Review of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows

Dreaming in Chinese

Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language

by Deborah Fallows

Walker & Co., New York, 2010. 205 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve always loved books about the cross-cultural experience of living in another country. Deborah Fallows has a PhD in Linguistics, and makes her story even more interesting by reflecting on aspects of the Mandarin language and the ways they are reflected in the Chinese people and culture.

She and her husband lived in China for three years, and this book is a fascinating look at her experiences. Don’t tell, but I’m already plannning to give a copy to my nephew for his birthday — He just spent two semesters studying in China. I wonder if he will have noticed some of these same things.

The author explains why the language lens worked so well for her:

“The language paid me back in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China’s art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

“As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works — its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language — a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example — and how that point could elucidate something very “Chinese” I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country — how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.

“This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.”

Her result is completely fascinating. You will enjoy this book if you are at all curious about people and language.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from the Fairfax County Public Library.

Review of Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr

four_seasons_in_romeFour Seasons in Rome

On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, New York, 2007. 210 pages.

Anthony Doerr won an award to come to Rome for a year to write. What a fabulous opportunity! The timing, however, was interesting — the fellowship began when his twin sons were six months old.

Four Seasons in Rome tells the story of that chaotic and amazing year when Anthony Doerr and his wife and infant sons got to live in the Eternal City. This wonderful book combines aspects of many types of memoir: the bemused blunderings and awe of a new parent, cross-cultural adventures and misadventures, musings about the writing process and the ways we avoid it, and the wonders of Rome.

I had an extra interest in the book, because the time our family visited Rome (our last family vacation as an intact family) was during the very year that Anthony Doerr was there — We were there after the Pope’s funeral, but before the next Pope was elected. So we saw a teeny tiny bit of what he mentions.

Here’s a little taste:

“Every few days there are moments of excruciating beauty. We are simultaneously more happy and more worn out than we have ever been in our lives. We communicate by grinning and pointing and waving food in the air. We don’t sleep as well as we used to. Our expectations (today I might take a shower; the #75 bus might actually show up) are routinely dashed. Just when we think we have a system (two naps a day; Shauna finds a rosticceria with chickens on spits that is open on Sundays), the system collapses. Just when we think we know our way around, we get lost. Just when we think we know what’s coming next, everything changes.”

It’s fun to vicariously share in Anthony Doerr’s experiences, not quite sure whether to envy him or to feel sorry for him — mostly glad I can enjoy it in nice comfortable book form.

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Review of You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons, by Mo Willems


You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons

The World on One Cartoon a Day

by Mo Willems

with a foreword by Dave Barry

Hyperion Paperbacks, New York, 2006.  396 pages.

Back in 1990, when the brilliant cartoonist Mo Willems was young and fresh out of college and not ready to leap into the grown-up world of work, he was fortunate enough to take a trip around the world.

We are fortunate that he recorded his experiences in the form of one cartoon drawn each day of his journey.

He wrote a caption and date for each cartoon, and the modern author has filled in some details that inspired the drawing.

The result is a delightful and quirky window on the world, from the eyes of one of those scruffy backpackers.  I lived in Europe for ten years, so even though I was there after Mo Willems had already left, I felt like I had seen him!

On top of the interesting way of looking at the world, his gifts as a brilliant cartoonist were already showing.  He expresses the people of the world, and the experiences of travel with a few lines.  Yet the result is instantly recognizable.

Take an amusing armchair journey around the world with this book.

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