Notes of a Crocodile

A review of by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Sad Part Was

A review of by T. F. Rhoden of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was, translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Thailand’s most popular literary writers rarely get an introduction onto the world stage. An English language newspaper like The Bangkok Post will hint at the greatness of one seminal Thai author or another in their arts and culture section. But non-Thai readers will be clueless as to why. That short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon are now available in his first English language anthology The Sad Part Was is at least one significant corrective. Nearly two decades after Prabda caught the attention of Thai readers and won the S.E.A. Write Award, non-Thais are gifted this rare opportunity to enjoy his works through Mui Poopoksakul’s fluid translation.

Prabda’s writing is playful and creative. For international readers, the breakdown of plot structure, cryptic and sudden endings, and wordplay in general are well understood techniques. But when short story collection Probability came out in 2000, Prabda hit upon a freshness and spontaneity that was less well represented in the realistic writing in Thailand at the time.

One example is in the story “Marut by the Sea”. The burgeoning storyline of the main character Marut’s story is suddenly interrupted by a voice meant to represent some stylized, self-loathing voice of the author’s subconscious. The reader is forced to grapple with this interjecting voice as it obliterates the narrative logic:

You should comprehend by now, given my elaboration thus far, that whoever wrote that book dearest to you is no finer a human being than anybody else. He has no clue what he’s done. Do you know how I got the opportunity to pop up and communicate with you today? It’s simple. Prabda hasn’t come up with a plausible reason for why Marut is sitting by the sea.

You might be thinking that I’m part of his genius. Don’t.

The uninvited authorial voice does not let up. It continues to hold the plot of Marut’s tale hostage, speaking directly to the reader, until the last few words of the story itself. For Thai literature, the effect of the author’s interruption is striking.

All of the short stories work from a vantage point not normally accessible to non-Thai readers. Some comment on how… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of downtown Bangkok for this re-post goes to the awesome Philippe Lai. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Last Gods of Indochine

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine.

Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.

The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.

Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor.  Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.

The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.

The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Caretaking Democratization

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Renaud Egreteau’s Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar

Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state? Why have they allowed a “hybrid” regime, with a representatively elected government, to form? What moniker does one use for this new, neither fully authoritarian, nor fully democratic, Myanmar? Indeed, what spurred the recent deepening of political liberalization and widening of democratization across the nation. And why now and not decades earlier?

These are some of the questions which imbue Renaud Egreteau’s excellent Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a saliency and urgency for those wishing to apprehend Myanmar today.

In what this reviewer considers to be the most important publication of the decade on the subject of Myanmar’s democratization, Egreteau argues that the “transition has been driven from above, by ruling Burmese elites—especially military ones—in a clear position of strength since the early 2000s.” By initiating a “well-thought-out”, “caretaking”, and “pacted” transition since 2011, “the Tatmadaw leadership merely chose to move down a notch on the scale of political intervention.” This analysis reminds us that there is more here than some naïve romanticizing of “Burma’s Spring.”

The decades of military authoritarianism are over. The sordid “military junta” as a regime type has disbanded. The current government, particularly after the 2015 general election, is the most democratically representative since independence. But, the Burmese armed forces’ praetorian commitment to political intervention—some of these guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution—demonstrates that the military will continue to have a sizable effect on future developments. Egreteau is keen to remind us that the science of comparative politics is uncertain about the endpoint to this “transition.”

The introduction and initial chapter lay out the focus of the study, one that centers the years from 2010 to 2015 as instrumental. This positions the book as an indispensable resource for comparativists and international affairs scholars in understanding early-stage democratization. Despite the particularity, and peculiarity, of this “sui generis case”, Egreteau frequently utilizes other postcolonial examples to draw out similarities and differences where relevant. Core to the argument of the “planned withdrawal” of the Burmese military from the highest reigns of governmental power were those machinations of “inter-elite negotiations” which centered upon a “pact” between three specific segments of Myanmar’s polity. This “top-down” approach included soldier-turned-civilian leaders from the ancien régime, well-known and well-liked leaders from the pro-democracy opposition—foremost amongst them, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and elites of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party—and leaders of politicized or armed ethnic groups, particularly those who appeared open to cease-fire negotiations.

Egreteau points out that incorporating… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Tea Circle Oxford by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for the top of this re-post goes to awesome Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Trivialities About Me and Myself

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Trivialities About Me and Myself

Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.

Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.

The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.

Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.

The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.

The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Single Malt Stories: Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart on Scotch Whisky

Review of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story (4th Ed., Putnam & Company 1970)

Which Edition?

As one’s Scotch whisky will increase with flavor and distinction the longer the distiller leaves the malty liquid in the cask, so too will the musty likability of this hardcover book grow with time if one is wise enough to purchase one of the older editions, printed within the lifetime of the writer before his passing in 1970.

Yet to be truthful, I highly recommend this text in any form, even if that be the newest electronic editions published within the 2010s. But I cannot emphasize enough the enjoyment of having the hard copy version in one’s hand on a cooler evening, the obligatory glass of single malt nearby, neat, within easy reach of one’s favorite reading chair.

If your copy of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story smells peatier than your tumbler of whisky, then by all accounts who have one of the preferred editions of this text.

Single, not Blended, Thank You

One prominent, if perhaps peculiar, leitmotif that pervades the text is the doleful disregard given to Scotch whisky in its purer, single malt form over its more popular, blended manifestation.

Note that Lockhart does not disregard the single malt form himself. But rather, he is vexed that his fellow whisky drinkers of his time in the first half of the 20th century appear to prefer Scotch whisky blended with some type of corn or wheat or lesser barely from another location.

In Lockhart’s own words:

To-day pure malt whisky is rare. To those who can still obtain it a little water is permissible with the whisky, but preferably after it. Soda water is an abomination and degrades both the spirit and the soul. By and large, the connoisseur still abides by the old Highland saying: ‘There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one is malt whisky.’

Again, this might be odd for today’s readers; any Scotch whisky that is “single malt” is now understood amidst the general whisky-drinking population to be the best type.

Or am I wrong on this point? Doesn’t everyone know that a whisky, when done right should only be a pure barely malt and not a mix of distillate grains, let alone not mixed with other liquids into some tawdry chemical cocktail?

Regardless, that so much of the book worries over the eventual demise of the single-malt drinking population to the more popular mixed-drink segment of society seems to be a reflection of Lockhart’s time more than ours. Over half a century later and one might suggest that those who prefer pure to blended has moved beyond the uppity aficionado.

Visit any bar across the world and the bartender will, at the very least, have a run-of-the-mill, though still tasty, Glenlivet or Glenfiddich on hand for those single-malt drinkers.

Time to Explore

Lockhart spends scant time on Scotch whisky from island of Islay, with is famous collection of ultra peaty whisky-making distillers. But the author does mention a few single malts that may be largely unknown today, which this reader found of interest.

G. M. Thomson (author of the 1930s Whiskey, a man who feared his teetotal wife enough to invent the nom de plume of Aeneas Macdonald for this publication) is cited in the book as having a most noteworthy top-twelve list. It may be fun to reproduce it here in order to see how many of these single malts are still made and sold. In alphabetical order these are:

The twelfth on the list appears to be a tie because “each of which would be put first by its devotees” in the 1930s. The majority of these distilleries are located near the Spey River.

Timelessness

There is much to like about this book. For this reader one of the main draws was the timelessness of the stories presented.

Despite many of the chapters being devoted to the factual reporting of one “whisky baron” or Scotch-producing company or another, Lockhart is still able to compose their stories in a very readable and enjoyable form. The struggles of the protagonist Walker or Buchanan or Dewer and so on become the struggles of the reader. We wish them to win and overcome the exigencies of prohibition and world war to become king of Scotch whisky.

Those early years of how Scotch whisky, particularly in its blended form, came to be a staple drink for those residents of London, and later the world, is a fascinating read. There is a “rugged individualism” to the formula of success of these enterprising souls that harks back to earlier struggles against the English to the south.

Their fight to keep open distilleries in the green-smoky highlands near the River Spey is recorded here vividly.

Wonderful Read

Inasmuch as I enjoy the historical aspects of the book, I also think the subject matter of Scotch-inspired, single malt whisky could do with a remake.

A tasters’ book or distiller’s travel guide of where, when, and how to enjoy a great pure malt is easy enough to find in a bookstore and thus as a new book is not really needed. Rather, a publication in the style of Sasha Issenberg’s superbly done The Sushi Economy, which is a half-travel log,  half-political economy of the worldwide sushi industry, refitted for the emerging global trends in single malt production would be a fascinating read. Those who know good single malt “Scotch”, know that the Japanese have some of the best tasting, peatiest whiskies today. Even the Americans are getting in on the pure malt enterprise. Single malt “Scotch” whisky in this global sense deserves a modern interpretation on its own merits.

(Seriously, this would be an awesome and fun book to research and write. Publishers out there, any takers!?)

Overall, this book makes for a pleasant trip into the past of Scotch making and whiskey drinking. With the author’s skillful imagery, many of the scenes described in the book take the reader to the Scottish highland region.

For the single malt Scotch whisky drinker, this delightful little text is an absolute must-read and is highly recommended!

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post can be found on Tiffany and Nick’s FunckinAround. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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He Runs the Moon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Wendy Brandmark’s He Runs the Moon: Tales from the Cities

Sometimes the setting of stories, the barrios and backstreets and weighty avenues of childhood remembrances, prove to be as powerful to the narrative as the protagonists themselves. He Runs The Moon: Tales From The Cities by Wendy Brandmark vibrates with an urban milieu that can be both inviting and at times meaningfully oppressive. The tales here, which flitter from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx, New York, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, are compiled together in a highly recommended collection of short stories.

All characters sharpen their speech, experiences, and epiphanies against this metropolitan whetstone.

Witnessing how the city-body becomes an agent in its own right is pleasantly hypnotizing. In the first part of seven stories set in Denver, ‘My Red Mustang’ captures this sentiment of city-as-agent well, as the female protagonist frets over what to do with an attractive-yet-unwanted automobile beyond its time, whilst street upon street of Denver comes alive to keep her vehicle in motion for just one more traffic light. This is more than just atmospheric indulgence. These kernels of urban truth dazzle in their own way as much as they hold the logic of the plot together. ‘Irony’, another story from this initial set, as well as having one of the more humourous plotlines, also works with the city of Denver as the main character struggles with some of the sodden truths of sexual iniquity.

Many of the stories in this collection were… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Sabatoge Reviews by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to Robert Cash via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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