Sunday, July 27, 2014

CBR6 #3: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy by Bertil Lintner

If you need a book that can explain to you the context of Burma's burgeoning transition to a democracy (or at least a nominal democracy), this book by Bertil Lintner is a good one. Not only is it a relatively short book that looks at the modern history of Burma, now known as Myanmar, Lintner's profession as a journalist makes this read very easy to digest.

As the title of the book suggest, a lot of it concerns Aung San Suu Kyi, and how the people in Burma see her. For many years, she was seen to the outside world as a sort of democracy icon, a Gandhi-esque figure who was held under house arrest by the Burmese military junta for her role as the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party. But since Burma started gradually opening up in 2011 or 2012 under the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and permitted to participate in political activities. Since her release, Suu Kyi, disappointingly to human rights activists everywhere, have proven herself to be more of a politician -- most notably, she has refused to speak up on the plight of the Rohingyas, a minority Muslim people who live in northern Burma and have been the target for anti-Muslim raids and riots since 2012. As Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the virulent hatred against the Rohingyas are, in some ways, very real and fully realized in Burmese society, Suu Kyi knows that speaking out for them would be a disastrous choice, politically.

Suu Kyi's move to be more of a pragmatist than an idealist is not news to anyone who follows Burma, and Lintner's writing chooses to treat her more as a human being, one with many questionable qualities as both a politician and a person. However, he also does not ignore the fact that the majority of people in Burma sees Suu Kyi as akin to a god. You've probably heard that the masses refer to her as "mother" and that she is revered for her spirituality. Lintner questions her ideology by looking at her speeches and her writings, and concludes that her rhetoric is often clouded in the spiritual and is difficult to really judge in reality.

While exploring her role in Burma's transition, Lintner also goes into the country's bloody history -- a narrative that we never hear about in Western media anymore since Burma became the most popular kid in the block. As someone who's lived and reported in Cambodia, I am used to seeing how cruel the government and the security forces can be. But reading about the infamous massacre floored me -- I suppose that's the benefits of having a dictatorship: You get to absolutely not give a shit about how the international community perceives you if you decide to violently and openly crack down on pro-democracy demonstrators.

On August 8, 1988, a group of students organized a demonstration in the capital Rangoon to rally for democracy. According to observers, it was fairly organized and was peaceful, and the mood was described as festive. By the early evening, thousands of people had gathered in the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda. A government spokesman ordered for the people to return home, but the crowd only grew; protest leaders exhorted to the demonstrators to remain peaceful. "Be disciplined! No provocations!"

But by around 11 pm, troops containing troops rolled out and opened fire on the protesters. "They fired on automatic right into the thickest part of the crowd," said a medical student present during the '88 protest. The demonstrators reacted, sometimes fighting back with clubs or molotov cocktails. This lasted until August 13, by which a medical volunteer estimated that at least 1,000 people in Rangoon were killed during this time. This number doesn't include other areas of Burma where similar pro-democracy demonstrations were being crushed brutally by the military. A US Embassy report said that deaths probably numbered over 2,000, "but actual numbers can never be known. In many cases as soon as they finished firing, troops carted off victims for surreptitious disposal to mask the extent of the carnage."

Reading this despaired me. It made me wonder where the limit is for us -- the nebulous we, the international community who are either condemning or condoning each country's actions, but never actually concretely affecting any change. I compare everything to Cambodia, of course, and I wondered if it takes the government killing 1,000+ people before the international community will just call a spade a spade, to acknowledge that this experiment called "Democracy in Cambodia" has failed. Is that what is needed? For a government to send its troops out and open fire on citizens protesting (that has happened in Cambodia this year) and kill thousands (the Cambodian security forces killed at least five. The full number remains unclear because there are still people unaccounted for/missing) before our governments do something?

Obviously, Burma and Cambodia are extremely different. I marvel at the fact that the military junta has managed to more or less keep Burma as a country (again, another benefit of being a dictatorship) despite the existence of numerous ethnic groups in the various states, some of which are still considered conflict areas because the ethnic armed groups and the Burmese Army are still clashing. I marvel at Burma's diversity and its people's seemingly deep yearn for democracy. I marvel at how blind the people are when it comes to their hatred of the Rohingyas -- not lest because some of that seems to be manipulated for the government's benefit.

So is Aung San Suu Kyi it? The gleaming hope for the Burmese who want democracy -- is she going to deliver on that expectation? Lintner ends it on an uncertain note. Written in 2011, Suu Kyi and her party has yet to have any clear objectives or platform or agenda. Now, three years later, very little has changed in that regard -- so far, they have been campaigning on the platform of constitutional reform of the junta-draft 2008 constitution, but as far as any concrete party policies though, very much remains unclear.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is a Burma newbie and wishes to understand more about the country. The Burma story really does have everything, if you are looking for an interesting narrative: There is the evil villain (the military government), the reformed villain who you are not sure whether if can be trusted (the current nominally civilian government), the shiny knight in armour (Aung San Suu Kyi) who could also turn out to be a bit of an anti-hero, the unfortunate but deserving masses (the people in Burma who want democracy ), who feel it's ok to oppress another group considered "other" to them (and the character of these Burmese masses could also double up as the arbiters of a possible genocide.)

I might be oversimplifying it, and Lintner's book goes a long way at pointing out the nuances in this recent chapter of Burmese history, which could be rewritten depending on next year's national elections. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

CBR6 #2: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

This book has been favorably reviewed by many, including Cannonballer Jen K, so I bought it on my recent trip to Bangkok, where they have an expansive Kinokuniya. I was intrigued by the idea of a golem -- have always been intrigued by them since it was first mentioned in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay as a character in a graphic novel by the protagonist Josef Kavalier -- but this was the first time I've thought of them as a Jewish equivalent to a djinni, which we so commonly see spelled as genie.



The Golem is Chava, a Golem created in the shape of a human-like woman at the behest of a not-so-nice businessman who's about to immigrate to America. During the journey over the ocean, the businessman passes away from an illness and she is left master-less, and feels lost. A golem, in Jewish lore, is created to fulfill the wishes of its master, and without her "husband," Chava feels a gulf within her. She can also hear people's desires and her nature pressures her to help people, without thinking of the consequences.

Luckily, she encounters a rabbi, who recognizes her for what she is, and he takes her in and teaches her how to suppress her nature as he is fearful that people will destroy her once they find out what she is, or worse, she would destroy them.

A counterpoint to Chava's personality is the titular Djinni, who gives himself the name Ahmad. While we often equate genies to Robin Williams' personality in Aladdin, author Helene Wecker creates an entire back story to these creatures, who seem like invisible powerful spirits that roam the deserts of Africa. We first encounter Ahmad as he spills out of a gas lamp that was being polished and fixed by a tinsmith named Arbeely living in Little Syria in New York, which is today the Financial District (or more pointedly, around the area where the World Trade Center was). With him, we have to uncover the mystery how of he ended up trapped in a gas lamp, with an iron chain around his wrists. (Iron is a material most hated by djinnis and it prevents Ahmad from assuming his real form, and is thus forced to stay as a human.)

 What was interesting for me was the idea of nature. Obviously, both of our characters are magical creatures but they have human traits -- and since humans have also created these beings in our cultures, it is significant to me what types of characteristics we impart to our creations. Chava is essentially a slave to her master, and if she has no one to obey, she feels uncomfortable and unmoored; Ahmad, however, is a free being who's been trapped, so he does not really care about how his actions affect others, almost to the point of callousness. There's also an idea of where our personalities come from -- characters in the book keep talking about how "it is in their nature." But this never excuses Ahmad's insensitivity or Chava's blind obedience.

While I thought the novel started with really interesting ideas and posited potentially evocative themes, I am disappointed that it never builds up from that, that it never explores how both cultures -- who in the media is portrayed as being fundamentally suspicious and antagonistic to each other -- are similar or different, and it never really allows the people from the different neighborhoods to interact.

Moreover, while I was stabbed with nostalgia (of what I've never know or experienced) over her descriptions of New York City at the turn of the century, I was not very impressed with her writing and character development when it came to the actual people (and creatures). I was also a bit annoyed by how neatly the ending tied itself up, like the stupid TV trope of how coincidence and luck somehow allows for everyone to be in the right place at the right time.

Overall, this was definitely a book worth reading, and I actually finished the 600+ page book in two days. But more than for sake of the writing or the story, I'm glad The Golem and the Djinni has reminded me, once again, how interested I am in New York City's history and the communities that were cramped there which has so drastically shaped the city into what it is today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

CBR6 #1: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon


Wow, three months into the New Year, and this is literally the only book I've completed. Usually, I'm a "Read-a-ton-but-blog-nothing" kind of girl, which is what has been my downfall over the past few Cannonball Reads. But this time, it truly is because I'm lazy/busy/not in the mood for reading (I know, crazy talk, but it happens!)

Gentlemen of the Road is a slim book and it really shouldn't have taken me so long to complete. But I found myself stopping in mid-read a lot and then picking it up like... a month later. Which made it really difficult for me to remember the plot. So what I did was re-read it. And re-read it. And re-read it. I re-read it about three times before I completed it.

My inability to finish it in a timely manner speaks more to my general laziness than to the writing quality because Michael Chabon's writing is, as always, fantastic here. Compared to his other epics that I've read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union), this book is slim in comparison and it is also organized in a slightly different manner. Chabon functioned more in Gentlemen by relying on the reader's ability to infer certain happenings and plot points, rather than actually spelling it out for us -- which is why, as I said, I insisted on re-reading it when I forgot bits of the story.

The novel centers around two friends, Amran and Zelikman, who have been traveling across the Caucasus. Zelikman – a very skilled, very thin physician with a hat fetish – is from the country of Francia (wherever that is in made-up Europe); Amran is an Abyssinian, or African in this context, who has a huge sword called Mother-Defiler, and is very good at a game I surmised was the Chabonian version of chess. Throughout their travels, they have to resort to certain tricks to cheat money out of villages they pass through. During one such attempt, they encounter an old, blind mahout who wishes to hire out Amran and Zelikman's services to protect a young prince who had just been orphaned by a warlord now ruling over the kingdom.

Zelikman and Amran. I kept picturing Amran as Michael Clarke Duncan, RIP. 

Anyway, the mahout is murdered by assassins sent by the warlord, so Amran and Zelikman immediately take up the charge of the young prince, Filaq, who keeps attempting to escape the pair to to avenge his family's murder. And so begins the two friends' adventure into trying to swindle, fight, and cajole their way through a royal takeover.

In the afterword of the novel, Chabon said that he had initially titled his book Jews With Swords, a notion that was always met with some snickering because I guess the average American's idea of a Jewish person is more... Yiddish grandma in Coney island, or Jon Stewart. Not one who is a swashbuckling hero on a perpetual adventure. Gentlemen is Chabon's way of revisiting the modern (and I would argue, New York) idea of what a Jewish man is like, and he is almost defensive about it in his afterword.
The illustrations within the book by Gary Gianni were really well-done. 

All I can say is that Chabon could have switched the religion out to anything else, and I think I would have been just as interested and captivated by the plot and his use of language. My sole complaint in Gentlemen is that Chabon's propensity for long, run-on sentences really stood out for me – either they weren't as obvious or as painfully distended in Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policemen – which may be have also been why I had to keep rereading it from the beginning.

But I also understand that Chabon was trying to mimic a certain type of genre, and usually, if I persisted for more than two chapters, I found it easier for my brain to adjust to the long sentences and the made-up language/words. That's sort of the genius of writers like Chabon – he can use a word I've never read before, but it would make perfect sense to me in the context of the story, and even extend an illustrative idea in my head of what it entails.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Because I'm in that kind of mood



I got one friend laying across from me
I did not choose him, he did not choose me
We've got no chance of recovery 
Sharing hospital joy and misery, joy and misery
joy and misery

- Cold War Kids, Hospital Beds 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Crutches are Fun!

So it finally happened: my first real experience with Cambodia's healthcare system.

I got into a pretty bad motorbike accident on Sunday (long story short: his fault, not mine -- which means that naturally I ended up with the injuries while he gets to go merrily on his way. If this were Twitter, we would hash tag this Classic Cambodia) which I thought left me beaten up, but not broken. Being a true badass, I decided to stay at work to finish my story before heading to the hospital. And the only reason why I went to the hospital was because my friend took one look at my ankle and said, "Dude, that doesn't look good." These words came from the guy who just traveled for two months to the Arctic, so I figured the injury wasn't cosmetic.

So I rocked up to the clinic, and the doctor on duty told me that it's probably just a sprain. I was given anesthetic for all my scraps, my foot was very nicely wrapped up, and I rented crutches. All in all, my bill came up to $58, which is expensive for Cambodia, but cheap if we compare it to healthcare in the US.

Three days passed, during which Congress decided to shutdown to defund Obamacare, which also went into effect on Tuesday. Shenanigans in the great USA was pretty entertaining, if I was watching the Daily Show, but very frustrating if I consider that it is actually, in fact, reality and not some elaborate farce.

Anyway, Wednesday cames, and it's the day before a major Cambodian holiday. My foot was still massively swollen, yet all my friends/colleagues who've had their foot sprained said, "Nah, that's normal. Mine was swollen for three days!" But I decided to just head back to the hospital to see what's up.

And yea, something was totally up. The doctor took one look at my foot and said, in broken English, "We should X-ray this." Oh, really? Why didn't we do that Sunday? "It looks bad now, and I just want to be sure about it." Really? You want to be sure now? But not before when I came to you Sunday? Gee, Doc, that seems a bit backward, but whatever let's X-ray it. "Oh, we don't have X-ray facilities here. You have to go to this other hospital to get it X-rayed." Sigh. Fine. Whatever. 

I hobbled over to Hospital Number 2, which was open 24/7 and the staff seemed awesome. A radiologist (I'm gonna just assume he's a radiologist even though he was wearing T-shirt, shorts and flipflops when he X-rayed me) shuffled my foot around and asked me where he should X-ray it. Well, it hurts here, so maybe X-ray around the ankle area? 

Then they told me, the gimp on crutches, that I had to come back tomorrow to pick up the X-ray and bring it back to Hospital Number 1. Couldn't you send it there since... I'm on crutches? "No, you have to pick it up here so that your doctor there can see it." But... couldn't you just -- Never mind. Yes, I'll be here tomorrow to pick it up. 

The wait next day for the X-ray was a bit long (like two hours, because the Cambodians consider their lunch hour sacred, and thus cannot be disturbed for any reason whatsoever. I'm just glad I wasn't suffering from an emergency, and merely an ankle sprain). But I got the X-ray and the radiologist's analysis en français which basically said that I actually had a fracture.

When I got back to Hospital Number 1, I was chided by the receptionist for not coming back the day before because the doctor stayed until 8 pm on a holiday weekend for me to come back so that he could see the results. She's right -- what was I thinking, inconveniencing the very doctor who could not get his diagnosis right the first time?

A new doctor was assigned to me, who told me that I had to get a cast put on my leg. "How long do I have to wear it for?" I asked. "3 to 4 weeks." "... Can I go without the cast?" "Sure, but you will suffer."

Motherfucker. Fine. 

A third doctor was assigned to put the cast on me, but he wasn't at the hospital yet, so I had to wait again. Meanwhile, my assignment editor is texting me, "Are you coming to work today?" Yes, I'll be in; I just gotta get a cast on. "Ok, see you soon. We have an early deadline so come in quickly."

Doctor Number 3 finally rushed into the room like a typhoon into Taiwan. He seemed like a very, very nice man, but man, was he a blusterer. He shuffled and stumbled and did a clumsy sidestep just to get around the room. When he cleaned my open wound on my foot, he sprayed alcohol and iodine on it like he was trying to get every inch of his American-style lawn.

"Don't worry, I've been a surgeon for more than 20 years."

I never know why doctors feel like saying that would make patients feel better. There are writers who've been working for more than 20 years who are still shitty writers, just like there are surgeons who've been surgeoning for that period who can be shitty. Especially in Cambodia. Especially in Cambodia. But thanks for that reassurance. I feel so much better, as I am lying facedown on a bed with a stranger tugging at my fractured ankle. 

He finally got it on, and -- I feel like repeating this is necessary -- was very, very nice and helpful and seemed like an overall good person even if his clumsiness made me glad I only had a fractured ankle and not something worse. He said that I am to come back on November 3 to get my cast off. That's more days than I can count on my fingers.

Then they tried to charge me $200, to include the new doctor's consultation fee to which I said, "Hey guys, it's your fault for diagnosing me wrong in the first place." I guess they didn't want to start a scene with the girl in crutches who looked like she was about to cry, so they very generously only charged my $150.

As I was leaving the hospital to get back to the office, it started pouring. Then it started flooding on the streets of Phnom Penh. But I got a tuk-tuk, so no worries, except that when I got out of it outside the office, the floodwaters were up to my shins, my pretty dress was getting drenched, and I was struggling to keep the cast out of the water. As one colleague helped me out, another snapped photos of me. Just to document the happy memories, I suppose.

When I hobbled into the office, my assignment editor said, "Didn't you get my text message? I said you don't have to come in, no rewrites for you." Ah no, I didn't see it. Of course I didn't see it. "Well, you can go home." In this fucking typhoon? No thanks, I might drown. I'll stay here for a bit instead. 

So I'm off my feet for a month, and while I can go into work, I really can't move around easily. The cast looks a bit like a giant sock and everyone keeps commenting on how cool it looks. It's true -- this sock cast would really go really well with the preppy look I'm gonna cultivate for myself during my gimp month. If only it felt as cool to have it!!

Right now, I'm in between feeling sorry for myself and making fun of the entire situation. Yes, I'm aware that the little over $200 I spent on my medical bills is nothing compared to what I would spend in the US. I'm not comparing the healthcare here in Cambodia to the (lack of) system in the States. Apples and oranges, man. All I'm saying is be glad you got your health! And don't get into moto accidents in Cambodia. Ever. Wear a helmet, kids.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sad face for Cambodia soulmate's departure


Emily and I at Bayon Temple our third month in Cambodia
My amazing and talented friend/roommate/Cambodian compatriot left the country today to pursue an MFA degree. We arrived in Cambodia and started work at the office on the same day. To hear Emily tell it, I might have been a bit of a bossy bitch when she and I met: She was sitting on a couch waiting for someone to tell her what to do when I came up to her and said, "Why are you sitting there?" in a sort of authoritative manner. She explained that she was new and that she was waiting for someone to tell her what to do. I then plopped down next to her and it turned out I was new too. And, like her, also from New York.

To go into all that we've been through together in this wonderful and bewildering country would be impossible, and would sound like a cliché -- we shared, we bonded, we fought, we commiserated, we adopted a cat together! But living in Phnom Penh can feel a bit like a vortex of suck sometimes, and I'm so happy I had her to share this experience with.

Last week at her going-away party

Her departure hasn't really hit me yet. This is the girl that introduced me to David Mitchell's genius! Her insight and intelligence was such an eye-opener for me and I'm so thankful that we are friends.

Friday, June 21, 2013

CBR5 #5 to #8: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn




The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn go by incredibly quickly. The first four of the series – there are five total – all have titles that sound like exclamations of exasperation. Never Mind, the first novel, displays the home life of five-year-old Patrick Melrose, the son of an English aristocrat and an American heiress; Bad News follow’s 21-year-old Patrick, who’s now a heroin addict, and his drug-fuelled days in New York City when he goes to bury his father; Some Hope features him as an older, though not much wiser, man trying to come to terms with his past; and Mother’s Milk charts the summers that he and his family spend in the family’s home in France, and the declining health of his inattentive mother.

I’m gonna review them separately, even though they all came in one tome. I think this edition (where the four are actually one) was released right before the launch of St. Aubyn’s fifth and final book, which I have not read.


Never Mind

In the first book of the Patrick Melrose series, St. Aubyn introduces David Melrose, the patriarch of the Melrose family, through the eyes of others who seem eager to avoid him. His maid tries to skirt around his attention while his wife, Eleanor, often seems to stay very, very still so as not to have him notice her. Only five-year-old Patrick seems to appreciate his father, who he sees as a stern and commanding presence.

The other players in Never Mind is Jewish philosopher Victor Eisen and his reporter girlfriend Anne Moore; and Nicholas Pratt and his new young girlfriend Bridget. The three couples are meeting at the French house of David and Eleanor, and the entire book takes place in the span of a single day.

David Melrose, an English aristocratic, is seen as the top dog by all the men in terms of style and class, and all the men do verbal gymnastics around each other to try to appear clever and ironic, while also not overtly aggressive. St. Aubyn skewers the rich by portraying them as a malicious bunch – and all the ammunition is flung while they are sitting civilly to dinner. Eleanor, who is American and really the wealthy one as it is her inheritance that David and the family are living off of, often finds herself feeling left out:

Eleanor still found it inexplicable that the best English manners contained such a high proportion of outright rudeness and gladiatorial combat. She knew that David abused this licence, but she also knew how ‘boring’ it was to interfere with the exercise of unkindness. When David reminded someone of their weaknesses and failures she was torn between a desire to save the victim, whose feelings she adopted as her own,and an equally strong desire not to be accused of spoiling a game. The more she thought about this conflict, the more tightly it trapped her. She would never know what to say because whatever she said would be wrong.

The entire first book is beset with a sense of foreboding – David, as you can already tell, is a sadistic fucking dick; Eleanor is forever his victim; and Patrick – who Anne, at one point, says is the only person she likes in that family since there is still optimism in him – seems to be the vessel upon each parent’s cruelty and neuroses is spilled into.

I’m going to keep hammering on this throughout all the reviews for all four books, but St. Aubyn is unforgiving in his portrayal of the wealthy, and he manages to imbue all the characters and descriptions with such a richness of knowledge. Patrick, as a five-year-old, is largely exempt from such contempt, but his point of view is just as poignantly vivid, and it brought along a sense of almost nostalgia – I could remember feeling these emotions when my mother used to get angry at me, and I could not figure out the reasons behind her anger:

As Patrick slowly crossed the floor he tried to think of some way to placate his father. Maybe if he said something clever he’d be forgiven, but he felt extraordinarily stupid and could only think over and over: two time two equals four, two times two equals four. He tried to remember something he had noticed that morning, or anything, anything at all that might persuade his father that he had been ‘observing everything.’ But his mind was eclipsed by the shadow of his father’s presence.

Never Mind is really about the resignation of a child, at five, that things are just going to be shit for the rest of his life. His father is an asshole, his mother is a dishrag, and adults seem despicable through and through. Patrick’s world is split into half on this day with the knowledge that his parents, whom he had seen as model adults of sorts, could come to embody monsters.


Bad News

Bad news arrives in a phone call from an old family friend to Patrick, 21, as he is just about to expertly inject heroin into the crook of his arm – his father had passed away. Will Patrick stop by the funeral home on Madison Avenue in New York City?

Patrick put down the syringe he had been flushing out, and sat beside the phone without moving. Was it bad news? Perhaps he would need all his courage not to dance in the street, not to smile too broadly.

With that begins a two-day drug-fuelled existence in New York. Upon hearing about David’s death, Patrick resolves to quit using heroin. But in order to get himself off it, he’d have to distract himself with other substances – such as cocaine, quaaludes, speed, valium, and general overuse of alcohol. It doesn’t matter because he ends up using heroin anyway. In his quest to rid himself of the stench of having been fathered by a sadistic child rapist, Patrick seeks out his old “friends” – Pierre, his old dealer, a French man with the purest heroin available who scolds Patrick for always trying to seek a rush while selling it to him; and Willy, an Alphabet City dealer who is willing to invite Patrick over to his home and provide him with a much-sought-after needle.

Patrick also visits with old family friends and all in all, comes off as an entitled rich brat who is adept at having cynical conversations with “grown-ups.” It’s clear that no one knows to what extent David’s cruelty was inflicted upon Patrick; he continually has to hear others tell him what a singularly amazing man his father was.

The second book is probably my least favorite, because Patrick – while sympathetic if you had read Never Mind – is a real mess. That’s to be expected given his childhood, as well as the heroin addiction. But every time St. Aubyn seems about to redeem Patrick’s general shittiness, he’s assailed by a sudden need to be unkind or make an observation that can only be thought of as “Rich White Boy” with an eye roll.

One thing that I loved about it though was the hazy clarity that Patrick seemed to collapse into when under the influence of drugs. While reading this, all I could think was, “Holy Christ, St. Aubyn totally had a drug problem.” There was a realness to the addiction, like the way Patrick mapped out his night according to the drugs he had left, just to make sure he didn’t run out too long before his flight returning to London took off, but that he didn’t have too much whereby he’d be too high before boarding the plane. Patrick is also visited by hallucinations and voices, and there are whole pages that continue with conversations in his head with the television in his hotel room.

The whole experience made me really wish I knew what it was like to be high on heroin.

Another great thing about Bad News – you start noticing recurring characters in the Melroses’ life. Nicholas Pratt is mentioned again, and Anne returns, this time as an old friend who, despite her dislike for David, does not quite approve of Patrick’s vocal hatred toward his father. It’s sort of fun to note familiar names and recurring themes in these books – such as the appearance of an Alsatian, or a German shepherd, and how it symbolizes David’s restlessness and sudden anger.


Some Hope

I actually read Some Hope first, before I even knew that it was just one installment in a series of five. It begins with Patrick Melrose’s point of view after he had woken up from a dream, and while it may be random (especially if I came at it without having gone through Never Mind and Bad News) it was immediately gripping and interesting.

Patrick, at 28, has a singular voice and point of view. He is acerbic and humorous and self-lacerating. He is immature, sure – after all, he is a child of a trust fund and absent (slash abusive) parents – but as the chapters switch between his point of view and others within his social circle, it’s clear that the entire community of rich, well-to-doers are not even close to half as self-aware as he is.

Some Hope spans over a single day, and it’s essentially a look at various people’s lives as they prepare for a big party at night that will be thrown by Bridget (yes, young, flitty Bridget that we first saw in Never Mind) and her society husband for a princess. Patrick has been drug-free and sober for a couple years now, and his closest friend is Johnny, who seems like the most normal person in the entire book – and this is as an ex-heroin addict.

British snobbery is on full display here, with clever double-talk and the employment of crushing barbs in polite conversation. Every single person portrayed is a fucking bitch here – no one means what they say, and everything they say means nothing here because they would just twist it later when repeated to other parties. Yet St. Aubyn never makes a reader feel like that entire cast of character is a stain on humanity because we are able to see the humanness in all these deplorable characteristics. Because who hasn’t shit-talked a friend, and spoken behind their backs? And haven’t we all done it because we are all insecure in some ways, that we feel the need to crush others in our minds in order to feel good about ourselves? St. Aubyn just shows it off here to a greater, more extreme degree. 

The title this time refers to Patrick’s search for some sense of normalcy, in his mind. He is still struggling with his childhood abuse under the hands of his father, and how to reconcile it with the fact that David Melrose is greatly respected by Very Imporant People, people who never hesitate to tell Patrick what a great friend his pedophile father was to them.

If anything, the duality, and even the multiplicity, that exists within us has been a persistent theme throughout these novels. It’s trite to say, “Oh, he has characters that are not flat and are multi-dimensional.” Yes, it is a minimal requirement for an author to be able to expertly render his protagonist, and the people surrounding him, as a human being. But it’s an entirely different skill to make me seriously believe that these people are good and bad, and evil and kind; to hold these two opposing point of views at the same time in my mind. And truth be told, aren’t we all like this? I’m constantly questioning the intentions behind my actions and behind my motivations – do I do good things because I want to be good, or because I want to be perceived as good? It’s bad to gossip and shit talk and be snide, but isn’t it also just so clever to be a witty pessimist rather than an earnest do-gooder?

This was my favorite of the four books, and the one that prompted me to seek out the entire series (saving the final book, because I live in, you know, Cambodia/non-Amazon land). It works as a stand-alone book, but I re-read it anyway when I started from the beginning, if only because Patrick’s history makes me appreciate so much more the re-appearance of personalities from his past, as well as the effort it has taken for him to get to this point, where he can concretely say, “Well, maybe I could make my life about me, and not about having survived my father’s abuse.”


Mother’s Milk

The fourth book is a jarring departure from the other three. First, it is no longer set within a short period of time – it spans several summers from 2000 onwards – and also, it provides an extensive look to the people around Patrick. Now married and with a children, Patrick appears, at first to have settled comfortably into fatherhood and married life. Their summers, initially spent in the family house in France (in which Never Mind took place), were supplanted as Patrick’s mother, Eleanor, began giving the family fortune and property away to some New Age cult religion group.

St. Aubyn has focused so much on Patrick’s relationship with his absent parents – and we’ve only seen one very meek, very subservient side of his mother in Never Mind – that Eleanor’s reappearance and her portrayal is almost unrecognizable. Eleanor, after all, has always been a cipher for others to pin their hopes upon, and having each time failed their expectations, have flitted to her next goal, whether if it is being a good wife (failed), a good mother (failed failed), altruistic Mother-to-the-People (sort of failed, but who knows), and an upright Human Being Who Submits Herself to a Higher Power (failed because it’s essentially a cult she entrusts her hopes upon).

St. Aubyn juxtaposes Patrick’s neurosis and self-awareness upon the reflections of his young and precocious son – who is trying his best to emulate his father -- and his wife, who is the extreme opposite of Eleanor. This self-awareness that Patrick has carried throughout his life has now been taken up to a greater degree by his older son, Robert.

And Robert is… an anomaly. As a child, he possesses an intelligence that I sincerely doubt is possible in real life, but always seem to appear in the children of movies and books. Yet St. Aubyn does the very clever trick of having Robert’s inner thoughts seem extremely insightful and probing, while from the outside point of view have him engaging in play and childish acts. And truthfully, haven’t we all felt like this as a kid? The belief that what the adult sees is only a fraction of my capacity as a child? I remember thinking, perhaps around 5, that adults vastly underestimate children and their ability to understand that they’re just so full of shit. So maybe Robert’s portrayal isn’t that far off – it’s just more eloquently written.

For Patrick, Eleanor’s gradual descent into old age has him feeling a curious mix of hatred, compassion and resentment. How hard should he be pushing her for a slice of the family inheritance? Should he even care about it, considering how much he does not love her as a mother? If she asks for his help in killing herself, should he do it because he loves her and wants to put her out of her misery… or does he want to do it because there’s the glee of revenge that comes from a lifetime of familial betrayal? Any time you begin to judge Patrick’s motivations for his urges, don’t worry – he’s already gotten there and ran three laps around the park with them.

It’s sort of interesting, now that I am writing about these books, to clearly see how St. Aubyn has brought Patrick’s character to a full growth. In the first, he unfailingly loves his father and mother, and his world is shattered in a single day. In the second, Patrick encapsulates the rich young asshole who sees the world as being preternaturally against him and therefore he must try to shorten his life as quickly as possible through substance-abuse. And then in Some Hope, he’s taken the rashness of his youth, and is trying so hard to push life forward with an attempt at maturity. Finally, in Mother’s Milk, he’s reduced to his former child when it comes Eleanor and his wife Mary – playing the blame game – but he tries to emulate adulthood by rationalizing his reasons and putting his feelings up for full inspection.

It’s exhausting to watch, exhausting to experience, and exhilarating to have on page to see. Not only is it amazing writing, but St. Aubyn’s portrayal of Patrick just pulled so much empathy from me – the specific details of his circumstances may differ (greatly differ) from my life, but I completely saw so much of Patrick within me and his over-thinking his over-thinking touched my soul.

What a fucking corny way to end a review, huh? Well, I cannot recommend the Patrick Melrose novels enough – it’s brilliant, it’s funny, it’s painful and it will speak to you in volumes about what kind of people we individuals are. Go. Go read it, now. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

CBR5 #4: A Storm of Swords (Part 2) by George R.R. Martin


For the longest time, I didn't realize that the third book for A Song of Ice and Fire was divided into two parts. I finished Part 1 last year, began watching the third season of Game of Thrones, and was just completely perplexed about why the plot seemed so different from what I read.

Anyway, I wised up and quickly finished Part 2 in the middle of the third season. Since the books hew pretty close to the HBO series, anyone who is not up with the books and wish not to be spoiled should probably avoid this review -- which, admittedly, is going to be pretty brief.

Where to start, where to start...

Tyrion, my favorite character, is not having a very good time -- his face is pretty ugly, which bums him out; his wife, Sansa Stark, won't speak to him like a real person nor will she allow him to touch her; and his sister really hates him. Joffrey, his nephew, has continued to antagonize him, going so far as to hire dwarves for his wedding to Margary Tyrell to act like fools.

Meanwhile, over in the far North, my least favorite good character, Jon Snow, is just all sorts of conflicted, as is usual with his 13-year-old state of mind. He's  gotten in with the wildlings (and in the pants of Ygritte) but after they crossed the wall, he betrayed them and has now began a defense against them with his Black Brothers. However, the higher-ups, like that Janos Slynt from King's Landing (slimiest of slime balls who will can be trusted about as far as one can sling a piano) are beginning to question his loyalty to the Brothers. This comes in the midst of choosing a new commander since Lord Mormont was killed in Craster's Keep.

And now Arya! Arya manages to escape the Brotherhood and into the arms of the Hound, who is determined to try and ransom her off to her mother or some distant relative for gold. Sandor Clegane is fast becoming one of my favorite "bad" characters -- when questioned about his goodness, Clegane flings back insults to his accusers cast-the-first-stone style. This brings into stark relief how truly violent and awful George R.R. Martin's universe is, where even those who are considered good would be willing to kill and fight for "honor."

As for Daenerys, she's still trying to raise forces to reclaim the Iron Throne, but she is now stuck in the East, being called Mother for freeing the slave cities. It appears that most of the time, she is batting away sexist insults from her challengers while wearing dresses where her breasts hang out, or she's oogling Daario, a Braavosi who has sworn his allegiance to her who is apparently really handsome to her but sound like a rainbow oompa loompa on page. The loyalty of two of her advisers, Jorah Mormont and Arstan Whitebeard, is thrown into questions and Dany is all conflicted about who she can trust.

Do I have to describe the trials and tribulations of all the characters with chapters? The Wiki page will probably do a better job than I did. Obviously, I enjoy these books, and will continue to read them, but to be honest, recapping them here is really difficult. I encountered the same problem when I was recapping the Chaos Trilogy or the Hunger Games Trilogy, in the sense that these series are so immensely popular that it feels like everyone already loves them and exalts them, but since it is only a single part in a series, then my descriptions might spoil it for people who had not read it before.

It's doubly difficult with the Song of Ice and Fire books because I am reading them so concurrently with watching the HBO series that I have them kind of mixed up in my mind. I also only see the characters the way the actors portray them -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing since the TV series follow the books so closely.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

CBR5 #3: World War Z by Max Brooks


So the movie for this is coming out (or is it out already? Living abroad leaves me no sense of pop cultural happenings) and I thought I should finally read the copy that has been sitting in my book shelf for the last year and a half. I finished this back in March, so my memory of the book's details is a bit hazy, and my retelling of it may not be wholly accurate, but I'm gonna try my best.

I love zombie movies -- I think they are fun and weirdly campy in its horror, and the statement zombie movies are often trying to make is always so hit-you-over-the-head obvious that I enjoy the effort put into trying to diversify the message. But I've never read a zombie book. And World War Z is a pretty awesome beginning, I'd say, to changing the way I can appreciate how the zombie genre has evolved. 

It's essentially a series of oral accounts, put together by a government chronicler, to map out the zombie war that ate the Earth raw for about 10 years. It begins with how the zombie pandemic may have started -- in China, of course -- through the eyes of a Chinese doctor who saw how a young patient had been transformed after he was bitten and had to be tied down with rope to prevent him from hurting others. And then Brooks' chronicler goes into accounts of how it could have spread -- first by the Chinese government's refusal to tell other governments about the zombie pandemic, and then with the governments' ineptitude to secure its borders to the flood of fleeing non-bitten, and sometimes already-bitten humans. There was also an organ trade that could have spread the pandemic further. Scientists' recommendations on how to contain the infestation are ignored, making the problem worse. 

From the account of the female war pilot who crash-landed in an area filled with zombies, to the account of the rich Hollywood-type who said he had built his mansion-fortress up to keep in the rich and famous and allow the poor to die outside; to the Japanese youth, who lived in his own world plugged into the cybers, unaware that the apocalypse was upon him until it was literally upon him -- the richness in details about the ineptitude of governments, the stringent viewpoints of the military in dealing with an unknown and indefatigable enemy -- this book made me wonder how our global leaders would ever be able to deal with a real pandemic should something to this scale ever occur. 

I do wish I had written this review sooner so that I could do the book more justice. The truth is that I started reading it with the thought that it was going to be fun and amusing, like a zombie movie. And yes, it was, but midway through it, the clarity that Brooks imbued in his narrative account just brought to stark light how real this all could be, and I just got more horrified as it progressed. World War Z should be read, not as fiction, but as a parable. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

So I disappeared for a bit...

2013 was a bit of a shit year, to be honest. After I read and reviewed Ghostwritten, my life sort of went down the rabbit hole. My boyfriend and I broke up -- we were in a long-distance relationship, so the absence shouldn't have mattered so much, right? Even so.

So I disappeared for a bit, and I stopped reading, and I stopped reviewing. I found it difficult to sit still by myself with my thoughts, and so I was just running around, doing as much as I possibly could. I went to Kep on weekends with new friends, went to Jakarta on another weekend to visit an old friend. I started cooking again, this time trying to make Chinese-style noodles (hor fun), or pierogis, or just meals that consisted of the four food groups. I adopted a kitten and named him Biggie Smalls. I fought with friends, made up with friends, said goodbye to friends. I went to new places, new events that I wouldn't have bothered with six months ago, and I met up with old friends who visited Phnom Penh. I bought a nice camera and (somewhat) learned how to use it. 


First day in Jakarta

Jakarta city-view

Parts of the city were waterlogged when I was there. 

But people still seemed positively cheerful 

With Christi and her boyfriend, hanging outside in the balcony

Biggie Smalls, when he was very small

Biggie Smalls, two months later. Dude got huge!

My pierogis. I was very proud of 'em. 

Jane and I looking like hot bitches on our way to a classical music concert (Photo by Ben Woods*)

At the night market with friends (Photo by Ben Woods)

Always at Liquid. Etan (third from left) visited me in Phnom Penh for about 48 hours. (Photo by Ben Woods)

And this was all while working my ass off at my job, which is utterly life-consuming in some ways. Work was a relief during this time. I complain about it a lot, but I do love it. 

In March, I returned to the States for a month for Cynthia's wedding. It was beautiful, of course, and it was great seeing her again. Talking to her always feels like such a relief, like nothing's ever going to change between us and that if there's one thing that I can rely on to be constant in my life, it's my friendship with her. Her husband, Chris, was very sweet, very funny, and loves her very much (obvi), and I, naturally, think that he's lucky to have found a woman like Cynthia.

We don't like each other. 

Puppies kissing Cynthia before the ceremony

Cynthia walks down the aisle with her father

I also got to spend some time with my mother. We took a trip to central California, to Solvang, and its surrounding towns. This place was like weird farm central. We went to an ostrich farm, a miniature horse farm, a miniature donkey farm and a lavender farm. My mom also accompanied me to a beer brewery, called Figueroa Mountain Brewery.

miniature ponies!

miniature donkeys! (This one was sweet)

The donkey was trying to get my mom to pet him. 

Ostriches are fucking freakish looking. Also ginormous, and have huge talons. 

Then New York, which was exhilarating and exhausting. I stayed with Marissa, and just had a schedule full of seeing family, friends, mentors, and former colleagues. I drank way too much beer, ate way too much good food, and spent... not as much money as I expected, which was a nice surprise given how expensive the city can be. But I guess since I was visiting from Cambodia, everyone seemed to want buy me lunch, dinner, drinks. I also got to go to a concert in Bushwick, which made me so happy. Haven't heard live music in ages. The band was Crushed Out aka Boom Chick -- a drum/guitar duo. They were great.

View of uptown from my uncle's office. He works near WTC.

My cousin. She got so big! And understands words now. 

I meet the Polish hotties in the East Village.

I miss these girls so much. 
got a hipster card from the girls

Last week, May 3, was my two-year anniversary in Cambodia with Emily. We didn't do much -- just had sushi for dinner to commemorate it, then went out drinking with a buddy who was back in town.

Two years in Cambodia. Nuts.

Anyway, it's been a pretty eventful four months. I'm glad that I was more willing to put myself out there and do different things, but obviously there have been some down sides to being unwilling to settle down and allow myself to be ok with just. sitting. still. But I'm trying, right now, I really, really am. I've even started reading again -- besides that Ron Vitale book I reviewed below, I've read three other books. I'm aware that puts me way behind my CBR5 goal of 26, but I'll keep trying.

(*My friend, Ben, has more photos of Phnom Penh at his tumblr. He's a great photographer.)