Months ago some friends in Hong Kong were tweeting with Spencer Wise about his forthcoming debut novel, The Emperor of Shoes (Hanover Square Press, 2018) and I not-so-graciously chimed in and tweeted that I needed to read his book, too. Set in the southern Chinese city of Foshan at a shoe factory, the novel tells the story of a Jewish man from Boston and a Chinese female activist and what happens when family and ethics don’t match up.
The Emperor of Shoes came out last week and tonight Spencer read at the gorgeous Lake Forest Book Store. When I was growing up, Lake Forest was like the be-all and end-all, so it was really great going back there this evening. I’d been to another event or two at the book store, but years ago and one was held at a neighboring restaurant.
Spencer started out by reading from his book, which set the tone for the discussion that followed. His family has been shoe makers going back five generations before they fled pogroms in Russia. His father has lived all over the world, including decades in China, overseeing shoe factories. Nothing about this story is auto-biographical, which has seemed to confuse some reviewers. I guess some authors get more of this than others. Why do readers assume some novels are in fact autobiographical while they wouldn’t think that of other novels? Perhaps it just means the former are so compelling that readers think the stories must be true.
We had a nice discussion about the shoe business and learned that shoes cannot be made by machines or robots and have to be hand-made. Each shoe takes 150 steps, no matter the style. And shoes are expensive to make because they are so labor intensive, so places like China are now too expensive to produce shoes because the workers are joining the middle class and are demanding more in wages and benefits.
This is what capitalism is all about. When we wear clothes made in China or Vietnam or Bangladesh, we rarely (or at least I don’t) think about the workers who make my clothes or shoes and under what kind of conditions they’re toiling. Wise’s book gives us all something to think about. (I do think about cell phone laborers because that’s been in the news a lot more than apparel factories.)
Spencer’s novel is great and gives us all a lot of questions to ask ourselves. After the reading, when he was signing books, we talked about the perfect summer beach read and how some people look for grocery store paperbacks. But I think this really is a perfect summer novel. It’s smart, sassy, easy to read, and will impress all your friends at the pool.