This week’s readings: Stories from Thailand, plus a bonus Malaysian novel

I had a very long travel day this week, so I got most of my reading done while stuck on a plane holding a sleeping or nursing baby. Jet lag is way more brutal when there are two little (also jet-lagged) people in your house and no one seems to want to sleep at the same time, so I got very little done the rest of the week.

I launched into my readings from Thailand over the holidays. I finished Behind the Painting and Other Stories, by Siburapha, while in Ireland for Christmas. I had started reading Thai Tales: Folktales of Thailand, but it was too big to pack in my suitcase so I took a hiatus while traveling. Since we’ve been back I’ve read one story (“Kaeo, the Horse-Face Girl,” about a very ugly girl who find a prince’s kite and gets him to agree to marry her if she brings it back. He reneges on his word, she turns up at the palace to make his dad force him to marry her, but even his dad is like, whoa this girl is ugly, and instead of making the prince stick to his word he gives her some quests to perform in order to win his son’s hand. While undertaking said quests she meets a hermit who teaches her magic and martial arts, and also how to make herself beautiful enough to win the prince’s love even though, in her absence, he hastily engaged himself to someone else. Then they pretty much live happily ever after, with Kaeo saving the day multiple times, including winning a battle against a giant while literally in labor with triplets. I myself would be happier with this story if she could have done it all while retaining her initial unpleasing appearance, but hey, I guess that wouldn’t be realistic).

I also started reading Rattawut Lapcharaoensap’s collection of short stories, Sightseeing, which contains this illuminating passage:

Ma says, “Pussy and elephants. That’s all these people want…You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between.”

I have also been plugging away at Contes Populaires de Cambodge, du Laos, et du Siam, by Auguste Pavie, but it’s very slow going. I’ve been reading the same story all week, which at least means I don’t have to put up with the self-aggrandizing waffle Pavie uses to connect his poorly-retold folktales. I’m halfway through and can’t wait to be finished.

Lastly, I started The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, which came out last year. I read The Ghost Bride for Malaysia and loved it, so I thought this would make some good plane reading and give me a break from old M. Pavie. The Ghost Bride was a historical fiction/fantasy mashup; The Night Tiger is in the same vein but with more mystery and a good dash of horror. And while The Ghost Bride was heavily concentrated on Chinese religion and folklore, The Night Tiger delves equally into the mythology of Malaysia. At the center of the mystery is the myth of the weretiger:

The conditions for a man to become a tiger seem to contradict each other. He either has to be a saint or an evildoer. In the case of a saint, the tiger is considered keramat and serves as a protective spirit, but evildoers are also reincarnated as tigers as punishment. And let’s not forget the harimau jadian, who aren’t even men, but beasts who wear human skins.

Again, I’m about halfway through it, and really love it so far although it’s starting to feel like Lost in that there are so many disparate mysterious elements and I’m worried about whether it’s possible for them all to come together in a satisfying resolution. I’ll let you know next week, hopefully.

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