Favorite Books of 2016

PEN Hong Kong executive committee members introduce books that left an impression in 2016.
Between the World and Me

Simon Westcott recommends:

'Between the World and Me' by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book picks you up by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let you go. Written as extended essay from father to teenage son, it belies its intimate context to deliver a fierce and passionate broadside into the perennial debate about race in America and beyond; so much has changed since Coates’ youth, and so little. But the book’s power comes not just from its sobering specificity – the angry roll-call of police killings, institutional prejudice, and the casual, self-perpetuating racism of the streets – but from its soaring and highly distinctive voice. Coates imbues his language with a rare, lyric physicality that pulls the ‘allegedly white’ reader into a world and experience otherwise only intellectually or tangentially understood.

Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Garden of Beasts

Ilaria Maria Sala recommends:

'In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American family in Hitler’s Berlin' by Erik Larson

President Roosevelt had a hard time choosing a willing US ambassador to Germany as Hitler was consolidating his power – and, after a long search, the choice fell on a gentle historian, William Dodd, who moved to Berlin with his wife and adult children. Other than opening a window on the crazy workings of diplomacy in very fraught times, and describing some very ill-placed individuals (Dodd’s daughter Martha, in particular, is fascinating in her lack of political common sense) what really resonated with me is how unprepared the foreign press was in front of this monstrous regime. The desire to be “counterintuitive,” to outsmart common perception, and to ingratiate oneself with the authorities in the vain hope of greater access made most journalists way less critical and hard-hitting than they could and had to be. It was not their fault alone, though: the diplomatic circles cold-shouldered the journalists who reported what they saw without making excuses, describing them as “trouble-makers,” “over-negative” or even misplaced activists. It is a very strong condemnation of the pretense of “objectivity” and “balanced reporting” – a subject which is of the greatest relevance to our times. It’s a gripping book, too, and it then took me to reading “Hitlerland,” by Andrew Nagorski, that deals solely with the foreign media in Nazi Germany. Also strongly recommended.

Crown Publishing Group, 2011

just kids

Timothy O'Leary recommends:

'Just Kids' by Patti Smith

For me, 2016 was the year of Patti Smith. Early in the year I finally bought her 1976 album Horses (better late than never). Then I saw a documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe (Look at the Pictures, 2016), shortly after which I came across Smith’s book Just Kids (2010), which traces her relationship with Mapplethorpe in New York in the early 1970s. I finished the year reading Smith’s later memoir M Train (2015). But, in all that, it’s the book Just Kids that really stands out for me.

Smith writes clearly, forcefully, and beautifully, as you would expect from a performance punk poet; and the book offers a tantalising insight into the bohemian life of New York in the early 1970s. The moment, for example, when she is sitting sketching in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel (remember Leonard Cohen’s song?) and Salvador Dali walks in and chats with her briefly. But what really captivates the reader is the story of two young people (Smith and Mapplethorpe) finding their way into creativity and, in Mapplethorpe’s case, sexual identity. And the story of a friendship between two waifs, before they become international stars. They may start out as just kids, but by the end Smith has found a voice that grapples with love, death, and creativity in ways that will stay with the reader.

I immediately gave away my copy of the book to my daughter. She has named her pet rat Patti. What other recommendation could one ask for?

New York: Ecco, 2010

Gaze of Exile

David Bandurski recommends:

'Gaze of Exile: Witnessing China's Documentary Movement' by Huang Wenhai

Independent film in China once enjoyed a unique space of nascent freedom in the shadows on the margins of the dominant "mainstream" film industry -- mainstream being synonymous in China with state-sanctioned narratives and sanitized facts. Disregarding extreme restrictions on film, a wide range of filmmakers -- empowered by new digital technologies -- explored the human stories on the underside of China's development. They found keen audiences in a small but growing community of unofficial forums, such as the Beijing Independent Film Festival, and they achieved some level of success on the international scene, showing at major festivals such as Cannes and Venice. But around 2010, fortunes started to change for China's independent film movement. The government began to exert pressure, both at home and overseas, on filmmakers and the networks that supported them.

In this book, veteran indie filmmaker Huang Wenhai looks back on more than a decade of development in Chinese independent film, with interviews with many of the movement’s key figures, including Hu Jie and Ai Weiwei. The book's unique contribution is to look at the films and filmmakers not just as isolated creators with their own aesthetic ambitions, but as part of a much broader, though fragile, social and political movement. It is probably the most comprehensive history to date of the independent film movement in China. As indie filmmaker and former university professor Ai Xiaoming notes: “Reading the book is like reading a historical documentary. The language and structure of the entire book is done in the style of documentary. The words record our experiences, and the feelings all come back.”

Tendency Press (Taiwan), 2016

house a

Nicholas Wong recommends:

'House A' by Jennifer S. Cheng

Independent film in China once enjoyed a unique space of nascent freedom in the shadows on the margins of the dominant "mainstream" film industry -- mainstream being synonymous in China with state-sanctioned narratives and sanitized facts. Disregarding extreme restrictions on film, a wide range of filmmakers -- empowered by new digital technologies -- explored the human stories on the underside of China's development. They found keen audiences in a small but growing community of unofficial forums, such as the Beijing Independent Film Festival, and they achieved some level of success on the international scene, showing at major festivals such as Cannes and Venice. But around 2010, fortunes started to change for China's independent film movement. The government began to exert pressure, both at home and overseas, on filmmakers and the networks that supported them.

In this book, veteran indie filmmaker Huang Wenhai looks back on more than a decade of development in Chinese independent film, with interviews with many of the movement’s key figures, including Hu Jie and Ai Weiwei. The book's unique contribution is to look at the films and filmmakers not just as isolated creators with their own aesthetic ambitions, but as part of a much broader, though fragile, social and political movement. It is probably the most comprehensive history to date of the independent film movement in China. As indie filmmaker and former university professor Ai Xiaoming notes: “Reading the book is like reading a historical documentary. The language and structure of the entire book is done in the style of documentary. The words record our experiences, and the feelings all come back.”

Tendency Press (Taiwan), 2016

Not Written Words

Tammy Ho-Lai Ming recommends:

'Not Written Words' by Xi Xi and translated by Jennifer Feeley

In her introduction to Not Written Words, a collection of poems by Xi Xi translated from the Chinese into English, Jennifer Feeley, the translator, notes that the poet “consistently uses plain and understated language, yet her poetry is nevertheless provocative and philosophical. Her early poems are light, whimsical, and abundant in musicality and wordplay” (p. xxi). This is all true. Xi Xi’s poems are also highly socially engaged and reflect working class life in Hong Kong. Reading her poems sometimes offers a transformative experience, as one reads not only for the meaning but also the very brilliance and boundless possibilities of the language itself. When translating Xi Xi’s poems, Feeley is sometimes delightfully inventive—introducing rhymes, wordplay, puns—as straightforward translations would deprive the originals of some of their discernible wittiness and playfulness. Although admitting her inability to “capture the full range of meanings” in one of the poems (p. 147), Feeley makes up for these very occasional lapses with her thoughtful decisions made in translating many of the poems in the collection. This is what I call the paradox of faithfulness in translation—the translator has to besomewhat unfaithful in order to achieve faithfulness to the spirit and linguistic sparks of the original poems.

Zephyr Press and MCCM Creations, 2016

Sellout

Mishi Saran recommends:

'The Sellout' by Paul Beatty

I started last year with Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, which has a terrible, inevitable beauty and the violence of a waterfall. A must read. I ended the year with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a withering, very funny send-up of race relations in America, the book skins all hypocrisy from the discussion. Some of what lay in between those two books: The pleasure of returning to Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes and reading Snow Country for the first time, they happened to be bound together in an old volume (from the Hong Kong University Library). Also for the second time: J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (from the Hong Kong Public Library). Anita Desai’s 2001 Diamond and Dust, short story collection. Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird: Delightful, filigree language.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Honor Killing

Cathy Holcombe recommends:

'Honor Killing' by David E Stannard

'Honor Killing' was published more than a decade ago, but I had never heard of it until a few months ago when I stumbled upon it at a used book store in Thailand. Very appropriate because the book itself unveils a hidden history. It describes an astounding true-crime story from the 1930s in Hawaii; astounding because the accused were so obviously innocent. Yet amid the racial politics of that time and place, joining in the frenzied calls for the heads of the accused became a tribal, partisan joy. To explain the how and the why of this injustice, the author, an American Studies professor, delves into the history of Hawaii’s colonisation and economic and politic development. Among the many surprises in this tale is the role played by the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Penguin Group, 2005

Vegetarian

Yeewan Koon recommends:

'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith

This is a deceptive book. It is short, but you need to take your time to absorb its tale. The premise is simple: Yeong-hye wakes up from a dream and decides to become a vegetarian, a seemingly harmless choice that descends into a complex web of violence, familial guilt, and mental disorder. In one incredible scene (and there are many), her father forces her to eat a piece of sweet and sour pork and she retaliates by stabbing herself. Here, becoming vegetarian is an act of defiance that exposes how social shame hides a million faults. Yeong-hye’s story is never told from her perspective, instead we construct who she is from her husband’s take on his wife’s ordinariness and her remarkable decision, a brother-in-law’s fascination that turns sexual and ugly, and a sister’s reflections on the family’s fractured state as Yeong-hye lies in the mental ward dying. It is a book where our most primal nature tussles with social expectations, it is about passion and abuse, possession and freedom, and which desires are allowed or denied. The translation is fantastic with a bracing and unrelenting prose. It is not a nice book, nor is it fun, but it is intense and frighteningly good.

Portobello Books, 2014

Lucky Boy

Kate Whitehead recommends:

'Lucky Boy' by Shanthi Sekaran

With America’s new President Donald trump promising to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, Lucky Boy is very topical. It’s a tale of the immigrant experience as well as an exploration of motherhood, fertility and racism. It’s also an utterly compelling read.

Soli and Kavya are both immigrants, but from very different worlds. Soli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant and Kavya is an Indian-American living a comfortable life in Berkley. Their stories converge over the “lucky boy” of the book’s title.

After a hazardous journey sneaking across the border to the US, Soli finds herself pregnant. She has baby Ignacio and keeps him close to her as she works as a cleaner, but an accident brings her to the attention of the police and she lands in detention. Ignacio is put in foster care and his foster parents come to love him so much they don’t want to let him go. The novel’s strength is that both sides of this battle for a little boy are revealed in complex detail.

Penguin Random House, 2016

Wish Lanterns

Jason Y. Ng recommends:

'Wish Lanterns' by Alec Ash

Wish Lanterns follows the lives of a half dozen young Chinese who came from different corners of the country and crossed paths in Beijing, the new Jerusalem of the Far East. Their stories intersect and intertwine, woven into a tapestry of 21st Century China that at once fascinates and intimidates.

Wish Lanterns is much more than an expat’s fisheye view on the Middle Kingdom. Through the six young voices he has captured, the author speaks eloquently about China’s one child policy and muses humorously over Single’s Day. He sheds light – sometimes unflatteringly but always authentically – on pressing social issues from materialism and narcissism to internet addiction and rural-to-urban migration.

I first met Alec three years ago at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival. The understated Englishman impressed me with not only his fluent Putonghua but more importantly his in-depth knowledge of China’s existential angst and how it is shaping the millennials – and vice versa. Wish Lanterns, Alec’s first book, is a welcome addition to the “New China” shelf.

Picador, 2016

wegonbealright

Sarah Schafer recommends:

'We Gon' Be Alright' by Jeff Chang

This book of essays offers a painfully honest discussion of race. Although his book focuses on America’s unique race relations—both past and present—author Jeff Chang presents a fascinating take on power structures that people all over the world could relate to—and learn from. The book is never boring, and Chang offers fresh analyses on everything from Beyoncé’s groundbreaking video, “Lemonade,” to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, to the hypocrisy of the “diversity” movement that swept across American university campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is a must read for our times!

Picador, 2016

Birth of the Modern World

Vaudine England recommends:

'The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914' by Christopher A. Bayly

Post-colonial hangups and political correctness have been getting in the way of historical writing for a while now, preventing proper talk about empires. They are always with us, only their names, locations and characters alter. As with empire, so with what we now inaccurately call globalisation. Aspects of it have been around for many more centuries than popularly imagined, and patterns repeat. Bayly’s wonderful book was the first to make me understand such matters. It helped me think about how Hong Kong’s existence fits into patterns far larger than current ideas pressed upon us. This book sent me back to globalisations of the 900s described by the amazing Abu-Lughod, and on through Hopkins into the 1900s, illuminating a lot of questions about why places such as Hong Kong exist and how their being transcends mere political fashions of our times. It’s also a beautiful lesson in cover design; I probably wouldn’t have picked it up in an Amsterdam book store without it.

(I was going to choose Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s alluring novel, Jazz, Perfume & the Incident, a Casablanca-type rendering of an Indonesian massacre in East Timor, published by the pioneering Lontar press of Indonesia. But I really cannot pretend to have been reading it in 2016.)

Blackwell Books, 2004

Sixth_Extinction

Renee Chiang recommends:

'The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History' by Elizabeth Kolbert

Most people know about the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs in the late Triassic, but this was not the most devastating extinction in earth’s history. 250 million years ago, massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia caused a global temperature rise of 5 degrees Centigrade, which in turn triggered other catastrophic events and a further rise of 5 degrees. What followed was the End Permian Extinction (also known as the Great Dying) in which 90 percent of the earth’s species of plants and animals were wiped out, a biodiversity that was not to recover for 10 million years.

We are now living in the age of the Anthropocene, and another mass extinction (the sixth) is underway, this time caused by human activity. Tragically, just as genetic science is revealing to us how closely we are related to all life on earth, we are also acting to bring about the extinction of much of it. If we fail to stop this trend, the planet will probably recover eventually, but without us.

This Pulitzer Prize winning book informs us of these past and current extinctions through personal narrative. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, Kolbert's book fills the reader with awe at the wonders of life on earth, with respect for the scientists working to understand our world, and with horror at what we are doing to our planet.

Henry Holt & Company, 2014