Friday, September 22, 2017

On Reading

Why read? The answer is simple.
I read  because I like to read. In the same vein, I write because I like to write.

I even read between my laptop and book before me interchangeably. During the day, I write intermittently and  most days I write daily.

In his book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft , Stephen King writes, 
'So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.'

I am a compulsive reader as reading helps me to think and write. I resonate with what Stephen King has written in his memoir,
I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favourite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution.’

Every day I feel torn between books I love to read and cases and texts I need to read for work. I am aware that reading during meals may cause indigestion and as a rule since I frown on multitasking, I should focus on eating while eating but for me reading is the exception.  I go everywhere with a good novel to keep me company. When I lunch alone, I always have a book with me. When I am not sure if  I will enjoy a particular book, I will bring with me another book that  I know will be good.   

 In his memoir, Stephen King wrote, “ The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.”

This week I had been going to bed past midnight as I engaged myself in reading the fiction I’ll see you in Paris written by Michelle Gable.
It is a story about a young woman in search of the missing pieces in her life. She wants to know who her dad is. Her mother is an accomplished lawyer and a protective single parent who only wants to shield her only daughter from the harsh fact of who her dad was and what happened to him.

Despite her mother’s discouragement, Annie, aged twenty-two, is engaged to Eric, a Marine just before he gets shipped off to the Middle East. When Annie’s  mother, Laurel  Haley and her take a trip to Banbury, she stumbles upon a biography of the eccentric Duchess of Marlborough who had lived in Banbury. When they arrive in Banbury, Laurel has some business to take care of, leaving Annie to her own device. When Annie and the book catch the attention of Gus, an older gentleman who frequents the pub that Annie happens to visit, Gus shares with her stories about the elusive duchess and  she becomes increasingly intrigued with the story of the mysterious duchess and in the end, she uncovers the missing pieces in her own life.

I’ll See You in Paris click is a fiction based on real life of Gladys Spencer –Churchill, the Duchess of Marborough who lived until ripe old age of 97 years old. Quite a complicated setting. The author has created a romantic story between two people by blending historical facts to the setting.The novel is a page turner and an enjoyable read. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Le week-end

On Sunday afternoon, I made a quiche for dinner, three quarter of it with salmon and mushrooms and the remaining quarter with  left over bacon bits from previous night dinner. It took me more than two hours to make it from scratch. We were going to bring the quiche to my in-laws. Our dog ran out and it was drizzling. I asked my family to go ahead and I would stay home. Someone had to be home to let the dog back in. I  prefer to be home on Sunday evenings when I can read whatever I am reading and  brace myself for a new work week ahead. 

I was looking forward to reading another satire written by Hanif Kureishi as I had thoroughly enjoyed reading The Buddha of Suburbia click During the weekend, when I read The Last Word by the same author, I could not help thinking if I should have spent my weekend reading another fiction. While I appreciate the author's wit and  the theme of the novel, I am just not fond of the characters in the novel and by the end of the story, I still could not warm up to any of the characters. 

The first paragraph of the novel definitely had my attention.

'Harry Johnson gazed out of the window of the train at the English countryside and thought that not a moment passed when someone wasn’t telling a story. And, if his luck held for the rest of the day, Harry was about to be employed to tell the story of the man he was going to visit. Indeed, he had been chosen to tell the whole story of this important man, this significant artist. How, he wondered, with a shudder, did you begin to do that? Where would you start, and how would the story, which was still being lived, end? More importantly, was he, Harry, capable of such a task?'

In The Last Word, Harry Johnson, a young writer, is commissioned to write a biography of Mamoon Azam, an eminent cricket-loving, Indian-born British novelist, a cranky writer, now living in the Somerset countryside and married to a glamorous Italian. Mamoon’s book sales have dried up and his new wife has expensive tastes. Much comedy and drama ensue as Mamoon himself is mining a different vein of truth while Harry’s publisher seeks a biography that is explosive.  As Harry relentlessly pursues with his enquiry about the materials he has obtained, Mamoon tells Harry,

            " Harry, you know more about my many selves than I do. You're in the remembering business while I'm in the forgetting game, and forgetting is the loveliest of the psychic luxuries, a warm scented bath for the soul. I follow Chuang Tzu click, the patron saint of dementia, who advised, "Sit down and forget.

In his attempts to get Mamoon to verify some things told by Marion, Mamoon's mistress, Harry has angered him by upsetting his second wife, Liana. Mamoon and Harry have this verbal exchange:
“ Marion –I mean Liana –said you’re the sort to want to appear on television! You’re trying to make a career out of me, young man!”
“We’re strapped together, sir. We sink or swim as one beast.”
“Yours is a work of envy, and you are a third-rate semi-failure of a parasite who has got by on meretricious charm and fading looks. DId you ever read a biographer who could write as well as his subject?”
As if this wasn’t enough, Mamoon grabbed Harry by the lapels and tried to throw him against the car.
“ You’re fired, Harry. You’re never going to finish this work of tittle-tattle and when I come in from work tomorrow lunchtime I want to know this ridiculous misadventure is over! We’ve got another writer lined up to take over. He wears a tie!”

I read that The Last Word could be a roman-à-clef as the relationship between Mamoon and Harry seems to closely mirror that between V S Naipaul and Patrick French who wrote a biography of the Nobel laureate, The World Is What It is. The novel provides some insight about artists, writers and literary people while they are fictionalized. The conversations between Mamoon and Harry are combative, which one of them will have the last word? 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Neutral Zone

Reading to me  is  compulsive and obsessive though my selection and picks may be random.
Whenever I have to make a trip to Kuala Lumpur, the  motivation for me is Kinokuniya Bookstore. Since I still have plenty of  books awaiting to be devoured,I have to restrain myself from going on a binge and end up carting  loads of books back. During my recent visit to the bookshop, I had bought three non-fictions : In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood,  Writing Voice, The Complete Guide to creating a presence on the page and engaging Readers  and Scratch on writers, money and the art of making a living.  While I was at Kinokuniya, I came across books that centred around themes like why read or why write, something I had contemplated about. When I arrived at the airport a tad too early, I ended up browsing around WHSmith and bought four fictions. One of them is The Pier Falls, a short stories collection by Mark Maddon. I enjoy Mark Maddon’s writing style that comes across effortless and effective. When I returned home, I purchased another non- fiction from Kinokuniya through their web store.Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright was one of the books that was recommended by

On my  return trip from Kuala Lumpur this Monday, I worked out that I could spare an hour before heading to the airport so I dropped by BookXcess Bookshop at Starling Mall. I picked up The Last Word,  a fiction by Hanif  Kureishi  and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simson. I have read fictions by both these writers and I like their wits. I have read first few pages of every book I have purchased in August and I will settle on some of them as I normally do read a few books at the same time.

A friend has lent me her copy of Stephen King’s memoir on writing and I am half way through it. It is definitely worth a read. 

There are books lying in my car so that I will always have something to read while waiting for a friend to turn up for coffee ( in all likelihood I am the one running late because I am stuck on reading or writing). I read when I wait for my turn to have my eyes checked by the ophthamologist but I dislike it when he applies eye drop to get the pupils dilated as I will have to keep both my eyes closed then. I read when and where I can.

I compartmentalise my reading in that I will read different books at various intervals during the week. Some books are best read in one sitting. One such novel is In the Café of Lost Youth written by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Euan Cameron. 

The story is about Jacqueline Delanque, a young girl growing up in poverty in Montmartre. She is on a restless quest to an unknowable destination. She frequents the Café Condé where young students, aspiring writers and world-weary academics go.  They are the lost youth who wander in and they are all in search of the same elusive something. There are also older customers who never make reference of their past.

At Le Condé, Jacqueline was different from the others. They named her “Louki” .

 'Those who frequented Le Condé would often be carrying a book, its cover stained with wine, which they would lay casually on the table. Les Chants de Maldoror, Les Illuminations, Les Barricades mystérieuses. But she, to begin with, was always empty-handed. Then, she probably wanted to be like the others, and one day, at Le Condé, I caught her one her own, reading. From then on, her book never left her.’

She used to go to Mattel, a stationer’s and bookseller’s shop on boulevard de Clichy that stays open until one o’clock in the morning.
In Jacqueline's narrative,
“ Yes, this bookshop was not merely a refuge but also a stage in my life. I often stayed there until closing time.”
“ I wasn’t truly myself except at the moment I was running away. My only good memories are memories of flight or escape. But life always got the upper hand.”

Sometimes life will somehow get you and you imagine or wish you could just run but you know you just have to let go of whatever that affects you. I find joy in reading to prevent myself from becoming too overwhelmed by the life that I know. I read because I like to read.

To get its rhythm, In the Café of Lost Youth has to be read without interruptions from start to finish. The story is told from different perspectives by four narrators, a young student who goes to the Café Condé, Roland, Louki and Pierre Caisley, a private investigator engaged by Louki’s husband. The mood is melancholic and affecting as the different narrations construct a picture of Jacqueline and what happened to her. Patrick Modiano is crafty at capturing the scenes of  old streets in Paris and  the nostalgic feel that evokes memories of the indefinable past and lost youth.  click

Friday, August 18, 2017


I thought I was running late for court. The Judge normally starts at 9 sharp. I ran as fast as my heels allowed me, when I walked in, the court was filled with lawyers and public members.
A smartly dressed lady said to me, ‘There is a reference.’
“ What reference ?” I was obviously in a daze.
The woman looked puzzled and she could not figure out if I had not known the meaning of holding a reference or that there was a reference going on.
“You know reference for departed members of the Bar?” I felt really awkward that I had not bothered to read all the circulars that had been sent  to me.

A couple  of these lawyers who have passed on had acted for my clients’ opponents and they had fought hard for their clients. I cannot help thinking about  how mortal we are. I know it is such a cliché to think so and it makes me think of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song, “ Blowing in the Wind” .It also makes me want to run to the music CD shop where the shop manager was supposed to have placed an order for one of Bob Dylan’s albums to replace  a French CD that I had bought as a going away present for an ex- staff who was attached to an association I volunteer in. The staff did not want to accept any gifts from the organisation as token of appreciation. She was consumed with so much resentment and anger that her only way to let bygone be bygone was to leave no trace in her recent memory. She was certainly thinking about her future.  

Change is what we constantly have to deal with in life. Every individual evolves and adapts to the changes in and around them in order to continue living. What if your country is undergoing  a revolution that will bring about changes so huge that everything that you think you stand for and pursue will be unacceptable and you are forced to cast aside your aspirations and the only way to stay alive is to hide your dreams  and  give up your talent  so that you could protect yourself and your family? I could only imagine that life would be unbearable.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing written by Madeleine Thien is a fiction set during the Cultural Revolution in China. Life was brutal and oppressive for those who were intellectual, artistic and creative. Those citizens whose pursuits were not in conformist with the regime had to undergo re-education. The story is about Marie’s ongoing struggle to understand her father’s tragic life, unrequited dreams and attempt to understand the turbulent past of China. Marie remembers her dad, Jiang Kai as a kind but melancholy man. He was a renowned concert pianist in China and he gave her her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling. When he died at age 39, she was only a child. Marie is a Mathematics professor in Simon Fraser University in Canada. When she was still a teenager in Vancouver, her mother received a letter from Shanghai asking for a favour. There was a request to take care of Ai Ming, a 19-year-old who had got into trouble in Beijing during the Tiananmen demonstrations.

In  Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ai Ming said to the protagonist, Marie,
You understand, don’t you ?” she said. “The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.

Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. Marie recognised it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.

Teacher Sparrow, a great composer, was Ai Ming’s father and he had to hide his true calling. He witnessed how young music students became red guards and ridiculed, tormented their professor and President of Shanghai Conservatory as their traitor and counter-revolutionary. Sparrow was Jiang Kai’s composition teacher and they were close.

When life gets tough, it is music, beauty and art that make it bearable. Imagine the horrors that befell classical musicians when the music they loved was forbidden. Their instruments were destroyed and they were accused of vanity and regarded as national threat thus dispatched to work in the farms and factories of the hinterlands. The movement began during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the people had to become only what the ruling party proclaimed them to be, they existed to be forged and re-forged by the Party.

Zhuli, a talented young musician was taken away to live with Sparrow’s mother who was her aunt when her parents were sent away for re-education. Her aunt was known as Big Mother Knife who was Ai Ming’s grandmother. and Sparrow’s mother.
When her mother returned home after six years in the desert camp, Zhuli wondered what words she could possibly say to her. There were no words adequate to the feeling between them.’
 Zhuli felt that it had been her fault that her parents had been persecuted. Zhuli had discovered the underground library and she went down almost every day. 
‘It was just below ground, as if a very large and well-made wooden box, a shipping container, had been buried with a living room inside it, like an afterlife for Old West. There was  a cushioned chair large enough for six Zhulis, an imported kerosene lamp and a full case of oil, stacks and stacks of books, and a soft, woven mat on the floor.

A boy saw her emerge from the soil and that very day, the container was dug up and all the objects carted off and the books, the soft carpets and the cushioned chair were confiscated and neighbours plastered off the mud brick house with hastily written denunciations.

The novel contains a web of tales and it takes concentration to read it. Music serves as a figure for many things in the novel: Kai’s troubled relationship to his past and homeland, his love for teacher Sparrow and a repressive regime. When Kai met up with Sparrow again, the latter was a changed man for his hands had learned another language entirely after being sent to work in a factory and he had gone from building wooden crates to making radios. He could no longer compose music. When the country was opening up again, the possibilities broke his heart as he was no longer the same person. He had become the Bird of Quiet.
I used to be humbled before music, he thought. I loved music so much it blinded me to the world. What right do I have, do any of us have, to go back? Repetition was an illusion. The idea of return, of beginning over again. of creating a new country, had always been a deception, a beautiful dream from which they had woken. Perhaps they had loved one another, but now Sparrow had his parents to care for. They relied on him, and his life was not his own, it belonged to his wife and to Ai -ming as well. And it was true, factory work had brought a peace he had never known before. The routine had freed him.

Madeleine Thien writes,
IN A SINGLE  YEAR, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.’

The opening line is haunting and captivating. The prose is descriptive and well written. A definitely good read. 

I often turn to my reading and writing for solace and they are the air that I must breathe thus  I cannot imagine a world where you are allowed to chant and read only certain writings. But then so often as I read , I wonder if we are truly thinking as freely as we like to think we are. Are thoughts really our own? 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Then and Now

House is empty again. The rooms have not been cleared completely but for now I am glad to have my space back.  I reckon I need the physical space to think about nothing. I need to be alone with my thoughts,  to decompress and let my thoughts wander.

In the morning,  I make scones and work on a client’s matter before hitting the office. I work and return home before 8 p.m. After dinner,  I sit on the couch in my living room and read a little and then I walk to the kitchen to have a drink. After having taken sips of water, I am back to the couch reading The Opposite of Fate, A Book of Musings by Amy Tan.  I am seriously behind in my reading. Since I have been rather inactive considering how I used to exercise five to six times a week, I decide to take our dog, Holly for a walk around the neighbourhood hoping to walk off the butter from the scone I consumed in the morning. I have the last bit of dark chocolate left in the jar before I head out. We manage only a short walk around the neighbourhood as it is past nine thirty and not a good time to wake up the entire neighbourhood with all their dogs barking whenever Holly walks past their gates. Twenty minutes walk is better than sitting on my butt for the same period of time. 

After my shower, I bring my MacBook Air around to the breakfast counter as I feel like writing something. Then I change my mind and end up bringing my MacBook Air to the living room to start typing. I feel almost my normal self again.

I remember a time when I used to be much more welcoming. During my final year in upper secondary school, a classmate had stayed with me because she needed a place to study for our upcoming exams. She told me that she had trouble focusing on her revision in her home. I did not exactly know what she had meant but I vaguely remember that she had stayed in an old bungalow. It could be something to do with her brother and sister-in-law. These days I guard my private space ardently. Given my present mindset, I would not have accommodated such a request. I  recall how some of my cousins would come visit from Indonesia and they would stay with my family for a period of time. Perhaps school was a bore and I would love a distraction. Whenever my mother had guests from abroad, we ate out more and my dad would take our guests around so my sister and I would happily tag along for such outings. That was probably why I  liked having guests at home then.

Amy Tan writes in her memoir, The Opposite of Fate  'A Book of Musings'.

     ' For as long as I can remember, I have been curious about how I remember. The earlier memory I have is of an event that took place under a tree. I was a year and a half old. And I know I was that age because of the season and the details of the yard and the house. I remember that I was sitting on the cool lawn on a hot day. Around me was a low fence and to my right was a white house with dark doorways that led to naps. My big brother and parents were above me. Suddenly something hit my head. My brother laughed. Although it did not hurt that much, I was startled and cried loudly to voice my displeasure, lest it happen again. After a while, I picked up what had fallen on my head. It filled my entire palm, a fuzzy golden ball.

       " It was a peach," I recalled to my mother. 
       She thought for a while, and then said that it was not a peach but an apricot, for the parish house in Fresno was the only place we had lived that had a fruit tree in the yard. And this made sense, that it was an apricot, for an apricot would have filled my eighteen-month-old hand in the way a peach would fill my adult one. '

' There was another time, when I was seven, that I realized that memories were elusive that you could not will them to stay, and that some you could not will to go away. I was old enough to understand that some things were in my memory like waking morning dreams. No matter how much I tried to hang on to them, they slipped away. And when I tried to find a way to remember them, by, say, writing about them, or drawing a picture of them, the result was not even close. And the result then became the memory that replaced the real thing.'

For me, the earliest memory I have is of an event that took place next to a staircase. I was three years old and my family had just returned from our visit to my mother's family in Langsa near Medan, Sumatra. I was playing with toy cooking set, a gift from my Indonesian aunt whom we had recently visited. Even that memory is fading and I used to remember more details, like the blue or red plastic cup and plates but now I am not sure if I have just made them up. Perhaps I should have written them down when I remembered what I remembered. Toys for children tend to be gender biased. Girls play with cooking sets in anticipation of their place in the kitchen.

Whenever I feel misunderstood,  I try to recall the sequence of my conversation to understand how I could have been wronged. No matter how hard  I replay the conversation in my head, I have only the memory of the memory of what I  remember and it may not be accurate. I have since learnt to stop obsessing about silly or angry things that I have said, after all we can only go forward rather than look backwards.

I have to re-read Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan but I cannot find my copy of the book. I will have to get one from an independent bookshop nearby soon. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Comfort Zone

Wheelock Place, Singapore

My houseguests will not be leaving soon and there is nothing I can do about it. The feeling I have reminds me of the feeling that I had as a child when I sat in my father's car feeling sorry that all the movie tickets were sold out. Looking back I know it was sheer feeling of powerless. I have to adapt to television noise, chatter and activities around the house. How I miss the empty space and quiet at home. I get disorientated. A month ago, my younger daughter was home and she asked me if I had the SD card reader. I knew I had it somewhere and I just could not recall where I had tucked it away and then weeks later,  I came across not just one but two of them. I can usually place where I have kept my things and as I had to shift my books and papers out of their comfort zone i.e. the study, I  could not recall where I had shifted these things to after clearing up the space to make it into a guest room.

The fabric at home has changed. I know I need to change my mindset to embrace the situation. People are distractions to me and there are good days and bad days, some days I cope better than others.  I feel unsettled, so distracted and distressed that my reading has much slowed down and I have not been able to write much. I have to curb that feeling of dismay when another unproductive day bites the dust. 

Julian Barnes is one of my favourite writers. He writes with such elegance and efficacy. Since I first read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I have bought almost every book written by the ever brilliant author. I find his prose witty and his observations insightful. In Talking It Over, every character narrates the story through his or her perspectives. It is about Oliver Russell, the never do well flamboyant friend of Stuart Hughes, his very old friend since school days. It is a love triangle story about how Oliver steals Stuart's wife, Gillian Wyatt.  Oliver falls in love with Gillian on the day she marries his good friend, Stuart. From their monologues, you get to know that Stuart is a young banker who is careful with his finances and not a confident person. Oliver is pedantic and yet a wilder type, an unfulfilled soul who winds up teaching at Shakespeare School of English and even manages to get himself sacked from the institution. Stuart and Oliver have struck an unlikely friendship throughout the years. Gillian is an art restorer and a former social worker. 

Through the different accounts by Stuart, Gillian and Oliver and several minor characters, the story is told. 
Stuart       Everything starts here. That’s what I keep repeating to myself. Everything starts  here.
            I was only average at school. I was never encouraged to think that I should aim for university. I did a correspondence course in economics and commercial law, then got accepted by the Bank as a general trainee. I work in the foreign exchange department. I’d better not mention the Bank’s name, just in case they don’t like it. But you’ll have heard of them. They’ve made it fairly clear to me that I’ll never be a high-flier, but every company needs some people who aren’t high-fliers, and that’s all right by me. My parents were the type of parents who always seemed faintly disappointed by whatever it was you did, as if you were constantly letting them down in small ways.

Oliver     I have to be near her, do you understand? I have to win her, I have to earn her, but first I have to be near her.

Gillian    I love Stuart. Now I love Oliver. Everyone got hurt. Of course I feel guilty. What would you have done? 

Again this is from Stuart.

'One of the first things people tell you about money is that it’s an illusion. It’s notional. If you give someone a dollar bill it’s not ‘worth’ a dollar – it’s ‘worth’ a small piece of paper and a small amount of printer’s ink – but everyone agrees, everyone subscribes to the illusion that it’s worth a dollar, and therefore it is. All the money in the world only means what it does because people subscribe to the same illusion about it. Why gold, why platinum? Because everyone agrees to place this value upon them. And so on.

         You can probably see where I’m leading. The other world illusion, the other thing that exists simply because everyone agrees to place a certain value on it, is love. Now you may call me a jaundiced observer, but that’s my conclusion. And I’ve just been pretty close up to it. I’ve had my nose rubbed in love, thank you very much. I’ve put my nose as close against love as I put my nose to the screen when I’m talking it over with money. And it seems to me there are parallels to be drawn. '

Each character is giving his or her own version of the story from his or her point of view and when we place these accounts together, they give a fair picture of what happens. You know it is fiction yet it is credible and it is dark when these characters are taken over by what and how they think about love. 

Years ago I read Love,etc, a sequel to Talking it Over. Love, etc is set ten years later and was written some ten years after Talking it Over. In Love, etc, we know that Stuart has since remarried, got divorced again but he has a successful organic food business. 

Life is work in progress so are we. As we grow up, there are always difficult situations that are thrown at us and years later, we probably end up in a place where we look back and wonder," What was all that about ?". I feel that whatever circumstances we are confronted with and whatever decisions or indecisions we may have made at the time, they are all necessary so we can be in a better place from where we once were. In the meantime,  we have to focus on the present and look forward to brighter days ahead. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Growing Up

Whenever I stumble upon a good book or interesting narratives by a writer in terms of voice and writing style, I think of getting another copy of the book as I am so excited about the find that I want to give a copy of it to a friend. 

Storytelling is an essential part of our collective understanding about humanity. Be it through fiction, non-fiction, writers translate facts, figures, ideas, perceptions and experiences into empathy and understanding. When a story is being told, it is the writer’s voice that  engages a reader’s attention.

This year I picked up the novel I am China from Borders and then I picked up 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth from an independent bookshop that sells used and overrun books. I had unwittingly picked up two novels by XiaoLu Guo click without realizing that both novels were by the same author.  Guo’s writing style comes across as a hybrid between Chinese and English. Twenty Fragments was originally written in Chinese, then when it was translated into English, Guo rewrote in English on top of the translation.

After reading books by writers whose native language is English, Guo’s voice offers a breath of fresh air and a certain charm. Her voice is authentic, instinctive and effective.
20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth reminds us of the frailty of youth and modern city living. The story is about Fenfang, a young film extra who has travelled 1800 miles to seek a life outside her sweet potato fields back home. She wants to have those shiny things in life.  When she is in urban Beijing, she works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer’s movie threatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and her dinner is UFO noodles when she is dire straits.

“ Heavenly Bastard in the Sky” is Fenfang’s favourite phrase. Betty Blue -37’2 le matin is Fenfang’s favourite film.

Even after 15 times. I could never forget the end. Betty was dead and her man Zorg was writing alone at a table. Suddenly, his cat jumped on the table and stared at Zorg. And then it spoke. Oh, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. The cat started to speak and it was Betty’s warm voice asking Zorg, are you writing now? Zorg looked at the cat. And that was it. The End. Heavenly Bastard in the Sky! Even just thinking about this made me want to cry.'

The novel is written in twenty fragments in the protagonist’s voice and each fragment is a segment of her youthful experience. It is  a coming of age story.

In Fragment Seven, Guo writes,
I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO LEAVE my village, a nothing place that won’t be found on any map of China. I had been planning my escape ever since I was very little. It was the river behind our house that started it. Its constant gurgling sound pulled at me . But I couldn’t see its end or its beginning. It just flowed endlessly on. Where did it go? Why didn’t it dry up in the scorching heat like everything else?’

 ‘I used to imagine the source of the river. Some faraway hidden cave that was home to a beautiful fairy. From there, the water flowed through our world to yet another world, a magical place close to heaven where lucky people lived, or animals perhaps-foxes maybe, or rabbits, owls, even unicorns. Wherever it was , it was not a place the people from my village could ever enter.

In Fragment Nine, Guo writes,
Kafka said, anyone who can’t come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to wave away his despair and the other to note down what he sees among the ruins. I thought about the diary I used to keep. I wished  I still had it. By now I would have had a whole library of my thoughts to look back on. But I stopped writing it when I was with Xiaolin. He treated it as his evening newspaper. He would leaf through its pages when he was bored, looking for stories. So instead, I kept my true thoughts , desires and dreams hidden deep within. I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, ‘Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.’
20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth is melancholic yet hopeful. I have been to a few big cities in China and I  find that Guo’s narratives about modern China are insightful and aptly descriptive.