By Tom Plate
Los Angeles --- Books can be truly great gifts. They can make the recipient smarter for having read them, they can add that special something to the home library and they certainly help deserving authors avoid debtor’s prison. I always give books (and CDs, such as Samuel Barber’s monumental Violin Concerto) as holiday gifts.
So here – you comparison shoppers – is my 2010 list of gift books I will be giving this holiday season. They are all truly special. And, yes, they mainly reflect my long interest in world affairs and issues of Asia.
THE KOREAN WAR, by Bruce Cumings: Do you want to understand what’s really eating North Korea these days? Get away from day-to-day journalism and buy (or give) this headline-related book! It explains things better than anything you’ve read about the roots of our tensions with North Korea. This noted University of Chicago history professor shows how America got into the conflict (1950-53) for a lot of bad reasons and how it now finds itself locked into yet another dead-end policy with the potential to further drain the country’s spirit and resources. Timely and disturbingly powerful.
DISMANTLING THE EMPIRE, by Chalmers Johnson: This is another invaluable in-your-face book. The author, who recently passed away, was an unquiet-American academic who enjoyed annoying America’s smug and unimaginative foreign policy establishment. This West Coast-based professor, long-associated with the University of California, San Diego, all but invented the word “blowback.” This is the impact of pent-up foreign anger over evil U.S. interventions around the world since the end of World War Two, when the American Empire was put together. In this collection of savvy essays, this Prof blames America’s economic distress on what he calls “Pentagon economics.” The enormous cost of maintaining America’s military and national security empire is eating at the roots of our economic stability. President Obama, he insists, needs to dismantle the “American empire.” This is not about to happen, of course. Brilliant and utterly disturbing.
MALAYSIAN MAVERICK, by Barry Wain: This former Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent, now ensconced as writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, has written the best English-language study to date of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s epic and iconic prime minister (1981-2003). It’s no surprise it has been dancing on and around Asian bestseller lists many months now. It’s an instant classic – amazingly comprehensive, clearly written, gaffe-free. It’s the Wain kind of journalism -- by the way -- that deserves the oft-misapplied “fair and balanced” moniker. Authoritative and brilliantly lucid.
RESISTANCE: THE ESSENCE OF THE ISLAMIST REVOLUTION, by Alastair Crooke. Our Western media is understandably negative about the extremist edges of Islam. But the downside of extreme negativity is its capacity to block all sensitivity to comprehension: We wind up less properly informed than blindingly angry. This overly sympathetic study of what we would regard as the dark side of the Muslim world is nevertheless an urgently needed intellectual corrective, even if some parts need to be read with tons of salt. Penetrating and usefully provocative.
THAILAND UNHINGED, by Federico Ferrara: Rarely have so many clichés about a popular country required so many revisions. Ever since the coup that ousted twice-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, this otherwise gorgeous country of comely and smiley residents has collapsed into a continually ugly identity crisis. Is beloved Thailand a true democracy whose leaders appropriately attain their power perches through election? Or does a secret power elite run the country, as if from perches pre-selected by a “network monarchy”? This and other apt phrases, written by an extremely talented Harvard PhD. journalist/professor, populate this well-crafted collection of essays to illuminate magnificently the tragedy of Thailand today. Trenchant and continually blistering.
THE CORRUPTIONIST, by Christopher G. Moore. This novel’s wisecracking Bangkok-based private detective, Vincent Calvino, appears again to make us smarter about Thailand. He is the inspired creation of Bangkok novelist Moore, popping up anew to offer the inside story of the corrupt power-elite politics that lies beneath the country’s recent turmoil. In Moore’s demimonde, the fallen ladies of the red-light districts come across as so much more astute than all the fatty fallen politicians who so often are their repulsive their clients. But injustice, in Thailand especially, must be served. Entertaining and devilishly informative.
INSPECTOR SINGH INVESTIGATES: THE SINGAPORE SCHOOL OF VILLAINY, by Shamini Flint: This, the third in the ongoing series of rollicking Southeast Asia based detective novels, may be the best yet. Well, maybe the prior “A Bali Conspiracy Most foul” was the best…or was it “A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder”? The fictional Detective Singh – overweight, throwing back mugs of beer, everywhere disheveled – is something else again, as the centerpiece of these entertaining novels – while offering knowing expositions about the inside of SEA governments. America’s TV industry, always hungry for fresh material from Asia, ought to give this woman writer a good long look. Delicious and always lively.
Newspaper Columnist and Loyola Marymount Professor Tom Plate is the author of “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew,” the first volume in the “Giants of Asia” series. © 2010, Pacific Perspectives Media Center, Beverly Hills, California.