Alden Mudge

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Ye Chun’s ambitious first novel, Straw Dogs of the Universe presents a concise dramatization of the history of early Chinese immigration to the American West. Many of us know the outlines of this era, which began with the importation of Chinese labor for the construction of the transcontinental railroad and ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first law to restrict immigration to the U.S. based on race or ethnicity. Using a relatively small number of characters, Chun personalizes both the fear and despair that pervaded the lives of so many of these immigrants, and the fortitude, hope and love that they cultivated anyway.

The central quest of the novel is for Sixiang to find her father, Guifeng, whom she has never met. Sixiang is 10 years old when her village in Guangdong, China, is destroyed by a flood and subsequent famine. She holds faith in her ability to survive even after her mother, for food and money, trades her to a trafficker who transports her to “Gold Mountain,” a Chinese name for the western U.S. in the period during and after the California Gold Rush. Too young for prostitution, she is sold as a house servant, then taken in by missionaries. After escaping the mission and sheltering with a man who had known her father while working on the railroad, Sixiang begins the journey that takes her into the Sierra near Truckee, California.

In alternate chapters, we learn about the life of Sixiang’s father, Guifeng. Tantalized by his own father’s dream of Gold Mountain, he leaves home and contracts with a railroad building team. On his first and only day in San Francisco, he sees a woman from his village he had loved from afar as a boy, Feiyan, who has been enslaved as a prostitute. Although he is sent the following day to a work site in the Sierra, he continues to obsess over Feiyan, eventually returning to help her escape and later starting a second family with her. But his new life falters when he becomes addicted to opium.

At each juncture of her story, Chun examines both large-scale injustices—Chinese people murdered and their white killers released—and smaller humiliations—a temporary employer finds Sixiang’s name too hard to say and instead calls her “Cindy.” The novel culminates with the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from Truckee, once the second largest Chinatown in the US. It is a time of shock and terror, but for this novel’s protagonists, also a time of adaptation and endurance.

Ye Chun personalizes both the fear and despair that pervaded the lives of 19th-century Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and the fortitude, hope and love that they cultivated anyway.
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As an immigrant from a “rich Arab country,” Lamya H was often asked by acquaintances in the American LGBTQ+ community how she could possibly remain a practicing Muslim, given Islam’s reputation for oppressing women and queer people. Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya’s memoir, is a generous, probing and candid response to that query.

Through its 10 chapters, the memoir generally follows the arc of Lamya’s life, beginning when she was a young girl in an international Islamic school, discovering her attraction to women and sometimes feeling suicidal. She moved to New York City at 17 to attend university, feeling unsure of her sexuality and of America’s gay culture. Now in her mid-30s, she has found love, her people and a life she could not have imagined as a teenager.

What is beautiful and brilliant about Hijab Butch Blues is that in each chapter, Lamya evokes a formative moment in her life through emotional and intellectual dialogue with a story from the Quran. The first chapter, “Maryam,” centers on a narrative that Christians will recognize as a version of the story of the Virgin Mary. As a young teenager, Lamya was transfixed by it because of how a despairing Maryam considers committing suicide, just as Lamya herself had. Thoughtful and questing, Lamya continued reading and found in Maryam’s story a way forward. The year she discovered this story, she writes, is “the year I choose not to die. The year I choose to live.”

Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

In a chapter on Allah, Lamya recounts her questions about the nature of God, which she began asking as a 6-year-old. Is God a woman? A man? A pious religious teacher told her that Allah is not a man or a woman. This was a mystery and a revelation, and it helped her in later years as her family attempted to mold her in traditionally gendered ways. She learned how important it was “for me to use the pronoun they for God,” she writes, “my God, whom I refuse to define as a man or a woman, my God who transcends gender.”

Chapter by chapter, readers will feel a growing appreciation for Lamya’s intelligence, eloquence and courage. Along the way, we learn vivid details about her life and outlook—that, for example, she was a diligent, bright student with a disruptive sense of humor; that her parents immigrated to an Arab nation from a South Asian country for better opportunities and, as a result, that she and her brother experienced bias because of their brown skin; that she was immediately uncomfortable in New York’s gay bar scene and struggled to feel “authentically gay”; that she is ambivalent about America; that she loves her parents and feels OK not coming out to them.

Lamya H is a pseudonym, and her reasons for using one make sense. But even without using her real name, in Hijab Butch Blues she is observant, passionate and anything but voiceless.

Lamya H’s memoir is a generous, probing and brilliant response to the question of how she could be both a queer person and a practicing Muslim.
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With a magical protagonist and a vivid cast of heroic and devious characters, it’s easy to imagine Salman Rushdie’s fantastical 15th novel as a thrilling, multipart Bollywood epic. Victory City marks the author’s return to the long arc of Indian history, taking readers on a frisky romp through nearly three centuries of south Indian lore.

Rushdie’s endnotes cite numerous historical works he consulted about the Vijayanagara Empire (14th–17th centuries) while composing the novel. Google Vijayanagar, the city in which the novel is set, and you’ll discover its translation from Sanskrit is indeed “City of Victory.” Search the internet for the shepherd brothers Hukka and Bukka, and you’ll find they were the first kings of the empire. Look for Domingo Nunes, a character who humorously reappears in various incarnations to Pampa Kampana, the novel’s heroine, and you’ll encounter an amalgam of two Portuguese men who wrote with amazement about their early travels through the empire.

But search for Pampa Kampana, and nothing. She is Rushdie’s marvelous invention. At 9 years old, she witnesses the downfall of the old king. She sees the submissive women of the defeated kingdom, including her mother, go willingly to their deaths by fire. But Pampa rejects this path, steps away from the fire and, in anger and anguish, is overtaken by the voice of the gods. She becomes a prophet who gives the shepherd brothers the magical seeds to grow Victory City. She whispers the history of the future empire into the ears of its newly formed citizens. She gives them a past and a present. 

Over the 247 years of her life, Pampa sees the birth of the empire, suffers exile in the Forest of Women, stealthily returns to eventual triumph and then experiences the empire’s final fall. She writes this history down as the empire collapses and hides her account in an urn. Four hundred years later, her words are discovered.

Rushdie tells his tale with a generous and irreverent spirit. Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests he had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel. Pampa is the incarnation of the humane values of this (or any) empire, and when she is in ascendance, the empire’s arts and beneficial technologies are ennobled. Women serve as warriors and empire officials. People of all religions are embraced. The empire comes close to being what today we would call an open society, and its collapse is a direct result of turning its back on these values.

Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests Salman Rushdie had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel.
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Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call their deeply researched new book, The Big Myth, “the true history of a false idea.” The false idea in question is not really a single idea but rather many connected assertions, promoted throughout the 20th century, that have gelled into the “quasi-religious belief that the best way to address our needs—whether economic or otherwise—is to let markets do their thing, and not rely on government.”

Both Oreskes and Conway are highly praised historians of science and technology. Their blockbuster 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, examined the effort by a small number of scientists to undermine the evidence of climate change. One common denominator they found among these scientists was a distrust of government. The scientists’ ideological and economic biases led them to oppose anything that would admit a need for governmental action. In the introduction to their new book, Oreskes and Conway say that this discovery was what led them to do a deep dive into the ideology of neoliberal, free-market, anti-government thought, which has persuaded many Americans that unregulated markets are inseparable from democracy and freedom.

But are those things really inseparable, the authors wonder. In an early chapter, Oreskes and Conway point out that Adam Smith, a seminal theorist of capitalism, believed that government regulations were in fact needed to preserve a competitive playing field. Another chapter examines the moment in American history when power companies decided it was just too expensive to bring electricity to rural farming communities. They believed the market was too small, but at the same time, they resisted community alternatives. In the end, it was the government, not business, that literally brought power to the people. This leads the authors to wonder, how do markets alone supposedly make people free? In later chapters, they examine the economic, political and public relations efforts that have fostered our belief in this pervasive myth that government is the problem and markets are the solution.

The Big Myth is deeply detailed in its argument. Readers will be intellectually enlivened by chapters such as “No More Grapes of Wrath,” which looks at the ideological shift in the movie industry, and the revelatory chapter “The American Road to Serfdom,” which explores the popular rise of economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago school,” which deftly promoted the libertarian argument against government involvement in markets. The way the book challenges each component of market mythology is hugely impressive—but the book is sometimes so detailed in its pursuit of the truth that some readers will surely become intellectually exhausted.

Still The Big Myth’s arguments do add up. “Markets are good for many things,” the authors write, “but they are not magic.” In a world facing existential threats like climate change, markets alone do not suffice, they argue. Governments must act.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway boldly challenge the American myth that unregulated markets are inseparable from democracy and freedom.
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Vietnamese writer Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel to be translated into English, the award-winning The Mountains Sing (2020), spun an epic family saga centered on the Vietnam War. Her luminous new novel, Dust Child, is less spacious but still focuses on reverberations from that war. Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the war.

In the opening chapter, set in Ho Chi Minh City in 2016, Phong is a middle-aged man applying for visas for his family to emigrate to the U.S. under a program for children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers, so-called Amerasians. Phong’s application is rejected because of a youthful infraction. In later chapters, Quế Mai develops a visceral sense of Phong’s life as an outcast, “a child of the enemy,” a “dust child” who is half Black American, half Vietnamese.

In the book’s second chapter, also set in 2016, we meet Dan and Linda, who are flying to Ho Chi Minh City for a vacation. Linda hopes the trip will help her husband, who was a young helicopter pilot during the war, with his PTSD. Returning to the country for the first time since the war, Dan wants to discover the fates of his Vietnamese girlfriend, who went by “Kim,” and the child he fathered with her, a secret he has kept from his wife for many years.

In the third chapter, set in 1969, we meet 20-year-old Trang and her 17-year-old sister, Quỳnh, working in the family’s rice fields. Crushed by debt from their father’s illness, the sisters decide to go to Saigon to work. They wind up working as “bar girls,” catering to American soldiers, and Trang takes on the alias “Kim” for her work in Saigon’s boisterous Hollywood Bar.

With this setup, the novel’s plot takes on a sense of urgency. How are these characters connected? Will they find one another, and if they do, what will be the outcome? At certain junctures, the plot creaks and shudders as it turns. But Quế Mai provides readers with wonderful linguistic play, and through her deft and illuminating descriptions of the intimate details of her characters’ personal lives and difficult choices, we end up caring deeply for them and hoping for their well-being. 

In the novel’s afterword, Quế Mai writes movingly of her research into the challenges of Vietnam’s disparaged Amerasians and how she drew inspiration from the many stories she heard and documented. Through her imagination, she has transformed those stories of dust into something akin to gold.

Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the Vietnam War.
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Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s, novelist Fae Myenne Ng (Bone) and her youngest sister accompanied their father to Portsmouth Square to visit the elderly “Orphan Bachelors” who gathered in the park “like scolds of pigeons.” Because of the United States’ exclusionary immigration laws, these men couldn’t bring their wives or children when they came to work in America. Ng’s father instructed his daughters to call these men Grandfather.

As she relates in her luminous, sometimes sorrowful memoir, Orphan Bachelors, Ng’s own maternal great-grandfather was one such bachelor. Born in the 1870s, he fathered two sons before leaving China to work in the abandoned gold mines in America. On a visit back to China in 1907 (it was common for Chinese workmen to travel home on occasion), he fathered a daughter, Ng’s grandmother. Nearly 50 years later, Ng’s mother arrived in America and found and cared for her grandfather, but Ng’s mother’s mother never met her own father.

No wonder Ng’s life was filled with secrets and mysteries. She peppered the Orphan Bachelors with questions about their lives and families, but most of these were ignored or answered with wildly inventive fictions meant to scare and instruct. Ng suggests that these stories seeded her desire to write.

Ng’s father, who worked as a merchant seaman and a laborer, arrived in San Francisco in 1940 as a “paper son,” a man who had purchased his identity from another family and studied a “Book of Lies”—a coaching book containing the “correct” answers to give during his immigration interview—before entering the U.S. Although some restrictions had been lifted since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Ng’s mother was one of only 105 Chinese people allowed into the country in 1953. After Ng’s father decided to participate in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Chinese Confession Program and admit (with the promise of forgiveness) that he had entered the U.S. using falsified documents, she and her sister eventually changed their surname to Ng; their younger brothers, however, retained their father’s “paper name,” Toy.

A simple confession is never simple, however, and much of the memoir tells the story of an immigrant family in conflict. Ng’s mother, who worked first as a seamstress in a sweatshop and then as a shopkeeper, and her father, who was often at sea, did not see eye to eye. At some point the children chose sides. This family story will resonate with readers partly because of the crackle of its conflict but also because of the keen observations of its writer.

Orphan Bachelors feels intimate and evocative, quiet rather than strident. Ng’s grace as a storyteller makes it possible to understand in one’s bones how heartless policy bends and misshapes lives for generations.

Fae Myenne Ng’s luminous, sometimes sorrowful, memoir recounts how racist U.S. immigration policies have shrouded four generations of her family in secrets and mystery.
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Deborah Levy’s slender, enchanted novel August Blue has all the piercing detail and bewildering movement of a midafternoon dream.

In August, at a flea market in Athens, Greece, Elsa M. Anderson encounters a woman she comes to believe is her double. Perhaps to taunt Elsa, the woman purchases the very objects Elsa planned to buy for herself. “I felt she had stolen something from me, something that I would miss in my life,” Elsa thinks. She pursues her double, and the woman drops her black felt trilby hat, which Elsa retrieves and wears until the following August, when the story ends.

Elsa, we learn, is 34 years old, a musical prodigy who has apparently, quite suddenly, lost her gift. Her recent performance in Vienna came to a jarring halt when her “fingers refused to bend for Rachmaninov and [she] began to play something else.” Orphaned at birth, she was adopted by a family in rural England, and when her musical talents became evident, was taken under the wing of Arthur Goldstein, her teacher and promoter. Her teacher is now old and ailing. Elsa eventually goes to visit him in Sardinia, where she resists his offer to see the adoption documents that would reveal her parentage. 

In the meantime, she travels to teach piano to the disenchanted and unseen children of the elite. She has fraught, fleeting encounters with her double and carries on an internal dialogue with the woman throughout her journey. People recognize Elsa, photograph her and wonder about her.

Sergei Rachmaninov, the feel and weight of his music, is certainly a motif in August Blue. So too are the works of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche. Beneath the novel’s surface thrum questions and observations about civilization, culture, identity, the self and the many forms of love. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds until an encounter in Paris resolves some of Elsa’s questions.

In addition to being a novelist, Levy is also a poet. Her storytelling moves to its own music. Her sentences are sharp, sensuous, crackling with ironic humor. Her paragraphs are compact, full of tension that pulls the reader forward. The novel offers the reader a dazzling gaze at the conundrums of existence.

Deborah Levy’s storytelling moves to its own music. In August Blue, her sentences are sharp, sensuous, crackling with ironic humor. Her paragraphs are compact, full of tension that pulls the reader forward.
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The astonishing first line of Beth Nguyen’s revelatory memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart reads, “Over the course of my life I have spent less than twenty-four hours with my mother.” That time consisted of six brief visits over the course of 26 years, beginning when Nguyen was a 19-year-old college student and reunited with her mother in Boston for the first time since Nguyen was 8 months old.

The explanation for this startling fact is fairly straightforward. In April of 1975, as South Vietnam fell to the forces of the North Vietnamese, Nguyen escaped Vietnam by boat with her older sister, paternal grandmother, father and uncles. Her father and uncles had fought for the losing side and now faced “reeducation,” or worse. So they came to America and ended up in a tiny community of Vietnamese refugees in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nguyen’s mother had been living with her own mother and her other children in another part of Saigon during the collapse. She only discovered that her daughters and their father had fled some days later.

The feelings and implications of these circumstances, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. Fittingly, Owner of a Lonely Heart is not a chronological memoir. It circulates among memories, embellishing and deepening the reader’s and Nguyen’s understanding of them. In a chapter called “My Mothers,” she writes not of her biological mother but of her grandmother Noi, who provided a safe place for Nguyen in a chaotic household, and of the woman her father married when Nguyen was 3, the daughter of Mexican migrants whom Nguyen credits with saving her life. In another chapter, Nguyen writes of her “white mother,” a high school boyfriend’s parent who taught Nguyen the “ways of whiteness” and helped her read the hieroglyphics of a coded society. Throughout the memoir, Nguyen also writes movingly about being a mother herself, something that has clearly shifted her perspective on her experiences.

During her childhood, Nguyen’s family did not talk about Vietnam or the war. They had no vocabulary for trauma, and her father’s unacknowledged PTSD bodied forth in anger, drinking and home improvement projects that never reached completion. A superb writer, Nguyen gives readers a tactile sense of her childhood home life and the love and anguish she felt there.

“Growing up,” Nguyen writes, “I was afraid all the time. It was a low-lying fear that I couldn’t explain to myself or dare admit out loud.” In her beautiful memoir, Nguyen finally acknowledges this fear—and much, much more—out loud.

Beth Nguyen has only spent 24 hours with her mother over the course of her adult life, and her revelatory memoir depicts all the love and anguish bound up with this fact.
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Ren Hopper, the protagonist of Peter Heller’s The Last Ranger, is a park enforcement ranger in Yellowstone National Park. He’s also a man often overwhelmed with righteous anger. We witness this first in the novel’s prologue, when he reacts with satisfying harshness to a couple whose careless speeding has resulted in the fatal injury of a bull bison. Through backstories we learn that Ren’s rage and anguish have something to do with his guilt about the death of his young wife, Lea, and his broken relationship with his mother, whose life was destroyed when she was accused of precipitating a mercy killing.

Even more alienated from human society is Hilly, Ren’s neighbor in the park employees’ cabins and his closest friend and possible love interest. Hilly, a researcher studying the park’s wolf population, loves wolves far more than people and spends most of her time in far ranges of the park, observing pack behaviors. 

Throughout the 20th century, wolves were eliminated from the park and much of the American West but were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Now, poachers have begun to target the wolves for the value of their fur. Hilly and Ren suspect a surly local trapper named Les Ingraham. Hilly, an excellent marksman, regards Les with murderous intent, especially after she has a near-death encounter with a leg trap. Les, of course, has his own backstory, which helps to explain the novel’s surprising end.

Peter Heller (The River) was an outdoor adventure writer before he became a novelist, and he displays a keen sensitivity to wild places. When describing wildlife and landscapes, he deploys the precision and cadence of Ernest Hemingway. Breaking through the pervasive thread of ranger routines—mundane encounters over coffee, directing traffic on overcrowded park roads—are dramatic encounters between privileged or naive tourists and wild animals, like the parents who position their daughter near an agitated moose for a photo op, seeming to think they are in a petting zoo. In a subplot, Heller also dramatizes another threat to our national parks: militias and business interests who want to turn public land into private holdings.

Heller’s swift environmental thriller reminds us that humans are the most successful predators—but not the only predators.

Peter Heller’s swift environmental thriller reminds us that humans are the most successful predators—but not the only predators.
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There’s a bit of the trickster in William Boyd’s delightfully engrossing 17th novel, The Romantic, which purports to be the biography of a real man named Cashel Greville Ross (1799–1882), drawn from an oddment of journals, letters, sketches and maps (some of them reproduced herein). With a wink, Boyd writes in his author’s note that Cashel’s story is best told as fiction.

And what a story it is! Orphaned as an infant when his parents’ ship sank, Cashel is raised by his loving aunt, a governess in County Cork, Ireland. He leads a downstairs childhood until the revelation of his true parentage so upsets him that he runs away from home. At 15, he becomes a drummer boy and is gravely wounded in the Battle of Waterloo. That experience gives Cashel cachet with the infamous Romantic poet and wannabe soldier Lord Byron, with whom Cashel strikes up a friendship some years later in Italy, along with Percy and Mary Shelley. The sharp-eyed chapters about this poetical crowd—their privilege, dalliances and tragedies—are some of the novel’s greatest pleasures.

When the self-regarding Byron throws a party for Cashel (a fete that turns out to be a celebration for Byron himself), Cashel meets Contessa Raphaella Rezzo. They share a this-is-the-one moment, but unfortunately, she is married to a wealthy man almost 50 years her senior. With the help of a conniving servant, Cashel and Raphaella carry on an affair, which is eventually brought up short by a lie Cashel is foolish enough to believe. For him, she is the touchstone of love, but he will not see Raphaella again for 40 years. Cashel, it turns out, is unlucky in love but mostly fortunate in adventure.

Cashel goes on to live a Zelig-like existence, standing at the edges or unseen in the midst of historical moments. A sprightly comic element recurs: For every success, there is a disaster, and after every disaster, Cashel eventually lands upright. When Cashel writes two bestsellers—a travel book and an anonymous roman a clef—his publisher steals his royalties. Cashel ends up in debtor’s prison, out of which grows an idea to found a Utopian colony in Massachusetts. And so it goes.

Cashel’s life spans most of the 19th century, and Boyd is both interested in and very knowledgeable about the period. Humming beneath the exuberant plot are fascinating details ranging from the life of a military drummer boy to the class privileges available in debtor’s prison. Issues of money, power and privilege also reverberate. And of course there is Cashel, a good-hearted innocent whose luck and haplessness make The Romantic such an enjoyable read.

The Romantic spans most of the 19th century, and William Boyd is both interested in and very knowledgeable about the period. Fascinating details hum beneath the exuberant plot.
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Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was Hollywood’s first great Chinese American actress. At 15, she had her first starring role in a silent film. Shortly thereafter, she played opposite film legend Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (at 5 feet, 7 inches, she was taller than him). She was a friend, and perhaps a lover, of Marlene Dietrich. A brilliant student of accents and languages, she successfully made the fraught transition from silent film to “talkies” and, later, to television.

As Yunte Huang’s fascinating biography Daughter of the Dragon clearly shows, however, Wong’s career was consistently hampered by racist, sexist and ageist strictures. She embodied the problematic archetypes of submissive Asian women in relationships with powerful white men as well as the devious, sexually powerful Asian women often called dragon ladies. One Hollywood rule, for example, prevented women of color from kissing a white man on screen. This kept Wong from romantic leading roles, for which her talents and beauty seemed so well suited. Stalled by such barriers, Wong went to Germany, learned the language and starred in smash hits like Song. Later, after being passed over for a role in the film version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth, despite the writer’s desire for the film to star Chinese actors, Wong went to China just to study Chinese drama, with the hopes of bringing this classical form home.

Huang, a professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, offers a rich and complex view of Wong’s life and times. His book is less an intimate, psychological biography than a revealing look at Wong’s experience within the history of the era and its flow of cultural biases. Many chapters, like one on the ghettoized origins of Chinese laundries and Hollywood’s strangely enduring fascination with Los Angeles’ Chinatown, are as illuminating as they are unexpected. Huang offers penetrating descriptions of the making of some of Wong’s most famous movies, bringing to light Wong’s abilities and the prejudices and challenges she faced in trying to succeed. During her stay in China, for example, Wong was feted as a breakthrough star and also berated as an actor who presented shameful Chinese stereotypes. When questioned by local reporters, she noted that as an actor she rarely had the power to choose her parts but could only take what she was offered.

A reader is left thinking that what Anna May Wong was offered was never quite what she was worth. Wong died at 52, perhaps of alcoholism and definitely in financial distress. Of the rules that constrained her career, Huang writes, “these puritanical and overly racist guidelines became a virtual form of foot-binding for Anna May, shackling her career ambitions for the rest of her life.”

This major biography of Anna May Wong, Hollywood's first great Chinese American actress, is a revealing look at her startling talent and the limitations she faced due to racism and cultural biases.
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Many are the delights and wonders of Daniel Mason’s North Woods, a novel so lush with stories and moods that it defies adequate description.

The story begins when a young couple are driven from their Puritan colony—him for reputedly consorting with heathens, and her to escape marriage to a minister twice her age—to a wild, idyllic place in the north woods. Then we shift to a vivid captivity tale, in which a young mother and her child are kidnapped from their village by Native American raiders and deposited by their captors into the care of an old woman living in an ancient hut in the north woods; eventually, soldiers arrive with ideas other than rescue. Next there is a memoir by one Charles Osgood, a veteran of the French and Indian War, worrisomely obsessed with finding and propagating the perfect apple. Osgood dies fighting on the loyalist side of the American Revolution and leaves his orchards to his twin daughters, Alice and Mary. Divided by jealousy and bound by love and guilt, they bring destruction to the orchards and his flocks.

Later a slave hunter stalks an escapee on her way to Canada. A 19th-century painter writes revelatory letters to his beloved and famous novelist friend. The sensual, alluring charlatan Madame Rossi arrives to conduct a seance. Included amid these stories are verses, riddles, ballads and even an erotic tale of the elm bark beetle. The inhabitants, owners, visitors, ghosts and the very forest itself transform over time. On it goes, in love and madness, to the present day.

North Woods is a love poem to the human and natural history of Western Massachusetts. One of the novel’s enticements is the exuberant descriptions of evolving nature. Another is discerning the relationships among the succession of occupants here in the north woods. Most brilliant of all is the novel’s daring storytelling, through which its tales come spectacularly to life. They are wise, profound, chilling, carnal and funny. North Woods is an amazing and deeply pleasurable tour de force.

North Woods is a love poem to the human and natural history of Western Massachusetts, full of tales that come spectacularly to life through Daniel Mason’s daring storytelling.
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When the Great Fire burst forth on the evening of Sunday, October 8, 1871, Chicago had only been incorporated for 34 years. But it was already an economic powerhouse and its population had reached 300,000, more than half of them immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. The city’s elite—people like merchandiser Marshall Field, “a thin, trim, unfailingly dapper man,” and timber baron and railroad executive William Butler Ogden—hailed from the eastern establishment and were leery of immigrants and fearful of common people holding political power.

The Burning of the World: The Chicago Fire and the War for a City’s Soul, Scott W. Berg’s fascinating account of the disastrous fire, is detailed and often thrilling. In so many ways, the devastation could have been avoided but for a compounding of errors: a signal sending firefighters to the wrong location, firefighters exhausted and unprepared because of a large fire the day before and more. Berg describes the firefighting technologies of the day and the poor neighborhoods, shops and lumber yards that fueled the fire. Through brilliant miniature biographies of many involved—Field, newspaper editor and future mayor Joseph Medill, Army General Phil Sheridan, city alderman Charles C.P. Holden—he gives us a feel for the history and culture being consumed by the flames and the seeds of conflict that will flower after the flames are extinguished.

Berg, it turns out, is just as interested in the political firestorm that followed. In his telling, the Chicago business elite seized the opportunity to wrest control of the city from a popularly elected alderman. In an election immediately after the fire, a “reform” group tried to institute measures that harmed workers. They sought to enforce a ban on alcohol sales on Sundays, the only day off for most laborers. They took control of the flood of donations pouring into the city and doled out assistance only to people who could prove their moral worth. They tried to force everyone to rebuild in brick instead of wood, a sensible-seeming measure, except that such homes were well beyond the means of many.

In the following election, the elite-backed reformers were booted and the system of Chicago neighborhood politics was born. The Burning of the World is an absorbing story, and Berg, clearly a lover of rowdy Chicago, tells it well.

The Burning of the World is an absorbing Windy City history, and Scott W. Berg, clearly a lover of rowdy Chicago, tells it well.

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