Great reads for the New Year


Thousands of books are seen on an 18-meter four-story-high wall at a shopping mall in Xian in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. With so many to pick from, Asia Times has come up for with some recommendations that readers might like to try. PHOTO/AFP

Our editors reveal their best books of the year, from Korea to Hong Kong intrigue, the financial dealings of Southeast Asian militaries, China’s war with India, India’s rich Northeast, the onset of war in Syria, Israel’s PM, and the Siege of Mecca

With 2019 only hours old, Asia Times editors have assembled their picks for the best books to ease you into a successful New Year. The list includes our top reads from 2018 and older publications which have become newly relevant due to unfolding events in our regions.

Northeast Asia

The New Koreans: The Business, History and People of South Korea

By Michael Breen

It may be Asia’s most baffling nation. Korea – rather, the Koreas – exploded on to the world’s mind map only in 1950, but have rarely been off it since, for a range of strategic, political, economic and, more latterly, cultural reasons. Despite ruling the same people, Pyongyang and Seoul have walked radically different paths, resulting in one of the world’s worst post-communist failures and one of its greatest capitalist successes. Yet even within South Korea, in areas as distant as politics, commerce and social culture, matters extend to extremes in ways that defy expectations.

The New Koreans

How to make sense of it all? Michael Breen’s The New Koreans (a follow-up to his earlier The Koreans) provides many answers. It breaks the mold of current Korea-related publishing – dominated by Northern escape narratives or geopolitical analyses – as it concentrates largely, but not exclusively, on the South. 

Blending historical and other data with personal experience and critique, the ex-journalist lays bare multiple national contradictions. He notes that despite the successes of Korean capitalism, the planning for the “economic miracle” was socialistic, and this thinking still permeates. The touchy issue of Japanese colonialism is covered even-handedly: Breen notes that elderly Koreans who lived through the period are less anti-Japanese than those who learned about it subsequently.  His discussion of Seoul pre-, mid- and post-war atrocities will give pause for thought to anyone who views the conflict through the prism of “good democrats” vs “bad commies.”

Even long-term Korea watchers will nod at many of Breen’s observations, which extend from the highs of religious belief and business culture to the lows of national defecatory habits. His is a thought-provoking, intelligent work, but one that is laced throughout with humor. Professorial types have sniffed at Breen’s approach, but his marriage of fascinating content with page-turning style make his book a joy to read, elevating it far above academic drudgery. An essential primer for anyone seeking insight into a peninsula that never strays far from global headlines.

Macmillan | 2017 

— Reviewed by Andrew Salmon, Northeast Asia Editor 

South Asia

China’s India War: Collision Course on the
Roof of the World

By Bertil Lintner

China’s india war

In 1962 India suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of China in a border war that lasted nearly two months. Since then, generations of Indians have grown up haunted by the defeat that has not only left its imprint on foreign policy, but also domestic politics. Even now, the ruling far-right Hindutva party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to remind voters that the defeat took place due to the strategic failures of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. 

But the truth of that war has been mired in claims and counterclaims, mostly dominated by a narrative authored by an Anglo-Australian journalist, Neville Maxwell, whose account is supposed to be based on a secret assessment carried out by the Indian Army after the war. Maxwell’s narrative is very sympathetic to China and was acknowledged by the Chinese leadership for decades.

But was the narrative accurate?

Bertil Lintner is an old Asia hand, a senior journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Times. He has now produced China’s India War, a response of sorts to Maxwell, but also a book that uncovers new ground based on extensive research and meticulous sourcing.

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