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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 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!

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Lit Review: ‘Our Castle by the Sea’ by Lucy Strange

Who: After stints as an actor, singer and storyteller, Lucy Strange became a secondary school teacher and writer of middle-grade historical fiction. Her first book, The Secret of Nightingale Wood, received high praise and her second, Our Castle by the Sea, is the subject of this review.

What: It’s 1939, and England is on the cusp of World War II. Twelve-year-old Petra (Pet) and her family — older sister Magda (Mags), her pa and mother (Mutti) — are lighthouse keepers in the coastal village of Stonegate. Unlike her spirited sister, Pet isn’t particularly brave and is given to believing in myths and legends.

As war encroaches upon their small community, Pet’s family gets caught up in a plot that threatens to tear them apart. Mutti, a German immigrant, is packed off to an internment camp for “enemy aliens” as a matter of national security. Mags becomes increasingly secretive and evasive, and her pa is distracted and distant. It is up to Pet to muster every ounce of courage to uncover the truth and do what she can to set things right.

Why: There is much to unpack in this beautifully written, atmospheric novel — it blends mystery, intrigue and family dynamics with a protagonist, Pet, who starts out quiet and timid but because of the extraordinary circumstances she gets thrown into, becomes a lass of steely resolve by the novel’s end.

The story begins with the telling of a local legend of four sisters, who traded their souls for the safe return of their father lost at the treacherous sandbank, the Wyrm. They were turned into stone when their wish was fulfilled. This myth, the self-sacrifice and bravery of the girls, is embedded in Pet’s psyche and colours her perception and interpretation of events in the book. I love how Strange weaves myth into the fabric of the story because history and identity as a people and culture is as much about real events as it is about the myths and legends passed down through the ages.

The book affords wonderfully nuanced explorations on the themes of love, loyalty and sacrifice, and the way fear and racism can drive a person to do crazy things; World War II is the perfect foil for this. Through the actions of her parents, Pet observes the price of true sacrifice. When acts of sabotage start happening in the village, Pet learns the painful lesson that sometimes, people are not who they may seem, and the enemy within is often more insidious than the enemy without.

The author is masterful at evoking the time and place, and in bringing out the gamut of emotions portrayed in the book through her rich, sensitive prose. Meanwhile, Pet as a character is endearing and wise beyond her years. The build-up of the mystery and suspense makes it a delicious page-turner.

Quotable quote: “If you were torn between loyalty to your country and love for your family, what would you choose?”

Verdict: An evocative, richly rendered historical fiction full of depth of characters and plot (9/10)

Reading level: Ages 10 and up

Availability: Paperback, RM41.90

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Five biographies and memoirs to dive into

The biography, rightly, stands as a sub-genre of its own within publishing and literary circles. At once a descriptive report as well as a work of psychoanalysis, the biography at its best digs deeply into the motivations and thinking of another person, replete with their biases, prejudices and preconceptions, to edify and illuminate thought processes. They are, therefore, windows into the minds of others providing explanation and justification for their actions in the tangible world. As a species, we have always been interested in the lives of others. Although no biography offers a complete perspective of the mental workings of another individual, they nevertheless, provide valuable insights into their hows and whys. The following titles are our picks.

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (RM59.95)
Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed biographer whose previous subjects include Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs, adds to his list of geniuses who changed the world with his 2017 biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Now available in paperback, Isaacson masterfully weaves the maestro’s artistic and scientific life to reveal a man whose passion for one is intrinsically linked to the other. Drawing from thousands of pages from Leonardo’s notebooks and contemporary discoveries of his life and work, Isaacson’s portrait is one of a misfit fundamentally defined by his burning curiosity in the subjects of anatomy, engineering, art and theatre. This new work by Isaacson illuminates the importance of questioning received wisdom whilst keeping an open and imaginative mind as the key ingredients of creativity.

Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain by Danny Goldberg (RM118.90)
Is 25 years long enough to determine if Cobain was a genius or not? Was Smells Like Teen Spirit an anthem for a generation of disaffected youth or simply the angst-ridden ejaculation of a bored cynic? Was he a genius or did he simply die young and popular? The debate over the legitimacy of Nirvana’s lead man continues to rage, but what is undeniable is his status as a cultural icon further cemented by the act of his suicide. Although Cobain is typically portrayed as a reluctant individual caught in the tailspin of his own rising star, Goldberg, Nirvana’s manager from 1991 to 1994, adds a new dimension to the story. In Serving the Servants, Goldberg draws on his own interaction with Cobain as well as on previously unreleased interviews to illuminate Cobain’s brilliance, compassion and ambition, and sheds new light on why Cobain endures till today.

Ernest Hemingway by Mary Dearborn (RM84.95)
Few writers are celebrated with as much bravado as machismo as Ernest Hemingway whose CV includes stints as a war-time ambulance driver and other intrigues, big game safari hunter, amateur boxer, inveterate drinker and womaniser, and writer. Even fewer bring the lessons and virtues (if they can be called virtues) from these preoccupations to bear on their writing, and far fewer can make something as beautiful and heart-wrenching as Hemingway does in his novels and short-stories. Mary Dearborn’s 2017 book is the first full biography of Ernest Hemingway in more than 15 years and the first to be written by a woman. Drawing on never-before-used material, Dearborn creates a rich and nuanced portrait of this enigmatic and flawed artist, who was driven and doomed by the insatiable demons that haunted him throughout his life.

The Pianist from Syria: A Memoir by Aeham Ahmad (RM75.50)
A memoir of a war-refugee who escapes from war-torn Syria to Germany, The Pianist is a contemporary account of the continuing and lingering impact of the conflict in the Middle East. Aeham Ahmad was born the son of a blind violinist and carpenter who taught him the piano and a love for music from an early age. A second-generation refugee — his grandparents and father were forced to flee Israel and seek refuge from the Israeli–Palestinian conflict — Aeham’s family built a life in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp to more than 160,000 Palestinian refugees in Damascus where family and music were their only haven. However, any plans to wait out the war in their new home would be disrupted by a new conflict in Syria, forcing Aeham to leave his family behind as he sought to find a new place for them to call home and build a better life. Told in a raw and poignant voice, The Pianist is a gripping portrait of one man’s search for sanctuary and of the bond between father and son.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather Armstrong (RM89.90)
The Valedictorian is an honest and irreverent memoir by Heather B. Armstrong of her experience as one of only a few people to participate in an experimental treatment for depression involving 10 rounds of a chemically induced coma approximating brain death. Armstrong has struggled with depression for years, but when she hit rock bottom in 2016, she decided to risk everything by participating in the experimental clinical trial. In her memoir, she recalls the torturous 18 months of suicidal depression she endured and the month-long experimental study in which doctors used propofol anesthesia to quiet all brain activity for a full fifteen minutes before bringing her back from a flatline — effectively a brain reset. The experience was taxing for both Armstrong and her family, and seems to have worked since she has yet to experience an episode of suicidal depression since. Disarmingly honest, self-deprecating, and scientifically fascinating, The Valedictorian brings to light a groundbreaking new treatment for depression.

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

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Lit Review: ‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Who: Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, One True Loves, Maybe in Another Life, After I Do, and Forever, Interrupted. Her novels have been Indie Next Picks, chosen by Book of the Month, and featured in People, US Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Good Morning America, and more. Her newest novel, Daisy Jones and The Six, is a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Los Angeles.

What: Daisy Jones and the Six is a fictional written oral history of a similarly fictional rock band inspired by the story of Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac. In Reid’s novel, Daisy Jones and the Six hit the heights of rock ‘n’ roll stardom when they release their album, Aurora, which becomes an instant rock classic. All this unfolds in the 1970s where sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll went hand-in-hand with one another, and where rock stars were creatures larger than life.

The protagonists of the novel are the book’s eponymous Daisy Jones and the lead singer of The Six, Billy Dunne. Both incredibly talented musicians in their own right, they form an instant distaste for one another when their production company suggests a collaborative effort. So not only have they been assigned the unhappy task of working with each other, but they also have to wrestle with ghosts from their past which are always looming just off-camera.

Other members of the band and associated individuals are also brought into the narrative to flesh out flesh out the details, and to bring to bear their own recollections of the event — not all of which mesh to form a coherent and common narrative. But amidst all the unreliable narrations, a picture of the roller-coaster life of a 1970s rock star emerges, and it is a fun ride.

Why: Daisy Jones and The Six combines clichés within clichés: warring virtuoso front-(wo)men of a stellar band; eccentric bandmates who swing between the extremes of love and hate for the band and all it stands for; copious amount of drugs on The Sunset Strip and wherever else the band might be touring; etc. It’s a trope that’s well-used in the movie business, but not so much in novels, and that’s part of what makes it a compelling read. It is a stylish novel that captures the hedonism of the 1970s in all its glorious technicolour, and a compulsive page-turner.

Reid has a good ear for the way interviewees speak while on record, and the transition from one voice to the next is seamless. It’s clear that each character has a fully-formed personality: the music wonk Billy Dunne, the devil-may-care but nevertheless fragile Daisy Jones, the brother-in-the-shadows Graham Dunne. But unlike a more traditionally structured novel, we obtain no greater insight into what they are really thinking aside from what they care to confess to the interviewer. Yet — and this may be a comment on the reviewer as much as it is on the writing — we intuitively know with great familiarity these characters from the book.

The descriptions of the music are also tantalising and makes one wish this were a real album. Iin an interview, Reid equates one of the songs in the book Regret Me with Fleetwood Mac’s Silver Springs, and it makes one wish that someone would perhaps construct a soundtrack for the book.

Perhaps the least inspired and most insipid aspect of the book is the main plotline, which is ultimately a love story. Love is something that has always featured in Reid’s previous novels and it comes as no surprise that it features heavily in the moment of denouement. You can see it a mile coming, but, at the same time, you would be hard-pressed to find an alternative ending for the book. Yes, it is a cliché, but it is all the more enjoyable for it.

Verdict: A really fun and compulsive read. Readers with the slightest interest in 70s rock would find it compelling and un-put-downable. (8/10)

Availability: Hardback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Ballantine Books for a review copy of the book.

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Spotlight on Middle Eastern authors

The Unesco World Book and Copyright Day falls on April 23 annually, and each year, a city is named World Book Capital. For 2019, that honour falls on Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates; as such, this month’s picks are dedicated to featuring books written by Middle Eastern authors. Often set in the interstices of culture, tradition and modernity, these stories reflect the pervasive tension that has beset the modern Middle East and its reverberations through the lives of individuals. Yet, these are beautiful stories with sheer underlying humanity that will resonate with every reader.

The President’s Gardens by Muhsin Al-Ramli (RM49.90)
Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.

Seeing first-hand the terrible suffering endured by ordinary people in the violent tragedies of Iraq in its modern history was the catalyst for Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli to write this profound novel. The story begins with Ibrahim, nicknamed “the Fated”, whose story is told set against the last 50 years of the country’s history, of dictatorship, invasion and occupation. Essential to understanding Ibrahim’s story are those of his two best buds, Tariq “the Befuddled”, a schoolteacher, and Abdullah, known as “Kafka”, who becomes a soldier and ends up a prisoner of war. Ibrahim, after he was made lame during the invasion of Kuwait, finds a job in the titular garden, an idyllic location by all appearances but which belies the horrors lurking within. This gripping story of life in a war zone is a vivid investigation of love, death, injustice and the importance of friendship.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (RM79.90)
In this intimate memoir, Iranian author and English professor Azar Nafisi recounts the two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran when she met with seven of her most dedicated female students to read and discuss forbidden Western classics by authors including Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and of course, Vladimir Nabokov. This took place from 1995 to 1997 at a time of increased radicalism, when Islamic morality squads would stage arbitrary raids in Tehran, artistic expression was stifled with censorship, and fundamentalists were taking hold of universities. The women who gathered every Thursday morning came from diverse backgrounds — some conservative, others secular — but bonded over their shared love for literature. Literary criticism is intertwined with personal stories of resilience in the face of tyranny, and the result is a book that is illuminating in more ways than one.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (RM75.50)
Egyptian writer and translator Ahdaf Soueif examines the repercussions of the British occupation of Egypt and the fierce political battles of the Egyptian Nationalists in an evocative, epic romantic tale between an English aristocrat, Lady Anna Winterbourne, and Sharif al-Baroudi, an Egyptian nationalist, in 1900. A century later, Anna’s great-granddaughter Isabel Packman finds her notebooks, journals and letters in a trunk and travels to Egypt to piece together Anna’s life. Accompanying her on this journey is Omar Ghamrawi, the man she loves and who happens to be Sharif’s grandnephew. There she meets Omar’s sister Amal, and they become fast friends. Told through the Amal’s voice, Anna and Sharif’s story is echoed by the love affair between Isabel and Omar, set against the continuing political turmoil of the Middle East. This absorbing, eloquent novel provides a lesson in cultural and political history, but also the intricacies of love.

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (RM75.50)
Turkish novelist, academic and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has written a beguiling mystery that explores father-son relationships and questions of patricide in a nod to Oedipus Rex. After Cem’s father abandons the family, the 16-year-old apprentices himself to a master well digger, Mahmut. Cem becomes attached to the elderly man and comes to regard him as a surrogate father. Then one day he meets a stunning red-haired woman, Gülcihan, who is as taken with him as he is by her. A subsequent act by the well puts an end to things, Cem’s relationship with Mahmut also comes to a tragic end. These events change Cem’s life forever and haunt him for the next 30 years. This is an extraordinary novel from one of the great storytellers of our time.

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (RM43.90)
Turkish author Elif Shafak’s 10th novel, Three Daughters of Eve, wrestles with questions of identity, faith and feminism through the story of Peri, a Turkish housewife and mother. A violent encounter with a vagrant while Peri was on her way to a dinner party in Istanbul one evening causes an old polaroid to fall out of her purse, triggering unpleasant memories of the past that she would much rather forget. The memories are of her time at Oxford University. She and her two best friends, the worldly Shirin and the devout Mona, engaged in lively discourses on Islam and feminism. Peri also took a life-changing course on God with Shirin’s mentor, the charismatic but controversial divinity professor, Azur. Their group is torn apart by a scandal, and its effects are still felt in present day. Shafak deftly weaves a tale with philosophical overtones to give the reader much to mull over long after the novel ends.

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

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Lit Review: ‘Annelies’ by David R. Gillham

Who: David R. Gillham is the author of the NYT bestselling City of Women. He studied screenwriting at the University of Southern California before transitioning into fiction. After moving to New York City, Gillham spent more than a decade in the book business, and he now lives with his family in Western Massachusetts. Annelies is his latest novel based on the life of famous diarist Anne Frank.

What: What if Annelies Marie Frank, better known as Anne Frank, survived the Nazi death camps to become one of the few to return to a broken post-war Europe? Gillham’s novel explores this possibility of the return of a broken and brutalised Anne to a home in shambles where her father, Pim, is the only surviving member of the Frank family. But whereas Pim is intent on picking up from where the family left off, Anne is tormented by the horrors of the war, by the betrayal of her family at the hands of Nazi conspirators and her own deeply rooted survivor’s guilt. To top it off, the diary which had become her sole comfort and inspiration goes missing after the family’s arrest. She is desperate to flee her past, but options are few for Holocaust survivors in post-war Europe.

In Gillham’s retelling, the Anne Frank story begins in the weeks leading up to their decision to go into hiding. Anne is a vivacious and somewhat difficult 13-year old (read: typical teenager) unlike her more sober-minded and responsible older sister. Despite having fled their home in Germany and now living in Nazi-occupied Holland, the Frank family did okay for themselves with Pim having set up a fairly lucrative pectin business and the girls seemingly adjusting well to their new Dutch identities. But anti-semitism was on the rise and the Frank family opted to go into hiding, and were subsequently betrayed to the Gestapo.

Why: Few Holocaust figures have captured the imagination quite the same way as Anne Frank, whose diary provides a vivid and poignant look into life under occupied Holland. Living in a secret annex behind her father’s offices, Anne’s diary was a living record of fugitives attempting to live as normal a life as possible despite the daily threat of betrayal or being discovered by the Nazi secret police. Anne dreamed of being a writer and she filled her diaries with stories and descriptions and ruminations of life within her secret space. The real Anne would not survive the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and would succumb to disease just weeks before the camp’s liberation by the British forces.

In Gillham’s Annelies, Anne survives — just barely — Bergen-Belsen, but she returns a changed woman. Unlike Pim whose faith in god and humanity survives the death camps, Anne, who bore witness to her mother and sister’s deaths, has now become a jaded, cynical and empty woman. Moreover, her diary which was both the literal and figurative representation of her ambition, has gone missing. Wracked by guilt, uncontrollable anger and grief, Anne can find no succour in her new life in Holland and is desperate to start somewhere else. Her desire for a new beginning puts her at odds with her once beloved Pim, who begins to find that post-war Europe has yet to come to terms with its own anti-semitic past.

The book is wonderfully descriptive and the characters well fleshed out. The development in Anne’s character is believable and the horrors of the Nazi camps — as well as life after — rigorously researched. And yet, there is a sense that Anne is somewhat diminished in the book. This may be an unpopular opinion but an essential part of the real Anne is the tragedy of her life cut short, leaving behind nothing but her living record of the days leading up to her arrest. Don’t get me wrong — there is much to admire in surviving the Holocaust but therein is the problem; Anne’s story post-war becomes a survivor’s story but it could have been any survivor, and not one unique to Anne. Ultimately, I suspect the intrigue of Anne Frank is due as much to the diary she leaves behind as well as the fact that it is the only thing she leaves behind.

Verdict: A well-researched and well-written historical fiction, and fans of Anne Frank will find the hypothetical ‘What If?’ compelling.  (7/10)

Availability: Trade Paperback, RM84.90

Special thanks to Viking Books for a review copy of the book.

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Five books to read this month for International Women’s Day 2019

In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, we have come up with a list of books that feature women and their experiences in one way or another. Some of the titles we have chosen celebrate the unique contributions of women while others shine a spotlight on some of the continuing challenges they face in our still flawed, but hopefully improving, gendered society. These books will entertain and edify.

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (RM55.90)
The debut novel of Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf, The Weight of Our Sky is a work of historical fiction centred on a young Malay girl caught in the crossfire of the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur. Plagued by gruesome thoughts she believes was placed in her head by a malevolent djinn, Melati has imagined her mother’s death countless times. Thus when the riots finally erupt, she has but one goal in mind: to get to her mother, the one person she can’t risk losing. With the help of a Chinese boy Vincent, Melati navigates a city in flames all the while trying very desperately to shake away the fatalistic prognostications of the demon in her head. Alkaf’s novel is a thrilling ride which reveals a chapter in the history of Malaysia that is seldom discussed and more seldom the background of young adult novels. It is a sensitive retelling of a prickly chapter in the history of the country and a refreshing take on the YA adventure novel.

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (RM59.90)
Machado’s collection of stories distil the variegated experiences of women in relation to their body — in particular the violence visited upon them in both myth and reality — and situates them in borderless worlds. At once horror, thriller, science fiction and comedy, Her Body uncovers the twisted logic that reduces women’s body into a cause celebre that turns people monstrous and the actual body itself becomes inconsequential. In the first story, The Husband Stitch, a woman refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove a green ribbon tied around her neck which infuriates the husband. It becomes the locus of aggression and frustration — the metaphorical value of the ribbon here is quite obvious — which can only end in heartbreak and defeat. Her Body was a finalist of the National Book Award and is one of the more unique collection of writings on women in recent years.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (RM79.95)
The most memorable characters in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are arguably the men — glorious Achilles, cunning Odysseus, doomed Hector and cruel Agamemnon are but some examples. The women tend to be the mothers of heroes or altar sacrifices to appease the gods; in other words, not very interesting even though the entire Trojan war was sparked by the kidnapping of the lovely Helen. In Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, her choice of protagonist is Briseis, a captive slave from the Greek invasion of Troy. Falling from her lofty position as queen of her city, Briseis would eventually be remembered in most retellings for her role as the bone of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon. But Barker’s retelling gives Briseis back her voice and her freedom, imagining the happenings behind the scenes with the women as Greek heroes while soldiers warred with their Trojan counterparts. This magnificent novel inverts the traditional narrative, sending the war into the background and instead focuses on the experiences of the thousands of women wrested from their home and forced to survive in their new reality as slave girls and war trophies.

The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams (RM75.50)
There has been a recent spate of memoirs written by women documenting their unlikely ascent from questionable backgrounds into relatively better environs. We use the term ‘better’ advisedly because it somehow seems to diminish the value of their individual journeys and experiences, but we think it is probably suitable in the case of Yip-Williams who succumbed to cancer in 2018. Born blind in Vietnam in 1976, she narrowly escaped euthanasia planned by her grandmother only to be forced to flee because of the political upheaval following the establishment of the socialist republic. Eventually making her way to the US, she gains partial sight after undergoing surgery and beats all odds to become a Harvard-educated lawyer. She marries and starts a family only to be diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Inspiring and instructive, The Unwinding is a candid and humorous memoir of a life that was well-lived but unfortunately cut cruelly short.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (RM69.95)
What if men were toxic, literally and figuratively? That’s the premise that Sophie Mackintosh’s haunting Booker-longlisted debut novel examines through Grace, Lia and Sky, three girls who live on an island with their parents, Mother and King. The sisters were raised to believe that men’s uncontrollable emotions and violence are the cause of the chemical destruction on the mainland, and they (the exception being their father) continue to pose as the greatest threats. To keep them healthy, the girls are forced to perform a series of elaborate purifying rituals, including the most extreme one, the water cure. But when the King disappears and three men wash ashore, a psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues, sexual tensions surface, and sibling rivalries erupt. This novel is a taut and riveting exploration of solidarity, sisterhood, the gender divide, and the illusion of safety.


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