Saturday, August 9, 2014

It's a Rainbow of Reading

Hey y'all.  So I figured I might as well talk about some of the stuff I read that I don't necessarily feel I should go into depth about and write a full nitpickery.  Generally, nonfiction.  Nonfiction works, when they make mistakes, tend to make simple, over-arcing errors that affect the entire narrative, rather than lots of several little mistakes (when the errors aren't factual in nature).  Probably because they don't have to make up the stories they're telling.

One of the books I've been reading is Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.  I picked up this book because of another I briefly got a glance at, one which claimed wild, factually inaccurate things about writers' histories.  The Charles Dickens fantasy was admittedly very interesting, so I figured I'd read the real story. And that's when I found out the first book was crap.

This book is okay.  It's better early on, when Tomalin isn't talking about Dickens' books.  Sure, much of what we know about Charles Dickens hasn't survived (he burned a lot of his letters at one point), but she holds Dickens at arm's length, tracing more his movements from place to place rather than telling us about him the man.  She also spends an absurd amount of time going over Dickens' books, and what each of the characters mean to him as a person.  That's not a good thing to do unless she knows for certain that Dickens would make that comparison himself.  Otherwise it's just Tomalin making assertions, and it's a pet peeve of mine when biographers always assume that characters in books resemble too closely the people around the writer.

It's not all that bad a biography, though.  I read one on Winston Churchill that was far worse.  That one was written by Roy Jenkins, and was filled more with his ramblings on Churchill's time period than what Churchill himself did.  Claire Tomalin at least makes Dickens a more memorable figure, by emphasizing certain events in his life so that the narrative is centered around him, not everything around him.  That's important in a biography.

To be honest, my interest waned.  Primarily because Dickens is kind of a scumbag.  He's a selfish, easily excitable philanderer whose ego is as fragile as glass.  Sure, he's a bit contradictory, as he cared about the poor and once had a home for reforming prostitutes, but given that it's possible he later solicited prostitutes himself, it's hard to really understand the guy.  It seems more like he started out an idealistic person, but his years of dealing with his father's debt, marrying a woman just for her body, and then having several children by her in the twenty-two years they were together. Not only did he just want three kids, he wanted daughters more than sons, the latter of which his wife provided many.

The book does seem to be well researched, and the part at the beginning which lists brief summaries of him and his relatives is especially helpful.  It's a pretty good book if you want to get a summary of Dickens' life, but there might be better ones for getting more specific information about certain events in his life.   I can recommend it, though.  It's pretty solid.

Speaking of older books, I also read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  It's very Victorian, and my favorite thing about it is that it emphasizes the duty of a princess, rather than the idea of a princess being someone who is pampered and useless.  I've read it before, but one night I figured I might just read it again. It's a very nice fairy tale, pretty comparable to a Cinderella story, just without romance.

It's the story of Sarah Crewe, the strange daughter of a rich man living in India.  He brings her to London to be educated, leaving her in a boarding school.  There, Sarah has to put up with jealous students and a bitter headmistress, but quickly makes friends with Becky the servant girl, Ermenguarde the dunce, and a whiny four year old that has no mother.  Sarah later finds out, on her birthday no less, that her father has died and left her penniless.  With no place to go, Sarah is left as a servant for the boarding school, where she has to work hard and eat little.  Sarah constantly pretends she is a princess in exile, despite being hungry and mistreated.  Her only hope is her father's old friend, who is searching for her but doesn't know where she is.

This isn't a perfect book.  It keeps repeating Sarah's looks in the beginning, mentioning how she isn't a conventional beauty because of her grey eyes and dark hair.  Also, the theme of being a princess is repeated too often.  From a grown up perspective, anyway.  Probably a kid wouldn't notice so much.  The main problem of the book is that there's just too much foreshadowing.  We're told too early what's going to happen next.  For example, Sarah's father's death is foreshadowed by Sarah's early comment that she doesn't know if she's a good person because she hasn't been tested.  The sting of Sarah giving hot buns to a girl even poorer than her is spoiled by her talking about it before buying the buns, when it would be more of a shocker if she noticed the homeless girl after coming outside.  Mr. Crewe's friend is also mentioned too early, and the reader spends several pages just waiting for him to realize that Sarah lives right next door.

None of these things are dealbreakers, and allowing the reader to know something the characters don't in this manner is a good way of forming suspense in children's literature.  All the same, this book really is indulgent fantasy.  Sarah, the good girl, goes through hard times and comes out a princess in the end, both almost literally by gaining another fortune, and figuratively by her strong personality.  She gets good clothing, servants, a monkey, and the chance to donate money to help the homeless.  Not to mention that she ultimately wins over everyone who mistreated her.

I still recommend it, though.  It's a good way to get little girls to see an alternate perspective from all those selfish brats they show in movies nowadays.  It's probably not the best book for guys, but they won't lose their minds over it.

Another book I've read is Wild Swans, by Jung Chang.  It's the biography of three generations of Chinese women, as written by the last of these three.  Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday had written Mao: The Untold Story, and that is perhaps the single best biography I've ever read.  Not that I've read a lot, but it was well-researched, the authors dodged speculation, and they presented Mao in an informative and interesting way.

So when I got Wild Swans, I was expecting to learn a bit more about Communist China.  Well, the book is really just more of a straightforward biography, which is fine because there are hardly three more generations with a better story to tell.  Yu Fang, the first woman and grandmother of the author, was a traditional Chinese woman, complete with foot-binding and being sold off as a concubine.  She ended up having a daughter, Bao Qin, but was otherwise mostly estranged from her far older husband and set up in her own little cottage far away from the rest of his wives and concubines.  She almost ended up being forced to live with these other women and having her child taken away by the first wife, but a sympathizing concubine (the only other woman to provide their husband with a child) helped Yu Fang escape.  Yu Fang kind of had a happy ending, as she married an intelligent doctor who was captivated by her beauty.

I say kind of, because in addition to issues with the doctor's family, the communist period of China was beginning.  Bao Qin, Yu Fang's daughter, was perhaps the most unfortunate of the three protagonists.  She became a member of the communist party.  Due to her uber-loyal husband (and her own, but mostly his), she ended up sacrificing not only tradition, but also children for the cause.  Long marches and secret operations led to miscarriages in some of her pregnancies (apparently a common occurrence for communist women of the period).  This kind of fanatical loyalty did benefit Bao Qin and her surviving children by allowing them to survive the worst part of the Great Leap Forward, but she didn't escape the false accusations and torments of the period entirely.

It's actually Jung Chang's segment of the story that's the most disappointing.  Sure, the book does a good job of describing her early life, but later on it feels like there were things Chang wasn't willing to talk about. That's fair enough, and her right.  However, I do feel like she could have talked more about coming out of China, and perhaps how she met her husband Jon.  There's no need for too much detail about any of these things, but it would be nice if they were referenced.  Her mother's and grandmother's stories felt complete, but the end of the book feels like it was chopped off abruptly, without bringing the story to a natural ending point.

I do highly recommend Wild Swans.  If you love biographies, than this is the king of them all.  It's got soap-opera-like dramatics, political intrigue, and characters you want to see do well and succeed. And you get to learn about history, to boot.

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