The stochastically best book to read on each country

A while back I requested random recommendations from readers about the best books to read about particular countries.  I call them “stochastically best” because I have some faith in your judgments, yet without really trusting you one whit.  Here is one of the two very last installments in that series, taken and collated from comments you all have submitted:

…or Australia it’s still Year of the Angry Rabbit:Bill Bryson’s Down Under for a casual read on an outsider’s perspective or Phillip Knightley’s Australia: A Biography of a Nation, Russell Ward, The Australian Legend

Turkey? I liked Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer.

I liked Hugh Pope’s Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkish World

Norman Stone wrote a very readable short history of Turkey.

For the Philippines, either “In Our Image” by Karnow or “Touch Me Not” by Rizal

I thought this book on Cambodia was fantastic: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land. The author won a Pullitzer Prize for his reporting on the Khmer Rouge.

On Myanmar: “Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma” by Richard Cockett

Indonesia…etc. for… Indonesia (Elisabeth Pisani)

I second this opinion. Pisani was illuminating for me.

For Thailand: “Thailand’s Political History: From the Fall of Ayutthaya to Recent Times” by B. J. Terwiel is a fresh look. Many of the other books I have read follow the same boiler-plate narrative that’s been published for decades. His work also brings to light some unique source material that is valuable to the discussion.

Michael King’s “A Penguin History of New Zealand”

The Search for Modern China, China – Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson

Yeah, and for a more contemporary take, the late great Richard Baum’s Great Courses lecture series (2010), Fall and Rise of China, completes the picture (Still noting that Tyler speaking of books, Baum’s lectures are so elegant, that the transcripts serve as a wonderful book.). All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.

If you collected all of Simon Leys essays on China that would be a very insightful book on the country – mostly touching on culture and politics. Beautifully and memorably written too. Simon Leys seems to me one of the most under-rated essayists of recent decades.

Pakistan, Breaking the Curfew by Emma Duncan

The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu.

India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600, Richard Lannoy : The Speaking Tree

Does anyone have any opinion of India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha?

For India, one of my favourite books is “India: A History” by John Keay. It focuses much more on historical facts and events without passing judgement. I believe it is an extremely good and unbiased summary of Indian history from the Indus Valley Civilization to modern India.

While I haven’t found any properly good book that covers South India history, “A History of South India” by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and “A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations” by Noboru Karashima do address this topic.

I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.

Daniel Tudor’s “Korea: The Impossible Country” is a good read, which has chapters dedicated to antiquity and its influence on modern (South) Korea but mostly does concentrate on how the country is now and recent history. Tudor recommends “The Koreans,” since updated as “The New Koreans,” by Michael Breen, and “The Two Koreas” by Robert Carlin as “two foundational texts.” Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.

Burma / Myannmar: The River of Lost Footsteps

Haiti: Dubois’ Aftershocks of History? (though you’d know better)

Here are previous installments in the series.


Not a single link to Amazon?


I've had good luck finding books at my neighborhood public library.

California cast iron soul remix

Tyler and others - by strange coincidence, note that the Simon Leys referenced above in relation to China is also the Simon Leys I referenced in a comment to your post from a few days ago on Napoleon (“The Death of Napoleon”, a lovely short novel).

Leys wrote well about literature, too: he penned elegant essays on writers as diverse as Chesterton and Cervantes.
And he was really good at dismissing fashionable nonsense with a casual zinger. Thus, commenting on Edward Said's claim that "no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim the author's involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances", Leys quipped that "Said's own book is an excellent case in point; Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition".

"Said's own book is an excellent case in point; Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition"

A great line made even greater by the fact Said wasn't particularly Palestinian.

Edward Said was a cradle Anglican, which is pretty much the single most amusing, snd revealing fact about him.

RE: #17 China Chinese History: A New Manual; Fourth (2017 “bluebook”) or Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson .... All and all, Endymion’s work is the best out there in the Chinese scholarship community.

Richard Baum is referred to as Baum but Endymion Wilkinson is referred to as Endymion? In fairness if I had to refer to anyone called Endymion I would call him Endymion too. But are you sure he calls himself that? I would not be surprised if he was a little sensitive. He sounds like a character from a Gene Wolf story. I have not read either book or met either man so I do not know.

India: the Idea of India, Subaltans & Raj: South Asia since 1600

I would think a good rule of thumb is that anything with "Subaltern" in the title that does not refer to the British Army in World War One is worthless.

I am on a Tamim Ansary kick, so I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan.

I would think the best book by far on Afghanistan is Thomas Jefferson Barfield's Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. By far.

Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” is a fascinating book about what life in North Korea is like for ordinary North Koreans.

Robert S. Boynton's The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project is not even about life in North Korea but it is very illuminating about what sort of place it is.

Subaltern history in its original Indian sense is not at all like what you believe, and in the context of India it refers to the rise of the Indian middle classes in the sense of serving the British as administrators, native officers, merchants, and classes that were excluded from power and decision making yet were not at the bottom, and often collaborators with the regime. Rebels, mutineers, and activists are by definition not subaltern and are usually privileged in histories. This is the crux of the issue of the Raj and its child modern India. I have not read this book but it looks interesting.

I think So Much For Subtlety is referring to the way that various "postcolonial" academics, like the Subaltern Studies Group, used the term "subaltern", which they in turn borrowed from Gramsci. I'm inclined to agree with SMFS's opinion of the worth, or lack thereof, of this tradition. Its later Foucauldian phases is arguably even worse than the early Marxist stuff.

Fifth Editions (2015 “greenbook”) by Endymion Wilkinson is a source manual and tool resource book for Chinese history scholars. It's great for that; not general readership. The Richard Baum lecture and notes is great for contemporary Chinese history; however, if this course follows up Ken Hammond's "Yao to Mao" Great Courses lectures (and notes), collectively both would be a marvelous review of China. BTW, Kenneth Hammond, in his earlier days, was an SDS leader during the time of ferment at Kent State, circa 1970--this factoid neither adds nor detracts from his fantastic lectures on Chinese History.

What book would one recommend on Norway, I can not think of one, and no not the relevant portions of the Almost Perfect People.

On Sweden I would recommend “The Swedish Mentality” by Åke Daun, which does not treat history at all but goes a long way of explaining things. I know of no such book about Norway.

> "I’ll propose “Games Without Rules” for Afghanistan."

The late Peter Hopkirk wrote a number of excellent books about "The Great Game" in that part of the world. See e.g. "The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia".

Very good, memorable even, books. Get one or two and enjoy!

...another vote for Hopkirk. Also, have Jonathan Spence and John King Fairbanks gone out of vogue as Chinese historians?

What is lacking on India is a more solid nationalist scholarship, with good academic credentials.

India is crying out for a fine conservative historian.

Ram Guha's India after Gandhi is strictly OK. But Guha is a liberal and a former Marxist and lacks empathy to understand and appreciate the significance of Hindu revivalism.

A good place to understand India can be the three part lecture series by the fine Indian journalist and member of parliament - Swapan Dasgupta, on the Indian conservative movement. Here are the links -

While it is dedicated to studying the history of the Indian "Right" over the past 200 years, it is a great way to understand Indian politics in general

If Guhas only fault were being a liberal he wouldn’t be an issue. (Or perhaps even an antidote to the wilder narratives of nationalist historians) but he is a Gandhi/Nehru sycophant thus useless unless you want court history.

"What is lacking on India is a more solid nationalist scholarship, with good academic credentials.

India is crying out for a fine conservative historian."

I can imagine their discussions. Are eight-legged gods better than elephant gods in bringing rain? What gives one better crops, worshipping cows or burning widows?

Another fine way to understand India is to read Naipaul's third book on India - "India - A Million Mutinies Now"

The book was authored in 1990, just prior to the announcement of economic reforms. And Naipaul captures the country's restlessness, and is almost prescient in predicting that something has got to give, and this is a country on the up.

One of my all time favorites. But I wonder how relevant it still is?

Gandhi's grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, wrote a fine history of the province of Punjab in India. Being basically a continent, it isn't easy to write a coherent history that covers all of India. Aside from that Nirad Chaudhuri's The Continent Of Circe is an interesting read.

First V. S. Naipaul (I still think his brother Shiva was a better writer although tragically he died young) and now Nirad C Chaudhuri?

Some readers of MR seem a remarkably reactionary lot.

I think Chaudhuri is one of the finest writers to come out of India. I mean, a very unusual man with a lot of very unusual things to say, but a great writer. I wonder if we would have been deprived of that is Subhas Chandra Bose's career had, well, worked out in a better way? His description of Gandhi is a classic that suffers from being so poorly known.

India :Here's a link to " The Speaking Tree" -Richard Lannoy.
Very comprehensive , should be better-known.

I'm sure "A Penguin History of New Zealand" is a page turner.

Ethan Casey's Alive and Well in Pakistan and Anatol Leivens "Pakistan - A Hard Country" are both good introductions to post 2000s Pakistan - vital, since the other book Tyler listed was written in the early 90s. Much has changed since then.

Here is another study with similar results, this time in China:

I suggested both the Duncan book and the Lieven book and the former was picked. Duncan's book is still pretty relevant now particularly in describing Pakistani society although Lieven's is obviously better for the state of the country post 9/11 and a more comprehensive and better book overall. I was not impressed by Casey's book. Military Inc. by Ayesha Siddiqa was more relevant and useful.

The word "stochastic" does not mean what you think it means, as it is not applicable in this context.

Whither Liechtenstein?

I’m going to Greece next Fall. Already very familiar with the ancient texts, looking for a book about the country which brings me up the present.

Any recommendations or prior discussion?

er, it is subalterns,

descriptions of the vanished hills and lakes of Manhattan, if absent from any general history of the United States, establish the limitations of the genre:

the modern "picaresque novel" darkly satirizing society from the point of view of a would-be modern Mark Twain

often turns out more thuggish and more impudent

than the authors realized

lyricists, write better lyrics (the comma indicates the imperative mood, absent the comma that would be a declarative statement)

Penelope Rowland, reviewing a biography entitled "American Eden" in last weekend's Wall Street Journal: "A lovely sweep of notched shoreline" is how Tocqueville described it, with "blossoming trees on greensward sloping down to the water, a multitude of small, artfully embellished candy-box houses in the background." It was New York in the early 19th century, before Manhattan's beautiful hills were leveled, its winding lanes forced into a grid.

The Norway question is tough to answer, but I would say that if one were to read Kristen Lavrandsatter (all three volumes, unfortunately one has to read a lot about that schnook Erland but it comes with the territory) in conjunction with Platero y Yo, and tries to understand why those books are so beloved (between the two books you get a fairly full description of several human lives, one donkey life, and literally thousands of cameo appearances by other characters), one would know a lot about the parts of Europe that can be walked to and from without crossing lots of salt water

in the category of dreams I have sometimes but not often is that dream where you are in Manhattan with some friends and you wind up after a night at a good restaurant on some suburban street, quiet houses with small but well-kept lawns, perhaps with Christmas lights (winter) or fireflies in the laurel trees (June), and someone says who knew there were still streets like this in Manhattan? that is the feeling you get after the second or third time you read some of the better passages in Kristen Lavransdatter and Platero y Yo

Since I am feeling in a helpful mood tonight, MIE tip from Crazy Days and Nights (a very intense gossip site - wheels within wheels, not the sort of place where one is innocent until proven guilty, so stay away if you have a tendency towards thuggishness and impudence or if you are afraid you might be one of both of those very bad things - a thuggishness stooge or an impudence stooge) - lets keep this pseudonymous, we are anti-thug and anti-impudence .... (A-T and A-I)
anyway, apparently ghostwriters for rappers in what is called, I surmise, the "hip-hop arena", always sign NDAs but there is also a market for ghostwriters for the ghostwriters, and according to Crazy Days and Nights somebody slipped up and did not realize that the ghostwriters for the ghostwriters should also be offered NDAs! .... there is an Econ 101 word for that kind of market mistake, I remember what is in Latin but I forget what it is in English
anyway if you see Erland, a former European A- courtier, from Kay El, show up, anywhere at all, it is not my fault
lyricists, write better lyrics

oh and the relevance of Crazy Days and Nights: a website that, in one potential universe, describes the entertainment nation in the way "the best book" would ...

the relevance of thuggish impudent picaresque novelists? thugs and impudent intellectuals never understand anything well and their books, while God bless the authors and their children, are misleading ...

the relevance of that Manhattan dream? nobody cares about any one else's dreams, right, unless the dreamer is a Tolkien or a Saint Alphonsus Liguori or someone like that - but what I was trying to say, read a supremely gifted psychologist like Tocqueville on something you almost never think about, like the vanished hills of Manhattan (not to mention that beautiful vanished lake a short walk from where the FlatIron Building now rejoices in its plangent fame), and then, to be kind to authors who were not as talented, imagine all you need to imagine to infuse into their books the extra level of truth that they simply just missed - books are not measured by what is in them but by what they remind the good reader of ...

the relevance of talking about lyrics: I used to have, in that long-gone stretch of time which might have been the 80s or 90s, I am not sure which, some friends who were, believe it or not, "Lyricists", not top-level type lyricists but there are tens of thousands of us who show up, now and then, as cameo characters in other people's coffee house songs or even, on a good day, in Billboard "Top 200" lyrics. hence the relevance of talking about lyricists. And to tell the truth I am just as happy when a friend of mine reads some seemingly weird (but actually more or less true, I like to hope) thing I said about God (something which actually makes sense) and repeats it to her ailing mother at the Alzheimer's home. God is good and the world is simple. Even math is simple. Trust me.

as for lightning bugs and Christmas lights - this is early June in Northern Virginia, and I love firefly season the way the Japanese in suburban Tokyo love cherry blossom season. and on my balcony tonight, I have (after 11 PM, for obvious reasons) turned on the Christmas lights. Green, orange, lavender, rose, and bluish white. The green lights, in particular, have attracted several moths of a species that I could probably easily identify if I cared, but I don't look up the names of moths, I just watch them living their moth lives in the quite light of the late North Virginia evenings, and I try to remember them enough to remember them if I ever see them again. It is no small thing to be a friend to a creature that never had a friend in this world.

the relevance of the phrase "math is simple "- not a pastiche of Sanskrit, but I can see why you might think that - I actually believe that every little insect is immortal, because there are a near infinite number of angels, and even if you are simply a little insect, all it takes is one moment where an angel spoke to you heart to heart and God will never forget you -

if you believe something like that with your heart of hearts you don't really find big numbers and their variations to be intimidating, you might not have them all memorized but there they are over there and there you are over here and there is not really all that much of a distance.

"Las palabras no comunican, recuerdan" - Don Colacho ("books are not measured by what is in them but by what they remind the good reader of", well, he said it better)

70s 80s 90s, not 80s 90s - everything after is, in my heart, not "long-gone"

and the "quiet North Virginia night", not the "quite North Virginia night" :

a couple of months ago I stopped reading the comments to my comments, there are billions of people on this earth and it is sad but, after several hundred thousands of words on various websites, even generously late in the comment sections, I have apparently rendered at least 40 or so people annoyed enough that they insolently regaled me with insulting words.

Even if all 40 or so of them were right (and my guess is about 20, in context, were close to being right, but I could be wrong), I eventually realized that there is no point in sitting around and waiting for whatever percentage of the billions of people in this world who don't like the way you talk to tell you that you are stupid and make no sense.

My friends talk to me and I talk to my friends. Tonight, I was going to write another chapter in one of those genre novels that almost nobody (statistically) will ever read, and which, when we put them out on Kindle, reimburse writers at about minimum wage per hour worked - or maybe I was going to work on lesson plans for next semester at the junior college, where some of my colleagues think I am not the worst professor of English composition, or maybe I was going to finally sit down and write that first version of that newsletter on AI investing ....

but I wrote here instead.

and likely somebody reading this would like to snarkily say, hey, if math is simple, you charlatan, explain for me your specific views on whether the Langlands program has surprisingly slowed down in the last few years or not. and maybe I, the accused charlatan, could gently explain that their critique is misplaced, or maybe I could think that I just wasted my time trying to communicate. this is not about me, of course: we all need to try harder to understand each other, and to be kinder.

"las palabras no comunican, recuerdan"

I actually believe that every little animal is immortal, because there are a near infinite number of immortal angels, and even if you are a little animal, all it takes is for one of those near infinite number of angels - and remember, a near infinite number is a very very big number and this earth is in comparison a very very small place, even with all its endless oceans and forests and long long roads - - all it takes is for one angel to speak once to you, heart to heart, and after that --- God, who created all those angels, will never forget you

by the way this is not inconsistent with orthodox Christianity
or, for that matter, common sense
cor ad cor loquitur

"las palabras no comunican, recuerdan"

I remember

That was a very very very long time ago

I remember, said someone very unlike me

cor ad cor loquitur

the sound of music

That was actually quite nice.

I think VS Naipual's India Trilogy is a very under-appreciated work from someone who can understand the country better than most people from outside the country but can also bring a very logical outsider perspective. The book (especially the first part, i.e. India an area of darkness) might seem very light on empathy but for an introduction to the real india of very hot weather, poor sanitation, not very safe food or water or the inclement bureaucracy I would look no further.

An Area of Darkness is his weakest work among the three. He acknowledged that himself.

India - A Million Mutinies Now is a masterpiece. One of his best.

Why are so many books about non-European countries written by folks with European-descent names? Are there any stochastically good books written by natives?

Since I rec'd "Games Without Rules" I'll go ahead and confess that I was reading it when Tyler made his grudging appeal, and didn't quite finish it. So there may be more than a little entropy there. My husband did finish it, however (he reads "at" things, scanning-fashion, like T.C.). His verdict was that, while Ansary's style was engaging as ever, a great book needs a mighty theme, as Snoopy says, and Afghanistan ain't it. "Destiny Disrupted" is where to start if you are interested in what happens when a Half-Afghan/half-Swede man of the left, a man of great empathy, but an aversion to cant, scrolls through the history of Islam; and his slender memoir "West of Kabul, East of New York" seemingly gives a great feel for a moment in Afghanistan's history, for a certain lucky-then-unlucky elite segment of its population. There is pleasure too in his self-deprecating account of a feckless attempt to return, as a tourist/novice journalist in North Africa, to his Islamic roots, only to find that his experience of Islam had been a particular one, and that there was less of universalism, and much less of its early integrity, in the faith than he had hoped. That section might be titled "Eat, Pray, Get Fleeced."

I recommend Junichi Saga's "Memories of Silk and Straw: A Self-Portrait of Small-Town Japan". The author is a physician who relates the self-histories he could collect from his elderly patients. It is an amazing look at how much life in the country changed in the early part of the 20th century.

I did not see the book Roots of Brazil by Sergio Buarque de Holanda in the link. Probably is not only the best book to know about Brazilian culture, but also ond of the vest to understand some aspects of the Portugal or even Spanish culture.

Now I'm curious along the "As others see us" vein: Books on the USA written by foreigners... travelogues, essays, etc... ideally in English, but I'd love to see, at least, some of the funnier titles translated. We may need these to remind us what we once were...

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