Sunday, 29 April 2012

"Z" Marks The Spot

Could this book hold clues to the location of a lost city?

Spain was the first world power back in the day to arrive in the Americas. Its conquistadors had left quite an impression on the land and its natives, and gave the rest of us chilli, chocolate, Che Guevara, Ricky Martin, Shakira, Hugo Chavez, the FARC, Shining Path and Latin American telenovelas.

“The Lost City of Z”
The image of the conquistador as a savage, greedy and hubristic prick with little to no knowledge, empathy or respect for foreign cultures is a familiar stereotype. The impact of such an image deepens when one sees similar traits in some modern armies. Today, they invade, fight and kill for oil or diamonds. Back then, they did it all for gold.

In some accounts the contrast between the New World and the Old is made deliberately stark: the armoured, bearded white man, versus the barely clothed cinnamon-skinned native who can't understand the former's obsession for the shiny yellow metal the latter finds on occasion.

Thus, the absurdity of measuring an object's worth by how it glistens in the sun and imagination is brought into focus.

A jungle mirage
From what they saw at places such as Tenochtitlan, and maybe because of fevers contracted from the jungle, the conquistadors believed many other such cities existed within the green hell that is the Amazon. Nobody is certain who was responsible for the old chestnut called El Dorado, a king so rich he covered himself with gold dust. The fever, however, has spread and persisted for centuries afterwards.

Former British soldier Percy Fawcett became convinced of the existence of one such mythical city, which he dubbed "Z", and set out to find it in 1925. His fate, like that of El Dorado, became a matter of speculation. Scores have failed, died or gone missing while looking for him and his lost city.

I'd first learned about Z from a Reader's Digest publication, Great Mysteries of the Past (1991). You pick up some amazing things from their books, pre-Wikipedia. With so much out there, a book can be a stable starting point for a paper chase. The book was also where I'd learnt how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry vanished during a reconnaissance flight in World War II.

How fascinating, I thought. But would I ever see the closing chapters?

In 2008, de Saint-Exupéry's disappearance was apparently answered when a German pilot claimed he may have shot down the French author's plane, but that claim is disputed. But between the two, the story of Z was more compelling.

And one day, the sequel - and a possible ending - stumbled in like an unexpected guest.

Lost no more?
Literary journalist David Grann, author of the well-spoken-of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, wrote what looks like a dispatch from the Amazon where, he says, the lost city might have existed upon a time. It's an enlightening, revelatory piece that makes sense in the light of other discoveries and theories about several other lost civilisations. The Lost City of Z was named Barnes and Noble's single best non-fiction book of 2009 and received good reviews.

Lt Major Percy Fawcett
Percy Fawcett, explorer at large
Earlier, I'd read a similarly intriguing National Geographic article of the rise and fall of the Maya. Around the time the piece was written, climate change was emerging as a hot topic, and experts contend that the weather, together with overdevelopment, deforestation and, perhaps, the unsustainable luxurious lifestyles of the elite contributed to the decline or collapse of some old civilisations, including the Maya and Khmer.

One report suggested that, where the Maya was concerned, prolonged, minor reductions in rainfall were enough to push the civilisation closer to the brink. Makes you wonder just how screwed up the water management system had to be.

But if Grann is correct, the Maya and Aztec weren't the only city-builders in the continent. Some of the native tribes that now live in the Amazon jungle, he suggests, may have once been a metropolitan bunch. In his dispatch, he meets archaeologist Michael Heckenberger at a dig site in the Amazon.

"I want to show you something," Heckenberger said at one point.

... After walking for a mile or so, we reached an area where the forest thinned. Heckenberger pointed to the ground with his machete. "See how the land dips?" he asked.

Indeed, the ground seemed to slope downward for a long stretch, then tilt upward again, as if someone had carved out an enormous ditch.

"It's a moat," Heckenberger said.

"What do you mean, a moat?"

"A moat. A defensive ditch." He added, "From nearly nine hundred years ago."

... Heckenberger said that the moat had originally been between a dozen and sixteen feet deep, and about fifty feet wide. It was nearly a mile in diameter. I thought of "the long, deep ditches" that the spirit Fitsi-fitsi was said to have built around settlements. "The Kuikuros knew they existed, but they didn't realize that their own ancestors had built them," Heckenberger said.

Heckenberger also pointed out several other features of what he says used to be a vast ancient settlement: walls, plazas, canals, causeways, and possibly roads to other similar settlements. He'd also found broken pottery at the site.

It was understandable why Fawcett wouldn't have been able to see it, Heckenberger went on. "There isn't a lot of stone in the jungle, and most of the settlement was built with organic materials—wood and palms and earth mounds—which decompose," he said. "But once you begin to map out the area and excavate it you are blown away by what you see."

So there may have been cities in the Amazon once, just not the gigantic gilt Xanadus dreamed up by malarial conquistadors and legend-seeking white explorers. So what? Why is it so hard to accept that ancients humans used to be capable of a lot of things, without the aid of gods or aliens?

Besides, these ancients didn't really vanish. After surviving what Heckenberger calls "a holocaust from European contact", the formerly settlement-dwelling Indians gradually adopted a more low-key lifestyle - like how some dinosaurs apparently shrunk and learned to fly. "That's why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find," he concludes.

"Poor Fawcett—he was so close," said Grann's local guide, Paolo Pinage.

The past can return
What Heckenberger found so far, in my opinion, lends weight to the fragility of what we refer to as 'modern civilisation'.

For instance: Radio interviews a while back suggest that Selangor doesn't have a proper contingency plan that would prevent what happened in 1998 when taps ran dry in parts of the Klang Valley. What would happen if a similar drought repeats itself?

We can't say much about people thousands of years ago, but with our science and technology, surely it's a cop-out to blame the climate for everything and not take some responsibility for how we're trashing our environment with our wild ways.

Before we know it, we could be on the verge of a similar cataclysm that ended civilisations symbolised by Fawcett's lost city of Z. Bereft of all that our modern, fast-paced civilisation depends upon, would we see or learn to accept the wilderness we once scorned as our salvation?

Monday, 23 April 2012

Apple Trouble, Pulitzer Snub, And Seeing Red At LBF

Apple Lawsuit News Round-up
Are we all sick of "Apple vs DoJ" and "Amazon wins"? I am. I'm following the developments but I can't be bothered to comment at length about each stage or revelation that surfaces. So here's a list of links.

Last week, publishers Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon &Schuster were reportedly seeking a settlement with the US Department of Justice regarding allegations of them colluding with Apple to fix prices of e-books.

What does Apple say about it? "See you in court." But not in Europe, apparently, where it and most of the named publishers have reportedly decided to settle with the EU competition commission. Now, it seems Canada wants to sue Apple for e-book price-fixing, too.

Some others also wonder who's the real price fixer: Apple or Amazon? For one, the indie book publishers feel it's Amazon that's the 800lb gorilla. There's also the opinion that book publishing is staring at a dilemma similar to that faced by the music industry back when music started going digital.

While speculation has begun over what the Apple lawsuit will mean for readers, somebody asks: Who was the stool pigeon in the case?

Meanwhile, in the Amazon jungle...
Jeff Bezos speaks to Amazon's shareholders in a written annual addresss. "...even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation," he said at one point. Care to guess who these "gatekeepers" might be?

Amazon also bought the US licensing rights for Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, allowing it to republish the titles. The time limit is ten years.

Pulitzer fiction flap
The decision to not award a Pulitzer for fiction this year outraged the publishing industry, as well as the Prize's jurors who worked hard to pick the finalists.

Peeved over the snub, some publishers offered their 'winning' picks. Said Ann Patchett of the decision, "This was the year we all lost."

It seems that the rules say that a title must obtain a clear majority vote to win. The three shortlisted titles: Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and the unfinished The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace did not get the required number of votes.

The ...kerfuffle? ...has sparked some calls for the rules to be changed. But just how significant are such prizes in the era of the million-dollar fanfic?

Seeing red at the 2012 London Book Fair
Chinese author Ma Jian's protest paints London Book Fair red.

Also at the Fair, a reporter's encounters with China's book censors, the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP)... were not pretty. One instance:

At the information desk, staffed by young Chinese women studying in the UK, I asked whether Gao Xingjian, the Nobel Laureate, would be speaking. None had heard of him. I said he lived just over the Channel in Paris. One of the young women said: "Then he's not a Chinese, right?" I said he was indeed, had lived most of his life there, and had resigned from the Party. They looked embarrassed.

...When [a lackey] asked [her boss] in Chinese if they had Gao's books he said, in English, that Gao wasn't a Chinese and that, like all foreigners, "he lied about China." I asked him what sort of lies. He said in Chinese to his young assistant, "Don’t talk to this foreigner." I told him in Chinese I could understand every word he had said, whereupon he told me, in English, "You're a shit." I replied, Bici, bici, ... the feeling is mutual.

Read the whole thing. Online and offline, it looks like the China's censors can't operate without being standoffish.

Other news
  • Our National Library is targetting to have 28,000 new book titles by 2015. Would that number include e-books? If it does, easy-peasy. Will the potential tsunami of local e-books give rise to our own 50 Tona Kelabu?
  • How (some) book publishers decide what to publish. Can be instructional.
  • More writing tips: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do. From the Los Angeles Festival of Books, three pieces of writing advice from "great" non-fiction writers Tom Bissell, Mark Dery and David Bellos.
  • Lauren Myracle responds to being on US library association's list of most frequently challenged books of 2011.
  • The activity that dare not speak its name: a guy's mom's secret writing life.
  • Has Kindle killed the book cover industry? Some may argue "yes". To emphasise the point, Booktango introduces a free feature for designing e-book covers.
  • The story behind Germany's low e-book sales. Maybe it explains the culture that gives the EU competition commission its teeth.
  • "Would you blurb my book, Mr Mansbach?" Adam Mansbach, in short: "Go the f— to sleep."

Ah, and there's the KL International Book Fair 2012 from 27 April to 6 May at PWTC. Going there this Saturday might be a bit tough, though....

Sunday, 22 April 2012

MPH Quill Annual Issue 2012

Cover story for the Quill Annual issue 2012: Tan Sri Dato' Dr David Lai, CEO of housing developer Bandacaya Group.

Phillip Matthews asks whether great editors are born or evolved; Ellen Whyte talks about her obsession with book placement.

Kashini Krishnamurthy delves into the lair of the sleeping giant that is the Malay publishing industry; we catch up with Jeremy Chin, author of Fuel, one year on.

We also have Lau Siew May (Playing Madame Mao and The Dispeller of Worries) talks about the art of writing fiction; Shantini Suntharajah waxes lyrical (almost) over bookshops.

Mary Schneider introduces the old Penang through an old soldier's postcard collection; Tom Sykes explores the genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Third World literature of protest.

The Quill April-June 2012 issue is also out, too. Get them both now.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A Roast To Toast

This article was originally a blog post that languished in the drafts pool since the end of March. Which may explain the minute omissions of one or two details, such as the actual business hours (listed at the bottom) and that it costs RM1 to swap the milk with Bonsoy.

A roast to toast
The welcoming vibes at this neighbourhood café keep 'em coming back

first published in The Star, 21 April 2012

"Starbucks with sarongs" is not how I would describe Artisan Roast TTDI. But it's satisfactory enough as an introduction. I'm not even sure the staff wear sarongs all the time these days.

Two things to note when entering: ambience and aroma.
Welcome to Artisan Roast TTDI.

My first visit to Artisan Roast was an adventure. I almost got lost.

Part of a café concept founded in Scotland, Artisan Roast KL is owned by Michael Wilson and Amirah Mohd. Artisan Roast (AR) sources, roasts and packs its own beans and, back at its old place at Yayasan Seni Berdaftar (along Persiaran Jalan Ritchie in KL), none of their beverages were priced above RM10.

Talking to a customer are (at left) Michael Wilson and Amirah
who run Artisan Roast

The fresh, fragrant brews, made from freshly ground Brazilian Carmo beans, needed no sweetening, either. Even after the coffee had cooled way down, the thick lines of latte art and the foam they sat on held firm.

The coffee was good. The atmosphere was good. But we never went back. Nor could we.

As it's often the case these days, the news came from Facebook.

Artisan Roast was moving.

Its new digs at Taman Tun Dr Ismail are bigger, better equipped and more comfortable, being air conditioned and all. With a proper kitchen, meals and other stuff can be made from scratch as advertised. Located next to the big Maybank branch on Lorong Rahim Kajai 14, TTDI's well-known nightspot strip, it was easy to find - unlike parking.

Light reading at Artisan Roast TTDI

And unlike the old days when it was in YSB, Artisan Roast TTDI has a larger, steadier clientèle. Good, because the place needs the business.

However, gone are the serenity, open spaces and clean air. Will it become a victim of its own success as the crowd swells?

In keeping with the artisanal vibe of the brand, AR's interior has fewer polished lines and surfaces than most modern cafés. Tall benches and chairs and tables that are more like wooden beams emanate a bar-like feel. A nook of low tables and cushions at the back provides more space for family gatherings and meetings.

...Hmm. Definitely not Starbucks, then

Most of the walls are bare brick, save for some surfaces decorated with murals, some of which are half-finished. When the baristas get to work, expect half the room to smell real good.

Drinking coffee or tea here feels more natural. AR is essentially a bar for teetotallers. I was also told that some bar-goers in the area drop by for a caffeine jolt to help stretch their nights.

AR serves its own cakes, pastries, sandwiches and savoury muffins. But the a la carte menu is limited. At the moment, you can choose either eggs on toast or pancakes with caramelised bananas and whipped cream, sprinkled with cinnamon, both cooked from scratch. It's worth the wait. The menu is also evolving, bringing the promise of more scratch-kitchen yummies in the future.

Killer pancakes with ambrosial caramelised bananas.
Too much whipped cream, though.

Everything in the display chiller comes out from the kitchen as well. The Sicilian Apple Cake seems popular; one night I was there, they sold five slices within an hour.

Each rustic-looking slice looks like a cluster of apple cubes and sunflower or pumpkin seeds held together by a bit of cake sponge. I bet one slice of their Carrot Cake can improve your night vision straight away.

Other tasty treats include the Cheeeeeeeeese Cake which is worth every "E" and every sen you pay. I've found that The Zesty Lemon Slice goes particularly well with hot coffees. The Millionaire Shortbread was nice with its layer of chocolate and all, but my preferences lean towards hoi polloi shortbread.

See? "Cheeeeeeeeese Cake!" Count the "Es".

I shan't say much about their coffees. Crowds don't lie, they say. If you're curious about what they're serving, ask the barista. Beans that have had their turns in the hopper include Sumatra Mandheling, Rwandan Musasa, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, El Salvadorean La Guachoca and those from Fazenda Lagoa do Morro in Brazil.

AR also serves Red Espresso, rooiboos tea that's prepared like espresso. The Red Latte is a great pick for caffeine-free nights - simply the most luxurious, sublime teh C kosong I've had. Another non-caffeine diversion is the Smoovie, AR's special concoction of banana, yoghurt and cinnamon. Those were the only ingredients I could taste.

Baristas at work

Nowadays, I spend at least a night or a weekend afternoon at AR, nursing one of their beverages for a while before washing it down with free filtered water. Prices are also reasonable: Most of their beverages go for between RM5 and RM10 and cakes/pastries are between RM2 to RM10. One can also pay a little more to go lactose-free with Bonsoy. Plus, the benefit of a (supposedly) cooler crowd.

But I miss the quiet. And playlist needs more tunes.

Artisan Roast TTDI
4, Lorong Rahim Kajai 14,
Taman Tun Dr Ismail

Daily, 7:30am (weekdays) or 8am (weekends) to midnight

+603-7733 6397

Web site | Facebook page

Friday, 20 April 2012

Perils Of Possessiveness

In my defence, I did not write that title or standfirst. But the rest was all me. Not that it matters.

Maybe it was the psychological portraiture of the "mama's boy" that I didn't like, rather than the writing. The writing was fine.

Mama's boy
A prize-winning author gives us a sad sob story about a sad sack of a man

first published in The Star, 20 April 2012

I guess it's true what they say: classics, bestsellers and prize-winners are not for everybody.

“The Mirage” by Naguib Mahfouz
Struggling past three chapters of this book felt like hacking through a dense bamboo thicket. The narrative is noisy, and I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters or the problems they faced. Maybe writing this in the voice of an emotional mama's boy wasn't a good idea.

In this edition of The Mirage, translated from the original Arabic published in 1948, the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) channels the voice of Kamil Ru'ba, who was raised by his mum. His mother, a powerful presence in his life, is dead and he's taken up the pen to deal with his issues.

Even before his life's story begins, we get a sense of the emotionally intense and confused, selfish and immature person Kamil is. His behaviour throughout the novel emphasises that perception. The places and times in his life just melt into the background in the heat of his pain, his neuroses, and his disappointments. Kamil's Egypt barely exists.

Scarred by the abuse and broken promises of his drunkard father, Kamil's mum becomes overly protective of him. His sheltered upbringing, naturally, does not prepare him for life's disappointments and nasty turns. He can't make friends. He's a below average student. He can't be trusted to live on his own. On top of that, it seems as though he's inherited his father's love for drink and melodrama.

But not everything he does ends badly at first. Though he successfully courts and marries his sweetheart, the relationship sours due to "medical complications", and for the umpteenth time his world starts crumbling. Then he meets and begins an affair with a woman called Inayat but little changes – until tragedy strikes.

If it is Mahfouz's intention to embody this dislikeable character in his writing and subject us to his misery until our psyche buckles, the author has succeeded beyond measure. One fights an overwhelming urge to grab Kamil and shake him until he falls apart in one's hands. He's a flawed man, son, sibling and husband and he's candid about that.

And how he rambles! He can go on and on about his favourite bones of contention, chewing until they break into pieces. Even so, some of his rants could've benefited from better paragraphing. Every time I was faced with an over-20-line block of text, I was so tempted to skip – and I did. And yet, I don't feel I've missed much.

So I didn't get a "happy" storyline in The Mirage. No matter. Life isn't all sugar and spice, and it's to Mahfouz's credit that he manages to present such a convincing if perturbing portrait of this broken man. (Kudos also to the translators, whom I'm sure worked real hard to bring this novel into the Anglosphere.)

Even so, it is hard to read, and harder still to feel sorry for such a character – which might not be the point of the novel. While some will be annoyed, others who can identify parts of themselves with the troubled protagonist will surely be discomfited.

At the end, we are not sure if it is possible for this fellow, with so few redeeming qualities, to find any happiness that doesn't eventually waver and vanish like a mirage in the desert. Perhaps we're better off not knowing. Or am I missing the whole point of this sob story?

The Mirage
Naguib Mahfouz
Anchor (February 2012)
480 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307742582

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Plate Full? Chomp Chomp

Nowadays I wonder why I do this, but I'd like to think it helps keep me on my toes with regards to my deadlines. And it's the only way I keep track of books to be reviewed under the "personal" (blog) and "professional" (publication) categories.

Several unlikely titles made it into the list this time around. For the time being, they're all "personal" and most are ARCs.

  • Starters
    Lissa Price
    Doubleday (April 2012)
    336 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-857-53135-3
  • Catching The Sun
    Tony Parsons
    HarperCollins (2012)
    293 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-00-732781-2
  • In One Person
    John Irving
    Simon & Schuster (May 2012)
    427 pages
    ISBN: 978-1-4516-6412-6
  • The One and Only Ivan
    Katherine Applegate
    Harper (2012)
    305 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-06-199225-4
  • The Language of Flowers
    Vanessa Diffenbaugh
    Ballantyne Books (2012)
    367 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-553-84109-1
  • The Book of Madness and Cures
    Regina O'Melveny
    Little, Brown and Company (2012)
    314 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-316-19583-6

I first heard of Lissa Price's Starters, part one of a duology, from this "Big Idea" entry. Next thing I know, I have the ARC.

And Monsoon Books has some new titles I'm keen on - as soon as they arrive in stores.

  • Shadow Play
    Barbara Ismail
    Monsoon Books (April 2012)
    288 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4358-68-2
  • Jaipong Dancer
    Patrick Sweeting
    Monsoon Books (April 2012)
    368 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4358-73-6
  • Bali Raw
    Malcolm Scott
    Monsoon Books (April 2012)
    256 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4358-71-2

Also coming my way might be The Black Isle by Sandi Tan and the next instalment in Justin Cronin's vampire trilogy. Guess it's time to sweep the bookshelves.

Monday, 16 April 2012

News: DoJ vs Apple, And The Myracle Of Challenged Books

The earth shifted a little last week. So did the publishing landscape, when the United States' Department of Justice filed a suit against Apple and several publishers for allegedly fixing prices of e-books.

Many see these publisher's acceptance of the agency model suggested by Apple as a response to what is seen as Amazon's growing dominance over the publishing industry. Some believe that Amazon will emerge as the big winner in the clash, as fears of authors and smaller independent publishers getting trampled in the middle grow. This view appears to be more prevalent in this debate on The Huffington Post.

Online publisher Smashwords, however, will keep its agency pricing model, despite the DoJ's looming showdown with Apple. Helps when some of its books are less than US$3 and almost 15,000 of them are free....

Too much has been written about this over the week since the news broke, so I won't elaborate further. I'll say this though: E-book retailers should make it much easier for Malaysians to buy e-books, if they're concerned about piracy and stuff. And e-readers need to be cheaper. Then, perhaps, they can start talking about e-book prices.

Other news

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Flash Fiction

An author once said that an "utterly succinct and masterful" short story can be compared to caviar or fine dark chocolate. "Chocolate" best describes the very mixed box that is Without Anchovies,published by Silverfish Books in 2010. Though the simple cover helps it blend into the bookshelf, after your second pass along the aisle you can't help but be curious.

“Without Anchovies”
Chua Kok Yee's debut short story collection starts off normally, then takes a turn into darker, more bizarre territory at the end of the second tale, where a nightclub singer apparently answers a song request from beyond the grave.

What follows is a smorgasbord of day-to-day, action, crime, thrillers, more ghostly tales and strange happenings and a bit of comedy. The superbly scary "My Number One" and "Perfect Prefect" benefited from sharp, 90-degree turns from mundane to macabre, complete with hair-raising endings, so his budding reputation as our Edgar Allen Poe is more or less assured.

Among the new and strange are also shades of the familiar. The "last message from beyond" plot ("Dead Cougar"), and devices such as character continuity between stories ("Dinner" and "Cruel Mother") reminded me of Shih-Li Kow's Ripples – could it be because she and Chua took the same creative writing programme?

"Sambal Without Anchovies", which evokes the very Malaysian (or rather, Yasmin Ahmad's Malaysian) warmth, comfort and sweetness of freshly made nasi lemak, is the first, best and most well-crafted story in the collection. It's a brief, brilliant look at love, family and the generation gap that tugs the heartstrings.

However, many of the following stories couldn't match the mastery of the first. It's Hanif, his wife and the dad, Pak Samad who will be remembered long after the book is put down.

An author's first book is rarely his best. While it's not necessary for one story to segue into another with velvety smoothness in a collection, this one has the feel of a hurriedly compiled volume of exercises for creative writing or storytelling techniques. Why did Silverfish Books published it "as is"? Tight deadlines, maybe?

Chua has heaps of imagination (look at "You Are What You Eat"), a warped sense of humour, and he writes pretty well. At the conclusion of this rather short collection of short stories, one is left to ponder what more he could have done, had he been given more time.

Without Anchovies
Chua Kok Yee
Silverfish Books (2010)
172 pages
ISBN: 978-983-3221-27-1

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Perfect Gentleman

Dear Americans, watch out for this man ... and his book.

Imran Ahmad (left) and The Perfect Gentleman, also published
as Unimagined in some countries

He's dapper, delightful and when he's allowed to speak his humour will bring down the house.

Imran Ahmad's book, Unimagined has been published on 3 April by Hachette as The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West. He's hitting the road on a speaking tour in the US, travelling approximately 15,000 miles by car until this June.

At the moment, it looks like he needs help with confirming some of the venues in his itinerary. So... can anybody stateside give him a hand? Many thanks.

Wish I could be there.

Monday, 9 April 2012

News: Young Authors, Random House, And An Apple Settlement?

The Writer Games
A new trend appears to be emerging. Publishing parents, ushering an era of authors who are too young to drink, drive, frequent bars and buy prescription drugs.

It's heartening to see kids actually write books. They may be emulating favourite writers or striking out on their own. It might also bear hope for literacy, which is slumping like the economy these days.

Kids, however, also have a lot to bear while growing up and, often, don't have enough shoulders for the job. Soon, instead of just looks, clothes and choice of idols, a typical schoolyard dust-up can be sparked with a, "Your book stinks."

From what I've read so far, even adult authors don't always respond to bad reviews with grace. We can't expect kids to do any better, though one can hope. And some author spats can get really nasty. Will parents be filing lawsuits on behalf of their feuding literary proteges some day?

Also, how will editors handle kid authors? Or their parents? It'll be a new set of challenges, managing their expectations and going through the manuscripts. I've personally reviewed several 'scripts by writers below 18, and it's hard to be the bad guy.

By all means, let kids write and publish books. Just don't let things get ugly among them.

Canadian libraries staying out of Random House
Libraries in Nova Scotia, Canada are boycotting Random House over "unfair" e-book pricing.

Some weeks back, Random House bumped up prices of its books for libraries, believing, I assume, that people won't buy books if they can borrow them for free. But going by that logic, publishers might as well campaign to have libraries closed so people would have to buy books if they want to read them.

Tempus fugit, and now it's libraries that are threatened by the explosion of e-published books. At least publishers can revamp their business model to stay afloat. When anyone can tote around a virtual library in notebook-sized devices, who needs a real one?

Other news
  • Apple and the publishers targeted for "collusion" by the US Department of Justice appears to be heading for a settlement with the feds. Some observers think this will mean lower e-book prices, but also the possible strengthening of Amazon's grip over book selling and publishing.
  • A Q&A with Jodi Picoult. But why did you say "DO NOT SELF PUBLISH", ma'am? The Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, says "yes" to self-publishing.
  • From The Maid and the Queen: Yolande of Aragon, Joan of Arc's secret backer? And the author of the book debunks seven Joan or Arc myths.
  • The American Library Association's list of the ten most frequently challenged library books of 2011.
  • Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books, takes us back in time to its early days.
  • Amanda Hocking answers some questions on the varying degrees of success among self-published authors, and the responses to her input.
  • Three costly cuppas: Greg Mortenson has to repay (at least) US$1 million to his former charity.
  • Because you can't have too many writing tips: Here are some from CS Lewis.
  • Cathy Clamp, one half of the writing duo known as Cat Adams, Guest blogs at Writer Beware on why (some) small publishers fail.
  • 20 per cent of US is reading digital books, says Pew E-book Survey.
  • Mightier than the sword: Shiva Rahbaran's Iranian Writers Uncensored.
  • Anthony Bourdain's Ecco will be publishing the online restaurant reviewing phenom known as Marilyn Hagerty.
  • New York City school tests will get more boring with a ban on 50 words being mulled.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Chasing Camels On The Karakoram Highway

This post had been sitting as a draft copy for about three weeks. Someone suggested giving this to The Malaysian Insider, so I did. Once again, TMI has been very kind.

Also, special thanks to an ex-colleague who introduced me to this band via a copy of their first album, Into... AkashA, back in... nuts, I can't remember when. ...I didn't do anything with that album back then, so I'm glad I could do something for this album now.

Chasing camels on the Karakoram Highway
first published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 April 2012

When I heard it, my jaw dropped. "Returned?"

"Cannot sell, so the boss said, 'Return them'," said the store assistant who looked overqualified for his position. With the beard, glasses and ponytail he might as well be the store's walking catalogue and go-to guy... he probably is.

"I put them everywhere," he added. "But cannot sell." His reply was no comfort.

In the end, it was at Rock Corner, The Gardens that I found a copy of AkashA's Karakoram Highway, going for RM38.90 each.

Cover of AkashA's 'Karakoram Highway' album
AkashA's Karakoram Highway, from Rock Corner, The Gardens.
Shop at Rock Corner for all your musical needs.

My appetite for things AkashA began from a borrowed CD, what I believe was their first commercial CD, Into... AkashA. The promise of more of such delights as "Bourbon Lassi", "Esperanto", "Brickfields Blues" and "Ants in My Turban" in the next then-rumoured second album were whetted further by a YouTube sampling of a lively number called "Ipoh Hor Fun".

Until my first slurp of "Bourbon Lassi", I didn't think a sitar could stand in for a sape or a gu zheng, or even fit into a blues band or an Irish ensemble a la Riverdance. It just works.

How many of you who've seen Amir Muhammad's Malaysian Gods were stunned by the Indian fellow playing local rock group Search's "Isabella" on an er hu? That's what AkashA does. Nowadays some of my better writings were done under the influence of this group's piquant and sometimes playful compositions.

Named for the highest paved cross-border road in the world, the album's contents represent fine examples of cross-culture interaction facilitated by its namesake, which traces part of the ancient Silk Road.

CD of AkashA's 'Karakoram Highway'
Come in - a cross-cultural musical adventure awaits

The CD starts with the fast-paced, jaunty "Chasing the Camel" which sends the listener on such a pursuit from 00:01. The composition switches fluidly between Middle Eastern and Indian, punctuated with violin solos by musical wunderkind Wang Lee-Hom. Just as animated is the title track, which sends one careening across a dusty highway that snakes along mountain ridges on a packed, rickety bus ... are those deftly plucked notes coming from the roof?

Similar out-of-body experiences may happen with the beguilingly mystical "Qawali Dhun" or the soulful Sarawak-inspired "Santubong". The festive "Bafana Bafana", with the shrill of what sounds like a vuvuzela at the beginning and the end of the track, conjures a carnival-like celebration of football's thrills and spills; the track is named after the Zulu epithet for the South African football team. "Zapin Untuk Mariam" and "Bison Blues", meanwhile, are the guys' trademark nods to the respective musical genres. "Rondo Kirwani" didn't quite work for me, though.

I was also a bit disappointed that the unmistakably Chinese "Ipoh Hor Fun" wasn't carried by a whole sitar solo like in the YouTube video, but the feeling disappears quickly and by the third repeat, who cares? Every time I play it, it's Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Meh and the Mooncake Festival all over again. ...Is anybody hungry?

No sophomore slump here. AkashA still delivers the goods - better than FedEx even. And you come away thinking, maybe, you can make an Ipoh hor fun with an Indian accent, or a real bourbon lassi.

"...cannot sell..."

The words of the assistant at the store which shall never be named still rings in my head. It stings. Like the pain a dedicated, OCD single origin coffee grower feels as he watches customers add sugar (gasp!) and milk/cream/soy (hrrk!) to his product ... and puts it on ice (Medic!).

It's a paradox isn't it? The money we throw at foreign acts who are already famous, making millions or both could be used to further the dreams of our own home acts who really, really need our help.

But perhaps it's only after wandering in the wilderness for a while that we develop an appreciation for what we have back home.

...Now, if you'll excuse me, gotta go. The "Karakoram Highway" beckons.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Regular Programming Interrupted

For this late announcement:

Pray For Alda Evan Tan campaign; image from

Musician Alda Evan Tan reportedly suffered a brain aneurysm and is now in a coma. He and his family need help with medical expenses. More info on the Facebook page and his sister's blog, including ways you can help.

News: April Fool's Day, Publishing Landscapes And Books

April Fool's Day is an exceptionally dangerous time to believe everything you read on the web.

I avoided the pitfall that was Twitter shrinking its character limit, only to fall flat for the alleged John Scalzi manga project. Who wouldn't want that to be real? And The Shadow War of the Night Dragon sounds like something Scalzi would write.

And I bet some of us were thinking as we stared, enthralled, by the cover images, "WHEN CAN WE HAZ ANDROIDZ DREEM TREELOGEE MANGA?"

Other news
  • Chinese book publishing becoming more global as revenues of US$9.5 billion are expected this year. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, book sales are likely to remain poor. And here's a bit about the publishing landscape in Russia expected for this year.
  • A look at one year at publisher House of Anansi. And a bit about a quirky Canadian indie known as Invisible Publishing. Also, meet Concord Free Press, a new non-profit publishing model that gets "buyers" to donate to their favourite charities.
  • Quick fingers filch stuff at Bologna Children's Book Fair, Italy.
  • In The Star, a writer and avid reader ponders the "50 Shades" phenomenon and a publishing world where popularity appears to eclipse quality. I just needed to use the word "eclipse".
  • I'm a little bewildered by the apparent racism in the tweets that can be collectively summed up as, "ZOMG HUNGER GAMEZ HAZ BLACK PPLZ?! WHY??!!" If that sounds absurd, it's because I think it is. Do I need to explain why?
  • On Cuba's Book Day, a publishing house plays a leading role.
  • James Patterson on his books and stuff.
  • Vook, a "digital publishing house in a box".
  • Enid Blyton classics to be brought into the 21st century?
  • Even with the bad news about the US' education system, this is surprising: US highschoolers are reading books beneath their average reading level.
  • About that missing post: due to uncontrollable circumstances, I had to remove it. Lessons learnt: Never blog when your sick or sleepy, and never blog, post or tweet anything on April 1st.