Sunday, 27 November 2011

Will Little Bookstores Be Big Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

D'bento's D'ebut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 21 November 2011

His Monday Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunku's happy era is long over.

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

That's never going to be enough.

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

Looking Back
Monday Musings and Memories

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

Buy from

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Here Comes A King

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, you don't have to say much.

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

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

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

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pardon My English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Assassin of Secrets: A Plagiarism

A new book published early this month received rave reviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, would they even know what to look for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 November 2011

Why I Like My Job

Something is coming your way in December, i.e. next month.

May I present: Luis Alberto Urrea's " turns heartbreaking, uplifting, and riotously funny" Queen of America, which confirms the author as a "writer of the first rank."

Got a copy to review this afternoon from the distributors. I was told The Bookstore (you know which one) was promised the hardcover versions, but then the paperbacks were released. So bookshoppers might not be seeing this edition at outlets this month.

Now that I've managed to kick out most of the must-do items from my reading list, I think I'll dive into this this weekend. But I think the NST may present their take on this book before anyone else here - they're like that.

Adapted from the publisher's web site:

After the bloody Tomochic rebellion of 1892, Teresita Urrea, beloved healer and "Saint of Cabora", flees with her father to Arizona. But after she's made the spiritual leader of the Mexican Revolution, she's sought after by pilgrims and assassins.

She embarks on a journey through turn-of-the-century industrial America, meeting immigrants and tycoons, European royalty and Cuban poets. And as she decides on her own role in this new American century, one question begs to be answered: Can a saint fall in love?

Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of other books, including The Devil's Highway, The Hummingbird's Daughter, and Into the Beautiful North. He's also won a boatload of awards.

And Queen of America confirms him as a "writer of the first rank."

Sounds like a thrown glove, doesn't it?

Reto aceptado.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Under The Pear Tree

Nope, no long preamble for this. Not much I can add to the review, either. The covers, though...

Under the pear tree
There are exotic characters, tropical settings, intrigues and conflicts galore in these re-issues of the works of an author from a little-written about community.

first published in The Star, 13 November 2011

One of two books by the late Eurasian author Rex Anthony Shelley released by Marshall Cavendish in 2009 was The Shrimp People, a novel about Eurasians originally published in the 1990s. It was the first of what has been dubbed as Shelley's "Eurasian quartet". This year, Marshall Cavendish re-issued the three remaining books in this quartet: People Of The Pear Tree, Island In The Centre, and A River Of Roses.

So, why now? "Rex Shelley was an author whose works we felt a new generation could benefit from," said Chris Newson, general manager of Marshall Cavendish.

"We didn't want his books to be consigned only to the archives, and so decided to republish them with more contemporary covers."

It was said that no one else before Shelley had written so much about this particular demographic. In his own way, Shelley was the spokesman for his community, offering glimpses into the lives and history of Singapore's Eurasians through his works of historical fiction.

"It is all fiction," says the author in the preface. "But the settings are in real worlds of the past. I have tried to keep the facts generally correct."

And, lest we forget, there are many more components in our country's demographic makeup other than the oft-mentioned trio of Malay, Chinese and Indians. Because many of my generation would probably never learn about the Eurasians (or the Serani), Shelley's Eurasian quartet is the closest thing we have to a time capsule about a people and an era.

Thy surname is pear
People Of The Pear Tree is told largely from the viewpoint of the Perera family in the 1930s and 1940s. Augustine "Gus" Perera ("pear" in Portuguese) falls in with a bunch of British-backed Communist insurgents.

Gus's sister Anna is courted by Japanese army officer Junichiro Takanashi ("high pear" in Japanese) and later, becomes entangled in a love triangle of sorts when British guerrilla trainer John Pearson (see where this is going?) is drawn to her.

We are also introduced to Ah Keh, a Communist guerilla. He's the one who drags Gus into the Communists' anti-Japanese struggle and continues to be nothing but trouble to the Eurasian protagonists in the three books.

When the Japanese land in Singapore, a bunch of Singapore Eurasians, including the Pereras, are transplanted to a swampy malarial hell in Malaya, where nothing grows well and the living is hard. Then, the fighting starts....

Welcome to Singapore
Part diary and part narrative, Island In The Centre begins in the 1920s in Japan. A conversation among a bunch of human traffickers foreshadows the fates of village girls Yuriko Sasakawa and Hanako Ohara.

Meanwhile, electrician Tomio Nakajima writes in his diary: "Today the starting is. My English Diary. To help learning English language it is. But a English-learning book it is not. A life-details record it will be."

Posted to Singapore, Nakajima is dazzled by his new home, an "island in the centre" like himself ("naka" means middle, "jima" means island). His grammatically clumsy description of a Deepavali celebration is almost poetic.

Nakajima later saves Hanako from a brothel and marries her. But things get complicated when he embarks upon an affair with Eurasian hottie Victoria Viera who sells sports equipment (hey, don't look at me) and is also involved with Ah Keh.

With the imminent Japanese invasion of Singapore, Nakajima is roped in for intelligence work.

At this point, the timeline intersects with that of the previous novel, and we learn more about the events that led to Nakajima's fate.

Not all rosy
The last of Shelley's quartet, A River Of Roses, continues the story of our Eurasians from the previous books. It's the 1950s, and the Japanese have left.

Feisty 50something Philippa Rosario (Portuguese for "rosary", or rosa, ie, "rose" and rio, ie "river") is a junior college teacher and believer in the Chinese and Western zodiacs. A side story involves the past: the war, how Philippa and Vicky met, and a substantial chunk of backstory on Philippa's brother Antonio, all of which is inserted intermittently between the novel's current timeline.

It wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that Philippa is friends with Vicky Viera, sporting goods salesperson, and that Vicky is still carrying on with Ah Keh, who manages to drag our Eurasian teacher into an underground resistance movement.

Too bad our amateur zodiac reader couldn't see that Ah Keh is bad news, or that a love affair with a Kassim Selamat-type would end in tears....

Tantalisingly testing
Personally, I'm not sure how the Eurasian community would be served by a trio of novels that feel like a Latin American telenovela. The exotic, often lusty characters, tropical settings, familial and community intrigues and conflicts and all the Pereras, de Britos, Vieras, Rosarios....

And with all the supporting characters and the tangled skein that is whomever's family tree, it becomes hard to keep track of who's who. After some time, I just tossed my hands up and kept my nose on a few key characters.

Or you could get a paper and pen, which is so, so wrong. Novels shouldn't test you.

Also, there is nothing remarkable about the tone of the narrative, which is mostly descriptive and tends to rush the reader towards the rather abrupt endings. A River Of Roses, for instance, ends with one cul-de-sac of a conclusion.

I think there's more colour and character in the characters' dialogue. Perhaps this was the author's intent.

Don't be too shocked by the racist or bigoted statements, which were probably part of the times before political correctness became trendy. Though I didn't find them as outrageous as, say, the notion of adding grilled unagi to char koay teow....

Don't let all this stop you from picking up these three books, though. Until the next great Eurasian novel comes along, you won't find a better window into this community.

And don't worry, just take it slow, 'cause no one's going to test you.

People of the Pear Tree
Rex Shelley
Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
270 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4346-24-5

Island in the Centre
Rex Shelley
Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
271 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4346-25-2

A River of Roses
Rex Shelley
Marshall Cavendish Editions (2011)
471 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4346-26-9

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Once Upon A Time In Paradise

This book made me angry a few times.

Well-written? Sure. Evocative? Yes. A good story? Definitely.

But the cover fooled me into thinking this was a "happy" book. Its overall tone was sombre.

It was sobering. Hard. Unforgiving. Real.

But I wasn't charmed by it. I couldn't see the wit. Nor could I relate to the times the book was set in.

Maybe it's because it's not my world, not my childhood that unfolded as the pages turned.

In fact, it's not certain whether Lunch Bucket Paradise is the memoir of author Fred Setterberg's postwar childhood in the Californian suburb of Jefferson Manor. Over half of the book happens in the home of the young narrator, known only as "Slick" by his Uncle Win. The way it's written, interspersed with vignettes of another era, it could've been the story of any US kid in a working-class family in the Fifties and Sixties.

After World War II, the US seemed to be booming. It had to, I suppose, after downers such as the Great Depression and the Axis threat. Conveniences such as washer/dryer machines, dishwashers, electric blankets, electric can openers and electric toothbrushes made life unimaginably better. Betty Crocker cake mixes turn average housewives into not-so-average pâtissières. The future looked bright.

Of course, not everything is unrecognisable. Kids all over the world jump through the same kind of hoops on the way to adulthood. Fistfights and assorted mischief. Chores. Making and losing friends. Girls. Sexual awakenings. First jobs. Dreams and ambitions. They may be the childhood flashbacks of an American kid, but they can sure evoke yours.

And the kids here sound like kids too. They swear a lot, and do stupid things like torture little animals and taunt one another. What do kids care about political correctness?

But then, after some years, we get "Nuke the Gooks!", "Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age!", and "Ho Chi who?" For a moment I heard "Nuke the Ragheads", "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" and "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan".

And when Slick's father mentioned a scientist that apparently ate and developed a taste for 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), presumably because it was said to be harmless to humans but not certain pests, I popped a vein. Can an ingredient in Agent Orange be "harmless"?

"Oh, they got enough in China and India to eat two, three times a day, thanks to our pesticides." Oh, the allegations I can dig up on Monsanto Corp.

Under the layers of Lime-O jelly and frosting in the home-baked cake, lurk the harsh realities of a workingman's life, a fate from which there's no escape without education and hard work. Realities I feel are far removed from today's ruling elites and parts of the middle class.

"You got to be something, you see?" Slick Sr tells his son one day. "You got to learn everything you can or otherwise you're just going to be a prisoner, like we are."

No you're not, says Junior who sounds confused.

"I was a prisoner," Senior insists. "And you'll be one too, if you don't learn enough to make you different from every other son of a bitch out there scratching around for a job."

In short, education is empowering. It's the ladder towards a better life, but you gotta make the effort to climb it. Sage advice all parents give. But it's not until the author slogs it out at a cannery that he finally sees the need to make a better life for himself.

If it was mostly based on Setterberg's childhood, it must've been hard for him to write this book, given what's going on in the US today. I certainly had a hard time reading it. If anything, it's his masterful, compelling storytelling and the open frankness of his voice that helped me go from cover to cover.

"True-life novel"? Yes. Oh, yes.

Perhaps too true to life for comfort.

Despite his war tales and bluster, Uncle Win seemed destined to be no more than the average journeyman labourer. But it's the toil of Win's generation that ensured the prosperity of future Americans and the continuation of the American Dream. What would they have to say about the suits and their slick ways that nearly brought the country and the world to its knees?

12/09/2015   This postscript might be a late one, because I wasn't sure if I should put it here. Days after this review was published, Fred Setterberg responded to this review. Among other things, he said:

You're right in thinking that it was a difficult book to write in light of the current state of the nation -- and the world. I find it particularly painful to see my home of California turning its back on the promise of education that enabled me and my friends to enter the middle class. When I attended college in the early 70s, we all worked a few months at factory jobs with union wages during the summer, and then had plenty of money to pay for books, tuition, and living expenses for the rest of the year. Today, as you know, kids are crushed under school debt, as we taxpayers abrogate our responsibilities to the next generation and virtually guarantee a dim future for our nation.

That downward spiral still continues today, with no sign of improvement.

Apart from Kinokuniya (out of stock, sadly), no other bookstore in Malaysia seems to have carried (or still carries) this book. To this day, I still feel sorry that this review is the only thing I've done for it.

This review was based on a free copy I borrowed from my boss who got it from the publisher, Heyday Books. This book may not be stocked at local bookstores.

Lunch Bucket Paradise
Fred Setterberg
Heyday (2011)
245 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59714-166-6

Get the book from | Heyday

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Logomania: Phate, Phortune and Phrases

Ellen Whyte's lexicon of common phrases was released without much fanfare in 2009. The textbook-like appearance fitted its premise, but belies the interesting and sometimes humorous turn of phrase in the descriptions and origins of commonly used English phrases and examples of their usage.

The release of what can be considered the next book in the Logomania series presents another kind of conundrum. May I present:

Logomania: Fate & Fortune
Logomania: Fate & Fortune. Logomanias coming soon: Load Up
on Latin
, Pardon My French and Crouching Adverb, Hidden Pronoun

Has the well-known writer and even more well-known cat lady and columnist waded into the choppy waters of fortune telling and feng shui famously patrolled by the likes of Lillian Too and Joey Yap?

No, not quite. Though it's a lovely design.

Logomania: Fate & Fortune is a welcome add-on to your treasure chest of more common phrases, organised and tied to elements of and related to Chinese and Western zodiacs. You don't just learn the phrases, but their origins as well. Some of the stories on how a saying or idiom came about are surprising. And it's an ongoing process. With new inventions and stuff entering our ever-growing lexicon, new phrases, sayings and words will invariably pop up.

What I dub "Logomania II" is split into two parts. Part One deals with zodiac signs, with Western zodiac symbols filling in for signs covered by the Chinese zodiac. Bonuses include animal adjectives and proper names of male and female adults and babies of the featured beasts, living or legendary. Because you never know.

Part Two is for phrases that incorporate general terms, astrological symbols and other elements of the "fate and fortune" theme that don't fit into the first half. Tarot symbols such as the sun, moon and stars, as well as wealth, saints, ghosts and devils, hearts and so on.

I'll admit: it's not a complete collection and there are, unfortunately, some repeated words and phrases that involve animals (such as chickens and dogs) from the previous book. it's still a handy guide for the right prose-enriching phrase in you next English composition, thesis or novel.

Let me have a crack at some passages, using some of the phrases in (and, maybe, not in) the book. They're examples, so don't get all mad like hatters, okay?

Look at that toad of a man, acting like the cock of the walk, bandying about his cock-and-bull story about how the march will threaten national stability. There was talk of a counter march, but in the end, he and his ilk chickened out.

It's all politics, really. He probably earns chicken feed in his day job, so he's trying to better his pecking order in the party hierarchy. Who knows? Maybe someday he might even rule the roost.

Nevertheless, he shouldn't start counting his chickens before they hatch. The ruling government has all but trashed our institutions like a bull in a china shop. It's only a matter or time before the chickens come home to roost.

The opposition? Don't count on them, either. Right now they're running around like headless chickens over church raids, court cases and whatever spanner the ruling party throws into their works.

Not convinced? Here's another. I think I'm having too much fun with this.

If I said we're all leading a dog's life these days, I'm not talking cock. Thanks to looming economical crises, the dog eat dog nature of the corporate sector has become hotter than Hades.

Nowadays I don't see the point to dress up like a dog's dinner to wedding dinners. Who cares if I end up in the doghouse with the folks over that?

The government is doing all it can, despite the financial malfeasance of a number of bad apples. But we're no tiger economy, and additional stimulus packages are about as effective as hair of the dog.

The armchair critics ranting in online portals over how this country is going to the dogs aren't helping much. Kleptocrats continue to steal, crime rates crawl ever upwards and racial and religious tensions simmer on as the tail wags the dog in the arena of discourse.

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. The age of Aquarius seems a distant wish. Still, one hopes. Every dog has its day, after all.

So the tone is a little too socio-political, but the theme is much easier to riff on. I hope I didn't make English an even less appealing language in our hot-as-Hades socio-political climate.

So, have I sold you on this book yet? And may I suggest you pick up the other book too while you're at it?

Ellen Whyte was given her first dictionary in school when she was seven. Designed for kids, it was limited to defining words in a dull way. At about the same time, somebody gave her an encyclopaedia on animals. It had a panda on the cover and was filled with information about the biggest, smallest, fastest, toughest and weirdest animals on the planet. The dictionary was ignored while the encyclopaedia was read until it fell apart.

It wasn't for some years before she discovered that language can be as interesting as animal encyclopaedias. She now has a bookshelf bulging with dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopaedias and other reference books, and is completely hooked on learning the stories that lie behind the words and phrases we use every day.

She is also the author of Katz Tales: Living Under the Velvet Paw and Logomania: Where Common Phrases Come From and How to Use Them.

Logomania: Fate & Fortune will be available at all good bookstores.

Logomania: Where Common Phrases Come From and How to Use Them
Ellen Whyte
MPH Group Publishing
314 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5222-47-4

Buy from Kinokuniya |

Logomania: Fate & Fortune
Ellen Whyte
MPH Group Publishing
320 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-62-4

Buy from Kinokuniya |

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Servant Of Sarawak

Among the heroes and other personalities who served the country in the days before and after independence were some orang putih who have grown to love Tanah Melayu and made it their second home.

Like the bloke who wrote this memoir. What a wonderful piece of history it was.

The next book is a bit different.

A Servant of Sarawak is Dato' Dr Sir Peter Mooney's memoirs about his Crown Counsel days in Sarawak, but touches lightly on his childhood back in Ireland, his youth in Scotland and his army days.

I'd say that the remarkable life of Irishman Peter Mooney began when, while he was in the army, dodging German bombs in Glasgow, he learnt that he was adopted. His first experience of the East was during the War in India and Burma. He had no idea he'd go east again later.

Upon his return, Mooney went to university and obtained a law degree. After some time practising law in Edinburgh, he was given the chance to become Crown Counsel in far-away Sarawak. He jumped at it.

Mooney arrived in Kuching in 1953 and would preside over a number of cases and immerse himself in the local cultures, eventually becoming Attorney-General. Among several memorable encounters include courtroom tussles with David Marshall (quite an actor, according to Mooney's accounts), who would become Chief Minister of Singapore; and Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore.

He left Sarawak in the early Sixties and went to KL to start a law firm. He'd been busy since. In 1986, he was appointed Honorary Consul of Ireland in Malaysia, and was appointed of Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by the late Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Could be richer
One word: terse. ...Okay, perhaps several more: subdued, unremarkable, flat. A less diplomatic reaction would be boring, droning and dry. Which does not, at all, describe his life and the times he lived in. I felt it such a pity.

I could only guess that the colourless tone came from his life-long practice of law, which requires one to be neutral when conveying one's thoughts or opinions. Many chapters feel too brief. I'm sure lots more happened, but for whatever reasons, were omitted.

It's not as if it was all law, law, court, court, law in Sarawak. He'd gone into the interior, stayed at a longhouse and even spoke to a possible witness of the Krakatoa eruption. He'd attended weddings and a pubic Quran reading by a nine-year-old.

He'd even participated in the Kuching Regatta, though his boat took water and the team never finished the race. There was also a visit to a Melanau fishing village where he sampled (but didn't quite like) the Teredo worm or shipworm. I don't think anybody asked him about sago worm.

This rather sparse memoir by a servant of Sarawak leaves us hungry for more tales of a time where the occasional journalist would wander into the state and find "no beggars, no malnutrition, no smoking factories, no drug addiction and no crime" and "wrote lyrical articles on the last paradise" or the once-common practice of headhunting.

And what a time it was. "I thought that I had come to civilise the people," writes Mooney. "It was they who civilised me. They were friendly, warm and most hospitable, ever willing to share what little they had. Moral standards were high. It was hardly necessary to close windows or doors at night. Theft was almost unknown."

Oh, wow. Mooney's Sarawak sounds like a much better place.

This review was based on a complimentary copy from Monsoon Books.

A Servant of Sarawak
Reminiscences of a Crown Counsel in 1950s Borneo

Peter Mooney
Monsoon Books (2011)
272 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4358-37-8

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Another Pile Of Books

On Monday, all the full-time editors made a trip to the book distribution arm of the company for books. I never knew the third floor of the complex had a warehouse.

Walking past boxes of The Da Vinci Code and other assorted books, we arrived at the office, an air-conditioned enclave partitioned from the warehouse area.

Something tells me I won't have to go far to get some review copies.

It was good to see another part of the company, and even better to get free, no-strings-attached books. Some of what I got were galley proofs, but that's okay. Better than lying on the floor covered in dust and what I suspect is guano.

  • How to Lose a War
    edited by Bill Fawcett
    Harper (2009)
    356 pages
    ISBN: 978-006-135844-9
  • War
    Sebastian Junger
    Fourth Estate (2010)
    286 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-00-733770-5
  • The Sherlockian
    Graham Moore
    Twelve (2010)
    350 pages (galley proof)
    ISBN: 978-0-446-57588-1
  • Rescue
    Anita Shreve
    Little, Brown and Company (2010)
    291 pages (galley proof)
    ISBN: 978-0-316-02072-5

How to Lose a War was okay, though the humour was somewhat deflated towards the end. Perhaps it would've been better not to retain much of the original authors' voices.

I also learnt that I won't have to do Ann Patchett's State of Wonder for the papers; they ran a wire review for it on 23 September.

Well, these things happen.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

"Subsidies" Is Spelled With A "Die"

November already? Which means I've been with this outfit for a whole year.

But it's little cause for celebration.

This morning on the radio, news of "independent" power producers (IPPs) crying havoc over depleting gas supplies and the possibility of sourcing gas elsewhere at five times the price.

Then, the following:

The government has allocated RM15.9bil for petrol and diesel subsidies this year ... spending on the subsidies last year amounted to RM9.6bil.

. . .

Restructuring of petrol and diesel subsidies which saw reduction of RM0.05 per litre twice last year saved more than RM1.7bil in subsidies.

Arguably, allocated amount isn't necessarily the same as spent amount. But it's still worrying.

A radio ad said it: When energy (and by extension, everything) is subsidised, nobody feels the need to use it wisely. The public loves subsidies. Anything to take the edge out of market forces. But as some parts of the world now realise, they can't buy their way out trouble forever.

Nobody likes taxes, but if the money is well spent and is seen to be well-spent, the public should take pride in being a taxpayer. But years ago, in Greece, tax evasion evolved into what some call a "national pastime". The laws were lax, and few dodgers were punished, if ever. Pile that on top of huge public spending, and you have a ticking financial time bomb.

For me, Greece's financial meltdown resulted from failures at about every level. The government didn't check tax dodging; bad apples among bankers, politicians and businesspeople set a bad precedent; and the public adopted some of those bad habits. Nobody felt the need to save for a rainy day when the sun was still shining.

I don't know how serious our tax-dodging situation is. But the subsidies can't go on forever, not if they keep getting higher each year. And the government seems to cower every time we complain about rising prices.

...Well, they're certainly not going to fall any time soon.

Instead of more handouts, or looking to the various government bodies or departments (who aren't exactly paragons of frugality or prudent spending), we should probably start thinking of ways to help keep the country afloat? You know, before we end up like Greece?