Thursday, September 25, 2008

Destroying the Past, Running towards the Future

Ok, so it looks like when I talked about the Cybils yesterday, I forgot to mention that I am part of the final round judging panel in Middle Grade/Young Adult Nonfiction. I served on this panel last year and am really excited to be doing it again! So please, look at your bookshelves carefully and nominate some good titles, starting next week! Last year's winner in this category, Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood was amazing, but I'm hoping we can find something even better this year!

Here's another phenomenal nonfiction book, but it's for adults.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed Michael Meyer

This book is many things all at once. It is a snapshot of modern China's lower classes on the verge of the Olympics It is the history of urban planning theory, and the history of Beijing's changing skyline, cityscape, and footprint. It is a love letter to a neighborhood and its school. It is an examination of a city at the heart of an exploding economy. And it does all of these things well, in one cohesive package.

While living in Beijing, Meyer was struck by the destruction of the hutong neighborhoods, but he also found that most of the hutong's most ardent supporters were tourists and scholars, not the people who actually lived there. So, Meyer moved to the hutong to check it out for himself and to volunteer as an English teacher at the local school. He is one of the few Westerners to get a true glimpse at this slice of Beijing life.

In the opening pages, Meyer declares "I am not a sentimentalist; no one should have to live in poverty, no matter how picturesque." At the same time, he is witnessing the destruction of a community, his community, and the changes don't appear to necessarily be for the better. Meyer's account of life in the hutong, and the changes taking place balances both sides of the debate well.

At the same time, it is a story of life in Beijing today, in the areas that aren't populated by overnight millionaires. He tells of his students, the adventures of the Mokey the Monkey who teaches the kids English in their textbook. This is the story of a city preparing to be good Olympic hosts, whether its essay contests for his students or English lessons for the police "from a textbook titled Olympic Security English. In dialogues named "Dissuading Foreigners from Excessive Drinking" and "How to Stop Illegal News Coverage" the lessons presented such pattern drills as 'I'm afriad we'll have to detain you temporarily.' " It is the life story of his neighbors and of the neighborhood.

This week, I'm blathering more about hutongs over at Geek Buffet.

Highly readable and highly enjoyable, I highly recommend--this is one of my favorite titles on Modern China.

1 comment:

cessie said...

Sounds like a very interesting book and I will put it on my TBR list at once. With the Olympic Games coming up I heard the stories about the destruction of the hutong neighbourhoods and wondered how it would look like now. Some years ago we biked through the neighbourhoods and I got impressed with it all.
I'm really curious to the book.