Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Good Earth - Wendy's Review

Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return to earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together - together - producing the fruit of this earth - speechless in their movement together. -From The Good Earth, page 31-

Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It has been surrounded by controversy (mostly in China where Buck's work was banned for many years because of the perceived vilification of the Chinese people and their leaders). Having arrived in China as the child of missionaries, Buck grew to love the country. In 1935 she returned to the United States with hope of one day returning to the Orient...but this was never to be. She was denounced by the Chinese government in 1960 as "a proponent of American cultural imperialism." Later, just nine months before her death, her visa to return to the country of her childhood was denied. In 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. More about Buck's life and work can be found in this excellent article published by Mike Meyer of the New York Times.

The Good Earth is the saga of Wang Lung, who is a poor farmer dependent on the land for his survival, and his extended family. The novel begins with this complex character as a young man when he marries a slave girl, and then follows him as he grows into a man with a family and wealth beyond his imaginings. Wang Lung is a man with a compassionate heart. I was touched by the love of his children, especially that of his developmentally delayed oldest daughter who he calls "the poor fool." In one scene, the family is faced with starvation and Wang Lung gives up his own food for his daughter...something that would have been highly unusual at that time in China.

Only a few of the beans did Wang Lung hide in his own hand and these he put into his own mouth and he chewed them into a soft pulp and then putting his lips to the lips of his daughter he pushed into her mouth the food, and watching her small lips move, he felt himself fed. -From The Good Earth, page 85-

Later, as he gains wealth, Wang Lung loses his path - and his inner goodness is challenged.

Wang Lung's pragmatic wife O-Lan represents the strength of the Chinese women during a time when women were considered to be a man's possession and slave. Throughout the novel, the idea of the cyclical nature of life is repeated, establishing a natural rhythm for the story.

Buck writes in simple prose which reads more like the oral tradition of story telling than a novel. Her understanding of character is evident throughout - and no character is all good or all evil.

I immediately was captivated by Buck's story; and even though at times the abuse and mistreatment of women was hard to read, I found I could not put the book down for long.

Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth: Sons (1931) and A House Divided (1935). I have put both on my wish list for future reading.

The Good Earth is a book I can highly recommend for its insight into Chinese culture during the early part of the 20th century, and for its high readability. Rated 4.5/5; my original review here.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Store by T.S. Stribling 1933

Miltiades Vaidan is the main character in this post-Civil War southern, racist setting. Milt is not a sympathetic character in his aspirations for wealth, he never achieves those goals and is more instrumental in the death and destruction of other people's fortunes and lives. The Store is the 2nd installment of a trilogy which may explain why it ends rather abruptly. It is a dark story. I wish there were more reviews and discussions available on this novel.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Road, reviewed by raidergirl3

I finished this a month ago, but forgot to post anything here. Originally posted at my blog here

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Pulitzer Winner 2007

I finished. I still have the little pit or knot in my stomach that I had during the whole reading. I can see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize for literature this year, and why it was an Oprah pick, with her usual depressing and dreary themes. But that makes it sound like I didn't like it, and I did, I liked it a lot.

I've been reading reviews of this book all year, and I know a lot of people have already read this book. So I knew about the strange punctuation and didn't notice it because I had been warned. In fact, in dewey's review at the nyt notable book review blog, she made an excellent analysis about how the level of discussion and punctuation varied directly with the hunger of the main characters.

Plot outline: A man and his son, never named, are travelling and surviving in a post apocalyptic America, summarized wonderfully by someone somewhere (I can't find who) as ash,ash,ash, forage,forage,forage, and then more ash, forage, sleep. This was very bleak, colorless, and depressing, and I just kept thinking: What would I do? How could people survive? Would you want to? And yet, I kept picking this back up, and I read it fairly quickly, in a few days. And every time, I was immediately transported to this terrible world, with 'bad guys' and cannibals, and fear, and survival. The father is doing everything he can, to survive and protect his son.

A few thoughts and questions:

- Plastic is not all bad, since it was one of the only things to survive. If there hadn't been plastic items for them to scavenge, they would not have found much
- What have the father and son been doing for all the years since the son was born? Have they been walking all this time? Have they met nobody safe in all this time?
- What happened to all the bullets in the gun? Because there was more than one, I believe, at some point.
- But there has to be more religious overtones to the story, because of the apocalypse ending of the world. How does God, and religion, continue in a world like that? Is there a place/need for it? And I think the book shows there is a need, we need to trust people, and good will triumph.

The Hours reviewed by raidergirl3

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Pulitzer Winner 1999

Three parallel lives are followed through a single day in each life: Mrs Brown, a 1950s housewife who is reading Mrs Dalloway; Clarissa, known as Mrs Dalloway who is living the life, in present day New York, from Mrs Dalloway, the novel; and Mrs Woolf, the author who is writing Mrs Dalloway in 1920s England. Hmm, perhaps I should have read Mrs Dalloway first? I'm pretty sure I missed a lot of the symbolism and parallels that connect this book to Mrs Dalloway. While I usually firmly believe in reading the book first, in this case I think the movie would stand alone better than the book. Now I need to see the movie and see if I am right.

Themes of suicide are throughout; the prologue details the author Virginia Woolf's drowning suicide, Mrs Brown is contemplating it as a means of escaping the life she feels trapped in, and Clarissa deals with the death of a friend. I read about other themes and important symbols at the Sparks notes site. This novel will be discussed at Bookawards Yahoo Group during the month of December and I expect to discover some interesting ideas and themes during that discussion.

However, any book of only 225 pages that takes me over a week to read must have some problems. I didn't connect enough with the story and the characters because it was so busy being important, with symbols and parallels. Not to say that I wasn't interested, because I did want to see how all three stories connected in the end and I would like to read Mrs Dalloway, I think, if only to see where this book came from. But overall, this book was just an okay read, nothing wrong, just not a book that I will rave about or remember too much from. I applaud the author's ambition, and with enough prior knowledge and background, I think I would have enjoyed it more. But there was no prerequisite listed on the cover, and I think there should be.

also posted at my blog

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea
By Ernest Hemingway
Completed November 24, 2007

Hemingway was always an author I wanted to tackle, so I decided to start "small" and go with The Old Man and the Sea. Overall, I enjoyed this novella and appreciated this story of perseverance and sheer will.

The Old Man has not caught a fish in months. Encouraged by The Boy, he decided to go far out into the sea, sure that his luck must soon take a turn for the better. The Old Man was right and snarls an 18-foot marlin. By himself, The Old Man must wait for the marlin to tire out before he can bring the fish to shore. The marlin and the Old Man start a cat-and-mouse game of who's going to last the longest.

I was fascinated with the way this story was written - it was mostly a narrative with very little dialogue. Less gifted writers could not have pulled this off, but Hemingway did beautifully.

Am I ready for more Hemingway? The Old Man and the Sea has definitely made me more confident. In any case, I am glad to have read this delightful little story. ( )

(Cross-posted from my blog)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire Falls
By Richard Russo
Completed November 11, 2007

Having finished Empire Falls, I have been contemplating what exactly to say about it. It was a good book. It was a long book. It was very well-written.

But so what? I could say that about many books.

I think the thing that differentiates Empire Falls from other books is how Richard Russo is a master at character development. Empire Falls is the story of Miles Roby, a forty-something future divorcee who struggles as a manager of a local greasy spoon. Living in small-town Empire Falls, everyone knows his business: that his wife left him for the owner of the local health club, that the wealthy Mrs. Whiting holds Miles's future in the palm of her hand, that his daughter is struggling with high school, that he is a nice guy with a grumpy father, meddlesome town sheriff and enterprising brother. So many characters - but by the time the novel is over, Russo depicts them all completely. You really get to know them over the course of the 500 pages.

Another interesting aspect of Empire Falls is the mini-crescendos that occur throughout the story. Each tiny apex springs up every few chapters, until the last 50 pages when you get the "mack daddy" twist. The plot movement flowed liked a good TV drama, which is probably why HBO decided to adapt this novel into a mini-series.

Overall, I enjoyed Empire Falls, and I look forward to reading more of Richard Russo's other books. ( )

(Cross-posted from my blog)

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey

This is a very American book. It could not have been written by any other nationality. It also could not have been written in any other era, certainly not in today's (2007) post-Vietnam, Iraq-burdened United States.

In a Bell for Adano, Hersey tells the story of the occupation and administration by Allied forces in 1943 of a recently-liberated Sicilian village. The administrator, Major Victor Joppolo, himself Italian-American, is an idealistic young man who earnestly wishes to help the village for all the "right" reasons-- to see justice done but with compassion, to help the villagers practice and see the benefits of democracy, American style--and a very American desire to be liked. He is, as the Prologue asks us to believe,
"a good man".
And we do indeed wind up believing in Joppolo's very American-style goodness.

The village is shattered under the twin effects of over a decade of Fascist rule and the war. Joppolo's desire is to see the town get back on its feet as fast as it can.

So, instead of fast-paced action, we have a series of interwoven vignettes of just how that occurs. Early on, Joppolo discovers that the people of the town are both greiving and outraged over the loss of their 700 year old town bell. During the time just before thre allied invasion, the Fascists had removed the bell to have it melted down to make cannon. The bell was a part of the psyche of the village. It was the one that rang out the hours, it
"told us when to do things, such as eating. It told us when to have the morning egg and when to have pasta and rabbit and when to have wine in the evening."

It was
"the tone that mattered. It soothed all the people of this town. It chided those who were angry, it cheered the unhappy ones, it even laughed with those who were drunk. It was a tone for everybody".

Moved, Joppolo dedicates himself to finding another, suitable bell.

But meantime the bakeries have to reopen, the fishermen must be able to fish again--and food and water must be brought into the village by mule cart.

And there hangs the crisis of the tale. The late 20th century-early 21st century American idolatry of the military does not take into account the common soldier's experience--that most general officers are narrow-minded, rigid egotists who have no business in any sort of position of authority. We meet one such, General Marvin, who bewilders the village by ordering the killing of the mule of a poor carter and forbidding the entry into the village of any carts--all because one cart was in his way as he made his self-important way down the road. Joppolo, in an act of common sense, rescinds the order--and lays the foundation for his own undoing.

And so the story unfolds--of good acts by the major, of whom the village becomes quite fond, of the hard-headed common sense displayed by the cynical Sgt. Borth, of well-intentioned but disastrous acts on the part of 3 drunken M.P.s. Joppolo uses ingenuity and a sound knowledge of the psychology of his countrymen to get things done--while falling in love with one of the beautiful Sicilian young women in the town, who has lost her fiancé in an insane act during the recent invasion.

In the end, Joppolo's common sense is his undoing, and he is removed form the village by order of General Marvin. But not before he sees the replacement bell--a bell for Adano--hung in the bell tower and hears its clear tone ringing out as he makes his way out of the village.

Hersey's simple, direct style conveys beautifully the view that a majority of Americans had of themselves at this time--direct, uncomplicated people with common sense values who knew how to get things done. An idealistic people who really believed in democracy and that The American Way as embodied in American values would work for everyone. Yes, there were stupid people such as General Marvin, and the acts of American soldiers were sometimes embarassing but still, overall, the G.I.s behaved well and sincerely.

That was the rock-solid belief. The truth, as in all wars, no doubt was different, but that's what Americans believed.

It's a gentle book about good but far from perfect people struggling to survive in the aftermath of war--both the conquered and the conquerors. People die but accidentally. The truth was no doubt different, but Hersey's book captured the beliefs and ideals of the American people who had just come through a horrendous war but could still feel compassion for the unwitting victims of that war. The Marshal Plan was probably the perfect embodiment of that spirit and generosity.

It is a book that could not be written today.

5/5 Highly recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Journey in the Dark

This is a captivating rags to riches story about Sam Braden, a midwesterner, who climbs the ladder of fortune (or misfortune depending on your perspective) at the turn of the 20th century. Sam learns that money does not buy friends, love or happiness.


This book reminded me of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead insofar as Martin Arrowsmith is an idealist and individualist and the strength of those characteristics are imperative to breakthroughs in society especially in this novel's scientific and medical setting. Lewis draws clear and even humorous contrasts between the socially/politically-connected types and the lone wolves like Arrowsmith. Despite having been written over 80 years ago, its themes still run true today. A great novel.

Middlesex - Wendy's Book Review

I feel a direct line extending from that girl with her knees steepled beneath the hotel blankets to this person writing now in an Aeron chair. Hers was the duty to live out a mythical life in the actual world, mine to tell about it now. -From Middlesex, page 424-

Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Middlesex, is a rich family saga spanning three generations and takes the reader from Greece to Detroit on a whirlwind ride of rich, original language and spot on characterization. The story of Calliope Stephanides - an American born intersex individual with strong Greek heritage - is narrated by Cal...Calliope's adult male counterpart.

Middlesex is a tragic story which is comically portrayed using Greek mythology. Eugenides is a talented writer - his vivid descriptions are filled with the lush sensations of life. The characters who people this wonderful novel are fully developed; their flaws and imperfections revealed even through the names they are given: The Object (Calliope's teenage love interest), Chapter Eleven (Cal's brother), and a vast array of other characters based on mythical stories. Even the title of the book is steeped in symbolism.

Middlesex! Did anybody ever live in a house as strange? As sci-fi? As futuristic and outdated at the same time? A house that was more like communism, better in theory than reality? -From Middlesex, page 258-

The novel is essentially two stories: the history of a Greek family who carries a recessive gene; and the coming of age story of the main character - Calliope. At times it was easy to forget that this huge novel was written by a man. Eugenides wonderful insight into the thoughts of an awkward, self-conscious teenage girl is finely illustrated in this scene in the locker room after a field hockey game:

In front of me girls were entering and exiting the showers. The flashes of nakedness were like shouts going off. A year or so earlier these same girls had been porcelain figurines, gingerly dipping their toes into the disinfectant basin at the public pool. Now they were magnificent creatures. Moving through the humid air, I felt like a snorkeler. On I came, kicking my heavy, padded legs and gaping through the goalie mask at the fantastic underwater life all around me. Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates' legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving int he current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths. -From Middlesex, page 297-

The novel is an exploration of immigration and the split loyalties that immigrants face. Eugenides parallels this theme with that of identity in general using the pain of adolescence and the confusion of sexual identity as spring boards to delve into the human psyche.

Middlesex is a vividly imaginative novel - epic in its scope and sensitively wrought. It is well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

Highly recommended; rated 4.5/5; read my original review here.