Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union. Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin. She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism. Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition. The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive. Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support. Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night. The final picture is masterful, with one caveat. Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction. That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.
Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of elite North Koreans enrolled at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an evangelical college in the world’s most secretive nation. Kim is neither a teacher nor a practicing Christian and yet maintained her cover despite being entrapped on the campus — there is no free travel in North Korea — and watched round the clock by North Korean minders. What strikes Kim as most frightening is the total dependence of North Koreans on their Dear Leader who provides for jobs, food, beliefs about their past, their relations to others, and their future. Free will has been utterly squashed. Until she attends a Sunday morning prayer session with the Christians who run PUST and recognizes that entreaties of administrators and missionaries are virtually the same as what is broadcast on North Korean television. She needs only to exchange the names of Kim Jong Il and Jesus. She laments the inability of her college students to access the Internet, convinced that if only they could understand how much knowledge there is in the world each one of them would be free. She wrote the book just two years before American Evangelicals, Fake News and post-truth politics cherry-picked from the Internet by his supporters led to the election of Donald Trump.
In so many ways Tree of Smoke is easier to describe for what it really is not. The setting is Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the Philippines, in the 1960s, but it is not a war novel. The protagonist, Skip Sands, works for the CIA, but neither is Tree of Smoke a spy story. Rather Johnson’s award winning novel is a detailed chronicle of a number of lives over the course of the 1960s told with page-turning drive and riveting attention to detail. Every baguette served in Saigon tastes a little different from the last. The temperature of the tea is hot on your tongue. The swampy humidity makes your clothes stick to you and each character’s choices in life seem preordained. A pair of down-and-out brothers from Arizona go off to fight in Vietnam and after being discharged continue to fight enemies within and without. A Canadian missionary heals orphans when no one else will because her bible leaves her no alternative. The Colonel is larger than life and for a time bigger than the army until he isn’t. . Uncertainty, like much of life, pervades. America’s role in Southeast Asia is a perfect metaphor.
China, despite its rocket launch into modernity, is still a country of five thousand years of history. As Americans, a people that at best can only recall a couple of centuries, and let’s face it, have largely been a people focused on the future rather than the past, bearing that much history is hard for us to fathom. The Incarnations injects life into China’s past by introducing us to a Beijing cab driver who carries within him the reincarnated lives of earlier Chinese who have survived imperial eunuchs, sadistic monarchs, invading Mongols, and Mao’s Red Guard. Barker’s story-telling is creative, deeply researched, and luminous. She will make you think about the limitations imposed upon the bonds of love and friendship as they are tested over a millennium.
The fifth in the series for Royal Thai Police Detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The crime this time takes place on the exclusively wealthy hilltop above Bangkok of the title’s name, Vulture Peak, where three bodies are discovered missing their salable organs. While the crime is being unraveled we learn about the global trade in kidneys, livers, corneas, and so forth, some of it legal, and much of it less so apparently driven by the amount of money people with failing organs are willing to pay for replacement parts. Unfortunately, the criminals in this book, a pair of psychopathic Hong Kong twins, a faceless (really, faceless) rapist, and a bipolar Hong Kong cop chasing them all are so over the top they strain credulity. Burdett is also trying to say something about the difference between Thai prostitutes that sell their whole bodies, but do so fully aware of the business they are in, and the poor and beleaguered of the world who sell parts of their bodies for cash out of true desperation.
Pieced together from Osnos’s eight years of reports on China filed with the New Yorker, Age of Ambition comes together as a complete painting of modern China’s rocky transition to modernity. Half a billion people have moved to China’s cities in pursuit of capitalism’s greatest prize: wealth. The Chinese government is gambling that the delivery of free enterprise can be exchanged for political stability and to ensure the trade goes well the Communist party forbids freedom of speech and the freedom to organize in protest on anything larger than a municipal level. Osnos focuses on the problems: jailed artists, tortured civil rights leaders, a rising desire for a moral compass, and unrelenting press censorship implying that beneath China’s meteoric economic ascent lies deep instability. It is hard to know to what extent Osnos has selected stories of the elite and overlooked an even deeper satisfaction among a generation of Chinese liberated from the threat of starvation and really quite happy to forego some freedom in order to have enough money for McDonald’s and the Internet, even if key websites are blocked. Some of the key interviewees argue rather persuasively that because nothing published in China’s media is reliable, and everyone knows that, Chinese people are much more skeptical consumers of news than Americans who all to readily believe that drinking Coke can make you happy, driving a new car can make you sexy, and whatever their politicians say must be true.
This is Hessler’s third book on China. He speaks the language, has lived in-country for more than 10 years, writes regular reports for The New Yorker and National Geographic, and has made it his job to immerse himself in the heart of China’s transition from peasantry to global economic powerhouse. Country Driving contains three scenes: the depopulating countryside, economic transition in a small towns near Beijing, and the explosive growth of a newly constructed factory town. Hessler’s insight is exceptional, but the book feels somehow impersonal, despite being full of stories of real people. It veers towards textbook, never a good thing, but is worth it for its depth, breadth, and timeliness.
It’s a travel book, most fun because Troost has a keen eye, a sharp tongue, precise wit, and he is no sissy when it comes to difficult journeys (See Getting Stoned With Savages.) So it is especially appealing in a literary sense to see through his eyes how much there is to not like about China: First, the pollution; second, the overwhelming crowds; third Chinese disdain for foreigners; fourth, their preoccupation with international recognition. The book lingers a little too long, and his inability to speak Chinese is a barrier. Nevertheless, I take away an insight (and laughed aloud on more than one occasion) I have not been able to find anywhere else. January 2010.
A seriously mediocre suspense story about a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, young Mi-6 Agent doing secret agent stuff for God and Country in the waning days before Hong Kong is returned to China. Joe Lennox, his heart-of-gold broken by the only woman he could ever love returns to China just before the 2008 Olympics to try to prevent a terrorist bombing organized by Uigher separatists under CIA sponsorship. The plot is more credible than the main characters. March 2009
Listened to on tape, December 2004. It was a good story, but had two strikes against it. The author is Chinese. The book was written in French. The reader was Chinese. The reader wasn’t very good and neither was the translation. Unusual adjectives showed up frequently because the translator didn’t know how to take the appropriate liberties with language. The story is of two friends banished from their educated city life to the mountains of rural China during the cultural revolution. There they meet unusual characters, a beautiful mountain girl, and the rigidity of Maoist constrictions against books and the arts in favor of manual labor required to “re-educate” intellectuals in the mold of peasant laborers.