Read a good book lately?

In an age where getting things done quickly is important and being entertained at the touch of a button is de rigeuer, it’s far too easy to forget the simple pleasure of reading a good book. Can’t afford the latest releases? Try a library. There are plenty of well-stocked libraries in Bangkok, and most aren’t expensive to join. When you think of the hours of enjoyment reading can bring – and the knowledge you’ll acquire as part of the process – joining a library is a wise investment.

Neilson Hays Library: This library first opened its doors in 1869 to provide reading materials to English speakers in Bangkok. In 1922 Dr Hayward Hays gave the current library building to the non-profit organisation – now the oldest in the Kingdom – in memory of his wife, who had worked at the library for more than 25 years. In 1999 the library – a sanctuary among the hustle of the Surawongse area – became fully air-conditioned, and it now contains a collection of over 20,000 English-language volumes, which are added to monthly. There’s a wide range of literary and commercial fiction, non-fiction, and an excellent range of children’s books. Books can be borrowed for two to four weeks.

Central Library, Chulalongkorn University: Although it’s an academic library aimed at students and lecturers, the library of Thailand’s oldest university is also open to the public. With almost one million volumes lining its shelves, plus a huge collection of journals, CD-ROMs and audio-visual materials, it’s a phenomenal resource for all things academic in both Thai and English. There is some fiction, but the emphasis is definitely on the academic. Much of the catalogue is online ( making it easy to check for the types of books you like to read prior to heading there. Most books can be borrowed for three weeks.

AUA Library: The American University Alumni association began in 1924 when Thai students returning from abroad wanted to start a social club, but it wasn’t until 1952 that the non-profit AUA Language Centre was established, with the objective of promoting mutual understanding between Thais and Americans. The public library opened just over thirty years ago and contains mostly English-language fiction and non-fiction books, with an emphasis on university texts. The public is welcome to browse on their own for free. General information about the US is also available, as is a video library. Two books or videos can be borrowed for two weeks at a time. The library also contains a self-access centre, aimed at English-language learners, for which there is an extra charge.

Siam Society Library: The Siam Society’s library recently reopened for browsing only after a period of inventory-taking, but a date has yet to be set for borrowing to resume. The Society itself was established under Royal Patronage in 1904, as an organization devoted to those interested in the artistic, scientific, and cultural affairs of Thailand and her neighboring countries. The Society’s library, which opened in 1962, is located on the second and third floors of the Society’s new Chalerm Phrakiat Building, and it reflects this commitment to the region’s culture. It contains more than 20,000 volumes of books, around half of which are in Thai, and half in English. The public can browse, but membership of the Society is required for borrowing privileges, which allow four books to be taken home for one month.

British Council’s Information UK: The British Council’s Information UK section features a Resource Centre, which holds books, tapes and CD-ROMs on English language learning, contemporary British fiction and poetry, reference works on Britain and a collection of classical literature. There are also more than 60 British magazine and journal titles to browse through – or borrow for a week, if you’re a member – and a video library with more than 900 tapes, including BBC series and documentaries, and British films. You need to be a member to access the audio-visual equipment, or you can take the videos home for a week. Books can be borrowed for four weeks.

Neilson Hays Library
195 Surawongse Rd
Tel: 233 1731
Tues to Sat, 9.30 am to 4 pm
Sun, 9.30 am to 2 pm
Family: Bt2,300
Adults: Bt1,800
Children/students: Bt1,300 baht
Senior citizens (over 65): Bt1,000
Half-year membership is also available.

Chulalongkorn Central Library
Phya Thai Road
Tel : 215-0871-3
Mon to Fri, 8 am to 9 pm
Sat, 9 am to 4 pm
Non-members: Bt20 per day for access only.
For membership: Bt2,000 refundable deposit, then Bt1,500 per year to borrow books.
Other university students: Bt2,000 deposit, then Bt800 to borrow books per year.

179 Rachadamri Rd
Tel: 252 8170 ext 4005
Mon to Fri, 9.30 am to 6 pm
Sat, 9.30 am to 4.30 pm
Closed Sun
Self access centre is open Mon-Fri, 9,30am to 6 pm only
Non-students: Bt300
Students: Bt100
The self access centre costs Bt800 for non-students per six-week term, or Bt400 for students per six-week term.

Siam Society Library
131 Soi Asoke
Sukhumvit 21
Tel: 661 6470
Tues to Sat, 9 am to 5pm
Non-members: free access only.
Membership of the Siam Society costs Bt2,500 per year, and allows books to be borrowed.
Student membership is Bt500 per year.

British Council Library
254 Chulalongkorn 64
Siam Square, Phyathai Road
Tel : 652 5480 ext 507
Tues to Fri, 10 am to 7 pm
Sat to Mon, 10 am to 5 pm
Librarian available from Tues to Sat after midday only
Non-students: Bt1,100 for first year, then Bt1,000 per year
Students: Bt700 for first year, then Bt650 per year
British Council students: free

A tough climb

Soul Mountain
By Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee

Soul Mountain, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, is not a compelling read. Meandering and self-indulgent, the novel simply fails to truly engage the reader, despite covering many issues and landscapes that provide ample opportunities for insightful and provocative writing. There are occasional glimpses of beauty, and stylistically Soul Mountain certainly breaks new boundaries, but as a whole the work fails to make any coherent statement and leaves frustration and boredom in its wake.

The book’s original approach is at once its highlight and its major downfall. Soul Mountain is a work of fiction, but author Gao Xingjian has also included "travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, … folk songs, … [and] some legend-like nonsense of [his] own invention". As such, it is difficult to summarise the "plot", but at its core, Soul Mountain is a travel tale of attempted self-discovery.

The protagonist, a writer whose views are not aligned with the severe Chinese government, has been diagnosed with lung cancer, but finds out six weeks later that the diagnosis is incorrect. After this realisation of his own mortality, he heads off into the depths of China, physically following the Yangzte River and hoping to find Lingshan, or Soul Mountain, and mentally hoping to achieve clarity of mind. There are vague echoes of The Snow Leopard in the author’s search for meaning via travelling through untouristed land, and the absurd realist aspects of the novel are similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel When We Were Orphans – but this is an essentially unique and non-derivative piece of literature.

To ward off loneliness, the protagonist creates "you", the reader, and then "he" and "she" (the protagonist is "I"). Initially, this unusual style is quite absorbing and is conducive to some lovely poetic passages.: "You regret not fixing a time to see her again, you regret not chasing after her, you regret your lack of courage, not getting her to stay, not chatting her up, not being more forward, and that there will not be a wonderful liaison."

Halfway through the book the use of this technique is directly addressed: "You know that I am just talking to myself to alleviate my loneliness… In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intently to me – you are simply my shadow… He is the back of you after you have turned around and left me… You who are my creation, created her."

But the novelty of this technique soon wears off and descends into tedium, as the book’s lack of focus and many sidetracks become a liability. The blend of dialogue, thoughts and abstractions that could have been the book’s central strength evolve into something unwieldy and at times even incomprehensible. For instance:

"I’m terrified, she says.
What are you terrified of? you ask.
I’m not terrified of anything but I want to say that I’m terrified.
Silly child,
The other shore,
What are you saying?
You don’t understand,
Do you love me?
I don’t know,
Do you hate me?
I don’t know,
Haven’t you ever?
I only knew that sooner or later there would be this day, Are you happy?
I’m yours, speak to me tenderly, tell me about the darkness," and so on and on.

A further annoyance is Gao’s obsessive focus on sex. His descriptions are dated and mysogynistic, and lack sensuality. His female voice, created simply in the protagonist’s imagination, fails to ring true:

"I miss my father, only he truly loves me, you only want to sleep with me, I can’t make love without love,
I love you,
Nonsense, with you it’s only a momentary need,
What are you talking about? I love you!"

Gao’s attempt at philosophising is also amateurish and doesn’t seem to tread any new ground. A Buddhist monk he meets tells him that "The true traveller is without goal, it is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveller," and "The human world can be abandoned just by saying it." Later he wonders himself: "Where is the boundary between memory and wishful thinking? How can the two be separated? Which of the two is more real and how can this be determined?" And later still, "I am perpetually searching for meaning, but what in fact is meaning? … [O]f what consquence is it whether one book more, or one book less, is written. Hasn’t enough culture been destroyed? Does humankind need so much culture? And moreover, what is culture?" These aren’t serious meditations, and teeter on the edge of superfluousness.

Everything else seems to be in the novel, so why not a little post-modern self-reference, a la Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?:

" ‘Don’t you want to listen?’
‘Of course I do,’ I say, ‘ but it’ll be hard writing it into the novel.’
‘I didn’t give you permission to write about it. But you novelists can make up anything.’ "

Indeed – and given Gao’s fascinating life, it’s disappointing that he bothered to fictionalise this period of his life.

As Australian translator Mabel Lee points out in her illuminating introduction, Gao – playwright, novelist, critic, director and translator – first became known in the early 1980s for his work when it upset the Chinese Communist Party. It wasn’t until the 1979 end of the Cultural Revolution, however, that Gao’s work – books, short stories, essays and plays – began to be published. In 1987 Gao left China with no intention of returning; he had started Lingshan, the novel’s Chinese title, in 1982 and took his manuscript with him. The following year he was diagnosed incorrectly with lung cancer, and it is the next few years, when he travelled more than 15,000 km across China, that form the basis of his novel. Lingshan was first published in Taipei in 1990, and translated into English as Soul Mountain last year.

In English, at least, Soul Mountain is at best occasionally lyrical. At worst, it lacks the realistic passion and emotional intensity of other more humble and less critically-acclaimed expatriate Chinese literature, such as Da Chen’s Colours of the Mountain and Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk. It appears that the emperor, in this case, is wearing no clothes.

The ringmaster

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000
By Lee Kuan Yew

If Singapore has been Asia’s most successful tiger, then Lee Kuan Yew has been the region’s greatest ringmaster. The second volume of Lee’s memoirs further consolidates Lee’s singular view of the world and Singapore’s place in it, making for compulsive reading.

Lee Kuan Yew will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest leaders in Southeast Asian history. As Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and “senior minister” thereafter, he was the driving force behind the transformation of Singapore from a reluctantly independent and Third World city-state – an “island without its hinterland, a heart without a body” – to one of the biggest economic success stories in Asia, if not the world.

As such, Lee’s version of the Singapore story – and this second volume of his memoirs clearly reveals that much of the Singapore story is his story – is an important and compelling read.

Lee has led a life of political passion. It would be tempting but also patronising to say that the irony is he’s created a city lacking much of that passion. He has fought on the big issues such as communism and capitalism, but has been just as devoted to personal and sometimes seemingly trivial issues as well, such as the length of men’s hair, female graduates choosing to remain unmarried, and the sale of chewing gum to Singapore’s three million people.

(Australian foreign correspondent Greg Sheridan reports that when the latter drew particular derision in the Western press, the head of Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Department retorted: “In most American cities you can buy crack cocaine easily, in Singapore you can’t buy chewing gum. Which of these two social realities ought to excite the moral indignation of world opinion?”)

All of these issues are covered in detail in this 691-page book. The first section charts the transformation of Singapore from its 1965 independence from Malaysia to the present year. It shows how Lee almost single-handedly managed “to build a nation out of a disparate collection of immigrants from China, British India, and the Dutch East Indies, or how to make a living for its people when its former economic role as the entrepot of the region is becoming defunct”.

Each chapter recounts the period from 1965 to 2000 following the development of a certain aspect of the nation, so some repetition is unavoidable. Lee documents his party’s struggle with defence, economic, social and political issues. It’s all here: efforts to build up the Singapore Armed Forces as it became clear that the withdrawal of the British was inevitable; the method in which the Singaporean economy was strengthened; the strong-handed manner in which communal problems were dealt with; the way in which income was redistributed without resorting to the creation of a welfare state, and so on.

Lee likes to think he strived to maintain Singapore as a neutral state, not unlike Switzerland in Europe. For instance, as the Vietnam War worsened in 1967, he made his memorable speech to the British Labour Party about not wanting “to sound like a hawk or a dove. If I have to choose a metaphor from the aviary, I would like to think of the owl. Anyone looking at what is happening in Vietnam must have baleful eyes.”

Lee’s almost absolute power in the People’s Action Party and Singapore is evident in the language he employs. Rarely is the term “we” used in place of “I”. Take the Singaporean banking system in the late 1990s, when Lee was no longer prime minister: “I concluded they were not awake to the dangers of being inbred … [so] I decided in 1997 to break this mould … I believed the time had come for the tough international players to force our Big Four to upgrade their services or lose market share … I concluded that Koh … was not keeping up with the enormous changes sweeping the banking industry.” However, Lee writes, “I did not want to revamp the MAS [Monetary Authority of Singapore] myself”. As he very well could have if he’d wanted to.

Lee is a leader who has appealed to convenient “traditions” to help mould a harmonious multi-racial society. But this appeal can be a double-edged sword. In the 80s, for instance, he set about reviving Confucianist values in a population which is three-quarters ethnic Chinese. Yet some scholars argue (Lee doesn’t mention this) that Confucianism is compatible with the people protesting against leadership they are unhappy with, something the state in Singapore hasn’t allowed much civic space for. (Yet in one breathtaking line Lee writes “Without much of an opposition in Parliament, I missed a foil to project issues.” He and his party’s policies were in no small way responsible for this state of affairs.)

But while traditions convenient to the PAP’s hold on power have been promoted, other traditions such as letting off firecrackers around Chinese New Year have been banned: “When we live in high-rises 10 to 20 storeys high, incompatible traditional practices had to stop.”

The second and lengthier part of the book will appeal to any reader with an interest in world events, as it focuses on Lee’s relations with world leaders, Singapore’s relations with other countries, the rise and fall of international institutions (Asean, the Commonwealth) and events with global effects (the 1997 economic downturn, Tiananmen Square). Lee isn’t shy about giving his opinion on anything, and many of his descriptions are illuminating.

Singapore’s bitter and turbulent relationship with Malaysia is a story well told, from Mahathir calling Lee in 1965 “insular, selfish and arrogant”, to Lee maintaining that “a multiracial society of equal citizens of was unacceptable to the Umno leaders of Malaysia in 1965 and remained unacceptable in 1999.” If Lee is ever smug about his contributions towards Singapore’s success, it shows when he writes that “This [success] was not what Malaysia’s leaders thought would happen when they asked us to leave in 1965.”

It’s difficult to think of a major twentieth century leader that Lee doesn’t describe in his book: Of Sukarno, Lee was “disappointed by the insubstantial conversation”; Suharto was “a careful, thoughtful man, the exact opposite of Sukarno … I would not classify Suharto as a crook”; Thailand’s Thanom was “not a complex man”; Vietnam’s Pham Van Dong was “arrogant and objectionable”; Taiwan’s Lee Teng-Hui was “self-confident, well-read and well-briefed on every subject that interested him”; George Bush was “an exceptionally warm and friendly man”; Margaret Thatcher was “an intense person, full of determination and drive”; and so on.

(He avoids mentioning directly what he thinks of Australia’s two most recent prime ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, preferring instead to focus on Robert Menzies – perhaps he confuses ultra-conservative Howard with the Menzies of the 50s – it could happen to anyone.)

There are plenty of anecdotes thrown in. For instance, Habibie complained that Singapore took four days to send its congratulations to him after he took office. “It’s okay with me, but there are 211 million people [in Indonesia],” Habibie said. “Look at the map. All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore.” Prime Minister Goh responded in a speech that “Singapore had only the resources of three million people and there were limits to what ‘a little red dot’ like Singapore could do for its neighbours.”

Whether you respect Lee for his Herculean efforts in Singapore, or harbour misgivings at his patriarchal attitudes and strong-handed methods of handling the people he has led, this book will give you further insights into the man’s way of thinking. He certainly isn’t shy when it comes to singing his own praises; but it’s a rare person indeed who has managed to accomplished what Lee has.

And the Lee Kuan Yew story is far from over yet – senior minister Lee continues to play an active role in Singapore’s politics and international affairs. As recently as last weekend comments made by Lee about the elite in Indonesia led to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid suggesting that Indonesia and Malaysia could band together to teach Singapore a “lesson” by cutting its water supplies. But as Lee points out, this is an eventuality that Singapore began preparing for decades ago.

Poking fun at Thailand’s cliches

Yawn: A Thriller By Collin Piprell

Chloe and Waylon are living a quiet married existence in suburban Vancouver, Canada, along with Chloe’s sister Meredith. Insurance man Waylon is neurotically tidy and conservative, and lingers housebound at the weekend asking questions like "Sorry, but who put the can of three-in-one oil on the condiments turntable?" Chloe, a feature writer who has lost touch with her reasons for writing in the first place, is itching for something more out of life – something more than Waylon, at least – but dabbling in adultery hasn’t improved things much. Meredith is, in her words, into psychoneuroimmunology.

And the three of them are coming to Thailand for a month-long holiday.

The first morning is really where all the trouble begins. Waylon yawns, his jaw locks, and before his disinterested wife has rolled over in bed he’s seeking help from Meredith, who’s staying in the bungalow next door. One locked jaw leads to one mighty big marital indiscretion and sisterly betrayal.

Appearances are maintained, and the typical Thai holiday gets underway in earnest (or perhaps not quite so typical – there’s no trip to Chiang Mai before heading to the beaches). Pattaya might not be the most typical spot for a bunch of conservative Canadians to head, but it suits the plot and is painted well.

A soapy tryst between a prostitute, Waylon and Chloe, leads to Waylon going off on his own, abandoning Meredith in a bar, and getting roaring drunk with a new bunch of prostitutes. The fate of the holiday is pretty much sealed.

While Waylon gets side-tracked into the world of go-go bars and scuba diving, Meredith heads to a vipassana retreat with Chloe following in hot pursuit. But she’s too late – Meredith has been locked away (with consent) – so she compromises by staying at the 4H Club next door. That’s the Holistic Herbal Garden and Institute of Holographic Healing.

Half-hearted attempts to contact each other – their answering machine back in Vancouver is one medium that works for a while – let each of them know that the other is alright, but a break seems to be just what they need.

But while it seems they are holidaying in worlds apart, they are spiralling closer and closer together. Waylon gets stuck – and laid – with a pill-popping malevolent woman called Jessie who has a driving reason for doing her dive courses. At the 4H club Chloe studies meditation under Gorgi, who likes "to smoke dope and watch screensavers till he [is] pretty well as enlightened as he was ever going to get." But Gorgi has a darker past, as his connections with Terdsak, a Thai underworld figure with fingers in every crooked pie there is – including the 4H club – would suggest. But are they on the same side?

As the book rips along, sketching in a whole motley crew of colourful second-tier characters, all is revealed.

A light-hearted, entertaining read that cleverly pokes fun at all of the cliches Thailand so very readily supplies on the backpacker and Westerner fronts – as well as a few pokes at the Thais themselves. Terdsak’s attempt at singing karaoke, for example, leads to him performing "The Wrong and Widey Load", "My Way" and "The Yeroe Loase of Teksat".

Piprell also manages to capture the reality – and exaggerate it in good humour – in the hype of many things such as meditation retreats.

Take for instance Ruthie, who’s in charge of fining people at the 4H club for breaking house rules, but loses her temper at one of the dogs for taking off with some of her food stash: " ‘That innocent puppy stole by beef jerky,’ Ruthie proclaimed… ‘Beef jerky?’ said the Rev. ‘Beef jerky? This is a vegetarian establishment, is it not? What, may I ask, are you doing with beef jerky?’ ‘Don’t you talk about rules to me, you fat prick."

Very well done to the author, too, for not mentioning that "main pen rai" means never mind until half way through the book.

On the one hand, you shouldn’t expect this book to change your life or expand your literary horizons; on the other, it’s a good long read suitable for a weekend on Samui. Munch through the fast-paced chapters, sip on a cool beer, and from your deck chair have fun spotting the various clich?s strolling past – before realising that perhaps you’ve turned into one yourself. Have fun deciding which one.

Analysing terror

Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison By David Chandler

Some 1.5 million Cambodian people were killed or died as a result of policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge during its reign of terror between 1975 and 1979. How do you get your mind around something like that? By making analogies with football stadiums filled to capacity? Statistics simply can’t communicate the reality of systematic horror on this scale.

Historian and Cambodian expert David Chandler spent 10 years working on this, his latest book. Read in tandem with the increasing number of eye-witness accounts from survivors of Democratic Kampuchea, this book is an important aid towards an understanding of what really happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

S-21 was the code name for the headquarters of the regime’s internal security police, or santebal , located in what was an ordinary secondary school prior to 1975. Chandler estimates that some 14,000 people, deemed to be enemies of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, were interrogated and tortured there. Prominent prisoners were killed on site; others were eventually dispatched to the Choeung Ek "killing fields" 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh. A mere seven inmates survived.

Today most tourists to the Cambodian capital include in their itinerary a visit to S-21, which was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes by the pro-Vietnamese regime that replaced the CPK. The place is eerie in its very ordinariness. Metal beds on which prisoners were found dead by two Vietnamese photographers who entered the compound in January 1979 lie rusting beneath photographs of the victims taken at the time. Elsewhere in the building are instruments of torture, paintings by survivor Vann Nath, and unnerving mugshots of prisoners and their interrogators – many of whom were only in their early teens.

What most visitors to the museum probably don’t realise is that a large archive was also found abandoned here by the Vietnamese. It contains around 4,000 confessions written by prisoners as well as records of admissions and executions, interrogators’ notes, speeches and other information. Chandler based his book on this archive, plus documents that came to light in 1996 and 1997 and interviews with eye-witnesses conducted by other researchers.

Such a subject demands serious academic treatment, but it also cries out to be written in such a way that ordinary people – people not so very different from those who perpetrated crimes at S-21 – will be compelled to read it. (After all, those who forget history will be condemned to repeat it.). Chandler manages to achieve both, giving us six well-structured chapters in which shocking and mundane details are woven into a scholarly rigorous and fascinating narrative.

In the opening chapter, he charts the discovery of the prison and it’s impeccably kept archives, its transformation into a museum under the guidance of Mai Lam (the same man who created the Museum of American War Crimes in Ho Chi Minh City) and the recovery and preservation of the documents found.

Chapter Two sets the scene for the horror to follow, describing the physical and operational structure of the prison and giving short biographies of senior members of its staff. The warped nature of some of these individuals – particularly Duch, the party cadre who now awaits trial in Phnom Penh – starts to become clearer after a reading of some of the facts Chandler has unearthed from the archives. For instance: "In Duch’s report on the prison in the first three months of 1977, he takes seven lines to deplore the deaths of ducks and chickens at the prison, and only two lines to report fourteen prisoners’ deaths from torture. In the looking-glass world of S-21, ducks were mourned more than people."

The next section examines the way in which the CPK identified its enemies. The "External" enemies were easy enough to finger: the United States, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and allies of all three. Once the easily identifiable "internal" enemies – town dwellers, intellectuals, people prominent in Cambodian society prior to 1975 – had been captured and killed, the party concentrated on eliminating the so-called "hidden enemies burrowing from within". This was the function fulfilled by S-21 and other prisons of its type across the country. By the time the Vietnamese launched their invasion the CPK had purged its own central committee to such an extent that there weren’t enough senior party cadres left alive to organise an effective defence.

The Kafkaesque arrests, interrogations and the confessions themselves form the next area of study. Chandler notes that people were arrested and "then asked to explain why they had been arrested and therefore why they were guilty".

Extracts are given from the written confessions – which ranged from a few to many hundreds of pages in length – as well as from notes made by interrogators, including the following: "After threatening [the prisoner] with a few words, I had him remove his shirt and shackled his arms behind him, to be removed only at meals. [I thus] deprived him of sleep and let mosquitoes bite."

As Chandler remarks: "There is something unsettling about ‘fine writing’ about pain … [but] writers and readers alike are drawn inexorably toward a subject that is ugly, frightening, seductive and ultimately inexpressible."

It is appropriate then, that Chandler tackles the problem raised by writing abut torture, examining its use in Cambodian history, and, more recently, in connection with the periodic purges and show trials held in the Soviet Union and China.

He has trawled through an incredible amount of material to explain not only what happened at S-21 and how it fitted into the overall operations of the Khmer Rouge, but also to make comparisons with other tragedies. In the final chapter, he canvasses eloquent explanations for S-21, drawing on research done into other unspeakable events and massacres.

One criticism of the book must be levelled at its designers. Given their exemplary detail, Chandler’s notes should be an integral part of the text. Yet they are tucked away at the back as endnotes. For example, in a discussion on the microfilming of records, he mentions the existence of several confessions made by a group of Westerners arrested when their boat sailed too close to the Cambodian coast.

Turning to the relevant endnote, readers learn that research by another scholar "has revealed that the four Americans, who had known each other in high school in California, were caught off the Cambodian coast when they were heading from Singapore t Bangkok to pick up cargoes of process marijuana that they planned to deliver to Hawaii. Because they had a high-school classmate working for US intelligence services in Thailand, it is conceivable that they were taking commissioned photographs of the coastline when they were arrested."

An intriguing piece of speculation, but one which may be overlooked by many – even the most energetic reader will tired of flicking back and forth to unearth other such gems.

A word of advice: Save endnotes for turgid academic texts; an enthralling work of history like this should come with same-page footnotes. But this is a minor point and does not detract in any way from the exceptional scholarship which produced this important book.

Chandler explains that he set out to study the S-21 documents "as a means of entering the collective mentality of the Khmer Rouge and also as a way of coming to grips with a frightening, heavily documented institution." He has certainly gone a long way toward achieving both of those goals.

Toward quality fiction

Like the Gaze of Statues: Selected Short Stories
By Karen Schur

What a refreshing book to find published in this city crying out to be captured by a competent fiction writer’s pen. But Karen Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues ventures much further than Bangkok: this collection of twenty quietly-spoken short stories takes the world as its setting, and Schur manages to flit with ease from a Bangkok soi to a German pub, from a village in Laos to a first-world nursing home.

Conventional with a very occasional touch of magic realism, Schur’s writing style is skilfully restrained and her love for Asia clearly demonstrated. The subject matter she chooses to write about as a Westerner, however, is certainly not conventional. While expatriate Asian writers’ are deservedly the flavour of the month in the West – think, for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies – skilled writers from the West hardly ever choose to live in Asia, let alone write about it.

Schur pens her characters with empathy, allowing readers to judge them for themselves. In ‘Driving Her Crazy’, for instance, an expatriate wife finds herself sexually attracted to her Thai driver. In this piece Schur paints a politely sarcastic picture of the plethora of clubs for expatriate women in Bangkok. “Of course,” she writes, “most women did not confine themselves to one particular group, but enjoyed membership in two or more. (This was especially noticeable when one glanced at the names of those on the executive committees of the clubs – so many repetitions, so few carrying the weight of so many.)”

Louise, the wife, finds herself drawn to the hands of her driver Nop, who “did not clutch the wheel as did some drivers… He seemed rather to coax the direction of the car through easy gliding of the wheel… Almost like a caress. Louise felt a frisson of alarm and closed her eyes to avoid looking any further.” Is Louise ridiculous? Or is the reader demonstrating their own prejudices for thinking that she is?

Schur has mastered the art of the short story, composing a balanced collection of stories here that range from being poignant snapshots of life to tales with clever twists.

In the former category is the short but moving ‘Please Don’t East the Napkin, Mum”, where a pregnant woman and her father go to visit her grandmother at a nursing home for her birthday. “You can smell the disinfectant everywhere; it’s hovering on the air like the white fluff of hair on Granny’s head. But still it doesn’t take away the underlying odour which comes from too many aged mouths hanging open, too many sodden diapers, too many forgotten dreams.”

In the latter is ‘Stammtisch’, a tale of a German man who has written to his mates that he’s bringing back a Siamese sweetie with him from his sojourn to Thailand. “Who knows – one of those sexy Siamese kittens might even fall for you!” one of the man’s friends tells him before he leaves. “Now Max was on his way home with one. He chuckled with pleasure and allowed himself to imagine the looks on his friends faces when they saw her. He hadn’t come across her until three days ago but had known immediately that she was the one for him.” You’re thinking, balding, fat, sweaty typical sex tourist, right? You’ll have to read on.

‘Filial Obedience’ is also noteable: a Bangkok-born Punjabi man returns from his studies in America to Bangkok appalled to find his parents have arranged a marriage for him. Although the plot twist might be predictable, Schur nicely captures the dilemma of being a Western-educated man with family commitments in Thailand:

“It wouldn’t be for another two or three generations that the descendants of those who had come in the wake of Partition would feel comfortable enough in Thailand to make their own ways. They would be able to marry for love – not position in society, wealth or the configuration of the stars. Anand cursed inwardly. He had been born too early.”

In ‘Signs of a Living Past’, an investment portfolio manager, attends the National Museum Volunteers’ Annual Dinner in Bangkok. Here she sights the lover she should perhaps never have fled; the story recounts their glorious days on an isle in Greece, when Althea was so in love that “Everything was sharply outlined, filled with tremendous colours, hallucigenically detailed. She walked alone but the glances of the islanders and the tourists, too, followed her. Althea could feel the stardust trailing off her fingers.”

Unlike other expatriate authors writing in Bangkok, the explicit details of the author’s life don’t form the basis of these stories, although her experiences must surely have shaped them as she writes with the intimate knowledge of a first-hand observer or at least avid listener.

Instead, the details of this writer’s life are brief: under a blurry black and white picture the reader is told merely that Schur was born in South America, has lived in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific, and she now lives on a lake outside Bangkok. She’s also written Voyage of the Emerald Buddha, published by Oxford University Press, and various feature stories.

And it’s kind of nice to only know that for a change. The strength of this book rests on her finely-crafted tales and those alone.

But publicity for this writer seems to have been undeservedly limited. Someone with the unlikely but fantastic name of Stirling Silliphant Jr provides a review for the backcover, aptly warning readers to “Expect not a hint of cultural cliché in these colourful tales.” The president of the Writers’ Association of Thailand, Pensri Kiengsiri, also blesses the book, describing the stories as being “thought-provoking, creative and captivating”.

While there is certainly a place for the style of expatriate writing currently popular here, there’s a dearth of quality fiction written by expatriates. After all, Bangkok is hardly a hub of intellectual activity in the global scheme of things. Books like Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues, however, lets Bangkok hold its head up a little higher.

Girl, Interrupted

By Susanna Kaysen

When Susanna Kaysen is 18 years old she makes a feeble attempt to take her own life. After a single session with a psychiatrist she is diagnosed as having a ‘borderline personality’ and is sent away to McLean Hospital, the private psychiatric centre that treated Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles, among other famous names. While Susanna’s descriptions of life on the ward are intriguing and compelling, we’re certainly not talking One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here. More provocative by far are her lucid thoughts – once she is declared ‘sane’ – on precisely what it is that deems some people ‘mad’ and others ‘sane’. The ‘mad’ Susanna may seem more like yourself than you are comfortable with, and that’s really her point. Society, rather than the cushy, expensive, drug-pushing hospital, is at fault, and Susanna’s poignant reflections are just as pertinent to the 21st century. This is an elegant read which is subtle in its challenges. And, perhaps it’s worth noting, it’s nothing at all like the film.

When We Were Orphans

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Christopher Banks was born in Shanghai to British parents in the early 20th century while opium was all the rage. His father’s apparent kidnapping is followed shortly afterwards by his mother’s disappearance, and thereafter he is sent back to England. He becomes a successful detective, and eventually returns to Shanghai just prior to the onset of World War II to uncover exactly what happened to his parents. There are revelations, but reaching them takes a long time. Although there is a grace to Ishiguro’s writing, he can also be long-winded, tedious and simply boring. The absurdity he employs may appeal to some readers, but to others it may feel simply like they are trapped in a very literary nightmare. Shanghai lacks the colour it must have had during such a period, and the horrors endured by its citizens are too understated to be shocking. The themes of innocence, family love and the re-writing of one’s history are explored, but may leave readers feeling like they’ve missed something somewhere along the way.

A Star Called Henry

By Roddy Doyle

This punch of a novel traces the first twenty years of Henry Smart, born into the slums of Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. The young Smart competes with his dead younger brother Henry for the attention of his spirit-broken mother, while his father is out being bouncer and occasional hitman for a local business heavy. Henry turns to the streets for solace, where he is coopted into joining what will become the IRA. Although Henry doesn’t give a toss about Ireland and views the struggle along class lines, by the end of several years hard fighting for the likes of Michael Collins, he realises he has been nothing more than an ‘ijeet’ helping the rise of an Irish class of businessmen. The dialogue is of Doyle’s usual brilliant standard, and the characters he paints, including Miss O’Shea, the wife of Henry who is more determined to knock off peelers than he is, are wonderfully colourful. Doyle can evoke magic as he also writes of death and mayhem, making this novel a compelling read.

Not pure, just determined

Losing My Virginity: The Autobiography
By Richard Branson

Are you ready to be humbled into admitting that you have, after all, been a pretty lazy git for most of your life? Are you ready to be energised into vowing that you will achieve what you want to, however many years ago it was that you originally planned to do so?

A summary of this book might be the title of the prologue: “Screw it. Let’s do it.” It’s not technically a self- help book – would you trust a guru who plastered his goatie- adorned face on the cover? – but it may as well be. Richard Branson’s ghost-written autobiography is a ripper of a read – it’s both exhausting and embarassing to review your own meagre achievements by the time you turn the final page.

As a piece of autobiographical literature, it’s standard, almost dumbed-down fare. The story of the first 43 years of Branson’s life – he makes clear that this is just Volume One, and he recently turned 50 – is not deep or philosophical. It begins with an account of a close shave on one his famous balloon world record attempts, when he and his copilot make an emergency landing in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria.

Then, predictably enough, we flashback to his happy, family- centred childhood. Like many successful entrepreneurs, Branson does poorly at school, and still couldn’t read by the age of eight due to suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia. Nevertheless, he excels at sport, and being England, this is enough for him to get by, although an injury eventually means he has to knuckle down and study seriously.

When he was just fifteen, he and a mate fatefully decided to put together a school magazine, called Student: The Magazine for Britain’s Youth. It was eventually published in January 1968. And that’s where Branson’s life begins to be woven with the social and commercial history of England in the second half of the twentieth century.

Branson interviewed such icons as Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Gerald Scarfe and Dudley Moore. He shifted, however, away from journalistic aspirations towards the practical side of running the business, desperately trying to sell advertising and using every hilarious trick in the book to do so.

Then Branson and his mates decide to branch out into the record retailing business, and the name Virgin is born. Then the record label is born, and Mike and Sally Oldfield are signed, and business really takes off, albeit for a bouncy few decades.

The inside story behind Branson’s trips to Baghdad during the Gulf Crisis, and the long-winded Virgin and BA dispute are given just as much attention as Branson’s love life. While the latter might be an interesting read, it’s the BA dispute in particular that’s rivetting and is likely to make you refuse to ever fly with them again.

In Branson’s words, the episode is “one of the fiercest, most focused and vicious attacks ever launched by an airline against a small competitor.” It’s about the British class system as much as anything else, with an upstart entrepreneur giving the established airline a run for its money. And Branson doesn’t hold back from naming names.

In one exchange, Branson tells Sir Colin Marshall, the chief executive of BA that their engineering was so bad it could have brought an aircraft down. The response, according to Branson? “That’s one of the perils of being in the aviation business. If you’d stuck to popular music you wouldn’t have had this problem.” Ouch.

Throw in a a near capsize during a fishing trip, a few almost catastrophic balloon rides, and it’s clear that Branson is a man who’s time should have come many years ago. His accounts of escaping with his life by a whisper are hair- raising, and told with typical British understatement, although a Canadian does manage a good line.

Branson and his companion land in Canada, 3,000 kilometres away from where they should have: “ ‘We’ve landed on a lake surrounded by trees.’ ‘It’s a frozen lake,’ came the laconic Canadian voice. ‘It’s quite safe. The only trouble is that there are about 800,000 lakes in your vicinity and they’ve all got plenty of trees.’ “

Branson is also humble enough to recall stories where he has played the fool. For example, there’s the honeymoon couple who ask him for a photograph after Virgin’s win against BA has been splashed all over the papers in the UK. He says sure, and strikes a pose. “ ‘Sorry’, the husband said. ‘We were hoping that you could take our photograph. I’m Edward, and this is my wife Araminta. What’s your name?’ “

The beauty of Branson and his achievements – both in the business world and in competitive sport, although the line between the two can be blurred – is that he actually doesn’t seem like an awfully sharp or conventionally business-minded chap. He makes business deals seem like a mere matter of thinking things over a little, and then going for them. It’s about taking risks and having fun, and not getting bogged down in details:

“Some people say that my vision for Virgin breaks all the rules and is too wildly kaleidoscopic; others say that Virgin is set to become one of the leading brand names of the next century; others analyse it down to the last degree and then write academic papers on it. As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Branson continues to lead an amazing life, having recently been granted a knighthood. Catch up on the life behind the man whose businesses are making headlines at the Virgin empire continues to grow. You’ll be inspired by the breezy read and be shown that all it really takes to be successful is enthusiasm, passion and persistence, no matter where your ambitions lie.