The Best China Books of 2021, recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whether you want to read the entire history of China in 250 pages or find out what’s going on right now in Xinjiang, enjoy a new translation of a 16th-century fantasy novel or delve into contemporary short stories, 2021 has been another good year for books about China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, recommends his favourite China books of 2021.

The Best Modern Japanese Literature, recommended by Linda Flores

To the western eye, Japan often appears as a surprising combination of very advanced development, and extreme cultural peculiarity. Linda Flores, Associate Professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Oxford, guides us through this discovery with five great works of modern Japanese literature.

The best books on Mumbai, recommended by Saumya Roy

It’s one of the most densely populated, vibrant cities in the world, combining enormous wealth with dire poverty. It’s India’s financial and commercial capital, home to the glamour of Bollywood and the movie industry, but it has somehow managed to defy modernization. Saumya Roy, journalist, author and co-founder of a nonprofit that made loans to the city’s poorest entrepreneurs, recommends her favourite books on Mumbai (aka Bombay).

The best books on Sri Lanka, recommended by Razeen Sally

Many visitors to Sri Lanka have been beguiled by its charms, from its hill towns to its beaches, its ancient temples to its friendly people. And yet, for a quarter of a century until 2009, it was torn apart by a brutal civil war. Here, Sri Lanka-born political economist Razeen Sally, author of Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Land, recommends the best books to get a better understanding of Sri Lanka and the complexities that make the country so fascinating to visit and read about.

The Best Vietnamese Novels, recommended by Sherry Buchanan

Vietnam has had a tumultuous history and its literature is one powerful way of trying to understand it better. Journalist, author and publisher Sherry Buchanan—who has spent two decades introducing Vietnam’s culture to English-speaking audiences—talks us through the best Vietnamese novels available in English, spanning the years from French colonialism to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

The best books on Contemporary India, recommended by Kapil Komireddi

As the world’s biggest democracy, India could be an inspiring example of how a multiethnic, multilingual country with many different religions can come together to form a vibrant state with equality enshrined in its constitution. But all that is in danger of going down the drain, as the country transforms into a brutally exclusionary Hindu-supremacist state under the leadership of Narendra Modi, says Kapil Komireddi, essayist and author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Here, he talks us through how the country got to where it is now and recommends five books that present a “comprehensive picture” of contemporary India.

The best books on Islam and the State, recommended by Ahmet T. Kuru

It’s widely assumed that in the ideal Muslim society there is no separation between religion and the state, but even in some of the earliest caliphates, the secular and the religious were rarely as closely aligned as religious conservatives would have us believe. Here Ahmet T. Kuru, Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University, recommends books that help trace the historical relationship between Islam and the state—and points to strands of secularism that may hold the key to a happier relationship between Islam and liberal democracy.

The best books on The Silk Road, recommended by Valerie Hansen

From the Han dynasty to the time of Marco Polo, the routes connecting Asia, Africa and Europe—now known as the Silk Road—were responsible for enormous amounts of global trade. Yale historian Valerie Hansen, author of The Silk Road: A New History, introduces us to its rich history: “one of the reasons the Silk Road is a misnomer is that silk was not the main good moving along.”

The best books on The Middle East, recommended by Fawaz A. Gerges

The Middle East has been and still is much misunderstood. Here Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor and Middle Eastern specialist at London School of Economics, recommends five pioneering works of history and social science that will help you to understand the evolution of the region’s society and politics.

The best books on China Korea Relations, recommended by Odd Arne Westad

China has had close political and cultural relations with Korea for centuries and the history of that relationship can shed light on China’s approach to international relations more broadly—including in its imperial past. Yale historian Odd Arne Westad recommends the best books on China, Korea and the relationship between them.

The best books on Asia’s Rivers, recommended by Victor Mallet

Human history has been founded on the banks of great rivers – but in the East they are increasingly the focus of bitter international and environmental dispute, says Victor Mallet, the journalist and author of River of Life, River of Death. Here he selects five brilliant books that profile Asia’s most celebrated waterways.

Best Classic Japanese Mysteries, recommended by On Nomoto

Crime novels are hugely popular in Japan, but English translations of Japanese mysteries not always easy to come by. As Pushkin Vertigo publishes translations of two novels by Seishi Yokomizo, one of Japan’s most famous mystery writers, his grandson, On Nomoto, talks us through the best classic Japanese mysteries of the last century.

The best books on Chinggis Khan, recommended by Timothy May

He was born Temüjin and was afraid of dogs as a child. He went on to create the largest land empire the world has ever known, but was more than just a bloodthirsty conqueror. Timothy May, Professor of Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia and author of a number of books on the Mongol Empire, separates the facts from the myths and explains how the modern world would have looked very different without Genghis or, more accurately, Chinggis Khan.

The best books on Ukraine and Russia, recommended by Serhii Plokhy

Thousands of people have been killed since 2014 in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in a war that has been rife with disinformation, misleading narratives and false flag operations. Here Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University, recommends books to better understand the conflict, from an introductory work by an eminent historian to the latest work of some of Ukraine’s leading novelists.

The best books on Singapore, recommended by Sharlene Teo

If your impression of Singapore is based entirely on Crazy Rich Asians, here are some books to read to get a sense of what the country is really like. Singapore’s huge economic achievements since it became an independent state in 1965 have not come without consequences, not least nostalgia for the past.  Here novelist Sharlene Teo recommends five books to get a feel for the city-state of Singapore, her homeland. We also recommend reading her novel, Ponti. 

Best China Books of 2020, recommended by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

All eyes are on China as it occupies an increasingly important role on the world stage and its economic growth continues to barrel on. But behind the Chinese Communist Party’s apparent competence lies a deep insecurity about its relationship with its own citizens, particularly those who question its right to rule them. American historian and Sinologist Jeffrey Wasserstrom picks the best books of 2020 on China.

The best books on The Achaemenid Persian Empire, recommended by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

At the height of its greatness, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the largest empire the world had ever known. Too often it is given merely a villainous walk-on part in the heroic history of classical Greece. Here, historian Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones explains why that needs correcting, looks at its cultural achievements and discusses why the first Persian empire is worth studying in its own right and on its own terms.

The Best Books on the Hong Kong Protests, recommended by Ben Bland

Around the world people have followed the standoff in Hong Kong with apprehension, as local protestors have taken on the might of China's powerful Communist Party. Here Ben Bland, author of Generation HK and Director at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute, talks us through books to better understand what's been going on these past few years and what's at stake for Hong Kong's citizens and activists.

The best books on Indonesia, recommended by Krithika Varagur

It’s a beautiful nation of islands with staggering levels of biodiversity. It’s also home to more than a quarter of a billion people, many of them Muslim. And yet, it gets little regular coverage in the western media. Krithika Varagur, journalist and author of The Calltalks us through the books that most inspired and informed her as she reported on Indonesia.

Erotic Writing by Arab Women, recommended by Selma Dabbagh

Arab women have been writing erotic literature for millennia and have become more creative and daring in recent years in the wake of the Arab Spring and the spread of social media, says novelist Selma Dabbagh, editor of a new anthology, We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers. Here, she picks five key examples of erotic writing by women of the region.

The best books on The Korean War, recommended by Bruce Cumings

Before Vietnam, America fought in the Korean War—but its role in that conflict has been far less examined. Award-winning historian Bruce Cumings talks about the misconceptions many people still hold, and how they distort our understanding of the current North Korean regime.

The best books on Japan, recommended by Chigusa Yamaura

Japan is one of the world’s most technologically advanced industrial societies, but it is organised around very conservative social and familial paradigms, says the Japanese sociocultural anthropologist Chigusa Yamaura. Here she selects five books that throw light on a fascinating country and culture.

The Best Russia Books: the 2020 Pushkin House Prize, recommended by Serhii Plokhy

Every year since 2013 the Russian Book Prize run by Pushkin House, a UK charity, has carried out the important task  of drawing attention to books that “encourage public understanding and intelligent debate about the Russian-speaking world.” Here, Harvard historian Serhii Plokhy, chair of this year’s judging panel, talks us through the books that made the 2020 shortlist.

The best books on Samurai, recommended by Michael Wert

The samurai, Japan’s warrior caste, have been embraced by popular culture and made their way into films, comic books and video games. But who were they really? Michael Wert, professor of East Asian History at Marquette University and author of Samurai: A Concise History, recommends the best books to learn more about samurai, literally ‘one who serves.’

Shanghai Novels, recommended by Paul French

Though it was the fifth biggest city in the world in the years following the Second World War, there aren’t nearly as many novels set in Shanghai as there are in Paris, Berlin and other international cities. Author and expert on modern Chinese history Paul French takes a look at the literary history of an often underwritten city from the 1930s through to the new millennium.

The best books on The Kurds, recommended by Peter W. Galbraith

The Kurds lost 11,000 lives fighting Islamic State and hoped the West would support them in their quest for nationhood. But as the Kurdish saying goes, ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.’ Author and diplomat Peter W. Galbraith, a longtime advocate of the Kurdish people, recommends the best books on the Kurds—and predicts that one day there will be an independent Kurdistan.

The Best Indian Novels of 2019, recommended by Rana Dasgupta

India has a thriving literary community working in 22 official languages plus English, says Rana Dasgupta, the literary director of the JCB Prize: a major award for the best new novel by an Indian author. Here, he talks us through their 2019 shortlist.

The best books on Jerusalem, recommended by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a place of longing for three faiths—and yet we know it mostly as a place of strife and conflict. British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: the Biography, recommends books that capture the historical ups and downs of this ever-changing city, but also its vitality, including its irresistible cuisine.

The best books on Indian Cricket, recommended by Prashant Kidambi

South Asia has become the beating heart of cricket, with wild enthusiasm for the game at every level of society. Historian Prashant Kidambi—whose book, Cricket Country, was shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize—takes us through the history of cricket in India, from its traditional, colonial roots through to the colourful, frenetic national game of today.

The best books on Gandhi, recommended by Ramachandra Guha

Gandhi’s peaceful resistance to British rule changed India and inspired freedom movements around the globe. But as well as being an inspiring leader, Gandhi was also a human being. Ramachandra Guha, author of a new two-part biography of Gandhi, introduces us to books that give a fuller picture of the man who came to be known as ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi.

The best books on Yoga, recommended by Liz Derow

Contrary to its popularization in Western culture, yoga isn’t just a form of fitness: its history is rooted in a long Hindu tradition shaped by great teachers in India. Here we have the best books for those who want to learn more about yoga, recommended by Liz Derow, a longtime practitioner and teacher of yoga in India and around the world.

The best books on Maoism, recommended by Julia Lovell

While researching Maoism, China expert Julia Lovell battled against two incorrect assumptions: “firstly that Maoism is a story of China; and secondly that Maoism is a story of the past.” Here she recommends five books for coming to grips with the global, still-relevant impact of Maoism.

The best books on Catherine the Great, recommended by Andrei Zorin

She was born in 1729 as Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, a German princess, but by 1762 had become Empress of All Russia and went on to rule for 34 years as Catherine II. She regarded herself as an enlightened despot who embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and consorted with the French philosophes. Russian historian Andrei Zorin introduces the remarkably industrious and able politician who is remembered as Catherine the Great.

The best books on The Syrian Civil War, recommended by Nikolaos van Dam

Few who knew Syria well doubted that the revolution that started in 2011 would lead to a bloodbath. But rather than helping, foreign intervention turned it into an even bigger catastrophe. Syria specialist Nikolaos van Dam recommends books that shed light on Syria’s tragic civil war.

The Best of Georgian Literature, recommended by Gvantsa Jobava

How does a country left in ruins by 70 years of Soviet oppression rebuild its literature? It starts from scratch and breaks all the rules. Gvantsa Jobava reveals the riches of Georgian literature, from 12th-century feminist epics to radical, experimental accounts of a post-Independence underworld

The best books on Japan, recommended by Ian Buruma

Which are the best books to read about Japan? Author and journalist Ian Buruma picks some beautifully written works by scholars—and one novelist—that give a feel for its culture and civilization.

The best books on Religion in China, recommended by Ian Johnson

China is a religious country with all kinds of faiths being practised across its vast territories—despite Mao’s attempts to eradicate them. The Chinese Communist Party tolerates a variety of religions but continues to grapple with the potential challenge they pose to its authority. Prize-winning journalist Ian Johnson introduces the best books on the complex topic of religion in China.

The Best Fyodor Dostoevsky Books, recommended by Alex Christofi

His father had clawed his way up into the minor aristocracy, but Fyodor Dostoevsky chose to live the life of an impecunious author. He was sentenced to death, but his execution was stayed and he spent years in a Siberian labour camp instead. His books are about human compassion, but he was a difficult man who had trouble with his own personal relationships. Alex Christofi, author of a brilliant new biography of Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, recommends five books to learn more about the man and his work—including the novel of which Tolstoy said he ‘didn’t know a better book in all our literature’.

The Best Transnational Literature, recommended by Mohsin Hamid

Beleaguered ‘citizens of nowhere’ will be pleased to know they have their own literary genre. For anyone who has ever wondered where they belong, or why, when you leave your home country, it’s never the same when you return, here are the best five books to read—including some by the greatest authors of the 20th century.