An appealing empathy with the fates of embattled “little people” distinguishes this fine collection of twelve stories (from a forty-year oeuvre of nearly two hundred) by a popular Taiwanese author only now appearing in English translation. Cheng’s characters are most often small-town souls burdened if not traumatized by their country’s long experience of Japanese occupation (1895-1945) and by its subsequent transformation from an agrarian to an urban culture. The narrator of “The Last of the Gentlemen” offers a valediction to a dead friend that also becomes a lament for the society’s drift toward an impersonal industrialization; “Betel Nut Town” subjects an inchoate love affair to the contrast between city and village; and the title story depicts a guilty survivor of WWII (when he served with Japan’s colonial police force) now “atoning” for this treason by carving deformed (i.e., “three-legged”) wooden horses. Equally affecting are several pieces that examine troubled family relations, including quietly powerful characterizations of a man dominated by his wife’s unpleasant family (“The Mosquito”), a young woman in conflict with her demanding mother-in-law (“Autumn Night”), a mother and son estranged by their separate experiences of deprivation and misery (“Thunder God’s Gonna Getcha”), and the wary partners in a marriage that only gradually becomes trusting (“Secrets”). Two stories are especially impressive: “The River Suite,” about a young ferryman who’s inspired by the spirit of his late grandfather to an act of courage and to pursue, perhaps belatedly, his heart’s desire; and “Spring Rain,” about an orphan who endures a childless marriage and the death of his wife before finding in total selflessness the fulfillment previously denied him. It’s a typically understated story, capped by a beautiful Chekhovian conclusion. Chekhov, in fact, would have understood the compassionate sensibility animating these gently harrowing, unpretentious, absorbing tales. More of Cheng’s fiction would be welcome.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 1999

ISBN: 0-231-11386-2

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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