Friday, March 23, 2007

John Burdett's Bangkok 8

Another great meeting last night! Lots of people, lots of points of view. The book is so different from anything else we’ve read, we just knew it would make a wonderful topic for discussion, and we were right.

The book up for discussion was Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (read interview). It follows the investigation by Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep (on how to pronounce this, read comment below) of the double murder of an American marine and his police and “soul partner” Pichai by snakebite. Bangkok 8 is the district in Bangkok (known as Krung Thep in Thailand) where the events take place, and is the center of the extremely profitable sex trade. Sonchai is intimately familiar with this area having been born to a Thai prostitute and an American serviceman deployed to Vietnam. His mixed race and fluency in several languages have left him with only two professional options in Thailand – prostitute or policeman. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist – he and Pichai were the only police not on the take – and has a hard time reconciling his beliefs with the harsh realities of the society around him. The story explores that world, full of atmosphere and culture, social structure and religion, as well as an up-close-and-personal view of the sex trade, drug and jade trade, gender reassignment surgery, and anything else that brings in a buck (the police impound lot is quite a eye-opener). The idea of the “Old Man’s Club” is either absolutely appalling or a stroke of genius. Maybe both. Read the book to decide.

We had extremely mixed reactions to the book, from loving it to unable to finish it. Our first report was from a member was in that second category – she gave it a try, but there was just too much on prostitution and corruption for her tastes and she set it aside. Other members thought the cultural contrast was too much for some people, that Americans look at things in black and white, and that this book was more open about the ambiguities of life.

Now absolutely everyone agreed that this had the most original murder, and most original reason for a murder of any mystery any of us have read. Yes, even the ones who did not like the book said, yep, they hadn’t heard that one before. And most thought that the “Bye Bye Blackbird” finale was a fitting end to the story. Now you just have to read it, don’t you? We also found out from one of our members that pythons bark before they strike (good to know and rather thoughtful of them) and that they look slow, but they can move very fast (also good to know). And no, the murder was not by python. Now I’ve really got you, don’t I?

Several people didn’t really care about the mystery; they were more intrigued with the cultural background, and the quite unusual characters. Very believable, but unusual. Another member brought some background about the author, John Burdett. She said that this was not the book of a young man; he evidently got his experience in human dynamics from a family law practice in Britain, and criminal law in Hong Kong. That member was especially pleased with how Burdett portrayed American/Western culture as not necessarily the “gold standard” in the world we like to believe it is.

Also striking was how in Thailand, the bar girls leave their small villages uneducated and dirt poor and end up rich and pampered in Bangkok (oh, they earn it all right), and practically holding up their village’s economy single-handedly. Perhaps I should rephrase that… this is a rather perilous narrative. We got into trouble a few times discussing this; the double entendres kept snaring us inadvertently.

The next few members were somewhat unhappy with the book. One stopped reading because there was just no “enjoyment” in it. Another said there were parts “I didn’t need to know.” It was too complex for some, and one mentioned that it’s a story that requires “no skimming,” you’ll be lost otherwise. And she said it’s an excellent title for facial exercise – OH! Ow! Wow! And EW! While the information on delicate topics was presented matter-of-factly and not thrown in simply for effect, it still was too much for some people. And one member said he found the “gender reassignment surgery” fascinating, but did discover he read it with his legs tightly crossed.

Interesting cultural tidbits:
  • Police must radio in to their commander at Headquarters for permission to turn on their siren and lights.
  • There are no ambulances in Bangkok (probably because it’s in a perpetual traffic jam, so what’s the point?)
  • Very important! Elephants are required to wear taillights.
  • All organized crime is organized by the police and the military. This enabled them to have lower salaries and therefore demand less from the taxpayers, a GOOD thing.
One member thought nothing really happened except and the beginning and end of the story, with little beyond talk talk talk in between. Okay, there was one motorcycle chase. Maybe 2 pages in the middle somewhere. Didn’t help.

The next few members loved the language and the cadence of the dialogue. They also liked it for the characters. Sonchai’s mother was especially popular among the group, a real survivor who lived a life that’s “just the way things are.” Several were quite impressed with the dart girl – how she thought to develop that particular skill I don’t really want to know…. It was enjoyed how Pichai followed Sonchai all through the story.

Only one person seemed to have any problem with the snakes. But they’re only at the beginning, and once she moved past that, she thoroughly liked the mystery and the language.

Several people appreciated the respect for elders, how there was no marginalization of the old. There seemed to be quite an acceptance of others, until the topic of race came up. Mixed-race Thai are especially looked down upon. Many enjoyed the philosophical explanations of issues such as police corruption and prostitution. The very foreignness of the mind-frame and society was both what turned people on to the story, and what turned them off. The psychology of the characters was absorbing to all, especially the evolution of the character of Fatima, and the disconnect for Sonchai between his culture – vengeance and drugs – and his pacifistic Buddhism.

Our final reader made the mistake of waiting until the evening to read the book. For her, the book was a hard read that she needed to concentrate on (no skimming, remember?). Bedtime, we discovered however, is not the best choice. For our reader fell asleep reading the book, and had one heck-of-a nightmare. Bad guys who looked like Jet Li were in her house. There were dead bodies. She called the police but they never came. She kept calling them, saying “But there are dead bodies in my house.” They never came. She’s quite traumatized now, and afraid to finish the book.

But you won’t have that problem, right?

The display was minimal – pictures of Bangkok/Krum Thep and books on Thailand and other issues presented in the book. I think I showed remarkable restraint not including a set of darts in the display (you’ll have to read the book to have that one explained). Food was splendid – a wonderful Thai salad, a coconut-macadamia cake like confection, and a big chocolate birthday cake for one of our members. When you get to be 88, you can have a cake too. Wait a minute – big luscious chocolate cake; why would I want to wait until 88? I’ll start accumulating a list of birthdays right away….