Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother by Xinran

Subtitled “Stories of Love and Loss”, Xinran’s book includes ten chapters each one dedicated to the story of Chinese mothers who have lost their daughters through infanticide, theft, and abandonment or have spent their lives caring for the thousands of orphans in China. Xinran explains how and why these women made the decision to end their daughters’ lives or abandoned them as toddlers in train stations around the country — a decision that seems unimaginable — in order to help the more than 120,000 Chinese girls adopted by parents in twenty-seven countries at the end of 2006 understand why their mothers could place them up for adoption.

Through these ten stories, Xinran asserts that mothers in China do not make the decision to place their daughters up for adoption out of malice or spit or because they hate their female children but because female babies have been abandoned in farming cultures around the country since ancient times and because of the one-child policy. She also attempts to argue that women abandon their female infants due to sexual ignorance; they have no knowledge of how to prevent a pregnancy and no options when they do become pregnant. A particularly weak and unconvincing argument when discussing the abandonment and infanticide of female infants.

But while it would be easy to condemn the reasons offered, Xinran makes it abundantly clear that most of the women profiled in this book do not have the choice to keep their daughters. Many of these women are physically and emotionally abused by their in-laws when they give birth to a daughter and one man, who clearly adored his daughter, explained how his parents told him not to return home until he and his wife had a daughter. If they did not have a son in the next two and a half years, he would lose his right to inherit his parents’ property and dishonor his ancestors.

Without a son, there is no one to continue on the family line, honor the ancestors, inherit property, or care for the parents in their old age, and while some families would also accept a daughter, many of them believe the firstborn child must be a son in order to “root” the family. The state prevents them from keeping children born after that much desired son, but Xinran contends through her stories that desire for a son is the foremost motivation for the death and abandonment of infant girls around the country.

Those women living in the city at least have the opportunity to take their daughters to orphanages were they will hopefully be adopted, but those living in the countryside are often given a bucket of water or food slops following their birth of their daughter in which they supposed to drown their child in. And some women are “extra-birth guerrillas” who travel the country via train attempting to evade the one-child policy and hold onto their daughter. But all those interviewed in the book explain how tremendous and heartbreaking the losses of their daughters have been in their lives and how they desperately hope young girls adopted by foreigners from China understand that their mothers miss and think of them every single day.

“…a woman was like a pebble worn smooth and round by water and time. Our outward appearance was changed by the fate meted out to us in our lives, but no water could alter the heart of the woman and her maternal instincts.” (pg. 18)

There are some aspects of Xinran’s book that frustrated me — her unnecessary insertion of herself into the story, in particular — but I do think the book is an interesting introduction into the state of Chinese adoption and addresses an often forgotten group when discussing the impact of the one-child policy in China. Xinran wrote the book specifically for girls adopted from China by foreigners, and for that audience I believe the book would be both interesting and illuminating.

Book Mentioned:

  • Xinran. Message From an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love. Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman. London: Chatto & Windus, 2010. Print. 212 pgs. ISBN: 9780701184025. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Chatto & Windus. Retrieved: October 17, 2014.

Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason

Icelandic murderers generally don’t leave anything behind but a mess. Inspector Erlendur is called to Reykjavík to follow-up on the only clues in the murder investigation of an single, elderly man named Holberg — a cryptic note left by the killer saying “I am HIM” and a photograph of a young girl’s grave from the 1960s. In the course of his investigation, Erlendur learns the man was accused — yet not convicted — of the rape of the young girl’s mother, Kolbrún, leading to him to reopen both the case and Audur’s coffin.

Amid this investigation, Erlendur is struggling to help his drug-addicted daughter, who recently announced she is pregnant, stop her drug abuse and thwart the men hounding her — and now Erlendur — for money. His ex-wife, whom Erlendur has not talked to in years, has instructed their daughter, Eva Lind, to demand Erlendur also investigate the sudden disappearance of a bride at her own wedding.

Jar City refers to a room where human organs — some donated to science and some stolen from the morgue — are stored in glass jars. At first glance, the title seems like an odd choice for the novel but, without giving away major spoilers, the novel explores how Iceland, as a small island nation with little immigration, has a very small gene pool allowing genetic diseases to be easily traced through the population. Thus, Iceland is a living “jar city”.

A rather chilling observation that I appreciated for everything it is not — shootouts, knife fights, car chases. And Indriðason’s novel exhibits exactly what I look for in a crime novel — a narrative that unfolds without pretense and without gimmicks to keep the intrigue high. He writes the reaction of his characters learning about chilling crimes rather than describing them in action, which gives the book a certain punch to it.

Although this book is touted as the first in Indriðason’s series, it is actually the third in the series in Iceland but the first to be translated into English. I worried a bit about coming into the series as an odd jumping point, but Indriðason quickly gets the reader up to speed as to who Erlendur is and what his backstory may be.

Erlendur is as straight-forward as characters come, but his mind works quickly twisting clues to find the answer like the best detectives in crime novels. There was a bit too much going on in this novel for how short it is; the subplot of the missing bride could have easily been an entirely different novel. Yet, as in life, Erlendur’s troubles with Eva Lind do not pause so he can close a case.

Book Mentioned:

  • Indriðason, Arnaldur. Jar City. Translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2004. Originally published 2000. Print. 275 pgs. ISBN: 9780312340702. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Thomas Dunne Books. Retrieved: October 15, 2014.

Drood by Dan Simmons

The British author Wilkie Collins serves as the narrator to Simmons’ novel, and he begins the tale by wagering that the reader has never heard of him let alone read one of his books or seen one of his plays performed. Thanks to the book blogging community, I can assure poor, forgotten Wilkie Collins that is not the case and, thanks again to the book blogging community via Trish’s #droodalong, I picked up an audiobook version of Simmons’ novel. (Incidentally, the narrator of the audiobook version of this book, John Lee, also narrated the only book by Wilkie Collins I have read as well as one by Charles Dickens.)

I planned to follow the reading schedule for the #droodalong posting about chapters one through twenty-two today and then twenty-three till the end in November. However, I finished the audiobook earlier than planned and, after fielding several questions on twitter about whether or not people should continue past the halfway mark, decided to discuss the whole book in a single post. Truth be told, my opinion about the novel changed dramatically after the first half, and a post about the second half would have been a complete one-eighty from what I originally wrote about the first twenty-two chapters.

At the heart of this novel is the inspiration surrounding Charles Dickens’ final and incomplete novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A cursory glance at Wikipedia whilst listening to the novel informed me that Dickens’ exhibited “strange behavior” in the five years before his death following Staplehurst railway disaster, and Simmons novel speculates on the effect the real Edwin Drood had on both his behavior and his death.

By the end of the first half of the novel, Collins has met the real Drood, whom Dickens first met while attending to the wounded after a train accident in 1965, and Collins has begun to suspect Dickens of murdering his ward, Edwin Dickenson, whom Dickens met during the train accident.

The real-life Drood is the child of a British engineer and a Egyptian Muslim, who was stoned to death following her husband’s abandonment, and he is presumed to be guilty of a litany of crimes by a private detective blackmailing Collins for information about Drood’s whereabouts. Drood hired Dickens to write his autobiography under the threat of death, and paranoia begins to set in for both Dickens and Collins – both authors see Drood, women, or men in their own likenesses wandering their homes and working their unfinished novels.

Having cast his narrator as a well-known writer, Simmons sets a high bar for himself, and I particularly enjoyed the vivid imagery provided by his descriptions – my nose wrinkled in disgust over the stink of the Thames. And the mystery surrounding Drood is so heavily cloaked in the smoke and darkness of a late night stroll in Victorian London that I was glad to have the novel at hand during a week of fog and rain.

The novel also follows some of the structural aspects of the Victorian literature Dickens and Collins’ are known for, particularly the repeated references to the novel’s “dear reader”, and I now want to pick up Victorian literature and books about Victorian England. I did learn a tremendous amount about the life of Charles Dickens; his treatment towards his wife is nowhere near as demonstrative as one would assume for a couple with ten children.

At the halfway point, I was wondering if there were references to Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood that I was not picking up on seeing as how I have not read that particular novel yet. While I still do not know if that is the case, much of the novel references the works of Collins, particularly The Moonstone. Not only are their spoilers for this novel, but there is a lengthy comparison between The Moonstone and Dickens’ work that I felt was rather lost on me since I have not read the novel.

I enjoyed the insight into Wilkie Collins, particularly Collins’ insistence he feels no animosity towards Dickens despite Dickens’ popularity with readers and critics or the fact that Dickens received most of the credit on their collaborative projects. His insistence is slowly chipped away in a rather humorous change from “we were equal partners” to “really, I wrote the whole play”.

However, the novel takes a really sinister turn in the second half and I felt Collins the character becomes lost in the second half of the novel. Maybe Simmons wanted to write a cautionary tale about abusing opiates, or maybe he could not reconcile the story he wanted to tell with the character he created in the first half. Either way, I began to loathe Collins and found myself wishing the novel had been told from the point of view of Drood or Dickens.

Overall, I think Simmons’ novel suffered from his desire to insert every fact, rumor, and idea he had into the story. The amount of time spent on backstory during chapters twenty-three and forty weighed the novel down tremendously; there is no other way to describe this than as a slog. The excitement of chapters forty through forty-seven kept me going all the way until the end. But the conclusion of the novel was not enough to redeem the novel for me, and knowing the ending, I wish I had listened to abridged audiobook, instead.

Book Mentioned:

  • Simmons, Dan. Drood. Read by John Lee. New York: Books on Tape, 2009. Audiobook. 29 hours, 49 minutes. ISBN:  9781415960738. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Books on Tape. Retrieved: September 7, 2014.

Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, Guterson’s novel is the most recently published novel on my list for the Classics Club. Off the coast of Washington on San Piedro Island in 1954, Japanese-American Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of murdering a local fisherman named Carl Heine Jr., who was found entangled in the drift of his boat out at sea. The accusation relies on the still raw history between Carl Jr. and Kabuo, between the Caucasian residents and those of Japanese descent who came under suspicion following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“This a murder trial, after all, and snow or no snow, we have got to keep that foremost in our hearts and minds.” (pg. 317)

Kabuo’s father was making under-the-table mortgage payments to Carl Sr. on seven acres of land because non-American born people of Japanese descent are not allowed to own land in the country. The payments stop, however, when Kabuo and his family are interned by the United States government at Manzanar. When Kabuo returned after service to his nature during the war, the widow of Carl Sr. has sold the land to Ole Jurgensen for significant profit and refuses to acknowledge the claim Kabuo and his family had to the land. For years, Kabuo pines for the land determined to right the wrong committed against his family while Carl Jr. longs to purchased back the land his mother sold without consulting him first.

Ole Jurgensen’s decision to sell the land to Carl only hours before Kabuo has the chance to approach him appears to be the perfect motive for murder. Yet Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue Imada, insist Kabuo would never hurt anyone and call upon the town’s only reporter Ishmael Chambers, a Marine Corps veteran who once loved Hatseu but now hates all “Japs” after losing an arm fighting at the Battle of Tarawa, to help prove Kabuo’s innocence.

The narrative is centered on the trail with unobtrusive flashbacks to the past to help explain a particular witness’ motives or biases towards Kabuo and his family. The courtroom drama and the past take turns moving the story forward, and I particularly liked the decision to set the novel years after the war to show how prejudice and hysteria can linger long after the physical manifestations are gone.

“Let us so live in this trying time that when it is all over we islanders can look one another in the eye with the knowledge that we have behaved honorably and fairly. Let us remember what is so easy to forget in the mad intensity of wartime: that prejudices and hatred are never right and never to be accepted by a just society.” (pg. 184-185)

There is one incredibly thought-provoking and poetic conversation between Kabuo and Carl Jr. where they discuss how difficult it is to set aside hatred after war. Carl Jr. explains how he cannot reconcile his memories of playing with Kabuo as children because he was trained by the US Army to immediately and ruthlessly kill all Japanese people. He seems to think this is only a problem that he possess, but Kabuo immediately informs him that he, too, killed during his time fighting for the Americans in World War II.

In his case, however, the Nazis he was instructed to kill looked like Carl Jr. Evil is, therefore, not associated with any particular race or appearance, and neither Carl Jr. nor he should be allowed to hate their neighbor simply because they look like the enemy. In summary, this conversation sounds obvious enough, but it is written in such a poetic way that speaks to the novel and the experiences of its characters as a whole.

Perhaps the only aspect distracting from the beauty of this novel is the sudden and unnecessary intrusion of sexual scenes into the narrative. Certainly such scenes help to explain the relationship between Ishmael and Hatsue, but I am not convinced it was necessary to explain the impotence of a lawyer on the case. Unless Guterson’s point was to attribute the lawyer’s incompetence to his impotence?

Overall, though, I adored this novel and the way it explores both the rather hidden history of Japanese internment during World War II and the affects hysteria and prejudice can have on a community long after a horrific event occurs. So glad I added this one to my list.

Book Mentioned:

  • Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print. 460 pgs. ISBN: 9780679764021. Source: Purchased.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © Vintage. Retrieved: October 16, 2014.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Told in a duel narrative structure, Blum’s novel largely focuses on the life of Trudy Schlemmer’s mother, Anna, during World War II in Germany with occasionally glimpses into the lives of Trudy and Anna in the United States during the 1990s. A professor of German history at the University of Minnesota, Trudy has launched an audio-visual interview project where she asks non-Jewish Germans about their experiences in Nazi Germany; a project that presumably draws on Blum’s work with the Shoah Foundation, an organization that conducts audio-visual interviews with survivors of the Holocaust.

Anna refuses to discuss her experiences with her daughter insisting that their lives before she and three-year-old Trudy went to live with an American solider in Minnesota are to be forgotten, to be left in the past. Trudy’s only source of information is an old photograph she finds hidden among her aging mother’s possessions: a portrait of Anna, toddler Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmführer of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Trudy is convinced she is the child of a Nazi officer complicating her already tenuous friendship with Reiner, a survivor of the Holocaust, incensed over her determination to apply logic to the explainable, to give voices to those who robbed others of their lives.

Books focusing on the perspective and roles of German women during World War II are rather few and far between possibly because, as Reiner says, these women were complicit in the crimes of the regime and giving them voices opens the door for revisionist history, for absolution and pity of the participants in the Nazi regime. (We could debate this assertion all day, but I would say it is the typical response to questions of whether or not the experience of non-Jewish German women is a worthy field of study.) Anna is immediately cast in a sympathetic light — she hides the Jewish father of a baby, her father is a brute who moves in lockstep with the regime, she risks her life to deliver bread to political prisoners at Buchenwald, she is brutalized and raped by the Obersturmführer — and the German men and women Trudy interviews are unapologetically racist. So, really, the novel skirts the issues it raises by making Anna a truly exceptional case.

Anna is also a difficult character to understand. The loss of Max, her daughter’s father, clearly had a tremendous impact on her as did her treatment at the hands of the Obersturmführer, but to internalize that pain and still allow her daughter to believe her father is a Nazi is unimaginable and unforgivable. She goes to great lengths to protect Trudy (known as Trudie in Germany), to make sure the little girl has enough to eat and a future after the war, but she is so utterly cold towards her daughter that it seems like she blames Trudy for what occurred during the war.

Occasionally, the writing is clunky and dissolves into repetitive ruminations on the sexual acts between the Obersturmführer and Anna. It also took me some time to adjust to the lack of quotation marks around the dialogue of the characters as it is not always clear who is speaking. But, overall, I thought the novel raised some interesting questions about the role of German women in the Holocaust, their culpability, and their guilt. Such questions should, at least, encourage discussion at book club.

Book Mentioned:

  • Blum, Jenna. Those Who Save Us. New York: Harcourt, 2005. Print. 479 pgs. ISBN: 9780156031660. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Harcourt. Retrieved: October 16, 2014.