Review: “Shanghai Baby” by Wei Hui

600526Set in the centuries-old port city of Shanghai, the novel follows the days, and nights, of the irrepressibly carnal Coco, who waits tables in a café when she meets her first lover, a sensitive Chinese artist. Defying her parents, Coco moves in with her boyfriend and enters a frenzied, orgasmic world of drugs and hedonism. But, helpless to stop her gentle lover’s descent into addiction, Coco becomes attracted to a boisterous Westerner, a rich German businessman with a penchant for S/M and seduction. Now, with an entourage of friends ranging from a streetwise madame to a rebellious filmmaker, Coco’s forays into in the territory of love and lust cross the borders between two cultures — awakening her guilt and fears of discovery, yet stimulating her emerging sexual self. Searing a blistering image into the reader’s imagination, Shanghai Baby provides an alternative travelogue into the back streets of a city and the hard-core escapades of today’s liberated youth. Wei Hui’s provocative portrayal of men, women, and cultural transition is an astonishing and brave exposure of the unacknowledged new China, breaking through official rhetoric to show the inroads of the West and a people determined to burst free. [From the publisher]

I fell in love with the city of Shanghai when I lived there for a year. In fact, I have a deep interest in most things Chinese. Unfortunately, a lot of traditional Chinese literature bores me to tears. Until recently the most common form of literature was family epics, which do little for me. I chose to read Shanghai Baby because it breaks that tradition, not to mention it caused a commotion in China because of its racy content.

Shanghai Baby has received a lot of pitiful reviews, and I can understand why. It really is scarcely-concealed erotica and laowei worship (the author really seems to love the Western world). The predominant message of the protagonist is, “It’s such a burden being beautiful and desired.” Despite that, there’s a complexity of emotion in the book that is absent in other Chinese literature. It could possibly be described as what the Japanese call an I novel; a novel that is essentially the story of the author’s life, yet remains fiction. I value the new breed of Chinese literature that is more than a family epic; it’s modern Chinese giving a portrait of modern China.

TL;DR: I’m conflicted about this book, but would recommend it to those interested in modern China.

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Review: “The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

17237713From the publisher:

“Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived. A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.”

It’s been a long time since a book so engrossed me that I was kept up past my bedtime to read it. But with The Hired Man, it was effortless. What I liked was the small cast of characters, which allowed each to be richly developed and complicated.

The story alternates between the present and Duro’s past, telling the story of friendships gone wrong and illicit love that developed at precisely the wrong time.

TL;DR: It’s not an elaborate story, but it is beautiful and emotional (I almost cried, and I almost never cry during a book). It would be a great addition to a summer reading list for those who don’t want to read trash!

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Review: “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

1072932Burmese Days is the story of an average Englishman who has spent the past fifteen years living as a policeman in Burma. Contrary to his countrymen also living in Burma, Flory is mostly accepting of the native people, even interested in them. He is bored with the ceaseless, banal chatter that goes on in the Club (restricted to white men), and distressed at the rate in which his youth is fading. When a beautiful young English girl arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and uncle, Flory realizes that his days of loneliness and boredom may have come to an end.

This book is essentially about racism, and few authors can make blatant racism so humorous at times. Orwell writes about each side of the equation (Englishmen and natives) wanting to keep the other in their place – Flory’s servant is uncomfortable with his master acting differently from the other white men. One of the white men tells the Club butler not to speak such flawless English.

426px-OrwellBurmaPassport

Orwell during his time in Burma.

Though fiction, the book serves as a sort of autobiography chronicling Orwell’s own experience as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma during the 1920s.

One of my favorite scenes in the novel features the protagonist’s love interest, Elizabeth, speaking with her aunt. Elizabeth had only recently come to Burma after living in Paris for two years. Her aunt begins by asking how she could have left Paris unmarried, and Elizabeth replies:

‘I’m afraid I didn’t meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had to live so quietly. And I was working,’ she added, thinking this rather a disgraceful admission.

‘Of course, of course,’ sighed Mrs Lackersteen. ‘One hears the same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their living. It is such a shame! I think it’s so terribly selfish, don’t you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so many poor girls looking for husbands?’ Elizabeth not answering this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, ‘I’m sure if I were a young girl I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!’

These two paragraphs exemplify precisely what I loved about this novel. The characters are mostly awful, racist people, as well as being rather ignorant and simple. But Orwell so ingeniously mocks these characteristics that I can’t help but love the entire book.

As readers of Orwell staples Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four will be familiar with, the ending is not at all a happy one, so that’s something to take into consideration when deciding whether to read it.

TL;DR: Burmese Days is forgotten these days in the overwhelming presence of Orwell’s classics. But I do recommend it for being funny, engaging, and all-too truthful.

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Review: “The Guest Cat” by Takashi Hiraide

17574849The unnamed protagonists of this quaint novella are a young man and his wife living in the guesthouse of a mansion. A neighbor one day adopts a stray cat that they name Chibi, and before long Chibi comes to visit the man and wife.

The Guest Cat is the story of how the couple and the cat become familiar with one another, Chibi eventually coming to spend hours a day in their home. She becomes a staple in their lives, a feature that would come to determine certain aspects of their future.

This book was not on my to-read list before I found it at my local library. I broke my #1 rule by letting it skip ahead of the list. But anyone who knows me could have guessed that I couldn’t resist a Japanese book about a cat.

That being said, it didn’t live up to my expectations. Having been written by a poet, the book is lyrical and bittersweet, but a little more shallow than I was expecting. Maybe this would have changed if Hiraide had given himself more than 140 pages to develop the story.

TL;DR: I gave it 2 of 5 stars, but if it sounds interesting to you, 140 pages are probably worth the risk of maybe not enjoying it.

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Review: “Running Through Beijing” by Xu Zechen

beijingJust released from prison for peddling fake IDs, 25-year-old Dunhuang finds himself having to start over from scratch in Beijing. His first night in the city he meets a woman who happens to sell pirated DVDs, giving him an “in” for a new way to earn a living. Now he needs to work to get back on his feet in order to save enough money to rescue his friend from prison. Throughout it all, Dunhuang must learn how to navigate through complex human relationships while still focusing on what’s most important.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect much from a book by an author I had never heard of published by a relatively small publisher. Most of the Chinese books I’ve read were long and tedious – two things that this book is not. It’s fast-paced and enthralling, with well-developed, likeable characters and a solid plot.

A story about a pirated DVD peddler is just what I needed. Having spent 13 months living in Shanghai, I’ve seen plenty of these guys. I know how much the DVDs cost, what movies I’m likely to see, and what tricks they use to convince you to buy. And I was tickled to find all that in the book. I know these characters, but had never gotten a glimpse into their lives before. Besides that, the book captures the everyday petty corruption and tedious bureaucracy that is such a part of life in China. And it’s nice to hear a Chinese national also complain about landlords that demand three months rent at a time.

TL:DR: Running Through Beijing is definitely worth the short amount of time it will take to read it, and certainly worth the $12.95 list price. It’s a great insight into modern China for those who have never been there, and an amusing, familiar story for those who have.

It’s available today from Two Lines Press!

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Review: “In Search of King Solomon’s Mines” by Tahir Shah

536355While browsing a shop in Jerusalem, Shah comes across a hand-drawn map that the shop owner claims could guide him to the legendary gold mines of King Solomon. Dubious map in hand, Shah sets out on a quest to Ethiopia.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, Shah collects two locals to help him – an educated, devout Christian with a rare love of his country’s history, and a sketchy and reckless Somali driver. Together the three explore the corners of Ethiopia, withstanding humor and hardship the whole way.

Not only is this book a hilarious, exciting adventure; it’s also a fantastic insight into the customs and folklore of the Ethiopian people. While Shah takes a sometimes arrogant and off-putting tone when speaking about the local people, overall this just adds to the humor and depth of the book.

TL;DR: I’m not sure who wouldn’t love this book. It’s witty, exciting, and informative all at once. Also, the Kindle edition is only $2.09. No excuses to not read it.

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