Category Archives: books

Book Review | Julie & Julia

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julie juliaI FINALLY read Julie & Julia a few years, I must confess, after watching the movie. This is a bit of a cardinal sin for me because, as a rule, I always read the book before watching the movie. I blame this on the infallible Meryl Streep who starred as Julia Child in the movie. Madame Streep is one of my favourite actresses and the bait I couldn’t resist.

In a nutshell, Julie & Julia is a cooking memoir. The book is an account of how Julie Powell who, feeling like she needed more in life to live for, embarked on a ‘cooking expedition’. The goal was to attempt 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol I by Julia Child in one year, in a small, cramped apartment in Manhattan.

The book started out promisingly, but by the halfway mark, I had fast-tracked to skim-reading as it became more of the same: more cooking (duh!), how wrong the dish turned out and the subsequent tantrums/lash-outs at her long-suffering husband, Eric; her fans and friends, her deadbeat job as a secretary at a government agency. By the third quarter of the book, I was really speed-reading so that I could reach that climactic moment which, I think, began at the height of the dirtiness of her kitchen (uggh maggots??!!), and which resulted in a perfectly boned duck and Pate de Canard en Croute. It was great reading all the way from there till the end.

So, what were my observations of Julie & Julia?

  • Julie Powell is neurotic and self-absorbed (here’s where I expect her, if she were reading this, to say “Fuck Off”.)
  • Julie Powell’s ranking on the hygiene-o-meter is abysmal — unless the perpetual cat fur-covered apartment and pile of days-old dirty dishes in the sink are an exaggeration.
  • Her husband, Eric, is a saint. Is the guy for real? Amazing that he could stomach her fits of rage and misanthropic outbursts, not to mention eating dinner (whether it turned out well or not) at close to 10pm every other night? I finally understand why the word ‘long-suffering’ and ‘marriage’ go together. It’s about being there for your spouse for better or for worse. In this case, it was mostly for worse.
  • There is waaay too much butter going on for anyone’s waistline and heart 🙂
  • This was an exercise in sheer determination — one, to Julie Powell’s credit, I could never attempt. A round of applause for Ms. Powell.

Overall, I loved her style of writing. It gave me the feeling that I was really looking into that window of her life — dirty kitchen, maggot-y sink and all. The book was amusing in many parts and I greatly appreciated the creative turns-of-phrase now and then. I also loved how Julie Powell’s mad-capped cooking attempts in the book are interspersed with short glimpses of Julia Child. But, still, I enjoyed the movie more than the book and, just maybe, I have Meryl Streep to thank for that.

I leave you with Julia Child’s recipe for Boned Duck in Pastry, taken from G’Day Souffle’s blog, here. If any of you tried it, let me know how it turned out!

Book Review: The Lady and The Monk | Four Seasons in Kyoto

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JUST in case anyone’s wondering, this isn’t a tale of a torrid love affair between monk and geisha. For a geisha story, you could always read Arthur Golden — if you haven’t already.. (no monk, though. Tsk).

I first read Pico Iyer when I got hold of Video Night In Kathmandu (his first book) some years back. I haven’t read him since, but I certainly have not forgotten him. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I accidentally stumbled upon The Lady and the Monk at a second-hand bookstore in Penang, and bought it without a second thought – nevermind the ridiculous price I was charged for such a dog-eared, tatty copy (that could well be my fault cos I’m hopeless at bargaining).

Personally, I prefer the briskness of the first book, but The Lady and the Monk is still a wonderful read, a beautiful and poignant reminiscence of Iyer’s four seasons in Kyoto.

Short of stating the obvious, the story revolves around the theme of a lady and a monk – a premise the author constantly returns to via regular references to poetry written by famous Japanese writers and poets (often monks or ladies), and which represents the main characters in the book (the monk being Iyer himself and, the lady, a woman by the name of Sachiko).

The story begins with Iyer’s arrival at the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto in 1987 armed with a couple of suitcases, the name of a local Buddhist temple and a quest to learn about Zen and the elusive — and rather confounding — Japanese culture. The story details his encounters and friendships with locals and foreigners along the way: Mark, an artist from San Francisco learning to paint in the traditional Zen sumi-e style and who lived in Japan for about 15 years; Kazuo, Mark’s friend and a university teacher who is grudgingly in training for the Tendai Buddhist priesthood in order to take over his family’s temple; Matthew, a foreign lawyer also in search of Zen and a Japanese girlfriend (and hugely failing at both). He also meets Sachiko, a young housewife and mother of two struggling to free herself from the constraints of her culture and who is one of, if not the most pivotal character in the book. Sachiko comes across as both elegant and refined, fulfilling to perfection the role expected of a Japanese woman, daughter, mother and wife; who is just as inclined to wearing kimonos as she is  to miniskirts and sneakers, loves American movies and rockstars, Monet and Maugham, and daydreams of the courage to be independent of the many responsibilities that shackle her. Through Sachiko, Iyer learns Japan’s complexities and contradictions and how, in spite of its attempt at embracing the West, its Eastern-ness always prevails. Very often throughout the book, I wondered if Sachiko was real or was she (and all the other characters) merely the perfect vehicle to illustrate the eccentricities of the Japanese.

Overall, I found Iyer’s narrative engaging and incisive and, occasionally, mildly caustic; as always, it is  peppered with delightful wit and refreshing phraseology. My opinion that he is a master of description still stands: he has a way of making even the most mundane detail — like the arrival of spring — sound like the most memorable incident. I really like that despite not being a ‘serious travel guide’, the book with all its colourful characters coupled with Iyer’s interactions, his experiences and observations, is so accessible to any reader.

All said and done, I wonder how much Kyoto has changed since the book was published in ’92. Hopefully, it still retains the innocence and romance that Iyer so vividly depicted.

Book Review — Bartimaeus:The Ring of Solomon

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IT’S a rare thing for me to be so enchanted by fictional characters — especially in books. The very fact that they’re not real is one reason; also, most are generally not memorable enough.

Of course there are exceptions; for instance, Caroline Graham’s DCI Barnaby, Jo Nesbo’s Detective Harry Hole, Reginald Hill’s Dept. Supt. Andy Dalziel and DCI Peter Pascoe (seeing a pattern here?) and Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus of Uruk.

Who is NOT a detective, by the way. HAH!

Baritmaeus is everyone’s — at least he’s mine — favourite djinni or demon, if you will (fourth level, by the way; he gets insulted if one likens him to a small fry scallywag). He is vainglorious, recalcitrant, rebellious and the typical wisecracking smart mouth that, at best, leaves me in stitches or, at worst, with a smile on my face. With the exception of a witty repertoire, I reckon these  characteristics make a pretty impressive resume for aspiring demons. Credit goes to author Jonathan Stroud, who brings footnotes to a whole new level and so much joy to reading.

In Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus travels back in time to the reign of King Solomon circa 950 B.C. (this was written as a prequel to the Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy which was published some years ago) for a new series of adventures while changing masters in rapid time.This time he finds himself under the command of the evil and oppressive magician Khaba the Cruel, who has insidious plans to overthrow King Solomon by threatening to ambush Sheba’s frankincense trade on behalf of the King. Solomon was the most feared ruler in all the kingdoms at the time because of a powerful ring he possesses. The Queen of Sheba, meanwhile, believing the safety and prosperity of her kingdom and frankincense trade at stake, sends Asmira, her personal guard to steal the ring and kill the King. In the midst of it all, Bartimaeus unwittingly finds Asmira his new master and is forced to cooperate in her fatal mission.

I must say that Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon wasn’t as good as the Bartimaeus Trilogy or, to be more precise, The Amulet of Samarkand which is the first instalment of the trilogy. That one really cracked me up and I liked that it was set in more ‘modern’ times. Still, it was a pleasant and amusing read and I would recommend it to those in search of some light entertainment.

One final comment: there was an unspoken message behind the story (for me). The story underscored the issue of slavery, albeit in a light-hearted manner. Aren’t we all slaves to something or other which makes us do things unquestioningly and forget to think logically and rationally? What are we bound to? Food for thought, really.

Book Review: Dork Whore

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HERE’S a book for those in need of a very light read. Dork Whore is a light-hearted chronicle of a (then) 20-year-old Jewish girl, newly discharged from the military and with the express mission of getting laid. And how did she do it? By travelling to Asia, namely Thailand, Vietnam and India. It didn’t matter too much who the deflowering, err, instrument would be; she was horny and hankering for a hump to end her half-virginal status (after getting sort of laid by a Moroccan soldier).

The tale begins when Iris Bahr, the pseud0-virgin in question teams up with Boaz, a fellow Jew, at a pickup joint for travel partners. The partnership is shortlived, however, when Boaz ditches her within the first day. Bahr forges ahead, latching on to a whore-loving Englishman and his friend and ends up going through harrowing experiences in Thailand before deciding she has had enough and heading on to Vietnam and onward. In the process, she meets and breaks from groups of travelers, almost has sex with a few blokes, and finds a kindred spirit in another fellow Jewish traveler, also named Iris.

The narrative is down-to-earth, witty and peppered with self-directed digs; it is also, in a deeper sense, more than just a journey through Asia or a desperate attempt to break away from the shackles of virginity: it is a journey of self-discovery. Hers is a path that every girl has taken some time in their lives — dealing with insecurities and some self-loathing here and there — and I saw myself in it on more occasions than one.

Don’t be fooled by the strapline at the top of the book, though. The bit about traveling through Asia is the side dish; her cherry-popping expedition and self-discovery really is the main course. Having said that, it is by no means lewd, crude or ex-rated. This was a very tastefully written account.

I had initially approached the book with high expectations that there would be more talk on her travels. Unfortunately, it was nothing like Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu which a former sweetheart recommended, and which I absolutely and thoroughly enjoyed. Like Bahr’s, Iyer’s narrative was captivating; unlike Bahr’s, Iyer’s was laden with pertinent information of the cities he had visited. If you can’t already tell, Video Night in Kathmandu is one of my favourite travel books of all time.

Would I recommend Dork Whore, though? Yes, only if you are planning to read something light and funny. You’re not going to get much info on backpacking through Asia here, despite the often-enough references to the Lonely Planet. But, I did find it refreshing and didn’t put it down till the end.

Oh, of course the raison d’ĂŞtre for the story: did she get laid? You’d have to read it to find out.

By the way, Dork Whore is by no means a piece of fiction; Bahr really does exist and is a writer, director and actor who has appeared on numerous TV sitcoms including Friends, The Drew Carey Show and Kings of Queens. Dork Whore is her first non-fiction work.

Book Review: Working

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Page 3 of Working lists the names of the 10 Malaysian artists printed on a background that resembles the surface of metal -- a material favoured by many sculptors.

 

TITLE: Working
Publisher: RogueArt
Price: RM250.00
Photo credit in this review: Tara Sosrowardoyo, Ahmad Zakii Anwar & RogueArt

HERE’S a very readable book on contempary art. Working, published by art consultancy group RogueArt is one of those rare reads on the making of art — the process of creation, the thinking behind the making and how the artist’s space and tools correspond with the creative process and its outcome.

From a personal standpoint, literature on local contemporary art can sometimes sound a little stuffy-upper-crusty. Sharon Chin says: “Why must curators and critics write in a so-called ‘objective’ or distanced way (often resulting in the use of jargon) in order to seem authoritative?” (Read her full article here). To be fair, though, I believe that the usage of jargon is sometimes unavoidable, particularly where critical art writing is concerned.

But first, to put things into perspective. Yes, the artistic landscape has become a lot livelier in recent years with all the art shows and launches that’s been going on; however, this is not reflected in the art literature and resource material (exhibition catalogues not included) that are available. Sad, but true. There are a number of reasons for this including shortage of specialist writers, limited or inadequate funding, the lack of people to mobilise such literary endeavours, and not enough interest from the general public (but this, IMHO, presents a chicken-and-egg scenario). And because of that, I am glad for the existence of the Arteri site, as well as SentAp! and ArtMalaysia magazines which help keep Malaysians updated with what’s happening in the art world.

Back to the subject: Working makes for another interesting addition to the current stash of art literature out there.

The book is sectioned according to its 10 featured artists: painters Ahmad Fuad Osman, Ahmad Shukri Mohamed, Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Chong Siew Ying, Hamir Soib, Kow Leong Kiang, and Jalaini Abu Hassan (Jai); sculptors Raja Shariman Raja Aziddin and Ramlan Abdullah, and Yee I-Lann, who works with photomedia. In terms of selection criteria, the artists are contemporaries in their artistic maturity and standing in the industry; it would be difficult to have a fair ‘comparison’ without a level playing field, says RogueArt director Adeline Ooi.

 

RogueArt's Beverly Yong (left) and Adeline Ooi (right) interviewing Hamir Soib at his studio in Kuang.

 

Working is extremely accessible with no use of jargon, so even the uninitiated will find this a breeze. The writers have employed a basic question-and-answer style, giving it a very candid and, for want of a better word, intimate feel. The layout is tasteful and similar to that of high society magazines or coffee table books, with large copy and even larger photographs, many of which are spread across two pages. What also helps to set the mood is the forward, which describes how interviews were conducted as well as some important observations. This gives readers an idea of what to look out for and helps them understand why some questions were asked and how they related to the topic at large.

I was most drawn to the studio and its importance to the artists. Artists often work in solitude and the studio is, after all, the inner sanctum, the Most Holy Place to which they withdraw to do battle within themselves and begin the process of creation. Thus, the presence of cameras and strangers in their studio was a severe invasion of privacy. Asking them questions like how they made art rather than what a particular work is about (which is far more common) also presented a challenge simply because many artists work instinctively, regardless if they created from a preconceived image or from the subconscious. In many cases, the interviewers had to conduct patch interviews to ‘fill in the blanks’.

Another highlight of great importance and interest for me was the artists’ favourite tools/objects. These often hold some kind of ‘special powers’ for the artists — a talisman, if you will — and range from ‘magic’ brushes (in Fuad’s case, it is an old, very keras brush), to a pair of ‘magic’ pants (Zakii paints with his ‘magic’ Calvin Klein khakis) and even the studio walls (Hamir, who paints large-scale works cannot do without huge spaces to prop his canvases).

 

Artist Jalaini Abu Hassan working in his studio in Bukit Antarabangsa

 

Brief biographies of the artists have been thoughtfully included at the end of each section for the benefit of those interested.

Of course, pictures say a thousand words and what added to Working‘s allure was the beautiful photography by principal photographer, Indonesian Tara Sosrowardoyo whose portfolio happens to include seven TIMES covers and more. It helped that Tara is interested in and familiar with the local art scene and his photographs gave Working a warm, fuzzy kind of familiarity. Photo credit must also be given to Zakii who took quite a number of shots for the book.

Understandably, Working is not an all-encompassing representation of how Malaysian artists-at-large create art; to try and feature more artists than these 10 would deviate from its actual focus group, not to mention becoming overkill. Too much of a good thing, as they say…

Like every project, there is bound to be a naysayer or two out there. One can criticise on the selection of artists (smacking of cronyism, imbalanced, inaccurate representation), to the purpose of the project (vainglory, indulgence of ego) or even its size (too big, too difficult to read), but then we all know the saying, ‘those who can — do; those who can’t — criticise’. At the end of the day, the point is that these people have done something for art, nevermind their intentions.

 

Sculptor Raja Shariman Raja Aziddin braves the sparks to create works of art.

 

It is important to add that Working was entirely self-financed from the proceeds of artworks sold by the featured artists (one artwork per artist) early this year. The book will be donated to local art educational institutions, libraries and galleries and is already available in bookstores. For more information, read my article in the Star here.

Since we’re on the subject of the article, I’d like to say that the interview process was fun. For one thing, it gave me an excuse to meet these personalities without having to rack my brains for a topic of conversation. Those of you whose internal public relations mode occasionally breaks down will agree with me that having a preset conversation topic is a blessing.

In my original copy, I had included some quotes by the project committee members which gave the story a more casual feel, and also allowed the reader a more intimate grasp of what the team had faced in the making of Working. However, space ruled (as it always does in the newsroom), and those quotes were, unfortunately, omitted — not that it in anyway altered the gist of the story.

The committee also mentioned the possibility of making the book or a part of it available online to increase its accessibility once distribution is sorted out. Keeping my fingers crossed and hoping it happens. Also hoping for more literature on Malaysian art. Keep it coming!

Review: Friends In High Places

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GUIDO Brunetti is enjoying the weekend off and time to himself when a young bureaucrat pays him a visit to discuss issues relating to his apartment.  A few days later, the young man dies after falling off a scaffolding at a construction site. The circumstances of his death and the events preceding it compel Brunetti, a commissario of the Venetian police, to look into the matter. His investigations lead him to the crimes of drug abuse and loan sharking, neatly overlooked by the authorities (it appears that the criminals have friends in high places) and he is compelled to use his own connections to solve the crime.

‘Friends in High Places’ is the ninth book in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series and is an easy read, suitable for adults (including teens) interested in crime fiction. It took me two days of leisurely and irregular reading to finish the book.

Although the plot is suitably intricate, I couldn’t help but feel it was over too soon and wished there was more. I must commend Leon for giving the reader an adequate background of Venice (Leon is American), and makes the city even more appealing for its ancient structures, abundant waterways and the lifestyle of the Venetians. She makes Brunetti a real and accessible protagonist — something I find especially endearing. It’s nice to read about a crime buster who has a normal family, has squabbles with his wife whose father is a member of the upper echelons of the Venetian political hierarchy, who has a boss he doesn’t quite like and who struggles with the apathy and lackadaisical attitudes of the people he works with.

Interestingly, I learnt from a website that Leon’s books were originally only published in Great Britain. Apparently her books were too intellectual for the American market. Odd, that.

Leon was born in New Jersey in 1942, but lived abroad since 1965. She has worked as a tourist guide in Rome, a copywriter in London, an English teacher at American schools in Switzerland, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia. She moved to Venice in 1981.

LOVESPEAK

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XVIII

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

From Sonnets by William Shakespeare.

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