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The Books I Read in 2015


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Samori Touré – a quick reading list


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How does Africa get reported? A letter of concern to 60 Minutes.

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December 24, 2014

A year on the road, briefly recounted

I began the year in Hong Kong, a guest in a friend’s familiar box apartment, before moving up the hill to a hotel at the edge of Hong Kong University, which had been my host most of the previous summer, when I’d been a visiting scholar there.

I’d come back to Asia to try and put the elusive finishing touches on the research for my current book project, as well as to report the related piece I did for The Atlantic, which can be found here. I’d worked the same project the previous summer, spending a month in Japan and then living in Hong Kong, where the university was my research base.

I was on academic leave for the spring semester, so this was an opportunity to really roam in pursuit of the details I needed, and so I did. From Hong Kong I flew to Manila on my first-ever visit to the Philippines, staying in the capital for a week or so and interviewing widely, before traveling to the island of Palawan, which figures in the lede of the Atlantic piece, and stands at a sort of front line in the dispute over maritime territory in the South China Sea that pits the Philippines against China

From Palawan, I made my way south (via Manila) on an Air Malaysia flight to Kuala Lumpur, where I stayed in a dive in the old, central Chinatown. In part, this is what travel on book advances does to one, but I also have a fondness for dives that lingers from my earliest years as an impecunious freelancer. I wouldn’t want to have to restrict myself to them all the time, but as an occasional element in one’s travel, they can be really refreshing, and this turned out to be a great choice, with lively streets and fantastic outdoor food all around. I got out of Kuala Lumpur a little bit, as well, making a day trip to Malacca, among other places.

I am a sucker for train rides, and always have been, so from KL, I took the overnight train to Singapore, enjoying a sleeper car all to myself, but scarcely sleeping. On this one, I Skyped with friends for a little bit, but the internet went in and out, so I finally gave up and listened to music and read and when the early morning light allowed, gazed hypnotically at the scrubland before arrival.

I was only in Singapore for a hot minute, but I was able to pack my stay with interesting interviews and more great meals. A couple of highlights were talks with historians: the formidable Wang Gungwu, who has been at it since the 1960s, and Prasenjit Duara (introduced by the ever generous Jeff Wasserstrom), who invited me to his home for a fantastic dinner with his family, and a long and incredible discussion about China, empire, modernity, tribute and many other things.

I flew to Hanoi from Singapore and stayed the Vietnamese capital for about a week, again interviewing widely — both officials and interesting members of civil society. The latter stage of this stay was hindered a bit by the arrival of the Tê’t holiday, leaving me to wander, a bit lonely, in a city where I don’t speak the language and didn’t have old personal friends. I went back to Bach Mai Hospital, whose Christmas 1972 bombing by the Americans, my father had investigated on behalf of  Ted Kennedy and the Senate Committee for Refugees, and later testified about before Congress. It was the third trip I’ve made to Bach Mai over the years. This time, I found a man who worked at the hospital at the time of the bombings, but no one with any particular recollection of the American investigation team’s visit. The stories my father brought back from that trip were the source of some of my first real thoughts about East Asia, and the bombing is something I’d like to write about somehow in the future. I also took a side trip to Halong Bay, where I did something a bit unusual for me, an overnight cabin boat cruise. Hanoi was completely shut down, so I’m glad I went there, but to be in such a beautiful place alone, especially filled with nuzzling couples in full romantic mode was a bit disorienting.

I flew back to Hong Kong from Hanoi (after a week of genuine vacation in Thailand, a guest in the Bangkok home of a very old friend) and stayed there for a few wet and chilly days before switching directions altogether. From HK, I took a long Emirates flight to Nairobi, via Dubai, and stayed in Kenya for about three weeks, initiating a project that would occupy me in the months ahead, consulting with the new journalism program of a Kenyan university. Nairobi is just beneath the equator, so it was warm and sunny at this time of year, and I enjoyed burning off my jet lag by swimming laps after work each day in a great hotel pool.

I’m not good with dates, but by late February or early March I was back in New York. I thought I would have missed the worst of winter, but I was wrong. It was really cold and dark, and it seemed to just keep snowing, storm after storm. What a messy place New York can be this time of year. The great thing about being back, though, was access to Columbia’s libraries, which are numerous and in a word, amazing. Most of the reading one finds in this list was done at Columbia, whether Butler, or the East Asia library, or sometimes the libraries of SIPA or the Law School. A number of other titles are not reflected here, including a great many journal articles. I developed a work routine that I’ll speak more about later, but which starts with scanning important texts for conversion into PDFs, which I can carry around with me in electronic form (on my phone and iPad) wherever I go and annotate them at will, often heavily, using three pieces of software: Dropbox, GoodReader and Adobe Reader. Since I’m not distributing these materials, no copyright issues arise, and I don’t need to worry, either, about marking up books that belong in collections.

In late April and early May, I went back to China, first to Beijing and Tianjin, and then to Taiwan for yet another bit of reporting for my current book project, and interviewed there very intensively. The visit coincided with one of the high water marks of the so-called Sunflower Movement of popular protests over the nature of Taiwan’s democracy and its relations with China; not planned, but from a writer’s perspective, especially given my topic, fortuitous. I hadn’t been to Taiwan for quite some time, and was really charmed by the place, including an afternoon’s indulgence very late in my stay, with a visit to a hot spring.

From there, I went back to Africa, starting with nearly a week each in Ghana and Nigeria, two places where I’ve spent huge amounts of time over the years. In Ghana, there were discussions with journalist colleagues and friends about Ebola, which was just beginning to heat up, but which hadn’t really pierced the American infosphere yet. This wasn’t the purpose of my trip either. I was there to look at local journalism and at journalism education in West Africa for an ongoing project. I did’t get beyond Lagos, but the visit there reinforced my sense that this is one of the most under-covered societies in the world. Lagos is changing very fast and is complicated and sophisticated way, way beyond the enduring stereotypes about the place, and in many ways the future of Africa is bound up in the fate of experiments like this. I’ve written a bit about that here. In Lagos, I reunited with an old colleague, Tony Iyare, and spent a ton of time with Tolu Ogunlesi, one of the most dynamic and interesting young journalists working in the region. One highlight was beers at sundown listening and dancing to High Life at Freedom Park there, which was once the grounds of the old, colonial prison on Lagos Island.

From Lagos, I flew to Nairobi, where I would base myself for the remainder of the summer, but flew back to New York briefly for the release of my book, and an early burst of related interviews, etc. When I got back to Kenya, I set myself up in a Spartan apartment, walking to work each day through dusty, chaotic streets, and spending evenings trying to organize my thoughts and gather my energies to start writing my new book. The day job with the local university went very well, but the split brain thing, being in Africa and trying to write about East Asia, all the while fielding queries about my China-Africa book, didn’t leave much energy or mental space for this.

In the end, I gave in, and decided to make the most of my environment. I’d been visiting East Africa since my earliest days in journalism, but had never before lived in the region; West Africa had always been my main thing. So I plunged in to this experience in my off time, meeting a lot of people and traveling quite a bit locally in Kenya, both alone and with close friends and family, ultimately including going to game parks on safaris, which I’d never previously really been drawn to, but which proved amazing. I also bounced around the region a little bit, including visits to Uganda and Tanzania. In Kampala, I was the guest of my old friend, Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, and gave a lecture there. (I gave another talk in Kampala at the African Centre for Media Excellence.) And in Dar es Salaam, I gave a university lecture at Nkrumah Hall, and was able to hang out with my friend, the Tanzanian reporter, Erick Kabendera, who has done pioneering work on corruption there.

In August, I set off for the Seychelles for a week with the idea of taking a mental break from Africa and launching into the writing of my new book. Agnès and I lived in a little cottage right on water’s edge, and I woke up early each morning to write, doing so until exhaustion, after which we would go out and eat, and then drive around the main island for the afternoon and into the evening. This has got to rank as a highlight of my entire year, managing somehow to be both highly productive and very relaxing. I hadn’t been to the Seychelles since the 1980s (gulp), and cannot recommend it more highly. Don’t go to a hotel. Rent a private cottage, where you can hear the sea at all times and lay on giant boulders at night and gaze up at what seems to be the entire universe. We found our place on Airbnb, where there were many choices.

On my way back to New York I stopped in Amsterdam, overnighting there at my sister’s house. After that, it was back to school for me, teaching the J School’s intensive basic reporting class for the first time, and using the weekends and late afternoons on many days to sustain the work on my book through the fall. In November, I spent the weekend after Thanksgiving at home in Virginia enjoying a mini family reunion with several of my siblings and our children, and giving a talk at nearby UVA.

In mid-December, I set off for China to do the last little bits of reporting for my book. (I keep thinking this way, but there’s always more reporting to be done. No matter what.) First stop was Beijing, where once again, I ended up doing a lot of speaking, in addition to the forthcoming-book-related interviews that were my real purpose for traveling there. Beijing has never been my home, but I have some truly special friends there, and being able to spend a little bit of time with them took the edge off of the travel and work grind. At the suggestion of my friend and estimable journalism colleague, Ian Johnson, who allowed me to crash a previously planned dinner. At his suggestion, I also went to the National Museum and really enjoyed a major exhibition there about the Silk Road, which also relates to my new book.

From there, I flew to Shanghai for three relatively relaxing days, sharing meals in a city where I lived for six years with old friends, and wandering around a bit idly, feeling a bit nostalgic sometimes, I’ll confess. Last stop, for another set of interviews, was Hainan, which is the Chinese frontline, as it were, to the disputed maritime areas of the South China Sea, a topic which relates somewhat to my current project.

I’d mentioned working methods earlier, and here’s the last bit of that. I bought an iPhone 6 Plus when they came out, and decided I wouldn’t travel with laptops anymore whenever that could be avoided. This China trip was the first trial of that approach, and I must say, it worked really well. I brought a wireless keyboard, and I have Word, Dropbox, Adobe Reader, GoodReader, Scribd and all of the other software I might need right there on my phone. I also bought a little stand from a company called Anker, which can be found on Amazon. It’s brilliant, and so much more secure. I use a VPN at all times, and when I move about, my phone is in my pocket.

That’s enough, I suspect. Maybe even too much. Happy New Year, everyone.




December 22, 2014

Libraries and piles of books, a 2014 reading list

In line with recent tradition, here are the books I read in the last calendar year. I may have left a few titles out, in which case, I’ll try to add them here and there as they come to mind. A very few among these would have appeared in past lists, meaning I’ve reread them. In the case of titles like Before European Hegemony, The Chinese World Order, The Borders of Chinese Civilization and The Fall of Srivijaya, I’ve reread them more than once recently, both because they were so interesting and because they are so important to my current book project.

I regret there isn’t more fiction here. Many of the books that appear on this list were read for work-related reasons, which is not a statement about how interesting they were or how much I enjoyed them; it’s just that this year reflects a fairly applied effort, again, due to what I am working on. I hope to change that next year as I (hopefully) finish this project and go eclectic again.

A few of these authors have been very generous to me, personally. In no particular order, special thanks go to Douglas Howland, Keith Weller Taylor, Evan Osnos, Teju Cole, Mark Driscoll, Wang Gungwu and Paul Kramer.

Here, I’ve also published a brief account of my travels in 2o14, a year in which I got around an awful lot, even by the standards of my heavily traveled past.

The book list:

A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel, James, Marlon

Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945, Mark Driscoll

Africa in the World: Capitalism, Empire, Nation-State, Frederick Cooper

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos

Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich, Osburg, John

Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. Levine

Articulating the Sinosphere: Sino-Japanese Relations in Space and Time, Joshua A. Fogel

Asian Maritime Strategies, Bernard D. Cole

As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, Abu-Lughod, Janet L.

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, David Pilling

Brother Enemy: The War After the War, A History of Indochina Since the Fall of Saigon, Nayan Chanda

By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World, Elizabeth Economy (Reviewed in The Wall Street Journal)

Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Mission of 1793, James L. Hevia

China, 1898-1912: The Xinzheng Revolution and Japan, Douglas R. Reynolds

China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice, Richard Bernstein

China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries, Morris Rossabi

China and the International System, Huang and Patman

China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties (History of Imperial China), by Mark Edward Lewis and Timothy Brook

Chinese Studies of the Malay World: A Comparative Approach, Dingo Choo Ming and Ooi Kee Beng

Chinese Turkestan, Ryan Pyle

Clarity, Cut, and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds, Susan Falls

Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World, from it’s Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century, Kagan, Robert

Diamonds, Ian Smillie (Reviewed, The Wall Street Journal)

Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China (Reviewed in The Wall Street Journal)

Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole

Fifty Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer’s Photographer, Heisler, Gregory

Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific, Haddick, Robert

Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan, Christopher Alan Bayly

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles Mann

Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (Second Edition) LaFeber, Walter

In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, Karnow, Stanley

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman

Japan and the Shackles of the Past, R. Taggart Murphy

London Boulevard, Ken Bruen

Manila Galleon, William Lytle Schurz

Ming China and Southeast Asia in the 15th Century, Geoff Wade

Shadow of the Dragon, Henry Kenny

Money: A Suicide Note (Penguin Ink), Amis, Martin

Negotiating Asymmetry: China’s Place in Asia, Anthony Reid and Zheng Yangwen

Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations (Contemporary Asia in the World), Wang, Zheng

Night Heron, Brookes, Adam

Okinawa: The History of an Island People, George H. Kerr

Petals of Blood, Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines and the Rise of the Surveillance State, Alfred W. McCoy

Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture, Hisham D. Aidi

Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750, Westad, Odd Arne

Return to Laughter: An Anthropological Novel (The Natural History Library), Bowen, Elenore Smith

Road to Seeing, Winters, Dan

Sea of Poppies: A novel, Amitav Ghosh

Sino-Malay Trade and Diplomacy from the Tenth through the Fourteenth Century, Derek Heng

Soldiers Alive, Ishikawa Tatsuzo

Sophie’s Choice, Styron, William

Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Rebecca E. Karl

State and Society in the Philippines – Abinales and Amoroso

Stones of Contention: A History of Africa’s Diamonds, Todd Cleveland

Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor, Geoff Wade and Sun Laichen

The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Weller Taylor

The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines, Paul A. Kramer

The Borders of Chinese Civilization, Douglas Howland

The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, Dayo Olopade

The Children of Men, James, P.D.

The Chinese World Order, John King Fairbank

The Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, Bruce Swanson

The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, O.W. Wolters

The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavor, Meredith Martin (Reviewed The Wall Street Journal)

The Great Convergence, Kishore Mahbubani

The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, Alfred Thayer Mahan

The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

The Mind-Body Problem (Contemporary American Fiction), Goldstein, Rebecca

The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, Christopher A. Ford

The Nanhai Trade: Early Chinese Trade in the South China Sea, Wang Gungwu

The Perfect Wave, Heinrich Pas

The Resurgence of East Asia: 500, 150 and 50 Year Perspectives, edited by Giovanni Arrighi, Takeshi Hamashita and Mark Selden

The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, Bill Hayton

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, William Easterly (Reviewed for The New York Times)

US Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s, David Healy

Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power, Marr, David G.

Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, And the Origins of Globalism (Culture, Politics, and the Cold War), James Peck

When China Ruled the Seas, Levathes, Louise

Will China Dominate the Twenty First Century?, Jonathan Fenby

World Order, Kissinger, Henry

Xi Jinping’s China, Francois Godement

Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433, Edward L. Dreyer



November 24, 2014

Public lecture – Duke University

I gave a lecture on China’s relations with Africa on Nov. 20, 2014 at Duke University. Listen here.

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