Booktrotting in China: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Crossing the border north of the Korean peninsula, my Booktrotting journey now comes to China, where short story writer Yiyun Li probes the long and complex history of a modern world power.

Then we have a short decade of republic, the warlords, two world wars, in both of which we fought on the winning side yet winning nothing, the civil war, and finally we see the dawn of communism. The day the dictator claims the communist victory in our country, a young carpenter in our town comes home to his newly wedded wife.

The People’s Republic of China—one of the largest countries in the world, with a population of over 1.3 billion and measuring almost 10 million square kilometres in land area. Its borders contain 56 officially recognised ethnic groups speaking almost 300 languages; its history sprawls back millennia, growing from early civilisations in the cradle of the Yellow River to today’s modern power, via periods of dynastic and imperial rule, presidential republics, communist regimes and controversial annexations.

As you can imagine, any attempt to explore the society and history of such a country through fiction could have a thousand starting points. The focus of a historical novel was obviously one option (Japanese occupation in Empire of the Sun, for example, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution in Wolf Totem), though something set closer to the present like Wild Swans or Do Not Say We Have Nothing would have been equally fitting. I even considered splitting China into two Booktrotting posts, pairing one contemporary novel with one of the country’s Four Great Classical Novels.

In the end, however, I chose to explore China through A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the debut short story collection by Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li. I’d not heard of Li before researching for this project, but (as I said in my last entry for Krys Lee’s Drifting House collection) I’m a huge fan of short stories—especially in this context, when the nine or ten different narratives become an opportunity to explore a variety of aspects of society, rather than focusing on just the one as most novels do.

Shanghai skyline, dawvon / CC-BY-2.0

Initially, I wasn’t expecting Good Prayers to impart much about China’s past. For starters, it’s only a mere 203 pages long—even if each story was inspired by a different event in Chinese history, there would inevitably be far more left out than included.

And secondly, each of Li’s stories take place in modern-day China rather than the past. Her characters visit Starbucks’ and stockbrokers; they escape into Internet chat rooms, and work in nuclear research facilities. There are no adventure tales of feudal warlords, no Mongol hordes or Japanese invasions.

Instead, Li’s stories follow ordinary, everyday Chinese: a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy, a schoolteacher dreaming of America, two parents overwhelmed by their daughter’s cerebral palsy. Her subjects are human affairs and interpersonal relationships, not the grand socio-historical narrative of China itself.

Erhai Lake, Yunnan, Ariel Steiner / CC-BY-SA-3.0

However, what really struck me when I read Good Prayers was just how much of China’s complex history Li was able to include and convey in her ten short stories.

She opens with the Asian Financial Crisis, unemployment and the one-child policy in ‘Extra’ and ‘After a Life’. ‘The Princess of Nebraska’ addresses the Cultural Revolution in Inner Mongolia; in ‘Immortality’ she links Mao with China’s former emperors in a tale of personality cultism. Rural traditions and out-of-touch superstitions also come into focus in ‘Persimmons’ and the closing title story, whilst in ‘Son’, Li introduces American capitalism to a bemused communist generation.

Of course, Li’s stories aren’t a perfect lesson on the history of China—Good Prayers is fiction, after all, not a textbook. But that doesn’t take away from what this book does so well, which is to give a kind of crash course not just in what it might be like to live on the ground in modern-day China, but also the context in which such a life exists.

Shigatse Dzong, Tibet, Antoine Taveneaux / CC-BY-SA-4.0

But what I noticed whilst reading was that, even with such a solid historical grounding, Li somehow manages to avoid using events like the Financial Crisis as the central themes of her stories. It would be wrong to say Good Prayers is about people living through and dealing with China’s landmark episodes; rather, its stories are about people whose lives have been inevitably affected by the country’s past, but remain separate from it—the same way we can be affected by Brexit, for example, without necessarily becoming defined by it.

Whether that’s a particular quirk of Li’s or something that’s characteristic of Chinese writing in general, I’d like to find out—the absence of the past tense in the Chinese language makes me wonder if it’s the latter. Fortunately, there is a lot of great Chinese literature out there for me to try next (like those other novels listed up above), and I’m looking forward to delving further into China’s past and present.

For my next Booktrotting stop I’ll be heading south across the Himalayas to India, where Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance tells the violent story of the 1975 Emergency.


Booktrotting in Korea: Drifting House

From the mountain springs of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country and across the Sea of Japan, my Booktrotting journey returns to mainland Asia via the Korean peninsula, with Krys Lee and her short story collection Drifting House.

The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a marooned cart, above the lintel of the gray post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.

Earlier in the year I read Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a grim collection of short stories that read like a blacklight shone on the murkier fringes of American society. The book wasn’t entirely to my taste as a reader, but I did think once finished that its focus on race, gender, age and class in the States would have made it perfect for when this Booktrotting tour eventually reaches the USA.

It was a good sign, then, that when I started reading Drifting House—Krys Lee’s debut story collection about modern life on the Korean peninsula—I was immediately reminded of Everything Ravaged. Like Wells Tower, Lee takes a country known for its soaring economy and progressive society, and opts to show none of that; instead, her stories turn to families blasted by domestic violence, women in the grip of oppressive husbands, the laid-off living rough at the foot of luxury high rises. She visits America too, where once well-off immigrants from Seoul are pressed into cramped Koreatown apartments, and even takes one story across the Demilitarised Zone to follow two North Korean brothers desperately seeking refuge in China.

Seoul by night, Philippe Teuwen / CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can imagine, that doesn’t exactly make Drifting House the gentlest of reads. For only nine stories and 210 pages, Lee creates an awful lot of truly unsettling scenes—one particular standout for me was in the very first story, ‘A Temporary Marriage’, in which a browbeaten divorcee tracking down her abusive ex-husband in Los Angeles braces herself expectantly for a beating when she angers the man with whom she is staying.

But as awful as the actual events of these episodes are, it’s Lee’s writing (in the best possible way) that really drives home the discomfort. Compared with Wells Tower, whose gritty style often balloons into pure shock value, Lee never appears to revel in what her characters do; instead, she narrates their actions almost matter-of-factly, as if torn somewhere on the line between abhorrence and sympathy. She suggests that her characters aren’t inherently bullies, thieves and murderers, but are gradually made more capable of committing vile acts by the harshness of what surrounds them: in the final story, ‘Beautiful Women’, Lee writes “here, boys blow up a frog to see how many pieces are created. There is a camaraderie in robbing small shops at knife-point. Men beat up their wives, their wives beat their children, the children beat their friends.” With the lengths to which Lee goes to understand her characters’ motivations, even their vilest actions are made somehow human—and all the more frightening for that.

View from Busan Tower, Iwy / CC-BY-2.0

I can’t say I was that surprised to find conflict forming such a key theme in Drifting House. From what I already knew of Korea’s history (chiefly the Korean war of the 1950s and the peninsula’s prior occupation by Imperial Japan) I was expecting some elements of that violent past to still be present in Lee’s stories—much like how the many guerrilla and revolutionary wars of Latin America weighed heavily on my Booktrotting reads there.

But what did surprise me was how much of Drifting House‘s conflicts centred around personal issues, such as family relationships and in particular the treatment of women in Korean society.

Historically, thanks in large part to the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, the lives of Korean women centred around little more than domesticity. Access to formal education was rare and basic legal rights sparse, and for the most part young Korean girls were raised with deference and subordination to their future husbands in mind. Officially, that all changed after the Second World War, when South Korea’s 1948 constitution ruled all citizens equal before the law and free from discrimination; since the late 1980s especially the south’s government has been pushing to address gender inequality, starting with a series of employment and welfare acts designed to level the legal standing between men and women.

But according to Krys Lee and Drifting House, whilst Korean women may have legislative equality, their social status is still very much dictated by patriarchal traditions. The female characters in Lee’s stories are often educated, working, even wealthy, but none of that counts for them when it comes to demands to obey their fathers and husbands, or keep a respectable house. And when those demands aren’t met, all too often the response is force and intimidation; the result, unhappiness and pain.

Koreatown, NYC, Ingfbruno / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Up next, my Booktrotting tour will cross the North Korean border into China, and join Yiyun Li’s short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

Summer Reading List: America, Asia, and Desert Heat

Last year, my summer reading was all about taking on some of classic literature’s biggest slogs—namely Moby DickUlysses and Don Quixote. But as much as I enjoyed that challenge, this year I’ll be sticking to some much smaller and more easily-digested novels—some continuing the swing in my reading this year towards American voices, others picking up on some of the new authors I’ve fallen in love with recently.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Of course, while I may not have any mind-bending Joyce or Tolstoy epics lined up, I’d still like to tackle at least one Big Read this summer, and Michael Chabon’s 600+ page opus about two Golden Age comics writers taking on the Nazis fits that bill splendidly. I really loved Chabon’s madcap Wonder Boys, so hopefully this will be more of the same—and if I enjoy it, I might just have to extend my stay in New York with Megan Bradbury’s Everyone is Watching or Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.

Heat, Ranulph Fiennes

I’ll admit, summer isn’t my favourite time of the year—like land snails, lungfish and the East African hedgehog, I thrive much more when the temperature is well below my age. Quite why that makes me want to spend these aestival months reading about Ranulph Fiennes’ “extreme adventures at the highest temperatures on Earth”, I’m not sure; maybe it’ll have the same cooling effect as a hot drink during a heatwave?

The Vegetarian, Han Kang

With my Booktrotting journey currently moving through East Asia, I’ve been eyeing up a few books to compliment those stops, like Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads and Rebecca Mackenzie’s In a Land of Paper Gods. As I’m currently reading through Korea this month with Krys Lee’s Drifting House, it seems like the perfect opportunity to add Han Kang’s Man Booker International-winner The Vegetarian to that list.

After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry

When I lost my heart to The Essex Serpent earlier this year, one of the first things I did (besides recommending it to literally everyone I know) was order Sarah Perry’s first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. It goes without saying that I’m really looking forward to this one: at the risk of sounding bitter and/ or jealous, Perry’s writing is pretty much everything I wish I could do, and then some. Whilst I’m spending some time revisiting new favourite authors, I also dug Jessie Burton’s The Muse (follow-up to 2014’s The Miniaturist) and Eleanor Catton’s debut The Rehearsal out of a charity shop recently, so I’ll line those up for later.

Skin, Ilka Tampke

My summer reading is already set to be pretty fantasy-heavy as I continue working through the Mistborn and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series’, but even so I’d still like to find room for this novel. I can’t say I know anything about Skin or Ilka Tampke—this was really just an impulse buy based on my soft spot for Finnish writers and awesome female leads. But if there’s any time of the year to try something new, when better than summer?

May in Books: Stone of Farewell; The Deathly Hallows; In a Land of Paper Gods

With May bringing the first heatwave of the summer, the days have been just perfect lately for sitting under a tree and reading al fresco. And even though that means the weather here is beyond lovely, I always like my books this time of year to go somewhere—whether that’s to the fantasy realm of Osten Ard, a Chinese missionary school, or back to the nostalgic halls of Hogwarts.

Stone of Farewell, Tad WilliamsWhen I found The Dragonbone Chair, the first part of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, last year, I fell in love with it completely—not because it’s a well-crafted paragon of the fantasy genre, but because it’s utterly ridiculous, dripping with just about every trope you can imagine, and absolutely impossible to take too seriously.

Stone of Farewell, the second part of the series, is pretty much more of the same. Admittedly, it was quite slow-going compared with The Dragonbone Chair (it’s more or less 800 pages of displaced heroes traipsing about and trying to regroup in the wilderness) but the middle books in trilogies are always a bit hit-and-miss, and it’s not as if I was expecting anything more than what I got—a harmless, silly flight of fancy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (reread)

Nothing says summer like a bunch of school leavers on a camping trip, right? Granted, those school leavers also happen to be on the run from the forces of magical fascism, and they spend less time drinking round the campfire and more time just trying not to die—but nevertheless, when it comes to some light-hearted adventure reading, you can’t really go wrong with revisiting Harry Potter.

Though saying that, I think this will probably be the last time I reread these books for a while now. It’s been an interesting experience going back to where I fell in love with books in the first place, especially from this new perspective of being a writer and an English student, but as much as I adore Harry Potter I think it’s time to put him back on the shelf and leave him be for a while.

In a Land of Paper Gods, Rebecca Mackenzie

In a boarding school atop the mountain of Lushan, a band of mischievous missionary children play at being prophetesses whilst their parents pursue their calling across China. But at the mountain’s feet lies a country at war, and as the children play their games the Japanese are drawing ever nearer to Lushan.

Paper Gods is a book that’s been on my radar for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to Japan’s wartime conquests in eastern Asia by The Garden of Evening Mists that I got round to picking it up—although once I did, I could barely put it down again. There’s not really much more to say about it other than it’s just that compelling; except that it would be wrong not to mention Mackenzie’s brilliance in bringing the relatively alien world of a missionary school in 1940s China to life, a skill which took Paper Gods  to the shortlist for the 2017 Ondaatje Prize.

If you’re a devotee of Second World War fiction or you just want a book that’ll take you somewhere this summer, In a Land of Paper Gods will do you just fine.

Booktrotting Log: Oceania

Another continent, another stage of my Booktrotting journey completed. Compared with the previous leg in Latin America, this literary trip across the island nations of Oceania has felt all too brief, having only three stops along the way—and yet those stops could hardly have been more diverse, beginning in self-imposed exile on Kiribati, moving through to New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, and ending with a twisted coming-of-age story on the Australian coast.

Carte de L’Océanie, J.G. Barbie du Bocage, 1852

I always knew I would struggle to find a wide spread of literature from this part of the world, and so all things considered I’m glad I managed to read what I did. But of course, it’s not all about quantity: what’s more important is how well the few books I did choose fit with my Booktrotting goal of filling in some of those blank edges on my world map.

I mentioned before how J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals was an especially good find in this regard, given how comprehensive his account was of Kiribati’s history, geography and social minutiae, and how Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries likewise introduced me to an entire period of New Zealand’s past about which I previously knew nothing.

Even Tim Winton’s Breath, which I didn’t much enjoy as a novel, was immense fun to explore as a window onto Australian adolescence and its relationship with masculinity.

Maris Pacifici, Abraham Ortelius, 1589

Fortunately, even with a smaller set of books to work from, it was still easy to notice several common themes emerging as I read my way across Oceania, just as it was in Latin America.

One of the first themes I noticed (largely because of its striking contrast to the violence encountered from Jamaica through to Argentina) was openness. Whether it was Troost in Kiribati, Walter Moody in New Zealand or Pikelet’s Kent-born family in Australia, the narrators of each of these novels were by strange coincidence connected by their origins overseas, and by the way that seemingly didn’t matter beyond providing a little backstory. Perhaps I’m just looking at this with a little too much zeitgeist, but I couldn’t help wondering that if these books were written by British authors, how many pages would be dedicated to the simple fact that the characters came from Somewhere Else?

It’s interesting to consider the role Oceania’s geography might play in this. In the British Isles, spurning the company of strangers is something of a luxury, packed in as tight as we are to our neighbours both domestic and across the Channel.

But in the countries of Oceania—especially in the vast, open spaces of Australia—that same luxury doesn’t really exist. I’d always heard friends and family in Australia and New Zealand say that it’s a much friendlier world down in the South Pacific, but I’d never thought until now how that might stem from a sense of international loneliness, cut off from the rest of the world as these countries are by the bounds of the Indian and Pacific Oceans—alone, if you will, at what once really was the edge of the world.

Australasia, John Pinkerton, 1818

From Australia my Booktrotting journey now heads across the South China Sea to continue on through Asia, working from Malaysia in the east around to Turkey in the west. But although I’m moving on from Oceania, I am determined to discover more authors and books from this region, starting with Australia’s Kate Grenville and Miles Franklin, as well as Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded first novel The Rehearsal.

March in Books: 1984; Everything Ravaged; When the Women Come Out to Dance

I didn’t get an awful lot read in February, what with working through Eleanor Catton’s mammoth The Luminaries for my Booktrotting project. But this month I’ve been back on it—and apparently jumping back in at the very deep end, with my reading list taking a sharp right turn into some very bleak waters. So bleak, in fact, that I had to take these books out into the spring sunshine to make up for it…

1984, George OrwellYes, I know, who isn’t reading George Orwell at the moment? But 1984 has been loitering on my bookcase for a long, long time now, and I figured jumping on the social commentary bandwagon was as good a way as any of finally ticking this off the “must-read” list.

Although now that I’ve finally got round to it, I must admit I found 1984 to be a little…dry. As a concept and a socio-political essay the ideas it conveys are really something else, but as a novel I found its many discourses too distracting and its plot too pedestrian to get into. Perhaps one day I’ll return to 1984 and discover what it is I’ve missed this first time around—but for now, I think I’ll hand my copy on to someone who’ll enjoy it more.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower

Continuing on with the air of desolate gloom established by 1984, this debut collection of short stories by Wells Tower read about as lightly as its title suggests. It’s a heavy brew of divorce, poverty, child abuse and more, acted out by a cast of invariably wretched characters and to a soundtrack of bitter fatalism—looking back, Everything Ravaged seems to be a pretty apt description for how I felt come the end.

But it’s also an exceptionally well-crafted set of stories. Whilst the raw subject matter might not be “enjoyable” in the typical sense of the word, the way in which Tower presents it is certainly easy to admire—particularly his hallmark oily black humour, which lingers at the end of each story like the afterburn of vomiting up bad whisky. If you like your literature grim and sardonic (like Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, for example) you could do worse than checking out Wells Tower.

When the Women Come Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard

On the face of it, this set of two novellas and seven short stories by the venerable Elmore Leonard doesn’t quite fit tonally in a lineup with 1984 and Everything Ravaged. Where Wells Tower dived into his seedy and debased world right from the start, Leonard begins softly, with human interest stories of infirmity and lost glory days.

But from that foundation, Leonard builds When the Women into an arguably much more penetrating portrait of modern America than Tower is able to. It feels eerily natural when the restless malcontent of the opening stories slides into the tales of violence and racial tension that fill the second half. Read in 2017, that transition becomes a striking image of the path down which American disaffection is so easily led—made all the more poignant by Leonard’s tone, which handles the worst of his characters not with grit or twisted humour, but with a powerless frustration, a resignation that things are what they are and will continue to be. Sure, it might be easy these days to reach for the Orwells, Atwoods and Huxleys, but don’t overlook Elmore Leonard if you want your reading with a side of social relevance.

Booktrotting in New Zealand: The Luminaries

Continuing on from the remote Republic of Kiribati, my South Pacific journey has taken a turn back in time to the New Zealand gold rush of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

He found that he was disappointed: the West Coast Times read like a parish gazette. But what had he expected? That a goldfield would be an exotic phantasm, made of glitter and promise? That the diggers would be notorious and sly—every man a murderer, every man a thief?

In 1866, Scotsman Walter Moody lands in New Zealand, ready to make his fortune on the South Island goldfields. But when he arrives in the middle of the night, he stumbles instead across a secret meeting of twelve local men, and is drawn into their confidence as they discuss a series of unsolved mysteries—the disappearance of a wealthy man, the attempted suicide of a whore, and a fortune found in a dead man’s home.

It was easy for me to empathise with Moody. Not knowing anything about The Luminaries beforehand, I was as adrift as he was upon entering Eleanor Catton’s world and finding what felt like a play I was seeing from the interval onwards. The incidents described in the blurb had already taken place, their consequences were already underway, and around me were a dozen characters whose roles in the story were already established, and who were now obliged to fill Moody and myself in on everything we’d missed.

But if that sounds confusing or tedious, it was far from it—Eleanor Catton is much too masterful a storyteller for that. Hers is a plot built with finesse, its revelations deployed with the exactitude of one who knows just when to illuminate and when to remain cryptic. As the truth unfurls it does so seductively—helped along in no small way by Catton’s charming pastiche of the Victorian theatric, blending sex, murder and buried treasure behind a fog of opium smoke. If you enjoy getting lost in the likes of Anna Karenina or The Count of Monte Cristo, then this is definitely the book for you.

Hokitika River and Hokitika Gorge, Pseudopanax / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Luckily I loved both of those novels, and so The Luminaries was a perfect fit for my reading taste. But when I was first planning my Booktrotting itinerary, I was reluctant to include it as my New Zealand stop; for one reason or another, I thought my literary world tour would be better served by a setting more contemporary than 1866.

But on the other hand, I was also drawn irresistibly to the backdrop of the West Coast Gold Rush. For all my knowledge of New Zealand’s vineyards and film locations, I know next to nothing about the country’s past, and had no idea it had even had a gold rush—I’d always thought prospectors were exclusive to the American west.

And so with a history lesson in mind, I could hardly have asked any more of The Luminaries. Its plot may be intentionally fanciful to the extreme, but the framework beneath is rife with historical detail: from characters’ names and clothes, to the hierarchy of township society, even to the fine print of shipping insurance, the meticulousness of Catton’s research deserves at least as much praise as the novel itself. She doesn’t so much construct the 19th century West Coast as resurrect it; so tangibly authentic is her depiction of Hokitika’s streets that they feel like a period drama set just waiting for the crew to start filming (which, incidentally, shouldn’t be long now).

Hokitika Township ca 1870s, James Ring / National Library of New Zealand (public domain)

But of all the elements of historical accuracy, the one Catton captures best is the diversity found at what was, in 1866, the effective end of the world.

To call her ensemble cast of characters “diverse” wouldn’t quite do it justice—”motley” would probably come closer. In the first scene alone, Scottish-born Moody rubs shoulders not just with émigrés from his own British Isles, but also from Norway, France, Germany and China; there’s surely no irony lost in the character of Te Rau Tauwhare, the only native Maori presence in The Luminaries‘ 832 pages.

Catton uses this kaleidoscope of different perspectives to paint Hokitika in the abstract, as something exotic, elusive and ever-changing, a scene distorted by the expectations of it. Depending on the character, New Zealand means riches, revenge, adventure, anonymity: to some it is the start of a new life, to others it’s just a different place to die.

The paths that lead these characters across the Pacific sound veritably swashbuckling when read together. But I can’t help wondering if that is in fact the point; if, in borrowing from the playbook of the penny dreadful, Catton is also poking fun at our romantic, “greener grass” view of life in this far corner of the world. It’s certainly not hard to see how the modern attraction of New Zealand has grown in part from its goldfield past, and from the tales of glory and wild wonder that would have reached Britain from the West Coast in 1866.

But that being said, it’s clear Catton isn’t trying to debunk New Zealand’s reputation as an idyllic escape—The Luminaries merely presents a tickled new perspective on where that might have originated. And of course, even if our impression of the country has been inflated somewhat by the lens of time and distance, there’s no denying that there is some truth to New Zealand’s allure. It is, after all, still a truly breathtaking country…

Lake Matheson, Mrogex / CC-BY-SA

Next up is the final stop on my Oceania leg—Australia, for which my guide will be Tim Winton’s story of surfing and boyhood, Breath.