Book Review: ‘Now That It’s Over’ by O Thiam Chin

now that it's over o thiam chin

I totally judge books by their covers and this one features a blurry image of a man(?) covering his face with his hands in what is probably agony (or shame), and the overall impression it gives is hardly attractive. If not for that little circle in the corner with the words “WINNER Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015”, I’m not sure if I’ll pick up this book for a read in the first place. Anyway, I can totally understand how a book needs to be launched really quickly once it wins any sort of prize. So there’s hardly any time to obsess about cover design.

At first, I didn’t really appreciate the title, but after reading the book, I find that it’s a really good title – ‘Now That It’s Over’. Now that the relationship is over, how do you move on? Now that the tsunami is over, how do we pick up the pieces? It gets you thinking about how you’d respond to a situation that is unpleasant or has made you feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under your feet. Do you respond in a positive “let’s move on” manner, or do you think that when ‘this’ is over, there’s nothing else to live for?

The way the author, O Thiam Chin, writes about sex in this book will raise some eyebrows. While the sex between the heterosexual couple seems rather bland, if not entirely boring, the descriptions of homosexual sex acts are shockingly vivid. Please don’t blame me for being kaypoh. I found myself curious about whether the author is gay. Actually, I think I already have the answer. Also, I’m not sure if his depiction of the gay characters in this book as being quite promiscuous (cheating is common) will be appreciated by the community.

There are four main characters: Ai Ling, her husband Wei Xiang, her BFF Cody and his boyfriend Chee Seng. They are in Phuket during the devastating tsunami in 2004. One person doesn’t make it out alive. And one relationship doesn’t survive. Read the book to find out more. 😉 I like how the book toggles from character to character instead of being a rigid, linear narrative. This keeps me guessing who and what is next.

The part I love most is the one about the seagull ripping out the eyeball of the dead woman (Ai Ling)…

“It pokes at the eye, assessing its jelly-like texture. The half-shut eyelid reveals a brown-tinted iris. The seagull regards it for a second, and then in a sudden move, it strikes in sharp, precise thrusts until the eye pops out, restrained only by the optic nerve. Thick dark blood dribbles out of the socket and down the woman’s cheek. The seagull bends and holds the eyeball with the tip of its beak, giving it one last tug, freeing it. The eye catches the sunlight and seems to be taking in the seamless, thriving sea. In the next moment, the seagull jerks back its head and consumes the lifeless object.”

*jaw drop*

I really wonder if seagulls will actually consume human eyeballs but I found an article on the Internet about how seagulls eat the eyeballs of baby fur seals so as to make the blind seals “more vulnerable to further attacks”. (@_@)

The book has been given mixed reviews – check out Goodreads – but I’d rate it pretty well. The author scored C6 for both English and Literature at the ‘O’ Levels! But look at him now. This prize-winning book has made me feel shocked and also squeamish. Love it! Now that it’s over, I’ll go read another award-winning book. 😀

*Also, I really like the mentions about VCDs, Motorola and Nokia phones. Younger millennials probably won’t know what VCDs are. And how awesome Nokia phones once were – the battery life was incredible! Excuse me while I go charge my Samsung phone once again. *sigh*

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Book Review: ‘Kampong Boy’ by M Ravi

m ravi kampong boy

[Image from ethosbooks.com.sg]

I truly enjoyed reading this book ‘Kampong Boy’ as it gives so many insights into what makes M Ravi the man he is today. And those personality traits which characterize him as a lawyer today were formed when he was a young boy, so reading about his childhood, family life, and the journey he took to become a lawyer has been rewarding. Why is he against the death penalty? Why is he so stubborn, so persistent when fighting for those clients (pro bono, mind you) ordered to be hanged? If they are involved in the drug trade (whether as a mule or not), why shouldn’t we just hang them as per our laws?

Brought up in a Jalan Kayu kampong, Ravi was one of seven kids in the family. His father was overly fond of alcohol, a spendthrift and had even been to prison three times. To make matters worse, one day the father even robbed his young son of the money meant for school expenses. M Ravi even went to the police station to try and lodge a report but the officers wouldn’t accept it as the accused was his own father.

His family seems to be the stereotypical Indian family full of drama. There was once when Ravi’s parents were fighting and his Dad was choking his Mom. Ravi’s older brother intervened and broke their Dad’s arm! Read the book for the full details.

Ravi’s mother also suffered from depression and she eventually committed suicide. That proved devastating for Ravi, who’d moved out with his mother due to her disagreements with other members of the family. I feel for this lady I’ve never met before – she had her first child taken away from her by absolutely cruel in-laws, and right from the start, she had been forced to leave her sweetheart and marry a man she didn’t love because his parents were rich from winning the lottery. Too bad that this man would squander away those winnings.

As you can probably guess, Ravi discovered he had outstanding oratorical skills and did well in competitions in school. He was also a very determined boy. He camped outside a Tamil teacher’s flat until the latter wrote him a speech for his competition.

He had a slipped disc as a result of the hard work during his time in the Combat Engineering unit while serving NS. He eventually took up the issue with MINDEF and was given $3,000. While in the army, he also went on a hunger strike because the food for vegetarians was deemed unpalatable and not nourishing enough. He eventually got his way and the meals he wanted.

He studied History, Political Science and Sociology in NUS but also went for evening classes to study Law (University of London’s external program). While he was preparing for his Law exams, the Government announced that this degree would no longer be recognized in Singapore. That’s when Ravi decided he’ll go to the University of Cardiff in Wales for 2 years of study. On 31st May 1997, Ravi was called to the Bar. In 2000, he started his own firm.

Ravi’s a really interesting character. He got around the rules and did a firewalk when he was just 13! He’s also a dancer, with a passion for Indian classical dance. He even had a short stint as a TCS newscaster – imagine how differently his life might have turned out if he’d stayed there!

~

Lots of lawyers take up pro bono cases because of the media value – there’s lots of media and public interest in the case, or they are doing it as a show of being concerned about the people so as to pave their way into politics. I know of at least one young lawyer who took up a case and then instructed his clients to meet at a location near the Courts so they could all walk together to the hearing, and the lawyer would be photographed together with his clients for the newspapers. <- He even decided who should stand where. (@_@) *And in this case, it wasn’t even pro bono. They paid him a princely sum for him to get featured in the media. Said lawyer was even extra friendly to journalists during the breaks, chatting with everyone like old friends. Perhaps he should have gone to TCS to be an actor.

Lawyers like Ravi are probably few and far between. He had offered to pay for the funeral expenses of Vignes Mourti and even slept next to the casket together with Mourti’s family because they were so afraid that the body would be taken away to be cremated as per the official instructions and the deceased’s friends and family won’t be able to pay their last respects. [Read the book and find out what happened]

“Some people here feel that a lawyer should never get too closely involved with his clients and their kin, especially in death penalty cases where the stakes are so high. But that’s not how I’m made up. It’s especially in those cases where the stakes are so high and where human pain is at its apex that I get drawn into the life and emotional distress of these clients.” – M Ravi.

And in the death penalty case involving the Nigerian Amara Tochi, Ravi flew around the world to rally support for his client. I’m guessing he might be the only lawyer in Singapore who does such things. I’ve met one other lawyer who admitted that he does all that pro bono work hoping to get into politics. He put it in no uncertain terms that he felt he was deserving of the MP’s paycheque. Thankfully, he won’t be elected into office any time soon.

~

Ravi mentions in the book that his licence to practise law had been suspended for 1 year in October 2006, but fails to explain why. I did a quick Google search and it appears that he had been disrespectful to a judge. Not sure what had happened though I’d certainly love to hear Ravi’s explanation. In all fairness, I think that in the heat of the moment when putting forth an argument in court, certain actions might be deemed rude or disrespectful so I really won’t hold it against the guy. Perhaps in the (near) future, lawyers will be replaced by robots which will obviously not let emotions come into play, seeing as how they have none. 😀 I’m looking forward to such a day! 😀

Though when it happens, we won’t hear of gutsy lawyers such as M Ravi who, during the Falun Gong case, filed a criminal motion against Judge Shumangam. Really, read the book and find out what happened! It’s nothing short of amazing.

While this book has convinced me that activists who are against the death penalty really have a legit cause (e.g. you can easily be caught with drugs placed in your luggage by someone else, and be sentenced to hang even if you are innocent), I’m not so fond of his clients who want a repeal of section 377A of the Penal Code. One of Ravi’s clients had sex in a CityLink mall toilet with another man. They got arrested and were each fined $3,000. And yet they still wanted to “take a stand against 377A”. There’s also been another case of two gay men arrested for having sex in a coffeeshop toilet. Seriously, guys. Sex in a public toilet of all places. And coffeeshop toilets?! Aren’t there more sanitary places to demonstrate your love for each other? (@_@) I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have gotten arrested in the first place (377A or no 377A) if they hadn’t done their hanky panky business in public toilets.

*Ravi also mentioned former NMP Thio Li-Ann’s statement (from a long time ago) about how anal sex is akin to “shoving a straw up your nose to drink”. *cough cough* I actually didn’t know about this statement of hers till I read this book. Ravi, like many others, found that statement offensive. And he has my respect because he isn’t gay (or, at least, that’s what I concluded from reading this book) but would fight for gay rights or human rights in general. Some lawyers out there are fighting for ‘human rights’ but are really, ultimately, just wanting to fight for their own gay rights. In all fairness, I think Singapore offers the middle ground – we’re not as liberal as the West (no gay marriage, etc) but we don’t dish out punitive punishment like some of our neighboring countries where gay men can be publicly caned.

As I’ve written in the previous book review post, about Misdirection by Ning Cai, let’s stop making a fuss about wearing pink or white. Let’s just stick with red and move on already.

~

“While it is an established tradition in many other countries, lawyers here in Singapore are not at all comfortable with activism. But I have made it my mission and my calling card. I feel that all the advantages that have been given to me, and all the sacrifices my family made so that I could become a lawyer, can best be paid back when I involve myself in human rights activism and the cases that come out of this commitment.” – M Ravi

Book Review: ‘Misdirection’ (Book 1 of The Savant Trilogy) by Ning Cai

Misdirection by Ning Cai

I was looking forward to reading this book, ‘Misdirection’, as I’ve enjoyed the previous books by Ning Cai (and also her co-authors). Someone from the publishing house actually got in touch with me earlier on and said they’ll send a copy for me to review but in the end, they pulled a disappearing act on me, it seems. So I went to the library and borrowed a copy – NLB purchased so many copies that reservations aren’t even required! There are at least 3 copies in each library! And I’m done reading the book in just 2 days. And 1 thing I have to say is that I have a lot of respect for folks who write novels – it’s just so difficult to craft something so lengthy and keep the (modern) reader’s attention throughout.

Quick summary: Maxine Schooling wakes up from a 3-year coma to find that her parents and younger brother with Down Syndrome have been killed. She discovers that she now has a photographic memory which helps her (and the police) tremendously in tracking down a serial killer, a.k.a. ‘The Singapore Spectre’. By the end of Book 1, she still hasn’t gotten any idea of who had murdered her family members.

And this book succeeds in ‘misdirection’. It seems to sail along just fine without too many surprises and you might even guess correctly who’s the villain even though it might not be entirely obvious at the start. However, there’s still a right hook at the end to make you wonder how did I forget about this person?!

This book, ‘Misdirection’, is targeted at young adults, and I have to add ‘Singaporeans’ as well. The book is simply choke-full of references that probably only SG folks will pick out. And let’s not forget the Singlish terms: “bak chew tak stamp”, “sibei expensive”, “his magic very tok kong one”, “lembek”, etc. The author also tries to incorporate lingo that younger millennials (not me) will enjoy – “savage AF”, “Netflix and chill”, etc. But would the young ones also know who ‘Teresa Teng’ is? And The Backstreet Boys? LIME Magazine? And Ning also borrows family names quite liberally, e.g. ‘Anandan’, ‘Dr Wijeysingha’, and of course ‘Schooling’.

Also, there are references to what Singaporeans will be familiar with: 100Plus isotonic drink, 938NOW, Mandai columbarium, Funan DigitaLife Mall, Razer mouse, Books Kinokuniya, Katong Shopping Centre, among others. But the main one has to be the “controversial megachurch” called “Crossfront Family Church” with an accountant in jail for siphoning off millions of dollars from church funds. *cough cough*.

I feel ‘The Savant Trilogy’ seems to be fiction rooted in reality. There are so many names, places and events that Singaporean readers will be able to relate to, so the line between fact and fiction is blurred. If that’s the case, then I’ll want it to be even more ‘realistic’.

For one, the protagonist, Maxine (or Max) Schooling, has been in a 3-year coma at the Parkway East Hospital. I did find myself wondering why no one pulled the plug during those 3 years – don’t they know we have a severe shortage of hospital beds in Singapore?! (Ok, ok, fiction book) By the way, a stay at the actual Parkway East Hospital in Singapore would cost $618 per day in their ‘Single Classic Room’ so a 3-year stay would easily cost more than a quarter-million dollars including all the other incidentals. And shouldn’t the vicious killer have returned to finish the job since he/she managed to murder everyone in Max’s family except for her?

Also, Maxine was attacked and fell into a coma sometime between 2015 and 2018 but when she wakes up and later uses her mother’s phone, it happens to be an iPhone 4 (which Apple launched in 2010) so I’m wondering why it’s not a newer model, e.g. iPhone 6 which her scientist parents would have easily been able to afford? Also, why would the horde of journalists appear at Mandai Columbarium because of her – someone who got out of a 3-year coma? We don’t really have a paparazzi culture here, and I can’t think of any journalist who would chase down a story all the way to the columbarium. Also, Snapchat was launched in 2011 but Max doesn’t know what it is because she slipped into a coma 4 years after the launch?*

*I have to admit that I’ve read this book only once, so maybe everything will get ironed out with a second reading. Pardon me if I’ve made any mistakes with this first impression from reading ‘Misdirection’.

Finally, I have to add that I feel a bit meh at the sheer number of references to actual people whether living or dead – this character looks like so-and-so, that character looks like this famous Korean singer, another character looks like a certain Korean actor, etc. Even the people who provided endorsements for the book (e.g. Neil Gaiman and Lang Leav) will find that they are mentioned within the novel. (@_@) When there are so many references to people, places and events we know, for me, it’s actually preventing me from getting lost in the book (something I enjoy, e.g. when reading the Harry Potter series which ‘transports’ me to a whole new wizarding world). That said, Ning demonstrates remarkable prowess in her use of descriptive phrases, especially regarding the weather. There are so many beautiful descriptions that just utilizing a handful in school compositions would make any English teacher very happy.

~ What I hope is not in the 2nd + 3rd book ~

I’m particularly concerned, though, about references to the LGBT community and supposed homophobic Christian churches. The Grindr app was also mentioned within the book. (If you don’t know what it is, it’s like Tinder for gays) I think that by and large, the LGBT community gets by unmolested by the rest of the population but for some reason, they can wear pink for Pink Dot but if churchgoers wear white, they’re up in arms. Can’t we just all wear red and be proud of our identity as Singaporeans?

I hope, too, that there won’t be anyone trying to flee from Singapore in a motorized sampan in the next installment. I’ve had quite enough of the CHC references, pastors dabbling in magic, and characters who apparently look like people we know.

All in all, the former ‘Magic Babe’ (now Mind Magic Mistress) managed to successfully execute a ‘misdirection’ in this 196-page book. Perhaps one day this book will be the basis for a movie and all the characters who look like famous people will be played by those same famous people. Now that would be pretty cool! 🙂

Book Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in the East’ by Xiaolu Guo

Once upon a time in the East by Xiaolu Guo

In a mere 314 pages, this book ‘Once upon a time in the East’ by Xiaolu Guo revealed to me a China that I know nothing about while giving a no holds barred account of her life. In its own (perhaps unintended) way, the book helps me understand why Chinese citizens behave the way they do. But first, here’s a quick introduction…

The author, Xiaolu Guo, was given away as a newborn but her foster parents later returned her to her grandparents due to poverty. And it might not have been a bad thing if the elderly couple’s relationship was not dysfunctional too. Her grandmother was frequently abused. After a bout of illness, the grandfather took his own life. A chance encounter with a group of students at the beach made her decide she’ll be an artist. And when she was reunited with her parents, who live in a Communist compound, Xiaolu found she has an older brother who, put simply, detested her presence. Not that it made any difference though since sons are valued and daughters are not.

Despite her father’s job as a propaganda painter, there was often a lack of food for her, and the good stuff always went to her brother anyway. The author even resorted to trapping birds for food!

Though the family brought the grandmother to live together with them, sour mother- and daughter-in-law relations saw the elderly lady heading back to her own home and dying in her own bed.

When she was 12, the author was sexually abused by Hu Wenren, the “son of a communal farming officer”. A year or two later, the author seduced her Science teacher, Mr Lin, and the affair lasted almost two years. At age 15, she became pregnant and then went for an abortion, and the affair ended.

*Almost a decade later, the sexual predator (Hu Wenren) appeared again in her life. Read the book and find out what happened when he showed up again after so long.

Despite the intense competition, Xiaolu got accepted into the Beijing Film Academy on her second attempt at application. There were 7,100 students competing for the mere11 spots and she managed to get one of them! No such luck with relationships though. Her boyfriend, Jiang, often hit her. And her roommate, Mengmeng, tried to kill herself after she got rejected by the lecturer she had fallen in love with.

Meanwhile, Xiaolu’s father is diagnosed with terminal stage throat cancer. The author believes that cancer is so rampant in China because of the pollution in the country. Later, her mother also gets stomach cancer and passes away.

“Now my father and my mother were gone, I had been orphaned for a second time.”

Before they died, her parents had visited her, seeking to arrange a marriage for her. While matrimony might not be on the cards for her, Xiaolu secured a Chevening Scholarship and got to start a new life in Britain, learning English and becoming a published author, not bad for someone who was “illiterate until the age of eight”!

As luck would have it, she almost became blind from macular degeneration. There’s simply no such thing as sunshine without rain in this lady’s life.

Eventually, she meets the Australian, Steve, and together, they have a daughter called Moon. How the next part of her life will unfold is likely to be great content for yet another book. And I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

~

When reading this book, I often wondered how one person’s life can be so full of trials and tribulations. I do think the author has always wanted to be close to her mother. I sense a silent longing – she wants to know if her mother had given her away as a baby with cruel abandon, or whether it was with tears of anguish. Alas! Her parents wouldn’t tell her, and now they can’t either.

Definitely include this book in your “Must read” list for this year! 😉 I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Book Review: Vincent Yong’s ‘Flow: The Art of Creating AbunDance’

Vincent Yong Flow The Art of Creating AbunDance

This might be the first time I’m reading a book from the publisher Black Card Books. 😀 Since the founder of the company is Gerry Robert, the guy who wrote ‘Publish a Book & Grow Rich’, among many other titles, I’m curious about how the publisher will be helping to promote this new author, Vincent Yong, and help him “get rich” from writing this book. 😀 I’m keeping my eyes peeled. Anyway, if you’d like to get a copy of this book, ‘Flow: The Art of Creating AbunDance’, details and a special price may be found at the end of this blogpost.

According to what I’ve read, Vincent is the first person in Singapore to become a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) and Registered Somatic Movement Educator and Therapist (RSME&T). He uses “dance and movement for learning, growing and healing purposes”. Before reading this book, I didn’t even know what “somatic” meant! And when reading the book, it became clear to me that some of the content is what you might get from undergoing life coaching. There are even visualization exercises, which do also mean that the book is likely not a substitute for attending classes.

In short, this is a book for people who are willing to dig deep.

At first, I was struck by the author’s love for alliteration, and the number of photos (of the author at about the same age, it seems). I counted 23 pictures of him in this book with just 137 pages. 😀 Interesting contrast with another book that I’ve just read and reviewed, ‘educated‘, which had no photos of the author. If you’re one of Vincent’s students, or a huge fan, you’ll certainly cherish this book!

Vincent was born with a congenital heart condition so it’s pretty amazing that he has become such an accomplished dancer. And in the book, he also shares some background about his family, such as the time when he was 11 years old and his parents got a divorce. He also lost his mother to cancer before he turned 30.

Here are a couple of gems from the book, which resonate with me:

“When you are able to give freely, you will begin to experience abundance and be able to re-source freely.”

“Focus on what you want, not what others want of you.”

And when you’re feeling “stuck”, MOVE. 😀

The book also mentions the types of flow, and that when you direct the flow in your life, you command the abundance you get.

I guess there’s only one thing in this book that I disagree with: “People who have a purpose never seem to sleep a lot.” To me, sleep is paramount. If you’re one of those people who sleep 4 hours a night, then guzzle caffeine throughout the day to keep you awake, I’m not impressed. For me, the minimum is 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Or else I get cranky and I can’t function well during the day. (If you’ve read Arianna Huffington‘s ‘The Sleep Revolution’, you’ll know what I mean) Also… I don’t drink coffee. 😛

And here’s one nugget from the book, which I absolutely love:

“Practise until you cannot get it wrong. It is not enough to just get it right.”

~ Questions for Vincent ~

1) Who is this book for?

– People who feel blocked or stuck in life.
– People who need hope and inspiration.
– People looking for change and need guidance and direction.

2) What does this book aim to do?

Give guidance but allow readers to get in touch with themselves. Wisdom is within us and just needs a key to be unlocked. Flow unlocks that.

I share, through personal stories, why things work or not and what are we really looking at.

Most importantly, the deep and profound re-connection to our bodies and hearts, without which things will never be aligned or work right ‘cos we ain’t gonna be happy.

3) How to purchase this book?

Send an email to flowcreatesabundance@gmail.com. 34 USD is the retail price but SG citizens pay 34 SGD. Giving a bit of love here. Visit danspire.com for more infomation about Vincent Yong, the author.

Book Review: ‘educated’ by Tara Westover

educated by tara westover

Amy Chua, author of ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’, calls Tara Westover “one of the most gifted writers that I’ve read in a very long time”. But, make no mistake, this book ‘educated’ is Tara’s memoir (not a novel) which will leave you wondering how the events listed in it can be true when they seem so impossible. How can a girl born in a Mormon family, with no access to education (and without even a birth certificate!), raised to help out in her father’s junkyard and supposed to marry and bear children without so much as ever stepping foot into a school, eventually end up going to Cambridge and Harvard, and getting a PhD?

I didn’t find a single picture of Tara in this book, not on the covers, nor within the pages. So I went ahead and Googled her. And oh, I also found out we’re both born in the same year. (>_<) 

Tara’s life seems more exciting than anything ever seen in Hollywood movies. Her father seems most pious and preoccupied with the End of Days (even burying a thousand gallons of fuel as preparation). Thanks to him, the family also gets into a series of horrific accidents. The first left Tara’s mother with ‘Raccoon Eyes’, which signaled serious brain injury. Yet they did not send her to the hospital because the family did not trust doctors and hospitals, believing that God would heal them instead. Working for her father, Tara herself got injured when a spike of iron pierced through her leg, followed by a fall of about seventeen feet.

Besides a chain of accidents, Tara also had to deal with a possibly mentally ill brother, “Shawn”, who would stick her head into the toilet bowl, twist her arm (till he broke her wrist one day), strangle her, then eventually apologize for whatever he’d done. For some strange reason, Shawn had multiple head injuries from various accidents, but none managed to kill him. It was only much later that Tara realized her sister, “Audrey”, had also suffered in Shawn’s hands. This crazy guy even killed his dog Diego, a German Shepherd, with a small blade instead of a bullet to the head or heart. The poor dog likely died a slow and very painful death.

Another brother, Luke, had his arm “gashed” because of the machine their father brought back and insisted his children work with. Later on, Luke became blind in his left eye after he had been shot in the face with a paintball gun.

And to be fair, apart from causing his family members to suffer injuries, the father also got involved in a horrific accident: an explosion that devastated the lower half of his face and left a hand looking something like a deformed claw.

To me, the family does sometimes seem like hillbillies, the deranged sort we see in horror movies. Yet Tara has her brother, Tyler, whom she dedicates this book to, who helped set her on the path to getting her education.

And it was by no means easy, getting to become Dr Westover. She developed stomach ulcers. And because she was financially strapped, she got a job as a janitor, and even tried to sell her blood for money. Because of what had happened at home, she went on to have a mental breakdown, sleepwalked and often awoke at night standing in the middle of streets, and she also had panic attacks.

What a life! And she’s only in her 30s. Read this book if you want to know how she got to where she is today, and find out what happened to those family members too! 😉

~

“In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.” – Tara Westover

Book Review: ‘Two Sisters’ (Into The Syrian Jihad) by Åsne Seierstad

Two Sisters by Åsne Seierstad

This book, ‘Two Sisters’, has been described as “riveting”, “gripping”, “intense and compelling”. And it’s true. It’s almost like one of those Harry Potter books which I’d get from a bookstore at the launch and then proceed to read all day and even through the night till I’m done. However, and this is one big ‘HOWEVER’, I feel strangely disappointed. Like ‘I should go ask for a refund’ kind of disappointed. Reading all 411 pages of this book, I wanted to know not just why the two sisters went to Syria but also what happened to them in the end (did they get killed or get back home safely?). The book focuses mainly on the ‘WHY’. And I’m left feeling there’s no closure. Like an itch which cannot be reached yet demands to be scratched, I want to know what happens to the two girls! Urgh! Perhaps there’ll be a sequel to this ‘true story’? 😛

Also, I only realised at the end of the book that “Ayan” and “Leila” are not the real names of the two sisters. It’s like only finding out that Harry Potter’s real name is “(name withheld) Potter” at the end, and I’ve been ‘deceived’ all along. *sigh*

In a nutshell, teenage sisters Ayan and Leila (not their real names) leave their home in Oslo, Norway, in 2013 to travel to Syria. Their father, Sadiq, decides to go after them and try to get them home. Unfortunately, he gets captured and tortured, but eventually escapes. Subsequent attempts to get his daughters home fail, but Sadiq manages to burn through lots of cash in the process. In the end, he’s broke (both financially and in spirit), his daughters are supposedly wives and mothers now, and the family is torn apart as the girls refuse to return and Sadiq can only dream of turning back time and having his life return to what it once was.

So, if you’re wondering why teenage girls would want to head to a warzone and leave their cushy lives with family behind, this book offers some clues. They *may* have naively thought that they would be “fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps”. 😉 More importantly, you’ll put together the pieces and find out how they got radicalized. It could have started from something as simple as spending “hours on YouTube listening to clerics and preachers”. Eventually, they’d think they are saving their family members from Hell (“If you died as a martyr, you could choose seventy family members to join you in paradise.”) And as the two girls reveal to their family, once they were in Syria and married, there was no need to pay rent or water and electricity bills (the State took care of all that), houses are free, and they received monthly groceries plus money without working at all.

You might wonder why the girls’ parents were so ‘blind’ toward the obvious radicalization happening right under their noses. The girls had started wearing niqabs (causing a headache in school for their teachers and Principal), and even cut out their pictures from family albums (to prevent outsiders from seeing them uncovered)! Based on the things they were sharing on social media, their parents, teachers and friends should have been alarmed and promptly put a stop to things. But they didn’t. The mothers in the community even paid for an extremist (though they didn’t know it at that time) Koran teacher called Mustafa to come teach their kids.

In the end, before leaving, Ayan bought lots of things but didn’t pay the bills, signed up for multiple mobile subscriptions (sold the phones and SIM cards) and raised money for the trip to Syria. This refusal to pay the bills was even viewed as “economic jihad”.

Interestingly enough, when her father needed money, he had questionable ways of raising it too, such as by selling ‘fake news’ to journalists, who ended up printing what he had supplied. In return, Sadiq received thousands of Norwegian kroner.

~

 

I can’t say I didn’t raise an eyebrow or two at a certain part of the book, where a text ‘Defense of the Muslim Lands’ was referenced’…

“The unclean have duped the dull masses of Muslims by installing their wooden-headed puppets as false figureheads of states that remain under their control.”

*cough cough*

And this next portion made me think that ISIS may have done lots of questionable, if not horrific, things but they’ve at least got something right:

“Although cigarettes were not forbidden in the Koran, they were deemed haram by ISIS and looked on as a form of “slow suicide” and pure pleasure. ISIS came down hard on people smoking on the sly, even in their own homes, and flogging was the usual punishment. Selling or smuggling was worse.” (p215)

*clap clap*

By the end of the book, you’ll probably come to the realization that the initial question of “Why would someone go to Syria and join ISIS?!” has become a simpler one – “Why not?”

Book Review: ‘Somebody I used to know’ by Wendy Mitchell

somebody I used to know by wendy mitchell

Wendy Mitchell was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 58 and her memoir ‘Somebody I used to know’ helps readers understand a little better what it is like to be living with dementia. Sure, it freaks me out – suddenly not recognizing where I am nor remembering why I’m in a certain place would be really scary – but it offers hope too, in that there are different stages so you have some time to implement certain coping strategies.

For instance, Wendy uses technology to help her out – reminders to eat her meals and take her medication, for remembering birthdays, GPS tracking so her daughters know where she is, etc. And Post-it notes deserve special mention too as they have been so useful to her as reminders of where she is and what she needs to take with her (especially when she travels for conferences and such).

I’m really impressed by how she insists on having her daughters be her daughters (only), and not her carers. All too often, Asian parents expect their children, like insurance policies, to pay them back in times of sickness or in their old age. I’ve even heard of people who do not get married because they need to take care of aged or ill parents. I’m of the opinion that should I have children, I won’t want them to wipe my bum or wheel me around when I’ve lost my mobility. They have their own lives to lead as well.

Wendy sees the ‘silver lining’ too. For example, she can watch a show multiple times and be entertained the same as she doesn’t remember the plot or how it ends.

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One big takeaway from reading this book is that people living with dementia may not remember people, places or events very well but they’ll remember how they felt during the interaction. So make them feel welcome, supported, appreciated and loved. And you can count on them to remember those feelings. 🙂

Also, Wendy has a blog over at whichmeamitoday.wordpress.com. Go check it out! 🙂

Book Review: ‘A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea’ by Melissa Fleming

a hope more powerful than the sea

This is one book I’d agree is exceptionally well-written, and reading the author’s note about the list of people she has to thank, you’re left with very little wonder why. While this book is based on a true story, it’s not about the life of the angmoh, Melissa Fleming. Instead, it’s about a young Syrian woman called Doaa Al Zamel. Doaa’s family had to flee from Syria because of the war, and while Egypt appeared to be welcoming at the start, things soon changed. Doaa and her fiancé decided to try and get to Sweden with the help of some smugglers (I’d call them thugs with lousy boats, really) then send for the rest of her family. Unfortunately, some of those thugs decided to sink the vessel and have the refugees (some 500 of them) drown in the sea. And like a scene from the ‘Titanic’, Doaa, who’s on a child’s rubber float, watches as her exhausted fiancé relinquishes his grip and sinks into the water. She, however, survives the 4 days floating out at sea, and also looking after two babies that had been left in her care by their family members who knew that they themselves might not survive but hoped the children would be able to.

Indeed, as Melissa Fleming has shared, it’s so much better to focus on one person’s story instead of trying to write about the millions of Syrians who have been displaced, killed or separated from their families.

Doaa’s story is a powerful one. And I think it really helps readers understand that these refugees are people just like us. And I’m grateful for the TED talks and other videos which share more of her story.

TED Talks:

*The average time a refugee will spend in exile is 17 years.*

And if you’re wondering how refugees can be better supported, watch this:

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Come to think of it, Doaa is someone who’s truly blessed. For a person who cannot swim, she managed to survive for 4 days out at sea. And while others were dragged down by those who were drowning and grasping at anything and everything, she managed to avoid that same fate. And miraculously, no one tried to take the flotation device away from her – if they had, she would most certainly have perished.

And if not for the two babies left in her care, I’m guessing she would have followed her fiancé to the same watery grave. It would appear that a divine power wanted her to live.

Read this book. There’s both delight and despair in almost equal parts. You’ll be horrified at the ugliness of humanity (the smugglers trying to fleece and then kill the refugees, the citizens who harassed the refugees, the horrors of the civil war). But there’s also hope – one baby died after being rescued but Masa survived. Doaa lost the love of her life but Sweden embraced her and her family. And while many Syrians have died while trying to escape the war, Doaa’s sharing of her story has captured the attention of people in countries which can help.

If you’re unsure about how you can lend a hand, just grab a copy of this book as most of the proceeds will go towards helping the refugees. 🙂

Book Review: ‘Promise Me, Dad’ by Joe Biden, Former VP of USA

joe biden promise me dad book review

“You can never tell a book by its cover” is especially true in this instance. I thought the cover of this particular book – ‘Promise Me, Dad’ by Joe Biden’ – looked boring but the contents made me cry on the flight back to Singapore (thankfully, no one noticed). I’m glad the former Vice President of the United States wrote this book as it provides an insight into his life, what working with Barack Obama is like, and how you can keep on pressing on even when disaster strikes twice.

Joe lost his wife and 18-month-old daughter in a car accident but his two sons survived. Things seemed to take a turn for the better when he married Jill and had a daughter with her. Then his eldest son, Beau (who has children of his own, and who aims to be the future President of USA) gets brain cancer and succumbs to it. And through it all, the VP has to deal with issues of national global importance, like the Ukraine crisis and ISIL.

Read this book and find out:

  1. What it’s like being the VP of USA and having the “nuclear football” within your reach – “you can launch a nuclear strike on almost any target on the planet”. And the privileges like traveling via Air Force Two, how you can “convince almost any doctor or medical researcher in the country” to take your call, and how your children and grandchildren can travel the globe with you, learning what school does not (and cannot) teach.
  2. What Barack Obama did when Joe said he’ll take out a second mortgage on his property should Beau no longer be able to work. And why the President was “in tears” during one of the meetings with Joe.
  3. What occurred during Joe’s meetings with Hillary Clinton and with Putin.
  4. How life comes full circle and how empathy extended to one person in his/her grief comes right back to you.
  5. How having a PURPOSE helped Joe survive the hardships in Life…

& a whole lot more.

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I believe you will, too. I cannot begin to imagine how painful it was for Joe to write this (it must have ripped open many wounds) yet he’d made a ‘Biden family’ promise to Beau that he’d be all right even after his son’s death, so this book proves he’s made good on that promise, apart from the work he’s doing with the Biden Foundation. A must-read for anyone dealing with loss or anyone who wants to know how to help someone in their time of grief.

Grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable.” – Joe Biden