The main story, which follows a Beijing taxi driver named Wang Jun, has a gritty, noir feeling that I really enjoyed. The writing shines in the detailThe main story, which follows a Beijing taxi driver named Wang Jun, has a gritty, noir feeling that I really enjoyed. The writing shines in the detailed descriptions of the rougher parts of town, the ups and downs (mostly downs) of life in modern Beijing. Wang Jun's shallow, manipulative step-mother is a fascinating character--there's a great line about Wang Jun realizing that her mean-ness makes her seem interesting, but she's really just vapid and dumb.
Six or so chapter-long short stories interrupt this main story. They're pretty violent episodes from different periods in China's history. I liked the details in these stories--the names of towns, forests, people in 6th century China. They're little tastes of historical fiction. Bitter, gory, unsettling tastes. Not once in more than 1000 years do these soulmates enjoy a peaceful life together and die in old age of natural causes.
Even though the set-up is right in the title, I found myself rolling my eyes about the we've-known-each-other-in-past-lives bit. I thought the main story was interesting enough to hold its own, and I'd hoped that the ending would be a different sort of reveal. ...more
3.5 stars. This one offers more insights into the day-to-day and special-occasion rituals of North Korean culture. The TV shows that little boys like.3.5 stars. This one offers more insights into the day-to-day and special-occasion rituals of North Korean culture. The TV shows that little boys like. The foods and outfits parents give to their children for Sports Day.
A few parts of the story struck me as unusual and hard to believe. For example, his family moved around the country a lot, more freely than I thought people could. And are North Korean defectors really taken directly to U.S. consulates/embassies in the PRC and flown to L.A.? I thought the routes were much more complicated and tended to involve some debriefing periods. I'm not saying he's wrong, obviously, but his story is different.
Fun over-the-top satire, a spoof of a soap opera. Don't read this for plot (and read #1 in the series first). Just laugh at the designer references anFun over-the-top satire, a spoof of a soap opera. Don't read this for plot (and read #1 in the series first). Just laugh at the designer references and the colorful Mandarin/Cantonese/Hokkien swear words. I thought this could have been edited down a bit, but I did enjoy some of the side plots, for example, with Corinna, old money Hong Kong consultant to the nouveau riches. She advises one client to tone down her look, such as by wearing 3-carat diamond stud earrings, and say "afternoon tea" b/c only "factory workers" say "high tea." She also gives the client a reading list that begins with the novel "Snobs."...more
Five stars are usually for books I'd like to re-read some day. I couldn't re-read this book, at least not the final 20-25%, which became extremely darFive stars are usually for books I'd like to re-read some day. I couldn't re-read this book, at least not the final 20-25%, which became extremely dark and difficult to read. But the writing throughout was amazing. This is an author who is equally talented at offering quick flashes of humor in descriptions of immigrant life in LA and describing the fall of Saigon or horrific torture scenes. He has a range.
Powerful stuff in here about race and about Hollywood's treatment of Asians and Asian-Americans. I'd heard an interview with the author and expected the book to mostly be about that, about a Vietnamese refugee consulting on Apocalypse Now. That's only a small part of the story here. Most of the story is about the Vietnamese struggling against each other . . . .
. . . . with white people, at best, oblivious to what's going on in the community of Vietnamese refugees. Three or four non-Vietnamese characters represent different types of offensive behavior. The white professor of "Oriental" studies, who, although he thinks he's liberal, buys into all the same stereotypes as the loosely disguised Westmoreland. The Southern California senator/representative who spouts right-wing Cold War ideology (it's been so long since I've heard that stuff; it seemed almost quaint). The CIA agent who taught the Vietnamese all the torture methods that the U.S. developed in the 1950s.
A rather grim and understandably bitter book overall, but it has some compelling descriptions of Vietnamese culture as well. Food, creation legends, multilingual actresses, city and country life. One of my favorite passages described Vietnamese students and soldiers singing in Saigon, just spontaneously launching into their favorite pop songs; for this singing and romanticism, the narrator calls the Vietnamese the Italians of Southeast Asia....more
3.5 stars. The overall plot had me scratching my head sometimes--maybe I don't get the links to Jane Eyre, or maybe I'm not so patient anymore with 203.5 stars. The overall plot had me scratching my head sometimes--maybe I don't get the links to Jane Eyre, or maybe I'm not so patient anymore with 20-something drama. I wonder if this couldn't have been edited down a bit.
But, there's very good writing in the details. You really get the flavor of neighborhoods in Queens and Seoul. I enjoyed the Korean expressions and the observation that Jane's Korean, the Korean spoken by older people in Queens, was out of step with modern Seoul. I also liked that when the dialogue showed Jane's uncle speaking grammatically incorrect English, it also showed Jane speaking grammatically incorrect Korean. Crunchy academic Beth is very funny, and I want to call her a stereotype, but I've met people a lot like her--wouldn't be surprised at all if they give their babysitters/nannies 200-page handbooks about high fructose corn syrup and gender-neutral language.
Also the story touches on how New York felt immediately before and not long after 9/11. I think the author was smart to have Jane in Seoul when the attacks happened, so she's hearing only at a distance, from her friend Nina, how terrible that time was. That event could have taken over the whole book, and I don't know if we've figured out yet how to approach 9/11 in fiction. When Jane returns to New York afterward, the parties, the neighborhood changes, the city-wide power outage have a sort of gentle nostalgic touch. New York is one of the most interesting characters in the book. ...more
Austen set in Osaka, sort of. The second-oldest sister (Sachiko) tries time after time to arrange a marriage for the third-oldest sister (Yukiko). MeaAusten set in Osaka, sort of. The second-oldest sister (Sachiko) tries time after time to arrange a marriage for the third-oldest sister (Yukiko). Meanwhile baby sister (Taeko) is acting rebellious, and oldest sister (Tsuruko) is quietly sliding into poverty. This is a very slow-paced book. Very. Not much in terms of big drama happens, and the reader is told every little detail that preoccupies Sachiko and her sisters.
Almost none of those details are about the World War that is about to change their lives forever. That's one of the things I found so fascinating--while Japan was acting horrifically aggressive and ugly, the sisters are all about gentleness and beauty and extreme avoidance of confrontation. They spend all their energy on social niceties that surely won't matter at all very soon (the book ends in spring of 1941). They pay almost no attention to "the China Incident" and their country's militarism. These are just little blips in the middle of marriage negotiations, even though some of the blips are disconcerting (the sisters' German neighbor trusting that Hitler will keep Germany out of war?).
One of my favorite characters is Inaki, the sisters' hairdresser who also appoints herself as their matchmaker. Inaki is fast-talking, blunt (by their standards), funny, and generous. She steals every scene, and my guess is that the English translation loses something colorful in her speech. The sisters seem to have the same half-terrified loyalty to Inaki that I had to my first Japanese professor, a wide-eyed child-like fascination. Anyway, Inaki abruptly sails for Los Angeles in early 1941--wonder what happens to her in the U.S.? (Tanizaki leaves it to our imagination).
I loved the relationship between Sachiko and her husband Teinosuke. They write little poems to each other. They try to re-create their second honeymoon. Sachiko is incapable of keeping any secrets from him, and without fail (and without losing his temper) he helps fix every problem her younger sisters create. It's very sweet.
The book is full of Japanese cultural details. Many of them seem wildly out of date (Sachiko is a sort of groupie of particular kabuki actors; important letters are written with brush and ink, such that a letter written in mere pen seems disrespectful; etc.). But some still hold. Deep rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. Cherry blossom festivals and pausing to notice how a cat is playing or a bird is singing. Detailed etiquette for anniversaries of loved ones' deaths.
For all I know the translation is accurate. But, no criticism intended to the hugely respected Edward Seidensticker, it seems old-fashioned (today's reader doesn't need a footnote to explain what sushi is). Maybe time for an update?
Anyway, I'd recommend this for someone who's a Japan enthusiast, and who also has a lot of time to read during the day. This is not an easy book to get through when work is busy and reading for fun comes only in 10-minute breaks. ...more
"Casablanca" set in China. This book included a history lesson I hadn't heard before: the Chinese (Nationalists) had a plan to save 100,000 Jewish ref"Casablanca" set in China. This book included a history lesson I hadn't heard before: the Chinese (Nationalists) had a plan to save 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe by settling them in Yunnan. I knew Shanghai took in many (25,000) refugees. I didn't know that, if Chiang Kai-Shek hadn't caved in, there could have been many more.
This was so surprising to me that I thought the author was making it up, to add drama to the last third of the book. While the first half or so of the book does a very nice job creating the setting and developing the relationships among the main characters, once Shanghai is taken over by the Japanese, the main characters are just sort of running around doing their own thing. So I assumed the Resettlement Plan was a fiction, made up to give one of those characters a compelling storyline and bring the three main characters back together (which seemed contrived). I had a few quibbles with the pace of the book and the believability of some of the characters.
The little slices of Chinese culture, however, were wonderful. I especially liked how the author showed how poetic and colorful the language is.
Entertaining, especially if you like Japanese cultural tidbits. Brodie is an American who grew up Japan, going to Japanese public schools. Now 32 yearEntertaining, especially if you like Japanese cultural tidbits. Brodie is an American who grew up Japan, going to Japanese public schools. Now 32 years old, he runs both an antique shop in San Francisco and his late father's private investigation firm back in Tokyo (though the firm reminds me more of Isis in "Archer" than any sort of gumshoe PI firm). He also has lots of martial arts and weaponry training. Enough for plenty of fun action scenes.
Soga is the evil entity that Brodie has to bring down. Members of Soga are 14th-generation descendants of rogue samurai. In the modern era, they're hired to "facilitate" business transactions by killing top-level executives who stand in the way (or those executives' families). They all come from the same rural village, which is the setting for some memorable "obon" festival scenes in the book. The author has lived in Japan for a long time, and it shows.
This is a quick read and a fine first start to a series. I like that Brodie is the tough-detective type, without being a misogynist. He doesn't get duped by some Jessica-Rabbit-like character: he's too busy being a single father to his six-year-old daughter (who acts more like a ten-year-old). It'll be fun to see how Brodie develops in the next book in the series, which I hope will be set as much as possible in Japan....more
Traders in Dejima . . . a surreal, evil monastery high up on a mountain . . . samurais, sea battles, and (my favorite character of all) a curmudgeonlyTraders in Dejima . . . a surreal, evil monastery high up on a mountain . . . samurais, sea battles, and (my favorite character of all) a curmudgeonly Dutch scientist. Kind of a weird book at times, but a wonderful adventure. ...more
The book had some potential. The female detective Utsumi notices details that others miss. The male detective Kusanagi is too smitten with the main suThe book had some potential. The female detective Utsumi notices details that others miss. The male detective Kusanagi is too smitten with the main suspect to run the investigation properly. The professor is intrigued by how the victim could be poisoned when he was alone in the house.
But, this moved way too slowly. I made it through 200 conversations about how a cup of coffee might have been poisoned before I gave up. When the characters talked for pages on end about whether the victim might have rinsed out a plastic water bottle before throwing it away, I decided not to find out if the book could get even more dull.
No character development. No interesting dialogue. No sense of place. No reason to continue. ...more