Sunday, 27 April 2008

Starbucks and Stories

Coffee and conversation with the indomitable Yvonne Foong - and it's the second time I made her wait. This time, it's because I got lost. I hate Subang Jaya. Like everywhere else in the state, the signboards made no sense.

She has a debilitating disease, but it doesn't stop her at all. Earlier she'd written a masterful response to a journalist's poor professional conduct. There was talk about creating a branded charity foundation-or-whatnot. Discussions about psychology, marketing and, of course, blogs.

You do not want her angry at you.

Next time, I'm studying a map - and then, test-driving the route.

There was supposed to be something about this month's LitBloggers' Breakfast with Kunal Basu, but I couldn't be bothered. Besides, I wouldn't want people to think I attend all these meets just so I could post something... .

Some interesting and pertinent points garnered from the meet include:

  • 's chemical. Stories are all chemical. Natural ones produced by your body, of course.
  • Let the story take centerstage. Don't fit stories into themes.
  • Don't give a shit about readers. Write what you want, write what you like. And pray the readers you don't give a shit about will like it too.
  • Research is important (and from his tone of voice it could also be fun). If all else fails, fill the gaps with your imagination. Why else would you call it "fiction", duh?
  • Most lit-fic readers are women; no woman, all (lit-fic authors) cry. In this case, Bob Marley had it wrong.
  • MPH Bangsar can't get their hands on chicken mayo.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Kungfu For Kung Fools

Hearken, voices calling for the Forbidden Kingdom to be... forbidden. From cinemas.

(I wish I was talking about China, too. But I'm not.)

There were complaints about how rip-offish the set pieces were. Words like "silly", "unoriginal", "irreverent" and "sacrilegious" were waved like Tibetan flags in a Beijing '08 Olympics' torch run protest.

(OK, maybe I do want to write about China. Maybe.)

The indignation from kungfu movie afficionados was so thick nobody ever paused to think that it might have been done on purpose. If the directors were poking fun at martial arts culture - or more precisely, certain perceptions about martial arts - they did so with aplomb.

Consider the plot: kungfu-crazed American teen falls through a wormhole into ancient China; to get back, he must learn enough martial arts to survive and complete a mission scriptwriters say only he could accomplish. Right, make some white kid the hero, with two genuine kungfu grandmasters playing sidekick.


After Jackie's and Jet's characters meet halfway through the movie, it all becomes clearer. The on-screen intensity of their initial rivalry, the friction, the repartee. This was what everyone wanted - a Jackie vs Jet showdown - and they got it. Elated over their first collaboration, they take it over the top. But when the reluctant non-Oriental disciple turns on both masters, they both put their pride aside to dish out a dose of discipline.

They look like they're having fun. Why shouldn't they? They've been doing this forever. Jet's is pushing fifty; Jackie, sixty. Retirement beckons - why not have some fun while you're on the way out, even at each other's expense? (and the audience's as well, but since they got half of their movies through pirates and YouTube, they shouldn't complain) A paid vacation. That's what it is.

It is Jackie's admonishment of Michael Angarano's character, however - an extension of the lesson Bruce Lee gave the West - that is the gist of what the movie is about.

"You've watched every martial arts film, played all the video games. You know the moves and their names inside out. Big deal. You can't even swing a stick properly! You're not learning anything because your head's filled with garbage! 'No-Shadow Kick'? 'One-Fingered Death Touch'? You know jack-shit about kungfu, white boy. Now hump those concrete blocks and gimme a hundred! And no supper till you're done!"

You might think that's rather mean of Jackie, but in case you forgot, he did graduate out of a training regime that would unnerve even the Spartans. Jet's own credentials need no elaboration. With regards to teaching neophyte "kungfu" nerds, there is no one else more qualified.

In the movie, Jackie's animated, impatient and fiery temperament is artfully offset by Jet's mountain-like calm. At the lowest point of the white boy's journey while holed up in a desert cave, he has doubts about his chances of success. "What if I freeze?" he asks the meditating Jet, who replies, "Don't forget to breathe." Ooh, how Zen.

The Chosen One may be Caucasian, but the real stars were the so-called token Chinks - and they stole the show.

All of them.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Lost On Ice

This novel, in size and weight, was a real brick. I wasn't exaggerating about its climate control properties - reading over 600 pages of Arctic weather descriptions has a profound effect on the mind. I didn't really hate it, but it's not something I'd recommend.

Arctic slaughter

first published in The Star, 18 April 2008

The quest for the Northwest Passage, the fabled naval route across the North Pole to the riches of the East, has long confounded explorers and sailors. In 1845, Englishman Sir John Franklin set sail with two ships, Erebus and Terror, in search of the route – and never returned. The fate of Franklin's exploration team is fictionalised in The Terror.

The novel, which includes real and (possibly) fictional characters, begins months after both ships ran aground in the Arctic. Although Franklin is their de facto leader, the protagonist is Francis Crozier, captain of the HMS Terror and primary witness to the drama on the ice, who struggles to keep his crew in line (one of the novel's many flashbacks pin the blame on Franklin for the mishap). With supplies dwindling, bad weather and little hope of rescue, the crew from both ships face extreme hardship. Compounding the perils is a supernatural presence that is preying on the men.

As if that's not enough, the busy captain also has to keep an eye on a mute Eskimo beauty the crew dubs Lady Silence, who mysteriously blundered into their midst. In no time she's firing up the imaginations of the land-locked sailors, adding to Crozier's growing list of headaches.

Franklin eventually dies, leaving Crozier in command. Betrayal, suicide, murder, cannibalism, disease (scurvy, in particular), the cold and the mystery creature continue to whittle the group down to size. On top of all that, the stoic, no-nonsense officer would later be challenged by mutinous crewmembers led by a snivelling character everybody loves to hate. A typical day in the captain's cabin.

Wait – did I say "drama"? OK, I'm being generous. The promise of a "white-knuckle thriller" evaporates along with the story's glacial progress (mine turned white due to the strain of holding up and turning the pages of the big 769-page novel). In his efforts to entertain us, Simmons reduces the expedition members to crude, one-dimensional versions of their actual selves and serves them to the beast and the wilderness. You feel no pity for any of them as they perish one by one. If not for the Eskimos (apart from Lady Silence), The Terror is nothing more than a weekend slaughterfest at a Roman coliseum featuring foul-mouthed angmoh sailors, with the author in the emperor's seat.

The storyline often drifts between the past and present – or dream and reality, making it hard to follow. The flashbacks do shed some light to the crewmembers' backgrounds but you still can't relate to them enough to empathise with their plight.

The "supernatural presence" hounding the men? Sounds either like the polar bear from the TV series Lost – or Frosty the Snowman. There are also allusions to the creature's mythical origins and its connection with Crozier's enigmatic guest. It's rare for a reader to cheer for the monster, but that's exactly what I ended up doing.

On the other hand, going through the novel does feel like you're slogging through the Arctic snow, feeling cold, tired and hungry and asking repeatedly, "Are we there yet?" At some point I found myself turning off the air-conditioner. A testament to Simmons' ability to create very realistic backdrops.

Politics, greed, the fear of the unknown, and the fury of the elements – The Terror gives us an idea of the obstacles faced by those who helped open the trade routes leading to the proliferation of spices, tea, Starbucks and KFC. However, it falls short of its lofty goals as a page-turning thriller.

In the early 20th century, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to fully navigate the Northwest Passage. In 2005, global warming opened up enough of the frozen north for a ship to sail the entire length of the fabled route.

The Terror
Dan Simmons
Little, Brown and Company
769 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-11328-1

Friday, 11 April 2008

Pocket-Sized Weekend Drama

I wasn't overly fond of this book, but it was still a good read - short and sweet. Will the author be at Readings someday? One can hope.

Foul play

first published in The Star, 11 April 2008

Cerpen is a word I haven't heard of since I left school. It perfectly sums up Lee Su-Ann's The Curse, the second prizewinner in the English Novel Category of the Utusan Group's Young Adult Literature Competition of 2005. It has since been published and ready to enthral sceptics of local literature.

The Curse showcases village girl Azreen, who takes a sabbatical from her studies overseas and returns to her hometown in her sleepy village in an island south of Langkawi. Her homecoming is greeted by the tragic death of her sister Mahduri, the fair blossom of the unnamed village. The incident leaves her parents traumatised, especially her mother, whose senility becomes more pronounced.

In the aftermath of her sister's end, possibly due to foul play, a strange pall hangs over the village. There's the token ghostly figure in white. Making things worse with allusions of a curse is Puan Normala the village gossip, who is guaranteed to get under your skin.

Sinking into that familiar fugue that follows the loss of a loved one, Azreen revisits memories of her youth, good and bad. She finds no comfort from her sullen father or delirious mother. Thankfully, at no point does our heroine go into Nancy Drew mode. Throughout the novel we are informed via flashbacks that our heroine is no typical village girl, even in her younger days: tomboyish, headstrong and not above talking back to her elders. Which might explain her estrangement from her parents.

Main distractions come in the form of Mohd Asraf, the hot-headed village hunk, whom Azreen had a crush on in her younger days. There's also the mysterious outcast, an old lady whom Azreen befriends. Spicing things further is Mahduri's recent marriage to the village headman, the jealous fits of the headman’s first wife, and some livestock that shared the victim's fate.

Was Mahduri murdered? Is there really a vengeful spirit stalking the village? Will Azreen get the guy? Who, or what killed the animals? Will it ever stop raining? Are Mahduri's parents Bollywood fans? And why won't that irritating Puan Normala just shut up? I bet you’d like to know.

At first glance, it doesn't look like much. It is almost pocket-sized, and borrows a lot from existing works. Mahsuri legend? Check. Vengeful spirits? Check. Rip-off of Stephenie Meyer's cover to New Moon, complete with bloodied white flower? Check. Script from a typical Drama Minggu Ini? Check. Compensation for all that comes in the believable portrayal of the rural Malay village and its inhabitants.

The level of suspense is quite credible, but the execution is hardly subtle. Hints pointing to something sinister in Mahduri's demise start falling like ripe durians about halfway through the story. Thankfully, they will all miss their mark, and we are thus spared from a predictable ending.

Lack of originality aside, there aren't a lot of issues with The Curse. Its small size is actually an advantage. It probably kept the author focused on telling the story without any added fluff – all the elements of one good story in one minuscule package. I'm still amazed at how the author pulled it off.

The Curse is further proof that the local literary scene is neither dead nor moribund. This edition is a nice comfortable read for everybody – especially those with short attention span – as opposed to that 700-odd page international award-winning bestseller.

Plus, it's actually readable.

The Curse
Lee Su Ann
Utusan Publications & Distributors Sdn Bhd
232 pages
ISBN: 978-967-61-1971-7

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Who's The Aggressor Here?

Another shark attack victim dies in Australia.

Amongst the polite pleas to not take it out on the sharks - like they did with stingrays after one of them shanked Steve Irwin, were comments calling for a shark hunt, and to "put 'em in their rightful place - a cat-food tin".

And what's this about "making an example of a few of them"? Did I read that right? Did they just compare animals to terrorists? Is there even a United Denizens of the Deep (UDD) we humans can negotiate with? Oh, yeah, like it will so work, well, because... we're, like, the good guys!

Aussie rednecks. They think anything is possible after a dozen beers.

Sharks, like all natural predators, eat the slow, weak, sick and dying (which sheds light on some surfers), leaving the seas to the strong, bright and healthy. They also keep the oceans clean by gobbling dead and decomposing sea creatures, lovely breeding grounds for potentially nasty bacteria. Sharks are also biological wonders whose healing and sensory powers are being investigated by scientific, medical and military agencies.

If they all ended up in cat-food tins, Neptune's realm will see a massive free-for-all that will have bigger fish gobbling up smaller table fish and their young. Unlike us, Ma Nature's hunter-killers don't catch more than what they could eat. We already kill tons of sharks each year - most of them finned, speared and as by-catch. On average, less than twenty fatal attacks are reported annually worldwide.

And so far, no spokesfish for the sharks have approached the UN asking for an audience or offering coral branches of peace.

Sharks may be ugly and uncuddly, but unless we're willing to replace them as the ecosystem's euthanists, garbagemen and biohazard crew, we should shut the hell up, give them a wide berth, and just be extra careful every time we go out to sea.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

And It's Only The First Day

I had some hopes for the biggest book fair held this year at the Putra World Trade Center (PWTC). By the time I left the venue they were utterly dashed. Was I too early, or was the whole affair simply not what it was cracked up to be?

(And damn, the web site isn't very helpful either. You'd think that an e-portal for an event promoting literature and reading would have more details)

The timing sucked, for one. The fair coincided with Bank Rakyat's annual general meeting. The mob scene that confronted me was astounding, bringing me back to the days when the annual Microfest was a huge affair - not that it was any more pleasant. No way of telling who was attending what (although I'm sure the bevies of schoolgirls are most likely lured by the promise of cheaper textbooks). It was loud, chaotic, and somehow, vampiric. Fatigue quickly set in even before I reached the entrance.

My jaded worldview discerned a separation of society classes at the "book fair". The lower level was packed, crowds reaching sardine-can densities at the booths hawking textbooks, tabloids and comics. Plenty of religious material as well. The less-crowded upper level was where the more sophisticated choices were: dictionaries, literary fiction, various non-fiction titles and university-level reference materiel to name a few.

Sad. Tragic. I'm trying but I can't find the exact words for what I felt. This glimpse of Malaysia's literary strata paints a very depressing picture.

Sincerest apologies, but hosting multi-national publishing and distribution companies do not an international book fair make.

Oh, I did notice the hastily-corrected buntings:

Books Empowers.

Fear the Red Pen of Sharon Bakar™.