Small Great Things [A Review]

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads]

 

My first Jodi Picoult was Nineteen Minutes. I was hooked from the first couple of chapters and went into “devour mode” whenever I came across her books, before I decided that I had to stop before I went into depression. The irony was that she writes well, so much so that her vivid descriptions of what can go wrong in one’s health scared me, and her explanation of the legal system (and its failings) saddened me. Of course, there are often bright sides and valuable life lessons in her stories, but for me, her books have to be read with long intervals in between if I don’t want to be sucked dry emotionally.

And so, it’s been a long while since my last Picoult book, and this has to be one of my favorites. 

In Small Great Things, Picoult had used her signature style of writing from the perspectives of each of her key characters, and that really helps one to understand and look at the issues from different (often opposite and diverse) angles. I’m not sure if her depiction of the black-white situation reads true, but it has opened my eyes to issues beyond racial discrimination, such as how the world has traditionally been designed in a way that is biased against left-handed people, physically challenged folks, and maybe even the elderly. Picoult has also, through her narration of Kennedy’s emotional and mental growth, highlighted the need for racial equity, as opposed to racial equality. This is a new concept to me.

I think Picoult’s strengths lie in her ability to induce in readers strong feelings of empathy for her characters. Interestingly, I recently picked up a new book by Paul Bloom – Against Empathy – which argues against the merits of trying to feel what another person is feeling. I’m now keen to find out whether, according to Bloom’s theory, her kind of writing is actually good or bad for this world.

VERDICT: If you’re not yet a Jodi Picoult fan, this might make you one. If you are already one, what are you waiting for?

And here’s an overview of the storyline from Goodreads:

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

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The Tao of Pooh [A Review]

The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads]

In case you’re wondering, yup, I’m on a reading binge this holiday season.

I discovered this old book in a local bookstore better known for its range of stationery and assessment books. I’m glad I picked it up, because it’s a really fun and enlightening read.

I’m not sure if the explanations on Taoism in the book are accurate, because I’m not exactly familiar with the original teachings, but the writer did give me a different perspective of Pooh’s sometimes silly but lovable actions. And yes, a fair bit of the book gave me the “hmmm…” moment.

My favorite “enlightenment” happens to be about time, and here’s what that particular paragraph said:

“The main problem with this great obsession for Saving Time is very simple: you can’t save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly. The Bisy Backson has practically no time at all, because he’s too busy wasting it by trying to save it. And by trying to save every bit of it, he ends up wasting the whole thing.”

[If you’re a fan of the Pooh stories, you’ll probably know what’s a “Bisy Backson”.]

The book is easy to read, but the philosophy explained in the chapters will likely take one some time to digest (and put into practice).

I’m now tempted to get my hands on the original Pooh stories.

VERDICT: This is a perfect read for the stressed busy bees amongst us, especially if you think it’s time to slow down, smell the flowers and better experience life.

The Heart Goes Last [A Review]

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads]

 

Hmm… this is not your typical Margaret Atwood novel.

Sure. It’s psychologically scary. It’s futuristic. It speaks of a scientific possibility that sends a chill down people’s spines. It messes with one’s mind. But this is probably one of the few (if not the only one) where Atwood had included a fair bit of witty and funny monologues and dialogues.

Hardcore fans of Margaret Atwood may not like it, but I couldn’t put it down, probably because of the pace and wit with which the author had given her writing. Plus, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The homeless situation that Stan and Charmaine found themselves in felt so real and possible that I wished it would never happen to me. The experiment they signed themselves on had an interesting premise, although I must say there were some holes here and there in the logic that left me with question marks. I mean, I couldn’t quite work out how having participants spend alternate months in prison made economic sense, except that jobs, tasks and even their lifestyles were all centrally assigned (think communism – and yet, communism is not always economically optimal). And the obsession that Ed had with Charmaine probably came to light too suddenly and out of nowhere.

But I enjoyed it, and would recommend it to anyone who’s ready to approach it with an open mind. The twist at the end, delivered as a gift by Jocelyn, was much food for thought.

VERDICT: This can be an entertaining read, but if you are a Margaret Atwood fan, this may not be one of her best works for you.

And here’s the storyline, extracted from Goodreads:

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

Ministry of Moral Panic [A Review]

Ministry of Moral Panic, by Amanda Lee Koe

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   [Image courtesy of Epigram Books]

This must be a year of short stories for me, because I’ve never read so many short story collections in one year before, and surprisingly, I liked most of what I read. Yup, and I like this collection too.

I started reading this without knowing that all the stories had one single theme – love. The author managed to explore this theme in a number of ways, sometimes in an expected manner, but most times not, which made it a refreshing read. In fact, this has to be one of the few local literature that I’ve come across so far that is so bold in expressing the different facades that one would not commonly associate with Singapore. I say this because Singapore has often been criticized for its conservative approach in the arts, and our lack of freedom of speech. This collection will probably show one how far we’ve come where literature is concerned. Of course, I’m not saying we’ve “arrived”, and the nation definitely has a long long way to go in this area, but I think this is an example of what’s possible. 

I’m really glad this collection got published, and even won a couple of prizes.

VERDICT: I wouldn’t say this collection of stories will allow you to understand Singapore more, but the stories might just surprise you with their unexpected twists and emotional depth. 

The Grace of Kings [A Review]

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

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   [Image courtesy of Goodreads]

I feel cheated.

Maybe it’s because of the raving reviews, or maybe it’s because of my own expectations after The Paper Menagerie. I just don’t feel good after reading this book.

Okay, the world that Ken Liu “created” in the story had all the elements one needs in an epic fantasy series – heroes (both male and female), believable characters, sufficient motivation, strange beasts, lots of battle scenes, meddlesome gods. Yet, I can’t help feel that it was but a clever adaptation of the Chinese history before, during and after the Qin dynasty.

Many of the characters, including the protagonists, were replicas of notable figures during that era (think Liu Bang vs Xiang Yu). Even the events, war tactics, battle tricks and political developments described in the story had the same key elements as the stories from that time. I couldn’t help wondering, halfway through the book, whether I was reading an original fantasy story, or an English (albeit entertaining) translation-cum-adaptation of a historical account of the escapades of two famous characters in Chinese history.

To be fair, Ken Liu tried to pump in new ideas of his own, like the use of airships, the enlightened attitude towards women and a behind-the-scene involvement of Gods. But they were not done well, especially the Gods bit. I couldn’t see how the Gods fitted in. Sure, they were treating the developments in the human realm like a game, to see whose champion would eventually emerge as the final King, and there were instances whereby one God would cheat and interfere with events. But if I were to remove all the parts containing the Gods bits, it wouldn’t have dismantled the story. In fact, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

I was so excited about this trilogy before. Now, I don’t think I’ll even move on to Book Two.

VERDICT: If you’re familiar with Chinese history and prefer to read original stories, don’t bother with this book.