Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Snow flower and the secret fan - Lisa See

This is yet another novel about women in China. It’s based in the nineteenth century, in a very rural area. Ancient traditions still apply: feet binding, arranged marriages, transfer to the groom family after the wedding ceremony, seclusion in dedicated rooms, tiring house chores, endless childbearing. Women are expected to deliver sons and they are looked down upon and abused in case they only give birth to daughters or they don’t have children at all. More often than not their husbands take up concubines when their wives get older and less attractive.
This is the story of two women, who as children are matched as laotong, or “old same“, a bonding that is supposed to last for life. They become best friends and communicate using nu shu, a written language that women have passed down through generations for a thousand years, and that has never been discovered by any men yet (it will become publicly known only in the second half of the twentieth century).
Lily comes from a poor Yao family, but due to her beauty, her perfectly shaped, sized and bound feet and her laotong status (it’s a rare thing) she will enter a very lucky marriage and lead a successful life. Snow flower - her old same - on the other hand comes from a prominent family that got disgraced. And she has always striven to keep that a secret.
An interesting and tragic story with a background of historical facts such as poverty, famines, opium addiction, typhoid outbreaks, the Taiping rebellion and the ensuing army crackdown.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Something happened, Work - Joseph Heller

If the name Joseph Heller doesn’t ring a bell, just think of how many times you’ve said “Catch-22”, when referring to a lose-lose situation, a dilemma, a deadlock, a paradoxical standoff. Well, that’s the title of his masterpiece, and that’s where the expression comes from.
“Work” is actually an extract from “Something happened”, Heller’s second great work. I did read the actual novel a few years ago, but I really loved reading this brief selection of some of its best parts again.
If “Catch-22” is a satirical story about the madness of war, “Something happened” adopts a similar approach about corporate life, associated with an upside-down, hypocritical, ruthless, psychologically unhealthy and almost dystopian social environment. And I’m afraid that I have to agree with Joseph, having being able to put up with it only a couple of years after graduation myself. Since then I’ve only coped with training activities (I love teaching) and independent work (I’m some kind of a loner sometimes). And yet, more often than not, I still feel I’m standing too close to a source of toxic vibes.
Joseph Heller is a masterclass satirist, and has personally gone through both military life during wartime and corporate jobs, therefore he knows what he’s talking about. Corporate office social networks seem to be structures where one is sometimes (or even often!) encouraged to do bad things, pretending they’re actually good. And when someone is doing something good which goes against the grain, they are asked to stop and adjust to the standard way of doing things.
Joseph Heller is able to picture all this through the eyes of Bob Slocum, a clever, ambitious, refined, cynical, witty, disenchanted, unscrupulous but also good-hearted executive of a fairly big New York firm.
“Something happened” is a cult book, along with “Catch-22”. You can try “Work” as a brief, juicy foretaste of it.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Chinese Cinderella - Adeline Yen Mah, Mao's last dancer - Li Cunxin

Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society is one of five books that I picked up from the Chinese literature section of a second hand bookstore in Bangkok. While reading the introduction I found out that it is categorized as children fiction. I was about to drop it, then I decided to give it a try. Well, if this is a novel for children, then nowadays children are very lucky! I read it all. Though I am a bit of a history buff and I have spent quite some time in China and Shanghai, where most of the characters live, reading this book I’ve learned a few things I didn’t know or I had forgotten.
The story is based in WWII China. The country has been invaded by the Japanese, and even the concessions that were previously occupied by American and British authorities are subjected to Japanese rule. The French one, being controlled by the Vichy government, which as a Nazi puppet is a Japan’s ally, is an exception. Pearl harbor has recently been attacked and the Americans are planning a retaliatory bombing of four Japanese cities.
A group of orphaned and outcast kids embark on an adventure which will change their lives and the lives or many others.
You can pretend that you’ve bought it for your children, but you’ll end up reading it yourself!
The second book is not - in its original version - a book for young readers. But there is a young readers edition, and that’s what I erroneously picked up from that second hand bookstore shelf. It’s the story of a poor Chinese peasant, born and grown up between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the two worst phases of Mao Zedong’s rule. He is selected to join the Chinese Ballet Academy and goes through plenty of hardship and personal crises before eventually becoming a world famous dancer. It sounds like the plot of one of those American stories of the ’80s, about music and dance breakthrough. But it’s actually a real autobiography, and it’s Chinese rather than western.
Teenagers might like it better than adults. Or maybe not. 

Monday, November 14, 2022

Wild swans: three daughters of China - Jung Chang

This novel reminds me of great family sagas such as War and Peace, One hundred years of solitude or The house of the spirits, where the authors tell the history of their respective countries over many decades through the vicissitudes of a few generations of one or more families.
Jung Chang recounts the history of twentieth century China while writing the biographies of three women: her grandmother, her mum and herself. The story starts during the last years of the imperial era, when young women still had to go through the ordeals of bound feet, concubinage, seclusion and de facto slavery. It goes on narrating the events of Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution, the warlord epoch, the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria first and of the whole country later. At this stage the author’s grandmother is the main character and her mum is still a young girl trying to find her place in a fast changing world. The civil war between Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang and Mao Zedong’s communists and the first decade of the People’s republic see Jung Chang’s parents as the two adult protagonists, with good job positions in the Sichuan’s provincial party administration. This is the time of the unrelenting purge campaigns (first against former Kuomintang members or rich landowners, then against more or less imagined internal opponents), of the Great Leap Forward and the resulting terrible famines which decimated the Chinese population. The author becomes an adult at the time of the infamous Cultural revolution, during which the country’s heritage, culture, economy, infrastructures and very identity are dealt an almost deadly blow. One by one the family members become the targets of the factions that get the upper hand at the various stages of the ten-year-long collective descent to a social and political abyss.
The book ends when the author, having been awarded a scholarship, migrates to the UK, where she still lives and works.
A must read to understand the recent history of this great country.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The bridegroom - Ha Jin

This is a collection of short stories. I’ve always liked the genre and I’ve read quite a few such books in the past, mostly American but also European and Asian - Korean and Japanese to be precise. This is the first time I read short stories by a Chinese author (who writes in English though).
The stories are all based in post cultural revolution China. The country is developing fast but still recovering from the social and material disasters of the previous decade.
The mastery of the English language by this Chinese author is impressive, and his style is captivating. He writes his stories as if nothing special were going on, while the world around the main characters is actually being turned upside down. Sometimes you get a feeling of lightheartedly reading about the end of civilization.
The book starts with a guy who is bullied by a couple of cops without an apparent reason and then taken to prison when he dares to protest. It goes on with another man who loses his memory after having being caught in a devastating earthquake, an actor who is asked to fight against a real tiger for a movie scene, extramarital and homosexual relationships against a very conservative social background, a woman who is taken for a ride by a powerful guy who is trying to avenge an old offence, a couple of peasants who are arrested on account of a joke with political implications, a little kindergarten girl learning how the world around her works, a weird recommendation letter sent to a university professor, another woman who comes back to her hometown after spending a few years abroad and finally the vicissitudes of the crew of a foreign fast food chain branch.
If you’re interested in Chinese society this is a very good read.