Day 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

* * *

I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

Related Posts

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Delicate Truth

Day 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingBest of Five!
When Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was so popular, I was not a fan. I disliked how the two male college students patronized and abused the girl, even though she won through in the end. I also vaguely felt that the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were being trivialized, even though I was not really sure about the facts. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing confirmed that I was right.

Marie is a young immigrant Chinese girl living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1991. She and her mother are confused and grieved, because after the family escaped from China, her father, Jiang Kai, first deserted them to move to Hong Kong and later committed suicide.

Marie’s mother receives a call from China, from Ling, the wife of Jiang Kai’s beloved teacher, Sparrow. Ling says that her daughter, Ai-Ming, has had to leave China because of involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, but she has missed the amnesty offered by the U.S. Ling asks that they give Ai-Ming a home.

Ai-Ming becomes an older sister to Marie. She tells her stories about her family—her great uncle, Wen the Dreamer, who courted her aunt Swirl with chapters from a forbidden book called the Book of Records; her grandparents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, wandering musicians; and her father Sparrow, a composer of music. Ai-Ming tells of the days of her father, her cousin Jhuli, and Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Shadowing all their lives is the Cultural Revolution and its horrible excesses—murder and exile of intellectuals, forced denunciations of relatives, ransacked homes, humiliation and ruining of the innocent.

At first, I was irritated by the style of Ai-Ming’s story, which feels a little like a fairy tale, but it was not long before I was completely absorbed in it. The novel is a heart-rending tale about identity, music, love, and political destructiveness. This was another excellent book that I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Red Sorghum

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Day 827: Flood of Fire

Cover for Flood of FireBest book of the week!
In the third book of his Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire, Amitav Ghosh slowly draws most of his characters to China during a momentous period in history. The only major character missing from the first book is Deeti, making a home on Mauritius. And of course Bahram Modi, who died at the end of River of Smoke.

It is with the absent characters that we start, in a way, for at the beginning of the novel, Kesri Singh, Deeti’s brother, is unaware of what has happened to her. It is through Kesri that Deeti’s family met her husband, for he was brother to Subedar Nirbhay Singh, the highest-ranking sepoy in the battalion to which Kesri belongs. Kesri is a new character, and we go back in time to learn how Deeti helped him join the battalion and how Kesri, although wary of the character of Deeti’s proposed husband, encouraged the match to further his own ambitions. As those who have been following the series know, that did not turn out well.

Shireem Modi, Bahram’s wife, is finding her life uncomfortable since her husband died. Because his opium was confiscated by the Chinese government, she is left with nothing, dependent upon her own family. But soon her husband’s friend Jadig Karabedian arrives and tries to talk her into traveling to China to represent herself in the opium sellers’ claims against the Chinese government; otherwise, her claim may be disregarded. He also finds it necessary to tell her about Ah Fat, her husband’s illegitimate son.

Zachary Reid has finally been acquitted of blame for the incident on the Ibis but finds himself assessed fees that he cannot pay because his mate’s license has been suspended. He goes to work for the mysterious Mr. Burnham (who, although barely present, seems to affect all the events in the series) restoring a boat. There he is led into a dangerous relationship with Mrs. Burnham.

Neel, the rajah who ended up in prison for his father’s debts because of Mr. Burnham’s desire for his property, is still in China working at an English-language press. As the British Empire draws together a force to invade China, bringing most of the other characters there, Neel begins working for the Chinese government as a translator.

This trilogy clearly depicts Britain, driven by the greed of the opium growers and sellers, as the bully of Asia. Sea of Poppies shows how the Indian farmers were forced to abandon food crops to grow opium poppies, and how then the price of opium was manipulated to make them subsistence farmers. River of Smoke shows British efforts to force the Chinese to import opium, including the lies conveyed back to the British public about the behavior of the emperor. Flood of Fire draws all of our friends back to China to culminate in the First Opium War, when the British stuff opium down the throats of the Chinese.

Overall, I was very satisfied with this series. Ghosh is able to get you completely involved with his characters and is playful and inventive with language. Although I was not happy with the evolution of the character of Zachary Reid from a naive young man to the person he becomes, this is a great series.

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Sea of Poppies

River of Smoke

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Day 816: Literary Wives! The Kitchen God’s Wife

Literary Wives logoToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Cover for The Kitchen God's WifePearl has been keeping a secret from her mother, Winnie. She was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and is trying to avoid the fuss she is sure her mother will make by not telling her as long as she is mobile. She is dismayed, then, to learn that her cousin Mary has told her own mother, Helen, Winnie’s best friend.

At a family engagement party, Helen tells Pearl that she has a brain tumor. She says she’s sure she is going to die and doesn’t want to go keeping secrets, so she will tell Winnie Pearl’s secret unless Pearl does.

When the two women sit down to talk, it turns out Winnie has secrets, too—a whole life before she came to San Francisco from China and another marriage before her marriage to Jimmie Louie. Winnie’s story makes up the bulk of the novel.

Winnie’s unhappy life begins when she is six and her mother leaves. She never finds out what became of her mother, but Winnie herself is banished from her wealthy father’s house to be raised by aunts. In her aunts’ home, she is given a lower status than her cousins. This even applies to her marriage. She acts as a go-between for her cousin Peanut and Peanut’s suitor, Wen Fu, and then is surprised when Wen Fu asks for her own hand. But she learns later that her aunts have deemed Wen Fu’s family not good enough for Peanut.

And they are not good. They strip Winnie of all her possessions and sell them. Once she sees what they are, she manages to hide away a dozen sets of silver chopsticks. Those are the only things she is able to keep. Worse, Wen Fu is physically and sexually brutal. Along with these difficulties and Winnie’s lack of rights are the hardships imposed by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

The difficulties between Winnie and Pearl and those between Winnie and Helen serve as the framing of the story set in the past. It is this story that is most interesting, even though I never really warmed up to Winnie. What I found most interesting in this novel were the ways of thinking and the customs of pre-revolutionary China.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Three marriages are described in this novel, but the most time is that spent on Winnie and Wen Fu. This is a classic abusive relationship, where Wen Fu rapes and terrorizes Winnie, including putting a gun to her head, and Winnie thinks it is her fault. The novel focuses on Winnie’s growth of understanding—that her marriage is different than others’ marriages, that she can stand up for herself by leaving. (Her other attempts to stand up for herself are disastrous.)

There is much less focus on the marriage of Pearl and Phil. We learn that they have tacitly taken the easy way on things, that is, not much confrontation or arguing, partially because of Pearl’s disease. Pearl knows, for example, that Phil disapproves of how easy she is on her girls, but it is important for her to avoid stress. All-in-all, they seem to have a good marriage with the usual minor disagreements, like whether they have to attend her cousin’s engagement party.

The marriage between Winnie and Jimmie is the least explored, as Jimmie is long dead in the present-day story, but it seems to have been a happy one. At the beginning of the novel, Winnie is hurt that Pearl has never seemed to grieve for Jimmy. She doesn’t realize that Pearl’s teenage anger was an expression of her grief. Winnie seems to nearly hero-worship Jimmie, but of course compared to Wen Fu he was an angel.

In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

This is always the hardest question for me, because unless an author is writing an allegory, nothing about a character should define a whole category of people. Maybe we can say here that as a young girl and according to her culture, Winnie believes that a wife is ruled by her husband. She is naive enough about sex to not realize that some of the things Wen Fu wants to do are not normal practices. So, Winnie suffers, I think, because of a lack of rights for women in China at the time but also because of what her culture and upbringing have taught her—and have not taught her.

The title of the novel speaks to this question. The Kitchen God was a man who left his wife for another woman and then lost everything. When he was a poor, sick man, his wife took him in. After his death, he was rewarded for repenting by being made a minor god. Winnie expresses her disgust for the notion that the husband was rewarded for his bad behavior while the wife’s name was not even passed down in the legend. This is a notion she has had to develop as her notions of marriage change and she develops her own ideas of how women should live.

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The Ten Thousand Things

 

Day 758: The Ten Thousand Things

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsIn keeping with my goal to read all of the finalists and winners of the Walter Scott Prize, here is my review of the winner for 2015. The Ten Thousand Things is John Spurling’s novel about a turbulent period in Chinese history. It is written from the point of view of Wang Meng, an actual artist of the time, and inspired by Wang’s paintings of the ten thousand things, all of creation.

This novel is related by Wang from his prison cell, where he chooses to tell about his past in the third person. He has been arrested on charges of conspiracy because he accepted an invitation to view the art collection of the disgraced Chancellor Hu.

Wang’s story begins in a mountain retreat when he is already a grown man. He has resigned his minor government post to pursue his art, although strictly as an amateur. This action has disappointed his more ambitious wife, but she is barely a character in the novel.

China is uneasy under the Yuan dynasty, which is dominated by the Mongols. The Chinese upper class resent the fact that the powerful jobs go to Mongols. Taxes are heavy, and men are restricted to following the professions of their fathers. Wang’s own grandfather, General Meng, was controversial because of having decided to support the Yuan government instead of retiring from his government post as many of his peers did. In Wang’s time, revolts are underway under several different war lords and groups of bandits.

When Wang withdraws to his retreat, he has three fateful encounters. He meets Ni on the way there when he is forced to share a room in an inn. Ni is a great artist whose work affects how Wang views his own. Next, when Wang’s cousin Tao asks him to a nearby village to meet a woman he is thinking of marrying, Wang and Tao are just in time to witness a demand from the Red Scarf Bandits that she marry their chief. When her father asks Wang’s advice, he suggests that she choose for herself. She decides to marry the bandit, and soon becomes a bandit queen named the White Tiger. Finally, Wang meets Zhu, a would-be monk from a nearby monastery who asks Wang to take him as his servant. Wang politely explains he can’t afford to and advises him to join the bandits if he wants to learn about the world. Later, Zhu becomes a powerful war lord and then an emperor.

This novel documents the turbulent period of the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the establishment of the even more repressive, but Chinese-lead, Ming dynasty under the paranoid Emperor Hongwu. It moves a little slowly and is told in a detached way from the point of view of an artist who attempts to stay away from the seats of power. It also spends a good deal of time describing Wang’s paintings. The novel reflects a sophisticated and intellectual culture, although it certainly concentrates its story in the upper realms of this society.

link to NetgalleyI think it was this detached viewpoint that kept me from enjoying the novel more. The subject matter is interesting, as I know little of Chinese history and have long thought it was a ridiculous bias that we didn’t learn any history of the Far East in school except when it intersected with Western history. Yet most of the characters seem only sketchily drawn, and I didn’t fully engage. The novel is said to illustrate the principles of Daoism, but since my brief reading on that subject left me completely clueless, I did not understand in what way the philosophy is reflected, except perhaps in the perceptions of the narrator.

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Day 577: Red Sorghum

Cover for Red SorghumRed Sorghum is absolutely brutal. It tells the story of a Chinese family during the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1939 and a few years thereafter, although there are glimpses of years before and later. I say book, because it is described in some places as a series of novellas and in other places as a novel.

The two main characters are Yu Zhan’ao, the narrator’s grandfather, also known as Commander Yu, and Dai, his grandmother. The narrator’s father Douquan is a less important character. The narrator himself only makes an appearance in the last two pages.

The book begins with an ambush of the Japanese near Black Water River. But nothing here is related in a straightforward manner. The narration moves back and forth in time as Commander Yu’s preparations for the battle alternate with the story of Uncle Arhat’s kidnapping as slave labor for the Japanese and the story of how Yu Zhan’ao meets Dai. There is plenty of violence in all of these stories, and we are not spared any details of guts falling out, decapitated heads, or anything involving bodily functions.

The Chinese are at war through most of the book, of course, but various factions of Chinese fight and kill each other just as viciously. Although Commander Yu wins the battle of Black Water River, almost all of his men are killed when his ally, Detachment Leader Pocky Leng, fails to turn up at the ambush, then steals all of the captured armament.

Earlier in time but later in the book, Grandfather Yu meets Dai on her way to marry a rich man’s son. Her father’s greed has betrothed her to a leper. Yu seduces her on her way back to visit her parents after three days of marriage and then goes off to murder her husband and father-in-law, leaving her a rich widow.

Sometimes the violence in this book is so extreme it is almost funny. People behave grotesquely—they are crude, barbaric, disgusting, venal, and revengeful. Commander Yu is almost more eager to kill Pocky Leng than he is the vicious Japanese, who are nearly cartoonish in their evil.

In between scenes of almost unbelievable brutality are beautiful descriptions of nature, with a strong emphasis on color. Red is consistently a symbol of life and goodness while green is its opposite. Sometimes blood is green instead of red and too the sun can be green. This use of color comes to a focus in the last pages of the novel, where Mo Yan laments the disappearance of the wonderful red sorghum (a major presence in the novel) and excoriates its green hybrid replacement.

I found very little to like in this book. I read it all, but I basically had to force myself to finish it (and beautiful descriptions or not, I got tired of reading about sorghum). I know the book has received a lot of admiration, and I do not exactly agree with the criticism that it glorifies violence, but there is a lot of very graphic violence in the novel.

Day 439: Shanghai Girls

Cover for Shanghai GirlsIn 1937 Shanghai, Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives. Thoroughly westernized and modern girls of a wealthy family, they spend their time shopping, socializing, and having their portraits painted. They are two of the Beautiful Girls, whose images appear on advertisements and giveaway calendars.

Pearl has a slight source of discontent at home, for she feels her parents favor and spoil the more beautiful May. Nevertheless, the girls are inseparable.

They are heedless to the rumblings of trouble, including the changes in their home and in their own father’s voice when he wants to tell them something. Soon he forces them to listen. He has gambled away his fortune and has arranged for his daughters to marry the sons of a wealthy businessman from the United States.

It is not long before they have met and married Sam and Vernon Louie. Sam seems pleasant to Pearl, but Vernon, May’s husband, is only fourteen and never speaks. Their father is stern and humiliates the girls on the morning after the wedding. The men leave to conduct their business and agree to meet the girls in Hong Kong before sailing, but the girls have no intention of going.

All this while there have been other signs of trouble. The Japanese are invading China and working their way toward Shanghai. The girls and their mother are forced to try to make their way to Hong Kong amid the brutality of war. Finally, they have no choice but to flee to America. A lot has already happened to the girls, but there is much more to come.

Shanghai Girls is an absorbing historical novel that examines the treatment to which Chinese immigrants were subjected for decades in the United States. The novel continues until the early 1950’s, when we learn how the Red Scare affected scores of settled Chinese immigrants, many of whom had long lived in America when China was taken over by the Communists.

I wasn’t sure how believable I found the end of the book, but it is clearly the setup to a sequel. Although I missed the delicate writing style of See’s earlier novels, her style here is appropriate for this more modern story. I am not sure I want to follow Pearl’s heedless daughter Joy into danger, but I probably will.

Day 262: River of Smoke

Cover for River of SmokeA month or two ago I reviewed Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s riveting first book in his Ibis trilogy. I have been waiting since then for a good opportunity to post my review of River of Smoke, the second book in the trilogy.

The various passengers and crew members of the Ibis have been separated and now several of them travel toward China on three different ships. Paulette Lambert has been taken on the Redruth by Filcher Penrose, a nursery man for a major botanical garden who hopes to exchange New World plants for those of China. He has hired Paulette, whose father was a renowned botanist, to help take care of the plants.

En route to China with a shipment of opium, the merchant Bahram Moddie, Ah Fat’s father, takes on the disgraced Raja Neel as a munshi, or clerk. Neel travels on the Anahita to Canton in Bahram’s entourage under the name of Anil Kumar.

The Ibis, now containing the owner Benjamin Burnham, is also on the way to Canton.

In Macao, Paulette meets a friend from her childhood, Robin Chinnery, the unacknowledged illegitimate son of a famous painter. As a woman, Paulette is not allowed into Canton. She can only go as far as Hong Kong, then a desolate, almost uninhabited island, where she searches for plants. But Robin goes on to Canton with a mission to try to find out for her and Penrose who painted a picture of a golden camellia and possibly to trade for such a plant.

Robin is in town during the unsettled days before the beginning of the Opium Wars, when the Chinese Emperor is trying to halt the opium trade into China, while the opium traders are purposefully trying to instigate war so that they can call for the intervention of the British navy. Robin’s entertaining letters to Paulette keep us informed about the political debate as he is befriended by Charles King, the only merchant of stature who believes China is in the right.

Bahram Moddie, a well-meaning man who loves Canton on sight, has unfortunately invested his entire fortune in this shipment of opium. He is caught between his conscience and his need to be successful as the Chinese government tries to keep the foreign ships at bay.

As rich in language and storytelling as the first book, this novel is completely engrossing, showing the American and British opium dealers as the venal, hypocritical men they are, with their self-serving arguments about Free Trade and their arrogant disdain for their Chinese hosts. I’m afraid it may be two or three years of waiting before I can read the final book in the trilogy.

Day 161: Peony in Love

Cover for Peony in LoveI’ll start out right away by saying that after reading the touching and engrossing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I was disappointed by Lisa See’s Peony in Love. The innocuous description on the back of the book gives you no warning of the subject of the novel. I think that is unfortunate, because not very many readers of See’s other books will be prepared for it.

Peony’s sixteenth birthday is approaching. In six months she will “marry out” to the man who has been her fiancé since she was a child, although she only knows his name. She is excited because that night her family will begin hosting an epic opera by Tang Xianzu that she loves, and the secluded women will be allowed to watch it through a screen.

The story of the opera is important to the novel. It is about a girl who dies for love and haunts her lover until she is eventually brought back to life in honor of her steadfastness.

That evening, Peony peeps out from behind the screen and spots a handsome young man, with whom she falls instantly in love. Later in a brief absence from the performance she encounters him accidentally, and he begs her to meet him the next night. Such behavior is strictly forbidden. She has never been alone with a man outside her family, but she meets him anyway.

I usually try not to give away important plot points, but I will tell you one thing that happens in the first third of the book because I don’t think you can make a fair decision about reading it without knowing. So, this is my spoiler warning. Unfortunately, I don’t see any way to impart my objections without revealing this key plot point.

Convinced that she will be forced to marry a man she does not love even though she doesn’t know who her fiancé is, Peony starves herself to death, like the heroine in the opera. Just before she dies, when it is too late to save her, she finds out that her beloved actually is Ren, her fiancé (a twist that I found predictable). Presumably, she spends the rest of the novel as a ghost. I say presumably because after another 100 pages or so I quit reading.

I was already fed up with Peony because she wastes two opportunities to avoid the misunderstanding that causes her death. As in many movies, a few words could have cleared things up. That is, she and her lover never bother to exchange names. In addition, after the opera, when she is still in the audience, her father introduces her fiancé to the company. She is so convinced he is a stranger that she shuts her eyes. How likely is that?

Peony is already an extremely foolish girl even before she begins starving herself. I continued reading out of interest in Chinese beliefs about the afterlife, but when Peony begins manipulating Ren’s wife, I found this development too distasteful to continue. I regret that I cannot recommend this book, although I am still eager to try other books by Lisa See.

Day 142: The Man from Beijing

Cover for The Man from BeijingBefore I read The Man from Beijing, I heard it was really good, but I personally think Henning Mankell is better when he restrains the scope of his novels and refrains from long political discussions. This novel is not one of Mankell’s Kurt Wallander mysteries, but a stand-alone.

Almost everyone in a small village in remote Sweden is brutally murdered. Judge Birgitta Roslin figures out that one elderly couple was her mother’s foster parents, so she decides to go to the village and investigate.

The police are quickly convinced that the murderer is a local petty criminal, but Roslin finds diaries written by an immigrant ancestor of one of the elderly victims that she thinks may provide clues to the crime. Roslin’s story is periodically interrupted by a flashback describing the events following a man’s kidnapping in China in 1863 after he is brought to America to work on the railroad.

In the meantime, Ya Ru, a powerful Chinese businessman, is plotting a further acquisition of power and waiting to hear about the revenge he planned against the family of a man who harmed his ancestor. The novel travels to China, London, and Africa. It involves political plotting and maneuvering, corruption, and racism.

I thought the motive for the original murders was ridiculous. I also found many of the characters to be one-dimensional.

This novel is the second stand-alone I have read by Mankell, but unusually for me (because I often tire of series mysteries), I have preferred the Wallander novels. Both stand-alone novels are set partially in Africa, where Mankell lives part of the year. This novel is an improvement on the other one, which I thought was poorly written and extremely depressing, but it still has major flaws.