Books

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

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Books

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Books

The Triple Package- book review

It might be a sensitive topic, but academic and economic success varies among different ethnic and cultural groups in the US. What makes ethnic groups like South Asians, Jewish, or East Asians such high performers in the US? The Triple Package- How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America  argues that three factors foster the success of certain groups.

Some readers might recognize co-author Amy Chua for her 2011 book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of how she parented her two daughters based on strict “Chinese” values as opposed to American/Western compassion. In The Triple Package, Chua and co-author Jed Rubenfeld (also Chua’s husband and fellow Yale professor) explain that three main traits are essential — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control (discipline). Superiority and insecurity seem contradictory, but they go together because groups need to both have a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence while also feeling insecure enough to keep striving and pushing themselves. Impulse control is also important, so for Mormons, their austere upbringing as well as the two-year service for many young Mormon adults who go on evangelical missions worldwide, is a great benefit.

All three traits are vital because if a group lacks even one of them, they will not be successful. For example, the authors explain that black Americans (those whose ancestors came to the US as slaves) lack a sense of superiority due to enduring persistent discrimination, which hinders them from being successful, whereas Nigerian-Americans, one of the successful groups mentioned in the book, and other African immigrants don’t. Another example is the Amish, who live even more austere lives (no electricity!) and possess more discipline than the Mormons, but they do not have a sense of superiority and have little desire to compete and advance in modern society.

Most of the groups like Chinese-Americans and Nigerian-Americans are immigrants or have only been in the US for 2-3 generations, though the Jewish community and Mormons are exceptions. However, decline usually sets in for immigrants after two generations so that for example, “first- and second-generation Asian students outperform whites, whereas there is no difference between third-generation Asians and whites.”

While the subject matter is rather sensitive, the writing is rather nuanced and not inflammatory or exaggerated. The authors also devote a chapter to exploring the downside of the triple package traits in cultures, which manifests in insularity, high pressure and psychological problems. Asian-Americans often do very well in academics and are one of the highest earning groups in the US, but some young Asian-Americans chafe under the high expectations and try to break out of the narrow stereotypical mold they grow up under.

While groups might rise, they can also decline as they become complacent and lose the discipline or drive to strive harder. Interestingly, the authors apply this to explain the recent fortunes of the US as a whole. This is because the US can be considered the ultimate “Triple Package” nation- a young upstart that harboured a strong desire to prove itself compared to the much older and cultured European powers, whilst also possessing a sense of “exceptionalism” as a nation forged from a desire to be free, and a “Puritanical inheritance of impulse control” including moderation, saving and industry. But having risen to become the world’s superpower, America lost its discipline and sense of insecurity and became too confident. The world has become very turbulent and unstable but the authors say this is the right time for the US to recover its “Triple Package” due to insecurity presented by threats of terrorism, China, and financial woes. It will be interesting if the US can recover its status as a “Triple Package” nation.

Ultimately, the success of ethnic groups may not be simply due to these three factors, but the authors make convincing arguments that they are key.

Books · Taiwan

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Africa · Books

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

Books

SPQR- book review

Named after the famous initials of the Latin phrase “the Senate and People of Rome,” which was used by the Romans as an official slogan on documents, military banners, public works, and coinage, SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome tells the story of the Romans during their first thousand years as they grew from a small city state to become one of the world’s largest and most powerful empires.

Combining riveting facts, stories and details, Mary Beard, who has been hailed as one of the world’s best Roman historians, looks at different aspects of the Romans from famous emperors to politics and laws to the daily lives of commoners to the nations they conquered. I’ll be honest though, the book was a little tough at times though that was partly because I spread it out over several months.

Beard does well to give readers both a broader understanding of the Roman world and people, as well as an intimate look at daily life. Roman life was both extravagant and filthy, as well as dangerous. Not surprisingly, Rome was a place of great turmoil, strife, political intrigues, and complexity. Somehow, or perhaps because of this, they managed to create a powerful empire. And as the Romans conquered fellow Italians, Greeks, other Europeans and the Middle East and Egypt, they spread their influence and culture. While they considered other people as barbarians, the Romans also allowed elites in their conquered territories sought to copy Roman behaviors, similarly to how people around the world might curse the US and the “West”, but still use their software, buy their brands and ape their lifestyle. SPQR .

Books

Elon Musk- book review

I only just completed Elon Musk’s biography earlier this week so it is fitting that his SpaceX just successfully launched its largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on February 7. Elon Musk- How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future provides a fascinating glimpse into how significant the accomplishments of one of the world’s most famous billionaire entrepreneurs have been. Besides SpaceX, whose ultimate aim is to transport humans to Mars to sustain a colony, Musk also heads Tesla, the world’s most well-known and successful electric carmaker.

What the book vividly shows is not merely Musk’s success, but how impressive (and near-impossible) it was for it to have happened. With Tesla, Musk put electric cars in the spotlight and in SpaceX, he built a rocket company virtually from scratch, with the help of co-founders, to launch rockets into space and compete with industry giants like Lockheed. In addition, under his direction, SpaceX found a way to make its rockets reusable by controlling their orbit back into Earth after they had launched into space. Previously, rockets were just used once and were useless afterwards. SpaceX runs into many financial and technical challenges and there are precarious moments, but it is extraordinary how Musk drove and willed his vision into coming true. Besides SpaceX being a startup competing against industry giants and rocking an aging space industry, the fact it manufactured much of its own parts and systems (in the US too) rather than outsource them to contractors like the large companies, increased the incredible nature of its success. As if space rockets and electric cars weren’t enough to manage, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel systems company which Musk’s cousins started up.

Besides Tesla and Space X, the book also details Musk’s earliest ventures such as Zip2, an online listings for businesses, and Paypal, where things got a little messy and Musk was ousted as CEO. While Paypal is known today as an online payment processing site, Musk’s vision had actually been to create an online banking institution which would offer products like mutual funds. Of course, this did not happen but at least you can see how Musk from early on in his career had a thing for wanting to disrupt industries. Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, which includes a difficult relationship with his father (who is barred from meeting Musk’s children), and his marriages and divorces (with the same person) are also detailed. Yet all this is just a sideshow to the most fascinating parts in the book which are about Musk’s work with SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk is portrayed as a visionary, obsessed with huge goals like bringing people to Mars or creating a nationwide gas-free infrastructure for electric cars, but also a brilliant engineer and scientist who knew the physics and engineering behind what his companies were doing. He is also a very demanding boss and micro-manager, who could be kind of vicious at times, which make him sound similar to Steve Jobs, though Musk is slightly nicer, according to people in the book. But the real difference is that while Jobs strove for great design and consumer technology, Musk has a much greater vision for the world that seeks to improve the environment, through using electric cars and utilizing solar energy, and make space travel a reality. While the latter might be a bit too much of a reach, it is hard to dispute the significance of his energy and environmental goals on society in general.

In some ways, Musk came off as a real-life version of Tony Stark, the Marvel tech billionaire who fights evil as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr, the actor who played Tony Stark, actually visited Musk at his business. I actually had little interest in Elon Musk and his work, not being a particular fan of space technology or electric cars, but reading this biography has made me admire him a lot. I actually carried this book with me on a short trip and because it turned out to be more interesting than I’d thought, I had to ration the pages near the end so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly.

Books · Sports

NFL Confidential- book review

Some people think American football is one of the most boring or nonsensical sports, but I was actually a big fan of it. There’s something about American football that other sports just don’t have, which is probably why it has become the most popular sport in the US. The heightened tension of each individual play, amplified by the pauses between each play, and the quick athleticism and brutality on display makes each game a fierce and dramatic battle. I used to be a big NFL and American football fan during my university years in Canada and would catch the games every weekend.

Since coming to Asia, the early times of the games meant I wasn’t able to continue my NFL viewing and I’m no longer a major fan. However I still retain some interest, despite the serious concussion issue and other controversies. I still enjoy reading about the NFL when I can, which is how I read NFL Confidential- True Confessions from the Gutter of Football, a tell-all book written by a former player of an entire season in the league. He also claims to hate the league, which is why he wrote it anonymously.

The book exposes a lot of the drama that goes on behind the scenes as a NFL player, from racial cliques to bullying coaches to the precariousness of player employment. But somehow, the fact that it was written under a pseudonym and a lot of the names and details are deliberately falsified or omitted takes away from the supposed authenticity. After all, we don’t even know the team the player is part of nor any of his teammates, who he assigns nicknames to like GI Joe and Dante the diva receiver. The writer is also an offensive lineman, one of those huge blockers who protect the quarterback and plough holes for the running back.

The player starts off as a backup, which was his ambition since it meant he could get paid to do nothing during an entire year. Midway, injuries to starters means he is needed to start and soon he becomes a key part of the team. One would think this fortuitous change would shift his feelings but instead he realizes while he still loves the game, he still hates the business of the league. Along the way, he writes about his his longtime girlfriend, who he has gone out with since high school. And his feelings towards her veer towards a casual ambivalence which eventually sees an end to the relationship.

Those who are NFL fans will certainly find it interesting, but readers who want to learn about how an NFL team operates will also get something from it. That said, the premise of the book — the writer’s assertion about the problems with the league stemming from its thirst for profit — provides a somber, realistic take on the NFL that takes away from its guts and glory image.

Africa · Books

Homegoing- book review

One of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Homegoing follows the descendants of two West African half-sisters, separated by slavery and continents, over 200 years from the late 18th century to the modern era. A tragedy and painful family secret portend the fate of Effia and Essi, in their tribal homelands in what is now Ghana, during a time of growing interaction between Europeans and Africans, when slavery and Christianity came to the fore.

Slavery is what causes the stories of the two half-sisters, who never meet, to diverge, as Effia marries the European governor of the Cape Coast Castle, from where numerous African slaves were shipped to the US, while Essi is captured and transported as one such slave to America. One member of each ensuing generation of their respective descendants is featured in a chapter as their lives unfold in line with the historic development of the US and Ghana. While the Ghanaians cope with war against the British, colonialism and running their own country after independence, the Americans toil as slaves in the US South, then continue to cope with racism and discrimination.

Ghana is a fitting stage for a story focused on slavery, since it is where a lot of African slaves were bought, gathered and then shipped off to the New World, especially America. Cape Coast Castle is one of the more famous of numerous coastal forts built by Europeans to hold slaves, and was even visited by Barack Obama when he was US president in 2009. The author also makes clear the role of the local tribes, such as the powerful Asante and their Fante kin and rivals, in procuring and selling slaves to the Europeans, which illustrates the complexity of slavery in Africa. As such, this is not a one-sided polemic of whites neither a romanticized tale.

As its characters marched through history, there are heartbreaking chapters on captured slaves crammed into a filthy Cape Coast Castle dungeon, failed slave escapes from US plantations, and abductions. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, I was familiar with slavery from school, given its key historic role in the region, but I still found the book to be stunning in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery in the US.

If Homegoing has one fault, it is that there are so many themes encompassing Africa-West relations, slavery, race relations, drug addiction, immigrants and diaspora which did not all get fully fleshed out. The conclusion also seemed a little too neat and contrived. Despite that, the author Yaa Gyasi does well to make most of the myriad characters people who you can care about and the novel remains compelling up until the end.

It is an epic tale that blends history and tragedy in both personal and societal forms. Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve read recently and it is one book that I wished could have been longer.

Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.