Focusing Proust-like on the objects that embody memories, Lighte (Pieces of China, 2009) hosts a tour of his life, from an American Jewish upbringing to a career in China and London.
Lighte, a longtime Sinophile and J.P. Morgan banker, exploits both meanings of the title by taking on the role of solicitous tour guide—“As a hospitable host in this room, I will give a guided tour of its interior”—while curating his impressively detailed memories like precious artifacts. Lighte grew up in Florida but, after his parents’ divorce, moved with his mother to New York City. It was a family of feuds and sudden deaths, and his mother suffered periodic depressions. By contrast, Lighte was a clownish child who told off-color jokes and played the recorder with his nose. He was an aimless student until he took a college elective on the Far East, hoping for an education on the Vietnam War. This one happenstance determined much of his future: studying Chinese in Taiwan, teaching English in Tokyo, working in Beijing, connecting with his husband over A Night at the Chinese Opera, and adopting two Chinese daughters. In brief vignettes, some almost Proustian in their evocation of sense memories, Lighte remembers people and places that hold significance for him. For instance, in “The Gardenia Bush” and “The Lilac Quest,” a flower’s scent takes him back to the past. A whiff of gardenia perfume in China, and he’s in a friend’s Miami Beach yard, while the smell of lilacs reminds him of the desperate hunt for a floral gift for Aunt Marcy’s surprise party. Other objects are nearly as totemic—red plates purchased for Uncle David’s shiva, a last-minute passport obtained before a QE2 voyage with his father, or the store-bought cookies he took to AIDS patients in memory of a departed friend. His meetings with Pearl Buck and Nigel Nicolson are highlights and reinforce the subtitle’s delight in historical serendipity. Meanwhile, “Seder in Kensington” is the best example of Lighte bringing disparate elements of his life together.
Lively, evocative autobiographical essays.