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Manga: The Embalmer

 photo 1_zps4ada2003.jpgI just read seven volumes of The Embalmer online, and am wishing that more volumes were available in English.  I love this manga!

It is about Shinjyurou Mamiya, a half-American and half-Japanese medical student who decides to abandon his medical studies and follow in his late American father’s footsteps to become an embalmer, a profession that is not highly regarded in Japan.  He sees embalming as a way of restoring the living appearance of the dead person so that their families can grieve properly and obtain closure.  Each chapter in the manga is a separate story about Shinjyurou’s experiences as an embalmer and the effects of these experiences on his life.  Through these stories, we get to know more about embalming as well as Shinjyurou’s background and his human relationships.

This is a really good slice-of-life manga if you do not find the subject matter too morbid.  

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Manga: What Did You Eat Yesterday Vol. 1

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What did I eat yesterday? I indulged in gluttony.  I had an Egg McMuffin meal for breafast, durian ice cream for tea, and delicious zichar (seafood horfun, fried pork ribs, sambal kangkong and homemade tofu) at Por Kee in Tiong Bahru.  I am so glad that Por Kee is back in business after closing its doors for many months to refurbish the shop, and that we did not lose another good local eatery to rising rentals and labour shortages.

After reading Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery some years back, I searched for other mangas authored by her and came across What Did You Eat Yesterday.  I have seen only three volumes being translated as English scanlations online, so I was really glad that the North American publisher, Vertical, has released Volume 1 of this manga in English.  I bought a copy of Volume 1 at Kinokuniya two weekends ago.

What Did You Eat Yesterday is about the day-to-day lives of a gay couple, Shirou Kakei, a strait-laced lawyer, and Kenji Kabuki, a hair-stylist.  The manga is part slice-of-(gay)-life and part Japanese foodporn, and revolves around the food that Shirou cooks everyday for dinner at home. Besides talking about food, the manga also tells the story of their lives together as a couple and how each relate to their family, friends and colleagues about their sexual orientation.

Unlike a typical Japanese lawyer who puts in long hours at work, Shirou chose not to work at a big law firm so that he can knock off promptly at 6pm everyday to go grocery shopping and cook dinner at home. He does wish to enslave his life to work and cooking is a way for him to de-stress and enjoy life. Admirable. I wish more people would have the same perspective. Well, I know one (straight) guy who has the same attitude, and it is refreshing to have people like that around you.  They remind you of what is truly important in life.  

While Shirou has disclosed his sexual orientation to his parents (who are quite amusing in their attempts to ‘convert’ him to being straight), he is not comfortable doing the same with his colleagues.  His slightly younger partner, Kenji, is the opposite in terms of personality and character.  Kenji has a more carefree attitude about life and is open about his orientation to everyone around him.  

Unlike Oishinbo, What Did You Eat Yesterday does not delve into the intricasies of cooking traditional Japanese food, details of ingredients, nor does it have an exciting father-son battle as a plot device, but is no less entertaining or informative to me.  The manga depicts how Shirou plans their meals around household budget, variety and nutrition, and how he goes about cooking the food.  It is sort of a loose leaf Japanese recipe book, with an ingredient list and simple cooking instructions, giving readers a general idea of what a typical Japanese homecooked meal looks like.

I am so looking forward to reading the subsequent volumes of What Did You Eat Yesterday.

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I have already tried making one Shirou Kakei recipe from the manga!  It went into a bento for my husband’s lunch on Tuesday (I tried making the Japanese character for Tuesday using edamame). Potato with minced bacon and leeks hidden under the carrots and mangetout. Not a very pretty bento but I had fun putting it together.

xoxoxo

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Reading With Overdrive

I just discovered Overdrive Media Console, a cool app which lets me find, check-out and read ebooks from the local library on my iPad.  The app is free on the iTunes store and you do not have to pay anything to reserve and/or borrow digital books online.  Overdrive, the company which developed this app is based in the US with an office in Australia, is a digital distributor of ebooks, audiobooks, music and video worldwide.  

I have been using this console for a couple of days and I love it.  The search, check-out and return functions are intuitive.  The interface is clean, simple, and has functions that are similar to those in iBooks.  The console allows you to create bookmarks, look up the meaning of a word, or change the look (such as margins, number of columns, line spacing, text alignment and fonts) of your reading screen just by tapping an icon.  It looks like Overdrive has been around for quite a while, so why has it taken me so long to learn about it…?!

The entire process of using Overdrive is straightforward.  All you have to do is to download the app from iTunes (I am fairly sure it is compatible with the Androids), add your local library to the database, find a digital title or audio-title, check-out or place a hold on it (if the available digital copies have been loaned out), download the title and you can start reading!  Once you are done with the title, you can easily return it just by tapping an icon.  If you prefer not to download the digital title, the console allows you to read the ebook through the built-in browser, or a browser of choice.

I added the Singapore National Library to the console.  Out of curiosity, I performed a search on the library database and learnt that there are many libraries around the world which are part of the OverDrive database.  I have no access to these overseas libraries as I do not have a membership account with them.

Continue reading Reading With Overdrive

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The Housekeeper And The Professor By Yoko Ogawa

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I read The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa recently, and loved it.  The main protaganists in the story are not given actual names, and are simply known as the Professor, the Housekeeper and her son, Root.

The Professor is brilliant at Math and used to be a Math professor in a university.  Due to a car accident in the 70s, the Professor suffered a head trauma which resulted in him having a memory span that lasts a mere 80 minutes, and remembering nothing after 1975.  Ever since the accident, he has been unable to work and lives under the largesse of his sister-in-law in a cottage in her backyard.  He spends all his time solving challenging Math puzzles, walks around with handwritten notes pinned to his clothes to remind him of the fact that his memory is only 80 minutes long.

The Housekeeper is a single mother who was hired to clean and cook for the Professor.  She was allowed to bring her 10 year old son along with her and he gets on very well with the Professor.  The boy was given the nickname Root because his flat-shaped head reminded the Professor of a square root sign. I thought the relationship depicted between the Professor and the little boy is beautiful.

“I’m going to call you Root,” he said.  “The square root sign is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers.”

The story revolves around the daily lives of these three characters, the growing relationship and affection that the Housekeeper and Root have for the Professor and vice versa, how the Housekeeper is slowly drawn towards the beauty of Math through the teaching abilities of the Professor.  The story provides vignettes of the Professor’s daily life and how he struggles to live with a 80 minute timeframe before he completely forgets about the people and the events that had occurred in the last 80 minutes.

Besides the serious stuff, she has also weaved in plenty of interesting bits around Math, a subject which allows the handicapped Professor to remain connected with people and the real world. He has forgotten about many of the people and things around him but he did not forget Math or his love for children.

He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers.  For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.

The story is a simple, elegant and moving one.  I like how the author manages to write so simply and with restraint, but without sacrificing the details and sentiment required to flesh out the personalities and affection that the characters have for each other.  She makes me feel for the characters and that is an important factor in whether I enjoy a book. 

I could not help but compare this book against The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami which I did not enjoy reading half as much.  The writing in The Briefcase was too gentle and restrained, such that I felt nothing for the characters, or their story.

I am going to read Yoko Ogawa’s other books soon, possibly Hotel Iris comes next.  I have just completed the first book in the Joe Sandiland crime novel series by Barbara Cleverly.  I am not won over by her writing yet but will definitely be reading a couple more books in the series before I decide.  I am mid-way through Uncommon Grounds, the first book in Sandra Balzo’s Maggy Thornsen series.  (I think Maggy should always be spelt with an ‘ie’ at the end, as in Maggie.  It looks better!) It is a breezy and entertaining crime novel, not at all dark and depressing.  I also like that the female protagonist owns a cafe and most of the novels in the series seems to be coffee-related.

On a separate note, I just found out that someone I know pens a cool book blog called Book Of Words!

xoxoxoxo

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Brunch With Lang Leav

As we approach the end of 2013, I did a quick review of the hectic year that has sailed past. One of the interesting things that I did this year was to have brunch with a writer.

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The writer, Lang Leav, was in Singapore to promote her new book titled ‘Love & Misadventure’,  and the promotion events included having brunch with readers selected by Penguin Books (or Kinokuniya, I am not sure) and several book signing sessions at various Kinokuniya bookstores. A good friend of mine was selected to have brunch with Lang Leav. As she was allowed to bring a friend along, she invited me to come along.

Before this, I had never heard of Lang Leav but I thought it would be quite fun to tag along for the experience. On that morning, I scrambled to look for a copy of Lang Leav’s new book in iTunes. I bought the digital copy, downloaded it onto my iPad but didn’t have the time to read it carefully. My brief impression of the book was that it was a collection of poems, with lovely illustrations drawn by the writer.

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Brunch was at Salt Grill & Sky Bar in ION Orchard.  The restaurant, offers gorgeous views of the city, was not crowded that morning and we had almost the entire place to ourselves.  Besides my friend and I, there were four other persons, including a couple from Penguin Books.  It was a good thing that Lang Leav didn’t ask me questions about her book, it would have been rather awkward having to confess that I had not read it.  She seemed rather nervous about the book signing sessions that day, and having to start the day having brunch with strangers didn’t seem to help settle her down.

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We chatted a little about our respective countries (she was born in Thailand, moved to Australia when she was a child and now lives in Auckland), her travel schedule and what inspired her to write and sketch. By the end of brunch, she became more relaxed and took photographs with us, as well as autographed copies of her book for us.  She is a lovely lady.

I read her collection of poems  in Love & Misadventure when I reached home that day. I have never been a reader of poetry because I don’t get most of it. Poetry has always been something quite abstract to me.  I am bit dim in that area.  Maybe it is supposed to be that way but I find it difficult to appreciate something that I cannot grasp. I found reading Lang Leav’s work to be quite a different experience for me.  I understood her poems, mostly about love and relationships, and the sentiments that she was trying to put across.  I thought the poems were beautifully written, simple yet poignant.   Some of my favorite pieces are here:

Xs AND Os

Love is a game
of tic-tac-toe,
constantly waiting,
for the next x or o.

A DEDICATION

She lends her pen,
to thoughts of him,
that flow from it,
in her solitary.

For she is his poet,
and he is her poetry.

CLOSURE

Like time suspended,
a wound unmended –
you and I.

We had no ending,
no said good-bye.

For all my life,
I’ll wonder why.

And that’s us with Lang Leav! 🙂

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The Cuckoo’s Calling

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I stopped reading Harry Potter after the second book because I lost interest somewhere along the way. I might pick up from where I left off one of these days, but before I do that, I am going to read her detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under a pseudonym. I am hoping that the book will be good ‘cos I enjoy reading detective novels a lot. 🙂

I am so glad that it is Friday. We are driving up to Melaka with some friends this weekend to eat some pretty awesome meals!

xoxoxo

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The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

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I ended my reading drought with an excellent book, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.  Although it is a children’s novel, the book is definitely a highly enjoyable read for adults.

The novel revolves around the life of a 11-year old girl living with her family under the Taliban regime in Kabul, and how she was forced to become the breadwinner for her family when her dad was arrested and thrown into jail by the Taliban.  The life of ordinary people living in such repressed circumstances is depicted in simple, direct writing which makes me feel that I can relate to the characters in the book.  The author wrote two sequels and I am going to get my hands on them as soon as I can.

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March 2013 Reading List

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I am trying to get myself back onto a reading routine. I am feeling a bit sheepish about reading so little in 2012, but I just could not get hold of any satisfying reads.

What happened to the days when the first thing I reached out for the minute I woke up was the book on my bedside table? Nowadays, I reach for my iPhone to check for messages and email that came in over the night.

What happened to the days when I could not sleep unless I read a few pages of a book? Nowadays, it is the iPad that I fall alsleep with.  It usually hits my face with a thunk and jolts me awake.

I used to go everywhere with a book in my bag. I disliked the idea of commuting without a book to read. It was easier to pass the time with a book when waiting for the bus or the train. These days, I drive and even when I am whiling away my time waiting for someone or something, I have my iPhone to entertain me.  As my husband says, I have to stop this iPhone addiction. I absolutely agree. But where, oh where is the iPhone detox clinic?

Last week, I checked in on all the book blogs that I follow on Google Reader (damn, what am I going to do when Google Reader is discontinued after 1 Jul…?) and looked around GoodReads to get some book recommendations. Then I went straight to the library’s reservation site and reserved 4 books. I felt really happy collecting these books over the weekend, and I sort of relived those happy childhood days of my weekly visits to the library.

Crossing that these books will turn out to be great reads. I badly need a good book fix!  I know that I will enjoy Farahad Zama’s Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness and Zoe Ferarris’s Kingdom of Strangers.  That’s a 50% hit rate!

Time to go and lie in bed with a book.  Good night!

xoxoxo.

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Manga: Gokudou Meshi

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I am reading another food-themed manga called Gokudou Meshi on JManga. This manga has a very interesting setting – in a Japanese prison!

How does one spin a food-themed yarn in a prison…? I have only read Volume 1 so far, and about to embark on Volume 2.

The story in Gokudou Meshi is about a group of prisoners who huddle together and compete with each other in a story-telling competition in the days leading up to the New Year. They must each tell a story about the food that is most memorable to them, and describe it as vividly as possible. Whoever makes the most people drool after listening their story will be the winner of the competition, and the prize is that the winner will choose one dish from everyone else’s osechi ryori meal provided by the prison on New Year’s Day.

The manga is really fun to read! I am going to bed now with Volume 2! 🙂

O-yasuminasai.

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Manga: Ekiben Hitoritabi

I have recently started reading this really interesting gourmet manga called Ekiben Hitoritabi on JManga, a manga portal.  JManga allows manga readers access to their mangas online using a point system.  I purchase a certain number of JManga points with cash, and the points are deducted from my account whenever I buy a manga from the portal.

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One can read the manga directly from JManga, or you can download the PDF onto your computer and read it using a PDF reader.  I prefer the former.  The manga loads quite quickly on my MacBook Air, but it doesn’t work on my iPad or my Windows-based notebook.  I am not sure why, and I haven’t written to the website to find out.  For the time being, I am happy to read mangas from my MacBook Air.

Ekiben Hitoritabi is a slice-of-life story about a 35 year old man called Daisuke Nakahara who travels around Japan by trains to eat bentos sold exclusively at train stations.  Hence, the name “Ekiben Hitoritabi” – “ekiben” refers to “bentos sold at train stations” and “hitoritabi” means “travelling alone”.

Daisuke is a man who loves bentos and trains.  He is a married man who runs a bento shop in Tokyo.  On his tenth wedding anniversary, to fulfil his personal dream, his wife bought him a train ticket that allows him to travel around Japan by train.  He makes it a point not to travel by shinkansen, as he wants to be able to enjoy the scenery through the windows of a normal-speed train.

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Like most gourmet mangas such as Oishinbo, Ekiben Hitoritabi has enough food porn to send one’s saliva glands into overdrive.  Aside from exquisitely drawn drawings of bentos and detailed explanations of the bento specialities in each Japanese prefecture, what I found interesting about this manga is that it provides some insights into the history of the Japanese train systems, and introduces the readers to the background of various trains that serve the country.  Even though I am not a fan of trains, I found the trivia relating to the local, express and sleeper trains relayed by Daisuki in the manga fascinating.

That’s one of the good things about reading manga – it livens up alot of technical (and otherwise dull) stuff with beautiful drawings and simple explanations, and stimulates my interest in things which I might never have been keen to read about.  Besides gastroporn and trains, the manga also includes drawings of paranomic views of Japan seen through the window of a train.

Reading this manga makes me want to do a Daisuke-style holiday, criss-crossing Japan on trains, eating delicious bentos found at train stations.  This manga serves as a splendid train-travel guidebook, because it offers so much detail on which train station to stop at, what train to hop on, and it even provides train schedules so you know exactly what time a train arrives at and departs from a station.  Knowing the Japanese to be sticklers for perfection, I am pretty certain that most of the train-related information in the manga should be fairly accurate.

Ikitai!

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Manga: The Drops Of God

Photobucket Last Christmas, I gave TBH the first two volumes of The Drops of God , a Japanese manga about wine as his Christmas present.  I saw the manga being reviewed positively on a number of manga blogs. Since the husband enjoys drinking wine and likes reading wine-related literature, this manga was perfect for him.  

And for me.  Because I love reading food manga, and drooling over Japanese food drawn with amazing detail.

The Drops of God is created and written by Tadashi Agi, a pseudonym used by a brother-and-sister team known as Shin and Yuki Kibayashi, and illustrated by Shu Okimoto.  It was first published in 2004 and is still running to-date (I think).  The American publisher, Vertical Inc, has only released two volumes of the English version, with the third volume scheduled for release sometime early this year.

Reading The Drops of God, I picked up quite a bit of educational information about wine (as in the case of Oishinbo, where there is plenty of fascinating information about Japanese cuisine). It is a page turner.  So fun to learn about something via cute characters, gorgeous artwork, an interesting storyline and humourous dialogue.  Whereas, reading wine textbooks have an immediate soporific effect on me. 

Like Oishinbo, the main plot of The Drops of God revolves around a battle of wits, skills and talent between two characters, Kanazaki Shizuka, the estranged son of a late famous wine critic, and Issei Tomei, an up-and-coming wine critic so as to inherit the priceless wine collection left behind by Kanazaki Shizuku’s late father.  The two men have to compete to identify 13 bottles of wines based on descriptions left behind by Kanzaki Shizuku’s late father. 

The artwork is drawn in clear bold lines, and the expressions of the characters are drawn so finely that one can see the emotions of happiness, anger, sadness and surprise very well.  Some other mangas have drawings that are so messy, I find it difficult to follow the story.

I was intrigued by the story after reading the first two volumes, and am curious to know what happens next in the quest.  It is going to be incredibly vexing, having to wait for subsequent volumes of the manga to be gradually released over the course of the next couple of years.  

If only I could read mangas in Japanese. 

Now, I shall have to hunt out the Japanese live action (aka ‘drama re-make’) of the manga, and be satisfied with it, until I get hold of the next volume.  

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Contemplation & Murakami

I have had people ask me what is it about Murakami’s books that I love. Because they find his writing to be “very weird” and cannot appreciate what exactly he is driving at with stories about surreal, parallel worlds, talking cats, grown men sitting in wells, a sheep-man, erm, and of course, the requisite sex.

Admittedly, some of Murakami’s stories are quite difficult to understand. I was befuddled by what was going on in A Wind-up Bird Chronicle when I read it for the first time many years ago. What exactly is this story about? A man looking for his wife who vanished one day? Why does he need to meditate in a well? There were so many questions in my mind then, with no direct answers.

Early this year, I picked up my copy of A Wind-up Bird Chronicle and read it again. I still couldn’t quite grasp everything in it, but I appreciated his writing a lot more this time round, and felt that I came slightly closer to understanding a bit more of what he was saying, even though I would be hard put to articulate exactly what it is that I now understand.

Since completing A Wind-up Bird Chronicle the first time round, I have read almost all of Murakami’s writing that have been published in English. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 – his first two pieces of work – are probably the only English-translated books of his that I have not read. Because they are not easily available in bookstores or online websites. Ebay, probably.

Not every book of his, I liked. Some I like more, others less so. I prefer his novels, his short stories less so. To-date, my favourites are: Norwegian Wood, A Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Hardboiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, Kafka On The Shore, Dance Dance Dance and 1Q84. I recently lapped up every word in 1Q84, a massive 1000-page book. I suppose the reason why I like these books is because I felt a connection with the stories. They tugged at my mind and heart, and drew me into worlds which I didn’t think exist.

I like Murakami, not just because of his ability to weave creatively-absurd stories that are fascinating and compelling. Or because his plain-speaking writing style makes reading such a pleasure for me. He could spend two pages describing in detail how the protagonist in his books goes about preparing a meal, and make the entire (boring) process sound so interesting. I just love his less-is-more prose.

I find his writing to be poetic in a very simple, down-to-earth, comforting manner. No flowery words. No long-winded, comatose-inducing sentences punctuated by comma after comma (*hahaha, laughing at my silly pun*). No big, fancy words. Plain English. Crisp sentences. Says things as they are. Does not embellish his sentences with un-necessary words.

I like him because his writing speaks to me, on a fundamental level. I feel that my mental wavelengths run on a slightly different plane after reading his books. (I can totally see my husband rolling his eyes when he reads this.) In a positive way, of course. He has good insights into the human mind psyche, articulates his thinking in simple English, in a way such that the whole thing makes alot of sense to me.

So I come out of his books with a slightly different perspective of life, of myself, of things that bug me on many levels.

The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. ~ A Wind-up Bird Chronicle

If you’re in pitch blackness, all you can do is sit tight until your eyes get used to the dark ~ Norwegian Wood

Powerful writing. He has the knack of distilling complicated concepts into something simple, using ordinary words. These passages speak to me right now. As I contemplate what I want to do next, after I leave my job at this end of this year. I haven’t found any answers yet. And I am not sure if I will.

So I am taking a very big step in my life, a step forward into pitch darkness, into the unknown, but with the faith that this isn’t a mis-step. (See? I cannot even be sure it is the right step.) But my heart has told me to move forward, even though my rational mind tells me otherwise. I figured that if I cannot trust my own heart, then I might as well be a walking zombie. Like how Murakami says it:

“There are ways of dying that don’t end in funerals. Types of death you can’t smell. ~ Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”

Perhaps this is the time for me to stay still and wait, because there is no flow, and not try to bend myself backwards just to find an answer.

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All-Of-A-Kind Family

Thanks to my bookish friends, I have recently been introduced to some good reads in children books and young adult fiction.  

When I was a child, the storybooks that I favoured were Enid Blyton (such as The Secret Seven, Famous Five, Malory Towers, The Magic Faraway Tree, etc), Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators and Roald Dahl. I grew up on a literary diet of mystery and crime-solving tales, boarding school life, action and adventure stories.  I read and re-read these stories, never growing sick of them.
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The All-Of-A-Kind Family series is something that I would have loved reading when I was young, had I known of its existence then.  Too bad we didn’t have the Internet in our time, or online bookshops, or book blogs so that we could get book recommendations, like how it is for me now.

Because the series is so wonderful, I highly recommend them to anyone, be it an adult or a child.  There are 5 books in this series, starting with All-Of-A-Kind Family, followed by More All-Of-A-Kind Family, All-Of-A-Kind Family Uptown, All-Of-A-Kind Family Downtown and Ella of All-Of-A-Kind Family.

Unfortunately, it seems that most of these books, except for the first book,  are out-of-print now.  Pity ne.  I managed to purchase the first book in the series from Kinokuniya, and borrowed three (out of four) sequels from a friend who had recommended me this series.  So glad she kept the books with her all these years.

Written by Sydney Taylor at the turn of the century,  the All-Of-A-Kind Family details the family life of a Jewish family and the growing up years of five sisters at the turn of the century in the East Side, New York City.  The stories revolve around five sisters, and subsequently a brother, as well as their extended family.

These books gave me a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a Jewish family, and how they observe Jewish customs and religion.  Having attended many years of Bible study, I know of the existence of important Jewish customs and festivals such as the Passover, Hanukkah, the Yom Kippur and the Sabbath, and that they eat kosher food.   However, I don’t really know how the Jews go about observing their customs and festivals.  These books do just that.  Through the eyes of the children, I get an insight into the Jewish way of life, the steps that they take when observing major festivals, customary practices for marriages and child-birth, and the type of food that they eat during each festival.  The books also illustrate important values such as frugality, responsibility, family love and honour, through the behaviour of the children, and how their parents discipline and guide them.

The writing is plain and concise.  The stories about the children are so entertaining and delightful to read.  The illustrations in the books are beautiful.

I am hoping that a re-print of this series will take place one day, and when that happens, I am going to buy the entire series for my bookshelves.

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