Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Pearl of China"

Anchee Min was born in China in 1957 and came to the U.S. in 1984.  Her literary debut "Red Azalea", a memoir of growing up in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, established her as a popular and respected author. Her subsequent books include memoirs and historical novels. "Pearl of China", her most recent book is historical fiction and tells the story of Pearl Buck, the Nobel-prize winning American writer whose best work portrayed the people and the land of China in the twentieth century.

In an author's note in that book, she explains:

"In setting out to tell Pearl Buck's story I faced a number of challenges. I wanted to convey the full sweep of Pearl's life, but I wanted to see her as my fellow Chinese saw her."

She accomplishes this by telling "Pearl's story through her relationship with her actual Chinese friends."

The result is a warm, respectful look at the life and experiences that became distilled into Pearl Buck's books, admiring but also attentive to the contradictions and ambiguities of Pearl Buck's life and her relationship to China. In describing Pearl's Chinese friends from childhood on, Min also is able to tell the story of China in the twentieth century, including the decades after Pearl returned to the United States in 1937.

As I engaged this book,  I became fascinated by the many facets of cultural identity and cultural translation that it contains. Anchee Min, a Chinese daughter of the Cultural Revolution who came to America and became a best-selling author, in English, of books about China tells the story of a woman from her parents' generation who was American but grew up in China and became famous telling the world about China in English. Not only could I appreciate the appeal that Pearl Buck had for Anchee Min but I also enjoyed Min's exploration of the Chinese world in which Pearl lived and wrote.

I learned much from Min's book about how it came that Pearl Buck was ultimately rejected by China's communist culture, suspected in the United States for what were seen as leftist views, and marginalized by the literary establishment in the United States. Pearl Buck's treatment by the Chinese communist political and cultural leaders is part of a larger story of Chinese authors and intellectuals who had helped bring about a revolution but who were subsequently rejected and silenced.

As I read, I began to wonder how and when Anchee Min learned about Pearl Buck? Had she encountered her work in China? In Chinese? Or was it only after Min came to the United States and became proficient in English that she encountered Pearl Buck's China?

In the Author's Note that follows the book, Anchee Min explains that as a teenager, she was made to denounce Pearl Buck as part of Madame Mao Tse Tung's campaign to discredit Pearl Buck while she was still alive and was attempting to visit China with the Nixon-Kissinger visit in 1971. Min followed instructions as she copied lines from the newspaper like, "Pearl Buck insulted Chinese peasants therefore China" and "She hates us therefore is our enemy." Of course, she knew very little about Pearl Buck and noted that  she was not permitted to even read "The Good Earth" to understand what she was denouncing.

Years later, at a book reading of "Red Azalea" in Chicago, a woman came up to Min and presented her with a copy of "The Good Earth", explaining that Buck had taught her to love the Chinese people. Min read the book on the flight from Chicago to Los Angeles and was moved to tears. "I couldn't stop myself because I remembered how I had denounced the author. I remembered how Madame Mao had convinced the entire nation to hate Pearl Buck. How wrong we had been! I had never encountered any author, inlcuding the most respected Chinese authors, who wrote about our peasants with such admiration, affection, and humanity."

Read "Pearl of China." You will meet two remarkable women, Pearl Buck and Anchee Min, who didn't meet in life but who now meet through art and history and who, together, have important stories to share with us.

Friday, December 31, 2010

"Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth"

Somehow in the midst of Christmas cooking, cleaning, shopping, gifting, and merriment I stole a few minutes to take down a book from my Pearl Buck collection, one that had avoided my attention for quite a few years. (I am very grateful to my mother-in-law Ruby who helped me assemble this collection from used book sales over many years.) "Once Upon a Christmas" looked to be a collection of sentimental, seasonal stories and I felt that a short peruse might satisfy like a seasonal glass of eggnog laced with bourbon.

I was pleased to discover among the various Christmas stories a few memories by Pearl Buck of some of the  Christmases she spent in China as a child and young woman. Their inclusion in this collection led me to think about the themes of home and family that recur in her books and writings. I was reminded that I had not yet written about Pearl Buck for Bookwagon and that an end-of-year posting was appropriate.

Pearl Buck was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938 and was commended for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."  Her second novel, "The Good Earth" which describes the hard life of peasants and common people in twentieth-century China had been wildly popular in the United States and around the world upon its publication in 1931. Despite its popularity, the critical response to this novel and to subsequent novels by Pearl Buck was mixed. For a variety of political, cultural and literary reasons, the Nobel Prize award was controversial at the time and has remained so since. Pearl Buck wrote for thirty-five more years, and much of her work from this time is considered pedestrian and ordinary. The quality of so many of her later books has not helped her literary reputation. Still, her early writing, born of her life in China as a child and young woman, and rooted in the society and literature of China, is extraordinary and deserves to be read and regarded as literary treasure.

Pearl Buck was born in China to missionary parents from West Virginia. Her mother and father chose to spend their lives bringing Christianity to an alien and distant part of the world, living there and raising their children there. Of seven siblings, only Pearl, an older brother and a younger sister survived yto adulthood. They were raised in an impoverished household, steeped in Christianity and Western culture but speaking Chinese as early as they spoke English. She played with Chinese friends, and experienced first-hand the public and private lives of Chinese farmers and townspeople. She observed and was affected by dramatic, dangerous, and tumultuous times as China emerged from a longstanding traditional society and struggled to establish itself in a modern world dominated by Western powers, global forces and foreign ideas.

Pearl returned to the United States to attend college in Virgina but upon graduation returned to China where she taught, wrote, married, and raised a family of her own. She socialized with and befriended Chinese intellectuals and writers. Her life in China, from her birth and early childhood through her marriage and development as a writer is vividly described in Hilary Spurling's book, "Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth", one of the best books I read in 2010. I recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed a Pearl Buck novel and for others interested in China, the American experience with China, and twentieth century Chinese and American literature.

Reading Pearl Buck's novels of China is as close to reading modern Chinese literature in the vernacular as most of us English readers will experience. Pearl Buck was as fluent in Chinese as she was in English. Having lived her entire life to adulthood in China, she was as familiar with and shaped by its literature, politics, and history as other Chinese intellectuals and writers were and more familiar with China than she was with American society and literature. When we read "The Good Earth", we are almost reading a Chinese novel written in English, not one translated into English. It provides a very rare opprtunity for us Enlgish speaker/readers to enter another literary culture directly. I would inlcude "The Good Earth" and a few other Pearl Buck novels in an introductory course to modern Chinese literature.

Spurling's book illuminates the challenges of growing up within two culutres, the stresses of a childhood shaped by the missionary experience in an alien and mostly unwelcoming environment, and the toll of a difficult marriage and a special-needs child. She describes Pearl Buck's early works as derived from these experiences and as reflective of the Chinese world that Pearl lived in and acutely observed. Pearl moved back to the United States when war broke out between China and Japan. She was forty-two and never returned to China. As an adult, Pearl broke with the missionary movement that had embraced and motivated her parents and their generation of westerners in China. She recognized the contributions that Western missionaries had made in areas of education, women's rights, and health care but she was sensitive to and critical of the attitude of superiority that accompanies an evangelical movement.

Pearl opposed and resisted Western domination in Asia but did not adhere to the Communist Party doctrine. By the 1940s, she had alientated the Communist and leftist powers in China and was at the same time suspect to the gowing conservative, anti-communist forces in the United States. Consequently, her popularity suffered in both China and the United States.

I suspect that Pearl Buck was essentially a foreigner in the United States for the second half of her life and her writing about America reflects an alienation and a disconnection from American culture. Upon rereading her novels, I am struck by her attention to the details of home, family, and social relationships whether writing about Asia or America. These are all very important themes in Chinese literature and it is interesting to see them played out in her later writing about a very different society.

For many reasons, then, including her unique perspective on the world, her bicultural identity, her gifts of language and writing, and her expression of themes and concerns common to human society regardless of culture and history, she deserves attention. She has much to offer the contemporary reader. It isn't right to dismiss her writing based on how a Maoist regime in China labeled her or how a reactionary American political response to Chinese ideas and influences branded her. There probably is a real disparity in the quality of her total body of work. Some of that can be explained by her cultural displacement in the second part of her life and some of it by her need to write continuously, both for financial and for personal reasons. But among her many books are important treasures and you do yourself a disservice to ignore them.

Read a few of her books and determine for yourself what she has to describe, what she has to say, and how she serves to combine and merge her Chinese and American perspectives in her best novels. Begin with "The Good Earth (1931) and continue on to "Dragon Seed" (1942) about Chinese resistance to the Japanese invaders in the 1930s or "Pavilion of Women" (1946) about marriage and family in traditional Chinese society). If you enjoy what you read, and value the unusual opportunity to read in English a very Chinese experience of life, you might want to explore some of her other work written later when she could not return to China and settled permanently in the United States. You could read through "Once Upon a Christmas", perhaps in the middle of some busy Christmas week, and see that Pearl Buck continues to have much to share with us and to teach us. Best of all, she tells good stories!

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Berlin Noir

Philip Kerr is the author of The Berlin Noir trilogy, three novels featuring  detective Bernie Gunther whose work solving crimes and pursuing justice in Germany under the Nazis is projected through the lens of a government and society defined by evil and crime. What does it mean to track down a murderer of an individual within the context of pervasive and institutionalized murder of millions? In most matters personal and professional, Bernie seems decent enough and for the most part is trying to do the right thing. Does that even matter?

The first book takes place in 1934, the second in 1938. The third book of the Trilogy takes place in 1947 when Berlin is under Allied occupation and we see the dismal effects of defeat and reckoning on the city.

A Quiet Flame

In his most recent book, A Quiet Flame, a continuation of the trilogy, Bernie is essentially forced out of Germany in 1950 to seek refuge in Argentina where there are a number of Nazi war criminals hiding out (in plain sight). A kidnapping within the German community in Buenos Aires leads to Bernie being compelled by the Argentine police to take up his former profession and search for the guilty. Things aren't what they seem and Bernie's reluctant participation leads him to further reflection on his life, and times, and the nature of the Nazi experience.

A key plot element leads Kerr to flash back to Berlin in 1932 and the two stories (Berlin, 1932 and Buenos Aires, 1950) proceed on parallel tracks. The book continues the development of Bernie's story from the Berlin Noir series and the details of life in Germany and Argentina are vividly drawn. The mood is somber, of course, and one reads along with a growing fascination, and horror, at how one man can, and cannot, make a difference.

I was particularly taken with the descriptions of Germany in 1932, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was about to take control of the government and the future. The description of a society where unemployment is running at thirty three percent and inflation is devaluing whatever income people do have provides the background for a number of political decisions and actions that will result in worldwide devastation and ultimately, destruction of Germany. Kerr's book is good story and good history and added to my own understanding of Hitler's rise and ultimate domination.

Bernie's growing understanding of what happened both in 1930s Germany and in post-war Argentina leads to a poignant acceptance of his own responsibility and guilt as an individual who didn't speak up against what he saw happening, even if it would have made no difference.I really like Bernie and I am intrigued by how he makes decisions in the face of these challenges. The fact that he was once an SS officer (the novels make clear the circumstances) makes me feel guilty for liking him and that is just about how Bernie feels about himself.

Today in the United States we are currently experiencing real political and economic uncertainties that are not nearly as fearful as those that Germany, Europe and the world faced in the 1930s. Still, reading this book made me mindful of how humans make, and are led into, political decisions and how an atmosphere of fear can shape our choices.

Dark and dangerous but fascinating to read and think about. I dare you to read just one.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

River of Doubt

As a boy, I dreamed of becoming an adventurer. Sometimes, I saw myself canoing through North American forests. Others I envisioned myself traveling across remote deserts. You can see that my aspirations were very literary. I read tales of the explorers and novels of stranded travelers depending on their own ingenuity to survive.  I even read through two very large volumes of memoirs of Henry Stanley's expedition to rescue Dr. David Livingston in Africa.

My actual outdoor skills were in reality rather limited, I'm afraid, and I depended on my good friend Billy Wilson to take care of me whenever we entered "the woods." Even Billy couldn't help me when, as adults, we took my young daughters on a canoe expedition in Pennsylvania when I ended up dumping 10-year-old Gena in the cold river. He did make a fire to help her dry out. I think of Billy whenever I read about outdoor adventure and I think he will appreciate River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.

Teddy Roosevelt, an immensely popular president, chose to run for a third term in 1912, this time not as a Republican but as a third-party candidate representing the Progressive Party. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in a landslide and Roosevelt took the blame from his Republican supporters for putting a Democrat in the White House. Out of power, in disfavor with his own supporters, and facing the loss of activity and connection that losing the presidency meant,  Roosevelt retreated to his home at Sagamore Hill, Long Island and began to come to terms with his new reality. He was 54 years old.

Throughout his life, Teddy Roosevelt had faced adversity and challenges through determined activity, physical exertion, and adventure. As a youth who suffered from asthma, he had traveled out west to toughen himself up. He boxed in college and later, after the death of his first wife, he returned to the west for two years of ranching. During his presidency, he had participated in one long safari in Africa (traveling with his son  Kermit). It was in character that in the winter of 1913, Teddy Roosevelt decided to help lead an extraordinary adventure, mapping uncharted territory in the Amazon basin of Brazil. The conditions would be difficult and dangerous. The possible routes took them hundreds of miles away from known settlements. Climate and natural conditions could prove deadly. Tribes of Indians, some with little or no contact with Europeans even after four centuries of European settlement in South America, could be hostile. The goal of the expedition was to follow an unmapped tributary of the Amazon river called the River of Doubt from its source to wherever it met the main river. Kermit would again accompany him.

This book describes this expedition beginning with Roosevelt's electoral defeat, through the planning process and preparations and finally the journey itself.  In so doing, it shows us Teddy Roosevelt, post-presidency, continuing to assert his views on politics, humanity, and nature through action. In doing this, Millard also introduces us to descriptions of the Amazon jungle, and provides explanations for how it developed and how it functions that are scientifically and esthetically very satisfying. There is action, suspense, and vivid retelling of remarkable physical bravery and courage by Roosevelt, his son, and others on the expedition.

An important story in itself is the character of Candido Rondon, a Brazilian explorer who was co-leader of the exhibit, responsible for the safety of a former president of the United States. Rondon had special interest in and concern for the Amazon Indians and very likely it was his refusal to allow his team to inflict violence on the Indians, even in self-defence, that saved the expedition.

The special relationship that Roosevelt shared with his son Kermit is also a major theme. In some ways both father and son felt that they were on the expedition to look out for the other. Kermit suffers from unrelenting malaria and dreams of being reunited with his new fiance. Teddy is badly injured and becomes ill as well. He nearly dies in this adventure and Millard's description of his eventual return and recovery were suspenseful even if we do know how the story ends. Millard also succeeds in putting this entire episode of his life in a family and historical context.

This book is too good to overlook. It is a biography. It is a page-turning adventure story. It is a wondrous description of a beautiful and unfamiliar part of the world. It is also an exploration of the American spirit and worldview at the beginning of the twentieth century and an insightful look at teamwork, leadership, and determination. It is a thoughtful exploration of individual responses to challenge, failure, and redemption.

Reading River of Doubt led me to considerations of presidential politics, South American history and culture, and the challenges of extreme outdoor adventure. It also renewed my interest in Teddy Roosevelt and what his leadership meant to America. It made me wonder just how Billy Wilson and I would have managed. (I believe Billy would have been all right.)

Young Gena might be glad that her unfortunate dunking took place in relatively safe waters. If it had happened on the River of Doubt, there would have been piranha in the water and Indians with poisoned arrows on shore. I hesitate to recommend this book to Kathryn who was also on the infamous childhood canoe trip.  Given her enjoyment of outdoor adventure, she might just take off on her own trip down the River of Doubt. Emma would have much to say about the history of rubber trees and how they were exported to Malaysia from the Amazon leading to a worldwide economic and colonial dynamic. As for me, these are adventures best enjoyed in the pages of books.

River of Doubt had been a candidate for Best Book of the Year 2009 from Bonnie and David and was sent to me as the best "non-fiction" book of the year at Christmastime. It deserves the award and deserves to be read and discussed. I look forward to sharing it with Billy and Gena. Anyone else?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Help

PYZ, the writer of two interesting blogs, Zebra Shoes and Journey into Diversity, provided the initial impetus for the creation of Bookwagon. Here she reviews a book I received from my sister-in-law Annie for my birthday. She didn't put the book down (and I didn't see her face) for two days.  

The Help is a first novel for Kathryn Stockett, a writer who was born and raised in the South and who now lives with her husband and daughter in Atlanta. In this novel, inspired by her childhood memories of the family maid, Demetrie, Stockett explores life in the early 1960's in Mississippi from the viewpoints of several young white women and several black maids. Altogether their voices tell a rich and troubling story of privilege, discrimination, segregation, and rigid cultural norms. One white woman dares to challenge those norms and discovers the disparities between her life and those of her peers and the strength and power of the written word to reveal, acknowledge and share truths.

The story explores how people gain and control power using communication, emotional connection, and vantage point as tools. There is sadness in the pressure to conform in the the white women's experience; there is despair in the code of silence of the black women that driven by fear. There is hope in the many acts motivated by humanity.

The context of this story has changed, but the human condition has not. The story gives us a chance to consider the human condition one more time in the safety of the past.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Can the book possibly be as funny as this promotional trailer? Suddenly I am anxious for July 27th to arrive just to find out!