Cormack’s Choice – A Book Roundup for 2017

Via The Economist


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 ChangBusiness Tianjin

Remains of Life by Wu He – South China Morning Post

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan ClarkBusiness 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 JohnsonBusiness Tianjin

Shanghai Faithful by Jennifer Lin – Hong Kong Review of Books

Ma Huateng and Tencent by Leng HuBusiness 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 XuanBusiness 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).


“The Souls of China” by Ian Johnson

The revival of religion in China has been a curious thing to observe. On the one hand, it seems to be an innate human drive, which will survive any repression; on the other, it has a useful function, providing moral instruction and fellow-feeling in a society dominated by commercial instincts, though it has yet to be allowed the freedoms allowed in the west. This ambivalence and ambiguity create an atmosphere that veers between hope and despair, depending on how far the followers want to push against the invisible lines of China’s inchoate freedoms.

Ian Johnson’s book therefore takes a dual tack. In its opening sections it recounts the history of religion and religiosity in China – the folk religions, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, up to the imposition of state atheism following the 1949 revolution. He then introduces a number of characters involved in various religious scenes around China – from Beijing to Chengdu – and explores their own religious conversion in the pursuit of a more meaningful life.

Not surprisingly, religion seems to strike people in one of two different ways. They are either searching for meaning, or they are searching for answers. Those Johnson talks – the founders of churches or leaders in reviving religious practices – are generally the latter, most of them having experienced some grim episode earlier in their lives. This spurs them to seek answers that the authorities either cannot or will not give. Their parishioners or followers are usually the former, seeking meaning in a world that seems to have gained no greater purpose for all the wealth that China has accumulated. “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor,” Johnson quotes an interviewee as saying. “But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet were still unhappy. We realize that there’s something missing, and that’s a spiritual life.”

Religion, of course, satisfies several functions. Some of these are socially useful; its role in social ordering is one of its most profound and useful components. Johnson explains how, historically, folk religion in China was not a matter of specific rituals or practices, as with modern festivals from Easter to Diwali. Religion was “diffused” throughout society; it ordered the calendar, it gave a frame to the seasons, it explained what to do for births, deaths and marriages, but also for meals, friendship, work, and culture. It was the main pole holding aloft the tent of civilization. (Interestingly, JRR Tolkien also described the religion in The Lord of The Rings as “diffused” rather than institutionalized, understanding its anthropological importance in ordering and managing primitive societies). But China seems now lacking in such a broader guiding philosophy, a culture where money and power seem the only goals and where trust and empathy can be grievously lacking. Yet Johnson shows us that the hunger for a meaning greater than oneself is probably inherent, and China is in many cases turning to religion to provide the answers. We can only hope that this vast outpouring of longing comes to create a more civil society.


Published in Business Tianjin

Juvenalia – A Long Ago Review

In Scotland we have Highers rather than A Levels. For the English Higher, more than 20 years ago now, we had to do an essay on a novel, a “Review of Personal Reading”. Fortunately I’d discovered EM Forster and DH Lawrence by then, so I chose to do mine on Howards End. I came across the RPR recently when looking through old folders stored in the attic. Some of the phrasing is gauche and some of the ideas ridiculously naive – for example, that a widower in his 50s would only seek to re-marry out of social pressure, rather than desire. But despite all that, I think it still reads well, for someone aged 16. I was always a precocious little shit when it came to reading.