MixedThe New YorkerThis focus on the U.S. might please American readers. But, in the last years of the Qing dynasty and during the early Republican period, Japan was a far more influential model of modern reform. Oddly, Tsu barely mentions this in her book. Japan ... Tsu rightly credits the Communist government with raising the literacy level in China, which, she tells us, reached ninety-seven per cent in 2018. But we should take with a grain of salt the claim that these gains came from bottom-up agitation ... We can also wonder whether the simplified characters played as large a role in China’s high literacy rate as Tsu is inclined to think ... Tsu assiduously links the story of language reform to technology—we learn much about the heroic efforts to accommodate modern typesetting to the character-based system—and that story continues through the digital era ... Kingdom of Characters mentions all the major political events, from the Boxer Rebellion to the rise of Xi Jinping. And yet one might get the impression that language development was largely a story of ingenious inventions devised by doughty individuals overcoming enormous technical obstacles. Her account ends on a triumphant note ... In the last sentence of her book, Tsu writes, \'Still unfolding, history will overtake China’s story.\' I’m not sure what that means. But the story of the Chinese language under Communism is mostly one of repression and distortion, which only heroes and fools have defied.
Curzio Malaparte, trans. by Stephen Twiley
PositiveThe Times Literary SupplementCurzio Malaparte, Italian fascist, Maoist, fabulist, dandy, diplomat, dog worshipper, aesthete, journalist, novelist, filmmaker, was a very odd cove ... He appears to have been a narcissist, whose main interest was in himself ... if Malaparte had simply been a chauvinist who loved war, he would have been a bore. What saved him as an artist was not just his talent for extraordinary phrases – the sky over a French battlefield is \'like a sheet of paper sliced in two, with the edges of the gash exposed, and a ray of deep blue … the same colour as the live flesh at the bottom of a scalpel wound\' – but also his air of ambivalence, typical of a natural outsider. He looked at life, and society, from a peculiar angle, all his own ... This new translation of Diary of a Foreigner in Paris is nevertheless welcome. It is a strange book, with bits written in Italian and bits in French. Stephen Twilley, the translator, decided to merge the diary published in Italy with a slightly different version that appeared later in France, which can be confusing; certain anecdotes are told more than once, for example. The prose is fairly fluent, even though certain Americanisms – \'a great gal\' – sound jarring in the work of such a fastidious stylist. Still, for those who wish to understand this strange but fascinating figure, it is an indispensable document, which contains at least one flash of Malaparte’s genius
Helmut Walser Smith
PositiveHarper\'sIn his absorbing and enlightening new book...the historian Helmut Walser Smith makes a convincing case that nations undergo so many complex changes that it is nonsense to assume that any particular period—including Hitler’s Third Reich—is wholly determined by the past, let alone a very distant past ... Smith argues that German nationalism resulted not from a long history of belligerence, but from a sense of failure and humiliation going back no further than Napoleon’s conquests ... The question Smith fails to ask is why, at a time when anti-Semitism was endemic throughout Europe, it became the dominant ideology only in Germany ... Though there is much to admire in Smith’s history, he is least sure-footed when discussing the twentieth century.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksHow, then, does Christopher Hitchens think? Several times in the book he expresses his loathing of fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, which in his account is a tautology ... The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith.
Herbert P. Bix
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksBix’s Hirohito seems as contradictory as other versions of the man, but Bix does at least have a coherent line on his subject which doesn’t rely on demonic conspiracy theories. It is largely the line of the left: the Emperor as a leading agent of reaction against liberal tendencies in twentieth-century Japan. This is persuasive, as far as it goes ... Because Bix goes out of his way to show Hirohito’s active political participation, he is puzzled, and sometimes angry, when the Emperor turns out not to have been active enough. It’s as if Bix wants it both ways ... It is hugely important to insist that the truth be told about the past, as well as the present ... David Bergamini deserves a small salute for having made an initial stab at the subject. Bix has done a much better job.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksShirley Hazzard has a remarkable gift for evoking atmosphere and places, as in her descriptions of postwar Hong Kong, rank with decay, grimy and sticky, the July air ‘a blanket, summer weight’...Equally acute are the descriptions of the people Exley encounters: the Eurasians, desperate to oblige the ‘unmixed races,’ European or Asian, who treat them with disdain; the laughing, bouncing, big-boned English girls forever somewhere in Middlesex. None of these women tempts Exley out of his torpor. During his sleepless nights, in Hazzard’s phrase, he has to fight alone the war that he cannot survive. Leith does survive in the end, redeemed by love. That is the heart of Hazzard’s story, but there is a subplot, which can be summarized as the great escape from the Antipodes … Beautifully observed, and deeply depressing. But how could it be otherwise? Places play their assigned roles in this love story, just as the people do.
PanThe New YorkerOverheated topics invariably produce ill-considered books...A glance at a few new books suggests what scholars and journalists are thinking about the prospect of an Asian conflagration; the quality of their reflections is, to say the least, variable. The worst of the bunch, Graham Allison’s Destined for War, may also be the most influential, given that its thesis rests on a catchphrase Allison has popularized, 'Thucydides’s Trap' ... Allison is so excited by China’s swift growth that his prose often sounds like a mixture of a Thomas Friedman column and a Maoist propaganda magazine like China Reconstructs ... The thesis, in those general terms, isn’t implausible. His book would be more persuasive, however, if he knew more about China. Allison’s only informants on the subject appear to be Henry Kissinger and the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, both of whom he regards with awe. This leads to some odd contradictions and a number of serious historical howlers.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksThe Orphan Master’s Son is no more about North Korea than The Merchant of Venice is about Venice under the doges. North Korea is the setting for an imaginary story about a man who gradually, though always dramatically, discovers his own humanity in a state that does everything to suppress it … This is a fantasy, a fiction, a work of literary imagination. That the setting bears a strong resemblance to aspects of life in North Korea gives it an anchor in reality. And the cliché that fiction can cut to deeper truths than fact holds true of this novel too. It tells us something profound about the pathology of the totalitarian state.
John le Carre
PositiveThe NationThe chapter on his father is the best thing about The Pigeon Tunnel. His bitter memories of Ronnie are the closest this highly guarded author comes to self-revelation ... In his account of Ronnie, le Carré is unsparing, still a little angry, but not unforgiving ... His books are the cry of an outsider who has been on the inside, and who cares enough about his country to be outraged by what he saw.
PositiveThe Guardian[Seierstad's] book is a psychiatric case history, as well as a close look at Norwegian society, not least by paying as much attention to Breivik’s victims, as to their murderer ... This book throws a great deal of light on the life and times of a miserable killer.