Reading China

Oracle Bones
by Peter Hessler

This was our August book club read; the 458 pages was intimidating to some, parts I and II were pretty convenient at 218 pages–so we called it good at half a book (although some of us overachievers couldn’t resist reading the entire thing)! And author Peter Hessler provided plenty to talk about in our discussion even at the halfway point.

Beginning in 2002, Hessler spent years  traveling, teaching, and writing in China, living (usually illegally) in Chinese neighborhoods. That advantage gave him the opportunity to befriend locals who gave him rare insight into the lives of middle class Chinese. And so we meet William Jefferson and Nancy Drew (their chosen English names), a pair of Chinese teachers who left their rural village to become “migrants”, traveling to the coast where better lives were to be had in the city–or so they thought. Former students of Hessler, Willy’s warm  letters to him are dear, and reproduced verbatim, replete with misspelled words and raunchy jokes. Willy’s passion for learning and teaching English rival none and he was never without an English dictionary and notebook. By Chinese standards, Willy and Nancy lived comfortable lives; Americans, however, would not be content with the long hours, bleak landscape of the city,  shabby apartment, and low pay. We also meet Polat, an ethnic Uighur, who makes his fortune (and loses it) as a money exchanger, and finally emigrates to the U.S. where he is granted political asylum; a Chinese radio talk show host who gives advice to the lovelorn; and old Mr. Zhao, who fought to save his courtyard hutong from being razed.

Hessler frames his narrative by including chapters he labels as Artifact A, B, C, etc–all cultural and archeological treasures of the Chinese. The reader learns that China, rather than being the monolith we Americans seem to think, is, in fact, a vast region of many cultures and languages. We learn of an ancient city wall being unearthed by peasants spoonful-by-spoonful as it winds its way through farmland, and of the origin of Chinese characters. And, of course, of the oracle bones–really tortoise plastrons etched with questions, fired, and then “read” by diviners. Always a bit slow, it took me about 450 pages to realize the significance of the book’s title. Just as the oracle bones of the past revealed life’s mysteries, Hessler was also reading the cracks of Chinese culture to reveal the world of the Chinese to American readers. How exquisite that the journalist becomes modern-day diviner.

Next up: Miss. Hargreaves by Frank Baker. Published in 1940 this novel’s time space continuum is far beyond its time–so far, a great lark!

Pretty is as pretty does

by Scott Westerfeld

I had no intention of reading this entire YA series; to be honest, I only read Scott Westerfeld’s first book, Uglies, because I promised some students I would (see my post from June 15, 2010). But Westerfeld left the reader hanging at the end of Uglies, the publisher cunningly included a five page teaser to Pretties at the end … and I was hooked.

Readers of Uglies will not be disappointed. Definitely geared for young adult readers (and probably girls, at that), the novel continues to explore our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Tally Youngblood and her friend Shay have finally become pretty. As the novel opens, Shay, in fact, has just “surged” again, and now has twelve tiny rubies implanted around her iris’. The girls’ lives center around a series of over-the-top parties and dances … and then recovering from hangovers the next day.

[spoiler alert]

Pretties, however, addresses some intriguing subtleties of this future world. While it is true that pretty “beauty” is fairly standardized (large eyes, full lips, unblemished skin, long limbs), we also learn that new pretty muscles are strong and pretties rarely become sick; most injuries can be quickly and easily
repaired. Pretties organize themselves into cliques–the Crims, the Hot-airs, the Cutters–something every teen can relate to. And maybe most intriguing, the idea of being “bubbly”–that adreneline rush or exhileration that comes with taking  risks or pushing boundaries.And in an interesting twist, we discover that this world of pacifists studies violent behavior by holding a group of pre-Rusties on a reservation.

Readers of Uglies know that Tally undergoes her pretty surgery knowing that the accompanying brain lesions will leave her vacuous and inane–and also knowing that she would be smuggled a cure from an ugly doctor. When Tally and her boyfriend Zane find the cure after a wild hunt, Tally decides she will divide the pills between them–to disastrous results. Most of the novel follows Tally in yet another escape to the Smoke. And once again the novel ends with a cliffhanger.

Young adult readers will appreciate Westerfeld’s frank treatment of sex, alcohol, and rebellion. Parents can rest assured, however, that the author does not titallate–while we know Tally sleeps with her boyfriend, there is no mention of having sex; hangovers are just as miserable in Pretty Town as they are in our world; and rebellion takes the form of outrageous pranks, as opposed to any bitter hatred of adults.

A little bit Harry Potter (think Harry’s Nimbus and Tally’s hoverboard), with a dash of Star Trek (think body scans and protoplasers), add some teen angst, and you’ve got Pretties. Now … on to Specials, third in the series!

Next up: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, August’s Chicks on Books read.

The End

by Jon Clinch

[spoiler warning]

Eight months after putting Finn aside I took the novel up again and finally finished this dark and incredibly creative novel. Jon Clinch tells the back story of Pap Finn, following faithfully much of  Mark Twain’s narrative in Huckleberry Finn: we see Judge Thatcher, Widow Douglas, the Preacher. Interestingly, Huck is but a shadow in this story. Finn’s family is wealthy, staid, and racist in the manner of the South during the 1860s. Throughout the novel Finn is simultaneiously drawn to and repulsed by a former slave, Mary. Finn’s self-hatred takes the form of vicious abuse; Finn’s father is a judge who disowns Finn for taking up with Mary.

True to my earlier post on November 2, 2009, the novel continued in a raw and brutal manner.The novel opens with a gruesome scene: a black and bloated corpse floats down the Mississippi, covered in blowflies. This image will continue to haunt the novel and, in bits and pieces we learn  that Finn has murdered and flayed the woman in an effort to rid himself of what he sees as his essential weakness–miscegenation. In a complicated twist on Twain’s work, Mary is Huck’s mother. Huck Finn is black.

In his author’s note, Clinch references an scholarly work by Shirley Fisher Fishkin, “Was Huck Black?”. Fishkin’s premise is based largely on Huck’s dialect, which was more black vernacular than Southern white, and the fact that Huck seemed to be based on one or two black children Twain knew. While audacious, the re-reading of Twain’s work made this novel compelling.

But Finn’s rationalization of his murder of Mary, the encroaching insanity of his alcoholic delirriums, his participation in the brutal rape of a young black boy, and his imprisonment of Huck are written almost poetically, only adding to the the novel’s horror. Here is Clinch after Finn begins his dismemberment of Mary: “Fastidious in his methods, he arranges each portion upside down or inside out, its inner surface made outer to show red and slick and fibrous but never allowed to reveal the dark curse of its hidden face. He arranges the pieces thus to speak of death and death only … as if by such transformation he can alter all that has gone before and begin anew, clean and pure and washed in the indiscriminate blood.”  Finn–homeless, dirt poor, abusive, alcoholic–seems to have no trace of humanity left. Yet it is Judge Finn–respected, educated, wealthy–who chills the reader perhaps even more. For in facing his mortality, the aging Judge Finn summons his son with one last request–that Finn murder “The creature. The child. The boy” because “I cannot tolerate my blood passing through mulatto veins … I am relying on you to end the life of that bastard creature. And bring me evidence.” The Judge’s blood runs cold in Pap’s veins.

Some sort of justice (or perhaps it’s just more violence) is meted out at the novel’s end–another black woman ties Pap to the rape of her son and kills him in his sleep … with the same knife that flayed Huck’s mother. Inventive and audacious–difficult to read–but in the end, Finn is well worth the effort.

Heat Lightening

The Color of Lightening
by Paulette Jiles

I’ve heard that there really is no such thing as heat lightening–but when I was little, those flashes that lit up the night sky with no thunder, no discernible bolt of lightening, and usually when the weather was hot and humid, we called “heat lightening”. Paulette Jiles novel The Color of Lightening is a little like that. The novel flashed with insight and beauty, a powerful story … but in the end, lacked thunder  and so it fizzled out quietly. 

The Color of Lightening is the story of Britt Johnson, a freed black man, who emigrates from Kentucky to Texas Territory to carve out a new life for himself and his family. We get to know their family very little before the event around which the novel turns: the capture of his wife, Mary, and children Cherry and Jube, by a raiding band of Kiowa Indians. Jiles tells us the story through a prism. The reader sees Mary and the children as captives; Britt, as he races to find them and negotiate their release; and Samuel Hammond, a Quaker sent from the Indian Bureau to “manage” both the Native people and the white settlers.  Taken also in the raid were the Johnson’s white neighbor, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and her two granddaughters, for whom Britt returns.

[spoiler alert]

Jiles’ narrative is perhaps strongest when she writes about the captives Mary, Elizabeth, and the children. Some of the young captives were adopted and treated with great tenderness. Childless wives often took the youngest prisoners in as their own children. The older women were used as slaves; some even took Native husbands. Mary Johnson was savagely raped and beaten at the beginning of her capture, and she lost the ability to speak clearly. Mary works alongside the wife of her captor and waits with longing for what she is sure will be her rescue at Britt’s hands. Jube Johnson, almost ten, comes to relish the life of the Kiowa; children have incredible freedom, young boys are taught early on the skills of a warrior, and were even at a young age waited on by women. It is Jube, perhaps, who has the most trouble returning home–in fact, he initially refuses to go home with his family.

In introducing the character of Samuel Hammond, Jiles is able to investigate the ideas of non-violence in the face of violence, cultural arrogance, and personal freedom. Hammond, a Quaker, comes to doubt his belief in non-violence and cannot reconcile what he feels are his rational offers with the Indian’s rejection of them. Samuel also learns of white captives who will not return to their families after years with the Indians, and of returned captives who mourn the loss of their Indian way of life. While Samuel’s story is secondary, it could have been stronger;
 he sometimes seems to be a vehicle to speak for the author’s own beliefs.

I raced through the novel initially–Jiles’ tale was compelling and she wove the stories together seamlessly. However, by the last quarter of the book, the story’s pace merely plodded along. And the last fifty pages read more like a history text–all event, no narrative. It was almost as if Jiles needed to make the book much longer (so she could continue her storytelling all the way to the end) or much shorter (so she could end on a powerful note).  Sadly, I seem to remember feeling the same with Jiles’ earlier book Enemy Women–also a fantastic story that just faded away.  That’s not to say the novel isn’t worth reading–it is–but any reader who is a plot fanatic should be forewarned.

Laugh until you can’t read!

So Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is this month’s book club read–and when it was chosen, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to read it. When my copy arrived in the mail, the teaser was a little more intriguing: “Not long after Rhoda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured” .  And so Janzen returns to her Mennonite family to recuperate, both physically and emotionally. Okay, so a memoir a little out of the ordinary–probably no “I-had-a-horrible-childhood” here. I did, however, seriously doubt the blurbs that assured me the book was laugh-out-loud funny. Cute, maybe. Sweet and endearing, sure. Crack-a-smile, of course.

I was wrong. By the time I read Janzen’s description of her cat trying to “catch” a drip of urine trailing down the catheter tubing (gross, I know, but I don’t do the scene justice), I couldn’t continue for the tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. While I have no experience being Mennonite, I do have the childhood experience of living in a frugal household where almost everything was reused, recycled, or bought on sale. Janzen had the lunchbox horror of Cotletten sandwhiches–I had “gooseliver”. Janzen wore pants extended by strips of cloth sewed along the hem–birdboned me wore “husky” elastic waist jeans my mom got on sale from Sears catalog. And while not Mennonite, anyone who grew up in an evangelical household can relate (at list a little bit) to the emphasis on Christian music and youth group “fun”.

Even though this is Janzen’s story, it is perhaps her mother Mary who most endeared herself to me. Mary Janzen is the queen of non-sequitur and so incredibly accepting of her daughter it almost broke my heart. When Janzen decides to accompany Mary on a visit to an eighty-six-year-old shut in, she asks her mom, “Is [Mrs.Wiebe] mentally alert?” To which her mom replies, “Oh yes! She wears a wig!” And Mary Janzen’s unconditional love is touchingly sweet. Janzen’s life outside the Mennonite community has had the biggest impact on her relationship with her adult brothers. Questioning her mother on why her brothers are more conservative even than her parents, Mary Janzen replies, “Oh, they’ll mellow over time. When you’re young, faith is a matter of rules … But as you get older, you realize that fiath is really a matter of relationship–with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community.” Would that all people of God showed such compassion and humility.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress takes a peek back into Janzen’s childhood, and also details the joys and struggles she had when she reached her twenties and made the decision to leave her community. Janzen talks openly about her abusive husband. And in her return home, Janzen finds that maybe accepting and incorporating her roots is more valuable and healthy than rejecting them outright. I had the pleasure of attending a book reading Rhoda Janzen gave at the public library one evening. When I went, I had only read fifty pages–but her strong voice, wry and sardonic tone, and effervescence made me run home and read the book even more quickly. And laugh out loud I did.

Next up: The Color of Lightening by Paulette Jiles. I’ve only read a couple chapters, but it’s already tempting me away from doing school work for next year!