Of the books I’ve reviewed this year, the most somber, terrifying and menacing was The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade by Andrew Feinstein (Hamish Hamilton; reviewed in the Taipei Times Jan. 31). Not only does it give extensive information about private arms dealers — it also considers government involvement. It was reminiscent of the film The Lord of War, at the end of which the credits state that the planet’s biggest exporters of arms are the US, Russia, the UK, France and China — in other words, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It makes you think again about the kind of world we’re really living in.
Not necessarily an answer to the horror of the international arms trade, but nonetheless enormously fascinating as history, was the re-issue, finally in its complete form, of Victor Serge’s 1951 classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary (New York Review of Books; reviewed June 5). Serge joined the Bolsheviks for a time while remaining resolutely opposed to all terror tactics, not to mention being a life-long opponent of the death penalty. Later he was sentenced to internal exile, and was lucky to be released after protests from writers in the West, ending his life in Mexico. His wonderful autobiography makes for a substantial and very invigorating read.
Back in the modern world, but a long way from most people’s experience of it, was Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet (Vintage; reviewed July 31). It describes his approach to, and circuit of, Mount Kailash, a mountain considered so sacred that no one has apparently ever been to its peak. Thubron is simultaneously skeptical and open to all impressions. The Tibetan way of death is everywhere evident, but Thubron, 73 at the time, soldiers on with one guide and one porter, and no doubt a very good pair of boots.
Taipei Times file photo
From Penguin came the paperback of Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (reviewed Nov. 27). In it, this distinguished professor revisits 14 European nations that no longer exist, and relates their destinies with considerable gusto. This is a continent, you quickly come to realize, that has been ruled and fought over by diverse dynasties for thousands of years, with men being willing to lay down their lives for “king and country” when the country, let alone the king, proves to be very much a temporary phenomenon. It’s a lesson that should be learned by us all.
Lastly, a book that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind is Taipei-resident Eric Mader’s Heretic Days: Writings from the Margins of Christianity (CreateSpace, reviewed Feb. 28). It’s simultaneously learned, wide-ranging and bizarre, combining considerations of topics as various as Leonard Cohen, William Blake, St Thomas’s Gospel and the necessity of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. It’s endlessly fascinating, but so far from my usual areas of interest that I can only put its lingering in my consciousness down to the stubborn persistence, in Mader at least, of human independence and resolution.
Taipei Times file photo
This month the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced a new policy ostensibly aimed at influencing the upcoming presidential election. A top-notch Voice of America (VOA) report observed “China launched a series of influence campaigns against Taiwan last week, unveiling a plan to promote integrated development across the Taiwan Strait.” The plan, a “demonstration zone,” offers incentives for Taiwanese to live, work and invest in Fujian Province, across the Strait from Taiwan, along with supplies of water, electricity and gas. Using cooperative zones to poach technology and influence Taiwanese is an old plan that has appeared in various
At the Brics summit in South Africa in August, Xi Jinping (習近平) made headlines when he failed to appear at a leaders’ meeting to deliver a scheduled speech. Another scene also did the rounds: a Chinese aide hurrying to catch up with Xi, only to be body slammed by security guards and held back, flailing, as the president cruised on through the closing doors, not bothered by the chaos behind him. The first incident prompted rampant speculation about Xi’s health, a political crisis or conspiracy. The second, mostly memes. But it perhaps served as a metaphor. Xi has had a rough few
While participating in outrigger canoe activities in Hawaii, Yvonne Jiann (江伊茉) often heard indigenous locals say that their ancestors came from Taiwan. “I didn’t really understand why,” the long-time US resident tells the Taipei Times. Growing up in Taipei, she knew little about indigenous culture. “Only when I returned to Taiwan did I learn about our shared Austronesian cultural background and saw the similarities.” Jiann visited Taiwan just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel. Unable to leave and missing her canoe family across the Pacific Ocean, she started the Taiwan Outrigger Canoe Club (TOCC) and began researching how
As Vladimir Nabokov revised his autobiography, Speak, Memory, he found himself in a strange psychological state. He had first written the book in English, published in 1951. A few years later, a New York publisher asked him to translate it back into Russian for the emigre community. The use of his mother tongue brought back a flood of new details from his childhood, which he converted into his adopted language for a final edition, published in 1966. “This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a