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Lit Review: ‘The Mercies’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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.

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Books on love and its many guises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lit Review: ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ by Isabel Allende

Gripped by the plight of thousands of Spanish Republicans who fled the country at the end of the Spanish Civil War only to be interned in horrid concentration camps in France, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1939 chartered the cargo ship SS Winnipeg to ship 2,200 Republican refugees to Chile where they were welcomed with open arms.

This incredible humanitarian feat is the platform for the new historical novel by acclaimed Chilean author Isabel Allende titled A Long Petal of the Sea. Although Allende had grown up with direct, first-hand knowledge of the great rescue — her grandfather was amongst those who welcomed the refugees when they docked — it was only after she met Victor, one of the last surviving refugees who made the trip, and learnt about his story that the desire to write A Long Petal was sparked.

And what a glorious novel it is: expansive in scope — the novel’s timeline spans more than 50 years — and rich in historical detail. A Long Petal of the Sea, Neruda’s description of Chile, is a complex tapestry comprising myriad characters and narrative strands, but at its heart is the story of a young medical student, Victor Dalmau, and his dead brother’s expectant girlfriend and gifted pianist, Roser Bruguera. With the noose tightening around them in Francoist Spain, the desperate pair agrees to a marriage of convenience that would enable them passage on the SS Winnipeg and a new life in Chile.

Once there, the wealthy del Solar family take the Dalmaus under their wing. Victor returns to medical school and becomes a sought-after cardiologist while Roser becomes a successful musician. Together, they raise Marcel, Roser’s son from her relationship with Victor’s brother. The arrangement is a pragmatic one for the couple who essentially live separate lives: Victor has a brief but deeply consequential affair with Ofelia del Solar, while Roser pursues her own love interests as well. Nonetheless, as the years go by, the two find that their affection for each other has blossomed into something more than mere platonic love. But it doesn’t end there, for, when the Pinochet dictatorship unseats Chile’s democratically elected president in 1973, the Dalmaus once again find themselves in danger because of their political allegiances.

Allende has written an engrossing tale that sweeps one back to the turbulent times of the Spanish civil war, and yet it is a tale that feels perfectly on pulse with today. It is a beautiful story of family, loss, survival, hope and belonging. But it is also a story of love and its many guises: familial and patriotic; love for your fellow humankind, for art, music and poetry, and also carnal love and the kind borne out of shared adversity that results in deep mutual respect and trust for one another.

Above all, the book is a tender homage to Neruda, his poetry, and his extraordinary deed of kindness — an urgent reminder of our shared humanity, and that the refugee crisis around the world today needs to be met with courage and compassion, with political will and direct action.

Verdict: A captivating drama anchored by a wonderful cast of characters and imbued with humanity and a lot of heart. This story will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. (8/10)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM79.90

Special thanks to Bloomsbury for the advance review copy of the book.

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Lit Review: ‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

Availability: Trade paperback, RM65.90

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Chew on this: Five food books to indulge in

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

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heartwarming books to end the year with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Riveting crime and mystery titles to read now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lit Review: ‘Quichotte’ by Salman Rushdie

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

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

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

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

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

But wait! It doesn’t end there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Availability: Trade paperback, RM69.90

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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.