I read as though I'm trying to catch a virus. What I look for are books that will live inside me and haunt me when I try to sleep. I want to gobble books that will treat me as a host, gathering strength as they inhabit me, emerging when I least expect them to. When I was recently in Vientiane, I thought repeatedly of James Fenton in that city decades ago, being startled by a Prathet Laos soldier who leaped at him from behind a bush, snarling with all teeth bared. He was grateful for this, Fenton said, because finally something memorable had happened to him in Laos' capital city. When I'm in Hong Kong, I'm accompanied by the ghost of Emily Hahn, as she races around an occupied city trying to scavenge food for her imprisoned lover and their baby, and in Phnom Penh I see, beneath the chaotic development that characterizes that city today, the deserted, eerie streets that Francois Bizot describes so well in The Gate.
The books that comprise my Top Ten List for the first ten years of 2010 are books that I carry with me wherever I go. They're like a phantom limb, invisible but always present, and sentences from them echo when I think my mind is empty. Each of them explains a portion of the world to me in some way, although it sometimes takes years for me to discover precisely how they do that. They are all extremely different, with only one thing in common--they are each about a part of Asia and they each are now a part of me.
There is no attempt to establish any kind of geographic fair play in this list nor are the books listed in order of importance. (I was pleased to find when I went to Fuchsia Dunlop's blog, that The Guardian also chose Sichuan Cooking as a Top Ten of the Decade. However they chose this as one of their top ten cookery books, while I have selected it as one of my top ten books of any category. For my top ten books about Asia for 2009 only, a list can be found at http://tonedeafinbangkok.thingsasian.com/2009/12/06/outstanding-books-about-asia-2009-a-subjective-and-covetous-list/
1. Meeting Faith by Faith Adiele (Thailand-- memoir)
2. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia-- novel)
3. Mandarins: Stories by Ruyunosuke Akutagawa (Japan-- short stories)
4. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra (Mumbai--novel)
5. The Gate by Francois Bizot (Cambodia--memoir)
6. The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer (Beijing--memoir)
7. Sichuan Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop (China--cookbook)
8. India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (India--history)
9. Red Dust by Ma Jian (China--travel memoir)
10. The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Java--novel)