Friday, February 20, 2009

Simmons On Dickens

The words "fiction" and "history" both appeared for my previous review. Wha...?

I could not - at the time - comment on this book under my real name; I'd written about Simmon's other book, the similarly brick-like The Terror. So no comparisons with this latest offering, which I thought was a bit better. Only a bit.



Fiction and history
first published in The Star, 20 February 2009

Did you know that Charles Dickens worked as a law office clerk and journalist before writing the stories that made him a household name? It explains works like Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House – as a clerk, he saw just how hard it was for the poor in Victorian England to seek justice. These stories highlighted the conditions the poor had to endure during those times.

Old Charlie's life deserves novelisation as well: he had a hard early life, a rocky road to fame, and a tragic decline following a train accident.
Drood
Dan Simmons
Hyperion
773 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-316-03685-6

The train crash occurred at Staplehurst in Kent, England, on June 9, 1865. Ten passengers were killed and 40 injured. Dickens, who was not injured, was commended for his efforts to help his fellow passengers. It was rumoured, however, that the author didn't want to testify about the crash because his alleged mistress, Ellen Ternan, was travelling with him. He was never the same after the crash, and died five years to the day after the accident. (Some information sourced from Wikipedia.)

When he died on June 9, 1870, he left behind an unfinished murder mystery, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some authors have attempted to provide their own endings for the story, and it was even made into a film several times (in 1909, 1914, 1935, and 1993).

Dan Simmon's approach to Edwin Drood is quite unique: it is Dickens who's under the spotlight in this mystery/sci-fi thriller called, simply, Drood.

The story begins with the events prior to the Staplehurst crash and is narrated by real-life English playwright and novelist William Wilkie Collins, generally considered as Dickens' friend and collaborator, and author of works such as The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

In Drood, however, Simmons casts Collins as Dickens' "Salieri-type rival" (Antonio Salieri was an 18th century Italian composer who envied the more-talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In a similar way, Simmons' Collins feels that his own achievements were eclipsed by Dickens' genius.

After returning from Staplehurst, Dickens tells Collins what transpired: his attempts to rescue and care for the survivors, and his encounter with a cloaked apparition who called himself "Drood". From this point the tale veers towards the supernatural, as Collins begins his investigation into this Drood character.

I suspect that it's more about digging up dirt on Dickens rather than any expression of concern for Dicken's personal well-being. Collins also begins questioning his friend's mental health after learning about his mentor's interest in mesmerism (or hypnotism) and corpse disposal techniques.

Is the mysterious Drood just a figment of Dicken's disturbed psyche or is he real – and dangerous? As he has done before, Simmons weaves fiction and history together by including the characters in Dicken's unfinished Edwin Drood (such as John Jasper and Princess Puffer) and real-life figures from Dickens' era, in Drood.

But the novel doesn't completely answer one question: whether Drood himself was real, or if Collins had made it all up, producing a fantastic tale of ancient Egyptian death cults in Victorian London out of his addiction to laudanum, an opium-based drug (the historical Collins suffered from a kind of arthritis that hurt so badly, he took laudanum for it). In certain passages he sounds rather ... high. And low.

There's quite a bit in Drood that reminds me of Simmons' previous work, The Terror, a historical fiction based on the British expedition to find the North-West Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean. There is a nod to this in Drood: Dickens also wrote plays, and one of them, The Frozen Deep, is about this expedition. Ellen Ternan supposedly starred in a version of this play. Drood also mentions Dickens' other jobs: publisher, editor, and contributor to journals Household Words and All The Year Round. History and literature buffs (and maybe Simmons fans) may appreciate the inclusions of these little details.

Simmons is good with atmosphere, backdrops, and such, but like his previous works, he also likes going back and forth between the past and the present. Novels that use this device demand your focus and attention – blink and you'll miss the connections.

The narration is believable – to me it sounded like Collins talking. When one considers that The Moonstone was seen as the precursor to the English detective novel, it makes perfect sense to have Collins narrate the story. This portrayal of Collins is a bit unsettling, though; the resentment he feels for Dickens in Drood drips from the pages.

Still, I feel Drood would be just fine as an olde English mystery and thriller without all that mythological hocus-pocus. Simmons may have a reputation as an award-winning sci-fi author (with one Hugo Award, three Locus Awards, and a World Fantasy Award under his belt), but I'm sure it wouldn't it kill him to write something less sci-fi once in a while.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Frogs

The frog is an amphibian, meaning it lives in both water and land. Most frogs have long hind legs, a short body, webbed digits and no tail. They move on land by jumping or climbing. Frogs are generally recognised as the best jumper of all vertebrates. The Australian rocket frog, for instance, can leap over fifty times its body length, resulting in jumps of over two meters.

Frogs usually lay their eggs in water. Their young, called tadpoles, have gills and grow up in water. Adult frogs eat mostly worms, insects and other small invertebrates. The most fearsome muncher is the American bullfrog, which is considered a pest and known to devour small birds and rodents. Frogs have a noisy call, which is usually loud and most frequently heard during mating seasons. Most frog species are found in tropical rainforests.

Despite having lungs, frogs can breathe through their skin, which must remain moist in order for this to happen. This makes the slimy amphibians the canaries in the goldmine when it comes to air and water pollution. With heaps of frogs worldwide dying each year, the planet must be quite sick indeed.

Frogs are mostly edible, except for species such as the poison dart frogs of Latin and South America; one lick or touch can be potentially deadly. In certain Southeast Asian countries, frogs' legs are steamed with garlic, ginger or essence of chicken, to create nearly chicken-like dishes, or in the preparation of congee. The Fallopian tubes of a certain frog are extracted, cleaned (in a fashion) and dried and sold as hasma, a food the Chinese consider as "cooling", with skin-nourishing properties.

Personally, I wouldn't mind the occasional bowl of hasma, but when it comes to chicken-like meat, give me the real thing any day.

So that's my take frogs. What about the other kind?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Loudspeakers And The Devil's Place

I flew off to Singapore courtesy of a PR firm for the unveiling of the "new" Altec Lansing brand. One of the new products was the Expressionist Bass speaker set, as shown below on the left.


"Excavating good looks" (left), and "Malaysia, Truly Aiya!" in
Off The Edge, February 2009


After wrestling with the angle for a bit, I came up with the "Jurassic Park scientists' gene-splicing" thing, which was essentially what they were doing with the new products. Altec Lansing, it turns out, has quite a history, and the design team looked to that history when they revitalised the brand. It was quite neat. And the speakers were awesome.



Devil's Place was a totally different story.

I was quite apprehensive when I finished the book. How was I going to sum up this funny, rip-roaring, wild ride of a novel? Thank goodness the piece only required two hundred-plus words and a Q&A with the author. Devil's Place was one book that spoke for itself, and author Brian Gomez was a joy to interview, even if it was only through e-mail.

Courtship, Gift of the GAB

It's pretty much common knowledge that corporations and publishers have a kind of symbiotic relationship. Pages are money.

So why not give Hotel Nikko, among others, the occasional eensy bit of space to advertise their events, products and promotions? Apparently, Nikko provided the quiet, comfortable rooms for The Edge's high-profile interviews; low background noise means much easier transcription.

When you're trying to help them sell their RM23,000++ Royal Suite package for Valentine's, however, no amount of copywriting can guarantee a booking ...or can it?


"Courtship" (left), and "Gift of the GAB", Off The Edge, February 2009


I ended up ringing a bunch of top hotels to find out if they had a top suite, and how much it cost per night. It was, like many things I've done for the mag, eye-opening. And instead of just an ad, it explained why some hotels have such... opulent suites in the first place.

The other piece was - I think - unsolicited. Guinness Anchor Berhad's GAB Academy gives - roughly - sommelier-style training to people who sell beer and stout. It was more fun to do, except for the part where I had to ring up the Customs agency, which could not be reached in time.

It's supposed to be "Gift of the GAB", but the all-caps made the pun easier.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Readings' Fourth

Goodness, is it Readings' fourth anniversary already? Time doesn't just fly, it's got an intergalactic warp drive strapped to its back.

Shantini Venugopal
Shantini Venugopal
Rainy weather kept the party indoors where space is already at a premium, even without the art installations. A micro-bookfest was set up next to the buffet table where the birthday cake and chips were. Attractions included Sharanya Mannivanan's Witchcraft, Ruhayat X's Aweks KL anthology, and Amir Muhammad's new book. The books turned out to be more popular than the food - few seemed to be in the mood to snack. This was true for those who returned from their Chinese New Year holidays.

Writer Yvonne Foong was also there to sell her books and T-shirts. It was a pity she couldn't enjoy the session because of her impaired hearing; the stories were all well-written and largely entertaining - especially the funnier ones. She came by taxi, but when the session was over there was no cab for her address (or rather, no cab wanted to go to her address), so one of the attendees drove her home.

...and I didn't take any pictures of her or her wares. ...Her wares... gah, I forgot to buy a T-shirt...! I can't believe it - although some who know me can...

Umapagan Ampikaipakan
Umapagan Ampikaipakan
Shantini Venugopal of Instant Café Theatre read her Karmic Tale, a hilarious cautionary tale about the subterranean parking lots at The Gardens/Mid Valley she penned on FaceBook. Because her printer and laptop aren't on speaking terms, she read the story out of the laptop while the printer sulked at home.

Some of us have probably braved the perils of the modern Malaysian parking lot design (also found at Pavilion KL) for our unsalted butter, vanilla extract and cream crackers. I've personally gotten lost a few times. Can Karmic Tale be expanded into an ad campaign for better parking lots? Preferably by Yasmin Ahmad?

Brian Gomez
Brian Gomez
Umapagan Ampikaipakan - who writes for the NST - was next with excerpts from some of his articles. I've read his comments on Bibliobibuli, but never saw him in person. Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome kicked in after introducing myself to him. "You're the one with the (nearly) unpronounceable name," I said (even Sharon needed practice with it).

"That's a bit racist," Amir Muhammad jabbed. "Just because you come from a land of monosyllabic names..." Unintentional, Amir. Honest.

Umapagan's scribblings about the results of the US Presidential Elections was funny and evocative, but somewhat diluted by his rapid-fire, typewriter-style diction.

Iain Buchanan
Iain Buchanan
Brian Gomez read a few passages from his debut novel Devil's Place. I'd written a blurb on the book for a local publication, but looking at it now, I don't think I did it justice. Maybe I should have stuck with, "Fast-paced, violent, vulgar, and laugh-out-loud entertaining. Buy. Now. For Xmas 2009.", but it was a rather high-brow publication that needed something long-winded.

Copies of Devil's Place brought to Readings went like cash rebates for petrol at post offices nationwide - after Gomez's turn at the mike, of course. There's nothing like hearing the author read his own work.

And because this is my own publication, here's what I think of Devil's Place: Fast-paced, violent, vulgar, and laugh-out-loud entertaining. Buy. Now. For Xmas 2009. Because by then all copies will be at the Home Ministry and your copy (or copies) will be worth heaps on eBay or Lelong.com.

Amir Muhammad
Needs no introduction
The mood changed during Iain Buchanan's turn. His book, Fatimah's Kampung is the poignant story of a village's disappearance hit all the right notes, particularly for those who have read about Singapore's last rural village on the International Herald Tribune. And because Fatimah's Kampung is an illustrated work, it has more storytelling power. Buchanan could do more for the beautiful, rustic rurals than say, the Old Town (kopitiam) ad campaign. FunnyBunny should meet him. They could talk all day - at least.

I didn't take too many pictures of Amir Muhammad, since he's so recogniseable. He dropped by to "read" something from his latest offering, Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things, Volume 2. It was more like showcasing rather than reading, I thought.

This time, the soundbites in Volume 2 are given more side-splitting power by Fahmi Reza's outrageously hilarious scrapbook style graphics - the reason one distributor (or publisher?) declined to touch it. I bought my copy at a bookstore because Amir didn't issue receipts for tax deductions.

Peter and Markiza
Peter Brown and Markiza
...in retrospect, maybe I should have bought my copy at Readings and have it autographed. It would've made a great keepsake. And Volume 2 is just as irreverent as Devil's, if not more...

By the end more people were buying Yvonne's T-shirts or books, and I couldn't pay attention to the last reader, Saiful Nizam bin Shukor (my apologies). And yes, the humidity and time of day were lowering my eyelids. I keep them open; time travels fast if you don't pay attention - before you know it, it'll be Readings' fifth.

In-house entertainment was provided by Peter and Markiza. Missed them? Click the link for their next gigs.

Same time - and place - next year?