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

Posts tagged ‘Janet Brown’

Over the Hills and Far Away: Visiting Exotic Places with Good Books

As locales go, Alaska and Myanmar are worlds apart — or at least half a world apart — but two books that I recently read, one fiction and the other a memoir, evoked similar senses of adventure and delight. Over the hills and far away, travelling to distant lands and discovering different ways of life and love.


The first book I read was Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska by Janet Brown. Janet is actually a good friend of mine and she lived in Bangkok for many years before moving back to the USA to be closer to her two adult sons in Seattle. So, yeah, maybe I’m biased, but friend or not, I can’t help but be very impressed with this book. There is no denying the fact that Janet is a very talented writer, one who knows her craft and can vividly describe a setting. In this book she deftly relates her experiences of growing up in rural Alaska, a place that was “still locked in the nineteenth century.”

Basically, this book is a tribute to Janet’s mother who passed away a couple of years ago. Her mother had not wanted a memorial service or legions of mourners gathered by her grave, so this book became Janet’s way to “honor and remember her in a form that would have pleased her.” Indeed, the love of reading books was one of the strong bonds between mother and daughter, and you feel that closeness throughout this moving book. On the back cover Janet describes her mother as “a woman with persistent optimism in a life that was studded with tragedy, this New Yorker with eccentric dreams had the courage to build a life for herself and her family in a place that was truly wilderness, a domain of wind, grass, and trees. The daily life she lived was difficult, but it was her own. She chose it all, she crafted it, and she savored it.”

Not only does Janet offer a glimpse of her mother’s non-traditional life, she takes the reader into the heart of the beautiful and sometimes cruel geography of rural Alaska.  Growing up on this “last frontier”, Janet and her mother—  and so many others — were deprived of things that us city dwellers take for granted, yet you never sense that she felt deprived or cheated. Instead, as she writes, this remote setting “was simply a launching pad for new exploration.”


Janet Brown is also the author of several other books published by Things Asian Press, including Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, both of those also excellent reads.

The other book that I just finished this week was The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. This novel has floated in and out of my bookshop numerous times over the past few years, but until my friend Myriam recommended it to me recently I had never bothered to read the blurb on the back cover, which would have informed me that the story was set in Myanmar! Not only that, most of the story takes place in the Shan State town of Kalaw, just down the road from usual haunts in Nyaungshwe.


Once again, I may be a bit biased in my take on this book, but honestly, this was one of the most memorable and moving novels that I’ve read in a long, long time. Many reviews described this as a love story, and there is no denying that romance plays a big part in the plot, but this book is also a bit of a mystery, as well as an insightful look into Burmese society and its traditions and customs. The author (or at least the translator: this was originally written in German) does a fine job of describing the town of Kalaw, from its teashops and homes to its monasteries and surrounding mountains. Close your eyes and you can hear and smell and feel so many different things. Indeed, the ability to utilize — and appreciate — different senses (especially the part about “hearing heartbeats” from the book’s title) is a major theme of this novel.

Elements of the plot, especially one facet of the story’s ending, can occasionally be baffling or frustratingly predictable, but even those parts are so well written that they border on the poetic. To call this book magical and inspirational would not be an understatement, or a cliché. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a very special novel.



One reason I had never paid much attention to this book previously was due to the relatively bland front cover. Well, maybe bland isn’t the best description, but nevertheless there was nothing particularly Burmese about the artwork. I don’t care what they say, you CAN judge a book by its cover, or at least pay more attention to it. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I did an online search and discovered that the book has been reprinted with several different new covers, ones with more of a Burmese theme! The downside is that one cover shows the temples of Bagan, while another depicts the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, neither place of which is remotely near Shan State! Nevertheless, if one of those striking new covers had appeared in my shop, I would have picked up this book a lot sooner than I did.





Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.


In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.


That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.


And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!


Books & Borders

tatein_20131124_103637 While I was in Mandalay last week, my Japanese friend Kazuko was on the other side of Myanmar, visiting friends in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to travel all the way to Shan State (a full day’s journey by bus, but only a 25-minute flight), so we weren’t able to meet. But when Kazuko was in Bangkok two months ago, I gave her a copy of M is for Myanmar to give to Maung Thwe, the boy who I had known when he was a novice monk at the monastery in Tat Ein, but who is now living with his family again in the village. Kazuko gave the book to him during her visit and reports that Maung Thwe was very happy to receive the present. Thanks to Kazuko for the photos!


The cool thing about M is for Myanmar, besides the fact that it has very colorful illustrations, is that the text is in both English and Burmese, making it easy for children to read. M is for Myanmar is published by Things Asian Press, the same fine company that recently published Ma Thanegi’s cookbook, Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar, and Janet Brown’s excellent travelogue, Almost Home. Things Asian has been publishing travel books for over a decade, but they also have a children’s book division, and in addition to the Myanmar book they have published many other titles, including B is for Bangkok, H is for Hong Kong, and T is for Tokyo.



Jack Reacher, Chipper Jones, and Margeaux Mango

I got an e-mail last week from Lee Child’s website, informing me that the new novel was coming out; another Jack Reacher spectacular. Say no more; I gotta have it. Gotta read it. Now. And luckily, my sense of urgency was satisfied. I strolled over to the Emporium, went to the tiny branch of Asia Books located there, and the new Lee Child book, A Wanted Man, was right there on the shelf. Less than 48 hours later, I had read all 400 and something pages, satisfied again by another fun, funny, and thought provoking Jack Reacher adventure. Really, I love these novels. On the surface, they might fit the mold of action-packed thrillers; lots of action and bad guys getting put in their place by Reacher. But there is a lot more going on in these novels than Jack Reacher kicking ass, drinking lots of coffee, getting the girl, and leaving town with only a toothbrush in his pocket. These stories force the reader to think, and marvel at the way that Reacher thinks through various situations, as he ends up dispensing his own style of justice. And this time around I loved the baseball references; from the Kansas City Royals and George Brett to the New York Yankees and the legendary Bill “Moose” Skowron. If Lee Child is not a baseball fan — and I wonder if he really is, having grown up in England — he’s certainly done his research.


Speaking of baseball, another thing that brought a big smile to my face this week was seeing the Sunday night walk-off homer by Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t have a TV, and if I did I wouldn’t even have access to cable sports, but I watched a clip of Chipper’s home run on ESPN’s website. Now 40 years-old and playing a final season before retirement, Chipper is having also one of his best seasons ever. He takes a day or two off each week nowadays, needing to rest those surgically repaired knees, so his stats may not rank with his best, but when he’s in the lineup he still makes an impact. He’s virtually carried the Braves all year. So why isn’t he in the running for another MVP award this year? The Braves look like they are going to make the playoffs, probably as a wild card finalist, and there is no way they’d be in that position without Chipper. Maybe he doesn’t have enough “official” at bats to qualify for the leader boards, but I’ll say it again; when he’s playing, he delivers. Seeing the highlight reel of that home run on Sunday night was a totally feel-good moment, one of those things that remind me of why I love the sport so much. I only saw Chipper play one time before I moved to Thailand in the mid-1990s, and that was when he was playing for the Braves in 1991 … the Macon Braves, that is (At that time the Macon Braves were the Class A farm team of the major league squad). Somewhere in a dusty closet back in Florida, sitting in a neglected box of crap, are photos I took of Chipper back when he was playing for Macon. Not only has he been a Hall of Fame caliber player, Chipper Jones has always been one of the game’s class acts — a rarity in today’s world of overpaid, spoiled athletes. Here’s hoping that the Braves do in fact make the playoffs, Chipper remains healthy, and he shines during his final moment in the sun.


And speaking of shining, and to complete today’s triple play, my friend Margeaux, who goes by the nickname of Mango, flew in from Spain yesterday. She was only in Bangkok for two days, but it was enough time to get together and meet for a fine dinner, this time at Cabbages and Condoms, the touristy but tasty Thai Restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 12. Great food and great company; I was smiling like I’d just seen another Chippper Jones home run when I left the restaurant. Mango is works as an interpreter at conventions and meetings around the world, particularly in Asia. She is flying to South Korea tomorrow for a week-long event, and next month she’ll be working an even longer seminar in India. In between work, she is trying to finish writing a raw food cookbook. Busy lady! Too bad she won’t be around next month when our mutual friends Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi will also be in Bangkok.



KL Update: February

I’ll post more about my trip to Kuala Lumpur next week, but I thought I’d update you on a few things right now while I’m thinking about … and have nothing else to do on this last night in town. I have another early morning flight back to Bangkok, so I’ll attempt to get to bed early and wake up at the unnatural hour of 4:00 am.

I dropped by the Tower Records branch in the Lot 10 Shopping Center on Monday afternoon and was immediately alarmed by what I saw when I entered the shop. The store sign was gone and a few of the fixtures were bereft of CDs. Employees in some sections of the store were busy boxing up stock. “Are you open?” I asked one of the employees. The guy assured me that yes, the shop was open, but they were in the process of moving. At the end of this week they will be relocating to the ground floor of the nearby Times Square shopping center. I did a quick run-through of the shop and bought six CDs, including a rare Gatemouth Brown title that I neglected to get last trip. I’m just happy that this branch of Tower is staying in business. The US chain filed for bankruptcy and closed a few years back, and all the Bangkok branches (I used to manage two of them) morphed into CD Warehouse locations in the late 90s, but even those are now shuttered. I mentioned to the manager of the KL store that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok back in the mid to late 90s. “The good old days,” he sighed. We talked a bit about the current state of retail and he bemoaned the trend of so many music listeners to illegally download songs and albums nowadays. Needless to say, it’s done irreversible damage to retail shops and chains like Tower.

Speaking of bankrupt retail chains, Borders Books in the US, is also going the way of the dinosaur. I think they have closed most, if not all, of their US stores by now. They used to have a large branch here in KL also., in the same Times Square where Tower is moving, but they closed it and downsized to a smaller Borders Express about 2 years ago. I assumed that branch had also closed, but now I’m not sure. I went to the Curve shopping center in Petaling Jaya (a large suburb of KL) yesterday and was startled to see a very large (two floors) branch of Borders still open there. Even more startling was what I saw in their travel section; books from my friends at Things Asian Press. They had Janet Brown’s wonderful Tone Deaf in Bangkok,  the photo book Lost & Found Bangkok (which has photos of my bookshop on a few pages!), and To Vietnam with Love. I was disappointed that they didn’t have To Myanmar with Love, or Ma Thanegi’s excellent Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, but it was still cool to see of those Things Asian books in stock. And today when I was in Bangsar Village Shopping Center I saw a Borders Express shop. So, like Tower, some of the Borders are still afloat here in Malaysia.

Malaysia remains a very easy country to visit in regards to visa and immigration. Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar, or Laos, in Malaysia there is no visa fee, they don’t have any of those annoying forms to fill out (for either immigration or customs), and no photos are required either. Plus, you can stay up to 90 days on a tourist visa, as opposed to a limit of only 30 days in the other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. What can’t all the ASEAN countries be as easy as Malaysia?

The LRT subway/light train system here remains very convenient and inexpensive (compared to Bangkok). They now have completely automated machines that can sell one-way tickets or used to top-off your multi-trip card. It took me three times to figure out the machine, but now I feel like a seasoned pro.



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