Book Reviews   Leave a comment

Lord knows it’s been a long time since I’ve done any sort of update on this thing, so I figured I’d take a few minutes and write some reviews of the books I’ve read over the past few months. I’ll be using a 1-5 stars scale:

1 star equals a book that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. If it’s in your bathroom, save the toilet paper for a special occasion.

2 stars equals a “pulp” book. Nothing fancy, nothing inherently interesting or provocative, but not a complete waste of time either.

3 stars equals a story of above average quality. Reading the book will embed a scene or dialogue into your subconscious, or plant ideas which will be batted around in your skull for some time to come.

4 stars equals an epic maturing into true literature. You will not be able to look at things going forward the same way you did in the past. Having read this, I think other’s reading of it would impact their lives and thoughts in a meaningful way.

5 stars equals a true masterpiece of literature. This story is of such quality that it should entitle its author to being enshrined as one of the great artists of human history. You do yourself a disservice by not reading this work if otherwise you have the time to do so.

Anyway, onward with the reviews!

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas Gandhi

I had such high hopes for what I might learn by getting the story from the horse’s mouth. As you may or may not remember, I practiced a year of vegetarianism as a result of being moved by the Gandhi-led independence movement in India. As a result, I was hoping that I would find some interesting or compelling ideas in one of his autobiographies. Instead, perhaps quite fairly, the saintliness of the man was compromised and the human contradictions shone through. One of the ideas voiced in the book relates his inherent distrust for Christianity and Jesus… much as he admires Jesus the man, he can’t fathom the man’s divinity if his creed allows for short-changing the animals of God’s creation the same Christian love typically reserved only for our Fellow Man. He thinks it a sin against God to murder one of his creatures for any reason, adding pain to an already abundantly stocked universe, when such easy food abounds in nuts, grains, fruit, etc.

However, my respect for Gandhi the man took a great hit as I delved through the book. One thing that seems a constant is his bullying of his wife. Being from a completely different culture, I can’t in fairness comment on their marriage in terms of marriages of his peers, but one thing seems to be absolutely clear through the reading; he is spiritually “possessed” early in the marriage, whereas his wife is more grounded in her expectations for the relationship… she’s happy with children, amenities, and money for food and other things the household needs. He relates several vicious arguments they had that amount to him giving away the family’s possessions (and, in her eyes, many things which would be essential to the family if he suddenly died), and Gandhi bulldozing over her objections and doing what he wanted to anyway. Reading the book, you understand his actions based on his evolving ethics at the time, but you can’t help but feel that he’s being a complete prick solely to ease his own ability to sleep peacefully at night.

The most egregious of his sins, if I might be allowed to use the term, comes from a chapter late in the book where his wife suddenly and violently takes ill. For a long (but, to my memory, undefined) period of time, his wife is so sick that she cannot keep food down for longer than a few minutes, at which point she quickly spews it back out. After trying to work with their vegetarian beliefs, the doctors arrive at the point where they think further lack of food will kill her. They plead with Gandhi to allow them to administer to her beef broth, which she’d be able to keep down and draw some nourishment. However, Gandhi being the vegetarian extremist he is, decides that he’d rather sacrifice his wife that break his family decree. “God will keep her safe.” She survives, and after the fact said she agreed with his position, but considering how little her voice was heard in other arguments, I have the feeling it’s more of a going-along-to-get-along type of decision.

So, in the end, the book was at least an interesting and at times thought-provoking read. I would have liked it more if it had actually dealt more deeply with the social protests in South Africa and India, but he didn’t want to retread on ground he’d already broke in other books.

4 Stars (with the added caveat that, had I read it sooner, I’d have abandoned my vegetarianism sooner rather than ride it out for a year)

The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Now this was a fun book to read.

Nelson Mandela was born into the extended family of a royal tribal household. Due to his birth order, his destiny from birth is to be trained, educated, and once mature, to give reasonable and excellent advice to kings. As a result, his family gives him a fairly long leash in his boyhood to better develop his social skills and remember the roots of his people when he’s called to offer advice about them.

Not to delve too deeply into his young biography, which is an essential background to the man he later becomes, but the story becomes really interesting when he sees the discrimination of blacks in Johannesburg and is so irritated by it that he joins the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela is a rare figure in South Africa at this time, because he’s a black man who’s been trained as a lawyer and accepted to the bar (his kingly uncle pulled strings to get him accepted to a university). As a lawyer, the fact that he’s black lets the people at large trust him more than they ever would a white lawyer, and the fact that he performed many cases pro bono when possible allowed him to meet a wide variety of people who are suffering all kinds of indignities due to their race during apartheid. As Mandela becomes more familiar with the widespread corruption and injustice of the regime, his work with the ANC moves from being mostly peaceful protesting to ever-increasing outright militancy after the State ruthlessly massacres several peaceful strikes throughout South Africa.

The State eventually succeeds in nabbing Mandela and subjecting him to trials prior to throwing him into prison. These trials and his time in prison were, for me, by far the most interesting points in his story. I was enthralled by the game being played between the ANC political prisoners, and the State — the State would do all sorts of underhanded tactics leading up to the trial, such as bugging their lawyers offices and such. Mandela and friends knew their rooms were bugged, so would prepare elaborate bogus defenses for the benefit of their listeners while preparing their real defense in secret on hand-written messages passed between friends. Then, the trial would come, and the prosecution would be caught flat-footed by a complete reversal of the defense strategy they were expecting!

But, fun as that was (and Mandela does seem to have a lot of fun speculating how many hours the prosecution wasted preparing for a defense which never happened), you can’t win in a court stacked with bought judges.

The time at Robben Island seems unfathomable. 19 years in a prison where you’re exposed to frigid ocean breezes, forced to quarry rocks (with a quota, lest you be beaten!), and guards who are often sadistic racists. Somehow, through sheer force of will and some lucky breaks, Mandela still manages to organize with his fellow ANC prisoners to affect change within the prison and in the ANC proper (still located well away on the mainland, and also largely driven underground by an extensive surveillance state). He’s able to get a government official (who came on a surprise inspection) to replace a particularly brutal guard, able to end the quarry quotas, and get real blankets for the inmates (albeit after more than a decade of trying). He was also able to establish a small correspondence school library for some of the inmates. Despite his successes here and there, the prison time almost destroys him — in his 19 years at Robben, I believe he was able to see his wife around five times, and each visit lasted no more than twenty minutes (and the guards would never say, “two minutes left!” They would simply whisk his wife away the second the twenty minutes was up, a point which he seemed very bitter about). The island, by design, is cut-off from the events going on in South Africa, and newspapers of any sort are considered extreme contraband by the guards, resulting in long periods where Mandela has no idea what’s going on in the world.

But, despite the trials, literal and figurative, he’s slowly reintroduced back into South African society. As the South African government’s world standing begins to disintegrate due to apartheid, they pull Mandela out of Robben Island and put him in a more palatial jail back on the mainland. This situation lasts for a few years more, but during the interim he’s able to get re-acquainted with ANC leadership as well as local and world events. The day finally comes where he’s released from prison and starts working toward suffrage for his fellow black South Africans, with the sometimes helping hand of de Klerk.

Excellent, excellent stuff here. Mandela led an interesting life, and his autobiography highlights only a small but great portion of it. In having read it, I was struck yet again how often great leaders tend to be able to look past insults offered them, look beyond the petty fighting of today, and work toward making a different tomorrow. Lincoln, Gandhi, and Mandela all seem to share this trait, and it constantly amazes me how this ability grants them a unique window in which to make their move, which they invariably do.

4 stars

Falling Leaves and A Thousand Pieces of Gold by Adeline Yen Mah

A Thousand Pieces of Gold is a proverbial history of China. I came across it while I was walking through the University of Scranton campus on a late summer day. The library was having an end of the season book sale, and I saw it on the cart. It seemed interesting enough, so I picked it up (I believe it ran me a dollar).

The book deals with Chinese history by explaining some of its “foundation” proverbs by putting them into context. As one might expect, in a country with a history and culture as dated as China’s, their lexicon has adopted a great deal of pithy remarks which drive home decisive meanings. According to the author, it’s considered a mark of great erudition in Chinese culture to be able to succinctly drop a proverb at the right time. This book seeks to put forward a proverb, and then expounds on its unique meaning by going into Chinese history and elaborating on its origin story. However, the author often intersperses the historical account with a story from her own childhood, and how the proverb came up in her affairs growing up (more on this later).

The history is interesting, and some of the proverbs certainly have their English counterparts, and I’ll provide a handful after I give this book its rating, as the main focus of this particular review is Falling Leaves.

A Thousand Pieces of Gold gets 3 stars from me. It’s an easy read about a topic about which I know almost nothing, and it has some neat phrases to put into your lexicon.

“Yi zi qian jin” — One written word is worth a thousand pieces of gold — aka, Five Stars

“Ren xin nan ce” — The human heart is difficult to fathom — no doubt!

“Luo ye gui gen” — Falling leaves return to their roots — typically used to say that children age and then return home

I was wandering the library one day and couldn’t decide what to pick up. As it happened, I had recently finished A Thousand Pieces of Gold and decided now would be as good a time as any to try out Falling Leaves. Whereas Gold only tangentially touched on Yen Mah’s life, Falling Leaves is her true autobiography. Before going further, I wish to state, unequivocally, that if you ever feel that your family life sucks, or that no has it as bad as you, that no family can be as fucked up as yours, pull your head out of your ass and open Falling Leaves . The tagline to this book is, The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter.

Adeline was born in Tianjin, China, in 1937. In China, it’s tough enough being born female, but Adeline had the added luck of having her mother die in childbirth, which marks her as unlucky from there on out. Going forward, you have to admit that there might well be some truth to that! Her father quickly remarried to a fashionable (yet evil) young French/Chinese half-breed. Adeline’s father was a very busy businessman, who co-ran his father’s import/export business with his father. In short, as the war progresses Adeline’s grandfather signs his share of the business over to his son in order to avoid being killed by Japanese thugs. After the war, his son refuses to let him back in as co-owner, and instead gives his father a living allowance.

However, Adeline’s father considers the actually handling of family money to be somewhat beneath him, so he entrusts the money to his new wife to distribute. She does so quite willingly, only asking that her brother-in-law humiliate himself before her every time he needs money. He doesn’t, and quickly becomes something of a pauper.

So, enter Adeline. She has three older brothers and one older sister (from her true mother) and one younger brother and sister from her new mother. The father’s business is quite profitable, and he’s considered a pillar of the community, which is to say that the family is rather well off. Now, there’s a great schism and power struggle in this house, where the youngest children are given every special treatment, culminating in a completely separate floor of the house just for them. The rest of the children are left to fend for themselves, and quickly learn that any sleight against the youngest children will be punished severely… whereas anything done to Adeline will not even be noticed. So she is the constant whipping girl of the house, the one person for whom no punishment is too severe or no injustice too callous to be inflicted upon.

Adeline’s grandfather bought her and her brothers and sisters pet ducklings. One day, after her father’s German Shepherd finished his dog training, he wanted to demonstrate to the family how well-behaved his dog had become. He told his son to fetch a duckling for the demonstration. His son fetched Adeline’s duckling. The father put the duckling a short distance from his German Shepherd. Within a moment the duckling received a fatal wound, and Adeline was left with nothing — no solace from her father, nothing from her step-mother, and I believe her brother kicked her several times for crying in a hallway.

The only support her family offers her comes from her aunt and grandfather. Both of them have been marginalized by her step-mother, and while they themselves have little material comforts to offer, they do give her the support and love she needs to get through the first few years. They become something akin to tutors to her ( A Thousand Pieces of Gold was inspired by his tutoring her in the Chinese proverbs, as well as his hobby of writing them in calligraphy) and she learns that, while she can control little else in her family life, she can absolutely dominate in school if she works it hard enough.

So, she does well at school, only to her aunt and Grandfather’s enjoyment. However, it is around this time that world events catch up to her, and she’s separated from her aunt and grandfather by the Communist Revolution, which forces her family to migrate to Hong Kong. Through some tenacity on her part, she’s able to convince her father to put her up at a Christian boarding school, where she is quickly thought to be an orphan by staff as no one ever visits her. She catches her big break when, over a Christmas holiday where she’s the only person left on campus, she sees an ad to write a play for non-native-English speakers. As she has nothing else to do, she writes it and sends it on its way.

Many months later, at which point she’d more or less forgotten about it, she discovers she won first prize. This event gets her published in the papers, which gives her father a lot of “face” among the community, which in turn forces him to think about his daughter’s future. He decides to send her to medical school in London.

At this point I’ll trim much of the synopsis going forward. Suffice it to say, she’s betrayed by her one “good brother” who decides he’ll never get any family inheritance if he stays on good relations with her. Her sister, who quit school and lived in Communist China, begs and pleads for her help getting her children to America (where Adeline had come to settle), which Adeline agrees to, later learning that her sister was learning secrets through her kids and then undermining her to the rest of the family. It culminates when the father gets Alzheimer’s, and their step-mother succeeds in refurbishing the will so none of the children get anything but a pittance (including her own, which by this point realized she was scum and disowned her long before).

Now, Falling Leaves is typically not the sort of story I’d opt to read (as I tend to stick to non-fiction). However, it must be said that this is an eye-opening autobiography — while there is little to commend her family life, you have to admire the sheer tenacity to keep going. It would have been very easy to say, “fuck it!” and end it in her situation, but she didn’t, and in the end she met a guy who supported her and apparently makes her life worth all the bullshit she went through prior. Also, it is an interesting insight to how Chinese politics disintegrated her family (as well, I’d assume, many millions of others).

4 stars.

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Posted January 20, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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