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A Trip Back to Beijing — Courtesy of Xu Zechen and Eric Abrahamsen

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By Megan Shank

Step out of the Beijing airport, and taste the tang in the air. For the remainder of your time in the capital, it will linger, metallic, on the back of your tongue. Is it burning plastic? Coal? The sweat of migrant workers who have come to chase dreams and money? The boozy breath of corrupt officials? The hot asphalt poured for wide boulevards? The lingering dust of razed neighborhoods, a powdery earthen scent that haunts like an odiferous ghost? Pop music blares. Repairmen bike through neighborhoods with megaphones advertising their services. Garlic hits food vendors’ woks with a sizzle. Amateur opera singers warble in the park. Buses belch fumes. Modern subway doors swoosh open, people smoosh together. Old men with t-shirts rolled up over their bellies sit on stools in alleyways and chat. Young lovers wearing matching outfits interlace fingers and stroll in shopping malls. More than a million smokers could be lighting their cigarettes at any given moment. With enough of a spark, it almost feels like the atmosphere could burst into flames and smolder.

Xu Zechen’s slim 2008 novel Running Through Beijing, recently translated into an English version published by Two Lines Press (2014), transported me back to that city and all its colorful inhabitants. The novel captures the taste and tension of Beijing better than any I’ve ever read. I felt the grit from Beijing’s frequent sandstorms sting my eyes. I savored on my tongue again the spicy mutton of a hotpot joint. Readers will internalize the restlessness and loneliness of young strivers. And Eric Abrahamsen’s translation is so deft, it’s hard to remember that it wasn’t originally written in English. He especially executes slang-filled dialogue with pizzazz. Continue reading

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Out Of Body: Freedom, Chaos, and Puppetry in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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By Emily Hunt

My first experience with A Midsummer Night’s Dream was watching Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film production. I’m sure the visually gorgeous cast had something to do with it – what 12-year-old girl can ignore the charms of Michelle Pfieffer, Rupert Everette, and Christian Bale? – but it was more than that: something entirely new had taken place on the screen. For the first time in my adolescent life, a work of art had induced a feeling of liberation, a distinct, excited sense of possibility.

Every production I’ve seen since has been aesthetically unique. With its magic, fight scenes, fairies, the backdrop of a seemingly opaque forest, and the changeable world of its play-within-a-play, – A Midsummer Night’s dream begs reinvention, much as its mercurial characters change while they delightfully, aimlessly wander through the woods. Nothing is definite: the four young Athenian lovers — Helena, Hermia, Demetrius, and Lysander — speak in absolutes yet are characterized by anything but. They escape into the forest in the middle of the night, where Titania, a righteous and strong fairy queen, is duped into falling in love with an ass, part of a magical revenge plot by the seemingly heartless fairy king Oberon, so touched by the unrequited love of Helena that he attempts to enchant Demetrius, her wayward lover, into returning her affections. The mischievous sprite Puck mixes everything up, and the rampant, secret love affairs that drive the foursome into the forest devolve into a brawl.

And yet, somehow, in traditional Renaissance fashion, we wind up with a wedding-and-a-marriage happy ending. Continue reading

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Letter from the Chairman of the Board

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AlbertLitewka3bHelp Us Make History

Several years ago, Tom Lutz, the founding editor of LARB, and I sat down to lunch to discuss a gleam in his eye: The Los Angeles Review of Books. Listening to Tom describe his vision, I experienced a “EUREKA!” moment. LARB was a brilliant idea whose time had come.

From that Eureka on, it has been my mission to support Tom’s vision, to help bring it to life, structure it, build it out, and sustain it. As Chairman of the Board, I have thrown myself into this effort, as have many others, ranging from volunteers to contributors to staff to subscribing members to Board members.

One of the original justifications for LARB was that the book review in printed form, especially in review sections in newspapers around the country, was dying out. As we developed our mission and strategies, we realized that there was a much larger role for LARB to fill. In the field of visual arts, Los Angeles has in the past 25 years evolved into a world class city. The same has happened on the music and performance scene. While these things were happening, the global recognition of LA’s literary scene had not risen to the level of the facts on the ground: LA has a population of educated, talented, and cultured readers and writers equal to any in the world.

Book publishing in the US has always been centered in New York. So have the major reviews. But the country has moved West. It was time for a Los Angeles Review of Books to counterbalance the East Coast hegemony and to provide a world class venue devoted to the culture of writing.

Recognition and praise of LARB as a major new force on the cultural landscape has come from many well-regarded publications, writers, and critics. The New Yorker called LARB “One of the instant jewels of the internet.”

LARB is an “all in” effort. In the past year alone we have published 1,270 essays, reviews, podcasts, and short films. In addition, we’ve launched two well received print publications, held very successful LARB Luminary Dinners, and conducted a variety of other activities. LARB is currently being read in all 50 States and in 150 countries around the world!

All this effort and output costs money. LARB is a nonprofit, but our monthly expenses are considerable. To cover our operating costs, we rely on gifts, donations, and grants. Mostly, we subsist on individual donations. Your donations.

The content we present takes hundreds of people to write, and dozens of people to edit, design, and otherwise support the product. We are delighted that so many readers enjoy LARB. We need each reader to support that which they enjoy.

To donate to LARB, CLICK HERE. You can become a member at any of the basic program amounts, or you can give any larger amount — $1,000, $2,500, $25,000 — whatever your capacity and commitment dictate. We are strongly committed to you, our readers, and are deeply appreciative of EVERY contribution, regardless of amount.

The timing of this appeal has special significance. After operating as a sponsored project under the aegis of UC Riverside Foundation and now PEN Center USA, LARB is finally going out on its own. There is considerable expense involved in the transition to an independent status. We need your help in supporting this next phase.

The Los Angeles Review of Books is making history. There has never been anything like it, and it has changed the cultural landscape. If you believe in Tom’s vision and in the team that works hard every day to realize it, as I do — if you believe what we’ve done with LARB deserves support — then please give your full support. We can’t do it without you.

With deep appreciation,

Albert Litewka
Chairman of the Board
Los Angeles Review of Books


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Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi

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By Mengfei Chen

Is it still a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Perhaps he’d rather spend that fortune on bottle service and club bunnies. Certainly, modern day Lily Barts need not die young, alone and poor because they nixed a number of suitable suitors — not if Sheryl Sandberg has anything to say about it.

Great nineteenth century novels built on the question of “will he propose and will she say yes” live on, but mostly as bonneted costume dramas on the BBC. They seem like historic relics in the age of the pre-nup and easy divorce.

When I took George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my trip to spend Spring Festival with my grandparents earlier this year, I thought I was packing a work of historical fiction. It was holiday reading. I wanted to take advantage of the long journey home (17 hours by train each way, bracketed by another two hours on the newly built two-lane highway dodging tractors, overloaded long-haul trucks and the occasional confused water buffalo) to cross the book Virginia Woolf called the only novel written for adults off my literary bucket list. I did not expect the book, which charts with great sensitivity the marriages, successful and otherwise, of several couples in a 19th century English country town, to resonate so powerfully with the lives of people living in a 21st century Chinese one. Continue reading

Naked Bookseller

Letter from Central Idaho: 20 Years of Iconoclastic Bookselling

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By Sarah Hedrickimage

Pictured above: Sarah and Gary, owners of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, appreciating the view.

Six years ago this month, Gary Hunt, owner of Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, was killed in a car accident on his way home from one of the frequent events hosted in his store. He left behind a baby daughter, his wife Sarah and his three “bonus” children (from Sarah’s previous marriage), not to mention three regional stores including a new flagship store and coffee shop in downtown Ketchum, a warehouse for the internet side of the business, and an entire community of people (whether they were seasonal or full time residents) who relied on Iconoclast for its ever growing stock of new, used and rare books, as well as for its open-door policy when it came to matters of community organizing, events, and fundraising. On the sixth anniversary of Gary’s death, Sarah gives us the update from the place where Pound was born and Hemingway died, and the bookstore in Central Idaho that remains, despite everything, truly iconoclastic. - C.P. Heiser

T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, “mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” For me, May is possibly worse, and bittersweet, both personally and professionally. It holds both the anniversaries of my marriage to Gary as well as that of his death. Twenty years ago he brought Iconoclast Books to life and since his passing, I’ve honored the legacy of the store, stayed current with the needs of my community, and strived to find the right formula for Iconoclast Books to remain a vital part of both myself and the community; to stay open so that I can continue to do the work I love. Continue reading


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The Brief and Wondrous Life of California Bookstore Day

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The Naked Bookseller is proud to present the story behind California Bookstore Day (this Saturday May 3rd) — a grand notion incubated at the Bay Area’s legendary Green Apple bookstore, recipient of Publisher Weekly’s 2014 Independent Bookstore of the Year Award.

By Samantha Schoech

When you tell people you own a bookstore (or in my case, that my husband co-owns a bookstore) you get one of two responses. There are the delighted readers who imagine you live a life of cozy literary bliss, sipping tea and snuggling a cat in a sun-drenched room where bells on the door alert you to the arrival of an occasional customer. These people gush and tell you how wonderful it is that you own a bookstore.

By far the more common response, however, are the people who let out a little puff of a laugh and say something like, A bookstore? Do they still have those?  They think they are being funny. Continue reading


The China Blog Mary Guo, April 15, 2014 -- in Beijing

What Do Chinese Women Want?

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Photo: Mary Guo in Beijing, April 15, 2014.

By Lu-Hai Liang

Let’s start with Mary. Well that’s her English name anyway. We met seven years ago in Yangshuo, a pretty little town in southern China where she was studying English. I liked her sparky personality and sense of fun, and we became friends. I was teaching English, taking a year out before I started university. I was 18, Mary 21.

Skip forward seven years to the present, and I’m back in China, this time to work in Beijing. I am British, of Chinese heritage. Mary is Chinese and her heritage is that of rural dwellers, known in Chinese as “nongmin” or farmers.

I’ve never known Mary to have a boyfriend but she recently told me, after I asked about her relationship status for this article, that she has had two, including the one she is currently seeing. I was surprised to hear this, since Mary had not mentioned any of this in our previous meetings (she works in Beijing). She is 28 now, which, according to the general consensus within Chinese society, makes her more-than-ready for marriage. Continue reading


The China Blog noirtrip

Noir Visions, Part 2—All the Spies in China

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My last post focused on whodunits and true crime books with Chinese settings, but its title, “Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present,” used a capacious term that can encompass other sorts of writings as well. There are, for example, noir novels and noir-infused non-fiction that deal with spies as opposed to private eyes, code making and code breaking rather than police procedures, intelligence gathering drama more than the courtroom sort.  And, in fact, when I alluded in that earlier post to China noir titles on the horizon that might be getting attention in the Los Angeles Review of Books soon, I was thinking in part of works by a pair of authors who have more in common with Ludlam and le Carré than Christie and Chandler.  One of these is Mai Jia whose Decoded, a bestseller in China, is now out in English in a translation by Olivia Milburn. The other is Adam Brookes, a highly regarded BBC journalist, whose fiction debut, Night Heron, will be published next month.  A series of positive reviews have put Decoded near the top of my “to-read” list.  Night Heron, meanwhile, is among the favorite titles on my “recently-read” list: I tore through an advance copy, finding its largely Beijing-set tale of secret agents and international intrigue engrossing and compelling.  I came away from reading it agreeing with Publisher’s Weekly that Brookes (full disclosure: someone I know and like) is a “thriller writer to watch.”

Of course, while some books can be placed neatly one or the other side of the mysteries-vs-espionage tales divide, others cross or at least blur the boundary.  Take the Ellie McEnroe stories by Lisa Brackmann discussed in last week’s post.  It’s tempting to categorize their protagonist as a “tough female detective” in the V.I. Warshawski mode, but Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat include characters involved in shady intelligence operations and McEnroe is sometimes on the run in Bourne-like fashion.  And even in the tales of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity in China was the subject of an earlier contribution to this blog by Edgar-winning true crime writer Paul French, the division between the domains of private eyes and spies was not always absolute.  The Conan Doyle character is rightly famous as the archetypal “consulting detective,” but some cases he took up moved into the realm of the guarding and revealing of official secrets, thanks in part to his brother Mycroft’s ties to the British government.

A new window on the link between Holmes and China and between the realms of espionage and Baker Street-style detective work is opened by Spying for the People: Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967, a fascinating book published last year by Cambridge University Press that I just finished reading.   The book’s author is Swedish Sinologist Michael Schoenhals, whose previous publications range from Mao’s Last Revolution (an acclaimed history of the Cultural Revolution that he and Roderick MacFarquhar co-wrote) to influential studies of Communist Party rhetoric and terminology (including contributions to the “Indiana East Asian Working Papers on Language and Politics in Modern China” series that I co-edited with Sue Tuohy).  In Spying for the People, which focuses on domestic intelligence gathering (as opposed to international espionage) and makes use of an impressively eclectic set of hard to find materials (from discarded diaries bought in flea markets to government reports), he provides a detailed look at how the agents who played such a central role in China’s “dossier dictatorship” of the Mao era were recruited and trained, promoted and purged, thought about and controlled.

Where does Holmes come in?  His cameo comes on page 179, in a section devoted to the use those responsible for schooling Chinese agents in “tradecraft” made of various works on the subject produced abroad.  After giving a rundown of some contemporary writings on espionage that were translated into Chinese—e.g., “the April 1963 Harper’s Magazine article ‘The Craft of Intelligence’ by the U.S. director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Allen W. Dulles” and, in abridged form, “David Wise and Thomas B. Ross’s 1964 exposé The Invisible Government, described by the CIA’s legal counsel at the time as ‘uncannily accurate’”—Schoenhals notes, on “a lighter note,” that agents were encouraged to read Conan Doyle’s fiction.  “In 1961, at a conference on surveillance work in Shanghai,” he writes, “the municipal director of public security was heard observing that ‘whereas we cannot put our faith in Holmes’s repertoire of feudal, bourgeois, and fascist tricks—but must come up with our own proletarian and revolutionary Holmes—some of that old stuff may still prove to be useful here and there.’”

This is a nice light moment indeed in a book on a dark subject, but it is by no means the only place where Schoenhals has some impish fun with his topic.  For example, section titles in a chapter on recruitment strategies, which explores different methods used to get people to agree to work as spies, include the following:  “The Gradual Pitch: I Thought You’d Never Ask,” “The Hard Pitch: An Offer You Can’t Refuse,” and “The Patriotic Pitch: Your Country Needs You!”

In addition, just after his comments about learning from Holmes, Schoenhals tells an anecdote about a Chinese public security head asking his “officers to learn how to ‘adopt clever disguises and move about observing things incognito’ by emulating Kuang Zhong, the upstanding Suzhou governor of the Ming Dynasty in the Kunqu Opera Fifteen Strings of Cash.”  He goes on to note that this same official also “boasted in private” that he had once used skills of this type himself to infiltrate a famous (and infamous) “entertainment complex” and, while incognito, had easily “distinguished the ‘ladyboys’ (yaoguai) from the common prostitutes plying their trade there.” As in many noir novels, there is plenty of room in Spying for the People, a noir-infused work of non-fiction, for discussion of varied sorts of social actors, activities, and settings, and many types of investigations.

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A Letter from the Editor in Chief

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Tom_small

Dear LARB Supporters:

Last week we celebrated the third anniversary of our first review, on our temporary Tumblr site, and the second anniversary of our official launch.

In those three years, we have published 1,275 reviews, 985 essays, 435 interviews, 22 ebooks, 5 tabloid print magazines, and 3 quarterly print journals. We have produced 60 short films, 50 podcasts, 27 live events, 12 radio segments, and 2 streaming book club meetings.

The community of writers, editors, and supporters who make this possible has grown from a small handful of enthusiasts to, as this incredible collection of work suggests, the equivalent of a small village of people dedicated to literature, ideas, art, and culture.

We have expanded as a community of readers, too, and we now have as many as 30,000 visitors a day from all over the world. Over a third of these readers are overseas — in 150 different countries — and the rest are spread across all 50 states.

Los Angeles has never before had a literary institution of this breadth and reach, and it has been made possible by the generosity of this community of readers. We are reader-supported in the same way that our NPR stations are listener-supported, in the same way that all our cultural institutions are supported — our orchestras, our opera houses, our dance companies, our libraries, our art museums. Like these other institutions, the Los Angeles Review of Books is the expression of a community’s belief in the importance of art and ideas. LARB is your work as much as it is the work of our contributors and staff.

We began our life under the aegis of the University of California, Riverside, and have spent the last year aided by PEN Center USA, but we are now starting to fly solo, as an independent nonprofit organization, which means we are paying 100 percent of our own way, with your help.

We launched our membership program as a way to thank our contributors and supporters, sending magazines and books as premiums to show our appreciation. This membership program, as we hoped, is now one of our main pillars of support.

We have 600 members today, a very good start on the 2,000 we need. Those of you who have already signed up have made our work so far possible. Those of you who become members during this drive will ensure that we continue our work of bringing you some of the most exciting, provocative, and intelligent writing about books and culture available 

Sincerely Yours,
Tom Lutz


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Noir Visions of China’s Past and Present

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I won’t say that an interest in criminal activity led me to a career teaching and writing about China, but books about death, detective work and other themes with links to noir genres certainly played a role in steering me toward my chosen profession.  More specifically, browsing the campus bookstore shelves at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, in an effort to decide which history class to take, one thing that tipped the odds in favor of the course on China that Michael Freeman was offering was a list of assigned readings that included titles that appealed to the whodunit lover in me.

One of the books of this sort I saw on the shelf under the course’s number was The Death of Woman Wang.  It was a slim volume by Jonathan Spence, someone I’d never heard of (nothing special, as I couldn’t have named a single China specialist at the time). I’d later discover, of course, that he was a rising star in modern Chinese history, and had begun to stand out as having a special flair for writing experimental works of non-fiction that employed some of the techniques and provided many of the pleasures more commonly associated with novels.

The other title that caught my eye was in fact a novel, The Chinese Bell Murders.  It was described on the cover as part of a series featuring Judge Dee, a legendary 7th century magistrate known for his sagacity and shrewdness.  The book’s author was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch Sinologist who I’d later discover was very versatile indeed, since his other publications included a history of ancient Chinese sexual practices (with the steamiest parts rendered in Latin) and a translation of an 18th century Chinese work of fiction (featuring the same Judge Dee who became the protagonist of his series).

Flipping through the pages of both books, I was intrigued by the way their authors used tales of intrigue and investigation, violence and vengeance, murder and mystery to bring the Chinese past alive.  I took the course — and never regretted doing so.  And, sure enough, though we read some other very good books for the class, those two made the most lasting impression on me.  I would find myself musing over and over again at specific details from each work.  I was intrigued by the introduction Woman Wang provided to the role of fox spirits in Chinese folklore, for example, and by how van Gulik filled his plot with tidbits about social life in imperial China.  The thing that I remember most vividly now about my first reading of The Chinese Bell Murders was its discussion of a highly organized guild, complete with a designated leader, which was made up not of artisans who pursued a single craft, but rather of beggars.

As I moved from taking classes on Chinese history to teaching them, I naturally began assigning Woman Wang, The Chinese Bell Murders or sometimes both of them. I’ve also always kept my eye out for new books, novels and works of non-fiction alike, that can bring the past to life in similarly effective ways, not necessarily via tales of crime and detection — but a noir twist never hurts.

Given that I sometimes teach courses that focus specifically on Shanghai, I’ve been spoiled for choices when it comes to books of this kind.  Non-fiction, accessible studies of the city’s past to assign to undergraduates with noir tastes include Robert Bickers’ Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai and Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise.  On the fiction side, there’s everything from Malraux’s Man’s Fate, if dealing with the 1920s, to the books in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, if dealing with the last few decades.  (Of course, especially in the wake of recent publications such as Paul French’s Midnight in Peking, on the non-fiction side, and Catherine Sampson’s The Slaughter Pavilion, on the fiction side, Beijing is not without its options for those who prefer to teach about that city.)

I’m not sure how often a political scientist or sociologist puts either a mystery novel or a book of non-fiction noir on his or her syllabus, but it strikes me that there are a lot of good options out there to choose from these days for those so inclined.  Some of the works I’m thinking of, including analyses of the Bo Xilai case, have already been discussed on this blog or on the main page of the Los Angeles Review of Books, while others will be dealt with in one place or the other in the coming weeks and months (so stay tuned).  Here, though, I’ll just end by describing one work of noir, very broadly defined, that came out in 2011 but that I just got around to reading: Lisa Brackmann’s Rock Paper Tiger.

I picked it up recently because I’d enjoyed the same author’s Hour of the Rat, her second novel detailing the adventures of Rock Paper Tiger protagonist Ellie McEnroe, an Iraq War vet adrift in Beijing.  I was curious to learn about McEnroe’s backstory and simply thought that, based on having read the sequel, Rock Paper Tiger would make me laugh, give me things to think about, and have a propulsive plot.  It lived up to my expectations on all those fronts.

I also came away from it musing on what might stick in a student’s mind, the way that beggar’s guild stuck in mine after reading The Chinese Bell Murders, if Rock Paper Tiger were assigned fifty years hence by a professor teaching a class on China circa 2011.  There are lots of possibilities, for Brackmann is good at slipping in engaging descriptions of diverse social and cultural phenomena, from the material and propaganda detritus left over from the intense build-up to the 2008 Beijing Games, to the role of thuggish para-police units known as chengguan in Chinese urban life.

If I had to choose one thing, however, that might make a particular impact on a college student of the future who stumbled into a Chinese history class the way I did back in the late 1970s, it might be Brackmann’s description of the multiple functions of karaoke bars.  Here’s how she limns their role:  “Karaoke bars usually have a lot more than just karaoke going on.  Prostitution, drugs, bribery — they’re the Amazon.com of vice.”

She goes on to describe one specific karaoke establishment that was “more ambitious” than most, in terms of its look from the outside at least.  “It’s called ‘The Parthenon,’” she writes, “and it looks like a Greek temple — that is, if the temple’s architects had dropped a lot of acid before they built it.  Marble columns with flashing strings of green and red diodes snaking around them, naked statuary lit by colored spotlights, and a fountain that dances around vaguely in time with the latest Taiwanese pop blaring from the outdoor speakers.”

Surely, given his interest in both crime and sex, this would be a passage that would catch van Gulik’s eye as well as that of my imagined student.  Or rather, would have caught it, had he lived long enough to be able to read of Ellie McEnroe joining Judge Dee, Inspector Chen, and many others in the ever-longer list of protagonists of crime novels set in China.