Read about 45 this year, plus shitloads of academic articles, and watched an abundance of film and television. I’ll stick to books here, other than to say that, for mine, The Expanse was the best TV of 2016.
In no particular order:
- The Fat Years – Chan Koonchung
Written in 2009, set in 2013, relevant now and in the years to come for anyone who wants to understand a Chinese-dominated future. The protagonist sets out to find evidence for a month the whole country seems to have forgotten (a reference to Tiananmen Square, which China has steadily tried to erase from history and the minds of its citizens).
Even giving allowances for the translation, I’m not sure that The Fat Years is a particularly well-written tale. It is, however, a prescient story of what is happening and what will happen in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and to internal opponents of the regime in Mainland China. For that reason, it remains unpublished in China.
- On Writing – Stephen King
I read Stephen King when I was a lot younger, most particularly influenced by the four novellas collected in the Bachman Books (without googling I still distinctly remember two of them thirty years on: The Running Man and The Long Walk). Outside of those, I’ve never been a huge fan.
But his On Writing, for mine, is excellent. The short memoir that begins the book is affecting and compelling. The moment he finds out he will be getting a 400,000 dollar advance for Carrie, for example, when his family is so poor they can’t even afford medicine for their child. The writing advice in the second half of the book all sensible: paragraphs as the true unit of the novel (or, ‘the beat’); the need to have a room of one’s own – and a door to shut – to be a serious writer; themes (which he usually discovers only after the first draft); everything in his toolkit, he gives to the reader.
Sure, some of it I’d heard before; however, it is the clarity that Stephen King goes about his advice (and unusually for him, the efficiency), that made this such a great read.
- Into a Black Sun – Takeshi Kaiko
This treasure was unearthed at the Asia Book Room in Macquarie. An English translation of a Japanese journalist’s novel about the Vietnam War. Takeshi Kaiko worked in Vietnam over 1964 and 65, this novel is loosely based on those experiences.
It is fascinating to read an account of the war that is neither Vietnamese or Western. Kaiko can empathise in some ways with the Vietnamese, as he lived through the US occupation of Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War. In others, the country is just as alien. Kaiko is a visceral story teller, and his accounts of the brothels and bars of Saigon, of the sapping heat and terror of the battlefield, linger after the novel is done.
- Tales of Ordinary Madness – Charles Bukowski
My first encounter with Bukowski and I have to say this old bastard is one of the worst drunks, reprobates, and inveterate gamblers I’ve ever read. He’s the kind of foul-mouthed disgrace that would be subjected to rolling campaigns of outraged protest on twitter were he alive and writing today.
I loved it. This short story collection had me laughing and shaking my head at the same time.
It’s refreshing to read something that is utterly unrestrained, so anarchic, and undertaken with such debauched glee. Not many people write like that these days; most writers are either too chickenshit, or unwilling to let themselves dwell in the gutter like Bukowski. A long time since I’ve enjoyed a short story collection this much.
- The People’s Republic of Amnesia – Louisa Lim
A non-fiction account that covers many of the themes raised by Koonchung in the Fat Years, Louisa Lim spent years in China as a journalist researching this novel. She focusses on Tiananmen Square, but also places this in a broader context of historical atrocity: “thus Chinese history loops endlessly in on itself in a Mobius strip of crushed aspirations, cycling from one generation to the next, propelled by the propensity to embrace amnesia.”
Lim also discusses the Kafkaesque lengths the government will go to in the present to crush dissent. In one case, the government changes the weekend to Monday and Tuesday, forcing everyone to go to uni or the office, and thereby reduce the number of people available to go to a planned protest.
We should also remember the Tank Man, as most Chinese no longer know who he is, or the context of his protest. This lone rebel, standing in front of a line of tanks, became a symbol not just of the Tiananmen protests, but universally, for the power of the individual against an unjust state.
All these years later, no-one knows who the tank man is. No-one knows whether he is dead or alive, in prison or free.
White Jazz – Ellroy. Ellroy pushes the clipped, efficient approach to hard-boiled writing to the limit here (this infected a couple of short stories I write in the aftermath; fortunately I’m over it now). It mostly works for Ellroy. White Jazz is not his best-regarded novel, but I found it an excellent piece of LA noir.
East Asian Film Noir – Eds. Chi-Yun Shin & Mark Gallagher. An overdue look at how East Asian countries have used noir, neo-noir and cyberpunk to explore thematically related issues, especially an unease with modernity (the authors are weakest when discussing cyberpunk). Perfect for the noir tragic.