If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.
Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for.
Novels and Literary Fiction
All of the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Unsolicited review: The prose is a bit turgid at the beginning, but at some point I was hooked and couldn’t put down the book—the first time in a while I have felt that way about a novel.
Burmese Days by George Orwell
Unsolicited review: When you travel in Burma, everyone sells you a cheap copy of this book. Page 272 is missing, and the novel is not one of Orwell’s best—i.e. it’s still quite good. If you were not convinced before, this book will reassure you that colonialism is terrible.
Cat Country by Lao She, translated by William Lyell
Unsolicited review: Lao She’s unflinching satire of Communism was originally written in 1932—after the rise of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union but decades before his dystopian vision came true in his home country of China, with even more disastrous results. The cat society living on a faraway planet practices something called “Everybody Shareskyism,” which, it turns out, doesn’t work out quite as the planners had hoped.
“Everybody Shareskyism emphasized the people and was strongly grounded in economics. Until the arrival of Shareskyism, despite the large number of revolutions we had gone through, the emperor had never fallen. For whenever a new brawl became popular, the emperor would simply announce that he believed in the same program and would even like to become leader of the brawl. Then he would secretly contribute funds in large amounts and the brawl members would make him head….The result was that more and more people died every day, but the orthodox principles of the brawl were never put into practice….But the best was yet to come. Everybody Shareskyism advocated allocating jobs on the basis of ability while at the same time equalizing compensation for all jobs. To realize such a program, it would have been necessary to reconstruct our economy and revamp our education. However, the members of our Everybody Shareskyism brawl didn’t understand economics to begin with and had even less conception of the problems involved in creating a new system of education. Consequently, when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other.” (162-3)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Unsolicited review: I have never read a Jonathan Franzen novel in which any of the characters are in any way likable, and the books are still gripping and incredible to read. It’s like we are all being trolled, but in a good way.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Unsolicited review: Homegoing is one of those books where every metaphor lands, which becomes even more impressive read alongside just about any other novel. I should also note that Homegoing is additionally impressive because it is written by one of my college classmates, which makes me very excited for her success and very depressed about how I will never write a book even marginally as good.
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies
Unsolicited review: The four historical novellas reimagine the lives of Chinese-Americans at four points in history. Well-written, albeit overwrought at times. The story about Vincent Chin, the young Chinese-American murdered in a hate crime in 1982 in Illinois, especially brings to life an often overlooked episode in American race relations.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Unsolicited review: I decided I needed to read more mid-century American fiction. If I was previously unsure of the anxiety swirling in the minds of the mid-century American white working class male, this book should fixed that problem. I bought the book used, and on the first page the previous reader wrote, “Written in first person — very interesting.” The book is written in the third person. I am concerned about the previous reader.
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Unsolicited review: After reading Rabbit, Run, I felt that it was important for me to better understand the anxiety swirling in the minds of the mid-century American upper class white male. A ridiculous premise executed well.
Essay, Memoir, and Reportage
The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys
Unsolicited review: Simon Leys is one of only a handful of authors whose clear writing and breadth of knowledge should resuscitate the art of the essay, long ruined by middle school English classes. Leys was by day a scholar of Chinese literature, but, as this book makes abundantly clear, he can work his magic on any subject. His writing is both majestic and magisterial: sharp prose that draws on an incredible depth of reading to unflinchingly look at the best of European literature, Chinese politics, global circumnavigation, and everything in between.
I still remember the postscript the great philosopher had inscribed at the bottom of the page [on a list of basic readings in philosophy]: [….] The postscript said (underlined), “Most important of all, don’t forget: do read a lot of novels.” When I first read this note, as an immature student, it shocked me. For, naively, we tend to confuse what is serious with what is deep. (46)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer
Unsolicited review: The titular essay is one of the most fantastic pieces of personal essay in existence, and it’s about donuts. Much of the rest, unfortunately, is not nearly as good; his persona of condescension overpowers desultory nuggets of brilliance.
Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
Unsolicited review: At times funny, at times self-righteous, at times poignant, at times frustrating. Especially worth reading if you are within eating distance of a baozi shop, because you will be hungry afterward.
Betrayal in Paris by Paul French
Unsolicited review: Meant to be read in one sitting, it is a short, gripping introduction to how the complex diplomacy of the Treaty of Versailles led to China’s May 4th Movement and subsequent political developments.
The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu
Unsolicited review: Liao’s collection of interviews with strange characters around China offers unique insight into how those oppressed by state institutions are able to live with their anger and pessimism. It paints a grim picture of the low points of modern Chinese history under one-party rule by showing the people whose lives, cultural relics, and traditions were destroyed by state directives, political confusion, and power-grabbing.
“Socialism is Great!” by Zhang Lijia
Unsolicited review: A fun memoir of the rocky transition from socialism to capitalism in Nanjing in the 1980s.
The Soccer Wars by Ryszard Kapuściński
Unsolicited review: Kapuściński’s fear of missing out (FOMO) combined with a deep-seated belief in the power of a foreign correspondent drives him to ignore all reasonable advice about how to report in war zones. His prose mixes stream-of-consciousness reports of human-caused devastation and sharp insights about humanity’s ability to cause untold human destruction. And, somehow, it’s really fun to read.
Perhaps there was not enough room. No, it had nothing to do with room; it was contempt. One person stepping on another. Not only Africa is a cursed land. Every land can be like it—Europe, America, any place. The world depends on people, needs to step on them. 
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
Unsolicited review: Should be required reading in any age in which there is the threat of the perversion of democratic rule to oppress groups of people.
What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. This was important, because the murderers were not sadists or killers by nature; on the contrary, a systematic effort was made to weed out all those who derived physical pleasure from what they did. … Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighted upon my shoulders! [105-106]
Slightly More Academic Texts
World on Fire by Amy Chua
Unsolicited review: Chua, now known as the Tiger Mom, argues that democracy and capitalism are incompatible when a minority of the population owns a large share of the capital—a situation found around the world due to legacies of colonialism, wars, and unequal growth for centuries. It forces us to think about the morality of state justice in the context of unjust history: if a white person has inherited land in Africa from many generations ago, should they be forced to give it back? How would they respond if they were afraid that they were going to be attacked by the masses of civilians, even if the masses were driven by historical injustice?
China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation by David Shambaugh
Unsolicited review: How China’s leaders view the development of the Communist Party, and its international relationships, are as important as they are misunderstood. Shambaugh details how China viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union—the closest parallel to the current Chinese regime. In some areas, China’s ruling regime has flexibly adapted to changing circumstances; in other areas, they remain unable or unwilling to compromise.
Origins of the Modern Chinese State by Philip Kuhn
Unsolicited review: Philip Kuhn, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard, was widely mourned by the China-watching community when he passed away in early 2016. In this short, striking history focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, Kuhn details how Maoism and collectivization grew out of centuries of struggle by the Chinese central state to control local gentry from overtaxing and abusing peasants in their jurisdiction.
Bananas, Beaches and Broads: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics by Cynthia Enloe
Unsolicited review: I am wildly under-read when it comes to feminist political theory. This book shows the role of women behind the scenes of major international political movements in the 20th century; the feminist account alone is insufficient, but is helpful in offering another angle to the many ways in which ingrained power structures shape political relations.
Ancient Caravans and Urban Chic: Pu’er Tea by Zhang Jinghong
Unsolicited review: The authoritative book about pu’er tea available in English, Zhang’s anthropological account of the pu’er industry in Southern Yunnan looks at the the industry’s massive boom in the last few years. The astronomical rise of pu’er has raised local questions about authenticity, culture, environmental protection, and social relations.
Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott
Unsolicited review: A devastating critique of how techno-utopian planners, combining a belief in the power of technology over human relations with authoritarian power, forcibly recreate societies into “legible” systems more easily controlled by the state. Legibility is a two-way street: it allows greater government control as well as more ability to provide services and benefits. Authoritarian states around the world, couching their moves in the promise of the latter, have mostly failed to improve lives while successfully maintaining control, particularly in agriculture. Should be read in conjunction with Kuhn’s Origins.