On China, Criticism, & Constance Fenimore Woolson | Barbara’s Nonfiction Picks, Feb. 2016, Pt. 3

Huang, Eddie. Back to the Mothership: In Search of Love, Happiness, and China. Spiegel & Grau. Feb. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9780812995466. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780812995473. CD/downloadable: Random Audio.
Proprietor of the popular New York City restaurant Baohaus, then author of the best-selling memoir Fresh Off the Boat (FOB), then executive producer and off-camera narrator of the ABC hit show based on that book, then host of ViceTV’s Huang’s World, picked up by HBO for fall 2015, Huang has been on a roll. (And I don’t mean spring rolls.) Here he continues the exploration of identity he began in FOB, though now he’s less rollicking than thoughtful. As his success grew and he contemplated marriage with his Italian American girlfriend, Huang started wondering just how true his Chinese identity really was. So, as chronicled here, he got brothers Emery and Evan to travel with him to China, where he sampled the best cuisine and opened his own stand to see whether his food measured up. More huangyuntebroadly, though, he reconnected with family and culture, which prompts him to make the case not for an American melting pot but a grand mosaic.

Huang, Yunte. Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature: Writings from the Mainland in the Long Twentieth Century. Norton. Feb. 2016. 752p. ISBN 9780393239485. $39.95. LITERATURE
Embracing the republican, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary eras, this work offers a thoroughgoing overview of a century’s worth of Chinese literature, much of which American readers don’t know or understand. There’s depth, with nearly 50 writers represented. There’s breadth, with the range of genres embracing fiction, poetry, essays, songs, and even speeches (yes, perhaps controversially, certainly crucially, we hear from Mao). And there’s the requisite scholarly background, with an opening essay and headnotes, timelines, and brief introductions from Huang, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Huang is clearly an academic who can talk to lay readers: his Charlie Chan was a national best seller, an Edgar Award winner, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and a New York Times Notable Book.

Rioux, Anne Boyd. Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. Norton. Feb. 2016. 432p. ISBN 9780393245097. $32.95. LITERARY BIOGRAPHY
Regarded as a model for Isabelle Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, novelist/poet/traveloguist Constance Fenimore Woolson was an acclaimed and popular writer during her lifetime but faded into the background after her death in 1894. Now there’s a resurgence of interest in Woolson, with her works seen as strong early examples of both regional literature—they range over the Great Lakes region, the Reconstruction-era South, and what was once Spanish Florida—and the women’s perspective. Rioux, a University of New Orleans scottprofessor and Woolson Society president long interested in recovering women writers lost to history, aims to affirm Woolson’s place in the canon while providing a full outline of her life and inspirations.

Scott, A.O. Better Living Through Criticism:  How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Penguin Pr. Feb. 2016. 288p. ISBN 9781594204838. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101980866. CRITICISM
In Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir trade escalating insults until Estragon lands the worst punch of all: he calls Vladimir a critic. (Vladimir crumbles.) Critics can get drubbed as much as lawyers or bankers do in today’s culture, but as New York Times film critic Scott clarifies, critical thinking is an essential aspect of human activity we engage in daily, whether we’re assessing the news or managing a relationship. Here, Scott illuminates the critic’s endeavor by kicking off with his own film reviews, then working his way from Aristotle to Susan Sontag as he discusses Keats, Rilke, the Rolling Stones, and performance artist Marina Abramović (he’s not stuffy). In the end, Scott sees criticism as essential to cutting away the brambles and letting creativity breath, “because the imperative to think clearly, to insist on the necessary balance of reason and passion, never goes away.”


Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.