The artistic zeitgeist of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868)—a time characterized by several centuries of social and political stability maintained by the repressive, isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate—was influenced heavily by the visual culture of the merchant and military classes in metropolitan centers. Sharing a goal to pursue the ephemeral pleasures of life, often through excessive expenditure, their patronage of the arts and popular entertainment espoused an aesthetic renaissance in the metaphysical space they occupied known as ukiyo, or the “floating world”.

Chariot of the Sun, disingenuously subtitled “An Informal History of a Siamese Family”, stands out from the recent plethora of  run-of-the-mill or self-serving memoirs and biographies by very much being neither.  Here we can meet an utterly fascinating variety of people, a number of whom occupied positions of power, but also some who didn’t, and they’re all revealed through what Nic Dunlop tells us on the back cover, “storytelling that revels in the fragmentary and the anecdotal.” This is a different kind of memoir; the main “character” isn’t so much the writer himself, but a selection of family members evocatively presented through stories and photographs that are linked by a narrative about an ancient prophecy (no spoiling here!). Bunnag begins with the 2011 earthquake and ends with a tree (the name Bunnag means “tree”) and a placenta, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he goes, employing full use of his skills as a documentary film-maker.

2019 marked the five-hundred year anniversary of the launch of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world–a milestone marked by commemorative sailings, museum exhibitions, and a joint submission from Spain and Portugal to UNESCO. Two years later, the Philippines marked their own commemoration of Magellan’s voyage: the 500th anniversary of his death at the hands of local leader Lapu-Lapu. 

Given the likely plight of the many interpreters left to the tender mercies of the Taliban in the recent Afghan conflict, this book is timely, because it highlights the fact that historically interpreters have taken risks or been exposed to dangers not of their own making. They’re not just anonymous or culturally liminal figures hovering in the background and performing the necessary task of conveying the sense of conversations between different nationalities. Indeed, it would seem that the better interpreters are at their job, the more each side becomes suspicious. What might they be hiding? Are they adding their own nuances, agenda or biases to what they’re transmitting? Can interpreters ever accurately convey what was said? How can they (or should they) “soften” language which might seem offensive yet still convey what was said? As Henrietta Harrison, a professor of Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford, tells us, it “was not just a question of finding someone with the necessary linguistic skills. What mattered was trust.” Unfortunately, “their abilities to empathize with the other side, and, quite literally, speak their language, meant that their loyalties could never be entirely clear.”

In Burmese Haze (a reference to George Orwell’s classic novel), former US official Erin Murphy gives a personalized history of the past fifteen years of Myanmar history, with particular focus on, if not always from the perspective of, US policy towards this often opaque Southeast Asian country. Murphy was herself in the thick of it, either supporting US policymakers or, for the last decade, in the private sector working to assist US-Myanmar trade and investment relations.

The world is still dealing with the consequences of the 1979 Iranian revolution in which the pro-American, pro-Western Shah of Iran was replaced by an Islamic regime that subsequently attempted to spread its influence throughout the Middle East and beyond, and acquire a nuclear arsenal. The causes of that revolution have been debated for many years and far too often analysts have provided superficial or simplified explanations ranging from the Shah’s repressive rule to America’s flawed diplomacy. In The Last Shah, Iran expert Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations presents a more balanced, nuanced treatment of the history of US-Iranian relations from World War II to the fall of the Shah that explores the many and varied factors that led to revolution.