Sunday, September 30, 2007

News from the literary front

IT IS THE STRANGEST FEELING waking up in my own bed after three nights of sleeping on a strange yet deliciously comfortable bed on the mystical island of Bali, hearing the sounds of silence and stillness in the incense-filled air. (I still hear faint echoes of gamelan music when I wake up at the break of dawn.) It was one pleasurable holiday a long time in the coming. It’s amazing what four days and three nights in Bali can do to one’s soul, constitution and intellectual frame of mind. Yes, Bali has that strange, undefinable effect on you.

Nury Vittachi, in his excellent introduction to the Autumn 2007 Vol. 5 issue of the Asia Literary Review calls Ubud “a classic Asian destination offering you the chance to sit under a palm tree with a view of Bali’s holy Mount Agung [Bali’s highest and most revered mountain], sipping a cocktail of freshly-picked fruit, while inhaling the aromas of your exotically spiced dinner being prepared.” But there’s more to Bali than that, of course. (Incidentally, there’s a memorable story by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng in this issue of the Review. It is entitled “Somewhere Above the Clouds,” a gripping story about a Japanese pilot in the time of war.)

However, sightseeing, despite its enticing seductiveness, had to take a back seat this time round because of the 2007 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival that mphonline’s Chow Keng Soon and I were there for.

Yes, we are now back from the 2007 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali, and what can I say: we had an amazing time soaking up the literary atmosphere. Met Malaysians with as-always glamorous notions of publishing despite the lack of quality manuscripts. Ask Tan Twan Eng, the Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon, 2007), and he will tell you that writing is all bloody hard work and more bloody hard work. If you are into Australian fiction or OzLit, you will have a field day here at this festival. It was one mind-boggling whirlwind after another of author sightings and signings.

And yes, the authors were all there in full force: the lovely and down-to-earth 2006 Man Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai, the thought-provoking Shashi Tharoor, the soft-spoken and simply lovely Madeleine Thien, Passarola Rising author Azhar Abidi, the intelligent Rana Dasgupta, the funny Nury Vittachi and the larger-than-life Catherine Lim. Tan Twan Eng, Orange Prize-shortlisted author Jill Dawson, Patrick Gale, Richard Flanagan, Kam Raslan and Peter Goldsworthy were all there, too. And I finally got to meet Deepika Shetty and Ann Lee after years of reading about them and their work.

I will post all the bad photographs I took once I have unspoolled myself.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lose Yourself in the World of Tunku Halim

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

2007 Frank O'CONNOR International Short Story Prize Winner

THE WINNER of the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, presented at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, on September 24, 2007, is Miranda July for her excellently unsettling (or unsettlingly excellent) first collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner/Canongate, 2007). In 2005, Yiyun Li received the inaugural prize for her début collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005). In 2006, the prize went to Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006).

Monday, September 24, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 9


The 9th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, October 27, 2007, will feature Choong Kwee Kim, whose first illustrated book, Ah Fu The Rickshaw Coolie (MPH Publishing, 2007), was released in August 2007. Kwee Kim is a journalist with The Star in Penang, Malaysia.

Also featured is Daphne Lee, author of One Red Flower, A is for Anklet, If I Were a Star and Sweet Pink Posies (MPH Publishing, 2006). A columnist and book reviewer with The Star’s Sunday magazine, StarMag, Daphne is a passionate advocate of children’s books with Malaysian content. She has a huge book collection that goes back more than 30 years that is still growing. Her dream is to own a bookshop and write good children’s books.

;" Choong Kwee Kim and Daphne Lee will be introduced by Eric Forbes. Janet Tay will facilitate the session.

Date October 27, 2007 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

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


The 10th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, November 24, 2007 will feature novelist Tan Twan Eng, whose first novel, The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon Press, 2007), was released in March 2007 and was longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize for Fiction, as well as novelist D. Devika Bai, a retired schoolteacher who has published her first novel, The Flight of the Swans (Monsoon Books, 2005).

Tan Twan Eng and D. Devika Bai will be introduced by Eric Forbes. Janet Tay will be facilitating the session.

There will be no Breakfast Club in December 2007


The 11th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, January 26, 2008, will be featuring the Malaysian Prince of Darkness, Tunku Halim, whose collection of ghostly tales, 44 Cemetery Road (MPH Publishing, 2007), was published in May 2007. Touted as Malaysia’s Stephen King, Halim, who is equally adept at both fiction and nonfiction, will be having another collection of new and selected stories out soon, Gravedigger’s Kiss (MPH Publishing, October 2007).

Eric Forbes will be introducing Tunku Halim while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

MPH Bangsar Village II is at Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Janet TAY reviews ... Ben OKRI's Starbook (Rider, 2007)

The Trickster God’s Allegory

Review by JANET TAY

By Ben Okri
(Rider, 432pp)

“There is no telling when, and how, in what atrocious circumstances that aren’t what they seem, or in what wonderful moment that conceals the seeds of tragedy, there is no telling when and how the trickster god is working. Perhaps even now he is working with these words on your mind ...”

BEN OKRI was a name unfamiliar to me until I had chanced upon a poem called ‘An African Elegy’ many years ago. Remembering it to be both beautiful and accessible, it led me to seek out Okri’s novels later, the first of which would be Astonishing the Gods (1995). Reeling from my find, I explored his other novels from Infinite Riches (1998) down to The Famished Road (1991), and one day found a copy of the delightful Flowers and Shadows (1980), Okri’s first book, published when he was only twenty-one. As with most first books, I expected the author’s inexperience to reveal the usual potholes and rough edges that tripped and edged the reader uncomfortably from the suspension of disbelief.

I was wrong.

After finishing Flowers and Shadows, I came to the veritable conclusion that Okri is just one of those writers who has a gift, a natural flair for telling stories and weaving them in ways that leave the reader on a constant tightrope of wavering between reality and conjurations of the mind. And so my passion for Okri’s novels remained—much like the novels themselves—something of an enigma, a mystery that I could not quite understand myself, much less articulate in something as heavy and plodding as sometimes words can be.

After Infinite Riches, Okri took five years to publish his next novel, In Arcadia (2002). I must sadly confess that it was not a novel that I particularly preferred, not after waiting five years to relive the ardour that I had felt after having merely brushed fingers with the implications of his far-reaching work.

Which is why when I heard that Okri’s latest novel, Starbook, would be released in August 2007, I was reduced to babbling excitedly and incoherently about the prospect of reviewing his latest work after another break of five years.

It was not an easy task. My memories of Okri’s earlier novels are filled with fondness; they had taught me to appreciate his skills of story-telling, his ability to provide gaps for readers to fill and also his painting of the vast landscapes of African culture and country. Starbook, however, is a little harder to define. It is a book in many books, a tale woven into many tales, stories which converge and diverge throughout the novel, but mainly a love story, as its subtitle suggests. More like stars than humans, the figures of the prince and the maiden move almost in parallel with one another in their respective realms (invisible to each other at first) and undergo a series of initiations, pain, learning, relearning—deaths and rebirths that one must undergo, for “all love must lead to death, of one kind or another.”

An allegorical fable that challenges the mind and the heart, Okri tells the story of a prince, a truly noble soul who constantly learns and seeks the knowledge of life and the kingdom that he is to inherit from his father, the king who “seemed to rule without ruling,” a king whose absence left his people “in freedom, to be how they best can be. He left them free to be able to choose how they wanted to be.” The maiden is a mysterious figure herself, initially overshadowed by the legend of her father, a skilled artist revered among her tribespeople, a race of artists who prize art above all else, believing that “art was the bridge to the creator, and thus to all things, all mysteries on earth or in heaven.” They compete for the hands of women with art and choose their wives through art, for a person is often revealed by their art.

Starbook is filled with luscious prose and philosophical musings, interlaced with Okri’s trademark oneiric descriptions. The absence of the names of people and places urges the reader to form what Okri calls a “creative relationship” with the novel, to stage in “the theatre of the mind” the reader’s own revamping of what has been read. Slightly reminiscent of the imaginary island city in Astonishing the Gods, the land in Starbook is for the most parts unnamed, apart from the odd reference to Africa and the description of clothing and food. The reference to Africa seems intentionally insignificant so that readers, in a blink of an eye, could easily miss it and just as easily recognise the landscape as a different place.

Wisdom is passed around from father to son, ruler to heir, mother to daughter, father and artisan to daughter and pupil and the prince who learns about learning and observes far more from silence than being spoken to, the allegories in Starbook are as many as the minds they encounter through readers, and equally fluid. As ever-changing as a spell that might be cast by the Trickster God, Starbook could be construed as a political message (as Okri’s novels and poetry often are), an allegory about the art of writing or the creation of art, the changes brought about in society by modernity or very simply, a story about life, love and loss.

The “book of life among the stars” does have, however, an unchanging theme running through it—love. Like everything in life, the only true answer seems to be love. And love brings about deaths, rebirths, and regeneration until we become more “universal,” “unrepresentative of our clan, tribe, country, sex, religion or any other classification,” until “we become a kind of dream of light.” Perhaps, allegories aside, love is the one universal interpretation of Starbook that transcends creed and culture, even as Okri encourages the reader to indulge in liberal interpretation of his work.

Okri in his official MySpace page talks about how he is interested in the “afterwards,” how his writing would induce two reactions, one immediate and the other a few years later, likening it to a timed-release Vitamin C capsule. This is definitely an issue to consider in Starbook, for one must not trust the immediate reaction to the occasionally elusive nature of the novel, and should instead read and re-read it in stages. The completion of the novel feels like an initiation of sorts and leads the reader to a tranquil process of—borrowing lines from Mental Fight (1999), Okri’s epic poem—‘Contemplating the quantum questions/Time, death, new beginnings/Regeneration, cycles, the unknown.’ Starbook is an anti-spell for the 21st century indeed, and like the tribe of artists, one must learn to love the “way of representing what was familiar or unfamiliar” and “to be amazed by that which they did not understand.”

Janet TAY is a book editor in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Saturday, September 22, 2007

John GRISHAM ... Playing for Pizza (2007)

Sports and fiction?

ANOTHER one of John Grisham’s forays outside the legal-thriller genre, Playing for Pizza (Doubleday/Century, September 2007) relates the cultural and linguistic misadventures of a fallen American football star quarterback who moves to Italy to play for the Parma Panthers. His other non-legal-thriller forays include A Painted House (2001), Skipping Christmas (2001), Bleachers (2003) and An Innocent Man (2006), his first nonfiction book. Keep a lookout for his new legal thriller which should be out on January 29, 2008, The Appeal (Doubleday/Century, 2008).

Book courtesy of MPH Distributors

Friday, September 21, 2007

Stuff I've Been Reading Lately

1. Shakespeare (biography, September 2007) / Bill Bryson
2. Sleep, Pale Sister (novel, 1994) / Joanne Harris
3. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (stories, 2006) / Haruki Murakami
4. Run (novel, 2007) / Ann Patchett
5. Everyman (novella, 2006) / Philip Roth
6. Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (poetry, 2003) / Franz Wright

Thursday, September 20, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 8

MPH Bangsar Village II on September 23, 2007

The 8th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on SUNDAY, September 23, 2007 will feature theatre actor-director-newspaper columnist Gavin Yap, whose first book, tentatively titled What’s the Point? (MPH Publishing, 2008), a book of observations and opinions, will be published sometime in 2008. Yap’s latest production is the acclaimed British playwright Sarah Kane’s last play, 4.48 Psychosis (Methuen, 2000), with a cast that includes Susan Lankester, Samantha Schubert and Malik Taufiq. Kane battled clinical depression her whole life before killing herself at the age of 28 in 1999.

We will also be featuring mathematician-turned-television scriptwriter and newspaper columnist Dzof Azmi. Though logic is the antithesis of emotion, Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

Gavin Yap will be introduced by Eric Forbes while Dzof Azmi will be introduced by Janet Tay. Janet Tay will be facilitating the session.

Date September 23, 2007 (Sunday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sun, Surf and ... Books?

4th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2007

WHAT COMES TO OUR MINDS when we talk about Bali? Sacred temples, ancient gods, Hindu rituals and ceremonies. Breathtaking sunsets and sunkissed beaches. Verdant paddy fields, picturesque paddy terraces in the highlands, Balinese architecture, dusty villages, lush mountain ranges, dense jungles and sleeping volcanoes. A paradise on earth if ever there was one. An island of languor and serenity in the tumultous Indonesian archipelago. ... And books and literature. Books and literature?

Strange as it may sound, Bali is the place to congregate come September 25-30, 2007 if you are into literature and the reading and writing life. Four years ago, who would have thought that the bomb-devastated island of the gods would spring a comeback as the literary destination for those of us who give a damn about literature and all the wonderful things that it stands for in our lives. Today, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), first organised in 2004 as an endeavour to heal the pain and wounds inflicted by the bombings of 2002, is the leading literary event in Asia and happens to be considered by many literary people to be among the top six literary festivals in the world.

There’s nothing like enjoying literature amidst the lush-green splendour that is Bali. Nury Vittachi calls it a magical and mystical mix of the East and West. This year’s highlights are mind-boggling, to say the least. Here are some of the devotees of the written word appearing at the festival:

1. Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), the toast of the literary world;
2. Shashi Tharoor, author of The Great Indian NovelRiot;
3. Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist, Gould’s Book of Fish);
4. Forensic anthropologist and bestselling author of the Temperance Brennan series of crime novels, Kathy Reichs;
5. Kiriyama Prize finalist Madeleine Thien (Certainty, Simple Recipes);
6. Man Booker Prize-longlisted Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng (The Gift of Rain);
7. British novelist Patrick Gale (Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music);
8. Peter Goldsworthy (Three Dog Night);

9. Rana Dasgupta (Tokyo Cancelled);
10. Jill Dawson (Watch Me Disappear, Fred & Edie);
11. Malaysian novelist Kam Raslan (Confessions of an Old Boy);
12. Azhar Abidi (Passarola Rising);
13. Catherine Lim (Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore, Or Else, the Lightning God and Other Stories);
14. Nury Vittachi; and many, many more.

For those of us who love words and the power they yield when put together in the right order, here’s one literary festival that celebrates great writing, great ideas and good books! Are you ready to fall under the spell and charms of Bali?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Richard RUSSO's back!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Valerie MARTIN ... Trespass (Nan A. Talese, 2007)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lloyd JONES ... Mister Pip (2007)

THE NEW Man Booker Prize winner?

Could this be the year of New Zealander Lloyd Jones and Mister Pip (Dial Press/John Murray, 2007)? In Mister Pip, Jones’s demonstrates the power of literature and imagination. First published by Penguin New Zealand in 2006, the response to Mister Pip has been rapturous all over. Mister Pip is not Jones’s first novel, but his first successful novel. It is good to know that John Murray will be bringing out three of his previous novels in early 2008. Of course, Mister Pip has already won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers Prize.  

The winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced in London on Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Noel BARBER ... Tanamera (1981)

I REMEMBER reading the novels of British novelist and journalist Noel Barber (1909-1988) back in the early 1980s. Tanamera (1981) was especially memorable. Barber made Malayan history exciting with well-drawn characters that leapt from the pages and engaged the reader instantly. I believe it’s time bookshops brought back these timeless classics for a new generation of readers. Yes, his stories were about forbidden passions in exotic climes, but those were the days when exotic was not frowned upon.

“They were golden days, when Singapore was as rich as its climate was steamy, its future as assured as it was busy. And those days were made even better when, as was inevitable, I fell in love with the Chinese beauty of Julie Soong and, against all unwritten canons of Singapore life, we became secret lovers.” TANAMERA

1. Tanamera: A Novel of Singapore (1981) / Noel Barber
2. A Farewell to France (1983) / Noel Barber
3. A Woman of Cairo (1984) / Noel Barber
4. The Other Side of Paradise (1986) / Noel Barber
5. The Weeping and the Laughter (1988) / Noel Barber
6. The Daughters of the Prince (1989) / Noel Barber

Noel Barber is the author of two famous nonfiction classics: The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas 1948-1960 (1971) and Sinister Twilight: The Fall and Rise Again of Singapore (1968)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Edward SCHWARZSCHILD ... The Family Diamond (2007)

REMEMBER Edward Schwarzschild’s first novel, Responsible Men (Algonquin, 2005) His second book, The Family Diamond (Algonquin, 2007) has just been published this week.

The Family Diamond is a collection of linked short stories about family, loss and love, all set in Philadelphia, and it’s already been getting some great early press.

Library Journal: “The trials and tribulations of relationships are at the heart of this collection of nine tales of modern life; sparkling with wit, compassion, and sometimes whimsy, the vivid characters will not be quickly forgotten. ... Schwarzschild has a hit with his second work; the writing is polished, well paced, and exceptional. Heartily recommended.”

Philadelphia Magazine: “In this book of semi-related short stories about family relationships ... the author’s sincerity and strong characters combine for an enjoyable read. ... What really makes it a Philadelphia book is its pride in the ties that bind us, epitomized by the Mark Twain epigraph: ‘In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?’”