I recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informat...moreI recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informative, giving us insight into the city and steering us in the right direction. What I found particularly admirable was that this guide's listing headings give the name of each item both in English and Chinese characters. Having the names written in Chinese was critical as cab drivers in China speak little or no English, and saying something like "Take me to Hafeng Road" was useless. Instead, I'd whip out my iPad, find the bookmarked page of this guide with the relevant listing, and point to the Chinese characters. Worked every time. In other cities, I was reduced to taking screen shots of Chinese websites for the places I wanted to visit so that cab drivers could understand where I wanted to be taken. My Fodor's and Lonely Planet guides did not provide this essential Chinese information. (less)
The relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply...moreThe relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply put, they are a pain in the butt to deal with. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find things in them. You can't dog-ear an iPad, alas!
Also, both this guide and Lonely Planet's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi somewhere, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. Taxi drivers spoke almost no English and even my most earnest attempts to render place names authentically fell flat. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters and pointing to it when I got in a cab.
I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)
I like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded t...moreI like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded to my iPad. Using them is more cumbersome and frustrating than I'd like. While saving on weight, I end up losing time. It's a trade-off.
Also, both this guide and Fodor's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi to a museum, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)
Slogged my way through seemingly endless annoying anecdotes and smarmy comments (not to mention a thicket of exclamation points) to glean a modicum of...moreSlogged my way through seemingly endless annoying anecdotes and smarmy comments (not to mention a thicket of exclamation points) to glean a modicum of information from this book. There are about 40 pages worth of useful content in this 264-page book. The rest is the author's belabored exhortations on various things that will be different in China (toilets, manners, transportation, and, well, you name it) plus entirely too many recollections of personal travel mishaps, such as the time he sprained his ankle, all told in the manner of a potty older uncle who has gotten a bit tipsy and cornered you at a family get-together. You want to tell him to go to hell, but, of course, you can't. To say he's verbose would be an understatement. This guy is one of those people who takes the simplest idea and stretches it out to excruciating length. Here's a sample of what you're in for, chosen more or less at random:
"When you travel it's essential to stay hydrated. Human beings can go for a long time without food, but we can't live for long without water. When you're traveling your body has to work harder to get used to new surroundings; you do a lot more walking and expend a lot more energy than you would ordinarily. In addition, most of us tend to do our traveling in China during the hot summer months, when almost all the large Chinese cities often see temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees, with very high humidity. When traveling in China or anywhere else in the world, carrying a supply of water around withh you on each day's outing is absolutely essential."
Okay, this might be helpful.... that is, if you're an idiot. Anyone out there not aware that we need to drink water? Or that China is hot in the summer? Yeah, I thought so. The author doesn't leave his water lecture at that, though, and prattles on for several more pages on the dangers of drinking tap water and where to buy bottled water and other liquids, ending the segment with his usual exclamation-ridden exhortations. My right hand itched to take up the editorial pen and carve the whole dissertation down to a single paragraph.
Honest to god, I'm swearing off these low-cost "survival guides" downloaded from Amazon after this one. (less)
About two-thirds of this book concerned the decades before and after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, most specifically the political maneuverings of var...moreAbout two-thirds of this book concerned the decades before and after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, most specifically the political maneuverings of various leaders, especially during and just after the Cultural Revolution. In the center of the narrative is the protracted death of Chairman Mao, with a focus on the motives and political fates those who jockeyed for position around his deathbed, such as the Gang of Four, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping (though admittedly the latter, in disgrace at the time of Mao's death, was nowhere near Mao's deathbed). The most interesting parts of the book for me dealt with how the country dealt with the chaotic legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and particularly how Deng bloodlessly moved China onto a path of economic recovery.
However, I'm not entirely sure that grafting this political narrative onto the devastating earthquake made much sense. At times I was irritated by the author's tendency to flit episodically from recounting one person's experiences during the Cultural Revolution or that person's life after the the earthquake, shuttling back and forth between times and places. There was a loose organization to the book that never made much sense to me. At times I felt the author was more interested in cherry picking the most sensational personal stories rather than engaging in meaningful analysis. If the book had focused on either the earthquake or the behind-the-scenes political machinations, I think I'd have gotten more out of it.
I enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed t...moreI enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed to motivate much of her commentary on Cixi, whom she hails as a modernizer who has never been given her due. Since I'm not well versed in the history of China during this period, I can't say how valid Chang's views are, but there's little doubt that she got carried away in her role of chief Cixi apologist and defender.
The book also suffered from swings from the elevated (e.g., discussions of world geopolitics and political philosophy) to the prosaic (long passages describing what the empress ate, how she dressed, what pastimes she enjoyed, and so on). While these descriptions may have been intended to make the empress seem more real and sympathetic, sometimes they simply trivialized the subject.
But, on the whole, the book did succeed holding my attention, as it is far from dry and is written with some verve. Most importantly, it motivated me to read more about the subject -- at which point, no doubt, I'll be better able to assess the book's faults and merits. (less)
The cynical narrative voice in this 1962 political thriller/murder mystery, not to mention the the world-weary but sterling protagonists, Lt. Colonel...moreThe cynical narrative voice in this 1962 political thriller/murder mystery, not to mention the the world-weary but sterling protagonists, Lt. Colonel Grau and Inspector Prevert, made this an engaging read. Though the reader knows the identity of the killer fairly early, the background story involving the plot to assassinate Hitler and the end and aftermath of the WWII more than compensates for this foreknowledge. A complex and chilling portrayal of the killer, whom the reader sees "up close and personal" through the eyes of an innocent, rounds out this satisfying thriller. (less)
This was the third book of contemporary essays on China that I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite so far. (The other two were Oracle Bones...moreThis was the third book of contemporary essays on China that I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite so far. (The other two were Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler and China in Ten Words by Yu Hua.) Fallows journalistic training gives this book an edge and insight that the other two books, which seemed to me to be mired in personal circumstances, lacked.
Each of these essays appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and while in the past I've been underwhelmed by such compilations of previously-published articles, in this case the book had both a satisfying flow and range of subjects that held my interest. And, most importantly, I got a great deal out of reading on topics as diverse as the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to the Chinese government's control over internet access. Particularly eye-opening was an article explaining why the Chinese can't afford to stop feeding dollars to America -- because China's own dollar holdings would be devastated if it did.(less)
Tom Reiss' debut book, The Orientalist, was one of my favorite non-fiction books of recent years. I was greatly looking forward to reading this book,...moreTom Reiss' debut book, The Orientalist, was one of my favorite non-fiction books of recent years. I was greatly looking forward to reading this book, but perhaps my expectations were set too high, for I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had anticipated, especially given such a swashbuckling subject.
For me, the central figure in this book, General Alex Dumas, never came completely alive. In making Alex Dumas a larger-than-life figure, Reiss somehow manages to diminish his appeal and believability. The author seems to have lost objectivity as he researched the period, and in particular he gives a great deal of weight to the hero-worshipping accounts of Alex Dumas' son, the author Alexandre Dumas. The historical background on the French Revolution was arguably essential to the book, but I found it rather dry.
On the whole, it felt as if the author was trying too hard to construct a dramatically satisfying tale of moral clarity from ambiguous and messy historical materials. (less)
Hmmmm.... I was intrigued by a short video I saw on the WSJournal site, but this method is less useful than I thought it would be. Do I really think I...moreHmmmm.... I was intrigued by a short video I saw on the WSJournal site, but this method is less useful than I thought it would be. Do I really think I'll need the characters for " mermaid" or " morality"? Plus, many of the mnemonic devices she suggests are cumbersome. Finally, I'm not sold on the concept that learning big groups of words that have the same root characters is really helpful for those who want to get by in China. I probably should have spent the $15 on apps that read characters or translated. Granted, though. - the illustrations are cute and the overall presentation stylish.
Update: Unfortunately, my Kindle edition of this book would not completely download, so I only got about a quarter of the way through it before I could not get the rest of the book to load, try as I might. However, I really don't think I would have gotten what I wanted from this book, so no big loss in my eyes. (less)
Somewhat of a disappointment. While I'm enjoying the Chinese setting, this book's plot plodded, the mystery seemed muddled, and the characters were un...moreSomewhat of a disappointment. While I'm enjoying the Chinese setting, this book's plot plodded, the mystery seemed muddled, and the characters were uncharismatic, not to mention that I saw little change in the inspector's circumstances or outlook. The background on the Cultural Revolution and the effect it had on people is what was of chief interest. Expecting a conventional murder mystery to unfold seems pointless with this series, but I'm of two minds whether this is a good or bad thing.
I'm tempted to jump ahead to the latest mystery and see if anything of note occurs in this series rather than slog through book #4 onward. (less)
I am quite enjoying this series, despite the fact that I seldom read series, or mystery novels in general much anymore. I sought these books out, howe...moreI am quite enjoying this series, despite the fact that I seldom read series, or mystery novels in general much anymore. I sought these books out, however, since I'm taking a trip to China in a few months and had found previously that reading fiction based in the places I planned to travel was an easy way to learn about local culture. And in this regard, the Inspector Chen novels are quite rewarding.
Initially I was struck bey the similarities to the Inspector Morse novels, which also feature a "fish out of water" detective of a literary bent who perseveres despite bureaucratic setbacks and his own self doubts. Like Morse, Chen has little luck with women, and his "successes" in solving cases often leave a bitter taste in his mouth. Like Morse, Chen has a working-class assistant, a family man with a doting wife and a child. And, like Morse, Chen's superior is politically savvy and often has to call him to heel to prevent him from stirring up political scandal.
But there the similarities end, and Chen is, at the end of the day, something that Morse is not. He is, in his own way, ambitious. And he is not given to the flashes of brilliant insight that Morse has, nor is he a devotee of puzzles. His main foible is a tendency to quote poetry -- his own and Tang dynasty poets, in particular, but then it seems at times as if all the characters in these novels spout poetry couplets, proverbs, party slogans, and aphorisms on a near continuous basis. Indeed, the Inspector Chen novels are a hefty steam trunk of Chinese cultural baggage, and it is through poetry and proverbs in particular that the author explores the workings of modern Shanghai.
Unfortunately, this can really bog the narrative down, and for the reader primarily interested in the mystery, I would imagine that it is an annoyance. For my part, the author's tendency to have the characters explain background to each other in detail (but which serves primarily to fill the reader in) is a more striking fault, for this dialogue comes across as unnatural and stiff. There is a great deal of cultural information central to each case which needs explaining, and this, in combination with the poetic interludes, gives the novels a peculiar opaque earnestness that bleeds over into the main character, Inspector Chen. He is, as the other characters in the novels frequently mention, enigmatic.
I'm now reading my third Inspector Chen novel, and to be honest the poetic images and necessary back story that must be presented in each novel are becoming a little stale. Although I'm still enjoying watching Inspector Chen at work, I'm feeling that unless some major development occurs that I'll part ways with him soon. For while I've enjoyed absorbing Chinese culture vicariously through him, it may be that there will be diminished returns from here on. Still, I am hoping that he will surprise me. I've grown fond of him. (less)
Don't bother! This e-book was overpriced for what it offers, which is for the most part very basic information. Granted, if a traveler had never trave...moreDon't bother! This e-book was overpriced for what it offers, which is for the most part very basic information. Granted, if a traveler had never traveled outside the country and/or knew virtually nothing about China, some of this information might be useful. But all I learned, really, was the protocol for giving and receiving business cards, which I personally won't probably use since I will not be traveling on business. The other thing that bothered me is that this very short "book" is further padded by a "summary" of points at the end of each chapter. In a couple cases, the summary was as long as the very short chapter itself. I'd read a few sentences, blink, and then be presented with basically the same information as a "summary." Ridiculous! (less)