Friends know that I’m a sucker for cake. I am also a sucker for books with interesting titles. And so, when I came across Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, winner of Singaporean publisher Epigram’s Fiction Prize 2018, I had to bite. And what a treat it turned out to be.
Like a good lemon pound cake (a personal favourite of mine), this story has substance but isn’t dense. It strikes the perfect balance between sweetness and tartness, and it is tender and charming without being maudlin. The story gives you plenty to chew on but doesn’t sit heavy on the stomach. (Okay, that’s it for the cake imagery.)
Different types of cake – yuzu coconut cream, lemon sponge, sugee, coffee pound, and orange chiffon, to name a few – feature throughout the novel, as the main character, 35-year-old English literature teacher Sukhin, is something of a cake fiend. He loves eating them, baking them, and sharing them; it is very much part of his identity. In one hilarious and all too relatable scene (to me, at least), Sukhin is out on a date with a woman who chooses an organic soy latte over cake for dessert, and he spirals into an internal monologue where the love of cake is a criterion to be considered “his people”.
One person who does share his fondness for cake is Jinn, his former secondary school sweetheart. Sukhin stumbles on Jinn one afternoon in Chinatown, and she, to his astonishment, is now living as a homeless person in cardboard boxes in an alleyway. She disappeared several years ago and he had taken her for dead. Seeing her again shakes him to the core.
As Sukhin slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her initial disappearance and present situation, he becomes attuned to the homeless, an invisible segment of Singapore society that he had previously not given much thought. Present-day going-ons – juggling teaching, his family, and meeting up with Jinn – is juxtaposed with Sukhin’s recollections of what he and Jinn were before. Sukhin eventually comes to terms with the new reality, and along the way, finds himself fashioning ever more elaborate “shelter” out of cardboard boxes for Jinn. The whole experience changes him in subtle but profound ways.
Yeoh’s writing sparkles with wit and empathy in this poignant, quirky novel. Told in an unhurried pace that’s part of its charm, the story is a beautiful portrayal of a gentle friendship. It deftly explores how life isn’t just what happens to you but what you make of it, and how the only way to live is according to one’s authentic self.
After having conquered the world of children’s fiction, British novelist Kiran Millwood Hargrave sets out to make her mark in adult fiction with The Mercies, a historical novel that throws into sharp relief the struggles of women forced to live their lives dictated by men, and the perils of self-righteousness.
The novel is based on the witch trials that took place in 1621 in Vardø, Norway, where more than 91 women as well as Sámi men were found guilty of witchcraft and put to death. At the site today stands a memorial by Louise Bourgeois and Peter Zumthor to mark the tragedy which itself is the the main catalyst of Hargrave’s novel.
At its heart, The Mercies is about the complex lives of women told through the lens of two very different women, Maren and Ursula, or Ursa. The novel begins on Christmas eve, 1617, in the remote fishing village of Vardø, where a sudden, ferocious storm claims the lives of 40 fishermen out at sea, leaving the women of this tight-knit community reeling in shock and horror. Among them is Maren, whose betrothed, brother, and father all perished in the storm. In the following months, led by the feisty Kirsten, Maren and the women take on tasks that are usually the purview of men, such as going out to sea to fish. Even though it is a matter of survival, Pastor Kurtsson (who was sent to shepherd the community after the tragedy) and a few of the women disapprove and deem it improper for a woman to do. Kirsten, Maren and et al carry on, regardless, and the women thrive in their new reality without their men.
The narrative then switches to Ursa, a well-bred young woman from the city of Bergen in the south who is made to marry a man chosen by her father, the sanctimonious Absalom Cornet. He has just been appointed the new commissioner of Vardø, and the couple set off for the north soon after the nuptials. Ursa is ill-prepared for her new life as wife to a man who has little regard for her other than in the bedroom, and is also helpless at keeping house having grown up with servants. She turns to Maren for help, and Maren on her part finds herself irresistibly drawn to Ursa. The two soon become inseparable.
Meanwhile, the commissioner’s true purpose for being appointed to Vardø is made chillingly clear: he is to root out witchcraft and all who practise it. Some of the women in the community, namely those who were opposed to Kirsten and her taking charge, are only too eager to help Cornet along and take it upon themselves to condemn the other group of women, leading to devastating outcomes.
“[Maren] had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”
Parallels can certainly be drawn with what we see in today’s “witch hunts” that often take place on social media. With a fervour fuelled by self-righteousness, keyboard warriors draw conclusions based on suspicion and scant knowledge, and proceed to hang the accused out to dry, confident of their judgment. The Mercies is a timely caution against this treacherous path that is all too easy to tread, and the harm it causes.
Hargrave has written a surefooted novel that, while a bit draggy in parts, makes for an absorbing, if sobering read. In an interview with Kirkus, the author reveals that she did not want to focus on the violence of the trials but on the lives of women. She says, “I’m always quite queasy when I read a witch trial book because it does feel voyeuristic, and it does feel like you’re luxuriating in the violence being done to women. I’m also interested in how you get to that stage and I wanted the propulsion to come not through these kind of unimaginable acts [of violence], but through very imaginable acts.”
Verdict: The ending feels a bit rushed but the solid main characters and intriguing story more than make up for it. (7/10)
Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90
Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for an advance review copy of the book.
Such a Fun Age is Kiley Reid’s debut novel which has drawn much admiration for its witty and sharp observations of modern life couched in fluent and pacey prose. The novel’s protagonist is Emira Tucker, a 20-something black babysitter fresh out of college with little direction and limited means to orient herself. Unlike her group of more successful friends—one of whom is a medical professional and another an upwardly-mobile business executive—Emira depends on her babysitting gig to make ends meet. While her well-off white employers, Alix and Peter, are generous enough to remunerate her above scale, Emira is aware that her situation is neither sustainable nor desirable (although that doesn’t stop her from buying a leather jacket when she comes into some money unexpectedly later on).
Events are set into motion when she is accosted one evening at an upscale grocery store by a security guard caught in the throes of white paranoia. Tasked by Alix to take two-year old Briar out from the house late one evening, Emira is accused by the security guard, on the word of a too-good Samaritan, of kidnapping her young ward. After a brief but heated confrontation reminiscent of the many #WhileBlack episodes that made the rounds on the internet this past year, Peter, the girl’s father, arrives to defuse the situation but the damage is done.
The Grocery Store Incident (GSI) will be a pivotal moment for several characters in the novel (incidentally all white) but, and this is not without a little irony, not for Emira who’s too busy trying to make rent and eat. Characters notably affected by the GSI are:
Mrs Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s employer and go-getter who’s lost her groove after leaving New York City. A social media type who initially got famous by writing polite letters to brands and corporations for freebies (and subsequently changed her name from Alex to Alix) and founder of the #LetHerSpeak woman’s movement, Alix is equally troubled by the GSI and her apperception of the stagnation in her professional and personal lives. Following a conference call with her inner circle of friends, all of whom are highly accomplished and of the “I’m being a good friend right now and asking how much weight you’ve gained” variety, Alix decides that she needs to put her life in order, which in her world means first keeping hold of Emira as her sitter whatever the cost. Ostensibly to keep her precocious two-year old Briar company, but, more importantly, as a project that would somehow be equally validating for both her and Emira.
Kelley Copeland, a seemingly well-intentioned witness to the GSI who video-records the exchange between Emira and the security guard (as a precaution in the event that things went south). It turns out that Kelley is a successful IT-type and both he and Emira eventually start dating. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Kelley has a type: all his friends are black, he is completely immersed in black culture and casually dips into black lexicon in both speech and manner. Kelley is super-woke, which brings with it all the baggage such enlightenment implies. Additionally, it turns out that Kelley may have had a run-in with Alix in the past.
Alix and Kelley become increasingly involved in Emira’s life, constructing a narrative for her that becomes stifling and unwelcome particularly when Alix resorts to cunning means to manipulate her sitter. Emira, who has no interest in being a martyr and is bound to Alix only by her affection for Briar, finds the growing attention and the high-handed approaches of both Alix and Kelley unbearable, and things come to a head. Neither Alix nor Kelley are malicious, of course, and they both demonstrate genuine concern for Emira’s well-being. However, it becomes problematic when the two of them start seeing Emira as an extension of themselves rather than who she really is.
Gushing reviewers have compared Reid’s Such a Fun Age to the novels of the other young, virtuoso writer, Sally Rooney. Central to the two writers is the way they impute meaning to millennial life which is often unfairly depicted as shallow and trivial. But Reid, as with Rooney, writes sympathetically of the unique challenges of modern life, which in her case is the hyper-aware, hyper-polarised sociopolitical landscape (read “fun” age—see what she did there?). Reid also has a sterling ear for writing dialogue, be it in describing the lively exchanges between Emira and her friends in black vernacular, or the kid-friendly tone when Emira is dealing with Briar (Reid was a babysitter before she became a writer and that experience probably came in handy).
On the whole, the novel is charming and skirts the edges of cliché but pulls back from the brink to provide a refreshing take on the rather well-used life-as-a-minority trope. There is a verve to her writing style that can be aggressive and tender in equal measure, and she expertly weaves in nuanced observations of race and modern life that are alternately funny, cutting and wry. There is a concern that the subject matter of the novel may be too localised to be relatable to readers who are neither young nor American, but Reid is talented enough of a writer to spin a compelling yarn all the same. The characters, especially the white ones, also seemed a little one-dimensional with little self-awareness, but perhaps that depiction is also a deliberate one.
Verdict: Good, and will likely be one of those massively talked about books in 2020. (7/10)
Who: Sir Salman Rushdie is an award-winning British Indian writer who needs no introduction. The winner of multiple awards and honours, Rushdie’s vast body of work include Midnight’s Children, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Joseph Anton, and the controversial Satanic Verses. He has also written a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as well as multiple works of non-fiction.
What: Quichotte is both a homage to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and to the maximalist form of writing. Hubris and bombast is de rigeur — or perhaps more pertinently, de Rushdie — and the scope of the narrative is once again mind-bogglingly wide. Rushdie borrows heavily from popular culture, science fiction, fantasy, and of course, from Cervantes, to put together Quichotte which can be regarded as a return to form after the stilted Golden House effort of 2017.
In a nutshell — if that is at all possible — Quichotte follows the quest of an Indian-American salesman who has fallen in true love with the Oprah-esque Salma R., a shrewd Indian actress who has become the new diva of afternoon talk TV. With his clasically-trained brain rotted on a steady diet of primetime television, the eponymous Quichotte believes he must embark on a quest to prove his worthiness of Ms. Salma R., interpreting the signs and omens along the way as only a pop culture fanatic (or David Foster-Wallace) can:
“As I plan my quest,” Quichotte said, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette…[t]he searcher for love must understand immediately, at the outset of his search, that the quantity of love available is far too small to satisfy the number of searchers.”
But quests are not all created equal. While Quixote had his windmills and dragons — imaginary dangers that are in actuality quite innocuous — Quichotte’s challenges are quite the opposite. Together with his dreamed up son/squire Sancho, our knight errant must deal with the challenges of a bigoted Trumpian America, the opioid crisis (topical!), estrangement from a sibling known only as the Human Trampoline (HT for short) and a physical development that may or may not herald the literal end of the world.
But wait! It doesn’t end there.
It turns out that Quichotte may very well just be the figment of the imagination — the last gasp of effort by a third-rate Indian American spy novelist who is making for one last grasp at respectability with his retelling of Don Quixote! Not coincidentally, the author of Quichotte grapples with much of the same issues faced by his addled protagonist and thus intertwine the threads of fact and fiction, which incidentally feeds nicely into Rushdie’s penchant for multiverse theory (see Ground Beneath Her Feet).
The author, allusively known (or perhaps not), only as Author or Brother has sibling issues with the enigmatic Sister, who has come good in her clamber up the ladder of ambition, but nevertheless finds her otherwise fabulous life interrupted by an unseen foe. Like Quichotte, Brother needs to reconcile with his fragmented family before he can complete his own quest, which in this case is finishing his book before an irritating heart murmur finishes him.
Why: Why does anyone read Rushdie? Is there room for bombast and hyperbole in this modern age where everyone is Marie Kondo-ing the hell out of everything, including prose? Can sleek Swedish furniture design not cohabitate with baroque and gilded rooms? One suspects that Quichotte makes the argument that it can, and it should.
In many ways, Quichotte is an exemplary Best of Rushdie, with the New York Times reviewer complaining that one could check off all the boxes in a Rushdie Trope Bingo Card, just as one could with Murakami’s card with Killing Commendatore. Multiverses? Check. Multitudinous references to popular culture characters and/or tropes? Check. Homages to literary classics? Check. Cheeky insertion of the self into the narrative? Check, check, and check.
Indeed, Rushdie dips into kitsch so often throughout the book that it almost feels as though one were watching a Wes Anderson movie with Alec Baldwin as the narrator. And just as Anderson makes entertaining movies, Rushdie writes entertaining, if not always “meaningful”, books. Of course, he brandishes his own get-out-of-jail free card when he reminds us, through his description of Salma R., that, “A woman whose life was lived on the surface, who had chosen superficiality, had no right to complain about the absence of depth”.
But it would be wrong to dismiss Quichotte as pure camp as Rushdie can still be a master of lucid prose when he chooses to be — although perhaps not when he is channeling the inner-monologue of a teenager trying to sound hip. Structure wise, there does seem to be a significant imbalance in the overall feel of the book, almost as though the author was forced to chop out vast sections by a less compassionate editor. But we can only speculate.
Verdict: Unlikely to win the Booker, I’m afraid. (8/10)
Availability: Trade paperback, RM84.95; UK hardback, RM109.90; US hardback, RM119.90
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 essentialisingwomen’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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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)
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