Thursday, April 10, 2008

Or to Visit the Pacific Rim

Our March Modern Firsts Pick, Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai (Norton $27 Signed) inevitably evokes Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha ($15), but I think that's a real simplification. The history of China from the last Manchus into the 20th Century, the roles of women and family, the hard-earned self-reliance that moves Pan Yuliang inside her art to an inner existence initially impossible to imagine, make this novel unique. The portraits of Shanghai and of bohemian 1920s Paris are gorgeous. It's closer to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ($14) in conception and tone, but more modern.

Anyone who doesn't think that getting out of Shanghai ahead of the Japanese wasn't urgent, that Pan Yuliang and her husband didn't make real sacrifices under pressure, has not read Mo Hayder's hair-raising, brilliant account of the rape/siege of Nanking and its howling aftermath much later in The Devil of Nanking ($7.99).

For a different perspective on art, self-discovery, the creative process, and the impact of war, read Angela David-Gardner's moving Plum Wine ($13), a 2006 Modern Firsts Pick, set in Japan where shades of Hiroshima color everything. Among its Starred Reviews is this one from Booklist:

"Seiji, a potter, tells Barbara, a young and lonely American teaching at a Tokyo university, that it is a tradition in Japan to write about the year past as the new year begins. This practice was cherished by Michiko, a professor who befriended Barbara, and by Michiko's mother before her, as Barbara discovers after Michiko's sudden death and surprise bequest to Barbara of a wooden chest containing bottles of plum wine, one for each year from 1939 to 1966, the present, each wrapped in paper covered with writing. Unable to read Japanese, Barbara asks Seiji to translate the papers, unaware that he and Michiko are hibakusha, Hiroshima survivors. As she and Seiji embark on a painfully complicated love affair, Barbara struggles to understand the horror of what Michiko and Seiji suffered at the hands of her countrymen while her students question her about America's escalation of the war in Vietnam. Davis-Gardner's exceptionally sensitive and enveloping novel illuminates with quiet intensity, psychological suspense, and narrative grace the obdurate divide between cultures, the collision between love and war, and, most piercingly, the horrific legacy of Hiroshima. But Davis-Gardner's ravishing tale also celebrates the solace of stories, and the transcendent bonds people form under the cruelest of circumstances."

Read Epstein's novel alongside for a remarkable experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment