The second half of the semester is here! Our readings are starting to pile up and assignment deadlines are drawing nearer. As we busy ourselves with the hustle of school, it is also important to take some time out of your packed schedule to take a break and recharge. One recommendation is to read non-academic content such as novels instead. It might just be the breather you never knew you needed. Let’s get you started – here are five books with memorable lessons that will leave you either inspired or in tears.
1. Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Tales From The Cafe) (by Toshikazu Kawaguchi)
Life lesson: We can never turn back the hands of time
Favourite quote: “Seasons flow in a cycle. Life, too, passes through difficult winters. But after any winter, spring will follow.
Time travel will probably not be invented in our lifetime. However, in Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Tales From The Cafe), customers at a particular cafe in Japan get the opportunity to do so. The catch is this – they have a limited time to stay in the past or present, and have to return before the coffee served to them gets cold. If they do not return in time, they will be stuck in the past of future.
There are four mini tales in this book (which is translated in English) where different characters all wanted to travel to the past to make amends for their mistakes, or to the future to meet their future grandkids. I really took home the message that we only regret the chances we don’t take, the words we don’t say and the things we don’t do. Even if we can revisit our past (which we can’t), our future happiness is up to us to discover and create. So yes, life ain’t all about chasing the A grades – go spend some quality time with your loved ones.
2. The Bluest Eye (by Toni Morrison)
Life lesson: Love and beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Favourite quote: “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly. But the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love.”
The Bluest Eye is a brilliantly written book that highlights bold topics such as racism, misogyny and oppression. This novel tells the story of Pecola, an African-American girl who grew up thinking that to be considered ‘beautiful’ is to have the ‘bluest eye’ in the whole world. It didn’t help that Pecola also had to live in the harsh reality of her oppressed Black family in comparison to an ideal white family life. I was heartbroken at the number of times Pecola tried to ‘become more beautiful’ and failed to see that she already was.
Yet, the biggest takeaway for me was how love is subjective. I was initially puzzled as to why the author humanized certain characters like Pecola’s dad, who [SPOILER ALERT] raped Pecola. We don’t need to know the life story of a rapist! However, I learnt that whether selfish or selfless, Pecola’s dad loved her more than anyone because he was the only one who loved her enough to be in close proximity with her and a sexual reaction was the only way he has ever known to love. I'm not saying it made what he did okay (and rape is definitely wrong), but it has made me realise that different people love differently.
3. The Tattooist Of Auschwitz (by Heather Morris)
Life lesson: Count our blessings everyday
Favourite quote: “How do you say goodbye to your mother? The person who gave you breath, who taught you how to live? He cannot say goodbye to her.”
Living in the technologically advanced 21st century, we should count ourselves lucky that we did not live through the World Wars. I’ll admit – reading The Tattooist Of Auschwitz caused me to tear a couple of times. The story (which is based on a true account) follows Lale Sokolov, a war prisoner who was given the chance to become the concentration camp's tattooist. His job was to tattoo serial numbers on the arms of other prisoners. I was heavily invested in his life and character development – I cheered him on when he tried to help others, rooted for him to reunite with his lover, and cried with him when he faced pain and suffering.
True stories are really the best stories simply because they are so honestly real. Lale’s life was nothing but a real endurance of love and humanity under the darkest circumstances. Through this book, I learnt new things about the war, the holocaust and the prisoners’ experiences. But beyond that, I’ve learnt that life is a gift to be treasured. The relatively peaceful time we have now should never be taken for granted, and we should count our blessings daily, even if COVID-19 seems to have robbed us of many things. It truly is an unforgettable novel.
4. Sweet Bean Paste (by Durian Sukegawa)
Life lesson: Life is ours to create
Favourite quote: “I realised that no matter how much we lost, or however badly we were treated, the fact is that we are still human. All we can do is keep on going with our lives.”
There’s just a thing about Japanese-translated novels that tug at your heartstrings. Sweet Bean Paste is a bittersweet yet beautiful novel that showcases contemporary Japanese culture in its full glory, highlighting important themes of friendship and love. This story is about an ex-convict, Sentaro, who works at a confectionery shop selling dorayaki, a type of Japanese pancake filled with sweet bean paste. He meets an older woman, Tokue, who is ostracised by the society because she has leprosy. They soon become friends and share with each other different snippets of their lives. I love how they were relatable because they were depicted as normal people who had their fair share of troubles but were trying to find a place in the world, just like many of us.
Kudos to the author for using the imagery of blooming cherry blossom trees to represent their growth and journey. This book was full of intense emotions and I was provoked to think about the true meaning of life, beyond our past and the labels society places on us. Truly, life is much more fulfilling and meaningful than the usual worldly measures of a successful life --so let’s make the most of what we have now!
5. Little Fires Everywhere (by Celeste Ng)
Life lesson: We need to watch our words
Favourite quote: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer and new things can grow. People are like that too, they start over, they find a way.”
Set in the 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is about two families who are brought together through their children, and how different encounters affect their lives. Personally, I felt that there were way too many characters in the book, but I have to admit that they were all equally developed and I loved how the author gave each of them a space to be understood. While I didn’t necessarily agree with some of their actions and life choices, it did teach me how we all have our own personal life story that is uniquely ours.
For example, one of the book's side storylines followed the legal battle over a baby's adoption. After a White couple adopted an abandoned Asian baby, matters were complicated when the baby's biological mother resurfaced seeking custody of her baby. The characters in the story took sides and blamed each other for the current predicament which resulted in heartbreaks and lawsuits. I realised how it’s so easy to recklessly judge others and I’ve learnt that we need to watch our words. We can hurt people without intending to, so let’s all be more mindful with what we say, shall we? Overall, the book was intriguing, amazing, compelling and dramatic (okay, I’ve exhausted my vocabulary).
So yes, these are five books with rich life lessons that you can start reading while taking a break from studying. All the best for your upcoming mid-terms and let's all press on for the second half of the semester! 😃