Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Examining Education

"We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat." Is the call of these protesters in China, against a crackdown on cheating in college entrance exams, a sign of the Chinese exam system's impending collapse?

China's education system, which in many ways reflects ancient Confucian principles, places an overwhelming emphasis on memorization, recitation, and examination. Courses in critical thinking largely do not exist and students are not encouraged to engage in rigorous debate in class.

These entrance exams are considered a level playing field, where children of peasants can trump the scions of government officials and Communist party strongmen. But when an education system "places an overwhelming emphasis on memorization, recitation, and examination", I suppose, from the disturbing Telegraph report, that a culture of cheating to pass exams has broken and will break attempts to re-introduce order and fairness in a merit-based arena.

Even the parents in that report are upset that their children are not allowed to cheat. What else can that say other than, "holy crap"?

Though cheating isn't rampant in our own exam halls, much has been said about our education system, from the dumbing down of the syllabus to the quotas. Yet this isn't enough for an NGO, who is calling for the abolishment of meritocracy in education to "return justice" to certain students.

The notion that meritocracy should be scrapped because it 'empowers' others is absurd. Not all students score big in exams, either. Me, for instance.

In the NST, Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim lamented the damage our rote learning-based, result-oriented education system has done to the understanding of this nation's history.

"When I asked who was Tun Tan Cheng Lock, they just smiled and did not know the answer," the historian said during a conference, on students' 'excellent' history scores, despite not knowing who one of the founders of MCA was. "Some of them don't even know the history of their own school."

It's been a long while since I attended a history class, so my memory on this is sketchy. But if the system is as broken as Tan Sri Dr Khoo says it is, eliminating any form of meritocracy from the system can only make things worse than they already are.

Will the powers that be ignore well-meaning calls for a proper implementation of a school syllabus, like the one from this letter writer on how history should be taught and why it's important? More importantly, will the points this Dr Ranjit brought up be taken into consideration?

At least, if we can get a merit-based system right, we can claim to be better than China in that regard.

Monday, 24 June 2013

News: Fiery Flavours, Fonts, Flops, And Stuff

So much to ponder after the cool but hazy Cooler Lumpur Festival. I had to miss out on the Festival's closing events because of dinner at my relatives and haze-induced health problems, but what events I have attended left much food for thought.

So, more on that, and book reviews, later. For now:

  • London Review of Books has virtually no female contributors? Here's what LRB had to say about it.
  • Mary Roach on the Naga king chilli, aka the Bhut Jolokia, and a chilli-eating contest.
  • Mystery book sculptress strikes again, leaves another piece at Leith Library in Edinburgh. Speaking of libraries: Carnegie Medal winner Sally Gardner (Maggot Moon) praises books and librarians, while bashing UK education secretary Michael Gove's new curriculum in her acceptance speech.
  • Penguin introduces rewards system and chance to preview new releases. Is this the gamification of publishing?
  • Yellow person has a fit when white person enlists another white person to write a book on yellow people's street food. Yellow person's words, not mine.
  • Georgia is "sharper, more pleasing, and easier to read" than Times New Roman? It seems typefaces do influence how we read and think.
  • RIP Michael Hastings, journo who brought down US general Stanley McChrystal. News have emerged about an e-mail he allegedly sent before his death, which suggests he may have been tailed and casts a pall over his death.
  • In the Guardian, seven writers reflect on failure. They even arranged the list in alphabetical order.
  • Oliver Pötzsch becomes first Amazon Publishing author to sell one million copies in print, audio and Kindle.
  • As news emerges about Stephen King's Joyland being pirated, German researchers look into new DRM technology.
  • Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker remembers the time when Dan Brown visited his English class in 1998. "I, for one, assumed that [replacement teacher] Mr. Terry had somehow run out of steam, and had brought in Dan Brown in more or less the same way that, toward the end of the year, a teacher might bring in a movie." Fifteen years later, two of Brown's books were made into movies, so I guess Rothman's class got a good deal.
  • I don't know which Robicelli wrote this take on the Paula Deen circus, but I found it entertaining - and more.
  • Zounds! Papa Hemingway was a failed KGB agent? Some of us may be glad he was better at writing than spying.
  • Are political memoirs on the way out? I HOPE SO.
  • Kickstarter apologises over raising funds for an 'offensive' seduction guide. "Above the Game" sounds like a dig at Neil Strauss.

One aside: Edward Snowden, who reportedly said "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things", is now, according to David Wiegel at Slate, is "on a world tour" of countries with an even worse record on press and information freedom that the US. "At the moment he's less concerned with irony than with avoiding jail," Weigel adds.

While his 'disclosures' may have opened up debate on privacy and state surveillance, I wouldn't take what he says seriously anymore.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Award Angst

Did you erupt with cheers, champagne and confetti over Tan Twan Eng's Man Asia win? He is the first Malaysian to win the most prestigious literary award after the Booker which he was also shortlisted for.

But it seems not everybody's happy.

Weeks ago, I heard rumours that an author, upon hearing the news about Tan's win, felt a bit boh song about it and wondered why his books weren't considered.

I was hoping it was a rumour. What kind of prize duffer would be presumptuous and thick-skinned enough to feel that way?

Tan Twan Eng and 'The Garden of Evening Mists'
How is it possible for anyone to not like him or his books?

First: Tan Twan Eng does not "always win". Believe it or not, there are prizes he's not eligible for. The Costa Book Awards, for instance, are given to books by authors based in Great Britain and Ireland (Tan's based in South Africa).

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature is for writers who write about South Asian themes (which Tan doesn't do, yet), and the biennial Bollingen Prize for Poetry recognises an American poet's best book of new verse within the last two years, or for lifetime achievement (Tan's no poet, though some have described his prose as "lyrical").

And not everybody likes The Garden of Evening Mists. Apart from the reviewer in the Guardian, at least two local book critics didn't think it was all that. These days, commercial success doesn't necessarily mean quality - hello, Twilight! Not to disparage Evening Mists, which I heard is a better book.

Also, the winning book was published in 2012, an important criterion. Did The Snubbed One write anything during that year, and did his publisher submitted it for the running? And was he or his publisher aware of the Award's terms and conditions?

And have a gander at the Booker's terms of entry, which include:

2. Conditions of award

Any eligible book which is entered for the prize will only qualify for the award if its publisher agrees:

a) to contribute £5,000 (about RM24,580) towards general publicity if the book reaches the shortlist

b) to contribute a further £5,000 if the book wins the prize

c) to comply with Rule 4g

Which is: "Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. The publisher, publicist and agent of the longlisted author are strongly advised to attend a briefing meeting shortly after the longlist is announced."

There you go. And publishers have a few more hoops to jump before and after the submitted books make it to the Booker longlist. Which probably explains why we tend to see certain books and certain publishers making longlists of certain awards each year.

Second: The Man Asia longlist of 15 authors was "drawn from 108 published works from nine Asian countries submitted to a panel of judges led by literary critic and journalist Maya Jaggi, also included three debut novelists and a Nobel laureate," says a Bernama report.

Look at the names of the authors, some of whom are already established writers with at least one accolade. Look at the names of the judges, some of whom are strong authors and literary critics.

What are the chances that The Snubbed One could sneak into that glitzy line-up? How many authors could slug it out in a literary deathmatch against Orhan Pamuk?

And 2011 was a year with an even more formidable line-up that includes Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Tahmima Anam, Anuradha Roy, and the eventual winner Shin Kyung-sook, whose novel Please Look After Mom has sold over two million copies and has been adapted for the stage.

In a radio interview podcast, writer Michael Cunningham, who was a jury member for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and winner of said Prize for his novel The Hours, said something about how difficult it is to write a really good novel, and thinks people who think they can dash one off just like that shows "disrespect" for the craft.

However, many writers have made do without ever being in a prestigious lit-prize's longlist. EL James, unfortunately, comes to mind, as do several others who have followed in her footsteps.

Not that I think that would help make things better for The Snubbed One, if he's really out there.

Whatever can be said about Tan or his books, he's the literary equivalent of Nicol David right now. Recently, his Evening Mists pipped Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies for the Walter Scott Prize, which was recently opened to authors from the Commonwealth.

Nobody should begrudge him the accolades he's received, especially Malaysians. And he's one of the few who have made it internationally, alongside names such as Tash Aw and Preeta Samarasan.

No winning book? Write one. Life is way too short for munching on sour grapes or chopping down poppies.

Monday, 17 June 2013

News: Cool Mud, S&M, Publishing, And Book Stacking

Local online news portal The Star reports on the upcoming Cooler Lumpur Festival 2013. Although the Festival will have a YA fiction-related programme, a local writer, editor and book reviewer laments the overall lack of programmes featuring children's and young adult literature in local lit fests.

"'...Are you sure this isn’t just a small bunch of very loud women with their panties all whirled around in some kinda panty tornado?' And there I'd correct you and note that I am a dude and, in fact, my panties are indeed whirling about in a panty tornado because this is a problem in our respective industry and it sucks." So, yeah, Chuck Wendig wants you to know these 25 things about sexism and misogyny in writing and publishing. Also related is the sexism shitstorm over the cover of and a column in a recent edition of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's (SFWA) magazine.

Speaking of sexism and misogyny (hey, another kind of S&M), Laura Miller over at Salon tears into The Daily Beast's alleged slut-shaming of CIA deputy director Avril Haines. British tabloid The Daily Mail also picked it up, and suggests this detail in Haines's past is "pertinent" - "for an agency that was recently embarrassed by the resignation of its director, David Petraeus, over his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell".

A former British intel chief and now writer of spy novels thinks Brits should snoop on their neighbours for the sake of national security. Which, from what passes as news in that country, they might already be doing - and is way creepier.

I'd be chuffed to know that the first ever female deputy director of my country's intelligence agency hosted an "Erotica Night" at a bookstore she co-owned. At least this shows she's a human being and not a Cylon. Does anyone think we can get her to join next year's Cooler Lumpur Festival?

Okay, what else?

  • In Turkey, Kurdish book publishing is still a risky business. Even more so now, with Turkey's government tightening the screws after the recent protests.
  • Author Randy Susan Meyers's ten tips for writers reading in public. Just in time for a certain arts and literature festival.
  • It's tempting to think that Snowdengate somehow boosted sales of George Orwell's 1984. June 6 - around the time the story broke - is also the anniversary of the book's release.
  • University presses facing challenges in the new era of democratised, increasingly commercialised publishing.
  • Reading fiction, apparently, helps with thinking and dealing with ambiguity.
  • Egyptian author and human rights activist Karam Saber is jailed for his allegedly 'blasphemous' book, Where is God? He, along with those protesting the sentence, are probably asking the same question.
  • I can't say much about the Popular-The Star Readers' Choice Awards, but the points raised in this article are worth pondering.
  • Random House wants you to plug into audiobooks. Yes, you, runner-in-training. You, guy in the gym. You, frequent flyer. You, on the lawn mower or your SUV. Because: "Reading the latest Dan Brown novel, 'Inferno,' while driving a car or mowing the lawn would be perilous, but probably not for audiobook listeners." Not too sure about that.
  • Do grammar police arrest the imagination? Prompted by Sherman Alexie's asertion that "Grammar cops are rarely good writers. Imagination always disobeys." Can someone cite the Guardian writer for that arresting pun?
  • "My grandmother, the writer Han Suyin, died last November at ninety-six. The funeral was in Switzerland, and I went only because my mother asked me to. Twice. 'You’ll be fine,' I said. 'Just remember what an asshole she was.'" Looks like Karen Shepard really does not like her grandma.
  • Nine reasons why Dan Brown is one of the most important (living) authors. Thoughts? I know. Me neither.
  • Book-stacking techniques to liven up bookstore displays in Japan? Will this become a sport or drinking game?

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Coming Up For Air

These days I bury my head in a pile of printed pages, mainly to muffle unpleasant noises from the real world. Once in a while, though, I come up for a breath of air.

This time, the unpleasant noise is about our prime minister's brother.

Weeks ago, a CEO of a certain low-budget airline called out a local daily for its potentially incendiary headline. Though his views had some support within 'his own people', including the PM's brother, he was roundly mocked and accused of being 'ungrateful' and 'forgetting his roots'.

When outsiders call out BS on an authority or entity, they're accused of being ill-informed, making things up based on perceptions and the like. But what if the calling out is done by insiders?

Checks and balances are integral to any form of governance and ensures that those in charge would remain on the straight and narrow. Because power and privilege will always go hand in hand with the temptation to abuse them.

Years ago I saw something terrifying on a car sticker: a slogan for some "Pembangkang Sifar" (Zero Opposition) campaign. It chilled me to the marrow.

Though it sounds like political posturing, to me the slogan was a window to a mentality that places overwhelming faith in the belief that "our leaders will never let us down", that there is no alternative other than the status quo, and brooks no opposition to it, even if it's out of loyalty, faith and genuine concern.

When facts are absent, perception is everything.

Several years ago at Wisma Kebudayaan Sokka Gakkai Malaysia, Austrian storyteller Folke Tegetthoff narrated a version of heaven and hell that shared the same setting: an enormous cauldron of broth ringed by people wielding spoons with really long, long stems.

The people from hell starved trying to feed themselves with the spoons; the denizens of heaven were, in contrast, well fed because each one fed the person on the opposite side of the cauldron.

How wonderful it would be if that 'heaven' existed in this country, this world. But the moment you try to feed your neighbour he'll be looking for ulterior motives - particularly if you're from 'the other side'.

Isn't it tragic, how we can't get over ideological differences to band together and do what the right-minded consider the right thing? Even from within the ranks?

...Okay, back to my pile of print. Good weekend, y'all.

Monday, 10 June 2013

News: Book Fests, Departures, And A Scarlett Novel

Not a lot of happy news last week in the book world. But life goes on, with upcoming book and lit fests such as #Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival and this weekend's Art 4 Grabs + KL Alternative Book Fest.

The latter will, among other things, will see the launch of the second Fixi Retro title, Yang Nakal-nakal, a compilation of some short stories and poems by the late Usman Awang. The Black 505 rally's been postponed to next week, but it looks like the launch is still taking place on 16 June.

There may be a good reason why book publishers aren't swarming the e-publishing bandwagon: the "awkward and inconsistent" technology.

The closest thing to a single file standard, e-pub, is still far from platform-agnostic and notorious for destroying formatting elements, which limits what writers and designers can do structurally if they’re planning for digital.

Sounds like the argument over HTML standards all over again. But wait till technology catches up, or if the players in the e-book industry get their shit together and agree on something.

A publisher is being sued by Scarlett Johansson because a French novel featuring a woman who resembles the actress allegedly "violates her privacy and includes a 'fraudulent use of her image rights'." The report adds that "The heroine of Delacourt's La Premiere Chose qu’on Regarde ("The First Thing We Look At") is Janine Foucamprez, a small-time model from northern France who is blighted by her resemblance to Johansson."

Perhaps Ms Johansson (or her PR machinery) is miffed by the "blighted" part. And ... hold on, she's only 28?


  • RIP Iain M Banks. Less than three months after he announced he had terminal cancer, Banks passed on. Despite the efforts of his heroic publishers, his last novel failed to hit the shelves before his departure. As tributes poured in, Neil Gaiman eulogises him in the Guardian. Also, RIP Tom Sharpe. Pity I never read any of their books.
  • Are celebrity's kids books bad for literature and kids books in the long run? Probably, if quality doesn't improve. In that news report, Julia Donaldson, writer of the Gruffalo books, says writing for kids is not easy at all. "In some ways children are probably harder to please than adults and there are so many excellent children’s writers out there who in terms of style, plot and characterisation are just as good as any writer for adults."
  • Why John Green (Looking for Alaska) will never self-publish. "Impassioned" is kind of an understatement.

    Lev Raphael takes offense at what he sees as Green's attack on indie publishing via a "faux cultural belief" ("We must strike down the insidious lie that a book is the creation of an individual soul laboring in isolation. We must strike it down because it threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature...").

    "If Green believes that indie books aren't ever edited, produced, and marketed by a team – though likely smaller than in legacy publishing – he knows less about the industry than he thinks," Raphael says.
  • When is it fine to not finish a book? When it doesn't pass the fifty-page test, apparently. You can always come back to it, anyway, this English prof suggests. However: "For my students, the answer is easy: if I assigned the book, it's not alright to quit partway through." Fair enough.
  • Eight rules for writing fiction, some of which, at some point in time, everybody who writes fiction forgets.
  • Americans, says Clive James, aren't good at hatchet jobs. "Any even remotely derogatory article in an American journal is called 'negative,' and hardly any American publication wants to be negative." Did James miss Ron Charles's opinion of Lionel Asbo, or did he feel it was too tame?
  • May she be forgiven: AM Homes denies Hilary Mantel a third straight award by winning the Women's Prize for Fiction, which will be sponsored by Bailey's next year - HIC. Meanwhile, Kevin Barry wins this year's International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for City of Bohane.
  • Pages from the diary of Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's aide and top Nazi leader, have reportedly been found. The documents look real, but one has to be wary, in light of a famous Nazi diary hoax.
  • Jonah Lehrer has a book deal - and people should be concerned.

Friday, 7 June 2013


Oh, the things they did to publicise the Cooler Lumpur Festival 2013 at The Bee, Publika that Tuesday evening...

#Word: Thematic flavours from The Last Polka

Free ice cream is fine. The Last Polka created two lit-inspired flavours for the event: Green Eggs and Ham (a minty creation with chocolate fudge pieces that brings to mind The Cat in the Hat) and Wonderland (a peppery tribute to the soup in a certain kitchen).

Pop-trivia quizzes are fine too, even though some of the questions were hard for non-bookworms and non-moviegoers.

Readings? No problem - except if it's three grown men reading sex scenes from Fifty Shades of Grey. Especially when the three men are Ezra Zaid, Umapagan Ampikaipakan and Sharaad Kuttan.

Once you hear Ezra channel Anastasia Steele losing her virginity, you will never be the same.

I think they found it painful as well, given what we know of the trio. By the time they read the third scene, they were hiding their chagrin in foreign accents. Who knew Sharaad preferred Italian?

And what is it about this festival that inspired the creation of two far-out ice cream flavours and compelled these three fellows to go onstage and read fiction I'm sure they'd rather burn?

Wordy weekend
The inaugural Cooler Lumpur Festival is a multi-disciplinary "celebration of culture".
Curated by digital media purveyor PopDigital, this KL-centric festival will adopt certain themes each year to "expand the city’s cultural horizons, build stronger communities and cultivate the creativity and imagination of people."

#Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival 2013

This year, the Festival presents #Word, Malaysia’s first – and only – celebration of words in all its forms. Expect workshops, talks and panel discussions, storytelling and readings - everything about the written word. #Word will also host the only Southeast Asian segment of the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference (EWWC), the world's largest travelling conference on the state of literature.

#Word will take place from Friday, 21 June to Sunday, 23 June, at several venues in Publika, Solaris Dutamas.

Gems in the mud
The online programme is a menu of lip-smacking items with something for wordsmiths of almost every stripe. Among the highlights are:

  • A panel featuring non-Malay writers who write in BM, and a panel on Asian Noir, which will see writers such as Shamini Flint, Brian Gomez and Rozlan Mohd Noor.
  • A book swap by the charity Novels for All.
  • An Evening with the Evening Edition, where you can meet the faces behind the famous BFM drive-home segment: HRH Caroline Oh, Ezra Zaid and Umapagan Ampikaipakan.
  • A one-on-one with Amir Muhammad, writer and indie publisher and filmmaker (considering his success, does the 'indie' label apply?). Two titles from his imprints, Fixi and Fixi Novo, will be launched as well during the festival.
  • Readings @ The Bee (not Seksan's), and a screening of ghost movies, followed by ghost stories told by Patrick Teoh and Jo Kukathas.
  • Borders Malaysia will be organising #Word Junior for kids, with a line-up of activities that includes a tea party with free ice cream (first 50 kids only) from The Last Polka, storytelling sessions and interactive events.

Crabbit Old Bat flying into KL
I'm embarrassed to say that I've only heard of one writer in the international line-up for #Word.

Jen Campbell, a bookseller at Ripping Yarns in the UK and author of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops and More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops had this URL in her blog to the blog of a "Crabbit Old Bat". Couldn't resist clicking the link.

That's how I heard about Nicola Morgan, award-winning writer, author of about 90(!) books, and an authority on young adult/teen fiction. Among other things, she will be holding a workshop on writing for teens. Places are limited, so please hurry.

As someone who's evaluated and rejected a number of children's/YA/teen fiction submissions, I'm glad she's coming here.

...Oh, my. Seems Ms Morgan's a bit nervous about her trip. This will be her first time in Malaysia. Let's make her feel welcome, shall we?

So come on down to MAP @ Publika for a wonderfully wordy weekend. Don't let all that ice cream, the efforts of las dos chicas from The Last Polka and the sacrifice of BFM's les trois garçons be in vain. The two ice cream flavours will be available at The Bee @ Publika throughout this month, in conjunction with #Word.

Go here for more details.

11/06/2013  Here's a BFM podcast with Yau Su Peng, Chief Operating Officer of Borders Malaysia, the Festival's official bookstore.

18/06/2013  Check out the radio podcast of an interview with several key Festival people. Seems that "Cooler Lumpur" does not merely hint at the proliferation of hipster hangouts in the capital, but also the mispronunciation of KL by the beer-swilling character Nabby Adams in Anthony Burgess's The Malayan Trilogy.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

News: Literary Magpies, Tweets, And The National Language

Did Rudyard Kipling cop to plagiarism in a letter? In the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse says no. Plagiarism might be "the fairy godmother of invention" but also of lawsuits, pulped books, and ruined reputations.

Writing in the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell suggests that Kipling was a "literary magpie" who reworked certain themes from other works into his own. "Shakespeare's reliance on various older chronicles for his characters and plots is a commonplace," she writes, "and it would be ludicrous to suggest that in Paradise Lost Milton was 'plagiarising' the story of Genesis."

"As the columnist at a literary website, I once wrote about tough truths related to self-publishing. ... That editing and cover design are hard. That most self-published books earn only a modest return. That a lot of the advocates are just selling themselves. ... And that resulted in scores of people calling me profane names."

Rob W Hart's shift from self-publishing to traditional opens his eyes to how indie publishing has become a cult.

Erna Mahyuni, our favourite Sabahan laments the "slow, sad death of Bahasa Malaysia", which she suggests is partly aided by state media agencies. "According to Bernama, 'hurricane' is 'hurikan' and 'billionaire' is 'billionair' in Englayu," she writes, coining a new word of her own. "Utusan has coined the very rempit-sounding 'dijel” instead of 'dipenjara'."

Not to mention 'subjek' (subject) and 'bajet' (budget), But 'hurikan' is not a recent coinage. I remember seeing it in an old geography textbook once in school, along with 'siklon'. Odd, considering both refer to the same phenomenon.

Are the alleged offenders going to chalk it up to the pressure of tight deadlines? Erna cheekily suggests that, "Perhaps this is an insidious plot by seditious individuals who are trying to make English the national language. At the rate Bahasa is 'evolving' into English, we might as well just give up and replace the Kamus Dewan with the Oxford Dictionary."

Dengar, dengar.

Some tweets to share, including one from Sufian Abas:

...and Michael Ruhlman, marriage counsellor:

All in jest, I'm sure.

Right. What else is out there?

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Golden Brown

I wasn't sure I was up to the task of reviewing a Dan Brown book. What's there to look at? Could I be fair, when others at more established names couldn't seem to be?

I didn't spend time dismantling the logic and history. Avoiding other reviews while I wrote my own as tough; the bandwagon's pretty big and easy to get into. But I guess that, considering the size and hard cover, it sufficed as light reading.

About "symbology" ...

Wikipedia lists the word as "a fictional academic discipline of which the character Robert Langdon is a professor." On a list of ten mistakes and oversimplifications in the book over at The Daily Beast, the word is "nonsensical".

So I used that article's 'correct' word for Langdon's occupation in the review (carelessly wrapping it in square brackets). But didn't some modern 'nonsensical' words become accepted, after being baptised by popular usage - and the Internet?

For now, I guess, it's "iconography" or "semiotics".

Golden Brown
Finger lickin' good Florentine fun from the Colonel Sanders of the genre

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 04 June 2013

Would you believe that this is the first time I've read any of Dan Brown's books?

Until now, I've only followed the news, read the hype and laughed at the brickbats. No way all of that could be true, I thought.

Then a copy hit my table with a thud.

I took just two hours to finish it.

My unfamiliarity with the author's work and the circus precludes me from fact-checking his alleged mistakes and gloss-overs, so I'll leave that to more capable hands.

But I will say this: Dan Brown's Inferno is, thus far, the greatest movie I've ever read.

From what I have gleaned of Brown's books, those who expect a refinement of his style will probably be disappointed. Fans, however, will be glad to know little has changed.

Italian job
After uncovering the secrets of the Freemasons in The Lost Symbol, Harvard professor of art history and iconography Tom Hank— sorry, Robert Langdon wakes up from a nightmare and finds himself in a hospital with stitches in his scalp and absolutely no clue how he got there.

After speaking to the "tall and lissome" and (one assumes) attractive Dr Sienna Brooks, Langdon, thinking he's still in the States, looks out the window and sees the Palazzo Vecchio — and learns that he's not quite in Massachusetts anymore.

Outside, a female assassin waits. Five miles off Italy's coast, her boss, a man Brown simply calls "the provost", waits for good news in a mysterious US$300 million (RM929 million) yacht and floating military command centre.

Nothing like that is forthcoming. But the provost isn't the only one having a bad day.

After fleeing another assassination attempt, Langdon learns that the willowy Sienna is not only a mutant but a former child prodigy with an IQ higher than Stephen Hawking's. He also finds that he's in possession of a biohazard canister.

Soon, armed men come a-knocking shortly after he calls the US embassy. With Sienna in tow, the inevitable chase begins as Langdon tries to remember what happened in the past couple of days — and unravel a madman's dastardly plot, partly inspired by Florentine poet Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

To add to his list of "?!"-punctuated what-the-hecks, security cameras caught him "stealing" Dante's death-mask hours before he woke up in the hospital.

Nothing like having both sides of the law snapping at one's Somerset-clad heels to add excitement to a bit of historical forensics.

Abandon all prejudice, ye who read this
As the pages turned quickly, I began to see the appeal of novels like this. Cleverly written with hooks and cliffhangers at the end of each short chapter, you just can't put this 460-odd-page novel down until you're done with it.

The only other time I've experienced this compulsion to finish something was at a KFC outlet — or when I opened up a bag of Cheezels I bought last week.

You don't care that it's not literary writing. You learn to skip the piles of exposition and slipped-in trivia, obviously for the benefit of those who can't access their smartphones for some impromptu Googling. I saw less of the groan-worthy similes Brown's famous for; maybe I learned to skip those, too. The expository parts do mess up the flow of the story, like annoying pop-up ads.

Some of the descriptive passages, however, are written in such vivid detail one is compelled to actually fly there to see, for instance, the cringe-inducing "penile grip" featured in the sculpture of Hercules and Diomedes in the Hall of the Five Hundred, or the "intimidating array" of male nudes at the Palazzo Vecchio. Then, there's the superb copywriting on the Church of Dante.

All bound to reinforce the faith Florence's city officials have in Brown's apparent ability to revive flagging tourism industries.

Tripping over trivia
It's not all tourist spots and history. At one point the Harvard dreamboat shares some esoteric knowledge: "Regular gesso smells like chalk. Wet dog is acrylic gesso."

We also get a brief dissertation on the science of denial, along with aphorisms such as, "In the world of book publishing, late-night emergencies were as rare as overnight success." (Shouldn't it be "are"? Is the book publishing industry past tense?)

As well as an endorsement for the iPhone — and e-books. "I've got to stop being such a snob about leather-bound books... E-books do have their moments."

The wit and writing is sophomoric, the preachy bits on human folly are tedious, and the denouement might elicit a huge WTF, even among ardent Brownians.

And there is next to no chemistry between Hank-er, Langdon and the willowy tagalong Sienna. The mistakes she made, for someone of her superb IQ, is conveniently covered by her traumatic past.

Still, Inferno is a pretty solid potboiler that will have you hooked right until the last page.

Dan Brown
Doubleday (May 2013)
463 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-53785-8

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Masterclass in Session: Clicking With Kid Chan

Hot on the heels of Amber Chia's MPH Masterclass guide to a modelling career is Kid Chan's MPH Masterclass guide to starting a photography business.

I'd thought that the format for the cover would be similar to the previous one, but I guess photographers just have to be different. At least it means each book in the series will be unique.

Front and back of Kid Chan's Guide to the Business of Photography
(he might have comments about my photo-taking skills)

Malaysia's shutterbug to the stars was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. However, things soured when the family's fortunes declined and his parents divorced. After completing his tertiary studies, he became the personal assistant to the founder of the Metropolitan College Group.

Several years later, he left this somewhat cushy job to take over his sister's failing photography studio. This was the beginning of his uphill climb to where he is today. He learned practically everything from scratch and had to endure more batterings to his ego.

His foray into photography began taking off when he was doing weddings. Who would've thought that wedding photography had the stigma attached to it?

Once he bit the bullet and did his best at it, wedding photography started opening doors for him, especially after he adopted Denis Reggie's approach to shooting weddings.

These days people pay heaps for any photographer who can make their (generally) once-in-a-lifetime event look like a one-in-a-million spectacle. So you could say that Kid Chan was a pioneer of wedding photojournalism in Malaysia, albeit a reluctant one.

In this instalment in the MPH Masterclass series, Kid Chan shares what he has picked up in all his years in the field.

Tips include practical, down-to-earth advice on choosing equipment, premises, hiring help, projecting a professional image, leveraging on social media, photo retouching, and navigating some of the pitfalls of the job. Photos from Kid's past and him on the job brings his story and career to life.

"Success stems from many things," he wrote. "Luck certainly plays a role and I have indeed been very lucky. I've had some great mentors who guided me along the way. And I also created some of my own luck by being willing to do all the small little things that needed to be done along the way."

Maybe getting this book could be one "small little thing" you can do if you're considering the life of a professional photographer.

Kid Chan's Guide to the Business of Photography will be launched some time in June and will be available at all major bookstores.

Kid Chan's Guide to the Business of Photography
Kid Chan
MPH Group Publishing
191 pages
ISBN: 978-967-415-121-8

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