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A Good Fall (Vintage International) Paperback – October 19, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
From National Book Award–winner Jin (Waiting) comes a new collection that focuses on Flushing, one of New York City's largest Chinese immigrant communities. With startling clarity, Jin explores the challenges, loneliness and uplift associated with discovering one's place in America. Many different generational perspectives are laid out, from the young male sweatshop-worker narrator of The House Behind a Weeping Cherry, who lives in the same rooming-house as three prostitutes, to the grandfather of Children as Enemies, who disapproves of his grandchildren's desires to Americanize their names. Anxiety and distrust plague many of Jin's characters, and while the desire for love and companionship is strong, economic concerns tend to outweigh all others. In Temporary Love, Jin explores the inevitable complications of becoming a wartime couple or men and women who, unable to bring their spouses to America, cohabit... to comfort each other and also to reduce living expenses. With piercing insight, Jin paints a vast, fascinating portrait of a neighborhood and a people in flux. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* In The Bridegroom (2000), his last collection of short stories, Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner, captures the paradoxes of life under China’s Communist regime. In his new stories, sharply etched works remarkable for the contrast between their directness of expression and complexity of feelings, he creates a mirror-image set of tales about a Chinese immigrant community in Flushing, New York. Ha Jin’s ear and eye for Chinese American life are acute, as is his sense of how one life can encompass a full spectrum of irony, desperation, and magic. The advent of e-mail enables a sister in China to blackmail her sister in America. A struggling composer develops a remarkable rapport with his absent lover’s parakeet. Marriages come under duress, one due to the almost surreal insensitivity of a visiting mother, the other to the husband’s suspicions about his wife and the strange truth they reveal. A classic story about grandparents from the old country appalled by their Americanized grandchildren is balanced by the startling title story, in which a young kung fu master and monk achieves an unforeseen form of enlightenment. The quest for freedom yields surprising and resonant complications in Ha Jin’s sorrowful, funny, and bittersweet stories. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Mr. Jin has since published several novels, short story collections, and poems, many of which have won prestigious American literary awards. His 1999 novel, "Waiting," was published to critical acclaim and was garlanded doubly with the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Awards. Five years later, "War Trash"--an epic, bittersweet faux-memoir that chronicles the life of a Communist soldier-turned-prisoner-of-war--walked away with the author's second PEN/Faulkner.
In his new book, A Good Fall, Mr. Jin gives us twelve stories set in the diverse neighborhood of Flushing, concerning us with the lives of Chinese immigrants dreaming about restarting life in the United States. All revolve around struggling individuals who joust with the country's promises of easier comfort and wealth. All wrestle with the emotional isolation and the ideological rifts that alienate them from this strange new land. And all emanate a key signature of nostalgic wistfulness for that sense of belonging and security lost when they crossed the transoceanic divide.
Some of these characters are artists who find the unrestricted latitude for expression in America refreshing. Most are impoverished settlers who are culturally obliged to mail monetary remittances to their families back home. Others are foreign visitors who take well to the idyllic promises of a country characterized by freedom and prosperity. One of these is a professor whose publicly distributed verbal snafu inopportunely hovers over his conscience during his imminent appointment for tenure. All of them, however, are bundled by the paranoiac insecurities of living in an environment that puts their linguistic and technical competence on a mettle.
But whereas Mr. Jin spirited readers away with the impeccable command he displayed in novels like Waiting and War Trash, this collection unfortunately resembles little of the untrammeled force, the clearly articulated prose, and the meticulously modulated narrative momentum extant in his strongest works. Instead, these overstuffed stories read like lumpy and cartoonishly farcical studies on the Chinese immigrant, hobbled by a laborious prose deliberately fractured to sound like awkward subtitles from a foreign film.
"A Good Fall," the collection's title story, depicts a young, hapless Buddhist monk who faces deportation after his sponsor cheats him of his salary. Upon realizing the irony of the American dream, he carps about the people "who bragged about the opportunity found in America and wouldn't reveal the hardship they'd gone through here." "In the Crossfire" tells of an immigrant couple's agitated interactions with an accountant's cantankerous mother, who intransigently lords over their household while accusing his wife exploiting of her son's salary as a means of getting through nursing school. As the family and their guests preside over dinner, Shulan, a friend of Tian's mother, reveals to her that "[l]ife here is no picnic and most people work very hard."
Like so many of Mr. Jin's neurotic narrators, an aging Chinese couple, the heroes of "Children as Enemies," are modeled after old-fashioned stereotypes who grouse about the insouciant attitudes of Americanized children. Their grandchildren persistently assail them regarding their dated ways, spurn them by changing their Chinese names into "empty" English ones, and back up their "indulgent mother" when she suggests that they "ought to let them develop freely as individuals," estranging them from the deeply embedded sense of family innate to their motherland.
The grandfather tells us that "[i]n America it feels as if the older you are, the more inferior you grow." " This is America," declares the staunchly traditional grandfather, "where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business." Perhaps all of these observations are meant to inform readers about these newcomers' intemperate concerns, but many are written so heavy-handedly that the whole ordeal comes off as a redundant burlesque of stereotypes.
Many of the stories in this volume, while sincerely informing us about these characters' anxieties and struggles, are embellished with little of the nuances that sympathize readers with an immigrant culture's uncertain realities. And although intrinsic elements like the Chinese sense of shame, of an immutable destiny, and Confucian values are externally communicated by the author's heroes, their transactions with tradition and assimilation are stripped of the complexities that explain their tendencies to drift off into nervous episodes of ennui.
To make matters worse, Mr. Jin resolves each of these psychological battles with the trite, silver-lining brand of endings that pledges an exaggerated version of American economic freedom, without distinctions between "high or low." In the end, all of these characters wander around Flushing like dour doppelgangers sporting only chameleonic changes of clothes and profession, all obsessed with hauling in barrowfuls of greenback, all griping about the anachronistic datedness of their old culture, and all living through a fragile, initially idealistic representation of American society that is ultimately robbed of its paradisiacal charm.
That the author intentionally punctuates his dialogue with bizarre insertions of the engrish.com variety not only hampers the continuity of his stories, but also perpetuates an unsavory Asian stereotype that highlights an inability to compose thoughts sensibly in the English language. Awkward turns of phrase like "I prefer a ripe woman," "the little fox spirit," or "[h]e's a vampire I can't shake off of me," while in a sense resembling the poetic license embedded in Mandarin, emerge here as contrived and affected. Though his intentions to capture these speech patterns are noble, Mr. Jin's discomfiting transliterations do a great disservice to America's most prominent Asian minority group--a people that have made great strides to be recognized for their outstanding achievements in a country that had officially deprived them of basic rights until the constitution was amended in the mid-20th century.
One of the few stories in this book that essay a more unaffected take on these themes of adjustment and disjointedness is "The Beauty," which tells of the strained relationship between Dan and his "lissome" and beautiful wife, Gina, when a close acquaintance appears to make unsettling advances on her. Jasmine, the couple's daughter, complicates the situation when Dan questions his wife about the disconnect between her ravishing features and her daughter's "homely" looks. Echoing a bittersweet irony reminiscent of Jin's "Waiting," this tale of misunderstanding ends in a revelatory moment where perspectives are changed and relationships mended with an arresting stroke of honesty and candor, qualities sadly absent in other stories in this volume.
Unlike other immigrant readings - you won't find them trashing America or wishing to go back home due to the hardship. These immigrants knuckle down and survive - they grind it out in the chase of the American dream - yet can't quite let go of their life back home.
Author has a smooth writing style. I found myself remarkably engaged in the conversational style prose and its captivating simplicity. Jin has an innate ability to capture the details of the living conditions of the characters in each of the stories along with a rich imagery of the neighborhoods. If I had any criticism of the collection of stories, is that their conclusions are often too abrupt and fall off a cliff while others are too contrived - in both cases I was left wanting for a more finessed, nuanced or insightful ending.
I particularly enjoyed the following passages:
"Certainly I wouldn't lend her the money, because that might amount to hitting a dog with a meatball--nothing would come back."
"At our ages--my wife is sixty-three and I'm sixty-seven--and at this time it's hard to adjust to life here. In America it feels as if the older you are, the more inferior you grow."
"We haven't practiced division and multiplication this year, so I'm not familiar with them anymore." He offered that as an excuse. There was no way I could make him understand that once you learned something, you were supposed to master it and make it part of yourself. That's why we say knowledge is wealth. You can get richer and richer by accumulating it within."
"He still felt for this woman. Somehow he couldn't drive from his mind her image behind the food stand, her face steaming with sweat and her eyes downcast in front of customers while her knotted hands were packing snacks into Styrofoam boxes."
He remembered that when he was taking the entrance exam fourteen years back, his parents had stood in the rain under a shared umbrella, waiting for him with a lunch tin, sodas, and tangerines wrapped in a handkerchief. They each had half a shoulder soaked through. Oh, never could he forget their anxious faces. A surge of gratitude drove him to the brink of tears. If only he could speak freely to them again."
"Rusheng, you worry too much," Molin jumped in, combing his dyed yellow hair with his fingers. "Look at me--I've never had a full-time job, but I'm still surviving, breathing like everyone else. You should learn how to take it easy and enjoy life."
"Without the past, how can we make sense of now?" "I've come to believe that one has to get rid of the past to survive. Dump your past and don't even think about it, as if it never existed." "How can that be possible? Where did you get that stupid idea?" "That is the way I want to live, the only way to live."
"You can always change. This is America, where it's never too late to turn over a new page. That's why my parents came here."