Picks and Pans Review: The Fifth Book of Peace

updated 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Maxine Hong Kingston

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Kingston returned from her father's funeral in 1991 to discover that fires ravaging Northern California had destroyed both her cottage and her novel-in-progress, The Fourth Book of Peace. Starting over, she rewrote part of the novel, which she includes here—it's a rambling, didactic tale about draft dodger Wittman Ah Sing in Hawaii during the Vietnam War—and added three nonfiction sections telling how she developed and then turned her peace theories into action. Like Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976, Peace defies categorization. Fueled by its author's curiosity about three volumes of Chinese philosophy, The Books of Peace, this daunting 400-page work blends myth, fact and memory with varying degrees of success. Now she's criticizing the U.S. war in Iraq; now she's leading a writing workshop in which she explores the recollections of Vietnam vets. It takes some time for it all to cohere, but when it does, Peace becomes a passionate plea that draws on U.S. history and Buddhist wisdom to argue for an all-inclusive and peaceful world where individuals, histories and civilizations are "crammed and juxtaposed and superimposed" on each other.

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