Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tata for Now ...

Ah well. I take my leave of you for the moment. Tomorrow morning I fly off and then I guess I'll be caught up in the whole hectic Christmas thing. It may be a few days before I can get my itchy fingers on a computer keyboard again to report on how the world looks from Britain ....

Hope you all have a very special Christmas!

A Publishing Ecosystem?

Philip Tatham of Monsoon Books sent me an interesting snippet from last Saturday's Straits Times (which I can't link to because it is already behind subscription which pisses me off no end!*). In an article about the Singaporean publishing scene in 2005, one of Philip's authors caused a stir:
Gerrie Lim is not one to shy away from taboo topics or mince his words. Which is why the 46-year-old pop culture critic, who writes on topics ranging from porn to rock music, is a publisher's dream.

His book about sex escorts in Asia, Invisible Trade, has shifted nearly 18,000 copies since it hit the shelves last year. He is planning a sex industry sequel next year.

This year, he launched Idol To Icon, which examines how celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez become mega brands. It was published by UK's Cyan Books.

The iconoclast says his independent-minded, questioning streak is a result of his disgust for the repressive environment he grew up in during the 1970s. 'The school system here sucked. If you asked a question that was not part of what the teacher put on the board, she would say: 'It's not in the syllabus, you don't need to know.' How stupid is that?' he vents.

In 1980, the former St Joseph's Institution and Catholic Junior College student went to Perth to study political philosophy at the University of Western Australia.

'I didn't really want to do a degree here. I just couldn't see myself fitting into NUS. Yuck! You can quote me on that!' he says.

The eldest of three children of middle-class Catholic parents, Mr Lim went on to attend journalism school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His brother is a bank executive and his sister is a school teacher in Canada.

It was in the City of Angels, capital of pop culture, that he felt at home for the first time. He spent close to 15 years there, writing features and music reviews for magazines like Billboard, LA Weekly and Playboy from a Santa Monica rental flat, earning 'enough to get by'.

His first book, Inside The Outsider, featuring a series of interviews with rock stars like David Bowie and Patti Smith, was published here by Big O in 1997. It sold just 500 copies.

In 2001, he moved back to Singapore to be with his family and Chinese Singaporean girlfriend. He is now part of a rare species in Singapore - the full-time writer. 'I'm famous but not rich,' quips the writer, who lives off his royalties, in a condominium in Holland Village with his girlfriend.

Quoting an Elvis Costello song, (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, he says: 'I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused. ... Singapore is basically a country that likes to think of itself as a First World country. But it's not. It's really a Third World country that pretends to be a First World country.'

This Third World mentality, he charges, also permeates the publishing industry. Many publishers are queasy about what can or cannot be published.

'Even expats have told me: 'I'm surprised that your book can be published.' But why? Doesn't it say something?' he asks. 'Creativity doesn't grow on trees. How are you going to create an ecosystem of publishers and authors when everything seems to be done by government edict?'

He is scornful that publishers here churn out cheap-looking books for the local market, 'underestimating the intelligence of local readers'. Part of the problem is that few publishers here are prepared to pay advances to authors, unlike in the US and Britain. He received undisclosed advances for his two books.

'It's very Third World thinking. How are you going to foster a publishing culture if you are going to treat writers like that?' he rants.
* Philip also forwarded the link to another article from the Strait's Times, reproduced here. It makes terribly depressing reading. It also makes the publishing situation in Malaysia seems not quite so bad after all!

The Power to Publish

Was so busy tending to the sick on Monday that I missed the very useful article in the Star about self-publishing in the local context by Lee Tse Ling.

She also does a good job of weighing up the pros and cons and asks whether self-publishing is "faux publishing".

Surprised though that she did not talk about print-on-demand as this makes self-publishing much more affordable and accessible for those who need a smaller print run.

And talking about author photos as we were the other day, Lydia Teh's should be the one that launches a thousand copies!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Book Project Rides Again!

Book Project 2 is launched today, 11 a.m. at MPH Midvalley. According to the blurb from MPH:
The Book Project’ was conceived to help nurture successful amateur writers. The project, which focuses specifically on the large number of talented, unpublished writers in our midst in Malaysia, seeks to give a means and platform to such talent. ... Ms Theseira said, “The Book Project provides a wonderful opportunity for literally anyone and everyone to showcase their work. Once a writer’s work is published, who knows what other doors may open for them. The first step is to put their stories in print.”
I'm still as ambivalent as ever, though I must confess that I haven't yet seen a copy of Book Project 1 and must judge by merit before I sound off. It's great that new writers have a forum to publish their work, we certainly need all the forums for new work we can get ... but how much are they learning by having their work edited for them (not by them), and shouldn't there be a modicum of survival of the fittest to ensure the best work gets through? Isn't The Book Project more about vanity publishing than helping new writers learn the craft?

Joann Koh in the Star shared my concerns in an article she wrote back in June :
... questions arise. With such a loose set of criteria, will The Book Project satisfy the expectations of a paying public? If not, is the public supposed to overlook personal satisfaction for the more noble cause of having supported local writing? More importantly, how much has getting published helped these new writers write better for a paying public, if not now, then in the near future?
The evidence in the end has to come from the writers themselves and I would love to hear of their experiences. (Yvonne Foong has a story in BP2 so I'm sure she will let us know about her experiences.)

I found Jermaine's blog (one of the writers anthologised in the first book). She writes very eloquently about what it feels like to have your story mutilated:
he whips out a scapel. he runs it over my body.

slitting, slashing, slicing and severing.

i think i have died, but not quite, not yet.

and then i feel him lift up what is left of my mangled self. he carries me to the balcony.

"it is yours! devour it in all its perfection!" he shouts to the ravenous crowd below.

i fall into the sea of groping hands.
Update: Yvonne's account of the launch with pictures. Courage to dream. Of course. Just make this the first published piece of many.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Neurological Opiates and Agatha Christie

If you find Agatha Christie unputdownable, there could be a medical reason for it.

A neurolinguistic study of her novels by more than scientists at three universities in the UK (and here I resist the tempatation to ask, didn't they have anything better to do?) concluded that Christie's language patterns stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain, the BBC reports. Common phrases used by Christie act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

It seems that perfectly mundance phrases (bordering on the cliched!) such as "can you keep an eye on this", "more or less", "a day or two" and "something like that", coupled with a limited vocabulary that doesn't distract readers from the plot and the use of dashes to create "a faster-paced, unreflective narrative" do the trick.

Okay dear fictionaters, now you have the formula, go run with it!

Between Pussy and Elephant: Gritty Social Reality

Rattawat Lapcharoensap writes with both compassion and maturity and his Sightseeing is a wonderfully self-assured collection of short stories from a first time writer.

All but one of the stories are written from the point of view of teenagers coming to terms with a confusing adult world. And although the setting for each story is Thailand, Lapcharoensap steers well clear of the kind of exoticism that bedevils most South-East Asian literature. Indeed, the Thailand of the tourist brochure is roundly mocked in the opening story Farangs. Says a hotel proprietor, tourists only want "pussy and elephant":
"You give them history, temples, pagadas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead geting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between."
There's a gritty social realism in his choice of settings: a down-market brothel, a smouldering rubbish-dump, a refugee shanty, cockpits, with many of the characters living on the edge in economic terms. Lapcharoensap has his characters speak in a street-smart, vernacular language which eliminates the distance still further.

In a collection this strong, it's hard to pick favourites. But I won't easily forget the poignant tale of a son taking his mother on one last holiday before she looses her sight in the title story, and the agonising betrayal of a childhood friendship in Draft. And the last story in the book, Cockfighter - at 80 pages more a novella than a short story - is a real heart-stopper.

I've not felt this enthusiastic about a short story collection since Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies . And if I were still teaching literature at college level, I'd choose this as a set-text for sure.

(You can hear Rattawat Lapcharoensap talk about his book and read an excerpt in this recording from the Guardian blog. I also wrote a previous post about the author here.)

Sunday, December 18, 2005


The medical encyclopedia is the most used book in our house. The covers are torn, the pages coming loose.

He uses it as a catalogue for all the illnesses he can choose from, should the mood take him.

Dengue is not in the index. Too foreign. Too obscure.

It's not dengue, he says about the fever, the aching joints, the pain behind the eyes. It's appendicitis/ temporal athritis/ mumps / chicken pox / food poisoning. He thumbs through the pages, weighing, deciding.

Dengue, I insist. I've had it twice before. I know how it goes. Don't argue.

Not dengue. Why do you always want to be right? Why didn't you become a doctor if you wanted to play medical detectives?

His blood platelet level is dangerously low but the private clinic doesn't bother to give him the result until he calls up at 10p.m.

We dash to the hospital where he's admitted at once, and hooked up to a drip.

He feels a little better this morning. Well enough to start creating trouble for the nurses. His fever's down and his platelet level up a shade.

Told you it was dengue, I say, a little smug.

You didn't say that at all. Or I would have come to hospital straight away.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Authors Adrift in the Blogosphere

The blogosphere can also be a rough place for fragile ego of authors writes Pamela Paul in the New York Times about writers who google themselves to listen into conversations about their books. There's also a list of the most blogged about books of the year. Nice to see Orwell's 1984 is still very much shaping the collective consciousness.

It's for sure a funny feeling that whatever you put out about book on your blog may be visited by the author. Leon got a nice e-mail not long ago from Irish novelist Sebastian Barry, and I was thrilled to have Paul Andersen drop by and leave a comment after I'd made mention of his huge tome, Hunger's Brides back in September, when the book was reviewed by the New York Times. It does pull you up and make you realise that you need to be fair and accurate and even sound reasonably intelligent in what you write!

I fall more in love with blogging as a medium all the time. Connectivity and immediacy. Total editorial control. From my head to yours, across the city or across the world. I surprise myself by wanting to write for my blog much much more than I want to write for paper publication and get paid for it.

And I got my 30 seconds of fame when I (apparently) got quoted on the lit pages of the Guardian with a wise comment on the Booker winner!

Now tell me, how many of you google your own name every day to see what the world is saying about you? (Guilty!)

The Magician of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin is amazed that critics find Rowling "wonderfully original" and complains that the writer "could have been more gracious about her predecessors". Her Earthsea quartet featured a school for wizards long before Potter was a twinkle in Rowling's eye.

As a fantasy writer, she learned that new worlds are not "so much invented as discovered". She says that she learned from Tolkein "... the trick of hinting at a whole background with a few names, so you'd feel situated in a real world, not a fantasy bubble."

She found C.S. Lewis less palatable: "simply Christian apologia, full of hatred and contempt for people who didn't agree."

And she lists works which she considers part of the lineage of modern fantasy writing: Shelley's Frankenstein and Phillip K. Dick, and also some more unlikely literary writers Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago and Marquez. She says she was also influenced by Dickens and Tolstoy. "You have to shoot as high as you can shoot," she says. (Good advice this, for wanne-be fantasy writers nearer home!)

Read more about Le Guin's life and writing in today's Guardian. Her 20th novel, Gifts, now out kicks off a new fantasy series for young adults.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What's Your Poetry IQ?

Fancy yourself as a poet or a student of literature? Here's a fun test to find out your poetry IQ. I feel very smug because I got almost top marks. (Should have - I taught literature for how many years?)

Please play with it while I rush to EPF with my old passport, mop the old man's fevered brow, and get the house in some kind of order prior to going off Monday.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

More Problems with the L-Word

I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two.
The great (and unsmiling!) American author Philip Roth in an interview in today's Guardian. Amen!

Richard and Judy Go Forth

Richard and Judy are to British books what Oprah is to American. Described as "publishing's biggest star-makers" the duo host a weekly book club segment on their Channel 4 TV show. The show has been extremely successful in promoting reading and, naturally, selected writers see their sales soar.

The 10 titles chosen for 2006 choices has just been announced, the Guardian reports. It's a pretty eclectic list ("something for everyone") with recommendations that you would probably enjoy too:
THE HISTORY OF LOVE, by Nicole Krauss

At the age of 10, Leo Gursky fell in love with a young girl in his Polish village and wrote a book in honour of her. Now elderly and living in America, he believes that book long lost. Krauss tells what happens when Gursky's world collides with that of a young girl investigating her own mother's loneliness.

THE FARM, by Richard Benson

The first book from a former editor of The Face is the true story of the farm in Yorkshire where his family has farmed for 200 years. It is told through a combination of childhood memories and notes taken in the weeks before the farm is sold as no longer financially viable and the property developers move in.

THE CONJUROR'S BIRD, by Martin Davies

A debut novel from a BBC producer, this story of the search for a stuffed bird is a mix of detection, romance and history. Fitz, a scientist, becomes obsessed with tracking down the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, one of the specimens discovered by the real-life 18th-century explorer Joseph Banks.

ARTHUR AND GEORGE, by Julian Barnes

Shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, this is based on the true story of a miscarriage of justice investigated by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. George Edalji was jailed for attacks on horses but Doyle, believing Edalji to be a victim of racism and sloppy detective work, worked to clear his name.


Set in post-war England, this is the story of Penelope Wallace who longs to be grown-up and fall in love, but finds that various things - such as her eccentric family - keep on getting in the way. This is the fourth novel from the daughter of the songwriter Tim Rice.

LABYRINTH, by Kate Mosse

Best-selling novel by the co-founder of the Orange Prize, it blends the lives of two women, separated by 800 years. It is an adventure story steeped in the legends and history of the Cathars, the religious movement branded heretical by Roman Catholics, set in the medieval French town of Carcassonne.

THE LINCOLN LAWYER, by Michael Connelly

This is a crime thriller by a former Los Angeles Times police reporter. It is the story of Mickey Haller - a low-ranking criminal defence lawyer who gets his first wealthy client in years when a Beverley Hills rich boy is accused of beating a woman. However, the case starts to fall apart.


Min, a former actress who was born in Shanghai but has lived in America since 1984, bases her novel on the true story of China's last empress. She creates the world of the Forbidden City in Imperial China through the eyes of Orchid, a poor girl who beats rival concubines to the emperor's bed.

MARCH, by Geraldine Brooks

The recreation of the life of John March, the father who is away from the family in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. In Brooks's story, March emerges as an abolitionist and idealistic chaplain on the front lines of the American Civil War. Brooks, an Australian, lives in America and is a fellow at Harvard.

MOONDUST, by Andrew Smith

Smith, an Englishman who was raised in America and watched the Moon landings on TV from San Francisco, set out to interview all the astronauts still living who walked on the Moon to find out how their lives were changed by their experience. Smith, a journalist, now lives in Norfolk with his family.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

No L-Words Please!

The Australian reports on a new quarterly aimed at fostering emerging writing talent. Wet Ink was launched on 9th December at the University of Adelaide. J.M. Coetzee. (twice-Booker and Nobel Prize winner) was coaxed out of his customary reclusiveness to attend the event and called the publication :

... a brave venture because no-one ever made fame or fortune running a little magazine. They operate on energy and goodwill and generosity. ... What little magazines aim to become are institutions, a fact of life. ...... Simply put, Wet Ink and magazines like it constitute one of the best, and most attractive ways in which the culture of a nation expresses itself.
Apparently though, the dreaded L-word will be nowhere in sight ... because it is thought too scary and offputting for the general reader. (Worth bearing in mind when we plan writing related events here! And here I'm thinking about THAT festival which is even now a twinkle in the eye of Mr. Raman.)

Talk on Getting Published

Some seats are apparently still available for a talk by Hng Hung Yong, noted author on Malaysian politics. His most recent books include CEO Malaysia and 5 Men & 5 Ideas: Building National Identity.
Topic: 'From proposal to publication: Getting your first non-fiction book published'
Date: 17th December (Saturday)
Venue: Starbucks, Borders Bookstore, Times Square.
Time: 11am to 1pm
Cost: Simply purchase a drink from Starbucks!
RSVP: To and include your mobile number


Sod's law is in full swing today. Just as I'm getting ready to fly off tomorrow, Abu comes down with suspected dengue fever and is much too sick to be left alone.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Teacher Man

Teaching's no Mr. Holland's Opus as I've said before.

You teach thousands of kids in the course of your career, plan tens of thousands of lessons, mark millions of exam papers and homework exercises, get fallen arches in your feet and varicose veins from standing too long, and ruin your throat with all that talking. For not a great deal of renumeration, scant respect and very little thanks!

But when the teacher-student relationship works out, the job has to be the best in the world. There's no headier feeling than knowing that you've made a difference to other lives.

Few writers have really got the classroom down to the page and I treasure those who have:
There is of course E.R. Braithwaite's autobiographical To Sir with Love, which tells of a black teacher's attempts to teach difficult teenagers in a London school in post-war Britain.

There's Ursula struggling with her classes as a student-teacher towards the end of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow. I'd also add his poem Afternoon in School - the Last Lesson to the list.

There's New Zealand writer Sylvia Townsend-Warner's excellent Spinster, the story of a teacher working in a largely Maori school. (Note to self: must reread this soon!)
And now I'd put beside them Frank McCourt's latest volume of memoir, Teacher Man which I'm currently enjoying very much indeed. What I appreciate most about the book is its honesty. McCourt details both his sucesses and failures in the classroom, including the kind of embarassments most teachers would want to downplay even to those closest to them.

McCourt bemoans the fact that his teacher-training course did not prepare him at all for the realities of the classroom. But there's no-one-size- fits-all-quick-fix for teachers that you can pass on in training, and it takes time and hard-won experience to find out who you are in the classroom. (Took me years and much pain.) McCourt lays out his own personal journey for us, detailing nearly 30 years of teaching in American high-schools and eventually discovering that his stock of stories about growing up in Ireland was his greatest classroom resource. That and the kind of quirky imagination that dreams up assignments like getting students to write their own excuse notes and obituaries!

And empathy. Of course, empathy. What teacher can survive without it? McCourt has bucket loads of it.

I'd love to see this book made compulsory reading on all teacher training courses, but the book is a damn good read even if you don't have a particular interest in things pedagogic. It's beautifully written, moving and funny by turn.

Would you expect anything less from the author of Angela's Ashes?

(Reviews of Teacher Man from the Guardian and the Independent.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Forest Magician

Helen was my best friend at school, has remained a close friend to this day, despite distance and my laziness to write letters. We've always shared a love of words and books and nature. Helen is now a published poet and working on her PhD.

When she came to Malaysia with her family, I wanted them to see the richness and diversity of a rainforest. I knew wouldn't be equal to being a very good guide, so I enlisted birdwatcher Mike Chong to come with us to Fraser's Hill for a few days. We learned so much, saw so much. I have a long list in my notebook of all the birds and mammals and insects we spotted. We wouldn't have seen much at all if not for Mike who knew just where to find each species and how to identify them. He could even imitiate the bird calls and start a dialogue with the bird in question so that it would come out of the forest and we could see it. (Imagine talking to a hornbill!) Yes, it seemed like magic.

Helen later wrote this poem for Mike:
Forest Magician

The first night after our return, I wake to darkness
fringed with sweeping fronds, dense and
breathing with the forest’s mysteries.
I blunder in its strange dark to recover bearings,
locate the lighted exit of the room’s familiar frame.
Now this landscape is a stage removed, half-blurred by dreams,
its shades and shapes encroach on our security.

You had read its signs for us, unravelling the
tangled script, unmasked the secret rituals of animal society.
Quiet impresario, subdued in camouflage, you perched
on the broad rim of the ancient world,
panning its draped stage, twitched the curtain’s cord,
unfurled the rustling screen to lure the
shy performers from their hidden roosts,
enchant us with the patterns of their primal dance.

Master of mimicry, tuning voice and turning gesture,
measuring the pauses and the distances, you
stole the syllables of wild speech, casting voices back
like skimmed stones to dilate and spread
their rolling echoes across space, until
the youngest in our party, quick to learn,
threw the gibbon’s song into the valley’s throat
to rouse a whooping chorus in defiant dialogue,
competing for the territorial privilege.

Modest magician, with casual flamboyance, you
pulled colours from the forest’s folded sleeve to
flourish in the trained sights of the telescope,
ruffled them for our delight into sudden
bouquets of petals, plumage, by day showering
confettis of bright birds, exotic names, to
dazzle the veiled eye with visions of creation’s
blue - gold flowering, warm our dulled sense
with the molten ribbons of its first fires.

Later, challenging the evening’s gloom
with flashing wands of torchlight
you would startle eyeshine in still hunters
draped in shadow-lairs of night-time foliage.
In the ancient trees, the secret bank, we tunnelled
with your eyes, your ears into the core of
our life’s origins, woken to new wonder by the charge
of a forgotten energy

Copyright Helen Boyles

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Gender Genie

Still on the subject of gender, Sharanya sent me this link to The Gender Genie. Paste in an extract from a text and it will tell you if it was written by a man or woman. (The techie bit is here if you're interested.)

According to a report in Utne magazine, the programme:
... assesses with 80 percent accuracy whether the authors of fiction and non-fiction books are male or female, reports Phillip Ball in Nature. Patterns detected by the program include the use of pronouns, such as I, you, he, she, them (female) and words that identify and quantify nouns, like a, the, that, one, two (male). The software, developed by Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University in Israel, was designed to "identify the most prevalent fingerprints of gender and of fiction and non-fiction." These fingerprints were applied to 566 English-language works published after 1975. Two titles misidentified by gender were Possession, by A.S. Byatt and Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. "Strikingly, the distinctions between male and female writers are much the same as those that, even more clearly, differentiate non-fiction and fiction," identifying the genres themselves with 98 percent accuracy, Mr. Ball writes.
80% accuracy, my foot! According to the results posted on the website, the programme is right only 58% of the time - not a great deal better than simple guesswork. And it can't be up to much if it thinks Sharanya is a bloke! I ran a couple of paragraphs of an Annie Proulx story by it, figuring if any writer has a gender ambiguous writing style it's her. The programme told me that the first paragraph I enterered was written by a female and the second by a male!

(And according to the programme the paragraph above was typed by a male. I'm off for a sex-change op!)

Sexism among the Bookshelves?

Working on my article about men not reading books by women and a stray thought hit me like a brick.

For years now the nice Mr. Raman has been introducing me to books I've very much enjoyed by authors such as Kundera, Vikram Seth, Bulgakov, Orhan Pamuk, R.K. Narayan and Saramago.

But I can remember only one instance when he recommended a book by a female writer! It was Bharati Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories (shortly before the author came to do a reading) and he said it was incredible that Mukherjee is able to get right inside the mind of a man. Which is true of course.

Raman was not interested in publishing a little piece I wrote for him for his "literary magazine" on A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, despite the fact that it was longlisted for the Booker, I think it's excellent and know that others would enjoy it. (And I was of course giving the piece to him for free!) I wonder if he did not want to take my recommendation seriously because the novel's by a woman and must therefore be fluffy and unsubstantial??

Interesting question - how many women writers does he feature in his lit mag? Take a browse through the archives and tally up.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Bookshelves Real and Virtual

Have acquired new bookshelves just as a drastic cull was imminent to make space for new acquisitions. Books pour in (purchases I can't help making, review copies, gifts, freebies from the bookcrossing pile in Raman's shop - this week alone 11 new books!).

3rd chimp a.k.a Ms. Wonderley bequeathed me a wonderful big glassfronted cupboard which was transported across PJ in my gardener's wife's father's brother-in-law's lorry yesterday. And I managed to find room for a huge custom-made bookshelf downstairs too. All this delaying the day when I have to make a Sophie's choice about which books to keep and which to pass along down the line.

And then there's my bookshelf in cyberspace! I threw out the link to Library Thing a few weeks ago hoping you'd find it an interesting novelty and play with it while I was in Manila, and not notice I was away. Then I noticed that CW had got hooked on it and I so enjoyed looking through her library online that I decided to try it out for myself ... and found it completely addictive. I even paid for a life membership.

Some of the great things about Library Thing:
  • even if you are on the other side of the world, you can gaze lovingly at your book collection and don't have to dust it!
  • your friends know which books you have and which they can ask to borrow (I lend books all the time and just pray they come back!)
  • you can see deep inside people's souls by browsing the books they have for mental furniture (a great way to find a mate if you don't have one - whose book collection will best mesh with yours?)
  • you can paste up your reviews, make notes, give a star rating ... and read what others thought about the book
  • you can put an ever-changing display of books on your blog sidebar
  • you can link it in with Amazon Associates and theoretically earn money from click through purchases (does anyone ever earn anything from this?)
  • you can sort your books in many different ways - the tag cloud feature is wonderful
  • you don't have to spend hours typing in boring book details - the keyword search is really quick and effective
My virtual library is here. (Can be displayed as a list or graphic bookshelf.) I am slowly entering books, a few everyday, so if the collection seems a bit unbalanced at the moment it's because I'm working systematically across my (real life) bookshelves. It is, as they say a work in progress and I will have many happy hours cataloguing the rest. (Can hear you saying "How sad is that? Get a life, girl.")

Kee Thuan Chye at Borders

Playwright-actor Kee Thuan Chye will be appearing at Borders Berjaya Times Square tommow at 3pm. in conversation with Carol Lee, newscaster and host of the talk show ‘Hello on 2’ on RTM.
Go listen to Kee talk about acting and writing, Malaysian life and politics, the new play he’s written, what it means to be Malaysian. Free admission.

A Bookshop That Thinks It's a Hotel: A Hotel That Thinks It's a Library

Beds in a bookshop?? I found this story about a bookshop owner who invites customers to actually live among the books on Eric's blog. The cost of lodging at Shakespeare and Co?
All he asks is that you make your bed in the morning, help out in the shop, and read a book a day.
I think I could manage that! (Okay, the make my bed part is a tad tough but I'd be good at the last bit ...)

Mercer also listed his top ten favourite bookshops in the Guardian a few days ago and points the way to some other gems around the world.

Thanks, Jean, for telling me about the Library Hotel in New York where each hotel floor and room is classified by the Dewey Decimal:
The third floor is Social Sciences; the fourth is Language; the fifth is Math and Science; the sixth is Technology; the seventh is The Arts; the eight is Literature; the ninth is History; the 10th is General Knowledge; the 11th is Philosophy; and the 12th is Religion. Each of the Library’s elegantly appointed guest rooms is decorated with framed art and a library of books that relate to the room’s specific Dewey Decimal theme.
Health tip. I'm a firm believer in sleeping among books so that words can seep into your dreams by osmosis ...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Gonzo Travelogue

A drug-fuelled road trip to
America's gonzo heart
While loathing Vegas.

You did guess this haikued book, of course?! (The bad poetry's all mine this time, I'm afraid!)

I threatened to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a little while back when Hunter S. Thompson's remains got propelled into the upper atmosphere. I felt embarrassingly ignorant because the book had completely slipped beneath my biblioradar. (How sad that it takes a suicide and a rocket-fuelled exit to make some folks aware of your writing.)

It is a book very well worth reading, if you haven't already discovered it - I found parts laugh out loud funny (that hitchhiker! the shortcut across the airport runway!). Thompson is an engaging writer even if you are justifiably horrified at the subject matter (drugs, drugs, drugs and more drugs ... oh, and did I mention drugs?).

Never mind, it's fine to live a little vicariously, and Thompson's prose very quickly intoxicates without the need for illegal substances.

Thompson describes a journey to Las Vegas made with his attorney friend, Dr. Gonzo (pictured above in one of Ralph Steadman's terrific illustrations). In the boot of the convertible they load industrial quantities of just about every illegal substance known to man:
... two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers ... A quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls ...
and set out to find their own version of the American dream while consuming the lot.

Thompson (travelling under the pseudonym Raoul Duke) is ostensibly on assignment to cover a biker's race in the Nevada desert, but somehow fails to get the story. His attorney then proposes that they should attend a conference for drug-enforcement officers. The irony is, of course, deeply relished.

Thompson's Las Vegas is a million miles from Narayan's Malgudi (also visited this week). How great that reading stamps your passport.

Books for the Guys

Want to help me with some research I'm doing for an article (with a scary deadline!)?

I'm investigating which authors appeal most to men, so I only want answers from the guys. (Not being discriminatory here, it's just that the article will appear in chrome.)

The questions are very simple:
  1. what book are you reading now (or, if you aren't currently reading anything (shame on you!), what was the last book you read?
  2. what was the last book you read which was written by a woman (with approximate date)?
You can either put the answers in the comments (exhibitionists) or send me an e-mail (shy guys) at . Promise to let you know what I discover.

Many thanks.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Greats Haikued!

Goodness, it's such a slog to read your way through the classics and with all of us so busy these days ...

Thanks goodness for this guy David Bader who has reduced the most essential reads of world literature to 17 syllables in 100 Great Books in Haiku.

See if you can work out which books the following haikus summarise:

Advice for those
in a difficult position.
First, be flexible.

Lecherous linguist
he lays low and is laid low
after laying Lo.

Plagues, incest madness,
human pig-children. Dios!

Where did the time go?

First one to get each right buys me coffee!

More info on the book and more extracts here. Came across it while I was browsing the shelves of the new Borders in the Curve (definitely squidgy, and too many temptations).

Think you can do as well as Bader? Penguin have announced a competition where readers submit haiku about their favourite books. This could get addictive!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Subtexts of Narnia

The film version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe hits the big screen soon. Do I want to see it? Watched the trailer on TV and thought it had been very Lord-of-the-Ringsified. The version in my head is much gentler, painted in softer colours. And as I've said before, watching the film of the book often destroys my own vision of it.

C.S. Lewis was vehemently opposed to his books being filmed, particularly as he felt that "Anthropomorphic animals, when taken out of narrative into actual visibility, always turn into buffoonery or nightmare ...". Does Aslan keep his Christ-like dignity in the Disney version? We'll see.

When I read the books (at 11 or 12) I was unaware of the Christian subtext - they were just excellent stories. But Lewis was a committed Christian and did intend the tales to be allegorical.

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian points out that in the US the born-agains are using the film for their own ends, and suggests that this approach will backfire in more secular (atheistic) Britain.

Contraband Reads

Ahah! The ever wise Thor Kah Hoong has the answer as to how to create a Malaysian reading public. In the Star today he writes:
The smuggling of books – therein lies an idea that will give a boost to the Government’s efforts to encourage reading. Instead of banning publications that are injurious to our moral and spiritual well-being, the Government should consider banning books it thinks we should read. Then Malaysians will be hounding booksellers like me for a contraband read, instead of, as in recent days, displaying prurient voyeurism, surfing the ’Net to look at a Chinese squat.
Damn. Now why didn't I think of that!

Malgudi Revisited

Fiction&Friends decided that this month they wanted to read RK Narayan's A Painter of Signs and last night we meet up to dissect it at La Bodega over several penitential jugs of margueritas (because, if you remember, I was responsible for picking the last book which the others did not like at all and had promised to buy the drinks!).

It's the story of a signpainter called Raman who falls in love with an emanicipated and high-minded woman called Daisy who approaches her job as family-planner with missionary zeal. Daisy enlists Raman's help on her visits to the countryside to talk to rural communities about the benefits of smaller families. Raman is to paint the signs and murals which will carry the family-planning slogans. But during the journey he becomes infatuated with Daisy and determines to make her his wife.

I hadn't been back to Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi (the setting of all his gentle, charming tales of Indian life) for a very long time, and was glad of the excuse to revisit. For the most of the group this was the first time they'd made the trip to Malgudi and they all thoroughly enjoyed Narayan's gentle humour and apparent simplicity. Someone drew an interesting parallel with Alexander McCall-Smith's First Ladies Detective Agency series which work the same kind of magic.

La Bodega wan't the best of venues for a meet, although the management kindly gave us a 15% discount: it was a bit noisy, a little smoky and very chilly. We're back to a member's house for our next discussion.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Words and Tunes

Klue magazine is sponsoring Words &Tunes events in conjuction with MPH.

On Saturday 10th December you can listen to music by Tragicomedy and Bedsheet Wonders and words from Ashok Soman and Sharanya Manivannan at MPH Bookstore at Bangsar Village from 3pm onwards.

Bernice Chauly and Jerome Kugan are providing the words and Sei Hon and Azmyl Hunor the music at the second gig at MPH 1 Utama on Saturday 16th December, 7.30 onwards.

Well done KLue - hope these are just the start of a whole series of poetry and music events around the city.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Blooker Prize

On paper it is a terrible idea: let every have-a-go writer on the planet publish whatever they fancy and give it all away free. No editors, no agents, no fees, no quality control. ... But a new generation of diarists, satirists, polemicists and poets have made the idea work precisely because they dispensed with paper.
That's us, of course, the 19 million bloggers rampaging across the wilderness of cyberspace.

A new book 2005 - Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere edited by Tim Worstall brings together extracts from some of the best British blogs in "a decent attempt to box the unruly new medium in the trusted packaging of an old one". Read the Observer review here.

Incidentally, books based on blogs are called blooks, and there is even a newly created Blooker Prize.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Books Bound in Human Skin

Spike magazine linked to a rather ghoulish article by Dan Alban from The Recorder, the Harvard Law School newspaper. Alban writes about books bound in human skin. There's even a name, apparently for such a practice - anthropodermic bibliopegy!

Alban notes that the College of Physicians of Philadelphia has four such books, including one with a visible tattoo; and a there's a copy of the Koran at the Cleveland Public Library bound with the skin of a particularly pious believer! The picture on the left (from the article) is Account of William Corder's Trial bound in his skin.

Might be quite a fun way to memorialise yourself!

And the Bad Sex Award Goes to ...

... Giles Coren, who sportingly turned up to accept his prize (unlike Tom Woolfe last year).

You can read the winning passage (which includes description of a certain part of the male anatomy "leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath") here along with those of the other runners-up. Don't say I didn't warn you!

And if you wish you'd been at the award ceremony where "Filth and hilarity abounded in equal measure", you can at least read about it on the Culture Vulture blog.

More Best Books

Can you bear more best books lists? Here's one from literary editor Boyd Tonkin in the Independent. Enough suggestions to bankrupt you before 2006 begins!

In the Times a delightful piece by Jeannette Winterson talking about the joys of books. (Hmmm ... did we need persuading?)

Friday, December 02, 2005

Poets Get Laid More Often!

Professional artists and poets have about twice as many partners as other people, British psychologists have found.
The study also showed that the average number of sexual partners increased as creative output went up. What the artists produce draws attention to them, which seems to enhance their sexual allure.
So maybe you should just chuck away your gym membership, forget about wooing the chicks with rippling biceps, and hit the verse?


More depth and discussion of course from the Guardian.

Pantun Politics

The Star reports an outbreak of pantuns in the Dewan Rakyat on Wednesday when Deputy Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Wong Kam Hoong slipped one into his winding-up speech. Several other MPs joined in the fun, including the Deputy Speaker.

Where else but Malaysia could politicians do battle using poetry??

Not Daunted by Squidginess

If we can invoke all the bookshops in the world and hold them up to test for squidginess then let me slip in my favourite, Daunts, on Marylebone High Street, London, specialising in travel books.

In the main room, books are arranged not by author or publisher or type, but by geographical region: Low Countries, Oceania, The Balkans, Central Europe. Travel guides jostle cookbooks wrestle maps cavort with novels nudge photography collections elbow phrasebooks for shelf space.

Other more general works are laid out temptingly on the tables screaming to be picked up and poured over. The windows are of stained glass, there's a second tier of books along a wooden balcony and a skylight runs the length of the gallery, so that the shop appears nothing less than a chapel of books. Amen. Amen.

There are no sofas, no in-store-coffee-corner, but down the road is Patisserie Valerie. Books can be devoured with grilled goast cheese crostini and red pepper salad in a room decorated with chandeliers, gilt mirrors and pale green and yellow murals of flowery bowers and dhows sailing between mythical islands. And I can never resist a fruit-laden tart from the window display of cakes and gateaux and marzipan animals.

I also nurse with joy the knowledge that in the C18th, this shop belonged to a bookseller called Davies. Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive English dictionary, met Boswell (who became his friend and later biographer) on this very spot in May 1763.

The past happens in the same spaces as the present in London and the dust of history settles on your clothes.

I will be back there in a couple of weeks. I may even brave the cold to explore some of the other London bookshops listed here.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Wimping the Nano

There's little middle-ground between the whoops of joy and the gnashing of teeth. Another Nanowrimo ends and as the dust settles, let's see who's still made the finish line.

Not me. I wimped out after 11,ooo words and the Philippines trip and the couple of deadlines I hadn't reckoned on getting thrown at me. But I'm so happy to see that others have reached their 50,000 words. Organised veterans Chet and Mabel and Erna among them for whom the Nano is a breeze.

A big hurray for the first timers who climbed that word mountain and proved something very important to themselves about writing. Among them sham, and swifty, and 3rd chimp (even in the midst of packing up all her wordly possessions, three dogs and two cats to go home to the US). 3rd chimp a.k.a Miss Wonderley (pictured left) is a veteran writer and was working on a novel even before this - but she says that she so loved the way this competition forced her to churn out words and the fluency it engendered that she's going to put herself under this kind of pressure from now on.

What's made me especially happy was a phone call and an e-mail I received yesterday.

Those who were at the first Nanowrimo meet-up at 1 Utama will remember a charming older gentleman called Huang (right). He contacted me yesterday to ask me how to send in his words - and he'd reached 73,000 and wanted to keep going!!

The phone call was from Gayle Peters who has been a regular at the MPH Writer's Circle Meetings and was thrilled to bits that she'd reached her target and printed off her certificate. Another older competitor, Gayle managed the 50,000 words with just one functioning hand!

Detractors can scoff about the Nanowrimo all they want. The event creates a very special magic, and may that magic spread even further across the face of the earth in 2006.

Now who else won? Anyone know the numbers??

(photos by see ming)