Our take on this month's best-sellers at East Bay independent bookstores, including Analog Books, Bay Books, Black Oak, Cody's, Diesel, and Pegasus.
China looms. Growing by leaps and bounds, the world's next superpower is the unknown ingredient that will redefine world politics for the next century and beyond. East Bay readers are starting to take notice. Peter Hessler's earlier book River Town was a meditative, deep memoir about his time as an English teacher in an obscure, now-submerged small Chinese town. Trying to not only repeat that success but expand on it with his latest, Oracle Bones (Harper, $15.95), Hessler not only bites off more than he can chew, he bites off more than a billion people can chew. In his attempt to summarize an entire country that defies abbreviation, he follows hither and yon a kaleidoscopic coalition of modern and historical characters, hoping that, considered as a group, this series of disparate snapshots will create a vivid flipbook of the Chinese soul. A Shenzhen factory girl, an Uighur crook, a humiliated scholar, half-witted rioters, a beautiful starlet each in and of itself is a fascinating real-life vignette, but they just can't meet Hessler's overly ambitious goal of grokking the Middle Kingdom. Even so, many readers might very well learn more about the complexity of China through Oracle Bones' weaknesses than from any number of dry academic analyses. Going where no scholar before her has dared to go either physically or intellectually BBC documentarian Sun Shuyun traveled to the deepest reaches of inner China to interview the last surviving members of the Long March, which she describes as the "founding myth" of modern China. The Long March was the most successful defeat in military history, the exact opposite of a pyrrhic victory. In 1934, the Communist Chinese army, still locked in a struggle against the Nationalists for control of the country, were surrounded and on the verge of being completely wiped out by Chiang Kai-shek; in what might euphemistically be called a "strategic redeployment" (better known as a "desperate flight from the battlefield"), two hundred thousand ragtag communists fled into the mountains and kept going for eight thousand miles. Over the course of this "long march," the commander Mao Zedong grew into a ruthless dictator who became the supreme ideological and military leader of the party. The Long March has been glamorized ever since as the beginning of the mass movement that eventually led to the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Now along comes Sun, whose masterpiece The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth (Doubleday, $26) retraces the journey and uncovers the truth: Most of the mythology surrounding the Long March was (and is) pure propaganda. Desertions en masse; unbridled cruelty and sadism; desperation, starvation, doubts, betrayals, blunders, and yes, occasionally, blind luck. Maophiles are likely to hate this book as much as they did last year's Mao: The Unknown Story. Unfortunately for them, Shuyun's research is impeccable.
You'd need nerves of steel to be pro-globalization these days, but Robyn Meredith in her well-researched and brutally realistic The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us (Norton, $25.95) is up to the challenge, not only singing paeans to the globalized economy but even being pro-outsourcing and pro-industrialization, risking the wrath of both the protectionist right and the anticapitalist left. Both China and India are hurtling toward modernization and there's not a darn thing anyone can do about it, Meredith claims. China's economic might will surpass ours within a few years, and India's seemingly inexhaustible supply of brainpower requires a total rethinking of American society. Globalization is the new world order, so we might as well lie back and enjoy it. Meredith is right, of course, but does she have to rub our noses in it? Her recommendation: America should revitalize its education system, rebuild its aging infrastructure, and invest in research. Piece of cake!
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What the Fork - January 17, 1:52 PM
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What the Fork - January 3, 2:06 PM