Top Ten Reads of 2019

The year that was had been a hectic one, peppered by worthwhile endeavors and some useless distractions that took away my focus from the truly important things. I thus read far fewer books than before in 2019. I plan to read far more books in 2020. Still, a lot of the books I did read last year were gems. Here are ten of them (in chronological order of reading):

1. Methods Devour Themselves: A Conversation by Benjanun Sriduangkaew and J. Moufawad-Paul. The book alternates between short fiction by Sriduangkaew and commentary by Moufawad-Paul teasing out its social and political dimension, an interrogation that inspires the theme for the next story and so on. An insightful problematization of the science fiction genre and its potential for reflecting on anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist analysis and political practice.

2-4. The Three Kingdoms (Three Volume Edition) by Luo Guanzhong, Ronald C. Iverson (Editor), Yu Sumei (Translator). After watching a few stand-alone films related to the Romance of Three Kingdoms, cruising through the 95-episode TV series released in 2010, and even playing Total War’s Three Kingdoms strategy game, I was finally hyped enough to read the ebook of the entire novel on my smartphone while on a trip to Taiwan.

5. Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism by Samir Amin. Finally got to finishing this classic study of the really-existing world capitalist system that has divided the globe between rich countries siphoning wealth produced in poor countries in the periphery. Sustained attacks from apologists of neoliberal globalization and post-Marxists testifies to the power of this analysis on the core-periphery dynamics of contemporary imperialism.

6. The Wealth of (Some) Nations: Imperialism and the Mechanics of Value Transfer by Zak Cope. I’ve always been suspicious of “Third Worldist” positions that relegate the oppressed in the capitalist cores to simply waiting for things to happen in the rest of the world. The book provides a materialist account on the growth of a labor aristocracy benefiting from the transfer of value from the periphery to the core of global capitalism, explaining why it is harder (but not impossible) to wage revolution there. Cope’s is on point when he emphasizes anti-imperialist solidarity as the real gauge of being revolutionary in the so-called Global North.

7. Afterlives of Chinese Communism: Political Concepts from Mao to Xi by Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere (Eds). This book is a mixed bag but excellent overall. The somewhat anti-communist contributions were more than made up by the excellent contributions by folks like Rebecca West and the powerful afterword by Jodi Dean.

8. Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging by Jodi Dean. Perhaps my favorite book last year. The slim book, an expansion of essays by Dean published in the past, clarifies a concept that has been taken for granted in revolutionary circles for a long time on the one hand and poked fun at or denigrated in anti-communist circles on the other hand.

9. The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River by Ding Ling. Ding Ling’s novel, winner of the 1951 Stalin Prize, is a lively, educational, and comprehensive novelization of the land reform campaign that saw the mobilization of the peasantry against the landlord class in rural China during the revolution. The novel’s characters illustrates the class contradictions enveloping the countryside during this period of social upheaval. And while the lives of the individual characters are fleshed out in the course of the narrative, the story is not driven by formal conventions of personal character development in the vein of the traditional western novel. Portrayal of the protagonists here serves the purpose of illuminating the conflicting economic and ideological positions of different social classes as they played out in a concrete historical setting. Some highlights of the novel include its training focus on the functioning of a Party work team sent to supervise the land reform campaign in Nuanshui. Also important is the novel’s depiction of the dynamics between the local Party branch at the village level and the Party’s district organization as they mobilize the masses to implement the Party center’s land reform program. In this regard, Ding Ling does not shy from showing the Party cadres’ shortcomings and contradictions with each other and with the people to serve lessons to the reader on what an ideal comrade should be. Indeed, Ding Ling is able to do this because of her concrete involvement in these struggles which shines through every page. Ultimately, the novel is less about individual heroes but of the rural masses collectively standing up to generations of injustice. Which is why some of the most memorable scenes of the novel involves the part when poor peasants begin to confront their erstwhile landed exploiters. Especially poignant is the climax when the villagers as organized by the Party collectively bring out their bitterness against the local despot schemer Qian and put Maoist justice into action.

10. Reflections on Revolution and Prospects: Interviews by Rainer Werning with Jose Maria Sison. Don’t let the rather plain book cover deceive you. This volume is a necessary updating of two previous interviews with the founding chair of the communist party in the Philippine done in the 1980s (also by Werning) and in the early 2000 (with Ninotchka Rosca). In a way, this is a legacy book which sums up the crucial contributions of Sison to the Philippine revolution and what this has achieved so far. The book comes with a lucid and moving preface by E. San Juan Jr.

Other notable books I’ve I’ve been using frequently in 2019 includes the following: (a) Brains of the Nation by Resil Mojares and Philippines: A Past Revisited by Renato Constantino, and The Covert Presence by Alice Guillermo for my Philippine Studies classes; (b) Barbara Foley’s Marxist Literary Criticism Today which served as main textbook for my literature classes; (c) Verso’s reprint of Mao Zedong’s On Practice and Contradiction, Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism edited by Nick Knight, and Christian Fuchs’ Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies that helped me develop the theoretical framework for my thesis; (d) Lualhati Abreu’s Dusking, Dawning, Antonio Zumel’s Radical Prose, and Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years that helped me describe the context of Filipino revolutionary journalism in the 1980s for my thesis.

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