Sunday, 31 December 2017

Farewell, 2017

I didn't want to write this, because I knew more or less what the outcome would be when I wrote this list about a year ago. Of course I wouldn't even accomplish half of it.

So I'll just list down what I got done.

Despite not being active this year, I did pick up a new habit: swimming. Although, it's more enjoyable if you're not counting laps, competing with other swimmers and fighting other people for space in the pool.

I did yoga for several months, but my instructor took time off to have a baby and I never found - or went looking for - another instructor. If I ever need to I guess I can look around.

I had reviews published in the papers this year, but I could've done better. And the to-read pile just got a little bigger.

I made chocolate chip cookies. I've always wanted to go there after success with my shortbread. But the first batch didn't quite work out the way I thought, and as each failed batch means money and ingredients down the drain, I'm being careful about when I bake my next batch.

But I made more use of the rice cooker for oat porridge and got a pasta machine to play around with, so it's been a nice year for me in the kitchen.

Overall, though, this year sucked.

I got sick. The worst I'd been in years. Either I ignored or underestimated my gastric problems, which got so bad they gave me insomnia. For two weeks I barely slept, an as a last resort I went to a psychiatrist, who was confident that I had depression. And the medical expenses I've had to foot from all that.

The shock of it all might have reset my circadian rhythms, to my relief, and I could sleep again. But as 2017 drew to a close I found myself repeating the same pattern of behaviours that might have started the health problems in the first place.

Late hours. No regular exercise. Eating all sorts, many of which were spicy, milky, creamy, greasy, or a combination of some or all of the aforementioned. Much of which includes hipster-cafe fare, of course.

I found refuge in fine food, among others, when things got too tough to handle. What would I do if that door shut completely?

Guess some of us can't enjoy certain things as we age. That is still hard for me to accept.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe I just want to rant.

I won't be making any more lists. I don't see the point.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Post-Insomnia Kitchen Adventures

The last meal or drink I made was in ... what, in May? Since then, my gut problems flared up and resulted in sleepless nights so bad, I turned to a psychiatrist.

In the end, sparse, cleaner eating and early nights helped to reset my body's circadian rhythm and I can fall asleep again. I don't want to credit the antidepressants too much, because what they did spooked me even if it's just fogging up my head and making me drowsy.

Downside: if I go to bed later than eleven, I start feeling sick. I suppose I shouldn't push my body back there again. I'm not who I was two decades ago.

But I did go back to the kitchen towards the end of October, mainly to stress-bake shortbread. I experimented with chocolate chips, ground oats and orange zest, but the oven seems like a different beast now. Maybe the dough should be less moist.


Oat-embedded shortbread, made naughtier with chocolate chips


I loved the results. They all tasted the way they should, especially the orange zest version. Though for the latter, I wanted something that also didn't have bits of zest in them. Should I go and get some Sunkist cordial instead? ...Probably not, unless I learn to balance the amount of sugar.

And I prefer the zest of Sunkist oranges because of its sweet scent. I don't know if the zest of other oranges would work as well or be right for the job.

Of course, shortbread isn't the same thing as cookies, and it's only natural to move on to the latter at this stage. But after so much shortbread I think I need a short break from home-made sweets. And I'd botched several batches so bad they had to be discarded. Maybe baking while stressed IS a bad idea. Speaking of which...


A poor shot of the orange shortbread. Realised too late that messing
with the camera speed settings downgraded the image quality.


I trashed a made-in-China pasta machine by running too-sticky dough through it while prepping it for use. On impulse, I replaced it with a new one. A made-in-Italy model looked the same but cost almost four times as much, and the auntie who manages the shop discouraged that choice: "Home use? No need for a fancy brand."

This time, I made damn sure the dough was about right, i.e., won't stick to my fingers when kneading. To get the dough right, I had to feel it with my bare hands. I used bread flour, which I guessed would require less kneading than all-purpose flour, and I hope to turn into mini-loaves soon. But bread flour uses less water (I feel) to form dough than all-purpose flour - maybe due to a higher gluten content.

(I was moved by this spectacle (between 6:17 and 7:50) and after repeated viewings, decided to take the plunge. I am impressionable like that. Also, that background music ... mmm.)


I felt like the Rumpelstiltskin of pasta and noodles when those
near-perfect strands rolled out - tres bien!


I made two balls of dough but ended up using only one, as the other was too dry. I tried wiping the rollers and cutters with kitchen paper but only managed to clean the rollers properly. Even less flour got caught in the spaghetti/noodle cutter, and I hope I pried every last bit out of the machine.

I'm not certain about its cleanliness, which might mean another batch of test pasta and several more tries with batches I'll eat before I get down to serving others.

Still, I couldn't contain my excitement when the near-uniform strands came out of the gadget, while that same track played in my head.

Oui, la beauté des nouilles d'une splendeur absolue.

While psyching myself up for the pasta/noodle machine challenge, I played around with my long dormant rice cooker to make savoury oatmeal. Again, inspired by online accounts of the same.


Rice-cooker oatmeal is just nuts. What a versatile utensil this is.


The first time, I had to wipe down the pot and counter - several times. Nobody told me it would boil over, but maybe I should've done more research. I would learn that oatmeal will boil over with classic rice cookers; one source suggested adding oil, but wouldn't it be unhealthy?

The results were nice and creamy, and I fortified it with several types of nuts I bought from a Castania nut boutique at Bangsar Village: Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, almonds, pecans and walnuts. They're bigger and of a better quality but damn, they're EXPENSIVE.

The second round involved presoaked rolled oats, garlic cloves, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, roast pork, chicken stock cube (so convenient!), olive oil, pepper and a wee pinch of salt. Less liquid resulted in a thicker gruel and a rougher texture, but so savoury and yummy.


Another batch of rice cooker oatmeal with mushrooms and fewer nuts


For round three, I threw in shiitake mushroom slices, roast pork, garlic, chicken stock cube, a bit of ginger powder, pepper, almonds and sunflower seeds with presoaked rolled oats. I sautéed the mushrooms and garlic first before the other ingredients went in, stage by stage.

I've cooked with mushrooms before, but not with the staple of many Chinese kitchens. The shops downstairs sell mountains of shiitake and picking them from those piles seemed daunting. The payoff though was worth it.

Though better than round two, I think I needed more oil to saute the 'shrooms. The texture was still rough - do I need to soak the oats for longer and maybe pulverise them a little? And maybe I should omit the ginger powder next time in favour of the fresh root.

Also, I resorted to lifting the lid to stir or leaving it slightly ajar for more steam to escape. At least the pot and counter stayed clean.

Feels good, cooking again. Every new dish I try and tweak later brings me closer to something.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Saving Timbuktu's Treasured Texts

A tale of a high-stakes rescue of a trove of ancient manuscripts that is the stuff of legends

first published in The Star, 16 November 2017


The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English is a painstakingly well-researched saga of a far-flung desert town in the West African nation of Mali and the incredible modern-day effort by that town's librarians and archivists to save its cache of ancient manuscripts. But it's also more than that: It appears to warn against taking anybody's word at face value.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and former head of international news at Britain's The Guardian newspaper, English tells the story of Timbuktu by alternating between two timelines: the West's long quest to discover the city, and the attempt in 2012 to protect its trove of texts from a civil war.

For centuries, the City of 333 Saints (and probably just as many spellings of its name) was a key part of a trans-Saharan trade route, small parts of which salt caravans still ply today. Early accounts by medieval-era travellers painted Timbuktu as an African El Dorado. The city did thrive on trade, but Timbuktu's wealth and stature has long faded since then.

However, it had other treasures. Timbuktu was also a university town in its heyday. Scholars from the Islamic world flocked there, and tons of written material on various subjects including mathematics, medicine and astronomy were produced, copied, and imported. It is estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of manuscripts could reside in its libraries and private collections.

Both strands of the narrative are well paced and thrilling. Tales of derring-do and misadventures abound, showcasing the best and worst of humanity. Besides the terrain and weather, the early European explorers also grappled with disease, hostile tribes, local politics and anti-Western attitudes, while the book smugglers had to deal with ransom-seeking thugs, faulty equipment and patrolling rebels.

However, we lurch between the two timelines like a camel's ungainly walk, making it onerous to closely follow both in long stretches. Key figures and events blur and blend into the background as impatient readers pray for the ride to end. Well, at least the experience is immersive.

The story doesn't end with the Great Manuscript Rescue. Questions eventually arose over details of the operation, the final tally of the salvaged manuscripts, how foreign donations for the task were spent, and whether the texts were in any danger at all. Even the principal rescuers appear to be vying to claim control of and credit for masterminding the effort.

One also notices similarities between the two timelines: the role of legend in shaping the image of Timbuktu in the minds of outsiders, the Timbuktiens' resistance against hostile forces and changes to their way of life, and how the town and its manuscripts became the focus of competing agendas.

From what I could gather, besides those ancient voyagers, the Timbuktiens of old may have concocted their own myths about their town and its personages. They attributed religious piety and supernatural abilities to the resident Muslim scholars, perhaps to deter invaders or bandits. Such sketchy and sometimes fantastical anecdotes helped feed the West's centuries-long curiosity of Timbuktu and boosted its reputation among adventurers looking for a challenge.

In the present, news of the manuscripts' successful evacuation raised a similar degree of excitement relief, and a sense of victory. At the time, Timbuktu was occupied by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists embroiled in the civil war. They had vandalised some of the city's landmarks, which were accorded World Heritage status, and many feared the prized papers might be targeted as well.

But one can't help but wonder: could the threat to the manuscripts have been played up to bring more of the world's attention to this town?

English provides notes for his sources and appears to vouch for them but he seems cautious, as we should be, about who and what to believe. When it comes to researching and writing about people, places and events of bygone eras and in isolated locations, one has to start with and trust contemporary sources of information, and dig deeper from there because – pardon the cliché – nothing is what it seems.

According to English, "This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu's past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this will, I hope, have become clear: Timbuktu's story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction."

So one should read it without judgement, and take whatever is printed with a pinch of (caravan-borne?) salt. Like the glittering fables of West African empires, English's tale of these latter-day book smugglers can be compared to pearls: grains of truth layered with opalescent embellishments from the author's sources, with a little writerly polish.

Yet this doesn't diminish the story, its protagonists and what they sought to save, or cast doubts on the author, his work and his motives. Instead, English has brought us closer to this corner of the world, helping to lift the mystery shrouding it and revealing that even bare truths are just as fascinating as illusory palaces of gold in the African desert.



The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

Charlie English
William Collins (2017)
400 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-00-818490-2

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Rise Of The Streampunks

How YouTube and its stars are driving a revolution in media

first published in The Star, 07 November 2017


This book made me feel old and question what I'm doing with my life. Understandable, I suppose, as it's mostly about the new stars of online video, many of whom are millennials and Gen-Xers—dubbed "streampunks" by Robert Kyncl (pronounced "kin-sil"), chief business officer at YouTube.

Written by Kyncl with Google writer Maany Peyvan, Streampunks tells how a bunch of creators and entrepreneurs used YouTube to do their thing and transform how media works. The book also highlights the tactics they've used, the challenges they have faced, and what their success means for the future of media.

Kyncl and Peyvan set the mood by contrasting the barren media landscape that is the Czechoslovakia that Kyncl grew up in, with scenes from the YouTube Creators Summit in New York in the present day. The latter is attended not by greying guys in sharp suits, but youngish-looking people in "the rarest sneakers", "the sharpest athleisure", or just jeans and T-shirts, many of whom have tattoos or dyed hair.

And yet, there is an "overwhelming sense of respect as they exchange greetings with their peers from around the world", the authors note. Perhaps, above all, the people in that space are those who seem to be doing what they've always wanted to do, from vloggers (video bloggers) and beauty gurus to chefs and gamers.

How is it possible for these people to earn a living and achieve fame rivalling that of Hollywood stars, to have a global audience of millions and gain influence the likes of which big brand names would splurge for, by just being themselves and doing what they love?

Kyncl would probably say "YouTube", which would be a gross oversimplification. When TV was king, the authors argue, a small group of executives determined what got aired and what didn't—subsequently deciding who got the limelight and who didn't. With online video, that power has shifted to the audience, whose interests "are far more diverse and unique than those execs ever imagined".

So it turns out that many out there are interested in quilting, as demonstrated by the story of Jenny Doan from Hamilton, Missouri, the United States, whose YouTube quilting tutorials made her the Julia Child of the craft and brought her quilt company and her town global fame.

Other chapters tell of the rise of other personalities who built their brands on the platform. There's Lilly Singh, a.k.a. "Superwoman", who created that geography video for racists; vloggers Hank and John Green, the latter many would know as the author of young adult fiction bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns; Shane Smith, CEO and cofounder of Vice Media; and talent manager Scooter Braun, who brought the world Justin Bieber and made Psy's "Gangnam Style" as hot as Shin Ramyun instant noodles.

More than a collection of success stories, however, this book can be considered a primer for aspiring streampunks in how the stories are stitched together. Besides sharing some tricks of the trade, the authors make a good case for their subjects' bright futures, dropping names and lobbing figures to fortify their arguments.

But behind the six-figure subscriber counts and slick online clips is a lot of hard work, passion and perseverance. Hints of that are sprinkled throughout, but it's the title of the eighth chapter, "The Struggle is Real", that drives it home.

The cost of being "real" and independent is constant engagement with the audience, while coming up with new ideas, and learning to shoot better videos ... imagine doing all that and more for years before one's big break.

That's a lot of time and money spent, not to mention crappy clips, at least in the early stages. The issue of revenue is also looked at, spliced between accounts of the births of crowdfunding platform Patreon and premium service YouTube Red (which is not available in Malaysia when this was written).

One thing that's only briefly touched on and perhaps more suitable for discussion in other books is the potential downsides of online fame, as illustrated by the posting of anti-Semitic content in 2017 by Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. Also, what to make of recent outbursts (which might have emerged before the book went to print) by some YouTubers against the platform's alleged demonetisation of videos that it considers not ad-friendly?

And just because there are YouTube videos of how braces are fastened doesn't mean one can watch those and start practising orthodontics. Even cooking videos and recipes don't always yield perfect results when followed faithfully.

On the whole, Streampunks paints bright picture of an emerging new media landscape powered by a growing horde of video wizards who are coming up with innovative ways to tell and share stories in an engaging and authentic manner.

As such, the overall tone for this book is quite rah-rah, no surprise considering who the authors are. Whether it's because they sound genuine about what they feel for these streampunks and the future of new media or that Kyncl works for YouTube—or both—is best left to the reader to decide.

But no one should deny that a revolution is happening in media.


An edit has been made to this version, for clarity.



Streampunks
YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media

Robert Kyncl with Maany Peyvan
Harper Business
288 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-265773-2

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Book Marks: Celebrity Blurbs, And The "New" Booker

In the wake of the twin hurricanes Harvey and Irma, booksellers are pitching in any way they can. Some bookstores are raising money and donating books. Third House Books in Gainesville, Florida, offered free coffee at its premises. Seeing bookstores step up to help in times like this makes me fuzzy.

Also:

  • Has the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript been solved? Is it really just a medieval women's health manual? Hold your horses.
  • "One of things to be said about being Mrs. Lim was that during Cheng Beng, she received many, many presents. These many lush things from her children helped her keep abreast with the living world, to a certain extent. It was unusual for anyone to keep receiving Cheng Beng gifts so long after dying, but then, Mrs. Lim was of a family with unusually high expectations." From io9's Lightspeed Magazine, "The Last Cheng Beng Gift" by Jaymee Goh.
  • British author and travel writer Colin Thubron has criticised the "gushing" blurbs of books by authors, saying that some of these might make readers feel bad about not liking the books. But who really believes the blurbs nowadays? Especially those that glow so bright they can help you see in the dark?
  • "Americans didn’t ruin the Man Booker Prize. Book publishers did." Specifically, the several behemoths of publishing currently dominating the scene. However, the article alludes to a shrinking pool of Booker-worthy works and that book prizes are becoming indistinguishable from others, Could it be that the criteria for what wins prizes are becoming similar?
  • Stealing Indians has similarly received some glowing reviews, but for years, [John] Smelcer's been an object of suspicion within Native circles, where authors including Sherman Alexie and Terese Mailhot, as well as scholar Debbie Reese, have raised questions about his Native heritage and his credentials, and critiqued his books as misrepresentations of history and Native cultures. Stealing Indians, indeed.
  • This curious case of an alleged plagiarising poet laureate sounds familiar. Taking works from other poets, then translating and publishing them as originals ... has that happened before?
  • Was a photo of Brock Turner used to illustrate a textbook entry on rape? Apparently, yes. The former Stanford University student who avoided a longer jail sentence for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman briefly became the face of rape in Introduction to Criminal Justice, published by SAGE Publications. "Briefly", because SAGE has announced it will be issuing a revised edition of the book, because it seems what Turner did does not fall under the FBI's definition of rape.
  • "Here's a pro tip if you want to attract Asian women: Don't read e-books on the subject written by white dudes."

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What We Reveal Online

first published in The Star, 19 September 2017


"Everybody lies" is a favourite maxim of Hugh Laurie's character, Dr Gregory House, in the medical drama series House. Despite this, he often gets to the bottom of what ails his patients.

Opinion writer for The New York Times and former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz also believes that everybody lies. He says people lie to their friends, bosses, kids, parents, doctors, husbands, wives, and even to themselves.

"And they damn sure lie in surveys."

The images of perfect lives on Facebook and Instagram aren't the whole picture, either.

What people lie less to, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, are search engines.

"The everyday act of typing a word or phrase into a compact, rectangular white box leaves a small trace of truth that, when multiplied by millions, eventually reveals profound realities."

Which is why in his book, Everybody Lies, he posits that these small traces of truth make Google searches a gargantuan pool of "honest" data that holds insights into our true nature. But instead of volume, he focuses on the quality of the information and analysis: "You don't always need a ton of data to find important insights. You need the right data."

Stephens-Davidowitz explains why big data – a catch-all term for all the data out there, including searches, blog posts and everything else we put online – is powerful. It is so huge that even small samples can yield meaningful results, which is how companies such as Google and Facebook can conduct random, controlled experiments online to find out what works and what doesn't.

Big data also offers new types of information and ways to look at things from other angles. Who knew that the brightness of a place at night can indicate its economic situation?

There are limits, of course. The author tells us what can't and shouldn't be done with data, highlighting instances where it can be misused. The low-down on customers' buying patterns can help companies sell more products, for instance, but shouldn't be used to keep customers hooked.

At fewer than 290 pages, not including the acknowledgements, notes and the index, the book is small and digestible for its genre. It covers just enough about big data to make the case for its potential and leave one wanting to know more. The language is pretty straightforward and the tone is conversational.

Occasional displays of wit can be found in the text and the footnotes, particularly in observations about sex and porn, of which there are quite a few – which is perhaps unavoidable when discussing what's on the World Wide Web.

But several of these footnotes feel uncomfortably confessional. For instance, the author hints that he might be an unreliable narrator, particularly in relation to how hard he worked on the book. In a footnote, he says, "Since everybody lies, you should question much of this story." Because, that footnote concludes, "Everybody lies. Every narrator is unreliable."

Even big data, it seems, but that depends on how one interprets its multiple facets. And how much do fake news, bots, and hackers affect its "honesty"? Can this pool of Google searches be rigged to skew certain findings? The book does not appear to address any of this.

Nor does he trust many of us to finish reading the book: "No matter how hard I work on polishing my prose, most people are going to read the first fifty pages, get a few points, and move on with their lives." Maybe that's why, compared to all the information about data, the conclusion looks hastily scribbled, almost like an afterthought.

One can be easily swamped by all the revelations that support his argument: What we Google mirrors our true selves and can help us understand people better, but do we really want to? We reconsider our relationships with people, places, and the world at large anyway, from time to time. Some might feel they are being told what they might already know (eg, people can be horrible, and why they lie), except for the scope and intricacies of that knowledge.

Stephens-Davidowitz may not consider himself a focused author, but we can probably trust his work on big data, given his experience and reputation in this field, and how convincing (and perhaps a little biased) his case for it looks.

However, one should also bear in mind his advice to question everything one reads, online or offline. Mountains of information do not make a source, be it a database or a person, infallible. What we require is the wisdom to sift through all that data without letting it overwhelm us.

When we begin re-evaluating what we read, look for and wish to share online, the ever-growing mound of digital bread crumbs we leave in cyberspace will, hopefully, become a more authentic reflection ... of our better selves.



Everybody Lies
Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Dey St.
338 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-239085-1

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Soup Kitchen For The Urban Soul

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 07 September 2017


n my search for healthier eating places, I heard about this soup-centric destination and thought, what a godsend.

It was hard to find, even after I referred to Google Maps. I ended up wandering around the Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad area for a bit that evening until I looked up.


Look up when looking for Alison Soup House.


Oh.

I climbed the stairs towards Alison Soup House, a mostly white and wood-brown dining space ― not large, but cosy. I looked down and saw a poodle meandering about. Turning around, there was a closed-off dining nook that was once the balcony.

A dog-friendly restaurant? How quaint. It balances the cat café located a few doors away.

What I noticed the most were the aromas. Wood. Soups. Coffee, if you're in luck. Wherever you were born, it doesn't matter; the aromas remind you of home. The calming atmosphere sets in almost immediately ― unless you dislike dogs.

The staff were helpful, especially the lady boss Alicia. "Alison" is the portmanteau of her and her husband Derson's names. The Chinese soups are the highlight of their menu, which feature their families' recipes and the couple's own inventions.

Depending on what you order, you will get a bowl of multigrain rice, or your soup will have brown rice beehoon or mee sua in it.


The pumpkin walnut soup with bacon bits is very comforting.


Besides the usual, which can be as basic as ABC Soup, festive and daily specials can include Western brews such as a thick pumpkin and walnut soup with bacon bits, a black bean and pork rib soup (eyeing that), and the familiar bak kut teh, with real herbs and fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, which was being sold during the long Merdeka weekend.

When I first came here at the end of June or early July, Alison Soup House (henceforth known as ASH) was still at the soft-launch stage, so not much was being offered. But there was only one of me.

I picked a Six-Treasure Herbal Soup to go with a bowl of brown rice, and I asked for a much smaller bowl of a lotus root soup with pork rib ― just to sample.


The Six Treasures (since upgraded to seven) herbal soup and Lotus Root Soup
with pork rib are sure to remind you of home.


I loved the soups.

The Six Treasures was brewed with six herbs and came with a grilled pork belly ― and a lot of herby bits. Can the latter be eaten? Alicia assured me they can.

ASH's lotus root soup, meanwhile, is hearty, meaty and fragrant. This is not the stuff some rice stalls serve.

The folks at ASH claim to simmer their broths for at least 10 hours, resulting in broths that are richer in flavour and nutrients. Proof: the bones for that bak kut teh gave way like a soft cookie when pressed.

Also, MSG is not used and the meats come from animals that are fed with natural food and not pumped with antibiotics.

I've been sending friends their way ever since, especially those with strict diets and a tendency to fall sick.

ASH started offering more side dishes, including green veggies, plates of char siew and roast pork, and pork satay. But this time, the little poodle ― Alicia's dog, Spikey ― started nosing and barking at me. For something as big as two cats, it was LOUD.


Alison Soup House's version of that old favourite ― bak kut teh.


When I brought Sam and Wendy over, the former was recovering from a bout of flu. Sam wisely chose what's now called the Seven-Treasure Herbal Soup (upgraded from six), which she liked ("Full of flavour!").

She also had a bit of of Wendy's fiery spicy pork soup, which Wendy poured into separate bowls for us. It came with beehoon, tofu, pork and was REALLY SPICY.

In contrast, my Red Dates, Shiitake Mushroom and Chicken Soup with brown rice beehoon tasted so clean.

A hint of sweetness was there, but little else ― was it due to the spicy soup I tried prior? I can imagine a meatless version of this being a hit with weight-watchers and clean-eaters.


White pepper pork soup for those who like their soup with some kick.


A taste of the pork satay was courtesy of Irene, whom I brought along on another visit on another evening. Spikey was still spiky about my presence at ASH. It barked like a gun upon seeing me at the door. Maybe Alicia should rename it "Thunder."

Irene did not seem as enthusiastic about the menu, but other than the bits of spring onion in her soup, which she meticulously picked out, she had no complaints.

I do remember her saying nice things about the pork satay. Well-balanced proportions of flesh and fat from properly sourced and marinated meat speak for themselves.


The pork satay at Alison Soup House for those who love their pork.


As I reminisce, I think of the old haunts that had closed shop over the years since I started writing. Many of them were opened and run by younger people like Alicia and Derson: youthful enough to dream, energetic enough to chase those dreams, and resilient enough to bounce back when reality hits ― at least, in the early days.

Irene wondered whether places like ASH ― upstairs restaurants that are hard to spot from ground level and cater to niche markets ― can survive in the current economy. At the time, so did I.

Later, checking Instagram, I saw that Sam and Wendy were back at ASH at the tail of the long weekend. That gave me a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Alicia and Derson, their cosy little restaurant and, yes, even little Spikey will be fine.



Alison Soup House
6A (1st Floor), Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 2
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Non-halal

Tue-Fri: 11am-3:30pm, 5:30pm-10pm
Weekends: 11am-10pm

Closed on Mondays

+6012-737 2085

hello.alisonfood@gmail.com

Facebook page

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Uptown Craft: Rekindling A Taste For Food And Adventure

Standing Theory. Gee and Geek. Flingstones. The Coffee Sessions. Fork D World. Not having them around would take getting used to.

To say I was depressed when these venues folded is an understatement. It's enough to make me quit writing about food, even to scratch a mental itch.




With this cloud hanging above my head, I made my way through the evening rush-hour traffic to a pizza place at Damansara Uptown I learnt about online. Few things these days compel me to endure Klang valley traffic. But the days at work have been long of late and what better comfort food than a nice Italian roti cheese?

When it first opened, Pizza Craft had some brave offerings: dessert pizzas with ice cream, and toppings that included potatoes and kimchi - apparently in tune with the out-of-the-box ethos of master pizza chef Theo Kalogeracos, from Western Australia.

I guess the aspirational stage of the business had ebbed somewhat, judging from its now more conservative menu. Holdovers from those days include a salmon pizza and something with beef and blueberry jam. Nevertheless, I was piqued. But how to try more than one flavour?


The Grandma's Pizza, just like how your imaginary Italian granny makes it


The pakcik who was the manager on duty when I dropped by said I could take advantage of the "two-box" offer to order two small pizzas. Vito Corleone couldn't have done a better deal.

When my pizzas were ready, though, the staff started packing them into boxes. In my haste and hunger, I'd forgotten to tell them I was dining in. Pizza Craft has its own delivery service for the Uptown area, but they tied up with Foodpanda and HonestBee for longer distances.

I can't remember which pizza hit the table first. I haven't had a decent one in months and the sight of a thin-crust platter of dough, its layer of tomato sauce blanketed by gooey cheese and one's choice of toppings, emanating that fresh-out-of-the-oven melange of aromas...


For meat lovers and trolls under bridges, this Billy Goat will be a treat


The mere proximity of the warm slice near my lips nearly caused a spit tsunami. Swallowing, I dug in.

The hearty Billy Goat, with its chunks of still-moist slow-roasted Australian lamb, rubbed in rosemary and in-house seasoning, is a must for lamb aficionados. It even came with a wedge of lime and small cup of mint sauce.

The thing called Grandma's Pizza is less complicated, yet satisfyingly delicious. Roasted garlic, basil (they could add more of that, though - should I bring my own?), red sauce and cheese. As a rule of thumb, I always pick a basic pie at a new pizza joint. You'd have to be a crappy pizza chef to screw up something so simple.


What's better when you're hungry than a wedge of Italian roti cheese?


Surrounded by the scent of baking pizzas, I felt there's still hope for the world - and the local food scene. Then all that crashed when I saw that only one slice remained. All good things must come to an end.

Unless they start again, that is.

Just several days later, I returned to Pizza Craft with Sam and Wendy, where we tried more flavours. Little Rita was an even more basic version of Grandma's and just as good; the Smokey BBQ Chicken, was so nice I ignored that it also had pineapple; and the Meatball Capital (crumbled Italian meatball, cherry tomatoes and red onions with BBQ sauce), because I messed up the order. Wendy was interested in the Billy Goat after reading my glowing description of it on Instagram.


Clockwise from top: Little Rita, Smoky BBQ Chicken, and Meatball Capital


I also liked the Peri Chicken: grilled chicken, roasted red peppers with peri hot sauce, oregano and parsley - a tad spicy, but quite good. Pizza Craft claims that they churn the dough fresh each day, and it shows in the taste and mouthfeel. I wasn't too interested in their pastas - why have pasta at a pizza joint?

All things considered, I'm grateful I found a reason to brave the evening rush-hour traffic again.



Pizza Craft
28, Jalan SS21/39
Damansara Uptown
Petaling Jaya

Pork-free

Mon-Thu, Sun: 11:30am-9:30pm
Fri-Sat: 11:30am-10pm

+60 3-7496 7333

pizzacraftmy[at]outlook[dot]com

Facebook page | Web site

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Genuinely Trying To Help

first published in The Star, 03 September 2017


"...Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong" is a pretty eyecatching subhead on the cover of this book, if its bright traffic-cone-orange isn't enough to grab your attention. But besides that, what makes this tome on the secrets of success different from the (many, many) others out there?

From what I understand, these nuggets come from the author Eric Barker's blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree (bakadesuyo.com), where he apparently has been researching and cross-referencing heaps of stuff related to the science of "how to be awesome at life" for eight years. The fruits of his labour are filed online under such categories as happiness, productivity, relationships, success, and "How To Rob Banks And Get Away With Murder" (coming soon, the blog says - I can hardly wait).

"Many of [the answers] are surprising," Barker writes. "Some seem contradictory on the surface, but all of them provide insight into what we need to do in our careers and our personal lives to get an edge."

Many books tend to focus on success stories while ignoring the downsides. These triumphs come at a cost, and that's what many still don't fully grasp. Barker helpfully lays all this out.

From stories of famous figures in history such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Abraham Lincoln, to people many of us probably never heard of - Jure Robič, an insane guy who completed a trans-American bicycle race; Glenn Gould, the hypochondriac genius pianist; and Michael Swango, a doctor and a serial killer - Barker explains what made them good at what they do.

Barker also compares the titular alien symbiote Venom from the Marvel comic book with the Japanese karoshi (work to death) phenomenon, illustrates how pirates can school us on cooperation and meritocracy, and explains why the raccoons in the Canadian city of Toronto are role models when it comes to tenacity.

What the case studies show is that there are flip sides to behaviours that might get you ahead in the short term, but will eventually sink you. Kiss just enough ass to get noticed, but don't make it a habit. Follow up on your dreams but do it with a solid plan ("No, folks, The Secret doesn't work.")

Despite his blog's web address, bakadesuyo.com, in which "bakadesuyo" means "I am an idiot" in Japanese, Barker seems anything but. To the first-time readers of his work, the way he connects the dots between two disparate things ("prison gangs" and "community spirit") seem refreshing - revelatory, even.

Much of the advice seems like familiar common sense; it's just that it is usually all over the place, rather than being in one place like this. However, the thing about such books is that something new will come along and displace it on the shelf. Those who have read a few books in this category might not care enough to pick this one up.

Most of the scenarios follow the anecdote, reveal and research-backed rationale, followed by the caveat, more reveals and research-backed rationale formula. The pace is manic, so when a reference is made to a previous story, the mind backtracks - and realises it's lost.

That the sections aren't proportionate throughout doesn't help, either. Chapters Two, Three and Four are bulkier than the rest and you will need more time to read and digest them. Quitting halfway is not advisable unless you have a bookmark (and, if you're scatterbrained, made some notes). Also, some of the text feels repetitive.

My takeaway from Barker's book is that there is no universal formula for success. One needs to pick and choose the strategies one is most comfortable with, and tweak things as one goes along. "We get hung up on the heights of success we see in the media," writes Barker, "and forget that it's our personal definition of success that matters."

That's the rub, isn't it? That "personal definition" takes too much effort to figure out, hence the allure of off-the-shelf solutions. But that's not what Baka-san is selling. You need to put in the work: "In most cases, there is nothing you cannot overcome with time and effort."

Which involves not merely changing yourself but your circumstances as well. Even before he delves into each success story, Barker points out that "What defines success for you is, well, up to you."

Even for the jaded and well-read, this book has something to teach about defining success, and there's something about the light, conversational style of writing that makes me feel he's genuine about helping you get there. Just don't race through it like that Jure Robič fellow.



Barking Up the Wrong Tree
The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

Eric Barker
HarperOne (2017)
307 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-241604-9

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Girl Who Remembered Everything

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 27 August 2017


Oh, the ripples that were created when the rights for Felicia Yap's debut novel, Yesterday, were fought for at a pre-London Book Fair auction last year. I was sure some were on tenterhooks, waiting to see for themselves if the publisher's bet was worth it.

To an extent, it lives up to the hype.

Yap's high-concept thriller takes place in a world where everyone's long-term memory stops working when they're 18, after which they fall into two categories: "Monos" can only remember the past 24 hours, while "Duos" can recall twice as much.

This gives rise to a social hierarchy based on one's memory capacity. Only Duos can hold higher positions, and mixed marriages are frowned upon. There's tension between the two classes.

Electronic devices called iDiaries allow people from the two classes to live as normal a life as possible. The result is a world where one's history after a certain age is kept in a machine, along with everything else: phone numbers, addresses and important dates. Not too different from our universe.

However, the focus of the novel is a murder mystery, set in an alternate England. The story kicks off with someone called Sophia Ayling furiously ranting at and vowing vengeance against someone. She also claims that, unlike everyone else, she remembers everything about her past, making her an elephant among goldfish.

A little while later, we learn that Sophia's the murder victim. Could her death be related to her condition?

On the case is Inspector Hans Richardson who has a tendency to colour outside the lines set by the rule books — yes, they have a textbook for cops. The trail leads him to Mark Evans, a Duo who's a successful novelist and rising star in local politics. The dead woman is revealed to be Mark's mistress, which threatens his literary and political ambitions and his marriage to his Mono wife Claire.

The plot unfolds through the viewpoints of Mark, Claire and Inspector Richardson, along with the angry, bitter iDiary entries of Sophia Ayling. Other crumbs of information — some in the form of news reports, document excerpts and quotes — serve as intermissions and additional clues, challenging the readers to find the culprit first (good luck with that).

Soon, we learn that Mark isn't the only one with secrets to hide. Turns out the inspector with the vaguely European-sounding name is a Mono masquerading as a Duo — which means he's not supposed to hold his rank. He also has less than 24 hours to crack the case before his mind resets, while struggling to hide his true nature from others.

As a whodunit, Yesterday ticks all the boxes. It's paced just right, the plot is focused and the writing is technically solid. Pieces of the puzzle fall into their places at the right time, as if in a tightly choreographed dance sequence.

Not all of it is gloomy, sordid and gory. A few nuggets of humour keep the novel from descending into Scandi-noir levels of cheerlessness. There are nods to real-world tech and companies. The iDiary, for instance, is of course invented by an alt-universe Apple.

We are told, in an intermission, that Mark wrote a "high-concept" novel about our world, which a disgruntled reader pooh-poohs as "far-fetched" and "ridiculous" in a letter to a newspaper — is Yap ribbing her own work here, saving nit-pickers the trouble?

Overall, one is hard-pressed to find something substantial about the novel to critique, beyond what it is ostensibly crafted for. Not to say that it's flawless.

The little asides tend to distract our attention from the crime. The faults in our memories when it comes to recording our pasts and shaping our identities, whether technology can or should compensate... never mind all that. Why is Sophia dead and who killed her?

Also, the potential of the goldfish memory as an obstacle against a dogged investigator is not fully realised here. Some might feel the inspector and his case were never in any danger, as the victim's iDiary is on hand to move his investigation (and the story) along.

What sticks out the most is how little of this world, particularly this quirk of its denizens, is explored. How did this memory ceiling come to be? Does it serve a purpose other than covering up probable plot holes?

Perhaps that's why we sense that this might not be the last we see of the world of Yesterday. The ending leaves a metaphorical door ajar, teasing of more to come.

And more might be on the way, taking the predictable route of the trilogy, with subsequent titles such as Today and Tomorrow. Unlike the twists in Yap's promising debut, many of us probably saw that coming.



Yesterday
Felicia Yap
Mulholland Books
400 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-316-46525-0

Monday, 21 August 2017

Book Marks: Books In Greece, Tweets Of Trump

"Independent publishing house Opera has been in business on Koletti Street in the downtown Athens district of Exarchia since 1996. Over the past seven years, proprietor Giorgos Myresiotis has seen 13 small publishers and book stores along this side street either relocate or go out of business." The Greek economic crisis has, unsurprisingly, hit bookshops hard. But it might not just be the economy.

Meanwhile, refugees stuck in Greece are getting some relief in the form of books:

...at least two separate initiatives have emerged to help refugees fill the long hours of their day.

One of them is Echo Refugee Library — a minivan fitted with shelves carrying over 1,000 books that does a weekly round of refugee camps in the greater Athens area, plus poorer districts of the capital where many refugees live in UN-rented flats.

...In another part of the city centre, a similar initiative draws Syrian and Afghan refugees to the offices of We Need Books, a volunteer group formed last year that also gives language classes in Arabic and French.



"Shannon Wheeler has spent much of this year poring over thousands of President Trump's tweets, and just when he believes he's lost the ability to be shocked, @realDonaldTrump hits a fresh nerve. 'I keep thinking I've been inoculated,' says Wheeler, an Oregon-based cartoonist, 'but then I read something new that [hits] like an adrenaline shot to the hypothalamus.'

"The fruits of Wheeler's creative endurance will go on display Tuesday, when the publisher Top Shelf releases his book 'Sh*t My President Says: The Illustrated Tweets of Donald J. Trump.'"



"Launched at [the Malaysian Book Publishing Association Fair], [Muhammad] Fatrim’s sequel Asrama 2 sold faster than the chicken burger from the food trucks downstairs. Unable to put a figure on it, Fatrim was jubilant." This piece on the Mabopa book fair quickly became a piece about Fixi and its outing at the Mapoba book fair, because.

But someone else feels different. This article is in Malay, but it highlights the sad state of Malaysia's book industry. The writer's focus appears to be on the "narcissism" of writers and agencies in writing and publishing what they want, not caring about the market or exploring avenues beyond what they find comfortable. She also seems to be issuing a call for the industry players to unite and free the country's increasingly ailing book industry. Will it be heeded?


Plus:

  • "Giving someone a book is like giving someone a piece of your soul. You may not have written it, but in reading it and experiencing it, a book has become a part of you. Passing it onto someone else is, in a way, like passing on that piece of yourself, too. Whether it be your interests, your dreams, your fears, your opinions, or your inspirations, you are giving someone so much more than paper and ink when you give them a book." That's one way to reorganise and declutter one's bookshelf.
  • The Russian publisher for American fantasy writer Victoria Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy censored a romantic LGBT scene in the second book and, of course, people are not happy, including the author.
  • Still missing Michiko Kakutani? here's a New York Magazine article to snack on while you digest the fact tat she won't be limning any book plots any time soon. Also: "This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown's Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of 'alternative facts' titled The Death of Truth." OMG, this is ... hold on, do I hear knives being sharpened?
  • A book that's coming out will reveal the alleged face of Banksy, the mysterious artist whose identity may have already been revealed, but people will not be allowed to share those images. How will they enforce that?
  • "...a Delhi court issued an injunction restraining the sale of a book on yoga guru Ramdev, after he alleged that its contents were defamatory. Written by Priyanka Pathak-Narain and published by Juggernaut, the book traces the early days and rapid rise of Ramdev, now the brand ambassador of the Rs 10,000 crore Patanjali group. The court passed the order ex-parte, that is, without hearing the publisher."
  • The errors in a book about a South African media personality is stirring a teacup storm in the country. What I found a little puzzling is how most of the online articles I'd read - all apparently from South Africa - just mention her name, as if expecting audiences to know who she is and what she does for a living.
  • "Increasingly, book publicists are working to get new hardcovers into celebrities' hands — not in hopes of a film option but a simple tweet, Instagram photo or Facebook post. These little endorsements can reach a much larger audience than an interview with the author on a popular television show or a rave review in a major newspaper. 'In previous times, you would have the Oprah or Daily Show bump,” says Todd Doughty, the director of publicity at Doubleday. “Now you have the Reese Witherspoon bump from Instagram.'" Y'know, this ain't so far-fetched. #Bookstagram is a thing.
  • "Amazon has rejected a Kiwi author's advertisement for her debut novel, stating the cover and content is too provocative. The strange thing is, one of web giant's own companies designed it." So what was offensive about the cover? "The cover features a woman's bare chin, neck and upper chest, with a hint of visible cleavage." O~kay.
  • This ad might have more than 600 words, but I wouldn't call it an article. But what it apparently sells: an app that reads some text and tells you who wrote it?

Monday, 14 August 2017

Book Marks: Romance, Censorship, Etc.

"What does a woman want?" Washington Post books section editor Ron Charles asks. "If you’re in publishing, this is not an idle — or sexist — question. As Ian McEwan said more than 10 years ago, 'When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.'"

Charles furthers his case against that "special degree of fervent condescension" reserved for romance novels in that short piece; the snobs have gotten the genre and its fans wrong.

Some appear to be catching on, judging from the next article:

"The case of a male author using a female pseudonym to write fiction was relatively unheard of when Tania Carver emerged, but the explosion of female-oriented crime fiction in the last five years has led to an increasing number of male authors adopting gender-neutral names to publish their work."

It wasn't too long ago that female novelists wrote under male pseudonyms to make themselves read. Are we seeing the completion of a circle?

Well, if anyone is interested in spinning the next big hit in romance, here's how pros churn out the necessary daily word count.



When Sonny Liew's graphic novel won several Eisner awards, Singapore's "National Arts Council (NAC) put out a carefully-worded congratulatory statement two days later, without specifically referring to Liew’s artistic work," Kirsten Han noted in Asia Times.

"The hesitation was perhaps understandable. The council had earlier withdrawn a S$8,000 (US$5,900) publishing grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye just ahead of its launch in 2015, reasoning that its content 'potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy' of the government.

"The revocation, which ironically helped to catapult the graphic novel into the public eye, now looks even more short-sighted with the novel’s international acclaim."



"...Because books are only as influential as long as people who read them don't ask questions, or can't tell the difference between fiction and reality. Thus, why should the government fear access to books and any media items that it deems unworthy?" Hafidz Baharom asks in The Sun.

"If people are easily confused, is it not the role of the public, the government and academicians to publish their books to counter it, rather than stop people from reading a separate point of view? In other words, shouldn't more books be the answer to create a learned society, rather than a ban?"


Plus:

  • "The greatest obstacle to making work that last does not lie outside us. It does not depend on getting the right lucky breaks, cultivating the right relationships, or sidestepping the right pitfalls. All of that matters, but the greatest obstacle lies within. Namely, our excuses, our egos, and our timelines."
  • So Facebook's chatbots apparently invented a non-human language and talked to each other in it. But it's not the first time that trouble reared its head when it comes to cryptic languages.
  • The history of colouring books could go as far back as HOW MANY YEARS? "An early variation on coloring books could be the illustrations for two volumes of the very long descriptive poem Poly-Olbion by Michael Drayton, published in 1612 and 1622..."
  • A handy listicle (in case you don't have one) of independent publishers and bookstores in Malaysia. It was too short, so they came up with a second one.
  • A Twitter drama erupted over a potentially problematic YA novel and I'm here, too blasé to roll my eyes. Maybe, judge it after you read it?
  • "And while today they might just be a function of lazy p.r., there was a time, not too long ago, when who's who lists were a more curated experience. In the United Kingdom, that amounted to a 250-page reference book that debuted in 1849 and is still published today, aspiring to be a compendium 'of living noteworthy and influential individuals, from all walks of life, worldwide.'"
  • I had it all mapped out: After years of sacrifice and honing my craft, I would make my triumphant debut, with a book that might not become a bestseller but that'd be respected for its stunning originality and insight into the human condition. Instead, my first book was The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. Yes, that Captain Jack Sparrow.
  • A dispatch from "The Incredible Shrinking BookExpo" of 2017 from an indie publisher. "Obviously it wasn't the intention of the organizers of BookExpo to shrink the show, nor can we blame the Big Five, but the whole thing was noticeably small. This is hearsay and I couldn't confirm it, but an industry insider told me that eight years ago BEA's floor space was 600,000 square feet (including booths, rights, stages, programming, etc.) and that this year it was 98,000. One-sixth. I certainly felt it. What's different?"
  • "Iran's intelligence agency, Ettela'at, has banned [the] publication of a Kurdish language instruction book. The book's authors, in Razawe Khorasan province, announced that they, the publisher, sellers, and readers have faced threats from the province's security forces. ...Provincial officials said the Latin alphabet had been used by 'terrorist groups' and it was not in the benefit of the Islamic Republic of Iran to allow the publication of books written in the Latin alphabet."
  • "When Keith Houghton bought his four-bedroom detached house earlier this year, he did a rare thing for an author: he paid cash, with earnings from his books. Keith who, you may ask? Houghton is one of a handful of so-called 'hidden' bestsellers: his self-published crime thrillers are ebooks, sales of which are not monitored by the UK's official book charts (if they don't have ISBNs, which self-published titles often don't)."

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Book Marks: Singapore, Putrajaya, And Kakutani Bows Out

"In a written response to a question from Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) Dennis Tan on why the NAC withdrew its funding for Jeremy Tiang’s book, [Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu] said: 'The project did not meet the funding requirements mutually agreed upon as the content in the book deviated from the original proposal.'" I swear, somebody in Singapore's National Arts Council is helping these books. And why is it ANOTHER book by Epigram? Are they the only game in town these days?

Meanwhile, Singapore's "noted literary figure" Gwee Li Sui talks about "the culture of reading, censorship, arts funding and public discourse on controversial issues". Expect a mention of Sonny Liew's multiple Eisner Award-winning The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Oh, and is another star rising? Singaporean Rachel Heng's debut novel, a "literary science-fiction work tentatively titled Suicide Club", was "acquired in auction by Sceptre, the literary imprint of British publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, and by publisher Henry Holt & Co in the US," according to the Straits Times.



At home, the Home Ministry has banned Breaking the Silence: Voices of a Moderation Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, a book by pro-moderation group G25, "purportedly for being prejudicial to public order." Other books in the ministry's recent banning spree includes From Majapahit to Putrajaya: Searching for Another Malaysia by academic Farish A. Noor and something called Saucy Seaside Postcards.



Oh wow, THIS is news:

"[Michiko] Kakutani's departure [from The New York Times] will instantly change the shape of the publishing world. She wielded the paper's power with remarkable confidence and abandon. During the course of her nearly 40 years at the Times (she joined as a reporter in 1979, before switching to criticism in 1983), Kakutani, 62, helped make the careers of many literary namebrands, from George Saunders, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen, to Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and others."

Meanwhile, Megan Garber in The Atlantic reflects on the career of the "one-woman kamikaze".

I don't agree with all her views but she writes good. Book criticism will be duller without her.



"Zadie Smith has this to say about being a writer: 'Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.'

"That is true. But you learn the points of satisfaction over time – the beats where you're likely to find the joy. The act of writing itself, of forgetting your own name, forgetting to dress, or that your character of Kevin is not a real person, and you cry when you have to hurt him in your book – all that is wonderful."

Brigid Delaney, on the best lesson she learnt about writing from a bitter and angry unnamed author. I wonder who he was?


Also:

  • Author and educator Nicola Morgan argues for fairer prices for books - and against high discounts that eat into royalties. "Some purchasers will still choose to buy at super-high discount, of course. That's their right. But many, I argue, will choose to pay a fairer price when they realise the consequences. I don't mean to send anyone on a guilt-trip – it's entirely every buyer's choice. But I'd like it to be an informed choice and many readers just don't realise the next point."
  • Excluding books from goods and services tax doesn't mean the cost of publishing or buying books won't go up. In India, "the cost of book-making will go up by 10%-28% (excluding the overheads) and this will have to be paid directly by the publisher unless it is passed on to the reader, because there is no provision to claim Input Tax Credits (ITC) – taxes paid by suppliers – like in the erstwhile Value Added Tax (VAT)." But it seems sales in India are being hit by rises in parts of the publishing chain.
  • "Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival." Norma Dunning, author of Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, talks about writing from an Inuit perspective.
  • "Due to the political circumstances, [author Alana] Massey said, 'I was sort of jokingly told that any books that weren't political, dystopian, or both, weren't really selling.' Trump's Presidential win has sent a rippling effect through the book publishing world, affecting authors, booksellers, editors, agents, and publicists: In a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling." Really, now?
  • "...never get involved with a publisher who needs your money. You want to hire an editor, a designer, or a marketing agency? It's a great idea — but you are the publisher in that situation. Revenue from sales comes to you. If someone is selling your book and paying you royalties, you do not give them your credit card number. Ever." One can't caution against money-grubbing vanity publishers too much.
  • "Trump's foul-mouthed [former] communications director [Anthony "The Mooch" Scarramucci] wrote three books full of advice that he apparently can't take himself. Maybe because it's all junk." One piece of advice goes, "Keep your negative emotions to yourself." And this guy got hired?

Friday, 21 July 2017

Chester Bennington (1976–2017)

...When my time comes, forget the wrong that I've done
Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed
Don't resent me, and when you're feeling empty
Keep me in your memory, leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest

Forgetting all the hurt inside you've learned to hide so well
Pretending someone else can come and save me from myself
I can't be who you are
I can't be who you are...



"Leave Out All The Rest"
Minutes to Midnight (2007)
Linkin Park

Monday, 10 July 2017

CATastrophe

Some of my acquaintances by now are familiar with my ongoing battle against at least one cat. To be precise, its p—p.

Early this year, I found "packages" left by what I suspect is a cat (to narrow to be a dog's, too big for rats). So far, I've never caught it in the act; the packages were the only evidence of its visits. But I may have seen it a few times.

For weeks, one of the tenants in my apartment block had taken in a stray. The guy and his relatives run a stall at a nearby coffee shop at night. Some of my neighbours may have fed it on occasion as well. I thought nothing about it, bemused as I was that the place had a cat.

Well, looks can be deceiving, and felines are masters of that kind of deception. Thanks to their misplaced generosity, the cats have come home to roost ... and p—p.

Why do I say "at least one"? Because of the difference in the size of the packages. This made it tough to pin down which animal, as there are several strays in the area.

The first couple of times were a nightmare. The packages were left closer to the front door and when the draft blew in ... g*d. One night, I had to seek refuge in my stuffy long-neglected so-damn-hot-at-night bedroom. The smell lingered the next day, albeit faintly.

Apparently, catshit is a horrible substance; the only thing that's worse is exposed plutonium. From my research, it is toxic and may harbour nasty germs such as Toxoplasma gondii, which looks like the next potential superbug.

It has no value as a fertiliser and will even render the patch of earth where it is buried infertile. Any area saturated with it has to be thoroughly deodorised and disinfected, as T. gondii is incredibly resilient, and a mere hint of the odour acts like a beacon for felines looking for bowel relief.

For a while, germophobic me relied on the cleaner to help with the mess. The building management revealed that he had to be paid extra to do it - not in his job scope. That he did a sloppy job on some days was no surprise - as well as the regular appearance of the packages.

I did research. I begged for help on Facebook but people only paid attention when I threatened to poison it. I paid RM15 just so I could spend some time with the owner of a cat café - not his cats, can you believe it? - and glean some of his expertise. He suggested an enzyme-based odour remover that he uses himself.

I tried everything. Everything that didn't remotely harm the creature. Vinegar. White pepper. Black pepper. Baking soda. Some eucalyptus-and-lemon-based repellent from a pet store. Toilet cleaner. Insecticide (okay, maybe that would've done the trick but I wanted the odour factor). Some eucalyptus-and-mint-based multipurpose cleaner, also for the smell factor. Lemon juice.

With some exceptions, the floor in front of my door is now better and more thoroughly seasoned than some of the food I've eaten.

Some of these worked for a while, including the odour from the gloss paint I repainted the front grill gate with. I don't know whether it was because the cat had gotten used to the smell, or it had merely been away when I was seasoning the floor. Whatever it was, I was doing it almost daily, like a pagan ritual.

No luck. After a few days, maybe three or four, a package would appear. Cat spikes from Daiso didn't work so well - they'd just p—p away from it. Believe it or not, the solid lumps weren't so bad, those come right off.

The worst is when it's liquid. Not only would you need to blot the stuff, you have to be careful not to spread it wider when you clean up. Also, feline diarrhoea means the cat is sick and oh no no no you do not want to know from what.

I sound like I'm speaking from experience because I am. The cleaner's methods mean that remnants of catshit were still advertising the spots' eligibility as a feline washroom, so I took matters into my own hands and g*d, I wish I didn't have to.

I sought help from that cat café but that plan was thrown awry for weeks because it was the fasting month and the area was gridlocked like you wouldn't believe. Plus, he'd closed shop for a few days because of the traffic and the Ramadhan bazaar. When I finally managed to speak to the owner, I was so relieved I went to the exact hardware store he did and found the same odour remover he used.

But like I said, no luck.

I hate it when steps to a solution don't deliver as promised. What went wrong? I don't think I'll ever know. A friend told me it was a sign: time for me to move out. And it's an eerie coincidence that all this began around the time I declared that someone "was dead to me." BRRR.

The cat café owner suggested a solution with chillies. A friend recommended antifreeze: "Everything else will fail," he stated confidently on Facebook. I bet he'll be sniggering when he hears this - but at least I'd have made his day. My other Facebook friends, however, were aghast when I declared I wanted the cat (s) dead, and I learnt that one can run afoul of the law if one deliberately harms an animal.

I want to blame the cat(s) - terribly. I have had dark fantasies about murdering them. But as that previous sentence demonstrated, of all g*d's creatures only man has a heart that can be blackened by evil. Like all animals, cats act out of instinct, and it's perhaps universally logical to only crap in places meant for crapping. Even hyenas observe this rule.

This has caused me much anxiety. Anybody going to call me a pussy if I say this has kept me from doing stuff like writing, blogging, cooking and catching up with my to-read pile? It has.

I scrub myself clean as much as I humanly can, wearing gloves and all, but my paranoia keeps screaming YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN CARELESS AT SOME POINT AND NOW CATSHIT COOTIES ARE EVERYWHERE. I'd have to scrub the whole apartment in Dettol or bleach if I want to resume baking for my friends and colleagues again.

I shouldn't be this preoccupied with p—p, doing leg work and spending money on cleaning products I don't normally need. IT'S NOT MY CAT! I don't want to pick up other people and their pet's shit! And it wasn't even their real pet to begin with. How irresponsible is it to feed a stray and take it in, only to let it out and make everyone's life a living hell?

What am I being punished for, saying "shit" too much? It's ME ... I tell it like it is! Animal rights? what about mine and my right to live in a clean, fresh p—p-free environment? To do stuff and go to bed without having to worry about another fresh surprise when I open my door to start a new day?

I said "everyone", didn't I? Of course, when the deterrents worked, it found other doors to p—p in front of. A couple of times, packages appeared at the door of the building's management office - top-level trolling. And one weekend, a neighbour upstairs was visited. Perhaps enough of the smell wafted its way to my door that it encouraged the cat to leave another package there.

Some of my neighbours did complain and seemed to sympathise with me, but they're mostly indifferent. Sometimes they would kick the cat spikes aside, even if they weren't really in the way. The air in the stairwell is pretty stagnant and foreign odours can intrude and remain, which might make odour-based deterrents ineffective in the long run.

As a last resort, I'm looking into whether the animal(s) can be trapped and released far, far away. That Trap-Neuter-Release outfit sounds promising. But other alternatives beckon. For the time being, I left some orange peel in the space between the grill and front door.

Meanwhile, the dark side beckons, too.

(A Facebook friend's recommendation of Daiso's cat repellent would go unconfirmed for now, thanks to a blog post that apparently went viral. Daiso outlets at Jaya Shopping Centre, One Utama and The Curve were all sold out. A sales assistant at the latter cited the blog SirapLimau as the reason, and said new stock would be arriving in a week or so. Benci SirapLimau. Benci~)

It's those "humanitarian" neighbours of mine who started it all, I'm sure of it. If this cat is successfully moved away they'll just pick up another and the whole rigmarole will repeat. Maybe I should spare the cats and "relocate" them instead. Their cooking isn't that great, anyway.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Terror Under A Flower-Killing Moon

first published in Star2 in The Star, 13 June 2017


The Osage Indians of Oklahoma in the United States speak of a "flower-killing moon" that happens in May, when the blossoms that carpet the landscape in April would be overrun by taller plants.

But in the early 1920s, flowers weren't the only things being snuffed out over there.

When white settlers moved into the American heartland, many displaced Native Americans were shunted onto reservations. The Osage were no exception, but the large oil deposits beneath their reserved lands made them rich. Soon, many schemed to obtain that wealth, resorting to unethical and even deadly means.

During a period of several years dubbed the "Reign of Terror", affluent Osage began dying in dubious circumstances. Many of the deceased were related to an Osage woman called Mollie Burkhart. With local lawmen and private detectives being too inept, corrupt, or afraid to investigate (those who did were threatened or killed), the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) under J. Edgar Hoover stepped in. The bureau, known today as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would expose a web of death, deceit, and betrayal in the heart of Osage territory.

American journalist and author David Grann's gripping account of this killing spree and its aftermath, Killers Of The Flower Moon, traces the beginnings of the Osage oil boom and the murders and covers the BOI, its agents, the investigation and the subsequent trials; it also recounts Grann's travels to parts of Osage country in the present day, an epilogue of sorts to this bloody chapter in American history.

By now, details about the Osage incident can be found online, though I'm not sure how much of it has always been there or was unearthed by the publicity surrounding the book. Regardless, I highly recommend Grann's work as a starting point for those who are interested.

It has the kind of writing that I've come to appreciate and expect from him, after reading his piece on explorer Percy Fawcett and the fabled "Lost City of Z" in The New Yorker magazine, published in 2005 (he is also a staff writer with the publication). He masterfully weaves facts and drama into a compelling yarn, putting the audience right where the action is. Taking a break from reading was hard.

Grann told news website Uproxx that he'd only heard about the Osage story in 2011.

"I did not know that the Osage had been the wealthiest people per capita in the world in the beginning of the 20th century. I had not known that they had been murdered. And I had not known that it had become one of the FBI's first major homicide cases."

With this information, Grann dug deeper. Among many other things, he discovered the corruption, lawlessness and prejudices of the day that enabled droves of opportunists to fleece the Osage, taking advantage of laws that restricted the tribespeople's control over their own money. Despite the shining examples of humanity in individuals such as BOI agent Tom White, this tale is blighted by the enormity of the crimes and what fuelled them.

Vile, perhaps, but not shocking. The Guarani fighting land grabs in Brazil, the anti-logging blockades by the Temiar and the Penan, and the Standing Rock Sioux's resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline – the Osage chapter is but one example of how indigenous peoples and their lands' natural resources were (and still are) systematically exploited.

Sadly, the ordeal isn't over for the Osage. The book suggests the Reign of Terror might have been longer and reaped a far larger toll than officially stated – more unsolved deaths, more next of kin seeking answers, and more culprits left unpunished. On top of that, a renewable energy company built a wind farm on Osage soil without the tribe's permission.

Loyal and hard-working Tom White, arguably the hero in Grann's story, died in obscurity. In contrast, his boss Hoover, who achieved great status and allegedly abused his power as head of the FBI, remains in the limelight years after his passing.

A nation can't truly move forward when it still can't get over its past – which is what one feels about the United States from what's been going on there of late. So the release of this account is perhaps timely, especially now when the country appears to be going through another phase of soul-searching.

"...the Osage know their history very well, but so many people – whites, primarily, but other Americans – don't really reckon with this history, don't record the voices of these victims, are not familiar with the stories and the lies that these people lived and went through," said Grann in the Uproxx interview. "It's really important as a country that we reckon with this history."

But I think it's not just the United States that needs to reckon with its past and re-evaluate its current conduct towards its indigenous minorities.



Reviewing this book was daunting, and the deadline was ASAP - never a good thing for me. And because this was my first submission to The Star in three years, I was eager to make an impression in record time.

Ambitious and dumb.

So I knew, even as I hit "Send", I'd be writing a postscript to the review, but never did I think it would be this long. Nor did I realise how much I had missed out in the piece, or that others have written about the Osage murders before - another omission I regret. David Grann's book might not be the most authoritative text on the incident, but I can say it's one of the good ones.

The review could have turned into a white-bashing fest. It's too easy now, considering what the United States is becoming, and also because the principal bad guys in the book are white. On top of the policies of the day to dilute or altogether erase Native American identity and culture, the crimes committed against the Osage elicit disgust.

As I had said, none of this shocked me because we still see this sort of behaviour, and not just in the US. Cops shooting blacks, Standing Rock, the deportations ... the dehumanisation of certain groups or their reduction into crude caricatures to advance certain agendas persists to this day.

Yet I don't think Grann wrote this book as another indictment of white America's attitudes towards minorities or as an expression of shame in being a white guy. Rather, I see this as an effort to hold a mirror to the nation and its conduct in the past with some hope that, if more of such efforts are kept up, the majority will finally have the courage to look itself in the face, recognise the enormity of their deeds, and change.

And how to bash all white people when, in the actions of those fighting against the wrongheaded (and, arguably, boneheaded) moves by the current US administration, I see shades of BOI agent Tom White? The former Texas Ranger and hero of this book glows with integrity, loyalty and a steadfast sense of duty.

Though White wrote his own account of the Osage investigation, it didn't attract much interest. In a way, I feel Grann is picking up White's torch, to shine a light on and add a little warmth to this otherwise mournful account.

I stand by my endorsement of Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon, inadequate (and a little biased) as it may be. His storytelling is something you have to experience for yourselves.



Killers of the Flower Moon
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann
Doubleday
338 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-385-54248-7