Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “communism”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #80: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

This author, who also penned the best-selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, gives us another book on sisterhood but this time in a more modern context. While a fascinating glimpse into the life of Chinese women in the mid-20th century United States, and of the political turmoil in China during this same period, this novel somehow lacked the emotional depth of Snow Flower. The fact that I found neither of the sisters to be truly appealing was another factor that left me less involved in the story. Nonetheless, I found this book worth the read.

Pearl and May are the spoiled beautiful daughters of a wealthy Shanghai merchant in 1937. Both make pocket-money by posing for calendar painters, unaware that their father’s gambling addiction has grown out of control. Early in the novel, we are introduced to the girls’ carefree existence in detail, only to have it shattered when they learn of their father’s unpayable debt to the Green Triad and he sells them as brides to two brothers living in Los Angeles as a way out of his debt. The girls attempt to escape their fate, but are trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai, and they go through horrific experiences—including the gang-rape of both their mother and of Pearl—before they are able to escape to the U.S., and to their husbands. Along the way, a child is born which changes both their lives forever.

Once again, See portrays Chinese women at the mercy of their traditionalist families, husbands, or husbands’ families, with little opportunity to forge an independent and satisfying existence. Pearl was “bought” as a servant and broodmare, and while harboring plans to escape her bondage, never does and eventually adopts the family as her own. May, whose “husband” is a sickly, brain-damaged 14-year boy, manages to find escape through taking a growing number of small but well-paid stereotyped roles as a Chinese peasant or helpless maiden in a series of Hollywood’s wartime films. She spends luxuriously on both herself and her family, but never engages with her new family, nor with reality. May, in essence, remains the frivolous teenager of her Shanghai days, with a strong survival instinct and fearing only the encroachment of age, while Pearl matures and adapts, even as she grows increasingly fearful about her and her family’s lack of security as the Communist revolution in China triggers a violent anti-Communist/anti-Chinese response inside the US.

Through it all, the sisters and their shared history have an emotional bond that keeps them together, but that bond becomes increasingly frayed once they reach the U.S. and comes near to rupturing altogether with the outbreak of tragedy in the family. The author’s conclusion, perhaps paving the way for a sequel or perhaps not knowing how to end her story, was provocative but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 31: The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan

Amazon: “Beijing, sometime in the near future: a month has gone missing from official records. No one has any memory of it, and no one could care less—except for a small circle of friends, who will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the sinister cheerfulness and amnesia that have possessed the Chinese nation. When they kidnap a high-ranking official and force him to reveal all, what they learn—not only about their leaders, but also about their own people—stuns them to the core. It is a message that will astound the world.

A kind of Brave New World reflecting the China of our times, The Fat Years is a complex novel of ideas that reveals all too chillingly the machinations of the postmodern totalitarian state, and sets in sharp relief the importance of remembering the past to protect the future.”

This book is allegedly banned in China, and no wonder: it’s a chilling story that blends fiction and reality to construct an image of modern China, and if not China of exactly today, then the China of ~5 years from now. The novel introduces several characters with a range of lifestyles, motivations, and adaptations to the realpolitik of the Communist Party. The protagonist is not himself prone to revolutionary ideas, but he finds himself “taking the red pill” when he chooses to pursue a woman who has gone into hiding out of protection from the Party. He is one of those who has “forgotten” the lost month, but the woman he loves and a few other friends from the past remember vividly the crackdowns and fear that the government appears to have completely erased. When he falls in with them, he doesn’t begin to remember with complete clarity what happened, as they do, but he better understands his periodic feelings of unease and disillusionment with the seeming happiness and naiveté around him.

As a psuedo-documentary, this book works really well. The characters are fictional, and the specific conflict in the story (alleged government orchestration of an entire month being erased from public consciousness and history) is also fictional. However, the suggestions of power hierarchies and international political maneuvering are 100% believable, if not based in literal truth — and they might very well be, but I can’t consider myself suitably well-informed on  the interactions of the Party and middle-class Chinese to know for sure.

As a fictional novel, the pacing and structure are a little lacking. The “big reveal” when the characters kidnap the Party leader takes place as an enormous infodump that spans close to twenty pages (I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s quite a lot,) and though it’s effective in the “pseudo-documentary” format I mentioned above, as a climax to the story it’s too overwhelming in scope to be punchy and effective. The characters do get the answer to their question, and then essentially the novel ends, but when “the answer to the question” reads like a senior thesis on contemporary Chinese politics, the effect on me at the end of the book was like “What just happened?”

Overall, I’d recommend this book as it was absolutely interesting and revealing. Be prepared for the quick shift from fiction to (alleged) nonfiction at the end, though.

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 20: Animal Farm by George Orwell

I decided to re-read Orwell’s allegorical anti-Stalinist satire since I was way too young to understand it the first time I read it. (Aside: an ambitious young reader, I saw the title and must have thought to myself, “Yay, animals!” Alas, these were not the cuddly animals I was accustomed to from the likes of James Herriot.)

So, yeah, this made a lot more sense to me this time — I’m not going to recap in depth because I’m going to assume most people have read this one. Essentially it’s the tale of a revolution gone wrong thanks to government corruption, except here you’ve got pigs = the government, and the rest of the farm = the populace.

It’s a pretty great book, and a short read. Orwell is great at creating a sense of dread and foreboding that carries through the entire novel, and he pulls no punches in sacrificing some of the more prominent and beloved “characters” in order to demonstrate the brutality of the regime. Even today, with communism less of an overt “threat” to the US, there are valuable messages here about power and corruption in the leading/ruling class.

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 05: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Can you tell I’m trying to catch up on my reviews? Well, okay, we’re probably not all following each other THAT closely. Anyway.

Here we have the story of two worlds: Urras and Anarres. Urras is meant to be an analog of our Earth, and Anarres is described as its habitable moon, albeit harboring some pretty tough conditions. The main plotline is constructed in parallel around the protagonist Shevek, a theoretical physicist, mathematician, and Anarresti. He grows to feel the necessity of traveling to Urras in order to progress further in his field, an action that is welcomed by Urras and abhorred by his fellow Anarresti.

Anarres was founded as a refuge for a colony of what may best be described as uber-communists or collectivists, based on our language. The title “The Dispossessed” refers to their extreme disavowing of anything insinuating personal possession: a blanket that I usually sleep with is not “my blanket” but “the blanket,” and an offer to share the blanket is not “Would you like to share my blanket?” but “Would you like to use the blanket that I use?” They are anarchistic and accept no government or currency, and they volunteer to perform work where it is needed, sometimes based on special interest or talent, and sometimes not. Shevek describes Anarres (I am paraphrasing here) as a place where it is not easy to live, but it is rewarding.

And if Anarres is the most extreme form of communism, then on Urras we are treated to the most extreme form of capitalism. As a capitalistic society that tends to pontificate often about our bitter end, we have a better idea about what that may look like: class warfare, feuding nations, and some totalitarianism thrown in for good measure.

For obvious reasons, the two societies don’t understand each other, but the Urrasti are portrayed as having more of a curiosity about Anarres, while Anarresti find even the neutral mention of Urras to be distasteful and can’t fathom the appeal whatsoever of such a place.

The Dispossessed explores politics, economics, religion, and of course  — it is Le Guin! — gender issues. It’s beautifully constructed around all of the aforementioned social issues, but also around Time, the focus of Shevek’s study. Shevek spends the majority of the novel developing his “Simultaneity Principle,” which is essentially a new way of explaining Time that incorporates physics, philosophy, and mathematics, and does not subscribe to the linear model of time we are familiar with. As such, the novel doesn’t progress in a strictly linear fashion. The chapters alternate between taking place on Urras and Anarres, with what are undoubtedly different periods of time in Shevek’s life unfolding simultaneously. Le Guin is a master at these “fish out of water” stories that result from the meeting of people from such starkly different backgrounds. It’s a pretty dense read and something that will take several sittings to get through, but regardless I wholeheartedly recommend it. The Dispossessed, for me, is poignant, provocative, and above all engaging.

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