Together with her unloved husband, the author of Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life goes to China, undercover, to proselyte for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an organization that is banned by the Chinese government. There, she finds herself with a job as an unlikely podcast host, new friends, and an illicit correspondence with a Californian man that make her question her faith, and drag her away from it, and her family and old friends, who must shun her. I found her descriptions of living in Shanghai as a foreigner are delightful and her earnest description of losing her faith is arresting, although she could have excised the long exchanges with her Californian penpal.
The Emperor of Shoes is a young American who is poised to inherit a shoe factory from his father, but wants to change the direction of the company from safe and staid white labels to a new line. At the same time, he is in love with one of the workers who is organizing the workers to demand safer work conditions and better pay. Obvious contradictions need to be resolved, and cultural misunderstandings abound. It’s a debut novel, and a promising one.
On Sunset is a delightful memoir of the author’s childhood, being raised by her grandparents as her unmarried mother lived nearby and seemed responsible enough, but not, apparently, to raise a child. Her grandparents had unusual lives. Her grandmother, born in an Iranian Jewish family, grew up in Shanghai there her father was a wealthy merchant. Her grandfather grew up poor in England but spent time working in Alaska before marrying late in life. She tells of growing up in a mansion, the furniture of which gets sold off to pay for necessities, while proper manners and decorum are observed at all times. I loved the description of her relationship to her grandfather, who is kind and wise and generous, as perhaps only someone who grows up poor can be.
The author of Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve is an American-born mom whose travels take her family to China, and whose two boys attend Chinese public elementary schools (the boy of the title is the older one; the story stops when the younger one enters kindergarten). She takes us mostly through his experience, and his parents’, although she adds other stories of independent reporting she did while living in China. The best parts of the book, by far, are the ones that tell of her personal experience, as she humorously tells of her surprise, even horror, at some of the coercive behavior modification techniques used with very young children — while she freely marvels at their academic successes. She also tells of bribing teachers with expensive American handbags, and the routine requirement for parents to practice at home with students who are not performing at the level expected by teachers. And there’s a good arc to the story, moving from astonishment to respect.
The Leavers tells the interleaved stories of a Chinese-American boy who is apparently abandoned by this mother, then adopted by a white couple, and of his mother, who was brutally deported in a raid of the beauty salon where she worked, undocumented.
Parts of the story are wonderful, capturing everyday moments in the boy’s life as he struggles in school, devours junk food with his cousin, or spies on his adoptive parents, and showing his distress as he is brutally yanked from one world to another. But some parts, especially dialog, seem lifted from a cheap self-help book — and the overall logic of the story is somewhat flawed. If you can get past the stilted bits, it’s an interesting look at both adoption and immigration.
Something to Hide is an utterly unpretentious and fun story of four women whose fates are shown to intertwine after many twists and many secrets (most from one woman to the other). I was concerned at first that the four far-flung locations would be exploited with heavy descriptions of travel and local attractions, but they end up fitting completely into the story and giving it the mysteries it needs. Yes, it’s a madcap pace but the emotions of the women are real and well-rendered.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing sets out to tell the story of two intertwined families through the eyes of the youngest daughter, leaving safely in Vancouver while the rest of the protagonists suffer various hardships in 20th century China, including the Cultural Revolution (particularly dangerous for devotees of classical music) and the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Booker Prize committee loved it; I found it tedious and overly heavy with history. Sure, there are lots of clever observations, including the ongoing theme of sending secret messages through hand-copied books, but I would have liked more personal stories and fewer political ones, since they are abundantly told elsewhere.