Monday, July 29, 2013

Reading in pairs

In case the title of this post gives you the wrong idea, this post is not about reading as a couple. It's about books are interesting when read one after another.

The idea of reading books in pairs came to me when Lesley-Anne was reading a few classics as part of her literature class. It occurred to me that many of these classics either had a modern equivalent or a modern book that made reference to the classic.  I recommended some of them to her and she was pretty fascinated by the parallels or references. In some cases, it made the classic even more meaningful. At the very least, it invoked thought.

Here are some of the pairs:

In sec 3, Dostoevsky's epic Crime and Punishment was on Lesley-Anne's literature choice of reading. Hardly anyone chose to read this book, mainly because it's a gazillion pages long. Lesley-Anne chose to read this partly because she's always up for a challenge but partly also because I had a brand new copy sitting on my shelf. In other words, it was convenient.

Crime and Punishment is essentially about this guy Raskolnikov who kills somebody and then philosophises about the murder throughout the entire book. It's tough going for various reasons: 1) there are so many long names that sound alike and begin with 'R' that it's easy to lose track of who the author is referring to. Sometimes the author refers to the same guys using their second names instead (just for a lark). After a while, we dubbed the protagonist Ratsky just so we'd know who we were discussing. 2) This Ratsky guy can really go on and on. On the same issues, back and forth. It's both fascinating and frustrating.

In the end, Lesley-Anne did well for her assignment, I think because the teacher was so impressed that someone actually bothered to plow through the entire book.

The book I recommended to her after that was Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game. It really is a modern parallel of Crime and Punishment. Like Ratsky, Ripley is involved in a murder and tries to justify his actions using psychological and philosophical reasoning. But written in a more fast-paced and readable manner. 

The next pair is Arthur Miller's play The Crucible and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter.  The latter is not really a parallel of The Crucible but it was written to take place during the same period and there are references to some of the characters in The Crucible. It's important to note that many of the characters in both these books were real people in history, during the 17th century at the time of the infamous Salem witch trials.

The third pair is a no-brainer - J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Stephen Chbosky's recent hit, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Both are coming-of-age stories and have protagonists who struggle to make sense of life in general during the tumultuous teenage years. Lesley-Anne hasn't read the latter yet but I'm sure she'll get around to it eventually.

The fourth pair is Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth and Anchee Min's Pearl of China. The Good Earth is a classic because it gave people a glimpse of what real China was like at the turn of the 19th century. Even more interesting is that it was written by a foreigner. So how did an ang moh woman manage to capture rural China life so realistically? The answers are in Anchee Min's novel, which tells the story of Pearl's life as a little girl, growing up among the Chinese in a little Chinese town with her missionary parents. In fact, Pearl considered herself Chinese, not American. Compelling read.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The day chivalry died

I know I haven't blogged about Andre in ages. I guess there are limitations when a kid hits secondary school:

1) The frequency of funny incidents has decreased since he has matured (somewhat).

2) He is less inclined to let me blog about incidents as he has grown more self-conscious (slightly).

3) Even when there are funny incidents, I think twice about whether to blog about them because part of me thinks, "Alamak!  How come he's still so childish?"

Nevertheless, I know that a few years ago, the funny perspectives of Andre were what many readers looked forward to on this blog, so I decided to write one just for old time's sake. This dialogue took place last year, during Andre's PSLE year and was told to Lesley-Anne by their Chinese tuition teacher.

Incidentally, their lao shi is a darling. She's animated, engaging and always tries to make the Chinese language interesting.  Even though she sometimes expresses exasperation with Andre (she equates teaching him to playing ball: "他好像在跟我打球一样. 我教他什么,他就打回给我."), she finds him hilarious.

This was a particular conversation that kept her in stitches.

Lao shi: "以后你要照顾姐姐." ('In the future, you should look after your sister.")

Andre: "呵! 不要! 以后我找个男人给她就可以了." ("Hah! I dowan! Next time, I'll just find a man for her.")

Lao shi: "可是,如果有人要欺负她的话,你一定要保护她." ("But if anyone tries to bully her, you have to protect her.")

Andre: "不用啦! 她的这个 (shows fist) 很强!" ("No need lah! Her fist is very powerful!")

Big sisters rule!

Monday, July 15, 2013

A book to call my own

I'm having a book published!

There, I've said it.  I've been working on it for a few months now and been wondering when I should mention it on my blog.  Finally, I decided it's time.  After all, you guys are my most loyal readers so it's only right that I give you a sneak peak.

How did this project come about? Well, as you know, I've been writing for clients for more than 10 years now and recently, the thought struck me that it would be nice to have something published that was mine, instead of belonging to someone else. I was reading my old blog posts one day and chuckling over some Andre stories when I thought, maybe some of these could be possible fodder for a book.  So I compiled a few and emailed them to Edmund, the boss of Epigram Books, whom I know from previous work collaborations.

Quite to my surprise, he instantly replied and said, "Yes. Let's talk."  So talk we did and to cut a long story short, I signed a contract with Epigram Books for a fiction title. I must say, I feel very blessed. What? No need to cry over tons of rejection slips? No passing on a manuscript from publisher to publisher begging them to take a look at my work?  Maybe God figures I'm too tired to take that sort of rejection and gave me a free pass, haha.

Anyway, here are the details:

Title (tentative): The Good, the Bad and the PSLE
Genre: Literary fiction (humour)
No. of pages: 160 (approximate)
Format: paperback
Release date: September 2013
RRP: $17.90 (before GST)/$19.15 (after GST) 

The book is essentially about a typical Singaporean mother who navigates the local education system by helping her two children do well in school. Her older daughter is an ace student while her younger son is the total opposite who cares more about soccer and canteen food than getting full marks for spelling. The book culminates in the daughter' PSLE.

At this point, you're probably thinking, hmm... this family sounds familiar and of course, you're right! Many of the stories were taken from my old blog posts and woven into a narrative.  The son is very much based on Andre and the daughter in the book is a more intense version of Lesley-Anne.  I state this upfront so that if you're a long-time reader of my blog and decide to buy my book, you won't be surprised if you come across previously used material. 

I deliberately wrote this book as a fun and light-hearted read, it's definitely NOT a how-to-survive-PSLE guide (although as I told the publisher, the latter might actually sell more copies!)  I've always been big on humour so I hope to give readers a few laughs, especially on this subject that has come to stress out many Singaporeans.

The book is going through edits now and the picture on the right is a proposed book cover that has since been rejected and being reworked.  But here, you guys get a little behind-the-scenes glimpse at the work-in-progress.

It's a fascinating process and I love being part of it.  Epigram Books is great - they consult authors over things like covers, illustrations and really put in a great deal of thought into them.

I'll be giving regular updates on this blog. It's still two months before the book is published but when the time comes, I hope I can count on all your support!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The clarinet cadenza

Next week, Lesley-Anne will step down from the band, her CCA for four years of secondary school. During that time, she learnt the clarinet and became the assistant section leader.

To be perfectly honest, she's not unhappy to leave the band, even though she has made great friends there. She's relieved because the entire process of being part of a performing arts group in school is so intensive and taken so seriously that it has become more stressful than fun (previously mentioned in this post). Which I find a real pity because it's so great to be able to play music as part of a group.

Nevertheless, she can't deny that joining the band has brought about immeasurable benefits, not least of them, the opportunity to learn how to play a new instrument. Thanks to all the extensive practices, Lesley-Anne has grown to be quite adept at the clarinet.

In fact, the clarinet coach was sufficiently confident in her section's abilities to suggest that they try out for a clarinet exam last year. Lesley-Anne formed a group with three of her batch mates and entered the University of West London Music Performance (LCM) Ensemble Level 3 exam (there are five levels in total).  The group managed to score a Distinction, which I felt was such a nice reward to show for the four years of hard work.

Anyway, before Lesley-Anne stepped down, I decided to record her playing as a keepsake, since I'm almost certain that she'll never be able to play at this level again, once the practices stop.  I also made her take some photos of the clarinet (the instrument belongs to the school and she's not interested in getting one of her own).  It's a gorgeous instrument.

And here's the recording.  It's quite difficult to find a concert piece where the clarinet has the melody line but this one, "Concerto D'Amore" by Jacob De Haan, comes pretty close.  In this piece, the same theme repeated throughout piece in three styles - baroque, pop and jazz.  The first video shows Lesley-Anne playing the baroque part and the second video shows the jazz.

Maybe in the far future, she might look back at these and decide that she'll want to take up in the clarinet again.  If not, at least she'll have something to remember this chapter of her music journey.

"No birdcall is the musical equal of a clarinet blown with panache." - Edward Hoagland

Monday, July 1, 2013

You say yes, I say no

When I was a young adult in the 1990s, I used to be extremely irritated by several older relatives who were in the pro-PAP camp. To me, it seemed like they were completely irrational. When things went well, they credited the PAP.  When things went wrong, they dismissed it.  Not only could the PAP do no wrong, it was considered taboo to even question them. Whenever I asked something that would even hint at their mistakes, I was greeted with a raised eyebrow. How dare I question them? Did I think that I, a young nobody, knew better?

Today, the political landscape has completed changed, as we all know.  People don't only dare to question, they do so openly and aggressively, especially online.  For the most part, I welcome this. It is definitely preferable to inertia and apathy.

However, of late, I've become increasingly irritated. Maybe it's a sign of aging but I find that what was supposed to be an awakening of a nation has turned into a massive wave of fault-finding and scapegoating.  We have moved from a drought to a flood. Everywhere I see on the world wide web, every damn thing is being politicised.  There are complaints about every single thing. In a complete turnaround, now everything is the PAP's fault.  Even the most obscure matters can somehow be linked back to something the PAP did wrong.

In fact, now you can't even make a simple remark (like complimenting a foreigner) without being branded a Pappie. People who feel that some anti-PAP comments are unfair dare not speak up because they don't want to be labelled as such.  That's when I realised that the anti-PAP camp today is in a way, no different from the pro-PAP camp back in the 1990s.  To me, being a yes-man is virtually identical to being a no-man. The only difference is the word used. One says yes no matter what, the other says no.

Think about it - one thinks the PAP can do no wrong, the other thinks the PAP can do no right.  One thinks the PAP always has the best intentions, the other thinks the PAP always has the worst.  One thinks the PAP has all the answers, the other thinks the PAP creates all the problems.  One thinks opposition supporters are all entitled, ungrateful trouble-makers, the other thinks PAP supporters are all stupid, brainwashed sheep.

What people may not realise is that both camps are equally unthinking and undiscerning.  Both practise double standards.  Both give their preferred camps an infinitely long leash and nitpick at their identified villains with a fine-toothed comb. Both reduce people to one-dimensional stereotypes with a singular trajectory of thought. Both hold fast to the insular "if you're not for us, you're against us" mentality.

I'm not saying that all opposition supporters are like this, of course. Many of my friends support the opposition (I even hesitate to use the phrase "opposition supporter" because it implies unconditional support of this very diverse group) and they're level-headed individuals. I also made no secret of my happiness when Worker's Party won Aljunied GRC. But for every intelligent speech made by Sylvia Lim, it's sullied by the baseless vitriol and half-truths that go in some other online site and spread by people who are not interested in verifying the facts.

I wonder if some of these anti-PAP know that they're actually undermining their own cause because when it comes to the polls, people who are sympathetic to the opposition might not vote so because they're so antithetical to being associated with this group.

I believe that each person has to be assessed on their own merits (which is why I don't agree with the GRC system). I do like many opposition members but not all.  Even among those in the same party, I admire some but not others. Even then, somebody I like may say something that I don't quite agree with. That is the multi-facetness of human beings. There are very few individuals on earth that are unequivocally evil or saintly.  If even an individual can be so complex, then generalising all persons in one party as having a single train of thought or objective is even more ludicrous.  It's so simplistic that the only explanation is people do so because it's easier to justify their own agendas.

It's like someone who has made up his mind that his life turned out crappy because he had bad parents. Everything negative that happens to him (even 20, 30 years later), he can somehow turn it into his parents' fault. It's a simple way of dealing with dissonance because otherwise he might have to consider the possibility that maybe some of it was due to his own choices or even unfortunate circumstances.  But it's extremely unhealthy because it absolves the individual of any form of responsibility for his own actions. It doesn't benefit the people he's around and it doesn't even benefit himself because he's so full of bitterness that he cannot focus on more meaningful tasks at hand.

I want to be won over by reason and logic, not half-cooked conspiracy theories backed by skimpy or no evidence and fraught with emotional blackmail.  I think some people have confused having critical thinking as being the same as criticising everything. They're not the same thing at all.

I want to be critical where something is flawed and to give credit where things work.  That is my approach on this blog when it comes to education policies and practices.  Obviously, I'm not always right, but I do try to be as rational as possible.  And I don't see why this cannot be the approach even for politics.

Am I moving too far from my rational side to becoming an idealist? After all, this is a nation with people who will get into fights and call the police over a stuffed feline.  Maybe that's why I hardly blog about politics (until something bugs me so much I have to get it out of my system). I dislike how it always seems to generate so much volatility.

All I know is that at the end of the day, all this mud-slinging on both sides of the fence solves nothing. All it does is make our country very muddy.

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