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
One of the most delightful developments of the last decade has been the emergence of a whole continent of English-language commentary on Taiwan, rising from the sea like the island itself, along with major changes in the commentary ecosystem. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t a whole lot out there, outside the mainstream media pieces and occasional long-form thinkpieces in magazines, and what was there was largely male. There were few female writers aside from a number of very good reporters. PLURALITY OF VOICES Today, by contrast, we have a wealth of skilled and informed female journalists, commentators and writers including
As Yunlin County loses humans, it seems to gain birds. The county’s population peaked at just over 800,000 in the late 1970s, since when it’s fallen steadily. So far this year, it’s declined by about 5,000, and now stands below 672,000. There are several reasons for this. When it came to high-speed rail stations and science park extensions, Yunlin was at the end of the queue. What’s more, many Taiwanese prefer to live in major cities where there are more economic and entertainment opportunities and better schools. The county’s biggest settlement has just 108,000 residents. By contrast, Yunlin’s bird population is thriving, at
For Taiwanese in an earlier time, most of family life revolved around parents and veneration for previous generations who had passed on to their descendants the source of sustenance — land. You could see the lush green rice fields terraced up the hills, or golden with stalks bending under the grains heavy before harvest. I knew that daughters-in-law regularly placed bowls of rice and meat on family altars on which were tablets with names of the ancestors. When I was 18, in 1967, a handsome young man invited me to go with his family by car to their ancestral farm
As the head of a cobra emerges from the rocks beside the trail, its hood spread in full display, everyone in our party jumps back. It locks its eyes on the nearest photographer, making a steady hissing sound and slowly shaking its head from side to side. With a violent hiss it strikes out at the hands of the approaching cameraman. We are on stage five of the seven-stage, 92km Taipei Grand Trail, a collection of preexisting trails that circumnavigate the Taipei Basin. The 13km Jiantan Branch