Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays - Agnes Grey

is hosted by Should be Reading.

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. Also share the title of the book that the “teaser” comes from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!
. . .it was a trial of patience to live with him peaceably; to watch over him was worse; and to teach him, or pretend to teach him was inconceivable. At ten years old, he could not read, correctly, the easiest line in the simplest book; and as, according to his mother's principle, he was to be told every word, before he had time to hesitate, or examine its orthography, and never even to be informed, as a stimulant to exertion, that other boys were more forward than he, it is not surprising that he made but little progress during the two years I had charge of his education.

~ p. 66 Agnes Grey, the story of a 19th century English governess, by Anne Bronte.

Reviewed here on 4/7/09.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Peony in Love by Lisa See

A love story. . .a ghost story. . .a tragedy. . .a history. . .a myth. . . Peony in Love by Lisa See crosses many conventional categories to tell a fictionalized account of the writing of the Three Wives' Commentary of The Peony Pavilion, an 18th century work that expounded a 16th century Chinese Opera.

The actual opera, The Peony Pavilion, tells the story of a young girl who dies for her dreams of love, only to be brought back to life by her dream lover who falls in love with her painted image and spirit. Almost seventy years after the opera was written, Peony, a well-educated girl from a wealthy family, has read and collected numerous manuscripts of The Peony Pavilion. By her sixteenth birthday, she is quite obsessed with the idea of love and chaffs at the thought of an arranged marriage. When her father stages a production of the opera at their family compound, Peony is smitten not only with the beauty and imagery of the story, but also with a handsome young man that she meets first by accident and twice more in secret, against all expectations of propriety. In the following weeks and months, Peony's life begins to mirror that of the opera's heroine as she becomes a lovesick maiden, refusing to eat and spending what little strength she has in writing poetry and comments in the margins of The Peony Pavilion. Tragically, Peony dies just days before her marriage, when her dreams of love might really have been fulfilled, and the reader is transported to the mysterious world of the Chinese afterlife. As a ghost, Peony learns more about her family history and her husband's ongoing life. She learns more about herself and human nature as she tries to reconcile her own difficulties and help those she loves.

Like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (click title to read my review), Peony in Love depicts the life of a woman in ancient China, and through her story, we learn many details about the history and culture of this ancient land. The two novels are very different in content, but actually quite similar in theme. One chronicles a very long life, while the other deals mainly with the afterlife. But both stories recount the heroine's quest for true love, the intricacies of family relationships, the unfortunate consequences of misinformation and misunderstandings, and above all a woman's need to be heard. In each novel, words, particularly the written word, hold the key to a woman's freedom within the constraints of a very traditional and regimented society.

Every mother is afraid for her daughter, but I was terrified. I could only think of all the terrible things that could happen. But what's the worst thing that could happen? . . .The worst thing was losing you. But look what you've done these past years. Look at what your love for Wu Ren has caused to flower in you. . .Your grandmother and I, and so many other women, had wanted to be heard. We went out and it started to happen for us. Then the only time I was really heard - the poem on the wall - I wanted to die. But you're different. In death, you've grown to be an admirable woman. And then there's your project. (241)

I thought Snow Flower excelled in character development, while Peony had more satisfying closures to the various threads of the story. But I would be hard pressed to choose which novel I enjoyed more - both were fascinating, insightful, and rich in historical detail, each in unique ways.

I am impressed with Lisa See's ability to transport the reader to another time and place and incorporate so many historical details in a compelling and personal narrative. I look forward to reading her next historical novel about Chinese women, Shanghai Girls, and her family memoir, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, looks interesting, as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution was the March selection for Captive Thoughts Book Club. As young adult non-fiction, it was easier reading than our usual fare, but it provided us with plenty to discuss and much to learn about the Cultural Revolution of China. Since another member has already summarized our discussion, I'll provide a brief summary of the memoir itself and my own thoughts.

Ji-li Jiang was twelve years old in 1966 when Chairman Mao began the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, a period of persecution and upheaval that was presented as a great ideology but was mostly political maneuvering. Since her deceased grandfather was a landlord, her family is on the black list, which results in the Red Guards searching and ransacking her apartment, her father's imprisonment and persecution, and her being ostracized at school and encouraged to denounce her family. Ji-li is confused by conflicting emotions and divided loyalties. She wants to do well in school and succeed personally, but at the same time loves her family and knows that it is not right for them to suffer so much for her grandfather's past. Eventually, she comes to a crisis and must decide where her loyalties really lie.

This memoir was informative, but in a very limited way. The Cultural Revolution is described from the perspective of one child in a particular family, and most of her experiences are related on an emotional level, which is necessarily selective in its details. The glossary at the back was very helpful for orienting one to the historical and political figures and movements that are mentioned. I think this might be better read along with a basic history of the Cultural Revolution - a more straightforward history would provide the framework in which this very personal account could be better appreciated and understood.

Another friend who read this book commented that it had scary parallels with what is currently happening in America. I tried to find some of those parallels as I read, and what seemed most obvious was the adoration and blind devotion of the young people for Chairman Mao. At one point, Ji-li relates attending a rally where a girl told of her opportunity to see Chairman Mao at Tienanmen Square. "'. . . I am very lucky to have had such an experience,' she said. 'I have resolved to dedicate my whole life to Chairman Mao and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. I will give every drop of blood in my body to work to liberate all of mankind'" (107-108). Those sentiments remind me of the fervor that surrounded Obama before the election last November. I must admit that I am sadly uninformed about current events, so I didn't pick up on other parallels. However, I think Western individualism almost precludes such a blind following of a national hero and establishment of a national identity as what happened in China's Cultural Revolution. Perhaps, though, I should try to be more knowledgeable of current events to ensure that I am not merely an ignorant participant in my community and country.

Teaser Tuesdays - Peony in Love

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
  1. Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.
  2. Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
  3. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given! Please avoid spoilers!

My project would be my salvation in the coming dark years. I might be locked in my husband's home, but my mind would travel to the Moon-Viewing Pavilion, where I could meet my poet again and again without interruption or fear of being caught.

~ p. 77 Peony in Love by Lisa See.

Reviewed 3/30/09 here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We interrupt the book reviews...

...to bring you useless, but interesting quiz results.

Which literature classic are you?

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. You are a mystery novel dealing with theology, especially with catholic vs liberal issues. You search wisdom and knowledge endlessly, feeling that learning is essential in life.

Well, I've always enjoyed mysteries; I love to study theology and different sides of many issues; Medieval theology is one of my favorite periods, and it doesn't bother me a bit that all pre-Reformation theology was Catholic (Protestants, and especially evangelicals should better know and own their history) - so this is not too surprising of a characterization. I should add this to my TBR list.

Thanks to Calon Lan for the link. Take the quiz yourself if you're interested!

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

To put it simply, I wasn't impressed with Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Maybe it seemed shallow after the rich descriptions and character development in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Or maybe I just didn't care for the coming-of-age exploits of two boys in their late teens.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. From the back cover, I had gathered that the story revolved around the impact of Western literature on two Chinese boys during the Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao attempted to equalize and redefine class status by sending countless numbers of city children to work among peasants in the countryside and mountainous regions of China. While I did learn about some of the hardships and injustices of the rural re-education program, the effects of Western literature were much less redeeming than I had anticipated. In the words of the narrator, "...we were seduced, overwhelmed, spellbound by the mystery of the outside world, especially the world of women, love and sex as revealed to us by these Western writers..." (109). Granted, the narrator also learned the concept of Western individualism, without which he would have remained "incapable of grasping the notion of one man standing up against the whole world" (110). But even his new found individualism was only employed to further his dreams of women, love, and sex, and, unfortunately, to deal with the consequences of his friends' freedom and experimentation in those categories.

In summary, the historical aspects were interesting, but I'm sure there are other novels or non-fiction accounts that convey the circumstances and effects of the Cultural Revolution with a story-line less driven by testosterone. Another friend who read this book suggested that it might be more of an allegory, a subtle cultural commentary on the ideas of freedom, individualism, and knowledge. I might have enjoyed it more if I had been looking for those deeper threads, but they do indeed run deep, and the surface story was too superficial for my tastes.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is an amazing novel. It incorporates a vast amount of history and cultural details about rural China in the early to mid-1800's. But in a stellar example of historical fiction, the author, Lisa See, seamlessly weaves these details throughout the life story of Lily, a farmer's daughter whose perfectly bound feet earn her a passage out of poverty to become the wife of the eldest son of one of most wealthy and influential families in the county. But the rags-to-riches tale is only the backdrop for an even more moving story of the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower, her laotong, or "old same," a girl whose birth date and other characteristics matched so perfectly that they were united in friendship for life. Like other women in ancient China, the girls learn a secret language, nu shu, by which they communicate when they are apart and with which they record the significant events of their lives on a fan that they share between them.

Lily encapsulates the uniqueness of a laotong relationship by reflecting on love and the place of women in Chinese culture: "We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be a part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder about a servant. We are ordered to love and honor our husbands' ancestors, so we perform the proper duties, even if our hearts quietly call out gratitude to our natal ancestors. We love our parents because they take care of us, but we are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We drain the family resources. We are raised by one family for another. As happy as we are in our natal families, we all know that parting is inevitable. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All these types of love come out of duty, respect, and gratitude. Most of them, as the women in my county know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality. But the love between a pair of old sames is something completely different...a laotong relationship is made by choice" (59-60).

Many parts of the novel were brutally honest and painful to read, such as the descriptions of foot binding, the general condition and treatment of women, and the untimely deaths of so many. Conversely, there were points of great beauty and love revealed in family relations and friendships. The author often foreshadows some of the significant crises of the novel, revealing just enough for the reader to take notice, but not enough to fully reveal the plot. For example, early in the novel, we read, "Always Aunt cautioned us to be careful with our words, since by using phonetic characters, as opposed to the pictographic characters of men's writing, our meanings could become lost or confused. 'Every word must be placed in context,' she reminded us each day the end of our lesson. 'Much tragedy could result from a wrong reading'" (69).

Tragedy does indeed come to Lily and Snow Flower through a misreading of nu shu, but for many years they use it to deepen their friendship and survive the challenges of their circumstances. When early in their married lives, Snow Flower breaks with traditional phrases and shares the truth of her situation and feelings, Lily realizes "the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written. The men in our households never expected us to have anything important to say. They never expected us to have emotions or express creative thoughts" (160).

This is a story of self-discovery, of learning one's own strengths and weaknesses through fellowship with another. It is a story of regret that some of those lessons were learned too late or all too imperfectly: "it's hard to be truly generous and behave in a forthright manner when you don't know how" (247). It is a story of expectations and disappointments, a story of love and loyalty mixed with jealousy and bitterness, a story about the importance of words, and it ends with these most humble and powerful words, "Please forgive me" (253). Lisa See has crafted a rare novel, one that not only reveals the history and culture of an ancient people, but also shows the frailties of the human heart in any time and culture.