Monday, 31 January 2011

Readings' Sixth Anniversary

Every January, Readings @ Seksan's celebrates its birthday. This year marks the event's sixth year - "kindergarten age", according to its co-founder Sharon Bakar. "Next year we'll be sending it to school," she joked.

Poet Jamal Raslan working the crowd
Both she and Bernice Chauly started the as-monthly-as-possible Readings to get people reading and writing. In recent years it has also become a platform for local and (sometimes) international authors to mingle and sell some books. The inclusion of poets and musical acts of late have further enlivened things.

This month I played chaperone, chauffeur and stenographer to Yvonne Foong, author, spokesperson for Neurofibromatosis Type II patients, and future psychologist. Her request and wish to attend the event was unexpected.

Readings' sixth birthday was greeted with a cloudy sky and showers. The traffic which can be paralysed by a mere drizzle, like our only satellite TV service, was worsened by road closures due to the Lé Tour de Langkawi bike racing event. I know, what the heck, right?

Despite the traffic we arrived early. I had brought along a small whiteboard and several marker pens. Anticipating the setting up of a book sale corner, I figured they needed a price list more than I needed a to-do list. It filled up very quickly, with books from Amir Muhammad, Haslina Usman (daughter of Usman Awang), and Jeremy Chin. What was on sale included:

  • I'm Not Sick, Just a Bit Unwell, Yvonne Foong (RM20)
  • Teohlogy, Patrick Teoh (RM38)
  • Orang Macam Kita, pelbagai (RM20)
  • Love and Lust in Singapore, various (RM22, after a 45% discount)
  • Jiwa Hamba, Usman Awang (RM30)
  • Scattered Bones (novel), Usman Awang
  • Sahabatku (collection of poems), Usman Awang
  • Turunnya Sebuah Bendera, Usman Awang
  • Fuel, Jeremy Chin (RM30)

No, I couldn't remember all the prices. Never occurred to me that I'd want to go into that much detail. Though Yvonne managed to catch up with some old friends, she didn't manage to sell a single copy of her book.

Damyanti Ghosh was unable to vocalise loudly because of a medical procedure to her mouth or throat, so it would seem insensitive to ask her to elaborate. Despite not being ale to read, she showed up anyway with Saras Manickam to sell a book, a short story collection Damyanti contributed to, to help keep a charity home afloat. All proceeds for Love and Lust in Singapore that day would go to the Bangsa Ria Centre for the Mentally and Physically Disabled in PJ.

Because I didn't want the book right now, I put some cash into the donation box they brought along. "They need every ringgit," Damyanti said, because it seems the Centre will fold due to lack of funds.

Patrick Teoh, broadcasting live from Seksan's
Sharon kicked things off by reading the story Damyanti would have read if she were not, in Sharon's words, "pleasurably silent". In "The Peeping Toe", a middle-aged woman in a Singapore subway distracts herself from an ah beng/ah lian couple's amorous in-train antics by looking at someone's peeping toe. "If you want to know whose toe it is, buy the book," Sharon announced when she was done.

Poet and slam champion Jamal Raslan Abdul Jalil rocked the venue with recitals of youth, social issues and the future - things his generation are concerned with. Yvonne's condition rendered her deaf, among other things, so she had to "read" the gist of what was being read being typed out on her laptop. But my mental buffer runneth over too quickly, and most of it evaporated before I could key them in. Jamal was so good, he was invited to do an encore to end the event.

There was a small misunderstanding during Patrick Teoh's introduction. Neither Sharon nor I prompted Teoh to start compiling (not writing) his "Teohlogy" essays in the now-defunct Off The Edge magazine. After I'd heard about Hishamuddin Rais and Julian CH Lee's respective releases of their own compilations, I tweeted Sharon:

@sharonbakar First Hisham Rais, now Julian Lee. Will @patrickteoh follow suit?

10 August 2010 20:58:03 via Echofon in reply to sharonbakar

I can't remember what I was replying to, and Teoh had no idea what I was talking about. I responded:

Former Off The Edge contributors Hisham Rais and Julian Lee compiled their previous articles into books @patrickteoh. Waiting for yours.

11 August 2010 23:41:40 via Echofon in reply to patrickteoh

A brief summary of the Teohlogy saga: Teoh was invited to pontificate on issues that concerned the average Malaysian in a column, in the voice of a grumpy old man - hence the slightly anagrammatic term. It was Ezra Zaid of ZI Publications who approached Teoh with an offer to compile his essays into a book. Teohlogy was recently launched at Popular @ Ikano to a more or less star-studded audience that included, according to Teoh's description, a Special Branch operative. Wished you were there, hmm?

Naturally, Teoh read from his book. His August 2009 essay for Off The Edge, "All aso donch hep" is a commentary on our short memories and the establishment's spin machinery: "We have ways of making you forget. And that's an order!" And ah, that voice. If he returned to radio tomorrow, no one would even remember his long absence from the airwaves.

After the break, two contributors to the Malay-language gay anthology Orang Macam Kita (People Like Us) read their contributions.

Fadli Al-Akiti (left) and Nizam Zakaria, lanun darat

Sci-fi author Fadli-al-Akiti not only wrote several novels (Jian, Saga Horizon), but contributed to other short story collections such as Elarti (2008) as well. I think his piece was about a robbery victim who, strangely, develops a same-sex crush on the guy who nearly spilled his guts. Writer, author and film director Nizam Zakaria's contribution was a more scholarly commentary on (I think) gay culture in film. Or was it the other way around? At that point I wasn't really focusing; the damp weather and shady surroundings at Seksan's does that to me all the time. Nizam was sporting an eyepatch; it seems Damyanti's wasn't the only medical complaint that afternoon.

No Readings anniversary would be complete without an appearance by its co-founder Bernice Chauly. She read something from what she once dubbed a work of "faction": Growing Up with Ghosts, a (sort of) fictionalised biography based on her own life. "The Third Man" was inspired by a relative's fear from using the old-fashioned toilet at her grandpa's old house.

The backdrop was quite appropriate for what Bernice Chauly read;
the grandpa in the story sold pigs

Bernice and Sharon also announced the upcoming launch of Readings from Readings, a compilation of some of what was read in previous Readings, on 25 February at MapKL, Solaris Dutamas, "if all goes well".

Don't wish. Just go. You might not know what you'd miss if you don't.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Not Bed-Time Tales

Unlike most of my reviews, this took two days from the moment I put the book down. Anxiety about the status of this review turned to embarrassment when I realised that I italicised story titles (a big boo-boo) and used the word "genius" twice. And a misspelling of "United States", which might or might not have been my fault. Yeah. Me, editor.

Time to bury myself deeper into the grammar and style guides on my desk.

Not bed-time tales
Sedaris's twisted genius will leave readers seeking a solution after each story

first published in The Star, 30 January 2011

"For my sister Gretchen", reads the dedication to David Sedaris's latest book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. Again, I looked at the little hardcover tome with the nice picture and wondered why Sedaris is moving to the under-12 market.

Then I consulted Google. While Gretchen Sedaris is younger than David, she should be at least 50 by now. And there was something he was supposed to have said in an interview, holding a knife with a hoof for a handle: "I love things made out of animals. It's just so funny to think of someone saying, 'I need a letter opener. I guess I'll have to kill a deer.'"

That'll teach me to judge a book by its cover. Still, it's pretty hard not to, even though Sedaris's writing isn't the kind one associates with bed-time stories.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (the subtitle is missing from the jacket flap) isn't really about a dating service for woodland rodents. It's one of 16 very short stories based on typical human dramas, except the parts are played by animals. Think Aesop's very short fables for cynical grown-ups.

You've probably queued up with the "Toad, the Turtle and the Duck" at a busy counter; endured the "Migrating Warblers"' travel tales; and the dialogue between the "Cat and the Baboon" sounds like something you'd hear at a beauty salon.

Some of these are sad, particularly the one about the orphaned bear, and the mouse with a pet snake, but it's because they were asking for it. The latter reminded me of a documentary in which someone was crushed to death by his pet python. It's kind of familiar but funny – Sedaris's dark kind of funny.

Reinforcing the book's dark adult theme and the mental near-immortality of the stories are the doodles of Ian Falconer, well-known for his kids' books about a pig and covers for The New Yorker. Quite a few images could fuel nightmares, even when you're awake.

The gloomy theme of the book is upset a bit by the title story, "The Squirrel and the Chipmunk". This short and bittersweet (more bitter than sweet) tale of a doomed, star-crossed love affair is perhaps the best example of Sedaris's genius. After its conclusion, you look at the cover again and, if you have a heart or "been there, done it", it's hard not to tear up.

Of course, chances are you won't recognise some of the situations being written about here. The tale of two lab mice sounds like a jab (pun intended) at die-hard adherents of New Age hocus-pocus, but I don't quite know what to make of "The Faithful Setter" and "The Cow and Turkey".

Is "The Parenting Storks" a parable on the perils of a lack of sex education? Is "The Mouse and the Snake" really about snakes, or an allegory for some governments' (read: the United States) habit of coddling two-bit dictators out of political expediency?

When countless Internet searches yield few clues and no cheat sheets, you curse and swear at and stew over Sedaris's twisted genius. You cannot solve it, but you know there's a solution.

Like Fermat's Last Theorem (proposed in the 17th century and proved only in the 20th), the fables you can't figure out will likely torment you long after you put the book down – an amazing feat for something that's just 160 pages long. Just hope you don't have to spend over three centuries figuring out what "The Grieving Owl" is really about.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
David Sedaris, Illustrations by Ian Falconer
Little, Brown and Co.
159 pages
ISBN: 978-0316038393

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Fishy, Much?

The Malaysian corner of cyberspace is (slowly) buzzing with horror at the BN-led government's intentions to expand the Printing Presses and Publications Act to everything published on-line by Malaysians. Bloggers, in particular, appear concerned about arbitrary or indiscriminate prosecution.

They forgot irate restaurateurs.

Already no stranger to controversy, Poh Huai Bin of was reportedly sued for allegedly defaming a Lonely Planet destination: Jothy's Fish Head Curry Banana Leaf Restaurant, in Kota Kinabalu. The RM6 million suit even mentions Google as a co-defendant.

As Malaysians, we have strong attachments to food. Much of it still feels as if they came out of our own kitchens. When we have bad experiences in restaurants that we felt had let us down, we express that hurt in many ways. This is particularly true for the institutions and places that grow old with us.

Poh's history aside, it appears on the surface to be a case of scapegoating. Taste buds usually don't lie. Still, he's being accused of "defamation". Would it have been better for Poh to go through the "proper channels", i.e., complain to the restaurant's manager? Would it have worked?

Also, how long has it been since the Lonely Planet listing? The work that goes into such guides means a long time between updates, perhaps as much as several years. Any noticeable drop in quality could have happened since - and it doesn't have to take years. Besides, favourable listings by any authority isn't something set in stone.

A chef will have a bad day on occasion. Maybe it's just bad luck that it was also a bad day for Poh to be at the restaurant. However, his harsh commentary, which includes allusions to a veneral disease, could have been worded differently.

If the quality of Jothy's food has been on a steady decline, nothing will improve its fortunes short of a revamp of how it does business. This multi-million-dollar lawsuit, however, is more likely to isolate the place further.

(I also question the wisdom in naming Google a defendant, a move one tends to associate with lawsuits-for-show. Google's probably too busy to care, and this isn't McDonald's vs McCurry.)

The only thing a court victory for the restaurant would achieve is that no-one will publicly badmouth it. However, it's also unMalaysian to subject friends and family to a bad restaurant experience. Nobody - and certainly no Malaysian - would knowingly patronise an eatery with substandard offerings.

Friday, 21 January 2011

About The Real Bibilophobia

For some time now, people have stumbled onto Bibliophobia...! while researching... bibliophobia. Even if it's by accident, I can't let them go away empty-handed. So...

Bibliophobia is, according to the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), "a dread of books".

"Bibliophobia" was said to be first used in popular English literature sometime before 1914, according to the Wikipedia. A much earlier use of the term - to refer to something else entirely - was in Religio Christiani, a Churchman's Answer to Religio Clerici, quoted in the October 1818 issue of The Gentleman's Magazine, in page 345, to refer to what I think is a fear of the Bible.

Bibliophobia has been defined as an irrational fear of books. It's not a common phobia, and I don't know anyone who has this. I picked it as the title of my blog to avoid changing domain names. I do have an aversion to books, but it's not serious enough to be a phobia.

A fear of books is rarely because of the book per se, but past experiences related to certain kinds of books, or the contents themselves. For a long while, I dreaded opening past issues of Reader's Digest dated more than 25 years ago. I hate and am deathly afraid of roaches, and a certain pesticide ad with a magnified shot of the insect's nightmarish segmented underside made occasional appearances in the magazine during the Eighties. It's the same reason I avoided a certain Papa Roach album.

As yet, shrinks have no big name for this kind of fear, but "subsets", or derivations of bibliophobia are out there.

Many people suffer only a subset of this phobia, fearing textbooks or historical novels or children’s stories, rather than a fear of all books. Mythophobia, or the fear of legends, can be considered a subtype of bibliophobia if the fear is of those legends that are written down. Metrophobia, or fear of poetry, is another subtype of bibliophobia.

- American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual
of mental disorders (4th Ed.)

And bad writing. Elements of bad writing, such as complex similes and metaphors, verbiage, and purple prose will put you off reading stuff. The publishing sector has its risks.

Possible symptoms of bibliophobia is marked by difficulties in reading, particularly when you're "encouraged" or rather, forced to read, say, out loud in front of class. If you have a learning disability, speech impediment, a fear of pronouncing difficult words (no big word for this, either) or foreign names (ditto), or simply illiterate, that might be the basis for being afraid of books.

At times, it's not just individuals who fear books. History is replete with incidents of book burnings, also called "biblioclasm" or "libricide". Notable ones include the immolation of Maya codices by Spanish missionaries, Qin Shi Huang's torching of scholars' books (and live burials of said scholars) and the Nazi-era biblio-bonfire.

The Wikipedia defines libricide as a "practice [that's] usually carried out in public", which "is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material." In short, there isn't any logical or rational reason to be afraid of books.

To date, there doesn't seem to be any detailed record of bibliophobes or accounts of how they became afraid of books and how they managed to beat it. I suppose if there's no specific cure for the phobia, consultations with psychologists might provide some answers. Being afraid of (paper) books can be a bummer in civilisation, unless e-books take off in a big way.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Stuff for MPH Quill This Month

Just a month into my new job, I began contributing articles and editorial work for MPH's Quill magazine. It was particularly hectic in December as we were closing two issues of Quill: the Jan-Mar 2011 issue and the 2011 annual issue.

I confess I've only glanced through a number of pages from Anjali Joseph's Saraswati Park, not enough for a decent review. To formulate questions she hadn't been asked before, which was tough, I trawled the Internet for past interviews.

What I wasn't told was that Ms Joseph was in the midst of moving house and was travelling in India at the time. Which was why she sounded kind of brusque in many of her replies. I hoped it had little to do with the questions I posed.

First two pages of the three-page Q&A with Anjali Joseph,
author of Saraswati Park; the full text is here

I had the good fortune to hear Imran Ahmad speak at The Annexe, Central Market during the Art for Grabs weekend last December. His was among the events that enlivened what would be an otherwise dull weekend.

Days later, the editor in charge of Quill showed me a copy of the Australian edition of his book, Unimagined. I, as usual, opened my big mouth. The blog post commemorating the event became an article in the 2011 annual issue of the magazine. I must've revised it three times before it was good to go.

Feature: Imran Ahmad, author of Unimagined and his talk at
The Annexe, December 2010; full text here

Sadly, MPH won't be distributing or selling the book. I was given several reasons, but it seems they're worried about the potential hassle when a thousand or so copies of a book published overseas, imported at a considerable cost, is impounded by the Ministry and ultimately banned.

I'm also doing additional (uncredited) write-ups, such as announcements for new books, advertorials and the like.

New book announcements: Tom Plate's Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad
and Catherine Lim's Ms Seetoh in the World

Both issues are out in MPH stores and major newsstands now.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Tough Times

What a way to start the new year: my first published book review for 2011. Writing it was like walking a tightrope. Who am I, a weekend book person, to call this novel "wordy"?

The online version is, oddly, titled "Recollections of an amnesiac".

Tough times
This tale of an amnesiac paints Malaysia's own story with almost lyrical prose

first published in The Star, 07 January 2011

I decided to read this book after a Malaysia Day panel discussion at which local author Chuah Guat Eng noted the average Malaysian's apparent inability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. For instance, in her latest novel, Days of Change, her realistic portrayal of a middle-aged Malay man led to speculation that she must have known such a character intimately.

I became curious.

By now, I'm almost afraid of books advertised as "Malaysian novels". A lot of books out there attempt to narrate our country's past; some resort to romanticism, presumably to better shift copies.

It was with a different kind of fear when I opened Chuah's Malaysian novel. "Days of Change is a sequel to Echoes Of Silence," began the author's note, and my heart sank. Will I be able to get the story without referring to the previous volume?

I needn't have worried. The events in Echoes Of Silence took place decades before Days of Change. The narrator in the former, one Lim Ai Lian, returns as one of the main characters in the new book. Though written as a sequel, Days of Change is good enough to be read on its own.

The chaotic, rambling recollections of one Abdul Hafiz bin Dato' Yusuf is the record of the "days of change" the man experiences after tumbling down a ravine and waking up in hospital with amnesia. After an unsuccessful attempt to consult a psychiatrist, he consults the I Ching, the famous Chinese "book of changes", to make sense of his jumbled memories.

What follows are pages and pages of a recovering amnesiac's recollections and ruminations.

Lush, descriptive writing lends poignancy to his recovered memories, some of which, perhaps, he would rather forget.

Though a wealthy property developer, Hafiz is unlucky in love and marriage. His life is also marred by a couple of tragedies at home: two mysterious murders, details of which he attempts to uncover. And why is he so repulsed by his lovely young wife? To top it off, another property developer has plans for a Disneyland-style theme park in Hafiz' (fictional) hometown of Ulu Banir, which also involves the bungalow at Jock's Hill, where he spent his childhood.

The way I see it, Chuah tells Malaysia's story through the goings-on at Ulu Banir, where much of Days of Change takes place, and through Hafiz's inner struggles and mission to fend off the land barons. We all know the ingredients: religion, politics, socio-economic policies, independence, communists, and race riots on May 13, 1969.

But Chuah's almost lyrical prose and deft juxtaposition of people, places and history make this book about more than just a bunch of "Malaysian" characters parroting the usual socio-political tirades you would find in, say, the local blogosphere.

However, it's the kind of writing that made me wish the story would move faster. One word: "wordy". Case in point would be the author's note: "... In both novels the Banir River, the district of Ulu Banir, the ancient fortress town of Kota Banir, the Malay village of Kampung Banir Hilir and the Chinese fishing village of Bagan China exist only in my imagination, as do all the characters. References to actual people, institutions, and events serve purely to create the illusion of reality from which this type of fiction draws its vitality."

Then again, perhaps the wordiness is in keeping with Hafiz's character as he struggles to make sense of the gaps in his memories and deal with his current problems. The stress and emotional turmoil is evident in his recollections. This is not light, easy material for impatient readers.

Impatience aside, I guess I do kind of get what Chuah is trying to do with Days of Change. The Malaysian story, it seems, is akin to Hafiz's journey of recovery after his near-fatal fall – often turbulent, sometimes tranquil, with dark mysterious gaps awaiting illumination, and some hope for a better future. Kind of like our current days of change.

Days of Change
Chuah Guat Eng
Holograms/Chuah Guat Eng
277 pages
ISBN: 978-983-43778-1-6