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A new-year Asian reading list to savor and inspire

by Jeff Kingston

At this time of year, many newspapers publish such lengthy lists of must-read books that it’s daunting to even imagine them all piled up gathering dust on the bedside table. So let me narrow the field by sharing some amazing titles about or from Asia that I have enjoyed over the past year.

Top billing goes to “Righteous Republic” by Ananya Vajpeyi, an engaging intellectual history that helps us better understand 21st-century India. Vajpeyi examines five giants involved in the founding of the republic in 1950 — Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar — who all drew inspiration from indigenous traditions as they strove to craft a postcolonial Indian identity.

She writes of how, “in the process of becoming a modern democracy, her founders reject the violence of the nation-state (Gandhi), reject nationalism as an ideology (Rabindranath), transform a nonmodern and sectarian history into an enabling precursor for secular democratic modernity (Nehru), and shift the bases of human happiness from the pursuit of individual interest to the alleviation of social suffering (Ambedkar).”

But while this may seem like a list of what is not happening, in drawing our gaze to their intellectual quests and legacies, we come to understand some of India’s abiding values and norms.

“Blood Telegram” by Gary Bass exhumes the tragic, relatively unknown story of Bangladesh’s bloody birth in 1971. We learn about Pakistan’s brutal efforts to retain control over what had become East Pakistan following 1947′s Partition of the British Indian Empire.

And we confront, too, India’s machinations and U.S. complicity in the unfolding horrors of an immense humanitarian crisis — learning along the way how the Nixon White House, a staunch ally of Pakistan, “was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments.”

Why is that not surprising?

Meanwhile, “China’s War with Japan 1937-45,” a superbly crafted account of the maelstrom by Rana Mitter, takes us to the front lines and into the heart of the Kuo- mintang (Nationalist Party) resistance that wore Japan down and hastened its defeat.

The wartime 1940s is also the subject of two captivating histories by a married couple: Eri Hotta’s, “Japan 1941″ and Ian Buruma’s “Year Zero: A History of 1945,” are both superb reads.

Hotta gets us into the minds of Japan’s leaders on the eve of Pearl Harbor, and demonstrates how their shared assessment that such an attack would be folly did not, in the end, prevent them from plunging Japan into a deadly conflagration that exacted a huge toll on itself and all of Asia.

Buruma’s end-of-war masterpiece examines the European and Asian theaters and how the reckoning that so many deserved was averted or postponed. The “banality of evil” is here portrayed evocatively and memorably, ranging from the death camps and postwar retributions to the human miseries of the displaced and scarred survivors.

Scarred survivors also figure prominently in “Japan Copes,” a collection of excellent ethnographies of communities in the tsunami-devastated Tohoku region following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Edited by Tom Gill, Brigitte Steger and David Slater, this introduces us to people who survived the cataclysm and have been trying to piece back together their lives, livelihoods and communities. Through their stories, we can begin to comprehend the various circles of post-disaster hell they are facing, from the emergency shelters and temporary housing to bereavement and prolonged uncertainties due to radiation and displacement.

This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the human consequences of disaster — and especially those in govern-ment who make outrageous claims of progress and shirk responsibility for leaving the battered northeast of Honshu adrift.

In a similar vein, but from a purely personal standpoint, “The Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala is her powerful and unforgettable account of how she lost her entire family, and her own moorings, in the aftermath of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that struck Sri Lanka. There is nothing quite like this deeply heartfelt memoir.

Personal and analytical, David Pilling’s just-published “Bending Adversity” is a brilliantly observed, elegantly wrought book on contemporary Japan. The former Tokyo-bureau chief for the Financial Times presents a balanced portrait of a nation coping with crisis that reminds us of so much that is enchanting and inspiring about this country.

The “China explained” industry remains robust. On the academic front, David Shambaugh’s “China Goes Global: The Partial Power” is an enlightening assessment of how China’s power is broad, but constrained, because it is not yet deep — countering some of the more alarmist “rising China” discourse.

Also excellent are Orville Shell and John Delury’s “Wealth and Power,” an intellectual history of modern China and its abiding preoccupation with a strong state; and William Callahan’s “China Dreams,” which presents the views of 20 prominent public intellectuals, including the incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

“When the Party Ends” by Singaporean journalist Peh Shing Huei highlights the domestic challenges that face China. In his colorful, fast-paced analysis of what he calls the “steroid superpower,” the author raises important questions about the sustainability of what he dubs “market Leninism” and the Communist Party’s capacity to take China to the next stage.

In the field of fiction, my favorite novel set in Asia is Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” a rags-to-riches-to-rags” story that is a wonderful satire on capitalism and aspirations run amok.

Turning to film, the most haunting documentary of the year was “The Act of Killing,” about the 1965-66 massacres in Indonesia that claimed more than a million lives. We meet some of the aging paramilitaries who boldly describe and reenact their techniques, with one dashing old gent explaining how it’s best not to wear white when bludgeoning people to death.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer somehow won the trust of these psychopaths while also showing that the same paramilitary organizations remain powerful and well connected to the political establishment.

On a lighter note, my favorite sports book of 2013 is James Astill’s “The Great Tamasha,” which looks at modern India through the lens of cricket, warts and all. Read this and you will never again watch Twenty20 without a twinge of regret at how games lasting a mere three hours or so have wrested so much support from the sport’s traditional days-long forms.

Finally, Jeffrey Alexander’s “Brewed in Japan” charts the history of the beer industry from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the present — and serves up a barrel of fun facts. It is also a rousing tale of cultural adaptation, as Japanese consumers have come a long way since the 19th century when they scorned beer as “bitter horse-piss wine.”

Indeed, thanks to online marketing and a growing preference for high-quality suds, Japan is now benefitting from a craft-beer boom. For those inclined to rigorous fieldwork, the archipelago has become a target-rich environment. Enjoy.

Jeff Kingston is the Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.