The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami


My son Andreas has an interest in Haruki Murakami’s book and borrowed this when he was searching for another of his book. I suspect this is written for children although it’s placed in the adults section.

The book is short and is accompanied by many full page coloured illustrations, almost like a picture book for third graders. I found the story amusing and am curious what my nine years old nephew would think of it.

A boy goes to return a book at the library and is directed to a strange room for assistance when he enquired about some books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Strangely, the old man in the room finds the books he wanted but locks the boy up as a prisoner, and will only free him when he finishes the book. Although he pleads to be let go, as his mother would be worried and his pet starling might die, the old man refuses, thus begins the boy’s adventure as he plots with the other prisoners – a man dressed in sheep wool and a beautiful girl, to escape.

I thought this book is a wonderful book to introduce Murakami to my nephew as well as a simple reminder to me on what constitutes a good short story – a likeable protagonist with an active purpose and beautiful proses filled with details and metaphors.

I could also identify with the boy’s mother, whom he describes as the type of mother who when something happens she imagines the worst, and it snowballs from there. Just like me. When my husband failed to return to our Penang hotel room at 1am one night, I imagined the following scenario -him falling into a drain and being unconscious (he often falls on holiday), he’s robbed of everything including his phone (this is Malaysia after all) or he’s murdered by the robbers.

This was, of course, my imagination running wild.

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Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage


The long title of the book throws me off at first but after reading the book, I realise that the title actually gives a good summary of the story.

Tsukuru Tazaki is the protagonist of the book. As a teenager in high school in Nagoya, he was part of a close-knit five-member clique who volunteered in a primary school, consisting of friends who names have the colour character in them, all except him – Aka (Red), Ao (Blue), Kuro (Black) and Shiro (White). His name does not have a colour and thus he feels deficient in a way – colourless. The second part of the title is taken from Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays” from his Years of Pilgrimage suite, which the protagonist refers to in the story often. (‘Le mal du pays‘ is translated as “homecoming or melancholy, or more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.’)

You might be interested to know that someone even made a YouTube video of this piano recital and this book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0n3S1xCVLvk

Tsukuru (which means create in Japanese) Tazaki is a 36-year-old engineer who knew he wanted to build railway station from young. The group dynamic in his 5-member gang was so precious that the three males and two females tried not to destabilize it by not getting romantic with each other, even when Tsukuru went away to Tokyo to pursue his study, leaving his friends behind in Nagoya. They continued to remain close, until one day, Tsukuru found himself ostracized by the group for no apparent reason. He became suicidal but recovered and became a changed man. Sixteen years later, he is urged by his girlfriend Sara to seek the answer from his four friends, to heal an emotional blockage which is hindering him from forming a lasting relationship.

Murakami makes full use of the colour metaphors to describe his characters. Like how Sara describes a friend she once knew: ‘I’m not sure how to put it, but she seemed faded. Like something that’s been exposed to strong sunlight for a long time and the colour fades. She looked much the same as before. Still beautiful, still with a nice figure…but she seemed paler, fainter than before. It made me feel like I should grab the TV remote to ramp up the colour intensity.’

His prose is filled with metaphors and some are really nice, like these examples:

Jealousy was the most helpless prison in the world – not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily locked the door, and threw away the key.

A distinct half moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky.

During rush hour, that (JR Shinjuku Station) maze transforms into a sea of humanity, a sea that foams up, rages, and roars as it surges toward the entrances and exits. Streams of people changing trains become entangled, giving rise to dangerous, swirling whirlpools. No prophets, no matter how righteous, could part that fierce, turbulent sea. 

Other than educating readers about Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays”, Marakumi also shows off his knowledge of the workings of train stations and a glimpse of Finland in the book. What I find interesting though is that the diet of the protagonist is mainly sandwiches and coffee. I would have thought ramen and bento.  (I so love Japanese food.)

And I also find dissatisfying about this story is that although readers are reminded of how another character outside the group of five, Haida (Gray field- another character with colour, so noted Tsukuru), who made an impact in his life, also left Tsukuru suddenly, there is no resolution for us.

 

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2017 has been a great year


Tomorrow is the last day of the year and last days are usually melancholy for me – regardless if it’s the last day of work, of school, or of year. Last day signifies a time for change, and that’s always daunting. Last days also mean goodbyes – to people, to routines, to lost opportunities, wasted times.

However, I’m not going to be all negative and sorrowful this coming last day of 2017. I’m determined to be grateful for all that has been given to me in 2017 – the good, the bad and the mundane ordinariness that has helped me put things in perspective. (Luckily I’ve recorded most of my life on Facebook so I don’t forget.)

2017 has been a year of new experiences which I can broadly summarize into four categories (as was in 2016 when I started full-time work after more than a decade at home) which now as I look back, I’m filled with of awe.

Back to School – Going back to school for my Master of Arts in Creating Writing (MACW) was a surreal experience which I had, on many occasions, needed to explain to others what I do and why I am doing it, which at the same time is a good way to convince myself that it really was happening – all these textbooks needed to be read, and the damn critical essays needed to be submitted, even if I didn’t know exactly what I was criticising. Going back to school meant meeting a whole new group of people – classmates and lecturers. Who was the wise guy who claimed that making friends at my age is hard? All nonsense. I got along fabulously with the younger folks, some barely older than my sons. What was interesting was that they were so diversified – in gender, race, accent, culture and even sexual orientation. I am no longer mixing with my in-group of middle-aged women and I am enjoying the interaction.

Despite my less than stellar grades,  I would like to think my writing has improved. I had the opportunities to experiment with poems, plays and screenwriting. I thought I did pretty well in all these genres. The playwriting module also nudged me into taking part in Theatreworks 24 hours playwriting competition, which I would never have done otherwise.

School, or my lecturer Darryl Whetter, in particular, gave me the platform to read my work in public. I used to hate public speaking/reading but I am now more comfortable doing it and even beginning to enjoy it, especially when I hear the applause at the end. (Imagine reading five poems at the George Town Literary Fest and getting five rounds of applause.)

Being in the MACW plonks me into the Singapore literary scene and I get to meet local authors, poets, and playwrights. I look forward to the day when I am in their league too.

Yoga – All that sitting and studying for school accentuated my stiff back and I decided I should do more yoga. And so on top of my regular yoga classes with Denjz, I enrolled in a yoga studio with unlimited classes which I had vowed to fully exploit the expensive membership fee. In the studio, I have the opportunity to be an ‘aerial artist’ by flying in a hammock. I confess I used to envy the circus acrobats as they fly with the ribbon-like satin fabric in the air, twirling with graceful flair. I am not like that and have no aim to do that. For now, it’s just fun showing off the few stunts on social media. Still, I have noticed a vast growth and improvement in the last year. I’m stronger, leaner and more flexible. I can’t wait for the day (in 2018) when I can do the split with ease and a handstand.

Yoga has also allowed me to meet friendly folks who share the same interest, and I’m glad to say, folks with the same physical inflexibility. I look forward to classes so that I can meet them. Familiar faces try to match schedules and time so that we could do yoga together. Today I received a sweet note from my yoga classmate, WT, who is trying to persuade me to go back to Denjz’s class which I’ve decided to leave in order to more fully exploit my membership at the yoga studio before it expires in five months.

It warms my heart to know I’d be missed. Now I’m wavering on my decision. See, it’s always the people who make the experience so memorable.

Family – I’ve been busy but I try not to neglect my family, especially since I went to so many wakes last year as friends and classmates start losing their loved ones, which made me all the more cherish mine. I’m relieved though that I did not have to bother much about my sons, all of whom did well in school. Second son Ivan spent six months in the Netherlands on an exchange, eldest son Andreas graduated and found a job within a month.  There were some scares though, like when youngest son Aaron got appendicitis on his last day of A’levels, or when my 92-year-old Grandma fell and broke her hips. I’m happy to report both are recovering well. My in-laws are not coping as well, with depression and dementia, and that is a wake-up call to me that I need to start preparing myself well if I want to age well. 

Grandma and Me

Reunions – 2017 is a year of reunions as long-lost classmates got reunited, and there was a bash at my alma mata’s 100th year anniversary. I find it amazing how I can chat like old friends during the celebrations, with schoolmates whom I had never spoken to when I was in school, just because we share a common link we now cherish. I also met many old teachers, many now frail, and hope the meeting with their old students gave them a satisfaction that they have left their legacy behind with us.

Some good gatherings happened in the last few months. I can’t imagine how we traced my sec-two classmate Jasmine who married an Indonesian and a sec-four classmate Ajara who married a Taiwanese, but we did and had a wonderful time catching up.

Sec 2 reunion

Sec 4 reunion

 

Outside, the rain pours, reminding me that it is indeed December. It’ll be the last day of 2017 in less than half an hour. As I write this, I am filled with a fuzzy comfort that it’s been a good year.

I’m not sure what I am going to do when I graduate in April and although I worry, I am prepared to go with the flow, as I’ve always done. (The Guided Autobiography Workshop I did in October was a good reminder on this.) I’m a planner and having nothing planned sometimes makes me anxious. But I shall live one day at a time. And tomorrow, I have a whole day of yoga planned, starting with Sunrise Yoga at the Botanical Gardens. Now, isn’t that a good way to end the year?

 

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If You’re so Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy/ by Raj Raghunathan


I had taken a MOOC by Prof Raj in 2015 before he published this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The course is one of the most popular courses in Coursera and I highly recommend it to you. I also helped vote for the title and the cover photo when Prof Raj was preparing to launch the book. This book is a good accompaniment to the course, much like a textbook, with links to psychological tests (he is a psychology professor) as well as video – interviews with other experts that were conducted throughout the course. Exactly like in the course, there are exercises to complete each week to improve your happiness level, which I didn’t do since I have already done it before. (Excuses…)

If you read my review of the course, (See my review here: https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/a-life-of-happiness-and-fulfillment-by-isb/). you would get a good summary of the book. What I want to highlight though, is given that altruism is one of the seven habits to cultivate for a happier life, Prof Raj was asked why didn’t he give out the book for free. As he had a publishing contract, this was not possible (do note that the course, with the same content and is interactive, is offered free). He has, however, used all his advance for the book to help defray the cost for those who can’t afford to pay the full price by paying it forward. That means that when I purchased the book, someone had already paid the book for me and I can literally get it by not paying, but that would, of course, decrease my happiness, which you’d have found out if you have done the course.

If you are interested in buying the book, click on https://www.happysmarts.com/book-chain/ and ‘pay it forward’.

This book has been sitting on my shelf collecting dust, like so many its companions. I am a book hoarder (I’m not sure how that will affect my happiness), but I started reading it two weeks ago for a writing project and found it wonderfully refreshing. I thoroughly miss the daily emails I used to receive from Prof Raj, with questions reminding me if I have done my part to prioritise my happiness. (The list of question is stuck up on my wall but I confess I have neglected it.)

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m reminded by Prof Raj why so many smart and successful people around me are not happy. Happiness is a difficult concept to grasp and measure and is often replaced by other by tangible goals like money and external control.

As I crack my head to write my essay, I have to remind myself of the sixth habit of the highly happy: Dispassionate pursuit of passion, ‘which involves having a preference for certain outcomes over others before they occurred, but being nonjudgemental about them after they have occurred.’

See, it’s not so easy being smart and happy.

 

 

 

 

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New Selected Stories by Alice Munro


This book gives a good sampling of Munro’s writing through her career, from 1998-2009. The collection of three short stories from each of five published books are not necessarily my favorite works from her, but it has a variety of themes and protagonists to show the versatility of how good short stories are, which I only recently learned through her.

I enjoyed the first series from The Love of a Good Woman (1998), simple everyday stories, especially My Mother’s Dream, a story about the relationship between the protagonist as a baby and her mother and two aunts. It reminds me of my own relationship with my five aunts and how they took care of me then and even now.

I’ve read the second series from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001), which you can read my review here.

https://vickychong.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/hateship-friendship-courtship-loveship-marriage-by-alice-munro/

Runaway (2004) consists of three stories which has the central character Juliet, as she meets her married lover in one, stayed with her dying mother in another, and the heartbreaking last story of how her only daughter Penelope chooses to estrange from her in the last. This collection is republished into Julieta, when Pedro Almodovar made this into a Spanish movie.

The final two collections are from The View from Castle Rock(2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009).

What made an impression from this book comes from two stories – both about how the children of the protagonists choose to disappear from their family’s lives, which as a mother reading it, is both unfathomable and heartbreaking.

I’m looking forward to my next Munro’s book. She’s helped guide me in my own short story writing.

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Cardio and strength training with Suspension TRX


Funzing is a portal for people who want to try unique experiences, especially exercise classes without a package commitment that comes with most studios, but it also offers other classes like baking and pottery etc.

I’ve tried a 3-hour scorpio workshop for $45 by a teacher from Yoga Lab and found it to be complementary to my regular yoga practice, which my studio does not have the time to emphasize the proper technique to focus on. Thus the workshop was very beneficial.

TRX suspension is my second time trying out with Funzing and I thought it would be fun. It is actually more hard work than fun. The class is held in Equip gym at Bukit Timah Plaza, a 10min drive from my house. The instructor, Faiz, starts us out with a cardio sets of light jog, butt kick, thigh slaps and star jumps. My heart has never pumped so fast. After a two minute break, we grab hold of the suspenders, lie back in a straight back plank with heels on floor, for various tricep pulls, first with arms tight against body, then flared, and finally straight arms above head. Faiz is hands on and adjusts me to ensure my back remains straight, as I have a tendency to tuck too much. I thought I was strong but it was hard, although each set lasts thankfully only a minute.

Then it’s back to cardio, this time doing leg bends and leg lifts while in a plank position, followed by sprint.

I must not have been trying hard enough, as my neighbour, Elaine’s shirt is soaked but I remain neat and dry.

We return to the suspender, adjusting it to a slightly longer length for leg’s training, holding it in position while doing lunges.

Next set of cardio exercises involve legs – squat jumps and various others exercises which I don’t know the names of but are torturous.

There are altogether three sets of cardio and suspender exercises, with each time, we lengthen the length.

The class ends with some light stretching.

Would I be back? Probably not, as all the jumping around is not good for my knees but I must say, even as a runner, the cardio really pumps up my heart.

I mistook this to be the bungee exercise which I want to try when I signed up, but it was an interesting workout. I will certainly look out for bungee in Funzing, hopefully at a gym near my house.

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Before We Forget – Movie review


 

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing

With Ms Jess Teong, Screenplay writer and Director

 

Before We Forget is the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Kid from Big Apple, the debut film by screenplay writer and director Jess Teong. I didn’t watch the first film but I was assured that it would not affect the second story.

The movie starts with Lum Shifu (HK veteran actor Ti Lung), a Chinese sinseh, moving out of his old neighbourhood to his daughter’s condo, taking along Ah Boa, his neighbours’ teenage son, who tags along because he wants to be at the airport to greet Lum’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter Sarah (story presumably continues from the first movie) when she returns from USA.

Lum finds himself getting confused, not recognizing people, and forgetting things. The children notice as well and hatch a plan to hide this from the other adults and to help him, by playing mahjong and recording information in a diary.

Ultimately, the truth is uncovered when Lum gets lost during the Mooncake festival celebration and is rescued by his son-in-law Hao Nan (Ti Lung’s real son Shaun Tam), whom he disapproves of, for jilting his daughter and granddaughter in USA. Yet, in his heart, Lum wants the couple to reconcile and create opportunities to make that happen.

So, even with a title as predictable as the story (as in most dementia-theme movies), I sit in the theatre, weeping and sniffing together with my next-seat neighbour, as the characters try their best to preserve memories for Lum, by taking videos, photos etc. There are also comic moments too provided by Ah Bao and his pregnant mother although I find them more slapstick than actual humour.

This is a heartwarming story which perhaps has been told too frequently in the media which makes it a tad cliché. The wedding of Ivy (presumably from the first movie) also drags on for too long, which makes first-timer like me wonder about the relevance of that scene.

I shall go watch The Kid from Big Apple soon (both movies will be playing in theatres until Chinese New Year) only because it’s such a charm to watch teenage actress Sarah Tan.

 

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