30-Day Writing Challenge Day 13 : A Memorable Stranger

13. A Memorable Stranger

stranger
/ˈstreɪn(d)ʒə/
noun
  1. a person whom one does not know or with whom one is not familiar.

It was many years ago when I first watched Wong Fu Production’s Youtube short, Strangers Again which chronicles the stages of a relationship. From being strangers gradually trying to get to know each other, getting into a relationship, going through a honeymoon phase where everything is sweet and lovey-dovey, misunderstandings, fights and the inability to compromise or reconcile differences, and finally breaking up – becoming strangers, again.

I spent the better part of five years with someone from high school. We had been friends since we were 16, and got together when we were 17.  We even went to the same college for awhile, and I recall fondly times where we’d ride the train to college, sometimes waiting for hours at the mall for the other to finish their classes, just so we could ride home together. Things were sweet for awhile, but as it goes, things played out just like in Strangers, Again. It wasn’t any one person’s fault – it was just that we were young, naive and had idealistic notions about love.

Perhaps the idea is best encapsulated by this nugget of wisdom from Zendaya (young but very talented and mature, unlike many of her contemporaries in Hollywood):

“I’m so anti being in a committed relationship when you’re young and people are learning and growing, because when people are young, they make bad decisions sometimes because they don’t know any better. It doesn’t mean they don’t know the difference between right and wrong—it just means that they’re still in the experimental phase in their life where they haven’t made the right decisions yet…it’s very hard to be in a relationship when the both of you are still figuring out life. You cannot change anybody. You cannot make someone grow up faster than they’re supposed to.”

 

We were both at a phase where we were just discovering the world and the best people and environments to surround ourselves with  – and our ideals and visions for the future were just too different at the time. While we broke up on relatively good terms, it felt awkward. How do you become friends again with someone whom you have been so intimate with and who knows almost every facet of your life, for five years? Friends who knew us were pretty appalled, saying it was a shame and that I wasted five years of my life and youth. That’s just the thing though – did I want to waste another five? I’ve always been of the belief that if things don’t work out even when you’ve already exhausted all avenues, perhaps it’s time to move on.

These days, we’re still ‘friends’ on social media, although I haven’t seen him for the good part of six years, nor have we spoken much other than sporadically. Of course, having spent so much time together in our developmental years, it’s hard not to recall things from the past. All things considered, we had a good run, and our experiences together helped shaped me into the person I am today. Strangers? Yes. Memorable? Definitely.

 

 

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.

Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).

Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.

I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.

Synopsis

Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.

As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.

Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.

In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.

At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.

Verdict

Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?

Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.

Book Review: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is a brilliant writer. His vivid descriptions and complex characters spring from the pages, and he is unafraid to write about things that most authors  shy away from. His stories often revolve around his homeland, Afghanistan, and the hardship of everyday Afghans. But in the midst of this pain and suffering, Hosseini offers up rare glimpses of beauty and hope in a land ravaged by war, poverty and pain.

I first got acquainted with Hosseini’s work through his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. While I enjoyed the book, the ending was too tragic for my liking – I think we have enough tragedy in the world, without having to be reminded of it in a hobby meant for escapism. Not saying that all books need to have happy endings, but sometimes it just feels like none of his characters ever have a reprieve. I never did finish his titular masterpiece of which he is best known for, ie The Kite Runner. The suffering one of the main character endures was too horrifying, made worse by the fact that I knew it was a reflection of real life. Maybe some day I’ll pick it up again.

I recently finished his third and most recent book, And The Mountains Echoed, which was written after a six year hiatus. Departing from his previous style of having just one or two protagonists, And The Mountains Echoed reads more like a collection of short stories, with characters that are all connected to each other in some way. The main theme, however, is love – love between siblings who are separated at a young age and whose separation touches the lives of many in unique ways,the love between mothers and their children, the love between family, unrequited love, a secret love.

We learn about each of the characters’ hopes, dreams and desires. The fluid style of writing means that a character’s story may be told through another in the future or the past. Hosseini skillfully weaves all of them together to form a vivid, cohesive and touching tale. At the end of it, I was moved.

I think this is as close to a ‘happy’ ending that Hosseini can offer to readers. The story is still pretty sad, but some of its characters still manage to find joy in different ways – not necessarily how a reader might hope them to find – but joy nonetheless.

And I think that’s how life is.

Score: 8/10

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

My first Philippa Gregory book was The Other Boleyn Girl. The acclaimed novel, which revolved around the life of one of England’s most infamous queen consorts –  Anne Boleyn – was jam-packed with tales of intrigue; of power hungry men (and women) who’d stop at nothing for influence and the throne, and of dangerous political games where love and family have to be put aside for alliances and securing one’s position in the hierarchy. Despite being a fictionalised account, it still offered a fascinating insight into one of medieval Europe’s richest and most colourful courts. Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’ve been reading Gregory’s books ever since. It has even inspired me to read more on the actual events in history.

The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s works, is a prequel of sorts (in terms of timeline) to The Other Boleyn Girl; chronicling the tale of Queen Katherine of Aragon, one of Anne Boleyn’s greatest rivals. Betrothed first to one English prince, who died at a young age, she then married his younger brother King Henry VIII and reigned over England for 24 years before she was ousted off the throne, and her marriage annulled so that Henry could marry Anne.

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Synopsis

From a young age, Princess Catalina has learned war at her mother’s knee. As the youngest daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand II of Spain, she saw her parents campaign against the Moors and her mother’s strong belief that it is God’s will guiding their actions. This instills in Catalina the belief that whatever path chosen for her is similarly, God’s will.

Betrothed to Prince Arthur Tudor to seal the alliance between England and Spain, Catalina knows it is her future to become Queen of England. But she soon discovers that reality is far from her girlish fantasies. At 16, she travels to her new home only to receive a cold welcome from her husband, who is far from a man himself. The two youths eventually fall in love, laying out grand plans for their future together.

The dreams are shattered when Arthur succumbs to the sweating sickness just a few months after their marriage, and dies. On his deathbed, he makes her swear that she will marry his brother Harry and fulfill their plans for the country. Thrown into despair, with little support and far from home, the young Dowager Princess falls out of favour at court, seeing that now she has little to no value to the royal house.

After Arthur’s mother, Queen Elizabeth dies, Arthur’s father King Henry offers Catalina the chance to become queen, as long as she bore him sons and played the role of submissive wife. Worrying that she’d never put in place the reforms she spoke of with Arthur, Catalina refuses and insists to marry Harry. The spurned King Henry is enraged, and plots his revenge. Outwardly, he betroths the two, but then ill treats her. He refuses to pay for her household’s allowance, and her own parents refuse to pay the other half of the dowry until some arrangement is made for Catalina to marry. So it was that she waits seven long years, a constant presence at the fringes of English court, sinking further into poverty. Her luck changes when King Henry dies, and Harry ascends the throne, honouring his word and marrying Catalina for love. Therein begins the reign of King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine.

Readers are privy to the subsequent pregnancies and miscarriages of Queen Katherine, such as the son who died from an illness just a few months old, and how this estranged the couple and turned Henry to his womanising ways. The story also highlights how she valiantly defended the country against the Scots while the king was in France fighting another war. But as we all know, Katherine of Aragon’s story has a sad end, and this fate does not change even in this piece of historical fiction. There is no doubt, however, that she was a queen to the very end.

Verdict

The Constant Princess reads like most of Philippa Gregory’s other books – a world filled with deception, power struggles and manipulation. We see how Catalina, a young and fiery princess with absolute belief that she is a child blessed by God and destiny, blossoms into a sombre womanhood, hardened by death and despair.

 

The first half of the story tells of a sweet and innocent romance between her and Arthur – how at first they disliked each other before hopelessly falling in love – so it hits the reader even more when he dies and she loses her greatest love. This loss changes her into someone determined to fulfill her ambition and promise at all costs, to the point of lying about her virginity. We pity her because she is alone and friendless, caught in an intricate web of lies and deceit, betrayed by her own parents for the ‘greater good’ of securing alliances, and we admire her courage for doing whatever she can to survive in a dangerous court. In this, Catalina shares characteristics of the heroines in many of Gregory’s novels: women who are forced to make a choice, torn between their hearts and ambition.

The only thing that could be a flaw for the novel is that the ending seems rushed, especially the part where Catalina as Queen Katherine takes up arms against the invading Scots. While all accounts should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the story is highly fictionalised, The Constant Princess is still a good read and introduction for those unfamiliar with medieval English history.

Verdict: 8/10