These are some of the books I found most memorable this year.
Outsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite (reviewed Jan. 9) by Brian Sewell [Quartet Books]. This is the concluding volume of the autobiography of the gay London-based art critic as well-known for his trenchantly traditionalist views on art as for his ability to name names and scandalize generally. A magnificent read, and my Number One choice for 2014.
The Establishment: And how they get away with it (reviewed Oct. 16) by Owen Jones [Allen Lane]. Here a young UK journalist with strong left-wing sympathies analyzes how the rich, despite living in a democracy, continue to influence government for their own ends. Jones’s central point is that the right wing persuades the populace to put the blame on immigrants and the unemployed, instead of on the real culprits — bankers, high-end tax dodgers, and the wealthy in general. With his northern accent and youthful face, Jones is becoming well-known on TV in the UK, and he’s the just sort of polemicist the Labor Party, soon to face a crucial election, needs. This is his credo
The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman (reviewed Aug. 21) by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert [Belknap, Harvard University Press]. Not an easy read, but the descriptions of encountering dancing spirits and opposing foreigners intent on a land-grab makes it worth the effort. Claude Levi-Strauss helped Albert, a French anthropologist, in the book’s early stages.
Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China (reviewed April 3), edited by Tom Carter [Earnshaw Books]. Here are 28 highly enjoyable tales of extraordinary variety — traveling by train from Urumqi to Hong Kong without a ticket, exploring the ancient Tea Horse Road from Lhasa to Yunnan, deciding whether to pen stories for students that will be presented as their own work in university applications, and visiting some not very prepossessing prostitutes along with even less prepossessing foreign colleagues. Unremittingly entertaining.
Nazi Goreng (reviewed March 6) by Marco Ferrarese [Monsoon Books]. This is an eminently readable and intelligent novel set in Penang, written by an Italian-born author resident in Asia. Ferrarese is also a punk-rock guitarist, and he met many of the “Malay supremacist” youths he describes at his gigs. They mouth anti-immigrant sentiments without having any knowledge of the people they so casually vilify, but they’re central to the plot which, though extensively concerned with drug dealing, also includes police corruption. I found the whole book astute and very insightful.
An Officer and a Spy (reviewed Dec. 11) by Robert Harris [Arrow Books]. This powerful novel is about the Dreyfus Case in 19th century France in which a Jewish army officer was wrongly convicted of passing state secrets to Germany. The campaign for his release quickly divided the country, and Harris presents a detailed picture of the characters within the state apparatus who worked against Dreyfus’s re-trial. This is a novel that looks like a blockbuster but is actually the work of an intelligent and gifted writer. I’m currently eagerly seeking out his other books.
The Taiwan of yesteryear was dominated in whole or in part by the Dutch, Spanish, Qing Empire and Japanese. But is the Taiwanese name for a popular edible fish derived from the Portuguese language? Cheng Wei-chung (鄭維中), an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History, says yes. The fish in question is the narrow-barred Spanish mackerel, which was listed in early 18th century Qing local gazetteers as Taiwanese specialities alongside milk fish and mullet, according to Cheng’s paper, “Mullet, narrow-barred Spanish mackerel and milkfish: Multiple contextual developments of three certified seafood specilaities in Taiwan, from the
Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 They called him the “No Problem Doctor” (沒關係醫生) because that’s what he always told his patients when they couldn’t pay up. Operating the only clinic in Changhua County’s Pusin Township (埔心) during the 1950s, Hsu Tsai-chih (許再枝) knew that life was difficult in his remote hometown. “They barely had enough to survive, so it was pointless to chase after them for the money,” an 81-year-old Hsu told the United Daily News in 2002. “I just went with the flow, some offered to pay me back years later but I had already forgotten
I didn’t expect to spend more than three minutes out of my car, yet the sun was so brutal I put on my hat before approaching the seawall. Beimen (北門) is the flattest and most sun-baked part of Tainan. It lacks trees and people. In wintertime, the weather is often delightful. It wasn’t yet mid-morning in the hot season, however, and I felt like a leaf shriveling in the desert. Atop the seawall but facing inland, I could see dozens of the rectangular ponds which account for a significant percentage of Beimen’s “land” area. Some, no doubt, were dug to produce
In the regular drumbeat of arrests of alleged Chinese spies, one case last month stood out. It did not involve the US or another rival of China, but Russia, whose security services accused a prominent arctic scientist of selling classified data on technologies for detecting submarines. Meanwhile a court in Kazakhstan in October convicted the Central Asia nation’s preeminent China specialist of espionage, a move widely interpreted at the time as a warning against increased meddling by the superpower next door. Both men maintain their innocence and if China is spying on Russia, Moscow is surely doing the same. Even so, the fact