Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio D

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Life and Death in Shanghai
560 pages; Grove Press
"I love to hear people's stories about how they got through this thing we call life," says Bill Paxton, who first heard of Nien Cheng through her obituary in the Los Angeles Times two years ago. "This is an amazing tale: a portrait of China during the Cultural Revolution as well as a murder mystery." Cheng, a wealthy, educated widow during the pre-Mao regime, was imprisoned for six and a half years in the late '60s. Told that her daughter had committed suicide, she set out to prove that it was actually murder. Paxton says that when you read what this woman went through, you'll see that "she has something to teach everybody about having the courage of your convictions." 
— As told to Sara Nelson