Category Archives: East Asia

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

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The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

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A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

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A Trio of Books About China

As the year draws to a close and I frantically try to review, no matter how briefly, as many books as possible I noticed three of the books I’ve been wanting to write about deal with China. All three are backlist titles and I found them at my public library. The first one, Fortunate Sons, deals with China’s past while the second, Michael Levy’s memoir Kosher Chinese deals with everyday life as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China’s interior region during the mid 2000s, while the third Age of Ambition is a collection of interviews with a wide array of Chinese individuals and their ambitions to succeed in today’s ascendant China. If I group these books together to me it begins to resemble a play in three acts: China’s past, it’s transition and it’s present.

  • Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization by Liel Leibowitz and Matthew Miller – I’ve been wanting to read this one since 2011 when it was published. For centuries China was the richest and most powerful kingdom on earth. But by the 19th century, China found itself eclipsed by the industrializing powers of Europe. In hopes of catching up, China needed to learn from the West. Dozens of young Chinese men were sent to American high schools and top-flight universities like Harvard and Yale to learn science, engineering, mathematics and such in hopes of returning China educated men who could jump-start the backwards country. This is a pretty good book and it taught me more than a few things. (For instance, I learned in China’s Taiping Rebellion, waged roughly around the time of the American Civil War, close to 30 million died.)
  • Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion by Michael Levy – Like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam and Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy this is a backlist title I’d never heard of till I saw it at on a library shelf. Levy was teaching in America in the early 2000s when, in the wake of 9-11 he wanted to do something significant with his life. His solution was to join the Peace Corps, earning him a stint teaching English at a third tier college in Guiyang, an out-of-the-way town deep in China’s interior. I was pleasantly surprised by this memoir and found its combination of humor, honesty and slice of Chinese life a light and enjoyable read.
  • Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos -This book won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer AND an Economist magazine’s best book of the year. It deserves all the awards. Osnos spent close to a decade interviewing Chinese citizens and learning their hopes and dreams. (Who knew there’s a thing in China called “Crazy English” in which you learn English by yelling it.) Not only is this one of the best books I’ve read this year it’s one of the best books about China I’ve read.

In retrospect, for me 2018 has been a year for reading about China. In addition to the three above-mentioned books I also read Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China as well as Robert Kaplan’s East Asia-centric Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. After getting a taste of these kind of books I think in 2019 I’d like to read more.

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About Time I Read It: Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

The President of the United States is an uncouth, unhinged bigot prone to late night diatribes against the media, minorities and political rivals. In the wake of his recent electoral victory, rumors are emerging members of his inner circle engaged in illegal activity against his challenger. Unbeknownst to all, he’s secretly engaged in top-level negotiations with a potentially hostile foreign nation. As result, America is a divided nation when it comes to the President. Many, like those in rural areas and especially the South see him as a straight-shooting, law and order savior who upholds time-honored values against unchecked liberalism and East Coast elitism. Others, see him as a despot and lout, and therefore a disgrace to the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, things aren’t much better as Prime Ministers come and go, scandals rear their ugly heads and the general consensus being the country’s best years are well behind it. Internationally, the proliferation of terrorist organizations has the world on edge. Headlines and newscasts are dominated by reports of bombings, assassinations, and mass killings. Try as they may, Western leaders are powerless to stop the carnage. Lastly, from Africa to Latin America brutal dictators rule with iron fists tolerating no dissent and committing countless human rights violations.

While this might well sum up the current state of the world it also describes an era from our not so distant past. Welcome to the 1970s as described by British journalist Francis Wheen in his 2010 book Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia. Yet again another decent book I never knew existed until I stumbled across it at the public library.

Of course, to be realistic while similarities abound so do the differences when one compares today’s world to that of the 70s. While Nixon hated the media as much as Trump does, in Nixon’s day there was no Twitter. Therefore late at night when Tricky Dick spouted off against newspapers, Jews and everyone else he hated, he did so within the confines of the White House, ironically usually in the presence of his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Instead of Russian computer hacking, Watergate was an old-fashioned burglary. And it was the People’s Republic of China, not Russia the President secretly reached out to, not to help win an election but enlist as a geopolitical ally against the Russian-dominated USSR. Looking back even terrorism was different in the 70s. 40 years ago it wasn’t Islamic-oriented organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda grabbing headlines but more secular groups like the PLO or IRA, or the dozen or so now forgotten Marxist-inspired revolutionary cells active throughout Europe, Latin America and America.

Someday, if you end up reading Strange Days Indeed I’d strongly encourage you to follow it up with Rick Perlstein’s outstanding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan as well as Bryan Burrough’s equally outstanding Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Perhaps, after reading Strange Days plus one, or both of these recommended books it might look like history repeats itself, or to paraphrase the authors of How Democracies Dies at least possess familiar echoes. Just like the ancient author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes you too might conclude there’s nothing new under the sun.

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About Time I Read It: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

I’ve been wanting to read Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China for over half a decade. Not long after I saw it advertised in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog I stumbled across a number of favorable reviews, both in newspapers and on book blogs. I figured I’d read it eventually, and then one day I noticed a copy was available for download from my local public library. As I burned through Midnight in Peking in what seemed like not time I knew I’d made the right choice. But like many backlist selection I’ve featured on my blog I also realized I shouldn’t have waited over five years to finally read it. 

Our story begins in 1937 in pre-Communist Peking (Beijing), China. Two years before fighting erupts in Europe Japanese and Chinese armies have been battling in China for almost a decade. With Peking surrounded by the Japanese and about to be invaded a young English woman is murdered, her mutilated corpse found dumped on a street corner like discarded refuse. Two detectives, one Chinese the other British are soon tasked with finding her killer(s) but as the fruitless investigation wears on, her father, a middle-aged single father and academic, begins to smell a cover-up. Can her murder be solved before the Japanese invade the city?

Midnight in Peking is more than just a murder story. It’s also a portrait of a forgotten China, a gritty world of opium dens, brothels, poverty, and corruption during waning years of European colonialism. Many of the events described in the book take place in the “Badlands” a rough, vice-filled stretch of town where Peking proper and the European-dominated sections of the city meet. Unlike the rest of Peking it’s here Chinese and Westerners rub elbows, if only to engage in less than wholesome pursuits like gambling, drinking, prostitution and bribery. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight in Peking, so much so it easily made my recently posted Top Five Books of Summer List. There’s a good chance French’s excellent book ends up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list as well. 

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About Time I Read It: Pacific by Simon Winchester

Years ago my local newspaper featured a glowing review of a book whose author up to then had been a complete stranger to me. Judging from that review, Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary sounded like a heck of a book. Not long after it was released in paperback (and hearing some great word of mouth) I purchased a copy at Powell’s. From start to finish, Winchester’s 1998 book never ceased to entertain me. Who would have thought a book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary would make such wonderful reading?

Sadly, as much as I loved The Professor and the Madman I’ve read only one other Simon Winchester book. Back in 2011 I read his The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom and while I might not have enjoyed it as much as I did The Professor and the Madman nevertheless I found it an enjoyable read. Recently, I decided to give one of Winchester’s books a shot. Bestowed with the brief title and lengthy subtitle of Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, sounded like a book I could sink my teeth into. And believe me, I did.

Pacific is a kind of hybrid travelogue combining history, geography, geology, climatology and international relations. In his book Winchester show readers the diversity, greatness and rising geopolitical importance of the region encompassing the world’s largest ocean. Much like science historian, broadcaster and fellow Brit James Burke, for each chapter Winchester focuses on two seemingly unrelated historical events. But in the end, after showing both their connectedness and vital significance he ties the loose ends together thus creating an informative and entertaining book.

However, I’m concerned Winchester’s book might possess a few factual errors. Early on he calls the island Guam a republic, which according to Wikipedia is “unincorporated and organized territory of the United States in Micronesia.” Later in the book, when describing the 1975 Fall of South Vietnam he describes Saigon being surrounded by Viet Cong army units as opposed to North Vietnamese troops. Lastly, he includes Germany as one of the European nations possessing colonies in South East Asia. With the exception of a few South Pacific islands and the settlement in Shandong, China Germany had no territories even close to South East Asia. (Unless of course you want to count German New Guinea.)

Lapses in fact-checking or not, Pacific is a pretty good book. It also makes a worthy companion read to Robert Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American PowerWith Pacific under my belt, I think I’ll finally tackle Winchester’s 2010 offering Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. If that’s the case, get ready to see yet another Simon Winchester book featured on my blog.

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