I was spoilt for choice when H for History asked me to discuss my “Top Ten Books on the East” with them, this week. You can view my choices beside lots of other great bookish stuff if you have a Tumblr account, or have a nosey below, if you don’t!
Ten of my favourite books on the East
By Lucy Cruickshanks
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh takes the reader on an epic journey through more than a hundred years of Burmese history, chronicling the formation of a modern nation via the stories of three generations of intertwined families. It’s rich with cultural insights and colour, and with his ability to evoke a sense of time and place like few else, Ghosh deftly explores the complexities of colonialism, war, multiculturalism, dictatorship and the challenges to personal loyalties each brings.
Ambitious, charismatic and terrible, Balram Halwai realised young that success was rarely won through hard work and kindness and has instead risen through Indian society by an altogether more criminal route. In The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Halwai recounts his journey with quick wit and a talent for self-justification, not so much describing how he navigated the country’s ambiguities and immoralities, as revelled in them. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, this is social commentary at its most caustic; a story of inequality, corruption and nation struggling to reconcile the glossy promises of modernity.
In Lost Horizon by James Hilton, troubled World War I veteran Hugh Conway’s plane is high-jacked. When it crashes in the remote mountains of Tibet, he finds his way to a curious utopian lamasery, Shangri-La, and is submerged in a paradise so ethereal and enthralling that the rest of the world can be forgotten, where tranquillity is only matched by beauty, but where as many questions are raised as answered and the peace may not be quite all it seems
Written by a former soldier in the North Vietnamese Army, Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong is a brave work of fiction that has been banned in Vietnam and seen the author imprisoned for her criticism of the government. The story follows a young Vietnamese woman on her journey into the 1980s Soviet Union in search of work. Stridently unsentimental and full of evocative imagery, the legacy of the American War weighs heavily, but this is a tale of a nation rebalancing, of the conflicts between tradition and progress, young and old, rural and urban, and the difficulties these cause for ordinary people.
Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard is a fictionalised account of the British author’s childhood in Japanese occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. When Jim is separated from his parents, he surrenders to the Japanese and is interned in a prisoner of war camp, learning to survive on his wits alone. Graphic and frank, and against a backdrop of death and deprivation, Ballard creates a coming-of-age story that feels honest and touching, in a world where uncertainty reigns supreme.
Set in Vietnam during the dying days of French rule, The Quiet American by Graham Greene uses the relationship between Fowler, a British correspondent, and Pyle, the quiet American of the title, to depict a complex world of post-colonial strife. Through masterful storytelling, poignant character details, perfect pacing and sharp, shrewd dialogue, Greene beautifully sets the romantic promise of Indochina against a prescient warning about the relationship between Vietnam and the West.
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester charts Hong Kong’s history since the 1930s through the eyes of four tangled but very diverse characters. With a love story at its heart, it traverses the whims of British colonialism, the horrors of Japanese occupation in World War II, the post-war exuberance and the uncertainties of the Chinese handover using clean, effortless prose and a sympathetic eye. Lanchester’s management of history is delicate, never impeding the story, but leaving the reader with a vivid insight into one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle is a graphic travelogue that documents the year the author spent living in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon. While his wife travels the country working for Medicins San Frontier, Guy remains in the city with his young son and time on his hands. He’s baffled by the logic of the ruling military junta, clumsy at navigating cultural niceties and obsesses over rumours of an imminent bird-flu epidemic. Intelligent, affectionate, funny and surprisingly moving, this has to be one of the most original and perceptive accounts of contemporary Myanmar available today.
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is powerful fictionalisation of the author’s childhood experiences during the ruthlessness of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. Narrated by seven-year old Raami, it tells of her family’s momentous fall from royal privilege, the murder of her relatives, the chaos of civil war and her survival through forced labour, sickness and starvation. Replete with myths and poetry, and as beautiful as it is harrowing, this is ultimately a tale of protecting childhood in a world of savagery, and the power of memories, resilience and hope.
In Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, we learn about the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born into one of North Korea’s notorious prison camps to ever have escaped. His memories from inside the brutal totalitarian state are riveting and terrifying, and his adjustment to life outside, uncomfortable and sad. There’s an agonising sense of place that hangs over every page the memoir, which gives an unprecedented insight into the world’s most intensely secretive nation and will leave an indelible mark on your mind.