August 04, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

It seems that every American who has spent more than 10 minutes in China feels qualified to write a book about it. Some are memorable, most disposable. Chinese Lessons is firmly in category one. John Pomfret, who studied at Chinese universities in the early 1980s and later became a Beijing-based reporter for The Washington Post, navigates through the lives of several classmates as they grapple with China’s rapid and painful transformation from a rigid, totalitarian state to a quasi-capitalist, yet still ruthlessly authoritarian, one. Pomfret has a firm grasp of big-picture China, but it’s his mastery of personal, small-picture stories that remains so riveting.

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