A woman wearing a protective facemask walks under lanterns in Taipei during the Lunar New Year of Rat on January 30, 2020. Photo: Sam Yeh / AFP

The Year of the Pig has come to a close and the Year of the Rat is upon us. Some of you may be catching planes, others staying inside amid the coronavirus pandemic. With that, the Asia Times has assembled its picks for the best books to take you into a successful Chinese New Year. The list includes our top reads from 2019 and older publications which have become newly relevant due to unfolding events in our regions.

Southeast Asia

Many Rivers, One Sea: Bangladesh and the Challenge of Islamic Militancy

By: Joseph Allchin

Good English language books on Bangladesh are a rare breed. But Joseph Allchin’s stirring account of the rise of religiosity-fueled violence in the deeply troubled nation stands out as one of the best written.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country but it was overtly not founded on the basis of religion. After the partition of India in 1947, erstwhile East Bengal became part of Pakistan even though nearly a thousand miles of Indian territory separated it from the country’s main western wing.

The Bengali-speaking “East Pakistanis” resented the imposition of Urdu as the national language and broke away after a bloody war in 1971. If religion had not been an underlying issue, East Pakistan could have joined the Indian state of West Bengal and been absorbed into larger India rather than becoming the independent republic of Bangladesh.

Varying degrees of Islamic radicalism have since become important facets of Bangladeshi politics. Allchin, a fluent Bengali speaker who was partly raised in Bangladesh, analyzes brilliantly this rising and challenging trend while putting Islamic radicalism in the country in useful historical context.

Political parties across the spectrum have played the Muslim card to win votes in elections and discredit opponents. At the same time, radical Islamist organizations’ appeal to religion isn’t always about Islam and often aims to tap and exploit popular discontent with poor governance and endemic corruption.

But the almost inevitable outcome of such radicalism is wanton attacks on activists, bloggers and others that threaten the nation’s secular basis. 

“In many ways this leads to a crisis of nationalism, which is not just a Bangladeshi phenomenon or even solely a Muslim one, but rather an anxiety that the way of our politicians and political orders is not working,” writes Allchin. 

The same phenomenon has given rise to populism and populist leaders all over the world. Seen from that perspective, Allchin’s book has an important global dimension. Whether or not you are interested in the intricacies of Bangladeshi politics, which Allchin maps masterfully, his is a book well worth reading.

Hurst & Company 2019

— Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA

By: Amaryllis Fox

While this is not a book specifically about Myanmar, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine operations in the region and the author’s involvement in the Southeast Asian nation certainly are.

While pursuing a master’s degree in international security at Georgetown University in Washington DC, the book’s author Amaryllis Fox developed an algorithm for predicting terrorist activity which attracted the attention of a CIA officer who reputedly recruited her to the agency.

In that capacity, she travels undercover to places like Karachi, Zanzibar and Shanghai. A trip she takes to Myanmar, where she meets with now nominal national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to have taken place before her claimed recruitment and is perhaps the most eye-popping part of the book.

The volume deliberately reads like a racy spy novel, with twists and turns that could one day serve as the basis for a movie script. Indeed, that could very well be the book’s simple motivation and intent.

But the critical reader is left to wonder how much fiction has been blended with the facts, including most significantly whether Fox was really a full-fledged CIA agent or private intelligence asset hired by the agency for specific jobs.

The US Espionage Act, similar to the Official Secret Acts of the United Kingdom and many Commonwealth countries, outlaws with the threat of harsh prison penalties any dissemination of secret information involving espionage operations.

That begs the question of how Fox has managed to elude the espionage law and publish details of her various exploits. She names Myanmar dissidents she met and who reputedly collaborated with her, which, if true, could jeopardize their integrity and reputation.

Most explosively, she claims to have smuggled out rolls of film
containing interviews with Suu Kyi while she was under de facto house arrest by the country’s then military rulers.

Suu Kyi supposedly told the female author to keep a number of decoy rolls for inspection and likely confiscation at the airport and that “for the real footage, the film you actually want to get out, nature has given you a better hiding place.”

Did Suu Kyi really advise her to hide the film in such a way? And, when Fox is briefly detained while leaving the country, she writes that nine- to ten-year-old boy soldiers sat on the floor in the room where she was held, a highly unlikely scene in a military interrogation center.

There is a lot in Fox’s book that does not ring true. While she is a first-rate storyteller, her volume is plagued by questions of credibility.

Alfred A. Knopf 2019

— Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

East Asia

China’s Great Wall of Debt: Shadow Banks, Ghost Cities, Massive Loans, and the End of the Chinese Miracle

By: Dinny McMahon

After spending over a decade covering China as a financial journalist, Dinny McMahon, an Australian citizen fluent in Mandarin, narrates an insightful account of the transformation of the Chinese economy on the back of an enormous and ill-conceived debt build-up.

The book’s timing couldn’t have been better – the global economy has enjoyed a decade-long run of virtually free money with central banks keeping interest rates low and encouraging borrowers to take on debt to boost growth. China too has relied heavily on borrowed funds to finance growth and the rapid expansion of credit has been succinctly captured in the book through anecdotes, comparisons, and political context.

“The single biggest problem with China’s system of government is that, in the absence of an independent judiciary, free press, political opposition, or civil society that can hold the government accountable, the government needs some way to monitor itself.”

Although the Chinese media has taken to referring to debt as being the “original sin” of the country’s economic problems, McMahon says the original sin is a system that gives economic actors incentive to borrow with abandon, without reference to the long-term consequence and with the freedom to circumvent the best efforts of higher authorities to impose discipline. He blames the state-owned enterprises more than anyone else for this reckless growth strategy of borrowing and wasting the debt on badly planned projects. The book emphasizes the urgency to fix the way in which the economy works as debt and waste have grown to epic proportions.

Its not just the quantum of debt that is worrisome, the author says as he highlights the astounding pace of the build-up which has lead to falling productivity of debt and the dizzying speed of bad debt accumulation.

China’s system of state ownership makes the debt cleanup easier than in market economies. It is easier still to kick the can down the road. But the can has gotten bigger and the book warns that the time of reckoning has drawn near and that the problem can no longer be put off further.

While expounding economic theories, the author has taken care to remove the drudgery of a classroom-like atmosphere lacing his argument with fascinating accounts of white elephant government projects, ghost cities and the emergence of the shadow banking system with its shark loan-type interest rates.

McMahon has chosen not to go after the low hanging fruit of predicting China’s “Lehman moment” – a pet theory of many alarmists – but instead has rationalized what the simultaneous build up of debt and an economic slowdown means for China in terms of political and economic changes. The author looks beyond the country’s economic miracle as Beijing negotiates the middle-income trap, battles aging demographics and cleans up its debt mountain while holding out the possibility this could still be China’s century. Clearly, he has deep knowledge and understanding of the world’s second largest economy.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018

— Reviewed by Umesh Desai, Finance Editor

West Asia (Middle East)

Death is Hard Work

By: Khaled Khalifa

In Death is Hard Work, novelist Khaled Khalifa weaves a tale of a father’s death, sibling rivalry, and the story of the human condition, all into a wartime road trip epic.

There is the protagonist Bolbol who, in a moment of sentimentality, agrees to his father’s parting request to bury him in the village of his birth — essentially unreachable due to its location across the country’s battle lines.

There is his sister, Fatima, whose expectations of a life of rubbing elbows with the upper crust was dashed not by the war, but by her choice of husband years before the conflict, forcing her surrender to mediocrity and gossip.

Hussein, the eldest brother, is a microbus driver, who immediately accepts the mission to drive his estranged siblings and his father’s corpse in this mission impossible.

It is a road trip odyssey, where war and oppression are all around, from the surreal maze of permits and bribes required to secure the corpse and proof of the dead man’s identity, to the low hum of war outside the microbus windows, as the eldest brother is spat at as he tries to cut into a convoy of soldiers en route to bury their own slain comrades.

But somehow, despite the real world conflict outside, which threatens to doom the voyage from the first checkpoint, the war somehow plays second fiddle to a universal story of the human condition and the everyman and woman.

The Aleppo-born Khalifa, who has stubbornly remained in the claustrophobic capital of Damascus throughout his country’s nine year civil war, has presented another gripping masterpiece, at once an enriching piece of literature, and, at the same time, a far more educational account of the war than any ISIS-lit offering could hope to communicate.

MacMillan 2019

— Reviewed by Alison Tahmizian Meuse, Middle East Editor

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World

By: Elif Shafak

Elif Şafak is perhaps Turkey’s most famous writer, having published 11 novels in Turkish and English, all of which address highly sensitive political subjects. Her novel Honor (2012) tackled the crime of the same name, while The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) touched on the Armenian genocide, prompting a nationalist lawyer to sue the author for “insulting Turkishness.” Şafak was later acquitted by the court of criminal charges.

Over the summer, Turkish police visited her publisher in Turkey and her books were taken to the prosecutor’s office for investigation.

Since the failed attempted coup of 2016 against Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, freedom of speech has been seriously undermined by his regime. About 135,000 books have been banned from public libraries, dozens of publishing houses have been closed by decree, and thousands of academics and teachers have been dismissed.

Şafak has likewise received thousands of abusive messages on social media, particularly after her newest novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, was published. In December, it was named as UK publisher Blackwell’s Fiction Book of the Year.

The novel begins with the murder of a prostitute, Leila, dumped in a narrow street. In the 10 minutes and 38 seconds before her brain ceases to function, her life flashes back in front of her: from her birth and upbringing in the 1950s in the conservative eastern city of Van, to her relationship with her parents and her ill aunt.

At the beginning of the book, Şafak masterfully describes the web of guilt and shame that engulfed six-year-old Leila after she repeatedly fell victim to sexual assault by a close relative.

Şafak’s writing style is lucid and fresh. Her pace picks up steadily, as she does not burden the reader with abundant details. Thus, the reader may initially turn a blind eye to the clichéd depiction of Leila’s parents.

The father is a typical misogynist and religious fanatic who belittles his two wives and daughter. Leila’s two “mothers” are in turn passive and complacent housewives.

The more the reader delves into the novel, the more it becomes difficult to ward off the impression that this is a scenario that has been played out too many times before. Once Leila flees early on in the novel to Istanbul and becomes entrapped in a brothel, the story becomes as clichéd as can be.

The sudden transition in Leila’s life from a shy young woman to a professional and sassy sex worker in her 40s was not coherent. Even the murder mystery at the heart of the novel strikes the reader as utterly unconvincing. 

Unfortunately, Şafak’s political agenda seems to have taken the forehand in this novel, coming before the writing. 

It is likely Şafak was seeking to put her finger on many things that are wrong in Turkish society today, and at the same time glorify its underdogs and pariahs. Yet her undertaking went terribly wrong. A writer should give her characters space and liberty to breathe, grow and evolve, instead of putting words in their mouths and endowing them with fixed und predetermined roles.

Viking | 2019

— Reviewed by Sherif Abdel Samad

Northeast Asia

The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army

By: Young Chun

For millions of young men in multiple nations around the world who are not natural warriors – ie most of them – conscription is an expected, but harsh and tedious duty.

Imagine, then, the shock of being dragooned by a foreign country – one where you don’t even speak the language.

This was the fate of Korean-American Yong Chun. Having travelled to South Korea to earn money teaching English to pay off his college debts, he found himself (for reasons  outlined in the book), wearing South Korea camouflage for two years.

The best thing to come out of his experience is this book – a surprisingly well-written, compelling and enjoyable work, considering its author had no writing background, and whose work is self-published.

It shines light upon the culture of South Koreans, both civil and military, as they live their lives under the guns of their North Korean brethren. It also conveys the reader to places they are unlikely to visit – giant bunkers dug into mountainsides, and the base of a Korean construction unit in war-torn Afghanistan.

Chun will bring smiles to the faces of those who have served. The inanities of basic-training brain washing; the simple pleasure of buying confectionary; the jolt of re-entering a civilian environment (“the free world”); the fear of losing a girlfriend – all are detailed in spare but fast-moving prose, underwritten with a dry humor.

This book became timely again in 2019 as Seoul mulled a wider catchment for overseas Koreans in the country to do South Korean military service.

Clearly, Chun was a reluctant soldier. Still, by the time he is discharged, even the most martial reader will be up on the side of this very likeable “expatriate and ex-patriot.”

Self-published 2015

— Reviewed by Andrew Salmon, Northeast Asia Editor

Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.

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