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Standard Deviations: Growing Up and Coming Down in the New Asia Paperback – July 2, 2002

3.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the Asian economic surge of the late 1980s, deputy editor of Time Asia Greenfeld leaves his New York home in search of "a big life," as he calls it, of sex, drugs and a sense of purpose. But a funny thing happens on the way to fulfillment for this Asian-American Gen-Xer: in a small city near Tokyo, he lands an English-teaching job he detests and numbs his dissatisfaction with narcotic cough syrup. On a retreat for English teachers, he awakens from a drug-induced nap in the hot baths feeling cleansed, and musters the charm to pick up an Australian woman. Romance ensues, and it seems that Asia may be good for our hero after all. Greenfeld, though, looks his gift horse in the mouth as well as every other orifice and his book rapidly becomes a down-and-outer's tour of the bleakest side of Asia, replete with transsexual Thai hookers, con-man Indian swamis and lots of heroin and temporary intimacies. Greenfeld (Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation), an excellent wordsmith, describes it all with cool precision: he's able to evoke a pristine beach, a dangerous rickshaw race or oral sex with a few direct sentences. But unlike Hunter S. Thompson or Henry Miller, he never seems to enjoy his transgressions. Ultimately, the book doesn't coalesce, despite Greenfeld's efforts to parallel his decline toward heroin addiction with the Asian economy's free fall. He offers unique glimpses into Asia and apparently frank self-revelation, but never fleshes out either theme. This title is to the reader what Asia was to Greenfeld: frequently entertaining, occasionally shocking, but a little short of substance. .
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The deputy editor of Time Asia and author of Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation, Greenfeld has written an unusual travel memoir that details his meanderings in the major cities of Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Nepal during the 1980s and 1990s. The reader is spared historical and cultural background and is instead invited to delight in adolescent descriptions of Greenfeld's sexual pursuits and self-exploration. Apparently, commentary or perceptions on the diverse Asian economic and political tapestry would have been too enlightening, so instead he is more inclined to extol the stupefying array of intoxicants, from alcohol to codeine-laced cough syrup, that he ingested to get high throughout his tour. This hedonistic, pseudo-bohemian journey could have been informative and instructive were it not so self-indulgent. An optional purchase. Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ Lib., Montreal
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Villard; Villard ed. edition (July 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812992695
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812992694
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,792,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A. Pai on September 23, 2002
Format: Hardcover
sometimes it's fun to read a book where the protagonist is [a jerk.] there's a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from loathing someone, especially if their escapades are salacious. karl taro greenfield, whose real-life adventures in asia are detailed in this memoir, is an instantly dislikeable fellow. he's a spoiled half-asian rich kid from new york whose obsession with coolness and disdain for anyone who doesn't meet his exacting standards of coolness ooze from every page. greenfield starts off the book as an english teacher in japan, but he very quickly packs in it, moving into freelance journalism and devoting himself primarily to the pursuit of sex, drugs and hedonistic travel experiences. (it's not this pursuit that makes me dislike him, as i share it to a certain extent; it's just that he's so honest about his shallowness and fixation on appearances that you can't help but be repelled.)
greenfield's last book, "speed tribes", was an excellent pop-treatment of the underbelly of japan-- speed freaks, biker gangs, etc. standard deviations is in a similar vein, but more personal. in theory greenfield travels around thailand, india, japan, etc. looking for some kind of enlightenment, but in reality (and he is at least upfront about this) his travels are an attempt to run with the cool kids-- the tribes of disaffected rich europeans who treat asia as their personal playground, jetting from raves in malaysia to the beaches of goa with disaffected ease. i am a sucker for real life stories of drugs, debauchery, sex and mayhem, and "deviations" fits the bill. definitely not your standard asia travelogue, and worth picking up if only to shake your fist periodically and go "oooh! i hate him so!"
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By pineflint on September 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There is little doubt that Greenfeld is a talented journalist and writer, good at spinning engaging phrases and balancing details with commentary. But he's best when he's not writing about his own life, and unfortunately this book is a little too encrusted with self-referential blathering to make it as worthwhile as his much better work "Speed Tribes." Reading "Standard Deviations" felt a bit like gorging on sickly-sweet chocolate cake: there is as always a pleasantness and ease to immersing yourself in Greenfeld's writing, but the end result here is a bloated, nasty feeling.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Greenfeld, and the Asian expat scene, and indeed myself as a reader are all a bit older and a little more played out now. The sheen is off the gold lame, as it were. Greenfeld, to his credit, recognizes this and even as he struggles to come to grips with the nasty hangover that inevitably follows a youth of excess, his saving grace is that at times he is able to poke fun at his former aspirations and illusions. To some extent. But at other times, he comes across as a still bit too enraptured with his role as a minor-league Brett Eston Ellis of the Far East.
I guess that cocktail bars, hustlers and [women], Roppongi and Patpong, place-and-people name dropping and designer clothes all to be where it's at when you're in your early 20s. Then there comes a time when examining the shallowness and idiocy of it all also seems to be a worthwhile effort. Then finally the whole topic seems stale and boring. Greenfeld seems stuck uncomfortably between the latter two categories here, jammed crosswise into his 30s.
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Format: Paperback
Karl Taro Greenfeld is a class A writer. While I'm too much of a straightlaced geek to have hung out with the same folks Greenfeld did, I can attest that they do exist. But just having interesting characters is not enough. Greenfeld weaves them into some very interesting plotlines, with quite a few wonderful surprises. You may not ever want to live like these people do, but there is a voyeuristic pleasure that comes from reading about their joys and failures. This novel gives an excellent account of foreign young adults who live in modern Asia. It's not simply temples and water buffalo. It is a vibrant, thriving economic region that has all the attractions, distractions, diversion and perversions of the rest of the world in its own unique mix. Warning: reading this book may cause you to move to Southeast Asia and engage in a truly wild lifestyle.
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Format: Hardcover
Karl Taro Greenfeld, now the editor of "Time" Asia, departed the USA in his early twenties for Asia to fulfill his writing dreams. The excursion's motive became hazy as the "booms, busts, drugs, sex, violence, magic" of Asia overshadowed the craft of writing. "Standard Deviations" is a chronicle of the author's descent into the mired lives of sex workers, crooked businessman and their pocket politicians, and the young foreign ravers who all have one thing in common - leeching the Asian "bubble" economy.

The inevitable crash of Greenfeld's life (he becomes a drug addict) and the insubstantial economy is a disturbing account of life being led without the forethought of any consequences. Greenfeld is able to bring the reader close to the riots of Jakarta, a free-sex ashram in India, and the speed slums of Bangkok easily since he has ridden the Asian roller-coaster ride from the 90s to the end of the century. "About me are flea-infested dogs and puddles of stagnant water several inches deep with garbage, and all around is the stench of smoldering trash."

The book's greatest asset is the author's ability to be brutally honest with himself and the culture surrounding him. The tempo is quick and unrelenting, think Hunter S. Thompson; at times it moves too fast as a different setting is suddenly on the page. But the writing is beautifully lucid; the author brings the darker images of Asia alive in an unflinching manner. "And I know a hit of the mad medicine is the easiest way to make it all seem bearable. Taking a hit, I know, is a surefire way to feel good. Right now. And I want it." Lastly, the book also allows us to see redemption is possible from the lowest of points.

Bohdan Kot
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