What was the best book on Asia encountered by this reviewer in 2004? The answer isn't, in fact, hard to decide, but we'll reserve the announcement until a little later. Instead, we'll look first at some of the most promising contenders for the title.
What has to be said right away is that, book-wise, 2004 has been an outstandingly good year for Taiwan. No less than 13 titles featuring the island have been reviewed in the Taipei Times, together with another two that refer to Taiwan in various ways. This is, by any standard, a huge increase from preceding years. Most of these books have focused on social analysis -- universities, especially in the US, appear to be swarming with writers eager to put on paper their thoughts on all aspects of Taiwanese life, past and present. English-language fiction set in Taiwan has, by contrast, remained something of a fledgling genre.
Beginning with fiction set in Asia, War Trash, by Ha Jin (
Next-best on this year's fiction list was K: The Art of Love by Hong Ying, which re-created the love-affair between Bloomsbury off-shoot Julian Bell and a famous Chinese beauty in 1930s Wuhan and Beijing. Intensely readable, no stronger contrast to the grim brutalities of War Trash could be imagined.
For the rest, The Noodle Maker, by Ma Jian (
Our Bones are Scattered, by Andrew Ward, was a long novel based on the author's life-long preoccupation with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, while Village of Stone, by Xiaolu Guo, looked at child abuse in a remote coastal village in southern China in a way that managed to be sensational and light-weight.
Non-fiction books on the Asian region were dominated by Theodore Friend's Indonesian Destinies, a superb account of Indonesia from independence to the present. Friend, a retired senior American diplomat, blended interview material with accounts of his own travels to produce a markedly reader-friendly narrative. This book is one in a thousand.
Also highly notable was Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China, by Frank Dikotter, with his researchers Lars Laamann and Zhou Xun. This provocative and wide-ranging book claimed that opium was far less harmful to China than had previously been believed. The fact that the author is an early-to-bed professor rather than a proselytizing drug-user made this original piece of historical research all the more remarkable and persuasive.
Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield (Murray) illuminated the world of Central Asia via 12 short stories, all based on the ancient manuscript evidence she deciphered during her work as a librarian at the British Library.
Also notable was Charles Allen's Duel in the Snows, a blow-by-blow account of the British invasion of Tibet in 1904; Robert Harvey's Comrades, a trenchantly anti-Communist survey of the history of Marxist revolutions worldwide; Philip Short's thorough and judicious Pol Pot; and Jon Latimer's Burma: The Forgotten War, a thoughtful treatment of the British World War II campaigns in that still-suffering country.