Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Five New Novels About China (and One About Singapore, Which I Just Learned on Wikipedia is 74% Ethnic Chinese).

This morning I went to Jason and said, "It's Tuesday. What's new this week?" and he replied, "Pretty much nothing." It's the dregs of summer and August*has one of the smallest release schedule of the year. I went up to our front cases and browsed both the Boswell's Best and New and Noteworthy hardcover case and saw that there were a good number of books by Chinese authors.

I've already written up Crazy Rich Asians on the blog, and since then, I've met a couple of folks who've read and enjoyed it. Just to get a feel for what we're talking about, Plum Sykes called it a "Chinese Dallas meets Pride and Prejudice." Kwan is from Singapore, and since the majority of Singapore residents are ethnic Chinese, I am guessing that he qualifies. Here's an interesting interview with Kwan from the blog Read it Forward, where he discusses his design background and consumerist culture. It's about a Chinese American girl who travels to Singapore to meet her new boyfriend's family, only to find out they are wealthy beyond all get out.

Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire is said to be a contemporary novel that captures the vibrancy of China today, particularly Shanghai. The author is originally from Taiwan, was brought up in Malaysia, and now lives in London. The story focuses on a factory girl, a country boy turned pop star, a real estate developer, and a leftist turned businesswoman, and the billionaire himself, pulling the strings on the characters with his various schemes and secrets. The novelist Aminatta Forna review the novel for the Guardian, and says "Aw is a master storyteller and Five Star Billionaire can be read as The Way We Live Now for our times, for with the global triumph of capitalism, New York and London pale in comparison with the financial behemoth of Shanghai."

Moving away from big city riches, Ma Jian's The Dark Road, this novel is about a peasant family who decide to have a second child when their first child is a daughter. On the run from the law, they decide to sail down the Yangtze River in a rickety houseboat. The Dark Road wears its politics on its sleeve--the jacket copy talks about the women he met to research the book, said to undergo abortions and forced sterlization in the name of the one child policy. Ma Jian is another Londoner, who lives with his translator, Flora Drew. In the Washington Post, Carolyn See notes that  "As an argument against the one-child policy and the horrific conditions it has spawned, The Dark Road is very effective. But that polemical animus also works against its success as a novel."

Columbia University Press has a new book out called The Matchmaker, The Apprentice, and The Football Fan, written by Zhu Wen and translatted by Julia Lovell. Like Ma Jian's work, it's political in nature. Kirkus Reviews notes "at odds with the Chinese regime's reigning ideology of the late '80s and the '90s, which appears determined to crush its citizens' individuality." The (Minneapolis) Star Tibune's Tom Zelman calls the collection "funny, complex, fantastic and true." I think the book is one of the more attractive packages I've seen of late--a decent paper weight, colored endpapers, a nice design on the jacket, but I'm not a fan of the tiny type and very tight letter spacing. Definitely a paper-saving move.

Moving on to mysteries, there's a new Inspector Chen novel by St. Louis's Qui Xiaolong called Enigma of China. Back in the day, we did quite well with the author's first few mysteries, including Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer.  The newest features Inspector Chen (a poet by training, a police inspector in Shanghai by occupation) investigating the death of Zhou Keng, the son of a major party member who himself was ousted from a plum position after corruption was exposed. His death has been ruled a suicide but it doesn't add up. The Wall Street Journal's unnamed reviewer (how unusual!) thought the new book was excellent. As it is written, "Inspector Chen, the poetry-writing detective featured in Qiu Xiaolong's outstanding series of procedural novels set in contemporary Shanghai, knows not to take people, or cases, at face value: What seems simple on the surface may soon reveal subtle, even fatal aspects."

According to my sister, the book to read is The Hour of the Rat, by Lisa Brackmann. Claudia, as you know, teaches Chinese at Holy Cross, is the former president of the Chinese Language Teacher's Association, and has written a number of bestselling Chinese textbooks, as well as probably the bestselling and best reviewed Chinese grammar book out there. Do I sound biased? I tend to share some of my advance copies with her, as she is an enthusiastic reader who shares good feedback, and boy, did she love this book. It follows an army vet turned art dealer, Ellie McEnroe, who is the agent for an Ai Weiwei-style dissident artist. The police (one of whom is an old boyfriend) are on her trail for her connection to the dissident. And her other case, trying to help an army vet trace his brother, seems to be angering a lot of folks as well. The more she disgs, the more trouble she gets into, but McEnroe is dogged in her pursuit of justice. And why not? The alternative is hanging out with her mom.

I asked Claudia why she loved the book so much and she had two reasons. First of all, this book is very unusual in that its very fair to China and really delves into the complexities of modern life there. It's neither an attack on nor a love affair with the culture. It's neither wonderful nor terrible, just a really interesting place where almost anything can happen. And Ellie McEnroe is a really great protagonist--funny and smart and open, without being obnoxious or pretentious. Lisa Brackmann (pictured) has won at least one China specialist's heart,and based on how many other folks my sister talks to in the field, more fans are likely to come.

*I don't know what "August is July" meant either. I think I was trying to say that new titles releasing in July have been rare since the days of the Scribners, Putnams, and Doubledays vacationing at their summer retreats.

1 comment:

Other Lisa said...

Dear Daniel,

Please pass on to Claudia how much I appreciate her perceptive review of my book. It's especially gratifying to me when people with real experience in China and Chinese culture like what I do. Her comment on how the book re: China is neither an attack or a love affair, just presenting how it is, really made my day. That's what I've always strived for.


Lisa Brackmann