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I still haven’t finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It’s been two – three weeks now since I started reading it and it’s been slow-going because I’m so tired these days from work and taking care of my 16 month old daughter who is becoming more and more precocious by the day. I read only about 10 pages a day, sometimes less, at night in bed and usually konk out with the book in my hands. It is a wonderful book, don’t get me wrong. I’m loving the plot. It’s very fresh and original. Much like when I first read Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and was blown away by the originality of that one where the story is told by the soul of a dead girl in heaven, narrating the events leading to and after her death.

I shan’t go too much into it now lest this becomes a mini review of an unfinished book.

Reading The Time Traveler’s Wife made me curious about who Audrey Niffenegger is so I wikied her and discovered the following:-niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger (born June 13, 1963 in South Haven, Michigan) is an American writer and artist. She is also a professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. She is the founding member of T3 or Text 3, an artist and writer’s group that also performs and exhibits in Chicago.

Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), was a national bestseller. The Time Traveler’s Wife is an unconventional love story that centers on a man with a strange genetic disorder that causes him to unpredictably time-travel and his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his frequent and unpredictable absences. The film version, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, is due for release in 2010.

She has also written a graphic novel, or “novel in pictures” as Niffenegger calls it, called The Three Incestuous Sisters. This book tells the story of three unusual sisters who live in a seaside house. Because of the artwork and mood, the book has been compared to the work of Edward Gorey.

Another graphic novel, The Adventuress, was released in September 1, 2006. The 2004 short story ‘The Night Bookmobile’ is currently being serialised in ‘Visual Novel’ format in The Guardian newspaper in the UK and can be viewed here.

In March 2009, Niffenegger sold her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, for an advance of $5 million to Charles Scribner’s Sons, a unit of Simon & Schuster, after a fiercely contested auction. The book is reportedly slated for publication in the fall of 2009.

Niffenegger is also a Faculty member at the North Shore Art League where she teaches the Intermediate & Advanced Printmaking Seminar.

I found out also that there is a short story by her called The Night Librarian that was adapted into a graphic novel format and serialised in The Guardian from 31 May 2008 until 27 December 2008 and titled The Night Bookmobile. I am now hooked on it and thought I’d share a the first 4 pages of the story here:

bookmobile12bookmobile21bookmobile31bookmobile4

Interesting, isn’t it? You can visit the Guardian website and click on the magnifying glass to enlarge the pictures for easier reading. This one has really opened my eyes to the concept of graphic novels, something I used to dismiss as mere comics or lightweight, forgettable reading. But then again, I can still vividly recall Maus from my childhood. Hmm…

when-ghosrs-speak-by-mary-ann-winkowskiI’ve always been fascinated by books on the paranormal – spirit hauntings especially. I am reluctant to say this but I have had my share of personal experiences with ethereal entities; all non-threatening thus far, thank God. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that these entities are just souls that are either lost or trapped for some reason on earth, unable or unwilling to go where they are supposed to go.

Mary Ann Winkowski’s book confirmed most of what I thought and gave me a better insight into the world of ghosts. In case you are not familiar with her, Winkowski is the consultant to CBS’ Ghost Whisperer series and also works closely with the FBI on cold case files solving murder mysteries. She has a proven track record and there is definitely nothing bogus or ‘wacky’ about her.

Her ability to see and communicate with ghosts is something she has had since her early childhood, nurtured and honed by her grandmother, who also had the same gift. In When Ghosts Speak, Winkowski describes what a typical encounter is like and explains what she does to help these souls of departed people some of whom have lingered on on earth for centuries.

A few incidents are memorable, such as the ones about the spirits of children who choose to stay on earth. For example in a fire where a whole family is killed, the spirit of one of the children killed had seen her parents and siblings walk into a light but she was scared of following them because of a fear that she might be told off by her parents for not listening to them earlier when all were trying to get out of the burning house. So the child stayed in the home for a while, playing (appearing as an imaginary friend) with the children of new families that moved in and slowly, venturing out of the house and following other children to their homes.

One thing I learned from this book is that spirits are not tied to a certain location or house. Though some are attached to their earthly belongings (like cars and antiques), following these items to the homes of their new owners to make sure they are properly taken care of, some spirits can move around to different homes and families seeking energy. Ghosts sometimes provoke us by doing mischief, hiding things or instigating arguments in the house so that the release of our anger or frustration can be a source of energy to them.

Winkowski explains how she conjures up a white light that she encourages these spirits to walk into so that they can go to the other side. She has met the spirits of accident victims and even a serial killer. Regardless of who they are, Winkowski gives them the chance to go to the other side. As she says in the book, it is not for her to judge them. Her job is merely to help them move on to where they are supposed to go. What awaits them on the other side, whether it be purgatory or judgment, is something she leaves to God.

She also shares with us ways of protecting ourselves against evil entities and ways to avoid attracting them into following you home. All these are both entertaining and informative though some parts are a bit repetitive. I didn’t mind the repetition though and quite enjoyed the stories of her encounters. There are some photographs also in the book of these entities and of Winkowski’s family and the people she works with.

I have been reading and collecting books on the paranormal since childhood; eager to read them but at the same dreading the information later at night when my mind starts to revisit the pages and images. But as you can see, I continue to collect these books and I continue, as I did with When Ghosts Speak,  to enjoy reading them. Winknowski’s writing is very conversational and will keep you entranced and amused throughout. It is one of the better books on spirit encounters that I have had the good fortune of coming across. Well worth reading!

Verdict : 4 out of 5

What’s Good: Easy to read conversational style of writing. Engaging and informative. If you believe in ghosts and love books on the paranormal, then you will want to read this.

What’s Not Good: Winkowski tends to be repetitive with some stories.

twan_gift_of_rain_ukprf_page_1Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel is a tale about the bonds of friendship and family, set amidst Penang Island in the turbulent years leading up to and after the Second World War. The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Philip Khoo-Hutton, a man in his twilight years who seeks to understand the events of his youth and his role in bringing them about. As he reminisces to a friend, the story unfolds.

(As part of my online collaboration with Culturazzi Cognoscente Club, the rest of my review can be read here.)

This is a clip from the audition stage of “Bulgarian Idol”. This Idol wannabe chooses Mariah Carey’s ‘Ken Lee’. You know, the English version.

Oh, and to think I’m stressed about getting the lyrics wrong when I sing.

iceman1

I read The Ice Man over the Christmas holidays last year, often a few chapters at night in bed followed by half an hour’s worth of surfing on Youtube watching all the Ice Man documentary videos. I’ll tell you from the outset that this is a book that is very hard to put down once you start reading it.

It is the true account of the life of Richard Kuklinski – outwardly a doting and caring father/husband to his family but secretly a top hit man for the American Mafia. He killed over 200 men – but never women and children – for the Mafia, for himself and for anyone who’ll pay his professional fees. And if you want the victim or “the mark” in hitman talk to suffer before dying, then  Kuklinski will make that happen for an extra fee.

He perfected the art of killing, using guns, knives, pipes, cyanide and poison and even using his bare hands. And then there are the caves and rats for extra gruesome killings where Kuklinski would drag his victims to, tie them up using duct tape, slice them to make them look extra delicious to the rats and leave them there with a video camera and lights on to record the whole feast as rats descend on the helpless screaming victims, devouring them alive, and leaving nothing at all in the morning except for scraps of bloody cloth and bones.

He’d kill people who being rude to him or anyone who made him angry. Rude motorists who gave him the finger were followed and shot to death at quiet light junctions. An impatient man at a night club who got on Kuklinski’s nerves was strangled to death in an alleyway as he took a leak. Another had an arrow shot into his head as he bent down near the car to answer Kuklinski’s queries about directions – just because Kuklinski wanted to try out his new cross-bow from Italy.

That was the bad Richard, as his wife Barbara called Richard. Not knowing what he did for a living and never asking for fear of inviting his violent temper, Kuklinski’s family learned to live with the two Richards – the good Richard being the caring and providing father who hosted neighbourhood barbeques and swimming parties, and the bad Richard being the one who’d come home in a foul mood and start to hit his wife and destroy furniture and his children’s toy. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Kuklinski was a giant of a man and you can imagine the terror he struck into the heart of his wife.

He later explained in prison that he often felt detached from the pain he caused people and had no connection at all to his victims as he inflicted pain and death on them. He had people sliced up in a bath-tub, left to hang so the blood would drip dry from the body before chopping them up at the joints (easier because then he didn’t have to saw through bones) and disposing of them in metal drums, or into mineshafts, or the sea, or in the freezer (hence the moniker ‘Ice Man’) so that he could remove the frozen body and leave it out somewhere to be found later to create the impression that the murder took place at a later time and not at the time the person was first reported missing – to create confusion in the minds of detectives.

As a child, he together with his younger brother Joseph were abused and beaten by his father Stanley Kuklinski. He claimed that Stanley “beat the humanity” out of him. I assume the same happened to Joseph who was a bi-sexual paedophile and who was later arrested for the rape, sodomy and murder of a little girl in his neighbourhood. It is in many ways a tragic story of childhood lost and a damaged adulthood spent trying to cope with the effects of abuse. Kuklinski rented a garage where he kept metal pipes and baseball bats, and he’d bring his victims there – slowly smashing the bones in their legs, arms and then hitting and damaging the rest of their bodies before killing them – with each swing of the pipes, he’d release the anger he felt towards his father. He often describe the relief he felt as he watched the “life go out in front of him.” Killing became a way for getting relief from stress and pressure. He enjoyed it thoroughly and took pride in his work, often earning S20,000 to $30,000.00 per kill.

Through an elaborate sting operation that spanned years, Kuklinski was finally caught and arrested, and put on trial. He was given the life sentence and served out the rest of his life in prison, living to the age of 70. He turned prosecution witness against mob personality Sammy “the Bull” Gravano and was about to testify in court when he died the day before the trial commenced leading to speculation (which he himself claimed numerous times) that he had been slowly poisoned while in prison. Charges against Sammy Gravano were eventually dropped.

To the very end, Kuklinski said he regretted not killing his father. And rather poignantly, he lamented that he had wished a different path in his life, where he’d be a good father and husband, living a straight life. But that was not to be – “it was not on the cards for me”, he said.

For obvious reasons, this is also a book that you’d want to talk about and share with friends the gory details. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a serial killer who took it to an unprecedented level and almost turned it into an art-form with his meticulous methods of killing. Kuklinski makes Jack the Ripper and all other killers look very amateurish.

If you are into true crime and are intrigued by gory details of death, murder and organised crime – then get this book. I strongly recommend it.

I’m in the mood to watch the Godfather after finishing this … and to acquire a hunting knife.

n131213 What a gem this book is and how thoroughly enjoyable it was to read! So many times I’d walked past this book in the book stores but never bothered to pick it up, thinking (as I knew then) that it was being adapted as a movie starring Kal Penn as the lead character. “I’ll just watch the movie version,” I always told myself.

So when the book stores ran out of new titles for me to browse, this book got my attention again and I thought oh what the heck and got it. Am I glad I did. I’m now a fan of Ms Lahiri’s writings and plan to get her other books (collections of stories) – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, the only titles available here in the shops. But first, my review of The Namesake.

The story revolves around an Indian boy named Gogol, after his father’s favourite Russian author Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol and a journey that begins with a near-death experience his father Ashoke Ganguli had in surviving a train crash, his arranged marriage to Ashima and their eventual migration to Cambridge, Massuchusetts where Ashoke lectures at MIT.

Gogol is a pet name given to the boy as opposed to a public name. This is a fascinating facet of Bengali culture that I discovered from reading the book.  But in The Namesake, through a series of unintended events, the boy ends up having his pet named registered as his official name – Gogol Ganguli and the story starts from there. From the confusion and amusement it creates in school, to his later decision to do a deed poll and change his name to Nikhil Ganguli in his search for acceptance in American society … and more importantly, his search for his own identity amidst the rich Indian tradition and upbringing he inherits from his parents.

As a student studying overseas in my late teens to mid twenties, I can relate to that desire for familiar surroundings, for people who look the same, or talk the same. I guess in Gogol’s case, his desire must be manyfold more as a ABCD (Amercian-born Confused Deshi) living with conservative Indian migrant parents with strong links to India and the story is about his rebelling against it in the beginning and later, his acceptance and embrace of it – as seen through his progress from boy to adult, and through the relationships he has with his parents, and girlfriends and then his spouse.

It is a coming of age story in some ways. And in other ways, it’s about human relationships and our search for happiness and a place under the sun. I loved this book and dreaded its end as the pages started dwindling. The characters are colourful, their personalities memorable.The story is unforgettable .. and beautiful.

It is a wondrous journey that Gogol undertook and I followed him diligently every night without fail. It is a hard book to stop reading once you start. The end is charming and I closed it so reluctantly, feeling like I need to be there to continue the journey with the Gangulis to wherever Ms Lahiri may choose to take us. It’s that good.

I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. I feel as if I earned it, truly.

It started as little white furry spots on the potted plants in my office. First on the leaves, then the stalk and some on the soil. “How cute!” I thought to myself.  ” I’m growing little mushrooms!”. As more appeared, I delighted in them, even spraying water on them to help in the growth. This went on for a couple of weeks until I noticed the leaves of my plants becoming limp and dry, and which would literally drop off  when touched.

And that’s when I noticed also that my mushrooms could walk. This, they did with small little legs. I began to spend a lot of time standing by the window, under the harsh tropical sunlight studying the creatures. Small and almost minute, it was hard to see them properly so I headed off to the stationer’s to get a magnifying glass.

White and furry. I couldn’t make out their heads or tails. Turn them over and I’d see a reddish underside. Remove them from the plants and leave them on the table long enough and I’d see them start to scurry about, as if looking for the nearest plant.

“Those aren’t mushrooms,” A.H. the Account Manager said. “At least they don’t look like any mushroom I’ve seen before.”

I started to feel stupid and wondered where I got the idea that these were mushrooms in the first place. Funny how that idea came to me, and how it stuck around long enough for me to make a fool of myself telling my co-workers that I was growing some cute mushroom species.

“I was only joking. I meant they looked like mushrooms in the beginning. They only look like it,” I explained, trying to look like I was the knowledgeable gardener that I clearly wasn’t. I could see A.H.’s facial expression, as she thought to herself, “I’ve never heard a mushroom joke before.”

So ok. Turns out my mushrooms are aphids. That was according to my colleague whom I shall call “Mike” for the sake of brevity. Aphids. Aphids. Let’s see what aphids are. I googled it and on Wikipedia this is what confronted me:

Aphids, also known as plant lice (and in Britain as greenflies), are small plant-eating insects, and members of the superfamily Aphidoidea. Aphids are among the most destructive insect pests on Earth.

“Most destructive insect pests on earth!?”

“Yep. They’re the ants’ dairy cows,” Mike informed me over morning coffee at LY’s.

LY is an old cafe where I have my morning coffee breaks and sometimes breakfast. In my town, owing to its long establishment, it’s almost an ‘institution’. Everyone I know has been there before and the proprietors – a man, his wife and his sister – know everyone and have a habit of saying, “I’ve seen you when you were this small” and with obvious good reason too since LY’s been operating since the 60s, I think.

“Ants rear aphids. They carry them to the plants. The aphids feed on the plants and produces honeydew – a type of secretion on their backs which the ants like. Kinda symbiotic, ants feed off this sweet liquid and in return protect the aphids from their predators.”

Sounds so peaceful, doesn’t it? I’d just about started to think that if Man could live like this, we’d have no conflicts in this world when further reading on Wikipedia showed me this:

Aphids passively feed on sap of phloem vessels in plants, as do many of their fellow members of Hemiptera such as scale insects and cicadas. Once a phloem vessel is punctured, the sap, which is under high pressure, is forced into the aphid’s food canal. As they feed, aphids often transmit plant viruses to the plants, such as to potatoes, cereals, sugarbeets and citrus plants. These viruses can sometimes kill the plants.

Plants contain low densities of the nitrogen compounds needed for building proteins. This requires aphids to consume an excess of sap to satisfy their nutritional requirements. The excess is expelled as “honeydew”, out of the anuses of aphids, in such large volumes that in sometimes it can “fall like rain”. Aphid honeydew is rich in carbohydrates, like the phloem it derives from.

Viruses? Anuses? These creatures are like bloody ecologically destructive timber loggers!

Stressed out, I tried flicking the little pests off my plants using the tip of a pencil, sometimes squishing them on the spot. But the ants kept coming back with more aphids and there was no way that I was going to stand there all day in the office waiting for them. Because I had my pots on the window sill, it was easy for the ants to come in from the outside. My dream of having some greenery in my office was fast turning into a nightmarish scene of flora and fauna gone horribly wrong complete with fat aphids sucking the life out of anything with chlorophyll.

The pencil was at best a stop gap measure. I had to figure out a solution quickly. Ridsect didn’t work. I tried spraying that on plants just a few months ago to rid them of ants but ended up getting rid of dead plants instead. Dead plants with live ants swarming all over them, to be exact. So, I turned to the internet and with some reading here and there, came home one day with a list of ingredients for concocting my own homemade organic pesticide. 1 litre of water, some hand liquid detergent, a bit of vegetable oil and 3 cloves of garlic. A stinking concoction to be sure!

“You know, when a new ant queen leaves the nest to start a new colony, it’ll take along with it aphid eggs,” Mike said. “So it can start a new farm too.”

“That sounds disgusting,” I replied, sipping LY’s famous thick black coffee with sweetened condensed milk; just a teaspoonful to temper the bitter coffee – just the way I like it, and perfectly mixed to my personal taste. 3 years of daily patronage here for my morning coffees earned me the right to sit at the long table in LY, a table I like to think of as exclusive seeing as only LY’s ‘special’ customers sit there – like the old man with the er-hu (Chinese classical violin), or the fat woman who drinks 5 cans of Stella Artois on her own every morning, to name a few. LY’s resident barista, will always come and sit with whoever is seated at the table though he won’t make any small talk, or talk at all. He’ll just sit there quietly, looking at you and you can look back at him. And then one of you will turn to look away because of the discomfort. If you’re reading newspapers, he’ll sit opposite you and try to read what you’re reading. That in turn gives you guilt for turning the pages too quickly, making you wonder if he’s done with that page everytime you think about turning it. So you end up reading more slowly, trying to guess which column he’s reading and whether he is finished. But still, it is a coveted table, a status symbol – you sit there and all and sundry will know you’re on the Proprietors’ List, much like academia’s Dean’s List.

“Just imagine the ants drinking liquid secreted from the back of that furry creature. That’s revolting,” I continued.

“And we don’t? Isn’t it the same with cows?”, Mike asked.

“You’re going off topic,” I said, smarting.

Back in the office, I initiated my fight-back plan and sprayed the stinking concoction on the plants. There were no aphids of course by then – thanks to the pencil. But the ants were still around. Like shepherds roaming the hills looking for their lost cattle. I hope they get the message that grazing pastures my plants certainly are not!

Spray I did, and cough I did more – the garlicky mist floated everywhere in my room, infusing my clothes and making everyone think I’d been consuming a garlic-rich diet. I resorted to opening all windows to try to rid the room of the stink but it was slow to dissipate. So for now, the following have stayed clear of the plants – the ants, aphids .. and me.

I stand a few feet from the stinking leaves each day, staring at the leaves – looking for signs of their return. So far so good.

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