Scenes from Bethlehem (2012)

Why Jane Austen Rocks

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“I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” –Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen lived from 1775-1817, and her novels came out between 1813 and 1818. She grew up the daughter of a rector in Steventon, England.   She was similar to many of her literary heroines in that her family was a member of the gentry, although at the lower end in terms of income. She was close to her large family, especially to her brothers. She never married, but enjoyed her nieces and nephews.

I know what you are thinking: BORING!   The pathetic spinster lived a boring life. She probably spent her days sipping tea, doing needlework, and trying not to let her breasts fall out of those ridiculous dresses they wore.

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Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC Mini-Series version of Pride and Prejudice

 Seriously, Elizabeth Bennett needs to be careful not to bend over too far or Colin Firth will get quite an eyeful.

But, back to my point. Jane may well have sipped a lot of tea, but she nonetheless rocked. Maybe not like Joan Jett:

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Image found on http://feminema.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/joan_jett.jpg

But perhaps something like this:

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Tina Fey at the SAG Awards

 Yes, Tina Fey.

Some of Austen’s fans (and many of her detractors—most of whom have not even read her) focus on the romantic, costume-drama side of Austen. Austen is all about silly women hunting for husbands rather than doing something more important, like getting a job or hunting for lions or drinking a lot of absinthe in European cafes.

While it’s true that there is a fair amount of husband-hunting going on in Austen’s novels, it is also true that women of the gentry had no other way of making a living. Getting married WAS their job.   Many women could not even inherit their father’s property because English inheritance law favored sons. Is it any wonder that Mrs. Bennett is obsessed with finding husbands for her five (yes FIVE) unmarried daughters?

But I digress. The real reason Jane Austen Rocks is because of her snark. She is hilarious in her skewering of the pretentious, the ridiculous, the idiotic, the pathetic, and the self-deluded, which is just about everyone. In other words, she is Tina Fey.

What makes Austen even more remarkable, in my humble opinion, is that her characters, especially Elizabeth Bennett, manage to remain reasonably happy even though they live such restricted lives among such an assembly of knuckle-heads. Sister Jane manages to be happy by being blissfully ignorant of the baser side of human nature. The same cannot be said of Elizabeth Bennett. She recognizes everybody’s flaws, laughs at them, and yet still retains her good humor, rather than sinking into a black hole of bile or shutting herself off from the world and her responsibilities the way Mr. Bennett does.

While Pride and Prejudice ends on a happily-ever-after note, with the worthy heroines marrying rich men—for love—Austen’s own life did not have such an ending. She never did marry, and she was forced to live off of her brothers, without even a stable home of her own. However, I can’t say for sure, but it certainly seems from what we know about her is that she was just fine nonetheless.

In other words, Jane Austen rocks because she is an example of how a person can use her mind, spirit, and wit to keep her “head above water” and enjoy the spectacle that our fellow human beings offer us.

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Jennifer Ehle and David Bamber in 1995 BBC Version of Pride and Prejudice

As long as we are not forced to marry said spectacle, that is.

Random Stuff I’ve Learned by Reading Too Many Novels: Bear Bile

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Products Made from Bear Bile

In Lisa See’s novel Flower Net, attorney-detective team David Stark and Liu Hulan surmise that the murders they are investigating are related to Chinese organized crime—more specifically, to a triad called the Rising Phoenix.   They get a break in their case when they arrest a Rising Phoenix courier for smuggling contraband into the United States. This illegal substance is highly sought after and worth a great deal of money on the black market.

Is it heroin? No. This substance is more valuable than heroin: it is bear bile. According to a character in See’s novel, “Dried bear bile salts sell for anywhere between two hundred and fifty to seven hundred dollars a gram compared to three hundred dollars for heroin” (178).

Bear bile, I learned, is a substance that has long been used in Chinese medicine. According to website of The Journal of Chinese Medicine, bear bile has

“traditionally been used in Chinese medicine to, i. clear heat from the Heart and Liver and stop spasms (for example childhood convulsions, epilepsy, eclampsia, delirium following extensive burning etc.); ii. clear heat and resolve toxicity (for example sores, carbuncles etc.); iii. clear and drain Liver heat and benefit the eyes (for example severely red, painful and swollen eyes etc.); iv. clear heat and eliminate childhood nutritional impairment.”

Westerners who scoff at traditional Chinese medicine might be interested to know that modern, western researchers have found that bear bile “contains the greatest amounts of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) of any species of mammal. UDCA is known to modify cholesterol absorption and excretion and is used in the treatment of gall stones, biliary cirrhosis, and liver cancers.” (Journal of Chinese Medicine.)

In other words, the bile has proven medical value. Unfortunately, the extracting the bile from bears causes them enormous pain. Furthermore, the bears are kept in tiny cages their entire lives. These cages are so small the bears can never even stand or sit up, much less move around. To put it simply: the process of obtaining bear bile is extraordinarily cruel to the animals. Because of the cruelty of the practice and because there are now synthetic forms of ursodeoxycholic acid available, there is a growing movement in China to stop the practice, as the New York Times reported about a year ago:

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Mu Chen/European Pressphoto Agency

Caged bears awaiting bile extraction

Importing and exporting the bile is already illegal. This of course does not stop people who are motivated by the profits of trade.

Although the traffic in bear bile makes for a riveting detective novel, the practice is sickening. I hope the burgeoning animal rights movement in China gains momentum and puts an end to this practice soon.

 Works Cited

“Asiatic Black Bear.  Use in Traditional Medicine.”  website of the Journal of Chinese Medicine.  http://www.jcm.co.uk/endangered-species-campaign/asiatic-black-bear/use-in-traditional-medicine/

Jacobs, Andrew. “Folk Remedy Extracted From Captive Bears Stirs Furor in China.”  New York Times.  May 21, 2013

See, Lisa.  Flower Net.  New York: Random House, 2008.

Part 1 of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China: Common Expressions

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Lisa See
Lisa See

 

Chinese Lessons: Part I

I will be travelling to China later this summer. To prepare, I have stocked up on books about China. I am currently reading two of them:

  • China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn
  • Flower Net by Lisa See, a detective novel set in the U.S. and China.

**Both of these books were published in the 1990s. I do not know to what extent their information is out-of-date.**

From both of these books, I am learning some key terms and sayings that shed some light on Chinese history and culture. Although one book is non-fiction and the other fiction, the two works reinforce each other with the terms and themes they introduce.

Overview        I have learned so far that I am a foreign devil who should be careful not to bang dakuan anybody, lest I get a reputation for being porcelain with scars. I can expect Chinese people to be polite and hospitable to me, but I should not expect to learn anything about them beyond superficial niceties. I haven’t a clue where my laojia is, which only reinforces my barbarian status. I have no guanxi in China, which is a nation of reinzhi, so I should be particularly careful to sweep the snow in front of my own doorstep and to not bother about the frost on my neighbor’s roof. I know that the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot, so I won’t stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. Otherwise, the God of Thunder will smash my tofu hide into a pancake!

If that is not enough information for you, here is a brief guide to some common terms and sayings.

Glossary:

Every Chinese person is governed by a “triangle” instituted by the Communists::

  • the dangan, the secret personal file, which is kept by local police stations and work units. This file contains a record of political mistakes (such as criticizing the government) and errors in behavior (such as fornication). This information follows a person throughout their lifetime, keeping him from getting a job, being promoted or moving from province to province.
  • the danwei or work unit, which provides employment, housing, and medical care.
  • The hukou or residency permit, which essentially keeps people from moving away from the areas in which they were born.

When a Chinese person meets another Chinese person, he/she needs to know his laojia, his “ancestral home,” where his family came from—meaning the village of his ancestors. (Kristof and Wudun 38) For Americans, knowing one’s ancestral home is considered a mildly interesting, but essentially useless piece of information. For me, at least, a person’s laojia matters not a jot. In China, it is absolutely essential information.

Guanxi = relatives or friends in high places who could help/protect one. Having guanzi is essential for success. My sources tell me China is corrupt on a mind-boggling level, and without connections, one is doomed.

China is governed by Renzhi (rule by individuals), rather than Fazhi (rule of law). Sure, there are laws on the books, but they seem almost irrelevant. The rulers (from the top of the hierarchy all the way down) seem to do whatever they want.

On Foreigners:

  • Non-Chinese people are “foreign devils,” if not barbarians, and are all potentially dangerous.
  • Chinese people are instructed to not to say what they think around foreign devils. “Don’t show anger or irritation. Be humble and careful and gracious. . . Draw them in. Let them think they have a connection to you, that they owe you, that they should never cause you any embarrassment. This is how we have treated outsiders for centuries” (See 52).
  • Sheryl Wudunn, a Chinese-American journalist, was called jiayangguizi, afake foreign devil. (Apparently, her Chinese heritage prevents her from being a “real” foreign devil.)

Being porcelain with scars = being a loose woman.

Bang dakuan = to pick a person up (in the sexual sense.)

Quotations and Common Sayings

“Be sure to prevent any contact between the barbarians [non-Chinese people] and the population.” –Emperor Qianglong, October 11, 1793, ordering the authorities to keep foreign visitors from talking to Chinese (Indicating the long tradition of China keeping itself isolated from the outside world.)

“Those who use the past to criticize the present should be put to death, together with their relatives.” –Li Si, Chinese prime minister in the third century B.C. (58) (Perhaps a bit brutal?)

So much in China followed the principle leigong da doufu, the God of Thunder smashes the tofu.” In other words, the powerful crush the weak. (Kristoff and Wudun 5)

Seeing is easy, learning is hard. –Chinese proverb (taken from Insight Guides: China)

Government policy was neijin, waisong, meaning “tranquility on the surface and repression on the inside” (Kristoff and Wudun 24).

Lu fen dan, biaomian guang: it’s shiny on the outside, just like donkey droppings. (Said of false facades)

The Chinese imperial tradition recognized no place for individual rights. Everyone tried to blend in according to the social norms; otherwise the authorities would qiangda chutou naio, “shoot the bird that flies in front of the flocks.” (K and W 280)

The culture of silence derives in part from the traditional Chinese emphasis on keeping one’s head down. A popular saying reminds people that “the roof beam that sticks out is the first to rot” (K and W 254).

Sweep the snow in front of your own doorstep, and do not bother about the frost on your neighbor’s roof. (In other words, mind your own business.)

———————-

I am American rather than Chinese, so you, my dear readers, do not have to mind your own business.  If you are knowledgeable about China and you find this information wrong-headed, please let me know.  Feel free to enlighten me on other aspects of China you think I should know about!

WWW.Wednesdays: What are you reading?

The blog “Should Be Reading” started a series called http://www.Wednesdays.

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To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next

Here are my answers for May 21, 2014.

What are you currently reading?

Two books, both on China.

  • One is nonfiction, a reportial  on China by husband-wife journalist team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn  called China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power. I am almost half-way through. I know so little about China that I cannot comment on how accurate it is.  It is already 20 years old, so I would suspect it is at least somewhat outdated.   However, it is highly readable, engaging, and informative–especially for a reader (like me) whose knowledge of contemporary China is hazy at best.  Some of the reviewers said they focused too much on the sensational rather than the ordinary.  That may be true, but perhaps that is to be expected from journalists.  In any case, I love it so far and would recommend it to others interested in China.
  • A mystery novel set in China called Flower Net by Lisa See.  Lisa See is Chinese-American (as is Sheryl Wudunn, by the way).  This is the first of her “Red Princess” novels which feature American attorney David Stark and Chinese detective Liu Hulan.  I have a soft spot for mystery novels set in foreign countries, so I am really enjoying it.   See is obviously writing for people who know little about China.  She often inserts comments into the narrative like “Chinese people are quite reticent so….”    On the one hand, this seems intrusive, but on the other hand, I find cultural insights informative.    There is actually quite a bit of overlap of themes between China Wakes and Flower Net.

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Her by Christa Parravani.  I did a post on this book last week.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Not sure.  I have so many books piled up, begging me to read them!  But maybe this one:

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I heard an interview with him on NPR. He tries to answer the question of why some children succeed while others fail. He believes much of it has to do with character rather than with IQ or other cognitive traits.

What about you?  What have you read recently?

Jerusalem

Maybe someday, I will be able to write about Jerusalem.  At this point, though, my mind reels whenever I think of it.  Is there any other city–holy to three different religions–that is such a complex, explosive stew of religion(s), history, culture, hatred and love?

In the meantime, here are a few photos I took when I visited in 2012.

 

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Gethsemane

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In the souk

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In the souk

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Wailing Wall

 

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Al-Aqsa Mosque

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Throngs of pilgrims on Orthodox Easter

My Son is a Murderer (Maybe): William Landay, “Defending Jacob”

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I am not spoiling the plot in my discussion below. The events I mention occur early in the novel.

I have a confession to make. I am a book snob. The vast majority of novels I read are classified as “literary fiction” or “classics” or “books that are supposed to be good for you but are actually boring, confusing, and/or depressing.” Occasionally, I read mystery novels set in foreign countries just for fun, but I don’t expect anything from them behind light entertainment and some cool references to exotic places.

Therefore, when one of my book clubs picked William Landay’s Defending Jacob to read, I wasn’t expecting much. I was wrong. Defending Jacob, written by a former district attorney, is indeed a fast-paced crime thriller and a total page-turner. But it is much more than that. It is also a thoughtful, probing exploration of love, family, responsibility, and self-deception. It made me think and it made me feel. I highly recommend it, not only for crime thriller fans, but also for book snobs like myself.

Imagine you and your spouse are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, solid citizens who have done everything right. You are a district attorney whose career is devoted to prosecuting criminals so that you can keep your community safe. You and your spouse devoted your lives to raising a child lovingly, in a good “child-friendly” suburb. Family is everything to you.

Then one day, your 14-year old child is accused of murdering a classmate. What do you do? This scenario is the premise of Defending Jacob. While the legal drama is part of the plot, the most interesting thread to me is the effect the accusation has on the family.   Andy Barber, the father and narrator of the story, responds with a categorical “no.” No, my son did not commit a crime. He is innocent. Someone else did it. End of story. This is his position and he never wavers from it.

His wife, Laurie, has a different reaction. While she mostly believes her son did not do it, she has nagging doubts. She starts probing in their past, remembering the times Jacob behaved badly as a child and wonders if those were signs of something deeply wrong. Andy thinks she is being ridiculous. Jacob was just being a normal boy. Laurie keeps asking questions and is not reassured by the answers. What if Jacob DID do it? Wouldn’t that mean they as parents were responsible in some way? The agony of grappling with these questions derails Laurie long before the trial concludes. We know that no matter what the outcome of the trial is, she—and their family—will never be the same.

The questions that torment Laurie still reverberate in my mind days after reading this novel, and I don’t even have children.

What about you? How would you react if your beloved child were accused of a heinous crime? Would you be an Andy or a Laurie? What is the right response?

 

The Twin Tragedies: “Her” by Christa Parravani

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Christa Parravani, Her.

I don’t know how to write what I’m going to write without sounding heartless. Perhaps I am heartless. Let me say in my defense, though, that generally speaking I love memoirs and novels about people struggling with mental illness, heartbreak, addiction and so forth. For example, I LOVE Marr Karr’s memoirs The Liars Club and Lit. (I haven’t yet read the third one, Cherry). They are about her highly dysfunctional childhood and her young adulthood in which she struggled with alcoholism. I worship Karr’s writing ability. I also love Sylvia Plath’s work, especially the poetry she wrote when she was on a downward spiral to suicide. I also adore Anne Lamott’s memoir writing about her troubled years of self-destruction.

So I thought I would be moved by Parravani’s Her, a memoir about growing up with an identical twin sister who eventually killed herself. I wanted to be moved and even haunted, the way other readers said they were. The truth, though, is that I was so bored reading the memoir that I didn’t even finish it. I read about 150 pages and that was only because my book club was discussing it. The reality is that I just didn’t care what happened to the narrator.

Yes, that sounds harsh when I write it down. To be clear, what happened to the two sisters, especially, Cara, was horrifying. I’m not giving anything away when I say that Cara was the victim of an especially brutal rape and was never the same afterwards. She became addicted to heroin and eventually died of an overdose. Whether or not this particular overdose was a suicide wasn’t clear to me, but in any case Cara was headed in the direction of suicide. This is of course terrible and I do feel badly for her and for Christa who reeled from the aftermath of her twin’s untimely death.

My critique is not of the flesh-and-blood sisters in real life, but of the quality of writing of the memoir. Parravani made it very clear that the sisters, especially Cara, were unusually close, even for twins. (Cara actually came along on Christa’s honeymoon, uninvited!). She also made it clear that both were messed up, not surprisingly, given their childhood. But frankly, that’s all I could really gather about the sisters. I didn’t get a sense of either of them as full-fledged people. When Parravani was not writing about her pain, she focused almost exclusively on mundane details of her life (such as the clothes she wore, the way her house was decorated, etc.)

To be honest, the parts that I DID gather about them made me find them not particularly likeable. The author seemed narcissistic, self-involved, and without any sense of self-awareness. The main thing I learned about Cara, the dead sister (apart from her self-destructive behavior), was that she was beautiful and used her beauty to screw with men (literally and figuratively). All I could really gather about Christa is that she found herself and Cara to be the only people in the world that really seemed to matter. Maybe that’s what rubbed me the wrong way. If you don’t care about anybody but each other, why should we readers care about you?

Mary Karr and Anne Lamott write about serious problems, their own and their family members. What makes them so much better as memoirists, in my humble opinion, is that they are brutally clear-eyed about their own shortcomings. They are also funny as hell. Christa Parravani does not share either of these qualities. I know she was in pain when she wrote this, and I do empathize with that.  However, reading her memoir makes me realize that readers need more to “grab on to” than just a stranger’s pain if we are going to find it worthwhile to spend so much time with their thoughts.

Based on the reviews I’ve read, I believe I am a minority in my reaction to this book. Please feel free to respond with me in the comments if you feel differently than I do.

WWW Wednesdays, May 14

The blog “Should Be Reading” started a series called http://www.Wednesdays.

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To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next

Here are my answers for May 14, 2014.

What are you currently reading?

Her by Christa Parravini. (I haven’t actually started it yet, but I plan to do so tonight.) It’s a memoir of a woman whose identical twin died of an overdose in her 20s.

What did you recently finish reading?

Defending Jacob by William Landay. This is a terrific crime thriller. I read it in a day because it was such a page turner. The law/crime aspects were well-done, but I was particularly enthralled by his depiction of a family unravelling after their son is accused of murder.

What do you think you’ll read next?

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I heard an interview with him on NPR. He tries to answer the question of why some children succeed while others fail. He believes much of it has to do with character rather than with IQ or other cognitive traits.

What about you?  What have you read recently?