Monday, November 24, 2014

The Original Horror Stories

Grinned when I saw an email link to the e-book. Only this girl would know and dare to get a book for the man and I. We love books as presents. However, few people could buy books for us because there's an 80% chance that between our shelves, one could be giving a duplicate copy that would eventually go into an upcycling bin or another home.

Of course I wouldn't miss reading 'The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition', originally put together by the Grimm brothers Jacob and Wilhelm of course, now translated and edited by Jack Zipes and illustrated by Andrea Dezsö. It's published by the Princeton University Press. Finally, a much-awaited translation of the original macabre and grim with all its blood and horror. I've read scattered bits here and there, but never in its entirety put together. Those Norwegian fairy-tales aren't gentle either. (Reviews here, here, here, here and here.) 

Illustrator Andrea Dezsö did ink-vignettes for the book, resulting in her mesmerizing trademark creation of paper-cut figures and scenes- a brilliant play between light and shadows, darkness and illumination, of colors, artistic directions, and no doubt a nod to the socio-political voices in the fairy tales. Jack Zipes wrote an introduction to this newly published translated first edition.

Ironically, few people today are familiar with the original tales of the first edition, for the Grimms went on to publish six more editions and made immense changes in them so that the final 1857 edition has relatively little in common with the first edition, replaced them with new or different versions, added over fifty tales, withdrew the footnotes and published them in a separate volume, revised prefaces and introductions, added illustrations in a separate small edition directed more at children and families, and embellished the tales so that they became polished artistic "gems." 
All these editorial changes to the tales in the first edition of 1812/15 should not lead us to believe that the tales were crude, needed improvement and do not deserve our attention. On the contrary. I would argue that the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments. In fact, many of the tales in the first edition are more fabulous and baffling than those refined versions in the final edition, for they retain the pungent and naïve flavor of the oral tradition. They are stunning narratives precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious. Moreover, the Grimms had not yet "vaccinated " or censored them with their sentimental Christianity and puritanical ideology. In fact, the Brothers endeavored to keep their hands off the tales, so to speak, and reproduce them more or less as they heard or received them. 

156 stories in this volume collated from the initial 1812 and 1815 editions. The titles already warn you not to read this to children if you aren't prepared to explain the themes to them. I love fairy-tales so much because people who read to a very young imp took the time to explain the meaning behind the stories. Both grandmothers didn't think Disney characters added any value to my childhood, often, as they read to me, they didn't hesitate to state their opinions about it aloud. Muahahaha. More effective than any nagging from the authority figures, 'Hansel and Gretel' promptly put me off candy and desserts for the rest of my life.

For instance, tales like "How Children Played at Slaughtering" and "The Children of Famine" were omitted because they were gruesome. "Bluebeard," "Puss in Boots," and "Okerlo" were not reprinted because they stemmed from the French literary tradition. The same is true for "Simple Hans" because of its Italian origins. Some tales like "Good Bowling and Card Playing." "Herr Fix-It-Up," "Prince Swan," and "The Devil in the Green Coat" among many others were simply replaced by other stories in later editions because the Grimms found versions that they preferred or combined different versions. The changes made by the Grimms indicated their ideological and artistic preferences. For instance, in the 1812/1815 edition of "Little Snow White" and "Hansel and Gretel" the wicked stepmother is actually a biological mother, and these characters were changed to become stepmothers in 1819 clearly because the Grimms held motherhood sacred. In the first edition "Rapunzel" is a very short provocative tale in which the young girl gets pregnant. The 1819 version is longer, much more sentimental, and without a hint of pregnancy.

The magic is in reading these 'originals'. Enjoy them. So I won't type out too many excerpts from this collated volume. The stories aren't too far from the horrors we see today. Morals. Choices. Abuse. Rebellion. I remember being really tickled when an Aunt read 'Cinderella' got to this part about mutilating feet to fit into that golden slipper. I was probably nine or ten. She said women do crazy things sometimes for men, and more than that, the idea of security that glittering future. But at what price? Grinned when I saw this part in this collection too.

"Listen," said the mother secretly. "here's a knife, and if the slipper is still too tight for you, then cut off a piece of your foot. It will hurt a bit. But what does that matter? It will soon pass, and one of you will become queen."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Farewell

Madame A's stay in Singapore has come to an end. I hope she and her husband left with fond memories, since she's been a self-professed admirer of Singapore all her life. I'm going to miss those IRL chats with her, a mentor whom I tremendously respect. Her formidable wit, dry humor and frank statements.

Her evenings were filled with farewell engagements all the way. On her way home, she would be stop for a few days in the city where we first met- Bangkok. We still have strong links to Bangkok and a thousand reasons to visit. As much as I would love to, I won't be able to join her. Between our crazy schedules, we found an afternoon to meet and have a long conversation. That was the last face-to-face heartfelt chat for a long while. Emails and Skype aren't the same.

Lunch at Madame's home was ideal. She had help in the kitchen and wouldn't have to rush about and be frazzled when there were already a million things demanding her attention, in the midst of supervising packers and movers. I turned up with only a cannister of excellent Darjeeling second flush from my favorite estate of Turzum, and dark chocolates. She would need no farewell gifts except for sincere thoughts and company. We share similar food preferences. She doesn't even bother asking what I'd like to have for lunch because whatever trotted out on the table would be fine. No matter how, I would obediently eat it.

It's hard to tell when would be the next time we meet. It might be another 10 years; who knows in which city. Everything's possible as long as we're still alive, sound of mind and somewhat healthy. Till then. Keep well, dear Madame.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tying A Bow

The girlfriend insisted on handing me an early Christmas gift. Squealed when I saw the card. Last year, she gave me a print by Dana Zemack, aptly titled 'Zombie Ballerinas'. That set me on buying all her greeting cards because her illustrations are just so whimsical and quirky. This year, she continued the trend and gave me a card of the same print. Love it.

What tickled me was her wrapping. This girl doesn't bother to do gift-wrapping. But this year, she decided she's going to make everyone gift tags and ribbons and sort out the wrapping herself. She emphasized that it took her ages to wrap my box. She also proudly announced that she learnt from youtube how to tie a bow using a fork. Apparently there're hundreds of youtube tutorials on that. I never knew! I completely dissolved into uncontrollable giggles when she admitted it took her 45 minutes to learn it, and she didn't know what to do when the ribbon's width was wider than the fork.

Not undermining the girlfriend's achievements. But the sheer amount of effort taken to sort out this present is mind-boggling. HAHAHAHAHAHA. She even took photo stills of the required steps. Then she proceeded with her own creation of bows from varied widths of different-colored ribbons. Too sweet lah. My bow is in a cheerful festive dark green, as shown above with the card. Woot. Told her I'm framing it up. For posterity, this also has to be noted in a blog post. :P

Photo stolen from the girlfriend.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Lobster Steamboat

Had dinner with the parentals before we flew out on separate trips. Lobster steamboat at Wah Lok! Of course I popped a pill first. Wasn't going to run the risk of getting swollen eyes or rashes. Luckily no one likes mala (麻辣) or strong soup bases. WHEWWW. The usual light superior stock would do. Probably chicken. Whatever. As long as it doesn't contain that chickenny-stink. Spices are always found in the form of chilli padi and pungent diced garlic. I could eat a ton of that.

Ordered were plenty of other dishes. Didn't care much for the meats. The others at the table could have it all. I wanted the vegetables- three types of cabbages and three types of mushrooms. And two types of sliced fish. The restaurant doesn't serve fish balls though. But they do pretty good prawn dumplings (wontons).

As if lobsters in the pot weren't enough, we ordered more- in the form of lobster noodles! It was an extremely satisfying bowl. I had been out since 6am, and it had been a really long day without lunch. Was starving by 6pm and could eat loads at dinner. That I most certainly did.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Slow Lunch

Haven't been able to catch up with as many friends as I'd have liked this holiday season. The schedule's packed too compactly. It meant that instead of a long leisurely dinner, V and I met for a quick lunch instead.

The Clifford was convenient and provided decent food to fill the tummies. But it's a packed venue popular for business lunches. So that can feel boring. Luckily we didn't go for the two or three-course lunch. Just one dish would do. The restaurant seemed sufficiently staffed but food took fairly long to arrive. Our neighboring table waited for about 20 minutes for dessert. Terrible timings for a restaurant that ought to know every table at lunch would like to finish the meal in slightly under an hour.

If we didn't ask for bread, there would be none served and when a basket finally came, our mains arrived four minutes later. There were rather pinched smiles from the wait staff, as if everyone was on the edge because of some event going on. The vibe was starkly different from my other visits. Catching the attention of the staff was oddly difficult. The staff at the lounge felt the same, droll and impatient. It took an incredible 15 minutes after being shown to my seat before someone came along to take the order of one cup of espresso. Well, I was there to catch up with V, and she wasn't in a huge rush, so I wasn't too perturbed by the delays. Otherwise I would have been very miffed.

Very nice to listen to V's exciting updates about her US trip where good weather prevailed instead of the snowstorm this week. Was thrilled to get a little snack of quail eggs in a sealed pack. Love 'em! The eggs have been cooked in a base of Higeta Honzen soy sauce and bonito. Superbly tasty snacks. She's been supplying me with these little nuggets. She always seems to be able to grab packs in transit at Narita Airport and I keep missing them shops. Heh. Anyway. V and I were mad to have picked carbs for lunch. Pasta and risotto. I hope V didn't fall asleep at her desk. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

London Symphony Orchestra & Valery Gergiev

This round, I wanted to hear the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) more than to watch its principal conductor Valery Gergiev (also Mariinsky Theatre's Artistic and General Director). Pianist Denis Matsuev was also featured. But it's LSO as a whole that I want to hear. I've heard them and it's always a pleasure.

Skipped the second evening of Prokofiev and chose to hear LSO's presentation for the first evening comprising Shostakovich's 'Festive Overture', and Rachmaninov's 'Piano Concerto No.2' for the first half, then Rachmaninov's 'Symphony No.3'. I like the repertoire of both evenings. Different from the usual composers and pieces every other orchestra seems to pick when performing in Singapore. Very brave of LSO to do that. I'm not sure the audience welcomed it and while I enjoy Prokofiev, I don't know how many feel the same. Since I wouldn't be attending the second performance, I appreciated one encore piece that was Prokofiev's 'The Love for Three Oranges, Op 33'. Cackled uncontrollably at another encore piece on piano. I like it, not just because The International Ibsen Festival is going on. The piano encore totally complemented Denis Matsuev's brash style and seemingly preferred pace. :P You know this one, it's Grigory Ginzburg's arrangement of Edvard Greig's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' or 'Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op 46'.

Oddly, there wasn't a standing ovation for the performance which I thought was more than competent. But aside from the scattered few of us who stood up after the encore, the hall evidently didn't share our sentiments. Whatever. The magic that is LSO. Very nice. What a pity I'm not watching their second performance. They do Prokofiev so well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Staying In On A Rainy Afternoon

Met B for lunch and thought if the weather held, we could head out to the playground for her girls to run around. As it turned out, it rained all afternoon, and we stayed indoors all snug and warm. My iPad holds only three games. Handed it over to the girls and let them figure it out how the games go. I didn't delete 'Cut The Rope'; they found it, and somehow, the two of them hit levels that I've not cleared. Waah.

Now that primary school's started for the elder daughter and my schedule isn't as relaxed, I don't get to see B often. Obviously the older girl is more familiar with me and grinned widely. I don't know the little one since I rarely spend time with her. At least she didn't bawl when I made faces at her. The girls went to clay class and specially made me two tiny cups. Hand-pinched. They etched their names into the bottom of the cups and were proud of their work. Heh. Me too! Proud of their thoughtfulness!

Tested the cups- they don't leak or crack and could take the heat of almost-boiling water. Useful and very cute indeed. Had two neighbors over for a chat about some Christmas luncheons that I won't be part of, but am happy contributing some stuff to. The ladies asked for a teeny bit of strong tea and coffee with no milk or sugar. Perfect. Pulled an espresso and steeped a Japanese kabusecha, and poured them into these cheerful cups.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Checked in with olduvai's October reads and saw Bich Minh Nguyen's 'Stealing Buddha's Dinner'. Not that I know anything about the author; the title which captured my attention. Didn't manage to swing by a bookstore. Had to buy an e-copy. Heeeeee. Okay lah. Filled up some gaps between meetings instead of running amok on social media. (Reviews hereherehere, and here.)

The author said she thought of "this memoir as an homage to CHILDhood, suburbia, and all the bad food, fashion, music and hair of the deep 1980s. It is also about an immigrant's dilemma to blend in or remain apart." She took us through her life and thoughts as she struggled with her identity through food parallels.

Religion also featured prominently as a theme within. The dichotomy of growing up in a foreign country, in Midwest America, with her native culture and family surrounding her still. In the 70s and 80s, the color of her skin and how she looked, her race, were all a thorny issues, resulting her feeling more like an outsider than an American. She was less than a year old when she began living in Grand Rapids, Michigan; it can't be Vietnam she misses. There's also family dynamics thrown in with a new stepmother. Her mother didn't come with her to America the day the family fled Saigon in 1975.

I came of age in the 1980s, before diversity and multicultural awareness trickled into western Michigan. Before ethnic was cool. Before Thai restaurants became staples in every town. When I think of Grand Rapids I remember city signs covered in images of rippling flags, proclaiming "An All-American City." A giant billboard looming over the downtown freeway boasted the slogan to all who drove the three-lane S-curve. As a kid, I couldn't figure out what "All-American" was supposed to mean. Was it a promise, a threat, a warning? 
... My father and uncles and grandmother were grateful for a place to go - how could they be anything less? - and preferred to overlook how the welcoming smile of our sponsor gave way to a scowling face behind a drugstore cash register: Don't you people know how to speak English? Why don't you go back to where you came from? 

The 16 chapters in the book are titled after food- PringlesForbidden FruitDairy ConeFast Food AsianToll House CookiesSchool LunchAmerican MeatGreen Sticky Rice CakesDown with GrapesBread and HoneySalt PorkHoliday TamalesStealing Buddha's DinnerPonderosaMooncakesCha Gio. They represent her desires to eat them, and beyond that, what having those cans of Pringles mean, and the memories and conflict the foods stir. Also mentioned, about eating like the average American teenager where they don't usually have a golden statue of Buddha sit in the living room or grow ray răm, Vietnamese coriander (we know it as daun kesom, or laksa leaf), or stock packs of jasmine rice.

The chapter that the book took its title from- 'Stealing Buddha's Dinner', tells the angst and conflict between the religion she and the family practiced at home, Buddhism, and the religion of her first school, Catholic, and followed the religion of her classmates in her second school, Christianity. It also depicted the author's fascination with food, and wonderment at the assortment of fruit left for the Buddha sitting on the altar, and decided to steal a plum just to see if she would be punished.

With one fingertip I touched the stem of a plum, whose violet skin always looked dusty. For just a moment, I hovered over it. Then the fruit was lying in the flat of my hand. I looked up at Buddha. His eyes were still closed. Sometimes, when we wanted to scare each other, Anh and I talked about how one day Buddha's eyes would fly open, shooting out beams of light. I waited a minute longer, until I heard the sound of the basement door opening and sliding shut. Then I ran out of the room, pushing the plum into my shorts pocket as I hurried out the front door.

I couldn't empathize with the author's childhood experiences or her conflicted feelings. I grew up in a time of peace, in a country where my face, hair and skin color look like they belong to the majority race. Long family visits to US and UK as a child didn't enlighten me to what my cousins might have felt. A product of this island-state's bilingual school system, I knew no overt discrimination until the teenage years. I didn't know anything about the racial riots in 1964 and 1969. I didn't even know a refugee camp existed in Singapore at Hawkins Road till 1996 until my early twenties. Appreciated the perspectives found in this book, like many out there, I read to understand what these authors thought and felt growing up transplanted in different cultures.

The memoir ended with the author making a four-week visit to Vietnam in 1997 as an adult with a rudimentary grasp of Vietnamese. The family traveled from Saigon to Nha Trang to Hanoi. It's been 22 years since the family fled the country; the author saw the new-country through the eyes of her father and grandmother. While staying with one relative, thinking that the author "would only like American food," they made her "a heap of broad-cut french fries every night." Memories, childhood angst, emotions and grown-up identity coming full circle, so to speak.

I tried to imagine the years my father and uncles and grandmother spent here, having no idea that they would one day flee it, leaving everything behind. I tried to picture the stories my father and uncles had told me. Was this where the cat with the pet rat slept on languid afternoons? Where did the angry chicken hang out? I tried to imagine my sister and me, so little and so demanding - my sister's feet stamping the concrete floor, Noi feeding us mashed bananas as she contemplated our future. The dingy, gray rooms held no resonance for me, no meaning. This home was not my home to remember. 
Perhaps he steeled himself to a choice that would never have been made differently: his children, their future, their lives came first. That I cannot imagine that moment, the panic and fear, the push to leave his country and aim for an unknown land, is perhaps his gift. It is my Americanness. What my father must have thought, what must have replayed in his mind for years - I cannot every really grasp. In just a few minutes, in half a night, our lives changed. Our identities changed. We were Vietnamese, we were refugees, we were Americans. My father could not possibly regret it. I do not regret it. I am grateful for his unimaginable choice.