Books by John Espey

NON-FICTION
Released: April 1, 1994

With the same sharp penstrokes and brook-water prose he brought to Strong Drink, Strong Language (1990), novelist and linguist Espey (English/UCLA) carries on the droll memoirs about his boyhood in China. Material from Strong Drink first appeared during the 1940s in the New Yorker and was collected at that time in three books. This volume collects everything about China that Espey wishes to retain from his early works. Espey was born of Protestant missionary parents in Shanghai in 1913 and, with his elder sister Mary, spent the greater part of his life there until graduating from the Shanghai American school. The South Gate area where he lived was also home to a tribe of savage young vandals called alley brats, led by Lady Bandit, an albino girl who tormented the young Espeys with a variety of persecutions. One day little John, though forbidden to strike back, hurled a brickbat that left a permanent beauty mark Lady Bandit's forehead and caused her father to complain to his father about John's having lowered her bride price. When a bush grows in their yard, just on the spot where Father wants to build a tennis court, Mother curses the bush. The children later salt the earth around the bush and, when it dies, remind their mother of the fig tree in the Bible. We follow Espey's days as a Boy Scout, his trips up the Yangtze, years at school, his meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, and his introduction to sins of the flesh: his school headmistress inveighed against nakedness and the evil of the body and instituted a pre-breakfast half-mile jog around the athletic field in hopes of subduing the Adamic impulse. All freshness and charm, though seventy years have passed since the times laid down. Read full book review >
WINTER RETURN by John Espey
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: June 1, 1992

Subtle, tongue-in-cheek novel from Espey, the American writer and linguist whose most recent book, Strong Drink, Strong Language (1990)—much of which appeared in the 1940's in The New Yorker—was a nonfictional take on the boyhood he spent in China Here, the story is set in two separate times—the 1950's and shortly after WW I—with the older story's resolution in the later one. Tom Lloyd heads east from California at the onset of winter, to Wyoming and Iowa, on a mission to resolve old family matters. His eccentric parents act as if a drive across the country is going into combat, and wonder whether Tom, who is 37, can manage it. Tom is an engaging narrator, the son of retired Presbyterian missionaries to Shanghai, and the reminiscences of China are rich here. But the novel's charm comes from this ``fine family'' he's part of, now fallen on hard times through the misadventures of a mysterious grandfather. Espey is all attitude, genteel distance. Tom himself, though incomparably shrewd about emotions and motivations, seems barely able to operate a car, ``turning on the motor'' rather than starting the engine, and floundering about with bemused gas-station attendants as he crosses the country. When the cold settles, he engages in his secret, preacher kid's vice of swilling from flasks of Teacher's. But, with a certain wry resolve, he accomplishes his mission. We learn that the Lloyds were not so well regarded in Dalton, Iowa, because of their hifalutin ways. When they returned to Shanghai, some thought it good riddance. Tom meets an adolescent flame (old hurts are healed), and he enacts a sort of revenge upon a wrong done him—and the family—in boyhood. Then he's on his way again, Teacher's in hand. Flawlessly executed, whimsical, and odd—rather like Glenway Wescott but without his dark heart. Read full book review >
STRONG DRINK, STRONG LANGUAGE by John Espey
Released: Nov. 15, 1990

Droll memoirs of his boyhood in China by an American novelist (An Observer, 1965) and linguist. Much of this first appeared during the 1940's in The New Yorker and was collected at that time in three books. The amusement here hangs on Espey's fine sense of the meaning of words and the more limited understanding of his minister father, of Chinese servants, of Indian students, and so on whom young Espey met after his birth in Shanghai and later education at Occidental College in California and at Oxford. Among the memories: how Espey learned how to ride his first bicycle with no one's help; how he helped a nubile girl feed the homeless dogs in the neighborhood, an act the local Chinese discouraged since homeless dogs were the area's garbage removers; how he read forbidden novels about mixed marriages in China, edited (and largely wrote) the school paper without help, and came to antic grips with alcohol in China and during Prohibition in the States. One of the book's highlights is a review of the euphemisms allowed and disallowed in his family: impermissible was "Cheese and Crackers!"—an expletive debasing Jesus but favored at the Shanghai American School. These memoirs' other charms include loving sketches of Espey's parents, the missionary mentality spelled out in sharp penstrokes, and brook-water prose. Read full book review >