Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

by Dean Johns

The awarding of a richly deserved Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has shocked and dismayed some of the non-musical writing fraternity around the world.

Though it is hard to think of any other writer in recent times whose work has so poetically and powerfully, let alone so memorably and enjoyably, inspired and encouraged the causes of peace, love, freedom and justice.

In fact there was a time when those of us who grew up with early Dylan classics as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ were so naive as to believe that they were compelling enough to help us literally change the world.

We were completely kidding ourselves, of course, as subsequent events have all-too-clearly revealed. But the spirit of the sentiments that Dylan expressed lives on, and continues to give us heart and hope.

Thus by extension his anthems remain anathema to the war-mongers, whore-mongers and just plain mongrels who still misrule so many countries and rob and miserably mislead their citizens.

So I see Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as not just a fitting reward for him personally, and for the common people everywhere, but also as a poke in the eye for the members and accomplices of every rotten ruling regime on the planet, from China and Russia to Syria and Zimbabwe.

And, of course, along with almost countless others, Malaysia, for whose Islamic-supremacist and viciously anti-Semitic UMNO-BN regime the Swedish Academy’s honouring of Bob Dylan must be an especially bitter pill to swallow, as Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman of Jewish parents.

Then there’s the jealousy factor. Dylan has been actually given his Prize, whereas the members and cronies of UMNO-BN have to allegedly buy their awards and titles either by selling their souls in the service of royalty or the regime, or else by handing-over wads of hard cash.

But of course they’ll try to ignore Dylan’s achievement, or else try and diminish or outright dismiss it among themselves with such typically self-serving sentiments as “Dylan may well be an icon, but UMNO-BN is a far bigger ‘I con’,” or “he might have more gold albums than us, but we’ve got far more actual gold”.

Or else, “one single, solitary Nobel Prize is nothing compared with the numerous ignoble prizes we’ve awarded ourselves in all our decades of nobbling Malaysia and fobbing the Malaysian people off with a pack of lies.”

Deserving the Nobble Prize for Lieterature

In short, the members and accomplices of UMNO-BN can console themselves in the face of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature with the thought that each and every one of them deserves the Nobble Prize for Lieterature.

They can take heart too, if they like, from the fact that, to judge from the titles of many of the songs for which Bob Dylan has been so highly honoured for writing, he could well have created them for UMNO-BN.

I’m joking, of course, as there’s no evidence in Bob Dylan’s life or work, as far as I know, that he’s ever so much as heard of Malaysia or its malevolent ruling regime.

However, it is tempting to observe that such titles as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Talkin’ Devil’ could well be intended as descriptions of any of the public speeches or press-statements made by UMNO-BN ministers or minions in the past half-century or so.

Similarly, titles like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Rattled’, ‘Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence’, ‘Wanted Man’ and ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ seem to be uncannily apt descriptions of how Prime (but let’s be honest here) Crime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must be feeling and doing as he anxiously awaits the results of international investigations into his alleged 1MDB embezzlement and money-laundering project.

Certainly the 2006 Dylan title ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ pretty accurately sums-up Najib’s attitude in the face of all the allegations he and his accomplices and accessories in this and many other scams are facing, and ‘Disease of Conceit’ aptly describes the attitude that got them into this fix in the first place.

No matter what he does to try and take ‘Shelter from the Storm’, however, let’s hope that other Dylan titles like ‘Seven Curses’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘End of the Line’, ‘Everything is Broken’, ‘Going Going Gone’ and above all ‘Steel Bars’ are accurate predictors of what’s in store for him and his entire UMNO-BN band of blunderers, plunderers and pathological liars.

So that, after so many decades of ‘Long and Wasted Years’ in which ‘The Devil’s Been Busy’ despite UMNO-BN’s false mantra of ‘With God On Our Side’, Malaysians will finally get to hear the ‘Chimes of Freedom’.

DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.


The Class Politics of Decluttering

July 18, 2016

The Class Politics of Decluttering

Missoula, Mont. — SUDDENLY, decluttering is everywhere. It may have started with Marie Kondo and her mega-best seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” but it has exploded into a mass movement, anchored in websites, seminars and — ironically — a small library’s worth of books about how to get rid of stuff.

To its advocates, decluttering, or “minimalism,” is about more than just maximizing space: “By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth and contribution,” say Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, hosts of “The Minimalists” podcast.

But minimalism is a virtue only when it’s a choice, and it’s telling that its fan base is clustered in the well-off middle class. For people who are not so well off, the idea of opting to have even less is not really an option.

I understand why people with a lot of stuff feel burdened by it, and the contrasting appeal of having less of it. I cleaned houses to put myself through college as a single mother. I spent my days in expensive homes, full of large televisions and stereo systems, fully furnished rooms that collected dust. I was alone and isolated most days, and at night, I concentrated on the three or four online classes I took through a local community college. My daughter and I had about $50 in spending money a month.

Over the course of a year, and after seeing how the other half lived, I started to recognize that by having less, by trying to find joy in what little things life brings — like a 25-cent puzzle we found at a garage sale — we were living a somewhat happier life. Or, I assumed we were, after noticing while cleaning bathrooms that my clients tended to be on several medications for depression, pain and sleeplessness.In some ways, I was practicing what minimalism preaches. But it didn’t make me happy. And I imagine for millions of other working-class Americans who struggle to get by, minimalism’s principles don’t sit well either. Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?

I had to downsize severely several years ago when my daughter and I moved into a 400-square-foot studio. I had no usable wall space, and although my boss gave me temporary storage space in her garage over the summer, I had to sort through and get rid of carloads of clothes, my childhood toys, school papers, books, movies and artwork. I couldn’t afford to store all of these items, which had value to me only as a record of my history — including mementos from my parents.

 My stuff wasn’t just stuff, but a reminder that I had a foundation of support of people who had loved me growing up: a painting I’d done as a child that my mom had carefully framed and hung in our house, a set of antique Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls my ferret once chewed an eye out of when I was 15, artwork my mom had collected over the decade we lived in Alaska. Things I grew up with that brought me back to a time of living a carefree life.

I’ve grown to appreciate living in a small space over the last decade, even after having another child. I now keep a 667-square-foot apartment clean, and can’t imagine the responsibility of doing the same to two or three times the space. But it would be nice for my girls to have their own rooms, and a yard to run around in. It would be nice to have a real couch that isn’t a futon I’ve held on to for several years. I hunt for deals, and hurry to Walmart whenever there’s a sale.

And that’s the other class element lurking behind minimalism’s facade. In a new documentary about the movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow at the Center for Community Change. This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies


A look at Southeast Asia through three anthologies | Farouk A. Peru | Opinion | Malay Mail Online

I used to be a big fan of South-east Asian fiction. Admittedly, most of that fiction was Singaporean (traitor, traitor, I hear you yell!) but that was only because Singapore produced English fiction by the truckloads compared to Malaysia.

They had Gopal Baratham, Catherine Lim, Shirley Lim and others but we had the inimitable KS Maniam. Haunting The Tiger, pardon the pun, still haunts my reading from time to time.

Amir was there to promote Fixi Novo’s latest collections ― Heat, Flesh and Trash. I really adore the artwork which featured the durian prominently.

The collections bring together stories from South-east Asian urban life which has certainly changed from the last time I was home. I suppose it is technology and the Internet which brought those changes. We are now a “trending” society. Trends can literally take root in a few minutes all over the world.

In the anthology Heat, I especially enjoyed Zed Adam Idris’s story “Method.” In this story, Zed displays the thought streams of a hedonist and his method. Method to what exactly?

Ostensibly it is for guitar playing but I reckon it is also the outlook on life itself. Of course, when one lives on the edge as Zed’s protagonist, one is also liable to some risk. An overdose here and there. Zed does temper the rawness with a slight comedic feel to the story.

After the internal Heat of the durian, we open it to find golden flesh, aromatic (malodorous to some!) Flesh. In this anthology, I was attracted to Tina Sim’s story, “Her Lot.”

In the case of South-east Asian fiction, the only anthology I have is a book on prize-winning South-east Asian fiction circa 1994. That collection was mostly Filipino stories which, in all honesty, I could not relate to as well.

I was fortunate enough to attend the London Book Fair this year where I met Amir Muhammad and a coterie of Malaysian literary activists. I was star struck, of course, when I met Faisal Tehrani whose literary imagination rivals Salman Rushdie’s (without the need for cheap blasphemy, of course).

This story was placed in a section that if one were reading from cover to cover, one may end up skimming through. “Her Lot” is the story of an unnamed protagonist whose story is told by one who met her after her fall from grace.

It is a Singaporean tale which reminds me of our own Catherine Lim (who was born in Ipoh, don’t forget!). About an arranged marriage based on traditional values but which did not work out.

The protagonist’s fall from grace was juxtaposed with the injection of a racial other, which I found interesting. Perhaps this symbolises how traditions get “discoloured”, if you’ll pardon another pun.

Finally, we come to the process of cleaning up after the durian has been consumed and that is to take out the Trash. But Trash is definitely not trashier than the the first two anthologies.


In fact, I found it more pensive in parts. One story which caught my attention was “Flowers For KK” by M. Shanmughalingam. Another story told from a woman’s perspective, this time it is Indira who narrates what is basically a character study of her husband, King Kana or KK.

KK comes across as one who is not deliberately cruel but cold, clinical. He marries Indira’s sister apparently due to her own infertility. I was especially moved by Indira’s observations of KK’s language and how it twists and turns in accordance with his political posturing.

All in all, I highly recommend this durian anthology. Heat, Flesh and Trash will certainly tickle your existential bones.

BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

April 26, 2016


Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

When Charles J. Shields’s biography of Harper Lee came out in 2006, it was hailed as the definitive study of the famously private author and her singular 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Like so many journalists before him, Mr. Shields (above) was rebuffed when he asked to interview Ms. Lee and her closest relatives. He found surprisingly little correspondence from her in library collections. So to reconstruct her life, he interviewed 80 people, including friends, former classmates and neighbors, and parsed her novel for autobiographical clues. The resulting biography was about as intimate a book as a scholar could write about an author who kept the world at a distance.

But a lot changed over the next decade. After Mr. Shields’s biography was published, Ms. Lee filed lawsuits against her former literary agent and the museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In 2011, Ms. Lee issued a statement through her lawyer denying that she had authorized another book about her, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by the journalist Marja Mills. Mr. Shields decided he needed to update his biography.

He was already at work on the new edition in 2015, when Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that she would release a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote in the mid 1950s. The novel, which portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of “Mockingbird,” as a racist, shocked readers and scholars.

The new edition of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” out Tuesday, paints a more nuanced and in some ways perplexing portrait of Ms. Lee, who died in February at age 89, leaving many questions unanswered. Below are edited excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mr. Shields.

Q. In the decade since the book was first published, Harper Lee’s career and legacy has changed dramatically. How does your understanding of her now differ from how you saw her when you published the biography?

A. Somehow, she managed to pack a lot into the past 10 years. When I first published the biography, I saw Harper Lee as the sole author of the book, as if it had sprung fully formed for her forehead. After “Go Set a Watchman” came out, that became a touchstone against which to evaluate “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without the benefit of having another book in hand, I took “To Kill a Mockingbird” at face value. Now I see it in a different light. I see the influence of her editor, Tay Hohoff, much more now. “Go Set a Watchman” is highly autobiographical. I think she exposes more of herself than she really wants to.

When I started looking at the amount of litigation in her life since 2006, it was depressing and very revealing. That was of a piece with the entire third act of Harper Lee’s life, which was endless “he said, she said” and unresolved disputes.

Q. Reviews of “Watchman” were mixed, but even people who found it to be vastly inferior to “Mockingbird” agree that it sheds new light on her creative process and her thoughts on the Civil Rights movement and Southern politics. Where do you come down on the Watchman debate? Should it have been published in her lifetime?

It’s an important cultural document. But I would never hold it up to a class and say, “You must read this, it’s a classic.” If anything, it’s a good book about what not to do. There’s too much exposition and not enough dramatization.

Q. Harper Lee apparently was not a fan of your book about her and told friends not to read it. Did you ever learn what she objected to?

A. The objections were kept very general. I heard she and her sister Alice were not happy with the biography. I heard from a friend of hers that they did not like the portrayal of their mother. They were very sensitive about that. Mrs. Lee was a manic-depressive. I tried to be as discreet as I could, but since it plays into “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I had to answer the question. Where’s the mother in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? She’s in her room, not speaking to anyone, or leaving the house without permission. Harper Lee identified more with her father than her mother.

Q. You discovered a newspaper article that she wrote, without a byline, about the Kansas murders that she helped Truman Capote research. How did you come across it, and what does it suggest about her role in shaping Capote’s “In Cold Blood”?

I went back to look at newspapers in Garden City, Kan., and I stumbled across a little mention in a column that said, our visitor Harper Lee will be writing about what’s been happening on the case for the F.B.I. magazine The Grapevine. Then I contacted The Grapevine. They said, Yeah, there’s been a reference to that over the years but we can’t find anything. I told them to look in the spring of 1960. There indeed was an article than only Harper Lee could have written because it was so full of info that would later appear in “In Cold Blood.” I speculate that there was no byline because she really didn’t want to tread on Truman Capote’s story. It’s a long flattering article about the great work chief investigator Alvin Dewey is doing on the case and how Truman is going to get to the bottom of it. It was an unselfish act from a friend.

She wrote letters to her agent about having a huge crush on the investigator.She uses the phrase “drop-dead handsome.”

Q. Since her death and even in the months leading up to it, there have been batches of her private letters that have come up for sale at auctions. Do you worry that important documents that offer clues about her life and work might be slipping away into private collections, rather than collected at a library where scholars can study them?

A. I would like to see her estate make a genuine effort to round-up some of these letters and put them together in an authoritative text. It adds to the narrative of the life, but if these continue to come out in dribs and drabs, postcards from the Gulf Coast and Christmas cards, as a researcher who prides himself on being very organized, I dislike the sense of things unraveling. I would like to see them collected in a big fat book of letters.

Q. She stopped giving formal interviews for the most part in the 1960s. What questions would you have most liked to ask her, if you could?

A. I would have liked to have asked her whether her father did indeed change his views on segregation at the end of his life because the gentleman was only alive for a short time after “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I’d like to know if it was the book and daughter that changed his mind, or did he see the direction things were going?

I would like to know the answer to whether she was every deeply in love with someone. She’s obviously a woman of deep compassion. She’s a keen observer of human drama; that empathy is at the core of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I would like to know if she had the blessing of ever being in love with someone. Freud said the two components of a contented life are love and work. We know a lot about the work side of Harper Lee and not so much about the love side of Harper Lee.



A Poem to end a Weekend

February 28, 2016

The Second Coming–An Ode to The Middle East(Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan)

By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic

January 8, 2016

Bill Gates: The Billionaire Book Critic

Evan Thomas, the best-selling biographer of Robert F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower and the author of a half-dozen other books, has seen those books reviewed over the years by The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Atlantic. But with the recent publication of his latest work, “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” he experienced for the first time a new phenomenon: the Bill Gates bump.

Bill Gates in May 2014. In his Gates Notes blog, he has reviewed books, including: “Thing Explainer,” by Randall Munroe and “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Just before Christmas, Mr. Thomas learned that his book had been favorably reviewed by Mr. Gates on his blog, Gates Notes.

“I’m surprised by the number of biographies I read that paint their subjects in black-and-white terms,” Mr. Gates wrote. “A classic example is former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who is too often portrayed as little more than a crook and a warmonger. So it was refreshing to see a more balanced account in ‘Being Nixon,’ by author and journalist Evan Thomas.” The review was illustrated by a photograph of the book on a desk adorned with objects from the Nixon era, like a rotary phone.

Bill Gates on Books and Blogging

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, has emerged as a force in the publishing industry, thanks to the book reviews he posts on his blog, Gates Notes. Mr. Gates, who says he reads about 50 books a year, discussed his love of reading, how he makes his selections and what book Warren Buffett recommended. Below are excerpts from a recent email interview.

What role does reading play in your life?

It is one of the chief ways that I learn, and has been since I was a kid. These days, I also get to visit interesting places, meet with scientists and watch a lot of lectures online. But reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.

For example, this year I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s “The Magic of Reality,” which explains various scientific ideas and is aimed at teenagers. Although I already understood all the concepts, Dawkins helped me think about the topics in new ways. If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really understand it.

What made you decide to start the books blog and write reviews?

I have always loved reading and learning, so it is great if people see a book review and feel encouraged to read and share what they think online or with their friends.

It also helps to have a platform for talking about the work I’m doing, both through the foundation and separate from it, because I find people are curious about it.

How do you choose the books you read? Recommendations from family/friends/media?

It’s a mix of things. Melinda and I will sometimes exchange books we like. I also get recommendations from friends. After I finish something great, I will often try to find other books by that author or similar ones on the same subject.

Earlier this year Melinda and I saw the musical “Hamilton,” which inspired me to read Ron Chernow’s biography.

What was the process of selecting the books for the best-of-the-year list? Any tough choices?

I didn’t set out to do this intentionally, but when I looked back at the books I read this year, I realized that a lot of them touch on the theme “how things work.”Some, like Randall Munroe’s “Thing Explainer,” are written exactly for that reason. He uses diagrams paired with the most common 1,000 words in the English language to explain complicated ideas.

Other books on my list offer insights into human beings, our values, our strengths and flaws.

Is there one book that was an unexpected choice for you that you unexpectedly loved?

One of the main reasons I started my blog was to share thoughts about what I’m reading. So it is nice to see people sharing their own reactions and recommendations in the comments section of the site.

One book that was especially fun to highlight was “Business Adventures,” by John Brooks. This is the first book Warren Buffett recommended to me after we met in 1991, and it is still the best business book I have ever read. Brooks deserves to be much better known than he is.

Although he wrote in the 1960s, the issues he talks about are still relevant today. “Business Adventures” went out of print decades ago and Brooks died in 1993, but his family was nice enough to let me post one chapter called “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox” on my blog.

I don’t read a lot of fiction but was surprised by how much I loved the novel “The Rosie Project,” by Graeme Simsion. Melinda read it first and kept stopping to recite parts of it out loud to me. Eventually, I decided to take a look.

I started it one night at 11 p.m. and stayed up with it until 3 a.m. It is very funny, while also showing a lot of empathy for people who struggle in social situations.After I sent it and the sequel (“The Rosie Effect”) to dozens of friends and wrote about it on my blog, I heard from a lot of people who were touched by it. There is talk of turning it into a movie, which I hope happens. Rosie and Don Tillman would make a great on-screen couple.

I like highlighting the work of Vaclav Smil. He has written more than 30 books, and I have read them all. He takes on huge topics like energy or transportation and gives them a thorough examination.

Smil’s books are not for casual readers and I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like to feature his work because the world would be a better place if more people thought as rigorously and systematically as he does.