The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
An important book on modern-day Beijing (which I discuss here as well), which is fast becoming a very different city than it was even a decade ago. Author Michael Meyer lived in the hutong neighborhoods whose demise he chronicles in his book, and throughout he shares the stories of his neighbors, colleagues, and students, painting a vivid picture of the communities that live within the walls of the classic, winding alleyways, and the new lives they face once their own neighborhood gets smacked with an eviction notice. The balance to be sought here is somewhere between improving conditions for Beijing citizens while not entirely diminishing or outright erasing their cultural history and the tradition of these close-knit neighborhoods. The hutong are indeed run down, and have their own issues. But we must question whether full-scale destruction–and replacement with high-rise apartments and buildings–is serving anyone besides the business developers and retail merchants. As is often said, why not renovate and restore that is actually reminiscent of a Chinese city? No matter your opinions, this is an amazingly rich book, part biography of a man, part biography of neighborhood and its changing city. His reporting skills show clearly, but the book does not read like a non-fiction bore; rather, it carries along with a colorful and sometimes heartbreaking narrative. (Read more on the author’s neighborhood in a post on National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel blog.)
The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857
William Dalrymple, an esteemed historian of Indian history, delivers the personal stories that so often get trampled in the wake of immense social and political upheaval, as they long had been in the case of the “Indian Rebellion of 1857” (its politically neutral name). When disgruntled sepoys (Indian soldiers employed by the British in the subcontinent) mutinied against their leaders and headed for Delhi in 1857, the last of the Mughal emperors was already holding onto only nominal power, and combination of events spurred the whole city into a state of unparalleled war and anarchy. Dalrymple’s retelling really gets into the heads and hearts of the people involved: the Mughal leader Zafar and members of his court, the British military and political men in charge, and the ones not in charge who rose to the challenge in 1857, and some of the mutineers and their own challenges–and the shortcomings of all these players. The book is one big, dramatic battle the whole way through; you’ll get to know characters very well, only to find them blown off horses or slashed apart in the next chapter. Top notch bottom-up history.
What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love
My mom recommended this book to me, and then went so far as to buy it for me during our recent road trip to Michigan. Author Carole Radziwill worked as a producer at ABC when she met and fell in love with Anthony Radziwill, of both European and American royal blood. Anthony was the nephew of President and Mrs. Kennedy, the son of Lee Radziwill, and best friends with his cousin John Kennedy, Jr., and died after a long battle with cancer only three weeks after the shocking plane crash that killed Kennedy, his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren Bessette. Carole Radziwill recounts her years with these three people, her closest friends, with an honest voice that does not harp on their social lives or discuss parties and the high living that surely existed. Instead, it is a story of her humble beginnings, her career as a producer at ABC, and her struggle in adapting her life to the never-expected role of wife-of-a-cancer-patient. She recalls irreverent musings she and Carolyn shared, planning their lives out as if cancer and the limelight each did not exist. Best of all, she does not draw the story out to the point of boredom and depression in the reader. In just about 240 pages, she tells a riveting and emotional story without asking for any sympathy and without leaving the reader a complete wreck. She writes beautifully, and her journalism career was an especially interesting element in her life story.
The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
I came across this book one day at work, at my campus bookstore, and just the dedication had me in tears. Jacqueline Novogratz has spent the last twenty five years working with the concept of micro financing and small loans in developing countries–rather than continuously dumping donations on those countries–which has proven to provide better long-term economic stability for the people who can take out small loans and provide a service to their community. When the community benefits from a useful product or resource, and the entrepreneurs know to rely on their own initiative rather than wait for the next giveaway, Novogratz argues, the solution to global poverty is possible. She recounts her work in Africa, starting with her as a young, naive American girl who faced resentment from the African women leaders who saw her as a representation of the western mindset that someone else was needed to fix Africa; in Rwanda in particular, she shared some wonderful successes with women there, only to see the country and the lives of those women torn apart by the genocide– some as victims, some as perpetrators. Her book is part inspiration for a practical economic plan for eradicating poverty and bringing needed services to developing countries, part memoir of a person who has seen much of the world and learned how to adapt in it, part glimpse of the world’s changes and innovations since the 1980s. She has promoted her models and the evidence her lifetime has provided to support them, at TED. And I can’t even give away the amazing story behind the titular “blue sweater” that stopped Novogratz in her tracks in Rwanda– it’s too amazing to spoil.
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and several other pop-psychology best-sellers, sometimes gets a bad rap from reviewers and scholars, who write him off as someone who panders to the popular audience and doesn’t give enough back-up to his theories and arguments. But in terms of writing interesting, though-provoking things, What the Dog Saw is Gladwell at his best. The book is a collection of articles he’s written from 1995 to 2009 in The New Yorker, and each one pulls you in immediately, which means it’s already too late to put the book down and not find out why there’s only one flavor of ketchup, even though there are dozens of types of mustard. What makes Cesar Milan so successful with troubled dogs? What did we get wrong about women from the very advent of birth control? What good are job interviews, really? My favorite essay was about the ownership of words, and the fine line between inspiring others and being a victim of plagiarism– and whether the ownership of ideas and words can even be rightly claimed by an individual. Great thought-provoking reading; written for the masses, yes, but written well.
Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language, written by Katherine Russell Rich
This book is a combination of two of my favorite subjects: linguistics and India. Rich makes the jump and spends a year studying Hindi at a school in Udaipur, in Rajasthan (northern Indian). She grapples with the feeling of being caught between two languages and seemingly becoming inept at both simultaneously; then, she discovers this strange phenomenon (that linguists had known about for years): a period of several months where you struggle to speak this new language, and wind up remaining mostly silent, feeling hopeless and assuming your linguistic attempts futile. Until, suddenly you find words and make connections and almost overnight the floodgates open. It is a documented period of “silence” during the process of language immersion, and Rich navigates the periods before, during, and after with grace, insight, and more than a little frustration. Upon her arrival back home, she speaks with many scientists and psychologists to learn more about the phenomena of a brain when it’s learning its first, second, and subsequent languages. Part memoir, part travelogue, part reporting on scientific and psychological effects of language on the brain, Dreaming in Hindi is a marvelous treat. Adding to the depth and complication of her experience in India, she arrived to begin classes in Udaipur in the first week of September 2001, just days before the terrorists attacks on the Twin Towers, an event that would alienate her from friends back home, make her a spectacle and put her in danger in her current Indian location, and give her entirely removed perspective on the event for the year in its wake.
Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic, written by Elizabeth Little
This is a great book for fellow armchair linguists; Little–a humorous writer who feels more like a chatting friend–takes a tour through the world’s languages to point out idiosyncrasies and oddities that still baffle modern language-learners. Little’s web site is also full of personal essays and humorous anecdotes. As the author herself suggests, it is the perfect addition to your bathroom literature collection. Or, if you are like me, your bedside table collection.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, written by Jennifer 8. Lee.
The author is a Chinese-American journalist and writer who works for the New York Times. She started this book after her research into a huge PowerBall upset pointed to Chinese restaurants: the winning numbers, used by dozens of people, came from a fortune cookie. From there, she gets deeper into the industry than you ever thought possible. Find the book on Amazon, and read updates from the author’s web site. Lee’s tales of soy sauce flavors and the American palate, scandals in kosher Peking Duck meat, and the search for the original fortune cookie (and subsequent arguments among California Chinese and Japanese cookie-makers) keep entertainment high. One of the most poignant chapters includes the story of a New York City Chinese family who moves to rural Georgia to open their own restaurant; no sooner do they arrive when miscommunication and cultural conflict ensue for this family, struggling to unite under circumstances that have them continent-jumping. I have a post about this family on my main website, which is worth a read.
Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng
This is Nien Cheng’s personal account of the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and is most stunning for its accuracy and detail. As the author says, she had plenty of time to ponder the events around her during the six years she spent in prison, falsely accused of espionage and guilty of being too familar with Western style and taste. She is spunky, sharp, and inquisitive, traits that do not pale even after years of suppression. Having just done a research paper on the Cultural Revolution that involved primary accounts of Red Guards, “capitalist roaders,” and other buzz words of the Revolution, her record of the violence and confusion of the era is bar-none, and extremely important for Chinese modern history (as harrowing as it may be). Her spirit makes this book a page-turner, because she won’t just sit and take the Maoist rhetoric at face-value, as it is perceived that millions of Chinese did. She was released, and subsequently discovered that her daughter had died defending Cheng’s name; the author left China forever, and lives in the United States today. Read more reader reviews on Amazon, and then dive into this one.