Set in pre-revolutionary China, The Good Earth follows the poor farmer Wang Lung and his dutiful slave wife O-Lan. From humble beginnings and the brink of starvation and death, Wang Lung brings himself and his family into prosperity and riches. Wang Lung remains committed to his land and his family above all else, but as he ages, he finds the wealth does not bring him as much satisfaction as he had hoped.
The Good Earth, published in 1931, has an interesting place in history. Buck, a white woman born in West Virginia, spent the majority of her life, including her childhood, in China. That she wrote a novel from the point of view of a Chinese man caused some controversy at the time. In the '30s this novel was most Americans' only glimpse into life in China, and undoubtedly Buck has only portrayed one view of Chinese life at the time. Nonetheless, I did not find the characters to be caricatures, although I wonder what effect some of the practices (polygamy, feet binding, the favoring of male children) would have had on the American audience. In any case, the novel must be more evenhanded than the movie version, made in 1937, which has a white cast playing the Chinese characters.
Wang Lung, the protagonist, is a serious and committed man, and he is largely successful in life through his diligence and luck. He is to be admired for his dedication and achievements where others have failed, but his greatness weakness is his pride. Shame over his low-bred country origins cause him to lose sight of what he truly loves, which is his land. In turn, the pride, but not the love of the soil, is passed on to his sons. He leaves a legacy behind, but not one that he most wants.
O-Lan is a significantly less-explored character than Wang Lung, primarily because the story is told from Wang-Lung's point of view. Despite economically managing the household, bearing him three sons, and famously returning to work in the fields hours after giving birth, O-Lan is given little thought by Wang Lung. Her diligence and thriftiness when they are starving and her quick stealing are largely the reasons for Wang Lung's future success, but he is blinded by social expectations of women at that time and fails to see his wife. He praises himself for not beating or berating her as others do, but she is never granted a place as a person. The reader, for the most part, fails to see her as more than an extraordinarily capable, but overlooked, wife.
The deeply rooted and pervasive sexism evidenced by the characters is present throughout the novel, and very little is done by the characters to challenge it, although Buck clearly is sympathetic to the women. At times it was difficult to balance recognizing the realities of the time with my personal sense of injustice for the ways in which many women suffered.
The novel is written surprisingly simply. The book is clearly famous for the story it tells, rather than any particular strength of writing style or depth of meaning. Although set in China, its themes are largely universal: sexism, inter-generational conflict, class conflict, the effects of pride and shame. Although I felt little connection to any of the characters and, truthfully, felt little affected by the novel, the narrative swept me quickly along.
I know this was a high school classic for many years, but I don't know how regularly it is taught today. I would imagine there are stronger options now, but it would be interesting to compare the novel to one written by a Chinese author set in the same time period. The Good Earth might also be an interesting way to explore Americans' views of China during the early part of the 20th century.
*This is a slightly edited version of the review that appears on my blog.
The same thing that intrigued me about this book was the first thing that educated me about its time period -- the title. I knew the story was a mystery but, for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what "Lower Ten" would be. I soon discovered that "lower ten" refers to a particular berth on a railroad Pullman car.
The narrator and protagonist of The Man in Lower Ten, an attorney by the name of Lawrence Blakeley, had a ticket for that berth on a return trip to Pittsburg from Washington, D.C. Fortunately for him, he ended up in the wrong berth and the man actually asleep in lower ten was murdered. ow Blakeley ended up in that situation and solving that murder is the focus of this 1909 novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Like me, you may also wonder about the spelling of Pittsburgh. That's something else I learned as a result of this book. From 1891 to 1911, what we know as Pittsburgh was officially known as "Pittsburg."
The Man in Lower Ten was one of the first successes for Rinehart, who was both a prolific and a successful author. According to the New York Times article on her death in 1958, she averaged a book a year for 40 years and the year her last book was published, it was estimated her books had sold more than 10 million copies in regular editions and translations.
Her first two books, originally sold as magazine serials, were still in print more than 40 years after they were published. The Man in Lower Ten was one of those two. It was her first bestseller, finishing fourth on Publisher's Weekly's list of bestselling hardcover books that year. (As an aside, in 1929 two of her sons would be among the founders of the publishing company Farrar & Rinehart and she would leave her publisher, Doubleday, for that firm.)
Today, The Man in Lower Ten would be considered a relatively standard, run-of-the-mill mystery. It not only has the requisite love interest, it has two friends falling for the same woman. There are several suspects and what seems to be, but actually isn't, a highly tangled mystery. Blakeley frequently gives us hints of what's to come in his story. There's even a horrendous train wreck and a haunted house-type feeling during the course of the investigation. With all this, it's easy to see why it would appeal to a broad range of readers.
In just a few places, the book also reflects racial attitudes of the times. There are lines such as "somebody has said that Pullman porters are black so they won't show the dirt" and "He reached for the darky's pulse". That, however, should not serve to condemn the book as much as reflect exactly what it does -- that every time period reflects its cultural milieu and to ignore or overlook indications of prevailing thought is a step toward not understanding the particular era.
Entirely by coincidence, The New Yorker's book blog has a post this week called A Tale of Two Winstons. It stems from the fact that the 20th Century bestseller lists upon which this challenge is based reflect that "the number one best-selling novel every other year or so for the first decade plus were all written by Winston Churchill."
Who knew the eventual British prime minister was first a best-selling author in America? Well, he wasn't.
As the blog post points out, this Winston Churchill was an American novelist. He had eight novels on the bestseller list between 1900 and 1915, five of which -- The Crisis, The Crossing, Coniston, Mr. Crewe's Career and The Inside of the Cup -- would reach number one. Churchill, however, stopped writing in 1919.
At the same time he was selling so many books, the American Churchill was also a politician, although not nearly as successfully as his British counterpart. He served two terms in the New Hampshire legislature but lost in two bids for governor of that state. According to one historian, the two Churchills exchanged several letters, leading Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill to add the initial “S” to all of his subsequent writings.
I guess it goes to show you can learn something from a reading challenge without even reading one of the books.
When it comes to art and graphics, I am one of those who flunked "cut and paste" in kindergarten. That said, I've attempted to create a bare bones logo/badge participants can use.
Feel free to download it from this post.
If you're wondering about where to find some of the older books in the compilation, the internet is your friend.
Copyright has expired on a number of the books. Thus, for example, Project Gutenberg has e-versions of most of the books on the Publisher's Weekly list for 1900-1917. The same is true of Arthur's Classic Novels. Only a small number of the books are not available through these sites. Moreover, at least for Project Gutenberg, it appears some of the books are available in formats that will work on various e-book readers.
Finally, Google Books, The Online Books Page and I'm certain other online sources have many of these books available. And if all else fails, try your local library or interlibrary loan.
Labels: the lists
There's plenty of lists around compiling some person's or organization's ideas of the "best" books of a time period or genre. So why build a reading challenge around The Books of the Century?
First, it is the breadth of the list. I haven't counted how many books are on the lists but if you figure just 20 for each year, which is a low estimate, you're talking 2,000 books in total. That allows this to be an ongoing challenge, not one limited to just one year. That aspect also allows new people each year, but also allows participants to decide each year whether they want to continue or resume the challenge.
More important, though, is the content of the lists. Because it is built on bestseller and Book-of-the-Month club lists, I think it tends to reflect American culture at the time. As compiler Daniel Immerwahr points out, the lists reflect that "the books we remember today were often not the books that were most popular in the past (in 1925, the year The Great Gatsby was published, the fiction list was topped by A. Hamilton Gibbs's Soundings)."
No one is claiming any of the fiction bestsellers in 1925 are "better" than The Great Gatsby. And the list recognizes "great" literature by incorporating "critically acclaimed and historically significant books." Yet the bestseller and BOMC lists also allow us to see what the "average American" was reading in any particular year. When considered in the context of what was happening in the country at the time, I think it's interesting insight into popular American literary culture.
Labels: the lists
I was so intrigued by Daniel Immerwahr's The Books of the Century website, that I decided to launch a reading challenge based on it.
Immerwhar has compiled a list for each year of the 20th Century based on:
- The top ten bestsellers in fiction, as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
- The top ten bestsellers in nonfiction, also as recorded by Publishers Weekly;
- The main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, founded in 1926;
- "Critically acclaimed and historically significant books, as identified by consulting various critics' and historians' lists of important books."
At least for the first year, the levels will be:
- Popular Literary Culture 101 -- Five books from the entire list.
- Popular Literary Culture 201 -- Ten books from the entire list.
- Popular Literary Culture 301 -- One book from any of five different decades on the list.
- Popular Literary Culture 401 -- One book from each decade on the list.
- Master's in Popular Literary Culture -- Twenty books from the entire list, with at least each decade represented once.
- Doctorate in Popular Literary Culture -- Two or more books from each decade on the list.
Hope you like the concept.
Labels: Challenge Rules