2015 World Book Day – Literature Teachers’ Bedside Reading

WBD

In celebrating World Book Day 2015, the Faculty of Literature in English has put together a collection of book recommendations to share our reading interests. Spanning both fiction and non-fiction genres, we hope that our sharing in the forms of comprehensive analysis, smorgasbords of literary pickings or bite-size reviews will inspire you to pick up a book to read.

Happy reading!

WYNNIE KWOK
THE GRAVEYARD BOOK BY NEIL GAIMAN (2008)

1 Wynnie

Although accessible for Young Adult readers, The Graveyard Book speaks volumes as well to matured readers on themes of family, identity and overcoming adversity in very unique setting. Serendipitously wandering away from his home as a toddler while his parents are being murdered, the protagonist Bod (short for Nobody – for no one knows much about him) finds himself in a graveyard. With no one in sight to care for him, the kind ghouls and spirits of the graveyard take him in and raise the human child as best as they can. In this aspect, some similarities can drawn here with Mowgli of The Jungle Book. A striking quality of The Graveyard Book is the inverse nature of the unknown and the dangerous. It is the human world that is volatile and fraught with self-serving shady characters while the world of the dead has nothing to hide from Bod. Having been brought up with the assuring finality of death, The Graveyard Book in a morbid way redefines the kindred and traditional wholesomeness as Bod navigates his way back to the treacherous ways of the living as he matures. A deathly good read.

MARK ROZELLS
A BLINK OF THE SCREEN BY TERRY PRACHETT (2012)

2 Mark Rozells

The first Discworld novel I ever read was a Christmas present, from a former Literature teacher, in which Death (personified) has an existential crisis. Since then, I think I have read almost all the Discworld novels, and some of his other works as well. I’m drawn to the satire and the amazing way he weaves his storylines. This particular book is quite interesting as it is a collection of his shorter work, some of which later became full novels.

CLAUDINE JEAN FERNANDEZ
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE (2006)

3 Claudine

Set against the political backdrop of southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s, Adichie skillfully interweaves love, loyalty and power dynamics in this narrative. Readers are given privy to the lives of five different characters, with completely different backgrounds but united in their fears and dissipated hopes during the time of civil war. Adichie’s sophisticated writing style of blending cultural references with universal themes is captivating, intimate and extremely accessible. I received this book as a gift from a dear friend after we had both watched Adichie’s TED talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”.

AUDREY CHAN
IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER BY ITALO CALVINO (1979)

4 Audrey

I have lately rediscovered Italo Calvino’s timeless take on narrative. If on a winter’s night a traveler is a novel that challenges the conventions of the novel form, taking the reader through a meta-experience of what it means to read a novel.

You (the reader) are literally the main character and protagonist of Calvino’s inventive work.

Be prepared to embark on an endless quest for closure, as he continuously draws you in with his aesthetically arresting prose.

Fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest will find Calvino’s work particularly resonant in its evocative experimentation with narrative. This is really a book about the reader, for the reader.

TIMOTHY NG
THE PEOPLE’S ACT OF LOVE BY JAMES MEEK (2006)

5 Timothy

The People’s Act of Love is a sprawling story that is deeply imaginative and ambitious in its plot. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the male psyche, and the disassociated personalities of the various characters. Meek has constructed an exciting plot in which reveals the primal urges that lie at the heart of his characters, and exposes the impulses that lead to supposedly heroic acts of courage. Critical yet uplifting, The People’s Act of Love is a politically charged novel that strikes a deeply human and inspiring chord.

EUGENE ONG
PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS BY RICHARD LLOYD PARRY (2012)

6 Eugene - People who eat darkness

Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness is investigative journalism that I love. He traces the history of the man responsible for the abduction of Lucie Blackman (a British hostess working in the Roppongi district of Tokyo) and the gruesome fate that befell her. This is a study of abhorrent crime, misogyny and tortured familial histories that make the book’s 400 pages seem much less than what it is. Leaves a numb sensation in the head and hands upon completion – partially because of the depths of perversity people can sink to, and the slow system of justice that fails to recompense the victims.

JASMINE TAN
THE EMPTY FAMILY BY COLM TÓIBÍN (2012)

7 Jasmine

The basket of books next to my bedside always has a short story collection or two. Currently, I am attempting to read Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family and Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I say “attempting” because sometimes I just want some light reading after teaching Literature all morning. I am reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed currently. I was drawn to the idea of trekking through the wilderness and having to survive the experience; I think it was all those Enid Blyton stories I read as a child, describing children living on tinned peaches with a can-opener, sleeping on soft heather, on some island.

COLIN CHEONG
PHYSICS MATTERS BY MARSHALL CAVENDISH (2013)

8 Colin

I’m currently reading a book titled Physics Matters, published by Marshall Cavendish. I’ve been told it’s an O-Level text. I reckoned it would be pretty good text because I knew two of the three authors – Charles Chew and Chow Siew Foong. They were my colleagues at Victoria Junior College and were excellent teachers.

I remember my own physics text back from 1980 – that had a cool picture of a high speed train on the cover, but on the inside, it was just text and line diagrams. It looked impressive, but it was tough to read. Physics Matters is really very different. There are a lot of colour images, great infographics and tables – it’s all designed to really help get the point across to someone who is a total newbie to Physics.

The book opened with a statement and a diagram that essentially said that Physics was about matter and energy. That’s how basic it is – but that’s also how helpful it is, taking nothing for granted. The first chapter was about measurement and I got a handy revision on vernier calipers and micrometer screw gauges.

When I was a trainee teacher back in 1995, the only science texts that could communicate their ideas so clearly and simply were the US texts which had all the infographics and pictures too. Locally written texts were still quite far away from that. They weren’t badly written, but they usually assumed some prior knowledge on my part and the diagrams seemed rather rudimentary. So I was quite thrilled to find Physics Matters and am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

SANDY LEOW
THE FIONAVAR TAPESTRY TRILOGY BY GUY GAVRIEL KAY (1995)

9 Sandy - GGK

A friend recommended me Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionava Tapestry Trilogy knowing that I am a great fan of the fantasy genre as well as Arthurian legends. The three books of The Fionava Tapestry are:
1. The Summer Tree
2. The Wandering Fire
3. The Darkest Road

It is written in the Tolkian tradition of high fantasy. So there are different worlds, complete with mages and different species of living beings inhabiting these places. The difference lies in the beginning of the tale which takes place in modern Canada. Five young Canadian undergraduates are pursuaded by the mage Loren Silvercloak to travel to Fionavar. Thus the adventure begins.

What I love about this trilogy is not just the gripping plot but the sheer lyricism of Kay’s language. The narration is interspersed with beautiful songs, poems. But the storytelling itself is moving, they are indeed; ‘bright weavings’ in the creation of the tapestry!

I also love the biblical allusions that speak very deeply to me. There are passages that are actually tear-jerkingly moving! And if you are like me who love the world of knights, sword fighting and shieldmaidens racing on their trusty steeds into battle, this set of books will make new GGK converts of you.

DORCAS TIRHAS
LIFE WITHOUT LIMITS BY NICK VUJICIC (2012)

Dorcas

People who are able to overcome life after seemingly been dealt a bad hand, have always inspired me. Although one doesn’t have to be religious to be thankful or optimistic, I do believe that my upbringing as a “missionary kid” has helped me to always look for the best in every situation. Especially when I grew up seeing some of the things that the local African people suffered from whilst growing up there and seeing the joy and hope they still hold on to.

Nick Vujicic is one such person who has suffered immensely, and yet through his family and faith, has overcome so much. Watching his videos on YouTube has always been something that I enjoyed doing and understanding what he went through in his life in school has been eye opening as a teacher and parent. Even my two boys know who he is because I let them watch with me and speak to them about how we should treat others and how to be better people. When they saw this book on my bedside table said “Hey Look! It’s Nick!”

His book Life Without Limits was given to me by my sister for Christmas last year. It tells Nick’s story and how he suffered through bullying in school, learning to be independent and growing up being different. The thing that’s so wonderful about this is that it reminds us that everyone has metaphorical “limbs missing” and we may feel so alone and different that no one will understand. However, we aren’t and it is this simple truth and honest sharing in the book that makes it a book that is suitable for anyone.

His newest book Love Without Limits tells of love, marriage and hope – how he and his wife met and fell in love and the journey of their family and having children. (Probably next on my list!)

If you want to find out more you can visit Life Without Limbs.

CHEW YIWEI
BETWEEN STATIONS BY BOEY KIM CHENG (2009)

10 Yiwei

Boey Kim Cheng’s Between Stations is a collection of personal essays dwelling on the author’s childhood in Singapore and his travels to various cities. While each essay can be read as a single piece by itself, underlying the book’s structure, its sequencing of chapters, Boey’s constant reflection on his dead father, and his impeccably personal and lyrical voice, is a narrative that hinges on change, loss, nostalgia, movement and identity.

The book starts with Boey’s travels around Calcutta, and ends with him finding a sort of home in Australia after leaving Singapore for the island continent in 1997. What lies in between, Boey’s childhood, his intimate relationship with an older Singapore, an older world, is evinced, and it is Boey’s love affair with this age that is, for me, most compelling. Boey’s contemplation of the city is embellished with his impeccable sensitivity to its sensuous materiality.

By invoking his literary influences and the very voices that have shaped his very own, he turns the city into a floating, multi-sensorial dream world, a world inundated and defined by memory, by the hope of a better past. Contantine Cavafy, John Keats, Edward Thomas, Edward Elgar, Mahler, Du Fu perambulate and pervade Boey’s prose, a world choked with loneliness and brokenness.

The smells and the sounds of the city, its phenomenological quality, is brought out like a poem, a song; the city becomes a mnemonic map, a place with names written with the signatures of poets and musicians, all intertwined with the experience of one man – the way the city shapes him, and he, the city. Boey then, is a master of psycho-geography. Places become embodied spaces – repositories demarcated by, filled with the footsteps and heartbeats of its real and imaginary inhabitants.

Most palpably felt amidst Boey’s solitary travels, is however, a silent companion that forever trails behind and in front of him. His father, or, the ghost of the father, is an unceasing absence in Boey’s life. The dead father is more presence than person, more a consistent reminder than stark living reality. Boey constantly tries to negotiate with the pain left behind by his father; the narrative is filled with tropes of remembering, of reconciling, the father’s irregular, limping gait making indelible imprints on Boey’s present and future. His father walks with him in almost every other city, his father delineates the street signs of Boey’s inner map; and eventually, when Boey finally makes the final journey out of a newer, less familiar Singapore of the 1990s to Sydney as a student, and finally an Australian, his father becomes both the unnamed immigrant and citizen of Boey’s new country – a country of fresh starts and forgiveness.

It is difficult not to reach the end of the book without having shed a tear. Boey’s prose is heavy with grief, honesty and sadness; it ruminates on the challenges of leaving behind and letting go. Yet, the prose never slips into uncritical nostalgia; it achieves, most remarkably, a fine balance between the sentimental and the beautiful.

RASPAL DHILLON

10 Raspal

I usually read my storybooks just before I go to bed. So my bedside table has a store of the books that I like. In the last few months I actually read three debut novels. The first two books were left at my place by a relative from India.

THE WHITE TIGER BY ARAVIND ADIGA (2008)
The White Tiger is the debut novel by Indian-Australian author Aravind Adiga. It was first published in 2008 and won the 40th Man Booker Prize in the same year. It tells the story of Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager who rises to become a successful business by learning to maneuver through the intricacies of the Indian system. The writer’s description of a ‘rooster coop’ in which the poverty stricken Indian is trapped and suppressed by the rich incensed me as there seemed to be no way out of this dire situation for one born into poverty. It was also embarrassing to realise that man can pay millions in bribes but test his servant’s loyalty by dropping a one-rupee. This provocative book shows the ugly side of the Indian society mired in political corruption and economic suppression of the poor. I think this book will definitely stir widespread resentment among the Indians but hopefully it will lead to some self-reflection and a more fair and equal India.

THE TIGER HILLS BY SARITA MANDANNA (2011)
This is quite an outstanding book considering that this is Sarita Mandanna’s first book. It is about a triangular love story set at the turn of the nineteenth century in the lush Coorg area of Southern India. It deals with the challenges of multi-generational families through the eyes of a strong willed protagonist Devi, who tries to challenge age-old ideals of family pride and social conventions. The book is engaging and heart breaking at the same time. Compared to The White Tiger, Mandanna’s lyrical prose was an easy and relaxing read.

THE LITTLE COFFEE SHOP OF KABUL BY DEBORAH RODRIGUEZ (2012)
This is a debut novel by Deborah Rodriguez. The story is set in Afghanistan and is about the lives of five extraordinarily women who meet in a little café. It deals mainly with friendship, love and overcoming adversity against a backdrop of war and hostility. The vivid picture Deborah paints of Afghan society and culture is insightful. Through her stories she preaches empowerment of women in a male-dominated place like Afghanistan.

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS BY REBECCA SKLOOT (2011)
I am still reading this book. It is about the true life and death of Henrietta Lacks. No dead woman has done more for the living in the area of cancer cure and research as Henrietta Lacks. A compelling but heavy read.

THE SECRET BY RHONDA BRYNE (2006)
The Secret is always at my bedside to remind me of the power of my thoughts and to remain positive at all times.

NG SOO NEE

11 Soo Nee

There are currently two National Library books and two personal copies on my bedside table. Apart from being a cheapskate, I’m also running out of shelf space at home, hence the borrowed books.

THE BEST AMERICAN NON-REQUIRED READING BY DAVE EGGERS (EDITOR) (2013)
I’ve been dipping in and out of the annual series The Best American Non-Required Reading for the last couple of months. Each anthology is put together by volunteer college students (it’s not as bad as it sounds, really), who trawl through journals and books, talk, argue and wrestle for their choice of fiction, non-fiction, essays, comics, humor, poetry, etc. Some of the pieces work for me (reading and breathing pace slowed down), some merely elicit derisive snorts and eye-rolling (“NEXT!”). Even so, my reading diet has expanded because of these books. For the 2013 issue on my table, I’ve read Sherman Alexie’s verse poem Crazy Horse Boulevard, some anti-war poetry “Inspired by Kurt Vonnegut”, a document on tattoos and the stories behind them (with hand-drawn pictures of the tattoos), as well as articles on Guatemala’s insurgent-led atrocities, an experience of adoption in staunchly conservative Corpus Christi, and the Japanese yakuza. Most pieces can be read in one sitting, which is a bonus when the only reading time nowadays is after 10pm when the kids are at last asleep.

THE BOOK OF DAHLIA BY ELISA ALBERT (2008)
The second library book is The Book of Dahlia. The 29-year-old protagonist Dahlia is dying of a brain tumour, which gives her an excuse to mouth off about everything and everyone around her. No self-pity or curling up in a foetal position for Dahlia; her caustic and irreverent wit tears through the hypocrisy surrounding the dying, the doctors in charge of them, as well her family members. Yet Albert also writes about the flawed protagonist with great sympathy as she faces down her own impending death. The ending is supposed to be devastating…

ON IMMUNITY: AN INOCULATION BY EULA BLISS (2014)
On Immunity: An Inoculation takes on the anti-vaccination tribe in America. From the perspective of a new mother, she addresses the myths and fears associated with this supposedly controversial issue (no such angst here in Singapore?), extending her research to include Voltaire’s Candide, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors. I’m curious to learn how this tribe defend their stance against vaccination for children; the health benefits are so blindingly obvious to me that any form of opposition boggles my mind.

THE FISH LADDER: A JOURNEY UPSTREAM BY KATHARINE NORBURY (2015)
Lastly – probably only to be read during the June holidays – is Katharine Norbury’s memoir The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. The writer, after suffering from a miscarriage, walks from a river’s mouth to its source in an attempt to space and pace out her grief. Along the way, she explores a fish ladder for returning salmon built alongside a hydroelectric dam, which becomes a symbolic structure associated with reproduction and its accompanying pains and suffering. Friends and strangers met on her journey, as well as the English landscape, all help to lighten her burden. I shy from sprawling soppy sentimental motherhood narratives, but Norbury’s work has been so positively reviewed, I decided to give it a shot.

So, there you go, the 4 books on my bedside table. Not captured in the photograph are the towers and piles of books in other parts of my house silently awaiting their turn to make it to the bedside table. As the saying goes, “So many books, so little time.” Take a number, guys!

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