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Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I recently did a reread of one of my favorite books ever: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read it in English – it’s originally written in French. The message came across well enough through the translated text, at least for me. It must be absolutely glorious in its original language though.

Plot

Madam Michel, the concierge of a wealthy apartment building, is an “old soul” hiding behind the pretense of a dull janitor. One of the tenants in the building is the Josse family, with their two daughters: Colombe and Palome. The younger, Palome, is planning her suicide. The story follows Madam Michel and Palome as they observe their separate daily lives. One day a new tenant moves in: the Japanese man Kakuro Ozu. Through Kakuro, Madam Michel and Palome befriend each other. They realize they are invariably made of the same inner material.

Philosophical

The story is purposefully slow, like a film on slow motion. It’s full of lengthy expositions on Madam Michel’s thoughts of the bourgeoisie and Palome’s thoughts of the shallow life of adults. I’ll honestly say it’s one of the slowest books I’ve come across. Yet through their perspective of the small things around them, I have learned so much. In that way, it’s really as much a philosophy book as it is fiction. Think Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The author makes plenty of references to literature, art, music, and philosophy. This connects with my liberal arts training back in the States so naturally I feel right at home.

Upon my rereading, I realized I had forgotten how much this book impacted me, to the point that every heroine I now write has a little bit of Palome’s brilliance (and anger!) looking out through their eyes.

Not for Everyone

This book probably isn’t for everyone. It’s challenging, and the ending is as tragic as tragic goes. However, if every once in a while you decide to read something that’s a great introduction to philosophy, art, and the classics, The Elegance of the Hedgehog might be a good place to start. I’ll warn you, I cried as much in the reread as I did the first time around.

By the way, imagine my delight when I found out that between my first and second read, Palome and Madam Michel has hit the big screen!

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A New Experience: Editing Alasan Alin

Alasan Alin is a brand new book by Krisan Wijaya (author of Cerita Carissa) which I had the privilege to edit. The book is published by Omah Library (RAW Press), in a collaborative effort with Mad Tea Book Club. Here is your cue to toast to little dreams coming true.

A Big Little Dream

Since we started the Mad Tea Book Club, Sherry, Krisan, and I had been thinking about also having a small publishing house focusing on Indonesian women authors, with a curated theme of women empowerment. Of course, a dream takes time, resources, connections, hard work, and support. We’re super excited that Omah Library is on board to give it a shot for the first venture. Out of the box? Yes. Unusual? You bet.

Well. Life is short.

And so it was that I came to the editorial role for our first book: Alasan Alin. First of all, please be aware that the book is in Bahasa Indonesia. Lucky for me, Krisan is an excellent writer, so it makes things very easy. My contributions in editing Alasan Alin were largely 2 points: the stylistic footnotes and the plot twist at the end.

Ala Crazy Rich Asians

Since the book is a medical chick-lit, there are some healthcare related words that the general public might not be aware of. The author, Krisan, is a doctor herself, so in the first draft, she explained the terms in the narration. As we all know, this helps the general reader understand the terms, but it takes a lot away from the flow of the story. In order to keep both objectives, I suggested to Krisan to adopt what Kevin Kwan does in his series Crazy Rich Asians.

If you’ve read that series, its full of slangs and terms that’s very Singaporean, so Kevin Kwan moves all the explanation to the footnotes. He keeps the footnotes interesting by taking a different narrative approach – its sarcastic and snappy. I think this style works well for Alasan Alin, so that’s what we did for the final draft.

Alin’s Character Arc

My second contribution is the plot twist at the end. This is crucial to Alin’s personality and her whole character arc, thus Krisan and I discussed it back and forth. I don’t want to spoil things, so will just hint mysteriously (HA). Upon my first reading, I got the impression that the author (Krisan) had wanted to take it a certain way, but then shied away in the end. In so doing, the original intent built throughout the draft seems compromised. I suggested a plot twist that feels like it really was there all along – so Alin can really be Alin, with all her imperfection, flaws, and also fiery spirit.

…so Alin can really be Alin, with all her imperfection, flaws, and also fiery spirit.

Editing Alasan Alin was a completely new experience for me, but I loved it. The book can be ordered here. I do hope you enjoy her story!

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Book Review: Poemsia by Lang Leav

Funny thing I thought this was one of Lang Leav‘s poetry collections at first. Turns out Peomsia is a contemporary fiction about a young girl who wants to be a poet. When her Instagram account suddenly becomes viral, Verity Wolf is thrown into the glittery world of celebrity poets. She gets everything she could have wanted, so what next?

Plot

The plot is quite straightforward. Poemsia is fairytale-esque with first love, a supportive best friend, evil sidekick, and quick fast glamorous success. To be honest it’s a bit simplistic because all the problems get resolved immediately. Nice, but not always the best reflection of reality – hence perfect for fairy tale happy ever after fans.

Style

Before Poemsia I read Love Looks Pretty On You which is one of Lang Leav’s poetry collection, and I must say I like that one better. She seems to be able to dig into so much artistic depth in her poems, but is unable to bring that out in the structure of a fiction. That said, there were some poetic sentences in which I though THIS IS LANG LEAV. The scene about Verity’s mother impersonating a butterfly and Verity’s answer to someone who asked her on advice for how to be a poet – those transcended above a majority of the narrative.

Lesson (Spoilers!)

I do like the lesson in Poemsia though. Verity tastes a bit of microwave success, makes some money as her poetry book becomes a best-seller, and then decides what she wanted was right in front of her all along – the bonsai garden, the small bookstore, her boyfriend Sash, her grandfather Pop, and her best friend Jess. I love these kind of lessons. As a wise mentor once told me: if you think you have problems because you don’t have money, think again. You will have twice as much problems when you do have money.

Indeed success if it’s defined ONLY by material wealth, pretty looks, and thousands of Instagram followers probably needs redefining. I’m not saying it’s bad to be rich, pretty, and be an influencer on social media. I want all of those things too! But that’s not my end goal. I want a lot of money so I can be financially secure and then support awesome charities my friends set up (from anti stunting to music education to saving the rainforest).

Another goal is to be healthy which often results in looking pretty (yeay!). I want to be an “influencer” because I want to use my voice for issues I care about (like women empowerment and sexual harassment). I also want to reduce my trash output (long term zero-waste life goal) and see more marine animals before they go extinct thanks to our collective trash load – worthy lifestyle goals to consider other than financial, health, and career goals.

Thus, any story that invites the reader to look deeper into perceived success and fame through a more critical mindset is a book I welcome.

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Book Review: Strings Attached

Through the Mad Tea Book Club, I’ve been so pleased to meet more Indonesian readers and writers (especially women writers). One author I have really enjoyed reading is Firnita. She has two books published by Pop and Ice Cube: Strings Attached (2020), and Shorter Stories (2021).

Twitter Lift

I first met her through the #writerslift which is something fun that happens on Twitter where writers boost each other. I think this is a wonderfully supportive gesture, so we tried it on our book club’s twitter account. That’s where Firnita dropped her most recent book and how Sherry, Krisan, and I got to meet her. Then, funny as things can be sometimes, in the book club meeting that month (it was August), Krisan and I both (coincidentally) brought up Shorter Stories! That’s a sign. A good sign.

So, we decided to start a new segment on our bookclub’s Instagram which is discussion with authors, and Krisan started it off by doing an interview with Firnita. You can check out the whole interview here.

Strings Attached

Strings Attached is written in a genre of which I had never heard before called flash fiction. It’s a collection of many short fiction stories surrounding the theme of romance. The book also has some really modern illustrations which I LOVED. They totally added to the atmosphere of reading the stories.

The first and second section is the fluttering and bliss of being in love, so it will suit you if you are a helpless romantic. To be honest, I’m not a romantic person anymore, so I liked the third section better which was about the despair of break-ups and rejections. Yes, me likes this. Much more realistic.

Despite my personal tastes though, the stories (written in English) were well written and had a lilt to it, something like a slow dance. Firnita did say in the interview with Krisan that she loves music, so this is where it shows.

Q and A with Firnita

To make this article more fun, I decided to ask Firnita several questions about Strings Attached. Here they are.

Airin: How did you get the ideas for the flash fiction stories in strings attached? were some from real-life observation, or from experience, or?

Firnita: The stories in strings attached are mostly my train of thoughts in class for 6 years (haha). The idea is whatever I can finish in that one sitting, that’s it. It’s a collection of pieces from my notebooks: science, English, Bahasa Indonesia, everything. Some of them are real-life observations, movie-watching observations, and experience. It’s a mix of all~

Airin: Why do you find writing in English easier than Bahasa Indonesia?

Firnita: I always feel bad for writing in English because I know I do love Bahasa Indonesia too, but I guess it’s the matter of upbringing. I attended a semi-international school where most of the materials were taught in English, so I got to familiarize myself with English since kindergarden. I do write in bahasa too btw!! Haha.

Airin: I have noticed in my own writing, where I write something from my imagination, and then couple months after then it happens. It’s CRAZY! I am wondering if this has ever happened to you, like suddenly one or two of the stories you wrote happened in real life.

Firnita: OH I’ve heard this too! I can say that some pieces in Strings Attached are my manifestations, but I don’t know whether it will happen in the near/far future. But it happened to me too, just not the pieces in Strings Attached! Nothing specific, but when it happened I felt like I think I wrote this a while ago in my journal. And BAM when I trace back to my old journals, I see that piece manifest in the event that just happened, lol.

Way cool!

To support Firnita, purchase a copy of her books by contacting her.

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Book Review: Cerita Carissa

Character deaths don’t make me cry. It’s character growths that do. And this sweet Indonesian chick-lit definitely made me cry with how much the protagonist has grown from the first page to the last. Written by Krysan Wijaya, a fellow co-founder of the Mad Tea Book Club, Cerita Carissa (Carissa’s Story) centers around Carissa, an aspiring surgeon who is seeking out her dreams and happiness.

Carissa has to deal with a lot of disappointments however, when things don’t go the way she wanted. AHA, you say. Isn’t that life? Life deals you a hand and doesn’t behave the way you want it to behave. Life throws your expectations back at you, shocks you, breaks your heart and your spirit, sometimes even your body. And you have to deal with what’s left, just like Carissa. She was a great gal-she didn’t do anything wrong. Carissa worked hard and tried to reach to the stars for her dreams, but life mocks her and shoves her with rejections and betrayals.

And page after page, heartbreak after heartbreak, Carissa gets back up and tries again. She sees the loopholes in the society around her, finds her way around it, accepts herself, and moves forward. This kind of plot is quite straightforward and simple, but written with so much heart that I assure readers will be able to feel and relate to Carissa’s journey.

Meet the Author!

Q: How old are you, and what do you do now?

I thought it would be fun to get to know the author a bit…so here are some questions I asked Krisan!

Krisan Wijaya, author of Cerita Carissa

A:  I just turned 30, and am currently working as a general practitioner in Solo, Indonesia.

Q: When did you start writing?

A: I wrote my first short story in 6th grade to join a writing competition held by PLN (Indonesia’s national electricity company) back in 2003. I also wrote a YA romance novel in 2005-2006, but it went unpublished.

Q: What was your inspiration for Cerita Carissa?

A: Of course, all fiction are inspired by the truth 🤭 Cerita Carissa was inspired by a toxic relationship I had years ago, though of course the details were different. I was also observing people who stuck with abusive partners, and who treated the idea of meeting the one and getting married as if it was the only reason to live.

Q: What is your next writing project?

A: I am currently revising 2 novel drafts, but it’s hard to make time for writing in the midst of a full-time job and a toddler 😂 I’m also writing a short stories & poems collection (Lang Leav kind of book) about love and heartbreaks.


Support Krisan’s writing and purchase a copy of the book (in Bahasa Indonesia) by contacting the author. Krisan is also a booktuber, and you can check out her awesome book review videos at her youtube channel.