Monday, February 28, 2011

February Reading Roundup

February meant Chinese literature, and coincidentally, the Chinese Literature Challenge which I discovered this month as well.  I'll continue to work on the Chinese lit. books each month and post them on the sidebar as I continue on.  I also got back to work on the crime fiction series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö featuring Martin Beck and the Stockholm homicide squad.  I'm currently beginning book 6, Murder at the Savoy, and luckily still have 4 more to go before the series is finished. That will be a sad day; these books are some of the finest crime fiction novels ever written. Anyway, here's my month:

Chinese literature:
War Trash, by Ha Jin
To Live, by Yu Hua
The Vagrants, by Li Yiyun
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke
Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu

Scandinavian crime fiction
The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
The Fire Engine that Disappeared, by  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (review in progress)

Dutch crime fiction
Back to the Coast, by Saskia Noort

Historical crime fiction
Lumen, by Ben Pastor 

other book-related stuff:
1) My book group read and liked The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer 

2)Added to the Amazon wishlist:
Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
The Free World, by David Bezmozgis
A Posthumous Confession, by Marcellus Emants
The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences, by Peter D. McDonald 
Panorama, by Hans G. Adler
Murder in East Anglia, by Robert Church

3) From LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program: The Anatomy of a Moment, by Javier Cercas; various ARCs came through the door as well from several publishers.

4) Books bought this month: 
Farewell My Concubine, by Lilian Lee
Scream Black Murder, by Philip McLaren
Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White
The Last Draw, by Elisabet Peterzen
The Death of Donna Whalen, by Michael Winter
An Exclusive Love: A Memoir, by Johanna Adorjan
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo
Occupied City, by David Peace
The Poison Tree, by Erin Kelly

5) Major book purge; 5 boxes of giveaways to various thrift stores; 11 books otherwise left home through BookMooch & Paperback Swap. 

that's about it.  
have a happy reading March; I'm focusing on the Aussie Author Challenge from Booklover Book Reviews for the month. 



Sunday, February 27, 2011

*War Trash, by Ha Jin

Vintage International, 2005
Originally published 2004
350 pp.

The Korean War is the background of this novel, a fictional memoir of a former prisoner of war from the (then) fledgling People's Republic of China. Yu Yuan sets forth his narrative as a "gift" for his American grandchildren, and relates the story of his time in a military prison camp and the postwar aftermath.  Neither a CCP member nor a member of the regular army, Yu served in the volunteer army and ended up being captured, put into a POW camp, and at that point discovered that not only was he a captive of the US military, but that he was also at the mercy of his fellow prisoners.  The Nationalists put pressure on many of the mainland Chinese to throw their loyalty toward Chiang Kai-shek and Taiwan after their release,  often treating them brutally if they refused or remained on the fence about which side they'd take. He's also aware  that he'll never see his loved ones again if he does this; but worse, he has to "prove" his loyalty to the Communist prisoners.  All Yu really wants to do is to go home and get married, but if he repatriates, he faces the possibility of "denunciations, corporal punishment, prison terms and executions," because of the army's conduct code that declares that death is preferable over capture.  This constant struggle between countries and ideologies is a large part of the story, but not all. Woven into his memoir is the not-so-sterling conduct on the part of his US military captors,  the differences he perceives between rhetoric and reality, his conflicting sense of duty, and much more.

This book has been criticized for its stiffness -- many reviewers found Yu Yuan's narrative to be a bit clunky.  I took it as an author trying to capture an old man's voice, remembering events that happened some 50 years earlier.  My only problem with this book is that it was a bit repetitive in its reflections about the activities of the "struggle" of the Communists that continued in the camps.  Several scenes in the book told of slogan-shouting, prisoner demands, etc., and a few of these probably cut have been eliminated without doing damage to the flow or to the overall story.  But overall, War Trash has a great deal to offer.  One of my favorite scenes is one in which a priest leaves Yu Yuan (who speaks English) a bible which he had asked for to read to improve his English.  Then the priest asks him to translate some hymns into Chinese, and after doing so, Yu questions the priest on the Bible's teachings on equality, noting that all of the prisoners are sinners, but why are they not equal?

People are not treated equally here. The men living at the back are not even given their share of food. And you're one of them?Yes.I'm sorry, but this is the way things should be done.Why?Because most of you are Communists. To me and my God, Communism is evil...I had thought of asking him "Then why do you teach us the hymns that praise the wideness of God's mercy?...My conversation with him upset me profoundly and shattered my illusion that there might be shelter in God's bosom for every person.

One of the strongest attributes of this novel is that through Yu Yuan, multiple perspectives are revealed -- he sees things from the side of the GIs and officers of the US military, the prisoners, and even through the political leaders who are using the prisoners only as pawns in their larger game of propaganda, rather than showing true concern about their welfare.  Ha Jin's writing also evokes a strong sense of place and time, through his descriptions of the natural world and his fictionalized account of real events that occurred during the Korean War.  Throughout the story, Yu Yuan's voice never wavers; he is sort of like the messenger of those who have become caught up in wars or conflicts that they neither understood nor chose to be in. The camps provide Yu with an experience of the best and worst of human nature, regardless of nationality or ideology.

Definitely recommended, and if you haven't yet read his Waiting, you're in for an even better reading experience.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Offer on the table: Scandinavian Crime Fiction: The Fourth Man, by K.O. Dahl

I finally received my SantaThing books from LibraryThing, and The Fourth Man, by K.O. Dahl, was one of the books I got.  I already own a copy, so if anyone wants this one, it's yours. Just be the first one to leave a comment to claim it and send me an email with your home address. 

I haven't got to my copy yet (coming next month), so I don't know if it's any good, but hey, it's free!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Chinese Literature Challenge

How freakin' amazing is this? I've been reading Chinese literature off and on through this month and guess what I found? The Chinese literature challenge 2011, hosted by Chinoiseries here .  I'd call this an auspicious occasion.  I found it through Sandra of  Fresh Ink Books, who commented on my post about Dream of Ding Village. Thanks, Sandra, or should I say "謝謝!!"  I have stacks of Chinese lit. books so I'll be busy throughout the year.

I'm not planning on keeping all of these books, so whenever I have one to give away, I'll let people know.  Yay!

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009
originally published as Den Skrattande polisen, 1968
211 pp.
translated by Alan Blair

I'm on a roll with this series -- this one is #4.  I've put down my thoughts about this book over where my crime fiction reading gets journaled, what I refer to as the Crime Segments.  If you like Scandinavian crime fiction, I'd highly suggest you take a look at this series.

*To Live, by Yu Hua

Anchor Books, 2003
original Chinese title: 活著 (Huózhe), 1993
translated by Michael Berry

To Live is the story of one family as related by Xu Fugui, a poor farmer living in rural China who has lived through many upheavals, both political and personal. This wasn't always Fugui's life; as a young man he grew up in a well-off, landowning family until his gambling addiction got the better of him and sent his family out into the fields to make their living farming. Fugui's reversal of fortune happened during the Nationalist period of China's history; not long after he settles his family into their new thatched hut, the Nationalist Army forcefully conscripts him into fighting against the Communists.  But the Communists eventually win, and Fugui and his family have to face a new set of circumstances which change rapidly. First there was land reform and the collectivization of individual plots of land.  Next came the Great Leap Forward (GLF), in which agriculture took a backseat to industrializing the countryside at the expense of the people, even to the point of turning in their cooking pots for smelting in outdoor furnaces. Food was prepared and served in a dining hall, which at first seemed okay, but as the GLF continued, ongoing famine became a way of life, and pleas to local leadership did not have any results. After that came the Cultural Revolution, which sent young people into the countryside to be put in charge and to root out any dissidence or "capitalist roaders"  via thought reforms, beatings, public criticism and other measures, including death.  It also sent many of China's gifted intellectuals for re-education in rural areas.

 To Live is a sort of whirlwind tour through all of these periods of upheavals, and Fugui stands as a symbol of all of those who suffered at the hands of a system that, ironically, claimed it would relieve people's suffering. But rather than give up, even when tragedy strikes repeatedly, he steadfastly goes on with an appreciation for life that doesn't end. As Yu Hua notes

After going through much pain and hardship, Fugui is inextricably tied to the experience of suffering. So there is really no place for ideas like "resistance" in Fugui's mind -- he lives simply to live...Although he has more reason to die than most people, he keeps on living.

Fugui has no choice but to take life as it comes, never waiting for the utopia promised by the Communists -- his life is about survival.  One of the blurbers on the back cover of my edition notes that To Live is a "Chinese book of Job," but description is not quite accurate. Fugui never looks to a higher power as the source of his troubles, nor does he question why things have happened.  What is really at the heart of this novel is the author's subtle examination of the irony of a system that claims it will make life better, only to have so many die as when it doesn't. 

The prose is simple, but don't let this simplicity fool you. To Live is a rich and powerful story and will capture the reader's attention from page one and hold it until the end. It's extremely depressing, not only in terms of Fugui's personal hardships, but in terms of the tragedies that occurred throughout an entire country during these time periods. However, the author never gets sappy or melodramatic in telling the story.  There's much more I could say about this novel, but I'm not here to analyze it -- just to say what I think.  Suffice it to say, if you are at all interested in historical fiction set in the People's Republic, this is one of the better novels to read. Highly recommended, mostly for people who want to read an intelligent piece of fiction. It's not  for those who want something upbeat and happy feeling.

...and when you finish reading the book, you MUST see the film!  It is a beautiful movie, directed by Zhang Yimou, who has made some of the best Chinese movies I've ever seen.  While there are a few differences, the movie really brings the book to life.

fiction from China

Friday, February 18, 2011

Offer on the table: an ARC of Eleanor Henderson's new book, Ten Thousand Saints

due out in June, 2011

Does anybody want this book? I got it as part of my Powell's Books Indiespensable package, but I'm probably not going to read it.  Here's the blurb:

"A remarkable new writer makes her debut with a sweeping, multi-generational drama, set against the backdrop of the raw, roaring New York City of the late '80s -- part coming-of-age, part coming to terms -- that joins the ranks of The Emperor's Children and The Fortress of Solitude."

I'm sure it's good, but I'm not going to get to anywhere in the near future, so someone else should have it.  First one to comment gets it; please send me an email (oakesn at gmail dot com) with your address info.  Place is not an issue!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Man on the Balcony, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Vintage Books, 2009 ed.
Originally published, 1967, as Mannen pa balkongen
 translated by Alan Blair

Man on the Balcony is the third entry of the Martin Beck series, set in Stockholm.  You can read about it here where I keep track of the crime fiction I've read.  It's an intelligent novel of crime, a great piece of Scandinavian crime fiction written long before there was anything by Stieg Larsson anywhere. Hopefully the Larsson phenomenon will draw people to other Scandinavian writers, most especially to this series which begins with Roseanna.  For the complete list of books in this series, click here. In the meantime, enjoy my review.

*The Vagrants, by Li Yiyun

Random House
349 pp
Trade Paper edition - 2010; originally published 2009

The Vagrants is Li Yiyun's first novel, set in the People's Republic of China in 1979 in a provincial town called Muddy River. China's Cultural Revolution is over and Mao has been dead for three years. Most of the action takes place between two executions -- the first that of Gu Shan. When she was fourteen, she had been a "fanatic believer in Chairman Mao and his cultural revolution," but then changed her mind as she got older, becoming an "adamant nonbeliever and a harsh critic of her generation's revolutionary zeal." She made the mistake of putting her doubts into a letter she wrote to her boyfriend, who turned her in to the authorities. For his action, he was allowed to join the army; she was put into prison, and eventually executed. But before her death, the townspeople turn out for her denunciation ceremony -- a circus-like atmosphere in which songs are sung, speeches are made and people, including schoolchildren, are shouting revolutionary slogans. The story goes on with the execution's aftermath and its effects on several people, including her mother and father and others in the town.  It's a story about betrayals -- official ones like the one that sent Gu Shan to prison and the other, more personal ones people face in life, and a story about the uncertainties of living in a country where things change rapidly, creating uncertainty in the lives of the people.

There are several characters through whom the story passes, and rather than leave the story in the hands of one or two of these people, the author presents her story through a more omniscient viewpoint.  Gu Shan's execution is a jumping-off point for the novel, and since the author gave her no voice of her own, her story is told through the eyes of others in little bits and pieces to be collected by the reader. Somewhere in their stories the real Gu Shan exists. These people range from the powerful to the poor, but all are looking for something more permanent in a situation where the political landscape that seems to be always changing, so that no one knows what the next day might bring. Not everyone sees things in terms of politics here; some people are just trying to survive, while others do their best after personal disappointments to get by; but inevitably, the truth is that no one is immune to the whims of the government, especially during this time period, when there's a great deal of  political upheaval going on throughout the country.  Not even the political higher-ups of the town are immune from the changing winds of Beijing:

There were clearly two camps, both with significant representation in the central government and among party leaders. Were the leaflets in Muddy River the spawn of the democratic wall seven hundred miles away? And what should they do, which side should they take? -- the questions puzzled those people who had never worried over the lack of a meal, a bed or a job. Offices became minefields where one had to watch out for oneself, constantly defining and redefining friends, enemies, and chameleons who could morph from friends to enemies and then back again. With their fates and their families' futures in their hands, these people sleepwalked by day and shuddered by night.

The most interesting character in the novel is Teacher Gu, father of Shan, a rather confused and fatalistic sort of man who lives in a world largely defined through his nostalgia for times past, and whose advice has always been to stay small and remain unnoticed, even while events around him seem to spiral out of control.

The Vagrants is one of those books that has a lot of rave reviews but truthfully I didn't love it. It's not because of the subject matter; there are many books that describe different historical periods of the People's Republic in much more harrowing detail.  Less characters and more of a focus might have tightened up this novel to make it flow better.  It reads like a series of vignettes where the story drops off to be picked up later, and there are a number of diversions (such as with the characters Nini and Bashi) that often give the story more of a rambling quality.  I understand that the author is trying to give the story more of a collective viewpoint, but it was a bit grating at times to be in the middle of a storyline and then have things shift.

I'd recommend this book to readers who are interested in historical fiction and who like books from authors like Lisa See. Li is a talented author, but if you want something more serious, there are several authors that write more intensely about the People's Republic --  I'd suggest authors more along the lines of Yu Hua, Su Tong, Yan Lianke or Bi Feiyu.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

*Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke

Grove Press
Original title: Ding Zhuang Meng (丁庄梦), 2005
Translated by Cindy Carter

There have been a number of times I've finished a book where it's stayed in my head for a long while.  This novel is one of them. I actually finished reading it a couple of days ago and it's still bothering me, not just because of the subject matter (which is disturbing enough), but because it's based on fact. Not only is it based on fact, but according to the author, he really toned down the content of his novel so that it the book would not be censored in China, but that effort didn't work. And though he cut a lot out of the story, after reading this article which discusses some of the things he left out, I was a bit apprehensive about what was behind the novel he didn't publish.  So off I went to the internet to do some research and became even more disturbed. But this is a story that needs telling, and the author delivers clearly delivers the message. The fact that it's based on real events makes it even more compelling of a read. 

The dusk settles over a day in late autumn. The sun sets above the East Henan plain, a blood-red ball turning the earth and sky a deep shade of crimson. As red unfurls, slowly the dusk turns to evening. Autumn grows deeper; the cold more intense. The village streets are all empty and silent.

The silence is intense. Yet even in the absence of voices or sound, Ding Village lives on. Choked by death, it will not die. In the silent shades of autumn, the village has withered, along with its people. They shrink and wither in tandem with the days, like corpses buried underground. 

The grass upon the plain has turned brittle and dry. The trees are all bare; the crops have withered. The villagers are shrunken inside their homes, never to emerge again.

Ever since the blood came. Ever since the blood ran red.

And thus the book begins. The place is Ding Village, Henan Province. The time is the 1990s. Some ten years earlier, Ding Hui, one of the more prominent villagers, went into the blood buying and selling business looking to get rich, as his son notes, by becoming "a blood kingpin." The blood business was not limited to Ding Village, nor to Henan Province; it was happening in villages all over China and it was sanctioned by the government. Dream of Ding Village is a tale told through two voices: that of Ding Hui's now-dead son, who offers up a narrative of events that happened after the business came to Ding Village, and through the dreams of Ding Shuifeng, father of Ding Hui, also known in the book as Grandpa or Professor Ding. While in many books dreams might take a back seat to the action, here they are not to be discounted. The epigraph of this book bears witness to this fact: there are three dreams from the Old Testament, especially  that of Pharaoh, whose dream was wisely interpreted by Joseph not only as to meaning, but also to a course of action.  In Grandpa's case, his dreams lead him to the realization that everything that happened in Ding Village started with Ding Hui. There's more connected with these dreams, but I'll leave it to the reader to tackle.

Ding Village was a small place, less than 200 households, about 800 people.  Since the communes were officially disbanded, people were back to tilling their own soil and growing their own crops, raising their livestock, and most of the households were poor. Ding Hui had an idea to become a blood merchant, or in the local parlance, "bloodhead," in order to get in on a government-sanctioned business in which the bloodheads offer to buy people's blood. They would then sell it, making a lot of money during the blood boom of the late 80s and into the 1990s. Hui had trouble urging the villagers to sell their blood, so in order to convince them that they could not only make a bit of money for themselves but that it was good for the village as a whole, he took some people to Cottonwood village in Cai County, a model village that showed that there was prosperity in blood selling. There, the homes were made of red brick and tile, with new household appliances, furniture, silks and satins.  Women walked around with fresh meat and vegetables that they'd got for free from the village committee.  Young men had leisure time, spending it playing ping pong and chess.  After that visit, the Ding Villagers

looked down at their smooth, unscarred arms and exclaimed: 'What fools we've been, to waste all this!' They patted their untapped veins and muttered: 'What the hell, let's sell our blood. What do we have to lose?'
and so began the selling of blood in Ding Village. Not only did bloodheads set up blood banks all over, when the operation went mobile, Ding Hui saw a chance to make more money by setting up his family home as a blood bank to make it more convenient for the villagers. But the problem was that the bloodheads didn't take time to screen the sellers' blood, nor did they often change needles or tubing, and they often stored blood in any jar, bottle or container at hand.  Eventually, people came down with what they referred to as "the fever," but in reality what they had contracted was HIV. Some cases progressed to full-blown AIDS. An epidemic swept through the village, leaving many dead, more dying.  Through all of this, Ding Hui managed to escalate his own fortune and political power, never taking responsibility, never arranging care or even coffins: when the government authorities told him that the villagers with AIDS were entitled to a free coffin, he took it as another money-making opportunity and put them up for sale.  When that business grew, he had another scheme to exploit the dead: matchmaking for those who had already died, offering his services and arranging marriages of dead relatives for the families left behind. The only thing he offered the sick and dying of Ding Village was free cooking oil and firecrackers to celebrate Chinese New Year. Ding Hui serves as a symbol for the morally-bankrupt authorities who jumped on the money making and personal wealth bandwagon, leaving little room for caring about human life, even family.

The central character however, is not Ding Hui, but his father Professor Ding, the caretaker at the village school, who tries to adjust to his changed world as best as he can.  When he convinces those who are dying to live together in the school as equals in a co-op style of life, sharing their resources, two of his nephews see a way in which to exploit the situation for personal gain and take over things there. They institute rules that seem to hearken back to the Cultural Revolution; for example, those found guilty of "extra-marital sex, hanky-panky and lewd behavior" faced the risk of having "fever-infected blood poured all over them."  Instead of any kind of sympathy for the sick and dying at the school, there's only a show of power backed by threat; they also loot the school of anything they want for themselves. Professor Ding acts as go-between and often as advisor, but at the same time, he takes abuse for the actions of his family.  But he is only human, and at some point it just becomes too much as he sits back and watches as everything ever of value to him is lost, even down to the trees in the village when they are stripped to make coffins. 

The novel looks at the aftermath of the blood-selling business and its tragic consequences, but also is a vehicle for criticism of a government that would allow this tragedy to happen and then turn its back on its people.   Never do any of the authorities at any level offer medical care of any sort for these people; once they've contracted the disease they are left to fend for themselves. Families suffered, the village as a whole suffered, and nowhere does anyone step up to take responsibility. In fact, at one point, Ding Hui, now living out of the village, does a favor for his brother Ding Liang, and tells him that if anyone should ask, Liang should take the blame for bringing the blood-selling business to the village. It also examines the exploitation of the situation in terms of money, power and personal gain, even as innocent people are dying in an epidemic of an incurable disease.  But despite its subject matter, Dream of Ding Village is very well written, and rarely do I find a novel with as much of the author's soul in it as is obvious in this one, as it should be: Yan Lianke spent three years undercover, working as an assistant to an anthropologist who, according to the dustjacket blurb, was studying a "small village decimated by HIV/AIDS as a result of unregulated blood selling."  His concern and care shine through in his prose.  And although some parts were a bit on the romantic side, possibly even a bit melodramatic, the overall book was amazing.  As far as the translator, she did a wonderful job. I haven't read the original, obviously, but there were now obvious errors in how the story flowed and no interruptions in the reading as far as ear-grating phrasing that made me cringe.

I'd never heard of this book prior to scoping out newly-published books by Chinese authors, but after reading this, I can definitely recommend it. There are also several wonderful, more powerful reviews of this novel out there, and if you're interested, several news websites that discuss China's AIDS epidemic.  It's a wonderful book even if the subject matter is difficult.

Lumen, by Ben Pastor

Bitter Lemon Press
Originally published 1999
313 pp.

Lumen is a novel of crime fiction; at the same time it's a solid piece of historical fiction that takes place in 1939 just after the invasion and occupation of Poland by the Nazis. You can read about it over at the Crime Segments portion of my reading journal.  If you want to read a well-written book of historical fiction, you might wish to give this one a try.

Monday, February 7, 2011

*Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
282 pp
Originally published as a trilogy
Sanyu: 玉米 (Yumi), 玉秀 (Yuxiu), 玉秧 (Yuyang)

Three Sisters came to my attention when it was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010, the shortlist of which will be announced next week.  Bi Feiyu's competitors for this prize are as follows:

Upamanyu Chatterjee, Way to Go
Anosh Irani, Dahanu Road
Manu Joseph, Serious Men
Tabish Khair, The Thing About Thugs
Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills
Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling
Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris
Usha K.R., Monkey-man
Criselda Yabes, Below the Crying Mountain

Even if Three Sisters doesn't make it to the shortlist, it was definitely worth the nomination. 

Ironically, the cover picture shows the symbol for triple happiness, a combination of the character for the traditional "double happiness", and one extra happiness character. I say ironically because there's nothing very happy about this novel.  Set in the People's Republic of China during the 1970s and 1980s, Three Sisters is the story of three young women, daughters of Wang Lianfang and his wife Shi Guifang, all of whom live in a rural area known as Wang Family Village.  There are eight children all told -- seven daughters and a son (Little Eight) who has just recently been born as the story opens.  Three of the daughters take center stage: Yumi (the eldest), Yuxiu (third in rank) and Yuyang, the youngest daughter.  Each has her own section of the book, although of course, the family ties play throughout the novel, as do the main themes of this novel: the connections between pain and destiny, as evidenced through what these three women have to endure in order to try to find their respective places in this world. The sisters (and other women around them) daily have to face the inequalities inherent in being born female and in being born in a rural area, and they have to deal iwth the pressures of upholding the family's status. Each sister's story revolves around her attempts to change her own fate and the pain each experienced while trying to take even some small measure of control over her own life. It's not a happy story, but rather more of a tale of how  power, oppression and sex all intertwine in fashioning the lives of these young women in these two decades prior to the blossoming of a market economy in China.

The first section details the life of Yumi, who has taken over the household. Her mother has given up, sitting around eating sunflower seeds, while Yumi takes charge of the domestic duties of the family. Her father is the local commune secretary, a position of some power and importance in their small village. Yumi knows her father is sleeping around, but also knows that his position will be her ticket out of the place in terms of a good marriage match. She spends a great deal of time disdainfully confronting her father's sexual partners, letting them know that she knows what's going on. But when her father's activities cross an unforgivable line, and when tragedy strikes two of her sisters, Yumi's future is shaken and she has to begin to try salvage something in her life as well as her family's status. She is intelligent and clever, and knows how to play the game to get where she needs to be, a quality which she tries to instill in her younger sister Yuxiu, the subject of the second section.

Yuxiu is stubborn, good looking and flirtatious, and able to size up a situation into which she can insinuate herself,  but when she does manage to leave Wang Family village, these traits turn against her, and not even her sister (who has married and left for a bigger city where Yuxiu shows up) can help her out when things go awry.

The third section, "Yuyang", takes place at a teacher-training school where Yuyang is studying, some ten years after events in the first two parts of the novel.  Yuyang realizes that above all, she must rely on her intelligence to see her through.   Because of her rural provenance and because she is rather plain, she is often picked on, and finds herself at the receiving end of one popular girl's wrath. As events proceed, she is taken advantage of  by one of the teachers (one who could make or break her stay at the school) who asks her to serve as a spy on other students. It is a position of some power, yet one in which Yuyang must do battle with her conscience after she agrees to do it.  And it's not just her surveillance activities that afford her a measure of control; she realizes that she must do what it takes, including using others, to keep from returning to the countryside. 

The first two sections are pretty straightforward narratives; the third is a bit different in tone and bit off kilter from the others, which is probably my biggest complaint about this novel. The author often wanders off a bit in this section; it is definitely not as tightly put together as the first two. Also, if you're looking for a good example of a novel that is set during China's Cultural Revolution, this may not be the one to read -- there are others that capture the experience in a more realistic fashion.  However, Three Sisters is very readable, the characters are believable, and the story will capture the reader's attention from the beginning. The sense of place and time are very well established.  The author also manages to throw in some sarcastic humor here and there, most of it dealing with the absurdity of the party's propaganda platitudes, and the scenes of village life are funny at times as well. Overall, though, this is not a novel someone would read for a feel-good kind of experience, but it's still a very good read.

fiction from China

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Back to the Coast, by Saskia Noort

Bitter Lemon Press, 2009
Originally published as Terug naar de kust, 2003
translated by Laura Vroomen

Back to the Coast is a novel of suspense set in Amsterdam, published by one of my favorite indie publishers, Bitter Lemon Press.  You can read about it where I write about crime fiction I've read, The Crime Segments. One of the blurbs on the back likens the author to Mary Higgins Clark (whose books I've never read), so if you are a fan of hers, you might like this one. 

Offer on the table: a free lifetime membership to LibraryThing

Every year I participate in LibraryThing's SantaThing program: I pay in $25, I'm assigned a person to choose books for up to that amount, and LibraryThing does the ordering and the bookstore does the shipping.  I've been doing this for several years now, and everything's gone off without a hitch. This year, due to a combination of many factors, the books were quite late, and in some cases (including my own, as a "Santee"), books even failed to arrive.  As a result, LibraryThing awarded me (among other things) a lifetime membership to give away. 

Membership to LT is free for up to 200 books; to catalog more, you can get an annual membership to LT for $10, or lifetime membership for $25.  If you don't know about LibraryThing, it is likely the best book-based website on the internet, with over a million participants and millions of books catalogued. You can catalog your own books, look at other people's libraries (including those of many famous authors, present and past), participate in LT Early Reviewer program (free advance copies of books in exchange for a review); LT member book giveaways. There are a number of interesting discussions going on at any time, and the people who are in charge are the best.  I can't sing their praises loud enough.

If you are seriously interested in the free lifetime membership I'm offering, all you have to do is to be the first one to comment below and send me an email ... oakesn at gmail dot com. I know many people who write about books are already LT members, so if any of you are looking for a lifetime membership and didn't want to cough up the $25, this is ideal. It's also great for potential LT members, and it does not matter where you live.  There are multiple forums for non-English speakers, books are catalogued in a multitude of languages, so place is not an issue. And once you're in, the only money you'll pay out is optional:  buying something from the LT store, SantaThing, etc. When the LT people say free, they mean free.

Hopefully someone will take this membership so it doesn't go to waste. The LT powers that be are being quite generous here so I would hate for the opportunity to just go by. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

February: Celebrating Chinese New Year -- Books by Chinese authors

  新年快樂 !!

Happy New Year! February 3 officially begins the Year of the Rabbit, and to mark the occasion, I've culled through the tbr pile to find books written by Chinese authors to read this month. On this stack:

Three Sisters, by Bi Feiyu
Dream of Ding Village, by Yan Lianke
The Boat to Redemption, by Su Tong
Playing for Thrills, by Wang Shuo
Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, by Yu Hua
My Life as Emperor, by Su Tong

and if I have time, there are several more from which to choose. A few ARCs are also in the plan, along with a crime fiction novel here and there, so we'll see how many of these I get finished.

At my house Chinese New Year's is normally a huge cooking day, but Larry's away on business so we'll have to postpone it for a while.  That's okay...I can use the time for reading.

February's short, but I have lots of time, no travel in my immediate plans, so I'll be back shortly to report on my reading progress.

Have a happy new year!

by the way, sorry about the all-caps. I think my Chinese word processor is screwing up the formatting!