Lisa See is a master of historical fiction and the complexities of friendships between women, and these facts are on display in China Dolls. In her latest novel, See follows the lives of three very different women of Asian descent as they navigate 1930s San Francisco. Vowing lifelong friendship, the women find fame as dancers in The Forbidden Garden, a glamorous and exclusive nightclub. However, after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the friends must face racism and a betrayal that threatens to tear them apart. Our reviewer writes that China Dolls is "backed by meticulous research into the Chinese-American nightclub era, making her portrayal of this little-known period in history all the more memorable." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about what books See reads in her spare time, so we asked her to recommend three recent favorites, which she graciously agreed to share.
When I’m writing, I try to read within the subject of the current novel I’m working on or the one that will be next. I’m kind of superstitious this way. I don’t want someone else’s voice to seep into my own work even inadvertently. As a result, I only read for pleasure when I’m on vacation or have just finished a novel. When I was in China on a research trip recently, I brought Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being with me. I’m such a huge fan of her work! The main character—also named Ruth—is walking along the shore in British Columbia when she comes across a lunchbox hidden among the driftwood and seashells. Inside are letters, a notebook and other ephemera collected by Nao, a 16-year-old schoolgirl in Japan—and possible victim of the tsunami. The novel moves back and forth between Ruth and Nao, who somehow both manage to be wickedly funny, heartbreakingly pathetic and courageous all at the same time. And the story is so wide-ranging! Kamikaze pilots, quantum physics, anime, Zen Buddhism, with a little Proust thrown in for good measure.
The Prairie Trilogy
By Willia Cather
For another trip, I decided to bring along a classic: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I loved O Pioneers! so much that when I came home I looked up information on the life of Willa Cather and discovered that this book was the first in a series called The Prairie Trilogy. For my next trip, I read The Song of the Lark, the second book in the trilogy. These are devastatingly sad and sorrowful stories. They are also vividly American—with the beautiful yet cruel landscape, the precariousness of life on the untamed prairie, the unending heartache and heartbreak of love and the ways families fail us, save us, and push us into doing things far beyond our capacities. Summer vacation is coming, and I plan on finishing the trilogy by reading My Ántonia.
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
By Pu Songling
But as I said, in my day-to-day life I’m reading for “work.” For the last year or so, I’ve had Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling on my nightstand. Back in the 17th century, Pu Songling, a scholar who failed China’s imperial examinations fourteen times, spent the rest of his life roaming the country and collecting 500 eerie stories of ghosts, shape shifters, demons and vampires. He was writing down these strange but supposedly “true” stories literally centuries before Stephen King, Anne Rice or Stephanie Meyer. My favorites feature fox spirits—typically young women who take human form and then seduce and confuse young men. Sometimes entire households can succumb to “fox influence,” which usually means trouble but can also mean good fortune. Pu is a beautiful but spooky chronicler: “The wind sighs coldly outside and the chill on the table is like ice.” I read one or two of these stories a week when I go to bed, but I can’t say they’re much help in putting me to sleep!
What have you been reading recently, readers? Will you be picking up China Dolls or any of See's recommendations?
(Author photo by Patricia Williams)