Category Archives: books

Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By chronicling the efforts of individuals and organisations to defeat and understand cancer, the book to me is a mirror of our biological and psychological natures: compelling and unsettling at the same time.

The author (with very good editors I assume) weave a narrative of social trends, medical orthodoxies and human bias through the decades. It begins with the search for cures and progresses to efforts to discover how cancer actually begins and propagates, touching on other topics and fields in the process such as statistics, palliative care, legal struggles against tobacco companies. The author also scatters excerpts from his own personal experiences with cancer patients where appropriate.

It’s a work that captures human failings and accomplishments in a historical and social context. The author explains that he wanted to call it a “biography” because it felt as if he were writing about a specific person. I’d like to build on that – “The Emperor of All Maladies” is more like a mosaic comprising the efforts, sufferings and triumphs of countless people in an ongoing struggle against an implacable and intimate enemy.

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Subhas Anandan, “The Best I Could”

The Best I Could The Best I Could by Subhas Anandan

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
It’s clear that Subhas Anandan wants to be seen as someone who values family ties, friendships and loyalty above all. What may surprise some people are his fairly conservative views: he has strong words for drug abusers and strongly disapproves of gambling.

Most of all he believes in the Singapore justice system. Although he would be the first to point out the system’s shortcomings, he genuinely believes that it works most of the time.

Even so, readers may be unnerved by some of his insights. For example he points out that contrary to popular assumption, an acquittal does not mean that the accused is innocent, merely that his guilt was not proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Insofar as it’s possible to derive insights into a person’s character from his writing, Subhas emerges as a very private man with strong sense of loyalty, fairness and compassion. For a perceptive reader, the gaps in his narrative will provide tantalising hints to Subhas’s network of contacts and to how he actually sees the world.

But even the most dull will notice some unusual editorial choices. For example, Subhas’s description of his prison experiences are abruptly cut short and the book jumps to the section describing some of his cases, leaving the reader wanting him to finish this fascinating part of his life. Later he voluntarily includes a facsimile of a letter from one of his clients, currently detained indefinitely at the President’s pleasure. In view of his comments on the case, it seems clear that Subhas is trying to win sympathy for the boy.

His writing is concise and the tone scrupulously objective. Those looking for more lurid material (given Subhas’s career) will probably be disappointed. However the content is far from boring, and Subhas’s dry humour flashes occasionally.

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Lewis Buzbee, “The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop”

A Memoir, a History The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History by Lewis Buzbee

My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars
Buzbee’s heart is in the right place, but his writing skills and treatment of history do not quite match his love of bookshops. In trying to elevate bookshops, he falls into cliched language and clumsily executed metaphors. He also juxtaposes episodes from the history of bookselling with his own recollections. This is meant to provide reading variety while educating the lay reader, but the historical anecdotes are treated without rigour (sadly, this is what passes for “accessibility” these days). For example, at one point he expresses the price of “books” in Ancient Rome in the currency of the time and gives an equivalent dollar amount. But what the contemporary reader understands as “ten dollars” is completely different from what an Ancient Roman citizen would have understood. Such a comparison makes little sense.

The most interesting parts of Buzbee’s book occur when he recounts his experiences in book retail on the West Coast from the late 70s to the 90s. His reflections and comments are also informative and sincere. The section containing his personal bookshop recommendations is a sweet touch. This would have been a stronger book if he had devoted more space to his experiences and the people he met.

And what is the titular “yellow-lighted bookshop”? Buzbee never explains, to the reader’s puzzlement.

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Writing and its tactile essence

Writing can be as much a physical activity as a mental one. Eventually the distinction between physical and mental can break down, and it seems like sentences simply flow from mind to page.

I was intrigued by this section from J. M. Coetzee’s essay on Robert Walser. Walser started writing with a pen but switched to pencil.

Use of a pencil was important enough for Walser to call it his “pencil system” or “pencil method.” What he does not mention is that when he moved to pencil-writing he radically changed his script. At his death he left behind some five hundred sheets of paper covered in a microscopic pencil script so difficult to read that his executor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is simply handwriting with so many idiosyncratic abbreviations that, even for editors familiar with it, unambiguous decipherment is not always possible. It is in these pencil drafts alone that Walser’s numerous late works, including his last novel, The Robber (twenty-four sheets of microscript, 141 pages in print), have come down to us.

More interesting than the script itself is the question of what the “pencil method” made possible to Walser as a writer that the pen could no longer provide (he still used a pen for fair copies, as well as for correspondence). The answer seems to be that, like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers, Walser needed to get a steady, rhythmic hand movement going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which reverie, composition, and the flow of the writing tool became much the same thing. In a piece entitled “Pencil Sketch” dating from 1926-1927, he mentions the “unique bliss” that the pencil method allowed him. “It calms me down and cheers me up,” he said elsewhere. Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist. The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.

(found on Caustic Cover Critic)

The Literary vs the Martial

Using examples from recent movies, this post in The China Beat makes an interesting observation about the kungfu genre, and why Kung Fu Panda really relies more on American cultural tropes than Chinese ones:

The assumption is that writing encodes greater cosmic-martial truth than image. Those who can read attain higher occult power than those who can only view. While this may sound hopelessly snooty in the age of YouTube, the basic idea still resonates in Chinese cultural spheres.

Variations of this idea can be found in most Chinese-language kungfu movies. The literary and martial arts are taken to be two sides of the same cosmic coin, or the Way. Both are said to be inspired by the tracks and movements of birds and beasts. Hence the same metaphors and protocols inform both the civil and martial domains, invariably urging the harmony of heaven, earth, and man.

But I wonder if the author’s mixed up his genres. The observations about the cosmological importance of the written word apply more to wuxia movies rather than gongfu. (For a quick description of wuxia, Wikipedia suffices although I don’t totally agree with the list of movies in the entry.)

Kung Fu Panda has more in common with the gongfu works of Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu etc. Those latter movies can be interpreted as perpetuating a middle-class self-improvement morality tale as the blog entry implies, but it’s difficult to deny that they’re any less Chinese than wuxia.

Reading without rhythm – 24/4/08

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Thanks TokyoMango!

Vom leisen Inferno der Depression und von der Unheimlichkeit des Glücks.

– Vantan gets a sneak preview of the Peranakan Museum. The museum occupies the old Tao Nan school building at Armenian Street, next to The Substation.

PingMag pays homage to Tony Silver, one of the first to identify and capture the anarchic spirit of graffiti culture on film in the 1984 Style Wars. When he went back to interview the same kids in 2003:

The reunion was different for each person. Some of them had succeeded as artists while others regretted what they had done in the past. But every single one of the kids Silver had captured in the early ’80s on his 16mm film were radiant and the filmmaker who shared that moment might have been one of the first few adults to deeply understand hip-hop culture.

– It’s nice that Newater’s winning prizes, but maybe we should learn from how the Aussies conserve water?

– Omodaka, responsible for the infectious Kokoriko Bushi video, has more music videos up on YouTube.

What is OMODAKA?
OMODAKA is the name of the project developed through a trial and error process of mutational fusion of music and motion graphics. It will knock over your existing image toward a music video by a beautiful trajectory.

OMODAKA って何?
音楽とモーション・グラフィックスの突然変異的融合を試行錯誤してきた企画の名前それ が OMODAKA。あなたのミュージックビデオに対する既存イメージを美しい軌跡でひっ くり返します。

– SFS is screening Manufactured Landscapes this Saturday afternoon (details here), and Sight and Sound has a review.

– Ok, we know Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, Majidi, Abbas, (does Satrapi count? viz. Persepolis) But who’s Rakhshan Bani-Etemad?

Internationally, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad is a directors’ director, loved by the dedicated and the educated. At home, she is a godmother of Iranian cinema who has been working for two decades and whose films are hits even as they critique Iran’s paternalism. Her work deserves to be seen abroad because she addresses many of the questions which western Europe and America have, not only about living in an Islamic state but also about the individuality and identity of all women who live under anti-woman regimes.

– In criticising religion, atheists don’t have a good explanation of why religion is still so pervasive. They seem to have ignored its narrative power, as Mark Dery argues:

Arguably, this is because it’s not about God; rather, religion is simply the only philosophical (or, if you will, mythic) language available to some Americans to articulate their discontent and their visions of social change. The Dawkins/Hitchens question—What’s wrong with religion?—is far less illuminating than the question they might have asked: What are American evangelicals really talking about when they talk about religion?