Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

India: A History - by John Keay

Following the path of Monkey and his friends, I've finally journeyed west into the land of Buddha, and selected this general history as an introduction. (it was easy to find - even the Forest Park Library had a copy)

Overall, it was a pleasant read -- but still a disappointment since Keay didn't venture beyond the details of political history - and that seems to be the least interesting aspect of this civilization. (which is probably why history wasn't written there until the Islamic invasions)

What's needed, is a writer who's more immersed in the cultural life of the area, but since it's so diverse, perhaps an overall survey will always be disappointing.

Being British (Scottish, actually), perhaps the author has favored the Raj, but it does seem that there was something like a Pax Brittanica, and everyone would have been better off if the Brits were still stuck with administering that area of the world. Does anyone argue that the Raj wasn't far less sectarian than either the modern states of Pakistan or India ? (note: this is my observation, not the author's)

Considering the three great centers of world civilization, India seems to have weathered the transition into the modern world much easier than either Europe or China --( and who knows how the Islamic world will ever handle it, unless, like Turkey, it becomes militantly secular)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Xiaolu Guo : Twenty Fragments of a RavenousYouth

I'd already begun reading a history of India -but China keeps calling me back - especially this story of a ravenous young woman.

Ravenous for what ? Most obviously, for food -- an underlying theme in most Chinese novels - this heroine, Fenfang, has a prodigious appetite -though it seems to be quantity rather than quality that interests her -i.e. she's a peasant -- a peasant hungry for a new life outside the boring routine of a small village.

There's that same brusque, flippant, smart, hard edge I've found elsewhere in the young Chinese women of a certain generation -- of both fiction and personal acquaintance.

I don't know that this novella takes us anywhere beneath that sometimes grating edge (how many times did I really need to hear her swear "Heavenly bastard in the sky") - but I guess one needs that edge to survive alone and poor in a great city.

And yes, she does survive -- the abusive boyfriend, the career disappointments, the roach infested hovels. She gets the education she needs and eventually she can sell her dreams (as a script writer). It's an Horatio Alger story -- where hard work, determination, and a relentless ambition to succeed on her own is eventually rewarded.

But we do wonder -- just where she's going to go --once she has gotten the career that can take her anywhere. What will she dream when she can dream whatever she wants ? Will she then become disillusioned - like one of her fictional characters -- now that she can smell the South China Sea ? She is so totally alone - more so than ever at the end of the story - as, for one reason or another, she breaks from the three men in her life (and she doesn't have any women friends)

Hao An, the hero she created for the screenplay that gives her a big break to begin her career, has a rather empty life. He's a relentless, small-time entrepreneur - who becomes attached to no one --other than a cheap whore who dies before he ever touches her.


Small details I'll remember:

*not being able to find any place with clean floors and good air-conditioning in Beijing -besides the McDonalds

*Being so poor that the only contents of her sugar bowl are the two cockroaches who have starved to death.

*Her American boyfriend who is too self-sufficient. (most of the women in the Chinese stories I've been following, fiction or non fiction, end up with an American (or English) boyfriend.)

*The 3rd-rate film director -- who is both thoroughly repulsive, morally and physically - and completely understandable.

*The sadness of the body --not just the heart - for the lost lover --and how those feelings remain, despite the tough, cynical attitudes.

*The importance, in China, of knowing a person's age -- and thereby knowing the kind of life they've had (as the world changes so much from generation to generation). But this is also true of Americans -- which leads to another idea expressed by one of the characters, that Beijing is more American than America.

*How thoughtful the reviews on Amazon were. Careful readers really liked this book -and I liked how one of them wrote : "a story in containing, under its brief, chatty surface, an enormous world"