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Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book I, 2nd Edition
Yang Shen: The God from the West, Book I, 2nd Edition
Price: $4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Taiping up close, August 27, 2016
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James Lande thrusts us right into the action in 1860, the momentous year when the slaughter was at its peak, when the Taiping broke the siege of the Imperial troupes surrounding Nanking and began marching on Shanghai and British and French forces marched on Beijing and sacked the Summer Palace. As its brightly designed cover reminiscent of a 1950s or 60s adventure novel suggests, the narrative starts off as a sea novel, with an exciting sea battle. The American clipper Essex is ferrying a shipment of arms from Hong Kong to Shanghai for secret sale to the Chinese in contravention of neutrality policies prohibiting mercenary activity. It’s commanded by the novel’s protagonist, Fletcher Thorson Wood, who is based on the historical figure of Frederick Townsend Ward (1831-62). His mission is to put together an army of Westerners and Filipinos to fight off the Taiping through superior weaponry and secure a safe and profitable Shanghai for business. The rest of the book’s action takes place largely along the Yangtze between Shanghai and Nanking, with much shifting back and forth from Shanghai to the other locales.

In Lande’s account we learn close up what it’s like to tunnel your way under the wall of a rebel-controlled city and be greeted with swords stabbing you as you emerge from the hole on the other side. Or have feces and sewage and boiling oil poured over you as you climb the city wall and your ladder pushed out from under you. Lande’s lens also zooms out to take in the larger view with battle tableaux that often rise to the sublime. The language bristles with energy: “Tom watched as dragon’s blood filled the sky above the western horizon. The dark red flame kindled ablaze water yellow with windblown loess from Mongolian deserts and ochre loam from the Yangtze River watershed, transmuting the sea into a revelation of ruin.”

What’s most remarkable about the novel is the consistency of the style throughout. Even the longueur passages of drawn-out protocol among Chinese and British or American authorities are depicted with an extraordinary attention to dialogue and historical particulars. Indeed as if to underscore this intent, Lande lays out each chapter as a theatrical set piece with a “Dramatis Personae” at the head listing the attendant cast of characters like a play. There is not a scene in the entire tome that is unequivocally superfluous. As with all very good writing, you know at the outset that a second reading at a later date will reveal the book in an entirely different, and richer, aspect than the first.

The book is almost frightening in its relentless, machine-like control of plot, description and dialogue from start to finish. And there’s the rub. If it’s the product of a kind of literary genius, it’s not an artistic but rather an obsessive-compulsive genius. Artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract; the artist is always in control of the zoom lens. Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for most of the narrative, as if broken. Everything, and I mean everything, is attended to. Of course, Lande wants us to see the fruit of his three decades of background research that went into the book. If nothing else, it’s an exhaustive, highly informative and rewarding work of history. And he cares about all the details, such as the 2,500-word passage describing the setting up of a 6-pounder field gun to replace the 24-pounder cannon the Essex lost after the ship is grounded on a shoal, before it gets off its first round at an attacking pirate junk.

The fanatical attention to every particular has a leveling effect, reducing such passages to lists. Lande does break up or punctuate the lists with dialogue and other stylistic diversions. A literary artist, on the other hand, knows when to compress or cull, and then expand for comic effect. The ability to zoom in and out is not just a rhetorical device, it's a form of humor, the supreme form of humor in writing, really: the selection of which items conventionally regarded as serious are to be put before the funhouse mirror.

A word of warning about the Kindle edition, which I presume most buyers will opt for, with its attractive $4.99 price (considering the amount of text and the decades of effort and care that went into it). Once you’ve loaded it onto your Kindle, you’ll notice the book length is a shocking 55,450 location units. According to one conversion standard, this is equivalent to a printed book of 3,330 pages. I myself was almost scared off until I paid closer attention to the table of contents (which not all readers can be counted on to do) and realized the book is duplicated in the Kindle edition by a second version with Chinese characters inserted after every line of dialogue among Chinese speakers. There are also many added pages of notes and appendices (called “Underfoot”). The actual length of the unduplicated narrative is a more modest 328,000 words, equivalent to a 1,000-page novel or so, still quite substantial but manageable. Personally, I would have streamlined the Kindle edition by eliminating the duplicated version and hiding the Chinese characters and appendices in instantly accessible hyperlinks. The paperback edition, meanwhile, squeezes the Chinese-text version and appendices into 556 pages with small font and is priced at $20 (note that this is the 2nd edition; avoid the $12 1st edition which has errors).
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 27, 2016 9:59 AM PDT

While We're Here: China Stories from a Writers' Colony (China Today)
While We're Here: China Stories from a Writers' Colony (China Today)
by Alec Ash
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.53
26 used & new from $12.47

3.0 out of 5 stars Says more about expat attitudes on China than about China., June 3, 2016
I have to say Ash and Pellman’s recent collection of expat writings on China has a catchy cover. It shows a street in what appears to be the popular Nanluoguxiang neighborhood of Beijing, a favored spot for the bohemian set along with hordes of tourists. A foreigner with a clown’s face looks a bit out of place as he stands in the street holding a bunch of balloons. The clown image conveys the irony that we foreigners cannot but avoid being buffoons in China no matter how cool and hip we think we are. We might as well accept our hapless role as objects of amusement and have a good laugh at our own expense. But then I considered it from another angle. Is this merely the proverbial sad clown’s self-mockery? Or is there an implicit taunt or tease lurking in that face? Is the clown’s gaze an appeal, or a challenge? The title too carries a double meaning. Is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here please don’t be too hard on us; you will miss us bumbling foreigners. Or is it: we’ll be out of your way soon, but while we’re here we plan to cause some trouble. Treat us like clowns at your peril.

Now, after finishing the book, I am clearer on what the consensus is. Foreigners have no business causing trouble in China (and increasingly it seems, no business in China at all, what with the latest government campaign warning local girls against dating foreign imposter boyfriends who are likely spies). More specifically, there are numerous constraints in place for us expat writers. We have no business writing about the country except in the most favorable of terms. This is not just due to predictable norms and expectations — the decency and respect due to the host country — nor to domestic censorship laws determining what may or may not be put into print. There is a great deal of self-censorship operating on our side as well, arising from what we Westerners believe is now acceptable to be written about on anything, China or otherwise.

The most striking feature is how closely the book adheres to the slavish self-censorship of the English expat magazines in China, even though it’s quite unnecessary. Books, as we’ve noted, operate under looser constraints, since their audience is smaller. The injunction is figurative, not literal. That is, you don’t have to self-censor to the same degree magazine editors do; you just have to keep some of the broader guidelines in mind and write as if a certain sensitivity is called for. You can write about sex or disasters or problems in China; just do so with a certain objectivity and delicacy. After all, writers have an obligation to challenge and provoke readers (without resorting to shock effects for their own sake), or at least they used to. The authors in this collection, however, write as if their intended audience was the Chinese Government’s Propaganda Department.

Admittedly, I’m from an earlier, more liberal generation, and am still trying to wrap my head around the new ethos. They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place: too many Westerners to traumatize on the one hand, too many Chinese people's feelings to hurt on the other. Nevertheless, when nothing is allowed to be said, nothing gets said. This book is a perfect example of form following function. If so many of the pieces start and stop suddenly, in mid-air, with nothing happening, no story arc or conclusions drawn, as if they were journal or diary entries, it’s because they express precisely the silence imposed on them, the taboo of the argument and the insight, the empty verbiage of the stopped-up voice.

Most of the pieces are brief narratives of foreigners’ innocent encounters with locals while in China. They tend to fall into a pattern. By definition there is no conflict among the Chinese, since the Chinese all have a telepathic, harmonious understanding of one another. There is only something for us ignorant foreigners to imbibe from the collective voice of a wiser, older civilization, speaking through each of the characters, who’ve got it all worked out. Their voices accordingly tend to all sound alike and are interchangeable, whether they’re the middle-aged female neighbor, Wang Meijie, of Sascha Matuszak’s “Flower town,” about a Sichuan village undergoing changes after the 2008 earthquake (one of the better-written pieces), the caring landlord’s mother of Sam Duncan’s “Ayi and I,” the perceptive Auntie Han of Magdalena Navarro’s “Short nails, white socks,” the tenacious ping pong player Fang Zheng of Aaron Fox-Lerner’s “Back and forth,” or the retired Mrs. Wang of Ash’s “In the hutong.”

Some of the stories throw expats at each other, and here the earnest tenor gives way to a more layered, ironic and sarcastic tone — usually in the form of bickering. One of the more memorable, or perplexing, instances is Michael Salmon’s “Dumplings,” about a foreigner visiting a somewhat jaded and morose expat friend in Beijing. Over a meal in a dumpling restaurant, they compete with each other to eat the most dumplings, as if imitating Chinese males’ drinking habits. After the host friend eats too much, he bleeds from the nose and runs out of the restaurant. His friend goes in search of him and finds him retching in a public toilet down the street. End of story. Not sure what the moral is.

The most polished piece of the lot is Ash’s “In the Hutong,” in which he observes the changes over several years to the old Beijing lane where he lives. There are some nice turns of phrase and elegant, sharply sketched scenes. Here the model appears to be the long middle section of Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, an exquisitely detailed and thoroughly boring account of the changes to the village outside of Beijing where he set himself up for a spell to get some writing done. Granted, Hessler writes for the New Yorker, and the constraints its bourgeois audience imposes on him are particularly severe, but there is always a reliable consistency to his writing.

Actually, if Ash had buckled down and written the entire book himself, I would have rather enjoyed it. The problem with collections is they are almost invariably uneven. Another book similar to Ash and Pellman’s that came out not long ago and with which it will be compared is Tom Carter’s Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China, by the publisher. The overall quality of the contributions in the latter is higher, yet it suffers from many of the same pitfalls. With the exception of Carter’s own piece on a visit to a brothel street in Beijing (which landed him in a lot of hot water from the expat PC crowd), the book fails most notably to deliver on its promise of being “unsavory”; the stories are politically correct with a vengeance, and relentlessly harmless. Quite like Ash and Pellman's book.

The Incarnations: A Novel
The Incarnations: A Novel
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Tempestuous, brutal sexuality, May 15, 2016
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Recently I was reading Susan Choi’s My Education (about a lesbian relationship between a US university professor and a student) and was thinking, why can’t a novelist of this caliber write a book set in contemporary China? Susan Barker may fit the bill. I don’t know if she read Jonathan Tel’s short story collection set in China, The Beijing of Possibilities, but the time-slip conceit of Tel’s story “The Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch” may have provided the initial inspiration for her novel. In that story, a dating service mysteriously enables a man in contemporary Beijing to communicate with a Ming Dynasty princess by cellphone text message. In The Incarnations, a reincarnated spirit with many former lives going back to previous eras in Chinese history haunts and harasses a taxi driver in today’s Beijing, slipping frighteningly elaborate letters to him under his window visor, with ultimately tragic consequences. I’m generally not taken with magical realism in fiction; I prefer reality. What kept me reading Barker’s lengthy novel was the most important thing of all in any kind of writing, it’s well written.

Barker has the poet’s fondness for the unforgettable detail, and a tempestuous, brutal sexuality, an obsession enlivening the book’s texture and permeating every chapter of the novel in some form or another. The question here is not whether sex should be written about; it’s how can any book that presumes to call itself literature not be saturated with sex. Barker’s sexual interests tend to the viscerally violent, usually involving injury and blood, including a Tang-Dynasty encounter with a eunuch who rapes her with his fist, and a Ming Dynasty emperor who opens up the chests of his concubines, inserts himself in the cavity inside, then sews them back up to heal until the ritual is next repeated. When the story returns to present Beijing, the sex is considerably toned down, less graphic and perverse, hinted at or touched on in memories, such as the incestuous encounters between taxi driver Wang and his mother and later his stepmother. The few explicit scenes consist of furtive activity between Wang and a gay hairdresser he meets during a stay in a mental institution, and a few depictions of Wang in bed with his wife.

It’s significant that the sex is muted in the contemporary China chapters. The further the novel goes back in time — Ming Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Tang Dynasty — the more we enter the realm of the fairytale. There is a long tradition in fairytale writing (the classic Grimm brothers era, not the present Anglo-American pabulum variety) of violence and other disturbing activities such as baking children into cookies or snipping off their fingers. Fairytale authors can get away with this precisely because they are fairytales, safely removed in time and space from familiar reality. This seems to be Barker’s strategy. She knew too much graphic sex set in contemporary China would be controversial but the same set in pseudo-mythic historical eras would be perfectly safe. I would even venture that Barker did not set out to write a historical novel and then spice it up with a bit of exotic sex. It’s the other way around. The only thing she wanted to write about was sex — of the most shocking, appalling kind — and the only way to do this was to expand the contemporary story back into the distant past.

There are other reasons why Barker as a Western author can get away with writing about sex in China. For one, she’s female, and for another, all the sex takes place among Chinese, never with foreigners. In fact the safest — and politically correct — way for a foreigner to write about anything Chinese is to write only about the Chinese. This was Tel’s approach in The Beijing of Possibilities, whose stories all have a fairytale feel though they’re set in the present. Foreign white males appear twice in Barker’s novel, and the vile terms in which they are portrayed is illuminating indeed. For example, in a chapter set before the outbreak of the First Opium War, a young Tanka boy (a local minority group) is caught attempting to pickpocket a drunken British sailor in the foreign factories zone outside the Canton city walls. The sailors are about to execute him on the spot when he’s saved by a friendly Englishman scholar and possibly a missionary named Tom. Tom and a fellow Englishman named Jack are later picked up adrift at sea by a Chinese pirate ship on which the same boy has been dragooned, and are kept in a cage on the ship. The ship’s leader has them stripped and orders Jack to perform oral sex on him. When he resists, he is fatally stabbed. The boy is ordered to sever his head and is then sent on a boat with Tom and other pirates to Canton to claim a reward for captured foreigners. The boy and Tom escape when the pirates fall asleep after smoking opium. In a strange twist of justice, the story concludes when Tom blows the boy’s head off with a gunshot, bringing things back full circle to the chapter’s start and the brutality of foreigners.

There is no writing worthy of the name without conflict, and The Incarnations certainly has its share of it, much of it terrible, unlike the bland and timid forays into storytelling of the other three books reviewed above. Yet the bulk of the conflict in Barker’s novel, as we have noted, is confined to safe Chinese-upon-Chinese territory. The real challenge for expat writers is to thrust us right into the midst of conflict in the here and now. The foreign experience in China cannot and should not be conceptualized independently of conflict; there is no better occasion for powerful writing than the incubus of China.

South China Morning Blues
South China Morning Blues
by R. S. Hecht
Edition: Paperback
Price: $4.15
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The blues one experiences in the morning after waking up in bed with the wrong person, May 15, 2016
The blues one experiences in the morning after waking up in bed with the wrong person?

This is a novel about relationships among foreign expats and locals in China. I’m not exactly sure what the title means. The blues one experiences in the morning after waking up in bed with the wrong person? I’ve read Hecht’s previous book, the rambling journal Pearl River Drama (self-published in 2015). Thankfully, the new book is better written, and it’s certainly better than Tom Olden's Shanghai Cocktales, with which it shares the theme of getting it on, or attempting to, with Chinese girls.

The concept behind the novel is to link twelve main characters in the narrative with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, infusing the former with the proverbial traits of each animal. If it sounds like the results could be stilted, it is an original approach. In any case all the characters appear to be based on real people and experiences as well, or composites. They have just enough realism to be convincing, at the same time that they are archetypes drawn from mythology. And unlike the arid desert of Olden’s narrative, a shaping process went into Hecht’s effort, structuring the story arc and giving it a sense of closure by the end. Nonetheless there are problems with the structure, and the book would have benefitted from a longer brewing process before being committed to print.

It’s divided into three sections, corresponding to the events in the three key cities of the Pearl River Delta: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. None of the characters in the Shenzhen section reappears in or engages with any of the characters in the Guangzhou section (with one or two brief exceptions that don’t impact on the events). I was worried before I got to the Hong Kong section that the novel would end up being a trilogy of three self-contained and barely related novellas, with only the overarching zodiac theme providing any unity. True, they’re in different cities, but all three cities are close and easily accessible, and intercity traffic is the norm. The concluding Hong Kong section is the shortest of the three, and here all twelve characters make a brief reappearance at a rave party on Lamma Island. Still, none of the Shenzhen crowd interacts with the Guangzhou crowd; they occupy the same space oblivious of one another to the end. This would have been a good opportunity for the author to play around with his large cast a bit, testing out the interesting chemical reactions among characters we are already familiar with when they meet for the first time. It’s what accomplished novelists do as a matter of course. These limitations give the novel an unintended loose, episodic feel.

Half of the twelve main characters in Hecht’s novel are Chinese, and there is also a mixture of males and females, different backgrounds, experiences, and age. In presenting each of these characters in the first person, speaking with an individual voice, Hecht understands the necessity of distinct characterization and multiple viewpoints, expected of the novelist. Yet this only goes so far. The book’s most significant, or drawn out, male-female relationships involve white expats. In the Shenzhen section, there is Danny (the ox character), who seems to take after Hecht himself, and Kyla (goat), both Americans who meet as English teachers in a Chinese middle school. Though Danny wants to find a Chinese girlfriend, he ends up going out with Kyla, and she eventually moves in. He’s not in love with her and their bickering and the pressures build to the point where he kicks her out. Similarly, in the Guangzhou section, there is Eric (snake) and Amber (pig), two more North Americans. Their on-off relationship has a different dynamic from that of Danny and Kyla, yet is hardly ideal and often descends into bickering as well, with Amber finding excuses to get Eric out of her face each morning after he spends the night.

Amber is one of the more nuanced characters, with appealing inner monologues, but Hecht’s treatment reveals serious stylistic flaws and narrative excesses, for example when Amber takes us through an exercise routine that spans three pages. Hecht also has an aversion for the interesting, telling detail. He writes in Platonic forms, where there are no distinguishing features but only general types. Instead of cascading water or a hot spray of relief or a broken scalding shower, there is just a “shower.” Instead of colorfully described dishes or a cacophony of sounds on the TV, there’s just “cooking” and “commercials.” Instead of a particular sitcom whose title might add insight into Danny’s character, there’s just a “sitcom”:

Sex has the same bleached quality to the language, with clichés substituting for vivid details. Erotic language can be effective; it just needs to be done with a certain relish. The problem is that Hecht, like Olden, doesn’t seem all that interested in sex. The sex scenes appear with more frequency than in Olden’s book, but they are brief and token-like, and gotten out of the way quickly (compare Amber’s exercise routine that goes on in loving detail for three pages). Hecht’s characters claim to be interested in sex and are often in pursuit of it, but most of the time fail to find it or are disappointed when they do find it. Perhaps as a white male in China he’s conflicted about appearing to be a predator. The one character who clearly fits the predator profile, the American Marco (tiger — get it?), Hecht punishes by reducing the Chinese woman he married in order to facilitate his business prospects on the Mainland, to a brain-dead coma from a car accident.

Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir
Shanghai Cocktales: A Memoir
Price: $13.40

2.0 out of 5 stars Literary con job, May 15, 2016
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I wonder if much of the verbiage forming the book’s content was copied and pasted from email conversations. There is very little cock, or pussy, in Shanghai Cocktales. Olden, it turns out, is something of the prude. The title should have been simply Shanghai Cocktails, without the pun, a more accurate indication of the book’s content. And the misleading cover should have shown a cocktail glass at the top instead of an Oriental gal’s pair of eyes.

It does indeed feature much drinking, mostly Red Bulls alternating with vodka and apple juice, and Coke for breakfast. Most of the book is devoted to getting hammered with the dudes instead of getting laid, when not bogged down in endless trivial details about the jobs Olden finds and loses in the online marketing business. At one point he gets upset when one of his dudes shows up for a night of drinking with a woman. The male bonding is so close, so emotional, and female company so frequently avoided, that I suspect the author might be gay but just hasn’t realized it. On the rare occasions Olden manages to bring a woman home with him, he’s so wasted he’s not aware of it, having no memory of the night before.

The only Chinese women he gets into bed over the course of the book are a couple of prostitutes and one-night stands, and one clingy type he meets in the last chapter, before the book suddenly and inconclusively ends. The banal, hackneyed language in which they are described (“round breasts,” “seductive eyes,” “soft lips,” and here’s my favorite: “cute little springy Chinese girl”) renders them indistinguishable. There are hints of other encounters but they are not described: “Neither of us was interested in a long-term relationship and the girls slipped in and out of our tiny unfurnished apartment. It was as it should be” (I presume the unfurnished apartment had beds). Finally in the last chapter, we get a brief, sole description in the entire book of actual sex: “Ting Ting was panting heavily on top of me, her warm, heavy breasts embracing my chest, her heart pounding in sync with mine.” So much for the cocktales.

One doesn’t expect all expat books on China to be of high literary quality. Writing talent is relatively rare. But in depicting the reality of a certain era and milieu with minimal competence, a book may be of documentary value. As firsthand documents that can benefit researchers and historical novelists, such books are especially valuable a generation or two later. Even for contemporaries they are of interest for what they tell us about life in China today. We want to see, for instance, how intercultural conflicts and relationships get played out, and for those of us knowledgeable about the country, recognize our own experiences in them. In fact, books from the past describing Westerners’ personal or sexual relationships with the Chinese are quite rare. Consider Carl Crow’s Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom (Earnshaw Books, 2007), his 1940 journalist memoir of life in Shanghai over several decades until the outbreak of war with Japan. At the time, as Crow recounts, the European and American expat population in Shanghai would have greeted any suggestion that they interact with or befriend the Chinese with laughter or sardonic silence. Crow’s book is certainly of documentary value, but only about a narrow sphere of life — the exclusive male drinking clubs. We do learn something about them: in contrast to white males in China today, back then there didn’t seem to be many sexual predators; they were honest racists and simply had no interest in Chinese women.

Shanghai Cocktales expresses a different kind of hostility toward the Chinese: fetishist racism. However much local “birds” may be objects of sexual attraction, there is little meaningful mixing or communion with them. They remain essentially unknown and unknowable to the Olden brand of expat. While the book has some documentary value on the expat bar scene in Shanghai at the turn of this century, it sheds little light on its ostensible subject matter, relations with Chinese women. It not only fails to deliver on its promise, it takes the phrase “you can’t judge a book by its cover” to a new level. The angry tone to Olden’s amusing video rebuttal of Ash’s brutal review would suggest the effort he put into writing his memoir was sincere. But I’m not so sure. I think it’s a great example of a literary con job. I picture him getting high on Red Bulls and vodka one night, perhaps brainstorming with his marketing buddies, and coming up with a hilarious idea for making some money. He churned out the book with contemptuous speed, barely deigning to proofread it (formatting and grammar typos there are aplenty) and slapping an unusually high price on the Kindle edition of $13.40. No idea whether the scam worked and it’s selling. I’m evidence that at least one was sold. Maybe it’s selling a lot, in which case he’s now laughing all the way to bank. More power to him, I guess.

Pearl River Drama: Dating in China - A Memoir
Pearl River Drama: Dating in China - A Memoir
Price: $2.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars and then good sex the second time, June 11, 2015
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I don't have a problem with memoirs and travelogues detailing Westerners' sexploits in the East. I've written quite a few accounts myself (under the pen name Isham Cook). Ray Hecht's memoir of his first years in China does have the benefit of forthrightness and honesty. He's an engaging and likable enough fellow, a kind of expat Everyman. When a date or relationship doesn't work out, he always questions himself and this enables us to empathize with him. He's a kind of test case - young and handsome and thus magnetic material for all kinds of women, while bumbling and nerdy enough to flail around helplessly wondering why things don't work out. He's all of us.

What I DO have a problem with, however, is cotton-candy language, empty, cliched fluff, and endless tissue of banal generalities:

"It escalated, and on the second date she came to my apartment. We had some awkward sex the first time, and then good sex the second time. What can I say? I was out of practice. I'd soon be having a lot more practice, no worries....Mona was very into sex. Thus began my eventual conclusion that Chinese women are horny. It is the most populated nation on Earth. There must be something to that. She was a modern woman; she wasn't traditional. Although I would have preferred if she shaved more. But I couldn't complain. I went with the flow...."

And the flow is indeed relentless, with few concrete, divine details to latch onto. What does "into sex" mean? I really want to know. What exactly is a "modern" woman? Why would one necessarily prefer "she shaved more"? A single sharp erotic description or tableau might help. How she mounts him. What she smells like. The distinct whorl of her pussy hair (at least we know she's hairy). Anything to flesh out the description. A different angle on things to shake things up a bit, a single distinctive or memorable image or anecdote, anything, anything to grab onto, please, to help me out of the diarrheic verbiage.

Glass: Concert of the Sixth Sun
Glass: Concert of the Sixth Sun
Price: $18.56
22 used & new from $11.54

14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't quite work for me, December 28, 2013
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Philip Glass is to be commended for his numerous collaborations with musicians around the world. It's not an easy feat to pull off, especially with as powerful a musical personality as Glass's. The more he imposes his ideas on the music, the more it will sound like - Philip Glass. My favorite of this type of collaboration is his production with the Amazonian group Uakti, the shimmering Philip Glass : Aguas da Amazonia, which manages to sound both like Philip Glass and Amazonian music. Another brilliant album in this genre is Ry Cooder's collaboration with the Malian musician Ali Farka Toure in Talking Timbuktu. In "Concert of the Sixth Sun," Glass has chosen to stay in the woodwork and allow the indigenous Mexican Wixarika music to speak for itself, and it does so with a numbing insistence that just doesn't work for me. The music is mildly interesting but soon becomes threadbare and palls, and I wonder if another approach, or collaborator, might have better been able to bring out the heart or character of the music.

Visitors - Original Soundtrack
Visitors - Original Soundtrack
Price: $18.78
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Into the bad Glass shelf, December 28, 2013
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I have been a huge fan of Philip Glass since the early 80s, have seen him live in performance many times, and am buying up many releases on his label, Orange Mountain Music, for which we are eternally grateful. I am continuing to discover older gems for the first time like "Days and Nights in Rocinha" and "Persephone" From the Philip Glass Recording Archive, Vol. II: Orchestral Music and newer masterpieces like Glass: In the Penal Colony and Philip Glass : Les Enfants Terribles. But that doesn't mean everything including the kitchen sink should be released. I don't know what he was doing while writing "Visitors" (probably simultaneously working on six other scores), but it sounds like a bad parody of...Philip Glass. The music goes nowhere and lacks a single interesting passage. I'll try it out again a few more times in case I'm missing something, because I paid money for it, but I fear I'll have to consign it to my bad Philip Glass shelf, along with other uninspired creations such as 1000 Airplanes on the Roof or Philip Glass: Orion (both plentifully available in your local secondhand CD shop).
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 10, 2014 10:47 PM PDT

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh voice among Chinese-authored books in English, December 27, 2013
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If there was ever a story with an extreme cultural divide to navigate, it's this one. A young woman from the Chinese countryside is plopped down in London for a year on a study visa with little English ability or understanding of Western culture. Soon an Englishman she meets in a cinema seduces her and she moves in with him. He's not your typical British male (if there is such a thing) but an unpindownable bisexual eccentric and failed sculptor with leftist anti-establishment leanings and a Luddite distaste for the trappings of modern society. He's also twenty years older than her but handsome and fit enough for her to completely fall for him - her first significant relationship with a man. His general aloofness and conflicted attitude towards traditional monogamous relationships perplexes and tortures her, and she only makes things worse by overwhelming and smothering him with her love and attention. He avoids her and disappears for days at a time, leaving her abandoned and distraught in his flat. To cultivate her independence, he sends her off on a trip to the Continent alone for several months. Reluctant at first, she discovers she extracts much enjoyment out of her picaresque adventures (including spontaneous sex with strangers). These chapters become a turning point and centerpiece of this Bildungsroman novel, where naive rural girl emerges as a liberated female.

The book's masterstroke is its captivating style. The author made the risky but astute decision not simply to write it in English but to exploit her inevitably imperfect control of the language as a vehicle for depicting her personal transformation. The early chapters employ a delightfully entertaining broken English fashioned out of Chinese grammar: "I standing in most longly and slowly queue with all aliens waiting for visa checking. I feel little criminal but I doing nothing wrong so far." Or, "Even when I see a beggar sleeping in a sleep bag I am scared. Eyes wide open in darkness staring at me like angry cat. What he doing here? I am taught everybody in West has social security and medical insurance, so, why he needs begging?" By the later chapters, her English has improved considerably, and her expanding vocabulary reveals the correspondence between linguistic and real-world knowledge, the almost claustrophobic relationship between language and awareness, the recognition - captured in the book's title - that words are as important as money, food and shelter for surviving in an unfamiliar society.

The strength of the book, its effective fusing of linguistic texture and real-world experience, also constitutes its weakness. Just as the narrator is stuck in the narrow world of her little red Concise-Chinese English Dictionary (I carried around the very same dictionary in my early years in China) without which much around her would remain incomprehensible, she is also stuck in the fraught space between her marital expectations with this strange man and his enigmatic refusal to rescue her with a marriage visa and a happy ending. Many details of the narrative are too true to life, and I assume the novel is autobiographical. This is where Guo falters, as it's never clear where fiction and artistic objectivity fall off into personal grievance. We never learn the man's name; he is referred to throughout in the second person as "You." I'm not sure what Gao intended by this device, but to me it lends the book the quality of a long, desperate love letter, as if it had been written not for a readerly audience but him alone. The funny early chapters give way at the end to a humorless despair after the author's visa application is rejected and she is forced to return to China. Her evident failure to comprehend the significance of the previous year and achieve some kind of psychological closure leaves us hanging as well.

People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet
People's Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet
by Katrien Jacobs
Edition: Paperback
Price: $23.00
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3.0 out of 5 stars Timely, in fact a bit too timely, August 12, 2013
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There are unfortunately and rather inexplicably all too few books on contemporary sexuality in mainland China. Richard Burger's recent Behind the Red Door: Sex in China comes to mind; I scratch my head to think of any others. And I can't think of any other topic so vital and pressing: the flashpoint of a huge burgeoning population freer than it has ever been in its entire history, at the precise moment it is simultaneously thrusting up against the outside world both virtually via the internet and in the flesh. Katrien Jacobs can be commended for confronting the topic head-on with sex-positive openmindedness; too bad the book was rushed to print with lousy, hasty editing.

The present era has converged with a number of technological breakthroughs resulting in an explosion of DIY ("do it yourself") pornography and personal sexual expression: affordable home video cameras, a proliferation of internet pornography, blogs and sexblogs, and social networking sites of all types from dating to countless x-rated pages for the kinky. The Chinese Government has tried to hold off this deluge by haphazardly effective online censorship but is facing a losing battle and has effectively resigned itself to accepting the lesser evil of sexual freedom of speech in favor of a more open and productive society. It could even be described as evolving its own brand of friendly fascism or "repressive desublimation" (Herbert Marcuse), where sexual freedom is exploited by the powers that be and channeled into useful forms of monetization and control proving far more effective in quieting a restless population than the obsessive sexual oppression of the traditional communist regime.

Any study of contemporary sexuality that fails to latch onto the exciting intersection of sex and technology as its starting point is quickly irrelevant, and thankfully Jacobs is right on the mark. She covers everything potentially germane to sex discourse in China since the turn of the millennium when internet caught fire on the mainland: the return of the made-in-China (post-Liberation) underground porn film industry, the explosion Chinese porn sites and their equally aggressive dismantling by the authorities, iconic sex propagandists and internet protest personalities including Mu Zimei, Li Yinhe, Han Han, and Ai Weiwei, internet sex scandals (e.g. Edison Chen) that occur with such regularity they seem factory-produced, and the ever-present influence of Japanese porn and idol stars and the pro-gay manga and Cosplay cultures. Jacobs even gets ethnographically creative by posting her nude body on an adult sex networking site to meet and interview subjects and delve into the mindsets of some of Hong Kong's more daring youth subcultures.

I wish I could say it was a gripping read, but I found myself slogging through much of the book, which is written in the relentlessly turgid academic style of a novice scholar, reading much like a dissertation. In fact I'd wager it was a dissertation, one that prematurely got a leg in a mainstream publisher and filled a gap and need for this kind of study. In Jacobs' better moments the PC-academicspeak attains a certain stodgy felicity, as when we are reminded of the appropriate definition of "Queer": "originally an umbrella term for non-heteronormative expressions of gender and desires, including LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexuals and transgender) and non-normative heterosexual people." Elsewhere, her prose is riddled with stylistic awkwardnesses and typos which would never have gotten past your typical dissertation committee (mine at least), along with certain nonnative-seeming turns of phrase, as her name hints. The lack of a good, astute editor is to blame for these lapses in what is otherwise a welcome publication.

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