Monday, July 27, 2015

Books about China: My Picks and Pans

What I'm glad I read before coming to China
1. Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. I fell in love with China (and maybe a little bit with Peter Hessler) while reading this book. Hessler came to China in the 90's as a Peace Corp member stationed in a remote town on the Yangtze River. He captures the everyday intricacies of life in China beautifully and helped me to understand what it would be like to teach English in China before I arrived. For “old China hands” I would probably recommend his book Country Driving, but for those who are less familiar with China, this is a great book to get your feet wet.

2. I knew nothing about Chinese history before my arrival and what I did know came from  Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. This book makes history accessible to even those who loathe to read about it. Her story includes her mother and grandmother's own stories and nearly brings us through the entire 20th century in China. Wild Swans is never dull, reading more like a novel. It is at times both heartbreaking and rage inducing.

My favorite guilty pleasures
1. I remember the first time I saw Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, sitting on the lower bunk of a fellow traveler when I was staying in a Beijing hostel. “God, I'm glad I've graduated from reading such crap,” I thought to myself, rolling my eyes at the title. It must have been about a year later that I came across Susan Jane Gilman's memoir again and decided to have a quick look. I was immediately engrossed in a tale of two young American women who came to China shortly after its opening. Reading about China in the 1980's was fascinating in itself, but the story of these young women takes a terrifying turn which is sure to keep most readers up late, desperate to know how it all ends.

2. Another fun memoir, Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China is a coming-of-age story both for the writer and the city she is living in. I loved reading about Beijing as it was in the 90's. It helps put in perspective how fast the city, and the country as a whole, has changed. DeWoskin also provides the reader into a view that many people don't often get to see. What's it like to star on a Chinese soap opera? Date a Chinese man? Experience local backlash after a terrorist attack? Read to find out!

On a more serious note
1. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by was a book passed on to me by another expat. Get the tissues out for this one, it's a painful read, but worth it. It's not so much about the author, Beijing journalist Xinran, but of the harrowing tales she encountered over the years working as a talkshow host at Nanjing Radio Station in the 1980's. Though the rights of women in China have improved considerably in recent years, there stories are no less powerful. I have a terrible memory when it comes to novels and movies; most of them I forget as soon as I am finished. But years after reading this book, I still recall some of the women's heartbreaking experiences.
2. Ha Jin's Waiting. I can and do read fiction, though I find true accounts of China more rewarding than their fictional counterparts. Jin's novel is an exception to this rule. His story captures the plight of a man and his lover during a tightly controlled Communist China. After reading the book, I felt grateful to live in a time in place in which I am free to pick my own destiny. It was not so long ago, that most Chinese people's entire lives were mapped out by familial duty and government restrictions.

I was less impressed with
1. I am hesitant to pan this one (and I promise my lack of enthusiasm has no relation to my coveting the author's husband), but I struggled to finish Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. It's a book that tops the lists of China “must read” books and one that I thought sounded intriguing. Chang follows the development of China's boom towns and chronicles the lives of the migrant women who go to live there. Doesn't that sound interesting? In the very beginning, I suppose it was, but after awhile the stories grew hard to follow and repetitive. I began confusing the names of the different women Chang follows as she jumped between people and places. She also devotes a large part of the book to her own family's history which has no relation to the subject matter and, unfortunately, is boring. There, I said it.

2. I read Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter ten years ago and I still clearly remember my disappointment with it. Another memoir (this list is heavy with memoirs), this one focuses on a young Chinese girl's abuse at the hands of her step-mother. The book has interesting snippets about Chinese history and culture, but it's hard to read about a child being severely mistreated. I continued reading, hoping that the writer would somehow triumph, but I finished the book feeling she would forever remain in her role as victim. 

On my “to-read” list
1. Right now I'm working on Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French. If reading about expat life in China at the end of the 20th century is interesting, reading about early 20th century life is truly fascinating. This true story is about the mysterious death of a young British woman who lived in Beijing with her diplomat father during the lead up to World War Two.
2. Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. I loved Tan's The Joy Luck Club which beautifully portrays the struggle between mothers and daughters, as well as the cross-cultural conflict between immigrants and their first generation children. It sounds like her new novel revisits those themes through a very different story.
3. My ultimate goal: To read Yu Hua's To Live in Chinese. 

Have you read any books about China? What are your favorites? What's on your summer's "to-read" list?


Autumn said...

More reading! I did like "River Town, although I felt like Peter lacked empathy in some of his anecdotes. But I learned more about my in-laws parenting than I did anywhere else, though, as usual, too damned late. ;)

I read most of Amy Tan's work, but I never found anything comparable to "The Joy Luck Club"

Everything else I will have to put on Goodreads! thanks!

rosieinbj said...

@Marta, thanks so much for the book recommendation in Chinese. Let me know if you think of anything else!

@Autumn, interesting that you found Hessler lacking in empathy. I read the book so long ago that I don't remember. I do think living in Asia hardens some people. I suppose I may even be guilty of it myself because I'm afraid of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I've seen and heard a lot of sad things in my time here.

Anonymous said...

WOW. What a list! You have done quite a lot of Chinese reading, Rosie! I'm totally put to shame by you.

I think for my next read I'm definitely going to choose a book from your selection here. So many choices!

I saw the movie "To Live," but I never read the book. That movie has haunted me for years--it's such a powerful story, but my god is it depressing. China has been through so much.

Have you read any of Mo Yan's works yet? I was in China when he won the nobel prize for writing so he was quite hyped up, but I never read any of his works.

rosieinbj said...

@Mary, I read a lot! I've read a lot of books about China and also a surprising number on India (I'm a little obsessed with India and Indian culture).

I was actually thinking of putting Mo Yan on my "to read" list. I haven't read anything by him yet.

I haven't seen the movie "To Live." I actually should make an effort to watch more Chinese movies, too.