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At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom Paperback – May 5, 2015
The Amazon Book Review
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"As an American who has lived in China for many years, Cook provides insights into a culture that is notoriously opaque to outsiders, its intricacies and quirks revealing themselves only after significant immersion"--Kirkus Reviews
"Each [essay] is brilliantly written"--Shanghai Talk magazine's "Top 3 China Books for 2016"
"Funny, assumption-challenging, and above all unique...Cook steels his wonderfully iconoclastic opinions with a deep knowledge gained from two decades in Beijing"--Bookish Asia
About the Author
I am an American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. My writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous, creepy, sordid (every conceivable epithet has been thrown at me). Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are my influences.
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As well being an aficionado of coffee, erotic massage, and classical music, Cook is a serious bibliophile, and "At the Teahouse Café" is full of mentions of excellent books, including a few I'd not heard of but now want to read. My favorite chapter is the devastating "The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China." It may well change the way you read China books. Cook takes to task four authors of recent non-fiction works, showing how they frame their books in a predictable, patronising way. In particular, Cook faults the prudish way in which writers handle the question of sexual relations with Chinese women.
Here’s a taste of it: "But to bring up the possibility, to tease and titillate the reader, to create suspense on the precipice of moral degradation, by all means! Here we see the limits, the bourgeois constraints imposed on the contemporary travelogue, the red line repeatedly skirted but never crossed in the polite world of Anglo publishing.”
The Kindle book is a bargain at just $3.99. Use Amazon's "look inside" function to read the excellent preface - it'll give you a good idea of the style and content of the book.
My note to the author: I would change the title of the book. Few people know that China's Chinese name means "Middle Kingdom". "Middle Kingdom" makes people think about the Middle East. This might be misleading your target audience. I would never think about googling "middle kingdom" when looking for an essay about China.
I did get some insight into how things operate, how they are, at least from the perspective of an American expat who has lived some two decades in China. The writing style is based in academia, complete with citations, canal mapping, and arguments for and against the content of other authors on the topic. The author also drops in little anecdotes about girlfriends, colleagues, and even a wife who likes to sleep. Yet the characterization seems one dimensional and I never felt I got to know them or, really, even the Chinese persona. The one chapter which seemed to flow well (from my perspective) was Chapter 13 on 'the Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks' - at least when he spoke about Japanese culture and customs. "The culture of the Far East is widely known for placing form over content, display over substance. In China this really is the case, to the extent that the Chinese often seem to embrace form for its own sake and evince an outright contempt for content. Japan is all about form and content in equal measure."
The preface ends with the words "China evolves much more drastically than other cultures, while staying true to itself". The author does manage to prove that thesis to a large extent but I wish the editor had done more to make the essays flow into a cohesive whole. I received a free copy of the book via Booktasters.