One-Minute Book Reviews

January 20, 2014

Tash Aw’s Man Booker–Longlisted Novel ‘Five Star Billionaire’ – Shanghai’d

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:54 pm
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Expatriates scramble for a toehold in China’s largest city

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel. By Tash Aw. Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 379 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Maylasian expats are Shanghai’d by Shanghai in this novel that resembles a collection of linked stories. The flat-footed writing never rises much about the level of “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona” and “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” But the story has a carefully knitted plot and something to say: Shanghai is a shape-shifter full of perils for the uninitiated, and everyone is scrambling for a toehold. New arrivals read Western-style how-to books with comical titles like Sophistify Yourself. Better-off residents fortify themselves with cappuccinos and power yoga classes, and real estate developers seek favors from municipal officials who may bend the rules if a bribe includes an offer to pay to send a child to Stanford. In this cynical novel, only the most ruthless — or lucky — achieve what passes for success in China’s largest city.

Best line: “The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch-up.” These lines are overwritten, but the image of clothes stained by sand from Gobi Desert storms is memorable. And the passage sums up a theme of the book.

Worst line: No. 1: “She laughed out loud in agreement when he expressed a hatred for Gaudí’s Barcelona – too obvious, too obviously weird; he couldn’t stand it that people who liked Gaudí thought of themselves as ‘offbeat.’” No. 2: Shanghai buildings are not all the same: “Each one insists itself upon you in a different way, leaving its imprint on your imagination.” No. 3: “Thankfully, Walter’s moments of solemnity never lasted long, and his mood would swiftly become jovial again.” Nos. 4, 5 and 6: “When she laughed, she was aware of a tinkling quality to her voice, like the happy notes of a piano in the lobby of an expensive hotel.” “The late-night bluesy tinkling of the piano made him wish he were somewhere else.” “At last he began to hear the cheap tinkling of notes played on an electric piano.” Note: the “tinkling” of a piano is a cliché and falls especially wide of mark in reference to an electric keyboard, which makes a different sound than the ivory keys of a standard piano do.

Published: February 2013 (Spiegel & Grau/Random House hardcover). Spiegel & Grau erback due out in July 2014.

Furthermore: Five Star Billionaire made the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Philip Hensher reviewed the entire longlist in an article in the Spectator. As Hensher notes, Five Star Billionaire has little that would tax the fans of Arthur Haley, the author of pop fiction bestsellers such as Airport and Hotel. And its Man Booker longlisting seems further evidence of the markup to prize-caliber of middlebrow fiction.

Consider reading instead: Yiyun Li’s wonderful Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, the gold standard for recent English-language fiction about China.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 1, 2012

‘Midnight in Peking’ — The Corpse Wore Diamonds

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A Shanghai-based author revisits the notorious 1937 murder of a British consul’s daughter

Midnight in Peking How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Viking, 259 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

Midnight in Peking tells such good story that you wish could believe all of it. The book seems at first to be a straightforward history of a sadistic crime: On a frigid January day in 1937, someone murdered a 19-year-old Englishwoman and left her mutilated body, clad in a tartan skirt and platinum-and-diamond watch, at the foot of a Peking watchtower. A ghastly detail stood out: The body had no heart, which had disappeared along with several of its other internal organs.

A British-Chinese police team learned quickly that the victim was Pamela Werner, the daughter of a retired consul, who lived with her widowed father in the Legation Quarter, a gated enclave favored by Westerners in Peking. Shadier neighborhoods nearby teemed with brothels, dive bars and opium dens. And potential suspects abounded, including Pamela’s father, Edward Werner, who inherited the $20,000 bequest that his daughter had received after her mother died of murky causes. But the official investigation of the young woman’s murder repeatedly stalled in the face of bureaucratic incompetence, corruption or indifference, and it faded away, unsolved, after Peking fell to the invading Japanese later in 1937.

In Midnight in Peking, the Shanghai-based author Paul French offers a swift and plausible account of what happened to the former boarding-school student who had called Peking “the safest city in the world.” The problem is that French describes his story as a “reconstruction” without explaining what that means. Did he invent, embellish or rearrange details? French says he drew in part on the “copious notes” that Pamela’s father sent to the British Foreign Office after doing his own investigation. Edward Werner’s payments to his sources may have compromised some of that information. And Werner’s files don’t appear to explain other aspects of the book. How did French learn the thoughts of long-dead people such as Richard Dennis, the chief British detective on the case? Is Midnight in Peking nonfiction or “faction,” the word some critics apply to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which contains quotes that its author has admitted he made up? In the absence of answers, this book provides vibrant glimpses of what its author calls “a city on the edge” but leaves you wondering if deserves its categorization as “history” on the copyright page.

Best line: “Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.”

Worst line: “Dennis sat back. He reminded himself …” The book gives no source for these lines and for a number of others like them. An end note in the “Sources” section doesn’t answer the questions its page raises.

Published: April 2012 (first American edition).

Read an excerpt or learn more about Midnight in Peking.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2009

‘Yoga School Dropout,’ a Memoir by Lucy Edge

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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The number of yoga schools in my suburb might equal, on a proportional basis, the number of barbecue joints in Kansas City. Exactly why this is so, I don’t know. But we just got our third Starbucks: Maybe people are so hypercaffeinated, they have to go to yoga classes just to come down from their frappuccino highs?

Living in a town where hemp mat bags are a fashion accessory has turned me into literary infidel: a person who keeps recommending a book she hasn’t read. Or opened. Or even seen. It’s Lucy Edge’s memoir, Yoga School Dropout (Ebury, 352 pp., $22), which sounds like an Eat, Pray, Love without the eating, praying, or loving. Apparently Edge went to India looking for spiritual enlightenment and instead had revelations like: “Unfortunately, when you travel, you take yourself with you.” Her book has a whimsical cover that plays with a Hindu-goddess motif.

Obviously these facts don’t tell you nearly enough to recommend a book. But my town has so many yoga schools, people have to be flunking out of some of them. And because I haven’t read Edge’s book, how can I say it wouldn’t comfort the exiles? So I’ve suggested that a few friends visit the Yoga School Dropout Web site, where you can download the first chapter. If you’re looking for a gift for somebody whose Downward Facing Dog got kicked out of obedience school, you might look at it, too.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 28, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:06 am
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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

10 Discussion Questions
Wolf Totem
By Jiang Rong
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

At the age of 21, Jiang Rong left school went to live and work among the nomads of the Inner Mongolian grasslands. He stayed for 11 years and, in his first novel, fictionalizes his experiences in the region, including that of raising an orphaned wolf cub. After leaving Mongolia, Jiang became a professor and activist for democracy who was jailed after the Tinananmen Square massacre. He won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for Wolf Totem, which reportedly has had a readership in China second only to that of Mao’s little red book.

Discussion Questions

1. Most Americans have read few, if any, books by living Chinese authors. What ideas did you have about Chinese fiction before you read Wolf Totem? How did the novel affect your ideas?

2. Jiang tries in this novel to refute stereotypes of wolves, including those in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” [Page 329] How effective is that effort? Does he ever trade one stereotype for another?

3. Translators often have trouble translating gracefully slang that relates to sex or other bodily functions (which may sound comical enough in the original language). For example, the well-regarded translator Howard Goldblatt has a native Mongol say, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].” [Page 133] While reading Wolf Totem, how aware were you of the translation? Did the translation seem to enhance or undermine the book?

4. A blog for China-watchers, the China Beat, calls Wolf Totem “nostalgic drivel” Do you see parallels between Jiang’s descriptions of nomads and the romanticized portrayals of American Indians or other groups that are common in the U.S.?

5. Wolf Totem isn’t a pure allegory like Animal Farm, a novel widely regarded as a critique of Stalinism. But the book does have allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations. How would you compare Wolf Totem with any other novels that make use of extended metaphors or allegorical techniques?

6. China has violated human rights so aggressively that you may have been surprised by Jiang’s characterization of its people as passive and weak-natured. His stand-in, Chen Zhen, believes that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and hindered the country’s ability to develop. [Page 304] He also faults other aspects of the culture. How credible is the critique of modern China that runs throughout the novel?

7. A critic for the New York Times Book Review found it remarkable that Wolf Totem had become so popular in China when it’s “so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic.” The critic wondered if the novel had sold well because it exhorts the Chinese “to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West” or because it “captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor.” [“Call of the Wild,” by Pankaj Mishra, the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, page 11.] Why do you think the novel sold well in China? Why might it sell well in the U.S.?

8. The same NYTBR review also said that the novel proceeds at a glacial pace. What accounts for the slow pace? Is it the repetition? The set pieces? The lack of a strong narrative arc or sustained conflict? Is a slow pace always a detriment to a novel?

9. Characters in Wolf Totem attribute “powers of intellect” to wolves [Page 130] and sometimes go so far as to say, “Wolves are smarter than people.” [Page 240] Americans have a fascination with books, movies and television shows about animals that appear to be smarter than humans, such as the old TV dramas Lassie and Flipper. What do you think explains this? What does Wolf Totem have in common with other tales of animals that seem to have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us?

10. Wolf Totem reflects conspicuous editing lapses. One sentence appears in almost identical form on back-to-back pages: “In the end, Chen had to abandon his desire to touch the cub while he was eating” [Page 264] and “In the end, Chen abandoned his desire to pet the wolf while he was eating … ” [Page 265] And the book lists the “four destructive pests of the grassland” as “field mice, wild rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 237 and as “squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 251. Jiang may have written and Goldblatt translated those sentences. But it’s an editor’s job to point out such redundancies and inconsistencies, which conscientious authors will usually fix. If you had been the editor of Wolf Totem, what changes would you have suggested?

Vital statistics:
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95. Published: April 2008 Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. A review of Wolf Totem appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 27, 2008 For more on the Man Asian Literary Prize, click here

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews frequently but not on a regular schedule. Please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing the guides.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 27, 2008

Man Asian Literary Prize Reality Check – Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 am
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Meanwhile, back at the yurt, the natives say things like, “I nearly peed my pants”

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of major literary awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95.

What it is: A semi-autobiographical novel by a retired Beijing professor and former member of the Red Guards, who became an activist for democracy. At the age of 21, Jiang Rong went to live among nomads on the Inner Mongolian grasslands and stayed for 11 years. Wolf Totem fictionalizes his life there, including his experience of raising an orphaned wolf cub.

Winner of … the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to a book from Asia that hasn’t been published in English.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Yes. Censorship in China clearly limits the supply of worthy books. But so much good fiction has come out of Japan, India and other parts of Asia that the award to Rong is hard to fathom.

Worthy of a major literary award? No. Wolf Totem is pop fiction. The writing is on par with that of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (and like that book, romanticizes animals, casting some as smarter than humans).

Comments: Wolf Totem reads less like a novel than a series of set pieces about a young intellectual, Chen Zhen, who leaves Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and becomes a shepherd on Mongolian steppes haunted by wolves. The novel isn’t a pure allegory in the sense that, say, Animal Farm is, but has allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations.

The virtues of Wolf Totem are more anthropological than literary. Rong lifts up a nomadic society, unknown to most Americans, that counts onion-fried duck-egg pancakes among its delicacies. He also taps a deep, if more familiar, vein of wolf lore. But his story lacks a strong narrative arc and sustained conflict until, after several hundred pages, Chen’s community faces the threat of a wolf attack just as the cub he is raising becomes more ferocious. The pace is turgid, the dialogue artificial, and the tone didactic. The book is both a semicolon-infested critique of modern China and a lament for the vanished wolf-worshipping nomads. Its themes include that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and slowed the country’s ability to develop. Characters ascribe intellectual powers to wolves and say repeatedly that they are “smarter than people.” Yet the treatment of wolves is, in some ways, simplistic: Chen is supposed to be an intellectual, but he never asks such questions as: Is wolf “intelligence” really intelligence or a highly evolved form of instinct?

Best line: A description of a blizzard on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: “Yurts set up along wind tunnels were blown upside down, turned into huge bowls that tumbled briefly before falling to pieces. Carts heading into the wind lost their felt canopies, which flew off into the sky. The blowing snow was so dense that anyone riding a horse could see neither the head nor tail of his mount.”

Worst line: Many lines in this book choke on the gristle of fact. An example: “Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.” Then there are stumpers like: “Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.” And it’s hard to imagine a Mongol nomad saying, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].”

Published: April 2008

Furthermore: Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. Wolf Totem reportedly has had a Chinese readership second only to that of Mao’s little red book. You’ll find more on the Man Asian Literary Prize at For a specialist’s perspective on Wolf Totem, you may want to read this post on The China Beat, which calls the book “nostalgic drivel”

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 30, 2008

Is Pearl Buck’s ‘The Good Earth’ a ‘Plodding Chinese Epic’? Quote of the Day (John Sutherland in ‘How to Read a Novel’)

John Sutherland is an English scholar and columnist perhaps best known in the U.S. for his engaging books about literary puzzles, including Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? He also wrote the recent How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide (St. Martin’s/Griffin, $12.95, paperback), a quirky overview of factors that may affect readers’ perceptions of a book, such the cover, reviews and film versions. Sutherland chaired the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee and in his new book comments astringently on literary awards, including the Nobel Prize He suggests that Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize because one of her rivals, Graham Greene, wrote an unflattering novel about the Swedish financier and swindler Ivar Kreuger, who made a fortune as a manufacturer of matches:

“The grey men of Stockholm like fiction which takes on big themes – so long, as was the case with Graham Greene’s England Made Me (1935), they happen not to be big themes that reflect badly on Sweden. Greene’s ‘entertainment,’ as he called it, about Sweden’s Robert Maxwell, the ‘match king’ Ivar Kreuger, ensured its author a one-way ticket to the Nobel blacklist. Pearl S. Buck, author of the plodding Chinese epid The Good Earth (1931), committed no such offense and duly got her Swedish prize in 1938.”

Comment by Janice Harayda:

Sutherland is right about the “big themes.” The judges of most literary prizes – not just the Swedish Academy — favor authors who take on large topics. One reason why many people expected Doris Lessing to win the Nobel long before 2007 is that she has dealt with those“big themes,” including the role of women in society in The Golden Notebook.

But I’m not sure about The Good Earth. Like many American teenagers, I had to read the novel for a high school English class and, at the age of 14, I found it riveting. I’ve just started rereading it for the first time in decades and hope to write about the book in this space soon. Did you have to read The Good Earth in school? Have you reread it since then? How, if at all, has your view of the book changed?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto’s Memoir, ‘Daughter of Destiny’

Benazir Bhutto’s Daughter of Destiny (Simon & Schuster, 1989) was one of the most remarkable memoirs I reviewed An Autobiographyduring my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer. I was especially struck by how calmly Bhutto speaks in the book of being tortured by the regime of Zia ul-Haq, which kept her at first under house arrest and then imprisoned. Among the methods of torture she endured: She was strung up by her feet and beaten until she lost consciousness (and writes in the book about what a blessed relief it was finally to black out).

Many people may have wondered how Bhutto could have returned to Pakistan from her recent exile when the situation was so dangerous for her. Anyone who has read Daughter of Destiny knows part of the answer, if not all of it: It is not just that she had extraordinary courage but that, in a sense, she had endured worse than death.

My Plain Dealer review of Daughter of Destiny isn’t online, so I can’t link to it. But here’s a brief but fair review of the book that I agree with:

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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