Tuesday, September 30, 2008

DUBAI | Eid Mubarak and Finally, a Library

Finally, Eid has arrived, and the fasting month is over. The restaurants and cafes are finally open for business during daylight. This is such a relief.

Today is our day off, so three colleagues and myself, we went down to the Mall of Emirates. We followed some dubious directions within the mall when we were looking for the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre -- which was supposed to have a small community library staffed by volunteers. The signages are very misleading, but we found it eventually.

Annual membership fee is 150 Dirhams, with allows you to check out 8 books, for 4 weeks. It was a modest place, but with some good titles. I went ape-shit happy when I saw the Freya Stark titles available. They also have a copy of Stark's East is West -- which has gone out of print and I have not been able to find a copy anywhere. It is the story of her war-time experiences in Egypt, Palestine and Syria, way back in the days when it was unthinkable for a woman to travel alone, much less in the Middle East. I grabbed the book immediately. There's also a few Graham Greene biographies that I have my eyes on. Next trip, I think.

Ah, yes, I am now a member of the little community library in Dubai. I'm so proud of myself. :)

Okay, maybe it was an impulsive decision to put down 150 dirhams just like this. I like the books available, but Mall of the Emirates is very far away from where I will be staying. Taxi fare will probably cost me around 80 dirhams to-and-fro. Is it worth it? I don't know.

Also borrowed: Bookless in Baghdad, by Shashi Tharoor, and The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal.

Until later.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

DUBAI | Just Heard about the Dubai Literary Festival

Hi Everybody. I've managed to log in today in spite of the slow connection at the service apartment. Internet access is still unreliable, so I had to prioritize and use whatever online time I can manage for work related emails. This blog unfortunately, has to stay dormant for a while, until I move into my long term apartment and apply for a personal internet account.

But I'm still alive. A few days ago I came down with a bad case of diarrhea -- had some leftover Pakistani curry that didn't agree with me. I suspect I will be writing the word "diarrhea" very often during my stay in Dubai. I wonder if I'm spelling it correctly?:)

I am definitely turning into a vampire. Can I emphasize how much I hate the sun?

I was at the House of Prose today at Jumeira Plaza (thanks for the tip, Ella). It's a nice second-hand bookstore that look wonderfully stocked with titles - and I love the full, dark wood shelves. It's the kind of place I can stay for hours. But I was in the area for a business meeting today, so there wasn't much time to browse. Maybe this Friday I will pop by again. Or I might drop by Mall of the Emirates for the Carrefour and Borders instead. Somehow grocery shopping and browsing bookstores comforts me. Now I just need some reliable internet access, I will be right at home.

Something a little book related: I was at Festival City today, to visit the Magrudy's bookstore. I picked up two books at 15.00 Dirhams (approximately USD 4.00) each: Tim Robinson's Connemara: Listening to the Wind and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. I have been meaning to read The Sheltering Sky for a while now, so this is a good buy. As for Tim Robinson - I was curious about his writing since NYRB Classics reprinted his first book, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, which is about a nature walk around Aran, but it's more than a book about walking in nature. Since Stones of Aran is at home, in a box, I will have to settle for Connemara for the moment.

I like the layout of the Magrudy's at Festival City - or maybe I just like Festival City itself, with the view of the sea and the waterfall strctures around the place. Dubai is a HOT HOT place and I like the illusion of being surrounded by water.

I digress. But it's really HOT over here.

This morning I heard about the first Dubai Literary Festival coming next year, which starts February 26th. Among the writers that will appear in Dubai is Margaret Atwood and Frank McCourt. I am going to be there. No question about it. Imagine being able to meet Margaret Atwood -- in Dubai of all places. This posting may not be as difficult as it seems. :)

Until later.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Touched Dubai Soil

Sorry for the very late update. I touched down in Dubai airport on Monday evening - or to be precise, 7:35 pm Dubai time. I later discovered to my horror that my laptop is unable to connect to the wireless LAN at the lobby of my apartment. I have been reduced to logging on via a crappy PC in the Business Centre of the apartment where we're staying. The connection is SLOW and I have to wait my turn to use it with the other guests here. Just yesterday there was a nosy Malaysian guy who kept looking over my shoulder while I was trying to check my personal email. He also kept asking me very detailed personal questions, none of which I wanted to answer - because I was already pissed at the lack of wireless.

Some people just do not understand the concept of personal space.

I am alive, thank you very much to everyone for their well-wishes. I had a safe flight, though they did screw up my vegetarian meal. *sigh*

Everyone who has been to Dubai talks about how the hot air just gushes at your face. They are right. Every time I walk out of an air-conditioned building, or even just out of the car - the hot Dubai air just hits me.

I'm wilting. And on top of that, most of the food and drink establishments are closed in the afternoon because it's the fasting month. So if you're outside - like I was yesterday - you're not going to be able to eat or drink. Hah!

I'm wilting. Only 3 days in Dubai and I'm down with a sore throat and a slight fever.

Until later.

Monday, September 15, 2008

On My Way Out

Let me remember the meaning of Ithaka.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with your pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

~ C.P. Cavafy (translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

It Is About Competence

Rachel Maddow's closing thoughts on September 11:

The President of the United States and the men who want to succeed him all expressed their thoughts publicly on the meaning of this anniversary today. Among other things, President Bush exalted America's response to 9/11. Senator McCain? ...the country's sacrifice. Barack Obama turned to the fight that continues.

Today will likely mark the last moment of pause before we choose the next President of this country. Until November 4th, we will, no doubt, overwhelmed by poll numbers, by political attacks and speeches and gaffes and counter-gaffes and outrages real and contrived. We'll even have moments of actual, substantive discussion of the issues.

So take this last moment's pause, before the bruising, sometimes mindless campaign starts again... in about an hour... to note the lessons about government and country that the horror of 9/11 and its difficult, 7-year aftermath have taught us.

Today, we are embroiled in two wars. Our government has no enunciated mission to complete, in order to end *either*. Osama bin Laden, whose nihilist madness orchestrated the most tragic day in this country's history, is assumed to be living in nuclear-armed Pakistan, in an ungoverned wilderness where we can't find him.

This week, the Partnership for a Secure America, which grew out of the 9/11 commission, gave the U.S. government a "C" grade on its efforts to protect America from chemical, biological, and nuclear threats. A "C" after seven years of supposedly-urgent work. The Rand Corporation recently estimated that al Qaeda, America's greatest enemy in the world, has restored its strength to pre-9/11 levels.

As we turn our attention back to the presidential campaign, to the choice we'll make in November, let September 11 remind us of what we require from our leaders and from our government -- competence.

Our choice isn't about language or personality or how well we relate to a politician. This day reminds us that our choice in November is about the competence of the government we'll elect.

For those in the position to vote for the new US President in the upcoming election - your choice do affect the rest of the world.

MUSIC | Alina Simone

I was listening to the online streams of Alina Simone's music recently and they have begun to grow on me. What is amazing about her new album, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me Beware, is that it is entirely sung in Russian; I don't understand Russian.

Musician Alina Simone was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine and grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts. She described her music as being "about people that bring you to the brink of joy and despair and about having epiphanies in the most ordinary places. " Her new album is a series of covers on the songs by Siberian punk-folk singer, Yanka Dyagileva. Though the language is lost in translation, the songs do not lose their emotional immediacy. Each song is a cry from the heart.

Popmatters on Alina Simone's new album:

The liner notes give us a translation of one song, “Beware”, from which the album’s title is taken. And with lines like, “I will have to swap the ritual / That I am sick and tired of / for a deadly missile”, we can see the stone-serious and poetic approach to songwriting Yanka had. And Alina Simone is the perfect performer to bring these songs to life, and hopefully bring Yanka Dyagileva to a new set of listeners. Like Nick Drake, Yanka’s life was short—she drowned mysteriously in 1991 at the age of 24—and her music was damaged and haunting. Simone’s renditions call to mind the space and cold of Siberia, where Yanka grew up. Each song echoes with the lonesome space that surrounds it, and when you get to the end of the album, you are drained. It takes energy to listen to this kind of sad beauty, and it takes a great performer to make it. Alina Simone has arrived now, and hopefully she isn’t going anywhere.

Alina Simone performs a song from her album, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me Beware :

Alina Simone on myspace.

From The Daily Show: The Sarah Palin Gender Card

"We should not even be talking about Sarah Palin because it's sexist."


[Thanks, Serene! I love Jon Stewart!]

Saturday, September 13, 2008

WTF | Shirley Manson as a URINAL?!!

I was looking forward to Shirley Manson guest-starring on the second season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. What I didn't expect was how bizarre the stint will be. Her character is a T1000 (the Terminator made of liquid metal who can shapeshift) and here's a scene, where she morphs out of her cover - as a urinal.

Shirley Manson as a urinal. I know I'm repeating myself, but - huh?

Let us focus instead on the more rational reasons for loving Shirley Manson:

The red hair, the sultry intensity, and of course, the voice.

Let us not forget this: Shirley Manson for PETA.

BOOKS | Thirteen Into Dubai

There is reason for joy!

Some of my friends will be going to Dubai this October, and they are more than willing to help bring over some personal items for me. Since the books are the heaviest items in my luggage, I will be asking my friends to help bring over my books.

I am so glad for friends.

You might like to know the final list of books I have arranged to be brought to Dubai. Actually, you might not be interested at all, but I'm going to list them here anyway.

1. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison
~ Since eating out in Dubai will be expensive, most of my meals will probably have to be prepared at home. When I lamented to my friends that the thought of having to eat my own cooking everyday depresses me, The Lawyer told me, "What's why you get better."

I know practice makes perfect, but I also know I need some help. It's madness to bring a 752-paged cookbook onto the plane, but I actually did pack it in my backpack earlier. I'm so glad someone is helping me bring it over.

Did I mention how grateful I am for friends?

2. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky [translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]
~ I'm trying to finish the volume but I may not be able to do so, which means it will have to come along. It's a heavy hardcover from the Everyman's Library. I'm definitely not being practical here. :\

3. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami [translated by Philip Gabriel]
~ I just received my copy last week, so I had no time to pack it into a carton. It's coming along.

4. The Histories, Herodotus
~ I swear I need to finish this volume soon.

5. & 6. The final two volumes of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time - The Prisoner and the Fugitive & Finding Time Again
~ Like I've said many times: I'm determined to finish the Proustian epic

7. Soft City, Jonathan Raban
~ Written in 1974, it's supposed to be part travelogue, part memoir, part essay on navigating the urban labyrinth. I mooched it some time back because Jonathan Raban was supposed to be one of those writers whose books defined classification.

It's a small mass paperback that slipped me as I was packing books into boxes. I decided to bring it along for variety since it's so compact.

8. Conditions of Love, John Armstrong
~ A slim volume on the philosophy of love. Again, for the variety, and because it's compact.

9. & 10. Asylum, Patrick McGrath & The Ghost Writer, John Harwood
~ For the R.I.P. III Challenge

11. Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
~ I have a Bantam mass paperback version of this from years back. It's supposed to be one of Maugham's finest.

12. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco [translated by William Weaver]
~ I'm reading it right now. It's in a handy Warner mass paperback. The pages are yellow and stained with oily fingerprints from the last time I brought it with me to Koh Samui.

13. Sitting: A Guide to Buddhist Meditation, Diana St. Ruth
~ To remind me of what is important.

Thirteen is auspicious, right?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Working on Sundays

I'm not even in Dubai yet, but I already have two business meetings scheduled within the week of my arrival. One of them is for Sunday morning, which baffled me a little initially.

"Who works on Sunday?" I thought. Then I remember: the Muslim day of rest is Friday, not Sunday. "Weekends" are usually Fridays/Saturdays, instead of the Saturdays/Sundays we are used to. But I heard some companies have Thursday/Fridays off instead. This gives new meaning to TGIF.

These are the little things that I need to adapt to over there. It's a different world, with different customs and different rules. Some of my colleagues over there right now are trying to get used to not being allowed to eat and drink as freely during the day. I heard one of them runs to the washroom when she needs to drink, so as not to offend Muslim colleagues who are fasting at work.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Gloria Steinem on Sarah Palin

I don't doubt her sincerity. As a lifetime member of the National Rifle Assn., she doesn't just support killing animals from helicopters, she does it herself. She doesn't just talk about increasing the use of fossil fuels but puts a coal-burning power plant in her own small town. She doesn't just echo McCain's pledge to criminalize abortion by overturning Roe vs. Wade, she says that if one of her daughters were impregnated by rape or incest, she should bear the child. She not only opposes reproductive freedom as a human right but implies that it dictates abortion, without saying that it also protects the right to have a child.

[This is of course, taken out of context. Read the full essay here]

Jeanette Winterson on how British booksellers could learn from the French

Just to beat a point to a bloody pulp. From Jeanette Winterson's column for The Times:

When I was at Shakespeare and Company, a boy of about 19 wanted a book he could not afford. He really wanted the book, and he really could not afford it. So Sylvia, who owns the store, asked him if he would come back later, shift boxes, help with the poetry event they were running - and then he could take the book.

I am sure that this breaks all the rules, but it mends the jagged gap between love and money. We need money, but not everything is about money, and books, even though they are bought and sold, are essentially about love.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A Rich Feast of Pullman and Other Tangential Thoughts

I'm back to reading The Idiot right no. I hope to finish the book before I depart, so to avoid having to pack the hardcover with me. Right now I would rather spend the time reading and not blogging, but I can't seem to stay away from the laptop.

I understand this blog has been on a dry spell book-wise for a very long time. To compensate for this, I'll highlight Philip Pullman's selection of 40 titles for Waterstones's Writer's Table.

What I love most about Pullman's list is the variety. This is a true reader's list, one that I admire and set me to make notes for my own reading list. His Dark Materials series was a masterpiece of fantastic imagination. His reading list hints at the deeper pool of his literary inspiration.

Boyd Tonkin remarked on the richness of the selection in The Independent:

Against the dreary agribusiness of today's book trade, Pullman's ideal landscape is a dense peasant patchwork of contrasting genres, styles and eras. From such rich soil new masterpieces sprout. How apt that among his choices is Exercises in Style by the Parisian prankster Raymond Queneau, a theme-and-variations piece which tells the same yarn in 99 different ways. Look in chain bookstores these days and you will more often find 99 stories told in exactly the same way. We should relish the feast on Pullman's table while we can – and watch out to check how visible Queneau or Pessoa remain when this sumptuous banquet has been cleared away.

I had some time recently to think about what makes a good bookstore, and what makes a good reader. With the chain bookstores taking over the market these days, the selection available are getting more generic. Take a look at the bestsellers for different chain bookstores, and often you can't tell one from the other.

We need readers who will continue to demand good literature; we often forget that we, the readers, have the economic power to dictate what bookstore carries. We need to read widely, across genres, gender and languages if possible. Reading is the greatest freedom - and the most civilized form of rebellion. We should be the ones dictating what we read, not allow that choice to be made for us by some unknown book prize committee, or Oprah.

Pullman's list, as Boyd Tonkin points out, reminds us of the richness of literature that we need to continue to seek out, for our own sake. Great literature grows from rich soil, and monoculture can ruin the eco-system of the mind.

That said, bookstores have a responsibility to the readers. I understand it is a business (I am in the business of book-selling) Profit matters, because a profitable bookstore is able to keep its staff employed, pay for its purchases and maintain a book culture within the area.

A lot of booksellers seem to have forgotten that a bookstore is a knowledge-based industry though. You are not likely to find the Pullman selection highlighted in your usual chain bookstores. (That fact that this is a Waterstone's initiative warms my little bookseller heart. Perhaps all is not lost in the book industry) The list is too eclectic. In most bookstores, what you will find being highlighted is the usual New York Times bestsellers or its equivalent.

A bookstore has to be more than just clearing stocks and selling large quantities of books. A bookstore needs to be staffed with knowledgeable readers who are eager to share what they know about books. They should always be on the look-out for exciting titles to introduce to the customers. To be able to do that competently, the booksellers have to be people who read deeply, and widely.

*** I apologise if this post suddenly goes off-tangential. As I mentioned earlier, I was thinking about the responsibility of a bookseller recently, and how we need to do more in promoting the book culture. So much more effort needs to be made, but often we choose the easiest alternative. It is so much easier to throw out 300 copies of The Secret, or the newest Oprah Book Club selection. It takes more effort to promote an unknown author who deserves better recognition, and the sales may not amount to much. Yet it is necessary, because selling books is not the same as selling a pair of shoes, or a T-shirt or a frying pan. Books are about the heart, at least, that is so for me.

And the customers - the readers who come to our bookstores - who rely on our expertise as booksellers - are short-changed because we do not make the effort.

QUOTES ON READING | Reading To Escape

I grew up with the notion that 'escapist' reading was intellectually inferior to coolly analytical text, but now I'm on the side of Tolkien: those most likely to be upset by the notion of escape are the jailers. Now I'll read anything, as long as it's good, as long as it gives me that sense of multiplication, of time travel and life extension.

~ Nicola Griffith [Source]

Banning Carol Ann Duffy from the GCSE

[Response to The Guardian story]

The world is awfully absurd and you can always find evidence of it. In Britain, the exam board AQA had ordered schools to remove Carol Ann Duffy's poem, "Education for Leisure" from its GCSE curriculum. The reason? The poem supposedly glorified knife crime.

Duffy responded in the most civilised manner possible, I think. Instead of an outraged public statement, she wrote a poem about it: "Mrs Schofield's GCSE" (available on The Guardian).

Note: Pat Schofield is an external examiner at Lutterworth College, Leicestershire. She complained about Duffy's poem and called it "absolutely horrendous".

Contacted by the Guardian last night, Schofield said she felt "a bit gobsmacked" to have a verse named after her. She described the poem as "a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that's me".

Seems to me it's easy to want to ban something when you don't understand it. Yes, it's just you, Mrs Schofield. It's just you. (Full disclosure: I love Carol Ann Duffy's poems.)

I have included Carol Ann Duffy's banned poem in this post. You judge for yourself if it deserves to be banned.

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets
I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.
I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something's world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.
I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
For signing on. They don't appreciate my autograph.
There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he's talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

~ Carol Ann Duffy

Michael Dirda on Anathem

Michael Dirda reads Neal Stephenson's Anathem - and isn't all that thrilled by it. [Full review]

To sum up: Reading Anathem is a humbling experience. Wow, you say to yourself, this guy Stephenson really knows a lot of stuff about philosophy and physics. And he's really ingenious, too, neatly counterpointing Earth/Orth history, creating a series of elaborate puzzles that can only be solved by Encyclopedia Brown and his monastic buddies, and transcribing intellectual conversations that sound like really nerdy Caltech grad students schmoozing at 3 a.m. or Cambridge dons pontificating at high table while they wait for the Stilton to come round.

The sad thing is this: None of these more than 900 pages can have been easy to write, or even to outline. Stephenson truly is gifted in the range of material he can draw on and play with. But he is also the sort of ambitious writer who tends to go too far, which is certainly preferable to playing it safe. Still, this novel is at heart artistically simplistic, despite its techno-razzle dazzle. Sigh. The word "Anathem" -- which here refers to either a piece of religious music or an act of excommunication -- is a portmanteau of "anthem" and "anathema" -- in other words, it suggests a song of rejection. I just hate to be singing it.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Philip Pullman on the Library

I finally have some time to catch up on my blog reading, as well keep up with the book-related news. Here's an old article from Philip Pullman, on loving the library. [full article here]

Thirdly, there’s the infinite value of browsing. You simply don’t know what you’ll find till you’re in front of a range of shelves full of books. Of course they say you can browse on the internet, but it isn’t really browsing; some system or algorithm has done the selecting for you. Much, much better to stand in front of a shelf of books and simply pick them up and look for yourself. You never know what you’ll find — and that’s exactly the point.

When I was packing all my books recently, I grumbled that I am now beginning to appreciate the weightlessness of digital books. And as I was packing my books into my luggage for Dubai, I considered the compact beauty of a kindle - but only for a minute. Deep down inside, I still prefer the physicality of a book. That's why I love libraries, and why I prefer browsing in a physical bookstore rather than buying online.

I agree with Philip Pullman that the physical act of browsing is an important part of the book experience. All these choices, all these possiblities - all just sitting on the shelves waiting for you. You never know what you will come home with, you never know what may leap at you from the bookshelves.

One of the greatest gift we can offer anyone is access to a good library. I am grateful to my parents for making those weekly Saturday trips to the library when I can growing up. I learned from young that joy of running my fingers down the rows of books, of looking, diving in and exploring, discovering for myself as I open strange books with curious titles.

I take great joy in that freedom of browsing, and choosing for myself, what to read. That liberty is something I have come to take for granted. It upsets me when I hear about how people believe they can and should ban books from libraries. (I just read about how Sarah Palin wanted to ban books from the library when she was mayor in Alaska. The idea that a woman like this might become Vice-President of the United States - it freezes my blood.) It reminds me that freedom to read what you want is a priviledge that can be taken away.

And sometimes, you may have to go to a country where you may not have access to a good English-language library (ie. Dubai). That is when you really start to appreciate the library you have back home, in spite of all its flaws.

Friday, September 05, 2008

'FESS UP FRIDAY | Barry Lopez's

Haven't done this for a while because of my life has been taken over by the Dubai posting. Anyway, found this recently, and I thought it was worth sharing.

In his interview with Book Depository, Robert Macfarlane gave this advice to aspiring writers. It's taken from Barry Lopez's About This Life:

Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, “Tell your daughter three things.” Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and a written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful.

Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means.

Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three that I trust.

"Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar."

This isn't just advice for writing. It's advice for living a life.

MEME | VGT Omnivore’s Hundred

I found this meme at Yogamum's and I had to do it.

Yes, some of you may remember I'm vegetarian. But I'm a vegetarian only for the past 4~5 years (I think. I lost count). Before my salad days, a lot of rubbish went into my mouth.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile - It was on the menu, so I tried. No big deal
6. Black pudding - I am indifferent to it
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari - oh please. it's just sotong where I come from.
12. Pho - it's just glass noodles
13. PB&J sandwich - Yes. It'only Peanut Butter and Jelly
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart - There's no hotdog street carts in Singapore, and why would I travel just to eat hotdogs?
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes - I think I had strawberry and cherry wine before.
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes - Only the imported type.
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras - Again, before I turned vegetarian. Don't tell me it's inhumane, because in my meat-eating days, I had shark's fin soup.
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters - I love them cooked or raw.
29. Baklava - I vaguely remember having them in Turkey, and later back home in a Greek restaurant
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas - I could eat a whole bag of them
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi - I always order it when I'm in an Indian restaurant
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float - A&W used to have them in those big frosted glass mugs. Loved them
36. Cognac with a fat cigar - Nope. I will try it but I don't think anything of it.
37. Clotted Cream Tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O - OMG. I want to try
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects - Those deep-fried crickets you can buy from the streets of Bangkok. They just taste - deep-fried.
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk - Usually from the Indian store
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more - Too expensive
46. Fugu - Okay, never. Only because it's too expensive
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel - From Japanese sushi places. Many times
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut - There is no Krispy Kreme in Singapore!
50. Sea urchin - Yeah. Many times
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone - It's staple for Chinese New Year
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal - That's before they downsized the Big Mac
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV - I think it's illegal here.
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin - I do not eat dirt
64. Currywurst
65. Durian - Hello? I am Singaporean. We eat durians. It is the King of Fruits.
66. Frogs’ legs - I love frog legs. Er - this is before my salad days.
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis - I really want to try haggis. *sigh*
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe - I think it's banned here.
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill - All the flesh I eat are killed with intent.
76. Baijiu - Yes. It's just Chinese wine.
77. Hostess Fruit Pie - I have no idea what it is.
78. Snail - Yes, the buttered kind from French restaurants and the Chinese kind that's cooked in chilli-oil and you suck the bugger out of their shell. I LOVED THEM.
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini - Just cocktail
81. Tom yum - of course. But the best tom yum is of course in Thailand itself
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant - one day, when I have money
85. Kobe beef - Only because it's too expensive.
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse - If I wasn't vegetarian, and if it's affordable, I would eat it.
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee - Only because I haven't looked for it intentionally
100. Snake - Oh yes. We skewered the meat and made satay


I pretty much will eat anything if I can afford it - although these days, as a matter of principle, I am vegetarian. That fact as it stands, has not diminished my curiosity about how the food taste.

Clay and roadkill however, are not food. I'm not sure which is worse - eating clay or roadkill?

Anyone else want to try?

Thursday, September 04, 2008


The ticket has been booked. I fly out to Dubai this month on the 15th. That's 11 days from now.

More Farewells

I was checking on the specifics of the luggage allowance this afternoon and learnt that from Singapore to Dubai, the airline only allows 2 pieces of check-in luggage not exceeding 20 kilograms. I weighed the backpack that I'm going to check-in, and the weighing scale shows 19.2 kilograms. I hope that scale is accurate, because excess luggage is going to cost me approximately USD 22.00 per kilogram.

I had some painkillers with my backpack earlier. While reading up on Dubai on the internet, I learnt that codeine is a prohibited drug in Dubai unless with a prescription. I can't find the doctor's prescription for my codeine among my files. It might have been discarded or packed into one of my boxes. Just in case, I took the painkillers out of my backpack.

The farewells are getting harder. A good friend told me this afternoon that she might not be around to see me off. Her uncle is dying (fourth stage of cancer) and she had to fly home to Indonesia as soon as possible. I didn't know how to respond to that, because it means this week might be the last time we see each other for a long time.

I wanted to hug her, but I didn't. I may regret that one day.

My current contract is for a year, with a renewable option. So it could be more than one year before I return.

I am asking myself why I chose to leave.

I had a long conversation with a colleague this afternoon about how leadership in an organisation affects the company culture. We talked about how people spent so much time engaged in office politics, trying to protect their petty interest. In the process they lose sight of the bigger picture. It happens in many organisations, and the company suffers because the negative influences of these politickers often spread like black ooze to other members of the organisation.

Over the past few years, I feel myself growing more disillusioned and indifferent to my job. While I complain about my former manager and her unadmirable traits, I have enough self-awareness to see how I have picked up these similar negative traits. I used to be more passionate about my job. I used to be a fighter. Now fear of office politics made me passive aggressive on the job. What happened to me?

I need to get out.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

BOOK | Fool the World

I read the Pixies biography, Fool the World a while back. Instead of a straight narrative, the authors chose to tell the story through a series of interviews with the bandmembers and the people who knew them. The result is a more intimate approach, though it feels like a documentary.

The Pixies was an alternative music band that gained a cult following in the 1980s. They broke up later because of built-up tension and resentment between the members, or more specifically between frontman Charles Thompson IV alias Black Francis, and bassist/vocalist, Kim Deal.

While reading the book, I was reminded of the one constant in life: Change. All bands eventually break up - although some of them just allowed death to to do the breaking up for them. For more than a decade after the Pixies disbanded the question kept coming up: are they going to get back together? Black Francis by then was on his solo career as Frank Black. For years he refused to play Pixies songs during his performances, even though that's what ta lot of the fans wanted to hear. Kim Deal went on to become the lead singer and guitarist for The Breeders and later the Amps. According to the book, she earns more from The Breeders' highly successful single, "Cannonball" than what she got from the Pixies albums. Joey Santiago, the lead guitarist does music for movies, and Dave Lovering later became a magician of a sort. The bandmembers moved on.

The Pixies' music didn't fade into oblivion though. Over the years they earned legion of fans who should have been too young to remember their music. The Pixies was revolutionary when they released their first album in 1987. They were considered "alternative" because they didn't sound like everyone else. They were more popular in the UK than in the US. It took more than ten years before the music scene finally caught up with them. Among their fans were Kurt Cobain, Shirley Manson, and PJ Harvey.

Nothing lasts forever, so in 1992, Black Francis faxed an announcement that the band broke up. Nothing lasts forever, so in 2004, the Pixies reunited for a sold-out tour.

Change means nothing will stay the same. It means loss and separation is inevitable. Yet we shouldn't forget that the other side to change is the possibilities. Forgiveness, reconciliation and healing is possible because things do change.

As a fan I've read some of the stories behind the band, how Charles Thompson placed an ad in the papers for a female band member, and Kim Deal was the only one that showed up. What I did not know was when Deal turned up, she asked them to play something for her - as though she was auditioning them. Right away you can tell Kim Deal wasn't going to be the token female in the band. Black Francis was the songwriter, the lead singer, but Kim Deal was the one winning the adoration of the fans. (Full disclosure: I am a Kim Deal fan, and I have all CDs that Kim Deal did with the Breeders. Just so you know I take Kim Deal's coolness as a given.)

The story of the Pixies reads like a miracle. By sheer chance, a handful of talented people came together and created something powerful and larger than them. In the 80s, the Pixies was just about the music. They eschewed the band uniform. They performed in normal clothes. In faxct, back in those days, Kim Deal worked in a doctor's office, so she would perform in her work clothes: low heels, white shirt, black skirt, her hair all done up properly. She was out of place in a club where the crowd wore mohawks - and she was the coolest person in the room. She redefined cool, just as the Pixies music made you reconsider what music should sound like.

Fool the World was a joy to read, especially if you have the Pixies plugged in on your iPod.

In this video of the Pixies performing "Gigantic" back in 1988, you can see they are really just ordinary people doing a show in sweaty old T-shirts.

Here's the Pixies reunited (I think it's 2004), performing "Monkey Gone to Heaven" on the David Letterman Show. The guys are all bald and some of the band members have put on a bit of weight. But I still love the way Kim Deal just smiles that big, big smile of hers. She still is the heartbreaker in the band.

Here's a final video of one of my Pixies favourite, "Debaser":

Maybe the moral of the Pixies story is that sometimes we need to go away long enough for people to learn to appreciate us. :)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Glimpses of My Room Now

Remember this picture from December 2007? Here's the updated version:

Date: 2nd September 2008

Location: My room.

Where once stood the looming bookshelves of doom, now there is a wide blue space:

More blue space:

A wall of 34 boxes - and my backpack in the right foreground:

Meet Herodotus. He's the little guy in the green jacket. You will be seeing more of him soon:

Really - who wouldn't want his picture taken with Angelina Jolie? ;)

Monday, September 01, 2008

40 Boxes Later

[Cross-posted at A Stranger in a Strange Land]

Forty boxes and the bulk of packing up my life is pretty much done. I just have some odds and ends around the room that I will tidy up soon. (There was a brief absurd moment on Friday when I was heading for the shower, only to realise I've packed all my clean underwears into my luggage for Dubai. D'oh)

The books that are going homeless will be dumped closer to my departure. I have dismantled the bookshelves, and the room looks more spacious now without the looming bookshelves of doom.

My old pair of work-shoes look a little worn-out, so I bought a new pair of shoes for work this afternoon. Perhaps I felt that I needed new shoes to symbolize the beginning of a new journey. The Chinese are big on symbolism, and I guess I am more Chinese than I would admit.

I report to work tomorrow officially as a member of the Dubai project. The hassle is having to leave some work-clothes out of the luggage, because I still need to show up for work for the next two weeks or so. Right now I just want to pack everything and just go.

I have decided on the books I will bring over to Dubai. Or rather, the baggage allowance has decided matters for me. I will not be shipping any personal items over at all because of the cost involved. So for a year I will be living out of my backpack. Whatever I need along the way, I'm sure I will find it in Dubai. Otherwise, I believe I will just make do.

My room looks so spacious right now, it's unreal. I have no bookshelves, no desk, no chair, no bed. There is only the wardrobe, the 40 boxes, my mattress, the books to be trashed, and some personal items on the floor. I am typing this post right now with my laptop on a stool. My alarm clock is sitting on a pile of books.

This feels so unreal.