For those on your gift list who prefer fiction, I have a couple of novels to recommend. Anchee Min's "Empress Orchid" (Houghton Mifflin) is a fascinating historical novel about the woman who gave birth to China's last emperor in the 19th century. Min weaves a delicate literary tapestry from the life of Tzu Hsi, a poverty-stricken provincial girl who at 17 becomes one of the many wives of China's ruling Ch'ing Dynasty emperor. While less overtly political than Min's stunning memoir of life during China's Cultural Revolution, "Red Azalea," or her fictionalized biography "Becoming Madame Mao" (both also worth checking out), "Empress Orchid" provides insight into Chinese history and culture that made China fertile ground for Maoist-style totalitarianism. Unlike Arthur Golden's vapid "Memoirs of a Geisha," Min's novel will inform as well as entertain.
Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" (Mariner Books) is the first novel by the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the short story collection "Interpreter of Maladies." I love stories about immigrants trying to make their way in the new, sometimes unsettling world of the United States, and Lahiri has certainly captured the universal difficulties of first and second-generation Americans, in this case an Indian family living in the academic community of Cambridge, Mass.
Finally, if you want the perfect prophylactic for Steven Soderbergh's upcoming film "Che," about the 1960s Argentinean revolutionary and Castro sidekick Che Guevara, buy a copy of Carlos Eire's memoir, "Waiting for Snow in Havana" (Free Press). Eire was one of thousands of Cuban children who came to America as unaccompanied minors in Operation Pedro Pan during the 1960s. Eire manages to make you laugh out loud even against the backdrop of Castro's reign of terror. "Waiting for Snow in Havana" reads more like a children's picaresque than the usual autobiography, but it's a great tale and a reminder of why so many people continue to risk their lives to escape Cuba.
Merry Christmas and good reading.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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