Sunday, September 30, 2007

Which War and Peace to Buy?

The new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace is coming out soon. The crucial question is which edition to buy? When the content is the same, it becomes a question of aesthetics -- how prettily it will sit on your bookshelf. (Yes, I am shallow in my own way.)

Should I buy the US edition , with that sentimental baby blue?

Or should I buy the UK edition, with its more sombre grey and red script?

Decisions, decisions.

Closing on Non-Fiction Five Challenge 2007

May - September
5 Books/5 Months

Okay, the last-ditch effort paid off. I proudly declare that through swapping of titles and furious reading, I finished 5 non-fiction titles for this challenge. Yay!

Big thanks to Joy at Thoughts of Joy for hosting this challenge.

My write-up on the final book, Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud is forthcoming. There's a lot to say, and it will take a lot of good editing to make anything I write about it interesting and readable.

Original Reading List:

  1. Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes
  2. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
  3. Freedom from Fear by Aung San Suu Kyi
  4. Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud by Sun Shuyun
  5. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit

Completed Reading List:

  1. Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes
  2. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
  3. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  4. Yoga Beyond Belief by Ganga White
  5. Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud by Sun Shuyun

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ex Libris Hosts Russian Reading Challenge 2008

In 2008, Ex Libris will be hosting a 12 month reading challenge of all things Russian - novels, short stories, biographies, history, poetry - by Russian authors or by authors about Russia.

Challenge begins January 1, 2008 and ends December 31st, 2008.

From the host:

This challenge has a lot of flexibility. Although it runs for 12 months (beginning January 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2008), participants are only required to read 4 books. These books can be fiction (novels, short stories), non-fiction (history, biographies, etc.), or poetry. I felt that many Russian novels are of considerable length, so this allows participants to take more than 1 month to read a book if they wish. Or if you are overwhelmed with challenges, then this allows you to participate without adding too much of a burden.

I just matter to be drawing up my personal reading challenge for A Year of Russian Readings 2008. Since the two coincide, I thought it would be nice to sign up. Always encouraging to have someone reading with you, isn't it? Reading list to follow -- closer to the date.

If you're interested, please either email her, or leave a comment here or on the Russian Reading Challenge blog.

Warehouse Haul

It's Saturday -- so guess what I did? I bought books.

There was a warehouse sale -- by invitation only. Fifty percent off all books. Yes, 50% off all books.

My haul:

[Click to enlarge]

1. In Praise of Shadows Junichiro Tanizaki
2. The Cossacks Leo Tolstoy
3. The Hall of a Thousand Columns Tim Mackintosh-Smith
4. The Places In Between Rory Stewart
5. Passage to Juneau: A Sea & Its Meanings Jonathan Raban
6. Journey Without Maps Graham Greene
7. The Lawless Roads Graham Greene
8. The Temptation of Saint Anthony Gustave Flaubert
9. The Married Man Edmund White
10. The Collected Stories Grace Paley
11. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road Peter Hopkirk
12. The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia Peter Hopkirk

There was immense self-restraint -- considering the circumstances. Besides these, I was also looking for some Maugham novels, but they're out of stock. How can anyone be out of stock for Maugham?

Also picked up an uncorrected and INCOMPLETE bound proof copy of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. Yes, it's incomplete. But I suppose if I don't like the first 170 pages, I'm not going to continue reading the book anyway.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Continental Hotel In Ho Chi Minh

A friend of mine just came back from Ho Chi Minh city and she posted some pictures. One of them is this of the Continental Hotel:

"Built in 1880 and located along Dong Khoi Street, the hotel forms an integral part of the city's history. It counts, among its distinguished guests, the novelist Graham Greene, and the hotel features in his book The Quiet American"

By the association with Graham Greene's The Quiet American, my friend has just made the Continental Hotel in Ho Chi Minh a place I visit before I die!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Funny Kind of Literary Lunch Interview

Rosie Blau interviews Jeanette Winterson for FT -- over lunch. With champagne.

Okay, I've read quite a few author interviews in my time. But it's not everyday that the interviewer discloses, at the end of the artcile, the entire contents of their lunch bill. And I'm kind of tickled that Jeanette Winterson asks Rosie Blau to write down her birth date and time, so that Winterson can do her horoscope chart.

These two women had fun doing their jobs.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Deadline for the Non Fiction Five Challenge

Where did the time go? The deadline for the Non-Fiction Five Challenge is approaching -- end of September, and I'm only one book away from completion. In the next few days I'll have to try to finish up Sun Shuyun's Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud or Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear -- both books I have neglected from the Books In Progress pile. Too bad about Rebecca Solnit. Maybe later. Next year.

Over-commitment can be a bitch.

BOOKS | Library Haul

Swung by the library today and picked up some books. (Big surprise) I'm not keeping my Books In Progress pile in check -- obviously. But then I really seem to be reading more, when I'm reading more books all together. My haul for today:

The library finally brought in the Twilight Watch, the third book in the Night Watch series. In the mythos of the Russian Night Watch series, there is the Night Watch -- the ones who represent the Light, and then there is the Day Watch -- those who represent the Dark. Watching over the two factors, punishing them when either side defies the Treaty is the Twilight Watch -- the impartial Inquisitors. This is their tale.

New York City for Dummies. Okay, if the 2008 US Election goes well, I might consider visiting either New York or Hawaii next year (or in 2009). Nothing is confirmed, just looking at the travel guides. Say, anyone live in New York? Or Hawaii? Any recommendations for a vegetarian budget traveller who wants to visit either of these places for about 7~10 days?

One Foot in Laos. I really need to get down to reading it soon. Dad and I are supposed to go to Laos together but I've nothing planned. Haven't even broken into the Lonely Planet Laos guide yet.

A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen. I was browsing the travel writing section when I stumbled upon this account of Bowen's sojourn in Rome between February and Easter. I am partial to Rome, or any Italian city in general, so I just picked it up.

I decided to expand my repertoire of authors for the Outmoded Authors Challenge, because all these bloggers reading and posting about Bowen -- they make me curious.

PS: Did anyone know that Elizabeth Bowen has a Myspace account? :)

BOOKS | Into the Wild

When I was reading Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, it spurned some interesting comments from my colleagues. A few of my co-workers had read it. One of them was an outdoorsy type who had climbed Mt Kilmanjaro, and who had also read Into Thin Air, Krakauer's other more famous bestseller. He had to ask me why I was reading it -- because it's not the kind of book he associates with "a girl". That annoyed me a little. Excuse me while I go pick up something more gender-appropriate -- like Gossip Girl.

To idiotic remarks like these, I usually do a one-finger salute in my head.

But there is some gender-play going on in response to Into the Wild. I told some of the girls about Chris McCandless's dream of roughing it in the wild -- how he burned his cash, ditched his car, carried no phone, isolated himself in the Alaskan wilderness and lived off what he could forage or hunt -- and how he finally came to starvation and death.

Agnes's response was just to roll her eyes. With all the wisdom of someone who had to date men, she sighed, "Only a man would do something like that."

The girls laughed, because we get it. It sounds like such a stereotypical machoism that it's boring. We see how stunts like these are often a manifestation of egoism. It does what it wants to, without any regard for those left behind. Only a man would do something like that. No wonder we think women do not read this book.

But in spite of it all, I can see why Into the Wild became a bestseller. The story of Chris McCandless aka Alex Supertramp has this evergreen romantic wanderlust whiff to it. Part of the legend is that so little is really known about McCandless's motives. Everything is a re-construction from his journals, interviews with people who knew him. We guess at his motives, his feelings and his final days.

We loved this boy who went off into the wild and starved to death. We want to be able to do so ourselves, but without the suffering, without the death. Because he died, we get to mythologize him.

I admit while I was reading the story, it struck a chord in me: I recognize within myself the wanderlust, the restlessness, the feeling that things are meaningless unless you are willing to pit yourself against the odds. Krakauer summed up Chris McCandless more eloquently:

McCandless wasn't some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself -- more, in the end, than he could deliver.

We're all trying to find some meaning in our lives. This book attempts to give some significance to McCandless's death, and his attempt to do what a lot of us only dreamed of doing. The restless romantic in me feels for Chris McCandless. I think he's a hero.

But I also find myself echoing the question by Chris's father -- who asked, how is it, "that a kid with so much compassion could cause his parents so much pain?"

BOOKS | Thoughts on Siddhartha

I believe it was Matt's reading list that reminded me of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Like many people, I first picked up the book when I was on my journey of spiritual enquiry. I can't say I am any wiser now than I was a few years ago -- I can only say this: I am slightly better read than I used to be.

I was surprised that the Siddhartha in the novel wasn't the Siddhartha -- the Gautama Buddha, as I had assumed. Hesse's book was about a seeker, a man born at around the same time as the Gautama Buddha, who went through different paths on his way to truth. He left home in spite of his father's objection and became an ascetic. With the beautiful courtesan Kamala, he explores the world of carnal pleasures, and he also became a successful merchant. Yet after many years, Siddhartha realises the emptiness inherent in the worldly experiences. So he left it all behind to become a ferryman. Then one day Kamala arrives with their son, and Siddhartha has to learn the final lesson of letting his son go.

In the introduction to the Shambhala edition of Siddhartha, Paul W. Morris wrote: "Hesse's grasp of Buddhist thinking was imprecise. He did not escape touches of theism and thoughts of sin, being the offspring, as he was, of two generations of Christian missionaries. Doctrinally, Siddhartha is not sharp, but sweetly and naively eclectic. But this hardly matters, for in Siddhartha, Hesse captured the truth of the spiritual journey."

When I first read Siddhartha, I had some problems with it. I felt it did not address the teachings of Buddhism, nor did it seem familiar with the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, such as the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path. It wasn't until I shed off the pre-existing assumptions and expectations that I managed to appreciate it more. Siddhartha should not be taken as a primer to Buddhist philosophy -- but as an allegorical novel of the spiritual quest, it has its beauty.

What I found most memorable in Siddhartha was Siddhartha's relationship with his son. He tried to lead his son on the path of enlightenment. However, the boy was brought up by his rich mother, and he was used to a life of luxury. The son resisted and resented the poverty and the humility of his father.

Vasudeva, his friend, tells him this:

"...Do you really believe you committed your follies so you could save your son from them? Can you protect your son from samsara? How could you? Through teaching, through prayer, through warnings? ... What father or teacher could have shielded him from living life himself, from soiling himself with life, from blaming himself, from drinking the bitter potion himself, from finding his way on his own? Do you, my friend, believe that perhaps someone could be spared having to tread this path? Perhaps your little son, because you love him, because you would so much like to spare him suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you were to die for him ten times over, you would not be able to subtract the tiniest fragment from his fate."

In this little tale lies the poignancy of the world: We do not change other people's lives just because of our good intentions. We are owners only of our own karma. It is futile, and perhaps even arrogant to believe we have a right to save someone from themselves. The road to knowledge, to repentance, to enlightenment -- is a personal one.

So often I thought if I love someone enough, if I tried hard enough, I could protect my friends from suffering through similar mistakes I had made before. I thought I could help them, perhaps even save them. I was misguided; we all have the right to make our own mistakes. Without the follies, no lessons could be learned.

A while back, one of my friend is going through a bad patch. A mutual friend asked if there is anything we can do?

Where we can, we try. But sometimes you know there is nothing you can do. That no matter how much you love your friends, you cannot live their lives for them.

My own parents tried so hard to protect their children from the world, that at the end they only delayed the sufferings.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Would You Like to Quit Smoking?

I found out on my dad's birthday that my Second Uncle ― my dad's second older brother ― was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. (How many stages of cancer are there?) My uncle's family had been keeping things quiet for a while now; they didn't want to alarm anyone. The doctors gave him 3-6 months.

My Second Uncle had been smoking for more than 40 years. He quitted smoking a few years ago, finally. But it was too late: Four decades of smoke caught up with him.

Some of my close friends are habitual smokers. When we hang out, they usually light up while we chat. I was a social smoker, but I never took to the habit. My last cigarette was six years ago.

With lung cancer so close to home, I find myself suddenly aversed to being around my friends when they light up. I was out with Boo last week, and when I told her about my uncle's lung cancer, I could see in her eyes how fast she was losing interest in the subject. It's like her mind just shifted to avoid looking at something uncomfortable.

Our mind is a great filter, and we often block out the messages that are uncomfortable or challenge who we are. Boo probably heard the anti-smoking cancer scare messages a million times over. (Afterall, the cancer warnings are printed on every cigarette packs. We learned to be desensitized to the messages.) You can just see how she switched into a defensive mode, while trying to remind sensitive to our friendship.

The usual defense: that we would die anyway, and if we were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, this cigarette wouldn't matter. Or, they intend to die young anyway, so it doesn't matter.

I did not press the issue any further. I have stated my preference not to have cigarette smoke around me, but they are not going to quit smoking because of me either. If we are to remain friends, we will have to compromise on this.

Often we are caught in the situations where we wish the best for our friends and family ― and we hope to persuade them to change. Maybe you want them to quit smoking, to exercise more, or to adopt a healthier diet. Or maybe you want your friend to quit a relationship that is obviously toxic and wearing down their self-respect.

But sometimes we err through misguided love. Often we believe, with the self-righteousness of our ego, that because we love them, we have a right to intervention. I believe in intervention when it is necessary ― I do believe in tough love. But tough love should only be used for extreme circumstances, like when a life is at stake, for example. At the end of the day, we have to respect the right to Free Will.

Often, we make the mistake of trying to force our choices onto someone else, justifying our actions with love. We fail to see how this is itself a form of violence. We are taking away their right to decide for themselves, because their choices are different from ours. Sometimes things seem so clear-cut ― our friends need to quit drugs, quit over-spending to help themselves. If they can't help themselves then we must intervene. But where do you draw the line: do we have the right to pick who they date, who they marry? Are we willing to relinquish that kind of control of our own lives?

Ultimately, we have to realise everyone has the right to their own karma, and things are not always as we want them to be. Yet paradoxically, we still need to strive for the best, trusting in karma to unfold on its own. I am still having trouble with this process of surrender and right effort.

Boo and my other smoker friends will quit smoking when they want to ― it is their choice to make. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying to persuade them to quit though. Just that I need to do it from a place of understanding and respect, and not as a self-righteous yogi sticking it in their face.

Earlier this year, Agnes, one of my smoker friends, asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I thought about it for a while but I realise I didn't need anything.

"But is there anything I could get you anyway?" Agnes asked again. She seemed almost disappointed that she couldn't get me anything for my birthday; it was sweet.

Then I grinned, and I asked her, "Would you like to quit smoking for my birthday?" It was like a game we played. We both knew the answer, but I was asking anyway. Because I would gladly give up a lifetime of birthday gifts if Agnes would quit.

Agnes grinned back at me, and then she exclaimed, "I love you too, La!" She then scampered off.

What was wonderful about Agnes is that while she would never quit smoking because of me, she understood that I love her enough to wish for her to quit. That's why we're going to continue dancing this Cigarette-Tango. No matter how futile it seems, I'm still going to try to persuade them to quit.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

108 Sun Salutations

Last week I signed up for the Global Mala Project at my yoga studio. Around the world, students of yoga are coming together to form a "mala around the earth." As part of my participation in the global offering, I signed up for 108 Sun Salutations.

I didn't think I had the strength for 108 Sun Salutations, and I knew my arms and shoulders are going to ache like crazy. But it seems so crazy I just wanted to try.

I did it. 108 Sun Salutations, even though towards the end I had to modify my Upward Dog to Cobra and my Chaturanga was getting sloppy.

I didn't really tell many people about signing up for the 108 Sun Salutations, because there was a thought at the back of my mind to back out. 108 Sun Salutations was intimidating -- but why was I afraid? Perhaps if I can't complete all 108, I was afraid I would be judged badly. Or perhaps I would judge myself badly for failing. showed up anyway, wearing my Nike outfit, because I really like the slogan to "Just Do It" -- "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

For the final 27 Sun Salutations, the teacher told us to dedicate it to the Divine, to do it with a smile. And so towards the end, as I was stretching my arms upwards to salute the sun, I allowed myself to move into the most exuberant backbends, both as offering, and to receive. There is a lot in my life to be grateful for.

And I survived 108 Sun Salutations! Yay!


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Not Sure What to Think

Oh, come on -- as if a poster like this will make anyone turn vegetarian?

B+ for Effort, but a little misguided. Amusing, though.

Two Books From Bookmooch

I've received my first two books from Bookmooch this week. So the circle is now complete: I give, and I have received.

I'm mindful of my Mooch points though. I don't want to squander them recklessly on books that I could just have easily borrowed from the library. Somebody has to pay the postage afterall. So far, I have resisted mooching the few Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham novels available. Resist, resist.

Instead, I've mooched Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams and an out-of-print edition of Nicola Griffith's Slow River.

Arctic Dreams is part of my ongoing reading on literature of Ice and Cold. The description on Amazon UK calls it is "a book which could be compared to Chatwin's The Songlines for its combination of travelogue and poetic vision." I had my eye on the title for about two years. Finally, my own copy.

As for Slow River -- I hate to admit the kind of bone-headed narrow-mindedness at work here -- because the protagonist is lesbian, my local library refuses to stock it. Hence I had to resort to other means of acquisition. I'm convinced to pick this book up after this review here.

I just need to find the time to read them.

LONELINESS | Roy and Nelly

I'm not sure what precipitated the memories, but a few days ago, I was reminded of Roy ― he was a schoolmate who killed himself about 14 years ago.

Roy wasn't a friend. The sad part of this story is ― he wasn't anyone's friend.

Roy wasn't a bad guy. At least, he didn’t seem like a bad guy. I remember him as a nerdy little guy with glasses who told off-colour jokes. They weren't rude or offensive, and Roy probably thought they were funny. The jokes were just lame. Not funny at all.

Roy just seemed to have problem connecting with people.

Maybe we all remember someone like that in school ― the socially inept guy/girl who sat alone, who seem to have no friends. When they talk we wonder what they are going on about. We never really noticed them not because we dislike them, but because they just seem odd in an uninteresting manner.

It was ironic how I came to learn of Roy's death: I was 17, restless (and a little bored) in a lecture theatre waiting for the bitchy Math lecturer, when one of my classmates asked if I knew Roy from my alma matar. I shrugged, replied that, yes I do, but not very well.

"Did you know he killed himself?" my friend said immediately.

Roy killed himself on New Year's Eve. None of his friends or classmates showed up at the funeral, because he had no friends. When he didn't show up for class, no one missed him enough to call ― until the school administration did a routine follow-up on his absenteeism.

It was so sad, to be so alone that no one will even notice when you're not around. I was one of the many people who did not give a second's notice to Roy, too caught up in my own world. I wondered why he killed himself on New Year's Eve ― I could only guess at his reasons: that he must have truly felt alone, so alone that self-annihilation was the only escape from the utter despair. He was only 17 when he killed himself ― the same age as me. My life at 17 was selfish and frivolous ― but there was no doubt that I wanted to live.

I wondered how his mother must have felt, when no one showed up for his son's funeral. She loved her son, lost him, and no one in the world loved him back.

I consider myself socially inept, and anti-social to a certain degree, but I am still lucky enough to have people around me who cares if I'm not around. We all seek human connections, and some of us find it easier than others. I wonder why was it so easy for Roy to slip through the cracks?

I once read how Tori Amos said she was made Homecoming Queen at her high school only because she made it a point to talk to everyone she met. I was amazed when I read it, because it felt ― impossible. We ignore people, that is what most people do, especially if you live in a big city. We "filter" people, we block them off to keep some part of ourselves intact. We need that distance to stay sane, or otherwise we are at risk of being drained spiritually and emotionally. No one can be as open to people as Tori Amos seems to be.

So as we filter the important and insignificant people around us, people like Roy gets sifted out. We throw them into the bin labelled: "Not worthy of attention." We don't even notice when they are gone.

My mom had a friend, Nelly. What my mother told me about Nelly was that she could be "difficult", that she lived alone because she chose to cut off communication with her family. Nelly had few friends because of her temperament ― she drove people away. Yet by some miracle or karma, she got along with my mother.

One evening my mom made some soup. She made extra for Nelly but my mom felt ill that night. She spoke on the phone with Nelly, apologised for not being able to go over to Nelly's place as promised, and my mom stayed in.

A few days later ― I was brushing my teeth ― I was staying home to work on my thesis ― a neighbour come to our apartment looking for my mom.

The neighbour told my mom that Nelly was found dead in her apartment. She had been dead for a few days and the neighbours finally called the police because of the foul smell coming from her apartment.

The police would later reveal she had been dead approximately five days. Her body was found prostrated in front of the altar of the Virgin Mary. According to my mother Nelly had been having frequent black-outs for the past few months. She was probably saying her prayers when she blacked-out in front of the altar, and she hit her head, bled to death.

I helped my mother clean up Nelly's flat after the police released the place. I remember choosing the lemon-scented air-fresheners ― because of the smell of decomposition. We cleaned out her fridge and I remember there was fish in the freezer. My mother asked if we should bring the frozen fish home, to eat. I objected; it felt morbid. So we threw everything away.

One of the last thing Nelly bought was a pack of strawberry-flavoured Mentos sweets. It was on a table in her living room, with the receipt. She must have bought it on the way home from work.

When I saw the sweets with the receipt, I thought: She didn't know that day she was going to die. Now she will never get to eat the sweets. I never told my mom that I thought of taking the sweets home. I felt like having them, because Nelly would never have them.

Then the revelation: my mother apparently shared a joint bank account with Nelly ― there was $50,000, all of it Nelly's savings. Nelly trusted my mother that much, and with her death, the money now legally belonged to my mother.

Maybe that was why my mom felt such tremendous guilt for Nelly's death. If the time of death was right, my mom was probably the last person who spoke to Nelly. My mom believed if only she had gone over to Nelly's place, then someone would be with Nelly that fateful night. Then she might not have bled to death alone in her apartment.

If only. If only. These are the guilt of all the things we could not have known yet hindsight makes them so terrible and unforgiveable.

I think about people like Roy and Nelly, alone, disconnected in their different ways, for different reasons. We ignore Roy, and Nelly pushed people away from her. Their deaths are just so sad. So terribly alone. It scares me.

But maybe Nelly wasn't that alone, even if she did die badly. She had a good friend in my mom.

From the $50,000 in Nelly's joint account with my mom, my mom paid for all funeral expenses and all outstanding bills. Whatever was left, my mom donated it to charity, in Nelly's name. Every single cent of it. If you know the kind of person my mom is, you wouldn't be surprised either.

Sometimes I do wonder about the friendship between Nelly and my mom. I think a big part of their connection was their mutual loneliness. Caring for Nelly helped my mom feel needed, an active participant in someone else's life; everyone else in her family had a larger external life that excluded her. Especially me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Winslet's Bare Bottoms


Kate Winslet's artistic impression of her buttocks:

She's doing it for charity. So it's okay to be a little cheeky.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Away and other Free Books

Okay, I'm high as a caffeinated hummingbird because I just brought home a free reading copy of the Granta edition of Amy Bloom's Away. It's not as nice as the US hardcover - but who's complaining? The Granta cover is more subtle - the cover like an over-exposed sepia photograph of a little girl looking back at you.

Did I mention I have read all of Amy Bloom's books? Did I mention how much I am looking forward to Away? It has replaced The Razor's Edge as my priority reading right now. Hopefully I will be able to finish it by this weekend - which will allow me some time to write a little on it. I still have my half-written posts on Into the Wild and A Perfect Hoax pending. No pressure.

September has been a bounty month for free books. I've picked up some free books and Advance Reader's Copies. The list:

  • Seed to Harvest, Octavia E. Butler

  • The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney

  • Against the Stream, Noah Levine

  • Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf

  • Making Money, Terry Pratchett

I'm particular happy with the free copy of Butler's Seed to Harvest. I've been trying to squeeze Octavia E. Butler into my reading schedule - but alas.

Seed to Harvest is an omnibus collect four novels from her Patternist series: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay's Ark and Patternmaster. I hope it's good. Anyone has read it? Will I be disappointed?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Anne Enright Rereading In the Skin of a Lion

I love Michael Ondaatje's writing. So how could I have missed Anne Enright's essay on re-reading In the Skin of a Lion?

It was rereading Berger's G that allowed me back into this book. I thought I might have found the trick of it - you can see how Berger uses the heroic present of the workers' struggle, and the eternal present of the erotic, to make the ideological feel somehow absolute. Once I found Berger in Ondaatje's work, I started finding him all over the place. He is the presiding genius of a kind of clear-eyed male fiction I never quite believe, being too untroubled and in charge of history - with its beautiful poverty and its beautiful sex and its beautiful deaths from cholera. I do believe Ondaatje, however, despite the way his characters fall so beautifully asleep, because he is not in thrall to his own talent. In the Skin of a Lion constantly feels for the edges of things. It is all about the unknown.

I believe her.

OBITUARY | Robert Jordan Dies

Fantasy author Robert Jordan passed away on 16th September 2007. [Source]

Jordan was best known for his Wheel of Time series, which has so far spanned 11 volumes and 1 prequel. It was an epic fantasy tale where a world is threatened by the pending return of a Dark One, known as Shai'tan. Only the Dragon Reborn is said to have the power to turn back the pending evil. It's a good blend of cheesy sword-and-sorcery fantasy - one of the reason why some people despise the genre "fantasy" - but often, there's some interesting characterisation, politics and intrigue. Friends betray each other out of love - and because they believed they were trying to do good, to save the world. Robert Jordan understood the meaning of sacrifice, and how we often have to make choices for purposes greater than ourselves and all we care for.

I have a confession to make: there was a time when I was a big Wheel of Time fan. I would hang out at the newsgroup for all discussions on the series. One of my favourite character was Moiraine, who died in one of the books - although that was left ambiguous and we always suspected she would return. And Lanfear, the former lover of the Dragon Reborn in his past-life, and whom I suspect will be redeemed somehow at the end.

I first started reading the series when I was in the university - because a long epic fantasy series was more interesting reading than your textbook. My friend and I used to wonder - what if Robert Jordan was to die before he finished his series? We were concerned, and yet he continued to write, and the series continued even when I finally gave up waiting at Book 8: The Path of Daggers. I read how Robert Jordan promised he would finally end the series at Book 12. It was projected for release in 2009. But with his death, I guess time ran out.

Maybe someone will continue the series for him. But we know it's not going to be authentic Robert Jordan. He created an EPIC in the grand sense of the word. His imaginary world was rich and layered, with intricate social structures and characters that annoy you so much because they are so vividly written.

The only other contemporary author I can think of that can match Robert Jordan at his game (the sword-and-sorcery high fantasy) is George R. R. Martin. Okay, maybe Tad Williams with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, or Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry. You know what - feel free to disagree with me. Feel free to suggest authors who worked with that kind of expansive vision. I'm sure I'm missing out some worthy authors.

Say, somebody should go check on George. Make sure he's okay. I would like to be able to see a satisfying conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire, thank you very much.

Oh wait, I just checked out G.R.R.M's blog, and he wrote something about Robert Jordan's passing:

The world of high fantasy is poorer today.

James Rigney, better known to fantasy readers as Robert Jordan, has passed away. Although he had been fighting amyloidosis for several years, the news of his death still came as a shock to many, including me. He was so optimistic and determined that you had to think that if anyone could beat the disease, it would be him.

Jim was a good and gracious man, a pleasure to share a platform or a pint with, and his contributions to modern fantasy were many. His huge, ambitious WHEEL OF TIME series helped to redefine the genre, and opened many doors for the writers who followed.

He was also unfailingly generous towards other fantasists, always ready to offer them support and encouragement. My own ICE & FIRE series might never have found its audience without the cover quote that Jim was so kind as to provide, back when A GAME OF THRONES was first published. I will always be grateful to him for that.

The last time I saw Jim was at an Archon in Collinsville, Illinois. It was before his final illness. He was the convention Guest of Honor and I was the Toastmaster, and I introduced him by telling the audience that actually we were the same person. It was a gag that Jim himself had suggested in the Green Room beforehand. While I was doing the intro, and claiming credit for all his books, he slowly entered, walked up silently behind me, and stood looming over me, glowering like Zeus. We got a great laugh.

I had some great dinners with Jim and his wife Harriet there in Collinsville as well. We talked about other writers, editors, publishers, all the stuff that writers always talk about... oh, and a little about our own series as well... and Jim and Harriet invited me to visit them if I ever made it down to Charleston. Sad to say, I never did.

RIP, Jim. You will be much missed.

You know what's so karmic about this? Robert Jordan was the reason I picked up A Game of Thrones - the reason I became a G.R.R.M. fan.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

YOGA BEYOND BELIEF | Awakening Your Inner Process

I've been reading Ganga White's Yoga Beyond Belief. I'm currently reading a library copy, but I might just buy myself a copy ― or give it to my friends with an interest in yoga. I find myself learning a lot from what he wrote, and I find myself reconsidering my own approach to yoga.

Don't let the foreword by Sting fool you: Ganga White is not a flash-in-the-pan rock-star yogi. Reading his book, it is obvious that Ganga White is an experienced teacher, full of insights and ideas on the practice. There is so much to learn.

He addresses the core principles of yoga, always emphasizing the need for the student to pay attention and figure out what works best for them. Yoga is essentially a prescriptive and individual practice; what works for one may not always work for another. White encourages us to approach yoga with an open mind; it is important to listen and follow the teacher, especially in the beginning, but even at the beginning you should be developing your own intuition on the effects of the asanas on your mind and body. The key to deepening your practice is your intuition: Develop it, sharpen it, trust it.

In earlier stages of practice, perhaps for several years, it is importaqnt to follow predominantly the teachings, practices, and techniques learned from qualified sources. During this time you should allow your own unique inner process to awaken and develop, and look for teachers who encourage this personal development. This inner process can develop from the beginning, even while you follow instructions and practices from a teacher. While learning, you emphasize receiving information, and as you progress you put more emphasis on your own inner process. [p. 94]

Do not mistake Ganga White's message as an incitement to disregard the teacher. Rather, he is reminding the student to take responsibility for our practice, that the best teacher is our own body. Sensations such as pain can be good indicators of how our body is responding to the practice ― and can help us heal ourselves. Teachers are important, but they are only guides to point the way to your own journey.

One of the dilemma for someone who has received conflicting teachings from different teachers is whom to trust? There are so many variations on the asana, and different schools of yoga have their different interpretation. For a rookie such as myself, it can be overwhelming at time. I take Ganga White's message here to heart:

Don't focus only on getting into the posture, but consider also what you are getting out of each posture. Form follows function; this principle of design can also be applied to asana. The form of the asana is secondary to the desired effects it produces. Adjust poses by using the alignment that creates the best energy flow, by means of internal feedback and internal effects of the pose. When you are not sure of how to align an asana, pay attention to what others have said and also to which modifications give you the best results and best flow of energy. This is the bottom line ― not a picture in a book or a teacher's assertions, but what your body is telling you. Making sense out of conflicting opinions about asana practice involves balancing what you have learned from others with your own experience and inner guidance. [pp. 94~95]

"Form follows function" ― How often do we mistake the form for substance, forgetting the spirit of things?

Ganga White's message is so relevant to life: Where there are mixed messages and varying opinions, who do we listen to? It's an active process of "balancing what you have learned from others with your own experience and inner guidance." This means keeping an open mind to diversity in opinions, to learning ― all the while staying grounded in our core beliefs, paying attention and sharpening our intuition to make the right choices.

The journey of yoga is towards Life.

Friday, September 14, 2007

R.I.P. II | Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others

Reading for The R.I.P. II Challenge:

Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others
By Mike Mignola, Richard Corben & P. Craig Russell

Last we saw of Hellboy, he had resigned from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) and was on a walk-about, trying to find out more about his destiny and the enigma behind his Right Hand of Doom.

Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others does not pick up the trail of our demonic crusader. Rather, it is an anthology of stand-alone Hellboy stories from the days when he was still with the BPRD. Some fans may be disappointed, as some of the stories have been collected in other Darkhorse anthologies. But there are a few original tales, and once again Mike Mignola retells folklores of monsters and demons, using his badass red demon prince from hell as the hero.

Mike Mignola had also roped in P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben for two stories in this collection, and their renderings of Hellboy are superb. I love Mignola's stark artwork -- but sometimes it can be refreshing to see one of my favourite comic protagonist through another artist's interpretation. Corben's Hellboy was drawn with smooth, elegant lines. It felt natural, a big red demonic hero in an African tale.

My personal favourite is Richard Corben's illustrations for Makoma. Mike Mignola stumbled across the story of Makoma in one of the Andrew Lang Fairy Books. It became a seed of an idea for a Hellboy story, and when Richard Corben agreed to do the art for a Hellboy story, the story was written.

Makoma is an archetypal hero's journey set in old Africa. In 1993, Hellboy came face to face with an African mummy found in a lost city. The mummy called out to Hellboy, told him a story, perhaps of a past life when the land was young and Africa knew him then. They called him by another name which he gave himself: Makoma, which means "He Who Is Without Fear". He was cast into a deep pool of black water when he was still a child. The pool was full of crocodiles, but he emerged from it fully grown -- and holding in his hand an iron hammer. Makoma has come to deliver the world of evil powers.

So Makoma, in the form of Hellboy travelled. He vanished many creatures, and carried the vanished creatures with him in a bag -- given to him by an old woman. The vanished beasts within the bag became his friends, and they helped him along the way. His friends praised him constantly: "MAKOMA IS GREAT!" To these cries, Makoma just shouts, "Quiet!" It was funny, in a pure Hellboy way.

Finally Makoma comes to the end of the world. His friends trapped within his bag have offered up their flesh as feast for Makoma, before his final battle. Makoma weeps when he realises what had happened. And he battles the Dragon, the ruin of all things that live, land, sea, and all flesh. They battled for a long time, until their strength finally fails them; they fell together. Makoma has delivered the world from evil power, as he had promised.

[Click on picture to enlarge]

Hellboy is what happens when folklore, good story-telling and great art come together. I love Hellboy. Always will.

Cat Power Singing "I Found A Reason"

The Cat Power cover for this song, "I Found A Reason" came to me like a siren-song when I was watching V for Vendetta. I couldn't help myself; I was under a spell. The vocals were sultry, smoky like a dream. I had to track down the song.

Via Youtube, this is the V for Vendette montage for Cat Power's cover of "I Found A Reason"

R.I.P. II | Nightwatch

Reading for The R.I.P. II Challenge:

The Nightwatch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Translated by Andrew Bromfield
[28/08/2007 ~ 13/09/2007]

I picked up The Nightwatch because of the awesome film adaptation. Having watched the film will not spoil you for the novel, as film and book share only minor storylines. The plots in the book are far more complicated than the film. Not necessary better ― just more complicated.

The story is an urban dark fantasy, set in Post-Soviet Moscow. Night Watch spins the mythology of the Others ― a race of supernatural beings (shape-shifters, vampires, magicians) divided between the Light and the Darkness. Each side has a Watch that serves to keep the other party in check. The Night Watch represent the Light, and they operate in the night; the Day Watch are serves the Dark, they watch in the day.

Each violation of the treaty by one side allows the other to a similar infraction. So, because of the treaty, the Nightwatch and the Daywatch are forced to take their battle onto more subtle, more complicated levels. The heads of the two forces play complicated games, pawns are sacrificed, the agenda is never clear – and until the end, you don't really know what was at stake:

"A complex maneuver," I said, glancing at Boris Ignatievich. "From both sides. The Day Watch sacrifices its pawns, and the Night Watch does the same. For the great goal. … But there's an end that justifies the means. Two great magicians who have opposed each other for hundreds of year cook up another little war. Amd the Light Magician is in the toughest spot … he has to stake everything. And for him to lose is more than just an inconvenience; it's a step into the Twilight, into the Twilight forever. But still he stakes everyone's lives. His own side's and the other's…"

The novel is a collection of three loosely related stories, all held together by first-person narrator, Anton Gorodetsky, who is more fleshed out in the novel. He is an normal person who was put in an extraordinary position as an Other, and as a reluctant field agent of the Night Watch (thankfully without being annoying angsty). He just wants to do his best, but his neighbours are vampires, from the Dark. He wants to be friends with his vampire neighbours, but they are wary of him.

He is also the character who pieces the conspiracies together, through guesswork and blind chance (or destiny) — but here is where the novel is most ineffective. There is never convincing evidence of how Anton figures out the political maneuver between the heads of the two Watches. He reaches his conclusions almost out of thin-air. Sloppy.

We see things through his eyes, we hear him question the ambiguity of the Watches: "All of us have to struggle, not just against the Darkness, but against the Light. Because sometimes it blinds us"

Night Watch is an old-fashioned fantasy story about the struggle of Good and Evil, and how one has to make choices. In between are some humanist messages, about how intentions do not always justify the choices. In doing good, we might serve the path of the Dark. How can one make any kind of choice with this realisation?

How many of you there still are, girls and boys of various ages, raised by naïve parents in the sixties. How many of you there are, so unhappy, not knowing how to be happy. How I long to take pity on you, how I long to help you. To touch you through the Twilight—gently, with no force at all. To give you just a little confidence in yourself, just a tiny bit of optimism, a gram of willpower, a crumb of irony. To help you, so that you could help other.

But I can't.

Every action taken by Good grants permission for an active response by Evil. The Treaty! The Watches! The balance of peace in the world?

Truth is, The Night Watch is an absorbing read. There is enough intrigue and interesting stock characters to keep a reader turning the pages. Some of the cheesy plot devices can make a more demanding reader cringe, of course (the fate of the world hangs in the balance, on a piece of ... chalk?) ― but my advice is to just ignore the cringe-worthy moments and allow yourself to enjoy the ride.

It is amazing how familiar yet different an urban dark fantasy set in Moscow can feel. The Watches are structured within a rigid bureacracy, almost like the 19th century Russian civil service that readers of Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Gogol will find familiar.

When was the last time we get to read popular fiction from Russia? Consider it a cultural experience that is also entertaining. After this, I'm dying to pick up Day Watch and Twilight Watch ― the later books in the series.

{Housekeeping: The Nightwatch is also included in The Armchair Traveler Challenge, as it is set in Moscow, Russia.}

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

One Thousand Roads to Mecca - and thoughts

According to the teachings of Islam, there are five pillars to the faith:

1) The shahadah, which is the basic creed or tenet of Islam.

2) Salah, or ritual prayer, which must be performed five times a day. Each salah is done facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca.

3) Zakat, or alms-giving. This is the practice of giving based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all Muslims who can afford it.

4) Sawm, or the fast, which is observed during the month of Ramadan. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink (among other things) from dawn to dusk during this period of the fast. Prayers, fasting, charity, and self-accountability are especially stressed during this period.

5) The Hajj, which is the pilgrimage during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the city of Mecca. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime.

The month of Ramadan, by the way, starts this Thursday. So later this week, Muslims around the world will observe the ritual fast from dawn to dusk. The fast is supposed to bring one closer to God, and one is supposed to be more mindful of his/her actions and thoughts during this important period.

After September 11, 2001, I was one of those people utterly confused by the state of the world. Like many people, I consider myself ignorant about Islam. It is one of the major faith of the world, and yet we know so little about it. So I did what I usually do when I am curious about a subject -- I researched. I read.

I started reading up on the history of the Middle East and Islam. Among my readings: Karen Armstrong, Bernard Lewis, and Amin Maalouf's The Crusade Through Arab Eyes. What little I have learned is that Islam is not the faith of terror as George W. Bush would like the world to believe. I found myself developing an interest in Middle-Eastern related literature -- and it indirectly led me to the Sufi poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.

Recently I picked up One Thousand Roads to Mecca, a collection of essays about the Hajj, from various writers across ten centuries. The diversity of the writers give a unique insight into the pilgrimage and the faith. There are some familiar names: Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battuta, Sir Richard Burton and Malcolm X.

Here is an anthology of the ultimate pilgrimage, and it is edited by Michael Wolfe, an American who performed the Hadj in 1990. He arranged the essays chronologically -- from mid 11th century to end of the 20th century, and had chosen first-person accounts that were "more carefully observed than sentimental." He wanted to illustrate how perennial the rites themselves have proved, and perhaps to give readers a sense of history of the pilgrimage.

It's a thick book, and I don't expect to finish reading it any time soon. But I'll imbibe it slowly.

I have always been interested in travel narratives -- due to my own personal interest in travel as pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey both within and without. A pilgrim endures great hardship, travelling over great distance -- for a purpose greater than himself/herself. In the undertaking of the pilgrimage, something is discovered, something is weathered away. The person who arrives is no longer the same person who begun the journey. The pilgrimage is a communal experience, but also an intensely personal one.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Penguin Great Loves and Books Awaiting Purchase

The bookstore recently received the Penguin Great Loves series: 20 titles -- novellas, excerpts or short stories by famous authors that centre on love. You have Thomas Hardy, Anais Nin, D.H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov -- and surprise, surprise, Sigmund Freud.

I was attracted to the covers, but will probably pass on most of them. I would prefer the story in its entirety, rather than the excerpts packaged with a pretty cover. I'm picking up two of the Russian novellas for my A Year of Russian Reading challenge next year though.

Incidentally, while I was picking through the titles on what to buy, Boo came along and picked out Stendhal's Cures for Love. She waved it at me, and remarked how it reminded her of blood cultures or something you find under the micro-scope.

I was highly amused, especially with the title -- Cures For Love.

"Do you think we can be innoculated?" I asked. Falling in love has caused me a few unpleasant pains through the years. Somehow an innoculation against love seems like a good idea.

Boo and I chortled. The truth is, neither of us are the cynics that we would like people to believe. Only someone who believes in idealised love can grow cynical about love; it's impossible to disappoint someone who never had hope in the first place.

And a collection of great love stories is a dangerous collection indeed, for failed romantics like myself (or Boo.)

So, I'm a sucker for the Penguin Great Loves afterall. I'm picking up two of the titles, which I will purchase when I receive my next paycheck. (When one has limited income, one has to stagger the purchases, and try to keep below the budget -- in case of any last minute expenses.) Just for fun, these are the books I have lined up for purchase for the month of September:

  1. First Love (Penguin Great Loves)
    By Ivan Turgenev
    Translated by Isaiah Berlin

  2. The Kreutzer Sonata (Penguin Great Loves)
    By Leo Tolstoy
    Translated by David McDuff

  3. The Summer in Paris
    By Abha Dawesar

  4. I read Abha Dawesar's debut novel, Babyji last year and I found a smart young writer whose wit sparkled on the page. I had my eye on this book when it first came out in hardcover last year. I wanted to see if she has developed as a writer since Babyji. Now, it's finally available in a more affordable paperback.

  5. The Book of Air and Shadows
    By Michael Gruber

  6. I've read some of Michael Gruber's earlier supernatural thriller. He's good at creating suspense and developing some really memorable characters. Book of Air and Shadows is a conspiracy thriller about a possible lost Shakespearean manuscript.

  7. Three Bags Full
    By Leonie Swann
  8. This one is really fun: A shepherd is murdered and his sheep -- these are intelligent sheep, mind you. One of them is even named Miss Maple (get it?) -- set out to solve his murder. Everything through the point-of-view of the sheep. It's so absurd I need to read it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

YOGA | Truancy, Working with Changes

Dark Orpheus does Garuda asana!

<---- Dark Orpheus does Garuda asana! Yay!

I have been avoiding yoga classes for the past month. I attribute it to my recent bout of insomnia, my period and my heavy workload -- but as I ruminate on my yoga truancy, I came to the conclusion that I was angry and acting out.

Since I started the Anusara classes at my studio, I have discovered a more genuine expression in my yoga practice. It is as though I have managed to tap into the source of that which transforms asana into dance. Some asanas feel more natural to the body, and I am grateful to my teacher, B. who has helped encourage this organic self-expression in class.

But last month B. informed us he had given his two-month notice. He was leaving the studio to teach in another country. I was devastated; I have come to trust him, and in the security and warmth of his classes I felt I belonged.

I did not want to see him go, but I also recognise that he needs to move on to grow. For him, it was an opportunity to share the Anusara teachings beyond our little yoga studio. He was sowing the seeds of his teaching across the region. I should be glad for him.

But like a child I was acting out. I started missing my weekly Anusara classes, perhaps in an attempt to wean myself off Anusara -- and B. I did not want to miss him, so I shall be the one who walks away instead.

It was childish, and I am at an age where I should be more mature than this. But I realise there is something similar to the hurted emotions of an abandoned child. I have come to see B. as my parent –- perhaps I could even call him my guru, even as I am cautious about giving anyone that kind of power over me.

With B., I finally found my centre within the Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose) –- a pose that challenged me for more than a year. I have struggled with the pose so much for so long, and when I finally got it, I realise it did not require so much effort at all. It was a softly thrilling moment, to come to full Ardha Chandrasana. B. was walking past, and he acknowledged it with a simple: "Great pose." He knew, for me, it was a triumph.

I'm coming back for my regular classes this week. I guess I have sorted out my issues and I am coming to terms with the inevitable changes. I shall try to make better use of the one month B. has left with us.

There have been a lot of changes at my yoga studio recently –- new teachers and new schedules. I am not happy with some of the changes, but life is about working with our likes and dislikes, isn't it?

I return to Mary Oliver for some inspirational verses on change, and letting go:

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

You must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Is this poem appropriate? Well, any excuse to post a Mary Oliver poem is a good excuse, I think. ;p

Coming Around to Italo Svevo

I entered 2007 with many goals, one of which is to sign up for Italian classes with my friend, Boo. In anticipation of my Italian endeavour, I drew up a list of Italian writers that I had planned to read this year: authors such as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Luigi Pirandello, Cesare Pavese and Italo Svevo.

Due to time constraints, I had to shelve the plans for my Italian classes. But Boo has since progressed to Intermediate Italian, and she has been asking me for recommendation for Italian writers translated into English. Happy to oblige, I passed her some of the authors from my reading list. I also told her which titles were available at the library near our workplace, so she could save some money.

One of my recommendation was Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, a funny tale about a man's bungled attempt to quit smoking. Boo is a compulsive smoker, so she was rather resistant to this title. (I suspect she had not realise my recommendation was more deliberate than I would admit :p) But she did pick up Italo Svevo's A Perfect Hoax -- a gem of a book published by Hesperus Press.

So, because I recommended Zeno's Conscience, Boo ended up reading A Perfect Hoax. And because she loved A Perfect Hoax, I'm currently reading A Perfect Hoax for my Outmoded Authors and Unread Authors Challenges instead.

Amazing how things come full-circle in a mobius strip kind of way.

Meanwhile, Boo has come to enjoy Italo Svevo, and she has since finished Svevo's As A Man Grows Older (published by the brilliant people at NYRB)and I'm hoping she will eventually pick up Zeno's Conscience -- and hopefully quit smoking one day.

Meanwhile, I have thrown another Italian author in Boo's path: Luigi Pirandello. Boo's interest is piqued, and I intend to recommend The Late Mattia Pascal -- also published by NYRB Classics. We'll see if my friend takes the bait.

Friday, September 07, 2007

COOKBOOK | Punk Rock Veganism

When I was still a teenager, one day my aunt asked my mum if she was going to teach me how to cook. My mum took one long look at me (and I was pretending I wasn't eavesdropping) -- and she said, "She'll learn it on her own if she wants to. Otherwise there's no point."

Mum knows best. Trying to force me into the kitchen wasn't going to work if I did not believe in cooking. I understood some basics to cooking, and I wasn't afraid to try -- but it wasn't until I became a vegetarian that I had to take cooking seriously. Eating out is inconvenient where I work, and if I wanted to eat healthy, have more fresh vegetables in my diet, have a balanced meal everyday, I need to learn how to prepare lunch for myself. It was a challenge, and I struggle with it -- but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try.

So, after four years, am I a good chef? Let's just say: I have many skills, but cooking is not among my best. But I get by.

I order cookbooks at the bookstore where I work. It's the more enjoyable part of my job. But sometimes -- sometimes I actually come across a cookbook that excites me.

I'm talking about Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz & Terry Hope Romero [Cover taken from Isa Moskowitz's blog]

After two years in the making, the cookbook has finally gone to print. It's slated to be released this November, and you can find some of the pictures inside the book here. Yes, a cookbook for those who prefer not to eat food that used to have a face or a mother. (Of course that's not the definition of a vegan and I'm not a vegan -- but you get the idea.)

It's punk-rock veganism at its best, and contains 250 recipes -- or "guidelines" -- because cooking (and punk-rock) is often about testing and challenging what is safe and known. Read it, follow the recipes if it suits you, or just experiment. Whatever fits you best.

Why do I like them so much? Isa Moskowitz had me when she said this in an interview with The New York Times:

“I think vegan cooks need to learn to cook vegetables first. Then maybe they can be allowed to move on to meat substitutes.”

When I read this, I just wanted to kiss her.

Note to my friends: Please stop feeding me mock-meat. Feed me vegetables. I want the crunch and flavour of real vegetables. You know, Vegetarian -- from the root word: vegetable.

Where food is concerned, I think they have the right idea. I know I'm going to get myself a copy of Veganomicon when it comes out. Along with the new Jamie Oliver -- Jamie At Home.

You guys have any favourite cookbooks to share?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Global Mala Project

Uniting Yoga, Seva and Collective Consciousness

The purpose of the Global Mala is to unite the global yoga community from every continent, school or approach to form a "mala around the earth" through collective practices based upon the sacred cycle of 108 on Sept. 21st and 22nd, Fall Equinox as the yoga world's offering to further the UN International Peace Day. Each center offers their form of a Yoga Mala according to their yoga tradition and inspiration.

  • 108 Sun Salutations (or variations of 27, 56)
  • 108 rounds of mantra such as the Gayatri or Maha Mrityanjaya
  • 108 rounds of a kriya
  • 108 minutes of meditation, kirtan, movement meditation

Each Center can be dedicated to practice or to practice and seva - service by integrating local action, and raising funds for the organization of their choice or joining forces with other yoga centers and raising funds for three specific projects within the below organizations:

Funds raised are sent directly to the organizations with the awareness that $108 - $1008 is not a drop in the bucket when we join forces together to address the most urgent issues of our times.

So far, Global Mala city-wide events will be happening in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seattle, Denver, New York, Munich, London and Los Angeles. Through sustainable local initiative inspired by yoga practice and community, we hope to have events in both major cities and off the beaten track locations (from Ghana to Iraq), root centers in India and even at the United Nations itself.

For more information, go to Global Mala Project.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

FILM | Jodie Foster, The Brave One

The LA Times interviews Jodie Foster on her new film, The Brave One.

The new film is directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), in which Jodie Foster's character was assaulted in a brutal attack that left her boyfriend dead. Unable to let go of the experience, she becomes a sort of vigilante that prowls the street in hoodie and leather - and a gun. It promises to be intense and edgy, and I am so psyched for it. Also, the poster has Jodie Foster looking all lean, mean and broken up inside. Awww.

There are a few constants in my life, one of them being The Silence of the Lambs - which still rates as one of my favourite films of all time. It was also the film where I first watched Jodie Foster - and became a fan.

She's essentially playing the same character in many of her movie throughout her career - the intelligent, high-strung woman under threat who is fighting back. (I always watch for the tensing of her jaw muscles in all her films. Next time you watch a Jodie Foster film, look out for it.) She is one of those rare actress who can carry a film on her back alone - Flightplan being the best example of a film that should have crashed and burned, but it was rescued by Foster's sole redeeming performance. (The only other actress that I can think of with this kind of charisma is Angelina Jolie - but Jodie Foster has more box-office clout than Jolie.)

Perhaps one day I will sit down and examine the mystique of Jodie Foster for me. Maybe it's her brilliance and exquisite bone structure. Maybe it's because she speaks French like a native. (French being the language that sounds seductive even when you're being insulted.) She is strong-willed, disciplined and hardworking. She is a woman of unfathomed depth. Hollywood never managed to crushed her - that's saying a lot.

Jodie Foster is the kind of woman I aspire to grow into. Whatever the reasons for admiring her, I am so going to catch The Brave One. *sigh*

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

R.I.P. II | 30 Days of Night

'We Are Three, The Spirits In White, Doing the Cha-Cha-Cha'
'We Are Three,
Spirits In White With the Ballsy Heads,
Doing the Cha-Cha-Cha'

(Don't mind that awful little ditty on top. It's just something that pops into my head everytime I look at the cutesy R.I.P. II button.)

Dark Orpheus Reads 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, for the R.I.P. II Challenge!

Some of us had a headstart for the R.I.P II Challenge. I finished 30 Days of Night before 1st September 2007 - the official start of the challenge. But nobody minds, right? ;p

North of the Arctic Circle, in the sleepy, chilly Alaskan town of Barrows where nothing really happens -- night is coming. Thirty days of night in fact, as the sun sets and does not return until 30 days later. As Eben and Stella Olemaun -- the husband-and-wife team of sheriff and deputy of Barrows -- watch the last sunset of the month, they are unprepared for the vampiric pack that will soon descend on the town.

The vampires have discovered the perfect blood orgy. They will feast. They will play. There is no escape. Before the sun rises again on Barrows, no one will be left. Sounds fun, right?

Not really.

I had high expectations for 30 Days of Night, but as it turns out, I was disappointed by the storyline, which was basically about a massacre in town by the vampires, and towards the end, a sacrifice has to be made to save the day. The story ended with great anticipation for the later books in the series, as the lives of the survivors will never be the same again. However, read all by itself -- 30 Days of Night seems superficial, with paper-thin characterisation. As for the dramatic showdown near the end -- the result of the fight was unbelievable and too convenient.

I'm trying to appreciate the artwork of the graphic novel. It is somber, with an impressionistic grey palette with occasional splashes of violent red -- it's murky and bleak, highly sympathetic to the feel of the story -- but I just can't bring myself to like it. I believe a lush visual could have compensated for the bare storyline -- filled in the empty spaces of the narrative, so to speak -- but it did not.

I had expected more out of it. I expected some blood on the steak, but instead I bit into something bone-dry. It could have been more.

But oddly, the graphic novel has not turned me off the film. I still believe if the visual effects were done well, the story could have worked. As an appetizer, let's revisit the trailer to the film adaptation of 30 Days of Night:

Monday, September 03, 2007

BOOKS | Coming Back to the Same in The Stone Gods

In my earlier post on The Stone Gods, I mentioned that Winterson uses the idea of reliving history to explore how we humans continue to make the same mistakes in different permutations, even as we struggle towards a return.

One of the embedded sub-narratives in the story has captured my imagination. In the book, one of the characters, Handsome, tells this story:

There was a young man with a hot temper. He was not all bad, but he was reckless, and he drank more than he should, and spent more than he could, and gave a ring to more women than one, and gambled himself into a corner so tight an ant couldn't turn round in it. One night, in despair, and desperate with worry, he got into a fight outside a bar, and killed a man.

Mad with fear and remorse, for he was more hot-tempered than wicked, and stupid when he could have been wise, he locked himself into his filthy bare attic room and took the revolver that had killed his enemy, loaded it, cocked it and prepared to blast himself to pieces.

In the few moments before he pulled the trigger, he said, 'If I had known that all that I have done would bring me to this, I would have led a very different life. If I could live my life again, I would not be here, with the trigger in my hand and the barrel at my head.'

His good angel was sitting by himand, feeling pity for the young man, the angel flew to Heaven and interceded on his behalf.

Then in all his six-winged glory, the angel appeared before the terrified boy, and granted him his wish. 'In full knowledge of what you have become, go back and begin again.'

And suddenly, the young man had another chance.

For a time, all went well. He was sober, upright, true, thrifty. Then one night he passed a bar, and it seemed familiar to him, and he went in and gambled all he had, and he met a woman and told her he had no wife, and he stole from his employer, and spent all he could.

And his debts mounted with his despair, and he decided to gamble everything on one last throw of the dice. This time, as the wheel spun and slowed, his chance would be on the black, not the red. This time, he would win.

The ball fell in the fateful place, as it must.

The young man had lost.

And as you can probably guess, the story continues with the young man getting into a brawl. He killed someone, and found himself with a loaded revolver, in a filthy attic room.

Again, with all sincerity and remorse, he said if he had known, he would never had risked it. He would have done things differently - and again, his angel interceded for him. So the boy was allowed another chance.

But always, the pattern begins: the boy was living a good life, then he would come to a bar that seems familiar - and it would all come back to the same filthy attic room, with the revolver, the angel.

Like some parody of Groundhog Day, I kept coming back to this story. There is an element of Greek tragedy to this story, like being caught in a karmic limbo - destined to repeat the same mistakes. Unredeemable - yet undeniably heroic because we continue to struggle to change in spite of our human condition.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

CHALLENGE | First September Updates

First September is upon - well, it was yesterday. For myself, it is the start of the R.I.P. II Challenge, the Unread Authors Challenge and the Outmoded Author Challenge.

That's a lot of challenges, yes I know. Children born under the Sun sign of Aries are never known for their moderation. So, I blame the stars. ;p

Oh, the Unread Authors Challenge has a blog of its own.

I've just finished 30 Days of Night for the R.I.P. II Challenge, and is currently reading The Last Wish - a Polish dark fantasy about Geralt, the white-haired, superhuman witcher. It's a collection of loosely related short stories, with Geralt as the main protagonist. It's quite enjoyable.

In the first story, Geralt was commissioned to reverse the spell on a striga by a king. The striga was the result of incestuous congress between the king and his sister. The king's sister died in childbirth and the child - the princess - was buried under the castle where it soon came out of its grave as a monstrous striga that fed on humans.

Sounds fun, doesn't it? Hee.

For the Outmoded Authors and Unread Authors challenges, I've started on May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, partly because the daily abrasion of human contact is getting to me. I'm feeling the need for some solitude to recharge and to reclaim my centre. I'm reading it with Stefanie's advice in mind: "don't believe everything Sarton says. Her solitude in the book was not as solitary in real life. She often had visitors and frequently spent time away from home."

That's always good advice for the readers - as romantic as the ideas in the books seem, don't let them mislead you.

BOOKS | The Narrative of Return in The Stone Gods

I need to post the disclaimer that as I was reading a uncorrected proof copy of Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods, some of the quoted texts may not be as they appear in the final published version. (Do you think they will sue me if I quote from the proofcopy anyway?)

I have enjoyed The Stone Gods. It does get a little polemic at times, as the environment and how we're misusing the planet is one of the themes of the novel. But to read Winterson, one has to accept that she writes most eloquently when she has a cause to fight for.

Structurally, The Stone Gods shares similarities with previous Winterson novels like Lighthousekeeping, Sexing the Cherry and The Powerbook. The elements are familiar: cyclical history, multiple first-person narratives, many smaller sub-narratives/stories embedded into the novel - all illuminating in one way or another the grand theme/s.

The book opens in a dystopian near future of genetic enhancement. Billie Crusoe, the protagonist, is exiled to a nearby planet, the Blue Planet, which the authorities hope they could colonise as the home planet is dying. There is a love story between Spike and Billie. They land on the Blue Planet, which they have also unintentionally set to trigger an Ice Age, because we are humans and we destroy all that we touch. So from here, history is rebooted. One day, millions of year later, on the Blue Planet, another Billie and another Spike evolved.

Am I making sense here?

Let's just say Winterson is not an expert at science fiction. But here she uses the idea of reliving time, reliving history to explore how we humans continue to make the same mistakes in different permutations, even as we struggle towards a return.

When I look back at my own life - and in circumstances like these, who can blame me? - what is that I recognize?

Not the stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, but the stories that began again, the ones that twisted away, like a bend in the road.

The open-opened stories are what she is interested in. Not the clean, nicely tied up stories where "They Lived Happily Ever After" - because, "True stories are the ones that lie open at the border, allowing a crossing, a further frontier." True stories venture into the unknown, where adventure lies. Yet as our protagonists undergo their trials and tribulations - like Robinson Crusoe, like Ulysses - adventurers both, at the end, they are reminded of their need to return, because the other side of venture is Return. It is the condition of humanity, the need to explore, to venture off the path, and then to return - because we suffer from that condition of the heart: Loneliness.

Loneliness is about finding a landing-place, or not, and knowing that, whatever you do, you can go back there. The opposite of loneliness isn't company, it's return. A place to return.

It's a familiar theme in her stories. It sometimes feels like she is essentially telling us the same story over and over again, in different permutations each time. And yet like the re-telling of myths and legends, I never get tired of reading her.

PS: If you're looking for a copy in the stores, the UK Hamish Hamilton edition of The Stone Gods should be available by late September 2007. I have no information on the US publication date though.