Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

“The dreamer in her
Had fallen in love with me and she did not know it.
That moment the dreamer in me
Fell in love with her and I knew it.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 198 pages.
Read from August 31, 2021 to September 12, 2021.

If you’re not aware of the Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath saga please read a quick rundown before embarking on this book as it’s extremely important in understanding this selection of poetry.

Birthday Letters was published 35 years after Plath’s suicide and was written over a 25 year period. It was published in March 1998 which was only a few months before Hughes would pass away. Hughes had previously published nothing about their relationship. Hughes and Plath’s marriage was a difficult one with Hughes being unfaithful and eventually moving in with his mistress. While Plath’s works were hailed as masterpieces of modern feminism, Hughes was vilified for his part in Plath’s suicide as she spiralled further into a depression after he left. Hughes also destroyed some of Plath’s works after she died, presumably because it cast him in a bad light since Plath’s poetry often referred to her relationships, including Hughes and her father. This furthered public resentment from Plath fans. This collection was Hughes’ response to Plath’s poetry and possible redemption from her untimely death. Ted Hughes was the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate from December 1984 until his death.

The world is still very much fascinated with these two poetic geniuses and their lives. It’s part of the reason why they’re still read today. Birthday Letters is Hughes intimate and autobiographical account of his relationship with Plath, his side of their story and his reaction to her passing. Almost every poem in this collection references one of Plath’s poems, like a direct reply to her work, with his own words, impressions and feelings. Birthday Letters is one of the most intimate collections of poetry I’ve ever read as it reveals a haunted and hurt man, a side not seen by Hughes previously. While the poems in this collection are phenomenally written if you’re not familiar with Plath’s poetry it can make them hard to decipher. I think my biggest regret with this book is that I should have read it slower and taken the time to read Plath in tandem with it. The prose in this book is not meant to be taken in too quickly as the words themselves took Hughes many years to write. While I didn’t always connect with the poems in this collection its prose is very clearly one of the best pieces of poetry to come out of the 20th century.

If you have read this book, please read the previously unpublished poem “Last Letter“. This poem is Hughes most vulnerable poem on Plath’s death but why it wasn’t included in this collection is a mystery. Last Letters provides a sense of closure on Hughes feelings on their relationship and tragic outcome that clearly haunted him his whole life.

This books is a must-read for any poetry lover or if you’re at all interested in the dynamic and tragic relationship of Hughes and Plath.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

“I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 132 pages.
Read from August 12, 2021 – August 19, 2021.

On January 17 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan. This earthquake was the first-ever recorded earthquake to top the charts of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Nearly 6500 people lost their lives that day, around 4600 of them from the city of Kobe. Around 200,000 buildings collapsed that day. Even now, the Kobe earthquake still holds as one of Japan’s deadliest earthquakes. A few months later, Japan with hit with another tragedy with the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. These two events altered the Japanese people and will forever be imprinted in people’s minds and history books.

A damaged highway in Kobe as a result of the earthquake. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

I picked up this novel shortly after reading Underground by Murakami, which is suiting considering how close these real events occurred. While Underground is a non-fiction work from Murakami, After the Quake is a collaboration of six fictional short stories that all relate to the Kobe earthquake event. Murakami lived abroad until 1995 and it was after these events that made him decide to move back to Japan. Japan is a geological terror of a location as it is an epicentre for earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. It’s not a matter of if, with Japan, it’s a matter of when the next big event will happen (enter massive tsunami in 2011) and with climate change making matters worse, Japan sits in a precarious situation.

This novel contains six short stories, each of them set in the months following the earthquake and the sarin attack, with each story evoking a similar atmosphere of emotions created by the disaster. The first story follows a man whose wife abruptly left him after the earthquake. After taking some leave from work he is asked to deliver a mysterious package to one of his co-worker’s sisters. In the fourth, a woman is on a trip to Thailand when she realises she needs to let go of the resentment she has towards her ex-husband. The fifth is probably the most interesting of all the stories in that a man returns home from work to find a human-sized talking frog in his kitchen pleading with him that he needs his help to defeat a super worm in order to prevent a giant earthquake. While some stories carry more realism than others, each carries a heavy tone of longing, hope, sadness, regret, and relief.

Murakami uses these stories to capture the voice of Japan after the quake as well as using it as means to come to his own terms with the tragedy. The earthquake event is prolific in each story, though not always in the same manner. From news reports of the event, a disrupted relationship, to prophetic and metaphorical fights of giant frogs and worms. Murakami’s writing is, as always, poetic and mystical while engrossing readers with a unique story and feel.

A solid choice for Murakami fans who have not read this book yet and a good introductory to a tragic piece of Japanese history.

My Favourite Reads of 2021

2021 was yet another dumpster fire of a year but at least we all have books. Here are some of the best books I read this year.

I think we’re all a little hesitant about what 2022 could possibly bring considering how the last few years have gone. We’re all approaching it with cautious optimism and concern. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t made a resolution since 2019 and I’m not mad about it. Regardless of what 2022 will bring and the shit show that was 2021 (and 2020, and 2019…) at least we have books. I struggled to meet my reading goal this year for the first time in years. I blame the stalemate that the pandemic has created as we all wait for our lives to get back to normal. I know many places have resumed some form of normalcy but Hong Kong is living in a twilight zone due to its zero-covid goal, meaning our borders have practically been shut for two years now. It’s hard to leave and pretty much impossible to return with a mandatory three-week hotel quarantine meaning travel is out of reach for your average joe-schmoe. To make matter worse, despite not having any local covid cases in over 80 days we still have social restrictions. Here’s hoping we can escape in 2022…

Non-Fiction


5. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

A book club selection that I finished at the tail end of 2021. This non-fiction explores how the psychopath test came to be and how it’s been used in criminology and science. Jon Ronson is known for his humour which created an interesting and entertaining read.

Review to come.


4. Underground by Haruki Murakami

If you follow my blog you know how much I love Murakami. This book is very different from the normal whimsical fiction he writes. Murakami interviews the victims of the sarin gas attack that happened in Tokyo in the 90s and he pieces out the events of the tragedy through the words of the people who lived it. This was another book club selection but I would have eventually read it anyway as I’m very near having read almost everything by Murakami.



3. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Another book club selection that really surprised me. I knew little about Trevor Noah when I started this book and was surprised by how much I enjoyed Trevor’s writing and tone. The book recalls his life growing up ‘coloured’ in South Africa during the apartheid, in which he was literally born a crime since white and black people were not allowed to be together.


2. The Choice by Edith Eger

A holocaust memoir unlike any other I’ve read so far. Dr. Edith Eger is a working psychologist and holocaust survivor. At 16, Edith was an aspiring Olympic gymnast before those dreams were robbed by Hitler. Only she and her sister survived the camps but little did she know that the hardest part was still yet to come. Edith gives the details of her life and how she struggled to overcome the horrors of the holocaust and how it led her to her current profession and her desire to help others.


1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book hit me hard and is one of the most beautiful pieces of non-fiction I’ve read to date. Paul is a young and reputable neurosurgeon who finds out he has stage 4 cancer, meaning that it cannot be cured. While he pursued science, literature was his first love and he had always dreamed of writing a book. This is Paul’s effort to come to terms with his impending death and to leave one last impression for the daughter he was won’t get to see grow up.


Fiction


5. Blankets by Craig Thompson

This graphic novel came highly recommended but it took me ages to get a copy. This book is warm and full of nostalgia as the author details his first love and wrestling with his faith and upbringing.


4. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

A stunning graphic novel about one woman’s recounting of growing up in Kabul amidst some of its worst unrest. It’s a coming of age story unlike any I have read before and was a poignant read considering the recent events of 2021 with Afghanistan with the return of the Taliban.


3. Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

This graphic novel really took me by surprise. It’s beautifully illustrated and tells of the author’s experience of abruptly moving to America with her mother against her will. The story details the issues she experienced growing up as an immigrant and the troubles she faced with her family.


2. Rodham by Curis Sittenfeld

If someone told me I would love a fiction about Hilary Clinton I would have laughed at them. When this book was picked for my book club I was not looking forward to it. This premise of this novel speculates how things might have turned out if Hilary didn’t marry Bill. It’s extremely well written and provoking. I thoroughly enjoy this novel.

Review to come.


1. Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

This was novel was a Netgalley find from a local Hong Kong author who now lives in the UK. This novel has Murakami qualities the melds the feel of historical and modern-day Hong Kong. Rich in actual history and set in the 1980s, this is the unique story of a drug-addicted Buddhist monk who finds himself inside a temple in Diamond Hill. He meets an array of unique characters who come to feel like a dysfunctional family. The story captures the feel of Hong Kong while exploring some of its difficult history and future. The writing is exquisite and I can’t wait to see what else this author has to offer.



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