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It appears that I haven’t posted in almost exactly a month! Well, as I’ve said before, life happens. I had a wonderful Christmas with family even though it was colder than the Arctic up in the north country where they live. Then I came back down south, where we’ve been stuck in a deep freeze for the better part of the New Year. We even got a freak winter storm, which resulted in the first three days of classes being canceled. I’m excited to get back to my program, but who doesn’t love a snow day now and then? Tomorrow I’ll actually have to go to class. It will be a little strange to be a student again.

Anyway, I’m long overdue on several  book reviews, and I’m starting with T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville. This is one of those books that first caught my eye a few years ago, but I didn’t pick up, then it caught my eye again, but I didn’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Then I finally decided to just read it. I hadn’t read any of Boyle’s works before, but a colleague recommended one of his other books to me a couple years back- in fact, she said she stayed up all night to finish it because she couldn’t put it down. I didn’t go that far with The Road to Wellville, but it definitely kept my attention.

Originally, I picked up two Boyle books from the library: this one and Water Music. Despite the fact that it was Wellville that kept catching my eye, I decided to start with Water Music. And then I put it right back down about 4 pages in when the assumed main character began to be tortured. I’m pretty squeamish as it is, but perhaps especially so when it’s sprung on me at the very beginning of a new book. And it had such a pretty name…  I may attempt this one at a later time, but right now my reading schedule is full.

Anyhow. The Road to Wellville takes place in Battle Creek, Michigan, and mostly at the Sanitarium of Dr. Kellogg (yes, the Dr. Kellogg of Corn Flake fame). The story follows a plethora of delicious characters, including the somewhat epicurean Will Lightbody and his hypochondriac wife, who are a rich couple spending a few months at “the San” on the wife’s recommendation; Charlie Ossining, a young entrepreneur eager to cash in on the breakfast health food craze; the sordid, adopted son of Dr. Kellogg, George; and of course the luminous Dr. K. himself. These are the main players, set against a field of “patients” at the San- all of whom seem to have far too much time and money on their hands, constantly inventing maladies which the Doctor happily dispenses diagnoses and prognoses for, and the cast of business partners and investors Charlie is keen to convince. Little by little, the lives of the characters unravel, ironically set against what is supposed to be the healthiest place in the world. Boyle lambasts the place and the philosophies of Kellogg and his contemporaries. And yet, while the flaws are so apparent to the reader, it is easy to see how a privileged group of people could get sucked in to such a place in search of a cure-all for the slight imperfections that idleness has blown out of proportion. The book reads almost as a juicy tell-all of Kellogg and as each skeleton is revealed and quickly covered up again, you can’t help but cringe as you devour more.

Bottom line: Loved it. Totally grossed me out at times, but definitely a solid pick.

By the way, there’s a movie of this I want to see now that stars Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg. Anyone seen it?

I had intended to post sooner than this, thinking I’d be done with the book I started last weekend, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but luckily a lot of research (=work) materials arrived in the mail. Hurrah! So I’ve been poring over those all week.  I’ll catch up on reading this weekend. But in the meantime I’ve really been enjoying the articles I have to read. I’m helping my professor gather unusual words, which is hilarious when you read some of it. Take for example, this passage:

“And I be consarn my skin if them men wan’t too plague-taked lazy to tote them canvas bags theirse’ves, but they actually hord a passle of little boys to foller around atter ’em and fetch them things fur ’em. Hit wouldn’t do fur me to ketch my little Jeems Henry a-chawk eye’n fur great big, stroppin’ men like that, and gittin’ hisse’f called a ‘Catty.’ I’d warm his jacket fur him, fur bein’ so low-lifed, and besides that, I’d giv’ them fellers a piece of my mind.”**

How do you choose the unusual word in this passage? Don’t you just love it? If you’re not from the south, and you realized they were talking about golf, you get a gold star for the day 😉  What’s even funnier about this is that I understand the whole story (it’s all written like this) but my husband is pretty clueless about it. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed that where I’m originally from, I’ve met many people who speak a lot like that. It’s now a fairly endangered dialect, so I kind of feel like I’m in a secret club because I understand it.

By the way, the most interesting word I’ve come across in this group of articles is “circumvengemous,” which means “to do something in a roundabout way,” such as telling a story. I didn’t even know that one before reading these articles, but I love it! I’m going to make a point of using it and count how many funny looks I get. I love language.

**from Angeline Gits an Eyeful, by Cordia greer-Petrie, 1924

Recently I started reading Fruit of the Lemon, which looked interesting, has a nice cover, etc., but for some reason I just wasn’t really feeling it. Then last week, I ventured into the Big City (as opposed to the 20,ooo population town I’m staying in for the time being) that has not just a library, but a whole network of libraries. This isn’t a new concept to me, don’t worry! But I’ve only been back in the USA for less than a month and before that spent months in a country where English books are harder to find than hen’s teeth. So it felt fresh and..dare I say, novel to me all over again. (Don’t shoot me, please.)

Anyhow, at one of the City’s libraries, I spent a good two and a half hours wandering around and picking books that struck my fancy. The one that hooked me most was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which I’ve seen time and again on the bestseller table at B&N and other bookstores. I had picked it up before, but this time I guess it took. I promptly put down Fruit of the Lemon (with every intention of picking it up again someday) and started reading it in the library parking lot.

Now, as you can tell from most of my reviews, I am a pretty finicky reader. As a student of linguistics in grad school and of literature in undergrad, plus AP English lit in high school, I read with a pretty [overly] critical eye. But I also appreciate when writers step outside the box and dip into their creativity, which is exactly what the writers did here. The entire novel is told through a series of letters, mostly written by the main character, Juliet, and her publisher and new found friends on an island whose people she takes an interest in. I’m sure that many book bloggers have already read this one– I know I’m late on the uptake here, but I really loved this one! All of the characters are simultaneously quirky, three-dimensional, relatable, developed, and believable. Judging by the number of books I’ve read that lack characters who possess all these qualities, this is not an easy feat for a writer. I applaud the writers of this book for creating such a fun and realistic cast. The setting is equally intriguing: immediately after World War II. So many books are set within the time frame of the war or even the events leading up to it, but I’ve only found a few that address the confusion and grief that was left in its wake like this one does. The grim realities of the war and the subject of occupation are dealt with in a sensitive and very human way. This doesn’t mean that all horrific acts of the war are avoided, though– trust me, I flipped the page a couple of times because I couldn’t bear to read it. I suppose that’s my biggest downfall when reading: I have a soft heart and because of that I often miss bits of the plot because I can’t stand to read it.

I’m not going to spoil the story, but I practically cheered during the final pages. I wanted to give Juliet a high-five 🙂  And, given the events of the final pages, I thought it was fitting that the writers kept referencing Jane Austen. I also loved the humanity in the last third of the book. The characters dealt with very real emotions that exist even under the shade of war and rebuilding and recovering: jealousy, humor, compassion, all of them are there in the characters’ interactions despite the events that happened to all of them and that they are still struggling to deal with. It’s a wonderful representation of the human spirit and the resilience of people as a whole.

I think this book immediately found a nook in my heart to lodge itself in because I was reminded of my own experience of falling in love with an island. Now, I have never been through events as horrific as WWII (thank goodness), but I happened to discover a tiny island when I began researching endangered languages. Through my research, I contacted some people on the island and made many friends I still talk to. They opened their homes and hearts to me and graciously let me interview them. One older lady turned up unannounced at the guest house where I stayed during my visit last December, just to see if I wanted to go sight-seeing. Another let me stay in her home and, in addition to teaching me so much about the island and its language, told me to call her “mom.” This book brought those experiences back to me and made me remember that there are good people out there- the qualities these characters possess do not exist solely in these pages.

I look forward to reading more of the writers’ work. And to going back to my own island 🙂

Bottom line: Creative, engaging, entertaining, and it had special meaning to me. I loved it.

It’s Friday! Are you excited? I am, but not because it’s Friday. I’m excited because yesterday, after swallowing my pride and putting my humility on a plate to be stabbed at will, I e-mailed the professor whom I worked for for two years and announced that I was back in the USA and I would be returning to grad school for spring semester. I wanted his advice on how to continue with my plan of study, which can take one of several different paths from this point. He offered to call me so we could talk about it and he could give me the lowdown about what’s currently going on in our field. And he also offered me my old job back! Before I went overseas late last spring, I had worked for him through a research assistantship funded by my university. As he has professor emeritus status and is a pretty big figure in our field, the university has been giving him a research assistant every year even though he’s been officially retired for over a decade. Retired from teaching, but he puts in more hours than a full-time job on his research and books and projects, and I suspect he will continue to do so until the end of his days. I hope I can be like that someday. Anyway, this year, the university has been forced to tighten its belt a notch further, and they’ve cut all assistantships in the department except for a handful of teaching spots for doctoral candidates, it seems. I thought the financial situation of universities was on the upswing, or should be, but evidently I was wrong. However, being fairly well-to-do and desperate to finish some projects I had been helping him with, he has offered me my old job back and will pay me out of his own pocket. He had mentioned this a few months ago as a possibility, but now it’s real and he’s allowing me to start even though I’m three states away, and he says I can keep it up indefinitely because of the volume of work he has. Needless to say, I am ecstatic! That was the best job I’ve ever had, I love the work, he’s fun to work for, and now I get to do it again. I feel like I’ve finally caught a bit of a break in an otherwise tumultuous year.  Also on the positive side of things, I have an interview later this afternoon for a tutoring position. I’ve let myself relax, if only a little, and start to search for places to live when I return to the South in December. What a relief.

Anyway, onward to the book of the day!

I tackled Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth this past week. This is one of the more modern classics I had been meaning to read for a while, but it wasn’t quite what I expected. Now, I had never read any Buck before, so I really didn’t know what I was getting into. I knew that Buck had been raised in China and spoke fluent Chinese, and I had heard her famous quote about, when told to write what she knew, she said she wrote about China because all she knew was China. I’ll say now, as I’ve said before, that I absolutely love historical fiction about China and other parts of Asia. But there are some striking differences between The Good Earth and other books I’ve read about China that take place around the same time period. If memory serves, I believe Lisa See has written a novel or two that take place around the time of the 1911 revolution or just after. Lisa See is a wonderful writer and her prose is so lyrical. I adore her books, even if some of them (Peony in Love) struck me as downright bizarre. I suppose I expected The Good Earth to have some of the same romanticism or even sentimentality that is often found in historical fiction. Maybe I expected this because Buck seemed to have such a close relationship with China in her youth, and nostalgia often comes forth shaded by romanticism. However, this book had a rather impersonal tone, with the events told very matter-of-factly. The main character, the farmer Wang, is, well, a wang. (Pardon the terrible juvenile pun, but really!) The modern girl in me read page after page in disgust at how he took on a second wife purely for sex, ignored his first wife, didn’t bother naming his children, was incredibly selfish, and did whatever the hell he felt like for most of the story. In contrast, the main female character O-lan must bend to his every whim and is presented several times as animalistic, with Wang comparing both her appearance and character to that of an ox. This isn’t terribly surprising given the time period and the culture of that time period: women were worthless and are still considered much lower on the social hierarchy in Confucian society (trust me, I just came back from Korea), and so it wasn’t shocking to see all women referred to as “slaves,” but as we say in the South, it stuck in my craw.

But back to the writing style. Even as much of a moron as Wang is, it felt like Buck had little sympathy or animosity towards him. Again, it was just very matter-of-fact. We sometimes get perspective into his thoughts, but only as a means to justify the actions he takes. The only section of the book that seemed to have any emotion attached to it was the part when O-lan dies. But even then, it is Wang’s guilty conscience, not sentimentality or anything else, that moves him.

I find it interesting that this is the novel that reportedly introduced Americans to China. I wonder what the reaction of the first Americans who read this book was? At that time, our country was post-WWI and in the throes of the Great Depression. Could they relate to Wang’s troubles? What did they think of the women in the novel? This subject is more intriguing to me than the novel itself. Another thing I’m wondering about is if Buck intended any symbolism in this book, or if it truly is as straightforward as I found it. I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone out there who has read this.

This book is the first in a trilogy, and I think I might try to tackle at least the second book eventually. Perhaps it will shed more light on some of the questions I have about the book. I’d like to see if the other two are written in the same impersonal style and if it continues into one long family saga.

Bottom line: I find this novel elusive on several levels. But I find China and its people and culture to be elusive as well.

I’m starting this blog as a means of keeping a log of the books I’m reading. I am in my mid-20s, currently unemployed after leaving a terrible job overseas, and am in a long-distance marriage as my husband is still working in Asia for several more months to come. I am one semester away from completing my Master’s, but I cannot start that semester until January when the funding comes in. I am in a limbo of waiting for my life to become mine again, and in the meantime finding things to occupy my time.  Now that the jet lag has worn off, reading is my way of escaping the negativity that tries to creep into my mind about my situation. I’m in a small town staying with my parents, but luckily the library isn’t totally barren. I’m taking advantage of this waiting time to catch up on my reading since I haven’t had much time in the past few years to really read the things I want.