Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Card-Carrying Reviewers? Yelp!

Brad Newman thinks that online reviewers don't get enough respect. So he came up with a card that a reviewer can flash at rude waiters or uppity maitre'ds for near instant R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Of course, not everybody can get a shiny black ReviewerCard. Prospective cardholders will be screened for eligibility. For one, a cardholder must have written lots of reviews.

The idea came to Newman in France when he was brushed off by a waiter when he asked for green tea instead of normal tea during breakfast. When Newman hinted that this would mean a negative review on TripAdvisor, the manager of the place paid for his breakfast.

A thought hit him like Mjölnir from above. "Why can't waiters, hotel workers, concierges know that people are reviewers? If that French waiter had known at the beginning that I write a lot of reviews, he'd have treated me like Brad Pitt." I don't know whether he got his green tea, though.

Newman also cited a time when he got a hotel room in Geneva for about half price a night after waving his little black card. He doesn't call it what some people might see it as: extortion. "I see it as letting the restaurant know that they should treat me good because I'm going to be writing a review."

Unless you're Jay Rayner, A A Gill, Pete Wells, or some motormouth from Ipoh, I don't feel like paying attention to anything you say. Nor do I think anything you have to say matters all that much. However, this is the Internet we're talking about.

I've read some of the 'reviews' on sites such as Yelp. I've also read some of the horror stories about 'reviews' and 'reviewers' from sites such as Yelp. So I can say that giving this kind of people something like the ReviewerCard is akin to arming them with AR-15s. Both require a certain degree of faith in the integrity, maturity and intelligence of those entrusted with such power - faith that is at times misplaced.

Even before the Internet, complaints tend to travel faster than praise. Thanks to feedback sites such as Yelp, grouses gained warp drives. Some groups of Yelpers have begun acquiring an unsavoury reputation for shaking down restaurants and being free with lone-star rants. Thus, the means to help players in the hotel and food businesses improve via crowdsourced feedback is slowly becoming an instrument of terror where F&B players are concerned.

Which is why anything that empowers hordes of uninformed freeloaders and discount whores in this manner is just many kinds of wrong.

There are reasons why all these 'reviewers' are online and not in, say, The New York Times or The Observer. How much to they know about the businesses they're writing about and the cultures of where they're based? Do they know what is and is not available at the establishments being reviewed? Are they magnanimous enough to allow for days when the floor staff or kitchen staff may be having a bad day?

Do they really care about their readers, or is it just about the power trip from all the freebies and bragging rights?

Newman got miffed because the French waiter turned up his nose at his request for green tea. If this gentleman is correct, French waiters are known to be rude or snobbish. And does this establishment have any green tea to serve? Did his sense of entitlement just so happened to kick in at a particularly busy time in that place?

We don't know. But it's what he doesn't say in the LA Times article that rings louder in my head.

For whatever reason they're written, reviews are essentially a kind of service, and sites that collect these are supposed to help consumers with their decisions. If written well, reviews can be entertaining as well as informative and, most of all, reliable, as it describes a normal situation at an establishment that people are more likely to encounter.

When you declare your reviewer status at the table, you are never going to get that.

One can argue that food critics with a face also get preferential treatment, but that's because (one hopes) they earned it and, writing for a news agency and all, they're also bound by a journalist's code of conduct. Also, because there's the impression that food critics are relatively more stable and reliable than Yelpers.

"The food critic is definitely a reference because Yelp is basically full of people complaining," said chef Eric Ripert of the famed New York restaurant Le Bernardin. "We have to take into consideration some of the comments, but very often it's not even rational what they say."

The rise of what I call 'raviews' - overly glowing praise that is bought, faked or written in exchange for freebies or discounts - and the growing number of 'reviews' that are nothing more than complaints are bringing into question the helpfulness of crowdsourced customer feedback. Though Yelp and others have tried to rein in the insanity, the struggle seems to be an uphill one.

The F&B business is already fraught with pitfalls: competition, staff and customer turnover, logistics, and red tape. The nature of the business means that good restaurants and hotels generally prosper, while the bad ones will fold under the weight of their own screw-ups. The drive-by review business is changing things, but is it for the better or the worse? We don't know yet.

But the last thing it - and the rest of us - needs is a bunch of whiny entitled know-nothings waving cards that says, "I'm a reviewer. Treat me right - or else."

Monday, 28 January 2013

News: Novels For All, Tweets Of The Week

I'm mourning the end of a nice long weekend, so no yard-long list of Book Marks. Let's start off with something positive and more important.

Non-profit community Novels for Nepal is morphing into Novels for All, in its goal of encouraging reading while raising funds for charity. One of its initiatives, Café Reads, has been going on for some time now, raising funds to refurbish a study room in The Divine Mercy Boys Home in Kepong.

Novels for All has set up mini-libraries in several cafés in KL and PJ, including Artisan Roast TTDI, The Bee @ Publika and MyBurgerLab which isn't a café, but who cares if it's for a good cause?

Each of the books in the DIY shelves are for sale at RM10, or one can drop some spare change into a donation jar in the premises. All proceeds will go to the project; the target is to raise RM1,000. Sadly, books have been filched from these shelves.

All titles are handpicked by dedicated members of the group, so you probably won't see Fifty Shades (thank G*d) or anything from Harlequin or Mills & Boon.

Those following the Buku Fixi-Popular micro-saga shouldn't be surprised to know that the inevitable has happened:

So Popular Bookstores has decided to stop selling Fixi titles and has returned over a thousand copies of the former's books, which includes stock from 2011. Which, according to Fixi, is no big loss, since buyers are going to other bookstores as well as its own online shop.

Maybe those returned books can be sold as part of some kind of promotion. I'm curious as to how fast they will go.

Guess that's the end of that. Both sides should let it go already.

Meanwhile, controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen had some words for countries that banned the screening of Tamil film Vishwaroopam, allegedly due to the film's terrorism theme and portrayal of Islamists:

Sharp words and typo aside, I'm unsure as to how this film could worsen perceptions towards Islamists, especially those who openly advocate violence and bay for the blood of critics and opponents. When they are their own worst enemies, who needs filmmakers, writers or poets?

Is a library in Sydney, Australia going to shelve Lance Armstrong non-fiction titles under "Fiction"? Uh, no, it isn't. And it can't. "Libraries can't arbitrarily reclassify categories of books, because that depends on the ISBN number that is issued by the National Library," said a spokesman for the Manly council in Sydney that runs the library. Fair enough, though it would be a manly thing to do. Suing Lance and his publishers for 'cheating' readers, however....

As readers go digital, physical books as collectibles may become a viable option. A 101 on collecting books seems to argue that it's easier to hoard for love than financial gain - spotting books that will become eBay bonanzas in the future.

Move over, Disney princesses, for Chitrangada, Sita and Draupadi, says New Delhi-based writer and educator Saraswati Nagpal. Perhaps its time a new generation of Indian women had some homegrown heroines to look up to.

Now, if only someone can stand up against those who want Joe Anton's supporters barred from the Jaipur lit fest.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Yeast, Encore

I rarely produce two reviews from one restaurant, but this place changes character according to the different times of the day. And I am sort of taken with the food there, even though I can afford to dine there, like, once a month. Thank goodness they also sell breads and pastries.

Two realisations: Virtually all my food reviews end with some form of "I'll be back", and I seem to be reviewing more restaurants than books lately. Which is why I guest-blogged this piece elsewhere first. In hindsight, this makes no difference, since every piece I've ever published will still be archived here.

Truth is, I love food more than books but eventually there'll be some foods I may no longer be able to enjoy. Books, on the other hand, do not raise blood sugar or cholesterol levels, although stress level warning labels should be applied to some.

Paris on a plate
When it comes to classic French bistro fare, Yeast Bistronomy rises to the occasion

first published on Nooks and Gems, 27 January 2013

The words spilled into the chat window from Melody's end: "I feel like splurging."

Me too, as it was just after payday and I can always count on Melody's sombre moods as an excuse for a posh evening out. And I had one spot in mind.

"Let's go to France!" I typed out.

"Haha," she shot back. "You going to fly me there, izzit?"

"No, we'll drive. Only twenty minutes to get there."

Because another slice of France had arrived on our shores just a few weeks back.

Diners at Yeast Bistronomyvacherin aux fruits rouge
Diners at Yeast (left) and the vacherin aux fruits rouge
(vacherin with red berries)

On one of her occasional food hunts, Melody had stumbled upon a quaint little boulangerie (bakery) with a cheerful yellow signboard in Bangsar. As I am often a grouchy bear in the mornings when I wake up, she had to drag me there for breakfast one early morning – "Try it, you'll like it" – in case she couldn't finish the food.

Besides breakfast eggs and baked goods, Yeast Bistronomy also offered lunch and, more recently, dinner. I took three looks at the lunch and dinner menu (so many lovely items) and decided that we would be back.

Yeast Bistronomy was a slightly different place at night. The cosy Parisian-style boulangerie in the morning was now a cosy Parisian-style bistro and wine bar by night. The bread shelves and baskets were mostly empty, save for a few doggie bags filled with samples of the morning's baked goods for patrons to take home after dinner.

Chefs at work at Yeast Bistronomy
Chefs at work at Yeast Bistronomy

The founder himself met us at the door and showed us to the seats we picked: at the bar, facing the open kitchen. A veteran of the food and beverage business, Christophe Chatron-Michaud helped open and run restaurants with names such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Chatron-Michaud reminds me somewhat of New York chef Eric Ripert).

In addition to easing his palate's homesickness, he started Yeast to bring Malaysians what he claims is a more authentic French culinary experience with imported French talent. Form his home country is Yeast's baker, Christophe Gros who inherited his father's skills as an artisanal boulanger (baker) and Yeast's head chef Clara Champonnois. Even the butter Yeast uses, a delicately flavoured, creamy product from the Charentes region in France, is covered by the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) scheme.

frisée aux lardons
Frisée aux lardons: French chicory and bacon salad,
with poached egg

With that kind of attention to detail, little wonder the baked goods we'd sampled one Saturday morning had that effect on us. What would the dinner menu do?

We picked seats facing the kitchen prep area, not far from the stoves. Rather warm, but we like being different, and these were ringside seats to some hot cooking action.

After our orders were taken, the bread basket arrived, along with a bit of that EU-covered butter. We nibbled sparingly at the bread, mindful of the need to save room for the main dishes.

boeuf bourguignon
Hearty, flavourful beefy braised goodness. Not telling you
any more about it... go and try it yourself

We shared a salad and soup. The frisée aux lardons is a classic French bistro salad that consists mainly of French chicory and bits of bacon, topped with a poached egg. No complaints with the salad, and the sweetness of the soup du jour, a sweet corn soup, was just right and went well with the shredded duck confit.

Nothing says France more eloquently than foie gras, but boeuf bourguignon will do if you're on the look-out for creeping calories or PETA-type activists. It's enough for Melody, who considers the dish of beef slowly braised in a sauce of red wine a classical French must-try.

Petites Madeleines Chaudes: Tiny bundles of fluffy warm sweetness

What arrived was three chunks of beef sitting on a rib bone laid on a bed of greens, drizzled with sauce that mingled with a pool of "root vegetable" puree — I suspect it's celeriac, which is a kind of ... root vegetable. We saw the sous chef dipping into a crock full of the stuff for someone else's order; "celeriac puree", he told Melody when she had asked.

Mon dieu, the rich, tender, melt-in-your-mouth beef ... each mouthful was a trip back to an old French kitchen where peasants simmered tough cuts of meat in red wine to make them more palatable. The mellow, slightly nutty puree cuts through some of the beef's richness, making each bite feel less heavy, so it goes down much easier. The crispy fried onions on top were a nice touch.

By now, Melody was almost full. I wiped the plate clean of beef juice and sauce with some leftover bread. I sighed deeply. "Okay, I think we can forgo dessert."

For some reason, Monsieur Chatron-Michaud thought different. In spite of Melody's protests, he insisted and assured us that it was just "a little something" that won't bust our guts.

We looked at each other, hoping that the "little something" was measured by Malaysian standards.

We ended up with a vacherin aux fruits rouge, a glass filled with vanilla ice cream, red berries, red berry coulis and bits of meringue at the bottom. The heavy-looking concoction was strangely light, not very filling, and delicious. We also had a ramekin of tiny madeleines, still warm from the oven and dusted with icing sugar.

I look over at Melody, whose mood had significantly improved - but that happened after the braised beef, which I can spell on the first try by now.

"So, can you roll proper French 'R's now?" I asked, still surprised that she had taken French lessons at university.

She seemed uncertain. "I ... think so." And then, she threw out a few phrases. "What do you think?" she asked afterwards.

I think there are some things even authentic French cuisine can't do.

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


Fridays and Saturdays: 8am-10:30pm
Other days from 8am-10pm

Breakfast: 8am-11:30am
Lunch: 11:30am-3:30pm
High Tea: 3:30pm-5:30pm
Dinner: 6pm until closing

Closed on Mondays

+603-2282 0118


Web site | Facebook page

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Honk If You Wear Suspenders

For a while, the then homemaker/author wrote a series of English language columns for The Star, and also authored several books on winning contests and tourist destinations.

By Lydia Teh: “Honk! If You're Malaysian” and “Do You Wear Suspenders?”
Since returning to full-time employment, Teh seems to have stopped blogging, but hopes to write more books.

Like what we've done with Adibah's books, we're converting her books, Honk! If You're Malaysian and Do You Wear Suspenders, into e-book format.

As is often the case, I ended up reading the books instead of merely proofreading them - I believe there is a difference. And it was kind of fun.

Malaysiana, sharply sliced and served
Honk! If You're Malaysian and its prequel, Life's Like That are similar to Sri Delima's three books on Malaysiana, but has a more urban feel to it. The city, specifically Kuala Lumpur, is the backdrop to a lot of scenarios.

Unlike Adibah's coy, teasing former schoolteacher, Teh spares nothing and no-one when delivering advice and home truths, like the fiery, quick-witted, sharp-tongued aunt in the family everyone wants on their side of a discussion - or argument. No beating about the bush for her. Busybodies, procrastinators, fake beggars, annoying LRT passengers, look out.

And: "If a typical Chinaman, the type who wears Pagoda singlets and baggy drawers, tries to kiss me, I would punch and kick him until he resembles pickled mustard." Don't you like her already?

One thing about Honk! is just how insightful and instructional many of the articles can be. Her tips on becoming "the savvy shopper" (shh, don't let the supermarkets in on them) shows she's an old hand in writing tips and tricks. I'd heard that Congratulations! You Have Won!, now out of print, was considered a best-seller in the day.

Equally instructional are her suggestions to avoid being a victim of snatch thieves, decorating your new car, and things to do when the traffic lights turn red. Encyclopaedic chapters on things such as the kinds of beggars we have; the kinds of men, according to how often they wash their cars; and some common Manglish phrases are entertaining and enlightening.

New cover for “Honk! If You're Malaysian”
The new cover for Honk! If You're
that marks its 20,000th
sale milestone
And with a certain chapter, she scores a palpable hit for women everywhere who've been deprived of their husbands, thanks to the World Cup.

When Teh introduces chatroom lingo, she points out that: "...PITA isn’t the bread with a pocket where you can stuff all sorts of fillings for a delicious meal. POTS aren’t the vessels you use to cook your chicken stew in. SOS isn’t the distress signal you draw in the sand when you’re marooned on an uninhabited island. GAL isn’t a young girl, and KIT isn’t a set of tools."

Is Teh Malaysian? Definitely. Are you Malaysian? Honk honk!

Life, love, lexicon
Teh's Do You Wear Suspenders? The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim, however, shares the same concept as Ellen Whyte's Logomania series. Both also started life as newspaper columns. Teh introduces idioms, eponyms, heteronyms, malapropisms, contronyms, oxymorons and so on through the life of a fictional character.

Eh Poh Nim, a marketing executive with a pharmaceutical company, is a talkative woman who can't resist any opportunity to show off her English knowledge - you know, the kind who'd use "pulchritude" instead of "beauty" and tells you of several other synonyms for it. And:

If she was entertaining clients at the lounge and someone ordered a Bloody Mary, she would launch into an explanation of how the cocktail of vodka and tomato juice came to be named thus.

"Did you know that Bloody Mary was named after Queen Mary I? She put to death some 300 people as heretics and imprisoned many more. What a shame, isn’t it?"

If someone at the office came down with diarrhoea, she would announce to everyone that Daniel Elmer Salmon, an American veterinary surgeon, was the one who identified and gave his name to the bacteria Salmonella which was probably the cause of the diarrhoea.

Of course, this behaviour doesn't sit very well with many of her acquaintances and an old flame. But because of her generally upbeat disposition, it doesn't keep her down for long. And, quite unexpectedly, someone new enters her life.

Why does it sound like a story? Because it is. And that's why it's engaging.

Read what happens when Eh Poh Nim meets Big Bertha, chats with Big Willie and gets stunned by a ball of fire. Eh Poh Nim also gets educated by a dogged cobbler but don't pester her about it, as she can be acerbically alliterative when annoyed.

Also: Learn how to chew the fat and talk turkey and find out why you won't get any writing done with stationary. And no, I don't think Grand Prix legend Michael Schumacher makes or has ever made shoes in his career.

Though each chapter is short and doesn't really expand a lot on the characters, the length is sufficient for the purpose of this book. I don't think all the -isms and -nyms are featured here, just a few to help us get by - and maybe impress/irritate our co-workers and dates.

Fun, fast, educational
Some would feel that the stories are a little dated; Honk! and Suspenders were published in 2007 and 2009 respectively, though the articles that comprise them may be older. But it's great nostalgia and English is evergreen. Both are fun, fast reads. Informative, too.

...can't help wondering what the combined genius of Adibah Amin, Lydia Teh and Ellen Whyte would produce...

Honk! If You're Malaysian and Do You Wear Suspenders? is now available as e-books at MPH Digital. Sales for the former has reached 20,000 and it has been released with a new cover.

Putting Adibah Amin, Lydia Teh and Ellen Whyte in the same room, however, might be a bit foolhardy.

Honk! If You're Malaysian
Lydia Teh
MPH Group Publishing (2007)
286 pages
ISBN: 978-983-3698-12-7

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Do You Wear Suspenders?
The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim

Lydia Teh
MPH Group Publishing (2009)
240 pages
ISBN: 978-967-5222-08-5

Buy from MPHOnline.com

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Book-Killers Of The Amazon Jungle?

Several years ago, I noted a news report that claimed anti-climate change trolls tried to sabotage sales of a book on climate change using one- or two-star Amazon reviews. I can't remember the details now as I forgot to save the link to the report or the book in question.

But I guess after Hurricane Sandy, a lot more people are thinking, "Come to think of it, our summers have been warmer lately...".

Now, another book is being threatened by an even greater, more insidious force: Michael Jackson fans.

From a 'speed read' of Randall Sullivans' book, Untouchable is largely sympathetic towards the late King of Pop and not nearly as kind to his siblings. The usual advice when it comes to such books is the best: take it with a pinch of salt. Or, as Michiko-san puts it: "Fans of Jackson's talent ... would be way better off viewing that documentary — or YouTube clips of the Motown show — than reading this bloated and thoroughly dispensable book."

But you know how some MJ fans are.

A group of such fans claimed credit for the rush of one-star Amazon reviews of Untouchable, sales of which seem to be buckling under all the negativity thrown its way. Out of the 16,000 copies distributed, only 3,000 were reportedly sold. One of the people behind this campaign said it was a "moral responsibility" to make sure the book tanks.

I'd like to believe that it was more due to the negative reviews by more mainstream voices. A reviewer in the LA Times, for instance, called it "a joyless slog".

...Still, I can't help but compare these guys to the so-called defenders of the US Constitution's Second Amendment. Especially when their actions seem driven by emotion and unfounded assumptions that something they hold dear is being threatened.

"Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed," said Cornell sociologist Trevor Pinch, who studied reviews on Amazon, in The New York Times.

These days, we probably shouldn't expect or assume that objective, hardcore journalism is the sole reason behind the release of celebrity biographies, especially those that revolve around controversial personalities such as Jackson. But what about books that should be read? Books that are written by credible authors quoting unimpeachable sources?

Feelings about a book is part of a review. When a 'review' is mostly feelings or conjecture without the backing of fact or elaboration, it's just opinion, to be taken even more lightly than an 'actual' review.

Far from a show of solidarity for a maligned idol or "moral responsibility" in action, the negative campaign against Sullivan's Untouchable seems to confirm the possibility that the fate of a book - and to an extent, a writer's livelihood - can be determined via remotely directed mob justice.

Certain parties who are not fond of things found in books they don't like, even if it's just a paragraph, line or even a single word can now bury it, perhaps forever, with emotion-fuelled rants and falsehoods spread online by people who believe only what they want to believe.

As if there's not enough trouble already out there that keeps writers and publishers up at night.

So what if Randall Sullivan did get some things right or wrong in that book? How much does that matter now? Jackson's gone. One might not be able to libel the dead, but for Sullivan's career to be threatened or possibly ended by an angry virtual mob is also an injustice itself.

If the worst happens, will anyone claim 'moral responsibility' for the death of a writer's career?

Amazon can look away and pray this mess away, but if it's serious about making the product comments section a viable feedback tool, it needs to find ways to keep the trolls out. Too many comment threads out there resemble the insides of a chamber pot, and it won't be too long before Amazon's will be equally useless.

After all, wasn't Amazon set up to sell stuff in the first place?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

News: Some Author Updates, Books and Obscure Punctuation

So Imran Ahmad spoke about his book yesterday at MPH 1Utama, and it was all right, even though lack of space limited the amount of seats. Some signed copies of the book should still be available at the outlet.

The 'perfect gent' holds court at MPH, 1Utama. And no,
this blog has not become "The Imran Ahmad Show".

And dear G*d, he's lost weight. 30lbs, I was told.

The Readings @ Seksan's event celebrates its eighth birthday this weekend on 26 January, from 3:30pm to 6pm. Writers scheduled to appear include Imran, Marina Mahathir and Eeleen Lee, with Bluetoffee Press editor and New Village zine publisher See Tshiung Han as the emcee.

Also: Boey Cheeming's When I Was A Kid is on its fifth reprint. Sales may soon reach - if not pass - the 10,000 mark.


  • German publisher gets flak for cutting racist terms from classic children's book.
  • Dear Abby ... RIP.
  • Some reasons why print books will never die.
  • Is there any pleasure in reading "repulsive" writers? And can chick lit be bad for your health?
  • "To Lord Byron, from the author." An autographed copy of the original Frankenstein emerges from the past.
  • Some juicy bits from Lawrence Wright's Scientology exposé Going Clear. Apparently, "the secrets" came to L Ron Hubbard while he was under anaethesia during dental surgery - if only half of us were as lucky.
  • Imagine that: Facebook updates are more "mind-ready" than polished prose. Does this explain the slow death of literature?
  • "In the English-speaking world, punning is viewed as more of a tic than a trick, a pathological condition whose sufferers are classed as 'compulsive', 'inveterate' and 'unable to help themselves'." Are puns that bad?
  • Too good not to share: links to free e-book formatting and marketing guides, including the user manual for e-book conversion tool Calibre. And turn a blog into an e-blook with the Ebook Glue webapp.
  • What do book editors want in 2013? More non-fiction, from the looks of it. Will it be bad years for fiction from here on?
  • Eleven common words we're probably mispronouncing. For me, that's more than half the list and, goodness, "boatswain" equals "bo'sun"! Can we have, like, eleven more?
  • Two spaces after a fullstop? Wrong, wrong, wrong. I think this has been posted on Slate before. And by golly, I didn't know there were these obscure punctuation marks for doubt, irony, authority and sarcasm.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Go West, Young Man

I had difficulty containing myself when reviewing this book. When you go through and correct a lot of bad stuff in your job, a good read will make you shed tears of joy.

I thought I did rather well, until a colleague noted that I was like a "little boy salivating over an ice cream". Urrrgh, there goes my cred....

There seems to be some confusion over the book's publication date and number of pages. The copy I got lists the date as 2012, while the web sites say 2013; the information in the inset near the bottom is from the review copy (not an ARC). The book is the same - just hope the differences aren't too big.

...Now I want ice cream. Vanilla.

When a young man went west

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 17 January 2013

I suspect that, post 9/11, memoirs of people from a certain demographic were pretty hot items. But one of those had been rejected ― not because the author wrote it himself, but it was not a "miserable" book.

The Perfect Gentleman
"It's not supposed to be miserable...!" the author said exasperatedly in an immaculate British accent when talking about it several years back.

Maybe it's because the author turned out to be a perfect gentleman.

The last I'd heard of Imran Ahmad, he was an executive at General Electric. So I was surprised to learn that he's now residing in KL, and he's released a US/international edition of said "not miserable" memoir Unimagined and went on another book tour in America.

This edition, The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets The West, has been updated with newer material and since it's been ages since I've looked at the older UK edition, it still feels fresh.

Each chapter is made up of what I'd call episodes, many of which are paragraphs of 10 lines or less. All events are in chronological order, making it easy to follow his life's journey. It feels as if one's reading a Tumblr account. The pages zip by quickly.

Some of the new bits include a brief story about how his parents met, and the day he was born ― Day Zero, as he calls it. "...I took my time in arriving (a trait I still exhibit sometimes) and I emerged in the early hours of–" ... No. If you want to send him birthday greetings, read the book.

In spite of the racism he grew up with as a Pakistani immigrant in Britain, Imran recalls his past in a generally frank and upbeat manner. The narration, so English it almost tastes of Earl Grey, made the funny parts laugh-out-loud and the sad parts even more poignant.

It also conveys his thoughts of each past self as he makes sense of the world around him. When "blatant nepotism" robbed him of the title of Karachi's Bonniest Baby, you can almost visualise one-year-old Imran, looking all dapper in his suit, thinking to himself that, yes, this was the beginning of "my lifelong struggle against corruption and injustice."

What a struggle. Growing up in London, he faced the prejudices of the day because of his religion and nationality; to one's dismay, things haven't changed much since then.

Bullying, unrequited love, uppity schoolteachers, being unjustly scolded and feelings of validation when scoring top marks or appearing in the newspaper (I had no such luck) and the like... it all jogs your own memories even as Imran recounts his.

His resolve to fit in and battle the prejudices of his schoolmates by becoming "whiter than white" raises a pang of pity, because by right one shouldn't have to, but I guess it's an unfair world out there and the young, without the benefit of experience, tend to judge books by their covers.

What I suspect will be of interest is Imran's ruminations over culture and religion ― that of others and his own. As a young man, he wondered where justice was when a presumably Muslim renter left his parents an "astronomical phone bill" ("Does not his heart tremble with fear at the thought of God's judgment?").

He draws parallels between aspects of his culture and that of Mr Spock's ("Like Muslims and other Asians, Vulcans have arranged marriages, and are not given to displays of emotion in public.").

Some of his observations are darkly hilarious in hindsight. The 1978 Black Friday incident in Iran, for one, was an awful time, and "confusing" for him because the Shah who instigated the event was installed by the CIA.

"The role of America in this is very disturbing, since America is one of the forces of good in the world. They probably didn't know anything about the torture." Am I the only one who cracks up at stuff like that?

If there was anything in the book I didn't like, I didn't notice. Some, however, will find it a bit long-winded (his life was eventful, maybe?), a little self-absorbed (it's his life story), too preachy in parts (perhaps, but it's still fun), and uses too many italics (what).

The book, it seems, was banned in Qatar due to the religious and cultural bits (everybody's a critic). Looks like it's shaping up to be one of those "love it or hate it" kind of reads.

Still, I can't help liking it. The wit, introspection and interrogation of his motives and those of others are fun to read (Former Waterstone's bookbuyer turned publisher Scott Pack loved it and I tend to pay attention to his book recommendations, never mind what some have said about him. And, as shown previously, he's quotable. If I extract any more I'd be infringing copyright big time.

The KL launch of Imran Ahmad's The Perfect Gentleman will be on Saturday, 19 January at MPH 1Utama, from 3pm to 4pm, and Tuesday, 22 January at Kinokuniya KLCC, from 6pm to 7pm.

The Perfect Gentleman
A Muslim Boy Meets the West

Imran Ahmad
Center Street (2012)
336 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4555-2854-7

Sunday, 13 January 2013

News: Fisking Online Trolls, And Various Miscellany

It seems Robert Fisk has had enough of the "digital poison" spewed by "gutless" anonymous Internet trolls.

"Anonymity on the Net is as pathetic as the anonymous 'sources' that have contaminated the gutless journalism of the New York Times or CNN or the BBC for decades. And the innocent must be able to seek redress in cyberspace as well as in print. Poison-pen letters are illegal. ... So why should we be forced to drink poison on the Net?"

A Tumblr of lousy book covers are such a hoot, as is this blog about lousy Polish book covers. The cover for this book (G*d, Amazon will sell anything) is strangely compelling, and if that's not a big enough red flag, there's the book description and author background. Oh, and here's a blog about very bad sci-fi/fantasy novel covers.

"I had no idea. LITERALLY no idea that bananas could be sliced. For MY ENTIRE LIFE I have simply peeled and chewed bananas. BUT NOW...NOW...I can have my bananas SLICED. perfect little banana discs!!!!"

Love the Amazon review comedy around the Chef'n Bananza Banana Slicer.

In other news:

  • A new law in Turkey quietly lifts ban on 23,000 books. It's always the lifting of bans that are done so quietly ... unless it's an election year, perhaps.
  • Author dumps "bullying" publisher over e-book royalties and starts his own publishing house - which also sells his own books, of course. Speaking of 'bad' publishers: Is Edmund Curll (c. 1675–1747) the worst publisher of all time?
  • Abandoned Ship, a book on a honeymooning couple's nightmare after the Costa Concordia capsized.
  • Keep your highlighter - it doesn't help you learn. Try flash cards and recall instead. Some of the best and worst learning techniques, outlined.
  • Here are three books said to explore the delights of the indie bookstore. Now that's an idea: stories - fiction or non-fiction - revolving around small bookshops. That would make an interesting collection.
  • Christopher Tolkien thinks Peter Jackson and company "eviscerated" his dad's book. So, not everybody is fond of the LoTR movies.
  • It's that time of the year again: the hunt for the 2013 Hatchet Job of the Year. As expected, Zoë Heller's takedown of Joseph Anton is there, and Ron Charles's scathing review of Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo. It'll be a long wait for the results.
  • It seems UK publisher Transworld has dropped Going Clear, Lawrence Wright's book on Scientology. Was the potential for legal tussles with the notoriously litigious group too much to think about?
  • "...it's an uneasy business, reading a friend's book." When a friend writes a novel, how should you handle the disappointment?
  • The poetry of Pablo Neruda, as 'read' by cats. And here are some bookstore cats, cat-alogued. Another reason why bookstores shouldn't close.
  • In Mumbai, book piracy is not only socially acceptable, some Indian authors "see it as a stamp of mass popularity." Not sure what that means to the child pedlars who hawk these books.
  • Research suggests racial bias rooted in lazy thinking, makes people closed-minded and less creative. Well, DUH.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Bookstore Chain's Fix(i)

In the apparent slow death of Barnes and Noble, Dennis Johnson, founder of book blog MobyLives, and co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House, sees the karmic fate of commercial volume booksellers who're said to have crowded out the small-time players.

He notes that within 30 days, B&N has shuttered many of its US outlets. He's not sorry to see it go, but he's not happy with this development because, he argues, major bookstores such as Barnes and Noble also happen to be 'book showrooms' where people can preview books before buying them online; should such bookstores close, sales of e-books will also suffer, resulting in a domino effect that will hit every part of the industry.

So who'll fill the void left behind by the megastores? Indies, maybe or online distributors ... anything that doesn't squash a small business every time it rolls over. Besides, you don't need these companies to sell books these days. When author Joe Simpson felt bullied by his publisher over e-book royalties, he started his own publishing house - which also sells his own books, of course.

At home, local Malay fiction publisher Fixi is having trouble getting its latest publications into another popular bookstore chain. Around August last year, it decided to keep two Fixi novels, Hilang ("Missing") and Murtad ("Apostate"), off its shelves due to objectionable content that includes coarse language and (possibly) references to human gonads.

(...y'know, an official ban on books like that would leave a lot of bookstores with many empty shelves...)

But it seems that these were not the only Fixi books it had problems with.

Last December (not too long ago), this chain seems to have stopped taking four of Fixi's latest. Attempts by the publisher to contact the management have failed, and they're wondering why. Fourteen e-mails "in two years (between 10 December 2012 and 9 January 2013)", yo, and no official reply.

Later, Fixi released part three of this saga, which also throws a bunch of stats comparing online sales from their own web site and various book fairs with those from the chain, a rather long - and entertaining - way of saying, "No big loss, bro. We doin' fine on our own."

Fourteen e-mails and several Facebook nudges in two months may sound pushy, but at this day and age, a simple "Yes, we will" or "No, thank you" shouldn't be too hard to manage.

Perhaps this chain feels it doesn't need to explain its decision, or is it not convenient for them to explain? In light of the Borders employee's arrest over Irshad Manji's book, we probably shouldn't blame bookstores for being too cautious (a list of outlets carrying Fixi titles can be found here, or shop online at Fixi's web site).

Whatever the reasons, this bookstore (or rather, book-and-mostly-stationery store) chain didn't make itself look good by keeping quiet, and it no longer pays for corporations to be cold and aloof. Bookstores rely on people to keep them going, regardless of size, and these days the human connection is becoming a critical survival strategy.

The story (thus far) of Parnassus Books, which author Ann Patchett runs with former Random House sales rep Karen Hayes, is particularly inspiring, with regards to the founders' efforts and the community it's in, and how it appears to be bucking the trend that indie bookstores are dying.

"Amazon doesn't get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money," Patchett says. "If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves."

Some would argue that "it's only two years" and that, when it comes to the community spirit, we may be a long way from the folks at that corner of Nashville, Tennessee. But if there are more and more people out there supporting small presses like Fixi, perhaps the time when Malaysian publishers and bookstores can produce and sell what they (and not the powers that be) feel is all right won't be too far off.

Monday, 7 January 2013

News: Parnassus At Two, Sully Goes Indie, And Paying For Readings

"Anyone I mentioned this plan to was quick to remind me that books were dead, that in two years ... books would no longer exist, much less bookstores, and that I might as well be selling eight-track tapes and typewriters."

It's been two years since Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes's Parnassus Books opened, and it seems to be doing fine.

Patchett cites some reasons why this is, including just plain luck. "But this luck makes me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible," she adds. "Amazon doesn't get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money."

Andrew Sullivan to split from The Daily Beast to go indie - subscription-based, of course. He also spoke to Salon regarding this move.

This move has sparked quite a bit of chatter in cyberspace; it's been discussed or talked about in TIME, SmartPlanet, and AmericaBlog, to name a few. John Scalzi put his two cents in, and wonders if he should do the same for Whatever (the answer is no).

"Reading aloud is back in fashion"? How book readings may revive the storytelling traditions of yore. Plus, some advice on holding a fun readings. And from way back in 2011, some thoughts on writers and their brands, and whether bookstores holding readings should charge for admission.

Considering how glum things seem to be for bookstores, libraries, etc, maybe that's not such a bad idea. Paid admissions to readings imply a line-up so good, you have to pay to watch them live; people pay to watch artistes and musicians perform live, don't they? For the hosting venue, it's an additional income stream. And attendees, I think, would feel a little better supporting an event with their wallets than just showing up.

The most popular literary tweet of 2012 is:


  • The KL launch for Imran Ahmad's The Perfect Gentleman will be at MPH 1Utama on Saturday, 19 January at 3-4pm and Kinokuniya KLCC on Tuesday, 22 January at 6-7pm. This book is the US/international edition of Unimagined, which was published in 2007; here's a bit of background on that book. This edition will include more material and an extended ending.
  • Some rules for using hyphens. I found this useful as a reference and foundation for a personal style guide.
  • Jungleland, the search for the fabled ruins of a "white city" in Central America. The author talks about it here.
  • "In the name of the dead": Yang Jisheng's tombstone to victims of China's Great Famine. Meanwhile, Murong Xuecun (real name Hao Qun) asks, "What do Weibots think about China's Great Famine? " The 'answers' will shock.
  • A year in literary criticism: a chat with author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn.
  • Author JA Konrath has a long list of writer's resolutions for writerly folk, one of which is, "Get over yourself."
  • This essential guide to dim sum by Carolyn Phillips on Buzzfeed's Lucky Peach is a great dim sum primer for the heavily Anglicised Chinese person.
  • Girl power sweeps Costa Awards. O-kay.
  • Fifty Shades trilogy to be read deeper at American University. O~kay....

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Kalamazoo Xmas Do

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 02 January 2013

Know that thing about people gaining weight during Christmas? It's true. I must've packed in several days' worth of calories in a single meal over at Café Kalamazoo.

Inside Café Kalamazoo
Interior of Café Kalamazoo

Run by the god-brother of a friend of Melody's and his friends, its early days were fraught with danger. What were they thinking, planting themselves several doors down from the wildly popular Betty's Midwest Kitchen and offering a similar type of cuisine?

Melody and I didn't return until months later, after it underwent a revamp. Some grey walls were replaced with a cheerier theme, and the sign sported a more welcoming pastel yellow. It felt more like a hangout for close friends than a run-of-the-mill café.

Peanut butter chocolate milkshake
The peanut butter and chocolate milkshake is so damn good

Missing the food they used to have during their days at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the restaurant's partners set up shop at Aman Suria to serve up the same, plus a bit more.

Fewer clues to their alma mater exist now than when they first opened; what remaining WMU memorabilia has been relegated to a yellow-painted section of a wall near the counter.

I can't say much about the burgers, but we were charmed by mains such as the cheese-drizzled pesto chicken and the hearty beef meatloaf.

One of the chefs, we were told, spent a great deal of time testing the sauces, and the results were great. Some thought had been put into the combination of dishes, sides and sauces.

Alabama BBQ Pork Ribs
Hearty, fall-off-the-bone ribs... a must-try at Kalamazoo

The peanut butter chocolate milkshake, more dessert than drink, had the effect of a nightcap and sedative on my perpetually strung, hyperactive nerves. A few sips and my shoulders slowly sagged in blissful submission to the sweet, nutty liquid ambrosia.

Some of these goodies, however, made way for a Christmas menu last weekend that included hand-picked regular items. Melody and I decided to skip the Christmas turkey, which she didn't like anyway. She went with "something light": a pork burger. I picked the Alabama BBQ Ribs and Chilli Cheese Fries.

The fries came first. American chilli "with a touch of heat", fries and cheese on a plate make for some heavy, tasty comfort food, but I felt it could use an additional three to four touches of heat. "Chilli" is such a misnomer for a dish whose main ingredients include tomato sauce, minced beef and pinto and/or kidney beans.

Beef meatloaf
Beef meatloaf that makes you wanna sing ... ♪ and I would do
anything for love... ♫

My ribs arrived together with Melody's pork burger; the ETA for the food was faster than I'd expected. My burger fatigue hasn't quite run its course yet, so I gave it a pass — didn't even take a photo. She didn't say much, so I guess the burger's okay.

But oh G*d, the ribs. Pull-off-the-bone tender but not sticky, slathered in a runnier sauce dotted with herbs I couldn't identify. I got pumpkin mash, a sweeter and less filling side dish compared to potato that really made room for more.

I was still dipping into the chilli cheese fries between each rib bone, supplementing my plate of fries with the ones that came with Melody's burger. Once the rack o' ribs was no longer recognisable as such, the cutlery was cast aside in favour of fingers.

Her friend walked over to see a nearly clean plate with picked-clean bones; I'd wiped up the sauce and leftover bits with pieces of a burger bun Melody couldn't finish. She'd noted that any chef would be pleased to see me "enjoy myself so much". I certainly hoped so.

As a token of appreciation, Melody's friend brought us two pieces of marinated fried chicken from the kitchen to try. "Strictly staff fare," we were told. Nice, but a little heavy on the marinade.

And what a shame that both of us were too full for dessert, which included the cakes baked and supplied to Kalamazoo by Melody's friend's mom. The macadamia cake and Black Forest cake came highly recommended. The green tea and red bean cake we had on a previous visit was nice but dry — a glitch that they had pledged to fix.

Back home, the bathroom scales confirmed my worst fears: I'd gained the weight I'd lost pre-Christmas weekend.

Oh, what the heck. Eleven months at the gym and it'll all be gone.

Café Kalamazoo
A-G-36, Jalan PJU 1/43
Aman Suria Damansara
47301 Petaling Jaya