Friday, October 10, 2008

Bangkok bookworm

Here in Bangkok, you need a book. You experience hours of dead time, waiting in cabs, in airports and on buses - not to mention the countless hours in shopping centres as your beautiful girlfriend sorts out her shopping addiction!

Being unemployed for the first few months of being in Bangkok gave me a rare opportunity to consume a variety of books, which when working, tends to be a hell of a lot harder to do...something I'm glad I had the time experience!

My chosen subject matter spanned politics, history, travel, pop-fiction, pop-culture, sport, humour and Thai culture. Here's a list of the books I read in my first seven months of being in Thailand...


My Life: The early years (Vol. 1)
Bill Clinton
★★★★★

"The book shows us the progress of a remarkable American, who, through his own enormous energies and efforts, fueled an impassioned interest in the political process, and made the unlikely journey from his birth in Hope, Arkansas, to his election as the 42nd President of the United States."
Bill's obviously got a lot to say. I admire him for many of his progressive policies, his intelligence and non-elitist approach in helping people from all walks of life.

I don't respect his disrespect for family, but overall, I think he's done some great work for America.

Autobiographical in approach, the book runs from his dusty childhood, through his college years and genesis as an ambitious young Kennedy protege, all the way through the many Arkansas gubernatorial election campaigns and eventually his run toward being elected as US President.

Bill used the book as a platform to thank his many supporters, which at times bored me with the tiny, seemingly insignificant memoirs. At the time I was reading it, Hillary Clinton was getting busted by Obama in the Democratic primaries, so it was certainly an opportune time to also get to know Hillary a bit better through the eyes of her husband.

As a writer, he's so eloquent and is a wonderful storyteller. I'll be reading hi second volume, 'The Presidential Years' soon.


The Beach
Alex Garland
★★★★★

The Beach was recommended to me from one of our friends here in Thailand and could possibly be, after the Lonely Planet guides, the most read book in Thailand by fisherman-pant wearing holiday hippies.

And it's one of the most captivating fiction books I've ever read.

The novel follows Richard, a rambling traveler wandering his way across SE Asia and to a secret utopian island off the coast of Thailand. There, he encounters a secret commune, fit with its own internal cultures, rules and social order. At first, Richard revels in the paradise, but slowly (and masterfully, from a literary perspective) slips into madness. From there, you'll have to read the book - it's bloody gripping stuff.

The novel works on a number of levels - on the surface it's a fast-paced adventure novel. If you delve a little deeper it explores concepts spanning the validity of communism and western humanity's desire for personal paradise (whether in the form of an island holiday, a great job, better coffee, or the latest in fashion); the importance of environmental sustainability; and the raw realities of human nature.

Maybe that's why I liked it - it's stimulating and thought provoking on so many different levels. Maybe, it was just a bloody good story - either way, go out and buy it.


Vietnam: The Australian war
Paul Ham
★★★★★

"Drawing on hundreds of accounts by soldiers, politicians, aid workers, entertainers and the Vietnamese people, Paul Ham reconstructs for the first time the full history of our longest military campaign. From the commitment to engage, through the fight over conscription and the rise of the anti–war movement, to the tactics and horror of the battlefield, Ham exhumes the truth about this politicians' war – which sealed the fate of 50,000 Australian servicemen and women.

More than 500 soldiers were killed and thousands wounded. Those who made it home returned to a hostile and ignorant country and a reception that scarred them forever. This is their story."

One of the best-written, most supremely researched books I've ever read. Not only does it illuminate the bravery and stoicism of the Australian soldiers in Vietnam from the bottom up, it also articulates the arguments for and against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war and looks at life for the soldiers and the country, post-Vietnam.

'Vietnam: The Australian war' provides an Australian perspective on a subject so often skewed or lost amongst the colossal mountains of text written about the US's role. So much is still not understood about the effect of the Vietnam war on western society and on countries that were directly or indirectly involved in the conflict.

What I admire most about this book is that Paul Ham has translated his first-class journalistic skills into a text that is informative, accessible, non-conformist and fluid in both style and substance.

It's also interesting to see whether there is any alignment between current US foreign policy and that of the administrations of the 1960's and 1970's. I also found the chapters and references to the media's role in the conflict of particular interest.

I rate this as one of the best books I have ever read. For anyone looking to understand more about Australia's role - both politically and militarily - it's an excellent start.


Culture Shock! (Thailand)
Robert Cooper
★★★★
"The book provides a valuable crash course on the who's who, and the whats and hows of the country, guiding readers through a wide range of topics for day-to-day living including how to interact with the locals and fit into Thai society."
This was a brilliant book and very fitting at the time I was reading it, as I was beginning to feel like a real alien in this foreign and very different land. It's chapters ranged from first impressions, religion, politics, fitting in, having fun, doing business and the bare-bones practicalities of life in Thailand.

A wonderful, honest account of life in Thailand that provided some comfort at times of intense frustration.


Halfback, Half forward
George Gregan
★★★★

I received this one along with 'Line & Strength' (see below) from my parents as an early birthday present when I was last home.

For those with no idea about rugby, George Gregan was a former Australian rugby captain, making more Test appearances than any other player in the sport's history. He strikes me as a determined, tenacious kind of bloke - in the book, he writes with a similar approach.

It's always interesting to see how a person, who has copped some serious flak in the media (rightly or wrongly), reacts when they write their autobiography. In his book, George Gregan still holds back a wee bit in terms of naming names, but he provides excellent insights into the character and makeup of the Australian rugby team, behind the media veil.

Most impressive was his documentation of all the hardwork 'on and off the ball' that he did to maintain his status as one of the world's best ever halfbacks.

It was a pretty soft read - I think I smashed it in 3 days - but a thoroughly enjoyable on for the holiday. Ghey name though - seriously...'Halfback, half forward'???


Line & Strength
Glenn McGrath with Daniel Lane
★★★★

The second of my birthday books, it's a very sporty read about a bloke who I respect as one of Australia's best ever sportsmen, both on and off the field.

Shocker of a title though.

For those with no idea about cricket, Glenn McGrath was one of Australia's best ever fast bowlers, capturing 563 Test wickets in a team that was arguably the best ever in the history of cricket. He is also well-known for his late wife's battle with breast cancer and the corresponding charity work they undertook.

It's a weird structure - it reads more like a collection of newspaper feature pieces than an a traditional autobiography. Editor Daniel Lane draws from many sources in the cricket community for comment on some of the more memorable times in Glenn McGrath's cricketing career.

Eerily, the book was released just before Glenn McGrath's wife died. Her quotes and the humanising of their love and struggle adds an extra, moving dimension.

Balancing the sombre tone, the book is full of cricket anecdotes and descriptions of performances of a bloke I grew up loving to watch play. Like 'Halfback, half forward', it also provides an insight into the personality of the Australian team...something that at times is lost amongst all of the statistics etc.

Again, a pretty soft read, but one which I enjoyed immensely!


Inside Delta Force
Eric L. Haney
★★★★
"In this dramatic behind-the-scenes chronicle, Eric Haney, one of the founding members of Delta Force, takes us inside this legendary counterterrorist unit. For the first time, here are the details of the grueling selection process - designed to break the strongest of men...blow by blow accounts of actual missions...plus a gripping chronicle of what its like to enter a hostage-held airplane."
What a cracking book! I picked this one up at Asia Books and couldn't put it down. Even though some of the content at times seems a little far-fetched and (Heeellll YEAH!!) American, it's still an entertaining read.

The book has some straight-edged anecdotes of some of the hairier aspects of being at the peak of the American military. Haney recounts stories from his time on operation in southern American jungles and on the streets of Beirut in the early 80's, as well as the weapons, skills, knowledge and physical training he and his unit undertook.

It's amazing to also draw some parallels between the dogged mindset of elite sportsmen (like Glenn McGrath and George Gregan) and that of the soldiers that succeed in the counter-terrorist arena.

Counter-terrorists, win. (For Gab0r)


Scar Tissue
Anthony Kiedis
★★★★
"In 1983 four self-described 'knuckleheads' burst out of the neo-punk rock scene in LA with their own unique brand of cosmic hard-core mayhem funk. Over twenty years later, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, against all odds, have become one of the most successful bands in the world. Though the band has gone through many incarnations, Anthony Kiedis, the group's lyricist and dynamic singer, has been there for the whole rollercoaster ride. Scar Tissue is Kiedis' searingly honest memoir - a story of dedication and debauchery, of intrigue and integrity, of recklessness and redemption. It is a story that could only have come out of Hollywood."
This book was recommended to me from a few friends and certainly didn't disappoint.

Whilst Kiedis' writing style was somewhat remedial and convoluted at times, the content was absolutely jaw-droppingly first class and gave insight into the personal trials behind the bloke's and the band's key stages.

It also provides an honest account of life as a narcissistic junkie rockstar, something which, judging by the subversive references in the book, I think has been part of his overall rehabilitation process put forward by his psychologist - to admit to all of the horrible things he's done in the past to pave the way for a positive future.

A terrific book that will rock your senses and roll your perspectives on the relationship between drugs and rockstardom.


Bangkok
Lonely Planet
★★★
"Weave through buddhas, flowers and roosters, enjoy a tuk-tuk ride and visit the Oriental Hotel where the literati have been inspired. Whatever your Thai temptation, this smart, stylish and streetwise guide will satisfy them all."
A good start to our time in Bangkok - the book has all the basic maps and information to help get us by over the first month or so. 'Bangkok' was also a very useful, quick grounding in Thai culture and experiences. It doesn't go into too much depth though, so don't expect much.


SE Asia on a shoestring
Lonely Planet
★★★
"Hit the SE Asian hippy trail in a rickety bus packed with chickens. You'll find your nirvana at a Buddhist temple, on a perfect beach, or in a bowl of noodle soup. Written for backpackers by backpackers, this guide to 11 countries lets you go further, stay longer and pay less for an adventure of a lifetime."
This one's helped Clare and I find our way up into the mountains of Thailand's north; helped Angus and I negotiate ferries and buses during our trip in the Andaman Sea; delivered me life-memorable advice on Phnom Penh's best Himalayan restaurant; and acted as a cracking little tour guide for the sights of Kuala Lumpur.

Some of the stuff is already outdated though, and you have to put up with slightly inflated prices for all the restaurants and hotels quoted within. But overall, invaluable as soon as you touch down. As many of you who've used one would know, the facts at the beginning of each chapter really are also quite delicious.


Chart Throb
Ben Elton
★★★
"Chart Throb. The ultimate pop quest. Ninety-five thousand hopefuls. Three judges. Just one winner. And that's Calvin Simms, the genius behind the show. Calvin always wins because Calvin writes the rules. But this year, as he sits in judgement upon the Mingers, Clingers and Blingers whom he has pre-selected in his carefully scripted 'search' for a star, he has no idea that the rules are changing. The 'real' is about to be put back into 'reality' television and Calvin and his fellow judges are about to become ex-factors themselves. Ben Elton returns to blistering comic satire with a savagely hilarious deconstruction of the world of modern talent shows."
There's a reason why I don't usually like reading fiction - I find it searingly difficult not knowing the ending. Chart Throb was an entertaining book, but really something for light coffee shop reading.

The character development was quite clever, as was the imagery and wit, and I particularly enjoyed Elton's take on the media construction - techniques I use every day!! Something I'd suggest for a flight somewhere to block out a fat man's incessant snoring.


Staying at the top
Ric Charlesworth
★★

This book was lying around home when I was last there. Ric Charlesworth is a former Australian women's hockey head coach, the most successful of all time, leading the team toward international dominance over seven years.

Interestingly, he has only two weeks ago been appointed as coach of Australia's national Men's side.

In the book, Ric Charlesworth outlines the fundamentals of success in managing a team and sustaining success. My new job entails the management of a few staff and I thought this one might help build my knowledge in the area.

Whilst the fundamentals are insightful, the book itself was very repetitive and could have been condensed into a 5-page essay.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking for a bit of bathroom reading...the chapters are the right length to cater for a colonic movement, whilst the content is not overly complex to 'digest'.


The Alchemist
Paulo Coelho
★★
"This is the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shpeherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure as extravagant as any ever found. From his home in Spain he journeys to the markets of Tangiers and into the Egyptian desert, where a fateful encounter with the alchemist awaits. This story teaches us, as only few can, about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, learning to read the omens strewn along life's path and above all following our dreams."
A nice story, and one quite parallel to my current experience - I was reading this just before I got my job.

All in all, reading The Alchemist was like watching water flow down a bath plug hole. It was mesmerising, but at the same time exasperatingly boring as the story wound its way round and round toward the last page. Nice literary imagery though.


Voices from S-21
Professor David Chandler
★★
"The site had been a prison, code-named S-21, where in just under four years, some 14,000 men, women and children had been incarcerated, interrogated, tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in a demented effort to cleanse the country of its perceived political enemies. How could a place like S-21 happen? By analysing the mass of documents, supplemented by interviews with survivors and former workers, and then examining this alongside such horrific 20th century phenomena as the Holocaust, the Moscow Show Trials and Argentina's 'Dirty War' in the 1970's, Chandler looks at what was uniquely Cambodian and what was universal about what happened at S-21."
I purchased this in a book shop whilst visiting Phnom Penh, as I wanted to learn more about the places I was visiting on my tour.

Academic in style, it's actually quite a cumbersome book to digest, with much posturing and indirect language - a style that may alienate some readers. However, the referencing and body of research is astounding and would make a valuable text for anyone wishing to delve into the depths of the Khmer Rouge psyche.

I don't think it's the best book I've read...it seemed to lack specific direction and became a little convoluted by an almost overuse of sources and underuse of structure.


Farang
Dr. Iain Corness
★★
"Corness provides comfort for the aches and pains of ex-pat life. His stories and anecdotes are full of the joys of life, and celebrate this exotic and exciting land in all its glory, with painfully funny observations."
Corness provides an honest first-person account of Thailand - however like most in this book's genre, it must be taken as 'in the eye of the beholder'.

Most of his stories were entertaining, however his writing style was average at best - the content was there, but his editor really should have provided a sharper direction.

He also criticises countries like the UK and Australia, but is imbalanced in his appraisal of Thailand's glaring shortfalls, such as its astonishingly high road toll, lack of scientific research or democratic foundations.

He was also patronising at times, assuming his readership lack the intelligence to understand large words like "oesophagus" following them up with a bracketed "(gullet)". If a writer assumes his readership won't understand a certain word, I would suggest they use a simpler one. Write for your audience, not your ego.

Overall, a soft read, something relevant for a hung-over bus ride.

4 comments:

Mum said...

What can I say? only that you have a very eclectic taste in reading material and I found it interesting to see what you've devoured recently.

Cass Bell said...

Amazon.com called and left a message...they want to offer you a job.

Really well done - one of your best posts to date! I actually bought Anthony Kiedis' book y'day without knowing you had read and blogged it!

Belly said...

Let me know what you reckon about the Kiedis book...

Edwina said...

Great post, Belly. Good read in itself. I've been reading so much recently also. I can recommend a couple of great books - 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' and 'The Book Thief'. Both fantastic.