Archaeologists call them "oracle bones," the turtle shells and cattle shoulder blades dating from the 13th and 14th centuries B.C. that bear China's first known writingmostly prophecies. Hessler, who writes about China for the New Yorker, has fashioned his own oracle bone: a lyrical, sharply observed meditation on the country's rich past, frantic present and uncertain future. We meet obtuse bureaucrats, idealistic scholars and young people on the make. Mostly, Hessler focuses on four people: Emily, who gives up her well-paid factory job to train as a teacher of disabled children; Willy, a gifted young English instructor who blows the whistle on his superiors over leaked exam questions; Polat, a shady money changer from China's Uighur minority who eventually finagles his way into the U.S.; and Chen Mengjia, an oracle-bones scholar whose mysterious death during the Cultural Revolution bedevils Hessler.
The scholar's tale is the only one without a satisfying ending, but Hessler finds inspiration in the dogged optimism of Chen and his fellow intellectuals. "They had tried to reconcile Western ideas with Chinese traditions," he writes. "Most of them had failed, but ... somehow a spark of their idealism had survived. I recognized it in young people like Emily and Willy, who, despite living in a world without familiar bearings, still cared about right and wrong." In such hands, concludes Hessler, his beloved, polluted, conflicted China should do just fine.
By Don Morrison
Lottery winners, researchers have found, are no happier a year after their windfall than they were before it (they've bought a house too big for them, they don't know who their friends are anymore, they spend all their time with lawyers). Those who are suddenly rendered paraplegic, studies have also discovered, end up, after a year or so of adjustment, feeling no unhappier than before. Happiness, in short, is something intrinsic to us, like our musclesand yet it's also, like muscle, something we can train and learn, quantifiably, to build up.
In Happiness, Matthieu Ricard takes us through all the recent empirical science that shows how contentment can be both deepened and assessed (those who test high for hopefulness can endure the pain of freezing water twice as easily as those who don't). But, more valuablyin part by drawing on friends and philosophers from Europe and Asiahe shows us, in practical ways, how we can make our lives more fulfilling.
Ricard started out as a French intellectual who received a doctorate in molecular biology and counted Luis Buñuel, Igor Stravinsky and Henri Cartier-Bresson among his friends. But 35 years ago he went to Nepal to become a Buddhist monk. When a European scientist from the Himalayas takes us into the meaning of well-being, the result is something that does not belong to East or West, to Buddhism or to neuroscience. It tells, instead, a simple truth: we can change the world by changing the way we look at it.
By Pico Iyer
3. Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India
The love affair between Indian royals and European artisans began in 1573 when the great Mughal ruler Akbar met his first gift-bearing European, and demanded from then on that his courtiers bring him more "wonderful things" from the West. The relationship reached its climax at the height of the British Raj (1857-1947) when India's princes, increasingly marginalized from political life, indulged instead in lavish escapismbuilding and furnishing opulent palaces influenced by the fashions of European élites. There is no richer testament to the period than Made for Maharajas by Amin Jaffer, who works as a curator at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Chronicling more than three centuries of made-to-order luxury, Jaffer draws from the archives of Baccarat, Cartier, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other design houses that crafted some of their most splendid pieces for the maharajas. In turn, the houses were influenced by the Indian love of color and embellishment.
It was, of course, a love affair fated to end. Britain lost India, and Indian royals lost their lands, titles and allowances to a newly independent, democratic state. Jewel-encrusted lipstick cases and cigarette lighters were sold off to pay debts, while stunning palaces crumbled for lack of upkeep. But Jaffer's sumptuously illustrated love letter to the era remains, a jewel fit for the coffee table of any modern-day maharaja.
By Aryn Baker
4. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Tokyo can feel painfully lonely. Maybe it's the capsule hotels. Maybe it's the silent trainspacked with commuters, each isolated in private thoughts. Or maybe it's the presence of Haruki Murakami, whose writing illuminates isolation both cosmic and urban. In this collection of previously published work, he revels in his favorite theme. Witness "The Year of Spaghetti," in which the narrator spends every day cooking pasta in a pot "big enough to bathe a German shepherd in," though there's no one else to cook for. A woman phones, but he dodges this potential entanglement, dooming himself to yet another solitary meal. "Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be," he muses, "if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?"
Blind Willow is less a greatest-hits collection than a compilation of quirky B-sides. But it includes some of Murakami's best work, such as the haunting "Tony Takitani," about a lonely illustrator who finds love with a young woman, then loses his wife in a car accident a page later. He is left to mourn in the empty room that once housed his wife's vast wardrobealone but not untouched in a classic Murakami ending.
By Bryan Walsh
5. Will the Boat Sink the Water?
Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao
The title of this searing account of corruption in China's countryside comes from a saying of Emperor Taizong's: "Water holds up the boat; water may also sink the boat." It is often quoted by Chinese officials to describe the nervous symbiosis between China's government and its peasantry. But as Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao make clear, the economic reforms that have buoyed China's urban centers have done little for its 900 million peasants.
Banned shortly after its publication in 2004, this muckraking samizdat has sold more than 10 million black-market copies in China; a new English translation at last gives non-Chinese readers some sense of what the fuss is about. Based on three years of reporting in Anhui province, the book documents the myriad ways in which corrupt local cadres keep China's farmers in a state of virtual feudal peonage, enriching themselves while imposing oppressive taxes on the very people the communist revolution was meant to uplift. Some officials practice simple extortion; others resort to embezzlement schemes straight out of Gogol. In the poorest areas, peasants are literally bled dry, forced to sell plasma to pay their tax bills. In other cases, farmers who stand up to bullying local officials are murdered. Since Chen and Wu first reported on the problem, China's government has taken steps to reform rural taxation. But with violent protests now commonplace, the anger of the country's peasants may yet form a wave big enough to destabilize, if not upend, China's economic miracle.
By Peter Ritter
6. Building Cambodia: 'New Khmer Architecture' 1953-1970
Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Leon Collins
Everyone has heard of Angkor Wat, but very few are aware of that other great flowering of Khmer architectural geniusnamely, the New Khmer Architecture that emerged in Phnom Penh amid the heady national pride that followed Cambodia's independence from France in 1953. Building Cambodia documents the tragically short-lived style that resulted in a spate of striking buildings until its demise amid civil war and genocide not two decades later. Taking seven years of research to complete, and packed with rare photographs and illustrations, the 334-page hardback pays tribute to this remarkable cultural interlude when King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne to personally oversee a 17-year construction boom.
Implausible as it may seem amid today's frenetic construction of soulless apartment blocks and shopping centers, Phnom Penh was dubbed the "belle of Southeast Asia" in the 1960s, its buildings blending Le Corbusier-style functionalism with Cambodian artistic traditions. No other country in the region could then claim architectural standards as high as those practiced in the Cambodian capital.
Times have certainly changed, and what remains of New Khmer Architecture is under threat. Its founding father, Vann Molyvann, is now 80 years old and one has to wonder if his buildings will last as long. While the great architect's views on the current development of Phnom Penh are still respectfully listened to, they are seldom acted upon. The hope is that this beautiful book will not simply be a record of his work and that of his peers, but an inspiration to future generations of Cambodians to preserve and evolve an architectural style that has no parallel.
By Kevin Doyle
7. Sacred Games
Sartaj Singh, the hero of Vikram Chandra's 900-page novel, is a different kind of Bombay policeman. Not so different that he won't take a bribean entirely honest cop in Chandra's Bombay would be a freak of naturebut different enough to feel uneasy when doing so. Good things happen in Bombay to those who are different, and one day Singh gets the break of a lifetime: a tip-off about the location of Ganesh Gaitonde, India's most-wanted gangster. By the time Singh gets to him, though, Gaitonde is dead, apparently by his own hand. Now Singh has to find out whya quest that leads him into a murky labyrinth of pimps, Pakistani agents, Bollywood starlets, new-age gurus and would-be nuclear terrorists. Like the city it's set in, Chandra's epic is sometimes slow moving and occasionally overambitious; but like Bombay, its flaws are outweighed by its virtues. Chief among these is the way Chandra takes you inside the world of a Bombay cop. After reading the book, you'll swear you know precisely how to collect a bribe from a nightclub owner, how to count the money in a glance, and where to find the smart fellow who will shift the loot to a Swiss bank account. Rarely entirely honest or entirely rotten, Chandra's Bombay exists in a penumbra of moral ambiguitywhich is why Sacred Games is one of the best novels about India in a long time.
By Aravind Adiga
8. Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China
When John Pomfret first arrived in China to learn Mandarin in 1981, local students still had to preface research papers with quotations from Mao Zedong. But the Chairman's influence was waning, and before long the social landscape began to change entirely. By drawing intimate portraits of the ensuing lives of five of his fellow alumniall members of Nanjing University's class of 1982Pomfret shows just how sweeping that transformation was.
One of his classmates, who tortured fellow villagers as an 11-year-old Red Guard in the 1960s, ends up as a biochemistry entrepreneur in the business of extracting enzymes from urine. Another rises through the communist ranks by spouting whatever Party line is correct at any given time, thus enjoying a life of chauffeured Audis and plentiful shark's fin soup. Their stories, rife with the contradictions that puzzle China scholars, encapsulate the country's history and pose questions about its present course: will China dominate the world or crash spectacularly? Pomfret doesn't dictate the answer. Instead, he gives us the material to argue for either conclusionand many subtle gradations in between.
By Hannah Beech
9. Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Lost and delirious after a failed 1993 attempt on the world's second tallest peak, K2, the American mountaineer Greg Mortenson was rescued by residents of Korphe, a remote village high in the Pakistani Himalayas. Grateful for their assistance, Mortenson vowed to build the villagers a school. He returned home to San Francisco, sold everything he owned (including his precious climbing gear), and then embarked on the most arduous quest of his career.
Three Cups of Tea, co-written by journalist David Oliver Relin, is the account of Mortenson's extraordinary effort to give a school to Korphe and many other villages in the Taliban heartland. After 13 years in which he has brought 55 schools to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mortenson remains convinced that terrorism should be fought with books, not bombs. "[Terrorism] happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future," Mortenson told a gathering of U.S. Congress members not long after 9/11. Though awkwardly written in parts, Three Cups of Tea is an astonishing tale of compassionand of a promise kept.
By Aryn Baker
10. Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking From The Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore
In this mix-and-match age, epicures around the world know how to roll sushi and concoct Indian curries. But practical knowledge of the cuisines of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore is relatively limited once you venture outside those countries. James Oseland, editor of the American foodie magazine Saveur, has dedicated himself to redressing this culinary oversight. In Cradle of Flavora delightful book that is part culinary anthropology, part traveloguehe draws on two decades of dining in Southeast Asian homes to serve up 100 recipes infused with the area's Arab, Chinese, Malay and European gastronomic influences. Central to them are the barks, seeds and roots now found in spice cabinets worldwide, as well as some that aren't (like candlenut or salam leaves). The result is a deliciously faithful sampling of cuisines that deserve a far greater international prominence.
By Hannah Beech