I really love these monthly book posts, I love keeping tabs on my own reading habits and writing a little paragraph about each book I finish. I have really enjoyed coming up with recommendations of similar or complimentary books for each of these titles/subjects and combing through past literary experiences. I am also the type of person who loved getting stickers on her chart and checking off all the boxes in a to-do list. Shocker, I know.
I feel it important to mention here that in March I took myself on two road trips, one about 1500 miles round trip, the other about 700 miles, and during those drives I listened to audio books, specifically, to Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick, both hundreds and hundreds of pages on their own (and hours and hours of listening), but with over 40 hours of drive time, it was totally manageable to get through both those behemoth classics as well as a half-dozen other books.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (5 stars). What a tremendous story! I knew the basic plot of this sweeping novel, but I had no idea how expansive and involved the characters are, their relationships, their duties, their sense (or lack of) moral judgements and behavior. I love how Tolstoy uses various points of view to tell the story–one of my favorites was a brief chapter told from the perspective of Konstantin Levin’s hunting dog–and I love how full these characters are painted. While Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronsky all fell fairly flat for me, uninteresting, and perhaps a little more one-dimensional as they were three cast as “villains” or “un-Christian”, I really loved the relationship between Konstantin Levin and Kitty; I love Konstantin the most, I think, as Tolstoy intended. I realize that as Tolstoy’s hero Kostya receives more positive attributes overall and a more sympathetic story arc, but I still loved him, even in his stumbles and faults as he makes his way as an agricultural baron, husband, and father. I know many people stumble with all the Russian names, but I really loved them and how specific people refer to others by specific nicknames or not, depending on their relationships. This reminded me of some the the great, sweeping epic pieces of literature with dozens of characters and stories and side-stories and rambling plots that overlay each other again and again.
Additional Recommended Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck; Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.
Moby-Dick; or the Whale, by Herman Melville (5 stars). I went into this book with very little expectation, and I absolutely loved it. I loved Ishmael, I loved his perspective and voice and I love how Melville gave him these hilarious sarcastic moments. I actually laughed out loud on several occasions. Yes, this is a book about a whale, not necessarily about catching said whale, or even chasing said whale, although there are parts of that, for sure. But really, this is a giant, 700-page manifesto on a white spermaceti whale, and other whales, and other giant fishes, and the history and biology of all of those. I loved it. Spoiler: if you’re looking for a 700-page chase you will be disappointed. Moby-Dick himself doesn’t really show up for Captain Ahab until chapter 132 of 135. So, change your expectations on that, if necessary. Honestly, this had as much natural science in it as some of the Darwin books I’ve read; it was fascinating to me, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you know, be advised. My favorite quote (which has nothing to do with whales or whaling or sailors or ships or the sea, but still hit me in the gut): “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”
20th Century China
Fun fact: I minored in Mandarin Chinese at University and while I don’t speak it well I can still read it with some level of proficiency…not like literary critiques or political treatises, but simple stuff. I have taken a number of college-level Chinese history and literature classes, but I kind of forgot how much I loved this topic until I selected The Good Earth on a whim for book club. And then, per usual, I had to read a million more books on 20th century China.
The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). I have so many thoughts about this book, and so many reactions and notes written in the margins. Firstly, it both angered and baffled me the attitudes and behaviors of the characters towards the women in their lives. Women are slaves, prostitutes, concubines, and bearers of children, but not equals in any way shape or form. And all the problems that come with this premise are in almost every page of this book. I realize that Wang Lung is a product of his own environment, culture, and attitudes of his country, but it still pissed me off at almost every turn. Wang Lung’s views of his own place in society are nearly completely based on what others think of him, and his opinions on his wife, concubine, and the child sex slave are all completely based on what others will think of these respective women. O-lan, the dear, loyal O-lan, works herself to the bone for her husband and their land and family, and Wang Lung is disgusted by her because she isn’t pretty and her feet are large, and this disgust continues and grows throughout his life, and it just…not okay. Other than the feminist rage, this is a sweeping epic of a family trying to adjust to the tricky cycle of poverty turning to wealth and prosperity, and the changes in the family that comes from not needing to work the land for your bread, and needing to keep up appearances. The rise and eventual implied fall of the House of Wang is so similar to that of the family who owned this land prior to Wang Lung, and we can only assume that this family will suffer a similar fate. This is a beautiful book, but it also made me very angry, but I loved it…I have so many thoughts and feelings!
Sons, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). The second of The House of Earth trilogy, I liked this book more than its Pulitzer-winning predecessor. Where “The Good Earth” follows the farmer Wang Lung as he acquires more and more land and becomes a wealthy man, “Sons” follows the story of his three sons, Wang the Landlord/the eldest, Wang the Merchant/the second son, and–my favorite–Wang the Tiger, a soldier who aspires to become a war lord over the lands of the north. These three Wang’s have children of their own and struggles and triumphs and must deal with their father’s estate and the changing times as agrarian China slowly becomes a staging ground for the Maoist revolution, the way of life of the Wang family must change with this new, rising China.
A House Divided, by Pearl S. Buck (3 stars). The third and final book in The House of Earth series, this one was my least favorite. It follows the life of Wang Yuan, son of Wang the Tiger, son of Wang Lung the farmer. Yuan trains to be a soldier for his warlord father, and then to be a revolutionary soldier at a school in the South (Nanjing, I think?), but he really just wants to be a farmer, despite never having hoed a row in his life. Farming is completely unacceptable to his father, so Yuan runs away and spends some time in what I think is Hong Kong becoming a modern Chinese man (i.e. one in western dress who goes dancing with loads of good looking, fashionable friends). During one of the many revolutions in China Yuan gets tossed in prison, is bailed out by his family, and is sent to America to escape further imprisonment. (It’s kind of hard to tell what exactly is going on in a larger framework because Buck doesn’t name any cities, or years, or really any identifying information, which in many ways makes this series kind of timeless, but also makes it hard to figure out which rebellion the characters are fighting for/against, and how that plays out in the larger realm of Chinese history and ultimately what it means for the Wang family.) Yuan spends some time studying agriculture in the United States (Boston, I think) and makes friends with some white people (Irish Catholics, perhaps, due to the accent and red hair) and becomes much more patriotic about China than he ever was living there, moves back to China and tries to figure out what he will do with the rest of his life, i.e. find a girl to marry. I dunno…I just didn’t love this final book. Yuan seems to be both soldier and farmer, but also neither of those things. He has these very strange ideas about women and dating that are this bastardized version of East vs West/old vs new that is SUPER irritating, such as: “We’ve never been alone together, have hardly spoken, and certainly have never expressed any feelings, but I know I want to marry her because I love her and young people should be able to choose our wives instead of have our parents choose….but WHY DIDN’T SHE CHOOSE ME! THAT’S NOT OKAY! SHE SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THAT ANYONE WANTS HER AND WHY DOES SHE WANT TO BE A DOCTOR AND NOT A MOTHER! HAS SHE NO RESPECT?! SHE SHOULD FEEL SO LUCKY THAT SOMEONE AS GREAT AS ME DEIGNS TO WANT HER AT ALL!”…so you know, I have some issues with his thought processes. Anyway, this seemed to drag on and on and on and I just…I was glad when it was over.
Red Azalea, by Anchee Min (4 stars). While I read this in one sitting, I wouldn’t say this is an easy read. Anchee Min was raised in Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, was forced to denounce her teachers, became a leader in the the Red Guard (the Chinese equivalent of the Hitler Youth), and spent years working essentially as a soldier-slave on a farm, and was selected to join the film industry to work on a project for Madame Mao. Many reviews complain about choppy language and lack of introspection, and yes, both of those things exist in this book. However, you’ve got to remember that Min’s schooling was not in literature and composition and prose, or even poetry and opera. She recited by rote the teachings and writings of Mao and for 10 years the ONLY music allowed in China was 9 operas of Madame Mao which reeked of propaganda. The choppy sentences and simple language enhance the story, they are proof of the “success” of Mao’s re-education of the intellectual class to turn them to farmers and factory workers and janitors. While Min works 16 hours a day at a farm collective (which does not grow enough crops to sustain itself and has deplorable conditions) she craves human connection, emotion, something other than communist propaganda. When Min and Yan, a fellow soldier-slave, become friends and eventually lovers I wanted to cry and cheer that Min finally had some kind of human connection, that she finally could experience some kind of emotion outside of violence, control, and political propaganda which claims all emotions are unnecessary and capitalistic, and therefore punishable. I really appreciated this book, it moved me and helped me understand a lot more about Maoist China and how this man single-handedly destroyed so much of the culture and collective memory of his country.
Bound Feet and Western Dress, by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang (3 stars). I love the idea behind this autobiographical/memoir which mostly focuses on Yu-i, a woman born in China at the beginning of the 20th century who grows up and comes of age as her country moves away from its more traditional ways such as foot binding, arranged marriages, socially accepted concubines, filial responsibilities, and an abhorrent preference for sons. Yu-i’s story is told by her 20-something great-niece, Pang-Mei, who was born in Connecticut and is trying to understand her American and Chinese heritage. I loved the story; I loved Yu-i and watching her transform from a subservient woman to a strong independent one who tackled the responsibilities of her life with both Western sensibility and Eastern responsibilities. She truly was an incredible driving force of change and hope for so many Chinese women. That being said, minus one star because I didn’t love the writing (this is a first novel) and I didn’t love Pang-Mei’s additions of her life throughout the book, I felt they were detracting. In creating a dual-perspective story Pang-Mei and/or her editor/publisher did not figure out a way to help the reader determine which woman was being discussed at any given time.
Pearl of China, by Anchee Min (3 stars). I really wanted to love this book, a biographical novel of Pearl S. Buck. However, while the author is clearly passionate about Buck and her writings, her treatment of the Chinese in her writings and her lifelong dedication to good works for the Chinese…this book just doesn’t seem to do her justice. As historical fiction it is probably fine, but as a sort-of biography one of a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner she falls very short. Most of the story is focused on Willow, the narrator and childhood friend of Pearl. And while I appreciate a story about Buck told from a Chinese point of view, I feel like so much was missed and so much more was blatantly made up to make a good story. If this had simply been a story of Willow, a young peasant girl coming of age during the Boxer Rebellion and living through Mao’s terrible reign, I would have given this 4 stars. But I feel like I have to deduct a star for taking a life as prominent and famous as Pearl S. Buck and playing with chronology, characters, and history by turning her experience into fiction. (For example, an entire section of the book focuses on a hardly documented (in real life) love affair between Buck and Hsu Chih-mo, a famous Chinese poet and the husband of Chang Yu-i; yes, that Yu-i who is the star of Bound Feet and Western Dress (see review, above). However in Yu-i’s story Pearl S. Buck is not mentioned whatsoever…so….it just seemed a little more of a stretch than necessary and in digging around online for a minute I couldn’t find much that corroborated this affair. I have since ordered a proper biography and Pearl S. Buck’s autobiography, hopefully I’ll have a better response from those.
Additional Recommended Reading: Empress Orchid and The Last Empress, by Anchee Min; The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang; Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie; Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan;
Women in History
Heroines of History, by John S. Jenkins (3 stars). I liked this, I liked listening to stories of these women, some of whom I knew very little about. This book gives a few chapters about the following powerful women: Cleopatra, cunning and beautiful queen of the Nile who succeeded in bedding not one, but TWO Caesars of Rome; Isabella I of Castile who maintained her place as a co-ruler of Spain and eventually funded Columbus; Joan of Arc, soldier-maid who united France; Maria Theresa, Queen Regent and final monarch of the House of Habsburg, sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, and several other kingdoms, and Holy Roman Empress, she was also the mother of Marie Antoinette (and fourteen other children!!) and a powerful and important ruler in Europe for 40 years. Maria Theresa was by far my favorite of this series and I’ve added 2 more books about her to my stacks; Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon I and empress of France; Elizabeth I, Queen of England and patron of the Elizabethan era of literature and art, as well as a lot of bloody religious battles with Scotland, Spain, France, Ireland, and Russia; Mary, Queen of Scots who reigned for only a few years in Scotland before she was thrown into prison by her bitter rival, Elizabeth I, where she remained for almost 20 years until her execution; Catherine the Great of Russia, a ruthless ruler who killed those in the way of her rise to power, expanded the Russian empire to great loss of life, lived extravagantly while her people starved..yet her reign was considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire (and it probably was, for the nobles); Marie Antoinette, the lavish young queen of France who met her ultimate demise at the guillotine, and Madame Roland, heroine of the French Revolution who was killed during the Reign of Terror.
The Story of Joan of Arc, by Andrew Lang (2 stars). This was a quick read and a good overview of Joan of Arc, however after reading Mark Twain’s lengthy and detailed account of her, this one fell pretty flat for me. It is a quick read, and gives some good biographical background of Joan, but there is hardly any spark or personality to Lang’s Maid of France, and to lead an army, crown a king, and be burned at the stake one must have personality.
Whew. If you made it through to the end of this behemoth post, you get a gold star.