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Books on love and its many guises

It is both surprising and not that love continues to remain such fertile territory for scribblers: after all, we are nowhere closer to understanding what this emotion is although we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who can truly claim that they feel not its impact. Whether it be love romantic or platonic, worldly or divine, sui generis or populous, love is perhaps the emotion par excellence describing the tension that exists between the wants of our inner and outer lives. Those of us lucky enough to succeed in aligning the conflict are truly blessed, and those of us who are not must continue the struggle. But for both, there are always books on love to read.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (RM79.90)
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent exodus of Spanish refugees to France and Chile, this sweeping, majestic new novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende explores love in many guises: love for one’s country, for your fellow humankind, and for music and poetry, but also carnal love and the kind borne out of deep mutual respect and trust for another person. The story centres on Victor Dalmau, a young medical student fighting on the Republican side at the start of the novel and who eventually has to flee the country. He ends up in Chile, together with his dead brother’s pregnant girlfriend, Roser Bruguera, who agrees to marry Victor out of convenience. As the years go by, they build their lives — he as a successful cardiologist, and she as a renowned musician — and raise Marcel, Roser’s son, together. But when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s Marxist president in 1973, they find themselves once more endangered by their political views. Allende’s storytelling prowess shines through with wonderful characters and a truly engaging story that feels timeless, yet perfectly on pulse with today.

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (RM75.90)
Longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize, Night Boat to Tangier is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Irwine Welsh’s Trainspotting and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Graham Swift’s Last Orders. In a sentence: Night Boat is a story of two former conmen, past their prime, waiting at the port of Algeciras for a daughter who may or may not appear — a daughter lost to them owing to their turbulent past coloured by fast money and fast drugs — and who while away the time in heavy nostalgia and reverie through dialogue interspersed with Joycean banter poised always on the edge of a knife. And yet, through it all, love remains the grounding theme, be it a love of self, the romantic love of an Other, the parental love of a child, or the platonic love between friends. Night Boat is a wistful read that navigates between remembering and forgetting.

Calligraphies of Love by Hassan Massoudy (RM62.90)
What happens when you combine timeless love poems from masters including Ibn Zaydoun, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, John Keats and Paul Eluard together with the art of master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy? You get Insta-poetry at its very best, and the way it ought to be done. No more slapping together a wistful black and white photo of a cigarette burning down to its filter with a few lines enjambed willy-nilly: “Time / is like / a / Cigarette / it burns / down / and / kills / You.” Instead, we have Massoudy’s beautifully stylised Arabic calligraphy, which has been exhibited throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and is housed in the permanent collections of the British Museum and the Jordan National Gallery. His signature strokes and vibrant colours reifies immortal verse such as Augustine’s — “The measure of love is to love / without measure” — in brush art that vibrates with spirit and meaning.

Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (RM45)
Singapore-based Malaysian author Yeoh Jo-Ann’s Impractical Uses of Cake won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018 and is the story of one Sukhin Dhillon — wealthy, handsome and eligible. However, he has completely given up on life, and spends most of his time dodging uncomfortable questions about matrimony. Quite content with his lot in life, he bumps into the past when, one fine day, he stumbles upon his ex-girlfriend Jinn who has now become a homeless vagrant. Feeling sorry for her, they rebuild their bond over their shared fondness of cake, and thus begins a shared journey together of discovery and rebuilding. Overall, Impractical Uses Of Cake is refreshing and perhaps a less than conventional love story.

Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens (RM49.90)
This debut novel by Delia Owens topped the American bestseller list for over 44 weeks. Part bildungsroman and part crime drama, Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, known in her town as “Marsh Girl” because she grew up in a shack in the marshes of North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, she is forced to fend for herself but nevertheless manages to survive and thrive despite the challenging conditions. She eventually attracts the attention of two men in town, but she becomes the prime murder suspect when one of them turns up dead. While much of the book is about Kya’s resilience, it is also a book about love, companionship and forgiveness. It doesn’t hurt that there a thrilling denouement to the murder mystery awaits in the wings.

This article appears in the February 2020 issue of FireFlyz, the in-flight magazine of Firefly airlines.

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Riveting crime and mystery titles to read now

With the monsoon rains beating down in full force at the moment, there are some very good reasons to hunker down at home. After all, nothing beats curling up at home on a stormy evening on the sofa with a riveting whodunnit or a pacy crime thriller, especially now towards the end of the year when we may be feeling just a bit tired from our exertions these past 10 months. Here are some of our suggestions for crime and mystery titles that will keep you glued to your sofa and see out the month of November. Happy reading!

The Chain by Adrian McKinty (RM72.90)
In his new crime thriller, The Chain, author Adrian McKinty takes a familiar plot device and turns it that much darker and horrifying, banking on the notion that parents will do anything to save their child. While driving one day, Rachel Klein receives a phone call informing her that her daughter has been kidnapped, and she needs to pay a ransom to get her back alive. But that’s not all — Rachel would also need to kidnap another child, and convince his or her parents to kidnap a child as well or else her child will be murdered. Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending scheme that turns victims into criminals. Sharp, diabolical and relentless, McKinty’s new novel — a movie adaptation is already in the works — will have you at the edge of your seat.

Sherlock Holmes: A Scandal in Japan by Keisuke Matsuoka (RM84.50)
Fans of Sherlock Holmes have always wondered and speculated just what the intrepid sleuth had been up to after he disappeared following his final battle with arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. He had presumably fallen to his death at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland only to reappear several years later admitting that his disappearance had been a ruse to throw his enemies off his track. Still, the question of what he was doing in the intermittent years continued to worry at the imagination of his legions of readers. Well, worry no longer for we now have an answer thanks to the Keisuke Matsuoka, who is regarded as Japan’s ‘God of Mystery Novels’. In A Scandal in Japan, we are taken to a lushly depicted Meiji Japan where Holmes finds himself entangled in a knotted tangle of political deceit and on the thresh of an international incident involving the Russians. Deftly researched and based on real historical events, Matsuoka’s novel not only plugs in a critical missing gap in Holmes’ timeline but creates a mystery true to Conan Doyle’s spirit and legacy.

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui (RM49.95)
Zhou Haohui is considered one of the top three suspense authors in China today. The Death Notice trilogy is China’s bestselling work of suspense fiction to date, and this translation of the first book by Zac Haluza makes the work accessible to an English-reading audience for the first time. Death Notice follows the efforts of an elite police squad to hunt a criminal known only as Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) intent on executing criminals the law cannot reach. Despite being in breach of the law, Eumenides’ actions resonate with a public who believes that justice is not being equally applied to all. Soon, the public starts nominating targets for Eumenides, and, two days later, respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming is found dead. Subsequently, the police start receiving ‘death notices’, chilling notes announcing the next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. When the next victim dies despite being under police protection, the police realise they are dealing with an inventive and ruthless criminal mastermind.

November Road by Lou Berney (RM69.90)
The assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 remains a rich ground for speculative fiction and for good reason: even some 56 years after the fact of the event, the assassination itself remains shrouded in mystery and conspiracy. Was the hit organised by the FBI or the mafia or both? Did Marilyn Monroe have a part to play in this? And who was Jacky Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald? Berney’s November Road offers an answer to all this, but that’s not really the point of the book. Instead, the assassination serves as a foil and catalyst that sets mob lieutenant Frank Guidry down a fugitive road when he realises that anyone in-the-know was being eliminated by his boss. He finds a perfect disguise when he meets beautiful housewife Charlotte and her two daughters running away in search of greener pastures. But it’s hard to go on a road trip with someone without realising something about yourself, even when you’re road tripping to save your life.

The Paper Bark Tree Mystery by Ovidia Yu (RM49.90)
Su Lin is finally working at her dream job as an assistant to a brand new detective agency in Singapore after sleuthing as an amateur in her past two novels (see The Frangipani Tree Mystery and The Betel Nut Tree Mystery). But all is not well. Her erstwhile boss Bald Bernie Hemsworth had decided that a local Singaporean girl wasn’t quite up to the job of investigating and replaced her with a pretty and privileged white girl. Then they find him dead as a doorknob. Su Lin decides to put on her sleuthing hat again when the authorities accuse her best friend’s father as the murderer, an accusation which she simply cannot believe to be true. Meanwhile, not all is well in Singapore in the 1930s. Political unrest and chaos is the order of the day, which would eventually result in a tragic loss that shakes Su Lin to her core. The truth is out there, but at what cost? Published in 2019, The Paper Bark Tree Mystery is the third and latest book of Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony series and a must read for mystery fans.

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

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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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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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Books on Malaysia and Malaysians

Malaysia celebrates its 56th anniversary as a nation on Sept 16, but it very much remains a work in progress. Although the story of Malaysia is one littered with great moments of achievement, there are also moments of disappointments and sadness which are reminders that we are still very much a nation in adolescence. What, if there is one, is the Malaysian identity? What is its voice and what does it stand for? We submit that these questions remain unanswered, and, more importantly, that they may be unanswerable in the final analysis. Our choice of books for this month focus on writers who are trying in their own way to find some relief in these questions.

Where Monsoons Meet (RM23)
Where Monsoons Meet charts a history of Malaya that is often overlooked in mainstream historic texts and presents its findings in a graphic novel format. Originally written by a group of Malaysian students in London in 1979, the book was resurrected on the 50th anniversary of Malaysian Independence to provide an on-the-ground perspective of Malaya’s independence story. It covers the period stretching from the days of the Malacca Sultanate in the 1400s to the Federation of Malaya’s independence in 1957. Some notable highlights include the colonial powers’ squabble over the rule of Malacca, the fierce rebellion of the Malayan peoples against the establishment of indirect British rule, and drastic British measures taken to suppress anti-colonial sentiments during the period of “Emergency”. Where Monsoons Meet is an invaluable, entertaining and edifying story of a people’s struggle against colonialism.

We, the Survivors by Tash Aw (RM69.90)
We, the Survivors is a story of class, education and the workings of fate and destiny. Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. Like many, he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water. Caught in circumstances beyond his own control, he is ultimately led to murder a Bangladeshi migrant worker. Survivors is a confessional, a story of Ah Hock’s life leading up to the appalling act of violence told over several days to a journalist whose life has taken a different course. The book has been described as a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It asks the question of whether individual agency alone is sufficient to reverse and unravel the tangled webs of history, circumstance and inequality. An important read highlighting the need to address inequality on a needs rather than racial basis.

The King’s Chinese by Daryl Yeap (RM55)
The King’s Chinese is the story of Yeap Chor Ee and the Straits Chinese in Penang, a community which emerged in the colonial Straits Settlements constituting a truly unique blend of Chinese, Southeast Asian and European cultural identities. The central thread of this book — the life of Yeap, the “merchant prince of Penang” — touches on a multitude of people, events and businesses which extended from trading to banking, and sugar refining to property development. A penniless migrant from China, Yeap started out in Penang as a barber before subsequently becoming Penang’s richest man and one of the state’s greatest philanthropists. This book is invaluable in providing insight into the pulsing commercial centre that was pre-war Penang, and of a Malayan peninsula that was undergoing rapid change. Daryl Yeap, the great-granddaughter of Yeap Chor Ee, is both scrupulous and meticulous in her research and fills in the gaps within the wider narrative with compelling prose.

A Prince Called “Charlie” by Tunku Halim (RM24)
The biography of the son of Malaysia’s first king Tunku Abdullah, Prince is the story of his life at a time of rapid change for the nation. Tunku Halim, the issue of Tunku Abdullah, is unsparing and complete in his portrait of his father who led a remarkable, riotous life as a corporate figure, a national ambassador and family man. First published as Tunku Abdullah — A Passion of Life, this revised edition contains a new introduction from the author as well as a new foreword by Dina Zaman. Much more than the story of a playboy and his party lifestyle, the book also covers Tunku Abdullah’s harrowing experiences in war-torn Japan, his controversial visit to Israel, his friendship with Malaysian premier Tun Mahathir and his many close shaves with death. It is also the story of Malaysia through the life of one remarkable man, revealing the dynamism and pulsating changes that he lived through.

Peninsula by Rehman Rashid (RM50)
The late Rehman Rashid, one of Malaysia’s foremost writer, journalist and raconteur, lead a life that was not without controversy. At various times a political insider and a political outcast, Rehman’s unique outlook on Malaysia, on Malay-ness and politics is captured in all its outspoken glory in Peninsula. In part a personal memoir, the book also tells the story of the generational changes undergone by Malaysia since Independence. Thorough in his investigations and analysis, Rehman roots deep into both the past and present to give his own unique perspective on what the future holds for the country. The narrative reveals the many strands of Malaysian history and the way they braided themselves into our particular incarnation of 21st century Malaysia. The prose of Peninsula is uniquely Rehman — poetic, with deep philosophical insights into the nature of being and belonging. Peninsula remains an important resource for those of us seeking answers to the question of Malaysia.

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

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Lit Review: ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo

Who: Lisa Taddeo is a New York Times best-selling author, journalist and two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize for her short stories. Three Women became an instant best seller when it was published earlier this year. 

What: Three Women is the product of a near-decade long reporting project where Taddeo follows the lives of three American women, each from different backgrounds but nevertheless struggle to fill an undefined void — let’s call it desire — in themselves. Through extensive research, interviews and meetings, Taddeo creates a compelling profile of these women to take us through the genesis and evolution of their individual desire and their drive to seek fulfilment. 

The first of the three women is Maggie Wilken, who is the only one of the three to keep her real name in Taddeo’s book. When the book begins, we find her preparing to give victim testimony in a criminal case involving her former high school teacher, Aaron Knodel. Maggie, now 23, claims she had a sexual relationship with Aaron when she was 17 and desperate for love and security. By her account, Aaron promised to leave his wife when Maggie turned 18, but instead ends the affair on the day he turned 30.

However, Maggie realises quickly that the court of public opinion in the quiet community of Fargo is very much stacked against her; that the word of an accomplished, respectable white man is worth so much more in a community that prizes those traditional laurels of masculinity. “It is highly, highly, highly unlikely” for a man as decorated and loved and respected as Aaron Knodel to do the things [Maggie] claims he has done,” the defence argues, and produces witness after witness, at one point a former beauty queen, to testify to his decorousness, his belovedness and his respectedness. 

In suburban Indiana, Lina has recently separated from her husband and is conducting an affair with her first love and marries ex-boyfriend. We find her at a women’s discussion group behind her doctor’s office where the participants are picking over each other’s confessions and declarations, slavering, coveting, judging — “lean[ing] forward into the guilty attraction of Lina’s story”. But Lina knows what the affair is; she knows “Aidan is not the greatest man in the world” but her almost voracious desire for this man is fuelled by a desperation borne out of an unsatisfying marriage to a husband who finds the act of kissing her “offensive”, behaviour that their couples’ therapist rationalises as normal. Aidan, imperfect as he is, offers succour from her barren marriage. 

Finally, there is Sloane — a beautiful, successful restaurateur who grew up with privilege and blessed with shrewd political, social and business nous. On the surface, she is flawless, but her veneer hides cracks that manifest themselves as a preternatural desire to submit and please. With her husband’s blessings — more accurately, upon his insistence — she has sex with other men and women, sometimes together with her husband, other times without. 

Bookending the stories of these three women are Taddeo’s own recollection of her mother. Of the way in which society actively and passively mould the female of our species, projecting expectations and demanding compliance, there would be little difference between this generation and the generation of her mother’s. “Don’t let them see you happy,” her mother whispers. “Everyone… other women, mostly.”

Why: Three Women does what it does — prose, research, narrative, etc — superlatively well. The descriptions are for the most part vivid and crisp and, barring a few literary allusions that failed to hit the target, is a compelling page turner. The characters are fully fleshed out, and Taddeo’s greatest strength is her ability to create strong, believable narratives for her subjects.   

The textured and rich details of the lives of each woman testifies to Taddeo’s journalistic prowess. Their stories — and Taddeo is forthcoming from the very beginning that “[t]here are many sides to all stories, but this is theirs” — make for compelling reading and reaffirm the Foucauldian conviction that the body and sexuality remains a direct locus of social control. This may well be the “vital truths about women and desire” that Taddeo identifies in her author’s note, truths that are conveyed by the lives of these women.

But is it not clear from the book which are the truths and which are not. This problem of equivocation runs the risk of essentialising women’s (and men’s) experience, which is in part exacerbated by the sameness–coincidental or not–of the three women appearing in the book. Granted, each of the women come from differing economic and social standings, but they are also all of Caucasian extraction; they all report traumatic childhoods and/or adolescence: disinterested alcoholic parents in Maggie’s case, gang-rape in Lina’s and familial dysfunction in Sloane’s. These last two factors either lend further credence to the typecasting thesis or suggest a universal facet of women’s existence that is marked by violence at the hands of men. 

This by no means should be taken to suggest that the women’s narratives are not sympathetic; indeed, they are powerful reminders of the social controls that remain in place shackling female autonomy and that injustice remains in our legal, social and cultural institutions. And Taddeo is writing in the US — what more here in Malaysia? Taddeo is also right when she writes that “so many of the fears about [female] desire seem to be things we should have overcome years ago”. (Meanwhile, in Malaysia, a lawmaker recently mooted a bill that would have protected men from being seduced by women into a life of sin. Go figure.)

And yet, there remains a niggling suspicion that Taddeo overreaches. That the book does what it does superbly is beyond question; what remains, however, is the question of how well the book does what it claims to do. 

Verdict: A compelling read that reaffirms the power imbalance in gender relations. It is a multi-layered book that invites discourse but questions remain over its aim. (6/10 or 9/10 — depending)

Availability: Paperback, RM79.90

Thanks to Bloomsbury for an advanced reading copy of Three Women.

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Books that explore notions of independence

Independence — of a nation, state, individual — has been and remains a rich literary theme for writers. With its promise of irruptions, both gentle and seismic, and of vistas renewed, independence is a heady dive into the unknown. In the spirit of Merdeka, here are our picks of books with this theme. 

Tunku: His Life and Times by Sheppard Mubin (RM59.90)
The seminal biography of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj (1903-1990), the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, has been republished in 2019 for a new audience. Chronicling his ancestry, early childhood, education, initiation into politics and culminating with his crowning achievement as the principal architect of Malaya’s independence, Sheppard’s biography is a complete portrait of Malaysia’s ‘Bapa Kemerdekaan’. With his political acumen and influence with both the colonial administrators and local political warlords, Tunku spearheaded the transformation of Malaysia into a multi-racial nation state premised on the ideals of tolerance, moderation and intercommunal harmony. Held in high regard both in his own country and in Britain where he read law and history, Tunku remains the foremost political leader of Malaysia and deserves his place in the annals of Malaysian history. 

Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari (RM63.95)
For those familiar with the history of South Asia, the word ‘partition’ immediately recalls the bloody massacres and episodes of sectarian violence which marred what should have been a glorious moment of liberation. Instead, Indian independence and the birth of Pakistan would herald the deaths of unknown hundreds of thousands — some put the figure at millions — and the displacement of up to 14 million citizens of the former British Raj. Rarely has a political decision come at so heavy a price, with much of it due, according to the author, Jawaharlal Nehru’s mistaken assumption that the Indians were an inherently nonviolent, peaceful people. Midnight’s Furies is a blow-by-blow narrative of the events leading up to Partition, with particular emphasis on three of the key figures: Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Ghandi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Hajari also explores the lasting legacy of Partition on Indian/Pakistani realpolitik making the book invaluable reading for those looking for a better understanding of the current tensions in the region.   

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (RM78.90)
Whitman — arguably the father of American poetry but undoubtedly the quintessential American poet — published Leaves of Grass in 1855 as the young United States of America approached its first centenary. Although the new world was still gripped by the tyranny of the old world, one can imagine the spirit of promise and liberty suffusing the atmosphere following the nation’s break with old mother Europe. Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity, is very much the spontaneous expression of this freedom and independence, celebrating sensual pleasure at a time when “such candid displays were considered immoral”. The individual, liberated and free, stands at the centre of Whitman’s poetry, and is elevated both in body and mind in its communion with nature untamed. It may seem unlikely today, but Leaves of Grass was castigated as obscene and puerile when it was first published — always a decent sign of good poetry. 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (RM49.95)
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West is a novel of extraordinary breadth. Nominally a love story, it nevertheless covers much ground in this story of a pair of young lovers seeking to liberate themselves from the tyranny of war whatever the cost. Saeed and Nadia meet and fall in love in a conservative Islamic state that has grown increasingly dangerous. Things come to a head when Saeed’s mother is murdered — the innocent victim of sectarian violence — and the young couple decide that it is time to make a run for it. At around the same time, mysterious portals have appeared in doorways around the world. These wormholes transcend space and time to lead to safer, more prosperous countries in the West. Unsurprisingly, these portals become invaluable passageways to the West, and Saeed and Nadia eventually find themselves holed up in a posh part of the UK, which quickly becomes an immigrant enclave. A fascinating read with lessons about how walls and barriers are not going to be sufficient in stopping those truly motivated to escape and seek out liberty. 

A People’s History of Malaysia by Syed Husin Ali (RM30)
The history of Malaysia’s formation is dominated by the key figures of the day. However, this is by no means a complete account of the nation, with the role of less distinguished men and women making up the workers, students and activities that have contributed no less effort in the establishment of the country. Dr Syed Husin Ali, a veteran of Malaysian politics and an academic, corrects this oversight in A People’s History of Malaysia, which attempts to fill the gaps and provides a narrative of the development of nationalism, the rise of mass-based politics and of independence movements begun by workers, women, students and indigenous peoples in forming our nation state. Admittedly an introductory work to the complex issues raised in within its pages, A People’s History nevertheless remains a good introduction to the less touted aspects of the Malaysian independence movement.  

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

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Books that get down to business

There are two schools of thought when it comes to business and management books: soulless instructional guides that reinforce the pragmatism of the pragmatic, and invaluable fonts of wisdom and information that will guide you to the upper echelons of corporate success. The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle. Over the last few years, we have seen narrative nonfiction rivalling some of the best crime thriller novels out there, books on management technique that goes beyond looking for cheese, and leadership tomes that focus on more than just effective habits. These are some of our recommendations.    

Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? by Rob Goffee and Gareth R. Jones (RM89.90)
First published in 2006, this new edition of an influential leadership text features a new preface by both Goffee and Jones on authentic leadership. They argue that leaders don’t become great simply by aspiring to a list of universal character traits; rather, effective leaders are authentic individuals who deploy individual strengths to engage followers’ hearts, minds, and souls. Authentic leaders are skillful at consistently being themselves, even as they alter their behaviour to respond effectively to changing contexts. In short, the authors present a powerful case: that it takes “being yourself, in context, with skill” to be a successful, authentic leader, and they show how to do that in this lively and practical book. Drawing from extensive research, Goffee and Jones reveal how aspiring leaders can hone and deploy their unique leadership assets while managing the inherent tensions of successful leadership.

The Wisdom of Finance by Mihir Desai (RM59.90)
Harvard Business School professor Mihir Desai in his “last lecture” to the graduating Harvard MBA class of 2015 took up the cause of restoring humanity to finance. With incisive wit and irony, his lecture drew upon a rich knowledge of literature, film, history, and philosophy to explain the inner workings of finance in a manner that has never been seen before. The mix of finance and the humanities creates unusual pairings: Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope are guides to risk management; Jeff Koons becomes an advocate of leverage; and Mel Brooks’s The Producers teaches us about fiduciary responsibility. In Desai’s vision, the principles of finance also provide answers to critical questions in our lives. Among many surprising parallels, bankruptcy teaches us how to react to failure, the lessons of mergers apply to marriages, and the Capital Asset Pricing Model demonstrates the true value of relationships. The Wisdom of Finance captures Desai’s lucid exploration of the ideas of finance as seen through the unusual prism of the humanities.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (RM69.90)
If nothing else, the sudden and unprecedented success of companies such as Facebook, Uber and Tesla have turned 21st-century investors into a frothing mob, hungry for the next big thing that will revolutionise the world and generate absurd returns. Accompanying this hunger is an unprecedented level of risk-taking, which in turn goes a long way to explain how Theranos, a Silicon Valley company promising to revolutionise the blood testing industry with its Edison machine, became the darling of some of the smartest and most influential investors in the world. The only problem was that the technology didn’t work. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, once recognised as the youngest self-made billionaire by no less than Forbes magazine, now faces fraud charges that could send her 20 years behind bars. Author Carreyrou, an investigative journalist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote the first article in 2015 prompting authorities to open investigations into Theranos. Bad Blood, which reads like a thriller, provides additional details in what can only be described as the anatomy of a fraud.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab (RM74.95)
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, is a phrase that quietly snuck into the business lexicon over the last few years after the author, Klaus Schwab, announced its imminent arrival in a 2015 article. Characterised as a technological revolution, Industry 4.0 is shorthand for the what Schwab describes as a fusing of the physical, digital and biological worlds. Schwab outlines the key technological megatrends at the heart of the revolution and predicts major impacts on the way we govern, do business, organise society and behave as individuals. Industry 4.0 will impact all disciplines, economies and industries at an unprecedented rate with significant consequence for the management of business and policy-making. Prophetic and important.

Hyper-Capitalism by Larry Gonick and Tim Kasser (RM69.90)
Google’s unofficial motto until 2018 was simply, “Don’t Be Evil” — it’s now a less eye-catching “Do the Right Thing”. Perhaps an acknowledgement that morality has no place in the business world, especially when a company is worth about US$750 billion, the move is an implicit nod to the maxim of business: leave right and wrong to the lawyers, but good and evil is a question for the philosophers. Hyper-Capitalism, a unique graphic novel exposing the roots of our modern economy, suggests that yes, there is good and evil in the business world, and no, we aren’t, on balance, on the good side of the equation. Drawing from contemporary research, Gonnick and Kasser describe and illustrate concepts (such as corporate power, free trade, privatisation, and deregulation) that are critical for understanding the world we live in, and movements (such as voluntary simplicity, sharing, alternatives to GDP, and protests) that have developed in response to the system. This book might not instruct you on how to become the top dog in your organisation, but it does reveal just how you might act in a slightly less evil way should you reach that point.

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

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Travel lit that will inspire wanderlust

Travel has captured humanity’s imagination since time immemorial. Driven by the need for discovery, travel promises — even if doesn’t always deliver — an encounter with vistas new and strange, and truths of the soul which resonate across cultures and across time. As the American poet Walt Whitman once put it,

Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

Travel literature remains a popular genre of nonfiction as authors share truths they discover on their journeys. Some aim to inspire; others to inform and illuminate. From literary tellings to guide books, travel literature remains staple reading for many despite the increasing ease and affordability of actual travel itself.

Curiosities and Splendour: An anthology of classic travel literature by Lonely Planet (RM109.90)
This is a wonderful collection of classic travel writing from great authors and adventurers including Mark Twain, Robert Byron, Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens. Collecting tales from a time when travel was deemed a dangerous and even foolhardy enterprise, this anthology captures a period of time when most of the world remained an unknown quantity. These writings and reports were the only insight that most of the general public would ever have to far-flung places including the new world, the Middle East, Scandinavia and the South Pacific. Each author and their writing is introduced by editor Mark Mackenzie, who gives context to the work and provides an insightful look into how travel has changed since they were originally published. A perfect collection of tales for travellers new and old to remind them of the value of discovery and curiosity.

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (RM54.95)
Peter Mayle relocated to Provence, France in the late 1980s to write his novel. Alas, the novel was never finished as he was overtaken and overwhelmed by the pleasures and challenges of Provençal life. Instead, he leaves behind A Year in Provence, a witty and warmhearted account of realising a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provence transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days. Mayle died in 2018 and a new collection of his reflections was published posthumously as My Twenty-Five Years in Provence. Nevertheless, the original book remains a superior account and remains a travel classic till this day.

Super Sushi Ramen Express by Michael Booth (RM79.90)
Malaysians love travel, food and all things Japanese. In fact, we have a friend who makes an annual pilgrimage to Japan as part of his quest to sample as many ramen restaurant as he can for reasons known only to himself. Indeed, ask most Malaysians who travel to Japan and the quest for good, authentic Japanese food invariably pops up as a key reason. What better book to whet one’s appetite for both travel and food than Super Sushi Ramen Express, a culinary journey through Japan — arguably the preeminent food nation on earth, a Mecca for the world’s greatest chefs, with more Michelin stars than any other country. Michael Booth takes the culinary pulse of contemporary Japan, learning fascinating tips and recipes whilst accompanied by two fussy eaters under the age of six. He and his family travel the length of the country and experience Japanese food culture — both happy and not — as they seek to understand the whys and hows of Japanese cuisine.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (RM57.90)
Who would’ve thought that losing one’s home and livelihood, and having one’s partner diagnosed with a terminal illness would be the catalyst to embark on a 630-mile journey on foot? That is exactly what happened with Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, and their impulsive decision to trek the sea-swept South West Coast Path in the UK, which goes from Somerset to Dorset, via Devon and Cornwall. Even as they navigated the hilly, cliff-edged route carrying only the essentials in a rucksack, the journey would prove to be redemptive. They experienced the restorative powers of being in nature and learnt to come to terms with their situation. Most importantly, they dared to hope again.

Arabia: A Journey Through The Heart of the Middle East by Levison Wood (RM89.90)
Travel writer Levison Wood’s fourth travel book chronicles his incredible trek through 13 countries across 5,000 miles in the Arabian Peninsula. In an expedition that took four months, Wood explored the fraught land and the lives of its people, encountering tales of despair but also hope. From war-torn Syria, Iraq and Yemen to the oil-rich Gulf states, as well as Jordan, the West Bank and Lebanon, Wood witnessed the harsh realities of the region, but also its searing beauty and the warm hospitality of its people. The stories here challenge the perceptions of an often misunderstood part of the world, despite the continuing and growing influence of the Middle East on world economic, politics and social development. This book is a must-read for anyone looking for a greater understanding of this enigmatic region which is unified and yet fractured at the same time.

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

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Lit Review: ‘The Minorities’ by Suffian Hakim

Who: Suffian Hakim is a Singaporean writer whose first book Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher became an instant cult favourite. The Minorities, another parody, is his second book published by Singapore-based Epigram. Epigram will also be re-releasing Haris bin Potter later in the year.

What: The Minorities is the story of an unlikely group of housemates, each of whom are haunted by their metaphorical ghosts and demons before they encounter a real, true-to-life pontianak (vampire of Malay folklore), which disrupts their domestic tableau.

The story is told from the perspective of our unnamed protagonist, a Jewish-Muslim Chinese-Malay man whom we are told has a unique and strange moniker which is never revealed to us. We find out early in the book that our protagonist is reeling from the recent death of his father, which has in turn planted in him a deeply rooted obsession with getting his father’s ghost to haunt him. Taking his late father’s final warning to heart — “If you do anything stupid in here, like bringing home whores, I swear to Allah that I will haunt you and kill any ghostbusters you’re gonna call” — our protagonist proceeds to engage in any number of whorish activities.

Despite his questionable motives, he is at the core, a compassionate chap and turns his house into a sanctuary of sorts for the runaways that he encounters. His unlikely housemates — lab colleague Shanti, a Bangladeshi foreign construction worker named Cantona and foreign Chinese sewerage engineering worker Tights — are fleeing their respective pasts in search of brighter futures, and somehow find their fates entwined with each other and the unnamed protagonist. They are steadily making progress towards a better life when everything is derailed by an unfortunate shit in the woods.

Why: Reading Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities was probably the most fun I’ve had reading a novel in a while, which caught me by surprise. Of greater surprise was how I came to feel that the novel, despite being a parody or perhaps because of the fact of its being parody, was a more authentic expression of our regional voice than other purportedly serious literary titles from the region. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous claim to make; please note that I am not saying that The Minorities is the best literary work to emerge from the region. What I am saying is that The Minorities feels like home in ways that other books fail to do.

To be fair, the previous statement, if true, is more likely a reflection on the reader than the book itself. Malaysians, particularly those such as myself who do not have strong identifications with their ethnic grouping, gravitate towards an identity that is a pastiche of various cultures. The pastiche that emerges exaggerates features borrowed from the contributing cultures, which is why the line by one of the characters in the middle of the novel — “The power of Tights compels you!” and “dejan summerknock!” — sent me into a laughing fit when I was reading in bed next to my bemused wife.

The entirety of The Minorities, from its structure to its dialogue and plot-line, is parodic. In the book, you will find:

  • A quest
  • Supernatural figures both divine and demonic (mostly demonic)
  • A literal and metaphorical MacGuffin (which are interestingly the same thing)
  • A scene or two straight outta Bollywood
  • A battle royale ala American Gods

The Minorities is a fun book. It probably won’t make you stop and think about ‘serious stuff’ like labour diaspora and the impact of displacement onto the psyche of foreign labourers and such. But then again, it just might. (No, it probably won’t).

Verdict: Fun, compulsive, whimsical, creative, unpretentious — the most fun I’ve had with a book in a while. (9/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM69.90

Nota Bene: Suffian will be appearing in our store in July to talk about The Minorities and also the re-release of Haris bin Potter. Keep watching this space for more information coming up!