Category Archives: Chinese

Decoded by Mai Jia, translated by Olivia Milburn and Christopher Payne

DecodedThe layers here are astonishing, revealed through the filtered lens of an unnamed narrator who gathers the shared experiences, memories, and words about an enigmatic, brilliant man who has lost his sanity by the time the narrator’s research begins. The subject is Rong Jinzhen – orphan, mathematical genius, unparalleled code breaker, national hero. In spite of the narrative spotlight, he is allowed a mere two instances to speak for himself: in a message written in his own blood professing lifelong devotion to his adoptive mother, and in a lost-then-found blue notebook that can only be partially divulged as a redacted afterthought.

The Rong family’s fortune accumulated through salt, until a peripatetic member of the seventh generation becomes “the first person … to break from their mercantile heritage and become an academic.” After an education overseas, he founded what would become “the famous N University.” The most illustrious of the eighth Rong generation is an extraordinary woman who assisted the Wright brothers take to the sky, but childbirth takes her life. Her genius is reborn in her illegitimate grandson Jinzhen.

The narrator spends “two years on the railways of southern China, travelling the country to interview the fifty-one middle-aged or elderly eyewitnesses to these events” that comprise Jinzhen’s major life events: his birth, his early years as “Duckling,” his adoption by relatives, his university life as a teenage prodigy, his sudden induction into Unit 701 – the most elite division of code-breakers for China’s secret service – and what follows in the decades hence.

As Jinzhen attempts to decipher the impossible, the anonymous narrator works assiduously to graft together his subject through multiple voices with varying degrees of reliability. The Rashomon-esque story is filled with countless phrases meant to reassure: “to tell you the truth,” “to put it another way,” “in other words,” and yet that truth remains elusive throughout. Regardless of all who weigh in with scattered glimpses of family, mentorship, marriage, and career, Jinzhen’s own personal ‘codes’ remain incomplete and unknowable.

First published in 2002, Decoded was Mai Jia’s first novel; since its debut, Mai has catapulted into top-selling stardom in his native China, including winning his country’s top honor, the Mao Dun Literature Prize. He writes seemingly what he knows, having spent almost two decades as a soldier and possible spy in China’s “intelligence services,” according to his publisher bio. Decoded marks Mai’s arrival Stateside in translation; smart, compelling, exceptional as it proves to be, it should ensure more of his titles will be western-bound.

Tidbit: Not wanting to sully the novel itself, I’m adding this warning here: Choose the page. Why does a novel set in China, populated mostly by Chinese characters, need to be narrated in fake-Chinese-inflected English? The implication is that the characters are incapable of fluently speaking their own language. Really?! Because it’s a Chinese novel-in-translation that needs to be slapped with spurious exotica to sell it stuck in the ears? Narrator Ryan Gesell (an L.A. native clearly not of Asian descent) uses a similarly fabricated accent in Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost, giving U.S.-born Asian American characters a ching-chong flair. Is this aural yellowfacing offensive to anyone else?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002 (China), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Undertaking of Lily ChenBefore Danica Novgorodoff‘s story even begins, her dedication page offers crucial tidbits: in paying homage to her grandparents, she reveals both her Chinese heritage and inspiration ["To my grandparents, Eugene and Ellen Chen Novgorodoff"]; in quoting a July 2007 article from The Economist (we’re talking pretty much now!), she prepares readers with an introduction to “a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called ‘ghost marriages,’” in which parents of unmarried dead sons hold posthumous ‘weddings’ to prevent their progeny entering the next world alone. [Might I suggest Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride as a most ingenious companion text?]

Wei Li, the favored older son of the Li family, is dead. Accident though it was, his younger brother Deshi remains responsible. Following a tradition that possibly began in 208 AD when a powerful warlord demanded “the body of a woman” to “lie with [his dead young son] in the dark eternal bedroom,” the Li brothers’ parents give Deshi a bag of cash, a beast of burden, and demand he return in exactly a week with a wife for Wei.

Following advice from a dwarfish matchmaker who sends him to skeezy Mr. Song, Deshi searches for a suitable spouse, even if that means digging six feet under. When a love match doesn’t turn up, Deshi goes in search of a fresher candidate. He meets Lily, the obstinate, feisty daughter of a remote villager mired in financial woes; Lily impulsively steals Deshi’s ride forcing him to give chase. Their unexpected journey together begins – Deshi trying to get to that wedding on time with the perfect guest, Lily intending to escape her provincial life for a new beginning in the big city. Sunday’s deadline (couldn’t resist) looms … and somehow Deshi must fulfill his filial duties, even if that means, uh … dying for love.

Corpses and ghosts aside – not to mention that not-so-subtle skull on the book’s cover – Undertaking is quite the heartstrings-pulling story for this Valentine’s Day. No, really! Novgorodoff’s original narrative and her can’t-turn-away-from-the-action-packed-art definitely trump chocolate and flowers any day.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American, Hapa

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Ghost BrideHauntings, posthumous marriage proposals, addictions, not-quite-human heroes, in-between spirits growing old, burnt offerings that are actually real in another world. Interest piqued? Get ready for this absolutely ingenious debut novel!

And (there’s more!), as an exponentially satisfying bonus, the crisply-voiced author herself – Yangsze Choo, a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent now California-domiciled – refreshingly voices the audible incarnation. Yes, without having to grit your way through errant pronunciations, Choo’s rendition is just about music to your ears!

The concept of ‘hungry ghosts‘ is centuries-old in China and other parts of Asia, but Choo goes far beyond lost and desperate spectres to create original, unexpected parallel world she calls “the Plains of the Dead” filled with the uniquely undead. Li Lan, a young woman in 1890s Malaya who is quickly bypassing socially-deemed marriageable age, receives an eerie offer. No longer an illustrious family, Li Lan’s father is financially diminished enough to present the unusual proposition to his daughter: to marry Lim Tian Ching, the wealthy heir to a privileged family … never mind that he’s … well … dead. His mother worries that her precious son will be lonely in his afterlife, and requests Li Lan as his bride.

Just in case Li Lan had other thoughts, Tian Ching quickly begins to lay claim from beyond on his intended. Li Lan, of course, is no obedient wallflower; in fact, her heart flutters for Tian Ching’s cousin, Tian Bai, who she initially mistakes as a servant. Her future, alas, is not her own if she can’t get herself unhaunted. Somehow, somewhere, she’ll have to chase down the undead Tian Ching and expose him for the less-than-honorable spirit he is …

Li Lan’s epic journey toward death in order to live is filled with unexpected meetings, devious servants, a trusty horse that never eats or tires, an arrogant yet irresistible guardian spirit, and plenty of corrupt officials (surprise, surprise – even in the netherworld!). Lest you worry about your own soul, Choo inserts a clever nod to tolerance: Keep an eye out for the centuries-old Dutchman who cannot help Li Lan on her deathly quest because “Those are not my beliefs … That is not my afterworld.”

The lengths a girl has to go through to escape unwanted attention reaches new heights – or should I say depths? – in this intriguing, wholly inventive, thoroughly entertaining debut title.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Malay American, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Kinder Than Solitude*STARRED REVIEW
In her first title since she received a 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Yiyun Li again explores the far-reaching repercussions of a single person’s death. While her mesmerizing The Vagrants (2009) revolved around the execution of a young political victim, here, three childhood friends take the spotlight when a fourth dies after a protracted illness.

Ruyu, an orphan raised by elderly “grandaunts,” is sent to live with Aunt, Uncle, and their acerbic daughter, Shaoai, in Beijing. There, she meets Boyang and Moran, who live in the same residential compound. Just four months later, the three children are implicated in Shaoai’s mysterious collapse. Shaoai’s long-expected death after 20 years prompts Boyang – now a wealthy divorcé – to contact Moran, a Massachusetts pharmaceutical tester with a PhD determined to care for her ill Midwestern ex-husband, and Ruyu, who sells chocolates and keeps house for wealthy Californians.

Verdict: Li’s effortless ability to move fluidly in time and place – between minutes or decades and across continents – always with exacting details, gives this novel a shattering immediacy. Discerning readers who appreciated the well-traveled, multicultural virtuosity of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone will find rewarding satiety in Solitude.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese, Chinese American

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

Red Thread HoodAlthough I can’t recommend this book, I sure would like to find some readers who might want to discuss it. As it’s apparently a “national bestseller” – so touts the cover of the paperback edition – perhaps a few of you who have already read it might want to chat …?

Here’s the basic set up (warning: eye-rolling spoilers ahead) … Maya Lange runs the Red Thread Adoption Agency, connecting prospective American parents with abandoned Chinese girls. “In China, Maya wrote in her first brochure, there is a belief that people who are destined to be together are connected by an invisible red thread. Who is at the end of your thread?” Maya has facilitated magical matches for hundreds of Chinese girls, and she’s working with her latest group of waiting parents: her close friend Emily who has suffered too many miscarriages, save-the-world Sophie whose cheating husband left the love of his life when she became inconveniently pregnant, entitled Nell with her John Adams-by-marriage pedigree who’s desperate to get the one thing she can’t have, mournful Susannah with her Fragile X-syndromed daughter, and determined Brooke with her overbearingly loving husband. Svengali-like Maya, who controls their immediate future, has secrets of her own – she creates happy families because she can’t have one of her own.

In between the complications of the overprivileged – Emily who’s less mature than her resentful, anorexic (but, of course!) stepdaughter, Nell who attempts to pay for priority matching, Theo who teaches American businessmen how to buy women in Thai – Hood offers brief glimpses of the Chinese mothers and daughters and their impending separations. As predictable as those faraway stories are – evil in-laws, a baby before marriage, an unlucky weaker twin – they seem far more sincere than the overwrought tribulations of the American parents-to-be.

Hood’s novel has an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ And yet, the premise of transracial adoption is very real, and here it’s presented with entitlement and commodification. Whether intended or not, too many of Hood’s characters are failed parents frantic for redemption via replacement: a mother who resents her mentally and emotionally damaged daughter, another who blames herself for her baby daughter’s death, another who competes with her unpleasant stepdaughter, a father who abandons his daughter before she’s even born. Whether birthed or adopted, privileged or deprived, cherished or abandoned, all over the world the daughters suffer most of all.

Soap opera antics aside, Hood spins a fairy tale of unrealistic happy endings that are downright disturbing. With no disrespect intended at Hillary Huber’s fine narration, after surviving over 8.5 hours – disastrously rubbernecking-style – the story I would much rather read is that of Blossom, Jordan, Ella, Beatrice, and Honor Maile (that middle name belonging to a dead daughter – ‘honor the dead’? – oh good gawd!) in 10, 15, 20 years. Here’s hoping the daughters someday, somehow find their own true voices …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Chinese, Nonethnic-specific

Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr

Boy in the Twilight* STARRED REVIEW
Recipient of the James Joyce, Prix Courrier International, and Premio Grinzane Cavour awards for novels such as To Live (adapted to film by director Zhang Yimou) and Brothers, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize, Yu Hua is an international sensation. His latest collection comprises 13 stories, written between 1993 and 1998, that offer a laconic, piercing glimpse into the daily life of citizens living in post-Mao China.

In “No Name of My Own,” a mentally challenged young man loses his one true companion to neighborhood bullies. A hungry boy is brutally punished by a fruit vendor in the titular “Boy in the Twilight”; by acute contrast, a groceries kiosk proprietor watches the playful son of doting parents who repeatedly appear at the hospital entrance across the street in “The Skipping-and-Stepping Game.” The sanctity of marriage gets trampled, challenged, and mocked in “Why There Was No Music” and others. The longest story, “Timid as a Mouse,” in which a long-ridiculed young man finally decides to strike back, proves the most indelible.

Verdict: Aficionados of the short form will savor these stories as both adroit literature and a sharp cultural lens. Appreciative readers of such diverse recent collections as Emma Donoghue’s Astray and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge will want to add this title to waiting shelves.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, October 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Chinese

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang, color by Lark Pien

Boxers and Saints

In 2006, Gene Luen Yang made major literary headlines when his then-debut, American Born Chinese, became (not without controversy, ahem!) the first-ever graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award. [Click here for my 2007 post-NBA interview with Yang.] Released earlier this month, Yang’s two-volume Boxers & Saints returns him to the recently announced NBA Young People’s longlist. Allow me a moment to whoop and holler in congratulatory glee …

Although packaged as two separate titles, both should be read together to maximize insight and enjoyment. You wouldn’t be satisfied with half a story, right?

“Every war has two faces,” the back covers of both titles aptly insist. During the foreign-incited Boxer Rebellion in 1890s China, the eponymous Boxers are represented by a young boy named Little Bao, who is more interested in the epic stories of the traveling Chinese operas than the hard labor needed to keep the family farm producing; the titular Saints are led by a young girl known only by her birth order, “Four-Girl,” who as the fourth daughter in her extended family is neither welcomed nor nurtured.

Even in the remotest villages, the “foreign devils” are encroaching with both their indiscriminate guns and their proselytizing religion. Little Bao’s father falls victim to the foreigners’ violence, and the villagers realize they will need to learn to protect themselves. A mysterious man named Red Lantern appears, savior-like, and trains the young men in kung fu. Little Bao’s childhood conversations with the opera gods morphs into the constant demands of the warrior spirit of Ch’in Shih-huang, China’s first emperor who managed to unite the vast country. The emperor demands that Little Bao must keep their beloved country together – which can only be achieved by ousting not only the foreign devils, but the “secondary devils,” as well – their fellow Chinese who have fallen under the influence of Christianity.

Those Chinese Christians are the so-called Saints. They are who welcome “Four-Girl” in spite of her endless questions, recurring doubts, and demands for snacks. She finds her community – and even a name of her own, Vibiana –  among those very foreign devils and their converts. She also discovers her own heroine, Joan of Arc, who both inspires and haunts her. As the Chinese vigilantes bring violence closer to her walled Christian village, she begs young Joan for guidance … and impossible answers.

Boxers, at almost double the length as Saints, is the volume to read first. Its extra page count sets up a fuller context to what happens on either side of war; it also sets up the narrative overlaps between Little Bao and Vibiana. The tragic outcome is inevitable –this is the guaranteed horror of war – but Yang’s graphic frames that fast forward to the conclusion are filled with moments of joy, discovery, empathy, soul-stirring doubt, and inexplicable resolve.

Most remarkable of all, Yang (who himself is a “secondary devil”-Christian, as well as a teacher in a Catholic high school in Northern California) gives literal face and voice to the undeniable forces that wield such terrible power over the actions and lives of young people – the war machine will not be ignored. ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ no longer exist, which ‘side’ you’re on predetermines your actions, loyalty can only be upheld with devastating choices. While the historic details here are inspired by the actual Boxer Rebellion, the underlying narrative is clearly of war –  any war: the impossible demands, the illogical spin, and always, the unavoidable carnage.

Read and weep. And read and weep again. Boxers & Saints – up next, NBA shortlist? And then … history awaits …!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese, Chinese American

Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood

Black FlameWinner of China’s National Children’s Literature Award, Black Flame is an engrossing, often heartstring-pulling adventure told from the point of view of a majestic, lion-like, blue-black Tibetan Mastiff. Two things kept going through my head as the pages turned swiftly: 1. the novel reads like an older child’s version of Helen Manos’ gorgeous picture book, Samsara Dog, except all the incarnations belong to a single pooch with one life to live; and 2. no child should go through life without a special pet (yes, we’re finally welcoming a little hypoallergenic – achoos away! – kitty arriving home this month!).

Kelsang loses his mother as a puppy and grows up the playmate of his Master’s young son as he develops into an expert sheepherder. Two strangers appear one day, ply the Master with alcohol, and Kelsang finds himself taken away in chains to a city far from the grazing grasslands. He’s made to brutally battle other dogs, finds temporary respite with an old painter who feeds him but barely notices him, is sold again to a greedy dealer who keeps him chained waiting for the highest bidder. Kelsang discovers his great strength, unfortunately in horribly violent situations; he watches other dogs die, some even of broken hearts.

When he escapes once more, he happens upon two campers, one of whom is Han Ma, a kind young man who literally frees Kelsang from his chains of bondage. Han Ma proves to be the master Kelsang has been waiting for, but he will have to endure many more complications before the pair can be permanently united.

For those unfamiliar with this part of the world (like me), Black Flame offers ample opportunity to learn about lifestyles unique to nomadic highlands and crowded cities, not to mention the magnificence of mastiffs. That Kelsang must face so many obstacles before he’s finally granted contentment grows somewhat tedious before book’s end, but his utter devotion and unconditional love for Han Ma is impossible to ignore, and unforgettable to behold.

Having never seen a Tibetan Mastiff, I went looking for Google images and learned that the world’s most expensive dog is believed to be … what else, a Tibetan Mastiff (!), who at 11 months old sold for $1.5 million! That’s not a typo! If the three-foot-tall, 180-pound “Big Splash” is anything like loyal Kelsang, he’ll prove to be someone’s priceless treasure indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005 (China), 2013 (Canada, United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu

On Noodle RoadJust in case you’re pressed for time, let me offer this short-cut alternative up front: if you’re looking for a fabulous foodie book that takes you to unexpected corners of the world, bypass Noodle Road and try Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles instead.

If you’re curiously persistent about Noodle, here’s the premise: Peripatetic Chinese American food writer and chef Jen Lin-Liu who founded the Beijing cooking school/restaurant, Black Sesame Kitchen, embarks on a culinary quest to “investigate how noodles had made their way along the Silk Road.” Her east-to-west journey entails eating, comparing, and cooking meals of local specialties with friends, old and new. From Beijing to Rome, she searches for “the links [that] made up the chain connecting two of the world’s greatest cuisines.” For the too many misinformed, Lin-Liu definitively clarifies on page 3 that Marco Polo did not introduce pasta from China to his native Italy.

As she logs thousands of miles through China, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and Italy, her food explorations dovetail with her own developing thoughts on a major event that has recently occurred in her life – becoming a wife: “I’d never had to take into account the impact of an extended journey on my partner, or my relationship.” Amidst her spouseless peregrinations (parts of Central Asia, Iran, and Italy reunite the new couple; husband is China policy scholar Craig Simons, former Asian bureau chief of Cox Newspapers and Newsweek China correspondent), she examines what being a partner means, beyond the expectations of society, extended family, and even her own self.

After meeting “the guardian of … a four-thousand-year-old noodle, proof that China was the rightful inventor of the widespread staple” in Beijing, Lin-Liu leaves the capital with two of her Black Sesame employees who are returning to their spouses and their native villages for a brief break from their solo career-driven city lives. Delivering them ‘home’ after sharing noodles and dumplings (whose outside wraps are akin to oversized flour-and-water noodles), Lin-Liu’s destinations take on a similar pattern: meeting locals, shopping and sampling the local fare, learning a few recipes (each chapter ends with a few), all the while observing the interactions between the diverse people who pass through the many kitchens she visits.

She eats endless variations on noodles, rice, and dumplings, as well as unexpected fare best discovered by the reader. She has the requisite bout of tummy shock, even after she declares herself immune to her concerned mother-in-law. Perhaps more memorable than the food are the people she encounters, from a Chinese American friend’s “crazy aunt” who lives alone in a remote Tibetan community, to a “lackadaisical” Iranian guide and translator (the Iran chapter is especially intriguing), to an internationally popular home chef and teacher in Istanbul, to a Chinese transplant in Rome who runs one of the few Chinese Italian restaurants in the world, to an Italian chef and his American Midwestern fiancée who “think too much success was a bad thing.”

Promising ingredients aside, Noodle is more a meandering travel diary than a well-defined memoir. The two narrative strands – culinary and personal – never quite mesh: the noodle search proves haphazard, any relationship insights feel forced. Another major edit surely could have refined this recipe into a more satisfying read.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Chinese, Chinese American