Friday, 9 October 2015

On The Verge Of Touching The Sky

Let the tracks in Owl City's Mobile Orchestra move your heart to the edge of the earth and soar to the heavens

"I ain't to sure what I believe in, but I believe in what I see
And when I close my eyes, I see my whole life ahead of me..."

So begins "Verge", the first track in Owl City's latest album, Mobile Orchestra.

In May, before the album's release, Owl City frontman Adam Young tweeted (or "hooted", if you like) the lyric video for the "Verge" single, which revolved around graduating from college or university.

Aloe Blacc, his collaborator for the track, thought the graduation angle would be great for it; Young's was about weddings. Either angle works; the rousing anthemic track can be trotted out to celebrate a new phase in one's life. When Blacc heard the track, he felt that "it sounded like it could be ... quite inspirational."

Oh, very much, from the way it straps rockets to your heart and launches it to the "edge of the earth and we're touching the sky tonight..."

I finally got a copy of the album in September. So I'm a little slow.

The title was inspired by Young's realisation of how technology allowed him to stuff an orchestra's worth of sounds in a laptop – to him, a blessing and a curse – and his inability to switch off the creative side of his brain that's being bothered by an unfinished song or melody. One the bright side, he doesn't need to assemble a band to scratch that musical itch.

His early stuff has been derided as light, fluffy and sweet; I'd call it pixie-dust electronica/synthpop. He even manages to make werewolves ("Wolf Bite") and the aftermath of a father's suicide ("This Isn't the End") sound nice and cheerful – that is, if you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics.

From The Midsummer Station onwards, however, I feel he's moving even more towards experiments with different sounds and genres, and joint efforts with other artistes. Yuna worked with Young on "Shine Your Way", featured in the Dreamworks animated feature The Croods.

After "Fireflies", I've been looking forward to his new releases. I'm not a fan of every piece, but when there are more hits and misses in an album, it's worth the time and effort to own one.

The album kicks of with "Verge", which encapsulates the excitement and anticipation of one on the cusp of receiving one's degree. Listeners are transported back to the graduation hall, all nervous and elated at being on the threshold of a new life.

Even Blacc's resonant vocals in the middle (bridge, maybe?) convey the soaring pride, joy and conviction in the new graduate's pledge to make good and do good with the acquired skills and knowledge:

From now on there's no looking back
Full steam ahead on this one-way track
From this day forward I will make a promise
To be true to myself and always be honest
For the rest of my life, I will do what's right...

Much has also been said about Young's spirituality, and fans have been combing his work for signs of that. Several pieces in Mobile Orchestra leave no doubt that he's a good devout boy from Owatonna, Minnesota. "You are my light in the dark," he croons in "My Everything", "and I sing with all of my heart..."

This track is, Young said, "my attempt at summing up how important my faith is to me, and certainly how much influence it is, not just the decisions I make creatively as an artiste but every area of my life, you know ... across the whole board."

He also hopes it will provide encouragement to the "spiritually weary or tired" who need a nudge to get out of whatever fix they're in. "If somebody's mood is lightened for 30 seconds or a minute while they're driving to work because of this song, I felt my job is done."

I think part of it also has something to do with his insomnia, and having gone through several sleepless nights myself, I can empathise – especially if he's sleeping better these days. Sleep deprivation is not funny, and one is always glad when pleas for deliverance are answered.

Besides Blacc, he also collaborated with several other musicians and artistes for this album. "Unbelievable" – which sees Young and the guys from Hanson recalling stuff they had or experienced when they were kids, including the Fresh Prince, Jazzy Jeff, Lion King, Jurassic Park and "I won't lie, my friends and I were too legit to quit" – was bubbly straightforward fun.

"You're Not Alone" (with Britt Nicole), Young suggests, addresses and assuages the feelings of isolation and being distant one feels, even within a crowd or among a gathering of loved ones. The chorus says different, though.

The country-themed "Back Home" is also particularly emotive. This track, featuring US country singer Jake Owen, brings a tear (or ten) to the eye as the verses strum the heartstrings, compelling one to pack one's bags and say hello to tree lines, "free time and starry nights, to bonfires and fireflies".

And as one's vision blurs with each additional reminiscence, memories get addled and some of the lyrics start sounding different...

Back home there's a girl named Ng Joleen
A kopitiam off the main road that I've never been
And every red-dirt road is a trip down memory lane
And back home, where the palms grow thirty feet tall
And momma's chicken curry is the best of all
The casuarinas are waving till we come back home again

Even the last track, the previously mentioned "This Isn't the End", didn't dampen the overall mood created by the album. Instead, one is left with hope and optimism that things will be okay, that more and better Owl City tunes are still to come.

With great tracks and great replay value, Mobile Orchestra is the album to grab and keep you company in a traffic jam or, better yet, your balik kampung journey as you say goodbye to the street lights and city skyline.

♪ So pack your bags it's time to go~ ♫

Monday, 5 October 2015

Book Marks: Sour Notes, Court Battles, And The Hundredth Review

Perhaps the biggest news last week was how a local columnist splashed ice water with a dash of lemon juice on a Facebook group's anniversary celebration. Then comes the broad tar brush: Are these Malaysian writers serious about their craft or is this a self-congratulatory exercise?

One can argue that, if others outside the circle can't or won't acknowledge them or their efforts, where else can they turn to for support? Writers need to earn a living, and it's hard if you're a writer and nobody's heard of or couldn't care less about you. So any kind of buzz is welcome.

I won't say anymore on this, so here's a rebuttal of sorts. And a response from one of the Facebook group's two administrators.

ZI Publications failed in its bid to nullify Selangor Shariah law over seizures of translated editions of Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love. The Federal Court, according to The Malaysian Insider, ruled "that the Selangor legislative assembly had acted within its powers when making the Shariah law that criminalises the publishing of publications deemed un-Islamic and upheld the state law as constitutional."

So, as I understand it, Ezra Zaid, as head of ZI Publications, could still be fined, jailed or both for publishing that book. What a thing to happen on Banned Books Week. (Here's a small sample of books banned worldwide.)

BFM89.9 marked the end of Banned Books Week in the second half (at 15:00) of this podcast. A couple of revelations: desk clerks or officers at customs, etc., are arbitrary "banning" books and Umapagan Ampikaipakan wrote a book?

Cookbook editor Judith Jones, in her own words. Some phrases after my own heart:

The most important thing an editor can do is be a diplomat. It's not your book, but you can subtly try, and it usually ends up that the writers express themselves so much more clearly. At least, that was my experience.

It's funny, because the harder the books were to edit, the more challenging they were, the more fun, in a way.

If you want to write, write. It has to be a passion. When you edit, you're willing to stay up all night and then be slapped in the face.

Unrealistic as it is, I hope I won't have to be her age to enjoy being that wise and sharp.

Of course, Jones points out that "I still don't think I'm necessarily a cookbook editor."


  • Author Lauren Myracle calls on overprotective parents to stop banning books. Myracle's own books: ttyl, ttfn and l8r, g8r were among the American Library Associations' (ALA) list of frequently challenged books for 2009 and 2011.
  • The Guardian interviews author Elizabeth Gilbert "on creativity, women’s fear of failing and not caring what others think", in conjunction with the release of her latest, Big Magic. On chasing perfection, Gilbert says: "Perfection murders joy. You cut yourself out of the game before you even start."
  • The Margaret Atwood webchat, also in The Guardian, as it happened. Includes, among other things, a nudge for writers and other people in general: "This was the 1950s. I was a teenager. I didn't see why I couldn't do things, so I did them. If I'd known the odds I might have been discouraged. But just this: if you don't try, nothing happens."
  • Oh yes: Fixi Novo has issued a call for submissions for its next anthology, PJ Confidential. Deadline for submissions is on 30 November. Get cracking, people.
  • "Dreadful debut", "plotless", "written in sixth-form prose", "publishers should be ashamed of themselves" ... damn, so much love for Morrissey's debut novel, List of the Lost. "Do not read this book" seems to be the general consensus. But how else will we know it's bad? So yes, this is likely to backfire.

And with this, I've published a hundred book reviews on this blog since I started reviewing.

The hundredth review I'd written since I started reviewing, however, is of another novel, one in another series I also enjoyed that is, while not magic fantasy, is still kind of magical. The review hasn't been published yet.

From the day the hype about Sorcerer to the Crown exploded online, I wondered whether I could say anything different. Turns out I couldn't. I wanted to add a bit more, but what's already there laden with exposition. And this novel packs a lot of stuff; I think I've spoiled a fifth of it already.

So I didn't talk about familiars and how important they are to mages and the plot; those who have read it, however, might recognise the dragon on the red cover from US publisher Ace Books. Am I the only one who finds the UK cover ugly and headache-inducing?

While I hate to be part of any choir (and this one's huge), I think I'd delivered an honest assessment of this novel.

Friday, 2 October 2015

This Gentleman's A Lady

An indelibly enchanting Regency-era adventure casts its spell on readers

So London-based Malaysian author Zen Cho published a work of fantasy titled Sorcerer to the Crown and everyone lost their minds. Sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal said "This is the book I wish I'd written. SUCH a fantastic use of language. So good. SO GOOD."

Award-winning American sci-fi/fantasy author Ann Leckie says those partial to Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian "or magic and humor like Susanna Clarke ... you will really, really enjoy this!" Justine Larbalestier, another award-winning author, "would marry this book if I could."

Go, get the book now. Do I need to say anything else?

Well, if you insist.

Pride, prejudice and persons thaumaturgical
The Regency era in the United Kingdom (1811–1820) was characterised by the rule of George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Wales, as Prince Regent until he took the throne as King George IV.

In Cho's world, where magic exists and supernatural creatures share our borders, this was around the time England's mages are having problems casting spells. For their own reasons, the faeries have blocked the flow of magic into the kingdom.

Not a good time, particularly when the ruler of one tiny far-flung corner of the world needs help. Relations with France aren't good (have they ever been?) Plus, the muggles in the government are thinking of stripping the magicians of their privileges.

And I thought the water shortages in the Klang Valley were bad.

Thrust into this mess is Zacharias Wythe, England's Sorcerer Royal, whose responsibilities now include getting the magic flowing into the kingdom again. Thing is, his colleagues think he's unsuited for the role. Somebody wants him dead. He's even accused of killing his predecessor, Sir Stephen Wythe, for the top job.

Zach (let's call him that) is getting all this love because he is black. As a boy he was adopted by Sir Stephen and trained in magic, but making him his successor was way beyond the pale for many.

Because Malaysians from the diaspora are prone to fits of flag-waving when deprived of their sambal, Cho throws some local flavour into the mix as well. During a visit by the Sultan of the island of Janda Baik (said ruler of that tiny far-flung corner of the world), an old Malay witch called Mak Genggang appears, Sauron-like, in Zach's crystal ball and makes some nasty remarks about the ruler. But the crone doesn't stop there...

(Janda Baik is also a village in modern-day Pahang. The scryers at Google suggest it's a scenic rural getaway.)

Respite for Zach comes when a friend of a friend needs someone to present a speech at a school for "gentlewitches" where young ladies are taught to repress their magical gifts for their own good. So it's kind of funny when he ends up walking into a sorcerous catfight between two students upon his arrival.

Zach's attention, however, is drawn to Prunella Gentleman (not just because she's pretty), a half-Indian girl and essentially the school dogsbody, who is deflecting an irate girl's hexes with some expertise.

Prue's natural talent for spellcasting inspires Zach to work on bringing female magicians into the mainstream, starting with her. So she follows him to London and, naturally, gets tangled up in his job to fix Britain's magic deficit – and the plot to unseat him as Sorcerer Royal.

Of course, things wouldn't be half as exciting for everyone if Prue didn't have something revelatory lurking in her past and her late father's hand luggage.

It's a lady's world
Readers unfamiliar with the Regency style might conclude that this novel was written thus to hide minor plot holes and structural flaws and glam up what might sound mundane if penned in 21st-century parlance - even if she is putting to use all that reading steeped in the period in which the novel is set.

And yes, the faeries' embargo of magic. They have a reason for that, but the way it was carried out was ... clumsy? Not though through? Happens when a race relies too much on magic rather than brains to fix things.

And when the mastermind and motives behind the attempts at Zach's life are revealed, how that part was resolved veers dangerously towards bathos, thanks to what I'd consider a deus ex machina.

Still, you can't help but admire how Cho pulled it off. Nor can one dismiss the novel's feminist vibes. There's enough wit, humour, dumb male behaviour and smart female behaviour to keep the pages flipping, even if the turns of phrase are a little tedious.

Fiercely independent Prue is a wickedly delightful lady, as is Mak Genggang, whose part in the plot and Prue's development as a sorceress steadily grows (though the former seems too genre-savvy for my liking). Even Zach's stepmom-of-sorts, Lady Maria Wythe, is a force to be reckoned with. But it's sad to see the poor Sorcerer Royal getting upstaged more and more towards the novel's end.

Sorcerer to the Crown
Zen Cho
Ace Books (2015)
371 pages
ISBN: 978-0-425-28337-0

RM75 | Buy from:
•   Kinokuniya
Despite not setting out to "write a 'message' novel", there seems to be some comment on how the West sees the East (no way that old Malay witch could hack into a Brit's crystal ball) and the illusion of Western superiority (oh yes, she did).

And, oh, the utter cringeworthiness in how the privileged abuse finite resources like magic. One bristles at the image of a bunch of dandies amusing themselves and wasting precious mystical reserves by making their reflections recite poetry.

I was wary of joining the growing choir of voices falling under Cho's spell and afraid the hype surrounding her debut was all smoke and mirrors. So I was glad to have enjoyed Sorcerer to the Crown, though I don't think any book deserves offers of marriage in exchange for a good time.

And it ends nicely too, so I wonder if the saga of the Sorcerer Royal should be continued in future instalments. If so, Cho has her work cut out for her to top this effort.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Memoirs Of A Monster

When I started out reviewing books, my aim wasn't to become a literary critic - though there was no harm in aspiring towards being one. A danger of this is that, at some point, I will encounter a book I detest, or run out of steam.

Or I'd discover a book that's so well written and fun, my writer's ego would shrivel into a raisin.

Hence, the title of my blog - which is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as the days drag on.

I have ditched books before. A recent one was the much-hyped The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. Upon finishing it, I knew it would be a long time before I checked out the rest of his bibliography. Does that make me less of a critic, or a reader?

But, so far, no other book has caused me as much pain to read as Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

Originally titled Les Bienveillantes and written in French, this piece of historical fiction is what I'd call the memoirs of a monster. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer during World War Two and director of a lace factory in the "present", speaks to the reader about his life during those troubled times where he either participated in or bore witness to many wartime horrors and atrocities.

I found this over-900-page novel a long, bleak tableau of human misery, evil, hubris and hypocrisy. Nor have I felt a more intense dislike of a fictional character than the one I had of Aue. His attempts to justify his behaviour ("those were the times, I did what I had to" and all that) is offset greatly by the nature of his deeds.

One unsavoury aspect of him is his sexuality, which I felt was played up to make him even less likeable. Aue has a twin sister with whom he had an incestuous relationship. Though he has had numerous homosexual affairs throughout his life, he still has fantasies about his sibling.

The depiction of one of these, located at the last third of this long novel, comes off sounding like a scene from Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version). Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this scene won The Kindly Ones Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for 2009.

At times, he sounds smug, and the long-winded eloquence in his narration feels as though he's smacking the reader down with his above-average intelligence. Yet, he states that "I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!"


And it was hard to keep up with Aue as he trudges through the war-torn landscape, from massacre sites to concentration camp, with stopover in idyllic towns in between. The prose was laborious, the scenes so cheerless and colourless, I started putting the book down every thirty, twenty-five, twenty and a dozen pages.

I no longer wanted to know what happened next. I didn't care who else he screwed and screwed over, who he offended, whether or not he killed his mother and stepfather when his crazy took over his body.

Well, he might be a gentle soul with a brilliant mind, warped by circumstances in life into what he is, but I couldn't - wouldn't - empathise. I just wanted the book to end.

And, when it finally does, I breathed deep and "Oh thank goodness!" ... then it hit me: "Merde, ce connard survived - and he is still alive!"

Thus, one completes the joyless experience in reading the winner of the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in 2006.

If this non-review seems too general, ranty and uninsightful, it's because I relied on Wikipedia to fill in the factual gaps because I can't bring myself to revisit the advanced reading copy I'd been given.

All I now remember of the experience was the pain, which is still palpable every time I see the title.

At some point, not long after this experience, I've resigned myself to the fact that authors are not here solely to entertain or cheer up readers. History is replete with stellar testimonies of human stupidity and cruelty; the Nazi era is but a piece on a big old dirtied and bloodstained tapestry that's still being woven today.

Every now and then, a lone voice from the wilderness reminds us of this.

Littell's research for The Kindly Ones was probably as enervating as the prose, and I can't imagine why he'd go through all that trouble to step into the jackboots of a man like Aue. This undertaking can't be merely an academic exercise.

Perhaps this bit from Wikipedia might shed some light on his motives:

Littell said he wanted to focus on the thinking of an executioner and of origins of state murder, showing how we can take decisions that lead, or not, to a genocide. Littell claims he set out creating the character Max Aue by imagining what he would have done and how he would have behaved if he had been born into Nazi Germany. One childhood event that kept Littell interested in the question of being a killer was the Vietnam War. According to him, his childhood terror was that he would be drafted, sent to Vietnam "and made to kill women and children who hadn't done anything to me."

Whereas the influence of Greek tragedies is clear from the choice of title, the absent father, and the roles of incest and parricide, Littell makes it clear that he was influenced by more than the structure of The Oresteia. He found that the idea of morality in Ancient Greece is more relevant for making judgments about responsibility for the Holocaust than the Judeo-Christian approach, wherein the idea of sin can be blurred by the concepts such as intentional sin, unintentional sin, sinning by thought, or sinning by deed. For the Greeks it was the commission of the act itself upon which one is judged: Oedipus is guilty of patricide, even if he did not know that he was killing his father.

From this, one can say a person can be made to kill people who hadn't truly wronged him. We have many examples of this in recent memory. All that trouble in the Middle East, for starters.

Then and now, my inability to dissect this book like a critic wasn't just hampered by my inexperience but largely by what I felt about the book. To even mention the Bad Sex thing was a low blow. Still, if it was an exploration of how a human behaves during war and how propaganda and circumstance leads one to certain questionable actions, etc., couldn't it have been done with fewer words?

And I think it was this ... wilful refusal to acknowledge this effort - as well as my inability to comprehend the premise behind the novel and the history it portrays - that still haunts me.

I'm still light years away from the badge of "critic", and I've always felt that my harsh and superficial judgement of books like The Kindly Ones casts a deep dark shadow across my efforts to reach that badge.

A shadow I'm still struggling to banish.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Fifth Palate in Kota Damansara: A Love Story

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 22 September 2015

Once upon a time, a couple, Dennis and Joyce, opened an eatery somewhere in Happy Garden. They sold familiar stuff: nasi lemak, fried rice, Nyonya curries and rendang, and a whole lot more.

It's not just what's sold at Fifth Palate, but also the people behind it.

Dennis, who dabbles with home-made stuff like yoghurt, rojak sauce, sesame sauce and the like, sometimes sold the results of his experiments at the eatery, Joy Café.

Though I can’t remember when the café first opened its doors, makan kaki Melody and I have known this place for years. It didn’t take long for Joy to become an institution among residents nearby.

Then, the inevitable: Joy closed its doors towards the end of April 2015. I think the staff turnover was a major factor, apart from age. Imagine having to train new employees from scratch every year or so.

The uncomplicated yet tasty "Everybody Loves Ramen" is certain to be
among Fifth Palate’s signature dishes.

No more home-made yoghurt. No more orange-flavoured white coffee. No more simple heartwarming fare from a couple we’ve known for years.

While I was still digesting this, Melody WhatsApped me a photo of a noodle dish. Of course, she managed to do so while I was hungry and bored at work.

I think my reply was along the lines of “What is it called never mind I know what it is it is lovely it looks good it has egg it has pork IT HAS PORK OMG GIMME OM NOM NOM NOM NOM.”

Even better: this came from a place run by Dennis and Joyce’s kids.

Family affair: Dennis’s home experiments now have a label and
are on sale at Fifth Palate.

That was how I ended up driving all the way from Old Klang Road to Kota effing Damansara to Encorp Strand Office Garden, where Fifth Palate is located.

Inside and out, it looked no different from the dozens of hipster coffee joints out there. But I suppose few millennials would want to open and run a Joy Café-like place, all formica tops and wooden stools, serving kopitiam fare.

♪ What shall we do with this Drunken Frenchman, what shall
we do with this Drunken Frenchman, eat it in the morning~ ♫

The menu was limited in terms of mains: the prerequisite big breakfast was there, along with baked eggs and my quarry: the French toast and the ramen dish Melody told me about.

The components of "Everybody Loves Ramen" is guaranteed to make everybody love ramen. Several thick chunks of pork belly brought back memories of Mom’s steamed pork belly and yam dish; slices of apricot mushroom were a joy to chew; and next to a pile of noodles was a poached egg. All of this was immersed in a flavourful shoyu broth.

I managed to eat my way around the dish until the egg and a bit of broth remained. The intact egg was finally in my mouth and I bit down, flooding every corner with liquid yolk.

A plainclothes waiter came to pick up my empty bowl. “Was it really that good?”

Yes, and I didn’t have breakfast.

Dennis's wheatgrass yoghurt with a touch of pandan: a little jar
of happiness from a once-soulful little corner of Happy Garden.

A little earlier, a waitress asked if I’d like my French toast after my ramen. I said yes, and she told the kitchen to hold it. She returned as I was finishing up, and after checking with me, duly informed the kitchen to start prepping the item.

What service!

The French toast arrived.

Now, a French toast at Joy Café was a French toast. Fifth Palate’s version, the "Drunken Frenchman", was a chthonic-looking pile of fried bacon strips and caramelised bananas stacked on top of the actual French toast, made with Dennis’s home-made chunky peanut butter.

Fifth Palate
Block D-G-1, Encorp Strand Garden Office
Jalan PJU 5/1
47810 Petaling Jaya


Thu-Tue: 10am - 6pm

Closed on Wednesdays

+60 3-6144 0055

Facebook page
(If your hands feel the urge to make signs to repel sin at this point, don’t stop them.)

The "Frenchman" was crowned with a single scoop of Forty Licks vanilla ice-cream garnished with a mint leaf and surrounded by lashings of what might be a Guinness-based reduction.


And how could I wrap up this meal without a taste of Dennis’s wheatgrass yoghurt?

Instead of a tiny tub of recyclable plastic, the yoghurt now comes in a covered glass jar (and a higher price tag) that’s served on a small wooden tray.

Nevertheless, one slurp of that creamy, rich pandan-tinged wheatgrass-y sweetness brought me back to a corner of Happy Garden, surrounded by green walls and listening to LiteFM on an old radio, shooting the breeze with Dennis and Joyce and getting ribbed by Melody over eating too much.

It brought me back home.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Book Marks: Value of Books, More Book Bans, And Blogging

Has the book become "a devalued symbol of human imagination"?

An article on the cost of "free time" in modern working life got academic and writer Fiona O'Connor thinking about how the "time is money" mindset affects writing and the value of books in general.

In the contemporary market economy, invisibly-handed, brand-allied and celebrity-underpinned, how is the great novel, short story or poetry collection to be nurtured? What is the compound interest on genius for the literary canon when sales are the only justification of value?

So Into the River was banned and Penguin Random House New Zealand was disappointed by it.

"Into the River was chosen as the 2013 New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year by a respected panel of judges," it said. "The book deals with difficult issues such as bullying and racism, which are topics adolescents should be able to read about as they may well experience these issues in their own lives."

And, of course, sex. The adults supporting the ban because it's "in the public interest" that adolescents don't learn about sex and sexuality until they're 25 are deluding themselves. There are consequences in sex, regardless of how old people are when have it. Not that I'm saying "better sooner than later".

Meanwhile, a parent in Tennessee apparently confused "gynaecology with pornography" and tried to get The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned, according to the author, Rebecca Skloot. Among the offending passages included a bit on how Ms Lacks discovered her cervical cancer via a self-exam.

Now, one purpose of pornography is to titillate or downright excite, and how can any description of someone discovering a cancer that way do that?

On a related note: Dav Pilkey, author of the bestselling (and most challenged) Captain Underpants series, has quietly revealed that one of his two main protagonists, Harold, grows up to marry a man.

Pilkey wrote in The Guardian:

People often ask me how I'd want to respond to those critics who would rather see my books pulled from shelves than handed to young readers. I do have an answer, and it boils down to the fact that not every book is right for every person. Some grownups are not amused by the kinds of things that make most children laugh, and so they try to stomp those things out.

I understand that people are entitled to their own opinions about books, but it should be just that: a difference of opinion. All that's required is a simple change. Instead of saying "I don't think children should read this book," just add a single word: "I don't think my children should read this book."

When it comes to books, we may not all agree on what makes for a good read – but I hope we can agree that letting children choose their own books is crucial to helping them learn to love reading.


Writer Faisal Tehrani gets the nod to fight the Home Ministry's ban on four of his novels: Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang published by PTS Litera Utama Sdn Bhd; Karbala, published by Abeerden Books World; and Tiga Kali Seminggu and Ingin Jadi Nasrallah, both published by Al-Ameen Serve Holdings Sdn Bhd.

Meet Seymour Britchky, the critic who time forgot:

...When food obsessives cite their heroes, they tend to invoke a particular canon: MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl for their heady, evocative prose; Gael Greene for her saucy wit; R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin for their bonhomous wanderings; Anthony Bourdain for his honed and hungry swagger; Jonathan Gold, because he is Jonathan freaking Gold. Britchky's people are in it for his acid tongue and gimlet eye—the way he etched a menu, a moment, a space, a feeling, an era in dining when not every plate was Instagram-ready, every interaction Yelp-able to the world. For him, every meal was personal, every review a master class in the art of food writing.

A recent book of comics started out when a young man from Kuching, Sarawak got conned.

And being a young man of his time, Goh naturally wanted to blog about this interesting life-lesson. But there was a problem: Goh couldn't possibly narrate this entire incident to his blog's readers.

"It would have been too wordy and less interesting," he recalls thinking.

That is when an ingenious idea lit up in his head: draw a four-frame comic strip about it.

Years later, Once Upon a Miao: Stories from the Other Side of Malaysia, is published. It's a pretty fine book.

Jenny "The Bloggess" Lawson has been on a roll lately. This time, on the question of whether blogging is dead:

The only thing that's dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place. If you're blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like ... I dunno ... making a sex tape.

...But here's the great thing about realizing that making a mint in blogging isn't really feasible or worthwhile ... now you're free to write whatever the shit you want to write without having to worry about brands and advertisers and alienating angry, easily-offended people who are actually really fun to alienate.

...And that's fine because every single writer writes for their own specific reason. Some of us write for a living. Some of us write for fun. Some of us write because we have no other choice because writers write always ... That is what writing is about, and blogging is just one iteration of writing. Writing never dies.

"Writing never dies." Amen.

Pynchon-style writing gives an unknown author's book a boost, thanks to speculation that said author could be Thomas Pynchon himself. As if the catchy cover and title won't. And I suppose it's been established that e-publishing is not the magic bullet some say it is.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Shelter And Sweet, Spicy Succour at Shokudō

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 14 September 2015

I stared at the "Closed" sign hanging on the door. Behind me was the hammering rain and the occasional rumble of thunder.

Panic began tugging at my gut.

As I checked my watch, somebody inside noticed me outside and hurried to remove the sign. Gratefully, I padded inside, leaving the bad weather behind me.

Shokudō, at Taman Paramount — your friendly neighbourhood
kare raisu place.

I am fond of curries; Japanese curry, in particular, but despaired at finding a place that has decent examples of this dish. Yes, there's that huge franchised outlet in 1 Utama and it makes good albeit expensive stuff, but that's like two kilometres of rush-hour gridlock to go through on weekdays and you are oh so tired...

So when I heard of Shokudō's existence, I checked it out. It seemed so long ago since my first time there, I can't believe that it only opened early 2015.

The interior of Shokudō: Reminiscent of the kind of eatery in
your food-related manga dreams.

Nor can I remember when my first experience with Japanese curry was. As a teenager, what I knew of it and Japanese cuisine in general came from the works of such manga artists as Daisuke Terasawa. I've since learnt that one acquires the taste for certain flavours in cuisines, apart from their history and the trivia surrounding them.

According to Japanese food company S&B, the first Japanese to eat curry (abroad) was Kenjiro Yamakawa, a scion of a samurai family who went on to become a physicist, teacher and historian.

And in 1912, the recipe for Japanese curry — with its familiar carrots and potatoes — came about and was later adopted by the Japanese army to feed its troops. Japan eventually came up with its own curry powder, and the dish is so widely eaten today, it's about as iconic as sushi.

Acquiring the taste of Japanese curry should be easy. If you can't, we can't be friends.

Tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork loin cutlet) curry rice
is plain comfort after a long day.

Shokudō literally means "dining hall" or "canteen" in Nihongo, though I prefer "mess hall" — in honour of the first adopters of the curry in Japan. It's reminiscent of the kind of eatery run by Yōichi Ajiyoshi, the young protagonist of Terasawa's Mr Ajikko manga: long tables, spacious walkways, simple yet unmistakably Japanese décor. This local mess hall in Taman Paramount is also clean and neat.

Choose from over a dozen varieties of kare raisu, all made with the same fundamentals: curry sauce and short-grain rice garnished with a cherry tomato and a few slices of pickled ginger. The prerequisite carrots and potatoes are there, blended finely into the sauce to make the plate look less cluttered — a little twist by Shokudō's boss and his mentor from another establishment.

Kani cream korokke: Cream croquettes with a bit of crab
inside, plus a side salad.

Pick your favourite protein: tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork loin cutlet), hirekatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork fillet cutlet, which has less fat), torikatsu (breaded and — yes, just with chicken fillet), buta or tori yakiniku (stir-fried pork or chicken), or even vegetables and korokke (cream croquettes). You can even make each dish a set with a soup, salad and green tea.

And this is only half the menu, which also features a variety of "specials" (including unagi don — banzai!), appetisers, snacks and a few desserts.

Fiery local curries are always a treat but, as one ages, the stomach yearns for mellower fare. Japanese kare fills that niche nicely. All the piquancy, minus the tongue-scouring heat, made for the end of a lousy day, especially stormy evenings.

On some days, a tori yakiniku curry rice (part of a set meal here, with
soup and a salad) will also work wonders on a weary soul.

Breaded, deep-fried stuff hates me, the way they scratch the roof of my mouth. Soaking it for a bit in curry sauce helps and it goes down easier. The tonkatsu is chewy, and what's not to like about that glistening fat? Some days I prefer the stir-fried chicken, which is just as nice.

Not up to curry? FINE. Shokudō has several non-curry udon and other dishes you can also assemble a set with, plus salads (including one with salmon), salmon sashimi, slices of marinated duck breast and other Japanese titbits to chew on while waiting for your main course.

(We still can't be friends.)

While you wait for the main course, how about some chewy, lip-smacking
and appetite-whetting marinated duck breast (aigamo rousuni)?

This rainy evening, I settled down to a set meal of a kare rice with stir-fried chicken, plus an appetiser of marinated duck breast. The duck is medium rare, sliced finely and served with sliced...

Shokudō Japanese Curry Rice
No.9, Jalan 20/13
Taman Paramount
46300 Petaling Jaya


Lunch - Noon to 3pm
Dinner - 6pm to 10pm

Closed on Mondays

+60 3-7863 0922

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"It's onion," said the boss, who wouldn't look out of place at a fitness centre. "Can't tell, can you?"

Okay, not daikon, then.

The temptation to shovel mouthfuls of curry rice with abandon was hard to resist. This is comfort food, and I can understand its wide appeal. After a hard day's work, a nice plate of kare raisu can be as comforting as a warm bed.

Though the rain cleared long after I cleaned my plate, I was in no hurry to leave. Some Japanese tunes eased into the hall, replacing the acoustic version of some Western pop song. A lovely, familiar aroma wafted from the kitchen. As I filled my cup with hot green tea for the third time, the urge to order seconds grew.