Hard to believe this sold as many copies as it did. The veil over this novel, that belongs on the mass market Romance shelf with other books sporting steamy cover art of bursting bodices and swarthy heartthrobs, is as thin as a transparent silk scarf. Set in Ming dynasty China a young female courtesan arranged to be married falls in love with the poetry-spouting, artistic, dark, brooding, hunk of a guy from a neighboring estate. Did I mention his hot breath on her ear smells of Jasmine and rose petals? Wait for it. Lisa See isn’t going to let them touch just yet. The ancient Chinese veneer is just a tool to keep Little Peony locked away from men where she has nothing to sustain her but an evil mother, step mother, wicked witch, whatever, and her secret scrolls of loveplays. Blah, blah, blah.
Fresh out of college in the mid 1960s, just before he became famous as one of the great travel writers of a generation, Paul Theroux worked as a Peace Corps volunteer and then teacher in East Africa. Forty years later, nearing the age of 60, wiser, crankier, and more critical Theroux returned to Africa to travel by land from Cairo to Cape Town. He recounts a series of countries worse off politically, environmentally, socially, and economically than they were when he worked there. He makes no bones about the fact that fault lies with aid agencies that have created an industry of fostering dependence and Africans unwilling to help themselves. Missionaries, too, receive a hammering for their self-righteous self-assuredness and their adding a level of misery to hardened lives by calling so many Africans sinners to their faces. While I don’t agree with all of his assessments — his level of political acumen seems shallow — his willingness to call it as he sees it and the unflinching accuracy with which he brings us to Africa make this book a must read.