Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pre-vacation trip reading

1. John Burdett (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts) – Enjoyable although less so with each subsequent novel. Burdett starts from gritty to weird to supernatural. I don't know about Thais but if I were one, I'd be insulted by his portrayal of Thai society – all cops are corrupt with the Army being worse than the police and all women in Bangkok are either prostitutes or are downtrodden maids. Men are either drug addicts or pimps and all farang are johns or of dubious character. Do Thai detectives really use regular and motorcycle taxis to get around? Burdett is either an astute observer of Thai society or has an inside track (probably the latter) – Thai society is extremely hierarchical though to the Western observer it is not entirely obvious. How long one wais to another signifies their rank in society, likewise in the way one person addresses another. One of the first things that Thais do when they meet each other is to try to determine who has seniority, theyby earning the honorific 'Pi'. Sometimes they try to do this discreetly by asking a friend of a friend or when all else fails, the direct method is used.

2. Mai Pen Rai means Never Mind by Carol Hollinger. Almost 50 years old, this book was still extremely enjoyable. Self-effacing and humorous, I get the impression that Carol Hollinger is not as helpless as she makes herself out to be – and this is true because as a farang in Bangkok who does not speak the language, she somehow manages to get a teaching job at Chulalongkorn University, drives herself all over Bangkok as well as goes on trips outside Bangkok without her husband while enjoying parties almost every weekend. She only devotes one chapter to raising her 7-year old daughter who was put into a British school and it almost seemed like her daughter spent more time in the company of maids and nannies than with her. I suppose this was what a liberated woman in the 60s was supposed to do.

3. Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osbourne. It's hard to tell how much of this dark travel writing is true but this book was more enjoyable than I had expected. It opened up a whole new view of Bangkok - drug addicts (ya ba), the seamier side of Klong Toey by the river where the slaughterhouses for poultry is, the relationship between Bangkok hi-so and their maids, Sukhumvit Road in a way that I would never have seen it.

4. Christopher Moore's Minor Wife. I picked this up on one of our trips and have only just gotten to it. Unlike Burdett, Moore's characters seem more real and gritty and depicts a harder, more scrabbled life of ordinary Thais (albeit from a farang view) than Burdett does. Burdett's characters and scenes seemed more air-brushed while Moore's are somewhat darker. His farang detective is more Sam Spade and at least the Thai police (while political and fight over jurisdiction), are not all corrupt or dishonest – just regular folks trying to do their jobs.

5. A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid. This book brought back a lot of memories growing up although the author preceded me by 10 years. It also made me realized how sheltered and naïve I was growing up. Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the book deals with race relations and the New Economic Policy and the bumiputras. I am less optimistic than he is about race relations in Malaysia. This book cries for a sequel but does not appear to be in the offing.

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