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Q and A with Lester Brown civilizational decline and collapse

On February 14, environmentalist Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institue and the Earth Policy Institute, returned to The Bookworm to discuss his latest book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

In the book, Brown warns that the world is facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency and outlines his plan to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse. Join us as Brown discusses the question of can we change direction before we go over the edge?

Pick up a copy of World on the Edge at The Bookworm bookshop.

Mengfei Chen:The world in 2012 is facing a lot of issues. Which is the one keeps you up at night? Why? 

Lester Brown: The issue that keeps me up at night is looming food shortages. Even while world demand for grain, driven by population growth, rising affluence, and the growing use of grain to produce fuel for cars, is generating record growth, farmers are faced with new constraints on efforts to expand production. These include spreading water shortages, rising temperatures, and a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technologies. In more agriculturally advanced countries, such as Japan with rice or France with wheat, grain yield per hectare has plateaued for more than a decade now. Farmers in these countries would like to raise the crop yields, but scientists do not have anything more to offer.

MC: What is a “food bubble?” What leads to one and have there been any recent examples? What happens when one bursts?

LB: The food bubble with which I am most concerned is the one based on overpumping. As we attempt to keep expanding food production through the use of irrigation, we eventually find ourselves overpumping aquifers. Food production continues to climb, but eventually when the aquifer is depleted the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge of the aquifer. When this reduction in pumping comes, the bubble bursts and production shrinks.

The most dramatic example of a bursting bubble is in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years, relying exclusively on irrigation water from a fossil aquifer, i.e. one that does not recharge naturally. In early 2008, the Saudis announced that the aquifer was largely depleted and they would be phasing out grain production. As a result, their wheat production at nearly 3 million tons a year has dropped to 1.1 million tons and will soon disappear altogether. Because this involves a fossil aquifer (instead of the more common renewable aquifer), it is a particularly dramatic example of what happens when a water-based food bubble bursts.

MC: Should those living in developed countries be worried?

LB: Yes. Those of us living in developed countries need to be worried. We need to be worried because our food prices will also be rising along with those in the rest of the world. Beyond this, rising food prices can create political instability in many countries. That instability can affect us all wherever we live. For example, political instability in oil exporting countries such as Nigeria or Iraq can drive up world oil prices, affecting either directly or indirectly the cost of almost everything we consume.

MC: In WOE, you suggest Plan B — a four-prong strategy for preventing the “ultimate recession” aka the collapse of civilization as we now it: massive cut in global carbon emissions, stabilization of the world population, the abatement of poverty, restoration of natural landscapes. If you could add a fifth prong what would it be?

LB: If I were to pick a fifth prong for Plan B, it would be public education on global environmental issues, including climate change. There is a desperate need for a better understanding of what is happening in the world and what the consequences will be if we continue with business as usual.

MC: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing Plan B?

LB: The biggest obstacle to implementing Plan B is a failure to understand the consequences of failing to do so. The alternative to Plan B, or something very similar to it, is civilizational decline and collapse.

MC: What gives you hope?

LB: The thing that gives me the most hope in the world today is the Beyond Coal campaign launched in the United States by the Sierra Club with the support of many other groups. At present in the United States we have 492 coal-fired power plants. Of these 73 are already slated to close. The goal of this campaign is to close every coal-fired power plant in the United States.

MC:If you were a betting man, what are the odds you’d give that the world will act in time?

LB: For what? If the question is can we act in time to prevent climate change, the answer is no. We are already slated to experience some climate change regardless of how quickly we respond. Is it too late to save civilization from all the environmental stresses that are building? I hope not, but there is not much time left. Time is our scarcest commodity.

The Spirit of Tsinghua with Daniel Bell

In ancient Greece, Sparta was synonymous with war and Athens with democracy.

Tsinghua Professor Daniel Bell believes that long after the Greek city-states have ceased to be, modern cities continue to have defining personalities.

Bell’s new book (co-authored with Avner de-Shalit of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) The Spirit of Cities explores the unique ethos of nine modern cities (Beijing represents political power) and how the differences between them shape the lives of those who call them home.

Bell will discuss these topics and more during his book talk on Tuesday, November 29, but before then he took The Bookworm for a walk to demonstrate how a place, even a school campus, can have an ethos.

The Location: Tsinghua University in Beijing’s Haidian District.

Background: Tsinghua and its chief rival Beida regularly duke it out for the position of top dog in the Chinese university system. Bell notes that it is interesting that the two rivals are situated right next to each other and that their respective campuses reflect the unique and somewhat opposing ethos of the schools.

Tsinghua, the alma mater of Chinese President Hu Jintao and of Hu’s expected successor Xi Jinping, has a reputation for conservatism. Engineers designed it. Beida has been at the center of many student political movements that sought to liberalize Chinese society. A poet designed its campus.

Bell points out that Tsinghua may be easier to navigate when you’re late for class but that Beida is a much better place to take your date for a walk at night.

Stop one: The Main Administrative Building


Bell: “This building was built in the 50s and has that Stalinist heritage but it’s interesting inside because it has this art deco interior, from when they redid it. Which in a way shows that they are not completely rejecting tradition.”

Stop two: Campus Green (Auditorium pictured in back)

In 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt obtained congressional approval to reduce the amount of indemnity money China owed the United States after the Boxer Rebellion. His condition: the money had to be used to support Chinese students going to study in America. Tsinghua, originally a preparatory school for these early exchange students, grew from that fund. Tsinghua’s American-influenced history shows in the western style architecture around campus, notably in the Monticello-esque design of the Auditorium.

Bell: “To show a little bit of the unromantic atmosphere here, you aren’t allowed to go onto that central square so you won’t see students lazing around in the grass, staring at the stars. “

Stop Three: The Old Gate

The Old Gate was once the main entrance to the campus. It was demolished during the 1960s and rebuilt according to the original design in 1991.

Bell: “It’s interesting that they choose to keep the characters in traditional form, instead of simplifying it. This reflects respect for tradition.”

Stop four: Confucius statue

In recent years, Confucianism has undergone a revival in China, so much so that a 31-foot bronze statue of the philosopher was unveiled early this year near Tiananmen Square – though admittedly, it was just as quickly removed four months later.

Bell: “This University is a center of Confucianism. Confucians value social harmony –which includes freedom and respect for difference, but ultimately you have to be socially harmonious. ”

Stop five: Shui Mu Tsinghua (not pictured)

The spot, literally “clear water and trees at Tsinghua,” is one of the most scenic parts of campus, featuring rock gardens, a small pond and weeping willows. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the water was clogged with rotting vegetation and giving off a distinctly unpleasant smell.

Bell: “I guess that shows where the school’s priorities are.”


Travel Writer Bruce Wannell on Iran

Travel writer Bruce Wannell will be appearing at The Bookworm on Wednesday, November 30, to talk about his adventures in Iran, a country that has much to offer intrepid travelers undeterred by the country’s often-controversial role in modern geopolitics.

Wannell, an expert on Iran and the Islamic world, has lived and traveled in Iran and Afghanistan for several years. He contributed essays on Iranian cinema, music, calligraphy, philosophy and religion to Iran — Persian: Ancient & Modern, which the Sunday Times’ foreign affairs correspondent Christina Lamb has called “a stunning guide, packed with history, that no visitor to Iran should be without.”

The veteran traveler offers would-be road warriors the following advice:

“My general advice would be to be patient, polite and enthusiastic, and to genuinely try to like and understand the people among whom you’re travelling, and to respect their culture and traditions; never dishonour or humiliate them.

At the same time, never take “NO” for an answer, insist on good quality, reward effort and good service, be generous and discriminating.

The more relevant knowledge you have before visiting the places you want to see, the better you will experience them – hence Odyssey Guides’ emphasis on historical background and also good pictures.

There are, besides, so many different types of tourism and travel: if you have introductions in the country you’re visiting, follow them up, without imposing; if you’re back-packing, develop language survival skills and remember to leave a little present or send one later for the inevitable generosity you’ll meet on the way, often from people much poorer than yourself; if you’re on business, try to take an extra day to actually get out of the air-conditioned fortresses and see something of real life around you; if you’re on a pampering luxury holiday, take a moment to read Amnesty International’s, or Oxfam’s reports on torture, poverty and injustice in the areas immediately around your little heaven ….. i.e. keep your eyes, your ears and your heart open – and then tourism – a very polluting industry – may become real travel, and a meeting of minds, and perhaps a broadening of both.”

Bruce Wannell at The Bookworm, Wednesday, November 30 7:30pm
Tickets 20rmb (members) 30 rmb (non-members)

Between the Stacks: Vicky Mohieddeen from Electric Shadows

Electric Shadows Film Club presents: I ain’t afraid of no ghost!
Saturday, October 29 8pm 

Just in time for Halloween, Electric Shadows brings a special film club screening of Ghostbusters and Michael Jackson’s epic Thriller. Drinks specials for all those in costume.

We’ve paired up with Electric Shadows for some of our most memorable events – including our open air screenings last summer. We caught up Electric Shadows’ founder Vicky Mohieddeen to find out what to expect from her latest adventure in film and sound.

What is the Electric Shadows? What do you do? Who are the members? What kind of crowd does it usually attract?

Electric Shadows is a non profit organization helping to shape the evolution of public cinema inChinaby programming beautiful film events and expanding the cinema into galleries, rooftops, deserts and discos。We host a variety of events inBeijingand beyond, including a short film showcase on the first Sunday of every month, practical experimental film workshops and an amorphous film club. Our audience varies with the different events we run which have ranged from avant-garde films for toddlers to open air bike-in screenings of classic films to a very debauched Rocky Horror night at The Bookworm!

Who are you? How long have you been living inBeijing? What’s your impression of the city, people and life here?

I am a Scottish filmmaker and programmer, I’ve been living inBeijingsince Sep 2008, and Electric Shadows was born very early on as a reaction to the lack of conceptual, interactive experimental film screenings around town. Beijing is a fairly fickle mistress, one day the sun will be shining, my neighbours will help me cart cameras and tripods up 6 flights of stairs, the place will be teeming with potential, adventure and possibility – the next the smog will descend, I’ll be almost run over in the street and have ‘laowai’ spat at me by locals, I won’t understand a damned word people are saying and fail to grasp how things work in this town. Like the girl, with the curl, in the middle of her forehead – whenBeijingis good, she’s very very good, and when she’s bad, she’s wicked.

Talk about the film you are about to play at The Bookworm. Why did you pick it? Are you going to come with a special costume? How do you usually celebrate Halloween?

Our Halloween event this year is I AIN’T AFRAID OF NO GHOST! an 80s film celebration – we’ll be showing Ghostbusters and the full version of the Thriller music video – we wanted to go for something fun this year, and lets face it Ghostbusters is a great film. We’re having an MJ-OFF where budding Michael Jackson impersonators can strut their stuff for the chance to win some MJ-goodies, there will also be a costume comp and if anyone can dance their way through the Thriller vid they’ll be rewarded I’m pretty sure I’m going to be coming as one of the characters from Ghostbusters – there’s a pretty obvious one but who knows I may have a flash of inspiration and go for the ‘most creative interpretation’ prize by coming as the two streams crossing Before moving to Beijing I never used to really get into Halloween but this will be my third at The Bookworm – I was a part of the now infamous murder mystery (which almost ended in a real murder – mine) and then last year’s, shall we say unforgettable, Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don’t know what it is about those Bookworm types, but I’m yet to experience a Halloween event that didn’t end in complete and utter chaos… it’s always the quiet ones…

Between the Stacks: Sinologist & linguist Edward McDonald

This Thursday, October 20, Sinologist and linguist Edward McDonald will be at The Bookworm to give a talk about his latest book Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese: Challenges to Becoming Sinophone in a Globalised World. McDonald, a Lecturer in Chinese at the University of Auckland, explores links between language and culture, from the classroom to real-life situations.

Here he sits down for a quick Q & A about the most common myths about Chinese and why learning to cook Chinese food can help you master the language.

Mengfei Chen: How many foreigners are learning Chinese in 2011? How much of a difference from 20 years ago?

Edward McDonald: I couldn’t give exact figures, but there’s no doubt Chinese is becoming more popular. In the university context that I’m most familiar with, however, it still takes second place to Japanese. Most universities these days, however, would have Chinese programs, and many high schools, and even some primary schools are offering it, both changes from 20 years ago.

MC: Chinese has a reputation for being an extremely difficult language to learn. How much of that is deserved? Myths?

EM: Difficult for whom? If you’re Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese half of your vocabulary is derived from Chinese – like English and French. Chinese does have some features that are unfamiliar to, say, English speakers, for example, the use of tones, but a lot of the talk about Chinese being “difficult” simply serves to disguise the fact that often it’s very badly taught.

Its relatively unfamiliarity to speakers of European languages means that a lot of its special characteristics – features of the grammar like so-called “resultative verbs”, or the fact that in reading the written form you have to work out for yourself where the word boundaries are – are not systematically taught.

MC: Tell me something interesting that you learned about how Chinese is taught to foreigners. Have there been changes in recent years?

EM: Most Chinese programs these days insist on teaching Chinese characters right from the beginning, along with the pinyin Romanization. This means that when you are learning a new word you have to memorize its a. meaning b. pronunciation c. grammatical use d. Romanization and e. the relevant characters all in one hit – a huge memory burden.

A generation ago many textbooks taught the spoken language solely through Romanization and introduced the written language and characters separately – in my opinion, the field of Chinese teaching has gone backwards in this regard in the last 30 years.

MC: Why do you write that learning Chinese inevitably leads the learner to become, at least partially, Chinese?

EM: After a certain stage, once you’ve mastered the basic sounds and wordings of the language, learning how to use Chinese appropriately means being able to operate in Chinese with Chinese people in ways that they recognize and expect – so in this sense, you have to become (partially) Chinese yourself – perhaps a better way of putting it is that you have to develop a Chinese-speaking identity.

MC: How does language fit into the Chinese governments efforts to boost China’s soft power?

EM: The Hanban (Office of Chinese Teaching International) and the Confucius Institutes it is setting up around the world are clearly intended as an extension of China’s soft power. The thing about soft power, however, is that not only does the home country have to offer it to the rest of the world; the rest of the world needs to be interested in taking it up.

Japan has been doing this very successfully for some decades, and so Japanese pop culture and the Japanese language, both supported by significant government efforts, have proved very attractive to the rest of the world.

China has not reached this stage yet either with its own (pop) culture or the language, and perhaps is proving slow to recognize that it needs to make them something foreigners want to take up for their own purposes, not simply for China’s.

MC: Will Chinese ever be able to challenge English’s dominance as a global language?

EM: People make all sorts of predictions about such things – British academics David Graddol and David Crystal are on record here. I personally don’t like to go in for predictions. But I think it’s safe to say that Chinese won’t become a global language simply because it’s an “important language”, or because it has “five thousand years of culture” behind it – there would have to be much more pragmatic reasons: English became a global language because of the global reach of the British Empire and then the American Empire – is something similar happening in the case of Chinese? I don’t know.

MC: What do you think the impact of the computer (pinyin input) will be on the Chinese language?

EM: There are numbers of other input methods used apart from pinyin, for example, ones that use letter codes for the different strokes of Chinese characters, and I don’t know that pinyin is the most commonly used input method in China itself – there are probably statistics on such things.

It is certainly the case that pinyin is more widely known among Chinese than it was say 20 years ago because of its use as input in text messaging and the like. It is certainly true that the use of input methods of all kinds mean that Chinese people are writing characters much less than they used to, and so are probably getting by with visual recognition of many characters rather than the active ability to write them.

I understand that Internet language uses a lot of classical Chinese, e.g. classical terms that are “lifted” and given a particular meaning on the Internet. And text messaging also uses a significant amount of classical Chinese because it’s much shorter and more concise.

MC:  And finally, do you have any tips for people who are trying to learn Chinese?

EM: Find an opportunity to DO something with people in Chinese – play volleyball, practice tai chi, learn how to cook Chinese food – where you’re not having language lessons as such but the language is part of some other activity – it’s much easier than sitting with a tutor trying to make conversation, and if it’s something you’re genuinely interested in, you’ll have much more motivation to learn.

Learning Chinese, Turning Chinese -a booktalk with sinologist and linguist Edward McDonald, The Bookworm. Thursday, October 20, 2011. 7:30pm. 20/30rmb

Between the Stacks: Li’Er

Renown Chinese writer Li’Er recently joined us at The Bookworm for the launch of the English translation of his work The Magician of 1919. He talked about his unique approach to history in his writing and the symbolism of a magician.

When asked why he chose to write about a magician in 1919, in the dawn of the May Fourth Movement, Li’Er explained that
history to him has been always mysterious as if it was handled by a magician. A seemingly simply man, and a simple event, may change history entirely. Li’Er often tends to write about intellectuals in China. With his latest work, he has continued this trend. According to Li’Er, the year 1919 is a dividing line that puts Chinese intellectuals on the frontline of history.

And who are the magicians in contemporary Chinese life? Li’Er argued that many manipulative hands are controlling various aspects of our lives, such as the stock market, real estate and media. These industries are equally using their magic power to influence our lives though we may not even notice.

We sat down with Li’Er after his illuminating booktalk to chat about books, the writing life and Beijing food.

Simone Shi: If not writing, what profession would you have?

Li’Er: A journalist or a teacher. Being a journalist, I will be able to keep a wide contact with the world while being a teacher  I will have regular communication with young people.

SS: What’s your writing habit? Do you have a regular writing schedule or are you the type of writer who writes when inspired?

LE: For many years, I have had a regular writing schedule though it has been increasingly difficult when you have a child.

SS: What are you reading now?

LE: I picked up Fengtang’s Bu’Er at your bookshop the other day and have enjoyed reading it so far. I do not know him at all, thus I have no intention to advertise for him. I read one of his earlier works before and had no great impression. However this new book certainly impressed me. He is definitely a young writer with true talent, so a great writer to be in the future.

SS: After spending so much time in Beijing, what is your favorite Beijing food?

LE:  One of the great advantages of living in Beijing is the large variety of cuisine available here. I personally like things light, thus cooking from HANGZHOU appeals to me the most.

Between the Stacks: Yoram Bauman, stand-up economist

Economics may be the dismal science, but economist/comedian Yoram Bauman is anything but.

On October 27, Bauman, an environmental economist at the University of Washington and the co-author of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume 1: Microeconomics, will bring his new show “Return to the Gold Standard” to The Bookworm.

Here Bauman explains how he became the world’s first and only stand-up economist, why the Federal Reserve tells terrible jokes and offers a sneak peek at his new routine about the metric system.

Mengfei Chen: Are you really the world’s first and only stand-up economist? How did that come about?

Yoram Bauman: Oh yes… it even says so on the Internet!

How it came about: In graduate school (at the University of Washington, in Seattle, about 10 years ago) I blew off some steam by writing a parody of the “ten principles” of economics in a popular textbook. That parody ended up getting published in a science humor journal called the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). AIR hosts a humor session every year at the big AAAS science convention in the US, and in 2003 it just happened to be in Seattle. So I presented my paper there and had so much fun I started going down to open-mic nights at the Comedy Underground. A few years later I had a full economics comedy routine (plus a few jokes about subjects other than economics).

MC: Do economists and comedians have anything in common?

YB: I dunno… they both have a reputation for being arrogant and self-centered?

MC: Why do we need a graphic novel about the prisoner’s dilemma and marginal analysis?

YB: Sometimes it seems like economics textbooks have been designed to take away all the interesting stuff in economics, leaving only a heap of dry bones and graphs. The graphic novel tries to put the fun stuff back in: the stories, the personalities, the jokes. I hope the book helps people connect with economics and see what’s neat about it.

MC: What was your pitch to the publisher? The reaction?

YB: I had perhaps the easiest introduction to publishing ever: my publisher saw my YouTube video and wrote me to ask if I’d be interested in working on a cartoon economics book. He knew what he was doing (he focuses on graphic non-fiction) and so it was an easy decision to say yes, especially after he introduced me to my co-author and illustrator, Grady Klein. We’ve had a fantastic collaborative relation.

MC: Have you ever seen the comic books that the Federal Reserve puts out about monetary policy?

YB: Yes… and I think they send them for free to teachers, and perhaps to anybody else too! To be honest I found them to be a little lacking in creativity and humor: a lot of “The Japanese sure have a yen for trade” kind of jokes. But it’s hard to argue with the price (although I’m sure Ron Paul would).

MC: What was the biggest challenge in writing a cartoon introduction to economics? What was easy?

YB: The biggest challenge for me was adjusting to the constraints of the graphic novel format: thinking in terms of spreads (the single visual image formed by a left-page/right-page combination); ensuring that every chapter had either 10, 12, or 14 pages; and of course keeping the word count down (ack!).

The easiest part was working with Grady: he’s a great artist and a smart fellow, but he’s not an economist, which was good because he brought beginner’s mind to the project. I think we’ve only met in person three times, and talked on the phone twice – the rest has all been by email – but we know each other really well now. And the distance was good for those inevitable occasions when you want to kill each other.

(Actually, our publisher only had to intervene once to settle a disagreement. Grady and I got a free meal out of it, so we should have disagreed more!)

MC: Who do you try out your jokes on first? How do they feel about that?

YB: Now that I have a full-length routine I usually just slip new jokes into the routine to see how it goes; as long as the rest of the routine is funny nobody cares if a few jokes are bombs. But while I’m still crafting the jokes, I’ll tend to obsess about them and talk about them with whoever is around. Usually that’s my wife, and since she picked me up at a comedy club she has no right to complain.

MC: Got any new jokes?

YB: I’ve got some jokes about the metric system that I may have finally gotten into decent shape. (We’ll find out at the show!) And I’ve just started brainstorming a scenario in which Jesus Christ comes down to earth and tries to convince Rick Perry that global warming is for real. (When I do serious economics I work on climate change and carbon taxes, so that routine will hopefully be a nice blend of business and pleasure.)


MC:The subtitle of your book is Volume One: Microeconomics. Should we expect Volume Two: Macroeconomics?

YB: Yes, it’s already available for pre-order and will be in bookstores in January 2012! I’ll try to get an excerpt on my website,

MC: Team Stewart or Team Colbert?

YB: I find Stewart to be funnier and more informative, so he’s got my vote.

 Return to the Gold Standard with Yoram Bauman, The Bookworm, October 27, 7:30pm. Tickets 20rmb (members) 30 rmb (non-members).



Between the Stacks: Gish Jen

On September 20, Gish Jen stopped by The Bookworm to read from and discuss her latest book, World and Town.

World and Town features Hattie Kong, the daughter of an American missionary and a descendant of Confucius, as one of a ragtag cast of characters, including an Cambodian refugee family on the run from their past and Hattie’s retired neurosurgeon ex-lover, who escape to the refuge and fresh start offered by a small Vermont town.

After presiding over a discussion that covered everything from how much it costs to move your grandmother’s bones to whether or not Tiger Mothers were producing a generation of super children, Jen sat down with The Bookworm’s Mengfei Chen for a short discussion about her book and her plans for the future.

How did you decide to write about a Cambodian family?

A lot of it was just serendipitous. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is quite close to Lowell, Massachusetts, where there is a large Cambodian population, which I have always been interested in. It just happened that I was walking around Halloween with my daughter, my daughter’s friend and my daughter’s friend’s mom and the mom said she had a friend who was a juvenile court justice. I had just finished my last book and I asked if I could sit in on this court.

As soon as I walked in [to the court], I saw boys who looked a lot like my son coming in in handcuffs. And this was only 20 minutes away from where my son was studying Latin. I asked, what is going on? Why are these kids already in trouble? So a lot of why I wrote the book was a sense of responsibility to these kids. I understand what is going on and because I understand, I should write about it

What is going on?

It was the families, what immigration does to the family.

And what does immigration do to the family?

First, I don’t like generalizations. But, in a general kind of way, parents often lose their parental authority. Instead of the parents guiding the kids, it becomes the kids guiding the parents. Everything the parents knew about how to be in the world is devalued by the kids and it’s hard. The kids often feel a kind of psychic orphanhood because parents can’t do the things that parents are supposed to do. Of course, a lot of factors affect this: how old the parents are, can the speak English, whether they were from a rural or urban background.

Why did you want to set the story in a small town?

I spend time in a small town and I could see that the town that I saw was not the town that I saw in literature. A lot of towns in books, like [Sinclair Lewis’s] Main Street, are claustrophobic places, places you escape from. I think a lot of people are actually moving to the small town. They are trying to get out of the city. It’s impossible to raise your children there.

I am also interested in the town as an American institution, in how globalization is going to affect these places. These little farmers in Vermont have to deal with beef prices in Argentina. It’s a lot to deal with.

World and Town is written to include many different languages and dialects. Why did you choose to include them?


English is being spoken in different ways. It’s just what I hear. As someone who is cares about voice, it’s interesting. But just, with the other languages, you also see what things they have words for. For example, Khmer has all these different ways to say father. There are a lot of ideas, a lot of culture imbedded in language.

What are you reading right?

Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright. I’m only half way done and it’s wonderful.

 Are you working on anything now?

I’m giving a series of lectures at Harvard next year. The Massey lectures. I’m working on that right now. I can’t say too much. It’s about writing and ethnicity.

As you continue with your book tour, is there any question that you wish someone would ask you but no one does?

No. My audience has asked me every single thing I have ever thought of and then some. I mean, I can’t imagine. It’s amazing how many things people come up with.





Between the Stacks: Paul French

Paul French joined us Wednesday, September 14th at The Bookworm for a thrilling discussion about his latest book, Midnight in Peking.  Midnight details the murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner at the end of an era: Peking, 1937, the city is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium dens, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition. Seventy-five years after Pamela’s brutal murder and the subsequent investigation and cover-up, French finally gives the case the resolution it was denied at the time.

We chatted with French before his talk to ask some questions about crime writing, what he’s reading now and the age old question, Beijing or Shanghai.

What’s the first crime book you’ve read?
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock

What’s your favorite occupation (if not writing)?
Researcher. I like spending time in archives, going through some old stuff.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Charm!? Funny, handsome yes, but not charming. (Yeah?)

Shanghai or Beijing?

Shanghai. One is livable, the other is not.

Do you have a favorite period in Chinese history that you like to write about?
The Republican Era between 1912 to 1945. Everything was possible then.

What book is on your night stand?
Selected essays by Christopher Hichens. His heroes are my heroes.

Midnight in Peking is available now at The Bookworm.

For more on the story behind the story, China Daily interviews French here.

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