Monday, July 21, 2014

Stalin's Games


Spotted a unread book in the pile. How could I have missed it?! It's the exact kind of book I pounce on. It was Simon Sebag Montefiore's 'One Night In Winter'.

Written in 2013, the book was set in Moscow 1945, during the terrifying times of Stalin's final paranoid decade of power. The story drew upon real-life characters of the Soviet elite, and their presumed 18-year-old children. The author cleverly weaved real historical figures and fictional names into the plot, making it vividly eerie. (Reviews herehere, here and here.)

At the exclusive School 801, among the children of the who's who of the Politburo and the Kremlin leaders, there was a new boy Andrei Kurbsky who was a son of "the enemy of the people". He had been granted permission to return to Moscow. He quoted Alexander Puskin, and seemed to stand for all the lost romance of Russia. There was an initiation and a Game reenacting the duel scene in Eugene Onegin. In any Game, contemporary readers will know that there will be deaths. (Not referencing 'The Hunger Games') Two such deaths occurred in the Game, shot each other with real guns that had replaced the fakes. The deaths brought in the dreaded venue of Lubianka, headquarters of the KGB. Something about unwanted "bourgeois sentimentalism". No parents dared to defend their children. The Kremlin got involved because Stalin didn't stand for any whiff of an anti-Stalin plot and everybody wanted to keep their secrets. Games within games within the Game.

Plenty of power play. There's a list of Characters right at the start of the book before Acknowledgments and Prologue. I kept going back to the list to be sure who's doing what. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read in all its twists and turns. Plenty of love stories going on. It came to pass that the main two characters seemed to be Andrei Kurbsky and Serafima Romashkina, the daughter of a famous actress and a film writer, she harboured a secret which was a boyfriend-then-fiance who was an American diplomat. But politics intervened. Cold War. Happy that the book concluded after the death of Stalin onward to 1970s, and gave us a peek into the characters that survived and how their lives turned out. I was curious enough to google the song that was referenced to in the story more than twice- 'Katyusha' ('Катюша', or Ekaterina or Catherine). It's a 1938 wartime song written by Mikhail Isakovsky and composed by Matvei Blanter.

Later, when she gives her testimony, she wishes she had seen less, knew less. 'These aren't just any dead children,' slurs one of the half-drunk policemen in charge of the scene. When these policemen inspect the IDs of the victims and their friends, their eyes blink as they try to measure the danger - and then they pass on the case as fast as they can. So it's not the police but the Organs, the secret police, who investigate: 'Is it murder, suicide or conspiracy?' they will ask. 
What to tell? What to hide? Get it wrong and you can lose your head. And not just you but your family and friends, anyone linked to you. Like a party of mountaineers, when one falls, all fall. 
Yet Serafima has a stake even higher than life and death: she's eighteen and in love. As she stares at her two friends who had been alive just seconds earlier, she senses this is the least of it and she is right: every event in Serafima's life will now be defined as Before or After the Shootings.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Third Time :: Russian Circles

Third time I see Russian Circles play in Singapore. They're fantastic live and this round was just as great.  Have I already mentioned that next to Dave Grohl, one of my favorite drummers is Dave Turncrantz? Their latest album 'Memorial' was released last December. Love their sounds. Something old, something new and all familiar. I definitely have something for bands whose brand of music doesn't contain vocals.

Giggled slightly as I hung out at Zouk. All about the nightspot closing down end of the year without relocation plans and all. Honestly, I don't particularly care. Yeah, I literally grew up at Zouk, stumbled all around, puked all over its grounds and all that. But it's just another venue. There're the memories to hold. Went to like three ZoukOuts and gave up. Beach parties aren't quite my scene. At some point when I turned 32, the Velvet card that has a permanent slot in my purse meant nothing anymore. Meanwhile tonight, I enjoyed the fantastic acoustics that were arranged by KittyWu Records.

Quite a turnout for a Sunday night. Great vibes. Lovely to see many friends out and about. It also meant that the gig started early enough at 8.20pm and concluded by 9.45pm. Best. I was just happy to tumble back into town in time for the gig. Couldn't take my eyes off the C&C drum set. Three musicians filled the entire Zouk with gigantic sound. Woah. To the moon and back. Didn't matter that the next day began with a 7am meeting.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fruits For Meals

On work trips, I miss the convenience of eating fruits, peeled and cut. Vacations are easier- I could hunt down fruits anytime at the markets. Berries are generally easy to pop and chew. It's the slicing of the other fruits that I don't quite fancy. Been completely spoilt as a kid- I don't eat apples unless they're sliced. The hotels that are familiar with my preferences or schedule do take the extra mile to send up fruits already peeled and sliced instead of greeting me with the usual fruit basket.

I'm one of those who can just gobble fruits for a meal. (Yes, that explains the 25 apricots and kernels ingested last week. Uggh. Never again.) I don't do that often though, since the sugars are not fantastic as consecutive meals. Not partial to dessert, fruits are the only kind of sweets I could bear. 

Some airline lounges in certain airports provide a great source of fruit vitamins and fibre. I love the variety available. Bleary eyed early in the morning at Sydney airport, I didn't want like...real food, but needed to eat something before the next meeting. Airplane food works for me, but often, I'd very much rather sleep through a flight. In the new-world hierarchy of needs, sleep and stable wifi rank high above food. Heh. Piled the plate high with colors. Avoided all forms of caffeine. Gobbled milk and juices too. Didn't want to have carbs since I would be stepping off the plane and straight into a boardroom to uhhh tactfully scold people. Carbs make me sluggish. :P  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Late Night Dinner


If you don't mind the loud volume of human voices, then supper at Fordham & Grand is always fun. I still like a salad or pasta if food is need at midnight or thereabouts. Often, I need more than bar snacks to fill the tummy when I'm really hungry.

Hopped into Fordham & Grand with the girlfriend for a late dinner. Drinks were available too. Perfect. I'm avoiding caffeine till the end of July calm the digestive system, but moderate amounts of alcohol seem fine. Heh. As long as I stick to the usual poisons, the stomach shouldn't be too upset.

I rarely go to cocktail bars unless I know they've a decent selection of whisky. I could do gin, but I'm not interested in trying out permutations of flavors. I don't like floral, sweet or cloying or sour. I could do bitter and standard. Few bars could grasp my gin preferences the way The Spiffy Dapper does. Of course I hang out there enough for them to know what I like. Even so, I like a clean gin and tonic. Nothing fancy, thanks.

The bartender offered a concoction with Cocchi Americano and Angostura bitters. I was really suspicious of the moscato thingy. I don't like dessert wine or anything similar. The final version of this G/T wasn't too bad, but already too sweet by my standards. No way I could do a second glass of it. Decided to stick to a regular G/T. Craft gins, good tonic water. Boring is good. Nothing funny to rile the tummy. Fabulous company for the evening. Red nails. All I ever wanted.

Monday, July 14, 2014

'And Tango Makes Three'

I love the library. Any library. The architecture, the smells, that spaciousness and most of all, the books. If I have fond memories of the local library, that's because it opened my world to fantasy, goth and gore. Nobody in my army of strict Catholic caregivers stopped me from checking out witch rituals. They wanted to know what I was reading, without having to hide from them. As a result of my particular interest in these genres which can be deemed as Satanic or the Occult, I stumbled across the concept of controversial books and a list of 'banned publications'. It became that I started buying those books on the lists. After reading them, it didn't take long to understand why they've been banned or how they're controversial. Every book opens doors to different worlds. Whether I choose to adopt a book's opinions or whatever, is dependent on my independent thought processes. A result of nurturing from my non-judgmental non-traditional family and the excellent education system. The harder you try to put me in a box, the further I intend to jump away from it.

I love how everyone is speaking up. National Library Board (NLB) isn't remaining neutral like a library ought to be. The Singapore writers have spoken out and some have withdrawn from engagements involving the NLB. This is their livelihood, and they're willing to make a stand. Twenty years ago, this wouldn't have been possible. So I celebrate that. For the rest of us, we pen short polite firm letters about our views to NLB and its parent Ministry. Whatever views are all making themselves heard. So I'm not certain about what the heck is a "community norm" anymore. (About Penguin-gate herehereherehere and here.)

Your children, your values, your family, your rules. You do the parenting, not anyone else and certainly not the nanny state. You don't ask someone to think for you. And you don't deride the values others hold. Not if Singapore aspires to be the democratic society full of arts and culture like it has envisioned. Let us bring out debates over and over again in various nooks of society like what every progressive city does, and wisely learn to agree to disagree. 

We could argue till the cows come home about the reasons behind the ban. But one thing remains- PULPING BOOKS IS SO LAME. Of those books in our library fracas, I've only read 'And Tango Makes Three'. My copy is out on loan with the friends. When I was in Seattle, the girlfriend specifically asked me to buy this book for her children (who are at ages of nine, eight, three and two). Decided a personal copy is needed too. I like penguins. Appended is a a reading of the book. It's entirely your choice to hit 'play'.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

实践剧场 ::《水往上流》

Hesitated getting tickets to 'FLUID'《水往上流》. Well, partly because it's in Mandarin. Even the English surtitles won't be too attractive because I dislike losing nuances in the script. Certain tones are lost in translation. The friends raved about it. I liked what I read in the reviews. Anyway, watching a Chinese play is more attractive than sitting through a xinyao (新谣) musical or concert.

Part of the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival 2014, 'FLUID'《水往上流》is written and directed by Liu Xiaoyi (刘晓义) of The Theatre Practice. The play asked, what is theatre? The blurb said the play "will challenge the notion of performance, theatrical space and the audience experience. In so doing, the performance attempts to examine “theatre”, in the theatre and experiment “stage”, on the stage." The stage was kept clean. There was a table, a vinyl player, a stark lone lamp, and a performer-host. In the far right corner, a gathering of plastic bags where a dancer moved silently. Those two worlds stayed apart till later, when they swopped and checked out each other's world.


We went back to basics. A storytelling via a voice over the radio or perhaps a recording. There was a vinyl player which I'm sure doesn't work that way. It was a good voice. Animated, dramatic and all. It told the story of a regular bloke, Lao Wang (老王), or old Wang. He worked a mundane job as a cashier and decided to sign up for a theatre workshop in the mountains where the teacher instructed the students to undress and strip in at least two lessons. Old Wang's experiences and thoughts would probably boil down to what everyone thinks, is this what art is about nowadays? Or what is theatre? What is art? There were 'technical faults' which were really cool. We don't see any of the characters in the story, but we imagine, and that's the beauty of this play. Every little detail was carefully crafted and worked into the story within a story.

The English surtitles were more than sufficient and competent. But I felt it funniest if we understood Mandarin. It isn't just about the tone. It's the usage of certain words that fail to translate to English that made a whole phrase hilarious. Also the image of a stern and unyielding fellow classmate nicknamed 'Priestess Mie Jue' (指峨眉掌门灭绝师太,《倚天屠龍記》) just doesn't convey the humor if you haven't read Louis Cha's (Jin Yong 金庸) sword-fighting novels. Not a need to know, but it's just...funnier.

Li Xie (李邪) and Lim Chin Huat (林 振发) were respectively the host and the dancer. Li Xie sang such a beautiful unaccompanied version of Hong Kong 50s and 60s star Yeh Feng's uhh...'Mystery Girl' (I dunno!), 葉楓的《神秘女郎》. The performers invited us to share the stage and suggested many definitions of art and theatre. Love the ending. Open-ended. The curtains were parted and the doors were thrown open. The audience faced the glass panels and the doors that they had entered from earlier. We became the watched.

What is theatre? As we merrily stomped through those plastic bags to the exit doors, the same ones the actors went out of, each formed our own conclusions.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out At Lunch Hour

Some lunches I could pass on, but this, nope. Dear S is back for a bit. And time must be spent with her. Totally missed our chats! This trip sees her husband and children in tow. But she snucked out alone to have lunch with me. Heh.

Popped into Tatsuya for one satisfying box of rice. The chiraishizushi-don. Tatsuya's version is hands-down my favorite version of it. This was the first of many meals of sushi and sashimi lined up during S's short stay in town. She does get really fresh fish at home, but not quite in this style that she loves while growing up in Singapore.

And this would S asking if I'd rather take a close-up photo of her phone screen that held a photo of the lunch box. Well, no need lah. Like this can.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Day of Prints

Had a happy breakfast date with Y and Lil'Missy on a rainy morning. Can't believe the little girl is going to be in Primary One next year. Wow. I've seen this girl grow up as a wee baby to the articulate little Missy. Before our next appointments we had time to pop into Bloesem for a quick spot of shopping.

Y is a huge fan of bookhou as well, and wanted to check out its tote bags to see how the measurements come up in real life and how those dimensions fall as a cross-body bag on her. A pity the prints she wanted didn't come in the designs available at Bloesem. 

Lil'Missy saw the pouches and looked earnestly at them. I asked her in a conspiratorial tone which print she thought her mother would like. She told me. Hahahaha. Good girl! She was holding on to her mom's phone to take photos all over the shop. Oops. She has a keen eye on what's 'pretty' based on her mom's styling preferences and all those flipping of Kinfolk, Frankie and the likes. We came away with pouches and all. She was thrilled to own pouches in prints and colors she likes, and have one that matches my tote bag.