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Annual Reading List

An ongoing list of books I’ve read, in chronological order.


2015

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power – Jon Meacham
Thirteen Days in September – Lawrence Wright
The Price of Politics – Bob Woodward
The Revolution was Televised – Alan Sepinwall
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
Down and Dirty Pictures – Peter Biskind
Good in a Room – Stephanie Palmer
In Line Behind a Billion People – Damien Ma and William Adams
Wealth and Power – Orville Schell and John Delury
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Jon Ronson
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage – Ann Patchett
So We Read On – Maureen Corrigan
Mad as Hell – Dave Itzkoff
Elon Musk – Ashlee Vance
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
Becoming Steve Jobs – Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
The Way of the Knife – Mark Mazzetti
Mastery – Robert Greene


2014

Midnight in Peking – Paul French
Ninety-nine Percent of Everything – Rose George
The Future of the Mind – Michio Kaku
The Corpse Walker – Liao Yiwu
#GIRLBOSS – Sophia Amoruso
The Age of Ambition – Evan Osnos
Junkyard Planet – Adam Minter
The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker
Why Nations Fail – Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
The Knowledge – Lewis Dartnell
When the Rivers Run Dry – Fred Pearce
The Giver – Lois Lowry
The Nine – Jeffrey Toobin
The Oath – Jeffrey Toobin
The Party – Richard McGregor
The Innovators – Walter Isaacson
The Lost City of Z – David Grann
The Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert


2013

According to a PEW survey, the average American read 15 books last year. I wanted to see where I stacked up so here is a list of books I’ve finished in 2013, in chronological order.

Going Clear – Lawrence Wright
The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
Space Chronicles – Neil deGrasse Tyson
A Clash of Kings – George R. R. Martin
The Unwinding – George Packer
The Emperor of all Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
Story – Robert McKee
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
Save the Cat – Blake Snyder
Mastermind – Richard Minter
David and Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver
Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer
The Disappearing Spoon – Sam Kean
Benjamin Franklin – Walter Isaacson
Moneyball – Michael Lewis

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George’s Guide to Avoid Getting Bitten by Mosquitoes

An edited version of this column is available on the Beijinger blog and in the April 2014 issue of the Beijinger.

Mosquitoes are nature’s most sadistic creation. Quiet and unseen, they subsist by sucking the very lifeblood from others, offering nothing in return but pain and misery. They are the investment bankers of the animal kingdom.

Every summer, millions of mosquitoes invade our homes, offices and the bars we frequent. They turn al fresco dining into a blood drive. But if you follow these tips, you’ll never have to donate another ounce of hemoglobin to these godless parasites.

FEAR THE MOSQUITO

Mosquitoes are the most dangerous animals on earth, way more dangerous than sharks or centipedes or whatever animal you’re irrationally afraid of. If you’re not scared of mosquitoes, think of it this way: every bite is like playing Russian roulette with dengue fever.

UNVERIFIABLE FACT! Mosquitoes have killed more humans than humans.

Develop a healthy fear of them. Then turn that fear into a phobia. Then turn that phobia into a neurosis. Only then will you have the appropriate reverence for the destructive power of this insect and see them for what they really are: flying malaria syringes.

KEEP MOVING

One fatal weakness of mosquitoes is that they can’t land on things that are moving, so always be shifting, juking or rubbing your hands over the bare parts of your body. Think of yourself as a hypochondriac shark. If you’re too embarrassed to constantly do this in public, let me remind you that it only takes a second for a mosquito to strike and then you’ve got West Nile virus.

I know some of you are thinking, “Should I keep moving even if I’m going to the bathroom?” Especially if you’re going to the bathroom.

COVER YOURSELF HEAD TO TOE

If you don’t want to constantly touch yourself, no problem. Wear thick garments that shield your flesh. Mosquitoes can’t get you if they can’t pierce your clothing.

A burqa and Timberland boots provide the ultimate protection. Don’t forget the dishwashing gloves. For the fashion-conscious, here are some other outfits that look great and offer full protection:

  • Large ski mask, turtleneck sweater, shalwar kameez
  • Full tracksuit with balaclava
  • Welding helmet, poncho and sweatpants

Mix and match to find the style that’s right for you.

TIP! Latex gloves and galoshes go well with any outfit.

BECOME A MOSQUITO HUNTER

Being terrified of mosquitoes is good, but not enough—you have to go on the offensive.

Hone your senses until you become a mosquito detecting machine. The uninitiated will swat blindly but a seasoned mosquito hunter is always listening for that telltale buzz. I’ve trained to the point where even if I’m asleep a mosquito buzzing will disrupt my dreams and wake me up. Then I bring the pain.

Train until you’ve developed a preternatural instinct to recognize and triangulate faint buzzing sounds. To test your skills, go to an enclosed space with lots of mosquitoes. If you can spend 10 minutes in a public restroom stall without getting bitten, then you are ready.

UNDERSTAND THE MOSQUITO MIND

To conquer an animal, one must understand it better than it understands itself.

Know that mosquitoes can sense chemicals released by specific blood types, which makes people with type O blood the most likely to get bitten. Know that they track prey by detecting carbon dioxide and body temperature. Now you can turn the mosquito against itself, or at least the people around you.

DID YOU KNOW? Pregnant women are warmer and exhale more CO2 than average people, making baby showers one of the safest places to be in summer.

If your blood type is A or B, make friends with a type O and always have him with you when you go out. He’ll end up taking the hits. If your type O friend starts wearing a burqa, replace him with a pack of type O blood.

Play mind games. If you see a mosquito hovering around you, don’t be afraid to offer it an open patch of flesh, luring it in before reducing it to two dimensions.

If you follow these guidelines, I guarantee you won’t see any more mosquito bites. In fact, over time, you might even begin to miss them. But that is the price we have to pay to live more perfect world, a world without mosquitoes bites or investment bankers.

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Who Owns the Restaurant?

An edited version of this column is available on the Beijinger blog and in the April 2014 issue of the Beijinger.

The woman at the table next to me was shouting at the restaurant owner’s wife. By the time I tuned in, the argument was well underway.

“Why not? I’m a paying customer,” the woman was saying.

“You’ve had too much to drink already,” the wife responded.

I glanced at her table. There was a collection of empty Tsingdaos, but she and the man she was with weren’t about to black out or anything.

“Give me another beer,” the woman demanded.

“I can’t. Really. We’re closed.”

The owner’s wife glanced at her husband, who was sitting at a corner table, swiping a game on his iPad. He was choosing to ignore the situation. The woman pressed on.

“What the hell do you mean you’re closed? It’s ten minutes to nine.”

“Forget it. I’m not giving you another drink.”

“You have to. That is your responsibility as the employee.”

The wife sighed and reached in the fridge for a beer.

Suddenly, a voice boomed from the corner table.

“PUT IT DOWN.”

The wife, who was usually brusque and ornery, fell silent. She slowly put the beer back in the fridge. The woman, raising an accusatory finger, brought her anger to bear on this new target.

“You have no right! Your job is to serve. If I order something, your job is to give it to me.”

“I don’t have to do shit,” the boss said. He was as brusque as his wife and twice as large. He wore a gold chain and had the close-cropped hair of a street thug.

Instead of responding, the woman did something strange: she turned toward me and said, “Do you see the low moral character of Chinese people? This is how Chinese people treat each other.”

But I had no interest in taking sides. Though I liked seeing someone stick it to the owner and his wife, I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize my access to the best jiaozi in the neighborhood. Luckily, her attention shifted back to the boss.

“I’m the customer and I want another beer.”

“We are closed.”

“Look at your watch, it’s not nine yet.”

“I don’t care.”

“Give me one reason.”

At this, the boss snapped. He slammed the table with his fist.

“I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT. IT’S MY RESTAURANT!”

“Fine,” the woman said. “Then we’re not paying.”

The boss rose from the table like a demon from the depths of hell.

“Let’s see if you dare.”

The man who was dining with the woman rushed up and paid the owner’s wife. He was a mousy guy and wasn’t going to risk coming to blows. But this didn’t stop the woman.

“This piece of shit restaurant. Kicking customers out when it’s not even closed.”

Blind in his fury, the boss gave the only argument he could muster.

“Not closed? I can close whenever I want!” And then, triumphantly, “It’s my restaurant!”

“I’ve never been to any restaurant like that,” the woman said, grabbing her coat.

“Tell you what, when you own a restaurant, you can close whenever you want!”

On her way out, the woman cursed the boss.

“You have no idea how to run a business. You’re an embarrassment to Chinese people.” Then, inexplicably, she said in English, “You understand?”

Then they were gone. A tense silence settled over the restaurant. The boss went back to his iPad, muttering under his breath. I paid the bill and left.

On the way home, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. What could have been a teachable moment or a discussion about social etiquette, became instead a demonstration of arbitrary power.

The woman was a paying customer and it was 10 minutes to closing time. Sure she was a sloppy, aggressive drunk, but she wasn’t a danger to anyone. She had every right to another drink. And yet, none of that mattered when it came down to it. What mattered was who owned the restaurant.

The incident stayed with me for days after. It felt like a microcosm of everything I’d experienced in China. It didn’t matter if you were right or wrong, if you had reason on your side or not. You could plead and argue and kick and scream but in the end only one thing matters: who owns the restaurant?

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We Need to Talk about Beijing

A less offensive version of this column is available in the June 2013 issue of the Beijinger.

by Lionel Shriver

When I wrote my column for Standpoint magazine, whingeing about Beijing’s dreary air and architecture, I didn’t think it would be a big deal.

Sure, I described the city as “dystopic” and dubbed it “the ugliest city I’d ever seen,” but it wasn’t an insult; I was just stating an objective, a priori fact—like “the sky is blue” or “Albanians are poor.”

And as long as you state facts, no one has the right to be upset, regardless of how ignorant or uninformed you might be.

I live in London and have been to cities across the United States and Western Europe. Beijing is uglier than all of them combined. I mean, Beijing is like a modern-day Gomorrah. It’s like an urban venereal disease. Beijing is the city Detroit looks to when it wants to feel better about itself. You can’t argue with facts.

Still, many took offense to what I said about Beijing’s pollution.

“The atmosphere was so thick and brown that I could taste it,” I wrote. “The facades of buildings are paled over with particulates, the creases of dilapidated window frames emphasized by grime…”

All true. In fact, I wish I had gone even further.

Going from London to Beijing was like The Divine Comedy in reverse—a descent from the loftiest heaven into the bowels of hell. Beijing is like Dubai in a sandstorm, if the sandstorm was made of asbestos. I was surprised I could see my own shadow what with all the cars, coal furnaces and manufactories belching smoke into the sulfurous pea soup.

Thank goodness London never had to deal with that.

Surprisingly, many also took offense to the indisputable notion that Beijing’s buildings are ugly.

“Never was any city more captivated by the rectangle,” I wrote. “Clumps of residential developments rise relentlessly into the distance… They are all drab, they are all the same, they are all hideous.”

Again, I stand by that. Seriously, what is up with these rectangular buildings? It’s like the city planners all had hard-ons for rectangular prisms. I’ve never seen a city with such an orthogonal fetish.

Believe it or not, I didn’t see a single rhomboid or trapezoidal building the entire time I was there. The lack of geodesic spheres was also appalling.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say all the cheerless, cookie-cutter buildings were mass-produced in the Soviet style during a time when the country was so poor, low construction costs trumped architectural variation. But even if that were true, I still don’t get why are there are so many of them. What, are there a billion people in the country or something?

Now I should admit that I didn’t see this “Summer Palace” or “Bird’s Nest,” or any temples while I was there. I also declined to visit the “hutongs” which people kept trying to take me to. I mean, why bother? When you’ve seen one blocky concrete tower, you’ve seen ’em all.

I also refused to get dragged to the “Great Wall.” Seriously, how “great” can it be? We have some pretty impressive walls in London.

No sir, I learned all I needed to know about Beijing from the expats at my book talk. Since they knew so much about the city and its air quality readings, it was not necessary to corroborate their opinions with those of actual Chinese people.

Of course, I couldn’t trust the expats completely because, as I wrote, they had “over-adapted to their dystopic town and could no longer see it.” Indeed, it took a truly visionary writer like me to peer into the heart of the city.

One thing still puzzles me about Beijing, though. Why do people choose to live in that blighted metropolis?

Could it be that other parts of China are even more polluted? Could it be that Chinese and foreigners alike are seeking opportunities that don’t exist in their hometowns? Could it be that some are willing to brave the pollution and endless rectangles to experience something new and exciting? I guess I’ll never know.

For those who say I was being too hard on the city, did I not devote part of a sentence—”great food, great people, great time”—to the positive aspects of my trip? Talk about selective reading.

But just between you and me, I knew I was going to hate the city before I even went. I hate everything; that’s just who I am. And that’s not an insult—that’s a fact.