"Colors of the Mountain" by Da Chen (Anchor Books/Random House, $15.95)
During the Olympics four years ago in Beijing, China flexed its muscles at great expense in the hope of being somebody on the world stage. However, for most Americans China remains an exotic, far-off place with a history few of us know and a location explained by the popular canard that if we dig a hole deep enough, we'll discover it.
Communist China under Chairman Mao Zedong is even more distant and a part of its history its residents may wish to forget. "Colors of the Mountain" is a memoir set during Mao's reign and subsequent fall from grace. Born in 1962, the Year of Great Starvation, Da Chen's family had itself fallen from grace as members of the landlord class. The family property, handed down for generations, was reclaimed by the state and given to strangers to farm. A walled-in home, garden and yard are all that is left for Chen's family of seven. Yet his parents, not losing hope, bestow upon their second son the name of Da, which translates as prosperity.
The Communist party gives to city dwellers, who dreamily wish to live the simple country life, the landlords' stolen land and then they are not allowed to move back to the city after discovering the daily hardships of working in the rice and yam fields at the whimsy of the seasons. Thus evolves a community characterized by distrust, whispers and rumors of favored people and outcasts, of changes of fortune as unpredictable as the weather.
Chen's family is made to pay for past success by being beaten, forced to work in labor camps and rice fields, given the most burdensome work by party bosses compared to other laborers and being spat upon and insulted on an almost daily basis.
Growing up barefoot in a remote southern village called Yellow Stone, Chen's early days are empty with hunger. His family's status makes him an outcast at school. Education is meted out sparingly to the chosen favorites of the Red Party. Faced with obstacles beyond his control, Chen finds solace in learning calligraphy from his grandfather and how to play the flute and then the violin, escaping his situation through music.
Tired of being bullied, Chen ingenuously befriends a trio of ne'er do-wells. His alliance with these street-wise ruffians blossoms to a level of brotherhood, filled with hours of gambling, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, hanging out and dreaming of the future. While cherishing his friends who were not landlords' children, Chen wonders if his future, too, will be jail or the rice fields.
But a few significant opportunities are afforded him and he seizes them. In chapter after lively chapter, the reader learns life lessons along with Chen. Guided by the wisdom of his parents and copious prayers to Buddha, the landlord's humbled young son might indeed come to expect a life beyond Yellow Stone.
Chairman Mao's death turns the country inside out. What was banned is allowed; what was cherished is now ridiculed and what was cast out finds value again. A new political structure opens doors to a once-in-a-lifetime chance at success beyond the village borders.
Will Chen achieve his dream of attending a university thousands of miles from his home?
by Jill Zima Borski
"Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage" by Ruth A. Hawkins (University of Arkansas Press, $34.95)
Ruth Hawkins, an administrator at the Arkansas Heritage Sites program that includes the Heming-way Pfeiffer Museum in Piggott, Arkansas, is signing copies of her new hardcover book on Tuesday, July 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hemingway House, 907 Whitehead St. The book is billed as "the only biography of Ernest's second marriage" to the native of Piggott and long-time resident of the historic house on Whitehead Street in Key West.
There's free admission to locals and books are for sale at the Hemingway Book Store with complimentary autographing.
"The Cool Part of His Pillow" by Rodney Ross (Dreamspinner Press, paperback $17.99, e-book $6.99)
Key West resident Rodney Ross is signing copies of his novel, "The Cool Part of His Pillow," on Friday, July 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. poolside at the Orchid Bar behind the Orchid Key Inn, corner of Duval and Truman.
The story details Barry Grooms' journey when his partner of 20-plus years is killed on Barry's 45th birthday. Numbly navigating a surreal conveyor belt of friends, family and bad casseroles, he escapes to Key West, then to New York. Yet no matter how great his retreat, life's gravity spins Barry back to the town where he grew up and a life lesson on how to say goodbye with grace.
Ross and his partner Greg Charleston recently won the "Most Creative" citation in the Key West Mystery Fest writing competition (published in May in Solares Hill).