Monday, 29 October 2012

News: Random Penguins, Amazon, And Self-Publishing Grows (Some More)

Penguin and Random House have merged into what could be the world's largest book publishing firm. Apparently, news of the merger "rattled" publishing ... and kicked off a meme. "Penguin House" sounds like something Owl City would compose. "Random Penguin"? Not so much.

But they're going to call it Penguin Random House. Key facts of the two entities from the Guardian here.

Amazon reportedly slaps British publishers with 20% value-added tax on ebook sales. Not as hair-raising as how it allegedly erased the contents of customer's Kindle without a detailed explanation, though the contents were reportedly restored later. Or the note she received after her Kindle was wiped:

"We wish you luck in locating a retailer better able to meet your needs."

In some dystopian future where Amazon is the only retailer, that would bite.

EPUB 3.0 now said to help publishing of Japanese e-books, many of which follow a particular format. Will e-books finally take of in the land of the keitai shosetsu?

And Forbes states the obvious: "self-publishing shows rapid growth". For those itching to hop onto that bandwagon, here are some points to ponder before self-publishing your book.

Meanwhile, others ask whether self-publishing authors are ruining it for e-book publishing with dirt-cheap e-books.

In other news:

  • Nobel troubles rear its head for Mo Yan, whose accolades raise piracy fears for his books and concerns over fate of his village when the 'Mo Yan theme park' is up.
  • Kurdish publishers at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair can't seem to keep politics off the table.
  • Fraud-exposing crime writer Jeremy Duns may have revealed another possibly dodgy book reviewer.
  • A different point of view on the Bourdain's foodie machismo. The opening line lampshades his writing style: "In Rome, visiting friends in May, I ordered the sweet, unctuous lining of a cow's stomach thrice, and ate it each time in a state of pure gustatory contentment."
  • A bookstore guy on what goes into a bookstore.
  • Donated hollowed-out book found packing heat. Origins unknown.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Language Pollution And Le Mot Juste

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 24 October 2012

Some time ago, some linguistic Paul Revere came riding out of a foggy night, lantern in hand, yelling, "The Britishisms are here!"

Apparently, some common British terms are creeping into American English, thanks in part to British-made entertainment drifting from the other side of the pond.

I'd like to think the New York Times article was written with some tongue in the writer's cheek, but in case it isn't, here's the irascible and oft-quotable John Scalzi's classic response to it. Yeah, "silly, silly article."

Creeping foreign influences on language, I guess, is everybody's issue. Especially when one's country happens to be an important crossroads along key trade routes, part of or originator of an empire, or some combination of the afore-mentioned. The need to invent words in one's native language for some foreign object or concept can be seen as one attempt to keep things "local".

As it becomes easier for the world to creep (or barge) in, that gets harder.

During Japan's Meiji era, the country adopted the best of the West: banking, industry, defence and so on, a practice that continued well into the present day and made them a world economic power.

The case for borrowing and incorporating foreign words to speed up the enrichment of a language to make it more global, therefore, seems solid, especially when a bureaucracy is stretched beyond its limits by other needs to invent new words in a "native" language that convey exactly what an object, idea or concept is ― or come close to doing so.

Some nationalistic elements, however, claim this type of borrowing dilutes rather than enriches the "native: culture and identity. In Malaysia, for instance, these elements appear wilfully ignorant that certain words in the vocabulary have origins in Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese and Sanskrit, among others.

From the photo, it's tempting to assume that Gustave Flaubert's
(1821-1880) receding hairline is due to the pressures of finding
le mots justes. How stressful was it to write books such as
Madame Bovary?

To some extent, language is malleable, and the way some societies shape words and ideas to communicate better and more concisely is not too different from how our ancestors shaped stone and bone to hunt and fish. But there's always the urge to brand the tools and tool-making technique as one's own, fuelled by the need to forge a unique identity.

What got me thinking ― not too deeply, though ― about this was, for one, the complexity in editing several cookbooks. Some ingredients, such as "asam Gelugor", lack what I feel are more concise English translations or equivalents and, as such, one can only fall back on the Latin-based (ha) naming conventions invented by Carl Linnaeus.

I had a harder time when I wrote a piece on herbal teas. For instance, some sources can't agree on whether "beizicao" ― or "bukcheechou" in Cantonese ― should be written as 北子草 ("northerner grass" ― kinda) or 北紫草 ("northern purple grass"), or if the herb is known as such in mainland China.

More recently, a colleague had some trouble translating "tingle" into Malay. The given Malay equivalent in a bilingual dictionary is "(rasa) gelenyar", though I have no idea when it got in there. We settled on "gelenyar", more because there doesn't seem to be anything else.

While some may argue or lament that certain quarters are unnecessarily borrowing foreign words or substituting local words with imports, those processes shouldn't be seriously curtailed or stopped entirely for the sake of protecting the purity of one's mother tongue or national language.

As the feisty Erna Mahyuni stated in The Malaysian Insider, "You don't "protect" [the national language] by discouraging the mastery of other languages." She was commenting mainly on the state of Malay-to-English translation, but I feel that mastery of languages is also crucial in developing one's lexicon.

Many of us may not be as anal-retentive as Gustave Flaubert when it comes to the quest for the right word. However, a wordsmith's bag of tricks can never have too many items.

If the word fits, use it.

Monday, 22 October 2012

News: Endings, Man Overboard, And Timing Is Everything

At last, Newsweek ends its print edition. Andrew Sullivan isn't all that crushed about it, comparing print mags to "horses and carriages" that exist "as lingering objects of nostalgia." Someone wrote a rebuttal of sorts but I forgot the link. Also going out of style: cookbooks.

What else has been going on?

  • The Man Group stops sponsorship of the Man Asian Literary Prize. They'll keep the Booker Prize running, though.
  • How to write a letter that sells your book. Of all the queries that have come my way, few had good cover letters. Before you do that, check out some things you may want to do before self-publishing.
  • In publishing, timing can be everything. Several cases of both good and bad timing are highlighted, including one author's very unfortunate novel.
  • Stephen King nearly busted for vandalising books - his books - with his signature.
  • The V-word keeps Rachel Held Evans's A Year of Biblical Womanhood out of a Christian bookshop. From the looks of it, they probably don't sell dictionaries, either.
  • Hay in the Parc, a lit-fest in a lockup that's contributing to rehab of young prisoners.
  • A "short" defense of verbosity in literature. Because, why not?
  • In Wales, the publishing industry is under a cloud.
  • Do e-reader manufacturers and publishers need to do more for the blind? Eventually, yes.
  • 21 authors attempt to write 140-character novels. The results are ... interesting.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mostly Melancholy

This is no spicy literary pick-me-up perfumed by the kind of exoticism generally associated with the Indian subcontinent

first published in The Star, 21 October 2012

When buying books, warning flags to observe include author names that are bigger than the titles, "Winner of the Booker/Man Asian/Nobel/Whatever Prize" - "... brings a cool eye to friendship, love and the idea of belonging in its movements through old and new worlds..." - and abstract-sounding back cover blurbs.

The adult life of Leela Ghosh, the protagonist in Anjali Joseph's Another Country, begins in Paris, where she teaches English and goes about the business of negotiating "the world, work, relationships and sex" to find "some measure of authenticity".

The author once stated that Leela's migratory path mirrors her own: Joseph moved to Britain when she was seven because of her father's job; she lived in France for a year after graduating from Cambridge, teaching English at the famous Sorbonne; and she moved back to India, "a little accidentally", when she was 25.

It's hard to believe that Joseph's second novel is a complete work. Stretched across 31 short chapters, the collage of snapshots of Leela's largely uninteresting early 20s feels like an avant-garde art film in which details trickle in but never form a whole picture, even at the end.

Characters and places abruptly come and go, leaving nary a trace on the reader's mind or heart. Nothing strikes a chord with me. You can put the book down for a break and pick up where you left off easily.

As for the overall tone: "Sharp, funny and melancholy" says the back cover blurb? Mostly melancholy, methinks.

Leela's presence is almost as ephemeral as the rest of the supporting cast, an odd trait for a lead character. She strikes me as aloof, self-absorbed and a little mordant, radiating little warmth with her cloudy disposition and sterile, clinical observations of people and places as she flits from one chapter to another. One is hard-pressed to sympathise with her when, for instance, she gets thrown out of her boyfriend's flat at three in the morning.

But maybe we're not supposed to care too much.

In an interview, Joseph spoke of a kind of "unsettledness" which is probably felt by "a lot of people who live in many places and without a clear sense of how their own sense of self fits within national or regional boundaries". People such as Leela Ghosh and, perhaps, the author herself.

The displaced tend to feel disoriented; far away from home, comfort and stability are sought within the familiar while adjusting, during which some sights, sounds and such feel more important than the rest.

What's not important is blocked out, numbed down and closeted somewhere in the mind to fade away like a traveller's footprints on a beach.

The apparent gaps in the narrative seem to illustrate this but, overall, one feels rushed through a series of half-done dioramas in a museum exhibit put together by an impatient curator.

So the dry, barebones depiction of a young person's life in Another Country feels quotidian. Maybe that's the point – this is no spicy literary pick-me-up perfumed by the kind of exoticism generally associated with the Indian subcontinent. Real life for many of us already has enough drama, so why ramp it up into a full-budget Bollywood song-and-dance?

Joseph's open-ended tale of a migrant's journey would, perhaps, click better with other fellow wanderers: displaced, unsettled individuals seeking stability beyond their beginnings. However little one feels about this book, it's hard not to wish its protagonist all the best in her search for home and self.

For the world-weary wayfarer, there is no greater release than the feeling of coming home.

This review was based on an advance reading copy.

Another Country
Anjali Joseph
Fourth Estate (2012)
265 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-746278-0

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Late, Late News: Bring Up The Bodies And All That

I was holding out for the results of this year's Man Booker Prize before posting but, in the end, a Malaysian favourite lost out to a foreign heavyweight. Oh well....

Hilary Mantel's second Booker win for the sequel to her first, Wolf Hall, was apparently expected. Was the choice too obvious?

"I merely wanted novels that they would not leave behind on a beach," said Sir Peter Stothard, who led the judging panel and may have ticked off a bunch of book bloggers for what he reportedly said about them.

Leave a novel behind on a beach? La sir! Do you know how much they cost these days?

The digital revolution in publishing was expected to be a hot topic at Frankfurt Book Fair, where the mood appears clouded by economic woes in the Eurozone.

More clouds forecasted for writers, in light of the concerns raised over Google's deal with publishers regarding book digitisation. Related to this is a judgement in the US favouring a "digital preservation effort" by a bunch of research libraries based on material scanned by Google. Getting harder to not be evil each year, hmm?

Meanwhile, a Jewish reading site complains about Saudi and Iranian presence at European book fairs. Uhm... yeah.

Chinese, but different fates: Nobel Literature prize winner's books, predictably, fly off the shelves after announcement. A Chinese forestry official turned environmental activist, meanwhile, may be jailed over book on environmental protection.

The Guardian offers some visuals on, among other things, how getting shortlisted for a major literary award is enough to boost sales. Everyone's a winner!

Somebody at Forbes begs to differ (a little) on a listicle on the already stale topic of ten ways to save the publishing industry in the Guardian. Will the debate never end?

In other news
  • Rich Dad author Robert Kiyosaki may be US$24 million poorer for allegedly reneging on a deal. Those who were helping themselves to some sweet, sweet schadenfreude jumped the gun.
  • "Forget the money and write." Good advice that may apply even if there is money involved.
  • Those who bought Kindle books (between April 2010 and May 2012) to get refunds.
  • Hay in the Parc, a lit-fest in a lockup that's contributing to rehab of young prisoners.
  • Johnny Depp to launch his own book imprint with HarperCollins? Is HarperC cultivating a stable of celebrity publishers?
  • Famous authors and their favourite foods. Agatha Christie sipped Devonshire cream? And how the heck does one make a "tomato soup cake"? No prob - recipes included.
  • A "short" defense of verbosity in literature. Because, why not?

Last but not least: Can't get enough of Boey Cheeming? The author, styrofoam cup beautifier and former animator will be meeting fans this Saturday, 20 October, at Popular Bookfairs at 1Utama (2pm - 3.30pm) and Paradigm Mall (5.30pm - 6.30pm); and Sunday, 21 October, at Popular Bookstore, Sunway Pyramid (3pm - 4pm). These may be his last appearances in Malaysia for a while, so don't miss it.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Late News: Coffee, Cookbooks and Controversy

Seems there's a bug creeping around; several colleagues came down with symptoms like mine: hangover-ish headache, listlessness and a touch of fever and the sniffles. Hoping it blows over soon.

A publisher's coffee-and-books initiative has the whiff of a good cuppa. The Bee @ Jaya One, PJ sells music CDs and one or two book titles on occasion, but why is this model not being adopted elsewhere? Sounds like a good idea. "Coffice romance"? COFF.

Seems a study lists fifteen of the most caffeinated professions, with added trivia. Mine's ranked fourth and yes, I do tend to add flavours to my coffee.

And the most caffeinated profession, according to these scientists? Scientists. Maybe research's more fun with caffeine.

Some genuine Italian mammas are, to say the least, not impressed with Nigellissima. Nor is John Crace, from the looks of it. I think handing this book to these critics was a practical joke.

Meanwhile, the myth of Jamie's 15-minute meals seems to have been ... busted. But Jamie doesn't seem to be perturbed. With regards to complaints that his "30-minute meals" took longer than that to make: "I could give you a lot of defensive sh** and say they didn't do the recipes exactly from the book or didn't use a food processor for chopping – which is an absolute must, unless you have knife skills like me. ... I look on Twitter and somebody says it took them 45 minutes and I think, 'God bless you, keep trying and you'll speed up next time.'"


...and a bit of controversy
As last week was Banned Books Week, here are some 'funny' author responses to their books being banned.

Sikhs were up in arms over the self-harming Sikh character Sukhvinder Jawanda in JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Did they finish reading it?

Haruki Murakami tells Japan and China to chill the heck out over the island spat, which has appeared to spill over to China banning or blocking books (including Murakami-san's), articles, racers, etc that have anything to do with the Land of the Rising Sun.

In other news

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Not So Casual, Actually

While I'm relieved that it's finally published, I'm still averse to reading the many other reviews out there. Can any more be said about it?

The only other Rowling book I read was Tales of Beedle the Bard, which may have narrowed the scope of my review. I took only two days to read it and I didn't take notes and ... oh tidak, I spelled the name of the killing curse wrong!

That's why I'm jittery about sending pieces to other media outlets.

But what's this? Oh look, the Zagat 2013 guide for San Francsico and Bay Area restaurants is out.

I know I shouldn't, but ... I feel better.

Not so casual, actually
Nothing supernatural in JK Rowling's latest, but expect skeletons in closets, ghosts from the past and voices from beyond the grave

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 03 October 2012

Just as in "Desperate Housewives", JK Rowling's first adult novel The Casual Vacancy, begins with a death.

In the case of the book, it is the death of Barry Fairbrother, the parish councillor of the fictional small town of Pagford. Thus begins the rush for the plum position in the town's administrative body left by the "casual vacancy".

The Casual Vacancy
A character in a famous video game once likened people to rugs: shake them a few times and marvel at the amount of dirt that comes out. In this case, the whole town is the rug and, good grief, the kinds of dirt that gets shaken out by the race for the councillor's seat.

With the mystique attached to Rowling's blockbusting Harry Potter series, many wondered if she could weave another similarly successful spell with more mundane items: small-town politics, class wars, and a tangled web of intrigue and deceit among the residents that comes to light in the wake of a councillor's sudden departure.

The novel was said to be partly based on Rowling's childhood in Gloucestershire, so there is, of course, no magic in this novel. But do expect skeletons in closets, ghosts from the past, and a voice from beyond the grave enabled by technology.

For someone who has completed the decade-long Homeric multi-volume epic about a boy wizard, it can be a Herculean effort to wrap up a story in one book. Though Rowling somehow manages to do so, it still feels overwritten.

The novel starts off painfully slow as the stage is set and some background is established. The Pagford council is currently saddled with the Fields, a high-maintenance (costly) adjacent housing area plagued by a host of social ills.

The council's snooty faction wants nothing to do with the Fields, while the altruists aligned with the deceased councillor want to preserve the status quo.

Free from child-safe restraints that held her back for over 10 years, Rowling lets it rip. She annoys the hell out of readers with the grim, distressing portrayal of a town's fraying social fabric. Still, the level of estrangement in some of the families is extreme.

The grown-ups and kids appear terribly self-absorbed in the beginning, lost in their own worries and pursuits.

It gets worse as the story ponderously rolls on, no thanks to Rowling's over-characterisation of the people and places. Bits of bracket-encased backstory and flashbacks are inserted between present dialogue and narrative, making for a really tedious and choppy read. Secret thoughts and schemes are laid bare for all to gawp at. And many characters swear a lot.

That one still finds it all believable is perhaps a sign of the times.

By the time you get close to page 400 you decide that the whole town and the novel are beyond salvation. But just when you're ready to hurl your Avada Kedavras, a tragedy occurs, followed by a miracle.

Bhai Kanhaiya, a guru admired by the mother of the town's Sikh family, once served water to wounded soldiers from both sides of a conflict because "the light of God shines from every soul".

Like the spirit of hope at the bottom of Pandora's box, the guru's compassion appears from within an unexpected source during the novel's darkest phase, initiating an incredible transformation.

No magic? The speed at which this happens, after about 460 pages of misery, gloom, racism, misogyny, drugs, domestic abuse and other choice examples of despicable human behaviour, is nothing short of magical. Some may find this incredulous, even with some suspension of disbelief. Kinder hearts, however, may feel differently.

So maybe Rowling did work a tiny bit of her familiar alchemy into a realistic Muggleland fable about the worst and best in people, albeit one hobbled by a large cast, too much detail, a glacial build-up to an abrupt finale (with Rihanna and Jay-Z? Seriously?) and, perhaps, by the pressure to repeat her multi-book success with a single-book one.

Whether that little bit of magic can cut through the hype and criticism remains to be seen; it's barely a week since its release, after all.

Disappointed fans, meanwhile, can take heart in the news that she's pondering a release a "director's cut" of several Harry Potter books and a possible return to the Potterverse.

A spelling error was corrected in this version.

The Casual Vacancy
JK Rowling
Little, Brown (2012)
503 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-22853-4

Monday, 1 October 2012

News: This Earth Of Mankind And All That

Banned Books Week 2012 kicks off in the US. The New York Times volunteered some ideas on how to 'celebrate' the Week. Gosh, has it been a year already?

Though Banned Books Week is a US-only thing, many of us can emphatise with the notion. This year's biggest banned book is arguably Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love. A local publisher and a bookstore manager were visited by religious authorities in relation to the book. One issue with the 'visit' seems to be more about conflicts between federal and religious laws with regards to print material that's deemed objectionable, not the ban itself, though some may argue that there's no point banning the book anyway.

Another more recent casualty - in China, at least - is Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. The novel became collateral damage in the Sino-Japanese spat over a bunch of rocks northeast of Taiwan, which got China banning or closing everything Japanese. An article on fossils in Japan's Gifu Prefecture was deleted minutes after it was posted on a Chinese web host. And a Japanese-backed cycling team pulled out of the Tour of Beijing event.

A cheerier celebratory occasion this week is this year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, happening from 03 to 07 October. Themed Bumi Manusia ("This Earth of Mankind"), after a title from Pramoedya Ananta Toer's first book in the once-banned historical fiction series The Buru Quartet, this year's Ubud Fest is held in honour of the enduring power of storytelling.

Author Michael Ruhlman also had something to say about storytelling, the importance of food writing, in particular. "...telling stories about food and cooking is not only natural, it's necessary for our survival. It's important to understand how something that is essential to our humanity and our well-being affects all other aspects of our lives and our humanity."

Hear, hear.

In other news:

  • Penguin seeks repayment of big advances from writers who didn't deliver. Among those being pursued are Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation), Wonkette's founding editor Ana Marie Cox, and Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblat.
  • John Scalzi's readers recommend some books in what is probably among the longest comments thread on the Whatever. Multiple nominations include Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Jenny "The Bloggess" Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Libriomancer by Jim C Hines, The Map of the Sky by Felix Palma and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.
  • Shades of virtual book-burning in the disappearance of Jonah Lehrer's book from various retail outlets and portals? Don't worry about it, says some readers of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. At least, I think, for now.
  • US retail chain Wal-Mart is said to have stopped selling Kindles. Another US retail chain, Target, pledged to take the Amazon e-reader off its shelves this May, seemingly because of the latter's aggressive expansion tactics.
  • A fiction writer's heartening open letter to her ... should it be "colleagues" or "comrades"? In short, she says, "Keep writing."
  • Things from Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" that are still burning. Will the Middle East 'burn' forever?
  • The origin of a "hackademic" book publishing initiative, and how it can help students and journalists.
  • From the author of The Lizard King: a sad tale about the role of religion in the ivory trade.
  • Punjab's own Interlok kerfuffle was raised when words regarding caste land publishers in jail. The report could've been written better, though.
  • The New Yorker commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book said to have kicked off the modern environmental movement.
  • England's government announces a review on e-book lending in libraries.