Tough read. Almost impossible to rate. Did I (3) like or (4) really like this novel? No. I endured it. Do I think it (5) amazing? Yes, yes ... that ITough read. Almost impossible to rate. Did I (3) like or (4) really like this novel? No. I endured it. Do I think it (5) amazing? Yes, yes ... that I do.
It is, quite possibly, the most brutal, dispiriting, sad, anger-provoking, depressing novel I've ever read.
I feel as though this novel is trying to teach me so many things, but my lack of knowledge of China's history, specifically China's Cultural Revolution, is hampering me from understanding it fully. That's at the thematic, symbolic level. And possibly even at the plot level - I am still confused about Gu Shan's crime and political position. (But I suspect it almost doesn't matter.)
Where I'm going now, in my head, is to why I read. This novel--or more precisely, trying to review this novel--makes me ask myself why I read. One of the reasons I read is to understand worlds that I will never experience first-hand, or to experience worlds in which I will never live.
That's why speculative and historical fiction are of such interest to me.
The thing about this novel is, there's nothing speculative about it. 1984 was speculative. This is real-world 1984.
When fiction takes one to very dark places, places of horror and brutality--like China circa 1973 or Nazi Germany circa 1940--the depth to which one can experience that world becomes a marker of the quality of the fiction, I think. Do you stick with it - bear it, like the torture that it is (and what the hell does that say about me, anyway?)? How often must you surface to breathe the calming and soul-restoring fresh air of the knowledge that "it's just a book"?
With historical versus speculative fiction, "it's just a book" doesn't usually work, because immediately after that thought comes "but this really happened to real people." And then, empathy floods.
I kept trying "it's just a book" here - and then Yiyun Li dragged me back under(view spoiler)[ with the sharp, stabbing pain of baby girls being thrown out like yesterday's chamber-pot contents; vocal cords being severed and kidneys removed while the political prisoner was alive; the gruesome death of a 6-yr-old's pet dog and his later betrayal of his father (link? yes, of course); children being burned in a house fire, more ... so much more (hide spoiler)].
I would not last for a split-second in a totalitarian regime. Despite my current contempt for my government, I still have unfettered freedom to rant away about them on facebook and in person to just about whomever will listen.
I would not last in a totalitarian regime not because I'm brave and would stand up for what I believed and protest and then be killed; but because I'm not, and I would do what I needed to do to survive. I would get swept up by a gang thinking there would be safety in numbers, and thinking that what we were doing was protesting in a "safe" way. And it would turn out not to be safe at all. I would underestimate the brutality of my government, and behave as though it wasn't happening, not be fully aware of what was happening - think I/we were higher up on that slippery slope than was the reality. I would be frightened or traumatized into silence.
Or maybe I would just curl up in a ball, I would grow inside myself into a hard stone of patience and isolation and I would wait it out. Hide and obey, repress my true feelings and self. Possibly, I would kill myself - as so many did during the Cultural Revolution. Or even more likely, I would do something stupid, either deliberately out of misguided desperation or misplaced trust, or inadvertently out of sheer ignorance. A betrayal of someone I loved, perhaps; or revealing myself to someone I loved who then betrays me.
All of these things happen in this novel. And more. This is what this novel is about, what happens to people under brutal dictatorships. This is what the reader endures: experiencing first-hand how people disintegrate, how desperate they become, how they live and love and treat each other. What they think is moral, just, right; how they behave, how they learn, how they grow from childhood into adulthood and what kind of adults they become, if they even become them. How the political system self-perpetuates; how it shapes, represses, constructs and destroys individual human beings.
Not to deny that history/culture/other forces don't play a role in how behaviour is expressed. China certainly has a problem with baby girls that pre-dates the Cultural Revolution and has lasted to this day - that is not something you can blame on a specific regime. There is variability even among the masses in how the effects of political repression are expressed, no matter which side you're on. So you get a Gu Shan, and a Wu Kai - flip sides of the same coin. You get a Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu contrasted with Old Hua and Mrs. Hua. You get a Bashi and a Nini and a Tong. You get unextinguishable individualism amidst the collective.
(view spoiler)[If there is a tiny shred of hope in this novel, it is in the Hua/Nini story line. The Huas return to their earlier, much easier, lives as vagrants, beggars -- the lives they spent rescuing baby girls who had been thrown away to die. Their last rescue is of 12-yr-old Nini (and the baby? what happened to the baby?). Nini: whom we first meet eating the flour wallpaper paste from the notices of Gu Shan's denunciation/execution because she's starving and rejected by her family, deformed and a tight knot of anger and hope and opportunism. She represents survival in this world, and its future, too. (hide spoiler)]
I wanted to start this review (but clearly didn't) with the image presented early in the novel by Teacher Gu. He speaks of a blessing his first wife sends on the eve of his marriage to his second wife (a message that, Yiyun Li makes clear, Teacher Gu does not share with his second wife who cannot read): keep each other alive with your own water. It refers to a fable about love and I think, it speaks to the bleak history and perpetual sadness this novel describes overall:
two fish, husband and wife, were stranded in a puddle; they competed to swallow as much water as they could before the puddle vanished in the scorching sun so that they could keep each other alive in their long suffering before death by giving water to their loved one. p. 54
Futility - the futility of love, of revolutionary acts, of life under totalitarian rule. At the end of the novel, Teacher Gu makes a second important statement, this time a soliloquy prompted by the visit of a neighbour (I was not clear who this was - ?) and the imprisonment of his second wife for her role in protesting their daughter Gu Shan's execution:
Your wife [the neighbour's]...is the same creature I have seen in my own wife. And my daughter too--you may not know her but she was just like your wife, full of ideas and judgments but no idea how to be a respectful human being. They think they are revolutionary, progressive, they think they are doing a great favor to the world by becoming masters of their own lives, but what is revolution except a systematic way for one species to eat another alive?
From keeping each other alive to eating each other alive. That is the essence of this novel's message.
Quite an amazing journey of a book. Prior to (or, perhaps, instead of) a review, I point to the cover: it's fantastic. The moon, with the Sisters brotQuite an amazing journey of a book. Prior to (or, perhaps, instead of) a review, I point to the cover: it's fantastic. The moon, with the Sisters brothers' heads like dark eyes in a skull - and whose skull is that? Why, it's Shakespeare's, is it not?
Indeed, there is something Shakespearean about this book - in its primal motivations; its themes of guilt, blame and remorse; the thickness of family ties; the inevitable playing out of fate. A tragi-comic morality play - although I have to confess, while I like my comedy black, I missed the comedy here entirely. I wouldn't be surprised if there were Shakespearean allusions all over the place - likely to various history plays, of which I'm not well-read. If not in the broad strokes of the plot and characterization, certainly in the themes.
Mike Reynolds' - in his very fine review here - warns against comparisons (and rightly so), but I can't help myself as something was dogging me all the while reading this. It is this: Dead Man, a little known Jim Jarmusch-directed, Johnny Depp film (back before he sold his soul to Disney). Poetic, evocative, symbolic, allusive and surreal; shot in black and white, with a spare and haunting Neil Young soundtrack. You like this; try that.
If you are looking for a hippy-dippy, mystical dog training book, then look no further! This book is all about understanding the dog at an emotional aIf you are looking for a hippy-dippy, mystical dog training book, then look no further! This book is all about understanding the dog at an emotional and - yes - spiritual level. Clothier is a disciple of Linda Tellington-Jones, the pioneer in "bodywork" with horses and dogs aka therapeutic massage that treats animals' behavioural and emotional imbalances. Clothier's basic thesis is that dogs have rich emotional lives and that without respecting that enough to build a high-quality, equal, respectful and loving partnership with them, as you would with any being you loved, things will go awry.
Writing in 2001, this book came before the current synthesization of ethological-behavioural-cognitive approaches and the debunking of a lot of the alpha-wolf pack nonsense. Clothier states openly and upfront (and somewhat defensively) that her theories are not founded on that-there school book learnin' or any recognized academic credentials, but come from her own experience and rather eclectic reading which ranges from Lorenz's classic work in ethology through to Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Buscaglia's Love.
Like I said, hippy-dippy.
But I didn't dismiss it outright, as is my wont with bullshit mystic fruitcakes these types of authors, because she issued a challenge, and dammit, she is right. Just what do we have to lose by thinking of and treating animals in a loving, whole and respectful way - and shouldn't the results and the relationship that develops speak for itself? Where's the resistance?
So I let her take me along for the ride, and you know what? There's some great things in here, which - albeit accidentally - reconcile the hardcore, scientific behaviourist data with the more whispery kinda animal training that talks about balance, quality, soul, authenticity.
Among other things to read this for is the clarity of her discussion of alpha/dominance/submission - she dismisses all the terminology as misunderstood and misapplied, and wipes the slate clean to take it back to status-seeking behaviour which expresses itself differently depending on context and is ONLY expressed in relation to another being. She does as good if not a better job on this than even Patricia McConnell in The Other End of the Leash.
Following from this, she discusses "aggression" at length, and provides some beautiful examples and analogies that make it clear how: 1) we miss the early warning signs of aggression; 2) what we call 'aggressive' acts are often anything but; 3) true aggression is a serious issue that is an animal trying to tell us something is very very wrong - don't underestimate or ignore it.
She does a great job with the necessity to exert leadership with animals, much like with children - and takes the entire concept up a notch to avoid the whole "pack leader" mess and instead, nest leadership in the context of setting boundaries, providing structure, having the animal's (or child's) best interests at heart, taking ownership for any bad behaviour as a failure of the leader and not the fault of the dog/child.
She does a beautiful, if hard to read, dismantling of dog training by so-called experts who in fact propose and practice inhumane, cruel and outright sociopathic approaches. She shows these as the end result of a philosophy that starts with alpha and ends in confusion, frustration, pain, harm and even death. She names names. This section will make you angry, angry, angry as it should. There are still practitioners out there - Brad Pattison comes to mind; Milan might also be in this camp - who strenuously defend their practices. She says (I'm paraphrasing): you never have to defend methods that are kind, respectful, compassionate. You only have to defend methods that could be perceived as other than this. If you have to defend your practices, you need to question what you're doing and why you're doing it.
She is steadfast and fully committed to her own philosophy of kindness, respect, empathy and love to build healthy relationships. She is uber-authentic and attentive to her own theories and behaviour being 100 per cent aligned with her underlying philosophy.
At the same time - and this is part of her authenticity - she is open about her past acts that have *not* always been congruent with a loving, respectful, humane approach. She recognizes the baggage she brings and has brought into her relationships with humans and with animals, and she encourages us to do the same if what we seek and value are healthy, happy, loving and genuine relationships. And she delves into the murky, grey area that exists in any relationship where there is a power imbalance, and where one individual must act as leader to ensure the safety of the other. She explores the sometimes-uncomfortable mantle of leadership, the need for a leader to not just persuade but sometimes coerce ... and the thin line between coercion and what might be classed in a different context as cruelty.
She goes on a bit and keeps selling after the sale is made; she sprinkles quotations like confetti seeking to be profound by proxy; her metaphors are sometimes hackneyed; she occasionally strains to make a joke; and she veers into sexist (or at least, stereotyped) analogies a bit too frequently for my own comfort. But, BUT. She redeems herself, she really does.
She writes with an underlying logic and authority that overcomes (despite her own lack of confidence) our doubts and allows us (well, me anyway) to forgive her for her woo-woo metaphysics. She ends up taking you to interesting places and will open your mind and heart to new thoughts and feelings - I had many a-ha moments here. And she is truly funny and also forgiving of herself and others (a lesson she's learned from the doggies).
She may get some of the details wrong (she repeatedly calls "if ... then" scenarios doggy math instead of the more accurate doggy logic; and she muddles up classical and operant conditioning leading her into dangerous baby-bathwater territory), but by the time she's done, she's presented an absolutely coherent philosophy/theory that one can acknowledge as practical, usable, sensible ... and really quite lovely.
The last five or six chapters take you right into the heart of the end of a relationship - i.e., the death of several of her own and others' pets - and will have you weeping and blubbering along with her or at least it did me. And then, she goes out on a couple of chapters that rest on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's "we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience," which she extends to the doggies.
Ishiguro creates characters who think intensely about what they think and feel, but never seem to really know themselves. That, plus the dreamy, almosIshiguro creates characters who think intensely about what they think and feel, but never seem to really know themselves. That, plus the dreamy, almost surreal plotting, where you never quite know what's real, and what's a dream, a fantasy, a hallucination, an alternate reality (like Murakami, only ... you know ... written well) is what keeps me coming back. I've now read the grand total of three, and I think I'm finally starting to 'get' him.
This one goes along all nice and conventional (or so you think, despite that niggling feeling that all is not as it appears), then whammo! you're plunged into an alternate, terrifying reality (is it?) and then, just as quickly, yanked back out again. All the while, a cool, British "pip pip old chap" civility, a veneer of sanity that seems to pass for reality, smooths over the rough edges and you coast along, even though you know there is something nasty and brutal - a secret, a revelation, a truth - lurking just under the surface.
The story is about a young boy whose parents disappear in Shanghai between WW I and II; who grows up to be a famous detective and comes back to solve the mystery of their disappearance.
Only, that's not really or only what it's about: it's about that detective's need to put the pieces of his past back together now that he's reached adulthood to understand who he was -- and now is -- and who his parents were. To reconstruct himself from a past where there are gaping holes and missing pieces, the biggest ones being his parents.
So it's about childhood trauma and memory and grief and also, the adult drive, guilt and remorse that emerges from it. One of my favourite things about the novel is how Ishiguro portrays childhood egocentricity - the child's core belief that everything that happens is because he did (or didn't do) something. He is the *cause* of all that happens that is bad (or good, but mostly bad) and therefore he must be the saviour. This idea - that Banks is a saviour - is deeply important in this novel. It explains personality and plot. Ishiguro also uses a "slats of the blind" metaphor, which he returns to at least three times - and I don't know if he is being intentionally noir, I suspect so, but it is a perfect detail.
The unreliability of Banks' - the great detective's - narration is positively masterful: nothing you can put your finger on, but a clear sense that he's not what he seems to be, and his recollections, out of which the entire story is formed, may not be (ironically) accurately reported or remembered. But then again, that is how childhood memories, laid down during trauma, function. Ishiguro has an iron grip on the psychology here - especially, the friendship of two young boys and a young boy's love for his mother. I love the way he reports conversations the adult Banks recalls, and how his child's ears heard and interpreted them. And Ishiguro then manages to take the childhood events, places and symbolism and later, turn them into nightmarish details that come to resonate even more deeply.
I'm not sure I fully comprehend exactly what the "case" is that Banks is trying to solve other than the obvious (or more precisely, why the 'case' seems to have global implications); I suspect a big analogy here, entirely too obvious for me to get. *sigh* Nor am I sure that (view spoiler)[Banks is fully sane throughout (hide spoiler)] but I also know that I'm content to let the fuzzy dreamlike details and layers of meaning, especially the theme of loss and dislocation, be what I remember of this novel. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Copy-edited. Just in case you thought I was a complete doofus the first-time round.
Yes, I am giving Oliver Twist one star.
What went wrong here? Oh, aCopy-edited. Just in case you thought I was a complete doofus the first-time round.
Yes, I am giving Oliver Twist one star.
What went wrong here? Oh, about a million things. First, the single reason I decided to read this book is because I got a new dog recently, and I named him Oliver Twist. Then I realized I hadn't actually read his namesake, and I really like Dickens, and well ... it's orphans, right? ... and there was this lovely new Penguin hardcover all nubbly and pretty and ....
... and now I'm three books behind my GR Reading Challenge - blast it all to hell and back again!!!!! hahahaha (ok, well that has more to do with the canine OT than this book), butttttttt:
I love Dickens when his characters are over-the-top caricatures crafted with blind rage against the poverty and injustice they - and he - experienced at their core - not when they are shallow, one-dimensional, and here in one case, racist, clichés. It was almost like he couldn't describe the horrific conditions of Oliver's early life well enough; he couldn't sustain it. He couldn't get close to it, likely because he was too close to it.
We knew too early the kid was going to be okay.
I love Dickens when his sentences and his plots are as convoluted, dark and edgy as the rank London streets and jails he describes. When his language skates so far beyond purple prose into the most delicious hyperbole that it makes you want to grab a placard and march behind him yelling slogans and demanding justice.
Mostly, I love Dickens when I feel politically aligned with him - and here, I didn't. He almost had too much sympathy for "the bad guys." Bumble was ... bumbling and an idiot, but easily dismissed and quickly defrocked (I choose that word deliberately). Sikes was evil incarnate, but we didn't get to see enough truly evil ACTS or thoughts; we saw him through the lenses of other characters -- Fagin - could there be a more ambiguous bad guy? and Nancy, in particular -- both of whose viewpoints were compromised by their own ambiguity.
Coming back to the language. Usually, I find Dickens more controlled, more consistent, more intentional with his rhetoric. Here, I swear he must have sub-contracted out some of these chapters. They were wildly inconsistent in tone and style one to the next. Maybe he could get away with that as it was being published in its original format, but jam-packed all together like this (granted, I read it about as slowly as it was originally intended), it was glaringly obvious that he was experimenting with style over the course of it, got easily distracted in several spots and then -- with something akin to arrogance at his own ability to fool most of the people most of the time -- overconfidently came back in the next chapter to apologize for the sins of the last. It made for a very frustrating and anger-provoking reading experience.
I confess I don't know any of the context in which this was written, so feel free to correct my argument by providing context. One thing I would like to know is whether all of Dickens's novels were originally published serially, or only a few, OT among them. I'm thinking that what I like/dislike among his oeuvre may fall along those lines. I like the wholly-composed novel: the one where Dickens knows exactly where he will take the reader, puts you in the palm of his hand from the first chapter, but doesn't reveal where you're going (except to give you the confidence that the destination will be worth the journey) until the very last. That's the Dickens I love.
This, not so much. I may have to change my dog's name. :-p ...more
Read for work. This is a low star-stage 3 (if anyone reads this, you'll find that hilarious, trust me). It was surprisingly tolerable given my intolerRead for work. This is a low star-stage 3 (if anyone reads this, you'll find that hilarious, trust me). It was surprisingly tolerable given my intolerance for a) non-fiction; b) books written by MBAs; c)pseudo-scientific self-help manuals. It avoided for the most part a's tendency toward repetitiveness (although it was definitely filled with beating-a-dead-horse, jargony prose, and I think the copy-editor must have nodded off in the last third); b's insufferable superficiality and barely-below-the-surface best-seller goals; and c's new-age bullshittery posing as science.
Update: I did it. I finished it. I skimmed over some spots, but read it, I did. Right to the end. The ending that I am going to believe was a happy onUpdate: I did it. I finished it. I skimmed over some spots, but read it, I did. Right to the end. The ending that I am going to believe was a happy one. Yes.
This book seethes with brutality - implied, overt - and I turn each page with my heart in my throat, steeling myself for what is to come.
Kids, dogs subject to abuse, trauma, neglect.
Can't do it. It's beautifully written, even poetic in places, but I can't do it. ...more