August 27, 2005

selected readings

while traveling around south east asia for eight weeks me and ronda did manage to do quite a bit of reading. when leaving the paske airport the guy working the xray machine looked a little surprised after seeing my bag and turned to me and asked "books?" here's a quick look at what i read (presented in the order that i read it) while travelling. (excluding all the lonely planet travel guides of course.)

the gulag, by Anne Applebaum. this was a book my parents got me for my birthday and i took it with me on the trip. an excellent book. i learned a lot about russian and comunist history and culture from this book. the book was really well written and presented a LOT of information. it covered every possible aspect of the russian forced labor camps and gave you just enough related background information and history to understad the information presented. also (aside from the subject matter) the book itself was pretty easy reading. you didn't have to keep flipping back to the footnotes in the end, and it wasn't a dry history book since it pulled so much from archives and writings of personal accounts of experiences with the gulag. the book is a pretty imposing tome (i was never able to get ronda to read it), but you should not let this discourage you. i would strongly recommend this book to anyone since it coveres very recent aspects of little known, little discussed, and relevant history that has had a large impact on our world today.

Catfish and Mandala, by Andrew X. Pham. this book is required reading for anyone even thinking of going to vietnam. actually, you could probably read this book, go to a travellers cafe, and talk like a real vietnam tourist vet by retelling the authors experiences from this book. all that said, i haven't actually read this book. ronda read it. and while reading it she stopped every ten pages to tell me "holy shit, the same thing happened to this guy" and then she read me his recounting of our experiences. (which is weird since he published them before we had our experiences... creepy.)
the book is about a young man, a viet cue (someone who left vietnam at a young age for the US and then returns to vietnam), and his experiences after returning to vietnam to discover his native country/heritage and bike from saigon to hanoi. me and ronda though that we got bad treatment at times because we're "rich westerners", but the way that the author gets treated is amazingly worse, bordering on appaling. the book is well written and a easy quick read. (bear in mind, i've only heard the "books recited by ronda" version. fyi, i do actually plan to read this book myself.) the book also coveres different aspecty of vietnames culture and history, and talks about the different areas that the author visits while there. also, his experiences sync up with what we learned talking to some viet cue we met while travling threre.

First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung. this is a personal story of a young girl who survived the labor camps and genocide inflicted by the khmer rouge in cambodia. the author starts out as a young spoiled upper class child living phnom penh, cambodia at the time the khmer rouge came to power and documents her (and her families') struggle for survival. aside from the topic matter, the book is easy to read since it's written mostly from a childs perspective. the labor camps in cambodia differed from the ones in russia since in cambodia since they affected all of society, instead of individuals accued of crimes against society. in cambodia, if someone was though to have commited crimes against society (or was discovered to be educated or have come from any type of middle or upper class) they were simply killed. the book goes all the way to the present, covering the vietnamese invasion of cambodia and the fall of the khmer rouge, the authors escape/emigration from cambodia to the US, and her eventual return to cambodia to see other surviving family members. it's a good book but it's also depressing to read about more horrible atrocities that were commited recently (and continue to be commited) while the world community sits around and continues to do nothing.

Voices from S-21, by David Chandler. this book was about another horrible aspect of the khmer rouge regime. aside from the forced labor camps there was S-21 and the choeung ek killing fields. S-21 was a school that was convered to a prision. everyone who was ever sent to S-21 was killed and burried at choeung ek. this amounted to thousands of people. this book documents what how S-21 evolved, who worked there, and what went on there. it's an amazing and tragic history, but unfortunatly the book doesn't do it justince since it's so horribly written, it's a very dry and boring read. information is scattered all over the place without a real structure. i couldn't help but compare this book to the gulag, since they are both about prisions, and the difference in the quality of writing is striking. what's also unfortunate, is that if you search for other books about cambodian history or books about the khmer rouge you find that most of them were written by the same author, and after reading this book i'm really not interested in reading any more of his books.

Angkor (Fourth Edition), by Dawn Rooney. while visiting angrok we really wanted to have more than our lonely planet to guide us through the temples, and at $4 USD in cambodia, this book was a great deal. first published in 1994 and now on it's 4th edition (from 2005) it's already pretty out of date. but regardless it was a great book to have along. it's devided into two major sections. the first half of the book covers lots of background information that is helpfull for visiting the temples. if like me, you don't know much about hinduism or buddhism, this book will introduce you to the basics. you'll get to know the names of the gods and people that you'll see over and over again. you'll also get to know the names of the epic stories that you'll see depicted at the temples again and again. it'll tell you about the history of the area and the different kings that spanned the centuries that it took to build all the ankgor temples. it also covers some of the different architectural aspect of the temples themselves. finally it coveres the discovery of ankor and attempt in more recent years to perserve and restore the temples amidst the political turmoils of cambodian history. the second half of the book is a guide to the temples. we used this half to help plan which temples to visit and what order to visit them in. it also includes descriptions of each of the temples and gives you advice about how to approach and what to look for when visiting each temple. of course this half was the most out of date half. it warned about potential robbers at "remote" temples that are no longer considered "remote" and get a lot of visitors these days. in certain temples it also described areas that have now been roped of and you can't walk through anymore. the only main thing that the book didn't cover that i wish it did was more information about the restoration processes. there are different techniques being used by different organizations and it would have been interesting to learn about the different approaches being used.

In Retrospect, by Robert S. McNamara. since we had just visited vietnam this seemed like a good book to read, and it really was. this book came out in 1995 and a lot of the issues and mistakes that mcnamara talks about are still relevant and being repeated today. it provides a great historical presentation of events in vietnam and at home, and our constanty increasing involvement in south east asia. the book presents the past linearly and allows you to see how basic mistakes and problems were compounded on each other without people stopping to ask basic questions and look at the realities surrounding the conflict. one interesting thing that jumped out at me was that early on in the conflict almost every time vietnam is mentioned laos is mentioned as well. our involvement in south east asia spanned three countries but somehow in the end only vietnam is remembered. this was a great read.

Another Quiet American, by Brett Dakin. If your thinking of going to Laos you really should read this book. it's an easy quick read about a young princeton graduate who goes to work at the tourism board in laos for two years. each chapter covers a different aspect of laos life, culture, and the authors interractions with others. the book provides thoughtfull insights into life for both locals and forigners in a current day communist country. (and might change some of your opinions, if you have any, on international aid mondy and how it is spent.)

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