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The Orientalist and The Ghost

Book Review

One year ago, this book might not have reached the shelves. Contents include British colonialists, Communist insurgents, May 13 rioteers and the DAP. Who would’ve thought so much could happen in 365 days? But is it a ghost story, or not? While “ghost” is in the title, the ambiguity of The Orientalist and the Ghost is guaranteed to titillate, or irritate.

Here, Susan Barker delivers a Lemony-Snicketish tale of a dysfunctional British-Chinese family forged in the fires of the Malayan Emergency that crumbles as time marches on. Young Christopher Milnar is an adventurous and somewhat naïve scholar enamoured with all things Chinese who gets shipped to insurgent-era Malaya as an assistant administrator of a Chinese relocation settlement in Yong Peng, Johore. Translated, Yong Peng means “Everlasting Peace”; he would later find out that the British aren’t the only ones with a sardonic sense of humour. He gets no welcome from the locals, especially the resentful Chinese who have been separated from relatives and loved ones under the Communist insurgents.

As the harsh reality whittles down his romanticism, love and hate come in the emaciated form of Evangeline Lim, an older half-Chinese woman with whom Chris has a May-December fling. Evangeline unwillingly betrays Chris’ trust in her and ends up in court where she is sentenced to death, but not before leaving behind a daughter. Chris takes it upon himself to look after the child, named Frances, but the “Yong Peng Irony” continues as Frances becomes estranged from her “foreign devil” father and commits suicide years later, saddling Chris with her children, Adam and Julia. Like mother, like daughter.

However, this tale of woe begins with an ageing Chris being visited by phantoms of his past: his superior officer, colleagues and other memorable individuals from those heady Malayan days. The narration suggests that it’s more hallucination than haunting. I don’t blame him. He’s counting his days, and his grandchildren have inherited that psychological Great Wall of China from their grandmother’s side of the family. Plus, he’s no Jamie Oliver.

It’s not long before Chris himself crosses over, and suddenly, the grandchildren are adults. While Adam becomes a lab technician, Julia falls in with the wrong crowd and ends up a heroine junkie, too stoned to care when a letter from her mother’s old school-friend arrives, asking for a meeting. As Adam sets off to meet the sender, the rest of the Milnars’ sad tale unfolds.

I’m not a fan of non-linear plotlines, even though some stories read well when written this way. I didn’t like the way The Orientalist leaps back and forth between the present and the tumultuous Malayan days. The aged Chris Milnar narrates the beginning, but then someone else tells us that he’s dead, and Adam has the keys to his flat. A couple of chapters later, it’s good old Chris prattling on again, as if he never left. All that bouncing around gave me motion sickness.

Another gripe I had with it was the (perceived) interactivity. OK, there are plenty of clues as to why Frances became estranged from her father, but I had to dig. Surely it wasn’t simply because of her conviction that her dad betrayed her mum? What really happened when she went searching for the teacher she had a crush on in the riot-racked city? Who really was the assailant that drove a rift between Chris and Evangeline? It’s supposed to be literary fiction. If I wanted intellectual stimulation, I’d have done a Sudoku puzzle.

Storywise, it’s pretty authentic. The sounds, emotions and atmosphere of those bygone times are captured very well. In Chris’ narration, there are flashes of Shakespearean melodrama and the famous British wit; too bad his performance couldn’t save this sad tale. And the only ghosts in the book are probably in Chris Milnar’s head all along. Should I feel cheated, or not?


The Logic of Life

Book Review

In The Logic of Life, Harford tackles prickly issues like prostitution, gambling, racism and crime. He couldn’t resist writing about them, he says.

“The ideas I was reading about in the latest journals, discussing with the top economists and writing about in the Financial Times, are so compelling that the decision made itself,” he says.

Economics is sometimes called “the study of scarce resources”, something Harford believes to be a narrow definition.

“But even that definition recognises that girlfriends and boyfriends are scarce, nice neighbourhoods are scarce, and positions high up the corporate ladder are scarce,” he says.

Both The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life focus on real, practical problems people face every day.

“But The Undercover Economist looks at commercial issues: how shops cleverly set their prices to get us to pay more, for example.

The Logic of Life looks instead at social issues such as marriage and divorce, discrimination, politics and what makes cities work well or struggle,” he says.

The challenge was deciding what to leave out because there was such insight coming out from the field, and there are so many “astonishing stories and larger-than-life characters”.

“It wasn’t a challenge to write the book but a pleasure. But in the end, you can’t include everything. I left out a chapter about virtual worlds online – it’s a great subject but in the end, I felt better leaving it out of the book,” he says.

His favourite chapter is the second chapter, Las Vegas, where he visits the desert entertainment city to observe its denizens.

“I meet a poker professional called ‘Jesus’ who used economic theory to become world champion, and an economist who advised John F. Kennedy how to avoid nuclear war. The characters and the stories are amazing. But my wife tells me that it’s ‘a boy chapter’ and that the chapters on love and on office politics are better,” he says.

The subject of politics was, however, more difficult to tackle.

“The simplistic position that many economists take is that it is not rational to vote because you will not, as an individual, alter the result of an election. But that is obviously naïve and not a good description of what people do,” he says.

Harford realised that he had to be “more sophisticated and realistic”, and discovered something powerful while writing about the subject.

“It explains why we vote so much based on personalities rather than policies; it also explains why some lobby groups have lots of influence while others, equally rich, do not,” he hints enticingly.

But can everything be explained by economics?

Not really, he admits candidly. Economics can tell us about issues, but it does not tell us everything, he says.

“Economics can tell us about how coffee is priced, but not why coffee tastes good. Economics can tell us how we compete to get a husband or wife. It does not tell us why we love our partner. Economics is everywhere, but it is not everything,” he says.

A normal life

Harford has another radio series to do and he has signed a contract to write two more books.

Despite all this, he insists that his life has not changed much since the success of The Undercover Economist.

“Nothing important has changed,” he says. “My wife and I discussed the night before The Undercover Economist was published, ‘What if this book is a total failure?’ and ‘What if this book sells a million copies?’. And we decided that nothing would really change, either way.”

Harford still lives in the same two-bedroom house, for one.

“I am very lucky that I get to write books for a living and do other interesting things – make TV shows, present a radio series, travel the world – but that is not the most important thing. My home, my family, my job, hasn’t changed,” he says.


Book Review

By Jane Mallison
Publisher: McGraw-Hill, 336 pages
ISBN: 978-0071482714

THE thing about mass literacy is that it isn’t just good enough to be able to read anymore. Kids’ books, chick lit, speculative fiction, academic references, dummies’ guides – there are books for everyone, and everyone’s reading. So for the aspiring elitist within each of us, the important thing is to read well.

That’s precisely what Jane Mallison’s Book Smart helps you do. It’s basically a list of good books – good enough to show a lit professor without facing condescending laughter.

Book Smart lists 120 books split into themed sets of 10 per month over the course of a year. It’s up to you to choose one or more of them to read each month. To help you decide, Mallison gives a brief synopsis of each book, along with some historical titbits.

Mallison also gives her own opinions, and her obvious enjoyment of literature is infectious. Reading her summaries is like listening to a kindly genius aunt who’s so down-to-earth and engaging that she almost passes off as a hip older sister.

What’s especially appealing is that, apart from the classic (read: old, very old) English language titles, she also includes translations of great non-English works. She’s selected translations that are usually clear, readable, and quite unpretentious, while still retaining a musicality hopefully true to the original languages but certainly compelling in their own right.

Everyman’s economist

Book Review

For those who are still suffering from nightmares about Economics in school, there is a cure. And, not only is it painless, it is downright pleasurable.

WHEN I was in school, I was hopeless at Economics. You’d have better luck making me solve a complex mathematics problem than getting me to read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

“Accidental economist’ Tim Harford relishes challenging conventional wisdom. – Photo by FRANK MO

But Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist and his latest book, The Logic of Life, cured my phobia. After all, who wouldn’t want to know answers to urgent questions like, “Is divorce underrated?” or, more importantly, “Why is your boss overpaid?” Apparently, economics can be entertaining stuff.

“Economics is not just about the study of commercial transactions but about the way we make choices, especially hard choices – choices about voting, crime, alcohol or the response to racial discrimination,” London-based Harford explained via e-mail. (The very busy author typed his response during his “tenth flight in 10 days” as he toured the United States.)

The busy economist

The Undercover Economist made economics a subject everyone can relate to, not just stockbrokers and finance managers. His reader-friendly prose is full of fascinating case studies and characters, and it’s no wonder that the book has been translated into more than 25 languages and has sold above 600,000 copies worldwide.

Besides being the author of a bestseller, Harford is the economics leader writer for Britain’s Financial Times and writes two columns for the paper: the Undercover Economist and Dear Economist, a “problem page” where he uses economics to find an answer to people’s personal problems. (The strangest question he has ever received: “Should I get a bikini wax?”)

Plus, he was a presenter for the BBC show Trust Me, I’m an Economist (and is in talks to do a second TV show) and is currently presenting a BBC radio show called More or Less.

But Harford nearly didn’t become an economist. He tried philosophy but realised that he wasn’t very good at it. Then he discovered that economics was far more enjoyable because “economists will never accept the conventional wisdom”.

Despite his enthusiasm for the subject, Harford had low expectations for The Undercover Economist.

“I didn’t expect it to be published. When it was published, I told myself that if it sold 7,000 copies I would be happy. In 2008 it is likely to pass 700,000 copies,” he says, saying that he was amazed that the book became so popular.

Life and economics

On the heels of the success of Undercover Economist, comes The Logic of Life, a book he had wanted to write for several years.

“Whenever I came across a new idea, research paper, newspaper article, anything that was relevant to the book, I put it in a crate. When the crate was full I got another crate. When I was ready to write, I started by digging my way through the crates to remember my thoughts and inspirations. It was a very important part of the writing process,” he says.


Still going strong at 78

Book Review

Nancy Drew’s 78th birthday – April 28, 1930! That was the publication date of The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series by Carolyn Keene.

Most readers know by now that Keene is as much a work of fiction as the much-loved girl sleuth. The Nancy Drew books were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of The Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging house that also produced popular series like The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins and The Dana Girls (published by Grosset & Dunlap).

Book packagers develop the concepts and plots of books (often series) and find writers for these books, handles the editing and also the cosmetic side of producing a book, like cover design and layout.

The book or series is sold to a publisher, and the packager and the author(s) usually share the copyright of the work.

(Currently, the most famous book packager in the business is Alloy Entertainment, responsible for series like Gossip Girl, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The A-List. Alloy, by the way, started life as 17th Street Productions in 1987 and produced the Sweet Valley High series.)

But back to Nancy Drew and The Stratemeyer Syndicate. I had only a sketchy idea of how the series was created and written until I happened upon Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak. This is a absorbing book for anyone who grew up admiring the girl detective and wishing that their lives were as thrilling as hers.

My third sister introduced me to Nancy Drew with The Clue in the Old Stagecoach. The copy we had was a hardback with a picture cover, published in 1960, seven years before I was born.

By then, the series had been revised a few times and the books, as well as Nancy herself, undergone several makeovers. Her hairstyle and wardrobe continued to be updated every decade or so, to suit new generations of readers.

The text of the books were also revised. Later books (from volumes 35 to 56) were shorter than the first 34, with fewer descriptive passages, the plots and characters less developed. However, in 1959, volumes one to 34 were also edited and shortened.

Content was also changed - for example, in The Secret of Shadow Ranch (volume five, published in 1931), Nancy’s friend George Fayne explained that her parents did not think they would have a son and named her after her grandfather.

But in The Clue in the Old Stagecoach, George declares that her name is short for Georgia. Accordingly, her explanation about her name has been removed from current editions of Stagecoach. Sadly I have never read any of the pre-revision editions of the books.

Twenty-three of the 64 original Nancy Drew Mystery Series books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson, hired by The Stratemeyer Syndicate to flesh out plotlines devised by Edward Stratmeyer and, later, his daughter Harriet.

Walter Karig and other writers wrote several books in the series, while the rest were the work of Harriet Stratemeyer who, when it was first revealed that Carolyn Keene did not exist, claimed that she wrote all the books.

According to Nancy Drew experts, there are distinct differences between Benson’s Nancy and Harriet Stratmeyer’s version. In a 1999 interview with Benson (who died in 2002), she said, “She (Harriet) made her (Nancy) into a traditional sort of a heroine. More of a house type. And in her day, that is what I had specifically gotten away from. She (Nancy) was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She was what the girls were ready for and were aspiring for, but had not achieved.”

In the late 70s, The Stratemeyer Syndicate sold the rights to future Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins titles to Simon & Schuster.

Grosset & Dunlap retaliated by filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement and breach of contract. However, all it got was the rights to publish the hardcover versions of pre-1979 Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys and Dana Girls books, which is why bookstores now stock Nancy Drews with glossy yellow hardback covers featuring art from the 1970s edition of the series. Each copy costs RM13.90 – a steal really, but as there are 64 titles, it’ll still cost you to get the entire set.

Daphne Lee has a huge book collection that goes back more than 30 years and is still growing. Her dream is to own a bookstore and write good children’s books. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at


The Secret of Chimneys

Book Review

The Secret of Chimneys
(ISBN: 978-0007250592)

Anthony Cade never suspected that a simple errand for a friend would embroil him in a deadly international conspiracy involving the monarchy, Scotland Yard and the French Sûreté. This is one of the few titles not featuring either of Christie’s more famous detectives.


Book Review - Worlds of Wonder

Book Review

Worlds of Wonder by Kaleon Rahan

Lone Ranger and Tonto # 1 (Dynamite)(US$4.99)

Writers: Brett Matthews & John Abrams

Artist: Mario Guevara

ORIGINALLY conceptualised as a masked Texas Ranger in the American Old West, who fights injustices with the aid of an American Indian sidekick named Tonto, the Lone Ranger made his radio debut on Jan 30, 1933. Lasting 2956 episodes, its impact is significant, making “Hi-yo Silver, away!” a household phrase and setting a benchmark for Western/cowboy-based comics.

From a novel-based approach in 1936, followed by newspaper comic strips, it was only in 1948 when Dell Comics published the first full-fledged Lone Ranger adventures in comic book format. Lasting 145 issues and mainly consisting of reprints from the newspaper strips, the adventures continued under the Gold Key imprint in 1962. However Gold Key’s demise in 1977 pushed the Lone Ranger into limbo. Various start-stop attempts (by Hemmets Journal AB and Topps Comics) failed to resuscitate interest in the classic character.

In today’s environment, with cosmic powers and technology much cooler than silver bullets, there is little reason to idolise a gun slinging masked man ... unless he’s a mutant or has cyborg implants. Here’s where Dynamite Entertainment makes a point to never underestimate the power of nostalgia. The company’s first attempt at re-packaging the Lone Ranger for a 21st century audience was met with great success – as its originally planned six-parter ended up as a regular series and buoyed by multiple printings of the first four issues. The icing on the cake came in the form of The Lone Ranger receiving an Eisner Awards nomination for 2007’s best new series, despite the backlash received from classic Lone Ranger fans for its graphic depictions of violence.

With cowboys back on the comic fan’s radar, Dynamite is hard pressed to maintain the regular series’ sterling run as well as induct new readers. Here’s where this week’s Lone Ranger and Tonto one-shot comes to mind.

Functioning as an entry point, this 32-page special sports a John Cassaday cover and also a story about a ruthless killer that our heroic pair unwittingly unleashed on a peace loving community. If you have watched those Lone Ranger TV reruns or listened to the radio episodes, the mood here is similar.

Buy this for nostalgia-sake or for someone who enjoys the Wild West adventures.