Best books about a country

While it’s almost impossible to travel anywhere now and perhaps for the near future, we can still travel through books. With that in mind, here are several great books I’ve read that take you through a journey through time and across the length and breadth of specific countries. I especially enjoy country books because you get to know a lot about a country and its many places and attributes. Most of these books focus on travel, but they also feature history, politics, cultural commentary and personal and family narratives, which provides a richer and more in-depth account of countries and places. If you have any suggestions yourself, let me know.

Elephant Complex– John Gimlette
One of the most somber travel books I’ve ever read, Elephant Complex is a fascinating book about the South Asian country of Sri Lanka. Despite its small size, Sri Lanka is a land of complex history, identities, and conflicts. The country boasts some of the finest historical monuments, wildlife, and mountain scenery that you’ll ever see in a country of its size, but it is its human history that stands out. While going through the different parts of the country, Gimlette unpacks its colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch and British), its civil war and ethnic tensions between its majority Sinhalese and Tamils, and how this co-exists uneasily alongside the country’s tourist-friendly image (I visited it myself in 2016).

Swiss Watching– Diccon Bewes
While strictly not a travelogue, Swiss Watching explores the alpine country of Switzerland and reveals its personality and quirks. I’d always thought Switzerland was boring given that it’s famous mainly for watches, chocolate and political neutrality, but there is much more to it. From grassroots democracy to a complex mix of identities (four official languages, strong local pride and local rivalries), Swiss Watching shines a spotlight on this supposedly boring nation. Bewes is an English transplant to Switzerland so he presents the view of a longtime resident, not a visitor.

Indonesia Etc– Elisabeth Pisani
Indonesia must be one of the world’s most unique countries, being an archipelago made up of several giant islands and thousands of smaller ones. Across this reside over 250 million people of different ethnicities, languages and faiths (though Islam is by far the most prevalent) that are held together by 20th century ideals crafted after Indonesia’s independence. Pisani travels the length and breadth of Indonesia, also foregoing the big cities, while examining issues like corruption, feudalism, and political history. She also looks at Islamic extremism, which has only gotten more noticeable in recent years (the book came out in 2014). Indonesia Etc is a great mix of travel and history and commentary, though at the end, Indonesia will still likely a mystery to most readers.

Formosa Moon– Joshua Samuel Brown, Stephanie Huffman
Taiwan is the island country I’m proud to call my home in Asia (and where my mother is from). But I haven’t traveled to that many places in Taiwan so reading Formosa Moon was a fantastic way of finding out about a lot of the country. The book’s premise was that Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat, wanted to show off Taiwan for Huffman, his romantic partner, so she could understand what she was getting into before moving to Taiwan (the two, both Americans, met in the US). They travel around Taiwan, visit all the touristy and some not-so-touristy ones, such as historical cities, an arts village, Taroko gorge, a mountain kibbutz, and an aboriginal settlement. It’s a really fun and touching account of the authors’ relationship with each other and Brown’s with Taiwan.

Looking for Transwonderland– Noo Saro-wiwa
Nigeria is not exactly a top travel destination but it sure is a complex, bewildering country. In Saro-wiwa’s case, she visits her birth country not just for travel but to reconcile with it after the state executed her father, activist Ken Saro-wiwa, in 1995. As such, it’s a little different from the usual good humor and adventure you find in some travel books, with Saro-wiwa not holding back on her views especially regarding major problems. Saro-wiwa travels to the different regions of Nigeria, including the southern oil-rich delta, where her family is from; the Muslim north, and several states. One of the most fascinating is when she visits a mountaintop village that retains a primitive “stone age” lifestyle but is free from modern problems. She also goes into Nigeria’s history, politics and ethnic issues, which is a huge cause of tension. The book will leave a lot of readers wanting more.

Engel’s England– Matthew Engels
Another book that is not exactly a travelogue, Engel’s England does actually cover the entirety of England, specifically 39 counties and London. Engels is a born and bred Englishman, so he brings the perspective of a local getting to grips with his own country. In this sense, there are some peculiar things that non-English people like myself might not really understand such as local (by this, I mean very local as in village or county) customs and festivals. Engels truly does cover off the beaten track, mostly foregoing major cities in favor of the surrounding countryside villages and small towns, which gives the book a lot of character.

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.

China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems- book reviews

Continuing on from Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan came out with China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems to complete a mesmerizing trilogy.

China Rich Girlfriend sees the spotlight turn to China. Nick and Rachel, the main couple from the first book, are getting married in the US when they receive a stunning revelation about Rachel’s real father. It turns out he is one of China’s richest billionaires and a rising Party official. But while he is receptive to receiving Rachel and welcoming the couple to Shanghai, his wife is not so keen. The extravagance factor goes up by several notches in China as we get treated to details about China’s rich elite. Somehow the main characters fly off to Paris where things get heated between Rachel’s half-brother and his socialite girlfriend.

This book is more over-the-top than its prequel, Crazy Rich Asians, and the China parts didn’t interest me much. I suspect that the author is not as familiar with China as he is with Singapore or Europe so that is why he didn’t spend too much time on China. Because what fascinates me about these books is not the luxury brands and high-end lifestyle descriptions, but the social and cultural references and explanations. As such, I didn’t find China Rich Girlfriend as interesting as Crazy Rich Asians. That said, Kwan includes a deadly Ferrari crash that is based on a real-life accident involving the son of presidential aide Ling Jihua in Beijing in 2012 so it shows he did his research on Chinese politics.

Rich People Problems concludes the saga as Nick’s 94-year-old grandmother Su Yi, the family head, falls seriously ill, bringing all her children and grandchildren to the family mansion in Singapore. Besides filial piety, there are more practical reasons for the family gathering, namely who gets what from Su Yi’s financial fortune. Readers get a glimpse of Su Yi’s early life from flashbacks of Su Yi’s experiences during World War II when she fled to India after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, as well as memories of her interactions with her brother and father. There are some mysterious bits concerning those flashbacks and Nick’s parents that are not explained so perhaps there is room for further books in the future. The conclusion wraps up a bit too neatly and conveniently.

The three books in the trilogy were all very fun reads that really pulled you in because of the many interesting details.
That said, there are a few problems.
For one, it is a pity that the few self-made main characters in the trilogy are made out to be wretched or deeply flawed. One of them, Kitty Pong, is an actress with a dubious past who tries to upgrade her standing in society by jumping from man to man to man (but is actually one of the funnier characters), while another, Michael, the husband of Nick’s cousin Astrid (a wealthy heiress in her own right), is a former soldier and tech entrepreneur from a middle-class family who warps from a decent man into an arrogant and status-obsessed social climber.
Another issue is that while the sheer amount of details pertaining to luxury brands, food and cultural quirks is a strength, sometimes the wealth and brand descriptions are so extreme and drawn out as to be inconsequential.

All in all, the trilogy was very entertaining, with the first and third books being particularly good reads.

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Originals- book review

Being original is seen as highly valued in many areas in life, including work, business and arts, but it is not easy to attain. Some people are born with highly original and innovative minds, but the rest of us need to develop and foster originality. Originals- How Non-Confirmists Move the World aims to help readers do this with interesting lessons, insights and arguments.

Originals is a highly informative book, but also surprising as author Adam Grant makes arguments that contradict some pieces of conventional wisdom. For instance, at work, we always hear that instead of pointing out problems, we need to also have solutions (obviously managers love this suggestion), but Grant says that this can make people unwilling to speak up and as such, problems can be overlooked or ignored. As such, people should be allowed to make critiques freely.

Risk-taking is often praised and even encouraged, so you might think this is a key part of originality, but not so fast, says Grant. Keep your day-job while pursuing your dreams, like what author Stephen King and musician John Legend did initially before they really hit it big; and balance risks you do take in one area with caution in others, like a stock portfolio, for instance. To be honest, Grant’s advice seems more pragmatic than original as security seems to be the priority for him.

A lot of readers will take heart from the chapter on procrastination and companies not rushing into new markets. We often hear that procrastination is bad, but Grant says while leaving things to the last minute might hamper productivity, it might be good for creativity as it allows for flexibility and adaptability. Another instance of first being considered best is that companies that come out with products first always get lauded as innovators and supposedly have the first-mover advantage. Grant argues that these companies often get overtaken by competitors who wait and come out with better products. If anything, first-movers tend to be driven by impulsiveness which brings on more risk, says Grant. Grant also says civil movements and ideas failed because they were “ahead of their time” though he doesn’t give much evidence. Meanwhile, assigning somebody to be a “devil’s advocate” is less effective than if somebody was genuinely critical.

Another interesting chapter is about when to trust your intuition. According to Grant, intuition is dependable only when used in a familiar environment or situation but not in situations where conditions are always changing or a surprise. As such, you should trust your intuition in situations you are familiar with, but use more caution and thinking for unfamiliar circumstances. Hence doctors can trust their intuition when assessing cases they have encountered numerous times, but political and economic “experts” always seem to get things wrong.

One really surprising chapter is the one on the influence of birth order and parenting on originality. Grant finds that last-born children often turn out to be more creative and rebellious than their eldest siblings, who are more inclined to excel in traditional pursuits and become business and government leaders. Grant uses charts and stats showing that comedians and baseball steals leaders (steals are a sign of more risk-taking) are often the youngest in their families while a study showed that the largest percentage of CEOs were firstborn. In a somewhat vague link, Grant says parenting plays a key role such as using lessons and not orders to teach children to do the right thing.

Grant specifically praises investment company Bridgewater, where the founder and CEO Ray Danzig allows himself to be criticized publicly and harshly by subordinates. This is part of the company culture, based on over 200 principles that Danzig came up with. Employees are encouraged to publicly criticize their colleagues; all meetings are recorded; and all employees have scores published on a company-wide ratings board.

In the end, Grant lists a series of rules and suggestions including to procrastinate strategically, to back up your opinions, come up with more ideas than usual, and to present your ideas to disagreeable people who can challenge it earnestly. Originals might veer towards pragmatism in a few areas, but it provides a lot of useful ideas that might change your mind about common situations and behaviors, which would be the first step in becoming more “original.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.