Opium Fiend by Steven Martin (Villard Books)

Perhaps the first sign of incipient addiction is the habit of collecting. Steven Martin provides a story all too familiar to many of us, receiving little packets of coins in the mail when he was a boy, until the day he was threatened with legal collection for unpaid packets. His father returned his entire collection but the damage was done. Martin’s life was dominated by the need to corner the market in objects he loved—and in Thailand, he learned to love opium pipes.

The paraphernalia of the opium user is arcane and lovely, the lamps, the pipes, the scrapers, the boxes, the beds. Martin arrived in Southeast Asia early enough to make the obligatory and occasional pilgrimage to opium dens in Laos, where he became entranced by the objects used in them. His urge to collect something unique and beautiful was fulfilled by the trappings of the opium smoker, and while collecting these things, he became an obsessive expert on the subject.

A large portion of Martin’s book is devoted to the history of opium use in China and the United States, with a wealth of photographs. His collection becomes so exhaustive and valuable that he bequeaths it to the University of Idaho.

Then what has been a dispassionate examination of the art of opium smoking becomes deeply personal. With his life given over to the appreciation of the trappings of opium, Martin meets a collector who smokes in a way that honors the implements and the ritual of the drug. As an aesthete, Martin falls in love with both the ceremony and the sharpened contemplation that comes with opium.

The progression of his addiction and of his altered relationship with the world in general makes compelling reading—and his account of detoxification at Thailand’s famous Wat Tham Krabok, where addicts are subjected to a racking regimen of emetics, is worth a book in itself.

Martin makes a convincing case for high-quality opium, chandu, the liquid essence of the drug. As long as he sticks to that, he functions, he claims, at peak performance. However on a trip to Europe, he is introduced to the dross, the scrapings of the pipe residue, and his experience becomes a ravenous one—harrowing and expensive.

The world of the expatriate in Thailand is very small and Martin comes into the orbit of an American woman who takes over his story, an act that usually occurred to anyone who encountered Roxanna Brown. A tiny woman with a history in Southeast Asia that novels are made of, Brown was a connoisseur of chandu, which she used regularly and judiciously. Martin is horrified by the Spartan paucity of her opium accessories and they strike a deal. He gives her the implements befitting the drug she uses and she supplies him with the drug—for a fee. But Brown is horrified when she learns that Martin smokes between twenty and thirty pipes a day; she smokes no more than six or eight. The rest of the time she resorts to the efficiency of micro-doses—one drop on the tongue is the equivalent to five pipes.

But Martin is a slave to the ritual, his “nightly black mass,” and he succumbs to “nostalgia for the pipe.” But even in Thailand, opium is wickedly expensive. When he and Brown join economic forces to buy a bottle of chandu, his share of the purchase comes to four thousand dollars, or 120,000 baht. Even for a well-paid expat, that would be two months salary, and neither Martin nor Brown fall into that economic category. When Martin begins to sell items of his collection to pay for his opium, his original addiction wins over the hunger for opium and he goes to Wat Tham Krabok, which cures for nothing—but only once..

For Brown, things do not end that well. Eating opium puts a terrible strain on the digestive system, which is “frozen into hibernation by the drug.” When she makes a trip to the states, she is arrested and accused of electronic fraud, allowing her signature to be used for falsified appraisals of Southeast Asian art, a subject upon which she is an expert. A woman with Thai nationality as well as being a U.S. citizen, Roxanna Brown is considered a flight risk and is thrown into an immigration detention center in Seattle. She dies in her cell in agony from a perforated ulcer, an offshoot, Martin says, of opium eating.

On the night of her death, Steven Martin was in Bangkok, “weightlessly suspended as though floating in a warm sea.” Opium had reclaimed him after detox; whether it still dominates his life is perhaps another story, another book.~Janet Brown

Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Penguin Books)

The new year of 1937 had barely begun when an old man, walking near one of Peking’s ancient walls early in the morning, came across the body of a dead girl. Her face had been slashed with a knife, her legs were sliced, and her sternum had been cut open with all of her ribs broken; her heart, liver, bladder and one of her kidneys had been removed. Her body had been savaged by the stray dogs that roamed the city and the only clue as to who she may have been was a blood-soaked membership card for the ice-skating rink at the French Club. Her hair was blonde and on her wrist was a platinum watch that was set in diamonds. Clearly this bizarre murder had not been prompted by robbery.

As the police made a preliminary examination of the corpse and the crime scene, an elderly man made his way to the body, screamed “Pamela” and fell to the ground. E.T. C. Werner, a scholar and former British consul, had lived in China since the 1880s. The night before, his only child had failed to return home and he had wandered the neighborhoods searching for her. When he found her at last, she was in the realm of every parent’s worst nightmare.

Peking was a city that was already gripped in fear before Pamela Werner was murdered. The Japanese had conquered Manchuria six years earlier and now they were advancing upon China’s third-richest city, with troops encamped only miles away. Most of Peking’s two thousand foreign residents were sheltered within the eight heavily guarded iron gates of the city’s Legation Quarter, a spot that was “Europe in miniature.” Terrified by the rumors that Chiang Kai-shek would relinquish northern China in hopes of retaining the south, Westerners were leaving for home—but not the widowed Edward Werner and his daughter.

The two of them lived outside of the protective gates of the Legation Quarter in a luxurious courtyard house, and both took pleasure in roaming the city. Pamela, born in China and fluent in Mandarin, rode her bicycle unaccompanied, ran the household singlehanded when her father traveled, and became so independent that her father found her difficult to control. He sent her off to boarding school where she appeared to be a typical hockey-playing, uniformed, drab teenager. At home in Peking for the holidays, she transformed herself into a glamorous woman in black, wearing lipstick and kohl.

“I am afraid of nothing...Peking is the safest city in the world,” were Pamela’s last words to her friends before she left them on the night of her murder, which took place almost a month before her twentieth birthday. Two detectives, one British and one Chinese, combed the city for clues as to who her killer might have been and discovered Pamela had been pursued by more than one man. Despite her demure schoolgirl persona, her true self was much more the seductress in black.

History was unkind to Pamela. The investigation of her murder was soon supplanted by Japanese tanks in the streets of Peking (a mere goodwill parade, the Japanese Legation assured the city) and the sky was loud with the noise of Japanese Zero aircraft, buzzing overhead. By the end of July, Peking was a conquered city.

Her father however spent all of his money and energy in his attempts to find his daughter’s killer. The decadence and cruelty that he discovered on his own would have shaken and horrified Peking’s expatriate world had the war not intervened.

Much as Erik Larson did in Devil in the White City, Paul French has taken historical true crime and given it the depth and suspense of a good novel. Midnight in Peking is a book that recreates a time and place with vivid accuracy, while bringing a horrible crime to a stunning close, seventy-five years after Pamela Werner was murdered.~Janet Brown

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews (University of Chicago Press)

Seventeen stories, three-tower blocks rising from a massive plinth, owned by 920 share-holders, containing a transient population of at least 129 different nationalities who come looking for a cheap place to sleep in the middle of Kowloon’s Golden Mile—this is Chungking Mansions. Avoided by local Hong Kong Chinese, immortalized by Wong Kar-wai in his art-house movie Chungking Express, occasionally used as a setting for Western mystery writers (most recently Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbo), this is more a town than it is a building, housing a community of what Gordon Mathews terms “low-end globalism.”

An American anthropologist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1994, Mathews became drawn to Chungking Mansions in 1983 when he stayed there while traveling. In 2006 he began his project to discover the building’s “role in globalization” and its “significance in the world.” No ivory-tower denizen, Mathews spent “one or more nights a week” in Chungking Mansions guesthouses  as well as “every available moment” for a period of three and a half years. The result of his research is true to his subject and is amazingly readable—his book sparkles with life that is rarely found in an offering from an academic press.

Mathews knows his territory and shares it generously. Chungking Mansion’s history, from an upscale apartment building to a center for “Western hippies and backpackers” to a business center for entrepreneurs from all over the planet is well laid out and the often mysterious details of its present incarnation are carefully explained. Travelers who have wondered about the evening crowds of Africans at the nearby 7/11 or the function of the middle-aged sari-clad women who cluster in the same area during the day will find their curiosity satisfied in these pages. (Unfortunately, to protect the unlicensed premises, Mathews fails to divulge where the elusive African restaurants are in the upper floors of Chungking Mansions.)

People have learned to trust Gordon Mathews and he safeguards that trust by giving pseudonyms to the people who have granted him candid interviews. “I was born here in Hong Kong—I am a Hong Kong person,” a Sikh shop owner says, “I feel like an outsider…but when I enter this building..I feel like I’m home. All countries can enter here. Outside is difficult, but Chungking Mansions is home!”

And all countries do enter here—represented by people who come to do business, along with a number of asylum-speakers. Chungking Mansions is a world-center for inexpensive mobile phones that are made in China and transported to Africa in carry-on luggage, as many as 700 phones per trip, bringing ‘an average profit of US $500 per trip.” Clothing manufactured in mainland China, tires from used cars, DVD players, computer accessories—luggage carts heaped higher than a man’s head are wheeled out of Chungking Mansions regularly. Gold and gems come in from Africa—one man would arrive with a full set of gold dentures and leave with sparkling white ones. These are not poor men and women, except by Hong Kong standards, which are high enough to make many visitors feel poor. Most of the traders who fill Chungking’s elevators are middle-class and higher in their home countries and most of them use English as a common language.

Aside from being an intriguing portrait of a fascinating corner of the world, Mathew’s book challenges accepted definitions of globalization. Multi-national corporations are in some ways being supplanted by cheap knock-offs traded by entrepreneurial individuals. Only a minority of the world’s population can afford Nokia; the rest will happily accept Noklia, if the price is right—and it usually is. “Low-end globalization,” Mathews says, “is not the world’s past; it is, in at least some respects, the world’s future.”

“I predict,” he continues, “that what Chungking Mansions is today, much more of the world will be tomorrow.” And that prediction, at least as Gordon Mathews’ book portrays it, is one to look forward to.~Janet Brown

My Days, My Dreams : Stories From A Boyhood in Northern Japan by Yojiro Ishizaka [Translated by Hannah Joy Sawada] (Rojosha)

Since I recently returned from a visit to Aomori Prefecture, also known as Tsugaru, I was delighted to find an English translation of a book written by of one of that area’s prominent authors – Yojiro Ishizaka.  I didn’t pick up this book because I was familiar with its writer but because this area is also the hometown of my wife. It may seem a silly way to choose my reading material but I’ve been to Tsugaru often and my love for the place grows with every visit.

Although writers from Tsugaru are quite popular in Japan, only a few have been translated into English.  To give you an idea of how popular Ishizaka is in Japan, there are nearly 80 movies based on his works.

As translator Sawada mentions, most scholars focus on the writings of Osamu Dazai (also from Tsugaru) whose novels give a pessimistic image of Tsugaru, emphasizing the region’s poverty, rough weather, and lack of development.  Another writer from the area, Zenzo Kasai, also portrays Tsugaru in a rather bleak light. However, Ishizakal gives a perspective that’s quite opposite from the portrayals provided by Dazai or Kasai

In Ishizaka’s own words, “I myself do not want to be like Kasai or Dazai, who inflicted pain and sorrow on their families for the sake of their writing.  It is not commendable to ravage private lives for the purpose of drawing a good picture, composing great music, or producing superior literature.”

This is a collection of short stories all set near Ishizaka’s hometown of Hirosaki located in the Northeast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, the area also known as Tsugaru. All the stories are set in a time before the industrial revolution and center around the protagonist  Yuichi Makii, who is introduced in the first story as a sixth grade youth and son of the local doctor.

Yuiichi is excited about the upcoming Neputa Festival, which lasts for one week starting at the beginning of August.  Huge colorful floats parade through the streets while musicians play flutes accompanied by the loud sounds of a taiko drum.  However, the Neputa festival is only a backdrop to the story of Yuiichi’s friendship with the town prostitute Gen on whom Yuiichi has a crush.

Another story features Yuiichi’s first oyama sankei, a Tsugaru tradition of ascending Mount Iwaki, which is called the Mount Fuji of Tsugaru and is considered to be a sacred mountain.  At its base is Iwakiyama Jinja (Mount Iwaki Shrine), a national shrine the locals refer to as Oku Nikko (Nikko in the recesses). Yuichi intends to climb the mountain with a couple of his friends but things don’t go as he has planned. But not wanting to shame himself by going home after his parents had reluctantly consented to his going, he is determined to make the ascent.

Aomori Prefecture is full of interesting places.  There is a place called “Kirisuto no Haka” which translates to “Jesus’s Tomb.” (Yes, there really is such a place and yes, I have been there.)  So I was not surprised to find Yuichi traveling with a missionary and his assistant as they try to spread the word of Christ in Tsugaru.  I can still picture the missionary trying to explain the concept of Hell to the children of the village because most of the adults ignore his sermons—or the missionary getting angry at Yuichi for praying at a Shinto shrine and telling him he is not praying to the true God.

In the final story, a different character, also named Yuichi (but with the last name of Ida) returns to Tsugaru for the first time in ten years.  Although he’s been back on numerous occasions, it was usually only for a day or two and purely for business.  On this latest trip, he decides to stay for an extended period of time, planning to spend his days walking around town, meeting friends, taking naps. But after a week, he becomes bored and decides to visit the hot springs at Dake and spend the night at one of the inns.  While he is wandering around, he notices a woman who reminds him of his first visit to the hot springs.

As the title suggests, these stories are about the everyday life of growing up in Tsugaru: from participating in local festivals, to making a pilgrimage up a sacred mountain; fighting with rival neighborhood kids or trying to get in to a show free at the Yanagi theater.  These stories celebrate the joy of growing up in Tsugaru (Aomori Prefecture).

There is something special about reading stories set in places you have visited yourself.  On my latest excursion to Aomori, I went to the hot springs at Dake.  My first visit to a shrine for the New Year was at Mount Iwaki Shrine, and although the Neputa Festival is celebrated in August, there is a place called Neputa Mura in Hirosaki where you can check out the colorful floats and even try your hand at beating one of the large taiko drums.  With all these places still fresh in my mind, I felt as if I were reading my own diary, except all these stories are set in pre-industrial Japan.~Ernie Hoyt

Atomic Sushi : Notes from the Heart of Japan by Simon May (Alma Books)

I admit my title of choice may seem to be in poor taste because of the current nuclear power plant crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, but I assure you, this book was released long before March 11’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami which caused the nuclear disaster.  First published in 2006, this is a collection of essays that British national May wrote while serving as a visiting professor of philosophy at Tokyo University.  As the professor says in his own words when he was unexpectedly invited to teach, his first thoughts were – “The Sushi!”

First of all, we must acknowledge that Japan’s bastion of education – Tokyo University or Todai as it’s locally known—is one of the most prestigious and also the most difficult to enter of all Japanese educational institutions.  It is considered the training ground of Japan’s bureaucrats, the elite of the elite, a closed system that’s virtually impossible to penetrate, especially for foreigners.  May informs us that he was “…apparently the first British professor of philosophy since 1882.”

Since May becomes a part of this elite for the duration of his stay, I must admit that the ordinary traveler and even long standing expats would not be able to experience some of his adventures which were arranged by some of the Todai elites who befriended him.  We are given a glimpse into private “amusement” parlours (you will have to use your imagine as to what you can expect to see there), exclusive sushi shops, luxurious ryokan (Japanese inns) and  kaiseki dining with its price tag  at about $1000 a feast.

What I found most interesting were May’s dealings with the Tokyo University administrators before he was even allowed to teach.  He was expecting a warm welcome but found himself in bureaucratic hell, “…administrators began by demanding that I sign a declaration promising to be a loyal and honourable servant of the Japanese state.”  This seems rather reasonable, however he was soon burdened with further requests: “I needed health tests to certify that my body fluids were unobjectionable and my body solids in good order, a declaration from my landlady about my accommodation costs, a certificate proving that I had attended primary school, a document registering me as an alien, and a diagram to illustrate the exact route I intended to take when traveling from home to university, and then from home to university again.”  It’s an ominous start to his  life in Tokyo.

To illustrate May’s brush with bureaucratic red tape in more detail, you only need to read his response to one of the endless enquiries he had to endure – “When I replied by pointing out that in Britain there is no certifying authority that exists for the purpose of certifying that something is impossible to certify, they asked me to state this with a certificate, certified by myself.”  Perhaps those bureaucrats have just a little too much time on their hands.

However, not all of May’s essays are about the Japanese elite or their exclusive clubs.  He also writes about what he sees: things that may seem ordinary to the average Japanese but strange to most foreigners.  He observes people sleeping while standing or sitting on the trains for their commute home but having the uncanny ability to wake from their slumber at their stop.  He witnesses a man rubbing up his knees against a young girl and wonders what to do; groping in trains is a major problem in Japan which hardly ever makes the news.  May also attends and describes a Japanese wedding and a Japanese funeral—and as I have also been a participant in both, I can tell you it is nothing like what you would expect in the States. But you will have to read this book to find out just how different it is.

This is a must read for any Japanophile.  It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you want to visit Japan on your own as well.  Even expats will find this amusing – I should know, as I belong to that particular group.~Ernie Hoyt

At Home In Japan : A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery by Rebecca Otowa (Tuttle Publishing)

At Home in Japan

As the subtitle states, this is one woman’s journey of discovery in which she learns what living in Japan is like.  In my opinion, most people who think of moving to Japan either consider the twenty-four hour metropolis of Tokyo or the kuidaore (eat until you drop) city of Osaka.  However, this is the story of how Otowa finds herself in a 350-year- old farm house in rural Kyoto where she has lived for the past 30 years.

Otowa, a California native whose family immigrated to Australia when she was in her teens, never thought she would live anywhere but Australia or the States.  Then she finds that she enjoys studying the Japanese language which leads her to major in Asian studies at a university in Kyoto. Here she meets her future husband, who once traveled alone to Australia and loved it.  Through a mutual acquaintance, he learns that a girl from Australia is studying in Kyoto and goes there to meet her. He and Otowa hit it off right away and they marry four years later.

Otowa says she didn't know what she was getting herself into.  For one thing, her fiancé is the chonan (eldest son) of a very traditional Japanese family. This means it is his responsibility to take care of his parents, their farm house and their land.

Otowa has to learn a lot of unwritten rules. As an American, she finds some of them quite annoying, such as the wife is the last one to use the bath.  Even her wedding is planned by her future in-laws who tell her that it would be rather difficult to have her parents participate, so she has a stand-in for her father at her own wedding.  Otowa says at that time she was still naïve and a little intimidated by the entire process--now she regrets not speaking her mind back then.

But Otowa grows to love Japan and traditional country life.  She feels she’s becoming more Japanese while the younger generation of Japanese are becoming more westernized.  Otowa shares with us her experiences of traditional Japanese life such as making omochi (rice pounded into a glutinous mass and served with the traditional New Year’s meal called osechi) Enjoyinghanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the spring and tsukimi (moon watching) in the fall.  Serving and drinking tea in a tradition called sado which roughly translates to “the way of tea”.  Taking part in, and explaining, the ritual of  a traditional Japanese funeral..  She shares with us both her happy and sad moments, along with certain nuances of living in Japan, as if she were talking to us as friends.

She describes her relationship with her family, friends, neighbors and the various deities that live in the old farmhouse. When she first saw her husband’s house, she admits she was taken aback.  The house was built sometime in the 1600s and expanded as the family has grown.  Showing some pictures of her husband’s family and home that were taken in the 1800s, she reveals that the house hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

As my own grandmother’s house is a very traditional Japanese house as well, I found that I could relate to Otowa’s descriptions of spending the winter under a kotatsu (small table with a heater underneath), stoking the fire for the bath, being afraid of falling in the toilet that was only a hole in the ground (or so I thought as a child), walking up the steep stairs to the second floor, playing “Perfection” (popular game back in my youth) with my cousins along a wooden corridor that looks out to a small garden.  Reading Otowa’s book reminds me of my childhood and makes me long to go visit my grandmother’s house once again.~by Ernie Hoyt

Chinese Lessons: An American, His Classmates, and the Story of the New China by John Pomfret (Holt)

lessonsSixty-three history majors graduated from Nanjing University in 1982. One of them was an American, 25-year-old John Pomfret, who went to China in 1980 to learn the language and to attend university there as an exchange student from Stanford. How Pomfret's life was transformed by his youthful decision, leading him to become a journalist in China, where he met his wife and started a family, is an interesting story. It is overshadowed, however, by stories that are far more compelling: the lives of four men and one woman who were his classmates. All  of the people who opened their lives to Pomfret had lived through the Cultural Revolution and had seen how Chinese social values were turned upside down during that time. Daybreak Song's father was a Red Guard, and Big Bluffer Ye learned how to play the system by watching his father do the same. Old Wu, whose parents were killed by Red Guards when he was 15, later denounced them in order to become a Communist Party member. Little Guan, whose father was sent to a re-education camp for four years, spent her early adolescence working in the rice fields as a "class enemy." Book Idiot Zhou, who was on a Red Guard team, admitted, "I did what I was told and, being eleven, I liked it." "You need to understand this," he told Pomfret, "to understand where we've come from."

All five entered the University in 1978, when private businesses began to sprout, foreigner students appeared in their classes, and Gone with the Wind was so popular in its Chinese translation that students took turns reading it  in shifts. Daybreak Song's popularity with Italian girls launched him into a love affair that led to marriage and a life in Italy after graduation. Big Bluffer Ye joined the Communist Party with dreams of making Nanjing modern and prosperous; after graduating and becoming a bureaucrat, he was able to transform a neighborhood into a Las Vegas-inspired shoppers' paradise. Book Idiot Zhou, to augment his earnings as a teacher, began a business that collected human urine and extracted enzymes that were used in pharmaceuticals. Little Guan married the man she had chosen two days after graduation, refusing a job assignment to be with her husband and make a family and a home. Old Wu, Pomfret says, was doomed to "a lifetime of humiliation," writing censored history and investigating the "antiparty" activities of university colleagues.

As China becomes more affluent, so do Pomfret's classmates. Old Wu learns to use the Internet, takes driving lessons, and sends his daughter to school in Australia. Big Bluffer Ye has an Audi and a chauffeur. Book Idiot Zhou owns a Volkswagen and a brick house that he has built in his ancestral village. Daybreak Song, living in Italy, is a highly paid sportswriter for a Chinese newspaper. Little Guan, a widow, owns her own apartment, has invested in a bar, and has embarked upon an e-commerce business venture with her son.

Through his personal history and that of his classmates, Pomfret has provided a look at China that is both intimate and illuminating. Few people would have been able to write this book; many will be grateful that John Pomfret did.~by Janet Brown (previously published in another form by Waterbridge Review)

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook (Downtown Press)

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me Before some people, especially Japanophiles, are offended by the term J.A.P., Cook uses the term to describe herself -- a Jewish American Princess--one who is used to having things her own way, to driving her red Jetta around town, to having her weekly pedicure/manicure and to meeting  her girlfriends for drinks and fun.   However, this entertaining memoir is of a year that changes Cook's life as she becomes a newlywed and less than a week later moves to Nagoya, Japan with her new husband who ha a job waiting for him there.

I knew I would be both amused and annoyed by this book, as I could tell from the first paragraph that Cook was going to be in for a major culture shock.  During her first year in Japan, her attitude is so Ameri-centric and selfish, it borders on being hysterical (from this expat's point of view anyway).  Her husband's contract is for two years which Cook at first doesn't consider a long time until she gets a wake-up call when she arrives in Japan on a blistering hot day. Unlike the bustling metropolis of Tokyo or the history-filled city of Kyoto, the city she finds herself in is Nagoya.

Cook does not speak the Japanese language. Does not have a job.  And although the school her husband works for provides them with housing, she has to learn to do things she never imagined herself doing.

Her first transition into domesticity is doing the laundry.  In her first attempt it takes her almost four hours to do a light load.  The machine becomes her only friend-- and adversary--for the first few months. But sitting around doing nothing aside from the laundry can lead to stress and Cook takes up a habit she hasn’t had in a long time – smoking.

Through some of her husband’s contacts, Cook is introduced to a woman who offers her a teaching job at a local school.  As Cook has taught in the States, she’s happy to accept the job which gives her another taste of culture shock.

In Los Angeles, Cook got from one place to another in her red Jetta which she loved. In Nagoya she has to use something she thought she would never experience –public transportation. To get from her house to the school, she has to take a bus to the train station, make two transfers, then take a short walk to where the school is located.  It is here that she learns what crowded really means!  She also learns how it feels to be different and strange.

Cook spends two years in Japan but writes only about her first year.  In an interview included at the end of the book, she mentions that in her second year, things weren’t as challenging and she fell into a familiar routine.  It’s a great story about change--maturing from a single life in Los Angeles to married life in a foreign country and the experiences that come with it.

As an expat who moved to Japan from the States myself, I could laugh at--and relate to-- a lot of Cook’s stories  Unlike her, I had knowledge of the language as well as experience living here before moving here permanently  I was hoping she was going to write about her second year as well, but the story of this first year is enough to keep you entertained and will put a smile on your face.~by Ernie Hoyt, Tokyo resident

An Indian Attachment by Sarah Lloyd (Eland Books)

22This title has that crisp, acerbic ring that characterizes the novels of Anita Brookner, and at first seems an odd choice of name for a book about a young Englishwoman who spends two years with the Punjabi villager with whom she falls in lust, if not love. The title's restraint particularly resonates when readers consider that this adventure took place at the end of that emotionally extravagant decade, the '70s. Sarah Lloyd is easily seduced by beauty and the glory of a Sikh warrior's unleashed mane  of hair is too much for her. She cuts her Indian pilgrimage short, finds the village of the man who intrigues her, and moves into his family's home. It's an unlikely venue for a woman who loves the "chaos and electric energy" of the Calcutta streets but then there is "that hair," plus the opportunity to enter "rural life, the real India, the one I had come to find."

This woman knows how to travel hard and that skill serves her well in her new home. Sarah Lloyd is the kind of traveler who is happiest when staying in a gurdwara, "a large communal hall with windows all around" that is open to anyone, feeding and sheltering all who enter it without charge. If this is your idea of hell on earth, keep reading--this state of overcrowded, public bliss is where Sarah Lloyd lives for the next two years.

She is an artist and the one image of Jungli, the man whom she lives with, is a drawing she has done of his profile. This is perhaps the only clue the reader is given about the feelings Lloyd has for Jungli--he is gorgeous and her drawing of him is very reminiscent of the drawings of desert nomads  done by T.E. Lawrence to embellish his Arabian classic. Like Lawrence of  Arabia, Sarah Lloyd is enchanted with her idea of the country that has taken her in, and by extension with the man who has made it possible for her to live there in the way she feels is most authentic.

The beauty that nourishes Sarah is hard to pinpoint in the surroundings she has chosen but she is quite lyrical when she finds it. Delighted by a profusion of "English wildflowers" she discovers in Amritsar, she catalogs them in a tumble of poetry that evokes Midsummer Night's Dream. "Everything was so perfect," she writes of Jungli's village, "the clear early morning, the smell of damp wheat, the flowers in the verges, and the sky flecked with birds."

But Eden does not come without flaws and Lloyd is smart enough--and observant enough--to notice them and chronicle them with the same exactitude that she uses for the unexpected splashes of beauty. The lack of privacy, the dearth of sympathy, the realization that village life has no place for individuality is all noted and explained without whining or sentimentality. Understanding that she is "a guest" who during her visit  "remained an outsider," Lloyd watches without judgment and--even more impressively--without self-consciousness. Never in her chronicle of her two years in rural India does she indulge in the wild paranoia that frequently strikes expats in Asia. What people think of her, she seems to have sensibly concluded, is none of her business. Instead, she decides, when it comes to this new life, she has "a lot to unlearn."

As she unlearns, she describes it all on paper. She acquires language so she can have her questions answered, and when she and Jungli leave his family's village to enter a religious community presided over by an enigmatic saint, her questions proliferate. She has a household to run, provisions to buy, dung to collect. Even though she shares a hut with another couple, she is forced to become house-proud. And she is given a new identity. Without the buffer of foster-parents and their defined place in their community, Sarah Lloyd is known by Jungli's name--when her new neighbors talk about her,  they call her "Pritam Singh's."

But truly this is who she never becomes--if anything or anyone possesses this woman, it is India,  not the man who gave her a life there. At the end of their time together, it is Jungli who receives the reader's sympathy as Lloyd  dismisses him in the book's final sentence, "I knew with absolute certainty that Jungli would love me until his death."

Tokyo Vice : An American Reporter On The Police Beat In Japan by Jake Adelstein (Pantheon Books)

Tokyo Vice

“Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you.  And maybe your family.  But we’ll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die.”  An ominous beginning to a true story told by an American reporter who worked the crime beat for one of Japan’s best known newspapers – the Yomiuri Shinbun (the Japanese paper, not  its English- language equivalent) which has a circulation of more than ten million a day.

The man who threatened him was a yakuza enforcer whose boss was Tadamasa Goto – a leader of the notorious yakuza gang, the Goto Gumi--and the subject of a story Adelstein was working on.  The yakuza boss had gotten a liver transplant at the Dumont-UCLA Liver Cancer Center for which Goto allegedly spent nearly a million US dollars. Some say the amount was actually three million and that some of the money was sent from Japan to the US through a casino in Las Vegas.

What made this a scoop to Adelstein was the question of how the man was able to get into the States.  He was on the watch list of U.S. Customs and Immigration, the FBI, and the DEA.  He was blacklisted – he should not have been able to set foot in the country.  And how did he become a priority for a liver transplant?

However given an ultimatum by Goto’s enforcer, Adelstein chose the path most of us would probably have also taken – he did not report the story.  Unfortunately, this decision would come back to haunt him.

There are a lot of books about Japan’s mafia – the yakuza, written by former yakuza members and people who have infiltrated the various gangs, including Yakuza Moon, written by the daughter of a former yakuza boss.  But Adelstein’s book isn’t just about the yakuza – it’s about the underside of Tokyo, in which the yakuza play a big part.  It’s about the Tokyo you won’t read about in any guide books.  It’s about the seamier side of life in one of the world’s biggest metropolis.

Adelstein takes us on his journey from becoming a student at Sophia (Joichi) University, to extending his studies of the Japanese language, to taking the “entrance exam” for the Yomiuri Shinbun, which is “kind of a newspaper SAT”. “If your score is high enough, you get an interview, and then another, and then another.  If you do well enough in your interviews, and if your interviewers like you, then you might get a job promise.”  Not only did Adelstein do well and pass all his interviews, apparently his interviewers liked him and told him to report for duty the following month or so.

As a cub reporter, Adelstein is first sent to Saitama Prefecture which people jokingly refer to as the New Jersey of Japan.  As he works closely with the police, he gets his feet wet by working on stories such as a juvenile using a bestselling book titled “The Perfect Manual of Suicide” for its intended purpose, a murder case of a snack-mama in Chichibu, and another murder case by a dog breeder in Saitama.  Finally, Adelstein gets transferred back to Tokyo, to Shinjuku Ward’s Kabukicho District – the Red Light Area of Tokyo where he is to work with the Tokyo Police Vice Squad.

The cases he writes about while working in Shinjuku make his Saitama stories seem mild in comparison.  One of his biggest news pieces was the Lucy Blackman story, a foreign woman who was raped and dismembered with her body parts hidden in a cave. He also wrote about the ATM thefts where the criminals would use a truck and a jackhammer and take out the entire machine in just a few minutes.  But when Adelstein uncovers the story of the nearly impotent Japanese government not doing anything about human trafficking, the book really picks up steam and reads like a non-stop thriller.

Although Japan is still safer than most countries in my opinion, it is not totally devoid of violence and crime.  And one cannot really tell the difference between a yakuza and a hard-working salaryman as the yakuza also have their hand in a lot of legitimate businesses.  It still amazes me that the yakuza can have their own businesses when the police know they’re guilty of racketeering, loan-sharking, human-trafficking, extortion and other crimes.  But still I love living in my adopted country.--Review written by Ernie Hoyt

The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty- Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins (University of California Press)

reluctant_communist_cvr “In January of 1965, twenty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins abandoned his post in South Korea, walked across the DMZ, and surrendered to communist North Korean soldiers standing sentry along the world’s most heavily militarized border.”

There has been a bit of controversy surrounding this book in the United States, Jenkins being an army deserter and all. But how can readers not be fascinated by the story of someone who lived and managed to survive for more than forty years in the reclusive Stalinist regime of North Korea? The biggest critics seem to be those who already have their preconceived opinions about him and are probably ignorant of most of the facts surrounding his story. Take for instance, the lady who says, "I don't know why he chose to come out now if he liked it there so much." This is obviously the opinion of someone who has not read his book.

It’s an extraordinary story because it is not only about Jenkins’ army desertion.  For the forty- plus years Jenkins spent in North Korea, he says he's lived a fairly ordinary life. Perhaps he lived a little better than some of North Korea's own citizens, but that doesn't mean he's had an easy time of it. He claims he was young, drunk and stupid when he crossed the DMZ, afraid that he was going to be sent to serve in Vietnam. He didn’t realize that his decision would have him stuck in another country for the next forty years

We probably would never have heard of Jenkins if it hadn't been for Japan’s biggest news of the decade when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.  It was at this historic meeting that Kim Jong-il admitted to his country’s program of abducting Japanese nationals and having them serve as instructors in the Japanese language and customs at spy schools located throughout North Korea.  Unfortunately, the talks were not as productive as had been hoped because the total number of abductees could not be confirmed with North Korea maintaining that there were only thirteen, with just five still surviving. One of the survivors was a woman named Hitomi Soga, Jenkins’ wife.

Jenkins fills us in on his life in North Korea in chronological order. He tells of his surrender-- which he had believed would be a temporary condition that would lead to his being rapidly sent back to the States where he would face a short jail sentence –- to his indoctrination into the communist regime. He describes meeting and being imprisoned with other defectors (who were mostly running from the law, or as Jenkins says in his own words, “were total fuck-ups as soldiers”), people who would eventually become his closest friends and, at times, his worst enemies.  A bit of sunshine and hope is visited upon him in 1980 when he marries Soga and starts a family.

The story becomes even more interesting when Soga and a few other abductees manage to escape from the country with the help of the Japanese government).  The abductees were given permission to visit Japan and their relatives on the condition that they would return to North Korea in a couple of weeks.  Instead they formally removed the pins of Kim Jong-il (which they were required to wear) on Japanese national television and refused to go back.  And so begins a new chapter as Soga works hard to get the rest of her family out of North Korea.

Before vilifying Jenkins, one should read this story of a young man who was scared, homesick and drunk, who now admits that he made the worst decision of his life by crossing the DMZ into North Korea.  It’s an inspirational story as well as the story of making a terrible choice-- he survives, finds love, has children, and in the end, is able to leave North Korea to join his wife in Japan.  Their children, who were both born and raised in North Korea, find themselves becoming new Japanese citizens, but that will probably be the subject of another book.  ----by Ernie Hoyt

Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Archipelago)

mandarins Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translated by Charles De Wolf (Archipelago Books)

As Basho hovers between life and death, his disciples perform the ritual act of brushing his lips with water, while their reactions to the poet’s passing range from revulsion to relief. A man prepares himself for his first murder, and the woman who is his conspirator readies herself for an unanticipated role in the killing the two have planned together. Young university graduates, on a seaside holiday before searching for jobs in Tokyo, watch young women fearlessly swimming among the jellyfish that have kept the students from plunging into the water. A saintly young man who is the protégé of Christian priests falls from grace and into penury, until an act of courage leads to his death, his redemption, and the revelation of the shadow world that he had made his own.

The characters in this collection of brief and haunting stories are poised between actions, where Ryunosuke Akutagawa examines them as though they were butterflies impaled on the pointed ends of pins. Each story is a carefully constructed world of sadness and a kind of hopeless beauty, which is precisely described in spare and graceful sentences. They linger and tease and disturb; they inhabit their readers in ways that are not always comfortable. They are quite possibly addictive.

The temptation to look at many of these stories as being an autobiographical glimpse of Akutagawa is great, especially since two of the most revealing, Cogwheels and The Life of a Fool, which explore the inner workingsof a tortured mind, both appeared just before he died of an overdose of veronal in 1927. What they do reveal is Akutagawa’s thoughts about his country after its rush from isolation to modernity, and in the beginning of its expansion before World War Two. The Garden, with its examination of tradition altered and destroyed, its “undeniable intimation of impending ruin,”clearly shows the author’s distaste for the changes that Japan went through during his lifetime.

Charles De Wolf’s notes at the conclusion of the book illuminate both the writer and his work, while cautioning in the afterword, “to relentlessly render factual—historical or biographical—what should be left as literary would surely spoil the story.”

It is certain, however, that these are stories that plunge fearlessly into the place that lies between sanity and madness, between tradition and modernity, between the past and the future. They capture the place that T.S. Eliot described, the spot where “between the motion and the act falls the shadow.” Written at the beginning of the last century, it is startling how they, and Akutagawa, speak to the time that we live in now.

(This review was first published by Rain Taxi and was written by Janet Brown.)

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Leaving Mother Lake by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu (Back Bay Books)

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When adolescence strikes us, are we guaranteed to long for something beyond what we have? Even in her home village, “where children could roam at our own will and visit from house to house and village to village without our mothers’ ever fearing for our safety” and where a woman could be certain she would not be forced into marital servitude by an oppressive husband or sullied by sexual scandal, Namu still yearns for something beyond these freedoms.

Perhaps matriarchy is not what we expect. That thing we call matriarchal culture is more accurately labeled as matrilineal descent model, and is neither inherently matriarchal nor egalitarian. Taking a thorough look at the Moso peoples’ complicated social structure, Namu’s story shows us that even her female-driven culture maintains a male-dominated public presence, wherein the culture is represented solely by men through trade and travel. Of course, proximity to bridal abduction rituals and other obviously male dominant practices of the Yi culture highlights the Moso feminism, which allows women to not only own property, but to control household politics, take and refuse lovers at will and have uncontested custody of children.

Despite Namu’s relative freedom as a woman, the culturally conditioned instruction given by her mother resembles caricatures of American housewives in the 1950’s. Emphasizing traditional models of female domestic leadership, Namu’s mother says: "You're a woman, you belong in the house, to the village. Your power is in the house. Your duty is to keep the house, to be polite to old people and to serve food to the men." The younger woman feels trapped by these expectations and by the gender division that allows women power in the domestic world of home and village but still insists that “only men could leave their mothers’ houses, and even they never left just to fulfill their personal ambitions.”

After getting a taste of the world beyond her village, Namu returns and receives a coveted employment position and seems destined for local fame. But she has already realized that her ambitions are much larger than her village can sustain. By pursuing her own unorthodox ambition, Namu rebels against more than her own mother; she rebels against cultural expectation and responsibility. It seems evident, though not explicitly acknowledged, that her ability to sustain ambition and to succeed relies upon the influence of her mother’s own rebellious spirit. The headstrong mother produces an even more fiercely headstrong daughter. It is this inheritance that is the most important and the most difficult to face.

Namu’s story is one about growing up and finding her own place in the world. She brings us from halcyon days in her mountain village, where she is barely touched by the Cultural Revolution that rages through China, to the experiential instruction she receives in the beauty and hardship of the world beyond Mother Lake. The storytelling is lively and maneuvered between the book’s two authors, providing readers with the character depth and the cultural context that makes Namu’s coming of age unforgettable.--by Kristianne Huntsberger

The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell (Pantheon)

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Images and memories usually emerge in a tangled coil when Americans remember the Vietnam War. It's a time that refuses to take on the detachment that comes with becoming part of past history, and remains so unexamined and raw that it still haunts two nations. For many in the United States, the demand of "Peace now" that echoed through the 60s remains unfulfilled, and the issues that divided the country then continue to gape, unbridged, decades after the war came to an end.

Tom Bissell's family history, like that of many children born in the 70s, was intertwined with this war. His father was changed by it, his parents' marriage was destroyed by it, and Bissell grew up with Vietnam on his mind, struggling to learn about his father's time there.

Given the chance to travel to Vietnam with his father, Bissell finds that his carefully acquired abstract facts find a kind of uneasy alliance with the visceral recollections that the country pulls from ex-Marine Captain John Bissell. Skillfully blending military history with his father's memories, Bissell provides a picture of Vietnam, both in the past and during the present, that is harrowing, beautiful and at times surprisingly funny. (This is a family vacation after all, as well as an excavation of a soldier's past, and Bissell is an adult child with snake phobia.)

He shows the war from both sides, giving equal respect to U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers, without glossing over the horrors that were forced upon men and changed them forever. John Bissell, a man known to his fellow-soldiers as "Nice Guy," finds himself killing women who are shooting at him with Kalashnikovs in battle. "War is its own country," Bissell reminds us, "and creates its own citizens."

This is a book that offers no easy answers in its discussion of this particular war and the lessons that it carries over to the present day. Bissell's retelling of how the U.S. removed itself from Vietnam is stark, brutal, and essential for America to remember as it contemplates a withdrawal from Iraq. The memories that his father dredges up are pieces of truth that need to be kept in mind as military personnel return home from the Middle East.

"One of the books I read says that World War II taught its generation that the world is dark but essentially just. Vietnam taught its generation that the world is absurd," Tom Bissell tells his father.

"That's horseshit," his father replies in their continuing argumentative discussion that proves to be honest, loving, and illuminating.

The lessons of the Vietnam War have yet to be fully discussed, but these two men provide a fine example of how to begin, how to listen, and how to come to an internal and personal peace.

Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell (Atlantic Monthly Press)

You can't judge a book by its cover, or in this case by its title either. Anyone who neglects to keep that tired old truism in mind when buying Joe Studwell's latest is in for a very big surprise. This book is not a rollicking romp through the Asian underworld, or the sort of glossy, glitzy true crime extravaganza that poses as investigative journalism. After all, Mr. Studwell writes for the Economist, not for Vanity Fair, and he admits that his title "is more than a little tongue-in-cheek."

Tycoons is the correct term for these "colourful, obscenely rich and interesting people" who dominate the economic turf of Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia. Governments come and go, underworld figures rise and are deposed, but the tycoons continue to flourish. Not even the economic meltdown of the late 90s significantly diminished their fortunes. Instead many of them became even more wealthy during that financial bloodbath.

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Immigration and colonialism were the groundwork from which these fortunes came. The large influx of Chinese, Arabs, Persians, and Indians provided a hungry and willing labor force for colonial powers, becoming "economic entrepreneurs" while the local aristocracy were used to govern the native population, becoming "political entrepreneurs." Long after the disappearance of colonialism, these divisions still remain in place.

Mr. Studwell makes it clear that the wealth of the tycoons is based upon monopolies, cartels and perhaps most of all, a hardworking and frugal labor force who are encouraged, if not forced, to use saving accounts. Banks in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, with their huge pool of "excessive savers," are ready sources of investment capital and "money makes more money."

Putting much of the blame for the Asian financial crisis upon the tycoons and their freewheeling financial practices, this book bristles with fierce economic facts that will deter many a casual reader. Those who persist will be horrified by the rapidity with which a region's economic structure can be reduced to rubble, and may wonder not if, but when their own financial security will be devoured by shortsighted greed.

In the midst of all of the history and the economic gloom and the politics that are straightforwardly corrupt, the tycoons, the "godfathers" prevail through the book with the same resilience and charm that sustain them in life. Chin Sophonpanich, the Thai creator of one of Southeast Asia's leading banks, is remembered by another financial leader as "absolutely charming-he had about six mistresses." Li Ka-shing, number ten on the 2006 Forbes list of the world's richest men, responded to the kidnaping of his son by withdrawing one billion Hong Kong dollars, which was so huge a sum that the kidnapper couldn't fit it all into his car and had to make two trips to carry it away. An unnamed tycoon, whose son was sent a box of chocolates by a business rival, told his offspring to feed a piece to his dog, and if that wasn't fatal, "try one on his wife."

Although Mr. Studwell concludes with the confession that he used the "godfathers" as a "structural sleight" to convey a larger history, ultimately they take possession of his book with the same ease and expertise that they would absorb any encroachment on their territory. And why not? It all belongs to them.

China To Me by Emily Hahn (out of print in the United States)

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Emily Hahn was brilliant, beautiful and shameless. Arriving in Shanghai in 1935, she rapidly scandalized the city's community of Westerners by taking up a Chinese lover, an addiction to opium and a gibbon named Mr. Mills, who was her constant escort. (She was once enraged by a dinner party invitation that ended with "Regret we cannot extend the invitation to Mr. Mills.") Later, when Emily announced that she and Charles Boxer, a married British army officer, were going to have a child, an American dowager's huffy response was, "Some women will stop at nothing to bring discredit to our nation."

Although her personal life makes dazzling reading, if that were all there was to Emily Hahn, it would be easy to dismiss her as a precursor to Bridget Jones. Emily, however, was no literary bimbo. She was a talented and professional writer who meticulously reported what she saw and how she lived in China before and during World War II.

Chosen by the Soong sisters to be their official biographer, Emily followed them to Chungking, where Japanese planes rained bombs upon Chiang Kai-shek's government and where Madame Chiang poured her legendary energy into making marmalade. Watching the bombing of the British Embassy while picnicking in the neighboring hills, Emily gives a vividly detailed description of the visual spectacle while confessing, "Sometimes it was too much for our nerves."

When World War II began and Japanese troops seized Hong Kong, Emily was there, with her newborn daughter whose father was now a wounded prisoner of war. It was a time during which she resisted the melodrama that could well have taken over her life. Death, starvation, looting and rape are all in the backdrop of Emily’s story, while never being allowed center stage. As she manages to find food for her baby and for Charles, as she makes her way through the Japanese bureaucracy in a successful attempt to stay out of an internment camp, as she learns how to maneuver in a black market economy, Emily tells her story in the calm, dispassionate tones of a woman who had no energy to spare for flamboyant emotional displays.

Explaining why gold and diamonds are the key to wartime survival, or the stark terror felt after waking up after a night of serious drinking to discover that while in her cups she had slapped the Japanese chief of Foreign Affairs, or the shame of listening to American propaganda broadcasts that extolled the success of bombing raids on Hong Kong which had in truth accomplished nothing at all, Emily gives a clear and rarely seen picture of war, the one that is shared by the noncombatants who struggle to survive.

Emily rather unfairly dismissed China To Me as an "egotistical history" but generations of readers have given it the status of a classic. As resilient as Ms. Hahn herself, this book has bounced in and out of print since it was first published in 1946, and waits now in used bookstores across the world to be rediscovered one more time.

The Gate by Francois Bizot (Vintage Books/Random House)

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Francois Bizot was a Khmer-speaking Frenchman, an ethnologist who searched for old manuscripts and art that would illuminate the religion and customs of ancient Cambodia. A man whose only gods were Saul Steinberg and Charlie Parker, Bizot lived in a village near Angkor Wat with his Cambodian wife and their little daughter. His world was “enameled with paddy fields, dotted with temples, a country of peace and simplicity.” Then the war in Vietnam spilled over the border into Cambodia and Bizot and his family moved to the urban safety of Phnom Penh.

While working thirty miles from Phnom Penh with two of his Cambodian colleagues, Bizot and his companions were captured by a group of Khmer Rouge. They marched at gunpoint for three days to a remote village, where they were confined on their backs with their ankles shackled within two wooden beams. As they lay there alone and in pain, they could hear the sound of bare feet approaching and a group of young girls, “pretty,” Bizot noted, “ just like those from my own village,” surrounded them and spat on their faces.

The man who was in charge of this Khmer Rouge outpost was young, thin and suffering from malaria. “His authority was total. His silences were mightier than words.” Repeatedly he came to Bizot with pen and paper to receive written declarations of innocence. These statements were written in French but the conversations that Bizot began to have with his jailer were in Khmer. “The bonds gradually forming between us depended entirely on our capacity to understand each other on common ground and this could be done only in his language.”

It was Bizot's ability to communicate in Cambodia’s language that convinced his captor that he was innocent and prompted this man to persuade the Khmer Rouge leadership that the Frenchman should be freed. After three months of imprisonment, of living in shackles, witnessing death, and experiencing humiliation and torment, Bizot was released. No other prisoner left that camp alive; his Cambodian colleagues were executed after his departure, despite assurances from the leader of the camp that they would be safe.

Four years later, the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh. The Americans had fled, Bizot had sent his daughter to France, his wife joined the crowd of Cambodians who were ordered to evacuate the city and took to the roads on foot.

Sent to the French embassy with all other foreign residents of Phnom Penh, Bizot used his Khmer language skills once more to advantage, becoming the link between the Khmer Rouge leadership and the foreign community, and the only foreigner authorized to leave the embassy walls. His descriptions of a city emptied of its inhabitants and of the Cambodian people who were denied the safety that lay behind the gate of the embassy are haunting and soul-wrenching.

Long after the Pol Pot years had passed, Bizot returned to visit Cambodia. The camp where he was held has become famous as Anlong Veng and is now a tourist attraction. The man who held him prisoner and was responsible for his release is known to the world as Douch, the infamous leader at Tuol Sleng, the Phnom Penh high school that was turned into a center of torture and death. Bizot’s history, lived in Khmer, written in French, and translated into English, provides stunning testimony to whatever International Tribunal may someday stand in belated judgment.

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

Teza, known as “The Songbird,” lives in a cage, sentenced to twenty years of solitary confinement in a Burmese prison, a twenty-five-year-old man who wanted to be a rock star but whose Twelve Songs of Protest fed Burma’s rebellion instead. Locked away in a “teak coffin,” he is starving for food, for the touch of the woman who, during the first seven years of his imprisonment, married someone else, and for the freedom “to speak and be spoken to.”

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Teza’s name means the fire of power and glory, and this fire lives in his voice. He sings his songs almost silently because to send them out for others to hear would add years to his prison sentence. He talks to the insects that live in his cell, to a jailer who becomes his friend and ally, and to the man who brings him meals and will betray him.

Within the walls of this prison lives a child of a man who had worked there until his death turned the seven-year-old boy into an orphan. Searching for a safe place, the child builds himself a shelter from bits of scrap and becomes an errand boy, carrying meals and messages and contraband to the prisoners. The prison is his world; he dreams of leaving to see Rangoon’s splendor but his fear holds him back. At twelve, he is a boy without a name, called Nyi Lay, Little Brother, who hoards old books given to him by prisoners but who cannot read, who never eats enough food to subdue the pain of his growing legs, and who has learned that to be silent is to be unharmed.

A cheap ball-point pen is the instrument of Teza’s betrayal and a treasure that inexplicably lands in Nyi Lay’s path. Soon after this new possession comes his way, the boy begins serving meals to a prisoner whose jaw is so badly broken that he cannot speak or eat without tearing pain, a man who pushes his food tray back to Nyi Lay and manages to utter one agonizing syllable, “Eat.”

Teza, brutally beaten and pulled back from death by a political system who values him as a symbol of imprisoned rebellion, is diverted from his morphine-fueled dreams only by the boy who brings him food that he cannot eat, a nameless, silent child who resembles Teza’s younger brother. He feeds Nyi Lay, speaks to the boy through the jagged pain of his broken jaw, and slowly, in a place of brutality and impotence and filth, Teza hatches a plan filled with hope and power.

Karen Connelly has recreated this prison world and its inhabitants with careful research and the piercing language of a poet. The Lizard Cage is not an easy book to read nor is it easy to forget once finished. It is a book that will haunt imaginations, inhabit minds, and perhaps change lives.

Ho Chi Minh: A Biography by Pierre Brocheux/translated by Claire Duiker (Cambridge)

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh

It was an internationally acknowledged fact, when World War II was over, that Vietnam needed "protection". The French were eager to repossess their former colony. Chiang Kai-shek's government wanted to welcome Vietnam into "the great Chinese family." Franklin Roosevelt claimed that Vietnam would flourish under American stewardship. The only dissenter to these magnanimous offers was Vietnam.

On September 2, 1945, a declaration of independence announcing the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was read aloud by Ho Chi Minh. Middle-aged and physically frail, this was a man who had been so sick with malaria that he had been, only months before, “ a bunch of bones, staring with glazed eyes,” a man of many names who had been away from his country for thirty years and was now its figurehead.

Nguyen Tat Thanh was decades away from being Ho Chi Minh in 1911, when he arrived in France from Vietnam, an easily scandalized twenty-one-year-old who immediately asked “Why don’t the French civilize their own people instead of trying to civilize us?” Changing his name to Nguyen Ai Quoc, Nguyen the Patriot, he became a political activist, petitioning the Allies at Versailles in 1919 for Vietnam’s equality, autonomy and political freedom.

Lenin’s writing persuaded Quoc that revolution would end colonial oppression, and led him to Communism and to Moscow, where he attended Lenin’s funeral, standing for hours in the frigid cold that left scars on his hands from frostbite.

Quoc traveled, studied and forged political ties in Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Europe. Delightful, diplomatic and blessed with a gift for languages, he was described by the poet Osip Mandelstam as “a man of culture…the culture of the future.”

Arrested and imprisoned in Hong Kong as a Communist criminal, Quoc faced extradition to Vietnam where he was faced with execution for “plots and assassinations.” His charm saved him. A British solicitor, Frank Loseby, visited Quoc and later wrote, “After thirty minutes, I was entirely won over.” Quoc’s death from tuberculosis was announced, and, with Loseby’s help, he was disguised as a Chinese scholar and escaped to Russia. Years later he reappeared in Vietnam as the resurrected Nguyen Ai Quoc, after having established himself as Ho Chi Minh, Well of Light, leader of the Viet Minh resistance movement and the man who would spearhead his country’s battle for freedom.

Ho’s life was defined by politics and his passion for Vietnam’s liberation; this biography is dense with historical and political background. Yet the man shines through the thicket of facts, with his wit and his poetry making Ho alive on the page: a Confucianist who adapted to Stalin and Mao, a man who fought France but loved the French, a poet who, while living in a cave for a year, wrote “Really, the life of the revolutionary is not lacking in charm.” Pierre Brocheux brings out a concise but skillful portrait from history’s obscuring layers of sainthood and demonization, allowing Ho to declare once more, “I am a normal man.”