Book Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

the immortalists by chloe benjamin
Title
: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Format: eBook
Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary
Setting: New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas
No. of Pages: 352
Publication: Tinder Press
Publication Date: January 4th, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

This is a burning question on everyone’s mind, even if we don’t often nor want to speak of it: “If you knew the exact date and/or time of your death, how would you live the rest of your life?” Will knowing this make a difference in how you live?

This question is the basis of the captivating family saga in The Immortalists by author Chloe Benjamin. Kicking off the novel in the late 1960s during a particularly hot, steamy and sticky summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side are four second-generation Jewish children: Varya Gold (13), Daniel Gold (11), Klara Gold (9), and Simon Gold (7).

Upon overhearing two boys talking about a fortune teller who could predict when people die, Daniel decides to pay the latter a visit. Curiosity got the better of him and led him to organising the event for his siblings, much to the chagrin of their older sister, Varya, who feels skeptical and suspicious of this shady character.

Klara was the first child in while Varya was the last. The experience unnerved them all but neither wanted to talk about it. Not until nine years later after the sudden death of their father Saul, do they finally share their dates with each other. It is here when author Chloe Benjamin dissects the book into four whole parts, each part for each of the sibling in the order of their predicted deaths.

Despite being the youngest of the Gold family, Simon is the first to leave after his 20th birthday. Determined to live his life to the fullest with every waking minute, he absconds with Klara to San Francisco, ultimately abandoning his widowed mother in New York. There, he wasted no time coming out of the closet and throwing himself into the sexual free-for-all, pre-Aids gay scene. Meanwhile, Klara goes ahead to pursue her lifelong fascination with magic, coming up with an act that will take her away from San Fran scene to the entertaining city of Las Vegas. Varya and Daniel, however, remain in New York to care for their mother. Daniel gets married and seeks refuge as a military doctor, while Varya devotes her life and time to academic research as a scientist working with primates. Her primary objective revolves around the prolonging of life (which may or may not be prompted by her visit to the Romani fortune teller many years ago).

There are other characters within the storyline that are just an important. They are Saul and Bertie Gold, the children’s parents; Simon’s lover, Robert; Klara’s stage partner-husband, Raj, and her daughter, Ruby; Daniel’s wife, Mira; and the Romani fortuner teller herself. Not to mention, a doggedly-persistent San Francisco cop-turned-FBI agent who pops up in and out of the narrative. His presence touches the lives of Simon, Klara and Daniel, but mostly Daniel as their conversations leave a lasting impact on Daniel’s life and fate.

It is in this tale of woe that the author shines a light on the relationship between each sibling and within the family. Each one grappling with the freedom or willingness to choose a path for themselves. As the author explained in an interview with NPR,

The novel follows each of the siblings over about 50 years as they reckon with their prophecies. Some of them fight against it. Others claim they don’t believe in it. Some use it to push them to pursue their wildest dreams. And others are surprisingly limited by it even if their date of death is quite far out.

This was truly an intriguing and mesmerising novel for me. Imagine if you knew when you were going to die, what would you do?

Simon and Klara lived out their years doing what they loved and enjoyed. It didn’t last but they did what they set out to do. Varya and Daniel didn’t and preferred to work within the safe confines of the information they knew and set about living as minimally as they could. So they wouldn’t let the fortune teller’s fate play out. Somehow, I wouldn’t want to know when I’d die or how I’d die. I rather live spontaneously, living each day as if it was my last. I find it a little creepy to find out these details, knowing that I’ve not done much in my life at all.

What about you? Would you want to know how your life will play out if someone could tell you about it? If so, how would you live your life knowing that it will end soon?

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Book Review: The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy.

the boat runner by devin murphy
Title: The Book Runner
Author: Devin Murphy
Edition: Kindle
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Delfzijl, the Netherlands
No. of Pages: 380
Publication, Date: Harper Perennial, September 2017

 

 

 

 

 

In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.

Beginning in the summer of 1939, fourteen-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem. 

On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.

When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life—and his life’s mission—forever. 

Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.

Source: Goodreads

14-year-old Jacob Koopman leads a relatively simple life in Delfzjil, a town in Holland. Jacob’s father is a light bulb designer and manufacturer whose factory is the town’s main source of employment; his older brother, Edwin, is a talented artist; and his mother plays the piano at home and the organ at church. They even have a dog!

The family’s affluence and status are what kept Jacob away from what was happening outside the four walls of his home. When the brothers were sent to spend the summer at a Hitler Youth camp in Germany, Jacob hardly batted an eyelid. During their stay at the camp, Jacob unwittingly succeeds at the war games which resulted in getting praised by the older boys and is honoured with a shiny dagger. He had been none the wiser.

Despite witnessing the bombing of Rotterdam, Jacob still felt they would be fine if it was the Germans approaching. He truly believed that nothing would happen to them; after all, they were the dagger-carrying members of the youth camps. The cracks only began to form after he witnessed the accidental death of his brother who was pulled underwater by a current through a manhole, that something in Jacob began to shift.

Shattered and suffering from survivor’s guilt, he starts working on his Uncle Martin’s fishing boat, which has been conscripted by the Germans. His uncle wears their uniform and is regarded by the townspeople with suspicion, but Jacob only discovers his uncle’s true nature one night as they ferry a boatload of Nazis from one harbour to another. His uncle had manoeuvred the unsuspecting soldiers into a small area of the boat before shooting them in cold blood.

This incident is where the moral landscape begins to shift and appears more evident. What Jacob’s uncle sees as part of the war effort to rebel against the invading Germans, Jacob sees as murder. Again, he had been trained in the Hitler Youth camp with all the boys who became men like those his uncle had massacred. And it had been the British Royal Air Force who had dropped bombs on occupied Delfzjil, not the occupying Germans. To Jacob, the Royal Air Force should be driven out, not the Nazis.

Desperate to belong somewhere again, Jacob decides to join the German military. He blindly believes they will win the war and wants the fighting to end so his life can return to normal. Or something that resembles normal. By the time he recalls what he has done, he flinches but acknowledges that his decisions had been “naive but conscious”.

What I thought about the book

I had been on my historical fiction reading spree so The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy became yet another choice of literature to accompany me for the next few days. Again, it took me only a couple of days to finish it as each chapter kept me wanting to know what happens next.

So yes, in another person’s eyes, it may yet be another World War 2 novel but there were three things about the story that I liked:

A Different Gender’s Perspective

Most of the World War 2 novels that I’ve read had more often than not been told from a female’s perspective. This time it was coming from a male. The Boat Runner was narrated through the eyes of Jacob Koopman, the main character, who was only 14 years old at the time when the Nazis swept into his town in Holland.

A Lack Of Romance (And A Good Thing Too!)

Apart from that one bit of lust from Jacob towards his childhood friend Hilda, there was hardly any romance which was a breath of fresh air. Usually, there would be a man and a woman who are so caught up in their relationship in the midst of war that they find themselves at the mercy of whoever conquers their nation.

A Different Country Setting

For once the plot wasn’t centred in Poland, Germany or France. It was all the way in a small town called Delfzjil in Holland, which Jacob Koopman left by boat when he got tired of being used as a toy for the Germans’ propaganda.

Jacob may eventually learn how far his Nazi brethren was willing to go, yet even as he got older, he doesn’t thoroughly understand his involvement with the Germans. It was only due to the guilt of having survived whereas his brother had not that left little room for a deeper exploration of the role he played. He had lost his family as a consequence of the war, though not by deliberate extinction.

However, I won’t deny that I occasionally felt annoyed at Jacob from time to time for his naivety and for blindly trusting the Germans. Although at 14 years old, you’d hardly know who to trust apart from yourself. But I would say that it was probably due to his sheltered life and affluent upbringing that led to his failure to notice the true colours of the Nazis until it was too late.

Book Review: Leah On The Offbeat by Becky Albertalli.

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No. of Pages: 364 pages
Edition: Kindle
Author: Becky Albertalli
Publisher, Date: Balzer and Bray, April 2018
Setting: Atlanta, Georgia (United States)

SynopsisLeah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

What I thought of the book

I’ve only recently completed the book Leah On The Offbeat, the sequel to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda which I did a review on earlier. Both are written by Becky Albertalli. Long story short, I preferred the first book. Probably because Simon Speer is an Oreo-loving, simple kid and didn’t see life in such bad light to the point of trying to burn things down to the ground when shit hits the fan.

Which was what Leah Burke did at every turn of the page and frankly speaking, it was quite unnerving.

Leah is your typical angsty teenager, whiny and whinging at everything that is upsetting her (or even mildly upsetting), throwing a fit and making a scene. Of course I can’t be too harsh on her; I was a teenager like her once and I, too, felt like I had every right to be upset at people or at life in general.

I have to admit, though, that her unexpected discovery about how far in love she was in with Abby Suso was pretty exciting. It was real sweet. Imagine having a bunch of friends who are all close to one another, but then you find yourself falling for one of them who was already spoken for. Or so you thought.

Well, if I found out I was head over heels or even feeling the slightest flutter for another girl, I’d be as nervous as Leah. Although she was the one who admitted she was bisexual. Then shit happened and suddenly she ended up with Abby. It sounded like an oh-so-Hollywood-cheesy-kind-of-thing, but I loved it! If only that happened to me.

Alright, enough about Leah, Abby and me.

The other enjoyable part revolves around the supporting characters. The fact that the setting of this book is in the same location as the first book means we get to reacquaint ourselves with the same characters. Simon and his boyfriend Bram are back and are as adorable as ever, and Nick who loves Abby so much he couldn’t stand it when she called things off and ended up with Leah in the end. We also get to see more of Garrett, Morgan and Anna, which was a great thing too.

But the supporting character who stands out the most is Leah’s mom. Their relationship is far from perfect as we are given an insider’s point of view into how the mother handles a daughter like Leah and how Leah struggles to get along with someone her mom is dating.

The rollercoaster rides we take in this book for each couple’s relationship made it all the more realistic. It is an existing issue in today’s world, not to mention, the occasional bullying but thankfully the latter wasn’t a huge part of the story.

Still, it was a good read. A typical contemporary coming-of-age story that gracefully handled serious high school issues and the gender issues that plague our society. By completing the books, the author gave Simon and Leah a chance to show gay teenagers out there that hope is not hard to find.

Me and My Non-Dress-Sense of Style.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find dress shopping a difficult task to uphold. Here’s what you can do to ad-dress your sense of style. Go online and find out what is your body shape and how to dress it. Trust me, it’ll help you out a great deal.

How to Dress Your Body Shape

As a child, I used to wear pink frilly dresses with short sleeves like fairy wings. I used to dance around in shiny black-buckled ballet shoes, tap-tapping on the sidewalk on our weekend family outings. Sometimes I carried a kid-sized backpack, other times it was just my hand holding my mom’s as we cross a busy street.

I’m not sure where the years went but I don’t like wearing dresses that much anymore. Of course, given the occasion, if it is a friend’s wedding or an office black-tie event, I’d still have to don a dress.

But on weekends and my daily drives to work, you’ll never catch me in a skirt or a dress. Give me a pair of jeans and a tee shirt and I’ll be nice and cozy in my own skin.

So when the need arrived to deck myself out in yet another dress (my sister is getting married in August, that’s why), I knew I had to do something about the stubborn fats living happily around my mid-section. I know it won’t go away overnight but with a fair amount of effort, it should flatten out enough to fit me into something.

I went for a shopping spree at Mid Valley Megamall with my mom today. I had a great time as I’m not too fussy about what I’d wear or which shop I had to terrorise in order for me to find something suitable.

The only thing I didn’t like about shopping with my mom was at every given opportunity, she’d pounce on it and bore any sales assistant who is helping us with horror tales about how “prosperous” I am around my mid-section and why it’s so hard to find a dress that would fit me.

Thankfully, we did find some pretty decent ones but at not-so-cheap price tags. Of course, these pieces came from Ms. Read and Dorothy Perkins, so that explains the unholy price tags. It’s also the first time I’ve ever had to pay almost RM400 on just a few pieces of fabric. Remind me to keep my weight low enough to fit these dresses because I’m sure as hell am not going back to buy more to fit my fluctuating weight.

Also, I never know where the head should fit when I’m trying them on. I wish I could attend these formal events in a tuxedo. Men seem to have it easier than women. A black tuxedo and shiny black shoes is the deal-breaker for me.

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Image from Joy of Clothes: Your Personal Stylist.

If you have difficulties finding the right dress, do what I did. Go online and find out what your body shape looks like. Depends whose side you’re on (my husband’s or my mom’s), mine is probably a cross between a full hourglass and a pear.

Find out what yours is and you will almost certainly save more energy on walking here and there, up and down, and spend far less time trawling the mall for a shop that has what you need.

All It Takes is a Little Sushi to Get Through the Day.

All It Takes Is A Little Sushi

There are days when things aren’t so bad. There are days when things do get rough. And then there are the days when shit hits the fan. When those days hit me, I read to take my mind off troubled times. Or I sleep it off. But sometimes those things don’t work. When they don’t, I find that eating helps. Not just stuffing my face silly with fast food and junk food. No. I have standards.

On those days, I go to Sushi Tei. My favourite sushi restaurant that can be found either in Mid Valley or Tropicana City Mall.

Those are the days when I’d browse the menu for my favourite Japanese dishes. Thank God these days don’t always come or I’ll be broke before my next salary gets banked into my account!

So that’s where I went last Thursday with my husband. I wasn’t feeling crummy but that day I felt like treating myself. Yes, on my bad hair days, I usually have sushi whether it’s for lunch or dinner. But there are the good days too, when I want to celebrate a milestone or an achievement, I’d treat myself to some sushi. Here are the dishes that we had on that amazing day!

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My husband has never been one to order salad as his main course but when my parents ordered a sashimi salad at Rakuzen and he had some, he’s been hooked ever since.

Now when we have our meals at Sushi Tei, his first order is a salad. He’s tried a variety in their menu, from the standard sashimi salad to the yakiniku salad. That day, he ordered the soft shell crab salad. It was fantastic!

The soft shell crab sat atop a bed of lettuce, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, looking  as crispy and crunchy as ever. Even the roasted sesame dressing that he drizzled all over the leaves and crab didn’t make it less crunchy.

In fact, when I stole a piece and chewed on it, a burst of flavour overwhelmed my tastebuds! The crunchiness of the soft shell crab and the roasted sesame dressing was a really good combination! I had to stop myself from stealing the rest of the pieces since that was his main course and not mine.

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My order was, as usual, the cha soba. It was either this or zaru soba. I never liked the idea of eating cold noodles until I tried a Korean version of it. The Korean cold noodles had a bunch of other ingredients that accompanied the noodles, mostly vegetables.

But the cha soba arrived plain, as shown above. A generous portion of green tea noodles (cha means tea in Japanese) with condiments on the side and a small bowl or choko of cold dipping sauce.

According to Hakubaku,

Cha soba noodles are soba noodles made from buckwheat and wheat flour with the added ingredient of fresh green tea leaves. In Japan, cha soba is considered a delicacy and is only consumed on very special occasions (now you see why I order it whenever I have sushi). Both buckwheat and green tea are considered by many to have substantial health benefits as a regular part of a diet. Cha soba is packed in light-proof foil packaging to protect the nutritional value of the tea, which begins to degrade when exposed to oxygen or light, and to keep the fresh flavour of the green tea.

I’m not sure when I started ordering cold soba at Japanese restaurants. There was a time when I did while having dinner with my family and relatives, they were surprised that I went with what seemed like an unusual dish to them. These days, it’s not uncommon for me to have cold soba noodles on days I don’t feel like having sushi or sashimi.

But how on earth do you eat it? After all, it’s not the same as having a bowl of hot noodle soup where you wait for it to cool down a bit before attempting a forkful or chopstick-ful of noodles. This is a dish that comes with a bed of noodles placed on top a few ice cubes!

Well, let’s just say that my technique is probably not the right way but I picked up what little I could from watching other people eat.

There are proper ways of how to enjoy cold soba but all I do on a regular basis is add the condiments into the cold dipping sauce and stir. The condiments include a dollop of wasabi, chopped spring onions, a few strips of seaweed, and a quail’s egg.

I usually add everything except the spring onions since I don’t particularly like eating it. Once the dipping sauce is ready, I help myself to a small portion of noodles, dip it and slurp it. However, if you want to eat like a true Japanese, hop on to this link for the tips.

Or you can watch the video below from Savor Japan on how to eat cold soba with the help of a Japanese chef:

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After the main course meals arrived, we added on some side dishes. Another favourite Japanese delicacy that I love to order is the gyoza or Japanese dumplings served with a small bowl of citrus soy sauce. I’ve yet to try the ebi gyoza or prawn dumplings, though. So far, I’ve only ever ordered the chicken dumplings.

Pan fried to perfection, these delectable Japanese potstickers taste so good when eaten hot. I usually wait until the food has cooled down a little before attempting to eat them,  but these babies are best eaten hot after dipping into the sauce.

This is yet another dish that you can experience a burst of flavour in your mouth. Your tongue will be dancing with joy! Sushi Tei serves it better than Sushi Zanmai, whose gyoza are small in size and stuffed with much less meat than Sushi Tei.

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Our last side dish was a trio of shishamo. Also known as willow leaf fish, shishamo is a saltwater fish or smelt measuring about 15cm in length. It is generally dark on the back with a silver-white underside.

In Japanese cuisine, this fish can be served grilled or fried whole and comes with its roe intact. That’s the best part about eating it. A lemon wedge accompanies the smelt fish but I rarely ever squeeze the lemon juice on it. I just have them on its own, dipped into my wasabi-mixed soy sauce or the citrus soy sauce that comes with the gyoza.

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Everything consumed above was washed down with a cup of hot green tea. Dinner that night was the best I ever had!

If I ever want to have another memorable sushi night, I’ll be sure to make a beeline for this place. Never again will I set foot into Sushi Zanmai where I feel the standard has dropped and the quality of its food is no longer the same as before. I went home, satisfied and content.