Favorite Books of 2017
Cathy Holcombe recommends:
Jane Austen has, somehow, become the darling of the alt-right. Which offers so many reasons to read, or re-read, the 19th century author.
Reason # 1: Are the neo-Nazis right? This is a question I had in mind while rereading Pride and Prejudice. Which is after all a nail-biting drama about a husband hunt that ends happily when Elizabeth spears the rich guy. Why should I find relevance in this tale, when I'm a modern woman who can marry who I want, thanks to access to labor markets (full disclosure: my husband is broke). Maybe it’s time to dump these old books.
#2: To explore the question of whether reading makes us better people. We blithely assume reading is good, and there are studies that link fiction-reading with higher levels of empathy. But is it possible we're wrong, and the studies are flawed. What if readers just find what they want to find in a book -- confirm their own prejudices - and if so, what's the point?
#3: To redeem Austen. In a character like Elizabeth, apparently the alt-right see a woman who stands for some ideal of female virtue and purity that has been lost in the modern world. What I see in this character is a risk-taker. She could have moved in for the kill much earlier than she did, but bided her time, sharpening her spear to the point of no escape for Darcy. I believe Elizabeth would make an excellent hedge-fund manager if born into this time and place. With our own interpretations, we take Elizabeth back from the Nazis.
#4: Screw you Nazis. There are a number of one-dimensional characters in P&P, such as the devious spendthrift Wickham and the dumb silly sister who ran off with him. But in Elizabeth and Darcy there are dimensions, ambiguity and character development. Is it possible I should stop thinking of neo-Nazis as cartoon characters; to try to understand their dimensions; or why they even seek "virtue" at all? Would the world be a better place if we weren't say, tempted to punch Nazis? I'm not quite there yet. But I just downloaded Sense and Sensibility. Maybe I'll find the answer in this volume. Which brings us to the final reason for an Austen revival in these times: Let's not give up the faith.
Sterling Publishing Co Inc (New York), 2017
Ilaria Maria Sala recommends:
I read this book while traveling to Mexico in the Spring, and while this has been a year full of excellent reads, Valeria Luiselli’s slim volume still lingers on my mind – I recommend it wholeheartedly. In Spanish, it is called “The Lost Children,” translated into English as “Tell Me How It Ends – An Essay in 40 Questions” (published by 4th Estate in the UK, and by Coffee House Press in America.) It is the intertwined story of Luiselli, a Mexican writer now living and working in the United States, as she visits the Mexican border on a car trip with her family; and of her work as a volunteer interpreter for unaccompanied Central American children at the federal immigration Court. These are kids fleeing gang violence in Ecuador, Honduras and El Salvador, screened by the Immigration authorities with a standard, fastidiously bureaucratic questionnaire (the 40 questions of the title) hard to relate to their young lives and harrowing experiences. The dryness of the court to which the children are taken when they apply for refugee status is paralleled by that of the southern landscape Luiselli and her family travel through – her husband Alvaro Enrigue, also a prominent Mexican writer, and their children – as their Green Cards, allowing them to legally work in the United States, are being processed. The book was written while the American Presidential election campaign was in full swing, with talk of “building a wall” and boasts of “deporting Mexicans” loudly embraced, so it has all the urgency of a current affairs read. Yet, Luiselli takes many steps back to give a full background of what is happening and who is paying the price: young, traumatized children, exploited, victimized and then chased away with cynical brutality. As Luiselli recounts their complicated stories, the bureaucracy that tries to simplify them, and the history behind them, she puts decency and humanity into the frame again, in an unforgettably sensitive and piercing manner.
我在春天往墨西哥旅遊時閱讀此書。雖然今年稍後接二連三地讀到好書，但這本由Valeria Luiselli寫下的薄薄一本卻在我腦海中留下深刻印象，非在此全心全意推介不可。在西班牙語中，這書名為«失落的孩子»，翻譯成英文就是«告訴我這是如何結束的---由40問句組成的文章» (在英國由4th Estate出版，在美國則由Coffee House Press出版)。這是Luiselli本人交織於兩地的故事，作為一個旅美的墨西哥作家，她與家人自駕到墨西哥邊境，以及充任沒有成人陪伴的中美小孩在聯邦移民法院中的義務翻譯的故事。這些孩子有的是為了逃避在厄瓜多爾、洪都拉斯以及薩爾瓦多等地的幫派暴力，由移民局進行官僚化的審查，要他們填寫標準的問卷(就是書名中的40問句)，根本無法與他們的年輕生命與悲慘過去接軌。這些孩子被帶到法庭以申請難民資格，等候他們的綠卡申請獲批，才能合法地工作。這法庭乾燥無味，堪比Luiselli與其家人----包括她的著名墨西哥作家丈夫Alvaro Enrigue，以及他們的孩子---到訪的南部風景。這本書寫於美國總統競選進行得如火如荼之際，正當「築起圍牆」以及「遣返墨西哥人」之說備受推祟，正需要一本時事讀物。但Luiselli回歸根本，嘗試給予大家完整的背景，以及誰正為這一切付出代價：年輕、飽受精神創傷的孩子，受盡剝削及殘酷逼害。當官僚簡化著這些人的故事，Luiselli重整他們複雜的故事及背後的歷史因素，以令人深刻的敏感和穿透力把體面和人性重新帶入討論。
Sexto Piso (Mexico), 2016
Jason Y. Ng recommends:
This is one of Franz Kafka’s three unfinished novels, and arguably his most personal. It tells the story of K., a foreigner who arrives in a small, inhospitable town to take up a new job, only to be told he is no longer needed. He struggles to make contact with his employers—bureaucrats in a nearby castle that is off-limits to the masses and shrouded in deep secrecy. K. is finally granted an audience with a handful of low level bureaucrats but, despite repeated attempts, fails to gain access to the Castle.
Kafka’s stories are like a Picasso painting: bizarre, lopsided, and packed with subtext. Reason alone is not enough to make sense of them. Likewise, Kafka’s protagonists are confused and alienated, but they are also defiant, determined, even heroic. They make us pity them and root for them at the same time. Above all, they hold up a mirror to us and demand us to reexamine our own existence and relationship to one other.
The Castle is no exception. K.’s frustrating and eventually futile struggle against a mysterious, untouchable government has taken on new meaning in 2017. Twenty years after the handover, Hong Kongers are still trying to forge an identity in the dark shadow of the Chinese regime—our very own Castle. On many levels, we can all relate to K., the unhappy hero who continues to stand up to the authorities no matter how pointless and hopeless it all seems. The struggle must go on, because giving up simply isn’t in his nature.
«城堡»一書也不例外，K嘗試與神秘與遙不可及的政府對抗，令他沮喪萬分，並最終徒勞無功收場。這故事在2017年對我們也有新的啟示: 主權移交後二十年，香港人仍在中共政權—也就是我們自己的城堡—的陰霾下試著找尋自己的身份。 我們在不同層面上都可以理解K的處境: 一位縱使在沒有希望和意義下依然繼續對抗權威，一位心碎的英雄。鬥爭必須繼續，因為放棄絶不是他的本性。
The book ends mid-sentence, leaving the reader wondering what is to come. K.’s future is unknown, uncertain and unnerving. Our city has never felt so Kafkaesque.
Penguin (UK), 2001
Nicholas Wong recommends:
What poetry and protests have in common, perhaps, is that they are both a means to interfere the noise of dominant culture. The poetic voice of the Japanese master Shuntarō Tanikawa allows us to perceive our life and take a break from it, when we are left at a loss to deal with it alone. “Polaroid Camera,” for example, tells us there is a “[s]ilent syntax… entangled inside” every one of us, because “a [m]usician attribute[s] too much authority to lingering sounds.” This selected collection of Tanikawa’s verse since Two Billion Light-Year of Solitude (1952) amuses us with its perceptiveness and wit on the everyday and days we hope will come with just a handful of gentleness.
詩與示威的共同點，也許就在於它們都是用以抗衡主流文化的噪音。日本大師谷川俊太郎讓我們感知自己的生命，以及當我們感到迷失時從中偷閒。例如「寶麗萊相機」，告訴我們每個人當中都有一個「無聲的語法……在內裡糾纏」，因為「音樂家把過多的權力賦予揮之不去的聲音。」這本詩集輯錄自谷川< 二十億光年の孤独> (1952)以來的作品，運用其洞察力與機智，為我們的日常生活點注溫柔。
Carcanet Press (United Kingdom), 2015
Sarah Schafer Recommends:
I am catching up on my Russian literature of late, and in 2017 I read Dostoyevsky’s, “The Brothers Karamazov,” a novel more than 100 years old that—like Dostoyevsky’s other works— never seems irrelevant. The tale centers on the three brothers and their drunken, belligerent, revolting father. The book has it all—sibling rivalry, love triangles and murder. But Dostoyevsky’s keen understanding of the central questions of faith, politics, society and humanity continue to amaze me.
As I read, I highlighted some of the passages that struck me as apt for our times including:
Words spoken by the character Miusov: “…I one day had occasion, while paying a social call to a certain extremely important person in authority at the time, a friend of mine, to encounter at his home a certain most curious gentleman. He was, this individual, not so much a police spy as a kind of director of an entire team of political police spies….The theme of our deliberations had turned to the socialist revolutionaries who as a matter of fact were the subject of persecution at the time…. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘all those socialists—the anarchists, atheists and revolutionaries—are not the ones who give us the headaches; we keep an eye on them, and their movements are well known to us. There are among them, however, though they are not many, a number of peculiar characters; these are people who believe in God and are Christians, yet are at the same time socialists. Now they are the ones who give us the worst headaches, they are a fearsome bunch! The socialist who is a Christian is more worthy of fear than the socialist who is an atheist.’”
And this passage, spoken by Ivan Karamazov: “‘That I don’t understand anything,’ Ivan continued in a kind of delirium. ‘And that I don’t want to understand anything now, either. I want to remain with the facts. I decided long ago not to understand. If I understand anything, I shall instantly be untrue to the facts, and I have decided to remain with the facts…’”
What do these passages call to mind for you? While reading the first, I couldn’t help but think of China and its fear of Christianity—and that religion’s continual appeal to activists who are drawn to its message of change through perseverance and suffering. While reading the latter, I thought of self-deception, the lie of narrative, and the era of fake news.
And now on to Tolstoy, after a quick break for some mindless television….
Penguin Books (UK), 1993
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho recommends:
What is Hong Kong literature? Hong Kong literature is that which takes the city, its rhythm, its people, its fears and preoccupations, as its central focus. It doesn’t matter too much who is writing, so long as the focus is Hong Kong. Chinese Hong Kong writing tends to be grounded in daily experience, and explores interpersonal relationships. It also ably reflects on the absurdity of Hong Kong’s life, both political and social. The stories in Hon Lai-chu’s The Kite Family, translated from standard written Chinese by Andrea Lingenfelter, are adept at expressing this sense of absurdity and unease. Several of the stories focus on a lone character confronted with societal expectations and prejudices, who finds himself or herself in disturbing situations that recall Kafka or episodes of The Twilight Zone: one features a man on display in a furniture showroom, while in another a man wills and trains himself to become a chair to be sat on, and in another a woman’s excessive teeth that keep on sprouting take over her face. Hong Kong is not explicitly named in the stories in The Kite Family, but the issues besetting its people are distinctly recognisable. The stories may not always be pleasant to read, but they provoke, and make the reader sympathise with inhabitants of the city just a little more.
Hong Kong University Press (HK), 2015
Timothy O'Leary recommends:
In the world of teen and young adult fiction, the phenomenon of “fan fiction” is well established. Young fans write additions, addenda, spin-offs of their favourite novels and circulate them through online platforms. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a fan fiction related to Stephanie Meyer’s teen sensation Twilight. But this happens in more ‘serious’ fiction too. John Banville’s new novel is a kind of fan fiction homage to Henry James. It picks up where James’ Portrait of a Lady (1881) ended, with the heroine Isobel Archer (now Mrs Osmond) apparently deciding to return to her cruel and manipulative husband in Florence. James’ ambiguous ending has frustrated, and tantalized, generations of readers. But now Banville, a past winner of the Man Booker Prize (for The Sea in 2005), has given us one version of an answer to the question ‘what did Isobel do?’
This is a book that will appeal to fans of Henry James (me!) and in particular anyone who felt a bit let down at the abrupt ending of A Portrait (also me!). Banville is remarkably successful at immersing himself in a 19th century world and in the style of Henry James. When he writes in his own voice he is already very Jamesian in his style, but in this novel his Jamesian skills are given full, richly byzantine scope. As far as the plot is concerned, I don’t want to give anything away, but Banville wisely chooses a relatively short timeframe for his story – avoiding the temptation to give a potted history of the rest of Mrs Osmond’s life. But what he writes is, undoubtedly, an Isobel for 21st century, feminist-infused sensibilities. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, true to ‘the master’ (the title of Colm Toibin’s homage to Henry James), Banville ends the novel with a delightfully ambiguous scene that perfectly mirrors the ending of James’ Portrait.
So, all you Henry James fans out there, start reading!
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (New York), 2017
William Nee recommends:
China watchers can easily get tired of books and articles that rehash top line macro trends about China’s contested economic data, dismal demographic trends, unfettered consumerism, and the worrying orientation of the Communist Party. In this sense, veteran journalist Ian Johnson’s “The Souls of China” - a book about the resurgence of religion in China - is refreshingly different.
With an eye akin to a well trained anthropologist, but the pen of an engaging novelist, Johnson profiles a warm family of folk religion pilgrims in Beijing, a diligent family carrying on traditional Daoist funeral services in Shanxi, a vibrant congregation of Protestants in Chengdu, and various Buddhist and qigong masters.
Johnson writes with clear empathy for his subjects, who in their drive for justice, their striving for community building, and desire for spiritual growth, help give even the most jaded some newfound reasons for hope.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (New York), 2017