Um...on the upside, if you like to read descriptions of smells, this is for you. Oh, and it was short. On the downside, it was dull and the charactersUm...on the upside, if you like to read descriptions of smells, this is for you. Oh, and it was short. On the downside, it was dull and the characters were unlikeable (and not in an OMG the main character is a psychotic murderer way, but in a I don't care if he kills the redhead or gets executed way because he has as little personality as he does body odor--that is to say, none). You'd think a book that involves both a series of brutal murders AND an orgy would be easy to make engaging. You'd be wrong. ...more
I picked this book up because (1) I want to read more novels about China (2) the cover is gorgeous. It is, in fact, one of the prettiest covers I've eI picked this book up because (1) I want to read more novels about China (2) the cover is gorgeous. It is, in fact, one of the prettiest covers I've ever seen.
If you're looking for a traditional novel, one with a linear plot and a conclusive ending, you're going to be disappointed. This is literaly a collection of 20 fragments in the life of Fenfang as a teenager/in her early 20s. What happens afterwards? We'll never know. At first I was frustrated by the lack of an ending, but then I realized that it was very fitting. This is just a glimpse into Fenfang's life. She's stepping into her future, and what it will bring neither her nor anyone else can know.
Fenfang begins terribly conscious of her peasant roots. Like thousands of young people before her, she decides to escape the monotony of village life and make it in the big city. She has little education (only up to middle school), not much money, no appreciable skills and no connections, but with the arrogance and hope of youth and the fear of a future no different than the past, she picks up and goes. However, even though she has been in Beijing for five years when the book begins, she still feels like she can never truly get rid of the scent of the soil and feels that her obvious backwater heritage marks her as inferior. The inescapable shame of the inferiority of backwater roots and the derision for others who have the same that Fenfang experiences were also blatantly apparent in Bosworth's London journal (Bosworth was a 18th century Scotsman who wanted to make it big in London). It seems like a pretty universal experience that city girls like me never even have to think about.
Fenfang spends most of her time in the book as an extra in films and TV, a metaphor for her Beijing existence. She is "Woman on Bridge," or "Woman Riding a Bike." Nameless, unimportant, overlooked, interchangeable with millions of other young women.
Fenfang has two significant romantic relationships. The bitter Xiaolin, who later becomes abusive, and the distant Ben, her American boyfriend who never quite understands China or Fenfang, possibly because he never really tried. Fenfang appears to stay in these relationships not because they're good for her (they're not) or because she loves the guys (although I think she did love Xiaolin, in the beginning). She does it because she's lonely. In a city of millions, most of the time she feels alone.
I liked the book a lot. It's a quick read, both because it's short and because it draws you in. I thought it was a very interesting look into modern China, especially for the life of the young and the poor. The book jumps around a bit, but I never found it hard to follow. ...more
Loved it. I didn’t know who to root for. Hanaoka, who was protecting her teenage daughter from her abusive and demanding ex-husband? Ishigami, the easLoved it. I didn’t know who to root for. Hanaoka, who was protecting her teenage daughter from her abusive and demanding ex-husband? Ishigami, the easily overlooked math teacher, who helped Hanaoka and her daughter cover up the murder? Dr. Yukawa, the university researcher (professor?) nicknamed "Detective Galileo" for his astute assistance to the police in difficult cases? Detective Kusanagi, the honorable and capable policeman who is investigating the murder? I was kind of rooting for all of them, because I liked them all, even though I must say I was hoping Ishigami and Hanaoka would get away with murder because the ex-husband was so awful (and then that twist at the end!! That made me even more confused in my feels).
I loved that Detective Kusanagi was smart – he may not have Dr. Yukawa's Sherlock Holmes-like abilities, but he is a good investigator and does his job thoroughly and well. What I really loved, though, was the cat-and-mouse duel of wits between Ishigami and Dr. Yukawa. They were both just natural geniuses and masters of deduction. Ishigami was completely cold and contained – he cared more about math than about people. He was socially awkward and rigid. Dr. Yukawa seemed personable and friendly and easygoing. Ishigami was always tense and Dr. Yukawa was relaxed. AND Dr. Yukawa was sympathetic to Ishigami – even when he knew he was a murderer, he still felt compassion. I feel like honor is really important to Dr. Yukawa, whereas Ishigami is pure logic. And the question that Dr. Yukawa poses – “Is it more difficult to create the perfect problem or solve the perfect problem?” was so chillingly on-point.
I think the translator did a good but not great job. The actual translation itself wasn’t bad – as in the literal words. It’s hard to make Japanese flow perfectly in English and for the most part it read well. But the translator never made an effort to translate the cultural bits that you couldn’t know without living in Japan (or being otherwise familiar with the culture). Like, what is a hostess club? Calling it a nightclub is wrong, because that brings up very different connotations in the American mind. And what's a kotatsu? And it’s also not explained why the clever physicist/police aid is called Detective Galileo. Shouldn’t he be Sherlock Holmes? What is the Galileo for? I wish THAT little cultural note had been explained. ...more
Pay attention, Franzen. This is how you write a factured family drama with flawed human beings (not walking caricatures!), at the same time illuminat Pay attention, Franzen. This is how you write a factured family drama with flawed human beings (not walking caricatures!), at the same time illuminating and commenting on modern society and cultural issues. And at less than a gazillion pages.
The matriarch of the family, probably suffering from dementia, has disappeared in Seoul. The family goes crazy looking for her and everyone feels guilty for how little they appreciated her until she was missing from their lives. Each chapter is voiced by a different family member (though oddly the youngest brother, an apparent screw up, never really shows up), including the (ghost?) of the mother.
There’s the eldest daughter, an ambitious writer. She feels guilt for neglecting her mother—she visited, but not enough; she called, but not enough; she helped out, but not enough.
There’s the husband, who was pushed into an early marriage and felt trapped by life and fought against it by periodically abandoning his family and one time bringing home another woman (eventually driven out by his wife). He treats his wife more like a maid and nanny than a spouse. He is the closest thing to a villain in the story. He was so cold and thoughtlessly cruel. But once his wife disappears, he realizes this. He feels guilt for being such a terrible husband and distant father. He did love his wife, but never expressed it. He spent so much time and energy trying to run away he grew old and alone before he figured out that what he really wanted he had had all along but never appreciated until it was gone. He is more pathetic and tragic than anything, and frankly all too human.
There’s also the oldest son, who was spoiled by his mother as her brightest hope but ultimately failed to get into the schools and career that everyone had wanted for him. He’s a successful family man, but he feels guilt for letting his mother down.
Then there’s the mother herself, who loved her family and sacrificed everything for them. She feels ashamed for being uneducated and illiterate. It’s not that she’s not smart—she just never got the chance. To her husband and kids she appeared to be the typical gentle, nurturing housewife, probably very much the Western world’s stereotype of an Asian wife. But the mother had secrets and activities that no one knew about, and a steely resolve that kept her household afloat in her husband’s absence and got her daughters the educational opportunities she never had.
I liked this book a lot. I don’t know how to say this non-cheesily but I really like when a book manages to pull back the curtain on people and society and tell me something about them. I like that all the characters were realistically flawed. They weren’t wholly good, they weren’t wholly bad, and no one in their life fully knew them. No one’s a stereotype. From the outside they may look it, but there’s always more depth and complexity than a casual appraisal would give.
There’s not enough Korean literature translated into English. There’s not even a genre page for it on GoodReads. I hope this book is successful and Shin’s other books (she has 7) are translated. I hope she becomes the Haruki Murakami of Korean literature (obviously not in style, but in the sense that her stuff is all translated and she encourages publishers to consider bringing her fellow countrymen’s work to US audiences). This book deserves to be read and is wholly satisfying when it is.
Lots of props for the translator—amazing job. This book feels like it could have been written in English (I will presume the unique choice of tense in some of the chapters has to do with choices by the author in the original Korean). ...more