BOOK BIZ: “Red Azalea” candidly describes living in Mao’s China

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Published: July 19,2013

Tags: Anchee Min, Knopf Doubleday, Red Azalea

When asked if she has any hobbies, Kim Compton answers without hesitation that she has an addiction to books. I must say I’ve never heard a love of reading expressed that way, but I sure like it. That’s why book recommendations from Compton are taken seriously.

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“Red Azalea” by Anchee Min is published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group ($15.00 paperback).

Compton, economic development director for the Hancock County Port & Harbor Commission, says she’s “totally addicted” to author Anchee Min, and Red Azalea is her favorite of Min’s books. “It is semi-auto biographical of her (Min) life as a young person growing up in communist China,” Compton said. “It really made me understand why socially and economically communism and socialism don’t work although theoretically they seem like a good idea — the idea of everyone having enough.”

Red Azalea is Min’s celebrated memoir of growing up in the final years of Mao’s China. As a child, she was asked to publicly humiliate a teacher. At 17, she was sent to work at a labor collective. Forbidden to speak, dress, read, write or love as she pleased, Min found a lifeline in a secret love affair with another woman. She was miraculously selected for the film version of one of Madame Mao’s political operas and her life changed overnight. Then Chairman Mao suddenly died, taking with him an entire world.

Min’s book is a revelatory and disturbing portrait of China. It has candor, poignancy, courage and evocative prose. “It really demonstrates how humans are naturally more comfortable with social/economic classifications,” Compton said. “ We all like to know where we stand and what we’re supposed to do. Plus, we are simply born with ambition – or lack of it. I think her story is so fascinating because it is so different from what we all experienced growing up.”

Min was born in Shanghai in 1957 and came to America in 1984. While attending English as a Second Language classes, she worked as a waitress, house cleaner, fabric painter and model. In 1990 she received a master’s of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Red Azalea won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award and was a New York Times Notable Book.

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