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In Preparation of Thailand

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If you follow me on any social media platforms, you might have seen the big news. Halie and I are moving to Bangkok this summer!! I’m really excited to move to a new country and experience a different culture and be immersed in a different language. But to prepare myself for this, I wanted to conduct a literary crash course in all things Thai. I wanted to tell you about a few books I read (titles are links to Amazon):

A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

51-twjc45jl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Of course I had to start with history. While looking for a book to begin I realized that there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to Thai history written in English. Plenty of travel books, not much history. But this one had good reviews so I decided to begin my literary journey here. And what a journey.

Thailand’s history is a rollercoaster ride of monarchy and democracy and military coups. Thailand is unique in being the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by a Western power. They were left as a buffer between French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) and the British Empire in South Asia (India and Burma). During World War II, Thailand tried to stay neutral but with pressure from Japan (and subsequent invasion), they allowed free passage for Japanese soldiers and declared war against the United States and the UK. But by the end of the war, Thailand had emerged as an ally of the United States.

While the Cold War raged around the globe, the United States saw Thailand as the bulwark of “democracy” amongst all the communist nations of Southeast Asia. Because of this, the United States funded the Thai military and police. This caused political instability, military coups and the weakening of the monarchy’s power for decades well into the 1980s. Although Thai politics began to be more stable by the constitution of 1997, there has still continued to be political unrest and military coups. The most recent military coup was in 2014 and Thailand is still run by the military junta.

Theravada Buddhism by Diana & Richard St. Ruth

51uskueijul-_sx321_bo1204203200_I decided next to move from history to religion. 95% of Thailand’s citizens practice Theravada Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism that began in Sri Lanka and spread throughout Southeast Asia. This short guide explained the beginnings of Buddhism, the division of Theravada from other sects and the practices of the religion. I believe this has been very helpful in understanding some of the cultural practices of Thailand. Their interactions with their monarch, the temples and shrines everywhere and their relationships with each other can be explained in the context of Theravada Buddhist practices. The only issue I have with Buddhism is all the numbers! The Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Threefold Discipline, the Seven Purifications… It just gets to be a little too much counting for me!

Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj

51qamujhwql-_sx322_bo1204203200_Published in the 1950s, this fascinating book follows minor nobility through major transformations of Thailand. Told through the point of view of a girl (and later woman) named Phloi, we follow her life during four different kings of Thailand, spanning the years 1890-1946. We get to see Thailand become a part of the global political world and part of the modern world. The end of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of the first constitution in 1932 is seen through the eyes of the citizens of Bangkok. We see, through Phloi’s experiences, when Japanese soldiers start marching through the streets during World War II and the different reactions of people depending on their place in Thai politics. The story ends with Phloi’s death at about the same time as her fourth king, Ananda Mahidol.

I would love for there to be a sequel, maybe titled One Reign, that follows a character similar to Phloi during the next king’s tenure. Bhumibol Adulyadej began his reign in 1946 and at the time of his death in October of last year, was the longest serving head of state (70 years). He was a much loved king that was a sign of stability for the citizens of Thailand during the tumultuous politics of the Cold War and into current events.

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap

51wmtw359wlSo I didn’t talk about every book I read but I wanted to end my literary research (for now) and my blog with a modern Thai book. This debut book published in 2005 is a collection of seven stories. They are all set in modern-day Thailand, some in Bangkok and some in the Thai countryside. Most of the stories have young children as the protagonist and they all beautifully depict a different side of life in Thailand.

“Farangs,” the name of the first short story and the word for foreigners, gives us a picture of the interactions between tourist and Thai. “Sightseeing,” the fourth story, is a gut-wrenching example of the difficulties of growing up, especially with an aging and sickly family member. “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place” is a hilarious and touching story of an American father who becomes handicapped and forced to move to Thailand to live with his son and Thai daughter-in-law. As you an tell from the title, he’s not too excited to be there. “Priscilla the Cambodian” gives us a short look into the life of Southeast Asian refugees that are forced to live in Thailand. Really, all the stories are well worth reading. I’m excited to see what Lapcharoensap publishes in the future.

 

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100 Greatest Novels: The Old Wives’ Tale, The Call of the Wild, Loving & Midnight’s Children

Today we have to talk about 4 more novels from the list of the 100 greatest. These four bring us ever so close to the end. We actually only have ten left! Can you believe it? I can’t. We started this in the summer of 2012, posting the first on August 20th. I know it’s been a long journey but it’s exciting to finally get close to the conclusion. Well, let’s get to the books.

The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett

The_Old_Wives_Tale_(Arnold_Bennett_novel)_cover_artThis first novel is a sweeping narrative of two sisters. It follows both their lives from childhood to death and covers most events, mundane to extreme, in great detail. The story is broken into four parts: the sisters’ childhood until their separation, each sisters’ individual life story through the many years of adulthood, and finally their old age together. The sisters are very different and while reading, you’ll relate to both in different ways at different parts of their stories. I really enjoyed Sophia’s adulthood chapter because she spends most of her years in Paris and it was fun to see how a English woman raised in a small town reacts and conforms to the life of a Parisian. This novel contains many frustrating situations and characters, just like real life. I hated Constance’s son. Hated him.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

220px-JackLondoncallwildI haven’t read a book this quick and easy in a long time. Finishing it in less than a day, this story is an intense survival story about a dog that’s stolen from his family and sold and shipped to Canada as a sled dog. And it’s told from the dog’s perspective, which is unique for this list of novels. As the dog, Buck, learns to survive in this harsh climate and harsh life, he slowly reverts back to a wild state. He hears the “call of the wild,” the call of his ancestors. The story deals with some difficult to read scenes with dogs and people not being able to handle the harsh climates of the Yukon and the difficult lives of a gold rush. But overall, the story has a satisfying conclusion. Plus, it’s free on Kindle so…

Loving by Henry Green

Loving_Henry_GreenThis novel is for all the Downton Abbey lovers out there. Set during World War II, the story is the lives of the servants and their employers at an Irish castle. It follows the conflicts, gossip and flirtations of the servants and how they intersect with the lives of their employers. At first, I had a difficult time getting into this novel. Multiple names are used for each character depending on who’s doing the talking. The storyline jumps around to different interactions around the castle. It read like a film that’s shot with one camera. We can only pick up one interaction after leaving another, even if we cut in halfway through a conversation and don’t really have an idea of what’s going on. It was somewhat confusing at first but over the course of the book, I learned the characters and really enjoyed the novel.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

MidnightsChildrenNow this was a fascinating read. I loved the adventure of these pages. This was a mystical story about Saleem Sinai, who is born at midnight. And not just any midnight but the moment that India gains it’s independence from England. The story starts with Saleem’s grandfather and works up to his birth. From his birth on, his life and the history of India are perfectly intertwined, mirrored upon each other. The story follows his life and the historical events at the beginning of India’s independence to the partitioning of India and Pakistan. As the story goes on, his life and India’s politics become more and more complex. We finally make it to the splitting of Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan. We also get Pakistan and India’s battles over Kashmir in the story and in his life. We get the Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi, a state of emergency called to suspend civil liberties and solidify her hold onto power. This event is the denouement of India’s early years of their independence and the denouement of Saleem’s story.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Saleem, and every other child born between midnight and 1:00am when India gained her independence, are born with special powers. Using his telepathic powers, Saleem brings all the Midnight Children together to try to use their powers for the betterment of India. This magical or mystical aspect of the novel really connects all the complex storylines and fascinating connections of history of country and of family into an incredible reading experience. I’d highly recommend this book to anybody.


This brings us to the final ten novels. Next is Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. What a first name!

Until next time…

 

 

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100 Greatest Novels: The Adventures of Augie March, Angle of Repose, & A Bend in the River

Well, we’re into a new year. And hopefully this is the year I finish the 100 greatest novels. After the three novels we’re talking about today, I only have 17 left. That’s crazy. It’s been a long, challenging, and enjoyable adventure through these books. I’m not really sure how I’m going to choose what books to read if I don’t have a list to follow. Also, new books are expensive. It saved me money reading all these older cheap and sometimes free books. Anyway, let’s get to it.

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

AugiemarchI was really looking forward to reading this book because the previous novel by Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King, was a hilarious adventure. At first, I struggled to get into the story. It was nothing like Henderson the Rain King, it wasn’t even funny. But once I got past my hangups, the story really captured me. Following around Augie March from early childhood into adulthood, we get to watch him go through numerous adventures. Growing up in the Great Depression in Chicago to a poor family, Augie uses his wit and some good luck to more around from job to job, education opportunity to criminal opportunity, woman to woman. Living in drastically different situations from chapter to chapter, it was exciting to see where Augie would end up next. And through all of this, Saul Bellow gives us an incredible image of America (and Mexico for a few chapters) during this tumultuous time period. We get an exploration of a person, an exploration of a country, and an exploration of human existence. And it’s worth exploring all of this.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

So I went into this book not knowing anything about it or the author. And because of this, it AngleOfReposewas a great experience to unfold the layers of this story. At first we meet the main character, a disabled historian who has an obviously tense relationship with his son (and most likely the rest of his family). After learning of him and his situation, we find out he is writing a novel based on his grandmother’s experiences as an artist from the East coast who marries a miner and travels the western frontier in the late 18o0s. The novel jumps back and forth between the historian’s daily activities and issues and the engrossing story of this frontier woman trying to survive in these extreme places. In between these two narrations, we get sections and whole copies of letters from the grandmother sent to her friend who still lives in New York City. By the end of the novel, I wasn’t really sure whose story I was more involved in, whose story I cared more about. But once they get tied together, it’s an incredibly satisfying payoff for reading two distinct stories throughout.

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

BendInTheRiverAs you know, I’ve been somewhat annoyed with this list because of the similar narratives. Numerous British novels with almost identical stories. So anytime I get to a novel with a new location, a new story, anything, I’m excited. And this novel provided all of this and more. This novel is set in an unnamed country in central Africa during the tumultuous period after colonialism began to end. Many African countries accomplished their independence in from the European powers between the end of World War II and the 1970s. Sometimes independence came easily, bloodless. Sometimes it took years of warfare. And after independence, numerous countries dealt with civil wars and destabilized governments. Anyways, A Bend in the River takes place amongst all of this. And it’s really a simple story of a man who owns a store by the river and watches all the changes and growth of his city, his nation, and Africa in general. Between the numerous characters, we see how these changes effect different people: politicians, foreign businessmen, students, people from the tribes, people from the coast, etc. They all have unique experiences and deal with the changes around them differently. And this creates a dense, multi-faceted viewpoint of the decolonization of Africa.

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So let’s keep moving forward. Next is The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. We should be coming to the end of the list soon!

 

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