Friday, June 10, 2011

Books in the Pile!

What I'm Reading These Days:

Well, I guess I should really call it, "what I'm listening to these days", as this particular book was one I did as a book-on-CD.  And I have to admit, this particular book really took me a while to finish, although it is a very good, very well-written story.  I may not even be much of a world-traveler, so I enjoy reading literary fiction which is so well-written that the reader feels like they've actually been to the location of the story.  Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett is just such a book. 

The story is set in Bangkok obviously, and the main character is Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Royal Thai Police homicide detective.  This is Burdett's third book featuring Jitpleecheep, and in this story, his former lover Damrong is killed.  Damrong was an extremely skilled prostitute, and Sonchai learns of her death because a video of it - bluntly, a snuff film - is sent to him. 

I have to admit something here: while I am no prude, the level of, shall we say, "physicality" in this novel was a bit uncomfortable.  Not only is Sonchai the son of the owner of a gentlemen's club (where he still sometimes moonlights), but Burdett spares very few details as Sonchai investigates Damrong's death within the environment of Bangkok's prolific sex trades.  Since I was listening to the book instead of reading it, it wasn't as if I could skip through parts of it, willy-nilly - because if I did, I would have missed some of the details that are important to the story.  My "squeamish-ness" notwithstanding, Burdett's writing takes the reader directly into the Thai environment and lifestyles - the incredible heat, the Buddhist mysticism, the levels of humanity within that country, the workings of a society the economy of which seems to be based largely on prostitution.  There are even former Khmer Rouge soldiers put to work as security guards/hired killers. 

As I continued listening to the story, I realized that the highly sexual nature of this story was not a simply gratuitous tool on Burdett's part.  The entire book is, actually, somewhat of a study on the nature of human relationships on the physical level - and from a Buddhist perspective, on the spiritual level as well.  There is Sonchai, married with a pregnant wife, investigating the murder of his former lover - a prostitute who makes a living by selling her physical self.  Ultimately she is killed - but she has a spiritual agenda there, all the same.  She haunts Sonchai's physical side - while mentally, intellectually, and spiritually he resists her as much as possible so as not to bring bad luck to his unborn child.  There is Kimberly, Sonchai's FBI-agent friend, who falls in love with Sonchai's assistant - a young man inhabited by a female spirit and thus, on the verge of a sex-change operation.  Then there is of course the general topic of prostitution running throughout the novel - is it right? wrong? why do various countries allow such a large part of their economic structure depend on the practice of prostitution?  Why do men have such a need for sexual fulfillment that they would contribute to a practice which demeans women and keeps them in a level of poverty?  Is Kimberly right for not wanting Leg to go ahead with the sex-change operation - or is she wrong for bringing Western beliefs into a situation she can never really understand?  Did Sonchai really "love" Damrong - or was he addicted to what she could do for him physically? 

So, overall, I would recommend this book, as long as you are able to read it for the vivid characters and the equally vivid sense of Thailand it provides.  I'd also recommend reading it instead of listening to it; some of the passages can be skipped but that is easier to figure out if you can skim the words!

Thanks for reading-

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