It’s the time of year to look back and see what were the best books of 2017. I’ll list all the books I’ve reviewed, then see who emerges as the best.
Lotus by Lijia Zhang – South China Morning Post
China’s Asian Dream by Tom Miller – South China Morning Post
The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong – South China Morning Post
Party Members by Arthur Meursault – Hong Kong Review of Books
Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You in Your Life by Yiyun Li – South China Morning Post
The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang – Business Tianjin
Remains of Life by Wu He – South China Morning Post
Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark – Business Tianjin
Everything Under The Heavens by Howard French – Hong Kong Review of Books
Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan – South China Morning Post
The Language of Solitude by Jan-Philipp Sendker – South China Morning Post
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang – South China Morning Post
The Souls of China by Ian Johnson – Business Tianjin
Shanghai Faithful by Jennifer Lin – Hong Kong Review of Books
Ma Huateng and Tencent by Leng Hu – Business Tianjin
Selfie by Will Storr – Hong Kong Review of Books
The Chinese Typewriter: A History by Thomas S. Mullaney – The Spectator
Wang Jianlin and Dalian Wanda by Zhou Xuan – Business Tianjin
Six Billion Consumers by Porter Erisman – South China Morning Post
Finding My Virginity by Richard Branson – South China Morning Post
The Standing Chandelier by Lionel Shriver – South China Morning Post
China’s World: What Does China Want? by Kerry Brown – LA Review of Books’ China Channel
The Only Story by Julian Barnes – South China Morning Post
That’s a total of 23 books. (I’m currently reading The China Conundrum by Yukon Huang and The War for China’s Wallet by Shaun Rein for a review in LARB China Channel, but this probably won’t be published this year). Breaking it down, there are seven by women, and sixteen by men. Nine are fiction (eight novels and one short story collection), fourteen are non-fiction (five memoirs, three biographies and six books on specific topics) – which isn’t surprising as my focus is largely on China.
Thoughts and comments:
There’s been some excellent books. In terms of books on aspects of China, I most enjoyed China’s Asian Dream by Tom Miller, Everything Under The Heavens by Howard French and The Souls of China by Ian Johnson. The former pair both cover Chinese foreign policy – the Miller book in a shoe-leather-pounding exploration of the areas of the Belt and Road strategy, the French an overview of the history of China’s relations with its neighbours and its effects on China’s newly expansionary foreign policy. The Johnson book was, like the French, both a historical overview and a current-day exploration, in this case of people seeking religious affirmation in a country where religion is discouraged. All three were excellent.
In memoirs and biography, I really enjoyed Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In My Life. It’s a book of precise poeticisms, exacting emotional qualification and unsparing, even tortured self-analysis. It’s maybe somewhat chilly but incredibly bracing.
I also very much enjoyed Selfie by Will Storr. It’s an examination of how the self has developed from Ancient Greece to the modern day, and how the modern narcissism has taken hold. It’s a wide rather than deep survey, with biographical interludes and pop psychology, but it’s written with verve and it really hits a nerve.
Fiction is always a bit more hit-and-miss than non-fiction. I’m not sure if it is a genuine trend or just what I’m reviewing, but the Chinese diaspora seems to producing some good works in English. Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart and Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. The World were at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Zhang’s book was a collection of short stories that went where no other female writer I’ve ever read has, in revealing what adolescent girls get up to. It was fierce, brave, and even slightly dreamy. One to keep an eye on. Chang’s book was one about rich Asians (like Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan) and their marvellous lifestyles, for which I had far less sympathy. Both were technically well-written but felt like money porn.
I also hugely enjoyed the Julian Barnes book. I’d been aware of him for years – he pops up in the letters by Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, and his friendship and falling-out with Martin Amis are well known – but never bumped into his books. The Only Story shows him to be having a great Late Period.
Did Not Like
I’ve really only written two negative reviews the whole year. The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong had great promise, as a travelogue of a woman encountering a lost matriarchal tribe in China, but it was just badly written and edited. I know the author isn’t a professional, but you expect a bit more from something named Radio 2 Book of the Week. And I was frankly repelled by The Standing Chandelier by Lionel Shriver, which seemed lazy, thin and uninteresting (if competently written).