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Restoring the Peace

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Maxine Hong Kingston knows devastation. The celebrated author and peace activist, who won the National Book Award for her novel China Men, was practically finished with her last book when a wave of fires swept through her Berkeley-Oakland Hills neighborhood. That novel, called The Fourth Book of Peace, was lost in the fire, along with her house. The year was 1991, just as America was embroiled in its first Iraqi conflict, and days after Kingston's father died.

Now, a dozen years later, Kingston shakes off the fire's ashes with the publication of The Fifth Book of Peace (Alfred A. Knopf), which combines a nonfiction narrative of the author's recovery from the flames and a partial recreation of the lost novel. The hard-to-pigeonhole mediation on personal loss transcends any well-worn path of memoir to become something altogether phenomenal.

Kingston's crisp and cutting language manages to both float and burn at the same time, like a charred scrap of paper descending slowly toward Earth. When she discovers that the house -- and the manuscript -- have been destroyed, she at first speculates the angry ghost of her father sought revenge on her for not following Chinese custom in his burial. She eventually arrives at a worldview of the ruin as a mirror of the conflict in Iraq, a way to show Americans' true annihilation.

In retrospect, losing her novel in such a dramatic way may have been the best thing that could have happened to the author, because The Fifth Book of Peace shines most brightly in its nonfiction passages. Given the current quagmire in Iraq, her message of the power of peace carries even greater relevance today than it might have in 1991, a graceful and gripping alarm call meant to wake us all up to the realities of war.

Maxine Hong Kingston appears Oct. 3 at 2 p.m. at Emory University's Woodruff Library, and at 7:30 p.m. at the First Existentialist Congregation, 470 Candler Park Drive Sponsored by Charis Books. 404-524-0304.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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