Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Formosa Moon- book review

As both a travelogue and a sort-of memoir, Formosa Moon sees Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, bringing his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time. The trip stems from a premise years ago when after their relationship becomes serious, Brown makes it clear to Huffman that he would eventually return to Taiwan.

As a result, when Huffman finishes her studies in Portland, the couple decide to move to Taiwan and embark on journeys around the island nation so Huffman could see whether she could accept living there. The couple start off in Taipei, the capital, where Huffman is introduced to the usual tourist staples of night markets and the National Palace Museum. They then proceed down the East Coast and to Green Island, a tiny isle whose volcanic beauty belies its past as a prison for political dissidents during Taiwan’s martial law era. They then swing around to the southwest to Taiwan’s oldest city Tainan before coming back to Taipei. After a break, they travel back to the south to Yunlin, the south’s largest city Kaohsiung, as well as the central county of Nantou.

Usually, travel information on Taiwan is dominated by night markets, the National Palace Museum, and the east coast. Brown and Huffman do visit those places, but they also go beyond them to explore the quirkier and artistic aspects of Taiwan. As Huffman is deeply interested in art, especially puppetry, there is a strong artistic emphasis during their travels, especially the Taiwanese glove puppet folk art potehi.

Besides hitting famous spots like Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge, the pair also venture to lesser-known places like Smangus, an aboriginal commune set up like kibbutzes in Israel, and Gukeng, the heartland of Taiwan’s coffee-growing industry. In addition, there are visits to the world’s first hotel built around a scuba-diving pool, aboriginal artisans and a hot-air balloon ride over Taiwan’s most unspoilt county of Taitung.

Contrasting Brown’s longtime knowledge of Taiwan and Huffman’s first-time experience of the country, the book has separate dual narratives in every chapter. This constant change of pace in perspectives works well because the pair are candid and quirky people who are sincerely interested in Taiwan. It also helps that the book is filled with color photos so readers can see a bit of the places themselves.

It’s not all about travel as there are also a few chapters about life in their neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of Taipei and Huffman’s attempts to use Chinese and navigate the city by herself. The couple succeed in showing off Taiwan’s main attractions for travelers, which are not famous ancient landmarks or stunning beach resorts, but a combination of plentiful cultural and artistic sights and experiences, quirky places, and beautiful mountain and coastal scenery. Brown also succeeds in his goal of convincing Huffman to base their future in Taiwan, at least for the next few years.

One might wish for more about Taiwan’s other large cities like Taichung and Kaohsiung, which both get one chapter apiece. The Taichung chapter is particularly fascinating as Brown and Huffman stay at a hotel where guests could scuba dive in a 70-foot deep pool and explore Rainbow Village, which is famous for its gaily painted houses, all done by its lone elderly resident. For Kaohsiung, most of the chapter is filled with photos and descriptions of major Taiwanese food dishes. But the book is not intended as a definitive travel guide to Taiwan, so the sparseness of content on Kaohsiung is excusable.

There are several chapters on Tainan, arguably Taiwan’s most interesting city, not to mention two chapters on Yunlin, a relatively obscure county sandwiched in the region between Taichung and Kaohsiung that not even many Taiwanese have been to.

Brown and Huffman never shy away from testy moments such as describing arguments or doubts; if anything they are too frank. One of the more striking parts of the book is when a Tainan fortune-teller tells Brown never to marry Huffman and then tells Huffman she will have other lovers later on.

Huffman is upfront that being new to Taiwan (and Asia), she finds Taipei very intense and at times discomfiting as it is the largest city she has ever lived in. It seems appropriate that Taiwan is her introduction to Asia because, as seasoned expats and travelers know, there are many more intense and crowded places across the continent.

Formosa Moon is both a work of love for Taiwan and from the co-authors for each other. It is also a very welcome addition to the collection of English-language literature about Taiwan.

This is the abridged version of my review of Formosa Moon, the full version of which I wrote for Asia Review of Books.

Tools of Titans- book review

Written by the same guy who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans is a fascinating collection of inspirational tips and helpful advice from over 200 entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and other successful people.  The book is massive, with over 650 pages packed with interviews and profiles of, as the book’s sub-title states, “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.”

Tools of Titans is divided into three parts – the first focuses on health, exercise and nutrition; the second is on work and productivity; and the final part is on life tips. In addition, Tim Ferriss also sprinkles chapters of his own insights and tips for things like dealing with critics, creating a podcast, investment, and work-outs. For me, the second and third parts were the most interesting and helpful. Ferriss interviews writers, artists, entrepreneurs, fitness experts, an ex-Navy Seal and even a yoga instructor. The sheer number and scope of people profiled and the advice given means readers will definitely something useful and applicable for their own lives.

Among the tips I found interesting were come up with 10 ideas a day (writer and blogger James Altucher), suffer a little regularly and you cease to suffer (Tim Ferriss advises based on the philosopher Seneca’s teachings), and listen to a song or album you like repeatedly while working to improve your focus and awareness (which Tim Ferriss points out that some successful people do). From Nicholas Nassim Taleb, getting everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity and it is better to be care about the many who would love your work than the few who hate it. Venture capitalist and a math research fellow at Oxford Eric Weinstein says something similar in that people (like writers, entrepreneurs, and artists) should strive to be known and respected by 2,000-3,000 people rather than be widely famous because this then gives one the freedom to do what he wants.

One especially meaningful piece of advice is from tech CEO and investor Naval Ravikant who says that in any situation in life, you have 3 options: change it, leave it, or accept it. It sounds deceptively simple but I’d never thought of that and there are a few instances in my life I should have applied this.

Tools of Titans is both fascinating and helpful, and will also give you lots of ideas to boost your work, health and lifestyle.

Joseph Anton- book review

Salman Rushdie is one of the world’s most famous living writers who has written many good books, one of which he almost paid the ultimate price for. After Rushdie put out The Satanic Verses in 1988, the ruling mullahs of Iran were so angered at the book for supposedly insulting Islam, they issued an official ruling or fatwa in 1989 calling for Muslims to kill him. Joseph Anton is a memoir by Rushdie about the 10 years he spent in hiding, living under 24-hour state protection, while the fatwa was in effect.

Written in third-person form, Joseph Anton is an interesting and unnerving memoir that doesn’t draw back from showing the frustration, anger and helplessness that Rushdie lived under. This included having to withdraw from public life and move constantly, accept 24-hour protection from the British state, and even using a false name, Joseph Anton, drawn from two of his favorite writers Conrad and Chekhov, hence the name of the book.

The fatwa to kill Rushdie led to numerous threats to his life that was staggering in how vehement and blatant they were, such as public rallies and threats in not just Iran, but in the UK by local radical Muslims. Iran also did try to send out assassins, which shows just how deranged their rulers were. Having been forced to hide from public life almost suddenly in 1989, Rushdie and his protectors initially thought the whole controversy would die down soon, never imagining that it would drag on for so many years.

While Rushdie and his lover, who he eventually marries, are forced to live under circumstances that would reduce most of us to nervous wrecks, they are helped by generous and understanding friends, many of them Rushdie’s contemporaries and important figures in the literary and arts world. People do get shot, like one of Rushdie’s publishers, or die such as the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses who was stabbed to death in 1991 by a Bangladeshi in Japan.

Rushdie fights back, giving interviews and writing columns defending himself and condemning the fatwa, whilst trying to persuade Western governments and media outlets to argue his case. He also tries to regain his freedom little by little, such as flying overseas to the US or France to make short appearances at forums and meet with dignitaries. Even then, he is generally banned from flying on most airlines and visiting a lot of countries, such as his own birthplace India, which refused to let him visit until after the fatwa is lifted. Rushdie must also contend with criticisms from people in the West, such as from spy novelist John le Carre, that he brought on the trouble for himself. Rushdie is dismissive of this, saying that if this were the case, then writers should never write about anything significant or speak up for values such as free speech.

Just as important is Rushdie’s determination not to bend to the Iranian mullahs and apologize or censor his book. The core issue is freedom of speech, whether literature can be censored or silenced merely due to supposedly offending people or even religion. In these times, this debate is even more apt and at times threatened, but the importance is undiminished.

For me, personally, I read The Satanic Verses and whilst I didn’t like the book too much, I didn’t think Rushdie wrote anything hateful about Islam. It is really shameful that the Iranian leaders would use religious authority to compel the Muslim world to threaten a writer like this and make him lose 10 years of his life.

Through all this, Rushdie is frustrated, depressed, and enraged, but he never loses hope. Of course, this is helped by the fact he had state protection, a faithful lover, his son, and numerous friends and allies who secretly hosted him in dinners or let him use their homes as temporary or holiday accommodations. The whole affair really demonstrates the best and the worst of people.

Joseph Anton is a monster of a book, being over 600 pages, but it is a fine account of a valiant struggle that puts not just the life of a writer, but the sanctity of freedom of expression at the fore.


Radiance of Tomorrow- book review

Written by Ishmael Beah, the author of the child soldier memoir A Long Way Gone, Radiance of Tomorrow is a novel about a village in Sierra Leone trying to move on after a terrible civil war. This small West African nation experienced a savage civil war between 1991 and 2002 that resulted in 50,000 killed and perhaps more ghastly, the mass maimings of adults and children. The novel might be about the aftermath of this war and filled with terrible events, but its writing is lyrical and evocative, inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of Beah’s native Sierra Leone.

The village of Imperi comes back to life when years after the war, a trio of elders return and try to resume their life. Soon, other former residents make their way back including the son of one of the elders, who brings his big family. Bockarie becomes a teacher but soon sees a crisis envelop Imperi after rutile (a mineral used in road coatings and pigments for paint and plastics) deposits are found nearby, which lead to a foreign corporation coming in and opening a mine. Pollution, disorder and drunkenness afflict Imperi as the mining company ignores the concerns of the residents and its workers exploit their poverty. Soon, Bockarie is forced to take a job with the mining operation but problems still remain that eventually push him to consider a move to the capital Freetown.

While the events are not exactly uplifting, Radiance of Tomorrow is a pleasure to read. The book’s plot is heavy on reality, specifically the woes of a poor African nation struggling to take advantage of its mineral resources but still dependent on foreign expertise, while still unable to provide for its people. The one constant is the bond between individuals and family members, especially with Bockarie, his friend Benjamin and their families. There is no magic happy ending, but there is a slight sign of hope.

It’s good to see that with Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah is not a one-hit wonder.

Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.