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The Lit Rewind Ep 03 – Tunku Halim

This is the third episode of the Lit Rewind.

Every now and then, we get interesting bookish people into our shop to discuss all things literary — be they their books, their thoughts on a book, or on the craft of writing in general.

On Sept 28, a hazy Saturday afternoon, we held an intimate discussion session with one of Malaysia’s most prolific writers Tunku Halim, who is the first Malaysian author to have been picked up by Penguin’s new Southeast Asia imprint. Joining us to discuss his collection of short fiction, Scream to the Shadows, was Sharmilla Ganesan, radio journalist and writer. 

We started the discussion by asking Tunku Halim how this new collection of stories came about. Tunku Halim’s Scream to the Shadows is available in-store, as are several of his other books including his children’s history book and his biography of Tunku Abdullah.

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Lit Review: ‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie

Who: Sir Salman Rushdie is an award-winning British Indian writer who needs no introduction. The winner of multiple awards and honours, Rushdie’s vast body of work include Midnight’s Children, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Joseph Anton, and the controversial Satanic Verses. He has also written a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as well as multiple works of non-fiction.

What: Quichotte is both a homage to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and to the maximalist form of writing. Hubris and bombast is de rigeur — or perhaps more pertinently, de Rushdie — and the scope of the narrative is once again mind-bogglingly wide. Rushdie borrows heavily from popular culture, science fiction, fantasy, and of course, from Cervantes, to put together Quichotte which can be regarded as a return to form after the stilted Golden House effort of 2017.

In a nutshell — if that is at all possible — Quichotte follows the quest of an Indian-American salesman who has fallen in true love with the Oprah-esque Salma R., a shrewd Indian actress who has become the new diva of afternoon talk TV. With his clasically-trained brain rotted on a steady diet of primetime television, the eponymous Quichotte believes he must embark on a quest to prove his worthiness of Ms. Salma R., interpreting the signs and omens along the way as only a pop culture fanatic (or David Foster-Wallace) can:

“As I plan my quest,” Quichotte said, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette…[t]he searcher for love must understand immediately, at the outset of his search, that the quantity of love available is far too small to satisfy the number of searchers.”

But quests are not all created equal. While Quixote had his windmills and dragons — imaginary dangers that are in actuality quite innocuous — Quichotte’s challenges are quite the opposite. Together with his dreamed up son/squire Sancho, our knight errant must deal with the challenges of a bigoted Trumpian America, the opioid crisis (topical!), estrangement from a sibling known only as the Human Trampoline (HT for short) and a physical development that may or may not herald the literal end of the world.

But wait! It doesn’t end there.

It turns out that Quichotte may very well just be the figment of the imagination — the last gasp of effort by a third-rate Indian American spy novelist who is making for one last grasp at respectability with his retelling of Don Quixote! Not coincidentally, the author of Quichotte grapples with much of the same issues faced by his addled protagonist and thus intertwine the threads of fact and fiction, which incidentally feeds nicely into Rushdie’s penchant for multiverse theory (see Ground Beneath Her Feet).

The author, allusively known (or perhaps not), only as Author or Brother has sibling issues with the enigmatic Sister, who has come good in her clamber up the ladder of ambition, but nevertheless finds her otherwise fabulous life interrupted by an unseen foe. Like Quichotte, Brother needs to reconcile with his fragmented family before he can complete his own quest, which in this case is finishing his book before an irritating heart murmur finishes him.

Why: Why does anyone read Rushdie? Is there room for bombast and hyperbole in this modern age where everyone is Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of everything, including prose? Can sleek Swedish furniture design not cohabitate with baroque and gilded rooms? One suspects that Quichotte makes the argument that it can, and it should.

In many ways, Quichotte is an exemplary Best of Rushdie, with the New York Times reviewer complaining that one could check off all the boxes in a Rushdie Trope Bingo Card, just as one could with Murakami’s card with Killing Commendatore. Multiverses? Check. Multitudinous references to popular culture characters and/or tropes? Check. Homages to literary classics? Check. Cheeky insertion of the self into the narrative? Check, check, and check.

Indeed, Rushdie dips into kitsch so often throughout the book that it almost feels as though one were watching a Wes Anderson movie with Alec Baldwin as the narrator. And just as Anderson makes entertaining movies, Rushdie writes entertaining, if not always “meaningful”, books. Of course, he brandishes his own get-out-of-jail free card when he reminds us, through his description of Salma R., that, “A woman whose life was lived on the surface, who had chosen superficiality, had no right to complain about the absence of depth”.

But it would be wrong to dismiss Quichotte as pure camp as Rushdie can still be a master of lucid prose when he chooses to be — although perhaps not when he is channeling the inner-monologue of a teenager trying to sound hip. Structure wise, there does seem to be a significant imbalance in the overall feel of the book, almost as though the author was forced to chop out vast sections by a less compassionate editor. But we can only speculate.

Verdict: Unlikely to win the Booker, I’m afraid. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM84.95; UK hardback, RM109.90; US hardback, RM119.90

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Lit Review: ‘She Said’ by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Who: Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are both New York Times journalists. Kantor started at the paper in 2004 as editor of the arts section before moving on to cover politics and investigative pieces. Twohey spent a decade uncovering sex crimes and sexual misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere before joining the Times in 2016. The duo broke the story of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual harassment and abuse against actresses and female employees, which the Times published on Oct 5, 2017. The two women tell how they did it in She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement.

What: Prior to the Times’ exposé, at least two other newspapers attempted to write about Weinstein’s years of alleged sexual misconduct but their efforts were foiled, no thanks to the former film producer’s underhanded manoeuvrings. It was no different when Weinstein got wind of the Times doing a piece on him. On top of the legal threats that his team of defenders used to intimidate the journalists, Weinstein also hired an organisation of professional manipulators called Black Cube (made up of ex-Mossad intelligence agents!) “to prove he was a victim of a negative campaign”. That the Times managed to successfully and credibly publish the story despite all that is a credit to the paper’s prowess. Kantor and Twohey recounts all this with transcripts of interviews, emails and other primary documents reprinted in the book and give a scintillating play-by-play of the months they spent tracking down Weinstein’s victims, verifying their stories, and, most crucially, convincing them to go on the record. The tail-end of the book shines a spotlight on how and why psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford chose to reveal a decades-old sexual assault incident involving the US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh just weeks before his confirmation.

Why: This is investigative journalism at its finest, and it offers a behind-the-scenes look into the journalistic process, the ups and downs, and moments filled with suspense and uncertainty but which ultimately ends in sweet triumph. From the less than promising start with actress Rose McGowan — an early Weinstein accuser — initially refusing to get on the phone with Kantor to uncovering a host of other women aside from actresses who had suffered similar incidents and were persuaded to break their silence, the book paints a clear picture of the monumental effort and journalistic rigour Kantor and Twohey employed in gathering a solid body of evidence of wrongdoing to write a water-tight exposé.

One couldn’t help but became emotional reading the part where they describe actress Ashley Judd finally consenting to go on the record after weeks of deliberating:

“Standing amid the neat lines of glass wall and grey carpet, Jodi lost it, like a marathoner collapsing at the finish line. She and Megan had spent months living in a state of suspense and responsibility. They would land the story or they would blow it; they would get actresses on the record of they would not. Weeping, Jodi searched for something to say to Judd that was equal to the moment but still professional. The best she could muster was, ‘This means the world to me as a journalist.’”

That Weinstein would employ the kind of dirty tactics he did to prevent the Times from publishing is almost unbelievable if not for the transcripts of correspondence and documents made available. But what is even more eyebrow-raising and infuriating is the revelation that the US has a system for muting sexual harassment claims, giving harassers the ability to commit the same offences time and again.

The publication of Kantor and Twohey’s investigative piece turned out to be a watershed moment:

“The name Harvey Weinstein came to mean an argument for addressing misconduct, lest it go unchecked for decades, an example of how less-severe transgressions could lead to more serious ones. An emerging consensus that speaking up about sexual harassment and abuse was admirable, not shameful or disloyal. A cautionary tale about how that kind of behaviour could become a grave risk for employers. Most of all, it marked an emerging agreement that Weinstein-like conduct was unequivocally wrong and should not be tolerated.”

The impact of the Weinstein story is still felt today (for better or worse, depending), and it is something that Kantor and Twohey grapple with in the book.

“The old rules of sex and power had been partly swept away, but it was not clear what the new ones would or should be. There was little agreement and rancorous debate over what behaviours were under scrutiny, how to know what to believe, and what accountability should look like. Years before, Tarana Burke had started the #MeToo movement to promote empathy and healing for victims of sexual violence, but now that label was being used as a catchall for a huge range of complaints, from verbal abuse to uncomfortable dates, many of which lacked the clarity of workplace or criminal violations.”

Despite there being a central and consistent thrust to the entire book, perhaps what is most refreshing is the cautionary note that it strikes with regards to reverting to mob rule. Yes, it is important that gender biases and abuses be exposed. Yes, women need to be brave and courageous and band together to make their voice heard. But no, this is not license to adopt every complaint as a battle-cry to steamroll over the opposite sex.

Verdict: A riveting, inspiring and empowering read that gives a better understanding of the #MeToo movement and its implications. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM69.90

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Choice picks of sci-fi and fantasy novels

The statement might be a bit hubristic, but we believe that the role of fiction as a revealer of “truth that reality obscures” (with thanks to Emerson) has never been more important as it is today. Hard-won certitudes have once again come under fire as errorists exploit the amplificatory powers of the internet to perpetuate their silly and inane beliefs. From flat earthers to political conspiracists and anti-vaxxers, it is perhaps ironic that real science is better represented in science fiction and fantasy novels than in general public discourse. Which is why we have decided to shine a spotlight on the genre this month — because these novels reveal the awesome (or awful) consequences of propositions taken to their full and logical consequences.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (RM119.95)
A novel 34 years in the making, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale continues the story of Offred. Testaments continues the story 15 years after our heroine disappears into the unknown and is told from the perspective of three female narrators from the Gilead. In writing this novel, not only does Atwood bring closure to fans and readers of the original book, but also brings a note of finality to the story which startlingly foreshadowed the growing militancy in the gender wars that we experience today. If The Handmaid’s Tale was a fable of the perils of runaway misogyny, then The Testaments might offer an inkling of hope in the bleak and dismal dystopia. Testaments was longlisted for the Booker prize in 2019 as at the time of this writing. 

Exhalation by Ted Chiang (RM79.90)
Ted Chiang is the acclaimed author of Stories of Your Life and Others, which became the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival. Exhalation, his new collection of short fiction, feature nine radically original and provocative ideas which nevertheless embed in them some of humanity’s age-old questions: What is free will? Are second chances possible? Should science and discovery be unfettered? The urgency and poise of Chiang’s writing again comes to the forefront in this collection of new science imaginings, making for revelations that are at once profound, sympathetic and all-too human. This is Chiang at his best, who on this evidence will remain a significant force in science fiction writing going forward. 

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami (RM79.90)
Before there was Hunger Games, PUBG or The Maze Runner, there was Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of the book which became a runaway best-seller in Japan. This was followed by its cinematic adaptation by the same name which also became an instant cult classic. Based on a startling premise — a class of junior high school students are taken to a deserted island where they are armed and forced to engage in mortal combat until only one survives — Battle Royale has been criticised for the sheer amount of violence contained within its pages and also more glowingly as a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century. This translation by Nathan Collins captures all the drama and action from the original Japanese cult classic. The 2012 manga sequel Battle Royale: Angels’ Border is also available in-store. 

Creatures of Near Kingdoms by Zedeck Siew, illustrated by Sharon Chin (RM20)
Malaysian writer Zedeck Siew presents an utterly delightful bestiary of imaginary plants and animals. At times full of whimsy and at others of nightmarish quality, the collection of stories imagines the flora and fauna in and around Malaysia, from worms that live in your digital devices to ants and crows that explode. These so-called creatures illuminate so much of what we are and where we came from. Siew’s wonderfully vivid prose is complemented by artist Sharon Chin’s stunning lino prints and pattern designs. Exotic and yet imaginably native to Southeast Asia, Creatures is a perfect example of how the region can meld its rich cultural and natural heritage together with imagination to create a vital, lush and yet geography-specific fantasy canon. 

Penguin Galaxy Fantasy/SciFi Classics Collection (RM699.00 — Regular Price: RM750)
This beautiful hardcover collection of six iconic fantasy and science fiction novels is a must have for the library of anyone at all interested in the rich roots and heritage of modern fantasy and sci-fi works. The series is introduced by the inimitable Neil Gaiman who provides historical and personal context to the six titles that make up the series:

  • Arthur C. Carke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey,
  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer
  • Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land,             
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune                                   
  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and                      
  • TH White’s The Once and Future King

From medieval fantasy to hardcore technopunk, these stories have coloured the imaginations of scientists and dreamers everywhere, and remain the giants upon which future writers and dreamers will stand. Each of these novels ask a perennial question and the answers provided by the authors may or may not sit well with the reader; nevertheless, these are questions that require a response. 

This article appears in the October 2019 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.

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The Lit Rewind Ep 02 – Bernice Chauly

Welcome to the second episode of Lit Rewind.

Every now and then, our shop holds events where we invite authors, readers, and basically anyone interested in books to talk about all things literature.

On the evening of Aug 23, we were pleased and honoured to launch Bernice Chauly’s new poetry collection Incantantions/Incarcerations. Bernice is one of Malaysia’s leading poets, novelists and all-round literary activist, and she was in top form as she opened up about her work, her life and her poetry in conversation with poet and lecturer Lawrence Ypil.

We kicked off the evening with Bernice reading from her latest poetry collection. The book is available in-store at RM28.