Friday, 11 December 2009

One Reason Why I Stayed Away So Long

Months ago, a new writer barely twenty years old published a book. She was feted (sort of) at the anniversary celebration of some literary institution. Just a few weeks ago, that book disappeared from shelves everywhere; it had to be pulped because it had at least one plagiarised story. The news has gotten out, and the writer has issued an apology (sort of).

What grabs my goat is the need for some commentators to wield the hammer long after the nails have been driven home. Either the hammer makes them feel important, or such is their indignation that they feel the little cheating upstart hasn't really received that much-deserved butt-kicking.

Then comes this comment (emphases mine):

"...basking in the envy of others..."

That's the operative phrase right there, isn't it? That there are some people who can be envious even of a local book that couldn't sell even a thousand copies. So when a teenager makes an extremely bad call, it's time to give vent to all those years of pent-up resentment :-)

— Amir Muhammad puts it where it hurts

The response to that was so childish, I won't bother describing it. Is there some kind of thrill or claim to fame in pushing someone's buttons until they explode or embarrass themselves? Getting someone the likes of Amir Muhammad to lose his cool might be something to brag about, but really...

It can be hard to describe the pain of someone else getting credit for your hard work, that witty, funny, award-winning prose you spent months, even years on. It would hurt heaps more, and be better illustrated, if the plagiarist stole it and beat you to the book launch with it.

If you think I'm just being nice: After an English comprehension exercise when I was in Form 2, the teacher found two identical answers, word for word. My answer was copied by a classmate. I don't think there was any malice intended; he probably just wanted to fill up that nagging little blank. It probably never occurred to him that he could actually hurt someone. To his credit, he owned up and I avoided being mistaken for a copycat. We remained on relatively good terms until we left school. But hell, was I stunned.

Of course, it's perhaps unfair to compare an English test with a book but in essence, both is considered stealing. And copying something that was published years before and passing it off as your own is more stupid than sinister.

All the appropriate steps seem to have been taken by all parties involved. But the troll takes it a step further, and suggests a boycott of sorts on what she writes from now on. What's the point in covering a target with scarlet letters when plagiarism by others continue around us? She'll be the only one end up hurt, scarred - probably for life.

Is that the whole point in condemning plagiarists and plagiarism? Do we have so many new writers that it's okay to bury the careers of one or two who made a mistake as an example to others?

Thursday, 3 December 2009

New Adventures In Doctoring, etc

These are but a few pieces that were part of the revamped Off The Edge, which had more pages and cost twice as much. Heaps of good articles in this issue (December 2009), numbering over a hundred pages.

My first trip to Sabah was a doozy.

As part of a rebranding exercise, UMW invited members of the press to a sponsored Mercy Malaysia mobile clinic to Pagalungan, at the bottom half of the state. Only four journalists from the Peninsula took up their offer.

"New adventures in doctoring" (left), and "Potong gaji!", Off The Edge, December 2009

Of course, things went wrong with the return trip, worthy of its own article. But space is expensive. Needless to say, I developed a healthy respect for rural East Malaysians, and learnt that maybe they are getting a raw deal from the current federal government.

UMW Malaysia, which I referred to as Toyota several times, probably didn't get as much publicity as they'd hoped from my one-pager. The valiant efforts of their PR crew in getting the Peninsula softies out of the jungle never made it into the mag, either.

Rounding up my look East was a Q&A with Bandar Kuching MP Chong Chien Jen of Sarawak. We thought "Potong Gaji!" (Pay Cut!) was a great way to introduce him; the phrase suggested a motion for a RM10 reduction in the salaries of MPs (or ministers, I forgot which) and a battle-cry of sorts for the DAP. Of course the pay cut didn't happen, and probably never will.

I looked inside Rupert Murdoch's head via this book, and didn't like what I saw - much. While it makes good reading for those in journalism, I didn't like it much.

"I, Rupert" (left), and "Speed/In Praise of Perlahan-lahan", Off The Edge, December 2009

About the other piece: I've been following food trends in the US, which appears to be going locavore in a number of places, helped by celebrity chefs and the food scandals involving bacteria. I wasn't even aware of Terra Madre Day until I looked it up. We even have a Slow food chapter in the Klang Valley.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Singh To Me, Inspector

I did have high expectations for this book, because of the name "Shamini Flint". When they were not met, I sort of used the book for the book reviewer's version of target practice. From what I can see, they tamed the final version.

I also jumped the gun quite a bit. Days after this was submitted, I met and heard the author speak in person. What I gleaned would've made the review kinder, more informed. The paper waited two... three months before finally publishing it, so yeah... . I'd given way too little credit to the author, but I stand by what I felt about the book.

Looking at the original copy now, I think I've been trying too hard to recapture my old, snarky day days. In the end the peal of wisdom in the words of a concert manager rang the loudest: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything."

Too nice a guy?

first published in The Star, 15 November 2009

I must have been among hundreds of people who were piqued by the message on social networking site Facebook calling all Australians to save some Inspector Singh allegedly trapped on shelves by shelling out A$22.95 (RM73.44) "in ransom money".

Not being Australian I didn’t think too much of it. But it did put the name "Shamini Flint" into my brain, so when I came across the name on a book in Malaysia, I picked it up, no doubt "rescuing" it, too....

In Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, the titular inspector, a veteran of the Singapore police force is sent northwards to aid former Singaporean model Chelsea Liew who is accused of murdering her rich but abusive husband while in the midst of a child custody battle.

Try as Flint might to make the hero more "local", the whiff of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is still strong. Singh (who has no first name), however, is bigger and nicer than Poirot, and has more facial hair. He’s also a bit old and out of shape, and often outclassed by the supporting Malaysian characters, who seem to come across better-dressed, better-looking, healthier, and in some instances, more professional; Singh tends to take the law into his own hands – in his own nice guy way, that is.

The buzz about the book and the witty Facebook message did inflate my expectations a bit, so I was a bit let down by the first instalment of the Inspector Singh series. High hopes of reading a knuckle-chewing murder mystery were dashed as I flipped through the pages of a rather short police drama. And I’ve seen more – and better – action, twists and turns at the Sepang racing circuit.

There’s so much drama here, I thought I was reading Malaysia Today. Illegal logging and the Penans, complete with a Bruno Manser clone; civil and Syariah legal tussles on conversion; crooked cops, the haze and mistreatment of migrant labour....

Recognisable Malaysian stereotypes include the well-connected nature-thrashing tycoon (said late husband), the attention-seeking lawyer, and one of the many Malaysian judges "whose instincts were conservative and (whose) ... sympathies (were) rarely with the accused in criminal trials".

While it’s nice to get into the characters’ heads and dwellings, it kind of threw me off the chase. There are too many adjectives ("herbivorous" teeth?), a bit too much product placement (Mont Blanc seems to be a favourite), and virtually none of the wit exemplified by the Facebook ransom note.

As a sparring partner for the Royal Malaysian Police, I was left with the impression that Singh just can’t cut it. Because. He’s. Such. A. Nice. Guy. Maybe "Inspektor Pramodya of the Indonesian National Police" would’ve been a better candidate.

Singh’s next stop is Bali, and it sounds like that outing will involve bombs, terrorist cells and cross-border conspiracies, but hopefully no jokes along the lines of "Selamat Datang ke Malaysia". The portly Punjabi inspector may have taken a little tumble in his debut but he isn’t down for the count yet. Or will the nice guy finish last? I can’t wait to find out.

A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder
Shamini Flint
Piatkus Books
295 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7499-2975-6

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Somewhere To Belong

"Somewhere To Belong",
Off The Edge, October
My (slow) flirtation with short story collections continued with Ioannis Gatsiounis' Velvet and Cinder Blocks. Ten short stories, all nicely written by the expat journalist whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

I met the author during a Readings @ Seksan's session, where he read a chapter from the very same book, designed with two different coloured covers. "The Rat Tooth" was the tale of a Jewish boy who found a bit of bone in his lunch, which sparked ideas to sue for millions over a "rat's tooth" in his lunch. A bit of comedy at the end is the boy's dad starting a fusion restaurant that specialises in things such as "tomyam moussaka" and a "durian-based fish head soup".

It was, like all the stories in the book, of identity, belonging, and the odysseys undertaken by the protagonists to find it. Many of the endings are open-ended, leaving room for the readers to ponder the possibilities.

Among the things he told me was that his name is a Greek version of "John" (or something similar), and that it was pronounced as "Yannis". There appeared to be some confusion as to how it was pronounced.

It's a good book, all things considered. But for some strange reason I decided not to keep it.

Swing Quartet

After interviewing the brains behind Dama Orchestra, we spoke to the five ladies in the Dama production, I Have A Date With Spring

"Swing Quartet", Off The Edge, October 2009

Besides this Q&A, we also got their musical picks. We'd get entertainers to give us their "Pods of Wisdom", musical picks that would provide insights into the inspirations, tastes and influences that shape their craft. It's supposed to be a fun thing for them to do, and most of the time we get surprise picks, which can be great additions to any playlist.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Still Made In Malaysia

In 2009, Dama Orchestra, a renowned musical company, was to celebrate their 15 years in the business. In conjunction with that, they were presenting their version of I Have A Date With Spring.

First two pages of "Still made in Malaysia, Off The Edge, September 2009

I had some difficulty with this piece, because of the way it plucked the heartstrings. Dama's tale is one of hardship, heartbreak, and triumph after tears - much like many of the stage-plays, songs and stories about the artistes of those Shanghai Bund days. Finally, one afternoon at a Section 14 coffeeshop, I sat down and drafted the piece.

"Still made in Malaysia: Gold standard", Off The Edge, September 2009

Much of it is a trip down memory lane, with pictures from Dama's archives and narration by Dama's artistic director, Pun Kai Loon.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Deep In Our Cups

This health piece came about when we were invited to a physiotherapy clinic in faraway Taman Melawati. The doctor who runs it was famous for saying that the Malaysian stretched tea habit was killing a lot of us slowly. Of course he said more than that, but the papers probably felt copies would shift faster if they emphasised that potentially brow-raising line.

"Deep in our cups", Off The Edge, August 2009

Speaking to the doctor, a patient and one of the physiotherapists was a nice way to spend the afternoon, and on top of that, was a health piece I've grown to like. The nutritional composition of the normal vs "lite" teh tarik was discovered by chance. I didn't even know it existed.

Beyond Beancounting

I love chocolate. I have also studied the subject a bit before joining The Edge. Then we got wind of Deanna Yusoff's little chocolate venture.

"Beyond beancounting", Off The Edge, August 2009

As usual we wanted (or rather, the editor wanted) something that was more than just about chocolate. Perceptions. Artisanal vs mass-production. East and West. That kind of thing.

I'm quite pleased with this, though I didn't do much justice to the chocolates she was importing from Switzerland. Popping about RM18 worth into my mouth, my reaction was a dismaying "...". My palate needs further training.

But it's not just chocolates that I gained a new respect and understanding for. Thanks to Deanna, I've become fond of seri muka, and developed (or re-discovered) a liking for other Malay confections. Maybe I'll write about that kuih shop in Ampang someday.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Readings@Seksan's, July 2009

Despite having a front-row seat at the latest Readings@Seksan's I was unable to take any still photographs. My digicam was doing videocam duty (and boy, does that drain the batteries), and I also did audio recordings - all with Sharon's permission.

Nope, they won't be published here. It's for a project which might be launched in another month's time, and I probably won't have the rights to publish them elsewhere. And to my chest-beating, hair-wrenching rage, my laptop, GIMP and Windows Media Player won't let me grab screenshots of the videos for pictures.

Which is why I haven't retired the desktop.

It was a hot afternoon at Lucky Garden, the kind of weather that the Meteorological Service says will persist until September, maybe. Rob Spence, a lecturer on English Literature from Manchester, UK stopped by the place. I think he was here for the The International Anthony Burgess Symposium. Pity I couldn't think of anything to ask him. I don't think I should blame the weather.

Amir Muhammad was there to sell New Malaysian Essays 2, the latest compilation of essays from Matahari Books. I informed him that his piece in that compilation will be appearing in a local publication in days - and apologised for the cuts that were made to it. All copies he had with him were apparently snapped up.

Jac SM Kee, one of three feminist activists in the line-up read bits from her contribution to Amir Muhammad's New Malaysian Essays 2, a story about tits and female ghosts and monsters. Former stewardess and beauty queen Yvonne Lee read a chapter of the perils of plastic surgery from her book Vanity Drive - proof of the tenacity of Michael Jackson's spectre.

I had to Google for the title of Dipika Mukherjee's book of poems, The Palimpsest of Exile, which she picked for that day. The word - one of many esoteric ones in her work - is a kind of oft-reused parchment (a piece of animal skin used as paper) which she compares herself to, a product of multiple education systems. I think we all need a bit more variety in our education.

Most of the laughs were supplied by Shamini Flint (nee Mahadevan), another feminist who wrote under a Western surname because it had the combination of "the exotic and the hard" (flint is a kind of stone) that she says sell crime novels.

The former lawyer who quit her job to be a mom - who then started writing to "escape her children" - found inspiration for her crime fiction from CNN, and comfort in Malaysian radio, where she learns that every day "traffic on the Penang Bridge is slow-moving - in both directions." And she does a great monologue - not bad for a feminist whose passions are "easily swayed by commercial interest."

Compared to the quirky and witty Ten (a story of a tomboyish football-crazy girl of ten), (deep breath) Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder was a bit staid in places, even though well-written and well-edited... I just know, okay? Trust me.

The laughs continued as she read from Ten. A reference to a granny with "teeth that sprouted from her gums like dirty brown mushrooms" drew hearty "hurhurhurs" from Peter Hassan Brown (the man sings and his voice carries a long way, no acoustics required). Though taken aback, Shamini wisely notes that punchlines may not be where you think they are. Those are the best kind, I say.

Paul Gnanaselvam's story of a man searching for char koay teow had a mellowing effect after the bellylaughs from Mrs Flint, and included a free recipe (big prawns, more fishcake slices, less oil, and line with banana leaf afterwards; cockles are optional).

There was some confusion in his name, which was shortened in the poster advertising the event. Fortunately I had a copy of Write Out Loud 3 - signed by several contributors - for reference; his contribution is a ghost story (see? more ghoulish references) called Doiiiiii! (six "i"s). Unfortunately, his name is even shorter in WOL3. Finally found his name spelled in full from the Body2Body event happening next month at Central Market's Annexe.

Amir Sharipuddin's notes on his national service (NS) stint, which he had to explain for Mr Spence's sake, was not so different from the notes of another notable NS graduate. The latter had to remove her posts on the subject, which was deemed too revealing by the folks.

Amir contributed his NS notes to New Malaysian Essays 2, which is laid out in the ruled pages of a notebook. I found him a bit too soft-spoken. Dude, speak up! The voice of the youth is loud and clear! Play the part!

Readings will be held after Hari Raya at the "new" Seksan's for one or two sessions before returning to the old place. What will it look like? September can't come soon enough... uh-oh.

I think I have a plane to catch on that date.


Sunday, 26 July 2009

It's Like She's Still Here

...Has it only been about a year?

Meeting Yasmin Ahmad was one of the serendipitous things that happened since I started working at the new job. Funnybunny and I were at Khadijah's Kitchen, for dinner I think. And as we left there she was, holding court with her husband and a few other people. Funnybunny met her before, while she was filming Talentime in Ipoh.

Then, sometime around November (I think) last year Funnybunny and I got a treat: a private screening of the then unreleased Talentime. I remember the cavernous office spaces at Leo Burnett. Before the screening there was breakfast. I remember lempeng (a kind of pancake), rice, egg sambal and the fiery sotong sambal, among a few other things. All were brought by her sister, who supposedly inspired the name of the main character in Sepet, and later Gubra. I loved the sambal - flavourful, and hot enough to put hair on your chest and set it alight. I lost count after helping number three.

I note with some embarrassment that Talentime was the only film of hers I had seen. There was not a dry eye in the screening room by the time the credits rolled. They'd bought the rights to a Tamil song from an Indian movie that didn't perform very well, and used it in the film - with good effect.

I've said way too much for someone who didn't know her well. There is no way I can tell a story like she does. But I know this would be a boring place to live in if all our voices fell silent.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

More History Here

This was a favour for two friends, but it took me more than three months before I finally penned it and sent it off. Last month, I was told that the author will be relocating to China. But for some reason or another the review didn't come out until today; I suppose the order of publishing was already determined some weeks back.

At least I kept my promise.

But it's strange that the word "history" has lots to do with some of the reviews I've written lately. I wouldn't call it coincidence.

Is this our history?

first published in The Star, 12 July 2009

Nostalgia. Every time life deals us a blow, we reach for it like child with a scraped knee running to his parents. Is that why we're seeing so many biographies on the shelves nowadays?

There's a different kind of nostalgia hovering over our heads right now, brought on by depressing news headlines greeting our mornings in the past several years – commentaries over our once shared past, now frayed for what seems to be political pantomimes for specific audiences.

Muhibbah, according to at least one old-timer, could be summed up by one name: P Ramlee. Who remembers the blindfolded Chinese tailor who was led by Ali Baba's faithful maid via a song-and-hop routine to perform the gruesome deed at her master's house? I'm not sure if anybody would be able to film that again in this day and age without some sort of outcry.

When did we stop being confident and comfortable with ourselves to the point where we cannot laugh along when others laugh at us?

Some people are trying to find the answers; others are content with revisiting those simple serene days, so far away now that it sounds like another place. The anthology Postcards From a Foreign Country is of the latter persuasion. The author, who goes by the single moniker "Yin", wrote these stories as a hobby, it seems, and was persuaded by a friend to publish them.

The book comprises 10 stories blurbed as sepia vignettes of a less complicated time and set in the 1950s and 1960s, although no dates are mentioned.

From the first few chapters it would seem that the past – or more precisely our past – should be seen as a country with closely-guarded borders. "The Langchia Man", one of Postcards' better stories is also the grittiest one, with the harsh and sometimes seedy lives of the rickshaw men of old laid bare for all to see.

In Postcards, the characters' mannerisms and prejudices appear to have been deliberately magnified, making them quite stereotypical, and I found myself thinking, "Wow, is this how things used to be?" Not to say that the author is being pedantic about the signs of our times but, looking closer, I found no heroes or villains.

Just people, sometimes at their best, but often at their worst. Sensitive minds should probably take comfort in the fact that this is fiction.

However, some parts in Postcards did take me aback – in a good way: Ho lan sui! Or "Holland water", that antique Cantonese term for soft drinks when one brand known as Fraser & Neave often came in re-used, not-so-new glass bottles. And how amusing it was to read about another kind of muhibbah – a bunch of punters, representing our major ethnic groups, divining for winning lottery numbers at a cemetery. I bet there are some of us who want to forget a time when we believed in ghosts and black magic.

The progression of stories in the beginning was okay but quickened towards the end, at the point where the last two stories began.

Still, the last piece is poignant in its brief hurried way, a subtle rebuke to those who try to sanitise history and erase the role of "outsiders" in the nation's history, even if their goals and means may have been less than ideal.

Often wistful, at times tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes discomforting, Postcards is like the grimy, scuffed F&N bottle of my childhood. But no amount of "Holland water" will bring back those good old days.

Postcards from a Foreign Country
Published by East West Publishing Pty Ltd
235 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9751646-5-5

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Farewell, David Eddings

David Eddings, author of the Belgariad, Malloreon, Elenium and Tamuli fantasy novel series left us forever.

I can't remember when I started reading his books, but I do know a copy belonged to my sister. It was a book from the Elenium trilogy, featuring the Pandion knight Sparhawk. I've since grown tired of the humour and other gimmicks that were his stock-in-trade for who knows how long. But when I first read it, I was hooked. I remember reading a brick-thick book from the Tamuli trilogy cover to cover in less than two hours. At work.

Sparhawk the knight may be the Queen's Champion, but we can, in some way, identify with him. He hates (some of) his bosses. His servant gives him lip. He has money issues. He's got wife issues, too. All in language we can understand.

Looking back now, I wonder if my new-found interest in books began with Eddings. I seem to be more into the shelves now, and not just plain browsing. And not just because of the new job.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Buried In Time

My unedited review of Anchee Min's The Last Empress that got swallowed up by the labyrinthine editing process at The Star. I felt the book, the sequel to Empress Orchid, spoke for itself. It also marked the start of a brief spell where the books I chose were part of a series.

History has never been kind to women with power (not when men write the books, anyway): Boudicca, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Empress Wu Zetian and even Queen Elizabeth I.

Apart from Wu Zetian, the only other empress this side of the world who’s been given a bad rep is Ci Xi. Tales of her excesses roared across every corridor and back-alley during her days. Under the Communists, her reputation fared no better. Modern-day scriptwriters did her no favours, either. Thus, the image of the female tyrant who reigned in her son’s name lives on to the present.

Then I came across Anchee Min’s The Last Empress. I was expecting the usual, so I thumbed a few pages - and was proven wrong.

The Dowager Empress Ci Xi began life as Orchid, the daughter of an official whose death left the family in dire straits. Once she entered the imperial court, she schemed and bribed her way into the emperor’s bedchamber and eventually sired an heir, no doubt stepping on some toes and ruffling a few feathers on the way. Ci Xi’s rise to power is chronicled in Empress Orchid, also by the same author. The story continues in this kind-of autobiographical account of the Dowager Empress’ days until the end.

I knew how the story ended, but I was unprepared for how it was told here. Min depicts the Dowager Empress as a smart, strong-willed and all-too human woman trying to shine in her role: disciplining the unruly, forging alliances, outmanoeuvring scoundrels and keeping her enemies at bay, struggling against the tide of public opinion, political chicanery and the onset of globalisation.

The author gives readers front-row seats to the drama that is twilight of the Qing Dynasty and remains faithful to the historical timeline. In this version, Her Majesty was in fact aware of the plots swirling around her, but every attempt to remedy the situation was sabotaged by traitors, schemers and the ineptitude of others, including her son. Other times, she was simply outmanoeuvred. Blame is also laid on the foreign media of the time, with accusations of sensationalism and propaganda. Once can’t help but draw parallels with Iraq and its “heroic exiles” like Ahmed Chalabi.

While there are glimpses into Ci Xi’s official role, more emphasis is given to her personal side. Your heart is wrenched by the Empress’ losses and how she reacts to them. As the country collapses around her, sabotaged by enemies from within and beyond, friends and loved ones are taken away one by one: her biological son, her eunuch attendant, trusted advisors and the other man in her life, whom she could not openly acknowledge. Her slow, painful decline is finally marked by one last departure - her own.

The prose is powerful and evocative of that bygone era. The Wade-Giles method of spelling Chinese names (as opposed to today's hanyu pinyin method) gives the pages the feel of an old history book. The flapping sounds of pigeon’s wings, the scent of flowers in the garden, meandering streams and the smell of musty old corridors and dark corners of the Forbidden City, are all brought vividly to life - minute interludes before each chapter unfolds.

In The Last Empress, Min abandons the notoriously popular Ci Xi of the silver screen and (sometimes biased) history books and gives us Ci Xi the mother, aunt, sister, lover and human being - a convincing portrayal that will have you wishing that the author’s interpretation of the Dowager Empress is actually closer to the truth. One can’t discount the possibility; written history has been proven to be as fallible as human memory, and subject to interpretation - or subversion.

The Last Empress
Anchee Min
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
308 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7475-7850-5

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Blookish And British

For this one, they actually rang me up and sent me a copy of the text to check. Not much to do, really. This time they did a better job.

Sadly, another review of mine for Anchee Min's The Last Empress will never make it to print; they apparently published an overseas review of this book instead, not knowing they had mine on file. So it goes...

Slight ride

first published in The Star, 17 May 2009

Unless hosted on a subscription-based system, password-protected, or set to private, blogs are generally open to the public. So why compile the posts of a public blog into a paperback volume for sale?

Well, for one thing, charity. Which is nice of the authors. But I think some readers would have a hard time fathoming the need for this "blook".

A blook is a book derived from a blog. In 2002, Tony Pierce collected posts from his blog on Hollywood and published them in a printed book called Blook (the winning entry from a contest Pierce held to name his book, sent in by American professor, blogger and media guru Jeff Jarvis). Which is what two women who travelled 12,500 miles (about 20,000km) on three wheels for charity did with their blog posts.

British belles Antonia "Ants" Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxster, both in their late 20s, have been best friends since secondary school. Bitten by the travel bug early in life, they'd planned to go on a jaunt upon graduation from uni. But their plans were derailed when Huxster succumbed to depression for several years. Bolingbroke-Kent also became more aware of mental health issues when she lost another friend to suicide.

Then, when a recovered Huxster was on vacation in Bangkok in 2002, she encountered the cute tuk-tuk. The diminutive, garishly decorated three-wheelers that throng Bangkok's roads rekindled the girls' enthusiasm for travel – but on a much larger scale than before.

Their trip, they decided, would start in Bangkok and end in Brighton, England – a journey of those aforementioned 12,500 miles. It would aim to raise £50,000 (RM270,000) for a cause close to both girls' hearts: Mind (, a mental health charity for England and Wales. And ... they'd be travelling in a custom hot-pink tuk-tuk that they euphoniously christened Ting Tong.

"Ting tong" actually means "crazy" in Thai. It's like the gods wanted them to go on this trip, which eventually began in May 2006 and ended triumphantly in Brighton 14 weeks later in September that same year.

No crazy 20,000km trip would be complete without mechanical tantrums from their best supporting character, of course, despite Ting Tong having been souped up to withstand the long miles. But the emergencies always got a helping hand from the tuk-tuk manufacturer in Bangkok, and even from some locals in different countries.

Hard-core romantics will be disappointed to know that, being a sponsored charity tour, it wasn't all roadside camps and grubbing for roots for dinner.

Nor were there any run-ins with smugglers and paramilitary types, thank goodness – although Ants scrapped one route over the possibility of US missiles over Iran.

The trip and its purpose were heavily covered by the press in most countries they visited, but to keep their audience more up-to-date, the girls blogged. And I read the dead-trees version of their crazy adventure; a cut from the proceeds of the blook's sales will go to Mind.

According to the girls' website,, the trip raised £24,000 (RM129,600); donations to the cause still being hosted at has since raised the figure – as of Friday – to slightly more than £45,000 (RM243,000).

The book gives quite a bit of backstory about the girls' lives, from how they first met to Huxster's struggle with depression, and the events leading to the birth of their tuk-athon.

In the tradition of a typical travel book, there's a travel resource section at the end, and a frequently-asked questions list for aspiring cross-country tuk-tuk daredevils. Suffice to say that this is not something anybody does on a whim!

Tuk Tuk to the Road is an enjoyable ride, but isn't anyone involved in producing this book worried about the story going stale after the second re-reading? I know I'd be. The only reason I'd ever pick it up again is if I need a distraction from other more important things. You know, like, reviewing other books....

Tuk Tuk to The Road
Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and Jo Huxster
Friday Books
262 pages
ISBN: 978-1-905548-65-1

Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Ailing Mousedeer

I don't know why I'm furious over this (hat tip to the Bangsar Boy). But I am. And not just because of the guy in the picture.

There's a few things I've heard about Malaccan Chief Minister Ali Rustam - namely his political ambitions - but none I can substantiate. And that's not the issue here. But that article just ticked me off.

Because I feel there's so much that's wrong about it.

First, why would a mere facsimile of an Arab neighbourhood be of any micron of satisfaction to anyone willing to put in the money and effort for the real thing? They have a tourism industry over there, don't they? Isn't it a self-defeating move to bring the Middle East over here, when they can spruce up what they already got at home, brush up the security and roll out the welcome mat for tourists - for less? As for the high exchange rate and costs of living, well, not much can be done about that. Where travel is concerned, we pay to play.

Another thing is, I'd think that any Arab who wants a slice of home - hookah and all - while he's travelling abroad is just plain rude, especially when he's in another Muslim country. How hard is it to walk the straight and narrow in Malaysia? I think back to the OIC delegate who reportedly had reservations coming here because there's no camel milk - what I wouldn't give to hurl a store-full of shoes at that person now!

At the same time, it is equally rude for Malaysians to expect Penang char koay teow - halal or otherwise - in Riyadh, or kuih talam in Fez. Isn't the whole point of travel to get away from the familiar, and experience the new?

(Even at home the kuih talam of my youth is elusive. Our heritage is under siege.)

If the Arabs who are coming here are from Dubai, let me just say that I'm not enthusiastic about their "culture". Especially the glitzy, towering, superlatively opulent monuments to excess that is now coming up in Dubai. The Burj al-Arab, the Palm, World Islands and the Dubai Festival City... that's not culture. They're abominations - big, grotesque and soulless. We can do that already. As investments they're flawed, as demonstrated by the recent financial crisis. If things don't get better soon... I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Not many have heard about the island nation of Nauru, but it has much in common with the Middle East. Years ago, Nauru was rich. After being shat on by birds for aeons, the island is literally covered in phosphate, a key ingredient in fertiliser. But the islanders weren't smart with their money. Corruption, profligate spending and unwise investments (such as the Nauru House in Melbourne), combined with the near-exhaustion of its phosphate resources eventually took their toll. The island now lies scarred by years of rampant mining, and is virtually broke. I see the Middle East going the same way if they don't get smart.

But you say, hey, it's a billion ringgit. And sure, I wouldn't mind having an Arab enclave around if I get curious about their cuisine (I've yet to experience the Arab Walk at Bukit Bintang). And - well, cultural transplants are an ongoing process, you'd say. If not, you and your bak kut teh, char koay teow and tau hu hua wouldn't even be here!

But Malacca is not the place for them, not in the historic heart of the state. And certainly not in the hands of those who have devastated the historic heart of the state.

After many years I returned to Malacca, only to have my heart broken by what I've seen. Canto- and Mando-pop in Jonker Street, which looks more like Petaling Street South. Christ Church and Stadhuys infested by kitsch-peddlers and rickshaws with garish, eye-gouging decorations even more tasteless than what's in any Burj al-Arab suite; at night, they're traffic hazards with their blinking lights and all. A cannon next to the clock tower had garbage inside; has anything been done about that since I left? Parts of the surrounding area reminds me of my hometown Penang, and not in a good way.

Free from the confines of a tour bus, I walked the Jonker Street neighbourhood. It's grubby and worn down in places, no air-conditioning and whatnot. But it was beautiful. I felt like a kid again, even though as a kid I never traipsed the old Penang neighbourhoods on foot. I used to see more sky whenever I cycle from home to the city; now I can't. I actually wept.

Can the current administrators of Malacca be trusted not to screw up with these new projects the way they screwed up with the historic heart of the state?

This year I was driven around Penang island by an aunt; what I saw made me mad. Most of the beaches are now covered with rocks, concrete or mud. Underutilised and abandoned hotels. I remember walking on sand and picking seashells on what is now the rock and mud hellhole that's Gurney Drive today. The aunt thinks that development (by E&O, I think) made the waters there stagnant and kept the tide away.

And some lecturer said the ecosystem there is clean because of the presence of thousands of freaking mudskippers! Go there and take a breath, for goodness’ sake. It’s freaking Funky Drive now! Who cares if they’re mudflats and they’re clean? We had a beach, which we did not respect even back then! And it’s gone!

Mr Amir Muhammad, please, please, please put the joker’s quote in Volume 3 for posterity. We owe her at least that much.

By some fluke of fate, my work put me on the path of two codgers whose work included documenting some of Malacca's history from an architectural perspective, with graphics. The sketched structures were clean, neat. Almost surreal. And although free from garbage, kitsch and tasteless works of art, are still beautiful. That's the Malacca I want to see, and preserve.

Look up the Malacca Sketchbook at your nearest bookstore, by the late Chen Voon Fee and Chin Kon Yit, because soon it will probably the only existing record of what Malacca used to be like.

Monday, 6 April 2009


From what this guy says, we're a nation of readers starved of good and affordable books. He's also telling us that we're probably importing too many foreign books, and the brain-drain phenomenon is an illusion, with our 350,000 teachers and more than forty thousand lecturers or professors who can crank out heaps of good local books. It seems we need to publish 27,000 local book titles for general reading a year to catch up with developed countries, more than the current rate of a measly ten thousand.

My beef, not to mention my mutton, venison and poultry with this, is the archetypical Malaysian approach in solving problems.

Do we read - like, really read?
For one, I don't feel we're a nation of serious readers. We seem to approach books as consumers. Not knowing better, we depend mostly on reviews, or recommendations from the more informed. Otherwise, it's all down to eye-grabbing titles that incorporate keywords such as "sex", "love" (in all recognisable languages), not to mention phrases such as "be rich", "earn money", "earn millions" or "be an eBay maven"; or if there's a hot woman on the cover.

No bookworms here
My last visit to a "book fair" is a fair indication that there's a class hierarchy of sorts in when it comes to reading preferences. The more "intelligent" books: dictionaries, encyclopaedias, heavy fiction - mostly in English - were displayed one floor above the textbooks and revision materials, cookie-cutter "romance novels" and religious stuff.

I don't think there is a significant percentage of those reportedly 400,000-odd brainiacs that could write a damn for the general Joe. The teachers we have don't seem like the type to hit the keys after a long day of marking papers, drawing up timetables and reading prepared notes to bored students who chat, text, or sleep during classes.

Right now, I'm not betting on finding a lot of good authors in our institutions of higher learning - considering what has been said about them. I think academia in general desperately needs to learn to write in a newer, livelier way.

Book Of Records mentality
Third, as I said, is the volume thing. We're an industrialised nation 'cos we build lots of cheap cars (Proton!). We're a wired nation 'cos we have free wi-fi. So a smarter nation publishes more books? Crank up production and it'll fly off the shelves? That approach might work better with McDonald's meal vouchers.

Flooding shelves with locally-published books won't necessarily cultivate good readership or reading habits, because it'll mostly be written by people with the similar mentality (lagi-lagi cinta, beb). Even if mass production does lowers prices, there's no guarantee of record sales; nor does it say that all those bought books will be read. What's going to happen to all the unsold copies, left to gather dust or mould in the storerooms?

Then there was the mention of an allocation RM300 million. Has the mass media become a platform for soliciting funds, which may not accomplish what they are meant for? And do they really need that much money?

We have enough books. We just don't have the brains, the drive, the whole reading mindset, which drives all the developments necessary to create a nation of intelligent, mature, responsible and active readers. Not yet.

What to do?
Most of us should cultivate a reading habit because we can't improve what is not there. This is something I owe my folks big time for. It started out with encyclopaedias and those "amazing facts" books and copies of Reader's Digest. Start them out young and they'll take to it like trout to water as they grow. Just look at me!

How to cut down on unnecessary imports or publications? More good libraries. Some people don't want a lot of books in the house. Problem is, the library culture here generally sucks. And I'd rather have big, well-staffed and well-stocked libraries rather than those monuments to excess called shopping malls. Leave the cafés alone and replace the racks in Mid Valley's Prada or DKNY with bookshelves and I'll be happy. It'll also help with shopaholicism, a really inconvenient affliction in these troubled times.

E-books are also a logical step forward for a society that's - supposedly - as wired as ours. Libraries can even offer e-books online for a fee, and link up with other libraries in other states and abroad for more reading material. Wouldn't that be cool?

Most importantly, government shouldn’t treat its citizens like children. We don’t stay kids forever. Censorship, for one, does not necessarily safeguard morals, reduce crime or build better thinkers. All it has done is breed a bunch of people hungry for escapism (cari cinta, misalnya).

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Golden Age, Subdued Glitter

After weeks of waiting, another review. They made this sound more like an advert rather than a

Thoughtful read

first published in The Star, 05 April 2009

In December, a coalition led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed's Awami League scored a landslide victory in Bangladesh's elections.

The win was, if one reads the country's history, highly symbolic. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the first president of an independent Bangladesh, in 1971. After years of conflict and political instability, Bangladeshis are hoping his daughter's victory will bring an end to the troubles.

The days before Bangladesh's birth in 1971, when what was then East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan (what is now Pakistan), are told in Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age.

Rehana Haque is a single mother of two from East Pakistan, one of the two wings of a nation formed after the 1947 split with India. Her husband suddenly drops dead one day on the way home and her children are taken away by their uncle to Lahore in West Pakistan.

So Rehana sells some possessions and builds a rooming house with the money, a place she names "Shona", or gold in Bengali. With this source of income and a court order, she brings her children back, and every year, she celebrates this triumphant return with her tenants and neighbours.

Meanwhile, there are war-like sounds being made: To quell what it saw as East Pakistan's moves towards independence, West Pakistan launches a military crackdown in March 1971. East Pakistan's new cabinet is established in exile near the Indian border while its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is thrown in jail.

But it isn't political strains that occupy Rehana's mind; rather, it is the strains within her own family that weigh on her: Her son Sohail, a student activist and supporter of Sheikh Mujibur, is heartbroken by the approaching marriage between sister Silvi and army officer Sabeer, who is very much an establishment man; her other daughter, Maya, has communist leanings and is rebelling.

Sohail and Maya soon join East Pakistan's freedom fighters. The son goes one step further and brings home his buddies and commanding officer, a man Rehana calls the Major, and turns Shona into a base of operations.

Spicing things up is the budding romance between Rehana and her unwanted tenant. With the memories of her late husband still strong in her mind, she grapples with her growing feelings for the mysterious Major.

The only major complaint I have about this novel is the way Rehana (mostly) tolerates her kids' flights of fancy. And how it makes me hungry: There's food in every other chapter or so, all described deliciously, biryani, jhaal moori, chapatis, laddoo. One British reviewer hungered for Indian cuisine after finishing the book. Luckily for me, my trusty neighbourhood Indian restaurant is within walking distance of my home....

But Rehana's not just a war-time supermum. She's also cultured and educated, as demonstrated by her love of Urdu poetry and fondness for Western films. Although a Muslim, she doesn't mind a sip of Mrs Chowdury's whisky-laced tea, or a few rounds of gin rummy. The world today needs more women like Mrs Rehana – or have they all been driven into hiding by loud, angry ideologues?

What Anam is trying to say is that war does horrible things to friends and families, especially a civil war that strikes so close to home. The part where the Major moves into Shona is reportedly based on true stories told to Anam by her parents about the same war, when freedom fighters stayed in their home and buried weapons in the front yard.

This is a story about the culture shared between a country now split in two, the conflict that led to that cleavage, and the sorrow and hope that came from it. A Golden Age is a beautiful story, and as soon as I closed the book I found myself pondering the worth of all the fighting that's going on right now, beamed live from the world's hottest flash points into living rooms worldwide.

A Golden Age, through Rehana's words on and feelings about Bangladesh's birth, encourages thought long after the book has been put down.

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray
276 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7195-6010-1

Thursday, 2 April 2009

She's Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell

When approached to do this, I honestly didn't know how much difference it would make. This piece was hard to write at first, but looking back, I could say I'm rather pleased with it.

This piece accompanied an ad for the second print of the book by MPH Publishing. The books, T-shirts and whatever she's selling for her medical fund is perhaps the only thing keeping her going. I, and many others, hope that she'll be able to graduate and support herself as a psychologist or something similar before charity fatigue sets in among the supportive public.

Gutsy gal
A young lady’s quest for normalcy leaves KW Wong awed - and humbled

original text; edited version published in MPH Quill, Apr-Jun 2009

You wake up one morning, put both feet on the ground, and suddenly, the ground starts to tip over. You try to stand upright. You can walk, but your feet grow ever more unsteady as your stride quickens. Don’t even think about running or even jogging. Nothing changes after a couple of days. After three doctors and two sinsehs, a specialist informs you that you have a rare, incurable condition that adversely affects your body, including your sense of balance. You panic, because you’re one of your school’s star athletes. And there’s a ballet recital next week.

Yvonne Foong and her book in page 19 of
MPH Quill for Apr-Jun 2009
Yvonne Foong Ming Niang might not be her school’s medal-winning track star, but she did ballet and figure skating. Then her life changed when she was 13. She started going deaf in one ear, and got sick doing spins while dancing or skating. She didn’t know why until she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis (NF) Type 2, a genetic condition with no known cure that causes tumours to grow on her spine and brain. The latest tumour now endangers her eyesight; she already has trouble reading small-sized fonts. She has started learning Braille just in case, but - putting it mildly - going blind may be the least of her worries.

Currently, the only solution is surgery, especially for removing tumours that grow near the critical nerves. Unfortunately, few surgeons in the country can do that without complicating her condition. She knows, because she’s had two surgeries at KL’s General Hospital and another three were at the US House Clinic in Los Angeles. While seeking treatments in the US she goes to doctors in Malaysia for periodic check-ups, such as MRIs and eye tests. So yes, she did take notes. Until Malaysian medical facilities get better, she’ll have to go elsewhere for surgery.

However, Yvonne does not want to depend solely on donations - nor does she want to burden her family. Besides selling her “Heart4Hope” T-shirts and writing for publications such as the (discontinued) YellowPost and The Malay Mail, she has published a book that calls to mind a Matchbox 20 song. I’m Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell was written to raise two things: cash for her medical fund, and awareness for neurofibromatosis among the Malaysian public. A reprint of the book will be released by MPH to raise funds to save her sight.

Yvonne’s is an uphill battle. Her constant need for medical attention means she will be working to pay her doctors’ bills for the rest of her life. The Malaysian public has so far, risen to the occasion in her time of need. But how long can that go on? She once admitted that without the public’s generosity, sales of her book would have been very sick indeed.

Some may doubt that Yvonne needs help because she doesn’t “look needy” in her public appearances. Despite her condition, she won’t play the part. She’s determined to lead a normal life, which includes graduating from college, nice clothes and great dinners for special occasions, parties, and the occasional Starbucks latte with friends - something many of us take for granted.

At first glance it is hard to tell that Yvonne has problems. I think our first meeting was at KLCC’s Burger King on July 31, 2006. I remember her hair’s red highlights and the midriff-baring bright green top. It was at a bloggers’ meet, and the crowd made me feel ancient. But it wasn’t until the launch of I’m Not Sick on December 2006 that I finally got a copy - autographed, of course.

The first edition of I’m Not Sick is a slim little book that briefly tells the story of her life and how she dealt with her condition. Chapters that describe NF, and patient testimonials come later, as well as the story of how she got published, and the day she was voted the “Most Outstanding Youth of the Year” at the inaugural Asian Youth Ambassadors (AYA) Dream Malaysia Awards 2005.

According to Yvonne, the first draft was a bit more “raw and emotional”, until the editor John Ling got to work with it. It explains why some passages felt so... detached, clinical. Nevertheless the emotions conveyed were still discernable, and it was hard for me not to sympathise with her and fellow NF patients when I reached the last page.

May I add that she’s deaf, has one blind eye, a poor sense of balance and several other physical impairments? If I were in her shoes I’d take about two hours to get out of bed every morning - wallowing in misery - instead planning my next book or fundraiser.

A lot has changed with Yvonne since the book came out. More surgeries, of course, and with an auditory brainstem implant installed she’s now a bionic woman. But it will be years before the device can help her discern certain sounds. And by the time you see this, she would have undergone the operation to save her sight. After that, who knows?

I was told that writing this piece was better than buying a hundred T-shirts. I did it anyway despite a busy new job, because I want to help. I want Yvonne around for as long as possible, like all her friends do. Most importantly I want to hear what she has to say next, because I feel there’s a certain wisdom in her words. I hope she’ll come up with another book. Maybe this time, there’ll be a chapter on a cure for her condition - my idea of a happy ending.

Friday, 20 February 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.

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.

Dan Simmons
773 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-03685-6

Sunday, 15 February 2009


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, 3 February 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, 1 February 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.

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...

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?

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.

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

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. 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?

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Medical Report

I have a maxillary polyp in each nasal sinus, and my nasal bone is shaped like a thunderbolt. This cramped up my airways and made the nasal allergies worse. After years of this said polyps are now the size of an average grape. Said sinuses are swelled and filled with mucous. Surgical procedure required.

So says the specialist from Taman Desa Medical Centre. The first paragraph cost me around RM600, including fees, CT scan and several insertions of a probe with a camera at the end. The first time was OK, but when I went back for the report (the radiologist wasn't there for the scan) I got it stuck up my nose again.

Either I go for "minimal-invasive" surgery or keep using nasal sprays for life, which is not a good idea. I told the specialist I sometimes bleed when I blow my nose. "You pointed that out exactly," he said. "One of the symptoms of long-term steroid use (thinning of the membrane). As a journalist, you're supposed to look for the black and white of things - why didn't you check the warnings in the brochure?"

That's why I guess they're called "consultants", not "doctors".

Do not get sick. Ever.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Justice Is...

...seeing both Hamas and Israeli leadership share the defendant's dock at The Hague.

It's been more than sixty years. Are there still any clean hands left in the Middle East?

And once that's settled, Dubya's administration is next - if they're still alive by that time.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Coward's End

The first book review for this year (2009) was written last year for a movie that didn't seem to reach the silver screens. It's out on DVD though, if anyone's interested.

This one is also heavily edited. While I'm learning to take it all in stride, I can't help feeling sore that my degree of writing has taken a dive lately. And I think I won't be doing a lot of reviews this year.

Still, I've had eleven published last year (not a lot, either), plus another three in 2007, so I can't complain.

History or fiction?

first published in The Star, 04 January 2009

A conundrum we all face with novels-turned-into-movies is whether we should wait for the movie or read the book first.

The silver screen option would probably be more appealing in today's attention-deficit society; it seems that few people want to take a whole day (or two) to read a book from cover to cover, nowadays.

There is also the suspicion that the author wrote it with the hope that somebody would turn his masterpiece into an Oscar-winning movie (The Da Vinci Code comes immediately to mind!).

While Ron Hansen's novel was made into a movie – which has yet to open here, while Singaporeans saw it in January last year – it doesn't seem, at first glance, to lend itself easily to silver screen adaptation. One can't really accuse the writer of this sometimes-surreal Western of pandering to Hollywood sensibilities.

For one thing, there's the title (deep breath, now): The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. For another, while that unwieldy title seems to indicate a focus on the American West's most famous outlaw, Jesse James – surely popular fodder for the silver screen – most of that focus seems to have been culled from newspapers and magazines. Half the time it feels like I'm reading a long, laboriously-crafted Wikipedia entry. Instead, Hansen has, intriguingly, centred his best writing around the assassin, Robert Ford.

The story of Jesse Woodson James' criminal career begins with the American Civil War in 1861, when he rode with Confederate militia alongside his elder brother, Frank. When the war ended in 1865, the Jameses joined the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John, and Bob), to form the James-Younger Gang, a real ornery buncha outlaws. However, because they mainly went after government establishments and the super rich, the outlaws had fans among poor rural folk.

When a botched robbery breaks up the James-Younger gang, Jesse forms his own gang, and it is this that will lead eventually to his demise at the hands of two turncoats: new recruits Robert and Charley Ford. All this is historic fact.

Our fictional novel begins innocently enough, with a young, enthusiastic Bob Ford trying to chat up Frank James, hoping to impress the outlaw and maybe get an invitation to the gang's next gig. Frank feels an immediate dislike for the boy, saying that Bob gives him "the willies" – one of several Ides of March-like premonitions buried in the pages. Jesse, however, lets young Bob into the gang.

As the days pass, however, the allure of being a member of Jesse's posse wanes as Bob sees more and more of his leader's flawed, all-too-human side. He also begins to resent the fact that, most of the time, he's just Jesse's errand boy.

It is events closer to home, however, that pushes Bob onto the path of treachery: He kills Jesse's cousin to protect a fellow gang-member who's a friend, and then covers up the crime. Around the same time, an increasingly paranoid Jesse begins silencing comrades after some of his gang members are arrested. With the guilt of the murder of Jesse's cousin hanging over their heads too, Bob and Charley begin fearing for their lives.

And so, after making a deal with local authorities, they kill the famous outlaw, shooting him in the back.

Bob wastes little time in exploiting his status as the infamous traitor. Will he live happily ever after, or be done in by the curse of a wicked deed? A lot of the time, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Did it all really happen like it says in the book?

Some stories and anecdotes out of the wild, wild West tend to be apocryphal, but The Assassination tries its darnedest to avoid being categorised as complete fantasy, even at the risk of coming across more like a non-fiction book than the upper-crust Western it really is.

I am grateful, though, for Mr Hansen's discipline in sticking to the history books (those that I've read, anyway). Very few liberties were taken in the name of artistic licence (for instance, no tender Brokeback Mountain moments, thank God!). Then again, I was too engrossed in all that history to notice any.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia: When they made this novel into a film, Brad Pitt, who plays Jesse James and is also one of the movie's producers, reportedly insisted that the long title be retained. And everyone knows that when Jesse says "do", nobody ever says "don't"!

The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford
Ron Hansen
389 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-112901-8