My Year in Reading – 2016

As per custom, near years-end, or in this case at the new year’s start, a list of the books I read in the past year. I’ve placed them in alphabetic order, by name of author. A goal for 2017 is to read a LOT more fiction, which I’ve drifted away from as I’ve worked on a couple of book projects of my own. Excitingly, the first of these is due for publication by Knopf in March 2017, under the title: Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

I hope to have more to share about the second of my book projects soon.

The novel that most impressed me this year was Colson Whitehead’s widely and deservedly acclaimed Underground Railroad, which was so much more than I expected it to be. In addition to his extraordinary mastery of language and voice, the book read like an ambitious secret history of the United States, consummately literary but with learned payoffs on most every page.

The Immobile Empire, by Alain Peyreffite (originally published in 1992) was my favorite among many works of history I read this year.


The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War

Adebajo, Adekeye


Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies

Bates, Robert H.


When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard

Cakaj, Ledio

Bad Luck and Trouble

Child, Lee



Child, Lee


China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities

Cliff, Roger


Known and Strange Things: Essays

Cole, Teju


The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History

Dikotter, Frank


This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime

Ellis, Stephen


The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State

Fang Lizhi



One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

Fong, Mei


The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Frankopan, Peter


Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three

Ferrante, Elena


Six Recording of a Floating Life

Fu, Shen


Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China

Gewirtz, Julian


99 Poems

Gioia, Dana


Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States

Hirschman, Albert O.


1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline

Huang, Ray


The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy

Giraldez, Arturo


Inside Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts

Ingelaere, Bert



Gyasi, Yaa


Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia

Harding, Andrew


China’s Coming War with Asia

Holslag, Jonathan


China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement

Horsburgh, Nicola


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Kingston, Maxine Hong


The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations

Lasch, Christopher


The Land at the End of the World: A Novel

Lobo Antunes, António


They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement

Lowery, Wesley


The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers

McDonell, Terry


Memories of Myself

Lyon, Danny


After the Circus: A Novel

Modiano, Patrick


The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolutionary Invention

Munro, Alexander


The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen


the Immobile Empire

Peyrefitte, Alain


The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom

Pomfret, John


Shanghai Redemption

Qiu Xiaolong


City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

Rawlence, Ben


The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century

Ringen, Stein


Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China

Smith, Sheila A.


A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence

Stuart-Fox, Martin


Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present

Teufel-Dreyer, June


Force and Contention in Contemporary China: Memory and Resistance in the Long Shadow of the Catastrophic Past

Thaxton, Ralph A.


The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931

Tooze, Adam


China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed

Walder, Andrew G.


Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram

Walker, Andrew


Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics

Wang, Yuan-kang


The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson


The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China

Yang Guobin

Reading List 2013 (definitive)

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.

General List:

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 Century 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

Project List:

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

The Birth of Vietnam, by Keith Weller Taylor

State and Society in the Philippines, by Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso

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

The Influence of Sea Power on History – 1660-1783, by A.T. Mahan

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

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

Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the 20th Century, by Rebecca E. Karl

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

The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History, by O.T. Wolters

Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & The War With Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (reading now).

Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350, by Janet L. Abu-Lughod (just started. h/t Jeff Wasserstrom)



What I read in 2012

I tried to get this ready in time for the end of the year, but was too busy with writing, reading, and family. It’s still far from complete, but I figure if I don’t put this out now, I’ll never do so. What follows is a very partial list of what I read (and almost uniformly enjoyed or profited from) last year. I’m listing them roughly in backwards order, starting from most recent:

[I’d forgotten these, and will add others I’ve omitted as they occur to me:

Chris Stringer: Lone Survivor: How We Came to be the Only Humans on Earth.

Robert A Caro: Passage to Power]

James C. Scott: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Scott Straus: Remaking Rwanda:State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence

Filip Reyntjens: Ruling Under a Volcano: Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda

Yukio Mishima: The Decay of the Angel

Chinese Characters (Edited by Shah and Wasserstrom)

Olen Steinhauer: The Tourist

John Garnaut: The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo: How a Murder Exposed the Cracks in Chinese Leadership

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Another Day of Life,

Marie Ndiaye : Three Strong Women

Curt Kraus : The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Charles Robertson: The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution

Richard Burger: Behind the Red Door: Sex in China

James McGregor : No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism,

V.S. Naipaul : The Enigma of Arrival

Andrew Nathan and Robert S. Ross: The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security

Chinua Achebe: There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

Wole Soyinka: Of Africa

James N. Stewart : Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction

Errol Morris: Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

Noo Saro-Wiwa: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria

James Fallows : China Airborne

Ben Lerner: Leaving the Atocha Station

Stephen Ellis : Season of Rains: Africa in the World,

Jean-Michel Severino, Olivier Ray : Africa’s Moment

Edward Thomas: The Kafia-Kingi Enclave: People, Politics and History in the North-South Boundary of Western Sudan

Douglas H. Johnson: When Boundaries Become Borders: The Impact of Boundary Making in Southern Sudan’s Frontier Zones

E.O. Wilson: The Social Conquest of Earth

Sebastian Barry : On Canaan’s Side

Michael Ondaatje : The Cat’s Table

Eric Newby : A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Artur Domoslawski: Ryszard Kapuscinski: a Life

Chinua Achebe: A Man of the People (re-read)

Gordon Mathews: The Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong

Chan Koonchung: The Fat Years

China in 10 Words – from the best books 0f 2011

It will be a very long time before Chinese writers cease to mine the seemingly inexhaustible vein of material that comes from the ten years of chaos and upheaval of  the Cultural Revolution.

Indeed, Yu Hua, the author of the seventh book to appear on this list, China in Ten Words himself has come up with his own graphic way of taking note of this. If all the stories of fortunes reversed and lives thrust into chaos “were laid out one after another, they would stretch as endlessly as a highway and be as hard to tally as the forest.”

For people who follow China  seriously, this produces something of an occupational hazard. After a while, so much that is written about this turbulent period (1966-’76) begins to  sound familiar, and even when the stories are extraordinary, as they so often are, the effect becomes somewhat repetitive — even monotonous. This is made worse when people write about the period – and there are many of them – more or less to to pander.

Yu Hua, who hails from Hangzhou, a metropolis that few Americans have ever heard of and  yet is bigger than almost any city in the United States, has none of these issues. As the previous author, most famously, of Brothers, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, he has long earned his stripes as a highly original writer, and one who revels in taking on big social and historical themes.

At 225 pages, China in Ten Words is so brief that one couldn’t be blamed for suspected it as one of those tossed off efforts that famous writers sometimes lend themselves to, whether out of boredom, or contract requirements, or the need for funds, or simply because they can, which means for the heck of it. To the contrary, the result is one of the most intriguing recent contributions on the subject of the Cultural Revolution that this reader has come across.

No, Yu Hua has not come up with some astounding new material, or even a genuinely new perspective on the period. All in all, his stories of growing up in that era of generalized violence, and of yet of striking innocence in terms of some things, such as social and sexual mores, sound rather familiar. The breakthrough instead, if it is not too grand a claim to call it that, comes in the form of the extended parallels he draws between that era in China and our own. And here, I believe, Yu Hu, ever the astute social critic, has stumbled upon something really quite interesting.

The Cultural Revolution was an era of extraordinary concentration of power in the person of Mao Zedong. The Party remains powerful, of course, but by the measures of the past, authority has become highly diffuse. Both result in great violence, both in great injustices, even if their nature and description vary dramatically.

Here and there, Yu Hua takes great pleasure in skewering a body of opinion that exists in China (and which is nursed by the state) which is smug and self satisfied. “Our economic miracle — or should we say, the economic gain in which we so revel — relies to a significant extent on the absolute authority of local governments, for an administrative order on a piece of paper is all that’s required to implement drastic change.”

He is speaking, of course, of the administrative hocus pokus that has propelled real estate speculation and made huge fortunes out of thin air, while cheating ordinary people, the nameless masses, out of their land and their homes or their livelihoods, fueling combustible anger in places like Wukan and many other places.

He is mostly impressed by the great waste that accompanied the economic boom, likening it to useless backyard steel furnaces of the Great Leap Forward that boosted statistics but left the countryside polluted and denuded of trees.

“When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburgs airport was selling vuvuzelas — Chinese-made plastic horns — for the equivalent of 100 yuan each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan apiece,” he writes. “One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan. This examples gives a sense of China’s lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in generating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China’s GDP, to clean up the rivers it has ruined will cost ten times that amount. An authority I respect has put it this way: China’s model of development is to spend 100 yuan to gain 10 yuan in increased GDP.”

There is an extended meditation here about the seemingly almost arbitrary reversals of fates that the two eras, the Cultural Revolution and now, have brought about in the lives of Chinese people. Back then, as Yu Hua notes, Wang Hongwen, a simply security guard, rose at age 38 to officially become the country’s third leading politician, after Mao and Zhou En Lai. Today, it is seemingly ordinary people from the grassroots who dominate the lists of richest people. They are people who “think and dare to act,” and who “will adopt any method,” legal or not, to get ahead.

In the popular idiom of the revolutionary 1960s China, this was called “flipping pancakes,” he tells us. “Everyone was just a pancake, sizzling on the griddle, flipped from side to side by the hand of fate.”

For Yu Hua, the forms of the past may have changed but the essence of so many things has remained the same. We have gone from an era of radical redistribution of political power to an era of radical redistribution of economic power, but the arbitrary nature of fate and the injustices that it inevitably deals have remained constant.

“What is revolution,” Yu Hua asks? “The answer I have heard take many forms. Revolution fills life with unknowables, and one’s fate can take an entirely different course overnight; some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit. In revolution the social ties that bind one person to another are formed and broken unpredictably, and today’s brother-in-arms may become tomorrow’s class enemy.”

Or indeed today’s.

Here’s a profile from the New York Times magazine of the author, written by the formidable Pankaj Mishra: