Friday, August 31, 2007

Amy BLOOM ... Away (Random House, 2007)

AMY BLOOM is the author of the novel, Love Invents Us (1997), as well as two collections of stories, Come to Me (1993) and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You (2000), all focusing on the “bittersweet solace of love in its myriad permutations.” Her new novel, Away (Random House, 2007), the sweeping story of an émigré mother who can’t and won’t forget her long-lost daughter and who then embarks on a gruelling journey across America and deep into Alaska, the Yukon and Siberia in search of her. Set in Russia and America in the 1920s, this could possibly be one of the books of 2007.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thomas MALTMAN ... The Night Birds (Soho Press, 2007)

THOMAS MALTMAN is the author of The Night Birds (Soho Press, 2007), a lushly imagined first novel set in the Midwest of 19th-century America. One of the great discoveries of 2007. You might like to check out Tom’s blog at The Grumpy Griffin for tips on making your prose not only shine but sing too.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 7



THE MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers was on a Sunday this month, not its usual Saturday, and we had two very interesting speakers, Sydney-based Malaysian writer Beth Yahp, the author of The Crocodile Fury (Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins Australia, 1992), and former flight stewardess Yvonne Lee, the bestselling author of The Sky is Crazy: Tales from a Trolley Dolly (Marshall Cavendish, 2005). I would say that both speakers were pretty much from different ends of the spectrum and both had much wisdom to impart on writing and literature.

Reading Lolita in Tehran
Beth started first, and besides raving about Azar Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), also brought up issues on, among other things, morality and the author. (Nafisis memoir is an account of a weekly study of banned Western literature in her home organised with seven of her female students, after she resigned as professor from a leading university in Tehran.) I found this very interesting because it’s an issue that I constantly grapple with when I write. I think that generally most people do think of themselves as inherently “good” and uphold a certain standard of what they deem as “acceptable moral values,” which differs according to your culture, upbringing and, more often than not, religious beliefs. For the rest of us tiada’s (that’s what it says on your identity card if you do not “possess” a religion), moral values can vary greatly but there are certain basics that you can count on—although not necessarily without a tonne of qualifiers that come with them—such as don’t kill people (without a really good reason), don’t steal (unless your baby’s dying from starvation or if you absolutely just have to have that Prada bag for tonight’s company do), don’t assault people in the queue to pay for their parking tickets at KLCC autopay machines (even if they insist on not looking at the pictorial guide by the side of the slot where they’re supposed to stick money bills in on the left, on the left, dammit! Like this!) no matter how tempting it is. But what about other grey areas, such as, is it okay to kill ants or cheat on your blood test?

Leaving those intensely philosophical questions aside, I’ve always thought that writers should keep an open mind. It’s not up to you to make a definite statement on whether you think something is right or wrong. If that’s what you want to do as a writer, then go volunteer yourself to some political parties to write slogans for posters. Beth alluded to the example of herself having hated Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) so much in the past that she never finished reading the book (and instead threw it across the room) and to this day has never revisited the modern classic. Beth’s reading of Hafisi’s account of her and her students’ love of Lolita however has prompted her to think about whether she should pick up that book again (presumably from across the room where she left it ages ago).

Being non-judgmental
How many of us can say we’re not judgmental? I’m sure I’m biased when I say this, but because I am Malaysian and I do live in Malaysia, I feel most entitled to say this: Malaysians are one of the most judgmental bunch of people I’ve seen and heard in my life. No one seems to think twice before sashaying around, pointing fingers at other people whom they regard as being morally bankrupt, making disparaging remarks about how people should be this and that, and then rest in the comfort of knowing (erroneously) that their truth is supreme, unchallengeable.

Keeping an open mind
If we are to cultivate and nurture a new generation of writers who have the propensity to produce literature (novels, short stories, poetry) that would amount to any kind of quality, I think this is a very salient point to address indeed. Keep that mind open. It sounds simple enough but virtually an impossible task for the quintessentially judgmental Malaysian. A good writer needs to possess chameleon-like abilities, to be able to transform and breathe life into a particular character in his novel, so that the fluidity of his thoughts can shape and sculpt his work of art into something which gives meaning to, and ideally changes and improves, the lives of those who read it.

Shades of grey
To put it very simply, the world is not—and has never been—black or white. Writers must avail themselves of a certain greyness which would enable them to grow so that they may see things from a many-angled view. It’s not hard to deduce that such multifaceted perspectives would likely result in a piece of work that is not only worthy to be called Malaysian and unique, but more importantly something that touches the hearts of people on a universal plane. For values, at the end of the day, discounting and recounting culture, religion and creed, are universal and we need to see that clearly.

How do writers do it
At the other end of the spectrum and on the lighter side, Yvonne shared with us her passion for writing and her earnest efforts at finding the time to write, being a mother of two with a full-time job as a piano teacher. It always amazes me that women with kids and a full-time job can actually find the time to write! Kudos to women all around the world who can do so. I think there really aren’t enough stories or accounts being given on the sacrifices that these women have to make and the kind of energy and drive they possess in order to achieve their dreams. Yvonne talked about how she has to write in a very specific environment: her backroom with no air conditioning, no sound or noise at all in the background and (not sure if this is always a prerequisite) that she would also be wearing shorts and a singlet. I thought it was interesting that she brought up this issue as it’s always something that readers and especially writers themselves contemplate and are curious about—how do writers (or other writers) write? Is there a trick to it? What’s the magic, the secret? Some people read writing books and autobiographies of writers to see what makes them tick, but the truth is, there really isn’t one single way to do it. You have to find your own “trick”; what works for one writer may not work for the other. Yvonne asked Beth whether she needed a specific place to write but Beth said that she could write in cafés, to which Yvonne replied she could never do because of the noise. Yvonne has her own quirks, she said—the same situation in which she writes must be replicated every time. It isn’t uncommon what she suggested. Many journalists have trained themselves to work in a haze of cigarette smoke, the loud chatter and the clickety-clack of typewriters (history, of course), presumably in a kind of zen-like state of being, blocking out all irrelevant noise and thoughts.

All in all, it was a very productive and lively session. There’s nothing like a forum where people are free to air their views on literature and other elements that we sometimes forget are also infused in books: culture, history, society. Writing, at the end of the day, is all about us, our lives and how we live them. I hope that the audience went away with much food for thought because I certainly did.

Janet TAY is a book editor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. Tanamera (1981) / Noel Barber
3. The Feast of Love (2000) / Charles Baxter
4. The Shadow Lines (1988) / Amitav Ghosh
5. The Whole World Over (2006) / Julia Glass
6. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) / Mohsin Hamid
7. The Story of the Night (1997) / Colm Tóibín

1. In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (2006) / Edward Luce
2. Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. (2005) / Jeremy Mercer
3. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (1995) / Pankaj Mishra
4. The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (1992) / Paul Theroux
5. The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain (1983) / Paul Theroux

Monday, August 27, 2007

2007 Guardian First Book Award: Longlist

THE GUARDIAN FIRST BOOK AWARD is an annual prize dedicated to discovering and nurturing new writing talents across all genres: novels, short-story collections, poetry and nonfiction. The longlist for the 2007 Guardian First Book Award has been announced:

1. A Golden Age / Tahmima Anam (John Murray, novel)
2. Imperial Life in the Emerald City / Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Harvill Secker, nonfiction)
3. A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology / Jim Endersby (Heinemann, nonfiction)
4. Then We Came to the End / Joshua Ferris (Viking, novel)
5. God’s Architect / Rosemary Hill (Allen Lane, nonfiction)
6. Live Working or Die Fighting / Paul Mason (Harvill Secker, nonfiction)
7. Children of the Revolution / Dinaw Mengestu (Jonathan Cape, novel)
8. Look We Have Coming to Dover! / Daljit Nagra (Faber & Faber, poetry)
9. What was Lost / Catherine O’Flynn (Tindal Street Press, novel)
10. St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves / Karen Russell (Chatto & Windus, stories)

A shortlist of five will be announced on November 1, 2007.
The winner will be announced on December 2, 2007.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Rest in Peace, Grace PALEY

GRACE PALEY, the celebrated American poet, short-story writer, anti-war activist and feminist whose short stories explored in precise and pungent prose the struggles of ordinary Jewish men and especially women in New York going about their everyday lives, died on Wednesday, August 23, 2007. She was 84.

One of America’s most revered writers of short stories, Paley’s eccentric, noisy characters and rich use of language leave you astounded. She once tried writing a novel, but failed. She found the novel pedestrian. She finds the idea of plot difficult. But she excelled at the short story. In her story, “A Conversation with My Father” (1974), the narrator argues against “plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised. Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

Though her body of work was modest by all means, some four dozen stories in three collections: The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), shortlisted for the 1975 National Book Award for Fiction, and Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985), she attracted a devoted following and was widely praised for her pitch-perfect dialogue, which managed to be spare and rich at the same time. Her Collected Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994) was shortlisted for the 1994 National Book Award for Fiction and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. (The collection was reissued by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2007.) Her other books include several collections of poetry: Leaning Forward (Granite Press, 1985) and New and Selected Poems (Tilbury Press, 1991), among others, and a collection of essays, Just As I Thought (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998). A new collection of poetry, Fidelity: A Book of Poems, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2008. She received the 1993 Rea Award for the Short Story, an annual award given to a writer whose work has made a significant contribution to the discipline of the short story as an art form.

I remember chancing upon a soiled copy of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, my very first introduction to her work, at Times KLCC many years ago.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Nonfiction

THE UNITED KINGDOM’S oldest and most literary of book awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography (established in 1919), has announced the winners for both categories.

The Road (2006) / Cormac McCarthy

The Man who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas (2006) / Byron Rogers

Friday, August 24, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 7

MPH Bangsar Village II on August 26, 2007

The 7th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on SUNDAY, August 26, 2007 will feature Sydney-based Malaysian novelist Beth Yahp, whose first novel, The Crocodile Fury (Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins Australia, 1992), was first published in Australia in 1992. The Crocodile Fury is the winner of the Victorian Premier’s Prize for First Fiction as well as the Ethnic Affairs Commission Award in Australia and has been translated into several languages.

Former flight stewardess Yvonne Lee, the bestselling author of The Sky is Crazy: Tales from a Trolley Dolly (Marshall Cavendish, 2005), will also be talking about her adventures and misadventures in the skies.

Both Beth Yahp and Yvonne Lee will be introduced by Eric Forbes while Janet Tay will be facilitating the session.

Date August 26, 2007 (Sunday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dalia SOFER ... The Septembers of Shiraz (2007)

DALIA SOFER is the author of The Septembers of Shiraz (2007), a first novel published by Ecco Press/HarperCollins in the U.S. and Picador in the U.K.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Charlotte MENDELSON ... When We Were Bad (2007)

CHARLOTTE MENDELSON is the author of When We Were Bad (Picador/Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pat CONROY ... The Prince of Tides (1986)

ONE OF MY ALL-TIME FAVOURITE NOVELS, The Prince of Tides (“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”) (1986) is generally considered Pat Conroy’s best work. I first read it in 1986 when it first came out. It has everything: traumatic childhood incidents and dysfunctional families, abusive fathers, marriages on the verge of disintegrating, midlife crises, alcoholism, suicides, poetry and psychiatry, and a story told in a prose style that cries, sings and bleeds all at the same time.

1. The Great Santini (1976) / Pat Conroy
2. The Lords of Discipline (1980) / Pat Conroy
3. The Prince of Tides (1986) / Pat Conroy
4. Beach Music (1995) / Pat Conroy

Monday, August 20, 2007

Ann PATCHETT ... Run (Bloomsbury/Harper, 2007)

ANN PATCHETT, on who the perfect reader is:

“Someone who is willing to imagine the characters for themselves. When literary fiction works well, the author brings half and the reader brings the other half and it’s a different book every time someone reads it.” Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett was awarded the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction and the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her novel Bel Canto (2001), a successful literary page-turner. It was also a finalist for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Her other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), Taft (1994) and The Magician’s Assistant (1997), which was shortlisted for the 1998 Orange Prize for Fiction. Run (Bloomsbury/Harper, 2007) is her fifth novel.

Sunday, August 19, 2007



I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying.

From Natasha TRETHEWEY, Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Natasha TRETHEWEY’s Native Guard is the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Andrew LECI ... Once Removed (2007)

ANDREW LECI, a sports anchor for ESPN STAR Sports in Singapore, has written his first novel, and it is called Once Removed (Marshall Cavendish, August 2007), a funny, bawdy, sexy, irreverent, provocative and evocative portrait of an English bloke in Kuala Lumpur in 1997 and his (mis)adventures looking for love and enlightenment in all the wrong places. This novel promises to leave readers looking at expats and Malaysians in a completely different light (or perhaps not). Surely one of the major highlights of the Malaysia-Singapore publishing year.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Letter to the Editor

Dear Eric:
Do you think I have what it takes to be a good editor? I love books and the reading life and I was wondering whether book publishing is for me. Your advice would be most appreciated.
Dear Silhouette:
Publishing is not what it is made out to be. There are more heartaches than joy in publishing. Most of the time you are in the throes of anger at the imbecility of writers who think they have all the answers to the ills that plague mankind since time immemorial.

It takes more than a love of books and the reading life to be a good editor; not only must you write well, you also need to have a high level of tolerance for writing that is unpolished and not substantial enough for commercial appeal. Editors must not only edit; nurturing good writers, helping them find the best in themselves, is equally important. Also, everything you do is constantly opened to criticism at all levels and from all directions; you must be able to learn to handle criticism of such nature. Everyone, yes, everyone, is a critic.

There is always a demand for good editors. There is undeniably a real lack of editing skills not only in Malaysia but elsewhere, too. Developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. Editors must edit more, but we must consider the realities of the workplace where editors are badly remunerated, are often subject to punishing schedules and constantly grappling and coming to terms with publishing decisions that most of the time don’t make much sense. (Also, modern publishing requires books to be churned out at alarming rates, focusing on quantity rather than quality.) However, good publishers are indeed a rarity, especially those who appreciate the value of good editing and writing skills. What we need are more publishers who are able to grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste.

Editing a book is not exactly an affair you would like to get involved with. There are more bad ideas than good ones. There are more bad books to edit than good ones. That’s the reality of the business. Some people believe that editing is the most important component of the publishing process; most, however, believe that editing is the least important.

The whole process of publishing a book is a joy to behold. However, I only enjoy it if it is a good manuscript I am working on. When you are editing a great book it feels like you are in heaven. When you are editing a bad book it is like burning in the pits of hell, with fire and brimstone your eternal companions. What I dislike most is the fact that good manuscripts are hard to find. There aren’t many good ones to choose from. And the editing process can be as monotonous as a hamster wheel. I also detest the fact that I can’t say what’s on my mind most of the time. You just grin and bear it!

The work of an editor is well exemplified by Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947), the literary editor of Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York who edited the works of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Paton, James Jones, Edmund Wilson and Ring Lardner, some of the finest writers of the 20th century. Perkins recognised good writing the moment he saw one and nurtured writers as few editors did. He believed editing to be a calling no less important than writing. And for that, he is recognised as the greatest American editor of fiction, and has inspired many leading editors in America today. Read about Perkins’s life, the writers he discovered, nurtured and championed through the years before he passed on in 1947 and the hurly-burly of the New York publishing scene in A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, an entertaining National Book Award-winning biography first published by Dutton in 1978. The legacy of the patron saint of book editors lives on in the books he moulded and the legion of editors he inspired: Nan A. Talese, Gary Fisketjon, etc.

If you think you are able to live with these realities, then you could be the right person for a career in publishing. Otherwise, it is best you stick to what you are doing now.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


A caricature of J.M. Coetzee by Paul Rogers
from the New York Times