Monday, 28 February 2011

Fifteen With A Future

In his book Medium Raw, Tony Bourdain branded renowned chef Alain Ducasse a "villain" because "he almost single-handedly brought down fine dining in America with his absurdly pretentious restaurant Alain Ducasse New York (ADNY, as it was known)...", which included such ultra-snobbish aspects as white-gloved waiters cutting fresh herbs at your table, and a selection of Montblanc pens for signing cheques.

But it looks like it's going to be hard for Ducasse to keep the bad guy label.

The chef with over 20 restaurants and almost 20 Michelin stars started a training programme a la Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. Called 15 Femmes en Avenir (French for "15 Women with a Future"), the programme teaches its students how to cook professionally. Those who pass have a chance to work in one of his kitchens. The number 15 represents the number of kitchens available to employ them.

When the programme will be expanded, The Guardian says that students:

...will take exams and be expected to know how to quarter a chicken, make a perfect soufflé and turn out moules marinières (mussels in a sauce of white wine and cream, with garlic and parsley) and sautéed hare. This being France, the home of haute cuisine, they are also having to learn about 200 recipes by rote and, for good measure, some maths, history and geography too.

The students in this programme are among the poorest residents of the city's banlieues, many of who are "...immigrants, or born to immigrant parents, who were previously unemployed or in a series of low-paid jobs – usually cleaning or waitressing. Most were struggling to make ends meet. Several are single mothers and some have fled abusive relationships."

If this isn't remarkable enough, the report also mentions one of these women preparing: "...tarte savoyarde au reblochon. This is as Gallic as gastronomy gets – a hearty pastry containing potatoes, bacon, onions and cream, topped with crusted raw cow's milk cheese from the Alps."

Said woman of Turkish descent, called Kébire, calls her time in the programme a "fairytale", and that:

"'s such an enormous chance, it's hard to believe. It's the only chance we have." She adds, unprompted: "I don't eat pork, but I don't have a problem preparing it. After all, if M Ducasse has made allowances for us, we have to make allowances for him."

If one knows just how tough life is for immigrants in France's banlieues, Ducasse's efforts are noteworthy. They can't get jobs, and crime rates in these slum-like neighbourhoods are high. Tensions exploded in 2005 when youths from these banlieues rioted.

And here, our religious authorities want to bar Muslims from working in places that serve alcohol - without, it seems, a plan that includes halal forms of occupation. What will these soon-to-be-jobless people do once their jobs have been taken away?

At times, I feel that those who jabber on and on about spiritual purity and such are those who are well-off and have full stomachs - or just fanatical and stupid enough to starve for their religion. Work dignifies people, a former boss used to say. Would one care about the state of the soul when one's jobless, hungry and cold? Shouldn't one's obligation to one's family and loved ones be paramount, and how can that obligation be fulfilled when one can't even earn enough to feed oneself?

If the religious authorities are really concerned with the temporal and spiritual well-being of those they claim to shepherd, they should have put more thought into any fatwa with potentially far-reaching consequences, like rendering tens of thousands of people jobless with no other way to earn a decent living.

While I'm happy that some form of change for the better is taking place in Paris, the cultural and social baggage is still there. That Guardian article ends with the following note: The women asked for their surnames not to be used to protect their identities.

For the disadvantaged in Paris' banlieues, there's still have a long way to go.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The King Of Terrors

I had a little taste of terror when I opened the paper and saw the number of pages there. I was sure the book I reviewed was not "400 pages long".

Then I remembered a colleague had e-mailed The Star, to publish the details for Fourth Estate's edition of the book. The original review was based on a 571-page edition from Scribner (Simon & Schuster).

And I was so relieved to complete the review in the midst of a hectic week, I forgot to nominate a title and standfirst for The Star's overworked editors. Nor did I confirm whether Dr Mukherjee still holds all the posts listed in the profile. My bad.

The king of terrors
The Emperor of All Maladies is written by a cancer specialist. It might be 400 pages long but it makes for very effective encouragement to live healthier.

first published in The Star, 27 February 2011

Sales of cigarettes in Malaysia still appear to be brisk, despite the redesigned packaging with the awful images of diseased lungs. As a better deterrent to smokers, may I recommend The Emperor of All Maladies? This book written by a cancer specialist might be 400 pages long but it makes for very effective encouragement to live healthier. I don’t smoke, so I’m changing my eating habits instead.

My review copy, published by Scribner
Why, of all the books written about the disease, read this one? Well, not only is it among the latest, it’s also written in an accessible way. Yes, it’s dry in places, with loads of medical jargon, history, and references to genetics, virology and such, but it is also, as the author notes, “a personal journey of my coming-of-age as an oncologist (a specialist on tumours and by extension, cancer).” This is what makes the book different.

For oncologist Dr Siddharta Mukherjee, associate professor of medicine at New York’s Columbia University and staff physician at the university’s medical centre, this book had modest beginnings. What started as just a journal grew into a more in-depth journey into the realm of cancer, and an attempt to answer some questions about it. When did it first appear, and when did the fight against cancer start? Is there an end? Can we win?

The story begins in 2004 when, behind the doors of a Massachusetts General Hospital ward, a leukaemia patient waits for the author – one of the patients we will read about that helps to give the disease a face. The disease is also profiled through a historical examination of some major cancers, including leukaemia (cancer of the blood), lymphoma, and cancers of the breast and lungs.

Among the many characters that appear, two are prominently featured: Sidney Farber, considered to be the father of modern chemotherapy, and Mary Lasker, a Manhattan socialite widowed by the illness she would spend her life fighting.

Ancient Egyptian wise man Imhotep (2667BCE-2648BCE) was the first to diagnose breast cancer, according to this book. The treatment? “There is none,” wrote the physician and part-time architect.

Since then, there have been numerous causes proposed as the cause of cancer, almost as many as the epithets it has been given, some of which demonstrate the hidden literary talents within the medical and scientific professions. An unnamed 19th century surgeon called it, rather poetically, “the emperor of all maladies, the king of terrors”.

'The Emperor of All Maladies' (Fourth Estate)
Inspired by a revelation about how cancer starts in our bodies, one researcher compares it to Grendel in the 8th century Old English epic Beowulf – “a distorted version of our normal selves”. Why? “Cancer was intrinsically ‘loaded’ in our genome, awaiting activation,” the author laments. “We were destined to carry this fatal burden in our genes.”

It was also compared to a crab during the time of the “father of modern medicine”, Hippocrates (c 460BCE-c 370BCE): thick, with something that seems almost carapace-like, burrowing deep into the afflicted. That explains the seemingly unrelated crustacean on the cover of some editions of The Emperor of All Maladies.

After the discoveries, came the fight. But what and how much can one do against one’s own rebel genes?

Man’s hubris in this area is well-documented in the book, from Mary Lasker’s apparently quixotic anti-cancer campaign, to the tobacco lobby’s efforts in denying links between tobacco use and lung cancer.

The accounts about the latter will shock, given what we know today and how most people feel about corporate whitewashing. Within and without, it seems the human race is its own worst enemy.

The glimpses into the lives of cancer patients add some humanity into an otherwise weighty read.

Like the biography of someone still alive, there is no clear ending. Nor is there always a happy ending for patients. The last one profiled in this book dies, driving home the point about the terror of cancer.

Overall, the book is a good balance of the clinical and human. There aren’t enough books like this written about cancer, its myriad forms, the pain it inflicts, and the urgent need to end its scourge.

After the table of contents in The Emperor is this chilling note:

“In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer. In the United States, one in three women and one in two men will develop cancer during their lifetime.

“A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer. In some nations, cancer will surpass heart disease to become the most common cause of death.”

Whoever it was that crowned cancer “the emperor of all maladies” had genius and foresight. No epithet is more suitable for this disease that marks our times.

The Emperor of All Maladies
A Biography of Cancer

Siddhartha Mukherjee
Fourth Estate (2011)
400 pages
ISBN: 978-0007367481

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

An Unimaginable Journey To Publication

My account of Imran Ahmad's talk at The Annexe, Central Market last December during the Art for Grabs weekend, as published in the annual issue of MPH Quill for 2011, which was briefly mentioned here.

Though the book is not available in local bookstores, Sharon Bakar says Imran is in town and will be at the launch of Readings from Readings: New Malaysian Writing at MAP/Publika, Solaris Dutamas on the evening of 25 February to sell copies of the book. For those who can't make it, contact her at sharonbakar[at]yahoo[dot]com, or the author himself at author[at]unimagined[dot]co[dot]uk.

The story of Imran Ahmad’s journey to authorship is as hilariously entertaining as the book he penned

first published in the annual issue of MPH Quill for 2011

I am with a friend at The Annexe, Central Market for Dr Farish Noor’s lecture, which has just ended. Without anything else planned for the rest of the afternoon, we stayed back for.... a “performance narrative” by Imran Ahmad, author of Unimagined – Muhammad, Jesus and James Bond. From the programme, it says that he’ll be talking about “following your dream, making it happen, keeping your day job, travelling to America, and the struggle to get published in a post-9/11 world”, which sounds interesting.

There’s a wait for Imran’s books and more people to join in. By the time it started, the books hadn’t arrived and the audience was only half the number drawn by Dr Farish, superstar historian and academic.

Limited edition of 'Unimagined'
Imran’s long road to getting his works published – and his lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice – began when “blatant nepotism” robbed him of the title of Karachi’s Bonniest Baby. “First prize went to the child of organiser!” Imran thunders. “The judges were her friends! This is absolutely typical of third world, banana republic unfairness.” The audience laughs at the painful familiarity.

Things didn’t get a whole lot better when he and his family moved to England. He encountered racism even as he longed to belong. He felt he did belong at one time because of his apparent resemblance to James Bond. He helpfully pointed out the more discernable features to the audience. “...dark clean-cut face ... eyes wide and level ... longish straight nose....” It’s a fairly accurate description of the man now, I mentally note. Just that he also needs to lose about 15 pounds and something more dapper than his short-sleeved shirt (not tucked in) and trousers.

Looking like James Bond didn’t help much with his social life, especially after 9/11. Not with a name like his. Every time he travelled to the United States on business, he would be called up to “secondary” by immigration officers. It eventually got to him, so he decided to clear the air about Muslims by writing a book. He couldn’t get started for a long while, so he tried to prod himself through meditation.

“I will start writing this book, ommmm....” he demonstrates. The audience is tickled. I look around curiously. A Muslim just went ommmm in here and Special Branch agents have been known to loiter around The Annexe, particularly when it hosts events featuring NGOs and the likes of Dr Farish. This man is self-deprecatingly frank and hilarious. Why haven’t we heard of him? My companion is charmed, and thinks he can be a competent stand-up comic. I don’t want this talk to end prematurely. What happens next?

After The Secret failed him, Imran decided that he should just start writing his book. He made good progress after that, and he began to enjoy the writing process. There were times, however, when he enjoyed it too much. He was writing a particularly enjoyable chapter during a business meeting. “It was all about budgets and finances and such,” he reminisces, “and there I was, typing away and smiling to myself.”

He pitched his completed manuscript to literary agents and publishers, but to no avail. He then decided to use Amazon’s BookSurge publishing service. He remembers being thrilled to receive a copy of his self-published book and being obsessed with the online sales report. He recalls daydreaming about his book putting smiles on his sombre and grey-suited fellow commuters in a London train, and a big fat advance that he’ll spend on a silver Peugeot 307 (or 308?) and a nice flat (apartment) to go with the car. To top it all, appearances in BBC radio programmes such as Midweek.

When sales for a particular day jumped to 250, he sent a copy of that report to Scott Pack, then the Head Buyer of Waterstone’s, England’s biggest bookstore chain. Pack had received a copy, and Imran was sure the report would make him pay attention to it.

Not long afterwards, a note from BookSurge came. “Dear Mr Ahmad, we regret to inform you that due to a computer error...” We laugh in anticipation of what comes next. Or so we think.

Imran Ahmad, author of 'Unimagined'
Imran Ahmad reads at Readings
@ Seksan's, December 2010
Pack didn’t chew Imran up for his presumptuousness, although the book’s “crap cover, terrible title (it was then called The Path Unimagined), and dodgy production values” didn’t impress him. Nevertheless he gave the book his 50-page test over a cup of tea. An hour later, he had read more than 50 pages and the tea had grown cold. He was convinced that the book was going to be huge, but needed a better cover. With Imran’s consent, he sent the book to literary agent Charlie Viney, who also liked it and promised to help get it published.

Filled with some hope, Imran waited, still haunted by visions of the silver Peugeot. Despite the agent’s help, publishers still rejected the book. Seems they wanted someone who was or wanted to be a terrorist, not a funny story about a Muslim boy growing up in the West. “They said it wasn’t miserable enough,” Imran exclaims. “It’s not supposed to be miserable!”

Unimagined eventually got published and Pack was proven correct. The reviews were mostly positive. Imran got his radio show appearances. He was invited to literary events and writer’s festivals, and gave talks about his book. Talks like this one. At one time he ended up back in the US to give talks. This time, his passport was stamped and he was not sent to secondary. “So the lesson for terrorists is: if you want to sneak into the US, publish a book,” Imran jokes.

The biggest joke, I think, was on him, when he was once compelled to mail a copy of Unimagined to all 646 MPs in the British Parliament – except to Conservative Party MP Ann Widdecombe. Her conservative Christian views and TV appearances where she looked like a “miserable dragon” convinced him she won’t read it. An image comparing her to an example of such misery appears on the wall, and we all laugh. He tells us that he sent her a copy anyway.

Not long afterwards, Unimagined made the list of Best Books of 2007 in The Independent – with a quote by The Miserable Dragon, who called it her “favourite book of 2007”. The room erupts with laughter when Widdecombe’s name and quote is projected on the wall.

He recognises the irony. “I wrote a book to tell people not to judge Muslims based on appearances,” he says ruefully, “and here I was, judging this–” On the wall, the “miserable dragon” gained the wings and halo of an angel, with the word spelled out in huge letters. “–based on her TV appearances,” Imran concludes, amidst even more laughter.

I try not to draw any parallels with my initial attitude towards his talk. It was, as advertised, a remarkable and incredible story, an inspirational tale to aspiring authors. There was no mention of that silver Peugeot 307 and the matching apartment.

I never get to find out just how remarkably honest, hilarious and heartstring-tugging the book is until a week later, when Imran shows up unexpectedly at a book-reading event with copies of a limited edition. Although the book ends when Imran is 25, it also hints at the continuation of his unimaginable journey as a Muslim in the big, wide world – in another one or two volumes.

I hope they deliver those on time for his next appearance at The Annexe.