By Mei Fong, author of One Child: the story of China’s most radical experiment
I just spent three weeks on book tour in Australia, hitting Perth Writer’s Festival, Adelaide Writer’s Festival and the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women Festival.
Each stop was tremendous fun, as I got to talk shop with writers and sit in on fascinating book talks. But it was also agony: SO many books I wanted to get! But I had to strictly limit myself, with airline luggage limits in mind.
So much for strictness. In the end, my strictly-curated book stack still reached the height of a wine bottle and weighed over 10lbs. (What the heck, I threw out some shoes.)
Here are some of my picks:
On the Trail of Genghis Khan, Tim Cope
I’ve always been fascinated by Genghis Khan and how he led a small band of nomads to conquer half the world, laying the foundations of empires spanning India, China and Persia. So Tim’s book, in which he recounts re-tracing the warlord’s footsteps from Karkorum to Budapest on horseback, is right up my alley. I snapped it up. Right now, I’ve traveled as far as Kazakhstan with Tim as a reader, and I’m loving the journey as we encounter horse-thieves, wolves and engaging locals. Did not know, for example, that the Soviets carried out nuclear tests in Kazakhstan, where, “local teachers were ordered to take children outside the schools to watch the explosions, so their bodies’ reaction could be observed and studied.” One of Tim’s chance-met friends, Aset, believes this is the reason his son was born disabled, one of untold thousands still being born with genetic abnormalities.”
Reading this, you will journey across space and time, in the company of an observant and lyrical writer. Bonus: did I mention there’s a heart-warming tale of a dog in all this?
Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
Earlier this year, I was in India when I met a group of women from Sydney. These women were members of a book club that had been going strong for over a quarter of a century. Imagine! Intrigued, and charmed, I agreed to come give a talk to this Glebe group when I was in Sydney. What happened next was a lovely evening talking about books, travels, art and life. We discussed Australian women’s writing—I mentioned that an ex-colleague, Geraldine Brooks, is a leading light to me—and they pressed upon me Helen Garner’s book. I’ve only had time to dip into bits of it, but it is a lovely memento of this wonderful global fellowship of reading. In particular, I love this bit Garner wrote in celebration of suburbia, recounting how writer Gerald Murnane had turned down a big literary prize because it involved overseas travel. Instead, he stated a preference for traveling to all the Melbourne houses he had lived in. Murnane then proceeds to recite a list of all his former addresses, writes Garner, “plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle-class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about in the news. And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem. It was a naming of parts of the mighty machine that had created the imaginative world of an artist. And when he finished, and opened his eyes, the place went up in a roar of joy.”
Not Quite Australian, Peter Mares
I wrote a book about China’s population control policy—the one-child policy—so naturally I’m also interested in the other step in population control, which is the control of the flow and movement of people. Naturally, I’m very intrigued by Peter Mares’s well reviewed book on immigration in Australia, which has moved from the permanent-move waves that characterized much of Australia’s earlier migration patterns, to this “try and buy” model he identifies. Most of the country’s new migrants are actually people who’ve been here for quite a period of time. Quit a lot of questions raised here that I’m also curious about in context of Trump’s America, where I live now. Where is home? How long do you have to live someplace before you belong?
Beauty is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan
This book has been called Indonesia’s answer to Love in a Time of Cholera, so I’m really intrigued, especially after listening to Eka holding an audience spellbound during a reading—in Bahasa!—at the Adelaide Writer’s Fest. “Beauty” traces Indonesia’s bloody history from its post-colonial struggles to the rise of nationalism under Sukarno and Suharto through the guise of magic realism, and I’m really relishing reading this saga. I’m sure it’ll be dramatic and magical and fanciful. (PS Eka says his next book is about a monkey who decides to become a dangdut—a kind of Indonesian disco star.)
Ghost Empire, Richard Fidler
I had a lovely radio interview with Richard Fidler, and was pleasantly surprised to hear he had a book out on one of my favorite cities, Istanbul. I’m also intrigued at how he weaves in the story of the rise and fall of the Byzantium empire with his personal story of his relationship with his son, and experience of fatherhood. I did a similar approach with my book in terms of weaving in my own experiments with fertility against the awful backdrop of the one-child policy, so I’m really curious to see how he handles it. Knowing his reputation as a masterful storyteller, I know I’m in for a treat.
Bum Magic, Claudia Row
Hesitated a bit about getting this for my kids. I was already thinking ahead of irate calls from teachers and fellow parents as my kids chant “bum, bum, bum.” But what the heck, how can I resist the tale a Bookreads reviewer described as “lovingly arsey tribute to the Mem Fox classic”?
South of Forgiveness, Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger
This one’s a bit of a cheat, because I didn’t buy the book in Australia, but ordered it on Amazon US, to have waiting for me when I got back home. Was on several panels with Thordis and Tom, and they were easily the most electrifying speakers, with a bombshell of a story. Tom raped Thordis when they were teenagers, and the book recounts her subsequent journey decades later tracking him down, and forgiving him. Thordis is now an articulate women’s rights activist in Iceland, not at all the cowed victim you might imagine, and was easily able to outface those who questioned her on whether she was creating a more permissive atmosphere for spousal battering and sexual assault. I was also intrigued by Tom, whose role at these events was akin to smearing blood and jumping into a tankful of sharks. It can’t be easy to be constantly identified as ‘The Rapist’ and hear the sad and depressing stories of abuse that inevitably surface at these talks. I see his presence as a form of penance. Anyway, after this electrifying preview, I’m all-agog to read their story and weigh what they write, against what they said.
Mei Fong is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist with more than a decade of re- porting in Asia, most recently as China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Her work has also won awards from Am- nesty International, New York’s Society of Professional Journalists, and the Society of Publishers in Asia. Featured as a China commentator on NPR, CBS, CNN, PBS, and elsewhere, Fong is currently the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at think-tank New America.
Click here to grab a copy of One Child today!