I administer an overseas study program in Beijing, and one of the frustrating challenges of teaching Chinese culture classes to American college students is dispelling the myth of a homogeneous "Chinese people", supposedly acting and reacting in unison to the events and problems in their country. It often takes students an entire semester living in China to erase this misconception. A short-cut solution to this problem is the new addition to the China "required reading" booklist, Angilee Shah and Jeff Wasserstrom's co-edited volume Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, an eye-opening collection of vignettes and case studies that conveys the great diversity of lifestyles and worldviews in this country of 1.3 billion. Following on the heels of Wasserstrom's valuable macroscopic cultural handbook, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, this collection Chinese Characters zooms in for fascinating - and often uncomfortable - close-ups of Chinese individuals and the variegated fabric of their lives. My new list of essentials for students traveling to China for the first time: your passport, your plane ticket, and a copy of Chinese Characters.
Short review: this book is great! Of course it's a collection of essays, not a full length book, but it is much more worth reading than most "let me explain China's situation from a Helicopter perspective and tell you what will happen in 2050" type of books.
The single person perspective, the deliberate lack of any predictions or passing of judgement, and the deepth of the profiles make this a good read, even if you have lived a decade in China yourselves.
Favorite essays: "Painting the outside world", Peter Hessler; Looking for Lok To", James Carter; and "The Court Jester", Jeffrey Prescott ... but I really read the whole thing in one go!