I shall not be afraid anymore (of buying books)

I’ve just had a flash of literary kinsmanship, a true moment of realisation that I owe to the wonderful Jeanette Winterson, and which will probably reveal itself to be very dangerous for the state of my finances and bookshelves, but here it is:

I’ve been dipping in and out of Winterson’s art objects, a collection of essays on art and literature and Virginia Woolf and so much more, a collection so dense and fascinating I usually read one then pause for a few days to let it sink in. And today, the one I read is called “The psychometry of books”, and it is about book collecting. It starts: 

“Book collecting is a  obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin  of stamp-collecting, a sister or the trophy cabinet,  bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.”

How true, how perfect. I wanted to shout, to sing those lines aloud (even if that might get me transfered to the closest asylum and despite my love of the country I really don’t want to try out Cambodia”s mental health care, thank you very much). Somebody (well of course not just anybody) gets it.

I would have been content just with that,  but a bit further comes the line which I will now utter everytime I ask myself whether I should be buying more books or not:

“That is the way with books. You regret only the ones you did not buy.”

So from now on, fellow book-addicts, I shall procede without guilt and remind myself every time I feel apologetic about having bought a couple books, that first it is not really a choice, more a question of fate. And mostly, that it is the ones you don’t buy that you’ll regret. Enough said.

P.s. since it is now universally proven that it is acceptable to buy books, buy “Art objects”. You won’t regret it.


​Sabai Sabai living : Thoughts on Laos

I’m writing this from a hammock. I know it must be just about the douchiest sentence to utter, and I apologize for anyone reading it after a hard day’s work. It’s the blogging equivalent to that facebook friend posting selfies at the beach in the Carribean in the middle of February. Well for once, I get to be just that instead of the one reading about it at home, and boy do I enjoy it! I’m not at the beach – some things don’t change – I’m in a bungalow on a small Island on the Mekong river, in South Laos. It is just about how it sounds, probaly the most laid back place on Earth.

We’ve been in Laos for almost two weeks, now, and after Myanmar, it’s been refreshingly…quiet. We arrived in Vientiane, the capital city, on a sunday at noon, and thought we had just wandered into a ghost town. And this is not only according to South-East-Asia-Capital-Cities standards, it would even be considered quiet if it were a small provincial southern French town, on a sunday afternoon when everyone is napping. So compared to Yangon or Bangkok, you could talk of a culture shock. But Vientiane has the charm of a half-forgotten colonial post along the Mekong river, with its white villas and bushes of colorful bougainvillea, its small french cafes (with real, good coffee, can you imagine?, after two weeks of diluted filter coffee in Myanmar, we might have reached nirvana at our first stop in a Boulangerie that afternoon), and, when the Vientiane population comes out of their nap on sunday evening and go for a stroll on the river banks to explore the stalls of chinese clothes and lao street food at the night market, it also looks like a very leisurely town. Of course, it can’t be that simple, and there is more to it than just a pleasant apathy. There are new investors, modern supermarkets just opening, even some (small) trafic jams when it gets busy. In short, and despite our first impression, for Lao standards, this isn’t a quiet town, rather a busy metropole, as we discovered shortly after.

From Vientiane, we went to Luang Prabang – an former capital city (as capital cities tend to change with every new king or government, in the region, we tend to visit a lot of “former capital cities”), with the faithfull help of the night bus, our eternal friend here (which has the two major advantage of sparing one hotel night and gaining one day for visiting, with just the minor drawbacks of not getting the best sleep ever, but in a country with good coffee, who cares?), and realize you can do an even quieter version of Vientiane, with magnificient temples, all of it surrounded by a lush jungle of hills and muddy waterfalls. There too, the spirit is that of a refined art of farniente in which it is very easy to slip into: why would you do so much in one day? it is either too hot, or too rainy anyway, just have a break in a cafe and then maybe go to see a temple, if you’re not tired, in which case, well, you could have a lao-style-salad or a fruit shake at the market stalls, or a nap, there’s really no need to rush. 

And somehow, for us, who usually fill every minute of the day with occupations, to make sure we’ve enjoyed it, or that it was worth it, it is the easiest thing in the world to do nothing sometimes, or very little. Slowly, we have come to the South of the country (with the help of other night buses, all of which had engine problems that enable interesting stops in the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours, enough to enjoy a stretch of dusty road and the sound of the driver and its helper making stomp-like concerto somewhere underneath the bus – how that managed to get the bus going for another 200 kms we might never know, better not to wonder too much, those things have their own rules). It is – if possible – even quieter. Only this morning, as we were on a boat to reach this small Island on the Mekong – did we get a reason to get our blood worked up a bit, as the boat driver drove us to another Island and tried to ask for more money to go to the right one. While arguing (it did only take about ten minutes, and once he realized we wouldn’t give him any money, he quickly gave up with the sort of half smile that said “well, I’ve got to try, it’s only fair game”, we realized how uncommon it had been – in fact, it was the first time in this trip (though it was the 3rd time for a girl next to us, for whom it was beginning to be quite annoying), and had becomed so unlikely we almost didn’t know how to get angry anymore. A good sign for a country, surely, that it is so laid-back you don’t remember how to work up a temper. And now, in a hammock with my book, watching the reflection of the sun on the Mekong, I think about how easy it is, in fact, to naturally do nothing, and how natural it would be to just let the days slip in this small Island.
Well, (un)fortunately, we still have Cambodia to discover and a few things to do, so we will have to leave and come back to the frenesy of our normal days. But a bit of Laos, the gold and red of its temples, the slow progression of the Mekong and its peace will stay with me.

A ballet of Ghosts, corruption and sandwiches – The Coroner’s Lunch, by Colin Cotterill book review (#AW80Books Laos)

Books imitate life, as always, and in this case my next stop on this literal journey (see #AW80books) after Myanmar / Burma is – as in life – Laos. And what a stop. I found this book, The coroner’s lunch, while visiting a rehabilitation centre in Vientiane dedicated to victims of landmines and UXOs (Laos holding the grimm record of the most bombed contry in the world, much of it still remaining and causing casualties to this day), a very informative – and rightly depressing – centre, so when I saw they sold a series of books by Cotteril, who has been teaching and living in Laos for decades and decided that all the profits from those should go to Laos and specifically this centre, I was more than happy to  combine a good deed with the acquisition of a new books (because buying more books, when for a good cause, does not count, that is the rule!).
Anyway, I mostly expected a pleasant book and an opportunity to learn more about Lao culture. It is that, of course, but so much more:

This is a crime series, in a very light-hearted tone, with as a protagonist and main detective a 70 year old disabused coroner, Dr Siri Paiboun, who has a dry wit and a limited experience at his job but what he lacks in technical equipment and knowledge he makes for in intelligence, and with the help of a charmingly orignal team composed of a young, quick witted nurse, a morgue assistant with down syndrome and a remarkable memory, a old friend with political connections and, mostly, the spirits of the dead who find their way to his morgue table.

In a collection of small annecdotes slowly building a main mystery, navigating between party politics (this takes place just a few years after the communist revolution in Laos), international relationships with Vietnam and neighbour’s quarels with a skill that has much to do with recklessness, as he doesn’t have much to loose anymore, Dr Siri and his dry wit takes you on a tour of Laos, from the sandwich stalls in Vientiane to the Ethnic minorities of the North. 

It is both playful and informative, just about the solar oposite of the dark, brooding tones of the scandinavian thrillers I was reading a few days before, but just as fun, and, from what I’ve seen of the Lao spirit, a good representation of the philosophy of its people. 

Yet another great pick for a country, and one I would definitely recommend, and not just because it might be difficult to find other books set in Laos, so there’s not much to choose from;)

Quote: (for a sample of Dr Siri’s self depreciating tone):

“- Do you suppose it all means something?

– That we’re being left clues?

 – Perhaps.

– Then, no offense, but I fear they’ve badly overestimated us.” 

Slow meanderings and shimmering, musical beauty. The piano tuner by Daniel Mason, book review, #aw80books Myanmar

​I have an audiobook hangover that I can’t seem to shake of. All because of this book. I’ve changed country, started a new book, and yet the melancholic, slow pace and the exactitude of the descriptions  of this book’s narrative voice are still in my head. A lot of what I see Isee through “the Piano tuner”, now. So beware, this is a powerful book
A book I haven’t exactly read, but listened to, on boats, on public buses, every where on the roads of Myanmar. And I think it is a book extremely well fitted to the audio form. It is very slow paced, very descritpive, it sometimes reads like a oral tale or a long prose poem. I don’t know if I would have liked it so much in written form, or in any other context. But it was just the perfect book to listen in this last week.

This, as the title depicts, is a story about a piano Tuner. Edgar Drake, a quiet, happily married man  who is commissioned by the British Army to travel to Burma to tune an Erard Piano in a outpost of the British Armed forces, a small village of the Shan States, because the Officer posted there, Dr Anthony Carol, a mysterious man but very successful with the local population, has requested it. Drakes leaves England – half reluctantly, half drawn by an irresistible attraction to this exotic Land he doesn’t quite understand himself, and discovers the enthralling beauty of Burma, at the time of the third Anglo-Burmese war. The rest of the story, as well as Major Carol’s motivations and character, couldn’t be discussed here without spoiling the plot, but it is safe to say it involves a woman, war and politics, and music.

I’ve just discovered that Mason, the author, wrote this after traveling to Myanmar – which is absolutely not a surprise to me: he is incredibly skilled at depicting the atmosphere, the colors, the scents, in short Myanmar. In fact, it was almost erie to listen to one of his depictions and see exactly what he was writing about – the vegetation, a woman under an umbrella – a few minutes after. A strange game of deja-vus between the book and real life, as one turned to the other.

So if you want a trip to Burma without leaving your sofa, read this. This is a shot of every color you might find there, from the Thanaka powder the women paint their faces with to the shimmering glances of pagodas in the distance. And more than that, it is also a great story of attraction and love and conflicts. The only annoying thing, probably, is that it was written by Mason when he was still a medical student. Now, that kind of statistics, much like olympic athletes winning medals at 19 years old, is just showing of really. But when the result is “The piano tuner”, it’s worth it.

Cause you’re hot and you’re cold – reading Jo Nesbo in Myanmar  ( the Phantom, Book review)

I usually try, however much I can, to discover and read books from local authors, or about the countries I’m visiting, at least when I get there (not so much before as I feel it sometimes influences the way I’ll then experience the place, as if through the lenses of the particular author I read before coming) 

That’s why I’ve been reading two books set in Myanmar recently. But there is a particular kind of joy, as well, in reading something completely foreign to the circumstances you are into. In a way it also helps you understand the country you’re traveling in, giving you a radically different canvas to compare, helping you define it as to what it is not, just as much as what it is.
Lately, having lent my ereader to my friend, who had read all of her books (and had to wait to the next city big enough to have a second hand english/french bookshop, a tragic fate I know, and very much pity) I found myself reading one of her books. A Jo Nesbo I had not yet read (by chance), the Phantom, his last one. If you are a Scandinavian crime novel afficionado and don’t know Nesbo yet, then you are a rare thing indeed, but if just by chance you exist, Jo Nesbo is a former rock star turnrd journalist and crimes friction writer from Norway, he writes suitably dark and moody thrillers (like all the Scandinavian crime novels I know and like), that are reflections on a shifting society and gripping reads at the same time. His hero, Harry hole, is trying to cope with addiction,  his past,  his complicated love life and, if that wasn’t hard enough, a few serial killers. And everything happens under the quiet, polished and polite Norwegian society, where everybody might smile on the surface but stab you for a drug deal gone wrong in less time than it takes to say skål.
All this cold, this darkness, these repressed feelings and grim Oslo suburbs were even more fun to read about in the blazing heat, the pouring rains, the chaotic and constant noise of the Burmese cities. I would recommend the Phantom anyway -for a Nesbo it’s a particularly well done one – but even more if you can manage to buy a plane ticket just to go read it in Myanmar (well, I can meet you halfway across the globe, maybe anywhere hot and humid and definitely-not-scandinavian in its mentality), because getting caught in the plot and the dark winter in Oslo just to come back suddenly to Mandalay one hot afternoon is just about the most radically exotic experience you’ll have.

​Mud cycling and a sense of eternity – Bagan

Myanmar has the ability to surprise you,  again and again. After a few peaceful days in the Shan state,  mostly trekking and cycling, we arrived in Bagan, an old royal city where about 4000 Buddhist pagodas were built (in a few centuries time).  Because you can never have too many Buddhist temples. The latter might sound ironic, but after 4 days of cycling from one to another, along small muddy paths transformed into rivers and swamps by monsoon, on old and shabby cheap Chinese bicycles, I can truly say I can’t have too many of those. 

We were warned (by our old guidebook, by well meaning self-proclaimed South East Asia experts (i.e. people who had been to Thailand to the beach, in general) that travelling during the rainy season would be hell. Up until now, we had met very little rain, (and by little I mean short showers of torrential storms) but in Bagan we got a sense of what really is the Monsoon. Upon arrival already the road just after our hostel had turned into a big puddle, the heavy rains (every two hours, a gigantic storm passing by obliterating everything) having filled it up nicely. Not that it provided much cause for trouble for the Burmese, who had simply transfered some of their boats from the Yrawaddy river close by to use the to cross the said “road”. The most ingenious ones where already advertising it as a touristic atraction: you can boat on the road, miss, 2000 khyats!(2 euros). 

During our stay, the state of things only worsened with every storm, the ponds getting bigger, the river swelling up, forcing people living close by on houses on bamboo stilts (not high enough, sadly) to move to relatives’ houses or stay and build a platform of chairs inside their houses-aquariums. Again, nothing out of the usual, they would reiterate to us, maybe “just a little bit more water this year”. 

For us, having the luxury of a room in the second floor, a change of clothes and time on our hands, it was absolutely fine. (I mean, for me and my friend, I had to endure a 10 minutes rant from a Israeli tourist blocked like us by rain under an ancient temple who thought it was insufferable) Maybe I’m too lazy but getting angry at the rainy season never occured to me as a something worthy of my time. Instead, we pushed on through the rain, stopping every time there was a “really strong one” (our standards have increased as to which amount of rain will constitute an absolute necessity to seek shelter, think Noah’s Ark level of “mh, it’s not that bad, I needed a shower anyhow”) under one of the many pagodas spread in the Bagan plain, even the smallest one providing us with at least a roof and usually some interesting details, a view over the river, a mischieviously smiling Buddha, ancient stone carving or a small army of squirels playing on the temple steps. The small paths turned to ponds, which we cycled through (we are now official experts in the art of cycling on water, and in this land of Buddha ironically, Jesus would have been impressed), then to muddy swamps (still cycling through), back to sand and dust to come back to their under-water stage a few hours later. And through this, almost no one to disturb the quiet peace of the temples, just a few women selling sand paintings, farmers leading their cows and ploughs, and the intermittent sound of rain on the leaves. Everything as it probably has been for a few centuries, and we felt so lucky to get a rare chance at a glimpse of atemporality, to stop in time and space here in Bagan and let the rain make the world, or rather everything further than a few meters away, disappear. Stepping out of the world without escaping anything is a rare and beautiful thing indeed.

​View from the top of my (audio) book

Today we decided to go out on a limb and give up our usual way of transportation (the night buses, their loud music and crazy drivers) for a boat. Maybe seeing all the fishermen on the gigantic Irrawaddy river (which would already be wide in its normal state, but has taken possession of meters and meters of land on its sides) gave us navigational envy. I love ships, and boats, and – compared to buses or anything with wheels – they are my particular friends because I can read on them without the immediate risk of restituting my last meal onto my neighbour’s lap. So we left Bagan on a ship to Mandalay, which is expensive (for our budget, it’s still only 32 dollars for an 11 hour cruise), going upstream to the old capital. The buses do it in 5 hours. Sometimes, the real luxury is to travel slower. 

From the deck, then, we watch the flooded shores and the white birds fishing, the pagodas lost amongst the trees and the river, its slow waters spreading almost all the way to the horizon, merging with the sky which has the same blue-grey color. And we read (I’m halfway through “The glass Palace”, by Amitav Gosh, which starts in Mandalay at the arrival of the British and just adds to my excitement at finally seeing it tonight, to compare, but I’m also plucking in and out of Jeanette Winterson’s “Art objects” essays, which take time to process). But mostly I listen to an audiobook – not taking full advantage of my non-travel-sickness-state, as I usually use audiobooks in buses as an alternative way of reading – because the audiobook I’m listening to right now is “The piano Tuner”, by Daniel Mason (would recommend the audio version read by Graeme Malcolm by the way, fantastic narrator), which also takes place in Burma, during the colonial times, and is about a piano tuner sent to tune a prestigious Erard piano in a secluded post in the Shan State. Right now I’m at the stage in the book when the tuner is coming from Yangon to Mandalay, by boat, on the same river I’m in. And there couldn’t be a better place to listen to it.

​Travels in a shifting land – Thoughts on Myanmar

I’ve been in Myanmar for almost a week, now. And there is so much of note, so many experiences – of all the senses – I struggle to put them into a clear narrative. Everything comes in a comparison, seems to remind me of something seen somewhere in Asia but then it shifts somehow and manages to look entirely new.
Mostly, what is striking, is that this country is changing faster than any country I’ve been to. It might have looked completely differently 3 years ago. I’ve been travelling with a guide book from 2011, the year when the country first started to re-open itself, had its first “democratic” (still, very suspicious) elections, and the power of the military junta started to decrease. Then, in 2015, another election year, this time a lot more democratic, brought Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, a non-military president, and an frenzy of investors, openings and globalizations.
Still, it is fascinating to read our guidebook (not for any useful practical information, save the one saying it is dangerous to walk in yangon at night, not because of thieves, but because you might accidentally fall into a sewage hole, (a friend already verified this in practice), but as an old photography of what it was, a mere 5 years ago: no freedom of the press, no sim-cards (for burmese people or tourists), no wifi, a government so corrupt you had to take every measure to “travel responsively”, that is, try and give the smallest amount of money to the government (avoiding organized tours, government-owned entreprises, etc…), very few tourists, I’ll stop the enumeration now. 

We half expected something a bit more opened, but we were astonished, arriving in Yangon, which shocks, at first sight, with the density of its traffic (it takes now two hours to reach the public bus station from the centre, it took 15 minutes in 2005), the size of its advertising billboards, the amounts of construction sites promising luxury residences or supermarkets, the small stalls at the market selling Iphones. And every hotel providing reliable internet. 

In many ways, then, it looks like a metropolis of the South, a bit of Bangkok, a bit of Ho Chi Minh City. But it is also unique. The smells of the food stalls (small “burmese pancakes”, “samusa thoke” – bits of samosas in a type of dahl), the remaining old colonial buildings, covered in dirt and conquered by vegetation, the chant of the muezzin in one mosque followed by buddhist prayers in a pagoda across the corner. A crossroad of India, Thailand, China and more, but also something particular.

From Yangon, we left for the Inle lake, in the Shan region – it is one of the mandatory tourist stops – on a luxury night bus (at least it looks very luxurious to me, compared to Nepalese public buses for example, they even gave us a free pastry (?some kind of artificial baba-au-rhum with undetermined jelly on top, but still, free food is always good food!) and arrived at dusk in  the small town bordering the lake, with mist rising from the paddy fields and swamps surrounding the lake. Back to the country side after three days in the frenesy of the city. And the countryside here is indeed glorious, with the bright green of the rice fields and banana trees, the calm waters of the lake, the small fishing villages and floating gardens (they grow tomatoes on the lake, which still looks like magic to me), and the Stupas and pagodas, all gold, lost in the hills above the lake. Here as well, hostels are coming out of the grounds faster than you can count them, some have an upper floor under construction but the reception is already open, and the traffic of motorboats on the lake is increasing. But you can escape it all on an old chinese bicycle, rented for a thousand khyats (1 USD) and go get lost amongst the hills, disturbed only by a passing stray dog, a few water buffalos placidly checking the intrudor out, and children on their way to school who always wave hello and smile. 

And you could be nostalgic of all this change, all this growing. But first, you have absolutely no right to be. This land, or any other, does not exist for the benefit of tourist on the look out for authenticity. And while there are a lot of drawbacks to globalization there is also an increased access to information that comes, as always, with internet and phone. And, aside from all of this, there is a peculiar beauty in witnessing a metamorphosis on the making. I am happy to be there, and now, that’s as much as I can say.