Sunday, 29 May 2011

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead

It's been a long while since one of these showed up in the papers, but better late than never, I suppose. No surprise, given that the paper in question was undergoing a revamp at the time.

When you've just submitted a book review, it's very hard to resist the temptation of reading what other reviewers at international papers think about the book. Look how John Crace's "Digested Reads" at The Guardian sums up Everyone Loves You. The impression I got is that nobody likes the book at all.

I abhor the media circus around celebrities, even if it is part of the game. Fame is a fickle thing, and it can all go away in an instant. If you take away the bling, the wealth, the on-screen persona - the celebrity - would that person still be attractive?

So Strauss's bibliography includes a pornstar's memoirs and accounts of his experiences with a bunch of pick-up artists. And maybe Everyone Loves You does look like it's slapped together from bits scavenged from the cutting room floor. That doesn't mean everything he writes should be dismissed. The paparazzi have been telling us for years what Strauss seems to be getting at with this book: celebrities are human. They have bad days, they make mistakes, and they can buckle under pressure. And they should (probably) be allowed to do that without being so harshly judged.

The part about Paul Nelson is particularly poignant, even with the seemingly put-on Hemingway-esque reference to the baby shoes. Also notable are the eleven points of his "instructions for living", based on the interviews in the book. The strange title is explained in Point #11. Buy it to find out. Get the discount coupon.

Reminder to be happy

first published in The Star, 29 May 2011

"In memory of Johnny Cash, Curtis Mayfield, and Bo Diddley, all of whom died between the time of being interviewed and the publication of this book. And for all those who are going to die afterward." With a dedication like that, you know the book is going to be good.

As a pop culture journalist, author and ghostwriter, Neil Strauss had, among other things, fired off guns with rapper Ludacris, been kidnapped by Courtney Love, made Lady Gaga cry, received Scientology lessons from Tom Cruise, tucked Christina Aguilera into bed, and more.

And now, he feels it's time to do justice to his subjects, using over 200 handpicked minutes out of his trove of unused interview material. "Instead of looking for the pieces that broke news or sold the most magazines or received the best feedback, I searched for the truth or essence behind each person, story, or experience." Strauss writes, and insists that one minute is enough. "You can tell a lot about somebody in a minute. If you choose the right minute."

Though one isn't sure about the veracity of the one-right-minute theory, Everyone Loves You When You're Dead is one very not-safe-for-work display of dark humour, a mishmash of often funny and revealing anecdotes, Q&As, and narratives. Equally funny conversations with music lawyers and copy editors add to the experience, which is balanced by the sombre extracts from obituaries Strauss has written.

While the caricatures and the old-style newspaper look gels with the eclectic, eccentric content, the unlabelled "selected visual index" is useless to those who can't match the faces to the names; the real index, meanwhile, is a litany of horrors. Reading is rough sailing, with many interviews broken up into parts "to be continued" in later pages.

It's hard to guess whether this is one of those name-dropping memoirs, or a genuine attempt to hold a mirror up in front of his subjects, his peers, himself, and the entire American entertainment industry. I think Everyone Loves You is meant to be more serious than satire, but it has moments of hilarity. Look out for Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner's one-line replies when drilled about his "squeaky-clean reputation", and how singer-songwriter Ryan Adams ends his answers with an F-bomb. A running joke involves Pharrell Williams of the hip-hop outfit The Neptunes constantly rescheduling his interview; also, learn how Justin Timberlake saved the day.

Two celebrity illustrations from Everyone Loves You When
You're Dead
; know who they are?

Whatever doubts one has in the author's motives for the book is dispelled by his piece on a predecessor: former Rolling Stone record reviews editor Paul Nelson (1936–2006). Strauss admits that it was hard to pen, and not just because of his respect for the late Nelson and the people who would read it. "Every word brought me closer to my own cautionary tale – or that of any writer, creative person, or dedicated follower of art, entertainment, or culture. Because it makes you ask: In the end, is it worth it?"

Probably not for Nelson. The man who'd done so much for the likes of Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart died alone and broke. A pair of baby shoes that belonged to Nelson's son, found hanging near his bed, still haunts Strauss: "... because as someone who's sacrificed personal relationships for the pursuit of culture and career, I know what (those shoes) symbolize: the regret of someone who has spent his entire life with his priorities wrong." I could say the same about many of today's pop culture vultures.

Just as we're overdosing on "tiger blood", "winning" and whatnot, here comes this timely reminder of the humanity behind the hype. Among the most poignant are the interviews with those that have since made it big or got bigger, bounced back from whatever hole they dug for themselves, or passed on. Almost every obituary made me think of our own late great P. Ramlee.

The book ends with a toast to "the artists, celebrities, and crazy people of the world" who, often inadvertently, screwed themselves up for our benefit. "Thank you not just for keeping us entertained with your mistakes, but for reminding us to be happy with who we are."


Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead
Journeys into Fame and Madness

Neil Strauss
It Books (2011)
544 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-154367-8

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Eight Treasures of The Dragon

Things have been a bit slow in the publishing department, but the pace is picking up. A new book came off the presses on... Thursday (or was it Friday?), and a couple more will be out within a month or two.

After Eight Jewels of the Phoenix and Eight Fortunes of the Qilin, comes the latest compilation of retold tales by Tutu Dutta-Yean, Eight Treasures of the Dragon.

Cover for Eight Treasures of the Dragon (left) and one of the
book's illustrated frontispieces

Cute cover, isn't it? Like the type that graces supernatural chick-lit for tweens? A slight departure from the layouts of the previous books' covers, but good-looking nonetheless.

As in the volumes before it, Eight Treasures presents eight stories involving the most famous and perhaps most powerful and ubiquitous of all the mythical creatures. From the Far East to Europe and all the way to the jungles of Central America, the dragon has been part of indigenous lore for a very long time.

A page from Eight Treasures of the Dragon

Among Dutta-Yean's eight draconian treasures is a frosty green pearl, sought by an earnest young adventurer looking to save his village from a meteor-induced drought; an enchanted water barrel used by a regal dragon couple seeking revenge for the loss of their home; a dragon's "secret name", gifted to the monastery acolyte who saved its life; a dragon's egg that dooms a man to a life as a scaly leviathan, and the possible corpse of another dragon whose curse snares the man's son.

Also in the book is the reinterpreted tale of Nyi Roro Kidul, a princess who became the spiritual Queen of the Southern Sea of Java. The Samudra Beach Hotel at Pelabuhan Ratu (Queen's Harbour) in Java was said to have been built near the site where she threw herself into the sea in an attempt to rid herself of a horrible curse. She is usually depicted as a smoking hot woman in green (her favourite colour), sometimes with a dragon's tail - not unlike the dracaena in Greek mythology.

Perhaps in keeping with the customs of previous Javanese rulers, former prime minister Sukarno had room 308 of this hotel done up in a green theme and ordered it kept empty in case Her Spiritual Majesty decided to visit. Bathers in that part of the sea are advised against wearing green, because she is said to find the colour... "irresistible".

Yes, that's her on the cover.

Eight Treasures of the Dragon, retold by Dutta-Yean and illustrated by Tan Vay Fern, is published by MPH Group Publishing and available in all major bookstores.

Eight Treasures of the Dragon
retold by Tutu Dutta-Yean
illustrated by Tan Vay Fern
MPH Group Publishing
160 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-29-7

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Saturday, 14 May 2011

Vanishing Flavours

"When pestle meets mortar, aromas are released, flavours blend and appetites are whetted. The pungent scent of freshly pounded spices mixes with the smell of burning charcoal in the kitchen, bringing the warmth and promise of a traditional home-cooked meal made with love."

Shortly after my interview at MPH, I was given an assignment: Suggest the back cover text for what was then an upcoming cookbook for Peranakan dishes. Mortar and Pestlebecame my first project as an MPH books editor.

It didn't take long to write the copy, since I looked at my own memories of an old-school kitchen. I remember the kerosene smell and the smoke from the charcoal stove and Mom's sambal belacan, made the old way using the mortar and pestle. The sambal was so good, it went into almost everything.

Does this make me a watered-down Peranakan? I've been wondering about that.

Working on this cookbook took me down memory lane a few times. The author's own recollections of her formative years, one much like my own, brought back that electric effervescence of childhood Chinese New Years, primary school, childhood games and so on. One time, while editing the manuscript, I found myself back under the huge saga tree near home, hunting for its jewel-like, bright red seeds. Good thing I didn't swallow any of them; it never occurred to me that the seeds are toxic.

I did a whole lot of research for Mortar and Pestle, and learned a lot as well. Of course, the editing process wasn't smooth sailing all the way, and I have to concur with much of what was raised in the review. All I can say is, as I will say about current and future projects, is that I and everyone else involved did our best, given the circumstances then.

Overall, it's not a bad book. Mostly cookbook, partly memoir, and all Peranakan. And with my copy, I have a handy reference for some simple Peranakan recipes to try; a nearby Jaya Grocer has all the ingredients for black glutinous rice dessert.

Of course, not all Peranakan dishes are included here. Some of the recipes look simple, but one asks if the iPad generation, so used to things happening at the push of a button or three, would deign to lift a mortar to pound chillies for sambal belacan.

Even if I do find the time and place to reconnect with my roots, I doubt I'll ever make a sambal belacan or nyonya-style chicken curry that's as good as Mom's... or Dad's.

From Angelina Teh comes this repository of the author's fondest Peranakan kitchen memories. Featuring recipes and other culinary heirlooms handed down to the author by her elders, Mortar and Pestle: Aromas from A Peranakan Kitchen documents Teh's efforts to preserve the essence of Peranakan cuisine.

Teh was so inspired by the delectable Straits Chinese dishes and delicacies her grandmothers used to cook that she decided to honour the legacy of her grandmothers by documenting these recipes for posterity.

Though trained in art and design, she now enjoys the more challenging task of caring for her toddler. Teh lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Mortar & Pestle
Aromas from a Peranakan Kitchen

Angelina Teh
MPH Group Publishing
183 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-20-4

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Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Hantu, The Witch and The Sampan

It was hinted that this series of junior readers' books on Dayak lore will be styled according to CS Lewis's Narnia Chronicles.

Sceptical? Don't knock it till you read it. We sometimes are so enamoured of foreign culture, we neglect the possibility that our own backyard might have cultural threads that can be re-woven into something that's just as marketable.

Cover for Miyah and the Forest Demon (left) and an illustration
in the book featuring Miyah's father, the shaman Raseh

Centuries ago in Borneo, a great shaman named Jugra battled a particularly powerful demon. Though unable to destroy it, the shaman somehow imprisoned the demon within the vicinity of what would be his grave.

Fast forward to the 17th century. The Portuguese have been driven out of Malacca, and the Dutch have moved in. At a longhouse in a village called Tapoh, a shaman gives thanks to the spirits for a bountiful harvest, unaware that an uninvited guest has gatecrashed the party. The spirits he channels have no good news for him, either, leaving the assembled with an ominous warning: "Beware the Jugra blood..."

Young Tanjungpura noble Nila pursues Endu Dara, the chieftain's daughter (left),
and Miyah (at the back) and her friend Suru take Miyah's boat for a spin

The next day, the shaman's daughter Miyah, awakens to her 13th birthday, and a visit by dignitaries from not-quite-faraway Tanjungpura. Amidst news of brewing political strife in that region, a young Tanjungpura nobleman proposes to the chieftain's daughter. Miyah is also given a boat, and learns more about her half-Chinese friend Suru.

But Miyah isn't quite ready for the responsibilities that entail her adulthood. Ditching her task to watch over her younger brother Bongsu, she runs off to play with her friends at the river.

But later, when rain falls from a sunny sky, Miyah fears the worst, and returns to find her brother missing. With the help of her cousin, the young village outcast Rigih, she starts looking for Bongsu.

What happened to Miyah's brother? What's with Rigih's gift for talking to certain animals? And what does Bongsu's disappearance, Miyah's bloodline, and Tapoh's history have to do with the uninvited guest during the harvest celebration - and the evil lurking deep in a shadowy forest, chained to Jugra's mound by the ancient shaman's magic?

The first of what will become The Jugra Chronicles, Miyah and the Forest Demon, should be at all bookstores by now.

Material for this series is by Tutu Dutta-Yean, whose repertoire includes fairy tale collections such as Timeless Tales of Malaysia, Eight Jewels of the Phoenix, Eight Fortunes of the Qilin, and the upcoming Eight Treasures of the Dragon.

Illustrations for this book are by Choong Kwee Kim of such books as Ah Fu The Rickshaw Coolie and The Wildlife Watcher.

The Jugra Chronicles: Miyah and The Forest Demon
Tutu Dutta-Yean
illustrated by Choong Kwee Kim
MPH Group Publishing
153 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-28-0

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The next instalment in The Jugra Chronicles is currently scheduled for release early next year.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Once More, Reading Readings

I don't know if there's a need to post this again, as there isn't much difference between the original post and the final published version, but this blog is supposed to be a showcase of most of my published stuff, so here it is.

Besides, it includes a review for the book, which should've been published as an Amazon customer review - if the conditions for publishing one weren't so tight. Among all locally published books, this probably ranks amongst the country's most publicised publications.

Note: The official response to this article has been received and will be published in the upcoming issue of Quill. With that, I hope the issue(s) arising from my article will be put to rest.

I have since disabled comments for this post. One comment has been removed, as requested by its author. My thanks to all commenters for their input, which I shall take into consideration.

Reading Readings
From the launch of a collection of "new Malaysian writing", it seems the Malaysian literary cauldron is, finally, starting to boil. But is the recipe complete? What else needs to go in? ALAN WONG looks into the pages of this collection and ponders those questions, and more

First published in the Apr-Jun 2011 issue of MPH Quill

The Black Box at MAP@Publika, Solaris Dutamas was the scene for the launch of Readings from Readings, a compilation of selected works that were read at live literary events Readings@Seksan's and CeritAku@No Black Tie. The 25 February launch was part of the LiFest at MAP@Publika. Part of the proceeds from whatever sales made during LiFest went to Yayasan Orang Kurang Upaya Kelantan (Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled or YOKUK).

Copies of Readings from Readings for sale at the launch

Multitalented poet, writer, and lecturer Bernice Chauly founded Readings, which creative writing teacher Sharon Bakar said began at the Darling Muse Art Gallery about six years ago. Readings eventually moved house to Seksan's and has remained there since. When Bernice could no longer manage the monthly event, it was bequeathed to Sharon, who continues to manage it today. Bernice went on to start CeritAku in 2008.

About 400 new, aspiring and established Malaysian, Singaporean and expatriate writers, poets, and performers have been hosted by Readings and CeritAku combined. From the number of works that have been read thus far, it is hoped that the compilation will be the first of several volumes coming out from these two events.

Lots of books, and those who write them
The crowd was starting to trickle in when I went to MAP@Publika after dinner. It seemed as though everybody was there that night. Jeremy Chin is still hawking his first novel, Fuel. Haslinda Usman had her very own table for her late father's books. Saras Manickam had a copy of Unimagined autographed by its author, Imran Ahmad. Damyanti Ghosh bought a copy of Readings from Readings, and contributor Leon Wing signed his piece in the book.

Buonasera, Mr Brian Gomez! Welcome back from Italy. And why does Amir Muhammad always seem to be selling books lately? Jordan Macvay was by himself that night. Not only was the traffic bad, he couldn't locate Publika. Many of those I spoke to would express similar sentiments. And who can possibly miss Karl Hutchinson? The man can pick himself out of a crowd.

Traditional Malay folk ensemble Dewangga Sakti opened the event with a few numbers followed by the obligatory ribbon-cutting by Bernice and Sharon. Then, selected readers took the stage to read from their pieces in the book. I did not stay for the serving of Panda Head Curry (the politically incorrect band) scheduled afterwards, as it was late.

"...not one or the other..."
"Malaysian writing is not one or the other; it is one and the other."

Well spoken, Bernice. Looking around the multiracial, multinational throng at Publika that night, it’s hard to disagree. However, if this bunch, with so many of the same old faces is considered representative of the Malaysian literary circle and its supporters, then I worry for its future.

The organisers want literary events such as Readings to be inclusive and welcoming, but by design or sheer coincidence, the opposite happens. First, the choice of venues. Places such as Seksan’s and Publika can be hard to find, even with Google Maps. Second, the recurring appearance of "the same old faces". Increased participation by less mainstream writers, poets, and musicians seems to have changed little. Many attendees, who tend to know each other, end up forming little solar systems whose dynamics tend to shut out newcomers or guests. This enforces the impression of the Readings crowd as an impenetrable, tight-knit clique that is hard to enter or get close to.

Editors Sharon Bakar (left) and Bernice Chauly officially launch the book

A writer I know has refused numerous invitations to literary events. "I just feel out of place," was the explanation. Pressed for a more details, she finally said, "Whatever they may aspire to be, the plain fact is Readings invariably attracts the same old names. It's a literati's Ivy League. How do you encourage growth and participation when newcomers feel judged not long after they step through the door? That can’t be healthy."

I suspect it has a lot to do with the encounters she had with "award-winning" authors at a previous Readings session. One dragged an e-mail interview over several weeks for no apparent reason. Another author she’d written so glowingly about wrote lifestyle off as "the easy beat". "Do they even know what’s involved in lifestyle writing? Or, for that matter, ads and corporate writing?" she’d huffed.

What about the aspiring writers? Students of creative writing programmes or English language courses, for instance, can benefit from such live literary events – but do they attend them? From the volume of Internet comments, blogs and letters to newspapers, Malaysians can be considered a vocal bunch. So why does it seem so hard to find smashingly good writers in such a huge pool of voices? Where Readings is concerned, doors are opened, and Facebook announcements posted. Why the difficulty in finding contributors and audiences?

A possible factor, I think, is our socio-political climate. Our society in general doesn’t regard literature or the arts as a means to a prosperous future, and the school of thought that dismisses such pursuits as "highbrow" still persists. And we know how the powers-that-be feel about vocal people. Don’t these walls separate us into "the ones" and "the others": those who are writing, and those who wish to write? How can we unearth more new talent under such conditions?

Writing is more than grammar, ethics, e-books vs dead trees, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and more than Booker longlists, shortlists and prizes, and a plug by The New York Times. It’s not enough to simply throw open doors and arms, and plant signboards that point the way. You need more accessible doorways (Google Maps not required), and hearts must be open as well. We need to make the newcomers welcome and help them mature and improve without inadvertently cutting them down to size or leaving them out of the big picture.

Writers are human. Sometimes, people forget. Sometimes, writers forget, too.

Readings from Readings is a selection of mostly short stories and poems from six years of Readings at two of Malaysia’s live literary events. This collection is supposed to best represent the pool of work the editors refer to as "new Malaysian writing". The editors refuse to categorise the stories by genre, form, or where the writers were born – a sentiment echoed by the nature of this collection.

Readers will find works in two of Malaysia’s mainly spoken languages: Malay and English, including some poetry about jellyfish, salt, and joy (at least, I think so) and a story that really isn’t about saving marriages. An English poem is given a Malay title. Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, it has a bit of everything: fiction and non-fiction, with elements of funny, sexy, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, disturbing, and everything in between.

Within the pages: Well-known cat lady Ellen Whyte tells us why Malaysian cats have kinky tails. The cat in Uthaya Sankar’s satirical feline fable, meanwhile, manages to get hired by a government department. Reza Rosli sends chills down our spines when he recalls a mugging that threatens to get worse. Kam Raslan serves up a titillating whiff of a possible sequel to his fantastically funny Confessions of an Old Boy. And of course, poems by singer-songwriter Jerome Kugan, and poets Sharanya Manivannan and Alina Rastam, plus many, many more.

However, it might be a bit late to call this collection of Malaysian writing "new". It has been six years, and many of the "new" names within have since made their mark on the literary scene at home and abroad. Though the contents appear fresh and, to my understanding, not published elsewhere, staunch followers of Malaysian writing won’t be able to see much that distinguishes this collection from others of its ilk.

However, to those who are curious about the kind of stuff being written from and about this far-flung corner of the world by other than Rani Manicka, Tash Aw, and Preeta Samarasan, try reading some readings from Readings.

Readings from Readings
New Malaysian Writing

Edited by Bernice Chauly and Sharon Bakar
Word Works Sdn Bhd (2011)
198 pages
ISBN: 978-967-10292-0-6

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Wee's Wee People

Once upon a time in an unnamed Enid Blytonesque Malaysian town near the sea, a little lady in her early teens called Sylvia lived with her eccentric, unconventional mom, Marjorie.

Nine Little People
Wee Su May's Nine Little People Who Lived in a Chest

Adventures in Sylvia's life as the daughter of a single parent include enduring her mom's chatter, peculiar dress sense and occasional exotic culinary experiments such as durian custard and dishes with Brussels sprouts, peas and... stuff.

Things get exciting for Sylvia when her mom brings home an old wooden chest with little people carved on it. On the night she's given the chest, the little people come to life. The chest and its Lilliputian family, enchanted hand-me-downs whose purpose is the happiness of its owners, give Sylvia some lessons on custodianship and help bring her closer to her mom.

One day, however, the little people start to age, and the process appears irreversible as it creeps towards its logical conclusion. From Tuktu, the head of the little family, she learns that the wooden chest was once a bigger one that also held the family of Tuktu's brother, a medicine man and the key to reversing their ageing process.

Sylvia is naturally nonplussed. She had only begun learning how to sew, shop, cook and hide things from her mom; how is she ever going to save a family of enchanted little people?

After graduating from the University of York in 1995, Wee Su May now teaches creative writing to international students in Kuala Lumpur, where she lives with her husband and daughter. This is her first book.

Nine Little People Who Lived in a Chest
Wee Su May
MPH Group Publishing
Children's Fiction
209 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-19-8

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Sunday, 1 May 2011

Stuff in HOMEDEC and MPH Quill

Not many know that the MPH Group also publishes magazines, and that Quill isn't the only one. HOMEDEC, for instance, is an interior design and home living magazine.

The My Cookbook assignment was originally intended for HOMEDEC, which only required details about the design concept, not the food. Since we didn't have a food magazine, the place's cuisine ended up in The Star.

"Not a kopitiam", HOMEDEC Apr-Jun 2011 which features
the interiors of My Cookbook at Sunway Giza

Meanwhile, another version of the post on the launch of Readings from Readings was published in the current issue of Quill for April-June, 2011, along with a micro-review of the book.

Readings from Readings, the launch and the book, in
Quill Apr-Jun 2011

I had quite a bit to say about the state of the country's literary scene after attending the launch, and I was glad for the new faces that appeared in April's session of Readings @ Seksan's. Hoping for more new readers and writers in future Readings sessions.