Saturday, 31 December 2011

Some Pieces Fall In Place

Coming down from a long Christmas weekend of doing mostly nothing, I realise that it has come to a point where I can go for a month-long holiday and, upon returning to work, find myself not feeling refreshed. Bad sleeping habits might be a factor.

I wasn't sure how to respond to this post that filled the gaps in my pro-indie bookstore article. And I couldn't put a finger on what I'd felt as I typed it out.

One can say my piece was "biased". I was too tired or blasé to craft a more balanced take on the subject. Besides, some stories on small bookshops were recently published. Responses to Manjoo's Slate article, maybe?

I am aware that in Malaysia, there is no apparent reading culture. Rarely does the average reader's connection to books go beyond the product and the shelf it came from. How are books published? How does one write a book? What does it take to print one? Do readers know or care? Do they even need special places for buying or reading books?

Before he'd personally watched a pig get slaughtered or kill one himself, Anthony Bourdain claimed his understanding of where meat came from was not ...complete. Perhaps Manjoo's understanding of small independent bookstores would similarly benefit by an extended stay in Malaysia where he can witness the slow death of at least one indie bookshop.

I loved bookstores as a kid, but lamented my limited time in them as the folks had to leave for home. Though I have the freedom and money to spend in bookstores, I don't seem to be doing that a lot. Perhaps the force behind my piece was desperation. The urge to do something, however ineffectual, to delay the inevitable.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores may eventually be a thing of its past, but should its passing be brushed off with a toss of a pen, like Manjoo did, without a care for the people who work at and frequent those places? To be replaced with the likes of Amazon? Please. The thought of letting such a shapeless, faceless behemoth dictate what I can or should buy or download - and at what price - makes my blood run cold.

Maybe it's just me, writing about how I'm missing something that's about to disappear. Not like it's going to change anything, but it's better than doing nothing.


Friday, 30 December 2011

Another Red Future, Imagined

Probably my last book review for 2011. I not sure if I can call The Fat Years a "thriller", though. And so ends another year.

Red future
Hegemony and hope in an ascendant China

first published in The Star, 30 December 2011

With a tagline like "The notorious thriller they banned in China", a critique of China's ruling Communist Party is what you'd expect in these pages. But it's not exactly what you think.

Chan Koonchung's 'The Fat Years'
Originally published as Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (loosely, "A Golden Age: China In 2013"), Chan Koonchung's work of speculative fiction was translated into English as The Fat Years. It starts "two years from now", ie after this novel's publication earlier this year. China has emerged ascendant from the aftermath of a global financial crisis. Some famous brands have fallen into Chinese hands, including Starbucks.

In one of the now Chinese-owned Wantwant Starbucks outlets, Old Chen, a former journalist, current author and resident of Happiness Village Number Two, is moved to tears by China's prosperity; some of those tears end up in his "great-tasting" Lychee Black Dragon Latté.

Earlier, his friend Fang Caodi pestered him for the umpteenth time about a missing February (yes, he means the month, the entire month). Big deal. Politically inconvenient timelines tend to disappear in China. That doesn't bother Old Chen – much. He's divorced, getting old and has writer's block.

Hope for his second spring in the country's golden age comes in the form of an old flame, Wei Xihong aka Little Xi. A former judge disillusioned by the system, she quit her job and eventually took the Raja Petra route (ie, she became a dissident blogger, for those who don't get the reference). Chen's search for her would put him on a course to unearth the truth behind the missing month, the details of which are only remembered very vaguely by several characters.

Born Fang Lijun, Fang Caodi is an asthmatic and jack-of-all-trades who returned to mainland China after years of wandering and renamed himself after an elementary school. Fellow asthmatic Zhang Dou, who was once a child slave, is now a wannabe guitarist. These two guys come to believe in the hand of the Chinese government behind this collective national amnesia.

Things come to a head one day when Zhang, Fang and Little Xi surprise Old Chen by pulling up to him in a black SUV with an unconscious government official bundled up at the back. Will he talk? And if he does, what will they learn?

The Fat Years describes so many things that are so close to home in modern China. Polemics for and against a totalitarian regime, its ideology and ruling elite are conveyed through the book's characters. However, it could do without the lengthy preface, which sort of gave the ending away. That and the translator's introduction pretty much summed up the novel for the casual book browser, who'd probably leave it on the shelf. Which would be a pity.

With its folksy narrative and dialogue and occasional bits of humour, The Fat Years is not stridently didactic about – nor a full-blown parody of – China's situation.

It's more about folks like Old Chen, Little Xi, Fang Caodi and Zhang Dou. Particularly Little Xi and Fang, whom the author considers among the many "incorrigible idealists" in China: "... the people languishing in prison or under government surveillance – human rights lawyers, political dissidents, ... public intellectuals, whistle-blowers...".

Despite the bad news in China (factory worker suicides, dodgy food manufacturers and callous drivers in horrifying hit-and-runs and so on), the presence of people like Little Xi and Fang gives others hope. That things aren't really all that bad, and that they will get better. That there are still people out there trying to make things better.

For me, the romance between Old Chen and Little Xi gives the book a bit of much-needed heart and gives us a glimpse of that hope. After Little Xi had gone into hiding, Old Chen tracks her down, but she refuses to see him, so they communicate through e-mails and comments in a forum thread.

Briefly, Old Chen's entreaties to Little Xi made netizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait forget about politics to split hairs over the duo's online exchanges. Opinions differ, but they seem to agree about one thing: "Stop faffing around Little Xi, make up with Old Chen and everything will be okay!"

As the author puts it: "No society can afford to be without idealists – especially not contemporary China." After all, it can be argued that a bunch of idealists put China on the path it's treading today – and their job is far from done.

The Fat Years
Chan Koonchung
translated by Michael S Duke
preface by Julia Lovell
Doubleday (2011)
307 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-61918-9

Sunday, 25 December 2011

News: Institute d'Egypt, Indie Bookstores and The 99¢ Question

Sinus acting up, and out of fresh saline for irrigation. I had something written and stuff to write as well, but ah, what the heck... Rudolph's red nose might also be a symptom of a sinus problem.

  • Caught between between protesters and Egypt's military, the Institute d'Egypt, the research centre set up by Napoleon Bonaparte when the French invaded in the late 18th century, caught fire when both sides clashed. Among the treasured writings housed in the Institute was the handwritten 24-volume Description de l'Egypte, which includes two decades' worth of notes by over 150 French scholars and scientists on Egypt's monuments and its history. Like the Institute, over 190,000 books, journals and writings - some of which were 200 years old - were damaged by the fire, possibly beyond repair.
  • News of another death in the literary world were nearly swamped by tributes to the late Christopher Hitchens. So George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company is not the same storied bookstore frequented by Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Whitman's S&Co, was originally called Le Mistral and is about half a century old. The place is now being managed by his daughter Sylvia, and as seen the likes of Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs.

    Speaking of bookstores and old gentlemen: Thank you, Leong Siok Hui, The Star for bringing The Penang Bookshelf to our attention. She also put together a profile of the owner.
  • Previously, there was speculation about how Jane Austen died - was she murdered? The same is now being asked of Robert Ludlum, author of the Bourne Identity. Is there something ... undignified or mundane about natural causes, etc that some sensational cause of death needs to be applied to authors of note?
  • Will book promos go Bollywood? After completing his book, the first in the Shiva Trilogy, Amish Tripathi made a film trailer as part of the book's marketing. It's not a unique case; there are some video trailers on a web site for a series of alternate history novels depicting Elizabeth I of England as a descendant of a Druidic vampire-killing priestess. My review of the first book has yet to be published.
  • Frustrated at having her books pirated, Spanish novelist Lucía Etxebarria has threatened to quit writing. While we can perhaps sympathise with the Basque author, blogger The Digital Reader thinks she should be taking steps to reduce the pirating of her works - like, maybe, introduce cheaper, more accessible e-editions of her books? - instead of merely throwing hissy-fits.

    The head-desk inducing irony, according to the blogger, was that Etxebarria did not want to publish e-book versions "because that is easy to pirate. It would have been like throwing it straight to the lions." ...Then again, it's not as if every writer is like Paulo Coelho and can give away free books.
  • Elsewhere, people are wondering if 99 cents is too cheap for an e-book. How does one come up with a win-win-win-win pricing scheme for authors, publishers, retailers and readers? One reason why it would be better to price an e-book above 99 cents:

    The difference in royalty earnings between a self-published book at 99 cents through [Kindle Direct Publishing] and a $2.99 book through [ditto] is roughly $1.66 per book. ... At $1.66 per book, authors need to sell only 24,100 books, or 2008 per month to earn $40,000 per year, not a stellar salary by any means, but enough to make writing more than just a passion. Remember, most indie authors are not selling 2000 copies of their books per month - they’re lucky to sell 50.

    It's only a matter of time before 99 cents would cease being a fair price for e-books.
  • Teachers in the US are publishing their own textbooks "for niche courses ... for which a suitable book doesn't exist; to self-publish supplementary material for a class; or because sudden curriculum changes can put widely used textbooks out of date", thanks to self-publishing firms. In light of the reported disintegration of the US school system, this bit of news is heartening.
  • Write a book, get it published, what could possibly go wrong? Peter Bromhead finds out. Make sure this doesn't happen to you.
  • Steven Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, presents a cheat sheet-style piece about his ten awful truths about book publishing and a list of strategies for responding to them.
  • Will the 21st century see the death of books? Nay, says the Guardian. "Far from killing off the book, the digital age is proving a boon to innovative publishers and authors, many of whom are using new technology to breathe life back into old ideas." Profiled are three such innovations: online subscription publishing site Unbound, hybrid books and Boxfiction, "the TV show you read"... what, reading TV?
  • Another case for the existence of the physical book: signed, annotated secondhand books as collectibles of historical value.
  • Writer and editor Robert McCrum lists fifty things he learnt about the literary life and outlines a new map for the changing landscape that is the world of books.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Me, Bookstore Snob? ...Yes

This came about several days late, mainly because I was wondering if I could word the whole thing better. I'm still wondering about it now. Why send this to TMI? Well, thought I'd give it a shot.

I've included a couple of other links related to the story that I forgot about in the text below. The Internet reacted a lot faster than I thought to the Slate article.

Happy to be a bookstore snob
first published in The Malaysian Insider, 20 December 2011

"Independent bookstores are expensive, inefficient and don't deserve to be saved."

This snappy headline and the Slate article it was associated with nearly made a bookstore manager cry.

Jen Campbell, who runs the Ripping Yarns bookstore in the UK, is planning a series of bookstore-related articles in response to said piece by Slate's resident tech geek Farhad Manjoo.

What might have got Manjoo's goat was a New York Times article by Richard Russo (a little daisy chain going on here, methinks) that pivots the pro-indie bookstore/anti-Amazon argument on the notion that indies are bastions of literary culture, something which Amazon does nothing to promote.

Though he has criticised some of Amazon's allegedly egregious business practices, Manjoo argues that the company has done more for the literary culture than, perhaps, indie bookstores, which he considers "...the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologised local establishments you can find."

And he adds that although Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is "an easy guy to hate... if you're a novelist - not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry - you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner."

It's quite an interesting piece, and Manjoo makes some cogent points. He's also right about other aspects of bookstore snobbery. Bookstore browsing or haunting, in my case, is a meditative experience, a source of comfort (or an escape) in bad times. Surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, I feel calm. Some days, being in a bookshop makes me want to write.

But his overall argument for Amazon as a better driver of literary culture reminds me of a news report back home that equates a high-income/knowledge country as one that publishes 27,000 books a year.

"Buy more books," they said. We are, judging from the crowds at a warehouse sale I attended months back. But books are meant to be read; how many of those bought books would be read in a month? Two months? And are these the kind of books that really work the gears in your head or merely cranium stuffing? 

Literary culture is more than just the book. It's the people (authors, editors, publishers, book designers, readers and critics) and the institutions (schools, universities, libraries, archives and yes, bookstores). It's the history; the book as we know it has been around for ages. To touch a physical book is to hold the tangible results of centuries of literary evolution, and the hard work of the people and institutions that put it together.

Even as the publishing industry moves towards digitisation, the inevitable loss of some of that will be painful to many. The death of George Whitman, for one, prompts one to ask: what will become of his storied bookstore by the Seine?

A piece of tech or a shiny on-screen user interface doesn't elicit that kind of emotion. Nor does the history of Apple or Steve Jobs gives one that fuzzy warm feeling. (No, I'm sure that buzz's just static electricity.)

Yes, you can still buy physical books from Amazon, maybe with discounts, if you're feeling all tactile and stuff about history and the romance of the book.

But the whole online thing feels cold to me.

The 24/7 convenience is great for long distances and hard-to-get books, but we already spend so much time online for other things, and we don't need another reason to stay wired and indoors.

Bookstores in general are hard to run. Indie bookshops, even more so. Which is why the people who run them are exceptional, especially when they're familiar with their products, the industry and the communities they serve. Some of them are out there, still soldiering on - which might explain why Manjoo's apparent dickishness has strummed more than a few nerves.

Slate readers would note that Manjoo writes this way at times, so the article doesn't necessarily reflect his character.

The extinction of the bookstore would just mean one less excuse to leave the house. However, it would also mean an end to one of the connections between the people who make books and those who read them - which are already fraying.

Education systems are deteriorating in some parts of the world, even as our collective attention spans crave faster, smaller bursts of entertainment. The business model of the big bookstore and the rise of the mega-selling superstar authors are partly to blame for the disconnect. Pushing big names out big stores in huge numbers does not necessarily indicate a growing reading culture - just more people buying books.

I'm aware that I'm arguing this from a mainly emotional angle. Perhaps with good reason. The need to express ourselves and the hunger for knowledge stems from passion. I don't go nuts at all the books I see on the shelves, but there's a certain connection I can make with it that I can't with a piece of tech.

Odd, considering my long IT background. But maybe not - it would explain the discomfort of the eight years I've been in IT.

Are indie bookstore lovers hopeless touchy-feely romantic about their weathered brick-and-mortar hangouts? Likely; in my case, "Hell, yes."

The digital transformation in the way we read and write books is unavoidable, but what is the publishing industry without the passion to write, package, archive and read through all that material? What could we publish or market without the urge to think, discover, dream, discuss and argue - and write or type it all down?

I believe it's the same kind of flame that burned in the bosoms of Jobs, Gates, et al - one can only be kindled by human interaction, conversation and sharing of ideas.

Technology like the Internet has certainly helped in bringing minds together and made sharing easier. But to say that online bookstores are better and more efficient at nurturing literary culture, well... wouldn't that be mistaking the medium for the message?

Sunday, 18 December 2011

News: Hitchens, Manjoo and More Bad Books

Great Gutenberg, lots of news this week. Perhaps the biggest one is the passing of Christopher Hitchens, the combative, well-known atheist writer and journalist.

Some of Christopher Hitchens's books (from left): 'God Is Not Great', 'Arguably', 'The Portable Atheist' and 'Hitch-22'
Expect these to become popular in the coming days

His last book, Mortality, will be out next year.

Some of his greatest Slate pieces can be found here. He even took time to comment on the Allah issue. I think that was the first time I got acquainted with his writings. Also:

  • Virginia Tech was shaken up days ago by another shooting, where a policeman was killed. The institution achieved infamy as the site of one of the biggest campus shootings in 2007. But there was, according to author Matthew Pearl in his book The Professor's Assassin, another shooting incident that happened there - in 1840. Does this make Virginia Tech the most shot-up campus ever in the US?
  • Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo further stirs a teacup storm by suggesting that Amazon does more for literary culture than independent bookstores. I'd drafted a take on it, but such was the overwhelming response to that, I'm having second thoughts. Jen Campbell of the Ripping Yarns bookshop in the UK intends to respond with a series of bookstore-related blog posts. The Christian Science Monitor has one article about it.
  • The reported flagging of Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going as haram by JAKIM generated quite a bit of buzz, with several voices weighing in. Among the latest was Dina Zaman's "Oh! Woe to the book lover" in The Star. No word yet from the Home Ministry yet on the status of that book, or the others that JAKIM flagged for banning. I'm hoping we won't have to wait for nine months.
  • On a somewhat related note: Due to a misspelling, a book called Singapore Sucks! will be reviewed. The application for an import permit for the "series of satirical short stories, poems and essays about life in Singapore" listed the book as Singapore S. The editor was surprised by the decision to review the book because copies of it have been selling in Singapore for months before that.
  • After much see-sawing, the controversial novel Interlok was reportedly withdrawn from the school syllabus. Perkasa is apparently crying foul, implying that it's a ploy to gain Indian votes for the rumoured upcoming general elections.
  • Our government is prepared to allocate funds to writers to boost book industry, which is great. Utusan Publications and Distributors Sdn Bhd executive director Dr Ahmad Hairi Abu Bakar also said, "To achieve developed nation status by 2020, the nation needs to publish 27,000 titles annually compared to 18,000-20,000 titles presently." Okay, but how many of those books will actually be read? And how many of those books will actually help create a learning society?
  • Amazon's best-selling books for 2011. The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan and The Abbey by Chris Culver made the list based solely on Kindle sales and were independently published using Kindle Direct Publishing.
  • "How we do not kill each other": Author and former Gawker editor Emily Gould and Ruth Curry interview each other about their indie e-book business.
  • Another chapter on the e-book price war between publishers and retailers.
  • The New Statesman asks: Do books "prime people for terrorism"?
  • Reader's Digest cuts 150 positions.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

MPH Quill Issue 32, Oct-Dec 2011 - At Last

Frankly, this should be called the MPH Quill December issue. But at least it's - oh dear printing press gods, finally! - out. Flipped through the pages of a copy yesterday morning.

MPH Quill Issue 32, Oct-Dec 2011 cover (left) and part of
the contents pages

The cover stories are all about e-books and digital publishing, in conjunction with the official launch of MPH's e-publishing arm, MPH Digital. Oon Yeoh talks about the growth potential of e-books, while MPH Senior Manager of Business Development Rodney Toh answers some questions on e-publishing.

Eric Forbes interviews Marco Robinson (Know When to Close the Deal and Suddenly Grow Rich! (2011)) and Samantha Bruce-Benjamin (The Art of Devotion (2010)). Also featured are authors Neel Mukherjee (A Life Apart (2010)), June Hutton (Underground (2009)) and Lauren Kate (the Fallen series).

Author interviews by Eric Forbes: Marco Robinson (left) and
Samantha Bruce-Benjamin

Quill also speaks to Mohd Khair Ngadiron, the managing director/CEO of the Malaysian National Institute of Translation (Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia or ITNM) and Japri Bujang Masli, acting CEO of state library and depository Pustaka Negeri Sarawak (Pustaka).

Amir Muhammad reveals the inspirations behind the catchy book covers from his new imprint Fixi. We would've loved to include the latest release Zombijaya (2011) and the upcoming Tabu and Kelabu, but we were in a rush to close the issue.

Covers and authors of pulp fiction titles by Fixi

Also: Lee Su Kim shares how she put together her book Kebaya Tales: Of Matriarchs, Maidens, Mistresses and Matchmakers. Janet Tay heads for the hills to escape her writer's block, but even so, distractions abound.

Alexandra Wong tries her hand at copywriting and realises that "selling out" isn't so bad, after all. Ellen Whyte takes readers to the Spanish city of Valladolid, the place author Cervantes (Don Quixote) and poet and playwright Jose Zorilla settled in.

Alexandra Wong's corporate writing article (left) and
Ellen Whyte's Valladolid travel piece

Quite a lot of stuff, plus some book news and more.

Quill is a magazine on books and the reading life in Malaysia.

Since 2003, Quill has been recommending the best and upcoming titles in bookstores. The magazine supports Malaysian and international authors, providing exclusive interviews and events coverage. For aspiring writers, there are articles on developing the writing craft by established authors. Find reviews of noteworthy fiction and non-fiction, as well as travel, food and lifestyle pieces.

Quill is free for members of MPH's Readers' Circle. It can also be purchased at newsstands nationwide.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

"Mofo" Is Not A Spanish Word

I love the title of this book. It's the perfect send-off line for hated politicians everywhere. Mine's a long list, but at the top of my head are several, including one James Richard Perry.

'Adios, Mofo!'
In 6 August, the governor of Texas led a 30,000-strong prayer rally at a Houston stadium - one of the strongest signals of his intent to join the race to be the Republican Party's presidential candidate.

Anticipating that, New York Times best-selling author James C Moore proposed a book that maybe suggests why it would be a bad idea to put him in the Oval Office. Publisher Henry Holt took it on, but after the manuscript was completed, Perry's polling numbers slumped as it became clear that he's not quite what the party had in mind as a credible adversary to Obama.

The gaffes might have something to do with that.

In a debate, he couldn't remember one of the government departments he wanted to axe as part of spending cuts (Department of Energy). He forgot that the legal voting age in the US was 18, not 21. In an interview, he couldn't recall the name of a US Supreme Court judge. He mistakenly called a bankrupt energy company a "country". And the list goes on.

Anyway, Henry Holt cancelled the book. But Moore and co-author Jason Stanford decided to publish the book on the Amazon Kindle. The "engaging, imminently readable book," said Mary Pauline Lowry in the Huffington Post, "has moved several times into the Top 10 political titles on Amazon, providing another heartening example of the way e-books and the Internet are helping authors to regain agency over their work."

In Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush, Moore and Stanford chart the rise of this dude from Paint Creek, West Texas to a Republican presidential nominee:

...Who preached abstinence to school kids. And ended up with the most teen births in the country. Opposed gay marriage so vehemently he accidentally turned Texas into the gay marriage capital for post-op transsexuals. Pushed to privatize state highways and created corruption so huge it could be seen from space. Literally.

The air in Rick Perry’s Texas is polluted to the point that some schools have to cancel football practice because it is dangerous to breathe. His state budget is such a mess that his cuts threaten the jobs of 100,000 teachers. Perry campaigns as a “proud American in love with his country.” But he threatened to have Texas secede. Texas is offering America another conservative, so godly, so ineffably manly that not only does he jog with a laser-sighted semi-automatic handgun, but he asked to be on the front page of the paper just to make it abundantly clear that he was most definitely not gay.

...Moore ... teams up with Stanford ... to tell you the unintentionally hilarious stories about how Rick Perry is so bad at governing that it's been said he couldn't lead a silent prayer.

Sold? I am. But here's an excerpt from the book, if you're curious. It describes the scene at that prayer rally.

Even without the book, Perry's uninspiring performances during the debates and press coverage on the man just screams, "Don't vote for this guy!" And he's probably not the worst among the GOP's current line-up of presidential nominees.

Some of us outside the US watching the GOP electoral circus would maybe chortle and delight in this sign of an imminent implosion of, no thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan, an unpopular superpower. But we should all be worried.

While there's no guarantee that Obama will be any better than this lot in his second term, there's the more palpable fear that the next Republican in the White House will, in a way, usher a return to the bad old days of "if you're not with us, you're against us".

The GOP primaries are, at least, being viewed with alarm in Germany, as indicated by a scathing Der Spiegel article. Harper's Magazine contributing editor Scott Horton translated some of the more salient paragraphs, and sums it up for all of us:

"At a time of mounting crisis, when much of the world is looking to the United States for leadership and initiative, the celebration of sleaze and ignorance that has marked the Republican primary is damaging the reputation of the nation as a whole. Even those who despise the G.O.P. should be concerned about the depths to which the party has sunk."

The phrase "Adios, Mofo" became an online sensation after Perry used it in a mocking sign-off to Ted Oberg, a television reporter for ABC. The e-book was released on Amazon Kindle in the US sometime last month.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

News: Amazon, Freebie Freezes and Clumsy Prose

  • Amazon being accused of more and more predatory tactics. Is it time to Occupy Amazon?
  • Publisher William Morrow attaches provisos to review copies of books given to book bloggers. "Message is essentially: if you don't review enough of the books we send you, in the timeframe we want you to, you're out," tweets Rebecca Schinsky, a.k.a. @bookladysblog. The beginning of the end of book blogger freebies?
  • Another digital self-publishing success story: Lawyer Darcie Chan's e-published novel The Mill River Recluse. On a related note, the e-reader wave draws closer.
  • A group of people that's keeping the physical book alive: book designers.
  • Another poet quits the TS Eliot Prize shortlist over sponsorship by hedge fund firm Aurum.
  • What should be quite obvious: Why Amazon consumer book reviews cannot be trusted. Not saying that bona fide book reviews are 100 per cent all that...
  • David Guterson's modern take on Oedipus wins Literary Review's Bad Sex Award for 2011, beating the likes of Haruki Murakami (1Q84), Lee Child (The Affair) and Stephen King (11/22/63).

Friday, 9 December 2011

Saving JFK

"Hot book!" they said, so I chiselled the review out of my glacial writer's block. But my speed record for reviewing David Sedaris's Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk - two days after reading - is still unbroken. And likely to remain that way.

I was initially worried that I wouldn't be able to appreciate the book due to my shallow understanding of Stephen King's body of work. The last - and only other - book of his I'd read was Pet Sematary, a terrifying tale of Indian graveyards and demon-possessed zombie pets (and people). In contrast, 11/22/63 is a different sort of animal, and it even ends... happily.

A little disappointed that no coupon was attached with it. RM87.90 is a bit steep, even if it's Stephen King.

Saving JFK
Stephen King's tale of time travel explores the possibilities in — and perils of — changing the past 'for the better'

first published in The Star, 09 December 2011

A rule of thumb I follow regarding books: If the author's name is bigger than the title, caveat emptor.

Stephen King's '11/22/63'
When the author is Stephen King, however, perhaps there is some justification. Even more so when the title is the word-less 11/22/63. That's Nov 22, 1963, the day John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot. And yes, there is reason to be wary of this book – but only because it might get hold of you and never let go. The first time I opened it, I almost skipped lunch.

The much-anticipated novel about a time-travelling English teacher who inherits a dying man's quest to stop the assassination of the 35th US President pretty much lives up to the hype that has surrounded it since the publishing world first got an inkling about it.

Jake Epping is, in his own words, not a crying man. But an essay by one of his adult students, janitor Harry Dunning, manages to make him weep. It's not (just) the atrocious grammar and spelling. It was a horrific account of how, as a child, Dunning survived his father's drunken, murderous rampage that claimed the rest of his family.

Then he meets Al Templeton, the owner of a diner that has a portal to an exact time and date back in time: 11.58am, Sept 9, 1958. Who cares how the portal came to be, as long as Templeton gets to buy cheap, good-tasting, chemical- and hormone-free beef from the good old days. A sceptical Epping goes through the portal, and falls in love with the root beer he buys at a store – no preservatives, Templeton guesses. We never know if it's A&W's.

Of course there's a catch. On his shopping trips back in time, Templeton had toyed with the idea of changing American history by saving JFK. But Templeton gets cancer before he can do anything, and he's not sure when his time will be up, so he appoints Epping as the heir to his mission. But when Epping has second thoughts after his attempt to fix Dunning's future backfires, Templeton commits suicide. With the weight of a dead man's last wishes on his shoulders, our sentimental English teacher takes a seemingly permanent step into the past.

King is said to have done heaps of research for this book. Through the words of Epping, now George Amberson back in 1958, we experience the life of an ordinary American in the golden post WWII era. Much of the book really is about how Epping/Amberson adapts to and lives in the past, which he does perhaps a little too well. We look into his head, see through his eyes, hear with his ears.

The book tries to help us experience those days. Store signs, newspaper headlines and billboards are announced in capital letters and different fonts. Phonetic spelling of some words in the dialogue goad us to read them aloud. Go on, say "beer” the Maine way: "beeyah”. It's fun ... for the first two times. Yes, I heard about the Easter eggs, too. However, I could only spot references to The Shawshank Redemption and It in the pages; fans of King will undoubtedly find more.

It's quite some time to 1963, so Epping/Amberson passes the time by teaching at a school in Texas. And getting involved with its pretty, popular librarian, Sadie Dunhill. But it's only a matter of time before someone discovers the truth about him.

This is quite a good read despite the heavy American flavour, the long drawn-out build-up to the confrontation with JFK's assassin, and the shocking consequences that follow, not to mention the multi-font all-caps assault on the eyes. The boring and incredible parts where Epping/Amberson stalks Lee Harvey Oswald and the explanation of time travel physics barely register on the disbelief suspension scale. It's Stephen King, after all.

Wish I could say you can't put it down, but if you're reading the hardcover version, you'll have to or you might develop a cramp bearing the weight of this 840-page tome in your arms. Looks like King threw just about everything he'd researched into this book.

Hints at a yearning for a rose-tinted past echo throughout King's almost fairy tale-like depiction of the US half a century ago, calling to mind the Camelot myth spun around JFK not long after his death. Perhaps the question, "what if Kennedy survived?” is a yearning for a return to those days, when a charismatic young senator took the White House against all odds and, later, as president, faced up to a belligerent world power an ocean away under the shadow of a mushroom cloud – and won a desperate gamble.

Not only does today's US hardly resemble that storied Arthurian realm, its people might also be wistful about a return to Camelot. King's 11/22/63 gives us a tantalising peek at such a possibility, but also cautions us that it is perhaps better to let the past be and work on the now – and towards the future.

Stephen King
Scribner (2011)
849 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1-4516-2728-2

Can't Handle The Rock-Hard Truths?

Yesterday, news broke about a list of books labelled haram by the Department of Islamic Development (Jakim). Among those were Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (Straits Times Press) and Faisal Tehrani's Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang (PTS Litera Utama Sdn Bhd).

Faisal Tehrani's 'Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang'''Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going'
Disappearing soon from bookstores and libraries everywhere?

Many would wonder why Hard Truths ended up in a list of banned "Islamic-themed books". A Malaysian Insider article suggests that it could be due to what LKY said about Muslims in Singapore.

I don't know why they need to ban the book based on this statement. Isn't it an unspoken rule that Malaysians should ignore whatever this guy says? Anyway, TMI said that he'd retracted the statement.

Though the books have been declared haram, they have not yet been officially banned by the Home Ministry. With Jakim's list, however, it might only a matter of time.

The report went on to say that Jakim has "not responded to queries ... on why the decision was made nine months after [Hard Truths] hit the shelves in Malaysia." I bet it can't. And thanks to this bit of tardiness, there are people out there who have a banned book in their hands - after how many freaking months after it was released.

10/12/2011  It was incorrectly stated that Faisal Tehrani's book, Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang has been banned; the corresponding line has been removed.

It's also been reported that Hard Truths is still being studied and, therefore, not banned yet.

Many thanks to the readers who took the time to inform me.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Oncologist Takes Guardian First Book Award

Several days ago, Siddhartha Mukherjee won the 2011 Guardian First Book Award for his biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.

Guardian First Book Award logo
A simple request from a cancer patient - to know what she had - grew from a journal into a compelling read that combines elements of the memoir, scientific facts, history and the very human stories of several cancer patients the author knew.

Mukherjee is modest about his win. "You never write books to win awards – they are immensely gratifying but unexpected," he said to the Guardian. "In recognising The Emperor of All Maladies, the judges have also recognised the extraordinary courage and resilience of the men and women who struggle with illness, and the men and women who struggle to treat illnesses."

He says more about his win, his book and cancer in an interview after the announcement.

The prize was established in 1965 as the Guardian Fiction Award by The Guardian for British or Commonwealth writers whose works are published in the UK. It's said to be the oldest and best-established of newspaper-sponsored book awards.

In 1999 the Award became the Guardian First Book Award, to be given to the best new literary talent in fiction or non-fiction, across all genres. Today the Award is worth £10,000. Past winners include Zadie Smith for White Teeth (2000); Jonathan Safran Foer for Everything Is Illuminated (2002); and Dinaw Mengestu for Children of the Revolution (2007).

Book reviewers at the Guardian put together a longlist, which is turned loose upon members of reading groups from the Waterstone's bookstore chain. The deliberations that take place at various Waterstone's bookstores will eventually produce a shortlist, from which the winner is picked. Pretty democratic.

'The Emperor of All Maladies' (Fourth Estate)
Among the shortlisted are Stephen Kelman, author of Booker-shortlisted Pigeon English; Mirza Waheed, Kashmiri author of The Collaborator; and Amy Waldman who wrote The Submission, a novel about what happens when a Muslim architect was picked to design a 9/11 memorial in Manhattan.

Lisa Allardice, editor of Guardian Review and chair of the judging panel, regards Mukherjee's "anthropomorphism of a disease" a "remarkable and unusual achievement". She adds that, "He has managed to balance such a vast amount of information with lively narratives, combining complicated science with moving human stories. Far from being intimidating, it's a compelling, accessible book, packed full of facts and anecdotes that you know you will remember and which you immediately want to pass on to someone else."

It is, indeed. I reviewed The Emperor of All Maladies sometime back. Mukherjee's win was well deserved.

And I let someone borrow my copy. I was so happy that somebody wanted to read it, I didn't think twice.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Like This! David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect

I pounded this out rather quickly, but because the book was old (published last year), I wasn't sure if they would use it. ...I do sound a bit "optimistic" about Facebook in the review, don't I?

'The Facebook Effect'
I know about Facebook's attitudes towards user data privacy, and how they slip some design tweaks under our noses and slap us in the face with others - not to mention the annoyances posed by other Facebook users. How many have abandoned SS Zuckerberg because of these? Not enough, it seems, as its user count continues to grow.

Let no one deny that Facebook is big now - and set to get bigger. Rumours of Facebook getting listed on the stock exchange next year has gotten investors excited; some really optimistic estimates say the company could be worth up to US$100 billion.

On the user front, the character limit on FB posts jumped from 500 to a little over 60,000 in just four months. did some math and gleefully concluded that one could share a whole novel in just nine posts, a boon to long-winded oversharing emo types everywhere - and a possible threat to blogging platforms. Somebody please tell me this is a hoax.

Watching the development of a juggernaut like Facebook must feel like watching the progress of a monster hurricane. One can't help but be fascinated and frightened at the same time. I wonder if this was how David Kirkpatrick felt as he did his research.

Like this!
This year's political upheavals, like the Arab Spring, that used social networking so effectively, prompts our reviewer to dig up and re-read a book published last year. He reckons it should be required reading for anyone who has a Facebook account.

first published in The Star, 02 December 2011

AS a Facebook user, I've wondered about the oodles of pages with titles that start with "One Million". Why this magic number?

If David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, can be believed, the number's story began in Columbia, South America, in 2008. Ticked off at a certain paramilitary group, Oscar Morales created the Facebook page, "One Million Voices Against FARC". The page morphed into a movement that eventually pushed an estimated 10 million demonstrators against FARC, a leftwing rebel group, onto Columbia's streets. FARC has since seen some of its greatest setbacks, including the rescue of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt after six years as a FARC hostage and, recently, the death of one of its leaders, Guillermo León Sáenz, aka Alfonso Cano.

The Facebook-spurred demos against FARC is used with great effect by Kirkpatrick to showcase the social network's ability to hook up and unite like-minded people in championing a particular cause. But The Facebook Effect does not just shed light on the mechanics of the social network in general. It's a peek under the hood and a look at the history of Facebook, now considered to be the social network.

A lot of the background information – warts and all – on the rise and rise of Facebook can be found, appropriately enough, online. However, Kirkpatrick, former senior editor for tech and the Internet at Fortune magazine, has dug a bit deeper and put it all together into what I'd consider to be the only book to read about the history of Facebook, its impact on the world, and where it might be headed in the future.

As such, it's meant to be mined by tech enthusiasts, students and anyone looking for offline sources on Facebook. Not for lazy Saturday afternoons in a rattan chair with a cocktail in hand – though I'm sure there are types out there who will feel differently.

To me, it reads like a modern-day fairy tale. I mean, who'd believe that a vanity platform for rating the "hotness" of Harvard students would one day evolve into something that can mobilise regime-toppling movements (read: Arab Spring).

One could say that Facebook is merely the latest front-end interface for a social network concept, ie, the Internet. We've used real-time chat programmes (ICQ, Orkut, Yahoo!Messenger and GChat), online journals (Wordpress, Blogger, Livejournal) and Facebook's predecessors (MySpace and Friendster) before. To me, the book suggests that none of the above have come quite as close as Facebook to being the "face" of the Internet. And in a few decades, if Zuckerberg keeps getting it right, they might talk about him like that other tech icon.

In an interview about the book, Kirkpatrick suggests that part of Facebook's success can be attributed to the Google-like bare-bones interface that also, "Kept the ads to the bare minimum, and what I think that did is, not only made it look cool and clean, it made people feel that, it could be for anyone and everyone. So it didn't have the feeling of just being for kids, it was so neutral that, anyone felt that they can use it and that has been the key to its growth."

Kirkpatrick has done a great job with The Facebook Effect. However, I feel no book or research paper can adequately describe, explain or demystify the energy that is the collective goodwill or outrage contained in this gargantuan hive-mind of over 800 million Netizens and its effects on governments, businesses, and how we make friends.

The Facebook Effect
David Kirkpatrick
Virgin Books (2010)
374 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7535-2275-2

News: A Review, And An MPH Quill Update

So I've been talking about food places a bit more. Books may be what this blog's (mostly) about, but food has always been my number one. Some news bites before normal programming resumes:

  • In the Parents Corner of The Star Online, a review of Wee Su May's Nine Little People Who Lived in a Chest. A real review, not something like my publicity piece on the book. "Dark themes"? "Unsettling for a children's book"? Really, now?
  • This quarter's MPH Quill is still in production. The editorial team is also being swamped with work for the upcoming quarterly issues of several other magazines. We could be looking at a mid-December release for Quill. I find it kind of absurd, too - why not just lump it up into a single bumper issue for January 2012? That's all I know at the moment.
  • I'm sure there isn't a dearth of book-related blogs in Malaysia, but when you look at the list of book blogs in this blog, you have to wonder... So why are Malaysia's bookworms not blogging? Too little time, content with sites such as, GoodReads, LibraryThing or Shelfari, or is it just simply not worth it?
  • Ellen Whyte's Logomania: Fate & and Fortune and the re-issued Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories can now (or should) be found at bookstores. Both books are, at least, at MPH@Publika, Solaris Dutamas.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Return To Joy Café

Has it been three years since I wrote about this place?

The astonishment isn't just because of the swift passage of time. What became a quiet Chinese café with a limited menu is now a restaurant with more offerings and a few home-made off-the-shelf items.

Something that tasted like meat floss is actually dehydrated shiitake mushroom. A dark mushroom sauce with a hearty, meaty flavour rivals the oyster sauce. A light-coloured sesame sauce, used in some of their dishes, is like a runnier, smoother version of the tahini.

Golden couple Dennis Ng and wife Joyce have continued with the culinary experiments that made me a regular (as I can be). Their special fried rice and their orange white coffee are still as tasty. They serve a good nasi lemak, though it's been months since I've had a plate.

Joy's mango yoghurt
Joy's mango yoghurt - sweet,
yellow and fragrant
Over a year ago, Dennis started making yoghurt. The first flavour remains my favourite: wheatgrass, with a dash of pandan for that herbal sweetness and fragrance. For a while, I was on a Joy yoghurt bender, buying from four to eight cups at a time. Joy Café has since added more flavours to its yoghurt range, including strawberry, roselle, soursop, guava and mango.

On my most recent visit, they were out of wheatgrass yoghurt. My deflated spirits were restored by the thick, sweet and florally fragrant mango yoghurt. One is advised to give it a stir before eating, presumably to smoothen the texture and activate the live cultures inside.

At RM2.90 a cup it's a little pricey, but you'll get the assurance of quality by a proud business owner who uses nothing but natural ingredients. Don't wanna eat your yoghurt? For RM6, you get a tall glass of a yoghurt drink in any of the flavours available at the place.

Joining the beef and lamb briskets, braised pork trotter and dry chicken curry on the menu is an otak-otak omelette, nice but a bit oily when I tried it months ago; a spicy, slightly sourish nyonya chicken with a curry-like sauce that had a tang of lemongrass; and batter-coated chicken or fish topped with their own sesame sauce. Most of these dishes come with a soup, a side of veggies, a sunny-side-up egg (whether the yolk is runny or cooked solid is the luck of the draw), and a choice of either rice or noodles. The special fried rice and nasi lemak are still there.

Picking dishes from such a selection can be difficult. After some time, my dinner companion settled on the nyonya chicken with rice, but I was still undecided. To my rescue was Joyce: "Want to try our new pork belly? We braise it in a sauce with Australian wine."

This surprised us. The menu is almost overflowing! Is there even room for another snack? But I loves me some pork belly, and I'm a sucker for new things. So I went for it.

Dinner Kaki's nyonya chicken had been a taste of home - as in, reminded me of my kampung in Penang. I was content to eat just the sauce with rice. Then, my dish arrived.

Joy's pork belly in red wine sauce
New at Joy Café: Pork belly in red wine sauce.
Nigella would be proud.

The slab of pork belly and its pool of red sauce dominated the dinner plate; all the sides seemed to shrink from its meaty majesty. And oh golly, it was good. Chewy tender skin, rich buttery fat and lovely meat. In a savoury sauce slightly fruity from the wine. All good with rice, a slice of bread, a mantou (plain Chinese bun), or perhaps mashed potatoes.

What started as a Father's Day special became a regular dish, at the behest of enamoured customers. A previous incarnation used spare ribs, but wasn't as successful. "It's Danish pork," Joyce said. I was sure they could recreate this dish with local pork and a RM30 wine.

Dinner Kaki ignored her dieting taboos and warned me to save her some of the leaner bits. Naturally, I chafed at that. This pork belly surprise was too good to share.

But the taste wasn't the pork belly's only bombshell. At RM13.90 it wasn't just a steal, it was plain Wall-Street-class plunder - never mind that we'd had a different pork belly dish elsewhere for the same amount. On the way home, we argued which was a better price, eventually settling for a figure between RM15.90 and RM18.90.

Outside Joy Café
For once, (some) truth in advertising

Outside Joy Café, a banner proclaimed the place as having "the best food in town". I wouldn't call it a boast; from what we've eaten so far, it's probably a simple statement.

22/06/2015   "Joy Café was located at 540, Jalan Riang 11, Happy Garden, 58200 Kuala Lumpur. It finally closed its doors for good around the end of April 2015. A Meng Kee wonton noodle shop (not sure if it's related to the one in Kuchai Lama) is now in its place.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Will Little Bookstores Be Big Again?

What comes to mind when you hear of an author opening a bookstore? "Oh he's just going to sell his books or his friends' books," some might say.

That might be a bit too cynical of a thing to say about Parnassus Books, the little independent bookstore author Ann Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), Bel Canto (2001), State of Wonder (2011)) opened with Karen Hayes, a publishing veteran who made her bones at the Ingram Book Company and Random House.

It seems that when a much-loved indie bookstore went belly-up in Nashville, Tennessee, the townspeople panicked.

"People were greeting each other in grocery stores, at holiday parties, wringing our hands," said Beth Alexander, president of the board at the Nashville Public Library Foundation. "We’re home to two dozen universities. We need to have a bookstore other than a campus bookstore, and people were looking at each other and saying, 'We're very concerned about this.'"

Seldom would the closure of a bookstore ever generate such a shockwave here in Malaysia. But Nashville, said to be the "Athens" of southern US, is home to Vanderbilt University which is ranked 51st by The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11. Notable people who went there include author James Patterson; Charlie Soong, dad to the Soong sisters; Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus; and artiste Amy Grant.

Named for the fabled mountain that is considered the home of poetry, music and learning in literature, it is hoped that Parnassus Books would fill the void left behind by the closing of small-time bookstores in Nashville.

"I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore," said Patchett about the venture. "But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore."

Same here.

Getting personal
In another piece, also on the NY Times, the author of State of Wonder opines on the evolution of the bookstore. "The cycle has come all the way back around: the little bookstore grew into a big bookstore, which was squashed by the superstore, which folded beneath the Internet store, which made people long for a little bookstore." A process, she says, that took just 13 years.

Now, in the (dying) era of the book emporium chain, parts of the US appear to be embracing the indie bookstore again, competing - says the New York Times - "where Amazon cannot: by being small and sleek, with personal service, intimate author events and a carefully chosen rotation of books. ...Make your store comforting and inclusive, smart but not snobby." Parnassus also has a coffee bar.

Admittedly, I don't know any that would fit. Mention "indie bookstore" to (some) Malaysians and they'll say, "Silverfish"; an even more select few would suggest Skoob Books. Both are cosy little nooks. I remember the buzz from the sight of rows of volumes by big literary names. You want to read there, and if you had a pen and notebook, you'd want to write there, too. Author events and readings feel more natural at a bookstore.

If there's some extra space, why not host another independent industry? Ice cream? Baked goods? Personal hygiene products? The networking possibilities, the tie-ups! Fancy a small cup of Last Polka durian ice cream at a discount when you buy a copy of Amir Muhammad's The Big Durian? Weekend bazaars are okay, but I'd rather not wait for the next Art For Grabs for a bar of handmade mint and cucumber glycerine soap (ahh) from The Bubble Lab.

Some might argue that the select number of titles and the presence of the owners might ramp up the snob levels a few, but that's a minor kink. Indy establishments must have character. A coffee bar wouldn't hurt, though.

Missing things
As the physical book retreats to its place as a luxury item, the approach to selling one should match: personalised service, limited range, and a staff who knows what they're selling (Amazon recommendations are nice, but they sound cold and can be inaccurate). Increased human contact also builds trust, something that's been eroded by the convenience of long-distance digital communication.

Yes, there's always the cost factor. Independents can't survive the long run without a supportive community. Reading about Parnassus and Nashville makes me wonder about the (lack of a) sense of community here, which seems more conducive for our savage brand of politics, rather than communal ties.

But the indy label's not just about out-of-the-box. It also encompasses identity and self-expression. And if the products and services are consistently good, and if the owners are proud of what they do, indy also means quality.

Quality, trust, and the human touch. They've been missing from our lives for so long, but I bet we'd still recognise them when we see them.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

D'bento's D'ebut

Though small, the interior is cozy. Bamboo screens and a door curtain separate a private nook from the main dining area. The chairs are cheap plastic and the tables feel recently varnished. Kitaro's calming compositions are temporarily drowned by the rumbling of a passing train.

Interior of D'Bento Sushi
Not quite private dining nook at D'Bento Sushi

Eyes closed and ears attuned to the music and ambient sounds of D'Bento Sushi, it feels like downtown Ginza, Shinjuku, or whatever Japanese city district you last visited. Just don't look out the bamboo-screened curtains, lest the sight of skyscrapers, Malay language on the billboards and the STAR LRT tracks along Jalan Tun Perak brings you back to earth.

D'Bento Sushi garlic fried rice and tori shoga yaki
Lovely garlic fried rice; the tori shoga
is in the background
I'd been brought to D'Bento, a surprise of a hidden gem in the heart of KL, by a former fly-by-night food writer turned columnist at the start of a long weekend.

The food was good, I was told days earlier. To quell further doubt, I was given samples: some garlic fried rice and several chunks of tori neikei karaage, deep-fried batter-coated chicken in some sauce with chopped bits of a kind of spring onion or chive. The sauce had a strong, savoury flavour, and the bits of spring onion/chive had a little spicy, garlicky bite to it.

The fried rice, pungent and flavourful, sold the place; the wonderful chicken, though cold and a bit soggy, was just the cherry on top - imagine what it would taste hot off the fire. But I would not set foot in the place until several days later.

Some effort was made to make the place look Japanese: paper lanterns, Japanese-motif prints, folded paper cranes on some of the bamboo screens and background music. Even the chef looked like he jumped out of the pages of a manga comic: dressed in black and sporting a funky, spiky hairstyle. Tommy Kuan (a decidedly unJapanese name) had worked for over a decade at some Japanese kitchens in hotels all over KL before he decided to open his own business.

Only a couple of months old, D'Bento was previously at ground floor level. Though popular, the place could only seat about ten at a time, and customers complained. Regulars couldn't lunch there when it was packed. So they closed temporarily to relocate to slightly roomier digs upstairs.

A single lantern marked the entrance to the restaurant, a glass door with the name of the place stuck on it. Another notice pleaded with patrons to close the door carefully.

Though my companion and I were in no hurry, our orders took a while to arrive. The chef cooked everything himself, with only one assistant helping out in the tiny kitchen.

D'Bento Sushi mango and spicy tuna roll
Mango and spicy tuna maki - rustic but yummy

First, came our tori shoga yaki, pieces of bone-free chicken thigh, stir-fried with onions and bean sprouts in a ginger sauce. Though looking and tasting a little like chicken and soy sauce stir-fry, it was delicious, especially with rice (ordered separately). No heat from the ginger, which appears to have been finely grated and mixed into the sauce.

Except that we had the deliciously addictive garlic fried rice instead. Garlic isn't bad, but after a while, it induces thirst. The saltiness of the sauce from the chicken didn't help with that; as the dish cooled it became more evident. But oh wow, how tasty it was. The sweet veggies - the onion and bean sprouts - helped balance the salt in the dish.

D'Bento Sushi soft-shell crab futomaki
Soft-shell crab tempura futomaki, covered in rich,
thick flavourful mayo-based almond sauce

Encouraged, we tried some sushi. Items were limited, flying in the face of the mind-boggling diversity found in other Japanese restaurants. Then again, it's a new place and, as Chef Kuan lamented, prices of raw ingredients have soared since the Fukushima incident and some items had become hard to come by or simply unaffordable.

At his recommendation, we tried the soft-shell crab tempura futomaki (four pieces for RM8.50), covered in thick almond sauce and garnished with sesame seeds and ebiko (shrimp roe, supposedly); and the mango and spicy tuna maki.

To our regret, we forgot to ask the chef what made the tuna spicy. That, at least, gave us an excuse to return for more. The bare tuna rolls, half a dozen bundles of ebiko-speckled goodness, were so good.

The soft-shell crab futomaki were even better. The rich mayo-based sauce was flavourful and hearty, and the occasional crunch of sesame seeds or almond flakes made each bite satisfying. But it's a double-edged sword; the sauce overwhelmed almost all other flavours, and if not for the bits that stuck out, they could just use fried tempura batter in the centre.

And the sauce was also a tad salty. We were assured that the saltiness levels would be fixed.

Of course, I'm returning. Four pieces of soft-shell crab tempura futomaki isn't enough for me. They also split the garlic fried rice. And the chef recommended his seafood fried rice. Although... is it rude to order fried rice at a place that touts itself as a sushi joint? Even though it's good?

I was advised not to send this to the papers. The place by my estimates can only seat up to thirty, and it doesn't look like the chef's getting more help any time soon.

D'Bento Sushi
45-A, 1st Floor
Lebuh Ampang
50100 Kuala Lumpur


Monday, 21 November 2011

His Monday Musings

About a year back, I chauffeured a writer to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial for an assignment.

The visit was an eye-opener and it took me back to my History classes in primary school. That was when I first heard about Tunku's Looking Back. Back then, I didn't even have a clue that I'd be working with books in the future, or that I'd have a chance to read that book - twice - as part of the editing process for the reissued edition, which rolled off the presses sometime last week.

Tunku's 'Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories'
I'd pick this over that other former prime minister's memoir
any day of the week, any month of the year

Most Malaysians don't need to be told Tunku's tale. Looking Back is a collection of pieces from the eponymous column in The Star in the 1970s. It covers the days leading to independence, the Emergency and the break with Singapore, and recollections of his childhood, during the Japanese occupation, his days studying law in London, and some commentary about issues of the day.

The pages radiate candour and familial warmth, like how a favourite granddad would sit down and tell you stories of how he came to this land on a boat, put a house together without nails and killed a man with his thumb. ...Not that Tunku did all those things.

What he did do was just as impressive. He faced death in the form of several Japanese officers. He stood up against the British and with them, hammered out a deal for our independence. He faced up to the likes of Chin Peng, Macapagal and Sukarno. He owned horses and raced a couple. He can cook a decent English roast beef. And he endured the "lusty" snores of one TH Tan.

The best gems remain the slice-of-life bits in his collection of articles. He managed to convert the dhoti-wearing Tun VT Sambanthan to European suits. He missed the chance to serve Prince Phillip durians and curry. And there's Tun Tan Cheng Lock's holey cigars. His reminiscences of his days in "Kampung Tunku" gently toasts the cockles of your heart.

However, it could be said that those most dear to you are also the most annoying to you. Tunku's views on "the Communists" in particular were irksome. Like they were responsible for the Malaysia-Singapore partition, the Yom Kippur War, and Arsenal thumping Malaysia 4-0 at Bukit Jalil. But Tunku did live through a 12-year Communist insurgency; the gravest "emergency" us Gen-Xers' had to face was the 1998 water cut and the annual haze.

And he did have... strange ideas about Communism and Communist countries. His take on Communist China back then, for instance, kind of resembles North Korea today.

Nor did he didn't seem to understand why Prince Norodhom Sihanouk (now former king) of Cambodia accommodated his country's Communists. He seemed to wonder why someone would support an ideology that imposed a "regimented" way of life on its people. After all, Cambodia, like Malaysia, has more than enough for everybody, as this passage suggests:

"Nobody need starve in [Malaysia], as one can just stretch out one’s hand and pick one’s own food. There are fish in every river, food in abundance on the land. Even the forests yield animals and vegetables that can be eaten.

I don't know how much of that was true then, but I'm sure that isn't the case anymore. For one, I certainly would not eat anything I can fish out of the Klang River.

The lands are no longer as bountiful or as pristine. Outside forces loom larger, more menacing and challenging than before. Upheavals in one country or region generate even bigger ripples that can go around the world.

Tunku's happy era is long over.

But every time I think back on how empty and forlorn the Memorial was when I visited, like the abandoned home of a long-deceased relative, I still feel that nudge of regret from realising that we and future generations can only get to know him through the artefacts and the words he left behind.

That's never going to be enough.

Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories is reissued and jointly published by MPH Group Publishing and Star Publications. Will soon be available at all major bookstores.

Looking Back
Monday Musings and Memories

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj
MPH Group Publishing and Star Publishing
411 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-57-0

Buy from

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Here Comes A King

Not long after Queen of America landed on my desk, I was offered a couple more, both by big names.

Stephen King's '11/22/63'
Not a chance in hell, I thought. Too big, too popular. Hence, too-tight deadline. There's probably a line of people who'd want to do these - let them have it.

I asked the distributors to check with the papers. Word came back.

I answered thus: "Book. My desk. ASAP. Thank you."

Sometimes, you don't have to say much.

Wow, Life, I didn't remember fervently praying for the chance to read this but... thank you. Of course, this means that all the other books in my reading list will have to take a back seat while I deal with the VIB, and soon.

Meanwhile, they can have a look at the one I wrote about David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect, an older book. Chances of publishing that one are 50-50 but I hammered it out in a couple of days, took another couple to polish it and let it languish on the PC for a few more days until I clicked "Send".

Just when I thought things are finally winding down towards the end of the year.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pardon My English

So it's final: PPSMI or its Malay-language mouthful Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris (the teaching and learning of science and mathematics in English) will be discontinued.

The policy was considered a failure in its goal to foster use of wider, better mastery of the English language among students. Fingers were pointed everywhere, but it's generally agreed that it failed because the education system was just not capable of furthering the vision of former Malaysian strongman Dr M.

I don't really think the policy would've helped much with regards to learning English. Language skills are often best picked up and sharpened with every day use. Learning English within such a narrow scope would inevitably narrow down students' mastery of the language within the realm of science and math.

Today's schoolkids are more slacktastic than they used to be, lacking initiative to better themselves in fields they're not interested in. That said, try asking them meanings of English words used in World of Warcraft or Counterstrike. You might be surprised.

So, yes. Only the constant, everyday use of English will ensure you'll be a natural at ordering fish 'n' chips in downtown London or getting onto a bus in rural Montana - if either manages to happen. For a more relevant scenario close to home, there's the Lat cartoon of a full-bladdered foreigner and the cleaning lady with the English phrasebook who kept going, "Yes?"

Of course, prime minister-in-waiting Muhyiddin Yassin argued that English isn't important. Out of the G7 countries: France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and United States and Canada, only the latter three are English-speaking, and that all of them became successful without neglecting their national languages.

Which is a valid point. Whatever languages we can speak and write in (barely) would not make a difference when we can't grasp the fundamentals of justice, fairness, equality and rationality.

Mastery in English would not have prevented massive government spending that's becoming the norm.

Remembering the "a"s and "the"s would not have saved Teoh Beng Hock, A Kugan and all those in detention from their mysterious ends.

Avoiding the use of the double negative would not help us from voiding the temptation to break speed limits, cut lanes indiscriminately and double- or triple-park our vehicles at our convenience.

Getting your subject-verb agreement right doesn't guarantee we can also agree to disagree with grace, politeness and maturity when it comes to race, religion, sexual identity.

All the above - and more (I could go on and on) - can be taught in any language. So if we can't master all that in our own mother tongues or the national language, good luck learning all that in English - if we ever learn it at all.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Assassin of Secrets: A Plagiarism

A new book published early this month received rave reviews.

'Assassin of Secrets', a plagiarism
Kirkus said, "Containing elements of the 007 and Jason Bourne sagas, Graham Greene's insular spy novels, William Gibson's cyber thrillers, TV’s Burn Notice and Mad magazine’s classic Spy vs. Spy comic strip, this book is a narrative hall of mirrors in which nothing and no one are as they seem and emotion is a perilous thing to have."

Publishers Weekly pointed out "the obvious Ian Fleming influence" which "just adds to the appeal."

The were talking about Assassin of Secrets by QR Markham, real name Quentin Rowan, part owner of a bookstore in New York. He also wrote poetry and contributed something to The Huffington Post. Markham inked a deal with publisher Little, Brown to write a series of espionage thrillers featuring a character called Jonathan Chase.

Those who blurbed the book would learn just how close their comments hit home. It did sort of validate their reviewing chops, though...

Too good to be true
Turns out that significant parts of Assassin of Secrets were reportedly borrowed from the works such as those by Robert Ludlum and, yes, about James Bond. The book was a pastiche of plagiarised material.

The New Yorker's Book Bench blog theorised that Markham was not an author as he was an artist who did "a bang-up job" in pointing out how recyclable spy novels are and how readers of the genre keep going back to the same old stuff.

Others aren't as appreciative of the genius. Little, Brown pulled the book, prompting a fire sale of sorts that sent its Amazon ranking up to 174 from 62,924 in 24 hours.

Elsewhere, Markham's contribution to The Huffington Post, ironically titled "9 Ways That Spy Novels Made Me a Better Bookseller" was removed from the mega-blog - because large parts of it were also plagiarised.

I know. I think he must've lifted more than nine parts for his spy novel, too.

The hero in Assassin of Secrets would also be familiar to those who still remember the Eighties TV series Manimal; "Jonathan Chase" is the name of the series' protagonist, played by Simon MacCorkindale. Though that could also be coincidental.

Fascinating fakery
Every time a con like this happens, I'm reminded of art forger Tom Keating. He saw the whole American-dominated art auctions industry as rotten and corrupt and did something about it. Over many years he used the techniques he learnt as an art restorer to produce fakes which he passed off as authentic pieces by the masters.

Unlike those who forged paintings for profit, his works had elements that would tip inspectors off. He wanted people to know they were fakes. For instance, he'd write messages such as "This is a fake" or "Ever been had?" on canvas with special paint that would show up in x-rays before painting over them.

He was eventually caught and went to prison. But he left the art world a sticky legacy by not naming his fakes. This meant that if an unknown Keating had not been ID-ed as a forgery, it would still fetch a high price - not quite achieving what he'd set out to do. The casual collector might even feel the urge to collect and display a few Keatings in his living room.

It's perhaps that impulse that QR Markham might have banked on to shift copies of his shifty book, in case someone uncovered the scam. From the Amazon ranking jump, it looks like it worked.

Getting away with it
So, you might be asking, as did Book Bench and a number of others: "How did Rowan think he’d get away with this, especially in the era of Google?"

When this story first broke, I was with the camp that says he expects being caught eventually. It's perhaps a matter of how long he could keep the scam going.

Then, what about the editors? The publishers? Couldn't they have seen it coming?

I say, not too likely. Publishers and lit agents in the US get lots of submissions and books to the point where they don't even have the time for a Google- or Copyscape-powered fact check, which I think would not be uppermost in the to-do list of a beleaguered editor or book reviewer with a deadline snapping at his heels.

Also, would they even know what to look for?

Thank goodness for the Google, which has helped open up online sleuthing to those who have the time and tenacity. In time, publishing houses would be thinking of ways to ensure there would be no repeats of this incident.

But I don't think this would mean the end of the likes of QR Markham.

"...there was nothing I could do..."
Just when I thought it wouldn't happen so soon, it did. Markham himself ended speculation over his motives which were, sadly, not quite as "artistic" as some had presumed.

In a long Q&A in a blog post's comments section, between him and one of the authors who blurbed his book, he claims to have caved in under the pressure of living up to everyone's expectations of him being this young wunderkind writer. When he couldn't, he started borrowing bits from here and there that would make himself look the part.

Unlike some plagiarists, he did lose sleep over it. He seems to know that it was only a matter of time. Instead of owning up earlier, however, he felt that:

...I'd already thrown the dice so long ago by that point I felt there was nothing I could do but play the out the awful pantomime... I can only compare it to other kinds of obsession or addictive behavior like gambling or smoking: in that there was no need to do it initially, but once I'd started I couldn't stop and my mind kept finding ways to rationalize the behavior. Even though, somewhere deep in the chasms of my thick brain, I knew it would destroy me.

Such a waste. Like that other cautionary tale closer to home.

And pity the publisher, whom I didn't know got burned by another famous case of plagiarism a few years ago.

It's not as if he's a bad writer. Markham - or should I say, Rowan - managed to articulate his thoughts pretty well. But his excuse comes off a bit lame to me. Why should he care about what people thought?

Had he confided to someone that he might be, hypothetically, contemplating plagiarism to take the heat off himself, that someone might've set him and kept him straight.

There was something he could have done. But I guess we'll never know.