When this book arrived, I scanned the contents and marked with a tick every individual whose name I recognized. The results were pretty dismal—about 19 out of 100! I was good on emperors and knew one or two literary figures, but of the other categories, namely religious figures, militarists, artists, observers, business people, statespeople, and makers (craftspeople, folklorists and scientists), I was abysmally ignorant.

Imagine sitting in front of a large picture window and looking out. What you see before you isn’t your usual view, though, because you have been transported back to Japan at the turn of the 20th century by means of a massive book containing nearly seven hundred views of Japan in the last decade or so of the Meiji era (1867-1912). That it weighs some fourteen pounds (I viewed it on my newly-bought book-stand) ceases to matter as the photographs simply take over; the huge format becomes altogether appropriate, and readers will be mesmerized by its cinematographic proportions, vivid colors and sheer presence.

Before becoming king on the death of his half-brother King Nangklao (Rama III), Prince Mongkut (later Rama IV) of Siam had written a confidential letter in English on the subject of establishing a British embassy in Bangkok to intermediaries of the diplomatic envoy Sir James Brooke (later Rajah of Sarawak). Mongkut explained that such an embassy would not likely happen under Nangklao, because “Siam is now of most absolute monarchy in the world, in which monarchy one’s oppinion [sic] is no use.” He went on to say further that regular people were “equal of animals and vegitables [sic] in the kingdom,” which wasn’t exactly encouraging either. However, Mongkut, unlike the far more intransigent Nangklao, was known to be a man of great perception and intelligence, and while Brooke’s mission ultimately failed, “without King Mongkut’s benign influence and open attitude, the fate of Siam at the hands of the British and other western powers could have been very different.”

As the title suggests, this book is about traveling. However, the primary traveler isn’t human but a book, although of course humans are involved as transportation. In the fifth century. a Buddhist monk and translator named Faxian (c. 357-422) set out from China at the age of about sixty-two to travel to India. In his thirteen or so years of wandering he visited many centres of Buddhist learning as he went, collecting manuscripts so he could obtain “the true doctrine” from its source in India, after which he would return to China with what he assumed would be “authentic” versions of the ancient texts.

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.

China Through European Eyes is a very helpful and well-presented annotated anthology of extracts from European writers on China. The authors presented range from Marco Polo to Roland Barthes, which gives readers wide and various perspectives on the subject; some see China as a threat, others romanticize it, and still others find inspiration in its world-outlook.