My Book of the Year

I wrap up this year with another run-down of several of the more obscure books that I had been reading in the gaps between writing my own.

I spend a lot of time travelling. Or rather, my life appears to have geared itself to a condition whereby I can only get much of my reading done while travelling. Facing four months away from home this year, I bit the bullet and bought a Kindle. So wonderful to get on a plane with not one or two, but over a hundred books in my pocket; to finish one book and leap straight onto the next; to be mid-air somewhere over Asia with half a dozen books on the go; to sit in a coffee bar and alternate one chapter of work reading with one chapter of a novel, all day. And, of course, to be able to read the Literary Review five thousand miles from home, and have the month’s recommendations jump instantly into my pocket.

It’s good for authors, too. Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has made immensely more money for me in eBook editions than it has in print, you modern readers, you. My Mannerheim is out on the Kindle, as are Coxinga, my translation of the Art of War, the Dorama and Anime encyclopedias, my novels Ruthless and Swords & Ashes, and in February 2013, you will be able to get yourself the Brief History of the Vikings and Brief History of the Samurai on the Kindle, too.

Since I have carefully-kept accounts of exactly what I read each year, I can also attest that owning a Kindle has not reduced the amount of money I spent on paper books. This year, it has simply caused me to spend £400 extra on eBooks.

I am not a total eBook convert. I much prefer to work with paper, and to have paper on my shelves where I can “access” it by staring dreamily around the room while I think. I am a tad frustrated with a recurring lack of “real” page numbers in Kindle books, which means it is difficult for me to cite them academically without getting hold of a paper copy anyway. But work aside, for someone who had all but forgotten the idea of reading for pleasure, having a Kindle has brought much of the joy back for me.

I have long been interested in the Flying Tigers, but my material on them never grew into a book because Daniel Ford had already written one saying everything I would have said and more. So there’s a whole shelf of Flyingtigerana in my office, awaiting the day when I can use it instead in a novel or a script. But I still keep track of new publications in the field, and enjoyed Ford’s edition of the memoirs of Olga Greenlaw, The Lady and the Tigers. Greenlaw was one of a handful of feisty women who lived among the mercenary airmen in China and Burma, fighting the Japanese before WW2 had been declared. Her memoirs were published soon after the war, but sank without a trace, swamped to some extent by similar books by many of the actual pilots. Ford, however, returns to Greenlaw’s neglected book in a 2012 reissue, pointing out that as the official Flying Tigers diarist, her account of events is often more reliable than the bragging of the men. She is wonderful fun, gleefully racist (she hates Japs, Darkies and Limeys, not necessarily in that order) and seems to spend most of her time shouting at her husband and hectoring the help. She also offers the sort of tantalising details that historical novelists love, such as how Madame Chiang Kai-shek did her make-up. Popular myth among the Flying Tigers claims that Mrs Greenlaw slept around, but editor Ford sweetly points out that her diaries only seem to get excited about pilots when they are dead — i.e., she talks about how much she adores certain men simply because she has had to go to their funeral the day before. These eulogies have been wilfully misinterpreted by a whole bunch of male historians who like to think that she was banging half the air force. Ford also extends the story past Greenlaw’s return to America in 1942, up to her death in 1983 a whole lifetime and two more husbands later.

Someone who was very nearly a footnote to the Flying Tigers story was Ernest Hemingway, who once turned down a large sum of money to write a movie script based on their antics. Ernest Hemingway on the China Front, by Peter Moreira, is an account of the 100 days that the author spent in China in 1941, in the company of the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, the new Mrs Hemingway, who had rashly decided to visit China’s war against Japan in lieu of a honeymoon somewhere a little more placid. Fifty years later, Gellhorn would still be telling journalists of the awful condition of Chinese toilets. Hemingway, meanwhile, wrote remarkably little about China, despite spending more time there than he had on the Italian front in WW1 which famously inspired him to write A Farewell to Arms. Despite the implied bias of the main title, Moreira’s book is as much, if not more Gellhorn’s that Hemingway’s, alternating their separate accounts of their trip, and more often than not leaving him looking like a drunken idiot, and her looking like a smarter, if sometimes deluded traveller. It would surely have pleased Gellhorn, who was soon to become the new ex-Mrs Hemingway, that seventy years later she would still get the last word, as she also does in the very odd Hemingway and Gellhorn, an HBO biopic released this year with Clive Owen (yes, Clive Owen) as Hemingway and Nicole Kidman (yes, Nicole Kidman) as Gellhorn, and a massive spot-the-cameo series of walk-on celebrities, including Lars Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, playing Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens. Really: why would I make something like that up?

Another unexpected discovery was Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, by Milo Thornberry, which one hopes is on the radar of a Ben Affleck type looking for a follow-up to Argo. Thornberry arrives in 1960s Taiwan as a starry-eyed Methodist missionary, who soon stumbles into political activism. Inspired in part by Martin Luther King, who is killed shortly after the author arrives, but also by Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings on the unexpected repercussions of Gandhi’s “non-violent” protests, he determines that there is no such thing as pacifism, and people really ought to get on and do something. The main narrative coalesces around Peter
Peng, an expert in space law who is under virtual house arrest, and who the mad Methodists decide to smuggle out of the country. They do this by disguising him as a Japanese hippy, which is quite difficult, because he only has one arm, and they have to mock up a fake one in a sling in order to get him through immigration. The guileless Methodist is dragged away from teaching New Testament Greek in order to forge a passport, while his colleagues embezzle money from a church fund in order to slip money to the impoverished families of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, Peng’s secret service tails turn out to be so incompetent that they do not even realise that he has left the country. Instead, in a traditional work-shy manner, it transpires that they have long since given up round-the-clock surveillance, and have instead been filling fake reports for months, claiming to follow him all over Taipei. Unaware that their quarry has already got on a plane with a guitar and a false arm, they continue to tell their bosses that they are following him on a daily basis, even as Peng is stepping off a plane in Stockholm and claiming political asylum.

Things take on a far broader tone as the book embraces the Taiwanese independence movement, discussing the frantic political machinations in the early 1970s as Nixon, bogged down in Vietnam, authorised the use for the first time of the term “People’s Republic of China” in a speech, thereby sending a message to Beijing that he was ready to ditch Taiwan. This immediately sent the government of Taiwan into conniptions, leading not only to the sudden appearance of Chiang Kai-shek’s son in New York to argue his case, but also an attempt on his life by Taiwanese independence agitators, in between the news stories of the My Lai massacre and the Ohio shootings, so swiftly relegated to the back pages of American newspapers. And if that’s not enough for you, the author then gets immensely biblical, and begins discussing the Gospel of Mark as a redacted text, suggesting that the historical Jesus was substantially more politically active, but that the completion of the gospel around the time of the Jewish Revolt led Mark to leave out anything that sounded too anti-Roman and/or outright seditious. Thornberry mentions this in comparison to the way that American newspapers and magazines, particularly Time, refused to say a bad word about Taiwan because the ruling family were nominally Christians, and the only alternative was Commies.

But none of those are my book of the year. That honour goes to a Kindle-only title that sneaked out in the late autumn, detailing the series of connections and synchronicities that started with a bored FBI employee using the company photocopier to make a false treatise on principles of discord, and expands exponentially to include the tour dates of Echo and the Bunnymen, the career paths of actors who have played Doctor Who, and the decision by two Playboy editors in the 1960s that, just for fun, they would consider a world in which every insane conspiracy theory they had ever heard was actually true. The book is called KLF: Chaos, Magic Music, Money, by JMR Higgs, and begins as an account of two wannabe musicians (who, after releasing a novelty single as the Timelords, would eventually become the KLF), but soon takes on new aspects as they are inspired to emulate, imitate and assimilate the ideas to be found in the Illuminatus books by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (Robert Shea, incidentally, whose later Shiké: Time of the Dragons, was the book that first interested me in Japan).

The KLF book appeals to me, at least in part, because I felt like I was part of it. It’s less my book of 2012, perhaps, than it is my book of 1989 or 1990, as I remember so many of the events in it taking place in the media around me. I read Illuminatus sometime around 1987, having won it in a haul of second-hand science fiction novels that was first prize in an end-of-term Latin quiz (held by Ted Read, to whom Spartacus: Swords & Ashes is dedicated, by the way). So when the KLF began singing about the Justified Ancients of Mummu on national television, it felt oddly like I was being sent messages through the ether. Fnord. I remember turning on the television one morning and found Tammy Wynette singing about the immortal secret masters of the world, sitting on a throne on top of a giant pyramid and exhorting viewers to “Stand by the J.A.M.s”. On Saturday morning television, watched by twelve-year-old girls and stoned students. That’s the sort of thing that the KLF used to do.

Higgs’s book delves deeply into the Situationist movement, and its wise proclamation that people were transforming from being, to having, to the appearance of having – a concise description of the modern world. It alludes in asides to the squalid poverty under which the artists lived, skulking in squats while they tinkered with their instruments. And it addresses, in ever greater and more grandiose terms, the motivation and consequences of what is perhaps the KLF’s most infamous act – the burning of one million pounds as a work of Situationist art. The book is as mad as a box of frogs, and has Alan Moore, Gary Glitter and Julian Cope in it.

My Book of the Year

And so we come to the Book of the Year round-up. I’m not waiting till the holiday season this time, as I realise that many readers would prefer to hear my thoughts now, just in case it inspires their Christmas shopping. And why not? Buy someone a book for Christmas this year. It’s more fun than socks.

Well, your mileage may vary. Runners-up from my reading this year include the utterly filthy Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawney Backhouse, rescued from obscurity by Derek Sandhaus in a beautiful hardback edition by Hong Kong’s Earnshaw Books. I was left thoroughly depressed by Paradise Found, an informative account of the American ecology on the eve of the arrival of European colonists. Also, sped to me on the day of its publication, Matthew Sweet’s West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels.

Sweet’s previous books changed the way I wrote history; I have come to love his persistence in tracking down testimonials rather than memoirs, a dogged quest that often seems to find him sipping tea in old people’s home while the spivs, movie stars and spies of yesteryear struggle to recall their glory days. West End Front is a carnival of (largely) ghastly people, often described with Wodehousian glee, and Sweet presents a superb angle on the culture of WW2, from the switchboard operator who overheard of the war’s arrival before the rest of the country, to the huddle of ousted politicians listening on a hotel radio to the news of Japan’s surrender. Kings in exile, hookers on the make, and Marxists in search of a bespoke bomb shelter all rub shoulders in Sweet’s vivid account, some under the mistaken impression that the solidly built hotels of London were “bomb-proof.” I would say more, but Simon Guerrier already has.

For the second year running, my fortnight at Scotland Loves Anime found me raiding the Glasgow Waterstone’s, coming away with the wonderful Lore of Scotland and The Faded Map, a run-down of the various kingdoms once found in Caledonia. The focussed, localised Faded Map has been overshadowed somewhat by Norman Davies’ sprawling Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which offers potted histories of continental also-rans such as the Byzantine Empire, Aragon, Burgundy and Tolosa. But through no fault of Davies, I was left slightly more satisfied by The Faded Map, partly because it set its sights very small, on Scotland, and hence was able to be far more comprehensive. There is a picky, ungrateful sense of entitlement that comes over the reader of Davies’ larger work, as one starts to wonder about all the vanished realms he’s left out – what about al-Andalus? The Danelaw? The Austro-Hungarian Empire…? His book is popular enough and has made it onto many other best-of lists this winter, so perhaps it will soon gain a companion volume. If it does, may I plead with his publishers to make a better book. For £30, I would prefer one that doesn’t start shedding its pages before I’ve even got halfway in. By the time I finished, it was less of a book than a sheaf of papers.

Lost Colony by Tonio Andrade is an impeccably researched account of the fall of Fort Zeelandia in Taiwan to the “pirate king” Koxinga, a.k.a. Zheng Chenggong, Coxinga, the Knight of the Imperial Surname, etc. Barnacled with grants and fellowships, and aided by four research assistants, Andrade reframes the story of Fort Zeelandia in terms of the popularly-held idea of the inherent superiority of the modern west. He points out that when the Chinese first met with European military might, the Chinese won, and ponders if the victimhood of the 19th century was an anomaly. Entertainingly, Andrade is not above arch comments about the Dutch disaster as it unfolds, and has the odd achievement of including a chart that made me laugh out loud. It’s a list of defectors in each direction between the Dutch and the Chinese, but is set up with such mathematical precision that it allows for the possibility of half a defector. A lower torso, perhaps? For reasons I don’t quite follow, this playfulness also extends to the book’s cover, which shows a picture of Batavia, not Taiwan at all.

When I clicked a copy of Andrade’s book into my shopping basket, Amazon kindly informed me that “people who bought Lost Colony also bought Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements”. This is somewhat ironic, since Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty is entirely unmentioned in Lost Colony, which has the gumption to bill itself as an “untold story.” There’s some half-hearted hand-wringing in Andrade’s acknowledgements about his “scholar’s discomfort” with this claim, but it apparently didn’t bother him enough to actually do anything about it. Which is a shame, because Lost Colony is an excellent book, and now many would-be readers will be confronted its spurious “untold” assertion every time they browse an online bookseller.

It is, one presumes, because academic presses do not wish to dirty themselves with citations from the garish world of commercial publishing, a reluctance which, to some extent, I do understand, particularly if someone has inconveniently told your “untold” story eight years previously – and I, of course, was not even the first. But if you are going to dismiss popular predecessors as beneath your notice, please don’t succumb to the hucksterish allure of misleading, grandstanding titles. Untold, my arse.

Which brings me to my actual book of the year, which I doubt very much you could buy even if you wanted to: China on the Western Front, by Michael Summerskill. Untold? No. Unread? Seemingly. Unloved? Absolutely not. It’s an amazing book about the Chinese Labour Corps, nearly 100,000 men who came from China to dig trenches and unload ships in a Europe starved of manpower during WW1. Eight hundred of them died, mainly from the influenza of 1918, although several dozen died in bombing raids and German attacks. It was published in 1982, and is so obscure that the School of Oriental and African Studies library doesn’t have a copy. It’s a paperback of less than 250 pages, acquired for the princely sum of £85 from a second-hand bookseller who knew exactly how much it was worth to me. I bought it because I’m considering writing a book of my own about WW1 in the Far East, and the fact that 100,000 Chinese put a girdle round the Earth in order to drag corpses from the trenches at Verdun is simply fascinating. Summerskill plainly found his obsession so odd, so unique, that no publisher would touch it. He published it himself, in numbers so tiny that I doubt there are three copies left in Europe. But nevertheless, thanks to the interwebs, I was able to find a copy. And if Summerskill’s family ever want to republish it, they could have it available on the Kindle in days. Has its time come? I hope so.

Instead, the most accessible book on the subject is another product of the modern age, an obscure 1919 account by a white officer in the Chinese Labour Corps, brought back into print by the Imperial War Museum, and maintaining its cheerily racist original title: With the Chinks. It doesn’t hold a candle to Summerskill, but was a fun read. [Time Travel Footnote: John Watson points out that this book came out this year.]

We stand on the verge of a sea-change in publishing. Summerskill’s book, still a great rarity in 2011, might easily be a similar print-on-demand or e-Book commonplace by this time next year, easily rushed to your door or to your tablet. I have two books coming out in 2012, and for what is for me the first time, both will be in dual paper and electronic versions as my publishers wake up to the potential of new media. My reading this year has been skewed more than ever by the technology that delivers it to me. Amazon, in particular, reminds me to put money down on books I forgot I once wanted, or hunt down obscurities that might have eluded me in a bookshop. I have also noticed with increasing regularity, the number of books from academic presses that have clearly been printed on demand, to meet my order and not in anticipation of it. Nothing, however, quite competes with the joy of poking around a real-world Foyle’s or a Waterstone’s, where acres of new worlds are waiting to be discovered, analogue style.

I’m not one of the publishing doomsayers. There is certainly a paradigm shift in the way that books are sold and consumed, but if anything it makes the field more financially rewarding for writers, not less so. I have certainly benefited from both paper and e-sales this year. I suspect that within the decade, the default condition of all books will be electronic, and that old-fashioned people like me who want it on paper can pay to have their digibook made real, much as 18th century bibliophiles popped down to the printer to have their papers bound. But there will be a transitional phase when electronica dominates, and when that comes, you’ll have a lot more trouble putting a ribbon around it and giving it to your dad.

So buy someone a book for Christmas this year. Next year you might have nothing to give but electrons.

My Book of the Year

My reading this year has been all over the place, from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet to a new book on Mannerheim, to a literary biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and oodles of Japanese-language books about the animation business.

In the meantime, among the dozens of books I read this year, there have been a few stand-out successes. I began the year nose-deep in Massimo Soumaré’s Japan in Five Ancient Chinese Chronicles, a superb survey of the occurences of the term “Land of the Rising Sun” (and indeed “Hairy Dwarves of Wa”) in mainland dynastic chronicles. Jamie Bisher’s White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, is a gripping documentary history of the last survivors of Tsarist Russia as they fought a losing battle across Asia, along the length of a railway line that terminated in Vladivostok. It may form part of a book I am supposed to be writing next year, so it was a wonderful resource. I can’t get enough of the White Russians, which added bonus excitement to my reading of Martin Booth’s Gweilo: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood. I stumbled across Booth while Googling him as the original author of the George Clooney vehicle The American. But I stayed for Gweilo, in particular for its reminiscences of the “Queen of Kowloon”, a senile, opium-addled vagrant in 1950s Hong Kong, who seemed to have once been a beautiful Tsarist duchess. Meanwhile, an interest in blockade runners (don’t ask) led me to Eric Graham’s Clyde Built: Blockade Runners, Cruisers and Armored Rams of the American Civil War, which retells the North-South conflict from the point of view of the Scottish shipbuilders and profiteers whose tricked-out steamers were smuggling supplies into the South from Bermuda.

But my 2010 Book of the Year was another part of my Scottish haul from ten days at the Scotland Loves Anime film festival. It’s Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented a Nation by Stuart Kelly, a biography and “thanatography” of Sir Walter Scott. There are other books about Scott, but they all too often skirt around the issue that his books are unreadable. Kelly is a happily hostile witness to his subject, intrigued by the career and output of an author who was a global celebrity during his own lifetime, to the extent that his Edinburgh monument is still the largest memorial to an author anywhere in the world. And yet Scott today is largely unread, confined to the bargain bin of literary history, his works written off as risible whimsy, his style dismissed as florid and twee. That’s where the thanatography comes in, with Kelly charting the fame and fortune of Scott after his death, with his works forming fundamental building blocks of the Scottish national identity, and indeed that of America – did you know that “Hail to the Chief” began as a song from an unauthorised musical, based on a Scott book about Highland bandits?

Kelly’s book opens a fascinating window on the bestsellers of yesteryear, treating Scott as the tin-eared, ham-fisted, yet inexplicably popular Dan Brown of his day, as well as a cunning literary wheeler-dealer, whose ownership of his publisher’s printing company allowed him to double-dip from his books’ profits. Literary biography is fast becoming my favourite genre, as I unwind from writing my own books by reading about other people writing theirs. On which note, thanks to one publication being six months late, another being six months early, and a third being bang on time, I ended up publishing three books in the calendar year 2010: A Brief History of the Samurai, Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan. You’ll have to keep busy with those, because for the first time in a decade, I won’t be publishing a single book next calendar year. But there’s already something on the slate for 2012, and for 2013, too, which seems far off in the future, even though I am already working on it. Other projects may slot in in the interim. In fact, one of the things that kept me busy in 2010 was the writing of large-scale proposals for big book projects for publication in 2014. See, planning ahead: no news on those yet, but why should there be when publishers wouldn’t need delivery for another two years? If I were really smart, I would buy up 50% of a printing company, like Walter Scott.

Then again, Scott ended up losing his shirt. Maybe I should invest in print-on-demand instead…

My Book of the Year

Since I do this for a living and have to keep my receipts, I know exactly how much I spend on books — about two thousand pounds a year. Huge stacks of my most recent acquisitions are still awaiting my attention, although things I have enjoyed this year include The Penguin History of Canada, far too many books about Chinese immigrants abroad (the harvestings of trips to about six different Chinatowns this year), and the cleverest of them all, Holder of the White Lotus, a biography of that immortal sage the Dalai Lama, told through all of his previous incarnations. Wish I had thought of it. Meanwhile, in one of those bizarre moments of alchemy, The Emergence of Japanese Kingship suddenly made sense to me, becoming relevant and gripping after two years gathering dust and ignored on the shelf.

I have also seen the inside of a lot of airports. Few things are more depressing to the professional author than travelling to eight different countries in a row and finding the same old shit on sale in the departure lounge. I understand, believe me, only a handful of people really want to read a biography of Paul Pelliot while wedged in between two Potterheads in coach class, but the economics are dispiriting. The average British book buyer buys one book a year, to read on the plane when they head off on their holidays. It’s usually a giant brick of a book written with someone’s predictive text function. But I have spent a lot of time in airports this year, and have gamely tried to interest myself in the kind of books that everybody else appears to read. Fiction drew a blank; but sometimes in the world of facts there was something that didn’t make me want to hurl. Stars of my airport-bought reading this year include the second volume of diaries by that nice Michael Palin, and Clive James’s surprisingly technical account of his years in television: The Blaze of Obscurity.

But the absolute star of my reading this year, the book that held my rapt attention from beginning to end, which I finished with a distinct desire to go back to the beginning and start all over again, was Invading Australia by Peter Stanley. As the name suggests, it’s a book about the Second World War, and the belief in Australia that the Japanese were poised, ready to come ashore and seize the entire land. But Stanley’s account goes much deeper, surveying the fictional history of the Yellow Peril, and analysing the power of previous works of fiction in which the Japanese invaded Australia. The result is a history book half taken up with a study of science fiction pre-1942, with blatantly racist tales of evil oriental invaders, and armchair generals’ analysis of how Australia might best be defended against a putative attack. Stanley goes on to analyse not only the facts of the Japanese threat, but also the rhetoric employed against it. As entertaining extracts from Stanley’s own hate mail make abundantly clear, this remains an emotive issue among Australians, who were encouraged to swallow a national myth of holding a particular line against an invasion that, argues Stanley, was fated never to come, at least not in the manner that the Australians were led to believe.

Science fiction, alternative histories, stirring tales of Far Eastern derring-do… with my reputation? I was bound to love it. And since it was published by Penguin Australia, I was lucky that I was in Melbourne this year and able to stumble across it, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to see it on sale at Heathrow.

But anyway, in 2010 I have an entire shelf of books on American First Nations to get through, before I start looking for what’s new. The first books of next year are already on the shelves. The Poison King is in shops already, but has a 2010 copyright date at the front, as if we are already shopping in the future. I shall be getting that sooner rather than later, I expect, because it is one of those rarest items, a book I wish I had written myself. This week, I have mainly looking for a good biography of Alexander Nevsky, and I can’t seem to find one. Always more books to read; always more books to write.