I have read plenty of books about the American war in Vietnam but relatively few about the American Civil War. I am wondering if the stories told from...moreI have read plenty of books about the American war in Vietnam but relatively few about the American Civil War. I am wondering if the stories told from a bloody battlefield are timeless. In this powerful and poetic book both death and life exhibit strong powers to prevail.
Coal Black Horse is the story of a fourteen year old boy who is sent by his mother to bring home his soldier/father from the battle at Gettysburg. It is the experience of a young boy in a war. I have heard stories about children forced to fight as soldiers in other countries in our present day. I can’t imagine children in such circumstances and I did not find that this book dealt directly with the issue.
Robey finds his father mortally wounded on the battlefield and we get the story of human scavengers coming through the field after the battle and looting the bodies of the dead and wounded. Robey cares for his father as his condition worsens and interacts with others nearby.
When he returned to the soldier who had endured the phantom pain, he was going to tell him that maybe he was blind because God thought he’d seen enough for one life, but when he arrived at his side he found him to be dead. On his chest was the revolver, a six-shot Remington. It was loaded and he understood that the soldier had left it for him. He also came to understand that he was finally finished with his believing in God.
As I am reading Coal Black Horse with the 14 year old boy as the protagonist, I am thinking of 16 year old John Grady Cole, the 16 year old in All the Pretty Horses. I remember thinking that Cole's mental stature and experiences seemed much older than his age in the story.
I am having a hard time imagining Robey Childs actually being a young teenager. In our current times we hear about child soldiers and children being "bound over" into adult criminal courts. In literature it seems that characters might be given a stature that is much older than their chronological age simply for the convenience of telling the story.
I am trying to think of examples where a young protagonist actually seems like a child experiencing adult events. Today we hear of children killed by Israeli missiles on a beach in Gaza - children doing what we expect children to be doing: playing. Robert Childs is a boy - not a man - in the midst of a very adult situation. The author portrays him as a child becoming a man as the story moves on but this is displayed more as a circumstance of events rather than as an internal, mental growth. How the transformation occurs is left to our assumptions just as the relationships between the boy and the coal black horse and the boy and his father and the boy and the girl are pointed out but not really deeply grappled with.
I guess this is truly the "coming of age" concept - but how realistic can a coming of age be for this child at age fourteen? Can a boy shoot a man dead on one page and feel the tenderness of first young love on the next? Can a boy becoming a man become both the best and the worst of both worlds? Can a boy see and experience brutality in his young life without becoming brutal himself?
I was touched by the young love in the story between the fourteen year old boy and the fifteen year old girl. Both experienced life beyond a current norm for those ages. Possibly it was closer to the norm at the historic time of the story, the 1860s.
I was brought back to my first experience of love in my middle teenage years in an emotional and dramatic way. I was married and had a baby and was a fulltime student and blue collar worker in my teenage years. While I did not directly experience death or brutality like Robey, I had the very real experience of being a young grownup supporting a family under demanding circumstances during the years of Vietnam and the military draft.
The experience of being on the Gettysburg battlefield in the aftermath of the fighting was eye opening for me. I did have a hard time transporting myself as a fourteen year old boy, a factor the story did not very successfully realize for me although the story did very successfully hold my attention, eager for the action and resolution. I did substitute my own teenage love relationship and struggle since the relationship of Robey and Rachael was not very satisfactorily portrayed as far as I was concerned.
The strength of the anti-war sentiment added a star to my rating although the brutality, the carnage of war, was at times oppressive. Outside of the battlefield the brutality between people needed more attention and justification. The struggle between Robey being a sensitive boy and a murderer was not handled well, I thought. While I am satisfied to give Coal Black Horse four stars, it is a weak four stars. The book was a short, punchy two hundred pages; I wanted it to be deeper. My enjoyment of the book benefited from what I put into it from my own experience. It gave me pause and little hope in considering man’s inhumanity to man. (less)
This book starts out gentle and familiar with the description of a father and young son at the movie house watching Charlie Chaplin. It is a silent fi...moreThis book starts out gentle and familiar with the description of a father and young son at the movie house watching Charlie Chaplin. It is a silent film of course and the words not spoken are acted out on the screen as they are in life. But in life there is not the Chaplinesque exaggeration. As both a father and a son, I am touched by the obvious bond that exists. And as I understand that the words are reflecting back on events of many years ago, I am drawn in by the skill of the author who places the hand of the father “on the top of [the] bare head” of the son. Words are not required to convey the message of connection.
Similarly, the quiet interaction between mother and father, husband and wife, later in the middle of the dark night is filled with meaning, much unspoken but riveting. We will look back on those as the “final” moments of relationships that continue on beyond death without conclusion.
She saw the freshened bed. Why, the dear, she thought, smiling, and got in. She was never to realize his intention of holding the warmth in for her; for that had sometime since departed from the bed.
But as the story moves along, the positive silence becomes the silence that separates as much as brings together. Agee explores the things unsaid between wife and husband, the failures to communicate, the distress of the unsaid in human relationships. And then the time that things could have been said passes unexpectedly. The world is irrevocably changed – not automatically for the better or worse – just different forever.
This book has old tyme religion. People pray for Thy will to be done. Mother talks with children about God’s plan and why God “let the dogs get in” to kill the rabbits. Answering the “whys” about God to a young child has to be one of the hardest things to understand in the book. I just take it with a grain of salt in my non-God brain. Mom is just a devout Catholic, right? She has faith that will see her through, right? We will see as the story unfolds that this is not quite true.
Normally, much focus on religion would be a turn-off for me. But in a book about how a family reacts to a death, the differences in how individuals with and without religion deal with death seems, if not almost mandatory, at least not surprising. A lot of space is devoted to what is going on inside people’s heads and I find the writing quietly captivating.
I found Chapter 12 is especially interesting as the family deals with loss:
All of the people in the house feel a strange presence, and they become convinced that it is Jay’s spirit, come home one last time. Only Joel Lynch, Mary’s father, is skeptical about whether they have experienced a true supernatural event. Source: http://www.enotes.com/topics/death-fa...
The flashbacks to the childhood of Rufus are meaningful and nostalgic for me. I remember my early elementary school days and the adventure of walking the eight blocks from home to school. The connection of Rufus to his father in his youth raises tender feelings in my heart. The recollections are often quiet and gentle on the page. Even the parts where the older boys are teasing Rufus seem like a calm recollection of a memorable time.
Rufus remembers his father by seeing the morsechair his father used:
He still looked at the chair. With a sense of deep stealth and secrecy he finally went over and stood beside it. After a few moments, and after listening most intently, to be sure that nobody was near, he smelled of the chair, its deep hallowed seat, the arms, the back. There was only a cold smell of tobacco and, high along the back, a faint smell of hair. He thought of the ash tray on the weighted strap on the arm; it was empty. He ran his finger inside it; there was only a dim smudge of ash. There was nothing like enough to keep in his pocket or wrap up in a paper. He looked at his finger for a moment and licked it; his tongue tasted of darkness.
The words are magic.
In Chapter 17 Father Jackson, the Catholic priest, comes to the house before the funeral. In this story, he is the representative of the church, of God on earth. And a poor representative he is as he is exposed by author Agee as officious and unfeeling as he interacts with both children and adults. My negative feelings about organized religion make it easy for me to dislike him as a character. He seems like he would be a negative presence even if the reader was positively disposed to religion. His impact on the mother is summarized in what, for me, is a key sentence in the book. The fact that this is experienced by the children seems critical to me.
And they felt that though everything was better for their mother than it had been a few minutes before, it was far worse in one way. For before, she had at least been questioning, however gently. But now she was wholly defeated and entranced, and the transition to prayer was the moment and mark of her surrender.
“Wholly defeated and entranced” is a stunning word combination.
Then we attend the funeral and Rufus takes the walk with Andrew and hears the story about the butterfly, a story that represents for the child Rufus the complexity of the world. This is a five star ending to what is for me a three star book. The book has much beauty in its words, but for me it has many more words than it needs. It goes on too long. I thought this book could have been more complete with somewhat less. (less)
This is Ron Rash’s debut novel published in 2002. As far as stories go, it is my least favorite of the several I have read. But I think I will probabl...moreThis is Ron Rash’s debut novel published in 2002. As far as stories go, it is my least favorite of the several I have read. But I think I will probably read everything by Rash eventually. I am hooked. But this book only gets 3½ stars from me. The religious overtone and nineteen year old Amy seducing the neighbor war hero to get pregnant when her husband is sterile are parts of the book that are a bit much for me to take easily without penalty. But there are plenty of good sentences and pages and paragraphs, signs of the poet turned novelist, that foreshadow the bright future for this author.
I am a Michigander transplanted into the South. I am too much an atheist and a radical to feel at home as a southerner it seems. I have tried to adopt the slower pace and the sweet tea but haven’t quite pulled it off successfully. And in One Foot in Eden I get the feeling that the drink of North and South Carolina, if not moonshine, is the soft drink Cheerwine. And it’s not readily available where I live in central Virginia. So maybe I am a lost cause as a putative southerner.
Ron Rash novels sometimes have a knockout punch near the conclusion. You think you know where you are headed but then WHAM! It is like a storm that replaces the calm water. In One Foot in Eden you find the placement of the second foot to be something of a surprise. There is the catharsis that makes your heart beat faster and your breathe come shorter. It happens because of words that someone else has written but it is also because of common experiences and feelings that the author has marvelously touched in us. This personal connection with the meaning of the words is one of the main reasons we read and the gift the writer gives freely to us.
Ron Rash has told us a story through multiple points of view. We see the same scene repeatedly but new each time. He has the skill with words to do that. And because I have another of Rash’s early stories on my coffee table and another collection of recent short stories on its way to me in the mail, I know that I will continue to inspect and dissect this relatively recently discovered Southern author who can teach me some things about the region of the country where I have recently chosen to live that goes far beyond sweet tea or Cheerwine.
I have already explained that it due to a comparison with other Ron Rash books and my own prejudices that I have limited this book to three stars, rounding down from the 3½ I mentioned at the start. But it is a book that I am glad to have experienced and makes me glad I have Saints at the River, another early Rash novel, next in line to read. I am enjoying this binge on Ron Rash that includes reading a lot of GR reviews to see what others think. While I am not sure that he rises to the highest level of Southern author, I am certain that he has captured my attention and appreciation as a notable twenty-first century writer. I must add his poetry to my reading list so that I can experience his word wizardry in that mode of writing.
One last theoretical question: Was justice done in this story? Justice on earth or (since there is a religious aspect to the story) in heaven? As someone will want to remind me, justice might be done in the story because the story is fiction. If it was history, would the answer be the same? It might be fiction, but Ron Rash does make you think. (less)
I recently read Serena also by Ron Rash. I was expecting another book of the same intensity and was initially disappointed by how slow The Cove starte...moreI recently read Serena also by Ron Rash. I was expecting another book of the same intensity and was initially disappointed by how slow The Cove started out and what a different kind of book it is. I read a few reviews and was reassured that author Rash was not going to let me down. I am glad I stuck with it. While I was not completely able to disassociate the two books, it is nice to see an author who can use his writing skills to set such different moods. I probably needed more space between the books but this is my problem, not the author’s.
This story has the first world war, ostracization, young love. It is written mostly from the point of view of a young girl who has been orphaned and rejected and at last finds hope for a better life with a young, mysterious stranger. It has some beautiful language, some characters to love, and a sobering conclusion.
I have One Foot in Eden, an earlier Ron Rash book, on my stack to read next and am wondering where it will land on the intensity spectrum. At least at this point I am thinking that you can expect his books to be well crafted and not copies of each other. This is a 3½ star book for me but I am going to choose to bump it up rather than down based on the sensitivity shown and the antiwar aspect. (less)
This is a fascinating story of a lumber mill in Nimbus, Louisiana from the time it sits itself down in the midst of a Cyprus forest in 1923 until six...moreThis is a fascinating story of a lumber mill in Nimbus, Louisiana from the time it sits itself down in the midst of a Cyprus forest in 1923 until six years later with the felling of the Last Tree when it takes itself apart leaving a blind horse and a wasteland of Cyprus stumps. At the end of the story the principal characters, brothers Byron and Randolph, energetically ("grimacing or grinning, who could tell") pump a railroad handcar away from the cleared mill site “toward what they would have and what would have them.”
But when I got to page 98, I knew one of the things the book was about: war is a business, a deadly business.
He’d gone over in 1914 as an observer for the Zeus Powder Company, which paid him to study ammunition consumption so they could plan their factory expansion and production lines. After traveling in France for two months and watching Germany grind Belgium into meal, he wrote home that the U.S. government, nervous about the expanding, ceaseless slaughter, had hired him to provide intelligence.
I went to enter a new category for The Clearing on my GR page: war. This is a book about war and what it does to men, ordinary men. It shows the true meaning of cannon fodder.
The Clearing has something special: good writing. Sometimes there is just a paragraph like this one that does not add a lot to the storyline but is just a joy to read. Merville is the marshal in the town near the lumber mill. In his old age his double barreled shotgun has gotten too heavy for him to carry on his rounds so he takes a small pistol.
Merville was in his waterfront office putting down pans over the warped floor boards while a thunderstorm spun whorls of water against the sweating windows. His arthritis bound him at the hips and knees, and his chest ached as if a mule had kicked him. Sitting at his desk, he signed the last form he had to fill out for that night. He was trapped by the storm, immobilized into thinking, and he closed his eyes, remembering his wife, who had hated lightning, and his father, who’d been the same way. Now and then, in the long nights Merville’s life replayed like a wrongly spliced silent film, an overlong saga that always ended with his sitting in this water-stained office, or sometimes in the empty house two blocks away. He looked up at the flickering bulb on its cloth cord, whose light barely revealed the ceiling’s corners where soot-bagged spider webs held leggy husks dead since the war in Cuba.
This book sometimes just immobilized me into thinking. The pages early in the book describing the slaughter on the WWI battle field come back to me. It’s lasting impact on Byron as he tries to move on with his life. The war that feeds the capitalistic economy and that lays the bodies of young men laden with armaments from the Zeus Powder Company on the barbed wire at the battlefront. When will we ever learn? War is not the answer.
War makes men into killers. The Clearing is about men who have learned to be violent killers even in the absence of a war. And (a la the Milgram Shock Experiments of the 1960s) how people will obey orders to behave in a violent manner that they might otherwise decline to do voluntarily.
The environmental devastation of the lumber mill – the rape of the land – is equivalent to the moral devastation of warfare. The shell-shocked Byron struggles with a dilemma:
“And I will never understand why I was given carte blanche by the United States government to put thirty-caliber slugs into patriotic German kids, when the law, or guilt, or fate wouldn’t let me hunt down and send to hell a one-eyed snake-wielding baby-killer.”
This is a well-written, powerful book. Having said that, I am torn between four or five stars because things too neatly sort themselves out at the end: a happy ending aided by a lie and unlikely incidents where the bodies nicely compost rather than rot and putrefy. There is too much of a feel-good ending considering all the tragic events of the book. But feel-good with a moral is not bad, a strong four stars. I look forward to reading some of the short stories by Tim Gautreaux. (less)
My daughter-in-law gave me an ARC of The Kept and when I kept running across people reviewing it positively, I decided I better put it on my pile of b...moreMy daughter-in-law gave me an ARC of The Kept and when I kept running across people reviewing it positively, I decided I better put it on my pile of books on the coffee table to read. So, as I struggle with a William Faulkner book, I am fitting this in for entertainment.
The husband protagonist in the book is a bit of a religious nut. Maybe it would be just nicer to say that he has a bit of a rural, end of the nineteenth century God fix. He quotes the Bible frequently, baptizes his infant children in cold mountain streams, and has changed his name to something he thinks is more Godly. I lean toward the anti-religious so this did not go that well for me. I had missed this factor in observing the enthusiasm of others for the book. The story is not so much imbued with religion as with the Bible with frequent quotes of verses that might well add to the story if I were not so busy fending them off. It is clear that the author has some significant intent with the religious connection but I assiduously avoid it due to my own nonreligious tendencies.
The opening sentence of the book should have warned me off: “Elspeth Howell was a sinner.” Mr. Bill made me do it! And now I have started this book so I will be damned, I’ll finish it.
The boy in the story, Caleb, is twelve years old. The story is another I have read in the past year with a child as one of the main characters. I have an eleven year old daughter whom we adopted from China when she was 3½ years old. Caleb is such an unbelievable character based on the experiences with life and death he has had but I guess being a child over one hundred years ago in rural New York is a lot different than being a child in 2014. I still make my daughter Raman Noodles for breakfast and Caleb has removed shotgun pellets from his mother with a knife and pliers after he accidently shot her. He has cremated the young bodies of dead siblings and walked hours and miles poorly dressed in bitter cold weather in the wilderness. He and his mother are searching for the three men who killed his family and he intends to kill them when he finds them. Twelve years old! I guess if his mother was still making him Raman Noodles, it would not be much of a book! But his existence does seem brutal to the point of disbelief.
Caleb’s status as a prepubescent boy is emphasized. In the midst of his harrowing life experiences, he is naïve about so many things, including sex. His job doing odd jobs (sweeping, laundry, shoveling snow) at the Elm Inn, a whorehouse, is a classic juxtaposition with his lack of sexual knowledge. His mother’s relationship with him is convoluted even more so as she assumes the identity as a man. They have travelled by foot to the town where Caleb was born and she is concerned about being recognized. In fact, Caleb is the one who is recognized in yet another odd plot twist.
The affection that had spread through Caleb over the course of the last few hours evaporated, and when he threw the sheets aside, his skin rippled with goose bumps. He already was crossed up in something, and he appeared to be the only one capable of remembering what they’d lost. No gift or toy pony could undo that. He could not be changed into a boy again for the convenience of his mother. He threw his hat and gloves on, not caring about the dried blood that mottled each, and left the Brick & Feather before his mother could return.
She is not his mother. He is not her son. But they are somehow ultimately bonded as if, and they have an incredulous adventure in a seemingly endless northern winter in the snow belt of Lake Erie. I have already beaten the Bible enough for one review, the twelve year old is not believable, and apparently no one much believed the mother was a man in spite of her best efforts. But I spent a good share of the book in a mood to suspend disbelief so that I can award three stars without urging you to move this book too high up on your TBR list. It kept me turning the pages at the end during the last long slog though knee deep snow and the abandoned railroad trestle near fall to death to the dramatic and somewhat surreal Hollywood ending with the blind old woman awaiting her killer sons.
Books about the Iraq war are beginning to come out. But here is yet another one about Vietnam. I think you are going to continue to hear about Vietnam...moreBooks about the Iraq war are beginning to come out. But here is yet another one about Vietnam. I think you are going to continue to hear about Vietnam for a couple more decades. There are too many of us who lived during that time and who died there.
Red Flags is set in the mid 1960s when the U.S. had “advisers” by the score in Vietnam rather than soldiers by the thousands. What do the Vietnamese think about the advisers?
“They’re embarrassed to have us land on them with all our strategizing and machines as if they couldn’t do it themselves. And they’re embarrassed and resentful that they can’t. They don’t trust their lousy excuse for a government, and their government doesn’t trust us. They see us pouring in men and equipment, erecting huge aerodromes and monster camps, and it makes them suspicious that we have permanent designs on the place, like the French.”
The actors are in some strange scenes.
“Not a word until we figure out what we’re dealing with. A priest, a missionary, a USAID rep, and an unarmed ARVN meet with a VC commander in the jungle. It’s like the setup for a joke. But what’s the punch line?”
And how do U.S. advisors interface with the South Vietnamese leadership?
“You know the score. He writes my report card. As senior adviser, I’m judged by how happy I keep my counterpart.” “And is he happy?” “So long as I get him what he wants by way of material and air assets and don’t demand too much from him or his troops.” “So we give him what he wants.” “Don’t always want to, but yes. I manage to get him the supplies, the copters, the toys. Hard to deny him since Chinh holds all the cards. He’s the Man. My job is to bolster, persuade, cajole, get him to act. And I won’t be able to do it if Big John starts seriously rattling Chinh’s cage and challenging his perks.”
And, more to the point,
“Look,” Gidding said. We’re in Vietnam by invitation. On their sufferance – Chinh’s sufferance. We’re here as advisers, not Chinh’s superiors. As far as we’re concerned, Chinh operates with impunity. I can’t reign him in or order his men into the field. Neither can the colonel. We’re not Saigon, we’re not General Loc up in Two Corps. Their private undertakings are their business. They’re none of yours.”
And what does the Vietnamese leader Chinh say?
Chinh grunted. He appeared affronted. “You want fight Communist. Okay,okay. American soldier stay year, sometime two. Me? Fifteen. Fight war fifteen year. Last five year, before I come to Cheo Reo, I have eight adviser. Soon you go. I wait. Get different adviser, different advice.
We get to know some of the “soldiers and spies.” Two U.S. spies have been sent to the province to disrupt the growth and export of opium and marijuana by the VC that results in the deposit of tens of thousands of dollars in VC accounts that is used to buy arms and supplies to fight the war. The story is told by one of those spies.
I wanted to keep reading this book. The story is fascinating and loaded with plenty of accurate details about what Americans found in Vietnam as the “conflict” escalated into a war. The focus is on espionage in the midst of the lead up to a long war in which corruption played a large part. It is hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Red Flags puts you in the midst of the action in a way that lets you feel the intensity and horror of the events. This is a five star book and a must read for those who are captured by the war in Vietnam. (less)
I first heard about Ron Rash in the GR group On the Southern Literary Trail when this book Serena was selected as the read of the month. I did not rea...moreI first heard about Ron Rash in the GR group On the Southern Literary Trail when this book Serena was selected as the read of the month. I did not read it when it was chosen but did eventually read a book of his short stories Burning Bright and gave it an enthusiastic five stars.
Serena intrigued me because there were so many comments about the female protagonist that paint her as among the most evil characters in modern literature. I appreciate strong female characters so disliking Serena was a challenge for me. My generally contrarian personality came to the fore. I had to like her, and did for the early part of the book. A woman who was the equal of a man had to be a good thing as far as I was concerned. Don’t get me wrong, I am not typically drawn to woman warriors, Amazons. Neither am I drawn to macho male characters. I just like characters who are fairly certain in their confidence in themselves and in their ideas. Serena seemed to fill that role to a T. She is self assured and a bit cocky to boot. However, Ron Rash presents her in a mostly negative light.
When a crew foreman asked Doctor Cheney what Mrs. Pemberton would want the snakes for, the physician replied that she milked the fangs and coated her tongue with the poison.
The southern tendency to denigrate women into a secondary role to men annoys the bejesus out of me! (Yes, I know that is an overgeneralization and stereotype! But it is my overgeneralization and stereotype!)) And Ron Rash does a good job portraying that southern characteristic! In fact, he does it so well as to make me wonder if he doesn’t actually believe it. So I am ripe to be plucked as a fan of Serena at the outset of the story. She is a dominating, eagle taming bitch who can look daggers with the best of the roughians. But is she the devil incarnate? That is what I must decide once I have read the entire book.
I am drawn into the story looking for clues about the true character of Serena. I look for counter indications that she is evil personified. And I think I am finding some humanity along with her obvious skill at manipulating people and situations. She will kill if she thinks it is important as a part of a larger plan. In that way she is truly a capitalist and a military officer sending troops into the field to be slaughtered. She is a heartless robber baron whose goals of self enrichment and the good life distract her from the damage she is doing. She is immersed in Now and heedless of Past. Her vision of the future is when things will be the best for her.
I wonder what Ron Rash would think about me taking this as a seriously anti-capitalist book? And I would intend that as a compliment! Let me propose that the story of Serena is an Allegory. The Pembertons represent capitalism. Serena, the ultimate capitalist, her husband under her domination. The eagle represents the powerful United States. You can run with the story from there. I think it makes it a fascinating story while maintaining all the action and suspense of a fable or legend complete with the Greek chorus and dragon.
Like George Pemberton, I once attached myself intensely and tightly to a woman. My woman turned out to be someone who threatened to destroy herself with alcohol and I had to let go or be destroyed myself. George could never let go of Serena and was her sycophant holding his hand out to her at the end.
I have not so far read any of Ron Rash’s poetry but his skill with words and descriptions in this novel makes me think that his poetry might be marvelous. Sometimes I can be distracted by the beauty of the words from the action of the story. I have a hard time paying attention to both at the same time so sometimes my mouth is dropping open in awe of the paragraphs but I am missing the point of the pages. That’s my problem, not Ron Rash’s.
For me this was a five star book. I was not totally sure of that throughout the story but the more carefully I watched Serena dominate her world as surely as capitalism dominates ours, the more I enjoyed the book. And I thought that the end was spectacular! But what should we think of Galloway’s mother and Rachel as women characters go? I expect to read more Ron Rash books. (less)
I am not going to finish this book because the violence and inhumanity seems never ending. I have read the first sixty pages filled with brutality. Th...moreI am not going to finish this book because the violence and inhumanity seems never ending. I have read the first sixty pages filled with brutality. Then I randomly skipped to pages further into the book to see if there was any abatement of the grossness and found that there seemed not to be. Then I went to read some reviews by other GR people.
Here are several review segments:
(one star) This book wasn't for me. I can usually slog through, but really had a hard time. Other reviews seem to indicate that it is worth reading, so not necessarily discouraging others, but at times it seemed jerky and at others a bit too vivid - in a way that I found actually distracted and detracted from the storyline. One could argue that this is his style and is actually integral to the story but regardless, it didn't work for me here. . . . (three stars) While I do not doubt Mo's portrayal of the brutality and corruption of government officials, I found the extreme violence and inhumanity within and between peasant families (severe beatings and torture) a bit hard to believe. Instead, I got the sense that many incidents in the novel were exaggerated primarily for their shock value. . . . (five stars) Stark story of life under a corrupt Communist government. Well written right to the end. I understand why the Chinese banned it after Tiananmen Square. Some powerful imagery and strong political messages here in the middle of a love story. Oh, and it won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. . . . (five stars) The Garlic Ballads is my first encounter with the work of Mo Yan, laureate of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. My first reactions are that he is an extraordinary writer and that this novel is an impressive piece of politicized art. Banned in China after the massacre in Tiananmen, The Garlic Ballads exposes the injustice and indignity of the communist state while also confronting the dogged misguidance of traditionalist belief systems regarding arranged marriages. The narrative focuses primarily on the struggles of two families, those of garlic farmers Gao Yang and Fang Yunqui. The tragedies that befall them interweave back and forth across the duration of several events from the harvesting of the garlic crops to the storming of a government compound. Mo Yan skillfully unravels his story in bits and pieces that show each family’s degree of suffering, misfortune, and infighting. . . . (five stars) I just finished, and I think I will need to do some pondering, but my initial impressions of this book centers on a conflict between my understanding of China and the picture I got from this book. If Mr. Mo isn't considered a dissident by the Chinese government, then my understanding of what constitutes a "repressive" regime is way off base. This book is not at all flattering to government officials as it tells of corruption, oppression of peasants and the poorest of the poor, official injustice and personal mercy, petty disputes, greed and families in turmoil.
I give these quotes in some length because this book and author have received considerable acclaim. It is clearly controversial as it presents life in communist China in the mid 1980s. As a person who is often a social critic from a progressive/left point of view, I do not believe my dislike of the presentation resulted from a negative evaluation of the accuracy of the presentation. It simply seemed grim to the extreme, beyond what I required to make the social and political points. I expected to like the book and to generally agree with it. Instead, I found it distasteful on my first attempt to read. I will put this book back on my shelf and can imagine looking at it again in the future. (less)