Jumaat, 4 Oktober 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Man With The Compound Eyes


WHAT do you expect when you pick up a novel – very probably your first – from Taiwan? A spiky assertion of independence, perhaps, or wistful, Japanese-inspired fables?

The literary landscape of mainland China has begun to take shape for Western readers, but that of Taiwan remains a blank, despite the island's sophisticated and long-established publishing industry. The English translation of Wu Ming-Yi's intriguing fourth work of fiction simultaneously plunges the reader into the melting pot of contemporary Taiwanese fiction and refuses any attempt to define it.

It is easy to see why Wu's English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell (of Cloud Atlas fame). His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there's even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.

The plot is nominally based around two characters: Atile'i, a 15-year-old boy who lives on an untouched island in the South Pacific, and Alice Shih, an academic and writer who is considering suicide after years of being haunted by the death of her husband and mysterious disappearance of her son.

Atile'i's world – the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo – is established with extraordinary detail, complete with folk legends and sayings, and the customs and traditions of the islanders recounted in long passages. This is underpinned with a seriousness that is mirrored later in the novel, when the focus shifts to the lives of Taiwanese aboriginal people. One of these customs demands that Atile'i, like every second son, is sent to sea, never to return. But Atile'i is swept up by the currents and caught in a gigantic trash vortex about to crash on to the eastern coast of Taiwan. The vortex hurls him ashore and brings him into contact with Alice and her small group of friends.

But the novel, like the trash vortex that threatens to devastate the island, rapidly accumulates plotlines of various shapes and complexity. It draws in other voices and characters, so Alice and Atile'i's narratives become part of a huge, amorphous story. The flora and fauna of Taiwan play a prominent role. Birdsong, butterflies and bears are lovingly described, as are the mountains that were the beloved domain of Alice's deceased husband; and there is a constant awareness of the Taiwanese terroir (land). Nature comes to life in various guises, influencing the other characters and insinuating itself into every twist of the plot.

Entwined with this idea of the prominence and fragility of nature are the ancient, marginalised but still-proud aboriginal Taiwanese people, represented by Hafay and Dahu. Telling their own stories, they bring true emotional heft to the book. Many of the novel's most moving moments come not from Alice's predicament, but from Hafay's struggle to exert her own independence amid the difficulties of modern life. She handles her job as a seedy masseuse with dignity and humour before saving enough money to start her own modest cafe.

Beyond the book's ecological and scientific attributes, you can see a deft novelist's hand at work: the Wayo Wayoan traditions include wry touches such as "feeling the wind with the testicles"; and the human encounters – notably Hafay's relationships with her clients and Alice's marriage – are closely observed with a wistful melancholy. There may be walking trees, miraculous butterflies and deer that morph into goats, but this is a novel anchored in the gritty mess of what it means to remember and to exist as an individual. – Guardian News & Media

London-based Malaysian author Tash Aw had his latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.

The Leader Phrase Book


HOW many times have you wanted to smack yourself in hindsight for not saying what you really meant?

Unlike actors who have the advantage of a script to help them always articulate the perfect bon mot, regular people who live unscripted lives – that's us – don't have the luxury of a scriptwriter to prompt us. So it's inevitable that we all live through "I should have said that" moments.

From maintaining the peace with your partner to bringing up a delicate issue with a client or defending yourself when you're criticised, we all need the right response to get our point across and pull off a conciliatory outcome – and that's where this book of really useful phrases will be of service.

According to the author "there isn't a book like this out there" and his objective was to "share these talking points so that you can develop a trustworthy, convincing leadership presence in any situation that life throws at you" and offer powerful phrases to motivate, inspire and to put one in command.

Probable phrases are highlighted in different situations and for easy referencing, situations are listed under chapters such as at work, conflicts and anger, diplomacy, negotiation, and problem solving among others.

In each situation, the book focuses on a specific need. Say the situation is at work and you need the right words for that tricky task of asking for a raise or saying no to your boss, or the situation is involves conflict and anger and you need to diffuse a tense situation or respond to an offensive statement.

The author not only lists the "right thing" to say. To illustrate the bridge-burning effects of certain phrases, he includes phrases that will make you appear passive, blunt, arrogant or aggressive.

So if you're not exactly the most tactful person on the planet or you simply have a fascination for burning bridges, this will – hopefully – help you see how certain words can come across.

While the author has attempted to offer most situations where you'll find the need to reach for his book, the downer is how the book appears. The choice of font just comes off as unsophisticated as if someone had typed it in word processing document and just printed the pages to compile into a book; and the rudimentary page design lends the book a lifeless textbook feel – the overall look could have been more polished.

On the other hand, who would have thought an unassuming business-like phrase book could get you turning the pages for a chuckle! Although, certain phrases won't seem as amusing when you're on the receiving end.

So the next time someone hits you with an offensive statement, try a friendly response with "I'm not going to argue with you, but I'm still a bit surprised you said that" instead of a confrontational retort like "You should be working as a diplomat with skills like those (sarcasm)".

Equally, when someone swears at you, a subtle way responding is "I'm not feeling comfortable with you right now" instead of aggressively saying "Keep speaking like that and you'll be talking to yourself!"

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns


SHE'S back ... and more devilish than ever," teases a blurb on the back cover.

The "she" in question refers to Miranda Priestly, the all-powerful fashion magazine editor first introduced in Lauren Weisberger's 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada. It was widely believed that Vogue's real-life editor Anna Wintour was the inspiration for the character.

Priestly was also memorably brought to life by Meryl Streep in the 2006 hit movie of the same name; one of the rare times a film adaptation marked a drastic improvement over a book. (Anne Hathaway co-starred as Andrea "Andy" Sachs, a college graduate who lands a job as co-assistant to the fearsome Priestly.)

In this sequel, Weisberger brings back the same characters that populated her original. However, for a novel entitled Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, you get just a disappointing handful of scenes featuring the "devil", and, erm, she's not even wearing Prada.

While Streep (who snagged an Oscar nod for this role) managed to humanise Priestly by giving her shades of vulnerability, Weisberger inexplicably – and disappointingly – reduces Priestly to a caricature here. (Yes, she still wears fabulous clothes and calls Andy "Ahn-dre-ah", but she comes across as a one-dimensional, almost cartoonish figure.)

Instead, almost three-quarters of the book focuses on Andy's bland domestic drama and her endless complaints about how life has been so unfair to her.

Let's put it this way: if this were made into a movie, Streep would be reduced to a cameo role, which would be a major faux pas. (Do we actually want to be subjected to two hours of Hathaway's character and her endless whining? No, thank you.)

Anyhoo, here's the plot: almost a decade has passed since Andy quit the job "a million girls would die for" working for Priestly at Runway magazine – a dream that turned out to be a nightmare.

Since then, life has been good to Andy. Together with Emily, her former nemesis and co-assistant, they have joined forces to start The Plunge. It's a high-end bridal magazine that's become required reading for the young and stylish.

Now, Andy writes and travels to her heart's content while Emily – always the scene stealer – plans parties and secures advertising like a seasoned pro.

Even better, Andy has met the love of her life. Max Harrison, scion of a storied media family, is confident, successful and drop-dead gorgeous. Their wedding will be splashed across all the society pages as their friends and family gather to toast the glowing couple.

Naturally, Andy is on top of the world ... but she can't shake the past, and keeps having nightmares about Priestly. (As you can tell, Andy has become quite the drama queen.) When she discovers a secret letter with crushing implications, her wedding-day jitters turns to cold dread.

Andy realises that nothing – not her husband, nor her beloved career – is as it seems. Worst of all, her efforts to build a bright new life would lead her directly into the path of the devil herself.

Besides an unappealing protagonist in Andy, there is a "twist" involving Emily's betrayal of Andy's trust, which I didn't like. Maybe I am biased, as I am a fan of Emily Blunt who played Emily to such delightful effect in the movie version.

Throughout the novel, Weisberger has a flair for describing her characters' outfits; not surprising, as this is a book set in the fashion world. And as they say, the devil's in the details.

For instance, Priestly's ensemble for a dinner: "The vermilion maxi dress fit perfectly and was made of the finest silk with beautiful stitching, but it flowed around her ankles on a soft elegant wave. Her arms were bare ... and a knockout pair of diamond chandelier earrings reflected the light in tiny, bright bursts. A handful of Hermes bangles jangled on her left arm, of course, but her only other accessory was a buttery soft leather strip that wrapped two, maybe three times around her trim waist, overlapping itself in a way that felt artful and casual at the same time."

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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