Tuesday, 25 September 2012

News: Price Wars, And A Mallet

I don't think last week was a slow one for books and publishing; I just so happened to be back in my hometown during the weekend, so I wasn't paying too much attention to assorted goings-on.

But I managed to finish a book for review. And I was amazed and a little dismayed at the 1Malaysia bike by Orange County Choppers - when did THAT happen? - which looked a lot less remarkable compared to previous models.


Last week, the much-maligned Apple agency model for e-books (in Europe) started crumbling under pressure from European Commission. In the aftermath, the e-book price war seemingly flared anew, with some discounts going as high as ... 97 per cent? But it seems not all e-books are considered 'cheap'.

The price war may have started hitting the e-reading public in China, as one of the country's main e-retailers announced a 'deal' where customers can, for three months, lend a thousand books for less than US$5. Why? Because "Chinese readers, long used to free content", apparently need time to adjust to the idea of paying more than five yuan (about US$0.80) for an e-book.

No word, however, on the e-fate of Haruki Murakami and other Japan-related books, physical copies of which have reportedly gone missing from Beijing bookshelves as China and Japan fight over a pile of rocks northeast of Taiwan.

In other news:

Monday, 17 September 2012

News: Privates, Padlocks, and Price Reductions

Private matters
Everybody seems to be all abuzz over Naomi Wolf's, uh ... privates. From the news portals I've been surfing, Wolf's Vagina (snrk) got more brickbats than bouquets since it was released. Critics cited bad science, Orientalism, unintentional self-parody, betrayal of feminism, etc.

And, of course, there's the title, which opens up plenty of opportunities for punsters, as Jessa Crispin suggests. "Although from reading the excerpts and the horrified reviews, it seems like the publishing company just kind of let Wolf run herself into a tree in all kinds of ways with this one."

Maybe because the publishers knew the kind of buzz it would create?

Even those who question the criticism Wolf's been getting can't help slipping in a crack or two. "And I can't help wondering if this isn't just a little bit problematic, and if it doesn't, just a little bit, make Wolf's point for her?"

Wolf has responded to these criticisms, and I think her arguments are sound. I'm once again reminded of Howard Jacobson's assertion that readers these days - as well as critics - can't seem to handle certain books.

At the time of posting, Zoë Heller's article has an NSFW picture. Do not click at work.

A bridge too far
Know that old chestnut where, in Rome, lovers can seal their relationship by writing their names on a padlock, clamping it to a lamp post of the Milvio bridge and throwing the key into the Tiber River? That little tradition, inspired by Federico Moccia's 2006 novel I Want You, has been banned by officials in Rome.

The bridge's popularity led to posts being installed on the bridge so that others can have a shot at happiness, but officials are concerned that the weight of all those padlocks will collapse the ancient bridge.

Moccia is apparently "nonplussed". "The removal of the locks is inconsiderate," he said. "Rome is handing Paris the 'bridge of love' tradition, which was born here and should stay here."

Even at the expense of a piece of history? Pompeii and Herculaneum, arguably two of Italy's most famous archaeological sites, are in danger of disappearing, thanks in part to tourists. Some traditions shouldn't be preserved.

Well, that was fast
In the aftermath of a settlement with the US Department of Justice over allegations of e-book price-fixing with Apple, publisher HarperCollins inked new deals with Amazon and other retailers. Days later, HarperCollins titles were said to be selling at Amazon at discounted prices.

HarperCollins, along with publishers Hachette and Simon & Schuster, settled with the DoJ days ago. It's possible that e-book retailers will soon be lowering prices of books from the other two publishers. And them fingers keep a-pointin', mostly towards traditional publishers.

In somewhat related news: A Waterstones staff reportedly trolled an author who self-published with Amazon for leaving promotional material for said book at the Waterstones outlet. Bezos's jungle may have emerged the victor in the latest dust-up over e-book prices, but it looks like pockets of resistance can still be expected.

Also: Would writers have to keep telling stories a la Scheherazade to survive in the Kindle era?

Other news
  • Is it ever okay to pirate books? Even if the copies are from books you already own and for private use?
  • Is Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema the acerbic non-person Ruth Bourdain? Sietsema says no but, for all we know, he could be muddying the waters a bit, possibly abashed at how it came out so quickly. We probably wouldn't have known that Waiter Rant is Steve Dublanica if he didn't shed his anonymity to promote his book. Both these guys seem to be good writers, but I feel Dublanica's warmer, more open.
  • "Radioactive" online comments are poisoning civil discourse in cyberspace. So here are some tips on how to argue online and avoid becoming a cyberspace-polluting troll.
  • A literary agent was attacked in her car, possibly over a rejected manuscript. The Huffpost entry suggests she was tracked down via a social media app. Getting rejected isn't the end of the world. Now, violently rejecting a rejection, however...
  • "Is this book bad, or is it just me?" The book review is dissected.
  • Art of War meets Mad Men? China's popular "workplace novels" weave career advice into soap opera plots.
  • Plan to burn "Fifty Shades" conjures fears of censorship and totalitarianism.
  • For Wikipedia, Phillip Roth, it seems, is not a credible enough source on a Phillip Roth novel.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Enthrallingly English

An enchanting Sunday afternoon roast at Albion KL

first published in The Star, 15 September 2012

Melody leads a charmed life. She gets to travel to exotic places and eat at fabulous places for work, like this modern English bistro in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Albion KL table setting

From this establishment, she smuggled a bit of macaroni and cheese home in a microwaveable container, presumably to taunt me – again. The M&C was cold and had congealed into a lumpy mass, but it was glorious. I suspect the added bacon had enough time to infuse the leftovers with its savoury, smoky flavour on the way home.

We agreed we had to go back there. If their mac-and-cheese is this good, what else can they do?

Melody wanted the Sunday roast, so she e-mailed ahead for details. Yes, they had roast beef or lamb on the Sunday we'd planned to drop by. I wanted the lamb, a meat with more character. Her e-mail response was a heart-rending, "But I want beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeffffffffffffff and it is my birthdayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."

When she's like this, there's no point arguing. So "beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeffffffffffff" it is, even though her actual birthday had passed a while back.

Trinity Burnt Cream with Raspberries
Tucked inside the Changkat Bukit Bintang area, the red-painted façade of Albion is a beacon for visitors with a poor sense of direction. One is embraced by a palpable kind of Englishness upon entry. On a wall is an arty portrait of Sir Winston Churchill chomping on a cigar. Classical English court music wafted through the air as we pored over the menu, a subtle reminder to always, among other things, mind your P's and Q's and sipping (not gulping) your tea within the premises.

Manager James Grierson guided us through the selections and portion size (typically Malaysian, he suggests). We decided to go with Albion's Greek-style Salad and a serving of roast beef to share, with mini Yorkshire puddings. Dessert remained a question mark for a while.

Several warm buns were brought to our table in a tiny basket, with slices of softened butter and what I assumed was the “spiced tomato jam”, while our orders were seen to. The appetising tomato jam, a mixture that included anchovies and olive oil, was surprisingly delicious when eaten with buttered buns but it left us hungrier than before we walked in the door.

Then the salad came.

We felt the price of the Greek-style salad didn't compensate for the abundance of feta cheese in it. The sharp-tasting tangy and salty cheese, together with the olives, mushrooms and various greens, made for a rich, satisfying appetiser.

Greek-style Salad
Definitely more than six cubes of feta in that lush Greek-style salad

Albion's chef, Colin Yap, explained that they came up with this version after trying another one that had "about six or so tiny cubes" of feta, but Albion's had all the ingredients that made it a winner. The flavours came together really well.

Despite assurances that the portions were manageable, we still gaped at the roast when it arrived. Some slices of medium-done roast beef, greens, roast potatoes and a pair of mini Yorkshire puddings. The Yorkshire pudding was a light, crispy pastry that's best eaten warm and useful for wiping up the leftover gravy, spilled meat juice and fat. It was the first time I'd ever seen or eaten one.

Melody tried to wheedle some secrets about making Yorkshire pudding out of the chef. The whole business is tricky, the chef said, like making soufflé.

"It's a temperamental thing," he added.

No fluffy, light and buttery pastries coming out of my little oven, then.

Sunday Roast Beef with Mini-Yorkshire Puddings
The Sunday Roast may look standard, but it's lovely

The roast was lovely. We tried slices of beef with the light and subtle horseradish sauce and the assertively pungent, sinus-clearing English mustard.

"Laave-leh," I drawled in an exaggerated Englishman's accent when I could breathe through my nose again. "Simply brilliant."

Some may feel differently – it's just roast beef, they might say – but in this cosy nook in the middle of the city, it's also where you eat it and who made it ... and maybe what they're playing on the sound system.

Still, the meal didn't feel complete, like a story without an ending. After sitting around for a while and sipping the rather good coffee (gasp!), we settled on the English-sounding Trinity Burned Cream with Raspberries to round up a lovely lunch.

The dessert, essentially a crème brûlée, turned out to be a good choice. Under the slightly burnt layer of sugar was a bed of rich (unburned) custard cream covering what looked like raspberry compote. One serving was just right for two waistline-watching Malaysians to share and still come away fully satisfied.

We stayed long enough to wait for teatime, but we didn't want to ruin the experience by taking in too much of this delightful place at one go. Reluctantly, we peeled ourselves off our chairs. We'd be back.

And we are having laaaaaaaaamb the next time around.

31 Jalan Berangan
50200 Kuala Lumpur


Friday, 14 September 2012


One of the first books I've read this year kind of surprised me, even though it wasn't light reading. Great début by Wiley Cash.

Hope in faith
When those we trust fail us

first published in The Star, 14 September 2012

I remember being aghast at stories of child abuse at the hands of religious figures. So it's no surprise that I found the premise of Wiley Cash's debut novel compelling: what happens when religious figures fail to live up to their ideals?

The novel was inspired by the tragic story of an autistic African American boy who'd been smothered during a healing service in Chicago in the United States. "I was bothered that a group of people, including the boy's mother, could stand by while something like that took place," said Cash in an interview.

A Land More Kind Than Home takes place in a small North Carolinian town populated by generally God-fearing townsfolk. Some of them, however, fear something else, too.

Elderly midwife Adelaide Lyle is haunted by the death and subsequent cover-up of the time a churchgoer dies during a snake-handling ritual presided over by the church's newest pastor, Carson Chambliss. The incident prompts her to take the children out of the church.

Despite her efforts, young Jess Hall's autistic older brother, Christopher, lovingly nicknamed "Stump" by his father, becomes the church's next victim as his mother stands by and does nothing. As the case unravels, this story of family, faith and secrets unfolds through the perspectives of three people.

There's Lyle who, as a young girl, survived what sounds like the 1918-19 global Spanish flu outbreak and helped bury a long-deceased relative. This fortitude helps her bear the secrets she has to hide but the weight would eventually prove too much. Too old to actively resist Chambliss's corruption of the church, she mostly watches from the sidelines.

Jess Hall, meanwhile, has to deal with his brother's death, which he feels somehow responsible for. The return of his grandfather Jimmy doesn't help. Instead, Jess retreats into the safety and comfort of memories of him and his brother, despite the adults' efforts to help him cope.

And we have Sheriff Clem Barefield, a survivor of his own family tragedy who has the unenviable task of battling small-town reticence and the church's code of silence to solve Stump's case. There's also a bit of unfinished business between him and Jimmy Hall.

Cash wanted to write the story of the failed Chicago faith healing, but he wasn't familiar with the city or the community. So the North Carolinian set the story in Madison County in his home state. "Once I did that, the story came alive; it became real."

And it did. Cash has done his research well, judging from how one is deeply immersed in the atmosphere of the town, with the sweet aroma from drying tobacco leaves at the Halls' farm and the "ain'ts" and double negatives in the locals' speech. In this day and age, such a stereotypical portrayal of a small American town may be frowned upon, even as one believes that such places still exist in that country, rotary dial phones and all.

We are shown how the decay of religion in a slice of the American heartland can affect its people. We feel the characters' pain, caused by alcoholism, domestic abuse and betrayal by those they trusted, as well as the plight of the lost searching for meaning or something to fill the void in their hearts.

We seethe at the seemingly aloof wickedness of those who prey upon the insecure and desperate to achieve power and influence. We are crushed, slowly, as we watch a family come apart. Even before the conclusion of this well-written novel, the slimy preacher will leave one more scar upon the lives of the protagonists.

Yet, the novel offers hope. Lyle still believes the church is the town's pivotal institution and that it will again be the beacon and safe haven it's meant to be.

"The living church is made of people," she says, "and it can grow sick and break just like people can, and sometimes churches can die just like people die. ... A church can be healed, and it can be saved like people can be saved."

We somehow find comfort in these words, even as we cringe at the on-air antics of today's Carson Chamblisses. And we hope that our religious institutions will eventually become a place more like home where those we trust with our lives – and souls – will never let us down.

A Land More Kind Than Home
Wiley Cash
Doubleday (2012)
306 pages
ISBN: 978-0-857-52070-8

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Well Done

Though he's left the kitchen, everyone's favourite trash-talking chef is still dishing out food for thought

A bitter and angry chef, resigned to remain rooted behind a stove until he dies, lets it rip in an over-testosteroned rant-fest of a memoir dedicated to his ilk and pokes fun at TV chefs, vegans, and the like. He's confident that the book will never get him on TV, take him to exotic foreign locales, or hook him up with more famous, qualified chefs.

Anthony Bourdain has eaten a lot of things since then, including his own words; check out his other books: A Cook's Tour and The Nasty Bits.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook is the book fans have been waiting for since That Book, Kitchen Confidential. Profane and profound, his take on all things close to his heart are a joy to read, especially in countries where freedom of expression also comes with a hefty rulebook to safeguard presumably fragile egos.

Hunter S Thompson may be the father of gonzo journalism, but it's this chef-turned-author and travel show host that many of us with an opinion and a shtick to bandy about want to be one day.

From Medium Raw, we learn a bit more about what happened to Bourdain since That Book came out. Why he became a father at fifty. The new targets of his ire. The Top Chef contestant anonymously featured in That Book. The deal behind David Chang, who could be the next Angry Writing Chef. More tantalising are the latest updates about the prominent personalities featured in That Book, and why Bourdain called that restaurant reviewer a dirty name.

Burning bridges
We also learn, in spite of all he has now, why Bourdain doesn't seem happy. In his jottings one still senses the jitteriness of someone who had lost something good when he least expected it - and constantly looks out for the next such catastrophe. If he's not burning bridges, one suspects he's checking to see if someone else will burn them, or if the bridges spontaneously combust.

Probably explains his apparent gusto for the life he's leading now; if he concentrates on going forward, he can forget about looking over his shoulder.

In the prologue, we get a sense of how different things have been for Bourdain since Kitchen Confidential, published over a decade ago. The clandestine gathering of world-class chefs at a secret dinner capped by a taste of the controversial ortolan dish is worlds apart from his old life. He not sure why he's here, other than being a guest of his best pal, who sounds suspiciously like the Michelin-starred chef of Le Bernadin, Eric Ripert.

UK edition of Medium Raw from Bloomsbury with new
cover (left) and US edition from HarperCollins/Ecco

Sure it's fun, exciting. But he also sounds unsure, lost, out of place. Maybe a little guilty. I shouldn't be having this much fun, he seems to be thinking. This is not my circle, which I left - or rather, abandoned - for a more cushier gig.

Is that why he flagellates himself so ruthlessly in the first few chapters of Medium Raw? "Heretic", "sell-out", he calls himself. He compares himself to a prostitute, drops names of chefs who've taken similar paths and explains why they did it, as if it's something needing justification. The calamitous Caribbean island getaway with a crazy rich chick, after the end of his first marriage, must've been very painful to recall.

Paid his dues
He gets over it, though. He's paid his dues, I think, and his new jet-setting life now is much better suited for his age. "If I go back to the kitchen now, it would break me," he confesses in The Nasty Bits.

Besides being less angry, he's also more neutral, finding silver linings in the same subjects he used to run down. Such performances, however, feel forced, like in the chapter on US chef and food activist Alice Waters, the "Pol Pot in a muumuu". And he's still shining the shoes of British chef and Parkinson's disease sufferer Fergus Henderson. It made sad reading.

Similarly forced is the chapter devoted to food porn. Though formulaic, it still had enough mojo to drive one into night markets, looking for placebos to lush descriptions of chicken butt yakitori.

Foreign audiences outside the US, however, may have problems with his references to obscure pop and food culture. He doesn't explain, in one chapter, why he considers Mario Batali and Eric Ripert heroes. When this book was first published, Ripert chaired a New York-based charity that rescues unused food to feed hungry people, and Batali was active in charities for children.

...Well, it is said that he says a lot – and says it damn well, too – about the things he feels strongly for.

In the ten years between Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, he never really left us at all. He's still slinging it, commenting on more than just food: in the news, online, in the airwaves, on TV - seemingly one of the last honest people out there who speaks his mind with little thought of the repercussions, because some things have to be said.

Keep talking, Tony. We're all ears.

Another version of this review was first published in the July - September 2012 issue of MPH Quill. This review was based on the 2010 Bloomsbury (UK) edition of the book.

Medium Raw
A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook

Anthony Bourdain
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (2010)
281 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4088-0934-1

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

MPH Quill, July - September 2012 Issue

...is very damn late. I know. But it's out.

I've heard talk about changes in direction for Quill, but no clues about that so far.

Okay, let's see what's inside.

...Luke Clark, editor of Discovery Channel Magazine, on the mag's
relaunch (right)...

...Adam Jacot de Boinod speaks about weird words and his books
about them...

...profile of Dina Zaman and her short story collection, King of the Sea...

...Ellen Whyte spends a night at the Szechwan Opera in Chengdu...

...and more. Of course there's always more.

Monday, 10 September 2012

News: Sockpuppets, Book Raids, and Scalzi's Goat(s)

Criticism ventriloquism
Sock-puppetry: Why do they do it? From these tales of two sock-puppeteers, they might be more the norm than anyone thinks. Well, Sock-puppetry in book reviewing may not be new, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. Scott Adams, however, suggests that (fake) positive reviews can balance out the (fake) negative ones in an ecosystem where 'everybody cheats'.

I might have my own take on this later, but maybe not.

Book raid bulletins
The Federal Territories Religious Affairs Department (JAWI) admitted to raiding the Borders bookstore in The Gardens, Mid Valley City before an edict or ban was declared against the book that prompted the raid. In West Bengal, a publisher was also raided over book critical of the state government. Said book then sold out after news of the raid broke.

Getting Scalzi's goat
After John Scalzi announced a book project, the Internet gave him another after he joked about writing a book called 101 Uses for a Spare Goat on Twitter. So now, we can expect said book to be out in the future, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

A cautionary tale of why it's dangerous to coin absurd phrases online, but that's how the Internet works these days. What would make this even more amazeballs? Paying for the book with goats.

Censorship, China, and coffee
State censorship, conservative publishing choices and lack of good translations appear to be some of the factors narrowing outsiders' views of modern China. But China's bookworms are said to offer hope for traditional publishing. But how can the mood be buoyant without good coffee? Oh, and here's why coffee will never taste as good as it smells.

Other news
  • The economics of an indie bookstore ... can be pretty dismal.
  • Outside the literary world, bad reviews breed more bad blood. A restaurateur in Canada apparently spent months trying to ruin the reputation of someone who gave her restaurant a bad review. She was found guilty of criminal libel and will soon be sentenced.
  • Did this writer see Pakistan's bleak future?
  • A book that Scott Pack hates this much? Can't be all bad. For one, Wong Kar Wai gets killed in it.
  • Apple, publishers offer pricing concessions to avoid hefty European Commission fine.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

MPH Warehouse Sale 2012, Mooncakes, Etc

The MPH Distributors Warehouse Sale will be held from 08 to 17 September (8am to 6pm) at:

The Crest, 3 Two Square
Block F, Ground Floor
No. 2 Jalan 19/1
46300 Petaling Jaya

For inquiries, call 03-7958 1688 or visit www.facebook.com/MPHDistributors

Yvonne Foong is selling low-sugar mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some of the proceeds, as I understand it, will be going towards her medical fund. Head over here for more details.

...So, yeah.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

News: Commercialised Criticism, Book Fights, and Language

Review revelations
A (former) peddler of paid-for book reviews is profiled in the New York Times and kind of lifts the lid on all those 'positive' reviews received by certain blockbusters. Not news, really.

This report raised quite a bit of odour and soon, just about everyone had a take on this, most of it bad. One author felt buying paid-for reviews to ramp up book sales is akin to using drugs in sports. Another voice says 'buying respect' with paid-for reviews is "lazy" and runs "counter to the true indie spirit". "Unethical scumbags", was another author's choice words for paid-for reviewers and those who hire them.

The fake review 'revelation' prompted relook of Amazon review graphs - why "beware" THAT shape? Someone even compiled a list of major best-sellers with over 150 one-star Amazon reviews which kind of suggests that something's not quite right.

Elsewhere, others are wondering if the paid review revelations will eventually kill the critic. Meanwhile, a critic offers his (long) manifesto on being a critic.

While we're on the subject: another reviewer gets brickbats and threats after pissing off fans of Emily Giffin by suggesting, among other things, that the author encourages mob behaviour against critics among her fans. She'd subsequently downgraded her review fron four stars to one and explained why. She got more than a taste of said mob behaviour not long after - which may include practices condemned by a group of authors (crime author Jeremy Duns, who uncovered the instance of sock puppetry that led to the outrage, was also caught up in another literary scandal some time back). Looks like critics and reviewers aren't the only ones who need to search their souls.

Settle down
Publishers Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster reached a US$69 million settlement with various US attorney-generals over supposed fixing of e-book prices. Much of the money wil be refunded to bookbuyers, and the US state of Kentucky may get as much as US$700,000. But would this case really mean lower prices for e-books in the future?

SEAL hunt
A former US Navy SEAL who authored a potentially explosive tell-all on the Bin Laden takedown had his identitiy blown by US rightwing "news" outfit Fox News. Since then, some details about the book have been released, and the author had received threats from al-Qaeda. The US military argues that the former SEAL's book had violated protocol and are considering pressing charges. At the time this is written, the book's publisher is going ahead with the release. The co-author defends the book in The Huffington Post.

A bunch of Special Ops veterans hold a different view, and they are releasing an e-book in response, which includes an examination of the author's version of events and the rather prosaic motives for publishing the book:

..."[Owen] was treated very poorly upon his departure ... once he openly shared that he was considering getting out of the Navy to pursue other interests." [Owen] was essentially given a plane ticket back to Virginia and nothing else—not much of a thank-you for his "honesty and 14 years of service."

One wonders if things might have been different for Owen (the author's pen name) if he'd kept his "getting out of the Navy to pursue other interests" under wraps, but given the subject matter and timing of the release, tongues are bound to wag.

Flaming protest
A charity for victims of domestic violence has condemned the "misogynistic crap" that is Fifty Shades of Grey and they're calling for a bonfire of said book. In spite of my own opinions on the books, I can't agree with that. You'd have to harbour an exceptionally towering amount of hatred towards a book to want to light it up.

There are better forms of protest, like this review (more like a roasting) of the audio book ("Bambi [in] de Sade's '120 Days of Sodom'" - SIZZLE, CRACK!) in The Telegraph. Because bad writing in any other language is still bad writing.

Other news
  • After what I presume was a long period of sluggish shelf movement, Jeremy Chin's book Fuel may be yanked from local bookstores. I think it's quite a good (albeit syrupy) read. Get a copy online or borrow one from friends. And I think there might be a copy on the shelf at a local café somewhere....
  • The release of the latest Godfather novel, The Family Corleone, sparked a fight between Paramount Pictures and the state of Mario Puzo over rights to the franchise. Unable to find a solution, both parties have taken the fight to federal court.
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul publishers to 'publish' Chicken Soup for the Stomach. But will it taste as good?
  • "Promiscuous reading". Does that phase even make sense?
  • This guy endured some great writers' worst books, so that we don't have to.
  • Is our dependence on technology making us forgetful,like this book suggests?
  • Servers at Jamie Oliver's restaurants were, I read, told to talk like Jamie Oliver when describing the food. "May I rec'mend th' bayked p'tat-uhz wi' th' skins on? Abs'lutely wicked, scrummy, and proper rustic. Throw in s'm crispy baykon bits 'n a duhlup o' s'ouh cream... funtastic!" ...If Jamie-O wunts t'give 'is rest'ronts 'is Mockney flavuh, he c'n do i' 'imself. 'Coz no one else cud'do it bet'er.
  • Talking Turkey: the roots of Indo-European languages.
  • Parents in China duped by 'special skills programme' for kids. Reading "waves" from books and poker cards? What is this, a Stephen Chow film?
  • 'Vanity publishing' and 'legacy publishing': Why must they always be at loggerheads?
  • It seems book publishers have to start thinking of themselves as - (SOB!) - "multimedia content producers".

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Casting Pearls Before...?

US fantasy magazine Weird Tales published an extract from Victoria Foyt's self-published YA novel Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls Part One, which is set in a sort-of dystopian world where a black-skinned race dubbed the Coals lord over a white race called the Pearls on a sun-scorched Earth. To survive on the surface, the Pearls cover themselves with a substance that makes them look 'black'.

The premise of the novel touched of one of those fires where everyone can look righteous by calling it for what it is: racist. Just how long has it been since another issue about colour in books was raised?

Weird Tales has since removed that excerpt and apologised for publishing it. In that apology, publisher John Harlacher, concluded that "the use of the powerful symbols of white people forced to wear blackface to escape the sun, white women lusting after black 'beast men', the 'pearls' and 'coals', etc., is goddamned ridiculous and offensive. It seems like the work of someone who does not understand the power of what she is playing with."

Foyt denies racism, and says that, on top of the positive reviews it has received, her work aims "to turn racism on its head in order to portray its horrors and its inevitable road to violence. I believe that anyone who reads the novel will understand its strong stance against racism." However, she doesn't boost her case by saying that "if you ask if all these reviewers are white then consider that you have a racist point of view".

From the reviews of the book here, here and here, Foyt's novel looks like the literary equivalent of a collapsed and burnt soufflé. The standfirst for the first review alone says it all, with phrases such as "falls at every hurdle" and "awful prose with negligible plot". The 'heroine', said to combine "the most irritating characteristics of Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele with a predilection for dropping the full Latin names of bird and animal species once every paragraph", could probably be enough of a turn-off.

This reminds me of an author who, at this year's Edinburgh Literary Festival, suggested that political correctness may have weakened the stomachs of readers and maybe writers, making them sensitive - perhaps, more than before - to certain hot-button topics. Has the message in the book (which sounds like the first part of a series) been eclipsed by the portrayal of the characters and seemingly bad world-building?

Highlighting complex and sensitive issues such as race, religion and the origins of dishes - through writings, artworks and film - can be a dicey affair akin to making a soufflé. Most attempts generally fail. The timing of the book's release may not have been a good idea as well, as this commenter points out in his response to Foyt's defence.

Still, could some of the reactions have been more measured? I don't think this "fantasy action romance" intentionally propagates this world view, so why behave like it does? And how much did the outrage against Foyt's book help fight racism which, from incidents such as this and this, still persists?

I think the Guardian review was one of the better responses to this book. Racism is too easy to call out, so a critic should delve deeper to see if it accomplishes its purpose and, above all, if it is a good book - which said review suggests otherwise.

Maybe the final verdict should be withheld until the series is released in its entirety.