Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Good Earth and Gone Girl

Recently I read The Good Earth By Pearl S Buck and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, almost back to back. While the novels have their share of differences, they both elicited one common theme—not all marriages are fairy tales.

The Good Earth was my second go-around. I can’t recall if I read this in high school or college, but I’m thinking it was college, because I remember dissecting the symbolism like a dedicated English major. The Pulitzer prize winning tale, with its fable-like narrative, takes us through the the journey of Wang Lung's life in a revolutionary China (circa 1900ish) as he tranforms himself from poor farmer to wealthy landowner. Along the way, we see how he takes his wife, Olan, for granted, who has been pivotal to Wang Lung's success. 

Strangely, the first time I read this, I was quite affected by the theme of the earth providing for Wang Lung. And I hadn't even come from a farming family at the time! But I remember being a bit enamored by the idea of the earth always giving Wang Lung solace as he built his fortune...especially once the unsavory ramifications of his wealth appeared at his doorstep (laziness, greed, boredom, lust). Now, it so happens I'm a farmer's wife. And while Olan and I have quite different plights, I'm even more intrigued with her character from a feministic perspective. Before I re-read the book, certain scenes were stained in my memory: Olan working in the field the same day she had her second baby, her reaction to her husband's building a new room for the arrival of his mistress... Olan spoke few words, yet she stood as one of the most formidable characters in the book because of her resourceful behavior–and she also seemed to symbolize all that was good about Wang Lung.

Most writers don't depict their characters as all good or all bad. (Although, there are probably a few pure evils out there.) So, even though Wang Lung certainly had his faults, I never saw him as a monster—merely a product of his culture, right or wrong. I also thought his longings and desires probably weren’t so different than many of our modern man. And I began to many men in today's world are made because of a partnership with their wife? Especially in agriculture?

This leads me to my next book—which has nothing to with agriculture, but it definitely centers around a marriage. Gone Girl opens up with Nick (wistfully, perhaps?) thinking about the shape of his wife’s head. We quickly learn that she’s gone missing. But something’s just not right. Is he involved or not in her disappearance? We alternate between Nick's thoughts and Amy's diary—beginning with their courtship. It all seems very fairy tale! We wonder if Nick could possibly be involved in a nefarious plot to rid of her. I won't spoil it. I'll just note that the book has no fable-like narrative, but it’s compelling alright. And it's obviously no historical fiction, but a pretty good modern day page-turner. So, here’s where I find the comparison to The Good Earth: no matter how strange, or dysfunctional you might think Nick and Amy's relationship ever was, Nick depended on Amy to define him—or make him what he was…which is fairly similar to Wang Lung, even if he never articulated it.

It just goes to show…marriage is a  fascinating, sometimes terrible, often wonderful, but always absorbing theme to read about—no matter what genre or time period you happen to choose.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

And now for Killing Kennedy

Book lovers typically make recommendations to each other in the course of normal conversation. So, I wonder if Bill O'Reilly was being clever or coy in the naming of his recent best sellers. Because when my reader-friends have recently asked for suggestions on current books, the words that have rolled off my tongue are: "I really loved Killing Kennedy. And I quite enjoyed Killing Lincoln as well." My recommendation makes me feel a bit homicidal.

I've been fairly preoccupied with Killing Kennedy (subtitled "The End of Camelot") ever since I finished reading the last page–always a sign of a good book. Undoubtedly, a few of the personal details of JFK's life appalled me. And so did a few of his political maneuvers. But then, the Cuban Missile Crisis came along. And wave of great admiration overtook me as I witnessed his unrelenting leadership.

There are many compelling characters in this book. The glamorous, but sad events Jackie Kennedy had to endure make her the most tragic figure in the book. I can see why the nation was drawn to her. (Heck, I think the nation is drawn to most of our First Ladies, but she certainly stands out.) Martin Luther King, Jr. is characterized as an interesting parallel to JFK–an imperfect, charismatic and obvious game-changing leader. And while Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson are players in "Camelot", the book really depicts their adversarial relationship in a politically charged White House. Marilyn Monroe makes an intriguing appearance, as the bombshell always did. And while O'Reilly/Dugard stay true to the facts, and there is no overt mention of conspiracy, it's difficult not to wonder about some of the coincidences at her death. And of course, the book follows the strange path of Lee Harvey Oswald–a man who didn't even hate Kennedy, a man who simply sought notoriety. (For anyone who read Lincoln, this will sound eerily familiar.)

Needless to say, by the time I reached the day of the assassination, I had grown respectful for JFK and his ability to lead our nation. And despite his personal indiscretions, he clearly loved his family. So by the time I read through the awful assassination, I was bawling. The End of Camelot had become very real and tragic event for me.

The only complaint I would have about the book would be this: I wished for more pictures. I realize  this probably sounds juvenile. But I became so intrigued by the first family of 1960, I wanted to see much more of them. (I actually YouTubed Jackie's "Tour of the White House.")

Anyway, thanks to the writing styles of Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, I believe many more Americans are relishing in histories that should be relished. I hear their next project is going to be "Killing Jesus." Wow. That's a big undertaking. So. I'm definitely going to change how I recommend that book.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Between Shades of Gray

When someone suggested reading "Between Shades of Gray" for the Lunch and Library, a few eyebrows lifted and a few noses wrinkled. Admittedly, I wasn't sure how we could discuss the racy material without turning a few shades of red. Then, there was clarification.

"Wait! It's not that book," explained our leader. And while I have not yet read 50 Shades of Grey, I'm guessing the two books are radically different.

Between Shades  by Ruta Sepetys is a historical novel which takes place in 1941. If I were to tell you that this book depicts certain atrocities, you might think the book is set in Europe, or centers around Hitler. But actually, the book begins its tale in Lithuania where another evil ruler, known as Joseph Stalin, is beginning his reign of terror which tolls the lives of twenty million.

I asked my husband if he could imagine the military coming to our house, ordering us out with only a smattering of our belongings to ship us through Canada–to the Arctic–on a cattle train only to be sold off to work as slaves or to be imprisoned. Oh, not to mention our family would be split up.

Political "dissidents"(as marked by the Soviets) of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia (along with their families), were rounded up and sent to prisons or camps in the grueling conditions, under the cruel eye of the Russian guard. In this story, 15-year old Lina treks to Siberia with her mother and brother–along with many other characters along the way while finding out her father has been imprisoned. They can only hope he is still alive.

There were a few points in the novel when the Lithuanians found hope in the idea of Americans coming to the rescue. I was hopeful as well. That's the sort of thing we do. But we were fighting a war, and actually buddying up with Stalin at the time. And so the challenges and devastations continued. As I read, I felt embarrassed by my gap of  this piece of history. But reading the "story" made it more than just a data point. Not only did I learn what happened, I empathized for the people. It made me feel somewhat ashamed of my lack of gratitude for the freedom my country grants me.

Between Shades of Gray is a wonderfully written novel about a courageous girl who finds a way to survive through the gravest of circumstances, using memories, art, and fellowship. It's not only a good story, it's important.

Here's a video of why the author decided to write it.