Friday, February 28, 2014

Book 50- Dream of Red Mansions (81st Book)

"There is nothing new under the sun" Ecclesiastes 1:9. The entire time I was reading Dream of Red Mansions this is the verse that was running through my head. It has always been a favourite of mine from my days as a youth worker. Parents are always shocked and appalled at the "new" ways that youth end up getting into trouble, but in reality they are simply variations on the things youth have been up to for centuries. Dream of Red Mansions is much like that. Although the novel is written in the 18th Century in China the things the characters got up to weren't very different than the things we get up to today.

One of the first things that I was surprised at was the detailed description of drinking games that the characters were always playing. They were elaborate versions of the modern day equivalent; the only difference being that the majority of the games involved reciting poetry and remembering verses from classical literature. Some of the titles included the Finger Game, Grabbing the Red, and the Flower Game. They all involved drinking if you screwed up the task set before you and they were played by the young characters as well as by the oldest person in the book, The Lady Dowager. One of the most carefully described games was called Forfeits and the task that the characters were set was to come up with a description of A Girl's Sorrow, The Girl's Worry, The Girl's Joy and the Girl's Delight" The answers to each of these categories were both clever and scandalous! They were good for a laugh.

The other thing that surprised me was the swearing that was scattered throughout the novel. The young swore at the old, the old swore at the young. Servants swore at each other and about their masters. I am so curious what the actual words used in Chinese were, but translated they were your standard english swear words.

Lastly, the final thing that surprised me about the novel was the amount of sexual content in the novel. There were several encounters between mistresses and their lovers, several encounters with homosexual relationships and a few more scandalous comments about sex with animals.  The sexual banter seemed to be a part of the culture and didn't seem to be as frowned upon as it did in various other parts of history. For 18th century China I was surprised by the level of comfortability with their sexuality. There were a  few characters that were timid or shy, but mostly it seemed to be a more open culture.

I was reminded of reading The Tale of Genji (book 10). Even though that was an 11th Century Japanese novel I found a lot of similarities between the two. If you remember from my review on The Tale of Genji you will remember that I absolutely despised it. This book, had all of the things I loved about The Tale of Genji (the poetry and the description of the gardens) and none of the things I hated about it (the whoring around and complaining when it caused trouble). The book was filled with poetry and the young people in the book all lived surrounding a beautiful chinese garden. I loved the description of the plum blossoms and other flowers. I would love to stand in the garden and just smell what it smelled like. It sounds heavenly. Most of the homes of the main characters had colourful names such as "Pear Fragrance Court", "Happy Red Court", "Seeping Fragrance Pavilion".

I was quite surprised by how much political commentary there was in the  novel. I giggled to myself in the description by the author at the beginning of the novel as he talked about how this WASN'T a novel talking about the political climate at the time. "At present the daily concern of the poor is food and clothing, while the rich are never satisfied. All their leisure is taken up with amorous adventures, material acquisition or trouble making. What time do they have to read political and moral treatise". The novel was enjoyable for the most part, while still trying to convey a point. Even though it sits at just under 1800 pages I enjoyed most of the reading. I was happy that this novel fell when it did, as I started reading it during the Chinese New Year celebrations. The novel made several references to Chinese New Year and I was happy to have the experience of attending the parade in Chinatown and testing out dumplings during the Lantern Festival. Both of these reference points allowed me to appreciate a few of the references in the novel. Despite it's length I would recommend Dream of Red Mansions to others. It is probably a 3 star novel for me, but one that I am quite happy to say that I have read.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book 49-Clarissa (80th Book)

February 10th
Family Day, Late morning

Dear Reader,

I have just finished the mega novel known as Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson and I should be happy if I never have to see that beast again. I was excited to pick up this book, because I had heard a lot about it and it sounded like it could be interesting. Boy, was I wrong! I figured it was a larger novel so I made a quick trip to the Vancouver Public Library on January 2nd so I would have time to finish it within a month. I knew it was a large novel, but I was completely unprepared for just how large! The book is huge and physically intimidating sitting at just under 1500 pages. My jaw dropped as I stared at it sitting on the shelf, then I quickly picked it up and checked it out before I could change my mind. Thankfully, I have taken to carrying a giant tote around the city with me so I was able to lug the beast home!

Clarissa is a novel composed entirely of letters back and forth between all of the principal characters in the story. It follows Clarissa Harlowe, a young, pure girl in her downfall at the hands of a rake named Lovelace. The story to me seems a little too trite to be taken seriously. Essentially, a good pure innocent girl is taken advantage of against her will and, her heart is broken beyond belief until she dies, but justice is served to the evil doers in her death as they are raked with guilt (some even dying a horrible death) as punishment for all they have done. It is basically just an extremely long, and terribly dreary (read: boring) parable on how purity and goodness are traits that will get you far in life (or in this case the afterlife). The story could only be more simplistic if she was vindicated in her life rather than her death. Here is the purpose of the novel as described by Richardson in the Postscript: "We find that (in the dispensation of Providence) good and evil happen alike to ALL MEN on this side of the grave: and as the principle design of tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience, we shall defeat this great end if we always make virtue and innocence happy and successful". So essentially, Clarissa is a parable about living the good life in order to reap eternal rewards. 

I am not sure why this novel became a classic novel, but it is interesting to note that Samuel Richardson ran his own publishing house and essentially self published his own novel. This would explain how the terrible book came to print, and also the length (which in my opinion adds very little to the novel). I have read several books, where the length added to the books rather than took away from them. I can think of two off the top of my head: Vanity Fair and Middlemarch. Those books flew by and I was engaged in the characters and cared about the story. I found the characters believable and even though they weren't perfect I enjoyed reading about them. I hated every single character in Clarissa.....Clarissa included. The only person I ended up liking a bit by the end was Belford who was Lovelace's best friend. I found every one else whiny and flat. They annoyed me and there were a few times I couldn't help, but scream profanities against them out loud.

Let this letter serve as a warning to other reader's; if you are not working on a list of novels, as I am, and you aren't a glutton for punishment avoid this novel like the plague. You can thank me for the torture that you will avoid and the drudgery that will be bypassed later. It is only by sheer force of will and stubbornness that I was able to keep the 50 page a day pace to finish this novel and tick it off the list of 100. If I wasn't determined to read every last one of the Novel 100 I would surely have given the book up before the end.