A bit of Asian flavor

With just a week to go in the year, I’m now working overtime on my A-Z Challenge, with four books to go and eight reviews to write. In an attempt to make it before the clock strikes twelve on the new year, I am trying to rad the remaining books and churn out their reviews as fast as I can, and I’ll deal with the backlog of my regular reading list in the first week of the new year.

Let me start with an Asian selection: Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto and A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong.

Hardboiled & Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Michael Emmerich, cover art by the brilliant Yoshitomo Nara) are two novellas in one book, the first I’ve read by this author.

The first story, Hardboiled, tells of an unnamed woman hiking through the mountains.  It is the anniversary of her (female) lover Chizuro’s death, and as an eerie sequence of events occurs, the narrator finally faces her memories of Chizuro, and comes to terms with her loss.

Hard Luck, on the other hand, features another nameless narrator struggling with loss — her sister Kuni is in a coma, on life support, with the family getting ready to pull the plug. The narrator tries to keep her emotions at bay, but when Kuni’s fiancee’s brother Sakai offers a shoulder to cry on, her memories with Kuni come flashing back, until the moment when she has to let her sister go, forever.

Banana Yoshimoto’s writing is spare and concise, but you get the sense that it’s carefully worded. Both stories deal with grief and loss, as well as memories, but I liked one over the other. I found Hardboiled a bit too convoluted — the psychic ex-lover, the haunted stones, eerie dreams, the ghost sighting in the hotel. The ghost story felt out of joint and it didn’t really work for me.

On the other hand, I found Hard Luck wonderful — it’s more accessible, subtle, but the emotion more intense. Given the premise, I was surprised at how the story kept a positive note, and it’s one of the things I like best about this story.

I’ll share my favorite passage from the story:

“There could be no more affection or hope or miracles now that my sister was getting ready to leave our world behind. Unconscious, her body warm, she gave us time to think. Steeped in that time, I smiled a small smile. There was eternity there, and beauty, and my sister was still with us, the way she was meant to be. Did anyone ever imagine, back in the old days, that eventually a day would come when people and their brains would each die a separate death?

None of this mattered to my sister, who was dying. This was a sacred time set aside for us survivors to think about issues we didn’t usually consider.

To focus on what was unbearable only marred what was sacred.

And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experienced during the small, almost impercaptible moments of relief. The instant the unbearable pain and tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister’s soul.”

Meanwhile, The Loyal Character Dancer is a novel featuring Shanghai Police Chief Inspector Chen Cao, the first officer on the scene when a body, mutilated  in the style of a triad killing, is discovered at Bund Park. Almost simultaneously, he is assigned to a high-priority case, one concerning former dancer and party loyalist Wen Liping, who disappears before she is set to leave the country to join her husband in the US. The US needs Wen Liping to crack down a smuggling ring that imports aliends to the US, as her husband refuses to testify without her by his side. US Immigration sends Marshall Catherine Rohn to Shanghai to join the investigation.

I picked up this book because I needed an X for the A-Z Challenge, and I was expecting a gritty crime novel, so I was quite amused to read about a rising star on the Chinese police force who harbors a passion for food and poetry.

The mystery aspect moves a bit too slow for my taste, but fortunately the book has got more things going: it’s also a travelogue and foodie guide (ahh, mini-buns with minced pork stuffing, shrimp dumplings with transparent skin, sticks of fermented tofu, rice porridge with a thousand-year-egg, pickled white squash, salted duck, Guilin bean curd with chopped green scallions… Chen quotes Confucius, “To enjoy food  and sex is human nature”); a historical narrative of modern China, especially the effects of the Cultural Revolution on the “re-educated” youth and the modern Chinese party bureaucracy;  an inside look into Chinese culture and tradition (e.g. yiqi, “an ethical code of brotherhood, of loyalty, with emphasis on the obligation to reciprocate favors”); and even a Chinese poetry sampler (Where shall I find myself / Tonight, waking from a hangover — / The riverbank lined with weeping willows, / The moon sinking, the dawn rising on a breeze. / Year after year, I will be far, / Far away from you. / All the beautiful scenese are unfolding, / But to no avail: / Oh, to whom can I speak / Of this ever enchanting landscape?”)!

It’s a unique combination, and I appreciated Xiaolong’s sly humor, as well. I’m interested in looking up the other Chen Cao books, to see where the other stories take him.


Hardboiled & Hard Luck, mass market paperback, 3/5 stars

A Loyal Character Dancer, mass market paperback, 4/5 stars

Books #176-177 for 2010

Books X and Y for the A-Z Challenge

6 thoughts on “A bit of Asian flavor”

  1. I did not like Banana Yashimoto, too depressing. But I did Qiu Xiaolong for my X on the A-Z too, as did Ajie. Funny thing was that we all read 4 different titles in the Chen Cao series. If only we’d gotten together so we could share! I gave my two (When Red is Black, A Case of Two Cities) up for mooching already :(

    1. Too depressing for me too. Will give my Xialong up for mooching too, I think… Which book has his girlfriend in it?!? I want to read that one!

  2. Bloo, I have no idea why the Japanese writers I like have strong undertones of melancholy in their writings. Or maybe that’s part of their appeal to me. (Haha, hello high school self, loved Banana Yoshimoto so much!)

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