Reviews: Children of the Jacaranda Tree & The Book Thief

Children of the Jacaranda Tree (Audio CD) by Sahar Delijani
Narrated by Mozhan Marno

Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a part-fiction, part-memoir narrative set against the backdrop of the  Iran-Iraq War, in post-revolutionary Iran from 1983 to 2011. It tells the stories of three generations of Iranians, struggling against their homeland’s fundamentalist regime. The older generation endures imprisonment and executions for political activism up to the 1979 revolution. Azar gives birth in Evin Prison, only to have her daughter taken away abruptly months later. Leila sacrifices love to care for the children of her imprisoned sisters. A pair of political activist parents was arrested before their three-year-old toddler. Years later, the second generation picks up the pieces in a country they don’t recognise. The next generation grows up in fear and insecurity as a new wave of protest and political strife begins, desperately seeking solace, and for some, change.

The author Delijani was born in Evin Prison. Her mother had been imprisoned there, and one of her uncles was executed. Writing from personal experience and in-depth interviews with her family members, she is able to vividly capture the unbreakable bonds between parent and child, and her fellow countrymen’s passionate dedication to their mother- land in spite of its flaws. The author narrates with lyrical prose and well-used metaphors and symbolism. Listening to the audio, it is literally music to the ears. The novel is a real eye-opener to the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, whose country many of us only know for its military unrests.

The stories of each of the main characters are touching and thought-evoking. However, they have not been strung together well, causing the overall plot to be disjointed and loose, which is a pity. Rather than having a compelling plot to carry the weight of the heavy subject matter, it becomes a series of related stories. Additionally, some of the narrative lacks essential information and description, leaving voids for the discerning listener / reader. For someone who has had first-hand experience in the subject matter, it is disappointing when the descriptions lack substance.

However, for anyone who wants a detailed perspective of suffering in Iran, or just about any country or time period under a repressive regime, this is an interesting read. Despite the grim themes of tragedy and suffering, it also speaks of survival and hope.

The Book Thief (DVD),  Produced by: Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato
Screenplay by Michael Petroni  Directed by Brian Percival

For those who don’t always have time to catch new releases in the cinemas, the library is a free source of high-quality recordings of popular movies as well as carefully~selected less mainstream gems like The Book Thief.

Based on Mark Zusak’s novel of the same name, The Book Thief is set in World War II Germany. A young girl Liesel is travelling by train to a foster family in a small town. Her brother dies along the way, and while attending his burial at a cemetery, picks up a stray book and pockets it despite being illiterate. Her adoptive father encourages her to learn to read, and her love affair with books begins, prompting her to resort to risky means to fulfil her desire to read, including taking books from a mayor’s home, and rescuing a book from a Nazi book burning ceremony. She also uses her new found literacy to read to Max, a Jew whom her step family is harbouring in their basement, subsequently helping him to recover from his illness.

Following her life, viewers see, from the perspective of a preadolescent girl, war on the home front in Germany including the usage of propaganda tactics, Nazi rallies and Hitler Youth groups, daylight bombing, persecution of Jews amongst many other events. Though surviving the war herself, Liesel goes through the tragedy of losing her loved ones, right from the beginning of the story when her communist mother had to leave her children for their safety. Nevertheless, it is one of the few war time stories based in Nazi Germany that maintains light-hearted moments of childish innocence, whereby the protagonist survives to tell the story. As such, it may perhaps go down better with younger viewers and those with a weak heart for tragedies.

On the other hand, critics complain that the movie makes light of a very tragic and sombre period, and the incorporation of a supernatural being – an angel of death as the movie’s narrator, gives it an awkward touch of shallowness. Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings, this film features beautiful photography, an emotive music score and skilful acting by the main cast. Viewers who are not insistent on a strong storyline that is capable of carrying the weight of the Nazi era should find this an entertaining watch.

– These reviews first appeared in a lifestyle magazine

Get yourself ready for the changes that are to come…

l see skies of blue, And clouds of white. The bright blessed day, The dark sacred night. And I think to myself, What a wonderful world.

The lyrics from a song recorded by one of greatest singer, composer, trumpeter Louis Armstrong in 1967. Indeed what a wonderful world it was then almost 50 years ago. Things were very much different then… there was no internet, smart phones, tablets and all the accompanying paraphernalia like whatsapp, twitter, facebook… Who would have imagined the onset of technology within a few mere decades that revolutionised our lives altogether.

What was it like in the 60’s…well to begin with Housing Board was in its infancy having started only in 1960 and public housing moved into Toa Payoh in  1964 as the second largest satellite town (the first was Queenstown).

Work started only in December 1964 and tenders for the first building contract of 840 one-room housing units in Toa Payoh were called. The estate was to be home to 35,000 units providing a roof to some 250,000 people, with 40% of the flats to be built as one-room rental flats, and the rest as three- or four-room flats.

Today, a look out of the balcony from any of the high-rise blocks and one cannot imagine the transformation. What will it be like in the next two, three or five years?

Certainly with the Smart Nation master-plan, we will have ultra-high speed, pervasive, intelligent and trusted infocomm infrastructure. For a start, what it may also mean would be that possibly there would be more audio or voice recognition security. As it is the banks are working on this so that instead of the lengthy questioning by a tele-centre staff for verification purposes, perhaps through voice recognition this process can be carried out with less fuss. And, perhaps could this be used to get access into the lift to take you to your home? It will be an added security for residents.

Another is the use of smart technology to remotely turn on or off the lights in our homes, or activate the air-conditioners for example. A few new private condominiums are adopting smart home technologies in their new launches. Already residents are able to remotely view on their smart phones their home or office security cameras to see what’s going on.

Also in the pipeline for the Executive Condominiums is The Visionaire, at Canberra Link in Sembawang. To be completed in 2019, it will have smart lock system complete with cameras. This will allow the EC residents to monitor visitors and control access to their homes through these smart devices. Residents will also be able to control household appliances from air conditioners to washing machines remotely using their mobile phones or tablets under the smart home system.

Then of course we already have the auto vacuum cleaner or robot vacuum cleaner which can go about to clean your apartment on its own. It’s still quite expensive but hopefully prices would be lowered when demand rises.

Prototypes of robots which can iron your clothes are already in the making. So this together with the washing machine and the robot vacuum cleaner would in fact take out the bulk of a typical Singa- porean household chore. So, do we still have to clamour for foreign domestic helpers? Maybe not?

What about drones? Now they dominate the skies at the war zones but drones can offer a lot of opportunities, especially for homes with open balconies. Who knows it may well replace the delivery man who takes the pizza to your flat. And, if they can do this, there’s a lot more that the drones can deliver to your door, or balcony.

On a more personal basis, on-line shopping has become the norm. Already brick-and-motor shops are turning to the on-line shoppers, from NTUC Fairprice to Cold Storage, and even pharmaceuticals like Guardian. And in time the on-line system may be so smart that when you key in your profile, it will accurately select the items that are most likely to be of interest to your weekly shopping.

Would the letter boxes at the void decks make way for bicycle racks instead? If everyone uses the email, cloud storage and other online services, then the snail mail would be a thing of the past. Bicycles as a mode of transport may be the next in thing, with the emphasis on clean energy and environmental conservation, coupled with the rising cost of trans- port. Indeed with the government promoting cy- cling as a way of life, who knows, we may just rank alongside Denmark, The Netherlands, or even China or Japan as one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world.

Fancy yourself cycling to school, to the cinema, or the office or to watch the National Day Parade…. Won’t it be so hassle free…. rrrr..ring, ring? What a  wonderful world it will still be.

Image from Pixabay

– This article first appeared in a newsletter for Bishan-Toa Payoh residents

Review: Traveller’s Spanish

Traveller’s Spanish by Elisabeth Smith

Did you know that Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, after Chinese? Well check out Wikipedia. If you’re thinking of picking up a third language, for practical uses or simply to stimulate your mind, Spanish makes a good choice.

Elisabeth Smith’s “Traveller’s Spanish” is a self0learning resource consisting of a 146-page paperback book and an audio CD. It promises 450 useful words and expressions for travels, flashcards for extra practice and revision, and only the essentials for speaking without having to learn the grammar (which is often intimidating for a newbie). The audio course is incredibly helpful as you can listen to it on-the-go to hone your listening and pronunciation while giving your eyes a break.

The book covers every day situations one would come across when travelling – self-introductions, shopping, dining, public transport, directions and the like. There is a concentration on learning only 350 words, which are sufficient to get by without being ovenwhelming. The resource recommends studying the book and the CD for 35 minutes a day over six weeks, and the audio course is timed and structured according to this time format. This is highly practical and commendable. Not only does it fit into a hectic day, it allows you to make the most of the lesson before your concentration wanes. There are opportunities to practise your verbal skills and you can reinforce what you have learnt through tests at the end of each chapter.

Overall, this publication is easy to follow, well-structured and teaches the essentials, and the audio is pleasant to listen to. However, according to reviews by some users completely new to learning the language, they found the long sample dialogues placed at the beginning of each track to be daunting, although the dialogues would later be broken down for the user to comprehend. They felt it would have been better if the course starts off with more basic dialogues to allow users to get used to the verbs and pronunciation. Nonetheless, multiple replays would likely help to alleviate this issue and give the new listeners more confidence.

– This review first appeared in a lifestyle magazine

Keeping cool… How to avoid getting the heat

The hot season is coming – a period characterised by lack of rain, bright sunlight with scorching sun rays in the afternoons and warm stuffy nights. Most healthy individuals will survive the heat with no major problems, but the elderly, children and the sick, notably those with heart conditions, may be vulnerable. Heat stroke is a fatal problem in the hot summers in some countries.

Taking precautions to keep hydrated and cool at all times not only reduces the risk of getting a heat stroke, but also helps to dispel discomfort from the perspiration.

It may sound like a gramophone repeating an old tune but it’s one that you should take heed: Drink plenty of water during the hot months. Keep a large water bottle handy to encourage you to drink regularly. Drink it all within the day, but do not attempt to reach your daily quota by downing it all in one sitting. Instead, it is more appropriate to sip your water or drink small mouthfuls throughout the day.

If you don’t have a habit of drinking water regularly, especially desk-bound people who are sedentary and often preoccupied by work, set hourly reminders on your phone or email to go grab a glass of water. These days there are even mobile apps that will do this for you.

If you exercise, do drink water before, during and after your exercise. You need to replace the loss fluid. Exercise during cooler times of the day like early morning and in the evenings.

Fruits

Don’t like water? You can add a slice of lemon or mint to flavour your water without generating extra calories. Other sources of fluid count too, like soups, milk, coffee, tea, and fruit juices. Caffeinated products promote urine loss, but the amount of fluid they contain still cancels out  their diuretic effect.

Eat fruits and vegetables daily. These help  with hydration and also promote good health. Watermelon is an example of a fruit that is rich in water content.

You can do a simple check to see if you’re sufficiently hydrated. Check the colour and odour of your urine when you go to the rest room. If your urine is dark  yellow, noticeably smelly or cloudy, it is time to drink more water.

Wear loose-fitting light cotton clothing. Light colours are best.

At home

Keep your windows open when at home, or use the fans to ventilate your house at night. Also install window shades or mini- blinds. Mini-blinds can reduce solar heat gain by 40-50 percent. Close south and west-facing curtains during the day for any window that gets direct sunlight. Some people I know would spend time at air-conditioned public places like the library and shopping centres but I guess you can’t be there all day.

Fill a spray bottle with clean water and refrigerate it. When you feel hot, use it to spray your face, neck and arms as a quick pick-me-up.

Food

Spicy and hot food tends to make one feel hotter. Go for lighter, cooler fare with lower fat content. Foods rich in fat, proteins and carbohydrates tend to heat up the body a little when being digested.

If you have to be outdoors on a hot day, wear a hat. Mini electric fans are sufficiently portable to bring along, but a cardboard fan or simply a large piece of cardboard helps to move the wind as well.

Pets, plants

Animals can suffer from heat stroke too. On hot days, get your pets indoors.

If you have plants, don’t forget to water them more regularly. But one thing you will notice if you have boungainvillea plants, they will bloom in full colour during this hot season.

– This article first appeared in a lifestyle magazine.

Image from Pixabay