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Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xialou Guo.

May 15, 2017

Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China.   By Xialou Guo.  USA: Grove, October 2017.  FORTHCOMING

(An English edition was published under the title, Once Upon A Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Vintage, January 2017.)

5 stars FAVORITE

A fine memoir by an acclaimed woman writer who tells of her life as a child in a Chinese fishing village and a small industrializing town, as a rebellious student in Beijing, and as an aspiring filmmaker/writer in London.

Xialou Guo is a highly talented author of novels, poetry, essays, screenplays, and films.  Her writing has been published in both Chinese and English editions and deservedly won a variety of prestigious international awards.  In this book, she tells a rather conventional narrative of her unconventional life. Her writing ability makes her account more than ordinary as she tells of both her own personal and psychological growth and also how she was shaped by the political and social environment in which she functioned.  She attributes her anger, for example, to both her personal rejection by her family and to the totalitarian world in which she grew up.  Nothing completely explains the sharpness of her observations or the wonder of her writing.

Guo was born in 1973 and was given as an infant to adoptive parents.  After a couple of years, her foster parents returned her to her aged biological grandparents who lived in poverty in a tiny fishing village.  The only person with whom she was close was her grandmother who had bound feet and was totally dependent on the husband who had purchased her years before. During these years a Taoist priest foretold that Guo would visit “the nine continents.”  When Guo was seven, her birth parents arrived to take her to live with them so she could go to school.  While slightly more stable economically, she felt rejected by her mother and brother.  Her father, an artist who made communist propaganda pictures, fostered her dreams and was a strong, if often silent, ally.

Unhappy with her family, Guo’s goal became escaping from her parents and the small industrial town where they lived.  With her father’s support, she went to Beijing for tests and became one of eleven teenagers chosen out of seven thousand to study film-making in the city.  Living in Beijing, she gravitated to other young artists who shared her anger and rebelliousness.  After finishing her studies, she scrambled for ways to support herself by writing the scripts for soap operas and publishing her first novels in Chinese.

Another scholarship, again won despite high odds, allowed Guo to go to London to study documentary film-making.  Initially she found the West disappointing.  The weather, the landscape, and the loneliness all depressed her.  Any social life stagnated as she sought to learn English enough to excel at using it to be a writer.  In 2003 she published her first English novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, written at the same time she herself was struggling with the language.  Since its enthusiastic reception, she has gone on to publish other novels, including I am China, which I loved and reviewed. Guo ends her memoir with her own motherhood and her visit back to China where she still sees herself as rooted.

Because Guo embeds her story so tightly in the worlds which she has inhabited, no list of what she did adequately captures her book. Woven together, there is her personal narrative about rejection as a small child and about the early sexual abuse that affected her relationships with men.  There is her anger at the ridiculous limitations placed on her by her Chinese rulers.  There is her awareness of the ways in which Chinese men’s lives were privileged over women’s.  And underlying everything is her deep anger at the injustices she encountered in both the East and the West.  Yet her book is not ugly and angry, but one that managed to create beauty out of the ugliness of life.

I strongly recommend this book because it well-written and engaging and because it tells a story few of us have known.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan.

May 4, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2017.

4 stars

A touching book set in an English village during World War II about women who learn their own strength as they face losses and hardships together.

Jennifer Ryan was born in Kent and later moved to Washington, D.C.  She has worked as an editor.  This is her first novel.  She credits her grandmother for telling stories about how English village women came together during World War II. She is not the Jennifer Ryan who has written numerous western romances.  I wish she had used a middle name or initial to distinguish herself.

As World War II broke out, the church choir in the southern English village of Chilbury lost all its male singers.  Rather than let the vicar shut down the choir, the women of the village came together to keep the songs coming.  In doing so, they also came together around personal problems of romance and motherhood and the bombs and warfare that threatened the whole village

The Chilbury Ladies Choir is a simple narrative organized around fictional diaries, journal entries, and letters which the women and men of Chilbury wrote in 1940.  The characters are believable and interesting although the plot is sometimes unrealistic.  The book is easy and entertaining reading.  For me it is the best kind of “comfort reading.”  It also offers insights on how people respond to major disruptions in their lives.  Some of the characters are generous, capable of reaching out to others in need. For example one of the women reaches out to gay men in ways that are new for her.  Tragedies happen, as can be expected in war, but the women turn to each other. Some of them grow out of their former docility into strong, competent individuals. Although the women remain gentle and unassuming, a subtle feminism runs through the text.

I recommend this book to readers looking for pleasant, insightful fiction.

The Death of a Busy Body, George Bellairs.

April 28, 2017

The Death of a Busy Body, George Bellairs.  Poisoned Pen Press, 2017. (First published 1943).   Forthcoming, September 2017.  British Library Crime Classics series.

 3 stars

The reprint of an amusing village mystery from the golden age of British mystery writing.

George Bellairs was the pseudonym of Harold Blundell (1902-1985), a successful banker who wrote mysteries as hobby for almost 40 years.  Almost all his books, including this one, feature the Scotland Yards detective, Thomas Littlejohn.

The Death of a Busy Body is set in small archetypal English village and is complete with its cast of village characters.  The “busybody” who is killed was an obnoxious woman who had made enemies of  the other villagers spying on them and trying to run their lives.  Inspector Littlejohn comes from London to sort out the tangle of clues surrounding her murder.  In the process he learns what really goes on in an innocent-looking village.

Like other books in this genre, the setting and characters are more important than the actual crime.  The villagers are presented as exotic and sometimes humorous.  The lower class individuals are set apart from the more respectable residents by the dialect with which they speak. The book was written and published during World War II, and contains references to daily life in wartime.

All is in great fun, if not great literature.  This book will be of interest primarily to those who enjoy the genre.

Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee.

April 21, 2017

Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee.  Grand Central Publishing (2017).       496 pages.

2 stars

A historical novel about a Korean family who migrates to Japan where they face discrimination even after they succeed financially.

Min Lin Lee was born in South Korea and came to the United States with her parents in 1976 when she was seven.  Her family owned a wholesale jewelry store in Queens.  She attended Yale and Georgetown Law School, was a corporate lawyer, and lived in Japan as an adult.  Her previous novel was  Free Food for Millionaires.

Pachinko begins in a coastal village in Korea in 1910 and continues into the post-world-war-II era in Japan.  The central character is Sunja, a young woman who refuses to marry the man by whom she becomes pregnant.  Instead she marries a Korean man, migrating to Japan with him.   He is a missionary to other Koreans there, and she has a second son with him.  Their family unites with those of an older brother to struggle with poverty, uncertainty, and discrimination though the world war.  Eventually the sons prosper through management positions in the pachinko parlors, which feature a particular Korean-style pinball machines.  Although the family becomes wealthy, they are never treated as equal to the Japanese.

I appreciated the book as a story of migration and ill-treatment that features a country other than the United States.  The writing of the book weakened its appeal as literature.  This is a big book in both pages and characters; there is little sense of unity.  Neither the characters or the plot were well-developed, leaving the reader with little sense of why people acted as they did.  Subplots were introduced and then left hanging.  Family members simply and inexplicably got very rich by being good human beings.  Gay and lesbian themes were handled in a stereotypical manner.

I cannot recommend a book this poorly written.

The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat.

April 17, 2017

The Tiller of Waters, by Hoda Barakat.  Cairo: American University of Cairo, 2001.  Translated by Marilyn Booth.

4 stars

A powerful, multi-layered novel by a Lebanese woman about a man stranded, alone and hallucinating, in war- devastated Beirut.

Hoda Barakat was born in Beirut in 1952 and grew up in Lebanon.  She now lives and writes in France but has continued her connections to Beirut.  Her novels focus on her country’s civil war, recounted in innovative and sophisticated language. Rather than claiming an objective view of the city she both loves and hates, Barakat explains that she writes in order to understand. Her writing has been awarded various literary prizes.  The Tiller of Waters received the prestigious Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.

In this novel, Niqula Mitri, a middle-aged cloth merchant, finds himself in Beirut after the city has been bombed and parts of it abandoned.  He explores the deserted city and his memories, often at the edges of continuing gunfire. His refuge is an underground room full of beautiful fabrics that he and his father had collected. It becomes his safe place where he can luxuriate in the sensuous natural materials.  He feels happy and powerful there where each night he wraps himself in one of the bolts of fabrics.  When he ventures out into the larger city, he finds himself attacked by packs of dogs and tries to mark off his safe space with his urine. In long, almost scholarly accounts he recaptures the histories of his parents and the Kurdish woman he loved, laying out as well the history of the fabrics and world from which they came.  He reaches out for a past that has disappeared and left him alone and rootless.  At the same time he seeks to make a life for himself in a world that is both familiar and unknown.

Barakat does not follow a clear plot, but rambles with Mitri around the city and his thoughts.  Her words are beautiful and satisfying, although they left me feeling that they hid as much as they revealed.  Perhaps readers with more knowledge of Beirut and the intersecting histories it contains will understand more than I did.   For me, the sense of mystery and confusion that pervades the book is just right.   Although I know little about the explicit location, I empathize because today we all must live and deal with physical and emotional remnants of a breaking and broken world.

The language in book circles around cloth and its title, The Tiller of the Waters.

Planting and tilling the soil are but the weaving of life, the coming and the going, like the movement of a loom, and like the cycle of day and night coming to us in rotation, and like the linkage between sky and earth, life and death.

I strongly recommend this book for those readers who appreciate books with depth and complexity and a sense of what we may never know again.   This is not a book, however, for those who want their stories neat and action-filled.


The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea.

April 15, 2017

The Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea.   Penguin Books (2008), Edition: Reprint, 286 pages.  (First published in Arabic in 2005.)  Translated by Marilyn Booth.

2 stars

A controversial, but shallow novel by a young woman from Saudi Arabia about the love lives of small cluster of very privileged women friends.

Rajaa Alsanea was born in Riyadh in 1981 and grew up in a medical family there.  When she was 18, she wrote Girls of Riyadh which was first published in Lebanon in 2005.  The book is structured as the email account of a young Saudi girl who blogs weekly accounts, read primarily by men, of the romantic adventures of four teenage girls. The book caused an uproar in Saudi Arabia with citizens suing to have it banned in the country because they claimed it did not promote national and religious values and practices.  In 2007, the court ruled that the book should not be banned.  The following year, it was published in English.  Alsanea came to the United States to attend graduate school in dentistry after the book was published.

For non-Arab readers, it is hard to see The Girls of Riyadh as radical.  In fact, the girls in the book act in ways typical for young women in other parts of the world.  In Saudi Arabia, however, it is illegal and immoral for unmarried women to associate with any men not their relatives, as the girls in this book do consistently.  In one instance, a bride even “gives herself” to her groom while they are still in the midst of the lengthy marriage rituals.  (He divorces her for doing it.)  Leaders in Saudi Arabia expressed fear that the book would inspire other young women to follow the examples described in it.  Arab readers also took the author to task for her mixture of classic Arab with internet slang.  Perhaps equally damning was the extremely negative portrayal of  Saudi men who regularly treat women they claim to love with cruelty.  Each of the four girls is heartbroken after putting their trust in a man who ultimately rejects her.

My reasons for disliking the book have a different basis.  The friends are all from “the velvet class.”  They are extremely wealthy and devoted their time primarily to designer clothes, make-up, lavish parties, and, despite the restriction under which they live, chasing men.  Sometime they go to college or take jobs, but such activities are incidental to finding the right man.  Their chief guide in this endeavor is a book about the compatibility of couples born under different signs of the zodiac.  One woman laments that she doesn’t support a political cause, because that would distract her from her heart-break.  None of the women are grounded in traditional culture and religion or in individualistic “western” values.  In the style of romance genre, each of them assumes that life fulfillment lies in the hands of a husband.  At the book’s end the women come together to create a wedding planning business which imports European chocolates.  I found it difficult to identify or even respect these women.

The Girls of Riyadh provides an interesting view of restricted options for women in Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive for women in the Gulf States.  Other books tell the same story with more clarity and less celebration of wealth.  For example, for Saudi women, see Daring to Drive, Manal al’Sharif, and Excellent Daughters,  Katherine Zoepf.  For more general discussion of contemporary Islamic women, see The Quiet Revolution, Leila Ahmed.

The Jade Peony, by Wayne Choy

April 8, 2017

The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy. Picador USA, 1995.  238 pages.

4 stars

A poignant novel narrated by a Chinese sister and two brothers growing up in Vancouver in the 1930s and 1940s.

Wayson Choy was born in 1939 and grew up in in the working-class Chinese community in Vancouver that is the setting for this book.  He attended the University of British Columbia and has taught for years at Humber College in Toronto.  He has published other novels and memoir about being a Chinese child in Canada.

In The Jade Peony, a sister and her two brothers each narrate a section of this account of Chinese family life in Vancouver around the beginning of World War II.  Each child brings a different perspective to their shared family experience.  They interact with other family members as well as neighbors, their lives enriched by elderly relatives and a young women whose refuses to obey ethnic boundaries.  As the stories grow, so do the children, each slowly coming to grasp hard truths about loss and death and the approach of world war.

While The Jade Peony is written as a simple migrant story, the book’s writing raises it above most such accounts.    I was struck by its contrast to the book I read just before it, Pachinko, by Min Lin Lee, a story of Koreans in Japan in the same time span.  Choy has written about real people whose words and actions make sense.  Each child’s story has an integrity and conclusion at the same time they are part of the larger family story.  The same cannot be said of Lee’s writing.

I am impressed again by the rich Canadian tradition of diverse writing and I gladly recommend this book to a variety of readers who enjoy becoming acquainted with a wide range of authors and characters.