More or less, a goldfish in a bowl

A review of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Published 2009, Little, Brown

I did not have that many books when I was a kid. I remember borrowing Nancy Drew and Choose Your Own Adventure books from cousins or classmates. At home, all I really had were my father’s Perry Mason collection (which I have fond memories of), and our shelf of Colliers Junior Classics.

The second volume of this set featured abridged or retold folk tales from different countries. Reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon reminded me a great deal of these folk tales, and understandably so. Where the Mountain weaves different tales, that draw from and read like traditional Chinese stories, into a bigger narrative arc.

The tales in the book were cute and steeped in lore, filled with plot puzzle pieces and memorable elements like an ink dragon, an endless thread, and the Old Man of the Moon. Each one an original story, the tales highlight the author’s strength in writing short, picture-book type stories. This impression is made more apparent by the intricate illustrations scattered throughout the book and the bedtime-story style of language that I found largely unappealing.

Ma sighed a great deal, an impatient noise usually accompanied with a frown at their rough clothes, rundown house, or meager food. Minli could not remember a time when Ma did not sigh, it often made Minli wish she had been called a name that meant gold or fortune instead. Because Minli and her parents, like the village and the land around them, were very poor.

Imagine that kind of tone, phrasing, and sentence structure being maintained for the entire book, even when a different character would tell one of the stories. The way the ideas and clauses were parsed, it almost seemed like an affectation. Not knowing a word of Chinese, I imagined that Lin was trying to mimic the rhythm of the Chinese language, or at least of the Chinese language used in the stories that inspired her so much. And because of the word choices, the language was generally unadorned to the point of being—dare I say it—un-literary. Too many adjectives replaced tangible description—a flaw which could have easily been resolved through simple similes and metaphors. It seemed as if the author was trying really hard to write something that seven-year-old kids could read. There is, of course, a world of difference between that and what kids would want to read.

I don’t think I would have found Minli interesting when I was a kid. She seems like a milder version of one of those humorless child stars who say only the right things all the time, and whose every mistake is caused by their implausible desire to make the world perfect. I mean, in what universe would it be okay and/or admirable for a kid to spend the only money the family has on a goldfish? And then let the goldfish go as soon as she regrets her decision? It seems Minli is not quite as “quick-thinking” as her name and the narrator suggest.

I wonder whether I would have liked this book better under different circumstances. Would I have appreciated this book more if I were of Chinese descent? (What does that imply, though?) Also, partly because each chapter already features several tales and partly because of the language, is this the type of book better served in portions—you read maybe three chapters now, and then another three tomorrow?

However, since neither of those things were the case, while reading the book I found myself constantly emulating Minli’s Ma—sighing in discontent, and finding many little things that could have gone better. Thankfully though, I have other books rather than a goldfish to turn to for more stories, happiness, and awe.

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About ergoe

Reader. Writer.

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