Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Reader's Comments: F.B.

These comments come from F.B. in Sebastopol, CA:

Baker is emerging as a more interesting person as I read her book. She certainly had a diverse group of friends and acquaintances and seemed fearless in her travels. She tells a lot about her life without telling a lot - except indirectly - about herself. It is, as I have said several times, a pleasant read.

My respect for her grows the more I read. She brings a sense of history to her experiences and clearly laments the changes time has brought without being preachy or passing judgment. And I thoroughly enjoy her wry humor which subtly makes the points she forbears to hammer home. To respond to the title of her book - I think she has gotten there.

Reader's Comments: M.H.

Here are some comments from Mark Halpern:
I find that Doris' book is not one to be read cover-to-cover, but rather to be consumed in small portions, like tapas, with some time between bites. I've read two of her mini-essays, and much enjoyed them; she has the ability to evoke the spirit of a time and place with a few deft touches, and she retains enough toughness and saltiness to keep her pieces from becoming cloying exercises in nostalgia. At a few points in my reading, I even found myself comparing her work to Patrick Leigh Fermor's great travel reminiscences, and if you know how much I admire his books, that will tell you how much I've been enjoying what I've read of Doris'. I'm reading her slowly; it's not the kind of book you gulp down, as I said, and I've put it besides my easy chair upstairs, to be read when I'm not tired or distracted, and have a glass of port (the real 20-year old stuff, of course) at my elbow. I'll say more when I've read more, but I know already that it's a fine book, and really should be better known. The photographs add another dimension; it was just to do that for Leigh Fermor's books that I tried for a while, with no success, to interest publishers in an atlas/picture book to accompany them; Doris is lucky in being able to illustrate her own books, and they're richer for it.


Here's an excerpt about China in 1986 from my book I'll Let You Know When We Get There. If you have visited China lately, particularly in the back country, I'd like to know what differences you may have noticed. The Beijing area may not be a reliable indicator of change in rural areas.

The chapters in the book feature photographs that you'll miss here. The book is available at major booksellers, as well as on Lulu.com.

What are the people like? They’re hard workers. Untrained service personnel can be less than energetic like the fellow taking a nap on the hotel laundry, but laborers pull unbelievable cartloads of bricks with sweat dripping from every pore. They build new roads with mallets, shovels, and bare hands. They work eight hours in factories six days a week and sometimes through nights and holidays with no breaks except a half hour for lunch, and from dawn to dark in the commune fields.

Chinese people are polite to foreigners, especially if we remember China’s past when the term “foreign devils”was so richly deserved. Even in the crowded rush of Shanghai, if you establish eye contact with oncoming bicyclists, they will definitely go around you. And girls washing their hair in the street usually let you take their picture and smile happily into the camera through the soapsuds.

“What about sanitation?” clean friends at home want to know. “Was it dirty?” Qualifying your answer with “Yes—but,” leaves them in a state of confusion and that’s quite a good beginning for a little understanding. The Chinese don’t spend much time cleaning floors. “But why should we when everybody wears shoes?” they say. The public toilets of Chongqing still linger in my nightmares, but I didn’t see anybody using the roadside and that’s more than I can say for some countries. Country kitchens tend to be black with soot, but there is almost no trash lying around. They put it into containers shaped like pandas, frogs or elephants. Millions of the Chinese really do that. They don’t sterilize chopsticks. In fact they hardly rinse them off. But food is cooked fresh at very high temperatures, making it hard for germs to sneak into the fish tripe.

It’s a good idea to learn some dexterity with chopsticks. Foreigners with their conspicuous round eyes lose a lot of face if they keep dropping jellyfish and congee all over the table, and it’s downright embarrassing if, by mistake, they flip a thousand-year-old egg into the open mouth of someone sitting nearby. Not that Chinese waiters don’t empty ashtrays and pour tea on the tablecloth, but they intend to.