Thursday, 19 April 2012

Two super-speedy reviews while I am supposed to be writing my essays

So, the essays are going well, as is the internship. I was let out on day release to go to the London Book Fair on Monday, at which I felt very junior and unimportant (who knew there were so many men in publishing? Where do they hide for the rest of the year?), but I did wander past the Hachette booth, which, in honour of The Casual Vacancy, had a GIANT POSTER of J K Rowling's face staring down at passers-by like a benevolent dictator and/ or a mid-level deity.

This made me quite suspicious, probably because I just finished reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang and now I am seeing cults of the leader everywhere (including in North Korea, but that's not just me).

Wild Swans is one of the only non-fiction titles on the 1001 books list, a biography/autobiography combo about three generations of Chinese women who collectively lived through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, World War II, the rise of Communism and the increasingly crazy machinations of Chairman Mao. Their historical CVs are amazing - Chang's grandmother was one of the last warlord concubines (a dubious honour), Chang's mother was one of the first Communist party sympathisers after World War II and her father was a high-up party official who governed a couple of provinces. As you do.

I have to say, Wild Swans isn't particularly well written - most of the time, it's perfectly functional, but sometimes she lapses into a badly-done contemplations of the beauty of the universe and the result is just tiresome. But it's a bestseller not because of the way it's written but because of what it's written about. It's an incredible (and totally terrifying) inside record of what went wrong with Chinese communism and why.

Before I read Wild Swans I had only vague background knowledge about recent Chinese history, so I sort of knew that the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had happened, and were Bad Things. Well, now I know the details, and it turns out that Bad doesn't even begin to cover it. At one point, for example, Mao decided that China should make more steel, so he got everyone in the entire country (including children - as a six year old, Chang had to pick up scrap metal on the way to school) to stop what they were doing and obsessively make steel, with the result that the crops failed and millions of people just died of starvation. And everyone had been so indoctrinated by Mao that they honestly believed it was all for the best.

The number of people who are tortured and killed in this book is staggering, as is the number who just committed suicide out of sheer shame and horror at what was going on. At times I actually felt like I was reading a dystopian sci fi novel - the mind control, the street gangs, kids beating up their teachers, families forced to live separately and so on. It's almost unbelievable to me that what she's writing is - or very recently was - all true. (On that note, the writer part of me thinks that if you are considering publishing your own dystopian novel, Wild Swans is a must-read background text. You don't even have to make this stuff up.)

My only warning is that if you want to be at all surprised by the fate of Chang's family DO NOT FLIP TO THE PICTURES in the middle of the book, because you will be horribly spoiled by captions like 'The last picture of Blah Blah, who died unexpectedly in 1949'. I did, and I was, and I was cross.

Long as it is (and I admit, it is somewhat over-long), it's absolutely worth a read. Mind-blowing and extremely eye-opening, both from a historical and a human-nature point of view, it's everything you never knew about Communist China and didn't think to ask because it didn't occur to you that human beings could possibly do those kinds of thing to each other in the real world.

3 stars.

After all that heartbreaking suicide, I wanted some more light-hearted death (I typed that sentence and realised what an awful person I am, but there's no other way to say it), and so I moved on to P D James's The Murder Room.

I'm always on the fence about James as a writer. On the one hand, she's a good mystery writer, she makes up interesting cases and her detective is, you know, a perfectly fine individual - but on the other, she is the most gloomy person in the world. I grew up on Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, so I have a baseline assumption that written murder should be jolly, a nice minty after-dinner puzzle with body parts for effect. It's a point of view I think crime writers are coming back to more and more these days, but there was obviously a time in the 70s and 80s, when James was forming herself as an author, when everyone was reacting against silliness and trying to show how very serious the business of death really is, etc etc.

As a result, everyone in a P D James book runs around tiresomely contemplating THE YAWNING HOLE AT THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE and their INABILITY TO BE HAPPY. It gives me a stress headache. Yes, yes, the world is very terrible, but it's also quite funny and stupid, and there's no acknowledgement of that in a James mystery. Every single one of her characters feels alienated and unfulfilled and has family who are awful and they hate. One or two such people might be understandable, but an entire book full of them leads me to believe that something Freudian is going on. I'm willing to bet the James family is not a barrel of laughs at Christmas time.

Because of all this, I never end up enjoying a P D James as much as I really should, given the ingredients involved. The Murder Room is all about someone copycatting 1930s murders (James, like me, is clearly the most enormous historical murders geek), it takes place in a museum and a girls' school, and it's a murder mystery. All my favourite things! And yet, at its heart it's joyless and a bit functional. The most interesting bits for me were (unsurprisingly) the descriptions of the original '30s murders. They made me want to ring James up and talk to her about my dissertation, which happens to be about real Victorian murders and their influence on 1930s crime novels. I think we'd get on better through the medium of fact than we do with fiction - no coincidence that my favourite James book is her true-crime recreation of the Ratcliff Highway Murders, The Maul and the Pear Tree.

But anyway, The Murder Room was fine. Acceptable. Functional. It passed the time. And it made me crave a nice bit of Agatha Christie. Now there's a woman who knows what to do with murder.

2.5 stars.

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