Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Janet TAY reviews Hanif KUREISHI's Something to Tell You

Review by JANET TAY

This month’s literary focus offers a picture of London painted colourfully by the man who presaged the city’s first wave of immigrant writing in the 1990s.

By Hanif Kureishi
(Faber & Faber, 352pp)

SOMETHING TO TELL YOU is the confessional of a psychoanalyst who spends his life listening, not talking.

Jamal, a middle-aged “collector of sighs,” as his friend dubs him, is full to bursting with secrets. Not just his patients’ but also his own, and the unravelling of his confession reveals his eventful life of regrets and passion, and one act of violence that haunts him still.

The mélange of images, emotions, and larger-than-life characters that is Something to Tell You is a sequel of sorts to Hanif Kureishi’s explosive, semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, except it’s set in the city. In fact, Kureishi has been quoted (in the February issue of Time Out London as saying, “I wanted it to be like Buddha, only modern.”

Just as Buddha is a kaleidoscope of 1990s suburban life, Something to Tell You is a chronicle of London in the new century. Kureishi uses flashbacks—and some witty observations—to depict the city’s transformation through globalisation and migration.

Jamal’s best friend Henry notes that “[e]ven the brothels are multicultural now,” as they pass a brothel “offering Russian, Oriental and black women” while Jamal recollects walking through Shepherd’s Bush market where “[h]ijabed Middle Eastern women shopped … where you could buy massive bolts of vivid cloth, crocodile-skin shoes, scratchy underwear, and jewellery, as well as illuminated 3D pictures of Mecca and Jesus.”

Kureishi’s London in Something to Tell You offers, in the words of writer, critic, and journalist Sukhdev Sandhu (author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City), the “freedom from homes, from families, from ‘bourgeois’ constraints (that) allows … a limitless palette of intellectual, social and sexual possibilities.”

With the evenhandedness he displayed in Buddha, Kureishi illuminates what Sandhu calls the “brokenness, the disreputable and chaotic aspects of London” but also illustrates that domesticity and contentment can come in many unexpected forms.

Populating this London of Kureishi’s is the colourful cast of characters surrounding Jamal, ranging from his promiscuous sister Miriam and his angry teenaged son Rafi to his best friend Henry, who’s in love with Miriam. Then there are the ghosts from Jamal’s past: Ajita, his first love, and Wolf and Valentin, friends from his adolescence with whom he shares a terrible secret.

There are also Jamal’s entertaining patients. With that wonderful rhythmic way Kureishi has with words, he has Jamal tell us that his clients are “the promiscuous, the frigid, the panicked, the vertiginous; abusers and the abused, cutters, starvers, vomiters, the trapped and the too free, the exhausted and the over-active, and those committed for life to their own foolishness.”

Haunted by the ghosts of his past, Jamal reminisces about 1970s London and its anti-nuclear protests; “lefty” houses filled with liberals; working in the British Library “fetching books for readers from the miles of book-stacked tunnels under Bloomsbury’s”; loving his analyst more than his father (“He gave me more; he saved my life; he made and remade me”); and his unforgettable first love, Ajita.

The doctor’s narratives alternate between the past and present until they converge in a meeting with people from his past and a reminder of an event he would rather forget.

Born in 1954 in London to a Pakistani father and an English mother, the multi-talented Kureishi—he’s a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and filmmaker—began in theatre, staging his first play, Soaking the Heat, in 1976 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, going on to win awards for other plays, and eventually becoming the writer-in-residence there.

Kureishi then ventured into movies, and his first screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), received, among other awards and nominations, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His screenplays in recent years have also received a number of accolades.

The Renaissance man is no stranger to book awards either: The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread Award in 1990 for the best first novel. Then there is the controversial 1998 novel, Intimacy; said to be an almost semi-autobiographical account of a man leaving his wife and two young sons, it was adapted for the big screen by Patrick Chéreau and won various awards.

With Something to Tell You, Kureishi proves that his skill as a novelist does not play second fiddle to his other talents.

Successfully recording and displaying the psychedelic and domestic, the florid and drab, Something to Tell You tells a vivid story of life, love, lust, and the importance of freedom in a hybridised, postcolonial metropolis that allows its residents to find happiness without being constrained by fixed ideas about the meaning of life.

Review first published in The Sunday Star of April 27, 2008

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Graham ROBB wins the 2008 Ondaatje Prize

LITERARY AND CULTURAL HISTORIAN Graham Robb has won the 5th Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize with his cultural study of France, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War (Picador/W.W. Norton, 2007). There’s much to savour and learn from this biography of a country we know as France: a history of the French people, folklore, language and sociology. Judge Elaine Feinstein described the book as “an elegantly written and continuously intriguing account of the landscape and legends which, in part, explain the histories of the very different regions of France.”

Past Recipients
2008 The Discovery of France / Graham Robb
2007 In the Country of Men / Hisham Matar
2006 The People’s Act of Love / James Meek
2005 The Places In Between / Rory Stewart
2004 Hearing Birds Fly / Louisa Waugh

Monday, April 28, 2008

2007 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography

THE UNITED KINGDOM’S oldest and most literary of book awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography (established in 1919), has announced two shortlists: fiction and biography, two of my most favourite genres.

1. Our Horses in Egypt / Rosalind Belben
2. The Devil’s Footprints / John Burnside
3. The Reluctant Fundamentalist / Mohsin Hamid
4. A Far Country / Daniel Mason
5. Salvage / Gee Williams

1. Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell / Michael Gray
2. God’s Architect: Pugin and the Building of Romantic Britain / Rosemary Hill
3. Edith Wharton / Hermione Lee
4. Young Stalin / Simon Sebag Montefiore
5. John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand / Richard Reeves

The winners will be announced on August 25, 2007 in Edinburgh, Scotland

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Alberto Manguel

Saturday, April 26, 2008

2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winners

HERE are the winners of the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize:

1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books) / Junot Díaz
2. Be Near Me (Harcourt) / Andrew O’Hagan
3. Last Night at the Lobster (Viking) / Stewart O’Nan
4. Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf Press) / Per Petterson
5. The Shadow Catcher (Simon & Schuster) / Marianne Wiggins

Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
1. Skylark Farm (trans. by Geoffrey Brock) (Alfred A. Knopf) / Antonia Arslan
2. Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money (Harper Perennial) / Rebecca Curtis
3. The Understory (Ironweed Press) / Pamela Erens
4. The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories (W.W. Norton) / Ellen Litman
5. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead Books) / Dinaw Mengestu

1. Christine Falls (Henry Holt) / Benjamin Black
2. Frozen Tracks: An Inspector Erik Winter Novel (Viking) / Åke Edwardson
3. The Indian Bride (trans. by Charlotte Barslund) (Harcourt) / Karin Fossum
4. In the Woods (Viking) / Tana French
5. Ice Moon (trans. by John Brownjohn0 (Harcourt) / Jan Costin Wagner

1. Mars Being Red (Copper Canyon Press) / Marvin Bell
2. Ripple Effect: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press) / Elaine Equi
3. The Kitchen Sink: New and Selected Poems, 1972-2007 (Graywolf Press) / Albert Goldbarth
4. Old Heart: Poems (W.W. Norton) / Stanley Plumly
5. Little Boat (Wesleyan University Press) / Jean Valentine

1. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (Viking) / Nancy Isenberg
2. Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Yale University Press) / Tim Jeal
3. Young Stalin (Alfred A. Knopf) / Simon Sebag Montefiore
4. Boone: A Biography (A Shannon Ravenel Book/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) / Robert Morgan
5. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (Alfred A. Knopf) / Michael J. Neufeld

Current Interest
1. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux) / Ishmael Beah
2. The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Pantheon) / Tom Bissell
3. The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America (The Penguin Press) / Ronald Brownstein
4. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company) / Naomi Klein
5. Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) / Elizabeth D. Samet

1. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Houghton Mifflin) / David A. Bell
2. Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World (Random House) / Margaret Macmillan
3. The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow that Changed the Course of World War II (Simon and Schuster) / Andrew Nagorski
4. Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) / Lynne Olson
5. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday) / Tim Weiner

Science & Technology
1. Animal Architects: Building and the Evolution of Intelligence (Basic Books) / James L. and Carol Grant Gould
2. I Am A Strange Loop (Basic Books) / Douglas Hofstadter
3. The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (Viking) / Christine Kenneally
4. On Deep History and the Brain (University of California Press) / Daniel Lord Smail
5. Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics (Viking) / Gino Segrè

Young Adult Fiction
1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Young Readers) / Sherman Alexie
2. The White Darkness (HarperTeen) / Geraldine McCaughrean
3. What They Found: Love on 145th Street (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House) / Walter Dean Myers
4. Darkwing (Eos Books/HarperCollins) / Kenneth Oppel
5. A Darkling Plain (The Hungry City Chronicles) (Eos Books/HarperCollins) / Philip Reeve

Friday, April 25, 2008


The novelist was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award
for Lifetime Achievement
on April 25, 2008, as part of the
Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The New York Trilogy (Penguin Books, 1990) / Paul Auster
2. The Dream Lover (Bloomsbury, 2008) / William Boyd
3. In Cold Blood (Random House/Hamish Hamilton, 1966; Penguin Books, 1967) / Truman Capote
4. Other Voices, Other Rooms (Random House, 1948) / Truman Capote
5. Notes from an Exhibition (Fourth Estate, 2007; Harper Perennial, 2008) / Patrick Gale
6. The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / John Harwood
7. The Sorrows of an American (Henry Holt/Sceptre, 2008) / Siri Hustvedt
8. Moth Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000; Picador USA, 2001) / Mohsin Hamid

1. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (McSweeney’s, 2008) / Michael Chabon
2. Inner Workings: Essays 2000-2005 (Harvill Secker, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / J.M. Coetzee
3. The Story of Psychology (Anchor, 1994, 2007) (originally published in the U.S. by Doubleday in 1993) / Morton Hunt
4. Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (first published in the U.S. as Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by W.W. Norton in 2007) (Picador, 2008) / Clive James
5. The Library at Night (Yale University Press, 2008) / Alberto Manguel

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some classic ghost stories

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, a well-written ghost story comes along and it makes you feel wonderful to be frightened by the magical realm of the supernatural. The following are some of these novels. It would neither make your hair stand on its roots nor curdle your gore, but your flesh would undoubtedly creep under your skin.

1. The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008) / John Harwood
2. The Ghost Writer (Jonathan Cape, 2004; Vintage, 2005) / John Harwood
3. The Woman In Black (Hamish Hamilton, 1983) / Susan Hill
4. The Turn of the Screw (1898) / Henry James

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Words in all the right places

WORDS, on their own, are merely words; when put together in their right order, they are capable of telling stories and changing mindsets, society and the world. Words, in the hands of great writers, leap off the page and grab you by the scruff of your neck. Great writers like Truman Capote, in the words of the late William Styron in an essay recently published in a collection, Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays (Random House, 2008), “could make words dance and sing, change color mysteriously, perform feats of magic, provoke laughter, send a chill up the back, touch the heart.” Readers who love words and the magic tricks they could perform would appreciate the following guides to writing well.
  1. Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Doubleday, 2008) / Bill Bryson
  2. The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (John Murray, 2008) / Henry Hitchings
  3. That or Which, and Why: A Usage Guide for Thoughtful Writers and Editors (Routledge, 2007) / Evan Jenkins

Monday, April 21, 2008

Wena Poon's Lions In Winter reviewed in Time Magazine!

Migratory Patterns
Émigré tales of cultural collision are beginning to sound formulaic in a globalized world

THE STORIES OF ASIAN IMMIGRATION to America have formed a genre of their own. In the novels of Bharati Mukherjee or Amy Tan (to take two of its superstar practitioners), or in the works of lesser writers, the narrative often goes something like this: an immigrant family lands in America, pursuing economic or political freedom. Its members are dogged by battles to secure permanent residency and jobs commensurate with their sense of self-worth. As these take place, nostalgia builds for Asian traditions, from which the family’s younger generations have begun to drift. Cross-cultural and cross-generational misunderstandings multiply, but at the novel’s denouement the family learns to ambivalently accept their new country.

It’s neither an unsatisfying nor inaccurate story, but these days it sounds old-fashioned because globalization is rewriting the tale. Asians are still emigrating to America, but many are returning to Asia, pursuing the same wealth and advancement that America once exclusively offered. In fact, it’s increasingly difficult to tell Old and New Worlds apart. With their coffee chains and street-fashion boutiques, malls in Mumbai and Beijing are polished facsimiles of those in the U.S., and when half the world is tuned into reruns of Friends, or The Simpsons, who actually suffers from culture shock anymore?

Singapore-born and San Francisco-based writer Wena Poon is nevertheless banking on the continuing appeal of émigré literature with a début collection of short stories that takes as its theme the Singaporean diaspora. Given that the latter has been so infrequently explored, Lions In Winter [MPH Group Publishing, 2008] has a greater chance of being fresh than a comparable Chinese or Indian work—but instead, it lapses, at least in part, into the clichés that bedevil stories of Asian deracination.

Consider the story “Addiction,” about a gay Singaporean student in London named Alistair. Parts of it are smartly observed, but structurally Poon draws too crude a contrast between London and Singapore to power her plot of a young man’s journey of self-discovery. Alistair’s parents are caricatured embodiments of lowbrow, materialist Asia. Because she uses the abbreviation k to denote a thousand, we are asked to believe that Alistair’s mother has “a barbaric attitude towards money—reducing something vast to a small, inconsequential syllable.” His father makes bawdy comments about the breasts of “these Western women” while Alistair, rather prissily, feels his ears burn. London, on the other hand, is portrayed as a liberal haven, where artists are allowed to pursue their dreams with few worries of generating an income or conforming to social norms. If only that were the case.

Then there’s Canada. Sylvie, the Singaporean daughter of an immigrant family, adores her new Canadian school uniform because it is “of higher quality ... nothing like the scratchy, polyester-mix affairs” of Singapore, which “dumb you down.” Meanwhile her grandfather, a literary man, apparently thinks of Sylvie’s Caucasian classmates as “big, strong, beefy … like female Goliaths.” In a crowd of them, we are told, an Asian student stands out like a “gazelle among elephants.” But do Asian intellectuals really see Caucasian children this way? Such stereotyping may have occurred decades ago (although there is plenty of evidence to show that Western children were thought of as pretty), but these days, pretending that white schoolgirls are “female Goliaths” in the eyes of educated Asians is like claiming that well-read white people think of Asian schoolgirls as dainty-footed China dolls—a naive and anachronistic image.

Instead, Poon’s stories succeed when she examines Singapore on its own terms. Take the love with which she describes a Singaporean-Chinese cook in Queens: “In Singapore, there were men like him who sat around hawker centers at night over a Guinness Stout and a cigarette—men who wore open-necked shirts and small gold chains around their neck. They would sit for hours at a time, then grunt an observation, tap the cigarette on the ashtray and then shake their heads.” Images like this make the reader want to read Poon on Singapore, not London, Toronto or New York City.

In fact, by far the best story in the collection is about the very Singaporean dilemma of national service. So that their male scions may escape this obligation, some Singaporean families flee the country—like the family of Eddie in “Those Who Serve, Those Who Do Not.” In this story, as in life, an absconder like Eddie can’t return to Singapore without facing prosecution. But his sister Joanne returns from her comfortable, pseudo exile in Sydney to visit Uncle Sam and cousin Peter. They did not have the means of escape and instead relied on a powerfully Singaporean stoicism to get them through military duty, embodying qualities Joanne’s family too blithely left behind. “She looked at the thousands of HDB [Housing & Development Board] homes that fanned out from either side of Sam’s tiny flat,” Poon writes. “She suddenly felt her heart open. These were the people who will protect the country, she thought ... Against such a solid breakwater the waves of cynicism would crash, but would fail.” Here the exile returns to illuminate an intimate part of Singapore, and does so quite beautifully. One only hopes that Poon herself will make the return journey some day.

Reproduced from the April 28, 2008 issue of Time magazine

Sunday, April 20, 2008


“Cotton Candy”

We walked on the bridge over the Chicago River
for what turned out to be the last time,
and I ate cotton candy, that sugary air,
that sweet blue light spun out of nothingness.
It was just a moment, really, nothing more,
but I remember marveling at the sturdy cables
of the bridge that held us up
and threading my fingers through the long
and slender fingers of my grandfather,
an old man from the Old World
who long ago disappeared into the nether regions.
And I remember that eight-year-old boy
who had tasted the sweetness of air,
which still clings to my mouth
and disappears when I breathe.

From Edward HIRSCH, Special Orders (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Saturday, April 19, 2008


“Looking at Them Sleep”
Sharon OLDS

When I come home late at night and go in to kiss them,
I see my girl with her arm curled around her head,
her mouth a little puffed, like one sated, but
slightly pouted like one who hasn’t had enough,
her eyes so closed you would think they have rolled the
iris around to face the back of her head,
the eyeball marble-naked under that
thick satisfied desiring lid,
she lies on her back in abandon and sealed completion,
and the son in his room, oh the son he is sideways in his bed,
one knee up as if he is climbing
sharp stairs, up into the night,
and under his thin quivering eyelids you
know his eyes are wide open and
staring and glazed, the blue in them so
anxious and crystally in all this darkness, and his
mouth is open, he is breathing hard from the climb
and panting a bit, his brow is crumpled
and pale, his fine fingers curved,
his hand open, and in the center of each hand
the dry dirty boyish palm
resting like a cookie. I look at him in his
quest, the thin muscles of his arms
passionate and tense, I look at her with her
face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer,
content, content—and I know if I wake her she’ll
smile and turn her face toward me though
half asleep and open her eyes and I
know if I wake him he’ll jerk and say Don’t and sit
up and stare about him in blue
unrecognition, oh my Lord how I
know these two. When love comes to me and says
What do you know, I say This girl, this boy.

From Sharon OLDS, Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Celebrating Australian Fiction

From left: Steven Carroll, Rodney Hall, Alex Miller, Gail Jones and David Brooks

THE MILES FRANKLIN LITERARY AWARD, Australia’s first and most prestigious literary prize, was established in 1954 with a bequest from Australian author Miles Franklin. She was concerned to see Australian literature flourish and knew firsthand the struggles most authors have in Australia.

The Australian equivalent of the British Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the Miles Franklin Literary Award celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia. It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.

Since it was first awarded in 1957 to Patrick White for his novel Voss, the award has encouraged authors in their literary pursuits and delivered an immense contribution to the richness of Australian cultural life. Thea Astley won it four times; Peter Carey, David Ireland and Tim Winton, thrice; Alex Miller and Patrick White, twice.

The following novels have been shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Literary Award, it was announced on April 17, 2008:
  1. The Fern Tattoo (University of Queensland Press, 2007) / David Brooks
  2. The Time We Have Taken (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Publishers, 2007) / Steven Carroll
  3. Love Without Hope (Picador/Macmillan Australia, 2007) / Rodney Hall
  4. Sorry (Vintage/Random House Australia, 2007) / Gail Jones
  5. Landscape of Farewell (Allen & Unwin, 2007) / Alex Miller
The winner will be announced on June 19, 2008

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: Fiction & Poetry
SIX novels have been shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2008 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, it was announced on April 16, 2008:

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
  1. Diary of a Bad Year / J.M. Coetzee
  2. The Trout Opera / Matthew Condon
  3. Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds / Gregory Day
  4. The Lost Dog / Michelle de Kretser
  5. The Widow and Her Hero / Tom Kenneally
  6. Landscape of Farewell / Alex Miller
Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
  1. An Illustrated History of Dairies / Joanne Burns
  2. Uncommon Light / Brook Emery
  3. Westering / Peter Kirkpatrick
  4. Two Kinds of Silence / Kathryn Lomer
  5. Typewriter Music / David Malouf
  6. The Edge of Everything / Phyllis Perlstone
The winners will be announced on May 19, 2008

Alex Miller, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Orange Prize for Fiction, 1996-2008

o Rose Tremain / The Road Home (2007)
o Nancy Huston / Fault Lines (2008)
o Sadie Jones / The Outcast (2008)
o Charlotte Mendelson / When We Were Bad (2007)
o Heather O’Neill / Lullabies for Little Criminals (2008)
o Patricia Wood / Lottery (2007)

o Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
o Rachel Cusk / Arlington Park (2006)
o Kiran Desai / The Inheritance of Loss (2006)
o Xiaolu Guo / A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2006)
o Jane Harris / The Observations (2006)
o Anne Tyler / Digging to America (2006)

o Zadie Smith / On Beauty (2005)
o Nicole Krauss / The History of Love (2005)
o Hilary Mantel / Beyond Black (2005)
o Ali Smith / The Accidental (2005)
o Carrie Tiffany / Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005)
o Sarah Waters / The Night Watch (2006)

o Lionel Shriver / We Need to Talk About Kevin (2004)
o Joolz Denby / Billie Morgan (2004)
o Jane Gardam / Old Filth (2004)
o Sheri Holman / The Mammoth Cheese (2004)
o Marina Lewycka / A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2004)
o Maile Meloy / Liars and Saints (2004)

o Andrea Levy / Small Island (2004)
o Margaret Atwood / Oryx and Crake (2003)
o Shirley Hazzard / The Great Fire (2003)
o Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Purple Hibiscus (2003)
o Gillian Slovo / Ice Road (2003)
o Rose Tremain / The Colour (2003)

o Valerie Martin / Property (2002)
o Anne Donovan / Buddha Da (2002)
o Shena Mackay / Heligoland (2002)
o Carol Shields / Unless (2002)
o Zadie Smith / The Autograph Man (2002)
o Donna Tartt / The Little Friend (2002)

o Ann Patchett / Bel Canto (2001)
o Anna Burns / No Bones (2001)
o Helen Dunmore / The Siege (2001)
o Maggie Gee / The White Family (2001)
o Chloe Hooper / A Child’s Book of True Crime (2001)
o Sarah Waters / Fingersmith (2001)

o Kate Grenville / The Idea of Perfection (2000)
o Margaret Atwood / The Blind Assassin (2000)
o Ali Smith / Hotel World (2000)
o Rosina Lippi / Homestead (2000)
o Jane Smiley / Horse Heaven (2000)
o Jill Dawson / Fred and Edie (2000)

o Linda Grant / When I Lived in Modern Times (1999)
o Judy Budnitz / If I Told You Once (1999)
o Eilis Ni Dhuibhne / The Dancers Dancing (1999)
o Zadie Smith / White Teeth (1999)
o Elizabeth Strout / Amy and Isabelle (1999)
o Rebecca Wells / Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1999)

o Suzanne Berne / A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1998)
o Jane Hamilton / The Short History of a Prince (1998)
o Barbara Kingsolver / The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
o Toni Morrison / Paradise (1998)
o Julia Blackburn / The Leper’s Companions (1998)
o Marilyn Bowering / Visible Worlds (1998)

o Carol Shields / Larry’s Party (1997)
o Kirsten Bakis / Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997)
o Pauline Melville / The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997)
o Ann Patchett / The Magician’s Assistant (1997)
o Deirdre Purcell / Love Like Hate Adore (1997)
o Anita Shreve / The Weight of Water (1997)

o Anne Michaels / Fugitive Pieces (1996)
o Margaret Atwood / Alias Grace (1996)
o Jane Mendelsohn / I Was Amelia Earhart (1996)
o Deirdre Madden / One by One in the Darkness (1996)
o E. Annie Proulx / Accordion Crimes (1996)
o Manda Scott / Hen’s Teeth (1996)

o Helen Dunmore / A Spell of Winter (1995)
o Julia Blackburn / The Book of Colour (1995)
o Pagan Kennedy / Spinsters (1995)
o Amy Tan /The Hundred Secret Senses (1995)
o Anne Tyler / Ladder of Years (1995)
o Marianne Wiggins / Eveless Eden (1995)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

2008 Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist

ESTABLISHED IN 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction (now known as the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction) has always courted controversy over the years. Despite what its detractors say, the prize, according to the organisers, is still very much a celebration of women’s fiction. This time seven first-time novelists are up against some of the most celebrated women writers in the English language such as Stella Duffy, Jennifer Egan, Anne Enright, Linda Grant, Tessa Hadley, Nancy Huston, Gail Jones, Charlotte Mendelson, Deborah Moggach, Anita Nair, Elif Shafak, Scarlett Thomas and Rose Tremain. The seven first-time authors are Anita Amirrezvani, Sadie Jones, Lauren Liebenberg, Heather O’Neill, Dalia Sofer, Carol Topolski and Patricia Wood. Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007. Linda Grant won the Orange Prize for Fiction for When I Lived in Modern Times in 2000. Charlotte Mendelson (picture) won the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her second novel, Daughters of Jerusalem in 2003. Elif Shafak writes in Turkish, but The Bastard of Istanbul, is her second novel she wrote in English. And Rose Tremain is of course Rose Tremain, one of the wonders of English fiction.

Last year’s prize went to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

Three first-time authors and three established writers have been shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction. Surprisingly, Man Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright and former Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant did not make it to the shortlist. Here’s the shortlist:
  1. Fault Lines (Atlantic, 2008) / Nancy Huston
  2. The Outcast (Chatto & Windus/Vintage, 2008) / Sadie Jones
  3. When We Were Bad (Picador/Houghton Mifflin, 2007) / Charlotte Mendelson
  4. Lullabies for Little Criminals (Quercus, 2008) / Heather O’Neill
  5. The Road Home (Chatto & Windus, 2007) / Rose Tremain
  6. Lottery (Putnam, 2007; William Heinemann, 2007) / Patricia Wood
The winner of the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced on June 4, 2008

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The Lizard Cage (Harvill Secker, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / Karen Connelly
2. Eve Green (Fourth Estate, 2004; Harper Perennial, 2005) / Susan Fletcher
3. The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Viking, 2006; Penguin Books, 2007) / Olga Grushin
4. The Third Angel (Chatto & Windus, 2008) / Alice Hoffman
5. The Grass Is Singing (1950) / Doris Lessing
6. Lost Men (Shaye Areheart Books, 2007; Three Rivers Press, 2008) / Brian Leung
7. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Harcourt, 2007; Harvest Books, 2008) / Mohsin Hamid
8. Consolation (William Heinemann, 2007; Arrow Books, 2008) / Michael Redhill
9. The American Boy (Flamingo, 2003; Harper Perennial, 2008) / Andrew Taylor
10. A Curious Earth (Chatto & Windus, 2007; Vintage, 2008) / Gerard Woodward

1. The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets (Sort Of Books, 2008) / Sophie Hannah

1. The Din in the Head (Houghton Mifflin, 2006; Mariner Books, 2007) / Cynthia Ozick

Monday, April 14, 2008

So in love with love stories

A hundred years ago, Mills & Boon set the trend. A century on, the romance genre is the biggest in fiction and perhaps the entire book industry, a trend that’s reflected in Malaysia as well. SHANNON TEOH writes in the New Sunday Times

IT WAS NOT until the 1930s that British publisher Mills & Boon began to become synonymous with romance, but prophetically, its first book after being founded in 1908 was of that genre.

As it celebrates its centenary year—now under the ownership of Harlequin, formerly its Canadian distributor—it boasts of selling a book every two seconds, and has 1,300 authors producing 70 titles a month.

But its success, like any product in a capitalistic market, is due to an engorged demand for romance fiction. Half of all paperbacks in the United States are romance titles.

In Malaysia alone, distributor Pansing brings in 72,000 copies of Mills & Boon annually. To get a context of how significant this is, rival distributor Penguin Books says that any title that breaches 1,000 copies in Malaysia is considered a best-seller.

But even this giant is trumped by Malay romance novels, where individual titles can breach 150,000 copies. Local publishing giant Alaf 21, part of the Karangkraf group, sells 600,000 of these books a year, which general manager Norden Mohamed states makes up 60 per cent of its total turnover.

While there may be a variety of reasons for the genre being so popular, the escapist nature of romance fiction seems to be the hook that keeps readers, nearly all female, coming back for more.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, amidst the Great Depression and World War II, Mills & Boon continued to set sales records.

One of its authors, the late Ida Cook, recalled: “Of course, we all like make-believe, particularly when things aren’t going particularly well.”

But it is this element of escapism, so cherished by its proponents, that has drawn the most flak from the literary camp.

“It builds false expectations. Those who read it from a young age expect the world to work that way, but they’ll end up disappointed with life because of the illusions they’ve built,” claims Eric Forbes, editor of Malaysian literary magazine Quill.

“If say, it perpetuates gender stereotypes for women, then it’s not right. I don’t even quite agree with escapism itself. Yes, life is hard but one should find the solution to life’s problems,” advises Janet Tay, a book editor with MPH Group Publishing.

In the other corner, author Dina Zaman believes that readers are smart enough to know the difference between fantasy and real life.

“What’s wrong with fantasising? Even sci-fi, adventure or detective stories are forms of escapism. I’ll never say that books are harmful, there’s nothing more harmful in it than watching TV.”

The British Council came up with a philosophical defence: “Is it the job of a novel to prepare a reader for real life?” asks Mina Patel, its English language services projects manager.

“There’s nothing that a book should or shouldn’t do. People have their own lives to teach them.”

She concedes, however, that books are powerful and can be used to send messages.

Not surprisingly, Professor Lim Chee Seng, head of the English Department at Universiti Malaya, agrees with Patel and insists that books should have instructional value.

“Of course, life is so miserable that we all need forms of escape. I don’t take issue with that. But there are some forms which are more helpful in life, and I don’t see this as particularly helpful.”

Most observers would agree it is better to read than not to read at all, but Lim insists that one should graduate to “red meat” instead of sticking to “soupy, porridge stuff.”

“Some escape literature helps you think, like the late sci-fi great, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who gave us wonderful concepts like the geosynchronous satellite. It has helped us develop frontiers of knowledge.”

But the lumping of all romance fiction into a convenient box would be disingenuous.

This is not lost on certain fans of the genre, who while avoiding the formulaic Mills & Boon variety, enjoy classics from Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and even Georgette Heyer.

Etta, a Heyer fan in her 40s, points to an intricacy of wit and authenticity in Heyer’s portrayal of the early 19th century Regency period.

“In fact, Charlotte Brontë’s books, especially Jane Eyre, was controversial and caused a furore because the heroine would not submit to social and religious norms, reflecting the frustration of women at the time,” she adds.

This, however, is a case of stretching the definition of romance fiction, in the opinion of Lim.

“In that case, then you can say William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy wrote romance. Even with Austen, there’s so much going on in the use of strategies of language, irony and currents of social interaction which are not to be found in formulaic romance fiction.”

Raman Krishnan, proprietor of independent bookstore and publisher Silverfish Books, believes that if a romance reader progresses to other love stories, say, My Name is Red by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, then it would be “fantastic.”

“When you’re 16 and reading Mills & Boon, okay. When you’re 60 and still reading it, it’s a bit sad, isn’t it? There’s no progress, so to speak.”

Which brings us to the question of whether there should be a prescriptive approach when it comes to choosing books which might seem counter to ideas of free will and civil liberty.

Patel notes that while the British Council promotes contemporary British literature, it tries not to undermine the classics, hence, its recent backing for Manga Shakespeare, the graphic novelisation of the Bard’s classics.

But in the face of immense marketing savvy, governments like our own have launched anti-smoking or anti-drugs campaigns or even programmes to encourage reading.

So the case for guidance has some precedent.

“It’s like selling cocaine,” is Forbes’s frank assessment.

“You start them young, capture the market, and if you can get them hooked until 60, you’re basically selling the same product for decades.”

One newsstand, which claims to sell about 300 copies a year, says the same middle-aged single women are the ones who come back every month.

Norden has a less acidic description of romance’s addictive nature: “It’s everyone’s experience. It’s the rollercoaster of life and the world around you starts to spin.

“You cry when you throw up. But the next instant you want to ride again!”

Raman believes this works simply because it’s “easier to read something that’s written in the lowest common denominator,” adding that Silverfish customers don’t come to get “rice and sugar,” as the store leaves that to the “supermarkets.”

He admits it’s terribly snobbish but Lim would probably find nothing wrong with this.

“Snobbery can save you from a lot of nonsense,” he says bluntly although he tempers this by adding that as a teacher, by default, he believes that there is a place for intervention and advocacy.

“If it makes you feel that instead of Mills & Boon, you must display the complete works of Shakespeare or the novels of Austen on your shelves to avoid negative stigma, that’s fine. Life is too short for rubbish.”

Article first published in the New Sunday Times, April 13, 2008

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Janet TAY reviews ... Kunal BASU's The Japanese Wife

Characters that leave a mark

Review by JANET TAY

The Japanese Wife
By Kunal Basu
(HarperCollins India, 212pp)

THEY say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but, really, this cover is so elegant, it just begs you to pick the book up: the yellow textured cover features stills from the beautiful movie adaptation on the front and back.

The actors display all the touching wistfulness that the title story in this collection of short stories by Kunal Basu exudes. It is no wonder “The Japanese Wife” was made into a movie by well-known Indian director Aparna Sen, who “fell in love with the story,” describing it as “a haunting and improbable love story about a schoolteacher in the Sundarbans [in India] who becomes pen pals with an equally shy Japanese girl.”

This is a tale of love that is both traditional and unconventional at once: in an age when marriage no longer lasts for decades, two pen pals build and sustain a 20-year relationship on “book boxes smelling of sweet glue, cartons marked ‘fragile’ holding Hokusai prints, a silk sack filled with mountain cherries, scarves rolled tight like children’s pillows in thick parchment wraps, cards and letters exuding perfume, and rustling sheaves of washi (handmade Japanese paper).”

Snehamoy lives in India and Miyage lives in Japan, and they exchange marriage vows through letters. They are perfectly content with their strange arrangement, until the arrival of a woman who had been betrothed to and then rejected by Snehamoy decades ago. The woman had married someone else, had a son, and then had been widowed. She leaves her late husband’s home after finding life with the in-laws difficult, and Snehamoy’s aunt persuades him to take the woman and her son in, and to raise the boy as his own.

Basu weaves the tense thread of Snehamoy’s emotions well: he is caught between his loyalty to the wife he has never met and his guilt and sense of responsibility towards the girl he had refused 20 years ago even as his aunt tries to persuade him to do what is right. “You can’t shirk your duties, Sneha? Life means more than simply writing letters.”

An improbable love story, indeed, but the beauty of Basu’s storytelling makes believable this unlikely relationship that transcends distance. One cannot help but be moved by the ease with which Snehamoy pledges his faithfulness to Miyage despite their miles apart: “Like a married man, he had grown used to coming home to her, to her things—the gifts she sent him regularly; he waited for her letters as if he was waiting for her to return from her daily visit to the market.”

Perhaps the element of this tale that is most inviting is the fairytale-like plot, especially for the more sentimental and idealistic among us, those of us who do want to believe that love can traverse all the canyons in the world.

The second story in the collection, “Grateful Ganga,” is about a different kind of love affair. Evelyn, an American woman, has an affair with the married Yoginder whom she meets on a flight to New Delhi; she’s travelling to the River Ganges to scatter her late husband’s ashes.

Here, Basu still manages to keep the pace of the collection consistent with the natural rhythm of song lyrics and the even tempo of the progression of Evelyn and Yoginder’s mutual attraction and love for music.

The next three stories, “Lenin’s Café,” “Lotus-Dragon” and “Snakecharmer,” however, lack the lyrical quality of the title story, which is by far the strongest in the collection.

Although Basu’s imagined peoples and moments and his ability to see and portray the unlikely in mundane situations are all evocative, the over-elaboration of facts can sometimes interrupt the pace, and force the reader to plod. Tedious information sometimes weighs down poetic descriptions.

Nevertheless, Basu’s ability to create unique characters and fashion a good story cannot be denied. And there are so many vivid images in this collection of 12 stories: the forlorn Japanese wife with shaven head and silent grief; the Catholic Filipina maid who falls in love with a Gujerati Muslim man (in “Long Live Imelda Marcos”); the accountant dreaming of his past life as the architect of the Taj Mahal (in “The Accountant”); and the dalang (puppet master) performing his last puppet show (in “The Last Dalang”).

These characters delicately step back and forth in time and space, and remain in the mind long after the last page has been turned.

Here’s your chance to meet author Kunal Basu (picture). He will be appearing on April 19 at the MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers event at MPH Bangsar Village II (Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur) between 11a.m. and 12.30p.m. and then at the Seksan Readings event at No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur, between 3.30p.m. and 6p.m.

Basu was born in Calcutta but has spent much of his adult life in Canada and the United States. He currently teaches at the prestigious Oxford and McGill universities. He has three previously published novels, and The Japanese Wife is his latest short-story collection.

Review first published in The Sunday Star, April 13, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

MPH Breakfast Club with ... Kunal BASU


“Can Marketing Kill the Arts?”: Read what KUNAL BASU has to say about this in the April-June 2008 issue of Quill magazine!

The 13th MPH Breakfast Club on Saturday, April 19, 2008, at 11.00a.m. to 12.30p.m., will be featuring U.K.-based novelist and short-story writer Kunal Basu, the author of such novels as The Opium Clerk (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001/Phoenix, 2002), The Miniaturist (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003/Phoenix, 2004) and Racists (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006/Phoenix, 2007) as well as a short-story collection, The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India, 2008).

Kunal Basu was born in Calcutta, India, but has spent much of his adult life in Canada and the U.S. He has taught at McGill University in Canada and has been a Professor of Marketing at Templeton College, Oxford University, England. He has also acted in films in India and written a screenplay, Snakecharmer, as well as written and directed two documentaries.

“It’s an improbable and hauntingly beautiful love story, almost surreal in its innocence. And I immediately knew that this was the film I had to make.” Aparna Sen

Though Kunal Basu is based abroad, he does not believe in writing about alienation and the search for one’s roots like other Indian writers who live out of India. He prefers the strange to the familiar, and so all his novels thus far have a historical setting. His first novel, The Opium Clerk (2001), is set against the opium trade in the 19th century. The Miniaturist (2003) takes place in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Racists (2006) is set in the Victorian era and could very well be the first Victorian novel written by a non-Saxon. His new and first collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife, was published by HarperCollins India in January 2008.

“Kunal Basu has not only thrown away the safety net of the novel, but in his short stories, he has also taken the risk of choosing ordinariness over grandeur, the slow train of reflection and memory over the frenetic pace of events. [He] deserves to be thanked for bringing short stories back into reckoning.” Sreyashi Dastidar, in The Telegraph

“The distinctive feature of Basu’s fiction is his appetite for grand connections, for worlds set up almost from scratch. ... [O]ne of the best voices in Indian fiction ....” Chandrahas Choudhury, in Mint

Eric Forbes will be introducing Kunal Basu while Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

Date April 19, 2008 (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
Phone (603) 2287 3600

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

Kunal Basu will also be doing a reading at readings@seksan’s at 3.30p.m. the same day. Seksan Design is at No. 67 Jalan Tempinis Satu, Lucky Garden, Bangsar, 59100 Kuala Lumpur


“… a tale of immense originality and intrigue. The Miniaturist is every bit as perfect and detailed as a Mughal painting should be. Well crafted in all its details of colour and texture, it is a craftsman’s intensely passionate creation. It reads as a metaphor for writers and artists alike, to set free their creative spirit and not confine themselves to the trappings of social expectations.” Mithu C. Banerji, in Observer

Racists is a panorama of 19th-century ideas about race, but it is also a sly, penetrating commentary on their contemporary survival, highlighting the cross-fertilisation between social science, politics and philanthropy. Taut, elegant and intelligent, this is one of the most interesting novels so far to chart the history and content of European racism. Mike Phillips, in The Guardian

“The African setting, by turns achingly beautiful and tinged with a sense of menace, is very well done; while the two small children, incapable of human speech but blessed with low animal cunning come poignantly alive. They are an eloquent embodiment of humanity stripped to its bare essentials.” Julia Flynn, in The Sunday Telegraph


Kunal Basu’s books are available at all major bookstores in Malaysia and Singapore. He will be making appearances on:

Saturday, April 19, 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.: MPH Breakfast Club, MPH Bangsar Village II, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur
Saturday, April 19, 3.30p.m.: Readings@Seksan’s, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur