• Age of Ambition by Edward Osnos *** (of 4)

    age of ambitionPieced together from Osnos’s eight years of reports on China filed with the New Yorker, Age of Ambition comes together as a complete painting of modern China’s rocky transition to modernity.  Half a billion people have moved to China’s cities in pursuit of capitalism’s greatest prize: wealth.  The Chinese government is gambling that the delivery of free enterprise can be exchanged for political stability and to ensure the trade goes well the Communist party forbids freedom of speech and the freedom to organize in protest on anything larger than a municipal level.  Osnos focuses on the problems: jailed artists, tortured civil rights leaders, a rising desire for a moral compass, and unrelenting press censorship implying that beneath China’s meteoric economic ascent lies deep instability.  It is hard to know to what extent Osnos has selected stories of the elite and overlooked an even deeper satisfaction among a generation of Chinese liberated from the threat of starvation and really quite happy to forego some freedom in order to have enough money for McDonald’s and the Internet, even if key websites are blocked.  Some of the key interviewees argue rather persuasively that because nothing published in China’s media is reliable, and everyone knows that, Chinese people are much more skeptical consumers of news than Americans who all to readily believe that drinking Coke can make you happy, driving a new car can make you sexy, and whatever their politicians say must be true.

  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan ** (of 4)

    narrowroadIn the central third of this novel, a New Zealand prisoner of World War II, enslaved by the Japanese endures countless, excruciatingly detailed horrors in the jungles of Burma.  Only he really doesn’t.  Flanagan does a terrific job of describing kiwis, aussies, and other British subjects who are being driven by their Japanese captors to build a railway through the rainforest.  Soldiers starve while working ungodly hours to construct an aimless path through the forest using not much more than their bare hands, fear of being beaten (again), and their slowly diminishing will to survive.  They contract ulcers, beri-beri, pellagra, cholera, gangrene, and when they are lucky enough, death.  The protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, is the doctor who treats them all and lives throughout the book an extended male fantasy.  In the jungle, Evans never really has to do hard labor.  He is elected de facto leader of the camp, yet contracts nothing more than a scratch on his shin, the hardship of having to forego a steak as a sign of leadership, and receipt of a letter from his fiance that his mistress is dead.  And that brings us to the first third of the book, wherein Evans, bored with his straight-laced fiance takes up with the voluptuous and sexually adventurous wife of his uncle.  And in the last third, after the war, when his fiance takes him back, Evans continues to dally with innumerable additional romances.  There you have it.  In convoluted writing and obscure passages we track a man who is a war hero and unrepentant philanderer.  What more could any male reader ask for?  This book won the 2014 Mann Booker Prize and made a lot of 2014 must-read lists, so I might be the only one that didn’t care for it, but seriously?

  • Indonesia Etc. by Elisabeth Pisani *** (of 4)

    indonesiaIndonesia is the fourth largest country in the world comprised of more than 10,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures.  From west to east it stretches the equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C. In Java, where more than half the population lives you can find hipsters, international businessmen, ungodly traffic, and muslim women covered from head to foot.  In the east, in Papua, bushmen live in the jungles.  It’s a thriving democracy and an inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt nightmare of decentralized governance.  Ethnic divisions lead to mass slaughters and average Indonesians may be the most welcoming people on earth.  In most places you can find decent cell coverage, but might have to wait an interminable week before a boat arrives to take you from one island to the next.  Elisabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia off and on for decades and has done her best to travel from one side of the country to the other talking, cooking, sleeping on rattan mats in crowded huts, and waiting with locals wherever she could.  She does a remarkable job of tying personal experiences of the variety of cultures who have come to be ensnared in the modern country called Indonesia to the national experience of a country rattling its way into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce.  Pisani’s writing is strong and engaging, but somehow the length of her trip is as exhausting to read about as it must have been to undertake.

  • Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos *** (of 4)

    ambitionEvan Osnos has been living in China for the last eight years and reporting for the New Yorker for much of that time.  Age of Ambition is his compilation of perceptions of a country undergoing transition from the third world to the first at the speed of a bullet train.  For the record, China is constructing more bullet train railways, and highways, more quickly than any country ever has in the history of the earth.  That rush to modernity has been accompanied by graft, kickbacks, errors, phenomenal success and total government control.  Throughout this book the government’s secret management of the internet, publications, journalism, freedom of assembly, and religious thought remains omnipresent and mysterious, just like one of the large, unmarked buildings on Tiananmen Square occupied by government censors.  Osnos’ focus remains on Chinese intellectuals that dance on the edge of permissible thought in China, sometimes exciting millions of followers and at other times paying for their transgressions with jail terms.  It isn’t the whole story of China, the country is too large, diverse, and dynamic, but it is an interesting one.  Makes you wonder what an analogous analysis of the U.S. might look like.

  • Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen *** (of 5)

    sovietWhat an interesting idea.  Mix together a memoir of family history in the old Soviet Union with some Soviet history and the signature foods of the USSR’s distinct eras: Tsarist Russia, Russian Revolution, Leninism, Stalisnism, Brezhnev, Glasnost, Putin.  Then the author and her mother, both accomplished cooks, prepare feasts redolent of each decade since 1910 and invite Soviet emigres to reminisce about the smells of an pre-Stalin cornucopia or the despair of waiting on a 1970s bread line.  Perhaps because the author’s mother tongue is Russian, there is a kind of reverse construction to sentences and chapters that makes the text thick as stew.  The second paragraph of Chapter six, for example, “1960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar” opens with this sentence, “Coarse and damp was the bread waiting at the end of the line.”  The three strands of the book — von Bremzen’s family history, the story of the rise and fall of the USSR, and foods of a century — are all palatable, but in the end the flavors don’t quite meld into one delicious dish.

  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson **** (of 4)

    Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstJun Do, a North Korean John Doe, lives many lives.  He is an orphan in a camp for throw-away children, he undergoes pain training and learns to fight in abject darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, he becomes a spy, a kidnapper, a prisoner, and an army commander.  That is more than is possible for anyone in North Korea where life is too often a drudge from morning factory or field work until evening when the electricity is turned off.  Yet, in Adam Johnson’s capable hands several clear images emerge.  North Korea is awful.  (For fuller and more accurate depictions, read Escape from Camp 14 or Nothing to Envy.)  While reawakening us to the horrors of totalitarian rule, Johnson also gets us to consider whether a person is only the sum of his or her actions or, rather, actions might be dictated by circumstance and a person is somehow more intrinsic.  Are we the sum of our stories, or as in North Korea, are stories too subject to stretch and warp?  As Jun Do spends a lifetime navigating North Korea he also has heart and courage, enough of both to inspire others.  Not to be overlooked, either, are jibes at America appearing in the guise of North Korean hyperbole.  As the Dear Leader’s nightly broadcasts on loudspeakers make all too clear, the United States really is a place where one in six are hungry, the poor live in the streets, and neither justice nor access to health care are free.  This one might be better to listen to as an audio book.  The readers are terrific.

  • Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden *** (of 4)

    camp14Shin Dong Hyuk was born into slavery in Prison Camp 14 in North Korea.  He is also the only person to have survived an escape attempt.  This is his story as told to Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden.  Tens of thousands of North Koreans are locked up, many for being the offspring of perceived enemies of the state, e.g., nieces or nephews of relatives that defected to South Korea.  Children are raised from birth like so many industrially produced piglets knowing deprivation, hunger, disease, and competition for survival.  Death threats are real and executions, often for petty crimes like food theft of fraternizing with members of the opposite sex are commonplace and witnessed by all.  Frankly, the dehumanization of inmates by prison guards does not seem all that unusual in light of what we know about torturous regimes throughout history.  Not to make light of Shin’s despicable treatment, but what stands apart in this account is the emotional scarring that Shin continues to bear even after years of counseling and PTSD treatments in the west.  Having had his developmental years so stunted psychologically he still finds it terribly difficult to trust, to plan for the future, to comprehend money, to think of anything beyond food.

  • Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino *** (of 4)

    A Japanese husband announces that he will follow through on his promise to divorce his wife because she has not borne him a child within their first year of marriage.  He already has a mistress lined up when he dies of mysterious causes.  Naturally, the spurned wife is the lead suspect but she is hundreds of miles away when her husband succumbs.  The Japanese investigative team consists of a seasoned lead, Tokyo Policeman Kusunagi, who is insensitive about his perceptive, young, female recruit.  Together they are aided by Professor Yukawa, a heady and utterly cranky academic.  The reader on this audio book brought the well developed characters to life and though the ending was mildly anticlimactic the story itself was fully engaging.

  • 1493 by Charles Mann *** (of 4)

    Prior to Columbus’s blundering into the Caribbean, there was negligible interchange of plants, animals, or humans between continents.  Shortly thereafter the onset of large-scale globalization was underway.  Spain brought silver, Indians, new vegetables, and Spaniards from South America to the Philippines and China.  Potatoes, tobacco, and corn from the Americasbecame main staples in Europe and Africa.  The forced importation of Africans to the New World became one of the largest human transplantations in history.  At many times, and in most places, the number of Africans in the Americas outnumbered whites by more than four to one, making the real history of the Americas a story of the interplay of Africans and Indians, rather than just a story of developing European supremacy.  After reading 1493 and Mann’s first book, 1491, I’m more convinced than ever that the history I was taught — white, male, Eurocentric — overlooked 90 percent of what was important.

  • Midnight in Peking by Paul French ** (of 4)

    A young woman, Pamela Werner, is found brutally murdered on the wrong side of town.  The town is Peking, her father is a former British diplomat, the Japanese are on the outskirts of the city, and World War II is imminent.  British and Chinese detectives turn up nothing but rumors leaving Pamela’s distraught father to spend most of his remaining years searching out the truth and hounding the British embassy to end its cover-up and reopen its investigation.  I suppose the story is compelling enough, but not quite so interesting to be worth a retelling.  Unfortunately, thousands of young women are murdered and the author of this account doesn’t make this one feel important.  Gruesome and heartbreaking, yes, but significant, not really.