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County Gets Down to Books

January 19, 2003

We all know what outsiders think of when they hear "Orange County." Surfing and Disneyland. Sunshine and conservatism. Maybe, now, a world-champion baseball team.

But "center of literary erudition"? Nope, not a description that comes to people's lips, even within the county.

That situation might be about to change.

A local coalition is not only launching a campaign to have residents read the same book but has also picked the best-selling memoir of a Huntington Beach anesthesiologist.

The idea of having a community read the same book originated with Seattle librarians ("The Sweet Hereafter"), then gained national steam when Chicago, focusing on racial tolerance, chose "To Kill a Mockingbird." Last year, Los Angeles went with "Fahrenheit 451," which Ray Bradbury pecked out on rent-by-the-hour typewriters at UCLA.

Like Los Angeles, the Orange County Reads One Book group is kicking off with a local author, Adeline Yen Mah. Like Chicago, it is spotlighting ethnic diversity. Mah's 1997 bestseller, "Falling Leaves," recounts her painful life growing up in China as an outcast in her own wealthy family.

In addition to its themes of overcoming adversity and the never-ending search for acceptance, Mah's book is rich with information about Chinese traditions and offers a personal snapshot of life in China during the Japanese occupation and World War II -- subjects glossed over in many history textbooks.

One particularly touching subtext revolves around Mah's great-aunt, who as a child went on a hunger strike to keep her feet from being bound, and as an adult founded and ran a successful women's bank, only to lose everything during the Cultural Revolution.

In an added bit of fortune for the one-book campaign, Mah two years later followed up "Falling Leaves" with a parallel memoir targeted at middle-school children and titled "Chinese Cinderella."

Mah will make several appearances to discuss her book. Organizers also plan book groups, dramatic readings and family art projects. Senior citizens will read to young children. Already on board are the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art and most of the county's libraries, colleges and Chinese schools. Bookstores and community organizations are getting involved. Posters and information about the book will saturate the county for several months.

Orange County took a while to jump on the one-book trend, a strange delay for a place with one of the nation's premier university writing programs.

Some reading purists sniff that community book clubs dilute love of literature with feel-good activities. But it's hard to imagine why people would object to feel-good activities that might get more people reading and talking about books.

Maybe as memories of the Angels' stellar baseball season fades with the winter days, the new conversational icebreaker in the county will change to "How about those books?"

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