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A Pail of Carrots for Alex Smith’s Drinking from the Dragon’s Well

Drinking from the Dragon's WellAlex Smith BOOK SA pulled up a pail of carrots this week for Alex Smith‘s Drinking from the Dragon’s Well.

Smith’s second book is described by Arja Salafranca as taking “South African travel writing to new heights”. Salafranca ends her review saying, “You’re sorry to close the book.”

The carrot from reviewer Natalie Bosman is equally delicious: she describes Drinking from the Dragon’s Well as Smith’s “pearl” – read the book to find out just what that means – and asks, “if the tale of a marvellous journey of extreme loneliness countered by cultural experiences that enrich the soul isn’t such a treasure, then what is?”

This led us, at BOOK SA, to ask the following: Is the carrot mightier than the dragon? Or: are two carrots in the hand worth one dragon in the bush?

South African travel writing comes of age in this delightful, witty travel memoir by Alex Smith. Her highly successful novel, Algeria’s Way, was published last year and this makes a wonderful follow-up, as it were.

In 2006, Smith spent a year teaching English in China, in the city of Wuhan, a grey, dusty city distinguished by nothing more than the fact that for yonks Smith couldn’t find a map of the place, for love or money … and forget about finding a map in English, as you would if you were in China’s happening cities such as Beijing.

As you navigate the streets of Wuhan with author Alex Smith, where all the street signs are in Chinese characters and the bus routes lead to the absolute unknown, you’ve never been more grateful for the simple act of being able to read about these goings-on.Because more than anything else, Smith’s latest book, Drinking From The Dragon’s Well, is a glimpse into the world of the illiterate; a humbling experience lived through the eyes of a South African bravely conquering China in search of that special story; that “great Chinese novel-in-the-waiting” she calls her “pearl”.

“Being in China taught me how terrifying life must be for the illiterate,” Smith explains, “and for that alone I am glad that I went to China – it was a great opportunity.

Book Details

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    August 21st, 2008 @10:24 #
     
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    Great stuff, Alex - well done!

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    August 21st, 2008 @10:50 #
     
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    Excellent! So glad to see it's doing well. Hope to get a copy when I'm next in SA.

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  • <a href="http://henriettaroseinnes.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Henrietta</a>
    Henrietta
    August 21st, 2008 @11:47 #
     
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    good job Alex!

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 22nd, 2008 @17:07 #
     
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    Thanks Louis, Richard, Henrietta and Sophy ... I just read that Chimamanda Adichie forbids herself from reading reviews because "she does not want to be distracted by what they say.'They would get in the way of my being true to myself,' she says" . Now I feel guilty for being so willingly distracted and so relieved by the carrotish flavour... then again, she no doubt gets hundreds of reviews and it would take up a lot of time to read them and that alone would be distracting. A couple carrots to offset the very unsavoury taste of debt surely can't be too unhealthy...

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    August 22nd, 2008 @19:03 #
     
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    There will be more along the way, I don't doubt it.

    Anybody on Goodreads can find out what yours truly has to say over here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/28128370

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    August 22nd, 2008 @23:07 #
     
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    Yay! Good for you, Alex, I look forward to reading it. Am still basking in the afterglow of Algeria's Way -- only recently read. So am very pleased to know there are more delights ahead.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    August 23rd, 2008 @08:55 #
     
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    I too look forward to reading your China book. Have you read Robert Berold's Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze - about a year he spent teaching English in various forms and modalities, in China. Published by Jacana.

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  • <a href="http://liesljobson.bookslive.co.za" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    Liesl
    August 23rd, 2008 @11:03 #
     
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    I've read both - very different books but both excellent reads.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    August 25th, 2008 @14:36 #
     
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    Colleen, Robert Berold's book is on my list of books to read -- I remember admiring its lovely pistachio and red cover (rather enviously I might add) when it came out last year. That around the time I was working on 'Drinking from the Dragon's Well', so I avoided it, not wanting to be influenced in any way.

    Thanks for the great encouragment always Liesl and Helen, fellow tea-drinkers!

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 7th, 2008 @18:31 #
     
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    Ouch! Ouch!! A very big stick, barbed with spokes of sarcasm, Ouch! Buy the Mail & Guardian for ringside seats to a slaughter -- Chris Thurman from the Mail & Guardian beats me to a pulp in his summer reads review, which is unfortunately long for me (the Alex he so loathed experiencing), but I suspect if the writer’s arrangement is the norm, that Chris makes Rands out of every stinging word he writes ... I get seven Rand a book sold, he probably makes that for every two disparaging words he writes, and in this case he has written so many, which are so effectively diminishing, I believe that when Chris (the clever man) and Alex (the ignorant woman) compare who makes more out of Dragon’s Well, Chris will be the winner. Well Done Chris!

    Now I slink off to recover and reconsider and, yes, Chris, to drink a cup of tea!!

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 7th, 2008 @20:43 #
     
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    We can't win them all, Alex.

    A case in point: I went looking for 2nd-hand copies of The Masala Cookbook last week, for those who'd expressed an interest after our Indian recipe feature two weeks back.

    Lo and behold, I found a few on Amazon.co.uk! Very exciting. But wait - the book garners a measly two stars... why? Ah, because of reviewer N. Wood's wallop at the bottom of the book description, which includes:

    The writing style is less than objective, with each page reading like little more than restaurant advertising. Plenty of promotion; though little on technique, history, or any other such useful information.

    That smarts! Before Mr Wood - no, I did not make his name up - my writer diet consisted only of carrots braised in saffron.

    We can't win them all. All we can do is smile - and provide the link:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Masala-Cookbook-Approach-Indian-Cuisine/dp/186872977X/

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 7th, 2008 @22:07 #
     
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    Alas! I haven't read either Dragon's Well (yet) or Chris's review, but I do sympathize. (I often dread reading new work by someone I know and really like, in case I don't enjoy their writing.) I've seen some massacres occasioned by reviewers settling scores, trying to eliminate competition, or simply settling down to savage someone they don't actually know, after specific requests for blood from their Book-page Editor. Not saying that this is what happened in this case, of course! But I wince in fellow feeling, and with you too, dear Ben.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 8th, 2008 @09:29 #
     
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    Sorry to hear it Alex. Save it - and all the good ones - for your Nobel Prize or President of the World inauguration speech.

    Ben, it's probably bad form to say this here, but online reader reviewers are like talk-show callers.

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    September 8th, 2008 @12:02 #
     
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    Alex, Ben, - I feel your pain having just been eviscerated on LitNet. Fortunately (for me) the damning review is in Afrikaans which I don't grasp, unfortunately (for me) millions of readers do. But at least the books are being acknowledged and read, which is something! Okay, I know that's bullshit, but it's one way to try and take away the nasty taste in your mouth left by a horrid review (tea is another good way). And like Ben says, you can't win them all.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 8th, 2008 @12:21 #
     
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    Sarah, I read yours - vicious! Reminiscent of my wortel klap from Boeke Insig.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 8th, 2008 @12:32 #
     
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    Here's an old stick of mine newer members might enjoy, and older ones might enjoy all over again:
    http://louisgreenberg.book.co.za/blog/2008/03/17/stick-the-beggars-signwriters-flayed-by-disgruntled-cecil-abrahams/

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 8th, 2008 @13:33 #
     
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    After three pots of tea, I’m loaded with enough caffeine to smile and wave (as Ben and the Queen Mother recommend) and murmur in my green caffeine haze that reviews, good and bad, like credit and debt are just part of life. The problem with a memoir is that it’s personal, so I suppose it leaves a reviewer little choice but to be personal (Helen tells me she knows Chris and that he is a very likeable fellow), which is all very well if the reviewer likes the book, but bloody if he doesn’t. It is unwise to write a memoir before you have reached an age old enough to not give a fig what anyone thinks of you, I knew I was far too green for it, but circumstances had me charge ahead without fiction as my shield and therefore nothing to protect me in the playground when somebody pulls down my pants and spanks me in front of everyone. Ah well, now I am spanked, I have cried, I shall pull up my drawers and scamper, no, skip off singing, to continue work on another book.
    Carrots! No they can’t all be carrots (it would be boring and meaningless if they were), but it still hurts like the devil when one happens upon a review and begins reading hoping, naturally, for carrot, but finding stick … it would be infinitely less easy to recover without Book SA, and these comments from you, Louis, Helen, Ben, Sven and Sarah. I’m sorry -- to hear about pesky Mr Wood (although Louis makes a good point), and Sarah, especially about the Litnet ‘lambasting’, Sven your wortel klap and to read again Louis, bless you!, that hoary stick -- but at the same time extremely comforted... the only thing to do is laugh... and drink more tea

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 8th, 2008 @14:11 #
     
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    It seems we are all mired in bramble - can now even welcome André Brink into our midst:

    http://reviews.book.co.za/blog/2008/09/08/stick-ligaya-mishan-on-other-lives/

    To smooth the scratchy sticks, let's put on a small competition. I have one copy of Brink's Other Lives - American edition - to give away to the first poster who correctly predicts the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

    The Man Booker shortlist will be announced tomorrow, and here's the longlist:

    http://news.book.co.za/blog/2008/07/30/man-booker-longlist-announced/

    One guess per poster. You can start now, but you might want to wait until the pool has been reduced a bit - wait until tomorrow, that is.

    Good luck!

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 8th, 2008 @14:19 #
     
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    I've won so much booty here on Book SA so I'll make it tough on myself and choose one from the longlist:

    Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies

    Mainly because he won me the whiskey.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 8th, 2008 @14:56 #
     
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    Well done Louis, on exposing your stick once more (no cheeky remarks, Richard or Sven). I've now read the Litnet and the M&G truncheons (eina!), as well as the Brink twig. Louis's stick is easiest to laugh at, because it's so clearly a poor review by someone in a snit. (Academics tend to make terrible reviewers, partly because their environment often values "snide" as an indication of cleverness. And yes, I'm an academic, but not only an academic, which gives me an interesting perspective on my colleagues.)

    I haven't read either Posse or Dragon's Well, so will refrain from reviewing the reviews, although one thing always occurs to me when I see "This person writes well BUT" or "A good story BUT" -- and that's the question of how thoroughly the editor did their job. Ingrid de Kok said a few years ago that 85% of SA writing was under-edited or poorly edited, a state of affairs that was doing debut efforts in particular a huge disservice. Once again, no idea whether this applies in these cases, but I often see reviews that blame the author for poor editing or production errors (as in the classic line "This book is marred by typos and other careless mistakes") for which the publisher is responsible. But I also know how hard-pressed the publishers are, esp financially. Sigh.

    As far as I can see, Alex, your only crime was to take Disgrace everywhere. (I loathed it, but my literary friends tell me I'm not allowed to enter into debate on JMC's genius or lack thereof as I've never been able to finish anything he's written. Let's discuss over tea!)

    And on a happier note, hurray for Liesl's carrots! Calling 100 Papers flash fiction does not do it justice. If you've ever been lucky enough to eat at the kind of restaurant (if you're a writer, that means someone else paying) serving an endless succession of miniature delicacies, each a mouthful of intrigue, that's more like it. Well done!

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    September 8th, 2008 @16:02 #
     
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    oooo! i think the worst thing about bad reviews is the desire for revenge, especially if the person who wrote the review is a ... writer.... (insert evil laugh hahahahah)... t'is such a small small industry.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    September 8th, 2008 @16:20 #
     
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    alex, well done on the good reviews, they mean more because the person got what you were saying.

    maybe u can use the stick to hang up your pail of carrots :)

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    September 8th, 2008 @16:34 #
     
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    Thank you, Louis, Sven for making me smile! I was expecting a stick (but it doesn't stop me wanting to ram it up the reviewer's arse). I've been extremely fortunate in the coverage and good reviews I've had so far, and life just doesn't work that way (well, not for me, anyway). Helen - have to agree with you on the academic point (heehee as my review was written by an academic), and Alex, I wish I could give you a hug as I know how you are feeling; I hope you're having a better day.

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  • <a href="http://sveneick.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sven</a>
    Sven
    September 8th, 2008 @16:38 #
     
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    I have toyed with the idea of bad review inoculation. When your book is released, instead of whacking it with a stick, take a tire iron to it and smash it to a pulp, ensuring you cover every possible fault in your work. This pre-emptive tactic will discourage would-be reviewers from writing negative reviews, and if the occasional sadistic reviewer does end up feeling the need to take more shots at the bloody pulp of your work you can then sue them for plagiarism.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 8th, 2008 @16:38 #
     
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    hahaha, good idea Kathryn ... Thank you Sarah... on the matter of the academic reviewer ... I think the worst kind of reviewer is the academic who wishes he had written the book himself … while laughing and drinking my tea, smiling and waving, I cannot help wondering if perhaps, the title of Chris’s review doesn’t give something away … two books hardly makes a pattern, unless you are over-sensitive on a particular issue … in his review of the ‘first’ book on China, Chris writes:
    ‘Like Berold, I spent a year teaching English in east Asia. I was based in Japan, not China, but – despite the obvious cultural differences, and despite the historical antipathy between the two countries – the similarities are appreciable. Thus, I found myself reading Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze with a mixture of nostalgia, uncanny moments of recognition and, if I am honest, a healthy dose of envy. ‘
    rah ... and ah,

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    September 8th, 2008 @16:57 #
     
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    ah Alex, there is the evidence: ".. healthy ... envy"

    - i have that all the time. it's a great emotion, i like to use it to help me Get Ahead in Advertising.

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  • <a href="http://imago.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sophy</a>
    Sophy
    September 8th, 2008 @22:27 #
     
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    Ghosh this is not an easy decision to make but my vote is on 'Sea of Poppies.' And not because he won Louis some wh-isk-ey.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 9th, 2008 @12:39 #
     
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    Good thing no one's picked Rushdie yet; apparently, he's missed out:

    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/art/2008/09/salman_rushdie_misses_out_on_t_2.html

    Shortlist should be out in about 1.5 hours.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 9th, 2008 @13:52 #
     
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    Since apparently it has made the shortlist, my pick is 'A Fraction of the Whole'

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 9th, 2008 @14:23 #
     
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    Well done to Amitav Ghosh, our guy. Sophy, the prize is yours if he wins.

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  • <a href="http://sarahlotz.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sarah Lotz</a>
    Sarah Lotz
    September 9th, 2008 @18:36 #
     
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    Damn, Alex. Beat me to it. I shall pick...Clothes on their Backs.

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  • <a href="http://www.christhurman.net" rel="nofollow">Chris Thurman</a>
    Chris Thurman
    September 19th, 2008 @17:53 #
     
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    Hi all

    It's probably not a good idea for me to join this conversation late on a Friday afternoon, at the end of a long week, but nevertheless ...

    I'm sorry to say I don't visit Book SA as often as I should, and wasn't aware that I'd been the subject of some reviewer-bashing until an hour or so ago, when a colleague said to me: "I really thought your review of Dragon's Well wasn't that harsh, what is everyone at Book SA on about?" ... and suggested I take a look at this comment stream. I quote him because, well, I agree: I think the review balances compliment with criticism, even if the final verdict admittedly emphasises the latter.

    Part of the problem here seems to be that everyone's assuming a review should either damn or praise a particular book/production/art work (the carrot or stick paradigm), and that the reviewer's job is simply to say to the reader: "buy this" or "don't waste your time and money". Surely this is too simplistic? Surely we want a culture of letters in this country that stimulates debate, that is interested in critique in the fullest send of that word?

    This is what I try to do as a reviewer - although it should also be said that numerous friends and colleagues have told me I'm usually too "soft" in my reviews and too inclined to overlook flaws (in the words of one acquaintance, "When you think something's kak you should just say, 'It's kak'!"). Of course, this is to subscribe to precisely the oversimplification I mentioned above.

    Alex, it hardly needs stating that I DON'T think Dragon's Well is (to use that unfortunate adjective) "kak". Quite the contrary, I think it is NEVER kak (or poor, or weak, or whatever). My review is not an evaluation that says, "It's bad" or "It's good". I know well enough that such evaluations are of no ultimate use. But I can say "I like this aspect" and "I don't like this aspect" - in other words, foreground my subjectivity so as not to imply to the reader that my response to the text is the only likely or feasible response to the text.

    I think there's a kind of integrity in this honesty - and yes, I use the word advisedly, and not from any kind of moral high ground. That's precisely why, in my review of the Berold book, I emphasised my position as a reader (someone who went to teach English in east Asia and probably thinks he could write a book about it). Of course I would rather write a book than review one! Of course I am envious of Robert, and of you, and of Paul Theroux, and William Dalrymple, and Bruce Chatwin!

    But that doesn't mean I don't gain pleasure as a reader from your books. It's simply fair to say that there were various elements in Dragon's Well from which I did not draw pleasure. And I said as much in, I still maintain, an engaged and engaging review. I value literature far too much to be dismissive.

    And that, by the way, is why I write as many words as I can. I won't apologise for getting paid per word. I do a bucketload of unpaid work in the service, I'd like to think, of literature and the arts. Moreover, I occasionally send reviews to editors that are 200 or 300 words longer than they will print. These reviews appear in curtailed form, and I'm paid less as a result. But in each case I put the full review on my website, and I send the link to the publisher/director/PR person and ask them to read it, free of charge, because I believe in the exchange of ideas.

    Alex, I daresay Dragon's Well won't suffer as a result of my review. It will outlive it by some years, probably centuries. So don't fret too much about it. In fact, it would be quite nice to talk about the book, and about China, and about teaching, heck, even about tea, or over tea. As Helen will attest, I'm actually quite likeable :)

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 19th, 2008 @19:32 #
     
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    Good for you, Chris. It's big of you to engage thoughtfully in the debate on Book SA. Nice to hear that it has a readership out there.

    As I've said before in one of my countless comments, I think the power of Book SA for writers is that is serves as a support group for practitioners of a traditionally very isolated and supportless craft. If writers stand alone they have to take all the beatings - rejections, poor royalties, returns, pulping, soulless dayjobs, bad and lukewarm (and even balanced) reviews - all by themselves. It's bad for the psyche. For the first time, on Book SA, writers have a public, unified voice, so we like to show support to each other. Even though, of course, there are members who are booksellers, publishers and reviewers too.

    I, for one, am delighted that the views here caused you to react in your defence or clarification - it means the forum is getting something right.

    Well done again for rolling up your sleeves and mucking in.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 19th, 2008 @23:59 #
     
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    I formally wish to attest that Chris is a nice person. Daft (he comes home after a long week dealing with the hell of academia and writes a long and carefully considered essay on this website instead of yelling "Ah, stuff the lot of them" and sinking half a litre of wine)-- but nice. I have no doubt that he and Alex are about to commence an epic friendship, which proves Louis's point that this forum must be getting something right.

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  • Maire
    Maire
    September 20th, 2008 @15:11 #
     
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    Bravo Chris, and Alex, and Book SA. This is such a wonderful forum for civilised debate.

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  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    September 21st, 2008 @12:29 #
     
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    Epic, haha and good heavens, maybe, maybe not epic, Helen, but either way I thoroughly love your comment’s abandoned sense of proportion, although I must admit epic sounds exhausting, too much like the rise of Zuma and the fall Lehmen brothers, all too vast and panoramic for this weary wench; no, as I prepare to head off to work the Sunday afternoon shift at the bookshop, I think I’d choose something more fleeting, perhaps elusive understanding over legendary.

    In the bookshop towards the end of the Friday nightshift during shelving I found myself standing and staring at the one-shelf section 760, literary criticism, a field about which I know virtually nothing beyond my own experiences of reading and reading reviews and my slight essay’s brush with James Wood , so because I had been working on a short story written from the perspective of a critic, I thought I should choose a book and take it home on apro to get a better understanding of the phenomenon. The book I selected, or perhaps that selected me, was I.A.Richards’ ‘Principles of Literary Criticism’ and I read some of the opening chapters on Friday night. Now I discover this comment, remarkably balanced, of yours Chris, which because I have been reading Richards leaves me wondering if the Carrot and the Stick could be noisy linguistic phantoms –linguistic phantoms is an appealing image to me, admittedly read about late on Friday night and maybe misunderstood entirely. Still there seems some kind of good fit. ‘It has to be recognized,’ writes Richards, ‘that all our natural turns of speech are misleading… We become so accustomed to them that even when we are aware that they are ellipses, it is easy to forget the fact… We are accustomed to say that a picture is beautiful , instead of saying that it causes an experience in us which is valuable in certain ways. The discovery that the remark, ‘This is beautiful’, [or as around here ‘sweetly carrotish’ or ‘like a hoary stick’] must be turned round and expanded in this way before it is anything but a mere noise signaling the fact that we approve the picture, was a great and difficult achievement… We must be prepared then to translate, into phrases pedantic and uncouth, all the too simple utterances which the conversational decencies exact… For emotive purposes they are indispensable, but for clarity, for the examination of what is actually happening, translations are equally a necessity. Moet critical remarks state in an abbreviated form than an object causes certain experiences, and as a rule the form of the statement is such as to suggest that the object has been said to posses certain qualities.” On re-reading the review, Chris, it seems you have successfully translated your experience, in phrases pedantic (like that on ‘sub-sub-genre’) and uncouth(for me that might include phrases with ‘chick-lit’, for Ron perhaps ‘Orientalism’, and for Sven ‘Othering’) -- the effort and thought put into going beyond ellipses and translating your experience of reading I greatly appreciate and value, now that I have recovered from my original experience of reading your experience of reading. And I would like to apologise for my reactionary, ill-considered, spiteful and unnecessary remarks about the length of the review and the nature of the reviewer, it was the end of a bad week and unlike you, at the end of your week, when faced with a deluge of words aimed (even if not intentionally) at my person, I was not so mild and measured, I was, simply overwrought, not by the review in fact, but simply it was the last thing on a list of other minor calamities of ordinary existence, which right now are so utterly dawfed by present country politics and world finances that they seem too petty even to mention. Those words in my comments written immediately after reading the review were the honest, defensive bleats of a very anguished ego. While I cannot say I see exactly eye to eye with you on all the points your raise in the review, I do find them illuminating in unexpected ways and often indirectly, they shed an extremely perceptive light on certain contrivances, things left out, chinks in the structure and weakness in the artifice (all to be expected since I am frankly a learner builder and the unjustified non-fiction novel including the difficult character of China was an enormously daunting task, but a challenge I enjoyed nevertheless). What does it matter if I don’t always agree with the points you make, that does not mean I do not respect and appreciate your right to make them and I certainly cannot nor would ever desire to enforce a one party dictatorship over reader experiences or reviewing -- a delusional state of sweet linguistic phantoms, all perfect, Stepford Carrots that would be a nightmare. No mater what, there is always a wonderful freedom to reading. Stimulating debate and creating a culture of letters in this country is a noble cause, comforting to see in action, and I wish you great success with it—rather you than me, the other day an editor asked me if I would like to do reviews and I said no, although I could have used the extra money, because I do not have the courage in this small community to translate in public and in all useful honesty my experience of reading another local author’s book.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 21st, 2008 @22:53 #
     
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    Well, Sven got his wish -- Alex reviewed Chris's review of her review of his review, and it does both of them and Book SA credit. I've seldom seen the yawning chasm between academic and writer so clearly illustrated or so gracefully/graciously bridged. So much so, I'm tempted to ask if I can submit this comment thread to New Contrast for publication (it's worth a dozen essays on lit crit).

    Alex, I don't think you were ever spiteful -- it is sad but true that it IS possible for a reviewer to make more money from reviewing a book than the writer makes from writing it (I speak from sad experience) -- although neither is likely to be paid a fraction of what their effort represents!

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  • <a href="http://www.christhurman.net" rel="nofollow">Chris Thurman</a>
    Chris Thurman
    September 28th, 2008 @19:07 #
     
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    I'm aware that interest has long since shifted to other topics, but having just re-read your comment, Alex, I wanted to add a few thoughts ...

    Firstly, the apology is appreciated, but unnecessary - and I hope that your weeks have continued to improve since that particularly bad one you write about.

    Secondly, I think you SHOULD write reviews; anyone who is willing to engage with I.A. Richards as you have is already more qualified than most people who act as reviewers in SA's newspapers!

    Thirdly, a (cheeky but earnest) question: is "chick lit" necessarily a derisive term? I consider it descriptive rather than pejorative - chick lit covering a wide array of literature that is written by women, appeals primarily (in some cases exclusively) to a female readership, deals with female protagonists engaging in romantic/sexual/love relationships, and does so by applying - sometimes ironically, but applying nevertheless - the paradigm of chivalry (woman seeks knight/hero; woman resists knight/hero; knight/hero wins woman over despite herself; and any number of other variations) ... by this definition, whole swathes of Jane Austen are chick lit. Or am I being disingenuous?

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 29th, 2008 @11:54 #
     
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    Like I said, start of a beautiful friendship... Chris, Emma van der Vliet interviewed me for a piece on so-called "chick lit" in 2006. It was pretty interesting, published in a woman's magazine, can't remember which one, but it might pop up on Google. And I've got a paper somewhere on the link between the Bridget Jones frenzy and Jane Austen's novels, and why the latter are classics and the former not.

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