Sadly – and I suppose it was already clear from the novel’s premise – everything only spirals downwards. I only became more and more frustrated by her complete inability to turn back. To properly process how disastrous her relationship is and to run the hell out of there.

Even with the countless affairs, illegitimate children, and betrayals by almost everyone around her, she continued to just let her life crumble into precisely what she had sworn she would never let it come to. Back when she was young and had dreams and did not know Gil Coleman (Get it? Gil? Gill? Swimming lessons? Hah.). Come to think of it, we never learn her dreams. Details of her life before Gil were disconcertingly absent. Her identity was wholly built on her relationship with her husband. Gil was infuriating too. He had the nerve to think, as he fell, that he wanted to tell Ingrid how much he loved her. Pah! If he had ever loved her, he would never have caused her such relentless humiliation and emotional torture. He loved her body and he loved how he managed to catch and tame her mermaid soul. He did not love her. I was even frustrated by Flora and her infantile frustration at Nan, just because she was more responsible. Basically, I was frustrated a lot.

But what was the most frustrating was the epilogue. After going through the maddening lows of Ingrid and Gil’s marriage and their daughters’ present-day unresolved grief, we were given no answers. At all. Which would have been a little more bearable if the novel had ended at the final chapter. In some ways, Swimming Lessons was about being okay with not knowing. Flora finally accepted that her mother had drowned, and tentatively began to move on. Yet Fuller completely unravelled her own arguments by throwing in the epilogue, which implied that Ingrid was, indeed, alive. Now what? Was she there because she needed closure too? Was she there to reveal herself to her daughters after eleven years? Was she there to see if Gil had missed her? Or was it a random woman after all? But by then, I’m not even sure I care anymore.

The entire book was a fine dining restaurant well past its glory days, presenting an exasperating parade of amuse-bouches and never managing to make the entrée. No amount of mesmerising prose can ever make up for the perplexing mess Fuller somehow managed to spin out of nothing.

Rating: 2/5

New York City: Day 1

Today, I touched down in the Big Apple. Alone. Two months ago, I had impulsively bought tickets for a ballet half the world away from home. To celebrate its golden anniversary, three of the most renowned companies are collaborating to perform an act each of the late, great Balanchine’s iconic Jewels. The cast is so apt it is almost poetic; the Paris Opera Ballet will perform Emeralds, a piece heavily inspired by the French Romantic aesthetic; New York City Ballet, for whom Balanchine had originally choreographed Jewels, will take Rubies, a staccato archetype of Balanchine athleticism; and the Bolshoi Ballet will take Diamonds, the regal finale that radiates Imperial Russian grandeur. A tortuous 16-hour flight later, I have finally made it.

While I did spend most of the day (or night, by Hong Kong standards) wondering whether I would develop deep vein thrombosis like so many of the cases we had discussed in our tutorials, it still was not as uneventful as I would have hoped. Critical note to self: Always look behind you whenever you leave a seat. Or risk leaving your phone in the airport like I did in Hong Kong. By the time I had finally realised, the plane was already taking off. So now I’m alone in New York without a phone.

I also learned that a 16-hour flight is really long. If flight times and our perception of time were graphed, it would show an exponential curve. Just a year ago, 12-hour flights were my norm. I was never bored; a movie fit snugly between take-off and the first meal, and afterwards I would always spend the next eight or nine hours struggling to get as much poor quality sleep as I could with some wailing infant a row away. But when you add just four more hours, you can suddenly read an entire book, watch two movies, get a solid eight hours of sleep, and still have an exasperating stretch of time to stare into the darkness and contemplate your chances of getting a pulmonary embolism from all your inactivity.

Anyway, besides the ballet on Saturday, I still don’t know exactly what I will be doing here. I quite literally came all the way to New York ‘just’ to see a ballet. Of course, I have a general list of things (MoMA, Museum of Natural History, The Met, The Whitney…), but no set plans at all. I suppose I do have some time tonight to allocate the destinations to days. If I don’t nod off from jet lag first.

I Can’t Be the Only One

There are contemporary books so lauded or so popular, they are cultural pillars in our collective consciousness (at least, my generation’s): Harry Potter, Twilight, and to lesser extents, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson. And because these series have transcended into such phenomena, there is luxurious room for justified disappointment, apathy and even loathing.

There are also books, though not Herculean triumphs like the aforementioned, that are popular enough to have seemingly achieved omnipresence across social media platforms and in prime window displays in bricks-and-mortar stores (yes, those still exist). Many of these are adored enough to have scored an average 4.0+ on Goodreads. To the uninitiated bibliophile, that may not sound impressive, but with a community numbering more than 55 million members and books often receiving more than 100,000 ratings each, such a high average is actually no easy feat. For the typical book, it would mean almost 50,000 deeming it perfect enough to merit the elusive five stars. From my personal experience, the rating system really is quite reliable, and I do agree with the vast majority of the 4.0+ ratings for the books I have read.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is, I have been increasingly frequently boggled by certain books, which either received rave reviews or were otherwise simply commercially successful enough to have sold-out sequels etc. Here is a list of those books, and why I did not enjoy them.

1. Freakonomics (averaging 3.9 stars)

I wrote a full review for this ‘groundbreaking’ introduction to economics a little while back. Steven D. Levitt certainly thinks of himself as some ‘woke’ academic with (gasp) controversial answers to some big questions. But too often, the crucial intermediate steps between his bold hypotheses and conclusions were missing. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources. His deductions were no more than superficial appeals to intuitive logic. And the black-and-white explanations were too simplistic to be convincing or even evaluable.

The titles for most chapters were overworked and sensationalist. His tone was unpalatably dismissive, stamped with an all-too-familiar oh look at you less educated souls, how cute! strain of superiority. Yes, I was uncharacteristically generous when I gave this three stars. But be assured that it was for wholly unrelated reasons to the educational value of this book. If you want to learn some economics, look somewhere else instead.

2. Heartless (4.1 stars)

Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles was deserving of praise. The retellings stood on inventive premises that worked, had compelling and complicated characterisations both familiar and fresh, and were different enough from previous reworkings to make them feel like completely new stories. Heartless (a ‘prequel’ to Alice in Wonderland) was not this.

The protagonist, Cath, was insufferable – the archetypal fortunate-in-all respects girl blessed with wealth, a good family, attractiveness, and purported ‘intelligence’, who was woefully stuck in an oh-so-original ‘unfortunate’ circumstance (catching the eye of the king). If the problem were just the premise, I would have been willing to set it aside. But she could not seem to do anything but whine. Whine and precipitate the very disaster she was warned about repeatedly throughout the novel. Oh, and inexplicably turn mad and start chopping heads off left, right and centre.

I mean, I get it. [Highlight to show spoiler] Her lover died. (Her fault.) But it was all so sudden. The final few chapters felt like Meyer was desperately rushing to turn Cath into the villain we all know so well from the original stories, knowing that she was already running out of steam. Not to mention how clichéd it all was. True, clichés are clichés for a reason – they can still be powerful when spun well. This was not spun well.

3. The Wrath and the Dawn (4.2 stars)

I also wrote a full review for this duology, the first four paragraphs of which discuss the sheer ludicrousness of the plot and characterisations (or lack thereof). But if you cannot be bothered to scan a few more hundred words, the gaping flaws were as follows:

  • Girl’s best friend is murdered by the caliph.
  • Said girl has few charms to recommend her (at least, none uniquely able to catch the caliph’s attention when 70+ just as beautiful and much more talented girls have failed) but decides to seduce and murder the caliph.
  • Girl thinks she’s all that but it’s a Hong Kong summer-ful of hot air. 90% of her qualities are tell-not-show.
  • Caliph is seduced. Don’t ask me.
  • On day two, girl becomes all butterflies and lust for her best friend’s murderer because he’s frickin’ hot.
  • Some corny lines.
  • More corny lines.
  • She finally finds out why he has been murdering a girl every dawn and stuff actually goes down but it’s already the last few chapters.

I really have no clue why the two books were considered to be amongst the best fantasy novels published in their respective years. Nor why readers swooned from the ridiculous patchwork of clichés that was the central ‘romance’. I did end up giving the second book four stars, precisely for the same reasons most readers enjoyed it less – the eye-rolling romance became less important, towns were razed, a war declared, basically some actual action happened.

4. The Sword of Summer (4.3 stars)

I know, I know, this is a Middle Grade book, so I was not the intended audience. While I staunchly believe books written for younger audiences should never automatically be held to lower critical standards (read The Little Prince, Harry Potter, even picture books like The Giving Tree and The Paper Bag Princess), another spin-off series is just one too many. There are only so many times you can rehash the exact same concept, and for Riordan, third time was sadly not the charm.

With The Sword of Summer, you can tell he was trying too hard. His wit was a little thinner, his characters flatter, his twists more formulaic. Magnus Chase might as well have been Percy Jackson 2.0 – take Percy Jackson’s voice and personality traits, truss them up into a younger blond, and you have our latest demigod hero. I was so uninterested I gave up after the first quarter. Maybe it’s time to get back to some actual creativity.

5. Deathless (4.1 stars)

Valente’s lemony prose first captivated me in her Fairyland series (reviews here, here and here), with its sumptuous verbal illustrations weaving allusive treasure troves for literature lovers and seasoned readers. Deathless boasts the same meandering descriptions, but in this case, the leaden-footed build-up was an unfortunate detriment instead. The narration was too verbose, bordering on pretentiously philosophical, and I was constantly tempted to skip entire chapters.

It suited Fairyland, where there was a deliberate absence of urgency or any overarching tasks, so the reader was able to feel like she had all the time in the world to be enamoured by the wondrous, witty marvels of Valente’s unique, well, fairyland. I am sure her extensive knowledge of Russian folklore was incredibly impressive. I am sure she transformed well-loved stories (as she did with Fairyland) into a poignant, heart-wrenching, witty, intricate mural of war and love – if you ever manage to slog through it first. But no amount of genius or incandescent language can make up for the total lack of direction. If this novel were 100 pages shorter, perhaps I would have been able to finish it.

So?

So there you have it, why I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, why these books receive such inflated hype. Are there any popular books that you just could not enjoy? Comment them below, I would love to hear!

Flame in the Mist

An overdue review, but better late than never. (Although in medicine, late often makes never. But I’m getting distracted.) Having read Ahdieh’s last duology, I was justifiably wary about this one. Like most Young Adult books, the blurb of Flame in the Mist had to spotlight a romance, and romance is definitely not Ahdieh’s forte. Compound that with the incomprehensible fact that the most successful ‘feudal Japan-inspired’ series amongst English readers is still the quasi-Asian mess that was Across the Nightingale Floor, and you have quite a sceptic. (Going on another tangent, every single one of the most popular books set in feudal Japan was written by a Caucasian author.)

What ultimately encouraged me to buy the book was her evident meticulous research for The Wrath and the Dawn. She may be Middle Eastern, but the language, tone and smallest details demonstrated an impressive understanding of a region that preceded modern Persia by more than twelve centuries. And thankfully, besides minor descriptions that were a touch absurd (really not sure how varnish can ever smell like Dragon’s Beard candy), Flame in the Mist was also nowhere near Rubinstein’s gross appropriation.

Flame in the Mist was a large improvement on The Wrath and the Dawn in almost all aspects. But most of all, in the romance – or lack thereof. Yes, Mariko does fall into another nonsensical amour (an Ahdieh signature). Yes, it was ridiculously abrupt. Yes, there were no conceivable reasons behind Okami’s attraction towards her. But this was all much more forgivable because it was forced into existence only in the final quarter of the book, and remained relegated to the sidelines. What is Ahdieh’s forte is subterfuge, and the ceaselessly twisting, ruthless palace politics were fortunately in the limelight this time around.

I have no idea what is up the crown prince’s golden silk sleeves. Or the consort’s. Or the elder prince’s. I am still not even sure what the emperor’s agenda actually is. Nothing good, for sure. But beneath the appearances the characters are so adept at crafting, the loyalties are divided between many more than two sides. Sure, a lot of Ahdieh’s tricks have long been hallmarks of East Asian period dramas. But I personally have yet to find another English Young Adult novel capturing the tensions so well. The Wrath and the Dawn was no original tale either (in fact, it was much closer to a poorly disguised khoresh of clichés), but Ahdieh does have a knack for recreating worlds too often dressed in garish kitsch and scanty knowledge.

Like Shahrzad’s entirely absent ‘allure’, for the first half, Mariko’s alleged strategic quick thinking was also just a lot of tell without any show. Her choice to cross-dress and hunt down her attempted murderers was based on tenuous logic (I suppose Ahdieh had to get her to the Black Clan somehow), rather than shrewd judgement. She also made some pretty stupid decisions more frequently than one would expect; she saved the leader of the aforementioned murderers, even though all she was wanting was him dead. Now, the classic ‘calculated reason’ would have been because she wanted to torture his employer out of him first, or just to torture him, finis. But no. She did not show that foresight either. I can only say how glad I was when she realised her own naïveté and ineptitude once she had to ‘play with the big boys’, so to speak.

Anyhow, Flame in the Mist is one of the very few well-researched non-European historical fantasies I have read. For that alone, I was impressed enough to give this three stars. For the relatively complex and incalculable plot, I bumped it up to four. Highly recommended holiday read – quick, light and so much more engaging than the typical Californian beachside summer flick.

Favourite quotes: “To me, you are magic.”

“I’ve never been angry to have been born a woman. There have been times I’ve been angry at how the world treats us, but I see being a woman as a challenge I must fight. Like being born under a stormy sky. Some people are lucky enough to be born on a bright summer’s day. Maybe we were born under clouds. No wind. No rain. Just a mountain of clouds we must climb each morning so that we may see the sun.”

Rating: 4/5

The Bird and the Sword

I loved the beginning-of-the-world myth Harmon’s medieval kingdom was built from, which had an intriguing biblical base note. I loved the premise of an emotionally shuttered young woman fighting for her voice, wings and people. I also loved the final twist, even though it was not the most unpredictable development in the world. But something about Lark and Tiras’ relationship just left an uncomfortable aftertaste.

I have only seen this mentioned in one other review (many reviews were five-star), so maybe I have quite an individual interpretation. Personally, I failed to see Tiras’ ‘love’ mature much from its possessive origins. Maybe Harmon thought the whole “I think I will keep you” thing was romantic. Maybe it could have been, in the right circumstances, with the right characters, and with the right context. But Tiras himself admitted that he had kidnapped and imprisoned Lark to “kill two birds with one stone” – (1) because he thought she could ‘cure’ him and (2) to threaten her father into submission (and dissuade him from plotting too hard to steal his throne).

And he only continues to use her to keep his lords in check and to help his army slaughter the Volgar. Even his lovemaking was largely to ensure there is an heir. Yes, he teaches her to read and shows a little care and patience, but it far from negates how much he based Lark’s worth on her ability to protect his city. Love (even if we call it love) should never be the endgame, you should love for the right reasons. And I have a feeling Tiras’ were not the right reasons.

“You are of great use to me. I will put a child in your belly. A son who will be king.”

“Why do I have to be taught?”
“Because you said you know nothing about being a queen. Because I am king. And because it is your duty to please me.”

“You said I chose you because you are of use to me. And I did.”

Otherwise, I found the prose and pacing quite enjoyable; 350 pages was the perfect length. There were no frilly descriptions (the bane of fantasy literature), few sentences felt aesthetically pretentious (you know, those blunt phrases tacked onto the end of some observation or revelation that the author thinks sound ‘deep’ and ‘poetic’) and I was only tempted to skim a handful of passages. Deep-rooted hate and hysteria (likely inspired by the Salem witch trials) pervaded the atmosphere in an unusually adept demonstration of ‘showing, not telling’. While the plot was relatively straightforward and somewhat predictable (the typical a kingdom faces a mysterious threat and its king falls in love with its unlikely liberator concoction), Harmon’s particular blend of fantasy elements was fresh enough to make a quick, agreeable read.

Favourite quote: “Often-times, grass was more useful than gold. Man was more desirable than beast. Chance was more seductive than knowledge, and eternal life was completely meaningless without love.”
Rating: 3/5