Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Good Earth

In the near future, I am going to have my honor students focus on reading highly praised novels (like the "classics" and Pulitzer Prize novels), so in my research, I am trying to read some of my own. I happened upon The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and I was tempted to read it.

It looks like a dry book. It really does. But I was hooked and I wanted to keep finding out what would happen to Wang Lang and his family. This book is very old, as it was published in 1931, and used to be taught throughout schools when my mom was younger. My mother actually read the book in 6th grade. She remembers reading it because she sliced her finger open while making a project for the book--a diorama. Remember those? In any event, it's an older book.

Wikipedia's description is very, very brief. So much more happens that makes the plot and the character's circumstances very complicated. Essentially, the book follows the protagonist Wang Lang who lives in rural China. He is a very poor farmer but has a connection with his land (hence the name of the book). He wants to make a man of himself, so he goes to the main courts to get himself a bride from a slave. It is there that he receives his wife O-Lan. She soon bears him many children, as they are fortunate to have two boys first. However, economic times become extremely harsh in the land, as the land dries up, and China experiences a drought, thus a famine. Finding food is extremely difficult, and people resort to stealing. Wang Lung has a difficult time feeding his family since he has to feed his wife, two sons, and his older father.

To Wang Lung's misfortunte, his uncle (a mischievous, nefarious, malicious man) joins a notoriously bad group of felons who steal and hurt for their own personal gain. They are the equivalent of a gang. They take most of Wang Lung's food (which is hardly anything), but O-Lan pleads that they leave the furniture, which most of them do. Wang Lung is faced with a hard decision: does he sell his land to make some money for food or does he move away? Wang Lung decides not to sell the land and move to the city to keep his family alive.

However, before they leave, O-Lan faces two misfortunes. First, she gives birth to a daughter who is the victim of malnutrition during the pregnancy. This girl is born with some type of mental retardation as a result, and is thus called the Poor Fool throughout the novel. O-Lan's second pregnancy at this point of time births another baby girl. O-Lan knows that they cannot provide for this baby and kills it. Wang Lung takes it outside to be eaten by a nearby dog who keeps digging up the dead bodies of his relatives to satiate its hunger. Horrid. Nasty. Horrifying.

Wang Lung's family migrates to the city where Wang Lung pulls a plow for silver. His family begs in the street, but at least they have little money and rice to eat. One day, a mob breaks out as people are starving. They raid the nearby house of the rich. Wang Lung comes face to face with a rich man. In an act of desperation, Wang Lung tells the man he will kill him if he does not hand him over some silver. Wang Lung receives many gold coins, enough to keep his family satisfied for a long time. O-Lan picks up some jewels that also will help. Thus, they return back to their land to start anew.

Wang Lung decides to really build up his house and his land. He buys land from the rich house and staffs farmers to increase his intake from his land. He becomes rich from all of the products coming from his land. The money starts to get to Wang Lung's head. He starts to dress very nice and partake in luxuries. He has twins as well, a boy and a girl. They buy servants and build a new, nicer house. The servants move into the old house.

Wang Lung grows bored and wants to become known as a great man. He goes into the town and stumbles upon a whorehouse. He contemplates the decision, feeling guilty, but eventually he begins to sleep with a girl named Lotus. He will do everything for Lotus and pines for her day and night. O-Lan suspects this, and their distance grows. He even asks O-Lan for her jewels to give to Lotus, and O-Lan knows this. However, O-Lan is a silent, obedient woman. It's sad to watch how much terrible treatment she takes and how hard her life is.

Eventually, Wang Lung decides that he wants to buy Lotus for good. His uncle and his wife have now taken residence in his home, seeing that he is so prosperous, and he must house them, for he must respect his family and his elders. He hates having them live there, for they are greedy and constantly ask for silver, but his uncle provides protection from his gang. The uncle's wife makes a deal for Lotus to move to the house, so Wang Lung builds her her own wing off of the house which is very nice. She will reside there. Of course, tension between the women erupts as she lives there.

At this point, Wang Lung's sons are now older, and Wang Lung wonders what he will do about wedding his first son. His first son is lusting so bad that he goes into the town for women. He even has a brief fling with Lotus, and when Wang Lung finds them, he beats his son with a stick. He sends him to the city to get out of his sight until he can find him a bride. A bride is eventually found, and they move into the house together with the family.

Meanwhile, O-Lan has grown terribly sick, and it now becomes apparent how much she meant to the family and how much she did for them around the house. Wang Lung calls a doctor to the house who informs them that a dead baby is living within O-Lan and will eventually kill her. He could either give them medicine to quell the pain, but it wouldn't solve anything, or he could perform surgery to ensure her survival. When Wang Lung says that he will pay it, the doctor suddenly becomes greedy and asks for ten times the amount, which he could not afford. He would have to sell his land for that kind of money, so it comes down to the land or O-Lan. O-Lan begs for him to keep the land, for her life is not worth that much. Wang Lung agrees with her.

During O-Lan's slow decent towards death, Wang Lung is so saddened inside. He is disgusted with how ugly his wife is and has a hard time holding her hand as she dies in her bed, but he hates himself for thinking this. O-Lan, while in a half-daze, half-sleep, constantly cries out phrases like, "But I have beared your children!" Comments that show how torn up she was over her husband's new love and infidelity. O-Lan finally dies once her son is wed. The old man soon dies as well.

Wang Lung-s first son bears children, and the son's wife is a pain. The eldest son often quarrels with the cousin (uncle's son) who is lustful and devious. He wishes to move away into the great house to escape them. Their first idea to make peace in the house is to hook the uncle and uncle's wife on opium. This works. They are now drug-addicted and want nothing else but opium. Lotus grows fatter and fatter but is happy to live in such luxury with servants. The cousin constantly tries to make sexual advances onto Wang Lung's pretty daughter, so Wang Lung weds her off quickly while she is still a young virgin. To their fortune, the cousin eventually decides to go off to war, so that makes things easier in Wang Lung's house.

After making his second son an apprentice in the grain market and looking after their finances, Wang Lung and his family rent out parts of the great house and move into the city. Wang Lung still returns to the land and even rents parts out, as his servants are now growing older. Wang Lung also grows older. He weds his second, smarter son to a rural woman who won't be as picky as the first wife, and lives in happiness with his wealth. He now has many servants to wait on his growing family.

During one bad period of time, the army (as a war in going on, the Revolution) comes into his home, led by the cousin. They stay there for a long time which causes unrest in the house. They have to put all of the women in one wing and guard it, as the men might rape the women. The cousin takes to a slave, and she has babies by him. The army eventually leaves, and peace comes to the house.

Now, if things couldn't get any stranger, they really get odd now. Wang Lung is now an old man. His youngest son does not want to work on the land, which was Wang Lung's plan, so he asks to be educated like his older brothers and to have a wife. He asks for a servant to be his wife, a very beautiful young girl named Pear Blossom. However, Wang Lung fancies her, and wants her for himself. He is conflicted with what he should do, and one night, he makes an advance on her, and she tells him that she likes older men because they are nicer and gentler. They have their own romance. When the son finds out, he is livid and leaves the house to join the army. Wang Lung approaches his death with acceptance. Before he dies, Wang Lung overhears his sons discussing selling his land once he dies. Wang Lung cries out in horror, and the sons lie to him, telling him that they won't. They smile at each other as they say this, and this is how the book ends.

Now, I did not know that there were two other books to follow this one. This is a cliffhanger, and I wonder if Buck meant for it to be this way. In any event, I am drawn to read more. If anyone has read them, are they worth reading??

The book is so rich with material to discuss. How low will people go when they are starving? What happens when people go from rags to riches? How do people become so greedy? Is infidelity justifiable? What is the role of family and filial piety? What happens when parental expectations don't fit into what we want for ourselves? What is loyalty? How do you maintain wealth when money is hard to come by? How do you become a respectable, honorable person? Is arranged marriage a good thing? Why title the book, The Good Earth?

I wish I could discuss the book with someone else. There is so much to talk about!

Is the movie worth watching?? I am aware that there is one, but I am not sure if I should check it out or not.

So what do you think about The Good Earth?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book of Eli

This movie is long overdue for me. I meant to see it when it came out because it seemed so interesting--different than movies out lately. I got the opportunity to watch it last night, and it was extremely thought-provoking. I will flesh out my thoughts here.

Eli, played by Denzel Washington, exists in a post-apocolyptic world that has experienced "the flash," something that destroyed most of the human population and its surroundings. Eli encounters savages who kill for small tokens in a desolate countryside. He seems to be somewhere in the American west. He carries around a desirable book that all want to covet. At first, we just watch Eli get around a countryside just trying to survive, but we soon learn that Eli can outfight large groups of people and is a strong presence.

Eli makes his way to a nearby town where he soon encounters a small faction who watch him murder a man who tries to rob him while in a bar. Eli proves his fighting skills by taking down many men within this bar, and he is brought to the attention of the man in charge of this faction or townspeople. He tries to persuade Eli to work for him since he seems to be a talented, smart, and aged man. Older people are assets during this time because they knew what life was like before the flash, almost an unimaginable time.

Our antagonist here locks Eli in a room but tries to seduce him to stay with a warm bed, a lot of food and water, and a lady to entertain him. This lady, Solara, happens to be Carnegie's, the antagonist's, lover's daughter. This causes tension between the two. Solara and Eli talk but he will not take her. They end up talking a lot and Solara develops respect for Eli. Eli then tells Solara that he heard a voice that told him just to go west. He needed to deliver the words of the book to a deserving people. He would be protected until he arrived there, but this was his life's mission.

Eli escapes in the morning before his secret of his "book" gets out to Carnegie who then desperately wants to find him. Carnegie comes head to head with Eli in the center of the town and a shoot-out ensues when Eli refuses to give up his book. Eli shoots a lot of people, including Carnegie who gets shot in the leg. Eli escapes and Solara follows into the desert.

Eli tries to abandon Solara, as he thinks she will only get herself harmed when she joins him. Eli has to save Solara as she is assaulted by ongoers, who he kills. They run into an old couple who tries to trick them into coming into the home, only for them to kill and eat them, until Carnegie and his men find them in the house. A massive shoot-out occurs, and the old couple is killed. Solara and Eli survive but are dragged outside. They put Solara at gunpoint until Eli will hand over the book. He does. Once it's done, Eli is shot in the stomach and abandoned.

In their SUVs, Solara strangles the driver and stabs the other man there, a man who wanted to have her as his trophy wife. She throws a grenade at the second SUV and takes off. Carnegie lets her go; he has what he needs--his beloved book. Carnegie believes that he can gain ultimate power with this book. All will follow him when he has it and can deliver its word. So, he wants it for something negative.

Solara finds Eli and drives him to the Golden Gate Bridge. They abandon the car on the bridge and proceed to take a boat over to Alcatraz, where a small civilization lives and is trying to restore the world to goodness. Eli and Solara pass in, and Eli can deliver the message of the book because he has it memorized. Eli spends his last days alive reciting the book from memory as it is copied. Eli dies, and the world finally has the written word of the Bible.

Meanwhile, Carnegie discovers that the book is locked. It takes him some time to get someone to open it for him, but once he does, he discovers that the book is written in braille.

SPOILER: The shock is that Eli is, thus, blind. This is why he wears the sunglasses that he does. Everything then seems almost impossible for a blind man to do. Travel across the country. Kill many people, especially when attacked by multiple people and snipers on rooftops. Kill for food, birds and cats. Escape. Etc. This was a HUGE surprise to me! This didn't even click to me until after I saw the movie. Being blind almost enhances the meaning because it really drives home the point that he was fulfilling God's will, and with faith, he fulfilled his assignment. It gives hope in a supreme being. Very, very powerful stuff.

Solara takes off from Alcatraz to go back home. They make her look, walk, and talk like Eli as she leaves, almost like she is the one to take his place. Carnegie is slowly dying as his leg wound becomes infected, becoming smelly from gangrene. The whole town has gone to hell and his lover (who is also blind and will not read the book to him) becomes overcomed with joy as she knows he will meet his end.

End of Spoiler.

So much to talk about! The biblical references and ideas are overwhelming. He communicates with God and has a purpose. He needs to deliver the word of the Lord in order to save the world. Without knowing the word, people go literally mad, killing one another and losing all respect for themselves and others. It's interesting to ponder why all books were destroyed before the flash.

What was the flash? Was it human-created or natural phenomenon? Why or how did some survive?

It's crazy to see what happens when there are no authority figures, resources, or organized society. People can kill at whim. There are no consequences. You need to find everything you need, and if you're sick, you might not have ways to treat yourself. You can't travel very far because there isn't transportation. It makes you wonder how some people come to power because they really don't have anything to hold them up to that authority. Very, very bizarre. Not something I'd want to deal with.

This film would be very interesting to compare to The Road. They are both apocolyptic recent films (even though The Road was a novel first), and both touch on similar ideas or resorts that humans go to once faced with "the end of human society." Yes, it's sci fi, but it sure is damn interesting and rich to discuss.

So what do you think of The Book of Eli?

Friday, October 1, 2010

How I Live Now

I always mean to read more YA titles to recommend them to some of my students, so recently I finished How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I really didn't know what to expect, and there wasn't too much description on the back, and I felt like there were so many unexpected twists and turns. But, I can see that this book would cause a lot to talk about.

Daisy is a teenage girl living in Manhanttan. Her mother died when she was young, and her father remarries to the stereotypical evil stepmother. They don't get along to the point where Daisy is sent to live with her mother's sister Pen in England. Daisy gets to start a new life over there. She struggles a little bit to feel at home, but she soon feels that life is so much more exciting in this lovely countryside rather than the busy city.

Daisy soon falls for her cousin Edmond, a fourteen-year-old smoker. They hide their relationship from the rest of the family, although it must be clear to most of them. Daisy is also hiding her anorexia, which becomes even more complicated as the novel progresses.

And here's the weird twist. A fictional war breaks out in Europe, and life on the farm seems to be normal. They are self-sufficient, so they don't really interact with the outside world. First, a doctor comes to the house looking for medications to help the wounded. He is suspicious that he does not find any adults at home. There is no uncle, and aunt Pen has left. She soon becomes stranded in Oslo and is not heard from again for a long while.

Soon enough, soldiers come to the house and split up the family. Isaac and Edmond (the boys) are sent one way, and Piper and Daisy are sent another way (the girls). Daisy longs for Edmond, but soon takes to saving Daisy as she is younger. There is little food where they are taken, which really makes Daisy look at her anorexia as she grows thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker. Piper and Daisy eventually escape to go back home and must walk home a long distance. Along the way, they encounter a field of dead bodies, a place where Edmond was supposed to be, and Daisy checks every body to make sure that one isn't Edmond. She does not find him, but they seem to be completely scarred from their experience.

Once they finally return home, Daisy intercepts a call from her father who sends her back home. She stays in a New York City hospital until she is nursed back to health. A while later, Daisy returns to England to discover that Aunt Pen was killed in Oslo and Edmond has been found. However, Edmond is so scarred from what he saw in the war that he's only a shell of himself. His arms are physically scarred from self-inflicted wounds. While everyone projected the hurt and harm and anger onto something else, Edmond turned it onto himself. The book concludes with Daisy nursing Edmond back to sanity as she believes she will stay on the farm because that is where she feels the most at home.

Issues to talk about with this book:

-The effects of war
-Eating disorders
-Inflicting self harm
-Underage smoking
-Cruel parenting
-Absent parents
-Future wars

The reading level was easy for a young adult. The novel centers around a fictional war, so you could spend some time speculating why this could have happened. Readers didn't have a lot of information about the war, which is probably quite realistic. We know a lot about wars because we study them after the fact. However, how much do civilians know during the war, especially when they are cut off from contact? I think that's an interesting idea to ponder.

Blood cousins dating? I guess that one's up for you to speculate about...

Simple text, but a few things to talk about with it.

So what do you think about How I Live Now?