Alden Mudge

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In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson once again deploys his customary humorous, off-center storytelling to artfully delve into deeper matters. Where his previous bestsellers The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here focused directly on weird family dynamics, his latest novel explores issues of adolescent angst, art and even societal madness.

The story is set in the out-of-the-way town of Coalfield, Tennessee, in the blazing hot summer of 1996. Frances Eleanor Budge, “Frankie” as her single mother and triplet older brothers call her, is the teller of this tale. At the beginning of the novel, she is an alienated 16-year-old and aspiring writer. She avidly reads “badass women southern writers” like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, but in the summer of ’96, Frankie aspires to write a darker version of a Nancy Drew mystery novel—emblematic of the childhood-adult divide she is about to cross.

During a hot day at the town pool, Frankie meets Zeke, another teenage outsider and a talented graphic artist. Zeke’s wealthy parents have sent him to live with his grandmother while they work out their divorce back in Memphis. Frankie and Zeke become inseparable, tentatively exploring a relationship and more assertively collaborating on nerdy artistic projects. 

One project involves a starkly illustrated poster that contains the mysteriously evocative message “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Swearing eternal secrecy about their prank, Frankie and Zeke staple copies of the poster everywhere. The impact is explosive. Fanned by rumors and paranoia, it creates a national stir, resulting in what will later be called the Coalfield Panic of 1996.

For Frankie, the experience is both scary and liberating. She is proud of her work and upset when outsiders claim authorship of her words. Zeke, however, is troubled by the unexpected community response, and he is relieved when others claim the poster as their own. Alarmed by events, Zeke’s parents whisk him away, and for more than two decades, Zeke and Frankie have no contact. Their eventual reunion speaks forcefully about the qualities of loyalty and friendship.

In the end, Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.

Kevin Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.
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In 1778, when future U.S. president John Adams arrived in Paris to solicit aid for America’s revolutionary cause, most Frenchmen were disappointed that they wouldn’t be meeting with John’s older cousin Samuel, the renowned theorist and provocateur of American revolution. In spite of this past fame, the man some have called the most essential Founding Father is now more closely associated with a Boston beer than American independence.

In her terrific new biography, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff (The Witches, Cleopatra) presents readers with a vivid sense of this complicated man and how, using “sideways, looping, secretive” tactics, Samuel Adams steered Massachusetts and the vastly divided colonies toward asserting their rights and separating from Britain.

Adams was born in September 1722, a privileged son of a prosperous malt maker (hence his association with the contemporary beer). However, he ran the family business into the ground and spent most of his life in penury. “Alone among America’s founders,” Schiff writes, “his is a riches-to-rags story.” But what he lacked in monetary wealth, he made up for in intellectual and moral capital.

Adams was shaped by his abstemious Puritan background; unlike his boastful, self-promoting colleague John Hancock, Adams’ signature on the Declaration of Independence was self-effacingly small. But the impact of his eloquent arguments for American rights was huge, galvanizing the citizenry and causing some British officials to call for him to be hanged for treason. The British troops who sallied forth toward Lexington and Concord in April 1775 were likely seeking not just hidden stores of weapons but Adams himself. He was considered such a lightning rod that many who later gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress mistrusted him. For the sake of unity, he took a tactical back seat during the deliberations, allowing others their moments of glory. This may be one reason his essential contributions to the cause have been minimized or forgotten over the years.

Schiff’s biography focuses on the 1760s and 1770s, the period when Adams’ revolutionary activity was unparalleled. Her dense early chapters especially require a reader’s undivided attention, since she tells the history prospectively rather than retrospectively. We read through a confusing, riotous moment of conflict, for example, that we later realize is what we would now call the Boston Tea Party. The effect is electrifying, and Schiff writes with keen insight and wit throughout. By the end of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, attentive readers will vibrate with questions about the parallels between Adams’ political era and our own.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff vividly renders the man some have called the most essential Founding Father: Samuel Adams.
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For those of a contemplative mind, Stacey D’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities is full of lingering questions. What’s with the whale, you might ask yourself. Or, who else besides the narrator, Suzanne Flaherty, is complicit here? What does it even mean to be complicit? And if you are complicit and everything basically falls apart, what kind of restitution is needed or possible?

The story begins with Suzanne arriving in Chesham, Massachusetts, a lower-middle-class beach town on Cape Cod, not too long after her divorce. Her former husband, Alan, has been imprisoned after committing large-scale financial crimes. Despite the apparent similarities, Suzanne should not be compared to the wife of Bernie Madoff; this is a quieter, more inward tale. 

Rejected by her college-age son, who feels that she’s abandoned the family, Suzanne takes an online class in massage, frames the program’s certificate on the wall of her drab apartment, starts seeing clients and feels a genuine power and sensitivity flowing through her hands. When a rare right whale beaches itself nearby, Suzanne gets deeply involved with its rescue. This is not Captain Ahab’s white whale, but the novel’s three sections refer to it provocatively: “The Whale’s Breath,” “Whalefall” and “The Whale’s Bones.”

D’Erasmo is admirably skillful in moving the story backward and forward through time. For a while, Suzanne is in contact with the other two important women in Alan’s life. Lydia, an artist and paralegal who, a decade earlier, survived a car crash and still has burn scars on half her face, becomes Alan’s second wife after he is paroled early. Alan calls her “the girl with hell in her eyes.” Sylvia, Alan’s mother, surrendered her legal rights to him when he was a child. Now she’s a Walmart employee with a mathematical gift for gambling. She imagines finding Alan, but does little to do so.

All of these intriguing and sharply drawn characters fudge little bits of their past. Is that important? Should we believe Alan has reformed, or is his new venture in housing development just another scam? Does a little white lie matter? Is this, as Suzanne says at one point, “the way damage moves, the way it seeps and wanders”?

D’Erasmo’s descriptions are vivid. Her similes and metaphors are often explosive. Of the beached right whale, Suzanne thinks, “The leviathan looked like another sun, fallen to earth on the broad, flat beach.” And as Sylvia enjoys the presence of a very quiet man, she thinks, “If talk were rain, he was like a cactus.”

Full of small mysteries that deserve lengthy discussions with well-read friends, The Complicities is a superb book club selection.

Full of small mysteries that deserve lengthy discussions with well-read friends, The Complicities is a superb book club selection.
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Stay True is a memoir born of trauma. In the summer of 1998, Hua Hsu’s friend and classmate Ken Ishida was murdered in a carjacking just before the start of their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley. However, this is not an account of that event. Instead, Stay True examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by death.

Hua Hsu shares how he tried to capture the aura of the 1990s, AOL and all.

In the immediate aftermath of Ken’s death, Hsu obsessively collected the detritus of their friendship—a cigarette pack, receipts, paper napkin jottings—and stuffed them in a padded envelope that he’s carried with him for years. Since then, Hsu has gone to Harvard, become a professor (first at Vassar College, and now at Bard College), started a family and taken on a parallel career as a staff writer for The New Yorker. In all that time, he’s struggled to find and express the essence of his friendship with Ken. How close were they really? What did their friendship mean? In Stay True, he seeks to recapture the look and feel of the moments they spent together smoking cigarettes on a dorm balcony, talking about girls and sexual inexperience. Moments in the car on a food run in Berkeley. Moments together planning projects inspired by the movie The Last Dragon.

Although Hsu was older than Ken, Ken feels like the older brother here. Ken was Japanese American, and his family has lived in California for generations, long enough that his grandparents were imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II. Hsu, on the other hand, is a first-generation American, the beloved son of recent immigrants from Taiwan. Ken had a conventional style, and plenty of self-confidence. Hsu sought to distinguish himself with his assertive taste in music and his offbeat clothing choices, and he had little of Ken’s social and cultural comfort. In moments like these, Stay True becomes a remarkable examination of the experience of immigration and assimilation.

But overall, Stay True is a questing exploration of the elusive nature of friendship as it shifts and reshapes with the passage of time.

Hua Hsu’s remarkable memoir examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by untimely death.
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For 24 years, Hua Hsu has been carrying around a padded envelope stuffed with memorabilia. Things like “a pack of Export A’s with two cigarettes left,” a funeral program, letters, cassette tapes, receipts, punchlines written on napkins, a paperback copy of Edward Carr’s What Is History? Hsu hastily gathered all of these things and more in the aftermath of the murder of his friend Ken, who was killed in a carjacking in 1998, the summer before their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’m an archivist at heart,” Hsu says during a call to his home in Brooklyn, New York. When his friend was killed, Hsu says he “just began writing everything down.” His obsessive cataloging even led his college friends to choose him to deliver the eulogy at Ken’s funeral. Hsu has continued poring over his gathered notes and memorabilia ever since, trying to find a way “to capture certain feelings since those days.” But until recently, he says, “it didn’t seem to have any possibility of becoming a narrative.”

Read our starred review of ‘Stay True’ by Hua Hsu.

As he describes in his richly probing memoir, Stay True, Hsu grew up in Cupertino, California, the only child of parents who came to the U.S. in the 1960s for college and to escape a repressive regime in Taiwan. He was an often solitary child who found expression through and distinguished himself with his avid love of music, which he wrote about in vibrant personal zines. At Berkeley, he curated mixtapes for every occasion, like trips in his Volvo with Ken and others to pick up friends from the airport or even just for local food runs. Outside of curating the aesthetics of his personal identity, Hsu spent those years tutoring inmates at San Quentin State Prison, volunteering as a mentor for youths in neighboring Richmond, California, and participating in the growing Asian American-led political movements of the 1990s.

Hsu says he hopes Stay True captures the feeling of that moment. “I want the book to sound like what life was like then. It’s hard to describe to someone who didn’t experience America Online what boredom felt like at the time, or what the pace of life is like if you’re in college pre-internet, or just what it felt like to be at Berkeley. . . . I didn’t want it to be purely nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like you’re just hanging out in this other time.”

“I didn’t want it to be purely nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like you’re just hanging out in this other time.”

Within these descriptions of pre-Y2K Northern California, Ken often seems elusive. Hsu quotes his therapist and another friend who asked him how close he really was to Ken, and foregrounding that question was deliberate, Hsu says. “When you’re young, you’re just living day to day. Then if there’s some kind of fracture or trauma, you’re forced to step out of your context and examine what’s meaningful to you. There’s a way I took this friendship for granted. When I was writing in my journal, I was always returning to how to describe [Ken]: his voice, his laugh, his skin. You’d never have occasion to do something like that if he were still alive. The question of closeness only becomes visible when it’s no longer there.”

Stay True by Hua Hsu

Hsu, who arrived at Berkeley with alternative rock sensibilities and a deliberately oddball style of dress, did not immediately like Ken, a handsome, conventionally dressed, self-assured fraternity member. Ken was a Japanese American whose grandparents had been incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II, but compared to Hsu, Ken had thoroughly assimilated, down to the Abercrombie wardrobe. In this way, Ken seemed to represent to Hsu a different life path—one he was initially skeptical about. “He was comfortable in his own skin,” Hsu says. “He was confident. . . . It started off as something I would just dismiss, and then it became intriguing.”

One of Stay True‘s many fascinating qualities is its examination of the differing ways Asian Americans embrace and reject American culture. In particular, Hsu writes lovingly of his parents’ experiences as new immigrants. At one point, Hsu’s father was able to return to Taiwan to work as a well-paid professional. This being the pre-internet age, he communicated with his son via fax machine while he was in Taiwan, and the fatherly love expressed in those faxes is remarkable. At another point, Hsu describes his mother, no longer among the newest immigrants to her San Jose suburb, almost comically deriding the rudeness of more recent Chinese immigrants to burgeoning Silicon Valley.

“The question of closeness only becomes visible when it’s no longer there.”

But Stay True‘s focus remains on a friendship: its qualities, its vagaries, its lingering questions and impacts, frozen and spotlighted by its traumatic end. After Berkeley, Hsu went on to Harvard, where he continued to obsess over his late friend while feeling “marooned” on the East Coast. These days, he says he “doesn’t feel entirely at home anywhere,” but he’s at least acclimated to the East Coast. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and until recently, he was an associate professor of English and director of American Studies at Vassar College. In 2022, he became a professor of literature at Bard College, teaching writing and Asian literature. He and his wife have a 7-year-old son. Marital strife, he jokes, centers on alternate street parking and who will fulfill the work quota at the food co-op.

So much has changed in the last 24 years—but creating this book after so much time and deliberation has not brought Hsu catharsis or closure, he says. “That feels too climactic. But it has given me a lot of peace.”

Headshot of Hua Hsu by Devlin Claro

Ever since his friend was murdered in 1998, Hua Hsu has been searching for a way to capture the feeling of their time together.
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For 25 years, beginning with her National Book Award-winning story collection, Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett has devoted vast amounts of her creative energy to vividly imagining several generations of a family and their friends living in central New York. In Natural History, the publisher tells us, Barrett “completes and connects the lives of the family of scientists, teachers and innovators she has been weaving throughout her books.”

First, let’s hope that this isn’t truly our final opportunity to spend time with Barrett’s characters. Long may they prosper! Many of them are female naturalists leading deeply compelling lives in provincial places, corresponding fruitfully with each other and with renowned scientists. They’re not simply unmarried teachers or traveling lecturers concerned with the science lab and the beauty of nature. They’re also devoted family members, lonely visionaries and rivals for the attention and approval of others. Their relationships, professional and emotional, are the understory to the science that seems to so fascinate Barrett.

Second, you need not have read earlier stories to be informed and dazzled by Natural History. (I have read less than half of Barrett’s books and still found myself astounded.) While the larger narrative of Barrett’s collected works has not emerged chronologically but instead episodically, this collection of six stories does contain a basic chronology, following schoolteacher and citizen-scientist Henrietta Atkins (born in 1852) into the early 20th century. A helpful family tree at the end of the book illustrates the range and complexity of family relations as well as the ties “beyond blood or marriage” that link characters.

Third, Barrett is sometimes described as a historical fiction writer. There’s truth in that. Many of these stories are set in the 19th century and offer rich sensory glimpses of small-town American life of that era. At the same time, Barrett has a more modern view of the winnowing processes of history. In one of the collection’s best stories, “The Regimental History,” Henrietta is a bright child serving in the home of a prominent local family, and she reads horrific and confusing first-person accounts of Civil War battles from two brothers in the family. Later, an older Henrietta, now a teacher, helps one brother attempt to clarify and defend his unit’s sullied reputation by contributing to the regimental history. And later still, an even older Henrietta visits a historian who possesses all the soldiers’ testimonials and will now refine and generalize and make everything clear.

Or maybe not. In Natural History, Barrett demonstrates that while history organizes and distills events, fiction brings messy humanity gloriously to life.

Andrea Barrett has devoted vast amounts of her creative energy to vividly imagining generations of a family and their friends living in central New York, but you need not have read her earlier stories to be informed and dazzled by Natural History.
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In Africa Is Not a Country: Notes on a Bright Continent, Dipo Faloyin contends with an issue he summarizes this way: “For too long, ‘Africa’ has been treated as a buzzword for poverty, strife, corruption, civil wars, and large expanses of arid red soil where nothing but misery grows. Or it is presented as one big safari park.”

Faloyin, a Nigerian currently living in London and writing for Vice, is a smart, often scathingly funny writer. In a chapter on Hollywood movies about Africa, he offers a brilliant sendup of the persistent stereotypes needed for a film to seem “realistic”: open savannahs where lions roam, rather than cities like Lagos, Nigeria, with its 24 million residents, “loud and plagued by joy.”

In another chapter, Faloyin mocks “white saviour imagery” such as crying superstars pleading for donations while holding Black children with flies in their eyes. Yes, the impulse is kind and worthy, Faloyin acknowledges. But the assumptions carried by these well-meaning “White Men In Khakis,” out to save a failed continent, are demeaning.

Where did these assumptions come from? One point of origin was an 1885 conference in Berlin where European and Northern American powers met to divvy up the wealth and resources of Africa without resorting to war among themselves. At the time, 80% of Africa was independent and self-governing. Yet these great powers drew new borders around their areas of interest on a large map, ignoring the religious, ethnic and cultural differences of the locals. No African governments were invited, of course. The American representative wondered aloud if what they were doing was illegal and unethical, which it was, but that was ignored. And in short order, beginning with horrendous brutality in the Belgian Congo, colonization began.

While much of the history of Western involvement in Africa is sordid and depressing, Africa Is Not a Country is not. It brims with the sort of outrage that speaks of hope, of change. Faloyin points to the younger generation of Africans: educated, business-savvy, united by Afrobeat and Nollywood, moving toward a leaderless revolution. In a late chapter, Faloyin writes about the friendly competition among African nations about who has the best Jollof rice, “a proxy for national identity and regional status” and, through enslaved Africans, the basis for America’s Southern cooking. Throughout, the continent of Africa—home to 1.4 billion people in 54 countries where more than 2,000 languages are spoken—comes alive as a diverse, creative and complicated place.

While much of the history of Western involvement in Africa is sordid and depressing, Africa Is Not a Country is not. It brims with the sort of outrage that speaks of hope, of change.
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Linda Villarosa grew up in a high-achieving Black family in a mostly white suburb of Denver. When she began writing about Black women’s health for Essence in the mid-1980s, her articles were all about self-help and self-improvement, based on the assumption that poverty and poor education were the reasons for detrimental health conditions among Black people.

But then she discovered that well-educated, upper-middle-class Black women were also having underweight babies and higher rates of maternal death than white women. She found herself wondering, “Why is the current Black-white disparity in both maternal and infant mortality widest at the upper levels of education? And what was it about our health-care system that exacerbated this problem?”

Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and the Health of Our Nation answers these questions and many more. In one of the most interesting chapters, Villarosa writes about “weathering,” a concept developed by Dr. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Weathering is the idea that “high-effort coping from fighting against racism leads to chronic stress that can trigger premature aging and poor health outcomes.” It draws the throughline from systemic failure to a harmful bodily response.

Under the Skin audiobook image
Read our starred review of the audiobook for ‘Under the Skin.’

Villarosa, who now writes for The New York Times Magazine, explores many more aspects of American prejudice and health in this book. In a chapter recounting a visit to Appalachia to write about the addiction crisis among poor white people, she suggests that many of these people suffer from the debilitating effects of class discrimination, with similarly negative health repercussions. She examines myths about Black genetics—that Black people are less sensitive to pain than whites, for example—that persist within the medical community to the detriment of Black Americans. She looks at how racism in housing forces many Black families into environmentally hostile neighborhoods. And, based on her reporting, she offers several ideas for improving community health that she believes will change American health care for the better.

Under the Skin is wonderfully written. It’s not an inaccessible academic work or a polemic. Rather, its points are made amid moving narratives of real people’s experiences. The book also serves as a stake in the ground for Villarosa as she powerfully discloses what years of reporting have led her to understand: “The something that is making Black Americans sicker is not race per se, or the lack of money, education, information, and access to health services that can be tied to being Black in America. It is also not genes or something inherently wrong or inferior about the Black body. The something is racism.”

Linda Villarosa’s wonderfully written book makes stunning points about the health risks of racism amid moving narratives of real people’s experiences.
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Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.
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In a note at the end of her masterful second novel, Vanessa Hua (A River of Stars) writes that “fiction flourishes where the official record ends.” Imagination fills in the details.

Forbidden City, the story of an impoverished peasant girl caught up in the tumult of Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s China, comes to life through the fullness of Hua’s imagination. In 1965, the novel’s narrator, Mei Xiang, is approaching 16 years old when a government official ventures into the countryside in search of young girls to join the chairman’s dance troupe.

Mei is not the prettiest girl or the best dancer in her desperately poor, rural town, but she is the smartest, wiliest and most ambitious, with dreams of becoming a revolutionary icon. She blackmails the town headman and is soon ensconced in the Lake Palaces, Mao’s residence in Peking, along with other comely young dancers recruited from across China.

Mei seizes the attention of the 72-year-old chairman with her aggressive intelligence and peasant wisdom. She becomes his confidant and relishes her special status. Mao teaches her to swim. He has an interest in ballroom dancing, foreign music and books. He is sometimes funny and appreciates her jokes. Except for the sex, she enjoys his company.

Mao also falls into fugue states. Mei witnesses his impassive lack of empathy for others and his depression about his semi-retirement. For a while, Mei believes she is cunning enough to avoid losing his interest. His affection for her incites envy from the other girls and concern from Madame Mao, his wife.

Hua brilliantly conveys the emotional and physical reverberations of the rivalries among the girls, who are more vulnerable and less worldly than they understand. Similarly, Hua keenly portrays the discord among Mao’s underlings, who fear, adore or loathe him. It is apparent that, soon enough, shivers of turmoil will burst forth in the brutal Cultural Revolution.

For her part, Mei eagerly participates in Mao’s plan to humiliate an important political rival, and this becomes the slow-burning match that ignites the national conflagration. It is Mei’s highest moment and just two steps away from her lowest.

By its end, Forbidden City has brought the reader into the beating heart of human history. It is literary historical fiction at its finest.

The story of an impoverished peasant girl caught up in the tumult of Chairman Mao’s China comes to life through the fullness of Vanessa Hua’s imagination.
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Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, follows a girl’s epic three-year journey from her provincial home in northern China to San Francisco’s Chinatown and then to the mountains of Idaho.

Born in the late 19th century, Daiyu is named for a mythological beauty who dies tragically when her lover is forced to marry another. Throughout her story, Daiyu struggles to overcome her namesake’s fatalism and discover a more purposeful, loving self. She must also cope with the poverty and prejudice that shape her daily existence.

After her parents abruptly disappear and her doting grandmother can no longer support her, 13-year-old Daiyu is sent to the city to fend for herself. She assumes the identity of a young boy, naming herself Feng, and scavenges for food and odd jobs. Eventually she is taken in by a calligraphy master, who teaches her the discipline of ink brush, ink stick, paper and inkstone—the Four Treasures of the Study, which are mirrored in the novel’s four main sections. The practice of calligraphy continues to inform Daiyu throughout her perilous journey, and a recurring pleasure of the novel is Daiyu’s meditations on the shape and meaning of Chinese ideograms as they apply to circumstances in her life.

Author Jenny Tinghui Zhang shares how her father’s spirit of exploration inspired this artfully crafted first novel.

In a food market one day, Daiyu is kidnapped. When the kidnapper discovers Daiyu’s female identity, he hides her in a barrel and ships her to a brothel in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The descriptions of this trip are terrifying. Equally as visceral are Zhang’s depictions of brothel life: the food, the feel of the rooms, the rivalries and friendships of the prostitutes, the subterfuges and cruel economics that make these places possible. In these moments, the author’s skill for sensory detail shines.

The brothel is the first place Daiyu comes face-to-face with American anti-immigrant racism. Recent laws have forbidden Chinese women from being admitted to the country, while male laborers are still allowed in, so a secret trade of trafficking young girls has emerged. Daiyu is eventually able to escape and, disguised as a boy once again, travels to Pierce, Idaho, where a coal-mining boom has attracted Chinese miners. There the novel comes to its startling conclusion.

Though Daiyu’s story is shaped by true historical inequities, Four Treasures of the Sky comes to life through her journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s spirited first novel brings history to light through the story of a girl’s journey to self-discovery and self-acceptance.

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