Sunday, August 29, 2010

THE WRITING LIFE ... John REIMRINGER

John Reimringer














A POTENT BREW OF A DÉBUT
JOHN REIMRINGER is a former newspaper editor and a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, the poet Katrina Vandenberg. Reimringer has published stories in Carolina Quarterly, Colorado Review, Louisiana Literature, and Gulf Stream Magazine. His first novel, Vestments, the story of a wayward yet devout young priest who struggles to reconcile his faith with the longings of the flesh, is published by Milkweed Editions on September 1, 2010.

INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF JAMES PETERS AND JOHN REIMRINGER

Heartiest congratulations on your first novel, Vestments. Could you tell me a bit about your family history and yourself? Where were you born? Have you always lived in this part of America?
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, and grew up in Topeka, Kansas. But my father’s family was from St. Paul, and when my wife and I moved here in 2001, I fell in love with it. In many ways, Vestments is a love letter to the city of St. Paul. Here’s the story behind that:

My great-great-grandfather, Theodor Wiemann, came to the United States from Prussia in 1852, and became a U.S. citizen in St. Paul in 1856, two years after the city was founded. He owned a saloon and grocery downtown. My great-grandfather, Michael Reimringer, married Theodor’s daughter Anna in 1880 in Assumption Church, St. Paul’s original German-Catholic parish. Family legend has it that Theodor was unhappy about the marriage, which may have been because Michael was French, but also may have been because Michael clerked for Theodor and boarded with the family. We wonder whether there was a little hanky-panky with the boss’s daughter.

In any case, in 1887 at the second-ever St. Paul Winter Carnival, Michael Reimringer got drunk, fell off the back of a sleigh, cracked his skull, and died. Theodor and Michael and many of my other relatives are buried about 50 yards downhill from John Ireland, the great Catholic archbishop of St. Paul, and my grandfather, father, and brother were born here.

So my father’s family has been a part of St. Paul pretty much as long as it’s been a city. That’s a long answer, but the novel is intimately about St. Paul and my family.

What’s it like to live in America?
That’s a hard question. Except for some extended travel in the British Isles and northern Europe, I’ve never lived anywhere else, so I don’t have much basis for comparison. The best I can say is that America is a young country and a young civilization. Like any young person, it has tremendous energy and ideals and enthusiasm, but sometimes it behaves badly. We’re still waiting to find out what kind of adult it’s going to become. And here the analogy breaks down, because, let’s face it, most nations, young or old, often behave like spoiled children.

Was writing something you had always set your heart on?
I started thinking about being a writer at around the age of 10, writing the beginnings to bad sports and science-fiction novels. But I didn’t begin systematically working at it until the age of 30. I was the first generation in my immediate family to attend college, and for years I had no idea how one becomes a writer. No one I knew was a writer; no one I knew even knew a writer. I had no models. So I went into journalism instead, working for a couple of small-town newspapers in Kansas. That seemed a practical way to work with words. I later worked as a library clerk. Every job had something to do with books and writing; it all amounted to circling around what I really wanted and working up the knowledge and courage to do it.

What does it mean to be a writer? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer?
Being a writer means being interested in everything in the world. That’s what I enjoy most about the writing life: everything becomes part of the work—anyone you meet, anything you do or read or learn, anyplace you go. I’ve questioned whether I should’ve gone into another field, particularly in the hard sciences, but I think it would be hard to focus on one subject, however interesting, for your entire life. That interest in generalism extends to everything I’ve done—newspaper editing, clerking at a library, teaching.

Was it difficult getting your first novel, Vestments, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for it?
Publishing Vestments was a years-long process. Except for finding the agent. Nat Sobel and Judith Weber of Sobel-Weber Associates contacted me after reading my first published short story. They wanted to see a novel. It took me years to deliver Vestments, and a couple of years more to finish revising it, and then it didn’t sell in New York. I ended up revising it further and selling it to Milkweed myself, but there was a period of real despair. After the book initially didn’t sell and Nat and Judith couldn’t do any more for it, I remember sitting on our back steps drinking a beer and feeling as if someone had died. I was working as an adjunct English instructor, making very little money, and my life had hit a dead end.

Could you tell me a bit about Vestments? What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating the characters that people the landscape of your fictional universe? How detailed do you lay out the plot before you began writing the story? Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story? How much research did you do?
My wife, the poet Katrina Vandenberg, loves a quote by Oliver Sacks, who says most literature and mythology is made from the perspective of exile—to start with, exile from paradise. Vestments was written from exile in two ways.

First, I grew up devoutly Catholic, but as I got older I drifted to the left and the Church drifted to the right, and so I was writing in exile from the Catholic Church, which I deeply loved as a child, and whose rituals and people I still deeply love. The Catholic Mass is one of the most beautiful rituals on the planet, and the average Catholic, parishioner or priest, is ill-served by the Church’s leadership these days. The novel is an elegy for what the Church could be and still occasionally is.

Second, when we moved to St. Paul, I just instantly felt at home and fell in love with this city that turned out to be an ancestral home I hadn’t realized I was missing. So it worked out that I got to write from the position of the exile who has returned home, but I had the great advantage of never having lived in my hometown, so it was all fresh to me.

And quick answers to some of the other questions above:

1. Character. Some of my characters are based on people I’ve known, and some are invented out of whole cloth, but to be successful, every character has to become his or her own person.
2. Plot. I generally know the beginning and have a pretty good idea of the end, it’s the arc of the plot—the bridge between those two far shores—that has to be built.
3. Theme. As with character, I start with some ideas, but themes have to develop organically, otherwise the writing ends up being didactic.
4. Research. Yes, I did a lot of research for Vestments. Some of it involved just driving around St. Paul, coming to know the city. But I also read histories of St. Paul, and I read a lot about priests, trying to get into their heads. A couple of books on the priesthood that contained a lot of the priests’ own words were particularly helpful. I learned that priests have the same problems any of us do with their jobs and their bosses and worrying whether they’re spending their lives in the right way and whether they’ll have enough money to retire (a real concern for anyone working for the Catholic Church). That really freed me as a writer.

As I was wrapping up the book, I had a retired parish priest who has a law degree and is now a vice president at the University of St. Thomas read the manuscript for accuracy. This guy has a reputation for being very smart and not suffering fools gladly, so naturally I was scared to death when I went into his office to talk about the book. He looked at me across his desk and said: “So, are you an ex-priest?” And I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

As you were writing the novel, how did you know when the manuscript was completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text any further?
I thought it was done, or at least tried to convince myself it was done, any number of times. But I’m glad it didn’t sell before the version that Milkweed bought. It was a good book by then, and Daniel Slager, the publisher, asked for a couple of big-picture additions, expanding on themes that were already present. The whole plot was in place when he took the book, but we added 15,000 words during the editing process, and the additional material filled out the story and made it into a very satisfying whole.

What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing your first novel?
I had to grow up along with the narrator. We both had to be mature, competent adults for the book to work. That, unfortunately, took a long time. But in the process, I learned that I had a lot of endurance. I was a long-distance runner in high school and for a number of years after, and writing and selling the novel was a long-distance process that drew on the emotional reserves—the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other for a long, long time and tolerate a certain amount of pain—that one develops as a runner.

I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
I read voraciously when I was young, but not necessarily that well. My education as a writer really began in my twenties when I picked up a copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls while working at High Street Hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some backpacker had left it in the communal bookcase, and from the first sentence—“He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees …”—I was captivated. I knew I wanted to write like that. Later, back from Europe and in a not-very-good place in my life, living in an attic and spending a lot of time in bars, I read all of Hemingway one summer, sitting in a bar or on the porch swing of the house where I was renting.

In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What do you think distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
Hard to answer. It’s like the Supreme Court justice said about pornography: he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it.

What makes a piece of writing last and be worth coming back to? What makes The Great Gatsby better than anything else Fitzgerald or almost anybody else has ever written? A great book has to have depth and complexity enough in every aspect from sentences to plot to theme that every time you reread it you find something else surprising, some connection you’ve never seen or thought of before, something that makes you see the world anew.

In John Cheever’s short fiction, the prose is luminous, but if you can find his first book, The Way Some People Live—which he did his best to destroy all copies of—well, it’s a perfectly competent collection of short stories, but the John Cheever we’re familiar with doesn’t inhabit it; there’s nothing in the prose to set it apart from any other perfectly competent, perfectly forgettable writing. Somehow, in the decade between that and The Enormous Radio, Cheever acquired his unforgettable voice. Where’d it come from? Maybe it lies in the willingness of great writers to be utterly themselves on the page. There are excesses in any of the greats that a lesser writer might prune from their prose, but it’s those idiosyncrasies that make them who they are. Maybe that’s what happened to Cheever: he grew into himself and stopped pruning his own voice.

Tell me a bit about some of the contemporary authors and books you enjoy reading.
Here are a few: Russell Banks’s Affliction; Junot Díaz’s Drown; Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago; Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex; Richard Ford’s Rock Springs; Tom Franklin’s Poachers; Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves; Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; anything by Stewart O’Nan; Arthur Phillips’s Prague. A few writers do priests and Catholic issues especially well: Andre Dubus, Erin McGraw, J.F. Powers, and Richard Russo.

Who are some of your favourite American authors? What are some of your favourite American classics? Why?
I read Moby-Dick in its entirety in fifth grade. I’d seen the Gregory Peck movie, and I thought the book would be exactly the same as the movie and it would be an adventure novel. I was utterly lost in the metaphysics, but I kept reading, doggedly waiting for the action to start, and when the Pequod sank at the end and Tashtego nailed the seabird to the mast, I was puzzled. What had happened to the movie? I’m telling you, when you’re ten, Melville’s description of the whaler’s chapel takes forever to read.

Could you suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t received as much attention as they should?
Sheila O’Connor’s Where No Gods Came, about a Catholic girl coming of age and dealing with an insane mother in Minneapolis, and Thomas Maltman’s The Night Birds, about the 1862 Sioux uprising in southwestern Minnesota. Both of these are among the most satisfying contemporary novels I’ve read, books worth coming back to.

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoy the first time round?
Hemingway’s In Our Time, his first short-story collection, and really his best book. It looks as simple and clear as a northern lake in the summer, and once you break the surface it unfolds and unfolds. Really one of the great short-story collections ever. Hemingway’s prose, especially the early stuff before he started imitating himself, is always a sensual pleasure to read, and the linked short stories and vignettes of In Our Time reflect each other in all sorts of interesting ways. As my great teacher Jim Whitehead would’ve said, it’s the one Hemingway wrote for God. And, yes, I reread books constantly.

Do you enjoy reading nonfiction? What kinds?
I love nonfiction. All kinds. War, adventure, memoir, politics, sports, science. Some favorites: Black Hawk Down; Guns, Germs, and Steel; House of Good Hope; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; The Florist’s Daughter; Seabiscuit; The Perfect Storm; The Boys of Summer; Into Thin Air; Young Men and Fire; Chickenhawk; The Inklings; The Beak of the Finch. Anything that explains a slice of the world clearly.

What are you reading at the moment?
At the start of the summer, I read Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever, which was unsparing in brutal detail. Then I reread all of Cheever’s short fiction. And I just finished the nonfiction Guns, Germs, and Steel. I’m about to settle in with Leif Enger’s novels Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Enger is a Minnesota writer who wrote one of the blurbs for Vestments. He wrote a damned poem about my novel, so good that it made me like my own book more.

Do you think more creative writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
That’s a delicate one. I wouldn’t ever have become a writer without a good MFA program and teachers. But MFA programs have proliferated to the point where they’re part of the giant academic pyramid scheme in the liberal arts: we’ll give you a graduate degree in return for cheap labor teaching composition, and once you’ve graduated, you’re on your own. There are far more graduates with PhDs and MFAs than there are teaching jobs or publishers.

Students who want to major in writing (or any of the humanities) should be made aware of the mathematics of the job market and publishing, the long odds against success. I was fortunate to have a practical undergraduate degree in journalism, and then go on to a good MFA program. So my advice to potential students would be this: get a practical undergrad degree, or at least double-major in English and something where you can get a job and support yourself and experience something of life outside of college to write about. And if you can’t get into a strong MFA program, think hard about whether you can afford to spend a lot of money and time on self-fulfillment.

Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
The short story is a little machine with a certain form and a limited expanse and number of characters. The novel can be anything—it varies much more widely in form and scope. I love the elegance of the short form, but I also really enjoy the opportunity that a novel affords to sit with a situation and a group of characters and really delve into them. Most of my favorite writers—Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, John McGahern, Andre Dubus—were at their best in the short story. But I think of myself much more as a novelist, probably because I just spent a decade writing one.

Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
Any number of them. Hemingway’s In Our Time, Cheever’s The Housebreaker of Shady Hill. All of Isaac Babel, John McGahern, Flannery O’Connor, J.F. Powers, and Andre Dubus. James Joyce’s Dubliners. Chekhov. And any number of short-story collections by contemporary writers. There’s something unutterably sweet about a writer’s first book. It’s the one we write on faith, not knowing whether it will ever exist between covers or whether anyone will ever read it. After the first book, we’re writing for agents and editors and the audience of our earlier works. But the first one’s for God, in the largest sense of that word.

John Reimringer
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day? Can you think of any fallouts relating to e-books that might impinge on professional writers in the near future?
First, I’m looking at e-books optimistically. They’re another avenue through which to get literature into the world. They’re also a tremendous money-saver for publishers so far as getting the galleys of a book into the hands of reviewers, librarians, and bookstore owners.

That said, I hope the book will always exist as a physical object. There’s something satisfying about having a book in your hands that doesn’t exist in electrons. Plus, we’re becoming aware that our minds work differently when reading on paper as opposed to online. Reading a physical book grounds you in the physical world, slows your mind down, allows you to access a deeper, slower form of thought. When my life’s going right, and I’m able to stay off the internet and be with books or working on the house or in the garden, I can feel my brain slow down and my deep focus return.

It is said that literary novels often lack plots. Do you think literary novelists should put more emphasis on plot and less on stylistics? Why do you think there’s a perceived divide between popular and literary fiction?
I think a good literary novel should have both style and plot. I want my writing to have both. Part of that is a political decision: given my education and upbringing, a lot of literature was inaccessible to me as a young adult. It took Hemingway, who could hit from both sides of the plate when it came to style and plot, to open the door to becoming a writer for me. I want people who come from an education and background similar to mine—people who haven’t necessarily had high-priced educations or grown up in houses where the parents had graduate or even college degrees—to be able to read and enjoy my writing. I want to leave that door open.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

THE WRITING LIFE ... Perihan MAĞDEN

THE FEISTY LITERATI
ALEXANDRA WONG comes away amused, awed and just a little bit intimidated by feisty PERIHAN MAĞDEN as she talks about her writing and her influences, and why she thinks competitions or creative writing courses don’t improve the quality of writing

PERIHAN MAĞDEN is one of Turkey’s most recognisable literary voices. Her newspaper column in left-wing liberal paper Radikal and her novels—including the best-selling 2 Girls, which was made into an award-winning movie—brim with “demonic wit and formal elegance,” according to her countryman and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

A passionate advocate of the freedom of expression (she won the 2008 Grand Award for Freedom of Speech by the Turkish Publishers Association), Mağden has earned the wrath of the Turkish Government and several trips to the courthouse for daring to go at (as reported in FAZ) “all warmongers and generals, high-handed public prosecutors and bull-headed nationalists ... with a sledgehammer in her books and her column.”

You are one of Turkey’s most popular and best-loved authors. Fellow Turkish author and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk paid you the ultimate tribute: “Perihan Mağden is one of the most inventive and outspoken writers of our time.” Did you ever imagine that you would reach this point in your life?
Imagination has nothing to do with mundane matters. I never “imagine” such topics. Life is pointless; or full of points. It doesn’t matter really. And I haven’t reached anywhere.

When and how did you get your first big break in writing? Was it difficult getting your first novel published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your books?
If you mean fame by “break,” I got it when I became a columnist. I’ve been a published writer since I was 17. I started out with poetry. Then I wrote my novel, The Messenger Boy Murders, which was published immediately. As the singer Linton Kwesi Johnson said, “Things I do best come easily.” I can only write anyway.

You write columns, short stories, novels and poetry. How do the creative processes and challenges differ for each genre?
I wrote poems at the beginning of my career. For 10 to 15 years, I have rarely written poems. It’s not chemistry, rocket science and engineering that I’m dealing with. They are different forms of writing but easy, smooth and the same for me—just writing.

You were described as an unruly girl in your teenage years, and your mother was proud of this fact! To what extent did your formative years and experiences influence your writing?
Nothing ever influenced me more than my horrific childhood years. Nothing has been more important than my (hellish) relationship with my mother. And I think it is my only topic in my work: injuries, childhood and inability to heal.

You were once sued by the Turkish government for an article you wrote in December 2005, ‘Conscientious Objection is a Human Right.’ Were you frightened? How has the experience affected your writing in terms of your worldview, choice of subjects and your writing style?
Yes, I was very frightened when they “mobbed” me in the courthouse. They were screaming ugly names, and they were an ugly and threatening group of people. I didn’t get an enormous wave of support. Turks are cowards when it comes to this type of issues. And conscientious objection is still not a right in my country! But after the court scenes (the ugly mob with the ugly scenes) I was very embarrassed that I was so shocked and frightened that I went on writing even heavier articles. I didn’t back out; I just became louder.

You have a knack for drawing the reader into a story, so that he or she feels like an invisible participant. How did you develop this whimsical (for want of a better word) yet intensely visceral distinctive style?
A friend of mine said I have had my “writing voice” since I was a teenager. I have it naturally, I suppose.

What is a typical working day for you like? How do you brainstorm for plots and story ideas?
I avoid writing! I do anything in order not to write. If a writer claims he or she enjoys writing, he or she is (1) not a real writer, (2) a fool, (3) a conceited person, and (4) a conceited foolish person who really is not a writer.

You have been described as a playful yet serious writer. Some of the best writers have been overlooked, or worse, not taken seriously because they choose to deliver their messages in a light-hearted tone. Have you ever encouraged this issue?
Again, you’re talking about my first-born, The Messenger Boy Murders. 2 Girls is like a stone. It doesn’t make me heavyweight as a writer though.

Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
No! I think they make books much worse. Crafted. Fake. Overworked. Engineered. Manufactured.

Do you find real life interfering with your writing? How do you organise time to write, and how do you cope with distractions?
I find writing interfering with my real life. I would rather have the distractions than writing, which is a form of self-torture.

How do you know when your manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text anymore?
I need deadlines. Otherwise I shall prolong, delay, postpone and avoid it.

What are three of your all-time favourite books and why would you recommend them?
Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Alberto Moravia’s Time of Desecration, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. They are modern yet timeless; they are real diamonds.

Who are some of your biggest literary influences? What are you reading at the moment?
I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I have seen the movie which was excellent, and now I think it’s the right time to read the book which is highly recommended by precious sources.

ALEXANDRA WONG is a Malaysian newspaper columnist and travel writer who suffers from terminal wanderlust.

Reproduced from the 2009 Singapore Writers Festival issue of Quill magazine

Saturday, August 21, 2010

O Thiam Chin ... Under the Sun (MPH Publishing, September 2010)

FROM THE AUTHOR OF Never Been Better and Free-Falling Man comes a new collection of flash fiction that brings to life a world of secrets, joy, grief and longing that lie beneath the ordinary and mundane. Under the Sun offers unflinching snapshots of everyday life, encapsulating the gritty and real, the subtle and extreme in fifty stories that surprise, reveal and evoke the strange and familiar, whether on the fringes or in the mainstream.

From murders to mysterious disappearances, from distorted childhood memories to unfulfilled desires, from flights of fantasy to brutal ruptures of reality, Under the Sun delivers more of O Thiam Chin’s keen and honest observations of human flaws and foibles, and imbues the fleeting and revelatory moments of life with mystery and unembellished truths.

Praise for NEVER BEEN BETTER
“O Thiam Chin is certainly an author to watch.” World Literature Today

“O takes us into the lives of people who might never speak to one another but might spend years shopping in the same market, buying the same brand of oranges—who might even be lost in the same dreams.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

“O Thiam Chin’s stock as one of Singapore’s best young writers has risen with this superb anthology of shorts. Within this, you’ll find the full gamut of human experiences distilled with a distinct Singaporean flavour—ranging from familial woe and teenage hopelessness to loss and displacement.” I-S Magazine

“With nerve-tingling sensitivity, [O Thiam Chin] weaves vignettes about loss and love—never sliding into mawkish territory.” Lifestyle

O THIAM CHIN is a Singapore-born writer whose stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Best of Singapore Erotica, Silverfish New Writing 6 and Body2Body. His début collection of stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006, followed by a second collection, Never Been Better, in 2009, which was longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

SEPTEMBER 2010 / 5.15 x 7.75 / 216pp / Original Paperback / 978-967-5222-77-1

Friday, August 20, 2010

Winners of the 2009 James Tait Black Memorial Prizes

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

ESSAY ... Shamini FLINT

‘LOW CRIME DOESN’T MEAN NO CRIME!’
Most of the crime stories we read are written by Western writers, not written by Asians or set in Asia. SHAMINI FLINT, the author of the Inspector Singh Investigates series of crime novels, asks why there is not much of a crime fiction writing tradition in Asia

THERE IS A POSTER from the Singapore police department which says ‘Low Crime Doesn’t Mean No Crime!’ It adorns many a yellow and blue taxi on the island state and causes foreigners from societies where the streets are less safe to stop and stare. I know I do!

That catchphrase might well be one of the reasons that many people do not think ‘crime fiction’ when they think of Asian writing. Crime fiction must be the genre least associated with writing that originates in Asia. A few writers have successfully dipped their toes into the bloody bath of crime fiction writing. These include Qiu Xiaolong with his well-regarded Inspector Chen series set in Beijing as well as Nury Vittachi and his humorous Feng Shui Detective series, but on the whole, there is a real dearth of successful crime fiction writing set in Asia—either by Asians or otherwise.

Despite the fact that there are hardly any crime writers in Asia, crime fiction is widely read in these parts. A saunter through any local bookshop will demonstrate this—P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and Alexander McCall Smith are all well represented on the shelves. Far more so, it is fair to say, than any local writing. Asians clearly have a strong interest in crime fiction writing. So why is it that we are delighted to read crime stories set in Scotland, rural England and Botswana, but not somewhere in Asia?

I think the answer is simple—we don’t read ’em because we don’t write ’em. I believe that Asians generally would be delighted to read crime writing with Asia as a backdrop to the story. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us writing crime or any other genre fiction. There are a number of reasons for this.

Many Asian authors don’t turn their hand to genre fiction because there is quite a lot of pressure from the international publishing industry to write “literature,” ideally with a historical bent. As a result, many of the stories that come out of Asia—whether written by Asians or others—are over-exoticised, as if Asia has to be exaggerated to be fascinating. I have to confess that it has always been my view that fewer people are born under unlucky stars or have stoic grandmothers than seems to be portrayed in Asian literature.

Furthermore, in many ways, Asians are the least history-obsessed of peoples because so many of us—especially the chattering classes who are turning their hand to writing in English—don’t even read or speak the language of our forbears fluently. However, there is a Western market for that sort of romantic, exotic literature and publishers rarely want to mess with a successful formula. I remember reading with interest in an article that a successful Asian writer had consciously upped the ‘exotic’ quotient in his book to appeal to a Western readership! In my view, Asia does have an absorbing history as a result of colonisation, war, mass immigration, etc., but it is the way these strands are playing out in contemporary society that is so compelling.

Another reason that not many of us turn to genre writing is that it is difficult to make a living from writing in this part of the world. It often involves giving up a career in some more lucrative profession (yes, I was a lawyer!). As a result, anyone who turns their hand to the task is tempted to try and write the ‘defining’ Malaysian or Singaporean novel—and not sully their hands with genre fiction.

Finally, Asia is not a homogenous, undifferentiated area, easily represented by any single author. Crime writing tends to concentrate on a particular location: Cambridge, London, Venice. In well-executed crime fiction, the place becomes as much part of the book, as familiar and comfortable to the reader, as the policeman or detective hero. It is difficult to imagine selecting a single setting in Asia out of the myriad locations on offer and to focus on it to the exclusion of every other mysterious town and village scattered across our unique continent.

Despite all of these excellent reasons not to turn one’s hand to crime fiction, many of us who have had our handbags snatched and/or our homes broken into know very well that Asia is the perfect setting for traditional crime fiction—with an Asian twist.

The policemen tasked with guarding us from the marauding hordes are splendid characters for fiction (and nonfiction) as well. We are all too familiar with being pulled over for alleged speeding in Malaysia and asked ‘Nak settle, ke?’ or been escorted to the ‘VIP’ lane in Jakarta Airport in exchange for a fee. It makes the traditional character of the stalwart copper pursuing justice at any cost all the more appealing!

In addition, crime fiction is a great prism through which to explore the tensions within modern Asian society because it is inevitably about conflict—and the starting point is, of course, murder. The genre allows for the interaction between people of different social stratas, race and religion to be explored at length. I find the idea of reflecting contemporary Asian society in crime writing exhilarating. From racial and religious divides in Malaysia (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder), terrorism and social dysfunction in Bali (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, due in September 2009), to greed and exploitation in Singapore (Inspector Singh Investigates: A Singapore School of Villainy, due out in March 2010), there are the plots for a dozen novels in any Asian country. I certainly hope that more Asian writers will turn to crime fiction writing!

Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine

Saturday, August 14, 2010

NANCY MITFORD (1904-1973)

NEW EDITIONS of five Nancy Mitford novels have just been reissued by Vintage: Don’t Tell Alfred (1960), The Blessing (1951), Love in a Cold Climate (1949), The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Wigs on the Green (1935).

Friday, August 13, 2010

THE WRITING LIFE ... Ioannis GATSIOUNIS

IOANNIS GATSIOUNIS is a native New Yorker who has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political-cultural radio call-in show in the U.S. He has been living in Malaysia since the early 2000s. He is the author of a new collection of stories, Velvet & Cinder Blocks (ZI Publications, 2009). He is also the author of a nonfiction book, Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle for Dignity and Direction (Monsoon Books, 2008).

Gatsiounis’s début collection of stories captures the spirit of the individual who struggles to define himself in a world where the idea of identity is both concrete and perpetually fleeting, a world where loyalties, friendships and family ties can alter in an instant. A young painter follows a false prophet deep into a desert. A pious rape victim struggles to see past her faith in the aftermath of a tsunami. A Chinese-American’s Chineseness is put to the test in multiracial Malaysia. A young Malay caretaker and his lone guest at a remote guesthouse struggle to find direction and compassion in an era of stark civilisational divides. With these 10 well-imagined and decadently engrossing stories, Gatsiounis offers us a timely, penetrating meditation on intimacy, alienation and triumph in the post-9/11 world.

INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF IOANNIS GATSIOUNIS

Most readers know you for your astute writings on Malaysian politics. When and why did you turn to fiction?
Fiction is something I’ve quietly been pursuing alongside the news analysis. Media is seductive in that it offers an immediate outlet to voice your concerns. But it’s not well suited to explore how relationships between individuals and communities play out against the backdrop of the larger world. And I was finding post-9/11, post-Iraq that those two realms—the personal on the one hand, and the external, which has become increasingly politicised—were growing inextricable. Fiction was better suited to explore that relationship.

Do you then feel contemporary fiction must be political to be relevant?
Not necessarily, though I do think it’s harder not to be in the post-9/11 world. Take, for instance, converting to Islam for the right to marry a Muslim. A choice that a few years ago may have seemed innocuously personal, today contains a polarising political dimension. And this is the case involving a whole range of issues. So, yes, politics has an important role to play in contemporary fiction.

Some of these stories—“The Guesthouse,” “Above the Merciless Waterline” and “Fathers”—seem intent on communicating the idea that people can rise above those differences.
Precisely! Nothing is inevitable. In that way the collection is very optimistic. But it is also mindful not to gloss over starker realities of our time. Events of the external world—dramatised by an ever more invasive media—are perpetuating misunderstanding. How is this happening? I was intrigued by that question.

Several of the stories suggest that intimacy is at stake?
More basically, compassion. We see that in “The Guesthouse,” between Si and Basel, and later with Azara. And then in “Above the Merciless Waterline” between Hana and Putono. But not everything about the collection is political. Several of the stories deal with failed relationships that have no political connection.

Are you a pessimist on matters of intimacy?
I wanted to stress different sides of the intimacy equation. So often in film or literature a character has some void in his or her life and intimacy comes around to save the day. But life doesn’t usually work that way. Real intimacy is elusive; much of who we are is shaped in its absence. Sometimes for the worse, and sometimes for the better.

The closing novella, “The Guesthouse,” is among the most ambitious, and ultimately most inspiring, stories in the collection. What are you trying to convey?
How global events can feed our sense of limitation. More specifically I was interested in the historical moment between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. It’s a period that shaped the planet in unprecedented ways, but which most literature, for whatever reason, has neglected. The story is not intended as a “tour” to a foreign country. It does not exoticise; it does not get caught up in all those touristy details; it doesn’t introduce you to italicised words to give the false impression of real writing. It is concerned with detail of another sort: the effects of isolation in an increasingly connected yet politically polarised world. Through each other and their satellite channels, Si and Basel think they’re seeing more of the world when in fact they’re seeing less.

Karaoke plays an interesting role in the novella. Why? [Laughs.] Karaoke here is a metaphor for the insidiousness of conformity; inventiveness and novelty are still very much frowned upon in this part of the world. Like many Malays I’ve met, Basel is full of this buried creativity, that if unleashed could save him from his inner doubts and demons—which here have been known to work their way through race and religion. But that catharsis won’t happen if he does what is expected of him, by his own race or the other races. Karaoke is a symbol for that struggle—the struggle for creative freedom and personal responsibility.

Your stories discuss identity and belonging, among other issues. There also seems to be a recurring theme on absent or failed fathers. Could you elaborate a little about these themes?
My first teachers in Montessori were Lebanese and my family would have dinners at their house. So I grew accustomed to Middle Eastern cuisine almost as early as I did American and European food. My middle and high schools were predominantly Jewish. My mother’s side of the family was made up of quintessential, assiduous, Anglo-Protestant Americans. This liberated me. I didn’t feel bound to one group or another. But the world likes its people in categories, and is suspicious of people it can’t fit into them. This really struck me during my first road trip beyond America’s East Coast. By the time I reached Kentucky it was pretty clear I was the outsider in my own country: the dark-haired, dark-eyed guy driving a Japanese car, with a Greek name. And yet I wasn’t raised around Greeks. I was American as far as I could tell. Later, as you know, I would find myself in Malaysia, where identity is a preoccupation to the point virtually of being a neurosis. The issue of identity has seemed to follow me wherever I go.

As for the theme of absent fathers, well, I’m interested in how people cope with absence. That was part of it. And part of it derived from personal experience; my father wasn’t always around. Though to be fair, he was a loving man, and I have fonder memories of him than many of my characters have of their fathers.

What do you think of the health of the short story? Do you think it’s in danger of falling into obscurity?
It is, but it’s not fated for obscurity; it’s the writer’s job to give it new life and the reader to rediscover what’s in it for them, both in terms of entertainment and understanding. Stephen King argued in a New York Times op-ed a few years ago that too many writers are writing for other writers. They’re aiming to show off rather than entertain; they’re self-conscious instead of being open. I think he’s right. Many writers have been conditioned—through MFA programs or a desire to please editors—not to part with conventions of the form. All of this has made the short story stale. In the end, it’s very important to do it your own way.

Part of the blame for the short story’s demise, too, rests with the reader, who in our media age of reason naively assumes that knowledge comes primarily if not only from facts, which they associate with nonfiction. They’ve failed to understand that what fiction’s good at—describing how people think and respond to their environment—is a fact of a different sort, and just as vital to grasp. We’ve lost touch with a fundamental truth: that one can’t truly be civilised without reading literature—that everyone from our leaders down to our neighbours would possess greater understanding and compassion if they did. But there is hope for literature, and by way the short story. In fact, the short story is a good fit for our chaotic media age. Unlike the novel, you can get in and get out. Furthermore, it can serve as a great introduction to literature. I have a friend here in Malaysia who didn’t read literature before we met. I threw a few novels her way but very quickly they’d end up back on the shelf. Then I encouraged her to read a short story by T.C. Boyle. Now without prompting she reads Boyle, Richard Ford and Annie Proulx—for fun! And I have a hunch she’s now a fuller, happier person for it.

Monday, August 09, 2010

THE READING LIFE ... Lydia TEH


NOTHING BEATS A GOOD BOOK
Best-selling Malaysian author LYDIA TEH talks about reading and some of her favourite books

LYDIA TEH was born and bred in Klang, Malaysia. She still resides in this royal town famous for its glittering streetlights, seafood, bah-kut-teh (herbal pork stew) and the ubiquitous crows. A homemaker, she enjoys writing while raising her brood of four. In between cooking for her children, chauffeuring them around and coaching them in their studies, she loves observing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Malaysians. All these she captures in her three best-selling books, Life’s Like That: Scenes from Malaysian Life, Honk! If You’re Malaysian and Do You Wear Suspenders?: The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim.

After being a desperate housewife for some 17 years, Teh hung up her apron in 2009 to join the office brigade. She now administers an English-language centre in Klang. Her sixth book, Fun for Kids in Malaysia: An Essential Guide to Fun-tastic Activities for Children, has gone to print and should hit bookstores in August 2010. Next is a parental guide with lots of humour.

INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF LYDIA TEH

How do you find the time to read with your busy schedule?
Clean and cook less, sleep later. If there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Do you think reading matters?
Reading is a pastime that makes time fly like a speeding bullet. Reading is my ticket to escape into other worlds for a bout of wandering and poking around. Reading helped me score distinctions in my English-language examinations and without having to memorise dates, events, places, body parts, plant cells, formulae and what-not. Does reading matters? You bet.

What kind of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Enid Blyton was my first love. I read a wide range of her books, including boarding school stories at St. Clare’s and Mallory Towers, adventure tales of the Adventurous Four, Famous Five and Secret Seven, The Naughtiest Girl series as well as her bedtime stories.

In secondary school I graduated to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. Then there was the “M&B” series. No, not Maths & Biology, but Mills & Boon! Barbara Cartland with her stammering helpless heroines followed close on the heels of Agatha Christie’s mysteries.

Books played a big part in my young life. Reading allowed me to escape into exciting worlds quite different from my own quiet existence. One of my favourite memories of my late father was of him taking me to the K.K. Dawood bookstore in Taiping Street to borrow M&B books.

Sixth form exposed me to the works of William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters and poets like Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. I digested these works in the course of duty rather than the pleasure they could afford but I learnt to respect their skilful penmanship in critical appreciation class. These literature classes stood me in good stead later in life when I would voluntarily pick up copies of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Emma and read them with much enjoyment.

What are some of your favourite contemporary books? Why do you enjoy reading them?
I enjoy reading novels on Asian culture such as Amy Tan’s books (I’ve read all her titles except Saving Fish from Drowning which I bought but somehow couldn’t get past the first chapter), Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I also enjoy reading memoirs, particularly those of writers such as Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, Stephen King’s On Writing, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Higgins Clark’s Kitchen Privileges and Michael J. Fox’s Lucky Man: A Memoir. I read Lucky Man to gain an insight into how the Family Ties and Back to the Future star coped with Parkinson’s disease because my late father was also afflicted with the same condition. I also like Roald Dahl; it’s a pity I didn’t discover him until I became an adult. I bought almost all of his books for my children—and myself! Reading his books is akin to going on a journey without knowing what to expect. You don’t know what is coming up and you can’t wait to take the next step to find out what lies ahead!

Do you have an all-time favourite book? Why do you enjoy reading it? Do you reread books you enjoyed the first time round?
No, I don’t have an all-time favourite book. I usually don’t reread books. I think this is a luxury I can ill afford. I’d rather spend time reading new books or discovering new authors. Having said that, I did reread Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China recently. I borrowed the book from a friend several years back. My daughter didn’t know about this and bought it as a gift for me on Mother’s Day. So I read it again, and it was just as riveting the second time round.

Assuming you enjoy reading fiction, what are the elements in fiction that take your breath away? In other words, what do you think are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why. Perhaps you enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction?)
I enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction. Where fiction is concerned, I prefer page-turners to literary tomes. The writing may be beautiful and the sentences may leave me awe-struck by their sheer genius, but if nothing much is happening on the page, I would rather go scrub the kitchen sink. I read nonfiction to be enlightened and sometimes, to be entertained. If the book covers a subject I want to learn about, that is good enough for me, with one proviso: it must not be written like an academic text as I am allergic to such prose. My immediate reaction is to fall into a deep, deep sleep.

What are you reading at the moment?
Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. As a young girl, I read scores, maybe hundreds, of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm brothers. I am rereading the collection as research for my next book.

What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
Get out of here! Books will not go extinct. If they ever do, it will be sometime in the distant future when there is no more production of paper. Think about the day when all the books in the world can only be found as e-books. Imagine no longer being able to pose for photographs in front of your imposing bookshelves. Instead you would be holding up a little Kindle or an IPad in one hand. What a ludicrous and pedestrian picture that would make. Nothing but paper books can make you appear more erudite than you actually are!

Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of July 10, 2010

Thursday, August 05, 2010

ESSAY ... ZHANG Su Li

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN KOPISAN AND GOPENG
Malaysian travel writer ZHANG SU LI finds solidarity in the most unlikely of places during a heavy storm in small-town Malaysia

IT WAS A PLEASANTLY COOL and breezy evening—the sort that was made for walking. I decided to leave the car by a small village road in Kopisan and walk the rest of the way to Gopeng, where they made the best lai fun (rice noodles in clear soup) in the world.

I walked across the rugged landscape made up of soft red earth and mounds of grassy patches, sometimes with lalang that came up to your waist. That patch of land was the surrounding area of an old mining pool that was now a lake. It was beginning to get dark, but I could still see the large lily pads floating on the murky water, and pink long-stemmed lotus flowers opening up towards the deep orange sky streaked with a similar pink. The air was filled with the subtle scent of white frangipani, and an occasional whiff of cow dung.

Twenty minutes later, upon reaching the main road leading towards Gopeng, I felt a few drops of water land on my face. The sky had gone dark and the air had become heavy with moisture.

I ran until I saw a row of shops on the other side of the road. By then the rain was beating so hard against the pavement that I had to walk up a dark, narrow flight of stairs next to a sundry shop to avoid getting soaked. As I sat on one of the steps waiting for the storm to subside, my stomach rumbled impatiently.

The storm wouldn’t let up. I was still sitting there almost half an hour later, cursing the weather. Once in a while, there’d be a girl or two, dressed in short skirts, laddered black tights and high heels, walking back and forth on the pavement. From where I sat, I could only see up to their waists, but it was enough to know what they did for a living.

“Do you want some tea?” A soft voice suddenly came from the top of the stairs.

I turned around and saw the silhouette of a thin woman. I couldn’t see her face as the staircase was dark. But the kindness in her voice and the thought of a hot cup of milky tea made me accept her invitation.

I walked up the remaining steps and entered her tiny room. She gestured for me to sit at a small foldable table by the wooden plantation window. The bottle green paint on its frame and shutters was blistery on some parts and flaky on others. One side of the wall had stains in different tones of grey and brown running all the way from the ceiling to the floor where rain had been seeping through. Against the cleaner wall was a narrow and rusty iron framed bed.

My eyes did a quick sweep along the shelf above the bed and then stopped halfway. Next to a hairbrush, there was a round swivel mirror, a pale yellow enamel mug containing a toothbrush and a tube of Darlie toothpaste. Next to that was an old paperback wrapped in clear cellophane like the books you find in libraries and second-hand bookstores. The spine was so badly creased it took me some time to figure out the title. It was a collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.

Reaching for a tin flask with red roses painted on it, the woman smiled and apologised that the tea wasn’t freshly made. She pulled out the muslin-covered cork stopper and poured some tea into two stainless steel cups.

Her name was Radha. She was in her early thirties, I guessed. She had an oval face, a straight nose and large eyes. Her expression was unreadable. And yet, one could tell from her eyes that they concealed an inner world very different from the town she lived in, and a history that went back far in time.

We sat at the table sipping sweet tepid tea. The storm had calmed down into a drizzle now. I heard a soft whimper and wondered where it came from. Radha bent down to look under the bed. Only then did I notice a toddler sleeping on a flattened Sunsilk cardboard box. The small chubby fingers with tiny round nails were clutching onto the arm of a plastic Pinocchio doll. He stirred a little and whimpered again.

Radha picked him up from under the bed and he gurgled at the sight of his mother. Her face was suddenly lit up by a smile, and for a few moments, it seemed as though she was unaware that I was there. For a few moments, it was just her and her child.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Prem,” she replied, turning to me.

“It’s a nice name,” I said. “What does it mean?”

“Love,” Radha said proudly. “It means ‘love’.”

I stayed for a few more minutes and we shared a plate of cucur udang. Prem sat on the floor sucking on a small piece that his mother had torn off for him. Pinocchio lay next to him, staring at me with a garishly painted smile on his face.

“I should get going,” I said as I got up. “Thanks so much for the tea.”

Outside, the rain had released the earthy scent from the ground and the air smelled faintly of cinnamon. I resumed my journey towards Gopeng market.

As I walked away from the row of shops, I couldn’t help imagining Radha lying on her back earlier that evening, in the rusty bed above her sleeping son, and sweat from the man on top of her dripping onto her face. I also imagined her sitting up in bed with Prem by her side, reading stories about casuarina trees, Tuan Jones drinking gin pahit on the verandah of a colonial house in Malaya, and missionary nurses falling in love with drunks.

For a long time I couldn’t help wondering about the room above the sundry shop, somewhere between Kopisan and Gopeng.

ZHANG SU LI is the author of A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (Marshall Cavendish, 2007), a collection of travel stories. She also conducts creative writing workshops in Kuala Lumpur. Zhang has two travel pieces in a forthcoming travel anthology, Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, edited by Tom Sykes and Tan May Lee and published by MPH Publishing in early 2011.

Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine

Monday, August 02, 2010

Janet TAY reviews Paul HARDING’s Tinkers

IMAGINED IDYLL
Review by JANET TAY
In his final hours, a clock repairman imagines his father, who had abandoned the family, and finds that some things cannot be fixed.

TINKERS
By Paul Harding
(Bellevue Literary Press/William Heinemann)

TINKERS was a little-known book before it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April this year. According to The New York Times, Paul Harding’s manuscript “languished in a desk drawer for nearly three years”, rejected by publishers who told him that “nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book”. It was eventually published by Bellevue Literary Press, a publisher affiliated to the New York University’s School of Medicine, which paid a US$1,000 (RM3,500) advance to the author.

Harding called it a “little book from a little publisher that was hand-sold from start to finish.” The Guardian reported that it has been 30 years since a small publisher last won the Pulitzer, the last being John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in 1981.

Tinkers may look like a little book, but it is not an easy read. It starts off uncomplicated enough—the emotions and observations in the last few weeks/days of a clock repairman, George Washington Crosby, who lies dying in a “rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room”.

George drifts in and out of consciousness with memories of his childhood and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby, while his family (his wife, their grandchildren from Kansas, Atlanta and Seattle, his sister from Florida) are in the house, periodically attending to his minor requests, like winding the clocks and giving him a drink of water. In Harding’s words, George, “as he lay on his deathbed … wanted to see his father again. He wanted to imagine his father”.

Howard’s narrative dominates the book, and often extends beyond mere memories. Although it is said that they are imagined by George, or part of his hallucinations, it is difficult to believe that a dying man could have such clear, distinct memories and conceive of an imaginary world in such specific detail.

Howard’s narrative seems perfectly able to stand on its own, perhaps even as a separate novel, and makes George’s feel more rushed and summarised, like an underdeveloped story rather than part of the book Tinkers is meant to be.

Harding’s writing is lyrical and evocative; he has George yearning to record the memories of his life in the last months of his life with a tape recorder, a wistful, emotional description: “He talked about blue snow and barrels of apples and splitting frozen wood so brittle that it rang when you split it. He talked about what it is like to be a grandparent for the first time and to think about what it is you will leave behind when you die.”

When George realises that the clocks he had regularly wound have now stopped, he is dismayed: “When he imagined inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down.”

Harding’s use of metaphor and imagery here is effective, melding George and his clocks, the objects that are so much a part of his life—it is as though he were fused to them—so that they become almost like the vital organs in his body, both failing at the same time.

Despite the interiority of the novel, Harding’s descriptions of 18th-century New England are also breathtaking. Howard observes how a “late-spring storm capped the last daffodils and the first tulips with dollops of snow, which melted when the sun came back out” and the roots of flowers that “drank the cold melt, their stalks straightened from the chilly drink; their petals, supple and hale, were spared the brittle coating of a true freeze.”

In true idyllic fashion, Harding describes the afternoon becoming warm and “with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like a newborn” and frozen rainwater on trees that “turned into sheaths of ice that refracted the gold light from the rising sun into silver light that glittered in the breeze”.

Readers who enjoy lush descriptions of scenery may enjoy his writing and these clearly demonstrate his ability to write beautifully. On the other hand, heavy emphasis on these descriptions alone may result in a tedious trudge for readers who prefer the story to unfold in a setting that is not quite so stationary.

Harding’s arrangement of the narratives and storyline also leave much to be desired. Told in a non-linear fashion, Howard and George’s narratives continuously intersperse until the end of the book and even include a fictional 18th-century clock repair manual called The Reasonable Horologist. Although the author’s knowledge of horology is impressive, one may be inclined to skip the laborious description of clock repair, unless one is a horologist or has a special interest in clock repair.

The sum of a man’s life usually comprises his memories and the significant events he has been a part of. Had Harding developed these memories further (for instance, George witnessing his father’s epileptic fit and being bitten in the process, the perception of epilepsy at that time, and Howard’s abandonment of his family) in order to expand the novel and elaborate on the emotional scars from these events, Tinkers might have been a more compelling read.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of August 1, 2010

Sunday, August 01, 2010

August 2010 Highlights

Novels
1. Started Early, Took My Dog (Doubleday, 2010) / Kate Atkinson
2. Three Sisters (trans. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin) (Telegram Books, 2010) / Bi Feiyu
3. The Water Theatre (Alma Books, 2010) / Lindsay Clarke
4. The Old Romantic (Fig Tree/Penguin, 2010) / Louise Dean
5. Room (Picador, 2010) / Emma Donoghue
6. Homesick (Impress Press, 2010) / Roshi Fernando
7. City of Veils (Little, Brown, 2010) / Zoë Ferraris
8. Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) / Jonathan Franzen
9. The Jewel of St. Petersburg (Penguin Group USA, 2010) / Kate Furnivall
10. The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Knopf Canada, 2010) / Camilla Gibb

11. The Red Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2010) / Philippa Gregory
12. Oil On Water (Hamish Hamilton, 2010) / Helon Habila
13. Of Beasts and Beings (Simon & Schuster, 2010) / Ian Holding
14. The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury, 2010) / Howard Jacobson
15. Stella (trans. from the German by Anthea Bell) (Other Press, 2010) / Siegfried Lenz
16. I’d Know You Anywhere (William Morrow/HarperCollins Publisher, 2010) / Laura Lippman
17. The Golden Mean (first published by Random House of Canada in 2009) (Atlantic Books, 2010) / Annabel Lyon
18. All Men Are Liars (trans. from the Spanish by Miranda Frances) (Alma Books, 2010) / Alberto Manguel
19. The Good Daughters (Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, 2010) / Joyce Maynard
20. A Cautious Approach (Hutchinson, 2010) / Stanley Middleton

21. Collusion (Harvill Secker, 2010) / Stuart Neville
22. Blind Man’s Alley (Doubleday, 2010) / Justin Peacock
23. The Summer of the Bear (Mantle, 2010) / Bella Pollen
24. Tigerlily’s Orchids (Hutchinson, 2010) / Ruth Rendell
25. And the Land Lay Still (Hamish Hamilton, 2010) / James Robertson
26. The Elephant’s Journey (trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) (Harvill Secker, 2010) / José Saramago
27. My Hollywood (Knopf Doubleday, 2010) / Mona Simpson
28. A Man in Uniform (Doubleday Canada, 2010) / Kate Taylor
29. Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010) / Monique Truong
30. Sanctuary Line (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) / Jane Urquhart

31. Strangers at the Feast (Simon & Schuster, 2010) / Jennifer Vanderbes
32. Kehua! (Corvus, 2010) / Fay Weldon
33. The Sonderberg Case (trans. from the French by Catherine Temerson) (Knopf Doubleday, 2010) / Elie Wiesel
34. The Death of Donna Whalen (Hamish Hamilton Canada/Penguin Canada, 2010) / Michael Winter
35. Pictures of Lily (Corsair, 2010) / Matthew Yorke

First Novels
1. You Lost Me There (Riverhead, 2010) / Rosecrans Baldwin
2. Rocks in the Belly (Scribe Publications, 2010) / Jon Bauer
3. The Vintage and the Gleaning (Text Publishing, 2010) / Jeremy Chambers
4. Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto (Jonathan Cape, 2010) / Maile Chapman
5. Stiltsville (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010) / Susanna Daniel
6. The Stuff That Never Happened (Crown Publishing, 2010) / Maddie Dawson
7. The Pleasure Seekers (Bloomsbury USA, 2010) / Tishani Doshi
8. My Last Duchess (Headline Review, 2010) / Daisy Goodwin
9. The Eden Hunter (Counterpoint, 2010) / Skip Horack
10. Serious Men (W.W. Norton, 2010) / Manu Joseph

11. Matterhorn (Corvus, 2010) / Karl Marlantes
12. The Butterfly Cabinet (Headline Review, 2010) / Bernie McGill
13. The Last Kestrel (Blue Door/HarperCollins, 2010) / Jill McGivering
14. Rich Boy (Twelve, 2010) / Sharon Pomerantz
15. Quilt (Myriad Editions, 2010) / Nicholas Royle
16. The Legacy (Atria, 2010) / Kirsten Tranter

Stories
1. Prose (trans. from the German by Martin Chalmers) (Seagull Books, 2010) / Thomas Bernhard
2. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Hamish Hamilton, 2011) / Lydia Davis
3. Echoes (HarperCollins, 2010) / Laura Dockrill
4. New Stories from the South 2010: The Year’s Best (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010) / Amy Hempel (ed.)

Poetry
1. Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (Graywolf Press, 2010) / Thomas Sayers Ellis
2. Maggot (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) / Paul Muldoon
3. Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet Books, 2010) / John Whale

Nonfiction
1. The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (ed. Randall Kenan) (Pantheon/Knopf Doubleday, 2010) / James Baldwin
2. Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (Random House, 2010) / Gail Caldwell
3. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English (Little, Brown, 2010) / Roy Peter Clark
4. Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection (eds. Trevor Hall and Vicki Kennedy) (Random House, 2010) / Robert Coles
5. The Voice That Thunders (The Harvill Press, 2010) / Alan Garner
6. A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Windmill Books, 2010) / Elena Gorokhova
7. Mentor: A Memoir (Tin House Books, 2010) / Tom Grimes
8. The Heart of William James (ed. Robert Richardson) (Harvard University Press, 2010) / William James
9. Encounter: Essays (Faber & Faber, 2010) / Milan Kundera
10. Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam with Ibn Battutah (John Murray, 2010) / Tim Mackintosh-Smith

11. Hollywood: A Third Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2010) / Larry McMurtry
12. What To Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (Jonathan Cape, 2010) / Candia McWilliam
13. Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45 (Bodley Head, 2010) / Roger Moorhouse
14. The Black Nile: One Man’s Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World’s Longest River (Viking, 2010) / Dan Morrison
15. The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism (Allen Lane, 2010) / Tariq Ramadan
16. A Rift in Time: Travels with my Ottoman Uncle (Profile Books, 2010) / Raja Shehadeh
17. Bomber County (Hamish Hamilton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) / Daniel Swift
18. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) / Edmund De Waal