Featured Blog Posts
November 5, 2013
Money, Power, Sex
I was a speaker at this conference, in Cape Town (May 22-24, 2012), where I discussed China’s relationship with Africa.
November 4, 2013
I’m going to start building out my annual reading list a bit early this year, which serves two purposes. Firstly, I don’t have to remember all of the titles all of the sudden that way, as I would if I waited until late December. Secondly, I want to break out a sublist of books that I am reading for my own current and ongoing book project. This is as good a place as any to keep a running bibliography for that purpose. That list will keep growing beyond 12/31, and I’ll need to refer to it as I get deeper into my project, and specifically as I start writing. I start with the General List. Please scroll down for the “Project List.”
Any book listed as “Reviewed” can be searched for on this site to find my review.
Africa Emerges, by Robert I. Rotberg
Bright Continent, Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa, by Dayo Olopade
The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, by Eric Hobsbawm
Palestinian Identity, by Rashid Khalidi
The Enigma of China, by Qiu Xiaolong
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty (reviewed), by Nina Munk
Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II – 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter (reviewed)
Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future, by Timothy Beardson (reviewed)
Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by Stanley Crouch
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, by Anatole Broyard
Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook, by Jonathan Solomon
For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, by Liao Yiwu (reviewed)
The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, by Simon Leys
The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, by Michael Deibert
States and Power in Africa, by Jeffrey Herbst
India in Africa: Changing Geographies of Power, edited by Emma Mawdsley and Gerard McCann
Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990-1992, by Charles Tilly
The Hero and the Blues, by Albert Murray
Runaway Horses: The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima
Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
Year Zero: The History of 1945, by Ian Buruma
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, by Eri Hotta
Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by John Szarkowsi
Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders
China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History, by Tom Miller
The Enigma of Arrival, by V.S. Naipaul
China Airborne, by James Fallows
My Education, by Susan Choi
Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, by James C. Scott
The Shanghai Factor (fiction), by Charles McCarry
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel, by Anthony Marra
Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, by Benjamin K. Bergen
A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires – 1400-1900, by Laura A. Benton
The Contest of the Centurey The New Era of Competition with China — and How American Can Win, by Geoff Dyer
A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
Sea of Poppies: A Novel, by Amitav Ghosh
Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs
China Goes Global: The Partial Power, by David Shambaugh
The Rise of China versus The Logic of Strategy, by Edward N. Luttwak
That Smell, and Notes from Prison, by Sonallah Ibrahim
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to Sept. 10, 2001, by Steve Coll
The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in China’s Leadership, by John Garnaut
A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money and an Epic Power Struggle in China, by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang
Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott
Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, by Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf
Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Hunters, by James Salter
The Unwinding, by George Packer
China and the International System, Edited by Xiaoming Huang and Robert G. Patman
Negotiating Asymmetry: China’s Place in Asia, edited by Anthony Reid and Zhen Yangwen
The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, by Christopher A. Ford
Borders of Chinese Civilization, by D.R. Howland
Articulating the Sinosphere, by Joshua Fogel
The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, by Daniel H. Nexon
The Chinese World Order, by John King Fairbank
Asia’s Middle Powers: The Identity and Regional Policy of South Korea and Vietnam, edited by Joon-Woo Park, Gi-Wook Shin and Donald W. Keyser
Brother Enemy, The War After the War: A History of Indochina Since the Fall of Saigon, by Nayan Chanda
Okinawa: The History of an Island People, by George H. Kerr
The Inner Frontiers of Asia, by Owen Lattimore
Japan-China Joint History Research Project, Vol. 1
Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, by Azar Gat
Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order, by G. John Ikenberry
The Walled Kingdom, by Witold Rodzinski
Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History, by Alastair Iain Johnston
The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security, by Andrew Nathan
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, by Mark Edward Lewis
Wealth and Power: China’s Long March into the 21st Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury
Cherishing Men From Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy, by James L. Hevia (reading now)
This is the title of a talk I gave at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club about my forthcoming book.
Other recent posts
April 26, 2012
More on covering Africa…
A colleague objected that I had been singled out in Laura Seay’s fine piece about woeful coverage of Africa just published in Foreign Policy, and I completely agree.
To reduce a matter like this is to one of persons or personalities is to squander an opportunity to pursue a truly important and long overdue discussion.
For decades there have clearly been foreign correspondents from a range of news organizations who have worked hard at understanding Africa and conveying its complexity, just as one would or should try to do with any other part of the world.
I wrote a blog post that relates to this a few months back. It mourns the demise of the Washington Post’s Africa coverage, and I paid due homage then to a long list of correspondents who worked hard to bring richness and balance to their Africa stories. http://www.howardwfrench.com/2011/12/american-journalism-is-failing-africa/
It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West’s African coverage in general is broken and failing badly. This is true in terms of quantity, quality and especially variety, and I think that is Laura’s main point.
Demonstrating this last criterion is a simple matter. What news organizations have business correspondents or for that matter any business coverage to speak of in Africa? The fact that such coverage doesn’t exist, or quite nearly, means that we have created a special category of beings for whom this important aspect of human life simply doesn’t apply. This has many consequences, only two of which I’ll touch upon here.
It reinforces the strong, preexisting tendency in many publications to write stories that almost exclusively emphasize foreign agency, whether of the U.N, or of NGOs or of the individual Western do-gooder, and by the same token, it reinforces a habit of thinking of Africans either as passive beings, or as those other perennial favorite archetypes: warlords, corrupt officials, rapists and Big Men.
The other effect I’d point out here quickly is that by ignoring this humungous category called business (or, if you will, the economy), the Western press is doing a disservice to its readership by furthering the conditioning of news consumers to not think of Africa as a place worthy of business or investment. It is all the more galling that this is happening at a time when economic growth is booming around the continent and opportunities abound. As someone who is writing on this now, I’d add: Just ask the Chinese.
We need for those who cover Africa to break out of their old, narrow molds and start seeing Africans and Africa in its fullness and complexity. We need more real African characters in our reporting and writing. And we need to have the whole range of human activity reflected in our work.
We need to see an Africa that is written about as a place where ideas matter, and not just our ideas.
We need for people to write about Africa understanding that it has history that goes far beyond index card depth.
April 12, 2012
My photographs were selected for use in the cover illustration of this exciting new book from UC Press and edited, in part, by my friend Jeffrey Wasserstrom. For a view of the pix and more information about the book, please follow this link.
January 14, 2012
What does it mean to be fluent?
Jon Hunstman’s insistence on trotting out bits of his Mandarin here and there (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPb-5AZuzXo) has provoked a lot of commentary and no small amount of ridicule about his proficiency, and whether it really rises to the level of fluency. A better question, and one which gets asked much less often, is what exactly does fluency mean? It is also a lot harder to answer in any definitive way.
I’ve come to this subject from the perspective of somewhat unusual personal experience. Due to life and career choices, in the course of things to one degree or another, I’ve come to speak a lot of languages: English, French, Spanish, bits and pieces of various Akan dialects (Twi, Baoulé, Nzima), Haitian Creole, Japanese and Chinese.
With every one of these languages at some point I got well beyond the phrase book level. Even now, I speak almost as much French in any given day as I speak English. With both Chinese and Japanese, after prolonged and very deliberate effort, I was able to sustain genuine friendships and do my work, meaning not just function in an everyday sense, but conduct extended interviews in the language. And after years of disuse, I was pleased to have been able to revive my once reasonably supple Spanish on the fly as a Rube Goldberg solution to needing to work and function in a Portuguese-speaking environment. This came recently during nearly two months of solo reporting in Mozambique. Hell, I even learned a good bit of this new language, and attained a decent comprehension level as I stumbled about with my crude Portañol.
But just what is fluency? In the end, it is a slightly foolish term, and one can (should?) feel foolish using it. Language learning is an endless process, and one’s comfort and degree of articulateness, never mind literacy in a foreign language is a dynamic and ever-changing thing.
I conducted nearly all of the many field interviews I did for my forthcoming book on the Chinese in Africa alone and in Chinese, and in the thick of it rarely had language problems of any kind. In the five months I’ve been back in the U.S., though, the Chinese space in my brain has shrunk dramatically, almost alarmingly so. No, I haven’t forgotten how to speak by any means, but my level has steadily gone down from disuse and from removal from a situation of immersion.
I remember a lunch I had with a Chinese friend right after my return from Africa in early September. “You sound amazing, so natural,” she said, to my delight, as we carried on in Mandarin. When I saw her again just a few weeks ago, I was already much less confident. In fact I was stunned and embarrassed to have to ask her in English to remind me how to say something relatively basic that I knew well but suddenly couldn’t summon in the middle of a sentence.
With Japanese, things have been even worse. I mixed a couple of Chinese words into a straightforward conversation with a baffled Japanese person in New York the other day, and didn’t even realize until it after I’d walked away, when I played the conversation back in my mind. I studied Japanese first, but I use it much less now. This “splicing” error used to happen a lot in the opposite direction, and it drove my early Chinese teachers crazy.
(On the other hand, many of my Africa interviews were transcribed for me by students or friends in Chinese, and reading them, while quite time consuming, has not been a problem. In fact, it was a lot of fun.)
Last summer, I got to use my Akan in Ghana again, managing to at least bluff my way through many situations (for most people, comprehension decays much less rapidly than speech) and to ingratiate myself to people in many others. It is a near universal rule that people almost always appreciate a sincere effort to speak their language. Unless I retire to a beach in Axim or Elmina, though, I’ll never really speak one of these languages again. Although I worked at them, I never studied them formally, and I’ve let them go for too long. The same is true for Haitian Creole, for which my exposure these days is mostly limited to song (which, it must be said in passing, is an underrated language tool).
For anyone wanting a sense of the process involved in language acquisition, I really enjoyed this article:
- The Perils of American Exceptionalism
January 11, 2012
- UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES
January 4, 2012
- Things I liked (to read)
January 1, 2012
- New Years
December 31, 2011
- China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011
December 21, 2011
- Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – a new best read
December 19, 2011