Editor Tom Carter speaks to the crowd at the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2013.
Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China is a collection of stories by disparate writers bound together by one thing, China. Edited by Tom Carter, best known for his photography collection China: Portrait of a People, and published by Earnshaw Books, Unsavory Elements features writing by Michael Meyer, Simon Winchester, Alan Paul, among others.
Note: On Friday, Garden Books in Shanghai will be hosting a panel discussion about Unsavory Elements with editor Tom Carter, publisher Graham Earnshaw, and authors Michael Meyer and Susie Gordon (see below for details).
It’s difficult to know how to review an anthology, particularly one of so many stories (28 including Simon Winchester’s epilogue) of varying tone and quality. While I read some short story collections, these generally have a lone author, and a more consistent tone. This variety is a boon for the casual reader (Unsavory Elements, and this is absolutely meant as a compliment, is a great book for taking on the subway) but less welcome when you’re trying to give an opinion of the book as a whole. I liked some stories a great deal, I was ambivalent about many, and I disliked one or two, all in all a solid B+.
Some highlights. Matthew Polly’s story of a failed business venture while training at the Shaolin Temple is one of the funniest and best written in the book, expertly capturing how a foreigner can get in over their head in China without even realising it. Nury Vittachi’s tale of an encounter with prostitutes and gangsters in Beijing is very funny, and was even funnier read aloud by the author, as fellow Shanghai Lit Fest attendees will likely attest. Dan Washburn’s account of a trip to poverty stricken rural Guizhou to meet the family of a golfer he was profiling is poignant and well observed. Dan, who founded this website, and in who’s shadow we his successors always remain, is an annoyingly accomplished writer.
Other parts of the anthology were less entertaining. I found Alan Paul’s story of a family trip to remote Sichuan somewhat cloying and corny, but then, I don’t have children. Equally, Matt Muller’s overly detailed descriptions of his Chinese supervisor’s “black fishnet stockings” came off as creepy and leering rather than sexy. Carter, who has spoken about his surprise that so many established China writers agreed to contribute to the book, was perhaps too overawed to properly edit them. While I don’t agree with City Weekend’s assertion that the use of Chinese will alienate non-speakers (it’s always explained what words mean, or is obvious by context), it would be nice to see some consistency with how Chinese words and phrases appear in print. Kay Bratt’s piece’s departure into third person perspective from the first person used by every other author is also quite jarring.
If there is an overarching message to take from the book, it is that holy crap China changes quickly. It’s remarkable how distant in time relatively recent stories can seem. Stories set in China in the last decade, let alone the end of the last century, sometimes describe an almost unrecognisable country, and one we won’t see again.
Available online from Earnshaw Books or from Garden Books in Shanghai and The Bookworm in Beijing.
Unsavory Elements Panel Discussion @ Garden Books
On Friday, May 10, 6-8pm, at Shanghai’s Garden Books, join publisher Graham Earnshaw, editor Tom Carter and authors Susie Gordon and Michael Meyer to discuss their new anthology book, UNSAVORY ELEMENTS, an unprecedented collection of original, true stories commissioned from 28 renowned Western writers about their experiences living in China.
RMB 40 RMB (including one free ice-cream or drink). Garden Books Shanghai, 325 Changle Rd, at South Shaanxi Rd. Tel: (86-21) 5404 8728. RSVP encouraged!
Unsavory Elements, Edited by Tom Carter. ISBN: 978-988-16164-0-1. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Carter and authors. Earnshaw Books.