Books Read in 2012
One of my favorite year-end round-ups. For most of these books, I have written reviews to which I will direct you for further information. I read quite a few graphic novels this year, indicated by *. Favorite books in bold.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China—Jung Chang
I thought I had posted my review of this, but apparently I hadn’t. It is here below.
Most of my knowledge of China comes from Mulan. Before you laugh, recall that the legend is very old and informs all of Chinese culture, as pervasive there Cinderella is here. At the time the movie came out, I was heavily into Disney animation so I had all the tie-in books, including the massive Art of Mulan, and several storybook versions of the legend that had come out prior to the film. However, in reading Wild Swans I have taken a quantum leap in my knowledge, at least as far as the last century is concerned.
Now, I’ve been watching the original V and Life and Fate is still fresh in my mind. However, I can say with some authority that my idea of hell is Maoist China.
It goes without saying that this is a very moving, very thorough, very heartfelt book, part autobiography, part social history, part political history, and combines all these elements effortlessly. However, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of agitation I suffered as I read it, unable to put it down but feeling restless and irritated by the unwelcome truths of human nature it presented time and time again. It ends on a happier note, of course, because Jung Chang was able to escape and to live in Britain, but that doesn’t change the mostly painful existences of her grandmother, mother, and father.
One of the great strengths of the book is that, in depicting Jung Chang’s grandmother’s story, we are able to see the world that existed before Communism and why people would have reacted so positively for Communism in the 1940s. I once saw an example of a stocking for a bound foot in Swansea Museum, but somehow reading about the agony of the practice made me shudder for days and also made me angry. I tried to hold back my disgust that men were supposed to find hobbling women and their tiny feet erotic, but it’s the same principle to corsetry: making something beautiful that keeps you weakened and disenfranchised. Yu-fang’s mother told her that if she didn’t have her feet bound, it would ruin her life forever; unfortunately for Yu-fang, she was the last generation for whom this was so, and she would bear the consequences throughout her life. In the first section of the book, I thought Yu-fang’s feet would so restrict her movement that she would be helpless. However, that’s not the case either: she spent the 1940s and ‘50s making very long journeys, hobbling painfully all the way. As you begin to understand, gender inequity in China has a long precedent, one which Communism was supposed to eradicate but in fact only underlined. When Yu-Fang was told she was going to become a concubine to General Xue Zhi-heng, “My grandmother bit her lip and said nothing. In fact, there was nothing she could say. Even to say yes would be considered unladylike, as it would be taken to imply she was eager to leave her parents.”
Yu-fang, despite following all the rules, chafes at being the concubine of a warlord who leaves her, bored out of her mind, for years on end. Eventually, with the birth of her daughter, Bao Quin, in 1931, Yu-fang finds purpose and autonomy. But when she is summoned to General Xue’s household, she finds her fate riddled with danger. She then makes her bold and iconoclastic move, taking Bao Quin from the Xue compound, escaping north and never looking back. Returning to her father’s house, she is able to shield her weaker mother from the cruel system of concubinage, to bring up her daughter, and eventually to become the wife of the compassionate and sage Dr. Xia. Though this becomes a strong and loving match, it is not without its difficulties. Dr. Xia’s family responds so strongly to the fact Yu-fang is an ex-concubine that his eldest son shoots himself in protest. Yu-fang has to adjust to the life of a Manchu, with complicated rituals and false cordiality exchanged with her relatives. Bao Quin, who was given the new name of De-hong, is bullied by her Xia relatives. Eventually, Dr. Xia, Yu-fang and Er-hong decide to move. Unfortunately, even households that seem places of freedom for some are places of prison for others: when Yu-fang’s mother and brother come to live with the household, Jung Chang’s great-grandmother feels in such a position of degradation, eventually she denounces them.
The China of Yu-fang’s adolescence was one where corruption was rife. The 1930s and ‘40s for Yu-fang and De-hong begin with relative happiness as well as poverty, but then just as their fortunes improve, the Japanese invade and force their rule and customs on Manchuria with brutality. De-hong’s experience growing up in this occupied zone influences the fierce belief in Communism she later espouses. By 1947, after the imprisonment and execution by the Kuomintang of her cousin Hu, De-hong decides to become an underground Communist. Their home becomes a warzone. De-hong’s activities impress members of her cell when liberation comes in 1948, and it’s that year she meets “Comrade Wang.” In Harbin in northern Manchuria, with its Russian- and European-built architecture, Wang Yu woos De-hong with classical poetry on (Chinese) New Year’s Eve. Before they can get married, however, the Party must be consulted.
Though we as readers can’t fault De-hong’s revolutionary fervor, after her marriage she finds the road to becoming a Party member very difficult indeed. Due to her intellectual and “Kuomintang” background, she seems to have to work much harder than the peasants. Jung Chang’s father’s incorruptibility reminds me of Krymov in Life and Fate. Of course, like Krymov, pride comes before a fall, but I can totally understand De-hong’s resentment when her husband supports the Party line and not her. On a long march through occupied territory, De-hong’s frustration breaks through and she cries silently to herself; Wang Yu tells her she must never cry or will be labelled untrue to the Party. “From then on, though she often felt like it, my mother never cried once.” In a sense, De-hong gets to say I-told-you-so when she suffers a miscarriage made worse by people not taking her seriously, but it’s a high price to pay as she suffers from a bleeding womb until the 1970s when she gets a hysterectomy. The first thing she tells her husband after her recovery is “I want a divorce.” I think she’s fully justified, but there’s no backing out now, especially of the Party.
De-hong makes a good impression on her new mother-in-law and family in Yibin, which at least counts for something. During her next pregnancy, De-hong hopes for some leniency. However, as Party members insist that peasant women have to give birth in the fields and had to abandon their own children after birth during battle, she has to continue doing work. “But she could see that my father’s first loyalty was to the revolution, and she was bitterly disappointed.” In 1950, Yu-fang decides to make the long trek from Manchuria to see her daughter. Dr. Xia has allowed her to unbind her feet but they can never mend properly and still cause her excruciating pain. In these trying circumstances, I see all the natural feelings of people magnified. For example, when Yu-fang arrives both she and her daughter are ecstatic to be reunited; her son-in-law is not, as finding time alone with his wife is difficult under the regime and he resents her affection for her mother.
“She found she could not blame the Party, which seemed to her to be in the right, so she blamed my father, first for making her pregnant and then for not standing by her when she was attacked and rejected.” It’s tragic but not surprising that after Jung Chang’s older sister Xiao-hong is born, De-hong transfers all her frustration to the little girl. To save her from rejection and physical abuse, Wang Yu’s sister Jun-Ying volunteers to take care of her. It’s the beginning of a very fragmented upbringing, with both parents in the household working extremely long hours (often they were supposed to work from 8 am to 11 pm) and having no time or affection left for their children. The 1950s begin to take on the tinge of fantasy to me from this point henceforward. Truly, I read in disbelief at the way the system is manipulated, as people use it to vent their petty jealousies and resentments, to purge good people, and perhaps more saliently, good Party members. Jung Chang went on to write a biography of Mao which I would be interested to read; with Life and Fate I began to see the monstrousness of Stalin and with this book I realize that Mao is in the same league. He was absolutely insane. His Great Leap Forward was built on principles as insubstantial as air and had the effect of creating a crippling famine that was attributed to bad weather. I shake in anger even thinking about it. Oedema, a swelling condition caused by malnutrition, was so prevalent that people began growing cholerella plants in human urine to obtain the protein they needed. Inevitably, cannibalism also took place. I remember glancing through a biography of Stalin where a photo of “anthropophagi” (the author didn’t use the word cannibals) scared me so much I couldn’t read the book.
After the famine, Jung Chang grew up in what she calls a “cocoon of privilege” owing to the fact her father as a high official in the Party. With some humor she remarks, “As a child my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!’” Jung Chang has some very insightful things to say about the way Mao manipulated people with gratitude for having brought peace and winning the civil war; peasants in particular were living better than they had ever been. “He always appeared remote, beyond human approach. He eschewed radio, and there was no television . . . He enabled the Chinese to feel great and superior again, by blinding them to the world outside.”
During the period of Mao’s Red Guards (beginning in 1966), the world completely loses sanity. Certainly it echoes 1793 in France. Insanity has replaced any kind of order. The worst part is that there seems to have been no purpose, other than Mao wanted exclusive loyalty from the ignorant and violent, and like a demi-god of misrule, he loved creating conflict for conflict’s sake. Books were burned, private collections destroyed. “Class enemies” were just beaten up for the hell of it. They were humiliated and degraded, and no one stopped the mob. And at first most of this violence was instigated by MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. In what seems to me an extraordinary break down of order, people stop going to work and school. Actually learning in school is labelled anti-revolutionary. Pupils are supposed to spend their time engaging in violence. There is nothing else to do, no occupations of any kind. Jung Chang and her teenage friends spend their time in a pointless pilgrimage to Peking to catch a glimpse of Mao. I’m utterly frustrated by the pointlessness of this gesture. Amidst this, Wang Yu at last decides he cannot keep silent and writes a letter to Mao.
The consequence is violent denunciation and abuse, followed by the incarceration of Jung Chung’s father. He is broken when he has to destroy all of his books. He loses his sanity and starts turning violently on his family members, including his wife who he strikes so hard that she loses hearing one ear. Eventually, each parent is sent to a different labor camp, and Jung Chang and her various siblings are scattered throughout the country. Jung Chang is one of many urban youngsters sent to experience real work living as a peasant and eventually a “barefoot” doctor (ie, largely untrained). In the camps, De-hong comes down with hepatitis, which turns out to be a “godsend” as her doctor is sympathetic, she is moved into isolation, and she gets better rations. Unfortunately, she also develops scleroderma. “I was in the camp with my father when a letter came from Mother with the news. Immediately my father went to ask for permission to go home and see her. . . . My father burst out crying in front of a whole courtyard of inmates. The people from his department were taken aback. They knew him as a ‘man of iron.’ . . . He sent a three-page telegram to my mother. It began: ‘Please accept my apologies that come a lifetime too late. It is for my guilt towards you that I am happy for any punishment. I have not been a decent husband. Please get well and give me another chance.’” I like to think Krymov made a similar effusion to Zhenya, but we don’t know what happened to them at the end of Life and Fate.
Jung Chang hates living in the country, unsurprisingly, and eventually is returned to the city where she joins a factory and becomes an electrician (!). She becomes a voracious reader and a student of English. One brother is part of the elicit book trade; the other has joined one of the ubiquitous street gangs. With the reintroduction of universities, Jung Chang is able to do an English degree, for which she gets near-perfect marks. In the south of China, she has her first chance to practice speaking English with Filipino sailors in 1975. The mid-‘70s see the deaths of Yu-Fang, Wang Yu, and eventually Mao. Like most of the country, Jung Chang has to hide her elation by pretending to be devastated. In 1978, Jung Chang wins her scholarship to study in Britain. Years later, she marries an Englishman and her mother comes to visit. That is how Wild Swans comes about.
There are many things about Maoist existence that I find hellish, among them having no private sphere. Even in the life I lead I sometimes yearn for a bit more meaningful solitude. Jung Chang and her siblings were encouraged by their parents to cultivate this part of themselves despite accusations of not having enough “collective spirit.” Another is the eradication of the arts. “ ‘Relaxation’ had become an obsolete concept: books, paintings, musical instruments, sports, cards, chess, teahouses, bars—all had disappeared. The parks were desolate, vandalized wastelands in which the flowers and the grass had been uprooted and the tame birds and goldfish killed. Films, plays, and concerts had all been banned.” Influenced by her father’s love of classical poetry, Jung Chang has to flush her first poem down the toilet during a raid. More obviously, the casual violence displayed during the Red Guard phase as well as the continuous denunciation meetings sickens and appals me.
Despite this long review, I don’t think I’ve done this book justice.
Northanger Abbey—Jane Austen
I also thought I had posted the review of this.
I am slowly working my way through the Austen canon, partially because it will Improve me, partially because I enjoy it, and partially due to a long-term fiction project I’m working on. Though published last with Persuasion, Northanger Abbey was “done” before Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility had actually come into being. So it is, in a way, her first novel, and in some senses that is visible. However, it is also a breezy and delightful read.
Northanger Abbey sometimes satirizes Gothic romances by Mrs Radcliffe and her ilk (irrelevant to most readers nowadays, but very topical in 1796; as a big Gothic horror buff it’s another reason I enjoyed the book). But here Austen is also a great champion of the relationship between women and books, women as writers, women as readers, women as intelligent beings, and the way different men in the novel deal with various intelligent women. There are also foolish women in this book, and none of them really are “punished”; I think the fact that they are so stupid is punishment enough, in Austen’s mind. Thus there is a unique approach to the idea of building up a heroine in Northanger Abbey; there are different ways of creating a heroine, even the archetypal Austen heroine. We learn in the first chapter that Catherine Morland as a child was quite a tomboy, and “she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid.” However, she clearly had her merits, too; she had neither a “bad heart nor a bad temper; was seldom stubborn, scarcely quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones.” So can Catherine be a heroine if she isn’t that smart? Is a good heart more important than brains? Austen continually apologizes for the unusual merits of her heroine, but it’s a somewhat arch, sarcastic apology. Catherine in some ways is exactly like a contemporary 17-year-old, and of all the Austen heroines, to me she seems the most applicable to our modern age. When she grows up, she likes books only if they have a story in them. “Her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind—her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty.”
I find Catherine pretty appealing, perhaps because I remember being 17 myself. The way Catherine and her friend Isabella compare Gothic romances is like girls comparing text from boys on their mobile phones or watching TV soaps now. Isabella turns out to be quite a fair-weather friend, and both she and her brother John Thorpe are pretty much without redeeming features; they are definitely less well-rounded than Austen’s later antagonists. Nevertheless, John says some absolutely hilarious things. When Catherine timidly tries to start a conversation with him about her beloved Gothic texts, he replies, “ ‘Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.’ . . . ‘I suppose you mean Camilla?’ ‘Yes, that’s the book; such unnatural stuff!—An old man playing at see-saw! I took up the first volume once, and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it.’ ‘I have never read it.’ ‘You had no loss I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man’s playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not.’”
Catherine, unlike her erstwhile counterpart Anne Elliot in Persuasion, has a loving, large family, whose only sin is that they are boring (her brother is a bit of a puzzle; he is presented more in terms of his actions, and it would be interesting to have the story told from his point of view). Catherine has to leave familial bliss and venture out into the wider world, Bath, which, as we know, Austen disliked because it represented unhappy periods in her life. Another harmless, very amusing, but ultimately not as well-rounded character is Mrs Allen, Catherine’s chaperone. The more unkind parts of my nature wanted to compare her to some people I know in real life, but Mrs Allen is a much more savage caricature. “She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment, nor manner. The air of a gentlewoman, a great deal of quiet, inactive good temper, and a trifling turn of mind . . . Dress was her passion. She had a most harmless delight in being fine.”
Catherine has to stick with the Thorpes and the Allens until the Tilneys arrive in Bath and sweep her off her feet; Northanger Abbey has unusual parallels with three brother-and-sister sets. Eleanor Tilney radiates good will, and I must say Henry is probably my favorite Austen hero ever: I prefer him to Frederick Wentworth and Mr Darcy. Henry delights in language; he is a bit cynical but not to the point that he can’t be charmed by Catherine’s innocence and earnestness. Unusually, he is very close to his sister and has taken a surprising familiarity with the ins and outs of female life, teasing Catherine about the journal she must be writing, and saying to Mrs Allen, “ ‘I always buy my own cravats, and am allowed to be an excellent judge; and my sister has often trusted me in the choice of a gown. I bought one for her the other day, and it was pronounced to be a prodigious bargain by every lady who saw it.” Although the narrator later admits that Henry first took notice of Catherine because he was flattered that she was so unashamedly interested in him, I think we can forgive that because we’ve all felt the same once or twice.
He could mock Catherine’s wide-eyed nature in the way Emma mocks that of some of the characters in Emma, but he is always gentle and affectionate to her. “Is there a Henry in the world who could be insensible to such a declaration? Henry Tilney at least was not. With a yet sweeter smile, he said every thing that need be said of his sister’s concern, regret, and dependence on Catherine’s honor.”
Henry brings out the best in Catherine.“ ‘I only meant that attributing my brother’s wish of dancing with Miss Thorpe to good-nature alone, convinced me of your being superior in good-nature yourself to all the rest of the world.” What she sees as natural behavior really surprises him, because in such a pessimistic place as Bath, he has seen his share of artifice and selfishness. Despite Catherine’s imagination, the real threats in Northanger Abbey are surprising moe-hills to the mountains they seem when in full-flow, though there is a subtext of real harm in the characters of the Thorpes, General and Captain Tilney. Perhaps for this reason it is one of the least-filmed of the canon. I remember a very ‘80s version with Peter Firth as Henry; it took Catherine’s flights of fancy to new, er, heights, which was really great fun.
The only complaint I have about Northanger Abbey is the suddenness of the ending, as if the author just got tired of throwing obstacles in Catherine and Henry’s way. Oh, she pretends to be embarrassed by it, but she is self-conscious of her great wit and superior writing skills in showing that embarrassment. I love this couple so I wouldn’t have had it any other way, but I do think the easy resolution could perhaps be concealing something much more Gothic.
This is my very talented friend Al’s first full volume of poetry, and it is excellent.
*Batman and Dracula: Red Rain—Doug Moench, Kelley Jones, Malcolm Jones III, Les Dorscheid
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: Women Soldiers and Patriots of the Western Frontier—JoAnn Chartier and Chris Enss
*Doctor Who: Series 2, vol. 1: The Ripper—Tony Lee
Scalped vol. 1: Indian Country-- Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera
A great (if in-your-face) graphic novel. I talk about it a bit on my radio blog:
Fate –L.R. Fredericks
Elsie and Mairi Go to War
Review pending, but an interesting look at two ordinary British women who became daring nurses in Belgium during WWI.
By November, I was a bit burnt out reading “for fun” and though I got halfway through The Far Pavilions, I haven’t read much since then (aside from starting The Hobbit).
15% nonfiction, 42% fiction, 43% graphic novels