I didn't even have to think about it - I was signed up within minutes.
For my first book, I picked Huan Hsu's The Porcelain Thief, because I like the occasional memoir, and - having just read The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo - I was interested in reading more about China's history and contemporary culture.
Hsu was born here in America and always eschewed his parent's attempts to teach him about his Chinese heritage. He grew up in Utah and struggled with being different in such an homogeneous environment.
"While all other Chinese parents in America appeared to have given their children 'American' names, my parents - born in China, raised in Tawain, and educated in the United States - neglected to do so for me and my brother, for reasons they never fully explained. [...] Whenever I complained to my parents, they told me I was free to change my name to anything I liked when I turned eighteen. That felt like light-years away in my mind, and my parents always said it in a tone that suggested such an unfilial act might cause them to die of disappointment." (36)
In 1938, Hsu's great-great grandfather was a wealthy landowner, who, in the face of the invading Japanese, buried "[...] the family's heirlooms: intricately carved antique furniture, jades, bronzes, paintings, scrolls of calligraphy, and finally, Liu's beloved porcelain collection" (4) in the family garden. Over the course of decades, as his family's land was ravaged by the Japanese, the Nationalists, and then the Communists, no one knew if the goods had survived.
70 years later, Hsu moves halfway across the globe to discover the truth about the porcelain and in the process discovers more about himself and his Chinese identity.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. Hsu points out that understanding Chinese history can be difficult and there were moments when I had to ask my historian-husband questions to straighten out timelines and players in my head. His family tree is complicated, and littered with relatives whose names are practically the same. It's like reading a Chinese version of a Dostoevsky novel.
I will say, however, that while the book promises a chase into history after long buried porcelain, this story is really about a man coming to terms with the China of the past, and reconciling it with himself and the China of today. A large portion of the book is spent on Hsu's time living in China, experiencing daily life while working for his Uncle's company. I could have done without these sections. They left me feeling antsy and honestly appalled of the picture he was painting of modern-day China. Still, his description of the food left me craving quality Chinese food, something not found easily here in the Southeastern United States.
The stories of the porcelain and the trials that Hsu's great-great grandfather and other relatives suffered during China's tumultuous history would have made a great collection of short stories a la Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. The lives of Hsu's relatives are rich and moving and were the most fascinating sections of the book.
While I wasn't overly crazy about this book, I still thought it was worth reading. I'm not one to finish something I'm not enjoying - life is too short to read a bad book. Pick it up to read while you're going through the motions of daily life - it will give you a new perspective.
I'm excited to be a part of the Blogging for Books crew and look forward to sharing some more awesome books with you in the future!
Disclaimer: while I received a copy of this book in return for a review, all opinions and views expressed are my own.
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