Oh yes! My very first book review

Every so often, I key in my name into Google Search to see what comes up. Every so often I am surprised by the number of “Catherine Khoo”(s) that come up. Then lo and behold, I came across on Page 9 a review. Of my book! Every author wants the lowdown on her book and I am no different. And this came from a male reviewer. I liked what Mr Ivan Chew said about my book so here it is, the unadulterated version, word for word of what he wrote. 🙂 Thank you, Ivan, for your candid comments. And yes, if you are reading this, I am very keen to work with other women on their stories …. if they would give me a chance to ….

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book review: Love! Live Dangerously! And Have Fun!: a mother’s lessons on love, hope, loss and the gifts of life

This one came in the mail for me to review. The book, targeted at young female readers, was easy to read. The tone and style was very personable.

Book review: Love! Live Dangerously! And Have Fun!: a mother's lessons on love, hope, loss and the gifts of life
Cover from: catherinekhoo.wordpress.com. All Rights Reserved.

My take-away from the book:

Crap will happen to anyone and everyone, at some point. No one is immune. The difference is how we choose to carry on.

Taking risks doesn’t always mean we will come up tops. But it also doesn’t mean we will always fail.

Exercise compassion. Life is not just about ‘me’.

Not entirely the way the author described, but I think not too far from it.

The author shared selective episodes from her life, explaining how she realised that one should love and take risks in life.

Right off the start, I sensed this was a woman who did not conform to conventional thinking, even as a teenager. Her mother had forbidden her to go on dates, and that the young Catherine should only focus on her studies. But she dated the boy anyway, even initiating the courtship rather than wait for him to act. The consequence was that her studies were affected, and so did the boy’s.

Before you wonder what sort of message the author is imposing on young impressionable minds, the truth is that many of our friends (perhaps you and I) went through the same, in different degrees. There may be more ‘teen rebels’ among us than we care to acknowledge.

The key difference, I thought, was that a person like Catherine Khoo consistently applied her optimistic outlook towards life.

She wrote in another of her blog:

… I’ve lived this maxim since I was a teenager … and strange enough, it applies so much more as I grow older. Sure, sometimes I jump in without thinking of the consequences, and I fail, but how many times have I brushed off the blood and dust and moved on? Think of it this way, at least I figured out another way not to do it! Truth be told, though…I love this journey

Can we truly have a happy life just by living our dreams?

Cynics may say that there are those who have tried to do just that, and they end up being decrepit and miserable.

Perhaps in anticipation of that, the author peppers her anecdotes about seeing life optimistically.

Part of her credibility arose from her managing and growing her own business. I think it takes a feisty no-nonsense approach to do that, in addition to being a mother, a wife, and a daughter-in-law. If that’s not enough, try starting a writing scheme for teens.

I did not think the author suggests that one should one up-end our lives and gallivant halfway around the world. You get a sense that risk-taking has to be tempered with an underlying sense of responsibility first.

Still, I would not have done some of the things she did, no matter what you tell me. For example, her episode with the illegal taxi ride in a foreign country, where she almost became a victim of a robbery. If I learnt my wife/ mother/ sister did just that (accept rides from strangers), I would be very, very angry. It seemed reckless.

For the most part, I empathised with her stories. Like how she walked out on her husband one time, feeling that she was being unfairly put down by her spouse. As a husband myself, it made me reflect on my words and deeds towards my wife.

One thing I felt the book fell short was that flow of the chapters can appear to be disjointed at times — though this could be said to be the online-diary writing style. Also, I was left with the impression that there could have been a lot more interesting stuff to be told, but weren’t.

I would have wanted to read more was her trials and tribulations in starting and sustaining the Young Authors Club, for one. What went through her mind when she was asked to set up the club? Did she see a business opportunity first, or the social cause?

So, here are a few things that I would be interested in reading, perhaps in her next book:

  • Stories, as told by other woman, whom she met along the way.
  • Interesting stories of the children and teens whom she have met, through the club she set up.
  • The challenges in running a business, never mind being a businesswoman.
  • What was it really like when she “shattered the traditional Japanese male enclave when she became the only woman editor-in-chief of two Japan-based magazines published in Singapore, a position she held for seven years” (see this).

Overall, this would make a good book discussion for teens. Or among teens and parents (I guess the teens would have to be forced to attend such a session, lol).

In a practical and pragmatic society like Singapore, some parents will not agree with the premise behind her book’s title. The call to “love and live dangerously” was something that goes against conventional thinking when I was growing up, and in a way it’s still very much the covert values most of us go by.

This was Catherine Khoo’s fourth book. It is currently available at major bookstores here, like MPH, Kinokuniya, and Times Bookshop.

Her books are also available at the NLB libraries.

Catherine also blogs at www.catherinekhoo.sg/the-meaning-of-education.


If You Don’t Try, You Will Never Know!

Welcome to Chapter 2 of my book, Love! Live Dangerously! And Have Fun! I’ve lived this maxim since I was a teenager … and strange enough, it applies so much more as I grow older. Sure, sometimes I jump in without thinking of the consequences, and I fail, but how many times have I brushed off the blood and dust and moved on? Think of it this way, at least I figured out another way not to do it! Truth be told, though …. I love this journey I’m on to build the next generation of thinkers and writers, and you know something? Life is too short for regrets. Break some rules! Have Fun!

Chapter 2

If you don’t try, you will never know!
I like Phil Knight’s statement: Just Do It! Because if you don’t, you would never know what it’ll be like if you had tried.
When I was but 13, I had a crush on a boy who lived in the opposite block. He was from St Joseph’s Institution, just a road away from my school, CHIJ. He lived on the third floor, nearest to the staircase. I decided he was someone very similar to the strong, silent, intellectual sort in the Barbara Cartland novels I devour, or maybe a bit of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. So I waited for him at the bus-stop, purposely taking the same bus, hoping he’ll notice me. Me a bespectacled, nondescript girl who always had her eyes permanently glued on a book during the bus-ride. I waited for him everyday, hoping he’ll look my way and smile. Now how was he ever going to smile if I don’t even dare to look him in the eye? Throughout the 30-minute journey, I kept my eye on my novel, never daring to look up. Oh, were they the most frustrating bus-rides of my Secondary One days!
Then, one day, he did not come to the bus-stop. And another day. And another day. I was frantic. Where was he? For two weeks, I used my father’s binoculars to stare at his flat, hoping to see him. In my days, it is a teenage crush. Today, it is called stalking!
I did not see him anymore after that. Now, if only, if only I had found the courage to look him in the eye, smile and say hello. What could happen? I would never know. I promised myself I would not repeat this mistake with the next guy I took a fancy to. That was in the 1970s. My mum would have called me brazen.
At 15, it happened. He was from the same school as my first crush. We were in the same group in the Interact Club. My school organised a trip to a MINDS school in Margaret Drive with SJI. I partnered this guy who I thought was really nice. He was helping me feed a nine-year-old boy who refused to eat because everytime he tries to feed himself, he couldn’t lift the spoon far enough …. My SJI friend and I held the boy’s hand to scoop the porridge and gently guided the spoon to his mouth. And the smile the boy flashed warmed my heart. We looked at each other and smiled a kinda-camaraderie grin.
I found out his home number. And I surreptitiously went to the public telephone, put in my ten cents (yes, with another two more coins in my hands in case the call exceeds three minutes), took a deep breath and dialed. Each time my finger turned the dial and I heard the whirr, my heart skipped a beat. But hey, if you don’t ask, you’ll never know! Imagine the relief when he himself came to the phone.
“Hey, I’m Catherine, you know, the girl at the Interact Club …”
“Catherine …” I said it a bit louder. This was going all wrong.
There was a ten-second silence. I wanted to hang up the phone.
“Oh …” he mumbled. Finally a response. Not what I expected.
“I was wondering …” I started, “would-you-like-to-see-a-show-with-me?”
In case you are wondering, yes, he agreed. That began a two-year relationship. I was in Secondary Three, he was in Four. Now I know why parents frown on BGRs. They confuse you, they distract you. Needless to say, he did not do well in his “O” Levels. His mother blamed me. And I did not do well as well. I blamed no one, though. I guess if I did not make that phone call, all this wouldn’t have happened. But well, it was a crazy two years of my life. There! If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have known!
It was this same philosophy that guided me to get into the career I loved. Publishing. I started out at 18 as a general clerk with just my “O” Levels. Got married at 23 and as with all mothers then, having children was top priority. Along came Pat in 1985. Pat made my life complete. I came home early every day because I wanted to be with her, to play with her, to hug her …. and when she mouthed her first words, “mama,” I felt tears welling up in my eyes.
But there was this deep, gnawing desire to be working with books, my first love. But which publisher was going to employ me? No experience, no qualifications? And so I decided I had to write a book.
If you don’t try you don’t know!
It didn’t happen until Pam came along in 1988. I was by this time contributing short stories to a magazine published by Eastern Publishing. Pam was the sweetest baby I ever had. She slept at the right time, which was at night, and at one month old, she hardly woke up for her milk. When she stirred, all I had to do was to stretch my hand across to her cot beside my bed and pat her to sleep. I have to thank her for giving me time to think of writing a book. The result: Love Notes. Falling in love Singapore Style! Part-fiction, part-real ….. I had great fun writing them! I’ve decided to include my selection of the best four in this book. I still think these old-fashioned values hold true today. You be the judge!
Okay, now that it’s written …. Well, typewritten, which sometimes I feel makes writers think harder, as we try to think of the best word so as not to have to do the xxxx backwards. Trust me! So, with a finished manuscript …. What’s left is to find a publisher! I heard horror stories that rejection slips are the norm for first-time authors. Some as many as 20! At the back of my head was the nagging doubt that no publisher would want to publish my book. I wrote to Federal Publications, who sent me a very curt note that they don’t do fiction. I gritted my teeth and went down the list. Heinemann? Sounded foreign, but worth a try. So, again, I slipped the 80-plus pages of my book into the envelope and wrote a “please-please-would-you-care-to-look-at-my-manuscript” letter. It took two weeks …. And one day, a letter from Heinemann came. It is true, the expression, my heart missed a beat, mine missed two … Do I open and be disappointed or do I not open and keep my hopes intact?
Rather hesitantly, I slit it open and dragged the letter out. The letter read, “We have read through your manuscript and would like to inform you that we would like to publish it under our Writing for Asia series.” Short and terse, signed off by the Managing Director, Charles Cher. Charles, if you are reading this, you gave me my first break because you believed in my book. Thank you, thank you very much!
I read the letter through, word for word, again and again. It felt so good, I don’t think anything like this can be put to words, but I’ll try. It’s like you discovered that someone believes in you, that that someone who has not seen you before likes what you have written and is willing to spend money on it. That it’s going to be in the bookshops. That’s the heady dizzy feel. Then when you actually see your book, actually hold it in your hands, you cannot, still cannot believe it. Till today, I don’t think any published author can adequately put into words how they felt when they first see and feel their book! I held mine against my chest, breathed in the fragrance of the pages, read and reread every word in every page, and yes, put it next to my bedside table. It was the last thing I looked at before I slept!
I used this book to apply for the post of an editorial assistant in 1990. At the mature age of 30, I decided it’s now or never! My lifelong dream was to have a career in books. I was addicted to them. Anthony and me used to scour the secondhand bookshops for our favorite novels. Can you believe it, it was just 50 cents for the well-read dog-earred ones, but it’s the words that matter, isn’t it? Our dream was to set up a bookstore along Bras Basah Road, then the bastion of any kind of book. We’ll stock it up with books we love to read … Agatha Christie (I had a whole collection of them, but our favourite detective was Hercule Poirot), Franklin Dixon, who wrote the Hardy Boys series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with his Sherlock Holmes and Prof Challenger series …. It was really so cool! We could read all the books we sell!
Anyway, I wrote in to every publisher listed in the Yellow Pages and asked if they’d take an editorial assistant, without any experience whatsoever but has published a book? None replied. I took stock of the situation. Do I resign myself to my fate of that $1200 salary, typing and filing papers in a public accountants’ firm? I had this love for the written word, I wanted to share it with everyone, oh! If only someone gave me the chance! And I decided. If I want something I never had, then I have to do something I’ve never done. Convince them that I can do it! So I picked up the phone.
It took one year and a whole lot of calls before I landed a job in Hofer Media. My Love Notes opened the door for me. But the door shut on me because I did not have the experience. Again, it was dear sweet Vivien Kim, the editor then, who took a risk with me. Vivien, how can I ever thank you?
It didn’t matter that I left the CBD chic for the dress-down Jurong industrial crowd. It didn’t matter that I had to key in manuscript after manuscript (the Macs were just beginning the revolution into desktop publishing), it didn’t matter that I had to take a drastic pay cut! …. I was in a career I loved!

Testimony of Love and Commitment

She did not flinch, she did not shirk responsibility …. She did what she had to do for more than four decades. And she shared her love and commitment for the displaced children of Tibet with an audience of 70 women in the hall in WINGS (Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully).

I don’t think any one of them knew what Mrs Jetsun Pema would talk about. How do you speak on a topic called “How To Live A Fulfilling Life.” And as the Dalai Lama’s sister shared her life as Mother to close to 42,000 children in the Tibetan Children’s Village, I felt so much empathy and admiration emanating from the women seated quietly listening.

When she recounted how a boy of five who trekked across the Himalayas to seek refuge in Dharamsala and lost his fingers and toes through frostbite, who finally made it after that many days in the snow and danger from being spotted by border patrol guards, I thought I had a collective sigh of relief.

Throughout the one-hour sharing, I realized that what’s crucial in life is not about looking what’s wrong with the world around us. It’s about how we can help someone find his place in the world. Coz in helping that one person, we actually help ourselves. That is living a truly fulfilling life!

Thank you, Tempa la and Ama la. There's so much I have to learn about commitment and perseverance from you!

Thank you, Tempa la and Ama la. There’s so much I have to learn about commitment and perseverance from you!

It’s so evident in this picture we took after the talk. There’s Mrs Pema’s husband, Tempa la, myself, Mrs Pema, whom I call Ama la, little Tenzin, and Jinpa, my Tibetan friend, who helped me to get my book’s foreword from Ama la. What can you see in our faces? Yes, smiles of happiness and hope! Remember, there’s nothing so fulfilling as helping someone find himself!


It’s not how much you have, but how much you enjoy, that makes you happy.

Welcome to Chapter 1. It’s about my childhood … and my hobby, stamp collecting. Before the days of internet and the wired world of IT, are we more curious, more with a sense of wonder about how the rest of the world works?

First lesson: It's not how much you have, but how much you enjoy, that makes you happy!

First lesson: It’s not how much you have, but how much you enjoy, that makes you happy!

I have to thank Michael Gill Gates for his wonderful book on How To Save Your Life, which gives me strength to write this. He said, “Be honest with what you have to say. Your readers will appreciate it.”
Sometimes it’s the little things you grow up with that gives you joy. I had the benefit of having a father who worked for a travel firm called Mansfield Travel. Daddy was a quiet but cheerful man who never chastised anyone. He always had a kind word for everyone. And what I loved about his job as a stenographer back in the 1960s was the stamps. Part of his responsibilities was opening letters for his boss. And he was allowed to keep the stamps. Ah! It was sheer pleasure to soak the stamped envelope in my little basin of water, to carefully lift the stamp, to let it dry, then to study it …. Now, where did this stamp come from? U.S.A.? England? Japan?
I still have my album. I remember how carefully I would slip the stamp into the paper casing, according to size and value. 1p, 2p, 5p, 50p …. Pence? For a mere ten-year-old, living half a world away, the picture of Queen Elizabeth II and all the different values of the stamps were intriguing. It gave me my first taste of another country … My first sense of curiosity was aroused. And I believe it made me really, really excited about reading and history.
It’s sad, really sad that I fail to see this sense of wonder in the kids I work with. Sure, they have their mobiles and IPads, at a click of the button they converse with someone half a world away. But ask them what they truly enjoy and they look point blank at you. They all have their modern conveniences, they want for nothing, perhaps it’s a case of too much of a good thing being really too much?
I like to tell a little story of my trip to Phnom Penh to scout for organizations to help out. Dan, education consultant from STA Travel, never thought I was serious when I told him about my family bonding experience (bless your soul, Dan!). I’ll write a little later about the three days in a certain village where I found a bit of myself back.
Dan brought me to the People’s Improvement Organisation (PIO), which he insisted I must visit. There was this school in Stung Mean Chay which trains the orphans in Cambodian school’s curriculum and vocational skills. Oh yes, I was thinking to myself, how different could it be?
Which brings me to my belief that it’s not how much you have, but what you enjoy. Stung Mean Chay was the government’s rubbish dump, much like what you’ll see in Dan Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The school was built next to it and yes, it reaches out to orphans in the area, who would climb on top of the heap to scavenge for bottles or tin cans, that could earn them the few Khmer dollars it could fetch.
What greeted me on arrival were the sounds of “I eat, I am eating, I will eat,” yes, an English lesson! I could hear the enthusiasm in their voices, and as I walked past the classroom, the faces I saw were faces of hunger, hunger for new knowledge …
Sok Seda, 16, personifies this hunger. She, together with six of her siblings, used to forage at the rubbish dump every day. She never knew any other life after her mother left the family as she couldn’t care for them. Her father resorted to drink, and it was left to the seven children to take care of themselves and their father. Scavenging was the only life she knew until the PIO found her. She remembers vividly, “I wanted to study, so I would come everyday to school. I would study from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm. But during break time, I would go back to the dump to work and I also work every evening from 8:00 pm to 4:00 am. Every time I come to school, I sleep. Because I am tired. But I want to study. I want to have a good job to help my family.”
Then there’s Tenzin Gyaltsen, a 27-year-old guide I met in Dharamasala, India. At a mere age of nine, he walked away from Qinghai, Amdo, in east Tibet, boarded a bus across 1,800 km to Lhasa, then made the trek across the Himalayas, through Nepal, finally making it to Delhi, India, before joining his countrymen in Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama and lots of his countrymen have taken refuge. I will tell his story in my upcoming book, Ordinary Lives. Extraordinary Struggles.
Speak to him and you’ll realize this slightly-built, quick-to-smile young Tibetan has a resolve that 20-something-year-olds in “developed” countries fail to match. He says in a halting mix of Chinese and English, “Many a time when I was in the biting cold in the mountains, I kept thinking that I would have to make it to India. I have to survive for my country. I managed to get away. But many children are still in Tibet. I want to start a school. To help these children.”
Sok Seda has nothing. Tenzin Gyaltsen has nothing. They know it. But they also know that it is not about how much you have. It’s about what we do with what we have.

Life is not about the number of breaths you take, but about the moments that take your breath away

Life is not about the number of breaths you take, but about the moments that take your breath away

Sometimes we have to look fear straight in the eye to understand the reality of death. I had a brush with it in a Beijing taxi one cold October night in 1997. I saw it in my mum-in-law’s eyes a few days before she died. Today I saw it in my brother-in-law’s eyes. I can’t describe it …. It’s like you know you are going some place else, first you are scared, then you realize that there’s nothing to be scared of …. And you close your eyes and sleep. And so you die peacefully.

As I sit in the chair in Tan Tock Seng Hospital ward 12C, this truth hit me so brutally hard that I had to sit and get this all down. I look at Ah Kwee, my sis-in-law’s husband, who is now on a machine and has just been injected with some kind of medicine to boost his heart pressure which has become critically low. The doctor has just informed his wife and children to make a decision on whether to give life support if he needs it. And that he might not be able to last through the night ….

Ah Kwee was a jovial, rotund guy. Now he is like a walking skeleton, with only a layer of skin and a tummy that is extremely huge as his system has ceased to be effective anymore. And as I see everyone crowd around him, and at a loss on what to do, a certain phrase hit me ….. Is life about the number of breaths you take? Or about the moments that take your breath away?

Ah Kwee laboured as a driver since young, and never took any breaks …. Now, well, now that he could sort of relax since his kids are like 36, 34 and 22, suddenly, it’s like the air has just run out of him and he is like a deflated balloon. My heart really goes out to my sis-in-law and their children ….

And as I sit here contemplating, it begs the question, how do you live your life? How do I live mine? It becomes all the more urgent that we have to live it now. It’s about the quality, not the quantity …. Not how much you have, but how to enjoy what you have. Don’t wait for the “if I have this much …” or “when I can retire ….”

Because contentment is about the now. It’s doing thing now. Feeling the peace now. So right now, I am going to do what I want to do. To do what I have to do.

Things just fall into place ….. My book about “living a life that transcends your own,” I really feel I know where I am heading to now.

And I pray for Ah Kwee to go to a place where he can rest, and be with God!


Be with people who know what they have, when they have you!

Some thirty years ago, when I signed on the dotted line with SF, there was this decision we made to live with his parents. Of course, there were his two sisters, of marriageable age, but, sigh, very, very, not attached. And so, things fell neatly into place …. The kampung house they lived in was only to be demolished and they had to live in a flat, so SF and his elder sister applied for a 5-roomer and we moved in. I loved my parents-in-law. My mum-in-law was really sweet …. She cared for me like she would her daughters, brewing all sorts of nutritious soups for each one of us. We spoke in Hokkien, even though she was Hainanese-Cantonese. My sis-in-laws did their own thing ….. Then along came my three girls, and we were all one big happy family.

Today, as I write this, I wonder. I am grateful to both of them. My girls grew up with them and I could see they have nurturing instincts. Don’t all of us women? They loved my three girls and yes, though, sometimes I felt that they interfered a lot … By being too overly-concerned and too much of a worry-wort ….didn’t help too that one had a syndrome of “learned helplessness.” Then things changed when my Mum-in-law contracted cancer and my brother decided to meet his Maker … All in three short months. Scary, isn’t it?

Things went downhill, really downhill 😦 My mum struggled with depression. I struggled with depression, (I am writing this while having lunch in SQ278 heading back to Singapore from Adelaide, where I spent a glorious 8 days just being a mother, friend and teenager to Paulina, so forgive me if I sound too energized and upbeat!) Eight again, man, that’s my signature number, and yes, gotta invest in 0278 coz my luggage, which weighed 27.8 kg went thro. And My baggage allowance is only 20kg!

Okay, where was I? Oh yes, depression. It’s scary, and I lost 10 kg in 2 months …. It’s like you feel everything is dark, you wake up and don’t want to do anything, you just want to close your eyes and sleep …. and right smack in the middle of all this turbulence …. I had just taken over Janus Education and became managing director, instructor, marketing, administrative officer all rolled into one! Talk about family togetherness. I think all of us were struggling …. And none of us figured out what to do … I am not plugging my book, in fact, I am plugging it shamelessly 🙂 🙂 find out more in my latest book, Love! Live Dangerously! And Have Fun! Ooh! This is so deliciously riveting, the orange, the sparkling …. The food I mean, nothing else. And of course, my book!

Okay, forgive the deviation. It’s hard to talk about it. But I discovered writing about it is so therapeutic … We live under one roof, but we hardly ever talk! Don’t know why, don’t know if it’s coz we have different outlook about life but hey, I lived with them for 19 years until 2003, then we moved back together back in 2007 …. But we hardly ever talk! So everyday when I get back, I’ll go to my study room, which is Pam’s room, and do my own stuff. Used to bug me …. Wonder why we became this way (strains of Cliff Richard’s We Don’t Talk Anymore 🙂 ) but yes, I wonder. But I guess if this didn’t happen, I won’t have time to write, to read and of course, to travel on my own! Yes, I think both my sis-in-law are good people, but too hemmed in by rules and conformity and fear of death. God, everyone fears death, which is why we have to live now! They are enduring life. They have to embrace it! C’est la vie! There is so much to be thankful for!