Sunday, November 30, 2008

Proust in Hanoi

[The picture was taken in the Green Tangerine restaurant in Hanoi.]

I was looking through the stamps on my passport recently, and it showed that during November last year, I was in Hanoi, Vietnam. I remember the books I brought with me to Hanoi, among them Proust's Sodom and Gomorrah, which I eventually finished reading.

It's amazing how we end up in places we least expect. This time last year, I was supposed to be in Laos, but I ended up in Hanoi because of some unforeseen circumstances. Same time last year, I had not thought I would be living and working in this city of the United Arab Emirates. I had been thinking about other things, some of which seem irrelevant today.

One thing though: this time last year I thought I could finish reading the Proustian epic. That plan has not yet come to pass. *sigh*

FAQs About Working in a Bookstore

“Do you like working in a bookstore?”

This is one of the FAQs people ask when they meet me for the first time. I guess it is a fair question when you are trying to get to know somebody. Our job is often an important part of our identity – but I hope to be someone who is more than my job.

I have been working in the same bookstore the past seven years. Working in a bookstore, to be a book person, is an important part of my life – but it is not the whole of my life. I have family, friends – people I love – I have a (somewhat recently neglected) yoga practice, and I have other interests outside of my workplace. I want to travel more, I want to learn more.

“Besides working with books, Is there anything else you want to do?”

This is a question I often ask myself; at the moment I have no answer. There is of course, the business side of the bookstore, which can be boring, technical and sometimes downright dirty. The business side of a bookstore means each time you order a book, there is a cost involved. A retailer has to monitor the boring side of business – freight, stock-turn, pilferage, profit and cost. Which is why in many bookstores, you see three hundred copies of The Secret, but probably not the first book written by a worthy but somewhat obscure writer. It takes money to invest in stock – which is a vulgar term for books, I know, but that is what it is in book retail: books are your stock.

That is the nature of Business. A business has to stay profitable, because a store has to cover the overhead and pay the employees’ salary. To stay profitable, you often find yourself having to order truckloads of a title you may not always respect (The Secret, some of the titles recommended by Oprah, Mitch Albom titles, Chicken Soups for the Soul, Dan Brown and the multiple rip-offs, and of course, diet books – you have no idea how many diet and self-help books are released every year!)

Then there is the other side of working in a bookstore. If you are lucky, you will have colleagues who share your love and respect of books and reading – and who are also good-hearted people that you can trust. These are the people who make coming to work every day a joy. Over the years, I was lucky to have met some colleagues who stayed friends after they left the workplace. (You know who you are)

But from time to time, they ask me:

“Why are you still here? You can easily earn more money elsewhere.”

I wonder if I can ever explain to my friends, that in spite of all my complaints about the Management and office politics, I still love working in the bookstore. That in spite of all the frustrations, there is still enough love for the job to carry on.

I am sure many of you know that experience: there is that one author, or that one title that you have been looking for. You can’t seem to find the book anywhere. Then one day you walk into a strange bookstore in a different part of town, and there is it – the one book you have been searching for all these time.

Or – you wander into a bookstore: Every corner you turn there is something new and unknown to you on the shelves. Just wandering among the shelves becomes an adventure. You never want to leave.

Somebody working in that bookstore made the decision on the type of books they carry. The people working in the bookstore determine what goes on the shelves, and what are left out – either deliberately or through ignorance and negligence. The bookstore is about the people working in it.

Working in the bookstore means I get to be one of the people building the bookstore I want. To stay in this position I will need to make the kind of business decisions that keep the bookstore profitable. When the bookstore is profitable, the bookstore can then afford to keep the Robertson Davies or Barbara Pym in stock.

“What do you like about working in a bookstore?”

Right now I am in Dubai helping to set up a mega bookstore in Dubai. Most of our staff has no prior experience working in a bookstore this huge. They often come up to us for help, and we understand this is part of the training process.

I found out recently that H has told her new staff that if there is anything they are unsure about the books, they can ask me; she told them I will be willing to help, that I would be willing to teach them. I just shrugged and said, “Okay.” I didn’t think much of it until a few days ago, when H was angry at some of our colleagues for their refusal to help. That was when I realise how H sees me: she did not have to ask – she knew I would help, especially with our Literature section, which I love.

It is heart-warming to learn that someone sees you as helpful and willing to share knowledge, especially when you know how strong your self-serving impulses are. I believe H understands that the greatest reward about working in a bookstore is the sharing – whether it is just a casual conversation with a customer about a book, or imparting product knowledge to your new staff – when you are allowed to share your love and your passion with somebody, something positive is exchanged and you are happier for it.

H told me the reason she likes working in a bookstore is that it allows her to share knowledge with so many people. She believes it is her mission as a Muslim to share and to educate. When she meets people who work selfishly and who withholds information for the sake of their petty politics, it drives her crazy. She believes information should be shared – and I can respect that.

I love working in a bookstore. I love the books. I delight in the simple task of looking through a publisher catalogue. It’s the office politics and dubious management decisions that I hate. But office politics exist everywhere, and very few people can truly say they love their bosses. When I can get my mind around the little difficulties of working life, I have the best job in the world for somebody like me.

 "Have you read all the books in the bookstore?"

Of course not. Would you want to go to a bookstore where you have read all the books on the shelves? That's part of the fun. As long as there is something left unread, there is always that element of adventure, of something still left undiscovered. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

QUIZ |Dewey Decimal Section

I am deeply disturbed. No f**king way.

dark orpheus's Dewey Decimal Section:

280 Christian denominations & sects

dark orpheus = 41815868519 = 418+158+685+19 = 1280

200 Religion

The Bible and other religious texts, books about the general philosophy and theory of religion.

What it says about you:
You don't mind thinking about the unknown or other very big ideas. You will never feel like your work is finished. The 200-series is dominated by Christian topics, so you may feel like you're constantly surrounded by Christians.

Find your Dewey Decimal Section at

Friday, November 14, 2008

DUBAI | Passport

I had to fly out of Dubai recently for work. When I checked in at the airport, I found out that the travel agency screwed up and the people at the airport wouldn't let me check-in. As I was about to miss my flight, I found myself losing my cool and I was on the verge of strangling the idiot at the check-in counter for the delay. I behaved like an overbearing bastard as I demanded that they put me on the plane - it's not my problem some idiot didn't do his job properly.

It was something of a breaking point; I was losing my patience with this country where nothing is certain and always subjected to change - and it's always your fault when somebody else screwed you up.

Finally, Idiot Counter Guy referred me to an elegant lady in black with a stunning pair of turquoise-coloured eyes. You know the sort - butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

Lady with the Turquoise Eyes asked, "What is the problem?" Idiot Counter Guy explained the situation to her, all the while avoiding my eyes completely.

"Where are you from?" asked the Lady with the Turquoise Eyes. Then she glanced at my passport, and said matter-of-factly:

"Singapoour? Ok. I approve it."

My Singapore passport saved the day. People didn't respect me. But they respect the passport, the diplomatic clout it represents. I have never really appreciated the efforts made by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs until that day. We cannot divorce ourselves from the foreign policies and diplomatic relations established by our heads of state.

This is what it means to be a citizen of a country.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The book-chats are suffering a little on this blog lately. What so often happens is that I would much rather use the time to read a new book, than take the time to plan and write something about a book I’ve just finished.

But sometimes a book deserves to be talked about. Because it is that good, and more people should know about it. There are some books that deserve multiple posts – because they are just so interesting, there is so much to talk about. Then there is the question of whether your own literary ability can do the book justice; if you can’t say it well, better to say nothing at all, right?

So much easier to just start a new book instead, isn’t it?

Regardless, I’m going to try to write more on the books I’ve read. Let’s bring the book-chats back to this blog, shall we?

I’ve just finished Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef recently. For his earlier book, The Making of a Chef, Ruhlman went on assignment as a student of the Culinary Institute of America. The Soul of a Chef is his follow-up on culinary journalism – except this time his aim is to discover the truth about greatness.

He ends his book trying to unravel the enigma behind the genius of Thomas Keller, from the French Laundry. It seems to me that in Thomas Keller, Ruhlman found the answer to his question of greatness.

Keller is an interesting subject indeed. He is a chef deeply rooted in classical French cuisine, yet without any formal training. His culinary career was a string of unspectacular ventures, until he found the French Laundry.

Ruhlman described Keller as a self-taught chef who had to “make the critical intellectual leap and apply what he learnt, this new knowledge and instinct to everything he touches.” Keller’s genius lies not just in how he applied culinary knowledge to his job. It is how he applies everything he learnt to his job, and how he applies his attitude to his job to everything else. Here is a three-star chef who earns millions of dollars from his restaurant, and he still insist on picking up cigarette butts from the floor, and getting on his knees and cleaning the kitchen himself everyday. Keller lives by example. The first thing he does when he walks into the kitchen every day is to clean. His staff sees him doing it, and eventually they start doing it themselves.

It is not just a matter of cleanliness. It is about an attitude of exacting perfection in every aspect of his life and his surroundings. Keller is successful because he takes his logic to its most extreme conclusion. As Keller explains the standards he expects from his staff:

Most of these cooks, Keller explained to me, hoped town their own restaurants one day; if they were good enough for that, they would treat this place as if they were the owners. If they didn’t, they would never be successful, he thought, because you can’t spend half a career as someone else’s employee and then suddenly, one day, start thinking like an owner. If you wanted to be a great chef and restaurateur, you had to think like an owner and act like the owner from your very first job as prep cook, or you’d never develop the muscles for when the time actually arrived.

Then there was the episode with the rabbits. Keller decided one day he was going to add rabbits to the menu for the first time. He could have just asked his purveyor to deliver twelve prepped rabbits to his restaurant. It was how cooks usually do it. Keller, being the man that he is, decided he needs to learn how to butcher, skin and gut the rabbit – himself. It didn’t help that the bunnies are so damn cute. He had to knock them out, then slit their throats, pin them to a board, before skinning and then gutting them. On top of that, bunnies scream. It was horrible. Yet this experience was enlightening in its own way:

He stunned, killed, sinned, gutted, and butchered them all for service that week, and he did learn how to break down rabbits. But he learned something more. He had taught himself about respect for food and, its opposite, waste. It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life, to Keller, wasn’t meaningless. If their lives hadn’t meant anything, it would have been easy to kill them. He took that life, and so he wouldn’t waste it. But how easy it is to forget about a piece of meat in the oven, throw it in the garbage, and fire a new one. He would not overcook this rabbit. He cared about it too much at this point. These were going to be the best rabbits ever. He was going to do everything possible, short of getting in that oven to cook with them, to make sure they were perfect.

This man deserves to eat rabbit.

This is not a call for everyone to go butcher, skin and gut your dinner of course. Keller, admittedly, is a man of extremes – but it is this very attitude that allowed him an excellence that most of us dream about, yet dare not strive for. He goes all the way to prepare the rabbit, from slaughter to the kitchen. He does not shy away from the gruesome and difficult part of the slaughter. Most of us, being asked to slaughter a chicken, would balk at the task; Keller does not. He acknowledges what it truly means to cook a rabbit—that to partake of the pleasure of eating a rabbit, you need to take a life. You can’t look away as though it doesn’t matter. What we do matters. How many of us approach our food, our job, or anything at all – with this kind of awareness? With this sense of responsibility?

It is this level of engagement that makes the Thomas Kellers of the world who they are. How is it that a book about food can turn out to be a book on life’s lesson?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

DUBAI | Missing the Rain

People from Dubai tell me it rained about five times in the city last year. 

People from home tell me it's raining dogs and cats right now.

I miss the rain. More than anything else, I miss the wetness of home. During this season the monsoon winds will bring on the heavy showers. It will be wet and cold, and it's wonderful and cozy to sleep in during the rainy season. I miss the feel of the squishy wetness of shoes soaked in the rain. I miss running through the rain to the nearest bus-stop. I miss waiting for my bus in a packed bus-stop during the rain, the water on my forearms, avoiding the umbrellas of the people with their bags of Christmas shopping.

I miss the rain.

There was a scene in my favourite desert book, The English Patient, which describes a moment when it rained one night in the desert. One of the character had been in bed with her lover. She leans out of the window, letting the rain pour down on her naked body. I would post that passage if I had my journal, or my copy of The English Patient.

Right now, I really like to feel the cold rain on my skin.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Monday Song Lyrics #2: Change

Today's post will be a continuation from last Monday: a post on song lyrics.

I'm posting another song from Tracy Chapman this week, "Change" (from the album "Where You Live"). I picked up the album some time in 2005, after some major changes in my life - or perhaps, after some minor changes in significant areas of my life. Things were improving, and the problems that overwhelmed me for so long actually felt manageable. Life was the same actually, but I felt better.

Many of us have these songs that speaks to us. It came to us at the right time, often during a significant moment - when we first fall in love, when our hearts are breaking, the birth of our first-born. For me, it happened when I first started to believe that I had the power to change my life. It isn't going to be easy. I will continue to stumble along the way - but it is possible.

Joanna Macy wrote:

In the Tibetan Buddhist path we are asked to pause before any period of meditative practice and precede it with reflection on the preciousness of a human life. This is not because we as humans are superior to other beings, but because we can "change the karma." In other words, graced with self-reflexive consciousness, we are endowed with the capacity for choice -- to take stock of what we are doing and change direction.

So often we are stuck in our own dark path. We don't find our way out and we fall into despair. We think this is it: my life has been a train-wreck and there is no way out. What is that elusive factor that pulls us out of the despair and makes us change?

When I first heard Tracy Chapman's "Change", it felt like she was asking the same questions I have been asking myself:

How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Does it take our world to crash and burn before we will wake up to the need to change our lives? Will we only wake up to the errors of our lives if we knew that we would die today?

I can only speak from a limited experience, which is my own. I believe the key to change is in these lines of the song: If you saw the face of God and love/Would you change?. For many of us, at some point of our lives, we will find ourselves lost in a dark place. We struggle against it but all efforts seem to make things worse . It was our mistakes that brought us to this state. Making the same mistakes over and over is not going to save us. The only way to save ourselves is to change. But to change, we first have to believe in the possibility of things being better. Sometimes, it can be the most difficult thing in the world to believe that we deserve better. It can also be the scariest thing in the world, to change. Change is a leap into the unknown. 

Change is about hope and faith. It is truly like looking into the face of God and love. It is the only real thing that can move us into saving ourselves.

Did I also mention Tracy Chapman has a great, great voice?


If you knew that you would die today
Saw the face of God and love
Would you change?
Would you change?

If you knew that love can break your heart
When you're down so low that you cannot fall
Would you change?
Would you change?

How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change
Makes you change

If you knew that you would be alone
Knowing right, being wrong,
Would you change?
Would you change?

If you knew that you would find a truth
That would bring a pain that can't be soothed
Would you change?
Would you change?

How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change
Makes you change

Are you so up right
You can't be bent
If it comes to blows
Are you so sure you won't be crawling
If not for the good why why risk falling
Why risk falling?

If everything you think you know
Makes your life unbearable
Would you change?
Would you change?

If you'd broken every rule and vow
And hard times come to bring you down
Would you change?
Would you change?

If you knew that you would die today,
If you saw the face of God and love
Would you change?
Would you change?

If you saw the face of God and love
If you saw the face of God and love
Would you change?
Would you change?

Here's a link to Tracy Chapman performing "Change" on Youtube

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

MEME | Unspectacular Me

Long overdue meme that Ovidia tagged me for. (Sorry, work has been a virtual state of war over here in Dubai)

I'm supposed to state 6 unspectacular things about myself - but I find myself trying to think of 6 unspectacular things about myself that's outstanding. Heh.

Six Unspectacular Things About Myself:

  1. I alway order a Tall Cafe Latte at Starbucks
  2. If I had a choice, I would prefer to listen than to talk
  3. I prefer animals to humans in general
  4. I have too many Batman T-shirts for someone my age
  5. I am ignorant on a lot of things
  6. I tend to be more flexible than strong

There. Nothing spectacular.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Favourite Song Lyrics

Stole this from Emily over at Telecommuter Talk, where she suggested a Favourite Song Lyrics Monday (it's amazing how a meme just spreads across the internet, doesn't it?)

On a Monday, or every Monday, or any Monday, just post your favourite song lyrics, something that help brighten up the first day of the week.

(Ironically I am now in Dubai, where Fridays and Saturdays are the traditional weekends, and Sunday is the start of the work-week. So, Sunday is Monday here. Heh.)

I have many songs that I love to pieces and I would love to post here. Th question is, which song to choose here? In light of the US Election coming soon, and of course, Chapman's forthcoming album, I've picked "America", from Tracy Chapman's 2005 album, "Where You Live". It's one of Chapman's more political songs, about the hypocrisy of greed and colonization. It also reminds us of how history repeats itself. Most of all, I love the tempo on this song.


You were lost and got lucky,
came upon the shore,
found you were conquering America,
Spoke of peace,
Waged a war,
while you were conquering America.

There was land to take, and people to kill
While you were conquering America.
You saved yourself, and did God's will,
While you were conquering America.

The ghost of Columbus haunts this world,
You're still conquering America.
The meek won't survive, inherit the earth,
Cause you're still conquering America


Found bodies to serve, submit and degrade,
while you were conquering America.
Made of soldiers and junkies, prisoners and slaves,
while you were conquering America.

America, America, America

Your hands are at my throat,
my back's against the wall,
cause you're still conquering America.
We are Sick, and tired, hungry and poor,
cause you're still conquering America.

America, America, America,

You bomb the very ground,
you feed your own babies,
you're still conquering America
Your sons and your daughters,
May never sing your praises,
while you were conquering America.

America, America, America

Unseal your eyes,
see the distant shore,
while you were conquering America,
Take your rockets to the moon,
Try to find a new world,
And you're still conquering America.

America, America, America

The ghost of Columbus, haunts this world,
You're still conquering America,
You're still conquering America,
You're still conquering America

MUSIC | Tracy Chapman has a new album out this November

Finally managed a bit of breathing space this week. One of the best news I heard today is the forthcoming release of the new Tracy Chapman album, "Our Bright Future". It's scheduled for this November and I'm just hoping the Virgin stores in Dubai will have it in fast. It'll probably be over-priced, but a new album from Chapman is worth it.

Tracy Chapman's last album, "Where You Live" (released in 2005) is still one of the most played album on my iPod. Chapman definitely has beautiful vocals, and she works with some of the best in the music industry. But what I love most of all is the simplicity of her songs - the simple elegance of it all.

Listen to the new single, "Sing For You" on myspace.