Author and Journalist

Book Reviews

The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster

Reviewed in the Literary Review

There were many traps for the unwary in old Japan. You could be out walking at twilight at the edge of town and meet a beautiful woman. But before you proposed marriage, it would be as well to check whether she had a bushy tail protruding from her skirts. Otherwise you might wake up and discover that you’d slept with a fox.

Or you might buy a cooking pot that screamed when you put it on the fire and revealed itself to be a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), badly burnt and probably dead. (Tanuki are rather inept shape changers, unlike foxes.) On 3 May 1889 a train driver reported a train steaming straight towards him that suddenly disappeared, leaving a dead tanuki on the track. Domestic utensils like pots and pans had a tendency to grow arms and legs, and cats might develop a split tail and turn into cat monsters. […]

From Things that Change Shape in the Night, a book review published in March, 2015.

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Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Reviewed in the The New York Times

“When I was 7, I knew exactly who I was.” With these words, Violet, the principal narrator of Amy Tan’s latest novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” begins her story. Yet over the course of the book, Violet’s certainty about her identity — and nearly everything else — will be turned upside down.

An American child (or so she thinks), Violet lives in Shanghai in 1905, in an establishment called Hidden Jade Path, a first-class courtesan house that caters to both Westerners and Chinese. It is run by her cool, aloof and seductive mother, who goes by several names, among them Lulu Mimi. A lonely, difficult child — one of Tan’s signature prickly heroines — Violet takes solace in playing with her ferocious pet cat and in spying on the courtesans’ lovemaking. She yearns for her mother’s affection — and for any clue about the identity of her father. […]

From Ladies From Shanghai, a book review published on November 8, 2013.

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An Imperial Concubine’s Tale:  Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Centuary Japan by G G Rowley

Reviewed in the Literary Review

In 1609, a scandal broke out that shook the imperial court in the Japanese capital, Kyoto. Emperor GoYōzei had little temporal power. He spent his days in cultural pursuits such as hosting poetry parties in the imperial palace, a sprawling complex of buildings occupying an enormous compound. At the back was the women’s palace, home to his consorts and their gentlewomen and entirely run by female officials. His women attendants were all young, beautiful and aristocratic. They bathed the emperor, dressed his hair and served his meals. A roster, drawn up from among them, was assigned to spend the night with him in rotation.

GoYōzei had 16 concubines, one of whom was a young woman called Nakanoin Nakako. In the usual course of events she would have borne him a son, then retired to a nunnery. But in fact her life turned out very differently, as G G Rowley describes in this scrupulously researched and elegantly written account. Rowley specialises in making Japanese women and their stories known to English-speaking readers. She has written a study of Yosano Akiko, the feminist poet, and she translated Autobiography of a Geisha, the true and harrowing story of Sayo Masuda, a 20th-century geisha. […]

From Kabuki Nights, a book review published in July 2013.

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Obtaining Images: Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan by Timon Screech

Reviewed in the Literary Review.

In 1871 Claude Monet stumbled across a pile of Japanese prints in an Amsterdam shop and snapped them up. His discovery transformed Western perceptions of Japan (though Japanese art had first arrived in the West some decades earlier), inspiring artists such as Van Gogh and Whistler, as well as Monet himself, and sparking Japonisme, the enthusiasm for all things Japanese that swept across Europe.

Today Hokusai’s Great Wave is one of the most recognisable images in the world. In fact Westerners tend to equate Japanese art with wood-block prints, which, as Timon Screech writes in Obtaining Images, ‘would have chilled the blood of the shogunate and of most sober-minded people of the period’. To Japanese of the time, wood-block prints were akin to pin-up posters by and for the lower orders. Real art was very different. […]

From Artists of the Floating World, a book review published in July 2012.

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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

Reviewed in the New York Times.

In 1989, the Chinese writer and broadcaster Xinran was in a remote mountain village in Shandong Province having dinner with the headman when she heard cries from an adjoining room, where his daughter-in-law was giving birth. A while later, as the midwife collected her fee, Xinran noticed a movement in the slops bucket. “To my absolute horror,” she recalls, “I saw a tiny foot poking out of the pail.” But she was the only one who was shocked. “It’s not a child,” the headman’s wife told her. “If it was, we’d be looking after it, wouldn’t we? It’s a girl baby, and we can’t keep it.”[…]

From Casualties of China’s One Child Policy, a book review published on April 1, 2011.

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Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings

Reviewed in the New York Times.

[…] The English writer Sam Meekings’s accomplished first novel, “Under Fishbone Clouds,” is based on the lives of his Chinese wife’s grandparents. An unlikely love story set against the events of the last half-century in China, it’s a tale of terrible suffering that also manages to be a poetic evocation of the country and its people.[…]

From The Kitchen God Dreams of Love, a book review published on December 9, 2010.

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Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows

Reviewed  in the New York Times.

When I used to ask my mother about her family village in China, she always said it was three hours from Canton by bus. A hundred years ago, when my great-grandfather left China for good, that couldn’t have been far, but it was certainly no help in locating it. So I was pleased — though still mystified — to read in Deborah Fallows’s charming and witty little book that in China, “if you ask someone where their hometown is, they’ll say it is seven hours by bus. Or four hours by train. They won’t tell you where it is.” …

From Character Building, a book review published on September 24, 2010.

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Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story by Karen Connelly

Reviewed  in the New York Times.

Karen Connelly’s passionate and poetic memoir begins with her arrival in Burma in 1996 at the age of 27. Brash, naïve and bubbling with confidence, she is enchanted by the country, but also determined to “catch at least a glimpse of the truth — something beyond the beautiful images that are so readily available to the foreign eye.” …

From Border Crossings, a book review published on June 11, 2010.

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