Wednesday, June 25, 2008

To Vietnam With Love

This book has been my morning coffee comrade ever since I received a copy a week or two ago, and now I'm ready to pack my bags and head off for Ho Chi Minh City. This is the very best kind of guidebook for the independent traveler--it trusts that you know how to get from an airport to a hotel and that you can pick up key civilities from a phrasebook. What it does and does quite well is provide you with personal and highly individual recommendations from expats, travelers, and Vietnamese people, who tell you what they love about this country. From their stories, you can draw up your own itinerary--their tips provide a springboard for your own adventures.

This is a book to dip into and to use for building dreams. Short essays provide information for every interest--Todd Berliner offers film buffs the Hanoi Cinematheque and Cafe, "which you cannot find unless you know where it is." Antoine Sirot tells where to find ballroom dancing to live music in the romantic destination of Dalat. Jeff Greenwald reveals the pleasures of searching for the elusive langur of Cat Ba Island, and Vu Kieu Linh not only tells why the hoa sua flower makes Hanoi an unforgettable place in autumn, but tells exactly where to walk for a fifteen-minute stroll through the flowering trees that bear these blossoms.

Where to stay, what to eat, how to shop: these conventional guidebook subjects are all included but are enveloped in the experience that has made the recommended places special to the author (there are 60 contributors to this book, including the editor and photographer.) If you're like me, you will develop a fondness for a particular voice and yearn to wander with that writer. (Believe me, when I finally get to Ho Chi Minh City, I plan to hunt down Emily Huckson.)

And in addition to the nourishment for dreams that it provides, this is a beautiful book that is sheer pleasure to touch. The cover feels like satin, and the paper used for the pages sets a whole new standard for the paperback publishing industry. Julie Fay Ashborne's photographs are generously sprinkled throughout the book and every one of them is a visual poem.

As for the editor, Kim Fay--she is a woman to be reckoned with, as well as an extraordinary writer (and one of my dearest friends.) To Vietnam with Love is one of a series that she conceived as the To Asia With Love guidebooks. It was launched in 2004 with To Asia with Love: A Connoisseur's Guide to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and will be augmented soon by this book, rapidly followed by companion volumes on Myanmar, Nepal, Shanghai, Northern India, , Japan, Thailand, and Cambodia. It is a huge project, and a revolutionary one--these are books that will transform travel sections of bookstores around the world.

To Vietnam with Love will soon be available in bookstores and online at as well as at

Friday, June 20, 2008

Unified by Carrie and Company

Going to see the Sex and the City movie is a gender-based ceremony not unlike guys watching the Super Bowl. It's an event that cuts across age and class and family hierarchy. A woman whom I work with who's in her twenties is waiting until she returns home to the East Coast so she can go see it with her mother. I saw it with my son's girlfriend. In L.A. when it opened I sat behind a jovial group of mothers and daughters who were having dinner after attending one of the first showings. A friend knows a woman who was desolate at the thought of interviewing Henry Kissinger and missing the big Sex and the City opening gala that her friends were all going to attend. Four lesbian friends of mine all went together to see it as soon as it hit town. This is not a movie--it's a phenomenon.

It's completely beside the point whether the movie is good or bad--whether it's relationship-porn or a two-and-a-half hour fashion show. We've already seen everything that could possibly happen over the five or was it six seasons of HBO. The movie is simply dessert--we don't need it but who can resist it? And like any guilty pleasure, the real fun comes in talking about it afterward.

Was Carrie's hair brown or blonde at the end of the movie? Was the flower dress in the opening credits the best one of the hundreds that she wore throughout the whole spectacle? What in god's name happened to Samantha's boyfriend over the past few years to make him age so horribly? Does Kim Catterall really have the pooch of flab that appears in the final scenes or is it a fat suit? (Not to say that most of us wouldn't die for that tiny little millimeter of bulge.) Was the catwalk scene really the best one in the whole movie? And has Big ever been seen reading a book in any of his appearances in any medium?

The saddest thing I have heard in the past three weeks is a woman I know saying she would probably see this movie by herself because she couldn't think of anyone to go with her. Trust me, this isn't something to watch by yourself--after all, that's why so many bars are packed solid with guys on Super Bowl Sunday.

Friday, June 13, 2008

How I Learned to Love Sex and the City

One of the little luxuries in life that I had in my last Bangkok incarnation was cable TV, included in my rent with a huge television for a small monthly fee. My job had forced me to become a morning person and it was far more bearable to prepare for a just-barely-post-dawn class when I could absorb news of the world in English while I gulped down several cups of coffee. The soothing tones of CNN International became my wake-up call--on leisurely mornings I even listened to that repulsive toad, Larry King, just to stay in touch with "my culture."

One night I switched on HBO looking for a movie that would tell me a bedtime story and there it was--smart-mouthed, fast-talking, outspoken American women wearing clothes that could get me lynched if I wore them in some neighborhoods in Bangkok, all having wild sex and discussing it in depth the next day.

I was hooked. Every week I would be planted in front of my TV, studying a world that was so fantastic to me in my present context that I thought of it as a form of science fiction. Yes, Bangkok has women who wear designer clothes, and shoes that soar far beyond the heights of Jimmy Choo, and who were reputed to be as free-wheeling in their personal lives as any Western counterpart--but "hi-so" jetset Thai fashionistas did not figure in my part of the city. I was surrounded by ladies in pastel, polyester suits and carefully cut conservative hairstyles and no make-up but a flicker of lipstick and their daughters, who wore school uniforms during the day and t-shirts and jeans when they weren't in school, who sported long and shiny hair and had no need for any make-up at all.

This, I felt as I watched Sex in the City, was my true culture, and studied the clothes and make-up and shoes as though I were scrutinizing a weekly fashion magazine. Like the farm girls in Iowa who headed for NYC in search of Carrie Bradshaw's life, I had no idea in my expat mind that this was a fantasy.

When I returned to the U.S. the first items I bought were a pair of interview shoes that looked as though they were designed for an ex-nun, and turquoise snakeskin sandals with four-inch heels from Nordstrom Rack. I felt well-prepared for my reassimilation into American mores, but both pairs of shoes tore my feet to shreds and eventually were given away.

But my love for the adventures of Carrie and Company persisted even though I now knew better than to study their fashion tips, I'm a single malt scotch drinker, not one who sips cosmopolitans. But the fantasy life of the Sex in the City women is one that I can't resist watching today in a theatre with a friend while holding-- and probably not drinking--a cosmopolitan. It may not be anybody's real life, but that is the whole point, isn't it? Long live fairy tales and fantasy!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

With the Speed of a Moribund Snail

Today is June 12th and today I discovered that my donation to Myanmar made to a Paypal account and received on May 9th is now in my Paypal account, which was only set up because they required me to do so before making a donation. That's a good chunk of time in which to draw interest on funds that were never intended for anything but helping cyclone victims. Nice work, Paypal.

I've requested that this money be transferred back to my checking account and am eager to see how many weeks that process will take and what fees will be deducted for that to happen. Perhaps I'll be able to send the donation in a check before the end of the summer--one can only hope.

I cannot stress enough how much I believe that Paypal should be used for no purpose whatsoever, although since Ebay accepts only Paypal, that could be difficult for some. I would love it if some enterprising investigative reporter would/could plumb the depths of this entity and write a book about the economics of using small people's small funds for the greater good of a faceless business enterprise. Any 21rst century Upton Sinclairs out there ready for some research?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Tone Deaf in Bangkok

After several days at Book Expo America, I returned home an exhausted and happy woman to become even happier when I found a book cover waiting in my email box. This is the cover of my book, and Nana Chen's, who is the photographic genius whose amazing pictures are worth their weight in platinum, caviar, saffron--you name it. We are both blessed to have an extraordinary graphic designer who is making this book more beautiful than any of my wildest dreams could ever have imagined.

At a party given by the Author's Guild, I picked up a button that was emblazoned with the words, "Love Your Publisher." I do. ThingsAsian Press makes beautiful books, which soon will be available in all corners of the world. The response at Book Expo was overwhelmingly positive from booksellers, teachers, librarians, and distributors, and I feel blessed that I'm one of ThingsAsian's authors.

This book should be out by summer's end. I will certainly be sending out a birth announcement as soon as it's available.