Life and Death in Shanghai

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“Are you going to confess, or do you want more punishment?”

Life and Death in Shanghai is Nien Cheng’s autobiography of her imprisonment in Shanghai’s No. 1 Detention House during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Since Cheng had been a high-ranking official in a foreign company and had many foreign friends, the Chinese Communist Party accused her of being a spy. She stayed in the detention house for six years while party workers urged her to confess.

What I found most extraordinary about Cheng is her ability to endure hardship. She always displayed a strong will and a sharp intellect, no matter how hopeless her situation. Even when she was beaten by the guards and left in handcuffs that tore at her wrists, she refused to confess and struggled to survive. Her resilience, despite bloodied hands and fingers that had swollen to the “size of carrots,” amazes me.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book, it did not command my attention. Like most autobiographies, it lacked the typical plot development of a work of fiction. This is in part because more than half the story was out of Cheng’s control–she was forced to wait in a room for six years, and was only allowed out for walks or interrogations. The narrative, since it mirrors her experience, is repetitive and slow-moving.

Overall, Cheng is more impressive than her autobiography. I did, however, find this book more interesting when I considered it alongside my AP Comparative Government and Politics class. Cheng’s story helped me to understand the timeline of Mao Zedong’s rule and to remember the names of other important communist leaders because she wove chronology of the revolution into her own personal story.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

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“You want a knock on the door? Okay, have your knock on the door. Just so long as it brings us a story.”

Suddenly a Knock on the Door is a collection of short stories by Etgar Keret. These stories are funny, absurd and occasionally heart-wrenching. I first heard about this book on the This American Life podcast called “Switcheroo” (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/468/switcheroo?act=1#play), so if you would like to get a feel for Keret’s writing that is a good place to start. His style and subject vary from story to story, so instead of evaluating the collection as a whole I have decided to describe my two favorite pieces:

“Hemorrhoid” is extremely short–less than two pages. In this story, a man who suffers from a hemorrhoid decides that instead of hating his hemorrhoid, he should treat it like his conscience. Eventually he becomes more hemorrhoid than human, but his lingering human presence teaches the hemorrhoid “it could live and let live, it could learn to forgive.” (Keret includes these simplistic rhymes throughout the story, which is the main reason why I liked it so much.) Keret also uses parallelism to create humor, beginning the first paragraph with “This is the story of a man who suffered from a hemorrhoid” and beginning the last paragraph with “This is the story of a hemorrhoid that suffered from a man.”

“Pick a Color” is ostensibly a story about race. The repetition of colors and the absence of character names emphasize the racial tension in this story. For instance, the main character is a black man who lives in “a black house with a black porch where he used to sit every morning and drink his black coffee.” The black man marries a white woman, and they confront discrimination and violence from white men and brown men. The emphasis of the story changes from race to religion when the black man’s wife is stabbed in the street, and at her funeral the black man yells at the yellow priest who married them. He accuses the priest of lying: “You told us that God loves us. If he loves us, why did he do such a terrible thing to us?” The priest, in turn, curses God for the couple’s misfortune. But the story takes an interesting turn when God himself arrives at the church, and the yellow priest and the black man realize that by seeing people and even God in a different way, they are able to see themselves in a different way.

Overall, I am not sure how I felt about this collection. I really love the two stories I mentioned, and the rest were either enjoyable or simply okay–I do not think I loathed any of them. I would not recommend this to anyone younger than high school age because of the foul language and mild sexual content. Other than that, I would definitely suggest it to anybody! I am curious to know what others might think of it.

The Catcher in the Rye

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“You’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.”

In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield is kicked out of yet another prestigious prep school and sinks into depression and disillusionment. He returns to New York, but stays away from home for a weekend to enjoy adult life without rules or restrictions (or his parents’ disapproval), and tries to understand himself and what it means to be authentic.

Salinger has Holden narrate his own story, which is a great choice. His voice is personable, funny, and direct. I especially enjoyed how opinionated Holden is. He goes off on tangents just to complain about how little other people make sense. Take, for instance, this quote: “When you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”

I did have a little difficulty understanding the deeper meaning of some parts of the book. (I was reading this on my own–none of my English classes have had this in their curriculum–so I did not have any guidance.) For example, at first, I was a little confused by Holden’s obsession with where ducks go when ponds freeze over, but I appreciated the significance more once I understood it. First of all, Holden craves independence from societal convention, which explains why he thinks about ducks so much, since birds are associated with freedom and lead very simple lives. Their escape from winter coincides with Holden’s desire to escape from his life–from school, from his parents, and from responsibilities. His query also separates him from the adults in his life, who think Holden is stupid for caring about where the ducks go; what matters to him is not important to anybody else.

This book is amazing, so although it is written about and mostly read by teenage readers, I would encourage older people to read it as well. I would not, however recommend it to anyone younger than teenagers because of its more adult material and foul language. I also would suggest reading this with at least one other person; after I finished reading, I was dying for someone to talk to about it.

My Name is Red

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“Color is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.”

In Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, a group of miniaturists, their masters, and Black Effendi (nephew of one of the masters) all try to solve the murder of Elegant Effendi, another miniaturist. At the same time, each miniaturist struggles with the idea that the book they have secretly worked on for the Sultan might be heresy, and the cause of Elegant’s death. In Turkish culture, many depictions are forbidden because they are not shown from Allah’s perspective or because they might become idols.

Pamuk compiled the perspectives of almost every character to write this story, jumping fluidly from one point of view to another. He even goes so far as to recount the thoughts of a corpse, and those of a painting of Death. The murderer speaks as well, but he rarely hints at which of the other voices also belongs to him.

Pamuk emphasizes truth and sincerity in this book. The reader has to choose which of the characters to trust, using clues from the few times each person speaks to determine identity and guilt. Shekure—daughter of the man in charge of the controversial book—realizes how easy it is to sound insincere. Oftentimes she knows she is telling the truth, but feels that everything she says sounds like a lie. The murderer has the same problem, often shedding tears “which were at once genuine and false.”

What I found most interesting was the miniaturists’ discussions concerning style. The goal of these painters is to replicate the work of the old masters, leaving nothing to identify themselves—certainly not a signature. To them, “what was venerated as style was nothing more than an imperfection or flaw that revealed the guilty hand.” Yet each miniaturist is also very competitive, and wants to be distinctly better than the rest. One even goes so far as to express his desire to have a portrait painted of himself. This is also representative of a battle between East and West—should they continue painting in the ways of the Persians, or should they surrender to the ways of the Franks?

This book is amazing. It blew my mind in so many ways—I would explain, but I do not want to give away anything. There are additional explorations of sight and story, which I have not even mentioned. I would recommend this book to anybody, but it should probably not be read by anyone younger than high school age because of the more adult material.

Amy Falls Down

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“I am here accidentally and just for the moment.”

In Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett, author and teacher Amy Gallup falls and hits her head on a birdbath. She is left with a mild concussion, but decides not to seek medical help until after her interview that afternoon. The interview, which makes her seem much more mysterious and eccentric than she anticipated, has the potential to restart her writing career. Even though three decades have passed her last publication, her old agent and this new media attention combine to force her back into the writing world.

Amy is an enjoyable character to follow around. She is determinedly “unambitious”, so when she stumbles into good fortune, she does not know how to handle it. Luckily, Amy is cool under pressure (mostly because she does not care about success) and has a refreshing sense of humor, although she must overcome many phobias as well as her generally antisocial nature in order to deal with herself as a media phenomenon, something she is not sure she even wants to be.

This book did confuse me a little at the beginning. The narration follows Amy’s train of thought closely, and so often a memory of a past event will be taken down only half-formed. It took a while before I had a full understanding of what Amy’s marriages were like and why she stopped teaching in-person classes. This is my fault. I read the book because David Sedaris posted on Facebook about it—I hadn’t realized that Amy (as well as her dog Alphonse) appeared previously in Willett’s book The Writing Class, and Amy Falls Down is the sequel.

I loved this book and would suggest it to any audience. I would, however, suggest reading the first book in the series, first. I’m sure it is just as good.

Letters to a Young Poet

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“What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain.”

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his Letters to a Young Poet to Franz Xaver Kappus, someone he never met, but with whom he easily identified. Kappus reminded Rilke of an earlier version of himself: the young man was attending the military school to which Rilke had gone and had similar aspirations of becoming a poet. Rilke’s Letters offered advice and encouragement to Kappus, and, although Rilke wrote more than a hundred years ago, his wisdom has lost no relevance today.

Rilke discusses many topics, but most of his ideas revolve around solitude as a source of inspiration and peace. He advises the reader to move slowly through life, to take time to think, and to seek isolation in order to discover an identity outside of society and within nature. Rilke’s concise and pithy writing has helped me remain comfortable with the present and calm about the future. He reminds the reader to “have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart . . . live in the question.” His message is to live in a way that increases understanding of self, and to find peace in that understanding.

Rilke also comments, with brevity and insight, on the women of his time period. In the early 1900s, due to economic independence gained through industrialization, a “new woman” emerged. These working women tested their boundaries in society, becoming “imitators of male behavior and misbehavior and repeaters of male profession.” Yet Rilke realizes that women do not need permanently to adopt male habits, nor must they return to traditional female roles. He believes that “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.” His wording occasionally seems sexist (“mere opposite of the male”) but his ideas are as progressive and as lacking in prejudice as possible during this time period.

I would suggest Rilke’s Letters to anybody, and especially those in their late teens with even a vague interest in writing and/or solitude. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy of these letters to annotate and reread many times. It is a remarkable little book.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

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“This question of a woman telling her story – the heaviest of crosses to herself – seemed but an amusement to others. It was as if people should laugh at martyrdom.”

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess, a poor country girl in her late teens, is raped by a man she thought was her cousin. Her humiliation drives her away from her own town to work as a dairymaid. Deeply sensing that she is impure, she plans never to marry, but her affectionate nature leads her to fall in love with a fellow worker, Angel Clare. Throughout their courtship, Tess struggles with whether she should reveal her secret.

Thomas Hardy describes landscapes like no other author. Reading Tess is as much about the location as the characters. Hardy’s attention to detail brings life and realism to the story. My favorite selection from this particular novel of his was the description of migrating birds as “gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes.”

At first I reacted negatively to the portrayal of Tess. She is above all a pure woman, which by 19th-century standards, means she must be passive and subservient. She differs immensely from the strong female characters I normally enjoy reading about from this time period–those from Brontë or Austen novels, or even different Hardy novels. Yet, while considering why Tess should have such a meek personality, I realized that this book–seemingly anti-feminist in modern times–is using Tess’ passivity to make a feminist statement. Hardy had to make Tess the stereotypical good woman of his time because if she were not, people would have rejected his message: rape is not the victim’s fault. If she had been any bolder, the audience may have rejected her innocence, thinking that she “had it coming.”

Overall, I liked this book. I did not enjoy it as much as Return of the Native, because I love stronger and spunkier female characters, but I would recommend reading both. I would recommend Tess only to older audiences though, since the material is more adult.

The Joy Luck Club

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“Then you must teach my daughter this same lesson. How to lose your innocence but not your hope. How to laugh forever.”

In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan relates the lives of four mother-daughter pairs, all living in California and all from China. Each week, their families meet as “the Joy Luck Club” for dinner, conversation, and mah jong. The main storyline is that told by Jing-mei, whose mother Suyuan founded the club. Suyuan died while in the midst of contacting family in China, and her desire to find her lost relatives shapes the book.

Tan focuses on the relationships of the daughters with their mothers, and especially the generational and cultural gap that hinders their communication. The daughters often feel pressured by and even afraid of their mothers: “Well, I don’t know if it’s explicitly stated in the law, but you can’t ever tell a Chinese mother to shut up. You could be charged as an accessory to your own murder.” The mothers want their daughters to listen to them and appreciate their efforts and experience, expressing themselves through metaphors and anecdotes: “A girl is like a young tree. . . . You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away. ” Throughout the novel, both mothers and daughters must learn when to speak and when to listen.

Each of the eight main characters takes turns narrating, which keeps the perspectives fresh but can also make the book confusing. I had to flip back every once in a while to ask myself “Is this the girl who is a genius at chess?” or “Wait, was it this mom who tricked a family into thinking their servant girl was royalty?” I would recommend jotting down the character names in a notebook along with a few key words describing them; it would have saved me some trouble.

I would recommend The Joy Luck Club to anyone. It is insightful and entertaining. This is the first book by Amy Tan that I have read, but I love her writing style and will definitely read more by her in the future.

The Age of Innocence

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“His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the late 1800s, Newland Archer attempts to live according to the societal rules of his upper class friends and family. He begins the novel happily engaged to May Welland, but when Countess Olenska, May’s scandalous cousin, returns from Europe, Newland’s ideas change; he gradually becomes disgusted with his way of life. As the wedding with May draws near, Newland discovers that he is actually in love with the Countess, and must choose whether he will follow society’s expectations or his heart.

Having a male protagonist in a marriage plot was refreshing. I had not read a book such as this–whether by Jane Austen, one of the Brontë sisters and others–that was not mainly focused on a woman. I found that I prefer a woman’s point of view, but still it was nice to read from a different perspective.

I also liked Wharton’s full rejection of societal convention. While earlier authors would generally critique social invention and then end the story with a happy engagement, Wharton has her characters submit so much to societal rules and values that they lose their chances at happiness.

Unfortunately, this book is also much more boring than its predecessors, mostly due to its redundant explanations. Instead of the reader guessing at what a character might mean, Wharton destroys all mystery with clarification: “It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant [. . .]” The book would be much better if the author did not hold the reader’s hand the entire time.

Overall, I thought The Age of Innocence was okay. The plot and perspective were interesting, but if you are looking for good writing, you could do better. Try Emma or Portrait of a Lady instead.

Crime and Punishment

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“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, former university student Rodion Romanovitch (who also goes by Rodya and Raskolnikov) theorizes that if great people murder for a good reason, then they will not feel guilty. Poor and unemployed, but certain of his own greatness, he decides to test this theory by murdering an old pawnbroker, and suffers severe psychological consequences.

Dostoevsky’s exploration of Rodion’s psyche is brilliant. Originally a levelheaded thinker, after the murder Rodion becomes sick and angry and crazed at any moment. He lashes out at his family and alienates his friends. His inability to control himself and his urge to confess are fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

Rodion concludes that there is a moral law that cannot be breached, even by great people. (Or, if he was right that great people can breach it, that Rodion himself is not a great person.) He also seems to suggest that thinking is dangerous. Rodion would not have created such trouble for himself if he had not been so smart.

What I found most difficult about reading this book was keeping track of Dostoevsky’s characters, who have three or four names each which are used interchangeably. I was not previously acquainted with Russian naming, so it took me far too long to make simple connections, like that Razumihin and Dmitri Prokofitch were the same person. If you keep a list of the names associated with each character, you should be able to follow the storyline more easily.

Crime and Punishment should be read by everyone at some point, but probably at an older age because of the more serious material. I would also suggest reading it more slowly than usual, so that the insanity of the protagonist does not get to your head. You would probably enjoy it if you like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which is almost exactly the same story, just simplified. Often, in normal conversations, Rodion thinks of his friends and associates just as Poe’s protagonist thought of the police: “They suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror!”