Thursday 2 April 2020

Tsundoku #8 - April 2020

Lockdown for so many of us may (and I emphasise ‘may’) mean a chance to get to that tottering tsundoku at last. Also plenty of booksellers are still managing to find innovative ways to get books to people – online of course, but also by hand, kerbside pick-up, partnering with food delivery apps and so on. So there’s no excuse!! So here is this month’s springtime shelf-isolation (geddit!!) tsundoku column. As ever, some fiction first...

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a novella that centres around twenty-eight-year-old Kim Ayami, who has worked at Seoul's only audio theatre for the blind. But now the theatre is shutting down and Ayami’s future is uncertain. Her last shift completed and the theatre closed for good, Ayami walks the streets of the city with her former boss late into the night. Together they search for a mutual friend who has disappeared. The following day, at the request of that same friend, Ayami acts as a guide for a detective novelist visiting from abroad.

Braised Pork by An Yu introduces us to Jia Jia who one morning finds her husband dead in the bathtub of their Beijing apartment. Next to him is a piece of folded paper, a sketch of a strange creature from his dream. He has left her no other sign. Young, alone, and with many unanswered questions, Jia Jia sets out to discover what this this mysterious clue might mean. From the high-rises to the hidden bars of contemporary Beijing, she crosses paths with people who call the city home, including someone who may be able to offer her the love she had long thought impossible. Her journey takes her to the high plains of Tibet, and even to a shadowy, watery otherworld, a place she both yearns for and fears.

Following his acclaimed English language debut Uncomfortably Happily, Yeon-sik Hong returns with Umma’s Table, a graphic novel that is as insightful as wrenching as it probes life with aging parents and how we support the people we love. A new father named Madang, moves to a quiet cottage in the countryside with his wife and young baby. He s excited to build a strong foundation for his growing family but his priorities are divided. His elderly parents are impoverished and struggling to survive. He becomes the primary caregiver for his ailing mother Hyung-Soo, which also means negotiating a fraught relationship with his father.

Naoki Matayoshi is a Japanese manzai comedian and author. Spark features Tokunaga is a young comedian struggling to make a name for himself when he is taken under the wing of Kamiya, who is either a crazy genius or perhaps just crazy. Kamiya's indestructible confidence inspires Tokunaga, but it also makes him doubt the limits of his own talent, and dedication to Manzai comedy. Now also a Netflix Japan series. 

Qiu Xiaolong’s tenth Inspector Chen novel is here – Hold Your Breath, China. Chief Inspector Chen and Detective Yu Guangming are brought into a serial murder case when the Homicide squad proves incapable of solving it. But before Chen can make a start, he is called away by a high-ranking Party member for a special assignment: to infiltrate a group of environmental activists meeting to discuss the pollution levels in the country and how to prompt the government into action. Chen knows it will be a far from simple task, especially when he discovers the leader of the group is a woman from his past. Meanwhile, Yu is left to investigate a serial murder case on his own.

And a collection of short stories The Book of Shanghai featuring Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Daicheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiaolan, Fu Yuehui & Wang Zhanhei. Writing has always been an integral part of Shanghai’s identity, and here ten specially translated stories by some of the city's leading authors, remind us what it retains its ability to surprise. Set over the last 50 years of the city, and ranging from crime thrillers, to historical dramas, comedic interludes to SF visions of the city's future, these stories offer an insight into the cultures, customs and social make-up of the one of the most visited cities in the world.

And a few non-fiction books now out…

Antony Daprian’s City on Fire is about the protests in Hong Kong that have now been overshadowed by the coronavirus may are still simmering away. Through the long, hot summer of 2019, Hong Kong burned. Anti-government protests, sparked by a government proposal to introduce a controversial extradition law, grew into a pro-democracy movement that engulfed the city for months. Protesters fought street battles with police, and the unrest brought the People’s Liberation Army to the doorstep of Hong Kong. Driven primarily by youth protesters with their ‘Be water!’ philosophy, borrowed from hometown hero Bruce Lee, this leaderless, technology-driven protest movement defied a global superpower and changed Hong Kong, perhaps forever.

Valerie Hansen’s The Year 1000 is not exclusively about Asia but has a lot of good detail relating to the region and the rest of the world. The Yale professor argues that the year 1000 was the world’s first point of major cultural exchange and exploration. Drawing on nearly thirty years of research, she presents a compelling account of first encounters between disparate societies, which sparked conflict and collaboration eerily reminiscent of our contemporary moment.

Robert Bickers’s China Bound is a history of John Swire and the growth of the Swire hong from its earliest days in Liverpool to the China trade, Hong Kong, Shanghai and through to the more recent days of Cathay Pacific and its role in post-handover Hong Kong. 

Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and her Wolrd explores the life of an unconventional woman during the first half of the 19th century in Edo—the city that would become Tokyo—and a portrait of a great city on the brink of a momentous encounter with the West.

And finally for the coffee table tsundoku, Nicholas Kitto’s Trading Places: A photographic journey through China’s former Treaty Ports with 700 photographs of many buildings from this period, most of them commissioned by foreign interests. Many argue that they should never have been built, let alone still be standing. But this book is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of how these buildings came to be. It simply celebrates their existence. A significant number are innately beautiful and all of them embody a history that has clear and present links to our own time and thus remain relevant.