eric forbes’s book addict’s guide to good books
unleash your imagination and awaken to the joys of literature and the reading life
a media sponsor of the 2010 citibank-ubud writers & readers festival 6-10 october 2010
Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
LEE Tse Ling reviews Urban Odysseys
Review by LEE TSE LING
URBAN ODYSSEYS: KL STORIES
Edited by Janet Tay and Eric Forbes
(MPH Group Publishing, 339pp)
MID-November 2007, MPH Group Publishing put out a call for Kuala Lumpur-centric short-story submissions—stories and essays between 3,000 and 5,000 words to be collected between the covers of Urban Odysseys—that would conjure a uniquely Malaysian spirit of place.
About a hundred submissions made their way to MPH Publishing between then and February 2008. Of these, 21 from 19 writers (Ho Sui-Jim and Mark David Shim have the honour of double entries) were selected and published in the collection, which was launched on February 10, 2009.
The band of 19 is a mix of Malaysians living in Malaysia like Tan May Lee and (StarMag’s Tots to Teens columnist) Daphne Lee, expatriates like M.K. Ajay and Yusuf Martin, Malaysians living abroad like Ho, Preeta Samarasan (whose début novel, Evening is the Whole Day, made the longlist of Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction on May 18) and Jennifer Tai, and a few foreign writers like Shim, Elizabeth Smither and Tom Sykes.
Being an anthology of works from various authors, Urban Odysseys promises—like a buffet—a variety of styles and tastes in quick succession, within which lie tastier morsels and those less palatable.
Little and often is best the way to tackle Urban Odysseys, as the entries are highly digestible individually, but harder going as a continuous read (rather like hitting the buffet line one time too many in one sitting).
A few of the gems, for me, were Ho’s “Baby Elephants in the Playground,” Preeta Samarasan’s “Rukun Tetangga,” Lee’s “Reasons,” and Tai’s “Small Mother.” Firstly, because they were Malaysian-flavoured without trying too hard to be (unlike some where the dialogue grates like those bad radio commercials we’re so good at with their over-exaggerations of -lah, -leh, mah and meh).
Secondly, because they didn’t so much ring a bell of recognition as sound like a host of performing bell-ringers in full swing, provoking thoughts like “Hey! I know that place!” (suburbia and Mid Valley Megamall, patrolled by Preeta’s vigilante Guna Uncle for would-be kidnappers); “My aunties tell me stories like that!” (Tai’s 1960s-set clan clash of tai tai meets concubine); “I know how that feels ...” (Lee’s echoing thought: “Anyone, everyone is lovable, especially if they love you”); and “I totally remember that!” (Ho’s childhood scenes: waiting out calls for prayers in between cartoons on TV, grannies smeared with Hazeline Snow, and the dismal realisation that glass bottles of fizzy drinks will crack when placed in the freezer).
That resonance felt like those thrills you get when you catch a sighting of home, i.e., Malaysia, in an international movie (like the Petronas Twin Towers in Entrapment and Ipoh in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). And it’s novel feeling. After all, most literature in English with a Malaysian setting tends to be nonfiction—travel guides, war memoirs from ex-soldiers and British residents and collected articles from local columnists spring to mind.
Urban Odysseys makes you realise just how “foreign” most creative literature you read/have read is. From children’s books about golliwogs, English farms, treacle tarts and—of all things—blancmange to classics set in Elizabethan, Edwardian, or Victorian England, to contemporary best-sellers set in London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. In doing so, it also makes you realise how “Malaysian,” or not, you are.
Reproduced from The Sunday Star of March 29, 2009
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
2009 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
THE FOLLOWING AUSTRALIAN NOVELS have been shortlisted for the 2009 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, it was announced on March 24, 2009:
1. The Spare Room (Text Publishing, 2008) / Helen Garner
2. The Lieutenant (Text Publishing, 2008) / Kate Grenville
3. Disquiet (Penguin Australia, 2008) / Julia Leigh
4. The Good Parents (Random House Australia/Vintage, 2008) / Joan London
5. A Fraction of the Whole (Penguin Australia, 2008) / Steve Toltz
6. Breath (Penguin Australia, 2008) / Tim Winton
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Sana KRASIKOV wins the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
UKRAINE-born SANA KRASIKOV is the recipient of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for new writers of Jewish literature, it was announced by the Jewish Book Council on March 24, 2009. (The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the promotion of Jewish-interest literature.) She wins US$100,000 for her début short-story collection, One More Year (Spiegel & Grau, 2008/Random House, 2009). (The Sami Rohr Prize is the largest prize of its kind in the Jewish literary world, and one of the largest literary prizes in the world. In 2006, in celebration of Sami Rohr’s 80th birthday, his children and grandchildren inaugurated the Sami Rohr Prize to honour his lifelong love of Jewish literature. The Prize considers fiction and nonfiction in alternating years.)
Allen Hoffman, one of the judges, said that Krasikov’s characters are often alienated and confused, but her stories are always clear and precise, because she deeply understands her characters’ aspirations, fears, and stubborn passion for survival, and her elegant, revealing narratives imbue their fragile, vulnerable lives with an imposing dignity.
DALIA SOFER was also announced the recipient of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award for her first novel, The Septembers of Shiraz (HarperCollins, 2007). She wins US$25,000 for a work that tells of the travails of one Jewish family in the period after the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Previous winners of the Sami Rohr Prize are TAMAR YELLIN, author of the first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press, 2005), and LUCETTE LAGNADO, author of a family memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World (HarperCollins, 2007).
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Bush hard to beat
By AMY DE KANTER
Adeline Loh left her comfort zone far behind, went tramping into, what was for her, unknown Zambia, and came back with a book inside her.
A FEW YEARS AGO, Adeline Loh took a break from her job in publishing to travel around Zambia. Upon her return, she wrote Peeing in the Bush (MPH Group Publishing, January 2009), a funny, bordering-on-scandalous account of her adventures in Africa. Peeing in the Bush is Loh’s second book; the first was Don’t Sit on This Book, a collection of quirky Chinese taboos, co-written with feng shui master Philip Cheong. Now “scheming her next big adventure,” Loh talks to us about life before, during, and after Peeing in the Bush.
Adeline Loh shares the details of her Zambian adventure, warts and all,
in her well-received travelogue, Peeing in the Bush.
in her well-received travelogue, Peeing in the Bush.
Some of the funniest moments in Peeing in the Bush may not have been so funny when they were happening. Which part took the longest before you could look back and laugh?
Definitely the time when the van broke down in the middle of the night, and I was stranded in the bush with my hopeless tour guide, Daniel, and driver, Steven. I really feared for my life then, especially when we had to walk back to our camp without an armed scout. I panicked even more when Daniel did not seem to be very sure where we were heading. Dozens of real-life safari horror stories swam in my head, and I seriously thought I was going to get eaten by a lion or gored by a buffalo.
During your travels you jumped with both feet into several adventures that even you acknowledged were borderline insane. Was taking every interesting opportunity that presented itself something you had decided to do on this trip or is it more of a life philosophy for you?
It’s true that I wanted to try everything that seemed fun in Zambia because I may never have the chance again. Life is short, I say! And then in retrospect I’d ask myself why did I make my life shorter? I guess my life philosophy is, “Do it first, ask questions later.”
When did you decide to turn your trip into a book?
A couple of months after I returned from Zambia. I was seeking a more meaningful direction in my life, and decided that I wanted to do some creative writing. At the same time, I had what you could call an “African hangover”, which made me reflect obsessively about my trip. Nobody I knew understood what was so great about my trip or where in the world was Zambia. So I thought, why don’t I write about it and tell people about the wonders of this country? It was when I started to work on it that I knew a book was taking shape. Mostly because I think Chan and me were hilarious together.
What about the delightful and eternally sensible Chan, your travel companion? Will you two be having more adventures together or do you think Zambia will last her a lifetime?
Last I checked with her, Zambia will definitely last her a lifetime! She was completely broke when we came back so it will be a while till she has enough money to travel again.
Will you be going back to Zambia?
Yes, I will. When I have finished exploring the other 190 countries in the world.
I just have to ask: much of your book, including the title, goes into great details about bodily functions, both human and animal. Again, is this something that just featured largely in this particular trip or is it something that has always held a particular fascination?
This is such a great question! Truth be told, I never really noticed it myself! It was just so natural for me in the course of writing the story that I put these details down. Somehow, I had fantastic recollection when it came to those things so I guess I am pretty fascinated. Oh no, do I need therapy now? Indeed, toilets and dung featured largely during this trip, and I thought people might like to know. Having said all that, I do enjoy toilet humour!
What kind of feedback have you had from fans?
Well, the book was only unleashed unto the unsuspecting public sometime end November 2008. And then I was having adventures in Belize the whole of December where I was completely cut off from all modern means of communication. So I really haven’t had the chance to hear a lot of feedback from the fans. But all my friends seemed to love it! And their friends in turn couldn’t stop giggling throughout!
Has there been any reader response that has particularly affected you?
Well, just knowing that people are enjoying the book and laughing their heads off has pleased me no end. I can’t tell you how happy I am when I’m making other people chuckle.
Your book makes one want to follow your lead, and trade in a humdrum life for a real one. What do you say to those who feel this way?
Wow, that is so cool to hear that I have managed to make people want to follow my lead. My advice for those who want to trample into the unknown is to leave your comfort zone behind. Expect the unexpected and try not to be too grouchy when things break down. That way, you will be more open to new experiences and enjoy yourself while you’re at it.
What is your next big adventure? And can we expect another book out of it?
I have tons of adventures lined up, but first, I’ll have to find a new travel companion! Any takers? I’ll only write another book if it can top my Zambia trip. Honestly, I think Peeing in the Bush is pretty hard to beat!
Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Janet TAY on popTV
FAHMI FADZIL of PopTV talks to Janet Tay of MPH Group Publishing about Urban Odysseys:
Monday, March 23, 2009
Urban Odysseys on NTV7 The Breakfast Show
THREE writers from the Urban Odysseys collection, Karina Bahrin, Daphne Lee and Yusuf Martin, talking about their stories on NTV7’s The Breakfast Show.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Saturday, March 21, 2009
The MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WINNING STORY?
In conjunction with the MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009, Janet Tay asks me what I look for in a winning story. Here’s what I think.
What kinds of books do you read? Any particular genre, and why?
I enjoy reading literary fiction (novels, novellas and short stories) and nonfiction (essay collections and literary criticism).
From my father’s collection of books in the 1960s and ’70s, I devoured the classics: the Brontës, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Herman Melville, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, W. Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie (the unsurpassed queen of English crime fiction), Margery Allingham (another mistress of crime fiction), John Creasey, Alistair MacLean, James A. Michener [remember that doorstopper of a tome, Hawaii?], Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Dennis Wheatley (whose occult potboilers were firm teenage staples), etc. I read them because they were there, part of my father’s collection; perhaps they were his favourite books. My father shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since—it was he who ignited my adolescent love of words and literature. He had a great love of 19th-century British and American fiction which he passed on to me, and he was open to 20th-century fiction and fiction in translation of almost any kind. It was from him that I learned to appreciate and enjoy the fiction of Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre, The Sure Hand of God, Trouble in July), D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) and the translated works of Alberto Moravia, especially his novel, The Woman of Rome, and his collection of stories, Roman Tales.
On my own, I discovered the works of Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Henry James, Stephen King, Alice McDermott, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Anne Tyler and John Updike. I enjoy Australian fiction, too, especially the fictions of Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough and Tim Winton. And yes, I also devoured the page-turners of Sidney Sheldon (The Master of the Game, The Other Side of Midnight, Memories of Midnight), Jackie Collins (Chances) and Harold Robbins (The Betsy, Carpetbaggers).
Of course, like everyone else, I went through my fair share of Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys, The Beano and The Dandy, and Look and Learn; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also featured prominently during my wonder years. Those were wonderful adventures and mysteries. I still remember them to this day.
I still enjoy reading crime novels occasionally; some of them are extremely good, yes, as good as literary fiction!
What would make you pick up an unfamiliar book in a bookstore and buy it?
Normally, I tend not to pick up books I am not familiar with. Most of the time, I tend to have done my homework and I know exactly what I am looking for. However, I must admit a weakness: I am drawn by good books with nice covers!
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
Good writing, thought-provoking plots, intelligence, absolutely. Originality is always important; a good story must have an enduring quality, a distinctive voice, gripping plots, characters that grab you by the scruff of the neck, language, style, inventiveness, stories that tap into the contemporary state of mind (for contemporary fiction), etc.
What will you look for in deciding the shortlist and the winner of the MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009?
Definitely all of the above prerequisites; and also stories that bristle with imagination, authentic characters, concision, tight editing and good openings and endings. Of course, good language skills is a must. Voice is vital because it alters one’s view of the world after having read a story.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
I believe it is difficult to write a good short story. But that doesn’t mean it is easy to write a good novel either. But I believe it is a good place to start to learn the craft of writing.
Do you think it is harder to publish short-story collections than novels (whether in Malaysia, the U.K., U.S. or other markets)? If so, why?
Everything is so market-driven today. The sale of short-story collections does not warrant publishing more short stories. Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell. Perhaps people are afraid of short-story collections; perhaps they think that they won’t be able to understand them. It’s always easier for publishers to keep on doing what they’re or have been doing, but surely they have talented marketing people to expand the market. Perhaps there is a lack of imagination in the selling of such books, or perhaps a reflection of a society that no longer values merit.
What do you think are the biggest challenges Malaysian writers writing in English face today?
There is lack of a readership for books published locally. This is not exactly something new; it has always been this way. However, there is a much bigger readership for nonfiction. Books written and published in Malaysia are not able to penetrate other markets due to too many reasons.
What do you think the book industry in Malaysia can do to encourage more reading and writing in English?
There’re not many avenues for creative writing in English in Malaysia. I am talking about English magazines and newspapers here. Fiction is not exactly encouraged. Off The Edge magazine does publish short stories, but not on a regular basis, since there are not many good stories to choose from. We need more writing magazines, but there are not many willing advertisers. And more prizes that reward good writing. I believe the book industry has done lots to encourage reading and writing in English, but the response from the public has always been tepid, to say the least.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses in Malaysia are imperative in increasing the number of good Malaysian writers and/or improve the quality of Malaysian writing?
Creative writing courses and competitions will increase the number of good Malaysian writers and/or improve the quality of Malaysian writing, but only to a certain extent. However, they are still essential. There is only so much you can learn from such courses (such as technique, style, etc.), but when it comes to things like originality, a lot comes from the writers themselves. Some things can be taught while there are other things that cannot be taught. Writing workshops (to hone writers’ narrative skills and polish their manuscripts), grants and bursaries always help, especially for those who are serious about writing and making writing a career. (All these cost money and I just don’t see Malaysian publishers or private organisations investing in such things because the returns are not immediate.) A person can be guided to write well, but the creative imagination is innate or inborn and without it one cannot be a good writer. What we desperately need now are writers who write well and we don’t have many of those.
Who are some of your favourite short-story writers and who do you usually recommend to your authors or writers to read to improve their craft?
Some of my favourite short-story writers are Julian Barnes, Bernard Malamud and Alice Munro, among others. Those with a bleak or melancholic disposition might like to try Barnes’s The Lemon Table. The thread that connects the stories in this collection is the encroachment of old age and how we respond to death: fear, disappointment and regret. However, they are not as depressing as they sound because Barnes enlivens his tales with dollops of wry British humour.
Malamud is one of America’s finest, though underappreciated, short-story writers. He is better known for his novels than his stories. His dedication to the craft of fiction writing is undeniable in such novels as The Assistant, A New Life and The Fixer. The Assistant is perhaps the best of all his novels, though he won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Fixer. However, his stories are wonderful, too, and should not be ignored. And if you would like to experience his stories, you only need to read The Complete Stories to enjoy them. He won his first National Book Award in 1958 with his first collection, The Magic Barrel.
Munro is possibly one of the world’s most inventive short-story writers at work today. Generational conflict, marital discord and divorce, and youthful alienation in provincial and urban Canada and places in-between are the recurrent thematic threads that bind the fabric of her narratives. She is especially adept at evoking a sense of place and her psychological acuity is as sharp as razor. Munro, however, is highly underappreciated and deserves a wider readership than what she is enjoying now. With her last two collections, Runaway and The View from Castle Rock, she might just do that, though. She is at the moment putting together a new collection.
The MPH-Alliance Bank Short Story Prize 2009 closes on March 31, 2009
Friday, March 20, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
2009 Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist
HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS to Preeta Samarasan for being longlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. The longlist was announced on Wednesday, May 18, 2009. A six-novel shortlist will be announced on April 21, 2009, and the winner will be declared on June, 3, 2009. Who do you think will make it to the shortlist?
There are a couple of established writers on the longlist: Debra Adelaide, Bernadine Evaristo, Allegra Goodman, Samantha Hunt, Michelle de Krester, Deirdre Madden, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Kamila Shamsie, Curtis Sittenfeld and Miriam Toews. And there are six début novelists: Gaynor Arnold, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Samantha Harvey, Gina Oschner, Preeta Samarasan and Ann Weisgarber.
Here are the 20 books that made it to the longlist:
1. The Household Guide to Dying (HarperCollins, 2008) / Debra Adelaide
2. Girl in a Blue Dress (Tindal Street Press, 2008) / Gaynor Arnold
3. Their Finest Hour and a Half (Doubleday, 2009) / Lissa Evans
4. Blonde Roots (Hamish Hamilton, 2008) / Bernadine Evaristo
5. Scottsboro (Picador, 2008) / Ellen Feldman
6. Strange Music (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / Laura Fish
7. Love Marriage (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2008) / V.V. Ganeshananthan
8. Intuition (first published by Dial Press in 2006) (Atlantic Books, 2009) / Allegra Goodman
9. The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape/Nan A. Talese, 2009) / Samantha Harvey
10. The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton Mifflin, 2008/Harvill Secker, 2008) / Samantha Hunt
11. The Lost Dog (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Michelle de Kretser
12. Molly Fox’s Birthday (Faber & Faber, 2008) / Deirdre Madden
13. A Mercy (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Toni Morrison
14. The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight (Portobello Books, 2009) / Gina Ochsner
15. Home (Virago, 2008) / Marilynne Robinson
16. Evening is the Whole Day (Fourth Estate, 2008) / Preeta Samarasan
17. Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury, 2009) / Kamila Shamsie
18. American Wife (Random House/Doubleday, 2008) / Curtis Sittenfeld
19. The Flying Troutmans (Counterpoint, 2008/Faber & Faber, 2009) / Miriam Toews
20. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (Macmillan New Writing, 2008) / Ann Weisgarber
The shortlist for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers will be announced on April 7, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
FOOD Vietnamese Soul Food
Having authentic phở on its home base will change your perception of the memorable beef noodles, as JANET TAY discovered on her recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnam
“THE PHở IN VIETNAM IS REALLY GOOD,” my friend said. We were planning a last-minute trip and he’d suggested Hanoi for a relaxing holiday where we’d just eat, drink, and visit museums. I didn’t need much convincing. Initially I’d wanted to go to Siem Reap—it is slightly nearer, the airfare is cheaper and the itinerary is pretty much fixed: visit the Angkor Wat. But what little I knew of Hanoi was tempting—a former French colony (I was imagining the same outdoor café culture and superb coffee), excellent food, and a dry, cool winter. And when you pit a tiring temple-trekking holiday against food, great coffee, lazing around in outdoor cafés and more food, the sloth in me emerges triumphant.
“Did you say ‘fuh’?” I asked.
“Vietnamese beef noodles. They’re called ‘phở,’” he said. Big deal, I thought. I’d had Vietnamese beef noodles before. They are quite common in Kuala Lumpur although I have yet to find a noodle shop that sells Vietnamese beef noodles good enough to leave an impression. This is reminiscent of my hunt for Sarawak laksa in KL, only I haven’t been as obsessed with beef noodles. Phở, like Sarawak laksa, is also eaten at breakfast—understandably so as it is quite light and usually sold in small to medium-sized portions.
“Seriously, the ones there are so much better than what we get here,” he insisted.
“It’s just beef noodles. Anyway, I guess I’ll find out when we get there,” I replied, still somewhat indifferent. I was more interested in the kind of French food they might have in Hanoi. I was imagining foie gras for a fraction of the price, cheap pate, fresh baguette, duck confit, and every kind of fresh bread we could find. Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Hanoi at breakfast time, so we could start our hunt for phở right after we checked in at our hotel.
It wasn’t hard to find phở. There were phở shops everywhere—sold in kopitiams (coffee shops) much like the ones in Malaysia, cafés, and even in makeshift stalls on pavements with shin-high tables and tiny stools. We finally decided on a kopitiam with English menus, so we could simply point to the dishes we wanted to order. Our orders came in a flash, unsurprisingly since it’s just a matter of pouring boiling hot soup into a bowl of flat noodles and beef. The first thing I noticed about the phở was that there was no accompanying lime, bean sprouts, Thai basil and thorny cilantro, as is commonly served in Vietnamese cafés or restaurants in Malaysia. I thought nothing of it until I researched the origins of phở recently, where I’d found an interesting article by Mai Pham, a restaurateur and author of The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking, in the San Francisco Chronicle (http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.Cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1997 /11/05/FD48543.DTL). Her excerpt on how phở is different in the north (Hanoi, where it is said phở had originated) and the south (Ho Chi Minh city) is very illuminating: “In the south, phở became highly embellished … Because southerners are by nature indulgent—demanding richer, livelier flavors and textures—bean sprouts and rau thom or fragrant herbs such as saw leaf and basil were added … Garnishes such as lime wedges, fresh chillies, chillie sauce and tuong, or black bean sauce, were served alongside, giving the soup a dimension never before experienced. As in the north, it quickly became a favorite, but only after it had been modified to fit and reflect southern taste.” All the beef noodles I’d had in Malaysia came with the ‘embellishments’ Mai Pham mentioned. I didn’t miss them in Hanoi though, not having a particular preference for bean sprouts or basil leaves, cooked or otherwise. Even the lime wedge was unnecessary as I found out upon my first taste of the warming soup. The beef stock was rich and tasty, without having that heavy beef smell that is sometimes present in beef broth and burgers.
Like all good soups, the only word I can think of to describe the uniqueness of phở in Hanoi, is depth. I never even knew that beef broth was supposed to be delicate yet strong, an assortment of tastes all in harmony. The beef noodles I’d had so far now seemed poor substitutes for the real thing. Even the noodles were of the right consistency, but you must eat them fast before they absorb the broth and become too soggy. I now knew why my friend had been raving about the phở in Vietnam.
And there’s nothing like having a bowl of hot, steamy soup on a cool winter morning. The temperatures in Hanoi in December hover around 12 degrees Celsius, which isn’t too cold, and it is generally very pleasant weather for walking. It was still a little chilly, however, and the contrast between the cold and the soup was thrilling indeed.
There are conflicting views on where phở might have originated. Generally though, it does seem that authentic phở is the product of Northern Vietnam. Andrea Nguyen, an author, freelance writer and cooking teacher based in Northern California, in her 2004 article in the San Jose Mercury News talks about the possibility of phở being from the Nam Dinh province in Hanoi. Northerners who moved to southern Vietnam brought along phở, which, as already mentioned, became adulterated by southerners to suit their tastes, much to the horror of northern phở purists, as Nguyen states. Her description of the resulting southern version of phở, the freewheeling incarnation that ‘reflected the southern Vietnamese penchant for eating wildly complicated food’ reminded me of my criticism of West Malaysians adulterating Sarawak laksa, not content with its light but piquant flavour.
For the Vietnamese, local or overseas, phở is definitely more than just sustenance. It is a reminder of the old country, of home, family and love; the food of childhood memories. Even if you’re not Vietnamese, it doesn’t take much to understand the obsession with a simple bowl of simmering broth, beef and noodles that keeps you enthralled till the very last drop.
JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).
Reproduced from the March 2009 issue of bestfoodjunction.com magazine
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
2009 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award
SO who will it be for the 2009 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award? Will it be Henry Hitchings (The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English), Ross Raisin (God’s Own Country), Edward Hogan (Blackmoor) or Adam Foulds (The Broken Word)? Foulds, of course, won the very same award in 2008 for his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times. He has a second novel coming out in May 2009, The Quickening Maze (Jonathan Cape).
Past winners include Naomi Alderman (Disobedience), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Sarah Waters (Affinity), Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind), Paul Farley (The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You), Patrick French (Liberty or Death), Francis Spufford (I May Be Some Time), Katherine Pierpoint (Truffle Beds), Andrew Cowan (Pig), William Dalrymple (City of Djinns), Simon Armitage (Xanadu, Kid), Caryl Phillips (Cambridge) and Helen Simpson (Four Bare Legs in a Bed).
The winner will be announced at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday, April 5, 2009.