The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: Cold case murder solved in China: Paul French’s ‘Midnight in Peking’

Written By: herbrunbridge - Apr• 20•15

FrenchMidnightPekingWhy should anyone today care about solving an expat murder in 1937 Peking? We here at WoWasis were skeptical too. But we took a chance on Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012, ISBN 978-0-14-312100-8) and were richly rewarded. It’s more than a murder story, as it tells much about how justice was bought and sold in the British Legation of pre-WW II Peking.

Pamela Werner was the free-spirited daughter of British scholar E.T.C. Werner. In 1937 she went missing one evening, and her body was found the next day, eviscerated. Her sternum was smashed, heart torn out, and genitalia mutilated. A nasty piece of work. The “usual suspects” were rounded up and a crack British investigator was called in from the city of Tientsin. Even Pamela’s father was, for a time, under suspicion. As the Japanese took over Peking, the case was shelved and forgotten. No one was ever brought to justice.

Historian and Sinophile Paul French, however, was intrigued enough about the case to reopen it more than half a century later. He combed through libraries, found old letters and testimonies, and in the book, reveals what contemporary investigators could not. She was murdered by a member of Peking’s upper class business establishment. Interestingly, Pamela’s father took on the burden of investigating her death after the official case was closed, and French makes liberal use of his notes. By the time the book was written, virtually all the players had died. As French discovered, you basically bought your justice in Peking and high-level Brits were, to a large extent, untouchable. Sex parties involving these people were a fact of life in 1937 Peking, and it can be surmised from the book that sado-masochistic behavior was considered best hidden, even when it involved the murder of one of their own.

Readers may very well wonder why the author bothered. Pamela had been dead for decades and those responsible were no longer living. It’s French’s strong sense of justice that drives the book. There are two crimes that compelled the author to write the book, it seems. The first, of course, is that of her murder. The second, and perhaps the one that drove the author to spend so much time investigating the story and writing this book, is the crime that this young, vibrant woman had been forgotten. It’s to her, in fact, that he dedicates the book.

The book is highly recommended for those wishing to understand more about the British community in pre-war China and how criminal investigations can be so horribly obfuscated by bureaucracy and a desire to shield high-level people from incarceration. It’s a damn good true crime story. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: ‘Nothing to Envy’: Tough lives in North Korea

Written By: herbrunbridge - Apr• 18•15

DemickKoreaThe “hermit country” of North Korea has spawned a number of books on the government and the prison system. Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag is a formidable example of prison literature, but leaves out an important element: just what is daily life like for ordinary North Koreans? Author Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009, ISBN 078-0-385-52390-5) fills that breach in a fascinating and sobering manner.

Through a period of more than fifteen years, Demick followed the lives six North Koreans as they lived, loved, and aspired to better things in the North Korea of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il. The country, of course, is a military state. 20% of working-age men serve in the military, and a significant but undocumented number of civilians are engaged in snitching on their neighbors. When found guilty of a crime against the state — which can be something as simple as making a derogatory statement against the rulership — the individual is incarcerated. If the crime is perceived to be great enough, the person’s extended family can be jailed or imprisoned as well. “Tainted blood” was the term used to indict three generations of families deemed a threat to the state. Demick points to the three broad classes, as codified by the government, the core class, the wavering class, and the hostile class, and as her book suggests, falling from one class to another is common and potentially deadly.

AsiaPromoBannerSome things struck us more than others. ‘Night soil’ (human excrement) is still collected and used as fertilizer, the smell noticeable in agricultural areas. Internet access and telephones were extremely restricted. An estimated 600,000 to 2 million people died in North Korea’s great famine, and by 2001, it was said that more than 100,000 North Koreans had fled — illegally of course — to China. From there, many went to South Korea to find the riches of that county initially impossible to comprehend. Becoming South Korean, therefore, had significant initial challenges, from sartorial makeovers to changing dialects. The book reads like a series of Dickensian novels, beginning with the aspirations of her characters, their attempts to thrive within the north Korean system, their realizations that life was not going to improve, and their thoughts and actions regarding leaving the country for good. Leaving family members behind is a most poignant element of their stories.

It’s a highly recommended book for those interested in the politics of North Korea and its effect on the day to day lives of its people. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book back in time: ‘Kon-Tiki’ by Thor Heyerdahl

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 29•15

KonTikiBookVeteran WoWasis readers are aware of our penchant for reviewing books on Asia and the Pacific, especially older classics. Why? For one thing, younger readers may have missed them. And Boomers and Gen Xers might not have read them either, although they’ve certainly heard of them. Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft is certainly one of these. The voyage, made in 1947, is famous and iconic. It spawned “Tiki Culture” across the United States and much of the world: every Tiki bar in the world owes something to the book that made the word “Tiki” famous. But what of the amazing voyage itself? Heyerdahl’s tale, read more than six decades after it was published, remains an amazing one. The story is a timeless one, and begs to be read today.

When Heyerdahl posited that distant Pacific islands had been populated by ancient adventurers from present-day Peru, he was met by everything from scorn to disbelief. He decided to replicate the journey on a hand-built wooden raft, built as he supposed the legendary voyagers would have done it, with similar materials. It took 101 days for the six man crew to transverse 4300 nautical miles, to reach island Polynesia and worldwide acclaim.

The fascinating tale isn’t solely about the actual voyage, either. In luxurious prose, he tells of the arduous trek through South American forests to obtain the wood needed to build the craft:

We went on up over sun-smitten slopes without a bush or tree and down into valleys of desert sand and cactus, till finally we climbed up and reached the topmost crest with snow fields round the peak and a wind so bitingly cold that we had to slacken speed in order not to freeze to bits as we sat in our shirts longing for jungle heat. For long stretches we had to drive across country between the mountains, over scree and grassy ridges, searching for the next bit of road. But when we reached the west wall, where the Andes range falls precipitously to the lowlands, the mule track was cut along shelves in the loose rock, and sheer cliffs and gorges were all about us. We put all our trust in friend Agurto as he sat crouched over the steering wheel, always swinging out when we came to a precipice. Suddenly a violent gust of wind met us; we had reached the outermost crest of the Andes chain, where the mountain fell away sharply in a series of precipices to the jungle far down in a bottomless abyss 12,000 feet beneath us. But we were cheated of the dizzy view over the sea of jungle, for, as soon as we reached the edge, thick cloud banks rolled about us like steam from a witches’ cauldron. But now our road ran down unhindered into the depths. Always down, in steep loops along gorges and bluffs and ridges, while the air grew damper and warmer and ever fuller of the heavy, deadening hot-house air which rose from the jungle world below.

AsiaPromoBannerThe sea voyage was fraught with many dangers, many of which involved the ravages of sea and storms upon the raft. Seawater attacked radio gear and food. A plethora of ease creatures accompanied them at various times. Heyerdahl is a formidable wordsmith, leaving the reader at the edge of his or her seat, hoping, along with the crew, for a Polynesian island to emerge as a final destination. It was Raroia, in the Tuamotu Islands:

As soon as we had become acquainted with the 127 inhabitants of the village, a long table was laid for the two chiefs and the six of us, and the village girls came round bearing the most delicious dishes. While some arranged the table, others came and hung plaited wreaths of flowers round our necks and smaller wreaths round our heads. These exhaled a lingering scent and were cool and refreshing in the heat. And so a feast of welcome began which did not end till we left the island weeks after. Our eyes opened wide
and our mouths watered, for the tables were loaded with roast suckling pigs, chickens, roast ducks, fresh lobsters, Polynesian fish dishes, breadfruit, papaya, and coconut milk. While we attacked the dishes, we were entertained by the crowd singing hula songs, while young girls danced round the table.

The book revels in anthropology, history, and nautical lore, a marvel of adventure that is timeless. It never fails to enchant, decades after it first appeared in print, a literary joy and a magnificent tribute to adventure. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book back in time: ‘South Pacific’ by James Michener

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 26•15

MichenerPacificThere are so many books out there, and seemingly never enough time to get to them all, we here at WoWasis tell ourselves. Decades into your life, you muse, you realize you never got around to some of the classics. We don’t know how many people are reading James Michener’s classic Tales of the South Pacific (1947) these days, but it’s never gone out of print. It was the writer’s first work of fiction, this compilation of nineteen short stories, and they all relate stories that take place in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.

Reading it today, it’s easy to see why it won a Pulitzer Prize and spawned a movie. The characters, several of whom appear in different stories, are memorable, and the author’s descriptive chops are in full force. The story “Our Heroine” was the basis for the film, and a poignant reminder of the racism that was so common in the allied forces and ancillary organizations of the era. But not all of the tales that deal with the issue of skin color are resolved so nicely. In ‘Fo’ Dollah’,’ the male protagonist falls in love with a local beauty, but ultimately career issues and the fact that he has a girl back home throw a wrench in the works. By the end of the story, the reader is left with his or her own suppositions as to whether the man later marries his girlfriend at home, if it’s a happy relationship if so, or if he rues not marrying the native woman for the rest of his life. By the end of this book’s 350-plus pages, we do have an answer.

AsiaPromoBannerOur favorite part of the book told of a massive booze-run carried on by air. ‘Wine for the Mess at Segi,’ is full of the shenanigans inherent in the life of young military people living on the edge and attempting to defy regulations, cognizant of the fact that their lives could be snuffed out in an instant.

Particularly in its dealings with intercultural and interracial romance, it’s a progenitor to the Bangkok Fiction school of writing, though less lethal, on a non-military level, by comparison. For readers who have a large amount of Asian-based fiction under their belts, this is a wonderful book to take in, written in tougher, but perhaps more innocent times. It’s a classic of exotic fiction, which no doubt inspired innumerable young men to taste Asia and the Pacific for themselves. Aside from the very real element of the Pacific War, the individual stories in this book continue to play themselves out today, as visitors to Asia-Pacific countries continue to contend with new truths that cause them to question belief systems rooted in western cultures. Michener has nailed a lot of that in South Pacific, and more than fifty years after it was first published, it remains a compelling read. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis Banned Book review: Thailand, ‘A Kingdom in Crisis’ by Andrew MacGregor Marshall

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 19•15

MarshallKingdomCrisisThe most talked-about topic in Thailand is also the least talked-about. The controversy on succession plans revolving around the eventual death of King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej is something everyone discusses, but only in private. To do so in public invites a prison sentence under Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws. As Andrew MacGregor Marshall points out in his A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (2015, ISBN 978-1-78360-057-1) you can even be imprisoned for an offense seemingly as small as suggesting that the King’s portrait doesn’t belong on a wall. What the book doesn’t say is that the King’s name isn’t even mentioned in Thai pressrooms. Instead, he’s referred to as “a very important person,” or some such, while his son, the legal heir to the throne, Crown prince Vajiralongkorn, becomes “a very important person’s son.” And even with this verbal legerdemain, the conversation is extremely hushed.

Marshall’s book, essential to understanding the intricacies surrounding Thailand’s palace, police, military, and ruling class, has been banned in Thailand. It’s easy to see why. The author provides a comprehensive and unexpurgated written background of the potential crisis of royal succession in a manner that would never be allowed in Thailand. He frames his book within a historical context, discussing, among other things, the story behind the public and political deification of past and present kings, Rama IX’s accession to the throne after the death of his brother, Ananda (Rama VIII), and the disquietude over the potential male heir.

A recurrent theme is the involvement of the United States in building what the author refers to as a “fairy tale” in its efforts to thwart communism in Southeast Asia:

Over the decades, thanks to propaganda efforts of the USA, the Thai establishment’s efforts to inculcate royalism, pliant local newspapers and a Western media that lapped up the fairy-tale narrative of an exotic land with a monarchy courageously combating communism, a now-familiar narrative emerged. Thailand was a haven of freedom and harmony in a troubled region, a country full of charming and obliging natives who lived carefree lives, all thanks to the immense hard work and unrivalled moral authority of the saintly saxophone-playing King Bhumibol.

Sarit [Thanarat, Thai army leader] encouraged the royal couple to travel around the country; the rapturous welcome they received in rural areas demonstrated the persistence of old beliefs that the monarch was a semi-divine figure. The Western media joined in the deification of Thailand’s fairy-tale king and queen. But real power lay with the army and the United States. Sarit – and Washington – saw Bhumibol as a puppet whose popularity and sacred aura of royalty could be usefully harnessed to legitimize their control.

The author goes on to describe the physical deterioration of the King and Queen Sirikit and offers a well-researched analysis of the red-shirt and yellow-shirt political factions, as well as the impact of the now-exiled business tycoon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Marshall postulates on the tea kettle that is Thailand ready to boil over when the king nears death:

Assuming enemies of [Crown Prince] Vajiralongkorn remain in control of the privy council and the military, then when Bhumibol dies a contested succession is highly probable. [Princess] Sirindhorn and her allies will attempt to keep news of the king’s death secret for as long as possible, and will probably keep him artificially breathing on a respirator, to give them time to prepare a decisive strike against the crown prince. It will require an element of constitutional chicanery – some legalistic basis will have to be found to justify blocking Vajiralongkorn, perhaps by falsely claiming that the king left instructions on a posthumous change to his choice of heir, or invoking Article 10 of the 1924 Palace Law, or leaking details of crimes allegedly committed by the prince or diseases he is believed to suffer from to justify claims that he is unfit to reign. There will also have to be a military element to the plan; Vajiralongkorn is aware the royal succession is likely to be contested and has been quietly consolidating power over the past decade, putting allies in important ministries and institutions, and expanding his personal force of soldiers who report directly to him. He is ready to fight for his right to reign if necessary. Thailand’s military would need to quickly find a way to neutralize the crown prince’s forces – and perhaps capture or even kill him. After that, some way would need to be found to ensure parliament formally approved their alternative candidate for monarch. And all of this needs to happen quickly. If the plan hits a roadblock, for a few days or even a few hours, it is likely to fall apart and Vajiralongkorn will be king.

The book is a masterful analysis of the political machinations of a most complex country. Along with David Streckfuss’s Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté and Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles, it is essential reading for those desiring to know what goes on behind the scenes in terms of the power structure that defines the Land of Smiles. It’s doubtful if any of these books will appear in Thai bookstores with the foreseeable future.

Marshall’s book is a classic guide to the events that have lead Thailand to where she is today and a sobering pointer to what the near future may hold. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis Travel fashion review: 2 great-looking cool dresses for the tropics

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 10•15

Here at WoWasis, we don’t think girls have to look grungy to beat the heat in the tropics. And you shouldn’t have to have a dry cleaner nearby, either (out in the boonies, you may only have a sink). You should be able to look great day or night, too.


Tiana B V-neck sleeveless dress

Tiana B has a great collection of summer dresses that look great and can easily be washed in tropical conditions. Their Women’s Sleeveless V-neck wrap dress  looks absolutely terrific.  It’s 96% polyester with 4% spandex. It’s under $50, too. Or try the Short-sleeve lace dress, casual at its very best, 55% nylon, 40% polyester, and 5% spandex.formal. Each of these you can hand wash then hang-dry.

We’ve selected these for our WoWasis Travel eStore because they’re gorgeous, inexpensive, easy to take care of, cool, and travel well. Click on their links above for a better view, and you can order right on the spot.

Tiana B short sleeve lace dress

Tiana B short sleeve lace dress


WoWasis book review: Paul Gauguin in Tahiti: Noa Noa

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 26•15

GauguinNoaNoaNoa Noa, painter Paul Gauguin’s short book on his time in Tahiti, often gets ignored today. Gauguin, after all, has been chastised for “cutting and running,” leaving a family behind there. Gauguin, who died in 1903, isn’t alive to rebut anything, of course. But he does leave the reader with his sometimes whimsical and at times poignant account of the several years he spent there. And then, of course, there’s his art.

We here at WoWasis read this book when we were young, and it fueled our interest in the tropics. It was worth a revisit. We found a beautiful rendition of it in the book produced by book designer John Miller for Chronicle Books (1994, ISBN 0-8118-0366-X), and that’s the one you should read. There are other versions, some without Gauguin’s art, but art after all, is an essence of the story. Why read the story without he images?

Miller’s version includes colorful sketches drawn by the artist in the margins of his journal, as well as the woodblock prints Gauguin wanted to include, but wasn’t able, in the original publication. For the first time, they’re all included here.

AsiaPromoBannerThe story has become legendary, of his disagreements with his first Tahitian wife, of marrying his second when she was thirteen years old. He relates tales from Tahitian mythology that found their way into his paintings. He contrasts the way of life he found in the south Pacific with “the vices of a morally and physically corrupt society” from which he fled.

Radiating through the book are frequent references to the world of exoticism in which he had become imbued in his Polynesian world:

Close to the river Fatu, there was a general scattering. Concealed among the stones the women crouched here and there in the water with their skirts raised to waist, cooling their haunches and legs tired from the march and the heat. Thus cleansed with the bosom erect and with the two shells covering the breasts rising in points under the muslin of the corsage, they again took up the way to Papeete. They had the grace and elasticity of healthy young animals. A mingled perfume, half animal, half vegetable emanated from them; the perfume of their blood and of the gardenias which all wore in their hair. “Teine merahi noa noa (now very fragrant),” they said.

Historical research on the life of Gauguin continues evolving. His death was first reported to be as a result of leprosy, then syphilis. The discovery of teeth purported to be his indicates that he may have died of another cause. He will probably never be released from the cocoon of controversy, if even on a minor scale. We recently visited a friend who had a painting on the wall with a scarf covering part of the image, that of a young woman. It was an original Gauguin, and the owner’s Christian wife had covered the subject’s bare breasts. Too naughty for the household.

Bachelor in Bangkok: Khun Lee on what to look for in a Bangkok woman

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 21•15

BachBKKLKee1cFrom the ever-controversial WoWasis columnist Khun Lee:

I was out having fun on the town with a male Thai friend the other night, and I casually asked him what personality characteristics a Thai man looks for when sizing up a Thai woman’s attractiveness as a potential partner. I was really just wondering if in general Thai guys were similar to western guys in the way they measure these types of things. Well I must say that although this guy is quite young and innocent in many worldly endeavors, he gave me an extremely detailed and thoughtful response.

“When I look at a Thai woman, I consider 3 aspects of her life. First, I look at what she does with her free time. If she prowls around at night, frequents clubs, discos or other party places then I am not interested in her. If she spends her free time doing positive things such as improving herself, being with friends or family or engaged in some hobby then she may be a keeper. Secondly I look at what she does with her spare money. If she spends most of her money on expensive clothes or jewelry or other ridiculously frivolous items then I definitely am not interested. On the other hand, if she is smart with her money and is buying a property or otherwise investing it then she may be a good gal to know. Thirdly I look at how she treats her friends and family. If she is close to her family, has many good friends and acts respectful and true then I may well be interested in her.”

Man I gotta say that this guy may be young, but he really has nailed down the art of sizing up women as potential partners. I never really spent much time summarizing my own set of criteria in choosing partners, but after that night with my friend I started to think about his words and how similar his philosophy is to what I have always done in my life. I have always avoided women with expensive clothes and jewelry. Heck, I don’t care if she wasted her own money on that useless crap, is a spoiled rich girl and her family bought it for her, or some poor schmuck boyfriend just got fleeced. Any way you look at it she is to be avoided like the plague. What man wants a spoiled rich family girl, a girl who already has a rich boyfriend (or several) or a girl who is incredibly reckless and stupid with her own money?

As far as what a gal does with her spare time, I definitely don’t want a serious party gal for a steady girlfriend. Sure I would be happy to nail her a few times, but for a gal to hang out with on a regular basis who wants a tramp? My personal philosophy is that I will hold a woman’s hair back while she vomits only the one time. The next time it is some other guys turn to humiliate himself simply to get some easy hot monkey sex. Ooooh memories of smelling cheap booze, stale cigarettes and vomit are not going to make my highlight reel when I look back on my life experiences.

Then we come to choosing a gal who is close to her friends and family. He really is smart to include this in his criteria. When I look back at all the gals I have been involved with in my life, it has become clear to me that nearly all of the total whackos had very few if any real friends as they had obviously alienated all the people in their lives. Add on to this the fact that most of the crazy jealous control freaks have no one close to them and therefore must turn their aggression and hostility toward the new guy in their life.

My Thai mate is barely half my age, but for this one evening the student was the master.

I was watching a special on TV the other night about Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. We single guys around the globe, guys who enjoy all that being a single man on the go has to offer really owe a debt of gratitude to the first guy who dedicated his life to creating magazines, videos, gentleman clubs, and many other forms of entertainment that celebrated the single man’s lifestyle. As a confirmed bachelor I can testify to the fact that there is very little appreciation for or acceptance of the single man in this world of ours. Even in Thailand, the single man’s Paradise, I have to constantly make up excuses or white lies to explain why I happen to be single. Telling any person in this world that you PREFER to be single, that it is a choice you have made and that you thoroughly enjoy it will only draw blank looks, or worse, total condemnation. Thanks Hef for all you have done for us. We all owe you big time dude.

Speaking of the single lifestyle, my good friend Peter the Pie Eater had an excellent response the other night when a young lass who likes the amiable Englishman asked why he didn’t want to marry her. His response was “ I am still paying for my last marriage.”

I will wind up this month’s column with a funny story about one of my favorite bargirls in Bangkok. We all know that the game with the professional gals is just about fun for us and money for the gals, but sometimes it just gets too mercenary even for my savvy local guy taste. This lass was “married” to a foreign guy last year and I lost touch with her. Now I must say right here that I put the word married in quotes because in this life there is married married and bargirl married. Bargirl married is a big party where the gal and her family receive a bunch of money and gold after which she does whatever the f*ck she wants to. Anyway, this gal was “bargirl married” and apparently the guy died. When she told me the news I felt badly for the lass and told her how sorry I was to hear about her husband’s passing. Her response was “it’s no big deal, I can always find another guy.” Cold, bloody cold these gals can be.

Read Khun Lee’s other WoWasis columns for more advice on navigating the adult dating scene through the backstreets of Bangkok

WoWasis banned book review: ‘Saigon Gold’ by Hugh Scott

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 19•15

SaigonGoldScott1As a foreign writer, what do you have to do to get your novel banned in Vietnam? You mention things that ruffle the feathers of government censors, then refuse to re-write parts of your book. Hugh Scott, with his book Saigon Gold (2008, ISBN-13: 978-0979953484), which won the 2010 Gold Medal award for fiction from the Military Writers Society of America, encountered such a dilemma. But the author went ahead anyway and wrote an edition specifically to be sold in Vietnam.

As the author describes it, “A censored version of [the] novel is published in Vietnam. Absent are cover images of a captured flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam (AKA a VC flag) and the Distinguished Flying Cross military decoration as well as all references to the Peoples Republic of China and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. To further satisfy government authorities, a map of Vietnam was modified to include the Paracel and Spratley Islands, presumably to prove they belong to Vietnam and not the PRC which also claims control. Even ‘South China Sea’ was changed to ‘East Sea.’ So much for improving international relations.”

You can buy the banned version outside Vietnam and you should, if you like well-researched, faced-past fiction that will keep you on your toes, plot wise, for all of its 372 pages. It was hard for your WoWasis review team to believe this book was the writer’s first (and his only one, so far). Three plot lines weave their serpentine way through the tale, which begins with an American former GI returning to Vietnam. There’s tons of intrigue, involving three countries, embassy and military staffs, and officials with multiple goals, not all of them legal. Yes, it involves gold, but the most compelling plot involves a potential Chinese incursion on Vietnamese soil.

The author deals with Vietnamese personalities and philosophies in a realistic and measured manner, and our conversations with former Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army personnel aren’t very far different from those as written by Scott. He made two trips to Vietnam to check his resource material, and it shows in the small but important ways that add to the credibility of the story. When one of his characters makes a detour on an overnight drive from Nha Trang to Saigon (oops, Ho Chi Minh City, we mean), it’s pretty apparent that the author did that himself. This is an extremely complex novel that demands verisimilitude to be effective, and it holds brilliantly to that objective.

What you get here is an intense thriller with believable characters and a wild plot that isn’t marred by the gratuitous sex scenes that seem de rigueur for many novels written on the theme of western expats in Southeast Asia. Understanding that the reader might need a reference guide to the characters, the author put all 34 of the significant people appearing in the book in a two page glossary at the end. It’s useful, particularly in view of the similarities in some of the Vietnamese names.

We get the sense that this must have taken several years to write. The care the author took in getting the intricate plot and varied characters shows. And we’re still not sure what to make of the woman he hooks up with, more or less, at the end of the book. But perhaps that’s something for Scott’s next book. And we do hope there’s another one. He’ll have his work cut out for him. This is a tough one to top. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: About Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 16•15

SelkirksIslandBookCrusoe, of course, was a fictional character created by Daniel Defoe, who published his book in 1719. But his story was partly inspired by the true story of a man who was marooned on an uninhabited island. Diana Souhami’s Selkirk’s Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe (2001, ISBN 0-15-100526-5) tells the remarkable story.

Selkirk, a privateer, had issues with the ship on which he was sailing, The hull was heavily invaded by worms, and he requested that he be out ashore on the island of Más A Tierra (since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island), in the Juan Fernandez group, rather than continue the voyage. In short order he changed his mind, but the captain refused to accept his return and sailed off. And sure enough, the ship foundered and the survivors were captured by the Spanish, who imprisoned them. For fifty-two months, Selkirk was left to his own devices, marooned by himself on the island.

AsiaPromoBannerSouhami has done a credible job of research in relating the history of this fascinating character. He had a difficult personality, fighting with land people and crewmen alike, much of the time spurred on by bouts of drinking. He died at a relatively young age, from one or more diseases acquired during his tenure as an adventurer in western Africa. He married twice, his will contested by each of his wives, who learned that he appeared to be married to each, although the second woman was able to convince the courts that the first marriage was not legally binding. We’d wager that few readers will fall in love with Selkirk the man.

The author provides a fast-paced romp through Selkirk’s life, with fascinating tidbits interspersed throughout. Her passage on the ship-devouring Teredo navalis worm will be frightening for those readers who dream of going back in time to sail the waters in the oak-hulled ships of the seventeenth century. Likewise, her description of the necessary amputations at sea is horrifying:

Ballett thought it wise to amputate in the mornings but never at full moon. His dismembering saws were kept well-filed, clean and in oiled cloths to protect them from rust. He had an assortment of knives, mallets, chisels and stitching needles, some strong waxed thread, rolls of crude cotton and large bowls filled with ashes to catch blood. The amputee had to give consent and was told that he might die. ‘It is no small presumption to dismember the Image of God.’ Two strong men held the patient down. The instruments were kept from his view. Ballett, ‘with a steady hand and good speed, cut off Flesh, Sinewes and all to the Bone’. He left flaps of skin. He then sawed through the bone, sewed the flaps, stemmed the bleeding with cotton and propped the stump up high with a pillow under it. There was a vessel for amputated limbs ’till you have opportunity to heave them Overboard’. Even if only the foot was crushed the surgeons took off most of the leg, ‘the Paine is all one, and it is most profitable to the Patient, for a long Stumpe were but troublesome.’ There were dismembering snippers for amputating fingers and toes.

Then there were the island goats, which provided him with both food and companionship, as she quotes from Woodes Rogers’ journal:

His exercise and lust of the day was hunting and fucking goats. ‘He kept an Account of 500 that he killed while there, and caught as many more which he mark’d on the Ear and let go.’ His tally was of their size and agility and the quality of the chase; a chart like those kept of the variations of the tide, the phases of the moon or the days of his captivity on The Island.

The reality of being shipwrecked on an island clearly captivated the author, who’s done a terrific job of putting the reader right on the island, along with Selkirk. Not that any of us wish we were in that situation, of course with this desperate, difficult, and ultimately creative man.

Selkirk was rescued after 52 months, returned home, and recognized that he was only cut out for sea life. Shorelife being a series of troubles and mishaps, he returned to the ocean. His ships, his officers, and his ambitions proved again and again to be problematic. Souhami’s book is a timeless page-turner. At 246 pages, it’s one of the most compelling reads those of us at WoWasis have ever encountered.