Reading Southeast Asia (updated)


Ah the real fun of themed reading is coming up with the lists!

As I had mentioned, my goal for this month is to concentrate on reading books set in Southeast Asia, especially the countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately my list is limited to books available in my library.

Of course I realize that I won’t actually finish reading the books on the list, but a girl can dream. And try.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

In the shadow of the banyan – Vaddey Ratner
The king’s last song, or, Kraing meas – Geoff Ryman
When broken glass floats : growing up under the Khmer Rouge : a memoir – Chanrithy Him

All that is gone – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Mute’s soliloquy : a memoir – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass) – Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Map of the invisible world : a novel – Tash Aw


The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

Evening is the whole day – Preeta Samarasan
The Harmony Silk Factory – Tash Aw
Rice Mother – Rani Manika
The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng
The Garden of Evening Mist – Tan Twan Eng

The river of lost footsteps : histories of Burma – Thant Myint-U
The lizard cage – Karen Connelly
Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin.
Everything is broken : a tale of catastrophe in Burma – Emma Larkin
From the land of green ghosts : a Burmese odyssey – Pascal Khoo Thwe
Burma chronicles – Guy Delisle

Ginseng and other tales from Manila – Marianne Villanueva
Mayor of the roses : stories – Marianne Villanueva
The Tessarect – Alex Garland
The solemn lantern maker : a novel – Merlinda Bobis

Tanamera – Noel Barber
The Singapore Grip – J.G. Farrell
The thorn of Lion City : a memoir – Lucy Lum
Breaking the tongue : a novel – Vyvyane Loh
A different sky – Meira Chand
Shadow Theatre – Fiona Cheong
Foreign bodies – Hwee Hwee Tan
The bondmaid – Catherine Lim

Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski
Bangkok 8 – John Burdett

Le colonial : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The tapestries : a novel – Kien Nguyen
The lotus eaters – Tatjana Soli
A dragon’s tale – Long Lee
Headmaster’s Wager – Vincent Lam

The unwanted : a memoir – Kien Nguyen
Catfish and Mandala – Andrew X. Pham

Southeast Asia in general (often multiple countries)
The reeducation of Cherry Truong – Aimee Phan
The Inspector Singh Investigates series: (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder; A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul; The Singapore School of Villainy; A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree) – Shamini Flint
The unyielding clamor of the night – Neil Bissoondath

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?

The title caught my eye.

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?

And I too wanted to know, what happened to Buzz Aldrin. And what this book, set in Norway, had to do with Buzz Aldrin.

So I was surprised to find an opening about rain. And the thoughts of a very ordinary man.

Who has had a very pedestrian life.

Who just wants to be a regular guy, who doesn’t stand out.

“Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Simple mathematics.
So here I was. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.”

This is Mattias. He is 29 years old. And he is a gardener. He loves his job. He’s the kind of guy who comes into work early, who sits in the garden and watches the traffic go by.

“If I could have just one wish, I often thought it might have been for nothing to change. To have everything fixed for eternity. I wanted predictable days.”

Other than that, since he was a youngster, Mattias has been a fan of Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. Aldrin is, for him, the man who was on the moon when everyone had turned off their TVs and gone to bed, the one who works hard behind the scenes, no less important, just less visible.

“Buzz Aldrin’s story had to be read between the lines about Neil Armstrong, and other illustrious men, hIs was the great story of the parentheses.”

He even dressed as Aldrin during a high school dance, where he finally spoke to Helle, the new girl. The one he fell head over heels for the first time he saw her.

“Because you’ve been there too, haven’t you, you’ve been there in that class, when you’ve fallen in love with one of the others, on the first or third day, and the room seems to grow infinitely small, cramped and it’s hard to sit at your desk, and there’s nowhere to fix your gaze, because if you look at her, everybody will notice, and if you look the other way, look up, look at the wall, look beyond them and at the blackboard, as if that one particular person doesn’t exist, they’ll notice that too, and they’ll think you really overrate yourself, sitting like that pretending you don’t care. Because it can’t be hidden. You’re totally transparent. Cellophane. And as breakable.”

Mattias is also good friends with Jørn, a musician, who invites him to the Faroe Islands to be the band’s sound tech. And somehow Mattias finds himself alone and bleeding and in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how he got there. A passerby stops to help him and eventually invites him to stay with him. Havstein lives in Gjogv, a little settlement in the north, with three others, a kind of halfway house. And there he finds himself in a place he hardly expected to be:

“…the fields spread imperceptibly out into the landscape and rose to become massive hills you could almost stroll over, a completely rounded landscape with no irregularities or jutting knolls, opening itself up in all directions this, I thought, was like the moon, dressed in grass, this was what it must have been like to walk on the moon for the first time, an untouched wasteland. And I was an explorer of virgin territories. I knew nothing, was nobody, and I think I was grateful.”

This is a story about friendship and kind of about finding yourself.

(Although there is a funny/depressing moment (as quite a bit of the book seems to be) when Mattias thinks of Norwegian band de Lillos’ song with the lyrics “Are you trying to find yourself? What if the man you found, was a man you didn’t like, who you’d have to live with for the rest of your life?”)

Harstad’s stream-of-consciousness style isn’t for everyone. As is the fact that this is not a plot-driven book. And I have to be honest, it can be depressing at times. This is far from a cheery feel-good story that makes you feel all warm inside. But I found myself just completely sucked into the story of Mattias, of life on the Faroe Islands. And his ordinariness. Because I too was that kid who never stood out, who never got the top marks in class, never excelled in sports or activities, who turned up on time and didn’t cause any trouble.

“I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, at college, whose name you can’t remember when you take out the class photo ten years later, to show your boyfriend or girlfriend how you looked back then.”

I’ll leave you with a little soundtrack for the book. The Cardigans – a favorite with one of the characters, and this song is quite a suitable one for this book: “For the good times and the bad times we know will come”


Library Loot (28 June 2012)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

This week’s library haul seems to consist of books by new-to-me authors. Definitely looking forward to them.

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin

It’s apparently Helprin’s birthday, according to the Writer’s Almanac. And I’m not sure if I had heard of Helprin before this, but hey after reading this description: “It is set in an alternative Belle Époque New York City; the main character is an orphan and burglar named Peter Lake who is protected by a flying horse.” I was sold.

New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake—orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side.

Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl, who is dying.

Peter Lake, a simple, uneducated man, because of a love that, at first he does not fully understand, is driven to stop time and bring back the dead. His great struggle, in a city ever alight with its own energy and beseiged by unprecedented winters, is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary stories of American literature.

Seven Years – Peter Stamm

Alex has spent the majority of his adult life between two very different women—and he can’t make up his mind. Sonia, his wife and business partner, is everything a man would want. Intelligent, gorgeous, charming, and ambitious, she worked tirelessly alongside him to open their architecture firm and to build a life of luxury. But when the seven-year itch sets in, their exhaustion at working long hours coupled with their failed attempts at starting a family get the best of them. Alex soon finds himself kindling an affair with his college lover, Ivona. The young Polish woman who worked in a Catholic mission is the polar opposite of Sonia: dull, passive, taciturn, and plain. Despite having little in common with Ivona, Alex is inexplicably drawn to her while despising himself for it. Torn between his highbrow marriage and his lowbrow affair, Alex is stuck within a spiraling threesome. But when Ivona becomes pregnant, life takes an unexpected turn, and Alex is puzzled more than ever by the mysteries of his heart.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?: A Novel

With a title like that, how could I pass this by? This is one of the longlisted books for the 2012 Best Translated Book Awards.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? opens with the line: “The person you love is 72.8% water, and it hasn’t rained for weeks.” From there, Brage Award–winning author and playwright Johan Harstad’s debut—previously published to great success in eleven countries and now making its first English-language appearance—tells the story of Mattias, a thirty-something gardener living in Stavanger, Norway, whose idol is Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon: the man who was willing to stand in Neil Armstrong’s shadow in order to work, diligently and humbly, for the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Following a series of personal and professional disasters, Mattias finds himself lying on a rain-soaked road in the desolate, treeless Faroe Islands, population only a few thousand, a wad of bills in his pocket and no memory of how he had come to be there—that’s when a truck approaches him, driven by a troubled, fantastic man with an offer that will shortly change Mattias’s life. And so, surrounded by a vivid and memorable cast of characters—aspiring pop musicians, Caribbean-obsessed psychologists, death-haunted photographers, girls who dream of anonymous men falling in love with them on bus trips, and even Buzz Aldrin himself—launches Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All The Confusion?, the epic story of Mattias’s pop-saturated odyssey through the world of unconventional psychiatry, souvenir sheep-making, the Cardigans, and space: the space between himself and other people, a journey maybe as remote and personally dangerous as the trip to the moon itself.

Wee reader’s loot:

Otis – Loren Long

How Artists See Jr.: Babies – Colleen Carroll

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?
What did you get at your library this week?

The Storm

“They looked alike. Everyone thought so. They were tall girls with narrow, strong shoulders, always a little bent, which gave them a worried appearance that was quite misleading. And if they had turned round at that moment the double portrait would really have been striking: dark hair, almost chestnut-black, falling smoothly down their backs, exposing delicate little ears, and cut in a straight fringe that concealed the forehead  completely. Nobody would ever see their foreheads. But everything could be read in the two pairs of eyes: merriment, sadness, mockery, indifference, passion, and also the speed of their shifting moods, yet what conveyed itself most clearly was that the two sisters appeared to see the world in exactly the same way, and to judge it.”

Lidy and Armanda are sisters. Lidy, 23,  is married with a young daughter, and Armanda is just 18 and somehow manages to persuade her sister to exchange lives for a day. Lidy leaves for Zeeland to attend a birthday party, Armanda stays in Amsterdam to look after Nadja and Sjoerd. How are they to know that this is the very night of the storm of 31 January 1953 that would sweep away “1,836 people, 120,000 animals, and 772 square miles of land at one stroke”?

“The sound of a storm defies words. Or rather, the effect it has. The world makes noises. There isn’t a moment of peace in which it isn’t creaking or rustling or banging or talking and uttering every possible nuance of a lament until sometimes it even sings. Some of these noises can wait a little, but others are absolutely urgent.”

It is an odd feeling, reading this book.
The chapters alternate between present and past of sorts. The music of Lidy’s story is slow, gradual, as she awaits the storm, the flood. The time ticks by slowly as the floodwaters rise, and her fate looms. The chapters with Armanda stride on briskly, first it is just as the storm hits, then the aftermath and the tragedy, and then 18 months later at Lidy’s memorial service.

I suppose that is the intention. For you to grieve along with Armanda and the rest of the loved ones, then be struck as you return in the next chapter to Lidy waiting for the flood, high up in that attic room, knowing there is nothing she or anyone else can do. As a result, your heart is pulled towards Lidy waiting her death. But Armanda’s life too has changed, she has outlived her sister, but feels haunted by her presence:

“Do you know what I sometimes still think? Lidy’s just gone for a day, and she’s relying on me to live her life for her, all organized and proper, and that’s exactly what I’m damn well doing.”

The Storm, or De Verdronkene,  was an emotional, unforgettable read. As Irisonbooks puts it, it “has that emotional quality which means you will find yourself thinking about it for days after you have read it”.

Magriet de Moor’s other translated works

First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (1994)
The Virtuoso (1996)
Duke of Egypt (2001)
Kreutzer Sonata (2005)
The Storm (2010)

Library Loot (June 14, 2012)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

We got to the library only to find the parking lot pretty darn full! The kids’ section was packed with plenty of school-age kids which kind of made it difficult for wee reader to do his usual roaming but still he had fun. And I got to pick up some loot – a little less this week as I’ve got a full load of e-books going on too.

Chew Volume 1: Tasters Choice – John Layman, illustrated by Rob Guillory

Can’t wait to read this

Tony Chu is a detective with a secret. A weird secret. Tony Chu is Cibopathic, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. It also means he’s a hell of a detective, as long as he doesn’t mind nibbling on the corpse of a murder victim to figure out whodunit, and why. He’s been brought on by the Special Crimes Division of the FDA, the most powerful law enforcement agency on the planet, to investigate their strangest, sickest, and most bizarre cases.

Duke of Egypt – Margriet de Moor
Hmmm apparently I had requested this from another library a while previously, and the hold came in. Completely forgot! Now I have two de Moor books (well one is an e-book).

Young, flame-haired Lucie raises horses on her father’s farm. One summer day, she meets a dark, handsome stranger, Joseph, and it is love at first sight. But their union is as improbable as their love is deep. For Joseph is a wanderer, a full-blooded gypsy, a man for whom all Europe is a stomping ground. Despite their cultural differences, they marry – have three children, and lead a normal life – with one exception: each spring, their life is suspended as Joseph returns to his other family, the gypsies, scattered to the four corners of Europe.

Wee reader’s loot

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly – Mary Ann Hoberman (Author), Nadine Bernard Westcott (Illustrator)

What did you get at the library this week?


So the first couple of pages of Villain don’t exactly make you want to jump into the fray. Because it reads like a rather boring travel guide, written by somebody who is rather into transportation and roads. You can know all you need to know about the tolls for vehicles between Nagasaki and Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Hakata.

I went along with it, and then comes the trigger. The last paragraph (of the first section) tells the reader of an arrest, of a crime, essentially spelling it out for you.

And that’s the thing I realise about Japanese crime fiction, at least the three that I have read so far (Out, The Devotion of Suspect X). That it is not about the mystery, it’s not technically a whodunnit, because you already know whodidit. Because it’s right there in your face, in the first few sections, the first few pages even. These books are more about the ‘why’, and the effect the murders have – on the murderers themselves, the victim’s family and friends, the other suspects.

Villain, by Shuichi Yoshida, brings out a different part of Japan, one of love hotels and online dating, and ageing seaside villages full of elderly residents. It is a quite ugly, rather lonely view of Japan.

“The scenery flowing past changed, but they never seemed to get anywhere. When the interstate ended, it connected up with the prefectural highway, and past that were city and local roads. Mitsuyo had a road atlas spread out on the dashboard. She flipped through the maps and saw that the highways and roads were all color-coded. Interstates were orange, prefectural highways were green, local roads were blue, and smaller roads were white. The countless roads were a net, a web that had caught them and the car they were in.”

Told from multiple viewpoints especially towards the end of the book, Villain shines when the focus is on the victim’s father, who struggles to come to terms with his daughter’s death, and his painful realisation that he didn’t really know his child at all.

Villain was an engrossing, thought provoking read, and leaves you wondering, who – or perhaps what – is the real ‘villain’ here.

Library Loot (25 April 2012)

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

That wondrous smell of oxtail stew cooking in my crockpot is wafting around the study as I type this and it’s making my mouth water. So erm, I shall go and see whether it’s ready to eat. Meanwhile, here’s what I got at the library this week.

The Book About Blanche and Marie: A Novel – Per Olov Enquist, translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally

From one of the world’s most acclaimed authors comes a tale that explores the complex relationship between Blanche Whitman, the famous hysteria patient of Professor J.M. Charcot, and Marie Curie, Polish physicist and Nobel Prize winner.

A Celibate Season – Carol Shields, Blanche Howard
It seems like ages since I’ve read anything by Shields, and this one sounded pretty interesting.

Carol Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Blanche Howard, winner of the Canadian Booksellers’ Award, teamed up to write this delightful epistolary novel that probes the inner life of one couple’s rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters — an economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple’s letters grow less frequent and more revealing — and their “season of celibacy” becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely questions about commitment, monogamy, and the pressures of career and money, this insightful novel by two extraordinary writers offers a perceptive and hopeful look at how men and women really communicate.

The Lions of al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay

This will be the second book of Kay’s to grace my shelves, and I just loved the first (Tigana) so I can’t wait!

The ruling Asharites of Al-Rassan have come from the desert sands, but over centuries, seduced by the sensuous pleasures of their new land, their stern piety has eroded. The Asharite empire has splintered into decadent city-states led by warring petty kings. King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, aided always by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan — poet, diplomat, soldier — until a summer afternoon of savage brutality changes their relationship forever.

Meanwhile, in the north, the conquered Jaddites’ most celebrated — and feared — military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, driven into exile, leads his mercenary company south.

In the dangerous lands of Al-Rassan, these two men from different worlds meet and serve — for a time — the same master. Sharing their interwoven fate — and increasingly torn by her feelings — is Jehane, the accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond.

Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan is both a brilliant adventure and a deeply compelling story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when hardening beliefs begin to remake — or destroy — a world.

An Overdrive e-book
The Iron King – Julie Kagawa
I’m not really liking Meghan Chase but am having fun exploring the faery world.

Meghan Chase has a secret destiny—one she could never have imagined…
Something has always felt slightly off in Meghan’s life, ever since her father disappeared before her eyes when she was six. She has never quite fit in at school…or at home.

When a dark stranger begins watching her from afar, and her prankster best friend becomes strangely protective of her, Meghan senses that everything she’s known is about to change.

But she could never have guessed the truth—that she is the daughter of a mythical faery king and is a pawn in a deadly war. Now Meghan will learn just how far she’ll go to save someone she cares about, to stop a mysterious evil no faery creature dare face…and to find love with a young prince who might rather see her dead than let her touch his icy heart.

Wee reader’s loot!

Clifford Cares – Norman Bridwell

Eating the Alphabet: Fruits & Vegetables from A to Z – Lois Ehlert

Hey! Wake Up! – Sandra Boynton

Mama, Where are You? – Diane Muldrow, illustrated by Rick Peterson

Grandpa Green – Lane Smith

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

What did you get at your library this week?