Tricks and Treats

I borrowed this book to read before the author’s visit at next book club discussion later this month. This was written by the Spice Queen of Singapore, Devagi Sanmugam with Joycelin Tully. Devagi is also the author of 18 cookbooks and a well-respected culinary consultant and celebrity chef; Joycelin is the editor and co-writer.

The theme – stay close and gather your families often around good food, and stay blessed with love and happiness.

Over five chapters, Devagi recount how in many ways, people were nicer and the food tastier in the ’60s and how through her grandmother she finds the bond of family and love.

Chapter 1 recounts her school days, when she enjoyed free milk, the Milo Days, the Kacang Puteh man, the Punjabi’s chapatis and samosas, the Waterloo Street Rojak, mee siam, mee goreng and mee rebus.

Chapter 2 tells of the way they lived – without a refrigerator, no electrical appliances but stove implements and a wood-fired stove, the Pig Swill man and the Sacrificial Hen, slaughtering a chicken, ngoh hiang and popiah.

Chapter 3 is about family traditions – for eg the coming of age: eating raw eggs and drinking sesame oil for 28 days, which gives the body a little jolt of oestrogen.

Chapter 4 explores the multi-cultural feasts – the making of Nonya Kueh Kapit (a boisterous communal affair), Kueh Bakul aka Tee Kueh aka Nian Gao (a dark brown steamed cake made from glutinous rice flour, very sticky and sweet and offered to the Kitchen God to sweeten his tongue), Ketupats and Hari Raya celebrations.

Chapter 5 remembers the almost forgotten foods – Puttu Mayam vs Putu Bola, biscuits of yesteryears, childhood sweets like Rabbit Milk candy, haw flakes, kok kok tang (a hard candy coated with roasted glutinous rice flour and sold by itinerant peddlers who announced their arrival by hitting their chisels on a metal tray), malt candy, kueh kaya aka Puttu Kachang and agar agar kering.

This is a food memoir, much like the book Feast published by the National Library Board. Maybe I’m biased, as many of the writers in Feast are my friends, but I’m not as impressed by Tricks and Treats and other Childhood Tales. I think I’ll give the book club meet a miss.



I was attracted to this book by Shelley Mackenney because the blurb says it is about how Shelley chose to go missing and live anonymously and the momentous choice to get in touch with her family again. This is unlike the other books I’ve read, which were about how girls got abducted and rescued.

There are twenty chapters –

  1. Leaving – recounts how Shelley woke up one morning and decided she was not Shelley Mackenney any more, after years of feeling unwanted, unloved and lonely, isolated yet under claustrophobic protection from her family
  2. Trauma – how she developed onopmania (shopping addiction), depression; her paranoia and panic attacks and how she was living in an invisible prison
  3. New Life – how she was emptied of all emotion (no fear, no guilt, no  hate, no love)
  4. The Refuge – three months in which she came close to cannibis, crystal meth, heroin, amphetamine, angel dust, all kinds of alcohol and violence
  5. Stripper – another of the catalogue of incidents that happened to her; her pride and self-respect
  6. Abducted – how a missing girl on her own is fair game for any pervert or criminal
  7. Homeless
  8. The Streets
  9. Survival
  10. The Flat – Chpts 7-10 show her surrounding bareness and the absence of any emotion; an empty shell with no personality and no conflict and no love
  11. Working girls
  12. Pregnancy
  13. The Unit – Chpts 11-13 show how she got away from the clubbing and drug-taking and how she realised she hadn’t had it so bad and started to be thankful for the good things in life
  14. Mother – questions, questions and questions about her own mother and no answers
  15. Alyssia – how, without a doubt, her daughter saved her from herself
  16. Moving Again
  17. Cancer – severe dyskaryosis; Chpts 16&17 show how she worries about her daughter and how she felt more and more that she was lucky to experience each day, each hug and heartache, each smile and sigh, each thrill and tear
  18. Family – because she felt so protective of Aalyssia, she had a deeper understanding of her grandma’s and dad’s protectiveness over her, and decided to make contact
  19. Nan
  20. Writing – how she helped her Nan (grandma) write her memoir, Borstal Girl, which became a bestseller; how she made a documentary about missing persons and came to write this book

Epilogue – She has learnt how to appreciate things and be thankful, instead of always feeling empty and disconnected. She looks around and sees all the good and wonderful things that cost nothing. No matter how bad things are, there’s always sosmeone worse off – having it harder and tougher – suffering their own personal misery. She has learnt how to forgive herself and stop beating herself up for past mistakes, learnt to live with the issues when younger, know how they affect her and how she can cope with them. Life is a work in progress; things happen every day: feelings surface, problems occur, mistakes are made, but they can be turned aroung and made positive by pragmatism. Happiness is there for those who know where to find it. Things are not so terrible and there’s nothing that can’t be overcome by love and time.

Information Technology

The topic for discussion at the Seniors Book Club at Bishan library yesterday is ‘Information Technology’ (IT). The discussion was not based on any one book but from various sources,  including a poem by Guo Yong Xiu, an essay by Ng Keng Kong and articles from the Chinese newspapers.

At the discussion, I found that there are many seniors who lag further behind in IT than myself though there are others who are way more advanced. One way to catch up is to attend courses where SkillsFuture Credit could be utilised, and the key is to make use (ie, practise) what is learnt.

After reading the poem and the articles, I may be inspired to write a poem on the topic.

An Equal Joy

I’ve read all of Catherine Lim’s books as I like the precision of her language and her remarkable economy of expression. An Equal Joy: Reflections on God, Death and Belonging is her latest book (launched in late March) and my latest read. This book contains 24 essays and is about the long and intense spiritual journey she has undertaken. It consists of short chapters in no particular order of chronology or significance, with no overall connecting theme or tone. It bears all the marks of free, spontaneous story-telling and haphazard, rambling reflection and sometimes slips into reverie.

In Ali Baba’s Cave of Treaures, Lim writes about the trove of treasures in three areas: discovery that our universe is expanding, discovery of the relationship between matter and energy, and the evolution of other caves connected to it by passages.

Death and Two Women is about two women who were in their 60s when they passed away: in a brave attempt, one planned to continue the old life of mastery and control and another went on a rampage of pure rage, then went about preparing for life in the next world in a systematic way.

With Death At the Banquet Table discusses the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, based on Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model, with the ultimate message that there is no bargaining with Death, so don’t even bother to try.

I’m partial to a few chapters, such as Suicide (an act which implies frustration, despair and shame and its stigmatisation by society), Celebrating Nature’s Spaces and Places (in which she talks about Emily Bronte’s intense love of nature as represented by the wild moors surrounding the house where she lived), The Scorpion Women (about gender feminism and equity feminism), The Right To Die (one of the most highly charged worries in the 21st century that provokes much controversy and emotion as it is an ultra-sensitive issue and may be abused) and My Holy/Holistic Trinity (in which she explores the goals of a perfect life in Truth, Goodness and Beauty).

Other interesting pieces include Guilt, A Bondmaid Named HoonPlacing Bets On God and Luca, Ida, Lucy and the Rest of the Family. There are also more serious topics, like cloning and religion (A  Wonderful Religion, Did Jesus Even Exist?, Marcion’s Gods, The United nations International Miracles Day, Did Jesus Have a  Sense Of Humour, Cherry-Picking the Gospels and Did The Neanderthals Have Souls?).

The title of the book, An Equal Joy, comes from her self-penned obituary about 20 years ago, which goes: “I have loved and lived life richly and deeply. and I embrace its closure with an equal joy.”


The Station Of No Return

The Station Of No Return is Xiaohan’s third publication. It is a collection of ten short stories, mainly fantasy and sci-fi. At the same time, they also remind the young people to appreciate and treasure their parents, as many youths today are over-protected. They are inspirational, and there is even a sense of realism in one of them.

Each story ends with a short explanation of the source of her inspiration and the lyrics to a different song recorded by singers such as Rainie Yang, Tanya Chua, Eason Chan, Jam Xiao and Valen Hsu.

Count Less Happiness

It took me longer than her first collection of essays, but I enjoyed reading Xiaohan’s novel tremendously. For almost three decades, I have not picked up a Chinese novel (not counting memoirs and essays) to read for pleasure. I’m glad I started with this one; it may encourage me to read more Chinese novels.

First and foremost, I find the title a very clever one: if the first two words are not separated, it becomes ‘countless’. And the story is both about counting less happiness and countless happiness.

The novel is written in the first person, but the protagonist is a young lady called Higby Giselle Williams, aged 23. Her mother is Giselle Larsen, a piano teacher and her father is Martin Williams; ‘Higby’ is the last name of the great jazz pianist Barbara Higby, whom the mother once emulated.

Higby is born with only five fingers. She does not have a left palm but a stump with no fingers. A normal person has ten fingers: the five fingers on the right hand plays the  main melody while the left hand can play the accompaniment. Would a person with no finger in the left hand be unable to play a complete piece, and hence can’t hope for happiness? On the other hand, people say that happiness slips through the fingers like sand; thus, does it mean that if there is no space between the fingers, it would be easier to grasp hold of happiness?

Higby hopes other people will judge her successes and failures like everyone else; she has five fingers on her right hand, and can play the melody and can decide if her life is a sad nocturne or a lively tune. She can’t clap but she can tell herself to put in extra effort, as long as she can hear herself. Her situation reflects how ignorant some people are about those with disabilities.

Her mother, Giselle, played the keyboard in a band at bars and music lounges, where she met a scholar from Virginia Technological University, Martin Williams. He wooed her with prose by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and poems by Emily Dickenson (1830-1886) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).

From a young age, Higby could tell her mother’s moods by the music she played – songs from cartoons tell Higby that she is loved, a piece like Mozart’s Alla Turca says she’s generally okay though slightly annoyed, a piece like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata says she’s thinking of someone.

There is a significance in naming each chapter after every finger, as the plot/sub-plots would revolve around what the finger supposedly imply, for example the middle finger is associated with rudeness, the ring finger is associated with love and the little finger is associated with promises.

The book reveals how well-versed Xiaohan is in music, language, literature and science. If only Science concepts were explained in such an interesting way when I was studying, I might have fared better in my exams!

The book is entirely in Chinese, even the quotes from John Gray’s book “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus“. Two other quotes I like (translated into Chinese) are from:

Karen Blixen (Danish, 1885-1962) – The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears or the sea;

Gustave Flaubert  (French, 1821-1880) – Love is a springtime plant which perfumes everything with its hope – even the ruin to which it clings.

I am sure Xiaohan spent a long time to write this novel, and it would be some time before she pens another one. The next book I’m reading consists of short stories, and the one recently launched is also not a novel.

The Walk

I was drawn to this 2015 DVD because the cover says it is from the director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away. I recall this movie did not get a favourable review but I like the other two movies. This is also based on a true story – the book “to Reach the Clouds” written by  Philippe Petit. Furthermore, the back cover mentions Ben Kingley as one of the main actors and I’ve always enjoyed watching him.

However, I was really disappointed. Good thing that I had Xiao Han’s Teardrops Are Capsules to distract me from what would have been a very boring two hours.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Philippe Petit, a French, the only man ever to have ever walked in the immense void between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Ben Kingsley is his mentor Papa Rudy, who appears in only a few scenes. The rest of the cast who play his team mates/accomplices are largely unknown to me ( Charlotte Le Bon as Annie, James Badge Dale as Jean-Pierre, Clement Sibony as Jean-Louis, Cesar Domboy as Jean-Francois, Benedict Samuel as David, Ben Schwartz as Albert and Steve Valentine as Danny Greenhouse).

The entire movie is about how each one is recruited and how all of them conceive and execute the mad plan of carrying out this illegal highwire walk from Paris to New York. The photography, stunts and visual effects are not as exciting as I expected, but Alan Silvestri did a very good job with the music. I like all the eight songs, including Sugar, Sugar (adapted French version), These Boots Are Made For Walking (also adapted in French), Suzanne (both the Leonard Cohen original and a French adaptation) and Fur Elise by Beethoven (both solo piano and orchestral versions); at least these add to the excitement and adrenaline.