Category Archives: Off the shelf

Diary of a bookworm.

What are you reading?

Books that I’m reading at the moment:

1. Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf. Originally in French; translated by Peter Sluglett.

The story follows the footsteps of a Granada-born Muslim Moor who lived at the intersection of the Ottoman, Isabella-Ferdinand and Roman empires, travelling through the greater Mediterranean world, the Sahara and Timbuktu, converting to Christianity – and then back to Islam again. Guest stars in the story include a Sicilian pirate, Pope Leo X, and apparently the artist Raphael (I haven’t reached Italy yet). The opening of the book was enough to set me started:

I, Hasan the son of Muhammad the weigh-master, I, Jean-Leon de Medici, circumcised at the hand of a barber and baptized at the hand of a pope, I am now called the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia. I am also called the Granadan, the Fassi, the Zayyati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the road, my country is the caravan, my life the most unexpected of voyages.

2. After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton.

A book about the history of piano performance, and how supposed “traditions” weren’t always part of history. Was inspired to read this book after reading the illuminating programme notes written by Hamilton himself for his recitals in Singapore some months back, and his witty introductions to the pieces he performed.

3. The Independence of Miss Bennet by Colleen McCullough

Yup it’s the Bennet from Pride & Prejudice. Mary Bennet to be precise, and 20 years after where Jane Austen left off P & P. So far this book is a romping hilarious read. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of P & P. But readers with an idealistic view of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy shouldn’t try to touch the book.

Am also reading a technical book for work purposes. Which makes me wonder what category do the books above fall under. Leisurely reads? The Reasons Why I Still Have to Get Prescription Glasses?

Enough rambling from me. What are you reading?


Hunting for page turners

A friend asked me recently what books to recommend. There was a book sale last month at Borders so I basically bought those best-seller types of books, hoping for entertaining reads. Borders books are generally rather pricey, but I had that coupon for 30% discount per book. If you are buying more than one book, all you have to do is just make multiple copies of the same coupon – somehow the cashier insists upon separate physical copies of the coupons. Call me a cheapie, but honestly, I don’t see the need to pay 30% extra if there is a promotion going on! It would be a pity if Borders were to close down. Even the interior of the bookstore feels rather gloomy – are they saving on electricity with the dim lights?

While it’s always a pity that a book shop has to wind up, I won’t feel nostalgic if Borders Singapore were to close down. Yes, it had a great environment: initially when it first opened, its floor to ceiling glass-window exterior at Wheelock Place – with seats for customers to sit on and browse through books – made hanging out in a bookstore cool. But the fact was its books were relatively expensive (to the point it only made sense to buy during sales) and the stock selection not as great or varied as say, Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City. And it was trying to do too much: CDs, toys, stationery, cafe, DVDs. In fact, I had greater feelings for the MPH Stamford Road closing down/moving away, partly because I spent much of my spare time as a student there.  And who else can forget good old Popular bookshop? Any bookworm who grew up in Malaysia and Singapore could not possibly not know Popular. In Singapore, I remember visiting the branch at Bras Basah Complex often. And today, Popular is still there, and with a more updated look! There were also a lot of other smaller book shops at Bras Basah Complex, and some exclusively Chinese bookshops at Victoria Street. But sadly, they have either downsized or dwindled completely.

So back to the books: so far I have blazed through the first of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. These days it takes me forever to finish a book so the fact that I managed to finish reading this so quickly makes it rather exceptional. It really is quite a thriller and an entertaining read, notwithstanding the gory violent details and somewhat strange English (the book was originally written in Swedish). Another book I’ve been reading is Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, which is more like a collection of essays. Or brief short musings about a chef, a dish, a kitchen or a summer fling. So, would ‘essay’ be the right word? I don’t know. But Bourdain’s writings are edgy, so where the book lacks substance, it is more than made up for by eloquence and verbal agility.

What books have you been reading? And where are your favourite book haunts?

*post edited

There’s always time to read

How often do you hear people say:

“I wish I could read more often. I just don’t have the time.”

Actually, there’s always time to do the things that you love, as long as you accord them priority. Often, we neglect to do something because there seems to be something else that is more important to do and which takes precedence over it.

Apart from reading for work & research purposes, I believe in finding time to read for the sake of reading. And this doesn’t include reading the news or trawling the internet for the latest happenings – that’s mostly for the purpose of keeping yourself abreast of what’s going on in the world, but doesn’t do much for introspection. Grab a book (or an e-book), read up something that is of interest to you, be it science, religion, history, philosophy or fiction. Actually, I think a good fiction can encompass most of the foregoing. But that’s a topic for another day.


How to find time?

To repeat, prioritise. If you rank the pleasure derived from reading higher than that of other activities (e.g. playing computer games, watching Youtube), you would naturally set aside more time for reading.

Having said that, time is often available and we just don’t realise it.


Say you take the train to work in the morning, and the journey takes 30 minutes. That’s 30 minutes of reading each way, and 1 hour of reading on a return trip. 1 whole hour! (Yet another reason for taking public transport – but even if you drive, could audiobooks be an alternative?)

Sure, finding pockets of time in the day to read a book doesn’t allow you to finish a book from front to cover in one sitting. But cumulatively reading is better than not reading at all.


Creating the atmosphere for reading

Reading requires concentration. Therefore, find out what switches on your reading mode.

Some like sitting in a quiet cafe with the aroma of a cuppa. Some like curling up on their bed. Some like to be in an air-conditioned environment (especially in this very humid region in the world). Some like to sit by the beach maybe under a tree (though a coconut tree is not recommended).

For me, I find it so much easier to read without the distractions of TV, phone and the internet. Switch them all off I say! Easier said than done, unfortunately. But once that’s done, the results are amazing – even the most impossible tomes look less daunting.


Read what interests you, and not what you ought to be reading

There are tonnes of book lists out there. A good book list could recommend where to start or introduce you to books you haven’t discovered before. But somehow, that creates the impression that one must read the books on the book list. Or that “if I haven’t read them, I’m not as well read as I think I am.” My current philosophy is this: life’s too short to read things that just doesn’t engage me. Does that make sense?

Sometimes I also have this dilemma: getting stuck in a book that I just can’t seem to get through as quickly I’d like. Should I abandon ship? Should I  judge the book by its cover and the 80-100 or so pages I have read? Since I have invested some time already, I might just stick with it and see whether it gets any better… wait, what if it doesn’t get any better? I don’t know. Until now, I still have no conclusion to this – what do you think? So far, I have not re-read any of the the books that I have “stuck it out” with. Maybe that’s a sign to go with my first instincts.


Re-reading a book you like is not a waste of time

Sometimes I re-read a book to relive the joyful experience of discovering the book the first time round. And of course, to re-live the passages that moved or enthralled me the first time round. I don’t see it as a waste of time. After all, if literature is a dedicated discipline in academia, merely re-reading a book that you like in your spare time can’t possibly be a waste of time.

Actually, writing this post now reminds me of a few books that I want to re-read!

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

~from The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer

I’m a late bloomer in many respects: this is my first Norman Mailer book. So kindly excuse me if I’m bowled over by the complicated mind behind the pen.

The Castle in the Forest is a fictional biography of Adolf Hitler. You know, the one who was infamously held responsible for, amongst other misdeeds, World War II and the Holocaust. So who is more apt to narrate the origins of Adolf than the devil himself?

The narrator is Dieter, who assumes the body of an SS man, but is actually the employee of Satan (called the Maestro in this book).  Tasked to look after the development of young Adolf (little Adi), Dieter traces back to Hitler’s ancestors succumbing to the primitive impulses and instant gratifications that primordially created Adolf. From then on, the narrative meanders through cradle and toddler-hood amidst the humdrum of domestic Austrian middle-class family life and innocuously accounts incidents that cumulatively reflect the primal fears, delusions and dysfunctionality of the family. If there is any insidious foreshadow of the extreme excesses that is to come out of little Adi when he grows up, it is not apparent from the narrative itself; the reader extrapolates from what he/she already knows. Certainly, do not expect an answer to the question of nature or nurture. That is not the point of the narrative; in any event, if either or both were to do all the work, what would have been Dieter’s purpose as the devious caretaker? Half way through, the narrative wanders off slovenly into another assignment received by Dieter (the coronation of Nicholas II in Russia). After being re-assigned back to a tween Adolf, Dieter was later on assigned out again, this time purportedly so that the Maestro himself can look after Adolf specially. In true protean form, Dieter sells out his boss by telling this Hitler story behind the Maestro’s back and goes to great lengths to cover his traces. He even contemplates switching sides and batting for the Maestro’s foe – the “Dummkopf” – instead, for in Dieter’s own words “is it not also true that one cannot find a devil who will not work both sides of the street?”

By all means, Dieter’s account of the Hitler family story is ironic, blackly funny and philosophical even if twisted. But more interesting (or more unsympathetic, depending on your point of view) than the Hitlers themselves, is this wholly unreliable, multifariously complex and thoroughly malleable narrator in the form of Dieter.

Conclusion: this is not bed-time reading for the faint hearted. Still, the curious-minded will not be deterred from taking the plunge.