Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

Title: Joseph Anton
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House, 2012, 636 pages

Joseph Anton was the name Salman Rushdie went by while under the ‘protection’ of the British Special Branch, during the Iranian fatwa period for writing The Satanic Verses. (He chose it himself, from the first names of Conrad and Chekov.) In this book, he tells his version of events.

He gets a little whiney in parts, but it’s a good read overall, with his sense of humour coming through to rescue those moments of angst, but given his predicament, it is understandable but it does not become too heavy. It is surprisingly light and readable, with not much of his usual literary gymnastics that make many of his books difficult to read for some.

First a disclaimer: I have been a great fan of Rushdie’s writings for decades. I love his sense of humour and his gymnastics.

So, was Salman Rushdie held under protection, or as a prisoner? In his version, his freedom was certainly curbed, he was under virtual house arrest, and what he was ‘allowed’ to do was severely restricted, while those who threatened his life walked freely and continued to preach violence on his person. Besides, it was not like he was provided with any of the safe houses by the government; he was required to pay for them, only to be upped and moved to another one at his cost (again) at the slightest (real or imagined) breach in security. The media regarded him as a stubborn man, a nuisance, a menace to society, and a drain on taxpayer’s money, and slandered him with impunity when he had no means of self-defence. In short, a piece of shit.

Certainly, he sounds bitter and his arguments are meant to refute many of the charges made against him, and one would be surprised if he didn’t do that when he finally got his chance. But something else nags the reader. Although he does not say it, one wonders if media would have railed against him so much if he had been of a colour different from brown? Would they have called Martin Amis names like that?

That western governments didn’t want to rock the boat initially, and upset business relations with Iran, is not surprising -- to heck with principles when there’s money to be made. We saw that in South Africa before the end of apartheid.

What is really sad is that someone somewhere can make a wild threat and make the whole world go into panic mode, and instead taking action against the perpetrators, the victim is stripped of his freedom and imprisoned for his safety. Speaks volumes about the resilience  and integrity of the entire western civilisation, for all its bravado. Human rights and freedom of speech are fine, as long as they are confined in neat bubbles.

Throughout history, every power, both religious or secular, has sought to restrict what stories can be told and what cannot, and where the start and end. It is testimony to the resilience of the storytelling animal that we are where we are and not still living in caves, or still believing that the sun goes round the earth.

Monday, October 01, 2012

One more from Inspector Mislan

UTube: Inspector Mislan and the UTube Serial Rapes by Rozlan Mohd Noor
Genre: Fiction, crime, homophobia
Publisher: Silverfish Books
Price: RM35.00

Release date: 16 October 2012

A synopsis

UTube imgAfter four rapes (video recordings of which are posted on the internet), one suicide and one bloody murder, Inspector Mislan is convinced that something more sinister is afoot; all the victims are gay.
“There’s nothing to indicate that these were crimes of lust, or opportunity. The vics were meticulously selected, possibly monitored for days, weeks, even months, before they were raped.” He shakes his head, “These were definitely not one-man jobs. And, I won’t be surprised, if they have a list of potential vics identified.”
But he’s not ready for where it leads:
“... We also know that there are, at least, two rape teams using the same modus operandi. There could be more out there, waiting for a signal from their controllers, like suicide-bomber squads waiting in their cells, brainwashed and manipulated into blowing themselves up along with innocent bystanders for the ‘cause’, whatever that may be. These are simple-minded men and women who do not have the money to finance, nor the mental capacity to plan the crimes.”
Or what he uncovers:
The suspect shakes his head wildly and screams, “Pergi jahanam kamu, pemusnah bangsa, penderhaka agama. You will both rot in hell ... How dare you call yourselves Muslim? It’s people like you, and those deviants, who defile our religion. Kufur! Kufur! Lesbian lovers, infidels …”
Mislan watches in disbelief, as the suspect yanks at the handcuffs, trying to break loose, wailing and cursing. Lighting a cigarette, he thinks: Shit, this guy is mad. He’s willing to break his damned hand …
He scares himself with his conclusions. Throughout history men have controlled ‘wayward’ women with terror: beatings them into submission, disfiguring their faces with acid, murdering them in the name of honour, and worse. Now, a group of fundamentalists have decided on the 'final solution' to the ‘gay problem’ with the ultimate hate crime..
Mislan says, “… the username, Emancipatist suggests a person out to free others, a liberator. I put that together with the anti-LGBT movement … and it adds up to a hate crime.”
The two women stare at him.
“To be specific; corrective rape,” he whispers, as if the term is taboo.
And he is not ready for how high up it goes:
“The unknown suspect that you’re looking for is a man or a woman of influence, could even be a man, or woman, of power. He or she is patient, and extremely devoted to his or her faith and cause.” She (Dr Suthisa) pauses to light a cigarette. “This idea of emancipating non-conformists is common in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but less in polytheist religions, though it’s not unknown. Since your victims are all Muslim women, I’d say the person you’re looking for is also Muslim.”
And so is unleashed another wave of terror, compared to which murder and mayhem are merciful for the victims no longer suffer, and survivors get on with their lives. Corrective rapes, with videos of it on UTube, will haunt them throughout their lives.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

When I started on the first chapter of the book I was a little taken aback. I have a reputation for tossing a book, if I don't like the first chapter, but this was a Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I re-examined the name of the translator to see if this was done by a different person from the first two books by this author. It was the same. I showed it to Phek Chin, and she said, "Hey, this sounds different." She showed it to Jamilah, who thought it sounded like an American novel (and not in a good way). Although I was baffled, I decided to try it for a few more chapters. It got better. But, a few chapters later; bad again. Overall, the translation (or the editing) is a little uneven, as if it was done by, at least, two different people. One has to wonder why. Have publishing houses decided to replaced their more experienced editors with interns, due to a new economic policy? Did they rush this book, with several editors working on it at the same time? Or, were they plain sloppy? Whatever it is, it does not augur well for the book industry.

First, let's straighten out some important things. I have the British hardback edition by Wieldenfeld & Nicholson, and the cover design is beautiful; reminiscent of the cover of The Shadow of the Wind. (Normally, I prefer the American covers, but not this time.) I won't recommend a Kindle, Nook or iPad  edition. This is a book you'd want to show off. It'll look real handsome on your shelf; get the hardback or the Tradeback. So, there.

The Prisoner of Heaven is the third of a set of novels that revolves around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Although Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game and the present volume can be read individually, and in any order, characters from the other two flit in and out of the stories giving it the feel of a trilogy that it's not. The common threads run through Sampere & Sons, a bookshop in Barcelona, with the reader often left to wonder, "Now was that the father, or the grandfather, in the last book .. and which generation is Daniel?" and so on. It's a lot of fun.

The Prisoner of Heaven has a more misty, Shadow of the Wind feel to it, unlike The Angel's Game which felt like it was written for a movie (and Hollywood, at that), which does not mean Carlos Ruiz Zafon pads the story with trivia. The novel is tight and sinewy, without too much excess fat (except for those parts mentioned in para one above). The action is relentless, yet intelligent -- Carlos Ruiz Zafon has proved, again, that these are not mutually exclusive qualities -- with a wonderful dollop of (mostly) irreverent humour. In the hands of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the term intelligent thriller is not an oxymoron. It's a light read, but not fluffy. Those who enjoyed Shadow of the Wind will like this. I'd love to read it in Spanish (as one customer said he was going to). Unfortunately, I'm handicapped by English.

On Facebook, this will be a definite 'like'.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Beruas Prophecy -- a review

A fine swashbuckling tale from Malaysia about pirates & buried treasure June 9, 2012
By G. Polley (Reader’s review on
(Dr Polley's full review of The Beruas Prophecy will appear in the December issue of The Asiatic.)

If you enjoy swashbuckling tales of pirates, greedy government officials, secret societies, magic, buried treasure that it took 40 elephants to haul away, and a surprise ending that is sure to leave you wanting (and imagining) more, then look no further. Iskander Al-Bakri's wonderful tale is one book you'll go back to again and again.

The Beruas Prophecy: The Nightmarish Universe of Malaysia
A review by
Ravichandra P. Chittampalli
Professor of English
University of Mysore

Iskandar Al-Bakri’s novel, The Beruas Prophecy, unravels the miasmic world in which Malay(si)a was furled in the 19th Century. It provides an alternative to the romance of modern day slogan, the “One Malaysia” jingoistic reading of the past. The novel at once links the imaginary of Malaysian intellection to the ancient Hang Tuah Epic, of which most recent literature appears to be blissfully amnesiac.

From the outset, the novel tumultuously carries one deep into the vortex of colonial machination, feudal values, revenge, heroism, intrigue, hedonistic life, piracy, avarice, crass opportunism, magic, secret society, struggle for power, betrayal, and loyalty.

The story, on the surface, is about the 16th century hidden treasure of Malik Al-Mansur, and the attempt on the part of Sir Robert Fullerton, the Scottish Governor of the Prince of Wales Island, to acquire that treasure. The event is dated to 20 August 1824, the year of the Anglo-Dutch treaty by which the British established its colonial supremacy over a large part of Malay(si)a.

The villain of the story is a minor, selfish, intrepid character named James Randwick Lowe, and the novel begins in Balik Pulau in 1823. This backdrop serves the novelist’s agenda of installing Malaysia as a land ruled on the one hand by self-centred, weak, sultans who were already marginalized either by their more cunning and resourceful courtiers, or by the colonial forces.

 “ ‘Hey, you black boy! Stop!’ shouts Lowe.” (TBP 15) That is a sentence which sets rolling the entire tragedy of Malaysia’s people under the new dispensation. Iskandar Al-Bakri couldn’t have chosen a better exclamation to set the tone of the novel! A drunk’s intolerant act cuts short the future of a bright and talented youth (Jasin) in an unthinking, impulsive, arrogant act of him shooting down. James Randwick Lowe is one of those common, shiftless types of British citizenry who would have been derelicts in their own country, but end up in certain significant situations in the colonies either due to chance or because of their connections.

Yaakob is a guru of the traditional Malay martial art called silat and has served in the critical position of the captain of the personal guards of the Sultan of Kedah. He represents, in this world, the only instrument of correction and of justice. When Jasin is buried, Yaakob quietly resolves, “Then, it’s my task to find Mr. Lowe.” One cannot help but connect this sentiment with that of Heironymo of Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.

“See'st thou this handkercher besmeared with blood?
It shall not from me, til I take revenge.
See'st thou those wounds that yet are bleeding fresh?
I'll not entomb them, til I have revenged.
Then will I joy amidst my discontent;
Til then my sorrow never shall be spent”(II.5.51-56)

The Beruas Prophecy is also a novel about piracy. It provides a fertile meeting point between the old world buccaneer and the modern day plunderer – in the characters of Sabu and Sir Fullerton. Thomas Duncan is the grand facilitator and Lowe the henchman. Piracy in Malaysia was one of the means by which the princelings of Malaysian rulers kept themselves in the pink: “Malay waters become some of the most dangerous in the world. Dutch monopolistic trade practices encouraged substantial black-market trade, and idle anak raja (sons of rulers) supported piracy as a means of income and recreation suitable to their elite status.” (Library of Congress – Federal Research Division Country Profile: Malaysia, September 2006;, p.2)

Iskandar Al-Bakri successfully uses history and myth to reinterpret the annals of Malaya, the perfidy of the white man on its soil, the betrayal of its people by its own sons.  He finally appears to advocate a return to the rural Malaya for values, advocating the cause of the orang asli as against the bumiputras, and finally creates a space for a development oriented intervention of the white man.

(Also read Al-Beruasi, a blog by Foong Thim Leng.)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Literature as history

Guest review by Shavia Westmoreland, an English Major at Hampton University in the US.

Title: Song of Solomon
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Penguin Books, (1987, 337 pages)
Price:  (Please check for prices of different editions)

Literature can be the eyes into history.  Song of Solomon by Nobel Peace Prize winner Toni Morrison is no exception. This novel explores the history of 1970’s America and beyond through the eyes of common characters from the time period. The story is centered on Milkman Dead, the son of wealthy landlord Macon Dead Jr. and mother Ruth Foster, also of a wealthy background.  Milkman grows up in an urban town in Michigan, living a privileged, and consequently, unfulfilled life with his family and best friend Guitar Bains. One day he is informed by his father that his aunt Pilate holds a treasure of gold, which sends him on a journey into the southern United States and self-discovery. Along the novel’s exploration of Milkman’s journey and his life experiences, the reader is exposed to numerous areas of history and philosophy such as the slavery and civil rights, women’s independence, the force of ancestral history, the power of wealth and respect on human decisions, and the process of self-realization.

With beautiful usage of language, motifs, symbolism, and themes, Song of Solomon engages the mind with questions of the impact of heritage and the past on the individuals of the present. Targeted at no particular age or background, Song of Solomon is a novel to be read a multiple of times, providing new messages and questions with every single turn of the page.

A copy of Song of Solomon will be available soon at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, so please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Title: King of the Sea
Author: Dina Zaman
Publisher: Silverfish Books (2012)
Price: RM30.00

by guest reviewer Quek Sue Yian. (This is her first book review.)

King of the Sea is Dina Zaman's second book of short stories, bringing together a collection of whimsical and seemingly personal experiences of kampong life. She paints an idyllic, almost romantic backdrop, giving a sense of the immutability of village life; with one generation rolling into another, with little to change it. However, as each little story unfolds she proceeds, and one can sense her enjoyment in doing so, to dot each story with idiosyncratic characters to juxtapose them with the serenity of village life, with often hilarious, sometimes creepy results. Masbabu, the first story in this collection, is about an outlandish out-of-towner who descends upon a quiet village and ensues to cause sexual havoc.  From there the tone is set, and you are swept into village life and drawn into close proximity with the colourful characters. In The Translator, a simple school teacher goes mad for Hollywood and sends the village on a madcap translated fantasy of film.

The imagery Dina conjures is lyrical, with surrealism akin to South American writers. Reminiscent of the House of Spirits and having almost a fable quality, her stories tell of people who try to fly, who want to be angels, girls turning into chickens, men walking out from the sea, people marrying fairies.

But typical of Dina, these are more than just charming, fun little stories. She writes with quiet, gentle prose that often belies depth of thought and social commentary. She gently mocks hypocrites in Nah the Masseur when Nah accuses her ardent seducer that it’s only a matter of lust. He replies at least it will be legal. Again, in Man of the Jungle, she gently mocks the courtship ritual: “If a man liked a woman, all he had to do was to present the bank passbook to his prospective in-laws, reiterate his honourable intentions and marry his love within three months of courtship.” And, “One young village girl had caught the eye of the assistant district officer, and was now engaged to be married. It was progress.”

Dina writes so subtlety that you could almost miss the gentle barbs, such as going to the “surau to nap for a bit.” In Alia, she mentions that only good and pious girls were allowed to go on camping trips but yet these same pious good girls were superstitious and did not have enough compassion or care to search for the missing girl. In Masbabu, she describes the women wearing kembans which is almost a nod to P.Ramlee films - a time when people were less judgemental and moral-policing had not began.

In fact, Islam and superstition is one of the more prominent themes in this collection of stories. Dina masterly flits between faith, Islam and superstition stemming from old folktales and possibly a shaman past. The boundaries between superstition and religion; between reality and the soft spaces of folklore are blurred in these tranquil, sometimes lyrical, often funny, tiny portraits of village life.

In Alia you find the teacher of the princesses of Islam talking about girls turning into chickens. In Man of the Jungle the village iman is bound by Islam to tell the truth, but yet the truth he relates is a superstition about a man who marries a fairy. This iman found it foolish too that white people, didn’t believe in ghosts and djinns.  People in these stories live side by side with Islam and folklore -- they believe in spells and pray in the Mosques. King of the Sea reflects this world where we are introduced to a wife as a witch in the somber atmosphere of an Islamic funeral.

On a personal level though, I would like to have known why Manja in Masbabu overreacted so to Masbabu - when he "gasped. It was as if he had seen a ghost." This collection left me curious, wanting to have more stories. Why did Manja screech as he leaves the shop? In the way we found out about a young girl's voyeurism during a hot afternoon's Rainstorm and how Mandaks became an angel in a story of the same titled.

It would also have been good to have a glossary at the end – not just for foreign readers but for those unfamiliar with East Coast dialects.

Charming, fun and highly readable, Dina has honed and whittled a collection of concise, funny and at times wonderfully irreverent stories. The serene kampong life reflected by her controlled writing uncovers a hoard of wonderful eccentricities and guarantees to bring a giggle. It makes for easy reading, with snippets of bite-sized nostalgia that can be served up during a busy day. You can enter the idyllic world on a train journey home, at lunch time, or during a furtive break at work.

A world (not French) classic

Title: Pantagruel
Author: Francois Rabelais
Publisher: Hesperus  Press
Price: 43.50
(First published 1552)

I'm not long into the book when I think, "Damn it! This is so James Joyce." I'm thinking Ulysses. Rabelais's influence is unmistakable; and one can be sure that Shakespeare and Cervantes were quite familiar with his work, too. As was Jonathan Swift. It would be difficult for any writer not to be influenced by the style of Rabelais after reading him, although his book was written over 450 years ago, and his works will not fall into the neat modern category called the 'novel'. The influence this bawdy, gross, over-the-top classic satire, involving various bodily parts and functions, has had over the centuries is obvious. Rabelais is often described as 'a major French renaissance writer'. This is an unfortunate Anglophone put-down, one that has lead to profound ignorance of his works amongst those who read in English. Rebelais was a major world writer. Period. He was, and, is a hugely important writer. And -- think of it -- he wrote at a time when writers were tortured, strangled and burnt in public places in Paris for translating Plato, or quoting Socrates. (Pantagruel by Hesperus Press is only one part of the 1,000 odd page Penguin volume called Gargantua and Pantagruel.)

Francois Rabelais was a Franciscan monk, turned Benedictine, who studied law and graduated as a doctor in 1530, rejecting his monastic life for a career in medicine. He lectured in medicine around Europe, and wrote stories based on folklore, of an imaginary world of giants, comic characters and situations. He mocked education, imperialism, monastic ideals, judiciary, language ... everything. He led a dangerous life, even if he had the patronage of a king and two cardinals.

Excerpts from Pantagruel:

1. On imperialism: ... books now published are printed correctly and elegantly, printing having been invented in my lifetime by divine inspiration just as – conversely – artillery was invented at the instigation of the devil. (Gargantua’s letter to Pentagruel, Chapter 8.)

2. On society: ... as you know the people of Paris are noted for their stupidity (natural stupidity both sharp and flat) ...

3. On education: In response to the way a scholar from Paris speaks, Pantagruel says, “He’s really talking through his arse, what does he mean?" to which his friend replies, "... my lord, This young fellow is trying to ape the way they talk in Paris ..."

4. On the legal fraternity: read the lawsuit between Sir Kissarse and Sir Fartsniff. It is hilarious.

Whether you buy classics to read for enjoyment, to educate yourself, to enjoy the use of language, to impress friends or to decorate your bookshelf, Francois Rabelais should be an essential part of it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The American dream

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner (1995, PB, 216 pages)
Price: (Please check for prices of different editions)

The traditional dream of American authors has been to write the Great American Novel, to reconcile within one work the sprawling energies, contradictions and aspirations of a nation that, to take a phrase from Walt Whitman, contains multitudes.  Not a few authors have managed to present an artistic vision of America with lasting aesthetic power; one of the best examples is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby has arguably the strongest claim to be the definitive “Great American Novel” because it takes as its subject the American dream – an idea that, more than any other, lies at the heart of what it means to be American.

The novel’s characters and themes are drawn from fundamental notions of American identity.  The eponymous Jay Gatsby is a wealthy but mysterious figure in a fictionalized Long Island, New York community.  Gatsby, both less and more than what he appears to be, is that quintessentially New World creature -- the self-made man.  He embodies the economic and social mobility at the core of the American identity, rising from humble circumstances to success through desire and intelligence and hard work.

As Gatsby is gradually revealed to us, we learn he’s driven by the romanticized ideal of Daisy Buchanan, a woman he loved and lost years ago.  Having intermingled memories of Daisy with notions of success and happiness, Gatsby devotes himself to material success as a means of winning her back.  Gatsby tells the story of the climax and tragic results of these efforts.

Fitzgerald’s presentation of the American dream is laced with ironies.  Gatsby’s fortune is derived from crime; his dreams are romantic illusions that end in tragedy; his pathetic funeral suggests the ultimate futility of his life.  Yet to Gatsby it did not seem so.  One of the novel’s most affecting passages finds him staring across the distance at a green light on Daisy’s dock, which represents not only her but the American dream. Striving to reach it gives Gatsby’s life meaning by providing an outlet for his energy and offering hope, a fantasy that in the end proves more satisfying than its realization.

Fitzgerald famously claimed that “there are no second acts in American lives.”  Given that most of his adult life was spent in decline, this view is perhaps unsurprising.  But it may be wrong.  No one in America who is born poor, or who fails, needs feel that his condition is permanent.  The idea of the America dream is rooted in possibility, endless invention and re-invention.  This quality, this freedom from history and the burdens of the old world, has for generations inspired countless millions to seek their own second act, or third act, or fourth.  Fitzgerald is not wrong to suggest the darkness that lurks around the edges of  the American dream – doing so gives the novel integrity and power – but the shading is best seen as an accent, serving to set off the essential brilliance of the dream itself rather than giving it a sinister cast.

Fitzgerald’s prose is simple and direct, but with moments of lyricism.  I particularly commend to readers the last few paragraphs of the book for their beautiful summation of its ideas.

A copy of The Great Gatsby is also available for loan at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Guest reviewer
Adam Zerbinopoulos.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

King of the Sea

Title: King of the Sea
Author: Dina Zaman
Publisher: Silverfish Books (2012)
Price: RM30.00

King of The Sea (a collection of short stories) took Dina Zaman (the author of I Am Muslim) about 13 years to complete. The stories began as part of her project  she was a masters student at Lancaster University in 1993, inspired by her homesickness,  and her longing for the ‘ Terengganu air’.

She explores themes of love, grief, loss and longing, and the magic in our lives. A young boy, grieving for his late father, meets a ghost who tells him that he is the king of the sea.  Alia, a missing child, comes back as a chicken to bewildered parents. A daughter witnesses an  affair by her unfaithful mother, but she is not sure if she was hallucinating. A young man arrives on an island, and marries a jungle spirit, a bunian. Hell breaks lose in a small village when a brash modern city woman decides to live there. A teacher who longs for a more glamorous life, literally, disappears into a movie screen.

Dina Zaman, a survivor from the I Am Muslim tsunami, has been writing in the Malaysian media for over 17 years. Her first book, a collection of short stories, night & day, which was  part of the Black & White series, was published by Rhino Press in 1997. She has had her works of  fiction, and non-fiction, published  in many journals and periodicals, locally and regionally. She is currently studying saints, and other holy men and women, and their impact on Malaysia for her next book Holy Men, Holy Women under the API Fellowship 2012-2013 programme that she has just been awarded.

Silverfish Books -- special offer
Dina Zaman's dynamic duo gift pack

When I am Muslim was published in 2007, it became a media sensation, not just for its controversial points of view, but also due to the author's uncanny blend of humour and pathos. Those who loved that will love King of the Sea, even if this is a work of fiction and the former was not. Buy Dina Zaman's latest, King of the Sea, and her best selling, I am Muslim, (two books) for 30% off (online and in-store). Offer valid until 30 April 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Books: Art and being human

Title: Encounter
Author: Milan Kundera
Publisher: Harper (2010)(HB)
Price: RM76.90

This is the fourth book of essays by this Franco-Czech author and, possibly, the most challenging. Encounter looks deceptively light (large fonts, easy style, 178 pages), but is weighed down by its content – it took me longer to read this book than it did to read 1Q84, a book with 925 pages. It is not the type of book one would read from start to the end. Fact is, I had to put it down several times, pace about, ponder over what I have read, re-read it (often several times) before moving on.

I read the first chapter on Francis Bacon five times (at least). “In painting, we leave always too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough,” Kundera quotes Bacon. Wow! Exactly what I have been trying to tell my writers for years – write it the way it is, the way you see it, don’t write what you think it is, the way you think everyone sees it. This is our conundrum: everyone has the ability to think, to make choices. We will protest against anyone who dares to deny us that. Yet, we can only think and talk like everyone else, and do everything that is habit, everything that is in fashion. (Even our protest is after a fashion.) We will continue to live by habit, to die by habit. Coke is habit,  racism is habit; we will embrace it. We can only regurgitate. Yet in art, one must steer clear of habit, of cliché.

Encounter is full of pithy observations like that. In the next chapter, he talks about the comical absence of the comical, in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. I had to laugh. It is normal to associate laughter with humour, but I have always found it strange how people can laugh when there is nothing funny. Have you noticed how (some) people start laughing almost as soon as they identify the person at the other end of the phone, and continue to do so throughout the conversation, for forty-five minutes if it takes that long. Presumably, the person at the other end is doing the same. When, at the end of the call, one asks, “What was so funny?” the reply would normally be, “Oh, nothing funny; just my friend.”  So, if not in response to humour, was the laughter simply one of joy in a friend? For company? For filling up gaps in conversations?

Encounter has dozens of little interesting observations. I will mention one last one from the last chapter in the review of The Skin by Curzio Malaparte: Because … America had never lost a war, and because it was a country of believers, its citizens saw its victories as divine will confirming their own political and moral certainties. A European, weary and sceptical, defeated and ashamed could easily be dazzled by the whiteness of those teeth …”

Not just the Europeans.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A flawed genius

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon and Shuster (HB, 2011, 627 pps)
Price: RM 99.90

“(Sir Alex) Ferguson’s failings are well known. He possesses a quick temper, a despotic streak, a frequent inability to see the other side of an argument and an immoderate appetite for flattery,” said the Mail on Sunday of the football coach.  I had to laugh out loud. In my experience, every ‘successful’ CEO is a despot, a bully and an arsehole. And (many are) criminals as well. That’s what they don’t teach you in Harvard. What sets ‘great’ CEOs apart is their passion, knowledge of their products, and an ability to discern quality.

I have heard of individuals described in Tamil as either "camphor" brained or "banana-stem" brained. Camphor burns quickly, so people with camphor brains are quick on the uptake and learn quickly. Banana stem will only splutter, at best. (The Director General of an organisation I once worked in was a major banana stem. Returning from a management course, where they had told him he ought to try to get to know his staff better, he stood his bemused officers in a row outside his office and brusquely shook all their hands before disappearing. Scott Adam’s pointy haired boss is real!)

In Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs was certainly camphor brained. He was a ruthless despot, a bully, a though negotiator, a good marketer, an egomaniac, completely bipolar, cunning, spectacularly greedy, arrogant, obnoxious and rude; that is, he had enough ingredients for him to be a successful CEO. But he had more – he had a burning passion, appreciation and an understanding for technology, design and art, he was quick on the uptake, learnt quickly to differentiate what was important and what was not, and he was sensitive. Then there was his famous “reality distortion field” – his charisma, his ability to make his people do the impossible. He recognised and nurtured ‘A’ players. He had no time for ‘B’ and ‘C’ players; the bozos.  (Declaration: I have been reading about Jobs and have been buying Apple products for 40 years.)

His design talents included architecture: ‘… he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparkled by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”’

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, however, does leave one somewhat dissatisfied in the end. There are interesting chapters, like his battle with Eisner in Disney for example, but also many lame ones. The first twenty years of his life is dismissed in the first 55 pages, and we really don’t learn much about his early childhood to give us a hint as to what made him tick, except that he was some sort of loveable rouge and prankster. His relationship with his adoptive parents, Paul and Clara, are quickly brushed aside.  Several of Isaacson’s chapters read like, as if, written by a fan-boy. Particularly disappointing is the chapter about Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives. How did these two ultra-sensitive individuals hit it off? What made the two tick? (Did Jobs have a spot for soft spoken Brits?)

This is not a biography worthy of Jobs, as some reviewers have said. Besides being overly fawning, it feels unfinished and rushed to the market to take advantage of the publicity following his death. It feels like an early version of Strawberry Fields Forever; in some places it still feels like an alpha.  It’s like a Windows PC; gets the job done, but is bloody annoying sometimes.

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is a thriller; fast paced and full of action. Like most thrillers, unfortunately, the pace and thrill comes at the expense of character development, and after 627 pages, we still don’t know Jobs.

Still, it is a book worth buying and owning, at least in memory of a flawed genius (is there any other kind?) of our lifetime, while we wait for meatier biographies, hopefully less infatuated with his undeniable talent. Equally, he could also be whitewashed, given a fictitious ‘Kite flying in a storm’ moment, and made a mythical being (as if we need more gods).

We’ll see.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Americana Series

Title: Middlesex,
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002
Publisher: Picador (PB, 529 pages)
Price: (Please check for prices of different editions)

(This review was sent in by Ms Rain Che Bian, another book fiend -- the first time we met we talked for 2 hours non-stop about books, and would have gone on for another two if we hadn't been diverted by Gerard.)

“According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 a.c., Princess Si Ling-Chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup.  When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid.” Thus begins one of the first chapters of Middlesex. Jeffrey Eugenides skillfully unravels the cocoon of a family saga and flavors the story with the extraordinary and occasionally, the magical.

From a brother and sister escaping war in their home country with an incestuous marriage, to young Calliope’s pubescent struggle with her sexual identity, this is a story that traverses continents and social taboos. The ambitious book is literary without being pedantic, witty without being cynical. It is a coming of age story that travels beyond the inner journey of self-discovery. Immensely entertaining to read, Middlesex’s endearing ensemble of characters navigate gender identity issues, immigrant life in America and racial politics against the sweeping backdrop of history: the Greco-Turkish War, the 1967 Detroit Riot, desegregation, the Nation of Islam, etc.

The book is not bogged down by the weight of its rich history and multilayered context. The narrative structure builds suspense while the language provides a constant feast of comic relief. Middlesex does not engage so much with the metaphorical and metaphysical as does One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) or dwell on the passionate and emotional as does The House of Spirits (Isabel Allende), but it will keep you tugging at the threads of the cocoon.

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize and Jeffrey Eugenides has just come out with a new book, The Marriage Plot, available in most KL bookstores. Middlesex is currently out of print in Malaysian bookstores, but may be purchased via A copy of Middlesex is also available for loan at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. (Membership at KL Library costs RM16/year.)

The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Saramago’s last hurrah

Title:     Cain
Author: Jose Saramago (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Publisher: Harvill Secker (2011)
Price: RM 69.90

To say Saramago didn’t believe in God, would be an understatement. He was a life-long Communist and an atheist, and Cain, his last book that was first published in 2009, a year before he died could be described as his last middle-finger salute to the old guy (whom he has made no secret  of disliking).

Cain carries on where Saramago left off in his 1991 masterpiece (depending on who you ask), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In 1992, the Portuguese government ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive, which is not un-understandable considering the book was about a megalomanic  cruel Jewish God who, dissatisfied with being the Lord of a small tribe, wanted world domination regardless of cost in human lives and sufferings. Saramago complained about censorship and self-imposed exile to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he lived until his death.

Cain is comic fantasy. It is not Saramago’s best work, but one can recognise the master's hand as he trusts, parries and teases. Not unlike a veteran footballer, he exhibits plenty of guile and trickery, but unfortunately he no longer has the legs. Still, he is funny and entertaining. Saramago starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden -- yes, that apple incident -- with the couples' hilarious arguments with God, but the rest of the book is told from the point of view of Cain (with deadpan naive-comic asides from the narrator) who travels through Biblical lands and time, has a roaring affair with Lilith (my knowledge fails me here because, as far as I know Lilith was Adam's first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, not from his rib, and thus refused to be subservient to men), and gets involved in the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons and the Tower of Babel, getting increasingly disenchanted with his Lord’s behaviour.

 This is a small book; only 160 pages. Those familiar with Saramago’s style of page long sentences, with no quote marks, no paragraphs, the use of the lower-case almost throughout, and his irreverent humour, will be proud to add this handsome volume to their collection. For newcomers, who don't mind trying something stronger than air bandung or soda-pop, I’d advice you start with Blindness: you'll either love him or hate him, but you'll not come out unscathed.