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
338 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-54248-7

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Friday, 2 June 2017

Book Marks: Print Piracy In Africa, Hollywood Books Up

I've been reading news about how serious book piracy is in Africa, but lately more incidents are being reported. Among the latest:

Kigogo, a Kiswahili play written by Pauline Kea, was approved late last year as a secondary school set book in Kenya for 2017. So it came as a shock when the book's publisher, Storymoja, learnt that the book was on sale, four weeks prior to its official release.

The source material was reportedly stolen and later reproduced. Many pirated books are for use in schools, where sales are "guaranteed", but much has also been said about the poor quality of some of these pirated editions. So when good-quality fakes come out...

Part of the problem is the lack of understanding about how the publishing industry works. Books cost that much for a reason. As Muthoni Garland, author and co-founder of Storymoja, told AllAfrica.com:

"Most people think publishing equals only printing. But publishing is a huge investment in content creation, editorial work, engaging book designers, warehousing, marketing, legal and financial aspects."

African authorities are doing all they can to address the issue. In a book exhibition in Rwanda, for instance:

The Ministry of Sports and Culture has said [that] deepening the reading culture among Rwandans, competitiveness among writers as well reducing the cost of locally published books will expand the market of the books, subsequently allowing for mass production of local content.

It'll take more than that, I feel.

Is Hollywood, accused of rehashing and pumping out sequels from older stuff, raiding bookshelves for inspiration?

Sofia Coppola drew from Thomas Cullinan's classic Southern Gothic novel for The Beguiled starring Colin Farrell as a handsome Union officer who stokes sexual tension and jealousy inside a girl's school during the American Civil War. And Francois Ozon turned up the temperature of Joyce Carol Oates' sexual psycho drama Double Delight to almost unbearable levels for his steamy 'Amant double'.

Both these books were published in 1971 and 1999 respectively, but these days Tinseltown isn't just looking at old publications; Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, published between 2013 and 2017, is coming to cinemas. And let's not start with the films "inspired" by local books.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of motivation to write or publish, but one can hope that the film industry can help unearth a few gems as it mines for material.


  • In a panel discussion on Jane Austen during the Hay literary festival, author Colm Tóibín "has issued a rallying call against what he sees as the scourge of modern literature: flashbacks. The Irish novelist said the narrative device was infuriating, with too many writers skipping back and forward in time to fill in all the gaps in a story." This reminds me of a time when I ... never mind.
  • "Kannada writer Vasudhendra created quite a storm a few months ago with the publication of his short story collection, Mohanaswamy, in English. This collection was published a few years ago in Kannada to the usual acclaim Vasudhendra gets for all his books, barring one thing. There were gay stories in it, and the critics, predictably and pathetically, ignored the book altogether." An interview with Vasudhendra about publishing, writing, his life and his next project.
  • "What kind of pressures are India's English language publishers under in 2017? How has the business changed? What do the heads of the companies have to do differently now?" Scroll.in spoke to two CEOs of publishing companies in India to answer these questions, and more.
  • "For Tunglið, how you publish is as important as what you publish. Named after the Icelandic word for the moon, the tiny publisher prints its books in batches of 69 on the night of a full moon. So far, so weird. But keen readers must also buy their books that same night, as the publisher burns all unsold copies. Weirder still. Why?" I'm still asking "Why?" at the end of the article.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Book Marks: Fifty Years Of Style, A Page Out Of Time

"The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it." It's been five decades since William Strunk and E.B. White's style guide was published but British-American linguist and Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, Geoffrey K. Pullum, won't be celebrating.

I was given a copy of The Elements of Style when I started writing professionally, but I never really took to much of the advice. Too many rules. Like everything I learnt about math and science in school, I've more or less forgotten about it. "Style", for me, was more synonymous with one's writing voice.


  • "A Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) academic claimed today that an autobiography of Selangor assembly speaker Hannah Yeoh, which he bought, could influence him towards Christianity. UUM’s Malaysian Institute for Political Studies director Kamarul Zaman Yusoff said this was because the book contained 'too many stories and quotations from the Bible' ... '[that] can influence readers, including myself, to feel admiration for the greatness of Hannah Yeoh’s God,' said Kamarul in his police report..."
  • A 540-year-old page from a medieval priests' handbook printed by William Caxton has been found. Apparently, it was torn out and "pasted into another book for the undignified purpose of reinforcing its spine." It's kind of a big deal, as Caxton introduced the printing press to England, and the page may have come from the early days of print.
  • "In Nigeria ... publishing is a tough business. Many readers will happily pay for religious texts or textbooks but sometimes balk at paying for contemporary fiction or creative nonfiction. Yet local publishers like Parrésia, Ouida books, Farafina, and Cassava keep feeding Nigerians with high quality literary works, even with the ever looming piracy threat and unfavorable business environment." Now, Cassava is breaking into the US market after its entry into Europe.
  • "Every author I know has been tagged by readers like this. Usually the reader announces they have reviewed the author's latest novel. Only it's a vicious review, awarding two stars (one for arriving on time). Why would they announce that to the author?"
  • "It wasn't so long ago that book publishers and bookstore owners were quailing about the coming of e-books, like movie theatre owners at the dawn of the television age. Now they're taking things more calmly. Recent statistics confirm a trend first noticed by the book trade in late 2015: At least among major publishers, e-book sales have plateaued or even begun to decline." Here's why.
  • "Traditional publishers are often criticized for not prioritizing fast. Despite new technology, most books still take one to two years to reach market. Publishers tend to prioritize quality over speed, which wasn't seen as problematic until the industry started getting compared to innovative startups. Silicon Valley's often-celebrated operating procedures tend to focus on agile product development, which values speed and releasing new iterations." What do publishers and authors have to compromise to stay in business?
  • "Many insiders assumed cheap e-books would simply replace mass market books. Then something else happened. A few years ago, e-book sales began flattening, proving that digital was not going to replace print. With the knowledge that many consumers were going to read both print books and e-books, some in the industry thought mass market sales might finally start crawling upward. But stumbling blocks to a full scale rebound of the format remain in place for the major publishers."
  • "Controversial politicians. Celebrity cricket players. Spiritual gurus. India's publishing industry, like the country's broader economic story, has a lot to work with. So it's perhaps no surprise India’s GDP growth of 7.1 percent – the fastest among major economies – is fueling a boom in book sales. Indian publishing successes, in return, can help provide insights into the country's growth and consumer confidence. It is a land where the travails of a saucy, soon-to-be-married Goldman Sachs Group Inc banker – in Chetan Bhagat's fictional One Indian Girl – is a runaway best-seller."
  • "Authors and publishers at this year's instalment of the Franschhoek Literary Festival have called for the opening up of the book industry and for the retirement of those in senior positions who aren’t adaptive to change. During a panel discussion titled 'Is there a shortage of black fiction authors?', guest speakers vented their frustrations about the lack of opportunities that black authors and publishers encounter."

Monday, 22 May 2017

Hand-Blending Hijinks: Mush, Magic And Mayhem

I haven't been picking up a kitchen utensil much or tried out new recipes, but an urgent need to get more greens (and other colours) into my diet had me scrambling for a new blender. The old Khind standing blender was useful, but it's beginning to show its age.

And I had carelessly shredded the gasket for its dry mill long ago. The mill still works but cleaning up is messier.

At the suggestion of a friend, I settled for a hand blender: a Philips ProMix with a 550W motor, the same one she uses. I haven't test-driven many blenders, though some online sources equate high motor power with better blending. The powerhouses are all imported brands and expensive, so thriftiness triumphed.

But while inspecting the business end, the blade left a bloodless mark on my thumb. Nice to meet you too.

Say hello to my magic wand

I had problems with spilling, but more because I would fill the beaker to almost full capacity and moving the blender bar would cause them to spill. The vortex from the spinning blades and design of the blender head, I suppose, keeps the ingredients from splattering.

And whatever guarantees manufacturers make about the strength and durability of the blender and the blades, chopping, grating or cutting the ingredients into smaller bits is always a good idea.

About half a dozen smoothies later, I don't see any difference in blending quality. Fibrous ingredients such as carrot and berries don't liquefy as much, but the soft stuff like bananas pretty much melted. However, clean-up's a breeze.

Unfortunately, I still can't wake up late and pulverise a few ingredients into an astronaut's breakfast before heading off to work. And I have to be careful of consuming too much raw or wrong food that might protest my treatment of it by rioting in my gut.


One of the first combinations I mooted was an apple, orange and carrot smoothie, thickened with oats, oat bran or chia seeds. The latter produced a cleaner and thicker mix, compared to the creamier and somewhat milkier one made with oats. I can also spice it up with turmeric.

Another recipe was a zucchini and cauliflower concoction with oat bran for bulk and seasoned with black pepper and lemon juice - basically a cold soup of raw ingredients. Adding a clove or two of garlic, powdered Parmesan and olive oil made for a naughtier version.

The "naughty" zucchini and cauliflower smoothie-not-smoothie,
before and after - with help from a mortar and pestle

This recipe was more involved. I mixed Greek yoghurt, water, lemon juice and powdered Parmesan cheese into the blending beaker first; chopped the cauliflower florets, zucchini and garlic; and dry-toasted and ground the black peppercorns and oat bran. The bran had to be ground with a mortar and pestle, as the blender alone would not do.

What I got tasted fresh, clean and healthy, with a spicy kick from the pepper. When cheese, garlic and olive oil were added, not so much. Zucchini and cauliflower blend quite well, but it's another story when they're frozen. Probably because of the ice crystals. Should've dipped the Ziploc bag holding the extra chunks in water to defrost first.

I also mixed something with Aik Cheong coffee steeped in milk, banana, Greek yoghurt and a little vanilla extract, but it's an acquired taste. Maybe it'll become the next New York food craze. They're already serving lattes in avocado skins... .

Other recent recipes include purple carrot/apple/blueberry and plum/blueberry/apple juice with chia seeds. I reckon I can get more fruit and veg into my diet this way; one smoothie can comprise up to two and a half servings of either.

Before the plum and blueberry smoothie, I made pesto with the magic wand, but it seems, as it was the case with the standing blender, I might have to chop the basil leaves and process them in batches. With the beaker size of 500ml max, I can make enough for a few servings of pasta.

Mmm, can't wait to revisit my mushroom and "ancient carrot" soups, experiment on curry pastes and try some sambals. Once I exhaust all humanly possible combinations for smoothies, that is, which might take ... two years, assuming I make one smoothie a day.

Plum, blueberry and chia seed smoothie made with apple juice. I used a
glass and set aside some fruit and hydrated chia seeds for garnish.

Wish me luck and pray I don't end up ingesting what some might consider bad fruit/vegetable smoothie combinations. Although some say there is no such thing, others feel different, especially those who subscribe to old-world schools of thought such as Ayurveda or traditional Chinese medicine.

I know they say men going through midlife crises find succour in power tools but I don't think that includes handheld blenders.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Book Marks: Robert Pirsig, E-book Slump

A little exhausted for the past fortnight, so I haven't been keeping watch on the book and publishing front. But here's what caught my attention anyway:

  • "Robert M. Pirsig, whose philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a million-selling classic and cultural touchstone after more than 100 publishers turned it down, died Monday at age 88. ... Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published in 1974 and was based on a motorcycle trip Pirsig took in the late 1960s with his 12-year-old son, Chris."
  • "When Simon & Schuster announced in late February that it is canceling Milo Yiannopoulos's book, Dangerous, many in the publishing industry reacted with a sigh of relief. ... though it's still unclear what ultimately motivated the publisher to yank the book, the fervor that the alt-right bad boy's deal caused put some on alert. Could other publishers be pressured into canceling books by controversial conservatives? Does the industry have a double standard for authors on the right? Does it matter?"
  • Book piracy is hurting Zimbabwean authors, including Charles Lovemore Mungoshi. "Mungoshi is so famous in Zimbabwe and other countries ... he should be able to make a comfortable living just like some writers in Africa and other parts of the world," writes Lazarus Sauti in The Southern Times. "but the book sector in Zimbabwe is so punishing to the extent that the celebrated writer is not even enjoying the fruits of his fame and hardwork. Recently, his family sourced for $9,000 required for a repeat operation after doctors inserted a shunt to drain water from his brains last year."
  • "It's World Book Day, but India's publishers are up against a serious snag: The [Raja Ram Mohan Roy National Agency, which issues ISBNs for books in India,] launched a website where publishers ... would have to register to get their numbers. ... This website, however, is still riddled with bugs. And with no phone number through which the Agency can be reached, some publishers have been left waiting for months for their ISBN numbers, with no clarity on the status of their application."
  • '"It was new and exciting,' says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. 'But now [Kindles] look so clunky and unhip, don't they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren't trendy tech reading devices and I don't think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.'"
  • "It wasn't so long ago that book publishers and bookstore owners were quailing about the coming of ebooks, like movie theater owners at the dawn of the television age. Now they're taking things more calmly. Recent statistics confirm a trend first noticed by the book trade in late 2015: At least among major publishers, ebook sales have plateaued or even begun to decline. It turns out that not all readers are quite ready to give up the tactile pleasures of holding a hardcover or paperback in their hands in order to partake of the convenience and digital features of e-reading."
  • "Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon's business practices weren't considered 'extortion,' and compared the monolith to the Mafia." Enjoy The Verge's interview with Johnson and Melville House's director of marketing and publicity, Julia Fleischaker.
  • "Kasem bin Abubakar was told nobody would buy his chaste romance novels about devout young Muslims finding love within the strict moral confines of Bangladeshi society. And yet his tales of lovers whispering sweet nothings between calls to prayer sold millions in the 1980s and proved a huge hit among young girls from Bangladesh's rural, conservative heartland." Wrong. "Mullah novels" do sell.
  • "[The author] of the book Mila, Maslina Yusoff, will soon have her book animated in collaboration with leading South Korean studio, H Culture. The Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) Shah Alam alumni said that her own daughter inspired the story and it has always been her dream to write and illustrate her own children’s books."
  • Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan has won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, dubbed the Arab Booker, for his novel A Small Death, a fictionalised account of the life of a Sufi scholar and philosopher Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi. ... the US$50,000 prize is supported by the Booker Prize Foundation in London, but it is funded by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority."

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Book Marks: Tomes, Terror, Etc.

A former university student was detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) for possession of books related to terrorism. The news was shocking because part of it might stem from fear of the authorities ("treating her like a terrorist for OWNING BOOKS OMG"), and the fact that the same student was previously acquitted and discharged for the same offence. But things got a little murky when details of her alleged ties to terrorism emerged.

Calls have been made to not play up the issue and leave the matter to the police (gladly!), and some grassroots groups and activists have expressed their support of the detainee and concerns over what they called the "repression of arts and culture" in Malaysia.

There was also a minor Facebook drama over an article in a local Malay-language magazine about Malaysian writers of Indian origin.


  • With over 100,000 copies sold and counting, The Hate U Give (the title is based on the song "T.H.U.G." by Tupac) is a phenomenon in the publishing world and an essential read for everyone. And you better get reading, as the book's already been optioned for a film with Amandla Stenberg as Starr." Teen Vogue's Q&A with Angie Thomas, author of her debut novel, The Hate U Give (emphases theirs). And here's the podcast of Thomas's interview on BFM Radio's Bookmark programme.
  • "A Montana library said a stolen book was returned 35 years later with an apology note, a $200 donation, and the author's signature." Said book, Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Return, was also restored professionally, courtesy of the "thief".
  • "I love editing. Discussing commas and semicolons is my idea of fun, and I enjoy helping other authors find shape and structure in their work. Editing uses the more mathematical side of my brain, creating order from chaos. But on the weekend, when I try to write myself, I have to face the fact that the act of writing is chaos." Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, talks to her editor Noah Eaker about how she wrote it.
  • "What appears to be instant achievement, is really a culmination of preparation and practice. For [Veronica] Roth, that meant 10 years of work before a fully fleshed idea worth publication, took form. Even then, obstacles appeared. Her first manuscript was initially rejected and even after receiving a book deal, rewriting was required."
  • "I encourage people to judge books by their covers! While a poorly designed book isn't necessarily a poorly written book, it's not a promising first impression. If a book is ugly, it doesn't speak well of a publisher's judgement, skill or vision." Black Ocean Publisher Janaka Stucky wants us to, among other things, judge books by their covers.
  • "When I first started submitting my work to literary magazines, I had some pretty uninformed—and, in retrospect, fatalistic—ideas about what the slush pile process might look like. In my nightmare scenario, a team of editors would sit in a brick-lined room, around a wooden table of imposing size strewn with manuscripts and glasses of single malt. One of them would pluck my short story from the stack, glance over their glasses at the cover letter, and then toss it into a burning barrel, unread. They would all laugh and clink glasses as they warmed their manicured hands over the flames." Since then, PRISM's Prose Editor Christopher Evans has discovered that not all of that is true.
  • "Every year, companies go into a frenzy of 'cost containment' – just a fancier term for the drastic and now defunct 'cost cutting.' We all know which budget gets reviewed after the catering and team building budgets ... all together now ... marketing. Therefore, as a marketer, you know that for every rand you request, you will get half of it if you are that lucky, and still a rabbit is expected out of that hat." This piece was written with a focus on South African publishing, but it might have lessons for all of us as well.
  • "In a national culture newly aware of micro-aggressions and offensive speech, what you say can easily strike the wrong tone. One increasingly common solution among US book publishers: Hire someone to be offended for you." Authors and publishers of children's books are hiring sensitivity readers.
  • "It's not that I don't sympathise with your frustration at being unable to fulfil your dream and be published. ... We have all looked at our work – our 'masterpieces', in your words – and wondered the same as you: 'How can I fail?' But you aren't a failed novelist. You’ve had precisely two books on submission to publishers. ... Dear Anonymous, you're not a failure. You're a quitter."

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Book Marks: On Gatekeeping, And The Diversely Bizarre

"[Couple and co-authors Ian and Sarah Hoffman] say the subject of 'Jacob’s New Dress' is one they have personal experience with, having raised a son who used to storm around the house at age 4 'wearing a sparkly princess dress and carrying a (replica) battle ax.' 'Now, he's 14, and into recreational math,' says Ian Hoffman."

So this book written by the Hoffmans was withdrawn from a school in Charlotte, North Carolina, after conservatives railed at it for obvious reasons. The Hoffmans seem baffled by the reaction, and not just because Jacob's New Dress was first published in 2014. "The idea that a book can turn someone gay or transgender is bizarre to us. Reading a book can't turn you gay," Sarah Hoffman told The Charlotte Observer.

Ma'am, some think a movie will make people gay. Tale (almost) as old as time.

Meanwhile, conservatives (and censors) worldwide should probably brace themselves for a wave of children's books featuring transgender teens, blended families and feminism.

"When librarians add self-published e-books to their collections, they shoulder more of the curation responsibility. Self-published books typically haven't survived the agent/publisher gauntlet of traditional gatekeeping—a form of vetting that librarians appreciate—and they typically don't come with the same number of reviews. This may explain why 61% of the librarians at the time of Library Journal's survey had not purchased or were not planning to purchase self-published e-books."

Therefore, Smashwords founder Mark Coker has five tips for getting your self-published e-books to libraries.

If that's not enough to give you hope that your manuscript will see the light of day:

Midlist authors all contribute to a publishers and booksellers bottom line, although they tend not to get many reviews by The New York Times or Publishers Weekly. Their books aren't really reviewed by indie bloggers either, they mainly depend on Amazon reviews by the readers. These authors certainly are not household names, but are tremendously important to publishers for their consistent source of revenue.

But not all good books make it to press, according to Kanishka Gupta, CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side, who also lays out eight reasons publishers would reject even a good book.

"...having spent more than seven years on the other side, first as a consultant and then an agent, I think many writers have wrong notions about rejections. While most books are rejected because of poor quality and incompetence (as they should be), there are several other factors that play a role in publishing decisions. And these affect 'good' books too."

Even so, such books will see the light of day eventually, depending on the will of the author to push it through. Gatekeepers and similar institutions can get it wrong, and what defines a good book should not be an idée fixe.

I think some of us find this situation familiar:

A month or two ago, a publishing biggie, who makes sure never to like a single Facebook post of mine like it would give him a social disease if he did (after having sent me a friend request just so he could see what damage I was perpetrating), was having something like a nonsexual orgasm on social media because he had acquired the rights of a book by the talentless offspring of a big-time actor. In it, he gushingly referred to the spouse of the "writer", an upstart in the film industry, as a legend.

Meanwhile, another bona fide writer died jumping off a building. (My word, who was it?)

This rant about publishers signing up film stars by author Krishna Shastri Devulapalli struck a chord in the wake of a slew of books by local celebrities and wannabes. But it sounds personal to Krishna, because: "It is funny that I am finding this publishing world's going-out-of-business sell-out to Bollywood objectionable. Because, my own love for reading, and maybe writing, too, pretty much began with books by film folk."

I suppose one could argue that things have changed (or rather, begun to stagnate) in the film world and its people, hence. Niches don't appear by themselves; the market carves them out. So if there is one for books by "film-stars who cannot even read a script", one probably shouldn't judge.

In this profile of bizarro publisher Bizarro Pulp Press is a story of a genre some of you might not know exists, or know by other names. Vincenzo Bilof's piece in Cultured Vultures is so I couldn't pull any quotes off it as a preview— oh, wait, here's one:

After considering Eraserhead Press (and [Carlton Mellick III]'s books) with a fresh perspective, I realized that my original snobbishness conflicted with the fact that I had thought a book like Fecal Terror was fun and worth publishing. If a book about a space sex dwarf with a goat could be published (it hasn't, yet, or at least, I haven't seen it, which means someone should be writing it), why would that be worse than a book about a demonic, talking turd that possesses people?

Why, indeed. Niches, people. No idées fixes.


  • "Drew University student Jennifer Rose is like many 20-year-olds, sweating out class assignments, socializing with friends and participating in activities like an anime club and the campus newspaper. But in other ways, she is one of the more unique students at Drew — still learning to cope with autism, she recently became a published author."
  • "Amazon blocked sales for The Corroding Empire, a scifi book from Vox Day's conservative publishing company Castalia House, because the cover bore an uncanny resemblance to John Scalzi’s latest book, The Collapsing Empire. And it wasn't a coincidence." Vox Day is the alias of Theodore Beale, an alt-right figure who declared himself Scalzi's rival. I guess you have to be a certain kind of snowflake to g to such lengths to troll an author.
  • "In 'Falling,' [William McPherson] described the humiliation of asking friends and family for handouts, which managed to keep him off welfare, Medicaid and food stamps. He lived in Washington, where he received a housing subsidy from the federal government. The city helped cover medical insurance payments. He was able to afford a cellphone and a computer — instruments that for a writer, he said, were needs more than wants." An obit in The Washington Post of McPherson, the paper's former Book World editor. Don't quit your day job.
  • "A raid in downtown Nairobi unearthed a multi-million-shilling school textbook piracy racket. The racket was uncovered after the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) and Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) raided Nyamakima in Nairobi and Ngong in Kajiado. The raid also revealed how rogue head teachers were were colluding with hawkers to rob textbooks from public schools."
  • "I always knew I would have to learn a lot before I tried to write a book," wrote Michael Merschel, books editor and assistant arts editor at The Dallas Morning News. "I did not think about what I might learn from writing one." So, what has he learnt from writing his own book?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Pardon My English, Part II

Although this might be an attack on Tun Mahathir, I had to throw my hands in the air and sigh, "Not again."

In Malaysia, language is so tightly tethered to cultural identity that to want to learn another is to betray one's roots, or worse. To hear of schoolchildren being teased for their attempts to study English is depressing.

I've had the benefit of private tuition and an upbringing that encouraged me to use English. Those who can't afford or access that would have to rely on school and measures such as PPSMI. Otherwise, would anyone take the initiative, against social prejudices, to gain access to a wider world?

Multinational firms have been complaining of local grads with poor communication skills at job interviews, particularly in English. Some of these companies NEED employees who can function anywhere, and English - and maybe Chinese - is widely used.

In certain situations, miscommunication can mean disaster. You want to discuss "language apartheid" with a supervisor who's had to deal with a subordinate who doesn't understand phrases such as "Caution: Do Not Open", "This Side Up" and "Danger: Radioactive"?

But no. We get things like "Pihak swasta pilih kasih", "Depa pandang rendah Bahasa Melayu", and "Apa yang hebat sangat kalau speaking?" Or "Jepun dan Korea Selatan tak guna Bahasa Inggeris pun boleh maju."

True beccause learning the language doesn't necessarily move one to adopt the related culture. Japanese and Korean work ethics and civic consciousness can be hard to pick up.

Language is not merely a marker of identity or status any more. It has become a tool - useful ones, too. Stigmatising those who want to learn another language is akin to robbing them of the keys to more opportunities.

I'm not fond of some of the things happening to BM (Why "Bajet"? Too many letters in "Belanjawan"?), and to hear others denigrate the language ticks me off. But there should be other ways of defending BM without angry, jingoistic us-versus-them arguments.

Like it or not, English has become the international language for science, maths, finance and commerce - though I've been told that for the latter, Chinese is gaining ground. In contrast, we have few reasons to use Malay beyond our borders and the language's official capacities.

Tun M has his flaws, but he had foresight in certain matters. Some parents might be getting the hint as well.

When will the rest of us start catching up?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Verse-imilitude: The Charming Tale Of Sarah Dooley’s Poetic Protagonist

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 24 March 2017

Abandoned by her mother when she was little and orphaned after her father and brother perished in separate accidents, Sasha Harless, the teen protagonist in Sarah Dooley's Free Verse, struggles to find her way in the small and possibly fictional American town of Caboose, West Virginia.

Though she comes under the wing of a kind woman called Phyllis, Sasha can't seem to escape her demons, nor can she cope with stuff happening around her.

When a schoolmate and another troubled youngster apparently commits suicide, she takes out her emotional turmoil on a dumpster, which unnerves the school bully, Anthony Tucker.

And if she is really, really overwhelmed, she tends to run away from home — perhaps seeking comfort in any semblance of the escape plan out of Caboose she and her late brother Michael used to talk about. From what I could glean from the pages and beyond, I suspect Sasha might be autistic.

The cycle of moping, acting out and running away goes on until she learns of a relative — an older cousin called Hubert who, like her late father, also works at the nearby coal mines. Then, there's also Mikey, Hubert's son.

Soon, Sasha doesn't feel alone anymore. She starts opening up to her schoolmates, Hubert, Mikey, Phyllis, and even Anthony, who she discovers is part of the school's poetry club. It's through poetry that our heroine finds another way to "escape," cope with her troubles and make sense of her feelings and the world around her.

However, tragedy soon strikes, and Sasha falls back on the usual escape plan. This time, she takes little Mikey along, with dire results...

The book starts out real slow, with few clues as to Sasha's past and her condition. I guess I started paying attention when she hit that dumpster.

And again, when she started writing poetry, which impresses everyone in the poetry club, even the school bully and self-appointed head of the club. And again, when she's told one of her compositions is good enough to possibly win a competition.

And again, when Sasha gets the rug pulled out from under her just when things started brightening up for her. And again, when she deals with the tumult that follows, by penning more poetry. Almost a whole quarter of the novel is Sasha continuing her narrative, entirely in poetic verse.

We get poetry of all sorts — including haikus, cinquains, acrostics, quatrains and, of course, free verse — on ruled pages that bring to mind a kid's notebook, some of which are "torn." And since primers on how to write some types of poetry are smuggled into the novel, you can try your hand at writing a few.

Dooley's portrayal and treatment of the heroine and narrator, the town and its denizens is remarkably true to life. She really gets inside the head of this troubled but apparently talented girl. I Googled and couldn't find this town, but Dooley makes it sound like you can.

Maybe it's because, according to her bio online, she "has lived in an assortment of small West Virginia towns," and she used to be a "special education teacher who now provides treatment to children with autism."

Once Sasha's verses — or technically, the author's — start flowing, everything starts falling into place and things I initially found annoying — the slow pace, the small-town setting, the dialogue and the mundane puttering around these small-towners do — began to make sense.

And who can resist our young plain-speaking protagonist when even her normal prose sounds poetic: "On Sunday, it is pouring down sun. The kind of sun you can't get away from even if you want to; it's so bright, like orange juice, and it splashes into everything."

Not to mention the wit. When she started writing poetry again after a hiatus, she realises that: "Swearing off poetry doesn't work the way swearing off lima beans does. I swore off lima beans in third grade and it worked. I swore off poetry less than a week ago and here I am." You might know some people like that.

And here's a taste of what she can do, poetry-wise. Some words for what I think is her shrink:

Dear Dr Shaw,
Mr Powell swears
you know your stuff,
even though you give names
to things that should have
other names.
You call it "depression."
You call it "anxiety."
I call it "Look what happened."

And it all happens within small-town settings, proving that adventures don't have to span incredible distances covered by, say, dragonflight.

Amazing, how I've found the words — enough for this piece anyway — in spite being sucker-punched into silence by the simple yet effective storytelling. Let me leave you with a few more words:

By Sarah Dooley,
Free Verse is a novel you
have to read. Like, NOW.

Free Verse

Sarah Dooley
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-399-16503-0

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Marks: Book Fairs, Comics, And Publishing

"...the ebook story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year while ebook sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.

"The e-reader itself has also turned out to have the shelf life of a two-star murder mystery. Smartphones and tablets last year overtook dedicated reading devices to become the most popular way to read an ebook, according to the research group Nielsen."

So the death of print has yet to arrive, based on this bit of news, which seems to have cheered UK publishers somewhat. The resilience of print appears to be the case in Malaysia as well, according to the Malaysian Book Publishers Association.

"'The content of many of these books is shallow, almost like a collection of tweets,' said 20-year-old Shurooq Hashim, leading member of a book club that participated in the [Riyadh Book Fair]. “When I feel I can write the same, I don't think it deserves to be published. These books are written by people who want to market themselves."

Not everything at the Riyadh Book Fair is good, apparently. "Brief chapters of trivial information in large print and images fill up pages of such books that the publishers deem to be popular among a segment of the population"? Sounds familiar.

According to O'Reilly's research department, computer-book sales have dropped 54 percent since 2007. In principle, the demise of professionally prepared support materials shouldn't be any cause for concern. It's just another sea change unleashed by the Internet, another in the list of casualties, such as printed encyclopedias, newspaper classified ads and music on discs.

"In reality, though, none of the tech industry's teaching channels—manuals, computer books, online sources—is universal and effective."


  • "People like me assumed that comic books were SUPPOSED to look like that. I assumed that the thick, blotchy lines were drawn that way. I thought the colors were printed outside of the lines on purpose. ... We looked at it as a style instead of the crappy quality that it really was. It wasn't until I began my job as a 'digital art restoration artist' that I began to see just how damaging the process of comic book printing could be to the art."
  • "Tung Nan Book Store was among the first few in Sabah to bring in English books published by Longman and Oxford in England after the Education Department sponsored them to a book fair in London. The books were imported from its supplier in Singapore and later, from Peninsular Malaysia." Now, it's closing down.
  • "Nothing, but nothing—profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse—excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma. People love it or hate it, and they are equally ferocious on both sides of the debate. At The New Yorker, it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism." Comma Queen Mary Norris talks about how a punctuation mark could cost a dairy company millions.
  • "What makes [Büşra Karayıl] different from her peers is the fact that she published a book, 'Esma'nın Günlüğü' (Esma's Diary), at the age of 14. Her story is about an illiterate mother and her daughter who reacts to this situation. When Büşra learned that her mother Şükran was not allowed to go to school because of her gender, she reacted, saying, 'What kind of rubbish is that? This will not happen to me. I will go to school.'"
  • "...books aren't commodities that you can purchase at a bargain. They are the living minds of brilliant people who have taken the time to share their world, their stories, with us, and all we want is a 'discount'!" Q&A with Priyanka Malhotra, owner of New Delhi's Full Circle Bookstore.
  • "Arimba [Kovelinde] was this character and I imagined him as the Anthony Bourdain of the rifts, because I like Bourdain's particular blend of seeking out interesting places and people, and the way food takes him to more casual places rather than making the rounds at only the big attractions like a travel guide would." An interview with the people behind webcomic site Deep Engines, which also publishes the webcomic about said Bourdain-esque character, Epicurean's Exile, that's fast becoming a favourite.
  • "Once the laughing stock of the literary world, self-published books are increasingly establishing themselves among the publishing heavyweights, spurred by the ease of online distribution and companies offering works tailored towards specific niches." Which still comprises genres such as romance, steampunk and, unfortunately, dinosaur erotica.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Wandering Hearts Hunger For Home

I cut into a scone with a knife and spread the last of the jam and clotted cream onto the halves. By themselves the scones had little taste, though the faint perfume of butter promised more. So the jam and cream were necessary, and I found myself wishing they gave out more. But I didn't have the heart to ask.

Nor did I have the heart for much else that evening.

I left work for dinner one weekday evening with my head full of mental bramble. I can't remember why I was bummed out, but I knew I didn't want to deal with it sitting in a shiny café with a sculpted plate before me. Something a little more rough-hewn and quotidian was called for.

One evening at a café months earlier, I caught up with a couple of friends and saw one of them off; she was heading to Singapore to work. I liked the salmon, but had no room for the scones, which they told me was good.

Seemed like a good idea.

I stopped ordering pasta dishes since I learnt how to prepare them, as many are simple and don't take much to make. I make exceptions for what's beyond my current skillset, but we all have lazy or sad days.

So I tucked into a spaghetti bolognaise. Some effort went into decorating the plate, but I felt the dried herbs should just go on the dish. I made a bit of a mess when I blew on the pasta to cool it, scattering the herbs onto the table.

Just as I'd expected, its workaday plainness cleared my mental haze somewhat and didn't fill me up completely.

I appreciated that they warmed up the scones, but not only was there not enough cream and jam, the scones were still kind of hard and could only be cut across. Splitting them from the top was difficult; attempts to do that made more crumbs. And without the cream and jam they had little taste and moisture.

Which is probably why it's usually "tea and scones".

Once the food was gone, so was the steel wool of tangled thoughts in my head - until a familiar gloom clawed its way in.

Heartache. Numbness. Loneliness.

From what I could notice, this café opened to some fanfare. The homely décor, welcoming and unpretentious, might have been intended to keep customers around and make them feel at ease. Some places are so done up you're afraid to leave your fingerprints on any polished surface.

And parts of it looked like a converted house. One corner was a seating area you can comfortably have tea at and not realise you are not at home. Handwritten notes and drawings hung on a series of wire racks on the walls, mementoes left behind by patrons past.

The white-tiled counter with cement-hued sides where beverages, scones and pastries were served from dominated the dining area, with cheap-looking thin steel-legged chairs with plastic backs and seats enhancing the DIY diner's vibe. The al fresco seating area outside looked inviting, and more so during daytime.

I'm not fond of crowds, but any social establishment like this was meant to be packed. Looking around, I imagined the chatter and laughter of times when this place was new, the clatter of silverware on plates, the clinking of spoons against cups, and the aroma of coffee. Oh yes, and people. Lots of people.

But I was alone this evening, and the dining room feels cold in more than one way. The motor in the chiller would intermittently kick in, raising a din as it did. Kind of old-fashioned, but I didn't mind.

My attention returned to the notes on the wire racks, which flapped from the draught from the ceiling fan. Each flutter seemed to conjure remnants of what the writers did while they were here; the results were discordant but still painted a discernible picture of this café's heydays.

At this phantom recollection, my heart felt slowly squeezed by a melancholic longing for the writers of these notes to return and, strangely, a burgeoning curiosity about them. Who are you all? How did you learn about this place? What did you have and did you like it? How do you feel about this place and its staff? How often do you come back? Will you return someday?

What would it take to make you return?

A different picture soon unfurled. An empty living room. A single grey-haired figure slumped in a chair, staring longingly on a shelf full of framed photographs. The walls replay events they've witnessed over the years, interrupted by shadows thrown by the occasional ripple of a curtain. In the air, past ghosts of conversations and banter whisper over the hum of a ceiling fan.

The chiller's motor kicked in again, bringing me back to reality. The clutching sensation withdrew from from my heart as I got up, prompting memories of other places afflicted by a similar forlornness.

The silence of a once-vibrant place can be heart-rending, as it tolls for the impending death of a dream.

I couldn't stay any longer.

I walked into the night with even more questions. For those of us who left home to pursue a better life and a place of our own, our birthplace holds a certain allure - that is, to those with more fortunate childhoods. It is where we learnt of the world and how to survive it, an education sustained by the flavours from our mothers' kitchens.

And it is this nurturing sustenance that we return to when life exhausts us, saps us of our wide-eyed wonder, optimism, confidence and courage to face it. Even the stoutest spirits longs for the healing nourishment of home.

However, as those hands age to the point where even stirring a pot is laborious and old recipes fade away from memory for a lack of heirs, we who now dwell far away from home and family resort to surrogates. We take pictures, exhange notes and wax lyrical of this and that, perhaps in a vain attempt to disguise a deeper hunger.

Food, after all, is more than flavour, presentation, and ambience. And the hands that stir the pots we often eat out of these days may not care as much for our welfare, our joy, or our troubles as they toil above their own struggles.

Yes, they fulfil a need, and some of their owners and cooks may be passionate about food and what they do. They strive to do their best against the odds. Over time, we may develop a bond with these places and their people.

But try as it might, a café, bistro or restaurant will never truly be home.

And when the flame in the familial hearth goes out for good, when the hands that fed us from birth go to their final rest, when our surrogates eventually shutter one after another, hungry hearts like mine and those of my fellow wanderers may never get to go home again.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Cold Vengeance, Hot Case: Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge A Treat

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 March 2017

The third instalment of Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee crime series begins with an arson at a veterinary clinic in Singapore.

And the intrepid, sometimes foolhardy Rosie Lee, the protagonist and proprietor of a Peranakan café in Binjai Park (and, perhaps, her creator's in-universe avatar), has to navigate the clues and suspects with a sprained ankle.

In Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge, British expat Allison Fitzgerald is subjected to trial by Internet after she had a puppy euthanised at the clinic that has been torched.

A traumatised Allison left the island state, only to return several years later to sue those she held responsible for her misery. One of those is Cherril Lim-Peters, Rosie's friend and now business partner, hence Rosie's involvement.

However, Allison gets killed and that would've been the end of it, if not for the deceased's sister, Vallerie, who tagged along and has to remain and help the police with their investigation.

Pitying Vallerie, Rosie lets her stay at her home. None too thrilled with this arrangement is Rosie's Filipina domestic helper and sidekick, Nina Balignasay, who is suspicious of the new guest and is cross with her boss for getting hurt while climbing up a stool and an upturned pail on a coffee table.

Not to mention the fact that the paranoid, shrill and condescending Vallerie is the archetypal nightmare Caucasian tourist. For the rest of the book the gwaipoh proceeds to make everyone's lives miserable, including the reader's.

“Aunty Lee liked catering funerals almost as much as she enjoyed catering weddings. Funerals were less happy as occasions, of course, but there was far less chance of someone getting cold feet and backing out.”

Nevertheless, Nina hopes that "the presence of a guest would prevent [Rosie] from climbing onto things." No such luck.

Soon, the kaypoh (nosy) Singaporean Miss Marple is all over the case, during which she confronts her frailty and mortality, the dark side of people, and the complexities of online shopping and Skyping. Meanwhile, the body count starts to rise...

Readers hoping for more of the same from Yu will not be disappointed. The author rambles her way towards the denouement and into our hearts in her inimitable way, occasionally deviating to dish out social commentary and homespun wisdom.

Anyone with a favourite aunt who goes off on different tangents during a conversation can perhaps relate.

A passage conveying the thoughts of recurring character Inspector Salim, for instance, also sells the upper-middle-class residential area of Bukit Tinggi, makes a case for attracting foreign talent to Singapore, talks about genetics in guppy breeding, and hints at Salim's possible latent crush on Nina. Plus, gratitude to Rosie's sleuthing and cooking, of course.

“...how a man ate his crab (and whether he had the tenacity to dig the sweetest meat out of the claw tips) showed so much about his character.”

We also learn that Rosie's not keen on making kuih with machines (“too much system”) or forcing young national servicemen to run in the sun in the name of national defence because they might drop dead and you don't need that much exertion to fly a drone.

Our heroine still smiles from her jars of homemade sambal and achar, and who else can rock a kebaya blouse with a pink Converse T-shirt, kaffir lime-green yoga pants and pink-and-green Nike shoes?

Others get to shine this round. Nina's presence is bigger here, and we see more of several minor characters, even the Robocop-like police staff sergeant Neha Panchal. Further developments in the lives of some cast members are possibly teased, too.

One thing though — did Vallerie Love have to be such a walking ulcer? The folksy prose, wit and the mouth-watering descriptions of food could barely offset her loathsomeness, which clings like the memory of a horrible aftertaste.

“It was always easier to deal with the greedy than the crazy, because you could follow their reasoning even if you didn’t share their values.”

Still, this is the satisfying continuation of a series we've been waiting for. However, gratification soon gives way to concern over the longevity of the series. The work that went into this book appears to be more than that of the previous two, and the fourth novel is on the way.

I hope the author takes it easy. Look at Aunty Lee, after just two books fall down already.

Aunty Lee's Chilled Revenge
A Singaporean Mystery

Ovidia Yu
William Morrow
338 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-241649-0

Amazon | Bookurve | Book Depository | Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Book Marks: Textbooks, Libraries, And Reading

"Nai Sarak, Delhi's oldest bookselling and publishing hub, is struggling for survival. And the shopkeepers blame a number of factors — the advent of online bookstores selling second-hand books, rise in book piracy, a flourishing photocopy culture and an increase in number of foreign publishers setting up shop in India, making textbooks available at cheaper prices. ... sales have dipped by 60 to 70 percent in the last few years."

At a university in the US, a student paper also opined that the prices of textbooks are too damned high. "In fact, the average cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent since 2006, according to a study by Student Public Interest Research Groups. Nearly one-third of students in the study reported that they used financial aid to help pay for their textbooks."

A short story collection from an alleged North Korean writer is under a renewed spotlight. ... The Accusation by Bandi was first published in South Korea in May of 2014, but received little attention as a literary work. This was partly because no one was certain who Bandi was, or if the book was really written by a North Korean.

But the fate of the book encountered a change of tide late last year." Odd phrasing aside (what does "a change of tide" in a book's fate mean?), I think we'd all like to hear more stories from North Korea other than the fables spun by its government.


  • "I love books. I can't leave a bookstore without at least one. But I also have a tendency to buy books and not actually read them. Somewhere along the way reading fell by the wayside in favor of other forms of entertainment. To get back on track, I made some simple changes that have helped me with my reading habits thus far—no speed reading necessary."
  • "I was pulled out of line in the immigration queue at Los Angeles airport as I came in to the USA. Not because I was Mem Fox the writer – nobody knew that – I was just a normal person like anybody else. They thought I was working in the States and that I had come in on the wrong visa." Deny all you want, but it's increasingly clear that Trump's White House is encouraging the ghastly behaviours of ghastly people.
  • "Education publisher Pearson reports biggest loss in its history ... after a slump at its US education operation." In January, the world's largest education publisher announced that it was letting go of its stake in Penguin Random House.
  • "The Cologne Public Library is serving as a social and educational space for the city's refugees, as counterparts across Germany increasingly become places for community engagement. Could the UK learn from this?" Why not? What is going to happen to all that space once the books and shelves are gone?
  • "For Céline Leterme and Jon Dowling, they started talking about Counter-Print – an online book shop and publisher – at their own local [pub] nine years ago, after realising there were others who shared their love of vintage design books. Fast-forward to today, and the ambitious designers are now also selling new books on design from a variety of publishers they admire, as well as children's books..."
  • "When is a Trojan horse not a Trojan horse? When it is a branch of Waterstones. So says managing director James Daunt, eager to reassure retailers and readers after the chain came under fire for opening three unbranded branches in the past three years – Southwold Books in Suffolk, Harpenden Books in Hertfordshire and The Rye Bookshop in East Sussex." Maybe local bookstore chains should look into this.
  • "Let's be honest, it's been a rough couple of months [in the US], and the headlines over the past few weeks have been jarring and unsettling. Yet even the most die-hard political activist has to recharge and reboot every now and then. It's no surprise that small pleasures can provide a little well-needed escape in times such as these." Okay, but should you plug your own book in articles like this? Is it fine to do that now?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This Town Is His Oyster

Apparently, Rehman Rashid started writing about his adoptive hometown but he couldn't stop and ended up wth a whole book, Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia.

The chapters in that book, "Small Town" and "Lost Tribes", were later revisited and turned into a slimmer volume, Small Town, which I consider a beautifully written encomium to Kuala Kubu Baru.

The former newsman's brief yet compelling and grandiloquent yarn of KKB manages to take us from its storied past to how life is like there today, with some musings about and concerns for its future. The town, he suggests, represents the postcard-perfect image of Malaysia we should all work towards becoming.

Though parts of Small Town are already in his other book, the contents feel fresh, helped in no small part by the contributions of other KKB-ians - and my being away from the pages of Peninsula for months.

Here, have a taste:

"History accretes upon human endeavour like a pearl oyster dealing with a speck of grit: wrapping itself layer by layer over the jagged little irritation, one layer at a time, until this lustrous little jewel appears. The time it takes, the painstaking minuteness of the layering, are hardly in keeping with the pell-mell construction of a national economy through massive infrastructural development.

"...By fate and fortune, this pearl of a small town survived it all to offer me sanctuary in my own retirement and senior citizenship."

Now isn't that a whiff of cool, crisp countryside air.

But this is a bit more than just "how the story of just one town in a secluded corner of the Malaysia peninsula encapsulates the entire history of the State of Selangor and its nation". Through the book, we are also acquainted with some of the locals, including Rehman's surprisingly young landlord. Through their stories and the author's lyrical prose, the town springs to life.

Self-published with the help of the Kuala Kubu Historical Society (PESKUBU), the book also features photographs by the author and artwork by local KKB-ians, making it more of a community project. Proceeds from sales of the book during its launch went to PESKUBU.

It is also the story of how the author ended up residing in this place, where he wrapped up A Malaysian Journey. KKB doesn't sound like a place one would choose to live in, but one supposes that a life of relative silence and seclusion holds a huge draw for certain people.

"Some people don't care much for silence," he muses in the prologue. "It can be associated with death, I suppose. Silence is an absence; what's left when things cease. Sound is life: energy, motion, interaction ... communication ... Silence, on its part, is insulation. Cessation. Stasis, really."

Yet, he remains anything but quiet on social media, commenting on world affairs; writing a couple more books, including this one; and sharing the sights and sounds of his neighbourhood that he has explored since taking up recreational cycling. So the news of his hospitalisation came as a shock.

Rehman may have a reputation, but when it comes to KKB and its denizens, he's incredibly effusive, grateful to be embraced by the locals as one of their own despite not being born there. Like an oyster, the town seems to have smoothed out the rough edges of this gnarly irritant of a man (to his detractors) - though his inimitable abrasiveness will surface should anyone mess with him or his neighbourhood.

"I could ask for no better place to live out the remains of my days as a Malaysian; no better environment or circumstances than here among my fellow small-town Malaysians, most of whom may have actively tried to forget more than I could possibly know about what they'd been through to be here now."

And by golly, has this tiny corner of Peninsular Malaysia been through a lot.

Small Town
A Personal Tribute to Kuala Kubu Baru, Hulu Selangor, Malaysia

Rehman Rashid
PESKUBU (and Rehman Rashid)
64 pages
ISBN: 9789671439517

Kinokuniya | MPHOnline.com | Silverfish Books

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Book Marks: Indies, Sensitivity Readers, And A Dictator's Son

Tokyo-based journalist Yoji Gomi, author of My Father, Kim Jong Il, and Me said that:

...Kim Jong Nam, the son of late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the half brother of current leader Kim Jong Un, represented a small hope for change in the isolated communist country.

"I thought he was someone who has something meaningful to say, and perhaps bring change to North Korea."

Is that why he was dealt with?

For an island nation of 23.5 million people, Taiwan churns out about 40,000 new titles annually. But things aren't going great:

Between 2012 and 2015, Taiwan’s total book sales dropped 46%, from $1.14 billion to $617.9 million, although sales seems to have stabilized in the past year. Much of the decline is due to bookstore closures and had little to do with e-books, which account for less than 4% of the market.

The number of registered bookstores went from 2,603 in 2007 to 2,192 in 2015. Last year, only 1,492 were still in business.

So Taiwan's indie booksellers and publishers are scrambling to reverse that trend.

Need a sensitivity reader for your new book on, says, crazy-rich Asians? Well, it's now a thing. Though some are for it ("A blind misrepresentation of a minority culture is a failing of craft as much as an underdeveloped protagonist or poor pacing."), others are not, especially if authors feel forced to have their work scrutinised for blind spots ("Censorship doesn't start with government dictates. It begins with popular pressure.").


  • Despite concerns regarding U.S.-Cuban relations, the U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba (organised by Publishers Weekly and US book promotion and book marketing company Combined Book Exhibit) "ended this year's visit on an optimistic note, with both Cuban and American publishers vowing to continue to work to somehow bring the two industries closer together."
  • "It's a wonderful time to be a reader," says Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post's Book World, in this Q&A with OregonLive.com.
  • Malaysia's George Town Literary Festival was shortlisted for the Literary Festival Award under the London Book Fair (LBF) International Excellence Awards.
  • "With a mixture of tough love and an unshakeable belief in the power of the physical book, which seemed quixotic in the era of e-readers and online discounting, [bookseller James] Daunt began to turn things around." How Waterstones came back from the dead.
  • "Many business owners now recognise what a powerful tool a book can be to help them build credibility for their brand and raise the profile and visibility of their business. However, there are several ways that a book can do exactly the opposite of what is required." BusinessZone lays them out.
  • "For decades, booksellers peddling their wares along Pansodan Street have formed an important part of the city's fabric, but last year authorities forced them to move as part of plans to clear the increasingly cluttered pavements. On January 7, a new home was found for them at the 'Yangon Book Street', located on the corner of Thein Phyu and Anawrahta streets, next to the historic Secretariat and Central Press buildings."
  • The claims in this book, Masculinity and Science, about how science became a manly pursuit are kind of interesting.
  • Now that Amazon is streamlining the way self-published paperbacks are printed with its Kindle Direct Publishing program, "it's even easier to force your friends to read your novel," according to Engadget.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Hidden Figures That Charted The American Path To Space

One afternoon in a café and a couple of flavoured lattes later, a first draft I like. It's been a long time since I felt anything like this. The book helped tremendously.

I started out not liking it so much. By the end, however, I knew what the fuss was about. And I liked that connection between the ladies of Langley's West Computing and those from the Harvard Observatory, and I wasn't the only one who noticed. Seeing the dots being joined as the pages turned is thrilling. It's like witnessing the continuation of a developing space saga.

I was also nervous, and not just because of the coffees. As an editor, I'm supposed to be good at highlighting a writer's blind spots, but I'm not as confident in spotting my own. When dealing with material that touches on sensitive matters, one is likely to hit a sore spot. If I have, I apologise.

The hidden figures that charted the American path to space

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 22 February 2017

Mention "human computers" and the first thing that might come to mind are the mentats in Frank Herbert's Dune.

The second thing might be a bunch of women called the Harvard Computers, who helped American astronomer Edward Charles Pickering map the stars. I first learnt of them - in particular Annie Jump Cannon, a key figure in the development of the modern star classification system - from Jason Porath's Rejected Princesses.

But it never occurred to me — and perhaps many others — that America’s aeronautics industry and that nation’s foray into space also received help from female human computers, some of whom were African Americans. Remarkable, perhaps, given the prejudices of that era.

Then again, maybe not. From familiar figures in sports, entertainment and the civil rights movement to the Buffalo Soldiers and the Tuskegee Airmen, African Americans played undeniably crucial roles in the history of the United States — something that seems to have been downplayed by certain historical narratives.

So we should all compose a note of thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, who brought to light the incredible story of the West Area Computing Unit, the black, all-female group of mathematicians of the Langley Research Center of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which would later become Nasa.

Some of us probably shouldn’t be faulted for assuming that Neil deGrasse Tyson is the only black scientist in America. When I was growing up, my knowledge of US history mostly came from movies and brick-thick encyclopaedias... when I could get to them.

Shetterly, on the other hand, “knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” Her father was a research scientist at the Langley Research Center and her mom was an English professor. So this can also be considered their story as well.

A cast of thousands populates this sweeping narrative, from civil rights leaders, scholars and even celebrities and the cast of Star Trek. The lab employees at Langley, from Shetterly’s descriptions, wouldn’t be out of place in modern-day institutions such as Google or maybe Tesla.

Let’s not forget the female mathematicians, black and white, who may have numbered up to a thousand. To tell all their stories within a single volume would have been impossible, so Hidden Figures focused on a few, all of whom were from Langley’s West Area Computing Unit.

Among the standouts include Dorothy Vaughan, who rose up the ranks to the head of the West Area Computers and is the lynchpin of this tale; Katherine Johnson, who calculated the launch windows for the first astronauts, including John Glenn; and Mary Jackson, Nasa’s first black female engineer and Girl Scout mum who strove to get more women employed by the space agency.

This book is aptly titled. Racism and misogyny meant that the part women and blacks played in the war effort was largely — and unfairly — kept out of the spotlight. Their work was vital, but besides doing the math, the West Area Computers also battled those two forces for their due and dignity. However, they didn’t face and overcome them alone.

More than the incredible story of barrier-breaking, this book is also a heady slice of American history, the apple-pie fragrance and sweetness of which emanates from the kindness of Margery Hannah, head of West Computing’s section, to her black subordinates; the righteousness of Robert T. Jones, the aeronautical engineer who stood up for a black man bullied by cops; and astronaut John Glenn’s trust — by “the transitive property of equality” — in Katherine Johnson’s verification of the numbers that would determine his fate.

Also hard to ignore is the heartwarming and exemplary spirit of kinship within the Langley staff. Some of these women are wives and mothers, who put up with the demands of their jobs and the prejudices of the day for their families. The story of how Mary Jackson helped her son design a winning car for a soapbox derby, for instance, is worthy of a Petronas Mother’s Day ad.

One also got the sense that the camaraderie among the staff also broke boundaries. Under Shetterly’s penmanship, their achievements, beliefs and efforts eclipsed their racial identities. “Black” and “white” became nothing more than the colours on the pages. As Katherine Johnson told audiences during her talks, according to the author: “Math was either right or wrong, and if you got it right, it didn’t matter what colour you were.”

Fine, so I might have run away quite a bit with how awesome this book is, even if some parts tend to gloss over some of the other characters’ histories and over-explain the technical aspects of the problems the characters worked on. I should also toss in how much the US needs to remember this bit of its past, considering who’s currently in the White House.

As Hidden Figures illustrates, America was at the forefront of scientific innovation, a battleground for civil rights and, despite its apparent problems in solving its racial issues, an example of democratic government. Not to mention a trove of very inspiring human stories.

Just as how a little steel ball launched by the Russians into space galvanised the engineers and mathematicians of Nasa into plotting a course for the moon, that guy’s election victory might prompt Americans to rediscover what made the US great all those years ago. They could, perhaps, start by doing the math with these now-revealed figures.

Hidden Figures
The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Margot Lee Shetterly
William Collins
384 pages
ISBN: 9780008201326

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