THE READING LIFE ... Lydia TEH
NOTHING BEATS A GOOD BOOK
Best-selling Malaysian author LYDIA TEH talks about reading and some of her favourite books
LYDIA TEH was born and bred in Klang, Malaysia. She still resides in this royal town famous for its glittering streetlights, seafood, bah-kut-teh (herbal pork stew) and the ubiquitous crows. A homemaker, she enjoys writing while raising her brood of four. In between cooking for her children, chauffeuring them around and coaching them in their studies, she loves observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Malaysians. All these she captures in her three best-selling books, Life’s Like That: Scenes from Malaysian Life, Honk! If You’re Malaysian and Do You Wear Suspenders?: The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim.
After being a desperate housewife for some 17 years, Teh hung up her apron in 2009 to join the office brigade. She now administers an English-language centre in Klang. Her sixth book, Fun for Kids in Malaysia: An Essential Guide to Fun-tastic Activities for Children, has gone to print and should hit bookstores in August 2010. Next is a parental guide with lots of humour.
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF LYDIA TEH
How do you find the time to read with your busy schedule?
Clean and cook less, sleep later. If there’s a will, there’s always a way.
Do you think reading matters?
Reading is a pastime that makes time fly like a speeding bullet. Reading is my ticket to escape into other worlds for a bout of wandering and poking around. Reading helped me score distinctions in my English-language examinations and without having to memorise dates, events, places, body parts, plant cells, formulae and what-not. Does reading matters? You bet.
What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Enid Blyton was my first love. I read a wide range of her books, including boarding school stories at St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers, adventure tales of the Adventurous Four, Famous Five and Secret Seven, The Naughtiest Girl series as well as her bedtime stories.
In secondary school I graduated to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. Then there was the “M&B” series. No, not Maths & Biology, but Mills & Boon! Barbara Cartland with her stammering helpless heroines followed close on the heels of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.
Books played a big part in my young life. Reading allowed me to escape into exciting worlds quite different from my own quiet existence. One of my favourite memories of my late father was of him taking me to the K.K. Dawood bookstore in Taiping Street to borrow M&B books.
Sixth form exposed me to the works of William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters and poets like Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. I digested these works in the course of duty rather than the pleasure they could afford but I learnt to respect their skilful penmanship in critical appreciation class. These literature classes stood me in good stead later in life when I would voluntarily pick up copies of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Emma and read them with much enjoyment.
What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I enjoy reading novels on Asian culture such as Amy Tan’s books (I’ve read all her titles except Saving Fish from Drowning which I bought but somehow couldn’t get past the first chapter), Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I also enjoy reading memoirs, particularly those of writers such as Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, Stephen King’s On Writing, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Higgins Clark’s Kitchen Privileges and Michael J. Fox’s Lucky Man: A Memoir. I read Lucky Man to gain an insight into how the Family Ties and Back to the Future star coped with Parkinson’s disease because my late father was also afflicted with the same condition. I also like Roald Dahl; it’s a pity I didn’t discover him until I became an adult. I bought almost all of his books for my children—and myself! Reading his books is akin to going on a journey without knowing what to expect. You don’t know what is coming up and you can’t wait to take the next step to find out what lies ahead!
Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
No, I don’t have an all-time favourite book. I usually don’t reread books. I think this is a luxury I can ill afford. I’d rather spend time reading new books or discovering new authors. Having said that, I did reread Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China recently. I borrowed the book from a friend several years back. My daughter didn’t know about this and bought it as a gift for me on Mother’s Day. So I read it again, and it was just as riveting the second time round.
Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction. Where fiction is concerned, I prefer page-turners to literary tomes. The writing may be beautiful and the sentences may leave me awe-struck by their sheer genius, but if nothing much is happening on the page, I would rather go scrub the kitchen sink. I read nonfiction to be enlightened and sometimes, to be entertained. If the book covers a subject I want to learn about, that is good enough for me, with one proviso: it must not be written like an academic text as I am allergic to such prose. My immediate reaction is to fall into a deep, deep sleep.
What are you reading at the moment?
Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. As a young girl, I read scores, maybe hundreds, of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers. I am rereading the collection as research for my next book.
What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
Get out of here! Books will not go extinct. If they ever do, it will be sometime in the distant future when there is no more production of paper. Think about the day when all the books in the world can only be found as e-books. Imagine no longer being able to pose for photographs in front of your imposing bookshelves. Instead you would be holding up a little Kindle or an IPad in one hand. What a ludicrous and pedestrian picture that would make. Nothing but paper books can make you appear more erudite than you actually are!
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of July 10, 2010