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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Book Review: Benediction by Kent Haruf (2013)

How does one define and recognise a state of grace in our contemporary times? Does one have to be part of a religious group – orthodox or not – to aspire to, and hopefully attain, a state of blessedness, or is this a moot point in our consumerist, media- and technology-saturated age? Benediction, by the American writer Kent Haruf, offers a quiet and incisive exploration into the lives of a number of characters who each grapple with his or her past – the erroneous turn taken in the path of life despite good intentions, the effort at redemption amidst the dawning realisation of one’s mistakes, the irretrievable chances of happiness either squandered or cruelly wrested away by life’s random events. In a narrative that is almost bare of exclamation marks, histrionics or climatic development, Haruf draws the reader into his novel as if one is invited into a darkened living room in twilight, offered a glass of wine, a comfy armchair, and a type of conversation that is only ever present between two persons who has lived and weathered life without being embittered by the struggle.

The protagonist Dad Lewis is dying of terminal lung cancer in fictional Holt, Colorado. Tended to by his devoted wife Mary, and with his daughter Lorraine by his side, Lewis looks back on his life with both pride and regret. Not a likable man by any stretch of imagination – he is prickly, curt, and somewhat defensive at times – Lewis nevertheless strives towards acceptance and reconciliation in his estranged relationship with his son. His closing days are juxtaposed with a young girl Alice who comes to stay with her grandmother Berta May, Lewis’s neighbour, as well as a spinster and her aged mother who are frequent visitors to the Lewis’s household. Into this mix of characters comes a new preacher to town, with a troubled wife and a highly wrought son.

If Benediction is ‘the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness’, as the epigraph of the novel states, then each of the characters seeks to evoke such a state both for themselves as well as for others around them, and to do so without resorting to soppy sentimentality or languid irony. In the face of humanity’s uglier traits such as bigotry, resistance to change, and sheer pettiness and small-mindedness, Haruf suggests that it isn’t the theatrical gestures by politicians, social leaders or persons of influence that would bring about changes in our world, but individual, personal acts of kindness, courage, and generosity carried out with no thought of reciprocity or repayment that ease the pain of all our suffering and the darkest of our fears. As with the preacher who sacrifices his ministry for his humanist beliefs, as with the female characters who open themselves to a motherless child, as with the octogenarian who barges into a church meeting castigating the church leaders for their hypocrisy, the author presents us with characters who face up to their commitments and mistakes, difficult and unpalatable the entire process could be. Even so, the grand heroic figure is absent in the novel, for Haruf’s vision is not of the scale and tale of an Odyssesian grand roaming and adventuring, but the return of a narrative vision to the place where it all begins – the intimate, private, quiet daily struggles of ordinary, fallible people – so that we know the place for the first time, and know it with grace.

Reviewed by Dr. Ng Soo Nee

Also read reviews of Benediction by
The New York Times
The Guardian
The Telegraph

Everything but the Brain – A Review

What do Physics, three bears and a stroke have in common?  Jean Tay’s play is about Elaine, a middle-aged Physics teacher who wishes to turn time back to save her sick father from disease and death.  She hopes to exploit the theory of relativity to slow time so that she can spend more time with her father, who has precisely 10 months and 29 days left, as mentioned at the beginning of the play. This creates a sense of urgency, as Elaine needs to find a solution fast or lose the only person she has ever loved forever.

This story about the love and desperation of a daughter to save her father struck a cord with me because I lost my father to a stroke recently as well. It reminded me of the unappreciated challenges that a caregiver faces and the unconditional love that makes it all possible. It also poignantly brought out the effects of aging and a stroke that leads to depression, helplessness and vulnerability of a once perfectly proud and capable individual.

Jean Tay handles the notion that time and timelessness occur concurrently with great mastery. One wonders if time can actually be stopped or slowed down so that death can be either delayed or avoided. A three-member chorus in the play also provides the audience with vital information and a constant reminder of the passing of time in the play. Though the play is about disease and death, through the element of a fairy tale, Jean Tay skillfully perpetuates a sense of ‘happily ever after’ at the end of the play. Essentially the play leaves one with thoughts about love and the emotional struggles that exist in family relationships.

Read more about the play in this Q&A with Jean Tay.

Jean Tay graduated in 1997 with a double-degree in creative writing and economics from Brown University, USA. For her fiction, she was awarded Weston Prize for Fiction from Brown, as well as the 1st and 3rd prizes for NAC’s Golden Point Short Story competition in 1995 and 2001 respectively. Her plays have been produced in festivals in the US and in Singapore. This play by one of our own local playwright is a must read.  It won her Best Original Script, Straits Times’ Life Theatre Award in 2006.  Other plays include ‘The Knot’ (1999), ‘Plunge’ (2000) and ‘Boom’ (2008). The Ministry of Education has selected the play ‘Boom’ as a recommended ‘O’ and ‘N’ level literature text.

Reviewed by Raspal Dhillon

The play is available from EPIGRAM BOOKS and NLB (Call Number: English SING S822 TAY)

Directed by Derrick Chew, ANYTHING BUT THE BRAIN will be showing at DBS Arts Centre from 10 to 21 August 2013. Tickets available from SISTIC.

“Jean’s adroit handling of themes, from the origins of genius to gene heritage and tyranny of Time, makes ‘Everything but the brain’ one of the best things seen on stage here in a while.” – The Straits Times

“One of the more thoughtfully constructed original shows to come out of Singapore in recent times.” – The Business Times

The House of Sixty Fathers

I’ve had The House of Sixty Fathers for a while, but bumped it up my reading list to commemorate the passing of  its illustrator, Maurice Sendak.

I bought the book from a local independent bookstore that specialises in picture books called Woods in the Books at Club Street. The bookshop is so thoughtfully pretty, I could not resist buying a book from it.

Woods in the Books 2 Woods in the Books 7

Woods in the Books 8

Woods in the Books 6

Woods in the Books 13

In case you were wondering, the little white dog in the picture frame, Mr. Scotti, is a real dog.

The House of Sixty Fathers tells the tale of hope, sheer determination, the pivotal kindness of strangers and good judgement. True, the protagonist had a lot of help from good people who came to his aid along the way to get him reunited with his family, but Tian Pao also had to stay single-minded and persevere beyond what he had ever experienced. Young Adult readers will be able to identify with Tian Pao’s fear of loneliness, abandonment and his struggle with inadequacy.

Although Tian Pao seemed to be assisted in his efforts to surmount one challenge after another, the book does not sugar coat the terror of war, especially of the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930-1940s.

I particularly like these two references of the horrors of war and its effect on children. The author’s description of war does not glamourise war, nor does it take war lightly.

——————–

Tian Pao looked at her doubtfully. “But, Mother, if the airman should come again?”

She shook her head. “Not for two hundred yen – no, not for two hundred thousand yen could I go through it again … Tien Pao, have you considered? What if you should try to cross and the river should take you?”

“The wonderful airman would help me row again,” Tien Pao said sturdily.

“Tien Pao, do you know where the river would take you?” his mother said very slowly. “Suppose you risked it again! Suppose the terrible river current should wrench just one oar away. Your wonderful river-god airman has no experience with sampans. Tien Pao do you know what would happen if the river took you and that American airman? Where it would take you? Back where we came from! Back to the Japanese! Do you know what would happen to your helpless airman? The Japanese would torture him – he is an airman. They would drive bamboo splinters under his tender nails until he told all about this great new field for airplanes we are building at Hengyang. And when he had told, they would kill him.

———————

He heard voices. He peered though the bushes. A group of boys and girls were coming up the hill with baskets on their backs and grass knives in their hands. They came slowly and weakly – like old people. They even looked like old people! Their skin was drawn like old paper over their cheekbones. The children stopped halfway up the hill, put their baskets down, and began sawing at the sparse grass with their hooked knives. Those children ate grass! They stuffed whole handfuls into their mouths before they put as much as a blade of grass into their baskets. Then one little boy began to eat mud!

Tien Pao looked on horrified. The mud-eating boy was the smallest of the lot. He kept away from the others, as if he were ashamed. He dragged himself around behind his bloated, huge stomach. His sticks of legs looked silly under that big stomach. And now the little boy scooped up a handful of dirt again and brought it to his mouth. His sister saw it, and scolded him in a tired, old way. The other children looked up, but did not seem to care. The little fellow hung his head. He slowly opened his hand and let the mud dribble out of it. He looked at his empty, dirty hand and began to cry.

——————–

My favorite line of the book however has to this single line from earlier on in the text.

“Tian Pao refused to be silenced by her silence.”

This is in reference to Tiao Pao’s mother’s stern rage at the disappearance of him and their sampan against her explicit instruction. That line suddenly lit up a bulb in my head to illuminate exactly what happens when silence rebukes a guilt so much more than any spoken word.

Read another review of The House of Sixty Fathers here.

A Daughter Remembers by Li Lien-Fung

I am usually not a big fan of biographies or autobiographies. But there is one very special book from the biographical genre that deserves to be mentioned.

Her memories of her parent’s complex relationship and her childhood experiences anchors A Daughter Remembers by Li Lien-Fung. Like numerous tales of separation, loss and love rekindled in the tumultuous war years, Li Lien-Fung’s childhood experience and in fact also the direction that her future was to take were influenced by the war that left an indelible mark in Asia.

I was specially intrigued by the fact that Li Lien-Fung is the mother of Minfong Ho – one of my favourite authors who writes with sensitivity and clarity. So expecting to hear from both Li Lien-Fung and Minfong Ho in person about their careers as writers at the Singapore Writers Festival 2011, I began reading the A Daughter Remembers in time for their panel discussion.

Li Lien-Fung’s own story is amazing. As a young Asian woman, she graduated from Mills College and continued post-graduate education in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1940s. While at MIT, she realised that although she did not struggle with the course material, her passion was in Literature. So she made the switch from studying Chemistry at MIT to pursuing a Masters in Literature at Cornell.

This is what she relates:

I managed to scrape through that first year with mediocre grades, but I knew that I really did not want to study chemistry anymore.  I admitted to myself that Fifth Uncle had been right: what I loved was literature and philosophy, not science. That being the case, I told myself that I could nab a Masters degree in chemistry if I tried hard enough, but since my heart was not it it, the best I could hope for in life was to be an unhappy chemistry professor. But if I should change my course of studies to literature, I would perhaps also be a professor, or maybe a mere teacher, but I would be happy. If both courses led me to a teaching job, then why shouldn’t I choose to teach something I love?

As soon as I received the news that my father had agreed to my changing courses, I went straight to Cornell University in Ithaca, and began my studies anew. “Changing from chemistry to literature,” said my Cornell advisor, “will not be tough, but it will take you a great deal of time because you will have to make up a lot of undergraduate courses which,” he said apologetically, “might take two years,” Then, he went on to add time allowed for graduate school courses, preparing and writing a Masters thesis, etc. All in all, my professor estimated that I could emerge with a degree in literature in six or seven years.

I did it in two. During the two years, I did not feel I was under pressure to work hard. In fact, I felt I was indulging in some form of literary gluttony, taking undergraduate and graduate courses together in great gulps. Shakespeare, Milton, 20th Century poets, I absorbed them all with great enjoyment, and I finished the course requirements and wrote my thesis to earn my Masters, though shabbily, in two years.

Strangely enough, I never felt I was cramming or even studying. I felt free and happy. My mood and personality changed as well. Before I switched to studying literature, I would often pick fights and lose my temper like a spoiled brat. Now I had become calmer and steadier, simply because I was learning what I love.

Perhaps there was a change in my personality, but I fell in love with a nice young man.

Li Lien-Fung at Harvard

Although Li Lien-Fung does refer to her romantic interest and subsequent life partner, A Daughter Remembers expounds more about the very layered and even sometimes exasperating relationship between her parents. Her father left China for America to work and sent money home twice to send for her mother. Each time however, it was vetoed that the money should be used to send her uncles to America and not her mother. By then, some irrevocable decisions were made that would forever alter their destinies.

This is what Li Lien-Fung says about this complexity in the introduction:

When I was preparing the translation of this book from the original Chinese edition, “Liang Pian Lingzhi” which, as far as the meaning was concerned, was absolutely correct. But somehow it sounded like a recipe for an omelet, and not even an appetizing omelet at that. That was why I was overjoyed when my editors suggested changing it to “A Daughter Remembers.”

A daughter remembering was exactly how I felt as I meandered through the murky fog of my memory to find an answer to an issue which has perplexed me all my life: What were my parents really like? What did they mean to each other? What roles did they play in each other’s lives?

Unlike most people, I never, as a baby, had a father hold me in his arms and admire the intricacy with which God had created my ears. And unlike most young women, as I grew up, I never heard a word of motherly advice as I struggled through marriage and raised children. My parents were both there, somewhere in my life, but they were like two separate identities which appeared in different segments in my life.

As a matter of fact, I do not remember ever seeing my parents together.

And yet, in my own way, I seem to know both of them well, but never well enough to completely understand them. I knew my mother intimately when I was a child, but since I was young, I never thought of her as someone that could have feelings as an adult. My father was a complete stranger to me until I became a teenager. By then, we had both learned to mask our thoughts and feelings even though we could laugh, joke, gossip, and discuss business together. Only in my father’s later life did we, sometimes, learn to put aside these masks.

That is why, all my life, I have thought and wondered about my parents. In the last two years, as my own life is coming close to an end, I have tried to analyze them by sifting through my memories. This book, therefore, is not my autobiography of my father or my mother. It is how I remember them.

Others who think they know my parents better than I do may question that some parts of my memories are not accurate or portrayed truthfully, but what I have written reflects exactly the title of this book: A Daughter Remembers her parents who, very likely, shared a bond of love throughout their lives even though they had formally parted ways.

I had to tell their story.

I was in for a shock when I found this printed at the end of the page:

[Publisher’s note: Li Lien-Fung passed away just before the book went to press.]

How then, would the launch of this book continue at the Singapore Writers Festival? Apparently it did go on and was presented by the children of Li Lien-Fung including Minfong Ho. Unlike all other literary panels at the Singapore Writers Festival, this event was attended by an overwhelming number of friends and family of Li Lien-Fung. She was after all married to a Singaporean and was very active in the arts and literary scene in Singapore.

Because Li Lien-Fung passed away just a few months before the Singapore Writers Festival, her absence was still very dearly felt among her family. Minfong Ho surmised at the start of the panel, “mother, where the heck are you?”

Her sons, Ho Kwon  Cjan and Ho Kwon Ping and wife, Claire Chang, their children, Minfong Ho and her daughter tearily read from a passage each from A Daughter Remembers in remembrance of her. They also spoke of Li Lien-Fung’s love for literature, her tenacity and her own struggles in expressing in the book something so private and still painful to her. It was hard to maintain composure.

Given the circumstances, I believe that Li Lien-Fung’s family did not have to go through with her book launch, but they did anyway, and chose to share this very vulnerably raw moment with us.

A Daughter Remembers

Literature Bookclub JANUARY

Welcome back to a brand new school year one and all!

The monthly Literature Bookclub resumes with its January session with a review of Being A Happy Teen.

Being A Happy Teen

This entertaining and practical book written by Andrew Matthews has lots of wise insights for teenagers on how to find happiness. It has many cool illustrations too. Miss Rona Tan, our School Counsellor will review the book and discuss these points:

  • Why does life hurt? Why do I need problems? Dealing with disappointments
  • Who am I ? How can I like myself? Feeling Good
  • How to deal with school bullies
  • What to do if I hate my parents
  • How do I overcome worry and fear?
  • How do I choose happiness?

Two panellists will be invited to share on how their teenage years were like, what difficulties they had and how they coped with it and overcame their problems.

The bookclub will take place at the library’s Cool Stuff Area on 27 January, Friday at these two lunch time sessions:

12.15 pm to 12.45 pm

&

12.45 pm to 1.15 pm

See you there!

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl is a riveting read dealing with the English court during King Henry VIII’s reign. It is told through the eyes of Mary Boleyn, the often forgotten sister of the more famous Queen Anne Boleyn. The story follows the rise of Mary Boleyn who is chosen by the King to be his mistress.

Mary is eventually displaced by Anne as the King’s mistress. An intriguing game of seduction ensues for five years before Anne is eventually crowned Queen. The book portrays excellently King Henry’s blind devotion to Anne. Indeed, the book implicitly suggests that Anne’s marriage to the King was the catalyst of the English Reformation. To achieve this marriage, King Henry splits from the Roman Church so as to dissolve his marriage to his previous wife, Katherine of Aragon.

The precarious position of all families in the court is all too clearly seen when King Henry eventually tires of Anne and has her executed for witchcraft, adultery and treason. King Henry then turns his attention to Jane Seymour. Ironically enough, it was precisely Anne’s tiresome quest to be queen and rid of Katherine of Aragon that allows King Henry to set her aside just as easily.

The book ends with Mary watching from afar the scene of her sister’s execution. Instead of anger at being displaced by Anne, mixed emotions flow through her as she realises how she and Anne were simply pawns in her family’s quest for power. Indeed, despite marrying a low ranking man, she counts herself lucky as having survived the treacherous life that was King Henry VIII’s court.

Read a love letter by King Henry VIII to Anne at the Literature Exhibition in the Library from 14 February onwards….

Reviewed by Raspal Dhillion

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed on this website does not represent those of the School of the Arts, Singapore.
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