Saturday, June 30, 2007

SHOOTING THE BREEZE

SELF-EDITING
By Eric C. Forbes

IT IS IMPERATIVE that writers learn to revise and self-edit their typescripts before sending them off to editors or publishers for consideration. Most writers tend to send their typescripts without polishing them up, hoping that their editors will clean everything up for them once they are accepted for publication. The fact is, most editors will just ignore the manuscript and go on to the next one.

There really is no one way to write a book. Or even to edit one, for that matter! Honestly, after being an editor for so many years, I still find the task of editing a manuscript monumental and nerve-wracking. In fact, most of the time, it is a task fraught with trauma and hair-pulling (not that I have much of it left anyway)!

Editing can be a very traumatic experience, but when both writer and editor work well together, the end product is something to behold. Lydia Teh, the author of Life’s Like That (2004) and Honk! If You’re Malaysian (2007), is one Malaysian writer who believes in and is not afraid of rewriting and revising; she is a joy to work with because she is really passionate about her work. She’s is indeed God’s gift to editors! Other passionate authors include Lee Su Kim, Adibah Amin, Tunku Halim and Xeus. They are always willing to go the extra mile to get the details right.

Writers should spend more time on punctuation because that’s where they are usually weak at. There’s nothing wrong with checking up on the basics of punctuation. Good punctuation brings clarity and makes writing more powerful.

Why the importance of self-editing? Firstly, there’re not many good editors to go round not only in Malaysia but elsewhere too. Good editors are hard to come by. Most publishers, sad to say, do not believe in investing in good editors or good editing skills. And good editing skills can only come from excellent writing and grammatical skills, good rewriting, revising and research skills, etc. Also, a disposition that is meticulous, detail-oriented and observant. And you can’t exactly learn these skills overnight, believe me. They come from years of experience editing, reading and writing. Yes, and lots of hard work, too. And there’s only so much an editor can do with a manuscript, what with the other duties that editors are obligated to do besides editing. Editors don’t just edit, you know. Therefore, writers must make an effort to ensure that their manuscripts are of an acceptable standard before editors work on them.

When typescripts or manuscripts are badly written, I would advise writers to rewrite them because it is too time-consuming and expensive an affair to have them edited and to be re-submitted for reconsideration at a later date.

I do wish things would improve. Most of the manuscripts I receive are not only badly written but lack content or substance; there’s not much in the way of depth or breadth or width in the writing. It’s rare that I receive one that I can sink my teeth into.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Irène Némirovsky ... Suite Française

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography

THE UNITED KINGDOM’S oldest and most literary of book awards, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and Biography (established in 1919), has announced two shortlists: fiction and biography, two of my most favourite genres.

Fiction
1. Half of a Yellow Sun / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. Seven Lies / James Lasdun
3. The Road / Cormac McCarthy
4. The View from Castle Rock / Alice Munro
5. Electricity / Ray Robinson
6. The Night Watch / Sarah Waters

Biography
1. Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland / Carmen Callil
2. John Evelyn: Living for Ingenuity / Gillian Darley
3. George Mackay Brown: The Life / Maggie Fergusson
4. The Man who Went Into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas / Byron Rogers

The winners will be announced on August 25, 2007 in Edinburgh, Scotland

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 6

WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ IN JULY 2007

THE 6th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, July 28, 2007, will feature Tinling Choong, whose début novel, FireWife, was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on January 23, 2007. Born and bred in Penang, Malaysia, Tinling is working towards her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. “FireWife,” according to Tinling, “is a story of plight and hope, escape and desire, offering vignettes in the lives of eight Asian women: a photographer, six women she photographs, and a girl travelling in between lives.” In January 2007, FireWife was nominated for the Henry Miller Award for the best literary sex scene published in the English language. And yes, she is a blogger.

Also featured is Kam Raslan who has written his first novel, Confessions of an Old Boy (Marshall Cavendish, 2007). All except one of the Dato’ Hamid adventures collected here were first serialised in Off the Edge. Kam Raslan is a writer and director, working in film, television and theatre in Malaysia. A columnist with the Edge and Off the Edge, he hopes to make a feature film of his own one of these days. He shares a collection of essays, Generation: A Collection of Contemporary Malaysian Ideas (Hikayat Press, 1998), with Amir Muhammad and Sheryll Stothard.

Tinling Choong and Kam Raslan will be introduced by Eric Forbes. Kenny Mah will be facilitating the session.

Date July 28, 2007 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome


COMING NEXT

The 6th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on SUNDAY (not Saturday), August 26, 2007 will feature Sydney-based novelist Beth Yahp, whose first novel, The Crocodile Fury (Angus & Robertson/HarperCollins Australia, 1992), was published in Australia in 1992, as well as Yvonne Lee, the bestselling author of The Sky is Crazy: Tales from a Trolley Dolly (Marshall Cavendish, 2005).

Both Beth Yahp and Yvonne Lee will be introduced by Eric Forbes while Kenny Mah will be facilitating the session.

FORTHCOMING

The 7th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Sunday, September 23, 2007 will feature theatre actor/director/newspaper columnist Gavin Yap, whose first book, tentatively titled What’s the Point? (MPH Publishing, 2008), will be published sometime in 2008.

We will also be featuring mathematician-turned-television scriptwriter and newspaper columnist Dzof Azmi. Logic is the antithesis of emotion but Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

Gavin Yap will be introduced by Eric Forbes while Dzof Azmi will be introduced by Janet Tay. Kenny Mah will be facilitating the session.

The 8th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, October 27, 2007 will feature novelist Tan Twan Eng, whose first novel, The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon Press, 2007), was released in March 2007, as well as novelist D. Devika Bai, a retired schoolteacher who has published her first novel, The Flight of the Swans (Monsoon Books, 2005).

Tan Twan Eng will be introduced by Eric Forbes while D. Devika Bai will be introduced by Janet Tay. Kenny Mah will be facilitating the session.

MPH Bangsar Village II is at Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Monday, June 25, 2007

Excerpts

“Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest. There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.” Per Petterson, in Out Stealing Horses (2005)

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?” Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)

“She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a piñata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.” Annie Dillard, in The Maytrees (2007)

“Cashin walked around the hill, into the wind from the sea. It was cold, late autumn, last glowing leaves clinging to the liquidambars and maples his great-grandfather’s brother had planted, their surrender close. He loved this time, the morning stillness, loved it more than spring.” Peter Temple, in The Broken Shore (2005)

“Mama placed a thin sliver of jade in my mouth to safeguard my body. Second Aunt tucked coins and rice in my pockets so I might soothe the rabid dogs I’d meet on my way to the afterworld. Third Aunt covered my face with a thin piece of white silk. Fourth Aunt tied colored string around my waist to prevent me from carrying away any of our family’s children and around my feet to restrain my body from leaping about should I be tormented by evil spirits on my journey.” Lisa See, in Peony in Love (2007)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

What I Am Reading ...

THERE IS NOTHING like losing oneself in the pages of a good book. From Anita Amirrezvani’s first novel, The Blood of Flowers (2007), a story about the place of women in 17th-century Iranian society, to Zhang Su Li’s first travel narrative, A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (2007), there’s always something to savour and digest. Zhang is a traveller who doesn’t know what a map is. But her nose has served her well so far. Though the book’s back cover categorises it as travel writing, it is not really a travellogue per se, but a spiritual journey written with lots of humour, linguistic verve and a devil-may-care voice. What I like about this book is that it appeals to the human spirit’s sense of freedom and adventure. It is great fun to read!

Novels
1. The Blood of Flowers (Little, Brown, 2007) / Anita Amirrezvani
2. Oystercatchers (Fourth Estate, 2007) / Susan Fletcher
3. Divisadero (Bloomsbury, 2007) / Michael Ondaatje

Stories
Prizewinning Asian Fiction (Times Books International, 1991) / Leon Comber (ed.)

Nonfiction
1. Live and Learn (Harper Perennial, 2005) / Joan Didion
2. The Sailor in the Wardrobe (Fourth Estate, 2006) / Hugo Hamilton
3. Andalus: Unlocking the Secrets of Moorish Spain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2004) / Jason Webster
4. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (published in the U.K. as God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion) (Twelve Books/Atlantic Books, 2007) / Christopher Hitchens
5. A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (Marshall Cavendish, 2007) / Zhang Su Li

Saturday, June 23, 2007

MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers 5

WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ IN JUNE 2007

THE 5th MPH Breakfast Club for LitBloggers on Saturday, June 23, 2007, will feature Zhang Su Li, an award-winning advertising copywriter who has just come out with her first travel narrative called A Backpack and A Bit of Luck: Stories of a Traveller with No Sense of Direction (Marshall Cavendish, 2007). Zhang Su Li, a traveller with no sense of direction, will be introduced by Eric Forbes. Janet Tay will be moderating the session.

Excerpts:
After two days of shameless pawing at God’s feet, I got a call from the finance secretary of an agency I had worked in some months back. It was to tell me that I still hadn’t collected my pay cheques for the two months I had spent there. I thanked her. I thanked God. Then I looked at the National Geographic map on my wall, closed my eyes and spat my chewing gum at it. ... It landed on Myanmar. ... A few days later, following the destiny decreed by my gum, my backpack and I landed in Yangon.

On India:
Everything was so extreme. Only God knows why in India, there is no such thing as medium, or ‘just nice’. On a scale of one to ten, all the numbers from two to nine seem to be missing. In winter, the water is so freakin’ cold your ... get numb just looking at the bucket. I often dry shampooed myself to cut down initial contact with water. Then without thinking about it, I got on with the rinsing and had no recollection of it afterwards. Thank goodness for self-preservation mechanisms. ... In the summer, you have to leave the bucket of water aside for half an hour to cool it down. And while you wait, you might as well chuck a couple of eggs in there to cook for your breakfast.

Date June 23, 2007 (Saturday)
Time 11.00a.m.-12.30p.m.
Venue MPH Bangsar Village II, Lot 2F-1 (2nd Floor), Bangsar Village II, No. 2, Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar Baru, 59100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 603-2287 3600

Food and refreshments will be served
All lovers of literature are most welcome

Friday, June 22, 2007

Julian BARNES

CONTEMPORARY BRITISH FICTION at its best. That’s what the works of Julian Barnes promise to those of us who enjoy fiction that is full of satire, irony and intelligence.

His Booker Prize- and IMPAC-shortlisted novel, Arthur & George (2005), is a beautifully realised piece of historical fiction, though based on a real-life event: it’s elegant in construction and witty and humane in execution, similar to all his other novels, short stories and essays. Those with a predilection for gentle British social satire should find his Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), delectable; it remains his best-known work. There’s much irony, quirkiness, subtlety, depth, dry humour and wit in his writing.

Critics often find Barnes less clear-edged, less defined, compared to other British male novelists of his generation on the literary stage of contemporary Britain, especially writers like Peter Ackroyd, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and Kazuo Ishiguro. According to one British critic, Barnes “lacks a signature trait like Martin Amis’s laddish slapstick or Ian McEwan’s deadpan perversity or Salman Rushdie’s magic-realist flamboyance or Kazuo Ishiguro’s coy poignance. Barnes is more changeable, more like the weather, and that, in the end, may perhaps be the best qualification to write the Great English Novel. Arthur & George is finally about how Englishmen protect themselves from the heaviest emotional weather, what hard, lifelong work it is just to keep out the chill and the fog.” Despite its sluggishness and lack of depth, Arthur & George still makes compulsive reading, and I think it is one of his best books. The narrative is irrefragably compelling and well controlled, deftly melding two genres: biography and social history.

The thread that connects the stories in The Lemon Table (2004) is encroaching old age and how we respond to mortality: fear, disappointment and regret. Many of the characters in this collection of stories die in the end. However, they are not as depressing or cheerless as they sound, because Barnes enlivens his stories with dollops of wry humour.

Barnes’ brilliant ouevre has defied pigeonholing since his first novel, Metroland (1980), a coming-of-age satire; he debunks conventional expectations by producing both postmodern fiction that is full of linguistic naughtiness and conventional fictional devices. He is very good at dissecting “the passions and inconsistencies of the human heart, exploring the unsettling nature of love and (in)fidelity, dislocation, the quest for authenticity and truth, and the irretrievability of the past.”

Do not disregard Barnes’s essays, however: he is also a brilliant essayist. His collected essays are well written and highly intelligent and literate, especially Letters from London 1990-1995 (1995) and Something to Declare: French Essays (2002); both are well worth reading.

Bibliography
BARNES Julian [1946-] Novelist, short-story writer, essayist, critic; also writes crime novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Born Julian Patrick Barnes in Leicester, England. Novels Arthur & George [2005: shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize for Fiction, the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Eurasia), and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award]; Love, etc. (2000); England, England (1998: shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize for Fiction); The Porcupine (1992); Talking It Over (1991: winner of the French Prix Fémina); Staring at the Sun (1986); Flaubert’s Parrot (1984: winner of the 1985 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; awarded the French Prix Médicis; shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize for Fiction); Before She Met Me (1982); Metroland (1980: winner of a 1981 Somerset Maugham Award) Stories The Lemon Table (2004); Cross Channel (1996); A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989) Essays The Pedant in the Kitchen (2003); Something to Declare: French Essays (2002); Letters from London 1990-1995 (1995) Writing as Dan Kavanagh Going to the Dogs (1987); Putting the Boot In (1985); Fiddle City (1981); Duffy (1980) Edited/Translated In the Land of Pain / Alphonse Daudet (2002) Memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Alexis WRIGHT wins the Miles Franklin

AUSTRALIAN novelist Alexis Wright has won the 2007 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her sprawling novel, Carpentaria (Giramondo Publishing, 2006), a complex piece of fiction which was turned down by every major publisher in Australia and beating literary heavyweight Peter Carey (Theft), a three-time Miles Franklin winner, Gail Jones (Dreams of Speaking) and Deborah Robertson (Careless). Wright, a committed activist for Aboriginal land rights, was awarded Australia’s most prestigious literary prize tonight in Sydney for her second novel, which judges said was a big novel in every sense of the word. (Her first novel, Plains of Promise, was published by the University of Queensland Press in 1997.)

Carpentaria is about a deadly fight for Aboriginal land rights and at the same time “a stunning evocation of a sublime and often overwhelming tropical world that is still inhabited by traditional spirits.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Roberto BOLAÑO ... The Savage Detectives (2007)

The Savage Detectives
Roberto Bolaño
(trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Legend of The Thorn Birds (1977)

REMEMBER the legend of the thorn birds that first gripped and engaged our imaginations in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds when it was first published in 1977? It has been 30 years since. Thirty years ago, on July 3, 1977, this inter-generational saga made it to No. 1 on the New York Times list, remaining on the hardcover fiction list for some 59 weeks. For those who were too young too remember or missed the book the first time round, here’s the legend for your delectation:

The Thorn Bird
There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain .... Or so says the legend.

From Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds (New York: Harper & Row, 1977)

Monday, June 18, 2007

SHOOTING THE BREEZE

WHY READ?
By Eric C. Forbes

WHY READ? Yes, why read? I’m often asked this question. There is nothing like reading the really good stuff. I somehow come alive when I read the really good stuff. I read because I have no choice, really. Was it not Gustave Flaubert who once said that reading is like falling into a deep ravine from which you can never, ever climb out? Moreover, I like to know about the world around me, I like to learn about stuff, and good books are the best way to do this. When you add to this a predilection for interesting prose styles and an interest in the human condition, what else can I do but read?

The purpose of fiction is to understand the world we live in, to recognise the imbecility of our actions and the fact that we keep on repeating our mistakes and not learning from them at all as well as the sadness and despair we experience in our daily lives. Literature teaches us about the universality of humanity and human experiences, and the fact that, despite our differences, we are not so different after all. Life is paradoxical: we pray to the same god, yet there is no sense of connection between us; most of the time, we find that we understand each other even though we pray to different gods.

Most of us lead sheltered lives, but books transport us to worlds we never knew existed. With books, we go everywhere. There’re lots of lessons we can learn from a lifetime of reading. Fiction opens up our emotional spectrum and makes us aware of emotions we didn’t know we had in us. It grips and engages us with the questions it asks, the people and situations it creates, the complexity of emotions it stirs. A world without books, I believe, is unimaginable and unbearable.

I enjoy reading novels, short stories, poetry and some nonfiction, especially biographies, culture, literary criticism, memoirs, social history and travel literature. From an early age, I read everything that came my way. I grew up in an environment where scholarship was nurtured and revered and the value of books unquestioned. My father was an English-language and History schoolteacher who instilled in me a love of literature and history.

From my father’s collection of books in the 1960s and ’70s, I read the classics: the Brontës, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, W. Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie (the unsurpassed queen of English crime fiction), John Creasey, Alistair MacLean, James A. Michener [remember Hawaii (1959)?], Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Dennis Wheatley (whose occult potboilers were firm teenage staples), etc. I read them because they were there and part of my father’s prized collection; perhaps they were my father’s favourite books. My father shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since; it was he who ignited my adolescent love of words and literature. He had a great love of 19th-century British and American fiction which he passed on to me, and he was open to 20th-century fiction and fiction in translation of almost any kind. It was from him that I learned to appreciate and enjoy the fiction of Erskine Caldwell, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen and the translated works of Alberto Moravia, especially his novel, The Woman of Rome (1949), and his collection of stories, Roman Tales (1954).

On my own, I discovered the works of Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Alice McDermott, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Anne Tyler, John Updike, etc. I enjoy reading Australian fiction, too, especially the fictions of Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough and Tim Winton.

Of course, I went through my fair share of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys like everyone else; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) were prominent features of my wonder years. Those were wonderful adventures and mysteries. I still remember them to this day.

Once you stumble and fall into Flaubert’s ravine, you never want to climb out of it again!

There’s nothing like losing oneself in the pages of a good book.

So what did you read when you were growing up?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

30th Anniversary of Colleen McCULLOUGH’s The Thorn Birds

THE THORN BIRDS
Colleen McCullough

THIS YEAR marks the 30th anniversary of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, first published by Harper & Row in 1977. Virago Press will be reissuing a 30th anniversary edition of the best-selling novel in August 2007. The introduction by Maeve Binchy itself is worth the price of admission. I remember reading it the first time it came out simply because it was the only novel being sold in the bookshop! But it turned out to be a great read. I was in the third form then. Here’s a review I wrote of it way back in 1980:

SOMEONE once described W. Somerset Maugham as one of the greatest storytellers of our time for he writes with a vigorous flair, extraordinary clarity and precision and tightly disciplined with superb wit and urbanity and his sense of literary form is indeed something to conjure with. After reading Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (1977), I have come to the same conclusion, that is, the description on Maugham’s penmanship can also be applied to McCullough’s writing aptitude. Her style of writing is tinged with a touch of lucidity and simplicity, free from affectations and at her best, she has a delicate, condescending grace and charm. McCullough’s dialogue is irrefragably excellent for the revelation of character and her command of the idioms of the ordinary speech permits her to effectuate a fine naturalness.

On December 8th, 1915, Maggie Cleary had her fourth birthday.

From the day of its publication in 1977, this exhilarating epic of outback life and love has been celebrated as the quintessential modern novel, a work that vividly brings to life all the details of life Down Under.

The Thorn Birds deals with the tragedy of ordinary lives, unfolded with an intense compassion and profound insight into the truth of the multifarious characters. McCullough fleshes out each and every character with minuteness and precision. The characters are common people, extremely down-to-earth and are convincingly and irrefutably alive. We have already taken notice of her bold and believable characterisation in Tim (1974), her first novel which is an extremely poignant love story told with profound candour that acutely delves with acumen and insight into the affinity and emotional consequences of a forbidden love between an ingratiating, mentally-retarded young labourer and a middle-aged spinster.

Concealed behind her writing lies a sense of tragedy of life, in which transgression and iniquity or folly brings its own retributions, especially Justine O’Neil, who sets a course of life and love halfway round the world from her roots in Gillanbone, Australia, to become an actress in London, who lost her virginity at the tender age of eighteen, and who at the end of the novel ultimately repent.

McCullough can command a beauty of perspicuous expression that provokes the very emotional part of the erring human heart, a sweet, mellifluous, dulcet and piercing melody of infinite regret and yearning:

In the morning they stared, awed and dismayed, at a landscape so alien they had not dreamed anything like it existed on the same planet as New Zealand. The rolling hills were there certainly, but absolutely nothing else reminiscent of home. It was all brown and grey, even the trees!

The winter wheat was already turned a fawnish silver by the glaring sun, miles upon miles of rippling and bending in the wind, broken only by the strands of thin, spindling, blue-leafed trees and dusty clumps of tired grey bushes. Fee’s stoical eyes surveyed the scene without changing expression but poor Meggie’s were full of tears. It was horrible, fenceless and vast, without a trace of green.


From this short abstract itself, McCullough paints the enigmatic and intractable Australian background with striking vividness.

Of all the characters delineated in this rousingly recounted saga of a grazier clan over a span of fifty-four years (between 1915 and 1969), none is better drawn than that of Meggie Cleary. It seems McCullough has put much of herself into the creation of the story, and in many ways, McCullough resembles Meggie Cleary. Even minor figures are drawn with sure, minimal brush strokes.

The Thorn Birds is impregnated with memorable scenes that are vividly etched in the reader’s mind. The heroine and main protagonist at the heart of the story, Meggie Cleary, whose passionate and forbidden love for the handsome, magnificent Catholic priest, Ralph De Bricassart, who is two decades older than her, is veritably the stuff of legend; her broken marriage to Luke O’Neil; her giving birth to Justine O’Neil, the brilliant actress, and Dane O’Neil, who was not fathered by O’Neil but by De Bricassart himself without his knowledge: these are some of the episodes that may linger in the reader's memory long after he has put the novel down. Alas, the course of true love is always littered with thorns.

Much of the fascination of The Thorn Birds can be traced to its blend of high romance and whim with undeniably realistic characters and Australian background. This novel will undoubtedly be considered as McCullough’s paragon, a masterpiece, because of its brilliant descriptive passages, the myriad poignant moments and the dramatic plot. She is indeed a writer of ingenuity and imaginative force. In complete control of her plot, her prose sways as gracefully as a waltz, glinting with irony, and meticulous in its detail and accent.

In this family saga, McCullough fuses intriguing period detail into a generational saga that features a host of superbly wrought characters. Thoroughly enjoyable, this novel offers intelligent, witty entertainment. Its clean prose, empathetic characters, a richly observed tale of love and despair, unravel the tangled threads of doomed relationships and captures the dusty, dry essence of life in the Australian outback.

McCullough’s real strength lies in her plotting and pacing, an eye for detail, and at creating a host of minor characters that people the landscape of her novel. Where her characters are caught up in a complex world of emotional connections and confusion, intertwined by the ties that bind them. Against a richly nuanced backdrop of people, place and history, it captures not only the breathless drama and agonising banality of life and all that it engenders, buts its abundant paradoxes as well.

Gripping and awashed with dramatic nuances, rich in detail and densely textured, The Thorn Birds sings with an undertone of elegiac melancholy. Read it and weep!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Karen ARMSTRONG in Kuala Lumpur

HERS IS THE VOICE OF CLARITY AND REASON in a world embroiled in religious chaos. Religious historian Karen Armstrong was in Kuala Lumpur this week to deliver a public lecture on the role of religion in the 21st century and bridging the gap between Islam and the West.

Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun who made her name with such religious tomes as The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah (published in the U.S. as The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions) (2006), A Short History of Myth (2005), The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1996) and A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1993) as well as her two engaging memoirs of spiritual discovery, The Spiral Staircase (2004) and Through the Narrow Gate (1981), is an acknowledged authority on the religions of the world: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

As a writer of popular books on Islam, Jerusalem and the Buddha, she was here to promote peace and understanding between religions for a better world, a world based on empathy, compassion and a concern for others. She spoke with much eloquence, intelligence and sensibility on a wide-ranging variety of topics: politics, religious fundamentalism, religious violence, enlightenment, transcendence, atheism, civilisations, the unity of faiths, learning to weep with those who were suffering, etc.

Friday, June 15, 2007

2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize

NORWEGIAN Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (first published in Norwegian in 2003; published in English by Harvill Secker in 2005) took the world’s biggest literary prize for a single work of fiction in English last night. The judges called it “a poignant and moving tale of a changing perspective on the world ... and of nostalgia for a simpler way of life.” The lugubrious and atmospheric tale, competently translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born, tells of a solitary 67-year-old widower who is compelled to remember the traumatic events of his childhood through a chance encounter with someone from the past. His life was changed forever in the summer of 1948 when he was only a fresh-faced teenager. Through his reminiscences the novel brings that distant summer to life and explores how a recovered past can ruffle events in the present. I think Out Stealing Horses is a perfect example of a simple, quiet story that works; it is nostalgic, ethereal and evocative of a place and time. This book also won the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Anne Born, who has translated many works of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian literature, is also the translator of his other two novels: In the Wake (2002) and To Siberia (1998). I believe she also translated Jostein Gaarder’s Vita Brevis from the Norwegian in 1998 and Jens Christian Grøndahl’s An Altered Light from the Danish in 2004.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. Yes, the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will be announced tonight. So, who will it be this time? Will it be Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George (Britain), Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (Ireland), Peter Hobbs’s The Short Day Dying (Britain) or Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (Norway)? Look out for it!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Man Booker International Prize 2007

NIGERIAN NOVELIST Chinua Achebe, the founding father of Nigerian literature in English, has been announced the winner of the 2nd Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. The Man Booker International Prize is worth £60,000 and is awarded once every two years to a living author for an ouvre or an entire body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage. It was first awarded to Albanian Ismail Kadaré in 2005. Achebe is probably best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1987.

In the early 1970s, John Updike in The New Yorker described Things Fall Apart as follows: “Writing with a beautiful economy, Achebe seized the basic African subject—the breakup, under colonialism, of tribal society—so firmly and fairly that the book’s tragedy, like Greek tragedy, felt tonic; a space had been cleared, an understanding had been acheived, a new beginning was implied.”

Past Recipients
2007 Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
2005 Ismail Kadaré (Albania)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

POETRY Promissory Note ... Galway KINNELL

“Promissory Note”
Galway KINNELL

If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star’s
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.

From Galway Kinnell, Strong Is Your Hold (Bloodaxe, 2007)

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Adichie and Connelly win the Oranges!

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE is the winner of the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction for Half of a Yellow Sun (Fourth Estate/Harper Perennial, 2006) while Karen Connelly won the 2007 Orange Award for New Writers for The Lizard Cage (Harvill Secker/Nan A. Talese, 2007; first published in Canada in 2005), a story that explores and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit in a world of oppression, repression and suppression. At 29, Adichie is the youngest writer to win the prize for women writers.

Adichie, of course, is the celebrated overall winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book with her début novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), while Connelly is the author of Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal (published in the U.S. in 2002 as Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand) (1992), winner of the 1993 Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction.