Notable Books Asia: 2009

Considering that books are such a large part of my job, I shouldn’t find questions like “Is this book any good?” complicated.  I won’t lie to you: if I don’t like a book, I’ll tell you (sorry, capitalism).  Ultimately it’s more important to find out whether or not you like a book for yourself.  You’d think a bookseller would tell you that there are no  bad books, but unfortunately, I have my standards. The best way to tell if a book is worth it?  Start reading.

That said, I would like to break with all my usual feelings about “best-of” lists and provide for you…a best-of list.  Word on the street is that it’s going to be one cold winter, and you know that you can’t spend that much time on Facebook…


Todd Shimoda: Oh! A mystery of ‘mono no aware’

The Hawaii-based  Shimoda teases an engaging novel from the hard-to-translate concept of mono no aware.  I would poorly translate mono no aware as that feeling one gets upon experiencing the passing beauty of transitory things.  On the obvious end of the mono no aware spectrograph, one finds cherry blossoms and autumn leaves.  For the misanthropic urban dweller such as myself, the sight of the freshly-trimmed trees in Civic Center (which render them nubby, alien plantlife) represent my “Oh!” moment.



Why it’s worth it: The Seattle publisher Chin Music Press is also responsible for one of my favorite collections, Kuhaku (2004).  All of their books are works of art: from the quality of the binding to the illustrations (by Linda Shimoda), Oh! is a book you’ll want to give as a gift, and then immediately borrow.

For fans of anything McSweeney’s or the Japanese diaspora.

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Gilles Béguin: Buddhist Art: An Historical and Cultural Journey

What sets this book apart from a spate of recent Buddhist surveys is the incredible scope of the French scholar’s newest work: 680 color illustrations, 22 maps and 78 plans bind Asia together in a historical atlas that is at once scholarly and yet approachable.

Why it’s worth it: While the incredible number of pictures means you don’t have to read a word, Béguin is an expert in Asian art and chief conservator of the Cernuschi Museum, Paris.

For those who spurn insubstantial coffee table books but love a big, shiny picture.


Eileen Yin-Fei Lo: Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking

Probably the book I would most likely buy right now if I weren’t a vegetarian (and probably a book I will buy as a gift for my non-vegetarians), this represents another win from the accomplished chef and author.  Lovingly shot by Susie Cushner, the book demystifies Chinese cuisine  but doesn’t dumb it down.

Why it’s worth it: The book highlights a wide variety of Chinese regional dishes.  And you’re hungry.

For those who love food and/or love to read about food…so, most of San Francisco.


Patricia Tanumihardja: The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook: Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens

When our buyer put this on my desk it took all of a second for me to say yesyesyes.  Grandmothers.  Cookbook.  What more do you need?   Well, design-wise it’s probably one of my new favorites: lovely close-ups of patterns are interspersed throughout, recalling wallpaper and grandmotherly housedresses (or sari, or baro’t saya, or kimono).  The recipes are the real thing, but what really got me were the “Profiles of a Grandma,” in which the history of each extraordinary woman is told.

Why it’s worth it: Face it: food made by grandmas just tastes better.

For those who know that the secret to good food is love.

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Victor Mair & Erling Hoh: The True History of Tea

In the last few years, I can count nearly ten new books on tea and tea culture (and that’s just what we’ve carried).  But few have come close to this most recent entry into the canon.  Mair, a China scholar, sorts apocrypha from truth and spins an engaging yarn.

Why it’s worth it: The history of tea is the history of  culture, trade, and war.

For polymaths and caffeine junkies.


Jaden Hair: The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook

Sorry, just one more cookbook.  I had to mention this one because it’s just so…easy-going.  The tone may put off some seasoned home chefs (hello, Food Network), but the idea behind the book –“101 Asian recipes simple enough for tonight’s dinner”–will appeal to those who aren’t up to a lot of prep time.   I’m liking every cookbook that Tuttle has put out recently, and this is no exception.

Why it’s worth it: Because you can’t spend every night cooking for three hours.

For those in search of an unpretentious guide to Asian cookery.


Salima Hashmi: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art From Pakistan

Asia Society’s catalog for the first large-scale exhibition of Pakistani art in the U.S. treads neatly along the lines of message and media.  Ultimately, we are won over by the artists’ skill and wit.  There’s an especially strong showing of Pakistan’s women in the show, recalling that Pakistan’s Fahmida Mirza was the first woman in the Muslim world elected to be a speaker of Parliament.

Why it’s worth it: If everything you think you know about Pakistan has been informed by war, it’s time to see another side.

For the art lover who welcomes the challenge of new perspectives.


M.L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati & Forrest McGill: Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma 1775-1950

Hello, nepotism.  But seriously, I won’t recommend a bad book, and this book does what no other has done before.    Representative of a tremendous effort in both scholarship and conservation, this catalog also features the sumptuous photography of Kaz Tsuruta.

Why it’s worth it: When was the last time you were able to explain the complex relationship between Burma and the old kingdom of Siam?

For lovers of Southeast Asian art or those looking for something a little different.

4 Responses to “Notable Books Asia: 2009”

  1. Nancy  on November 30th, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    HA! HA! Very sneaky — Ninja museum recommendations which are just in time for the annual buying of Christmas presents. I have the catalogue for the Arts of Burma and Thailand and love it. I haven’t made it though all the essays yet but the photos and layout are superb. I love to cook and I will be checking out those recipe books. Plus, so many of my old cookbooks have been used so often that they are falling apart. It’s time for new ones. I remember when I was looking for research materials on a post that I wrote on the art of tea, based on the gorgeous bowls in your collection. I didn’t find anything that really satisfied me so I will be looking up the tea book that you recommended as well.

  2. nico  on November 30th, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    you got me there. I have been known to practice Jedi and/or Ninja bookselling techniques, despite the fact that I believe in things like Buy Nothing Day.
    See how I work around that by being employed by a non-profit? The mind reels!

  3. nico  on December 1st, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    BTW, in no way is this list representative of everything that came out in 2009–given my druthers, I’d probably still be writing if I didn’t give myself a harsh deadline…
    Please feel free to mention your favs, because I’ve left out so many.
    The new book on Amorsolo!
    River Festivals!
    Art of the Korean Renaissance!
    Your Bright Future!
    See? This is what lists do to me.

  4. M.R.  on January 12th, 2010 at 5:07 am

    I don’t know that Notable Books Asia 2009 are either interesting or not. But i will read all these books when i will get free……

    These all books have been awarded and rated by Notable Books Council Book Award.

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