Monday, November 3, 2008

Book: 'The Best of Roald Dahl'

I wish I can write as good as Roald Dahl. Reading his “The Best of” book was a roller-coaster ride – and the gut-wrenching feeling remains true even after numerous rereading. He served mind-boggling twist one after another that after some stories I really have to close the book, take a deep breath, and wondered to myself: ‘Did I really just read something that awesome?’. His short stories are ones that I wished I had conjured – vividly imaginative, filled with unexpected turns, and deeply disturbing that I felt emotionally drained reading some of his works. The dark, mysterious tales, sometimes inhuman tone, sometimes wickedly funny, left one breathless for more. He cajoled the readers into joining his adventure – calm at first – and then plunged us straight into the deepest, coldest and darkest abyss.

Here are some of my favorite tales as compiled in “The Best of Roald Dahl”:

Parson’s Pleasure: An antique dealer posed as a religious man to gain access into homes and tricked the owners to sell their antiques at a paltry sum, only to resell the items himself at a handsome profit. But will one of his unsuspecting victims hindered him from his biggest prize yet?

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat: A married lady had an affair with a rich colonel, and when he gave her a present so expensive and luxurious she can’t resist, how will she hide it from her husband?

Royal Jelly: A father’s maddening interest with bee caused him to experiment on his baby, but at what consequence?

The Boy Who Talked With Animals: A boy saved a turtle from being turned into delicious dishes and accessories. The next day he went missing.

Genesis and Catastrophe: The weakest baby ever born single handedly changed the history of the world.

Skin: A priceless art was tattooed on a priceless organ – the skin. What happened when serious buyer wants to acquire the piece?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Book: "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

I believe good writing can be trained. Some writers are gifted – they seamlessly create beautiful prose, possess rich vocabulary and have an admirable style– but majority of us need extra polishing. I still kept some of my essays from high school and it is fascinating – after I finished cringing at how bad-ass the essays were back then - to compare how much the writing has evolves since then. The vocabulary grows, less grammatical mistakes are made, and the writing style becomes more varied. The writing gets better, but of course, still far from perfect.

Then this book comes along.

William Zinsser wrote the classic ‘On Writing Well’, a book that after more than 30 years had stood against the test of time. One may think that a book on writing will be a bore, but it was a surprise to discover what an enjoyable and assuring reading this book provides. “Writing is hard work…… Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in a moment of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard”. What a gem. Anyone who tells me that my shortcoming is not entirely my fault is a keeper.

The enduring success of this book is due to its casual and warm approach. Instead of being the typical textbook on grammar and writing rules, Zinsser ‘speaks personally’ to his audience. He did not sound like your strict language teacher in school nor was he mechanical in his eloquence. One of my favorite chapters is ‘Clutter’ which provides tips on weeding superfluous, redundant or long words that lengthen one’s essay, but serve no purpose. He asks us to consider “At the present time we are experiencing precipitation” – pompous - versus the succinct “It is raining”. When was the last you read an insurance or bank statement only to lost your train of thoughts after only three sentences? Sometimes all we need is a clear, short sentence.

Another favorite is the chapter ‘Bits and Pieces’. It is like that tin of assorted biscuits – you got several scrumptious varieties in one container. In this chapter, Zinsser highlighted several tips or reminders on how to use punctuations, ‘that’ vs ‘which’, paragraphing, adverbs, adjectives and many others. It is a useful reference written wittily.

I only bought this book last month – but it is already creased, folded and well-used. That, to me, is a testament of a good book, one that endures countless rereading, flipping and referencing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Book: "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert

What is the key to true happiness?

For Elizabeth Gilbert, it is pleasure, devotion and balance. She began her soul-searching journey to three countries after a messy divorce, deciding once and for all to realign her commitment and balance her life. She found pleasure in Italy by doing nothing else except learning Italian from a pair of handsome local twins and eating her heart out (putting on twenty five pounds by the end of her four months stay). She devoted herself to the teachings of a yogi in an ashram in India and in Bali, she befriended an old medicine man and helped a young single mom to find a better footing in life. Along the way, she found love.

There are books that I read so that I can gain some knowledge and converse intellectually with that dorky but cute guy in a coffee shop –

“..but imperialism inflicts perpetual corrosion of a community’s identity even in its best effort to preserve the local culture and idealism!”

(FYI, this scenario only happened in my cuckooed mind, up there).

Then there’s book that I read purely because I want to enjoy reading it. It serves purely as a method of escapism, where for once and for all I am not an underpaid executive in an otherwise competitive market (ahem ahem).. “Eat, Pray, Love” falls in the second category.

I had only fond memories of Italy and Elizabeth’s chronicle brings back memories of my solo Europe backpacking trip, of which Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan were some of the Italian stops. Spanish Steps, endless piazzas, beautifully dressed Italian women, smell of freshly baked bread, devilishly delicious gelato, and handsome Italian men. Bali was my do-nothing place, where I visited alone (hmmmm.. I started to see a pattern here. Solo. Alone) to totally unwind, had a total ‘me’ moments with a good book on a quiet, secluded beach. Traveling alone was not only a way to assert my independence, but my eyes opened wider, my mind is more receptive and I get to do more self-reflection and re-evaluate my life, since there are no family members to take care of or friends to drag you for another round of souvenir shopping spree. India is still on my go-to list.

This book is such a joy to read. It is witty, heartwarming, lovable and engaging. It is the ultimate chick-lit, but one written with more passion, in depth and certainly something that a guy should not feel ashamed to read.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Book: “Laskar Pelangi” by Andrea Hirata

Facts: The book is written in Bahasa Indonesia (though those sold in Malaysian bookstore have been translated to Bahasa Malaysia). This is the author’s first book, which immediately garnered critical acclaim and climbed the bestsellers list.

I opened the glove compartment (by the way, do we still have to call it glove compartment in Malaysia, since no sane person here ever wear a pair given the 365-days of sweltering heat?) of my friend’s car, and a book with red and black cover revealed itself. “Oh, you should read that book. You’ll cry”. Glancing at the author’s name and the summary, my only remark was “Ok”.

Fast forward three weeks later. We were at a bookstore in Yogyakarta, Indonesia when I chanced upon the same book, this time displayed in the bestsellers list (of course, as “Indonesia’s most powerful book” tag-line is printed on its cover, where else would it be if not on the bestseller list, eh?). Praying that this won’t end up as another souvenir to be displayed on my shelf, I paid IDR 60,000 at the cashier. That was the best sixty thousand rupiah spent on that trip.

I adore, absolutely adore this book. To say this book touches my heart is an understatement. All I know is that I want to take the next flight to Indonesia, meet the writer, bow to and hug him and cry, ‘Where have you been!?’. Okay, maybe that is a bit dramatic. But, reading this book was such an euphoric experience. It has been too long since a book affects me so much that upon reaching the last word, I wished the book has not ended. That as I wake up tomorrow, fifty more pages would magically appear. And fifty more pages the next day and the next and the next…

“Laskar Pelangi” or literally translated as The Soldiers of the Rainbow recounts the magic of childhood and friendship. Set against a backdrop of deprived community, eleven children grow up with pretty much nothing to their name but with everything that is pure and inspiring in their heart. A good deal of the pleasure in this book is how Andrea shaped his character and the world they lived in, in this case Kampung Belitong, with such crisp details. The characters come alive, their stories was excruciatingly painful that once in a while you will claim “dust gets into my eyes”, yet their experience was heart-warming and tender at the same time.

The center of the story is poverty and in a fresh take, Andrea brings us to view that even those who live by counting pennies have a chance to shine if they were given the opportunity. Kids, blessed their little souls, should be given inspiration and motivation to succeed and encouraged to face any obstacle with dignity, determination and courage. This book is also a salute to the teachers who genuinely believe that good education is deserved by every child and is a homage to the students who hungrily lapped at the teachings.

I usually do my reading on the train to and from work, and it was with best effort I tried not to cry or laugh like a crazy old woman in public. How could you not cheer when a bunch of poor nobodies, whose school is always last in the ranking, decided to take on the rich, more fortunate kids in a quiz show? Or when they defy expectation to stage a shocking cultural performance in the inter-school carnival? How could you not fall in love with a character that appreciate his education so much he cycled 80-km to and from school everyday, and never miss a day of school? Kids that others looked down upon, except for their hardworking teacher who wants nothing more than for them to liberate their family out of poverty?

“Laskar Pelangi” is an enriching ‘motivational book’ disguised as a novel. As if there is no tomorrow, I profoundly encourage you to read this book and pass it on to your loved ones.