City of Tranquil Light: A Fabulous Pre-Publication Book Giveaway

I’m so excited! Today I got three shiny new hard copies of Bo Caldwell’s brand new novel City of Tranquil Light.  Caldwell wrote the bestseller The Distant Land of My Father, her first novel set in WWII Shanghai, in 2001. This excellent new novel (I’ve read it) takes place in the north China plain and tells the unusual love story of Will and Katherine Kiehn, 1906-1966.

One of these three books can be yours. Just keep reading.

This is a novel, not a memoir, so why am I even talking about it on www.100memoirs? Good question! Like a number of recent bestselling novels (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom), this one includes memoir material in it. In City of Tranquil Light, one of the two protagonists is a journal writer, and her words are included as journal excerpts because she died years before her husband narrates their story. Author Caldwell also credits her own grandfather’s memoir as well as a host of other biographies and memoirs that provide the “backstory.” If you have been coming to 100memoirs often, you know that Mennonite memoir is a favorite sub-genre here.

So, now that you know why I am giving away a novel rather than a memoir, here’s how you can be entered to win the book giveaway: Leave a comment on this post that answers one or more of the following questions. The post doesn’t have to be long or profound. I am not picking the “best” one, but I am interested in your candid comments. The contest ends on Monday night September 20 at 10 p.m. EDST. I will do a drawing of three names from among all the comments this post receives. Hey, your odds are good. Better, and cheaper, than a lottery ticket! Answer one of the questions below by clicking on the “comments” section at the end of this post.

Which would you rather read, a memoir-like novel or a novel-like memoir? Why?

How hard do you think it will be for Bo Caldwell to keep you turning pages in a novel about 20th-century American Mennonite missionaries in China? Do you expect this subject to be interesting? Why or why not?

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Shirley Showalter


  1. emily l on September 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    I would rather read a novel like memoir, but like them both! =)

    • shirleyhs on September 16, 2010 at 9:53 pm

      Way to kick start the comments, Emily. Thanks!

  2. Elizabeth on September 16, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    A novel about 20th century missionaries in China sounds fascinating! I’m currently researching and writing a popular history of three Anabaptist denominations in Colombia, all of whom first put down roots here post-WWII. My sources include the usual documents and records, but my main source is oral histories gathered from church members. During this process I have spent a surprising amount of time thinking about novels: how to weave the overall narrative with individuals’ memories, what kind of details illuminate a story, and how to narrate in a way that is both empathetic and critical. I’d love the chance to read a memoir-like novel exploring a similar topic.

  3. KathySkaggsPoet on September 16, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    I always find memoir-like novels confusing. I’m thinking of Jeanette Walls’ Half-Broke Horses. It was written in her grandmother’s voice, and I found myself always wondering, how much of this is true? did her grandmother really think these things? A novel-like memoir on the other hand could just be a memoir that uses the story techniques of fiction. Eek, I’m finding that I prefer my novels to be novels and my memoirs to memoirs, how hidebound of me. I love your blog, by the way. Keep up the great work. <3

  4. Cheryl Schenk on September 17, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I would rather read a novel-like memoir? Simply because the author’s focus is still on keeping the reader entertained, as well as providing history and information. For me, a memoir sometimes drags on a bit and leaves me struggling to turn the next page.

    • shirleyhs on September 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

      Hi, Cheryl, thanks for commenting. You underscore the need for all writers, of any genre, to respect the reader’s need for entertainment and reflection. Good luck with your children’s stories! I encourage readers to click on your name and find your blog also.

  5. Larry Zook on September 17, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing about Caldwell’s new book, and the engaging questions! I’d lean toward a memoir-like novel as it may provide the author more freedom of creativity. Would love to see this book on Kindle or as an audiobook!

  6. jzr on September 17, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    I have been a nonfiction/biography/memoir reader from the get-go as a child. Now at 68 I really understand the importance of “story” in my own life. I will happily read a novel like memoir or a memoir like novel as long as I find meaning and inspiration in it. Sounds like this book would be an easy read for me!

    • shirleyhs on September 17, 2010 at 3:50 pm

      Me too, jzr! You remind me that I need to do a blog post on the series I read in grade three: Heros and Heroines. The Heroines weren’t nearly as interesting as the heroes back then. We’ve made some progress. Thanks for your comment, and keep coming back to 100memoirs. I’m sure you will enjoy many of the conversations.

  7. amy on September 17, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    It’s complicated…sometimes when a memoir is too much like a novel you miss the ambivalence of “real life”. I like memoirs to somehow remain a bit detached so it feels real.

    would love to enter, this has been on my wishlist for some time!

    • shirleyhs on September 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm

      Great, Amy. So glad you already had your eye on Bo Caldwell’s new book. And thanks for finding me. I go now to check out your own blog!

  8. Daniel Shank Cruz on September 17, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    I prefer a memoir-like novel rather than a novel-like memoir because the former offers a much smoother transition between genres. When I read a memoir, I want the facts more than I want an engaging narrative (which is nice, too, but only if it does not come at the expense of clear-cut pieces of information). Reading novels, however, remains fun to me because the novel as a genre is so adaptable to other genres, so there is a constant variety, but at the same time I am able to relax as I read a memoir-like novel because I know it’s fiction–I don’t have to study it. One of my favorite memoir-like novels is Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which I’m currently teaching. The questions raised by the book for readers stem from its simulation of memoir (is the “Editor’s Preface” ironic or sincere, is Moll a reliable narrator or not, etc.), but these questions are not enjoyable to me if an actual memoir begins raising them.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 2:00 am

      Thanks, Daniel, for offering this classroom-tested perspectives. Moll Flanders shows us that our memoir/novel questions are as old as the genres themselves. Glad for your visit here. Come back again.

  9. Mary Anne Isaak on September 17, 2010 at 8:17 pm

    In March I had the incredible opportunity to join a Theology Team from Fuller Theological Seminary and have conversations with leaders in the registered church in China. In each of the six cities we visited, we had conversations with faculty in the seminary as well as conversations with leaders from the Chinese Christian Council. On our return, I keep wondering why the church (registered or unregistered) in China is exploding with growth, whereas the church in Japan is struggling. Novel/memoir is a delightfully fun way to explore a history that leads to a current reality. I would be doubly interested because of the Mennonite aspect; I am a pastor in a Mennonite Brethren Church in California.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 1:57 am

      Hi Mary Anne! You will indeed need to read this book. I don’t think it will answer your question about contemporary church growth in China, but it surely will help you understand why and how these two missionaries were able to spread the good news in the ’30’s and ’40’s. There are other Mennonite memoirs that may interest you on this site. Do you know The Steppes Were the Colour of Sepia?

  10. Rosanna on September 17, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    I think I have read more successful memoir-like novels than the other way around. Maybe a well written memoir is different in tone somehow than a novel. As to which I’d rather read: whichever is better written. Cheap answer, I know, but I’ll trust the authors to decide the format. I do appreciate as much disclosure as possible. I think that’s why I enjoyed “Half-Broke Horses,” she was up-front about what she was doing.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 2:13 am

      Rosanna, I don’t think your answer is cheap at all. I think we are partly in the area of aesthetics and partly in the area of ethics when we try to understand what makes excellence in each genre. I haven’t read Half-Broke Horses, but I have enough respect for Jeannette Walls that I can believe she carried it off.

  11. Kathleen on September 17, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    Well, I’m already intrigued as one of my aunts was born in China to Mennonite missionaries. This sounds like a must read for me.

    As for novel vs. memoir, I am of the opinion that memory is a fluid thing and, secondly, that all characters live somewhere in the mind. So, my first thought was what is “truth”? Ok, way too big of a question for Friday afternoon! I’ll agree with the previous commenters that perhaps the “novel” gives more creative license, but I do appreciate the willingness of those who choose the memoir label to own their truth.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 2:15 am

      Kathleen, I am sure you will enjoy this book given your own family history. And thanks so much for the Friday afternoon philosophy. 🙂 You expressed the virtues of the two genres very well.

  12. Rebecca Martin on September 17, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Although I was never in China, I spent a very large part of my childhood in Saigon (as the daughter of missionaries) and have since been extremely fascinated by any literature that connects southeast Asian and American cultures. So, no, I can’t imagine I would have any trouble continuing turning the pages!

    Would you consider shipping a book to Europe?

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 2:18 am

      Rebecca, thanks for migrating from FB to leave a comment here. I agree, you must read this book. And if your name is picked at random on Monday night, I will indeed ship it to Europe!

  13. EYSchmitt on September 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    The word “memoir” literally makes my heart beat faster! I prefer a novel-like memoir because I am drawn to “true books” – a delightful term one of my Amish relatives who is a voracious reader uses to describe the biographies and memoirs she reads almost exclusively. I also love novels and read them constantly, but am drawn more to the personal experience shared in memoirs.

    This book will have to be on my shelves one way or another (!) since I am a Mennonite AND since two of my all-time favorite books are the biographies of Pearl Buck’s parents, Presbyterian missionaries to China during the late 1800’s and the turn of the century. Written by Pearl herself, these books…”Fighting Angel” about her father, and “The Exile” about her mother are unquestionably some of the most fascinating and interesting reading I have ever encountered. I called my husband into the room many times simply to read him passages from these touching books…and Pearl Buck’s great-grandmother was a Mennonite, go figure! It would be a delight to compare Bo Caldwell’s missionary story to what I have already read.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 10:59 pm

      Well, this book is definitely one for you, EYSchmitt. Thank you for bringing Pearl Buck’s two books about her parents to our attention. I will share with friends who are leaving for a trip to China on Tuesday. I didn’t know Pearl Buck had Mennonite heritage. So thanks for adding your comment and come back again.

  14. Carol Wong on September 18, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    It is a boring answer but I like both! Entertainment is the delightful cherry on the top for me.
    I have been to China on a tour and at the end of my trip, I had tears in my eyes because I was leaving such friendly people. Also, my son works there because he fell in love with the culture. I am driven to read all I can about China. All this started when I read books written by Pearl Buck as a child. As you can tell, I have even married Chinese and have been told by my friends that I am even more Chinese than they are!


    P.S. I just found your blog and love it. It is so difficult to find blogs about memors or
    novel like memoirs. So I am a new reader.

    • shirleyhs on September 18, 2010 at 11:21 pm

      Welcome here, Carol. So glad you found us, and thanks for sharing your own deep connections to China and to Chinese people. Come back again.

  15. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on September 19, 2010 at 1:04 am

    I will eagerly read this book because I have heard stories from my mother-in-law (now deceased) who was born in China and lived there until she was 13. Her parents were missionaries with United Church of Christ–her mother’s first work in China involved assisting women to live with un-bound feet. Her father ended up living almost ten years under house arrest by Communists.

  16. shirleyhs on September 19, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Hi, Dolores, you will find stories about both foot-binding and Communists in this book also. I think you will find it fascinating. Thanks for the comment. Good to see you back at 100memoirs.

  17. Theo Yoder on September 19, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I was fascinated by the book, “Mennonite in a Black Dress”. I wasn’t sure about her lack of compassion, but, thanks to a friend, I read it, and I did enjoy it. ” City of Tranquil Light” sounds like one I would also like to read when I get a copy.

    • shirleyhs on September 21, 2010 at 1:07 am

      Theo, so glad you persisted and got to add your voice and take your chance on the giveaway. Now that you know how to comment, you can come back often. 🙂

  18. Kelly Lerner on September 20, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I think I prefer a novel-like memoir-like novel because it allows the novelist/”memoirist” more freedom to weave additional threads into his/her story or change the time line or bring in different characters and experiences that are relevant, but distant. Or maybe, a book written as a “novel” allows me, the reader, more freedom to take in the story without judgments about the literal “truth” of the story. In short, in a novel, the writer can tell a better story and I can read a better story.

    I spent a lot of time living, traveling and working in northern China from 1999-2004, mostly in rural areas. I’m fascinated both with the vast cultural divide between China and the west and the day to day similarities of rural agrarian life. Everything was both “unknowable” and very obvious, all at the same time. I don’t know anything about this book, but given what I do know about the simultaneous earthiness and complexity of both China and Mennonites, I’m anxious to read it. On a similar note, both Mennonites and Chinese are ALWAYS looking for a good deal – and free is about as good as it gets!

  19. Lanie Tankard on September 20, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    RE: Which would you rather read, a memoir-like novel or a novel-like memoir? Why?

    Hmmm. Methinks the former, but frankly am beginning to wonder if the twain can even be separated. Have been pondering that question all weekend!

    • shirleyhs on September 21, 2010 at 1:11 am

      LOL, Kelly. I was not aware that you spent so much time in China. Hope you get to read the book one way or another. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I hope you will tell us your impressions after you read the book.

    • shirleyhs on September 21, 2010 at 1:13 am

      Glad to give your brain a little fodder, Lanie. The distinctions seem to get more and more difficult to make, given the way the genres blur.

      Always glad to have your voice.

  20. shirleyhs on September 21, 2010 at 2:10 am

    The contest has ended, folks! Thanks so much for playing. I put your names in a hat and Stuart drew out three of them. The lucky winners are Larry, Elizabeth, and Emily. If you send me an email to shirley.showalter(at), and give me your address, I will send you a copy of the book. Hope the rest of you find your ways to others copies.

    Many thanks to the publisher, Henry Holt, who supplied the copies.

  21. Johanna on September 22, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Ah, so I have missed the contest! O well. I did want to say though that I do prefer the memoir that reads like a novel to the other way around, because I feel that the novel-like memoir is more gripping, and if well written, provides a more transparent picture of the great Author of our lives writing His eternal Love Story in the grit of our lives because it is based on actual events in the life of a unique living person. Having said that, I would like to invite you to read my new memoir, Graffiti On My Soul, which is lyrical, funny, raw and mystical–and will keep you up at night! It is the backdrop of my family, my life as a nun, and the descent into a time of horror….overall, a profound journey of hope and forgiveness. For more information check:

  22. shirleyhs on September 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Thank you, Johanna, for finding 100memoirs. Your life sounds amazing, and I’m sure your memoir is also. Unfortunately, I have 20-30 memoirs on my shelf which are not yet read. I can’t add any more at the moment. If you have a blog and do your own giveaway, you will likely find eager commenters on your own. All best.

  23. […] about how memoir and fiction differ these days and why even novelists (Kathryn Stockett and Bo Caldwell) seem to be drawn to memoir using a variation of a play-within-a play. What are your own thoughts […]

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