Between commuting to work (about 45 minutes each way on mass transit) and traveling (greetings from Orange County, CA!), I have been plowing through books at a prodigious rate these past few months. I often read two to four books a week, making repeated trips to the New York Public Library branch close to my office to exchange one volume for another. (For free! It’s all free!! Public libraries delight me. Support your local library, blog readers.)
A few recent favorites:
In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer – I’ve actually read Meyer’s beautifully written history-travelogue-memoir twice already—once as soon as my review copy arrived, and a second time before he visited the National Committee and I did this podcast interview with him (listening to it later made me realize how frequently I say, “I’m curious about …”). In Manchuria makes me wish I had spent more time … well, in Manchuria. It doesn’t sound like a wasteland at all! I took this as an opportunity to re-read Meyer’s first book, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, which is also a thoroughly researched yet deeply personal account of change in contemporary China. [Standard disclaimer: Meyer is a fellow in the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program, which I co-direct.]
Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China and On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu – If In Manchuria made me wish I’d traveled more, these two culinary memoirs made me wish I really knew how to cook. Jen Lin-Liu includes recipes for many of the dishes she describes in mouth-watering detail, but pretty much all of them looked way beyond my abilities. (Well, I could probably handle the cucumbers in vinegar: slice cucumbers, toss with chopped garlic, pour on vinegar, eat.) Serve the People recounts the story of how Asian American Lin-Liu moved to China, learned to cook, and opened a cooking school in Beijing; On the Noodle Road follows her on a journey from East to West as she attempts to discover the origins of noodles. I preferred Serve the People, mostly because I didn’t think the “Noodle Road” conceit worked especially well. It made me want a big bowl of pasta, though.
The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan – This is a Grade A escape-from-reality novel that’s partially based in reality—Cocks and Morgan imagine what life is like for an ordinary American college student who falls in love with the future king of England. I managed to get an electronic review copy and read all 400+ pages in a single day (and long night), then picked up my Kindle a week later and read the whole thing again. And then bought a hardcover copy when the authors did a book launch event in New York, so you know I really like this book. I’ve seen lots of fans on Twitter ask if there will be a sequel, and I’ll add my voice to those pleading for one.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – If The Royal We is escape-from-reality, An Untamed State is hyper-reality. Gay’s novel about a Haitian American woman kidnapped from the driveway of her parents’ house in Haiti is intense and raw and almost too much to read at several points. But it’s also absolutely impossible to stop reading, even when you want to look away. I think Gay is a very talented essayist (check out her collection, Bad Feminist); An Untamed State made me realize she’s also an extraordinary novelist. It’s rare to see someone so skilled in both genres.
Dragon Day by Lisa Brackmann – Brackmann’s third (and final) Ellie McEnroe mystery-thriller is another book I devoured in under 24 hours. (I also recommended it to a woman on the subway who saw the cover and asked me about it!) Dragon Day isn’t available yet—I received an advance copy—but that gives everyone time to read the first two books in the trilogy before it’s released in August. Sarcastic, angry, broken Ellie McEnroe is one of my favorite anti-heroines, and the China setting only increases my interest in her misadventures. I’m sorry to see the trilogy end, but Dragon Day is a very satisfying conclusion to the Ellie books.
The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by Huan Hsu – I borrowed The Porcelain Thief from the library after Susan Blumberg-Kason recommended it on her blog. Huan Hsu is a Chinese American journalist who moved to Shanghai to work at a relative’s company and investigate a missing cache of priceless porcelain that his great-great-grandfather buried before fleeing his home during the Sino-Japanese War. Hsu writes well about his struggles with being ethnically Chinese and culturally American in a country where people don’t quite know how to treat or place him.
By the time I was midway through The Porcelain Thief, though, I was suffering from a serious case of China book fatigue. I read a lot about China, and I obviously find China very interesting, but I need a break every now and then. So I’ve had Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts on hand for spare idle minutes during this California trip, and once I get home tomorrow my reading plans involve books on New York, Indonesia, and India. I haven’t finished the Outlander series yet, either—though I’ll probably save those books for a three-week trip to China I’ll be making in June.
So much to read, so little time!