musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for June, 2014

Death and Sex and Richard Nixon

In the “Best Book I’ve Read This Year” category I would put May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. This is a brilliant, sprawling novel, one that will make you laugh and cry, shudder and smile.

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A.M. Homes has populated her latest novel with articulate and colorful characters, one of whom is a university professor with an obsession for the life of Richard Nixon. In the early chapters of this book the reader is confronted with several disturbing incidents, ranging from adultery to murder, and later there is yet more sex and even an incident that would qualify as pedophilia, and yet by the time this novel has run its course the overall tone is quite buoyant and positive.

Towards the end of this novel, one character remarks about the guests at a large family gathering:

“It’s like a freak show, a random collection of people.”

And yes, on the surface, the assemblage of characters that Homes has thrown together in this rambling novel does seem bizarre and haphazard. But the patient reader will be rewarded as Homes ties it all together, working her literary magic to create a truly brilliant book that churns up the gamut of human emotions. When the story comes to a close you want to cheer for these brave people and the way they have lived their lives and how they have overcome so much heartbreak and sorrow, all while discovering the joys of life and caring for other people. I can’t heap enough praise on this book. I haven’t read a novel that’s moved me so much in a long, long time, nor one that’s made me laugh as hard.

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I’ve been a fan of A.M. Homes for many years, enjoying novels such as Jack and Music For Torching, and the short story collection The Safety of Objects (although, another collection of her short stories, Things You Should Know, I thought was fairly awful). Homes is never shy to explore controversial subject matter or to present disturbing characters, but I find her novels to be very thought provoking and fascinating.

My favorite of her books, until May We Be Forgiven came along, was This Book Will Save Your Life, a magical feel-good novel, one that may not save your life but will at least make you feel much better about life. May We Be Forgiven is not as consistently charming or upbeat as This Book Will Save Your Life but it’s another novel that leaves the reader with hope for the human race.

 

Moments in Myanmar: 2014

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Novice monks and their canine friend in Tat Ein village.

 

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Tasty snack at the market in Nyaungshwe.

 

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U Kyaw reads an inscription at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Zin Ko’s grandmother in Mandalay.

 

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Another roadside attraction … somewhere in Shan State.

 

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Another scenic view … somewhere in Shan State.

 

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Turning green again: after working all day in a jade workshop in Mandalay this boy has the green skin to show for it!

 

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Beauty Saloon? Maybe you get something extra with that haircut!

 

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Monks perusing the book selection at an outdoor vendor in Mandalay.

 

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Myanmar Beer? I don’t mind if I have another one!

 

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Keeping the hands warm on a chilly Shan State morning.

 

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Novice monks in Tat Ein village take a break before their alms walk.

 

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Beware of just what exactly?

 

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Arranging the leaves for the betel nut vendor.

 

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Underwater exploration in Shan State.

 

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Those truck rides sure are tiring!

 

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Young monks and their toys.

 

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Bringing home the goods from the market near Inle Lake.

 

 

Festival At Night

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The night before the official pagoda festival in Tat Ein village, they held an entertainment program featuring dancing (student groups from the village, and a troupe from a nearby Pa-O village) and singing (anyone brave enough to grab the microphone was welcome!). Showtime was delayed more than an hour due to some technical problems with the sound system, but once that was resolved, the show began!

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Kids and parents, grandparents and the usual contingent of novice monks, everyone seemed to enjoy the spectacle immensely. Not your typical evening in the Shan State hills, but a colorful one! The biggest surprise was seeing many of the villagers whipping out mobile phones and taking photos of the show. That might not seem like such a big deal in these digitally-obsessed modern times, but even a short year ago, I could count on one hand the number of locals I saw with such phones. It’s not like everyone has one, but seeing villagers with a phone isn’t such a rare sight any longer. Who knows; maybe another year from now and it wouldn’t surprise me to see even the novice monks carrying phones.

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