Staff Picks

Introducing Staff Picks9 min read

Our miscellaneous recommendations – a new occasional feature


Editor’s note: Normally on Mondays, we run a review of a book on or from China (so far, the range has covered Lu Xun’s essays, Chinese education and literary history). This week, we’re doing something slightly different: the first in what will be a more occasional slot, ‘Staff Picks’. A digital equivalent of the hand-written cards in bookshops where staff pick their favorites from the shelves, these will be short recommendations of China gems from the archive, or those that are recent but overlooked. And as well as books, we’ve opened it up for films, music, food, art, articles – in short, anything. Sometimes this slot will be a single-serving recommendation at digestible length, or sometimes, as here, it will be bitesize picks from us all. As this first post is also a way to introduce the extended team, we’re listing our roles and linking back to Q&As with each of us that ran at the old LARB China blog in the months leading up to our launch on September 25. Happy reading, and I hope you’re inspired to follow some of these rabbit holes. – Alec Ash


Jeffrey Wasserstrom – Academic editor (and founder) – read Jeff’s Q&A

Linda Jaivin’s The Monkey and the Dragon: A True Story About Friendship, Music, Politics and Life on the Edge (Text Publishing, September 2000). Straddling the line between memoir and biography, it is by an author who is nothing if not versatile: Jaivin translates Chinese literature, pens commentaries on cultural issues, and writes novels with titles like Rock n Roll Babes from Outer Space. The book focuses on Hou Dejian, a folk singer who moved from Taiwan to the mainland in the 1980s and later became, as Jaivin puts it, the first straits-crossing gadfly figure to be “returned to sender” by the Chinese authorities. It’s a rollicking read that, among other things, has a long section on the 1989 movement. I have more to say about why I like the book in Backbeat in China, a review I did for the Nation fifteen years ago. But I thought about it twice in recent months for totally different reasons: when Liu Xiaobo died, as Hou was among the four signatories of the powerful June 2 hunger strike declaration associated with the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate; and at a Billy Bragg concert in Nashville, as one of the many amusing anecdotes in The Monkey and the Dragon details Jaivin encountering Bragg in Beijing just before the 1989 movement began.

Jason Y. Ng – Advising Editor – read Jason’s Q&A

Thomas O. Höllmann’s The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine (Columbia University Press, 2010) is a delectable blend of history, anthropology and food writing. Translated from the original German, the book is light-hearted, well-researched and peppered with sketches, paintings, quotes, factoids and time-tested recipes from Cantonese pork knuckles to Mongolian hot pot and Uyghur lamb skewers. I keep a copy on my breakfast table just so I can flip through the illustrated pages, re-read an amusing chapter or two, or use it as the perfect ice-breaker whenever I have guests over for dinner.


Alec Ash – Managing Editor – read Alec’s Q&A

Inspired by Jason’s pick, I’m going to recommend one of those flavors: Yunnan food. From China’s southwesterly province bordering Burma, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnanese cuisine is a delight of jasmine-flower egg, banana-leaf-wrapped mushroom, goat-milk cheese, sweet rice wine and the like. Not as mouth-numbing as Sichuan spice but just as flavorsome, it’s a regular staple for Beijing nights out, and why it hasn’t yet made it to America in a big way I honestly don’t know, although I hear that might change soon. Look out for Lost Paradise or Lost Heaven restaurants if in China. And to put a book on this staff picks shelf too, Travels Through Dali with a Leg of Ham by Zhang Mei is a journey through a particular locale and cuisine within Yunnan, the town of Dali where she herself is from, featuring stories, photographs and recipes as well as being a beautifully produced and bound object itself.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham – Advising Editor – read Maura’s joint Q&A

I’ll follow Jason and Alec with another food recommendation: Sichuan-style “numb-and-spicy” (mala) peanuts. When I’m in China, I regularly pick up a bag or two of these anytime I stop in at a convenience store. I like to have them in my bag for snacking on the go, and they pair perfectly with a cold beer on a sweltering summer night. Here in Michigan, I once spotted mala peanuts for sale in an Asian grocery store, but at such an astronomical markup from China prices that I couldn’t bring myself to spring for them. Just this week I realized that my local Kroger shop now stocks these spicy snacks – I found them in the “ethnic foods” aisle – at a price I can bear to pay. Judging from the enthusiastic reaction of friends on social media when I posted a photo of my find, Kroger needs to make sure the store’s mala peanut supplier can keep them coming.

Nick Stember – Commissioning Editor – read Nick’s Q&A

Seconding the recommendations for cumin-encrusted lamb skewers and hot pot, with a side of mala peanuts and cold beer (not to mention the more delicate flavors of Yunnan province), as the representative Northeasterner (living in the Pacific Northwest), I would be remiss not to mention sauerkraut and pork rib stew. For those not living in China, learn how to make it here. To bring things back to music for a second though, I wanted to recommend the Chinese-American folk band Matteo. Before disbanding in 2014, this Salt Lake City based group put out two amazing records (Morning Market and The Sichuan Project) and many more transcendent covers of 80s pop nostalgia. Finally, while I really should recommend a book, I’ve just spent a week covering Chinese films for the Vancouver International Film Festival and Holy Moses, did I enjoy Sam Voulta’s King of Peking. We’ll be posting an interview with one of the producers of the film, Melanie Ansley, on the China Channel later this month, so keep your eyes out for that!

Eileen Cheng-yin Chow – Academic Editor – read Eileen’s Q&A

Chances are you’re familiar with the films of Wong Kar-wai: even so, his formally exuberant, emotionally dizzying cinemascapes are always worth revisiting. For Wong fans, both a lush Rizzoli coffee-table book by John Powers, consisting of hundreds of film stills and in-depth interviews with the director, as well as The Criterion Collection’s new re-master of In the Mood for Love (2000) with deleted scenes and an alternate ending (!), were released last year and are utterly worthy objects of desire.

But for my “staff pick” I am actually recommending the soundtracks to his films. I’ve been obsessed with Wong’s perfect tango of music and image forever, especially the Astor Piazzolla-drenched Happy Together. As Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai’s longtime cinematographer perfectly explained their improvisational shooting process: “If only film was jazz, if only we could jam … We get closer to this with each film; my camera becomes more and more of a musical instrument. On and off, different film speeds, frame changes in shot … these are my key and register shifts. I riff, you solo, we jam towards a free form that we believe a film can be.” So I couldn’t resist this limited edition vinyl reissue of soundtracks to Ashes Of Time (1994), Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together (1997) and In The Mood For Love (2000). I’m sure you could find them on Spotify, too.

Anne Henochowicz – Commissioning Editor – read Anne’s Q&A

I was looking for nothing in particular at the bookstore when the Chinese character kaleidoscopes on the cover of 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (with More Ways) drew me in. It’s a perfect graphic representation of Eliot Weinberger’s close reading of over two dozen translations of Wang Wei’s twelve-hundred-year-old quatrain ‘Lu Zhai’ – which means, depending on whom you ask, ‘Deer Park’, ‘Deer Fence’, ‘The Form of the Deer’, or ‘Deep in the Mountain Wilderness’. Weinberger’s hilarious, often scathing critiques show us that a translator does not really ferry a poem from one language to another, but instead creates a new poem altogether. How closely that new poem matches the words, or the spirit, of the first depends as much on the attitude of the translator as it does on their understanding of the language and context of the original. We tumble from Chinese to English to French to Spanish, from the atrocious to the sublime and back again. We follow the Mexican poet Octavio Paz as he reworks his approach to “Lu Zhai,” polishing and recombining words, playing with rhyme, and meditating on Wang Wei’s spiritual connection to the natural world. There’s also a delicious side story about a Weinberger’s correspondence with a “furious professor” who accuses him of “crimes against Chinese poetry.” I keep turning the pages of this irreverent, poignant little book, seeing new shards of splendor every time I pick it up.

Mengfei Chen – Advising Editor – read Mengfei’s joint Q&A

I’d like to second Anne’s recommendation: reading 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei is like being at a cocktail party with the smartest person in the room as he dispenses erudite zingers (and some praise). In addition, would like to recommend a pair of articles on Chinese contemporary art. The first is a very smart piece by the art critic Ben Davis on the controversy over the Guggenheim’s new show, ‘Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World’, specifically on the uproar over and withdrawal of three works of art from the exhibition. Davis writes, “The issues raised by this video and the controversy […] bear on how we see this time period and how we view museums themselves – are they just a place for entertainment that should only present things that are lovely or morally agreeable, or does a show like ‘Theater of the World’ also represent a historical examination of another culture and another time?” The second article, from the latest issue of Even magazine, uses the lives and work of four prominent Chinese thinkers (Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei, Mo Yan, Xu Bing) as a starting point for grappling with the ways Chinese intellectuals have attempted to “reconcile the Chinese cultural tradition – essentially a gentry tradition, understood and consumed by just 1% of the population – with Enlightenment notions of social equality.” 

Look out on Friday for our review of the Guggenheim exhibit and the controversy surrounding it