and here we are again
the phone is in his hand

searching

for connections

who knows what he’s thinking
(perhaps hiding)
from lack of words, the

yawning gulf
in the middle of
the lunch table

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Critical Reading: Ever Wish You Could Stop?

Remember the delicious thrill of students, right before the start of the school hols.? Months of blissful nothing lying ahead; and while for others this meant Cartoon Network and video games (or, for many of us poor Singaporean kids, more tuition), for me it was the delightful prospect of weeks spent lounging about like a fat cat on the sofa with my whiskers getting all tangled up in books. Whenever school hols started Dad would drive us all to the library, from which we’d troop back hours later, dragging a huge bag of books between us. Had to be a canvas bag, because plastic always broke; what with sixteen books each for me and my sister, and sometimes more (we’d purloined our grandparents’ cards too so we could borrow extra books). So much time then, and so much to read! I’d plunge into the books with a child’s abandon, yielding completely to the magic of the moment.

Then came Literature. The academic discipline. And with it came timelines and deadlines. Texts had to be dissected, some forced down our throats (Herland, for example, was a piece of total propaganda that bored me to tears). Teachers would drone on, and the notes and homework they flooded us with together with their general lack of help and enthusiasm often desiccated great works in the process, which I would only later learn to enjoy. Critical reading, they called it. With the encounter of better teachers, I learnt, gradually, to not only do it but also love it for its fruits. In uni, however, this had to be done fast.

My (rarely achieved) goal was about four books a week, some of them as thick and tedious as Tristram Shandy. In addition to my curriculum texts, I was determined to keep up with my proliferating shelf of recreational reading books. But my overloaded schedule meant that every second of free time had to count. Social life was the first thing to go. Next went sleep; I had to seize not just the day but also the night. If Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, another shot for me wouldn’t hurt …

But something else left me, too. The innocent pleasure of absorption that I’d had as a child, the joyous thirst for story with its anticipation of fulfilment–all that had disappeared, though in my hectic life I was barely conscious of it. I plodded on. There was no time to be enchanted, no time to enjoy the show; I had to head straight backstage to study the pulleys and levers, the props and the puppet strings. Attempts at succumbing to the author’s spell met with varying degrees of failure, as every moment in the journey was shadowed by the next essay or review waiting to be hammered out. Books were rifled through rather than savoured; like many other moderately diligent students I skimmed over whole forests, swooping in occasionally with the all-too-easy command+F to reap it for technicalities, messages, cultural resonances. Secondary sources became unhealthy acquaintances; the noise of my search helicopter drowned out the whisper of the leaves.

Hammered by the driving curse of carpe diem I Googled speed-reading courses, trying to turn my brain into some kind of super-sponge, wishing I could download whole libraries into it like learning kungfu in The Matrix. I was greedy; I wanted it all. Books piled up, in my Kindle and in my shelves, read once and slotted in neatly again–I’ll come back, I promised them, next month, or the month after–but there were always more new fields to plough. When I could mark another book as ‘Read’ I’d feel a trivial, and perhaps rather perverse, sense of satisfaction.

I had, of course, other reasons to read: for wisdom and insight, for admiration of an author’s skill, for pleasure in a language exquisitely wrought. Nevertheless I could never read again with the same absorption I’d had as a child, when disbelief was not so much willingly as automatically suspended because the possibility of not doing so simply never occured to me.

This is what J. Harris Miller calls the ‘aporia of reading‘. As a child I read speedily, and even took pride at how fast I read, flying through plot after plot without thought for the author’s craft; as an adult I still read quickly, (well at least I try to, though careful reading always slows things down), mining texts for both craft and content, but no longer dragged hook, line and sinker into the author’s painted world. Miller insists, despite their apparent contradiction, that we must perform both ways of reading simultaneously.

Is this even possible? Perhaps some of you have no problem with this, but it seems to me that every time I think about the author’s technique I am jerked out of the story. It’s with a different sense of enjoyment that I read now, and although some may say the development of the critical faculty is always good, I can’t help but miss the times when I could just drift off on the words of a book, and remain carried by its currents of dream without looking down to see how the propellers work.

Lately, though, I’m finding more and more that slow reading brings me close to a resolution of sorts. Reading slowly, I can luxuriate in the intricacy of the crafted spell, and even let it seduce me a little, because the time taken to savour it allows me also to willingly or actively yield myself to its power. Good reading, Miller says, demands slow reading. He’s referring specifically to critical reading here, the necessity of being ‘suspicious at every turn’; but I think that this isn’t wholly incompatible with the first, unsuspicious way of reading. We may compare this with slow food: eating slowly when we’re hungry would prolong hunger and perhaps delay gratification, but ultimately we get to satiate our appetites and enjoy the finer details of taste, texture and culture that gobbling would leave out. In the same way, slow reading may interfere with the pace of, say, a climactic scene in an Agatha Christie novel, but may enable us to gain the two key, distinct experiences of a text–absorption into a world and enjoyment of the author’s craft–just a split second short of simultaneity.

Still, it’s an imperfect solution to the reading aporia. Perhaps every book should be read at least twice–once for the credulous reading, and once again for the critical one. What do you think?

Against Grammar Nazism

(A modified version of this article was first published on Book Riot under the title “Learning Grammar Rules to Break Grammar Rules“.)

We all know them. Some of us have suffered under them. The frowning school teacher who constantly rampaged our scripts for run-on sentences and double negatives; the vulture-eyed editor who swoops down on the slightest punctuation mistake. Woe to anyone who puts a semi-colon out of place! Failure to conform to the grammar Nazi’s (often arbitrary) rules will immediately be condemned for ‘bad writing’.

I remember the profound sense of irritation I had whenever I got back my essays to see my teachers’ invasive red ink marring my carefully penned scripts. In Singapore, students must stick to the conventions of formal writing if they want to ace English, despite being tasked to write fiction. (I don’t know why it doesn’t seem to have occured to our Education Ministry that if they wanted to test our formal writing skills they should set that for exams instead.) So teachers here are often what C. S. Lewis calls ‘Stylemongers’. Besotted with grammar, they’d give no thought to whether the repetitive words and run-on sentences they so enthusiastically slash out contribute to the expressiveness of the language. They’d underline sentence fragments with furious relish, replace commas with full-stops for no good reason other than that they had to prepare us for exams and change ‘guys’ to ‘boys’ regardless of the story’s context or narrative voice.

I don’t blame the teachers. They have to play by the rules laid down by the Ministry. But it’s scary this attitude lingers on even outside of school. Recently, a friend of mine submitted a script for an educational film to be shown to school students, and the school teachers who made the edits corrected words like ‘thanks’ to ‘thank you’, complaining that the former was too informal; and, of course, throwing believable dialogue out of the window. This is an extreme case of linguistic Nazism, but we see variations of this all the time: book-bloggers picking on oversights in editing but paying scarcely any attention to the book’s contents; critics or Goodreads reviewers attacking a book for its meandering narrative, for deviating from accepted plot structures. Hunger for social media approval has churned out titles like 10 Rules for Writing FictionThe Golden Rules For A Good PlotTop 5 Grammar Rules Not To Break; guided, of course, by articles like 5 Data Insights Into Headlines Readers Click. Who’d dare create the next literary revolution, the next Ulysses equivalent, with all these rules in place? That poor book would probably be–God forbid!–ranked lowest on Amazon. At most we’d probably just get a Ulysses copycat; then maybe it’d get some award and get chucked to the rank number #500,000.

We need guidelines, yes. The ability to write and speak according to set linguistic conventions is no doubt a good practical skill, as is the knowledge of effective story structures. But if we are going to set exams that involve the writing of fiction, then these conventions should not be imposed as incontestable laws. Writers and readers alike should see them as tools, or stepping stones, towards greater creativity; perhaps to be followed temporarily by students for training purposes, but able to be artfully used, manipulated or broken after they’ve been mastered. And if an author seems to make a mistake or two, let us consider them with open minds instead of shredding his manuscript at once.

It’s part of the job of Language Arts educators to mark the works of young writers. This means evaluation. Which means, like it or not, they contribute almost as much as critics do in setting the course of literary taste and standard for next generation. The way young writers are graded would influence their judgment of other works. If what we are teaching is a greater concern for arbitrary rules than with the sound and signification, the poetic style and usage, of language, then one generation of grammar Nazis would breed another; and soon we may find ourselves suffocating in a dreadfully dull, colourless literary landscape, with far fewer than fifty shades of grey.

Trigger Warning: What’s in It? 

(This article was first published on Book Riot.)

Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection is introduced, aptly, with a trigger warning that sounds in tone like he’s addressing children (he isn’t, of course). This book, Gaiman warns, may awaken “monsters in our cupboards” and so cause unwanted distress. The mishmash of prose and poetry assembled here are connected only very broad and subjective thread, which mostly does live up to its disturbing promise, though sometimes it fades or even disappears entirely into a disappointing muddle. For those considering whether to read the book, here’s a list (without spoilers) of what’s in it.

Making a Chair
A rather inane poem about writing books.

“The Lunar Labyrinth”
A very pale tribute to Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrinth,” which is so much more than just a suspenseful story.

“The Thing About Cassandra”
Sweet story with a twist, about made-up romances, enriched with just little twinge of nostalgia at the end.

Down to a Sunless Sea
About a woman who lost her son. Can’t be faulted for style, but while the “you” of the story stumbles out with “the rain run[ing] down [her] face like someone else’s tears,” my own eyes remained dry.

The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Gaiman’s award-winning novelette, rich enough to deserve a whole article on its own. For now, we shall have to be content with just a brief summary. In this story, a dwarf journeys with a guide to a cave supposedly filled with gold. There is a mythical quality to his language here, with striking images that remind one of the futility of greed and wealth, and, less obviously, of revenge.

My Last Landlady
A story dressed as a poem. Seems like it got squeezed into the wrong clothes.

Adventure Story
An apparently boring mom recalls her husband’s adventures. Meh. 

“Orange”
About aliens, told in questionnaire format. Quirky, playful and original.

“A Calendar of Tales”
An assembly of 12 tales, each written from a reply to a tweet asking people about their experiences during a particular month of the year. Interesting project, disappointing stories. The March one was especially weird. I mean, why ducks?

The Case of Death and Honey
Written as an ending to the Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes investigates the solution to eternal life from bees, and though this process wasn’t very interesting, I like how the story closes on an ambiguous note that leaves us wondering if death is really such a crime after all.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
Another tribute. This one’s better; I can sympathise with the narrator. How we love our favourite authors!

“Jerusalem”
Where we all want to go; but is it as good a land of milk and honey as we think? Jerusalem Syndrome is an intriguing phenomenon, but the story itself is unimpressive.

Click-clack the Rattlebag
Delightfully creepy.

An Invocation of Curiosity
Deserving winner of the Locus Award for Best Short Story. This strange little tale, full of potent imagery and motifs, pricked me with a curious sense of sorrow; sorrow for loss of wonder and curiosity, for buried longing, and for our timidity in invoking it in ourselves.

“And Weep, Like Alexander”
About uninventing things. An uninspired rehashing of Gaiman’s favourite theme; I didn’t care much about the lost things here.

“Nothing O’Clock”
This one seems like it’s just catering to Doctor Who fans. As a story it’s frivolous and insubstantial.

“Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”
Much more disturbing than the original tale of toads and diamonds. Overturns traditional didacticism for a grimmer, contemporised portrait of life.

The Return of the Thin White Duke
A few mawkish clichés here and there but overall a great fairy tale reflecting the journey of artist and audience. Like the king in the story we too are transformed after the tale, emerging with larger hearts, into a world both old and new.

Feminine Endings
A living statue writes a love letter to a woman. “Life imitates art,” writes Gaiman in his introduction to the story, “but clumsily, copying its movements when its not looking.” In this story it does so in way that’s sad and beautiful and just a little bit sinister.

“Observing the Formalities”
Short rant in free verse from the POV of the witch in “Sleeping Beauty.” The persona is one-dimensionally self-righteous and bitter–something I’d expect from a Disney cartoon or nursery rhyme, not a poem with any claims to seriousness.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”
One of the treasures in this collection. The tale artfully merges “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in a fresh, empowering way that would make feminists happy.

Witch Work
This poem is full of stock phrases, and some words just seem stuck for the rhyme; but the idea of a witch in a house full of clocks is interesting, and the repetition, metre and rhyme give the poem a suitably chant-like quality.

In Relig Odhráin
What’s up with all these poems? This one is about the legend of Oran of Iona, who was rumoured to have been willingly buried alive under the foundations of a chapel that Columba wanted to build.

“Black Dog”
A gratifying ghost story set as a sequel to American Gods. The ending was a bit of a cop-out but I like the suspense-building and the way feelings of guilt, fear and depression are amplified through Gaiman’s representation of the Grim.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances yields more treasures than junk. Be warned, though, before you pull the trigger: some stories are disturbing, and some would need to be read twice.

Bring Back My Baby

They were heartbreakingly lovely. Each a miniature world, round and complete, bobbing and shimmering against the drain wall. What were they? Despite her heels, Keiko knelt over the pavement. Eight of them, staring like fish eyes. She shuddered, picking them up with her kitchen forceps. People gave her odd looks–that quick, curious glance before the embarrassed head-ducking that follows at the sight of aberration. She flushed, scurrying back to the junk-jammed pocket of space they’d lived in since nuclear radiation had blown everyone west.

They’d been hounding her, more and more lately. Translucent white globules that appeared everywhere, even in her coffee; and any attempt to get rid of them just brought them back with a vengeance. One night she’d woken to that familiar metallic tang; they were all over her bed, in her mouth, between her legs. Those that had been squished oozed a red juice that wouldn’t come off. She’d had to get new sheets.

Now she just kept them in a cup, far back in the kitchen cabinet.

“Keiko.”

She jumped, cabinet door banging shut. Her husband stood by the kitchen entrance. His gaze made her flesh crawl. The forceps twisted, round and round, in her fingers.

“We need to ta–”

Her hand flew up, slamming the cabinet door, which had swung ajar.

“Hey. We were merciful. He wouldn’t’ve been happy, growing up like–”

She believed him, she did. But she felt strangely weak. No strength left, to clutch at his words. A rumbling sound had started up in the cabinet and her fingers floated up–stay shut dammit–but already they were jostling out, splatting on the floor like eggs, and in each was a shadow, something wriggling. She shrieked; she didn’t want to look, but she couldn’t tear her eyes away from that thing in front of her.

It was wailing, its hammered-in face glutted with limbs crushed by the doctor’s forceps and spliced back in perverse places, coated in red-tinged slime. Her baby flopped toward her; tiny fingers, tiny toes. He would’ve been lovely, heartbreakingly lovely. She sobbed, shaking. Sorry, Mummy’s sorry.

Her husband tried to stop her. She’d been staring at something invisible between them, and when her arm rose it was as if something had yanked it. The forceps pierced one eye, then the other. 

Eventually, he left her. Not that he minded a blind wife; he just couldn’t stand the monstrous grimace that had grown on her face, as if she had something to spit out all the time. He didn’t know why, but it made his flesh crawl, too.

(about 400 words, written in response to Laura James’ Horror Bites Challenge #6)

Kindling A Passion For Print: On the E-book vs. Print Book War

On the surface of things, liking print books makes no sense.

Recently, a friend saw my shelves and floor strewn all over with books and accused me of being a hipster. “Who buys physical books anymore?” he scoffed. And he went on to wax lyrical on the comparative merits of the Kindle, which I won’t get into here as that topic has already been covered in-depth by many. Unless you’re technologically challenged, my friend insists, or you live under a rock, there’s no good reason for a real book lover to continue buying books in print. Claims about the ‘feel’ of a physical book, often glossed over as something ‘indescribable,’ are founded on irrational sentiments such as nostalgia, which ought not to have an impact on a real book lover’s choice of book format. After all, if I really loved books, my decision would be based on practical considerations; so anything that allows me to read more often and widely would be the winner. A Kindle allows ease of travel, greater access to more books at cheaper prices, word search functions, and it isn’t even any worse for your eyes than a book-book is. So, my friend concludes, the only reason why anyone would to buy book-books is that they want to look good–whether to others or just themselves.

I must say I agree with him on the merits of the Kindle–I don’t go anywhere without mine–but I wouldn’t dismiss physical books entirely. When studying complex subjects or texts that require multiple cross-references, it helps to lay out print versions of books and essays all around me. I work on the floor, Japanese-style, so I have a whole circle of space around me for me to get a bird’s eye view of my research, draw links between different sources, and jot down notes. Mapping ideas out physically helps me remember them better than just highlighting them in an e-book. And when I want to recall something I read, in a physical book I’d remember roughly where to flip to; whereas if I can’t remember any keywords, the Kindle’s search function would be useless . Of course, the search function is also invaluable in research, so sometimes I would get both the print and electronic versions of the same text.

But I’ve always felt, vaguely, that when reading physical books my brain feels sharper, more focused, and I can concentrate for longer periods of time. With my Kindle I seem to need lots more discipline. I thought this feeling was purely psychological, so I did some quick Googling and found that it’s actually backed by evidence: apparently, a study done by researches in Norway’s Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle fared significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occured in a mystery story. In immersion, empathy and other emotional responses, though, Kindle fans would be glad to know that both Kindle and paper readers performed equally.

FullSizeRender
My Kindle’s my workhorse but reading on it made me appreciate printed texts more.

Well, this is only one study. Would future generations fare better on Kindle if that’s what they grow up with and are used to? I don’t know, but it does help explain why reading texts the old fashioned way feels better to me, especially when it comes to non-fiction. There’s a flow to it that’s supported by the tactile feel of flipping pages, the subconscious awareness of a sheaf of paper rising and falling from one hand to another as you course through the novel. A Kindle, for all its provision of greater mobility, doesn’t have seem to allow you this same ease of travel, because its hardware remains static and its screen fragments the narrative into framed and uniform pages that seem disjointed from one another rather than parts of an organic whole.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of passing down physical books. I love my second-hand novels, scribbled with the annotations of strangers, some of them so old they have become ghosts, genius spirits whose names I don’t know but who share my heart and whose voices I hear whispering through these yellowed, dog-eared pages. Every print book collects in its physical form its own history of readership, and so abounds with its own mystery as it evokes in one a sense of worlds and minds beyond one’s own. It’s a vague, delicious sense of transcending space and time. An e-book is only ever yours, replicated in binary code through a multitude of devices, easily replaceable if burnt; and with the current turnover rate for electronics, I won’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren aren’t using Kindles any more.

“So,” you ask me, “should I get a Kindle?” Well, it depends on how you read. Do you devour your books, or savour them? I like to do both, so while I won’t be throwing out my Kindle any time soon, I’ll definitely still be haunting my local of bookstores and libraries, on pain of being called a hipster. Sadly, though, this pool seems to be drying up far too quickly.

Versatile Blogger Award

Yay, received my first award–thanks, Jade! I didn’t even know such things existed, but it seems a good way to interact with a lovely community of writers, so I’m in. 🙂

According to the rules, I’ve got to pass this award on to 10 other bloggers, and they have to have excellent blogs. Nominated bloggers must post seven things about themselves. Hey, if you’re bored, you could even write it in verse, too. 🙂

I like coffee and poetry. Nothing special.
A dark roast, with a dash of milk and silent
music, by a clear sunlit window.

I’d like to say I’m not a hipster,
but I suppose my penchant for this fashion
of things to like automatically
shoves me in that box. Along with
my use of ‘penchant,’ a pretty ornamentation
some may deem useless, but which I will
not have replaced with any other word
because it tinkles, bell-like, in my ears
and glitters, silver and jade, in this crate–

this dark, cluttered crate
through which I wade,
straining for glimpses of myself.

In this crate things real and fake get muddled.
There’s coffee and poetry, as I’ve said,
but also plain rice and pumpkin,
what I had for breakfast and other
mundane things and sin, sin, sin
I could have chosen instead
but I picked these two, coffee and poetry,
because they seemed safe enough,
familiar points on tried, charted territory.

I could have written of love, my love,
my golden and broken heart, but I’m afraid–
it’s probably tarnished, trapped in too much hate.

In my box–
whatever box it is–
there are layers of evil I will not list.
Still, there’s hope. It lies
at the bottom. The end of this abyss.

Face and mask
mask each other,
betray each other,
become each other.

I guess it doesn’t matter.
The crate, anyway, is not secure.
Its shape shifts, it sags, its store

changes constantly, warped
with impurities pouring
in and out of its pores,

its face pockmarked with wormholes,
fault lines and pitfalls of fear,

or tunnels, or clear
sunlit windows,
through which souls

may sleep,
or seep.

Okay, so I kind of got carried away, but there’re about 7 things put together in the above … thing that looks like a poem.

And now I’m going to pass on this award to …

  1. Kat Myrman
  2. Daniel Swearingen
  3. Dees Daily Journal
  4. Merlina Padma
  5. Heather
  6. Sue Vincent
  7. Jane Dougherty
  8. Anthony Wilson
  9. George Szirtes
  10. John Field

I’ve come across some great poetry / poetic prose in these blogs. No obligations to participate if you don’t want to though. 🙂

Anyone else can participate too; I’m always happy to know more people.  🙃