Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Fried Eggs with Chopsticks: Around China by Any Means Possible, Polly Evans

BantamTravel writing

Publication Date: 01/09/2005329 pages

ISBN: 0553816780

... Did you know that the well-known hero, Sinbad the Sailor, was actually a Eunuch employed inthe Chinese court of a 15th century Ming Emperor? His real name was Zheng He, nicknamed 'San Bao' and retired Royal Navy commander, Gavin Menzies, in his book "1421", credits San Bao with arriving in the 'New World', seventy-one years before Christopher Columbus did. Listen to this HERE

...and did you know that Chinese legend has it that one life was claimed for every stone laid along the Great Wall? When you consider that the Great Wall runs for thousands of kilometers, we're contemplating a staggering figure of lost lives!

...also, were you aware, that the world-famous Shaolin Temple, the originator of Kung-Fu and other martial arts that we enjoy so much was acutally the home of warrior monks?

...finally, did you know that foot binding was started during the Tang Dynasty? The court of the Tang Dynasty was so impressed with how the foreign dancers piroutted on their toes, that the Chinese court dancers also bound their feet to imitate the dancers' moves. Centuries later bound feet would become the norm for all upper-class Chinese women and prostitutes. And while we're on the subject of the Tang Dynasty, did you know that they have the distinction of having had the only female empress? Empress Wu started her court life as a concubine of Emperor Taizong. After the Emperor died she began a liaison with his son and successor, Gaoszong and after he died she successfully wrested control for herself overthrowing all Chinese precepts of male lineage.

No? Well, I didn't either until I delved into Polly Evans' new travel book book 'Fried Eggs with Chopsticks" (to be known as FEWC henceforth in this review). "FEWC" seems like a lightweight travel book to begin with, the kind of book you want to take with you to read at long waits at airports or on an airplane, but don't let its frothy title fool you. Embedded in it's paperback pages are weighty nuggets of information on China---its people, culture and best of all, history.

In an interview with the Transworld Publishing House, the author gave these reasons for wanting to write this book:

"...China has one of the fastest-growing economies on the planet, and the Chinese are pouring enormous resources into their infrastructure - apparently they've built enough roads in recent years to circle the equator sixteen times. Also, at the moment, China is home to the fastest train in the world, Shanghai's Maglev - it travels at 430 kilometres per hour. So I thought I'd go and see for myself how this vast nation was hurtling into the technological age. Of course, when I got there, I found the building work wasn't quite finished yet, and I spent an awful lot of time on rattling country buses, clattering down pot-holed tracks pressed up against Buddhist monks and sacks of squawking chickens. The tale of that trip, "FEWC", will be published by Bantam in September 2005..."

Ms. Evans has a great sense of humor and an astute sense of observation that she blends with some wonderful historical research making this an absolutely pleasant and yet very informative read.

My favorite parts, apart from the historical data, are when she describes her train rides across China orthe hotel rooms she stays in. Here's a bit of what she wrote, describing her hotel room in Datong, China:

"...The hotel was a reasonable one. The Powers-that-be had allocated it four stars. It had a decent restaurant, the room was clean and the bathroom facilities worked. But I was surprised in such a seemingly salubrius place to find a collection of lotions on offer in thte bathroom that suggested some kinds of business conducted here did not require a suit and tie. Next to tiny bottles of shampoo, lay four sachets, two marked 'Man' and two marked 'Woman.'

'Eliminates pathogenic bacteria which can cause the disease of colpitis, pruritis, peculiar smell, ringworm at the thigh area and beriberi. Our product is 99.9% effective in eliminating gonorrhoea coccus', declared the packet marked 'woman'.

It went on. 'Using guide: Please scrub away repeatedly at the position with the product for about two to three minutes, and then wash with clean water'.

The brand name of the lotion was 'Know You Bird'. Across the front of the packet was stamped in big black letters: ' UNCOMPLIMENTARY'.

It seemed strange, really. The crime of organizing prostitution carries the death penalty in China, yet there semed little doubt what was doing on quite openly in this hotel. I eyed my bed with a new level of mistrust and hope the she sheets had been well boiled!..." pg.50

Pick up this book for a train ride through China without ever having to get on a train!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Double Bill: "Geisha of Gion" by Mineko Iwasaki and "Geisha" by Liza Dalby

Mineko Iwasaki was the former geisha who provided a great deal of the information used by Arthur Golden's more famous, "Memoirs of a Geisha". Following a somewhat bitter dispute between Iwasaki and Golden, Iwasaki decided to publish her own memoirs, "Geisha of Gion" or "Geisha: A Life" (as it is titled in North America) to help clarify certain matters that she felt Golden had misinterpreted.

According to an interview she gave the Boston Phoenix, she said her reasons for publishing her memoirs were:

"...there was a lot of misunderstandings about what it means to be a geiko or a geisha The most common misconception is that geisha are somehow high-class courtesans, or prostitutes. And that is very much not the case. And also, geisha are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so..."

The book itself, while it lacks Arthur Golden's stunning prose and evocative descriptions still manages to take the reader into an antiquated world that is so exotic, so unlike anything we've been exposed to before that I literally had to remember to close my jaw just in case people thought I was a fool! After all, Geishas have a strict code of secrecy which is the reason why so little is known about them, and to suddenly have all this revealed to us, is like discovering a brand new world!

Mineko Iwasaki came from an aristocratic family who had fallen on hard times. Her parents decided that the only way they could give their daughters a better life would be to have them join a "karyuki" (Geisha House) in Kyoto where they would be fed, clothed, schooled and trained in a profession that would allow them to lead lives that would ensure they were financially independent of any man. This book follows Mineko's life from the time she joined the "Geisha House" at the tender age of five till she left as the unrivalled Queen of Geishas.

Explained in fascinating detail is the training that goes into becoming a Geisha: the hours of dance practice, learning to conduct the "tea ceremony" with all it's intricate movements to perfection, the significance and importance of a kimono, hours of studying current affairs and the arts in order to make lively and knowledgeable conversation with the clients at "ochaya" (banquets at tea houses), living within a strict and often merciless social hierarchy. Sleeping on a wooden pillow at night so as to not disturb their very elaborate hairstyles and the shaving of the face in order to put on the white make-up (strangely enough white is chosen because of the "value placed on pale skin")

"...After becoming a Maiko (novice Geisha), I had my hair donw once every five days. To preserve its shape, I slept on a rectangular lacquered wooden pillow topped with a narrow cushion. At first the pillow kept me awake but I soon got used to it. Other girls found it more difficult. The okiya (geisha household) had a trick tp keep us from removing the pillow during the night. The maids would sprinkle rice bran around the pillow. If a girl removed the pillow, bits of bran stuck like glue to the pomade in her hair and the next morning she had to make an unhappy trip back to the hairdresser's..." pg 158

In Mineko's case, not only does she have to put up with all of the physical inconveniences, but because she was adopted into the Iwasaki Geisha family, she had to renounce her parents in a court of law. It was a very difficult choice for her but something that she had to do. She also had incurred the wrath and jealousies of all the other geishas she worked with because she was one of the most popular geishas of her time.

Her book tells of all the famous people she had to entertain in her role as a Geisha, including, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Alberto Gucci among others. She describes an incident where Prince Charles asks to see her fan and when she gives it to him for closer inspection he takes a pen and scrawls his signature over it expecting her to be pleased. She is completely devastated that he would ruin her favorite fan and instructs a servant to dispose of it as soon as the event is over.

Mineko grew increasingly wary of her punishing schedule, the politics of the okaya and it's social and financial restrictions, she was itching to have her own life and to be her own person, so, at the grand old age of 29 she decided that she would retire and leave the life of a Geisha behind.

Today, Mineko, 52, is happily married and lives with her artist husband and one daughter in Kyoto.

This is an enjoyable read indeed! Included within the book are two lots of personal photos of Mineko, her family and some of the Geishasshe worked with. I wish she had more pictures of her amazing kimonos which she has described in such vivid detail throughout the book. I also wish the editors had included a glossary. There are so many Japanese terms used in the book and while they are explained in English when they are first introduced, one tends to forget what they mean as you delve deeper into thememoir. A glossary to refer to from time to time would have been very useful.

Although this book is sufficient unto itself with its long,detailed descriptions of the world of a Geisha, a supberb handbook would be Lisa Dalby's "Geisha".
Liza Dalby is an anthropologist specializing in Japanese culture. As the only Westerner to have become a geisha, which she did as research for her Ph.D. and her books Geisha and Kimono, she is a consultant for Steven Spielberg's upcoming film adaptation of Arthur Golden's MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA.

Both Liza Dalby and Mineko Iwasaki believe that the golden age of the Geisha is over and that there are not enough truly wealthy individuals in Japanese society with the leisure and the means to support the ' flower and the willow'. Iwasaki is particularly despondant and believes that the traditional culture of the "Geisha Houses" will cease to exist in the future.

Furthur Reading:

Photo Journal of a Geisha (Not Mineko)

Geishas of Japan: A Snapshot

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Shout-out for "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell

Little Brown & Company

Copyright © 2005 by Julie Powell
ISBN: 0-3161-0969-X

I haven't read this book yet, but I so wanted to give it a "shout-out" because I always admire someone who can give themself a deranged goal and actually go on to complete it!

Here's a brief summary from the book jacket:

With the humor of Bridget Jones and the vitality of Augusten Burroughs, Julie Powell recounts how she conquered every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and saved her soul. Julie Powell is 30 years old, living in a tiny apartment in Queens and working at a soul-sucking secretarial job that's going nowhere. She needs something to break the monotony of her life, and she invents a deranged assignment. She will take her mother's worn, dog-eared copy of Julia Child's 1961 classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she will cook all 524 recipes -- in the span of one year.

At first she thinks it will be easy. But as she moves from the simple Potage Parmentier (potato soup) into the more complicated realm of aspics and crepes, she realizes there's more to Mastering the Art of French Cooking than meets the eye.

And somewhere along the line she realizes she has turned her outer-borough kitchen into a miracle of creation and cuisine. She has eclipsed her life's ordinariness through spectacular humor, hysteria, and perseverance.

Ok, so my question to you is this: what insane project would you like to challenge yourself with this coming New Year and do you think you have what it takes to see it through?

I would love to collect every photograph we have collected in our 14 years of marriage and put them into scrapbooks! We must have atleast 5000 pictures lying all over the house, so sifting through them, dating them and then building scrapbook pages around them is bound to drive me over the edge, but I so want to do it!!!

Through her toils, Julie Powell found a crazy inner peace in this almost magical Juliaverse. "In the Juliaverse, the laws of thermodynamics had been turned on their heads," Powell admits. "Here, energy was never lost, merely converted from one form to another. Here, I took butter and cream and meat and eggs and I made delicious sustenance. Here, I took my anger and despair and rage and transformed it with my alchemy into hope and ecstatic mania. Here, I took a crap laptop and some words that popped into my head at seven in the morning and I turned them into something people wanted, maybe even needed." - "The French Connection", Pages Magazine, Sept/Oct 2005

So you see, this insane project might just turn out to be the sanest thing you've ever done! :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg

Product Details:
ISBN: 0385513240
Format: Hardcover, 326pp
Pub. Date: September 2005
Publisher: Doubleday Publishing

Thought I would try a new format for the review of "Wickett's Remedy" . I have chosen to review the book in a series of questions and answers. Hope you find the format enjoyable, but first, here's a quick summary:

"Wickett's Remedy" is about a working-class Irish-American woman, Lydia Wickett , in Boston during the 1918 flu epidemic.

The "remedy" is a mail-order patent medicine invented by her student- medic husband Henry Wickett and flavored by Lydia. Strictly speaking, however, it wasn't really a medicine but just a placebo that had a nice taste to it. The 'real' remedy was the therapeutic letter that Henry always made sure accompanied a bottle of that tonic. "What does it matter if someone buys a bottle of Wickett's looking for a cure inside it and instead finds one in the letter that comes with it?" Henry asks his wife. He is not someone who wishes to profit from the business of selling snake oil - he truly believes he has the gift to cure via words (letters) and wants to do good in this world. Unfortunately, Henry dies early from the flu and his dishonest partner, Quentin Driscoll, turns the medicine into a successful soda drink called "QD Soda" which makes him a very wealthy man, something Lydia Wickett is totally unaware of until much later. The rest of the story is about how Lydia copes with the epidemic and how it affects her life and those of whom she loves.

Why did I choose this book?

This book first came to my attention on a program at NPR.org where author Myla Goldberg was interviewed. Although Ms. Goldberg's first book "Bee Season" was lauded by the critics, she is not the sort of author I would generally gravitate towards, but when I found out that her second novel was about the 1918 flu epidemic, the Emergency Room volunteer in me just had to read it.

What did I enjoy about the book?

I thought it was very clever of the author to make Influenza the central theme of her new novel; with avian flu on the horizon, the "F" word seems to be on everybody's lips. I'm a disease- nut, so all the passages in the book chronicling clinical details of the flu, (the ones that deal with what The Washington Post calls the "yuck factor") are my favorite ones. This book has been meticulously researched (it took five years of writing and research) and provides a lot of detail on how people in Boston where affected by this plague.

Also, the main protoganist, Lydia, after she loses her husband Henry Wickett, her bother Michael and more than a few friends and neighbours to the flu, decides to get a job working as a volunteer nurse in an experimental ward at Gallups where captured Navy deserters are used as guinea pigs to understand how the epidemic is being spread. Here, doctors are willfully infecting people through elaborate snot transfers: The sick cough out phlegm, and the healthy swallow it. Being a volunteer in the emergency ward myself, I totally resonate with Lydia's calling to look after the soldiers despite dangers to her own health.

Finally, I liked that the author didn't try to sanitize her descriptions of the flu but told it as she researched or imagined it.

"... she Lydia) learned to steel herself against the sight of soiled sheets. Her face grew an invisible callus that held her features in place so she did not flinch at the gurgling blue-lipped boy; or the bog-chested woman whose skin was covered in dark blotches and whose nose dripped thick, black blood; or the delirious young man who, in his fever mistook Lydia for his sister, dead days before. But however how hard she tried she could not cotton her ears against the sounds of sickness. Influenza loosed pneumonia into the lungs, and pneumonia's sounds were those of a body drowning from within. Pneumonia turned skin and lips the bruised gray-blue of an evening sky before a storm. She was informed in hush voices by the nurses that those with feet tinged that colour seldom lived through the night..."

Why did the author decide to write such a book?

Myla Goldberg began writing Wickett's Remedy after reading a newspaper article, which listed the 1918 influenza outbreak as one of the five worst plagues of all time. She says she was stunned by the fact that the catastrophe seemed to have vanished from public memory, despite the fact that it killed some 22-50 million people worldwide. "In the United States alone, it killed between 500,000 and 800,000 people," Ms. Goldberg says, "more Americans than have been killed in all 20th century wars combined. And this is something that happened in a six to nine month period. And so the idea that memory is something we just cannot trust -- it was that aspect of it that drew me into the story."

What did I dislike about the book and what comments do I have on the writing style?

I didn't like how the author went back and forth between Lydia's story and the made-up newsletters by people praising the tonic/medicine that her husband's partner turned into a successful soft drink. I found that the made-up correspondance detracted from the real story - the story of how the flu affected Lydia and her family in Boston.

I also disliked how, in the margins of the text, Goldberg had a chorus of voices, ( her characters' ghosts) constantly correcting, challenging and contradicting statements made by the living. I thought it was an ingenious idea initally, but it grew increasingly weird and a bit tedious to read as the story went on. In an interview, Goldberg says she felt compelled to introduce these voices because , as we have seen, memories are really so short-lived and unreliable - in other words, we tend to forget details of even very important or momentous episodes in our lives and essentially we are dependent on each other to keep memories alive. By using these many voices in her book she gave herself a broader canvas on which to paint the picture of the Spanish Flu in Boston. The voices also make us realise that there is no one correct version of history---each voice has his or her own memories.

Is the book cover attractive?

Yes, very. I love the picture of the little girl on the label of the bottle. She looks like she could have stepped out from my mother's photo album from the '50's. She creates in me a sense of nostalgia for the golden days of old.

Would I recommend this book?

Mais oui! If you want to read about the flu epidemic of 1918 in general and how it affected the people of Boston specifically, this would be a great book to immerse yourself in. Because it's fiction, it makes for a more entertaining read than something in the non-fiction genre. This is also a good book to read if you are a writer yourself, for the author has done some very interesting and unusual work on the text.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Christ The Lord : Out of Egypt by Anne Rice


Alfred Knopf, 321 pages, $35.95

When I heard that the Queen of the Vampire Chronicles (who hasn't heard of "Queen of the Damned" or "The Vampire Lestat") was putting the nails on the vampire coffin and writing a tale about Jesus Christ instead, my interest was piqued. I also liked the fact that this novel was a fictional autobiography devoted to Jesus' early years. When I think of Jesus I usually think of him as a grown man with long, flowing brown hair, a beard and white robe and sandals; I don't often think of the innocent boy Jesus so, to be exposed to Jesus' early years, before even HE knew he was "Christ The Lord" was a treat indeed! Best of all, Ms. Rice makes the child Jesus the narrator which I think is a unique and wonderful way of retelling the story of Jesus' childhood. That child-voice, which Rice pulls off with remarkable consistency, lends the story a simple but realistic tone.

Ofcourse, Anne Rice's presumption that she can speak for Jesus may not go down well in some quarters; there are those who would certainly consider this work a blasphemy, but I think she wrote it out of a sense of deep conviction and a wanting to tell the story of Jesus the way she sees it.

This novel essentially covers one year in the life of Jesus (when he was 7 years going on 8). It covers the boy and his family's return to Nazareth from Egypt. (They had all fled to Egypt to escape the tyrannous rule of Herod the Great. They returned to Nazareth only when Joseph learned in a dream that Herod had died and that it was safe to return to Israel).

The real drama unfolds as Jesus, the child, initially is confused by these special powers he seems to possess - he is astounded that he can make clay birds fly, stop the rain, bring a playmate back to life and prolong the life of a beloved uncle. The novel follows his development as he slowly becomes aware of his powers, questions, learns, dreams and ponders, eventually discovering the magic of his birth and his role in life.

The other reason why this novel is so different is because Anne Rice borrows tales not from the Bible as we know it, but from the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas that scholars agree have no claim to fact.

The lone reference in our Bible to Jesus' childhood years -- the visit to the temple -- is transformed in Rice's hands. She portrays Jesus not as some precocious kid, competing with the learned rabbis in a contest of theology, but as an inquisitive little kid, interested not so much in the scriptures, but about his own past. He wanted to know--- What really happened in Bethlehem? Was there an angel that appeared to shepherds telling them about a babe in the manger? And mysterious visitors from the East? Were children slaughtered?

This novel has received an enthusiastic response at Belief.Net, where reviewer David Kuo predicts it will become the literary equivalent of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion.” That’s probably an overstatement, but it does show the enthusiasm of Christian groups to have a book like this! A chapter of the new book is available for review at BeliefNet.

Finally, appended in the novel is the author’s note which is almost as fascinating as the actual novel itself. In it Rice tells us the story of her conversion and return to Roman Catholicism owing to the death of her husband and her many recent illnesses. Ms Rice invites us all: This is a book I offer to all Christians—to the fundamentalists, to the Roman Catholics, to the most liberal Christians in the hope that my embrace of more conservative doctrines will have some coherence for them in the here and now of the book.”

I couldn't resist the invitation and I'm glad I didn't for I will have to say that reading this novel made the Christmas season more memorable.

For a great interview with the author, go HERE

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Written by
: Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by: Edith Grossman
(Latin-American, Magic Realism)
Published: Knopf, October 2005

#12 on the Globe and Mail top 100 books of 2005

Today, I place into your cupped hands, this beautifully crafted book by Gabriel García Márquez, his first after a 10-year long hiatus. Reviews for this book in the media weren't so favorable; the opening salvo from Michiko Kakutani's review in the NY Times, 22 Nov goes like this:
"Memories of My Melancholy Whores" is ballyhooed by its publishers as the first
work of fiction by Gabriel García Márquez in 10 years. It turns out not to have
been worth the wait."

Can you say "ouch"? I think however, the stinging review had more to do with the subject matter the book covered, rather than the writing, which in my opinion is impeccable and very much in the style that the nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez is so revered for. This is my first "Márquez", but people I have spoken to say few have written about the essence of life, love and death nearly as well as he.

The book opens with the 89-year old narrator contemplating how he should spend his 90th birthday and he decides that he wants to spend it with a 14-year old virgin, not just any virgin, but one that comes highly recommend by the owner of the whorehouse that he frequents.

"The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin," this miniscule gem begins. When he shows up at the brothel, he finds the girl naked and doped up with bromide and valerian sedatives; he’s unable to wake her and spends his birthday evening sleeping naked next to her.

I think the subject matter touches a very sensitive chord with some because lately, pedophilia has been on the rise. I am sure Márquez only wished that the reader would see the romantic and erotic allure of his story, but unfortunately, the only emotion it creates in some people is disgust. The Miami Herald describes the narrator as thus: The protagonist is a loathsome, unnamed character, a washed-up journalist in a nameless city, a bachelor -- ''ugly, shy and anachronistic'' -- who has always paid for his sexual experiences "

But truth be told, our narrator resides in a lonely ancestral mansion, has no children or any dependents and, save for the family maid (who once harbored an unrequited passion for him), no companionship at home. His pastimes include dipping into Greco-Roman literature, tuning into the classical music station on the radio, writing for the newspaper, and on occasion, visiting a brothel. I see him as a lonely, harmless old man who deludes himself into thinking that just because he can buy this girl, he can also buy her love. Also, he doesn't seem to be looking so much for sex as he is, companionship. This girl gives him something to look forward to, something to live for, something to hope for. He builds a fantasy world around her and names her Delgadina, the heroine of a medieval ballad that tells the story of the incestuous love of a king for his youngest daughter. Our narrator never speaks to the girl nor seeks to know anything about her. She is a blank, faceless, history-less, voiceless landscape, and he prefers her that way because it is the only way he can keep her virginal in his mind. He imagines her to be his first true love, uncorrupted by the world. In somebody else's hands this might have been a sordid story of a dirty old man, but in Márquez's hands, this becomes a celebration of amorous passion in one's twilight years---a love story.

To summerize: I loved the prose, I loved the reminisces, I loved the silent courtship between the two; I am overjoyed to think that you can live well into your nineties and still experience love like an adolescent...this was magic realism in all its glory and it appealed to my senses.