What I Read: South East Asia 2017

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.

House of Mirth in a Vang Vieng bedroom

Truthfully, I started House of Mirth in June 2016 but it remained half read until I stuffed it in my South East Asia hand luggage in January 2017.

Lead character Lily Bart is broke. Her rich friends and love of expensive things means she lives way beyond her means, and I can relate. She’s hot, and a bunch of men like her but since she’s broke and it’s the early 1900s she has to marry for money. That’s a task, considering at 29, she’s knocking on in age a bit (remember this is early 20th Century literature) and there’s an absolute bitch intent on ruining her life because she’s jealous and petty. Lily does a pretty good job of ruining her choices herself, but the question is if she redeems herself.

I like Wharton, 20th Century American lit and New York high society dramatics, so this was always going to be a hit. None of the characters are remotely likeable, which again is just American lit in general, but the stories are so compelling – even if the ending is unsurprising for the genre. It wasn’t too heavy to carry in a daybag and was an easy, enjoyable read.

4/5
Beloved, Toni Morrison

Beloved on a Koh Kut beach

If there’s any book I’ve been recommended most, it’s this. It was on all literature reading lists I have received over the past decade, lecturers recommended it, friends recommended it, probably even my friends’ pets. I dragged my heels, though. Any vaguely supernatural theme repels me immediately, and this was no exception. Then I got Beloved as a birthday gift. It too was packed for my travels.

Beloved is set in the late 1800s. Slavery is newly over, and the characters are still recovering from the scars of enduring such an atrocity. Many had escaped enslavement, including the lead character, Sethe. We learn early on that Sethe, based on a real woman, murdered one of her children. The toddler’s apparition haunts the family, its presence initially malicious but morphing into something quite indescribable as the years pass.

Despite finding supernatural fiction unreadably dire on the whole, I found this book so rich, complex and raw. It depicted with honesty the weight carried by slaves even after emancipation. The ghost of the toddler seemed to represent the trauma of surviving slavery, and as the horrors are retold, the spectre’s presence grows more gruesome.

Ghost babies are really not my thing, but Morrison writes so beautifully and with such lyricism. The topic is heavy and the book is often dark, but I read it as a beach read and the poetry in the words complimented the scenery. 4/5
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray

This tome on an Inle Lake bus

I had never read this as I always found it too expensive to buy, but it was 75 baht in a Soi Rambuttri bookshop. I picked it over a history book, Grapes of Wrath and The Beautiful and The Damned. I’ll say it now, how stupid I was.

I like books that talk about how dreadful high society is and women the in 19th
and 20th Century. I had hopes. The set up is two girls, Amelia “Emmy” Sedley (dry, cries and blushes a lot, literally don’t care about her) and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, who has a fiery, scheming personality. Her parents are dead so she has to find a rich man to marry of her own volition. Lots in there for me to identify with and like. The tale is 500ish pages of the trials of these women, Emmy never getting a personality and Becky scamming everyone and being wonderfully dreadful.

Becky’s awful excellence was not enough to keep me compelled. I left the book abandoned in Inle Lake after a frustrating ten hour bus journey where I tried, really tried to plough on with the book and found it all so unnecessary and irritating. I got to page 300 or so, then read the last few pages when everyone’s dying.

The book could be about 449 pages shorter if WMT didn’t go on random rambles – “reader, we all know what happened to Geraldine Smithwank! And Mrs if you’re reading this, do not take offense!” Unnecessary. 19th Century writers do it a lot, long unnecessary rambles (the Les Mis Paris sewers chapter for one dry example) but I have never found it so annoying. I’m on holiday, I don’t need my books pissing me off.

2/5 because it occasionally was readable and I managed to read most of it.
An Outline of American History

American History in a Bagan hotel garden

Another Khao San bookshop find. It was cheap and I’m interested in US History.

I think there’s no deception in the naming of this one. When they say ‘an outline’ they literally mean the briefest trace. Massive aspects of history were skimmed over, especially the darkest elements. Internment got a paragraph. It’s the kind of book you read in order to find out which aspects of history you want to learn about more. If I knew nothing of a subject, I learned a lot more, but if I had even slight prior knowledge I learned nothing – or even disagreed with its overly positive (deceptive) perspective.

It was alright. Better than Vanity Fair.

3/5

How The World Really Works, Noam Chomsky

How the World Really Works on a Koh Rong Beach

This was on my reading list for some time, then I came across it in a very good bookshop in Phnom Penh. The title and cover say it all – it almost functions as an exposé on how America works.
Chomsky was interviewed by David Barsamian on a range of topics, and the book was then compiled by Arthur Naiman. Topics covered range from American foreign policy to media, with a critical approach towards the American political system and corporate control.
I was glad to have read the US history book before this, as my background knowledge was more solid, but Chomsky’s book was both far more informative and transformative. The content will shock, anger and make you want to organise. Importantly, despite the last interviews taking place in 1998, Chomsky seems farsighted and in some places accurately describes future developments.
It’s a very good and informative book. Not an easy read, but very worthwhile.

4/5

UNFINISHED: Dr. Zhivago! Boris Pasternak

Dr Zhivago on a Vietnam sleeper train

I bought Zhivago before a seventeen hour sleeper train in Vietnam because the idea of seventeen hours sitting still filled me with dread. I bought a fat book to see me through the very end of the trip, and I had been craving some Russian lit since December.

What I didn’t consider is how much I love being asleep. For a good 14 of the seventeen hours that’s exactly how I passed the time. The rest of the time I was writing my blog and enjoying the beautiful views from the train window. I didn’t get a lot of reading time in the last week, so Zhivago will have to be finished in London!

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