Reviewed Books

rawiczI nipped this book from MB while we were in Mongolia and could not put it down. It is the true story (although many have questioned its veracity) of 6 men’s escape from a Russian prison during WWII and the long trek that took them through the outer reaches of Siberia, into Mongolia, the Gobi, Tibet, the Himalayas, and eventually into India. I had hoped that more of the book would be about Mongolia, as I was in Mongolia at the time of reading, but it was in fact more about Russia for much of the first half of the book. We start at the prison, where Rawicz was taken as a prisoner of war. He had been in the Polish cavalry and went home to visit his family who lived very near to the Russian border. After several months of torture, he is eventually transferred to a work camp, one of the harshest in Russia, where he later plots his escape.

This is the type of book I lovingly call “a boy book” because it is a story about survival and beating the odds against some of the worst conditions possible. There is very little emotional description in the book, although there are parts that will make you shed some tears. However, unlike many “boy books” I have read in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Some of the old timey words in the book had me looking through the dictionary more than a few times, but otherwise this is a compelling story that you just won’t want to put down.

prettyspittingPretty Woman Spitting is another memoir about a foreigner living in China. This one is of a young American girl who came to China to teach English for a semester. She only lived here for six months, but a lot happened during that time and she managed to see a bit of the country. The author, Leanna Adams, lived in an even smaller town than me during her time in China, giving her a more intimate look into the lives of her Chinese students.

I liked this book because it made me laugh – mainly because so many of her experiences are so familiar to what I have experienced in China. There were about 100 times while reading the book when I said, out loud, “Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.” In fact, I tell everyone I know that if they want to know what my life in China is like, then they should read this book. However, it is not all funny anecdotes, there are some sad bits as well that had me crying, so prepare yourself.

goodearthThe Good Earth has been one of my favorite books since I first read it at age 14, although I never re-read it until just last week. Before I recommend it, I wanted to be sure that it really was as good as I remembered it being. It was.

Pearl S. Buck, although not Chinese, lived in China for much of her life and so had an intimate knowledge of the Chinese way of life and Chinese traditions. While the world that she describes has mostly disappeared from modern China, the story is timeless and still has a very poignant ending applicable to today’s China.

The story is set in the China of the last century, with vivid imagery and a glimpse into the life of the everyday Chinese people. There is not the mystery and intrigue that was often associated with books written by foreigners about the Orient, but instead gives a realistic impression of China and its people. It is the story of the hard-working farmer, Wang Lung, and his struggles to become successful. We see him evolve from a poor farmer to a landowner and businessman. Meanwhile, we see how his success changes him and how his evolution has set his children on a different course in life. The person who remains unchanged by this evolution is his wife, the stoic O-lan, who is always in the background and who is even more hard-working than her husband. While the story mostly focuses on Wang Lung, my favorite character has always been O-lan, who never complains despite their hardships and who always has an answer for how to handle a difficult situation.

I do not want to give away too much of the plot, so I will leave it at that, but I would highly recommend this book. Choose a version that has an introduction or biography about Pearl S. Buck for some additional perspective.

achingEver since I arrived in China I have been interested in the ancient practice of footbinding. I see all of these tiny Chinese women in my town stumbling around town in stiletto heels and platforms and always wonder to myself if this obsession with adding height and making their feet look teensy tiny is somehow leftover from the culture of footbinding, even though the practice has been outlawed for nearly a century. Therefore, when I saw Wang Ping’s book about footbinding, I had to buy it immediately.

The book’s description reads: “When Wang Ping was nine years old, she secretly set about binding her feet with elastic bands. Footbinding had by then been outlawed in China, women’s feet “liberated,” but at that young age she desperately wanted the tiny feet her grandmother had–deformed and malodorous as they were.”

Unfortunately the cover description is about the most interesting part about the book. I was barely able to get through a couple of chapters before I gave up completely on reading it, despite my early enthusiasm for the subject. The book reads like a master’s thesis, which it probably is. I had hoped that it would include some personal insight into the practice. Instead, as is common for students in China, the book borrows heavily from other sources, constantly citing literature and historical interviews with women who had their feet bound. Once I realized this book was more of a research paper about footbinding, I was still on board for awhile. I tried to push through because I wanted to know about the history and culture behind the practice, and I hoped there might even be some analysis or some insight into feminism in China. I do not know if she ever gets to this point because, as I said, I gave up on the book after a couple of chapters. The focus is mostly on the fetishization of small feet and the painful bonding between women that footbinding brought about.

I am still interested in this practice and would like to read more. I think that I will seek out the original sources that Ping borrows so heavily from in her book. I have also read that there is a fictional book about this subject that is much better (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See), which I will probably download on my Kindle. I would not recommend this book unless you are planning to do a master’s thesis on footbinding or the treatment of women in pre-Mao China. Or if you have lots and lots of patience and perseverance.

shenzhen Shenzhen is a graphic novel by Guy Delisle, a Canadian who spent 3 months living in Shenzhen when it was still in its nascence. Perhaps because the storyline so closely resembles my own life in China, I thought this book was clever and witty from start to finish. I laughed out loud, and showed this book to numerous friends here in Shenyang, who then passed it on to others. A number of us have also bought copies to send to friends and family as gifts so that they can see what our lives are like here. However, I am not sure that the humor would translate if one has not experienced what it is to live in a developing city in China.

To me, this book illustrates China to a T. I have had nearly every experience Delisle recounts in his book. I also especially loved the random drawings throughout of buildings being built. And I loved the random “Hello” bubbles that pop up everywhere. This is especially humorous because Delisle is French-speaking, but it is assumed that all foreigners are English speakers. I read the French version of this, but it appears it is available in English as well (Yay for you!). This is one of those books that passes by too quickly and that I had to force myself to put down because I didn’t want it to end. I loved it and have gone back to it time and again for a quick laugh. I cannot wait to get my hands on some more of his books when I get to Switzerland…

china10wordsOne of the best books I have read about China since I have arrived here is China in Ten Words by Yu Hua. The book is a collection of essays, each one based on a commonly used word in China. Each of these words are loaded with historical and cultural contexts that few outsiders will ever truly understand, at least not in the way that the Chinese understand them.

The book begins with “People,” which Hua argues is so commonly used in China today that it has lost the weight of its initial meaning. He goes on to describe his childhood, which took place during the cultural revolution, and then his participation in the student protests that led to the June 4th massacre at Tianenmen Square. He also covers touchy issues that fascinate many foreigners, like piracy and counterfeiting.

What I loved about this book is that it was not written by a foreigner looking from the outside in. So much of what we hear as expats here is how we don’t understand why the Chinese do this or that (I’m guilty of these constant questions myself). There are also numerous books about Chinese history and culture written by expats. But I always get the sense that these books are written by someone from the outside looking in. We can never look past our own culture to just accept China for what it is. We always have to put it in contrast with our own cultures and histories. Hua, on the other hand, has been able to create a book that covers a number of very interesting issues and historical events, as an insider. He uses vivid imagery, wonderful anecdotes, and humor to illustrate a country that has transformed itself over and over in the past 50 years. I was hooked on this book from the second I started reading. It helped me to understand so many of the things I question often here. It also helped me to understand some of the “problems” I see in many of my students – their fear of having an opinion, their constant plagiarism, and their lack of personal responsibility, to name a few.

I am not sure this would be such an interesting book for those living outside of China, but for expats I think it is a must-read. However, it may be difficult to find in China as it was originally banned by the Chinese government (I am not sure whether it is now available). I bought my copy in Hong Kong and I have been told it is available on Kindle.

For more comprehensive reviews with excerpts and such, you can check out The New York Times or Tea Leaf Nation.

dreamingI read Deborah Fallows’ book, Dreaming in Chinese, on my first plane ride to China. Fallows writes about China almost as though she is writing a sort of love letter to China. She obviously enjoyed her time in China and really came to appreciate the people and the culture in her three years here. Each of the chapters is titled using a different Chinese word/character, which serves as a theme throughout the chapter. Fallows, who studied other languages before struggling with learning Mandarin, found that as she learned the language, she also learned new things about the culture.

I really enjoyed this book because it taught me a lot of things I did not know about modern China. It also introduced me to the difficulties I would face in trying to learn Chinese, especially with the anecdote about the stone eating lion. I did not know one word of Chinese when I got on that first plane to China, so this book was a good introduction and taught me some of my first Chinese words. It really gave me an appreciation for the Chinese language and motivated me to try to learn it myself. There were also some good tips in there for expats. Many of her observations are similar to those many other expats make, but I think she is able to convey some of the frustrations expats face here without coming off as negative or mean-hearted. This was an interesting book to read on my way here, although some of the words and concepts were confusing to me because I had never been to China before and did not know what pinyin was, nor could I imagine what it meant to learn a tonal language. Now that I have been living here I am sure I would read this book again without any troubles and would probably laugh at all of the similarities between her experiences and my own.

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