In January 2020, “Here and Elsewhere” was inspired by my desk calendar, created by a Toronto artist (each month with a quotation from the work of an author associated with this city and printed on 100% recycled paper with VOC-free inks),  Cuz we can be inspired to broaden our experience of the world in the smallest ways; as readers, we can create a microcosm of the world on our shelves and explore it, book by book.

When I turned the calendar page and “discovered” Shanghai for October, I was thrilled. I immediately knew what book I wanted to read. One of my 20-something books—a book that has sat unread on my shelves for more than twenty years. Gulp. In this case, it’s more accurately a book that I’ve left unfinished for that long.

My copy of Life and Death in Shanghai’s spine clearly indicates my stopping point, about three hundred pages into the autobiography, nearly halfway. Now I no longer recall if there was something about Nien Cheng’s narrative that lodged my bookmark there; she was locked in solitary confinement for six-and-a-half years during China’s Cultural Revolution, so maybe I set it aside because it was challenging. (I reread the first ¾ of Anne Frank’s diary compulsively as a girl and only finished reading it a few years ago.)

Nien Cheng’s narrative begins on July 3, 1966, in the study of her “old home n Shanghai”, her servants in their quarters and her daughter asleep in her bedroom, the “slow whirling of the ceiling fan overhead” and “white carnations dropping in the heat in the white Chien Lung vase” on her desk. Bookshelves line her room (English and Chinese books), her “home and a haven”. This scene is the last glimpse of her “normal life”, so she recalls it in tremendous detail (and uses the opportunity to situate readers in her life as she sketches the room and her immediate surroundings). It’s immediately engaging and skillfully balances the need to educate western readers about the political climate while maintaining their interest in her individual experiences.

There is more history than geography in this work, however, so I went looking for another, complementary read, and requested a copy of Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (1985; Translated by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, 2008) from the public library. Fortunately I’ve been able to renew it, because this Novel of Shanghai is 440 pages long, with little dialogue and ample description.

In short, it’s exactly what I was craving. And I’ll probably be still reading about Shanghai when I sit down to write about my December “destination”. And happily so. For Xudong Zhang describes Wang Anyi as being “in a category of her own”, even while also joining “the lineage of the most memorable chronicles of the modern big city, with the sublime bird’s-eye view reminiscent of Victor Hugo; unrelenting socioeconomic analysis worthy of Balzac; and the intimate, unending chatters of a besieged class that are characteristic of Proust”.

She captures both interior and exterior scenes beautifully. Here, the Alice Apartments:

“Alice Apartments is a place unknown to most, a quiet island in the midst of a noisy city. Situated near the end of a dead-end street, it is a self-contained world. The window curtains are drawn, and even the cries of the crows and sparrows seem to be shut out. The residents seldom step outside and even the maids do not stop to gossip. As soon as the sun goes down, the iron gate is clanged shut, leaving a small side door illuminated by an electric lamp as the only point of entry. […] This quiet does not resemble the unruffled calm of a maiden. It is the quiet of a woman on shore straining to catch sight of her husband at sea, a forced quiet. Here is a fantasy land purchased at the price of loneliness and relinquished youth. In this fantasy land, one day is a hundred years. The streets of Shanghai are filled with would-be Alices, women who are discontent with being ordinary, women full of dreams.

There are so many lovely sentences represented by that single ellipsis above. And the evocation of this scene doesn’t end with these women’s dreams. It’s the kind of writing that you want to read aloud, the kind of reading aloud that you intend to last only a couple of sentences, but then there’s one more sentence that you can’t leave off, and one more, and one more. (Yet, in an impatient reading mood, it could be wholly dismissed.)

I’m still reading my Shanghai travel literature, and contentedly so. Previous travel destinations this year, inspired by my desk calendar, have included  CopenhagenLondonHavanaKyotoParisSan FranciscoMarrakechMexico City, and Rome.