From My Sisters’ Lips

I had picked up From My Sisters’ Lips by Na’ima B. Robert from the Book Exchange Corner on my last library visit without even knowing what it is about. (Except that it is “an extremely thought-provoking book that challenges Western preconceptions of Islamic women” as acclaimed on the cover.)

When I started reading this book yesterday, I still did not know what to expect. I read it as slowly as I could (since I would soon run out of books to read) but it is so informative and insightful that I found I couldn’t really slow down the pace.

The author describes not only her own experience of being a revert (a convert to becoming a Muslim) but also includes the experiences of other women (whom she refers to as sisters).

The author had abandoned her western lifestyle and embraced Islam six years before writing the book. She describes why she (and a community of women reverts) chose to live behind the veil. There are personal accounts on issues Muslim women face in today’s world, from marriage, submission, divorce, bereavement, motherhood, stereotypes, submission to self-image.

This book offers a different and fresh perspective on what it means to be a Muslim. It is enlightening and thought-provoking. What has struck me most is that Islam is not just a religion; it is a way of life, for there are clear instructions (and the logic and reason behind them) on how to live a good Islamic life.

Islam also believes that life in this world is fleeting and transitory, so we should not grow too attached to this world as our eternal life would be in the Hereafter. I am pretty sure there are several other religions with the same philosophy.

Two quotes from the book that I find meaningful are: “Sometimes it takes extra guts to be who you want to be and do what you want to do, regardless of what people and you expect” and “When you find the truth, the truth isn’t always going to be what you like“.

This got me thinking: if I had come across something like this book over four decades ago, I might have chosen to read Philosophy as my major at the University. Life might have turned out very differently for me.


Shame by Jasvinder Sanghera is a 2007 book I picked up from the Book Exchange Corner at one of the public libraries some time ago. I picked it up because the blurb is intriguing:

I’ve not read it earlier because the font is really tiny. (The image above has been enlarged.) With the extended closure of public libraries due to the Circuit Breaker, I have to read whatever I can lay my hands on.

This is a powerful and compelling story. It gives an insight into the different cultures (here, particularly Punjabi Sikh – although it’s mostly referred to as Asian – in England), perspectives, lives, personalities and circumstances. The different ways in which Guru Granth Sahid (the holy book of Sikhism) is interpreted is thought-provoking.

The cruel details of forced marriages, torment, pain and honour violence are heart-breaking. Denial and disownment (by parents and family) are some of the invisible, unspoken and unwritten rules of “the community”. What happened (and I believe are still happening in some parts of the world) are shocking and horrifying.

I applaud the author for her openness, honesty and courage in telling this story. She also reminds me of an ex-classmate about half a century ago who suddenly announced happily one day that she was leaving school to “go back” to India to get married. Nobody realised the implications, as we were all young teenagers. I wonder what has become of her.

The Travel Writer

The Travel Writer by Simone Lazaroo is the last of the 24 books I borrowed from the library before the start of Circuit Breaker. I found this book in the Singapore Collection, curious about this Australian writer and why this book is shelved in this section.

The story of three generations of women of an Eurasian family crosses back and forth between London and Malacca. Each of them was in search of love in a world where they didn’t really belong.

I did not find the book compelling. Now that the library is going to remain closed for an extended period, I’m going to have to start digging for long-forgotten books or embark on other pursuits, literary or otherwise.

Lizard’s Tale

Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan is one of the books I picked up from the Singapore Collection on my last library trip six weeks ago. Lizard is an adventurous Singaporean boy living by his wit on the streets of Chinatown, surviving on odd jobs and petty thieving. The story is set in 1940, just before World War II invaded Singapore.

Lili is another protagonist, besides Lizard; they are both at the brink of being teenagers and are resourceful. The story involves a mysterious Code Book, spies, secret messages and a lot of trouble involving miniature cameras, lock-picking, chases, captures and escapes.

Besides the alliteration in the protagonists’ names, many of the characters are given ‘silly’ names like Fatty Dim Sum, Brylcreem and Bucktooth. So it seems the book is written for young adults. (But I did not find this book at the Young Adults section.)

The sights, sounds and smells are vividly described, the overcrowding and attitudes of the residents are atmospheric. These give the reader a sense of what colonisation and impending war feels.

Readers might be motivated to explore the more serious issues of xenophobia, imperialist practices, nationalism, cultural complexities, the casualties of war, friendship and loyalty.

This has been an entertaining read.

Singapore Sapphire

I picked up Singapore Sapphire by Australian writer A. M. Stuart from the Singapore Collection just as I had to leave the library before the Circuit Breaker. I wondered why until I started reading. Stuart had lived in Singapore and did extensive research prior to writing the book. This is the first installment of a series of historical mysteries set in early twentieth century Singapore, something I find interesting and unique.

With a plot involving greed and murder, the police is portrayed as competent and kind, the characters are likable and the descriptions of the setting authentic. The heat, the humidity, the places, the language, the people and the culture are all vividly described. I could picture Irrawaddy Road, the bungalows at Mandalay Road, River Valley Road, St Thomas Walk, the Central Police Station at South Bridge Road, the Singapore Cricket Club and Stamford Road; I found a familiarity in the use of Malay and local words such as bukit, dhobi, hantu, kampong, amah, samfu, jagar, kapok and more.

Watching the protagonists navigate the clues and looking at life in Singapore under colonial rule where the desire to be wealthy was common has been a fascinating experience.

Lost on Journey

Lost on Journey is the second movie I’ve watched online. This is a 2010 Chinese comedy. The story is about a wealthy businessman’s journey back to his home town for CNY; finding himself meeting a naive worker and sharing unfortunate experiences during the trip (heavy snowstorm causing the plane to turn back, getting on a train with a counterfeit ticket, train tracks collapsing due to landslide, attempts to take a bus resulting in being scammed, falling asleep at the wheel while driving the car won in a lottery and ending up in a ditch, spending an eventful night together, hitchhiking on a tractor transporting chickens). Behind the hilarity is actually a journey of self-discovery for the businessman; by the end of the movie, he has changed and realises what is important to him.

The movie is light-hearted and enjoyable to watch because of the performances of the actors (because I find there’re too many improbable coincidences in the plot). They are funny yet deliver serious messages on marriage, family, career, the importance of money and prestige, CNY travel woes, overcrowding, scams, the gap between the affluent and the less well-to-do, countryside versus city living and more.

Lost in Russia

Lost in Russia (囧妈) is one of the high-profile CNY film releases cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the director decided to release it free online. It’s the first time I’ve watched a film online and I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had watched it in a cinema.

This is a story of an awkward/embarrassing (the meaning of 囧) journey to Russia of a middle-aged son with the mother (妈) he’s been neglecting for years. There’s plenty of comedic relief and some touching moments.

The editing, cinematography and music are elements that make the film truly enjoyable. I especially love the use of classical music at the appropriate moments. The iconic four-note opening theme of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is used twice; the power and energy add to the warm yet funny moments both times to great effect. The majestic opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is used to great dramatic effect when the hot-air balloon landed in Moscow near the concert hall.

Other spectacular scenes include the walk through a frozen river, a bear chase, a train-top scramble and the trans-Siberian train ride across snowy Russia. The scenery is simply breathtaking and stunning. All these would look even more magnificent on the big screen. And I can imagine how fantastic the experience would’ve been if watched in IMAX.

The emotional pull of motherly love told through an amusing story.

Coal River

Coal River by Ellen Marie Wiseman is a historical novel about coal mining set in 1912 Pennsylvania.

I learned about the unsafe and awful conditions the miners and their families were forced to live in. Their sons, as soon as they turned six, were sent to work in a back breaking job in horribly dangerous conditions, suffered inhumane treatment (being abused, disabled and starving) and lived in constant fear.

The lives of the coal miners and their families were full of injustices. The author must have done a lot of research prior to writing.

I will look out for other books by this author.

Other People’s Houses

Other People’s Houses by Abbi Waxman is another random pick for this Circuit Breaker period. What a charming, delightful and entertaining book it is!

This hilarious novel is about four families and their neighborhood. What goes on behind closed doors? What secrets are there? What are some of the consequences? These questions are explored (and delivered together with serious issues like love, parenthood, marriage, family, forgiveness, friendship and a sense of community) with lots of humour. It is a page-turner; fast-paced yet realistic and relatable.

The cast of eclectic characters make it possible for the reader to understand the multiple plotlines of the various stages of life they are at and the crisis points they are facing. There are ups and downs, pitfalls, mistakes and regrets. The good, the bad and the ugly go behind closed doors – families and relationships are messy. This is something that is recognisable. Life’s difficulties, stresses and absurdities are given an interesting and humorous treatment.

A really enjoyable read.

Small Blessings

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof is another random pick for the Circuit Breaker period. I have no regrets borrowing this book; I might even borrow another book by this author in the future when it’s available (though I wouldn’t miss her otherwise either).

Set in a small college town and inhabited by quirky characters, the protagonists are a small-town college professor in Shakespearean studies and a new hire at the bookshop on campus. Though seemingly about ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances and touching on issues like loveless marriage, sacrifice, resilience of a young single mother, alcoholism and drug abuse, the plot is somewhat ‘complicated’ because there are some improbable/coincidental twists that are quite absurd.

Also, the professor’s acceptance of paternity doesn’t ring true and his wife deserves more space and better treatment in the book. There’re a few memorable characters but not all of them are interesting enough.

It is a different book from the kind that I’m used to reading.