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Jun 12 2020

Reading List: Sleep, Ships, and Late-night Snacking

by The Editors

Image by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.

When we’re not tuning into online art programs or hitting up new art events in Hong Kong, the AAP editors like to curl up with some good old-fashioned printed matter. Here are some of the books, essays, and a manga series we’ve been reading. 

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States

By James C. Scott

Published by Yale University Press, New Haven: 2017 

I picked up James C. Scott’s Against the Grain with one main question in mind: How did human civilization get this way? By “this way” I mean fundamentally exploitative, structurally designed to perpetuate inequity, and ecologically unsustainable. In his “deep history of the earliest states,” Scott examines the precursors to our current model of civilization. The longstanding myth is that hunter-gatherers first became bonded to sedentary governments by way of labor and tax because they needed regular sustenance. Drawing on new archaeological data, Scott reveals in clear and engaging prose that it wasn’t that simple.    

CHLOE CHU

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

By Ottessa Moshfegh

Published by Penguin Books, New York: 2018

If I could pick an entire year to sleep through, 2020 would be a top contender. The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s sophomore novel does exactly that after getting fired from her job as a gallery girl in pre-9/11 New York City, maintaining a state of near-constant sedation with a stupidly copious supply of prescription drugs from her kooky (and criminally irresponsible) psychiatrist. For someone who spends most of her time in a medicated haze, the first-person narrator is remarkably observant and funny. Moshfegh is a master of narrative voice, revealing a character with cruel distortions in thinking but also vivid moments of clarity.

OPHELIA LAI

I Who Have Never Known Men

By Jacqueline Harpman

Published by Seven Stories Press, New York: 1997 

Jacqueline Harpman’s novel poses more questions than it answers, leaving a haunting impression on readers with its powerful narrative about humanity, life, and hope. The heroine, raised in an underground cell with 39 women, has no recollections of the outside world. Her knowledge is based purely on the memories of the other, older women who, although filled with fear and hatred, do not remember why they were imprisoned. When the group of women eventually make their escape, they discover a changed land more barren than their prison. Readers are taken on the heroine’s search for identity and freedom as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and deal with feelings of loss and loneliness. 

Shinya Shokudo (Midnight Diner)

By Yaro Abe

Published by Shogakukan Inc., Tokyo: 2006–ongoing

Manga series Shin’ya Shokudō (Midnight Diner) brings together an eclectic group of mini stories, set in an unassuming diner in Tokyo’s red light district. A one-man business that runs only from midnight, the charming eatery is a second home to its eccentric patrons, who gather to share food along with their life stories. The chef/owner will cook anything requested as long as he has the ingredients, and each of his homestyle dishes is the impetus for a new chapter. The illustration style is cartoonlike and simple, but the stories are anything but. Compassionate and bittersweet, they uncover the triumphs and failures of mundane existence, accentuating the things that really matter: love, friendship, family, dreams, and more.

LAUREN LONG

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

By David Foster Wallace

Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston: 1997 

Long before passengers were getting trapped on ships due to Covid-19, David Foster Wallace had his own experience of despair during a seven-day luxury cruise in the Caribbean. In the title essay of this collection, he recounts feeling suffocated by the festivities and being “pampered to death,” and details the luxurious meals, promotional brochures, and invisible room-service and cleaning routines with his usual sarcastic humor. Other “essays and arguments” cover his youth in the Midwestern United States, his involvement in tennis, and a visit to the Illinois State Fair.

PAMELA WONG

Chloe Chu is ArtAsiaPacific’s managing editor; Ophelia Lai is associate editor; Lauren Long is web and news editor; and Pamela Wong is assistant editor.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

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