Friday, December 12, 2014

Nonfiction: Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

The full title of the National Book Award winning work by Evan Osnos is Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. As someone who would not describe themselves as an informed person, I anticipated that this book would be both informative and enlightening. I know of China's history in only the broadest sense, so anything Osnos put down in this book was almost certainly going to be new information for me. And while I expected to learn a good amount, I did not expect to also be so thoroughly entertained as well as fascinated. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book that gives a detailed account of China: where it's been, where it is now, and in what direction the country seems to be heading. The book is split up into three sections, as its title indicates, that include fortune, truth, and finally, faith. Within each section, Osnos blends together stories from the lives of individuals that he has encountered due to his work, with the greater story of China as a nation. Some of the early accounts found in the book come from the writer's experience while working for the Chicago Tribune, but for the past six years, Osnos has found his home at The New Yorker

The first section on fortune includes the most discussion about China's history as a communist country and the rise of the individual. People are now working to make fortunes for themselves, and those that were born into the lower classes are doing their best to escape a fate that used to be considered unalterable. 

The second deals with truth and the people's desire for honesty from their government. According to Osnos, finding out the truth from the Chinese government is not only incredibly difficult, but anyone making an overt attempt to discover it, and distribute it to others, is in danger of essentially disappearing at the hands of Chinese officials. One trend that seemed to be a reoccurring one was the hiding of numbers and names of those that die in horrible disasters. The government refuses to release information on the number of deaths after schools collapsed with children inside after an earthquake; after a train crashed into another train because of a system failure due to a lightening strike; and even how many miners have died in collapsed mines over the past few years. Situations like these have caused the people to distrust their government. And even trying to discuss events such as these via the media or Internet ends up being difficult as sites get shut down and journalists are silenced.

The third and final section talks about the search for faith in the new China, and not only in regards to religion. The five recognized religions are Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Taoism (although many sources substitute out Catholicism for Confucianism). And while freedom of religion is a thing in China, the churches are regulated by the state, and proselytizing is forbidden. But the people are not only searching for faith in a higher power, but in their own government as well. And the section on truth can certainly point to the reasons why.

My Verdict: It comes as no surprise to me that this book won The National Book Award for Nonfiction. Not only was it informative and eye-opening, but I found it to be fascinating as well. It was a nonfiction book that I actually could not put down, without it having been written by a celebrity. Again, as I mentioned before, I do not consider myself to be an informed person, so maybe someone who actually follows foreign news events will not be so impressed. But it was not just the information presented on China that was interesting, but the personal stories Osnos has been able to collect as well, some of which are absolutely heart-breaking. If you want to have a glimpse at what is going on with the new China, then I highly recommend this book.

Favorite Moment: When Osnos addresses the problem of reporting on only the corruption and criminals of China when there are undoubtedly good things that happen there too. But he also cannot pretend to ignore the truth in a country that constantly seeks to hide it. 

Recommended Reading: This may be a bit on the nose, but specifically while reading the section on truth, I kept thinking about George Orwell's 1984. I could not help it. The Chinese government's attempts to save themselves and hide the facts really did seem like something out this dystopian classic.

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