The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin

The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin is another instance for me of ‘me and my big mouth,’ as Bugs Bunny frequently said (the latter phrase, not the entire sentence). It looked interesting, and since it was old I figured I could get a free pdf copy for my Kindle (I have a Kindle, but I only use it to read free books). So, I told Kim I’d take this one. However, each pdf I found was a different length, with differing numbers of chapters. I couldn’t figure out whether I had the whole thing or not, so I just went and bought hard copy…all five volumes (Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, and Volume V). Yup, I’d put myself down for a five volume, 2480 page, monster of 18th century Chinese literature.

And, some people are going to start railing right away when I even call it The Story of the Stone. Apparently, the book has been translated with various titles: The Story of the Stone, Dream of the Red Chamber, Red Chamber Dream, and A Dream of Red Mansions. Heck, the book itself gives more titles than even that. I’m told that Dream of the Red Chamber is most correct, but my copies all say The Story of the Stone and The Story of the Stone is what was listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.  As such, for this review I’m going to keep talking about The Story of the Stone.

Nor is the title the only confusion. There seems to be some dispute over at least part of the authorship. There is little dispute (at least as far as I know) that Cao Xueqin wrote the first 80 chapters, though apparently there were one or two people after him who did some editing. The last 40 chapters, however, may have been written by Gao E. Or, depending if you believe another set of people, the bulk of the material for the last 40 chapters was written by Cao Xueqin and then heavily edited by Gao E after Cao Xueqin’s death. Really, I have no idea. Heck, even when first published there was already different versions floating around. A complete text, and a real idea about who really wrote what, appears impossible to determine at this point.

For our purposes, let’s just stick to the story in the copies of the books that I have.

 (Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Arthur Golden.)

For the most part, The Story of the Stone details a wealthy and influential Chinese family (and some other closely related families), the Jia family, and their fall from fortune and favor. Of this family, Bao-Yu is pretty much the major character, a son who prefers hanging out with his girl cousins and such to study and advancement. Also, he is the human incarnation of a magical piece of jade that was rejected as building material for the heavens. He loves Dai-Yu, another immortal incarnated in human form who loves him as well, but is fated to be married to another. Around all this there is an incredibly richly woven tapestry of the incredible wealth of the Jia family, the debt they turn out to really be in, terrible fighting and betrayal, the crash of the Jia family, and so on. After all, this is a hell of a big book.

Really, though the life depicted is considerably old, the book does seem pretty modern for being almost three hundred years old in terms of characterization, realism (other than the spiritual elements that wander in and out), and structure. It definitely contains some interesting contrasts.

For example, as one might expect, there is a considerable amount of attention to status, politeness, and ritual that characterized the society from which the book came:

As she did so, she raised her head and saw Zhou’s wife with her two charges already standing in front of her. She made a confused movement as if to rise to her feet, welcomed the old lady with a look of unutterable benevolence, and almost in the same breath said rather crossly to Zhou Rui’s wife, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

By this time Grannie Liu was already down on her knees and had touched her head several times to the floor in reverence to her ‘Aunt Feng’.

‘Stop her, Zhou dear!’ said Xi-feng in alarm. ‘She mustn’t do that, I am much too young! In any case, I don’t know her very well. I don’t know what sort of relations we are and what I should call her.’

At the same time, there are certainly some crasser moments than I would have expected in a book of this time period (note, Qin Zhong and Darling are boys who are friends with Bao-Yu as a boy and attend the clan school with him):

            Jokey Jin, now thoroughly cock-a-hoop, wagged his head and tutted in a most provoking manner and addressed wounding remarks to no one in particular, which greatly upset Darling and Previous for whose ears they were intended. A furious muttered altercation broke out between them across the intervening desks. Jokey Jin insisted that he had caught Qin Zhong and Darling in flagrante delicto.

            ‘I ran into them in the back courtyard, kissing each other and feeling arses as plan as anything. I tell you they had it all worked out. They were just measuring themselves for size before getting down to business.’

This is a huge book, so it is hard to talk about everything inside. Summation is extremely difficult. The life of this family is meticulously detailed, both in the pomp of their extravagance and in how they meet their downfall. Amidst all this and a hundred other things, there are also some startlingly beautiful moments:

It was with such apprehensions that she made her way stealthily towards Green Delights, her intention being to observe how the tow of them were behaving and shape her own actions accordingly. Imagine her surprise when, just as she was about to enter, she heard Xiang-yun lecturing Bao-yu on his social obligations and Bao-Yu telling Xiang-yun that ‘Cousin Lin never talked that sort of rubbish’ and that if she did he would have ‘fallen out with her long ago.’. Mingled emotions of happiness, alarm, sorrow and regret assailed her.

Happiness:

Because after all (she thought) I wasn’t mistaken in my judgment of you. I always thought of you as a true friend, and I was right.

Alarm:

Because if you praise me so unreservedly in front of other people, your warmth and affection are sure, sooner or later, to excite suspicion and be misunderstood.

Regret:

Because if you are my true friend, then I am yours and the two of us are a perfect match. But in that case why did there have to be all this talk of ‘the gold and the jade’? Alternatively, if there had to be all this talk of gold and jade, why weren’t we the two to have them? Why did there have to be a Bao-Chai with her golden locket?

Sorrow:

Because though there are things of burning importance to be said, without a father or a mother I have no one to say them for me. And besides, I feel so muzzy lately and I know that my illness is gradually gaining a hold on me. (The doctors say that the weakness and anaemia I suffer from may be the beginnings of a consumption. So even if I am your true-love, I fear I may not be able to wait for you. And even though you are mine, you can do nothing to alter my fate.

So how do I sum up something that is too big for me to sum up? I guess I’ll just have to wing it and hope for the best.

The Story of the Stone is a captivating story. It’s one of the longer books I’ve ever read (though not the longest I don’t believe), but it’s well worth hanging in there. There aren’t a whole lot of books that take on something of this depth and scale, and not all that do manage to do so well with it. It’s a classic, and disapprovingly a classic that few I know are familiar with. I know it’s long, but I think more people I know should have read it. Those who manage it will have honored their literary ancestors.

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Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

First.  I almost always forget and have to go in and put it in later.  Here are the authors who thought Slaughterhouse Five deserved a ranking in their Top Ten.

1.  Kate Atkinson (which makes sense in regards to her latest novel, Life After Life)

2. Michael Connelly

3.  Douglas Coupland (I wonder if it’s pronounced like military coup-land, or Copeland?)

4.  Carl Hiassen

5.  George Saunders.

At first, I couldn’t tell if I liked Slaughterhouse Five.  It’s a strange little novel.  It’s meta-fiction but not.  Memoir fiction, but not.  Vonnegut was in World War 2, and was a POW in Dresden when the Dresden bombing happened.  The first chapter is all about his attempts to write a book about the experiences, and how that attempt dragged on for over twenty years.  He wrote the book on old wallpaper at one point.  He ends the first chapter this way;

“I look through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction.  The sun was risen upon the Earth when Lot entered into Zo-ar, I read.  Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.

So it goes.

Those were vile people in both those cities, as is well known.  The world was better off without them. 

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been.  But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

So she was turned into a pillar of salt.  So it goes.

People aren’t supposed to look back.  I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

I’ve finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun. 

This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”

The tale is of a soldier Billy Pilgrim.  Billy is a soldier in World War 2, but not really a soldier.  He doesn’t have a gun.  He’s supposed to be a chaplain’s assistant over there, but before he can even do that, he’s unmoored from everyone around him.  He ends up a POW.  Vonnegut will insert himself in certain parts of the story, after an event, he’ll say that so and so said this and that was him.  He’s honest in the first chapter that a lot of the things he writes about he did in fact see.  For instance, a soldier being executed for taking a teapot from a bombed home. 

The most interesting thing about Billy though, is not his POW status, not his marriage to his wife, with the rich dad who pays for Billy to go through optometry school.  It’s not even his alien abduction.  It’s the fact that he becomes unstuck in time.  He will see his future while living his past, and live his future while seeing his past. 

Confusing a little, isn’t it?  I started to really like the book though as I got more into it.  I thought it was actually brilliant as to what (I imagine) an ex soldier goes through, the only difference, that they never have “Flash forwards” and only “flash backs”.  The way the narrator describes Billy’s falls forward and back in time, you get the sense that he might just be talking about what a normal vet goes through when he flashes back.

This was my first Vonnegut book.  He’s a brilliant writer, even if I know I will probably like another book of his better than Slaughterhouse Five.   The way he says things, is just amazing. 

“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”

He has a character, an American who defected to the German side and then wrote treatises about the American POW.  In a monograph, he writes (and it’s amazing to me how true this still is today, Vonnegut captured American society perfectly, in my opinion)

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves.  To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be”.  It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor.  Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold.  No such tales are told by the American poor.  They mock themselves and glorify their betters.  The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question:  “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”  There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand-glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.  Americans like human beings everywhere, believe any things that are obviously untrue.  Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.  They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no m oney blame and blame and blame themselves.  This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class, since, say, Napoleonic times.   Many novelties have come from America.  The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor.  They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.  Once this is understood, the disagreeable behavior of American enlisted men in German prisons ceases to be a mystery.”

 

Also, after every death of anyone or anything, Vonnegut put “So it goes.”  I love the way it puts the casual feel to it, that death might have had to someone in World War 2 Europe.

Anyway, if you’re a fan of Chuck Pahlaniuk, and have not read Slaughterhouse Five, do so.  You’ll enjoy it 🙂  Oh.  And keep an eye out and give me your opinion on whether Billy Pilgrim was delusional and Vonnegut wanted us to see that, or whether we can’t accept Pilgrim as anything but delusional and Vonnegut wanted us to see that fact about ourselves.

Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore

I want to say right off the bat; I get kind of ticked off when one of the recommendations in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books is not for a specific book. I’ve seen some where someone just says all of the short stories by a particular author, or those of a specific period. It just seems vague and makes it difficult to pull together exactly what I’m supposed to be looking at for commentary.

Of course, that isn’t really the case with Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore. Primarily a late 19th/early 20th century Bengali lyric poet (though forced to work as a landlord on his family’s estates), Tagore wrote about 90 stories over his lifetime that were collected together as Galpo Guccho.

However, I didn’t manage to find anything when I went looking for Galpo Guccho (the spelling listed in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books). I did find references to Galpaguccha, but didn’t find an English copy of that either. I found various English collections of Tagore’s stories, but none had everything. There were always around thirty or so stories, but I had no apparent way of figuring out whether or not I could build a full set.

In the end, I ended up just looking at Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore. Only thirty of the ninety are inside, but I just couldn’t figure out whether all 90 were even in English. I’ve heard that some of Tagore’s stories are particularly difficult to translate, and I couldn’t find evidence anywhere of a complete English set. Heck, I couldn’t even be sure how to spell Galpaguccha. Selected Short Stories will just have to do.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Chitra Divakaruni.)

Anyway, the volume I looked at primarily has very short stories concentrating on various aspects of rural Bengali life. There is a lot of love, family duty, marriage, and all that sort of thing. Though very short, and sometimes being more what I would call slices as opposed to full stories, they call forth a whole vivid world (this portion selected from “Little Master’s Return” where a servant loses the charge he adores, raises his own son believing him to be a reincarnation of the lost master, and passes his son off as the real thing only to get banished, with an unwanted monthly stipend, by the young ‘master’ for his efforts):

One afternoon, when it was cloudy but did not look like rain, Raicharan’s capricious young master refused to stay at home. He climbed into his push-chair and Raicharan gingerly pushed it to the river-bank beyond the paddy-fields. There were no boats on the river, no people working in the fields: through gaps in the clouds, the sun could be seen preparing with silent fiery ceremony to set behind the deserted sandbanks across the river. Suddenly peace was broken by the boy pointing and calling, ‘Fowers, Channa, fowers!’ A little way off there was a huge kadamba tree on a wet, muddy stretch of land, with some flowers on its upper branches: these were what had caught the boys attention.

Beyond the descriptive power of the stories, I also noted an extreme amount of compassion in the stories. The compassion wasn’t always for the characters, though. Instead, the abundance of compassion throughout appeared to be directed at humanity in general (this portion being from “The Postmaster” where a young postmaster hires a poor girl to be his servant, the girls falls in love with him, and then abandons her when he resigns his post and leaves for his home town):

When he was on the boat and it had set sail, when the swollen flood-waters of the river started to heave like the Earth’s brimming tears, the postmaster felt a huge anguish: the image of a simple young village-girl’s grief-stricken face seemed to speak a great inarticulate universal sorrow. He felt a sharp desire to go back: should he not fetch that orphaned girl, whom the world had abandoned? But the wind was filling the sails by then, the swollen river was flowing fiercely, the village had been left behind, the riverside burning-ground was in view. Detached by the current of the river, he reflected philosophically that in life there are many separations, many deaths. What point was there in going back? Who belonged to whom in this world?

As I mentioned before, some stories seem like complete stories whereas others seem more like slices of life. Some end well, others poorly. Really, there is quite a variety in this collection, even if it isn’t the complete stories of Tagore.

In the end, I liked the stories a great deal. There was a fable-like quality to a lot of the stories and they were all pleasurable to read. I’m not sure that I was exactly floored, but I did only manage to get 30 of the 90. Maybe my opinion would change if I saw them all. Regardless, they are good stories. I am pleased I had the chance to expand my reading horizons in this direction.

King Lear–By the Bard himself.

Good news.  I have found my copy of the Top Ten.  Which is a relief, for both Dave and myself.  Otherwise, Dave, who lives 9 hours from me would have constantly had to keep looking up books and authors for me in it.

I read King Lear for this week.  The following authors all listed it in their top ten:  Michael Cunningham, Mary Gordon, Wally Lamb, Adam Haslett, Iain Pears, Robert Pinsky, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, and Scott Spencer.

I was really looking forward to reading King Lear.  The last time I did was 17 years ago, so I remembered very little of it.  I did remember that it was my favorite Shakespeare play.  Sadly, I was not as impressed this time around.  It was still amazing overall.  But it took me _forever_ to get into it.  Of course, that might have been a mood thing.  I have picked up The Thirteenth Tale repeatedly over the last few years and never have been able to get into it.  Recently, I attempted again and ADORED it.  So, it’s possible that had I read King Lear last week or two weeks from now, it would have been my favorite.

Some notes on King Lear and Shakespeare:

1.  I think one of the amazing things about Shakespeare is how deftly he captures human emotions and the human condition.  It’s the reason why his work has endured so long and so famously.  In King Lear, Lear demands his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia to profess their love for him, in exchange for a third of his kingdom.  Regan and Goneril profess a deep and abiding love for him.  Cordelia, of the opinion that one shouldn’t have the words for as deep as she loves him, refuses to speak and attempt to gain his favor.  He banishes her.  He then goes quite mad, and his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, despise him and drive him further over the brink of madness.  To me, it captured family dynamics, that in a way, still go on today.  The elderly parent, having slaved their life away, raising and providing for the children, gets old and sick.  More than one child, grown-up now, has stuck dear old Dad into a nursing home and gone about their merry way.  Regan and Goneril had no more use for Dad once his gifts had reached their end.  A lot of people have no use for their parents once they go from a being needed phase (the child needing the parent) to a needing phase (the parent needing the child).  This Is rambling on, I hope you get my point.

2.  I loved how the story contrasted against the betrayal of the daughters of Lear, and Edmund’s betrayal of his brother and his father (Gloucester).  I’ve noticed that in other Shakespeare plays, where he has two or three stories that mirror one another even without their intersections during the play.

3.  Either people were really dumb during Shakespeare times, or he employed a tactic that caused the necessity of “suspend your disbelief” to an extreme measure.  How many of his plays is someone disguised, like a son, or a favorite servant, daughter et cetera?  And in each one of these, until the person reveals himself/herself, no one catches on, not even those closest to them.  I’m sorry, but if Greg changed his clothes and grew out a beard and changed his speech patterns slightly, I do believe I’d still know him. 

4.  Shakespeare was great at insults.  Witness the following.

Kent: (a nobleman of Lear’s who Lear became upset with.  Kent then disguised himself and gallivanted around with Lear, who never once guessed whom it was)  “A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch; one whom I will beat into clamours whining if thou deny’st the least syllable of thy addition”.

Later in the play:

Lear: “I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad. 

I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell.

We’ll no more meet, no more see one another.

But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;

Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,

Which I must needs call mine.  Thou art a boil,

A plague-sore, or emobossed carbuncle

In my corrupted blood.  But I’ll not chide thee.  (Editorial Note:  Wow, if that isn’t chiding, I’m not sure I’d want to be “chided” by Lear)

Let shame come when it will, I do not call it.

I do not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,

Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove.

Mend when thou canst, be better at thy leisure;

I can be patient, I can stay with Regan,

I and my hundred knights.”

I think the next time I get into one of those ill advised fights with a moron on the internet, I will quote either one of these.  I can’t seem to help myself from arguing with idiots, so I might as well have a little more fun with it, eh?

5.  Note on reading Shakespeare, for those of you intimidated by it:

You have to give yourself a little bit into the play to get into the pace and tempo of the language.  Then, let yourself go.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand a word, or a phrase here or there.  Shakespeare is amazing enough to read, that you will get the main gist of the story even without understanding every little nuance.  You will still come away from it feeling that it was an amazing story.

6.  Fair warning:  Lear is considered one of the Shakespearean tragedies.  The thing about his tragedies?  There really isn’t much of a happy ending.

7.  That’s all.  But I leave you with the ending lines of King Lear.

Edgar: (Gloucester’s non bastard son who Edmund betrays and schemes against earlier in the play.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young.

Shall never see so much, nor live so long”.

 

 

 

 

The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad

I have to say that I haven’t run across very many comics in doing this blog. Really, I hadn’t intentionally done so in the case of The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad. I wasn’t avoiding it, but to be completely honest, I didn’t even realize this one was a comic collection. It just sounded weird and I went for it.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Madison Smartt Bell.)

Now, I tend to group the books I’ve read into categories. One such category is “the weirdest of the weird,” and then there is this book. Combining the surreal and the intellectual, simple art and complex art, philosophy and the nature of perception, The Book of Leviathan is one of the oddest comics I’ve ever come across.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to review this one. Since it is a comic collection, there is no overarching plot I can discuss. Quotes aren’t real easy or helpful either. However, we do have a baby that doesn’t have a face. His name is Leviathan. He carries a stuffed bunny around, thinks various metaphysical thoughts (though only ever actually verbalizing “Dep”), and ‘talks’ to a mysterious cat.

Let’s just consider a couple of strips (I apologize for the image quality, but if you really want to see the strips good then you should buy a copy of The Book of Leviathan for yourself). Since there isn’t a huge amount of text to quote, this seems like the best way to go. In the first, Leviathan contemplates the reversal of perspective presented by a mirror. Since left is right and right is left, he wonders what the reversal of himself would be. This he can imagine, but then he wonders what is the opposite of his bunny:

comic1

In the next strip, if you can believe this, the ghost of Hegel shows up to describe what such an anti-bunny would be:

comic2

I think these two strips present a pretty good picture of what The Book of Leviathan is all about.

Containing strange art, metaphysics, puns, and all sorts of other things, The Book of Leviathan is an odd little comic. It certainly has to be one of the odder ones I’ve ever run across. I’m not sure I fully ‘get it,’ but I enjoyed it. I know that much.