Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hope & Heartache -- Strife in Japan, China & Cambodia

Right now I'm hoping I can get this post typed! What is it that makes pets want to lean against your arms when you're trying to type?! N E WAYZ... I actually have three short reads to discuss today -- similar themes of strife, but different locations.

The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd -- Mary MacKenzie is 20 years old and recently engaged to a military man in Peking, China. She endures a somewhat arduous sea trip to meet her fella in China (I hesitate calling him her love because the marriage seemed to be of the arranged sort, they didn't seem to know much of anything about each other). Mary marries, sets up house but later on finds herself in an affair with a Japanese man. The affair leads to pregnancy and social ostracization. Think The Scarlett Letter, but in China.

I typically really enjoy epistolary novels but something about this one just seemed to drag too much for me. I was all for it at the start but the entries just started sounding so dry after awhile. I got about halfway in and thought, Why don't I care more about all these people? Have you ever gotten to that point and then find yourself getting mad that you're just now realizing how you feel and you just wasted time that could have gone to a book you'd really love (but then, how do you know it's a book you love until you're all up in it?). I also thought it was odd and just a little creepy that Richard would tell his fiancee, shortly after meeting, that "in China, nothing is as it seems" and she would be good to remember that. WTH is that suppose to mean? I'd be asking what kind of hell I was walking into, with a comment like that! 

I never saw it, but a tv mini-series adaptation of the book was made in 1989.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco takes place between the years of 1861-1866, telling the tale of Herve Joncour, a French silk merchant who, over the course of these years, takes many trips to Japan, to arrange the purchase of silkworm eggs with one particular nobleman. Things get complicated when a young woman close to the nobleman, I got the impression she was a favored concubine, starts making secret passes at Herve (though neither speak the other's language). Herve, married btw, gets entangled in this mysterious infatuation, even encouraging it, though he doesn't fare too well in that dept. Meanwhile, Herve's wife, Helene, holds down the fort in France, enjoys her husband's growing fortune and pretends she doesn't know what's going on... at least not until the very end. And then Baricco throws in the heartbreaker letter.

author Alessandro Baricco

I picked up this book last year, thinking the title sounded familiar but not being able to remember past that. Turns out I hadn't read this book but was, in fact, thinking of The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I did read years ago but didn't get all that excited over. Not sure why I connected the two in my brain since they have very little in common other than the Asian element and actual physical length of story. Both are easy, super short reads. But for whatever reason, The Lover just didn't pull me in the way Silk did. Baricco has the brilliant skill of being able to say a lot while virtually writing nothing. There are no big, showy "why yes, I did attend an Ivy League" words clogging up the story here He uses only the words you need as a reader to be right there with Herve. This book is less than 100 pages long, but I could vividly imagine every environment, feel the snow and fire, smell the flowers in the garden, you know how those kind of books feel :-) I also liked the history lessons slipped in -- 1869: the Suez Canal opens, making a trip to Japan about 20 days rather than months on end, while the return trip was often less than 20 days. Also, 1884: artificial silk was patented by Frenchman Hilaire Chardonnet. This is why I love historical fiction! You can learn the stuff without it being dry!

From a distance his wife Helene saw the carriage coming up the tree-lined driveway of the property. She told herself that she was not to cry and not to run away. She went down to the front door, opened it and stopped on the threshold. When Herve Joncour reached her, she smiled. He embraced her and quietly said to her: "Stay with me, please." That night they stayed up till late, seated beside each other on the lawn in front of their house. Helene told him... about all those ghastly months spent waiting, and those ghastly final days. "You were dead," she said. "And in the whole world there was nothing beautiful left."

I also got an inside chuckle when, upon reading the first few pages, I realized I knew this story from somewhere. I sat there thinking Had I read this before? Then it dawned on me -- I had actually seen the movie years ago without knowing anything about this novel. I think it was a movie channel freebie that came on one day. I don't remember a whole lot about the movie except the gorgeous cinematography, the woman Herve hires to read the letter from his admirer, and Keira Knightly playing long-suffering Helene (perfectly cast there, btw). Even the book had great cinematography -- I picture all my favorite books as if they're shot like Ang Lee movies lol.

Hold Fast 

Hold Fast by Lang Tang & Nicole Donoho -- This is a Kindle freebie I stumbled upon the other day. I just got a Kindle recently so I've been perusing the freebies pretty regularly to see what comes up. This one sounded like it could be a good educational read. This is Lang Tang's memoir about surviving life under the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I was never taught much about the Khmer Rouge in school so I figured what better way to fill in the gaps than read a first person account, right? Tang has a pretty riveting story here. The writing is very simple and direct (but keep in mind he's an ESL student) but what he has to say pulled me in right away. I knew enough to know the Khmer Rouge were bad news, but I had no idea it went so far to where they had no qualms about killing their own followers without batting an eye. Tang survived by working for them, running errands mostly. Even being on their good side, as much as you can be I guess, he still spent most of his time under their rule half starved (the KR stole food from their followers / prisoners constantly) and nearly dead. It broke my heart that it took him years to get up the means and courage to travel to America, facing possible execution by the Khmer Rouge if caught escaping, but when he and his family got here, they had a whole new struggle with battling racism, xenophobia, red tape and Tang being color-blind, making finding work difficult. He persevered though. He was granted American citizenship in 1989 and went on to become a successful vitamin / dietary supplement distributor. By the end of this book, I realized that whatever excuse I have for not getting where I want to be is pretty invalid! You can visit Tang's Facebook page here to learn more about him.

**Just read on Tang's page that apparently the free price was just a promotional thing, ending on the 23rd (today) ... sorry readers!**