Reviews

China in Ten Words

Although I've spent some time in Asia, I never visited China, so when I came across this personal narrative that combines essays on life in modern China with growing up during the Cultural Revolution, I couldn't resist. Through the focus of ten simple words, contemporary novelist Yu Hua presents a vivid picture of how Chinese life has changed in many ways, yet in others remained the same for over fifty years. With humor and an incisive take on his own culture, Hua shows how conformity vies with individuality in his country and how conformity often wins.

The chapter titled "Leader" focuses on the era of Mao Zedong. Although Yu was only a boy when Mao was Chairman, Yu entered the spirit of things by writing big-character posters. These were signs that were put up in all public place: movie theaters, schools, stores, and outside people's houses. In these anonymous signs, people criticized their neighbors for being landlords or for not following the precepts of the little red book. Yu Hua himself wrote many about his teachers and parents. In fact, he traces his love of writing from this childhood activity.

Pushcart Prize XXXV, Best of the Small Presses

Enjoy discovering new authors? Or finding new work by favorite ones? Or just checking out what kind of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction shorts the vibrant American small press movement is publishing? This anthology, edited by Bill Henderson, manages to seek out the best new work in American literature year after year.

It opens with a short story by Anthony Doerr titled "The River Nemunas." It's about a 15-year-old with no parents and a poodle named Mishap. Because he has no relatives in the U.S., the boy is sent to live in his grandfather's homeland of Lithuania. For the first time, the teenager sees a place that in the past meant no more to him than a pink spot on the world map. It's a lovely story about an orphan finding a new home after a tragedy. Another interesting story is the funny "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre" by Seth Fried; it depicts a Revolutionary War Massacre reenactment that turns out badly.

Next to Love

Babe Huggins is one of those young women (my mother was one also) both lucky and unlucky enough to come of age at the start of World War II. She lives in a small New England town and because the men have left to fight overseas, she scores a department store job, and then later, interesting work at Western Union. She loves being the pulse of news in the town, but a big negative is that she is the first to discover which family has lost a young son or a new spouse.

Next to Love gives a vivid portrait of the war at home in America during WW II as lived by three friends who have known each other since first grade. Both Babe and Millie come from poor families on the wrong side of Sixth Street, whereas Grace's family lives in one of the town's mansions.

The novel chronicles the marriages of each of the three women, and shows how it either destroys or strengthens those unions. At the start of the war, there's one giddy summer when the number or marriages skyrockets--a combination of the men responding to the knowledge of their own mortality and the sheer lust for life-- seize this moment because no one knows how long it will last.

Graphic Novels from Guy Delisle

People often read travel books of places of either exotic places they want to visit, or of a beloved travel destination. I would think that a travel book of a destination that most people don't ever want to visit wouldn't exactly be very engaging. Guy Delisle proves me wrong.

Delisle is a French Canadian whose work in animation has taken him to some interesting and not so interesting places. Two of these locations have become novel length graphic novels. Delisle has a knack for taking the ridiculous and mundane and making them funny and smart.
Pyongyang chronicles Delisle's stay in North Korea that extends over several months for his job. The charcoal drawings reflect the drab and sterile city. Delisle tries to get to know the residents, but is often thwarted by his guide, translator and driver, with whom Delisle isn't to be without. He is taken to some creepy (and sometimes funny) monuments to the Eternal President. The insights and details are surprising and delightful. Even if you aren't the least curious about North Korea, I would still recommend this title.

She Walks in Beauty: a Woman's Journey through POEMS

Following in her mother's footsteps, Caroline Kennedy has always had a passion for books and literature. After being first lady, Jackie Onassis edited books on art and culture, but she also had a great love for poetry.

Caroline's latest anthology She Walks in Beauty: a Woman's Journey through POEMS is a collection geared more for women than for men, although the poems themselves are written by both sexes.

The book includes very large sections on "Marriage" and "Growing Up and Growing Old" as well as sections on "Love" in all its aspects--falling, making, and breaking up. She also has gathered poems on "Work," "Friendship," and "Beauty, Clothes, and Things of This World." Two of my favorite sections are somewhat unexpected; they include "Silence and Solitude" and "How to Live." The latter compendium does what poetry does best, shows us what elements are truly important in our lives.

An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science

While most books about the Arctic or Antarctic focus on just one thing--the indomitable quest to reach one of the poles--this book has a much broader canvas--it covers the equally arduous work of making new scientific discoveries during the age of great polar exploration.

This broader canvas allows the reader to learn about biological, geological, and meteorological phenomena but also about the cost of empire. England sponsored many of these expeditions while this country held political dominion over one quarter of the world. And as the twentieth century dawned, political power was changing rapidly. Britain had lost face in the Boer Wars in Africa and needed heroism and success to bolster its image abroad and its people's faith in the government and military as Germany, France, and the United States were becoming arch competitors.

But the book is mostly about science and adventure under the most brutal conditions. At one point Scott and Shackleton dock near an ice floe and decide it's time to use a hot-air balloon to get a better view of the landscape ahead. In this totally unpeopled land, Scott rides up into the air and views the vast white expanse. For most of us, such a view would provoke sheer terror. And Scott himself was a little nervous in the little bamboo basket. I kept thinking, what if he falls out.

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