Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliché. If you ever go looking for books about China, you know how many of them have “dragon” in the title? Like all of them, practically.
As soon as I read the opening lines of Lisa Brackmann’s new China-set crime thriller, Dragon Day, I knew I was going to enjoy it every bit as much as I had anticipated. At initial glance, the book indulges in the two ultimate China clichés — that “dragon” title and its red cover —but with those first four sentences, Brackmann delivers a big wink to her readers: Don’t worry. You might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea.
This will come as no surprise to readers of the first two books in Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she previously discussed in a China Blog Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom). Anti-heroine Ellie is a Percocet-dependent injured Iraq War vet who moves to Beijing with her husband, Trey, an employee at a Blackwater-like security firm. After Trey leaves her for his young Chinese mistress (speaking of clichés …), Ellie decides to remain in China because she’s as at home there as she is anywhere — which is to say, not at all.
Her attempts to build a life as an art manager in Beijing are repeatedly interrupted by murder, politics, and conspiracy. But while in other mystery series the protagonists’ tendency to stumble upon dead bodies can strain credulity, this same plot move seems natural in Ellie’s case: operating in a world of dissident artists and super-rich collectors, and with her lingering ties to the American defense apparatus, Ellie is surrounded on all sides by people who work in the shadows. Sometimes, murder is simply the only way they know to get the job done.
Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.
Ellie is not always a sympathetic protagonist. She’s wounded and closed-off, unable to accept the help that people offer. She should really be nicer to her mother, who has come to live with Ellie in Beijing. And she often makes the wrong choices, fully knowing that they’re mistakes but unable to stop herself. Still, I find Ellie — cynical, paranoid, and profane as she is — a compelling character with a unique voice.
Brackmann has stated repeatedly that Dragon Day is her last Ellie book; there is a limit to the number of times a character can be endangered before a series jumps the shark (see: Outlander), and she doesn’t want to risk reaching that point. And while I understand that, I know I’m not alone among her readers in lamenting that we only get three volumes in Ellie’s story. Dragon Day is a more than satisfying end to the trilogy, wrapping up many of the long-term plot threads while resisting the urge to give Ellie an uncharacteristically happy ending. Ellie, after all, would never stand for such a cliché.
By Sarah Woods
MOST TRAVEL WRITERS harbor a secret hope they will uncover something special as they voyage. But many never do. It’s rare to make a discovery in this world. To trail-blaze. To set the world alight; to reveal something new. We travel writers notice stuff, sure, and write it down for the enjoyment of others; most of us end wrapping rather ordinary experience up in ribbons to make it appear more extraordinary than it was.
Kurt Caswell’s Getting to Grey Owl isn’t a standard travel book — far from it. While some pieces are easier reads than others (you’d expect as much from a collection spanning two decades), Caswell writes vividly throughout, with humor and pathos (we learn early on that he has loved and lost), and not just about beautiful vistas or exotic locales; booze joints, bunk beds, and back alleys all have their place. Caswell, who teaches literature and creative writing in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, begins his travels in Japan in 1992 and ends them with a trip to Iceland in 2013 — in between, over the course of two decades, he visits more than a dozen countries on four different continents. Always, he’s as interested in the people as he is in place.
For example, on a river trip in China, boarding at Guilin and disembarking at Yangshuo, Caswell admits to being utterly beguiled by the exotic rosebud lips and coarse black hair of Chinese women. It is also in China, and in the same essay, that Caswell fails to cotton on to the hard-sell advances of a sexually savvy masseuse keen to deliver a “reaaaally goooood ma—ssage.” He fleetingly considers accepting the offer; and is later troubled, wondering why he did not.
While in Italy, Caswell goes to Venice, which he explores without a map (as I do). He is a rather reluctant tourist; still, Caswell can’t help but succumb to the lure of a gondola ride (again, like me.) He also spends lots of money sipping outrageously over-priced coffee (and I’m heartened by this, too.)
Caswell’s travels in Spain hark back, briefly, to the days of Hemingway. In Seville, he decides to attend a bullfight; it’s all rather sad and bloody. He’d ignored the advice of a barman (a pre-fight nerve-steadier is the order of day), and neglected to pack a bag “to vomit in,” because “it’s disgusting,” he writes. As the bull enters the ring he finds himself cheering, then quickly realizes the event is not a contest. “It’s a tragedy,” he writes, and as he observes the bull’s bloody demise, he reflects on man’s 20,000-year relationship with the animal to ponder why the custom continues.
He doesn’t tell us that Spain’s fondness for bullfighting is on the wane. Although Spain’s parliament awarded bullfighting national cultural heritage status in 2014, a 2013 poll showed that 75 percent of Spaniards have not attended a bullfight in the past five years, and that only 29 percent support it. Still, for Caswell, this is mainly an episode of gore, guts, and gloom, not about culture.
Another story centers on ascending four small mountains in the UK and Ireland: Mount Snowdon in Wales at 1085 meters, Ireland’s Mount Carrantuohill at 1039 meters, Ben Nevis in Scotland at 1,344 meters and Scafell Pike at 978 meters. Caswell must have a strong stomach, because Scafell Pike isn’t just England’s highest mountain; it is home to one of the nation’s highest makeshift toilets. I pulled myself up to the summit, red-faced and weary, only to be greeted by the nauseating stench of human waste. Could it be that Caswell didn’t notice? Or had the shocking amounts of litter and excrement been cleared away after my ascent? He briefly remembers another great climb, up the steep winding trail that leads to the top of 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the second-highest waterfall in America, and its sublime vista. But back on Scafell Pike, Caswell can see little through the drizzle, which lends his essay a Wordsworthian air. And when anxiety strikes, Caswell, like Wordsworth himself, “wanders lonely as a cloud” feeling lost and bereft. He recognizes nothing familiar. Nothing comforting. No flower, tree, or creature. As he contemplates weeping, I worried for him, but I needn’t have: that same evening he is rescued by a friendly Samaritan, Xiaolin, a radiant Taiwanese.
In Iceland — the land of ice and fire — Caswell writes of fjords, glaciers, low-lying northern sun, treacherous snow paths, and arctic foxes, as well as his relationship with Scott Dewing, a friend for over 30 years. Travel is the glue that has cemented their bond. As boys, they were competitive; now Scott is happily married and devoted to family life while Caswell is flying solo after a break up. Scott sometimes yearns for Caswell’s solitude — Caswell often longs for his friend’s family life. Caswell is full of wanderlust, Scott is steady. Caswell has long, thick hair, and Scott’s is thinning. But although each man envies his friend, neither attempts to eclipse the other.
In other tales, Caswell stays closer to home, describing excursions into Anasazi Country, Utah (in four separate trips over 10 years, 1996 – 2006), and the tricky mountain paths of Idaho. However, it is the Scottish town of Inverness that provides Caswell with his most bizarre encounter. As one of the prettiest of Scotland’s seven cities, Inverness sits in the south of the rugged Highlands, on the wide sweeping banks of the fabled River Ness. Crowned by a pink castle that looks like a wedding cake about to topple into the waters below, Inverness is famous for its small historic central core, already a thriving trading port in the 6th century. The town has famously survived Jacobite bombs and ground-shaking tremors, and is now a picturesque gateway to the leaping Atlantic salmon that swim the River Ness. It’s a stone’s throw from Culloden Battlefield, Moray Firth and the boats that cruise down the Caledonian Canal to reach Loch Ness. Yet I don’t learn this from Caswell, because his encounter isn’t with the landscape or its wildlife, but rather with Tia, a transgender hostess whom he meets in a restaurant. Once again, as in China, he is slow on the uptake, assuming that Tia is all woman. She is not.
“She was the most gorgeous creature I’d seen all day, ” he writes.
Shouler-length black hair, kinda ratty and witchy, huge dark eyes like Bambi blinking at that raging forest fire, a long graceful line down the length of her tight black trousers, and the most unexpectedly perfect chest. She spoke in a dark smoker’s voice, which, unbeknownst to me until then, kinda turned me on.
Tia and Caswell share a moment outside in the dark street over a cigarette before bidding each other goodnight. Did they go home together to share a bed, as Tia suggests? Caswell isn’t saying. Curiously, he ends the chapter this way: “And from here, gentle reader, our scene becomes so filled with mist, it’s impossible to know what happened next.”
The final piece in the collection — Caswell’s search for Grey Owl’s Cabin in Saskatchewan — gives the book its title. As with the writer’s other rambles, this quest is fodder for a lyrical and reflective essay executed with whimsy and awe. Caswell’s style serves him well: whether he is on a lung-busting hike in Wales, cruising through mysterious Chinese waters, or bartering for a rug in a Moroccan market, his writings are as much an exploration of his inner as outer landscape. He muses as he meanders, wonders as he wanders — about the meaning of life, of love, of lust, of aging, and of the end itself. But for a man so intensely thoughtful and well-traveled, Caswell seems worryingly naive. It strikes me now that his various unwise encounters add a frisson of adventure to his adventures; adding danger to the dangers. But to stroll in strange cities by dark, to drink too much in iffy bars, to loiter too long in the wrong places seems either reckless or gormless, as if the author simply didn’t notice the potential for harm.
Caswell is distracted in part because he’s anxious about the state of the world and he frets about his carbon footprint. A deep thinker, his unanswered questions about the role of the travel writer and the health of the planet resonate perfectly. Undertaking immense journeys to write about environmental disaster, burning thousands of gallons of jet to bring us news of melting glaciers and the decline of arctic? Caswell can’t help but ask if it wouldn’t be better to stay home. He worries if writing and researching a story on climate change — as he has done — is actually worth its weight in carbon. His conclusion, if I’m not mistaken, is that it is important to justify your travels by ensuring that they make some kind of difference.
Will the story of Caswell’s trip to Grey Owl’s Cabin help to save the earth? No, it will not. His discoveries and revelations are mostly of a personal nature. But will it cause us to relish the idea of wandering? Inspire us to yearn for more wriggle room? To more deeply examine our motives and ourselves? Undoubtedly, yes.
Sarah Woods has travelled for two decades non-stop, circumnavigating the globe in several directions and clocking up over 620,000 miles along the way. She has traveled all the continents and navigated many of the world’s most iconic landscapes. She is a veteran of jungle treks and wildlife conservation expeditions and an early pioneer of Giving Something Back and responsible travel. Now based in the UK, Sarah is a regular travel expert/contributor to daytime TV and BBC radio, and she has written extensively for more than 70 magazines worldwide, including National Geographic, Wanderlust, BBC Wildlife, Wild Travel, and Traveller. She works closely with Europe’s biggest wildlife conservation charity, the RSPB, is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and the International Travel Alliance.
By Joanna Chen
My friend and I arrive late at the protest tent of Women Wage Peace in Jerusalem. Temperatures are soaring; a car bursts into flames on the main highway, forcing us into a huge traffic jam that snakes up the steep incline into Jerusalem. No matter. The women at the open-air tent are happy to see us. We are offered water in plastic cups and I am handed a blue cloth necklace with the words “I’m fasting” written on it in Hebrew. I take a step back, shake my head. No, I’m not fasting.
The day before, I opened an email from Women Wage Peace, reminding me that I had signed up. I’d promised a friend that I would go along with her to a protest meeting and she had handed in my name. Now I was faced with a questionnaire and a request to explain in two or three sentences why I had agreed to join. I was unable to fill this out because, quite simply, I did not know. I had great excuses — too much work, the unbearable heatwave. The truth is, I didn’t want to go. The ongoing stalemate in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians has led me to believe that I will not change anything by denying myself food.
Women Wage Peace was formed a year ago in response to the so-called Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Over two thousand Palestinians were killed back then and thousands more were injured. There were also Israeli losses; both sides suffered deep trauma.
That summer, Israeli warplanes rumbled above my house in the Ella Valley with frightening regularity, night and day, en route for Gaza. I grew to dread that sound. That was when I went to visit the nuns of Bet Jamal, a short drive from my house, and asked in desperation what I should do. How could I continue living in a country full of such animosity? “Be here,” said the nun who opened the door to me.
One year later, I present myself at the Women Wage Peace tent. I visit on Day 35 of Operation Protective Fast, and there are 15 more to go, mirroring the number of days of last year’s war. I’m wearing a white T-shirt, as instructed in the email. I am handed a turquoise ribbon, which I obediently pin to my T-shirt. Now I am one of them, a group of woman of all ages and professions, mostly Jewish but not exclusively so. Over the past year, over 14 thousand women have joined the organization, and many women drop by the tent to express solidarity. Everyone is united in a desire to reach a viable peace solution, regardless of their political affinities. A group of Palestinian women visited earlier in the week from Bethlehem, as did one brave woman from Hebron.
This gathering is not a solution to the extreme hatred on both sides, but it is a show of strength and determination. These days, surely this counts for something. Last week, a 16-year old Jewish girl was killed at Jerusalem’s gay parade by an ultra-religious extremist. A few hours later, a Palestinian baby and his father died in a fired started by Jewish settlers.
One of the organizers of womenwagepeace.org, Lili Weisberger, has startling eyes the color of the ribbons we all wear. She patiently explains to passersby the power that women have when they club together.. “They did it in Liberia,” she says, referring to the successful peace campaign carried out by Nobel prize winner Leymah Gbowee, “and we can do it here.” After a few hours in her company, I begin to believe her.
The tent is just a few steps from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence, a heavily-guarded building patrolled by stern-looking men with Ray-Ban shades and wires hooked around their ears. From time to time they inspect the tent, poking around in the trash can and examining the gasoline can that powers the modest generator. Next to the tent is a small family sitting around on cheap plastic chairs, protesting the fact that their son was put into a foster home by the authorities. The woman wears a leopard-skin dress with lacy shoulders. She asks one of the hunger strikers what she thinks of the dress. Very nice, she answers, smiling palely.
Every time the road is closed to allow Netanyahu access in and out of his residence, we all leap up, grab flags and posters stuck to boards and stand in a long line. Hunger and oppressive heat are forgotten for a moment. Perhaps Netanyahu will see us. Perhaps he will stop and exchange a few words with us. After the cavalcade disappears, the sirens and the flashing lights, things return to normal. We ease back into our chairs, pass water around from a polystyrene cooler, check our cell phones, check how long has passed. From time to time, motorists honk as they drive by, and we wave. Two men in a sports car cruise by the tent, roll down their windows, and yell at us to get back into the kitchen. Come talk to us, one of the women responds.
Twice a day, there is a ceremony. Those who have completed the fast remove their turquoise necklaces and hand them off, like a rite of passage, to the next in line. Every day, more women join.
The next morning, we stand in a circle, holding hands and singing in English and Hebrew. I’ve never been the touchy-feely type, and feel vaguely embarrassed by this. What the hell, I tell myself, after a moment’s hesitation. I join in. After the singing, we sit in a circle and each woman explains why she has come to the tent. I listen. One woman relates her feelings of isolation and how she wants to share her feelings with others. Dorit Noy, a 75-year old great-grandmother from Eilat in southern Israel, has traveled six hours on a bus to fast here for the second time. She says enough of her family has fought in wars for her lifetime. Solly, who lives close to the border with Gaza, tells how she sat in shelters the whole of last summer and how no child should have to do that, whatever her religion or nationality. I am also asked to speak, to explain why I have come. The microphone is handed to me and I think for a moment. I’ve come to show support, I say, and I mean it.
Later, I go to the nearby café to do some work and wait for my friend
to finish her fast. Back in 2002, this café, then called Moment, was the site of a suicide bombing that left 11 people dead and more than 50 injured. I order a coffee. The women who are fasting have been given permission to use the restrooms here, and every so often a woman in white with a turquoise necklace passes my table. I feel guilty sitting here, drinking coffee. I gulp it down quickly. After an hour, I wander further down the busy thoroughfare, ironically named Gaza Street. It’s blazing hot out and people move along the sidewalk languidly. I watch them, wondering how long it will take for the next outbreak of violence to begin. I turn and walk back to the protest tent. Like I said, it’s the least I can do.
Rowman and Littlefield recently published Steel Gate to Freedom : The Life of Liu Xiaobo, a translation of Yu Jie’s powerful biography of a man with whom he has long been friends. Liu remains China’s best known prisoner of conscience — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, he was unable to collect it due to his 11-year prison term for his bold call for expanded civil liberties. This new biography opens with an introduction by Jean-Philippe Béja, a leading French specialist on China, whose work often focuses on struggles for democracy. I caught up with Béja, whose recent books include The Impact of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (Routledge, 2011), to ask him some questions. (Note: as someone who has known Liu for decades and often interviewed him, Béja sometimes refers to Liu familiarly as “Xiaobo” rather than by his surname.)
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What are the kinds of things this book will tell Western readers about Liu Xiaobo that they would not likely have come across before, if their previous information about him had come only from pieces celebrating his win of the Nobel Peace Prize?
JEAN-PHILIPPE BEJA: Despite the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo remains quite unknown to the general public. I guess the biggest surprise will come from his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution. While it is described as a catastrophe in official discourse as well as in dissidents’ writings (including Liu’s), it comes out from the book as a period of freedom which provided this typical Northeastern lively youth with a number of opportunities to get into fights, and to assert his personality. This stands in contrast with the image of the thoughtful intellectual that came across in the 1990s, but it helps explain why he was not afraid of the provocations that later so shocked the progressive intellectuals used to political correctness.
Yu’s book also shows that Xiaobo was thrilled by all the crazes of the 1980s. Having become an ultra individualist in reaction to the “ultra collectivist” model imposed on youth by Mao in the 1970s, Liu tried everything: an admirer of Nietzsche, he seized every opportunity to assert his individuality. Besides — and this appears as a shock to Yu Jie — the young man who got married early was a strong believer in the sexual revolution that developed in the 1980s, a womanizer always surrounded by pretty young women. All these features remind the reader of Western 1960s activists. Except that, at the time, Xiaobo was not deeply involved in politics.
He changed after the June Fourth Massacre, which changed his life, and his role in China’s intellectual life. But this aspect of his personality, which is developed in Yu’s book, is more familiar to the public.
What do you think readers in mainland China who have only been exposed to denigrations of Liu as a traitorous and dangerous political figure (leaving aside the many who have never heard his name mentioned at all, as well as those who in critical intellectual and dissident communities), find most surprising to learn from this book? If, that is, they somehow got hold of Steel Gate to Freedom and perused it with an open mind?
They might be surprised to learn first of all that, within China, Xiaobo has not always been denigrated as a traitor. In the second half of the 1980s, he was very popular with students and young intellectuals who rushed to hear his presentations. The official media even published some of his provocative essays. But it is true that since 1989, he has been the target of official attacks.
I guess young people might be interested in the description of the 1980s intellectual atmosphere, that they pretty much ignore. They will also be interested in discovering the numerous facets of Liu’s personality, and will be impressed by his courage. His decision to “live in truth” whatever the consequences, will definitely appeal to the most politicized. But I guess that many a former “Little Emperor” — obsessed with career prospects and the will to make money — will find his idealism laughable.
How would you characterize the author, Yu Jie’s, goals in writing this account of his friend, which is clearly not meant to be a hagiography?
First of all, Yu Jie admires Liu Xiaobo, and is a good friend of his. I guess that if you write about a person who has decided to live in truth, you cannot depict him as a spotless figure. I think that Yu Jie wanted to show as much as possible the true nature of his friend’s personality, not neglecting its negative aspects. A literary critic himself who denounced the official Marxist literary theory, he was cautious not to paint the “typical character in a typical environment” (dianxing renwu, dinning huanjing) celebrated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In order to write Liu Xiaobo’s biography, Yu has traveled all over China to find people he had known at various stages of his life, despite the risks involved. Once he had been forced to go to the US, he interviewed almost all the Chinese people who had known him. I guess that to Yu Jie, the best tribute to his friend consists in giving a truthful image of his personality.
Were there new things that you learned from it, even as someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about the events of 1989 and their legacy?
Yu Jie presents a very informative account of many stages of Liu’s life. During my meetings with Xiaobo, we mostly talked about politics and about developments since 1989, therefore I didn’t know much about his personal life before the Tiananmen protests. I learnt a lot on this subject from Yu’s book.
So far as the 1989 movement is concerned, I learned much less, but those parts of the book remain valuable. Yu’s account of the last days of the sit-in in Tiananmen Square is very detailed. I knew this part of Liu’s life story well from my interviews with him, and others who have studied the June 4th Movement will find much that is familiar in that part of the book as well. Still, it is interesting to see from it what Yu’s distinctive take on these events is, and he is an intriguing figure in his own right. His book also underscores the importance of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in the history of the PRC, and this, too, is significant.
Dear Dr. Palmer:
Due to the news story that you’ve recently been involved in, I know a lot about you. Or at least enough to write you this letter. You probably don’t know anything about me, and I’d like to introduce myself. I’m a writer, teacher, American citizen, fan of baseball, heavy metal, blues, jazz and all that has rhythm and a beat and a tune that you can breathe and dance and sway to. I like German chocolate cake and espresso and roast duck and sometimes I take my espresso with amaretto. I also eat the beef of cattle and bison, but not very often; more generally, I go for kale but really my favorite thing is crepes, at any time of the day or night. I should mention as well that I like hiking and wide open space, especially if sand is involved, and every now and then, I try to surf, but mostly end up hanging twenty – and then falling off anyway.
I don’t think I’ve ever written to a dentist before, although I’ve sent Christmas cards and thank you notes. I want to let you know that I have no fear of those in your profession and I’ve liked all of my dentists. One in fact was so wonderful that I almost considered staying in the wrong town, even though that would have meant not seeing my best friends ever again or re-uniting with an old boyfriend. Over the years I’ve noticed that some of my dentists, and doctors as well, have photographs of wild animals on their walls; I recall one thoughtful and light-hearted dentist who even had such images on the ceiling, to offer patients a beautiful thing to look at as they lay prone in his chair, perhaps undergoing an uncomfortable procedure.
As for the subject at hand, Cecil the Lion, I am not trying to be coy when I say that it must be rough to get busted – by millions of people on the internet, no less – for something that a lot of other people do all of the time all over the world on a regular basis. I refer specifically to hunting wildlife for sport, and more specifically, in your case, to the recent killing of Cecil in Zimbabwe. I know that you may engage in such activity in the name of conservation, along with the many others who pay large sums of money to hunt and kill wild animals in exotic and domestic locations, often at the behest of sponsors and guides who are part of a licensed network, though not always. In your case, many things have converged; we live in a time during which the world is mad as hell and isn’t gonna take it any more. Because of the internet, and depending on what “it” is at any given time, this anger increases exponentially, and the person who is the focus of whatever the world is mad about at any particular moment assumes association with that selfsame act. You are the person who now represents trophy killing everywhere.
There are so many things I want to ask you. When did you first come into contact with lions? When you were a little boy, did you see them at the circus atop their mounts and gaze in wonderment at their flowing manes and static power as their trainer kept them in place and then took a bow? Did you see them at the zoo, behind bars, and if so what did you think? I would often accompany my mother, an artist, to our local wild animal dwelling. She liked to draw the animals, in particular the small capuchin monkeys on Monkey Island and after that, we would wander over to the big cat house. I remember watching the lions pacing, pacing, pacing inside their cage. There was a sign that said they were the king of the jungle and it had some other information that was scientific that I don’t remember. Even locked up, they retained a magnificence. There was still a flicker in their eyes, or so I like to think, but maybe my memory here stems from the fact that I had been listening to a recording of famous poems around that time, and had developed a fascination for one in particular, about another big cat, and lately, I can’t shake it. It was “The Tyger” by William Blake, and it had the well-known phrase, “Tiger tiger burning bright.” Maybe you know it? It’s been recorded many times by British orators and “covered” by rock bands. Here are a couple of verses:
TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
In Los Angeles where I live, flames of that fire have licked at our gates in recent days. A cougar who lives at Griffith Park and thereabouts holed up for a few days in a dark space in a home near its range, creating a media frenzy and talk of how to make it leave and what if it attacked. Known as P22, the mountain lion slipped away one night, evading anchor folk and the rest of us, and according to its tracking collar, safely returned to what remains of the wilderness. As I wrote here at the time, the presence of P22 brought to mind how we have appropriated cougar spirit in our lives, and so too have I been thinking about how we have commandeered lion essence, or talk about it at least, as we go about our daily lives. By any chance, Dr. Palmer, are you a Leo? If not, you most likely know one or two such folk who have been born under this astrological sign, which is Latin for lion, so named by the ancients because at a certain time of the year, certain stars configured themselves so as to resemble the king of the jungle and those who emerged under this constellation were said to be imprinted with the characteristics of the lion, which is to say, they were fierce, courageous, they were the king.
Do lions figure into your life, I wonder? Do you dream about them? Do you love or hate the Detroit Lions? Have you been to a production of “The Lion King”? Most likely you’ve seen the MGM lion at the movies, possibly one of the most well-known marketing mascots of all time. Do you have any thoughts one way or another when he roars, even if only to know that the roar signals the start of something big? When you were in Zimbabwe, did you hear lions roar? When that happened, what happened to you?
In the timeless time, aboriginal hunters said that a desired animal would present itself to the one who desired it, head into the line of attack and make eye contact just before it was felled, as if to say, “I’m yours. Take me.” The animal knew that conditions required its sacrifice; the tribe was hungry and on the animal, the two-legged members of its circle were dependent. After the animal was taken, there was ceremony and the web was not broken.
Dr. Palmer, let me put it to you this way: I am asking you to come in and lay down your arms. If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company.
May I introduce you to Aldo Leopold? He happens to be a founder of the wilderness system that we have in America today, and helped take the country from outdated concepts of wildlife management which he himself was involved with to an approach that was more inclusive of animals and their welfare. His writings about the environment were far ahead of his time, and they have since become an underpinning of the modern campaign for ecosystem and wildlife protection. Before he became such an influential person, he was a hunter, a bounty hunter in effect, paid by the government in his capacity as manager of the Gila Wilderness in Arizona, and he liked it. Yet it was through hunting that he came to renounce the practice of killing wild animals in order to save things. His turn-around was not conceptual, not the result of an idea; it happened one moment after he killed a wolf and he wrote about it in his seminal piece, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which appears in Sand County Almanac, his collection of essays about how we live on and with the land and share it with other creatures great and small. It was first published in 1949, though this particular hunt had happened sometime earlier. Here’s an excerpt, describing the sojourn and his transformation:
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf…
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
And so, I ask you again: Dr. Palmer, would you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. Aldo Leopold wasn’t; in fact, he had fine company.
May I introduce you to Ernest Thompson Seton? It was in his footsteps that Leopold travelled, although that does not seem to have been on his mind, in an overt way at least. Yet it is very likely that any well-informed hunter of his era, and any wilderness-minded individual, would have known the story of the famed wolf called Lobo, the one whose brutal killing at the hands of Seton, the dedicated hunter, changed the life of this man – and the country. You see, in 1893 he responded to a call for help from ranchers in New Mexico; their cattle was under siege, they said, and one wolf in particular was to blame, leading his pack in all manner of bloodthirsty raids and making it impossible to stake out a decent life in the wilderness. So Seton travelled to the beleaguered region to stalk the animal known as “vermin” – using terminology that is still in use today, applied to many wild animals – during the final stages of the great wolf removals of that era. It was not the first of such hunts for him; in fact as the Telegraph reported several years ago, before he had emigrated to the United States from Canada, he had written the definitive manual on how to catch wolves. By the time he arrived in New Mexico for the hunt he would document in a short story, only several wolves remained, including Old Lobo. Along with a posse of other men, Seton spent months tracking the “outlaw,” as he was treated and called, wanted just as badly as any fugitive who had eluded the hanging tree. And oh that Lobo was smart, all right; as Seton later wrote, the wolf had “disarmed” his traps, avoiding bait that was laced with strychnine and cyanide while managing to extract sustenance from a thing that would have otherwise killed him. This only added to his notoriety and allure, making him all the more defiant and wanted, and his stalkers took the ability to elude them as an affront, and Seton noted that the situation had become a humiliation. Finally, he discovered that Lobo had a mate, a white wolf known as Blanca, and now he had a way to catch Lobo. After luring Blanca into a baited trap, he killed her, “the first death blow we had been able to inflict on the pack,” he said. And then something happened that surprised him, and it was so shattering that it would lead him to write “Lobo, the King of Currumpaw,” a story that came to guide the country along a new path of greater protections for wolves after it appeared in an illustrated collection of his stories called Wild Animals I Have Known. Here is an excerpt:
At intervals during the tragedy, and afterward as we rode homeward, we heard the roar of Lobo as he wandered about on the distant mesas, where he seemed to be searching for Blanca. He had never really deserted her, but, knowing that he could not save her, his deep-rooted dread of firearms had been too much for him when he saw us approaching. All that day we heard him wailing as he roamed in his quest, and I remarked at length to one of the boys, “Now, indeed, I truly know that Blanca was his mate.”
As evening fell he seemed to be coming toward the home canyon, for his voice sounded continually nearer.
There was an unmistakable note of sorrow in it now. It was no longer the loud, defiant howl, but a long, plaintive wail; “Blanca! Blanca!” he seemed to call. And as night came down, I noticed that he was not far from the place where we had overtaken her. At length he seemed to find the trail, and when he came to the spot where we had killed her, his heartbroken wailing was piteous to hear. It was sadder than I could possibly have believed. Even the stolid cowboys noticed it, and said they had “never heard a wolf carry on like that before.” He seemed to know exactly what had taken place, for her blood had stained the place of her death…
He then set steel traps for Lobo, 130 of them, buried and concealed them, and dragged Blanca across each one, laying down her scent. Lobo responded to one of them, and it gripped each of his legs in a way that was final, and that’s how Seton found him, the next day, a “a great grizzly form” arising from the ground, “vainly endeavoring to escape.” Yet the old wolf continued to struggle, the light still fierce his eyes, and the men further subdued him, deciding not to shoot him and end his pain, but instead placing him atop a horse and taking him back to their camp, where they could secure his hide. En route, Seton noted that Lobo’s eyes were no longer focused on his hunters, but
Afar on the great rolling mesas they were fixed, his passing kingdom, where his famous band was now scattered. And he gazed till the pony descended the pathway into the canyon, and the rocks cut off the view….[Back at camp] I set meat and water beside him but he paid no heed. He lay calmly on his breast, and gazed with those steadfast yellow eyes away past me down through the gateway of the canyon, over the open plains—his plains—nor moved a muscle when I touched him. When the sun went down he was still gazing fixedly across the prairie. I expected he would call up his band when night came, and prepared for them, but he had called once in his extremity, and none had come; he would never call again.
A lion shorn of his strength, an eagle robbed of his freedom, or a dove bereft of his mate, all die, it is said, of a broken heart; and who will aver that this grim bandit could bear the three-fold brunt, heart-whole? This only I know, that when the morning dawned, he was lying there still in his position of calm repose, his body unwounded, but his spirit was gone—the old kingwolf was dead.
I took the chain from his neck, a cowboy helped me to carry him to the shed where lay the remains of Blanca, and as we laid him beside her, the cattle-man exclaimed: “There, you would come to her, now you are together again.
So I ask you again, Dr. Palmer, won’t you come in and lay down your arms? If you give up trophy hunting in honor of Cecil, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you’d be in fine company. Along with the men I have mentioned, there are others out there. Like you, they have taken the lives of wild animals in the name of other things, but not always. I know because I’ve met them. When they are young and in their prime, they are unreachable, defiant, afraid. They are receiving approval for their acts from a circle of friends and it is a thing with which they are familiar and it sustains them. They are equipped with all manner of gear and accessories, “varmint calls” that let them “hunt the hunters” and after they’ve done it, they display the take proudly and sometimes are photographed with it in a manner such as you know. Years later, some are full of remorse, or more accurately, some of their kind, for I have not followed their lives individually, but have met and spent time with different sorts of hunters at different stages of their lives, and those who have killed for sport and are remorseful cannot show this feeling to their friends. Sometimes they come to my talks, after others have left, unassuming, defeated, not really a part of this world. “I’m sorry,” they say, on the verge of tears in certain instances, sometimes extending a hand. And then they tell me what they have done, which is to say kill wild horses (as mustangs and the ongoing war against them is the subject of one of my books). They regret their role in the decimation of our herds, living in the West as most of them do, and now looking out their back doors, say, if they have a home (some are without one, living on the road, cast aside like the animals we do not want), and seeing a Wal-Mart, for instance, or string of fast food establishments, on the horizon of the once open range. “It’s all gone,” they say, and they know they have been part of the wipe-out, which extends to all wild animals at this point, and they have participated in the wars against all of these animals (if you think that a wild horse is a “varmint,” you generally think that wolves and mountain lions and bobcats are too, and they have, for instance, used the carcasses of wild horse to attract other four-leggeds so they can kill them). Now, with everything gone and the land empty, they ask me what they can do. “To make things right,” they say, like a prayer, and they tear up and begin to have trouble talking and then they leave, vanishing into the national vapors. “In America,” Jim Harrison once wrote, “there are a lot of bodies by the side of the road.”
Finally, there is one more thing I’d like to say and then I’ll be on my way. Earlier this year, my dear friend, Michael Blake, passed away. You may not be familiar with his name, but you well may know his legacy. He wrote “Dances with Wolves” – the book and the movie. Throughout his life, Michael spoke on behalf of all wild things, including mountain lions, and like me, he was a long-time defender of wild horses. Here is an excerpt from “Horse Number 1202,” a poem he wrote about a wild horse after it was seized from the wilderness and penned up in a government corral:
In city traffic
I remember his eyes
So dark and wet
So full of God
Michael adopted this stallion sometime after he was seized from the land, and he named him “Twelve,” part of the government brand on his neck. He took him home to Wolf House, the wilderness ranch in Arizona that Michael named in tribute to Jack London and his writing studio in northern California. On the spread in the Sonoran Desert, Michael lived with other rescued horses, a rescued raven and various dogs and cats, working on new stories and traveling between bouts of cancer, trying to bring attention to the plight of wild horses. “Whatever he may be doing at this moment,” he once wrote of Twelve in his book about him, “it is of no harm to anyone or anything. He has never performed a destructive act in his life. Lying or cheating for personal gain is not part of his being, nor is the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. The only system he is part of is that of the Creator.”
There came a time that Michael could no longer fight an increasing number of maladies. He began alternating his days between friends and family and then finally, he moved to a hospice. The last time I spoke with him was in a phone call at Christmas, arranged by a mutual friend, John Coinman, who has memorialized the West in song. John and his wife Jo Anderson were helping Michael connect with close pals in his final days, and sometimes John would dial the phone and hand it off to Michael. As we often did over the years, we talked about our writing and then Michael told me about some things that were bothering him, such as the fact that among other things, he couldn’t remember the parts of speech (or maybe that was in an earlier conversation; they’re all conflated now). In any case, the implication was: what did that mean for him as a writer and if he couldn’t write, then what?, for that was where he lived, but he didn’t say that, and somewhere in the conversation, he told me to keep writing, which is something he always said, but this time it took on a heightened meaning. I could hear the anguish in his voice, and he was passing the baton, or so I like to think, yet you see, he still had these stories in his head. He told me he so, and I believed him. The thing was, he could not get them out and on to the page; he simply could not remember how to write a sentence. And so the songs remained inside him – or in the thousands of pages he inscribed before he died, now in his archives. But what is surely an opera for all time made its way through Michael and we are all the better for it. Recently, his ashes were scattered over Twelve’s burial site at Wolf House. “Although his age could not be proven,” Michael said, “it was somewhere in the vicinity of forty years…I have visited his grave nearly every day since he died, driven not so much by grief as a sense of honor.”
Since the moment he walked on, to use Native American parlance, I’ve been wanting to write something for Michael, but I did not know how or what to say. I think that now, with this letter, I’ve said it.
I wasn’t sure how to begin and now, I’m not quite sure how to sign off. I guess I’ll keep it simple and thank you for your time, Dr. Palmer. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to put it out there one more time: won’t you come in and lay down your arms? You wouldn’t be alone.
By Joanna Chen
Photograph by Joanna Chen. All rights reserved.
Today we go to Jericho, Raz and I. It’s a brilliant summer’s day, and the garden twinkles. Grapes are ripening on the vine that grows to the side of the house. They’re pale purple and hard to the touch. I pop one in my mouth anyway and make a face as the sour juice hits the roof of my mouth.
We drive from our home in the Ella Valley, following the lead of our car’s GPS. Barely one hour later the landscape surprises; fields of melon and dull green slopes are exchanged for pale gray earth, an equally pale sky, and the arid air of the Judean desert.
The GPS guides us off the main sweep of road that leads steeply down towards the Dead Sea. I falter for a moment, wondering if this is a good idea. I know the way and have been to Jericho several times, never leaving the main road. But it’s the weekend and we’re willing to give it a go. For a moment I feel as if I’m on vacation and very far from home.
I drive. The road becomes bumpy and dusty. There are numerous potholes and part of the road isn’t really a road at all, more like a dirt track. I drive slowly through the twists and downwards plunges. Jerusalem, just 20 miles from Jericho, is about 2000 feet above sea level. But the level drops sharply to just under one thousand feet below sea level at Jericho. Donkeys plod along the side of the road and a couple of people wander down on foot. They look like they know where they’re going.
After some time, we reach St. George’s Monastery, a building that literally hangs off the side of the wadi. It dates back to the fourth century when a group of monks settled in what was then a cave, hoping to experience seclusion in the desert like the prophet Elijah did before them. Today, Greek Orthodox monks inhabit the monastery, but they are nowhere to be seen.
What we do see is a coach parked outside, glinting in the bright light. A stream of tourists wearing baseball hats and big sunglasses tumble out. Two camels, suitably festooned for the tourists with bright red saddles and gold baubles, stand with their owner, chewing lazily. I stop the car and roll down the window.
“Is this the way to Jericho?” I ask the driver, who’s leaning against the coach lighting a cigarette. I’m beginning to wonder if the GPS works down here. “Yes,” he says, then shakes his head. “Don’t go that way unless you know how to drive.” I laugh. I know how to drive. “Turn back,” he says, pointing up the hill from where we just came.
But we continue. There’s a rule in my family from when I was a kid: never turn back unless you’ve forgotten your passport or your makeup. Only then can you turn back. I have my British passport, and I’m not wearing any makeup.
Raz is Israeli-born and does not have a foreign passport. Israelis are forbidden entrance to Jericho, located in area A, but we have friends there, and the stalemate political situation is not going to stop us. We both glance back.
Our hosts, Nuha and Khader, tell us by phone the day before that there will be no problems at the checkpoint. For the last few weeks rules have been relaxed, they say, and cars enter and exit Jericho freely. When I worked as a foreign journalist for Newsweek I would cross these checkpoints regularly. I became accustomed to the long line of cars, the knock on the car, the slow lowering of the window, the handing over of documents, the hand waving us on.
I am British by birth and can enter Jericho using my British passport. I am also Israeli, having been automatically given Israeli citizenship when I was sent here by my parents at the age of 16. At the time, I had no wish to be in Israel. I am Jewish, and it is, apparently, my right — although I am aware of the injustice. There are Palestinians who are denied entry and who are split from their loved ones despite the fact that they were born here or their families lived here for generations. Judge me for this right to live where I want and where others cannot — the least I can do is offer the hand of friendship where it’s taken. In the Gospel of Luke, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan (traditionally located within this desert landscape), a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Martin Luther King, accompanied by his wife, traveled this same road to Jericho from Jerusalem in 1959. He mentions it in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, recasting the parable into modern terms, underlining the importance of extending friendship to others, even those we do not know. How can we even recognize our neighbors if we do not visit them? The Palestinians are my neighbors and I want to know them, however twisted the road may be.
So, we wave goodbye to the coach driver, shaking his head at us, and manoeuvre around the tourists, who are now buying bottles of water and trinkets. It’s noon by now and the sun beats down on us. I turn the air conditioning up a notch.
We quickly discover what the coach driver was talking about. The road narrows, and below there is a sheer drop into Wadi Kelt. There are more potholes than road; the GPS says we have two and a half miles to go until Jericho. Raz, who knows his stuff, tells me that this is the old road taken to Jericho by the Romans. Wadi Kelt is rumoured to be the Valley of the Shadow of Death from Psalm 23. When Raz was a student, he used to hike there regularly, even staying overnight in sleeping bags with friends. Back then it was regarded as safe territory for everyone. But in 1993, just before the Oslo Agreements, three Israeli hikers were murdered down in the ravine, an incident that put an end to this idyll.
A donkey wanders along up the hill, sure-footed and confident, carrying a small boy on his back. The boy waves to us and Raz waves back. I keep both hands firmly on the steering wheel, as if this will keep us from plunging over the side of the wadi.
We already know we won’t be taking this road on our return. We travel down the steep track slowly, painfully, from west to east, into the continuing wilderness. Occasionally I glance down into the ravine and feel vaguely dizzy. I can drive, I remind myself. We both fall silent in the car, concentrating on staying the course.
We pass a flock of sheep, watched over by a shepherd. He sits on a rock, gazing ahead at the cloudless sky. I wonder what he’s looking for. We pass a couple of broken-down dwellings and a small estate of houses under construction, deserted as if someone decided to stop building suddenly. A few minutes later, we enter a narrow alley of houses huddled together, and a small convenience store with rolls of toilet paper and bottles of Sprite stacked outside. Finally, we hit a main road with street lighting and a gas station and I recognize where we are: already inside Jericho.
From afar we see the checkpoint leading off from the main road. A long line of cars snakes along. Had we entered through the checkpoint, Raz would have been turned away. We have arrived and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Ahead of us lies a beautiful day with our gracious friends. They meet us at the gas station and lead the way to their home on the other side of Jericho. We pass through the center of town, buzzing with life. Once again I am struck by how close it is to where we live, but so very different. We’ll talk poetry, politics, and we’ll crack jokes about Israelis and Palestinians. We’ll take the easy road home.
In my last China Blog post, I interviewed Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young, who talked about both her recently published memoir and a 2014 collection of essays she edited, titled How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. That volume, Young explained, “gives a voice to the expat women who are often labeled as trailing spouses and dismissed,” their lives stereotyped as a parade of coffee dates, shopping expeditions, and yoga classes with other expatriate wives while their husbands work in government or business and their children attend international schools.
There are indeed plenty of women who move their families overseas at the behest of their husbands’ employers, though their lives are unquestionably more complex than the shallow vision I’ve just described. And there are also plenty of women who move abroad for other reasons: to learn a new language, to pursue their careers, to experience life in another country, or to leave behind an unsatisfying routine at home. Whether they live overseas with families, with partners, or alone, all expat women face a similar question, as Young writes in the foreword to Dragonfruit: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”
Some of the 26 women whose stories are included in Dragonfruit describe how they find freedom in their new homes. Sometimes this freedom is literal: Neha Mehta writes of feeling a greater sense of personal safety in Bangkok than she ever did in her native India, and of how this enables her to take public transportation and move about without her husband. For other women, freedom is figurative, as experiences abroad help them let go of lives that aren’t working for them anymore. In “Giving in to Mongolia,” Michelle Borok describes how at age 34, she took a vacation from her demanding job in Los Angeles to ride horses in Mongolia, where “I just got to be in charge of me, and I rediscovered how happy I could be with only myself for company.” No longer satisfied with her life in the United States, Borok moved to Mongolia and married a local man.
Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.
One of the trickiest aspects of putting together an edited collection is achieving balance in the voices represented. Young writes in the foreword that she received 86 submissions for Dragonfruit and selected 26; of those, 13 essays are by women who live or have lived in Greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the PRC). Many of these essays — especially the ones by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Kaitlin Solimine, Christine Tan, Jocelyn Eikenburg, and Susan Blumberg-Kason — are the ones I liked the most in Dragonfruit, though I’ll admit that I’m surely biased toward China stories, and also that I was previously familiar with most of those authors (and in a couple of cases, have met them in person). But while I enjoyed the China essays, I wish a greater range of countries were represented in the collection. Just as “there are as many kinds of stories as there are expat women” (in Young’s words), the size and diversity of Asia means that expat women living in its different countries will have very different stories to tell. Dragonfruit offers a taste, but I’d welcome a second volume that features a broader assortment of women wrestling with the eternal expat question: “Who am I in this culture, this place?”
Seven very talented college students spent the summer at the Los Angeles Review of Books learning how to make a magazine of their own. We offer the LARB Publishing Course every year as part of our summer internship program, which teaches undergraduate students everything from editing to copyediting to layout and design, including acquiring and editing their own articles, and working with artists, galleries, and museums to bring in original illustration and art.
As part of the course, the students take over our print magazine and make their own edition. They then finance it themselves through a Kickstarter campaign in order to learn about the financial realities of independent publishing. If they succeed, they take their very own real world magazine to press for a print run of 10,000 copies, which get distributed to coffee shops, libraries, bookstores, and restaurants throughout Los Angeles.
Please consider supporting their Kickstarter campaign, which launches today, and help them bring their magazine to print!
By Austin Dean
Chinese high-speed railway stations are overwhelming places, simultaneously cavernous and crowded. The main terminal usually spans one huge space with no divisions or branches. Look up to the ceiling and the station looks empty. But you shouldn’t do that. Down on the ground, there are people everywhere, and you need to pay attention to where you’re going.
Places to eat and shop line the edges of most stations, or fill the basements and second floors. You’re guaranteed to find two establishments: KFC and Starbucks. In China’s major cities, you’re never far away from fried chicken or coffee. In fact, at the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station there is a Starbucks on the second floor directly above a Starbucks on the first floor. As comedian Lewis Black once riffed, a Starbucks right next to a Starbucks is a sure sign of the end of the world.
There are also a number of clothing stores whose names don’t seem quite right, especially to people (like me) who don’t know much about fashion. Is Good Luck Gladius supposed to be a rip-off of a foreign brand, or a purely Chinese creation? It requires some research for me to find out it’s the latter.
The most interesting place, in my mind, is the bookstore.
As a general rule, if you’re abroad and can read at least a little bit of the local language, you should always pop into a bookstore when you come across one, regardless of whether it’s on a main thoroughfare or in a railway station. It’s fascinating to see what types of books are prominently displayed, and it increases your chances of having an interesting conversation with a local.
On a recent visit to the small bookstore in the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station, the first thing I notice are not books but people: a group of about 12 stare up at a television. Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese internet giant Alibaba, is giving a speech. With deep-set eyes and unrelenting intensity, Ma is a charismatic speaker, and his audience at the small bookstore is hooked. Beneath the television where Ma lectures about the secrets of success are collections of DVDs for sale, all of which feature other people likewise delivering discourses on how to make it big. They might know what they’re talking about — but they also look like hucksters. The box sets are quite clunky, exactly what you don’t want to lug around with you on the train. It doesn’t look like they’re selling well.
More than half of the small store is devoted to books about business, but there are several sub-genres. The first consists of translations of the same books you see in American airport bookstores. The top-ranked book at this outlet is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. This prompts questions about who is buying this book and why — do travelers on Chinese high-speed trains think they lack self-control? But I realize it’s probably best not to probe this ground too deeply, the publisher likely just paid for the book to be prominently displayed. Another popular title is Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel. There are also a handful of books about Warren Buffet; the Oracle of Omaha is big in China.
The next set of books focus on similar topics, but are written by professors at top Chinese universities; volumes center on Jack Ma instead of Warren Buffet. One of these, Understanding the Chinese Stock Market, sticks out as quite ambitiously titled. Given everything that’s happened in the Chinese stock market in the past two months, it’s a bold claim and one that’s surely outdated.
The most interesting Chinese business books to me are those that mask themselves as history books. One volume prominently featured in the store is Records of the Relationship between Government and Business in the Late Qing Dynasty. The point of the book is to understand the subtle (weimiao) relations between the government and the business community in historical perspective, with the goal of gaining greater insights into the situation today. This title must have found a wide audience — it is the second of a two-part series.
A number of other biographies cover similar strategies of making the past serve the present. One book promises to deliver the secrets of success from a wealthy entrepreneur in the Ming dynasty, Shen Wansan. Another book about Genghis Khan attributes the Mongol leader’s success to will power (yizhi) instead of wisdom (zhihui). A similar genre exists in America — How to Think Like Steve Jobs — but they don’t usually find inspiration in the 13th century.
Like a Hudson News shop in an American airport, the bookstore in a Chinese railway station is not necessarily the kind of place to find more academic tomes. But China always surprises.
Set between two books about the rise of China, I find a translation of The History of the American People by famed Columbia University historian Charles Beard. The Chinese translation juices up the title a little bit, calling it American History: From the Age of Wilderness to the Age of Imperialism. The Chinese publishers also build up the book’s pedigree: “Translated into over 30 languages” and “Over 100 million copies sold.”
But most of the people in the store weren’t interested in Charles Beard — Jack Ma was still holding forth on the screen.