“Five Star Billionaire” And Other Must-Read Books

Tash Aw, a writer born in Taipei who grew up in Kuala Lumpur before moving to England, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his novel, “Five Star Billionaire,” a fictional self-help book for social climbers moving from China’s outskirts to big cities like Shanghai,  according to New York Times’ reviewer Dwight Garner.  The novel centers around five main characters described as “insecure strivers” who try to “shake their hick accents,” their “poor postures”, “and their cheap shoes” as newcomers to a “big sleek city”:

The primary characters, besides Phoebe, are Gary, a Justin Bieber-like pop singer whose career derails; Yinghui, a free spirit who abandons art for commerce; Justin, the troubled scion of a wealthy family; and Walter, the five-star billionaire himself. Mr. Aw weaves these lives together gently, like a man plaiting hair.

“Five Star Billionaire” is a meditation, at heart, on impermanence. The New China never stands still; to pause for even a moment is to be left behind. “Every village, every city, everything is changing,” a young woman says. “It’s as if we are possessed by a spirit — like in a strange horror film.”

Ambitious rural kids flee to the city; ambitious urbanites, flush with new wealth, flee to see the world.[Source]

While Aw’s book is directed at those within China,  exiled writers Ma Jian and Liao Yiwu “speak mostly to the outside world”  in two other new books about China, “The Dark Road” and “For a Song and a Hundred Songs.” New York Times reviewer Emily Parker favors Liao’s book about his imprisonment for writing a poem over Ma’s book about the one-child policy because “Liao offers neither a diagnosis of China’s ills nor prescriptions for their cure”:

Yet rather than let this powerful theme unfold naturally, insists on spelling it out. “You force me to get pregnant,” Meili tells Kongzi, “then you take my baby from me. You’re worse than the Communist Party.” On the next page, Meili notes that “women don’t own their bodies: their wombs and genitals are battle zones over which their husband and the state fight for control.” “The Dark Road” is a passionate book about an important topic, but it would work more effectively if it veered off-message long enough to let readers lose themselves in the story.

The poet ’s memoir, “For a Song and a Hundred Songs,” reads more novelistically. An earlier book, “The Corpse Walker,” gathered portraits from the lower rungs of Chinese society; his new one is based on the four years he was imprisoned after writing a poem, “Massacre,” inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, and helping to make a film, “Requiem.”

The memoir, which has already won a major award in Germany, is likely to be applauded by human rights groups as a fierce indictment of the Chinese government. In many ways, it is. But to cast Liao’s work in such simple terms is to overlook the way it also portrays the cruelties ordinary Chinese inflict upon one another.[Source]

The China Daily reports that there is growing interest in Chinese literature in the West as more and more scholars discuss the big China book of the season:

China’s book market is now the world’s largest. The industry published 7.7 billion books in 2011, a 7.5 percent increase from 2010. Of those books, 48 sold more than one million copies. Most of those titles were written by Chinese authors for Chinese readers, but Western books translated into Chinese also feature prominently.

Western titles printed in English also have a niche; Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs sold more than 50,000 copies in China. According to Penguin China, George Orwell’s 1984 was its best seller in 2011, signaling a desire for both aspiration writing and high-quality classic Western .

Since Chinese author Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, Western publishers and readers have become increasingly interested in Chinese literature. Penguin China recently published English translations of the popular Chinese novel The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang and Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls. [Source]

Duncan Jepson, a founding member of the Asia Literary Review, told The China Daily: “Books about China from a Western perspective (written by English-speaking writers for an English-reading audience) have been popular over the last decade. But the focus on Western perspectives on China – as opposed to Chinese perspectives on their own country – is limiting.”