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.