Cover Image: Radical


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I always struggle rating memoirs because it can sometimes feel like you’re rating the author’s life; however, while reading this I often found myself questioning the point of the book.

Xiaolu Guo uses her study of language to relate her life experiences to etymology. The book is broken up into four sections: Encounters, Separations, Enduring, and Impermanence, and within each section there are sections of Chinese radicals that then contain vignettes of words or phrases. I found several of the passages to be written very beautifully but as a whole the book felt too fragmented and disconnected.

She writes about her life in New York, away from her child and child’s father who live in London, and about her relationship with E in NYC. She writes about leaving New York at the start of the pandemic and how the COVID lock down impacted her life. There are also a variety of musings about literature and history and people and places. Personally, I liked the literary and historical sections but struggled through some of her more personal anecdotes.

As a project, I thought it was an interesting framework for a memoir if not the most successful execution.

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After moving to Beijing, Europe (France and London), and New York City for a year, the author left her small, impoverished village in China. She draws inspiration for her writing from her trips and experiences. She chose etymology as her guiding principle, which is the study of words, their origins, and their meanings, including both Chinese and English terms. I found this choice to be fascinating. Her analysis of word origins, present usage, and cultural importance were all things I found fascinating.

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Xiaolu Guo is one of the most fascinating and important writers working today from a linguistic perspective. Her keen insights into cultural shaping of linguistics and literature come through in her novels and in this wonderful memoir. As a long time fan of her fiction it was incredible to see her life's journey and the insights she has chosen to bring down to both fiction and nonfiction. I cannot recommend this enough for aspiring writers and lovers of language, translation, and good literature

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The author left her small and poor village in China, moved to Beijing and Europe (France and London), and traveled for a year to New York City. Her travels and experiences are fuel for her writing, perhaps a symptom of her ongoing desire for freedom of expression, personal freedom, and even domestic freedom

I found it fascinating that she chose etymology as her grounding force -the study of words, their meaning and origin, both Chinese and English words. I also enjoyed her linking the origins of words to their current usage and exploring their cultural significance.

It was interesting that her stated desire for freedom leads her over the years to several romantic partners, the latest one in New York. However, after New York, she returns to London. her child, and the child's father, seemingly still missing the freedom she had there from a domestic life.

An unusual author who is frank about herself and her life, while also being a successful writer and film maker.

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This is neither an easy read or a conventional memoir but rather a floating tale of a woman fascinated with entomology and life. Guo left her family behind in the UK for what was meant to be a year in New York. While there, she fell into a relationship with another man but when the pandemic hit, she left him behind there physically, if not emotionally. Back in London, she struggles (as we all did), There's a lot about language - how we build it and use it-which is interesting. Thanks to netgalley for the ARC. This feels a tad intellectually arrogant but her fans will no doubt enjoy it more than I did.

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The description of Radical really piqued my interest but overall I found the book a bit to disjointed for me.

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"But what I have been writing to him, and what I have spoken to him are not just words. My words are never just words. They are my very physical existense. They are the lexicon of my realities."

Xiaolu Guo’s memoir is absolutely amazing, I have never read anything like it before and I enjoyed it so much! It is not just her approach to the genre that is radical, but she actually uses radicals – bushous in Chinese, i.e., the roots from which words form their meaning – to build her own etymology. Explaining the different radicals, she construes her very own dictionary, her own lexicon, which takes us on a journey through New York City, solitude, identity and the feeling of being different, the clash of Eastern and Western culture, as well as the question what it means to be a woman, a mother, and an artist.

Xiaolu Guo shows how integral language is for everything – our life, our communication, our identity – and does so in a unique way. By writing about radical after radical, concept after concept, we gain insights into her life and into herself, and she shows herself both vulnerable and fierce. The more radicals she explains, the more the pieces start to fall together, and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of her story.

What is striking is that reading her memoir has left me feeling like I know her and like I know nothing about her at all at the same time, and I truly cannot grasp how she has achieved this. Radical is deeply personal, and yet, because there are not too many details, I feel like a lot of us can find ourselves in her thoughts. I believe that Radical can give a voice to those who need it, those who feel like they do not belong, those who are lonely or those who struggle to be understood.

And, of course, I am absolutely in awe of her knowledge! She drops so many names, talks about so many authors, books, essays, films, pieces of art and music, in so much detail and with so much passion that all her knowledge comes naturally and inspires one to want to know and learn more. It definitely left me wanting to read Whitman and the Tale of Genji, and explore many more!

Radical is an etymological journey and a fierce expression of Xiaolu Guo’s self and the space she occupies between Eastern and Western landscapes. This might be my new favorite memoir, or at least one of my all-time top 5, and I recommend it to everyone with all my heart, especially those who love language!
This is not just a book I highly recommend, but also one I want to own physically since I feel that it deserves a place on my shelf and that it is one I will revisit many times to come.

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