The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Ji Xianlin, trans. by Chenxing Jiang

This memoir by a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution poignantly sheds light on an under-examined period in history.


Ji Xianlin was one of many Chinese intellectuals held in makeshift prisons, called cowsheds, on university campuses during China’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for 10 years. He was mocked, humiliated, beaten and starved. He wrote about these experiences only reluctantly, observing late in life that none of his fellows had done so and that younger Chinese need to know their history in order to learn from it. In 1998, he released his memoir, now translated into English for the first time as The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Ji narrates his years of torment compellingly, in remarkably fair-minded fashion. He claims that his work is not literary, but it is adorned with lovely metaphors: he compares his torture to Indian and Chinese concepts of hell, “a veritable pagoda of horrors,” and makes reference to the steep path to Mount Tai, one of five Taoist sacred mountains.

Ji’s story is painfully moving and beautifully related, elevated by his preface and journalist Zha Jianying’s introduction, and his appendix, an abbreviated memoir of Ji’s whole life that puts the bulk of The Cowshed into perspective. He ponders the question of human nature as basically good or bad, and illuminates Chinese culture with sensitivity and humor; for example, “We Chinese intellectuals are descended from a tradition of scholars who would rather be killed than humiliated.” Until his death in Beijing in 2009, the wise older man who wrote this book remained a patriot who wanted the best for China and who appreciated that he saw the Cultural Revolution so intimately, if only so that he could bear witness.

This review originally ran in the February 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 cornmeal cakes.

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim MacQuarrie

This mesmerizing history of the Andes Mountains smoothly brings colorful characters and outrageous stories to general readers.


Kim MacQuarrie (Last Days of the Incas) has long been fascinated by the vast region defined by the Andes Mountains. Having traveled and studied the length of these mountains, 4,500 miles of South America, he shares their stories in Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries.

Protagonists range over centuries and national borders, and include Pablo Escobar, the modern Colombian drug lord; Charles Darwin as an amateur naturalist in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands; the 1980s Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru; a teenaged girl sacrificed by the Incas in the 1400s; Che Guevara, making his final stand in Bolivia; and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose lives likewise end in Bolivia. MacQuarrie explores cultural conflicts with sensitivity, as in examining Hiram Bingham, the “discoverer” of the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru, who conveniently ignored earlier local knowledge of the site. Finally, MacQuarrie introduces the Yámana people of the southernmost points of Chile and Argentina, and meets with the last speaker of the Yámana language.

Life and Death in the Andes is captivating, its fascinating tales told with enthusiasm as well as careful research when dealing with relatively straightforward facts or with the story of “Juanita”–a young woman who lived in the 15th century–told as “an imaginative reconstruction based upon historical, ethnographic, forensic, and archaeological evidence.” This engaging history of dramatic stories and arresting characters is entertaining as well as informative, and its readability serves to recommend it widely.

This review originally ran in the December 22, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 coca leaves.

guest review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, from Pops

More than three years ago, I listened to the audio version of this book, and reviewed it here. At that time, Pops commented:

You make a most important point – that this is essential American history, of which most white Americans are sadly unaware. Jim Crow discouraged personal initiative and disrupted families & communities – a loss for the South. The challenge for black Americans to recreate their lives in “foreign” parts of the country, and the consequences for those regions, is an important part of our collective & continuing history.

He has now gotten around to reading The Warmth of Other Suns himself, and posted a longer comment to that original review. I thought it deserved its own post here so that more readers would have a chance at his thoughts.


I finally picked this one up, overcame the weighty intimidation of 600 pages and fully appreciated what Wilkerson created. I will simply add to your good observations.

Like you, I enjoyed her written voice and how she allows herself to be part of the story. Her own family story, and its part in her motivation for writing, is important and contributes to the warmth of her people stories. She writes with open sympathy, if not empathy, for the migrants, and full appreciation for the courage & fortitude revealed in their experiences; and I found that appropriate. Just one example, from her earliest pages describing the magnitude of the migrants’ decisions: “it was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”

I am struck by the breadth of her story, much attributable to how she weaves in anecdote & nuance in the course of her narrative. Whole books can be written of the wide ranging cultural contributions in literature, music, sports (maybe even “root doctors” in medicine?) – from the early stages of slavery forward, but released in a torrent once the migration began escaping Jim Crow. She mentions this in passing, but we learn more as she accumulates anecdotes & chapter heading quotes.

The racism implicit in mainstream history & sociology accounts is due full treatment elsewhere, but she obliquely makes the point well with examples of contemporary “professional” accounts, including some that are uncomfortably recent.

And I’m glad she also observes the way the migrants changed the cities, not just the reverse; this is not a Black History Month episode – it’s an essential part of American history that has been ignored and misunderstood at our loss. Her treatment of the Jim Crow regime is a good example, as she describes the deliberate way it was constructed, one little ordinance or ambiguous social convention at a time, enforced by law but often also arbitrarily, in the shadows, hidden under literal cloaks as well as cloaks of darkness. The not-knowing was part of the terror; her analogy to the spread of Nazism is worthy. She describes the terrible impact on individuals, both physical & mental; but also the deep & insidious cultural impacts, including the scars on a white culture so pitifully dependent on the master/slave mentality.

Hers is a wonderful contribution to our history, and will no doubt guide my further reading as it has yours.

Thoughtful as ever. Thanks, Pops. For those that missed it, this is an exhortation to go get Wilkerson’s excellent book today! (My final editorial addition: I really do recommend the audio version.)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris

Photographs of memento mori from around the world illustrate rich relationships with death.

memento mori

Paul Koudounaris (The Empire of Death) presents phenomenal photographs and a fascinating survey of death across cultures and history with Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us. His text is concise but effective, allowing his photography to take the lead. Images are gorgeously rendered in large format and across full spreads. They feature ossuaries, charnel houses and intricate, artistic arrangements of bones, mummies and decorated skeletons from various cultures.

Koudounaris portrays the Torajans of Indonesia, who place their dead in caves, and after the coffins disintegrate, arrange the bones decoratively; the Aymara Indians of Bolivia, who keep treasured skulls in their homes and ask them for advice; and the elaborate, even decadent, Catholic ossuaries created in response to Protestant reforms. Buddhists gilded certain mummies; Rwandans set up memorial vaults. Wrapped in a blue satin cover, with more than 500 illustrations, Memento Mori offers a striking tribute to many ways of remembering and honoring death and the dead.

This review originally ran in the November 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 perspectives.

Teaser Tuesdays: Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us by Paul Koudounaris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This year I am writing a gift review of Memento Mori, a big, beautiful coffee-table-style art book about reminders of death, or the dead, across cultures and years.

memento moriToday’s teaser sets up the concept that “our” (modern, Western) cultural approach to death is not the only one.

Leaving the village, I asked the guide if it was considered unusual to keep mummies in the home. His response was unforgettable. No, he did not find it unusual, because when he was a boy, he and his brothers slept in the same bed as the mummy of their grandfather.

The author is visiting Tana Toraja, a region in Sulawesi, Indonesia. As he’ll show, their practice of embracing the dead, preserving them and keeping them around as respected or beloved family members, is actually common in world history. Koudounaris’s informative writing is fascinating, but I admit the real feature here is his breathtaking photographs of memento mori. Stick around for my review to come around the holidays.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim MacQuarrie

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

I am loving Life and Death in the Andes. It’s a moderately fat book at nearly 400 pages, but never less than captivating in all its various stories. Stay tuned for my review to come in December.


Today’s teaser is, of course, related to a sense of place.

“It is the fate of every voyager,” Darwin wrote later in his autobiography, “[that] when he has just discovered what object in any place is more particularly worthy of his attention, to be hurried from it.” Right now, however, Darwin was so upset he could hardly eat.

Why was Darwin so upset? It wasn’t seasickness, although his early days on the Beagle were beset by that complaint. No, he was dismayed to discover after the fact that he wasn’t such a professional naturalist, after all. Do pick up this engaging history to learn more!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem’s straight-talking memoir is rich with personal anecdote, political history and a fervent love for living on the go.


Gloria Steinem, founder of New York and Ms. magazines and many women’s organizations and a noted leader of the women’s movement, shares her stories from along the way in My Life on the Road. This simply stated memoir recounts Steinem’s childhood, her organizing and activism from her youth into the present, with commentary on the social and political events of those decades. But it is also explicitly a story of life lived on the move. As she sees it in hindsight, Steinem inherited a love for constant motion from her father, who lived for most of her life out of his car, with little Gloria keeping him company for her first 10 years. As a young woman not ready to settle down to marriage and motherhood, and then as an organizer, she kept moving. One chapter is dedicated to her choice to travel communally rather than use an automobile of her own, because it offers increased opportunities for contact.

In stating her goals for this book, Steinem cites storytelling as a central drive. Much is told in short vignettes, stories from those she’s met in her travels or lessons learned on her way. There are more than a few instances of Steinem making assumptions about people (Harley riders, cab drivers), only to have them proven wrong–emphasizing the idea that every person is more than he or she appears.

Steinem hopes to encourage her readers to hit the road, too. She is clearly deeply passionate about the advantages of travel: for perspective, for personal development and for plain enjoyment. She recommends that politicians travel the country and the world: “I called big-city contributors from on-the-road places, so I could say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like out here.'”

My Life on the Road is not a history of the women’s movement, although of course it contains many references to that history, as well as to the U.S. political climate and events of the second half of the 20th century. Instead, Steinem’s memoir is a glimpse into one remarkable woman’s life and philosophies of the road. It includes profiles of Steinem’s immediate family and friends like Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller and Florynce Kennedy, and briefly addresses the conflict between Steinem and Betty Friedan. Steinem’s writing style is personal, warm, approachable and straightforward. Her fans will be satisfied by this personal view, one that combines a love for people and places and stories and change with a love for movements–in both senses.

This review originally ran in the October 15, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 stories.

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