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What the Zhang Boys Know (edition 2012)

by Clifford Garstang

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113820,536 (3.7)None
Member:Carolee888
Title:What the Zhang Boys Know
Authors:Clifford Garstang
Info:Press 53 (2012), Paperback, 218 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Chinatown Washignton DC Condo, Chinese Americans family

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What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang

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What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang is a collection of interconnected stories set in the Nanking Mansion. The Mansion was redone into twelve condos.

The residents of the condos were all unique but I felt most comfortable with the Zhang Feng family. The core characters were widowed Zhang Feng, his father from Shanghai and his two boys, Wesley and Simon.

I loved the little boys and their child like thinking. The boys burst into the lives of the inhabitants and often leave a trail of delight.

The stories that I didn't feel good about those chapters that was depressing. I usually don't read a book of short stories because I get so attached to the main characters that I don't want them to go away. One the chapters, "A Hole in the Wall" started out very gloomy but the Zhang boys brought joy to the condo owner and I loved them for that.

I would recommend this book more to people who love short stories and to all people interested in a book that connects characters together in a delightful way. ( )
  Carolee888 | Dec 15, 2012 |
I am generally not a fan of short stories; they are all literary and float somewhere way above my head mocking me with my inability to understand them. Rife with deep hidden meanings that my very literal thought processes will never manage to uncover. If I had read any one of the stories included in What the Zhang Boys Know I would still feel that way, but taken together they help to explain each other a bit. I can't say I completely understand all the nuances but I am at least not completely lost in another world.

I just don't think I'm smart enough for books like this. Or thoughtful enough. Or deep enough or I don't know what enough.

That being said reading this series of tales straight through was enjoyable. Each chapter while not a building block to the next as in a book did provide clues to the overall theme of the volume. Having been left mildly confused at the end of the first short story I had some answers at the end of the second. As for the characters - the Zhang boys of the title are pretty much on the peripheral of all that goes on. The adults in their condo building are the drivers of the stories; each one damaged in their own way. Each one settling for a low rent life in a low rent building wanting more but either just taking the status quo or blowing up their life and the lives of others to feel something.

The book is well written but left me, overall a bit depressed. ( )
  BrokenTeepee | Nov 12, 2012 |
Children always seem to see and hear more than we give them credit for. When we were fighting a bug infestation, the bug guy wanted to talk to the kids to see where the ants were coming from, telling us, "Kids always know where the colony lives." And he was right. They immediately took him to the spot and we got rid of our problem. But it's not just things like this that adults might miss, kids absorb so much more than we suspect (or sometimes want). Perhaps because they are small and not in our line of sight, they catch nuances and make simple connections that we adults might be too busy or preoccupied or too certain of more complex reasons behind something to make. Clifford Garstang understands this beautifully in this linked short story collection.

Set on the edges of an artsy neighborhood close to Washington DC's Chinatown and in transition from questionable to gentrified, the stories focus on the inhabitants of a renovated condominium building called Nanking Mansion. The common thread running through the stories is the quiet, observing presence of the young Zhang boys. Zhang Feng-qi is a widower whose beautiful American wife Maddie and the mother of their two small boys was killed in a car accident recently. Feng-qi is struggling with taking care of Simon and Wesley in the wake of this sudden and inexplicable loss. He brings his aging father over from China to help him with child care and he starts seeing a woman who could be an acceptable replacement wife and mother to the boys.

Each of the eleven stories following Feng-qi's story introduces another inhabitant of Nanking Mansion: the young lawyer whose marriage has failed, the newly pregnant woman with the abusive boyfriend, one half of a gay couple who seem to have settled for each other, a womanizing artist haunted by his past, the building's developer whose health is failing as surely as his interpersonal relationships, the famous writer mourning the end of a Woody Allen-esque relationship with his step-daughter, the woman who is slowly selling off all her possessions just to try and live, the sculptor whose son suddenly appears and accuses him of abandonment. Each of the inhabitants' stories develops their characters fully and expounds on their life and how they ended up living in this building. They are all, in their own way, like Zhang Feng-qi, searching for love and learning to overcome the disappointments, tragedies, and unhappiness in their pasts. Every one of them, whether they know it or not, is looking for connection in this fragmented, lonely world. The small Zhang brothers dart in and out of each of the narratives, taking in the truth of the other inhabitants of their building, quietly noticing the tenuous, fragile bonds of the others, silent figures on the fringes of everyone's stories. They do not pass judgment on anyone, observing only, innocent in their childhood and still hoping for the reappearance of their dead mother.

The first and last stories in the book focus on the Zhang family, bringing this unusual novel full circle. Some of the stories feel as if they were written to stand-alone so there is a bit of repetition in character exposition that would not have been an issue if each story hadn't followed closely on the heels of the one before it. But this is a minor quibble with this quiet, spare, insightful, and well-written novel in stories. Garstang touches gently on the landscape of the human heart and the reality of connection in all its permutations. His characters are full and richly detailed. Their lives are ones of sadness and desperation but they still reach hopefully toward a better, more fulfilling day. The tone of the book is a bit melancholic and the snapshots of urban life poetic and sorrowful. This was truly a wonderful read, tightly packed, reflective, and insightful. Fans of both novels and short stories will appreciate the depth of writing and characterization here. ( )
  whitreidtan | Oct 14, 2012 |
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