Tag: china

Sep 08

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

Asia, Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 4

Good Day, Bookworms!

It probably says troubling things about my character that I love hooker books so ding dang much, but I do, I so so do. The circumstances that lead young women into lives of prostitution are endlessly fascinating, and it’s a profession that transcends time and culture. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, this revelation comes as no surprise. If you’re new here, I really dig books about prostitutes. From a cultural perspective, not a porn-ish one, in case that wasn’t obvious. This is a long weird intro, so I should get to the point! Today we’re talking about The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry. *I received a complimentary digital copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. It is not at all like prostitution because there is zero promise of a favorable review (or any review) involved. That said, the way to my heart is through hooker books, so. Yeah.*

thecourtesanThe Courtesan is the fictionalized account of an actual historical figure, one Sai Jinhua. The novel opens with the execution of Jinhua’s beloved father, an unjust punishment for political dissent. At merely seven years old, she is left in the care of her stepmother (her mother having passed away before the book begins) and unceremoniously sold to a brothel. Though Jinhua suffers the horrors of foot binding and forced prostitution, she finds kinship with the brothel’s maid. Eventually Jinhua’s fortunes change as she is purchased (again) this time to live as a concubine to a wealthy diplomat. She goes on to accompany him on a lengthy trip abroad in Europe, through Austria-Hungary (you know, back when it was an empire?), Prussia (back before it was Germany), and Russia (back when Romanovs were still Czar-ing it up.) I was pretty stoked to see that another famous historical figure made an appearance in this novel, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whom I feel like I know rather well after reading Daisy Goodwin’s The Fortune Hunter (review). Worlds colliding all up in this piece.

This book kind of tore my guts out, in any number of instances. I mean, how could it not? There were times I cried for Jinhua and times I wanted to give her a good smack. The fact that she lived such a large life in a time and place where women’s lives tended to be secluded was fascinating. As with any piece of historical fiction based on a real person, I have no doubt that many liberties were taken for dramatic effect, but it all swirled together into a rather lovely package. If you’re like me and dig hooker books, The Courtesan would make an excellent addition to your collection.

Talk to me, Bookworms! Do you like it when real historical figures make cameos in books?

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*



Sep 19

Diversiverse! The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Asia, Diversiverse 24

Salutations, Bookworms!

I am SO HAPPY to be participating in A More Diverse Universe right now. It’s offered me an opportunity to FINALLY get something off my TBR pile. A few months ago, I won a copy of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan from Monika at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall. I’ve read several Amy Tan novels and enjoyed them immensely, but I felt rather ridiculous knowing that I hadn’t read her most famous work, The Joy Luck Club. I mean, you say “Amy Tan” and that’s what you think, right? I was determined to tackle this one. So determined, in fact, that I chose it for my IRL book club this month as well. I am nothing if not efficient. Well. Efficient, or lazy. One of the two.


In case you were living under a rock like I apparently have been, The Joy Luck Club is a novel about mothers and daughters. Four Chinese women emigrate to the United States and settle in San Francisco. Each of the women goes on to have a daughter (or several) to raise in the US. The mothers and daughters struggle to understand one another through clashing cultures.

thejoyluckclubThe book is divided into four major sections, two devoted to the stories of the mothers and two devoted to the stories of the daughters. If I’m being honest (and really, when am I not honest?) I found myself flipping back and forth through the chapters to connect which mother belonged to which daughter. Learning a bit about each mother’s childhood and not realizing right away which daughters’ life they were connected to frustrated me a little bit, hence the flipping. Still, a bit of page flipping didn’t dampen what was an excellent story.

The daughters in The Joy Luck Club had a heck of a time trying to live up to the expectations of their mothers while growing up in a world with vastly different values. The mothers were desperate to impart the complexities and nuances of Chinese culture to their offspring, but communication styles differed so vastly between the two cultures that conflict was inevitable.

I can’t help but assume this book, with its emphasis on mother/daughter communication was heavily influenced by Amy Tan’s life. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Tan was raised with one foot in each of two worlds, Chinese and American. After reading her bio, I am seeing parallels all up in this piece! Here’s a little about Amy Tan written by the lady herself:

Amy was born in the United States in 1952, a few years after her parents immigrated from China. Her father, John, was an electrical engineer and also a Baptist minister. Her mother, Daisy, left behind a secret past, including three daughters in China and the ghost of her mother, who had killed herself when Daisy was nine. The Tan family belonged to a small social group called The Joy Luck Club, whose families enacted the immigrant version of the American Dream by playing the stock market. Nearly every year, the Tan family moved, from one mixed neighborhood in Oakland after another and eventually to a series of nearly all-white suburbs in the Bay Area.

Let’s chat, Bookworms. Mother/daughter clashes are certainly nothing extraordinary, as virtually every mother who has raised a daughter through her teenage years can attest. It’s time to air the dirty laundry. What is the dumbest fight your teenage self ever had with your mom? Mine involves an impassioned request for a drum set… When I’d never actually played the drums… So. Yeah. Spill!

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission. I’ll use it to buy my mother a thank-you gift for, well, dealing with me. I was an especially morose teenager…*


Feb 04

Mo Money, Mo Problems: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Asia, Classics, Family, Historical Fiction, Pretentious, Women's Studies 36

Happy Monday, Bookworms!

This weekend I took a trip to China… Sort of. Remember way back when I started this blog I read a novel loosely based on the life of Pearl S. Buck? No? Allow me to refresh your memory. After reading Pearl of China by Anchee Min, I was inspired to read me some Pearl S. Buck.

The Good Earth (in conjunction with some of Buck’s other work) won a friggin Nobel Prize, so there must be something to it, right? I must admit, I’m not always a huge fan of full on high brow literary fiction, and the fact that this had won a Nobel Prize made me a wee bit nervous. It frustrates me when a novel has spectacular language but lacks the umph of killer storytelling. I like a good story. If I only wanted pretty language, I’d read more poetry. I am every literary critic’s nightmare. And yet I continue blathering all over the internet. Muahahahahaha!

the good earth

Back to the book. Wang Lung is a poor peasant farmer whose only option for marriage is a slave from an opulent household. Chinese culture is beautiful in many ways, but it’s downright hideous when it comes to the treatment women. I’ve discussed foot binding a bit in the past, when I reviewed Snow Flower and the Secret Fanand it plays into this book as well. Wang Lung’s bride, the slave girl O-Lan does NOT have her feet bound. Why would she? She wasn’t a lady of means and leisure, she was a woman required to work long, hard hours. Hard to spend a day on your feet when your feet have been broken and are weird little 3 inch stumps, yo.

Fortunately, O-Lan is a sturdy woman used to hard work. She helps Wang Lung with the farm work and does all her wifely chores. She also produces SONS. That’s a HUGE deal because the sons in China stayed with their families. Girls, once they’re married, are taken into their husbands’ families. The prevailing opinion at this time in China was that girls are an expensive burden. If a family found itself in abject poverty, sometimes they’d sell off a daughter to get by. Full on slavery.  That’s how O-Lan ended up in her position. Moral of the story #1: It blows HARD to be a lady in China.

Wang Lung and O-lan have some good times on the farm. It’s prosperous and they have sons. What more could they want? You know what more they could want? Food. A year of terrible weather renders growing food impossible. The whole village starves. Some sell their daughters. Some raid their neighbors’ food stores. Some resort to cannibalism. Some just wither away and die. Wang Lung’s family is little more than skin and bones when they decide to leave their beloved land and head south. Moral of the story #2: Famine is a bitch.

When they reach the south, the family finds a charity kitchen that will feed them, so their most pressing problem is solved. Eventually, Wang Lung gets a hankering to get back to his land, but since they’ve been making their living by begging and pulling a rickshaw, they’re not in a position to buy train fare. Thank goodness for political unrest. When the city they’re squatting in gives over to riot, Wang Lung and O-lan get lucky in a mob raid. Wang Lung manages to frighten a rich man into giving him a purse full of gold, and O-lan absconds with a sack of jewels.

image courtesy of Wikipedia

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Moral of the story #3: “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” (Yep. I just referenced the Notorious B.I.G. in a post about Nobel Prize winning literature. I am just that awesome.) Wang Lung and O-Lan were at the mercy of the elements as farmers, it’s true. But add some money to the mix and life gets awfully complicated. Not much is expected of peasant farmers, but there’s a whole different set of rules for wealthy landowners. The remainder of the book follows the family’s journey through the complex world of Chinese social climbing.

As I said earlier, I dug this book. It’s said that Buck’s fiction was among the first to resonate with both Chinese and western audiences because although Buck was an American, she lived in China for much of her early life. She wrote about Chinese society in a way that no western writer ever had, because she understood the Chinese way of life from a native’s perspective. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about China and Chinese immigrants to the US, but this felt super authentic. Like… Taco Bell vs. authentic Mexican food. I love me some nachos supreme, but I know what’s authentic and what isn’t, you know? Even the language in which its written is very matter of fact. It’s not flowery. It doesn’t go into detail about feelings, but you feel them anyway. That’s probably part of the reason Buck’s work has stood the test of time. Awesomeness, honesty, and authenticity. Let’s give Pearl a little slow clap, shall we?

So, Bookworms. Some food for thought. If you won the lottery tomorrow, how do you think your life would change?


Jan 07

On Gold Mountain by Lisa See: A Lesson in Reading the Synopsis Before Purchase

Asia, E-Readers, Family, Non Fiction 24

Hey Bookworms,

How is everyone doing today? I just finished slogging through Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain. It taught me a very important lesson. You should always read the synopsis of a book before you click purchase. This was on sale for the kindle so I snapped it up thinking, “Oh Lisa See! Always such great tidbits on Chinese cultures- quick reads too!” No. No, no, no.

This book was not fiction. It was the geneological account of Lisa See’s family. It wasn’t historical fiction. It was just history. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that you don’t get to take liberties in well researched factual accounts. While there were parts of this book that were enthralling, I found myself picking up bits and pieces of trivia that I’ve gotten out of See’s fictional work, and thinking, “Oh. That’s where she got this! Yeah. Works better when you can edit…”


This book was published in 1995 (which I discovered after-the-fact) which is well before most of the novels I’m familiar with by See. I really enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I liked it so much that I picked up Peony in Love. That one was probably longer than necessary, but by the end I felt like I finally understood some of the Chinese religious traditions I’d learned about in college. The book brought them to life for me and I was pleased. Then I tackled Shanghai Girls a few years later and devoured it in a few days.

There’s so much in On Gold Mountain that I could see in the other books- the destruction of Chinatown and construction of the doomed China City, immigration fraud and paper sons, racial bias, religion, foot binding- it’s all there. It’s just not NEARLY as entertaining. Truth be told, I was into the book for about the first third of it. Once we started hitting the 50s and there was business launch after business launch, I started losing interest. The second half of the book was a slog. I just wanted to finish it so I could read something else since I’d already made it more than halfway through (that’s my DNF threshold. If I make it to the halfway point, I must finish it.)


The business launches and moves from one part of the city to another were lost on me. I have zero concept of the layout of San Francisco, Pasadena, Sacramento, Los Angeles, or any of the surrounding suburbs. Moving from one street to another meant ZERO to me. Also, there were a CRAP TON of characters. I’m not judging here, I get that Chinese tradition was different, but dude. Fong See had 4 wives. And 8 zillion children. And we learned every one of their stories. Plus uncles and cousins and then the Caucasian relatives? Spinning head.

Bottom line here? If you’re not a member of the See family or have an intense interest in the history of Chinese immigration and LA’s Chinatown, just don’t bother. You get all the juicy highlights of the family’s experiences in See’s fiction, and it’s a lot more concise and entertaining. There are some 450 page books I can read and not even notice the length. This felt like a thousand pages. Learn from my mistakes! Read the abstracts before buying the sale books!


Sep 12

Pearl of China

Asia, Memoirs, Women's Studies 6

Hello Bookworms! I’ve mentioned that I’m highly susceptible to marketing tactics, have I not? I purchased the latest entry in my Kindle because Amazon was having a sale. A girl’s got to budget, you know?

Pearl of China by Anchee Min is a novel based in part on the life of Pearl S. Buck. Pearl S. Buck, in case you were unaware, is a Nobel Prize winning author. A Nobel Prize winning author yours truly has never read, shamefully, although now I fully intend to add some of her work to my never ending reading list.

If this book hadn’t taken some historical liberties, it would be a dry-as-toast biography that nobody would want to read. So, Anchee Min, I’ll forgive any historical inconsistencies that might exist here because it was so enthralling. Pearl of China is written from the point of view of Pearl’s childhood best friend, Willow. Willow is largely fictional, but as a fictional character the author has the freedom to give her the sort of life story that is most compatible with Pearl’s legacy, so it all works out in a nice little package.

Willow is born into abject poverty. Her father was born into a wealthy family that falls to ruin and has a difficult time adjusting to his new circumstances. He goes so far as to rent out his wife as a prostitute (yeah, Chinese women really get the raw end of the deal A LOT.) Unfortunately, when Willow’s mother becomes pregnant as a result of this encounter, she is killed by an attempted herbal abortion. So. Willow is poor. She is motherless. And she’s a thief so she doesn’t starve to death. It pretty much sucks to be Willow.

Pearl lives in Willow’s village. Pearl is the daughter of American missionaries who have come to China to convert the heathens. In a way, this book reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible as that was about a missionary family living in Africa (you should read The Poisonwood Bible if you haven’t- it’s very good.) The biggest difference between the two though, is that the daughters in The Poisonwood Bible are brought to Africa as adolescents (except for little Ruth.) They are old enough to experience the culture shock that comes with leaving 1960s Georgia and trying to make a life in the decidedly less industrialized African Congo. Pearl, though, is brought to China as an infant. She learns the language the way a Chinese child would and identifies more closely with the culture she is raised in than the culture she was born into.

Pearl is an outcast because she’s not Chinese and her father is more than a little overzealous about converting the townspeople. Willow is an outcast because she and her father are thieves. Luckily for both girls, they find each other and their families intertwine to their mutual benefit. They forge a friendship that will last them a lifetime.

Unfortunately for our heroines, China in the 1930s was NOT where you wanted to be if you were foreign. First a bloody war with Japan, and then the Communist uprising meant that a blond haired-blue eyed woman was a walking target. Eventually, Pearl and her family flee to the US, but her heart remains in China.

Willow, upon Pearl’s departure, marries a man who turns out to be one of Mao Zedong’s closest advisors. I don’t like to take sides in political battles. In fact, I hate it. However, it’s difficult not to get a little bit political when discussing early Communist China. In theory, Communism sounds great. Everyone is equal, everyone has enough food, everyone is taken care of. Unfortunately, that is NEVER the way it works in practice. If you don’t believe me check out what Stalin did in Russia. Mao totally wanted to be Stalin, so killing off dissidents and imprisoning people who happened to have ties with “outsiders” was par for the course. It really didn’t end up being “Communism” at all because there was totally an elite class favored by the dictatorship, and millions of people starved anyway. Sigh.

If you want to learn more about China and it’s less savory chapters in history, read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. You’ll get first person accounts of this time period, as well as two generations previous. It’s excellent. You’ll learn things.

Anyway, poor Willow gets the short end of the stick with the Communists. Despite being married to a big wig, her friendship with Pearl (who started publishing novels critical of the regime) lands her in prison on several occasions. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel on China that wasn’t absolutely devastating in one way or another, but beneath that devastation there’s always a stoic beauty about the place.

So my Bookworms, as this was a book centering on a lifelong friendship, let’s talk about it! Do you have any friends you’ve kept since childhood?


Sep 10

Snow Flower and The Secret Fan

Asia, Coming of Age, Historical Fiction, Women's Studies 10

I promised you we’d “travel,” didn’t I, Bookworms? Let’s got to China! Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See takes us on an adventure though 19th Century China. More historical fiction, I know, but this is in CHINA, y’all! Totally new perspective.

Our heroine Lily is paired up in an “old sames” relationship with another young girl named Snow Flower. Because women were kept in near total seclusion at this point in history (at least women with any social standing) they didn’t exactly get to go out and meet people. Being in “old sames” was sort of like having a matchmaker find you a BFF. Then you and your BFF would exchange notes via your matchmaker on a fan using a secret phonetic form of women’s writing. (You remember having code names in your middle school notebooks for the boys you liked? It’s kind of like that, but it allowed you to actually communicate with other women without censorship, which is pretty cool.) Being “old sames” Lily and Snow Flower were destined to begin their foot binding at the same time.

Oh yeah. Foot binding. In graphic detail. Before I read this book, I really had no idea what foot binding entailed. I imagined ace-bandages wrapped tightly around the foot in an attempt to keep it small. There was no “attempting” in foot binding. They would essentially force young girls’ feet to fold over on themselves. Then the bones would break and they’d heal in a grotesque distorted version of a foot. Assuming you didn’t die of blood poisoning before the healing could take place, of course. The women were then doomed to wobble around on these “golden lilies” for the rest of their lives. Learning the truth about foot binding is reason enough to read this book.

The problem was, the foot binding was culturally NECESSARY. If your feet weren’t bound, you had virtually no prospects for marriage, and marriage was by FAR the most appealing life option for a Chinese woman at this point in time. It was like, all the dudes in China had a foot fetish. For real. Only the men would only see the feet while perfumed and wrapped in slippers, because naked deformed feet are stinky and unattractive. (Since we’re on the subject of feet, I think it’s worthwhile to mention that my feet are quite lovely. My toes go in perfect descending order, and although I’ve heard that having a long second toe is a sign of intelligence, I’m content to embrace my toes for their esthetics.)

My feet are gorgeous. Perhaps my best physical feature.

Lily and Snow Flowers’ childhoods are spent preparing for their marriages. They spent their time embroidering slippers for their newly deformed feet, making clothes, creating gifts for their future mothers-in-law,  and writing each other letters via the fan. When their marriages do occur, the girls are separated- Lily to a life with a respectable family, and Snow Flower to a life with an abusive butcher. (Being a butcher was NOT a well respected occupation. It was seen as one of the lowliest ways to earn a living, but when your father is an opium addict who has squandered his fortune on drugs, you don’t exactly have the reputation or dowry to “marry up.”)

Anyway, the poor girls suffer a misunderstanding at the hands of the secret fan, they have a falling out, then they have a dramatic deathbed reunion. It’s all very touching, I promise.

I recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to anyone who is interested in Chinese history, women’s history, or the gruesome spectacle that is foot binding. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll learn something!

I realize that as a modern American woman the idea of foot binding disgusts me, but it was the utmost form of beauty in China until a little over 100 years ago. What sort of beauty rituals do you Bookworms indulge in that may be considered barbaric by other cultures?