Archive for September 2010
A business card for one Judith Evans from Argentina, found in a copy of Regeneration, by Pat Barker:
Also found a blank sticker in there, but it’s not really anything to look at.
Red Azalea is a memoir which reads like a novel. So much so that I was genuinely shocked to learn that it wasn’t fiction. It flows like one, and is absolutely riveting.
Anchee Min grew up in Shanghai under Mao, and was the perfect daughter of the revolution. She was an incredibly precocious child, master of rhetoric and head of the Little Red Guards at a very young age. She had complete faith in her leaders and committed herself entirely to them and their agendas. One of her first real moments of doubt in the system came when, at the age of 13 in the year 1970, she was made to publicly denounce her teacher, whom she loved, as an American spy. For this she never forgave herself, and faced harsh reprimands from her family, for her mother was a teacher and feared a similar fate.
Anchee Min’s story really picks up when she is sent to Red Fire Farm at the age of 17. There she meets Yan, her commanding officer, a woman for whom she develops a deep admiration and, eventually, love and desire. Min moves steadily up in rank and comes to share a position–and a bed–with Yan. Their affair makes life in the fields (leeches, fungicide, hunger and injury) bearable, even enjoyable. Through each other, they were restored to a life of wonder they didn’t know they were missing. But of course, their actions place them in direct opposition to the Party for whom they’d done so much, and that Party has prying eyes that never rest. Their lives are at risk, and the suspense is truly, nail-bitingly nerve-wracking.
In the third section of the book, after narrowly dodging a serious threat to her safety, Min makes her way off the farm through no real intention of her own. She is picked by talent scouts to star in an opera for Madame Jiang Ching, Mao’s wife, who wishes her characters to be played by real communists. She packs up and is taken to an actor’s studio to train. During the next few years, Min and Yan’s relationship is steadily dissolved, but the memory of it will continue forever to play a central role in the development of Min’s identity and ever-growing disillusionment with the Party. The book ends abruptly with her departure for the United States in 1984.
I must say that I was less engaged by the last third of the book than the first two, which had me totally hooked. The setting of the communist work farm itself was just much more interesting to me than that of the actor’s studio. Throughout, though, the book was a thrilling and revelatory look at one woman’s sexual coming-of-age under a brutally repressive regime, and it will not easily be forgotten.
Nor will the tale she tells of Big Beard, the hen she shares with her brother and sisters as children. *sob* But I’m not going to go into all that here, so to learn more about that one, you’ll just have to read the book.
I’m taking this opportunity to complain that tomorrow is the fifth annual Brooklyn Book Festival, and I won’t be attending. I’ll be working. This is probably a good thing, really, since I have no extra money to spend right now at such an event, and the temptation would. be. endless. I’ve gone the past two years and had a blast. Check out all the wonderful events that will be taking place, all the writers that will be there, and all the great publishers who will be set up with books. I know, I know: drool. By all means, if any of you are in the area and have the time, go!–I don’t think any of my readers are, but hey, worth a shot.
Oh, and you might get a kick out of How to Open a New Book at Boing Boing. I can’t stand to break a book’s spine, myself. Does it make you cringe, or are you unphased by it?
Wow, so first week of school + family in town + weekend trip upstate really does = very little free reading time. But I did manage to finish The House of Mirth this week, so that’s good. Edith Wharton is so great; though I didn’t love The House of Mirth quite as much as I did Ethan Frome, I was once again completely bowled over by her smooth, easy, but detailed style. Another book of hers will likely confirm her as one of my new favorite writers.
Lily Bart is a lovely New York City socialite, somewhere in her late twenties, in the early 1900’s. And she is unmarried. Which of course, in her time and place, is a serious problem. Her gambling, her flirtations, and her debts all take on a new meaning under this light. She acknowledges the superficiality of her society, but is addicted to luxury and will do all she can to keep up appearances. She eschews the double standard which allows unmarried men greater agency and confidence than it does to single women, but she also believes that marriage may be the only solution to her growing problems. She is somewhat torn between a well-off but boring new acquaintance, and an old friend, who she loves but refuses to marry, though it seems she would have agreed under better, richer circumstances–but neither of these men becomes her husband. Slowly, then quickly, her friends begin to turn on her, fabricating scandals to save face. A single woman of her age is not to be trusted.
Wharton’s ability to unveil everyone’s social agenda, with every word and every gesture, is uncanny. And oh, the agendas, so minutely executed! Is no one really just friends here? In Lily Bart’s world, anyway, the answer is no. Everyone is somehow being used–for popularity, for money, for looks–by everyone else, at any given time. It’s exhausting, really. But Wharton’s power is in really digging around in there, and making all intricate manipulations clearly apparent to the reader, though they may remain obscured at times to Lily, Selden et al.
The only thing that kept me from Ethan Frome levels of adoration here though, I think, was just that I didn’t really vibe with Lily Bart very well. I’d expect her to do one thing, and she’d do another. Though her agendas were clear, the motivations behind them weren’t always. I didn’t feel I understood her very well. We never seemed to be on the same page. She kept changing her mind about things, which is reasonable of course especially given what she was dealing with, but it was hard to keep up and left me feeling a bit cold.
This was unquestionably a wonderful look at the plight of single women in high society in early 1900’s NY, and a good example of Wharton’s brilliance, but for me it was not the very best of either.
In other news, the Don Quixote read-a-long continues happily, determinedly, for the next few weeks. I will be prioritizing this in my reading, so it may continue to be a little quiet around here for a while.
And now, to tackle my unread blog feeds! Ack!