Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)

I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931) after reading a recent biography of her (comments below somewhere). As I wrote earlier, my only other previous exposure to Buck was a Reader's Digest Condensed version of her autobiography My Several Worlds, although I eventually read the entire work (and found the Reader's Digest condensed version to be a better read). I probably picked up My Several Worlds because it was about a subject I had read previously about in Jean Fritz's Homesick, which is still one of my favorite children's books (and which I plan to read next).

I picked up The Good Earth with pretty low expectations. One of the reasons I didn't care for the whole version of My Several Worlds was that the good people of Reader's Digest (rightly) cut out the preachiness and holier than thou-ness and stiffness out of the book, and I was afraid that The Good Earth would be stiffer than stiff (it's an award winner after all, which sometimes means rigid and unreadable by the simple folk). I also thought, seeing that its from the 1930s, that it would be racist in the worst possible Charlie Chan kind of way (although My Several Worlds wasn't). It's a near contemporary of Gone With Wind, one of the most despicably racist books to ever have gained the love and adoration of millions of fans (myself included for quite some time, although now I'm more jaded toward Miss Mitchell and Scarlett O'Hara), and because it's a contemporary, I thought it must take a similar white power type of position.

The Good Earth is like Gone With the Wind in only one way - it's a powerful story about the importance of land. Wang Lung and Scarlett O'Hara are two peas in a pod when it comes to their fierce love for and desperate need to hold onto a piece of property. (in this day and age, can this still be considered a theme? Do people hunger after land ownership now like they did then?). I'm not Chinese (and neither technically was Pearl S. Buck, although she was in reality more Chinese than American), so I can only speak from my perspective, but I didn't find the book to be in the least bit racist or offensive. The setting is different, but that can be chalked up to culture and time period - the people weren't portrayed as gross stereotypes or caricatures.

It also wasn't stiff or rigid. The writing was lyrical and Buck, as a daughter of missionaries, definitely has a Biblical cadence. Her storytelling is straight out the Bible too - but engaging and different enough that I just wanted to keep on reading. Every single character is completely developed, whether lead, supporting, bit, or extra - you can picture them clearly or they remind you of someone you know personally. Okay, maybe I haven't dined with a warlord or concubine. But I have met farmers, stolid farmwives, pretty young things who toy with men, family fueders, gossipy aunts, faithful friends.

It's heartbreaking when Wang Lung falls out of love (was he ever actually in love) with Olan and in lust with pretty not-so-young thing Lotus, and it's absolutely heartbreaking when she dies and Wang Lung (like Scarlett O'Hara and Melanie Wilkes) realizes how much he both owes Olan and how much he's going to miss her. That's tremendous storytelling - because, let's face it, it's definitely a story as old as storytelling itself, and it's be retold well and retold poorly a million times since we sat around the fire gnawing on mammoth bones. Pearl S. Buck tells that old story yet again, but it seems so new and fresh (and this from an 80 year old novel).

I want to read the sequels - but I've read they aren't as good. From what I gather, they are the rigid holy storytelling that Buck avoided in The Good Earth. So I'm going to leave the story of the Wangs alone, and imagine in my head what becomes of them. The oldest son and his two wives, the conniving businessman of a middle son, the fiery revolutionary youngest son. Their descendants are in Arcadia and Vancouver and Hong Kong and Taiwan and China proper.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (2010)

I read Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer (2010), a short and sweet jaunt back into a magical world I love - the alternative historical fantasy universe of the enchanted chocolate pot. Definitely written for children, the story and character development lack the richness of Stevermer's other novels (Wrede, like Cecelia, are no where to be found). You don't need to have read any of the other books in the series (although it helps). I hope Stevermer continues to tap this vein (and hopefully in tandem with Wrede as well). Even with an (almost) throwaway children's book, Stevermer is still a dem fine author.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891

I read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891), and while I can't say I'm wild about Wilde (yuck yuck, I'm sure that's never been said before) and also can't say that I actually enjoyed reading the book, I still found it fascinating. While never explicitly said out loud, it was pretty clear that the guys in this book were all gayer than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide. The witty banter, the obsession with looks, the fag hags (albeit titled ones), the vanity - dump Dorian Gray and Co. out in West Hollywood and they'd fit right in. Okay, I know I'm stereotyping but jeesh, every gay man knows someone just like Dorian and Co. I mean, come on, don't ALL the guys on that show the A-list have a picture of themselves aging away in a back closet? I certainly can't imagine that Wilde was specifically saying that all gays are looks obsessed vain stuff obsessed status obsessed effetes (and blackmailing backstabbing murderers on top of that). The world is full of vapid shallow hedonistic straight people too (for more information, check out TMZ). But I was maybe a little surprised at how developed gay culture already was (or did generations of gays read this novel and think to themselves "That's the kind of life I should be living..." now that's a thought).

Second musing - if you are a 40 something gay man, then reading a book that claims 38 to be decrepit can be damn depressing. Especially if what I've been reading lately is true, we're scientifically and medically being modified to live past 100, then I have a hell of a lot of unpleasant aging to do, at least Dorian Gray-wise, and no amount of plastic surgery is going to cure that.

Would Oscar Wilde have had plastic surgery? Would he live in West Hollywood or Silverlake? Would he hang out at the Abbey? Dorian Gray would definitely be dancing on a float without a shirt every June, and sunning himself nekkid in Palm Springs every July.

Quite possibly the gayest book ever written.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

My review for Facebook of Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010). I thought it was rather clever:

Way, way too overwritten, although not overly wrought. Reads like one giganticly long Vanity Fair article. Hersh has some beautifully written passages, but almost too many of them - the clever aside got in the way of the story (if you can call it that; perhaps narrative is a better word). The gossip is never malicous, but it's very insider - lots of name dropping. If this book were a dinner party, then you'd be sitting by Burton Hersh in the corner, drink in one hand, the other hand covering his mouth as he whispers scandal and scuttlebutt in your ear mixed with policy and family. I know that sounds promisingly interesting too, but it's just went on for too long (at least for me).

A confession here that I didn't make on Facebook: as warned in a previous blog post, I did not finish the book!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Life might be overwritten, but it's still got some great lines. "After twenty-two months that involved [Joe] Kennedy is everything from a fling at directing films to cannibalizing financially his very good friend Gloria Swanson..." he was "back East thirty pounds underweight, ulcers and neuritis acting up..." and, the best pissiest piece of writing in the book so far, really quite a brilliant little line -- "perhaps $5 million heavier around the bank account." Maybe it's a bit overwritten, but that's still a good little line. The off hand, somewhat glib, a little bit sassy writing might eventually get to me in the end though.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

I am reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891), a Barnes and Noble version. They've helpfully published some of the better and bitchier quotes from the book right in the front, including:

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." (the credo of Kathy Griffin and modern celebrity, first endorsed by Oscar Wilde, the first modern celebrity?).

"She tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant." (Snap!).

So far, though, the most resonating quote for me from the book has been: "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?" Only smokers and ex-smokers will understand this sentiment, but it's so true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (2010)

I am reading Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography by Burton Hersh (Counterpoint, 2010); I've just begun, so far it's good (maybe a bit pretentious and overwritten), but who knows whether I'll actually finish it.

The "Toodles" story struck a small chord though -- how politics was dirty and is dirty and will be dirty (and that is really what makes it a fun spectator sport). Fitzgerald (grandfather of Ted, mayor of Boston, father of Rose), was accused by an opponent of womanizing (the real Kennedy curse); the opponent "announced publicly his intention to review the performances of great lovemakers from Cleopatra to Toodles... Toodles Ryan was a well-founded blonde cigarette girl (the Ryelle Hunter of her day?) at the Ferncroft Inn, a regular stopover of His Honor's... and although the mayor insisted in later years that he had done no more than kiss the sympathetic Toddles casually at a party while his wife stood watching, the opponents brutal threat was evidently enough. His Honor stepped down."

Different names, same story!

Monday, November 8, 2010

My Several Worlds. Homesick. China.

I read Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (Simon & Schuster, 2010). And I read it right through too -- well, I paused a bit to read some other stuff (The Picture of Dorian Gray, mainly, more on that later). I don't particular love the writings of Pearl S. Buck, and in fact, I've never read any novel by her. But long long ago, I read the reader's digest condensed version (at my grandparent's house) of her autobiography My Several Worlds. I never read another thing by Pearl S. Buck (I'm going to attempt to read The Good Earth now, but I'm not sure how far I will get...), but My Several Worlds, combined with Jean Fritz's incredible (and very similar)
Homesick: My Own Story, made me fall in love with China, at least at the time. I still enjoy reading about that time period -- let's say from the Boxer Rebellion to the 1930's, although not as much as I used to. Reading Spurling's biography added some bits of information to the story, added things that My Several Worlds left out. Pearl S. Buck had a very selective memory (don't well all) and several times in My Several Worlds she "forgot" whole parts of her life (her love affair and subsequent divorce, for example). She was a fascinating woman living in a fascinating place in an interesting time (the old Chinese curse). An NPR story about the book (which is what prompted me to put it on my reading list) said that at one time Pearl S. Buck was one of the best selling authors in America, and now (other than The Good Earth) is hardly read at all, and certainly not critically. How tastes and times change (although Spurling does a good job of explaining why Buck's own writing and political views may have made this so).

Two probably readings that come out of finishing this book: I want to re-read Homesick (and maybe its sequel) and I want to try to read The Good Earth.

One thing I don't want to do is I don't want to read My Several Worlds. I have to admit, the beat up old reader's digest condensed version, with the hokey pokey illustrations, is still the version I like best. I have it somewhere in the house still. I also have the complete and uncondensed My Several Worlds, and I have to honest -- when they condensed it for the good old R.D., they left all the good parts in, and took all the boring parts out. Leaving the boring parts in made it a VERY long, kind of preachy book. I'm afraid to read the R.D. version though - it's so beat up and old it might fall apart in my hands! While reading Spurling, I did drag out my longer version though, and re-read some passages (some of which Spurling clearly lifted, although not necessarily word for word).

Back to Catherine the Great, which I stopped reading in order to read this. I want to skim the last bit of Catherine though -- I'm incredibly bored with Rounding's "and then she did this... and then she did that" style of writing.

Oh yeah, one other awesomely cool thing about Pearl S. Buck -- after her husband died, she turned into this total fag hag, and was surrounded by gay men. They used to prop her up in Chinese dressing gown drag in the windows of their antique shops to try to drum up business. True story! Sounds like something Palm Springs gays would do with some old starlet (Miss Debbie Reynolds).

Librarians ain't so easy to fool as regular folk are...

I had a little girl come into the library this evening, and after bugging me with an endless round of questions and requests ("Can I have two pieces of paper?") said "You came to my first grade class and read something." Together we tried to figure out when I did this (she was clearly no longer in first grade) and why I was there (career day) and what I read. It ended up being The Tale of Tricky Fox by Jim Aylesworth, which she then asked to see. I pulled it for her, admitted that I changed the teacher character into a librarian ("because librarians are cooler than teachers." I actually said that, may god forgive me), and then SHE sat down and read the whole book semi-silently to herself. That's what it's all about, right? That's why we do what we do.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I am reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and I want to know - if Oscar Wilde were alive today, would he be on Grindr?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum, 2010)

I thought Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (Atheneum, 2010) was certainly engaging - but I just wanted it to be written differently... and I'm not exactly sure what I mean. I did like Melody's narrative, but I thought it was uneven and made great leaps in time, bouncing from babyhood to fifth grade with some filling in between. Draper certainly captured the feeling of being trapped, of wanting to sing and dance and gossip and just speak and move but being unable to - but occasionally, especially towards the end, Melody sounded more like an adult than a fifth grader. The feelings were captured, I think, but the voice seemed very, very mature in a preachy sort of way. The humor felt very mature too. However, many books for this age group are written in a similar way, so I'm not sure kids will care. The end bugged me -- what teacher would let his students make that many decisiosn independently -- and without any other adults around as a caution or EVEN speaking about it? Life is full of people talking over and around and to one another, particularly at the airport -- but apparently books aren't. Come on -- these fifth graders at the end were manipulated by Draper to act in a certain way that I think goes against how actual fifth graders would act.

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006).

A badly written book about an interesting person can still have some engaging bits. In Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, Virginia Rounding includes this evocative scene of Catherine and Co. on a winter trek to the Crimea. Fourteen enormous coaches mounted on runners, 124 sleighs -- the Empress's coach "was like a house itself, containing a bedroom, sitting room, office, and library, and pulled by 30 horses..." The entourage included ministers, footmen, laundresses, doctors, apothecaries, cooks, silver polishers.. the temperature was around 30 degrees delow zero, everyone enveloped in bearskin coats and sable hats. Because it was winter in Russia, the days were short. A romantic image comes to mind, the crunch of snow under hundreds of horses hooves, sleighbells, the murmur of hundreds of people. Bonfires were lit along the road to guide the way, and at every village, people gathered under the crisp, starlit sky to watch the Empress/Goddess rush past.

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