Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani

Until I read this book, when I thought of Indonesia, I thought of Homer Simpson given a free copy of a news magazine: “Look at me, I’m reading the Economist! Did you know that Indonesia’s at a crossroads? It is!” That, and maybe something about the East Timor conflict. That’s part of Indonesia, right? (Was part of Indonesia.)

That is to say, Elizabeth Pisani has picked a topic that a lot of Americans don’t really know much about. It’s a shame we don’t, but it’s great for her and it makes her new book Indonesia, Etc. fascinating at almost every page.

Indonesia consists of thousands of islands, dozens of cultures, dozens of languages… what holds it together? Pisani travels around the country speaking with imams and prostitutes, bus drivers and fishermen, farmers and hunter-gatherers, politicians and voters and non-voters alike. And while she knows that no book, no lifetime, could ever really capture everything that Indonesia is, she gives her readers a great introduction to a nation that she obviously loves dearly.

The book opens with a visit, in 1991, in Sumba. A child in a small village invites Elizabeth to tea with her auntie. It turns out that the auntie has recently died, and she’s being invited to a wake and traditional tribal funeral ceremony. 20 years later, she revisits the village. On her blog, there’s a slideshow of those visits, and… let’s just say you need to look at them, then buy the book, and then maybe visit Indonesia.

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