Sky Burial – Xinran

This is one of those books that is only on my shelves because it completes a set, in this case the twenty six volumes of Penguin Drop Caps which I have covered as a series right back at the beginning of this blog in early 2018. This does mean that I came to read the book with no preconceptions at all knowing nothing about either it or the author and I have really enjoyed it. Having said that I have a suspicion that Xinran made it into this collection more due to her name beginning with X than for the literary merit of the book. This could be the fault of the translators from the original Chinese, Julia Lovell and Esther Tydesley, as the style is rather flat which considering the subject matter seems odd but as I cannot read the original I have no way of knowing if that is better. I don’t know why Xinran didn’t make the translation as she has lived and worked as a journalist and writer in London since 1997 and this translation was first published in 2004 so presumably she would be more than capable of producing an English version herself.

The conceit of the book is that it is based on the real life story of a Chinese doctor Shu Wen who in 1958 who in 1958 at the height of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict went to Tibet to try to find out what happened to her husband who was a military doctor and ends up stranded there for over thirty years living with the nomads and travelling from camp to camp. According to the introduction Xinran met Shu Wen in Suzhou and talked to her over a period of a couple of days whilst she related her story, Shu Wen then suddenly checked out of her hotel and disappeared. Wikipedia appears to have fallen for this and describes the book as a biography but it is clearly listed as a work of fiction on the publication data page and frankly the idea that an intelligent woman would make no attempt to either continue her search or head back to China and would stay with the nomadic family for three decades is desperately unlikely. The resolution of the novel also stretches credulity to breaking point as a real life case with too many unresolved plot points being sorted out in a relatively short space of time compared to the vast amount of time with no movement on them at all.

Treating it as the novel that it is becomes far more rewarding than looking at it as a dubious biography, the book is 220 pages long in this imprint and I read it at one sitting as you do get drawn into the story. The depiction of Tibetan nomadic life is fascinating and it appears that Xinran did a significant amount of research, so you slowly learn, along with Wen, how the dynamics of family life operate. The book also largely avoids discussing the Chinese takeover of Tibet which has existed since the 1950’s, this is done by completely ignoring the subject by putting Shu Wen away from all contact with other Chinese people and any news of the world outside of the nomadic family she is with for a couple of decades. The exception is at the start where the conflict is acknowledged because that is why Shu Wen’s husband, Kejun, was in Tibet in the first place and also the description of Wen’s journey into Tibet having enlisted in the military and the surprise that her fellow soldiers have that they were not being welcomed with open arms as liberators from the rule of the Dalai Lama. This is where another extremely unlikely event occurs as Wen discusses with a senior officer and gets agreement from him to desert her unit in her search for Kejun. In a novel this is fine, strange things happen in novels, but in real life deserting the Chinese army at the time would have been punished severely.

I have deliberately not written much about the time Wen spends with the nomadic family or how the various issues are resolved as this is the real meat of the novel and any coverage would just be spoilers. Suffice to say that even though there is much that is not as good as it could be the book is a pleasant way of spending a rainy afternoon, just sit back, suspend belief a little, and go with the flow.

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

20191112 Cannery Row

From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row and it was his “keen social perception” that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.

The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.

Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.

Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.

The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.

Penguin Drop Caps

In 2012 Penguin Books started a series of books for sale in the USA and Canada and it made use of their extensive back catalogue along with some newer modern classics in a handsome new style hardback binding. The tagline of the set is

It all begins with a letter

and the concept was to produce 26 titles where each letter of the alphabet was represented by the surname of the author. An interesting idea especially over the choice of names for some of the more difficult letters. What made the set a cohesive whole was the decision to have all the letters on the covers designed by one person, Jessica Hische, and for her to create an evocative set of designs. Adding the input of Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley we ended up with a rainbow of classic books which call to you from the shelves and look totally different to anything else I have. Good design has been the hallmark of Penguin Books from their beginning in 1935 and it’s good to see that tradition being respected in a modern set.

20180213 Drop Caps 1

Of course a set like this appeals to the collector part of me, especially when they are not officially available in the UK as I like a challenge, but it also harks back to the very first Penguin Books I initially accumulated, then decided to collect, which was the early (first 125) Penguin Classics.  Buying a set of books forces you to purchase authors you may not have been intending to buy or even to have heard of and once the book is on the shelf it would be remiss not to at least give the book a go. The first title is a case in point; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not a title that has ever appealed but I have to say that much to my surprise I’m really enjoying it. I have also read Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Five Children and It, and Cannery Row so far and I’m looking forward to tackling authors I don’t know at all such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset.

The full list is as follows:

  • Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
  • Cather, Willa – My Antonia
  • Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
  • Eliot, George – Middlemarch
  • Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Hesse, Hermann – Siddhartha
  • Ishiguro, Kazou – An Artist of the Floating World
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret life of Bees
  • Lee, Chang-rae – Native Speaker
  • Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
  • Nesbit, E – Five Children and It
  • O’Hara, John – Butterfield 8
  • Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
  • Queen, Ellery – The Greek Coffin Mystery
  • Rushdie, Salman – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Steinbeck, John – Cannery Row
  • Tan, Amy – The Joy Luck Club
  • Undset, Sigrid – Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath
  • Voltaire – Candide
  • Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose
  • Xinran – Sky Burial
  • Yeats, William Butler – When You are Old
  • Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind

A to F came out in 2012, G to P in 2013 and Q to Z in 2014 although I only started to collect these books towards the end of last year (2017) so the last 5 have only recently arrived and I didn’t buy them in alphabetical order but rather which 4 or 5 a month I could find at a sensible price.  Their official retail price varies on the copies I have between US $23 and $30 although the Canadian prices fluctuate much more widely between $24 and $40. The cheapest I found one in the UK was around £10 and had to spend up to £17 to get the last few I was missing.

20180213 Drop Caps 2

The spines are also attractive and make a bold statement on the shelf next to me as I write this, as can be seen in the picture above the page edges are also coloured to complement the cover and the rear cover has a short quote from the book that Penguin have turned into a parlour game

Mine is from Great Expectations:

Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.

and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

Not the cheeriest of quotes but I’m not going to let them put me off reading all these as they are lovely books with a clear font (Archer) as you would hope from a series that takes lettering seriously and a pleasure to pull off the shelf and sit down with.