Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's Happening?

June 2009
Tash Aw in Kuala Lumpur
Tash Aw will be making appearances at various bookshops in Kuala Lumpur on June 4-8, 2009, in conjunction with the much-awaited publication of his second novel, Map of the Invisible World (HarperCollins India, April 2009/Fourth Estate, May 2009), a story set during the turbulent year of living dangerously in postcolonial Indonesia. Aw is of course the 2005 Man Booker Prize-longlisted author of The Harmony Silk Factory, which won the 2005 Whitbread Prize for First Novel and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for First Novel (Southeast Asia and South Pacific region).

October-November 2009
2009 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival
The following authors have confirmed their attendance at the 2009 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on October 7-11, 2009: Usha Akella, Asitha Ameresekere, Uwem Akpan, Fatima Bhutto, Michelle Cahill, Tom Cho, J.M. Coetzee, Gamal Al Ghitany, David Godwin, Kate Grenville, Mohammed Hanif, Riaz Hassan, Ed Husain, Hari Kunzru, Alison Lester, Antony Loewenstein, Bejan Matur, James McBride, Mo Zhi Hong, Omar Musa, Wena Poon, Alice Pung, Thando Sibanda, Thant Myint-U, Wole Soyinka, Vikas Swarup, Jeet Thayil and Abdourahman Waberi. More updates to come!

2009 Singapore Writers Festival
The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), Singapore’s only major literary event and one of the few literary festivals in Asia that is multilingual, will be held between October 24 and November 1, 2009. The Singapore Writers Festival is co-organised by the National Arts Council (NAC) and The Arts House. Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation are also the official sponsors of the festival, which is held every two years. Meet the following authors at the 2009 SWF: John Boyne, Shamini Flint, Catherine Lim, Mohamad Haji Salleh, Mohammed Hanif, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon, Qiu Xiaolong, Naldo Rei, Miguel Syjuco, Edwin Thumboo, Jeanette Winterson, Wong Phui Nam and Taichi Yamada. More updates to come!

Special Issues of Quill Magazine
Look out for special issues of Quill magazine for the 2009 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and the 2009 Singapore Writers Festival!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC

1. The Story of a Marriage (first published in hardback by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2008) (Picador, 2009) / Andrew Sean Greer
2. Yalo (trans. from the Arabic by Peter Theroux) (Archipelago Books, 2008/Picador, 2009) / Elia Khoury
3. Secret Son (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009) / Laila Lalami
4. Consequences (Penguin, 2007) / Penelope Lively
5. The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007) / Ameen Merchant
6. The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury, 2009) / Anne Michaels
7. Miles From Nowhere (Penguin, 2008) / Nami Mun
8. An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Quercus Publishing, 2008/2009) / Anuradha Roy

1. The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate, 2009) / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. Drown (Faber and Faber, 1997) / Junot Díaz
3. The New Granta Book of the American Short Story (Granta Books, 2007) / Richard Ford (ed.)
4. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) / Tobias Wolff (ed.)

1. The Wild Places (Granta Books, 2007/2008) / Robert Macfarlane
2. The Din in the Dead: Essays (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006) / Cynthia Ozick
3. Unpolished Gem (Portobello Books, 2008/2009) / Alice Pung

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some of the Biggest Books of the Year

Monday, April 27, 2009

David Foster WALLACE

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Yiyun LI ... The Vagrants (2009)

When life is a war
Review by JANET TAY
An award-winning Chinese-American author writes about the horrific consequences that follow dissidence and government opposition

MENTION the Tiananmen Square massacre, and immediately one conjures images of student protestors being run over by tanks and shot by the Chinese army.

The 1989 protests, calling for economic change and democratic reform, started out as a day of mourning for the death of the pro-democracy official, Hu Yaobang, and ended in the loss of young lives.

There are speculations on the actual death toll; most foreign and independent sources reported casualties in the thousands, whereas the official death toll according to the Chinese government was between 200 and 300.

Yiyun Li, a Chinese-American writer (she was born in Beijing and moved to the US in 1996) said in an interview in The Guardian newspaper in 2006 that she had spent an “involuntary gap year” in the army, like many teenagers. They were forced to return to Communism as a result of the Chinese government wanting to contain the scourge of dissidence and government opposition.

So successful was this re-education by the Chinese government that most of Li’s army peers, to her shock, had not even heard of the Tiananmen massacre. For her, that had been a turning point at age 17: “I became an adult, a grown up, after that,” she said.

The influence of the event is obvious in her first novel, The Vagrants (Random House/Fourth Estate, 2009). Set in the 1970s, the novel starts with the announcement of an execution: Gu Shan, a young woman pronounced a counter-revolutionary by the Communist government, is sentenced to death. Her crime—renouncing Communism.

Li wastes no time in opening a window to the house of her grieving parents, Teacher Gu and Mrs Gu, who make arrangements for their daughter’s funeral and try to come to terms with the inevitability of her execution.

Gu Shan’s execution will affect not only the lives of her parents but also the intertwined destinies of the inhabitants of the provincial Muddy River.

Among them is Nini, a young girl born with physical deformities because Gu Shan kicked her pregnant mother; Bashi, the layabout jester who acts like a fool but shows himself to be capable of great love for his grandmother and Nini, who becomes his child bride; Kwen, a bachelor undertaker who hides a deep, disturbing secret; and Kai, a radio news announcer who marries into a rich and powerful family and could have had the same fate as Gu Shan.

Li pulls no punches in this depiction of politics and ideology that knows neither love nor kin. The sentiment in the novel is almost constant: fear makes cowards and monsters of us all. Fear of prosecution, torture and death.

The events that tear families apart serve as a deterrent for independent thought and change, and become a catalyst for hatred, judgment and dehumanising selfishness.

The moment there is a hint that a friend or family member could have done something to incur government prosecution, all efforts are made for complete disassociation.

Li does not hold back when describing corpse defilement or Gu Shan’s bleeding neck wrapped with surgical tape when her vocal cords were cut to prevent her from shouting slogans.

She shows the worst in human beings when they are cornered, how self-preservation can result in cruelty, and makes neither apologies nor excuses for the deplorable way people behave in desperate situations.

One often gets the feeling that Li’s characters are victims of circumstances, and like rats trapped in a maze, hopelessness descends on them even when they make the greatest of efforts to escape.

Li’s début collection of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (winner of a slew of prizes, including the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for First Fiction) demonstrates her ability in refining the craft of the short story with her vivid and empathic depiction of characters. The Vagrants, on the other hand, seems to lack her usual well-paced narrative and reads a little slow at times.

There is no denying the richness in her story and the emotional pull evoked by some of her characters. But one cannot help wondering if the novel might have benefited from the scrutiny of fewer lives for a more robust, literary concoction.

Nevertheless, enthusiasts of Chinese political history will enjoy the stories of faceless, nameless individuals who were unwittingly caught up in the instability and turmoil that engulfed China during its most draconian times.

There is no shortage of tragedies in this novel. The proverbial silver lining is practically non-existent. As Kai’s father aptly puts it: “Life is a war, and one rests only when death comes to fetch him.”

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).

Reproduced from the The Sunday Star of April 26, 2009

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Marilynne ROBINSON wins the 2008 Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction

MARILYNNE ROBINSON has won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction for her novel, Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Virago, 2008) while Zoë Ferraris won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction with her novel, Finding Nouf (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). Frank Bidart won for poetry with his collection of poems, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). Mark Mazower won the history prize for his book, Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Rules Europe (Penguin Press, 2008). The winners were announced on Friday, April 24, 2009.

Friday, April 24, 2009

SINI SANA Travels in Malaysia


The diverse cultures of Malaysia invite travellers both local and foreign to marvel at towering cityscapes where modernity dazzles with luxury or go through old trunk roads surrounded by oil-palm plantations to get to breathtaking mountains, caves, beaches and the tropical rainforests. And, of course, every traveller is amazed by food that can be exotic or a fusion of everything you know!

Perhaps during a jungle trek, you stumbled upon an enchanting place, or had a non-fatal encounter with wild animals. Maybe you once spent an afternoon befriending villagers who had never met an urbanite off the beaten track before. If you were a journalist invited on a ‘famtrip,’ did you encounter something outside the usual itinerary of visiting the most popular marketplaces, skyscrapers and restaurants? You might have enjoyed the tranquillity of a hideaway before it was discovered and destroyed in the name of progress and development. Here is a chance for you to recapture those moments.

MPH GROUP PUBLISHING is looking for true travellers’ tales, preferably on places outside the tourist hubs of Malaysia. Stories should be in the form of travellogues with rich, firsthand descriptions of sights and sounds and smells and even tastes. We want engaging stories that will move us to visit the places for ourselves and also to understand why we should preserve the beauty of such places. This is not a travel guide; we do not want to know just where to visit and how to get there. We do not want photographs; the words in the story should capture all the wonders and splendours. We want the literariness in travel writing. Tentatively titled Sini Sana: Travels in Malaysia, we aim to publish the anthology in 2010, depending on the number and quality of submissions we receive.

Travel stories must be original, nonfiction, between 3,000 and 5,000 words, must not have been previously published and must be in the English language. We invite submissions from both emerging and established writers. Manuscripts must be edited, typed double-spaced with a 12-point font and emailed to Please include your name, address, telephone number and email address. You may submit as many pieces as you wish. Faxed or handwritten submissions will not be entertained and manuscripts will not be returned. We will contact you only if your piece has been chosen for inclusion in the collection. Writers whose submissions are selected will be expected to work with the editors to polish their stories.

Deadline: September 30, 2009
Payment: A small flat fee and two copies of the published collection

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Abby WONG ... On her compulsive obsession

ABBY WONG, who believes no book is a bad book, downsized from being a high-flying financial consultant to a book buyer because she loves being surrounded by books.

I AM WILLING to admit this to you, my dear reader. I am such a voracious consumer of books that I used to steal in order to satisfy my need. Yes, I was a book thief. I stole from friends books that I felt would be better off with me. For I was a book lover, you see, and I knew I would render the most tender loving care for all books that resided on my humble bookshelf.

Unable to glom onto some of the wonderful books in the libraries, I rummaged through damaged books that were put out for disposal each month. You see, I was building my own library—a decrepit bedside table stacked with a teetering pile of books. I was 12 years old then.

My 20-odd copies of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series of children’s books were the magical realms I escaped to as I strutted about playing detective with my imaginary friends, George, Dick, Julian, and Anne. Also among my treasures were books by Judy Blume, through whose stories I began to learn the painful facts of life, and Paula Danziger, whose knack for telling humorous stories never failed to bring a tinge of joy to my lonely childhood.

The pride of my collection, however, were the four great Chinese classics: Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Chamber and Journey to the West. But they were merely pictorial versions for children. After being shifted from one place to another so many times, the books that I collected as a child are now nowhere to be found. But I am still a book lover and have accumulated a slew of titles.

I buy them now, paying penance for my past deeds. Better yet, I gave up corporate glamour for bookstore austerity, and frittered away my salary on books. For I would like to achieve what I failed to before: this time I am determined to build a gargantuan home library. However, my existing bookshelves are not yet majestic. But that doesn’t matter, for even the (relatively) few books I have are so charged with sentiment that smells from the past emanate from their pages, making me nostalgic about some of the pleasurable moments I have had with reading over the years.

Reigning at the centre of the shelves are history books, among which is Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust, the book that marked the start of my fanatical reading phase as a working adult. Though the need to understand this profoundly sad historic event seemed pressing at the time, later, by divine intervention, I turned to something even more eye-opening—the Arabs and the Middle East. Be it fictional or real, the story of the Middle East as a whole is one of richness, deeply felt religious feeling, irony, and injustice. As I burrowed into that vast area, it became clear to me that peace on earth hinges on the world understanding and accepting the region’s faith, culture, and people.

But if I have to name the part of my shelves that is dearest to me, then it has to be the Odd Shelf, which contains books oddly unique and somewhat significant. My odd shelf holds the myriad works of Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz. To say that I love every one of Mahfouz’s novels is an understatement; my ardour for Mahfouz began so tempestuously it would take a gale of similar force to thwart my devotion. Whereas fantasy and myth seem surreal in modern times, Mahfouz maintains that contact in all his stories, reminding us of the validity of ancient truths, and that all deeds shall be repaid and all injustices, vindicated.

Books can be one of the best forms of entertainment, even for children. My humble bookshelves are not for me to enjoy alone; a sizeable part is for my children to house Barney, Blue’s Clues and Ladybird books. Secretly, I call it the Pet Shelf. It is my belief that children are more likely to become book lovers if they grow up surrounded by them. My six-year-old son, who used to sleep with heaps of picture books in his bed, now places a Marvel comic under his pillow and bids Spider-Man goodnight. My 17-month-old daughter, likewise, lugs along Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo whenever we take a drive and converses with the animal characters. Books are everywhere in the house by the end of the day, but we love that, as they have become something we don’t want to live without.

Of all the pleasurable activities in life that I have enjoyed, and wish for my children, reading tops the list. Few things give me the joy that reading does. Words soothe when you are sad; stories thrill when you are bored; knowledge clarifies when you’re in doubt. So deep are the pleasures of reading, they become addictive and you become obsessed.

A world where books don’t exist? To me, it would be a world of pain with no means to ease.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of April 19, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Memories of Harold ROBBINS

HAVE YOU READ any of these novels by Harold Robbins (1916-1997), the man who gave birth to the modern best-seller as we know it? These are merely some of his best-sellers I read back in the 1970s.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

2009 Orange Prize for Fiction Shortlist

THE 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist is dominated by American writers: Ellen Feldman, Samantha Hunt and Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson. However, Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison is not on the list. There are three non-Americans: Samatha Harvey, Deirdre Madden and Kamila Shamsie. Irish writer Madden was shortlisted for One by One in the Darkness (1996) in 1997. My favourites: Deirdre Madden and Marilynne Robinson.

The following writers have been shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction:

1. Scottsboro (Picador, 2008) / Ellen Feldman
2. The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape, 2009) / Samantha Harvey
3. The Invention of Everything Else (Harvill Secker, 2008) / Samantha Hunt
4. Molly Fox’s Birthday (Faber & Faber, 2008) / Deirdre Madden
5. Home (Virago, 2008) / Marilynne Robinson
6. Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury, 2009) / Kamila Shamsie

The winner of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced on June 3, 2009