Farewell to a Great Story-teller

One of my favorite American authors, Pat Conroy, passed away on Friday. Here’s how NPR reported it:

Pat Conroy, the beloved author of The Great SantiniThe Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides, has died. Conroy — who announced last month that he had pancreatic cancer — died Friday night at his home among his family in Beaufort, S.C. He was 70 years old.

Pat Conroy was a master storyteller, blending the raw material of his difficult family life with the landscape of coastal South Carolina. In 1986, Conroy told me that the reason he wrote was to explain his own life to himself.

If you haven’t read his books, yet, I highly recommend them. These are my favorites:

The Prince of Tides: A Novel

The Prince of Tides: A Novel

The Water Is Wide: A Memoir

The Water Is Wide: A Memoir

Beach Music: A Novel

Beach Music: A Novel

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Books: The Last Five and the Next Five

In a slight variation of the “books I read this year” type post, here are 2 lists: the last five books I read in 2015, and the first five books I intend to read in 2016.

The Last Five (starting from most recent)

Looming Transitions: Starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service, by Amy Young

Looming Transitions: Starting and finishing well in cross-cultural service

This one was written by my good friend and former teammate in China. Three years ago we were sitting in a Starbucks in Beijing talking about books that were bouncing around in our head, and I commented that I’d have to kill myself is she published hers before I published mine. Don’t worry; that’s not a promise I intend to keep. If you have, are, or will be making a transition, then this book is for you!

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died

I love all things Middle East and Central Asia and Church History, and here they all are in one book!

The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelandic people, by Alda Sigmundsdottir

The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelandic people

I read this on my flight to Reykjavik earlier this month, which means I chuckled all the way. If you’re headed to Iceland for any reason, this is a fun little primer.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

What can I say? It’s a bittersweet novel set in Seattle as the Japanese were being rounded up and sent to internment camps.

China’s Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden (Series: Studies in Chinese Christianity), by Brent Fulton

China's Urban Christians: A Light That Cannot Be Hidden (Series: Studies in Chinese Christianity)

This was written by my colleague at ChinaSource. If you want to have your perceived notions of the church in China challenged, read this!

The Next Five

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

This one just sounds so interesting!

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels, by Janet Soskice

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels

This one is in keeping with my interest in all things middle east and Central Asia! It also comes highly recommended by my brother-in-law and niece.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers, by Simon Winchester

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers

With a subtitle like that, how can it be anything but a great book? Also, as a general rule, anything written by Simon Winchester is worth reading.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, by David Herlihy

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance

In 1880, a cyclist set out to ride around the world and disappeared somewhere in Turkey. Sounds like a fantastic story!

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, by Michael Meyer

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China

I lived in Manchuria (northeast China) for 8 years, so there’s no way I cannot read this book. Besides, the author is a fellow Minnesotan!

What are you reading these days?

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Iceland Reading

When I travel, especially to new places, I like to read up on the places I am visiting. Since I’m headed to Iceland today for a short visit (IcelandAir had a package deal that was too good to pass up), here’s whats on my kindle for the trip:

Iceland, Defrosted, by Edward Hancox

Iceland, Defrosted

The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelandic people, by Alda Sigmundsdottir

The Little Book of the Icelanders: 50 miniature essays on the quirks and foibles of the Icelandic people

A Girl’s Ride in Iceland, by Mrs. (Ethel) Alec-Tweedie

A Girl's Ride in Iceland

Watch this space for my own stories and photos.

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Four Days, Four Books

Road Trip Reading

Road Trip Reading

As of Friday evening, we have put 2500 miles between us and The Twin Cities. And that doesn’t include the 110-mile ferry ride we took today from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basque, Newfoundland.

You may be wondering how we keep ourselves occupied for so many hours in the car. We all like to read, so when we’re not enjoying the scenery, we usually have our noses in books.  Here’s our “road trip reading list:”

I am reading The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes from an Unknown Shore, by Robert Finch. From the Amazon blurb:

“In these evocative sketches, stories and essays, nature writer Robert Finch explores the people, geography and wildlife of this remote but lovely corner of Canada. Beloved nature writer Robert Finch spent the greater part of a decade travelling around Newfoundland, the remote island “at the edge of America”. Between the icy cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean, the lush valleys and barren drifts, he collected intimate stories of birds, moose and foxes – and of the people who share their space. In detailed essays, he evokes a landscape of raw beauty.”

The Iambics of Newfoundland: Notes from an Unknown Shore

Next up is Standing Into Danger, by Cassie Brown. From Amazon:

“In the snowy predawn of February 18, 1942, a convoy of three American ships zigzagged up the North Atlantic toward Newfoundland, heading for one of the worst disasters in naval history. The ships were under radio silence to protect their position from the threat of German U-boats. A storm was raging, visibility was zero, and the currents had turned wildly unpredictable. With only unreliable soundings to guide them across the jagged ocean floor, all three vessels ran aground on the sheer rock coast of Newfoundland.”

Standing Into Danger

Then…The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A Novel, by Wayne Johnson. From Amazon:

“A mystery and a love story spanning five decades, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is an epic portrait of passion and ambition, set against the beautiful, brutal landscape of Newfoundland. In this widely acclaimed novel, Johnston has created two of the most memorable characters in recent fiction: Joey Smallwood, who claws his way up from poverty to become New Foundland’s first premier; and Sheilagh Fielding, who renounces her father’s wealth to become a popular columnist and writer, a gifted satirist who casts a haunting shadow on Smallwood’s life and career.”

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams: A Novel

My brother-in-law is reading the novel The Shipping News, by Annie Prioux. From Amazon:

“Quoyle, a third-rate newspaper hack, with a “head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair…features as bunched as kissed fingertips,” is wrenched violently out of his workaday life when his two-timing wife meets her just desserts. An aunt convinces Quoyle and his two emotionally disturbed daughters to return with her to the starkly beautiful coastal landscape of their ancestral home in Newfoundland. Here, on desolate Quoyle’s Point, in a house empty except for a few mementos of the family’s unsavory past, the battered members of three generations try to cobble up new lives.”

The Shipping News

My sister is reading Orphan #8: A Novel, by Kim van Alkemade. From Amazon:

“In this stunning new historical novel inspired by true events, Kim van Alkemade tells the fascinating story of a woman who must choose between revenge and mercy when she encounters the doctor who subjected her to dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage years before.”

Orphan #8: A Novel

And finally, my mom is working her way through The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown. From Amazon:

“For readers of Unbroken, out of the depths of the Depression comes an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the American West showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.”

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

We all put our books down this afternoon as the ferry pulled into Port aux Basque so we could get our first glimpse of Newfoundland.

port aux basque newfoundland

port aux basque

It was a great ferry, except for the fact the air conditioner was broken and today was one of the hottest days they’ve had in these parts all summer.

A Conversation with Peter Hessler

One of my favorite China writers, Peter Hessler, recently sat down with a reporter for Xinhua, China’s official news agency, to talk about his books, as well as the joys and challenges of writing about China.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, click here.)

Hessler’s books are all worth a read:

Rivertown (2001)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)

Oracle Bones (2006)

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Country Driving (2010)

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Strange Stones (2013)

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

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Beijing – Bursting at the Seams

A couple of weeks ago, Xinhua News Agency announced that the population of Beijing was more than 21 million:

Beijing’s population reached 21.15 million at the end of last year, 2.2 percent up on 2012, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics announced Thursday.

 

Permanent residents in the Chinese capital increased by 455,000 since the end of 2012.

 

Xia Qinfang, deputy head of the bureau, declared that Beijing’s population includes 8.03 million migrants who have been in the city for over half a year.

 

Beijing’s population has been growing more slowly since 2011, Xia said.

In case you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around what that means, perhaps this video clip of a subway station at rush hour will help:

(video by Beijing Cream)

Beijing hasn’t always been this crowded, though. Consider this chart showing the population growth since 1953:

cox-beijing-f2

 (image source: New Geography)

So, when I moved to Beijing in 1998, the population was just over 12 million, and when I left it was 20 million. That explains so much!

And if you’re want to read up on my adopted hometown, here are four of my favorite books on the history and growth of Beijing:

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, by Michael Meyer

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, by Lillian M. Li, Alison Dray-Novey, and Haili Kong

Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City

 

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China, by Jasper Becker

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (New York Review Books Classics) by Kidd, David published by NYRB Classics (2003), by David Kidd

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (New York Review Books Classics) by Kidd, David published by NYRB Classics (2003)

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Favorite China History Books

xichang city gate

To wrap up my week of posts on Chinese history, here are TEN of my favorite Chinese history books:

The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, by Diana Preston.

This is a riveting account of the madness that engulfed northern China at the turn of the century. 

City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China, by Jasper Becker

A great overview of the history of Beijing. I found it particularly interesting to read about the city in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. 

 God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong XuQuan, by Jonathan Spence

This book tells the story of Hong Xuquan, a mid-19th century drifter who becomes convinced he is Jesus’ younger brother. Convinced that God has called him to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, he launches the Taiping Rebellion, which kills 20 million people. 

The Great Wall: China Against the World, by Julia Lovell

What we know as The Great Wall is actually a series of defensive structures that were built over thousands of years. This book helps set the record straight on many mythical stories about the Great Wall. 

 Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker

In the late 1950’s Chairman Mao The Great Leap Forward, a collectivization campaign designed to speed up industrialization. It led to a famine that killed 30 million people. This book is the story of that famine. 

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter HesslerThunder Out of China, by Thoodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby

Hessler uses the ancient oracle bones used for divination as a platform to explore the connections between ancient and modern China. 

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now, by Jan Wong

Canadian-born Jan Wong went to China as a committed Communist in the 1970’s. This is her story of her journey from euphoria at participating in the revolution to disillusionment as she watched the assault on Tiananmen Square in 1989. 

The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence

A good old-fashioned history book. Modern China, here, refers to the period from the 1600’s onward.

The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History, by Joanna Waley-Cohen

This is a fascinating look at the history of China’s interaction with the outside world over the centuries. Hint — it began much earlier and was more extensive than most people think. 

Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman

This is a fascinating look at the American involvement in China in the first half of the 20th century. 

For a great list of NOVELS set within Chinese history, check out this list by my friend Amy, over at The Messy Middle.

What are YOUR favorite Chinese history books?

Shanghai Books

It’s always a treat to spend time in Shanghai soaking up the history that emanates from the streets and buildings of this city. As is always the case, I find myself wanting to read every book I can get my hand on about Shanghai.

In case you’re interested in learning more about Shanghai, here are some books you can start with (with their Amazon descriptions):

 

 

The Distant Land of My Father: A Novel About Shanghai, by Bo Caldwell

Anna, the narrator of this riveting first novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre- World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe. Through Anna’s memories and her father’s journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.

Note: this is one of my all time favorite books.

Shanghai Girls: A Novel, by Lisa See

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Cheng Nian

Cheng’s widely acclaimed book recounts in compelling specifics her persecution and imprisonment at the hands of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976). Inquisitors accused her of being a “spy” and “imperialist,” but during the harrowing years of solitary confinement she never gave in, never confessed a lie. We read this, not so much for historical analysis, but, like the literature of the Gulag in Russia, for an example of a humane spirit telling terrible truths honestly, without bitterness or cynicism.

Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard

Jim is separated from his parents in a world at war. To survive, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him. Shanghai, 1941 — a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war…and the dawn of a blighted world.Ballard’s enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.

(This book was also made into a movie of the same name by Steven Spielberg)

What good books about Shanghai (then or now) would you add to this list? Leave your suggestions in a comment below.

Also….to read about our morning at the Mo En Christian Church in Shanghai, please see Amy’s post “I Knew You Were Crying!” she exclaimed. It pretty much says it all.