Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal al Saadawi; Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Lions Head, Four Happiness by Xiaomei Martell

Nawal El Saadawi is a psychiatrist in Egypt and once, while researching a piece for neurosis amongst Egyptian women she had the opportunity to visit some women in prison, one of whom, Firdaus, stood out so much that after Sharai had finished interviewing her she felt compelled to write her (Firdaus')story. Because she took artistic license with some of the details this is not a true biography but because it is stunningly close to what Firdaus suffered, it truly hits you in the gut

Firdaus was born into a peasant home in Egypt. From a young age she realized that being born a girl was a curse. Women were just property that men owned....chattel. Even their bodies didn't belong to them, but to the men that "kept" them. She was only a little girl when her Uncle's hands would steal to her thighs as she worked on kneading dough for the family meal, and then, when she was not much older she was given in marriage to a grotesquely-ugly man in his '60's who used her for his pleasure and violently beat her when he was in a sour mood. When she ran away she was used again by the man who befriended her and not just that, he allowed his friends to use her too.

After what she had thrust upon her it's no wonder she wandered into prostitution and although that bought her independence all she really wanted to do was to get a job and become a "respectable" person. She soon learned, however, that is far better to be a brazen prostitute than a helpless saint and goes back into prostitution, until she is imprisoned and put to death for a murder that i won't go into here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment of the book.

"Woman At Point Zero" is only 108 pages long, more of a nouvella than a novel, but it packs a punch. Even though the woman is guilty of murder none of us can think of her as a her crime is borne of anger at her lifelong mistreatment at the hands of men

Told mostly in the first person, the narrative voice with its rhythm, pace and patterns of repetition, convey an urgency and passion that kept my attention rooted to the book (I read the book, cover to cover, it in about 90 mins or so). The book was written more than 30 years ago but the fact that it continues to resonate with women readers of today shows us that for many women in the world freedom and independence are simply words and nothing that they have truly experienced.

Category: Fiction - Literary
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Pub Date: May 26, 2009
Price: $28.95

"SO often we're told the woman's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter and sister? A baby's illness the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty or even in the best of days are considered insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who age battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. " Pearl Louie in "Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See, pg 228

I hate to argue with the protagonist but I think women make infinitely interesting characters because of their ability to endure and bear physical and mental agony despite their delicate appearances. "Shanghai Girls" is a story of two sisters. Pearl and May are ‘beautiful girls’ — models for advertising and calendar posters — but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls’ savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages with a pair of Chinese brothers from America and so begins the girls' epic journey across the Pacific to America (not an easy feat in those days because the Americans had no interest in taking Chinese people). The story goes on to trace their lives in America so irrevocably different from the High society and glamorous lives they lived in Shanghai and how they walk the tight rope between maintaining their Chinese identity and, yet being afraid of being overly Chinese because of all the discrimination that people from China were exposed to.

This is a truly lovely book...beautiful family drama, multi-dimensional characters and prose that is rich with emotion and replete with everything you need to know about Chinese immigrant families in Los Angeles in the'40s and '50s. Although some parts of the book drag a little, See is such a brilliant narrator of history that you soon get caught up with interrogation games at Angel Island,(like Ellis Island but the immigration processing station in San Francisco Bay Communist witch hunts in in L.A., illegal citizenship and "paper sons", the lure of Hollywood and the importance of proving one's Chinese identity during America's war with the Japanese. If you like historical fiction, you might like this one. I don't think it compares favorably with her previous two novels though.

Author: Martell, Xiaomei
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
Publication date: 1 April 2009

Food-oirs or food memoirs are are everywhere these days. When I visited our local bookstore recently I was agape at the large space provided to this very popular sub-genre and I can see why...more than anything it is the sight, smell and sound of food that engages so many of our senses. Any wonder then that many of us look at the world through food? Food also teaches us so much about culture. For instance, when I travel my impressions seem to start and end with the food. While my friends are busy clicking photos of monuments, buildings etc, I am most likely noting down recipes or trying the local food because it teaches me so much about the people.

"Lion's Head, Four Happiness" is a sweet account of Xiaomei Martell's childhood in China during the turbulent years of Mao's Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1964 on the borders of the Mongolian steppes. The youngest of four daughters - her name translates as 'Little Sister'. Her family had few material goods.There was a lot of rationing of food in those days and this brought out the creative side of Chinese women because they had to plan the menus carefully.

Unlike most novels set in the time of Mao, politics is peripheral in this one, and understandably so as a child's knowledge of what was going on at that time would be limited. Instead, the readers are treated to a host of Chinese kid memories, like playing "pig toes" with her friends (a game requiring dexterity and coordination); riding on the back of her mother's bicycle reading the revolutionary slogans (her first lessons in literacy as the author likes to call it) and the festivities of the Chinese New Year, especially the making and eating of "jiaozi" or Chinese dumplings. Birthdays, although special, were not the very most the birthday girl or boy would be treated to an extra egg, or a peach if it was in the summer.

The interesting title also happens to be the name of Xiaomei's favourite Chinese dish from the south whose origins can traced back to the sixth century. The Lion's heads were generously-sized meatballs and ‘Four Happiness’ refers to the qualities attributed to the meatballs - affluence, health, harmony, and joyfulness.

All in all this is an enjoyable read...I enjoyed the recipes and the casual way she presented them. Might try making the Chinese tea eggs some day....they sound tasty!


zibilee said...

All of these books sound interesting to me, but for different reasons. I am really interested in the first, Woman at Point Zero, the story sounds very dark and moving, and I am curious about the murder you allude to. Great set of reviews on these books!

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in each of these as well, however my book of choice is 'Shanghai Girls'. The passage you shared was so provoking!
Thanks for finding and sharing this books!
Aren't Tea Eggs also called Thousand Year Old Eggs? They have the eggs at 7/11 in Taiwan and they smell so tempting!

ImageNations said...

this is an interesting read. I really would love to read the first one. The second review reminds me more of Arthur Golden's 'The Memoirs of a Geisha'. Thanks

Lotus Reads said...

@Zibilee ~ Thank you so much! Personally, I feel like I rushed through those reviews. I read all three on holiday and just had to put my thoughts down. "Woman At Point Zero" is a staple of many Grade 11/Grade 12 lit. courses. I've heard from other readers that it's been a difficult read for them, but i truly enjoyed it...not the subject matter so much, (because it's sad)but the way the author portrays Firdaus and her miserable life in a masochistic society.

Lotus Reads said...

@Campbele ~ Wow,I didn't know they were called "Thousand Year Eggs", how interesting! I'm dying to make a batch...they look like they could be quite tasty. Also, I love peeking in supermarkets when we travel abroad, they always have such treasures! In Iceland, we discovered that even the convenience stores sold shark meat!!!

@Nana ~ Hello and welcome! So happy to have you here! I would LOVE to have a man's view on "Woman At Point Zero", so if you read and review it, please let me know. "Shanghai Girls" is nice,but I think "Memoirs of a Geisha" was in a completely different class of literature. I am so in love with that book!

karmic said...

Loved reading the review for "Lion's Head, Four Happiness", will comment on each one separately if it is ok. Just a lack of time. :-/
I wonder if the popularity of the food -oir (is that your coinage of the term pretty neat) is somehow related to a reaction to the increased industrialization of food?
Although immigration has made it possible to taste different foods, it is also that people are more busier than ever, and perhaps the foodoirs take us back to a different time?
Maybe I am wrong just a thought.
And you truly are a foodie to be focusing on recipes and food while most are focusing on monuments when they travel. :)

karmic said...

Thank you for telling us about "Woman at point zero". It made me wonder though, at the risk of using a cliched expression, true progress in a society is not possible without women having the same rights and privileges afforded to men.
Sadly Fridaus's story is all too familiar, transplant it and it will hold true in many places.

karmic said...

I agree with you and disagree with the protagonist like you that stories of women are not interesting.
While it may be debatable as to why women make more interesting characters, I agree that they do. And reading this wonderful review I can see why!
I was intrigued by the interrogation games at Angel island. When you get a chance can you offer a thought on what they were, and what you felt about them. This was true in the early days of the immigration process.
Reminded me of the movie golden door where potential immigrants are forced to solve puzzles, perform mathematical tasks and undergo medical examinations in order to prove that they are "fit".And how one family is trying to get their deaf mute son thru.
The importance of proving one's identity in situations when one does not have to still rings true sadly.
I recalled the attacks on Sikhs after 9/11 in the US and the pressure Iranians in the US must have felt during the embassy crisis in Iran.
I loved reading this review, for it spoke to me and that is why I enjoy reading your blog so much, you always manage to find a way to get to the heart of a book and present it so eloquently to your readers. Thank you Lotus for the post.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj!

Have missed you! What a lover of books you are...have missed your insightful comments and observations.

Re. Food-oir, no I can't take credit for coining the phrase. I don't like it that much actually...only used it because it seemed so fitting for this particular book. Why are foodoirs so popular? I think it's because food probably impacts us more than any other tangible thing. Just the mere smell of some childhood food cooking brings back memories and feelings like nothing else, atleast, it does for me. So when I read a food-oir, even if I haven't quite tasted the food it helps me relate to the author and her story.

Also, like you said, food tells you so much about a they live, what are the things that matter to them and so on.

About "Woman At Point Zero"'s true, without gender equality nothing can change. Again, because we see Firdous in so many women around the world this story has become almost timeless in its telling.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey again Sanj!

I've been meaning to get myself a copy of "Golden Door" ever since you first mentioned being quite taken with the movie.

Angel Island was perhaps the complete opposite of Ellis Island. Listen to immigrant accounts and most will tell you what a welcoming place Ellis Island was for them. The main aim of immigration officials at Angel Island was to keep immigration seekers out so they grilled them to the point that most would break from exhaustion and nervousness and mix up facts which would give the immigration official a chance to send them back to where they came from (most were from China or Japan)

I feel so fortunate to have people drop by my blog and to participate in these's what keeps me wanting to share!

Thanks again Sanj.

karmic said...

Thank you for the response Lotus and your kind words. I don't get to read as much as I would like, but yes I do love books. I have missed commenting on your blog too, so you can imagine how wonderful it is to have not one but 4 reviews up here, each one a delight to read!
Thank you for telling me about Food-oir. You are so right about why they are popular.
I did not know that Angel island was so different than Ellis. I did know that the authorities did everything to not allow Chinese or Japanese immigrants in, but did not know the details till you enlightened me. Thanks!
Golden door is a nice movie, a bit long but hope you can catch it sometime. Enjoy your weekend friend.

lulu said...

coming to your blog after a long time and see that i have a lot of catching up to do. i want to read all these books, lotus!!

Mark David said...

Thanks for an insightful review. I'm very curious about Lisa See, and this book also sounds interesting. I've read Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai a few months back and I loved the writing. Lisa See might be an author I'd love to read as well.

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