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Notable Books | Four books about China reviewed by Susan Olasky

Beijing Coma

This angry, dense novel begins and ends with Da Wei, a university student shot in the head during the Tiananmin Square massacre, about to awake from a 10-year coma. Although he's called a vegetable, he's aware of scents, voices, and visitors: They trigger vivid, often earthy and sometimes sexual memories from his childhood and days at -university, especially the period leading up to the 1989 crackdown.

Writer Ma Jian portrays a China with amnesia toward its brutal recent past. Everyone is out to get rich, but Da Wei's memories keep alive the harsh episodes: infants murdered to satisfy the one-child -policy, forced cannibalism against enemies of the state during the cultural revolution, students crushed by tanks.

The Bitter Sea

Charles Li's father collaborated with the Japanese during WWII and ended up in prison as a traitor after the war. Li's fortunes shifted with his father's. In this memoir he traces their rocky relationship, which eventually ends in reconciliation. He writes colorfully of life in a Nanjing slum and in Shanghai with his Christian aunt (his mother was also a Christian).

Li writes most vividly of returning to the mainland during Mao's Great Leap Forward and attending a school for returning Chinese. As students studied for university exams, they were subjected to harsh living conditions, starvation rations, and propaganda. Li finds humor in dark places: Mao campaigned to exterminate both sparrows and flies.

The Last Chinese Chef

Nicole Mones' novel, both a love story and an exploration of Chinese culture through food, offers a lighter look at recent Chinese history. A widowed American food writer goes to China to see whether her husband has fathered a child out of wedlock there. She also intends to write a profile of a Chinese-Jewish-American chef, one of 10 chefs competing as part of the Beijing Cultural Olympics.

The love story is predictable, but Mones' knowledge of Chinese cooking, history, art, and poetry are all on display in this novel. Mones' China is a happier place than Ma Jian's. She alludes to some modern troubles, but her novel celebrates the reinvigoration of traditional culture, repressed during the Cultural Revolution.

The Little Girl

In a self-published picture book, Wong affirms the value of Chinese baby girls. A carpenter hears a baby crying as he rides his bicycle to work. He finds an abandoned baby girl and takes her to work, and from then on becomes her father.

The book shows ordinary events in the life of father and daughter: cooking together, learning to ride a bike, storytelling. Eventually the daughter marries and has a daughter, enlarging both the life of this otherwise lonely carpenter and the daughter he rescued. Peaceful watercolor illustrations accompany the quiet story, which is framed by two images of Christ cradling in his arms the daughter, first as a baby and then as a woman (available at


How to Read Novels Like a Professor (Harper, 2008) is a wonderful book for those desiring a good-humored, nonthreatening guide to reading more intelligently. Those who slept during English Lit classes or suffered under teachers who sucked the joy from required texts will learn a lot from this book by Thomas Foster, a professor at Michigan State. He explains the choices writers make about voice, structure, and plot, without ever making his readers feel stupid for not already knowing it.

Foster also points out to would-be writers what they often leave out: detailed physical descriptions of the characters. Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer covers similar topics, but Foster's book is more accessible: It would be helpful to reading groups that want to go beyond a surface discussion of the novels they read. Although readers might not agree with Foster about the value of certain novels, he is a knowledgeable guide to the magic tricks hidden up every good writer's sleeve.


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