An Unequal Music – Vikram Seth

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To sustain my new year resolution to read more books this year, I have to find a source of books. Now Bangkok is not the best place to be looking for English books. Bookshops tend to stock only the mass-market thrillers. You could get a more eclectic selection at Kinokuniya but it’d cost you an arm and a leg, plus the additional books would take up more space in my little apartment. Unlike in Singapore where the libraries are veritable troves of information, the very small and very few libraries in Bangkok have a rather sad collection of English books. Alternatively I could buy e-books and read them on my iPad, but it gets heavy after a while.

So thanks to another friend who’s working overseas and has been surviving by borrowing books from other expat friends, I came up with the brilliant idea of borrowing books from my Aussie boss! I told him that I’ve always preferred the classic authors (or in his words, dead people) as I find most contemporary writers to be too self-serving in their writing. Just think of Eat, Pray, Love – that was one book I had to put down after five pages (and I usually try to finish a book once I’ve started it no matter how bad it is) because I was about to puke from the author’s navel-gazing me-me-me writing. Compare that to Ernest Hemingway who sketches a picture and dissects a situation with the most economical and incisive of words.

So he’s taken upon himself the mission of introducing me to good writers who are still alive. An Unequal Music was the first book from his library. He said he chose it because I love and play music. Plus it’s set in England, so what’s not to like?

I looked at the name and I wrinkled my nose at him. We have an Indian colleague who writes in the most convoluted “Inglish” ever. You can cut down his writing to half the original length to no discernible loss of meaning. But nonetheless, I gave it a try.

The beautiful story’s about quartets, fugue and lots of Bach. It’s about a man and a woman finding and losing each other, and finding and losing each other again through a deep love for the music they both share. It made me realise that the Bach I was forced to play for piano exams had stories of love and loss behind them. I used to hate fugues with a vengeance because Bach seemed to have composed them to be played by two people instead of two hands controlled by a single brain. But Vikram Seth made the fugues seem so romantic and mysterious that I actually ferreted out my Bach music and played them again.

All in all, a poignantly evocative read that leaves you with a wistfulness akin to the sun setting on a particularly good day.

OB Markers – My Straits Times Story

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This was my first book of 2013, and the first book to start off my new year resolution to read more. Sad to say, it was very tough going because the writing was repetitive and long-winded. Which was a surprise, since one would expect the editing to be a lot tighter given that it’s a book about the newsroom. There were typos from the first page, and the convoluted sentences were difficult to follow.

In fact, it sounds like an old grandfather recounting war stories – which is exactly what the book is about. And once you’ve resigned yourself to this idea, you can be quite forgiving when the book rambles on and on.

Read the book not for its style but its content. Cheong Yip Seng basically survived to tell of his time in Straits Times. Forty years is a long time, especially with a government that is always so edgy and jumpy with the press. There are lots of juicy tidbits that would entertain those who are not in the newsroom, while for those who were, the book helps to confirm in hindsight what had happened.

Given that there are rumours that the powers-that-be have handled down their imperial edict against any reprint of the book, OB Markers is certainly worth buying and keeping.