Every Grain Of Rice:http://www.amazon.com/Every-Grain-Rice-Chinese-Cooking/dp/0393089045/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1392, Annie Dillard: The Writing Life, http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_27?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+writing+life+annie+dillard&sprefix=The+writing+life+annie+dill%2Cstripbooks%2C309"/>

PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

'Night In Shanghai' Splits Between a Serious Historical Work and a Silly Romance Novel

In the ambitious Night In Shanghai, Nicole Mones attempts to recreate a city of nearly a century ago.


Night In Shanghai

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 288 pages
Author: Nicole Mones
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-03
Amazon

When Nicole Mones published her first novel, 1998’s Lost In Translation, China was for many Americans a closed door. Mones, who owned a Chinese textile importing business, brought her Mandarin fluency and deep cultural knowledge of China to bear on a novel featuring an American interpreter fleeing the States, creating a bestseller. Two more novels followed, each featuring China. Neither matched Mones’s debut.

Now we have the ambitious Night In Shanghai, a departure from Mones’s earlier works. Where her first three novels featured female protagonists operating in a contemporary setting, here she attempts to recreate a city of nearly a century ago. The historical events and some of the characters are real, adding to a busy storyline. Unfortunately, Mones fails to carry it off.

It is the '30s, and Shanghai is a vibrant mix of races, languages, and teeming street life, all set to a vibrant new soundtrack: jazz. American black musicians, chafing under racism in the States, are moving to the more welcoming Shanghai where they may live and perform freely.

All is not rosy. The Japanese military presence is placing increasing pressure on the entire country. Japanese soldiers cluster on Shanghai’s streets. Pockets of idealistic Communists meet clandestinely, plotting to overthrow both the Japanese invaders and Chinese Nationalist rulers.

Night In Shanghai opens with black pianist Thomas Greene. A Virginia native, classically trained by his deceased mother, Greene is scrabbling for employment. An acquaintance introduces Greene to Lin Ming, a passionate jazz lover who hires him to lead a nightclub band in Shanghai.

Mones always throws roadblocks into her characters’ paths. In Lost in Translation, Alice dealt with a racist father. A Cup of Light’s Lia is hearing-impaired and withdrawn. Maggie, the widowed protagonist of The Last Chinese Chef, must contend with a paternity claim.

Thomas Greene, though talented, cannot play by ear, or, most critically for jazz musicians, improvise. Without sheet music he is lost. Greene is rightly concerned about this lack, and frets during the long ocean crossing to China. In the first of too many easy plot solutions, Lin Ming, who is not a musician, inexplicably recognizes Thomas’s deficit, assuring him sheet music will always be available.

No Mones novel is complete without a central female character. Night In Shanghai gives us Song Yuhua, love interest and all-round plucky heroine, Song is a walking stereotype. Beautiful, educated, of good family, Song is outwardly demure, yet secretly defiant. She is Du Yuesheng’s property, handed over by her father in exchange for a gambling debt. Du Yuesheng uses her primarily as an English interpreter, unaware that beneath her lovely exterior seethes the rebellious heart of a Communist spy.

All of Mones’s novels feature obstacle-laden, interracial romances that fail to pan out. I fully expected this of Song and Thomas; Mones did not disappoint.

Song’s naïve political loyalties don’t stop her affair from with Thomas, even as the Japanese move in. And here Night In Shanghai splits between a serious historical work and a silly romance novel.

There is a Chinese dish called Jia Chang Rou Mo Qin Cai, in English, “Send-the-Rice-Down”, comprised of stir-fried ground beef and celery. Jia Chang Rou Mo Qin Cai, is served atop plain white rice, intended to liven it up. The recipe came to mind as I read Night In Shanghai. It is as if Mones chose to take painful material—the Japanese invasion of China, Nazism’s inexorable rise--and make it more palatable by placing pretty characters atop it in a cute little love story. Send the rice down.

As war becomes inevitable, the plot becomes increasingly ridiculous. When Song’s Communist mentors plead with her to find money, she happens on a cache of diamonds. Song and Thomas consummate their affair as Japanese bombs literally rain down... but somehow miss them. Nor do they find being in the middle of a war zone a distraction from being in bed.

Thomas’s sudden ability to improvise—nay--compose--is mind-boggling. When Thomas and his bandmates finally flee Shanghai, we are treated to a suspenseful scene: the group is detained at a Japanese checkpoint, literally leaping on the last boat out as Japanese warships steam into the harbor.

In the novel’s final quarter Mones introduces another plot twist: China’s near-forgotten attempt to rescue German Jews from the Nazis. Ho Feng-Shan, Chinese Counsel to Vienna, written into Night In Shanghai and honored in Israel as a Righteous Among Nations, created “Family Visas” for Viennese Jews, who fled to Shanghai. H.H. Kung, a member of the ruling Nationalist Government, tried in vain to implement a plan that would have resettled 100,000 German Jews on the Chinese/Myanmar border. While these actions are heroic, they do nothing to advance Night in Shanghai’s plot.

If Mones were a lesser writer, with nothing important to impart, a novel like this would be less irritating. But the historical information is presented clearly, compellingly, without any need for the thin characters or their unrealistic behaviors.

Some of the most vivid writing comes when Mones describes meals. Here is Lin Ming at dinner with H. H. Kung. The men dine on: "...bird’s nest soup with pigeon eggs, whelk with chicken liver slices, frogs’ legs braised with thin broccoli stalks for bones, and shad steamed in caul fat with a crystal sauce."

Here is Lin Ming at dinner with Thomas: "Lin ordered... a rich, milky-white seafood chowder brimming with fish, shrimps, scallops, tofu, thin-sliced sea cucumber, and tangy mustard greens... they had cold plates of pungent steeped cucumbers, gluten puffs with winter mushrooms and bamboo shoots..."

Some media outlets have opted not publish “the negative book review”. While there is never a place for cruelty or personal attacks, there is a place for the negative review—the thoughtful, carefully substantiated one. To paraphrase from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, one may never let rip.

In this case, I know Mones to be a capable storyteller with specialized knowledge most Occidentals cannot claim. This gives her the opportunity to share so much with readers. Instead, she is stooping to the lowest common denominator, couching her information in saccharine garbage, as if pretty girls and a snappy backbeat will send the rice down on one of history’s ugliest moments. As a friend commented to me, the most frightening part is not that Mones is dumbing down her work. It is that many people will not realize the information they are being fed is dumbed down.

3

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.