Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wednesday Reviews: Vacation Reading

After much dithering, I of course ended up taking along half a dozen books on the honeymoon -- far more than I could possibly have time to read in a week; but the ALP did the same, as this is apparently the packing curse of the book nerd. Here are the ones I did get to.

Frommer's Puerto Rico, 8th Edition
(July 2006)
Yeah, I know, not your typical narrative to review. But this is the one that's got the most signs of wear, and I probably read the whole thing cover to cover in various increments. Mostly we were interested in good restaurants (mmm, mofongos and mallorcas) and bars (mojitos of course), and a few historical sights (the 500-year old fort of El Morro, evocative of horrific barracks life as well as the occasional excitement of a pirate raid; and the well-preserved home of Dona Felisa, the beloved long-time major of San Juan, the first woman to be elected mayor of any Western city; and our own hotel, El Convento, which has its share of history from convent to flophouse to glamorous 1960s hotel life).

My only complaint about Frommer's is that they failed entirely to mention the La Perla district, which shows up as a blank patch on the map of San Juan. The ALP and I curiously wandered outside the old city walls and into the district, which turned out to be not only the birthplace of reggaeton but the most notorious ghetto on the island. We managed to walk out on the other side none the worse for wear, but not without some serious culture shock. Now the ALP wants to write a noir mystery set in San Juan; you could do a lot worse.

The Dud Avocado
by Elaine Dundy
(New York Review of Books edition, June 2007)
So many people recommended this as vacation reading that it seemed inevitable, and I was so glad they convinced me. From the blurb quote by Groucho Marx to the impassioned introduction by Terry Teachout, they were right all the way. It's the perfect intellectual/bohemian/romantic romp, and brought back intense memories of my own youth in study abroad programs in Europe (while making me glad I wasn't back there again). The heroine, Sally Jay Gorce (whose name I love) is an inveterate runner-away-from-home and has had the immense luck of being given an allowance to live in Paris for two years, and she is, as the back jacket puts it "hell-bent on living." An affair with a married Italian, involvement with an invigorating circle of pretentious bohemians, friendships and love affairs with artists, cottage stays in Biarritz, involvement with movie directors and bullfighters and pimps -- Gorce's whirlwind tour is a brilliant encapsulation of the invigorating novelty as well as the occasional tedium and sham that come with being young and unfettered in a foreign country. The comedy comes from both her own awkward stumbles and the pitch-perfect portraits of boorish and self-absorbed aristocrats, artists, and small-town Americans. The pathos comes from her unavoidable moral instinct, which realizes that there are casualties in such a headlong flight.

I tried to describe the plot (involving misplaced affections, revenges, and secret crimes, as well as lots of heated conversations in French cafes) to the ALP, who pronounced that it sounded like chick lit. And it's true to some degree -- I won't really be spoiling it to tell you that Sally Jay finds true love at the end of her wanderings. But it all feels less premeditated and more spontaneous than that moniker would imply -- it has the momentum that real travel experiences do, where one thing leads surprisingly to another and you stay out all night and somehow it all seems symbolic and connected. Sally Jay connected with the bohemian traveler in me, and she made me laugh. I can't recommend this enough for exactly the purposes I used it for -- lighthearted summer enjoyment that won't compromise your intelligence, and might make you a bit wistful for your own wild youth, as well as grateful that you came out of it alive.

Bangkok Haunts
by John Burdett
(Knopf, June 2007)
This one was even purer escapism. I ate up Burdett's previous thrillers Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo, and couldn't wait to follow the further adventures of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the devout Buddhist, co-owner of a brothel, friends with a female FBI agent, only non-corrupt cop in the Thai police force but subject to the whims of his gangster boss Colonel Vikorn, who mentors a young katoey (transsexual) and includes plenty of aside to the farang (foreigner) reader, even as he struggles with the East/West split of his own American paternity. In the first book Sonchai solves a murder involving cobras, mourns the loss of his childhood friend and police partner Pichai, and helps set up his working-girl mom Nong with her own Bangkok brothel; in the second he solves a Japanese yakuza plot and married his longtime love Chanya, a worker in his mother's establishment. But in this one Sonchai, now expecting a child, is literally visited by a ghost from his past: Damrong, another prostitute who once held him in thrall, is murdered in a snuff film he receives from an anonymous source, and she begins once again to haunt him.

I'm taking a breath and realizing that's way too many plots points to throw out, but I haven't even scratched the surface of this pell-mell ride. Burdett is a Brit, but he has immersed himself in the teeming life of Thailand's capital city (Bangkok is as much a character as any of the people in the story), and he writes with irresistible force and candor. Sonchai is an endearing character because his contradictions agonize him: he has a personal code of conduct but cannot judge others, and struggles to reconcile his Buddhism with the dog-eat-dog corruption that he totally accepts as the nature of reality in his country. In this book he has to deal with bribery, sexual enslavement, even sorcery, and he's pretty beat up by the end, but he makes a faithful and compelling narrator. I found this book darker than the previous two (and why did both of my vacation novels have prostitution as a subplot?? weird...), but told in the same discerning but compassionate voice. Highly recommended beach reading, but not for the squeamish -- probably much like Bangkok.

That's the rundown -- books about exotic locales seem to make good reading when one is in an exotic locale. Would love to hear about the summer books you're reading, too...


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