Jessica's Reviews > Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao by Jung Chang
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bookshelves: aborted-efforts

I can't decide whether to keep going with this book, which is one of the most annoying biographies I've ever read. The tabloidish whiff of the subtitle -- The Unknown Story! -- is misleading: this book should have been called Mao: What a DICK! Its tone is bizarrely vitriolic and hysterical, as the authors take every single conceivable opportunity to spell out after each example that, see, look, Mao was a real DICK.

Here's the thing: we already know that Mao was a dick! And if we somehow didn't, simply giving us evidence of his dickishness -- e.g., the time he starved 38 million people to death? -- would do an infinitely more effective job of convincing us. This is really an instance where the hated writing advice to "show" and "not tell" should've been heeded, because somehow all the authorial raging about what a dick he was makes Mao seem almost sympathetic. More to the point, it makes him seem like a flattened cartoon character and cuts off any speculation about why he was such a dick. He's presented as a kind of Damian hellchild who just pops out of his seemingly very nice mother filled with all this bloodthirsty ambition, and there's no exploration of where his immense dickishness came from, or how it might have either derived or deviated from the society he lived in. This did the opposite of what a biography is supposed to do, and made the question of why Mao was who he was moot by just painting him as so inherently, insanely evil and awful and bad that there was no point trying to understand anything else about him. Of course I think it's perfectly reasonable to be astounded by the horrible acts and low character of a person responsible for so much death and suffering, but I still think you need to be able to modulate your tone when you're writing a book like this, or you just wind up undermining the power of all your points.

BUT! Except for this very annoying tic, the book is well-written, clear, interesting, and easy to follow for someone with almost no knowledge of any of the history being described. Maybe I'll return to it again at some point...?
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Reading Progress

August 25, 2015 – Shelved
December 20, 2015 – Shelved as: aborted-efforts

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