Friday, 29 January 2016

Sugarcoating The Unpleasant

Ron Charles, editor of Washington Post's Book World, proclaimed that "There are no winners in this controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington".

This children's book features a chapter in the life of George Washington's slave, Hercules, who manages to bake Washington's birthday cake despite not having any sugar on hand. Critics are upset at the rosy portrayal of slavery and the slave-master relationship in this book, and Scholastic, the publisher, pulled it from shelves. It didn't matter that the author is not white or racist, or that they were apparently not doing what they were accused of. Slavery was horrible and must in no way be presented in a kindly light.

"While it is perfectly valid for critics to dispute a book's historical accuracy and literary merit, the appropriate response is not to withdraw the volume and deprive readers of a chance to evaluate the book and the controversy for themselves," according to a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship and the PEN American Center.

Scholastic has responded to the criticisms, saying that they pulled the title because no, we were not browbeaten into it. It was because the title "did not meet our publishing standards."

On a somewhat related note, Kate Breslin's For Such a Time was also panned for using the Holocaust as a backdrop for a tale of romance (with Christian undertones) between a German SS officer and a Jewish woman.

I'm inclined to believe that this is just a couple of cases where two publications were shouted at without addressing the sources of the outrage. In the US, blacks in general are still treated as second-class citizens; and modern-day slavery in many parts of the world contributes much to our 21st-century lifestyle: in fashion, construction and gadgets, for instance. Bigotry is still rife in many societies, and not just towards Jews.

Reading these reports, we're not sure whether these critics have anything to say about forced labour, racism and anti-Semitism today. Maybe all that ended up on the cutting-room floor because of the media's supposed tendency to curate the news to suit certain agendas. So all we seem to get from these people are along the lines of "Nothing good happened during those times! Stop looking, and stop imagining!"

But who's to say that the above scenarios are implausible? Can a slave not be resourceful and proud of his work, even under oppression and inhumane treatment? Is it impossible for two people to have a romance, despite being on two sides of an unbridgeable ideological chasm?

For me, these small specks of brightness cast a light not on the already well-documented horrors of slavery or the Holocaust, but upon the humanity buried underneath the muck. Even in adversity, there is still a small part of us that strives to be the best we can be.

If we can't tell stories like this anymore, then what? The shouty types don't seem to have any other solution than "Don't write them". They appeal to their audiences with horrific images of "what really happened", burying any attempt by others to mess around with the official narrative, even in fiction.

I like the idea of a slave who, despite his circumstances, takes enough pride in himself and his job to find ways to solve a problem. He can think, strategise, improvise. He has potential - why not celebrate that?

And it's a children's book. The way the critics were howling you'd think they'd want the young 'uns aged two and up to be aware of just how nasty the practice of slavery is. Is that wise?

Besides: "It's possible, though not encouraged by our screaming online culture, to raise serious objections to this book without calling into question the motives or talents of the people involved," Ron Charles wrote in that WaPo article.

(This is why Charles is one of my favourite book people.)

Let little kids be themselves. Treat them with small slices of real life they can stomach and digest. They will grow up eventually, and when they finally have questions about what really went on as Hercules baked that birthday cake, that's when you know they're ready for the answers.

Books - and the Internet - aren't supposed to teach our children everything. That's our job. And maybe we shouldn't scream those lessons into them either.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

This Could Be Purr-a, Purr-a, Purr-a-dise

"Okay, hold still," I told the subject of my smartphone camera photo shoot. The angle wasn't quite right and I was receiving no cooperation. "Aren't you a shy one," I noted with mild exasperation.

When it wasn't attempting to vanish, my subject refused to look at the lens, preferring to squirm or roll around - probably immediate priorities. After all, it wasn't human.

On a hunt for two bakeries: Bake Plan and Dotty's, I stumbled upon the Purradise Cat Café after finding Dotty's closed for the day; the doors are shut at 5pm. Needing a break, I climbed the stairs to the café on the first floor. No shoes are allowed after the foyer.

Purradise had, I thought, more felines than another similar establishment at SS15 in Subang Jaya. Seems all of them are rescued strays (one of them apparently just came in and stayed), and patrons are allowed to adopt any kitty they fancy. There must've been about twelve, and all of them are named.

For RM15, patrons get one drink and an hour in the café; an additional RM3 is charged for every 15 minutes afterwards. Anything else, including food and drink, is also extra. Wanna spend a full day there? It's RM39, plus a drink. The charges and time limits were imposed to keep the number of patrons low, I was told.

From their Facebook page:

Purradise Cat Café is a social enterprise with an aim to support and improve animal welfare and their holistic wellbeing. Our ultimate goal is to foster rescue cats and socialize them to a loving environment before finding them their furrever homes. Purradise Cat Café operates within a self-sustaining business model, where proceeds from the café will be reinvested into supporting pet fostering and re-homing initiatives.

Of course, being a cat person, I wasn't really into the hot chocolate I picked. All I cared about were all the furry four-legged critters that owned the place.

An atsroturfed part near the window was done up to look like a picnic spot, with tables and beanbags. The main area was split between a park and sitting area, with a huge table in between. Ledges, ramps and shelves allowed the cats to move and leap around as cats do.

Some of these ledges were made to look like clouds and hot air balloon baskets, so that the kitties can lounge or sleep on them, away from prying eyes. It is as cat-friendly a place as can be.

Here's a cat. I think its name is "Yuki". It's the only skinny-ish white cat with a collar.

Here's another cat. Methinks this be "Patches" in the foreground - also easy to ID, as it's the only cat with black and white patches. I'm not sure (and didn't bother to find out) who the other cat is.

Here's another cat. I gave up trying to ID individuals early on. They're all SQUEE.

And another cat.

And another. This one was perched on one of the narrow wooden planks that bridged one side of the café with the other.

A couple more.

More cats by the kitchen door. They know there's something nice behind it. Which is why they're not allowed inside.

The photo collage of the current residents didn't help. As far as I was concerned they were all "Cat". And it seems the collage wasn't up to date.

I hadn't planned on dropping by, so I didn't manhandle any of the cats. Not that I knew how. And I was drinking chocolate, which is, along with tea and coffee, lethal to cats and some animals. I didn't spill anything, but I wanted to be careful.

So, yes, my (okay) hot chocolate remained mostly ignored throughout my stay, as I stalked the resident cats making their rounds and naps around Purradise. The beverage didn't leave much of an impression. It came in a white takeaway sippy cup with a black cover and it was really HOT.

I was more impressed by the cats and how the place was done up to accommodate these cuddly killing machines. Left alone, cats can kill a lot of tiny animals. Don't just take The Oatmeal's word for it.

Speaking of which, the café has this.

Exploding Kittens is a card game The Oatmeal had a hand in making. This Kickstarter project exceeded the goal of US$10,000 in eight minutes and racked up over US$8.5 million in pledges by the end of the campaign.

No, I didn't try the game. Nobody to play it with.

I thought it was a nice touch.

I was also reluctant to leave. But it was dusk and I had to go home. Another day at work awaited. At least I was relaxed enough to go back on the road again.

Then I encountered a traffic jam and I wished I stayed back a while longer. It would've been worth the additional RM12.

Purradise is more of a petting zoo and chill-out place than a café, and that's fine. I was already sold on the idea after visiting the Subang cat café. This place also has a mission I'm all for.

When one can't be bothered with road trips outstation or local hotel-based mini-vacations, an afternoon with a dozen or so cats and a beverage and a snack in this corner of Taman Tun Dr Ismail is just as relaxing.

If you aren't allergic to or afraid of cats.

Purradise Cat Café
1st Floor, No. 24A
Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 2
Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur

Tue-Fri: 2pm-10pm
Sat-Sun: 11am-11pm

Closed on Mondays

+603-2389 0976

Web site | Facebook page

Monday, 11 January 2016

Maudlin Monday

Yesterday, while my PC was booting up, it hung. It was around 9pm.

Not quite the way I wanted to wind down for the evening.

After several failed attempts at rebooting, I opened the casing of the CPU, wiped off a bit of dust - how does all that stuff find its way in? - and rebooted it again, sans a couple of USB extension cables.

Success - and out came the external hard drives.

This episode was significant because it finally drove home the realities of our flagging economy. This, along with the fact that I paid about RM12 more for a water filter element last weekend as opposed to last year.

This wasn't a good time for the PC to start failing. Things breaking down and requiring repair or replacement almost always happens when 1) I'm too busy; 2) I need to use the damn things at the moment; 3) the money needs to go somewhere else, or 4) I'm broke.

The renewed realisation of how much I'm dependent on these devices frightens me.
Not long ago, I was babysitting two of these: the desktop and a laptop computer. Now, it's the desktop and a smartphone, which I adopted nearly fourteen years since I bought my first mobile phone, a Nokia 3310 that only began showing its age middle of last year.

They just don't make 'em like that anymore. If these weren't meant to last you'd think they'd be a little cheaper.

So I guess this is a call to action. I've made several such calls for one reason or another (which were ignored for one reason or another) but I think This Is It.

Time to save - and bid a sad temporary farewell to some favourite haunts. Time to declutter all the junk in the PC and the apartment. Time to increase my net worth - #2kerja, here I come?

Maybe it's also time to take the computer to the shop, provided that the problem persists. I've asked around and concluded that it could be the CMOS battery, but it could also be the hard drive.

Of course, now I tend to be afraid to boot up the machine. So while it was working, I scheduled a blog post for tomorrow after backing up all the files. The post will have cats in it because I - as well as the rest of the Internet - need to feel better, probably after the news.

(It's been a while since I wrote things like this. Maybe because I didn't see the point of it.)

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Book Marks: Wondermark, Missing Booksellers

How the heck I've lived without Wondermark? I learnt about this comic from sci-fi author John Scalzi (I think) who tweeted about the practice of sealioning by some Twitter users over Republican presidential nominee Ted Cruz (seriously?).

I've gone through the archives and found this (I think it's about people who want to write but don't get down to it) and this (I think it's about fairy tales, but I was wowed by the punch line).

So. Bookmarking. This.

The mystery over some Hong Kong booksellers' disappearances deepens. Though there was talk that Chinese agents were responsible, one blogger (whose post I just linked, and who's talking about this more than I think he does - perhaps for good reason) thinks it might be a PR stunt by the publisher in question.

Thing is, the net effect of these alleged abductions is probably what China's government wanted to achieve. A chill seems to have descended upon the bookstores in Hong Kong. "Bookshops are removing political works from their shelves," goes the AFP report in The Malay Mail Online, "while publishers and store owners selling titles banned in mainland China say they now feel under threat."

Other stuff:

  • The deputy PM wants Malaysia to take the Nobel Prize winner for literature by or around 2057. A commenter has issued a retort, pointing out - among other things - that the arts is still not seen as a viable (read: profitable) career choice in this country. I've nothing to add. Malas nak komen.
  • So that guy's book, Mein Kampf, has entered public domain. So did Anne Frank's diary, by the way - an interesting parallel. I've made notes of Mein Kampf's impending entry into public domain, so I'll just leave this one here. I still think attempts to block its publication is futile, even more so now.
  • No taboo should be off limits when writing for teenagers, says author Non Pratt. And here's Pratt sharing her "helpful" post on how she edits her work, which she wrote for the blog Author Allsorts.
  • "It turns out that fantasy—the established domain of British children’s literature—is critical to childhood development." Why the British tell better children's stories.
  • With the sale of Author Solutions, Penguin Random House exits self-publishing, sticks to "traditional publishing". Does that mean Amazon is now the dominant force in the multibillion-dollar self-publishing market?
  • The Dag Hammarskjöld Library at the United Nations announced its most-checked-out publication of 2015: a volume (or, more accurately, a thesis) on how to avoid war crime charges (awkwaaaaard). Any bets this will also be a popular item this year?
  • Used bookstores are, it seems, making a comeback. Many factors have been cited, but none that's probably more compelling "than the experience of browsing — getting lost in the stacks, making serendipitous finds, having chance conversations with interesting people. And with information so easy to find these days, used bookstores offer the thrill of the hunt." Coming back from the recent Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, I'm inclined to agree.
  • There's a discussion on Quora about the absence of science fiction from Chinese culture. Quite a few good arguments. I'm more inclined to concur with the fact that the Chinese tend to look backward - towards history, mythology and maybe old wuxia (martial arts pugilist) novels - for anything related to the fantastical for inspiration. With such a huge trove going back centuries, why look forward?

    But I think such a tendency might hamper attempts to, say, visualise the future, or lead to oversaturation of related genres (look at the numerous adaptations of Jin Yong's and Gu Long's works).
  • After 66 years, light is shed on "Francis Duncan", author of a Christmas murder mystery that's being reissued and getting critical acclaim.
  • So, you want to work in publishing? Here's some advice from an editor at Chronicle Books. Quite a few salient points.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

"Who's Bad?" In Jagat, It's Not Who You Think

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 05 January 2015

When the mostly good reviews trickled in, I held fast because this was the sort of film I dreaded. I've never been a cinema buff, and watching an upsetting film isn't how I would want to spend an afternoon.

In the end, my curiosity won out. I went to a cinema, plonked myself in front of a big screen on a public holiday, and learnt that my suspicions (and the rave reviews) about the film were right.

My interest about the locally-produced, mostly Tamil film Jagat was also stoked by how much it reminded me of other works that revolved around a similar premise: the plight of marginalised Malaysian Indians who were left to their own devices after being kicked out of the estates where they have lived and worked for generations.

Jagat (Tamil slang for "bad") zooms in on a particular family, and how circumstances can keep them trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. In spite of his creative talents and out-of-the-box thinking, young Shankar a.k.a. Appoy is seen as a disappointment by his father Maniam. Appoy's uncle, Dorai, joins a gang with a friend. Both are promised the keys to getting ahead: for Appoy, good grades in the exams; and for Dorai, a thug's life.

Ironically, for Appoy, the education system and family unit which is supposed to be his lifeline wears him down instead. He's given a bad grade for his short composition (Saya Sebatang Pensel — remember that one?), which his dad berates him for. Pencils do not fly in the real world, he is told.

Watching Appoy being broken down is painful. Like the powers that be hell-bent on putting him in his place, this bully of a film knows where it hurts and how to hurt you. Every few minutes, something shocking, angering or saddening sneaks up and punches you in the gut.

When Appoy poses in a workmanlike Michael Jackson get-up he made from bits and pieces scavenged from his neighbourhood for his class's fancy dress competition, we can't help but cheer. Who's bad? He is! Then his dad has a bad day at work and Appoy's efforts are wasted.

Sad thing is, though he's aware of the significance of education, Maniam would rather beat or scold this piece of wisdom into his son instead of explaining it to him (we're not sure if he's done the latter before) — which doesn't work.

Salting Appoy's wounds further is the bullying he receives from schoolmates and a teacher who is, despite what the community believes, far from divine. With his dreams and self-worth in tatters, the boy figures he has to be bad for real — like his gangster uncle (who does not approve) — to get any form of respect and validation.

The film is not short of bad guys, but it's easy to guess who the true villains are: the archaic and rigid education system, which has trouble with outliers like Appoy; the conservative attitudes in his community; racism ... the usual suspects. After all, haven't we lived with them for years?

Jagat reportedly took a decade to make, presumably due to the perfectionist streak in the writer and production crew — and all that work shows. It paints a realistic, albeit gloomy portrait of Indians in poverty — and the forces that conspire to keep them there. An amazing directorial debut by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, who also wrote the screenplay.

Speaking to local daily The Sun, Shanjhey revealed that his background is similar to the young protagonist's. "When I was young, I wanted to be a scientist," he said. "When I became a teenager, I wanted to be a gangster instead, because I found that society seemed to have more respect for such people compared to educated people." Thank goodness he ditched that ambition.

He also hoped the film will help non-Indian Malaysians understand their Indian neighbours better. "I really believe our racial unity should be more than just eating each other's food. We should also try to understand each other's history and culture. One of the simplest ways to do that is through the arts."

Is it "simple", though? I can imagine how tough it must be to solicit funding, especially for gritty non-escapist features based on real-world problems with no apparent solution or end in sight.

And, sometimes, the message is lost on some. As I stumbled towards the exit with other moviegoers, I heard two of them loudly discussing (parts of) the experience, like Taylor Swift's appearance in one of the ads, and how one of the gangsters looked like a friend. One of them seemed have a problem with the fact that a "Datuk" (Datuk Seri A. Anandan) was the producer — not "indie" enough, perhaps?

I'd like to think that, by making Jagat, Shanjhey is encouraging the poorer kids from his former hood to aim for greater things, like becoming the scientist he never became, or a Nobel Prize-winning man of letters.

Someone who, I hope, can find a way to make pencils fly.

Jagat began screening at selected cinemas nationwide on December 17, 2015.

Also, tweaked this part for clarity.