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Book Review: by Lang Reid

A Woman of Bangkok

The classic book describing the relationship between a love-sick young Englishman and the ultimate hardened Thai female prostitute.  Set in the 1950’s, and written by “Jack Reynolds” A Woman of Bangkok (ISBN 978-981-08-5430-0, originally released in 1956 and now reprinted by Monsoon Books, Singapore, 2011), is still a spell-binder.

It shows its 1950’s vintage with some of the rather old-fashioned language not used today, such as “beery persiflage” and other items such as the Riley motor car used by the company the Englishman works for in Bangkok.  A Riley these days is a collectors item!

The charm of this book is the way it reveals the inner psychological turmoil of the 27 year old English lad, who before he even arrives in Thailand is showing paranoia (gives up a promising career as a speedway rider after his friend dies) and an inability to handle relationships with the opposite sex, even to the extent of fantasizing about his sister-in-law.  He is portrayed (as is the author) of being the son of a minister of religion.

He makes the momentous decision to go to Thailand, and very soon loses his virginity, but between romps becomes introspective once more - and then he meets a dancer called Vilai, known as the White Leopard.

Falling deeply in lust, which he confuses with love, his whole life becomes the relationship with Vilai, the woman of his dreams. (Or was that nightmares?)

Vilai is a hard-headed Thai woman, whose attitude to life is completely foreign to the attitude of a westerner.  “And especially she despised white men because they despised her own race.  There was only one good thing about white men: they had more money than anyone else.  And it was her duty to get as much of that money off them as she could.  For money was important; it was the most important thing in the world.  If you had enough money, no one dare look down on you.”

It is in those descriptions that you can see the artistry of the author, and his very deep understanding of the Thai culture and its in-built pragmatism.  Vilai says, “The Buddha forbids us to tell lies, and so we should never do so, unless of course it is absolutely necessary.”

Vilai’s son is killed, and once more the cultural divide leaves the westerner completely confused.  Attitudes to life and death are just so different, and it is so easy, when looking from the western viewpoint, to make value judgments which really do not apply.  That Vilai could go straight back to the dance hall is anathema to the English lad, but when looked at from Vilai’s perspective is entirely pragmatic.

The language as used by Vilai is entirely credible, such as “Many girl haff very sweet mouse but not spick truce.”  (And if you can read and understand that easily, you may have been in Thailand too long.)

The RRP, according to the Asia Books website is B. 495, but is being advertised at the special price of B. 396.  At either price, this book is more than worth the purchase price.

The Cultural Detective

In the course of a year I will read and review more than 50 books.  Some never become reviews as they are simply not good enough in the literary sense.  It is rare for a book to be outstanding.

However, is it perhaps a judge of excellence that I would pull down one book from the shelves, read it again, and thoroughly enjoy it once more?  If so, then The Cultural Detective by Christopher G. Moore (ISBN 978-616-90393-8-9, Heaven Lake Press, 2011) is an excellent book.  Not only a good book, but for me, the best book reviewed in 2011.

Forget Moore’s Calvino series, this is a completely new genre and is a collection of essays in four broad parts commencing with Perspectives on Crime Fiction Writing, followed by Clues to Solving Cultural Mysteries, then Observations from the Front Lines and finally Outside the Southeast Asia Comfort Zone.

The subtitle to The Cultural Detective, is “Reflections on the Writing Life in Thailand”.  Author Moore manages to look at the reflections without becoming introspective, but has the ability to dissect concepts and customs with a very equal handedness.  This is not a farang blindly reporting the ways of the Thais, but has genuine explanations given by someone who does not let his own culture and customs impinge on the details.

An example of this is, “In Thailand the deference culture is largely built around age, rank, family and wealth.  The Thai expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and economic system and has done so for centuries.”

The essays do cover Moore’s methods in writing fiction.  “Writing blends death and sex into myth, folktale, legend and serving up a strong brew turns us into addicts.”  He explains the pitfalls.  “Writing a book takes long hours of focused attention.  You can’t multi-task and write a novel.  Because you have to keep the whole story, plots and sub-plots, characters, their connections and motivations inside your head as a unified whole.  This is fragile territory.  One that is easily distracted.”

Moore looks dispassionately at some of the reasons the youth of the world is resorting to anarchy.  “…who have no job and turn to crime as the only available option.  This new army of angry young recruits may not be fuelled by the hatred of a jihad.  The fuel of despair and hopelessness are the precursors to hatred, and you don’t need a religion to motivate such young men.  Wanting status and the material stuff that a material society proclaims is essential for your manhood is the new scripture.”

Christopher G. Moore is an excellent writer, and his style in this collection of essays reminds me of Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) and Dave Barry (I’ll Mature When I’m Dead), though Moore’s subject matter remains more deeply thought provoking than the other two, in my opinion.

I have enjoyed the Calvino escapades, plus his other books, but for me this collection of essays stands out as offering a glimpse of the ‘real’ Christopher G. Moore.  The RRP in Bookazine is B. 385 - a literary bargain.

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The Cultural Detective