Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Around The Peninsula In 37 Days

“Four corners of West Malaysia, 2,664 kilometres in 37 days... Are you two nuts?

...Well, those were probably not the exact words. However, nothing could keep outdoors enthusiast Sandra Loh and her friend Mak Shiau Meng from their goal to travel to the four corners of Peninsular Malaysia on bicycles in early 2009. The tour was Mak's idea, and he had invited Sandra along for the ride.

For Mak, it was the fulfilment of a dream; for Sandra, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Braving exhausting uphill roads in the scorching sun and freezing rain, daredevil lorry drivers, unhelpful road signs and the occasional cow, the two intrepid cyclists made their way to the designated four corners: Padang Besar, Kedah; Tanjung Piai and Sg Rengit in Johor; and Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

As they rode past small towns and big cities, friendly and helpful locals, old and new friends, new and familiar sights and (mostly) good food made the trip more interesting ...and bearable. And Sandra, the chronicler of the expedition, wrote it all down in her chirpy inimitable style.

...This was a really challenging book project.

Several months into my job, I received a bunch of huge Word documents, a manuscript for this woman's cycling travelogue. No, too bloggish. So we sent it back. Being new to this, I added some recommendations.

A few months later, it came back to us. More detail now, but ... rather flat. And still a bit bloggish. Bounce.

I never thought we'd see it for the third time. She's persistent ... well, she did cycle around the peninsula. We took it on. The meeting was scheduled around the middle of last year and at the end of it, an agreement.

G*d, the amount of text I had to chop off. About 14,000 words, by rough estimates. No shortcuts. After looking through it for perhaps five to six times, I could no longer spot the minor typos. So the author pitched in.

The layout people suffered more than I did, however. Though similar to the last book project, there was a lot more material to work with.

The last several weeks before the book went to the printers was (for me, at least) nerve-wracking. We ended up with a slightly trimmer version of the original manuscript. Had we kept most of it, the book would be too thick and too expensive.

(For the author's account of the publishing process, go here.)

About a month later, the first copies arrived at the office. A book looks a whole lot better and more real once it takes on three dimensions.

The tentative launch date for Pedalling Around The Peninsula is on 14 April, 3pm at MPH Subang Parade. Date, time and venue may be subject to change. We're hoping it'll be in stores by then.

"It's gonna be big," she kept saying.

I wasn't sure. But that teacher's blook surprised us, despite being the easier project.

Fine. Let's see what surprises this book would hold.

Pedalling Around The Peninsula
A Malaysian Girl's Two-wheeled Adventures

Sandra Loh
MPH Group Publishing Sdn Bhd
349 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5997-82-2

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Monday, 26 March 2012

Ghostwritergate, Publishing Tips And "Literary Broccoli"

Ghostwriter Gripes
Julia Moskin's New York Times piece on cookbook ghostwriters stirred up quite a hot pot. Rachael Ray and Gwyneth Paltrow have denied using ghostwriters for their cookbooks. Some ghostwriters also spoke up. Moskin later explains her definition of ghostwriting in that article's context. Rachael Ray was not pleased.

Eater compiles several responses to what they call "Ghostwritergate". As usual, a chef (Eddie Huang of BaoHaus in New York) gives good advice on the matter, while defending Moskin and several other NYT food writers whom he says are "tearing down an industry built largely on lies."

In The Daily Beast, Regina Schrambling says almost every celeb cookbook these days is (sort of) ghostwritten and brushes off the whole thing as a "tempest in a tasting spoon."

Yeah. How many of us really cares if a celebrity cookbook was in fact ghostwritten?

Wanna publish a book?
Writers, power up your bio for (slightly) better publishing success.

Also: some PC Advisor advice on publishing an e-book. A computer/IT mag dishing e-book publishing advice? Books are becoming software.

While you're upping your CV, here are some resources on publishing industry terms and contracts. Hey, you learn the jargon with IT, too.

Other news
  • It seems you still have to queue up to check out library e-books online. Plus, other challenges.
  • Are the bells tolling for the Canadian publishing industry? Meanwhile, Canadian author Clare Marshall stays indie with digital self-publishing. "...it's not a sprint, it's a marathon."
  • Was Oprah a boon to or bane of literature? This piece says "bane", apparently.
  • An author reached out to a book pirate who shanghaied his "English Monster" - and gets a response.
  • "Broken English": The rise of the imperfect narrator in fiction. Did the writer forget about Moira Young's Blood Red Road (which a commenter mentioned)? Or does it not count?
  • When tradition threatens: Liberian writer Mae Azango's story on female genital cutting forces her into hiding.
  • The life cycle of words, identified by science?
  • Did a missionary turned researcher find something in the Amazon that threatens modern linguistics?
  • Why it's a bad idea to think of translated foreign books as "literary broccoli".
  • Some medieval marginalia said to be from old manuscript copies written by monks. Drudgery of tedium, carpal tunnel, and complaints about equipment, handwriting, etc. The more things change....
  • Know your snark from your ad hominems.
  • France suggests taxing online giants such as Amazon to help indie bookstores. So French, right?
  • Someone has called Hemingway literature's Nike swoosh - and says Hemingway would be appalled. Not everybody liked him, though.

Monday, 19 March 2012

News: Shades of Grey and Phantom Pens

More Shades of Grey Coming Your Way
Will Paypal's erotica U-turn mean hundreds more 'shades of grey' in Smashwords, etc?

HarperCollins UK this so, apparently, judging from the rollout of its erotica imprint, Mischief Books. Also, "legit" publishers are reportedly combing the writing badlands for the next Fifty Shades. And thanks to e-readers, nobody can see what some of you girls are reading....

It's not the genre, it's the medium, this report seems to suggest. Sure.

Cooking the (cook)books?
A writer has revealed that some famous chefs do not write their own cookbooks. But Rachael Ray says no, no ghostwriters were involved in her cookbooks. That so? So who else does? And does anyone care?

Other News
  • The Puzo family strikes back in "Godfather" dispute with Paramount. This episode is almost worth its own film.
  • The central figure in Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers speaks out. Better than a (positive) review.
  • Seems e-books aren't so good for the learning process.
  • Paper vs pixels: A view from China. Also, the apparent decay of the brick-and-mortar bookstore scene in the Middle Kingdom.
  • A pirated version of Jin Yong's novel on Apple's online store prompts a call for authentification for mobile content. And 22 Chinese authors have filed a claim against Apple for selling unlicensed copies of their books.
  • A 12-year-old from Ahwatukee, Arizona has published her first book.
  • Book Warehouse, one of Vancouver's largest independent discount book retailers, is closing its stores.
  • Ian Fleming's back catalogue of Bond will be relaunched in e-book and print by Random House. It appears that, in the world of publishing, you live more than twice.
  • 22 more reasons (read: excuses) to stop writing.
  • Have newspapers begun publishing e-books on the side?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Collusion Collision: The Feds' Sour Apple

The US Justice Department may sue Apple and several big publishers: CBS Corp's Simon & Schuster Inc., Lagardere SCA's Hachette Book Group, Pearson PLC's Penguin Group (USA), Macmillan, and HarperCollins. The publishers are accused of colluding with Apple to fix prices of e-books. PCWorld has provided a primer on the issue that led to this.

The feds aren't the first to raise the possibility; the EU Commission began investigations several months earlier.

A notable sci-fi author thinks it's more of a case where publishers are hopping onto a bigger shinier bandwagon - assuming that the US DoJ is wrong about these firms' active collusion. But: "Again, maybe they all did actively collude, in which case, whoops, guys. Stop being idiots."

Charles Cooper, blogging at CNet, cheers the Feds, blaming the late Steve Jobs for masterminding the 'controversial' agency model to "kneecap" Amazon. A Businessweek report on the matter seems to concur with Cooper that the result could mean more affordable e-book prices. But I doubt the fight - if it goes ahead - will look like the titanic struggle the media appears to be depicting.

I see this whole thing as a desperate scramble by these big publishers to retain as much of the status quo as possible, before the Titanic that is traditional publishing finally slips under the waves of e-publishing - or so it is thought.

Maybe outsourcing the sales and distribution would mean more savings (and profit), but at what cost? Would the probable legal wrangles like this one be worth the trouble? Would it mean keeping themselves afloat in the midst of the digital storm or merely delaying the inevitable?

“Uncommon Grounds” at RAW Coffee, Jln Ampang, KL
Like I said before, it's no longer business as usual for publishers. It's not enough to throw themselves at the feet of either Amazon or Apple in their attempt to sell as many books as they can.

One way out could involve publishers taking their books to other distribution channels, or sell their own books. Why not? Is it such a big deal? I bet lots of other smaller publishers do that. That way, they can set the prices and charge extra for shipping, all within their sphere of influence.

The named publishers are big, but it may not a good idea to stay big and do things big anymore. And how far can the "biggering" of a business go before it becomes unsustainable?

That's why many prehistoric species aren't with us today.

With smaller, more numerous publishers, we might see the industry return to what they're supposed to do: vet and produce good books for readers, and take the occasional risk with artsy, experimental works. With a smaller overhead, they can set better prices.

And who says books have to be sold in bookshops? With the advent of independent cafés arrrhmmArtisanRoastWhiskRawCoffeeFatSpoonarrrhmm, for instance, authors or publishers can have a few copies displayed in the counters or shoved into the free reads pile.

Books on culture? Central Market, maybe. Funky, thoughtful art/culture/lifestyle mags? Indie cafés, airports or maybe international book fests. Travelogues and books on bicycle tours? Bicycle shops, naturally. In exchange, premise owners get a cut of the sales. Take your books to your market, dear authors. Don't make your market come to you.

And it goes without saying that a pool with many, many good publishers will also mean good things for people in the industry...

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Plated Perfection at Xenri D'Garden Terrace

Took a while for this to emerge after the actual dinner last month. I was characteristically worried if it would be okay. Seems to happen only when I write about high-end places.

I was so jittery, I had to confirm the names and spellings of the dishes and equipment with online research and the restaurant, while studiously avoiding the dozens of other reviews of the same venue.

Thought it would turn out okay but when the paper came out, oh my seafoodz, isn't that the sea fan mussel carpaccio, not the white trevally one?!

Also, the yuzu sorbet was actually part of the undefined "three-dessert course" that also consisted of a single mochi and two small slices of mango tempura. From this post I trimmed a little bit off the last sentence; Meltique beef is not more expensive than wagyu beef.

...I guess no matter how perfect the dining experience, writers can and will never truly do it justice. But never mind this imperfect piece. Pick a good day to indulge, call the number and make a booking. And check if you have seafood allergies.

All photos in the article and this post are courtesy of Xenri Group.

Plated perfection
Surrender yourself to the kaiseki experience at Xenri D'Garden Terrace and you'll see that Japanese food is more than just sushi and katsudons

first published in The Star, 17 March 2012

One of Melody's contacts had invited her out to lunch one day at Xenri D'Garden Terrace. It must have been some meal; she was virtually singing about it while tormenting me with a smartphone slideshow of the dishes. After hearing Melody ooh and aah over it for weeks, I finally took the leap to see what the fuss was all about, albeit with some misgivings.

We were going for a kaiseki dinner.

"Parfait" of Philadelphia
cream cheese, crabmeat,
tomato and avocado cubes
The word (literally, "gut stones") harkens to the days when Japanese Zen monks staved off hunger by warming their stomachs with heated stones in their robes. Today the name is bestowed to the multi-course dining concept synonymous with the Japanese ryokan experience.

Only the best seasonal ingredients within an inn's vicinity are used to create a series of small dishes. The aromas, flavours and textures of handpicked ingredients are artfully arranged and garnished to give diners a memorable experience.

By "memorable", I mean "expensive".

We arrived for dinner at slightly past 7pm. The public area, where the buffet lines were, was already full. We were ushered into a private nook befitting our "fine dining experience".

Though my companion and I were in no hurry, our orders took a while to arrive. I assumed the chef must have been bending over backwards for us in the kitchen. In Japan, chefs doing kaiseki are reputed to have an unforgivingly perfectionist streak.

Our meal arrived course by course. My appetiser, a single seared scallop, was firm and sweet, but I liked the luxuriously rich and thick sea urchin glaze it sat in even better. The "home made" seaweed caviar and sardine "biscuit" that garnished the scallop provided additional and interesting flavours and textures.

Seared scallop in sea urchin glaze with seaweed
"caviar" and sardine "biscuit"

From its meaty-pink freshness, I could tell that Melody's ocean trout was fine specimen of ocean goodness. Smoked with an apple-wood fire, poached and laid on a bed of asparagus shavings and drizzled with truffle oil, I stole a spoonful, only to be catapulted straight to heaven.

Smoked ocean trout with asparagus shavings,
drizzled with truffle oil

A good start, I thought, impatient for my next order. I didn't have to wait long. My carpaccio of white trevally (or striped jack) was dressed in an appetite-whetting honey vinaigrette. Paired with fresh firm shrimp, buttery avocado and luxuriously rich sea urchin, it was delectable. From the way Melody was wolfing down her sea fan mussel carpaccio, dressed in a tangy home-made apple sauce, I guessed it must have tasted as good as it looked, sitting prettily in the shell with a side of crunchy white fungus.

Braised wild duck confit
After such a stellar start, my expectations were sky high. Alas, my crab bisque, with an egg custard that trapped pieces of crabmeat at the bottom of the bowl, was just so-so; I much preferred the Melody's Pacific clam soup. I crushed one of the little beasts with my teeth and got a mouthful of clam essence - I could have swooned with pleasure. It was only course No. 2, and I was beginning to feel a little full. That was when I began to worry. Would we have enough room between us for what would follow?

My braised wild duck confit and Melody's braised Angus short ribs, dressed in a thick sauce made with Japanese burdock, assured us that we would make room. My slow-braised duck, accompanied by sweet little eggplants and meaty Portobello mushrooms, was so fall-off-the-bone tender, the meat would not stay on the fork.

We were truly stuffed by the time the three-dessert course rolled around. Melody couldn't finish her decadent warm chocolate soufflé, "royal" vanilla ice cream with several halved cherries drenched in a red wine sauce, although it was very good. Neither could I do full justice to my green tea tiramisu and "home made" (do the chefs live at the restaurant?) mango sorbet topped with honey-lemon jelly.

Perhaps the best part of a kaiseki meal is that you can never predict what you're getting. Even if it's a set menu, sometimes the chef throws in surprises. Midway through our meal, the chef impulsively slipped in a few additional items – we had come at a time when they were testing out new dishes, we were told.

We received, gratis, a bowl of firm glassine noodles made of arrowroot flour, kept cool with ice and dressed with the same apple sauce as the mussel carpaccio; a "parfait" consisting of layers of Philadelphia cream cheese, crabmeat, tomato and avocado cubes; and a yuzu sorbet, served with its zest. The tangy citrus with floral notes commonly used in Japanese cuisine was, until my first spoonful, an ingredient I had only read about. For bringing just this flavour across the miles, Xenri has my eternal gratitude.

Time taken? Two hours. Damage? RM238. Satisfaction level? 100%.

In spite of my wallet-conscious dining habits, I am already planning a return and wondering what Xenri's irrepressible chefs will come up with the next. I'm certain they will make the old ryokan chefs proud.

Tip: The adventurous could also try the wagyu beef grill, essentially a hotplate on a hida konro (clay stove). Our waitress rubbed a lump of fatty beef on it, before searing the slices of mid-grade wagyu on it. Xenri plans to use Meltique beef (processed using a variation of the French larding technique) for this dish.

Xenri D'Garden Terrace
Lot No. 2-04, 2nd Floor
Podium Block, Menara Hap Seng
Jalan P Ramlee
50250 Kuala Lumpur


+603-2078 6688

Xenri Group (M) web site

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Long Decade

On that day, I was getting off a bus at Taman Tun Dr Ismail when I saw the burning towers on the newsstand. The days that followed passed in a blur. Far removed from the scene of the largest terrorist attack in the US, something of it reached our shores.

'A Decade of Hope'
Several days later, the workplace was evacuated due to a bomb threat. I remember feeling more relieved than panicked; it'd been a lousy day and I couldn't wait to leave.

There were wars in the Middle East. Regimes toppled. Reprisals. But they couldn't get the one who was said to have inspired the 9-11 attacks.

Until May 2, 2011.

After all the anger and blood, however, one wonders whether any ghosts have been exorcised at all with the killing of the avowed terrorist leader.

That's the impression I got after finishing A Decade of Hope. This seemingly hasty compilation of interviews by Dennis Smith, with the editorial assistance of his daughter Deirdre, appears to be some attempt at burying the spectre of 9-11 with stories of how New Yorkers coped with the change wrought by the 19 airplane hijackers and the loss of friends and loved ones on that day.

Most of those featured are first responders to the tragedy: firefighters, police personnel and paramedics, with a civilian or two and the token American Muslim. And most of them are still grieving. Some cannot forgive. But all of them cannot forget, and aren't likely to.

The choice of interviewees may be more than coincidence; Smith was a firefighter before he became a writer, and it would've been easier to speak to people within that group. That would explain the strong firehouse camaraderie emanating from the pages.

I found the book a long, laborious and lugubrious read, mostly because I couldn't relate to any of the interviewees. Should I be moved, inspired? Is the publication of the book meant to be cathartic, the push we all need to move on?

Many of the interviews are lengthy, and while preserving as much of each as possible honours the spirit of the book, some substantial editing could've helped make space for a few more points-of-view. For one, there's too much background info on the interviewees and the people who died.

That some of the characters refer to each other throughout the book reinforces the - dare I say it? - the cliquishness of the collection. Over 3,000 was said to have perished that day; surely there were more people who'd be willing to come forward with their stories? Apart from the first responders?

Given the superhuman expectations we mere mortals have for first responders, seeing these men and women of steel grieve and bleed in the face of the disaster would show us the enormity of what happened to them and what they went through. It does, but I don't think it affected me the way the author wanted it.

The shadow of terrorism is still with us, but 9-11 just doesn't have the same gravitas these days. Bin Laden is gone, and Bush is no longer president. And we have other worries keeping us up at night.

The author has good intentions, which makes me ashamed to feel this way. Despite the honest, heartfelt outpouring of grief and hope, I just couldn't empathise; were I to try I'd end up sounding glib. Nor can I imagine the weight of the burdens they've borne and will continue to bear.

Nevertheless, whatever has been said about their leaders and foreign policy, one should note that the views and behaviours of a government don't always reflect those of the populace. Nobody deserves a 9-11.

With Bin Laden's death, the Americans can sigh away a collective breath held for ten long years; for many, some measure of justice has been reportedly done. But Smith's collection of voices suggest that the healing has only begun and that full closure may only be a matter of hope.

This point of view is based on an advance reading copy.

A Decade of Hope
Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends

Dennis Smith, Deirdre Smith
Viking (2011)
356 pages
ISBN: 978-0-670-02293-9

Monday, 12 March 2012

News: Authorship Has No Privileges? And E-Books Are Like Apps?

"You have no right to make money anymore"
Seth Godin, whose book Stop Selling Dreams was kept out of Apple's iBooks store because of the buy-from-Amazon URLs in that book, has apparently come out and told authors to drop any sense of entitlement (like the big fat advances) and go out there and fight to hawk their wares. "Who said you have a right to cash money from writing?" he said. "I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. I’ve written more than 4000 blog posts for free."

Authorship ain't the fabled aerie in the arts no more, what with indie publishers and self-published e-books bucking trends and flooding markets. But no complaints from Godin, it seems. "Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word–over."

He's got something to say about libraries and literary agents as well.

...So, still wanna be a writer?

Books: From Hardware to Software
Writing for the Guardian, Frédéric Filloux argues that, as books go digital, publishers will look more and more like software houses. And like software houses, publishers need to 'debug' their 'apps', i.e. e-books to distinguish themselves from the pack.

"Like the app business where abundance creates a need for more human-powered guidance and suggestions," says the general manager of the French ePresse consortium, "book sections of magazines and newspapers will have to adapt and find ways to efficiently suggest e-readings to their audience. ... The most potent selection tool will remain the quality of the product."

...So I left that field only to return to it?

Filloux may think that Apple is a quality app provider, but somebody at TIME thinks the late Steve Job's company should avoid vetting books for publishability.

Future of Books at Bath Lit Fest
At the Independent Bath Literature Festival, the future of the book, discussed. Hardbacks will become luxuries (as they'd been before Gutenberg came along), and authors will become "brands".

What Charlie Redmayne, CEO of JK Rowling's online venture Pottermore, said about publishers more or less concurs with Godin's exhortation to authors to 'come out more':

"...publishers should learn from the fate of the music world. Just as record companies make money only by sending artists out to play live, book publishers will expect authors to promote themselves more – to have a media 'presence,' acquire followers on Facebook and Twitter, interface with current readers and fans and establish a 'community' to buy their books on Day One."

Oh, and spend lots of time at literary festivals.

(Speaking of Rowling: it's been reported that she's no longer a billionaire, thanks to "Britain's high tax regime" that left her with "less than £640 million in the bank." How. SAD.)

Some E-Reader Pitfalls
E-book readership is growing, but are e-reader devices selling? Right now, says ZDNet, the market is dominated by the iPad, Barnes & Noble's Nook and the Amazon Kindle - all of which are from companies that are not playing nice with each other.

A major problem, claims CBSNews, when consumers ditch one platform for another. I wouldn't really know about that; though file formats such as EPUB are 'universal', issues such as ownership rights (when I 'buy' off iBooks, do I really get to keep it?) will mean that buyers will think twice before pulling an e-reader off the shelves. That, and the hefty prices (I think) of e-readers.

Other News
  • The £130,000 (RM617,022) Sheikh Zayed Book Award for the "best literature in the Arab world" has reportedly been withheld because all candidates weren't up to mark. The advisory council for the Abu Dhabi-based award came to this decision after six titles were "longlisted" (shouldn't it be "shortlisted"?) for the honour. ...It's kind of like the Burj Khalifah of book awards, isn't it?
  • A collection of World War II memories from residents of a retirement home became a surprise hit. More on the book, World War II Remembered, here.
  • The Syrian tumult is keeping the country's publishing houses from the Riyadh International Book Fair. For the first time in six years, Syrian publishing houses were absent from the event but, from the report's headline, it looks like their presence was not missed much. However, "Abdul Aziz Khoja, [Saudi Arabia's] Minister of Culture and Information, expressed his regret over the no-show of Syrian publishing houses."
  • In You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, Nick Cohen says you can't always read the books you want. "...not because they have been banned but because they have not been written."
  • UK-based e-publisher HopeRoad continues being a platform for Caribbean, Asian and African writers.
  • One of the last of his kind: book scout Wayne Pernu.
  • Trying to donate books to a library? It can be painful, as one donor in New York learns.
  • As libraries are threatened with closure in the US, a book-printing machine comes to the Brooklyn Public Library.
  • Some more self-publishing successes. And oh, look, a housewife scored a book deal with Harlequin. More endorsement for the genre. How many more "shades of grey" will be written about?
  • Oh yeah... about those Nazi myth-busting Mein Kampf excerpts? No go.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ruby Red Reads

I had the fortune of proofing Adibah Amin's As I Was Passing I and II and Glimpses for e-publication several weeks ago. A lot of reading, which has left me mentally tapped (on top of a much less interesting manuscript that followed).

The three volumes were mostly compiled from bite-sized articles from her old column in the New Straits Times, "As I Was Passing", written under the pen name Sri Delima (the glimmer of a ruby). Put together, the three books are a love letter to Malaysia, Malaysians and Malaysiana.

Books by Adibah Amin: 'As I Was Passing' volumes I and II, and 'Glimpses'
Books by Adibah Amin: As I Was Passing Volumes I and II,
and Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life

Her anecdotal essays, crisp and humorous, open windows into the heart and soul of this country, past and present. She dissects the Malaysian psyche and its quirks and idiosyncrasies with relish and abandonment, poking fun at her subjects with affection not unlike an old teacher (which she is) putting ex-students in their place with fond reminiscences of misadventures and mischief past. Through it all, she displays a keen sense for the foibles of others and a keener sense of humour about her own follies.

The existence of text scanning errors warranted a line-by-line examination, which meant I had to read the books for errors. That it took longer than necessary to complete the tasks had little to do with the number of errors, however. And there weren't many to begin with.

The writing surprised me. So succinct, so simple! Her economy of words and vocabulary enhanced the effect she, perhaps, didn't consciously try to achieve.

One book. Just one of her books. Any one. Pick it up and read, really read it. Don't you dare skim or 'flip through' the pages.

Do this, and I can guarantee that all your writerly aspirations will be consigned to a deep, dark grave.

The angles! The succinctness in the storytelling! The efficient exposition of Malaysian cultures, fables and foibles. The twang of your heartstrings as something familiar is so vividly described, before the pang that follows when you realise that it's from a past you can never return to.

What's her secret? Probably an eventful life well-lived, well-observed and well-told, her pen sharpened and coloured by years of experience.

(That I'm fumbling over this quasi-review/commentary of her work just deepens the hurt.)

You will put the book down, stumble to your bed like walking through deep water, slowly slither into the sheets and curl up in there and waste away, like your dreams of the next great Malaysian novel or short story collection.

Everything you've ever written, every literary trick, every commercial gimmick you've employed in your middling attempts to tug at heartstrings or hit a nerve, your personal collection of painstakingly compiled library obscure words and catchphrases... all rubbish, irrelevant, old hat. Before Sri Delima's innate touch in conveying so much with so little, you are but the emperor with his 'new' clothes.

Above all, you will break all your pens and swear never to pick one up again - not even to edit or mark papers.

Forget about being the next doyen/doyenne of Malaysiana. Somebody had done it, in a way the likes of which will probably never be seen again for a long, long time.

(So shoo, shoo, go and write about something else. Vampires, maybe?)

...Okay, maybe there are a few things that I didn't like. For one, she has her own collection of stockphrases. Instead of "Tom, Dick and Harry", she uses "the Azmis, the Angs and the Arumugams" (pretty good alliteration, actually). Certain anecdotes are replayed. And the aliases: "EF"? "GH"? Invent some names, for crying out loud! And every repeated "ants won't die in her tread" (a supposedly Malay description of supreme feminine gentleness) urged me further and further into a formicidal rage.

...Okay, I was just nitpicking back there. Maybe she does struggle to come up with a topic and meet deadlines - late nights and all that (she hints at that in one of her books but I can't remember which one). And after all, is it not the wont of column writers to repeat certain words, especially when the time between columns is long enough that the repetition is not noticeable?

With these 'glimpses' into our past, present and psyches, Adibah Amin has managed to capture the essence of who we are and what Malaysia is, and more (wow, look at me pile on the book review tropes).

We want to climb trees and steal fruit, ride bicycles through villages (and scare some chickens), sit through bangsawan and dondang sayang performances and play games that require more than just two fingers.

We long for Malaysian hawker favourites the way they used to be made; the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of our hometowns; the clamour in a kin-packed house, the market, and a village feast.

We yearn for the days when our neighbours were almost like family, when we could laugh at ourselves and toss jokes without causing offence, when those who asked for help really needed it - not like these days when crooks and conmen take advantage of the good Samaritan in you.

But you probably won't feel like hiring maids. You'll be wary of polite but cash-strapped "foreigners." And the plight of the young couple, held hostage by tradition and bossy relatives who rarely visit, will infuriate anyone. "Let them hold their simple wedding ceremony! Big dos are expensive these days. You rant, rave and sulk about being defaced with charcoal when you see them maybe once a year or so, flapping your lips so freely when it's not your money, your children. What nerve! What gall!"

...She's good. They just don't make writers like that anymore.

Sadly, Cikgu Adibah has stopped writing entirely since suffering a stroke several years ago. I can't imagine what she feels about the current state of this country... nobody needs that kind of stress.

And when the glimmer of a certain ruby finally fades away, the loss of a warmer, friendlier and more innocent era and the voices of that time so well preserved in these books will be more keenly felt than before.

This piece was later published in The Malaysian Insider, 16 March 2012. I was surprised they accepted the submission. Many thanks to The Malaysian Insider.

I know, I'm not supposed to shill for books published by my employers, but these are some of the best reads I've seen in a while.

Besides: E-book versions of Adibah Amin's As I Was Passing Volumes I and II and Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life will be out soon. Details to come.

As I Was Passing
Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2007)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-06-6

Buy from MPHOnline.com

As I Was Passing II
Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2007)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-08-0

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Cameos of Malaysian Life

Adibah Amin
MPH Group Publishing (2008)
ISBN: 978-983-3698-58-5

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

More News: Random House, Slate And Publishing

Publisher Random House triples the prices of e-books they sell to libraries. A slightly more detailed report by The Huffington Post says that libraries were informed that "wholesale charges for e-books would rise by more than 20 percent for new adult releases and more than double for new children's books."

The dawn of the immortal e-book that can be circulated without falling to pieces has put publishers in a bit of a spot, says the report. It is also noted that "HarperCollins' e-books 'expire' after 26 uses, Hachette and Macmillan only make part of their list available, and others like Penguin and Simon&Schuster don’t allow library lending at all."

The American Library Association has asked Random House to reconsider citing the financial pressures US libraries are also facing, as funding dries up and libraries close. "In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically," said ALA president Molly Raphael in a statement.

  • Slate finally gets a book review section. Followers of Slate should be excited, but if you're a book reviewer, some of the stuff already published may shrink your reviewer's balls to the point of dessication.
  • It seems that book publishers in India aren't familiar with the concept of buying rights to sell foreign books, or that books, like music, are subject to copyrights.
  • Get your book e-published for a traditional book deal. But would you wanna? Rachel Abbott, author of Kindle hit Only the Innocent, reportedly turned down a deal "because it didn't feel right." But it seems the book needs some ... touching up.
  • Nine foreign words the English language "desperately" needs. ...I guess you can call me a "pilkunnussija". More such words here ... is there a book?
  • Are painters of Hindi pulp novel covers going the way of movie poster painters?
  • Some more tips on pimping your book. Because you can never have enough tips.
  • Eight bad book blurbs by good writers, including Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides. Guess some people are just better at long-form writing.
  • The "gay marriage" issue of the Archie comic has sold out, despite 'concerns' raised by conservative US group One Million Moms.

    Archie Comics co-chief exec John Goldwater: "We're sorry the American Family Association/OneMillionMoms.com feels so negatively about our product, but they have every right to their opinion, just like we have the right to stand by ours. Kevin Keller will forever be a part of Riverdale, and he will live a happy, long life free of prejudice, hate and narrow-minded people." A-men.
  • When writers censor themselves - and why.
  • Can writing as a career affect what one writes for art? Personal experience says it does, but I reckon there will be exceptions.
  • A new French law passed to deal with the issue of orphan works - "out of print, still-in-copyright books, films, photographs, etc. whose rightsholders can't be found" - makes Google Book Settlement look good.
  • "If you’re a book publisher, you’ve got the blues real bad." Crikey rubs it in - with salt.

Monday, 5 March 2012

News: Amazon, E-Book Censors And Seth Godin's Bad Apple

Why Jim Hanas and Others Cried "No More Amazon!"
In the midst of the Amazon vs IPG saga, author Jim Hanas has removed the Amazon "Buy" button from his web site for his short story collection, Why They Cried. The book was one of the titles distributed by IPG and yanked from Amazon's catalogue due to pricing issues between the two companies.

No big deal, right? Wrong, as Hanas explains, "...in my case — since my book has no print edition — it is much worse. My book page has vanished entirely. Reviews, summary, everything."

Hanas is only one of a slowly growing list of those who are dropping Bezos's online shopping behemoth. Oklahoma-based children's books publisher Education Development Corp decided to "stop selling to distributors that sell through Amazon in an effort to cut all ties to the Seattle-based company." EDC CEO Randall White went so far as to call Amazon a "predator" that "doesn't sell anything."

E-book social networking site Copia picked up the ball Amazon dropped by running sales on some of the titles pulled off the Kindle Store.

...But wait, is the "predator" changing its stripes? Or is that merely a diversionary tactic?

The New e-Gatekeepers
Apple, meanwhile, has allegedly refused to list Seth Godin's book in its online store because of the URLs to Amazon in the book's reference section, prompting the author to ask, who decides what gets sold in bookstores?

"First, because the web, like your mind, works best when it's open," states Godin. "Second, because once bookstores start to censor the books they carry ... then the door is open for any interest group to work hard to block books with which they disagree. Where does the line get drawn?" Where indeed.

Though e-books and self-publishing may have freed writers from the tyranny of the traditional publishing model, Apple's decision to not list Godin's book looks purely business-driven. Are these new gatekeepers, partly responsible for this new freedom, now retreating into the bastions of old to hold their positions in a borderless, more fluid publishing landscape?

Online transactions company Paypal has also begun blocking payments for an online publisher for material deemed obscene. "I've always believed fiction writers and readers should have the freedom to explore diverse topics and situations in the privacy of their own mind," said Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, one of what I think are the affected publishers.

Maybe, but when you start fantasising about rape, incest and the like and put it out in public, don't you...

Oh, right.

...Well, when a work of fiction is entirely about gratuitously graphic depictions of those kinds of things, maaaaybe someone should step in with some guidelines and put the foot down. But I agree with Coker's opinion that it's not Paypal's job: "When you sign up to a financial system you should not be required to look to it to provide you with moral correction."

How much of this has to do with the creeping influence of the far right in the US?

Dawn of the Niche Press
How can small publishers can get a leg up on the big ones? Hint: go niche, like small press Allium in Chicago that's reportedly filling a gap by producing fiction set in that city.

Small presses can also take big risks, which can pay off big. British publisher Hesperus Press, for instance, has acquired the UK rights to a Swedish bestseller with sales figures nearly as long as the title. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a "laugh-out-loud funny, page-turning" novel that was turned down by some publishers (not named in the Guardian report). The MD of Hesperus thinks it might have been the "poor" quality of the original translation.

Niche-playing may lead to bigger things. Literary journal McSweeney's, for instance, is now an indie publishing house.

So...is it time for French-style niche publishing in India?

Google Slashes eBookstore Affiliates
Google as announced cuts its e-book affiliate programme. It appears that the number of referrals are too low, and Google is now limiting the number of affiliates to entities that are most likely to bring in the most hits.

Under this programme, affiliates: retailers, bloggers, publishers and other web site owners get between 6 and 10 per cent of a book's selling price, depending on the number of sales referred to Google's eBookstore. This rate is said to be higher than the Amazon counterpart.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Dear Mr Wolfgang Stockhausen...

First, let me thank you for your comments ("Amerigo's the man", 26 February 2012) regarding my review of Laurence Bergreen's Columbus: The Four Voyages.

Alas, I could only remember one reference Bergreen made to Vespucci in the book: near the end, where he states that the "New World" was named after the Florentine explorer. However, I can't recall if he explains how that came to be. I believe Bergreen was trying to keep his writings from straying too far from the book's central figure, so not much was mentioned about Amerigo Vespucci.

My wayward pen tends to run away when reviewing things, so I try to keep my piece within the perimeters of the book itself, and not the subject. Unfortunately, this also means that some salient points, such as the origins of America's name, are likely to escape notice. My thanks for pointing that out (this is why people should write to newspapers).

The German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller is believed to have named the new continent for Vespucci in 1507. By the time Waldseemüller had second thoughts, a large number of maps had been distributed with the name, so it stuck. I don't think it occurred to Vespucci to give his own name to the New World.

Nor was Columbus on the look-out for a new land mass. He'd promised his royal Spanish patrons the fabled riches of China, India and maybe Japan: gold, spices and the like. From the book, one feels his fear of failing to live up to their expectations as well as his own.

Although Bergreen suggests that Columbus may have eventually realised that he stumbled upon a whole new continent, others posit that the Genoan mariner died believing he'd reached the shores of Asia.

I'd written this reply about six days earlier and sent it to The Star first; they published it on 11 March 2012.

In this version, the second paragraph is restructured, and the last line in the fifth paragraph is removed.

Friday, 2 March 2012

"It's An Election Year..."

So many voices have been raised over this matter that I felt mine wasn't necessary. My problem, however, is that I can't seem to keep my mouth shut.

Despite the financial and logistical problems that I'm sure will crop up, Erykah Badu responded with incredibly good grace towards the government's 11th-hour-and-58th-minute cancellation of her concert which would've taken place on Wednesday.

Badu also left a Facebook message about the ban, and I couldn't help chuckling sadly at the last line: "It's an election year." Or something like that. Did you see it?

Hailing from the US, Badu should know about election years. This year's campaign waged by George W Bush's party to replace Barack Obama is perhaps the dirtiest I've ever witnessed. The blatant racism and misogyny, the smug, self-righteous snootiness of the rich, the lies, half-truths and money being thrown around... Outsiders would wonder if the "United" in USA is mere rhetoric.

I pull my head out of the computer screen and, whaddya know, it's election year here too. At least, it feels like it.

Publishing the photo may have been "irresponsible", but so are the threats of violence and death to the purported 'offenders', and suggestions that the paper did it on purpose to inflame passions.

"Oh no, the cancellation will not affect our country's image at all."

Yeah. Right.

And when - or if - Badu plays in Jakarta, I can imagine the number of tweets dari seberang gleefully chortling at our missed opportunity.