Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bookstore Life Lessons

Far from the madding crowd, between the shelves of bookshops big and small, lie pockets of peace and tranquillity, writes SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH

THERE IS NO BOOKSTORE in this world that I cannot fall in love with.

I adore the dusky, dusty second-hand stores you sometimes find at unexpected corners in cities all around the world. These stores are usually tiny and offer book lovers hidden treasures like hard-to-find or out-of-print tomes. Books are everywhere—tumbling out of shelves or piled high on groaning tabletops.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the spacious, well-lit, orderly bookstores. These are brand-name stores with multiple branches, attached cafés, thousands of trendy titles arranged in systematic lines on the shelves and an army of staff dressed in tidy uniforms. Purists and literary snobs sneeringly call these chainstores ‘commercial and impersonal’. Perhaps they’re right but none of that troubles me—I love them anyway.

Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I’m a huge fan of bookstores. Books are my friends. Over the years, they’ve given me much-needed solace in times of trouble and extra delight in times of joy. As a little girl in my hometown, Ipoh, a little bookshop called Mubarak and Sons was my favourite place in the world. I’d head straight for the shelf right up against the back wall—the one that held all of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. My eight-year-old self couldn’t resist Julian, whose cool head and wise council often saved the Five during their captivating adventures (incidentally, I married a man named Julian!). Back then, happiness meant a good book in my hands and a large bar of chocolate within reach—it still does!

It might seem like a random exercise or a waste of time but my addiction to browsing has given me plenty of insight to its benefits and allowed me to collect a number of Bookstore Life Lessons along the way.

Let’s begin with one of the biggest benefits of browsing, and interestingly enough, it doesn’t have much to do with books. Veteran browsers know this one well: bookstores are pockets of peace in the middle of crazy, chaotic malls. If a harried parent has just run a baby stroller over your foot or you’ve just escaped from an elevator that makes the inside of a sardine can seem roomy, head straight for the bookstore. Idly walking among legions of books in a silent, clean environment can evoke a sense of meditative tranquillity and restore your sanity.

I’ve never openly admitted this but my favourite shelf is marked ‘Self-Help’. I know some of you might be laughing right now but self-help books can be fabulous if you know which ones to read. However, I’m the first to admit that being a self-help lover has at least one major drawback—other bookstore browsers will catch sight of you amongst titles like Why Men Marry B**ches and Good Girls, Bad Choices. It isn’t Pulitzer- or Booker Prize-winning material and might lead others to conclude you’re a pathetic loser who has no friends. It took a long time but I’ve learned to ignore the judgmental looks thrown my way and stick to my preference. Self-help titles have resulted in the acquisition of a wide and varied array of skills—anything from meditation and understanding poetry to reading body language and tarot cards.

So here’s Bookstore Life Lesson #1: Follow your heart, do what makes you happy and don’t worry too much about what other people think.

Bookstore Life Lesson #2: You know that old adage “never judge a book by its cover”? Well, it’s a myth. It doesn’t apply to people and it certainly doesn’t apply to books. Have you ever seen a serious book, let’s say The History of Nazi Germany, wrapped in a bubblegum-pink cover with the title done in fancy cursive font? Most probably not. Book covers are designed to reflect the topic or story at hand. So, glancing at the covers will give you a good idea on what the book’s all about. The same principle applies to people. If someone has a permanently grumpy face, they’ve probably got a permanently grumpy personality. Jennifer Lopez has been quoted as saying: “Until you’re twenty you have the face you’re born with, after that you have the face you deserve.” I couldn’t agree more.

The next Bookstore Life Lesson I’ve learned is this: Never assume people sitting behind a desk marked ‘Customer Care’ actually care—about anything. Despite numerous disappointing and aggravating experiences, I still find it hard to grasp that many of those who work in bookstores don’t give a hoot about books and a few among these may not even have read one. You’re much better off navigating the shelves yourself. To make my case, here’s a conversation that recently took place between me and an assistant at a store, which shall remain unnamed:

Me: Hi! Please can you check if you have a book called The Zen of Social Media Marketing?
Bookstore staff (looking disinterested): What?
Me: Can you please check if you have a book called The Zen of Social Media Marketing?
Staff: Zen? Is that the name of the writer?
Me: No, that’s the title of the book. The author is Shama Kabani.
Staff: Name of book?
Me: The Zen of Social Media Marketing.
Staff: Name of writer? Zen, right?

At this point, I was ready to run away screaming, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was close to grabbing his collar so I could shake some sense into him. As with any other store, service is the difference between a good and bad experience for a customer. Fortunately, the smaller, more personalised bookshops tend to have workers who are far less apathetic. However, there’s a real danger of coming away feeling like an uneducated buffoon. Smaller bookstores are staffed with people who are passionate about books. This might be bad news if you’re a ‘bestseller only’ or ‘chick lit’ reader. You’ll likely attract ill-concealed disdain when they suggest obscure, intellectual titles and discover you have no idea what they’re talking about.

I’m hoping my browsing knowledge will help you enjoy a positive experience the next time you decide to indulge in a leisurely stroll between the shelves. As for me, browsing in bookstores has always been and will always be a much-loved pastime. So, if you ever need to track me down in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, you know exactly where to find me.

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I like ... Nicola Upson

Sunday, April 15, 2012

“... Not Victims But Heroes”

SONIA TAITZ talks to ERIC FORBES about her life growing up in a Jewish household in America and what it means to be the daughter of Holocaust survivors

I WAS BORN WANTING TO REWRITE THE STORY. I’m named after my mother’s two teenaged brothers and my father’s mother who were murdered in the Holocaust, the Nazis’ effort to rid the world of Jews. I was born knowing that the world was a dangerous place, and wanting to defuse or even change it, reversing racial and religious hatreds into their opposites.

While the Nazis preferred blondes with blue eyes (and saw all Jews as “dark”), the culture I grew up in America did too, particularly its females. Movie heroines and models were blonde. My mother and her mother were light-haired. Neither of them fully trusted my coal-tar mop. It came from my father’s side of the family, the poorer side (he was from the Lithuanian countryside, and she from its second biggest city), and was therefore déclassé. It was, furthermore, dangerous to look as—as “exotic”—as I did. There was a word for me (did the Nazis invent this?)—I was a Schwarzkopf, a black head. From the beginning, my mother and grandmother hinted that my inky hair was excessive. The little girls they admired had infantile blonde hair—softly curled, ironically, the Christian ideal of a cherub. “Oh, how beautiful,” they’d say, looking at a child with flaxen ringlets.

It didn’t help that hair-colour ads kept blaring on the television: “IS IT TRUE BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN?” or “IF I’VE ONLY ONE LIFE, LET ME LIVE IT AS A BLONDE!” These insistent pieces of advice made me anxious—what was I to do about my problem? On television, blonde girls played with their dolls in a perfect world. Whenever I mentioned transformative American purchases to my parents—this wondrous toy, that bottle of dye—they ignored me. Both had to work all day, with little to show for it. Our carpet was threadbare, the sofa lumpy and worn. They had other more important things to think about. I, however, was fixated by the question: “IS IT TRUE BLONDES HAVE MORE FUN?” If it was true (and our new country was all about “fun”), where did that leave me? The child who faced me in the mirror, I had been told, would have quickly been spotted as a Jew and killed by the Nazis. “A blonde you could sometimes hide,” went the kitchen-table wisdom in my home. They’d be peeling potatoes together, mother and grandmother, adapted to the race-logic of maniacs.

“But you could not save such a black hair.”

“Nothing could be done.”

“And the big, dark eyes.”

Potatoes boiling in bubbling water; peels tossed into the garbage can with a guillotine’s thunk of the lid.

My parents were religiously observant, modest and simple believers in good words and deeds. Our apartment was tiny, but they were proud of the fact that they had enough money to send my brother and me to religious schools, and later, to fine universities. In this regard, they were different from many of their immigrant friends. Before my brother and I were born, most Jewish European refugees had lived in tenements on the Lower East Side of New York. But gradually, my parents’ circle had begun to change, rejecting the old-fashioned ways. As they became more and more successful at their makeshift trades, these “modern” friends moved to the suburbs, where they no longer talked about the painful losses of the Holocaust. Nor did they need the supposed hindrance of Jewish tradition. They lived in the New World present, smoking Parliaments with recessed filters. They dyed their hair “ash” or “champagne” blonde. They bought Cadillacs and played bridge. They celebrated no religious holidays.

Once in a while, we travelled out to visit them. Someone would have to pick us up and drive us. We would sit like “sardines,” as my mother light-heartedly described it, as we left the city and headed out. There, we would crunch across a circular driveway and see the house where my mother’s oldest friend lived with her successful husband, a manufacturer of hot dog casings. This house was one of the first beautiful things I had ever seen in real life. And Jews lived there—even genocide survivors. My heart burst with longing for the tableau that opened before us as we spilled out of the hot back seat.

Sprinklers whispered on the lawn and from among them a girl emerged. Marlene was a beautiful tall girl, about my age, with long, wavy hair and a dimpled sweetness. She had a guard dog called Thunder, who was kept in the garage (they had a garage!). As the parents drank cocktails, lounging on cushioned chaises in the backyard, we children were taken down to a wood-panelled basement decorated with pink and white balloons. This was definitely where heaven was on the map, but we had to leave after only a few hours. On our crushed drive back, I would grow sulky. Marlene’s father worked with wieners, and yet he’d figured out how to live here in America! What was wrong with my parents?

The answer was: Nothing. My parents were the only ones of their gang to continue to worship God as they had before. Their faith had kept them strong at the worst of times, and they stayed observant. My father worked hard fixing watches, wearing his wash-and-wear short-sleeved shirts, and eating lunch out of a brown paper bag. My mother continued to wear housedresses and aprons. As her friends moved on to credit cards at Saks Fifth Avenue, she kept shopping at John’s Bargain Store, pulling wads of bills out of her capacious beige brassières.

“What you have is better than a big house, or a car that they drive on the Sabbath to shop,” my father would say, sensing my sadness and envy. “You have something far more precious: knowledge, and tradition, and the love for learning that God gave you.”

“Can’t I just have the dog?” I’d respond.

I never did get one, but I know now that my parents gave me much more. My childhood made me feel special—maybe singled out, maybe different, but not complacent. My father had not only survived the Dachau concentration camp, but had saved other prisoners. My mother had risked her life to save her mother, and then kept her strong when she’d wanted to give up. To me, they were not victims but heroes. I decided to live my life heroically, adventurously, steered by their values, but open to the bigger world.

This led me to leave the warmth of home and travel back to Europe. I sailed to Oxford, England, where I faced fear, homesickness and prejudice. Leaving my home (and its own prejudices), I eventually found communion with other peoples, viewpoints and religions. I describe this story in my novel, In the King’s Arms, and going beyond it in my forthcoming memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter. Incredibly, my journey—which my parents resisted and feared—ultimately helped heal their wounded faith in mankind.

Looking back on my life, I now know that being a writer is the biggest adventure and source of communion there is. For here I am, telling my story to strangers in Malaysia (and elsewhere)—and hoping that my words create understanding, hope and transformative kinship.

SONIA TAITZ is the author of Mothering Heights: Reclaiming Motherhood from the Experts, In the King’s Arms, and the memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, which will be published in October 2012. She is also a playwright and an essayist. Check out her website at and follow her on Twitter @soniataitz.

Reproduced from the April-June 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Sunday, April 08, 2012

An Unwelcome Visitor

Like most writers, GEOFFREY S. WALKER dislikes being disturbed when he’s working, but some interruptions are more disturbing than others ...

IN BEGINNING THIS STORY, I must make a confession. I am prejudiced—deeply so—against a certain class of human beings. I don’t like dead people. Corpses are creepy. They give me the willies.

That said, I’m not afraid of the late lamented, at least in the sense that I fear they might make themselves actively unpleasant ...

Meaning, I don’t believe in ghosts.

Here in Sabah, that relegates me to a tiny minority. Malaysians tend to sense spectral presences everywhere. An abandoned house, a ramshackle hut, a bus stop on a lonely road, a dead tree, a scabrous boulder ... even a cracked flowerpot full of weeds—any and all such derelict landmarks might house an unquiet spirit.

My wife June is particularly attuned to such phenomena. According to her, Kota Kinabalu is a virtual necropolis. We’ve had many lively debates on the subject which invariably end in my guaranteeing her that there are no such things as ghosts, and her offering ironclad proof to the contrary, citing such authorities as Pesona, Mastika, Bicara et al. The result: a deadlock.

A few years ago, June and I rented a semi-detached house in the Likas area of Kota Kinabalu. It was a nice place: spacious, comfortably furnished, a yard in which to barbecue, closest neighbours also close friends. And perhaps best of all from a writer’s perspective, quiet and secluded.

June, by contrast, is of a gregarious nature. In addition to her large extended family, she has hundreds of friends. She enjoys spending time with them and frequently invites them over for dinner.

Far be it from me to object to her entertaining company, but I do like to be told ahead of time when she’s expecting guests, as unannounced visitors can play hob with my routine. Sometimes, however, the early-warning system fails. I try to be gracious on such occasions, but it can be irksome, particularly if I’m struggling with what I’m writing.

June owns and manages a boutique. Typically, she gets home from the shop at sunset. One such evening, I was plotting a chapter of a novel that was giving me trouble. I heard her enter the house and returned her greeting, but didn’t get up, as I didn’t want to lose my train of thought. She knows how I am and is very accommodating of my need for privacy when I’m working. So she simply waved and smiled as she walked past the door of my office. Just before I lowered my eyes to the keyboard again, I saw another young woman trailing a few steps behind her. She too waved and smiled as she disappeared into the kitchen.

It doesn’t take much to throw off my concentration at times, particularly when I’m feeling I may have written myself into a corner. And now, the thought of having to deal with an unknown visitor annoyed me. Not wanting to make a big deal out of it, I opted to send June a text message, chiding her for not letting me know she was bringing someone home. I was still frowning self-righteously when she walked into my room holding her cell phone. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” I hissed. “Who is she, anyway?”

June gave me a puzzled look. “Who is who?” she asked.

“That blonde girl who came in with you. Is she still in the kitchen or what?”

June’s look of puzzlement slowly morphed. “There’s no one with me,” she said, turning pale. “I’m alone.” Suddenly, I could feel the blood draining from my own face—but for a different reason.

Oh, my God, I thought to myself. That’s putting your foot in it.

“Hantu!” June said in a strangled voice. “You saw a hantu!”

“No, no, no,” I groaned, wishing I were flexible enough to kick myself in the head. “It was just a, a—synaptic thing. My eyes are tired. It was dark. All I saw was you—you know, like an afterimage or something.”

“You said she was blonde,” June reminded me. “Do I look blonde?”

“Like I said, it was dark,” I squirmed.

“And black-haired women look blonde in the dark, is that what you’re telling me?”

“Listen, dear, I’ve been staring at this monitor so long I’m cross-eyed. Just forget about what I—”

June wasn’t buying it. “We’re moving out of here,” she scowled. “I’m not living with a hantu. Living with you is crazy enough.”

“Come on, honey!” I wheedled. “I keep telling you: there’s no such thing as ghosts. And even if that, that girl was a ghost—which she wasn’t, of course—she seemed perfectly friendly. I mean, she waved and smiled, and—”

June started punching numbers into her cell phone. “I’m calling my uncle. He’s a bomoh. I’m going to ask him to come here tomorrow.”

For the sake of my pride, I wish I could say that this debate also ended in a deadlock. But in fact, I didn’t stand a chance of holding my own. Not a ghost of one.

June’s bomoh uncle is an affable gent. He listened attentively to my story, and nodded in sympathy when I explained that I was tired and cross-eyed and distressed by the fact that I’d written myself into a corner and therefore couldn’t be held to account for the hallucination. He then made a tour of my office and the kitchen and the minor space of hallway that divided them, before giving his opinion. Yes, the house was haunted. The hantu inhabited the doorjamb of the kitchen. Yes, she was blonde, and yes, she was benign. Bloodthirsty ghosts don’t smile and wave. So, no, there was no need to vacate the premises. We had a beer together and I used the opportunity to ask him some questions about the book I was working on, which centres on Malaysian magic. Then he left. June felt better and was willing to stay in the house. I felt better because June felt better. Plus, we didn’t have to move.

But I must say that the experience did nothing to eradicate or even ameliorate my prejudice towards dead people.

They’re enough of a nuisance when they’re inert. When they act up, they’re a real pain in the ass.

Reproduced from the January-March 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April 2012 Highlights

1. Tell Me a Story (Picador India/Pan Macmillan India, 2012) / Rupa Bajwa
2. Stonemouth (Little, Brown, 2012) / Iain Banks
3. HHhH (trans. from the French by Sam Taylor) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Laurent Binet
4. The Chemistry of Tears (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Peter Carey
5. When the Night (trans. from the Italian by Marina Harss) (Other Press, 2012) / Cristina Comencini
6. Talulla Rising (Canongate, 2012) / Glen Duncan
7. Arcadia (William Heinemann, 2012) / Lauren Groff
8. Scenes from Early Life (Fourth Estate, 2012) / Philip Hensher
9. The House of Velvet and Glass (Voice, 2012) / Katherine Howe
10. Second Person Singular (trans. from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg) (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) / Sayed Kashua

11. The Briefcase (trans. from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell) (Counterpoint, 2012) / Hiromi Kawakami
12. Beastly Things (William Heinemann/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) / Donna Leon
13. Truth Like the Sun (Knopf/Bloomsbury, 2012) / Jim Lynch
14. Thunder and Rain (Center Street, 2012) / Charles Martin
15. Pure (Turnaround Books, 2012) / Timothy Mo
16. Silver (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Andrew Motion
17. The Hunger Angel (trans. from the German by Philip Boehm) (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt/Portobello Books, 2012) / Herta Müller
18. Three Strong Women (trans. from the French, Trois femmes puissantes, by John Fletcher) (MacLehose Press, 2012) / Marie NDiaye
19. Traveler of the Century (trans. from the Spanish, El Viajero Del Siglo, by Nick Caistor
& Lorenza Garcia) (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Pushkin Press, 2012) / Andrés Neuman
20. The Coldest Night (Algonquin, 2012) / Robert Olmstead

21. The Cove (Ecco, 2012) / Ron Rash
22. Honour (Viking, 2012) / Elif Shafak
23. Wish You Were Here (Knopf, 2012) / Graham Swift
24. Derby Day (Pegasus, 2012) / D.J. Taylor
25. The Road to Urbino (HarperPress, 2012) / Roma Tearne
26. The Right-Hand Shore (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Christopher Tilghman
27. The Shoemaker’s Wife (Harper, 2012) / Adriana Trigiani
28. The Beginner’s Goodbye (Knopf/Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Anne Tyler
29. Fear in the Sunlight (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Nicola Upson
30. Dirt (Harper, 2012) / David Vann

31. Skagboys (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Irvine Welsh
32. The Hanging Garden (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Patrick White

First Novels
1. The Apartment (Penguin, 2012) / Greg Baxter
2. Miss Fuller (Steerforth, 2012) / April Bernard
3. A Land More Kind Than Home (William Morrow, 2012) / Wiley Cash
6. A Naked Singularity (University of Chicago Press, 2012) / Sergio De la Pava
4. Every Contact Leaves a Trace (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Elanor Dymott
5. An Unexpected Guest (Little, Brown, 2012) / Anne Korkeakivi
6. The Headmaster’s Wager (Doubleday Canada, 2012) / Vincent Lam
7. The Incident (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)/ Kenneth Macleod
8. The Book of Life (Picador, 2012) / Stuart Nadler
9. Signs of Life (Macmillan, 2012) / Anna Raverat
10. Secrets of the Tides (Orion, 2012) / Hannah Richell

11. The Lifeboat (Reagan Arthur Books, 2012) / Charlotte Rogan
12. The Light Between Oceans (Doubleday, 2012) / M.L. Stedman
13. Hand Me Down (Dutton, 2012) / Melanie Thorne

1. Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Kevin Barry
2. The Likes of Us (Parthian Books, 2012) / Stan Barstow
3. The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 (Anchor, 2012) / Laura Furman (ed.)
4. Difficult Pleasures (Penguin India, 2012) / Anjum Hasan
5. My Mother Was An Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012) / Tania Hershman
6. Aerogrammes (Knopf, 2012) / Tania James
7. I Am an Executioner: Love Stories (Knopf, 2012) / Rajesh Parameswaran
8. The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt Publishing, 2012) / Nicholas Royle (ed.)
9. Favorite Monster (Autumn House Press, 2015) / Sharma Shields
10. Once You Break a Knuckle (Bloomsbury, 2012) / D.W. Wilson

1. Lightning Beneath the Sea (Seren, 2012) / Grahame Davies
2. Clueless Days (Seren, 2012) / Rhian Edwards
3. The Dark Film (Picador, 2012) / Paul Farley
4. Place: New Poems (Ecco Press/Carcanet Press, 2012) / Jorie Graham
5. Stalker (Shearsman Books, 2012) / Lucy Hamilton
6. Jade Ladder: Contemporary Chinese Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) / W.N. Herbert
& Yang Lian, with Brian Holton (eds.)
7. Nefertiti in the Flak Tower (Picador, 2012) / Clive James
8. Love’s Bonfire (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Tom Paulin

1. Promiscuous: “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (Yale University Press, 2012) / Bernard Avishai
2. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (McSweeney’s, 2012) / Tom Bissell
3. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) / Mark Dery
4. India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony, 2012) / Diana L. Eck
5. Farther Away: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) / Jonathan Franzen
6. Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin, 2012) / Paul French
7. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) / Jonathan Gottschall
8. Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Lindsey Hilsum
9. In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Little, Brown, 2012) / Tom Holland
10. Paris in Love: A Memoir (Random House, 2012) / Eloisa James

11. Sightlines (Sort Of Books, 2012) / Kathleen Jamie
12. A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (Bloomsbury USA, 2012) / Alice Kessler-Harris
13. Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Viking, 2012) / Keith Lowe
14. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive (Granta Books, 2012) / Tom Lubbock
15. Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed (Other Press, 2012) / Leslie Maitland
16. The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Ferdinand Mount
17. Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (Allen Lane, 2012) / Dominic Sandbrook
18. Nightwalk: A Journey to the Heart of Nature (Collins, 2012) / Chris Yates