A succinct, fascinating overview of literary ambivalence in China.

THE SUBPLOT

WHAT CHINA IS READING AND WHY IT MATTERS

The gripping yet uneasy state of literature in China.

Journalist Walsh’s first book is an eye-opening glimpse into China’s “intentionally hazy” authoritarian political climate of censorship and propaganda, which disorientates its fiction scene—a “mixture of staggering invention, bravery, and humanity, as well as soul-crushing submission and pragmatism.” China is in the midst of a science-fiction golden age thanks to novels like Liu Cixin’s global bestseller, The Three-Body Problem(2015), among others. Walsh describes how many young writers embrace online or self-publishing to bypass China’s state-controlled publishing program as they “reveal the truth and highlight what is still hidden.” Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize–winning author, is both praised and condemned as a mouthpiece for the state; Walsh calls his fiction “garrulous, feverish, and often smutty.” Female author Wei Hui’s 1999 erotic bestseller, Shanghai Baby, showed that in “China’s new market economy sex and controversy were great for business.” The rise of China’s internet and its rural migrant workers spawned the most comprehensive poetry movement in the world, while Lu Yao’s novels portrayed “poor, rural idealists dreaming up a new life in the city.” Walsh chronicles how hugely popular, escapist online fantasy novels reveal the “mercenary, amoral instincts of the market.” The government has cashed in with its own University of Online Fiction, with Mo Yan “nominally at the helm, a move he finds as peculiar as anyone else.” Largely dominated by Japanese manga, China has “become the biggest comic book market in the world,” with its underground comics scene providing a transgressive and masochistic view of the world. Tibetan and Han Chinese writers, writes Walsh, “have played a controversial role in both the elevation and erosion of ethnic difference.” In a society with a draconian legal system, crime fiction lags far behind SF. As Walsh cautiously writes, it’s “hard to say what the future holds.”

A succinct, fascinating overview of literary ambivalence in China.

Pub Date: Feb. 8, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-7359136-6-7

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Columbia Global Reports

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2021

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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