When politics force people apart.
Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
First Published: 5th June 2014
Date Reviewed: 8th February 2016
Iona is tasked with translating a set of letters and diary entries handed to a publisher by a Chinese woman. The publisher has a mind to release the work but first they have to know what it’s all about.
I Am China is a semi-literary novel about personal/political problems in China. It promises much but delivers little.
There are major issues with the book, namely the way the story is told. The set up is all very convenient, contrived; the story of Jian and Mu is told through the letters but it would’ve been much better had we heard directly from the characters themselves. The translator, Iona, is nothing but a plot device inserted to allow the story to come to fruition, as are the other few characters – the publisher, for instance. The problem becomes two-fold when Guo starts to try and make more of Iona. Guo is all about telling, never showing, and it’s far too obvious that she’s trying to insert some meaning into Iona’s own story – you can practically see the thought process as the author realises her readers are going to see through Iona as nothing but a device and she doesn’t want you to see her as a device.
Amongst all this telling, then, is repetition and a distinct lack of emotion and character development beyond Iona. Guo is relating a very important subject but that subject never becomes important because of the lack of anything to pull the reader in and make them care. The author tacks on various statements about Iona’s emotional state whilst reading these letters but it never rings true. And a publisher planning to publish work without any idea what it’s about or permission from the owner of the text… one of those, possibly, but both?
Unfortunately the writing itself is also problematic. English is Guo’s second language so it’s understandable there would be errors but it seems the author was left completely alone when it came to the copy-editing stages.
I Am China is a fair idea gone horribly wrong. Look elsewhere for books on the aftermath of Mao.
I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve received and bought related to books, a sort of reading life help, if you will. I’ve been quite excited about these items, two in particular have been a long time coming, and as we all like books here I thought you might be interested in them too.
At Christmas I received two framed pictures. At first glance they seemed nice enough – scenes inspired by classics, in this case Pride And Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, but then I looked at them more closely…
That’s the first chapter of the book, in a tiny font and acting as the background to the image. I’m not sure yet where I’ll be putting them, nevertheless I’ll find a home for them sometime and I know they’ll look great.
Moving on from artwork I’ve wanted a magazine rack for over a year – my parents had one at home, bamboo, that I always liked (don’t ask me why, it’s an odd thing, I know) and I wanted something on which to display some magazines I’ve kept over the years. Magazines in Hindi I like to pretend I’ll be able to read fluently someday. Persephone Bi-annuals I reckon would be nice to share and flick through. In all about 10 items.
Enter the charity shop. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me to look for one there, especially as magazine racks were more popular in years gone by, but I visited a couple with a friend who’s moving house and found one that’s pretty near perfect. £3. Sold.
Something else I’ve wanted is a small standing shelf for my review copies and other books on my to-be-read. The only one I could find was a metal one from Ikea, a curled steel design for £25 that says ‘princess room’. The charity shop had an equivalent in bamboo for £2. The back sticks out into the shelf space but after some experimenting I’ve realised that one book per opening works fine and if I keep to that then I’ll be forced to think even more before accepting review copies because there’s only room for seven books. I intend to put review copies on the bottom and my own books on the top. For now it’s on my desk and I’m feeling rather organised and very happy.
What furnishings have you recently acquired?
I suppose this comes under ‘rambles’. I’ve written on this subject elsewhere before and Alice has covered it on this blog. Whilst it may not be that reading in itself is social – exceptions: reading to others, sharing an audiobook – it still kind of is.
Reading becomes social. It becomes social once we’ve finished the book. (And, to some extent when we discuss it as we read, but I’m going to stick to the ‘aftermath’ here as it lasts longer.)
Reading becomes a social activity as a result of it being solitary. Unless we wish to read in a bubble, unless we never tell a soul about our interest in books, it changes the minute we finish. The desire to understand an ambiguous ending leads us to seek the opinions of others and whether it’s in person or online, we’re moving beyond isolation. We like to discuss themes. Good books make us want to recommend them, bad books make us rant and tell others not to read them – which is still discussion. Even the questions ‘have you read much?’ or ‘what are you reading?’ asked by distant relatives who don’t actually care cause reading to be social.
If we take it to its core, reading is a dialogue, a book created by both author and the reader. It’s a passive discussion, an ‘I’ll do this part and then send it over to you’ working process. We can’t read without the author getting us off the ground and a book lies dormant without a reader’s imagination and thoughts to bring it to life.
I’ve changed my stance, replacing the opinion that reading doesn’t have to be solitary, can be social if wanted, with the opinion (fact?) that reading is a social activity full stop.
At what stage do you think reading starts being social?
This has been a bit of a month! It started well enough, continued well enough, and then, as you know, the bots came in and messed about with my bandwidth. Being without a website, or at least being unable to use your website for fear you’ll expend the last bytes available, is a weird thing. You get so used to blogging that if it goes you’re at a loss for what to do with the time you spend on it… at least for a bit – I ended up making the most of the time, reading Philip Pullman and more Philip Pullman.
All books are works of fiction.
Cheryl Strayed: Wild – Strayed recounts her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in the 90s, a time when her mother had died, affairs had overtaken her marriage, and she was in need of putting herself back together. Dubious, fact-wise, but a good quick read.
Paula Hawkins: The Girl On The Train – Rachel mixes herself up in the disappearance of a woman she sees from the train window, a woman whose life seemed perfect. Very, very good.
Philip Pullman: Northern Lights – In a parallel world, Lyra goes on a mission to find her friend, a boy taken by child-catchers for reasons unknown, and finds herself embroiled in a theological operation. Impossible to do justice in one sentence, this young-teen fantasy is incredible.
Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife – Will, from our own Oxford, runs away from men who are trying to get hold of his missing father’s possessions and finds himself helping Lyra. Very different to the first book but just as excellent.
Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass – It all comes to a head and the children must make life-changing choices. A very good book and quite moving, really, but I didn’t feel it dealt with the sorts of things the other books promised it would and it left many questions unanswered.
I had a basic idea to read long-awaited reads, following on from the couple of years of the planned Long-Awaited Reads events, and ended up reading 4 books towards it. (I’m including the as-yet-unfinished I Am China in that.) The books I finished were Strayed’s, the Hawkins, and the third Pullman. As I said last week, I’d never read it – the current score stands at 3 reads, 2 reads, 1 read for each book respectively. It’s taken about 17 years but the series is done; my books are all yellowed and the plastic layer of one of the covers is peeling off – they’ve served me well. I’m thinking perhaps I ought to re-read The Sally Lockhart Quartet to read the fourth book. There is something about Pullman’s books that makes them so real, especially the His Dark Materials, and I revelled in the feeling of not wanting to put them down. Can I say books I’ve already read were my favourite this month? I think so.
I found it hard to write up this quote in my usual style, so here’s the extract from the book, The Subtle Knife, concerning Lyra’s first impressions of Will:
She tiptoed to the window. In the glow from the street lamp she carefully set the hands of the alethiometer, and relaxed her mind into the shape of a question. The needle began to sweep around the dial in a series of pauses and swings almost too fast to watch.
She had asked: What is he? A friend or an enemy?
The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer.
When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once. He could find food, and show her how to reach Oxford, and those were powers that were useful, but he might still have been untrustworthy or cowardly. A murderer was a worthy companion.
Hopefully the changes I’ve made will have fixed the website enough that there won’t be problems this month. Either way I’m going into February with two unfinished books and a long-term unfinished classic so at least there’s plenty to read.
Have you a new favourite yet this year?
Ahh, bots. They steal your bandwidth and cause no end of problems. Things should be back to normal on Monday and I will be posting my January round-up then. Have a good weekend.