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, and it sends its own team to the Commonwealth Games. There is no taxation.

Is It a Country?

Norfolk says yes: These days, 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 says no: 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.

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 Down Under, “harbours” get shortened to “harbies” with regularity. The Nofolk folks speak like Aussies, so throughout this book you will find slang terms like:
    • “sunnies” for sunglasses
    • “stubbies” for beer bottles
    • “footy” for football meaning soccer

Instead of an exercise yard like we have in today’s prisons, the Norfolk Island convicts got to break rocks in the hot sun. And guess what they were made to build? A town called Kingston, which is said to be one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in the world. All from cheap convict labor. But in 1814, Her Majesty’s Government decided that having a penal colony n such a remote Pacific island wasn’t worth the expense, and everyone was removed to Australia. Ten years later in 1834 and a change in politics the convicts came back. Finally, in 1856, the Powers That Were disbanded the convict 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

The next Norfolk Island settlers volunteered to live there, in exchange for a royal pardon. 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 originally 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 was that the mutineers and their descendants eventually ran out of food. When the British Royal Navy found them again, 60 years after the mutiny, they pardoned the 194 descendants on Pitcairn and resettled them on Norfolk in 1856.

The really important people on Norfolk are descendants of the mutineers and the Tahitian women. The Pitcairners, they’re called. Last names:

  • Adams
  • Brown
  • Christian
  • Martin
  • McCoy
  • Mills
  • Nobbs:
    • This family is descended from Reverend George Nobbs, who sailed to Pitcairn and stayed, and was instrumental in getting everyone resettled on Norfolk.
  • Quintal
  • Young
  • Williams


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 had/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.

Unfortunately, the Pitcairners have been left with a murderous legacy. 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 came over to work for awhile.

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 she 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) and “Jap” Peterson–who is not Japanese–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 Mr. Peters owes the people of Norfolk Island an apology. 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 even on this list.)

“That Norfolk Island is NOT the city is most apparent,” says the author. “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 and 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 here, 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 wild chickens.


The Royal House of Monaco (Monaco)

by John Glatt

diana and charlesOne summer when I was 12 years old, my mother, her mother, and I grabbed big glasses of iced Coke with lemon wedges and some popcorn 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.)


book coverMonaco 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.


Monaco portIt 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.)

flag of monaco with grimaldi crestI 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








I 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?