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Five books on women by women to read this month

In The Second Sex, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Woman-ness, accordingly, is an existential state that follows upon the myriad experiences that are specific — women’s experience, so to speak. Though this philosophical insight is not unproblematic, there can be little argument that there is a uniqueness to the perspectives and experiences of women (though this author also acknowledges that the assumption of uniqueness presupposes a patriarchal normativity which is again troubling). We celebrate International Women’s Day in March and we do so by highlighting some extraordinary women and the way in which they have brought their own unique insight into a variety of activities: travel, parenthood, grief, data analysis and, of course, storytelling.

Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao (RM74.90)
Chen Mao-Ping , or better known by her pen name Sanmao (三毛), was a Taiwanese travel writer who is instantly recognisable to her legions of Chinese reading fans who have been inspired to dream of lives less ordinary. An irrepressible writer and adventurer — the book opens with the following line: “When I arrived in the desert, I desperately wanted to be the first female explorer to cross the Sahara” — Stories of the Sahara is a testament to Sanmao’s spirit and timeless romanticism of adventure and discovery. Elegantly penned, the book invites the reader to share in Sanmao’s experiences of love and loss, freedom and peril, in a voice that deftly dances from sharp wit to languorous expression. The book was first published in 1976 to immediate acclaim, and it is inexplicable that it has taken more than 40 years for it to have been translated into English. Sanmao’s voice fills a lacuna in the travel writing genre which continues to be dominated by the white, male voice.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (RM59.90)
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is a powerful novel that follows the life of Heti’s unnamed writer/narrator as she struggles with the question of whether or not she wants to have children. For the narrator, she recognises that the question has as much to do with externalities as it does with her own existential struggles: with her insecurities, her sense of authentic self and her uncertain impulses and feelings of motherhood. Riven with ambivalence, she decides to pour her anxiety into a book in hopes that the end product may give her some clarity on what she truly wants. The book takes the form of a dialogue with three coins, which are flipped to give her yes or no answers to questions and concerns. The narrator’s struggle with motherhood — realising that something is irretrievably lost however she chooses, and desperately hoping that that which she loses is not irredeemable — is couched in Heti’s intimate prose which may very well be a reflection of her own struggle with potential parenthood.

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon (RM99.90)
Following the sudden death of her husband Eiolf, author and anthropologist Long Litt Woon finds herself bereft and “in free fall… I, who had always been in command and in control”. Disoriented without her partner of 32 years, Long discovers solace out on a walk one day and literally stumbles on the one thing that would lead her out of her “tunnel of grief”: mushrooms. Long, a Malaysian by birth and a Norwegian by marriage, has written a monograph on mycology, a personal grief diary and a mushroom cookbook, and woven them together into a compelling narrative that moves nimbly from one subject to the next. The books treat each subject discreetly (and are colour-coded to help the reader identify the appropriate sentiment with which to treat the paragraphs–the true mark of a scientist) which, rather than interrupts the pace of the book, creates a unique structure where the personal, the scientific and the culinary overlap and intersect. The book reveals a relationship that was at once united by love, but also by a shared spirit of adventure and scientific curiosity.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (RM84.90)
“Instead of believing women when they say they’re in pain, we tend to label them as mad. And who can blame us? Bitches be crazy, as Plato famously said.” And hysterical pain is only one of many examples of the way that the androcentric world continues to marginalise and delegitimise women’s experience. Invisible Women, which won the Financial Times and McKinsey Book of the year prize for 2019, is a revelatory monograph that uncovers — and, in some cases, merely points — at the way that inventions, policies, workplaces and the like fail to take into account women’s experience in their conception and development. Central to Perez’s thesis is the claim that the fundamental evidential unit of experience, datum, is ultimately gender-biased, flying in the face of the long-held faith in the objectivity of scientific research. Seatbelts, school admissions, municipal policies on the clearing of snow — nothing escapes Perez, and they are exhaustively revealed to be fundamentally gender-biased in her excellently researched book.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (RM75.90)
Elizabeth Macneal’s evocative debut historical fiction set in Victorian London is an intoxicating tale of obsession and pursuing one’s passion. Iris works as a painter of dolls at Mrs Slater’s Doll Emporium but harbours ambitions to be a real painter, and she secretly does so in the cellar at night after everyone is asleep. When Iris is presented with the opportunity to model for pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he teach her to paint. Even as she is finally living her dream, her life is about to be turned upside down due to Silas Reed, owner of a curiosities shop and a collector entranced by the strange and beautiful, whose chance meeting with the red-haired beauty at the Great Exhibition sets him on a dangerous path fuelled by obsession. The novel is a bit of a slow burner at first, but it picks up halfway through to unfurl a series of nail-biting, shocking twists to make for a truly engrossing read.

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

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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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Chew on this: Five food books to indulge in

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We, as a species, have a unique relationship with food. No longer mere fuel for our bodies — that uncomplicated relationship has gone the way of cavemen and woolly mammoths — food is the instantiation and expression of culture, of class both economic and social, of religiosity and, indeed, of our very basic identities.

What else explains the millions upon millions of food pictures now clogging up our social media feeds? Or the envious oohs and aahs that accompany said pictures? Or the countless hours and billions of dollars expended in search of authentic and unique cuisine, and in developing new textures and tastes to excite the palate? After all, gold loses its lustre while fame grows tiresome: perhaps like love, food is an appetite for which we never weary.

It also explains why food writing remains so incredibly popular with readers and publishers alike. The following are our selections of some recently published food books we think worth reading.

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking it All with Rene Redzepi, the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier (RM89.90)
Jeff Gordinier was a food writer at the New York Times when he received an invitation of a lifetime: to be part of the entourage on several gastronomic and culinary trips to Mexico, Australia, Denmark and Norway with none other than chef extraordinaire, René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, had topped the World’s Best Restaurant list for several years. What follows is a rollicking account of landing in new destinations to seek out exotic ingredients and sample exquisite flavours, all so that Redzepi and his team could chart new territory in their offering of haute cuisine. Gordinier writes with admiration on the inner-workings of the Danish chef’s mind — he observed the man’s manic drive for perfection, his obsessive creative process and constant search for inspiration, and his sheer imagination. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Redzepi to enjoy this delectable food and travel memoir that will likely leave you hungry for more.

Milk: A 10,000-Year History by Mark Kurlansky (RM69.90)
The best-selling author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World and Salt: A World History returns with this fascinating cultural, economic, and culinary monograph on milk and all things dairy. Ever since the domestication of animals more than 10,000 years ago, humans have used milk of other mammals as a source of nourishment and turned it into foods such as cheese, yogurt, kefir and ice cream. Kurlansky traces milk’s history from antiquity to the present, from families keeping dairy cows to produce their own milk to mass production and the introduction of pasteurisation. Today, milk is still a test case among the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurisation. Written in his signature entertaining style, Milk demonstrates Kurlansky’s unparalleled ability to dive deep into a single subject revealing secret histories and remarkable stories in a highly entertaining fashion.

The Best American Food Writing 2019 (RM89.90)
In this evocative and wonderfully diverse anthology, award-winning author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat has gathered a mouth-watering collection of 2019’s finest writing about food and drink in the US. There are stories for every taste and preference: there’s a piece on the reclamation of the queer history of tapas, another on the dizzying array of Kit Kats in Japan, a spotlight on a day in the life of a restaurant inspector, and an essay about eggs that segues into an exploration of purity myths, gender and sex, to name a few. The stories here will not only inspire but also provoke critical thinking and new perspectives about the food we eat (or don’t). In each case, the stories also reveal just how much our food is a part of our identity and how much time and effort we spend to make our food just right.

Only in Tokyo: Two Chefs, 24 Hours, the Ultimate Food City by Michael Ryan & Luke Burgess (RM119.50)
Tokyo, Japan is undoubtedly a food-lover’s paradise that offers up a plethora of epicurean delights. But with such a dizzying array of choices, it can be a bit overwhelming. In Only in Tokyo, Australian chefs (and Japanophiles) Michael Ryan and Luke Burgess narrow down the choices for you by highlighting genuinely local food experiences — no tourist traps here — with compelling stories and insight into the individuals behind the restaurants, cafés, bars and tea houses. Most of the venues featured are towards the west of Tokyo (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Meguro and Minato), and the book starts with breakfast haunts and moves through to lunch venues, mid-afternoon joints, dinner destinations, and watering holes. The short, punchy text is complemented with charming photos by Burgess, and the notes on favourite dishes make this a delightfully personal and compelling guidebook.

Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (RM149.90)
Yasmin Khan is an award-winning author, campaigner and cook who is passionate about sharing people’s stories through food. Her second book, Zaitoun, is part cookbook, part travelogue that focuses on Palestine, its people and cuisine. Palestinian food can best be described as fresh and bright, as it revolves around colourful mezze dishes that feature the region’s bountiful produce and earthy spices. The cuisine has evolved over several millennia through the influences of Arabic, Jewish, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Bedouin cultures and civilisations. Featuring more than 80 modern recipes, captivating stories and stunning travel photography, Zaitoun unlocks the flavours and fragrances of modern Palestine, from the sun-kissed pomegranate stalls of Akka on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea through evergreen oases of date plantations in the Jordan Valley, to the fading fish markets of Gaza City.

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

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Heartwarming books to end the year with

As the year winds down, so do our spirits which have been challenged and tried the past 11 months leaving us yearning for quietness and solicitude in these last few weeks of the year. It’s at times like these that one wants nothing more than to reach for books that balm the soul. We present to you here a selection of fiction and nonfiction that’s sure to inspire or warm the cockles of your heart. Happy reading!

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (RM64.90)
In James Herriot’s memoir as a country veterinarian, we are first introduced to our protagonist as a young man fresh out of veterinary school who begins his practice in rural Yorkshire. Almost immediately, he recognises that veterinary practice, especially in the country, is a completely different proposition from the sterile school environment. Herriot regales us with stories of the many eccentric characters (and their animals) that he meets, and while some of them are heart-wrenchingly difficult to read — such as the story of an old man whose ill dog is his only friend and companion — others are lighthearted and fun. Charming, heartwarming and incredibly funny, All Creatures Great and Small is a classic work which reminds us that life often comes with unexpected twists and turns, but there is nothing that a little compassion, kindness and patience can’t handle. In addition, the series is getting a new TV adaptation with shooting expected to begin in 2020.

Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim (RM59.95)
Haemin Sunim, one of the most influential Zen Buddhist teachers and writers in South Korea, has written a book full of gentle wisdom on how best to live one’s life, beginning with accepting ourselves for who we are, warts and all. Many of us respond to the pressures of work and life by striving to work harder, but we should first come to a place where we are at peace with ourselves and recognise that we are enough just as we are. Through eight thematic chapters — Self-Care, Family, Empathy, Relationships, Courage, Healing, Enlightenment, and Acceptance — the book offers nuggets of wisdom in short essays, anecdotes and quotes, complemented by full-colour, charming illustrations by Lisk Feng. A feast for the eyes and soul, this book is sure to help those on the journey towards loving yourself, your life and everyone in it.

Bolder: Life Lessons from People Older and Wiser than You by Dominique Afacan (RM79.90)
It’s safe to say that not many of us look forward to growing old — the idea conjures up visions of achy bones, disease and loneliness. This book seeks to change that perception with real profiles and portraits of people aged 70 and older living life to the fullest — they make old age look appealing, or even fun. There’s the incredible story of the 85-year-old man who swims a mile in the Mediterranean Sea every morning, and a woman who fell in love and married at age 82. Many of the folks featured in the book say this stage of their life is their happiest. Arranged by thematic chapters that include Success, Love & Sex, Happiness, Health & Fitness, and Style & Beauty, the inspiring stories of these individuals are packed with life lessons anyone can learn from. 

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan (RM47.90)
Ruth Hogan burst on to the scene as an up-lit writer in 2017 with her debut novel The Keeper of Lost Things. This was quickly followed by The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes in 2018, and Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel in 2019. A novel of mothers and daughters, families and secrets and the power of friendship. The book’s protagonist, Tilly, is an exuberant little girl who enjoyed life to the utmost living at the Queenie Malone’s Magnificent Paradise Hotel in Brighton with its endearing and loving family of misfits. Tilly’s mother has other ideas, however, and sends her away to boarding school with no explanation or warning. This early betrayal has substantial impact on Tilly’s development and she grows up to become a cold and untrusting adult with Eli, her dog, her only friend. She returns to Brighton following the death of her mother, and together with Queenie, discovers secrets about her mother that reveal a side completely unknown to her before. Relationships  between mothers and daughters can be complicated, and pasts are often hidden for supposedly good reason; but for Tilly, uncovering these hidden pasts won’t just sate an underlying sense of curiosity, but may well pave the way forward to acceptance and forgiveness. 

The Courage to Be Happy by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga (RM69.90)
The Courage to Be Happy is the sequel to Kishimi and Koga’s global best-seller The Courage to Be Disliked where a philosopher gently leads his interlocutor, a young man, to greater self-awareness and acceptance. Written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, Courage utilises the theories of psychologist Alfred Adler to outline a way forward to a life of happiness and fulfillment. Alas, at the start of the sequel, we find that the young man has returned to the philosopher, bitter and disappointed that the Adlerian theories had let him down. Yes, he had taken decisive action with respect to his own life and quit his job to pursue a vocation as a middle-school teacher. However, he quickly hits a brick wall and blames the philosopher for having led him down the wrong path. Of course, our philosopher isn’t about to take these accusations lying down and patiently explains Adler’s ‘Philosophy of Courage’ to the youth in a conversation that lasts the entire night. In this book, authors Kishimi and Koga present Adler’s theories as a philosophical guide for life in contrast to the first book, which was more focused on outlining Adler’s theory. 

This article appears in the December 2019 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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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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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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Lit Recap: Author session with Suffian Hakim

Suffian Hakim’s The Minorities is a fantastical supernatural tale of four very unlikely housemates embarking on a journey to help a lonely Pontianak return home to Melaka. It is a wacky, witty, cheeky and laugh-out-loud funny parody, but it is also layered and emotionally rich.

Together with the lovely ladies from Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, Diana Yeong and Honey Ahmad, we had the pleasure of hosting Suffian for a meet-and-greet at Lit Books on July 27. The full podcast will be aired soon, but here are some gems from the delightful hour-long conversation with Suffian.

On the protagonist opening up his house to immigrants of suspicious origins:
For me it was the idea of kindness derived from depression [the protagonist was mourning the death of his father]. If you want to pull yourself out of depression, you do that through kindness, through opening yourself up to other people.

On marring very real father-son issues on the one hand with an epic demon army battle on the other in one book:
As a person I believe you cannot experience the world just one way. When I was writing the book it was always clear in my mind that this person’s life, what the narrator and his friends are going through [with the Pontianak], is as important and as real to them as their own personal emotional journeys. You can’t exclude one from the other. We go through our lives — we get into relationships, we break up — but in the meantime, a war is going on in Iraq and all that. But we’re also having our own personal emotional journeys and I wanted to make sure that both arcs play out to their logical conclusions.

On the use of food puns as titles of chapters:
The idea with the chapter titles like ‘Diet Coke and Mentos’, ‘Chinese Century Egg’, ‘Gula Melaka Dreamsicle’, ‘The Long Arm of the Coleslaw’ was that I wanted to parody the fact that when most people consider a minority group by ethnicity, the only way they seem to connect or contextualise that group is through food, but not so much the rich history or heritage they might have. It was to bring to light the fact that a minority group is more than their food.

On an almond that recurs throughout the story and its significance:
The almond that keeps popping up in the book, it’s a cheap thrill for me as an author (laughs). In Arab Muslim cultures, when a boy comes of age it’s tradition for his dad to give him a bag of almonds as a gift. The almond in the story represents the narrator’s issues with his dad, the baggage that he keeps because of his strained relationship with his dad. What he does with the almond in the end signifies the fact that he’s finally letting go of his issues with his dad.

The Minorities is available at Lit Books for RM69.90.

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Lit Recap: What Dementia Teaches Us About Love

Few things in life are as heartbreaking as bearing witness to the steady decline of a loved one. It is particularly tragic when the decline pertains directly to that sense of self and identity which makes a person distinctive, special and, perhaps more importantly, makes them the unique individual that we have come to care and love over a lifetime. But this is precisely the area in which dementia — described as the disease of the century — affects. 

It is a great irony of our age that the medical technologies and breakthroughs of the day have done so much to prolong and extend life, and yet it is precisely because of this extension that cases of dementia have been increasing. Though the exact cause of dementia has yet to be determined, there is a definite and observable correlation between dementia and old age, which raises the spectre of new challenges for countries such as Malaysia where average life expectancy is on the rise. 

In her recently published book, What Dementia Teaches Us About Love, Nicci Gerrard provides a comprehensive account of how dementia affects us — as patients, caregivers, society — and the challenges that exist now and in the future in coping with a growing number of dementia sufferers. Having lost her own father to the disease, Gerrard’s book is a moving account of personal tragedy but also explores important philosophical questions such as the meaning of self, and what it means to live a meaningful life. 

At Lit Books, we were inundated with readers who reported their own challenges of living with or interacting dementia patients, and who picked up Gerrard’s book in search of information, perspective or perhaps just to locate a shared experience — caring for a dementia patient can be a lonely undertaking. In view of this great interest in the subject matter, we invited Dr Rishikesan Kuppusamy, consultant neurologist at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur, and BFM89.9 presenter Lee Chwi Lynn to talk about the book and on dementia in general at a public panel discussion held in our shop recently. Edited excerpts from the discussion is reproduced below. The podcast will be available on BFM89.9 sometime in September. 

Lee Chwi Lynn: Doctor, can you take us through the definition of dementia?
Dr Rishi: Dementia is a syndrome. It’s like a fever — you could have fever because of an infection, because of cancer — so dementia is just an umbrella term. What it essentially means is it’s a chronic condition and it’s degenerative — that means it will progress over months and years, resulting in loss of memory, although memory is just a small subsidiary of this. It also involves losing the ability to carry out your day-to-day tasks, things you’ve already learnt, things you’re already good at: driving, cooking, managing your finances. That’s what dementia roughly means.

Everyone has had the experience of leaving their house and thinking, ‘Did I lock the door, did I switch off the iron, did I do these things.’ At what point in these little flickers does somebody need to consider to go see a doctor?
Dr Rishi: If you’re losing your keys, you forget where you parked your car, you should just tell yourself what I tell myself every day: You’re fine. That’s normal. The fact is that this disease makes you completely oblivious that you are losing it. It’s usually the people around you who will say something is off — you’re embarrassing yourself or you’re making cock-ups which are atypical of yourself. We’re not talking about forgetting where you parked your car because you know you forgot where your car is. These are people who didn’t even know they brought their car and they have problems with managing space, parking, and so on. The involvement here is not just one isolated thing like forgetting your keys; it’s a multi-factorial domain.

The book deals with this question of identity. At what point does someone not become themselves anymore? A little bit of a philosophical question for you, but what is the self?
Dr Rishi: In dementia, there is a gradual evolution of change because the disease is multifaceted. It’s not just the component of memory, but losing executive function, which is loss of ability to carry out an already learned skill. You have these inhibitive values — for example you used to be someone who’s very quiet and someone who likes to listen but now you’re the loudest one in the room. Bit by bit you start becoming somebody else. I think this is a very abstract point. But the truth is it’s difficult and the system doesn’t really recognise this because we identify you by name, by IC number, by your fingerprints and your signature. We have a system that’s built for that but we are lost when it comes to this.

Min Hun: The book offers two very good views on what the self is. On one hand you have those who say the self is no longer the self if you sever all connections with people around you. If I can no longer be a son, or a husband or employer, then I am no longer myself because I can only define myself in relation to another person.

But then there’s also another perspective that no matter how you change, you’re still you. We’re not the same people we were 20 years ago; we are changing all the time. It’s just that the change is more gradual. But do I now say I’m not me because I’m not the same me that I was 20 years ago? That second idea of the self is talked about in some detail in this book and you find that these people who believe that even though they have changed, even though they might be suffering from dementia and they are no longer the same person they were before, they actually live fairly full lives: they actively go out and do things in the community. Yes, perhaps not in the same capacity as they did before, but in their new capacities. I think what’s interesting though especially within a Malaysian context is at what point do we recognise or say that you no longer have the power to decide because you’re no longer able to.

Min Hun thanks for getting us there because I wasn’t asking tricky philosophical questions for fun. It was leading to this point about being able to grant permission. In the medical fraternity, the patient’s right to choose is a huge thing. In a situation where you’re dealing with somebody who has loss of certain levels of identity and faculty, what options are there for people to make decisions ahead of time? How much does that respect the patient’s ability and right to change as well?
Dr Rishi: We call this an advance directive, that means you sign a note with your closest family members present or your legal counsel stating very clearly that in case of medical emergencies you do not want to be resuscitated. This is on a pretext that you already have a bad condition… or for whatever reason there’s a car accident or something sudden that requires certain things to be done. You’re very clear on what should be done, where the line has to be drawn.

The thing about dementia, it is a slow continuous progressing condition. If you make this advance directive in January, how sure are you in July that you won’t change your mind? This is where the problem is; it’s not so clear-cut. From a medical perspective, patients are given the liberty to make advance directives but it’s very clear that it’s for acute medical situations and not for long-term conditions where the outcome is variable and there may be issues with patients changing their minds.

Ideally, the patient has decided for himself and the family is on the same page with the patient. But this is a taboo topic here. We rarely have patients talking to their kids and saying, ‘Hey if this happens, I think it’s only right that you let me go.’ It’s not within our culture to talk about that. These are the challenges.

The irony is that advance directives are also for the benefit of the family. I’m curious whether there are specific things that are unique to our Asian culture when it comes to care-giving with our notions of filial piety, which is a very important value to us.
Dr Rishi: I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s Asian values and that’s why we are going to give our parents more. I’ve been hammered for saying this. In the western world they’ve got their own rationale, how they approach things. It’s not due to a lack of love. The system works differently. The social support allows them to do what they are doing now. The social support system here doesn’t allow you to engage an institution or a home close-by to the hospital where dad or mom were admitted. And here we have a stigma concerning nursing homes. But it’s not necessarily true; some of them are run very well. But the perception that a lot of people have is that if I send my folks to a nursing home, I’m letting them down. Sometimes you’re doing them a service because they are allowed to engage with people, activities are being done, health issues are being attended to faster. Maybe we are in denial because we feel that we have to just hold on to this value system where I care for you like you care for me but you may be giving less than what the home can provide. We have to be more open about this.

In the book there is a focus on the language we use when we talk to old people in general, people with dementia, things like not calling everyone ‘my dear’ but instead using their names, and not referring to putting someone in a home as if that person were no longer a person but an object. I’m curious, doctor, how important is language when you are talking to patients?
Dr Rishi: I don’t think this is just a medical issue; it’s an issue that encompasses all facets of life. If your neighbour was Mr Nathan, it should always be Mr Nathan even if he has now become less of what he was before — we honour what he was before by still calling him Mr Nathan. That’s the human element to medical care. He may not be able to express his thoughts in the most rational fashion but he was somebody and he still is somebody. It’s also like dealing with children in school. Just because they express something which is not typical, it’s not fair that we label it as different. That’s why I say this is not just a pure medical thing; it’s across the board. You respect each other’s presence — don’t rob someone of their identity just because they are going through some trouble. The whole idea of dementia care is until the last day he is with us, everything should be done to preserve his dignity.

What Dementia Teaches Us About Love is available in-store at RM98.90.