Book Briefs


by Wei Hui (Pocket Books, $24) YOU CAN'T BEAT this publicity with a stick: A beautiful, young author catalogs her lusty material and sexual pursuits in explicit detail, and the resulting novel becomes a cult hit and is promptly banned and gathered in large quantities to be burned. Such is the story of Chinese writer Wei Hui, whose racy debut, Shanghai Baby, set her homeland in an uproar when it was first released there in 1999. An idolizer of the Beats (and nearly all things American for that matter), Hui's narrator, Nikki,—or Coco (after Chanel) to her friends—is a former-journalist-turned-aspiring- novelist currently shacked up with her gorgeous, impotent boyfriend, Tian Tian, whose softness, so to speak, seems to stem from a deep melancholy she cannot touch. Driven almost equally by ambition and desire, Coco soon finds herself entangled in a heated affair with an affluent German businessman named Mark, who offers her the pleasures of the flesh Tian Tian is unable to provide. From its first pages, the book revels not only in its narrator's own personal decadence and dissolution but in the fast-lane lifestyle of her circle of friends and acquaintances. A motley collection of artists, high-end prostitutes, and entrepreneurs, they relentlessly pursue the golden temptations of the West alongside the more traditional, but equally dangerous, debaucheries of the East. Baby's Chinese-to-English translation betrays many awkward juxtapositions—the writing tends to veer between Eastern philosophy and clichéd Oprah-isms, and has a disturbing habit of cataloging name brands, both cultural and commercial, in a manner that seems almost compulsive. Wei's constant recitations of designer labels, film stars, and Western song lyrics recalls nothing so much as the utterly empty and corrupt protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. Indeed, some readers may be wondering if they've wandered into a time warp, as Wei seems to belong more with Ellis and his '80s contemporaries than in the present Western climate. Throughout, there's a constant lurch between thoughtful, lucid moments and embarrassingly empty purple prose—leading one to question whether it's the cultural divide or the author herself who's to blame. If nothing else, Shanghai Baby offers an intriguing glimpse behind the curtain that has so far concealed the personal dreams and desires of the Far East's hungry new generation and recognizes the universalities within them. Leah Greenblatt HALF A LIFE

by V.S. Naipaul (Knopf, $24) V.S. NAIPAUL'S latest novel, Half a Life, follows Willie Chandrahan from India to England to Africa and dissects with precision—and occasionally empathy—the protagonist's "half-lived" life. Split into three sections, each set on a different continent and narrated from a different point of view, the book is as structurally intriguing as it is shrewdly revealing about the nature of identity and the legacy of colonialism. Born in Trinidad, Naipaul has produced over 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, many of which favor these themes, and he won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature for his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Few writers could deliver on the ambitious plot of Half a Life with Naipaul's cool assurance. The novel begins with the tale of Willie's father, whose uncomfortable relationship to the past leads him to take a vow of silence that, ironically, gives him an international reputation as a wise and spiritual man. After leaving his family behind to move to London, Willie flounders in sexual, political, and personal confusions that echo the ones that encouraged his father to beat a hasty retreat from the world. Unlike his father, however, Willie has a chameleonlike ability to change with his circumstances, although this trait doesn't seem to help him belong. When Willie falls in love with a Portuguese-African woman and follows her to her family plantation in Mozambique, he continues this legacy of "half life" as an Indian outsider among the white plantation owners in Portugal's dying colonial empire. The story of Willie's time in Africa, which makes up the latter third of the novel, is the richest and most compelling part of the narrative and skillfully delves into the ways that Willie's cultural and familial legacy keeps him at arm's length from his life. Half a Life is a remarkable book from one of the world's most intelligent and sophisticated writers, and it manages an impressive feat—for it's in the very straightforwardness of the telling that Naipaul reveals the most mystical parts of Willie's, and our own, existence. Kate Chynoweth TAKE IT PERSONALLY: HOW TO MAKE CONSCIOUS CHOICES TO CHANGE THE WORLD

by Anita Roddick (Publishers Group West, $24.95) ANITA RODDICK is the founder, CEO, and global evangelist of the Body Shop, a British chain of socially conscious beauty-product stores; she's used her business success to advance a wide array of noble causes. Roddick writes that she was transformed by her experience in Seattle's WTO protests—Take It Personally is the radicalized result. It is not, as the subtitle suggests, a consumers' guide for socially aware shoppers; rather, it's a sales catalog of globalization issues. We learn in the fine print that Gavin Lewis is actually the "editor" and that "Anita Roddick asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work." Roddick earned this platform through the marketing savvy she brought to her business, and Take It Personally is an extension of that knowledge. Starting with a Paul Hawken narrative about the streets of Seattle during WTO, Take It Personally mixes the photo layouts and typography found in slick ads with brief essays by some of the global justice movement's leading lights: Naomi Klein, Jerry Mander, David Korten, Susan George, Vandana Shiva, Maude Barlow, Randy Hayes, Marti Khor, and familiar action groups like Global Exchange, Ruckus Society, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network. The contributors are eloquent leaders and activists who've devoted their lives to creating a better world—but their entries read like (well-edited) flyers to be handed out to Westlake shoppers. The overall effect is that of a thick, breezy magazine targeted at TV watchers, with episodic bursts of outrage that you pick up and thumb through during the commercial breaks or in your quiet time on the toilet ("Wow! Sex Slaves for Sale! Page 78!") and doses of inspiration and resources to send readers on their way. Books that do cover the range of global justice issues more rigorously and thoughtfully are out there, but they don't sit, well-thumbed, in many people's bathrooms. Creating books that do is the province of marketers. That's why Anita Roddick has the moral right to be identified as the author of this slick but enchanting 256-page advertisement for improving the planet. Geov Parrish CALENDAR BOY

by Andy Quan (New Star Books, $16) SOMETIMES life's a beauty contest. In Calendar Boy, Andy Quan's collection of short stories about gay men, we're reminded that in the Darwinian environments of dance clubs, it's what's outside that matters most in the primal chase: If you're hot, you score the muscle boys. If you're not, you merely observe others and go home alone. Throughout more than a dozen stories, Quan's protagonists seem the same: All except one are gay, Chinese-Canadian, college-educated, and insecure about their bodies. Even the star of the titular story, who's ballsy enough to publish nude pictures of himself, is consumed by feelings of inadequacy. It's enough to make him go to the gym every day and mark his progress on a calendar, writing "Chest and Arms in some boxes, Legs and Back in others. Abdominals are every day, they go in each box." And as any fashion slave knows, beauty is often about conformity. In "Hair," the narrator, aptly named Samson, muses on the gay trends of bodybuilding and shaving: "I started to wonder why they looked all the same, as if put through an assembly line to make parts of cars: hubcaps perhaps, or fenders." Such details have the makings of a funny book, but unfortunately, Quan misses the opportunity for levity. Rather than going with the humor and bounce that would have allowed his characters to be more likable, the author dwells on the idea that being Asian is another cross to bear. The protagonist in "On the Paris Metro" is convinced that being a minority has made him timid. "I realized that I have never stared at anyone in the street. Perhaps because I was slight, perhaps because I was Asian usually in non-Asian environments. . . . " Quan's ethnicity is certainly an important aspect of his writing, but why must he always portray his Chineseness as a handicap? The back of the book says that the author was born in Vancouver and currently lives in Sydney. From his stories, one could safely assume he's spent time in Europe. It would be interesting if Quan ever traveled to Asia. Perhaps he would realize then that even when you fit in lookswise you may still be rejected on the basis of your dull personality. Soyon Im THE VINTAGE BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY CHINESE FICTION

edited by Carolyn Choa and David Su Li-qun (Vintage Books, $14) IN THIS anthology of short stories, Vintage Books presents a sampler featuring 19 of China's premier writers of modern fiction, many of whom still live and work in their homeland and remain largely unknown in the U.S. The compilation was edited and, in many cases, translated by Carolyn Choa, a Hong Kong native now living in London, and David Su Li-qun, a Chungking-born playwright who also has a foot in both the Eastern and Western worlds since emigrating to England in 1984. Ranging from amusing and sarcastic fables mocking Communist Party leaders to downright grim semiautobiographies, most of the stories center around the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The weakness of this collection is in its translations, which are so thorough they strip subtlety from the narratives and bring the stories down to a level of juvenile literature. Despite this, the collection remains culturally rich and is meaty enough in its treatment of the Cultural Revolution's impact on the lives of a variety of people to merit attention from readers who prefer nonfiction. The greatest value of this anthology, however, is the unique place it holds in the body of literature from China currently in circulation. It offers an insider's perspective on urban and rural life on the mainland, a view that is still too rare in the Western world. Unique, too, are the depictions of people waging small-scale but daring rebellions against social constraints and communism. Zhang Jie's "Love Must Not Be Forgotten," for example, is the story of a 30-year-old woman who, haunted by the bitter life her mother endured, stubbornly refuses to marry because of social pressure or any other reason than love. In Bi Shu-min's "One Centimetre," a wily mother regains her young son's respect by forcing "the system" to bow to her. Allusions to political persecution are often quiet and almost glancingly touched upon, but we clearly understand the danger to those asserting their individuality, even if they're such ordinary figures as the malcontent wife, the disobedient schoolboy, or the eccentric who spray paints his walls black. Chauna Chambliss

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