Sunday, 28 August 2011

Not Quite Paradise

Overall, pleased with this, as I'd taken several days to draft and finalise it.

The title for this post was the original title of the piece; who knows why it was changed. Nor was the standfirst, shown below, used for the final versions. Perhaps I'm not obliged to provide either, but from my brief stint in journalism, both can be hard to come up with.

The review copy was not the one the bookstore wanted to promote, but the hardcover movie-poster version which you can buy online.

Tale of human courage
From above, the hidden valley seemed like the Garden of Eden. Then the plane went down...

first published in The Star, 28 August 2011

Once upon a time, the US media went nuts over the abduction and eventual rescue of one Private Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. But hers was not the only dramatic one of a female soldier in American history.

Professor of journalism Mitchell Zuckoff was doing some research when he stumbled upon an article about a rescue operation that took place towards the end of World War II. He eventually came back to it, did some reading and leg work and put it all into a book.

Zuckoff's Lost In Shangri-la: A True Story Of Survival, Adventure, And The Most Incredible Rescue Mission Of World War II – breathe, soldier, breathe! – also features a female member of the US Armed Forces. Corporal Margaret Hastings of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) was part of the Far East Air Service Command (shortened to "Fee-Ask") based in Hollandia in the Dutch half of New Guinea (the island is now split into West Papua and Papua New Guinea). But the circumstances from which she needed rescue were quite different from Lynch's situation.

On May 13, 1945, Hastings and over 20 crew members and passengers boarded the Gremlin Special, a C-47 transport plane, for a sightseeing tour of a remote jungle valley surrounded by mountains. Colonel Ray Elsmore, also based in Hollandia, supposedly discovered this valley which was later dubbed "Shangri-La" by two war correspondents, George Lait and Harry Patterson. Sightseeing tours of Shangri-La, inhabited by supposedly savage, spear-wielding Stone Age tribes, became a treat for those stationed at Fee-Ask.

At that time, the only way into Shangri-La was by plane, which was a risky undertaking. Mists often hid nasty surprises for unwary or inexperienced pilots. On the day of the crash, Zuckoff writes, such a pilot may have been at the helm of the Gremlin Special. Of the passengers and crew, which included nine members of Hastings' WAC unit, only three would ultimately survive: First Lieutenant John McCollom, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker, and Hastings.

Though meant to be a journalistic record, this book feels a bit like a documentary or film. A series of events come together to form a credible historical narrative of not just the rescue and the profile of the key figures, but also of the natives, the valley and those who were there before, and the war raging around them.

Among other things, we learn of C. Earl Walter Jr and his Filipino-American paratroopers who were sent to rescue the three. We discover that Colonel Elsmore was not the first to discover Shangri-La, now called the Baliem Valley. We observe breathlessly as the daring rescue plan unfolds. We look on in horror as a drunk rogue filmmaker parachutes out of a plane. We are also given a glimpse of the lives and cultures of the Papuan natives, who are more than what the reporters say they are.

And as more and more Yankees and their allies pour into the valley, a whiff of danger arises as the natives' regional leader feels threatened by the foreign presence and begins plotting....

Just as it was in the tale of Jessica Lynch, Margaret Hastings is very much the heroine and pivotal figure here, even though other key figures are given more or less equal time. The book starts and ends with Hastings. She was even crowned "Queen of Shangri-La" by the press then, a title she would come to loathe. Another edition of this book, Lost In Shangri-la: Escape From Another World, is done up with a movie poster of a cover (pictured here) that rubs that fact in.

One could perhaps sigh at the author's apparent sexing up of a dramatic rescue operation by centring the whole thing on the attractive female survivor. But Zuckoff keeps the narrative chaste by sticking to the historical and journalistic aspects of the rescue. And there's lots of history, with bits of anthropology and anecdotal accounts. However, some attempts at philosophising, like how the act of war is more crucial to the natives' way of life than ours, sound laboured.

It could've been written with a bit more dramatic flair, but judging from the extensive bibliography, one supposes that the author may have been worn out by all the research he'd done – look at all those notes at the back!

Then again, perhaps not. Poignant, gritty, engaging and occasionally comic, Lost In Shangri-La can stand on its own as a compelling tale of human courage, camaraderie and survival without any embellishment.

Lost in Shangri-La
A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper (2011)
384 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-209358-5

Friday, 26 August 2011

Too Much Information

Now that this review is out, here's a bit more information.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa was formerly known as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-LĂ©opoldville, Congo-Kinshasa and Zaire (1971-1997).

It's not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo aka the Congo Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Little Congo or simply the Congo, another state in Central Africa.

So, there is no "Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo". At present, there is, however, a "Republic of the Congo" and "Democratic Republic of the Congo".

I got confused. My bad.

Too much info

first published in The Star, 26 August 2011

What an iPad of a book, I thought, as I ran my hands over the cover that was tastefully done in white, black and red. And just like a real iPad, you will either get sick of it after a short while or be lost in it for hours, maybe days.

The Information is James Gleick's attempt to enlighten the masses about the subject of "information": its history, theories, and how technology that bloomed in the last 50 years has redefined our relationship with information.

Gleick kicks things off with the story of early forms of texting, which includes fire signals and African talking drums. While highlighting the latter we are introduced to Kele, a Bantu language spoken in parts of Zaire and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Inflections in speech can give the same Kele word or phrase different meanings, resulting in comical and potentially tragic consequences. For instance, one can end up saying "he boiled his mother-in-law" instead of "he watched the riverbank". Several revelations arise from this: language is complex; such complexities can form a basis for some kind of encryption; and it seems that mothers-in-law are hated everywhere.

The book explores other aspects of information, such as communication (telegraph and telecommunications), processing (19th century English mathematician and mechanical engineer Charles Babbage's difference engine, transistors and logic circuits), encryption (WWII's famed Enigma machine), and finally, "the flood" (social networks and Wikipedia).

The book gets harder to read as one goes along, however. Some parts are like a textbook or encyclopaedia, with diagrams, math equations, foreign words and special symbols. All that, plus the dry tone and inaccessible language clutter up and bog down what would have been an interesting book that might explain and contextualise, among other things, phenomena such as Fox "News", LOLcats, and Charlie Sheen. Digging up such gems, however, is like going through a mile of Google search results. One wonders if this is actually the sequel to Gleick's previous book, Chaos.

Those with the determination, patience and stamina to wade through the entire book will likely be rewarded with a clearer understanding of what we read, why we seek it, why we read some things more than others, and why we have that urge to "spread the word".

Some points to ponder: Our hunger for information can lead to an information hangover and apathy, so how do we sate the hunger while avoiding the side-effects? If DNA code is "information", does that make us "living machines", and gene-based treatments a form of programming?

For me, "information" connotes something that's shiny, intriguing and that invites exploration, but the task of unravelling the complex relationships between us and the information we produce and consume is much, much harder.

Though I feel Gleick has done his utmost to do this, I also fear he has been too successful. The Information may help us understand the origins of information and our ties to it, but it may also end up a victim of its author's apparent success – a book that's too smart for the casual reader, afflicted by some of the problems it highlights and tries to explain.

The Information
James Gleick
Fourth Estate
526 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-742311-8

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Calling For Weird Things

Jen Campbell, who blogs at This is Not the Six-word Novel, is calling booksellers all over for weird things they've heard their customers say for her book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops.

What began as a single post about said topic eventually grew into a series. Weeks ago, Campbell accumulated enough weird things for a book. The latest edition will be published in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Later on, Campbell opened up contributions from several Commonwealth countries, including the aforementioned ones. What she got was so enjoyable, she decided to lengthen the list and include weird things from booksellers worldwide.

"If you have a bookshop in space, you may enter too. Extra kudos to you," she adds.

Alas, I'm a deskbound editor who's dream job (one of several) is to run a book nook one day. And there aren't a lot of indie booksellers in this country; fewer still, I think, have the knack for remembering the weird things their customers say.

Anyway, please send in your best "Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops" to weirdthingsuk[at]gmail[dot]com.

Set the conversation out in a chat window format as seen in these posts.

Please include your name, contact number, and the name and location of your bookshop (bookshop name, address, city, country).

Submissions should be sent to the said e-mail address before 30 September this year.

Non-booksellers can help spread the word about this call for submissions. Check Campbell's blog for more information.

I wonder if the bookstore people will bring it over here...

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rise Of The "Raviews"

Today, let me introduce a made-up word: "raview". This portmanteau of "rave" and "review" is the only way to describe the US$5 "reviews" that might be offered by a web site mentioned in the New York Times.

They are everywhere. They are, it seems, cheap. And they are virtually indistinguishable from "truthful" reviews.

A related article offers some tips on spotting potential fake reviews, listing such indicators as: constant focus on reviewer and companions, lots of "I", "me" and "my", and direct mentions of lodgings and cities. Also, look out for adverb and verb overload. If a review sounds overly positive, it smells fishy.

A sample of some very effusive reviews on
Under those guidelines, they'd be fishier than Fulton Street,
even if they're genuine and truthful.

This concerns me somewhat, because similar issues plague book reviews too. As well as food reviews, movie reviews, anything reviews. This also shed more light on why a former boss insisted on limiting the use of "I", "me" and "my" in my more "serious" pieces. "Raviews" do seem to be talking more about the "raviewer" than the product.

Arguably, "raviews" of such things as books, food and movies are possible, because, well, there's no accounting for taste. Over time, a reviewer's experiences will change the person, leading to a possible re-evaluation of his earlier opinions.

By the way, does this look "raview-ish"? ...Perhaps, but that's the general vibe I had when I went through the pages.

"Raviews" of travel destinations are harder, I think, and not just because of the writer. Places change. Service standards fluctuate. Last month's travellers to a place may encounter a different atmosphere than today's.

Still, US$5 per "raview" is a short sell for the kind of mental anguish, however minimal, that I'm sure the "raviewer" goes through. Times must be really hard nowadays.

Now that these possible signs of a fake review are out in the open, will it change the way reviews are written? Possibly. For one, writers may probably have to adopt more neutral voices, even if they were genuinely blown away by their experiences. And who wants to read dry, boring travel stuff?

But things will change. They are talking about ways to separate the chaff from the wheat; "raviews", after all, are essentially spam and a waste of server space, in lieu of their effect on a product's marketability and a ratings site as a fair arbiter of taste.

At least, as fair as could be in the face of the constant deluge of information and opinion brought about by the Internet.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Seashore Searching

Certain events that took place in the past two weeks drove me to search Youtube for an old song. "Forever", sung by Japanese actor Takashi Sorimachi and Richie Sambora, was the opening theme for the 1997 Japanese drama series Beach Boys.

The only nice poster pic of the 1997 Japanese drama
series Beach Boys I could find

Yes, I guess it was a long time ago.

Walking on the beach, 17-year-old Makoto Izumi (played by Ryoko Hirosue) finds a message in a bottle which ends with, "We are the beach boys." It was never clear who wrote the message, but I suppose the bottle was just a set piece that led to the serendipitous encounter that would follow later.

I.e., the arrival of the "beach boys" into her life.

Former competition swimmer and deadbeat Hiromi Sakurai (Sorimachi) is kicked out of his girlfriend's house. Around the same time, high-flying salaryman Kaito Suzuki (Yutaka Takenouchi) is escaping from troubles at his workplace. These two meet and end up at the same place: a small bed-and-breakfast by the beach, where Makoto lives with her granddad.

Hiromi and Kaito couldn't be any more different. Sorimachi essentially plays a more laid-back, easygoing and less edgier version of his GTO persona; Kaito is all business and straitlaced. Their first meeting couldn't have been worse: while pushing Hiromi's jalopy, they end up chasing the car downhill and plunged into the ocean.

And Kaito loses his wallet to the sea.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no money, both of them became employees at the B&B - fertile ground for friendships between two unlikely bedfellows, set within a feel-good, often funny tale about life, priorities, finding one's dreams and, yes, friendship.

Then again, not so unlikely; in Hiromi and Kaito's names is the kanji for "sea", shown clearly in the opening. No guesswork for the audience, as far as the scriptwriters are concerned.

Back then, I was too young and perhaps too occupied with my own things to fully appreciate the message(s) behind the drama series. The idea of a simple life, working and living near the sea appealed to me, though, and not just because of where I was born. The opening theme stuck, too.

I guess it was that simplicity that I seem to yearn for now, so warm and familiar, it feels like... home. Just like the B&B was to "beach boys" Hiromi and Kaito.

But their idyll doesn't last long. Masaru Izumi, Makoto's grandpa and owner of the B&B goes missing one day, leading to the Beach Boys' parting of ways to find their own "ocean". And so it ends...

But bless Fuji TV for the special episode. Ah, the sight of them trying to start and then chasing Hiromi's car back into the ocean again when they returned to the seaside B&B was so damn cathartic.

And then, the sounds of the guitar as the opening theme played - an affirmation that, yes, they are and will always be "the beach boys".

I hold on to that song. When I hear it playing at the back of my mind at some point in my life, I will know that I have, at last, found my metaphorical B&B by the sea.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

MPH Quill, MPH 105th Anniversary Issue

In this special issue of MPH Quill, some author interviews.

Cover of the 105th Anniversary issue of MPH Quill (left; don't ask)
and more Mysore magic and majesty

Eric Forbes speaks to MJ Hyland (How the Light Gets In) And Padma Viswanathan (The Toss of a Lemon) about their books, themselves and their writing lives.

Authors MJ Hyland (left) and Padma Viswanathan are featured in
the 105th Anniversary issue of MPH Quill

Also, an interview piece with first-time author Paul Callan, where he talks about himself and his debut novel, The Dulang Washer.

Paul Callan, author of The Dulang Washer

Other interesting bits include:

Wena Poon's (Lions in Winter, Alex y Robert) sojourn at the 2011 Hong Kong International Literary Festival, where she discovers the international reach of Malaysian and Singaporean women novelists.

Mary Schneider's piece on photographer Dr Ooi Cheng Ghee and his involvement in the coffeetable book Portraits of Penang: Little India, published by Areca Books.

More interesting bits about Mysore, India, courtesy of newspaper columnist and occasional travel writer Alexandra Wong.

Tom Sykes summary on some gwailo novelists' works set in Southeast Asia, and excerpts from A Subtle Degree of Restraint and Other Stories, as well as Looking Back: Monday Musings and Memories, an upcoming reprint of Tunku's original 1970s edition.

...And more!

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Fasting Month Fracas

Many years back, I'd been eating something when two Malay boys walked past. It was the fasting month, so one of them went, "Oh dear, he's eating in front of me!"

Of course I was traumatised by that. I still remember it, even though it happened in the 80s. If you're reading this, Mohd Ishak, from Francis Light Primary School (1), Penang, mohon maaf.

To this day I feel a bit self-conscious when eating in public during that time of the year. I sometimes wonder what prompted that outburst. I don't think it was anger, though. I didn't get a dressing-down over it, nor was I beaten up.

But what would happen in school these days if someone made the same boo-boo I did?

Those days of Ramadhan past were dredged up by this report yesterday morning:

The Home Ministry has called up the Group Chief Editor of The Star for running buka puasa articles together with stories on non-halal restaurants.

Its deputy secretary-general (Security) Datuk Abdul Rahim Mohamad Radzi said the pictures and also promotion of non-halal restaurants were carried in the paper's Dining Out supplement, with "Ramadan delights" as its cover headline.

I shook my head and then rummaged the paper pile in the office for the "offending" supplement.

There, in all its glory at the top left corner of page four, a picture of a Chinese restaurant's "must try" Mongolian pork rib. Ah yes, I missed the ad on page two for Morganfield's "Sticky Bones", a sick, huge slab of what looks like barbecued pork ribs.

The next few pages were advertorials for a dim sum place, Morganfield's, the gastropub chain Library and a bistro-type place with a selection of "over 400 Old World and New World wines".

In an ideal world, a person would just shake one's head, chuckle and read the rest of the section, then move on to the funnies. One could, after that, calmly write a letter to the editor, because that would be the most rational thing to do. But this world is far from ideal, so things such as "tolerance", "understanding" and "rationality" don't always make an appearance.

Of late, The Star has been slipping up on occasion. Reshuffling hiccups? Maybe. Was it 2.30am when they finally closed it, all bone-tired and bleary-eyed? Plausible.

The whole thing's quite unfortunate. From the mix of ads I saw it looked as if they were trying to be impartial, maybe make the fasting month a little more special for everyone. Just like what Whole Foods is doing in the US.

Days earlier, the American supermarket chain faced a similar situation after they put up a Ramadhan promotion. Yes.

Not everyone appreciated it, though. A conservative blogger hurled bile over how "anti-Israel" Whole Foods was shilling "for jihadi interests".

(Some researchers claim that poison arrow frogs source ingredients for their lethal neurotoxins from by eating certain insects. Not sure I want to know what that blogger's been into.)

No guesses as to why some Americans aren't taking a shine to the company's initiative. So, let's hear what a food blogger has to say about Ramadhan:

" is an incredibly important holy month for Muslims. For us, it is a time of reflection — a time to develop compassion for those who live with hunger and thirst as a way of life, and to do something to help them. It’s a time to practice self-control and willpower in the face of numerous temptations; and to purify one’s self by taking time to focus on character and purpose.

Of course, some bad apples, like the obvious ones over in Syria, don't seem to be getting with that programme. Small wonder that Ramadhan, like so many other aspects of Islam, is tainted by the actions of an extremist few.

But wait, you say. Things roll differently in Malaysia. The majority of people here celebrate Ramadhan, and anything deemed offensive to them may have huge effects. So, someone might have complained about it for the sake of the public.

I will audaciously presume that "the public" here includes me.

Yes, I suppose that's how we've been taught. I for one, however, would be offended to have someone complain on my behalf about things that "offend" my sensibilities. Just as how some are offended by any suggestion that their spirituality during the holy month is fragile.

If I were, I'd rather do my own complaining because I'm so much better at it, and am capable of more measured responses.

Also, it's not as if all the establishments in that supplement were non-halal. One can still pick his or her way through the section to find more appropriate places to break fast. Recommendations not good enough? Bambu the paper with that letter I suggested you write, and maybe suggest some places you know have good buka puasa grub.

This isn't exactly new. I remember hearing (in 2007) about someone being offended by a food writer's article on roti babi in Penang a while back, simply because of the four-letter word. Incidentally, the article was published not long after the start of the fasting month then (13 September to 12 October).

So I guess it has been with us for a long while. This... anger, this hair-trigger tendency to get upset whenever our sensibilities are offended. Have we always been this way, or did things get even worse since my primary school days?

I believe that people take offence because they choose to take offence. So much ill feeling can be avoided if we ignored, rather than took, offence at certain things. There's plenty going on lately that's more worthy of our outrage, but that's not the point of this rant.

And no, I don't think non-Muslims at home need to be educated about Islam or Ramadhan. If there's anyone out there who needs that education, it's the Yankees who, judging from the Whole Foods thingy, aren't exactly the most informed people on this planet.

As Mohammed al-Rehaief learned, to his chagrin, when he visited Jessica Lynch's hometown of Palestine, West Virginia.

al-Rehaief was the Iraqi doctor who helped Lynch, a survivor of an ambush by insurgents. But when he called on her, she was, it seemed, too busy to see him. And it got better:

The failed visit ended on a somewhat farcical note when local townspeople offered the al-Rehaiefs a meal - of ham sandwiches and burgers - only to discover that they were fasting for Ramadhan and, in any case, being Muslim, did not eat ham.

How tragic-comic. Not even worth a cringe or facepalm.

In the spirit of the fasting month, why not a lawatan sambil mengajar to the US heartland and educate these benighted heathens about religion and Ramadhan? And maybe undo some of the damage done by Fox News supremo Roger Ailes and his ilk? Some of the noise coming out of that so-called "news channel" is categorically carcinogenic.

A much better cause than banning beer, gatecrashing charity dinners, burning web sites and chastising newspapers for what looks like a genuine slip-up.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Coffee Craving

I woke up from a daydream one day and thought, "I think I'll read some books about coffee."

Though a favourite beverage, my love for coffee never went beyond theory or the basic stuff I'd whip up in my kitchen which would reduce real coffee lovers to tears.

Somewhat random selection of coffee-related reads

But I figured one needs to start somewhere.

  • The Devil's Cup
    A History of the World According to Coffee

    Stewart Lee Allen
    Ballantine Books (2003)
    240 pages
    ISBN: 9780345441492

    Stewart Lee Allen travels about 75 per cent the world on a caffeinated quest to find out whether the advent of coffee birthed an enlightened western civilisation, and if coffee is the substance that drives history. Yes, it did and yes, it is, says the author.

  • The Coffee Book
    Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop

    Gregory Dicum, Nina Luttinger
    New Press (2006)
    232 pages
    ISBN: 9781595580603

    Completely revised and updated for 2006, this book explores production, the history of cafĂ© society, dramatic tales of high-stakes international trade, health aspects, the industry’s major players, and the specialty coffee revolution - including the very latest developments in sustainable coffee. Full of facts, figures, cartoons, photos, and commentary. Personally, I prefer the 1999 cover.

  • Uncommon Grounds
    The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

    Mark Pendergrast
    Basic Books (2010)
    424 pages
    ISBN: 9780465018369

    Caffeinated beverage enthusiast Pendergrast approaches this history of the green bean with the zeal of an addict. His wide-ranging narrative takes readers from the legends about coffee's discovery, to the corporatisation of the specialty cafe. His broad vision, meticulous research and colloquial delivery combine aromatically, and he even throws in advice on how to brew the perfect cup.

Of course, I could order all three from Amazon if I wanted to, but after registering with the site to write reviews and learning that I'd have to buy the books first, I abandoned the site. Now I can't remember the user name and password I used, and I no longer care.

...Just a few more books to look out for when I'm out browsing.