Madonnas and Mavericks



Madonnas and Mavericks, published last year, is the second book by Loretta Chen that I’ve read. It is a tribute to outstanding women who have scaled the peaks and thrived in unexpected places. The 17 women in this book are leaders from diverse fields: for example, business (Odile Benjamin, Cynthia Chua, Jannie Chua, Tjin Lee, Olivia Lum, Nichol Ng, Jamie Wong), politics (Chan Heng Chee, Sylvia Lim, Halimah Yacob), advocacy (Geh Min, Fanny Lai, Ivy Singh-Lim,) sports (Theresa Goh) and the arts (Janice Koh, Siow Lee Chin, Xiang Yun). They share their childhood struggles, challenges, personal tragedies and victories in honest interviews.

A madonna is a steadfast and virtuous woman; disciplined professional with specialised mastery that has taken her many years to hone and cultivate. A maverick is a character born out of today’s fast-paced environment – a game-changer and a dynamic individual, who revels in taking the bull by its horns and seeking new adventures.

This book, with personal world views of these women with their distinct life philosophies and their own style of authentic leadership, is unique and informative. It is inspiring to read about Odile Benjamin overcoming breast cancer, the surgery and chemotherapy, and living with lupus and in constant pain, showing how it takes only a second for a life to turn around for the better or for worse.

Halimah Yacob has come a long way to become Singapore’s first woman president. This book reveals that she studied in Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, and I’ve always thought that her Alma Mater is Tanjong Katong Girls’ School (because of a newspaper article).

I better understand why Ivy Singh-Lim is such a colourful warrior, how her first marriage ended in divorce and how rich she really is. I found out Janice Wong’s comfort food is Tiramisu, which I love. I’ve always known that Xiang Yun is Loretta Chen’s sister-in-law and about twenty years ago, I’d heard gossips that there was a third party in Xiang Yun and Edmund Chen’s marriage but I did not realise it made Xiang Yun live in fear that her marriage would end up in divorce.

One thing that many of these women have in common is their love for arts and music: Chan Heng Chee wanted to be a writer and loves music (classical, opera, pop, folk, jazz) and wanted to learn to play the piano but her grandmother said no. Geh Min and Halimah Yacob  love reading. Janice Koh was Loretta’s senior (by two years) at the National University of Singapore (Theatre Studies), an Ambassador for Pink Dot Campaign (so is Theresa Goh) and the person who first suggested the Mentor Access Project by the National Arts Council. Fanny Lai is a culture vulture for art museums and art books and draws cartoons all the time, although I’ve read only one of her books. (Olivia Lum also loves paintings.) Though I’ve always known that Tjin Lee is Min (the violinist) Lee’s sister, I didn’t know she invested in the Wolfgang Music Studio too. Even though I’ve read and been moved by Siow Lee Chin’s memoir From Clementi to Carnegie, I was still brought to tears when I read the passage about her playing the violin for her father in hospital.

This has been an enjoyable read. It is inspiring too. I shall now look for another book by Loretta Chen.

Going In Style



When this movie was playing in theatres last year, I gave it a miss though I’ve always enjoyed movies with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin in them. (However, I can’t remember the reason I skipped it.)

The comedy is about three seniors citizens and lifelong friends in New York who are desperate, and decide to embark on a daring robbery at the bank that stole their pension money to take back what is rightfully theirs. To do this, they turn to Joe’s (Caine) former son-in-law, a criminal named Jesus (John Ortiz) , to come up with an plan and alibi. They manage to pull it off.

The opening scene is comical and is accompanied by lively music; a lot of the music used in the movie project the energy and atmosphere (such as Carolyn Leigh & Cy Coleman’s Hey, Look Me Over, performed by the trio of Freeman, Caine & Arkin), although there are also more sentimental ones like Ray Charles’ Hallelujah, I Love Her So (performed by Arkin), Dinah Washington’s What a Difference a Day Makes and Dean Martin’s Memories Are Made Of This.

The best part of the movie is not the story (although there are some touching moments in the sub-plots) but seeing three thespians on screen together. They have great chemistry and of course their performances are all great. The next time these three actors appear in the same movie, I’ll make it a point to watch it in a cinema.



My Life, My Terms

On one of my recent trips to the library, I discovered this little book by Nicholas Chan called My Life, My Terms on the shelves carrying Singapore Fiction. It’s not a new book by any means (published in 2011) and I was curious, and was surprised to read on the back cover that the author was a 15-year-old secondary school boy. This was enough to entice me to borrow the book.

Reading the book was like reading through some very well-written essays by teenagers in my English class. I was just eager to find out what would be in the 42 chapters, and what would be in store, as not many teenagers have their books published.

Chan writes about the unexpected suicide of a female friend, and I would have expected this to tie in with the title of his book, but I must say that this is not the case at all, as the theme of the book seems to be about his family. The focus is on how the family moved from Malaysia to Singapore, how they were always moving from rental houses; how this taught him lessons on knowing when to let go and when to hold on. He also devoted time writing about his parents’ relationship, and his relationship with his parents and his brother Colin, older by three years.

Structurally, the book lacks organisation and a sense of development; fragmented and contains numerous errors (which could be typographical, but more likely to be typical of a secondary schoolboy) such as ‘ i ‘ when ‘‘ should be used to refer to self, ‘alright’, ‘bestfriend‘ and ‘replied back ‘. I wonder how the editor could have missed these glaring mistakes.

To me, Chan comes across at times as selfish, spoilt, defiant, obnoxious, disrespectful and judgemental; at other times there’s a display of maturity beyond his years, brave and honest. I wonder how different a review by a teenager (or another adult) would be.

Bruce Lee My Brother



I borrowed this 2010 movie, about the early years of legendary martial arts icon, not realising I had watched it in the cinema when it was first screened. Re-watching it, I discovered the actor who played Bruce Lee is a Malay (Aarif Rahman) who doesn’t look like a Malay as he has features resembling Bruce Lee.

I had also forgotten the roles played by Christy Chung and Jennifer Tse. Instead, I remember the opening scene with Robert Lee (younger brother of Bruce Lee) and Phoenix Lee (younger sister of Bruce Lee). I also noticed that one of the songs is arranged by Hajin Tan, a Singaporean.

Watching this movie has been nostalgic; I’m curious if anything has been written about his later years (this one is based on a memoir by Robert), and if so, would another movie be made? (Since there have been movies about Bruce’s teacher, Yip Man.)

The Dress



The Dress by Kate Kerrigan is a delightful read. The quote at the beginning of the book  immediately sets the tone of the novel: It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness. (Leo Tolstoy)

The story begins with a Prologue set in Ireland in 1935, where John Conlon, a teacher and his wife Clare take in abandoned 15-year-old Francis Fitzpatrick, making him feel safe and loved. Yet, Francis has made up his mind early to begin a new life in America to seek his fortunes; and so he steals money from the couple.

Chapter 1 is set in London, 2014, introducing vintage fashion blogger Lily Fitzpatrick, No 43 in the Top 50 Most Influential Voices. She is down-to-earth, sharp and funny. She finds out that her 90-year-old grandfather Joe has a connection to Francis (who changed his name to Frank) and his wife Joy Royson.

Henceforth, the novel flits fluently between the two time periods, from telling the background story about Frank’s father’s violence, his mother’s death and how he came to leaving his baby brother behind and stealing from the Conlons, to how he survived the first five years in America before he started a property empire to become a successful, urbane New York businessman and how he met Joy, who is the only child from a privileged family and has a passion and penchant for commissioning stylish clothes.

Honor Conlon is introduced in Chapter 8; she is a seamstress who is both eccentric and artistic, and works on the collar of a dress for Joy. Honor loves design and Joy is so impressed by her work that she commissions her to make the dress. Joy and Honor develop a strong working relationship but which also result in an affair between Honor and Frank, who eventually asks Joy for a divorce to make an honest woman of Honor. Honor miscarries in her sixth month, on their wedding day. Honor has to live with her guilt, made worse by a letter of apology from Joy. She divorces Frank who keeps looking for her, even at the novel’s end.

In the meantime, Lily tries to find out all she can about Joy (and the dress). Among other things, she discovers that Frank, her granduncle, died the year she was born, Honor had destroyed the dress by setting fire to it, and also divorced Frank.

The story of high fashion, wealth, beauty and romance is skillfully combined with more serious issues. For example, a passage reads: It takes talent and tenacity to make beautiful things but it takes courage to let them go. It takes courage to fail at love, not to be perfect. Beauty is only a temporary joy and it has tight boundaries. Love and friendship are the only things that can set people free from perfectionist prisons but it is not easy.

It has been such an enjoyable read that I must look out for other books by Kate Kerrigan.

My Geeky Nerdy Buddies


It just so happened that instead of watching Jam Hsiao again (I attended his concert in March 2010) at the National Stadium, I was watching him in a 2014 movie at home. This was his first foray into acting, and I must say I prefer him singing and playing the piano.

For one thing, this is a slapstick comedy with all the typical Taiwanese jokes which may appeal to the young who buy into stories about geeks meeting babes through hilarious ways. It is cheesy and soap operaish.

The story revolves around A-Zhai (Hsiao) who has a crush on the beautiful Ya Ning (Maggie Jiang) who is the girlfriend of a flirty guy from a rich family. A-Zhai and his roommate Mr Cheap (Dong Cheng Peng) are known as the ultimate geeks of their university. They and their equally geeky, nerdy friend, Gao Gao Di (Cai Wei Jia), have a goal: to fall in love with the girls of their dreams. They try to win over their goddesses by being sincere and earnest.

There are some interesting quotes in the movie though, like: “Youth is like toilet paper, it looks like there is a lot, but as you use them, it becomes insufficient.” and “Destiny is a book. Life must go on.”

I was surprised that none of the songs featured are by Hsiao; and even more surprised to read from the end credits that this movie is supported by the Taipeh Culture Foundation and Ministry of Culture.

Trafalgar Sunrise



I first met the author, Danielle Lim, before she won the Singapore Literature Prize (Non-fiction, 2016), at a private book club meet three years ago, where I discovered she had just published a memoir titled The Sound of SCH: A Mental Breakdown, A Life Journey. I soon got hold of a copy from the National Library, and was impressed by her courage and choice to write about such a personal story.

In the recently published novel, Trafalgar Sunrise, Lim has written another heartfelt story. The protagonist is a nurse, Grace Hwang. She was separated from her father at 13, and had never known her mother who committed suicide a year after she was born. She became a nurse by accident.

The setting is the hospital where she works, during the SARS crisis. She looks back at her younger days spent at the Trafalgar Home, a leper colony where she and her best friend Alice lived. Alice was forced to give up her newborn daughter for adoption; she is now an inpatient at the oncology ward where Grace is the head sister. Grace attempts to reunite Alice with her long-lost daughter before she succumbs to cancer.

This is a touching story of human kindness and resilience. It is also a tribute to healthcare workers. Lim has obviously done a lot of research for this book – the atmosphere of the medical facilities and the thoughts of healthcare professionals are depicted with great accuracy.

One passage that brought me to tears is this (when read in context): When the body starts the gradual process of shutting itself down, our sense of hearing is often the last of our senses to go. The inexplicable power music has on the soul has often been acknowledged; the mysterious power of sound seems to defy logic alone and bond intimately with our soul.

Another poignant passage is this: Has she done the right thing? She does not know. Isn’t life like walking with a huge mirror in front of you, so that although you are stepping forward, you can only see what is behind but not in front, and you have to put your foot forward with the guidance of a reflection that often does not even make sense? It is almost impossible to ask if you have made the right decision.

The Singapore Literature Book Club recently invited Lim to their meeting one evening in October. I will keep a look out for a book club that discusses Lim’s book in the day time. A discussion of her first memoir (which has been translated and published in Chinese) at a Book Club that I frequent on weekday afternoons would be interesting.

A Man Called Horse



The main reason I borrowed this 1970 movie is to see what Richard Harris was like in his younger days. I also thought it would be interesting to learn about the native Americans’ way of life.

Based on the novel of the same title by by Dorothy M. Johnson, the story is set in the early 1800s. An English Lord, John Morgan (Harris) is hunting when he is captured by a group of Sioux warriors. He is brought to the tribal village where he lives with them, enduring torture and mockery by the villages who consider him a wild horse.  He is given to the chief’s aging mother as slave. He meets the beautiful young sister of the tribal chief and starts to fall in love with her. He plans to learn the ways of the Sioux to gain his place among them, and his true ordeal begins.

The worst of these is the Sun Vow; it is so barbaric, cruel, sadistic, horrific, inhumane, primitive and painful that I almost could not bear to look at Harris being strung to the ceiling by two hooks attached to his chest and swung round and round. I wonder if Harris really had to have his skin pieced; nevertheless, I’m impressed by the scene.

I think this must be very authentic because, besides the acknowledged research at the Museum of Libraries, a consultant was engaged to ensure that the epic is realistically portrayed. Perhaps only the natives would be able to spot the inaccuracies, if any.



The Obsession



It has been a while since I last read a book by Nora Roberts, so when I was down with laryngitis a few days ago, I decided to read The Obsession, published in 2016, as I thought it would be a fairly enthralling read, based my impression of Roberts’ previous suspense novels.

The Prologue is enticing; it is creepy and sinister. In 1998, 12-year-old Naomi Bowes had followed her father into the woods and stumbled on a horrible discovery. He was a rapist and serial killer. Her mother was in denial of the situation, and Uncle Seth, a homosexual, came to take care of them.

By the time Naomi was 16, her mother had committed suicide and she was working towards becoming a professional photographer. As an adult, Naomi moves from place to place and hasn’t been able to settle down because people would find out her real identity – the daughter of a monster. So she decides to buy her own place in the middle of nowhere.

It is at this point that I lost interest in the story because the plot got distracted and, to me, starts to veer off course. The new characters introduced lack depth, the descriptions become long and boring, there’s no suspense and no surprise.

Despite the lacklustre plot, I must say the writing is pretty good. At least there is a well-thought out structure, with sections named EXPOSURE, DEPTH OF FIELD, PANORAMA, LIGHT & SHADOW, FOCUS and BALANCE, each beginning with a well-known quote. (Exposure: For now we see through a glass, darkly. from Corinthians 13:12;                   Depth of Field: Edges and beginnings – there are no such things. There are only middles. from Robert Frost;                                                                                                                       Panorama: This visible world is a picture of the invisible, where, as on a portrait, things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes. from Sir Thomas Browne;                                                  Light & Shadow: Where there is a great deal of light, the shadows are deeper. from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe;                                                                                                                      Focus: The spectator oftentimes sees more than the gamester. from James Hurell;             Balance: Still to ourselves in every place consigned, Our own felicity we make or find. from Samuel Johnson)

With such a structure, I’m disappionted Roberts did not exploit it fully and give this novel her trademark sophisticated execution. I would probably not read another book by Roberts for a while….

Nowhere Boy




The title of the 2009 movie, Nowhere Boy, is a reference to a famous Beatles’ song “Nowhere Boy”. It is about a rebellious teenager, future Beatle John Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson). He lives in Liverpool with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has raised him from the age of 5. His uncle George (David Threlfall) gave him a harmonica just before he died suddenly. John meets his spirited mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), at the funeral.

If not for Mimi, John would have been in a children’s home. The reason for her sister, Julia’s, absence is soon revealed and John yearns to escape into the new and exciting world of Rock n Roll. He meets teenager Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), a kindred spirit, from whom he learns to play the guitar. Paul suggests they write their own songs. Together they form a band, called The Quarrymen with George Harrison (Sam Bell) and two others. This band evolved to become The Beatles, and an icon explodes into the world.

I like the different layers in the story – the emotional entanglement of a boy to a man, finding and searching for his mother, the relationship John had with his mother and their strong emotional connection, the creation of the biggest Rock n Roll band in history, who John was before we knew who he was, and what made John Lennon John Lennon: quick-witted, cheeky, always getting into trouble, a genius at 12.

Julia was a free spirit , had an incredible amount of energy and was passionate; Mimi gave John tough love, subjecting him to an intense upbringing. Mimi didn’t approve of Julia’s lifestyle, and John is torn between the two of them. He was a visionary, a dreamer, wrote poetry and had a elaborate and creative mind. The pain in John’s childhood is behind the creation of most of his songs.

Some of The Beatles’ songs featured are: Hello Little Girl, Mother and  In Spite of All the Danger. There are also songs by Jerry Lee Lewis (Wild One), Dickie Valentine (Mr Sandman), Elvis Presley (Hound Dog, Love Me Tender, Shake, Rattle & Roll, Rock Around The Clock), Rod Stewart (Maggie May), Buddy Holly (Peggy Sue), Little Richard (Rip It Up, Long Tall Sally), Jay Hawkins (I Put a Spell On You), Fats Domino (Ain’t That a Shame), Everly Brothers (Bye, Bye Love), Rodgers & Hart (Blue Moon), and many more.