By Nora Krug
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; C04
Books we missed, books we raved about, and books back in print.
When she was 20, Jan Wong may have altered the fate of a girl she barely knew. A Canadian and zealous Maoist, Wong was one of two Western students at Beijing University in 1973 when she became a momentary confidante of a Chinese student, Yin Luoyi, who confessed her desire to go to America. Wong immediately alerted the authorities. "I was that very dangerous combination: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent," she recalls in her memoir, A Comrade Lost and Found (Mariner, $14.95). Yin was expelled and forced to labor in an oil field. Wong returned to Canada and became a journalist, wife and mother. The vanished student was barely a memory until Wong rediscovered her in an old diary. Convinced that she'd ruined Yin's life, in 2006 Wong returned to China with her family to make amends. Her memoir is a chronicle of this guilt trip.
As she searches for her former classmate, Wong, a former Beijing correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail and author of the memoir "Red China Blues," also offers observations about the new China (the smoggy skies of Beijing are "the color of soiled cotton balls"). But this book is fundamentally a lesson about remorse and the limits of absolution. When at last snitch and victim meet, there are no fireworks, just an odd politeness. "I was wounded in the heart," Yin later tells Wong. But the subject, unlike the author, has already moved on.
Lia, the narrator of Laurie Halse Anderson's bracing novel Wintergirls (Speak, $9.99), is also wracked by guilt, and in her case it is literally eating away at her. A high school senior with a raft of problems -- chief among them anorexia -- Lia is haunted by the death of her former best friend, Cassie, a bulimic whose cries for help she ignored. Lia's weight and self-esteem spiral downward; she lashes out at her family and friends; she cuts herself. "I'm a fat load and I disgust myself," she says. "I take up too much space already. I am an ugly, nasty hypocrite. I am trouble. I am a waste." It's a long fall before Lia begins to find her way out.
This is bleak territory, especially for a book intended for young adults. But the dark material shouldn't be prohibitive. Anderson -- best known for her 1999 novel "Speak," about a young girl who went silent after a sexual assault -- isn't a scaremonger or a schoolmarm. "I never set out to send messages," she has said. "I set out to tell a good story." In "Wintergirls," she has done just that. Lia's tale is both painful to read and riveting. Unfortunately, many young women will relate to her despair, and if the novel helps them find solace or hope, all the better. Same goes for their parents.
From our previous reviews:
In the novel The Believers (Harper, $14.99), Zoë Heller tells "the story of a young woman going through the humiliating process of losing her atheism," Ron Charles wrote, in "an astute family comedy" in which Heller's "arcing wit" is on full display.
Both dark and funny, Chris Cleave's Little Bee (Simon & Schuster, $14) "hinges on a single horrific encounter" on a Nigerian beach in which the life of an African teenager and a British editor "are brought into brutal conjunction," according to Sarah L. Courteau.
Elizabeth McCracken's memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Back Bay, $12.99), centers on a tragic subject -- the stillbirth of McCracken's son -- but the book is not depressing, Peggy Orenstein wrote. Rather, it is "a fresh look at the bumpy terrain of sorrow, love, youthful folly, aged folly, resilience and selfhood."
Now in her 80s, Paule Marshall, a little-known author of the novels "Brown Girl, Brownstones" and "Praisesong for the Widow," looks back at the intellectual and geographical influences on her life in Triangular Road (Basic, $14). Jonathan Yardley said the book reveals Marshall's "strong gift for self-scrutiny made all the more revealing by quiet humor."
Laura Miller revisits the world of C.S. Lewis in The Magician's Book (Back Bay, $14.99), an "extended literary appreciation," Elizabeth Hand wrote, that "is like sitting down for the afternoon with a fellow Narnia nut who is much more erudite than you are but genial and amusing enough never to intimidate or bore."
In Passing Strange (Penguin, $16.95), Martha A. Sandweiss tells the story of Clarence King, a white 19th-century geologist and writer who led a double life by posing as a black Pullman porter and steelworker. Annette Gordon-Reed praised the book as an "immensely fascinating work."
"Despite its length and grim subject matter," The Third Reich at War (Penguin, $20), the third volume of Richard J. Evans's trilogy on Hitler's Germany, "is beautifully written," wrote Benjamin Carter Hett, and "even gripping."
Krug reviews paperbacks every month for The Post.