Traveling cheaply in Southeast Asia entails long rides in buses and trains. Reading helps to pass the time. Though bumpy roads are common, there’s usually little else to do! Here are 4 books I’ve read within the last month during my travels in Southern Vietnam and Malaysia, 3 of which are historically based.
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Giles Milton (1999)
I bought this book for 40,000 VND, or $2 USD, from a man selling secondhand books on the street in Nha Trang, Vietnam. After my purchase he produced an English workbook and asked me to pronounce some words (“withdraw”, “trot”).
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg covers the race between England, the Netherlands, and Spain to monopolize the lucrative spice trade between 1500 and the mid 1600s. During this period, England and the Netherlands faced off countless times for control over small islands in current Indonesia. Gore prevailed in pursuit of nutmeg and cloves. These, the most prized spices in Western Europe, were only found on a few select islands.
This is a work of popular history: Milton summarizes documents and events to keep the readers’ attention. Still, it moves slowly and the title is a tease. The “Nathaniel” mentioned is introduced halfway through the book and serves as a character for maybe a hundred pages. The momentum picks up when he comes on the scene, but it’s not enough. Further, Milton only reveals the logic in his title choice in the last few pages. Nutmeg is ultimately an interesting book. I’m glad I read it, but unless you’re fascinated by the colonial spice trade it’s worth a pass.
Still Alice, Lisa Genova (2014)
I nicked this book from a hotel in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Harvard-educated neuroscientist Lisa Genova wrote this fictional book about a- surprise!- Harvard-educated psychologist. The protagonist, Alice, is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The author masterfully zeroes in on Alice’s thoughts while also developing each of her
family members’ personalities and struggles. The result is a complex portrait of how the individual and the family are both heavily affected by the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Genova chose Alice, the Alzheimer’s victim, to serve as narrator, which renders the story even more poignant. Alice doesn’t recognize her memory lapses and which wrong turn made her lost, while the reader does. Like Flowers for Algernon, this novel heartbreakingly follows the main character’s mental decline. Resist the urge to scream at the pages and help Alice get home, and try not to cry at the end. I didn’t succeed. Still Alice is deeply moving and beautifully written. Hollywood jumped at the chance to adapt this, as the film premiered the same year the book was published. Julianne Moore, who can do no wrong, swept awards season with the Oscar, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Awards with winning statues for Best Actress as Alice.
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin (2006)
I borrowed this book from a friend’s apartment in Bangkok and inadvertently didn’t return it (Sorry, Ryan!). Emma Larkin is the pseudonym of an American journalist who was born and raised in Asia, and studied the Burmese language in college. Larkin went to Burma under a rigid military dictatorship that kept hundreds of political prisoners. Most notably, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now President of Myanmar (the politically correct term for the country now), was a prisoner at the time.
Though Burma did not actively welcome foreigners, and lacked basic tourist infrastructure, Larkin succeeded in entering for her research. Thanks to her fluency and cultural literacy on Burmese politics, she also accomplished a rare feat: she was able to leave the safe, censored tourist bubble the Burmese government otherwise contained visitors in.
Finding George is 25% travel memoir and 75% a work of investigative journalism, as the author returns to places where George Orwell went during his military station in Burma. She posits that the famed author of 1984 not only wrote Burmese Days about the state, but also 1984 and Animal Farm. Larkin speaks to intellectuals that insist on only meeting with her once for fear of imprisonment, unofficial bookshop owners that deal in Orwell’s banned novels, and professors that meet for coffee at a different café for every appointment in fear of being followed by “watchers.” Yes, there are government informants like those in 1984 in Burma- and no one knows who is an informant or merely a busybody. Conversations are coded and cryptic. Larkin doesn’t decode all her encounters but she includes them to reveal the paranoia in Burmese society.
I plan to dedicate a whole post to Finding George Orwell later, but I urgently recommend it now! Yes, the military dictatorship is officially dismantled and Aung San Suu Kyi is President following her release from prison, but this book is still incredibly relevant and haunting. The crippling consequences of authoritarian dictatorships are indeed universal.
Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth (2016)
Indeh and I have a complicated history. I purchased it in Michigan before my travels in Southeast Asia, and brought it with me on the plane to Tokyo. After disembarking the plane at Narita Airport, I realized I left the book behind and inquired. However, the flight attendant was only able to produce a second-rate paperback that did not belong to me. Bitter that I spent $25 on a graphic novel and barely touched it before losing it, I was only able to swallow my pride and repurchase it nine months after my first purchase. I bought Indeh, for the second time, at the mall in Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (I have a far-fetched fantasy of Ethan Hawke reading this review and refunding my 2nd purchase of the book). Petronas Towers are connected twin towers and the tallest in the country; you’ve undoubtedly seen them on Instagram.
Author Ethan Hawke (yep, the actor) and illustrator Greg Ruth describe the Apache Wars, a battle for land between Apache Native Americans and American settlers from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The brevity of the novel makes the content more powerful: despite its low word count, every word has impact and Ruth’s black and white illustrations are profound. Ruth is truly a genius. His brushstrokes are evocative and seemingly tangible, yet his art appears to be simple at first glance. He transcends the medium with his incredible depictions of emotion and action. Thanks to him, Indeh straddles the genres of action and drama. Hawke initially wanted to make this a movie. Thankfully, he and Ruth serve the subject matter even better in its current form.
Indeh primarily focuses on the Apache perspective of the Wars. This is a brilliant move. The Apaches evaded the American military for years at a time with their extensive knowledge of the Southwest’s mountainous geography. As a result, many have speculated about the Apache’s exact locations and intentions between skirmishes with the American military. The authors somewhat fill in the gaps with this work of fiction. The authors also include scenes of American military and political officials. This provides balance to the narrative, but neither side “wins” morally or politically. That’s another win for Hawke and Ruth.
This novel’s versatility is striking: it’s brief, yet shows dual perspectives of a devastating war. It’s black and white, yet tremendously evocative. It depicts action scenes in an epic, cinematic way, but the characters’ discoveries of murdered loved ones are undeniably dramatic. Though a quick read, Indeh swiftly evokes shame from all Americans not of native descent. An excellent addition to any literary collection.