"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Under Fishbone Clouds

by Sam Meekings

Another heavy read, but definitely worth the effort.  This book opened up much more Chinese history than I had ever before known, and yet I know it only just scratched the surface of a very complex society.  As heavy as all this sounds, the novel is actually all about love, the kind of love that grows between a couple, the kind of love that will last through life, death, and sacrifice.

I love that the novel's narrator is not one of the characters of the story, but is actually the Chinese Kitchen God, challenged by the Jade Emperor to figure out the workings of the human heart.  He follows the lives of two people as they learn to love each other, all while surviving extreme political and cultural upheaval.  I love the voice of the Kitchen God, who knows all, but is also down-to-earth and has an intriguing attachment to the two mortals. 

I also loved the poetic language that Meekings writes with.  I would sometimes drift off just reading the beautiful language and descriptions, then realize I wasn't quite processing what it was saying about the story.  But I always went back because the story really drew me in.  The beginning hooked me quickly, but I'll admit there was a short time in the early parts of the book it did slow a little more than I like in a narrative, but once it got into more of the political happenings, then I was caught once again in the story and it just got better and better.

Again, not an easy book to read.  It follows this husband and wife as they become swept up in the political changes of China before, through, and after the "Cultural Revolution."  I'd heard this term many times before but was honestly lacking in any knowledge at all about what that meant, other than it had something to do with socialism.  Well, this book solved that problem for me, at least a little.  I know now that the Cultural Revolution was about the working class rising up against the bourgeoisie and the beginnings of socialism.  That seems a simple enough explanation until you finish the book and have learned about the thousands that disappeared when they were sent to do forced labor in the countryside, thousands that died from straight out starvation, thousands that died from brutal beatings received from youth gangs.  That only mentions the human suffering, and added to that is the rejection and destruction of thousands of years of culture, books, science, learning, art, and creativity, all for the good of the "people".

And yet, despite all this horror, the Kitchen God does learn that the human heart can continue to love through all that, though the love changes into something more.  He has profound thoughts about what a marriage really is, and why people keep holding on to each other.

This booked helped me understand a little bit more about why China is what it is today.  I do not, in anyway, assume that I have anywhere near a full grasp of the culture and people, but this one small part of their history (which is long and varied) helped me better understand how they view themselves and the rest of the world, how socialism and the Cultural Revolution changed them forever.  This book made me want to learn more of Chinese history, because it made me realize that this story is but one small ripple in a huge ocean of history about a people that, to most of us here in America, we really know very little about and often judge without any idea of what made them the people they are today.

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