The Good Earth

Today we are shooting across the globe to China and reading about yet another culture I haven’t spent much time in. I’m so glad to be opening my world up beyond the normal White America that is so prevalent in publishing.

I’m thinking about doing an Around the World challenge–reading a book from every country. Does anyone know of any “Map My Books” apps or websites? I have what I want in my head but I’m not sure if they are out there. I’d really like a way to track the books I’ve read from outside of the US in certain places, and maybe look up books in countries I’ve not read yet. Not sure if anything like that exists.

Just brainstorming. May be a challenge I’ll put together for 2016–and that’s still a ways away. Hmmmmm…..

Aaaaannnyyyywayyyyy….Back to China.

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The Good Earth takes place in the late 1800s-mid 1900s in mostly northern China. Wang Lung starts his adult life as a poverty-stricken farmer living with his old, grumpy father. He wants a wife, so he skimps a few coins to buy an ugly (but not pock-marked) slave from a rich family in town. She becomes his life-long friend and companion, not only giving him many children, but because of her help in the fields, they are able to grow the farm to success–with a few struggles along the way, of course.

I loved the first half of this book. It’s almost a Fiddler on the Roof kind of love story (OK, so I MAY have watched that episode of Gilmore Girls last night where Kirk is in an elementary play.). They don’t start by loving each other, but they work next to each other in the fields, hardly talking, gaining mutual respect, and it’s a marriage. It’s a hard life, but a seemingly happy one. O-lan supports his constant yearning for landownership and never pushes him towards material things. It’s a simple life that they both want.

But, something breaks in Wang Lung after the first famine, when they have to go south, I think. After they get back, he immediately starts gaining new land and capital, and is never the same. When he realizes how rich he is, and above the Old Lord, his ego overcomes him and his life just goes downhill from there. The more “successful” he is, the less fulfilled he becomes.

I did have to remind myself a few times that this is a different culture, and so things like concubines and sons getting education over working in the fields were normal. But I was so frustrated for O-lan. And I did not always understand the dynamic between Wang Lung and his uncle.

Really, I think my main takeaway is just that you don’t always need to be rich in order to have a full life. Oh, and Chinese farm wives are badass. That too. O-lan, you’re pretty much my hero right now. “Just bring me a sharp reed, and stay out.”

Ok, O-lan, whatever you say, O-lan.

 

Fulfills PopSugar #18:  A Pulitzer Prize-winning book

Empire of Sin

As a sophomore in college, I visited New Orleans for a week during Spring Break. Our church group went the year after Katrina to help with flood relief–which at that point meant tearing down moldy drywall, pulling up carpets…really breaking the sodden houses down to their studs so the families could rebuild. As a pretty sheltered white girl from small-town Indiana, it was a pretty eye-opening experience. Not only had I really never been to a city that big, I hadn’t ever seen devastation like that either.

But, day after day that week, we ripped apart people’s homes…and when we came out, they would hug us with gratitude, and there would be prayer circles and Creole (or Cajun, I apologize, my 19 year old self did not know the difference at the time) blessings. It was all so beautiful and unexpected. Everyone was so resilient and strong and lovely and I just fell in love with the city.

And then I got to the French Quarter, and found the food and the music and well…the rest is just history.

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Since then I’ve added quite a bit of New Orleans-themed books to my TBR, and every once in awhile one will pop up. Recently, Blogging for Books had Empire of Sin as one of their choices, and I grabbed it.

Gary Kirst’s latest book is a history of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, right before Prohibition, when sex, jazz and alcohol fueled the town. There’s so much dark, fascinating stuff here, I don’t know where to start!

I guess, first off, let me be frank. This is a book about the south in the late 1800s. That means this is a book filled with racism. There’s just no way around it. To say I struggled with parts of it is to put it mildly. It’s not even just black racism either–though that is a huge part of it.

One of the major themes in Krist’s book is the civil war between the three peoples of New Orleans:  the white politicians/police, the blacks, and the Italians. There were constant battles between the groups, and often the blacks seemed to take a lot of the blame–with one of the riots ending with any black man out on the street being shot by a group of vigilantes.

Another theme we see repeated is the battle for power in Storyville–the prostitution district. I got a little confused over some of the politics in this area–who was on what side–but the fight for respectability was an interesting thing to read about, when I am so used to reading about prostitution as a negative profession.

Lastly, there was the music. And that was my favorite part of the book. I’ve been a fan of the blues for years (probably since I went to New Orleans, to be honest), so to hear about some of the old greats and how they got their start was fascinating. We get to hear about Little Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and all the struggles they went through to just play their hearts out.

New Orleans is one of those cities that you just have to touch. And when you do, it gets inside of you and never lets go. I can’t wait to go back someday, as an adult, when I can really appreciate it. Empire of Sin shows some of those dark corners that all cities have, but it also gives us the great things that comes out of those dark corners.

Oh, and if you pick this up, make sure you read past the bibliography and index in the back. Kirst has included both a pretty epic blues/jazz playlist with all the great albums and a New Orleans fiction list!

 

Blogging for Books provided this book for an unbiased review. Released on June 16th.

Agnes Grey

Most book lovers have heard of the Bronte sisters. And it’s pretty hard to be a romance loving biblophile without reading at least Jane Eyre OR Wuthering Heights…if not both. Charlotte and Emily are famous names in reading culture. Their tropes are everywhere, from the dark and brooding Heathcliffe-like teen boys in YA EVERYTHING, to the plain Janes of this world who go unnoticed but have so much to offer.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that there was a third Bronte sister, Anne. I’ll admit, she’s missing from my shelf too, as I look up at my two beautiful Barnes and Noble Leatherbound copies of the two books above.

But this weekend, I sat down with Agnes Grey, and I fell just as much in love with Anne Bronte as I did with the more recognizable sisters, and I wonder why she is not just as famous.

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At it’s base, Agnes Grey the basic 1800s story of a young girl from a family on the outskirts of society, who decides to become a governess, and falls in love with one of the men she meets along the way. Pretty typical baseline for that period.

However, there are some things I want to point out that interested in the characters and the story:

1. Mrs. Grey could have been rich. She came from a wealthy family, but fell in love with a poor man, and even though her father disowned her, she married him anyway.

2. Agnes was the youngest child, and doted on. When her family needed money, she decided she was going to become a governess to help earn it, even though her mother and sister told her they would handle the situation and she should stay home and be idle. She was determined to help.

3. I’m not sure if they had a diagnosis for “sociopath” in the 1800s, but the first children certainly showed signs of it. The older boy, Tom, liked to trap sparrows and pull their heads and wings off for sport, because “he was not a bird and so he couldn’t feel what they felt”. His father even encouraged this behavior. His sister was much the same way. It was very alarming. I was very glad that the book was not staged around that house for long.

4. I loved Mr. Weston. He was just so sweet and friendly, really quite adorable in how he just wanted to spend time talking with her, without being a bumbling fool like some guys can be in these novels.

 

I could go on, but it’s just a sweet, simple novel. Nothing overly complicated or twisted or dark. I was expecting something a little more gothic, because of her sisters’ writing styles, but this is really nothing like that. The romance is almost set up more like a Jane Austen novel, but with much less drama. It made for a very nice Sunday afternoon.

 

Fulfills Boxall  #88

 

 

Oscar Wilde

June is Pride Month, and so to celebrate, I added some specific books to my TBR. The Empty Family had several gay narrators. I’m listening to Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on audiobook on my walks, so I’ll review that one when I am finished. And Under the Lights was a bit of a surprise that I’m not revealing, but that one turned out perfect for the theme too!

I wish there were more books out there with LGBT characters, and my library has been posting a lot of recommendations, many of which I have added to my TBR. If you have some good ones, shoot them my way!

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The book I was most excited to read for Pride was about one of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde. Written as part of a series called Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians, Jeff Nunokawa gives us a short but informative piece on Wilde’s struggle to be a prominent gentleman in 19th century England, while living his life the way he needed to.

I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed. Obviously, you can’t fit that much life into 100 pages. The information was there, it just wasn’t that grandeur you expect when reading about Oscar Wilde. It was very “This happened on this date.”

And ok, I can live with that. What really got to me though was that here we have a book about a gay man in the 19th century, at the height of Victorian censorship. His very name stood for persecution.

And then in the book written ABOUT this man…this happens:

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Now, I am sure it was a publishing error, but still. There was about 10 pages missing, randomly in the middle of the book. And in a 100 page book, that’s a lot of information.

Just kind of makes you wonder, huh? It IS a library copy.

Anyway. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I skipped to the end, past the snow white pages, and read about the trial and sad end to this brilliant man’s career.

Time to read something a little less sad.

What are you reading for Pride? I hope all my LGBT friends are having a fantastic month!

 

The Shore

Not too long ago, I started watching the VlogBrothers on Youtube, and it’s safe to say I am definitely becoming a Nerdfighter. I am so addicted to their vlogs. My husband says, “Those guys talk SO FAST!” But, I always learn something by watching them rant or rave over the next thing in current events or nerddom.

The other day, Hank was talking about Feelings, and one of those Feelings was when you read a book that has a hundred different stories all going in different directions and then something shifts and brings all of those plots together at the end. Hank, I love that Feeling too! It’s such a rush, isn’t it?

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The Shore by Sara Taylor is a book that tries to accomplish that Feeling. I started it after finishing Fangirl at 9 o’clock the other night, and then stayed up an extra hour and a half because I couldn’t put it down. The first quarter of the book is FANTASTIC. It’s super thrilling and emotional. I thought YES! I can’t wait to read the rest of this…but I have to get to sleep.

Each chapter is a different time period, ranging from the mid-1800s into the future. The narrators are all female, from two branches of one original family tree. Each story tells a different version of abuse, pain, strength, and a new pregnancy to continue the generation.

In theory, it’s a great book. If I were to read that synopsis, I would immediately go grab this off the shelf. In fact, the jacket cover sounds a lot like that, with a bit more detail–which is why I picked this one from the Blogging for Books review options.

However, the chapters do not go in chronological order. They skip around all over the place. You read a chapter from 1995, then skip to 1847 then 2037 then 1963. (Something like that…Not exactly that.) Even the chapters that are close together, like 1995 and 1991 may not have the same characters/situations, so it is all just extremely confusing. I kept waiting to go back to the original story from the first section, and it just never did. I just kept getting more and more confused!

I finally get a resolution at the end, but it wasn’t that Feeling. It really wasn’t much of anything, really. Very anticlimactic. It even tried to be apocalyptic/dystopian, in a book that really didn’t need to be. I dunno, this one just didn’t do it for me at all, and that is so disappointing because it started off SO strong. Usually if a book is bad, it’s bad from the beginning. The first section was a “make me stay up all night” read. The rest…nothing.

 

Blogging for Books provided this book for an unbiased review.

Jane Eyre

I keep seeing this post floating around on Tumblr about how Charlotte Bronte fell in love with Jane Fairfax from Emma, and so she wrote a fanfiction about her as a governess. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that post was enough to get me to read both Emma and Jane Eyre somewhat back to back!

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This is my second read-through (I listened to the audiobook when I was in college), and I love Jane Eyre even more now than I did the first time. Of course I always get more from a book by actually reading than listening.

Jane is such a prim, proper, plain-looking character. If you look up an images search of the way she’s been portrayed over the years, she always looks so delicate. But Jane Eyre is anything but soft. She maybe a woman with very strict ideals–but she fights for those ideals with conviction and a steady conscience. Not much can sway her.

This book is so much more than a love story. Of course, the romance is there, but that really isn’t the important part of the narrative. What else do we have?

  1. Child abuse
  2. Poverty
  3. Epidemic
  4. Feminism
  5. Mental Illness
  6. Importance of family ties and friendship
  7. Hypocrisy
  8. Disability

And the list could go on and on, but this is the major stuff that I noticed. All this from a Victorian/Gothic novel. You don’t see that happen to often.

I did have one question to pose, maybe someone out there can answer it for me.

One thing I am always curious about with 1800s women’s literature is why they never give the names of places (and sometimes dates). It’s always –shire or S(…setting). Is it a lack of creativity regarding places, or was there some unspoken rule about listing where the setting was? London is always mentioned, and Bath, but anywhere else is left to mystery. It’s always so frustrating to me, and I can not help but wonder why this is!

The Dream Lover

I’ll be honest with you–I have heard of George Sand, the author. But, I thought she was a man. Which I suppose was the point when she chose her pseudonym. It certainly fooled me!

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Elizabeth Berg is coming out with a new historical fiction novel about this famous author from the 1800s, to be released April 7. The novel explores the life of George Sand, who was not just the first bestselling female author in Paris, but also a famous feminist who had a string of equally famous lovers and friends.

The name dropping in this book was crazy. I couldn’t believe how many familiar faces kept popping up. It’s always funny to me how it never occurs to us that our historical figures were actually friends with each other at one point or another. Ah the tangled web we weave!

What really intrigued me about Sand the most was her personal life. It made me wonder, if she was alive today, how she would identify. Because I read an ARC version, I cannot share quotes, but there is a whole section about how she did not want to be a woman nor a man, and another where she fell in love with a person’s spirit, not their sex. But, in the 1800s there was woman and man, and scandals if anything out of the ordinary happened. So, George Sand dressed as a man, and for the most part, did as she pleased. She was scandalous for her time, and screw everyone who got in her way. I think it caused her a lot of pain, and she had her heart broken more than a few times. But she was such a interesting person, and I don’t think you can learn about her without being intrigued by her.

Berg’s story flips back and forth between Sand’s “current” timeline and her past, so the book does get a little confusing at points. I think it would be a little easier to tell if there were two different text formats between the two, or something. But that’s really my only criticism with the book. Otherwise, I found it very interesting, and I’ve added Sand’s whole collection to my TBR. Don’t be surprised to see some of her books pop up on the blog!

 

Fulfills PopSugar #29:  A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit

Disclaimer:  This ARC was provided by NetGalley.

King Leopold’s Ghost

I feel a bit like I am waking up, being born. I understand, now, those grumpy Victorian men in movies who think women should not be allowed to be educated–“It isn’t right! They’ll get ideas!”

Yes…I am getting ideas. I am learning. The world is getting smaller. The more I know, the more I want to know. I have always read, but not like this. I am no longer reading only for entertainment…I am seeing things that I haven’t seen before, understood before, and maybe it’s because I didn’t want to. I don’t know. But my eyes are starting to open. And I’m not yet completely sure how I feel about it. I just know I can’t go back.

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I just finished reading a book about genocide. And not just any genocide–because I’ve read about the Holocaust, which, don’t get me wrong…it’s one of the most awful historical topics a person can read about–but one reads and hears about that period of history from the moment we enter school. But this particular horror was one that I had never even heard of. Sure, I knew that there was colonialism in Africa, that at one time there was a fight to explore such a vast, unknown continent. And somewhere in the back of my somewhat intelligent brain, I knew it probably wasn’t the kindest or PC event in human history.

But, when I think of whites “discovering” Africa, the period of history I think about is the Slave Trade. So, when I first picked up Adam Hochschild’s book, that’s what I thought he was writing about. Even the subtitle of King Leopold’s Ghost, kind of sounds like it might be related–“A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.” To be completely honest, I thought it was going to be about the breakdown and halting of the slave market. I wanted to see the end of it.

I was so, so wrong.

King Leopold turned out to be Leopold II, King of Belgium, who, because he thought his country too small to be impressive, decided he needed a gigantic colony on this brand new continent that everyone was talking about. So he teamed up with the world’s best explorers, and convinced everyone he was going to be a humanitarian, and stop that slave trade we talked about earlier. (So, at first, I was still convinced this was going to be a really great, positive book.) Again…so, so, so wrong.

Instead, they discovered ivory and rubber, which of course (in their mind) required native Africans to poach and harvest and porter. And if those natives did not cooperate, they were whipped with brutal instruments or just killed openly.

The longer I read this book, the angrier I got. Mostly because of how cruel everything was–I have notes upon notes upon notes in my journal, because it was the only way I could process what I was reading. To say this book made me cry doesn’t do it justice. It made me sick to my stomach. It also made me angry because aside from “Oh yeah, there was some colonialism in Africa in the late 1800s,” I have never heard of ANY of this happening.

There’s this term being thrown around a lot right now–“White Privilege”–which, I’ll admit, it makes me cringe. Not because I think I’m not privileged…I am. I think it just stings because I want to think myself as one of the good guys, someone who wants to love everyone and help where I can help.

But goddammit. White Privilege is all this book is about. That term played over and over in my head the entire time I was reading this. White Privilege took over the Congo, and tore it apart.

There were some great people trying to fight against colonialism in this horror story, but the bad far outweighed the good, unfortunately. I have a lot of emotions, questions, and I don’t know what else to think on. This is not a book that you just move on from. For my sanity, I’m going to read something…lighter…and then I’m going to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is his fictionalized account of all this. And then, I don’t know what’s next. I am not done. It may not be the same subject, the same period of history, but I’m not done. I refuse to be numb.

A Little Princess

Sometimes, I wonder if the old movies I grew up with are still making their rounds with kids today. I hope so. It is one of the things I do miss out on, not being a parent–getting to read my favorite childhood books and show my old movies over and over.

Shirley Temple was always one of my favorites when I was little. Even though she was way before my time, we watched her constantly in my house. She’s a classic, obviously, but also, she was especially famous in our family because my Nana looked so much like her when she was young. And, of all the Shirley Temple movies we had, the best one to me was, of course, the one about the clever book-addict, Sara.

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I may have watched A Little Princess a million and a half times, but this was my very first time reading the book! Until I picked it up at a Goodwill sale recently, I never realized it was written by the same author as The Secret Garden!

The story was just as magical. Of course my Sara will always be Shirley Temple, although in the book she’s described as much skinner than Temple’s chubby little features. I suppose that makes sense, for someone who is starving. On one hand, the book is sadder–there’s no reuniting with the father at the end–although the ending IS happy, and I thought it was a much more likely, and very sweet ending. Maybe not as Hollywood, but I liked it better.

A Little Princess should be read over and over again, especially at bedtime to your young princesses. It’s a story of hope in a world where there isn’t much hope, and it’s a good lesson in humility and encouragement. The morals in this book are as true today as they were when Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote it in the 1800s, and I think it’s not one we hear very often anymore.

 

This fulfills PopSugar #33:  A book from your childhood.

Uncle Silas

I feel like I haven’t posted much lately, but I have been neck deep in Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. This is one of those All Attention Required books. And unfortunately…I didn’t do a very good job of giving it my full focus. I know that I rushed through it, and even still, it seemed to drag on forever.

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The first 25% of the book was decent. While the author was male, the narrator is a female from the 1800s, so it felt very Brontesque at first. And then…it started to twist and turn into a very dark gothic, almost ghost story. It is going to take a second read for me to understand all of the mysterious plots that are afoot in this tale, but something is so very awry here.

You start by thinking it’s a girl and her dear old father, and they are alone in their rich old manor. Eventually, she’s going to have suitors right? That’s what happens in these types of stories. There’s a spooky, estranged uncle, and a crazy, dear aunt-figure (a cousin, really, but she’s way older than Maud). Oh, and don’t forget the drunk governess.

I’m putting this on my Try Again list. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Mostly, I just didn’t understand everything that happened. I liked the writing, at least once I got used to some of the accents used. And the characters are sufficiently complicated. Worthy read, just needs another run through.