Monday, 31 December 2012

News: 2012 Year-End Wrap-Up

I may have dropped the ball somewhere while monitoring the flow of publishing news, but I guess, judging from the avalanche of "[x] things that happened in 2012" lists, everybody's too bogged down with the usual year-end hangover to come up with something original.

Guess that's it for 2012. See you all next year.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

A Year In Reading

Must've done about only twenty books this year. 'Not a whole lot'? How about, 'abysmal'?

Maybe I'm starting to become bibliophobic. On the bright side, more truth in blog titling!

I've read a few more books than the reviews for this year suggest - it's just that I'm lazier to review the ones I read for leisure - which I don't want.

Call of the wild (Beast)
I'd thought of skipping this year's Big Bad Wolf blowout. I didn't feel the urge to fight the crowds and I had only finished one or two of the books I bought at last year's event.

So I brought someone else along for the fun. And I ended up buying half the books I did last year, owing to an inadequately filled wallet. But I managed to snag some of the reads I wanted.

Trophy pic of purchases from the Big Bad Wolf book sale
...soon to become a Malaysian social media tradition

Mick Foley's Countdown to Lockdown and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One came highly recommended. I also managed to find Carrie Fisher's Shockaholic and Keith Floyd's Stirred But Not Shaken. Waiter Rant? Self-explanatory.

...Now, if only I can get to the other books I'd promised to read.

Year in review(s)
I started reviewing books for The Star towards the end of 2007; this year saw my fiftieth Star book review, published in November. I started writing reviews and book-related pieces for online news portal The Malaysian Insider as well.

As an online medium, like the blog, TMI is more flexible, in that I can put in URLs and write about books that are not so new; books published more than a year ago are, generally, less likely to be reviewed in The Star.

Most of this year's reviews were for books I'd read this year, though several were read last year.

  • He Knew He Was Right, John and Mary Gribbin ("Gaia's irrepressible prophet", TMI, 26 December) - Tiring, uninspiring. After reading The Vanishing Face of Gaia, I doubt even Lovelock could've made his interesting life story more arresting.
  • Uncommon Grounds, Mark Pendergrast ("This beautiful and caffeinated world", TMI, 22 November) - The language is slightly more accessible than the previous book, but still a scholarly work.
  • We Are Anonymous, Parmy Olson ("A glimpse into the abyss", The Star, 16 November) - The scariest book you'll ever read this year. Also my fiftieth book review for The Star.
  • Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter ("Splendour from ruin", The Star, 04 November) - A darkly funny, quirky read with a somewhat (I feel) upbeat ending.
  • The Black Isle, Sandi Tan ("Growing up with ghosts", The Star, 02 November) - The ghosts in here should be laid to rest, along with the tired, overused World War II-Southeast Asia theme.
  • Another Country, Anjali Joseph ("Mostly melancholy", The Star, 21 October) - This jumble of snippets from a life of a migrant feels like it was rushed to the presses.
  • The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling ("Not so casual, actually", TMI, 03 October) - Not a bad attempt to weave a little magic into the mundane. But comparing used condoms with chrysalises? Eww.
  • A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash ("Hope in faith", The Star, 14 September) - Potent and poignant, especially when set against the stands taken by the US's religious right.
  • Flashback, Dan Simmons ("Induced nostalgia", The Star, 19 August) - Another rush job, from the looks of it. A "meh" effort compared to his previous works.
  • An Unexpected Guest, Anne Korkeakivi ("Make room on the shelf", The Star, 10 August) - An easy read about the 48 (or was it 72) hours in the life of a diplomat's wife.
  • Stretch, Neal Pollack ("Downward dude", blog, 22 July) - The smells of sweat and stale gym-socks come to life in Pollack's misadventures in yoga. Namaste, motherf—er.
  • The Family Corleone, Ed Falco ("A dying breed of crook", The Star, 27 May) - So vivid, it's almost like watching a movie. And it might be made into one, now that the Puzos vs Paramount legal battle is over.
  • Gone Bamboo, Anthony Bourdain ("Tropic tempers", blog, 16 May) - As rough and profane as Bone in the Throat. The mobster shtick gets old fast, however.
  • Started Early, Took My Dog, Kate Atkinson ("Whimsical whodunnit", blog, 11 May) - A clever novel of a crime that solves itself, i.e. not driven by the detective.
  • Kopi, edited by Amir Muhammad ("Caffeine fix(i)", blog, 02 May) - Some of the stories in this coffee-themed Malay-language short story collection will, like its namesake, keep you awake at night.
  • The Mirage, Naguib Mahfouz ("Mama's boy", The Star, 20 April) - If the aim of this novel is to make the reader want to beat the apron-clinging protagonist to death and back, it succeeded beyond measure.
  • Without Anchovies Chua Kok Yee ("Flash fiction", blog, 15 April) - Frustrating glimpses of potential in what looks like a hurriedly assembled collection of mostly half-formed short stories.
  • A Decade of Hope, Dennis Smith ("A long decade", blog, 14 March) - Ten years is enough time for people to not care about 9/11 anymore - or pick up this book.
  • Dig me out in time for work
    next year... urrrgh...
  • Columbus: The Four Voyages, Laurence Bergreen ("Clash of civilisations", The Star, 17 February) - A not-so-flattering portrait of the man who helped the conquistadores obliterate the major pre-Columbian civilisations of Latin and South America.
  • The Beruas Prophecy, Iskandar al-Bakri ("A nearly fulfilled prophecy", blog, 05 February) - A potentially engaging Malay sword-and-sorcery tale that's marred by colourless two-dimensional narration.
  • Queen of America Luis Alberto Urrea ("Sweeping, colourful yarn", The Star, 29 January) - A lush re-imagined story of the life of Mexican mystic, folk healer and alleged revolutionary Teresa Urrea.

O-o-okay, not as bad as I thought. Still way below the 100 books a year someone in my line is supposed to read...

And that list does not include the books I've read but not reviewed: James Clavell's Noble House (dew kui lou mou, so damn thick), End Specialist (or The Postmortal) by Drew Magary (gripping), Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies' No.1 Detective Agency (nice), When I Was A Kid by Boey Cheeming (neat) and Tarquin Hall's third Vish Puri book, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (a rrrolicking good time, yaar!).

Do I want to top this next year? Love to, but that's tempting fate - not a good idea in any profession.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gaia's Irrepressible Prophet

When I was writing this, I'd forgotten several other relevant titbits: levels of carbon pollution rose again last year, and a lot of it is coming out of China; revelations that sea levels are rising at a faster rate than expected, threatening coastal cities in the US; more proof that the classic Maya civilisation was laid low by climate change, among other things; a tornado in New Zealand (tornadoes in New Zealand?) killed some people; and the nasty winter weather in the US this year.

I needed more examples outside the US, as I've already chewed enough schadenfreude over the American panic over climate change after Hurricane Sandy. You're still with the rest of us, Yankees! Our problems are also ours. Still.

As for Lovelock, well, I thought he was a bit of a crackpot. But that's because Lovelock's a seemingly lucid mind that is supporting a theory that now seems less outlandish than it was when it was first introduced.

Mankind has been unfavourably compared to a virus; the notion of an Earth that can wipe us out if we overstay our welcome should be the cause of many sleepless nights and/or suicides. What's perhaps more terrifying than rocks falling from outer space is the possibility, however remote, that Lovelock could be right.

Puts everything in perspective, doesn't it?

Gaia's irrepressible prophet

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 26 December 2012

Floods in Madeira, Portugal. The "snowmageddon" in parts of Europe and the US. Hail in parts of Damansara and KL. The ash from that Icelandic volcano. And the earthquake bonanza of 2011, along with the Fukushima tsunami. The world appears to be going mad.

But it wasn't until Hurricane Sandy flooded New York that brought home the news that maybe, maybe, this whole global warming/climate change thing wasn't born out of some New Age-fuelled paranoia.

Just when we thought we'd be okay after dodging the Mayapocalypse ...

James Lovelock, author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009), seems to suggest that all this is natural, at least where climate change is concerned.

One year earlier in a Daily Mail report headlined "We're all doomed!", he pictures a hot, chaotic world coping with climate-caused disasters: droughts, famine and floods, and that we might as well get used to it instead of trying to fix it, because "it is too late to repair the damage".

Our living planet ...
Arguably, not many people have heard of James Ephraim Lovelock, but they may have heard of NASA's search for life on Mars, and the fight against ozone-eating CFCs. Lovelock was the British scientist who invented the scientific instruments that would be instrumental in both. He is perhaps more famous for another invention: the Gaia theory.

To most of us, Earth is just a ball of rock with a liquid centre and a thin layer of air. The Gaia theory depicts the Earth as a living, self-sustaining super-organism (this is as non-scientific as I can manage). The theory was formulated in the 1970s and developed with the help of a few others, particularly the microbiologist Dr Lynn Margulis.

This theory suggests one way the Earth regulates its own temperature is with the help of ocean-dwelling phytoplankton. When the seas warm, the organisms breed and produce a gas which ultimately helps seed clouds and increases cloud cover, creating a sun shield of sorts that cools down the planet's surface. Proof that seems to support this was said to have been found, though conclusive evidence remains elusive,

The concept of a living, sentient Earth wasn't the only strange idea he had. He loves nuclear energy — his answer to our CO2 and energy problems — and rubbishes the idea that radioactive waste is bad. As a Brit and beneficiary of the British National Health Service (NHS) he also believed "there was always a nagging fear that in the States you could be financially ruined by a severe illness."

... and its spokesman
James Lovelock's youth gave little indication of the man he would become. He skipped classes and didn't care about homework. He cleared "obstructions" to wherever part of the English countryside he wished to roam with home-made explosives. He went to study chemistry in Manchester because a girl he'd fancied was there.

He was once accused of cheating in class because he gave all the correct answers, but it turned out that the university's standards were... a bit low. Lovelock argues that when lives are concerned one must be correct — a viewpoint shaped by his days at school and an accidental chemical explosion. He didn't just "know" he was right, he made sure he was.

He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, penned by John and Mary Gribbin is a celebration of his life, philosophies and Gaia theory and, perhaps, given the more positive reception to the latter these days, an "I told you so" to his detractors. Lovelock also received the Geological Society of London's highest award, the Wollaston Medal, in 2006 for his work on the Gaia theory.

John Gribbin himself is an interesting character. The astrophysicist and science writer predicted — wrongly — that a huge earthquake caused by an alignment of the planets would destroy Los Angeles. His book, Get a Grip on Physics (2003), was reportedly spotted in Tiger Woods' wrecked SUV.

Sadly, the way the biography is written isn't nearly as interesting as the authors, the subject or his ideas. The writing is dry and uninspiring and it's jam-packed with lots of information about Lovelock, his work and the history of the Gaia hypothesis. It was hard work, digging out all those gems about his life and any other relevant titbits. The material that over-explains the Gaia theory is deadweight to the average reader, but one suspects the average reader is not really who the authors are writing for.

He may still be right
John and Mary Gribbin may think Lovelock knew he was right about climate change, but do we?

Until Climategate, most of us seemed to agree with Al Gore. Lovelock's gloomier predictions of mankind's fate takes into account the planet's extremely long, but finite lifespan (perhaps like Lovelock's own — the man's pushing 100); our Sun has five billion more years before it loses all its energy, and when that happens the Earth will die anyway, but not before the planet, he hopes, shapes us into better beings.

"We are about to take an evolutionary step and my hope is that the species will emerge stronger," he said in that gloomy Daily Mail report. "It would be hubris to think humans as they now are God's chosen race."

Early this year, however, Lovelock more or less conceded that maybe his projections about how our climate would change the world were a bit "alarmist", though his views on nuclear energy, wind power and sustainable development remain unchanged.

Even if The Day After Tomorrow isn't happening any time soon, the things happening in some parts of the world of late pretty much shows just how screwed we are if the weather catches us off-guard. Just ask those who were flooded out by Hurricane Sandy in New York.

He Knew He Was Right
The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia

John and Mary Gribbin
Allen Lane (2009)
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-846-14016-7

Monday, 24 December 2012

News: Submission Calls, The Gent Returns, And We're Still Here

It's been quite a year, what with this one being the end of a 5,000-year Mayan long-count cycle. So yes, we're all still here, because.

Metaphorically though, the world did end for some people, so let's not have too much fun with the failed Mayapocalypse.

On the books front: Amir Muhammad's Fixi now has an imprint for English language books. Fixi Novo has issued a call for submissions on its Facebook page for pulp fiction in "American English". Why can't they use text?

Also, Ianslip Books, a boutique publisher affiliated with Sang Freud Press, is calling for submissions of short story or poetry collections. E-mail them at Ianslip[dot]books[at]gmail[dot]com for more information.

Imran Ahmad, author of The Perfect Gentleman (also known as Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets The West) gave an interview in the NST about his book and the coming sequel(s), and his upcoming appearance at MPH, 1Utama on 19 January, from 3pm to 4pm. More details at


Sunday, 23 December 2012

Pleasure In Pain

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 23 December 2012

Melody was meeting a Frenchman in Bangsar at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning, so I had to get the car ready. "This had better be worth it," I grumbled through a mouthful of toothpaste.

Yeast Bistronomy sign
Look for this sign

After coffee, the next hot artisanal thing to hit our shores seems to be bread. Melody had been on one of her food hunts and, that morning saw us at Yeast Bistronomy in Bangsar.

Located several doors down the Kiwi-style Antipodean café, Yeast is a boulangerie, bistro and wine bar that aims to bring its patrons the time-tested homespun tastes of (mostly) traditional French breads, pastries and bistro fare.

Bread basket: croissants and white chocolate bread
Croissants and white chocolate bread

Lunches are light, with mostly sandwiches, salads, quiches and savoury tarts, but expect big dinners with such treats as poulet rôti (roast chicken), steak au poivre (steak with pepper sauce) and boeuf bourguignon (braised beef short ribs with red wine sauce).

The term "bistronomy" is said to echo the desires of some French chefs in the 1990s to serve fine yet affordable cuisine in a more open, friendly atmosphere.

That's what it feels like at Yeast, as French café music plays in the background. Features of its décor: yellow walls and signage, black-and-white chequered floor tiles, framed mirrors and blackboards, we're told, are common in similar establishments in Paris.

French start-up
Yeast founder Christophe Chatron-Michaud spent 28 years developing and running high-end restaurants in Europe and the US before he decided to settle here with his Malaysian wife and now managing director of Yeast, Lissan Teh.

Almond-and-berries brioche
The almond and berries brioche... a refreshing
change from the jammy stuff

Yeast was not just set up by more than the need for bread from home. "Malaysians are becoming more open to try new things," says Chatron-Michaud. "So we feel that it's time to bring them our kind of food." Nor was it difficult to set up the place, given the couple's experience in the F&B industry.

Yeast Bistronomy cultivates its own yeast, the key ingredient in the secret recipes for its various pre-ferments or starters (levain) that give its breads ― particularly sourdough loaves ― a more complex taste. This trait is unique to bona fide artisanal bakeries. The ovens are also proper boulangerie equipment; we're told that some of the ovens used here are more for things such as pizza, rather than bread.

Like its pre-ferments, the leading talents in Yeast's kitchen are all home-grown. Hailing from Lyon, artisanal boulanger (baker) Christophe Gros learned the trade from his dad and had worked with Michaud before. The chef in charge of the bistro part did her rounds in France, New York and Scotland.

Yeast's oeufs cocotte
Oeufs cocotte ... a very satisfying way to start the day

Besides bringing a slice of Paris to our shores, Chatron-Michaud also hopes to educate the locals on the finer points of artisanal European bread. For instance: What does one do with a baguette or a pain de campagne (French-style sourdough bread)?

"Most people do not know what to do with our breads," he reveals. "So we're planning a series of spreads: basic things such as olive and balsamic to something meat-based, perhaps, to give an idea of the things that can be done with bread." He's also not above pairing curry-based fillings with baguettes ― how progressive.

And what an education we had.

Bowled over
Generally, traditionally baked artisanal breads tend to have a thicker, harder crust and a more chewy, harder-to tear-away insides. Chatron-Michaud admits that it's hard to tear Malaysians away from notions that all breads are soft and smell and taste sweet, but Yeast has something for that. The pain au chocolat blanc (white chocolate bread) was a revelation: a small white-choc-studded loaf that would make a great dessert bread.

Yeast's oeufs cocotte
Bread, runny yolk and smoked duck ... yummy

Melody found the plain and Valrhona chocolate-filled croissants "too pretty to dismantle." Fortunately, I have no such compunctions, so we had some of the best croissants this side of the Klang Valley: crispy and flaky outside, chewy and smooth inside. Moistened by the rich, creamy, unsalted Lescure butter from France's Charentes region, our tongues itch to roll off the menu items in French, many of which I'd only read in books or seen on TV.

One bite of the other croissant explained why Yeast also uses Valrhona chocolate in other pastries such as the equally crispy-outside-yummy-inside chocolate pain aux raisins. The brioche aux amandes et fruits rouges (almond-and-berries brioche), an island of chopped berries in the middle of a pastry crust studded with almond slices, was a refreshing change from the usual sticky, sweet jammy stuff.

The bread with smoked duck and Gruyère cheese was heavenly, as anything with smoked duck is wont to taste. Yeast uses smoked duck instead of bacon in other items such as the oeufs cocotte: eggs baked in a ramekin. Breaking through the layer of Gruyère on top, we spooned the eggs, seasoned with bits of smoked duck, onto the buttered, toasted farmer's bread and bit down. For someone deprived of duck for months, c'est divin! Served with a side of mesclun salad, this was Yeast's answer to the kopitiam tan chi, right down to the runny yolks.

A jar of chocolate sablés (a kind of shortbread) was brought to our table ― oh, the, heady, heavy aroma! Sadly, near-full bellies prevented us from furthering our "studies".

Before leaving, we managed to say bon jour and merci to Gros, who was making chaussons aux pommes (apple turnovers) in the kitchen. Practised hands moved with precision and swiftness as the dough is rolled, filled with apple compote and apple slices cooked with vanilla, folded, sealed and swept onto a tray, ready for baking.

Okay, this was worth getting up on Sunday at 7am. Sated we may have been, we felt that our "education" wasn't complete. We'd only had a fraction of what their menu had. With the faint presence of smooth Lescure Beurre des Charentes in my mouth, the words began echoing again ... confit de canard, frisée aux lardons, gratin dauphinoise...

We have to come back. We have to bring our friends (so we can order more). We might even start learning French. Because for the life of me I can't bring myself to call this place a "bakery".

Yeast Bistronomy
24G, Jalan Telawi 2
Bangsar Baru
59100 Kuala Lumpur


Tue-Sun: 8am till late

Closed on Mondays

+603-2282 0118

Web site | Facebook page

Monday, 17 December 2012

News: Big Bad Book Habits, Etc

Last week was a slow one for book-related news.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Why I Don't Write (Much) On Local Politics Nowadays

Because, at some point in time, it started writing about itself.

Change in government? Forget about it, says Rais

Najib: LGBTs, liberalism, pluralism are enemies of Islam

Dress like a YB, feel like a YB

Chua: Even the Chinese look up to BN now

Growing Chinese clout may cause new May 13, says Ibrahim Ali

Ibrahim Ali: I am a victim of jealousy

Perkasa: Impossible for Malays to compete economically because of Islam

Sexist remarks due to provocation, says Bung Mokhtar

Bung Mokhtar defends F-bomb, says to ‘teach’ lesson to churls

Shahrizat: Women get equal treatment under BN

Najib launches Ah Jib Gor fan club

Residents: DAP bowed to PAS and forced 'sexy' singer off the stage

Speakers sing 'battle songs' for BN's victory

Dr M insists Arabs incapable of planning 9/11 attacks

Dr M defends policies, says Jews created problems

Dr M says US moms are promiscuous in attack against US free speech

Dr M: We are better than Singapore, 'so-so' ASEAN neighbours and US

Dr M: Many things will be destroyed if opposition rules

"Better the devil you know", Dr M tells voters

Dr M: Reject BN and opposition will destroy country

Dr M: Privilege for non-Malays to keep race image

Be careful of your actions, Dr M warns daughter

Give something up to ensure long-term stability — Mahathir

Dr M: More Chinese independent schools will divide people

Reforms could lead to extremism, Dr M warns Najib

Dr M: Opposition is 'privileged' in committing criminal acts

Dr M: Rethink absolute freedom on Net

BN still weak because of Pak Lah, Dr M tells Johor Umno

Expect 'unceasing violence' if Pakatan loses elections, says Dr M

Dr M refutes daughter's claim of police violence during Bersih 3.0

Bersih rally aimed to topple government, says Dr M

Pakatan vows to up Malaysia's graft rank to world top 30

...and so on.

At least I'm less stressed and have more time to concentrate on stuff like:

Publisher's Weekly names EL James "Publishing Person of the Year"

...which I can go to town, city and kampung with, without worry. Except that Washington Post book critic Ron Charles already beat me to it.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Sometimes, Life IS Like That

Is "series" singular or plural?

Editors are supposed to have answers to questions like this at their fingertips. Sometimes, they don't.

One is tempted to let things stand, but considering what the back cover copy is for, that was not an option.

Searching Google yielded:

Series can be a singular or a plural noun, depending on its meaning. When it is used to refer to a single set of things, it takes a singular verb even if it is followed by the preposition of and a plural noun: A series of medical tests is planned for next week. When series refers to two or more sets of things, it takes a plural verb: Three series of medical tests are planned for next week.

Subsequent searches confirmed the above. All right, then. Singular it is, like the thing we're referring to. Which is...

Probably appearing in bookstores early 2013; subject to change

Did an author's past blog post help her editor with her own upcoming book? Yes, it did. As far as I know, this doesn't happen often.

More about this project when it comes out of the presses.

Monday, 10 December 2012

News: Spilled Cups Of Tea, Secret Scottish Book Sculptor, Etc

Last week, David Relin, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, is dead. Said to have killed himself. The tragedy in contextualised here. Lesson: Be wary of who you ghostwrite for.


  • BBC to adapt JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy for TV. How are they going to cast the characters, and will they- of course they'll probably sanitise it - a little.
  • Airport novel writer Wilbur Smith signs six-book deal with HarperCollins. First HC book coming in Xmas 2014. Ernest Cline ("Ready Player One", being adapted by Warner Bros) scores deal for book ... something about video games. Gary K Wolf coming up with a third Roger Rabbit book?
  • Ron Charles congratulates 2012's Publishing Person of the Year, PD James ... and gets corrected. Hilarity ensues in the "Red Room of Gain" where there are "no shades of grey".
  • Scotland's secret book sculptor strikes again. Here's a gallery of her latest work.
  • Will it soon become illegal to sell used books?
  • The lure of second-hand bookstores.
  • The times when spell-check fails.
  • Here's some tips on upgrading your resume/CV, and here's ten buzzwords to axe from your LinkedIn profile. Good job hunting.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

MPH Quill October-December/Anniversary Issue 2012

So, for Quill, magazine MPH decided to combine the last issue and the anniversary issue for 2012 into what I call 'the Syed Mokhtar issue', in conjunction with the release of his biography by Premilla Mohanlall.

Frequent Quill contributor Shantini Suntharajah interviewed Deborah Henry - the author, not Miss Universe Malaysia 2011 - about her first novel, The Whipping Club.

A version of my review/blab about the hilarious New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English (1855) by José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino also appears in this issue.

Singapore-based student Alycia Lim caught artist and coffee cup beautifier Boey Cheeming on one of his book tour stops around Malaysia and Singapore for his illustrated autobiography When I Was A Kid.

Anis Rozalina Ramli from Tourism Malaysia takes us around old Terengganu and highlights some places to see and things to do there.

There's more, so pick up a copy at a newsstand or selected bookstores. For some reason, it's also available online now. The web site people put it there, so I suppose it's okay to pass it on. Download PDFs here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Maybe it's better that it's available online in PDF. Taking pictures of glossy pages without imprinting your 'ghost' on them is hard. But this might be a one-off thing.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Some Things You Can't Put Up With

At first I wrote this for the blog, but then mulled sending this to The Star. It ended up in The Malaysian Insider because of the number of links in the piece, which made it (a little) more suitable for an online medium and I couldn't wait till Sunday.

Silly reasons, maybe. Probably as silly as that letter I'm responding to.

If he is from Penang, Mr Fed-up's small-minded meanness demeans my home state more than the parachuted outsiders and imports. Penang has always been a cosmopolitan place, and the Festival is but part of the continuation of George Town's rich history.

(...not saying that other places are any less cosmopolitan or poor in history...)

Fixed the second line in this version; some bits I should've removed after shifting some paragraphs got left behind. My apologies.

The quote marks, however, were deliberate; I've spent so much time out of Penang I'm not sure I can technically call myself a Penangite anymore...

From one 'Penangite' to another

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 December 2012

I was reading about the recently concluded Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in the Bangla Academy at Dhaka and the protesters who felt the event, which focuses on English literature, shouldn't be hosted at the venue.

Though the protesters in Bangladesh had reason to object, the planners of Hay in Dhaka:

"...went to great lengths to ensure due homage to local culture and history, as the opening ceremony presented classical Indian dances performed to Bangla poems, and ended with a jatra, a form of folk dance-drama. Out of 41 panels, at least 15 were in Bangla, and the stage was taken by four times as many Bangladeshi writers as foreign ones. The Bangla panels found equal room for new poets, like Trimita Chakma, who writes in the minority Chakma language. And the event marked the time at Hay that women outnumbered men on stage."

Closer to home, there's the Singapore Writers Festival, which began in 1986. Before anybody starts talking up the lack of local culture there, just look at these names.

Which is probably why I felt the podcast about the George Town Literary Festival devoted too much time on the grouses of an allegedly "fed-up Penangite".

The irate letter he sent to The Star complains about the festival not featuring any Georgetown talent, and how the event was dominated by imports from outstation and overseas.

"How long do you think Penangites are going to put up with these so-called George Town Festivals that have got nothing to do with the real history, culture and people of Penang?" he asks in the end.

As I understand it, a "George Town Literary Festival" is "a lit fest held in George Town", not "a lit fest about George Town." I doubt the Singapore Writers Fest would be as fun or exciting if it were held in the spirit of the latter definition.

I'm from George Town, and though I rarely go back, I feel pretty confident about my hometown's quaint little charms, street food and whatnot. So it's a great place for a lit fest, next to Ipoh maybe.

To me, this hang-up about the richness and significance of our culture blinds us to other important stuff. For one, many Malaysians are, I think, more acquainted with foreign writers, so an event that gets foreign and local writers together is a treat, to say the least.

Another important aspect of our culture we're so fond of hyping up is our hospitality. It's not just what you got, but also how you present it to your guests that keeps them coming back. That emotionless Singapore can host a bigger better lit fest than we can, even with a two-decade head-start, makes you wonder.

To see this cloying display of petty, insecure, condescending self-righteousness from someone who calls himself a Penangite is dispiriting. I wouldn't want him on the organising committee of any cultural event wherever, whenever.

I'm more embarrassed by how many Penangites, including myself, seem to be less interested in contributing to running a lit fest than attending one. I'm much less embarrassed about the "parachuted" outsiders and foreign imports that ran the show. I'll put up with anyone who cares enough to do what is currently a thankless, exhausting job.

I don't believe that that Penang-based poet is "Fed-up Penangite". If he declined an invitation to the festival, writing that letter afterwards would be an incredibly galling thing to do. By the way: that DIVA thing appears to be for real.

A more plausible reason for the letter can possibly be inferred from its first line: "While constantly preaching that the state always puts Penang and Penangites first, in practice it is quite the opposite."

I wouldn't even call this letter a cheap shot. And why spoil it for those who hope the George Town Lit Fest will one day become something that rivals the one in, say, Singapore or Ubud?

When that day comes, or maybe — maybe — next year, I'll be happy to parachute in, even if it's just to wash the wine glasses after the party. You fed-up Penangites, stay out of my way.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tim And The Red Coats

It appears that the so-called "re-invention" of publishing touted by Amazon and 4-Hour Guy Tim Ferriss involves bandying the we new publishing vs them traditionals in his collaboration with Amazon for The 4-Hour Chef.

Another thing about Ferriss's marketing is he's using BitTorrent to distribute the PR package for The 4-Hour Chef. Often associated with online piracy, BitTorrent seems like an unlikely promotional tool, but Ferriss seems confident. And it's one way of helping to refine BitTorrent's image.

The stats thus far have been encouraging. The PR bundle has been d-loaded about 211,000 times and around 85,000 BitTorrent users have checked out the book at Amazon.

Victory means getting on a best-seller list or something, to "send a message to the incumbent world of publishing, to those who want everything to remain in the 1900's." But is he also claiming that his efforts may be somehow stymied by the "old guard" - presumably Barnes & Noble - as an example to other writers pondering a shift to the "new" publishing model?

At least that's what I can infer from that ... unusual post of his.

So Ferriss appears to be implying that he's a victim of what he sees as unjust busines practices from an 'old school' bookstore chain who won't carry books by Amazon, which makes him an underdog of sorts. And who wouldn't support an underdog?

Tim Ferriss @
Oh yes, I would love to buy a book from this guy

Even if you "must take attack using different means" to get your book sold, please don't paint all publishers red with your big broad brush. More than two centuries after the Red Coats left, 'the colonies' is still a work-in-progress. Just like publishing. At least he didn't outright say that publishers hate authors.

Also, his book isn't banned in the way we are more familiar with. For one, it doesn't look like anybody in the White House sees The 4-Hour Chef as a threat to national security. No religious body seems offended by this book. It's just that Barnes & Noble doesn't want anything by Amazon inside its stores, a move which I think will eventually prove futile.

And Timmy Ferriss is no publishing lightweight. He'll be fine, regardless of who he works with on his book project.

While some may decry his "misleading" marketing strategies, Ferriss's decision to jump ship to Amazon does not make him a traitor or disloyal. Writers have every right to go with an agent, distributor or publisher who they feel can give them the best deal. That's how it's been and will be.

One should also remember that publishers, like corporations, do what's best for them first. That will never change, either.

Monday, 3 December 2012

News: A Reviewing Mood, Etc, A Cyclist And A Big Bad Wolf

Michiko K's review of Calvin Trillin's book - in verse - gets somebody in Salon all interrogative, though I doubt any malice was intended. Are we seeing the development of a trend? Meanwhile, the negative review wave rumbles on with Zoë Heller's take on Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, which Gawker has anointed "Hatchet Job of the Year 2012" - so soon?

Why did Gawker like it? Because, according to them, Heller's a known journalist taking on what some would consider a literary titan. So:

We want a tiger to take down a tiger, not a sleeping housecat, especially not a housecat that's generally friendly and harmless and writes books that your great-aunt likes to bring on airplanes to calm her nerves.

Also, it is very exciting to watch important British people insult each other (see the House of Lords for further evidence). They are, generally speaking, much better at it than Americans, partly because reading is a blood sport there, but also because they've had centuries of practice on us...

So eloquent and succinct.

For those who're lazy to write creative reviews, here's five rules of writing a Pete Wells-style takedown. Have I talked about this...?

And this long LA Review of Books piece on Bill Henderson's Rotten Reviews Redux and the credentials of a critic is worth poring over.

In other news:

  • Simon & Schuster dives into self-publishing with self-publishing solutions provider Archway Publishing. But, like with all "pay-to-play" publishing, one advises caution, especially with premium rates like these.
  • RIP Zig Ziglar.
  • Some notable authors join a campaign to make books part of emergency relief efforts. Because "nourishment for the mind" is just as important as nourishment for the body, clothes and a roof.
  • Is our fondness for happy endings blunting our appetite for "unhappily ever after"?
  • James Gleick’s The Information wins the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. I reviewed it some time ago and it's worth a look.
  • Somebody seems unhappy that EL James is Publisher's Weekly's Publishing Person of the Year. Because, apparently, "she did not" write a good book and that she just got lucky after she threw "the virginal girl and powerful man" she'd borrowed from Twilight into bed together and "tied them up".
  • Apparently, 25 million people in China only read cell phone novels. ...That's a lot of cell phones.
  • Wow. Is the world of modern art so ... awful?
  • Publishers may be in for legal tussles over rights for a bunch of books in 2013. A clause in the US Copyright Law introduced in 1978 allows authors - or their next-of-kin, I think - to reclaim rights to their works after 35 years.

Oh, yes. This year's Big Bad Wolf Book Sale is happening from 07 to 23 December at the Mines Convention Centre (MIECC), from 9am to 9pm. This year, they're kicking off the craziness with a 63-hour-long opening (for real?!) from 6.30am on Friday, 07 December to 9.30pm on Sunday, 09 December.

There's more stuff in the insanely graphic-intensive web site (never dealt with slow broadband speeds or shrinking data transfer quotas before?), including a video of how to get to the venue.

Aaaaand, Sandra Loh, author of Pedalling Around the Peninsula, will be at Kinokuniya @ Suria KLCC on 08 December from 3-4pm to talk about her book. Don't think I'll be in the audience this time around.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Editing Manuscripts ... Like Deboning Fish

Sometimes, cookbook editing is the pits, especially for multilingual cookbooks. Grammar can be flexible, the writing can be boring and, if the recipes look good, you're hungry even before you're halfway through.

The instructions, however, have to be concise and clear-cut.

I spent far too much time on Thursday quibbling with a sales exec (and sometimes proofreader) about whether a word should be standardised as "fillet" or "fillets" throughout the whole book. One of them situational things.

When you say "300g of grass carp fillet", do you expect one fillet to weigh exactly 300g, or a bunch of fillets weighing 300g in total?

But if you say "2 Spanish mackerel fillets", then it can't be "fillet" in the ingredients list or instructions, right?

And what happens to the "fillet(s)" when you cut it (or them) into strips or pieces?

In some of the recipes, chunks of Spanish mackerel so do not look like they were filleted. Some recipes even instruct the reader to "debone" actual fillet(s).

To quote the meaning of "fillet" in a culinary context from the Wiktionary (italics mine): "A strip or compact piece of meat or fish from which any bones and skin and feathers have been removed."

Like what you see below.

Mackerel fillets; image from

The mackerel "fillets" in the recipes look like:

Mackerel steak; image from

The whitish thingy in the centre is the spine. That's a mackerel steak. Though I'm not sure if it's known as such in Malaysia.

...Talk about bone(s) of contention.

I finally decided that if the number of pieces is stated it's "fillets". If the weight is mentioned, it's "300g of grass carp fillet" - like in this recipe - because when it comes to meat, people usually say "300g of beef/chicken/pork". Though one might be in a quandary when confronted with "brinjal", "pumpkin", "zucchini", "endive" or "tomato(es)".

As for the instructions, I cut out "fillet(s)" altogether, where applicable, and used either "fish" or the type of fish. Except for recipes where the number of pieces are mentioned. I have no clue as yet about what to do with the Spanish mackerel.

...maybe deboning fish would be much hard- sorry, easier.

Monday, 26 November 2012

News: Restaurants, Books and Stuff

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells's bulldozing of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar rippled for a bit last week, leading to bandwagon-hopping pieces like this one, where a boatload of restaurant critics relate their experiences with negative reviews.

Meanwhile, a Japanese restaurant gets a bad review in the Guardian, and a LA Weekly food critic ran down Gordon Ramsay's Fat Cow.

No, I don't think it's getting trendy to bash restaurants, and I hope that never happens.

Since I'm on a food roll, here's a Ruth Reichl interview where she talks about food books and food culture.


  • After books that essentially says "beware of (some) chefs" (Kitchen Confidential/) and "beware of (some) waiters" (Waiterrant), now there's "beware of (some) hotel clerks".
  • Randall Sullivan's book on the "King of Pop" reveals a sad, tragic life.
  • It seems the French publisher of Fifty Shades is cracking down on copycat titles, which it has termed "parasitical" ... isn't it just like the French to ramp up the drama? Nothing, however, has been said about the parodies and 'tributes' to Ms Erika Leonard's blockbuster trilogy that came out before the publication of the French edition, so I'm guessing those are in the clear.
  • Merger II: Is HarperCollins interested in buying Simon & Schuster?
  • JK Rowling and EL James left out of Bad Sex shortlist. Aww, too obvious, perhaps?
  • Good self-published books? Here's how to find them.
  • Woman arrested for "Liking" a Facebook post in "world's biggest democracy".
  • Happy much-belated birthday to Parnassus Books, which some might know as "Ann Patchett's bookstore".

Also: Lydia Teh's Honk! If You're Malaysian is going for another print run, which will feature a redesigned cover. If this batch sells out, that means over 20,000 copies would be sold since it was first published in 2007. Will post a little bit more about this soon.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

This Beautiful And Caffeinated World

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 22 November 2012

I bought this book with the hope of learning all that's interesting about coffee.

I wish it had been written in an interesting way.

“Uncommon Grounds” at Artisan Roast, TTDI, KL
Mark Pendergrast's encyclopaedic and scholarly Uncommon Grounds packs a lot of history, geography, a bit of chemistry and assorted trivia in what reads like a memoir of the black brew, complete with illustrations, ad posters, photos and graphical material.

From the fabled tales of its discovery to the rise of the "third wave", coffee has played a bigger part in our modern history than even the most caffeine-literate among us would dare to imagine. Real wars, trade wars, gender wars, civil wars, ad wars, and the colourful characters that pioneered the early coffee trends.

Even sex was part of this rich history. One legend says a Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta from Brazil charmed a few coffee seedlings from the First Lady of French Guiana in the 18th century. Today, Brazil is considered the world's largest producer of coffee.

Factually voluminous
Points of interest in this book include:

“Uncommon Grounds” at Artisan Roast, TTDI, KL
•  Clash of civilisations. Over 400 years ago, in a bid to ban what was then also known as a "Muslim drink", Pope Clement VIII was given a taste of coffee, and was hooked. He reputedly said he'd baptise the "delicious" drink to make it "a truly Christian beverage." Thank goodness there was no Internet or social media back then, or history might have been different.

•  Kopitiams in England. In the 1700, coffee houses were also called "penny universities". Over a one-penny cup of coffee, one can listen in on discussions that could go on for hours. The topics varied according to the clientèle, and no two coffeehouses served the same group, apparently. Nowadays, coffeehouses can be so noisy, you can barely hear yourself speak. And good luck trying to get a cuppa for a penny.

•  Yankees once knew squat about coffee. For a long time, it seems nobody in the US knew how to properly select, roast and brew the beans. Nor did they know or learn to love the taste of pure coffee. What they added to 'improve' the flavour chills the blood. A partial list (around the 1880s) includes such adulterants as chicory, chrysanthemum seeds, coal ashes, dog biscuits, malt, parsnips, rice, sawdust, wheat and wood chips. One's glad they got much better since then.

•  Coffee substitutes. With all the things used to adulterate coffee around that time, small wonder it made some people sick. In 1895 businessman Charles William Post came up with a 'healthier' substitute. Post was also a savvy marketeer of his roasted cereal coffee substitute, "Postum", using ads that struck a chord with his audience. Ironically, Post also drank coffee, which may or may not have stressed him out or driven him to suicide.

•  Cupping was a guy sport, until... Erna Knutsen was probably the first female ever to enter the male-dominated cupping room, and became a specialist in high-end coffee beans. She also gave the name "specialty coffee" to her niche. The term appeared in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal in 1974.

“Uncommon Grounds” at RAW Coffee, Jln Ampang, KL
•  Beans in one basket? Bad idea. As a major producer of coffee, the effects of frost on Brazil's coffee crop is carefully watched. Substantial crop damage means higher prices. But as this slack is taken up by countries such as Vietnam, there's the risk of a coffee glut instead.

If Uncommon Grounds were sampled like a coffee, one notices almost immediately a distinct academic dryness that registers heavily on the senses with just the slightest touch of fruitiness. Very little of the blurbed wit is there, except for the footnotes which elicit the briefest of sparkles before dissipating completely. What comes on most strongly are the pungent earthy notes of the deepest sun-deprived alcoves of a library or archival hall.

The author appears not to take sides or present a skewed point of view, hence the neutral, uninteresting tone which makes going from cover to cover almost impossible. Interesting it may be, all that socio-politico-economic stuff just flew over my head, putting me - ironically - to sleep after a couple of chapters' worth. These parts deserve a revisit when the mind is more lucid.

But you'll learn lots of stuff about coffee, like how instant coffee is made. I'm now more determined than ever to avoid it, unless it's the finer brands and only when making milkshakey novelty coffee drinks at home.

A bitter brew for some
“Uncommon Grounds” at RAW Coffee, Jln Ampang, KL
That blood had been spilled over coffee may astonish some. "Blood coffee" has been around for a while; Pendergrast quotes the example of Idi Amin, who financed his reign of terror with profits from Ugandan coffee exports. A news report spotlights criminal raids on Kenyan coffee farms.

But consider this: A news report cites the International Coffee Organisation (ICO) as saying: "The value of total exports in calendar year 2011 is currently forecast at $23.5 billion for a total volume of 102.4 million bags compared to US$16.7 billion for a volume of 96.8 million bags in 2010." Globally, over two billion cups are drunk every day, most of that in developed nations.

In short, coffee is big business. Pendergrast once said that it's the second most valuable legally exported commodity in the world after oil, a statement I first heard in what I think is the 2005 documentary, Black Coffee. Though he seems to have disavowed that assertion in this edition, it's occasionally repeated on the web.

Considering how tightly coffee is woven into the fabric of our lifestyles, I don't think much that can be done at the moment about some of our money trickling down to these unsavoury enterprises. Let someone else take up that Facebook campaign.

Sip, don't gulp
Perhaps it's because my love and experience for coffee has yet to reach the rarefied heights inhabited by the caffeinated cognoscenti that I failed to see the finer points of Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds.

There's so much in this book, it'll take a while for everything to percolate down to one's subconscious. I just know that I'll be sipping my next good cuppa Java, Brazilian or Colombian with more care.

So maybe I did it wrong. Maybe this book should be sampled in small doses and not gulped down with pinched nose like bitter medicine. It is as complex as the beverage it profiles. The chronological order of the chapters makes that easier but sometimes, one can get carried away and just turn page after page after page after....

...think I'll just stop here and wrap this up.

Even after internalising the whole book, one gets the sense that it's just scratching the surface of the bean. Coffee is still with us, and will continue to evolve along with - and shape - civilisation as we know it. That is, if climate change doesn't wipe out coffee first.

Time markers have been added to the "points of interest" in this version.

Photos taken at Artisan Roast TTDI at 4, Jalan Rahim Kajai 14, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, 60000 Kuala Lumpur and RAW Coffee @ Wisma Equity, 150 Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur

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

Mark Pendergrast
Basic Books (2010), revised edition
424 pages
ISBN: 978-0-465-01836-9

Monday, 19 November 2012

News: Haters, Reviewers, and Publishers

Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar put the New York Times's restaurant critic Pete Wells in an interrogative mood. Though Wells was exceptionally harsh to the restaurant, I have no patience or sympathy to any celeb who behaves and presents himself in ways that make him a target for ridicule.

I won't deny that I found Wells's fiery take on Fieri entertaining. And I do enjoy writing the occasional hate piece - which you may not see here - because there is a kind of pleasure in hating something. But it's got to be a well-written, sufficiently informed piece. Maybe I'll elaborate on this some day.

Back in the book world: Put off by what "professional" reviewers - "corrupt & paid laborers: academics & journalists", like Pete Wells - did to a book, an author subjected (or rather, "crowdsourced" reviews for) his book to "amateur reviewers" and didn't like what he got. So how lah?


  • Vietnamese publishers vent against "unauthorised books". "Unauthorised" can mean a lot of things, but I suspect they're talking about pirated books. Elsewhere, an Amazon-published author turns to a former "hotbed of piracy" to distribute his book which, under the Amazon imprint, is not being hosted by retailers such as Barnes & Noble.
  • Days ago, an article by one Michael Levin that suggests "publishers hate authors" appeared on The Huffington Post. Victoria Strauss posted a response. It should be noted that Levin runs a ghostwriting company. Based on the tone in some of the stuff he's written, would it be too subjective to suggest that some of his bile might be targeted at publishers who didn't like what he'd written?
  • Apparently, reading on a Kindle is not like reading a physical book. ...And I thought I was a paper-book romantic.
  • "Missing e-books", and how publishers' control over their digital material is keeping them from libraries. But like paper books and physical bookstores, it's getting harder to argue for the continued existence of brick-and-mortar libraries. The question is: How many of us still want them around?
  • The Nagani Book Club, an iconic Yangon-based publishing house, may re-open after being shut for seven decades. On a related note, here's some background on Burmese literature and its associations with the independence movement.
  • When you need to turn down a publishing contract.
  • Newly retired novelist Phillip Roth tries to discourage a new author and fails. "Don't do this to yourself"? C'mon, let a guy dream.
  • China's great shame, one writer's 'tombstone': the Great Famine.
  • When a son's book is used to defend his father's killer.

Last but not least: The Dulang Washer (MPH Publishing, 2011) has been longlisted for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Other contenders include The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht and The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. Which all start with "The".

And the crowdfunding drive for publishing Readings for Readings 2 has collected RM3,000, the "minimum" funding amount. With four days to go before the deadline, this is generally where last-minute contributions should start trickling in.

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Glimpse Into The Abyss

I didn't spend much time 'unpacking' this book because I was way too creeped out by some of the nasty behaviours recorded within. And with some diligence, anyone interested in reading about Anonymous, etc can probably Google the relevant information.

We Are Anonymous
Groups such as Anonymous are even more of a threat to home computer users and businesses than crooks or oppressive regimes. To me, that's what Olson (inadvertently) drove home in this book. I've never come so close to quitting Facebook, Twitter, etc than I did after reading about "William".

And the Westboro 'Church', for one, may have been a poor choice for a target; that nest of vipers makes LulzSec look like CARE.

Wikileaks, meanwhile, is becoming a joke, no thanks to its 'leader's' antics. Somewhere along the way, like the former LulzSec crew, he lost the plot. Thus, the movement unravelled and faded into the background under the glare of his grandstanding.

Would things have turned out differently if the Assange, Topiary, et al remained an enigma? Perhaps that would be answered by another Wikileaks or LulzSec, which is probably a matter of time.

This book was a good piece of journalism, but Parmy Olson didn't quite tell the 'full story' of Anonymous, which is still out there, and still making waves.

A glimpse into the abyss
Parmy Olson makes it very, very hard for one to keep calm and go online

first published in The Star, 16 November 2012

We Are Anonymous is probably the scariest book you'll read in 2012. Parmy Olson's book on the faceless, amorphous Internet collective is enough to make you distrust your own passwords – a well-founded fear these days when news of hacking, data theft and destruction of people's digital lives are increasingly creeping into the headlines.

But, as the subtitle says, this book is more about the rise and fall of LulzSec, the hacker group that claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile hackings in the past several years.

LulzSec's leap into notoriety began with the failed attempts to infiltrate Anonymous by cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal's former CEO Aaron Barr. It was only after several members of Anonymous locked him out of his social media accounts and published his e-mails did he realise he either needed a much bigger boat and harpoon ... or easier prey. Barr resigned, and HBGary Federal is now defunct.

We do get a peek into the underbelly of the Internet where groups such as Anonymous lurk. But as the book progresses, the focus shifts to LulzSec. We see this group break away from Anonymous and, through acts of digital theft and vandalism aided by hackers outside LulzSec, help establish the myth of Anonymous as a world-shifting underground movement – until a combination of hubris, dissent and betrayal brought it down. A handy timeline of events is available in the book for reference.

Olson's research is voluminous, as the end notes testify. However, I wasn't quite as awed by Anonymous's role in the "global cyber insurgency" (which, so far, hasn't lived up to the hype) as I was overwhelmed by its potential to cause havoc in our online lives (as well as by the wealth of computer jargon within).

One comes away with a very grim outlook of the future of computer security.

It may not be Olson's intent, but this book makes it hard to see members of Anonymous, LulzSec and other similar groups as anything but selfish, self-aggrandising, amoral and extremely computer-savvy miscreants who amuse themselves by hacking into systems, stealing data, and messing with the lives of others. One example is "William", a hacker who, among other things, duped some Facebook users into giving him nude photos of themselves.

And these people are among those whom former LulzSec member Topiary claims "owns" the Internet: "The Internet belongs to the trolls and the hackers, the extremists and the enthusiasts; it will never cease to be this way," he wrote in a "missive" published near the end of this book. Which includes everything that the rest of us puts on the Web, one presumes, and if these guys want to mess around with all that, there is, apparently, nothing the rest of us can do about it.

My blood runs cold thinking about that.

It's said that one is more likely to die in a road accident than be attacked by a shark. Thousands pass their days online without incident, so one shouldn't be unduly worried. Olson, arguably though, makes it very, very hard to keep calm and go online.

This review, the 50th done for The Star was based on a complimentary copy

We Are Anonymous
Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency

Parmy Olson
Little, Brown (June 2012)
498 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-22765-0

Monday, 12 November 2012

News: Book Prizes, Publishing Perils, and Roth Retires

Jerome Ferrari won France's top book prize, the Prix Goncourt, for Le Sermon de la Chute de Rome ("The Sermon of the Fall of Rome"), a novel set in Corsica. But not everyone's picking up prizes.

Spanish author Javier Marías turns down state-sponsored book award worth €20,000. He was one of a few who refused book awards this year for various reasons, mostly political.

One reason why book prizes should have no strings attached.


  • Phillip Roth not writing any more novels. Quitting while he's ahead? Panio Gianopoulos eulogises Roth's career. Some might feel this is premature, especially when he still hasn't scored the Nobel lit prize...
  • Britishisms may be the least of US worries as Jamie magazine comes to 'merica. Lubbly jubbly!
  • In the wake of the Penguin House merger: If capitalism is killing culture, is government intervention for the arts necessary?
  • Ten conversations about books that should be laid to rest. Uh, amen?
  • A publisher's year in the e-book age.
  • A call for an open access model for publishing academia.
  • Book piracy is not harmless, as book bootleggers in Zimbabwe demonstrate.
  • Fairy tales as social and cultural commentary - and how Disney turned it into feel-good dope.
  • Is a crackdown on "highly-structured", "test-focused" textbooks looming in the UK?
  • Another 'threat' to literature: NaNoWriMo? Must we keep feeding the "Is _____ a threat to literature" mill?
  • When a little neighbourhood bookstore came to John Grisham's rescue.
  • Why we enjoy stories featuring female detectives.

And Happy Deepavali.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

More Read Reads And The George Town Lit-Fest

More than a year after the launch of Readings from Readings, the second volume is on its way. This time though, the publisher is crowd-sourcing funds for the project. Head here for more details.

If all goes well, Readings from Readings 2 will be launched on Sunday, 25 November, 4pm at Studio@Straits (86 Lebuh Armenian), during the George Town Literary Festival.

Readings from Readings 2 coverGeorge Town Literary Festival poster

Others scheduled to appear include Dr John Robertson, author of The Battle of Penang; Dina Zaman, Shivani Sivagurunathan, Linda Christanty, Chiew-Siah Tei, A. Samad Said, Alfian Sa’at, Omar Musa, Jasmine Low, Jerome Kugan, Az Samad and Tan Twan Eng. Among those who will be moderating panel discussions are Amir Muhammad, Ann Lee, Rehman Rashid and Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

...The programme alone is making me drool. Should I?

The George Town Literary Festival will take place at several venues in George Town, Penang, from 23 (Friday) to 25 (Sunday) November 2012. Details at, or email or call +604 264 3456.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Book Blogger Blah-Blah-Blah

This is very late, I know, but I only had time and free brainspace to regurgitate this after scratching off several items from my mental list of to-dos.

I don't know how many book bloggers cried when Sir Peter Stothard, chair for this year's Booker panel, asserted that their "mass of unargued opinion" will tsunami the output by bona fide literary critics. "There is a great deal of opinion online, and it's probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion."

He also mentioned his predecessor's focus on "readable" books, arguing that readability can be "interesting", but "great art for the most part resists it to a degree". "Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic," he added, "otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off."

I imagine people who, without finishing the article(s) hyping up Stohard's statements, going, "La sir! How snobbish!" or "At least we don't refer to the New York Times for what to read."

I was hesitant about shooting my keyboard off while this thing was still hot, because at some point I want to stop, and I can't seem to when talking about stuff like book blogging or reviewing.

A simple reply from me would be, "Rubbish." Too short? Okay...

By now it should be clear that book prizes such as the Man Booker aren't for types who pick 'readability' over 'art'. Books that can be considered 'readable art' or even 'absolutely re-readable art' are possible, but what determines that is for the most part subjective. How to explain the polarised views people have for certain books, apart from blaming rogue reviewers and easily gamed ranking systems?

That few things out there are universally loved - or hated - keeps reviewing and criticism exciting. People apply different yardsticks to measure a book's readability, bringing to bear their own knowledge and previous reading experiences.

The subsequent richness of opinion on a book or any other work can be complex and hard to cut through, but one gets a really huge buffet of viewpoints from which to choose, digest, and maybe add to.

Anybody who spends time and money to buy and read a book is entitled to an opinion, even if it's just "My cat can write better erotica" - who knows, it might just be true. Even if it doesn't advance one's appreciation of the book, at least it's entertaining and, well, if it isn't, move on to the next soapbox.

And the opinion deluge wouldn't necessarily drown out the more "critical" voices which, by virtue of their writing, should rise above the inane. Serious book people will learn how to recognise this cream; it is, after all, like picking what's good to read off the shelves. It's fine, I guess, to indulge in something 'vacuous' on occasion, as long as one recognises what it is.

One's understanding and knowledge of a particular kind of work can only increase as the discussion goes on and intensifies. That can only get better, but only if the contributions improve in quality. They will, over time, despite scepticism from Booker Prize panel chairs.

Book prizes such as the Booker may have a part to play as an established gatehouse that brings good but lesser-known reads into the spotlight, like this piece suggests. That they're not about recommended "beach reads" is pretty much self-evident. Their picks and their relevance at a time when reads appear to be dumbing down, however, will continue to be a subject of at times intense debate.