Apparently about.com’s China Travel editor likes my Hangzhou book. She recommends it in her article on (what else but) visiting Hangzhou. Pretty cool. And since I never posted a photo of the book, here’s one now.
Archive for Books
Two weekends ago I was invited back down to Hangzhou to schmooze the press at a launch ceremony for the book I wrote about the city. It was pretty fun to sit up on the dais and half-understand all the things the (probable) party members and higher-ups in the Tourism Commission and city government were saying about me and the book. I gave a short speech and read from the book (the section on my visit to the three temples at Tianzhu) in front of a crowd of forty some-odd reporters, and even a crew from Hangzhou Television. Apparently, in addition to being on the nightly news, I’ve also been featured on at least one website, in an article which seems to be a write-up of the press conference and descriptions of the book. If anyone wants to translate, drop me a summary in the comments!
1. It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Sorry. I’ve been out enjoying Beijing, people-watching at Hong Kong Disney (and riding Space Mountain for the first time in my life), working hard on the run-up to launch at work, which releases to the public a week from tomorrow, and gallivanting around with Matt, who came to visit me and ended up cleaning my bathroom. I have many photos to upload and stories to tell, and I’ll try to get around to it as soon as I can, although, since my brother, J., arrives tomorrow, it may be another while yet.
2. It’s been an entire year since I finished writing my thesis. It was on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one of the most incredible books ever written. Read it, if you haven’t, in memory of the hours I spent writing about it–or just read it because it’s truly wonderful. Still, I can’t believe it’s been a year.
My review of Yiyun Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was published in the most recent edition of City Weekend, my favorite of the expat-focused magazines here in Beijing. I’ve also proofed the past two issues, which is always fun, since I like the crazy detail-obsessed exercise of checking an entire magazine for errors, and since the people who work there are so much fun. The managing editor, C., is a really cool guy, as well, which is always a bonus. In any case, here’s my review, and a short excerpt from it:
Li’s characters are at the same time figures of the so-called New China and fascinating individuals, people any of us would be intrigued to talk with waiting on line at the bank. In these stories, Beijing opera singers turned male prostitutes mingle with students heading abroad on scholarship, while deposed kings of rocket science tour the American Midwest and laid-off factory workers marry decomposing widowers to ensure a nice standard of living.
Doesn’t it sound great? It was actually a pretty fair read, though what I wrote in the lead is completely true–I did forget for almost the entire length of the first story that I had actually already read it in The New Yorker a couple of years ago.
I have no plans to read the new book by Jung Chang, despite the fact that I finally got around to reading her widely acclaimed multigenerational memoir, Wild Swans, when I first returned to China this July. Like that first tome, her latest work–a comprehensive biography of Mao Zedong, titled, simply, Mao–is reputed to be a bit too prolix to be a fun read, and despite (or perhaps because of) my previous ultra-leftist leanings, I’ve never been all that interested in the life and crimes of the Chairman. His story piques my interest just long enough to sustain me through the sometimes-wise and sometimes-annoying Nicholas Kristof’s review of it in the Times. His writing is clearer (and more humorous, surely) than Chang’s, as evidenced by the way he opens his review:
If Chairman Mao had been truly prescient, he would have located a little girl in Sichuan Province named Jung Chang and “mie jiuzu”- killed her and wiped out all her relatives to the ninth degree.
But instead that girl grew up, moved to Britain and has now written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever. Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao’s claim to sympathy or legitimacy.
Despite his early praise for her efforts (which were actually done in tandem with her British historian husband), he goes on to give me every reason not to bother cashing out for this ponderous re-evaluation of the man whose ugly face is still relatively ubiquitous in China (and in the t-shirt shops of the East Village). Still, I felt the need to post about it here, if only because its publication is a common topic of conversation among Beijing’s more literarily inclined expats at the moment, and because the book and issues of magazines with reviews of it have been banned by the Chinese government. I’m just doing my duty here, reporting on the cultural zeitgeist of Beijing’s international community and making news of the book’s contents available in at least one more place in which Chinese readers might be able to access it.
Last week I finished reading photographer and writer Ma Jian’s memoir, Red Dust, which left me shivering in my Beijing hi-rise, shocked for the first time since I’ve been here, really, into remembering how different China, and even Beijing, was only twenty years ago, and inspired to create something as moving as this book. It is an existential self-portrait of this Chinese-born artist and free spirit, who, in the heated political climate of 1983, quits his job with the foreign propaganda bureau and evades arrest and possible execution while at the same time living out his wildest dreams by leaving Beijing to roam around the country for three years. He first buys a ticket for Urumqi, a city in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang province (where I hope to go next summer) and the farthest city in the world from the ocean, but disembarks the days-long train in Gansu province, two-thirds of the way there, to explore the Buddhist grottoes at Dunhuang. He wanders the deserts and strangely industrialized (by the oil industry) oases of that region for a long time, before swinging down through Qinghai, almost dying, and crossing through Sichuan to Chengdu on virtually the same route I took on my first journey through China, six years ago.
Along the way, he composes poems and pens short stories, which he mails to literary friends around the country to attempt to get them published in order to replenish his funds and sustain his soul-searching for a few more months at a time. He settles down in the western city of Chengdu, home of panda bears and Zhou Enlai, for a while, working for the regional publishing press and crashing with distant acquaintances, but his wanderlust gets the best of him and takes him back east along a southerly route. Eventually, after three years, he has crisscrossed the entire nation and ends up in Tibet, which even if it is not the concluding pinnacle he, as a man who took his lay Buddhist vows–he had been seeking meaning even then–before he left Beijing, had expected, did serve as a satisfying signal that this specific journey was over. Still, he has proved to himself that China holds nothing more for him, despite the attachments that remain, and with the help of his friends, he escapes across the border to Hong Kong, which in turn he leaves for London when the island territory returns to Chinese control in 1997. Much of the book’s appeal is in the writing, which is both elegantly simple and downright gritty at the same time, but as a fellow wanderer, the story calls out to me with equal strength.