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

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

A Taste Of Tranquillity (And A Little More) At Tujoh

My drive for culinary escapades have diminished these days, no thanks to a persistently sore throat and a shrinking appetite. But I was soon well enough to resume the hunt for new tasty stuff.

Tujoh at Section 17, Petaling Jaya is shaping up to be a favourite
after-work haunt

Picking up a lead from a Facebook friend, I snuck into an enclave in Section 17, Petaling Jaya. This was not a new place; some of my colleagues occasionally come here for lunch at one of the Chinese restaurants, and I tagged along several times.

From the dates of certain posts on its Facebook page at the time of my first visit there, I concluded that Tujoh was less than a month old. Its white façade was mostly unadorned, save for the black fixtures and the signs that bear its name.

I studied the menu, intent on picking my order before stepping in. The phantom of my red pen hovering above my ear alerted me to kinks on the single-page bill of fare, which made interesting reading.

The sauce for the carbonara fettucine could use a little more flavour

I placed my order at the counter and paid. My attention was drawn to the water dispenser. Slices of lemon floated atop sprigs of mint.

"It's cold water," the cashier told me. "Would you like it warmer?"

"It's fine," I replied. Lemon in water is common, but not the mint. The combination would be good for what I was about to dine on. As it was evening, I avoided the coffee, which I heard was not bad.

Wild mushroom ragout, as good and "infamous" as the herbs in it

At my window seat, I drifted off into that semi-fugue state that follows a long day at the office. Pictures of German industrial designer Dieter Rams, jazz great Miles Davis, and American photojournalist Dorothea Lange adorned one section of the wall.

The courtyard at the back was converted into a skylit nook. French songs poured out of a pair of speakers mounted at ceiling height - a calm little slice of continental Europe in a Chinese corner of PJ (the other slice, 2 Scones 1 Cup, is nearby).

I was in no mood for seafood, so I ordered the carbonara fettucine. A mistake, in hindsight, to have two things with cream in them. They flubbed the poached egg in the carbonara, and the sauce was insufficiently seasoned. But oh, g*d, the wild mushroom ragout made up for it in spades.

Wafu hambagu, the avian version of the Japanese take
on the Salisbury steak

Don't call it a thicker version of mushroom soup, no matter how much it looks and tastes like it. This mix of at least two kinds of mushroom with the odd slice of carrot and celery and "infamous herbs" in a thick, smooth creamy base of essence of mushroom is ambrosial. With two- no, four more slices of buttered toast and a salad, you'll have a meal.

On subsequent visits, I tried a few more things. Tujoh's version of wafu hambagu, a Japanese bunless hamburger, is a patty of minced chicken with a sunny side-up egg inside and drizzled with a thin shoyu-based sauce. They seem to specialise in Asian fusion stuff.

The hōjicha latte was a taste I've yet to acquire. Roasted in a porcelain pot over a charcoal fire, this variant of Japanese tea has a "toasty, slightly caramel-like flavour" and is said to be lower in caffeine and therefore good for anyone who wants a good night's sleep.

Thank goodness for all-day breakfasts. The eggs Benedict at Tujoh
aren't half bad.

"We tried it and we liked it, so we hope the customers will like it too," said Terence, the co-owner of Tujoh, who was there on the afternoon of my third time there. The name, he explained, was derived from the venue's address: 6+1=7. He and his partner in the business spelled it the way it would've been in the 1970s.

As I had guessed, the place was several weeks old and still not ready. The upstairs floor, which would be made a space for hosting events, is being sorted out. And Rams, Davis and Lange would be joined later by film director Stanley Kubrick and singer Janis Joplin.

The counter inside Tujoh (left); the hōjicha latte takes some getting used to

On the food side, I had to settle for eggs Benedict on toast instead of the ricotta pancakes (which they ran out of) and caramelised bananas when I was there one afternoon with my laptop. Terence said that the bananas were better paired with the pancakes, which was perhaps why the kitchen compensated with an extra bunch of red coral lettuce.

I loaded myself with more lemon-and-mint water (to which they added slices of cucumber this time around) and reluctantly packed up my laptop. After the excitement over the past few weeks, leaving this oasis of calm was hard.

617 Jalan 17/10, Section 17
46400 Petaling Jaya

Mon-Thu: 11am-11pm
Fri-Sat: 11am-12:30am
Sun: 9am-9pm

+603-7932 3611

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