Monday, December 31, 2007

The Top 5 Books And Most Memorable Literary Events For 2007

The year is coming to a close and what a remarkable year it has been for the literary scene.

With the released of the much-anticipated last book of the Harry Potter saga, 2007 saw the magic of author J.K. Rowling. A record-breaking 11 million copies were sold on the first day in the United States and Britain and on that day, millions of children and adults read or flipped through the 607-page tome to find out the hero's fate. It was also the year that saw the world's most expensive fairy tales - The Tales of Beedle The Bard. A book of fairy tales created, handwritten and illustrated by author J.K. Rowling, The Tales of Beedle The Bard was bought by online bookstore Amazon for a record $1.95 million pounds at a Sotheby's auction.

Besides the frenzy generated by Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, 2007 was also a year of controversies with both J.K. Rowling, with her outing of Dumbledore as gay, and Philip Pullman, the author of the award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy, whose first book has been adapted into a movie - The Golden Compass, coming under attack by Christian evangelicals in United States for being unsuitable for children and promoting atheism.

2007 also saw the sad passing of Norman Mailer of renal failure at age 84. The literary icon and two-times winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, with The Armies of the Night in 1968 and The Executioner's Song in 1979, was noted for his acerbic wit, biting prose and as an antagonist of the feminist movement.

It was also a year of achievement for Irish author Anne Enright who won the Man Booker Prize award. Her 272-page tome, the Gathering which chronicles the disintegration of an Irish family, pipped five other contenders and hot favorites like British writer Ian McEwan and New Zealander Lloyd Jones for the award, netting her $52,500 pounds.

And in closing what had also been a wonderful and remarkable year of blogging adventure for me, here, with the last post of 2007, are the top five books that i have enjoyed reading :

1. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
After his stunning bestseller, The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautiful, riveting and haunting novel that confirms his place as one of the most talented literary writers today. Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and the story of two women, Mariam and Laila, born a generation apart and brought together by war, by loss and by fate.

It is a deeply moving story of faith, family, friendship and the salvation to be found in love. As Mariam and Laila endure the ever escalating dangers around them, they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other which will alter the course of not just their own lives but of the next generation. A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship and an indestructible love.

2. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
From the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, comes a compelling novel of alternate history, a gripping whodunit and a love story with 1940s vibes. A what-if, the story is set in a present-day alternate reality in Sitka, Alaska, a safe haven for Jewish refugees after World War II and the collapse of Israel, and after nearly 60 years, the Federal District of Sitka is about to revert to American rule.

Into this setting comes Chabon's hero, Meyer Landsman, a drunken rogue cop, who wakes up one day to find a dead body next to him. Poignant, lyrical, hard-boiled and funny all at once, The Yiddish Policemen's Union's central murder mystery has its roots in the Biblical tale of the Messiah, who would one day lead God's chosen people to the promised land. With elements of an international terrorist thriller complicated by religious conspiracies, it is a haunting account of alternate history and demonstrates the power of a good story.

3. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Voted as one of the best young writers in UK, Scarlett Thomas's narrative is a breathless one, a combination of postmodern philosophy, physics and spine-tingling science fiction, that propels you relentlessly like a bullet train. About a smart young woman, Ariel Manto, who stumbles upon a rare book by an obscure 19th century Victorian scientist at a secondhand bookshop and through the book, discovers the secret to accessing the "Troposphere", a universe of the collective unconscious and the ability to leap into the minds and bodies of other living beings.

This book is the literary equivalent of the science fiction movie, The Matrix, and is a rollicking adventure story with ideas about sub-atomic particles, existence and reality. A delirious valentine to the pleasures of reading.

4. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Composed of 108 short chapters, based on the beads in a traditional Indian prayer necklace, this beautifully written and heartfelt memoir comes across as scenes in a movie. Plagued with despair after a nasty divorce, the author made the difficult choice of leaving behind all the trappings of modern America and embarked on a soul-searching journey on the aspects of her nature amid three different cultures.

Exploring her competing urges for earthly delights and divine transcendence, Gilbert first savored Italy's buffet of delights - the world's best pizza and free-flowing wine, then spiritual rigor and seeking communion with the divine at a sacred ashram in India and followed finally by the seeking of balance between the two in Bali, where she studies with a merry medicine man and plunges into a charged love affair. Eat, Pray, Love is down-to-earth, honest, conveys infectious rapture and delight and recalls anguish with touching candor. It is a sprawling travelogue of soul-searching and self-discovery.

5. The City Of Joy by Dominique LaPierre
The last spot in my list is for a book that is at least twenty years old and into my seventh reading. Dominique LaPierre's heart-wrenching account of the lives of the poorest of the poor in one of Calcutta's most devastating slums, Anand Nagar - "The City of Joy"- touches at a visceral level.

From the dedication of Polish priest, Steven Kovalski, to Hasari Pal, an inhabitant of the slum, to American physician Max Loeb, the book is a searing vision of the struggle for survival of the poor. It is a story of hope and love amid all the devastating realities of poverty, desperation and death and is a testament to the majesty of the human spirit, unbowed by the most wretched of circumstances. City of Joy epitomized the philosophy of the Christopher Award it won in 1986 - "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."

*Related posts :
- J.K.Rowling Under Attack
- The World's Most Expensive Fairy Tales
- Turmoil In The Kingdom of The Golden Compass
- Winner Of The Man Booker Prize 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

J.K. Rowling's Tales Of Beedle The Bard - The World's Most Expensive Fairy Tales.

Just as fans of J.K. Rowling eagerly await her next work, supposedly to be in the crime/thriller genre, out pops a collection of fairy tales - The Tales Of Beedle The Bard.

A book of fairy tales created, handwritten and illustrated by author J.K.Rowling, The Tales of Beedle The Bard has been sold for a record $1.95 million pounds at a recent Sotheby's auction, making it the world's most expensive fairy tales.

The astounding price the book fetched is a record on three fronts. It is the highest ever achieved at an auction for a modern literary manuscript, a record for children's fiction and a record for a work by Rowling. In keeping with Rowling's philanthropic character, all proceeds from the book's sale will benefit The Children Voice, a charity which campaigns for children rights in Europe which she co-founded with Emma Nicholson, a member of Britain's House Of Lords.

The 157-paged tome is one of only seven handmade copies in existence and is bound in brown moroccan leather and mounted with silver and semi-precious stones. The book is actually the volume of five wizarding fairy tales left to Hermione Granger by Albus Dumbledore in the Potter book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Harrows. One of the tales, The Tale Of The Three Brothers, appeared in the Deathly Harrows but the remaining four are told for the first time.

Rowling was naturally ecstatic with the record amount that the book garnered, "...this means so much to children in desperate need of help. It means Christmas has come early for me," she said. The book has been described by Rowling as a distillation of the themes found in the Potter books, calling it a farewell to the Potter world she has inhabited for she last 17 years. As for the remaining six copies of the Beedle book, it have been given to people closely associated with the Harry Potter series.

The buyer of the book is none other than online bookstore, Amazon, and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, truly seems to love books and understand the following that Rowling commands by displaying photos of the book together with reviews on the site. Interested readers can see it here.

While there are no plans currently by Rowling to publish the Beedle book for distribution, the burning question in my mind is whether the book will eventually be mass published for the public. As fairy tales are an intrinsic part of childhood, it will be a shame if the Beedle tales are confine only to the rich, and Rowling's large following of fans, most of whom are children (including some adults like me), are deprive of the enjoyment of such rich literature.

*Related posts :
- J.K. Rowling Under Attack
- What is J.K. Rowling Working On Next?
- The Next Harry Potter
- Life After Harry Potter

Get beautiful

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bloggers Unite In Acts Of Kindness.

Having been bitten by the viral nature of blogging in my recent participation in Blog Action Day, today will be another special day where I will take a break from my usual fare of books and literature, and celebrate Bloggers Unite, a day where thousands of bloggers around the world unite in doing acts of kindness. With Christmas, a time for sharing and giving round the corner, Bloggers Unite In Acts Of Kindness is especially timely and these acts of kindness will definitely spread cheer and joy during this festive season.

After hearing about Bloggers Unite about a month ago at Blog Catalog, a blog directory, it got me thinking about what will be meaningful acts of kindness that will not only benefit disadvantaged individuals but also society as a whole, especially since environmental issues are very close to my heart, and i wanted to involve my 10 year-old daughter in the process as well. Well, this was what we did.

Since last Thursday till Saturday 15 Dec 07, with a van borrowed from a close friend, my daughter and I scoured almost the entire neighbourhood in my housing estate, collecting old newspapers, magazines and anything that is recyclable. A whopping total of about 415 kg of old newspapers and magazines, 22 kg of plastic bottles, 6 old mattresses and 1 mini hi-fi set were collected. The items collected was sold to a recyclable goods dealer, netting us a grand total of $197.75.

At a loss who to donate the money to, my daughter suggested taking part in the Boy's Brigade Sharity Gift Box project. Held during the Christmas season, the Boy's Brigade Sharity Gift Box project, in its 20th year, promotes the spirit of giving and sharing and distinguishes itself as a charity initiative that goes beyond monetary donations for the less privileged among us. Through various donation locations in the city, members of the public can choose to either donate daily necessities or fulfill a specific wish of a child, elderly or family to bring joy to their lives.

The entire $197.75 that we have collected was used to buy daily necessities like rice, canned food, beverage and milk powder plus a Barbie doll - a Christmas wish of a 9 year-old girl - and left at the donation box outside a local supermarket outlet.

While I am no Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, with their ability to donate millions to charity, the experiences and lessons learnt from these 3 days were priceless. Besides spending quality time with my daughter and inculcating the importance of helping the less fortunate, the large amount of recyclable goods collected in such a short duration reminded me of our social responsibilities and the importance of doing our bit to cut down waste, recycle, preserve and protect our environment.

Caught up in the maddening rat race in our competitive society, we sometimes forget about the less fortunate and disadvantaged among us, and taking part in Bloggers Unite In Acts Of Kindness has made me.... human again. It also reminded me that anyone can make a difference and effect change, all it takes is just a little bit of time and effort.

*Read more acts of kindness by :
- Cybercelt
- Lisa Mcglaun
- Matts Nutts
- Blog Catalog members

*Related post : A pleasant surprise from Blog Catalog

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas - A Time For Humanitarians.

Christmas Celebration Series
Do you know of anyone or have relatives and friends with dead-beat jobs, desperately trying to obtain small loans or finance to start simple businesses to break out of their poverty cycle but were unsuccessful, as all financial institutions requires either collateral or an income that meets the borrowing criteria? Or have you met or heard of....knights in shining white armour, helping the poor with small loans to start simple enterprises, loans with easy-to-meet criteria and repayments terms? What about a story of a man who with just US$27 and through his beliefs and vision, started a revolution and created an institution that lifted millions of people out of poverty in the Third World through micro-loans?

Christmas, besides saints like Mother Teresa, is also a time for remembrance of humanitarians like Dr. Mohammad Yunus.

"......these millions of small people with their millions of small pursuits can add up to create the biggest development wonder." - Dr. Mohammad Yunus

Born on 28th June, 1940 in the village of Bathua, in Hathazari, Chittagong, in what was then Eastern Bengal, Mohammad Yunus was the third of 14 children of a successful goldsmith father. His father, believing in the importance of education, sent him to the United States where he graduated from Vanderbilt University with a Ph.D in Economics in 1970. He returned to Bangladesh in 1972 and took a chair in economics at the University of Chittagong. But it was his mother, Sufia Khatun, with her generous spirit of helping the poor, who was his biggest influence in his early childhood years and inspired him to a lifelong mission of helping the poor and the eradication of poverty.

In 1974, a time of famine in the country, Dr. Yunus led his students on a field trip to Jobra, a poor village in Bangladesh where they came upon a woman who struggled to etch out a living by making bamboo stools and learnt that she had to borrow capital, at outrageous repayment terms, to buy the raw bamboo for the stools she made. After repaying the usurious loan, she was left with just a penny profit margin, barely enough for subsistence. Shocked by the poverty surrounding him and the struggles of the poor, he realised that something is terribly wrong with the economics he was teaching, "What is the point of all these splendid economic theories when people around me are dying of hunger?" he asked himself.

Yunus took matters into his own hands and lent US$27 dollars out of his own pocket to 42 craftsmen in the village, telling them that they could pay the money back when they could afford to. He found out that with tiny loan amounts and the removal of usurious repayment terms, it was possible to not only help the poor and give them a chance to survive, but also create the spark of personal initiative and enterprise necessary to pull themselves out of poverty. He decided that there have to be an institutional solution and hit upon the idea of a bank for the poor.

Going against banking wisdom that loans to the poor are not viable and against the advice of many banks, government officials and even threats from violent radicals and warnings from the conservative clergy, Yunus's persistence finally secured a loan in Dec 1976 from the government-owned Janata Bank to start lending to the poor in Jobra. On Oct 1, 1983, what began as a pilot project to help the poor with micro loans became a full-fledged bank - the Grameen Bank, a bank for the poor.

Mohammad Yunus reversed conventional banking practices by removing the need for collateral and provided credit to the poorest of the poor in rural Bangladesh to start simple enterprises, and created a banking system based on mutual trust, accountability, participation and creativity. By 2206, in Bangladesh alone, Grameen has more than 2,200 branches serving 6.74 million borrowers in over 72,000 villages, 97 percent of whom are women. With more than US$6 billion in loans dispensed, Grameen boasts of a repayment record of over 98 per cent, a recovery rate higher than any other banking system.

Dr. Mohammad Yunus efforts in eradicating poverty did not stop with Grameen Bank. In the late 1980s', he started major social projects aimed at increasing agricultural yield and productivity for the thousands of peasant farmers like the Grameen Agriculture Foundation, Grameen Fisheries Foundation and Grameen Telecom. Projects like the Village Phone has brought cell-phone ownership to 260,000 rural poor in over 50,000 villages since the beginning of the project in March 1997.

With more than one billion people in the world living on less than one US dollar a day, the struggle against poverty is an existential struggle for survival. Through the granting of micro-credit, Dr. Mohammad Yunus has helped millions of the poor get out of the poverty cycle. He has given the poor a chance where none have existed before and promoted entrepreneurship that puts the poor, especially women, in the control of their lives. Even beggars are not turn away from Grameen bank as he firmly believes that alms destroy initiative and creates dependency. The story of Mohammad Yunus and the success of the Grameen initiative not only shattered stereotypes about the poor but also proves that the poor and disadvantaged are no different from you and me, they just needed to be given a chance. It is an inspirational story of how so simple an idea could have worked so well for millions of poor around the world.

Dr. Mohammad Yunus's tireless humanitarian efforts in eradicating poverty and uplifting the lives of millions of the poor have been widely praised and acknowledged, and has won many awards including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the World Food Prize and the Sydney Peace Prize. Along with Grameen Bank, he was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and is the author of Banker To The Poor. The success of the Grameen model of microfinancing has also inspired similar efforts in hundreds of countries throughout the developing world and even in industrialized nations, including the United States, Canada and France.

" the rate we're heading, we'll halve total poverty by 2015 and create a poverty museum in 2030," - Dr. Mohammad Yunus.

*Sources :
- Nobel
- Mohammad

*Related post: Christmas - A Time For Saints

*Author's footnote :
This is the second of my "Christmas Celebration Series" - a celebration of the human spirit.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Turmoil In The Kingdom Of The Golden Compass

With shades of the recent attacks on J.K. Rowling with her outing of Dumbledore as gay, here is another controversy generated by the movie The Golden Compass.

Book 1
Based on the award-winning trilogy His Dark Materials by British author Philip Pullman, the US$180 million film has been attacked by the Catholic League in the United States for promoting atheism - the belief that there is no god - among children. An e-mail campaign promoting a boycott of the film has been circulated among the Christian community.
Book 2
Author Philip Pullman's, whom the New Yorker once called England's most outspoken atheist, trilogy comprises of Northern Lights which was retitled The Golden Compass for the American release, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The award-winning series, once hailed as the next Harry Potter, tell the tale of an orphan girl, Lyra Belacqua, who rescues children kidnapped by a mysterious and evil organisation.

Ironically, the uproar over The Golden Compass has been fueling book sales worldwide with major book retailers reporting a surge in sales of the trilogy. Even yours truly here has sold 3 copies of Northern Lights, 2 of The Subtle Knife and 1 copy of The Amber Spyglass through Amazon.
Book 3
Putting the controversy aside, Philip Pullman's trilogy is actually a good read, with breadth and depth matching the Harry Potter series. An adventurous fantasy tale of magic and wizardry, the series gallop along at an adventurous speed and celebrate universal values such as friendship, bravery, sacrifice and loyalty. The richly textured series come with an intelligent subtext which advocates free will and thought over slavish devotion to doctrinal authorities. And if one read between the lines, you will find that Pullman's tale is not about killing off God but removing an understanding of a God who is antiquated and resurrects a far more sophisticated divinity.

For fans of Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a trilogy i highly recommend and its popularity has been acknowledged with more than 12 million copies sold worldwide.
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Materials Trilogy

*Related posts :
- J.K.Rowling Under Attack
- The Next Harry Potter
- Great Books For The Holidays