Sunday, 30 December 2007

Cracking The French Code

I had such low expectations for the book, the laughs that followed page after page after page became even more satisfying.

And it was a big surprise to see it in print while I was in Malacca. One of the great things that ended an annus horribilis on a good note.

French comprehension
Those who don't understand French also do not understand the French. Now, with this book, you can

first published in The Star, 30 December 2007

I admit I know almost nothing about France or the French, other than Napoleon Bonaparte, the Eiffel Tower, Asterix, the guillotine, the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the French penchant for scapegoating. I also know about the French stereotypes perpetrated by the British in sitcoms like 'Allo, 'Allo and Mind Your Language.

Just when I thought I didn't need to know any more, comes this little volume called Talk To The Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French.

"Don't go to France without reading this book", the back cover warns. I'm not sure I would want to go to France, even after reading this book. There are so many ways you could offend the French, and they have just as many ways of returning the favour (Americans and their "freedom fries" - hah! "Amateurish" would be an overstatement).

Verbal faux pas are all too easy to commit, and French etiquette holds many pitfalls for both the uninitiated novice and well-seasoned expatriate.

But have no fear. If you've gotten a copy, you're in good hands – almost.

Talk to the Snail is the brainchild of British (who else?) journalist and author Stephen Clarke. He had honed his edge through writing comedy skits for radio and stand-up comedy, which explains why he is that good.

The Brits are masters of the sardonic wit. You know who they are: Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson, Hugh Laurie, etc. By the end of the second chapter, I added Clarke to the list.

Before this book there were three others, which he wrote under three different names, and published under his own label to give away to friends and other interested parties.

One of them, A Year in the Merde, a quasi-fictional account of the author's experiences in France, went on to become a runaway best-seller.

Other titles in that vein, Merde, Actually and Merde Happens hold equal promise, and reinforce the author's fixation with the French word for ... "excrement". What's next, Merde, He Wrote?

On the first page, the author offers his "sincerest apologies" to the French, a disclaimer that grows evermore fraudulent as the book progresses. A couple of pages after that another lie is exposed – there are actually 11 commandments!

I like him already.

I've learned more French in this book than I would care to. There are words or phrases I already knew, plus some I've only heard of once or twice.

And, of course: "There's a French word/phrase for that?" – a reaction that keeps recurring as the pages flipped.

Phonetic pronunciation guides are provided, though I doubt they would be of much help.

With regards to the usual Anglo-Saxon stereotype of France and its citizens, Clarke does not hold back. The wit is razor-sharp, the language acerbic, and political correctness is unceremoniously defenestrated. The fnotes, which were reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, added to the fun factor.

Then the fun had to stop about halfway through when I needed my inhaler.

Revelations in the aforementioned pages may sound over-the-top, but France is a country where you wouldn't last a week if: (a) you don't speak French; and (b) you are not well acquainted with the idiosyncrasies of the French.

Clarke has lived there for over a decade, so he does - or should - know what he's talking about.

Of course, it's not all about lazy workers who are constantly on strike, dodgy real estate agents, bad drivers, surly restaurant help and insufferable service counter staff. There are praises for their culinary tastes, easygoing attitude, aptitude for romance and pride in their culture.

On the contrary, some "common mistakes" in French are
not entirely meaningless

Clarke sounds like a cynical Francophobe most of the time, but it all hints at his covert admiration of the French and their lifestyle - pitfalls and all.

Would I recommend this book? I don't know. I loved it, however. But make no mistake - this is no Lonely Planet guidebook, but it is a good read for anyone who wants to go to France, and a tantalising peek into what Clarke's other Merde-themed novels might have to offer.

Talk to the Snail
Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

Stephen Clarke
Transworld Publishers
262 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 9780593057223

Friday, 28 December 2007

All Paris, No Hilton

Why don't you read it?" she challenged me. She was not getting away with it.

I kind of regretted it.

Are all chick-lit pieces like this? "Yes, they're all like that," a friend replies, to my horror. It'll be a while before I could gather the courage to pick up another one.

Lightweight chick-lit

first published in The Star, 28 December 2007

To me, the word "chick-lit" is synonymous with Japanese, Korean and Thai horror movie titles. However, somebody found my Achilles Heel by practically shoving a chick-lit title up my nose and challenging me to read it.

Sweetheart From Hell is May-Zhee Lim's sophomore effort, after the chick-lit version of Harry Potter, Vanitee Bee. The first book must have been successful enough to encourage her to write another one. While both the lead characters have the same last name, it’s unclear if Sweetheart is the sequel to her first book.

Think Paris Hilton – but with 10 times the Paris and no Hilton – and you have Vicky Vanitee, the titular "sweetheart" who divorced her husband over a runaway lipstick; lied to her friends about a glam job in the tropics and a mega-celebrity husband; flew halfway around the world (to Kuala Lumpur, no less) to take up a position that is about to be terminated; and tormented her current beau – along with his friends, associates and ex-girlfriends – with random acts of deception, sabotage, fits of jealous rage and profligate spending. All told in her own words.

Reading this felt like riding the nightmarish theme-park attraction, "In the Wake of the Darling from Hades". The narration has the aesthetics of a burning 20-car pile-up. The over-the-top hi-jinks evoke a mixture of disbelief, consternation and amusement. Her chronic, self-centred, bombastic neuroticism makes you weep in pain – from all the cringing and wincing. The plot is fairly straightforward; the adventure lies in surviving the experience with your mind and intelligence intact.

It's easy to sympathise with every single character – except Vicky. She craves attention, thirsts for affection, hungers for recognition and begs to be taken seriously, but everything she does leads to the contrary. Instead, you feel more for the victims of her schemes. It was satisfying to see her finally get her just desserts (quite literally, in one instance).

Just when you're about to reach the end of your rope, begging, "Please, no more, oh God please, please, please put me out of my misery", you spy one of the creative cliff-hangers among the pages – a journal entry, conversation snippet, or blueprint of her next scheme – and once again, morbid curiosity overpowers everything else and you're back into her chaotic slipstream.

Overall, Sweetheart is the literary version of comfort food: it's not healthy, but it is fun – totally mindless fun at that. Its release seems well-timed, given the number of voyeuristic reality shows that are mushrooming all over the airwaves lately. Though it's clear Lim is putting her beloved lead character through the wringer for our enjoyment, one wonders – is she eulogising or parodying aspects of American and regional pop culture?

Fixations for brand names, multi-talented megastars (Jay Chou in particular) and their devotee-like fans, and the paparazzi's hungry gullibility – it's all there, and more.

In spite of the language and drama, there were times when I couldn't help but laugh. The cliffhangers were the funniest parts. From the atrocious narration, in-jokes, and cameos by her friends (and possibly an enemy or two), it's obvious May-Zhee had fun writing the story, which I suspect is that of her alter ego, the pompous, overbearing prima donna hidden behind the fa├žade of the straight-A student.

However, her novel yarn-spinning method may not have a wide appeal. The pink cover is a loud and clear KEEP OUT to sheltered bookworms and stiff-upper-lipped literati. To those who dare, beware of its vampiric vacuousness.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for my Discovery Channel fix. It's been two weeks and I'm still salvaging my IQ.

Sweetheart from Hell
Written and published by May-Zhee Lim
382 pages
ISBN: 978-983-43144-1-5

Monday, 17 December 2007

Piltdown Rakshasa

This looked too good to pass up.

National Geographic recently published news of an old Internet hoax to put to rest the notion that giants used to exist. A local Indian paper actually reported the "find", which allegedly came from north India and confirms the existence of giants from the Mahabharata epic (the paper later retracted the report).

Did somebody appeal to that country for help against oppression? Do they believe in apsaras1 as well?

The society is no stranger to scams. The biggest one in recent history was the discovery of a missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The find, called the Archaeoraptor, was eventually exposed as a fake (one version suggests that the fossil was actually assembled in haste and sold to black marketeers by the villager who found it, sullying the "Made in China" tag even further).

Although National Geographic issued a public apology over the Archaeoraptor flap (pun so very much intended), some publications were not so forgiving, cheekily dubbing the scandal, "The Case of the Piltdown Chicken". Creationists and Bible-thumpers also had a field day. Since then, other fossils of bird-like dinos have been found, but scientists are more careful with these finds.

I suspect however, that in India, hope springs eternal.

1 Celestial handmaidens in Hindu myth, similar to the Persian houris.

2 Rakshasas are considered demons, and not all of them are gigantic in size.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Zuup's On, People

"It has great food," FunnyBunny said. "You've never noticed?"

"Oh, I noticed," I replied, a bit defensive. "I just didn't bother."

She rolled her eyes. "It's just a restaurant," she sighed, "not a concentration camp. Give it a shot! What have you got to lose, aside from a few bucks? They have great food. The butterfish is nice. You should try it."

I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Part of her job involves eating, which meshes well with one of her passions, which is, um... eating.

I wasn't disappointed.

I've since made the place a sort-of regular destination for fine food, one of a select few (thanks largely to FunnyBunny). They made changes to the menu after my second visit, so some familiar items had gone missing or were re-packaged as something else. The vichyssoise, for instance, was tinkered with and reincarnated as the Chicken Confetti Soup - probably because customers couldn't pronounce the word.

Zuup is a soup bar by name, so it's natural that soups loom large in their menu (among other meal-time offerings) - about a dozen by my last count. Forget the watery bases so prevalent in Asian kitchens. Each Zuup creation is hearty and flavourful, more stew than soup. Paired with some bread or salad, a regular portion is a meal in itself. Heartier appetites will be pleased with the bread bowl portion - no need to lick the bowl, just eat it!

My favourite soups include the Chicken Confetti, Lamb Goulash (previously known as the Hungarian Lamb Stew), the Irish Beef Hotpot and - despite my shellfish allergy - a tomato-based seafood soup. It's still a while before I go through the entire menu, but chances are good that every Zuup soup is a winner in its own right.

OK, they don't have all kinds of soup. There's no gazpacho, for example, or borscht - which was kind of disappointing. And they "dropped" the vichyssoise (it's vee-shee-suah, you Philistines!) And it was... warm! Some chefs would freaking spit.

A dinner-time favourite of mine is their sirloin steak, drizzled with a smoky barbecue sauce and rested on top of a bed of scrubbed but unpeeled potato wedges. While it's available daily, the steak is one of the dinner-time set meal items. There's an option to add on a starter portion soup of your choice for RM6 (there's even a soup du jour flavour, which is not in the menu).

I also tried the butterfish, and it is good, especially the potato salad. I could have done with a little less butter in the sauce, though. I also had a lamb mix combo, which boasts lamb chops and a lamb sausage, with potatoes and a sublimely sweet and fragrant onion relish.

With the exception of their pasta dish (not very exceptional) I've encountered nothing but winners at the deceptively-named soup bar, tucked so neatly away in the corner of a busy shopping mall corridor. There's a separate dining room for those who want a bit more privacy, and an old PS2 for rent (I think). Free wi-fi? They have that, too.

But I'm not interested in furnishings.

Like I said, I haven't gone through all the soups from Zuup. Who's joining me for my next visit?

Zuup Soup Bar
LG 223, 1 Utama Shopping Centre
Bandar Utama
47800 Petaling Jaya


Friday, 7 December 2007

Nyonya Goes West

My first published book review! Writing this was fun, and a portent of things to come. I could have started off with an even better book, but sometimes, you don't get what you want. It would, I'm sure, be a recurring theme in this new endeavour.

Honest, homespun tale

first published in The Star, 07 December 2007

Because of their boundless potential to horrify, amuse and tug at the heartstrings, works replete with anecdotes of cross-border culture shock are abundant in the media. Consider An Englishman in New York, A Yankee in King Arthur's Court and An American Werewolf in London.

So it's perfectly understandable that something titled A Nyonya in Texas should hold similar promise. The nyonya (Straits Chinese lady) in question here is Lee Su Kim, who also happens to be an accomplished writer and an Associate Professor of Language and Culture at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in Bangi, Selangor. A picture of her in a white kebaya beside her summarised CV is on the back cover to dispel any scepticism.

This rather short volume chronicles the author's sojourn in Texas, the quintessential cowboy capital of the world.

A close inspection of Lee's CV had me wondering what happened during the frenetic years after she had left Texas for good, and why this book was not published sooner. By now, many of us are all too aware of strange and outlandish American customs and laws, thanks to their soap operas, late-night talk shows, and those weird and wacky reality TV series.

Around the time Baywatch was still popular, the United States was a place of mystery, even to its own denizens. It's a place as big as any Texan's tall tale, and – depending on who you speak to, each state is practically a foreign country.

One unifying factor is the pride Americans have for their roots, never mind that a majority of them are European, Asian and African transplants from a long time ago.

By subjecting herself to their tender mercies, Lee valiantly takes one for the team. Her frustrations, triumphs and defeats in dealing with cultural and lingual hurdles are rendered in heartfelt, if somewhat localised outpourings (relax, each word is thoughtfully explained, and there’s a glossary somewhere).

While the ignorance and idiosyncrasies of Texans – and Americans, in general – are well-documented, some anecdotes here will make you want to whack their heads with a rolled-up newspaper. Then there are lessons on the futility of packing your own culture (like durians) with your luggage. Her farewell to Texas is made all the more poignant by her personal tragedies.

Before I knew it, I'd reached the end of the book. Like a fireworks display, it's colourful, flashy and loud, but ends too soon. There is great potential in this book, but it is let down by choppy, uneven storytelling. Aspects of her heritage felt over-explained, especially at the beginning. If you're a local, it gets very tedious.

Almost half the book tells stories outside of Texas, with plenty of flashbacks to the author's younger days at home, leaving me with the impression that her life in the Lone Star State wasn't as action-packed or eventful as was hinted on the book cover and the blurbs. I also suspected that there were other chapters in the story that were left out or never told, or perhaps the words weren't there for those stories yet.

The illustrations could have been done better. The artist made the author's character look waaay too good. For beginners untouched by Discovery Channel, this book may be a big eye-opener. In fact, I do fear that they'll be as big as saucers before the uninitiated reader reaches the last chapter – and be hard to shut long after he's done. Those well-acquainted with Western culture, however, won't find anything new.

Being a bona fide "banana", I wouldn't find A Nyonya in Texas a necessity in my bookshelf. I am, however, glad this book was written for it is an honest, homespun tale about how travel broadens one’s horizons and how everyone has pride in their heritage.

A Nyonya in Texas
Insights of a Straits Chinese Woman in the Lone Star State

Lee Su Kim
Marshall Cavendish Editions
186 pages
ISBN: 9789833346103