Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A classic!

It seems funny to review a classic.  After all, many many people before me clearly thought pretty highly of this book or it would not be a classic.  Instead, I will tell you about a favorite character and a scene that made me cry, and tell you why you might want to read the tale of life in pre-revolutionary China called The Good Earth.  

Pearl S. Buck, who was raised in China and spoke English and Chinese, tells an epic story of the rise and fall and rise of the family of Wang Lung.  It felt a little like The Grapes of Wrath meets Dynasty.  When it was published in 1931 it made every best seller list and won every award.  Eventually Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in literature--the first woman to do so--for her body of work which increased understanding and awareness between East and West.  One of the notable things about the book, reports Oprah Winfrey's book club website, is that it was the first English language book to portray childbirth so realistically.  No one had read about birthin' babies before The Good Earth.

Buck was unsentimental about the fact that day to day life in China simply saw women as objects to be bought and sold. They were either sold as slaves so that families could have money or they were sent away at young ages to live in their future husband's homes rarely to be seen again.  All of it was sad and heartbreaking to me, but part of normal life in China which Buck portrays elegantly and simply.  

One of the main characters is O-lan who was sold into slavery when she was 10 so her parents could eat.  Wang Lung the farmer wants a wife, but is poor so he makes a deal with the House of Hwang and for a few pieces of silver takes home O-lan as his bride.  O-lan turns out to be a rock star.  She cooks and cleans and stands by him and works the land and most importantly bears him sons. Not just one son, but three sons.  She does not speak much and Wang Lung speaks a lot about her lack of beauty and her BIG FEET, but she is very smart and of course there are those sons.

O-lan saves the day many times. She always knows what to do, and she is faithful and loyal and understands her place.  The only thing she ever asks for is a pair of pearls from a cache of treasure that she finds in a rich person's house.  The rest of the treasure she gives to her husband so that he can buy more land. She takes those pearls and she wraps them up and keeps them in her bosom.  They represent a lot to O-lan.  They represent her freedom (she is not a slave any more).  They are a thing of beauty and value and the remind her of her value.  Those pearls, tucked away in her bosom, give her much hope and as a reader, you really can picture those perfect pearls and how special they are.

As Wang Lung's fortunes increase, he is not very content with his plain wife anymore so he goes in search of a perfect petite woman who he can have as his second wife.  The more he woos the second wife the more he grows unhappy with O-lan and even though he feels bad, he can't help himself but to be rude and callous toward the woman who helped him build his empire.  The final act of cruelty toward the wise and faithful O-lan was to demand her pearls and give them to his new concubine.  O-lan protests because she would like to give them to her daughter on her wedding day, but that just makes Wang Lung mad and he takes them anyway. Those pearls. Traveling from the quiet nest of O-lans breasts to the earlobes of his concubine make quite a picture.

As time goes on, O-lan becomes very ill and dies and after all the years and all the sons and all the duty Wang Lung is forced to recognize what a fabulous wife he had:

But when the Earth was covered over and the graves smoothed, he turned away silently and he sent away the chair and he walked home alone with himself.  And out of his heaviness there stood out strangely but one clear thought and it was a pain to him, and it was this, that he wished he had not taken the two pearls from O-lan that day when she was washing his clothes at the pool, and he would never bear to see Lotus put them in her ears again.  

Thus thinking heavily, he went on alone and said to himself, "There in that land of mine is buried the first good half of my life and more.  It is as though half of me were buried there and now it is a different life in my house."

And suddenly he wept a little, and he dried his eyes with the back of his hand as a child does.

--From The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I found this passage to be so beautiful and so poignant and exactly why this book has existed for so long.     Buck made her main character to be perfectly reflecting of the times, but he was a dynamic character and the reader weeps along with him as he realizes how he failed.  Those pearls come out of hiding and they represent so much that was Wang Lung and O-lan's relationship.

The first few chapters of this book also reminded me a lot of the Little House on the Prairie books I read as a girl.  (Well maybe a PG version.)   Buck goes into a lot of detail about what life is like in the earthen house for a poor farmer and his wife which I found interesting in the same way Little House was interesting. This saga of pre-revolutionary China was very readable and enjoyable.

So this summer at the beach go ahead and skip over the latest from Jody Picoult and pick up this heartbreaking story of a place from long ago and far away.

Also, I am interested in the new book by Anchee Min who writes a work of historical fiction based on the childhood of Pearl Buck.  If you have it out from the library, please hurry and finish it so I can read it.  I am next on the list.

Ever been to her birthplace in West Virginia?  I would be interested in knowing if that is worth visiting as well.

Happy reading!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Waiting by Ha Jin

Catherine introduced me to Waiting by Ha Jin, and I was embarrassed that I had never heard of this award winning poet and novelist.  Chinese-American Xuěfēi Jin, who writes under the name Ha Jin,  came to Brandeis University to study English and decided to emigrate here when he watched the Tienanmen Square massacre on TV.  He writes all his books about China in English in order to preserve their integrity.  Interestingly, his name does not appear on a list of banned authors in China.

When we arrived home from China, Waiting was the first book I put on my library reserve list.  I received it the next day and was eager to begin reading the book my new reader friend had found so enjoyable.  Unfortunately, it took me awhile to become engaged.  I dragged out reading the book so long that I could no longer renew it at the library.  I had to return it and check it out again.  I am pleased to say I finally finished it and enjoyed it tremendously.  

Waiting is a love story set in a fictional city in China in the late 60's and sets about to explore many kinds of love.  Lin Kong is a doctor who was arranged to marry Shuyu as a young man.  Lin's parents needed someone to care for them and decided Shuyu would do the trick. (In China it is common for sons to care for their elderly parents.) Lin is stationed at an army outpost in the city and his bride remains in the country where he only sees her for a week every summer.  In his role as a doctor at the hospital he meets Manna Wu, a nurse, with whom he begins a friendship and falls in love. He wants to marry her but cannot get a divorce from Shuyu.  Marriage and divorce is regarded much differently in China than it is here.  Manna and Lin are in love, remain celibate, and year after year wait for the divorce so that they can marry and be open about their love.  The story spans 20 years time.

The story felt fresh and original.  The Chinese view of marriage seems so different than my Western view.  This new understanding of love and commitment is what keeps the reader riveted to the story.  Also, we wait to know will Lin and Manna wed? and what will become of Shuyu who truly loves Lin even though they have spent scant time together?  And who does Lin really love?  Or does he love anyone?  (A word of warning, there is a graphic rape scene that I had a hard time reading.)  Mr Jin has received numerous awards for this book.  He seems to have perfectly captured the Chinese worldview and presented it so that we westerners can understand and empathize.    

I am looking forward to writing Catherine to let her know I have read the book and hearing what she thinks of it all. By the way,  she did receive my copy of The Joy Luck Club so I will look forward to hearing what she thinks of it. I'll post her reactions with her permission.  Any recommends out there for love stories?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Point of View

A friend gave me a hand me down copy of Against Medical Advice by Hal Friedman and James Patterson and told me I would enjoy it because it was readable, and it would remind me of some similar struggles I have had with doctors while trying to understand and treat my son's epilepsy.  I avoided the book for weeks because, as many readers know, I often judge books by their covers and this one smacked of the "disease of the month club" genre.

Finally, I needed some light easy to read plane fare, and I decided to swallow my fear of the genre and picked it up.   It was compelling because the whole story, save the prologue and epilogue, were written from the point of view of the boy who was experiencing the illness.  The reader goes inside Cory Friedman's head to begin to understand what is going on as he struggles to understand his own complex case of Tourette's Syndrome and OCD.

It is a very quick read and Cory makes for an interesting narrator and tour guide through his hellish childhood.  I could relate to the feeling of hopelessness that parents feel when all doctors seem to offer is drugs, and I shed a tear or two when he finally seemed to overcome this horror that had beset him for his whole life.  Tourette's really stole his childhood.

The only complaint I had was that the POV perhaps got a bit too sympathetic toward Cory, and I really wanted to hear from the mom and dad or the teachers in his school or the doctor who treated him.  Toward the end the POV started to work against Cory.  He seemed whiny and entitled and even though I knew he had been through a lot, I suddenly stopped feeling sorry for him.  Then again, this was supposed to be a disease of the month club book and not necessarily great literature. 

Anyway, I am interested if hearing reader's comments on point of view.  What works and what doesn't work?  Who is your favorite trustworthy narrator?  For an excellent novel that is all about POV check out this favorite of mine and let me know if you would like to borrow Against Medical Advice.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

For the adoptive mother in your life

My recent adoption has brought several very good books on the adoption journey for children my way.  Since I have been traveling and have had a hard time getting any serious reading done, I thought I would share a few titles.

The first, The White Swan Express, is specifically directed at the crowd headed to the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, China to meet and adopt a Chinese daughter.  This was an especially beautiful story for me.  I loved that they portrayed the experience of a diverse group of families and the special day they had when they met their new daughters.

I Love you Like Crazy Cakes is a single mother's journey to adopt a baby girl from China and is also very appropriate for people on the Chinese adoption path.  The pictures are gorgeous and it also an apt way to explain a Chinese adoption to a little girl.

Motherbridge of Love explains to girls or boys (note: the illustrations are all of girls but the text can be for either gender) the importance of both their mothers:  their birth mother and their adoptive mother.   Although the woman who published the book, did so specifically with Chinese and Western mothers in mind, it is really appropriate for any adoptee and their adoptive mother.  The poem was sent anonymously to the not-for-profit organization Motherbridge of Love which exists to promote Chinese culture between the West and China and specifically to educate adopted Chinese girls on the place of their heritage.  It seems to me a very good way to explain my child's birth mother to her when she begins asking those questions. It is a lovely lovely book. Be. sure to check out the website too.  Its based out of the UK but is helpful for ideas and contacts.

Any other adoption children's books to recommend?  I would love to hear about them