Friday, November 23, 2007

Chinese food

We are on the home stretch! Since I finished my assigned books (On the Road and the Konigsberg title), I've been trying to get to some titles where others voted "maybe" (i.e., maybe this should be nominated, but I'd like another's opinion) just before our nomination deadline of December 1. So, I finished Revolution is Not a Dinner Party last weekend; I've currently got a fave series in the CD player now (The Ranger's Apprentice Book 3), and I should be able to squeak in Peak to wrap up.

I thought Revolution is Not a Dinner Party would make a nice companion to Mao's Last Dancer. They take place during the same time period, and feature two young people who share Chinese heritage, but little else. Revolution is fiction, but based on the author's own experiences. Ling Chang is the daughter of two doctors (one Western-trained, one Chinese) living in Wuhan on the Yangtze River (I think I passed through Wuhan on my cruise this summer) in the early 1970s. The Cultural Revolution has been underway for a few years, but hasn't reached her family until now. She and her father study English together and listen to the Voice of America. A picture of the Golden Gate Bridge has a prominent place in their home.

Ling is nine years old when a party functionary moves into her family's apartment, and her life changes forever. Soon, her upstairs neighbors are taken away for re-education, and their son is forced to "draw a class line" between himself and his parents. Ling's father is jailed for Western sympathies, although the party members and Red Guards still want him to perform any medical procedures, rather than the "barefoot doctors" who now staff the hospital. At school, Ling is forced to spend her afternoons in political education, where the classroom is taken over by her peers -- those peers who have drawn the class line between themselves and their parents.

This is a good story; like Mao's Last Dancer, it is authentically focused on young people who have experienced historical events. Those events were effortlessly made personal, which makes for great history lessons. However, over the course of the novel, Ling seemed to attain superhero status: She survived the Cultural Revolution with her standards intact -- never understanding why another child might cave to the political pressure, and becoming both physically and emotionally stronger than her mother. All at the tender age of 13. By the end, it felt a little self-aggrandizing.

The reader made some odd choices: Ling (who narrated) and her father spoke with no accent at all. Some of the other characters, most notably Ling's mother, were voiced in Chinese-accented English. And some were not. There didn't seem to be any reason to make that choice (for example, could the accented speakers have all come from the country, or not been educated), and it was distinctly noticeable (both I and the other committee member who listened noted -- and noted our dislike -- this choice). At the same time, I very much enjoyed her interpretation of Ling -- impetuous, spoiled, smart, triumphant. In the end, I remained as divided as my colleague. Fortunately, Selected Audiobooks considers titles from two years, which means that the committee may still be considering this title for its 2009 list.

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