Sun, Dec 29, 2002 - Page 18 News List

Fantasy and genetics, travel and domesticity, with an Asian twist

`Taipei Times' book reviewer Bradley Winterton picks the best of this year's Asia-related books

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Among the travel books, I Have Seen the World Begin is clearly superior to The River's Tale, not least on account of the author's greater confessional involvement in his narrative. (Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town from Hamish Hamilton was also an excellent read, but as it only marginally impinged on Asia wasn't really a viable contender).

Of the remaining books, The Journey of Man stands out for its stimulating intellectual qualities. The story it tells is remarkable, and the author manages to achieve popular accessibility without compromising his sometimes complex scientific material. The book is a considerable achievement in the difficult art of popularization, and much light is thrown on Asia's complex ethnic mix in the process.

There, then, is our short list of the five most memorable Asia-related books of 2002 -- The Impressionist, Fragrant Harbour, Across the Nightingale Floor, I Have Seen the World Begin and The Journey of Man. It only remains to choose a winner. For this reviewer, a really fine book must have both strength and intimacy. It must command a wide view while at the same time not avoiding self-analysis. It must journey both outwards and inwards, in other words. I think I have now given away what my final choice is. Yes, Carsten Jensen's I have Seen the World Begin: Travels in China, Cambodia and Vietnam receives this column's accolade as most enjoyable Asia-related book reviewed by this reviewer in Taipei Times in 2002.

There is a footnote to all this. Last year produced a far better collection of Asian books than 2002 has been able to muster. Among novels, Sid Smiths' Something Like a House (Picador) focusing on eugenics and biological warfare in China, Geling Yan's The Lost Daughter of Happiness (Faber) on the life of a teenage Chinese prostitute in California's 19th century Gold Rush, Justin Hill's The Drink and Dream Teahouse (Weidenfeld) on love in modern rural China, Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke (Granta) on the high life in contemporary Lahore, and Lee Chang-rae's fine A Gesture Life (Riverhead) on Korea's WWII comfort women -- all these were better works of fiction than any of the novels located in Asia that 2002 had to offer. In addition, Jonathan Spence's brilliant historical re-creation Treason by the Book (Allen Lane), Sven Lindqvist's extraordinary and terrible A History of Bombing (Granta), Stephen Crook's meditations on Taiwan Keeping Up With the War God (Yushan Publications) and Marc L. Moskowitz's The Haunting Fetus (University of Hawaii Press), on the propitiation of fetus ghosts in modern Taiwan, all contained insights into Asian life past and present more remarkable and memorable than any available in this year's offerings.

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