Monday, August 29, 2011

Links to reviews of Asian books

I've been traveling on business the past two weeks, and have not been able to do much about the blog. Earlier, I promised to post some links to blog reviews about Asian books. Since I did not get any comments here and only a couple by e-mail, I'm just posting the below few links for now:

Sadhus in Katmandu, 1996

Tinylibrary by Sam:
Sam's blog is mostly reviewing fiction, like Shanghai Girls, but there's some non-fiction reviews that may interest you as well. Check out this list. Sam's a charming personality, too.

The Mountain Library is also featured on my sidebar. As you can guess from the title, it focuses on books about mountains and mountaineering. Since the Himalayas is one of my favourite topics in books I read, I just love the reviews they make.

Manoflabook is a popular literary review blog by Zohar. He has reviewed Kissinger's "On China", here. Zohar also has several reviews of books about exploration - always a good thing - and here's a review about a book about Bhutan: Radio Shangri La. Good stuff!

You may want to check out Seeing Red in China to see a reading list on contemporary China and other interesting links + a different view of the country. The author, Tom, has done charity work as a teacher at a rural college among other things, and has a perspective unlike your typical business executive from a WFOE in Suzhou Industrial Park.

That's it for now. I may update the above list at a later date, send links if you have good ones! In the meantime, I still haven't finished Rashid's book. Hope to get something written about Descent into Chaos this week.

EDIT: has a nice description of the Ganden to Samye trek with a good reading list on Tibet (there's a picture from that trek on my "about the blogger" page, if you're interested).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What's going on in the literary blogosphere - share your reviews with an Asian connection

If you have written, or know of a great review or other blog post related to literature dealing with Asia (fiction or non-fiction), then share it in the comments below. I'll compile a list of these in a post in a few days.


Short reading list on China Part 3: Travel

I'm going to make this easy on myself. There's a lot of travel writing on China by celebrated mammoths of the genre, such as Colin Thubron and Paul Theroux, as well as by some little less renowned local writers like Sun Shuyun or Ma Jian , who can give an insider's view of travel in China. The point of this post, however, is to point the reader to books most useful in introducing the country. So without further ado, I present you with;

Travel: Lonely Planet China (Country Travel Guide), several authors

I've owned a few editions of this bible of China travel and they have served me well. Keeping in mind this book is a travel guide, designed to help you get around China, it contains lots of other interesting information, too. The series has a nice history segment and also goes into some depth explaining the current topics of Chinese society. The beef of course is in the introduction of different places, worth (and not) traveling to. All major cities have been allotted a decent amount of pages including information on history, sights, local transport and so on.

There's some excellent photography, an earlier edition had a print picture of the current Dalai Lama (arriving for the first time to China by train from Russia, I was worried the female border guard officer, in her uniform and high heels would see the picture and confiscate the book), that is a good ice-breaker in Tibet.

The segments for different destinations are at least partly written by people who only pass through quickly, without getting the vibe of some cities. Thus Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province and my hometown for a year, for example is trashed pretty severely and, in my view, unfairly.

The book fulfills it's main function of getting you around China in one piece and is also suitable for armchair travel. The only drawback I can see is, that every other backpacker has a copy, and so everyone ends up in the same places. If you're traveling alone and looking for some company, then that's just fine. The most hard-core travelers won't rely on LP anyway.

Check out part 1: Fiction, of the "Short reading list" here
Check out part 2: History, of the "Short reading list" here

Friday, August 12, 2011

Short reading list on China part 2: History

This was a difficult one for me. I realized I had not read a book on China's general history since university (where it was compulsory and therefore not always interesting). I have a lot of history books in my shelf, but they all focus on a smaller part of the big picture. My choice for the list also covers just the 20th century, but covers it well.

History: The Chinese Century: a Photographic History of the last Hundred Years by Jonathan Spence & Ann-Ping Chin from 1996 (Photography editors: Colin Jacobson & Annabel Merullo)

The Chinese Century, written by Ann-Ping Chin, a lecturer on Chinese history at Yale University and Jonathan Spence, one of the authorities on Chinese History, is a Photographic book fit for the coffee table. This doesn't mean that bibliophiles should snub it. The book is extremely well written and gives a concise account on China's history in the 20th century.

The emphasis, however, is on photographs that the editors have been able to dig from various archives. There are some stunning and disturbing early photographs from around the country, covering life in the bustling cities, as well as in the country side. The image content ranges from Japanese atrocities during the war, to Shanghai Belles strolling on the boulevard. The pictures really transport the reader to the past in a way that a textbook couldn't. It's also a crash course into China's recent history that introduces the main characters and episodes of this century of change and upheaval.

Check out part one of the "short reading list" here.

edited Aug 12: publishing year and photography editors added

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Short reading list on China part 1: Fiction

I thought I'd put up three of my favourite books about China in different genres; Fiction, History and Travel. The idea was to compile a list that would be an easy read, represent the country and that I could recommend to people, whose view on the country was mostly based on main stream media. So here goes:

Fiction: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

There's no way to call this contemporary, but I still think Pearl S. Buck's book captures the essence of China better than any other novel, old or new, that I have read.

This Pulitzer Prize winning title from 1931 by the author who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature tells the story of the Wang-family. Wang Lung and his wife O-Lan, struggling to raise their family, slowly rise from poverty to become wealthy landowners. The author addresses themes in this book that, unfortunately, are still actual in China; infanticide and selling of daughters to other families.

Buck builds her story with such warmth for the country that the occasional harshness of life in the early 20th century, with its famines and turmoil, becomes bearable to the reader.

The family strives toward wealth and security through terrible losses. Their fortunes are tied to their land that Wang Lung refuses to give up. Buck contrasts the Wangs' struggle with the decadent life of the failing house of Hwang.

Pearl S. Buck was a daughter of missionaries. Growing up and spending the first half of her life in China, she was bilingual and gained an understanding of Chinese people and an affection to the country that was, and still is, shared by very few westerners. Her novels do convey this affection and the beautiful prose makes her books a great read.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Party by Richard McGregor


I got a signed copy of the recent (2010) book by Richard McGregor as a present. The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers is a serious piece of work. Mr. McGregor, the former China bureau chief of Financial Times, has written a disturbing portrait of one of the most powerful and secretive forces on the planet today and written it well.

In his position, the author had access to people inside the system few westerners have had the opportunity to meet. I assume being the chief of FT in China opened doors to Mr. McGregor that stay closed to most academics. In any case the author has had the chance to interview some pretty interesting individuals from different sides of Chinese society, including government heavyweights, businessmen and political dissidents. From the pumpkin seed producer drying his hard earned, but moldy cash out in the open for all to see, to city mayors, all explain their position in China today.

McGregor's writing is easy to follow and I especially appreciate the fairness seldom encountered in contemporary western books about the Party, or Chinese society in general. The author pulls no punches when he exposes the corruption and the, to western eyes incomprehensible, system of favours and nepotism prevalent in China, but he also gives credit where credit is due. This book is not about bashing the Chinese system or the Party; it's a book that really digs deep into behind-the-scenes politics, without gloating at the failures of the system. 

I have not come across a book giving such a detailed account of the inner workings of the CPC before. However, McGregor's book is more than that; The Party is not just about the Communists, it paints a vivid picture of Chinese society as a whole. This is not an academic book, but an enjoyable read for anyone who wants to learn more about China.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Something new...

I have changed the layout of the blog somewhat and edited the labels of the posts for easier searching of content based on the genre and geographical area. Also, starting with the next post a rating will be applied to the book reviewed. I was originally not so keen to rate books on a 1-5 scale, since different people appreciate different things. Also, one theme of the blog is how I find the books I read. However, some readers may want to compare my rating to other ratings quickly, so something like this will appear next to the title in the future:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The rating policy is as follows: the more I enjoyed the book, the more stars it will get. In other words, it's purely subjective, don't ask me to rationalize my choices!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Last Barbarians by Michel Peissel

I first heard of Michel Peissel in the early 90s when I was starved for reading in Katmandu and found his book about Mustang in one of the shops in Thamel. It's an entertaining book and will be reviewed here someday, but I have not paid attention to the author since reading that account of his first forays into the Himalayas. By chance I stumbled upon this later literary production of his a while ago. The Last Barbarians, The Discovery of the Source of the Mekong in Tibet was published in 1998, more than 30 years after the Mustang book, and it was great to discover Mr Peissel hasn't lost his boyish, almost naive, straight forward style with age.

As the title suggest this is a book about exploration in Tibet. Peissel and his companions are looking for the source of the Mekong-river that, surprisingly enough, was not yet discovered in 1994, on the high plateau of Tibet.

Peissel's small expedition travels with ATVs and later on horseback in the outback of Qinghai following the upper Mekong towards its source. The author describes the deprivations a middle aged man faces on the inhospitable high plateau plagued with hailstorms, wolves and thin air, at times questioning the sanity of such an endeavour. Peissel is a real expert on the Himalayas, its geography and peoples, with decades of on-site experience and it's a joy reading his description of the natural wonders and encounters with locals. He is also somewhat of a champion for the cause of Tibetan people and his affection to the nation shines through the pages of the book.

On several different occasions in the book Peissel gets a bit philosophic and questions our current boring and passive consumer lifestyle by contrasting it with the freedom and exciting life of the Nomads. One can't help but wonder how much the world loses if these ways of life are lost forever.

Peissel admits he has never really grown up and reading his books one can believe this is not just an empty phrase. This boyishness has certainly been a factor in his colourful career. To me he is one credible adventurer and explorer who has done things most of us only dream of.

Oh, and the Barbarians in the title are not what you probably originally expected.