Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sidney Sheldon Is Dead

Swinging by Imani's blog earlier today, I came across the news that Sidney Sheldon passed away. It was the kind of news you just had to share with your colleagues. It was hilarious the kind of response that you get from news like this. All the confessions of trashy readings of your younger days coming to light. And people started to share the plotlines of their favourite Sidney Sheldon novels.

And of course, some of us actually thought he was dead a long time ago.

One of us only found out last year that Sidney was a he.

Trashy, sensational - but utterly enjoyable. Sidney Sheldon knew his readership and he gave them what they wanted. So he wrote to entertain and hs books are hardly high art. But he gave pleasure, did he not?

Goodbye Sidney. You lived till a good age of 89 and you were VERY rich. I have only read one of your books. It was If Tomorrow Comes, and it was an enjoyable spin on a resourceful woman's tale of revenge and finding redemption through love. You knew how to write those twists in the plot.

Original news via.

BOOKS | Divisadero

I hijacked the proof-copy of Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Divisadero, from my colleague. I love The English Patient - and I am in love with Ondaatje's lyrical prose. I have abandoned all other readings and is focusing on Divisadero.

If you are interested, the book will be released in May 2007 for the US market, and September 2007 for the UK.

From Divisadero:

When I come to lie in your arms, you sometimes ask me in which historical moment do I wish to exist. And I will say Paris, the week Colette died. . . . Paris, August 3rd, 1954. In a few days, at her state funeral, a thousand lilies will be placed by her grave, and I want to be there, walking that avenue of wet lime trees until I stand beneath the second-floor apartment that beloned to her in the Palais-Royal. The history of people like her fills my heart. She was a writer who remarked that her only virtue was self-doubt. (A day or two before she died, they say Colette was visited by Jean Genet, who stole nothing. Ah, the grace of the great thief . . .)

'We have art,' Nietzsche said, 'so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.' The raw truth of an incident never ends, and the story of Coop and the terrain of my sister's life are endless to me. They are the sudden possibility every time I pick up the telephone when it rings some late hour after midnight, and I wait for his voice, or the deep breath before Claire will announce herself.

For I have taken myself away from who I was with them, and what I used to be. When my name was Anna.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BOOKS | From the Stacks Winter Challenge

30th January 2007
UPDATE: End of the challenge and I only read 2 out of the 5 titles I wanted. Damn.


From the Stacks Winter Challenge

Starting From 1st November 2006 ~ 30th January 2007

What the heck. I've been doing the lonewolf thing too long. So, decided to put myself out and actually join something. This morning I signed up for the From the Stacks Winter Challenge. It seems - do-able.

From Overdue Books, these are the rules:

So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The 5 books I've chosen for the challenge:

1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
2. The Names of Things: Life, Language, and Beginnings in the Egyptian Desert by Susan Brind Morrow
3. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
4. Colette: Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman
5. Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic

Let us begin!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Colette | Birthday

Colette caricature

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette
aka: Colette
Born: January 28, 1873
Died: August 3, 1954

Friday, January 26, 2007

Ryszard Kapuscinski Obituary

The Guardian has an obituary out for Ryszard Kapuscinski.

I have to admit, he's always been just one of those writers at the back of my mind. You're aware of his reputation as a literary journalist, but you just never get around to reading his books. I was actually curious about his latest title, Travels with Herodotus, for the Herodotus angle. The book is due out later this year, but now that the author's dead, I am compelled to read the book for Kapuscinski.

From the obituary, Kapuscinski appears to be one of those "supermen" that gave up creature comforts and really went out to explore, to learn and to tell about it. His was travel and writing as social conscience and mission:

Kapuscinksi described his own work as "literary reportage". And, although he was personally a modest man, he believed in its importance for understanding the world. "Without trying to enter other ways of looking, perceiving, describing, we won't understand anything of the world." The European mind, he believed, was often too lazy to make the intellectual effort to see and understand the real world, dominated by the complex problems of poverty, and far away from the manipulated world of television.

It is a little sad that we only get around to picking up someone's works after they die. After all these years, I've finally picked up Octavia E. Butler after all the obituaries on her.

But I guess that's what obituaries do - to give some neglected or unsung heroes the credit that they are due. I have a friend who used to (actually, I believe she still does) read a lot of obituaries from The Economist. She is most convincing on the merits of a well-written obituary allows you a picture of an extraordinary life that you might never have known. Or, sometimes it's a glimpse into a fuller life lived by the deceased beyond what we know.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mary Oliver | Praying

I thought this poem makes a great bookend to "After Her Death."


It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver

I admit to being somewhat irreligious - an experience that came out of an antagonistic childhood spent in a mission school. Yet paradoxically, for the greater part of my life, I have sought out the spiritual, because while I am cynical about institutionalised religions, I believe, because I have felt it in my life - a presence of the divine in the world.

And I believe in prayer, in all the different ways people do it.

Mary Oliver | After Her Death

After Her Death

I am trying to find the lesson
For tomorrow. Matthew something.
Which lectionary? I have not
forgotten the Way, but, a little,
the way to the Way. The trees keep whispering
peace, peace, and the birds
in the shallows are full of the
bodies of small fish and are
content. They open their wings
so easily, and fly. So. It is still

             I open the book
which the strange, difficult, beautiful church
has given me. To Matthew. Anywhere.

~ Mary Oliver

"After Her Death" is one of the poems from Mary Oliver's latest collection, Thirst. In 2005 Mary Oliver was bereaved of her partner of more than forty years, and Thirst is an exploration of her process of deep mourning, and coming through the dark gates to faith.

While in most of her previous poems, Oliver locates the divine in the natural world and implicitly the divine as all-compassing - in Thirst she moves explicitly towards God. "After Her Death" is one of the poems of illustrating this new-found faith. Yet one has the sense it is a trying process for her, as even now she finds the church "strange, difficult" - yet still "beautiful" in spite of it. The poet has not abandoned her earlier connection to the breath and pulse of the natural world - the trees communicate their quiet peace, and all around she is aware of the flight and freedom of birds, the tactile physicalily of birds feeding on fish, and content in the natural cycle of life.

In a process of deep loss the poet has journeyed and through wisdom and a supple spirit - in spite of her advance age (Mary Oliver is in her 70s, I believe) - to come to a new sense of purpose and self.

It is an incredible thing. As we grow older, we want to hold on to constant things. Loss becomes harder. I wonder how I could bear to lose someone I have loved for forty years, and know through this loss that I would soon follow in death - and yet still surrender so completely to life as it is. It is one of the hardest thing in the world. Yet Mary Oliver seems to come to faith and her lessons with a modesty, a humility. Starting her lesson with the Book of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament.

I wonder if I could take it all so well.

24th January | Al Dente

For you, born on this date 30 years ago, whom last I heard was dating an Italian.

Ironic, because I was the one that love pasta.


Pasta should be cooked in plenty of fast-boiling, salted water. Biling water “seals” the pasta and allows it to move freely and swell. A bit of olive oil added to the water helps prevent sticking. Timing should begin only when the water returns to the boil, and the pot should be uncovered. Do not break the long strands but push them slowly in as they soften and bend.

Test the pasta as it cooks—don’t merely time it. The time can vary usually eight to ten minutes for dry pasta and about three for fresh. Drain it when it is still a trifle undercooked or al dente.

The business of al dente or "bitey." Shows up in every knowledgeable text. It is the way Italians eat it—or so they say. Since pasta continues to cook after it has been drained and all the way to the mouth, the advice often given is to stop its cooking in the water when it is just soft enough to be bitten through without its snapping, very “bitey” indeed. Once you’re accustomed to pasta being somewhat stiff and not soggy, you are told, you will want it no other way. Perhaps this is true, though in Italy you will find it often served long past al dente, and it is also true that elsewhere it is comonly overcooked to an unpleasant softness.

Taken from Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days, by James & Kay Salter

Too Many Turkey Guides

I'm taking a step back and looking at all the travel guides I have stocked up for this Turkey trip:

  1. Let's Go Turkey
  2. Rough Guide Turkey
  3. Lonely Planet Turkey
  4. DK Istanbul
  5. Frommer's Turkey
  6. Time Out Istanbul

While there's nothing wrong with a bit of preparation reading — even I can tell it's excessive. STOP. NOW.

A big part of me is still unable to take a spontaneous approach to travel. The Type-A control-freak in me erupts to the surface like a horrendous rash. The reading and research is a method of controlling the situation — through the collection of information. It's an approach that has carried me through life — but one cannot live through books. One day you realise you have to put the book down and actually learn through experience.

The Chinese has a saying, "To read 10,000 books, to travel 10,000 miles." While the Chinese respects academic learning, they are also aware of how one needs to balance book learning with practical life experience. They advocate travel as the ultimate life education.

I did not start to travel regularly until I was in my mid-twenties. While I was in school, I told myself I will travel when I started working and have a disposable income. Then I started work and suddenly there is a whole list of reasons why I could not travel: work commitment, lack of savings, health, family commitments — the "buts" I call them, the excuses for all the things I wanted to do but never tried. Really, I was afraid to move out of my comfort zone. Even unhappiness can be a safe place, because the pain of it is at least something known, and ironically easier than the mystery of change.

Perhaps it was an on-set of a Quarterlife Crisis, but one day I looked at my life and I did not like what I find; I was past 25, very little savings, I hate my job, a whole string of broken relationships behind me and I have never been anywhere. I wanted to change it. In between I tried many other things, some worked, some not so much. But I decided I wanted to travel more.

The idea of travel, for me, is adventure. To venture, to take yourself out of the comfort zone and cast yourself into an unfamiliar space. You start to pay more attention to your surroundings, you re-learn the navigational skills to get, the quiet, introvert self finds the desperate courage to approach total strangers for help — most of all, you learn to appreciate the kindness of strangers.

Turkey promises all these — an alien culture where the language is unknown to us. It will be an adventure. I am terribly insecure about my trip to Turkey; I suspect this adventure will involve a whole lot of discomfort and disagreement — my friend and I will argue on the way, step on each other's toes — but I must try.

Right now though, I just hope I don't get us lost in some dark, sleazy corner of Istanbul where we will be murdered, raped and robbed.

Let's see if I can take this trip in the right mind-set: a middle path between caution and spontaneity.

I think I'll start by returning some of the travel guides to the library.

Monday, January 22, 2007

According to Survey, Malaysians Read Average 5 Books Last Year

From The Star:

The Government is targeting to have Malaysians read at least 10 books yearly from 2010.

According to a survey, Malaysians only read an average of five books last year, Culture, Arts and Heritage Deputy Minister Datuk Wong Kam Hoong said in Penang yesterday.

Obvious jokes aside, 10 books a year is pathetic. What do they do, these people who do not read?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Turkey Readings

View of Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

[Updates: 22 January 2007]
We are set for late March departure for Istanbul. Currently looking for a good digital camera so that I can upload the pretty pictures for this blog. Istanbul is a city that has filled my imagination for many years. Now that I am really going to visit the old city, it's a little unreal.

Currently reading a proofcopy of Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul.


I'll be putting most of my readings on hold for the moment as I am in the process of researching and planning a trip to Istanbul. I'll probably be reading a lot of travel guides instead, although I may read some Turkish literature to get in the mood. If I do find something interesting to share, I'll post it here.

Meanwhile, If anyone has any advice or recommendations (budget, please. I'm poor) for travelling in Istanbul, please feel free to drop it in the comment.

My Turkish Reading List:

  1. DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Istanbul
  2. Lonely Planet Turkey
  3. Let's Go Turkey
  4. Imperial Istanbul: A Traveller's Guide by Jane Taylor
  5. Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga
  6. The Lycian Shore by Freya Stark
  7. Death In Troy by Bilge Karasu
  8. The Garden of Departed Cats by Bilge Karasu
  9. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
  10. The Gaze by Elif Shafak
  11. The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
  12. Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich
  13. Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich
  14. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich
  15. Istanbul: The Imperial City by John Freely
  16. Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages by Michael Angold
  17. Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire by Jason Goodwin
  18. The Janissary Tree: A Novel by Jason Goodwin
  19. Memed, My Hawk by Yasar Kemal
  20. Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk the course of my life, I seem to have accumulated a number of books on the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Some I've read, some I have not. I'll just list them anyway, in case anyone is interested.

LIFE | Musing On Mortality and Oddly on a Turkey Trip

A friend sent me an article from the New York Times recently. It was on a new book by a surgeon, Pauline W. Chen - Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality.

My initial reaction was a baffled head-scratching. I wondered why my friend felt it was something relevant to me, since I have not been in contact with death recently. Perhaps in an introspective moment she felt it was interesting and she just decided to share. On further examination, it struck me how a question of mortality felt irrelevant then - and perhaps even a little offensive. If anything is certain, it is that I will die. Like many people, death is not an idea I am comfortable with.

The question of mortality reminds me of something that happened a while back: soon after the 2005 Asian Tsunami, the plight of the tsunami victims flooded the media. A friend was overwhelmed by the suffering and she asked me what does Buddha have to say about this kind of suffering and death? At that time I recall the parable of the mustard seed.

In the parable, Kisa Gotami had an only son who died. She went insane with grief and went around with the boy's body asking for help to save her son. Out of pity, someone told her to seek out the Buddha.

Kisa Gotami repaired to the Buddha and cried: "Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy." The Buddha answered: "I want a handful of mustard-seed." And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added: "The mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend." Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said: "Here is mustard-seed; take it!" But when she asked Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?" They answered her: "Alas the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief." And there was no house but some beloved one had died in it.

Kisa Gotami could find no household that have not known death. Finally, weary and in despair she stopped her search for the mustard seed. And a realisation came to her that death is the ultimate fate of everyone, and she had been foolish and selfish in wanting to undo the death of her son. So she buried the boy, and went back to the Buddha where she found refuge in the Dharma.

But of course, I did not tell my friend this story. It was too long and she did not seem ready for a long tale.

The article on the Final Exam makes me think about how we view death now as something to be defied and delayed. Medicine is the explicit science of cheating death and it is no wonder that doctors are often unprepared for deaths.

... Doctors, like everyone else, avoid the topic. Institutionally, discussions of death are limited to formal inquiries known as morbidity and mortality conferences, in which surgeons analyze recent deaths on the operating table in the hope of learning from them.

Outside the conferences, death is the unwelcome, awkward visitor who stops conversation. Dr. Chen cites a survey showing that one-quarter of oncologists failed to tell their patients that they were suffering from an incurable disease. Nearly half of the doctors in another study rated themselves as “poor” or “fair” in breaking bad news to their patients. Often, with several specialists and sub-specialists assigned to a dying patient, each doctor waits for the other to provide unwelcome information.

And yet the story of the mustard seed reminds us that it is awareness of death that we need to bring us to a realisation of our fragile state of existence. Life is short and what we do now matters. Awareness of death is not morbid or disrespectful of life. It is knowing that we will eventually depart from this life that makes it important to live whatever time we have that much fiercer.

The leave for my Turkey holiday has been approved by my Department Manager (Yay!). News in the office travels fast and one colleague came up to me, envious of my pending trip. She too had read Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul and desires to journey to the mystical city of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.

I asked her why don't she plan for a holiday too? We are doing the Turkey adventure on impulse afterall, and I can share my research with her.

"But it's difficult," she laments.

It's always the "buts" that paralyse us. We want to do so many things in our lives, but there's always some reasons why we're not doing it: the "buts" I call it.

But what if you know you are going to die tomorrow? Would these "buts" seem as important? Or would you just regret all that things you did not do?

The most important thought of all: memento mori. I believe we will all live our lives differently, more fully if we remember that we are on borrowed time.

Friday, January 19, 2007

TURKISH LIT | The City In Crimson Cloak

I was scouring cyberspace for Turkish related books and I found a soon to be published English translation of a modern Turkish author, Asli Erdogan. Her novel, The City in Crimson Cloak is due for release in June 2007, published by Soft Skull Press.

Looks interesting.

[19/01/2007] I'm adding the link to The City in Crimson. In case you want to reserve it in your Amazon cart or something.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

On Istanbul

Found this: - searching this blog to find out if they have anything to teach me about the public transport in Istanbul...

...where I found this website for the Istanbul public transport:

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Turkey Updates

We've booked the flight to Turkey. So we're set.

We managed to get a slightly cheaper flight that stops over in Bahrain. I have no idea what's in Bahrain.

Turkey holds a mystical allure for many people. In my department alone, there are 3 people (including me) who wants to travel to Turkey. So right now we're sharing information on travel agents, ticket prices, which is a more user-friendly travel guide etc etc.

Now I just need to figure out how the public transport system works in Istanbul and beyond. Since I'm the first to go, it's like I'm USS Enterprise, "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

(In an irrelevant aside: Which Star Trek captain would I be? I would rather be Captain Jonathan Archer aka Scott Bakula. If not, I want to be T'Pol aka Jolene Blalock.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Beckett and the Bicarbonate of Soda

From Life Is Meals:

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, after a night of drinking in Paris in the 1960s, ended up at Les Halles at 4 a.m. for onion soup. Pinter fell asleep at the table, exhausted and suffering from stomache cramps. He woke to find Beckett had scoured the town and come back with bicarbonate of soda. "It was then I knew," Pinter wrote, "that this was a man who understood everything about the human condition."

Jung-Meyer-Briggs Personality Test

Got this from Jenclair's blog. She posted the Jung-Meyer-Briggs test. I took it, and it seems I rate as ISFJ: Introverted Sensing Feeling Judging

ISFJ type description by D.Keirsey :

"Their quietness ought really to be seen as an expression, not of coldness, but of their sincerity and seriousness of purpose."

ISFJ type description by J. Butt and M.M. Heiss :
"One ISFJ trait that is easily misunderstood by those who haven't known them long is that they are often unable to either hide or articulate any distress they may be feeling. For instance, an ISFJ child may be reproved for "sulking," the actual cause of which is a combination of physical illness plus misguided "good manners." An adult ISFJ may drive a (later ashamed) friend or SO into a fit of temper over the ISFJ's unexplained moodiness, only afterwards to explain about a death in the family they "didn't want to burden anyone with." Those close to ISFJs should learn to watch for the warning signs in these situations and take the initiative themselves to uncover the problem."

Monday, January 15, 2007

BOOKS | About Alice

I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking last year. As Joan Didion grieved and mourned her husband, she began reacting poorly to food. In fact, the thought of food made her want to throw up. It was here that the kindness of friends revealed itself. In particular, she wrote:

I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for the first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.

I thought then: this friend shows extraordinary sensitivity and empathy. I thought this friend must have lost someone important in his/her life - and understood. I wondered who this friend was, and was a little disappointed it was never revealed in the book.

Compassion of this sort is too precious to be taken for granted these days. Too often we are too caught up with our own lives, and we end up being less useful to our friends than we would like to. I thought: if it happened to me, I would remember the friend who brought me congee very dearly. We need more of these souls in our lives.

As it happens, one day while reading the Shambhala Sun magazine, I found out this kind friend was Calvin Trillin.

It turns out I was not too wrong in my assumptions. Calvin Trillin lost his wife, in September 2001. He too, had known the loss and grief of a partner's death. In fact, his new book is a tribute to his late wife, Alice. I thought Calvin Trillin must have been a loving man.

Recently Christian Science Monitor has a review of Calvin Trillin's About Alice. (Do not ask me why I read Christian Science Monitor. I am not against Jesus - I just have issues against some of his followers.)

About Alice

It was a nice write-up, the kind that makes me curious and send me into the bookstores for the book. The review tells you, "Anyone who wants to know what it might be like to love the same person for most of a lifetime has only to pick up this little book to find out." In his articles, Calvin Trillin usually sets himself as the goofy husband, and Alice as the voice of reason and moderation. But Alice Trillin is also beautiful, passionate and loving - almost larger than life. It makes me wonder about the woman who inspires such love and devotion in a man. As Calvin Trillin declares,

"I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

Who is this Alice?

WTF | Hellboy and Abe Sapien Toys


What's for breakfast

Good Monday morning. What's going to happen exciting today?

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,"
said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"
"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"
"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. "It's the same thing," he said.

— A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Friday, January 12, 2007

RUSSIAN Lit | Ice by

Now, I'm a sucker for things Russian. So I had to post this.

Over at Conversational Reading, they highlighted a new Russian satire, Ice, by Vladimir Sorokin. It's published by the good people at NYRB. (New York Review of Books keeps finding these interesting things to publish, don't they?)

Jon Fasman reviewed it for the LA Times, and claims it "provides a head-scratching pleasure and deceptive quickness similar to that found in the novels of Haruki Murakami."

The Publisher Weekly describes it as " a Master and Margarita for the age of Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

Russian, Haruki Murakami, Master and Margarita and Buffy. They have my curiosity piqued.

BOOKS | Ma Jian

Stick Out Your Tongue
By Ma Jian
[Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew]
[Chinese Literature]

I first learnt of Ma Jian when Red Dust came out in its English translation several years back. Red Dust is the travel memoir of Ma Jian's vagabonding across China in the 1980s. In those days, he kept his hair long, read translations of Western literature, wrote, painted, had late-night parties with his bohemian friends where they played pop music from their cassette recorders through the night. Ma Jian is the typical disillusioned romantic of post-Mao China — discontented with the emptiness of the Communist society, wanting more — yet powerless. For his views and behaviour, he was suspended from his work unit — pending investigation by the authorities. In a state of existentialist despair, he packed his bag (along with a copy of Walt Whitman) and made a journey on foot to the outer reaches of China. He lived among the indigenous Chinese tribes and ventured into the wildest regions of Tibet. He had hoped Tibet could provide him with a deeper insight into the Buddhist faith in the midst of the inhuman society he was living in. Ma Jian later returned to Beijing spiritually exhausted; the trip brought him not the peace he desired, but knowledge of a different kind. He locked himself up in his one-room shack and wrote feverishly. Stick Out Your Tongue was the first book that came out of his experience. He wrote:

Through the stories that took shape, I wanted to express my confusion and bewilderment, my sympathy for the marginalised and dispossessed, my frustration with blind faith, and my distress at the losses we incur on the march to so-called 'civilisation'. I wanted to write about Tibet as I had experienced it, as both a reality and a state of mind. I let my guard down and wrote without thought of what the repercussions might be.

The subject matter of Stick Out Your Tongue led the Mainland Chinese government to denounce him, and the book was subsequently banned in 1987 as a work of pornography and as an example of bourgeois liberalism. (This is probably why I could not locate a Chinese version of the book.) The editor of his book was sacked and many of his friends were brought in for questioning. Thankfully by that time Ma Jian was living in Hong Kong. His friends advised him to stay in Hong Kong — he risked imprisonment should he return to Beijing.

So, is Stick Out Your Tongue an accurate portrayal of Tibetan life? I wouldn't know. Perhaps like Marco Polo in Invisible Cities, all the tales of the fantastic cities are really about Venice — and Ma Jian is really writing about the China that exiled him.

Ma Jian wrote from the truth of what he felt, and that came from a place of disillusion and despair that was trying to make sense of what he went through. Perhaps this explains the gothic nature of his stories. Stick Out Your Tongue will shatter your picture-perfect vision of an idyllic Tibet with the rolling pastures and peace-loving natives.

In one story, a Chinese writer travelling through Tibet witnesses the sky burial of a woman who had died in childbirth. She was shared as a wife between two brothers. In another story, the narrator shares a tent with a Tibetan man, who later reveals how he had slept with his mother when he was sixteen, and conceived a daughter with her. Later he sinned with the daughter, who then ran away. He has sold his entire herd of yaks and sheep, donated the proceeds to a monastery and was on his way to Gangdise Mountains to pray, and to wash his sins away in Lake Mansarobar. Then there is the story of a ritual cup made from human skull that the narrator had bought on his travels. The skull belongs to a female Living Buddha who died during her initiation.

The stories are disturbing, violent, perverse and mystifying in spite of it all. Ma Jian has included an Afterword to this translation. In it, he wrote:

In the West, I have met many people who share the same romantic vision of Tibet that I held before I visited the country. The need to believe in an earthly paradise, a hidden utopia where men live in peace and harmony, seems to run deep among those who are discontented with the modern world. Westerners idealise Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny them their humanity.

I visited Tibet last year and I returned with mixed feelings. I had read up on the country before I left, and I thought I had "educated" myself against the over-idealisation of the country. A friend once remarked with a longing in her voice, that Tibet was a beautiful pacificist country — because of the Buddhist culture permeating Tibetan life, and that was why it could not resist the Chinese invasion. At that time I had been disdainful of her romantic misconception about Tibet, and had corrected her, stating that like most countries that fell to foreign aggression, the fall of Tibet was due to the political incompetence of her leaders.

Yet we all hold our illusions in different ways, and some more subtle and hidden than others. I had my own romanticised Tibet in my mind's eye, only I was not yet aware of it then. A friend asked me, if I have gained any insights after my Tibetan travels. I did not really know how to answer her. I saw poverty, corruption and a savageness I was unprepared for. We were locked in a temple by an arrogant old man because we would not pay him when he demanded tips. I saw wolf-like cunning in the eyes of young boys half my age and I was afraid of them.

Yet in the midst of all these I would wake up in the morning in Lhasa, and see pilgrims who had travelled by foot all the way from the remote regions of Tibet to visit the Potala Palace and the sacred temples. These pilgrims are all around, spinning their prayer wheel, fingering their mala, making their offerings of yak butter into the burning lamps. They have travelled so far, just for their faith, and it was impressive.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

MUSIC | Rachael Yamagata Concert

Rachael Yamagata's coming to town!

She's a good mix of Norah Jones, Sarah McLachlan and Fiona Apple - all singers I adore. There's something beautiful about her smoky vocals belting out those introspective love ballads - the broken-hearted girl with the soft, sweet melody. But don't allow the jaded part of you to miss out on this great singer. She's here to stay.

I am SO booked for the Rachael Yamagata concert this March. YAY!


Or sample "Worn Me Down":

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

YOGA | Headstands

I've been trying to keep up a 5~6 times a week schedule for my yoga practice -- call it a New Year resolution if you may. There are times when I feel really tired, and I skip a few classes in a row. But on the whole, I've managed to maintain the practice.

But there are only 24 hours in one day, so some things have to give; I'm reading less these days. And my social life -- give me sufficient notice, and I'll try to work around my yoga schedule for appointments. Probably the only way I can find time to do everything I want is to quit my job. Then I'll just end up destitute and starving. The world is poorly made.

Salamba Sirsasana (Supported Headstand)

A report on my progress: I've now managed to come up to a Supported Headstand for a few seconds -- unassisted. I've also noticed a difference between practicing against a wall (which stops me from falling backwards), and practicing in the middle of the room. The practice in the middle of the class always feels less successful, as though my body don't work as well when I don't have the wall for a safety net. This is obviously psychological forces at work.

It seems to me, the greatest obstacle to the headstand is not strength or balance -- it is fear. Ive seen students in class who are strong in their practice -- stronger than me -- but when it comes to going up in headstands, they retreat. I wish they could just try it, for once. Maybe with assistance. Maybe they will realise it's not going to break their neck. Maybe the worst thing that will happen to them is to fall. You fall. Then you get up and try again. Sometimes, the falling is the fun part.

But all things in their own time. I'm being a busybody

Meanwhile, I am running head-first into headstands. The first time I tried it in class -- without assistance mind you, my teacher came running, in case I hurt myself. (This is the story of my mother when I was growing up -- forever panicking, running after me before I try something that will hurt myself.)

She helped me up and I came out of the assisted headstand with a wide, shit-eating grin on my face. I love the thrill of going up, even if it's for a brief few seconds.

I know I'm not braver than the other students. But I am more impulsive and foolhardy. Sometimes I move too fast to think about being afraid. It's amazing how stupidity can often be mistaken for courage. Or how fear is often just a result of the mind.

Meanwhile, need to work on the headstands more.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

This Coffee Tastes Like Rat Shit

Ratty: I POOP on your coffee!

I coffee drinker. I read this. I cannot deal. :(

From The Mauritius Command:

'... This coffee has a damned odd taste.'

'This I attribute to the excrement of rats. Rats have eaten our entire stock; and I take the present brew to be a mixture of the scrapings at the bottom of the sack.'

'I thought it had a familiar tang,' said Jack. 'Killick, you may tell Mr Seymour, with my compliments, that you are to have a boat. And if you don't find at least a stone of beans among the squadron, you need not come back...'

Patrick O'Brian is wonderful in his vivid depiction of life on a British man-of-war. But he is also a naughty, naughty man, most apparent in these little scenes that serve no other purpose than to make you chuckle at his characters' expense.

Portrait of L'Amazone

Natalie in Fiur Cape by Alice Pike Barney

L'Amazone — Natalie Clifford Barney. She was only 19 or 20 years of age when this portrait was done. Note the self-possession she exudes in this painting.

"We have been called the Amazon, but surely our great adventure is with life, not death."

~ Natalie Barney

Monday, January 08, 2007

Colette | Self Support

Still reading Judith Thurman's biography on Colette. This looks like something for the notebook:

Colette was not the first woman of the century to work out, but she was one of the first amateurs. She had just turned thirty, and she had a morbid fear of succumbing to the matronly flaccidity that was the fate of the average middle-aged woman of that era. In the process of becoming fit, she discovered that exercise strengthens one's morale. … Colette had understod, precociously, that the true beauty of a woman's muscles is identical with their purpose, and that's self-support.

~ From Secrets of the Flesh, pp132-133

Ladies, please go exercise. Or do yoga.

Long Plotless Genji

I was planning my 100 Books To Read for 2007 last year, and The Tale of Genji came up as a possible book to aim for my 2007 reading. I'm curious about the Japanese classic, but hesitant about taking the plunge.

So, I asked a few people I know how they feel about the book. Big Bird (because she is tall, and because her personality reminds me of a yellow canary) wrote the funniest description of Genji I've ever read. I asked if I could post it, she said okay, and I proceeded to bury it among my emails.

Thankfully, I found it again recently.

"...unless you don't mind long, plotless, but intricate novels about romantic love with plenty of languishing and a great emphasis on taste, delicacy, beauty and sadness, I fear the geeky attractions of Genji will wear thin after a while. It's not a difficult read, but it's not exactly a book you gallop through. Or even stride through. Or trudge. Or stroll. You ramble. Ideally you flit around and stop once in a while to wrap yourself round a tree."

Sunday, January 07, 2007


Eileen Chang

The NYRB published the English translation of some of Eileen Chang's works recently. The collection, Love in a Fallen City, makes available for the first time, her Chinese works to the English readership.

As far as I know, the only other Eileen Chang books available to English readers are the three anti-Communist propaganda novels written by Chang in English, The Rice Sprout Song and Naked Earth, and The Rouge of the North.

A passionate, complicated woman, Eileen Chang was known as something of an eccentric in her time. She grew more reclusive in her latter years, and was found in her Los Angeles apartment after being dead for some time. But she is still regarded as one of the grand dame of modern Chinese Literature today. It is a pity that she is so little known outside of the Chinese readership. And kudos to NYRB for publishing this collection. Love in a Fallen City is gaining good publicity through the blogsphere, and I find it encouraging. I would like to see more people reading Eileen Chang than some other writers that I will not name here.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine was sweet enough to send me something by Eileen Chang that she found struck a chord. I'm not a professional translator, so I shall try not to butcher the original prose too much.

The story is entitled "Love" - it tells of a pretty young girl who was standing at a door one day. The young man next door saw her; he had never spoken to her before. He approaches, and he just said to her, "Oh, you are here too?" She said nothing, and he had nothing more to say. They stood still for a while, and then they went their ways.

And that was it.

Later the pretty young girl was sold as a bride faraway from her home village. She was later resold several times. She suffered through the years. When she was old, she often recalls that moment, at the door, under the tree, with the young man.

Among the thousands of people that crossed in our lives, across the wilderness of time, we meet someone. Not earlier. Not later. Just in time. And when you meet this someone, there is nothing that needs to be said. Only this, softly "Oh, you are here too?"

The last part is the crucial bit. But I guess I blundered on the translation. ;)

The story is included in its entirety below.


From 张爱玲经典散文. Via keep nothing



有个村庄的小康之家的女孩子,生得美,有许多人来做媒,但都没有说成。那年她 不过十五六岁吧,是春天的晚上,她立在后门口,手扶着桃树。她记得她穿的是一件月 白的衫子。对门住的年轻人同她见过面,可是从来没有打过招呼的,他走了过来。离得 不远,站定了,轻轻的说了一声:“噢,你也在这里吗?”她没有说什么,他也没有再说什么,站了一会,各自走开了。





Saturday, January 06, 2007

Books Accounting for 2006

Since I have some time tonight, I'm going to do a little (not too much) accounting of my reading for 2006.

Idea stolen from Dorothy W. Thanks. ;)

Graphic Novel, Comics & Manga Read: 44

(Not Including Comics & Manga) Books Read: 89
Books In Translation: 25
Italian: 3
Japanese: 2
Spanish: 4
Latin: 2
Russian: 3
French: 7
German: 3
Turkish: 1
Non-fiction Read: 25
Travelogues Read: 9
Poetry Related: 6
Authors That I Read More Than 1 Title: 12
Marcel Proust,
Alessandro Baricco,
George R. R. Martin,
Laurie R. King,
Graham Greene,
Patrick O'Brian,
A. M. Homes,
Orhan Pamuk,
Terry Pratchett,
Philip Pullman,
Jane Hirshfield,
Mary Oliver

Thanks to Proust, I seem to have read a little more French books in translation, and a little more Spanish. Will have to add more translated works into the mix for 2007. Will add more Turkish definitely.

Need to read more Russian!

Oddly, there's only 9 travelogues, considering how I enjoy them.

Still, 25 Non-Fiction out of 133 (including comics) titles seems unbalanced.

COMICS | B.P.R.D. Universal Machine

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine
By Mike Mignola, John Arcudi and Guy Davis
Graphic Novel

I always thought the Hellboy spin-off, B.P.R.D was a steady series in its own right — it continues in the vein of occultic and gothic themes that Hellboy is known for. As Mike Mignola is still contributing and overseeing the project, the writing is still solid, with enough loose threads for the readers to stay interested. The ensemble members of the Burea for Paranormal Research and Defense are also interesting in their own capacity and varied talents. So while I was cutting down on my comic buying, B.P.R.D. still remained on my "Must-Buy" list.

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine is volume 6 in the series. Last we left the team they (probably) contained the apocalyptic plague of frogs but they lost one of their team member (Roger the Big Friendly Homunculus.)

As a team that is always out to save the world from mystical threats, you would think the B.P.R.D. team is used to losing a few operatives from time to time. But this being a comic book, characters death are rarely permanent, especially for a major character like Roger. I believe this is where Mignola and his co-writers are playing with the readers' expectations, because there always exist this lingering possibility that they might bring Roger back.

The Universal Machine starts the story with Kate Corrigan setting out for a book that might help resurrect their homunculus friend. But in-between the other team members come to together for a round-robin session of story-telling. We find out a little bit more how the Captain came to be dead for three days, and then not. It involves a military mission into the depth of a South-American forest; it involves a Jaguar cult.

It's another one of those loose threads that may be picked up later down the road for another story. Maybe.

The Universal Machine is pretty self-contained in its storylines. There are none of those big, looming plot threads this time, just a few short stories to tell. But Abe Sapien shares a little story of a previous mission with Hellboy in Ontario of 1990. So in flash-back, Hellboy makes a guest appearance. It is a case of a Wendigo, and Hellboy settled it with his usual streetwise panache. And it was nice to see the big guy again, looking at a pile of flesh and bones, and just summing it up, "I think it's puke."

How I missed Hellboy. I wish Mignola would write more Hellboy comics, featuring the big red demon prince himself. And for a brief moment B.P.R.D. felt a little diminished without Hellboy. It felt like just a spin-off.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

FOOD WRITINGS | Life Is Meals 1

Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days
By James and Kay Salter
With Illustrations by Fabrice Moireau

In 1976, James and Kay Salter moved into their house in Aspen, Colorado. They have cooked in the same kitchen all these years, learning and testing recipes. They kept notes of their culinary endeavours in an old brown notebook, a record of recipes, and also to keep track of what they served people so as not to give them the same thing too often. Over the years the Salters began keeping more detailed notes in the old brown notebook — the dinner book, they called it. As they filled one dinner book, they started on another, and soon there were many of these dinner books, each a record of what was served, seating arrangements, memorable conversations at dinner, stories, notes — their archive of their dining experience.

Life Is Meals is their a compilation of selected entries from the dinner books, along with little things of interest, gossip from history, some opinions, odd little facts — all arranged as a Book of Days to appeal to readers for whom food is more than a mere necessity.

I'm reading the book slowly, several entries every time. Each time I find something interesting — at least, interesting to me, I will post it here.

Next to breathing itself, I can't think of any activity more crucial to life than eating. Food sustains us and nourishes us. And a person who appreciates food also appreciates life.

Meanwhile, because I am something of a coffee-addict, here is an excerpt for the 4 January entry:

They have in Turkey a drink called Black as Soot,
and of a Strong Scent..which they take, beaten into Powder, in Water,
as Hot as they can Drink it; and they take it, and sit at it in their
Coffee Houses, which are like our Taverns.


Some forty years after Bacon's death, coffee made its way from Turkey to France with the sultan's ambassador to the court of Louis XIV, where Mme de Sevigne predicted, with something less than her usual acuity. "There are two things the French will never swallow—Racine's poetry, and coffee." She lived long enough to find that she was wrong about both.

COMICS | The Quick and the Dead

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead
By Greg Rucka et al.

I've been following Greg Rucka's works for DC Comics comics recently, and I am slowly becoming a fan of his writing. In particular I like the storyline for his Batman: No Man's Land and Gotham Central series.

The Quick and the Dead is the fourth volume in the Gotham Central series - which is set in the Batman universe, but through the eyes of the Gotham City police. In a world of freakish villians like Joker, Riddler, Two-Face and the Penguin, you have ordinary police detectives trying their best to do their jobs. It brings the perspective down to the human level, while still working within the existing universe of the costumed superheroes. It's not a new concept, but there has been some good stories written from this POV.

The Quick and the Dead takes the story from the perspective of Detective Renee Montoya and her partner, Crispus Allen. One of the reason I follow Greg Rucka's work is his ability to write likeable female characters. (Rucka also did an interesting run as the scribe for Wonder Woman.) Renee Montoya was one of the characters created for the Batman animated series that was transplanted into the comic series, winning her own set of fan following. I see her as one of Greg Rucka's more successful adaptations. I like Montoya as just an ordinary detective who is dedicated to her job. I do not want to see her as another superhero with secret identity and superhero spandex-style angst. (Although she has angst in abundant in The Quick and the Dead.) I am therefore ambivalent with the character development of Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya in Infinite Crisis and the currently on-going 52 series.

Reading The Quick and the Dead now, the comic seems to serve more as background story for the transformation of Crisp Allen into the Sceptre later in Infinite Crisis. And with the recent death of the Question in the latest installment of 52 issue #34, there are strong indications that Montoya will take the mantle of the next Question. This will definitely be a further development of an interesting character - if she has a writer who will do her justice.

As Quick and the Dead opens, Commissioner Akins has the Bat-Signal removed. Gotham City is reconsidering the function of Batman in their city, and has outlawed their protecter. This is a soft pattern here, as Montoya is losing her place in a city that no longer believes in Batman. Montoya's life is indirectly a result of the superheroes and supervillains in Gotham. She wanted to be a policewoman because of Batman. Later, she was outed as a lesbian in Gotham Central: Half A Life by Two-Face, who was obsessed with Montoya - because Montoya had the compassion to see the humanity in him. The ultimate irony, that her act of extraordinary human kindness brought her nothing but grief.

In all appearances, she appears to be coping just fine. But there are cracks in her tight armour, as Montoya begins to exhibit a propensity for self-destructive violence.

In one scene, Batman drops by and tell her not to deal with the villain, Doctor Alchemy. "You didn't used to be so cold," Montoya remarked to Batman. To which the Dark Knight rebutted, "You would know." The female detective is slowly losing control of her world and the one who sees it most clearly is Batman.

There is no happy ever after in The Quick and the Dead. In the story, a police officer is burnt by Doctor Alchemy's experimental flames and is mutated; he was burnt while trying to save a boy. Later, the mutated officer will be killed by his own partner. They thought the mutated officer was a monster. And Montoya begins to recognise her violence as symptom of something darker within her. The Quick and the Dead depicts a world where we failed to recognise our heroes, and somehow in the process failing to recognise our ourselves. It is a bleak tale of monsters within and without, but written in a muted, understated narrative that made it all the more plaintive.

I just wish they wouldn't be so quick to turn Montoya into a superhero.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Blue of Distance

I was looking for something. I found this instead. From A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.

Painting of Jolie and Children

"Blessed Art Thou", 2006, 88' x 60", oil & acrylic on linen.

From Kate's Studio. Via Boing Boing

And if you really want to see it BIG.

BOOKS | Calvino Meme

Via Kate's Book Blog

Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages:
The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Idiot, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Count of Monte Cristo – You know what? I'm going to stop now.

Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success:
The complete essays of G.K. Chesterton.

Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment:
Vegetable Love by Barbara Kafka, Life Is Meals by James & Kay Salter, and The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher.

Because May 2007 will be my third year since I decided on a vegetarian diet. I want to read more about food and our relationship to food because people are more emotionally invested in food than I realise.

The Essential YogaSutra by Geshe Michael Roach & Christie Mcnally because - I am working on my yoga practice, and I need to read this.

Yoga Mala, by Shri K.Pattabhi Jois. The founder of the Ashtanga style of yoga is still alive at 90+ years old. This is one of his few treatise on the practice published.

Ashtanga Yoga by David Swenson. One of THE core text for Ashtanga yoga.

Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case:
The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. You never know when you'll need to look up what's going on in a backbend.

The Bible. You never know. You might need to look things up.

Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer:
Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. They are always good for an easy, enjoyable read.

Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves:
The Robert Fagles translation of The Aeneid, to go with the Fagles translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. (Actually, it also matches the little replica of a set of Greek Armour on my bookshelf.)

The Everyman Library editions of R.K. Narayan to match the Everyman Library edition of Dostoevsky, the Everyman Library edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Everyman Library edition of Vasari's Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Architects.

Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified:
Wild Heart: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris by Suzanne Rodriguez. Natalie Barney herself knew she was limited in literary talent. So she made it her life mission to encourage and facilitate others more gifted than her.

This biography on the Parisian salonist motivated me to read Andre Gide, Colette, Marcel Proust, Janet Flanner, Djuna Barnes, Hemingway and his fellow Lost Generation writers.

The Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian. The novels are actually quite predictable. But you have to give it to O'Brian for how he can really write naval drama. I find myself reading (with interest!) the essay "Jack Aubrey's Ships" at the back of The Mauritus Command; Patrick O'Brian uses real ships for the basis of his stories and the essay gives you some background on these naval vessels.

Patrick O'Brian makes me want to read an essay on old big boats. Oh my.

Bonus Entries:

Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too
Anything by Dan Brown – Everyone was talking about The Da Vinci Code and stuff, so.

Anna Karenina – Woman has affair. Dies. Everyone seems to know the plot.

Moby Dick – Crazy one-legged guy obsessed with hunting Big White Whale that almost "declines to make an appearance." Ishmael survives.

Books You Needn’t Read
The Da Vinci Code and anything else by Dan Brown. All those precious paper wasted producing his books. The man should be shot for the damage to the environment.

Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading
Ulyssess by James Joyce. I'll probably never get around to reading it. But it looks nice on the bookshelf. Strictly for display purpose only.

The Unseen University Cut-Out Book – I'm cutting out the pages and building a model of the Discworld Unseen University. Never had so much fun vandalizing a book. Not that I've EVER vandalised a book.

"Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them"?
Dracula – everybody assumes I've read Bram Stoker's Dracula because I am a fan of vampire fiction and films, and it's just so easy to go along with the flow of the conversation. Hee.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. I actually never finished it. Will do it. Soon.

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia – I've only read some chapters of it, but people have the false impression that I have read EVERYTHING by her. Nope.