A Daunting Read Well Worth It,
This review is from: Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine (Hardcover)
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"Tombstone", coming in at a very heavy 600+ pages, is an imposing read from the moment you see it. This impression is compounded by the first pages of the piece, consisting of maps and a much, much too long timeline followed by a fairly dry introduction. In this introduction, you learn that the original work (this is a translation) was much, much longer and went into considerably more depth on the impact of the Great Famine on specific regions of China. Here, the translators and the original author have streamlined these pieces to make them more relevant to an English speaking audience. This is a welcome change, and I don't feel much was lost on the cutting room floor, but the book is still a hard slog nonetheless.
This hard slog is a good one, however. Chapters are divided into two types: the effect of the famine on individual provinces, and more nationwide causes and effects. The nationwide segments outnumber the more specific chapters, which is definitely the right decision: many of the provincial occurrences are near-identical save for the names involved. The national chapters, however, are truly fascinating, and cover topics in a great deal of depth without ever repeating themselves, or becoming dull.
Yang Jisheng does seem somewhat confused as to what he wants "Tombstone" to be: an academic text, or a more general non-fiction book for the interested masses. The academic nature of the book is demonstrated through the detailed citing of points and quotes throughout the book, with this reference section alone accounting for roughly 90 pages in the book, and the very thorough index which takes up another 19. But the text itself is written with enough personal accounts, interesting snippets and varied stories to be appealing to those not looking to write a research paper, but just to learn more about a very dark time in China's history.
All in all, I think "Tombstone" really does work hard to satisfy both target audiences: academic researchers and amateur non-fiction lovers. Academics can get everything they need from the book, from detailed crop yields, death rates and their references to descriptions of statistical methods; whilst the general reader gleans all their benefit from the accessible, intriguing chapters covering the causes, developments and aftereffects of the famine. Yang Jisheng has certainly put together a formidable tome, but reading through it is well worth the effort.