New in Paperback: 'Socialism Is Great!' by Lijia Zhang

By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 27, 2009


A Worker's Memoir of the New China

By Lijia Zhang

Anchor. 363 pp. $15

When Lijia Zhang was 16, her mother asked her, "Would you like to be a worker, if you have a chance?" This was 1980 Nanjing, China, and in Zhang's working-class household, such questions were rhetorical. Zhang dared to tell her mother no anyway, that she dreamed instead of attending a university and becoming a journalist. She was put in her place summarily: "Your mouth still smells of breast milk!" Zhang did become a worker at a missile factory, but, thankfully, she never gave up her creative passions.

In "Socialism Is Great!" Zhang recounts her quest for freedom -- from constraints both political and familial. It's a tale that crackles with insight and wit: "My peers and I were too young to appreciate the pleasures of boredom compared to the political terror our parents suffered," she observes. Bent on not becoming "another faceless worker ant," she carved out her independence, wearing Western-style clothes, studying English, publishing flowery articles in the factory's newsletter and earning a degree at a technical school. It's no wonder, then, that when the protests broke out at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Zhang was right there, leading a group of marchers from her factory. Now a journalist in Beijing, she offers both an inspiring personal story and a unique look at a time when, as she puts it, "the colorful trash of capitalism was creeping into China's gray kingdom."

Also of Interest

-- "In an age when gastronomic fiction has become fashionable," Emile Zola's 1873 novel The Belly of Paris (Modern Library, $16) "seems ahead of its time," writes food historian Mark Kurlansky in the introduction to his new translation of the book. Set amid the bustling Les Halles market, the novel "revolves around the graphically illustrated conceit that the bourgeoisie not only eats too much but has an unhealthy obsession with food." Its descriptions of cuisine, too, are notable for their length, detail and humor.

-- If age is the culprit in memory loss, "what, precisely, was it stealing?" Sue Halpern asks in Can't Remember What I Forgot (Three Rivers, $14.95), an exploration of brain science in which she plays the role of both author and guinea pig.

-- Declaring his book "a protest against political Islam," Ed Husain offers an insider's view of Muslim extremism in The Islamist (Penguin, $16), a memoir about his transformation from a peaceful Muslim to a radical and back.

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