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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Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state?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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Authoritarian Desires: Kenzaburo Oe on Masturbation and the Japanese Right

Review of Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels (OR Books 2016).

Reading in Thai, Thinking in Japanese

This combination of two stories by Kenzaburo Oe entitled Seventeen & J: Two Novels has disturbed me. I wish this disturbance upon you as well.

Why? Well because it turns out that this is a fantastic set of stories from a time when Oe was at the start of his publishing career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What is so mesmerizing is how apt they feel to the times today in late 2016, as well as how well they travel beyond the sea-wet shores of insular Japan.

Read this book. Read it now before the American elections.

Recommended to me by a Japanese-speaking friend, this early work by the Nobel Laureate has been translated only once into English by Luk Van Haute. Because I cannot speak, read, or write Japanese myself, I always try to search out a translation into the only Asian language I am any good at in order to get somewhat “closer” to the language and culture in which the book was originally composed. For me, that’s in Thai.

And, indeed, it may sound silly for an American to be reading Japanese in Thai, but I still remember the first time I read a nonfiction piece by Haruki Murakami not in English, but in Thai. The effect was amazing, and in many ways the author’s voice shone through in a way that it never had in any English translations I had consumed before. What had been a trip to the Thai book store and an encounter with a Thai-translation of Murakami—where I thought to myself, why bothering to wait for the English translation when you can already do Thai well enough?—later became a general rule of mine when reading something originally done in Japanese: to always find the Thai translation first.

For one example out of many: Thai has a way of reproducing the rich variety of pronouns of hierarchy, of class, of family, of gender and so on found in Japanese that burrows toward some delightful, extra depth of meaning. Every wail and whine of a protagonist weighs heavier than it would be if the prose were translated into English.

Alas, though a few of Oe’s texts have been put into Thai, the vast majority of his works have not been, including these two shorter tales. Thus, English translation it was! Below is an interview with the author at Berkeley in 1999.

An Ode to Onanism

Has there ever been a work of fiction dedicated to a protagonist’s journey, which was purely mediated through an exploration of teenage masturbation? I’m almost embarrassed to say that I cannot think of one. Almost. Nevertheless, until I do find such a text, I will allow for the novella-like tale of Seventeen to stand in for that book.

The whole bit about playing with one’s self as a subject of a story is something of a stretch—particularly in its youthful form. But Oe’s genius here is how the act of onanism is combined with sentiments of pubescent, far-Right politics. This is also why I think others, particularly Americans at this moment, should have a go at this story.

The protagonist is an honest enough, though confused, little Japanese boy, who putters about his high school and homestead, arguing with his older sister and parents about the mundane and occasionally pestering them about the political situation of a postwar Japan. Peppered about this narrative are sticky episodes of the most imaginative and picturesque scenes of a seventeen-year-old hurting himself through private exultation.

In one scene, he’ll be alone jerking it. In another scene, he’ll be in a political diatribe against someone in his social circle.

In one more scene, he’ll be at it again, in some spiteful, self-hating-yet-self-loving beating of his manhood. And again in another scene, he’ll be joining an authoritarian, war-hungry Japanese political party—to which will be followed by yet another round of self play.

The interchange and abrupt bouncing back and forth between Japanese Imperialist thought and angst-ridden wanking is transfixing. The combination of youthful fascism with male masturbation hits the reader at some political psychological level that one may have never even known existed.

This is political psychology of the far Right, presented in a form that no one thought could be so stirring for a reader’s intuition.

Universal, Yet Shaded Differently

In this age in the West, masturbation is, perhaps, something of a ho-hum topic for many. Many guys do it. Many girls do it. We all do it, especially if you are young. Though I would assume the frequency is higher for the male of our species. We just don’t go around talking about it like we do the weather.

Though despite the act’s universality in terms of something found in most political societies across time and space, some differences probably persist in how one sex (gender?) or the other may go about their masturbation. This is neither a recognition of the difference in physicality of it (ha!) nor an understanding of the functional differences in how it helps to keep alive the sexual when we are alone. No, rather, this is a difference in the psychology behind the act.

When one is not in the company of others, with no one watching, it is difficult to accept that the thoughts and internal whispering of the mind of men and women are the same when they engage upon this play. The way guys go about it and the way girls go about it—up there, hidden in the psyche and the soul—cannot be the same.

Forsooth, a She Bop will never be a Blister in the Sun.

Oe’s protagonist is male and because of it the story takes unanticipated turns that would be nearly impossible to guess at if the character had been female. Some of these turns were so wild that the second part of Seventeen, where the main character is purported to assassinate a Left-leaning parliamentarian, has actually never been translated into English! Trust me, mix political psychological into the act, and this quickly becomes guy’s-stuff-only territory.

(Seriously, someone translate Part II of the story into English or Thai for me so I can read it. I’m looking at you Jay Rubin of Harvard and/or you เดือนเต็ม กฤษดาธานนท์ of Chulanlongkorn; let’s get cracking on this to help the non-Japanese-speaking peasantry like me confront our demons.)

Right or Left?

If you are of the Left yourself (what is mis-termed “liberal” for you Americans), then you may be smirking to yourself right now. For surely, if one were to mix masturbation with any political sentiment it would have to be the intuitions that traverse the mind of the far-Right or the fascistic. Correct? Conservatives with an authoritarian bent like to wank it when no one’s looking. Right?

Not so fast. And I suspect that Oe may agree with me on this one.

The protagonist male could just as easily been composed as some milksop, easily-offended, weakling of a Leftist and enjoyed masturbating twelve times a day. That is, the solipsistic act of male onanism could have as easily been paired with the political psychology of Right-wing jingoism as it could have with the political psychology of Left-wing statism.

Does not the awkward, mamma’s-boy communist also enjoy a wank from time to time? Who really goes at it more often?

Now that is a topic worth pursuing a Ph.D in.

Wonderful Read

Again, if there ever were a time and a place for those of you of the West to consider reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels, the fall of 2016 is the time to do so.

I highly recommend this delightful tale of Japanese political psychology and adolescent self–(destruction)-gratification.

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via Kotaku. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Review of Texaners by Lisa Brown-Gilbert

A review by Lisa Brown-Gilbert from Pacific Book Review of T. F. Rhoden’s Texaners: Eight Short Stories, published by Étoile Solitaire Press (2015).

Engaging and insightful, Author T. F. Rhoden’s incisive collection of short stories, Texaners, leads fiction readers into the world of the multicultural, multiracial denizens of contemporary Texas. No stranger to the literary world, author Rhoden has authored other well-received works, however this is his first published collection of short stories, which bears influences from his personal experiences growing up as a citizen in multiracial, contemporary Texas.

Unapologetically stereotypical at times, this collection of eight stories is varied in perspective as the many cultural and ethnic backgrounds of each character are colorfully portrayed by the author. Each story portrays an emotionally intricate variation on life by exploring brief moments in the lives of ordinary Texans. And consequently, it is through the varied lives of author Rhoden’s characters that readers are shown the real Texas of today, the younger, multiethnic face of Texas, not the old dusty, cowboy infested world, but a brave new world where the boundaries set by stereotypes are either diminished or enslaving to the character’s psyche.

Each piece is generally likable, fortified by the use of vivid imagery, curious characters and emotional vagaries that play out fairly well. Every story is a glimpse into ordinary lives that are distinctly portrayed by bringing into perspective a moment of clarity in each protagonist’s life that essentially captures those rare ephinanic moments in a life when personal realization comes to consciousness.

The stories that I found particularly well written and compelling were “Chinese Spoons”, “Oils”, “The Bat Mitzvah”, and “West Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd”… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Book review originally published in Pacific Book Review by Lisa Brown-Gilbert for Texaners: Eight Short Stories by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for re-post via How to Feed a Loon. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Labor of Longing

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Noël Valis’s The Labor of Longing: A Novella.

Those thoughts of ours, the ones that, if they do not haunt us, do whisper to us in a way which causes one to pause and reconsider some moment, some decision, some action of one’s life—those pangs of shiftless consciousness carry both the theme, and many ways, the plot of Noël Valis’s story, entitled The Labor of Longing: A Novella. The story crafted here, one set in the 1880s-90s, alternating between the barren pinelands of rural New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia, is one that is vivid and smartly written.

The language of Valis is pleasing. Many a passage or turn of phrase will make the reader wish to stop and reread what she has just read; though this is not done in an annoying way, as if it somehow breaks up the narrative, but in manner which is thought-provoking and, as a literary device, simply useful because the reader is impelled to empathize and re-empathize with a particular character.

Our inner librarian might be tempted to catalogue this story as magical realism. But this reviewer wishes to resist the urge to do so. Those elements that are magical for the characters of the story are probably better understood as psychological or, perhaps, pathological, but not preternatural. The title of the story is a very good one in this sense. For the act longing is nothing that is, in and of itself, outside the realm of a humanistic or social scientific understanding of the human condition.

A reluctance to emphasize the otherworldly elements of the story may be a bold interpretation to hold on the way that Valis composes the character of, say, Abby, since the young Abby’s true voice is only heard after she is dead. But it is a voice that is confident and controlled only as much as the voice is ascertained via the thoughts of another main character of the story in the person of Jonah.

In this respect of voice, Valis shines as a writer… [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 via New Jersey Public Radio. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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