Bring Up the Bodies: Some Haiku

We have recently been enjoying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, on audiobook. This is the first time that we’ve actually read (or listened to) the same book at the same time, and it’s been such a juicy, hilarious and infuriating book to discuss. I found myself making up haiku about the various courtiers in Henry VIII’s court, and Kimberly was kind enough to humor me. Here’s the best two that we came up with:

Thomas Wolsey, by Unknown artist, 1589-1595, based on a work of circa 1520 - NPG 32 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Wolsey, Artist Unknown; © National Portrait Gallery, London

Cardinal Wolsey / was fat and wore a red cape / only Tom liked him

 

Jane Seymour, after Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1537 - NPG 7025 - National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Seymour, after Hans Holbein the Younger; © National Portrait Gallery, London

I won’t open this / letter from you but I will / kiss the envelope

Recommended Reading:

Leave your best Tudorian-inspired haiku in the comments!

 

Behind the Title: Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier lincoln in the bardo.jpgthis year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)

Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:

  1. Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
  2. Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
  3. Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
  4. Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
  5. Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
  6. Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo

Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.

willie lincoln

Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)

A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.

Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.

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Additional Reading:

Artists in Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy references a few artists in Far From the Madding Crowd and seems particularly influenced by those in the Dutch Golden age. The Golden age, which spanned the 17th century, paralleled the Baroque movement going on around much of Europe but favored realistic details over idealistic styling. In this time, many believed there was a hierarchy to paintings, listed here in descending order:

  • history paintings
  • portrait paintings
  • genre paintings
  • landscape paintings
  • still life paintings

The Dutch Golden Age saw numerous paintings produced in the “lower” groups. It is fitting that Hardy, who spends much of the novel describing the natural world surrounding his characters and developing his land of Wessex, would mostly reference the landscape artists of this time.

“but the grey, after years of sun and rain, had been scorched and washed out of the more prominent locks, leaving them of a reddish-brown, as if the blue component of the grey had faded, like the indigo from the same kind of colour in Turner’s pictures.”

J M W Turner (1775 – 1851) is an English Romanticist landscape painter. Like Hardy, he had a beginning in architecture. Turner is called “the painter of light” and is well known for his maritime scenes. He is also credited with elevating landscape paintings to the same status of historical paintings in his time. Despite the fact that more durable pigments existed at the time, Turner used paint materials that looked pleasing when freshly applied but faded very quickly, which Hardy may have been alluding to in the quote above.

Goldau and Fishermen at Sea

“The beauty her features might have lacked in form was amply made up for by perfection of hue, which at this winter-time was the softened ruddiness on a surface of high rotundity that we meet with in a Terburg or a Gerard Douw; and, like the presentations of those great colourists, it was a face which kept well back from the boundary between comeliness and the ideal.”

Gerard Terburg (also ter Borch) (1617 – 81) is a Dutch painter in Dutch Golden age known for his genre scenes and work with cloth textures. Gerard Douw (also Gerrit Dou) (1613 – 75) is another Dutch painter who lived in the Dutch Golden age. He was a pupil of the renowned Rembrandt and is known for his genre scenes and use of trompe l’oeil and strong chiaroscuro to create 3D forms. (For non-art people like myself, trompe l’oeil is French for “deceive the eye” and refers to creating the optical illusion that the subjects painted exist in 3D by using perspective. Chiaroscuro refers to the technique of using strong contrasts between light and dark tones to create 3D forms via highlights and shadows).

Lady at her Toilette (Terburg) and Girl Chopping Onions (Douw).

“The rain had quite ceased, and the sun was shining through the green, brown, and yellow leaves, now sparkling and varnished by the raindrops to the brightness of similar effects in the landscapes of Ruysdael and Hobbema, and full of all those infinite beauties that arise from the union of water and colour with high lights.”

Jacob van Ruisdael (Ruysdael) (1628 – 82) and Meyndert Hobbema (also Meindert) (1639 – 1709) are both Dutch landscape painters in the Golden age. Hobbema was actually a pupil of Ruisdael, who was considered the landscapist of his time. Ruisdael comes from a family of painters (his father, uncle, and cousin were painters as well). Nearly 700 paintings have been attributed to Ruisdael (though it is difficult to be sure when he and his family all signed using their last names), and his works went on to influence many following movements including the American Hudson River School. Both Ruisdael and Hobbema are known for their extraordinarily detailed portrayals of natural forms.

Landscape with Dune and Small Waterfall (Ruisdael) and Marshy Wood (Hobbema)

“The strange luminous semi-opacities of fine autumn afternoons and eves intensified into Rembrandt effects; the few yellow sunbeams which came through holes and divisions in the canvas, and spirted like jets of gold-dust across the dusky blue atmosphere of haze pervading the tent, until they alighted on inner surfaces of cloth opposite, and shone like little lamps suspended there.”

Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) (also a Dutch painter in the golden age) is the most well known artist that Hardy references. Unlike the other painters on this list, Rembrandt’s works span across all types of paintings, not only landscapes. Known for his use of chiaroscuro, he is sometimes called the King of Shadows.

Philosopher in Meditation and Landscape with a Stone Bridge

Pulitzer Project: The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932)

The Good Earth.jpgA Brief Summary: Wang Lung is a poor farmer who has dreams of a better life. In the beginning of the book, he lives in a small two room mud hut with his elderly father. The book opens on his wedding day, where he has finally been able to purchase a slave, O-lan, from the wealthiest family in town, to bring home as a wife. Together, Wang Lung and O-lan toil to build a life together. We follow Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, lands, and wives. As Wang Lung slowly amasses land and fortunes, he slowly becomes the same kind of  corrupt landowner that he grew up hating. Meanwhile, China is undergoing the turbulence of famines and revolutions – the Xinhai Revolution.

Setting: Anhui, China

Time Period: 1911-ish

A Fun Fact: Not sure if this fact is “fun” but Anna May Wong was denied the role as the leading lady in the film adaptation because she was “too Chinese.” Instead, the role went to American/German actress Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.

Luise_Rainer_in_The_Good_Earth_trailer_2

Review: The legacy of this book is pretty controversial. Writer Celeste Ng has written a pretty scathing essay on all the reasons why she hates this book.

I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu.

I agree with Ng in a lot of ways. If I am being generous, I would say that maybe in the 1930s, this book was seen as revolutionary or insightful on life in a foreign country. I think that like Oliver La Farge and Julia Peterkin, the authors’ hearts are in the right place. Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent a good part of her life actually living in China (about 42 years.) She was even awarded the Nobel Prize for “her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

anna may wong

Anna May Wong

But, like Scarlet Sister Mary, I don’t think this book really stands the test of time. It’s important to keep in mind, that at the time this book came out, there were still miscegenation laws in America, so that a Chinese actress could not kiss a White actor on screen. So of course it’s logical for 1930s-America to accept at face-value that Buck is an expert on China. While I didn’t find her writing as ridiculous as Peterson’s, the tone of the book seemed very judgmental. She writes like an anthropologist observing uncultured heathens in their natural environment.

 

But the writing and story itself, if we examine it strictly from plot and character development, are quite compelling. Wang Lung is a pretty fully fleshed out person; he’s flawed, selfish, ambitious, and hard working. The story of a man’s rise from rags to riches is common and crosses cultural identities. I would honestly have been more interested if Buck wrote more about life as a missionary in China, and I would have perhaps found her observations more compelling in a different medium (memoir? essays?). I’m sure she’s written other books, but it does irk me, as a Chinese-American, that Pearl S. Buck’s name is so synonymous with Chinese fiction.

My only other criticism is that by the end of the book, Buck has beaten the metaphor of “good earth” to death. She is obsessed with the idea of land as provider, the Good Earth. There are better books to read about farmers, about the Chinese revolution, and about how people can become corrupt or greedy as they become wealthier.

“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”

The importance of diversity and representation is that no single book becomes the defining book of a culture or nation. I’ve probably said this a million times, but I think what we need to do is read widely, so that we can see a cross-section of a time or culture. I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to Chinese culture, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend any single book as an introduction to Chinese culture (or any culture).

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Review: A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler

A Whole Life

“Every life, when you look back on it, reduces itself to a few moments. The moments are what stay with us.” – Robert Seethaler

Andreas Egger’s life may seem small to the passing observer, fitting neatly within A Whole Life, a slim 160-paged novella. (Just compare this to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was a sprawling 720-pages. Although, I haven’t read that one yet!) But do not be fooled, it takes quite a bit of skill for Viennese-born author Robert Seethaler to distill Egger’s life into a few defining moments: dropping a bowl of cereal one morning, being draped over a cow saddle to be spanked by an unloving uncle, building a small fence along the edge of his property. These small moments culminate into a beautifully observed life. There are some important big moments too, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you.

What struck me the most about this book is that the setting almost doesn’t matter. When World War II begins, Eggers leaves his village in the Austrian Alps to enlist in the army. Not because he feels patriotic or passionate, but because it is what everyone else is doing. It didn’t even occur to me that Eggers would be fighting for the Nazis until Seethaler writes, “He… was relieved when he soon saw the familiar red of the swastikas glimmering towards him.” (“Humane Nazis” seem to be popping up in my reading a lot this year, something I’m still wrestling with, and I’ll be telling you about Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night soon.)

As I read A Whole Life, I was immediately reminded of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, a connection, as I later found out, a lot of people have made. They are both novellas, both containing some surreally beautiful moments – an entire mountain lit up in candles for a wedding proposal, a pack of wolves running and howling in the middle of the night with a little wolf girl. I wouldn’t say these are anything like magical realism, but instead, the writers have a way with creating images that haunt you long after you’ve finished reading. The setting and time period for both books could easily be swapped and you wouldn’t even notice – one is cutting trees to make room for a transcontinental railroad while the other is cutting trees to make room for alpine cable cars. Nazi or American Patriot, the writers have both created very realistic and human portraits of a lifetime within 160+ pages. 

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I would recommend this book to you if you liked Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. I see a similar line of style, plot, and technique running through all of these books. Have you read these before? Do you agree?

#20: I Hear America Singing

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 8.22.52 PM

Hi Friends, we are almost in December, can you believe it? This is the 20th Whitman Wednesday, marking five months of poetry! Today’s poem is “I Hear America Singing.”

  I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
  Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
  The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
  The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
  The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
      singing on the steamboat deck,
  The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
      he stands,
  The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
      or at noon intermission or at sundown,
  The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
      or of the girl sewing or washing,
  Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
  The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young
      fellows, robust, friendly,
  Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The more Whitman I read, the more I feel like poetry is a mirror. Poems often reflect their surroundings or the state of the reader more than anything else. It’s hard not to be political these days; it’s hard not to read in between the lines all of the time. It has been especially hard for me to read Whitman, that old patriotic bastard! In this poem, I see a really idealistic and beautiful version of America, the version that I think we all have in our minds. It is a really stark contrast to the news headlines today. I suppose Whitman has an outdated view of America – women do more than sew, sing, and wash these days (thankfully). I’ve been thinking a lot about the “forgotten” white voters who are nostalgic for the past. I hope Whitman’s America is what they are nostalgic for, and not for a pre-abolition, pre-women’s suffrage America. Because doesn’t Whitman’s description seem lovely?

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As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!

Also, my friends and I are trying to start a little non-fiction book club to help us get informed and survive for the next four years. If you’re not afraid to get a little political, please let me know if you’d like to read along with us! Hopefully we’ll have some discussions on Goodreads and Facebook, in addition to real life meetings.

Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

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I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.