Aunty Lee’s Delights (Singapore)

Book has characters from the Philippines and Australia as well as Singapore.

by Ovidia Yu

This cozy murder mystery features an amateur detective and professional cook called Aunty Lee. She is a widow, and part of the fun comes from her confrontations with her step-daughter-in-law (step-monster-in-law) Selina who is all the things Aunty Lee is not: Young, beautiful, status-conscious, fashion-conscious, concerned about money and getting more of it, and racist. Aunty Lee has employed a Filipina girl, Nina Balignasay, to be her general factotum, and Selina just hates this. She is always twitting Nina because she considers her low class and not nearly good enough for her family.

Selina’s husband Mark is trying to make it in the wine business. So they hold joint events at Aunty Lee’s cafe, where Mark presents wines and the guests do tastings, paired with Aunty Lee’s delicious cooking. Of course, the very meals that delight the reader as being traditional Peranakan fare appall Selina who would much prefer that Aunty Lee served fancy food.

But when a body turns up on Sentosa beach, it soon becomes clear that someone is serving up a big helping of murder.

A Little Whine With Your Meal?

(That would be Selina complaining.)

“The menu for that night’s wine dining gathering was chicken and pork satay, luak chye, (mustard greens that had been pickling in vinegar, ginger, and sugar since yesterday–Nina had only to remember to mix in the mustard powder just before serving…) and the hee peow or fish maw soup made with prawn, fish and meatballs…Most of the visitors who came to Aunty Lee’s Delights were there to shop for her sweet and savory kueh, fried delicacies, and of course, the bottles of Aunty Lee’s Shiok Sambal and Aunty Lee’s Amazing Achar and Krunchy Kropok, which sold out as fast as Aunty Lee and Nina could produce them.”

As a detective, Aunty Lee loves solving little problems to keep her brain active. “These little problems were a legitimate way of putting what the late ML Lee described as his wife’s outstanding talent for being ‘kiasu, kaypooh, emzhai se!‘ Nina could remember the old man saying kaypoh, meaning minding the business of others with as much energy as kiasu devoted to their own. Em zhai se literally meant ‘not scared to die’ and effectively described how Aunty Lee drove everyone around her to despair through frustration as she pursued some triviality no one else could see any point in.

A Tale of 2 Old Ladies

Aunty Lee is no Miss Marple. The latter is definitely upper-class, and her detective work consists of thinking about villagers and servants she knows in St. Mary Mead. Aunty Lee may be rich, but she constantly horrifies her daughter-in-law with her “common” behavior. Also, Aunty Lee draws conclusions about people based on how they eat (a fascinating concept). It reminded me that people in Japan ask each other “what is your blood type” to predict your personality. Aunty Lee also experiments–she likes to reverse-engineer food and people too. And she knows when something is off. She seems a bit younger and more vigorous than Miss Marple. She doesn’t smoke or swear, but she gets quite excited and yells a lot.

In one way, however, the book is exactly like an Agatha Christie: Every chapter has a title.

As compared to the last book I read for this blog, set in Malaysia, just across the bridge from the tiny island of Singapore, the mystery is much gentler. The pace is sort of slow. And, it made for an easier read. I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t mind reading more Aunty Lee mysteries. Curiously, the back of this book has an interview with the author by Louise Penny, whom I just saw in my hometown. Louise is the Canadian author of the Inspector Gamache series, a much edgier set of books, and very good in their own way.

A Word About Singapore

The Raffles Hotel

Alas, I never did make it to Singapore, but I have downed many a Singapore Sling! The secret is sloe gin. Stamford Raffles founded colonial Singapore in 1819, and after gaining independence from Britain, the city state separated from mainland Malaysia over what Wikipedia calls “ideological differences.” There are four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. The “Lion City” is just one degree north of the equator. The Pew Research Center, a few years back, found Singapore to be “the world’s most diverse religious nation”. I wonder if this is because of its size,  in addition to its geography. I mean, Monaco and Lichtenstein are also tiny, but not religiously diverse.

Buddhism is the largest religion in Singapore, followed by Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism, along with the 17 percent who say they follow no religion. Interesting.

Rating: Four stars.


A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder (Malaysia)

book coverFiction

by Shamini Flint

Many years ago, having left Tokyo where I had been teaching English, I was on my way home via Bangkok. I had flown to Thailand and cycled south from Bangkok  to Hat Yi, where I met a handsome young man from Kuwait. I put my bicycle in storage and spent a breathless, hot, humid two weeks with my new boyfriend. We visited Chinese temples and dusty gardens where dusty Muslim women strolled, all in black, and went to waterfalls with giggling Thai girls in skimpy bikinis. We ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but only with our right hands. My boyfriend was suffering from terminal ennui. The bored young man’s father was insisting he return to the Middle East and pilot school. His father was not much fun. After some time, I discovered, neither was the young man. So I boarded a train south for Malaysia. New country, new fun.

I ended up in KL, or Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where I met an elderly taxi driver  from New Zealand. Bob became my ersatz grandparent. We had a great time eating peanut satay on the street and visiting the zoo. We stayed in Little India with a Malaysian man of Indian origin whose dream was to invent a bestselling board game.

A Most Peculiar…er…Delightful…Malaysian Novel

Batu CavesWhat I enjoyed about this novel is how it continually compared and contrasted Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia used to be the same country–Malaya. But now, Singapore is a tiny island of apparent moral rectitude divided from the Malaysian peninsula by a thin strip of water. KL is dirtier, and livelier. People have old cars. (Bob and I both had planned to go to Singapore, but got  distracted by Malaysian delights like visiting the Batu Caves (featuring the original See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil monkeys) and playing 6-colored Go with our Indian host.

In this novel, Inspector Singh comes from Singhapore…er Singapore, to KL at the behest of his government to be sure that the rights of homicide suspect and Singapore citizen Chelsea Liew are not violated by (corrupt) Malaysian police. Singh quickly determines that she could not possibly have killed her abusive husband, Alan Lee–she is too pretty! (SIGH) And his job is done. But wait, there’s more! A family member confesses to the murder. Inspector Singh quickly susses that Jasper Lee’s motives are suspect, but Singh isn’t sure what his true motives are. In addition, Chelsea Liew and Alan Lee had recently filed for divorce and each wanted custody of their three sons.

At one point, Inspector Singh drives his police-issue vehicle around KL for 2 hours without being able to find his way back to police headquarters. He parks the car and takes a taxi. He ponders whether or not his winding path around the city is a metaphor for the case, which seems like a labyrinth.

In a scary subplot, Inspector Singh discovers that before his death, Alan Lee had asked the divorce court for a 2-week recess. The reason? So he could convert to Islam. Even though he’s dead, his kids are now automatically Muslim. That means that Chelsea Liew is probably about to lose her kids to the ruling of a Sharia court. The kids would go to a Moslem children’s home as orphans, because to a Sharia court, the most important thing is that Muslim kids are raised by Muslims. Never mind the fact that these boys have never been in a mosque in all their lives, and that their paternal grandmother cooked them pork stew just the week before. As she has done all their lives. Never mind the fact that the court would be ripping the kids from their mother and placing them with strangers. OMG. If the Founding Fathers of America were still alive, I would hug them around their kneecaps in religious gratitude for their insistence on the separation of church and state.

MapThe author makes it clear that Alan Lee’s “conversion” is not heartfelt, which would be different. Still problematic, but different. No, he was a cynical Chinese businessman and abusive husband who was determined to “win” at all costs. And he still might. (However, we get a scene where Alan Lee’s mother claims she cooked this pork stew for him the week before he died…a true Muslim would not eat it…)

What’s Borneo Got To Do, Got to Do With It?

Alan Lee used to be the head of Lee Timber, a logging company which has been illegally logging forest reserve land in Borneo. Unfortunately, his cruel and cold little brother Lee Kian Min has taken over the company, which he’s really been running for years. Chelsea Liew’s housemaid is from Indonesia, as are lots of Malaysian servants and illegal immigrants. I didn’t get it. Were these countries not far apart? (Answer, no. One of the great pleasures of reading is learning things, and boy did I. Not only does one of the long Indonesian islands in the world’s biggest archipelago parallel the Malay peninsula, the island of Borneo is half owned by Malaysia.) But illegal logging isn’t all that Lee Timber is up to, the corporate villains. They’re also intimidating the indigenous Borneo tribe the Penan, and forcing them off their land. You know, so they can cut down all the trees and contribute to worldwide pollution. Awesome.

old Penan women

Penan elders in Borneo

Inspector Singh doesn’t think so. And his Malaysian counterpart, inspector Mohammed, who quotes Shakespeare only when he is good and pissed off, doesn’t think so either. When the men combine their cunning and experience to solve a murder, great things happen.

Along the way we meet Mrs. Wong, a brave and clever Chinese landlady with the intestinal fortitude to take on corrupt policemen along with the ironing, Alan Lee’s remorseful young Muslim girlfriend Sharifah who moves from being a victim to a force of nature, and a blue-eyed Englishman named Rupert who may just have the power, the contacts and the chutzpah to bring Lee Timber to its knees.

Little India KLI enjoyed this murder mystery immensely. Although the back of the novel compares it to my close personal friend Colin Cotterill’s Laos cozy series featuring Siri Paibun, and also Alexander McCall Smith, I felt it was a bit darker than that. Still a great read. I understand that Inspector Singh travels to many countries–it just worked out well for me that this one was Malaysia, from Singapore.

PS–Of Backpackers & Ritzy Hotels

The novel mentions the Mandarin Oriental as THE place to stay in KL. My British friends Gary and Julia had told me that back in the day, THE place to stay in Singapore was the Raffles Hotel…the Raffles was the spot upon which the historic Singapore Sling was invented.

Rating: Five old-growth hardwood trees NOT chopped down in the rainforest!

Norfolk Island of Secrets (Norfolk Island)

Norfolk island mapby Tim Latham

Norfolk Island. A remote and hilly Pacific island covered in pines, where flax grows freely and chickens run wild. The country is famous for 3 things: Convicts, Mutineers, and Murder. Norfolk has its own government, flag, stamps, immigration, health and welfare systems, there is no taxation, and it sends its own team to the Commonwealth Games.

The Convicts

In the 1700s and middle 1800s, convicts too bad for the penal colonies of Australia were sent to Norfolk Island, where there wasn’t even a harbor to facilitate escapes. (Or as the Australians would have written it, a harbour. I have no doubt that in Oz, “harbours get shortened to harbies” with regularity. Throughout this book you will find slang terms like “sunnies” for sunglasses, “stubbies” for beer bottles, “footy” for football meaning soccer, etc.) Instead of an exercise yard like we have in today’s prisons, the Norfolk Island convicts got to break rocks in the hot sun. To this day, the town of Kingston, built with convict labor, is said to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the world. In 1814, Her Majesty’s Government decided that having a penal colony on such a remote Pacific island wasn’t worth the expense, and everyone was removed to Australia. But 10 years later, they were back. In 1856, the Powers That Were disbanded the colony for good.

pitcairn island mapUnlike Australia and New Zealand, where white settlers wrested the land from its original inhabitants, Norfolk Island was abandoned when whites set foot on it. There was evidence that Polynesians had been there, but not for at least 500 years.

The Mutineers

If you’ve seen the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, then you probably know that Fletcher Christian and his tiny band of merry men and their kidnapped Tahitian women settled on Pitcairn Island. The place is just as remote as Norfolk, but nearly 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Pacific. The problem with Pitcairn, however, was that the mutineers and their descendants eventually ran out of food. So in 1856, about 60 years after the mutiny, the British government removed the 194 descendants from Pitcairn and resettled them on Norfolk. Now, many of the islanders (about 3,000 in all) claim that Queen Victoria gave the island to them, and that they are not a part of Australia.

Australia claims Norfolk as a territory, but you have to board an international flight from Sidney to get there, and you have to have a passport, which is stamped by Norfolk customs. Norfolk has its own language, so to me, it gets to be its own country. In Norfolk, the name for the pervasive way everybody is in everybody else’s business is called Dem Tull–the island version of the bush telegraph.

Last names: Christian, Young, Quintal, Brown, Martin, Williams, McCoy, Mills, and Adams. The really important people on Norfolk are descendants of the mutineers and the Tahitian women. The Pitcairners, they’re called. There’s also a Nobbs family which is descended from the Reverend George Nobbs, who sailed to Pitcairn and stayed, being instrumental in getting everyone resettled on Norfolk.


Norfolk from the oceanNorfolk has carefully cultivated a reputation for safety and being crime free. When Australian Janelle Patton, age 29, was murdered and dumped in a park, it was widely reported that this was Norfolk’s first murder in 150 years. Wrong. In this book, journalist Latham points out that in 1893, a young Norfolk woman who had concealed an out-of-wedlock pregnancy gave birth in her bedroom, then threw the still-breathing baby down a well. Ironically, this former penal colony has no jails. It was deemed too expensive to transport the young woman to Australia to incarcerate her, so she was sentenced to “hard labor”–working in a house as a maid–and being locked in her bedroom at night for some years. This lack of judicial teeth still plagues Norfolk today. It is said that there is a ferocious amount of domestic violence, rape and incest that goes unreported to police, because the victims know nothing will be done, and almost everyone is inter-related.

Once, the offices of the newspaper editor burned to the ground because people didn’t like what he was printing. And once, a “come-here” (my words, not Norfolk) was building this ostentatious mansion in defiance of local opinion and it too burned to the ground. He never rebuilt.

What the Pitcairners don’t want to talk about is the legacy of murder they come from. It seems that four short years after landing on Pitcairn, Fletcher Christian was shot in the back while tilling his field. The Polynesian men who had joined the mutineers all ended up dead. As did all the mutineers, except for John Adams. Only one mutineer died of natural causes–Edward Young, who passed away from asthma. John Adams eventually got religion. But the scandal lingers.

Let’s Talk About the Book

cows on roadThe author does a bang-up job of introducing Norfolk as a character in the book. So the circumstances, place, and people surrounding Janelle Patton are more understandable. There are no cell phones on the island–the Assembly voted against them. But organic, healthy Mary Jane is grown and on the first page of the book, as Tim Latham is getting off the plane, the friends of friends who pick him up in their car offer him a fat bud. Very first page. This is important later, when examining the motives behind Janelle’s murder.

First murder in 150 years or not, the Norfolkers were shocked by the occurrence and the brutality of it. She had over 64 wounds to her body. She may have been kicked, punched, beaten, stomped, and stabbed. Or, she may have been hit by a car, dragged, and stabbed. It may have been a sexual assault, because her clothes were ripped and cut. The Norfolkers were hoping the murderer wasn’t one of them, since everybody’s related. The desperately wanted it to be an outsider–one of the many Australians or New Zealanders who comes over to work for up to three years.

I had two complaints about this book. One, the author kept saying that it “might” have been a sexual assault. I immediately wondered, was there any DNA to indicate this? And two, the chapter on Forensics comes at the end of the book. This was a strange choice that distracted me from the rest of the things he was saying. It turns out that there was no semen on the body, so someone may have tried to make it look like a sexual assault, but it wasn’t. Why not just say that up front?

KingstonAn unexpected character in the book is author Coleen McCullough, the brilliant mind behind The Thorn Birds. She married Pitcairner Ric Robinson and moved to the island to live out her last years. She is quoted as saying that the investigation was bungled from the start, and I have to agree. I think she called the Australian Federal Police the “Keystone Cops.” I watch a lot of Crime TV. So I know that the first 48 hours in a murder investigation are crucial. But the AFP, while they put a CSI and the ME on a plane to Norfolk immediately, the LEAD DETECTIVE on the case wasn’t sent over for two days. What evidence disappeared during that time? What witnesses had their memories muddled? What shady characters were given time to get their stories straight? Sloppy, sloppy police work. Detective Bob Peters, who eventually did crack the case–perhaps–says that if the murder had occurred in Canberra, he would have had 9 other detectives working with him. But not on Norfolk. It was just him and one other policeman. I guess because of the expense.

Still, since Janelle Patton and her parents were Australian citizens, you would think…but I digress. Janelle wasn’t an easy young lady to get along with. She had big personality problems. Still didn’t deserve to die, and she fought her killer every inch of the way. I’d have expected to learn that there was foreign DNA under her fingernails, but no. The book says there was no DNA on her at all, except for her own.

More Shame and Scandal?

At the inquest, Bob Peters named 16 Persons of Interest (SIXTEEN!) and why he was looking at them for Janelle’s murder. They included Janelle’s parents, (but not her brother Mark), her ex-lovers Laurie “Bucket” Quintal (a mutineer descendant), “Jap” Peterson–not Japanese so I don’t understand the nickname, although it may be Norfolk for Jack–a woman she fought with or two, and many more. These people had their lives marred by suspicion and the indignity of having their private lives revealed to a community in which very little is able to be private. I think he owes the people of Norfolk Island an apology because that was a shitty thing to do. They could have at least kept that part private, if they were going to do it. Instead, anyone on the island could buy a copy of the transcripts for $5. (To add insult to injury, the man eventually arrested and charged with Janelle’s murder was NOT on this list.)

“That Norfolk Island is NOT the city is most apparent. It is not a fragmented mass of individuals where personal behaviour is diluted by population, it’s an extended family unit. Norfolk is an island where the Butterfly Effect is tangible and the sooner people realize their anonymity no longer exists the sooner they understand their personal actions an behaviour will be noted and discussed. Where people go, who they associate with, what they say and who they take home will be registered in a collective consciousness. If it’s intriguing enough it will be broadcast via Dem Tull.

“The by-product of isolation is a fascination with other people’s lives. It helps alleviate the boredom of one’s own. In this respect, Norfolk is like any other remote place, but its location in the Pacific, its steep cliffs and extended family bloodlines, make it more intense and a lot trickier to navigate than an average outback town.”

Fish fryMany on Norfolk thought that the murder would never be solved, because police from Canberra can’t investigate murders because Canberra doesn’t have many murders to investigate. They felt the New South Wales Homicide Squad would have cracked the case in no time, simply because New South Wales is the murder capital of Australian states. Well, would you want an inexperienced surgeon operating on you?


Since I bought this book used, I can’t complain that it hasn’t been updated, since at book’s end the murderer was still in the wind. I can, however, Google. About a year after the book’s publication, Bob Peters arrested someone for the crime. I won’t spoil it–you go ahead and Google. After his confession however, the man took it back, claiming he had indeed dumped Janelle’s body, but that he was forced to by an island couple who needed to kill Janelle because she was going to go to the police about their “drug dealing.”

Janelle PattonGiven the lax enforcement of serious crimes on Norfolk, I found this hard to believe. Although it was well known that Janelle didn’t like pot. She broke up with at least one boyfriend because of it. She did make enemies. Perhaps the right man is in jail…and perhaps not.

Janelle is pictured at right, looking happy and relaxed. Sweetie, I am so sorry that this happened to you, and to your family. You did not deserve it.

Ironically, Janelle’s life was taken from her in the very place where her parents had honeymooned 30 years earlier. I hope with all my heart her murderer is in jail in New Zealand…but I’m not entirely convinced. And an Internet search claims that unidentified female DNA was found on Janelle’s shorts…

Rating: Five really excellent cannabis buds.

The Royal House of Monaco (Monaco)

Monaco portby John Glatt

One summer when I was 12 years old, my mother, her mother, and I grabbed big glasses of iced Coke with lemon wedges and headed on into the living room to watch what was being billed as the Wedding of the Century–Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Little did I know that decades earlier, my mom and grandma had watched another Wedding of the Century together, when my mother was 12. The wedding of American film star Grace Kelly to Monaco’s Prince Rainier. (Ironically, Princess Grace once considered Prince Charles as a top candidate to marry her eldest daughter. Caroline dodged a bullet there.)

Monaco is one of those strange little countries:

  • It is an enclave. Totally surrounded by France on three sides and the sea on the other.
  • It lost over 90 percent of its land a few centuries ago.
  • The indigenous people who live there are called Monagasques.
    • There are about 5,000 of them and the rest of the citizens are French, Italian, Belgian, British and Americans, who can’t vote.
  • The ruling royal family, the Grimaldis, have been in power for 700 years.
  • It is a police state–don’t criticize the ruling family because you never know who is listening.
  • Thanks to a friend of Princess Grace, one of the hottest restaurant/bars is a Tex-Mex place called Le Texan.

Some of the medals on Rainier’s uniform were earned by him during his time with the Free French in WWII. Something else I liked about him.

Although this easy-to-read non-fiction book is the story of the current Grimaldi family, you do get interesting glimpses of Monaco and its history along the way. How the family got its hands on power originally? The book and Wiki differ substantially. According to the book, during a border war, Grimaldi ancestor Francis”the Spiteful” of Genoa disguised himself as a monk and begged admittance to Monaco Castle. When the guards let him in, his army slaughtered everyone. That was in 1297, and the Grimaldis have been absolute rulers in Monaco ever since. Should they die without issue, or without adopting an heir, the principality will revert to France.

The Wonderful World of the Grimaldis

Curiously, my DK World Atlas says that Rainier surrendered absolute power in 1962 and they got a democratic constitution, but that isn’t mentioned in the book. Only that Rainier behaves like a dictator and believes in the Divine Right of Kings. It is true that members of the royal family still have to get his permission, in writing, to marry, which has led to some sticky moments over the years as both of the wild daughters have taken up with extremely unsuitable and embarrassing boyfriends. Many of the family friends quoted in the book say that if Princess Grace had lived, Caroline and Stephanie would have behaved better. But I doubt it. They were brought up spoiled and entitled, and they behaved just as badly when she was alive.  (Unfortunately the book ends in 1998 when it was published, so we don’t know if “Dirty Bertie”–Prince Albert–ever marries or if Stephanie has any more kids out of wedlock or if Caroline marries for the third time or if Rainier is still alive.) Hello, Google.

map of MonacoOne way in which you can tell Rainier is a royal is that he loves things most people don’t…not the opera in his case but…clowns. According to the book, Rainier has always loved the circus. It was a dream of his for awhile to retire and then get into a decorated VW bus and follow a circus around Europe. I found this rather endearing. Apparently there was a famous Italian clown called Grimaldi and Rainier was in the habit of signing his correspondence with a clown face. (You have to wonder if this influenced Stephanie’s year-long marriage to a trapeze artist.) Bertie loves sports, especially bobsled racing, and Caroline is a big patron of the arts, especially ballet. Stephanie was once paid $1,200 per hour to model, but was made to give that up by her father.

It is fun to fantasize about what I would do if I had the Grimaldi money and were a royal, and I would like to think that I would not be such a boob. But I probably would. I don’t think they can help it, growing up with everyone treating you with such servility. The girls have had all sorts of public temper tantrums, flipping off reporters. Their father gets upset and punches paparazzi and slaps comedians who make fun of his son’s hair loss. But Bertie, it was mentioned, enjoyed going to college in America where his dorm mates referred to him as “Big Al” and didn’t show him the deference he was used to in Europe, especially Monaco. (Rainier on the other hand was bullied at his English boarding school and called “Fat Little Monaco.”) It was also mentioned several times that the British Royal Family declined to attend either Princess Grace’s wedding or her funeral, as it doesn’t consider the Grimaldis as social equals. Only Diana came to the funeral, because Grace was kind to her at her first public appearance with Charles. You have to wonder if she felt any foreboding. (Stephanie also once had a fling with Dodi al-Fayad…small exclusive circles.)

I liked Prince Rainier at times–he  enjoyed watching cowboy movies and “football”; he once fell asleep during a poetry reading; he became very upset after his wife’s death at how much he had taken her for granted, he got furious with his children but never cut them off completely, and he once dreamed of inviting the American hotel chain of Holiday Inns to come to Monaco and enable people to stay there for $15 a night. I didn’t like him so much when he was punching and slapping the little people, having a hair-trigger temper with Grace (he yelled at her for putting the wrong flowers in a guests room, screaming that white carnations were the flowers of the dead) or referring to Stephanie’s policeman lover as “that servant”.

“Monaco is Part Police State, Part Disneyland”

The Grimaldis go to great lengths to be sure the super-rich feel comfortable in their country.

“Each morning a team of gardeners gather in the garden in the casino square to pluck out any wilting petals that might spoil the immaculate flowerbeds; at night a tape-recording of a bird of prey plays through discreetly-hidden speakers to stop sparrows from landing and soiling the park with bird droppings.

“Locals claim that unofficially some police discreetly drop any unexplained bodies over the border in France and leave their police to deal with the problem.

“Many a weary, bedraggled backpacker has been stopped at the station and put on the next train out, deemed an unwanted eyesore.

“Using the latest fiber-optic technology, the state observers can instantly rotate any of the cameras placed over all banks, chemists’ shops and jewelers through nearly 360 degrees. Back at HQ the watchers can even zoom in to see what newspapers are being read.”


A Word About Words and Parts of Speech

casinoI kept wondering why people who are indigenous to Monaco weren’t called Monicans, but Monegasques. Wiki tells me it is the name of a language. Since Monaco used to be the very Western part of Genoa in Italy, it is no surprise that Monegasque shares many features with the Genoese dialect of Ligurian. The Nicard dialect of Occitan is also spoken in Monaco. Charmingly, the Monegasque language is being taught in schools and in the old part of Monaco, the street signs are in Monegasque and in French.

Rating: Five stars to this gossip-filled yet balanced look at one of Europe’s most scandalous royal families and its interesting tiny country.

PS–Second Verse, Same as the First

Since the ending of the book, Prince Rainier has passed away (in 2005, just one month before news broke of Bertie’s son by a black flight attendant from Togo–the second of his children born on the wrong side of the blanket.) Bertie did marry, a South African woman with whom he has now had twins. Stephanie had another kid with another bodyguard. (She coyly refused to name the father, but the kid has his last name.) Caroline married the guy she was having an affair with (while he was still married)–that’s Prince Ernest of Hanover, who would have been a King of England if Victoria hadn’t come to the throne instead. This charmer once assaulted a disco owner in Kenya and has also broken a cameraman’s nose with his umbrella. Look, I get that having paparazzi in your face all the time can’t be pleasant–give up your money and your perks and your fame and your royal title if you don’t want all that then. No? Then deal with it.

Ironically, Princess Grace had tried to set up Caroline and Ernst back when she was alive–he was her number 2 choice to marry her daughter. At that time, Caroline found him stuffy and boring. Looks like Mother Knows Best after all.

Dreams of Bread and Fire (Armenia)

book clubFiction

by Nancy Kricorian

for my friend Zan Agzigian

While kayaking Toda Lake in Tokyo, I used to tell my friend Julia stories about my ex-boyfriend. The one I’d come to Japan from Hungary to forget. And she used to tell me that every time I spoke about him, she “just wanted to punch him in the nose.” (It did help me get over him.) I felt exactly the same about Ani’s ex in this novel. Within two sentences, you can tell he is a big fat jerk.

Ani is half-Jewish, and half-Amenian. I did a lot of Googling of the Armenian genocides. I last read about Armenia while reading the history of the Papacy, and in that book the country was doing well. A Christian nation in the Middle East with deep roots and a long tradition of church prominence in the region.

But then the Ottomans came along. That wasn’t particularly good for anyone except for selected Ottomans. Now, I’ve always read about how tolerant the Ottoman Empire was toward citizens who were different. This novel made clear to me just how much discrimination Christians and Jews did suffer under the Ottomans, how much contempt, how much disgust. All of that hurts, whether or not you are “allowed” to practice your minority religion, and whether or not your church-building is “tolerated.” Christian churches in Armenia under the Ottomans could not be taller than mosques…

ancient map of ArmeniaBut all of this takes place in the background of the novel, which is mainly a love story. A story of Ani healing from a relationship that, whether she realizes it or not, was abusive. A story of Ani performing that most important work of a young adult–answering the question of Who Am I?

The Most Important Work…in Paris

Ani goes to Paris. Ani is an au pair. Ani goes to a university on scholarship. Ani is poor. Ani makes judgments about the unhappy marriage of the people she works for and the snottiness (but also loveliness and sadness) of their daughter Sydney. Ani gets phone calls from her ex. He wants her badly–but only when he can’t have her. (I actually cheered one time when she Hung Up On Him.) Since I once had an ex that I broke up with and got back together with approximately 18 times, I know it isn’t easy.

modern mapWho Ani Is is part societal construct (she grew up in America), part family history–is she Jewish? Is she Armenian? If so, how much? What must she carry forward? What must she leave behind, to be healthy? And part, of course, is all her.

And then into her life comes Van, a person she knew when they were kids, a person who rescued her from bullies, a person who is now a good-looking man. Van happens to be stationed in Paris, working for an NGO which assist Armenians who are victims of the diaspora. It is in this moment, when we meet and recognize him and are glad, and he explains to the politically-oblivious Ani what he is doing and why, that I felt the first stirring of impatience with the book.

I am tired, you see, of books in which a Female is Led to a Greater Truth by a Boy or Man Who Has a Mission. It just feels so man-splainy.

To be fair, however, it’s a thing. It happened to me as a young woman. I was a chameleon, so desperate to be loved that I was willing to take on the interests and mission of whatever man found me worthy. I lost myself in him and thought that was lucky. The benefit of middle age is that now, I think for myself, I know what I’m passionate about and what I’m not, and I’ve stopped seeking approval–quite so much. So it does ring true for Ani’s age and background. As does her free and easy sexual seeking.

Of Hedgehogs and Crosses

churchIn some ways, this delectable novel reminded me of my blog book on France, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. They’re both set in Paris, they both have characters you root for, and they both teach you a lot about the subcultures that thrive there. There are scenes that will delight your five senses…the sights, smells, sounds, textures, and feelings of the Eternal City of Light. The novel, though easy reading, doesn’t shy away from addressing issues of wealth and class. Her erstwhile ex, named Asa Willard, has some pretty awful parents. They’re rich. Here is a scene from them meeting her for the first time. The dad has been drinking.

“Asa tells me you’re from Watertown [Massachusetts], Ani,” Peggy Willard said. “You’re Armenian?”

“My mother’s Armenian.”

Ben returned to the dining room. “You know what George Orwell says about Armenians, son?” he asked, winking at Asa.

Armenian cognac with Greek letteringAni’s breath halted in her throat for a few seconds, while she waited for Ben to drop the blade.

“Don’t trust them. They’re worse than Jews or Greeks,” Ben said.

Asa colored deeply. [Not a total asshole.] “Dad, what kind of thing is that to say?”

“Ben, that’s not very  nice.” Peggy’s voice was edged with false cheer.

“Can’t anyone around here take a joke?” Ben asked darkly.

In the library’s stacks, Ani had scoured Orwell for the line and found it: Trust a snake before a Jew, and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian.

You Never Forget Your First Armenian

church by waterThe first time I even heard of Armenia was when I read the book Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. It is a love story between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in Azerbaijan, and the bad guy  is Armenian. The second time I heard of Armenia is when I was discussing World War II with my husband, and he quoted Hitler’s speech in which The Most Evil had said he could get away with exterminating the Jews, because look, ‘Nobody remembers the Armenians,” referring to the Turkish genocide, which the Turkish government (not The Turks) denies to this day. Much as the Japanese government denied for decades their shameful atrocities against the Korean “Comfort Women”, also in WWII. The third time I heard of Armenia was when my poet friend Zan Agzigian told me the ethnicity of her name. Once you hear an Armenian name, you never forget it. It is very easy to identify an Armenian name. Van’s family name, for example, is Ardivanian. Ani’s mother’s name is Kersamian, although her late father’s was Silver (likely short for Silberschmidt or something Eastern European that got chopped off at Ellis Island, in the way that Americans and Australians are wont to do.) The man in Ani’s English-Armenian exercise book is called Mattheos Garagosian.

Armenian traditional costume“Miriam was Ani’s grandmother’s name. And Baba was called Mattheos.

Ani saw them suddenly, a young man in a black cloth coat standing beside his diminutive dark-haired wife. They were at Ellis Island being questioned by an immigration official. The man tapped his pencil impatiently on the desk. Mattheos repeated his last name slowly and the man wrote the letters down. He showed it to Mattheos.

Is that it? The man asked.

Yes, that’s it, Mattheos said.

Mariam, following the proceedings skittishly, didn’t understand English, so Mattheos translated for her. She gave the name of her town and the approximate year of her birth.

The vision faded.

Mountains of ArmeniaHad Baba known English when he arrived? How had he learned it? Why had he come to America? When they emigrated, whom had they left behind? Her grandparents drew a curtain of silence over their early lives. And Ani, growing up amid Old World shadows, had never thought to ask.

Rating: Brilliant. Five helpings of manti, and also fresh madzoon!

PS 1–My beloved DK Atlas of the World, circa 1990, says that Azer-Baijan and Armenia are at war. (Just like the protagonist in Ali and Nino and his Armenian friend.) There is a disputed enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh that was Azeri and the Armenians wanted it or wanted it back. You will want to know what an enclave is because the upcoming blog on San Marino features one.

PS2-Armenia is famous for its cognac-producing regions. Anybody know if cognac is gluten free?

Valmiki’s Daughter (Trinidad)

book coverby Shani Mootoo

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore


The first pages of this book are swamped by gorgeous yet endless description along the lines of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. I mean like 9 pages straight. Or maybe 114. I became impatient when I couldn’t see where the author was going with this. I wanted to read a novel, after all, not a guidebook. (I often skip descriptions in books in order to get to the dialogue. This is my bad.) But I know some people enjoy this sort of writing, and it does give a tremendous sense of place. Here, the author devotes three or four pages to imagining you are standing on a traffic island, blindfolded. What do you smell?

“…The aroma of roasting peanuts, of corn boiling in garlic-infused water, of over-used vegetable oils in which split-pea fritters with cumin seeds have been fried, of the cheery, spicy foreignness of the apples and grapes being sold in the open-air counter on the corner, would activate your taste buds, and in spite of the surrounding unpleasantness, even if you had eaten not long ago, your stomach would argue that it was ready and able again.

“A person might pass near enough for you to be assailed by his or her too-long unwashed body. And you might well be assaulted by the equally offensive fragrance of another passerby’s underarm deodorant, which, having been called upon to do its duty, swelled uncontrollably in the heat.

“The stink of urine would of course be there, and surprisingly, that of human excrement, rising high on crests of wind and then thankfully subsiding. And sailing in, all the way up to this high point, on a breeze from the Gulf not too far away, would be the odors of oil-coated seaweed, dried-out barnacles that cover fishing vessels beached at the wharf below, and scents from foreign ports. If this olfactory mélange were audible, it would indeed be cacophonous, made more so by the terrible nostril-piercing stench of incinerated medical wastes and bed linens, intermittent effluxes from two tall chimney stacks set at the rear of the hospital. Your stomach, opened up moments before in greedy receptivity, might feel as if it had been tricked and dealt a dirty blow.

Samaan tree

Samaan tree at Fort King George on Tobago

“Then again, it might be the season when the long, dangling pods of the samaan tree (the unofficial tree of the city, planted and self-sprouted everywhere) which resemble a caricature-witch’s misshapen fingers split–and the entire town is drenched in an odor akin to that of a thousand pairs of off-shore oil workers’ unwashed socks, an odor as bad as, but more widely distributed than, the effluvia from the medical waste incinerator.

“The air temperature would be high, as benefits an equatorial midday. If you remained standing on that exposed traffic island too long, your skin would redden and become prickly in no time, as if it had been rubbed in bird-pepper paste.”

The place is the island of Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela. The city of San Fernando. The city’s general hospital.

housesSan Fernando is the place where Valmiki lives and works. He is a doctor. He is also a serial philanderer, and a closeted gay man. And possibly the most selfish protagonist I’ve ever met. Well no, not really. But he is selfish. This made it hard for me to like him. Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to be gay in the Caribbean. But this character is so desperate to get his needs met that he tramples all over the feelings and needs of others without so much as a fare-thee-well. We are told, for example, that the one true love of his life, a man named Tony with whom he had an affair in medical school, tried to kill himself when Valmiki left him to return to Trinidad and marry a woman. But Valmiki didn’t contact him after his suicide attempt. Now, however, he calls Tony in Goa and is hurt when Tony is distant.

San Fernando hospital

The hospital in San Fernando (where Valmiki works). A leftover from Colonial times.

When Valmiki feels the worst about himself, he goes out into the forest to shoot animals. He almost kills a mother dog, just because he thinks nobody is around to protect her. Then he sees the glow of a cigarette and realizes a man is with her. He lowers his rifle and creeps away in shame, horrified at himself. Surely, you and I wouldn’t react in the same way…would we?

Like Father, Like Daughter?

Valmiki’s daughter Viveka can’t understand why her mother puts up with her father’s numerous and semi-public affairs. (The reader can. It proves his manhood.) I felt for the mother. I remember all too well the pain of dating a closeted gay man. When you are used as a beard without your knowledge or consent. The baffled feeling of rejection, of not being desired. You feel like there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not attractive. When in reality, you’re just not attractive to him. It is nobody’s fault, but the lying causes suffering for all.

map of TrinidadI get that when you can’t be who you are, it makes you lash out in all directions. When you’re always afraid. Valmiki seems to be suffering from a kind of lateral oppression. He loves to go hunting with his buddies, including a day laborer named Saul. Saul’s wife knows about their affair. She cooks fried plantain for Valmiki. I enjoyed the hunting camp scenes, with the descriptions of lush jungle and delicious pineapple alcohol. (Pineapple wine mixed with molasses and sugarcane = babash. Yum.) The simple, easy friendship between the men, and the love and respect they have for “Doc”. One above their class, who loves to hang out with them.

Class Conscious, Much?

beachAnyway, back to the daughter. Unlike her sister Vashti, poor Viveka gets scolded all the time for her “mannishness”. She can’t help how she looks–square, boxy, solid. She cuts her hair short and refuses to grow it long. She wants to join a volleyball club with her friend Helen, but her mother has 10,000 fits about that. Devika is afraid that her daughter will become a full-on lesbian if she gets into volleyball, though she doesn’t come right out and say so. She also doesn’t like partially-white Indians like Helen’s family. She thinks they are beneath her, but that they are pretentious at the same time, “exclaiming over curry like they’ve never seen it before” and giving their children names like Helen. And of course Trinidadans of African descent are beyond the pale. They’re the men who hang out around the park. Heaven forfend that Viveka should date one of them!

Maracus beachViveka’s confused. She doesn’t want to end up like either of her parents, but she doesn’t know how to defy custom and society. She has a sobering example before her–her friend Merle Bedi came out and was kicked out by her family. Now she’s homeless, dirty, drugged and begs on the street.

Of all the characters, I sympathized with Viveka and Vashti the most. As the younger generation, they seemed to have fewer class hang-ups than their parents. It was interesting to me that a gay man would produce a gay daughter.

flagAfter reading this novel, I would love to visit Trinidad. (and Tobago.) I love Indian people, and people of Indian descent, and I think I would enjoy meeting African people and people of African descent. In many ways, the people of Trinidad seem easy-going and likable, even as they struggle to become one people and overcome the Colonial legacy of inequality, racism and death.

WARNING: This novel was shortlisted for a literary prize.

Rating: Three bowls of pineapple babash!

PS–The author is Irish-Trinidadan. Such an interesting heritage.

Waiting for the Mango Rains (Central African Republic) (CAR)

book coverby Jon White

It’s 1974. Nixon has just resigned. Before the American in this book has even left the plane to embark in the Central African Republic, he falls victim to a scam. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia, *I* saw it coming a kilometer away. It’s the old “oh dear, I’ve left my purse on the plane, if only some nice, naïve American would carry it through customs for me” ploy. Never, never, never, pick up someone’s frog bag. Remember Bridget Jones in Thailand!

When our hero is promptly detained for diamond smuggling, I was not surprised.

Blood Diamonds

I must rant for a moment, my apologizes. Diamonds are bad. Diamonds are shamefully bad. I highly recommend that you, dear reader, watch the documentary Blood Diamonds. You will learn how diamonds, one of the most common minerals ever, had their value artificially inflated by the de Beers company in South Africa. How diamond mines have a history of Colonialism and abuse. But most of all, how diamonds are used as currency in human trafficking and drugs and arms deals. They enable warlords to do terrible things. Every bad guy ever loves to deal in uncut diamonds because they’re virtually untraceable, unlike money. I got so upset after watching this that I had my engagement ring created from purple Montana sapphires. No diamonds, no, no, no! Not ever. Read more about conflict diamonds here.

But, Back to the Book

map of the CARFinally realizing that he is in real trouble in a central African republic, facing grumpy immigration officials with assault rifles, our hero asks for the American Embassy. The army officer who has been interrogating him tells him, “It’s closed. Why don’t you know that? You must be lying to us about who you are.”

Our hero, who has just graduated from college and landed a job as a fisheries biologist with USAID, an arm of the U.S. State Department, is floored. Why didn’t anyone tell him? He’s been on a plane for two days.

Horrified and scared, he asks for the French Embassy. (A good bet that it is open, since the French colonized the CAR and support Bokassa, the President for Life.) OK, our American is told, but the Embassy is closed now. So we’re going to have to hold you overnight. In jail.

ancient CAR villageIn a squalid cell, with no mosquito net, he huddles under a stifling hot Army blanket all night. In the morning, he is horrified to see that one of his arms has flopped outside the makeshift barrier and his hand and wrist are covered in hundreds of tiny bites. Hello, malaria.

With a surprising amount of moxie, at dawn he breaks out of his cell and hikes five miles through the jungle back to the city he arrived in. There, in a cafe, he finds a friendly Belgian expat who treats him to breakfast. He waits for the embassy to open. The expat tells him that he’s been scammed AGAIN. That the men who held him were not the legitimate officials, but a gang that operates out of the city. They got his suitcases, his wallet, and his Breitling watch which was a graduation gift from his parents.

Ubangi River

the Ubangi River

Our hero gets terribly upset, and the Belgian laughs at him, explaining that most Africans are lucky to make $200 a year and that the privileged American has no idea what it is like to go hungry or see his children go hungry. That there are no jobs. That the President takes all the wealth for  himself. The Belgian makes our hero feel ashamed. The only thing that is really irreplaceable is his watch, and it is for sentimental reasons. (In addition to his $4,000 per month living allowance, Nick is making $45,000 per year in 1974.)

It’s a Novel

Fula women

Women of the Fula tribe

It was at this point, when he introduces himself as Nick D’Amato, that I finally realized I was reading a work of fiction! Yes, up until now, I was thoroughly engrossed in the tale as I would be in a memoir. I bought this book used, you see, and there was an inscription in it: “To Ron and Margot, Tales from my misspent youth. Enjoy! Love, the author.” And so I thought…especially as our hero is not named for chapters and chapters except one time in which he is called Nick and I thought it was strange but possibly a nickname…Well, I guess it just shows how engagingly well-written this book is.

Don’t be put off by its self-published appearance–it’s a page turner.

Africans dancingNick is a great hero–the opposite of the ugly American abroad. He wants to help people. He falls in love with Africa, and the gentle, generous Africans, and ends up “going native”–moving in with his girlfriend Veronique, adopting her two little sisters, eating African food and drinking the local Mocaf beer that the other expats scorn as “panther piss”. The others huddle together in white residences, drinking imported Bud Light, refusing to learn the local languages, and playing tennis and swimming all day. Nick becomes more and more estranged from them. Five years go by.

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

People have been living in Central Africa for thousands of years before Christ

Nick occasionally runs afoul of the local juju men–sorcerers who increasingly enforce the President’s will. President for Life Bokassa is utterly corrupt, and a member of a minority tribe called the M’Baka.(Most of them are just as much his victims as the rest of the tribes.) This is the same tribe that Nick’s girlfriend Veronique belongs to. In the village where they live, people are afraid that if the President falls, they will be attacked by other tribes. Nick, who has eaten around the cooking fires of many area tribes, and has learned the Songa and M’Baka languages, just can’t believe his gentle and courteous friends would turn on each other.

Tribes of the CAR:

There are more than 80 ethnic groups in the CAR, each with its own language. According to Wiki, about 50% are Baya-Mandija, 40% are Banda, and only  7% are M’Baka. In the book we also run into one “Arab, who works at the slaughterhouse”, and two Portuguese trader families who have been in Africa for 3 generations.

Genocide Countdown

Of course, as modern-day readers, we are screaming in our heads, “You’re an idiot. Get out! Get out while you can!” Everybody is warning Nick, from the CIA agent in the Embassy to the Belgian in the café to the French priest who has fathered a half-African son. With my own knowledge of the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, happening in my own lifetime, I was just waiting for something terrible to happen and stewing over Nick’s willful ignorance. (Something else he is willfully ignorant of is his chances of getting an STD or worse from his girlfriend. One night she tells him her husband gave her “a disease” that he picked up from a prostitute, and it caused her to become sterile, and then he left her because she couldn’t have children. Nick then starts having sex with her and never uses a condom! Is it too early for AIDS?)

Ancient stone monoliths

Ancient stone monoliths

Eventually the State Department decides the political situation is too dangerous–Bokassa is accused of locking up school children from a rival tribe for refusing to wear uniforms with his picture on them–and then clubbing them to death. At the same time, he’s preparing to crown himself Emperor.

To avoid a forcible evacuation, Nick ends up quitting USAID. He’s now a private citizen running amuck in Africa, with civil war likely to break out at any minute.

The question becomes: Will the U.S. Embassy still send the Marines to extract Nick when the worst happens? Or is he on his own? What about his family? What about their extended family? And will the juju men take this opportunity to pounce?

I couldn’t put this book down. Through Nick’s eyes I fell in love with Central Africa too. The way the people love children. Really, really love them. The way that everyone has brothers and mothers everywhere. The delicious indigenous food. (Peanuts and bananas feature heavily.) The palm wine enjoyed by all. The way that old women run things, but let the old men think that they do. Ha ha! The animism that is practiced along with Christianity–the M’Baka in the village go out one night to pray to a tree spirit around a bonfire. The complete lack of materialism.

Oh, there are bad things too. It’s true of every culture. Nick hires a lame man to help him in the fish ponds, and is saddened to find that most of the rest of the people shun him. Many people see having a physical or mental disability as a punishment for something your ancestors did. (It is the same in some Chinese areas, only there lots of folks fear that your bad luck might be catching.)

Another bad thing is that when men go to jail for stealing, the prison does not feed them. Their families have to, and if the prisoner has no family, he depends on the other prisoners to share their meager food. Or he will starve. Most of the men are there for stealing food in the first place.

Nick is horrified by this (just one of the reasons we like him) and begins hiring a dozen prisoners to help him in the fish ponds and giving them meals twice daily. This was very satisfying.

I could go on and on, but I will stop now. Suffice it to say that the CAR has undergone even more trauma and turmoil since this book was written in 2009. It will make your heart ache for the people.

Rating: Five shy green mambas, in a tree far, far away.


PS–The juju men who have cursed the fish station claim to be able to sicken people they don’t like. They attack Nick’s houseboy Armande. Nick thinks the man has gotten hepatitis from parasites in the river. Armande’s wife washes Nicks clothes in that water, and then Armande has to use a hot iron on them to kill the parasite larvae. UGH, UGH, UGH. You see a pretty river and think oh boy, I’d like to go for a swim. Only, don’t.