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Old 27th Apr 2007, 13:46   #1
BeccaK
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Default Xiaolu Guo: A Concise-Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is written in journal form as if by a 24 year old Chinese girl 'Z' (her name, apparently is unpronounceable). Z has been sent by her parents to study English for a year, in London, and arrives with very little English, isolated, and confused. The language used in the novel is naturalistically idiosyncratic and limited at first, steadily improving as Z learns. Her knowledge of English, and her financial situation, are aided by a misunderstanding of the phrase 'be my guest', which prompts her to move in with a 44 year old man she meets one evening at the cinema.

The language is decidedly the star of the novel. Each chapter begins with reflections based upon a word that Z has newly learned:
pronoun n word, such as she or it, used to replace a noun
First week in language school, I speaking like this:
'Who is her name?'
'It costing I three pounds buying this disgusting sandwich.'
'Sally telling I that her just having coffee.'
'Me having fried rice today.'
'Me watching TV when me in China.'
'Our should do things together with the people.'
Always the same, the people laughing as long as I open my mouth.
'Ms Zh-u-ang, you have to learn when to use I as the subject, and when to use me as the object!' ...
After grammar class, I sit on bus and have deep thought about my new language. Person as dominate subject, is main thing in an English sentence. Does it mean West culture respecting individuals more? In China, you open daily newspaper, title on top is 'OUR HISTORY DECIDE IT IS TIME TO GET RICH' or 'THE GREAT COMMUNIST PARTY HAVE THIRD MEETING' or 'THE 2008 OLYMPICS NEED CITIZENS PLANT MORE GREENS'. Look, no subjects here are mans or womans. Maybe Chinese too shaming putting their name first, because that not modest way to be.
The structure of the chapters, with the narrator reflecting on some aspect of English language or culture that she has found strange and then explaing how things are done in China, captures the interesting-but-shallow exchanges that can characterize relationships with people of other cultures, especially in the early days when we are entirely fascinated by their difference from us.

Half way through the novel, this formulaic method threatened to become stale. But Z's English is constantly improving, and therefore her articulation of her relationship with her lover becomes more interesting. Because as much as the novel is about the culture clash between Chinese and English, it is about a clash between intimacy (which Z craves), and independence (which her lover cherishes):
I think you only want the joyful part of love, and you dare not to face the difficult part of love. In China we say, 'You can't expect both ends of a sugar cane are as sweet.' Sometimes love can be ugly. But one still has to take it and swallow it...
I thought that you would bring everything into my life. I thought you are my Jesus. You are my priest, my light. So I always believed you are my only home here. I feel so insecure because I am so scared of losing you. That's why I want to control you, I want you are in my view always and I want cut off your extension to the world and your extension to the others.
Z's learning curve is both amusing and excruciating. She reads porn magazines in public, for example, presuming that it must be acceptable to do so, given that they are so widely on sale in newsagents. With wonderfully light use of dramatic irony, the reader finds out that Z's lover is a drifter, ex-anarchist, bisexual vegetarian with 'issues' before Z realizes the implications of any of these words. But watching Z's attempt to fit herself into her lover's life is excruciating, as her neediness is flattened by his apparent assurance and autonomy.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the novel is when Z's lover bullies her into taking a trip around Europe alone. We expect perhaps shallow cultural stereotyping will folllow, but Z finds Europe more of a homogenous whole than we might expect. Her education isn't of architecture or language or lifestyle, but in the different men she meets. This includes a disturbing scene in Portugal in which Z has sex with a stranger and her naievity and lack of command of the language leads to her failing to convey to him that she doesn't want penetrative intercourse.

By the end of the novel, Z is able to express character with eloquence devoid of the conventions and hackneyed phrasing that an English narrator might fall prey to, and her narrrative is livened by unusual turns of phrase. Her English has certainly improved, but she has also had a rather more painful and valuable education into the lives of other people:
I think of those days when I travelled in Europe on my own. I met many people and finally I wasn't so afraid of being alone. Maybe I should let my life open, like a flower; maybe I should fly, like a lonely bird. I shouldn't be blocked by a tree, and I shouldn't be scared about losing one tree, instead of seeing a whole forest.
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Old 27th Apr 2007, 15:38   #2
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Default Re: Xiaolu Guo - A Concise-Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

I haven't read this, but your review reminds me of the Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano. This set out to be an a-z (or atoz if you want to annoy people) of terms relating to snow but also had some relationship stuff interwoven under some entries. It was quirky and interesting but didn't quite pull off the rather ambitious goal.
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Old 27th Apr 2007, 15:56   #3
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Default Re: Xiaolu Guo - A Concise-Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

I started the Encyclopaedia of Snow, but couldn't get into it and abandoned it very fast. It is sitting somewhere on my shelves looking very pretty. In the other reviews I've read, Concise Chinese-English has drawn comparisons to A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The second of these looks very interesting, so I might pick it up sometime. I'm sure there'll be some SF-ers on the site who have read it.

I forgot to mention, though, that one Amazon reviewer had said of this book that it is 'Bridget Jones meets Bill Bryson'. It made me laugh because yes, it is the diary of a woman, and yes, it is cultural observation, but that's about as far as the comparison goes.
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Old 30th Apr 2007, 9:53   #4
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Default Re: Xiaolu Guo - A Concise-Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

My thoughts on Flowers for Algernon:
Quote:
So, Flowers for Algernon. This was highly anthologised as a short story about 20 years ago. I must have read it a dozen times, yet all I remember of it is a rather sad and sloppy Frankensteinish plot with no pretension to sf. I won't say I didn't like it, but, hey, it wasn't memorable.
Also, the book is an expansion of a short story with the padding you'd expect.
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Old 30th Apr 2007, 10:29   #5
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Default Re: Xiaolu Guo - A Concise-Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers

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Originally Posted by gil View Post
My thoughts on Flowers for Algernon: Also, the book is an expansion of a short story with the padding you'd expect.
Thanks Gil! Well, I might well read Flowers for Algernon one day, but I'm not hurrying to find it now.
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