23 June, 2009

Book 16 - Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, or: Communism is not for lovers

Dunedin trip was pretty awesome - barely froze to death at all due to deliciously heated motel room - but the book I took down with me was decidedly not. I was hoping to finish it last week and write it up, but I'm halfway through and it is still unbelievably dull. So instead, here's a book I read a few months ago, only twenty years after everyone else read it. (In my defence, I was only 5 when it was published).

Title: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991)

Author: Jung Chang

Why this book?
After Bomb, Book and Compass I was dying to learn more about China's history. I remember this book being pretty popular at school when I was 13 or 14, but Chinese Cinderella, which was published about then, put me off reading anything Chinese and autobiographical for a really long time (mostly because it was just so depressing.)

What's it all about anyway? Wild Swans tells the stories of three Chinese women whose lives span most of the Twentieth Century as huge social, political and economic changes come to China; three women the author knows intimately, as they are her maternal grandmother, her mother, and herself.

Chang's grandmother, Yu-fang, is born to a poor family, but her father schemes to have a high-ranking warlord take her on as his concubine in order to gain status. After a wedding ceremony, Yu-fang goes to live in a large household where all her material needs are left; however, she seldom sees her husband, as he has many other concubines as well as a wife. She's pretty miserable, as she distrusts the servants and convention dictates she does not return to her own family. Eventually she has a daughter and goes to live with in her husband's own household; however, after he dies, she realises her daughter is likely to be taken from her and raised by his wife as their own child. Yu-fang escapes back to her mother's house.

Yu-fan doesn't exactly have a lot of status as an ex-concubine living under her mother's roof, but nevertheless she falls in love with a kindly older man, Dr Xia, and he with her. They marry, but his family disapproves greatly of the match and his (adult) children go out of the way to destroy the relationship, even going so far as to hurt Yu-fan's daughter. Eventually, Yu-fan, her daughter and Dr Xia move away from his family home to an economically disadvantaged district; but despite her new poverty Yu-fan is very happy, and begins to learn the customs of Dr Xia's people (unlike her, he's Manchurian).

The story of Yu-fan's daughter is very different. De-hong (also known as Bao Qin) grows up seeing the Japanese and Chinese armies constantly battling for supremacy and is used to stories of their brutality and oppression; so she is surprised when she first meets members of the Communist army, impressed with their gentle manners and egalitarian ideals. She begins working for the Communist Party, and slowly works up the ranks, yet in the eyes of her superiors she is never fully committed to the Party - for one thing, she has friends among the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) that she refuses to see as enemies, and for another the fact that her own father was a high-ranking military officer makes her a possible enemy (despite the fact she never met her own father).

Still, when De-hong falls for a man who is a well-respected officer in the Communist Party, Shou-yu (also known as Wang Yu) she tries to become more dedicated to the Party, if only for his sake. The two marry, but Shou-yu's own conviction that he needs to put the needs of the Party before his own means that he often neglects his wife. De-hong, like her mother before her, is often lonely, and very unhappy, particularly since Party rules dictate that couples are seldom allowed to sleep together. These stiff rules do start to relax eventually - however, at the same time the ideal country that both Shou-yu and De-hong believe they are helping to build also starts to crumble away.

The couple have five children, including Jung Chang, the book's author. Chang's childhood is dominated by the growing cult of Mao; in contrast to Communists like Chang's parents, all Mao cared about was his own personal glory. After rising to power he began to stamp out past dissenters, present dissenters, possible future dissenters... And, of course, began brainwashing the children of China into believing the only way forward was his way. Chang herself willingly follows the other children, but thanks to her parents' influence finds herself starting to doubt Mao as she grew older. Still, she can't voice these doubts out loud, and like everyone else she is subject to the whims of the Communist Party's Leader - such as going to the country to work among peasants, despite constant illness and her lack of skills.

Mao's death leads to changes in China, although these changes are slow coming. Chang gets to go to university - something she's wanted to do for a very long time - and is able to study English, even meet foreigners. Finally, she is offered a scholarship to England, and the chance to leave China for good.

The Good and the Bad
The biggest problem I have with this book is the same problem I have with any autobiography, which is that it is impossible for the writer to describe her characters - her friends, family and enemies - without any bias, or to describe how an event transpired with a wholly impartial view. Chang does do a wonderful job with her grandmother and mother - although she clearly admires and loves them, she doesn't treat them softly, nor does she go the other way and treat them too harshly. When it comes to describing her own life, however, it really felt to me like she was talking herself up a little. Maybe I was just too cynical towards what I was reading, but whatever it was I didn't enjoy her story as much as I enjoyed the stories of her mother and grandmother.

Besides that, this was a wonderful book. It wasn't nearly as depressing as I thought it was going to be, and even when Chang is describing the most horrific of events she does so in such an even tone that it's surprisingly readable - she doesn't lay on the emotion, or revel in shocking her audience, she's simply telling what happened. That's really what makes Chang's story so believable, I think.

So should I read it or what?
This isn't a light read, but definitely worth putting in a few days of reading (even if I did start to skim a little towards the end...)

Unrelated link of the day: Superflat First Love, an animated music video created by Takashi Murakami for Louis Vuitton. Cute and cracktastic, this link was passed on to me from a friend who as big a dork about anime as I am.

12 June, 2009

The Friday Babble: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I'm going away this weekend - flying down south this very evening! Now, to the majority of my readers, 'down south' means, 'to a warmer climate'. Sadly, when you live in the Southern Hemisphere, the further south you get the greater your chances of freezing to death are. My luggage is almost entirely packed with thermal underwear and woolen clothing, but if you never hear from me again it will mean there is a new, somewhat attractively-shaped icicle somewhere in the heart of Dunedin, New Zealand.

Dunedin is where I went to university, by the way. The student flats there are renowned for their shittiness, and generally it was a good five degrees colder inside your room than it was outside in the fresh air. Generally you got at least one text every day from a friend which simply read, "Fk its cld." It wasn't that we were deeply invested in using abbreviations in our SMSs, it was because it was so fucking cold we couldn't move our fingers.

I remember those years fondly.

Anyway, returning to the place where I (mis)spent my youth - or as one friend endearingly nicknamed it, "that shithole" - has made me think about books where winter, especially winters of ice and snow, play a particular role. Traditionally, winter is seen as a bad time, which is pretty understandable. Winter was for a long time - and still is, for many people - the time of year where you can't simply live, but must try to survive; there was no work and no income, no fresh food, and families had to try and keep themselves and their animals alive until spring. If you wandered outside and a snowstorm hit, you were a gonna. Grim stuff, I know. And people still seem to have a deep distrust of winter, even people who can afford gas-fires and insulation and snowmobiles and a sexy wool hats with a pompom at the top.

So, here are some books where winter is more than mere scenery. If you do reside in the Northern Hemisphere I know this may seem a little unseasonable, but I guess you could always save this post and come back and look again in six months' time.

Title: Hatchet Winter (1996)
aka Brian's Winter and Hatchet: WInter
Author: Gary Paulsen
Gary Paulsen wrote a book called "Hatchet", about a boy named Brian who finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness after the plane he's on crash-lands. It's a pretty thrilling book, all about how he learns to survive - forage for food, build his own shelter, protect himself from wild animals, etc etc. Since it's a children's book, it ends with the kid getting rescued.

But a lot of people wrote to Paulsen saying, "Surviving in the summer is all very well, but how would Brian have coped with the freezing winter temperatures?" In response, he produced Hatchet Winter, in which the boy was never rescued and is stuck for the winter. Brian's chances of survival suddenly get a lot slimmer. Also, he's attacked by a bear! Awesome.

Title: Child-44 (2008)
Author: Tom Rob Smith
As well as cannibalism there was a hell of a lot of snow. Are there any Russian novels in which there isn't any fucking snow?

Title: Moominland Midwinter (1957)
Author: Tove Jansson
Finally, a story where snow is actually seen as being kinda cool! No pun intended. Moomins always hibernate over winter, but this year Moomintroll just can't get to sleep. Instead he discovers everything there is to know about this mysterious time of the year - he learns to ski, he learns to ice fish and he meets the Dweller Under the Sink; but he also discovers there is a dark side to winter, and that death befalls anyone who meets the Lady of the Cold...

Title: The Snow Queen (1845)
Author: Hans Christian Andersen
I loved this story as a kid, partly because it is a fairytale in which a girl rescues a boy and not the other way around, but also because it is one of the few of Andersen's stories which actually has a happy ending. Seriously, the first time I read the original ending to The Little Mermaid I nearly had a heart-attack. It was also the start of my long-term vendetta against Disney, but that's another story.

Anyway, it's a beautiful story, and as a child I completely missed the religious overtones (for instance, Gerda says the Lord's Prayer to enter the Snow Queen's palace - I don't think I even knew what the Lord's Prayer was when I first read that.) It did give me the lasting impression that Europe is a terrifyingly cold place, though.

Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
Author: C. S. Lewis
First of all, you know that atrocious movie version of this book that came out a few years ago? We're not going to talk about it. We're especially not going to talk about how badly they raped Prince Caspian which I'm pretty sure they did just to piss me off.

Anyway, I love the Narnia series and I love this book. Even the overt symbolism of Aslan (aka as my homeboy, Jesus) bringing spring to the wintery land of Narnia which has been overtaken by the evil White Witch does nothing to diminish my love for it. I reread the whole series about once a year (except for The Last Battle, sorry) and it still continues to amaze me.

Although my seven-year-old self was really confused by the concept of "Always winter, but never Christmas!" Christmas happens in the middle of summer and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.


In conclusion, I think what we have all learned today is that winter is a terrible time, brought about by evil women who enjoy making small children suffer. Winter may very well kill you, unless you are a small Finnish troll or happen to have an ax handy.

An important lesson for us all.

11 June, 2009

Book 15 - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or: Millennium: not just a shitty Robbie Williams song

I had one of my wisdom teeth out on Tuesday, so I spent most of the day on Wednesday in bed, reading this book. I should have my teeth removed more often.

Image from My Good Friend Wikipedia. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008)
Originally published as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (2005)

Stieg Larsson
Trans. Reg Keeland

Why this book? Because my Mum said, "Oh, I've heard this book is quite good," and bought it for me. I can't say no to a free book.

What's it all about anyway? Mikael Blomkvist is a fairly talented financial journalist who has just been convicted on 15 counts of libel, landing him in jail for three months. To Blomkvist, this seems like the end of the road - not only of his own career, but of the newspaper Millennium which he part-owns, which will never survive this hit to his credibility.

Then comes a completely unexpected offer. Henrik Vanger wants Blomkvirst to find the truth behind the mystery that has been haunting him for forty years. Who killed his beloved great-niece, Harriet? And, since Harriet's death, who has continued to taunt him by sending him a single, pressed flower, every year on his birthday - exactly as Harriet used to do? Vanger will not only pay Blomkvirst for a year's worth of his time, but he also offers to get the Millennium back on its feet. Blomkvirst reluctantly agrees to investigate Harriet's case, and slowly finds himself being drawn into the bizarre world of the Vangers, who are more a corporate dynasty than they are a family.

As Blomkvirst is pulled deeper into the story behind Harriet's disappearance, he takes on Lisbeth Salander as a research assistant - the girl with the dragon tattoo. Salander is possibly mentally ill, definitely emotionally warped, and entirely incapable of believing that not everyone is out to get her - but she's also a probable genius and an amazingly good private investigator.

Together, Blomkvirst and Salander realise that the Vanders have a lot to hide - and some of them are willing to go to any length to keep it hidden...

The Good and the Bad I started off reading this book expecting it to be just another thriller, but it turned out to be one of the best contemporary mystery books I've read in a very long time. So often I read mysteries where the solution is so obvious that I get frustrated that the detective hasn't figured it out yet - and I also hate it when mysteries are so over-complicated that their answer is just completely unbelievable. Larsson manages a perfect balance, laying down clues that are subtle enough that the reader can see the shape that the answer is going to take without being able to put a finger on the exact solution.

In some ways this book is almost a revenge fantasy - Salander, after being sexually abused, manages to turn the tables on her abuser in a way that might be described as poetic, while Blomkvirst's revenge on the man who set him up to go to prison is so enjoyable you can almost taste it. But in neither case does the revenge seem too far-fetched; in Salander's case, it shows us that while everyone else sees her as a victim she's never really felt that way, and in Blomkvirst's the story needed it to feel properly finished.

There are two main threads running through the book: abuse of women (the Swedish title of the book translates as "Men who hate women") and criticism of big business. Overall, Larsson handles the abuse of women part very well - generally such a topic makes me put down a book, since I just find it so hard to read about, especially when it involves rape and sadism. But the only part of the story which made me slightly uncomfortable was Salander's inability to understand that not all victims can fight back - is Larsson trying to argue that all victims should fight back (which to me sounds a lot like blaming the victim), or is he trying to point out how silly this argument is by putting it in the mouth of a character who doesn't really understand how other people work?

So should I read it or what? Without being a challenging read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is engaging and really will keep you guessing until the end. I came to love Blomkvirst and Salander dearly, and I can not only tell you that you should read this book, but I'm going to go ahead and tentatively also recommend its sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I haven't actually read yet.

Unrelated link of the day: The 10 worst subjects for a pop song. "Erectile dysfunction" isn't one of them, so I guess this Times writer is a Lily Allen fan.

07 June, 2009

Book 14 - The Summer Book, or: Finnish island whimsy

I read this book a while ago and didn't take any notes, so this post is going to be on the short side, sorry! But expect a few extra posts next week to make up for it.

Title: The Summer Book (1972)

Author: Tove Jansson

Why this book?
If Finnish writer Tove Jansson's name seems familiar to you, it's probably because you remember an idyllic childhood reading her Moomintroll books. I was talking about them with one of my workmates one day (because all librarians do is discuss books, obviously) and she mentioned that she had a book of Jansson's that she'd written for adults. Needless to say, I was intrigued, and she was happy to lend it to me.

What's it all about anyway?
The Summer Book is basically a series of episodes exploring the relationship between a young girl, Sophie, and her grandmother. Sophie's mother is dead, and she now lives with her grandmother and her father on an isolated island, by themselves. Whether Sophie is building her own forest, sailing to the prohibited neighbouring island, or reluctantly entertaining a friend of her own age, the grandmother shows unwavering love for her granddaughter, and a deep understanding of the frustrations and hopes of young life, even as she herself begins to feel her own life is starting to draw to a close.

The Good and the Bad
The characters of Sophie and the grandmother are based on Jansson's own niece, and her own mother. Jansson wrote this book after her mother's death, and her grief is at times tangible in her writing. This is not a depressing book, though - just surprisingly emotional. For the most part, Jansson's stories are whimsical, insightful, and often quite funny. Sophie is a believable child - curious without being precocious, kiddish without being twee, and always an attractive character, even when she's sulking. And the grandmother is also perfect - full of love and understanding, and yet an old woman who is subject to an old woman's fears, and despairs.

So should I read it or what?
This is a stunning book, and I highly recommend it!

Unrelated link of the day: Alice. If you had to explain Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to someone with only pictures and music, this is what you would use. It may be the trippiest thing on the whole of the internet. (Either that, or I am incredibly high right now.)