Xue Xinran is a British-Chinese journalist who has devoted her career to telling women’s stories. Her story Sky Burial is the one tome in the Penguin Drop Caps series that doesn’t fit snugly in one genre. Is it biography? Romance? Travel literature?
For her radio show, Xinran interviews Shu Wen, a grey-plaited woman in Tibetan dress. However, it takes Shu Wen two days to explain how she, a Chinese woman, came to be dressed in traditional Tibetan clothing, “smelling strongly of old leather, rancid milk, and animal dung.” So taken is Xinran with her tale of love and loss that she must write the whole story.
Z: The shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz zafón (2001), Translated by Lucia Graves (2004)
Call me Ishmael. One of the most famous first sentences in English-language literature. And yet, while most people know that Moby Dick is the name of a white whale and that he was pursued by one-legged Captain Ahab, how many have the courage to sit down with all 641 small-font pages and follow the ship Pequod round the globe?
I confess I didn’t. I needed the help of William Hootkins’ incredible audio recording (Naxos, 2005) to get me through it. It’s close to 25 hours long and it feels like I spent two or three months slowly listening to the dense prose, dipping into the Penguin Drop Caps edition when I had to return the audiobook to the library and wait for it to be available again.
I don’t think this book could be published today. We don’t have time for long sentences or exhaustive treatments of a subject. We deal in slogans and sound bytes. Who sits by the fire with family and reads aloud from a book when there are lifetimes of YouTube videos to watch?
So why does Moby Dick endure?
When I was given the “R” title in the Penguin Drop Caps series I really had no idea what to expect. I was delighted by the rich azure cover, the cobalt page edges and the swirly gold cover initial embellished with an Indian motif, but all I knew about Salman Rushdie was based on an ad campaign in the Toronto subway system promoting some new book of his and the news that Muslim clerics had issued a fatwa against him. Because of the subway ads I assumed he was a Canadian writer. And because of the scary-sounding fatwa against his book The Satanic Verses I assumed he was promoting some kind of paganism that was offensive to Muslims.
Wrong and wrong again.
This rich emerald green with black and white contrasting colours has got to be one of the more gorgeous covers in the Penguin Drop Caps series. The initial L is in fact composed of two Ls, one a black woodblock style, the vertical line dotted with the windows of high-rise apartments, the other a white curlicue L dancing over top. Jessica Hische’s drop cap makes allusion to the New York setting of the novel, as well as the dual identities of the narrator, a Korean-American industrial spy.
On the back is the quote “Quell the old tongue, loosen the lips. Listen, the hawk and cry of the American city.” This perfectly captures Chang-Rae Lee’s lyrical style, his frequent use of the word quell (four times), and the themes of language and the urban melting-pot.
Before Seinfeld, before Murphy’s Law, there was Voltaire’s Candide. In stark contrast to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where “everything is awesome,” to quote The Lego Movie, Candide’s world is a string of executions, STDs, natural disasters, wars, rapes, killings and financial disasters. And this is what his tutor Pangloss calls “the best of all possible worlds.” Everything about this philosophical tale contrasts with Siddhartha, even the colour of the cover whose juicy purple is diametrically opposite Siddhartha’s fluorescent yellow. The Penguin Drop Caps edition has a V on the front cover formed by two bolts of lightning, converging to strike a little yellow man. Yep, that’s Candide, for whom whatever can go wrong does go wrong.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!