Thursday, August 25, 2011

Edwin Thumboo, ed. & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 264 pp. ISBN 978-981-08-6321-0.

There are several ways one can read Edwin Thumboo’s poetry anthology: First, as a collection of Singaporean poetry in English; second, as poetry written in World Englishes, showing “how the shared experience of colonialism and recovery from it... generates common responses” (11) to it; third, as an outstanding collection, in English, of poetry from the richly diverse racial, linguistic and cultural traditions of Singapore and beyond. My approach to & Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond is to simply enjoy it as an outstanding poetry collection and, as Professor Thumboo suggests, a resource for students of Singaporean poetry written in and translated into English.

& Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond is one of the most enjoyable poetry anthologies I have read in some time. It reminds me, in its depth and range, of Scottish poet Kenneth White’s massive Open World: The Collected Poems, 1960- 2000, a book that I return to again and again to enjoy the poems and plumb their depth. Edwin Thumboo’s anthology has the same depth and range. There is so much richness here that I carry the book with me when I ride the bus and subway or sit in my favourite coffee shop. As I sip my coffee, I read: “Across the shores, divided by a straits and separated by a/ generation gap,/ Lies the Magpie Bridge,/ A bridge linking historical Malay peninsula history and/ modern-day Singapore-Malaysia ties/ Who is the cowherd, who is the weaver girl?/ Where lies the Milky Way and whom is the Queen Mother of the West?” (“Crossing Paths – North, South, East, West” 209-10). I am no longer sitting in my favourite Starbucks in Sapporo, Japan; I am standing on Magpie Bridge, crossing paths with so many people from so many places, doing one of my favourite things: listening to the sound of varied languages as they pour back and forth

Do I have any favourites in this collection? Yes; so many that the Table of Contents is strewn with tiny pencilled checkmarks identifying them. Here are but a few. Edwin Thumboo’s powerful “May 1954” is a memorable one: “We do but merely ask/ No more, no less, this much: That you white man.../ See well enough, relinquish,/ Restore this place, this sun/ To us... and the waiting generations./ Depart white man./ Your minions riot among/ Our young in Penang Road/ Their officers, un-Britannic,/ Full of service, look/ Angry and short of breath./ You whored on milk and honey/ Tried our spirit, spent our muscle,/ Extracted from our earth;/ Gave yourselves superior ways/ At our expense, in our midst,/ Depart:/ You knew when to come;/ Surely know when to go.../ Gently, with ceremony;/ We may still be friends,/ Even love you... from a distance” (71). The poem’s striking images capture my attention with this insistent message: Hey, white man, pay attention! It is 1954 and people have grown tired of colonialism’s power brokers and their minions. The poem’s visceral images command attention again today, as they did in May 1954 when five hundred Chinese Middle School students clashed with the police over the National Service Ordinance the British government attempted to enforce in Singapore. Angering Chinese Middle School students, who felt they were being compelled to defend the same British order that had discriminated against them and in which they saw no future, riots ensued. Soon the British government was gone and Singapore was a nation.

Another favourite is Theophilus Kwek’s “Worship.” Its last six lines are so surprising they are breathtaking: “her prayers were for neither her nor us,/

(and hence needed no god), but for her hands/ that kept us, her feet that carried us, her mouth/ that taught us, and her eyes that wept/ for us, gems glistening in the light/ of a different kind of worship” (41). Then there is Aaron Lee’s “A Tiny Idea” (99); Alfian Sa’at’s “The Portrait of a Sentenced Library” (81) (the title alone captured my attention); then Boey Kim Cheng’s “Child” (114); Gwee Li Sui’s “Jurassic Gardens” (141); Lynette Lim’s “The English Teacher” (162); Kirpal Singh’s “My Tree” (189); K.T.M. Iqbal’s “The Children of Robinson Road” (143) and Amiroudine’s “Urban Riches”: “The last village life/ is flying at half-mast/ In the name of progress/ villages are being clipped like nails” (225; translated by Azhagiya Pandiyan) – a stunning, memorable, visual image. All these and I haven’t even mentioned Kirpal Singh’s wonderful haiku: “In your loving arms/ my tired head/ – hours fly us by” (229). There is a novel in these ten simple words. Of the seven haiku in the book – four of them by Japanese haiku poets – Kirpal Singh’s is my hands down favourite because it is so tender, clean and clear.

For a European-American like myself, & Words is an introduction to a part of the world most of us are unfamiliar with. For me personally, it is a reintroduction to studies that fascinated me fifty and more years ago. Selfishly, I hope the book achieves a wide readership in the Europe and the Americas; it certainly deserves it.

This review was first published in Asiatic Journal of English Language and Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, June 2011

Unforgettable stories by one of India's greatest writers

Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Short Stories. Trans. Mohammad A. Quayum. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2011. liii+160 pp. ISBN 023- 033-277-3.

Whereas the names of many Nobel laureates in Literature have been forgotten, Rabindranath Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate (1913), remains an important and compelling figure in world literature. Professor Quayum’s book, with its collection of nineteen of Tagore’s short stories, is a welcome addition to his oeuvre and his legacy.

Primarily known for his poetry, Tagore “was also an actor, playwright, producer, musician, painter, educationist, cultural reformer, philosopher, novelist, short story writer, and a critic of life, politics, art and literature” (xv). A polymath, Tagore had this to say about himself: “To tell you the truth, I do not quite know what my real vocation is or should be. I am very much in the position of a young woman who, in the pride of her youth, is unwilling to part with any of her suitors” (xv). I smile whenever I read that, because my graduate advisor at the University of Illinois told me I was “too eclectic.” To me, having broad interests is just the way I am. It’s no wonder that Tagore had such great appeal to me when I first read him as a college sophomore back in 1954.

Tagore’s views on social justice, spirituality, respect for women, children and all people are both compelling and relevant to the global village reality of the twenty first century. Sadly, when I began my professional studies in 1960 and became preoccupied with developing my professional career, I forgot about him until asked to review this book. Reading these nineteen stories, reminds me just how much Tagore’s ideas influenced my thinking, and how deeply indebted I am to him. “In each of these stories,” Professor Quayum writes, “Tagore’s concerns are essentially moral and ethical.... He believed in the equality and fellowship of all human beings. He urged his readers to shun Kuvera, the god of money and the genius of property that knows no moral responsibility...” (xxxix). “[I]n his short stories he recurrently pleaded for social justice, protection of the helpless, education of the illiterate, material well-being for the indigent, and an unfettered dignity for woman and children” (xl). “Over and again, he returns to the same social, psychological, cultural, economic and political issues, despite their period of composition” (xliv). His stories show “how our fundamental values, attitudes and emotions either unite us or separate us” (xliv). Rabindranath Tagore is as relevant – and as accessible – as he was when his work was first published.

In each of the stories, written between 1891 and 1941 and translated into very readable English by Professor Quayum, English speaking readers will identify with the characters in the stories. For example, in “The Postmaster,” an urban-bred young man is sent to a rural village where he is totally ignorant about village life and has no idea how to relate to the villagers. This put me in mind of an experience in my own life when, in the summer of 1963, I moved from San Francisco, California to a job in a central Illinois village of 150 people. The young postmaster’s discomfort was my discomfort, his experience in a small Bengali village my experience in that tiny village in central Illinois. The myriad ways in which differences in race, background and class distance people from each other are glaringly obvious in the story. In the end, the young Postmaster puts in for a transfer back to the city, leaving behind Ratan, a destitute orphan girl who bakes his bread, fixes him meals and cares for him when he is ill. At the end of a year I moved on to graduate school, where I was much more comfortable with the culture.

To Tagore, connection and connectivity are fundamental realities in all life, especially in human relationships. Each of the stories in this collection illustrates what is a major preoccupation in his life and his writing – the interplay between connection and brokenness, justice and injustice, and the way fear and suspicion destroy harmony and peace. Disconnections are obvious in cruelty, discrimination, hatred and neglect, and in those instances where connection is so obvious in loving and tender relationships. As drawn by Tagore, the difference between connection and disconnection between people is so painfully obvious in these stories that it brought tears to my eyes.

Fear and suspicion lurks in almost every human relationship, which Tagore illustrates so well in each of the following stories. There is the brutal beating of an Untouchable who accidentally brushes against someone of a higher caste (“Purification”); a husband’s cowardice in allowing his wife to prevent him from helping the Untouchable (“Purification”); the deep yearning in an Afghan street merchant’s heart for his daughter, far away in Afghanistan (“Kabuliwala”); the frustrated rage of a father at an Inspector who refuses to let a penniless man cremate his daughter (“Imprudence”); and a wife who, “[a]fter living for so many years in this world (though not many), ... has still not been able to temper her fear that the world is full of all kinds of horrors: thieves, robbers, drunkards, snakes, tigers, malaria, cockroaches and European soldiers” (“Kabuliwala”). The juxtaposition of cockroaches and European soldiers makes me laugh each time I read the sentence, because it is so true. I’ve known people with that level of fear and had that kind of unreasonable fear myself in situations where I felt uncomfortable and out of place. It is the kind of pathological fear that gossip feeds on and cynical politicians use to shape and control public discourse and opinion, and it can be deadly. Tagore is a master at depicting its corrosiveness. And last, but not at all least, there is the story of a young woman who, because a respected Muslim saves her from a band of robbers after her new husband flees the scene, converts from Hinduism to Islam, marries a son of her protector and saves her younger sister from the same band of robbers on her wedding day. Written at the end of his life and not published until 1955, “A Woman’s Conversion to Islam” is a story of compassion and courage that will not go down well with many people, yet it expresses so well Tagore’s deeply held beliefs about the unity of all mankind.

Professor Quayum’s translation of the stories in the book is clear, contemporary and accessible to twenty-first century readers. I hope this book will be made as widely available as possible so readers throughout the English speaking world will be able to order and read it. It is one I will recommend to all my English speaking friends here in Sapporo. It will certainly help to renew interest in the remarkable talents and insights of Rabindranath Tagore.

(This review was first published in the literary journal Asiatic, Vol 5, No. 1, June 2011.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A gripping tale of adventure and intrigue

If you’re looking for a well-written novel filled with adventure, romance, intrigue and plenty of gripping, gritty action involving the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, bureaucratic turf wars, Russian spies, terrorists and submarining, this is definitely a novel you will want to read. No nonsense Lt. Commander Mollie Sanders, an exceptionally bright officer young who gets her way because she’s the most qualified knows very well how to handle herself, and in this adventure, she has a whole lot to handle. Prickly, she has her vulnerable side, like all of us do. In my book, she’s the kind of officer I’d be proud to serve under. I sure as heck wouldn’t want to end up on her “S” list.

The story is cinematic, which is not surprising, as it is an adaptation of two screenplays written by the authors. I look forward to reading their next adventure ... and perhaps seeing this one on the Big Screen or TV.

***** stars.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A wonderful, well-written novel with a surprise ending that's really a surprise

"Collin had the perfect life. He had a loving family and everything money could buy. A life envied by all. But Collin wasn't perfect. He had a secret, one that came with a price. A secret that could destroy his life and everyone in it."

So begins K. C. Hilton's remarkable novel. Not that it starts off with a bang, because it doesn't; it starts off as a very likable family story about two loving parents and their two sons. Then, all of a sudden -- Blam! -- it hits like a thunderbolt, and I was in for the ride. Whew! What's going on? What happened? There was nothing that was going to tear me away from this book until I found out. And I did, and so will you.

K. C. Hilton is a very skillful story teller and, in my opinion at least, it takes one to tell this kind of story, a story that could have been maudlin in less capable hands, but never does in hers. Interestingly, the significance of book's title "90 Miles to Freedom" may not hit you at first, as it didn't hit me. Then it appears and Collin's secret and its significance begins to dawn and build to a dramatic, gut-wrenching climax. Then K. C. Hilton delivers her surprise, about which I'll say nothing. You have to get there and read the book to catch its impact. I was awe-struck, and still am. Another one of the best reads I've had in a year filled with great reads.

When is your next book out, K. C.?

A very definite ***** book.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A good book that needs some work

The story opens on 23 October 1935 as hard-boiled private eye Errol Black is tucking into a nice, bloody porterhouse steak. Then someone walks into the restaurant and begins shooting and his dinner with partners Dyke Spanner and Terry Shadow is blown all to Hell. So are Terry Shadow and the two intended victims, notorious mob boss Dutch Schulz (who lives for 23 hours) and one of his henchmen.

The story then shifts to 1945 and the mid-town Manhattan offices of Black and Wentz Detective Agency where we find Errol Black alone in the office doing paperwork. The door opens and a beautiful young woman named Claudia walks in seeking help. She suspects her fiancĂ© of cheating on her. Is she trouble, or isn’t she? Young, beautiful, flirtatious and naive, she’s just the kind of gal hard-boiled detectives fall for. I kept warning him off, but of course he didn’t listen, In spite of his personal failings, he’s good at his craft of detecting, the case is an interesting, convoluted one, and he finally solves it after many convoluted twists and turns. Living happily ever after is a different matter for a hard-boiled,PI, but we already knew that when we started. The many-splendored thing called love is something that eludes hard-boiled guys. Black Shadows is an enjoyable read and I’m glad I read it.

That said, would benefit greatly from some further editing. The story Begins in 1935 with the shoot-out, then shifts to 1945. Though it appears to remain in that year, it isn’t clear: reference is made to an article written in the 1960s; a two-foot thick solid steel door is opened by touching a red button on a keypad on the wall; Errol Black takes Claudia out to celebrate her birthday on July 3,1940; and soft rock is heard on a radio. And I am confused.

Other problems are as follows: A South American man can’t understand a man who is talking to him because he has a poor grasp of Guatemalan. (There is no such language.) In several places the names of two Chinese characters -- Wang and Ping -- are mixed up, once in the same paragraph. As Black is talking with Ping, Ping’s name suddenly changes to Wang. In another place Weeny Jung Ping is called “Weeny Wang”; this should to have been caught (or explained), but wasn’t.

One of the more interesting characters in the novel is Dutch Schultz’s half-brother, “known colloquially as The Portly Gangster,” a cultured, hugely overweight, vain, and greedy man who has spent his life looking for a blue diamond, said to have been Dutch Schultz’s. No matter how hard I try, “the portly gangster” isn’t a likely colloquialism in Big Apple or New Jersey criminal or popular culture of that day. “Fats”, “Fatty” or “Fatso” yes, but “The Portly Gangster”? I can see someone like Margery Allingham using it, as it fits the upper middle class British culture she wrote about back in the 40s, 50s an 60s.

So ... as good a novel as I think Black Shadows is, I can only give it 3 *** . If someone can show me that I’ve gone terribly wrong, I’ll be happy to change my rating. I look forward to seeing some more of Simon Swift’s work.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

If you enjoy love and romance, you'll love this book by Jessica Degarmo

If you enjoy stories of love and romance, you will love this book by Jessica Degarmo.

When Caitlin Edison’s live-in boyfriend of ten years walked out on her because he was bored, she was devastated. If this was “love”, she wanted no more to do with it. Talking about it with her best girlfriends, one of them suggested a “sure-fire” cure she’d read about in a magazine. The cure? Go to a nice restaurant or bar, dress up fit to kill, and hook up for a one-nighter with the best-looking guy there. I couldn’t help but cringe.

Coming from a friend who was not only a virgin but a conservative, Church-going one at that, Caitlin is shocked. Hooking up for a one-nighter with a stranger? A sensible young woman, Caitlin rejects the suggestion. (I was relieved; having worked in the counseling field for years, I knew the suggestion was an accident guaranteed to happen, and I liked Caitlin.) But, since her mood doesn’t improve, she decides to give it a go. (My heart sank to my shoes.)

Dressed fit to kill, she goes to one of the next cafes in town, spots a melancholy handsome man sitting by himself, decides he’s the most likely candidate, walks up, introduces herself and suggests a tryst. (“Don’t do it!” I said. Rats! They go out the door and disappear. I wine, awaiting the recriminations and tears.)

Problem is, Jessica Degarmo is such a fine writer that I couldn’t put the book down and ended up falling in love with both Caitlin and her new beau Ryan.

If any two people have the personalities to make it work, Caitlin and Ryan certainly do. Does this mean the future is will be a bed of roses? Not at all. Custody disputes, learning to fit together as a couple, a toxic spouse and raising a child (and maybe more) are real life challenges that each of us face, have faced or will face.

Like I said at the beginning, if you enjoy stories of love and romance, you will love this one. I look forward to Jessica Degarmo’s next, to see where she takes couples on the seas of relationships, romance and marriage.

I give this a definite *****s.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A gripping tale of intrigue set in WWII Europe

A gripping tale of intrigue.

Robert Craven’s Get Lenin is the kind of novel that pulls you in the minute you pick it up and won’t let you leave until you’ve finished, it, sit back and say “Wow, what an adventure!” The title comes from a very intriguing and very mad idea: Seeking for a way to assure his place in Hitler’s inner circle, Dr. Joseph Goebbels hatches a plan so secret it is even kept from Hitler. The plan? To sneak into the Soviet Union ahead of Hitler’s armies, steal Lenin’s sarcophagus, and spirit it into Germany. What a trophy, and what a propaganda coup if it succeeds! Does it? You have to read the book to find out.

The book opens in Munich in1938 when a young Polish spy named Eva Molenaar stumbles onto the plot and reports it to her handlers. From there the story picked up speed and pulled me into it in a way that made me feel that I was a participant in the action. Robert Craven has created a story and cast of characters that are wholly real and believable in a setting that is so well-researched that reading Get Lenin was like watching a newsreel.

I’m glad I bought this book; I’ve been recommending it to everyone, and It’s certainly on my “read-it-again” list.

A solid ***** for this one.

Available in both paperback and Kindle