There’s nothing better than geographically appropriate reading (says the geography teacher). If I’m in northeastern Arizona, I’ll be reading Tony Hillerman. I devoured the “Merchant of Venice” along with overpriced pasta while in the sinking city, and “Snow Falling on Cedars” will always be my favorite book set in the northwest coast of Washington state (sorry “Twilight“). Geographic reading even happened to me accidently as I was reading “Cry, the Beloved Country” in Norway. It turns out that author Alan Paton finished his manuscript while in Trondheim. The preface discusses the stained glass rose adorning the Nidaros cathedral – a church I walked past on my way to school each snowy morning.
My picks for China:
The must-read classic is, of course, “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. I read the book in high school and all I remembered is that there was a character that twirled the hairs coming out of his mole and that I hated it. I didn’t hate it quite as much this time around. I’ve been pulling the book out whenever I feel sorry for myself that I’m sleeping on wood planks and eating fish with their teeth still intact. Things don’t seem quite so bad after reading about how O-lan silently gives birth and then picks up a rake that afternoon, telling her husband about her labor and the birth of their baby girl:
“It is over once more. It is only a slave this time – not worth mentioning.”
I how the end of the book foreshadows the beginning of China’s transformation:
“It is the end of a family – when they begin to sell the land…out of the land we came and into it we must go – and if you will hold our land you can live – no one can rob you of your land.”
The NPR lover in me gravitated to Rob Gifford’s “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power,” in which the author takes route 312 (“The Chinese Route 66”) from Shanghai to Kazakhstan. This book is awesome because of all the people Gifford meets along his journey – whether it’s AIDS patients, abortion-forcing nurses, Amway salesmen, or the Hermit of Hua Shan (you can reach him on his cell phone), it’s Gifford’s interviews with people that tell the story. Gifford goes back and forth on the topic of whether China will overtake the world or not, but I agree with Chinese artist Su Zhongqui:
“We’re not producing any creative people. We are making only technicians…The government wants advanced education without encouraging people to think”
And Gifford’s thoughts on the matter:
“the government has bought off many people with economic development…but what happens if the anesthetic of prosperity wears off…how can you become a Great Power…if you don’t allow your people to think?”
The incredibly popular Lisa See is who I turned to get my historical novel, “Shanghai Girls.” It wasn’t as good as the three pages of accolades claim it to be, but I did enjoy the novel. The first few chapters (set in Shanghai on the eve of WWII) read like See is trying to prove that she did her homework. I like details and historical accuracy as much as the next teacher, but it read like she was trying a tad too hard. But by the middle of the book, once she got into the story, I was fully immersed. This is more a story on the immigrant experience of Chinese Americans than Shanghai though. Still, I plan on picking up the sequel, “Dreams of Joy,” when I can find a bookstore. Which will hopefully be soon because I’m all out of reading material. Tragedy! Why oh why didn’t I buy a Kindle?
A couple other China related books worth noting are Peter Hessler’s “River Town” and J. Maarten Troost’s “Lost on Planet China.”
I read “River Town” last time I was in China. It’s an account of Hessler’s two year stint teaching in a town along the Yangtze that was slated to be flooded due to the Three Gorges Dam. I especially remember a scene in which he compliments one of his students on her cute freckles. Unfortunately for both Hessler and the student, this is culturally tantamount to complimenting someone on their zits. This helped me fully appreciate the labels on Chinese facial cream, some titled “Anti-Speckle Cream,” or “Anti-Freckle Cream.”
Troost is still very funny, but “Lost on Plant China” is the weakest of his three books. I’d pick up his Pacific Island tale “The Sex lives of Canibals” instead and get ready to enjoy the part wherein he buys a fish from the market only to use it as a weapon fending off the island’s rabid dog population. Hilarious.
Happy travel reading! I’m heading to Wisconsin and Florida next – if you have any recommendations I’d be grateful.
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