Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore by Md Sharif Uddin

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Stranger To Myself: Diary Of A Bangladeshi In Singapore

Author: Md Sharif Uddin

Rating: B+

There’s a mamak restaurant near my old office where, rumour has it, the workers - after working 14 hours, will shutter the place, rearrange the tables and turn them into beds.

They sleep where they work, so say the rumours. Whether it was true or not, I don't know, but I have always wondered how their lives were like behind the polite smiles. They made me realise how blessed and fortunate I am because unlike them, I could snuggle in my comfortable bed at night, not narrow table in a restaurant.

Sharif is a very eloquent writer, and his voice is really needed at a time when migrant workers are nearly invisible.

In this book he shares his diary entries and poetry where he details life as a migrant worker in Singapore. I love the raw, unpolished prose even if at times he seems maudlin, almost melodramatic. bBut how can he not be when faced with a life where his employers feed his rotten food, or where he couldn’t see his  parents before they passed away or watch his son grow up? 

Sadly, it would appear that even down south in Singapore, migrant workers are treated horribly. I had mistakenly thought that they had better lives.

“The owners of the companies are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. As long as you have the ability to work, they will care. If you stop for any reason, they will throw you out.”

This is a book that needs to be read. The only thing I wish was that it was available in ebook form because physical copies of it are hard to come by and his message needs to be spread far and wide.

Favourite romance reads of 2016

2016 has got to be the year of the romance novel for me. I must confess sheepishly, that I was one of those people who rolled their eyes at romance novels, declaring them silly and shallow. And yet, I started out my readaholic journey with romances -Judith McNaught, Danielle Steele, Linda Lael Miller and Jude Devaraux were my starter romances. But I began to pooh pooh them after being bitten particularly hard by the literary bug, where I declared fiction that did not change the world was not worth my while.

Fortunately, I have recovered from such delusions and rediscovered the magic of romance novels this year after deciding to read one to break my fiction reading slump (from 2010, I only read non-fiction). Well, golly, it worked and I was swept away by the beautiful magic and I just couldn't stop after that! Here are my favourite romance reads of 2016:

1. CAPTIVE by Grace Burrowes
Hero was tortured for two years by the French. He comes home damaged and well, a little crazy. One day a distant relation - Gillian - comes to his estate and literally bullies him back to health. I love Gillian's strong, no-nonsense personality, and Burrowes captures the pain of PTSD really well. And the hero has got to be the most gentlemanly and kind hero I've ever met. They don't make them like this anymore.

2. NO LONGER A GENTLEMAN by Mary Jo Putney
Again, Putney never fails me! And yes, another hero that was tortured by the French. Hahaha. But the hero is kickass - she literally yanked him out of prison, and together they trudge through dangerous French territory back to England. I literally sighed at the end of the novel - it was that good and I would buy a physical copy just to hug it.

3. A MOST DEVILISH ROGUE by Ashlyn McNamara
I was attracted to this novel because of the cover. No, I'm just kidding. Mine was the super boring UK cover, so there wasn't any sexy butts. But again, strong heroine, who had to face society's condemnation for daring to get pregnant out of wedlock. The hero is a man who sees something beyond her stained reputation. Then there's that convenient cave during a storm. Hot. This is definitely a new author to watch for. 

4. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST by Eloisa James
Sometimes supermarket sushi is what I need, and I definitely love this because of the hero, who is gruff and absolutely rude and without tact. Fortunately, the heroine is as tough as he is.

5. FITZHUGH series by Sherry Thomas
I read the three books of the series in one day - that should tell you how good it is. Yes, yes, miscommunication and lack of talking abounds (like as if we real-life humans do that so well), but the relationships feel very deep and real. The three books, actually, read like one, entwined tale.

Most disappointing book:

TO HAVE AND TO HOLD by Patricia Gaffney
It started so well, Gaffney is an amazing writer, truly. Then the hero tells the heroine: "Don't make this a rape". Yes, it's one of those Old Skool romances where rape is ... I'm not even sure why it's there, really. Was it supposed to be romantic? Sexy? Hot? It was none of that for me and the hero was utterly irredeemable to me after that first rape scene.

 I am surprised that so many people would call this book a classic, and one of the best in the genre. Those who support and talk highly about the book say that the author was painting the picture of a less-than-perfect rake, that as a rake he was what he was. But then, why wouldn't the author paint a real picture of a rape victim? Would a rape victim marry her rapist with love in her eyes?

Perhaps I'm too modern for this book. Perhaps I'm too enlightened, having watching two documentaries of women fighting hard to punish those who raped them, and having society disappointing them again and again because society didn't believe them. Some even thought they deserved it.

After watching these documentaries, there was no way in good conscience can I call this book amazing, enlightening, complex or whatever claptrap description its supporters have foisted on it. This book is perpetuating a dangerous idea in women's heads: That there can be romance after a man rapes you.

Review: Happy City

Finally, after a string of blah reads, I score something truly amazing. I have always loved books about sustainable living, minimalism, and this book combines both of my loves.

Montgomery tells us that happiness is not an accidental thing - sometimes it can be caused by design. Urban living has torn apart village living, tossing people into isolated McMansions, taking away their freedom of mobility without dependence on fossil fuels and thus causing a ripple effect of unhappiness throughout society. But as inspiring as this book is, it's also frustrating because - there are so many things that the powers that be are doing wrong! If only Montgomery was in charge of urban planning. Ha!

But the good thing is the author doesn't leave us stewing in frustration, wishing that we lived in Vancouver or Amsterdam. 

He acknowledges that a lot of work has to be done before the urban sprawl can be repaired and village life be restored, but there are still ways to bend the city to your needs, or to change your life to get that village life you've always craved.

That's why I identify most with Conrad Schmidt, a man Montgomery interviewed, who changed his life bit by bit by instinct. Like him, I felt strangely unhappy in the urban sprawl that was the Adelaide suburb of Colonel Light Gardens. After visiting New York City in the 90s, I've always dreamed of living in the heart of a city; it doesn't matter what city, I just wanted to live where the action was, and where everything is within walking distance.

When I returned to Malaysia, by happy chance I got the opportunity to live in the heart of a small satellite city, something I've been dreaming about for a while. My apartment is a few blocks away from malls, a light rail transit station, a park, a great gym, a community book exchange and wonderful cafes. I made friends with the cafe owners, I walked daily to get my groceries and took trains to the city - I only drove my car to work, and even then my work enabled me to escape the insane KL traffic as I worked odd hours, so work is only a quick 15-20 minutes drive away. 

I've also downsized, got rid of much of my possessions, lived in a much tinier space. All this has a ripple effect in my life. I'm exercising more, spending less, and more content with my neighbourhood. I've never been happier in my life. And now I understood why!
Instinctively, like Conrad, I've re-engineered my life to make myself happier. 

This book also made me realise that maybe Malaysia is heading the right direction - at least in Selangor. The popularity of mixed developments, where residential places are above commercial areas, and light rail transits which snake through these neighborhoods makes me glad. Perhaps one day, one of our cities will be one of the most livable in the world too.

Verdict: This book could help you build a happier life for yourself!

Review: Tiger Babies Strike Back

Surprisingly, Tiger Babies Strike Back was rated lowly by some folks on Goodreads, and I think it's unfair.

I suspect that some readers have imposed their expectations on this book. And this book is not a rebuttal to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. There won't be long treatises on why HER version of parenting would be better than Chua's. 

Instead, this is a book that de-glamourises the Tiger Mom form of parenting. Think that you should be a drill sergeant mum in order to ensure that your kid becomes a success? Read this book before flicking out that whip. You may not like what you see here. Also, this book speaks best to Tiger Babies - people who were children of Tiger parents. They will be affirmed and validated by this book.

Tiger Babies Strike Back is best read as a memoir of a woman's experience of being parented by a Tiger Mum and how that form of parenting has affected her. In many ways I am amazed at how the author's experiences echoed mine - down to the ritual fat shaming by the relatives during the holidays! 

For one, Kim's book has helped me deconstruct and understand so many things - Chinese family dynamics that had frustrated me for ages (and that I now realise is shared by many in the Chinese community) and best of all - the root of my Drive.

It's the Drive that makes so many Chinese kids star students. By many standards I was a star student. I had a scholarship to study in university, was a straight-A student in college, became a freelance writer for the No.1 newspaper in Malaysia when I was 18. Yet, the Tiger parenting that enabled me to be a 'success' warped me in ways that surprise me till this day.

Being a Tiger baby is both good and bad. Good if you happen to thrive on competition. Bad if you happen not to. Good if you revel in the pedestal the family puts you onto if you happen to be No.1. Bad if you're can't meet the sky-high Expectations.

What resonated most with me is Kim's discussion about stoicism, and how many Chinese people valued that characteristic and try to pummel a kid so that they have this "quality". Again, good if you happen to be naturally stoic. VERY BAD if you are a passionate and sensitive person. 

Basically, traditional Chinese parenting only favours a certain type of personality. But even that personality may buckle under the stress. The author writes poignantly about the suicide of super-successful-by-anyone's-standards Iris Chang, and how she suspects that the constant Drive to be No.1 played a part in her undoing.

Because, after a while, you get really, really, really exhausted trying to run that up never-ending mountain, and you just want to QUIT. Unfortunately, in a culture where it's all about "face" and external success, quitting isn't desirable.

Back to the memoir - she does ramble in the last 1/4 of the book, and I found myself skimming the pages. But she comes back with a blast with the epilogue, where she tells Tiger Babies how to "turn to the light" like she did. That epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.

Final verdict: 4 stars. An amazing book that has been unfairly judged by folks who wanted it to be something else.

What I read in July: Blazing through my TBR!

So proud of myself! I mostly #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks in July and bought only one book. Yay, me!

Out of the 12 books I read, four were books I bought years ago, two were library books, and the rest were newer TBR stock from December last year.

The Star Trek novel Once Burned worried me because I've been trying to start it since 2013. Fortunately, I got over the "so bored" bit and the book got really good towards the end.

Rose Bride is yet another bazzilionth failed attempt to find another romance author that will satisfy me (pardon the pun). Sigh. Next!

The Mad Earl's Bride, fortunately delivered. For a novella, it gave what it promised: a short but satisfying read. only a skilled author can do this, as I have read many novellas that felt rushed or half baked. I am disappointed with how the medical problem was resolved, however, as I expected something hugely earth shattering (blame it on my fondness for House reruns).  

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World's Most Famous Cooking School in Paris
Reminder to self: Liz, don't buy cooking memoirs. You just can't relate because you hate cooking. There.

Now, I wouldn't call this book terrible, but it was, how do I put this kindly? Flat and uneventful... not exactly exciting reading. This memoir would suit people who wants a slow, languorous, dreamlike narrative of the life we wish we could have: living in Paris with a hot boy friend.

I would have loved to know about the inner conflict she had, like there were glimmers of how she felt uncertain about here path - maybe she should just get a corporate job again and earn some money. But that is abandoned. a pity - I would have liked to know how that journey turned out.

Fit2Fat2Fit (audiobook from library)
Readers of weight loss books are an impatient lot - if they don't get a solution to their weight problems, they will be unhappy. Very unhappy, it would seem, judging from the many one to two star reviews on Goodreads for this book.

Point is, this book is a memoir, not a how-to book. Still, it was natural to have the question "How did he lose the weight?" answered, and the author doesn't do that very well. He doesn't give detailed food plans, his workout routine etc. When he reached a plateau for one, he rambled on and gave anecdotes on his wife's strict upbringing, his friend's jobless season, which were tenuous examples to the point he was trying to make. He does that a lot, and it does get annoying after a while. Still, he excels in telling us the emotional, social and relational impact being overweight has on a person, though his six month sojourn can be akin to a rich man living in Africa for six months in a hut and saying he knows how is it like to be poor now. Good attempt though.

Fat loss, however, is a very complicated thing to do. Its a complex biochemisty process and the author doesn't even touch on that.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen
Bought this book way back in 2008 and wished I had DNFed it then. I hardly one-star a book. It takes a lot to annoy me. This book did it.

The premise seemed so promising: an EMP wave gets rid of the technology we've come to rely on, a small town struggles to survive.

The concept promises a lot of action but the novel fails to deliver. It's not that nothing happens in the book, it's more like the characters spent most of their time TALKING about the action AFTER it happens. That's right, we have a book where the 'action' takes place in meetings. I remember thinking during one such meeting where, damn, why couldn't the author plonk our main character in the thick of the action so that we can see and experience it through his eyes?

I gave the book as good as it got - read 50% - and just couldn't anymore. There are far better books out there.

What did you read in July?

Review: A Thousand Naked Strangers

A thousand naked strangers

 KEVIN Hazzard was a reporter with a comfortable life. Then, Sept 11 happened, and he was suddenly thinking about "all the things I hadn't done."

Listening to his soldier friends recount life-and-death experiences of war, Hazzard suddenly felt that his world was too safe, too routine. He wanted to test himself and see if he could handle the pressure of facing death in the face.

So, he became a paramedic.

Hazzard quickly tells the reader that he didn't do so because he had the noble thirst to save humankind from suffering.

I'm unconvinced, however, and believe that some tiny form of altruism was involved -- why else sign up for a low-paying job where you're shoved into situations where you could either a) end up killed? b) end up killing someone. This is alarming and depressing, but through this memoir I discovered that an emergency medical technician gets paid a few dollars more an hour than someone working in a fast food restaurant in the United States!

In what he described as a "rash decision", Hazzard signed up for emergency medical training and immediately had serious doubts. But stuck with it, he did, driven by the desire to see whether he could hack this intense life. And with clammy hands and a pounding heart, he became the crucial link between a person and the hospital a few months later at the age of 26.

Just a day in the job, Hazzard quickly realised that the scenarios painted in the classroom was ideal. Real life was far messier, frightening and heart-breaking.

WHAT I THINK

Hazzard experienced situations that would make your jaw drop. Collecting body parts strewn across a highway after a terrible road accident, evaluating a too-ripe corpse and wondering whether it'll "blow". Working on a patient while his patient's father watches TV, more concerned about his son's cigarette stash than his life.

These were situations where one would veer from celebrating humanity's great potential to losing hope that our species even deserved to even crawl out of the muck.

Hazzard worked for Atlanta's prominent imposing hospital, Grady, and in the worst areas of Atlanta, and no night is the same.

One reason this memoir was so effective was Hazzard didn't just highlight the uplifting moments where he saved people's lives. He also highlighted the corruption and politics that not just cause paramedics to be fired, but risked the lives of patients and paramedics too.

One's reaction to all this contributed to a medic being “a tourist” (just there to collect the pay), “true believer” (a medic who loves what he does) or “killer” (a medic so burnt out he no longer cares if his charges lived or died).

Hazzard has a way of writing a scene so that it comes alive. Example: "Marty trails, careful not to step on any of the maggots, all of them tiny squiggling urns, fat with the remains of a man not yet dead."

You can almost smell the scene.

Is it any wonder that the highs and lows of a paramedic's life comes alive? Hazzard combines his nose for the news, his great writing style and experience as a medic in one of the toughest neighbourhoods one can be a medic in and the result is this electrifying memoir.

One of the best memoirs I've read!

 

Disclaimer: I received an ARC copy from NetGalley

Review of Love Sick by Cory Martin

Love Sick by Cory Martin

At first, Cory Martin tried to brush off the unexplained pain and tingling in her body as the protests of a worn-out body. After all, how could she not be tired when she was leading the ultimate single girl's life?

Martin was 28 years old, beautiful and living her dream job writing scripts and tie-in novels for the hit television show The OC. Her life was a constant whirl of activity -- socially and career wise. Something has got to give.

Still, the nagging pain never went away. Reluctantly, Martin subjected herself to an MRI.

The results was devastating. A few days before being "yet another bridesmaid" for a friend, Martin received news that she could have Multiple Sclerosis, a devastating and incurable disease that could land her in a wheelchair one day.

Her immediate thought was, "Who's going to want to marry me now?"

Refusing to give in to a supposedly grim destiny, Martin threw herself into the dating game while going through painful procedures such as spinal taps and scanning her brain to discover whether she really had the disease, and if she did, how far it had progressed.

Although I always make a point never to judge a memoirist's journey, I couldn't help but think that Martin's way of coping was probably not the best. After all, she was exposing herself to a game that was considered ruthless even at your healthiest.

So, I wince at Martin's many encounters, many of which make you doubt the goodness of the male species.

If I felt bad, Martin undoubtedly felt worse.

"I believed loving me was like loving a ticking time bomb," said Martin in the book.

THE BIG QUESTION

Many memoirs read like fiction. There's a hero, a quest with a prize in mind. So often, in the end, there's also a happily ever after. But as much as I would like to believe that memoirs should have a narrative arc like fiction, real life doesn't work that way -- something Martin understood from the beginning.

"When people hear you've been diagnosed with a life-altering disease, they want you to have this big 'aha' moment,'" said Martin.

Instead, the disease gave her the desire to "move forward". And so the book is written in this same manner -- one bad date leading to another, one medical test to another, without a discernible goal in mind.

In every memoir, there's a central question. Elizabeth Gilbert's famed Eat, Pray, Love is, "What on Earth am I here for?"

Love Sick's central question didn't seem clear for me, and I found myself asking repeatedly whether there was a point to Martin's story.

Towards the end, however, I concluded that Martin's question was: "Do I need a man to feel whole?"

cory martin.jpg

Her MS was like a challenge imposed to her by the Universe. And perhaps that was why she did what she did -- to prove to herself that she was loveable despite her disease.

At the end of the memoir, we readers do discover the answer to that question as Martin arrive at a wonderful truth about her life. After her arduous journey through the brutal dating scene and medical system, you can't help but cheer for her.

I wished, however, that she spent had more time writing about how her life went after coming to that painful but necessary realisation. It felt like a brief addendum instead of a satisfying conclusion.

But true to her promise that all she wanted was to "move forward" and not do anything grand, Martin ended the memoir in such a way where the answer to the memoir's question is made murky.

In the end, there are no neat endings in Love Sick. Life is like that after all.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC copy from NetGalley

Review of Get up! by James A. Levine

Get up! by James A Levine

James A Levine has always been obsessed with movement - measuring, studying, performing experiments around it ... when he was a child he used to collect snails so that he could let them loose in his bedroom to study how they moved. (The conversation he must've had with his horrified mother...)

LETHAL SITTING

He makes this bold claim: Sitting too much not only makes you fat - it could kill you.

From 2012-2015, I had a job that demanded that I be on my feet at least 6 hours a day. When Once, I measured my steps using a pedometer I discovered, to my amazement, that I walk at least 6km to 10km a day at that job! On top of that I was lifting heavy things such as equipment, and sometimes - people.

Well, fast forward to 2016 and I am now a desk jockey. I have piled on the pounds eventhough I have not changed my diet that much. Not surprising since I've stopped walking 6km daily!

Levine calls this activity "non-exercise activity thermogenesis" (NEAT). He believes that modern-day conveniences had drastically cut down on our NEAT hours. We no longer walk to work or toil in the fields for our food.  Instead we sit for hours in traffic jams and eat at restaurants. It's tragic that activity, something so natural for our ancestors, is so enforced during our time. We run in gyms and wear smartwatches to track our steps. Our ancestors must think we're a tad mad.

FINAL WORD: 3/5 STARS

Get up! is certainly a thought provoking book, but I still give it 3 stars only because Levine, while offering ideas and solutions for corporations and schools, do not offer concrete steps or programmes to the individual on how to decrease their sitting time - especially if they are at workinng a desk job at a company that is resistant to the change he proposes. Still, you can get some ideas on how to change your life from the book.

Since reading it, I've made it a point to walk or stand as much as I can, and at work, to get up and walk every hour for 5-10 minutes. Just a few days in, and I'm already feeling better. As writers who spend hours at the computer coming up with imaginary worlds, this is so important. Perhaps we should start writing while standing?

The Chicken Chronicles by Alice Walker (review)

The 37 essays in The Chicken Chronicles is actually a collection of Walker's blog posts. But this is not just a day-to-day chronicle of the life of a chicken owner. Instead, Walker reflects on the world via the lens of her relationship with chickens. She talks about Gandhi, writes a tribute to Michael Jackson, wonders about dealing with the rose-munching deer that occasionally invades her garden and ponders the loss of her innocence. And with names like Gertrude Stein, Rufus, Agnes of God and Babe, it's hard not to fall in love with the fowls. I love chickens, after all. Especially marinated with spices and fried to a crispy crunch.

Ahem, just kidding.

What worked: I suppose if anyone could write a memoir about chickens, it would be Alice Walker. Although the book teeters dangerously close to being mushy and smarmy, Walker's beautiful prose just beautifully conveys her love and infatuation with the chickens. The chickens - with adorable names like Babe, Gertrude Stein, Agnes of God and Splendor - don't have memorable personalities, however. Not sure if the fault lies in Walker's prose, which does a great job in the description department or it's because, well, they're chickens.

What didn't work: Walker calls herself the chickens' "mommy", and writes letters to her "girls". This particularly literary device is an acquired taste. But I found them funny and endearing, and at times I actually laughed out loud by the fowl antics. The only letter that didn't do it for me is the essay where she talked about how her childhood was ruined because of a tragic incident involving a chicken ... and dinner.

Final say: Like I said, The Chicken Chroniclesis an acquired taste. If you'r a lover of good prose, whimsical stories of the animal kingdom and highly tolerant of anthropomorphism, this book may just give you a chuckle or two.

Review: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People by Toby Young

Six months ago, my site was flooded with thousands upon thousands of spam comments. Rather than laboriously deleting all 20,000 of them, I’ve decided to republish the posts that were the worst culprits. This post was first published on Oct 24, 2004.

Am currently reading Toby Young's How to Loose Friends & Alienante People and have decided to put aside Marion Zimmer Bradley's stories about Darkover for the tale of the fall of a great man (in his head, that is).

In essence, How to Lose Friends is a long, well-written gossip rag about the glitzy going-ons behind Vanity Fair, a particular magazine I'm rather fond of. And we all love gossip - especially one that mentions a certain well-known draconian Vogue editor.

I'm talking about Anna Wintour, in case you're not in the know. Some of us in the journalistic world take perverse pleasure at novelists ribbing editors, especially those with a reputation like Wintour's.

Wintour is one difficult lady, according to Young and to popular legend. It is suspected that the author of The Devil Wears Prada based her portrayal of her novel's cruel boss on Wintour - she was once one of her assistants.

Indeed, after reading Young and Lauren Weisberger's account, I find some similiarities. But I can't remember them off-hand now to list them for you right now. But I can tell you what makes Wintour so "ballsy" to say the least.

According to Young, Wintour lives like a Queen (she is paid a cool US1mil a year) and uses the company's petty cash account like her own Swiss bank account, she doesn't ever ride in the elevator with anyone (except maybe the Queen of England or anyone worth sucking up to, I suppose), gets annoyed if anyone talks to her without her permission, yada yada yada.

She makes one of my old bosses - the one I worked with once upon a time in an ad agency not so far away - look like my fairy godmother.

But hey, maybe Wintour will one day rise up and write a tell-all biography on how wrong Young and Wesberger is. (Shrug)

For now, we common folks without Prada to wear can enjoy the gossip.

PS: Another book on bosses behaving badly worth checking out could be The Nanny Diaries. It's currently sitting in my library, unread. But after Young's deconstruction of the politics in Vanity Fair, I'd possibly be more hungry for Bad Boss Lit - so it's probably next on my To-Read list. Also, Sydney Morning Herald has a piece on Bad Boss Litt. Is it the Next Big Genre? Chick Lit, after all, is so yesterday.

The Lord of the Rings - a review and a confession

Among some fantasy readers, I had done something sacrilegious. Most were horrified when they discovered that although I had read almost every fantasy book on the planet, I had not bothered to touch the fantasy tale of all fantasy tales – The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). They would probably be in despair if they had found out that my first brush with LOTR when I was 13 ended with an exclamation of: “Man, this is boring!” And I made that conclusion just after reading the first page. Then came the movies, and the mania that came with it made me aware that some people really, really liked the book. Actor Christopher Lee, who plays Saruman in the movies, would read The Lord of the Rings every year. On the Internet, fans write essays upon essays about the book’s themes, plots and characters.

I then realised that there was this huge devotion around the book I once brushed off and felt somewhat silly. Still, being a person who hated her movie experience spoiled, I refrained from reading the book. Perhaps I would read it after I watched the movies. And that was a big “perhaps”.

This was, of course, met with much indignation from LOTR devotees.

“And you call yourself a fantasy fan?” they accused.

“I just hate knowing what will happen,” I tried to reason with them. “I mean, what’s the fun of watching something only to know what’s going to happen?”

“But you don’t get it. If you watch the movie first, you’ll be letting one man’s vision dictate yourinterpretation of the book,” one told me.

If he meant having to imagine Orlando Bloom’s face in place of Legolas, I thought it wasn’t such a bad trade-off.

Later, after being blown away by the first movie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I realised that perhaps my LOTR-devoted friends were right. The book was something. I was such a nincompoop. I should read it. So, I bravely bought a huge three-in-one The Lord of The Rings omnibus and promptly got stuck in the prologue.

This can’t be right, I thought. I thought I was reading a story, not a dictionary. And what’s up withthese hobbits? Do I really need to know their eating and sleeping habits?

Two minutes into the book I realised that I was still staring at the same paragraph. A minute later Iwas asleep. So, my first attempt was not successful. My friend Christina, who is an LOTR devotee, cheered me on and promised that it would get better. “Just skip the prologue,” she told me. I wouldn’t reallymiss anything, and I could return to it later.

My question is: Why write a prologue if you can skip it?

A rash question like that somehow always raised the ire of LOTR readers, so I wisely kept silent. Right. Bilbo has the Ring. Bilbo leaves said Ring with Frodo. Then 17 years pass. Seventeen years? Man, the pacing is incredible.

Chapters went by at snail speed. And I eventually discovered that the characters like to: a) sing alot, b) talk a lot, and c) recite poetry a lot. But, and I should win prizes for this, I continued reading until The Council of Elrond chapter.

If I was stuck at the Prologue, I was fossilised in this one. I was a corpse in the Dead Marshes,trapped forever. I found less strenuous diversions and a whole year passed. Then I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and convinced myself that if I wanted to go beyond discussing the facial qualities of its actors, I could at least familiarise myself with the books. The endless conversations in The Council of Elrond did not get any shorter, but somehow I managed to press on.

Christina was right, it did get better as things started to heat up. Eventually I discovered bits in the book that were not in the movies and vice versa. Sometimes I felt indignant about what director Peter Jackson had changed, and sometimes I felt glad about what he did. However, Tolkien’s dialogue was, to put it mildly, awkward reading. I never fail to laugh when Legolas goes “Ai!” or at Tolkien’s over-fondness for the word “farewell”. But like Shakespearian English, it grows on you. Some lines are truly immortal, deeply poetic, meaningful and at times funny: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” (Bilbo says it at his party; what a mind-twister) and my favourite, King Theoden’s line as he charges out to battle:

“Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden! Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

Strangely, I truly became interested in LOTR when I delved into the Appendices on a whim. In it I discovered the history of the peoples of Middle-earth and was amazed at the detail that went into it. After reading it, one could appreciate the subtle nuances of the story and the interaction between the characters.

As I read on, I became attached to some of the characters. Perhaps over-attached. There are some scenes in The Return of the King that have such tremendous impact on some characters that they are seared into your imagination. At this point I realised why Tolkien was considered a genius. I don’t regard him as a great writer. Storyteller, yes. Writer? No. There are characters in the book that don’t contribute to the story (Tom Bombadill) and the story sometimes loses momentum with scenes that should have been edited out or moved to a more appropriate section in the book.

However, when it came to world building, Tolkien was second to none. No one had ever built a world so real, so detailed that you could speak languages from it. The detail that went into his efforts reminded me of the miniature sets that Jackson built for the movies. Although they were tiny, they had to be very detailed to withstand close scrutiny. Therefore, every pattern on brick and every bit of carving had to be done in painstaking detail. Tolkien’s work is the same; at high magnification, when you take the story apart and analyse the characters, they become more intriguing.

So, I admit it – I am taking quizzes to test my LOTR knowledge, reading essays over the ’Net, engaging in LOTR discussions and hissing over the mistakes I sometimes spot. Such is the pull of Middle-earth. Still, and this may surprise some, I regret reading The Return of the King before watching the movie. Not only was the surprise factor gone, my first viewing of the movie was tinged with disappointment because my favourite parts of the book were not in the film.

I suppose the same thing could be said of my enjoyment of the books. If it had not been for Peter Jackson’s overwhelming and incredible vision, I probably wouldn’t have had a hard time picturing Legolas go “Ai!” I could relate to the hordes of indignant readers out there who complain about the changes made in the movies; if you have committed so much emotion to a character or a scene, you just hate it when someone presents a totally different version on screen.

Despite this, I find book-versus-movie gripes like “why is Arwen’s role expanded?” and “I hate movie-version Faramir” amusing (and a little silly).Telling a story on film is different from telling one on paper. And the fact is, despite having the difficult task of condensing a massive story into a mere nine hours (12 for the extended DVD versions), Jackson has made an amazing movie trilogy. Why mar your enjoyment of them with such pointless debates?

So, yes, I can understand why LOTR is the Book of the Century. I’ll probably peek into it again once in a while, but I probably won’t be rereading the entire thing every year. I don’t think I can bear a second round of The Council of Elrond.

Review: A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen

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A Street Cat Named Bob
Author: James Bowen

Links: Bob is going to Hollywood, fancy that!

I have always been a sucker for animal stories (big James Herriot fan here!) so when I spied this book at the Marion Library, I took to it immediately. Then, there was the claim that this neko saved his life, so how can I resist that?

Like James, Bob was down and out when James found him. He was hiding out in the flats he was living in and James decided to spend his very meagre cash to nurse him back to health. He named him Bob after a character, a killer, in Twin Peaks but didn't think the ginger cat would stay with him. Fortunately for James, Bob was nothing like his namesake.

He thought that Bob would leave him for the streets immediately, but instead Bob stuck by him, giving him loyalty, love and lots of laughs. James, back then a drug addict on rehab eeking out a meagre living on the streets, found himself suddenly concerned with another creature besides himself.

But having Bob had another amazing effect on his life: Suddenly, people were noticing him more when he busked and as a result, he was earning more!

But it's not all roses and daffodils - James discovered that not everyone was kind to him and Bob. Some took pleasure in bullying and tormenting him and sometimes, even Bob. And despite Bob's charm, the system and people's apathy was working hard to make life difficult for folks like James.

Still, James found himself having another motivation to exist: to give Bob a good life. And in order for him to do that, he had to straighten out his life.

What I loved: Bob's lovely character really shines through in this book. You definitely get the feeling that this kucing is one one special creature. But what I really appreciated from the book was how James highlighted the plight of the homeless, how they are ignored by society and how little help they received from people.

He mused that if a cat could give him such love, support and compassion, why couldn't his fellow human beings?

So, if you see someone trying to sell Big Issue at a street corner somewhere, buy a copy because it will help them straighten out their lives.

Final thoughts: I loved this book! Read this in two days, and that's only because I didn't have much time to read books because of my busy schedule.

James Bowen has quite a different life now. His book has hit the bestsellers' lists, have been translated into so many languages, and he even went to the United States on a book tour! His second book on Bob, The World According to Bob, was just released in July this year. Hopefully, James' success will lift him off the streets completely and provide people who are down and out the inspiration to change their lives.

Review: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

Furies of Calderon

For some reason, I could never get into Butcher's more popular Harry Dresden series. But if he writes those books as well as he wrote Codex, I'm in.

What attracted you to this book? The magic system. I've always had a thing for elemental magic. The concept of a people (the Alerans) being able to "bond" with the elements of earth, fire, water and air was fascinating.

What do you think of the story? To be honest, Butcher tale isn't anything new. It's the standard "farm boy finds himself through an adventure" tale that I've read/watched in a dozen fantasy books (Wheel of Time!) and films (Star Wars).

So we have a boy - Tavi - who is an oddity of sorts. He is "fury-less", unable to bond with an element. Therefore, unlike his fellow Alerans, he has to rely on his wits most of the time. One day, while going after some wandering sheep, he ends up trapped in a violent fury storm (where the elements literally rip you to shreds) and encounters a slave girl - who isn't really a slave girl at all - called Amara who's actually a Cursor (a kind of spy).

Apparently, the Marat are planning an attack, aided by rebels, and Amara is there to stop it. Tavi ends up holding the key to the empire's salvation (of course!).

Describe Alera. It's a Roman-esque world with legionnaires, togas and with people named Gaius and all.

Flaws? Well, towards the end, the book became a Battle of Helm's Deep clone. I was both amused and a little annoyed. But it is not bad at all - in fact, Butcher writes action scenes very well, and the book is just one big action scene after another - but I kept having flashbacks to Aragorn storming the orcs!

And this is probably not Butcher's fault, but I kept imagining the Marat as the blue Na'vi folks from Avatar. What with the whole 'native American-esque' thing they have going there...

Also, we didn't really get to know Tavi very deeply in this story. And then there's the whole thing with the Marats that seemed so ... convenient. But hey, we have five more books after this one to find out more about our fury-less hero...

What did you like? How Butcher just doesn't let up on the action. I felt exhausted just reading it - the characters are plunged from one drama after another. It sucks to be them.

On the whole, I did enjoy Furies of Calderon, even if I was sometimes annoyed with its flaws and clichéd plots. Butcher is a great yarn spinner, that's for sure.

Rating: B-

Review: Star Trek Enterprise: What Price Honor? by Dave Stern

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I suddenly feel nostalgic about the last Star Trek TV spin off:  Enterprise. That's surprising, since I was quite disappointed with the series when it first aired around 2001. Its first two seasons were yawn worthy, and the third season had a heavy-handed Sept 11-inspired plotline that made my eyes roll to the back of my head.

It picked up in quality significantly in the fourth season but the powers that be decided to end a stellar season with an abysmal and horrid episode called These Are the Voyages. That episode has lived on in Trek fandom infamy since then ... ah, but that's a tale for another day.

What made me nostalgic were the characters, however. The plots may be blah, but the characters were fascinating. It's frustrating that they weren't all developed thoroughly.

Malcolm Reed, most of all.

It's a crime that such a fascinating character was given such little attention. Fortunately, we have Star Trek Novels to fill the gap, and in What Price Honor?, Malcolm is the lead character.

Story: Ensign Alana Hart dies at the hands of Malcolm Reed when he tries to stop her from sabotaging the Enterprise. Riddled with guilt, he tries to find out why she did what she did ... and Enterprise ends up caught between two warring civilisations.

Thoughts: Malcolm Reed fans would love how Stern explores Reed's character and motivations. I've always found him to be one of the most intriguing characters on the Enterprise besides the fan-favourite Trip Tucker. Reed is reserved, utterly professional in everything he does - to the point of being distant from his crewmates.

His relationship with Alana Hart explores how he struggles to balance his two sides: the professional Armoury Officer and the flesh-and-blood Malcolm who desires an emotional connection. Ultimately, his decision with Alana is really poignant and touching.

The story, however, is a very conventional whodunit by Trek standards.I guessed in the first few chapters what had happened. At times, I wanted to shake the characters and say, "Hey, all the clues are there right in your face! Can't you figure it out already?"

Well, since this book takes place in the first few months of Enterprise's deployment into the great uknown - they are the first Earth vessel to explore deep space after all - I'll peg it to inexperience.

Verdict: A really good read for Malcolm Reed fans. I say - buy it! Non-Reed-fans may be frustrated with the pedestrian mystery, however.

I just wish there were more novels with Malcolm as the lead character. Sigh!

Celebrity interior decorators dish out secrets

This review was originally published in The Star: Design dons

GOOD DESIGN CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE Beautiful Rooms, Inspiring Stories By Ty Pennington Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 224 pages ISBN: 978-0743294744

THOM FILICIA STYLE Inspired Ideas for Creating Rooms You’ll Love By Thom Filicia Publisher: Atria Books, 222 pages ISBN: 978-1416572183

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TY Pennington and Thom Filicia brandished their wicked interior designing skills on television and became stars. Their secret? Their stand-out personalities, and their ability to create gorgeous, personalised interiors that inspire viewers and fulfill their clients’ desires and dreams.

It’s a pity that Pennington’s reality show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, is not shown in Malaysia. It’s the kind of reality television that even reality TV haters like me will watch.

The show has an altruistic premise: Pennington’s mission is to give deserving folk in desperate circumstances a new home in seven days. (These folk are often good Samaritans who have contributed much to their communities.) These new dwellings offer hope and healing to the recipients, many of whom have gone through a very difficult time. (Judging from online viewer comments, it is not unusual to sob your heart out while watching!)

The new abodes come complete with fabulous interiors. Pennington is a former carpenter so he often custom builds furniture and decorative items that reflect his clients’ tastes and personalities – it’s always fun to see what he comes up with. For example, for New York policeman and single father John Vitale, Pennington created large black and white pictures of his three children because Vitale “loved waking up to (his) kids and seeing their faces”. Pennington’s interior decorating style can be described as “holistic” – his signature is “bright, quirky and fun”. However, his designs are influenced by the desires and tastes of his clients. Therefore, you get all kinds of styles, from antique-rich interiors to peaceful Zen.

After teaching the reader how to find his or her own style and prepare for a renovation, his book is then divided into “rooms”: Sleeping Spaces, Living Spaces and Working Spaces. In each chapter, Pennington describes how he creates some of his client’s rooms – the glossy photographs illustrate his beautiful interiors to perfection – and the stories about his clients and how these interiors came to be are just as inspiring as the pictures.

Although we don’t have Pennington to build furniture for us, we can learn one very important thing from him: to create interiors not dictated by some design guru or a brand, but to suit our personalities and desires.

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Thom Filicia was also on TV; he was part of the “fab five” from the popular reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (it ran in the United States from 2003 to 2007, and was also aired in Malaysia in 2004 on Ntv7) and now has his own show, Dress My Nest, which has yet to be shown here. I always looked forward to Filicia’s segment on Queer Eye when he would redo less than ideal homes, as his interiors were often simple yet jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

What’s Flicia’s style? Simply put, “luxe”. His clients’ home are decorated with personally-designed and custom-made furniture often upholstered with luxurious fabrics and gorgeous and seemingly pricey artwork.

Filicia’s book offers tips on how to make a small space more appealing, how to use textures and how to create specific moods (such as “inviting” and “exotic”).

Thom Filicia Style’s layout is as beautiful as the designer’s interiors – one imaginative element is how handwritten notes are “scrawled” on photos to explain why a piece of furniture or artwork is there.

The only grouse I have with Filicia’s book is the same complaint I have with other such books that feature the polished interiors of mansions and multi-million dollar penthouses. Sure, there’s a lot of style on show, but is it the kind of style most people – whether in America or here – can afford? One can only sigh in longing as one gazes at the gorgeous photos. However, as with all such books, we can adapt some of Filicia’s design principles – for one, using fabrics and textures is an inexpensive way to give your home a more polished sheen.

Unlike most impersonal interior design books, Pennington and Filicia’s books are filled with stories about their lives, how they came to design the homes, or what challenges they faced while creating the perfect home for their clients. Both books are memoirs of sorts as well as “how to” books that are fun to read and educational to boot. And it does not hurt an iota that the two guys are very pretty to look at as well!