Country Driving: Book Review

It’s an uncanny experience reading a Peter Hessler book about China, at least of you are a reader who also lived in China during the same period, 1999 to 2009 or so. For myself, I taught English there from 2004-2007 and miss both the country and the people often. There’s something about reading his books that speaks to that time period being a genuine collectively shared experience for whoever was in China then, both the Chinese and the foreigners living there. We were all a small part of the rapid economic and cultural changes that were happening.

For Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, Hessler begins his trip by renting a car in Beijing and planning to drive the entire length of the Great Wall. He gives a lot of good history of the wall and the towns and villages he crosses along the way, but the best parts of that section are definitely his interactions with the car rental manager and his recounting of Chinese driving school. My experiences on the road in China were mostly in buses and often in taxis, sometimes even motorcycle taxis, but I would never try to get a license and try driving myself there. It’s a strange dance to be either a pedestrian or a bicycle rider in China. You make yourself go with the flow–he who hesitates is lost–and somehow manage not to get hit. I did get hit once, choosing to cross a street at the wrong time on my bicycle. A moped hit me and I got a nice concussion out of the incident and didn’t feel so confident on my bicycle after that. I was more successful navigating the crazy traffic and finding my groove there on foot.

Hessler’s tales about the Great Wall are part sadness, so many villages and towns are dying as the younger people move to the big cities, part reflection, the local governments are both corrupt and trying to help the people and the land, and part thrilling, women dressed to the nines appear out of nowhere wanting a ride, and in some areas the police will ask a foreigner to leave. Hessler’s keen insight to everything going on has to do with his great powers of observation as a writer, but even more essential is his fluency in Mandarin. He talks to people along the way and gets to know their stories, and he’s able to translate the messages strewn on walls or buildings in the middle of nowhere, giving helpful cultural context to his experiences.

Part two wasn’t so much a road trip as Hessler detailing his experience renting a house near a part of the Great Wall and a village that at first seems totally forgotten. Again, Hessler’s grasp of the language is key as he forges relationships with the villagers even to the extent that he becomes very involved in saving a child’s life. He describes what it’s like for a couple of people–a child and a mentally challenged adult–to leave the village for the first time, and how they adjust to their changing circumstances in heart-aching ways. Progress comes to the village, an there is more money to be made, but it’s as if the villagers are on constantly shifting sands, from on and off relations with neighbors and politicians, to rapid land deals, and to life changes of either having too little, or too much money. I can relate a little to that last part. In China I didn’t have to pay rent and even had a school cafeteria card, so had lots of extra spending money as we made a lot more than the regular Chinese teachers, yet in American dollars it was only about $500 a month, a sum that would be difficult to make it on in America. Often I spent both too much and too little, finding it strange to at once have so much money in one country, yet little in another. It was heartwarming to see how close Hessler became to his neighbors in the village, even though he often must have felt like the outsider he really was. He was really in a special time and place when he lived there.

The last part is set in Zhejiang province, a little south of where I lived. Hessler follows some men who are starting up a factory that make parts for bras. I wear bras all the time, but often forget that some man invented them, presumably for the comfort of women, though that aspect often seems an elusive one. This factory makes bra underwires and also little multicolored rings for bra straps. The venture seems a bit haphazard and slapdash, with little planning and a rented building, but as they hire workers and get going, it seems like the bra ring factory will succeed. Both the owners and workers in the factories all are characters, most of whom grew up as farmer peasants and now are trying to make their fortunes through capitalism, but capitalism is often a seesaw. One day the factory is doing well, the next it seems it will fold under, and then they get a big client. Hessler describes these workers as taking everything in stride, and with things constantly changing, what else can people do? Giving up isn’t an option.

I highly enjoyed the details of guanxi, the system of doing deals and business in China. This often involves bribes and elaborate dinners with amazing food. As a foreign English teacher there, I was clueless to this system, but soon learned that if a friend of a friend wanted to take me to a nice dinner it was because they wanted private English lessons, which I only would find out at the very end of the meal. We were often “invited” to company parties to introduce a new cell phone, or to visit an up-and-coming school so they could use our faces for advertising at the event. Sometimes people would give us money in red envelopes. These were not gifts, but bribes, hoping we’d leave our schools where we taught to come over to theirs. Our own schools often took us out to fancy dinners, sometimes as school events, sometimes to introduce us to more Chinese food, and sometimes to show us off around town. Guanxi or not, I found the Chinese people to be overwhelmingly welcoming and friendly towards us. It was humbling how much they gave of themselves to help us feel welcome there, and I will always be grateful for their efforts and still miss them all so very much to this day.

For me, Hessler’s books are now a walk down memory lane. I read his River Town while in China and found it an engrossing rendition of an experience so similar to my own. Having been away from China for over ten years, I’m not sure what it’s like now and how different it is. I hope the constant economic change has mellowed, and although I’m glad America is not losing so much money to China anymore, I do hope the average Chinese person isn’t hurting too much due to the tariff battles between China and the US. I hope and pray that both countries can thrive, whether they are competitors or collaborators. I look forward to someday reading Hessler’s other book on China, Oracle Bones.

Mother: A Definition (Review of the Korean drama)

Most great stories are based around simple concepts or trying to answer what one would think are simple questions. The Korean drama Mother, a remake of a Japanese show of the same title, attempts to define a mother. Who is a mother? On a surface level, it’s an easily answered question: It’s the woman who gave birth to you, whose egg was fertilized with your father’s sperm to create, well, you.

Mother probes a bit further, insinuating that a true mother is a woman who acts like a mother, biology aside. To go on this journey, the writers stay firmly within the world of women. There are few questions of fathers here, and their absence silently and continually accuses them.

Starring the everywoman Lee Bo Young (God’s Gift: 14 Days), Ko Sung Hui (While You Were Sleeping) as the biological mother, and introducing a very talented Heo Yeol as a horribly abused child Hye Na, Mother is an emotional roller coaster ride, almost to the point of overkill, that nevertheless offers up very real moral dilemmas in the process. Unquestionably Heo carries the show, as often children do in their first projects, but she is given a definite run for her money as we get to know the mothers who started the chain of events leading to the main story, especially aging actress Young Sin (played by the indomitable Lee Hye Young (Boys Over Flowers) and a mother of oh, so many regrets, played by veteran actress Nam Gi Ae. This is one of the few scripts really allows older actresses to test their mettle. The men quietly supporting in the background are unsung hero types, not romantic leads, and the men not supporting, again, are most “visible” in their absence. Their crimes are alluded to or told to us secondhand, but the message of the show is never that the women can or should excuse away their own behavior due to them.

(Spoilers) After a low-key beginning, Mother kicks into high thriller gear once the abuse of Hye Na becomes known to her teacher, Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young) and the teacher becomes frustrated that the social system has nothing in place to immediately protect this little girl. Soo Jin kidnaps Hye Na with the child’s full consent and most of the sixteen episodes focus on the pair’s continual elusion of the authorities who assume that her mother Ja Young (Ko) is truly heartbroken and wants her back. The plot thickens as we and Hye Na begin to learn more about her abductor and the essential back history that has led to this decision.

Here, the story really begins to plumb the depths of the definition of “mother.” We are introduced to several biological mothers all of whom in some way have been abandoned by their men and who either don’t love or don’t seem to love their child or children. This male abandonment is no excuse, as stated before, and it is Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) a self-declared mother who continually speaks to what a mother should be to her children, no matter the circumstances. Young Sin presents motherhood as a daunting responsibility to her daughter Soo Jin, while giving her courage and cheering her on. Protecting, loving, and nurturing, are all spouted as must-haves for any women aspiring to be a mother.

What struck me as being a little hollow in the story, was the fact that most of the mothers in the show were having essentially to be both mother and father. Aside from the couple of supporting men who are vaguely fatherlike at best, these mothers are all stuck with being both provider and protector. Not that women can’t be those things, and not that mothers certainly don’t protect in their own way, but when the father is in the picture, those roles are usually dedicated to him as a basic form of maleness, if you will.

Kang Yi Jin, Soo Jin’s sister is easily the most nurturing, classic mother-type of the women in the story, and she is the only one who has a husband and father in the picture for her children, who, although gone way too much for work, is clearly doing the providing and protecting so she doesn’t have to. Thus, Kang Yi Jin’s femininity is a lot stronger than the other women in the story–she’s more emotional and not as logical, and her focus is on homemaking, cooking meals, and the like. It is only when considering this character that I realized how masculine most of the other women in the story are, especially Soo Jin, and that it is largely due to them having to protect and provide, again roles that would be normally dedicated to a father or father figure, if he was in the picture.

This is where, despite the great, raw emotions pulled out of story, the defining of motherhood doesn’t go far enough. It’s adequate to define women who are indeed still mothers and act as mothers even if the father or a father is not in the picture, but I think the definition of “mother” as it relates to the feminine in particular needs to be both apart from the masculine providing and protecting, and also contrasted to it. To some degree, women have a physical safety radar on all of the time, but if you pay attention to them (or women, if you pay attention to yourself) you may find you act and/or are more in feminine mode when there’s a man on the scene who is or is at least perceived as the protector in the situation. The women, or you, are softer, more relaxed, perhaps more playful, and perhaps more in multi-tasking mode than single-focus male mode. This side of being a mother is woefully neglected on the show, and that is a shame because it is the main “mother” definition to which much of the world relates.

I give the writer props, though, because although Mother never outright says it, the story heavily implies that if the absent fathers had truly been fathers, things might have turned out differently. The only reason this implication can be made is because of the cool nature of women: We adapt. For example, in the absence of a masculine father/protector for either herself or Hye Na, Soo Jin steps not only into a protective and nurturing mother role, but also into that of a protecting and providing father. We do see her behave a little more femininely when she’s around the hunky doctor on the show, but it’s as if she’s trying on a dress. She’s too much in masculine mode for her feminine side to suit her.

All in all, Mother is a great show, exciting and heartbreaking to watch, and even if it doesn’t flesh out the mother definition to my satisfaction, it’s not shy about showing the cycle of abuse and just how awful women can become after being betrayed or abandoned by a man. Hye Na’s biological mother is a pathetic figure, her love for her child hinging not on maternal instinct, but upon keeping any man who will have her, in her life. This woman wouldn’t have been the best mom in the world even if the biological father had stayed and supported her, but she probably wouldn’t have started abusing her child or contemplated suicide. This mother would likely have adapted well to the love and support of a good, strong man, but the show doesn’t really give us enough background into her character to make that a rock-solid certainty. Sometimes parents simply cannot parent and do not have instinctive love for their children. If that doesn’t speak to the existence of evil in the world, I don’t know what does.

It’s far easier to think there must be a reason for the neglect and abuse, that it can be understood in some way, but Young Sin would say there’s no good reason for it. No matter what you’ve been through yourself, there’s no good reason to neglect and/or abuse your child. That message is the takeaway of Mother, and it can apply to either or both sexes, either or both parents. It is a timeless declaration for what kind of person a parent should be.

Unfinished Stories

This past weekend I made chutney, a spicy Indian relish you can make by chopping stuff up and pureeing it in a blender. Mint-cilantro chutney is my favorite, and homemade is oh so yummy. But that got me thinking about the word, chutney, and how once upon a time I started writing a story that included a town called Chutney.

Whatever happened to that story? It was exciting, epic, and intriguing. Truth is, I just got tired of it and totally ran into a wall with the plot, the myriad characters seemed neverending, as did problem of sticking to the point of the story: A point-less quest. The idea for the story came about after thinking about Lord of the Rings and how it was a worthy quest to take a ring that brought out the evil in people to a place where it could be destroyed. What would be an unworthy quest? How would that story play out?

What I came up with was a convoluted tale of a people enslaved, a long-lost princess, and a quest to save a despicable master and mistress. It was a long tale with some parts that were really good and others that, well, didn’t make sense. To this day it sits collecting dust in a binder in my office desk and will probably remain there until I finally decide to dump it.

One might think that a writer or author is defined by the stories they publish, but that isn’t the whole truth. What’s published is the proverbial top of the iceberg. The other ninety percent are all those stories and ideas either waiting to be finished or even destined never to be completed. Those incomplete stories tell of wishes, hopes, and dreams, plots and characters the author has visions for, but finds that either lack of will or ability defeats them. Some stories are simply bad ideas, but writers can’t let them go because something in the story touches their inner heart and soul. I have many such stories, and think about them from time to time, retelling them to myself in my head. No one will ever read them but me and God, and sometimes that seems a shame, but for a lot of artists, their art is mostly for themselves anyway, and wouldn’t mean as much to a larger audience. Much like diary entries, these stories or pieces of them remind us who we once were, how far we’ve come, and where we want to be in the future.

Then there’s those stories, unfinished at present, but ones we are planning on completing once we have more time to devote to them, time for more research, care, and attention. These are the jewels in a writer’s satchel–the possibilities of greatness that will someday be. Even with the will to complete them, time curtails a lot of these stories. An author’s life is cut short, emergencies and duties overwhelm the energy and resources they have to give to the budding tales, and other events and people demand the author’s time elsewhere. Life just gets in the way and sometimes manuscripts or poems or other works are found completed or nearly-so, unpublished and waiting away in dusty drawers or an old hard drive until someone should come across them. Most simply vanish with the passing of lives and history. Once in awhile, though, authors take the time to share these stories, ideas, and characters. They may share them with strangers on a sudden impulse, or with someone they love, telling the story out when they can’t yet write it.

I find it fascinating how my unfinished stories have changed over the years, how often the endings have played out in so many different ways depending on my mood, with new ideas popping up the older I get and the more I learn. How surprising, too, to remember a story I once was excited about, but for some reason forgot. Mostly, the forgetting part had to do with growing up. The unfinished ones I continue to hold onto are those that have stood the test of time in my mind. Those characters, storylines, and themes are crucial elements I someday want to share with the world, but I want to share them at their best, when I’m able to devote the most time and energy to them. Which ones will remain unfinished and which ones will be completed? Even more, what future stories do I have yet to envision?

Unfinished is exciting in some ways. Things are still in play, there’s still a “game” going on even if it’s under the surface. Life is not done being lived and adventures are still to be had, if only for a time. An artist is really only as good as the next thing they are working on, and we can never complete anything to perfection, so we’re always writing and creating more to try and try again. We continue on in imperfection. Never will we have our seventh day of rest because we know that even what we’ve already written or published still isn’t “good” enough. Unfinished stories, unfinished life. Exciting and tiring at the same time.

The Lady Vanishes: Thrilling

Growing up, and having a love of mysteries, the story of The Lady Vanishes was always somewhere in the corner of my mind as something I wanted to watch. A few years ago I was thrilled to find the Alfred Hitchcock version on Netflix, but as there was no proper context to what was going on and the heroine seemed situated at the hotel for a very, very long time, I gave up on it, certain there was a thrilling tale in there somewhere but that I just didn’t have the patience to watch it through.

As I was certain the newer, 2013 version by the BBC would be faster paced, I decided to give it a try, and watched it twice because it was so enjoyable. Now I’m plowing through the book by Ethel Lina White and loving that even more! Want to read all her stuff now.

The BBC’s The Lady Vanishes stars Tuppence Middleton as Iris Carr, a young, wealthy orphan who spends her days partying and traveling with her friends. In this version, too, there is time at the hotel before the mystery on the train ride home begins, and it is so because that’s how White wrote it. The group is vacationing somewhere in Eastern Europe and happen to upset a couple of spinster sisters and a Reverend and his wife that are also from England. As someone who has lived and traveled abroad, it is somewhat disconcerting to find either yourself or your countrymen behaving badly elsewhere. We like to think we can be taken as individuals, but all too often our behavior is lumped in with all Americans, or wherever you come from, even if it’s just big city vs. little city. At any rate, Iris soon tires of her friends, sends them off ahead of her, and that is where the real story begins.

Although the movie was very exciting, there wasn’t as much background for some of the minor characters that I would have like to see and I’m happy to report that the book has a lot more on them, including explaining some actions that can’t be fully grasped by watching the movie. I say this in especial consideration of the two spinster sisters. After hearing their side in full, I am very sympathetic to their point of view not to interfere, wrong as it may have been.

Middleton did a great job playing Iris and was Iris rather than having to stretch to act as her at all. Too, Tom Hughes was very suited to play Max Hare, Iris’s helper and romantic interest, and Alex Jennings made a great professor, though the movie never really gets into his fear of hysterical females, which is quite amusing in the book. One wants to know just what he’s experienced with his students at Cambridge. The only false step in casting was perhaps making the possible villains too obvious, but then the book makes them rather obvious as well, though from Iris’s standpoint.

As to the vanishing lady, the story is simply better if you know nothing about the mystery or where it’s going, at least the first time watching. I found the film riveting a second time as I like train settings as well as movies set in the 30s and 40s, and really even if you know the truth you do wonder if Iris is really going mad. It’s fun to imagine what one would do in such a situation, how you would convince doubters to your point of view and all that. It’s funny also to think that often we don’t care about helping strangers until suddenly we do and find we will move heaven and earth if necessary. Sometimes we do act as God’s hands in saving others, even if the rest of the time we’re rather selfish.

High recommendations on both the film and the book (originally called The Wheel Spins), but I haven’t yet read the ending of the book and am curious to see if the film changed the ending. Sometimes screenwriters change the ending for no apparent reason and it irks me to no end.

Hotel stories

I’m working on a couple of different stories these days, a sort-of medical thriller, and an intriguing idea for a Korean drama involving a hotel. Thus I have on my list to watch the new series Hotel de Luna starring IU, and a couple of older series about hotels: My Secret Hotel and Hotel King, respectively starring Yoo In Na and Lee Dong Wook. Probably should add Lie to Me to the list as it also involves a large hotel. As skeptical as I am about being able to do the Korean rom-com genre justice, it’s just too intriguing of an idea to let go of, kind of like Trolls for Dust was.

Speaking of Trolls for Dust, everything is looking well for focusing on book three in the series this fall. I’m excited to see if I actually will have enough material for book four or if I will choose to end it as a trilogy. I signed up to be in a couple of book fairs in Minnesota this fall, so will have more news up about that as we get closer to the dates. My plans to do more with the trollsfordust blog haven’t exactly materialized, but it’s on my list as a way to help brainstorm and get back into the series.

As for other dramas, I am finishing up Goblin for the second time and find it to be just as good, if not better than the first time, though a little slow in parts. Also, the soundtrack really makes the show even more magical, enhancing the writing and giving extra life to the various plot lines, my favorite of which is the romance between the grim reaper and the Olive Chicken BB.Q owner. I’d also forgotten how funny a lot of the scenes were and how they take the time to really show the “goblin’s bride” growing up, bit by bit.

On Fortune’s Wheel: book review

This was one of my favorite love stories to read in my teens and early twenties. Maybe like the heroine, Birle, I just have a thing for men with blue eyes and lordly airs, but upon reading it again, I find the draw of the story has always been how both Birle and Orien adapt to each new circumstance as it comes. They adapt for different reasons at different times, sometimes for mere survival, other times because they have their lover’s safety and good in mind, as when Orien puts on a facade, belittling Birle before men who would harm her in order to divert their interests from her.

Cynthia Voigt’s books set in the medieval world of The Kingdom are set apart from other YA fiction both by how well she writes determined young people, their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, all hidden underneath a stoicism alien to many teens today, and by her choice to narrate in the third person. I’ve no objection to first person narrative, but too often it is used in young adult fiction as an “easy” way of connecting with how teens think, and often the efforts are cringeworthy and end up rapidly dating the books. Voigt’s Kingdom books were largely written in the 80s and early 90s, a time when there was a remoteness to youth that is nonexistent today in our culture of social media. In On Fortune’s Wheel, the characters have no one to share their thoughts with except themselves, and occasionally with each other. There’s an almost magical quality to this now, though it used to be how things ordinarily were.

As bewitched as fourteen-year-old Birle is by the older Orien, he is just as enchanted by her, eagerly discussing their different backgrounds and speculating on life with her as if she were his equal right from the start. Third person allows for subtlety that only works well in first person if the first person is an unreliable narrator. Voigt somehow accomplishes the feat of telling how Birle is falling in love with Orien, yet showing how he’s falling for her. It is only Birle who at the end of story is surprised to find that Orien has loved her all along. How easily even women in love doubt their men, but I suppose this is why the men always have to continually work at winning and keeping their women. Just a dynamic of the sexes.

Two other things I took from this reading of the story: People often see themselves in a far different light than they actually are. Both Orien and Birle consider their own faults heavily, but easily bear up under almost every new circumstance thrown their way. They are matched in their readiness to adapt to what must be done to survive, all the time considering themselves too idle, or too gentle towards others, and sometimes even too kind. Both characters continually sell themselves short, but by the end of the tale it is clear that those around them do not, and hold them in high esteem.

The other idea that struck me on this second reading was that people largely remain the same at their core, no matter what they go through. This is especially evident in Birle, who whether starving, a slave, or a rich lady, is not happy doing nothing, striving not to be a burden to those around her, but especially those she loves. In On Fortune’s Wheel she simply grows up into what she at fourteen already was, a independent and spirited young woman to wants to live life on her own terms. Orien, too, wished to live on his own terms, and their life together will be one of continually adapting to each other because that’s what they are choosing to do. It’s romantic in a way that is far deeper than flowers, chocolates, or even kisses ever could be.

Final decision: This book is a keeper and I will surely read it again and save it for my nieces when they are old enough to read it. Don’t even talk to me about how they changed the title. I can’t stand it, but I’m happy if teens are still reading the story.