MY PHNOM PENH: William Bagley

William Bagley-Group Purchasing Manager, Monument Books
William Bagley-Group Purchasing Manager, Monument Books

MY PHNOM PENH: William Bagley

William Bagley started his career in bookselling in 1984 at prestigious London institution Foyles.

He moved to Cambodia in 2007 to join Monument Books, where he personally selects each English-language title imported from the UK and the US to the Phnom Penh stores. This week, he spoke with Audrey Wilson about some of his favourite books currently on the shelves, unearthing some underrated gems in the process

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1. Western Siem Pang: Hidden Natural Wonder of Cambodia

Cambodia is rich in biodiversity, but it is rare to find a book that celebrates the country’s natural history. Western Siem Pang: Hidden Natural Wonder of Cambodia stands proudly as that book, following the lives and changing fortunes of the wildlife and people of the region throughout the year. It’s beautifully produced, and the author, Jonathan Eames (pictured), who has worked in conservation in Southeast Asia for over 25 years, is a passionate guide – relating how urgent action is required to prevent the loss of the area’s biodiversity. I’m puzzled it hasn’t had a bigger impact. It certainly should have.

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2. King Norodom’s Head

My favourite new book of 2015 has to be King Norodom’s Head: Phnom Penh Sights Beyond the Guidebooks. It’s a magpie’s delight! Think of all those slightly weird, random street names and objects that set you wondering about their origin as you mooch around Phnom Penh but which you never get around to researching. Well, resident expat Stephen Boswell found the time. (Or rather, retired from teaching at RUPP and the choice was either to write a book or open a bar. Luckily for us, he settled on the book.) He is a great storyteller and it’s very entertaining.

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3. Broken Glass

Broken Glass: A Young Girl Named Ginger is one of those books that quietly impresses on every level. Self-published by Utara Norng, at the time with DC Cam, it tells the story of how she met Ginger, a bar girl who survived three abortions at a very young age, and also about her mother Malis’ world as a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. In affecting prose, Utara provides compelling testimony of how the horrors of that time still resonate through society and across generations in Cambodia even now. It’s a minor classic about two strong, complex women sympathetically portrayed by a writer of considerable talent.

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4. Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’

Gregor Miller’s Colonial Cambodia’s ‘Bad Frenchmen’: The Rise of French Rule and the life of Thomas Caraman, 1840-87 is a classic. Anyone with an interest in history, adventure, colonial diplomacy in Southeast Asia will love this book. It is a riveting portrait of one Thomas Caraman, inept entrepreneur and sociopathic liar, who navigated through all levels of 19th-century Cambodian society from the high (King Norodom) to the low (subsistence farmers), and whose grandiose ambitions were fatally undermined by his own arrogance and brutality. He died penniless aged 47, hopefully not a warning from history for expats!

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5. Love Songs from a Shallow Grave

Colin Cotterill’s gravely funny 10 novels about septuagenarian coroner Dr Siri Paiboun are largely set in 1970s Laos. I am a big fan – all are wonderfully entertaining. It is a bit of a cheat to include them in a list of books on Cambodia, but in number seven, Love Songs from a Shallow Grave (2011), Dr Paiboun goes to Phnom Penh against all advice and gets taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge. Appropriately, this one is darker and less irreverent in tone than the others – and I found the conclusion a bit far-fetched – but it is a tribute to Cotterill’s skilful characterisation that it still works.


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