Books / Reviews | BEST OF BOOKS: 2008

Ready for a little Yuletide reading?

Find out what our reviewers recommend for this year's Best of Asia books

by David Burleigh

SAKHALIN ISLAND by Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Reeve (Oneworld Classics)

“The Japanese were the first to begin exploring Sakhalin, starting in 1613,” says Anton Chekhov in his detailed 1890 account of conditions on the northern island. I picked up this book after visiting the German hot spring where he died. It evokes the wretchedness of the Russian penal colony with economy and great compassion. Those sentenced in European Russia had to walk across Siberia to get there, a journey that could take three years.

UNDER THE DRAGON: A Journey Through Burma, by Rory Maclean (I.B. Tauris)

A welcome new edition of this moving and well-written account of Rory Maclean and his wife’s putative search for a certain kind of basket weave in Burma. But it really is a close investigation of life in that troubled and complicated land, at once heart-wrenching and enthralling, magical and desperately sad. William Dalrymple, whose wonderfully capacious history of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, “The Last Mughal,” ends in Burma, provides an introduction.

L’ANNIVERSAIRE DE LA SALADE by Tawara Machi, translated into French by Yves-Marie Allioux (Editions Philippe Picquier)

A relatively thin year for poetry nonetheless saw a graceful new French translation of tanka poet Tawara Machi’s sensationally successful first collection, “Salad Anniversary” (done twice in English). It is reputed to have sold 8 million copies, at least half overseas. Quite something for a poetic form with a 1,000-year history, evidently still going strong. Comments on the poet’s risky art are quoted from an interview in this paper.

David Burleigh grew up in the north of Ireland and has lived and worked in Tokyo for 30 years.