Joan LAU ... On what she's reading
Sharing a feast of words
By JOAN LAU
WHAT WAS THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? I know the question sounds like one of those National Reading Week ad campaigns, but, seriously, what was the last book you read? Mine was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. My eight-year-old nephew lent it to me. And yes, it is a children’s book. The thing is, both of us are huge Roald Dahl fans but I had not yet read Matilda. He, of course, was reading it a second time when we were in Ipoh over the Chinese New Year holidays.
I read bits of the book while he was busy doing other stuff—playing with his toys, watching TV, etc.—and in the end, he just said, “You can borrow the book.” It’s a fabulous book with some dark themes—a father who is a crook, a headmistress who tortures her students, poverty—but that is the beauty of Dahl ... He knows his young readers can take it.
And, of course, it is very funny. The descriptions, the situations. Ethan actually laughs out loud when he reads it. Never mind that he already knows the jokes. I loved it. I dare say it is even more fun than the movie.
Yes, while reading is an activity that involves only one person—you, the reader—it can very often bring people together. How often have you sat next to someone on a plane and struck up a conversation with the person because he or she was reading something you had read before?
I even dated someone once because he had read a book I was reading—Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. I must admit it made me look at him in a whole new light. I was a snob back then and didn’t think I would ever meet someone who had read Helprin in my office! I don’t remember the story now but I can still recall the feelings it evoked in me. I was completely transported into the world of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn. Pete and Bev. A tale of magic realism, I remember it was also about New York City. Maybe I should read the book again.
So yes, books can bring people together. I guess they call them book clubs! But these remind me too much of my years studying English literature in varsity; sitting in small groups discussing a book’s merits, its themes and what the author is trying to say. Much like what they do in book clubs, right? I guess I like my connections to be more organic and less structured.
My best friend Melanie is a much more generous and adventurous reader. While I very often judge a book by its cover, she is kinder and will give it a chance anyway. She has even struck up a friendship with someone in the office over books and they lend each other books they think the other person will like.
Generally, I am not into lending or borrowing books. I tend to be territorial. I want my own book. When I come across books I think friends will like, I buy extra copies for them. Over the last year or so, my favourite “to give” books have been: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love; Preeta Samarasan’s Evening Is the Whole Day; and Tawfik Ismail and Ooi Kee Beng’s Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations.
Of course, giving them those books meant yet another connection being made with them. Never mind that we were already friends. They SMSed, called or emailed me about particularly evocative passages in these various books.
Then there are the introductions to authors I would not have tried otherwise. Example: a good friend loves Haruki Murakami and thought I would, too. He recommended that I start with Dance Dance Dance even though that was not Murakami’s first book.
It worked and I am now in turn recommending that people read this strange, surrealist writer who used to run a jazz club in Japan and came upon writing quite by accident. He simply wanted to try his hand at it—much like how we might want to try mastering baking or cooking—and is today one of the great masters.
Coincidentally, I am now reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On the surface, it’s a book about Murakami’s other love—running—but really it is an observation of life, writing and, of course, running.
I find myself reading quite a lot of food-related books as well: all three of Ruth Reichl’s (the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine) memoirs—Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me With Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise; Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry and anything by Nigel Slater, Jeffrey Steingarten or Anthony Bourdain.
I think these books dovetail with my other great love: watching the food shows on the Asian Food Channel. And they remind me of the meals I have with my foodie friends where we eat and talk about ... what else, food!
My foodie friends love the same food-related books as I do and we get excited when we find new books. Some of us are now lusting after iconic chef Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Yes, it’s a recipe book and we very likely will not be able to replicate the dishes but heck, it will be fun to look at the book anyway.
So what’s the next book you’re going to read?
Reproduced from the New Sunday Times of February 15, 2009