[Comic Book Review] Putu Piring – A Ruminative Snack

The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.

Michael Chabon, ‘The True Meaning of Nostalgia’, The New Yorker

If Chabon’s characterisation is accurate, the “consciousness of lost connections” could not be more keenly felt during the circuit breaker period (a nation-wide lockdown in all but name) at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

It is out of this context that Putu Piring is conceived. 

The lost connection is manifested in “the ghost of a wild boar” as a man decides to buy putu piring (steamed rice cakes) and cycles to a park―his favourite childhood haunt―to feed the wild boar. En route, he contemplates the various changes in his life. 

Like a well-prepared dish, Tay’s text is sparse yet impactful, as he manages to encapsulate the changes in the protagonist’s life with a few food items that serve as striking metaphors. 

In an interview, writer Myle Yan Tay explained that he chose putu piring for his story because it is sentimental yet current; it evokes a sense of the past, yet it is still around today. In a similar vein, the contemplations of the protagonist straddles being elegiac and coming to terms with the changes. Such a choice strikes the right chord as it leaves space for the reader to contemplate about one’s own life in tandem with the protagonist. 

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Shuxian Lee’s illustrations may appear simple, but they have some delightful subtleties. She uses shades of brown for scenes in the past to give it a sepia complexion. This is in contrast to the monochromatic colour scheme for the present. However, the contrast is not too stark and there are portions where past and present seem to meld together. This is in harmony with the aims of the plot that straddles both past and present.

There is a striking use of small panels in various sections of the comic, which only shows an element of the whole picture such as the snout of the wild boar or the fingers of the protagonist’s grandfather. This resembles the nature of our memories as we tend to recall in vignettes. Additionally, it complements the literary elements such as placing emphasis on the culinary metaphors. 

With it being only 20 pages long, Putu Piring might be bite-sized as compared to other comics. However, it offers a flavourful bite that tempts one to crave for more. 

Further Reading

Interview with Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee on Putu Piring

[Comic Book Review] Through the Longkang #1 – Paranormal Intrigues

Through the Longkang #1
Myle Yan Tay (writer) and Shuxian Lee (artist)
Checkpoint Theatre (2021) / 20 pp.

The second collaboration between Myle Yan Tay and Shuxian Lee brings us the start of a trilogy that delves into the paranormal. 

Through the Longkang brings together the well-loved elements of action-adventure, mystery, and intimations of the paranormal tales that those born in the 1990s and earlier grew up with. 

We are immediately thrown into the heart of the action as Fishball and Brick find a punctured football on a beach, and one of them (they are not clearly identified as neither of them is addressed by name) has a psychic insight upon touching the ball. 

It is revealed that a teenager went down into the longkang (canal) to retrieve a football. Upon climbing out of the longkang, he suddenly found himself exiting a well and saw an abandoned bungalow with a rather inviting swing. Horrors ensue. Our heroes hope to save the boy before it is too late. 

The well being the portal between the longkang and the abandoned bungalow reminds us of horror stories of suicides and wrongful deaths. Could this be related to the disappearance of the teenager? Is Myle Yan Tay bringing in certain local cultural tropes and recontextualising them for a new audience?

Ilustration by Shuxian Lee

As for the art, it is wonderful to see what Shuxian Lee can do with grey, white, black, red, and the occasional dash of brown. Her minimal approach truly exemplifies how less can be more. 

Her backgrounds resemble charcoal drawings, lending the story an ominous feel. Need to make the bungalow look sinister? Simply add shades of red, and highlight the entrance with white to indicate the light is on, while making it appear that the building has eyes and a mouth.

Additionally, the irregular layout of the panels adds a certain dynamism to the action, without needing to add more details to the drawing itself. This is best exemplified in choosing to have two small squares on the top left to show the teenager emerging from the well, while the rest of the two-page spread depicts the sprawling bungalow. 

That said, the first instalment will leave impatient readers unsatisfied as all it does is to set up the story of how a teenager went missing. It is unclear why this is planned as a trilogy. If the other instalments are of similar length, the trilogy could simply be a self-contained comic book. 

However, the set-up is intriguing enough for one to look forward to the rest of the series just to see what other elements will be brought in, and what effect the serialisation has on the overall story-telling.


Through the Longkang #1 is published by Checkpoint Theatre and retails at $7.90 (e-book) and $10.90 (hardcopy).

To purchase a copy, visit Checkpoint Theatre’s online shop.

Checkpoint Theatre Publishes First Comic Book – Putu Piring

When a theatre company announces its upcoming season, one gets excited about the shows on offer and the issues that will be tackled. Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, Take It Personally, remains true to its vision of championing original stories, but there is a twist.

In a first for the company, Checkpoint Theatre will be publishing a comic book, Putu Piring. I contacted the Myle Yan Tay (author) and Shuxian Lee (illustrator) to find out more about the project.

What is Putu Piring about?

Yan: Putu Piring is about a man returning to his childhood haunt with the titular snack in hand. He reflects on his journey of growing up: from being a kid cycling on the parkway home from school, to a working adult, now cycling to escape the monotony of his daily life.

Putu piring itself is an oddly evocative snack. It’s a food that is both sentimental but also current, with new renditions appearing all the time. It’s that sense of being rooted in the past and present that I wanted to capture in this story; that sometimes, in our present moment, we become so cynical that we wish we could be nostalgic. It’s almost a nostalgia for nostalgia.

A theatre company publishing a comic book? How did the project come about?

Yan: During Circuit Breaker, when it was unclear when theatres would open again, Huzir Sulaiman, Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, asked me to write a comic. It had been a long-running conversation between the two of us and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. Faith Ng, Checkpoint’s Associate Artistic Director, put me in touch with Shuxian, and we then worked to write, develop, and publish it. 

Could you explain the creative process in creating this comic book? Did the text come first before the illustration or was it done simultaneously?

Yan: I wrote the first script, passed it to Shuxian to illustrate, and then we’d go back and forth on subsequent drafts together. I had a very clear vision of the ending of the comic; I knew what the reader would be seeing, and what sort of emotions I wanted them to feel. The comic book’s story was weirdly reverse-engineered in that way, with me figuring out what readers would need to read and see in order to get to that ending.

As we worked, Shuxian crafted some new pages that didn’t quite fit into the first draft of the script, but they were too perfect to cut. So together we rewrote and redrafted to figure out how to make those gorgeous pages work. It was a very collaborative process and it was really fantastic to see these pages I had written come to life with such colour and vibrancy.

Shuxian: When I read Yan’s script, I could already see most of the visuals in my head. Either he wrote incredibly vividly, or I was fortunate enough to share his vision, so there weren’t huge differences between what he wanted the comic to look like and what I actually drew. Since I’m based in Belgium, Yan had to provide me with most of the reference pictures for the locations featured in the comic; with those and his script as a starting point, I could build on the scenes and perspectives. I had some guidelines to follow, but was mostly free to do anything I liked with it. I would sketch out thumbnails or uncoloured panels and Yan would send his feedback before we finalised a page.

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

How did you approach illustrating this comic? How would you describe your aesthetic?

Shuxian: I decided I wanted to draw something minimal and almost sterile—Adrian Tomine-inspired illustrations, to reflect the overall sense of ennui. I used disparate colour palettes to differentiate the time frames and contrasting moods of the past and present.

My aesthetic influences vary, but I try to keep a hand-drawn, organic feel throughout my drawings, even when they are drawn digitally.

What were some of the challenges in creating this comic? Were there any interesting discoveries in the process?

Yan: A clear challenge was Shuxian’s remoteness from Singapore. The comic book takes place in Singapore and follows a cycling route near East Coast Park. We worked around it by having me send photos over for reference. Shuxian then recreated them on the page with her own flair. These ended up lifting the comic into a unique visual space: something very real and unreal at the same time.

Shuxian: The time difference as well, perhaps—it would have been more difficult if there was a tight deadline! I also found it challenging to balance a very physically and mentally exhausting day job with illustrating on the side; I’m hoping that illustration and art-making will take up the bulk of my time in the near future. Thankfully, for this comic, I had the weekends to work on it.

I’ve rediscovered my love for the graphic novel medium! And that I actually do love illustrating someone else’s story. This is the first time I’m collaborating on one and it’s been amazingly rewarding seeing what we come up with after bouncing ideas off of each other. I really appreciate being lucky enough to find a collaborator who shares my love for this storytelling medium. Getting to immerse myself in someone else’s inner world has been very enriching.

Yan: In the past, I’ve mainly written and then directed my own work; so it was surprisingly fulfilling to be able to hand off the reins to someone else and watch as they worked. I especially enjoyed seeing Shuxian come up with pages that I could never have thought of myself, because she has such a great imagination.

We had such a good time with this project that we’re actually already working on a new comic, Through the Longkang, which will be launched together with Putu Piring at our comic book launch event Picture This on 23 March!


Putu Piring will be launched, along with several other titles, at Picture This on 23 March 2020 at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box.

[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.

[Book Review] Panama and Beyond by Debby Detering

Panama and Beyond: Letters from Cuba, Panama, and by steamship to and from Panama 1907–1914
Debby Detering
Self-published (2019)/ 259 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Letters and journal entries are useful sources which reveal the everyday lived experience of people who lived in the past. But a detailed chronicle of the construction of the Panama Canal and the going-ons of a ship does feel repetitive to the lay reader after a while.

In Panama and Beyond, Detering circumvents this by guiding the reader through assiduous research. Drawing from a variety of sources, she furnishes us with pictures and quotes to bring the minutiae in letters and journals to life.

Through a passage of eight years (1907-1914), we embark on a vicarious voyage through the letters and journals of Detering’s relatives. From a family gathering in Cuba; to the author’s grandfather, William Hobby, working on the Culebra Cut, the central section of the Panama Canal; and the return trip from Panama to San Francisco through Hobby’s journals.

Nothing seems to escape the letter-writers as they detail anything that catches their fancy; working conditions, foods, styles of dress etc. Paired with Detering’s research, we learn of interesting factoids such as Dr Gorgas’ hypothesis of fever being transmitted by mosquitoes and his work in preventing transmissions in Panama; Satsuma buttons; and a newsletter which details the amount of excavation done in the canal, thereby sparking a healthy competition amongst the workers.

Such details not only entertain the general reader with a healthy curiosity, but they also provide excellent starting points for research into a history of engineering, trade, labour, transportation, travel, and many more.

Additionally, the pairing of source material and research does not feel like a bombardment, but more of a knowledgeable aunt guiding you through the unveiling of her family album. This makes it easy to dip in and out of the book.

More importantly, despite a clear effort in the curation to produce a coherent timeline, Detering does not attempt to sanitise history despite it concerning her relatives. The sheer racist disdain of the other workers by Charles Potter may be hard to read, but it something we all have to come to terms with.

Ultimately, Panama and Beyond is an insightful read about an important slice of American history and expansion, while providing us with details about the sights and sounds of other countries in South America in the early 1900s.


This review is made possible by Reedsy Discovery. 

[Book Review] Guards Gone Wild! — A Cheeky Memoir That is a Basis for an Exposé

Guards Gone Wild
Loh Teck Yong
Self-published (2018)/ 200 pp.
To purchase the book, click here.

Security guards often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are sometimes viewed as lazy or ineffective given that most guards one sees are either rotund or getting on in their years. For those who carry out their duties assiduously, they are seen as party-poopers.

Their situation is not helped by the powers that be thinking that the security industry can be improved by slapping individual guards with fines and jail time, thus perpetuating the idea that the problem lies in the individual.

Cue Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong.

Either by coincidence or telepathy, Loh seemed to have anticipated this change in the security industry by writing about his experiences as a security guard which spanned decades.

Mirroring the cheekiness of the title, Loh’s writing is exuberant, making the book an enjoyable read, which can be devoured in a couple of sittings. One could almost imagine the twinkle in his eye as he scribbles down his first draft.

With anecdotes about know-it-all superiors, uncoöperative colleagues, and impenetrably bureaucratic management, it feels like Loh is shooting the breeze with his readers over post-work drinks.

Hence, imagine my surprise when the second half of the book comes around. While retaining its breezy tone, Loh candidly reveals the tricks security companies get up to make up for the chronic problem of a lack of manpower.

From staging a charade by co-opting guards from other posts during audits to allowing guards to go on 24-hour shifts, these scams—as Loh calls it—are worrying and indicates an underlying systematic problem in the security industry, rather than a problem with a few bad apples.

If any of this is true, Guards Gone Wild must be an initial prescribed reading for lawmakers to rethink their strategy, and an extensive surprise audit is in order for the security industry.

That said, this book will benefit greatly from the guidance of a publishing company to par down certain excesses and correct the inconsistencies in typesetting.

With this book being an entertaining and educational read, it is hard to see why any publishing company would not want to republish this book.

[Book Review] A Documentary of Gia Carangi in Book Form

born-this-way

Born This Way: Friends, Colleagues, and Coworkers Recall Gia Carangi, the Supermodel Who Defined an Era

 Sacha Lanvin Baumann

Wendell Rickkets (Translator)

Creatspace Independent Publishing Platform (2015)/ 202 pp.

We are all familiar with documentaries of famous people: a narrative of a person’s life and a series of tightly edited interviews. In many ways, Born This Way is a documentary of supermodel Gia Carangi in book form. It is a collection of interviews from a wide range of people which range from personal friends to casual work acquaintances.

However, unlike most documentaries, there is a lightness of touch in the editing of the transcripts. Apart from learning more aspects of Carangi life, the voices of the various characters come through which makes the book come alive, even for those unfamiliar with the fashion world.

There are a couple of occasions in which the interviewees confess that they only want to remember the good times, and not when her life spirals out of control with drug abuse. While this irks the sharp-minded biographer, such refusals are equally telling and contributes to the intrigue of Carangi.

That said, this book could benefit from photographs to break up the barrage of interviews. This is especially so with the sections when the interviewees are saying more or less the same thing. The photographs, not only of Carangi but of the interviewees, also provide some much needed context especially to those unfamiliar with the fashion world. Otherwise, there is a risk of the interviews being a big blur after extended reading.

[Book Review] Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

12274384_10156137666015618_3856772621067894757_n

Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1

Lucas Ho (Ed.)

Checkpoint Theatre (2015)/ 408 pp./ SGD 29.90 + shipping costs

For more information, visit Checkpoint Theatre

If one were to peruse the syllabus of a Singapore English-Language Theatre module offered by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it categorises the playwrights into three generations. The publication of Joel Tan: Plays Volume 1 marks the start of the fourth generation.

The whole collection is tinged with a deep sense of ambivalence. Rather than focus on what constitutes Singapore theatre or champion certain issues which were the main concerns of the previous generations, Tan explores what it means to be living in Singapore and dealing with what life throws at you. To aid this exploration, he constantly uses the context of failed or unfulfilled relationships, in subtly different ways, to show the complexity and vulnerability of his characters.

In Family Outing, Joseph plans to come out to his family as a gay man. He gets electrocuted after a freak accident and his boyfriend, Daniel, tells his family the truth a year later. On the surface, this plot appears to be about a family accepting or rejecting the son’s sexual orientation. However, there underlies a certain uneasiness about family relationships and what it means to be a gay man.

After the initial outrage, Joseph’s mother and brother try to reconcile Joseph’s sexual orientation with the Joseph whom they know. Scenes from the past and present intersect one another on stage as they negotiate and come to terms with Joseph’s sexuality. While one’s sexual orientation is a fundamental aspect of one’s identity, does it mean that the Joseph the family knows is less of a person? If so, does one sexual orientation matter more to one’s identity as compared to other areas of one’s life?

Towards the end of the play, there are intimations that Joseph’s mother and brother have a slight inkling about his homosexuality but chose to ignore it due to their deep religious beliefs. This throws a new complexion on the matter as this has got to do with familial relationships and the violence members of family inflict on one another through denial or the supposed desire to protect. This estrangement is further enhanced when we realise that what we are seeing is Joseph’s fantasy which leaves open the possibility that the family might reject him instead.

With this being one of his earliest plays, Tan displays a great deal of sophistication in being able to pack all these into a light-hearted play which is brought out by the brother’s antics and the mother who is slightly prone to histrionics. While Tan manages to balance the moods of the play well, he is a little overambitious with including all these different layers in the play especially—as Tan himself admits— the fact that it is Joseph’s fantasy may not come across clearly.

The ambivalence of being a gay man is also seen in That Daniel but it focuses on a young man fitting into the gay culture. In this deeply personal monodrama, Tan displays his linguistic dexterity in expounding on the pressures of conforming to a certain type and how this might affect one’s relationship with food. This is best encapsulated by the metaphor of noodles as Daniel says:

“We are noodles, we begin life as lumps of human starchiness, sliced by the noodle-cutter of life into pretty shapes, acceptable to the human eye and fit for human consumption, palatable” (271).

The richness of the gastronomical descriptions enhances the poignancy of the play as Daniel realises that he has pursued unrequited love at the expense of a certain happiness that he finds in food. It might be tempting to say that everyone faces a similar pressure to conform, but—as Isherwood’s A Single Man points out—it unfairly whitewashes the experiences of the individual. While this play does not enlighten us about the particularities of the pressures faced by gay men, it compels sympathy and reflection that hopefully precedes conversation.

That said, I wished this play was a wee bit longer. Tan sees this play as an optimistic one because he sees Daniel making a positive change after coming to a certain realisation. However, we only see Daniel coming to terms with his hurt and it stops there. This realisation could have made a positive or negative impact on Daniel which is why there should be a hint of what is to come.

Aside from linguistic versatility, Tan is keen to experiment with form and structure which is clearly seen in Postgrads and People.

The phrase “true-to-life” has been used and abused by critics of all stripes, but this term is most apt for Postgrads. The trajectory of life’s events does not follow a curve of climax and resolution, some conversations are never had, and some relationships remain unfulfilled. More importantly, one does not necessarily have a clear reason for doing something. And that is what confounds a group of housemates who are postgraduate students when one of them decides to drop out of the PHD programme.

While the conversations consist of feel-good reminiscences, private regrets, and banal chatter, there is a mounting sense of resignation and sadness. The atmosphere may be relatively serene, but the conversations appear to be a desperate attempt to forestall the final goodbye. Despite the fact that the play is crafted in a certain way due to the demands of the commission, Tan excels in infusing a certain sensitivity and subtlety to his play and it does not feel that he is consciously working around certain limitations that were placed on him.

The vignettes in People, which are either monologues or duologues, make it the most ambitious play in the whole collection. Tan once again returns to the motif of estranged relationships and see variations of it play out across a cross-section of society.  Set in either Singapore or Tokyo, there is a distinctively urban sensibility to it as we see the characters relate to others either across geography, class, or on a spiritual level. Tan’s ear for dialogue is apparent as he captures the milieu that the characters operate in. The litmus test for any playwright with regard to Singaporean dialogue is to balance between Singlish and whatever language the working class character speaks. In the hands of a careless writer, the dialogue makes the character nothing more than a caricature. While Francis the mobile phone seller has certain speech quirks that one—rightly or wrongly—associates with the working class, Tan is careful not to overdo it. Additionally, Tan even experiments with verse in the monologues of Nicholas who decides to leave the priesthood.

Given that Tan allows the director to arrange the vignettes as she pleases, this play merits several re-stagings just to see what can be excavated from the text.

Speaking of estranged relationships, the one in Hotel is the most ugly and toxic. Within a few pages, Tan raises all the ugly implications of economic success through the explosive arguments of the rich couple. What is notable is that Tan resists any form of resolution—the argument at the end of the play is interrupted and will probably occur again. Bearing in mind that Hotel is supposed to be a reimagined history of The Arts House (Singapore’s former parliament house), the play serves as a fitting platform for Tan to rail against the excesses of Singapore. Its brevity also ensures that it does not go overboard.

Mosaic explores another form of emotional violence in our lives—the destruction of physical space, and the memories that go with it, in the name of progress. However, violence is also inflicted upon one’s memories if it is co-opted and turned into some kind of fetish or commercial enterprise. This play thus juxtaposes both forms of violence and expresses a deep sense of ambivalence towards the efficacy and appropriacy of popular causes such as heritage activism.

This is embodied by Sharon, the protagonist who ropes in her boyfriend and tries to organise a demonstration against the authorities tearing down an old playground. She is clearly unable to rally people to her cause and when asked what how she is going about the event, she retorts: “Nothing is going to happen, why must thing always happen? What we’re doing is symbolic […]” (212, original emphasis). Later on, she tells Rong Cheng, a passer-by who lives nearby and used to play in the playground that the “playground is like a tile in the giant mosaic that is the things I care about” (222). However, a mosaic on the whole should form a coherent picture but her specious replies and lack of planning cast doubts on the coherence of her pet causes. The conflict between Sharon and Rong Cheng also raises the question of whether someone can legitimately oppose any governmental re-development projects if she does not have any prior relationship to the place.

Tan’s talents are seen in how, on one level, the characters are symbolic of certain things and their conflicts and interactions becomes a dialectic about activism. On another level, the settings and situations are entirely naturalistic and the characters are not reduced to being mouthpieces for a certain position. At the end, Tan could not help but employ the same motif of a failed relationship to bring up themes of moving on, letting go, and the difficulty of doing so as we often have a complex relationship with the past.

The Way We Go is a reworking of Tan’s second full length play that was written as part of a playwriting module at NUS. In it, he explores what it means to love yourself and another by having two parallel romances; the lesbian relationship between two convent school students (Gillian and Lee-Ying) and that of the school’s principal and a cousin of her colleague (Agatha and Edmund). The former relationship fails due to a difference in temperament and goals while the latter is disrupted by death.

Tan employs counter-directional narratives to allow for the parallel relationships to be shown on stage in an economical way. It also shows Edmund dealing with the hurt and finding his way back to the first moment he saw Agatha. This allows him to find closure and begin again. This play rewards the careful reader as a careless one will only see it as containing snapshots of the lives of the characters and nothing more.

That said, Violet (Edmund’s cousin and Agatha’s colleague) feels like a convenient device for the couple to meet and the two romances could have been a little more inter-connected in some way.

Perhaps, it is due to this early and extended exploration of dealing with love, lost, and moving on that led Tan to re-use the motif of failed relationships over and over again. While there is an effort to use it in various ways, Tan has stretched it to its limits this early in his career.

However, this does not detract from the sensitivity, subtlety, and a strong voice which Tan clearly possesses. In this collection, he resists being didactic and focuses on the individual and sometimes painful story of simply dealing with everyday life. He has also shown that he can use this lens to reflect on wider societal issues.

In the interview that is included in the book, he says he is interested in writing political plays which are rooted in the experience of living in Singapore rather than those which preach to the choir. Judging from his output in this collection, I await the next phase of his writing career with much excitement.

[Book Review] Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Almost English

Charlotte Mendelson

Pan MacMillan (2013)/ 400 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. The story revolves around a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Marina. When the father abandons the family and disappears without a trace, Laura— with daughter in tow—has to stay with her rambunctious Hungarian in-laws due to financial constraints.

Marina is put into a traditional English boarding school, Combe Abbey but struggles to fit in due to her mixed heritage. Meanwhile, Laura tries to make a living but continuously makes a mess of her life such as having an affair with her boss.

As if things cannot get more complicated, Laura’s husband, Peter, reappears and she is at a loss. On top of the many years of hurt and resentment, she has to figure out the best way to tell the family.

As for Marina, she bumps into a fellow student, Guy Viney, at a bus-stop and eventually starts dating him. To her surprise, she finds out that his father is Alexander Viney, a celebrated TV historian. The elder Viney encourages her to change her major to history and as he gets closer to her, things take a dark turn.

I have no idea why this book is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. While it is not downright awful, it is hardly inspiring or exciting. Apart from the colourful descriptions of the Hungarian family and culture, most of the book consists of Laura’s constant self-loathing and Marina feeling like an outsider. The plot is predictable and occasionally melodramatic.

Worse still, there are quite a few clichés that go with the melodrama: Laura is nervous to meet her husband as she bites her lip till it starts bleeding, Marina is nervous to the point of having a stomach ache,  Laura hates her husband for abandoning them but capitulates to his bad boy charm. These clichés are in the same category as peeing in your pants to represent fear—it should be avoided at all costs unless it significantly adds to the story.

To top it off, there are too many complications in the book and Mendelson has left most of them undeveloped and cold. A narrower focus would make for a shorter and more enjoyable read.

Amidst all the mess, there is one moment where Mendelson’s gift as a writer peeks through. The family suspects that Marina has been in constant contact with Alexander Viney and asks Laura to investigate. She talks to Marina despite not knowing why the relatives are worried.

Marina pushes Laura away despite wanting her to stay. Laura tries her best to comfort her daughter despite having her own problems gnawing at her. The scene is short and the words are few but the way it conveys the mother-daughter bond and the unspeakable hurt is absolutely beautiful.

Unfortunately, one beautiful moment is hardly enough to save a messy book.

[Book Review] Singapore in the 60s by James Suresh and Syed Ismail

Singapore in the 60s

Singapore in the 60s

James Suresh (author) & Syed Ismail (illustrator)

Training Plus Int’l Pte Ltd (2015)/ 217 pp.

“If there is a subgenre of writing Singapore is becoming alarmingly good in, it is the literature of nostalgia.”

While that comment by Dr Gwee Li Sui was referring to Last Train from Tanjong Pagar,  it is arguably an accurate description of James Suresh’s latest book.

From the sights and sounds of his childhood in Queenstown to descriptions of trades and public amenities available, Singapore in the 60s serves as a comprehensive introduction to what life was like back then. The choice of adopting a conversational style of writing makes the book accessible and engaging—it feels as if one is brought around the neighbourhood by a jolly uncle.

The combination of general facts and personal anecdotes shows why such personal recollections complement official history. It reveals how certain events affected people involved who, at that point in time, do not have complete knowledge of what was happening.

While I may be able to rattle off a couple of reasons why Singapore merged with Malaya, to learn that children were provided with a book to familiarise themselves with the flora and fauna of Malaysia is incredibly illuminating. It makes the historical event much more vivid and I am pleased that this book will be used as a teaching resource in schools.

That said, this book would have benefited from tighter editing. A couple of the sentences are too long and should broken up into shorter sentences. In other cases, the use of punctuation will make it a smoother read.

Illustration

Illustration: Syed Ismail (2015)

Given that this is an illustrated book, the contributions of Syed Ismail must not be overlooked. While his humorous depictions undoubtedly enhances the reader’s enjoyment, his ability to capture the architectural features (see the cover of the book) and a sense of space must be commended.

Additionally, it is clear that Ismail also took the pains to tell his own story with his pictures. Rather than offer a general depiction of Suresh’s descriptions, all his figures are given a unique personality as they react to a certain situation quite differently (see image above). This creates visual interest and readers, especially the older ones, will be rewarded if they took the time to appreciate the illustrations.

Regardless of whether there is a future in nostalgia, Singapore in the 60s promises to be an enjoyable read for the old timers and an educational one for younger readers aged nine and up.

Further Reading

From the Blue Windows by Dr Tan Kok Yang

  • A memoir focusing specifically on Queenstown

Growing Up in Geylang by Lai Tuck Chong

  • A blog which details a childhood in Geylang