Category Archives: Books

BOOKS: Catfish and Mandala

I’d been wanting to read Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey for several years now, so when I saw a used copy in a Kathmandu bookstore, I immediately snatched it up. I have not found many pieces of travel literature that focus on Vietnam and lately I’ve been especially interested in learning and reading about the Vietnam War, the country’s particular brand of communism and the economic changes that are rapidly taking place from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham served as a spectacular base and jumping off point for further research and learning about the Vietnam War. This book was the perfect place to begin my quest to truly understand this time period in Vietnam. Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s story about his deeply personal journey from his home California back to his birthplace in Vietnam. Pham was a child of the Vietnam War and his parents fled the country when he was around 6 years old. With a bicycle and a vague idea that returning to Vietnam after several decades as an immigrant in the United States would clear up some of the conflict that the uprooting created within his family, Pham departs from California with very little money and very few plans, expect that he wanted to bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi and visit his birthplace in between.

When I began Catfish and Mandala I thought the majority of the book would be dedicated to Pham’s actual bicycle journey in Vietnam. In reality, while the trip makes up a central role in the plot, the real meat of the book intertwines Pham’s troubled recent family history, told from both his point of view and from the point of view of his parents, who sacrificed a great deal for their children to get them safely out of Vietnam to a new life in America.

Catfish and Mandala is an important read for several reasons. First, it offers a very personal back story about the Vietnam War that I feel, especially as an American, I have heard very little about. I think it is important to understand wars and conflict on a larger scale, but to truly get a sense of what was going on in the country at that time, one must understand what was happening on a micro level, with specific people and individual family units. I had a similar feeling about First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 70s.

The second reason I think this is am important read, especially for Americans, is that it wonderfully illustrates the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the United States. Through Pham’s storytelling, we come to understand the economic and emotional strains that immigrant families experience in the United States. The reality for the Phams is, as often seems to be, quite different from what they dream America would be like while in Vietnam. This is often a sentiment I cannot really explain accurately when speaking with Nepalis who view the U.S. as some sort of bastion of hope and perfection, somewhere that if they can possibly move to, will be the solution to all their problems. In reality, many Nepalis and other immigrants who end up in the U.S. after much dreaming, work low-paying, low-skill jobs that many Americans do not want to do themselves. They are also isolated from their family and the tight-knit support system of their home country (for a further look into this issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a great read). While many of the issues I hear about regarding immigrants to the U.S. deal with people who come illegally from Mexico, I think it would behoove Americans to read Catfish and Mandala to get a deeper understanding about the realities of an immigrant family in U.S.

I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala for those interested in both a broad and a personal history of the Vietnam War years. Pham’s words are carefully crafted and his story is poignant. This is an important book that puts into perspective recent Vietnamese history, as well as challenges faced by immigrant families in the U.S. Pham’s epic bicycle journey through Vietnam, of course, adds great adventure and texture to the book, which in the end, weaves together history, travel narrative and family lineage tales from abroad.

BOOKS: The Lady and the Monk

I was quite excited to read another of Pico Iyer’s books, as his series of essays on Asian cultures titled Video Night in Kathmandu is one of my all-time favorites. The Lady and the Monk takes place over four seasons, one year starting in autumn, in Kyoto, Japan. He travels to Kyoto with the intention to live a monkish existence, renouncing some aspects of the material world with the hopes of further understanding Zen Buddhism, Japan and himself. After a short stay at a local Kyoto monastery with several peculiar Japanese monks, Iyer quickly moves into another ascetic space that suits him better: a small guesthouse full of interesting, strange and eccentric foreign characters. After Iyer moves out of the first monastery, I felt that his mission to understand Japan, the culture and the people took on a new character that focused less on Zen Buddhism and more on the uniquely mysterious individual and collective psyche of the country.

Iyer soon meets Sachiko, a Japanese woman who seems to want to both embrace and spurn the Japanese ideals set out for her as a woman, a mother and a wife. Sachiko both conforms and rebels against the rigid cultural rules set out for her by her home country and her family, which makes for some intriguing conflict, with Iyer as the “Western” intermediary between Sachiko’s reality and fantasy.

The Lady and the Monk was like one long poem, perhaps overly flowery at some points, but I think the flowery language was meant to reflect the deep aesthetic appeal of Japanese society. When I think of Japan, I think of utmost simplicity, but also an incredible sense of beauty that emerges from that simplicity. Iyer captures this feeling quite well, too well sometimes, mimicking the soft pinkness of a cherry blossom, the curve of a flower petal and the uncomplicated solitude of a Buddhist monastery with his words. Iyer’s immersion into Japan, which seems as complete as can be for a foreigner, allowed me to see Japan from a new perspective through his discerning and astute eyes.

In the beginning, I was a bit confused about Iyer’s goal to become a Zen Buddhist monk. It was almost a haphazard mission, just some reason to go to Japan, live there and write for a year (not a bad mission). He doesn’t fare very well in the monasteries or the temples, only staying for short periods of time. His understanding of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese culture’s relation to the religion mostly comes from other people he meets, mostly Westerners, as well as a plentitude of Japanese literature.

Ninomaru Garden, Kyoto, Japan: Simply beautiful, beautifully simple. Photo by: jimg944

I got a deep sense of loneliness from reading this book, but I think that was the point. Maybe the feeling is was not exactly loneliness per say, but it surely was solitude. For example, when Iyer is walking through quiet streets, lanes covered in fallen pink cherry blossoms, or when he is exploring the somewhat creepy and dark sex and “entertainment” industry in Japan. It is lonely, but that seems to be what Pico Iyer is looking for: loneliness and solitude as tools to help him discover himself and more about Zen Buddhism and Japan.

Sachiko’s character, the conflicted young woman whom Iyer develops a deep friendship (and maybe more?), was one that I never truly connected with. She remained a mystery to me and her conflict between wanting to take on Western cultural values, but being stuck with the Japanese ones was awkward, mostly because Iyer describes Sachiko is quite childish. The relationship between Iyer and Sachiko was a main point of confusion for me. Iyer is obviously highly educated and incredibly eloquent and I often wondered at the nature of he and Sachiko’s relationship. How did he not get frustrated with her girlishness? How did he not get frustrated with their limited ability to converse? Were they just friends, or lovers too? I found some sentences that I thought could be taken as allusions to them having sex, but my suspicions were never confirmed. I almost feel like their relationship is one of parent and child, but at the same time they are friends and other times they share very intimate moments. He introduces to her to many things about Western society, and she, mostly unknowingly, introduces him to things about Japan, but the conclusions about Japanese society are all his own, not hers at all.

Partway through Iyer’s stay in Kyoto, Sachiko decides she wants to change her life drastically and I felt that Iyer was the main disrupting force, although he never blatantly acknowledges it. I wonder if he felt bad? He completely changed the course of her family’s life: she divorces her husband who we know nothing about, and she takes on a goal of becoming an international tour guide, which also surely affects her relationship with her two young children. I wondered: What about the children and the husband? Iyer doesn’t acknowledge this much.

The Lady and the Monk was especially interesting to me because I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying Japan and Japanese language (almost 15 years). Along with language study, I’ve taken a number of Japanese literature classes and read many of the works Iyer touches on in his book like The Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillowbook and The Tale of the Heike. After reading The Lady and the Monk, I feel I’ve gained new perspective on classical Japanese literature and I see these pieces with what feels like fresh eyes. If I were teaching a Japanese literature course, I would have my students read The Lady and the Monk as part of the course, preferably before reading the great volumes of Japanese literature. For anyone interested, The Lady and the Monk, along with classical Japanese works by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, along with contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami, would be a great collection and series to read to gain a broad understanding of the Japanese psyche, which in some ways has not changed much from 1,000 years ago.

The Lady and the Monk makes me realize how painfully little I actually understand about Japanese society, which is sort of shocking considering I’ve spent the majority of my life studying the language and the culture. In school, we learned about the culture like tea ceremonies, but not about any of the true nuances of Japan, which probably can’t be understood unless one lives there. I’ve been thinking about living in Japan myself (maybe next year?), but this book makes me wonder if I would actually have a good time there, or if I would simply leave frustrated by the challenge of never being able to truly permeate the Japanese shell that exists in so many aspects of life and work.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Iyer leaves Japan for Taiwan and Bangkok. I like his descriptions of the assault to his senses after he is been in the clean, sanitized and hard Japan for so long. It was almost the feeling I had (but in reverse) when after 5 months in Nepal, I flew into the Singapore airport. The shine, the sparkle, the glinting taxis, the lack of overpowering smells: it was a wonder.

Having finished this book, I feel like I’m now craving to truly know more about the Japan that exists behind the hard surface.

BOOKS: Thunder From the East

Kristof and WuDunn, both journalists for the New York Times, authored this book about the rise, fall and rise again of East Asia. This book is almost ten years old now, so it’s a bit dated, but remains an great resource of information about Asia as a world mega-power. Kristof, true to his writing style, includes many anecdotes and narratives from his own travels in Asia. Both Kristof and WuDunn have traveled far and wide in the region and, although they acknowledge that Asia can never be fully understood as an outsider, offer some spectacular insight into Asia cultures and practice. For example, they aim to uncover what has held Asia back economically in the past few centuries (political issues, extreme poverty, failure to utilize women as a resource, etc…).

Thunder From the East is a great starting ground for those interested in exactly how, when and where the Asian economic crisis of 1992 started. The husband-wife team literally trace the collapse to a specific date in Thailand in 1992. From Thailand, the money devaluation, uncertainty and chaos began to spread like wildfire around Asia, reaching places like Indonesia and Japan.

Thunder From the East is a good read for a general overview on recent history, culturally and economically, of East Asia with a focus on Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and China. This book is a good springboard into further readings on the 1992 Asian economic crisis, as well as Asia’s position as a global power.

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: I give it a B-.

Although all the books I read are not Asia-related, I’ve decided to write book reviews for them anyway.  I enjoy reading and I enjoy writing, so why not put both together and make my blog space also somewhere for reviewing what I read: the good, the bad and the ugly.

When I hopped on the plane to Seoul, I brought with me ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson.  I didn’t know anything about this book except that it had been made into a movie recently, which was showing at the Bijou Arts Cinemas in Eugene (where I was previously living).  Although this is not always true, I have this idea in my mind about what sorts of books are made into movies: first, they must be appreciated by the masses (think ‘The Beach‘ by Alex Garland, ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ by Elizabeth Gilbert, etc..), second, they often have a somewhat formulaic plot (think, ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ etc…).  But, presumptions aside, I had seen the brightly colored yellow and green book on many bookstore shelves and front windows.  ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is, after all, an international bestseller.

So, I inherited the book from my mother who didn’t have much to say about it.  I think her exact quote was: “It’s ok.”

I would give this book a B-.  It was entertaining and definitely a good plane read, but besides that, it surely doesn’t go in my favorites list.

I felt that Larsson was trying his hardest, actually too hard, to create characters with a depth of personality and charisma.  Despite his efforts, I found them all rather flat and unbelievable.  Lisbeth is this mysterious character, but at the end we never find out why she is so “different.”  The connection between the characters seems disjointed and false.

The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a hero if I’ve ever seen one.  He might even be hero enough to rival Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon in ‘The Davinci Code.’  Speaking of ‘The Davinci Code,’ the entire times I was reading ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ I felt that the book was incredibly similar to Brown’s novel.  Both follow an overly heroic, macho man as he bravely solves a very intricate and mixed up crime: women love them even though they seem oblivious to the way they make females fall head-over-heals.

I wasn’t overcome by any sort of emotion at the end of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’  I simply closed the cover and began thinking about the next book I was going to read.

In regards to Larsson’s book I’ll have to agree with my mother: “It’s ok.”

Book Review: A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance

by Rohinton Mistry

If you can only read one book for the rest of your life, it should be this one. Seriously. A Fine Balance is enthralling, spectacular and one of the most well-written, finely crafted books I’ve ever read. Set in India (mostly in Mumbai), the story encompasses multiple characters and story lines that intertwine in unlikely and surprising ways. Dina Dalal is a widowed tailor who is struggling to keep her head above water with a tailoring business; Omprakash and Ishvar Darji are untouchables from a small village, working in the big city; and Manesh is a college student who misses his home in Northern India.

Mistry’s writing is vivid and ethereal: when he describes the slums, you can almost feel the muggy heat bearing down. When he writes of untouchable tanners, you can feel the cow hide on your fingers. The books deals with extreme poverty in India, caste and class, love, hate and politics. A Fine Balance, shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, is a spectacular read and story that will be branded in your mind forever. This should be required reading for all and is especially great preparation for a trip to India.

Read before a trip to: India, South Asia