Sunday, December 27, 2009

Wild Ginger

In Wild Ginger Anchee Min introduces us to two teenaged friends who grow up during China's Cultural Revolution. Many books expose readers to the brutality and betrayals that marked this age. Min adds to the usual expected experiences by focusing on Wild Ginger, whose grandfather was French and thus gave her light colored eyes, and her admiring friend Maple. Both are victims of the class bully, who has the power of the Red Guards behind her. Yet Wild Ginger whose mother's death forces her to scrounge to survive, gains power when she is honored for catching a thief. We soon see her transform into a Model Maoist.

The story reads fast and is detailed and accurate. Of course, when a handsome boy enters the picture romance ensues followed by sex and betrayal. The ending was a surprise, though I knew the story wouldn't end happily.

After reading a few books on this era, one gets saturated. If you have't read many, this is an easy, interesting read.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time chronicles Greg Mortenson's journey from mountain climber to one man NGO powerhouse, as he takes on the challenge of building schools in remote areas of Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan. Mortenson is a nurse by profession and lived a rather hand to mouth peripatetic existence centered around saving money for the next climb. An unplanned stop in Pakistan where he's nursed back to health in Korphe, a remote Pakistani village. He promises to build a school for this forgotten town.

In the beginning he does bumble along. He has no clue how to raise funds. He's got no savings so even the needed $20K is well beyond his reach. Lucky breaks interspersed with cultural misunderstanding characterize his early experiences. It takes longer than he figured but in the end he does build a school for Korphe. From that school, others follow and in time Mortenson gains wisdom and builds trust in the region as he builds school after school. Along the way he faces conflicts with extreme Muslims, kidnappings and money problems. Yet he perseveres and his mission flourishes.

The book is part hagiography, though we do see some of Mortenson's short comings, e.g. his lack of organization skills and his early refusal to hire staff. Yet there's no arguing that he's doing good work. More power to him.

In the early chapters I wished that the book were written in the first person, but then it's clear that Mortenson's not going to take time off from his NGO to write about himself. His story is compelling, but sometimes the prose was overblown, and sometimes it was just mundane. A better co-author, like Tracy Kidder, who did a great job chronicling Paul Farmer's work in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the Worldwould be even better. Kidder was more objective and his subject was just as admirable.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Celebrating Another Law School Failure

It's the birthday of Gustave Flaubert, (books by this author) born in Rouen, France (1821). His father was a surgeon, and the family was one of the most respected in Rouen. He was nonplussed about the prospect of leaving Rouen for to Paris to go to law school. He wrote to a friend: "I'll go study law, which, instead of opening all doors, leads nowhere. I'll spend three years in Paris contracting venereal diseases. And then? All I want is to live out all my days in an old ruined castle near the sea."

Although he enjoyed Paris for its brothels, he didn't like much else. He failed his law exams and ended up collapsing, dizzy and then unconscious. It was the first of many such episodes throughout his life, probably epilepsy, and Flaubert gave up on law, left Paris, and moved to a house in Croisset, near Rouen.

He worked hard on his first novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, and he thought it was a masterpiece. He spent four days reading it aloud to two friends, and he wouldn't let them comment until the end, at which point they suggested that he burn it. So he stopped working on it although it was eventually published in its finished form more than 25 years later, and even then, he considered it his best novel.

Flaubert traveled for a while, and then he started a new project, a novel about a doctor's wife named Emma who tries to fill her empty life by having affairs. He wrote carefully, working long hours, agonizing over each word. He wrote to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet: "Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph." But after five years of work, he finished his novel, which he published in installments in 1856, and it was Madame Bovary.

In 1911, The New York Times reported that Madame Bovary had been voted by the French as the "best French novel." In 2007, editor J. Peder Zane published a book called The Top Ten, in which he asked 125 contemporary writers to name what they consider "the ten greatest works of fiction of all time," andMadame Bovary was number two, after Anna Karenina.

Gustave Flaubert, who said, "I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well-heated room, with the books one loves and the leisure one wants."

From The Writers' Almanac

Friday, December 11, 2009

From the Writers' Almanac

It's the birthday of cartoonist and writer Ashleigh Brilliant, (books by this author) born in London (1933). He's famous as a writer of epigrams, and best known for what he calls his Pot-Shots, which are an illustration with a one-liner below. 

He limits his sayings to 17 words, and many of them are found in the titles of some of his books: I Have Abandoned My Search for Truth, and Am Now Looking for a Good Fantasy (1980), We've Been Through So Much Together, and Most of It Was Your Fault(1990), and most recently, I'm Just Moving Clouds Today, Tomorrow I'll Try Mountains (1998).

(This is the sort of guy I could marry.)