Sunday, August 26, 2012

News: Snark Week in Publishing

Shnark attacks
Online mobs stifle literature, author suggests. One can also extend that to literary criticism, but it doesn't help when you have reviews that sound like the shitstorm-stirring put-down of Alix Ohlin's books. From the looks of it, the reviewer couldn't find much to say about the books (i.e. he didn't like them). Martim Amis's Lionel Asbo also received brickbats, along with the occasional 'balanced' opinions like this.

Somebody at Salon.com makes a case for positive book reviews, and gives some further reading on the subject. But here's how to write a good "bad review" - if you really, really need to. Meanwhile, a reviewer looks back at his "infamous" review of Pretty Woman two decades ago and decides it wasn't really that hot, thanks to its "miffed, hectoring, and righteously unamused" tone. Another case for ditching unrestrained snarkiness.


Controversy? Not here
Glenn Beck, peddler of paranoia, may publish David Barton's controversial book on Thomas Jefferson, said to contain factual inaccuracies. No problem for Beck, who seems totally immune to facts. Meanwhile, Ousted Komen exec Karen Handel will tell her side of Planned Parenthood story in a book whose title says everything. Note also the September 11 launch date - what is she trying to say? Somewhere south of the border, two old Latin American recalcitrants may be working on a book. 2012 is a good year to publish, it seems.


Even authors need agents these days
Getting the right fit: the job of a literary agent. For some authors who think six months is too long a period to get noticed, Michael Bourne writes, "Mainstream publishing is a Rube Goldberg machine of perverse economic incentives, in which large numbers of mostly idiotic self-help guides, diet books, and airport thrillers subsidize an ever-shrinking number of mostly money-losing literary novels and books of poetry.

"But just because publishing operates on a crazy economic model doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense," he adds. "There is a market, however tiny, for good books, and there are a small number of smart, hard-working people who live for the thrill of finding a talented author. If you are one of those talented authors, then it is your job to stop whining and figure out how to make it easy for them to find you."

Unless you're Barton, Beck, or Handel, perhaps. "Talent", you understand.


Other news
  • The late Alexander Cockburn more or less accused Orwell of being racist and bigoted. WINCE. And someone else suggests the author of 1984 wasn't quite the truth-teller people thought he was.

  • From what Man Booker prize-winner Howard Jacobson says, 'good readers' are getting harder to find, and that political correctness is partly to blame for weakening appetites for the "expression of an ugly point of view" in books.

  • Lee Goldberg on book trailers: "Why don't you just take whatever cash you have and flush it down [the] toilet?"

  • "We were quoted out of context:" Lonely Planet responds to Foreign Policy's "leftist planet" article.

  • Who needs publishers and bookstores? Everybody, it seems. ...Okay. I'm paraphrasing, but that's the impression I got after reading it...

  • In India, it's raining publications but the literary landscape is dry.

  • Funny, crass non-person Ruth Bourdain is coming up with a "guide to gastronomy". Someone (forgot who) asked the obvious question: Who will they make the royalty cheques out to?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Late News: New Words, Spilled Ink, and Apple for Orange

Despite one additional day, I didn't quite enjoy the long Hari Raya (Eid ul-Fitr) weekend. But I didn't want the whole week off, since next week's a four-day week.

Anyway:

  • CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria was the latest to be snared in a plagiarism scandal. The blog Foreign Policy tries to figure out why. Zakaria was eventually reinstated at TIME and CNN after brief suspension, but he has resigned from his position at the board of Yale University.

  • Buenos Aires gives pensions to ageing writers, as GOP candidate pledges cuts to US arts.

  • Mob justice goes awry as authors shut down legit book lending site.

  • Tired of celebs touting quack cures and dubious science? Here are some fictional characters, promoting cures based on established science. What? Darth Vader's a fellow asthmatic? And Sauron uses OPTREX eye wash?

  • Some pleasures and pitfalls of online self-publishing. Because you can't have too many of such lists.

  • Coffee, cafés and coups: A Naguib Mahfouz novel and a café's role in Egypt's revolution.

  • How paperbacks transformed the way Americans (and us) read.

  • When writing can kill you: AL Kennedy's hard lesson.

  • "Imma sexting in mah man-cave, stuffing mah brains wi' Kanye's newest earworm of a track, y'all." New words in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

  • Are these travel guides - "clotted with historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing" - shilling for dictators? Maybe not.

  • "Prestige-free zone": Has the young adult genre become a woman's world?

  • Apple may emerge as the new sponsor for Orange Prize for Fiction. Let the fruity puns fly.

  • A reader laments the disappearance of great books.

  • Follow the travails of a literary débutante - if you really must.

  • Blogger/writer doesn't trust online book reviews.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Induced Nostalgia

I'd gotten this book sometime back, but I can't remember if I put it into my reading list.

Was this a good book? Not really. Though it was reminiscent of a previous book, something about this one felt rushed.



Induced nostalgia
Don't dwell on the past

first published in The Star, 19 August 2012

For some, nostalgia is like a drug. In the United States, for instance, many are longing for the good old days. This nostalgia-as-drug metaphor is expanded and explored in Dan Simmons's novel Flashback, which takes place in what could be the mother-of-all-post-apocalyptic-worlds.

About 20 years from now, global order is topsy-turvy. The United States, European Union and China have collapsed; Japan is run by clannish feudal families and oversees a new South-East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere; large swathes of Israel are uninhabitable nuclear wastelands; and there's a Global Islamic Caliphate.

Also: the United States is several states short, Texas is a republic, and criminal elements comprising Hispanic gangs, Russian mafia and others are wreaking havoc.

Every (middle-class white) American's nightmare has come true, and over 80% of the population is seeking respite through flashback, a drug that lets its users mentally re-live the best moments of their lives. Contributing to the chaos are flash gangs, groups of miscreants who commit crimes and revisit them with the drug.

Disgraced police officer Nick Bottom (great name!) is a flashback addict who finds solace in the memories of his late wife. Embarrassingly, he's caught using the drug on video prior to a meeting with a client. So this client, a Japanese bigwig called Nakamura, sends his top goon with Bottom to make sure he does his job and keep him from going "under the flash". Nakamura wants the truth behind his son's death, a case Bottom investigated years ago.

Back home, Bottom's father-in-law receives an ominous warning to leave home over a flash gang's crime – a gang whose members include Bottom's estranged son, Val. Things get really hot when Val's gang ambushes and fails to kill a top Japanese diplomat. Son and grandfather go on the run, while Bottom learns, to his shock, that his late wife might be involved in the case he's now investigating. Old wounds are opened as Bottom gets to the bottom of the unsolved murder – and the murky beginnings of the American addiction to the past.

In Black Hills, Simmons suggests that that mankind's greed may eventually ruin the world. That happens, in a way, in Flashback. How it happened can be found in the book, but it's so tangled up with the other threads in the story, unravelling each thread for a better look can be tedious. About halfway through, you just don't care anymore.

The novel starts out slowly, exploring the Bottoms' background which nobody will eventually care about. About two-thirds into it, the pace accelerates because the book is running out of pages. Things start "falling into place" like Newton's apples at various points: A cellphone, some video footage, and bits of information from shady power-brokers reminiscent of James Bond villains, all build up to a plotline pile-up of an ending where the whole novel is supposed to – finally! – make sense ... but falls short of that.

Bottom's not even a protagonist in the true sense of the word. He feels more like a pawn in a very cluttered, ruined chessboard with mostly broken pieces.

It's hard to connect or relate to characters, whom I feel are less important than the world they're set in. The "eerily possible" scenario feels authentic, but the characters don't seem to belong there.

Flashback
Dan Simmons
Reagan Arthur (2011)
553 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-316-10198-1

RM 59.90 | Buy from MPHOnline.com

2.5 out of 5
At first blush, and from the inclusion of a reading group guide, it looks as though Simmons is trying to do more than just entertain with this novel, despite his claim that, "hell, no!", Flashback does not state his political views. Why he wrote this book is explained in the guide, more or less, which leaves little room for a reviewer to come to his own conclusions.

But let me try.

Simmons' dystopia is America's nightmare, writ large. He's taken the fears of his fellow Americans, ramped it up to 25, and weaved it into what looks like a dystopian sci-fi thriller with a message: Stop dwelling in the past, face the pain of the present, and move on towards what could be a better future. And there's a lot of pain in the United States right now.

"You can't have life without pain," Simmons writes. "You can't have a future without pain. Being alive means having the strength to face pain and loss and to find something real through it and beyond it."

Great message, albeit one that's about 500 pages too long.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wildlife Trap

Descending from a shopping mall escalator days ago, I spied an Indian girl with a pen and a board covered in signatures. Seeing me, she called out, "先生, 簽名." One of several promoters for the World Wildlife Fund.

I should've listened to my gut, but I was curious - and she was rather pretty.

As I neared, her superior took over. "Hello sir, do you know who we are bla bla bla this is what we do yadda yadda our programmes bla bla bla deforestation, trees being cut down everywhere this that this that do you know how many tigers we have left?"

Err... 200?

"There are five hundred left," she went, pointing to the figures in red on the pamphlet I was not allowed to take - probably because I haven't ponied up any F for the WW.

"Only 500, because they're being caught just for their fur Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet this is how you can help if you give consectetur adipisicing elit one ringgit a day sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt over 12 ringgit a year ut labore et dolore magna aliqua tax deductible keep the receipt you don't have to do anything Ut enim ad minim veniam fill in these forms what's your name Visa? Mastercard? Amex? Not Amex? Then you definitely must have one of the other two..."

In my fevered panic, I could only catch a few words; everything else sounded garbled. Without laying a hand on me, this wildlife conservation official pinned me down like a butterfly. Maybe she learnt that from tigers.

"...oh not yet what's your concern sir quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris why don't you visit our web site it's right here-" on the pamphlet I was not allowed to take "-have a look and if you're convinced we'll be here until tonight nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequa no problem sir have a nice day."

Sweet, sweet, freedom. I think I got off easy.

WWF certainly got their work cut out for them. Especially with the existence of characters like "a certain Mr Chan", a shark fin seller in Hong Kong, who makes his case for the massacre of sharks, thus: "It's not cruel at all killing sharks. There are so many sharks out there and if you don't kill them, they will kill you."

The web site for World Wildlife Fund (Malaysia) has a main donation page but, at the time of posting, the "Save the Tigers", "Save the Turtles" and "Climate Change" links were bad. Maybe the web site needs a donation campaign, too.

Do not get sucked in by signature collectors. Ever.


Admiral Ackbar of 'Star Wars' is © Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox

Monday, August 13, 2012

News: Matters of Style, A-Words, and Various Stuff

Stylo Coelho
Paulo Coelho says James Joyce's "Ulysses" is all style, no substance. Sure enough, the responses came. One even suggests that Coelho's work is no less... showy? Others wonder why he's doing this. Coelho's sticking to his guns, but denies attacking Joyce.


Jerk jock worship?
Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg explores the apparent idolatry of assholes like Trump, Jobs and Zuckerberg. Just when this blogger/writer has had enough of snark in book reviews.

Speaking of which...


Books, reviewed - kinda
"The David Barton Lies"? A controversial book on Thomas Jefferson by the equally controversial demagogue was reportedly dropped by publisher for factual errors, spurred by the criticisms of the views presented in this book by some Christian scholars. As if something with a "foreword by Glenn Beck" has any shred of credibility.

For Keith Ridgway, author of Hawthorn & Child (2012), everything in life is fiction - but he seems to have no clue how to write it. Maybe that's why Scott Pack thinks Ridgway's latest says is "not a novel" but a "bloody frustrating", "mildly disappointing" book. These days, that's good PR.


Other news
  • The publishing industry is burning bright, thanks to Fifty Shades. Like Nero's Rome, maybe?

  • Follow the travails of a literary debutante - if you really must.

  • John Steinbeck's son slams Texas's use of dad's fictional character to justify execution.

  • New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus takes us into his world.

  • Six things to do to get a short story collection published - if anyone out there is still writing short story collections.

  • This guy wrote a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island?

  • E-books may be cheaper to make, but still need effort to sell.

  • Will Self: "I don't write for readers." An interview with Will Self.

  • Cyndi Lauper lands a book deal with Simon & Schuster, where she used to work at. Talk about "true colours".

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mrs Moorhouse's Longest Day

No idea why the paper thought this would make a better headline, but ... oh well.

Good book. Read it.



Make room on the shelf
This is a surprising debut that you’d do well to welcome into your home

first published in The Star, 10 August 2012


Like the TV series 24, which stretches a single day over 24 episodes, much of Anne Korkeakivi’s more-than-200-page novel about a diplomat’s wife with a troubled past chronicles the events of one day. It’s hard to count exactly how many days pass in it, though, with all the flashbacks spliced in between the main narrative.

In An Unexpected Guest, Clare, the Irish-American spouse of Edward Moorhouse, the British Minister in Paris, is making preparations for dinner at their Residence, and she needs to help her husband make a good impression. So she taps her skills as hostess, mediator and procurer of fine ingredients to make the occasion great.

Earlier, she had discovered that Edward may be posted to Dublin next as an ambassador, a place that holds memories for her from 20 years ago – memories she’d rather forget.

Things get worse for her once she starts seeing a face in the crowd as she goes about her errands: Niall, an intense Irish lad who had got under her skin, mixed with a very wrong crowd and ended up dead ... but did he really die?

Struggling to hide her inner turmoil as her worst fears are confirmed, Clare also has to keep the peace between mercurial half-Swiss, half-Scottish chef Mathilde and the local help at the Residence, whom Clare is depending upon to make the dinner a hit. There’s also her son James, who has snuck over to Paris from boarding school in England. Later, Clare learns that a Turkish man she had earlier helped with directions has been arrested as a suspected political assassin.

In this novel, Paris is tense following trouble that ensued when French lawmakers discuss a bill that would criminalise denials of the Armenian massacres (1915-1917) that took place in Ottoman-ruled Turkey. In real life, this happened around 2006. This pegs the novel’s timeline within the post-9/11 era, which has seen incidents the likes of the infamous 7/7 attacks in London and the recent Hat Yai incidents in Thailand. Which is why, a), Clare feels exceptionally haunted by her time in Ireland and fears for the safety of her son; and b), why readers will probably be able to empathise with her.

Steeped as it is in today’s tumultuous and sometimes violent political and ideological realities, the novel doesn’t preach peace or side with anyone, but instead uses the setting to bring into prominence the concerns of a mother who works in the diplomatic service. If it sounds real, it’s probably because Korkeakivi is also a mother and her own husband is with the United Nations.

An Unexpected Guest
Anne Korkeakivi
Little, Brown and Company (2012)
277 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-316-21266-3

RM 49.90 | Buy from:
•  Kinokuniya
•  MPHOnline.com
•  Times Bookstores

3.5 out of 5
Oh, no, not another 200-page-long diary entry disguised as a novel, you say? But Korkeakivi manages to pull it off, keeping things exciting enough so that we don’t get too bored. The story is well-crafted, and many little details that seem irrelevant, such as Clare’s poor grasp of numbers, become significant later. Several other loose ends are tied up as well, including the connection between young James’s problem and his mother’s own youth.

One little issue I had with the novel was the apparent rush to establish ties between Niall and Clare when they first met. It was hard to believe that the brusque, thick-skinned Niall could charm the caution out of a younger Clare with his rough manner and bonny blue eyes.

Given Korkeakivi’s impressive writing chops in fiction and non-fiction (she’s been published in such eminent publications as The Atlantic magazine, The Yale Review, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal), such a wonderful debut novel shouldn’t be a surprise. But what a surprise it is. Her “unexpected guest” should be made welcome on bookshelves everywhere.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

News: Courts, Copycats and Come-Lately Jennys

Books in the dock
The High Court rejected Borders's application to stop further action by Jawi over the raid and book seizure at its premises at The Gardens, Mid Valley City. The Appeals Court, however, granted Borders that order. The case will be heard in the Syariah High Court on 19 September. More on the case can be read here.

Elsewhere: Suaram's chief lost the appeal over the banning of a book on the 2001 Kampung Medan riot. And the arrest of political cartoonist Zunar was ruled lawful, but not the seizure of his books. Nope, not sure how this works, either.


Copycat controversy
Alleged self-plagiarist Jonah Lehrer quit The New Yorker for Imagine-ing Bob Dylan quotes. Disgraced New York Times journo Jayson Blair wonders why Lehrer didn't learn from his (Blair's) mistakes. Owie.

Lehrer now joins a list of people who made things up or passed off the work of others as their own. But it seems they left out QR Markham on this list.

On a related note: While plugging his own book, a veteran journalist asks whether the increasing vigilance over journalistic fraud is improving journalism in general.

Meanwhile, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is offering refunds (probably just for the US) for those who bought Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works because, well, I guess copying is not how creativity works. Not sure if it'll be worth it - better to keep the book.


Shady spin-offs
After Fifty Shades, another series about a steamy professor-student relationship rises from the depths of Twilight fanficdom. They'll be doing all kinds of fetishes before the current wave starts losing steam. Can I call the next one - train passenger and groper?

Also coming: an erotica series (ho hum) coming from author of a teen werewolf YA series. Team Jacob finally gets something. Elsewhere, someone asks whether EL James's commercialisation of her fanfic is a betrayal of the Twilight fanficdom.


Earthsea revival
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Simon & Schuster are to reissue the six-book Earthsea series. The joint project where HMH contributed to the editorial process appears to signal better things for the publisher, who has to deal with imminent bankruptcy and the more recent Lehrergate.


Other news
  • Flipping the bird at literature: the strange story of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

  • Why readers pirate e-books. Take note, everybody.

  • Writer who met his wife at Borders wonders if bookstores will still exist when his kid is old enough to enjoy them.

  • "You hear all this whining going on, 'Where are our great writers?' The thing I might feel doleful about is: 'Where are the readers?'" RIP Gore Vidal.

  • "I screwed a lot of girls here." That and other untweetables from the graffiti of ancient Pompeii suggests that there was no moral decline in US or, for that matter, the world.

  • "Why is my work so upsetting for people?" An interview with former Booker winner James Kelman.

  • On Amazon, e-books selling more than print. Will print-buying diehards be discriminated into picking up e-readers?

  • A freelance journo shares some money tips.

  • New Zealand's publishing sector is banking on gains from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

  • Mark Billingham says pint-sized book prices devalues books, harms (self-)publishing industry.

  • Are these the ten most difficult books of all time?

  • Dr Sleep, sequel to The Shining, coming around January 2013?

  • James Gleick, author of The Information, struggles with that "impish god" called Autocorrect.

  • The history of "Zzz...". When did we start associating sleep with sawing logs?

  • Is social media blunting honest (and edgy) literary criticism?

  • Blurbing books with hip-hop lyrics. They picked 50 Cent's for Fifty Shades.

  • No desert rose: How to avoid writing flowery profiles of dictators' wives.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Darkened By Fifty Shades

"Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, this is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever," goes the back copy.

Yes, it will. In a very, very bad way.

NOT recommended reading
A chilling wail wakes him. Christ! He's drenched in sweat and his heart is pounding. What the f—? He sits bolt upright in bed and puts his head in his hands. F—. They're back. The noise was me. He takes a deep steadying breath, trying to rid his mind and nostrils of the smell of cheap bourbon and stale Camel cigarettes.

The quality of writing notwithstanding: Why is his solo scene written in her voice? Does she have eyes in his room or what? And how does she know what he is having nightmares of?

This is buying her a house (in Malaysia) every week or so?

This has outsold the (relatively better-written) Harry Potter series?

The author reportedly said she was embarrassed by the books' success, and admitted that she's not a good writer.

And so a pattern develops: wake, work, cry, sleep. Well, try to sleep. I can't even escape him in my dreams. Gray burning eyes, his lost look, his hair burnished and bright all haunt me. And the music ... so much music—I cannot bear to hear any music. I am careful to avoid it at all costs. Even the jingles in commercials make me shudder.

...I have become my own island state. A ravaged, war-torn land where nothing grows and the horizons are bleak. Yes, that's me. I can interact impersonally at work, but that's it. If I talk to Mom, I know I will break even further—and I have nothing left to break.

...Holy shit. An e-mail from Christian. Oh no, not here ... not at work.

Sugar-coating much?

Still, not too shabby for what was once Twilight fan fiction. Spun off what I consider a catalyst for the deluge of young adult novels and manuscripts of a similar theme in bookstores and editors' in-trays.

I clutch my forehead. Why hasn't Jose phoned? Come to think of it—why hasn't anyone phoned? I've been so absentminded I haven't noticed that my cell phone has been silent.

Shit! I am such an idiot! I still have it set to forward calls to the BlackBerry. Holy hell. Christian's been getting my calls—unless he's just thrown the BlackBerry away. How did he get my e-mail address?

He knows my shoe size; an e-mail address is hardly going to present him with many problems.

I clutched my forehead as I skimmed through the pages of the second book in the trilogy, feeling sad at one point for the people who claimed their sex lives were rejuvenated by the books than I do for the industry, which is scrambling for the next Fifty Shades.

Resorting to retooled fan fiction to reignite the fire in your relationships? How lazy. As if vampires don't need to work on their relationships. Writing and perfecting fiction takes work, too.

Torturous memories flash through my mind—the gliding, holding hands, kissing, the bathtub, his gentleness, his humor, and his dark, brooding, sexy stare. I miss him. It's been five days, five days of agony that has felt like an eternity. I cry myself to sleep at night, wishing I hadn't walked out, wishing that he could be different, wishing that we were together. How long will this hideous overwhelming feeling last? I am in purgatory.

Now, I don't mind that Ms Erika Leonard and her publishers' managed to make bargeloads of cash with this. They have every right to it. I dread the deceptive ease at how this success was accomplished.

Not to disparage fan fiction, the readership or the Jenny-come-latelys hopping onto the bandwagon but ... couldn't they have picked something less cringeworthy to herald this new trend in publishing?

Along with the grey clouds of doom had been gathering over the publishing sector, the tsunami she unleashed darkened my profession by another fifty shades.

Do editors really know what's good anymore? Do editors really know what sells and what doesn't? Do editors really know readers and what they want?

Have the standards with which editors measure the quality of a manuscript gone the way of year-old milk?

Had this reached my desk, it would not have passed muster - as evidenced by the passages above, pulled from only the first one or two chapters. And it doesn't get any better from there.

Christian smiles a wicked grin as he leans over the table and makes short work of the two remaining solids. I am practically panting, watching him, his lithe body stretching over the table. He stands and chalks his cue, his eyes burning into me.

"If I win..."

Oh yes?

"I am going to spank you, then f— you over this billiard table."

Holy shit. Every single muscle south of my navel clenches hard.

"Top right," he murmurs, pointing to the black, and bends to take the shot.

...Putting down his cue, he saunters casually toward me, all tousled hair, jeans, and white T-shirt. He doesn't look like a CEO—he looks like a bad boy from the wrong side of town. Holy cow, he's so f—ing sexy.

My desk? Reject bin. Straight away.

But I don't think I can do that now. Not anymore. Even if it sounds like the right thing to do.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wayward Boey Comes Home (For a Short While)

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 02 August 2012

Months ago, a "local cartoonist" pitched his book of illustrated childhood stories in an e-mail. Of the samples he'd attached, the one about his grandma's sundry shop and the toys sold there stood out.

Long before the Internet and the smartphone, my childhood highlights included the sundry shop and the toys. The image made me sorry for all the times I pestered my dad for those cheap trinkets.

Though others have compared him to Lat, I'm loathe to draw any comparisons to the venerable cartoonist. However, I don't mind somebody coming close to knocking Dr M off the best-seller lists.

Since its debut in May this year, When I Was A Kid by Boey Cheeming has done well at local bookstores. The Singapore-born Johore artist turned out to be one of those Malaysian talents hidden overseas.

Boey enrolled at the Academy of Art University (AAU) in San Francisco where he took up Advertising but switched to Computer Animation. He eventually landed a job in Blizzard Entertainment, maker of such sleep-robbing and marriage-straining diversions as World of Warcraft, Diablo II, and Diablo III.


The art of cupping
Abroad, Boey's also more known for the more complicated designs on his hand-drawn styrofoam cups. He inks each cup straightaway; if he makes a mistake, he has to start over with a new one. Each design could take him a few hours to a few months to complete, depending on the complexity and the number of tries.


Boey Cheeming, photo by Matt Mitchell


Cups with more complicated designs can cost as much as four figures, but Boey feels they're worth it, considering the time and effort he spends on them. "These are originals; some artist sell prints for hundreds."

And forget about drafting the designs with pencils. "You can't use pencils on foam cups," says Boey. "The soft leads, 6Bs and up will make the surface "waterproof", making it hard for the [Sharpie's ink] to stick. And [soft leads] smudge easy when you try to erase. Erasing also charges up the foam cups (with static), which attracts lint easy, and when lint gets caught on the Sharpies, I have a whole new set of issues. Bleeding is one (the ink, that is). Leads like 2Bs are too hard, and will dig into the cups."

Nevertheless, he seems okay with what he calls his "first-stroke-is-your-last-stroke approach". "It makes things far more challenging," he explains, "and it makes you think and work on composing things in your head. That challenge is somewhat addictive and I think that is one of the draws of the cups that people don't see initially, but are surprised by later on."

He has begun venturing into paper cups, on which he can pencil, but it takes almost just as long to sketch a design. "The good thing with pencils though, is that it is forgiving, but that's about the only pro I know."


Drawing a bright future
Besides promoting his book, Boey's back in town to help promote art in Malaysia. He once wrote to Dr M - who has yet to reply - about promoting an "important", yet "underrated" subject which he believes drives the development of technology. "Everything in Star Wars has become a reality," he wrote, quoting his lecturer, "the lightsabers, lasers ... holograms..."


"I Am The One Who Knocks" by Boey Cheeming


From the stream of creative and technological output from Japan, one is convinced of this view. In fact, Boey also looks east in this regard, like Dr M; Boey's influences include the Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker Hokusai Katsushika (1760–1849).

Will Malaysia be a creative and technological powerhouse like Japan? Some may be sceptical, especially during these trying times, But Boey remain optimistic. "We have completely capable, intelligent individuals in our country," he says, "but we need a vision, and artists [can] provide it."

He speaks a bit more about his art, book and upcoming book tour below, and lets us in on his plans for the immediate future.

Your art was once described as "smacking mundane in the face" (which would make a great title). Is that part of what you set out to do? Even your incredibly simple journal entries, some of which convey lots with so little detail, appear to subscribe to this. Is that also one reason why you decided to make a book out of your childhood stories? Because you felt that something in them would click with readers?
The journal really started off because I went through a breakup after 8.5 years. She said things about me that were harsh, but held truth, and I wanted to document my day to day, so that when I look back many years from now, I would perhaps see if I changed for the better.

I didn't want a wordy blog. I wanted something that was easy to read and had a picture to accompany it. I thought that combo was necessary, because there are things I cannot express with pictures, and feelings I cannot express with words. I also wanted something that, whether read or not, won't change a thing (hence my handle "boyobsolete").

So the blog started off with a humble group of readers, about 20 per day. That number grew to a couple of hundred when my art on styrofoam cups went viral. Readers started to tell me that they were living vicariously through my mundane day to day.

It was insane to think that people cared about some stranger's life. I guess that's why there are so many crappy reality shows still around. So I thought, well if they like this stuff, they will most likely like stories about my childhood.

I notice that you don't Photoshop away the errors in some of your journal entries. How much of this is in line with your principle of "try to get it right the first time" that you also apply to your art?
I leave the cross-outs in, because it made it feel much more personal. I also didn't want to draw frames around each panel, because that would make it a comic, and a lot less "real". It's my journal. I cross things out. It can be messy. I don't want frames because I like to think outside boxes.

Wouldn't it be easier to create a template or a draft using pencil before inking each entry?
It won't be. If it was, I would've done it. I'm not lazy though, don't get me wrong. But there are things I just want done, ASAP. And all this drafting, inking stuff, that takes up way too much time and planning.

"...this book would be an insight to growing up in Asia, a reminder of their own childhood and their relationship with the people and the pets they grew up with." Well, "growing up in Asia" thirty-something years ago is different from what it is today, isn't it? What do you think that meant back then? What about now? How much have things changed?
I can't really compare it to how it's like growing up now, because I guess I'm no longer eight. But from my observation, kids don't run around, chase, play outdoors as much nowadays. I know this because the playground near where I live is now dilapidated, and overgrown with weed. The swings are unkept and rusty.

The last time I saw any kid around that area was maybe eight years ago. It makes me sad. That was where I hung out, and waited on my BMX for my neighbours Dennis and Henry to come out to play. We played there so much it was OUR territory. I didn't have a cellphone till I was 28, and when I was a kid, I had to use coins in a public phone to call my mom, if I wanted to meet her somewhere after school.


"Katsuro" by Boey Cheeming


When I Was a Kid began as a Kickstarter project. How did you go about getting it printed and distributed here in Malaysia?
I did it all myself. I went shopping for distributors forever, but no one gave me a shot. So I said, "Screw it, I'll print this myself." That's when I used Kickstarter.

But even when I was done putting the book together, and I took it around to publishers, they liked it, but not enough to want to publish it. They suggested I do the printing, and they will distribute. Meanwhile, I was also writing to all the book reviewers in Malaysia, and at the same time, I wrote a similar letter to MPH as well. I still had to be the publisher then, and MPH said they would distribute. The reason I went with MPH is because I knew about the reach. I grew up seeing them all over Singapore and Malaysia.

On my end, I knew I had something good (in the time of writing, less so after four years), because I went around Singapore and Malaysia, and I read a lot of local comics out there, and nothing really struck me as, "this is going to be hard to beat".

But what I feared was my choice of language in it. Having worked and lived in US for so long, I've adapted myself to the humour there and the freedom of speech attitude. I chose not to censor myself too much though, because I think I wanted it to be honest. Really really honest.

From your journal, I take it that your family is cool about the book, even though your mom didn't like you "talking rubbish" about her. Now that it's a best-seller, how do they feel?
My mom never meant it in a bad way. Throughout the entire book writing, I kept her in the loop of what's going in. She loved it. She would call me all the time, and it would be 15 seconds of just giggling on the phone, before even saying hello.

When can we expect a second volume of When I Was a Kid? Are there any plans to turn your journals into a book?
I've been working on Book Two, and I have been better at it, now that I've got experience from working on Book One. It should be less painful a process. If Book One was plate of excellent nasi lemak, Book 2 is straight-up sex. But, of course, that's completely subjective.

Journal-wise, it's been a plan to turn them into books since four years ago. I just never got around to it. I've been busy handling everything myself so far: the daily blogs, the cups, the book, setting up gallery shows and marketing my art, all while I was working a full-time job as a lead animator at Blizzard.

I think I read somewhere that you quit your day job (as an animator) to focus on your art and book. Isn't that kind of risky? Do you have a backup plan?
I don't. When you think about it, the only thing [risk] does is hold you back. With everything, there is a risk. You can get coffee on your way to work, spill it on your lap while driving and get into a tragic car accident.

It can be argued that people like simpler things, these days: short blog entries and articles, etc. You said you don't like reading long blog entries - kind of ironic, given the time you typically spend on a single cup art.
I see the cup and the blog as two different things. The cups, until now, are what brings me traffic and money. The blog is free. With the blog, I focus on storytelling, and I want to get the message across as efficiently as I can. The cups showcase my actual drawing ability. Plus, reading bores me. ...That's not to say I don't read. I love reading stuff, like National Geographic; just not stories, like Twilight.

Do you think this attention deficit affects artists/writers, especially those who prefer to craft detailed pieces? Do audiences have to know about what goes on behind the scenes at an artist's studio to better appreciate the final results?
Yes, with the cups especially. People look at the cups and think two things: "It's disposable, why do I want it?" and "It's how much again?"

Given the time I spend on [each cup], some up to three months because there is no initial sketching involved and what you see is the first and final stroke, US$1,400 for a cup suddenly seems too little, if you put yourself in my shoes.

I shoot videos to help people understand that when something seems easy, most of the time, it isn't. I've seen circus acts where people fly through the air, spin, and land on an elephant that's tip-toeing over molten lava, without breaking a sweat. Seems easy too. But there's a reason they say, "Please don't try this at home."

Any idea what we can expect from your book tour?
There will be talks about how I got to where I am, and the importance of following your dreams. I followed mine, knowing that there would be a chance I won't make much. But when you're passionate about something, you will work on it, and it will never seem like a chore. And when you are passionate about it, you will be good at it, and someone will take notice.

Will there be workshops, demos, motivational speeches, etc?
Yep, yep and yep.

What's the story behind the horse head? Will it be making a show here?
For my 34th birthday, I wanted something that I always wanted, but is completely useless.

Since I was born in the Year of the Horse, I thought, "why not?" Also, when I was a kid, I played a lot of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and my character's name was also "Pegasus".

"Pegasus" should be a big hit at the Popular Bookfest (18-26 August 2012). I hear it is very noisy there, so I plan to get attention visually.

What's next after your tour, besides the book(s) you'll be working on?
I have a secret project I am working on that requires me to go back to the US. I'm designing a bicycle, and it will be super badass. I am looking for investors and partners now. If the bike project doesn't take off, I WILL have the coolest bicycle, in California.


Meet Boey Cheeming at the following venues: MPH, 1 Utama Shopping Centre (Saturday 11 August, 2.00 - 3.00pm); Popular BookFest, KL Convention Centre (Saturday 18 August, 6.00 - 6.45pm and Tuesday 21 August, 5.00 - 5.45pm); Kinokuniya, KLCC (Sunday 26 August, 3.00 - 4.00pm); Borders, The Curve (Saturday 08 September, 3.00 - 4.00pm); Popular, IPC Shopping Centre (Sunday 09 September, 2.00 - 3.00pm); and MPH, Johor Bahru City Square (Saturday 15 September, 3.00 - 4.00pm).

Information on his book can be found here and here.