Book Review
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Mussolini. His part in my downfall

The Jatakas Reborn

Bangkok Bob

Book Review: By Lang Reid

Mussolini. His part in my downfall

A little over a year ago, I reviewed “Mussolini. His part in my downfall” but having a request from a reader, here it is again. The book was from my own bookshelves! Web-based bookshops will no doubt be able to find you a copy.
Mussolini. His part in my downfall (ISBN 0-7181-1738-7) was written by Spike Milligan, one of the original ‘Goons’ and his death in 2002 brought sorrow to many. Who can forget his description of Woy Woy, the town in Australia where his parents lived, as “God’s waiting room”, or “The world’s only above ground cemetery”. And, “I’m not afraid of dying I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Or his famous epitaph which is on his tombstone, “I told you I was ill.”
The book is the fourth in Milligan’s war series, all taken from his experiences in WWII. The first was “Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall”, followed by “Rommel? Gunner Who?” then “Monty: His part in my victory” and finally this book, the fourth volume.
All of these books are written in the first person, giving the reader a very personal view of WWII. In his preface, Milligan counters a Clive James’ critique of one of his previous books as being “an unreliable history of the war.” Milligan wrote, “Well, this makes him a thoroughly unreliable critic,” and later, “I wish the reader to know that he is not reading a tissue of lies and fancies, it all really happened.” Unfortunately, it all did happen, and it does not take long discourses with someone who actually fought in that war to verify Milligan’s claims. The “Peter Principle” of promotion to the level of incompetency has many examples in Milligan’s book(s).
The very human level at the grass roots (or perhaps rather the mud roots) of the army is shown by Milligan, in all its droll and farcical nature. His unit spending all day reeling in a telephone line, to find that another battery was reeling one out! Or his description of air raids. “It was one of the entertainments of the war, a sort of early television.” “See anything last night?” “Smashin’ air raid on Naples.” “Are they going to repeat it?”
The book finishes with one of the most poignant and soul-searching descriptions of a person going through a nervous breakdown. The difference between this and the usual reports is that Milligan does this in the first person. A heart-wrenching personal description of what it was like to lose one’s grip on reality. This is made even more devastating as up till the last few pages you have been crying from laughing so much. It is difficult not to shed the final tear with Milligan as he labels himself as a PN (psychoneurotic) and sets the seal on himself as the tragic-comic.
If you are a fan of farce, a fan of the Goons, or even just someone who wants to understand a little more about the futility of war from someone’s personal angle, this book is for you. No, you may not borrow mine!


Book Review: By Lawrence Nelson

The Jatakas Reborn

“Jataka Tales of the Buddha,” by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki. 1,298 pp. Buddhist Publication Society. Available at Asia Books, Orchid Press and Kinokuniya. 900 baht.

The growing popularity of Buddhism in the West has made the life story of the founder of this great faith familiar to many far beyond its Asian homeland. But how many in the non-Buddhist world realize that the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who grew disenchanted with his life of privilege and eventually attained Enlightenment, was just the tip of the Buddha’s biographical iceberg?

We all know that reincarnation is a key feature of Buddhism, but there are probably very few outside of Asia who have more than a passing acquaintance with the vast body of lore related to the Buddha’s previous existences. And yet these stories, known as Jataka tales, have for centuries guided untold millions along the Buddhist path to Nirvana.

Now, however, the world of the Buddhist popular imagination—with its preternaturally wise monkeys, cannibalistic kings, and supernatural beings such as the ogre-like yakkhas and divine devas—is available to all, thanks to a new anthology titled simply, “Jataka Tales of the Buddha.”

As Ken and Visakha Kawasaki, the authors of this three-volume set of 217 stories, write in their introduction, tales of the Buddha’s past lives have long occupied an important place in Buddhist culture: “In the ancient Buddhist world, from Bamiyan to Borobodur and from Ceylon to China, depictions of Jataka stories took their place alongside episodes from the life of the Buddha to instruct and to inspire devotees and to inculcate the virtues inculcated by the Boddhisatta.”

Even this very substantial collection, which runs to a total of nearly 1,300 pages, barely scratches the surface of all that has been said or written about the Boddhisatta—the Buddha in his previous incarnations—although it does a very good job of conveying something of the richness of this literary tradition.

According to the Kawasakis, there are a total of 547 Jataka stories, representing just a fraction of the 2,500 or so Jataka verses in the Tipitaka, the authoritative Pali-language collection of Buddhist scriptures. While the verses are considered canonical, however, the tales based on them are classified as commentaries, and thus elaborate considerably on what the Buddha is said to have told his disciples about his past lives.

For religious purists, this may detract from the value of the Jatakas as they are presented here; but lovers of a good story can only be grateful to the monks who first wove these tales into their sermons to lay audiences, and to the Kawasakis for presenting them in clear, readable and entertaining prose that captures some sense of the earthy and yet sublimely moral universe they describe.

Many of the stories are simple fables, like that of the monkey king who outsmarts a ravenous yakkha in the tale of the “Hollow Canes” (“Nalapana Jataka”: for the benefit of the Pali-challenged, all of the stories in this anthology are given English as well as their original Pali titles), while others deal with the world of merchants, farmers and officials. Still others recount the lives of royalty and devas, beings who exist on a higher plane than humans, but who remain subject to the suffering of Samsara, the realm of conditioned existence.

Whatever their particular setting or cast of characters, all of the stories serve to illustrate how the cultivation of virtue graduallyled to the Buddha’s eventual realization of a way out of this suffering, making them the ideal guide to lesser beings aspiring to follow his example.

In many cases, the tales also detail how the Buddha liberated others along the way to his own ultimate liberation, often from the grip ofdefilements so profound that they seem beyond redemption. One suchstory is that of “The Man-Eater of Jambudipa” (“Maha-Sutosoma Jataka”), which tells of a king who is banished because of hisinsatiable appetite for human flesh. A close reading of this tale would probably hold valuable lessons for modern addiction counselors.

Most of the stories are not quite so horrific, although many go to extremes to make their point. In “The Rabbit in the Moon” (“Sasa Jataka”), for instance, the Boddhisatta appears as a rabbit who demonstrates his capacity for generosity by offering himself as food to a mendicant.

Another tale, “The Most Difficult Feat of All” (“Dasana Jataka”), offers a more subtle understanding of what it means to give of oneself completely. In this story, a king takes pity on a young member of his court who has become infatuated with his chief queen and decides to “lend” her to him for a week. When the queen and the courtier run off together, it is the king who becomes afflicted by mental torment. He is cured, however, when he is made to realize that the highest form of generosity, and therefore the most meritorious, is that given without regret.

This theme is taken to even greater lengths in the final and longest story of this collection; “Prince Vessantara” (“Vessantara Jataka”).Although he is the antithesis of the man-eating king of Jambudipa, Prince Vessantara shares his fate and is exiled by his subjects for what they see as his excessive acts of generosity. But this doesn’t stop him from giving, and in the course of the story he hands over not only his wife but also his children. Eventually, however, with the help of Sakka, the king of the devas, the family is reunited and the prince returns to his people to become their king.

Each of the stories in this anthology is accompanied by an elegantly simple line drawing that perfectly matches the Kawasakis’ writing style, which is a vast improvement on earlier attempts to render these tales in English. In their hands, the Jatakas regain their ageless appeal, ensuring for them a wide and appreciative audience for generations to come.

Book Review: By Lang Reid

Bangkok Bob

Bangkok Bob, the latest novel from Stephen Leather, is on the shelves. Leather is a prolific writer with eight titles in his Dan Shepherd series, two in his Jack Nightingale Supernatural series, 14 other thrillers, plus his retelling of the episodes of Warren Olson called Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye and his iconic Private Dancer which I described as being, “The best book regarding the relationships with bar girls that you can ever read. This should be compulsory reading for all first-timers to Thailand.”

Bangkok Bob (ISBN 978-0-9566203-0-9, Three Elephants publishing 2011) seems to sit somewhere within the Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye with the plot being that of an American amateur sleuth (Bangkok Bob), but one who can speak both Thai and Khmer fluently (as did the Warren Olson PI in ‘Confessions’). I was left wondering at the end as to whether the plot was something left over from ‘Confessions’ which Leather had extended, resulting in a fairly slim volume of 245 pages.

The principal character is Bob Turtledove, who is introduced as an antique dealer in Bangkok who has people with problems referred to him by the American Embassy. Considering that the American Embassy is one of the more paranoid outposts of America, the reader has to gloss over that and accept that a Mormon couple could be referred to the antique dealer with a good heart by their officials.

The plot unfolds as Bangkok Bob goes looking for the Mormon couple’s son, another dutiful Mormon, who seems to have disappeared in Bangkok’s city of 12 million souls.

Leather places the book right in the Sukhumvit area, and Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy get their rightful mentions, as the usual ploy to give some credibility and substance to what is, after all, a work of fiction. The book also spends much time in a bar/restaurant called ‘Fatso’s run by ‘Big Ron’ who sits on a large reinforced chair. This is obviously Jools and Big Dave, and I wonder why Leather chose to be so oblique, when the real names would have held much more weight. Another example was the Santika nightclub fire which ends up being called the Kube.

The quest to find the young missing Mormon takes the reader to a Russian proprietor of an English language school who it appears is using the school as a laundry for rubles.

The reader is also taken through upper echelon police, Hi-So and schoolgirl prostitution.
I have enjoyed Stephen Leather’s writing in the past. He has a great eye for detail, with the first paragraph of ‘Bangkok Bob’, for example, opening with a description of the archetypal Bangkok Hi-So lady, complete with a Versace silk blouse, a Rolex watch (diamond studded), Gucci sunglasses and the ubiquitous Louis Vuitton handbag.

At B. 430 on the Bookazine shelves it is an inexpensive light read suitable as an aircraft novel. For me, this was not one of Leather’s best, though still head and shoulders above the usual expat lives in Bangkok books. Leather’s understanding of the Thai psyche and Thai society is also well demonstrated in this book.