Friday Finds for 17th June 2011 (#13)

Friday Finds.jpgIt’s been a while since I’ve participated in the Friday Finds meme, sponsored by Should Be Reading. The last one appeared way back on 18 February — it was temporarily replaced by the Book Beginnings On Friday meme.

Anyway, last week I found out about a new book that I’m positively excited about — so much so that I entered a contest to try and win a copy (I rarely enter contests as I’m never lucky enough to win). That book is The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic by Michael Sims, an author who has reviewed many books on one of my favorite websites — BookPage.

Here’s the product description:

Sims, Michael 2011 - The Story Of Charlotte's Web.jpgAs he was composing what was to become his most enduring and popular book, E. B. White was obeying that oft-repeated maxim: “Write what you know.” Helpless pigs, silly geese, clever spiders, greedy rats-White knew all of these characters in the barns and stables where he spent his favorite hours. Painfully shy his entire life, “this boy,” White once wrote of himself, “felt for animals a kinship he never felt for people.” It’s all the more impressive, therefore, how many people have felt a kinship with E. B. White. With Charlotte’s Web, which has gone on to sell more than 45 million copies, the man William Shawn called “the most companionable of writers” lodged his own character, the avuncular author, into the hearts of generations of readers.

In The Story of Charlotte’s Web, Michael Sims shows how White solved what critic Clifton Fadiman once called “the standing problem of the juvenile-fantasy writer: how to find, not another Alice, but another rabbit hole” by mining the raw ore of his childhood friendship with animals in Mount Vernon, New York. translating his own passions and contradictions, delights and fears, into an al-time classic. Blending White’s correspondence with the likes of Ursula Nordstrom, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, the E. B. White papers at Cornell, and the archives of HarperCollins and the New Yorker into his own elegant narrative, Sims brings to life the shy boy whose animal stories–real and imaginery–made him famous around the world.

Charlotte’s Web is probably the first YA book I ever read and one I taught to second-language learners in my fourth-grade reading classes here in Thailand. The first week of Term 1 I would give the kids a bit of background on E. B. White and how he came to write this particular book following years of being an essayist. Michael Sims’ book would have been a wonderful research tool for me and I’m certain a few of my students would have been interested in reading his book as well. I must admit that my favorite “souvenirs” I’ve kept from those classes are the many drawings that the kids would give me portraying Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton, and all the rest of the animals (and sometimes, Fern or Mr. Zuckerman would show up in the pictures as well). The Charlotte’s Web classes were the most popular of all of my lessons, although the second term study of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was way up there as well.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web was published by Walker & Company on 7th June. with a list price of USD $25 (and available on Amazon for as low as $9.99). If I don’t score a copy in the aforementioned contest, I’m going to be heavily hinting that it would make a great birthday gift in December! The BookPage review can be found here.

The next three books are “old” finds, but are still books I would love to read!

First we have Fortunate Sons by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, published by W. W. Norton & Company on 13th Feburary, spurred by my continuing interest in Chinese society.

Leibovitz, Liel 2011 - Fortunate Sons.jpgThe epic story of the American-educated boys who changed China forever. At the twilight of the nineteenth century, China sent a detachment of boys to America in order to learn the ways of the West, modernize the antiquated empire, and defend it from foreigners invading its shores. After spending a decade in New England’s finest schools, the boys re-turned home, driven by a pioneering spirit of progress and reform. Their lives in America influenced not only their thinking but also their nation’s endeavor to become a contemporary world power, an endeavor that resonates powerfully today.

Drawing on diaries, letters, and other first-person accounts, Fortunate Sons tells a remarkable tale, weaving together the dramas of personal lives with the momentous thrust of a nation reborn. Shedding light on a crucial yet largely unknown period in China’s history, Fortunate Sons provides insight into the issues concerning that nation today, from its struggle toward economic supremacy to its fraught relationship with the United States.

This next book was reviewed in The Nation, one of Bangkok’s two English-language daily newspapers; I can no longer find it online so I will reprint the review in it’s entirety below. I’d stumbled across the book, Stage IV: Healing in Thailand Can Also Be Murder by Erich R. Sysak (Monsoon Publishing, 2010), while perusing the one aisle of English-language books at The Books on Phuket Road in Phuket Town. I flip through a lot of these types of books but never buy them as they seem to me the same kind of grumbling expat-meets-bargirl novels that are so common here. Most are very poorly written not to mention the company that publishes the greatest number of them doesn’t seem to have a proofreader on staff as they are rife with typos and the binding is so poor that the pages often fall out before they leave the bookshop! Anyway, this one struck me as having better prose than the vast majority but 400 baht was too much for me to part with at the time…

Other Ways That Cancer Kills
Reviewed by Paul Dorsey
The Nation

An Expat Novel with Bargirls and Crooked Cops Sounds Like Junk but Turns Out to Be a Gem
Stage IV: Hearling in Thailand Can Also Be Murder
By Eric R. Sysak
Published By Monsoon, 2010
Available at Asia Books, Bt396

Sysak, Erich R 2010 - Stage IV.jpg

Here’s another solid case for not judging a book by its cover: “Stage IV” is well-plotted and well-written thriller linked to an intriguing social phenomenon, but it’s hidden behind a vague title, a lurid front illustration and a teaser blurb that says all the wrong things about it.

I read the cover bait about “a Hollywood pariah, a devoted bargirl, a slew of dead bodies and a corrupt Thai police colonel” and was disinclined to go any further, but perseverance paid off. The novel is far better than the sum of all its outer parts.

Erich R Sysak, formerly of Florida and Louisiana and now purportedly growing mangoes in the Thai Northeast, has contributed articles to various publications, including, it says here, The Nation.

He is quite a good writer. There are some impressively composed passages but, more importantly, Sysak is a shrewd storyteller, capable of manipulating the jigsaw puzzle as deftly as though he were tossing a salad.

You begin at Page 1 still wincing from the cover blurb and, sure enough, the tale doesn’t start well.

Lawson Banks is in a Hua Hin beer bar explaining something about cancer to two farang strangers when a motorcycle- taxi driver shows up to say his Thai girlfriend needs to see him. They ride across town, passing all the girls he’s loved before, to a pool hall where all those girls’ Thai boyfriends hang out.

Lawson’s not welcome, though he is expected, but of course his woman isn’t there. Instead, his cancer-related dysentery forces him into hit the toilet, where a freshly made hole in the wall supplies an opening for a shotgun. The natural presumption is that his girlfriend wants him dead. You know what bargirls are like.

So far, so pedestrian. But quickly enough we get to the ripe nut on which the plot pivots: viatication, also known as “death futures”. Terminally ill with Stage IV cancer, Banks has sold his life-insurance benefits to a consortium of investors back in the States for a lower but still enviable value. Evidently this happens a lot in real life.

The problem is that Banks is taking too long to succumb to his disease, and the investors have grown impatient. They’ve come to Thailand to hurry him along.

The story unfolds from there amid many clever, unexpected jumps, always a sign of a skilled writer. Meanwhile the girlfriend turns out to be a genuine sweetheart, not only trustworthy but willing and able to help clear up this mess her man is in.

The “corrupt Thai police colonel” may be corrupt, but he’s not a caricature. Plausibility gets a gentle workout but it’s never stretched to injury.

The settings are well-enough drawn, despite the requisite appearances of Buddha statues and buffalo, and the author manages to avoid banality even while taking his protagonist on a side trip to Pattaya and one of its sleazy massage parlours.

Sysak has come up with a scheming little potboiler that deserves a place on the bookstore shelf well away from the moronic accounts of expatriate go-go-bar philosophers and other wastes of trees.

From what I’ve written here and elsewhere, it may appear that I’m totally against the genre of Thai-based expat novels (a genre that is variously termed “Bangkok Fiction” or more recently “Bangkok Noir”) but that’s not the case at all. Perhaps the first few I’d read prior to moving here were poorly written and I longed for the stories to get out of the bars and traffic of Bangkok and into the countryside and the heart of makes Thailand most fascinating to me — the people and the culture. I longed to find a novel that captured the spirit of Isaan or the central plains the way that Tony Hillerman’s novels give you such a feeling of what life is like on the Navajo Reservation.

I gave up trying a few years ago but recent reads such as Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer and Jason Schoonover’s Thai Gold have made me realize that the bar-centered novels do have merit (if well-written) and that I need to just read more books in order to find what I’m looking for. I have yet to explore the vast output of Thailand’s most popular expat authors, Christopher G. Moore, having only read one (Pattaya 24/7) and I’m discovering more and more of them through reviews such as the above. Unfortunately, you don’t see many of these in the used bookshops (the only way I can afford new “tree” books these days is by exchanging my few remaining titles for credit).

I’ll plan to write an article introducing the “Bangkok Noir” genre and will be including a few more of these types of novels in future Friday Finds.

The Phuket Bookworm Daily Writing Word Counts:
This Article — 1830
Journal Entry — 308
Total Today — 2138


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