Of trivia

ArthurConanDoyle_AStudyInScarlet_annual

Image from Wikipedia. Click to go there.

I’m reading A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is the first Sherlock Holmes story, and something Holmes said got a chuckle out of me.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

Too true!

Holmes was responding to Watson who was flabbergasted that not only did Holmes not know about the Solar System, but wished to forget this new information he had now acquired, because it was just not relevant to him or his work.

But it’s the Solar System we’re talking about here!, Watson protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

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I don’t think anyone intentionally fills his head with junk or so-called ‘useless trivia’. If something sticks in your mind or strikes you as particularly interesting and you go ahead to learn more, it’s because you have a strong interest in the subject and to me that’s a good enough reason to do so.

The quote reminds me of the various subjects or skills I wanted to learn and went ahead and did them, whether on my own or in the form of courses that took up a lot of time and effort (evening classes after work, for example). Some were completed and proved to be useful, while some others did not turn out to be useful or relevant to my work or other aspects of my life. A few were abandoned because the interest fizzled out after a while. But whatever the outcome, I never regretted taking on any of them, because I enjoyed the learning process every single time.

I get Holmes’ point, though. Or Sir Doyle’s, rather. And this bit:

It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent.

is something I have probably been guilty of. While this:

Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.

sounds scary but is probably true.

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Notes to me: To Do

  • Declutter brain-attic for a tidy and efficient workspace.
  • Expunge useless trivia like celebrity gossip, politics and other stuff you picked up in the news, current favourite TV show (Extant starring Halle Berry) and the Solar System
  • Renovate brain-attic. Include filing cabinets and open shelves so the useful info is tidily organized and easily accessible. Also a fireplace so the useless info can get sucked in and go up in smoke.
  • Don’t feel hesitant or too guilty to pick up new things that may seem useless or pointless, as long as you enjoy them. Just quickly burn after use lest something sticks. Keep brain-attic neat and tidy.
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Children’s books featuring gay families to be destroyed

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Update 19 July 2014 – Some good news. Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim has stopped the National Library from destroying two of the children’s titles, specifically ‘And Tango Makes Three’ and ‘The White Swan Express’, issuing the order that they be moved to the adult section instead, where parents can borrow them for their children. However, a third title, ‘Who’s In My Family?’ has sadly already been ‘pulped’.

To read more on this development, click on this link to go to the AFP News article I got the information from, via Yahoo! News Singapore.

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I’m deeply disappointed by the news I came across on Yahoo! Singapore that our National Library are going to destroy some children’s books that depict families with gay parents.

What happened:

Two children’s books ‘And Tango Makes Three‘ and ‘The White Swan Express‘ were removed after a member of the public, a Teo Kai Loon, had e-mailed the National Library Board (NLB) voicing his concerns about them.

A Yahoo! News Singapore article reported that:

… In supposedly two days, NLB responded to Teo’s e-mail complaint, stating that the books have been withdrawn following his feedback. NLB emphasised that it “takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children” and “when library visitors like yourself [Teo] highlight to us any conflicting content within books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation”.

The response was signed by Tay Ai Cheng, the assistant chief executive and chief librarian of the NLB.

A member of the Facebook group “We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore”, Teo then posted NLB’s response to him on July 8. He did not include the contents of his original e-mail complaint in the post. In the post, Teo called other members of the group to “continue to scrutinise the catalogue and not allow such children books to go under the radar screen”. He also encouraged people to email NLB if they had any concerns, saying that the NLB takes swift action, “all within 2 days”. However, Teo’s Facebook post in the group has since been removed.

What disturbs me:

That the books are to destroyed, instead of simply being given away to people who want them, which would serve the same objective of not having them on the library’s shelves anymore.

I simply don’t understand why the books must be destroyed. To me this reeks of a book-burning exercise, which is shocking and extreme. As a gay person, heck as any thinking and feeling human being, to me it’s like making a damning statement, in this case against gay parenting and therefore gay people.

I don’t care to ever be a parent myself. And so when I read or hear of condemnation to the idea of gays being parents, I admit it’s something that just whizzes by me as just one of the many injustices that is part of life. But not before it slashes me up inside in tiny painful cuts in ways you will never know or understand, unless like me you are a gay person who grew up with straight parents, in a ‘straight environment’, not to mention religious even, but who still suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of people who considered themselves straight, who led straight lives. It happened over a number of years in my childhood.

I’m not traumatised anymore, I function alright. But to be a grown adult already in my 40s and still be weighed down with malaise and sorrow by vivid memories of those episodes that still hit me out of the blue every so often, there is always a bitter smile or laugh in me when I read or hear ignorant and prejudiced people thinking that the safe wellbeing of children depends on whether the parents are gay or straight.

Anyway, whatever, these are just my own scars, from my own experience of my own childhood, which of course also contains happy memories as well. The opinion I want to express here is just that: if we don’t agree with something, that’s fine, but why to the harsh extent of ‘pulping’ such books that are sympathetic to what we don’t agree with?

And what a sad waste of books and money too. I wish they would just give them away to the adults who want them.

Why my grief

My sadness and disappointment stems mostly from that I was very fond of our National Library. I have always loved it and never took this noble public service for granted, even before I started travelling especially to some of our neighbouring countries, where even the most basic public infrastructure like proper pedestrian pavements can be messed up, let alone luxuries like public libraries which are practically non-existent. (After travelling, I consider our libraries a luxury.) I think I have mentioned in this blog a few times how I love and appreciate our National Library, for example in this post here.

Hence the deep disappointment. Now It’s like the love is suddenly tainted or something. It’s like now I feel I might have to reluctantly let go a friend I’m actually fond of. Because how do you remain friends with someone you can’t respect.

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The books in question:

The three titles to be pulped are:

1. And Tango Makes Three, (2005) written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole.

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A photograph of parent and blogger Joyce reading ‘And Tango Makes Three‘ to her daughter. Added here 14 July 2014, with her kind permission. From the excellent review of the book from her family blog TOT: HOT OR NOT. Click image to go there.

From Wikipedia:

The book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap Penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The book follows the six years of their life when they formed a couple and were given an egg to raise.

The book has won many awards but also been at the center of numerous censorship and culture war debates on same-sex marriage, adoption, and homosexuality in animals. The American Library Association reports that And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book of 2006 to 2010, except for 2009 when it was the second most challenged.

The following video is a wonderful narration of the moving story, from YouTube user John Mark Johnson.

 

2. The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption (2002), written by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki, illustrated by Meilo So.

the-white-swan-express

Image as seen on The Online Citizen. Click image to go there.

The story is about children adopted by straight, gay, mixed-race and single parents. A description as seen on Amazon.com:

In China, the moon shines on four baby girls, fast asleep in an orphanage. Far away in North America, the sun rises over four homes as the people who live there get ready to start a long, exciting journey. This lovely story of people who travel to China to be united with their daughters describes the adoption process step by step and the anxiety, suspense, and delight of becoming a family. Told with tenderness and humor, and enlivened by joyous illustrations, The White Swan Express will go straight to readers’ hearts.

Click here for a sweet and delightful review of the book.

3. Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families (2012), written by Robie H. Harris, and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott.

Who_Family_HB_p10_UK

An image from the book ‘Who’s In My Family?’, as seen on walker.co.uk, via Google Image Search. Click to go there.

A description of the book from Goodreads.com:

Trusted New York Times best-selling author Robie H. Harris continues her series for preschoolers with a look at the many kinds of families that make up our world.

Join Nellie and Gus and their family — plus all manner of other families — for a day at the zoo, where they see animal families galore! To top off their day, Nellie and Gus invite friends and relatives for a fun dinner at home. Accessible, humorous, and full of charming illustrations depicting families of many configurations, this engaging story interweaves conversations between the siblings and a matter-of-fact text, making it clear to every child that whoever makes up your family, it is perfectly normal — and totally wonderful

Click here for a review of the book. And here to go to the website of the author Robie H. Harris.

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Some of the voices defending the books:

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Other related articles:

 

 

A book of love

What book would people normally buy for someone they love? Something romantic, I guess, like some poetry. A book of profound and lovely poems by a distinguished and admired poet. Or their favourite Shakespearean play. A classic romance by Jane Austen? Or Edith Wharton, for something a bit more brooding but hauntingly beautiful all the same. Maybe a modern romance. Nicholas Sparks! I have yet to read any of his books. I really should soon. From what I have heard and read about him, I would expect glorious epic romances. I’d love that.

My first choice of a book for a lover would be Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. To me that is the ultimate love story. Love and life, with all of its glory and splendour but also its devastating heartbreak and finally resignation to how it rules and owns you. And accepting and embracing that. Something sublime like that, you know? Something dazzlingly, beautifully romantic.

My man got me this:

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And I absolutely love him for it, all over again, 20 years later. Because it still cracks me up after all this time.

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I was tidying some shelves and drawers, sorting some books and other stuff, and at one point just felt like taking a break when I saw this. It’s been a long while since I last enjoyed it. I turned the cover and saw the date, and was really surprised. I didn’t realise the book has been with us this long.

I love the work of American cartoonist Gary Larson, his quirky and bizarre sense of humour. I have an appreciation for such cartoons since I was a kid after discovering Lat, a Malaysian cartoonist who drew satirical scenes of various themes like traditional village life, social and political issues, children at play, etc.

So many things have happened in twenty years. We almost broke up a few times haha, we almost walked away when things seemed hard and impossible. And twenty years ago both my parents were still alive, God, I miss them so much. His mum and aunt too. I miss them a lot too.

We make each other laugh. I think that’s it. Of course it’s not the only thing, but definitely an important factor why we’re still together even though we drive each other crazy sometimes. He’s the kindest person I know, not only to me but to the other people around him, and he’s got a crazy sense of humour I love.

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Day 32 of ‘100 Happy Days‘.

Happy meter: amused

Making an online reservation of books from the National Library

As I’ve written before once or twice, I’ve been meaning to write here about how much I love and appreciate being able to reserve online the books I want to borrow from the National Library. I’m finally sitting down and doing this with my latest reservation, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, a title reviewed and highly recommended by Buffy of Storytime With Buffy, a blog I follow.

I thought I would show my appreciation of this wonderful service I’m fond of using by going through it step-by-step à la a tutorial of some sort.

Before I go any further, I should mention it costs $1.55, and that it’s not payable by cash. Transactions at the library are only by CashCard, ezlink card or NETS.

Making the reservation online.

Step1_www.nlb.gov

  • ^ 1. First, go to www.nlb.gov.sg. Click NLB Search Plus‘ on the Quick Links menu on the left.

Step2_fill in title and author

  • ^ 2. Fill in the name of the title or author, or both, and click ‘Search‘.

Step3_click find in library tab

  • ^ 3. If the book you want turns up, great! It may even be available in different languages or formats, for example as an audiobook. Click ‘Find in Library‘ to locate which branches it is available at. But first, be sure you are checking out the book in the format you want. I once reserved and borrowed a Large Print book by mistake!

Step4_check branch or click reserve this item

  • 4. Check whether the branch nearest to you stocks it and whether it’s still available to loan.

At this point, if you see it’s available, you might decide to just pop in the branch as soon as possible to pick up the book. Bear in mind someone may have already borrowed it by the time you get there. (Especially if it’s a recent and popular bestseller!) Also, if it is not available at the library nearest to you and you decide to travel to a farther one to borrow it, remember you have to return the book at the same branch you borrowed it from.

  • ^ If you decide to reserve the book instead, click ‘Reserve this item‘.

Step5_to reserve_fill in login details required

  • ^ 5. Fill in the details requested to log in.

Step6_choose branch to pick up book from

  • ^ 6. Select the branch you want to pick it up from, and click ‘Submit‘. This is my favourite part, getting to have it delivered to a branch most convenient to me.

Picking up the reserved book.

Pickup1_notification

  • ^ 1. Okay, now about a week later, the notification that the book is ready for collection arrives. This may be the not-so-great part for some people, having to wait a week or so to read the book. But I find it’s not a big deal to me. You do not have to bring this notification to collect your book, by the way.

Pickup2_eKiosk Machine

  • ^ 2. At the library, look out for the e-kiosk machine to pay your reservation fee. You need to settle that first before you can pick up the book.

Pickup3_Scan card

Pickup4_Click payment

  • ^ 4. Click ‘Payment’.

Pickup5_Pay with card

  • ^ 5. Make payment. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, they don’t take cash, which I found annoying at first as it’s just $1.55. Transactions at the library are only by CashCard, ezlink card or NETS.

Pickup6_concierge

  • ^ 6. Lastly, waltz over to the reception counter (I noticed the sign said ‘concierge‘. Ooh la la!) to collect your reserved book. Show them your membership or identification card as they need that to check which book to hand over to you. The borrowing is recorded at the counter itself. You don’t need to bring it to a self-service machine where one scans the barcode of a book to borrow it.

Bbook received

Mmmm… can’t wait to be spellbound.

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Day 23 of ‘100 Happy Days‘.

Happy meter: ready and excited for the freefall down the rabbit hole.

Large print books from the National Library

Over a week ago, in my haste to reserve a book online from the National Library (a thing of joy I definitely want to document as part of my ‘100 Happy Days‘ adventure) I had clicked to reserve a ‘Large Print‘ book, and I didn’t realise this until I went to collect it a few days ago.

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The large-print book compared to a regular-sized paperback.

“Oh no,” was my first thought when I saw it, “I can’t bring it out with me. It’s too big.” I was so annoyed with myself, because reading on the train or bus makes the ride far less boring. I don’t get to read when it’s really packed and we’re all squeezed in like sardines, but when I get the chance it’s always nice to catch up on my reading.

I’m reluctant to bring this out because in addition to its cumbersome size, it’s a tad heavy to carry it for long with one hand while I flip the pages or hold on to a pole with the other. I don’t know how thick Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is as a regular paperback, but in this large print format it’s just over 900 pages.

But when I started reading it, oh my God, I immediately loved the large print. It made me smile at first because I’m reminded of children’s books with their big text. But I quickly got into the flow of the story, and it’s a wonderfully comfortable experience for my eyes. I hardly feel the strain after reading for a long while.

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Comparison in font size and spacing between lines.

I don’t know if I will intentionally borrow a large-print book in future, but it’s so nice to know our National Library has made them available. It’s gratifying that seniors and other people with weakening eyesight have the option to enjoy these books anytime they want.

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Related:

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This post is Day 6 of ‘100 Happy Days‘.

Happy meter: pleasantly surprised

House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker

House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker

House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Published by WestBow Press in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.A.

I think this is the first time I’ve read a novel written by two authors. I wonder how that works, and how different that is than for a non-fiction collaboration. How two voices merge into one, how two trains of thought meet to run at the same wavelength. Must be very interesting. I imagine the extra head provides some relief during the editing parts of the writing process.

I was intrigued by the compelling review by Greg of the blog A Life in the Day. I was delighted when a quick check online with the National Library shows that they have the novel, but not at the branch closest to home, so I had it put under reservation for a token fee, simultaneously selecting the option to have it delivered to the branch of my choice. Less than a week later I received a note in the mail notifying me that the book had been delivered and was ready to be picked up. Isn’t that amazing? I really should write a post about how much I love our public libraries, something I imagine many of us take for granted until we travel and realize people in some other countries out there are just not as fortunate. Our National Library Board, the good work they have quietly done for the people of Singapore; it’s really one of the things I love most about my country.

A haunted house tale, the novel tells the story of a couple, Jack and Stephanie, who gets stranded on a deserted back road after a peculiar accident. They are forced to continue on foot and so they are relieved to come across The Wayside Inn which looks inviting and welcoming, but things quickly start to take a strange turn after they meet another couple inside, Randy and Leslie, who tells them that they too were led to the inn after experiencing the same kind of accident.

The premise feels very familiar, feels like I’ve read or seen it on screen many times. Stranded people desperate for shelter. Conveniently finds it. Hosts are creepy. Strange things happen. Villain in a mask. But I enjoyed it nevertheless, and I’m glad it’s a supernatural horror story, not a slasher one. I’d take ghosts over killers on a murderous rampage anyday. Because tales of violent human serial killers committing explicitly gruesome murders on teenagers or whoever are just sick.

House is a joy to read because it’s rivetting and fast-paced, and the scenes play out so vividly that it was easy to visualize a movie behind the words. In fact I soon put faces of actors to voice the dialogue of most of the characters, including the four leading ones of those two couples.

James McAvoy as writer Jack

Leslie Mann as fragile Stephanie

Josh Brolin as pompous executive-type Randy

Aisha Tyler as sexy Leslie.

Greg wrote that House is hard to put down and I agree with him. I can’t remember when was the last time I took just two sittings to read a book, and this one is over 350 pages long. I could have devoured it in just one session, but it was already quite late at night when I started and I had to (reluctantly) stop halfway because I needed to sleep as I was working the following day.

Misterioso by Arne Dahl

Misterioso by Arne Dahl_front and back cover

Published by Vintage Books. Click to enlarge.

I have not read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by the late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson or the other two novels from his hugely famous Millennium series trilogy, although I have seen the Swedish film adaptation of all three books, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Misterioso by Arne Dahl is also a Swedish crime thriller, originally published in 1999. The English version I read had been translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally and published in 2011.

Set in the 1990s, the criminal in the story is a serial killer who targets high-profile businessmen in Stockholm. He breaks into their homes at night, waits patiently for them to get home and shoots two bullets into their heads. Detective Paul Hjelm is enlisted into an investigative team called the A-Unit, just as he was about to be fired or demoted due to a disciplinary committee’s unhappiness at how he handled a hostage situation involving an immigrant, despite the obvious courage and compassion Hjelm had displayed in that incident. The A-Unit had been specially and swiftly set up to investigate the murders, a small but elite team made up of experienced and highly skilled officers selected from all over Sweden.

The book starts off promisingly with what seems to be a bank robbery gone wrong, and then an interesting and likeable protagonist is created in Paul Hjelm, a dependable professional with a cool head. But I started getting a little bored and fidgety after about 80 pages of the 340-page book, reading about Hjelm and the other detectives pursuing false leads, even though there are well crafted and finely paced red herrings. I did enjoy the juicy bits for example when the murder victims are revealed to be less than honourable men, although it would had been nicer if the part about some of them being secret society members came with some entertainingly scandalous revelations. However the part about one of the detectives falling into the hands of the Russian mafia was spine-tingling.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this book. I don’t know, maybe this type of fiction just isn’t my thing, but then I do remember I have read a few other crime mysteries and enjoyed them. I can’t really put a finger on why this book just didn’t click for me. Maybe it’s because I can’t quite root for the hero, or any other character in the book. I do like Paul Hjelm and I think just the right amount of detail is revealed about his personal family, his wife and kids. After all this is a thriller, not a drama about his family. But one problem for me here is that Hjelm is written as having serious friction is his relationship with his wife. Quite a lot of verses are invested in this, yet it doesn’t reveal satisfactorily the cause, and the development of this side story is frustrating. So it just seemed meaningless. If it was supposed to illustrate something about Hjelm’s character, well it was lost on me.

And that stupid zit on his cheek. *Spoiler Alert – for this paragraph* Gosh that was a major peeve for me. Its mention was scattered throughout the book and kept brief, but in such dark mysterious tones that at one point I thought it was going to take on supernatural proportions or something. I was all prepared, and feeling a bit scared for him, for the thing to turn into something really bad. To mean something; to culminate into something worthwhile of the steady suspense built up for it. But in the end it turned out to be just a blemish mark, that’s all. Ugh.

What did I enjoy? The descriptions of the the weather and the scenery in Sweden are concise and starkly beautiful, and the way the words are weaved to describe the music favoured by the killer is nothing short of breathtaking. A gorgeous symphony in itself. Social issues Sweden faces (or faced? Story was set in the 90s.) are also touched in an interesting and informative way. There are a lot of interesting supporting characters. The ones I like best are Hjelm’s boss Jan-Olov Hultin, whose dialogue in my mind was inhabited by Anthony Hopkins (which makes the character more entertaining), and fellow A-Unit team member Kerstin Holm, who matches Hjelm in temperament and is even better than him in some ways as a detective.

How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark

How Not To Write a Novel

Published by the Penguin Group. Click to enlarge.

That partially covered tagline reads: ‘200 mistakes to avoid at all costs if you ever want to get published‘. And there’s a gun pointed at that sweet little kitten. Run, kitty!

A gloriously hilarious book that had me in stitches, and cringing painfully at some parts. Twenty years ago in my youth I wrote a novel. I sent it to two or three publishers, it was rejected and I left it at that (although I’ll never forget how amazingly kind one editor was at GMP in his encouragement and he even sent me some books that were published by the company). I shelved that hobby and moved on to other interests.

Now even though it’s been twenty years since I chucked away that manuscript into a drawer, I instantly recognised some of the ‘things not to do’ exactly because I had committed them, and it made me cringe and titter hard reading about these mistakes, more so than the other ones that are just as funny. Now I don’t think I can bear to pick up that novel again, I’d probably embarrass the hell out of myself and never recover. It’s just as well I haven’t read it again for many years. I should burn it, come to think of it. Just kidding.

I barely finished ‘Part 1:Plot‘ before deciding not to continue reading How not to write a novel on public transportation. All that smiling and and laughing to yourself while reading an apparently funny book is fine for a few minutes, but may escalate into making the people around you nervous.

The writers list what they think are the most common mistakes, illustrating the missteps with hilarious examples, and guiding the reader on how to recognise, avoid and amend them. At the end of this post I’ve included the list of contents.

Amidst all the wit and humour and what they call tough love, the writers deftly impart advice on topics that already held some interest to me, but now I wish I could download into my brain, and never delete. I don’t see myself having the time and the interest to try write another novel in the near future or possibly ever again, but if I do, it would not be a bad idea to first memorize every single point the writers brought up. That way hopefully I can focus on the writing and enjoying it in peace and not have the nagging thought that I’m making a fool of myself, uh, again.

On that thought, I’d need to buy it. I borrowed the copy I read from the National Library, but I see it’s listed here at fishpond.com.sg for S$17.36. (first seen via oo.sg)

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Related links:

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Contents: In 255 pages, the book covers the following topics:

Part 1: Plot

  • Chapter 1: Beginnings and Setups
  • Chapter 2: Complications and Pacing
  • Chapter 3: Endings

Part 2: Character

  • Chapter 4: Character Esssentials
  • Chapter 5: Getting to Know Your Hero
  • Chapter 6: Sidekicks and Significant Others
  • Chapter 7:  Bad Guys

Part 3: Style – The Basics

  • Chapter 8: Words and Phrases
  • Chapter 9: Sentences and Paragraphs
  • Chapter 10: Dialogue

Part 4: Style – Perspective and Voice

  • Chapter 11: Narrative Stance
  • Chapter 12: Interior Monologue

Part 5: The World of the Bad Novel

  • Chapter 13: Setting
  • Chapter 14: Research and Historical Background
  • Chapter 15: Theme

Part 6: Special Effects and Novelty Acts – Do Not Try This At Home

Part 7: How Not To Sell A Novel

The Inhuman Condition by Clive Barker

Clive Barker_The Inhuman Condition_front and back

I’ve only read one other book by Clive Barker, which is Everville, and I like that so much that over the years I have read my copy several times.

I got into going to the library again recently. Browsing through the shelves quickly, I came across this book. Fancying a spooky read, why not, I grabbed it. It was only when I got home that I discovered it is not a novel but a collection of short stories, which is fine. The Inhuman Condition was first published in 1987.

Quickly thankful they were short stories because there were all so creepy, I enjoyed them very much. Well, I enjoyed four out of the total of five. Clive’s stories are so vivid that they’re those stories that easily play out in your mind like movie scenes as you read them. Or in this case, short TV episodes like in The Twilight Zone or something.

The first one is the title tale, about a group of youngsters who beat up a homeless vagrant to rob him. From the pockets of the vagrants’ coat, one of the youngsters discovers a string of knots which fascinates him, but as he undoes the knots later he unwittingly unleashes demons which terrifyingly start to go after them.

The second one is so juicily bizarre and scary, called The Body Politic. A man discovers his hands have their own conciousness and too late, he realises they have been carefully plotting to be free of him by chopping themselves off. Their plan is, once free, to start a revolution, by awakening the conciousness in all the other hands of the world so that they no longer have to answer to our bidding.

The third one is the shortest called Down, Satan! I couldn’t quite get into the premise of the story. It’s about a wealthy businessman who thinks God has deserted him. His twisted plan to rectify this is to build a massive residence (I think it was a castle) to turn into Hell on Earth, to attract Satan to take up residence so that God will take notice and save the man from Satan. I didn’t enjoy this one so happily it was really short, just a few pages long.

The fourth is a lovely story called Revelations. It made me think of the movie Psycho. It could be a Psycho Part 2 kind of story if there was a Twilight Zone series with a motel theme. Revelations is about a travelling preacher John and his wife Virginia. The motel room they occupy one night happens to be visited by a pair of ghosts Buck and Sadie who were married to each other during their lifetime. The ghosts are swinging by that night to make an effort to understand and reconcile with what happened decades ago, when Sadie shot Buck in that very same motel room after she discovered he was cheating on her.

Saving the best for last, the most chilling and disturbing and fun is The Age of Desire; one of those lab experiments gone chaotically wrong stories. It’s about the tragic development of a paid research participant who is used by a pair of scientists in an unofficial project which they hope would yield them a marketable and lucrative aphrodisiac product.

I discovered while doing some reading for this post that this book is actually a part in a series of horror fiction collections by the writer. The series is called Books of Blood, and The Inhuman Condition is Volume Four.

Harmattan by Gaye Shortland

I actually read up to about a third of the book last year around October, then misplaced it shortly after. Gosh that’s almost a year ago. It was very annoying because I was so into the book. Fortunately I found it a few weeks ago in a backpack I had chucked someplace and only found it because I wanted to use that bag again. So I started all over again. I devoured it in one sitting earlier today.

Harmattan by Gaye Shortland, published in 1999 by Poolbeg Press Ltd of Dublin, Ireland

The protagonist is Ellen, an Irish expat lecturer in the city of Zaria in Nigeria, who was pining for her missing lover Amodi. They were supposed to meet in Zaria upon her return from Ireland on leave, but weeks passed with no news of him. Amodi is a Tuareg from Niger, nomads of the Saharan desert who also form a small community in neighbouring Nigeria, where the men work as security guards and nightwatchmen.

When Yusuf, another Tuareg watchman who was a friend of Ellen’s and who was working for her acquaintances in the expat community, died in an accident, his employers made the request to Ellen to personally deliver his belongings and wages to Yusuf’s wife and daughters in Niger.

It was a huge favour to ask, as she would need to take time off from work and the destination was some five hundred kilometres away, not to mention the fact that it was dangerous to be on the road due to the political unrest in Niger. But Ellen grabbed the chance to hit the road to find her beloved Amodi. She set off for the journey in her Land Cruiser with three young local friends: Haruna, Ataka and Ilyas. Lads who did odd jobs for her.

Their journey hit a snag practically right at the beginning, when they were told at the border that the military were not allowing vehicles to travel to their destination, which resulted in them having to take an alternative route that was a massive loop, a long way round which added another thousand kilometres to their journey.

The book is far too short (207 pages), or at least I wish more was revealed about how some of the characters fared in the end. It’s a bit painful to fall for characters and root for them yet not know by the time the book’s ended whether they’re safe or not. Well maybe not fall for them, but become fond of them as Ellen was. I need the closure dammit. Yeah it’s a novel, fiction, but still. I think I’m just sad, and a bit shaken by what happened to some of the other villagers towards the end of the book, especially one of the women.

Ms. Shortland describes Ellen’s shock and grief so eloquently. Words which brutally cut through to what Ellen saw and what her mind registered and which slyly snaked around my heart. It was a painful scene to read, especially since it came quite suddenly. Most of the book were Ellen’s accounts of her interactions and relationships with the nomadic people she met along the way, immersed in a huge and entertaining dose of wit and humour and her no-nonsense attitude. Her observations of the different aspects of their culture, sometimes touchingly comparing their quirks to her own Irish people. Her extensive knowledge of the region and its people, spurred by her passion and deep love for them. However she’s no sentimental fool; she’s infuriated and pained by some of their ways, and to add to her frustration she had to rein in her anger and keep her honest thoughts to herself so as not to alienate them.

I was hoping to read some reviews of this beautiful book I’ll never forget, but I can’t seem to find them though. I’m so lucky to have come across it at a second-hand bookstore.

Oh and Harmattan is the name of the wind that blows south to the area from the Sahara between the end of November and the middle of March.