Books

Medium Raw- book review

Anthony Bourdain was one of those special people who was immensely talented, passionate, and curious about food, people and the world. That’s why he succeeded as a cook, a writer, and a TV host who traveled around the world eating local dishes, basically what many of us would consider a dream job. It was a tragedy that he left this world the way he did and when he did, in June at age 61. I didn’t watch his show as I’m not a foodie but I knew that he would visit different countries, eating local dishes and hanging out with locals. That time he ate Vietnamese noodles with Barack Obama in a small Hanoi eatery was especially cool. I decided to read his 2010 book Medium Raw – A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Writing about his past, about people who he admired or hated, being a father, and the joy (lust) of eating great food, Medium Raw is like a collection of essays rather than a biography. It is a fascinating book, which at times is fierce and others is surprising empathetic, such as when Bourdain gives his take on chefs selling out. He isn’t afraid to name names or describe incidents in full detail and honesty, because in some of them he doesn’t always come out on top.

I may be ethnic Asian but I’ve never been passionate about food, especially as I don’t like seafood and I have a sensitive stomach. I appreciate good food but I’ve got a workmanlike approach to eating and I can get by with simple breakfasts and meals. However even I felt something at how tantalizingly Bourdain describes eating food, whether it Vietnamese pho, spaghetti in the Italian countryside, or even seafood.

What makes the book really outstanding is not the passionate food descriptions or the stirring insights into the restaurant industry, but the chapters about famous chefs and food personalities like David Chang. Bourdain even has an entire chapter about somebody he detests, a famous food critic, as well as another chapter on “heroes and villains.” One of the most fascinating chapters is not about a chef or critic, but about Justo, a guy who prepares and portions 700-1,000 pounds of fish everyday for a well-known New York seafood restaurant. Bourdain is a great writer and it is never so apparent than when he makes gutting and cleaning fish sound so interesting.

I might try to get Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s first memoir which launched his literary career, but Medium Raw was enough to make me realize why Bourdain was so special.

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Books · Travel

The India Ride- book review

Two Canadian brothers set off on an 18,000-km motorcycle ride around China in 2010 and succeeded. A couple of years later, they decided to do another epic motorcycle ride around India. The India Ride – 2 brothers, 2 motorcycles, an incredible adventure is the story of this feat of stamina, courage, and most of all, patience. Written by the brothers, Colin and Ryan Pyle, The India Ride details the entire journey which started from Delhi, went northwest along treacherous mountainous roads and to the border with Pakistan, then southwest to Mumbai and the Arabian Sea coast before going back up along the southeast coast up to Bengal and finishing in Delhi again.

The arduous journey was not just a daredevil joyride but a carefully planned expedition that was intended to be fully recorded for a TV show based on the trip. In fact, the brothers were still completing book and television deals for the China trip while preparing for the India trip. The book details the arduous preparations as even before the trip actually began, the brothers had to plan the journey day by day, hire a driver and videographer (the same from their China journey) who followed and filmed them during the whole trip, apply for permits to shoot video at places they planned to visit, and get sponsors.

Not surprisingly, the trip was full of hazardous traffic and road experiences, including a few close calls, mixed emotions, and frustration. India is no cup of tea for visitors, especially ones riding motorcycles around the country. While I’ve never been to India (yet), I’ve heard a lot about the country, which just from afar can seem like an assault on the senses and mind. The brothers’ experiences and insights of India showed the country to be as fascinating, chaotic and frustrating as I’d expected. The brothers don’t hold back in expressing their thoughts on the country, during and at the completion of their journey. Their encounters with locals are mostly positive, such as when a stranger driving by who leads the brothers to a nearby mechanic after one of their motorcycles breaks down on a hilly, rural area.

The book could have been shorter on the planning details at the beginning, and longer on the actual events and sights of the trip. As the main point of the trip was the motorcycle journey and not sightseeing, it is understandable. They do visit some major sights such as the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, the ghats alongside the Ganges River in Varanasi, and major temples. The chapter on the Rat Temple (Karni Matar) in Rajasthan state is a particularly interesting and honest read, though it might put readers off of visiting it. It’s also exactly why I think there should have been more writing about the sights.

The brothers’ India ride was a remarkable journey in a remarkable country, which very few people would ever dare to complete. It is good to see that the journey did not put off Ryan Pyle, the older brother and whose idea it originally was to ride around China, as he would go on to complete another incredible motorcycle ride in Brazil and is still going strong.

Books · Travel

The Longest Way Home- book review

Former actor and writer Andrew McCarthy seemed to have the ideal life, combining a busy globe-trotting writing career with a relationship with a loving and patient partner as well as two children. But a decision to get married to his girlfriend and mother of his younger child sparks a sense of panic. As McCarthy struggles with whether he is doing the right thing, he takes off on a series of trips to come to terms with his personal issues.

From traveling on a cruise through the Amazon to a remote part of coastal Costa Rica to wandering Baltimore with his best friend, the writer slowly realizes what is holding him back. This involves McCarthy reflecting on his part, especially his relationship with his father, which at times was estranged but has improved. While this might all sound self-indulgent, the author is honest about his doubts and flaws, as well as the toll on his partner who has to look after their child while he is often away. It is over-reflective at times but this means McCarthy holds nothing back in examining himself.

The writer’s travels during this long period of pre-wedding reflection include a hike up the majestic Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and trekking in Patagonia in the southernmost part of Argentina. He describes the places well, bringing their remoteness and beauty to the fore. Despite his own penchant for solitude and continuous travel, McCarthy is surprising skeptical of some of the expats, including fellow Americans, he meets in remote places, especially in their motivations for live there.

Without giving away things too much by being too specific, I’ll just say the book comes to a happy conclusion in Ireland, where his girlfriend is from. The Longest Way Home is both a decent travel book and memoir that illustrates how travel can sometimes be a good way to know yourself more.

Books · China · Taiwan

Lord of Formosa- book review

Lord of Formosa is another book about Taiwan I recently read. The lord is Zheng Chenggong or Koxinga, a Chinese nobleman-warlord who seized Taiwan from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Often overlooked, this was a period of time covering several decades when the VOC (Dutch East India Company, a Dutch trading organization which owned its own navy and conquered places for its country such as Indonesia) ruled southern Taiwan. In China’s Fujian Province, Koxinga was a loyalist to the Ming Dynasty which was in its death throes after being defeated by the Manchus (who would go on to found the Qing Dynasty). As Koxinga was the son of a wealthy noble who had a strong naval fleet that often preyed on Dutch trading ships, it was natural that Koxinga would, after failing to withstand the Manchus, eventually set his sights on Taiwan. The Dutch didn’t give up without a fight despite being heavily outnumbered by over 15 to 1, and it took Koxinga a lot of men, time and subterfuge to eventually defeat them.

Koxinga was actually born and raised in Japan, as his mother was a local lady who met and fell in love with Koxinga’s father. After he turned seven, his father called on him to come to China where Koxinga was trained in military matters and business, specifically in managing his father’s trading affairs and fleet. He would grow up to become a very capable general but troubled by sudden fits of anger and serious illness. Koxinga is still remembered in Southern China and Taiwan, where a university in Tainan, the capital during the Dutch colonial period and Koxinga’s reign, are named after him.

Readers get a good sense of Taiwan as a frontier settlement, as the Dutch only really controlled the south of the island, while trading and trying to control local aboriginal tribes; settlers from China lived in villages clustered around the Dutch forts in Tainan. It is important to note that this is when the ancestors of the majority of non-aboriginal Taiwanese first came to Taiwan to live, most coming across from Fujian.

The book flows very well, and the political and historical details and military battles are described in rich detail. However, the narrative lacks depth at some points, as Taiwanese characters are one-dimensional and hardly feature. The Dutch characters and Koxinga are the main focus, which is not surprising since the author is from Holland.

Lord of Formosa is a historical novel that is entertaining while also highlighting a turbulent and formative period of Taiwan’s past and a fascinating personality.

I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, so you can check my full review there as well.

Books

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

Books

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.