Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Comically Candid Childhood Chronicle

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 30 November 2016

Comic and talk show host Trevor Noah's memoir about growing up in South Africa was one of two books I cracked open after a weeks-long reading drought and I was glad that it's good.

During the run-up to the 2016 US presidential elections, the host of The Daily Show, along with many others, heaped scorn on the man who, against expectations, will move into the White House in January.

Like his colleagues, Noah seemed to have a hard time digesting the outcome. "This entire result is sort of like [Donald] Trump's hair — I know it's real, but my mind can't accept it."

One can understand his apprehension over the United States' future under Trump. After all, the post-election tensions probably reminded him of what he experienced as a kid.

Noah's story begins with a piece of legislature from the apartheid era — the Immorality Act, 1927 — that criminalises interracial relations. Noah's biological parents broke that law and he was Exhibit A.

He considers himself fortunate not to have been a casualty of a system that openly discriminated against non-whites, thanks to pockets of calm within his family, society and circle of friends that allowed him to come of age during the death throes of the apartheid government and the early years of freedom.

But he also had to deal with issues such as poverty, bullying and domestic violence. The heart-rending story of his mother's own childhood and abuse at the hands of her second husband are particularly haunting.

Noah's mom, Patricia, figures prominently here. Her own story is scattered throughout the pages. Headstrong and deeply religious, she worked and paid her own way out of the slums to give herself and young Trevor a better life.

However, young Noah was precocious, albeit smart, resourceful and filial. He got into all sorts of mischief, including shoplifting and music piracy, and got locked up for "borrowing" his stepfather's car. Yet, here he is, making a name for himself in comedy and hosting a TV talk show in the States.

But what's a book about a comedian without a few laughs?

At times, you feel as if he's sitting at his desk on the set of his TV show, narrating his story. So perhaps one can be forgiven for thinking that this book was ghostwritten by a Daily Show staffer.

An anecdote that starts Chapter 3, for example, says that in South Africa, someone had been tried in court for killing people with lightning a few years ago — and attorneys are not allowed to argue that witchcraft isn't real. "No, no, no. You'll lose."

There was also his mother's fears of being poisoned by some family members. Starving, he once argued that he could pray to Jesus to detox the food they served (his mom gave him a robust religious upbringing), only to be told, "Trevor! Sun'qhela!" — something along the lines of "Don't question me!" in the Xhosa language, which everyone should save for future use.

I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, because it's his story, it's his name on the cover, and it is (forgive me) unputdownable. And he wouldn't lie to us, would he?

So much of Noah's story is reminiscent of many childhoods, notably those coloured by issues of race, religion, gender and class — divisions that seem invisible to children but become more apparent later, no thanks in part to adults. Some will be able to relate to his situation at one point or another.

Hilarious and sometimes hair-raising hijinks take place between keen observations on and insights into family, society and government. The writing sounds natural, the voice — astute, witty and honest — comes through, bringing the author's world and the absurdity of apartheid into relief. (Back then, the Chinese were classified as "black" and the Japanese were "white" — for real?)

As one reads on, though, the levity lifts and it starts getting bleaker, a little angry and disquieting, especially towards the end. Parts start sounding a little too confessional for comfort. One appreciates his candour, but will he get into trouble for it?

Regardless, you feel for Noah but, most of all, you feel for his mother and the sacrifices she made. In that sense, his account of his formative years is also the tale of his mother's success in raising him and a tribute to those who helped him in life.

Thanks to them, a boy who was born a crime has grown up to be anything but.

Born A Crime
Stories From a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau (November 2016)
288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-59044-3

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Book Marks: Oneworld, Scams, And Don't Sell A Book Like This

"It has to be great writing, really good storytelling, a strong voice, a strong story, and something else about it that makes you think, that stays with you, that you mull over.

... If you look at [Marlon] James and [Paul] Beatty, both of them have that edginess to them that 'this is important, this is opening a world that you ought to see and that you probably aren’t aware of', and that's what makes it special for me. I'm not saying everybody buys books like that, but to me that's what makes it great – although maybe it's what makes it risky for everybody else."

Get acquainted with Oneworld, the publisher behind two Man Booker winners.

"In these days of POD (publish-on-demand) technology, the vanity presses may promise to ship the books when they are ordered, which at least relieves the author of having to warehouse the books. But the vanities still charge large amounts of money and the author is still left with an empty bank account and shattered dreams. Or worse. Some scammers take money from hopeful authors and deliver nothing at all."

Read about some red flags of publishing scams.

In The Daily Beast, Tom Leclair argues that the US National Book Award "has gone to hell":

A fiction judge in 2005, I’ve reviewed the fiction finalists the last seven years and have managed to pick four winners, but it’s tough to make a buck as a book tout. The panel of five judges changes every year, so there are always different tastes, criteria, personalities, and loyalties in play.

... Corruption can also enter in. The year I was a judge, one colleague tried to give the award to a family friend. Another judge supported the writer with whom she shared an agent.

"Indian historical crime fiction has come of age!" someone enthuses. All fine and dandy, until near the end...

"My own humble attempt at creating an authentic Indian historical detective series hits the shelves this very month with A Very Pukka Murder, published in India by Harper Collins and in the United States by Poisoned Pen Press."

I think there should be rules against writing pieces like this.


  • "Rumours of a literary uprising in Singapore are true", writes Darryl Whetter for Singapore's Straits Times. Perhaps, but there are some things to note before diving into the city-state's literary scene.
  • "...despite the increasing realisation that digital and print can easily coexist in the market, the question of whether the ebook will 'kill' the print book continues to surface." When it comes to discussing whether print books will die, is one's aversion to change a factor?
  • "Many young people here know about the Dragon Ball, but nothing about this novel," says a designer of Eva Luedi Kong's German version of Journey to the West.
  • "Though he shared select passages with friends and failed to burn it before his death in 1798, there is no evidence to suggest that [Giacomo Girolamo Casanova] ever intended the work to be published. Indeed, more than its explicit content, it’s the work’s length and the level of quotidian detail clotting its pages that made it unpublishable."
  • "Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters “rescued” by white saviors; the “surprising” friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a “foreign” or “third world” country in search of enlightenment. These narratives ... exist mainly to service and conform to the white gaze. And yet they are rarely deemed problematic in book reviews. The reason why has everything to do with who is writing those reviews."
  • "...comic cookbooks can do something for home cooks, too — make recipes less daunting and easier to follow. Cookbooks are still in demand, but many — with their overly aspirational food photography — wind up as coffee-table books for the kitchen."
  • The sun rises again! Amir Muhammad's dormant non-ficiton imprint Matahari Books appears to have been reactivated. It is releasing a new title and is calling for submissions.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Book Marks: Indonesia at Frankfurt, Aspirational Bookshelves

This piece on Indonesia's success at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair pretty much makes the case for continued government support for future appearances there, considered to be one of the world's major book fairs.

But I wonder if this is accurate:

Indonesia's success, he said, also made neighboring countries envious — since, unlike Indonesia, they do not have big-name writers.

"We have a long list of world class and award-winning writers — from Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Andrea Hirata, Ayu Utami to Laksmi Pamuntjak and Eka Kurniawan," [literary agency director Thomas Nung Atasana] said.

"They probably have lots of money and support from their governments, but do not have strong content like ours."


"Is there something just a little bit gauche about displaying books in one's home that one isn't actually reading, and has no intention of reading?" someone asks in Slate. "I have no intention of consuming The Brontës at Haworth or The Woman's Day Book of American Needlework cover to cover, but nor are they fraudulent representations of my interests. Is it acceptable to treat books as decor, a representation of one’s aesthetic aspirations rather than one's intellectual biography?"

Apparently, to the last question, yes. "Books have always played both roles. They are not just stories and information, they are badges of identity and, yes, ornamentation. A book on a shelf faces inward and outward at the same time."

Then it also has to be asked: "Are book collectors real readers, or just cultural snobs?" Or is it just a really bad case of tsundoku?

"His book clout is all the more impressive when you consider that he neither writes his own books nor does he likely read the ones by others that he helps turn into bestsellers with his tweets. ...But since when has Trump needed practical knowledge of an industry before getting into it? One of his greatest strengths is his unabashed, unashamed, total pimpage, and he's brought it to the publishing industry in full force."

Of course, the article is talking about Trump's "startling" ability to sell the books he's pimped, including The Art of the Deal and the late conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly's The Conservative Case for Trump.

With regards to the latter:

...The Conservative Case for Trump ... was published on September 2, 2016, literally the day after she died at age 92. Trump, who spoke at Schlafly's funeral, tweeted on the book's publication day: "As a tribute to the late, great Phyllis Schlafly, I hope everybody can go out and get her latest book, THE CONSERVATIVE CASE FOR TRUMP." Schlafly's book has sold nearly 500 percent more copies than her previous tome, Who Killed the American Family?

Perhaps this is what Trump wanted from his presidential run.


  • "Queerness has always existed between the lines in novels about teenagers," writes Mitchell Sunderland in Broadly. Now, it seems that queerness is now stepping out of those lines and into the forefront. That's gotta be good, right?
  • "It's hard to hide the stretch marks in a book this pregnant with meaning, which is why I wish [the author Daniel] Menaker had strained far less to trace the word origins undergirding his 'meaningful mistakes.' ' Who knew that a book with typos and malapropisms can be interesting? I'd pity the editors, though.
  • The kind of subjects in these digital novels this guy writes sound like the light novels or cellphone novels in Japan, some of which are being adapted into animated features or games. Haughtiness aside, the bits about hard work, franchising and staying true to your vision are pertinent.
  • For evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick, "the Devil was literally everywhere." "Women, witches, gays and lesbians, teachers, Dungeons and Dragons players, atheists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and worst-of-all, Catholics (just to name a few)...".
  • "Books were also magically portable. I could drop them into a bag and take them back to the Ministry and they would still work even when I was there. In their pages I could sneak out into the world but still remain in the sure circle of my higher calling." How Flannery O'Connor's books led a man out of a religious commune and back into the world.
  • In Rwanda, writers and publishers are cultivating reading habits among children, particularly where local languages are concerned. Some of the obstacles to that goal sound familiar and seem to be facing other publishing circles in Africa.
  • LitReactor lists top ten ways writers annoy their Twitter followers. That's nine ways too many.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Opacity And Remoteness Of Academic Texts

"The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn't a new one — and it isn't limited to government agencies, of course", writes Victoria Clayton in The Atlantic. "The problem of needlessly complex writing — sometimes referred to as an 'opaque writing style' — has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition."

Indeed, but why?

[Steven] Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to "brain training": the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise.

I believed for a long time that academics wrote that way because elitism - writing for their peers and seniors instead of the public in a tone one can use to dry laundry. I'm not the only one who feels like this. In The Conversation, an article on "redetermining paradigmatic norms" in academic writing states that:

The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry "glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience", while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that "most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public."

The same article, by Siobhan Lyons, a tutor in Media and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, also claims that a 2013 writing guide issued by the University of Technology in Sydney advised, among other things, that academic essays be "written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures."

I also believe that this obtuseness is why people no longer trust the experts in matters such as climate change, finance and vaccines.

But textbook publishers might have also been taking advantage of this "brain training" to price their books sky-high, implying that certain types of knowledge must commensurate with the amount of time and effort taken to compile it. Which makes sense.

However, with online storage capacities growing, textbook prices (and tuition fees) rocketing, and attention spans shrinking, is it still viable to be so opaque when recording and conveying knowledge? The widespread TL;DR syndrome among us might also be a sign that it's time to change the way we record, teach and learn.

An expert's value in his field depends not only in his ability to absorb and retain information, but to apply it to his field and further develop it - and get others to take up his work as well, picking up where he left off.

Distilling opaquely written knowledge to more plebeian levels will go a long way towards that, but other things must also be considered - passion, interest and the ability to use that knowledge - before one argues that such a move would cheapen the value of these compiled texts.

I doubt it would. As Ms Lyons stated:

...complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Regardless of how it is recorded, knowledge is valuable. Someone has to go out there to get it, make sense of it all, and put it down in letters, numbers and symbols. All that work is what people are paying for.

Like how some nutrients from our food need to be reduced to simpler forms for better absorption, making the language more layman-like doesn't lower its value, but makes it more easily understood. How is that bad?

Taking the stuffy prof out of the pages might be tough, as not every text may survive the process. Ms Lyons noted in her piece that...

...not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.

Considering the amount of material already out there, it's probably too late to have it all reworded for the masses. But maybe we can start with what is being written right now. Which brings us back to the issue of accessibility and money.

With academic texts so inaccessible, even for those willing to pay, a black market in academic papers seems to be thriving. Also looming large is the threat of book piracy.

Compensating academics and the publishing ecosystem fairly would also go a long way in encouraging their work and enhancing its quality, which also wards off tendencies to rely on essay mills and those who peddle dodgy material. You can't talk about ethics and integrity if you're worried about income.

A pay-walled, well-maintained online alternative to shelves of bulky books heavy enough for weight training can be attractive to those who require regular access. Digitisation has its own issues, and some publishers are understandably reluctant to do business in countries where fraud is rife.

But with places such as Southeast Asia, India and the Far East hosting many voracious consumers of digital content (and students desperate for reference material to help them get top grades), an ethically administered digital textbook library or store makes more sense.

All the better if that material was written plainly (or in a stylishly academic manner), so that we can spend time using that knowledge instead of figuring out "what did this writer mean by that?"

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Book Marks: Beatty Wins The Booker, Etc.

A local novelist apparently adapted the script of an Astro First telemovie, Inayah, and did not credit the original author. Nor was the script's author told when the book appeared on bookshelves. But how did the novelist manage to get her hands on the script in the first place?

And it seems the Shah Alam High Court dropped a lawsuit filed by the author of the Ombak Rindu novel against Karangkraf and Tarantella Pictures and ordered her to pay costs. The Sinar Harian report in Malay said that the author sued over copyrights to Ombak Rindu, which was turned into a silver-screen blockbuster. Reportedly, the filmmakers changed the plot for the movie without her permission. Some might be wondering if the author's also miffed that she'd signed away a cut of the RM10 million gross box-office pickings.

Also: Bookstore, don't like that lah, bookstore. Why-lah you stop selling his b- oh, I see. Though it does have a "for mature audiences only" advisory on the cover, I'd rate this kind of humour closer to primary-school level. Hopefully, the whole book isn't like that.

LA-born author Paul Beatty is the first American to win the Man Booker Prize with The Sellout, which The Guardian calls "a laugh-out-loud novel whose main character wants to assert his African American identity by, outrageously and transgressively, bringing back slavery and segregation."

Okay, now I'm interested. And Beatty can rub that award in the face of the college professor that said "he would never be a success as a writer".

Previously only awarded to writers from the Commonwealth, the republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe, the Man Booker, several years ago, was opened to any English-language work published in the UK.


  • When the Hanjin shipping company went bankrupt and its ships and the cargo ended up in some legal limbo, many wrung their hands because OMG OUR STUFF IS OUT AT SEA. Including Emil Ferris, whose graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, was on its way to stores abroad when Hanjin folded. Maybe it's time to look into this aspect of cargo shipping.
  • "More than just gift-shop staples or coffee-table decoration, art books and catalogues serve multiple purposes for those who produce them. They are important educational tools; they extend the revenue from temporary exhibitions; and they provide a way for curators and art historians to explore ideas too complex to include on gallery walls." How Canadian publishers are curating successful relationships with art galleries.
  • "They have such an ability to really truly tap into and take interest in the authors in a way I haven't experienced elsewhere, and it's amazing ... They're very selective and when they do that, they do it not only as one person, but as a company. Our experience is the whole company feels unified." A bit about Shambhala Publications, said to be the world's largest publisher of English-language Buddhist books.
  • According to Anthony Albanese, the Australian Labor Party's spokesperson on infrastructure, transport and tourism, "the proposal to abolish parallel import restrictions in the book publishing industry does not stack up when the impact on jobs and culture are taken into account."
  • Can a film's revenue stream structure be applied to a book? Much of the proposed structure in this piece is not new, except the last bit about subscription and rental services. Should book publishers start their own iBooks platforms? Or is it too late for them? Something to mull over.
  • Christopher Marlowe, the playwright and author of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus has been credited as one of Shakespeare's co-writers for several plays in The New Oxford Shakespeare. I did read somewhere that Marlowe, also an alleged spy for the government of the time (and who tragically died in a brawl), had faked his death and re-emerged as The Bard, so I guess this announcement also put that rumour to rest.
  • "The definition of light novels is fraught with complications; even Japanese readers get confused by this question." One doesn't root around for book-related stuff in Anime News Network, but I thought this piece on light novels was interesting. "Nobody can predict the future, but one thing is for certain: light novels are not going away anytime soon," the piece says. "In today's media environment, light novels and anime need each other in other to thrive."
  • The Frankfurt Book Fair was "awash" with anti-Semitic titles, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center monitoring group. Authorities at the fair also confiscated these titles from "stands identified as violating their exhibitors’ contractual commitment against incitement to hate or violence." Noted "violators" were books from Iran and Egypt. SIGH. Why can't we have nicer things from Iran, like this book from this young fella that promotes modern Persian literature?
  • The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism reported five surprising trends in the book industry - in the US, presumably. But some of these might be global as well.
  • It’s time to get cooking with the World of Warcraft Official Cookbook with stuff like Dragonbreath Chili and Moser's Magnificent Muffins. Do you serve the latter on Moser's Blessed Circle?

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

A Book Launch And Two Hours In A Small Town

The first time I'm in Kuala Kubu Bharu and it's for a book launch.

The late Sudirman once sang, "When in Kuala Kubu (Bharu), write
your name on the stone". Don't think there's space.

These days I don't share too much about long trips before the day I set out, lest I jinx them. Especially to places I haven't been to before. Even so, I missed several turn-offs while leaving KL and couldn't find the venue upon reaching the town, until a random turn put me on Jalan Syed Mashor, where the Galeri Sejarah KKB was.

The scene at the back of the building looked festive, with banners, crowds, and a stage (really just a mic with a stand). A canopy sheltered the spot where books were sold. There was even a mobile book truck, peddling familiar titles from Fixi and Maple Comics, among others.

I thought I was late, until a voice called people to gather around for the speeches.

Lyrical writer, master orator, passionate eco-warrior and, we
are told, a one-man model of energy efficiency.

Among the VIPs were Dato' Seri Ir. Dr Zaini Ujang, Secretary General of the Malaysian Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water; Datin Paduka Dr Dahlia Rosly, former Director General of the Federal Department of Town and Country Planning; YB Lee Kee Hiong, State Assemblyperson for Kuala Kubu Bharu; and Termizi Yaacob and Ridzuan Idris of Persatuan Sejarah Kuala Kubu (the Kuala Kubu Historical Society).

Jahabar Sadiq, former CEO and editor of the now-defunct online news portal The Malaysian Insider was also there, along with Aizuddin Danian, who I knew from my early blogging days. Aizuddin is also the photographer who took Rehman's author portraits.

During her speech, Datin Paduka Dr Dahlia let slip the fact that the next day, 24 October, was Rehman's birthday, so he was invited to the front so that the assembled can sing "Happy Birthday" to him.

Now you know where and when to send presents.

Although born in Taiping, the writer and former journalist seems to have been adopted by Kuala Kubu Bharu and has become a favourite son. On this Sunday, he reciprocated with Small Town, an homage to the place where he wrote his other two books, A Malaysian Journey and Peninsula.

Celebrating the launch of the book and the author's upcoming birthday.

Some of the contents of Small Town came from those two books, and also includes some artwork from artists from the town. Most of the artists were present when Rehman handed out copies of the book and what he said was their pay, in large brown envelopes.

Rehman also dedicated Small Town to the history, natural beauty and people of Kuala Kubu Bharu. In his sonorous baritone, he also shared some titbits about the town, the first planned township in Malaya. "I thought the first planned township was Taiping, but no." He spoke mostly in Malay, with a bit of English, though I think the crowd was at least bilingual.

Commonly abbreviated as KKB, it is the principal town of the district of Hulu Selangor. During the Selangor Civil War in the 1800s, Raja Mahdi forted up there. Local lore claims that the original town was destroyed in a flood after the British district officer, Sir Cecil Ranking, allegedly shot a white crocodile locals claimed was a river guardian.

The front of Galeri Sejarah KKB, where the book was launched

These days, folks at KKB are putting their town forward as a historical and pristine eco-friendly destination, and it seems Rehman is in the vanguard of this movement. Since ditching his Astro feed, the old guy's taken up cycling, rolling all over the area alone or with his buddies. G*d help you if he spots you littering or leaving your car's engine running as it idles.

Eventually, came the round of thank-yous to the VIPs, guests, those who collaborated with him on the book ... everyone. He also pitched other books being sold during the event, also related to Kuala Kubu Bharu. One of these, Golden Raub, which Rehman wished he had read when writing his paean to the town, is about the opening of Raub's gold mines.

The book was written by Victor Bibby, a descendant of British-born Australian engineer William Bibby, who opened those mines (some information can be found here). I think Bibby was at the launch, though I wasn't sure if it was him.

I did not come all this way to return empty-handed

Rehman seemed happy that others besides himself are digging up these nuggets of history and writing about them, before they are gone forever. He also thanked the weather for being nice, albeit hot. Even if it had rained, he said that "the water's pristine, you can shower with it."

Mindful of my less-than-robust gut, I only had two pastries. I was more thirsty than hungry, and the sun was relentless. Though I did spend some time in the shade, I was soon worn out.

Of course I had to pick up Small Town, right? Priced at RM39.90, copies were going at a discounted rate during the launch. Proceeds from the book sales would go to Persatuan Sejarah Kuala Kubu (PESKUBU) or the Kuala Kubu Historical Society. If that fact hadn't slipped my mind as exhaustion and the heat took over, I'd have bought two.

One more look at Galeri Sejarah KKB, along Jalan Syed Mashor,
before heading home

I almost didn't make it that day.

I had gone to bed depressed, woke up dejected and wanted to stay at home first. However, I did tell several others I'd be going, even if it was merely a distraction from my blues.

Though I had left an hour late than I'd planned, I made it on time for the speeches.

In his speech at the event, Termizi Yaacob compared history to a tree, with its branches and leaves, growing, branches spreading outwards from a single point. Later, as Rehman spoke, a leaf fell onto my arm and stayed there.

I was then reminded of an artist's "life goal" to catch a falling leaf "fresh" from a tree, and thought how similar it was to chasing dreams. With how leaves tend to fall, however, you could run yourself ragged in pursuit of that one leaf. That's okay if you're young and buzzing with energy.

A souvenir (the leaf, not the book) from my solo out-of-town venture

When you get older, you'd learn how to do it better: stay near a tree that's shedding leaves and keep an eye on the nearest ones. Don't run after them as they fall. Or, if you're feeling lucky, just stand beneath said tree and wait for a few leaves to fall on you. Some leaves, like certain things, aren't worth the chase.

Travelling sixty-plus kilometres to catch a leaf sounds extreme but at times, you have to go that far, maybe farther, when you've been under the same tree for a long time. A taste of unfamiliar air is good, too.

(I needed the distance because I haven't been writing much, either. The muse didn't just warrant a kick in the ass but a couple of hours in Christian Grey's "Red Room of Pain".)

I'll be keeping the leaf for a while to remind me of my day in this "small town" and, when one's mind, heart and feet itch for the new, to just go for it, even if the chances of catching it are slim.

"So you went to KKB," a friend WhatsApped me later that night. "I thought you went off on a random drive to nowhere."

To me, one who seldom ventures outside his tiny comfortable urban bubble, Kuala Kubu Bharu was "nowhere".

Now, it's "somewhere".

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book Marks: MYWritersFest2016, Robert Gottlieb, And Hard-Case Comics

"...depending on your commitment to your craft, she can be a miraculous guiding angel or a badgering nightmare." Meet Gina Yap Lai Yoong, the writer whisperer. based on my Twitter feed, I'm leaning a little towards "nightmare".

Also from Eksentrika: Tina Isaacs, "the go-getter of Malaysia’s literary scene". Gina and Tina are the founders of the Malaysian Writers' Society, who's organising a bunch of events this October for the MYWritersFest 2016 (it's late for this, I know).

The Fest kicked off on 01 October at Kedai Fixi at Jaya Shopping Centre - perhaps the last event the venue hosted before moving to new digs somewhere in Kuala Lumpur proper.


  • Despite his dislike of writing, editor Robert Gottlieb released a memoir, Avid Reader. Singapore's Straits Times ran a piece from The New York Times about him.
  • " almost feels as though we're entering into a fresh golden age of comics doing the job they were intended to – corrupting the innocent minds of young people." Crime fiction publisher Hard Case Crime and Titan Comics are coming up with a line of new comics "promising the 'gritty, sexy, violent' world of noir movies and novels".
  • Is the Nobel Committee blackballing American authors, Malcolm Jones asks in The Daily beast. He makes a good case that it is, though it's hard to figure out why - a Eurocentric bent, perhaps? "The list of those who failed to win includes Tolstoy, Twain, Woolf, Borges, Proust, Nabokov, Chekhov, Joyce, Waugh, Greene, Welty, Auden, Updike, Stoppard, Pynchon, and Roth. That’s almost enough to make you want to lose."

    Well, guess what: 2016's Nobel Prize for literature went to an American: Bob Dylan.
  • In How oral cultures memorise so much information. Are sites such as Stonehenge part of the ancient world's cloud storage?
  • Here are some things authors need to stop doing on social media immediately, according to Digital Book World.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Fuss Over Ferrante

The biggest news in books so far this year is the apparent unmasking of Elena Ferrante, the nom de plume that wrote the acclaimed "Neapolitan quartet". All kinds of accusations, especially misogyny, were lobbed at the unmasker, investigative journalist Claudio Gatti.

Speaking to The Guardian, Gatti justified his reveal, published in the New York Review of Books, based on something she said about lying on occasion in an autobiographical essay, which he says nullifies "her right to disappear behind her books and let them live and grow while their author remained unknown.

"Indeed, she and her publisher seemed not only to have fed public interest in her true identity but to have challenged critics and journalists to go behind the lies. She told us that she finds them 'healthy'. As a journalist, I don’t. In fact it is my job to expose them."

So Gatti saw Ferrante's success, fuelled partly by her anonymity, as a challenge? Would he like to take on, say, the pseudonyms profiting from writing boilerplate "romance" novels out there?

Author anonymity can be effective as a marketing gimmick, and it's not as insidious as Gatti makes it sound like in this instance. Certain schools of thought suggest that since Ferrante's so popular, people - particularly her readers - have the right to know the truth about her.

Do they? And what if people know who she is and whatnot, what does it change?

The Atlantic wonders whether readers these days ask too much of authors. The desire to learn all there is about where a book comes from - thought processes, writing processes, influences and aims, among others - comes, I feel, from a wider culture where the provenance of a product is an important part of the consumer's identity.

Another aspect is that certain readers do feel the author owes them something for all the money they spent on him. But what else is the author obligated to do for his readers besides writing good books?

Just look at how fans harped on George R.R. Martin to finish his Game of Thrones series - presumably before a Robert Jordan scenario kicks in.

One example is an artist who felt bad he'd let someone down because of his busy schedule. Many authors and artists don't have the means to entertain their audiences' sense of entitlement all the time and on demand.

So, no.

I don't really care who Elena Ferrante is, and neither should you. I don't consider her identity as one of "modern literature's most enduring mysteries" - what does that even mean? How much does the author's name matter when one reads a book?

And I believe that, yes, we sometimes ask too much of authors, as The Atlantic seems to suggest:

We ask so much of our authors — to make things, yes, but also to be things for us — and the "we" is generally more powerful than the "they." Many writers, pragmatically, are introverts. Many of them would prefer, if they had their way about it, not to go on TV, or the radio, or your cousin's podcast. Many don't feel the need to write Franzenian op-eds in the Times. Many don't want to go on Oprah, or to be on Twitter. Many would prefer not to be brands, or performers, or public speakers, or indeed public figures, with all the freight of expectation that accompany them. Many would prefer to focus instead on doing the thing that is so very hard to do well, and that few can do as satisfyingly as a writer named — still named — Elena Ferrante.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Book Marks: Copyright vs Right To Copy, East M'sian Publishing

The Delhi High Court rejected a plea by publishers against the photocopying of books by a copy shop inside Delhi University. I find parts of the ruling problematic, because it seems to suggest that restrictions based on copyright can be disregarded for a greater good, like making knowledge more accessible to a population that can't afford the more expensive original print copies and it's pointless to restrict because technology (Google's book digitisation project comes to mind).

A bookshop owner hailed the ruling, saying that "photocopying like making generic drugs". I don't know if that's valid, as formulas for most generic drugs come from previously patented products that are protected from any sort of "copying" for a period, and print is much easier to steal than chemical formulae.

Students will be happy with this, but this decision might legalise book piracy in India, as someone pointed out in the Business Insider India.

Okay, copyrights for books do expire. Textbooks are expensive like heck and inconveniences students, and something needs to be done to address this. But the work that goes into publishing these books isn't cheap, and not enough appears to be done to make people realise that. Photocopying and taking pictures of pages with smartphones is still piracy. More awareness and more enforcement is required.

"...the publishing scene in Pakistan is pathetic to non-existent. [Oxford University Press] Pakistan is the only reputed publishing house in the country and they work with specific kinds of books. There is no scope for fiction writers, literary and commercial.

"Pakistani writers have almost no option but to publish in India, or in the UK or the US. Most top Indian publishers have an excellent distribution network in Pakistan and books published here can be made available within a few weeks of publishing."

A Q&A with Indian literary agent Kanishka Gupta. I wonder what he thinks of the Delhi High Court ruling over photocopying books.


  • The Star looked at the state of publishing in East Malaysia, and explores whether more can come out of Sabah and Sarawak than just folk tales. The answer, one gathers, is yes, but why was there no mention of Bangkit?
  • "...when I said I quit my day job, it wasn't because I could live on the publisher's advance indefinitely. It was because I opted to become a financial dependent for the first time in my adult life, which has proven stressful for my relatively young marriage and even more stressful for my writing. I haven't been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer." This writer had some serious delusions. Remember: no matter how much you love words, words don't love you back.
  • Why are Irish publishers shut out of the Man Booker prize, asks Sarah Davis-Goff in The Guardian. "Let’s be clear: the Man Booker prize is a British award and they can make up whatever rules about inclusivity – or exclusivity – they like." If it's true that the prize is only eligible for books published in the UK, then the unknown complainer I wrote about several years ago - unless he had a UK publisher - never had a chance to begin with.
  • "Aiyah, saw that Ah Beng give a hongbao to an Oompa-Loompa at a kopitiam!" Just some of the scrumdiddlyumptious words that entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Southeast Asians seem particularly delighted at the recognition given to certain words.
  • Sure, algorithms that crunch data could save book publishing - but where's the fun in that?
  • A US author published her first Japanese manga-style storybook, a years-long endeavour. Yes, good work takes time and what are you watiing for? But isn't hers the storyline of, say, one out of two or three Japanese manga?

    Meanwhile, there appears to be a rise in the popularity of manga-style history books in Japan, and major Western publishers seem to be getting more into manga and graphic novels as well.

I know, we need to talk about Lionel Shriver and her defense of white people writing whatever the hell they want, political correctness be damned. However, so many have weighed in on the issue - pretty well, too - since it emerged, I don't have anything to add. Some of the better arguments took place on my Facebook threads, which I don't think can be linked or feasibly reproduced elsewhere.

TL;DR: Just because you can doesn't mean you must. If you do, dig deep, fact-check and respect the subjects. Some will still be upset anyway, so roll with it. Some have suggested that this be debated during the upcoming George Town Literary Festival and the programme has yet to be finalised, so, fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Rethinking Independence: Cooler Lumpur 2016

Cooler Lumpur 2016 was much smaller and cosier than the previous year's, and not just because the Poskod Journalism Campus, which usually happens on the Friday each festival starts, was spun off as a separate event.

The Band of Doodlers, an art collective from Singapore, drew the
independence-themed backdrop based on public input via Twitter
(#CoolerDoodlers) at Cooler Lumpur.

Not enough money-lah, basically.

Nevertheless, the show went on, and it was good. The theme for this year was "RE:Independence", where the objective this year was to "re-examine just what it means to be independent; whether we are still able to decide what to control and how much of ourselves we want to allow to be controlled – as a person, as people, and as a nation."

Naturally, the programmes revolved around the theme, and included discussions on criticism, empowerment, language, innovation and storytelling and how each can play a role in fostering independent thinking.

My tiny contribution to the festivities, which was well received by those
who had a taste. For those who didn't, well, hopefully next year.

I had by now pinned down the recipe for my shortbread, so I baked and brought some along to the festival. Not a lot, though, because the oven is tiny. The shortbread was well received. The panel curator compared it favourably to what's sold as Marks and Spencer - thank you, Uma!

Of course, I was there for the panels, especially the book-related ones. Also, one of the company's latest production, the comi- sorry, graphic novel, Eva Goes Solo, made its debut at Cooler Lumpur 2016. The author and illustrator, Evangeline Neo, was there to sign books and speak at a panel discussion with another artist, Cheeming Boey.

Panel discussion on "The 'Art' of the Biography" at Cooler Lumpur, with
graphic novelists Evangeline Neo of Evacomics (centre, making a point)
and Cheeming Boey (right), moderated by Umapagan Ampikaipakan

Moderator Uma found Boey's mind a scary place, while Neo got to show her endearing "aunty side". Of course, drawing comics for a living is tough, and the panellists shared some strategies on marketing their work. It's just as much about business as it is about the art.

One aspect was merchandising: the creation of characters that can be incorporated into merchandise: bags, smartphone covers, plushies and such. Boey's stick figures have found their way to mineral water bottles, now being sold at Shell petrol stations.

Neo admitted that her main "Eva" character, is a nicer avatar of herself. "Who'd want to wear an aunty on a T-shirt?"

Graphic novelist and illustrator Neo signing books at Cooler Lumpur.
Her new book, Eva Goes Solo, by MPH Group Publishing, debuted
at the festival. And I think she's not that "aunty" at all.

During the discussion, it was revealed that Boey started drawing his life when he moved to the States to study and, later, work. Neo started drawing hers after she left the States. Who knew they went to the same art school in San Francisco?

"Cooler Lumpur, bringing people together," Uma announced triumphantly.

Kohai (junior) Neo and senpai (senior) Boey, after their book-signing
sessions at Cooler Lumpur. Turns out Boey is a legitimate senpai.

The festival didn't just match Boey with Neo. The latter also got to meet fellow Singaporean and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the hit novel Sarong Party Girls. More remarkable was that much of the novel was narrated in Singlish, that uniquely Singaporean patois the Singaporean government is trying - in vain, I feel - to discourage.

The subject of Singlish, Singaporean poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui's op-ed to The New York Times extolling the dialect and the Singapore government's terse response to it would surface in another panel discussion later in the day.

I'd purchased a copy of Tan's A Tiger in the Kitchen at a Big Bad Wolf Books sale, but never did I expect her arrival so soon to these shores, so I was pretty chuffed. Cooler Lumpur also brought Scottish author and educator Nicola Morgan, another personality I had only read about online, to a hazy KL for the inaugural festival in 2013, themed "#Word".

Other notables at the festival over the years included authors Miguel Syjuco, Zen Cho and Ovidia Yu, columnist Lindy West, artist Sonny Liew, filmmaker Nadira Ilana and writer John Krich. And every year, I sit, wait and wonder, who else will be coming over?

Singapore-mari! Author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Evangeline Neo at
Cooler Lumpur. Sorry, camera shutter caught Eva "sleeping".

The talk with veteran American journalist John Dinges, about how journalism should serve democracy, was delayed for about an hour because, according to the organisers, "the building thought it was on fire."

The fire suppression system, which sucked air out of the Black Box and White Box in Publika, was triggered just before the talk began, creating a huge, roaring din. Technicians couldn't solve the problem quickly enough, which led to the panel being delayed a few times.

Veteran journalist John Dinges, on the panel "RE: Journalism in
Service of Democracy"

Dinges seem to have problems hearing, so he moved around the stage during the Q&A session to where the questions were asked so he could respond. The discussion was quite fruitful. The associate professor and director of radio at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism recounted some of his adventures as a news correspondent in Latin America.

He also had some advice for journalists when speaking to reporters from The Malay Mail Online.

Uma recommended his book, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. I'll be looking out for it.

I had no photos of the discussion panel "RE: English, Singlish, Manglish" because it was late, I was beat, and the phone's battery was nearly flat. But it was a stimulating discussion that made me re-evaluate some of my positions on language and my job as an editor.

Among the topics: is patois that bad? Chuah Guat Eng doesn't think so. Relating an experience while teaching a class, Chuah found that once the "write in good English" criterion was lowered, the students produced wonderful stories despite their less-than-average command of English. I was reminded of the writing in Moira Young's YA novel, Blood Red Road.

Malaysia's first female novelist to write in English also declared herself anti-establishment (did I hear that right?) and said she isn't keen on forcing people to write in "good English", even if she spoke and wrote it herself. I didn't know she had this side to her and it's refreshing.

Cheryl Tan chipped in with regard to her use of Singlish in Sarong Party Girls. The novel caused a stir with the language and the protagonist, particularly in her country of birth. Why does the novel's heroine have such questionable morals, she was asked, and why couldn't she have cast someone who could be a good example?

Tan's reply was something to the effect of "such people - and realities - exist, whether you like it or not" and "I didn't set out to glamourise such behaviours with this novel - it's fiction". Also: "I'm sure that [Vladimir] Nabokov wasn't pro-paedophilia when he wrote Lolita."


Another issue was, I think, cultural appropriation, which popped up in a couple of other panels during the weekend. Tan's research involved her checking with someone who was an expert on Singlish, which meant she had to send said expert "the dirtiest e-mail" he had ever received - she brought this up twice during the weekend. Just felt I had to point that out.

I was late for Datuk Lat's one-on-one with Kam Raslan and missed half the conversation. I think they were discussing comics, being Malaysian then and now, and other stuff. Kam was such a fanboy and I can't blame him.

At Cooler Lumpur: "On Being Malaysian", with legendary cartoonist
Datuk Lat (at right) and Kam Raslan.

Datuk Lat hugely influenced many other artists, including Boey, and his cartoons gave many a glimpse into Malaysian life and culture at the time, even to locals. He reminisced about how he got to participate in a Sikh wedding and captured key moments of it, and how his informant was adamant that he didn't make the event look "funny" with his drawings. The informant needn't have worried, and Lat's account of the wedding was lauded.

When asked if he would revisit his kampung in a future comic book, Lat said probably not, but maybe a shorter series of strips in a magazine. His village isn't what it used to be; it has only five houses, and the river he mentioned in Kampung Boy is almost gone.

More discussions on storytelling were in store in the panel "RE: Stories for Boys and Girls, Both Big and Small", with novelist Shamini Flint, writer Hanna Alkaf (who also moderated) and educators and storytellers Jennifer and Nathaniel Whitman.

Storytellers Shamini Flint, Hanna Alkaf (also moderating) and Jennifer
and Nathaniel Whitman, talking about storytelling at Cooler Lumpur.
The quotable Flint, of course, stole the show.

Nat Whitman opined that one takes a risk when one tells a story, and Flint concurred, especially when it comes to telling a story through writing.

"It's dangerous to write a story because a reader can call you out if you contradict yourself a few pages down the line," she said. "But if you orally tell your story and someone points out that you said this, you can always deny it: 'No, I didn't.'" Before the audience could recover from the chuckles, she added, "This is why I'm a good lawyer."

Fielding a question from a member of the audience who wanted to collect stories from older people, Flint thought it was a good idea. She'd written a novel set in wartime Malaya, The Undone Years, based on input from relatives and others who lived through that period.

Can't remember what made this moment, but it made me
sorry my cameraphone wasn't any better

Flint was basically, go ahead and record their stories because "they're all going to die anyway, so get their stories before that." Sounds frivolous, but she has a point. Malaysian history is being eroded and, in some cases, rewritten (what Flint calls producing fiction), and getting the real story of what happened from the older generation is now more crucial than ever. How will we move forward without a firm understanding of our past?

Later, came the panel, "RE: Minds of the Future" (you can tell there's a theme going on with the titles), about criticism and how it shapes - yes - the minds of the future, with British journalist and theatre critic Kate Bassett; arts consultant, activist and writer, Phang Khee Teik; and academic Leyla Jagiella. Journalist Sharmilla Ganesan was the moderator for the panel.

From left: Kate Bassett, Phang Khee Teik and Leyla Jagiella, debating
the role of criticism in shaping the minds of the future, with
Sharmilla Ganesan moderating.

I felt that the panellists struggled initially with some of the question posed, but that was all I could remember. The topic might have been too big for me to handle, too.

The talk with the Director-General of the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS), Dato' Kamil Othman, was a little easier to digest. This was, I felt, a continuation of a discussion with Dato' Kamil a couple of years ago.

"Malaysian films, folks, are the subject of much consternation among the public at large," Uma stated, kicking off that discussion. "In fact, we love to hate them."

The forthright Director-General of FINAS, Dato' Kamil Othman, chatting
with Uma on the state of Malaysian films and film industry.

Things have improved a bit since then but, as the discussion revealed, more still needs to be done. Dato' Kamil pulled few punches, and there was the occasional swearing. He's no fan of censorship, and had suggestions for trouble-free foreign film festivals. Still, he has hope in the future of the local film industry.

Originally about women who write literature and "why women should rule the world", the topic of last panel for Cooler Lumpur, with Shamini Flint and Cheryl Tan, was changed to discuss Flint's pet peeve, "why Asian literature is so $#!+" - a more welcome and engaging topic.

The last panel discussion for Cooler Lumpur, with Cheryl Tan and Shamini
Flint. Again, Flint stole the show, but I couldn't think of a better way
to wrap things up.

Though this was an issue that's closer to my heart, I barely remember what was discussed.

Flint brought up something that she'd said before, about women marrying rich (white) men who would allow them to write - implying that writing is a luxury few can afford, and that some people's voices aren't heard because they don't have the means to write. I'm not sure if Lionel Shriver's "dangerous idea" and the backlash surfaced during this discussion.

Which led to the question of why people write about their birthplaces after spending time abroad. Again, this topic was broached before. Flint and Tan agreed that the yearning for home intensifies when one is abroad, to the point where one is compelled to write about it.

However, it seems we've all had enough of gardens shrouded in evening mists and our grandmothers' mango trees and such. And, maybe, enough of wartime novels by white people who exoticise the locales to sell more books (a couple of such books that I'd read still send me into fits of rage).

Oh, yes. Flint recalled a bunch of assorted characters who she had drinks with and remembered being entertained by their stories but then, when she read what some of them wrote, the language was, well, different. "What happened to the (interesting) people I had drinks with?" she wondered.

Again, the argument that unique voices don't have to be in crisp, impeccable English all the time (Flint was really talking about authenticity, i.e., writing like how you speak).

Then Uma pointed out how different Flint sounded in her wartime novel,
as opposed to, say, her children's books. Note Flint's expression.

"No, she's not happy with that book," Uma said, regarding said wartime novel.

Overall, the ladies did very well on this panel, which pretty much demonstrates why women should rule the world.

And that's a wrap! This year's Cooler Lumpur was smaller than the
previous year's, but cosier. And I stayed till the end.

Thus, ended another iteration of Southeast Asia's only festival of ideas - be proud, Malaysia! Cooler Lumpur is the only thing of its kind in the region.

Everybody adjourned after that for beer and pizza. I don't drink, however, but maybe we could have used, like, eight more pies? I'm sure many didn't have dinner before the last panel, and we fell upon the pizzas like a plague of locusts.

Many thanks to the crew, partners and sponsors who made Cooler Lumpur possible, and I hope to be part of this again next year.

Though I wonder: would crowdfunding help with the finance, logistics and such? That would give more people ownership of the festival, and we could get better pizza (Mikey's is just around the corner).

Since it began, Cooler Lumpur has been feeding my appetite for ideas and stories from all over, so I have a vested interest in its continuity and development. Some may argue that such exercises in thought are a middle-class pastime, and I tend to agree. However, I cannot deny the hunger in my mind for the good stuff, which is hard to come by.

We are all dependent in some fashion on others for our daily needs. Wouldn't it be liberating if we all could service our own cars and air conditioners, cook our own food or diagnose and cure our illnesses? Expert help can be expensive and at times unreliable.

The reason I resorted to learning how to cook pasta and bake my own shortbread was because the damn things are getting more expensive, and it's cathartic to whip butter and sugar at the end of a long day and eating the results is so satisfying.

Yet, I still crave things that only other people can provide: conversations, ideas, varying points of view and criticisms, for instance. No one can be truly independent as long as one lives.

If you want to know true independence, die. But by then you wouldn't even care - can it get more independent than that?

In a society, we rely upon some for our needs and wants, and we are relied upon by others for what we can offer. However, when one party is over-reliant on another for something, that party might end up being addicted to that assistance - and be exploited by those who feed that addiction.

Of late, it seems we've been relying too much on certain parties for direction in life and nationhood, and it seems many of us are waking up to the fact that maybe we're going the wrong way. Trust us, we've been told numerous times, we know what we're doing, we know what's best for everyone. But if even scientists can be bribed (allegedly) to say that fat is worse for the heart than sugar, who else can we trust?

Not politicians. Not religious leaders. And certainly not businessmen who also claim to be either, or both.

And from some of the behaviours of others we've been reading in the news, too many people have lost their moral bearings, their sense of right and wrong. It began, I believe, when we stopped using that internal compass and begun to rely on the wisdom of certain parties. And like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use, that compass has begun to break down.

That's why I appreciate initiatives such as Cooler Lumpur, a pasar malam for really good ideas and a mental gym where we can get those long-rusted gears moving again, and strengthen our minds so that they can repel bad ideas, break free of the undue influence of the manipulative and self-serving, and grow to generate useful ideas for others to learn from.

Perhaps that is the first step towards (live people's) independence.

23/09/2016   Podcasts of the 2016 Cooler Lumpur panel discussions are being uploaded to this channel, so I can re-live those moments, catch the punchlines and fact-check some details (g*d, my memory is shit now). Not sure why Google Play Store opens every time I open the links on the smartphone. Check out Cooler Lumpur's Facebook page for more updates.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Dealing With Disappointment

Recently, a local artist and illustrator lost sleep over a mother's e-mail. Apparently, she had been trying to arrange some time for her child to meet the artist so he can review the kid's work and give a few words of encouragement.

But after months of delays over scheduling conflicts and the artist's busy life, he recorded an apology in a video, explaining why the meeting or the review has yet to take place.

It wasn't enough for the mother, who e-mailed back with expressions of disappointment, (from the sound of it) accusing the artist of being like other presumably famous people: lacking passion, sincerity and the willingness to help, and said she'll consider looking elsewhere for more suitable candidates "her children and students can emulate".

Assuming that it's all true: I'm not sure if the artist should've shared the e-mail, if it was the exact e-mail, in sharing his predicament. Disappointments happen, after all, and personalities take that in stride. You can't please everyone all the time.

That being said, the mother's correspondence is another example of the mindset some within the fandom have. Just because you support an artist and regard him as a role model doesn't mean he's obliged to drop everything and entertain your request. He has other commitments to consider, including contractual agreements with companies and publishers to which requests of "please give my kid some words of encouragement" have to take a backseat to.

Yes, wish fulfilment might be part of the deal, but as sentient beings with morals, shouldn't members of the audience do something to make their idols' lives easier, instead of complicating them by claiming this and that out of a misplaced sense of entitlement?

An artist (or author, actor, whatever) is responsible for his work, first and foremost. If the work isn't up to par, everything else - including the audience, patrons, endorsements and offers to collaborate and conduct workshops - won't follow. It's been about five years since he first struck out on his own and he's still going strong, despite the demands of his new gig.

An artist whose survival depends on an audience will, at some point, also trade favours for his audience's continued support. Eventually, because of the novelty and euphoria from the impression that both are connecting on a level beyond work, either will forget why that connection happened in the first place: the artist's work itself.

Soon, the audience will forget about the work and demand more and more of the artist's time for other things. And if the artist's work suffers because of this and he gets dropped by his patrons, who's to blame?

We see personalities too much for their public portrayal and what they represent, and don't learn enough about what it took for them to reach that level and aim for the next. Some personalities should not be emulated, but what they sacrificed and put into their personas should, at least, be acknowledged.

If one is inspired to follow in their footsteps, one should also ask whether one is ready for the hard work and everything else that ensues, including lost sleep, the sacrifice of certain hobbies and being stretched thin from having to be in several places at once.

As to accusations of this artist not having what it takes, keeping his word or inspiring more talent, well, I haven't seen anyone work as hard this artist. He stays past allotted times during meet-and-greet sessions until the queues are clear. He makes small talk to everyone, and asks for updates from those he'd met before. Personalised doodles? No problem.

And as far as I can see, each book of his is better than the last. If there's a fifth book, it'll be harder to write. From a collection of cartoons nobody wanted to publish for over four years, he now has four books that still hop in and out of the bestseller lists, and his art is everywhere.

If the artist is someone who lacks passion, dedication and skill, would he have lasted this long? Would all this have happened? As far as I know, the artist has no army of assistants to help him keep track of things. It's all him.

If that's still not inspiring enough, then...?

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Book Marks: Curtis Sittenfeld On Reviews, Penguin's Egyptian Classics

In The New York Times, Jennifer Senior speaks with Curtis Sittenfeld about reviews and being a book critic. An excerpt:

For my second novel, "The Man of My Dreams," I got a scathing review from The Times. I found it embarrassing, but now I’m not sorry because I learned two important lessons: 1) Actually, almost no one in the world besides you cares if you get a scathing review from The Times — it’s not unlike walking out of a restaurant bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

...And 2) The review stung partly because the book in question had some weaknesses that I knew about. My rule since then has been that I can’t let a book be published if it has problems that still feel fixable — that I am my own ultimate quality control.


  • Five books banned by the Home Ministry because they ... "disrupt the public order". This is old news, but I'm putting it here because the article includes a list from the Home Ministry's web site, which we'd probably want to refer to on occasion. No sign of Michel Faudet's Dirty Pretty Things, which was said to be detained by the ministry.
  • A Q&A with author Gina Yap on The Spark (in Malay), about writing and the Malaysian Writers group.
  • Penguin Classics is publishing a selection of ancient Egyptian texts translated into English for first time, including something called "The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" and letters from a farmer called Heqanakht, from 1930BC. It can't come soon enough.
  • This piece on getting onto bestseller lists is interesting, but the fact that it's from Tucker Max makes me feel, well... If this is your thing, though, it's worth a look.
  • Somebody (I think it was Anthony McGowan) said "90 per cent of YA is crap" at the Edinburgh international book festival, during a debate on the genre. Bookmarking this for future reference.
  • Conservative gadfly Ann Coulter is "currently experiencing every nonfiction author's nightmare". Well, I can bear her misery, if she's capable of feeling any. But that's to be expected when writing books about a notorious, flip-flopping misogynistic bigot.
  • Seth Grahame-Smith, author of such works as Unholy Night and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is being sued by publisher Hachette for what I understand as working chunks from a "120-year-old public-domain work" into a manuscript for an unnamed book he passed off as original. Arguably, several of his novels can hardly be considered "original". For one, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?
  • I thought an article titled "How To Sell Nearly a Half-Million Copies of a Poetry Book" might be interesting to some people, so here it is.

    And here is Publisher's Weekly's list of the world's 52 largest book publishers for 2016, so you know who to submit to.

I'd dropped the ball for several weeks due to work, stress and the lack of book-related news that I was remotely interested in. But I'm plugging in again and it seems quite a few interesting things have happened since I was disconnected.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Shortbread Saga - Success! ... Hopefully

I'm still not writing about books and I don't care.

Now, let me share more shortbread stories.

Up till last month, the middle of each cookie I made was moist, which I assumed is normal.

It is not.

So, after more reading and a little trial and error, the breakthrough came on the night of 24 August 2016. Yes, I bake at night these days. It's the only time I'm free, apart from weekends.

Technology also captured the exact date and time (10:58pm) this
moment happened

Assuming one strictly follows the 1:2:3 ratio for sugar, butter and flour respectively:

First: dough must be almost dry to the touch and not too wet. If it's too wet, add a little flour - really a little, like about a level tablespoon at a time - until the right feel and consistency is reached. For a more buttery, rich and crumbly texture, add less flour, or don't add any more flour.

Second, the oven's temperature has to be as low as possible. Mastering my old Cornell electric oven took some time, and I got the results I wanted with a temperature of around 100°C to 110°C - analog controls, okay? But because of its age, the temp might not be like it says on the dial.

Third, watch the cookies like a hawk. I previously covered the cookies with baking paper, which I thought would give the surface even browning. But careful watching made that unnecessary.

After about 10 minutes, I rotated the tray and let it finish baking, as the heat is less intense near the oven hatch. Once the colour becomes a light golden brown, it's time to take them out to cool.

When I bit down, CRUNCH. All the way. On top of that, it was delicious, fragrant, and the texture was just right.

This French guy says it best (source: Les Petits Frenchies)

My heart leapt with joy, along with my feet.

♪ I know that it's late late late late late late
I should be in bed bed bed bed bed bed
But I'm so pumped I'm gonna bake bake bake bake
Bake it off, bake it off! ♫

I've baked several more batches since then, including one slightly big batch which found its way to a local newsroom. The response was good, I heard. Several others who were tired of me taunting them with photos of the goods on social media either have or will get a taste.

The process worked for thinner shortbread sticks (dough that's about five to six millimetres thick), but I haven't tried it for the traditional finger-thick pieces. But I doubt I'd take that route again.

Not planning to make a business out of this - for now. Maybe after I retire, perhaps?

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Final

The wait. G*ds, the wait.

Half an hour into our arrival here and it wasn't yet our turn. Wendy marvelled at how the lady boss managed to keep track of the orders with a cheap notebook and pen.

At last, the "famous" fried oyster place was open, and business was booming. People gathered around a stove to watch the chef at work from a safe distance from the heat but not the fumes. Our hair and clothes remained fragrant until we reached the hotel with our bounty. No way were we dining in, not with so many lining up.

I remember a big, mostly flat griddle, more like a shallow wok, perched atop a roaring flame. The chef, a balding middle-aged uncle in an old, off-white vest, would pour a huge steel mug of cracked eggs into the wok and stir it for a while, leaving it to cook for a bit before tossing in the oysters and what looked like a sambal mix that's so dry you can probably count the chilli flakes on the surface.

Once cooked, the contents would be portioned off onto different plates, for dine-ins or takeaways. Separate batches would be processed if some of these, say, were requests for non-spicy ones.

Some of those gathered seemed to be picking some up because of the hype, including three young ladies. "How do you spell 'omelette'?" one of them asked another. Too bad her friend came to her rescue before I could step in.

Five minutes became ten, then fifteen. Not long after that, Sam and Melody suggested we wait it out at the neighbouring kopitiam, where a stall was serving noodles. We ordered drinks to avoid being chased out of the premises, but as the night wore on, the kopitiam's need for seats became greater.

A nearby table hosted a family of maybe eight or ten, and one of the daughters vanished for a bit before returning. I would see her waiting by the fried oyster stall later after we left the kopitiam; seems her family was also hankering for an after-dinner snack.

It was insane. Some of those people had been waiting for half an hour - and it would be a while more before they got theirs.

At last, we sped to the hotel with the spoils: one small(!) pack of the "famous" fried oyster o-m-e-l-e-t-t-e, with chilli. The package was opened expectantly at the hotel's empty dining hall.

The verdict registered in the awkward silence. Then, someone voiced it: "Not very special at all."

About forty minutes of our lives that we would never get back, all for a pile of dry albeit well-seasoned fried eggs and shrivelled oysters, which we could barely see in the dim light. I'd seen the chef cut the oysters with a pair of scissors, puncturing them and letting the juices run out - probably not a good idea.

"So different from the ones in Penang," Sam noted. "Those are moist, not so dry."

And the oysters are mostly whole, I added mentally. Tinier, but whole.

The chilli was a nice touch and it didn't taste awful, but we couldn't hide our disappointment. I wonder how the others, who were still waiting when we left, felt about their o-m-e-l-e-t-t-e-s.

31 December 2015...

The disappointing after-dinner outing underscored the gloom of the next day, when we packed our bags for the return to KL.

To get rid of last night's dissatisfaction, we had the hotel's breakfast. We planned on making one circuit around the Jonker Walk area, punctuated by an after-breakfast snack at The Daily Fix café and several brief stops elsewhere, before going back to the hotel.

I can no longer recall much of this day, numbed perhaps by our impending departure. The past several days had been fantastic - I wished we had several more. Melody wanted to return to Calanthe Art Café probably for the damned alluring claypot Nyonya curry laksa, but for some reason, we didn't.

On the first day of our trip, we had nosed around The Daily Fix and climbed to the upper floor where a few more seats and a tiny gallery were. Because of my fear of heights, I lingered at the foot of the stairs - g*ds, there were gaps in the staircase!

When I did make a move, I took my time. "C'mon, you can do it," Melody's voice rang out, egging me on. I felt I was being teased. I think I also heard Wendy or Sam cheering, "Go, go, go!" So happy to have them on my side.

An exhibition at the upstairs gallery on "dying trades" prompted the question whether the Melakan state government was helping these industries stay afloat - lower rents, subsidies, tie-ups with hotels and tour operators and the like - for the added touristy value. Not a bad idea if it was.

Today, we took a table near the counter and ordered a couple of coffees and a plate of those pandan and gula Melaka pancakes. Each "pancake" was about two and a half inches in diameter and was to be drizzled with gula Melaka, reminding me of the onde-onde we had on Day One.

Encouraged, Melody ordered a gula Melaka cupcake, which proved to be overkill. Sweet, sweet - albeit slightly dry - overkill. We had no complaints about the coffee.

I think we will be back here again.

Unfortunately, we can't say the same about another café.

We stumbled onto this place, which shall not be named, on our last trek around the historic Chinese quarter for this trip. We'd heard about it from other coffee enthusiasts and were curious.

While our noses were still at the door - is that a ... a motor vehicle inside the shop? - somebody burst out from inside, going, "How many people?" She looked around at us clustered around the entrance. "Minimum one drink per person, okay?"

Banyak tak cantik.

Taken aback, we hesitated before declining. Among us, Sam was the most perturbed - and offended - by this. Years in customer service and café-hopping honed her opinions of how customers should be treated and how coffee should be made. The bad vibes stung and lingered like burnt espresso on the palate until we stepped into the low-key but more accommodating Localhouz.

However, its cosy charm did little to soothe Sam's rancour - and Wendy's, as it turned out. "Un-ac-cep-ta-ble," Sam said. "Even if you're selling atas (posh) coffee, customers are king. You still need good customer service."

Wendy agreed. "That was not very professional, coming out and telling customers they can't come in unless they order one drink each." Nor was there a sign telling people about this 'rule'."

Eventually, it boiled over into a couple of one-star reviews on the café's Facebook page. It seems they were not alone. Many would-be customers were also caught off-guard by the brusqueness of the staff; some who swallowed their pride spat out middling to unfavourable thoughts about their coffee.

However, it seems this café won't be changing its MO any time soon, thanks to the constant flow of visitors to this city. We (me, using the royal plural) wish them all the best.

On the way out, I noticed belatedly that Localhouz does not encourage photography within the premises, although that rule might have applied to the paintings on the wall, which seemed to be for sale.

On a table beneath one of these paintings, lay a familiar book.

Whose copy was it?

"One of our staff's," the lady at the counter replied. "She's a fan."

A fan of Senpai's in Melaka, who works at a great place with great décor at 53, Jalan Tokong, 75200 Melaka? What were the odds?

Damn, forgot to ask for the staff's name to personalise a copy of the book. I hope she's still working there.

Anyway, Localhouz. More comfy and welcoming than that other café. I liked Localhouz's lemongrass juice. Too bad we had stuffed ourselves before stopping by, or we'd have sampled more stuff. The loh mai kai (glutinous rice with chicken) looked nice.

Preparing to travel can be a pain. The packing and the sense of being uprooted is uncomfortable for those not accustomed to a jet-setting life. Homebodies like me find having to travel particularly discomfiting, regardless of the distance.

I don't hate my life. I just think more needs to happen in it. That also means I needed to get uncomfortable.

But once you're away, the discomfiture ebbs, and perceptions start changing. Time seems to slow down and you're compelled to follow suit.

When you're miles away from the life you've known for a long time, you're also away from the things about it you don't like. And you begin to wonder why you didn't notice that before or do something about it.

Seeds for the next getaway were planted as I surrendered myself to the embrace of the high-pressure shower of my hotel room - a monsoon deluge compared to the shower head at home. Thoughts of what I would be returning to crept up, chillier than the morning showers I've had (before the heater eventually kicked in) on this trip.

A familiar discomfort emerged, that of the homecoming, triggering recollections of the past few days and making packing up difficult. Writing this brought it all back, and reading this again will, too.

I don't - or want to - recall much of the journey home. The weather was hot when we hit the highway and I stopped to top up the fuel tank on the way out of Melaka. Wendy and Sam reached home first, more than an hour before we did.

Back home, beat and thirsty, I washed my feet, turned on the air conditioning and laid on my bed. My body recognised it, and I relaxed. Sleeping on alien beds is hard. But my bed felt way too comfortable, like the grip of satin-wrapped chains.

So this is what it means when you're "too comfortable".

I wasn't relaxed. I was lethargic. And this lethargy, among some other stuff, was keeping me from doing things.

Strange, I thought. I'd gone as far as Melbourne, apart from Jakarta, Bangkok and Sabah. But it was after this Melakan getaway that more pieces fell into place - and kept falling.

I don't want to live like this.

My feet grow restless.

I need to get away again.

Like, perhaps, a runaway prince from Palembang all those centuries ago.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6.