Express Reviews 

Growing up in the former East Germany, a collection about the pleasures of tea, and more.

After the Wall
By Jana Hensel
Public Affairs, $24

A native of the former East Germany, Hensel was thirteen when the Berlin Wall fell; surprisingly (says the translator's endnote), this is "the first book to explore the trials and tribulations of a generation of East Germans that spent its childhood in the GDR and its adolescence and adulthood in the reunited Federal Republic." A best-seller in Germany, it's a memoir about growing up in a sort of no-person's-land, where familiar institutions, popular-culture benchmarks, and even psychological mindsets wilted away almost instantly. Its most absorbing parts detail Hensel's childhood experiences, so commonly mundane in the Eastern Bloc yet so exotic and even frightening to the West: bake sales in the school lobby to raise funds for Nelson Mandela and the Sandinistas, cutthroat competition to recycle newspapers (one of the few ways for young kids to earn money in the socialist economy), and getting scouted for Olympic athletic potential in the school gym. When Hensel reflects on her life as an adult, the book enters more complex yet, in a way, less satisfying territory. While it's clear that neither she nor most other people wish for a return to those days of earnestly dogmatic socialism, she finds the certainty and carefree materialism of her West German peers almost equally unsettling. Hensel looks back at those lost symbols of the GDR with an almost perverse nostalgia, lamenting the loss of a collective cultural memory: something those of us whose nations haven't ceased to exist take for granted. -- Richie Unterberger

The Disinherited
By Han Ong

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25

Roger Cacera, a "tired 44-year-old with his instincts for apology decimated, with no desire to be, or gift for being, forgiven," returns to the Philippines from America to bury his estranged father, a sugar tycoon, and confronts not only his family's "decrepit dynasty," but the messy, buried truth of his own bicultural identity. This industrial-sized can of worms contains complex feelings of filial responsibility, equal measures of contempt and pity for the islands and their people, and a sizable, unexpected, and unwanted inheritance. That's especially important because "in Manila, it was apparent that to attain freedom you had to have a shitload of money." Perhaps to reconcile the "long process of corruption" that has been his American life, Cacera decides to give the money away, and his stint as an accidental do-gooder does a fair share of harm. Here in his second novel, high-school dropout Ong maintains the skewering energy of his debut Fixer Chao, about a phony feng shui guru hustling moneyed Manhattanites. His attentive, unsentimental prose takes a paring knife to social stratification, but for all its methodical dissection, its drive to really get inside, The Disinherited is often peculiarly impenetrable. Ong's talent for observation is so keen and relentless that it becomes exhausting. He seems not quite to have internalized the discretion that comes from practicing the less-is-more rule: choking off the flood of detail in favor of the single, telling splash. -- Jonathan Kiefer

Passing Through
By Colin Channer
One World, $13.95

Jamaican-born Channer's collection of interlocking tales set in the Caribbean is dressed up like a high-priced hooker: classy and beautiful, but a whore nonetheless. The cover shows the backside charms of a tall brown exotic in a parrot-colored dress, and boasts of "titillating candor." But readers looking for highbrow smut will be disappointed to find the words "fuck" and "cock" missing their middle letters, and "pussy" rendered once as the "fatty pleats between her legs" and again as the spot where her "sexual juices were well fermented." Channer appears mainly interested in sex as a metaphor that can be stretched to cover life's political, religious, racial, and natural disasters. The best that can be said of the characters who occupy Channer's fictional island of San Carlos is that they survive. If they are not corrupt, they are weighed down with weaknesses that border on malice. In one story, a priest fathers two children doomed to second-class status in a nation with "bastard laws." In another, a young girl is banished from her home. After being raped, she tells her tormentor, "I will take this lesson to my grave. It has some wicked people in this world." Twice Channer invokes Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. Channer isn't up to that level of tragically flawed heroism, but there is more to his writing than his handlers would have you believe. -- Matt King

Steeped in the World of Tea
Edited by Sharon Bard, Birgit Nielsen, and Clara Rosemarda
Interlink, $20

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