Thailand's Best Street Food by Chawadee Nualkhair (Tuttle)

All over the world people are looking for street food, except perhaps for the people who grew up eating it. They’re often looking for more “sophistication” in their dining choices, which range from McDonalds to sous vide, depending on their income levels. They’re replaced by travelers, whose eagerness to find street food is exceeded only by their ignorance. Where? What? When? (And sometimes)—Why?
 

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Several years ago, Chawadee Nualkhair brought light to the darkness for Bangkok visitors when she wrote Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, which is now out of print but still relevant if you can find one on alibris or at a used bookstore. (I suggest Dasa Books and Coffee in Bangkok.) In its wake, she brings Thailand’s Best Street Food to eaters whose ambition surpasses their local knowledge—or for Thai residents who are overwhelmed by their culinary choices.

It may seem hubristic to the point of madness to narrow Thailand’s street food choices to a scant 160 pages, but that isn’t what Ms. Nualkhair is doing. She has written a sort of eater’s primer, giving a springboard of information that will launch the reader’s own journey of discovery—or, with any luck at all, her own series of street food guides to the regions she introduces in her latest book.

She begins with questions: Is street food dying out? What is a street food stall? How did she make her selections for this book? The question and answer that I loved best in her first book is absent here: How do you determine the hygiene of a particular vendor? Nualkhair’s advice is look carefully at the jars that hold condiments; if they aren’t clean, walk away.

A visual glossary to different kinds of noodles with accompanying ingredients and broth, fried noodles, rice dishes, appetizers and snacks, desserts, and beverages, with names in both English and Thai is almost worth the price of the book. Don’t want ice in your drink? Point to the Thai script for it and shake your head vigorously with a dramatic rendition of “Nononono." The only thing missing is the Thai script for “Where is the toilet?” which just might come in handy.

Otherwise the reader is covered, beyond a doubt. There are maps to each culinary destination; there are names and addresses of the food stalls both in English and in Thai, there are wonderful and tempting photographs (that certainly deserve more space than they have been given), and every so often there is a recipe—Elvis Suki’s Grilled Scallops, anyone? Adventurous eaters are even told which stalls have restrooms and which do not provide bathroom tissue.

The choices range from north to south, with the greatest concentration given to Bangkok. But every region is given careful attention—think quality over quantity, along with information that will help in conducting further independent study.

Really, what more does anyone need? On my next trip to Thailand, this book is going along too.~Janet Brown

Bangkok's Top Fifty Street Food Stalls by Chawadee Nualkhair (Wordplay)

 

I'll never forget how amazed I was when I first arrived in Bangkok and a friend took me for my first meal. We sat by the side of a road on teetering chairs with friendly dogs waiting to see what we ordered and ate some of the best food I'd ever had in my life.

But I was lucky. I had a friend who lived here who helped initiate me into the wonderful world of street stalls. Even now, sixteen years later, when I go to a new neighborhood in Bangkok, I'm overwhelmed by the food choices and sometimes by the looks of the unfamiliar food carts. I know the food is going to be terrific but where to start and how much will selective blindness play in my decision?

I am a huge fan of eating on the street. Not only is it more fun than a food court, the food is usually fresher, since few food stalls have access to refrigeration. but I often wonder--if I hadn't been guided by a friend early on, would I have ventured into the joys of street food? How do travelers who have only a few days in Bangkok become immersed in this part of Thai culture?

The answer is easy now--they buy this book. Chawadee Nualkhair has made food pilgrimages to neighborhoods that travelers often frequent and has found places she loves there. In a city with "300,000 to 500,000 food stalls," she has narrowed the choices down to a manageable number, with dishes ranging from fish maw soup in Chinatown to samosas in the Sikh neighborhood, from mussel omelets to pork satay--and yes-- phad thai and papaya salad too. She offers a comprehensive glossary of Thai desserts and beverages (butterfly pea juice anyone?) with a dictionary of useful phrases like "Where is the bathroom?" written both in English transliteration and in Thai. (Essential for those of us who find tonal languages daunting.)

Perhaps the saddest part of this book today is her description of Soi 38 on Sukhumvit Road, which was once Bangkok's most convenient "food stall market", offering a splendid variety of choices as evening approaches and the night air turns cool(er). Providing food for the hungry from six at night until three the next morning, this is now gone in the name of progress

Yet there are also sections of this book that still thrive and will keep even those jaded Old Bangkok Hands happy as well, with food in the Hualamphong area and Chinatown--and maps to make the discovery process painless.

The perfect size to tuck into my bag, this book is my new best friend-read it and eat! Its wonderful photographs are sure to jump-start your appetite--and that's a good thing. If you're here for a week, you're going to want to try all 50 of Chawadee's choices. (Just be prepared to eat seven meals a day--and eight on Sunday!)~Janet Brown

Mindfulness and Murder by Nick Wilgus (Crime Wave Press)

 

What! A mystery set in Bangkok without a bar-girl to be seen, in which the detective is completely Thai and a Buddhist monk to boot? Yes, that's right--Father Ananda is a man who observes all of the 227 precepts that are demanded of Theravada monks, which means no alcohol, no nicotine, no joys of the flesh--not even coffee passes his lips. He's a far cry from most of the crime-solvers in Bangkok--but then authors write about what they know and author Nick Wilgus clearly knows more about Bangkok than what can be seen from a bar stool.

When a body is found inside a large water jar in one of the temple's bathrooms, eyes gouged out, skin embellished with cigarette burns, and a large yellow candle jammed into its mouth, Father Ananda is one of the first to know. Before taking his vows, he was a police officer, a man all too familiar with the smell of death, and his abbot charges him with the task of finding who the murderer might be, working with the police from the privileged position of a monastic insider.

The dead body is that of Noi, one of the temple boys, street kids who find food and shelter on sacred ground. Like many of them, this boy has a past filled with drugs, violence, and sexual abuse. Father Ananda soon discovers that Noi had been part of a drug-trafficking ring within the temple--one that may involve the monks themselves. When one of the monks disappears, leaving a hidden cache of drugs behind, Father Ananda is certain that some of his monastic brothers are not who they pretend to be.

Mindfulness and Murder introduces one of the most intriguing detectives since Hercules Poirot and "his little grey cells." Father Ananda is a complex character who became a monk after his wife and son were slaughtered in an act of underworld retaliation. He carries his grief and anger deep below his Buddhist practice and the ancient prayers he has memorized; he wrestles with the memory of physical affection and his innately Thai appreciation of good food. He brusquely rejects the tender respect shown by Jak, the boy who helps him with tasks of daily living in return for the teaching that a senior monk provides. On the outside, he is an observant monk; on the inside Father Ananda is an emotional minefield.

And he is an analytical detective, well aware of the criminal mind and the world it thrives in. While set in the quiet serenity of a Buddhist temple, Father Ananda presents readers with a knowledgeable view of a Bangkok rarely shown in fiction--its street life, its food stalls, its hidden neighborhoods--all within the framework of a mystery that serves up a macabre surprise in a coffin and a murderous cobra.

Previously published in Thailand, Mindfulness and Murder introduces a series of Father Ananda mysteries, and was made into a critically acclaimed movie that promptly went on the international film festival circuit and now can be seen on Netflix. Weighing in at just a whisper over 200 pages, this mystery packs more excitement and background information than any of its bloated counterparts. Forget John Burdett--Nick Wilgus is Our Man in Bangkok (even if he has moved to the U.S.)~Janet Brown

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs (William Morrow)

Yesterday was the sort of Sunday that Seattle loves to inflict on its inhabitants, so dark that my lamps were on all day and the rain trickled on and off in an annoying drip. I picked up a book that I had been meaning to read for a week, fell into it, and stayed there until bedtime--The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is that sort of book.

This morning I woke up haunted by its heroine, simply because I'd never encountered her in fiction before. Surprisingly and originally, center stage wasn't taken by the young widow, but the 85-year-old grandmother.

Goldie pops into life on the first page and it's clear that she isn't the typical matriarch; if Anna "had known it was her grandmother calling, she would not have answered at all." Fortunately she picks up and begins a reluctant adventure, driving her grandmother from Manhattan to San Francisco in a vintage Rolls-Royce.

At the onset of World War II, Goldie was given a portfolio of priceless Japanese prints to keep safe for a friend who faced internment. Now she wants to return them to her friend's brother, who owns a large antique business on the opposite coast--and what Goldie wants, Goldie gets.

What begins as a simple road trip novel is soon usurped by Goldie's story, Goldie's style, Goldie's secret. The story folds back into San Francisco of the 1940s, where a smart and charismatic young woman finds her footing in one of the city's leading department stores. She falls deeply in love with a man she can't have and has the brains to go on with her life without him. She educates herself in deliberate ways. "I made a conscious decision," she tells a friend, "I decided to love Madeleine Vionnet and to hate Schiaparelli."

Much of Goldie's life is pragmatic, but it's always suffused with joy--she never ventures into Scarlett O'Hara territory. She's too smart for that. And she's smart enough to never tell everything she knows--her inner life remains wrapped in Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier until the last page of the last chapter.

Nothing in this delightful novel is exactly what it is expected to be. The Nightingale Palace itself is an elegant joke, Goldie's successful first marriage is based upon an unspoken truth, the reason for her cross-country odyssey with her granddaughter becomes almost irrelevant as the trip progresses. What is always marvelously clear is Goldie's allure, undimmed by age.

"Cognizant" is one of Goldie's favorite words. By the time she is done, everyone who meets her is cognizant of how love of life can keep a woman vibrant, attractive, and a force of nature well into old age.~Janet Brown

 

Yokohama Yankee by Leslie Helm (Chin Music Press)

Nihonjinron, the theory of “Japaneseness”, the belief that “the Japanese are a special race of people”, is briefly introduced by Leslie Helm at the beginning of his family memoir, Yokohama Yankee. Over the next three hundred pages, he will write around this theory, never directly about it, making his book both subtle and frustrating. His narrative loops in and out of different time periods, different lives, different parts of the world, never completely confronting the question of what it is to be Japanese in a body that declares itself a foreigner, but always glancing and hinting at the surreal state of “shifting from one dimension to another.”

My Family’s Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan is the subtitle to Yokohama Yankee. The title itself is ambiguous, because the only fully Western member of the Helm family was German, not a Yankee at all. None of patriarch Julius Helm’s children, born of a Japanese mother, publicly assumed any identity other than German. Julius’s youngest son, captured as a German soldier fighting in China during the first World War, was a Japanese prisoner of war and identified in the press as “ainoko” or “in between.” The word also, Leslie Helms explains, means “mongrel dog.” “What was it like to be compared to a mongrel dog?” he asks. It’s a question that he explores by describing the short and tortured life of his own father, a narrative that weaves in and out of his family history from the first chapter to the last.

Half Japanese, Donald Helm was the son of a business magnate who was born in the United States, had an American passport, grew up as a German, and married a woman who was also German/Japanese. Surrounded by Western friends from different countries who all spoke English, Donald left Japan when he was fourteen for California, at the beginning of World War II.

His family spent the war hiding their Japanese blood to avoid internment. “They’ll say we are Japanese,” Donald’s father told him in 1943 when the FBI was on the way to the Helm household, “It’s a lie. Just ignore it. Remember we are Americans.” Soon after the visitation, the local newspaper’s headline blared “Piedmont Helms Japs.” It was perhaps the first time Donald had been directly confronted with the knowledge that on both sides of his family, he was half Japanese, as well as German, and an American citizen.

It’s a sad irony that at the one time when the Helm family’s German and Japanese heritage would have been buttressed by the alliance between Germany and Japan, the U.S. passports of Donald’s family again put them in the position of being outsiders. When Donald returned to Japan, he came back as one of the country's conquerors, part of the occupying army.

His son Leslie was born in Japan, raised as American, and is one-quarter Japanese. “Growing up in Japan as a foreigner, a gaijin, that outsider status became a central part of my identity…always on display, separated from the society around me.”

Not until much later in his life, when he and his American wife adopt two children who are fully Japanese, does Leslie understand that the society and culture of Japan can also bestow “outsider status” upon its own citizens. The bloodlines and pedigrees of Japanese families, the knowledge of who one’s forbears were, makes adoption unpopular. “If Japanese families found it so difficult to adopt Japanese children just because they were biologically unrelated to them, I asked, how could they ever hope to accept people from different cultures?”

Although the five generations of the Helm family in Japan were successful and respectable, part of their family history, the Japanese part, was almost thoroughly obscured, while much of their heritage in Germany would always be a mystery. Yokohama Yankee uncovers the Japanese roots of this family, the dazzling and often tragic history of the nation that would never claim them, and the details of Leslie’s search to reconcile the disparities that had destroyed his father. It is a book that is both oblique and revealing, one that raises as many questions as it answers.~Janet Brown

This review was previously published in the International Examiner.

Romancing the East by Jerry Hopkins (Tuttle)

 

Jerry Hopkins is approaching the 40-book mark and for that alone we should all go to Bangkok and take him out on the town. His writing life has swept from rock-and-roll L.A. to Hawaii to Thailand, and his biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, has become a classic. If there's one writer who's fully qualified to examine the lives and work of other writers, it's the redoubtable Mr. Hopkins.

His latest book is subtitled A Literary Odyssey from the Heart of Darkness to the River Kwai, and it's a trip worth taking. Think of it as a series of conversations about almost every writer who has ever made Asia their subject matter--thirty-four writers in thirty-two essays. It's far too lively a discussion to be thought of as a survey course of literature about Asia--the opinions and insights found here are born from a barroom, not a classroom. And that is a very good thing indeed. 

Hopkins examines the lives, work, and settings of other authors in a way that makes you want to read the books he writes about and find out more information about their authors. Each essay is carefully and thoughtfully written by a man who obviously loves to read and who respects the writers whose books come into his life.

Not for him the cheap shot--he uses humor in his portrayals of writers but he is never snide. It's difficult to imagine that anyone could find something new to say about Anna Leonowens, the lady whose book is still banned in the Kingdom of Thailand, as well as the movies that were spawned by it, but Hopkins does. "...Anna Leonowens was the Victorian era's version of a "gonzo" journalist, a predecessor to Hunter Thompson, a writer with imagination and bravado who didn't let facts get in the way of a good story." Suddenly a picture of a hoop-skirted lady sitting beside Hunter in the backseat of a convertible with the top down, "just outside of Barstow when the drugs kicked in," is rooted in the imaginations of readers, and Anna and the King of Siam will never be the same.

"Elfish everything seems, for everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious," Hopkins quotes Lafcadio Hearn in 19th century Japan and then remarks, "It is as if the writer were describing a visit to Middle Earth, where hobbits lived." Hopkins is a master at hooking his readers with a well-turned description and then launching into a provocative literary discussion; his essay on Kipling alone, with literary criticism by Teddy Roosevelt included, is enough to bring a whole new wave of readers to Kim.

Hopkins is not, as he terms W. Somerset Maugham with a fair degree of asperity, "a predatory gossip." In his examination of Marguerite Duras, he tells about her sexagenarian habit of downing "up to nine liters of cheap Bordeaux a day" as a way of explaining her limited literary output at that time ("as little as one sentence a day.") And he all but cheers for her when she "sobers up in 1982 at a Paris hospital" and finishes the book that will make her famous, The Lover, when she is 68 years old.

Even when he could rightfully be vicious, when he writes about what he knows well that has been claimed by men who know it far less thoroughly, Jerry Hopkins is kind, fair-minded, and insightful. Michel Houellebecq and John Burdett are followers of a time-honored tradition, come to Thailand, find the sex industry, and write about it. "Their novels placed in Thailand," Hopkins says, "...were among the better crafted of the lot, but none of the others exceeded them in grisly exploitation, creating a Thailand that was not only licentious, but also ridiculous." He goes on to back up this assessment by letting the writers' books prove it for him, which they accomplish masterfully.

"For those who enjoy sleeping with literary ghosts," Hopkins provides locations where these august shades might still be hanging around. Although by no means a guidebook, tucking away a copy of Romancing the East in the bottom of a carry-on could be one of the happiest decisions that a traveler to Asia will make. Take it on a plane with you; give it to a friend; find Jerry Hopkins and buy him a beer. ~Janet Brown

Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker (Simon & Schuster)

 

Mass tourism is becoming a world-changing industry, says Elizabeth Becker, with international borders crossed by "a billion travelers" in 2012 and more to come in the future. It's an industry that "creates $3 billion dollars in business every day. If frequent-flier miles were a currency, it would be one of the most valuable in the world." "At least one out of every ten people around the world is employed by the industry, according to Wolfgang Weinz of the International Labor Organization."

It's also an industry with little regulation and superficial information. Travel writing is largely a collection of puff pieces in glossy magazines, and bland, almost unreadable laudatory journalism in newspaper travel sections. Online information is dominated by the dubious wisdom provided by Wikipedia and hotel booking websites. Hard facts are hard to come by.

This is why Overbooked is both a blessing and a disappointment. Becker seems confused about whether she should write about what she has experienced or what she has gleaned from other sources. Her section on cruise travel is informative and  shocking--and personal. She's been there, done that, and investigated without pulling punches. The exploitation of cruise ship workers, the pollution caused by the ships' untreated sewage when on the open seas, and the environmental impact caused by brief, rapid surges of thousands of shoppers in Alaska, Venice, and Belize is well explained in this portion of Overbooked.

China, "at the center of the tourism gold rush" is given short shrift, to the point that it's justifiable to wonder if Becker has been there since her initial trip in 1978. In less than fifty pages, she races through a thumbnail history of change since the Communist victory in 1949, focusing on Beijing and its "cultural suicide," going from "every storybook about old China," to "a modern "Anywhere" city; looking skeptically at quotes from Western tourists about their Chinese travel experiences; reporting statistics given by hoteliers and owners of tour businesses; closing with her own time spent with rapacious tour guides in polluted areas. This section is so scanty and so formulaic that it feels as though Becker, pressed by a deadline, simply fleshed out her notes.

Far better is her section on travel in Cambodia, as one would expect from the woman who wrote the brilliant history of that country, "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Revolution. Becker clearly knows and loves Cambodia; she devotes less space to it than she does to China but the difference is for Cambodia, every one of her words counts. She writes eloquently and knowledgeably about the destructive effects of mass tourism on the splendors of Angkor Wat, of the commercialization of the Pol Pot years at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, centers of "dark tourism," the land grabs that, since 2000, have "evicted over 100,000 people in Phom Penh alone," the casinos that have been built on the country's borders, "at least 32" of them, attracting gamblers, money launderers, and sex tourists.

When she embarks upon the subject of sex tourism, Becker becomes sloppy, muddling statistics of men who have sex with prostitutes with stories of men who have sex with children, Citing Somaly Mam's autobiography of her forcible entry into prostitution at the age of twelve, her repeated torture and rape as a sex slave, Becker links this to the evils of sex tourism, while ignoring that Somaly's prostitution was in brothels that served Cambodian men. This sort of cavalier approach to a tragic situation serves nobody, least of all the credibility of Overbooked.

Becker is at her best when she carefully researches the different forms of travel that exist for the discriminating tourist: ecotourism, medical tourism, safari tourism, shopping tourism, retired-senior tourism. Dubai is eviscerated as the luxury-shopping capital of the world, and Costa Rica is revealed as a natural paradise, successfully coping with over 2 million tourists a year. Still even when she shows herself as the fine journalist that her readers have come to expect, she provides a quick overview of too much, too fast. "...this book is not meant to be encyclopedic," Becker tells us, but it could have been more substantial. Overbooked is overstuffed and underdone--and that is too bad.~Janet Brown

Burmese Light by Tom Vater and Hans Kemp (Visionary Press)

 

Stone Buddha statues poised near the golden evening glow of an intricately carved temple wall, the gleam of gold radiating from the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda that defines the Yangon skyline, a line of young nuns garbed in rose-pink robes—this book’s introduction to Burma is portrayed through images of that country’s strong spiritual faith, which underpins Burmese Light as it does the country itself. The beauty of its temples, the bare feet of monks as they walk on their alms rounds, the playfulness of novice nuns and monks who are still children, the 4000 temple ruins stretching across the plain of Bagan, all shown against a glorious open sky with its rich variety of light, are the images that comprise much of this book. They are almost otherworldly in their undisturbed relationship to the world that swirls around them, a backdrop that is both natural and man-made, enduring and temporal, changing faster in the past year than it has in previous decades.

A procession of oxcarts makes its way to a traditional village Nat Festival; there they will watch men in heavy make-up and ornate robes become mediums for the spirits that briefly take up residence within the body of the men who channel them. A heavily laden motorcycle transports young lambs to market, one sprawled across the driver’s lap, two more peering from a basket that’s tightly bungie-corded to a platform built over the rear tire. In Yangon the traffic that flows past the Shwedagon is decidedly more modern—vans, SUVs, shiny new automobiles. Burma missed a large portion of the 20th century; now it’s eager to leap into the 21st.  “By the end of the 19th century,” author Tom Vater says of Yangon, “it boasted public services on a par with those of London.” Infrastructure has crumbled since then and inhabitants are hungry for civic improvements.

Although showing colonial buildings in Yangon and the old palace moat in Mandalay, Hans Kemp’s photographs linger longest in the countryside where women sell bundles of firewood and men harvest rice by hand, where cheroots are smoked and betel is chewed, and women beautify their faces with swirls of a sunscreen and cosmetic paste ground from the bark of a thanaka tree. The diversity of the country’s people is well-represented in Burmese Light; with “some 135 distinct ethnic groups” bringing their cultures and customs to that of the Burmese, “who make up almost 70-90% of the population and dominate public life.” Beautiful, proud faces fill the pages of this book, jostling with the stunning landscape shots for pride of place.

In their creative collaboration, Kemp and Vater provide a taste of a country that is transforming itself, documenting Burma as changes began to come. This is far from a typical coffee table book. It’s a springboard into more exploration, more illumination, more… I'm begging for a sequel.~Janet Brown

Bizarre Thailand by Jim Algie (Marshall Cavendish)

When I bought books for an overnight train ride recently, one of them I’d already read,  I was living in Bangkok when Jim Algie’s Bizarre Thailand came out; it was in my personal library until I gave away excess baggage weight when I returned to the states. But I enjoy owning books written by friends so I bought a replacement copy. Halfway through my 22-hour trip, I opened it and found a whole new book waiting for me.

When I  still lived in Thailand, I was entertained by the glimpses into the bizarre and the grotesque that Jim provided, but the details of the book I ignored because they were all around me, every day. When I first read the small descriptions and insights that Jim provides, I shrugged. Yeah, yeah, right, let’s get on with it. But now I live in Seattle, returning to Bangkok once a year, and what delighted me most about Bizarre Thailand on my second reading is how well the book conveys the special quality of ordinary life in the Kingdom.

Where else but Thailand would a government coup be announced on TV with the words, “We have taken control of the city. Apologies for the inconvenience”? Or would the decision to replace gunfire executions of prisoners with death by lethal injection be celebrated at one of Bangkok’s grimmest prisons with performing pop stars, dancing ladyboys and the release of “more than 300 balloons to symbolize the spirits” of executed prisoners in the past? Or would gifts of toys, candy, and flowers be left for dead foetuses on display in glass jars at a grisly medical museum exhibit?

One of the people I like best in Bangkok is wonderfully profiled in the book’s fifth chapter, along with the information of where old CIA “spooks” hang out and where to hear Peter Driscoll and the Cruisers play British rockabilly (terrific musicians, by the way.) 

Close to Bangkok’s neon and noise is a quiet community where people go out in boats after dark to view thousands of fireflies flashing in the night—far from bizarre Thailand. In a nearby province, tourists are taken for overnight hikes in the jungle by seasoned troops, and farther down the road, a dude ranch waits to indulge the Inner Cowboy that lurks within many. 

Thailand’s deeply rooted respect for the supernatural is brought to light with anecdotes of a former Prime Minister making offerings to the God of Darkness, and the author’s girlfriend approaching a fertility shrine with trepidation, certain that she would become pregnant as a result. And the longstanding rivalry between Cambodia and Thailand is made clear through the prejudices of that same girlfriend, whose personality is so strong that at times she threatens to take over the book. (Throughout Bizarre Thailand, Jim persistently shows the face of Thai women as smart, strong people—whether they are the country’s leading forensic expert, a transgender Thai boxing champion, or the founder of Empower, a group that educates sex workers.)

Where to find vegetarian food during Buddhist Lent (look for the yellow flags on street vendors’ carts), where to have your fortune told (take a translator), where to gain merit by buying a coffin for a destitute corpse (Wat Hualamphong), where to have a drink in Chiang Mai at a place where your money is going to help the female staff have regular days off, sick leave, and Social Security (the Can Do Bar)—these are some of the details that underpin the stories of the eccentric and sometimes sinister people who are unveiled in Bizarre Thailand. And these details are the ones that will enrich your stay in the Kingdom, whether you’re there for a week or for the rest of your life. Thank you, Jim Algie.~Janet Brown

 

Singapore Noir edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (Akashic Press)

Shanghai, Saigon, Bangkok—through the centuries these cities have taken on the alluring shadows of carnality and vice. But Singapore? A city where you can drink the tap water but can’t chew gum on the street, where, as myth has it, cameras are hidden in public restrooms to ensure that the occupants flush, where many people refuse to travel because it has the reputation of being the Santa Barbara of the East?

If this is your idea of Singapore, brace yourself because Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is out to change that perception with the collection of stories that she’s edited for Akashic Press, Singapore Noir. These glimpses of the Lion City will have you heading for a hot shower after you put the book down—yes, they are that dark, that gritty, that unsettling.

Singapore, Tan tells us, is a city dominated by girls, gambling, and ghosts, a product of two divergent cultures, English and Chinese.  “No Disneyland here,” she says cheerfully, “but there is a death penalty.” And then she backs up her introduction with fourteen different writers, each showing a city that should be visited in the company of body guards as well as a tour guide.

It’s probably no accident that the two mildest viewpoints are given by S.J, Rozan and Lawrence Osborne. Nonresidents themselves, they give the viewpoint of expatriates in Singapore, with Rozan’s American trailing husband falling in love with the city’s culture and Osborne’s Japanese salaryman falling in love with a tattooed lady of the night. But for those writers who live in Singapore, the darkness is absolute.

From poison to defenestration, death comes fast in these stories, which are vividly populated by debt collectors and prostitutes, rent boys and battered housemaids. They are often difficult to read, with their graphic descriptions of sex and violence. But they show a city that is eerily attractive, decadent, and dangerous. From the kelong houses on the piers to the air-conditioned shopping malls on Orchard Road, they offer a sense of place that is assured and knowledgeable beneath the layers of crime.

Macaques, mahogany trees, and street markets, the “green and ordered legacy” of colonialism, the “deathly quiet” of the city’s Nature Reserve, the sea with “shades of blue…like flowing silk,” the cadence and music of Singlish, “the swirling scents of curry, coconut milk, and coriander,” all give a gleaming luster to a city that is as clean and safe—or dark and dirty—as you might want it to be. Singapore Noir takes away the stigma of Asia Lite from the city-state by draping it in dark and sinister beauty.~Janet Brown

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The Man with a Golden Mind by Tom Vater (Crime Wave Press)

 

I stayed up much too late last night, motionless on my sofa, racing my way through The Man with the Golden Mind. This morning I feel a bit groggy, still caught in Laos with one of the most attractive characters in crime fiction, Maier.

First introduced in The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Maier is a German journalist turned private detective, a man who knows Southeast Asia well. In his mid-forties, he’s “tired but not finished,” with a hard-earned reputation as an “Asia expert,” and a man who allows little to escape his green-eyed stare. Hired by beautiful Julia Rendell to discover who killed her father in rural Laos twenty-five years earlier, Maier immediately finds the job will be far from easy when his client is kidnapped soon after she retains him.

In Laos, he bumps up against past history and a dazzling panoply of international obstructions, from the well-preserved karaoke-singing Mr. Mookie, whose passion for bar-girls covers a coldblooded interior, to the Teacher, a one-legged ex-CIA  agent, crazed but still deadly, who heads the Free State of Mind in the middle of the Laos jungle. Then there’s Kanitha, who says she’s a journalist but has the mind and heart of a true killer.

As he travels through northern Laos, searching for his client and the answers she has hired him to uncover, Maier discovers strange links to a mystery of his own, as well as unexploded ordnance and hints of a lost file from the days of the American War—one that could blow the lid off modern-day alliances. When a former associate, “a gay Russian hit man,” suddenly shows up in the mix, Maier is drawn deep into a morass of nation against nation, where individual lives are valueless.

Tom Vater is a master of plot and character, which puts The Man with the Golden Mind at the top of my list of memorable crime fiction. But what keeps me reading everything this man writes is his stunning sense of place.  Bangkok, he says, is “a metropolis of ten million people who never talked to each other but smiled and smiled and smiled.” The mercilessly-bombed Plain of Jars is “a giant’s golf course” and a crisp description of “the last frontier for the Lonely Planet set” is precise, satirical, and right on target. And then there’s Maier, a man who uses only his surname—and when Vater finally explains why, readers can only sympathize.

Addiction is a pitiable state to live in. I know. I face a long, miserable withdrawal period before I spend another night with one of Tom Vater’s books, gulping down the chapters and savoring the journey that this writer always provides. Kathmandu, Cambodia, Laos…I can’t wait to see where we go next…~Janet Brown

Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

 

The best travel literature is written by people who live in a country, submit to its culture, and love it—warts and all. Susan Blumberg-Kason in her new memoir, Good Chinese Wife, does all of that and much more. She traveled to China, moved to Hong Kong, and fell in love with a man from a small Chinese town. And reader, she married him--and lived to tell the tale.

Few women of her time were as freshly-minted as Susan was when she went off to graduate school in pre-handover Hong Kong. Her geographic travels had probably almost filled up a passport—with a mother who worked for an airlines, Susan could, and did, hop on a plane and go anywhere she liked. An adventurous teenager, she had been to mainland China more than once, was attracted to what she saw in that newly-opened country—and she became downright besotted with Hong Kong.

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And yet, in her early twenties, by the time Susan came to live in that city, she had been involved with only one serious boyfriend. With the freedom that came from living far from home, in a new country, she embarked on a couple of fleeting affairs. Then she met Cai.

He was handsome, sophisticated, an older man. Susan was a Mandarin-speaking American girl, eager and sparkling. Within a very short time, this unlikely couple fell in love, became engaged, and were married. Cai spoke English, Susan was fluent in Mandarin, but neither had the skill to plumb the other’s character as thoroughly as either of them should have. When Cai spent his wedding night in a luxurious Kowloon hotel watching porn films on pay-per-view TV, Susan didn’t ask him why. When Susan was devastated that there was no time to go to an English-language bookstore when the couple had a brief stop in Shanghai, Cai didn’t bother to discover the reason that his bride was so upset. Then there was the question of “Japanese Father,” a professor who loomed large in Cai’s regard and cast a sinister shadow on the life of the young couple from the very beginning of their marriage. In a burst of true saintliness, Susan kept her misgivings about this man to herself, even when he provided Cai with a gigantic and mysterious sum of money.

When Cai and Susan moved to San Francisco and bought a house, his parents soon followed, bringing their culture with them—and of course, Japanese Father showed up for a visit. By then, there was a baby, and Susan became a young mother as well as the primary bread-winner for her extended family.

In so many ways, this story is a heart-breaker—and yet, like the best memoirs, it takes its readers on a journey. Susan Blumberg-Kason skillfully avoids any melodramatic tinge as she unfolds her novelistic history. She shows how it was to live in Hong Kong before it became semi-autonomous, what it is to be part of a rural Chinese household, and the innermost intricacies of a very complicated marriage.

Racing through her pages, moaning in sympathy at one moment and feeling envious in the next paragraph, readers of Good Chinese Wife have to keep one thing in mind: Don’t forget to exhale during the many moments that this splendid book takes your breath away. ~Janet Brown


 

Shanghai Grand by Taras Grescoe (St. Martin's Press)

Emily Hahn was both a biographer’s dream and nightmare. Her restless and unconventional life is richly detailed in her memoirs, except for the few things that she deemed private. She frankly disclosed her love affair with the married British officer whom she would eventually marry, long after having a daughter with him, her flirtation with opium, and her marriage to a dashing Chinese poet, which she presents as one of convenience. What she leaves obscured is her opium addiction and her longstanding love affair with the Chinese poet, both of which began and flourished in pre-war Shanghai.

Sir Victor Sassoon, known as “the fifth or sixth richest men in the world,”  was one of Emily Hahn’s  first friends when she first arrived in Shanghai in 1935 and took up residence in his luxurious hotel, the Cathay. The third Baronet of Bombay, Sassoon was descended from Sephardic Jews who had fled Baghdad for India and increased their fortune by trading in opium and cotton. Sir Victor was raised in England, became a fighter pilot during World War I, survived a plane crash that left him a lifelong cripple, and brought $29 million dollars in silver with him when he moved to Shanghai.

Emily and Victor met in a city that was among the most modern and the most crowded in the world. Fabulous wealth rested on the labor of dirt-poor Chinese laborers; in 1935 5,950 corpses were cleared from Shanghai streets, most of them victims of starvation and disease. Meanwhile foreign businessmen were lured from depression-era America with the promise of a salary that would allow ”ten to twenty domestic servants, membership at several clubs, a houseboat, and a new Ford or Buick with a driver.”

In this city of glittering decadence and deadly poverty, Emily and Victor struck up a lasting friendship. Under his mentorship, Emily found a place to live, a job writing for the city’s leading newspaper, and the man who introduced her to opium, Zau Sinmay, whom she would love for the duration of her life in Shanghai.

A Cambridge-educated aristocrat and leader of Shanghai’s artistic community, Sinmay immediately brought his American mistress into his family circle and gave her the protection of a marriage under Chinese law, which would later save Emily in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. The two of them became partners as well as lovers, starting several literary magazines, both in Chinese and in English. Their relationship gave Emily access to Chinese society and culture in a way no other Western woman had or even cared to have, as well as the subject for a series of stories published in the New Yorker that focused on an eccentric, worldly Chinese gentleman whom she called Mr. Pan.

The city where these three people had found each other and lived their glamorous, comfortable lives was surrounded by predatory warlords, protected by a tenuous national government, and threatened by the encroachment of the Japanese Imperial Army upon Chinese territory. By 1937, Japan’s warships were coming close and the Chinese planes sent out to attack them had instead dropped two 1,100-pound bombs on Shanghai’s wealthiest area, the International Settlement. Two more bombs rapidly followed, killing 825 people. Three days later, 600 more people died when a Chinese pilot, assailed by Japanese planes, jettisoned his load of bombs in a panic while flying over the same area of Shanghai. In the following year, Japan had encircled the city and controlled it in a puppet government.

It's a tribute to Taras Grescoe’s skill that he has managed to corral the story of three improbable people and the history of the city where they flourished in less than four hundred pages. That Grescoe also uncovered the fate of Zau Sinmay post-revolution by tracking down the surviving members of the Zau family gives his book a dimension that takes it beyond the ordinary biography. Present-day Shanghai becomes as enthralling as its 1930s counterpart as Grescoe vividly reveals its modern rebirth to become a dominant city once again in this new century.~Janet Brown


 

On the Night Joey Ramone Died by Jim Algie

Rock and roll is a country all of its own. It has territories everywhere in the world, each with its own flavor but all governed by the hard-driving rhythm and hard-living life of the founding rockers. Wherever travelers find themselves, they’re certain to find a bass guitar, a drum kit, and a lead who fills a room with words that may be indecipherable but who clearly conveys hot sex.

Rock legends usually die young and the official cause that’s written on the death certificate is almost always drugs. Robbie Robertson of The Band sees it differently and he is a man who would know. His belief is that it’s not the drugs, it’s not the music, it’s “the road.” Like baseball or ballet, rock and roll takes athleticism and stamina, but with a schedule more demanding than many other disciplines. Its musicians never go offstage. Their lives are ruled by the realm that they’ve chosen. In that way they are very similar to priests and the government that most closely corresponds to rock and roll is the Vatican. After those comparisons are made, all bets are off. Priests usually achieve longevity but in rock and roll, there are few Mick Jaggers.

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Thailand is a perfect outpost for rock and roll. The freewheeling lifestyle has been perfected over centuries of diligent practice, the women are beautiful, the alcohol is cheap and deadly, and the climate is ideal for growing poppies. When soldiers showed up during the Vietnam War, they came bearing their own soundtrack and near secret air bases along the Mekong river, kids who were raised on the wild twanging sounds of Thai country music grabbed onto rock and roll and never let go.

Fifty years later it’s still there. And the kids who became its first inhabitants? There are the survivors like Lam Morrison and the ones who died, who are legion, and then there’s the leading character in the new novel by Bangkok writer, Jim Algie, On the Night Joey Ramone Died.

Lek produces albums for syrup-voiced boys whose looks outweigh their talent. His musical heroes are “dying of diseases instead of overdoses” and, as he remarks to a contemporary, “...fifty seems young.” Lek himself rankles under the criticism of his ex-wife who told him “You’re not a punk or a rebel anymore….You’re a businessman in a leather jacket and torn jeans.” His drugs now are cigarettes and coffee, which may kill him but distinctly lack cachet, and his teen-age son Dee Dee is blatantly unimpressed. It would be the perfect Woody Allen scenario, but this is rock and roll and Lek is still “crazy after all these years.” After all, he uses Barbie and Hello Kitty dolls as target practice to let off steam.

Then his son’s English conversation teacher walks through the door, a small blonde Norwegian girl who dresses like Jim Morrison’s girlfriend, swears like a rock star, once lived down the street from Alice Cooper, and is a death metal fan. She’s smart, funny, and dark as hell--and she likes Lek.

Suddenly middle-age doesn’t look so bad,  now that he’s got a cute chick, lines of coke, and lots of booze in the mix. Lek begins writing songs again. But who’s the girl who has come into his life and what lies at the end of this new road?

“Write about what you know,” is the leading cliche of English 101, along with “Show, don’t tell.” Jim Algie knows more about rock and roll, Bangkok, and the enticement of a killer lifestyle than many, and he shows every corner with talent that is almost cinematic. Lek’s nightmare world is one that Martin Scorsese would commit homicide to have, revealed with wit and undertones of Chet Baker, a blood-red place in the ninth circle of hell where Pol Pot links arms with Cannibal Corpse and Death comes out the winner.

Put this one on the shelf with Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me and Beautiful Losers, drink a toast to Janis, Jimi, and the Lizard King, and hope like hell that Jim Algie is working on that next novel. “There’s more to the picture,” and he’s the guy who knows enough to show it all.~Janet Brown

Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books)

Whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, the country that lies below India, adjoins China, and borders Thailand, is a huge collection of highly diverse ethnic groups, each with their own customs and cuisine. “A cultural crossroads,” says Naomi Duguid, in her latest compendium of recipes, photographs, and stories, Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

Duguid has spent decades traveling through Asia with her family, steeping herself in daily life and learning different forms of home cooking. She first went to Burma over thirty years ago and has spent time roaming around the country, leaving the cities to learn the flavors of the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine. Her photographs are generous in showing who she met and what she saw; her stories are enticing glimpses of a place that remains largely untraveled. From monasteries to market towns, from the serenity of 15th century temples to the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, Duguid goes there and takes us with her.

But the glory of her books lies in the food she shares through recipes—and her latest is perhaps the most accessible to the Western cook. In common with their Southeast Asian neighbors, cooks in Burma use fish sauce and chilies and a multiplicity of fresh herbs. But the preparation involved is much easier, with fewer steps involved than in many Southeast Asian dishes—and the flavors encompass the Subcontinent and China too, with a distinctive local flair.

“Classic Sour Soup” is made with a fish stock, tamarind pulp, and bok choi—but “in Mandalay,” Duguid tells us, “…when the tall kapok trees are in bloom, cooks add their velvety, faded-red flowers.” Not a flavor the average cook will employ but will yearn to taste—this is Naomi Duguid’s trademark, to make home cooks long to leave their kitchens and eat in other places.

Bland potatoes become incendiary when a Rakhine cook is finished with them—first she boils them and then tosses them in a fiery shallot oil that’s been pumped up with lots of chilies. It’s a potato salad that will spice up potluck picnics in an unforgettable fashion.

And she tells how to make the country’s most famous dish—mohinga, a fish soup that is far more complicated than most of the other recipes but so very much worth the time and effort that it requires. With her customary generosity, Duguid gives both the Rakhine and the Rangoon versions of this –and tells a story attesting to the regional loyalty toward this “classic breakfast food.” Apparently no region can stomach another’s mohinga, which makes at least one prospective eater want to embark on a mohinga tour of Burma.

Duguid’s new book is a smaller size than her earlier ones, which makes it easier to use in the kitchen—and it is certain to be used. Perhaps more than any other cuisine she has explored, Burma’s is the most user-friendly to the Western cook, with hearty cold-weather dishes of stews and chutneys as well as salads, crepes, and desserts for lighter meals.

But when her book is first opened, it will keep readers going from picture to story to recipe, exploring Burma for hours in the company of a woman who is eager to share it. Burma: Rivers of Flavor may be the cheapest ticket to another country that you will ever buy.~Janet Brown

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

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster)

“Your father may have brought you wings, Raami. But it is I who must to teach you to fly. I want you to understand this. This is not a story.” Raami is a seven-year-old girl with a leg damaged by polio, whose father taught her that words could make her fly and that stories are the gift life brings to those who listen. She yearns to walk with the grace of her beautiful mother, to run as freely as her little sister, but her father, Cambodia’s Tiger Prince, teaches her the power of words and the ability to transform her world into poetry.

And a lovely world it is. Every morning Raami’s father leaves their gated villa, wanders through the streets of Phnom Penh and comes with a poem to write. The family is of royal blood, the descendants of King Sisowath, except for Raami’s mother. “Our family,” she tells her daughter, “is like a bouquet, each stem and blossom perfectly arranged.”

And then the bouquet disintegrates when the Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh and send the city’s residents onto the highways that lead into the countryside. Hastily Raami’s family throw what they will need into their car—jewelry stitched into an old pillow, food, Raami’s treasured copy of the Reamker, the Ramayana, and in her father’s pocket his fountain pen and the small leather notebook that goes with him everywhere.

Deep in the Cambodian countryside, the family finds that little they brought is of any use to them. The world is new and inexplicable; only Raami’s mother knows how to survive without servants or the safety of a walled garden. The rules have all changed. Religion and education have been swallowed up by the new force which is Angkar, The Organization. Soldiers in black look for class enemies. When they ask Raami to give her father’s name, she announces it proudly. Sisowath rings in the air like a death sentence.

The Tiger Prince is well-known for his courage and his poetry; even away from Phnom Penh peasants smile when they see his face. He gives himself up, telling his captors that the rest of the family are commoners who are relatives of his wife. Raami hears him writing in the dark, tearing a page from his notebook; the next morning he is carried away in an oxcart while his daughter begs him for one more story.

The remaining family is torn apart. Raami, her mother, and her sister are taken to an old peasant couple who have always longed for children and see the three strangers as an answer to their deepest wish. “Don’t forget who you are,” Raami’s mother tells her as she sees her daughter learn to love the rural life. But under Angkar, happiness is a treacherous state and Raami’s mother is forced to teach her oldest daughter that the only way to survive is to put memories of the past in the farthest reaches of her brain.

Ripped from their peasant family after the death of Raami’s baby sister, she and her mother sink deeper into hunger, exhaustion, and the madness of the Pol Pot years. By the end of the book, their deaths seem inevitable, as Angkar puts them to work excavating what seems to be a gigantic gravesite.

The opening dedication of this novel provides a powerful clue to how it will end. “In the memory of my father,” Vaddey Ratner writes, “Neak Ang Mecha Sisowath Ayuravann.” The name rings like a clear bell. It’s the name of Raami’s father.

This book is a novel because, to tell her own story with the depth that she wanted, Vaddey Ratner needed to create thoughts and speech and feelings that as a small child she could neither remember nor completely comprehend. She has taken lives that were snuffed out and lives that held on in spite of unimaginable cruelty and turned what some cynically call a “misery memoir” to a story that is mythic in its scope and description. The beauty of Cambodia, the courage of its people, and the horror of its recent history is told with the resonance and poetry of Raami’s beloved Reamker. This is an unforgettable narrative and a tribute to the courage of Vaddey Ratner’s parents.

Cambodia is attempting to erase the Pol Pot years. In the Shadow of the Banyan helps to ensure that the world, and the Khmer people, will always remember the years between 1975 and 1979 when a group of Cambodians did its best to destroy their beautiful country, and failed.~Janet Brown

This review was first published in the International Examiner.

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books)

From Seattle to Shanghai was a long journey in 1925, especially for an unaccompanied woman. But Irene Blum travels in a world of art trafficking on a mammoth scale. For her the globe is studded with treasures to be bought and sold, the crown jewels of the deposed Russian tsar, a ring that was the Empress Cixi's prized possession, paintings fit for the collection of a Rockefeller, and most of all, the newly discovered glories of Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

"A woman with a calling, now that is a thing of beauty," is how one of Irene's oldest friends describes her, but Irene's calling has turned to an obsession, a means of revenge. Passed over for a coveted position at the museum she has made into a showcase for Asian art in favor of a man with little experience, Irene is out to find a key to the forgotten history of the Khmer Empire, something that nobody else knows about--a set of copper scrolls hidden in the farthest reaches of Cambodia. With these in her possession, Irene will have a place in any museum she chooses and a secure spot in the only world that matters to her.

Irene's mentor, a man who has fostered her interest in Khmer art, has sent her to Shanghai to enlist the assistance of Simone Merlin, a woman who grew up among the Angkorean temples and knows them as few others do. Now married to a man who is devoted to Communist revolution, Simone is reluctant to return to the world she knew and loved, especially since her husband is both possessive and violent.

So begins a story of adventure and mystery, one that is neither predictable nor ordinary. The plot twists alone would make this an intriguing novel but Kim Fay has skillfully added well-researched history, intertwining the story of a vanished empire with the lives of her characters without making one false or stilted move.

Above all, what makes this book outstanding is its wealth of sensory details. Fay's plot takes readers to Saigon, to Angkor Wat, into the Cambodian jungle, but her descriptions give the heat, the light, the color, the smells of these places. This is a writer who clearly knows and loves Southeast Asia, with a gift that makes the region tangible on the page.

Fay does the same for the people in her novel. Even incidental characters take on a fully-fleshed presence, as much as as the eccentric adventurers who form a fragile and almost incompatible relationship as they are drawn together by different motives to reach the same goal. Paying them the compliment of a slightly ambiguous ending, she allows them life beyond their adventure's end, letting them move on without a tidy and conventional conclusion, ensuring that they won't be easily forgotten.

The Map of Lost Memories introduces a new voice to historical fiction, a talented and skillful writer who is a woman to watch. While waiting for Kim Fay’s next novel, readers can explore her travel writing in Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, and in the To Asia With Love series that she created and edited for ThingsAsian Press.--Janet Brown

A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (Lyons Press)

The trouble with a cookbook, any cookbook, is that it arranges food according to a theme—one of the four seasons, one of the three meals, one of the world’s countries or regions, one of the multitudes of weight-loss regimens—and that isn’t the way people think about food. Memory is the province of food. Just ask Proust as he brandishes his madeleine.

The most satisfying way to think about food is during a conversation with a good friend. And when you pick up A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (or Susie as she introduces herself to readers at the book’s beginning) that’s exactly what’s offered—if your good friend happens to be the granddaughter of a Chinese financier, millionaire, and “mobster (probably),” the daughter of the man who practically invented the coffee –table book in all of its sumptuous glory, and an adventurous eater whose tastes embrace the cuisine of every country on the planet.

Approach this book with the advice Susie Chang gives her children—“Try One Bite.” Whether it’s paella or phad thai, scallion pancakes or stroopwafels, you’re going to find something that you’ve never tasted before and certainly never dreamed of cooking, or drinking either. No matter if it’s a Basil Mojito, a Lavender Vodka tonic, or the non-alcoholic Longest Day Tea, this lady is going to convince you to make and sip a “Garden in a Glass.” After all, she’s the kind of friend who confesses to “standing clueless in the pantry at 4:30, thinking wistful thoughts about beer, and walk to the table with a meal for six an hour and a half later.” Sound familiar to you? Oh no,not me either…

At times Susie Chang seems formidable. She’s the kind of mother who has been known to spend half an hour making steamed eggs or a soufflé omelet for a very young son who would eat eggs in no other form until she introduced him to egg crepes with truffle oil. But she becomes less terrifying when she provides no-hassle recipes for apple sauce, pumpkin bread, or a cold mixed-berry soup for those days when cooking is the last thing on anybody’s mind. She admits to almost committing arson with a funnel cake and to succumbing to a mint ice cream addiction—yes, she will tell you how to make both of these indulgences—as well as how to cook pilfered chanterelles with roasted monkfish and garlic chives. “It was good enough to be a last meal on Death Row…amorallydelectable.”

She’s the kind of friend who assumes nothing and tells all—how to clean a monkfish, how to use a knife, how to cook rice, how to make a simple syrup, how to roll jiao zie, the traditional New Year’s dumpling, in three easy steps, with photographs. And she doesn’t ignore her single friends—there are six glorious recipes that will make a number of meals for one solitary eater, including an enticing chocolate mousse that “serves one on a bad day.” I tell you, you have to love this woman.

Hungry for Braised Chinese-Restaurant-Style Spareribs? Daunted by the thought of tracking down ‘the Elusive Red Bean Curd?” Look for it in “the Scary Inscrutable Jars section” of an Asian grocery, and if you “just can’t find it, make the recipe anyway.” Want Thai food without leaving the house? Yam Neua is worth the “tearful complications” of slicing those lethal little bird chiles and the four or five shallots. “Mere flickers of agitation,” Susie Chang warns the unwary cook, “could prove incendiary.”

A Spoonful of Promises offers more than recipes. It is studded with wit—“There’s nothing wrong with canned pumpkin puree, other than it lacks poetry.” An essay about saffron leads to an insightful examination of living with an aging father, and the unfading presence of a mother who died young pervades the page of this book, evoked in tender stories and the fragrance of baked apples. “We are dreamed of by our parents and remembered by our children,” is a sentence that is a gift. There are many gifts in Susie Chang's collection of stories and recipes. Read her words and savor them all.—Janet Brown

This review originally appeared in The International Examiner.

Mumbai Noir (Akashic Books)

If you want to know the innermost core of a city, its hopes, dreams, and fears, read its crime fiction. If you want to explore every facet of that core, revealed by different points of view, read Akashic Books’ noir series, where a number of writers, all well familiar with their city (or in some volumes their state or country), each write a crime story about it.

The latest in this series, Mumbai Noir, is a collection of “all-new” stories by fifteen writers, most of them living, or having once lived, in Mumbai. And that is what makes these stories so compelling—each selection is steeped in a knowledgeable sense of place, and aknowledge of the often grisly criminal acts that occur in that place.

“Between 1993 and 20ll,” the introduction states, “Mumbai has weathered eight terror attacks.” Its over twelve million residents “have become unwitting authorities on all the ways that an ordinary day in the city can turn out to be one’s last.” Small wonder that the opening stories in this book involve bomb blasts, the need to be alert to possible terrorists, the caution and vigilance that turned “the Mumbai evening…into a night that was no longer Bombay.”

The stories that follow argue with that assertion. Going from the shadowed world of the transgendered hijira, to the dance halls where beautiful women command a price perhaps too high, to the streets where an alluring body may not be what it seems, Mumbai certainly still seems to have what one man calls “The Juice.” Within this city, the crimes range from one that will make strong men turn pallid to an almost novelistic story of obsessive attraction told by both the stalker and the stalked, with an ambiguous ending that skillfully teases, puzzles, and evokes arguments.

An affluent woman hides from the world in her apartment that is housed in an “an all-vegetarian building” where her secret fear comes knocking on her door; gothic horror and perhaps the secret of eternal youth lurk in a traveler’s oasis that “disowned chaos” in a city that seemingly embodies it. Murder strikes in a fitness center as efficiently as it does within a motorized rickshaw, and as befits a collection of noir fiction, there are hard-boiled detectives and cynical cops to assess—if not solve —mysterious cases.

The writers of Mumbai Noir are male and female—including a pair of surgeons who write collaboratively to form one author. Contributors to this anthology lead IT firms, make films, take photographs, work at non-governmental organizations. The diversity of their interests leads to the diversity found within this collection, offering a tantalizing glimpse of their city beneath the darkness of their stories.

The wide-ranging ethnic differences found in Mumbai are reflected in the glossary at the back of the book, defining words from Hindi, Urdu, Maharathi, Punjabi, and Gujarati. A few of the terms are obscenities, still more have to do with food, which says quite a bit about this city.

Only the most hardened crime aficionados will read this in one sitting; the rest of us will come back to it again and again, drawn by the stories, the details, Mumbai.--Janet Brown