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Fallout from Tiananmen; Been There, Done That; The Peppered Moth

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Fallout from Tiananmen

The Tiananmen Square uprising in China was like mountain bamboo forcing its way through granite. Annie Wang witnessed this discordant political event firsthand, and, as a testament to her experience, wrote "Lili" (Pantheon, $24), her first English-language novel. It is a fictional memoir of a young woman's maturation during the Cultural Revolution filled with emotional, psychological and societal turmoil.

Lili's parents — both music professors — are branded as disreputable intellectuals and their careers destroyed. They are sent from Beijing to the country for "re-education." Lili accompanies them, and endures unbearable humiliation until she finally runs away.

When she returns to Beijing, she associates with a street gang, shaming her family name, and slowly slips into a world of cynicism and self-loathing. When Lili meets Roy, an American journalist living in Beijing, she experiences a cultural and spiritual awakening that parallels their blossoming relationship. The arc of self-discovery continues when Lili bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre, an event that exposes her own tormented soul, and opens her to a more mature political and personal understanding.

"Lili" offers a vivid and sometimes jarring account of modern historical events in China. It seeks to meld the fictional Lili with the country's difficult recent background. This is not an easy task, and Wang's storytelling sometimes suffers under the weight of the burden. She does, however, offer a convincing chronicle of the daily challenges the Chinese people faced in the wake of their Cultural Revolution. — Lee Hall

Been There, Done That

Peter Mayle has made a career out of living the good life and writing about it from his home in the South of France. His first effort, "A Year in Provence," was a runaway best seller. Mayle's gentle humor, wry observations and clear prose were a delight to read. His wonderful descriptions of the region inspired many to travel there to see for themselves.

Mayle undoubtedly signed a lucrative multibook contract in the wake of this phenomenal success. For the sake of his readers — and Mayle — let's hope "French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew" (Knopf, $24) fulfills this contract. In this third nonfiction effort since "Year" it is clear Mayle has run out of material.

Billed as "a joyous exploration and celebration of the infinite gastronomic pleasures of France," "French Lessons" takes its readers on a culinary journey from a Catholic mass celebrating the revered truffle, to a festival centered around frogs' legs, to a marathon that features 20 different stops for wine.

Unfortunately, the journey is as unfulfilling as eating a plain salad at a five-star Michelin restaurant. Mayle's writing is uninspired, his reporting lazy, and his slightly bemused, supercilious tone has worn thin.

In one chapter Mayle sets out to investigate a three-day fair celebrating boudin noir (blood sausage) but goes to the wrong village and misses the festival. He attempts to write a humorous account of the experience, but all I could think about was how he failed to do the most basic research — and tries to get away with it.

A chapter on a restaurant on the beach at St. Tropez and another on an exclusive spa read like advertisements for these establishments, perhaps revealing Mayle's roots in that profession.

Totally absent from "French Lessons" is the chief element that made "A Year in Provence" such a hit: Mayle's wonder at discovering the many charms of France. Ten years after his debut, he's seen it all. Perhaps a change of scenery would do him good.

Jessica Ronky Haddad


Margaret Drabble's new book, "The Peppered Moth" (Harcourt, $25), is admittedly based on the life of her mother who apparently was very talented but who wasted that talent as a provincial wife and mother. The result, according to Drabble, was an embittered woman who was never satisfied with anything. If you are a Drabble fan, you will find this an interesting read — Rozanne Epps

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