Tag Archives: books

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.

View all my reviews.


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)

Maude Hutchins

Maude [Hutchins] is best known for her novel “Victorine,” which the New York Review of Books Classics series is reissuing in August. The catalogue copy says it all: “Hutchins had one theme—sex—which she explored with an extravagant, needling, disconcerting genius.” The novel, about a twelve-year-old upper-middle-class New England girl on the “visionary” cusp of puberty (Castle’s word), sounds ultimately less interesting than the unwritten biography of Maude, who has probably been given a slanted portrayal in the respectful biographies of her husband.

From the New Yorker Book Bench blog.

University of Chicago students would recognise that surname. Robert Hutchins was President at the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, and was largely responsible for two defining characteristics of a UofC education — the Common Core and a relatively lousy reputation in most sports. Hutchins took the UofC out of the Big Ten and halted the football programme — something that the Athletics Department probably rues till this day considering the importance of football to, well, just Americans (esp. males).

Randomness #785D

  • R.I.P. Gary Gygax. Found out from, of all places, How The World Works:

    In the deep structure of ancient Internet culture, where the same computer programmers who helped build the Net often spent their leisure time pretending to be online wizards and warlocks, there’s no underestimating the genetic influence of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax’s legacy is built into the infrastructure. I hope he took pleasure in that as the years went by, and I hope Gygax always knew how much millions of gamers and fantasy-dwellers, whiling away their hours on online quests, owe to him and his co-author Dave Arneson.

    Order of the Stick has a charming tribute too.

  • Zhou Enlai was born today, 5th March 1898. My impression of him was that of the model civil servant (not necessarily a compliment), managing to survive while Mao offed all his contemporaries. But what was he thinking on the inside? What kind of conscience did he have? I bought Gao Wenqian’s The Last Perfect Revolutionary with those questions and others in mind. Only managed to read a bit before being distracted by other books — should go back to it soon.
  • Jottings From The Granite Studio also informs us that 5th March was the start of the “Learn from Lei Feng” campaign too. Ah, a man for all (propaganda) seasons
  • When in London, why not visit the Stanley Kubrick Archive?
  • Turns out that the rumours of a new lime-green Lamy Safari are true. Here’s one for sale on eBay.
  • “…the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature.”

    I came across these alien geometrical graphics via Bibliodyssey (oh how I can wander that blog for days and days):

    They’re plans for fortresses.

    Such complexes of fortifications, said Austerlitz, concluding his remarks that day in the Antwerp Glove Market as he rose from the table and slung his rucksack over his shoulder, show us how, unlike birds, for instance, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds. Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size — the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.

    W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

    100 Suns; Arsenals of Folly

    I’m having some difficulty writing about 100 Suns. This is the collection of photos documenting above-ground nuclear explosions selected and compiled by Michael Light. On the one hand I’m fascinated by the images and on the other repulsed by all the horror they imply.

    How easy it is to aestheticise the photos. Form, colour, texture – there’s much to play with. And the usual moral questions apply: in writing about these images do you cheapen them? Sanitise them?

    Let me try:

    Each explosion is unique. Most are variations of the “mushroom cloud” trope, but a few that look different: a milkdrop, a lump in a lava lamp. A few are simply flashes. Even within the “mushroom cloud” types there’re details worth noting. For example, one cloud lies absurdly dead-center in a targeting sight. Another occurs far in the distance in the sky, above a row of palm trees along the bottom of the photo, calling to mind the “one thousand suns” reference from the Bhagavad-Gita (via Oppenheimer, upon observing the first explosion) and also reminiscent of a descending deity.

    Michael Light put the more apocalyptic images at the end of the book. These are truly hellish – full of blacks, reds, oranges – radiating an implacable anger.

    I was also struck by some photos which showed soldiers observing explosions. It seems that the US Army actually ordered troops to observe above-ground nuclear detonations at various distances, and then conduct exercises at or near the blast site right after detonation.

    (Richard Rhodes’s new book Arsenals of Folly has one of these photos from 100 Suns on the cover:

    Not the first time nor the last in history that leaders knowingly ordered their people to certain doom, driven by Mengele-like reasoning.)

    Many of these soldiers turned away from the blast – ultimately futile. But there’s one picture of waiting troops, seated and smoking to while away the time till they had to move, staring out of the photo. All of them were enraptured. They had no protective gear whatsoever.

    But I don’t think higher-ranking officers had much more protection. In another photo, a group of military observers sit comfortably in wooden chairs, possibly on the deck of a ship, watching an explosion. All of them are wearing oversized sunglasses of some material. The shades are futile too, and hint at the ominous reach of the radiation. But the whole setting absurdly looks like they’re all on holiday, sunbathing or watching a movie.

    Doesn’t this say it all? Organised insanity.