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42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich, Bawdy, and Fabulous -- Horatio Alger Meets Rabelais in China
BROTHERS is an absolute gem, a picaresque novel and Rabelaisian comedy of the absurd that combines Tom Sawyer and Horatio Alger with Moll Flanders and Fielding's Tom Jones, plus touches of Don Quixote and Anna Karenina. Alternately hilarious and filled with pathos, sometimes touching, other times graphically bawdy and even shockingly violent, peopled by the honest and the...
Published on February 4, 2009 by Steve Koss

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Work Marred by Average Translation
There are a few other very informative reviews, but just adding my two cents here.

This novel is very well thought out, though the English translation is lackluster. At times the words seem to flow easily and reading is enjoyable and spirited, other times I had to force myself to continue and felt that I was working to finish a chapter rather than enjoying...
Published on August 4, 2010 by Christopher Barrett


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42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich, Bawdy, and Fabulous -- Horatio Alger Meets Rabelais in China, February 4, 2009
By 
Steve Koss (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Hardcover)
BROTHERS is an absolute gem, a picaresque novel and Rabelaisian comedy of the absurd that combines Tom Sawyer and Horatio Alger with Moll Flanders and Fielding's Tom Jones, plus touches of Don Quixote and Anna Karenina. Alternately hilarious and filled with pathos, sometimes touching, other times graphically bawdy and even shockingly violent, peopled by the honest and the unscrupulous, depicting the saintliest of saints and the worst of sinners, Yu Hua's latest book presents a scathing, deeply cynical picture of modern mainland China from the time of the Cultural Revolution to the age of Viagra and plasma televisions.

As the title suggests, the story traces the life paths of two stepbrothers who form childhood bonds as close as any pair of full brothers. Devilish, sex-obsessed Li Guang, known throughout his small town of Liu as Baldy Li for his short haircuts, shows promise of being a world-class entrepreneur from an early age. In the book's opening pages, he is caught red-handed in the town latrine peeking at women's bottoms from beneath the wall separating men from women. Before being caught, he succeeds spectacularly by viewing the comely posterior of the town's young beauty, Lin Hong. He soon parlays this shameful feat into 56 bowls of house special noodles, one from each Liu town male eager to hear his detailed description of the heavenly sight. As he eventually learns, Baldy Li has unintentionally followed in his natural father's path, one that led to his father's ignominious and gruesome end in that same latrine while trying to achieve the same objective.

Song Gang, Baldy Li's more restrained and better educated stepbrother, is the handsome, shy, and sensitive son of Song Fanping. The first third of the book, originally published in China as a separate book in its own right, traces the boys' childhood during the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution. This section of BROTHERS is mostly brutal and tragic, but it lays out the formation of Baldy Li's and Song Gang's incredibly tight bond that, despite enormous ups and downs, becomes a lifelong mutual devotion to one another.

As Part Two begins, the boys have been orphaned as a consequence of Song Fanping's tragic slaughter by his own townspeople and their mother Li Lan's steadily declining health. Baldy Li matures into a brutish and not particularly handsome young man, while Song Gang grows as tall, strong, and good-looking as Song Fanping before him. Baldy desires the hand of Lin Hong in marriage and uses Song Gang in ways reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac, but events (and love) unfold in ways Baldy Li never anticipates. At the same time, Baldy experiences his first business success in spectacular fashion as the manager of the Good Works Factory, a public charity operation staffed by "two cripples, three idiots, four blind men, and five deaf men" making cardboard boxes. His capitalist credentials established, Baldy Li moves on, an irresistible force who builds a full-scale business empire. Others in Liu town, including the former tooth puller known as Yanker Yu and the street vendor Popsicle Wang, invest in Baldy's efforts and become fabulously wealthy as a consequence, while Song Gang struggles to make ends meet for his wife and himself in a series of jobs that are increasingly demeaning even as they exact worse and worse effects on his health. Lin Hong figures significantly throughout in both brothers' adult lives, with tragic but different consequences for both of them.

Yu Hua relentlessly portrays his country's loss of traditional values and their unhappy replacement by unprincipled greed as being as much a tragedy as any suffered by his characters, perhaps even their proximate cause. Part One's horrific events are clearly meant to be equated with the outrageous and tragic incidents in Part Two - the consequences of unrestrained, amoral capitalism are just as bad as those of the Cultural Revolution.

In Yu Hua's cynical world, good people still exist. A few, like Mama and Missy Su and Blacksmith Tong, succeed by honest hard work, but many stand quietly on the sidelines in awe of the aggressively wealthy Baldy Li. The latter two-thirds of the book traces these characters' paths through the open society created by Deng Xiaoping in 1984, often in hilarious ways. Yu Hua's touch is a deft one, insinuating into his tale countless comical jabs at Deng's "socialism with Chinese characteristics" such as Baldy Li's white BMW reserved exclusively for daytime use and his Black Mercedes for nighttime. In one of the book's longest and funniest segments, Baldy Li organizes a national beauty competition for virgins that attracts contestants with reconstructed hymens and a vendor selling two types of artificial hymens (a cheap, domestic version called Lady Meng Jiang and more expensive foreign one called Joan of Arc). The eventual contest winner, contestant #1358, is already a mother of a two-year-old, but in a marvelous parody of Beijing doubletalk, she argues that "she would always be a virgin, because she had maintained her spiritual purity."

BROTHERS is written on an almost epic scale, 640 pages. Happily, it reads like a book half its size, with never a dull page. Yu Hua has herein surpassed the already impressive heights achieved in his CHRONICLE OF A BLOOD MERCHANT. That was a 5-Star book. This one deserves twice that amount. A simply spectacular novel, crammed full of memorable characters and events and incredibly entertaining to read.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars funny but disturbing, February 27, 2009
This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Hardcover)
I have read all of Yu Hua's works and find them quite engrossing. This work is slightly different then To Live or the Chronicles of a Blood Merchant as it has much more dark humor. As in previous works a historical span seems to be crossed and a family is followed through the upheaval of Chinese history Brothers carries on with absurdities in the charactors that are funny and yet sad, incredible but yet somehow believable.I have always liked Yu Hua's work. I think this one given its length and expanse compares more to some of the recent works by Mo Yan. Between the two of them the complexities and simple joys of contempory Chinese history are illuminated. I highly recommend this book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lost in Translation, March 7, 2009
By 
David "Geothermal" (Virginia City, NV, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Hardcover)
BROTHERS is a modern masterpiece that will be fully appreciated by few Western readers. Written for Chinese eyes and readers, it draws on staples of Chinese comedy (exaggeration, puns, silliness, earthiness), novels (Dream of the Red Chamber) and folklore (Monkey King).

The patient reader will harvest from the 600 pages an image of a town and nation in near-chaos but held together by tradition, a population seeking to break from custom and station in life, and individuals facing a destiny center on the alignment of stars.

The New York Times review of BROTHERS amplify the frustration a western reader will find in trying to penetrate the text. Yes, the translation doesn't quite do it justice.

However, a diligent reader will say, after finishing the novel, "Wow, that was a powerful story." I recommend the book for all those who want to understand China.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Relevant and important work...but a little lost in translation, April 2, 2010
This review is from: Brothers (Paperback)
Acclaimed Chinese novelist Yu Hua's "Brothers" is social history masquerading as contemporary literature..and I mean that in the best possible way. It traces the lives of two non-blood brothers, Song Gang and Baldy Li, from the time when as children their parents came together during the Cultural Revolution years to the time their lives took sharply divergent paths under post Deng's socialist in name but capitalist in spirit China. "Brothers" is modern satire filled with sharply observed commentary on the state of the nation, focusing on sudden change rippling across Chinese society and the social and cultural confusion it causes as ordinary folks struggle to keep their heads above water and learn very quickly that they either adapt or die.

Though not obviously packaged as such, "Brothers" in fact comprises two parts, a shorter first part set in the 60s about the horrific suffering endured by the parents of our two protagonists amidst the social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution years, and the more interesting second part set in the rapidly liberalizing China which see the two brothers being torn apart by their love for the one and only town beauty, Lin Hong. Agreed, it doesn't sound very promising, hinting at yet another Chinese melodrama in the making....but rest assured...the author is much too savvy and astute for that. He doesn't make Song Gang the good guy nor Baldy Li the bad guy....cos that would undercut the message he's putting across. In true Chinese tradition, they're brothers forever to the end but their response to change is what tells them apart.

The gentlemanly Song Gang, like his poor father before him who suffered and died tragically believing in Mao's singular truth, is lost in the new China. Without initiative, courage, conviction or even the ability to think for himself, he's a product of a society which promises much but fails to deliver. Baldy Li, on the other hand, never let his own shameful past stand in his way. True, he's crass and as shameless as they come, but at the same time pragmatic and forward looking. If he can't have Lin Hong, he's opts for vasectomy and a life of debauchery in compensation. He's opportunistic and greedy but isn't that just a bad word for entrepreneurial ? Even Lin Hong, who despised him as much as she loved Song Gang, couldn't resist him in the end after tiring of a lifetime waiting for her loser of a husband to return, proving conclusively that success is the most powerful aphrodisiac. The national virgin beauty contest Baldy Li organizes and the market for artificial hymens it produces must raise more than a few laughs with readers for it captures perfectly the mentality of a people desperate to play catch up and who simply cannot wait to be part of the free world. How else to explain their blanket disdain for their own legacy (wrongheaded) and their crazed fascination for all things foreign (pathetic) ?

"Brothers" is an ambitious book. Its expansive breadth and sweep is undeniable. It resonated with me the way I am sure it would with readers tempted to take a peek (no pun intended for those familiar with Baldy Li's past) into the psyche of modern China. Trouble is, the book's too long, too repetitive and too slow. The storyline plods along in a rather stylized manner and takes forever to lift off. The literal translation of several Chinese proverbs and sayings into English will only seem quaint to non-Chinese readers. Whilst conceding the difficulty of translating even the best literature into a foreign language without losing something of its essence, I felt there was most definitely something here that was lost in translation. However, that should not put you off reading this incredibly important and relevant book about modern China.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Goes down as one of my all-time favorites, March 7, 2010
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This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Paperback)
Other reviewers provide synopses, but all I can say is how much I loved this story and the characters. If you are on the fence as to whether to buy it or not, my recommendation is obvious. This book truly goes on my list of all-time favorites. Thank you, Yu Hua! Thank you, Baldy Li and Song Gang!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Almost the best but very very good!, April 13, 2010
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This review is from: Brothers (Paperback)
Three quarters of the way through I was ready to put this in my top three books ever. I found the last part of the book disappointing. It didn't really fit and seemed to begin an almost totally new novel. I did, however, love reading every page and look forward to reading Yu Huan's other works. He's a great writer.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good stuff. Strange writing choice., May 25, 2009
This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Hardcover)
To begin with, a poorly-devised haiku review:

Yu's roller coaster
Is careless with emotions.
Like a bad girlfriend
________________

I'm not really sure what to make of Brothers. I liked it, that much is certain.

The story is expansive and the characters indelible. The insight into the development of Chinese culture over the last four decades was enlightening. The episodes related were heartfelt, both funny and tragic. And sometimes even both simultaneously. I was involved for the book's entirety (which was not insubstantial).

The problem, I guess, is twofold: 1) I can't tell if the writing was simplistic and somewhat stilted by design or by translation; and 2) the extremism of Yu's emotional roller coaster reminds one of the formulaic approach of self-important tear-jerkers that mob the cineplex every Fall.

So far as the writing goes, it was more a curiosity than a bother. If the style was due to translator inadequacy, then I suppose I should feel a little ripped off (not getting anything close to the full expression of the author's intended work), but if the style was the author's choice and the translators indeed faithfully transmitted Yu's text into the book I read, then I find the choice fascinating. If the text was truly intended to be as simplistic as it was, then perhaps the semantic and grammatical choices fit the story. Liu Town, where the principal action occurs is certainly provincial and a place in which education is of the smallest of concerns. It then makes a kind of sense that the narrative should echo the voice of the story's inhabitants.

Emotionally, Brothers may be one of the saddest funny books I've ever read. I laughed a lot--mostly due to the ridiculousness of the town's many inhabitants and most especially because of the proclamations of the principal brother, Baldy Li. Still, the story carries more than its share of tragedies. And these aren't just garden-variety tragedies either. Brothers can be brutal as it destroys lives without tact or conscience. Perhaps this too is a reflection of the world in which our the brothers dwell, an echo of the terror--both loud and quiet--that the last half-century of China's history and culture have wrought in the lives of its citizens. In any case, I don't know if I've ever felt more mournful while reading a novel. Which of course makes me suspect it.

Brothers develops alongside the lives of two step-brothers (or more properly, brothers) from about 1960 onward. These brothers weather the terrible years of the Cultural Revolution and the mortal fear Chairman Mao's movement instilled in the nation. They struggle through the years following and look for opportunities in the more capitalistic China that would grow out of the revolutionary era. Their differing temperaments and philosophies of life offer breadth to the tale, allowing readers to more completely apprehend China and its culture.

Yu focuses much of his effort exploring the depths of human folly and the sewer stain of humanity's soul, only occasionally revealing the purity of true love and camaraderie throughout. And of course those moments shine all the more brightly due their depraved surroundings. I don't know exactly what Yu thinks of the human being, but I suspect that he doesn't think much of it--though he seems willing to be surprised by its moments of joy and beauty.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best work so far from an already acclaimed writer, October 4, 2011
By 
N. Heikkila (Minneapolis, MN) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Paperback)
I've been a reader of Chinese literature for the last 10 years or so and after living in China, my appreciation for the country's novels has only increased. Yu Hua's To Live: A Novel, is a very good novel yet even that book doesn't prepare one for the excellent Brothers.

The story deals with Baldy Li and his half brother Song Gong. As a boy, Baldy Li's father dies while spying on womens' butts in the town's public toilets, drowning in the muck below. So, starts the epic satire that is Baldy Li's life. Baldy Li's mother recovers from this total embarrassment and remarries a tall and respectable man who goes on to perform the town's first slam dunk in a basketball contest. Things get better for Baldy Li and his brother Song Gong when along comes the cultural revolution which nearly destroys the family completely.

The novel follows the brothers' lives in this way as they struggle to succeed and then face horrible downfall again and again through the timeline of China's recent history. The two go through the cultural revolution, the reforms that follow, and on through China's incredible rise to become the global economic power it is today. With China's history as a backdrop, the Yu Hua delights readers with the unexpected and entertaining paths of Baldy Li and Song Gong's lives. At one point Baldy Li decides to hold a contest to find the most beautiful virgin in China, which triggers massive demand for synthetic hymens among women who flock from far and wide to claim the title. At another, Baldy Li becomes director of a factory whose employees are all mentally handicapped. Baldy Li uses his employees to gain pity and thus funds from higher ups to become the most successful factory in the area without really producing anything.

Much like, To Live, before it, Brothers is filled with humanity so while this is a satire and you'll often laugh out loud, the story can be incredibly touching and sad. Such is life, and so Yu Hua has created another incredibly moving and funny masterpiece.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Great Work Marred by Average Translation, August 4, 2010
This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Paperback)
There are a few other very informative reviews, but just adding my two cents here.

This novel is very well thought out, though the English translation is lackluster. At times the words seem to flow easily and reading is enjoyable and spirited, other times I had to force myself to continue and felt that I was working to finish a chapter rather than enjoying. The flow is sometimes jarred by the roughly translated prose.

Overall though the novel is enjoyable and the main characters are interesting that they summarize the two classes of modern China as the country emerged from the cultural revolution: Song Gang as the loyalist, faithful party working class and Baldy Li as the aspiring capitalist and hedonistic modern Chinese individual based more on a Western style of life.

I read a lot of Asian authors and I think that Yu Hua is very good, but Ha Jin is my choice for excellent works focusing on China during and after the Cultural Revolution.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't Put it Down, October 18, 2009
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This review is from: Brothers: A Novel (Hardcover)
I loved every chapter. Had difficulty putting it down. After travelling to China late last year and learning a little about this thing called the Social Revolution, Yu Hua brought the period to life for me as these two brothers lived through something most people could never dream of.

After reading a few reviews and listening to the review on NPR, I thought I would buy it and was expecting a somewhat dirty, comedic novel set in China. After getting through the first few chapters, I was engrossed and quickly realized it was more than just the story of some young pervert. On the one hand, all I could think about was how difficult and different life was in China during this time but also realized the tremendous similiarities we all share as people - regardless of our culture or nationality. My favorite novel this year by far.
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Brothers: A Novel
Brothers: A Novel by Hua Yu (Paperback - January 12, 2010)
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