Academic integrity sometimes requires revising theoretical perspectives as a situation changes and new evidence comes to light. Mobo Gao, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, finds himself in that position. In 1998 he wrote Gao Village, an anthropological study of life in a very poor Chinese village during the latter half of the 20th century. He was thoroughly qualified to do so, because he was born and raised there in abject poverty. He frankly recounts how qualifying for a university education from such a background, in addition to intellectual gifts, required a combination of luck, guanxi and a bit of cheating.
When a work of non-fiction opens with “On the last day of his old life, the dinosaur hunter went to the beach,” it’s a strong hint that tragedy is in store.
The term “historical novel” usually arouses images of 18th-century swashbuckling. Sweden, however, is a historical novel set much closer to our own time. According to the official record, more than half a million American servicemen attempted to desert during the Vietnam War.
William Atkins has done extensive and presumably rather expensive research for The Immeasurable World. He writes from first hand experience of visiting eight deserts as diverse as the empty quarter of Oman and the famous Burning Man Festival in the United States. Each gets an extended essay with similar components. So, no rides for days on end with just a camel for a friend, but Atkins, to his credit, does manage at each of the deserts he visits to get some sand in his shoes and some camel hair in his oatmeal porridge.
So you’re planning a trip on the Silk Road. You’re looking for tips on what to take, routes, currencies, visas.
Now in her 10th decade, it would be understandable if Jan Morris could no longer cope with the amount of research she once so enjoyed. But she has not abandoned her craft. In her most recent work she has undertaken to memorialize the sinking of the Japanese battleship Yamato, a subject which she says has fascinated her since childhood.
A Village With My Name sounds unpromising as a title. Could this be one of those “finding my roots” tales of little interest to anyone beyond the author himself? It could have been, but happily Scott Tong uses the family tree that he uncovers to relate a worm’s-eye view of 20th century Chinese history.