One blessing of living in the age of interwebs is that it is much easier to communicate directly with an author. After I finished Bo Caldwell”s exquisite City of Tranquil Light, I found her Facebook page and thanked her for her transformational book. And she graciously replied! This morning, after I finished reading Rob Gifford’s eye-opening book China Road, I sniffed around and found a podcast of Gifford in which he reads segments of his books. [Addendum: even better is this 7 part series On the Road in China.]
Two of my favorite genres are travel memoirs and historical fiction. China Road takes us west from Shanghai to Kazakhstan along the 3,000-mile-highway, Route 312 in the twenty-first century. City of Tranquil Light tells the story of Will and Katherine, who move to northern China as Mennonite missionaries in 1906.
Gifford’s book put a face on China. It was the first book I’ve read about China that didn’t read/feel foreign, where the I thought of the subjects he interviewed first as people, then Chinese. Gifford created a thirst in me to know more about China; his list of recommended books has weighted down my to be read (TBR) list. His prose and style reminded me of Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia. William Kirby writes, “If there is one book to read before you visit China, it is China Road.”
Bo Caldwell’s lyrical writing took me apart and put me back together again. The story is inspired by her maternal grandparents, missionaries who adopted China as their homeland. Caldwell effectively alternates the telling of the story between Will’s reminiscences at the end of his life and Katherine’s contemporary journal entries. I thought, when I finished Eric Metaxus’ Bonhoeffer in January, that it would be my favorite book of 2012. But City of Tranquil Light at least is tied for first, and is clearly my favorite fiction of 2012, thus far. Reading Bo Caldwell is like reading Wendell Berry, a lofty compliment.
Missionaries have gotten a bad rap in most books published in the last twenty years. It was refreshing to read, in both titles, winsome accounts of missionaries. Rob Gifford calls James Hudson Taylor one of his childhood heroes. He also introduced me to Mildred Cable and Francesca French, two stalwart middle-aged English women who tramped across the Gobi Desert and wrote “one of the great China travel books.” Bo Caldwell makes you love her main characters. I want to find an elderly man in an assisted living home in Claremont, CA, put my hand on his arm, and say, “Tell me your story.”
Two highly excellent books that are guaranteed to raise your interest in China.