Friday, July 13, 2018

Pearl Buck - Pavilion of Women

Publisher: The John Day Company
Year: 1946
Author: Pearl S. Buck
Title: Pavilion of Women

My reading spree of Asia based novels continues with Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women.  I have read a few books of hers. The Good Earth, of course, it was very good. I read it very long back and have only a couple of memories of it. Peony was about the life of a concubine in a big house.

Pearl Buck's parents were missionaries and she lived for many years in China. It gave her a ringside view to the society and customs of the country. She has written about China (and other Asian countries) in times when people had very little knowledge of what went on there. I am sure her novels were seen as quaint and informative.

In the current times, we have a wealth of literature from all countries of the world. Written by native authors as well as foreign ones. Even if we do not want to read novels about other cultures we can read about the history and geography of any country that we want. All we need is inclination and time.

Coming back to this novel, the plot was unusual for its times. Ailien Wu has just turned forty. She has been married to Mr. Wu for the past 25 years. She has four living sons. Her long standing wish is to retire from married life. She does not want any more sexual attentions from her husband. To fulfill this, she sets out to seek a concubine for her husband. This is such an unusual move that everyone around her is aghast. Her best friend, Meichen Wang cannot fathom it and accuses her of not loving her husband. But Ailien is implacable. Her excuse is that she does not want the shame of a late pregnancy.

Secretly, Ailien feels suffocated by her role as the head of a large household. The Wu family is the most important in their area. In fact, even in far off places, her family is well known and respected. She has been bearing this burden, unflaggingly, for a long time. Now she wishes to call her time her own, her nights undisturbed by her husband.  She cannot forgo the duties of looking after the household or travel, but she can withdraw from her husband and active social life.

She finds that the problems of her family keep drawing her back into the fold. The new concubine is too sensitive to enjoy the benefits of living in a large, rich household. Her eldest son is happily married and bearing children but her other sons are impatient and unhappy. She has to find a bride for her third son. Even though she has withdrawn from life, she finds herself pulling strings and meddling in everyone's life.

It is the arrival of Father Andre in their midst that changes things for Ailien. At first she is rather wary of the Priest, afraid he will try to convert them. She finds he is merely a very spiritual and a wise person and wants the best for all human beings. He teaches her the right way to let go of the world. She learns this and as is customary, loses something for the knowledge she has gained.

The inner journey of Madame Ailien Wu aside, the novel seems rather hastily put together. There are many events that seem to be there merely for wrapping up the story. I cannot reveal them without spoiling the story.

Pearl Buck is supposed to have churned out many books on similar themes. Readers who have read many of her books will perhaps start recognizing the similarities. On its own the novel is a pretty good read but I expected something more from a Nobel Prize winner; more literary merit for one, which seems rather lacking here. There is no mention at all of the political turmoil that China faced in the late 1880s and early 1900s. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Margaret Drabble - The Red Queen

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Margaret Drabble
Author: The Red Queen

It is a coincidence that my post on Lady Hyegyong's Memoirs directly precedes the review of this book. I have read other books in the meantime; I wasn't able to write about them as I was traveling back to my home and struggling to get the house back on track after a long absence.

I came across this book when I was looking for Lady Hyegyong's memoirs. I set the book aside as it was available only as a paperback in India.  After I was relaxing after setting my house back in order, I ordered the book.

The first part of the book is titled "Ancient Times". In this part we get a chronological order of Lady Hyegyong's life. I say 'chronological order' because her diary touches on important events according the person she is addressing. When she is writing for her nephew, she touches on her early life and barely mentions 'that event', the death of her husband Prince Sado. When she writes for her son, King Jeonjo her narrative is different and she touches on events that are of importance to that era. She opens up about her husband only in the last part   Here, Margaret Drabble summarizes Hyegyong's life in correct order.

In the second part of the book we meet Babs Halliwall who is on her way to South Korea for a conference. She has packed some books to read, among them Lady Hong's (Hyegyong) memoirs which was a mysterious gift received from Amazon. She never really tracks who this gift is from. Reading the book on her flight, she is struck by the story and decides to visit the palace and the tomb of the queen.

Once she is at the conference she finds there are a lot of people who know about Lady Hong and are willing to help her visit the places the Crown Princess lived in. She also talks to the star of the conference, Jan Van Jost about the Crown Prince Sado and the memoirs of his wife. Jan Van Jost is equally captivated with the story and accompanies Babs on her pilgrimage to the Palaces.

The story of Babs and Jan obstructs the story of the Crown Princess which was supposed to dominate this book.  The tale tells us how memory travels, how books are adopted by various agents to make it more popular.  Yet the story of Crown Princess does not travel enough for us to get a sense of that.  Most people Babs meets in Korea already know about it.  She conveys it to Jan and later to another companion. It does not merit the effort the 'ghost' of Lady Hyegyong puts in to popularize her story.

Also the 'ghost' talks of parallels she has found in stories of other queens, a perspective she gains after she becomes a ghost and was able to access the information, interrupts the narrative.  Korea is merely a destination for Babs and never really comes alive, her visits to the Palace are desultory and not given enough mention.  It is Babs own story with Jan Van Jost that claims all the attention.

As for me, I was drawn to the story of Prince Sado after watching a South Korean historical TV series that featured King Jeonjo. He talked about his father Prince Sado and that set me off on some research about the unfortunate fellow. Subsequent viewings of Korean TV series based on the Kings who were Sado's predecessors and successors have honed my interest and knowledge. There is no evidence of such a wealth of information in the book.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lady Hyegyong - The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong

Publisher: University of California Press
Author: Lady Hyegyong
Title: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong
Translator: JaHyun Kim Haboush

I was reading one of my earlier posts today about Amanat's Inder Sabha where I talked about references in popular (mass appeal) art which often led to some classical works. This book is another case that supports that theory.

I have lately become addicted to watching Korean Series also known as K-Drama. They are unabashedly mainstream, depending on trusted tropes and situations. Their aim is to garner TRP's while constantly trying to gauge ways to please audiences. One such K-drama that I liked was Sungkyunkwan Scandal that was based in the times of King Jeongjo of Joseon Dynasty. Towards the end of the series things turned very political with the King wanting to find a poem written by his grandfather citing his regret over being forced to kill his own son.

I could not understand these references, hence I googled a little and came across a horrific incident that took place in those times.  King Yeongjo (Jeongjo's grandfather) had put to death his son Prince Sado by asking him to climb into a rice chest (a box that was about 4'x4'x4') and sealing it till he died a few days later. He was eliminated by such means because he could not be killed as he was a royal. If he had been disowned, his wife and child would also have been disinherited, or worse, killed.  Sado was asked to do this as he was mentally unstable and frequently killed people.  The information also listed that his wife, Lady Hyegyong wrote memoirs which described this incident in full detail.

Ever since, I had wanted to read these memoirs. Scribd.  thankfully had a copy. The memoirs are divided into 4 different years. The first few chapters are about the birth and life of Lady Hyegyong, how she was brought up by her virtuous parents, how she was selected to be the wife of Prince Sado. Later we read about various conspiracies that Lady Hyegyong's family members faced. The conspiracy part was rather tedious, frankly. Till now she spoke of the killing of Prince Sado indirectly, referring to it as 'that incident'. I thought that was all we were going to get. In the last chapter, after the death of her son King Jeongjo, she decided to write all about Prince Sado and what led to his end in full detail. This was because there were various erroneous opinion that she wanted to correct.

With admirable emotional restraint but with candor, she talks about Sado. How his father neglected him initially, keeping him away from positive parental influence and isolated among inferior maids and eunuchs. Later, as unsavory traits began building up in Sado, his father heaped scorn upon him, not caring to understand him or correct him. Things escalated to the extent that Sado became quite deranged. At one point Lady Hyegyong wished her husband had died of an illness rather that being forced to do away with himself. It was particularly touching to read this part. We become aware of how deeply she felt about seeing her husband being thus punished and the repercussions she faced all her life due to it.

It the the final chapter and the early one about Lady Hyegyong's life that are priceless. I can imagine what a rich source these memoirs were for historical scholars.

The translation by JaHyun Kim Haboush is truly excellent. At no point does the language rankle or seem inappropriate to the era. Lady Hyegyong wrote in Hangul and I am sure her language was courtly and formal, as befits a woman who tragically missed being a Queen. The same formal tone is conveyed in English. One can feel the loftiness of the original prose. Even while I was a little bored by the dull patches in the memoirs I never ceased being appreciative of the translation.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Philip Roth - Goodbye Columbus

Publisher: Houghton Miffin
Author: Philip Roth
Title: Goodbye Columbus

I read this book long back, in the late 1980s or early 1990's. I don't remember where I acquired a dog eared copy of this book. It was a big favorite of mine and I re-read the title story many times. In those days I read what I liked without trying to deconstruct why. I am like that still, at times, but writing many reviews had made me think more deeply about what impresses me about the book.

The book contains, besides the title novella, five short stories. But I will be talking only about the novella.

I revisited this book a few days ago to refresh my memory. It was like revisiting a much loved place. Neil Klugman lives in a middle class household in Newark. One day he meets Brenda Patimkin at an uppity club that his rich cousin has invited him to. He fancies Brenda and calls her up. They start meeting and Brenda seems to like him back. Her father is the owner of Patimkin Sinks and is very rich.

There is a divide between them despite them both being Jews. Brenda goes to a fancy college in Boston and Neil is a librarian at Newark library.  Can their summer romance survive the class difference.

The novella is full of details about the lives of Klugmans and Patimkins. Neil's aunt is obsessed about feeding different members of the family and remarks every time Neil incurs any cost. Brenda's mother also disapproves of Neil. Brenda also does not get along with her mother. The various uncles of Brenda slap Neil on the back and ask him to play his cards well with Brenda to be prosperous.

This young romance reminded me of Erich Segal's Love Story. That was a book about a WASP upper class boy who falls in love with a pretty not too rich Latino girl. In Goodbye Columbus the role is reversed and the shadow on the couple is not caused by ill health. In a way, Goodbye Columbus is like a more realistic Love Story. I adore Love Story but will admit that it is a mushy romance at its heart.

This comparison was brought even more sharply into focus for me when I found out that the film version of Goodbye Columbus had Ali McGraw in the lead role. She is the sweet, pert and witty Jenny in Love Story.  Brenda of Goodbye Columbus is not sweet, she knows the class divide between her and Neil and uses it to rile her mother. In Love Story Jenny accuses Oliver of liking her because of her middle class, non-white background. Brenda and Neil are also drawn to each other because of the gulf between them. For Neil, Brenda is a glimpse into a better life, and Brenda wants to show her independence by being with him.

It is a short novella, again like Love Story, but packs a lot more into it.  It cannot be read just as a summer romance.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Kevin Kwan - Crazy Rich Asians

Publisher: Anchor
Author: Kevin Kwan
Title: Crazy Rich Asians

The books starts with a Chinese family who walk in the rain to their hotel, Carltons, one of the poshest hotels in London. The manager takes one look at the bedraggled orientals in his reception and refuses them entry. The lady heading the group protests that they made confirmed reservations long ago, but are turned away. In desperation, she calls her husband in Singapore. A few minutes later, the group returns to the reception. The manager is irritated to see them back. That's when he spies the owner of the hotel with them and snaps to attention. Apparently, the lady's family has just bought the hotel. The first thing she does is to give the racist manager his marching orders.

The book starts with this anecdote to illustrate how rich some Asians can be.  Their daughters buy up couture collection before it is displayed. They buy jewelry, bags and shoes without inquiring the price. All this entitlement does not come cheap. The scions of these families have to toe the family line rigidly. They have to be good at studies, marry appropriately and multiply to please their families.

Then Nicholas Young throws a spanner in the works of his family by falling for an almost ABC (American Born Chinese) who has no background, no family to speak of. What of her education, intelligence and beauty - these are useless matters. Young's family gets together to break them up. It results in much fun and much heart break. But before that, we get an up close and personal look at how the Singaporean Chinese Crazy Rich families live.

The book was a fun ride. Designer Label names were thrown about recklessly. But it was not merely candy floss. We get a close look at how the high society of Singapore behaves. What a tight rope they walk. There are ones among them for whom the exercise is a cake walk. They were to the manner born, their wealth goes back for generations and their place in the society is decreed. There are others who have the money but not lineage. They are left scrabbling for power and position.  It is this 360 degree view of their society that makes the book such a compelling read.

Crazy Rich Asians has been made into a movie as well. It is garnering buzz. I took a look at the trailer and there seemed to be some departures from the book. I am hoping the movie is as much of a fun as the book was. There are two sequels to the book called China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems.

When I was in the middle of the book I realised why I was enjoying the book so much. It was because the plot was so similar to many Korean Series that I have watched and loved. Dirt Rich Korean boy falling for dirt poor girl. No wonder I felt so at home. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kamila Shamsie - Salt and Saffron

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: Salt and Saffron

Scribd threw up this book among a recommended reading shelf, based on my past choices. The name was intriguing and I picked up the book (i.e., opened the pages on the app) and dived right into the book. It was such a page turner that I was deep into the book before I realized that I had not saved it in my books. Easily remedied, as the name of the book was so catchy, I could not forget it if I wanted to.

Aliya is a compulsive teller of stories. She spends a long flight from USA to London captivating her fellow passengers with stories of her family. Her co-passenger Khaleel is impressed and just as they are getting to know each other better Aliya realizes he is from the wrong side of tracks.  She is a scion of a nawabi family that traces its roots back to Taimur the lame.  Also, she is drawn into the affairs of her family. Something terrible happened in her family because of which one of her aunts was ostracized.  Aliya had a falling out with her grandmother which is another issue that is rankling the family members.

Aliya finds herself confronting the history of her clan in a effort to understand the happenings of the present.  The story of Dard-e-dil, Aliya's nawabi family, has been handed down from generation to generation. They collaborated with Babur and later even tried to collaborate with the British, in order to maintain their independence. But Partition of India finally drove a wedge between the family and they were likewise divided. The how's and why's of this division form the backbone of this story.

I loved the easy telling of all the clannish tales.  All big families have stories that ultimately become legends, some embellished as they go along. It is all a part of our past when we had no other means of entertainment but telling of things. Here too there were numerous stories regarding encounters of various family members with household lizards. The story of the rift between three brothers who headed the family at the time of partition was likewise distorted and embellished in retelling.

The language finds the right balance between being faultless and mixed with just the right amount of vernacular to give it a desi feel. The exchanges between various characters are witty and replete with humor. It is like a more serious Moni Mohsin. Despite the light touch, the book addresses class divide which is the bane of all societies. Any book that harks back to the 1940s has to deal with the trauma of partition in this subcontinent.  As the migrants here were Nawabs, they did not steal across the border hiding in trains, having lost all their worldly possessions; they were taken across with an army convoy guarding them.

There are several reveals at strategic places in the novel. The problem of the ostracized aunt, Miriam is explained soon enough. The problem between Aliya and her Grandmother is also described in due time. The piece de resistance is the story of the triplet brothers in the 1940s. The story is good enough, but I was slightly disappointed that the story came from the lips of some characters. Surely a story that was so distorted needed to be found with more difficulty.  However, it is a minor dissonance, most of it in my mind, my opinion as a reader. The rest of the book is a delight and Kamila Shamsie is a find for me. An author whose works I will read with pleasure from now on.

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